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Interrupted Journeys: Part Three--Journeys Begin

Chapter 7: Changes

by ellisk

The first in their traveling party to reach the stable yard, Aradunnon gratefully dismounted his horse, reaching up to scratch its ears with one hand while giving it the last carrot that he bought in Dale’s market with the other. The horse took the treat greedily and whickered in a pleased fashion as Aradunnon stroked its velvety nose.

“Welcome home, my lords,” called a young groom cheerily as he came forward to tend to the travelers’ horses.

Several elves going about their business around the stronghold also waved or smiled their greetings as Dolgailon, Hallion and their guards cantered into the yard and dismounted along side Aradunnon. The groom beckoned for the travelers’ horses to come to him and Aradunnon’s horse abandoned its master easily, trotting eagerly to the youth.

Aradunnon smiled happily, returning the groom’s greeting and waving at his friends on the green. Then he cast a wry look at his horse and lightly smacked its backside as it passed. “Your loyalty is easily given to whoever has treats or promises you a nice bath,” he said teasingly and was struck in the face by a swishing tail in reply.

Dolgailon, Hallion and the guards laughed. “A bath might benefit you, as well, my lord,” Hallion quipped, causing everyone to laugh a bit harder.

As Aradunnon slowly turned an exaggeratedly insulted look on his brother’s steward, he rejoiced in being home. The moment he made eye contact with Hallion, he grinned. Hallion’s relief that their trip to Dale had concluded well had inspired his joke and Aradunnon shared that sentiment. Like his brother Thranduil, Aradunnon did not enjoy traveling outside the forest and was always thankful to return to the soothing hum of the trees and the company of his friends.

Giving the normally serious steward a playful shove, Aradunnon draped an arm over his son’s shoulders and steered him to the Great Gates. In truth, he was anxious to enjoy a nice, hot bath, a well cooked dinner and the company of his wife.

His eyebrows rose, however, when they reached the bridge and saw Thranduil emerging from the Gates. Aradunnon glanced at Hallion and Dolgailon and they strode quickly to meet the king.

Instead of waiting at the gate, Thranduil, followed by Amoneth they now saw, met them half way across the bridge and gestured somewhat impatiently for them to rise when they dropped to one knee. Aradunnon smiled as Thranduil studied each of the travelers, and Dolgailon in particular, for any indication that their mission in Dale might have gone awry. His knew his brother loved Dolgailon as if he were his own son and he had been very concerned that his involvement with the Mannish traitors might lead him into trouble in Dale. That was why he sent both Aradunnon and Hallion to accompany the younger elf. And why he had come to the Gates to greet them rather than waiting for them in the family quarters. Aradunnon found his brother’s concern for his son quite touching.

After assuring himself that all was apparently well, Thranduil’s serious expression melted into a pleased smile and he embraced his brother and nephew. Amoneth quickly followed suit, kissing her son and gratefully settling into her husband’s arms as they turned to enter the stronghold. As he pulled Amoneth close and placed a kiss on her cheek, Aradunnon sighed, smiling and now completely at ease.

Thranduil took in his family’s relaxed comportment and the tension seemed to dissolve from his body as well. “I take it that the affair in Dale is concluded without further incident then?” he asked as they entered the stronghold.

“It is concluded, my lord,” Hallion replied neutrally. Thranduil looked over at his steward. “Perhaps you have time to step into the Great Hall to discuss the details,” he suggested.

Thranduil frowned. “As you wish,” he replied, an edge on his voice. “Would Amoneth like to accompany us or would she prefer to return to the family quarters to make sure the kitchen knows you have returned for evening meal?”

Aradunnon laughed softly at that question, which was directed at Hallion and not Amoneth.

“I would prefer to stay and hear about my husband and son’s trip to Dale,” she replied with a slightly sharp tone before Hallion could speak. Her grasp on Aradunnon’s arm tightened and she stood firmly in place.

Aradunnon knew that Thranduil’s hesitation to allow Amoneth to join them in the Great Hall arose from a desire to protect her from any unpleasantries that might surface in the discussion. But he also knew that his wife utterly despised being sheltered. She had lived in the south of the realm under the Shadow for a millennium; she had become a respectable warrior when she could fight from the trees with a bow rather than on the ground with a blade; and she had been forced to help defend their village on several occasions. She had seen enough to make her feel that it was unnecessary to coddle her.

But Thranduil did not agree. Without acknowledging Amoneth, he looked to Hallion for an answer to his question.

Hallion looked between the king and Amoneth with a sigh. Then he focused on Thranduil. “I think the lady will find the conversation interesting,” he finally replied.

