"Elfwine!" Gúthwyn screamed, her grip tightening on Elboron as if she feared that he, too, would run away from her. "Elfwine, come back!"
But Elfwine did not come back, and Legolas watched as he was swallowed up by the trees.
"By the Valar," Gúthwyn whispered. She scrambled to her feet, the sudden motion distressing Elboron even more, and started towards the forest.
Legolas quickly detained her, careful to use only the lightest of pressure on her arm. "Let me go after him," he urged her. "I know these woods, and you have Elboron to take care of. I will bring him back, I promise."
Gúthwyn bit her lip, hesitating, but at length she recognized the logic behind his suggestion. Squaring her shoulders, she nodded.
It did not take long for Legolas to pick up Elfwine's trail; he could hear the young prince easily enough from the moment he entered the forest, though the boy was startlingly fast and already had several yards on him. He had plunged off of the path and was now darting through the trees, which would tire him out sooner rather than later—especially since he was still sobbing, and was drawing breath in a noisy, frantic quest for air.
"Elfwine!" Legolas called out when he had halved the distance between them.
"Go away!" Elfwine yelled back. He tried to quicken his pace, but scarcely took three steps before his foot caught on the exposed root of an oak. Legolas winced as the child tripped, landed knees-first on the ground, and toppled forward into a small bush. By the time he reached the site, Elfwine had burst into fresh tears and was thrashing violently against the branches.
"Be still," Legolas said, trying to restrain the boy. "You will only tangle yourself even further if you struggle."
"It hurts!" Elfwine howled.
Legolas narrowly avoided being kicked in the stomach. "Please, Elfwine, be still. I will get you out." He began to draw away the branches, slowly loosening their hold on the child. Elfwine continued struggling, more of a hindrance than a help. Eventually, Legolas succeeded in pulling him out, and the young prince could place his feet on firm ground once more.
"You are injured," Legolas observed, noting the small cuts on Elfwine's face and arms. "We ought to go back so that you can—"
"I don't want to go back!" Elfwine glowered at him. "I want to run away!"
Legolas had not expected such a declaration. "Why do you want to run away?"
"Because nobody likes me anymore!" Elfwine burst out, his hands clenching into fists. "Papa is mad at me and Auntie Éowyn is mad at me and Auntie Gúthwyn likes Elboron better than me!" It had taken a valiant effort for him to finish the sentence amidst his sniffles, and now he gave himself entirely to the tears that had gathered in his eyes.
Legolas was surprised by the rapidity with which Elfwine's mind had converted the day's events into a conspiracy of hatred, before remembering how devastated his younger self had been whenever Thranduil would bar him from the archery range. Though his father had only resorted to this punishment in times of dire need—that is, when Legolas was being stubbornly disobedient, and resisting all other threats of chastisement—Legolas had vivid memories of languishing disconsolately in his room, convinced that his marksmanship would never recover from the lost training time.
Therefore inclined to be more sympathetic than incredulous, he said, "Your family loves you very much, Elfwine. And I can assure you that no one, not even Elboron, will ever take your place in Lady Gúthwyn's heart."
"She called him little one," Elfwine whispered, his bottom lip wobbling dangerously. "That's mine, and she gave it away!"
Legolas considered, and then thought better of, explaining that "little one" was an endearment of Gúthwyn's that she hardly limited to Elfwine. He knew she used it with Haiweth, though perhaps not as often now as she once had, and he did not doubt that she addressed other children with it as well. Clearly, Elfwine was under the impression that the term was exclusively his.
"Perhaps she means to share it with him," he suggested, "for you are both her nephews, and therefore equally important to her."
"But I don't want to share it with him!" Elfwine stomped his foot on the ground. "I'm older and it was mine first." Tears leaked from his eyes, mingling with the salty mess on his cheeks. "It's not fair."
"Life is not always fair," Legolas said gently. "Yet I am certain that your aunt never intended to hurt your feelings. She loves you very much."
