Chapter 25: Return
The ellon who approached the King's study walked with a purposeful stride. Thranduil noted the first echo of his boot ten seconds before the door swung open. Ten seconds was not an extraordinary amount of time, but it was long enough for the King of Greenwood to brace himself for the confrontation to come.
Lord Túven strode across his nephew's study, and without so much as a good morning, slammed a rolled up parchment on the desk before him. "What is this?"
There was no need for Thranduil to read the parchment to know what the letter contained. Túven's mood was herald enough. "It appears to be a letter," Thranduil answered dryly.
"When were you planning to tell me?"
Thranduil leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. "Lord Túven, Lord Celeborn of Lórien and his niece will be visiting us for the Starlight Feast."
"Would you care to explain why?"
Thranduil had no desire to explain, not to his uncle, or anyone else. Unfortunately, silence was no longer an option. Thranduil had known this confrontation was coming from the moment he departed Lórien, but despite the many months he had to prepare, he could not come up with a way to soften this blow.
"I invited Caladhel to visit Greenwood again."
The expression on Túven's face morphed into one of an ellon who had just been struck hard across the face. It took a moment to process his nephew's answer and gather his wits to speak. There was only one question that came to mind. "Have you gone mad?"
"Tell me you are joking."
"I never did have a talent for humor. That was your son's domain."
Túven glared at his nephew and king. He could imagine only one reason why Thranduil would invite Caladhel to return – and it was a reason well beyond his imagining. In a flash, Túven understood why his nephew had been so adamant that he manage Greenwood's affairs while Thranduil journeyed to Lórien for Celebrían's wedding.
"Is this why you asked me to remain in Limrond in your stead? So you could pursue her without my knowledge?"
"I do not require the consent of my counselor – or my uncle."
"That elleth will ruin you!"
"How?" Thranduil asked. "By telling me what I don't want to hear – or by disagreeing with you?"
Túven fell silent as his mind processed his nephew's question and a light dawned. "The smiths… the Dwarvish iron. They were her ideas."
"No," said Thranduil. "They were mine. She merely gave me cause to think of them."
"Your father would not have…"
Thranduil rose from his seat, cutting Túven off before he could begin his lecture. "My father led an army of lightly armored elves to war against Sauron. Two thirds of them never returned. I will not see our people slaughtered a second time for lack of arms, nor will I have you questioning my motives in this matter!"
Túven was shocked silent by Thranduil's anger. Never before had his nephew spoken to him in such a tone. Túven did his best to calm himself and attempted to address his nephew in a more even manner. "I did not mean to imply that your motives were false. I know you would do all in your power to protect our people. I fear only that your judgment might be clouded by… other matters." It was a fair attempt at an apology, more than Túven would deign to offer any other, but Thranduil would have none of it.
"It was the right decision, Túven. I will discuss it no further."
Túven wanted to argue, but was wise enough to know that doing so now would be a wasted effort. "As you will, my king."
Upon his uncle's acquiescence, Thranduil returned to his seat. "See to it we are prepared for the Lórien company's arrival. You are dismissed, Lord Túven."
Túven bowed his head and turned to the door, but at the threshold he paused. His own stubbornness demanded he remind his king of a truth he did not care to see forgotten. "Thranduil... I have only ever wanted what is best for you – and for Greenwood." Having said what he willed, he departed, leaving Thranduil mildly annoyed with him for the remainder of the day.
"May I come in?"
Haldir stood in the doorway, peering into her talan with questioning eyes. In the past, it was not unusual for them to enter each other's homes without first asking permission, but ever since the past spring Haldir had taken up the formality and Caladhel chose to accept it without protest.
"Of course," she replied, as she always did.
He entered and eyed her bags, already packed. "Can I help you with anything?"
"You can carry my saddlebags," she said. He took them up while she secured her weapons and a minute later they headed out the door.
"How goes your morning?" she asked.
"As expected," Haldir replied.
"And what does that mean?"
"Your uncle politely declined my offer to be part of your escort to Greenwood."
"How many times did you ask him?"
"Are you surprised by his answer?"
She studied Haldir's expression close, but could see no upset in his eyes, only resignation. "I suspect he hopes to avoid any unnecessary conflict."
"You think I would cause trouble in Limrond?"