Thranduil frowned. Everyone knew that reply indicated that Amoneth, and likely Thranduil as well, would only find the conversation mildly disturbing and that Hallion would deliver a slightly edited version of the full tale due to her presence. Aradunnon knew that Thranduil preferred to hear the full version immediately because he was anxious to dismiss the business with the Easterlings, so he laughed quietly when the king resignedly proceeded into the Great Hall and seated himself at one of the tables in the back of the room. The fact that even the king chose his battles with Amoneth gave Aradunnon some sense of satisfaction.

“Very well, what happened that you would like to discuss, Hallion?” Thranduil asked quietly, gesturing for the others to sit as well.

Hallion looked at Dolgailon, courteously deferring to the prince. Aradunnon laughed to himself again, suspecting that his son would not have objected at all had Hallion chosen to present their news to the king. As he had on several occasions recently, Aradunnon felt a swell of pride in his son as Dolgailon simply met his uncle’s gaze placidly.

“The men were convicted of treason against Dale,” he began calmly, “though not before claiming that my patrol killed simple villagers engaged in unauthorized trade.”

Thranduil’s expression hardened and he looked at Dolgailon expectantly, obviously wishing to hear the youth acknowledge that he now had a better understanding of the dangers of involvement with Men.

Dolgailon dutifully complied with the king’s unspoken command. “If nothing else, this experience has shown me the need to be much more careful about how I manage interactions between my troops and our neighboring realms, my lord.”

Thranduil nodded and shot a glare at Aradunnon in response to his brother’s smirk.

“Do you not agree, captain?” Thranduil snapped.

Aradunnon forced himself to appear more serious. “Of course I do, my lord. I believe it was you that chose to ignore my recommendation that Dolgailon lose rank over this incident. I fully recognize its significance.” Then he smiled. “But you cannot imagine that Dolgailon has failed to arrive at the same conclusion.”

Thranduil looked at his brother coolly. “I do not doubt that your son often shows better judgment than his adar,” Thranduil responded, clearly referring to Dolgailon’s more appropriate comportment.

Aradunnon only nodded calmly as Dolgailon continued his narrative in the interest of coming to the point of the conversation before his father provoked the king to full-blow anger. He suspected his news would be more than sufficient to produce that result. “The accused men also claimed that the reason I might have confused villagers with Easterlings is that Easterlings have been seen coming and going in the forest,” he said.

Thranduil scowled. “Indeed. They have made six incursions into the Wood this year,” he replied bitterly.

Dolgailon shook his head. “No, my lord, you do not understand. They claimed the Mannish border patrols have seen Easterlings in the forest, speaking with Elves. Their implication was that the Easterlings are meeting with Elves on a regular basis. As allies.”

Thranduil’s brow furrowed and Amoneth’s jaw dropped at that assertion. “That is preposterous,” she exclaimed before the king could speak. Then she looked at him contritely. “Forgive me, my lord,” she said quietly.

But Thranduil only nodded at her with obvious agreement. “I could not have described that claim better myself,” he said.

Hallion looked at Thranduil carefully. “I spoke to the accused before they were executed, my lord. At my request, Lord Fengel promised them a more merciful death if they could provide information about that claim. All of the men, in separate interviews, named the same two Elven villages in the south as allied to men from the east. And they seemed very convinced that Mannish warriors known to be loyal to Lord Fengel would corroborate their claims.” He paused. “I believe this is worth investigating, my lord. Indeed, I took the liberty of asking Lord Fengel to speak to the Mannish guards that the accused named.”

Thranduil’s scowl deepened. “Very well, but I do not trust the claims of Men convicted of treason. We will conduct our own investigation. Speak to Golwon about meeting with the village leaders along the southeastern border—all of them, not only the two in the villages the Men named. We will see what we discover. And you and I are going to spend this evening taking a closer look at the patrols’ encounters with the Easterlings over the last few years. We will see if we can find any pattern or connection between these claims and what the patrols have reported.”

Hallion nodded. “That was what I had intended to suggest, my lord.”

Thranduil sat back in his seat and looked at Dolgailon. “Let us hope that is the last time either you or I must deal with Lord Fengel outside of normal diplomatic contacts.”

Dolgailon glanced at his father and then looked at Thranduil evenly. “Agreed, my lord. Although dealing with the Men was not as difficult or unpleasant as I initially feared it might be, I certainly cannot deny that every interaction with them spawns some new complication. It is quite frustrating.”

Thranduil could not suppress a smile at that sincere analysis.

Hallion smiled as well. Like Thranduil, he had a soft spot for the youngest member of the Royal family. “Dealing with Men is indeed complicated,” he affirmed, “but Lord Dolgailon has managed this affair quite well, especially considering that this was his first foreign mission other then regular exchanges between border patrols.”