"No, she doesn't!" Elfwine choked out. "She's mad at me because I asked her a bad question, even though she said she wouldn't be. And then she said she was mad at Papa, but she was lying because now she's mad at me again!"
Legolas knit his brow. "What do you mean, you asked her a bad question?"
"I won't tell you!" Elfwine's eyes flashed. "You'll be mad at me just like Papa and Auntie Gúthwyn."
More bewildered than ever, Legolas asked, "Elfwine, what could I possibly be angry with you about?"
"That's what Auntie Gúthwyn said! And she lied!"
But the young prince of Rohan was not listening. "I hate everything!" he yelled. "Everything is wrong! Papa hates Mama and Mama hates Auntie Gúthwyn and Auntie Gúthwyn hates me because I say bad words and now she won't play with me!" He let out a howl of pure rage, his cheeks filling with blood as his limbs trembled uncontrollably.
There was an explosion of sound as the forest around them came alive: birds fled from their trees, animals scurried into other parts of the woods. Legolas gaped at the child before him in alarm, realizing that this was far beyond the scope of a normal temper tantrum—this was something that had been churning beneath the surface for months, and had wanted only a spark to boil over completely. He thought of the queen of Rohan, ice-cold in her demeanor towards Gúthwyn, and marveled that she could have sacrificed her son's happiness for this.
As quickly as it had begun, it was over. Elfwine's voice cracked and went still, and at the same time his limbs slackened; he fell to the ground, utterly drained of energy, and passed into a spate of weeping. He mumbled something in Rohirric, of which Legolas caught only Gúthwyn's name.
Pitying Elfwine, yet at a loss for how to comfort him when he remained ignorant of the full story behind his distress, Legolas settled on sitting beside him and carefully gathering the boy up from the ground. Elfwine did not protest, and simply adjusted his head so that it found a resting place in the crook of Legolas's arm. Then the tears came in earnest, flowing freely down the Elf's tunic.
Not knowing what else to do, Legolas began to murmur the words of a song he had heard in Rivendell on the eve of the War of the Ring. Though Bilbo Baggins had been its chief composer, Aragorn had had a hand in it as well; together they had created this ode to Eärendil, the Elven seafarer who bore the morning star across the sky. Legolas had not given it serious thought at the time, but after hearing the call of the gulls at Pelargir his heart had turned towards the old tales of the Sea. Now, he sang in hopes of restoring Elfwine's spirits:
Eärendil was a mariner
That tarried in Arvernien;
He built a boat of timber felled
In Nimbrethil to journey in;
Her sails he wove of silver fair,
Of silver were her lanterns made,
Her prow was fashioned like a swan,
And light upon her banners laid.
Elfwine's tears gradually slowed, his brow knitting as he tried to catch the thread of Legolas's tale. Soon he was quiet, save for the occasional sniffle, and he listened intently as Eärendil's journeys were recounted. When Legolas at last fell silent, he sighed and asked, "Did all that really happen?"
"Aye, it did. Long before your time. Long even before my time."
Elfwine peered up at him. "Leggy, how old are you?"
"In the reckoning of humans, I am nearly three thousand years old."
"Three thousand? But that is older than Papa!"
"Indeed. I walked on this earth well before your father was born."
"But you don't look older than Papa!"
Legolas smiled. "Appearances can be deceiving."
Elfwine slowly digested this information. "Are Ran-in and Tree-on and Fye-on three thousand years old, too?"
"More or less. I have been friends with Raniean and Trelan for as long as I can remember."
"What about Fye-on?"
"I befriended him later, when we first began our training. He was in my class, and I was partnered with him for archery lessons." Though it had been a benevolent gesture on their instructor's part, it had only served to draw attention to Faelon's difficulties in managing a bow. He had been teased for it by their peers; Raniean in particular had not been kind.
"Is he your favorite friend?"
Legolas chuckled. "I do not have a favorite friend."
"Not even Auntie Gúthwyn?"