"Not without reason," she said, and offered him a sympathetic smile.
Haldir shook his head in thinly veiled dismay but he said no more on the matter. They arrived at the staging area a few minutes later. The horses were already saddled, awaiting their riders. Caladhel greeted her new mare, Rovail, with an apple and a pat on her head. And while she stroked the mare's mane a stab of guilt for Sídhel struck her deep.
"Are you well?" Haldir asked, noting her pained expression.
"I am fine," she replied and forced a smile.
Haldir was not fooled, but he went to work attaching the travel bags to Rovail's saddle.
"There she is!" a voice called out from across the field.
Caladhel's turned at the sound of his voice, one she had not been expecting. "King Amroth. What are you doing here?"
"I came to see you off," he said, "and to deliver this."
He held in his hand an oddly shaped package wrapped in fine linen. Caladhel did not know what to make of it.
"A gift?" she asked.
"Something I thought you might need for the festival," he added, but instead of handing over the package, he held it out to Haldir. "Would you put this in her bag, Haldir?"
Haldir took the small bundle from his king and did as he was bid.
Caladhel, herself, was somewhat confused. This was not the normal procedure for gift giving. "Do you not want me to open it?"
"Not yet. Wait until you reach Greenwood."
"Should I be worried?"
Amroth dismissed her concern with a wave of his hand. "There is no need. You will thank me. I promise."
"Is there some purpose behind this gift?" she asked, her curiosity piqued.
"There might be, but it is not for me to say." He hugged her then and set a kiss upon her cheek before stepping away. "Do convey my well wishes to Thranduil and his court."
"And tell Thranduil, also, that I look forward to an excuse to visit his kingdom more often."
Amroth winked at her, and Caladhel immediately recognized the mischievous glint in his eye. She shook her head and shot him a withering look he ignored completely. "Good day, King Amroth," she said, all but dismissing him.
He laughed and bowed his head. "Good day to you, Lady Caladhel, and good journey."
The journey to Greenwood progressed without incident, but as they drew nearer to Limrond the enormity of what she was about to do pressed upon Caladhel's mind. The months since Celebrían's wedding passed too slowly, for soon after Greenwood's company departed she found herself impatient to follow them. Her former enthusiasm turned nervous now, as they traveled east upon the Forest Road. In a few short hours she would enter Thranduil's wood, this time by his invitation. She could not pretend her visit bore no importance to Greenwood's king, or that he had forgotten her these past months, for he had written her twice in that time. She had his letters with her, tucked away in a small box which held those few items she considered precious – her mother's ring, and the bracelet from her father.
It was not Thranduil's judgment Caladhel feared this time, it was his people's. Less than a year ago she was accounted an enemy of this land.
And the trouble she caused…
Iordor had assured her that all their injured warriors healed quickly and that none bore her ill will for her actions, but Caladhel worried still that the injury she caused Greenwood's king would not be looked on kindly.
Caladhel rode in silence beside her uncle. He said nothing, but Celeborn was not blind to the uneasy look in her eyes as they entered the wood. He reached out a hand to hers and squeezed her right firmly, drawing her gaze. He smiled at her, that secret, knowing smile which required no words to understand. She forced a smile in return.
A few miles into the wood they were met by a small company on the road. Iordor rode at the fore. He was dressed formally, in robes due his rank and station, not the simple green and brown uniform of Greenwood's wardens. Caladhel tried not to let her surprise at his formality show in her eyes, but Iordor caught her silent appraisal of his attire. He smiled at her and nodded before addressing Celeborn.
Iordor set his hand upon his heart and bowed his head formally. "Greetings Lord Celeborn of Lórien," he said. "I welcome you to Greenwood Forest. We will be your escort to Limrond for the remainder of your journey."
Celeborn greeted Greenwood's captain with the same practiced formality. "I thank you for your hospitality, Lord Iordor, as does my niece and our company."
"If you will follow us, we will journey onward." Iordor urged the deer he rode to turn back east and the animal fell in alongside Celeborn. The two led the procession, with the remainder of Greenwood's riders flanking the Lórien company on both sides.
Caladhel thought the entire exercise silly. She never cared for formal greetings and processions, despite the many arguments for maintaining the traditions. The entire affair was only made tolerable by the Greenwood warden who came to ride by her side.