Thranduil nodded. “Indeed, Dolgailon. I have been very pleased with the way you conducted yourself throughout this incident. You represented me and this realm very well,” he added.

Dolgailon looked down, surprised by the unexpected compliments.

“Thank you both,” he said quietly. “But I think this ordeal was made considerably easier by the fact that Lord Fengel clearly has a great respect for Elves. He was much more willing to believe us than his steward, for example, and for that I was grateful.”

Thranduil appeared pleasantly surprised by that assessment. “I am pleased to hear that, Dolgailon. Lord Fengel’s adar, Fregne, was the advisor Prince Marhari always sent to negotiate trade with me,” he said. “Trade relations with the Northmen have always been variable, but Fregne was one of the Men that I enjoyed working with. He and I saw eye-to-eye.”

Dolgailon nodded. “Lord Fengel mentioned several times that his adar had taught him to think highly of Elves. Apparently your positive relations with Fregne have saved us a good deal of difficulty now,” he said.

Hallion, who constantly reminded Thranduil of the value of maintaining good relations with the neighboring Men, snorted at that observation, eliciting a cool glare from the king.

Thranduil stood, raising the others to their feet as well. “Let us return to the family quarters so you can rest before evening meal is served. Otherwise, I fear I am destined for another lecture on diplomacy from my steward.”

Hallion only smirked at Thranduil. “I believe that lecture has already been successfully administered, my lord,” he replied teasingly, earning him another, more severe, glare.

As Thranduil and Hallion departed, trading a few more barbs before settling into a more serious conversation about the news from Dale, Aradunnon and Amoneth held Dolgailon back.

Amoneth looked at her son proudly and caressed his cheek. “I was worried when your adar sent you back to the capital, ion nin. Thranduil loves you but he does not allow his personal feelings for anyone to interfere with the governance of this kingdom. I know from experience that you indeed must have handled yourself very well throughout this incident to have earned his praise. I am very proud of you, ion nin,” she said with a sincerity that made Dolgailon laugh nervously.

“Since I brought this on myself, nana, I was bound to do my best to correct it. That is all I have done,” he replied without looking at his father.

Aradunnon grimaced slightly, remembering his harsh words to his son when Dolgailon had first reported his patrol’s actions. He laid a hand on Dolgailon’s shoulder. “You made a decision in the pressure of battle to pursue the men that killed one of our people,” he said with a serious tone that drew his son’s gaze. “It is not a decision I would have made but in the end it turned out well. Better than some of the decisions that I have made under similar circumstances. And that is the nature of command—we make the best decisions we can in difficult circumstances and then strive to make those decisions benefit the realm. I was angry when I spoke with you about this.” He paused and a weak smile came to his lips. “In the back of my mind I knew I was being harsher with you than I would be with any other captain. I have always expected more of you. But that is why I sent you to Thranduil. For a more objective view.”

Dolgailon returned his father’s gaze with a single arched eyebrow. “Indeed? I was under the impression that sending me on a three day journey north to the king with sealed orders was a means to make me suffer a bit more by allowing me to wonder what my fate would be. Considering how well it worked, I concluded that it was a truly inspired punishment.”

Aradunnon smirked at his son. “Well, you are correct in that respect. I did intend to make you suffer while sending you to a judge more capable of fairness than I in that moment. Given that you attacked an allied village, I felt I had the right to impose some misery upon you,” he replied. Then he grew serious again. “And, given what I have observed since I arrived in the capital, I have no doubt that your comportment was what inspired your uncle’s restrained reaction. I have known you to be an outstanding officer for many years, ion nin. But commanding military situations and interacting in court are very different, as you now well know. I have been very impressed with everything I have seen you do here. I am also very proud of you.”

Dolgailon smiled, clearly happy to have this incident behind him. “Thank you, but I have only done my duty as you taught it to me.”

Aradunnon laughed and again draped one arm over his son’s shoulders while reaching to pull his wife against him with his other. “As we taught you?” he repeated. “Well, since you are so amenable to your parents’ lessons, join us this evening on the green, ion nin. Perhaps we can teach you how to entertain yourself with some pleasant games and dances. Surely now that all this is concluded, you have earned the right to enjoy yourself.”

Dolgailon cringed dramatically at that invitation as they followed Thranduil to the family quarters.

*~*~*

Later that evening, after dinner when the stars were sparkling in the night sky, Dolgailon did indeed slip quietly out of the family quarters to go to the green, though not with the intention of spending an evening gaming with his father. He strode quickly through the Great Gates without sparing so much as a glance at the guards that came to attention as he passed. His eyes, as they scanned the green in front of the bridge, were bright and merry and a broad smile spread across his face when he spied a slender figure on a bench under the trees at the far side of the lawn. He trotted across the lawn quickly.