Legolas's eyes met Elfwine's, surprised. What had the child intuited, if anything beyond idle curiosity had prompted the question? Guardedly, he said, "I do not believe your aunt would consider me her favorite friend."
"I asked her if her favorite friend is you or Cobryn," Elfwine informed him. "Because she is always with Cobryn, but sometimes they get mad at each other. And sometimes she is with you, but she never gets mad at you."
Legolas bit back a smile, imagining what Elfwine's reaction would be if he ever found out about the beginnings of his friendship with Gúthwyn. "What did she tell you?" he inquired, curious in spite of himself.
The next instant, he regretted having asked. Of course the answer was Cobryn; he would be a fool to expect otherwise. Even though the two of them occasionally fought, it was clear that each held the other in high esteem.
Elfwine looked confused. "She didn't say," he replied, indignation touching the edges of his words. "She didn't pick!"
"Well, sometimes it is impossible to choose between friends," Legolas suggested, although he was quite certain that Gúthwyn had only refrained from doing so out of discretion. "And now I think it is time that we returned to her. She will be wondering where you are."
"Don't want to."
"We cannot stay here forever."
Elfwine shook his head and clung to Legolas. In an effort to cheer him up, Legolas said, "Your father told me something about you yesterday."
"He did?" Elfwine stared up at him in confusion.
"He told me that you wanted to learn how to use a bow."
Already looking more animated than he had a few seconds ago, Elfwine nodded eagerly. "I want to shoot like you!" he exclaimed. "Everyone knows that Elves shoot the best. That's what Papa says."
"That is only because we have more time to practice," Legolas replied diplomatically, "and because our vision is keener than that of most mortals, lest they belong to the line of Númenor."
"The ones that drowned."
"Correct." Legolas smiled down at the young child. "Yet even so, humans can become excellent archers. Your uncle Faramir was said to have shot down one of the Black Riders' winged steeds."
Elfwine looked dubious. "But they flew!"
"Aye, they did. It was a magnificent shot, or so I have heard. I do not doubt he has spent many hours practicing."
"I want to practice! But Papa says not now because I am too young and I have to wait until I am older."
"Then it is fortunate that your father has changed his mind, because otherwise I would not be able to give you archery lessons tomorrow."
Elfwine went very still—except for his eyes, which widened until they seemed twice their normal size. "Papa said you could give me archery lessons?"
"He did," Legolas confirmed, grinning at the child's expression.
"He really did?"
"He really did."
Unexpectedly, Elfwine wrapped his arms around Legolas. "Thank you, Leggy!" he cried, squeezing.
Taken aback by the hug, Legolas hesitated a moment before tentatively returning it. "You are most welcome, Elfwine."
"I'll practice really hard," Elfwine promised.
Legolas chuckled. "Before we practice, however," he said, his voice turning somber, "we must return to Gúthwyn."
"I guess," Elfwine conceded, his shoulders slumping a little. Yet the joy in his eyes remained unquenched, and by the time they stood up his mind had already returned to the archery lessons. "Leggy, what bow am I going to shoot with? Yours is taller than me!"
"We have some bows for beginners," Legolas assured him. "Those will not be so tall."
"Will you teach me how to use a bow on a horse? That is what Papa's men do, and I need to be just as good as them."
"That will be a lesson for another day."
"Oh." Elfwine frowned, then brightened. "I can't wait to tell Onyveth!"
"My first-favorite friend. You're my second-favorite," Elfwine said matter-of-factly.
Grinning, Legolas let Elfwine direct the conversation all the way out of the forest.
Gúthwyn expected that Legolas would return within moments of setting off. Elfwine had not gotten far before the pursuit began, after all, and his still-growing legs were no match for Legolas's strides. She therefore set about comforting Elboron as quickly as possible, so that he might be in a reasonably calm enough state when his cousin returned.