"Haldor! It good to see you again."
"And you, my lady."
Caladhel was about to ask how he fared, but the grin he shot her changed her course. "What is the cause of that face you make?"
"I noticed Haldir is not among your company."
"My uncle thought it best."
Haldor shook his head slowly, and as he did so, his expression morphed from one of amusement to apology. "I never did have the chance to apologize for the part I played in that incident. I did not expect you to withhold the details of your time with us from your friends and family. "
"No apology is necessary," Caladhel replied. "In truth, I think it is I who owe you an apology. You should not have been the first to face Haldir's wrath. That honor should have been mine."
"How did he take the news that you would return to us?"
"Evenly," she replied.
Haldor was relieved to hear it, for when last he saw Haldir his upset had been great. "I am glad," said Haldor. "I am glad, also, that you chose to return."
Caladhel laughed at Haldor's declaration and the memory of his last in this wood. "If I recall correctly, you hoped not to see me again in Limrond."
"I have changed my mind," Haldor said.
"And why is that?"
Haldor smiled at the lady and lowered his voice to ensure that none but she could hear. "He has missed you these last few months. We all have."
Caladhel's former worry lessened some with Haldor's words. She had missed them too – Haldor and his father, sweet Daerel, Beleth, and, if she were truthful, she would have to admit, she missed Thranduil, too.
The mountain rose before them late the following afternoon and Caladhel was again surprised by the manner of their reception, or more rightly, by the ellon who greeted them at the gate. Lord Túven stood tall and proud before the doors of Limrond and the sight of him made Caladhel uneasy again. He greeted her uncle formally, with all the respect due his station, and after bowed to her as well and greeted her by name. Túven was skilled enough in diplomacy to perform his welcoming duties without allowing his eyes or voice to betray his disdain. But even as he welcomed her, Caladhel heard an echo of their last conversation.
'He should have let the orcs have you!'
Caladhel suspected Túven's thoughts on her were not much changed since that day, despite his courtesy. He bid them follow, and led them to Limrond's great hall. The court was gathered this time and Thranduil awaited them upon his throne. Her uncle walked ahead with Túven, who announced him to the court, with her and the counselors who accompanied him welcomed as one. Caladhel was not offended that she had not been introduced by name. It was not improper given the size of their company, and the assembled crowd knew her besides. And by the many eyes in the room that lingered on her she suspected the court knew the true purpose of her uncle's visit.
Thranduil rose from his throne and stepped forward on the dais. "Lord Celeborn of Lórien, my court and I welcome you. We hope the time you and your counselors spend with us will strengthen the bonds between our people."
"I hope so as well."
"We have rooms prepared for you and your company. Some food and rest will surely restore you after your journey."
"We are thankful for your hospitality."
Thranduil nodded in acknowledgement of Celeborn's thanks, but a smile tugged at the corner of his lips. "You may not want to thank me just yet, Lord Celeborn. My council has asked to meet with you tonight, if you are not too worn from your journey."
Celeborn was unsettled by this unusual request, but did his best to hide it. "I will be glad to."
"Very good." Thranduil lifted a hand and Galion and a small army of servants came forth to greet the Lórien company and assign them to a space in the palace. The court disbursed, leaving their guests to their proffered rest with only a handful of them taking a moment or two to greet those Lórien lords they knew well.
Thranduil descended the stair and greeted her uncle a second time, informally, before he turned his eyes on her. He did his best to keep his expression guarded but his eyes could not contain his joy. It was a feeling Caladhel shared. He lifted a hand to his heart and bowed his head.
"Lady Caladhel, I welcome your return."
Caladhel did her best to maintain the proper formality for such an occasion, but could not restrain her smile. "Your invitation was most persuasive, King Thranduil."
"He can be a charming ellon, when he chooses," a voice said from behind her.
Caladhel turned to find Beleth grinning brightly. She took Caladhel's arm in hers. "Come along. We will show you to your room."
Beleth glanced over her shoulder in the direction of a slight figure, one quite nearly vibrating with excitement. Caladhel turned back to Thranduil, who appeared reluctant to be parted from her so soon. His eyes passed over her face, noting the faintest trace of dirt on her cheek and the splashes of mud upon her clothes.