At his approach, Arthiel stood. She was also smiling.

“I heard that you and your lord father had returned this afternoon. I hoped you would be able to spare the time to join the festivities on the green tonight,” she said as he raised her hand to his lips.

“In truth, I can not spend much time here tonight. Before I left for Dale, I was working on a proposal to present to the king with Lord Engwe. He informed me at dinner that he wanted to discuss it tomorrow morning and I need to prepare for that.” He paused and looked at her, eyes still shining. “But it is a beautiful spring evening and the stars are bright. I know you enjoy such nights so I hoped I might find you here. Adar told me that I have earned a few moments to enjoy myself in the company of dear friends,” he concluded with a smile.

“I am certain you have,” she said smiling back at him as she began to lead him by the hand he still held down a path along the riverbank. “If you cannot stay long, I suppose I cannot convince you to go to the Oak,” she said with a playful pout. Then she turned a sincerely pleading gaze on him. “But would really like to go even for a short while. I heard some of the Palace Guard saying that your lord father has brought a barrel of Dorwinion there tonight.”

Dolgailon snorted. “Then I can do anything I wish tonight. I already know where the king’s attention will be focused tomorrow morning and it shall not be on me unless I join adar in despoiling the king’s wine cellar,” he said dryly. Then he looked down at her seriously. “Under no circumstances am I involving myself in that and neither do I wish to have another conversation with my adar about the activities at the Oak, so, no, you cannot convince me to go. If you would like some Dorwinion, have dinner with me more often and I will ask the queen to have it served in honor of your presence.”

Arthiel smirked. “I have accepted every invitation you have ever extended to join you for dinner,” she replied playfully. Then she looked at Dolgailon teasingly. “Only because I enjoy the Dorwinion,” she added. When Dolgailon laughed and shook his head, she continued, laughter in her voice as well. “And your lord father cannot possibly object to you going to the Oak. He is there nearly every night himself,” she exclaimed.

Dolgailon grinned “Adar does not object, in fact he told me to join him.” He closed his eyes in mock-horror. “I do not care to see how my adar behaves at the Oak. I fear the reality might be as bad as the stories I have heard.”

Arthiel burst into laughter. “It is. I have seen him gaming with your lady mother many times. They are quite good. I won a whole gold coin betting on your lady mother’s knife throwing once.”

Dolgailon looked away, bemused. “I am not certain which is worse—your confirmation that my adar is every bit as roguish as I feared, the fact that my naneth is involved as well or the fact that you can attest to their actions from personal observation,” he said softly, causing Arthiel to laugh harder. “Your adar would be furious if he knew you went there.”

Arthiel scowled. “Indeed, but I have been an adult for five hundred years whether or not my parents recognize that.” She sighed. “You should be grateful that your adar allows you a bit of merrymaking. Mine is far too protective of me.”

Dolgailon laughed wryly. “Your adar wants you to be safe. It is reasonable not to want one’s daughter amongst an unruly crowd of half drunk elves with nocked bows and sharp knives.” Dolgailon paused a moment—a thought obviously occurring to him—then he laughed more heartily. “Knowing my adar’s reputation, I am shocked your adar did not send you to Mithlond when I began keeping company with you.”

Arthiel giggled. “Ada knows that both you and your adar are fine elves,” she said airily. The she looked at him sidelong with a smirk. “And he knows you are much more like the king than your lord father. Since he loves the king, he takes comfort in that. He is pleased that we are ‘keeping company.’ He and nana truly enjoy your visits.”

Dolgailon smiled in response to that comment. “Would you like to go sit by the pools?” he suggested when they came to a fork in the path.

She nodded, still smirking at him though now for a different reason. “If you think the Palace Guard will let us any where near them tonight. Last time we walked there, they barred the path.” She looked at him curiously. “Did you ever find out why they did that?”

Dolgailon laughed lightly. “Yes I did. Those were not Palace Guards. They were the king’s bodyguards. He and the queen were enjoying the pools and wanted their privacy. But tonight I happen to know that the king is busy with his steward, so I believe we will be able to indulge ourselves,” he replied with amusement in his voice.

Arthiel looked at him, still with raised eyebrows, but Dogailon did not elaborate.

The last evening they had spent time together had been the night Thranduil and Lindomiel had conceived their child. Dolgailon had, of course, recognized Tureden and the other guards that denied their passage to the pools by the river at the foot of the mountain. He had assumed the king was nearby since his guards were present, but the reason they refused to allow he and Arthiel to join him had not occurred to the younger elf until Lindomiel made her announcement the next morning. Dolgailon had laughed openly when he made that connection. His uncle might be fairly conservative, but apparently he was not overly so in all arenas. But that was not a story suitable to share with anyone, much less a maiden, so Dolgailon ignored Arthiel’s expectant gaze.