Fortunately, the task took far less time than expected: Elboron was already dozing off, occasionally startling awake and then giving a bleary-eyed yawn. It was nearly unfathomable that Elfwine should be jealous of the time she spent with Elboron, since the baby was hardly awake for most of it. However, she reminded herself, Elfwine was used to commanding attention—not just from her, but from all the adults in their family. Now, he was no longer first in Auntie Éowyn and Uncle Faramir's hearts; he could not count on Auntie Gúthwyn's exclusive devotions; and even his own father was not fully immune to the charms of an infant. It was a bitter potion to swallow.
Gúthwyn herself had little experience with this kind of jealousy. She was the youngest of her siblings, and had never had to compete for affection from her uncle. Yet she could imagine that, trivial though Elfwine's problems might seem to an onlooker, they were very real and painful to him. Too late, she remembered Elfwine quarrelling with Haiweth over which of them got to be called "little one"; an argument that, as Haiweth grew older, had become irrelevant. Now it had reared its head again, and Gúthwyn had unintentionally hurt her eldest nephew.
She acknowledged that some form of discipline would be required. Elfwine's behavior towards his cousin could not go unpunished, especially since he was a prince and thus had to be held to higher standards. Yet Gúthwyn thought it best to leave such punishment to Éomer; she would content herself with gentler reprimands. Above all, she wanted to assure Elfwine that she had room in her heart for both nephews, and that he had never been in danger of losing her love.
Where are they? she wondered when nearly ten minutes had gone by. What is taking them so long? Surely Legolas had caught up to Elfwine by now. Had Elfwine somehow gotten injured? The thought made her heart stop, but she hastily consoled herself. Legolas would have alerted her if that had been the case.
Ought she to go in after them? If Elfwine were throwing a temper tantrum, Legolas was likely ill-equipped to deal with it, and she did not want him to think any less of her or Elfwine for having to suffer through such an episode. Yet she was reluctant to go traipsing through the forest with a baby in her arms, especially since Elboron had just fallen asleep.
She had just made up her mind to wait five more minutes when Legolas and Elfwine reappeared, the latter covered in scratches. Gúthwyn's eyes widened in alarm, but her nephew hardly seemed to notice them. He stopped short when he caught sight of her, and would not have advanced but for Legolas giving him a gentle nudge forward.
"Elfwine," she murmured, hurrying over to them. "What happened? Are you all right?"
Yet Elfwine was silent, his gaze fixed on Elboron. His eyes had narrowed into slits.
"He fell into a bush," Legolas explained. "I do not believe that any of the cuts are serious, but they should be looked at."
Up close, she could see that Legolas's assessment was correct. She thanked him and then, after a second's hesitation, inquired, "Might I request one more favor of you?"
"You have but to name it."
Blushing, for she was certain that she had done nothing to merit Legolas's generosity, Gúthwyn asked, "Would you be able to watch Elboron for a few minutes? I think Elfwine and I need to have a talk."
Elfwine looked positively miserable as Legolas agreed to take his younger cousin. "We will not be going far," Gúthwyn assured Legolas. "Just to that bench." She pointed to the seat behind the bushes, where she and Elfwine would have some privacy—although she did not doubt that Legolas would be able to hear every word of their conversation. "If Elboron starts fussing too much, let me know."
"I am sure he will be well-behaved."
Gúthwyn repressed a smirk at Legolas's naïveté—which was difficult, as the sight of a tall Elven warrior carrying a baby was already quite amusing. "Come, Elfwine," she said, taking her eldest nephew by the hand.
Elfwine slowly followed. When they reached the bench, she had him sit down first. Kneeling beside him, she carefully checked his face to make sure that none of the scratches required serious attention. Only when she was satisfied that they could wait did she join him on the seat.
Elfwine looked miserably up at her in anticipation of punishment. He watched in trepidation as his aunt took a deep breath and said, "Little one, I want to tell you a story."
Elfwine blinked. "You do?"
"I do." She smiled at him reassuringly.
"About what?" he asked, a note of suspicion in his voice.
"About me, when I was your age."