"Go on," he said. "I will find you later."
Caladhel, too, was reluctant to leave Thranduil's company, but following his gaze to the hem of her tunic, she made no argument. "Until then."
Beleth drew her away from her nephew and towards the beaming face of the young elleth who awaited them. Daerel flung her arms around Caladhel and the Lady could not help but laugh at the child's enthusiastic greeting.
"I am so happy you have returned!"
Beleth pulled the child away from Caladhel and gently admonished her. "Remember your manners, Daerel. That is no proper way for a grown elleth to greet a lady."
"I am sorry," Daerel said.
Caladhel noted the worry in the child's eyes and sought to ease it. "No apology is needed. I missed you as well."
"We must see Lady Caladhel to her rooms now so she can change out of these muddy clothes."
"I will take her!" said Daerel.
Caladhel laughed once more at the child's enthusiasm. "I think I can find the way," she said, assuming she would be housed in the same guest quarters as she had before.
Beleth shook her head. "A different room has been prepared for you."
"Oh?" Caladhel did not see why. The rooms she stayed in last time were lovely. "Well then, please do lead the way."
"See Lady Caladhel to her room," Beleth said to Daerel. "I will be along shortly."
Daerel took Caladhel's arm at Beleth's bidding and led the Lórien lady away.
The room was beyond lovely. Unlike the dark, cave-like interior of her previous dwelling her new room was filled with light. The vaulted ceiling gave it an airy feel and it opened to a terrace where she could see much of the underground city's walks. Just beyond the edge was a waterfall and light flowed in from breaks in the stone overhead. Every wall was carved with intricate designs and everything from the furniture to the bed sheets were works of art.
"It is a beautiful room, is it not?"
"Truly," said Caladhel.
"And it has a wonderful view."
Caladhel agreed. The view from the terrace was breathtaking.
The sound of footsteps in the room alerted both ellith that they had company. Beleth stepped out onto the terrace. Eying the younger elleth, she said, "Your mother is waiting for you, Daerel. Run along now. There will be plenty of time to visit with Caladhel once she is settled."
"Yes, my lady," said Daerel. But before she departed she turned to Caladhel. "I will see you later."
Beleth shooed the child out the door. She spoke again once Daerel's footsteps disappeared down the hall. "She is smitten with you. She spoke of nothing else but your impending visit for the last two weeks."
Caladhel was thankful she had not been the one to endure the child's twittering, though she found Daerel's fondness for her touching.
"Do you like your rooms?" Beleth asked.
"They are magnificent," she said, but her eyes begged an unspoken question.
"They belonged to Queen Naerwen," Beleth said, having read the question in Caladhel's eyes.
Caladhel had suspected so. This was no room for a mere guest. "Was it your idea to house me here?"
"Heavens, no," Beleth exclaimed. "I would not have made that suggestion."
Beleth shook her head. "Thranduil refuses to move into his father's chambers, though I ask him to at least once a year. He keeps his mother's rooms preserved, as well. I did not imagine he would allow anyone to stay here. I was surprised, myself, when he suggested it."
If Beleth was surprised, Caladhel was more so, though in truth she could not say why. It was not that she doubted Thranduil's feelings for her. Perhaps what surprised her was that he allowed her so close, not only to him, but to that which, in his heart, mattered most.
"I will draw your bath and have some food brought up."
"Thank you," said Caladhel.
Beleth disappeared into the bath to start the water while Caladhel began to unpack. She brought dresses this time, and they would need ironing to press the wrinkles out. From one bag she drew out Amroth's gift. She turned the package over in her hands, and setting it upon the dresser table, worked the knot out of the string. She removed the contents from the linen wrap, and setting the items down on the dresser top, found herself more confused by Amroth's gift than before she opened it.
Following a bath and a brief but restful nap, Caladhel wandered the halls of Limrond for the very first time. She had not felt comfortable exploring the many paths and levels of the palace during her captivity, for fear it might look to some that she was up to no good. She did so now, and so doing, passed many new and familiar faces in the corridors and on the stairs. Each one greeted her with a warm smile and words of welcome. Their prior nervous suspicion was gone. Caladhel found the change both welcome and strange. She wondered what news had altered their opinion of her.