Instead he led her to sit on a flat rock where no trees obscured the view of the stars and where the song of the trees and river surrounded them. When he settled next to her, she leaned against him, head on his shoulder to look at the stars. With effort he restrained himself from stroking his hand down her hair, which fell across his chest, or wrapping his arms around her waist to hold her in place. After looking at her silently for a moment, he searched his mind for a distracting topic of conversation.

“Did you speak to your adar about studying under one of the foresters?” he finally asked.

She sighed and replied with a bitter tone. “I did.”

He frowned sympathetically. “I take it that he reacted as poorly as you expected he would,” he prompted softly.

“Yes,” she said sadly. “He will not stand in my way. He gave his blessings to my decision. But only after he gave me a two-hour lecture on the importance of art and the difficulty of finding qualified assistants for his workshop. I know that he has lost two workers to the patrols in the last few years and I was the last person he had doing woodwork. I tried to explain to him that I wanted to do something more meaningful but that argument did not help. He says that art is meaningful and that our people need beauty to give them joy as much as the forest needs nurturing.” She frowned. “He was not impressed with the idea that the forest gives us joy and needs protection.”

“Your adar is a great artist, Arthiel,” Dolgailon said in a conciliatory tone. “Everyday I admire his carvings throughout the stronghold. Naturally he sees the value of arts…”

She lifted her head from his shoulder and faced him with a frustrated expression. “I have done wood carving since I was apprenticed at forty, my lord. I also understand the place of art in our lives. But I want to become a forester.”

He held up his hands. “I support you, Arthiel. You know that. I was merely trying to see both sides.”

She snorted. “You are with me, not in the king’s court. You are not supposed to be a diplomat; you are supposed to see my side,” she said crossing her arms across her chest sternly, but her eyes danced.

Dolgailon tried his best not to smirk at her. “Forgive me. I forgot,” he conceded playfully and she resumed her previous posture, leaning against him. He sighed quietly and focused on the conversation at hand. “I do understand your frustration. The king and I recently had a similar discussion about protecting the forest. I completely agree that the safety of the people and health of the forest take priority over songs and lore and other frivolity.”

Arthiel’s eyebrows climbed. “Surely the king did not disagree with that argument?” she exclaimed.

Dolgailon shook his head quickly. “Of course not. He did argue that the people’s arts were important and it was clear to me that he would be deeply saddened if the elves of this forest lost their traditions to warfare but I have taken his arguments completely out of context.”

Arthiel looked down, recognizing from his lack of detail that the conversation in question was one he could not divulge. Then her brows furrowed and she tilted her head to look up at him. “Are you to return to the border patrols soon?” she asked, worrying that topic might have initiated Dolgailon’s argument with the king about preserving art versus protecting people.

Dolgailon studied her obviously concerned expression sadly for a moment. “No, Arthiel, neither the king nor the troop commander have indicated that my duties will change anytime soon. When the king ordered me to stay in the capital, he implied that I would be here much longer than a few months,” he answered softly, stroking a finger across her cheek.

She nodded with an overly casual air and looked back at the stars. They were silent a moment.

Finally Dolgailon spoke in a soft voice. “You know, when my adar mentioned to me that he had seen us at the Oak, he also told me that, like your adar, he very much approves of the company I am keeping,” he paused waiting for some sign that she had caught the full implication of that statement. He felt her body tense slightly and knew that she had so he continued. “I told him that we had discussed the nature of our relationship and had decided that we could not pursue it beyond friendship. He suggested that I address that topic with you again.”

Arthiel shifted and turned to face him, meeting his gaze with raised eyebrows. “Do you think we should discuss it again?” she asked. Her face was so close to his that he could feel her breath, warm against his cheeks. He could still feel the warmth of her body.

Dolgailon sighed and looked down. “Ada told me that he had learned almost too late that he could comply with his responsibilities to the realm and have a family as well. He encouraged me not to make the same mistake.”

Though she tried to maintain a neutral expression, Dolgailon heard her draw a long breath before she spoke. “Do you believe that we are making a mistake?” she asked in a soft voice.

He frowned. “I do not know what to think, Arthiel,” he replied with an exasperated and frustrated tone. “The only thing I am certain of is that I will eventually return to the patrols. The king says he will not allow me to return to the south, but I am still a captain. No matter what patrol he sends me to, I will spend all but one week every season in the field with my warriors. It is you that would have to live alone while worrying about my safety. I do not see how my adar thinks that any elleth could accept that life.”