Elfwine's normally smooth brow was wrinkled in confusion, as if it were not possible for his aunt to ever have been his age.
"When I was five, your father was thirteen. He was already learning how to wield a sword and spear and bow, and he spent hours pretending to be in great battles with his friends. Whenever I tried to play with him, however, he would send me away, saying that I was too young to keep up. Sometimes, if I persisted, he would call me a baby."
"Papa still calls you a baby," Elfwine pointed out, "even though it is not true."
Gúthwyn chuckled at the observation. "Aye, but back then he meant it unkindly. He did not like me to tag along with his friends. So I tried to play with the boys closer to my age, but they would not let me join them because I was a girl—and they mistakenly believed that girls were inferior.
"Now, my cousin, Théodred, was even older than your father. He was twenty-six, and he had many duties to attend to, as he was both a prince and the Second Marshal of the Mark."
"Was Théodred King Théoden's son? The one who died during the War?"
"Yes, that was him," Gúthwyn confirmed sadly. "But before he died, he took pity on me and taught me how to fight. Even when my uncle said that I was too young to learn, he insisted that I have the chance. He could have easily ignored me, yet he chose to spend time with me. And because of it, I looked up to him even more than I did your father."
Elfwine bit his lip, perturbed. "Was Papa ever mean to you?"
"Sometimes, little one. Especially when he wanted me to leave him alone. And I will not pretend that I never deserved his censure, for I was very persistent. Yet his rejections hurt my feelings, and that was when I ran to Théodred. He did not disdain the company of those smaller and weaker than himself."
"But… Papa isn't mean to you now, is he?"
"Of course not," Gúthwyn reassured her nephew. "He was much younger back then, and when we are young we often behave much differently than when we are older. But do you understand, little one, why I am telling you this story about my cousin?"
Elfwine's brown eyes narrowed in concentration. "Because I have a cousin?" he eventually offered.
"That is right. And like Théodred, you are older, stronger, and faster than your cousin. Which means that, if you so choose, you can completely ignore Elboron for the duration of your childhoods. He will not be able to keep up with you, so it will be easy for you to avoid him.
"However," she added, for Elfwine was furrowing his brow in thought, "as I did with Théodred, Elboron will look up to you as his older cousin. Once he reaches a certain age, he will think you are the best, bravest, smartest boy he knows. And he will follow you around, trying to do exactly what you are doing, because he will want to be just like you. But if you decide to shun him, and to call him names and make him cry, it will not be long before he stops looking up to you. Before he stops thinking that you are the best, or even very brave or smart. And once that trust is gone, Elfwine, you will never get it back."
By now, Elfwine was squirming under her gaze. Taking this as a positive sign, she continued, "Elboron may seem like a 'stupid baby' now, but one day he will be the prince of Ithilien—and you the king of Rohan. Things will be much easier for the two of you, and your realms, if you have already learned to get along with one another.
"You are a prince, little one, and you will have many of the responsibilities that my cousin Théodred once did. Some of them have already been given to you: you have started your schooling, and soon you will begin your military training. But one thing that you must also learn is that it is not kingly to insult or hurt someone who cannot defend themself."
"Like Elboron." Elfwine's voice was small.
Elfwine thought for a long moment. "I am sorry I was mean to him," he finally said, swallowing. "And I am sorry I was mean to Auntie Éowyn."
Squeezing his shoulder, Gúthwyn replied, "I think Auntie Éowyn would be glad if you apologized to her."
"Okay," Elfwine agreed quietly. "But… Auntie Gúthwyn?"
"Do you have to call him 'little one,' too?"
Under normal circumstances, Gúthwyn might have explained that 'little one' was not exclusively for Elfwine, but she did not have the heart to do so now—especially when it was clearly important to her nephew. "I suppose not," she said slowly. "Maybe we can come up with a new nickname for Elboron, so he does not feel left out when he is old enough to understand our conversation."
"Baby," Elfwine suggested.