An hour into her walk Caladhel found herself once again in the great hall and took the opportunity to study the ceiling more closely than before. The domed ceiling glittered in the light of the torches. It reminded Caladhel of a clear winter's night, of the heavens shining with innumerable stars. It was captivating.
"I did not think you the type of elleth to be enthralled by glittering gems."
Caladhel had not heard the King enter the hall, but recognized his voice immediately. Her gaze fell from the ceiling to find him watching her close. Her interest in the ceiling appeared to have amused him. "They are breathtaking," she said. "Do you not think so?"
"I did, once."
"Once?" Caladhel could not imagine growing tired of the ceiling's beauty. "What changed?"
Thranduil came to her side. His lifted his eyes to the ceiling and his gaze lingered there for a time before returning to her face. He took up a lock her hair, wrapping the strand around his fingers. "I found something more radiant to gaze upon."
Caladhel laughed at this clever notion, but was unconvinced. "I hardly compare."
Thranduil shook his head. This was an argument he meant to win. "They are but bits of stone," he replied. "Their light is not their own. They merely reflect the fire, and offer not its warmth."
Caladhel conceded he was right in that regard, and she let him know it with a smile and a nod. But for her part… "I still find the ceiling beautiful."
Thranduil laughed lightly. He should have known better than to expect her to concede. "I would give it to you, if that was your want."
"And what would I do with a ceiling of stone? Hang it above my talan? Besides, it is meant to be here. What would Limrond be without it?"
"A piece of it, then."
Caladhel almost thought him serious by look in his eye, but the expression was fleeting. She smiled and shook her head. "The stones belong here. I am certain you will permit me to visit them again."
"Whenever you wish." Thranduil released the lock of hair he held captive and the humor in his eyes slowly abated. "I had hoped to spend more time with you this day. I am sorry that was not possible."
Caladhel knew he had more important matters to attend to than entertaining her, and dismissed his apology with a smile. "There is always tomorrow," she replied.
"The festival begins tomorrow."
Caladhel was surprised to hear it. It was many days until the Starlight Feast was celebrated in Lothlórien. She was dismayed to think their company had arrived late. "So soon?"
Thranduil nodded. "The festival begins with the harvest."
Thranduil's words were a relief, for she had not given thought to the harvest. "Of course," she replied. "I assume the King of Greenwood intones the blessing."
"That I do."
Caladhel was curious to learn the Greenwood custom for the harvest prayer, but she doubted very much that it would consume Thranduil's entire day. "Can we not share the day afterward?" she asked.
Thranduil shook his head. "I am afraid not. I will work the harvest."
Caladhel was surprised once more by this news. It was not tradition for the King of Lórien to participate in the harvest – beyond offering the blessing – and she did not recall such a custom existing in any other elven land. "Is it tradition in Greenwood for the king to join his people in the fields?"
Thranduil frowned at her question. "We need every hand."
Caladhel was struck silent by his answer and at her own terrible thoughtlessness. Greenwood lost so many during the war, far more than Lórien. She should not have forgotten. There could be no doubt they required every hand. "Of course."
"You are welcome to join us," Thranduil offered.
Caladhel had not expected the invitation, but should not have been surprised given his previous words. She did not know quite how to respond. "I have never worked a harvest before." It was a truth for which Caladhel had never before felt ashamed, but admitting so to Thranduil felt ignoble.
Thranduil noted clearly her unease, and sought to assuage it. "I understand if you do not wish to," he said. "Beleth will certainly think it improper I suggested it at all."
Caladhel was certain he was right, but she was unconcerned with Beleth's thoughts. It was Thranduil's opinion that mattered, and something in his tone and expression told her the harvest was important to him, though why, she could not say. Not yet, anyway. "Would you like for me to join you?"
Thranduil's countenance brightened a measure and a smile crept slowly across his face. "I would like it… very much."
"Then I will be glad to."
Thranduil took up her right hand and placed a kiss upon her fingers. At the sight of her own hand, Caladhel laughed a bit too heartily causing curiosity to ignite in Thranduil's eyes.
"Have I amused you?" he asked.
Caladhel shook her head while continuing to laugh lightly. "Amroth gave me a gift before I departed Lórien. I had no idea what inspired it."
"A pair of leather gloves," she said, "and gardening shoes."