She touched his cheek. “Dolgailon, we have known each other since we were elflings. I have worried about you, my friend, since you joined the patrols when you came of age. And I have missed you since you left the capital. I will worry about you and miss you even more now that we have become closer regardless of the exact nature of our relationship.” She paused. “What about you? Surely the dangers the patrols face would be harder to bear for a warrior with a wife. I wonder if you could accept that added burden.”

Dolgailon closed his eyes. “All warriors have family, Arthiel. If not wives and children, then parents and siblings. Every time I lead my warriors into battle, I pray we all will survive for the sake of our families. The responsibility I dread most is to speak to the family of a fallen warrior after bringing his body home. I cannot imagine inflicting such pain on my family. Every time I go into battle, I think about my adar and naneth, my uncle and aunt, my cousins, my friends….” He paused and looked at her. “I thought of you before this sojourn in the capital and I will even more so now.”

“Then, if we will miss and worry about each other regardless, what do we gain by denying ourselves?” she whispered.

His brows drew together. “If we…if we are married,” he said, using that weighty word for the first time, “and I am killed, then you are left forever alone. As it stands now, if I am killed, you are free to choose another.”

She laughed lightly. “Is that supposed to console me, my lord? How long do you suggest that I wait to see if you are going to be killed so that I can choose some one else? That argument makes no sense at all,” she said, still laughing.

Dolgailon looked at her askance. “I meant that we should wait until times are better and my life is not constantly at risk. Then it would make more sense to marry.”

Arthiel sobered. “If times were peaceful, my lord…if the Shadow was lifted and the Enemy wholly destroyed and no threat lay over our people, what would you do? Would the king dissolve the border patrols? Would you cease to be one of his captains?”

Dolgailon stared at her a moment. Then he looked down. “Even in a completely peaceful world, I believe the king would maintain some warriors. And I would ask to serve as one of them,” he admitted quietly.

“Then waiting for better times does not offer us any hope either,” she replied. “It seems that we have a choice of a life together as husband and wife when you are on leave or a life together as friends when you are on leave.”

“I could never ask you to spend your life waiting an entire season for me to come home for one week of leave,” he said firmly.

“In that case, the discussion is over,” she replied with a single nod. After a moment’s pause, she turned his face towards hers with a finger under his chin. “But know that I would wait an entire season to spend one week with you.”

Dolgailon blinked at that and his mouth opened slightly. “Arthiel…” he began after a moment. His voice was thick with emotion.

But she silenced him with a finger over his lips. “Take some time to think, my lord. Nothing more,” she said, standing.

He looked up at her a moment before rising as well to escort her silently back to the path that led to her cottage.

*~*~*

Thranduil heaved a weary sigh of relief to have reached the end of this day. As he closed the door to his personal chambers, he attempted to mentally shut out the disturbing information he and Hallion had spent the evening discussing. He was relieved that his nephew and brother had returned to the stronghold without incident and he simply wanted to focus on that, enjoy his wife’s company and bask in the increasingly strong presence of his son’s fëa. Throughout their marriage, Lindomiel had always soothed his cares after a difficult day, but since their child’s conception, Thranduil was amazed at how easily he forgot the day’s annoyances while holding his wife in his arms and listening to his son’s song.

He frowned as he looked about their quarters. The lamps were lit in the sitting room, but Lindomiel was not present. Only darkness could be seen in the bed and bathing chambers, so he doubted she was in either of those rooms, but the servants had told him that she had retired immediately after dinner.

“Surely at only a little over two weeks pregnant, Lindomiel is not already so exhausted as to be asleep at this relatively early hour,” he mumbled to himself, somewhat concerned by the thought as he strode across the sitting room to peer into the darkness of the bed chambers. Indeed not. The room was empty.

Turning to look about again, Thranduil spied a door ajar and light coming from a room Lindomiel rarely entered—a spare room, attached to their quarters but not really needed. It had stood empty for a long time after they occupied the stronghold. Slowly, over the years, Thranduil had come to use it as a second office, secluding himself, and occasionally Hallion, in it when he wanted to be certain to avoid the disturbances he might have to endure if he worked in his main office.

“What could she possibly be doing in there?” he muttered, slipping through the door.

Lindomiel glanced in his direction as he entered, smiled at her husband, but immediately returned her attention to whatever she was doing. Thranduil stood in the doorway a moment, watching her. She had all the lamps in the room lit and was standing in its center with an appraising expression.

“Lindomiel, may I ask what you are doing in here?” he finally asked with a little more irritation in his voice than he intended.

Lindomiel did not look at him. “I am planning what we need to do to this room to turn it into a nursery,” she answered.

Thranduil’s mouth opened slightly. Planning nurseries, tonight, especially in this room, was not how he had hoped to spend his evening. “Do you really think we need to concern ourselves with a separate room for our son right now, Lindomiel?” he asked as patiently as possible. “Surely it will be years before he will sleep anywhere but with us.”