"Hm… He might not like being called a baby. Besides, your father already calls me 'baby sister,' so having another 'baby' might make things confusing."
Elfwine's mouth formed an "o" of understanding. "El," he said next.
"El? Short for Elboron?" Gúthwyn inquired. When her nephew nodded, she smiled in agreement. "El it is, then. And you will be 'little one' for as long as you want to be."
Elfwine appeared quite satisfied with this arrangement.
"Now, little one," Gúthwyn said, for she was not quite done yet, "you know that I love you and Elboron both, and neither one of you more than the other."
Elfwine let out an unhappy sigh. "But you used to love me the best."
"I still love you the best," Gúthwyn replied gently. "But I also love Elboron the best."
"Auntie Gúthwyn, you can't love two people the best." Elfwine looked utterly scandalized.
"Of course I can," Gúthwyn said cheerfully. "I love you, and Elboron, and Hammel and Haiweth so much that I cannot possibly love one of you more than the other. Luckily, my heart is big enough to accommodate you all."
Elfwine glanced doubtfully at her chest. "But then it would be too big for you!"
"Not at all, little one," Gúthwyn replied, laughing at the image. "It fits perfectly in here." She placed her palm over her heart, then smiled down at her nephew. "And you need never worry that there is not enough room for you, because there always will be."
Gúthwyn leaned over and kissed his brow. "Positive."
The light returned to Elfwine's eyes, and when she hugged him his arms wrapped tightly around her. They stayed there for a moment, the storm blown over, until at length Gúthwyn suggested that they return to Legolas. Nearly ten minutes had passed since she had handed Elboron over to him, and she hoped that he had not grown tired of the infant. Yet her fears proved groundless: when they reunited with Legolas, the Elf was gently rocking the baby in his arms, humming a low tune.
"Is everything all right?" he asked, glancing up. "Elboron has been asleep this entire time."
"You have to call him El now," Elfwine interjected. "We decided."
"A thousand thanks," Gúthwyn told a grinning Legolas. "I appreciate your watching Elbor—El."
"You do not have to thank me," Legolas responded: "it was my pleasure." He handed Elboron back to Gúthwyn, carefully supporting the infant's head throughout the exchange. Perhaps Gúthwyn should not have been surprised—after all, Legolas had always been wonderful with Elfwine, despite having no children of his own, and it stood to reason that he would be just as adept at watching over Elboron. Yet she was nevertheless caught off-guard by his gentleness, and she felt a rush of gratitude towards him as she took Elboron back into her arms.
And she wondered, not for the first time today, what Legolas would be like as a father…
"Auntie Gúthwyn, guess what!" Elfwine exclaimed, cutting off her blushing reverie.
"Quiet voice, little one," Gúthwyn reminded him. "What is it?"
Elfwine reluctantly spoke more softly. "Leggy said that Papa said that Leggy can teach me how to shoot! And we are going to start tomorrow!"
"Really?" Gúthwyn inquired, pretending that this was new information. "That is very generous of Leggy—Legolas." Her face heated up at the mistake, and she did not dare look at Legolas as she asked, "Have you thanked him yet?"
"I did! Thank you, Leggy."
Gúthwyn laughed at this and finally glanced up. Legolas was smiling, and as their gazes met she was struck again by how handsome he was, how kind and compassionate and how very much the opposite of Haldor he had proven himself to be. She felt something stir within her, a type of warmth that filled her entire body and could have made her sing for happiness.
And when a voice inside her head urged resistance, reminding her about Mordor, she closed her mind to its advances and took Elfwine's hand.
"Come," she said to both of them, "let us return to the house."
Response to reviewer Emelda jones: My posting schedule is notoriously irregular, but there's usually at least one new chapter a month, maybe two if I'm extra productive - so checking back about once a month should keep you updated! If you're interested in signing up for a account, you can get new chapter alerts automatically sent to your email, which might come in handy if you're keeping track of multiple stories. I'm glad you've been enjoying Gúthwyn's tale so far - thank you for commenting! =)