Lindomiel turned from her critical examination of the room to calmly face her husband. She wore the serene smile that had lit her face since the conception of their child. “Thranduil, of course he will sleep in our bed chambers. But where do you expect him to spend his days? Will you take him to the Great Hall with you to listen to petitions? Do you that expect I can take him with me to the kitchens and the laundry? Will the nanny keep him all day in the forest regardless of rain or cold weather? Or perhaps she will stand in the hall with him? And would you like all the toys and clothes and blankets and associated baby accoutrements to clutter our quarters until he is ready to sleep in his own room? He needs a nursery where he can play and where we can see to his needs.”

Without waiting for a response, her smile broadened and she continued.

“I think this room will be perfect,” she declared, ignoring Thranduil’s raised eyebrows and wide eyes. “It has its own fireplace and a door into both our sitting room and the outside hallway. It will be large enough even when he is older.” She stopped speaking and focused on her husband’s cross expression with the same patient smile. “You already have an office, Thranduil. Take this mess into it. Your son is more important than these papers,” she said gesturing at the stacks upon stacks of ledgers, loose papers, scrolls, books and other materials that should probably be housed in Thranduil’s office or library but were here instead.

Thranduil fixed Lindomiel with a stern glare that normally froze his courtiers nervously in their place. Lindomiel simply laughed at it, causing his scowl to deepen. “Lindomiel, I work in here,” he began firmly.

His wife shrugged. “And now you will play with your son in here and work in your office,” she said with finality. “Would you prefer to move this clutter yourself or do you want me to have one of the servants move it? Where do you want it? Your office? Or perhaps the library. I think the library would make more sense,” she suggested, picking up a heavy, dusty tome and inspecting it disdainfully. “Thranduil is this truly a book of law from Beleriand?” she exclaimed, looking up at him.

He returned her gaze coolly. “It is about Beleriand, not from Beleriand. But yes, it describes Elu Thingol’s law code.” He looked at her with sincere annoyance when she let the book fall to a pile on the floor. It was not the same pile where she had found it. He reached for the book and returned it to its original place. “And no, I do not want the servants doing anything in here. These are important documents, Lindomiel. I refer to them regularly and I do not want them lost or disorganized…”

“And therefore they should be in the library,” she said quietly.

“Lindomiel,” he said sharply with a warning tone.

She looked back at him with one eyebrow raised but he simply scowled at her. After studying him for a moment, she stepped forward to caress his cheek. “Oh, you are tired, meleth,” she said with the same light tone, apparently undaunted by his mood. “And that makes you cross. But you are going to have to learn to reign that temper in. You cannot display it to our son when he is born. Imagine how crushed he would be if he had waited all day to see his adar and you greeted him with that attitude. Now, come spend a few minutes with me planning how we will decorate this room and then I promise I will help you relax,” she said, taking him by the hand and pulling him to sit in a relatively clear space on the floor in the middle of the room.

Thranduil loosed a short laugh despite himself as Lindomiel settled herself into his embrace, pulling his arms around her waist and holding them there. There was no one else in all Middle-Earth that would so carelessly dismiss his temper, much less reprimand him for it, he knew. And he also knew that she was right. They would make many adaptations to their lifestyle now that they would be parents. One would be that he would have to learn to leave whatever frustrations the day caused him outside his family’s chambers. Another would be that that Lindomiel’s time in the evening would be dedicated to their son first and to him second.

Apparently, another adaptation was that this room would be made into a nursery.

“I am making a tapestry for that wall,” Lindomiel said, nodding towards the wall in question as if no confrontation had happened. “It is a scene from my favorite story. One I made my adar tell me at least once a week as an elfling. I am so looking forward to telling it to our son.” She gestured towards another wall. “And Dieneryn is making a large tapestry for that wall. It is a forest scene. She sketched it for me so I could see her idea. It will be beautiful, Thranduil.” She placed a kiss on his cheek. “I had hoped to convince you to paint some murals on the back wall.”

Thranduil closed his eyes and loosed a long breath, making a conscious effort to relax. “I will paint something for you, meleth. What would you like?” he promised with as much enthusiasm as he could muster.

“You are the artist, so that it your decision,” she replied. “My only suggestion would be not to paint anything too childish. Tapestries can be removed and replaced. Paint is much harder to remove from the walls.”

Thranduil laughed at that. “The murals in this stronghold are not painted directly on the walls, Lindomiel. Have you ever actually looked at them? They are painted on a lime plaster that is spread on the walls. If we want to replace one, it can be done.”

Lindomiel kissed him absently. “You are the expert in that area, meleth. I cannot draw a straight line much less paint a mural. What do you think you will paint?”

Thranduil studied the wall a moment, slowly losing himself in thoughts of what he might do with such a large canvas. When he had first come to the stronghold, he had helped Crithad, Gelireth, his mother, wife and a variety of other artists adorn the walls. Indeed all the paintings in the family quarters were his own, Dieneryn’s or Celonhael’s.

“It is hard to say, immediately,” he finally replied. “I cannot imagine anything that we could not make fit there.” He reached for a piece of paper and a charcoal pencil that he and Hallion used for marking maps. Lindomiel leaned over his shoulder and watched him silently as he sketched ideas, occasionally pointing at a place on the drawing and offering a suggestion. After half an hour, he had already laid out a rather complex scene.

When he finally paused, studying the paper with a critical eye, he was so absorbed in the task that Lindomiel’s soft voice made him jump. “That is beautiful, Thranduil. I have always envied your talent for drawing.”

He smiled at her. “It is nana’s talent. I only inherited the smallest part of it. But it was the only art I ever enjoyed, so since nana was an artist, she encouraged it.” He looked down at the drawing. “This is only an initial idea,” he said.

“I like it very much,” she concluded, kissing him lightly on the lips. “Then we have agreed on what we are going to do in here, I think?” she paused expectantly and Thranduil returned her gaze wryly.

“We have,” he admitted. “Hallion and I will clear this room so that you can make it into a nursery for our son,” he replied with exaggerated resignation.

“Good,” she said, smirking in response to his teasing expression. Then her smiled brightened. “You know something else that would be fun to do,” she said looking at him excitedly, “would be to start discussing names. We cannot continue saying ‘our son’ for the next year. What should we name him?”

Thranduil’s eyes widened dramatically. “Discuss names?” he asked with apparent dismay. “I believe the term ‘father-name’ implies that it is my right to name our child. And I have already chosen his name, Lindomiel.”

Her eyebrows went up and she returned his gaze with a knowing gleam in her eye. She recognized this game. “Is that so?” she asked, not acknowledging his challenge. “And what name have you chosen?”

“You will find out on his Naming Day, meleth,” Thranduil replied with as straight a face as possible.

That caused Lindomiel’s jaw to drop in earnest. She knew Thranduil well enough to know he might indeed keep the secret for the entire year just to tease her. “You are not serious.”

He laughed. “Perhaps I am,” he said, obviously enjoying himself.

She glared at him indignantly for a moment before looking away. “Well Thranduil,” she said airily, feigning disinterest. “I would have never guessed you were so fond of Noldorin traditions.”

That elicited a loud snort before Thranduil controlled himself and looked at her with mock seriousness. “I am very attached to this one. In fact, I think it is inspired.”

“I am sure it was inspired…by some arrogant Noldorin ellon,” she replied with a hint of sincere disgust in her still joking demeanor.

“Well if Lady Galadriel is any example of Noldorin wives, than I think Noldorin husbands are entitled to this one boon,” Thranduil replied.

Lindomiel laughed at that. Standing, she took the sketch from him and placed it aside. Then she pulled him up by both hands. “You may be right. But I think you will find that I can be much worse than your darkest dreams of Lady Galadriel when I choose to be. But I will allow you the illusion of victory for now.” She paused. “Come, we will go spend some time relaxing in a hot bath.”

Thranduil smiled. “I am a good deal more relaxed already, meleth, as you know very well. And I will not fall for this strategy. You will not ‘persuade’ me to tell you the name I have chosen using seduction.”

She smiled but did not release his hands. “Very well,” she conceded. Her easy surrender caused Thranduil to regard her suspiciously. “Then perhaps you will agree to discussing with me what had upset you so this evening. I know it must be fairly serious since you snapped at me,” she said as she pulled him through their quarters to the bathing chamber. There she stopped and released the lever that allowed water from the natural hot springs in the caves to flow into a large bath carved into the stone. That done, she focused on her husband and began unfastening his silk robes.

Thranduil stilled her hands and looked at her seriously. “I apologize for speaking to you sharply, meleth,” he said softly.

She freed her hands to continue unfastening his robe. “It is forgotten, Thranduil,” she replied quietly without looking away from the lacings of his robe.

He frowned. He knew that she meant what she said. But he could also easily tell that she was less concerned with his behavior tonight towards her than she was with the effect such behavior would have in the future on their son. “Lindomiel, I know that you bear a great deal from me. Most evenings, simply seeing you is enough to make me forget my day. Others, like tonight, force you to tolerate more. But I know that a child cannot be asked to smooth my temper as you do. And I know that our evenings will be dedicated to him. I am looking forward to that. I promise you that beginning this evening, I will work on leaving the affairs of this realm outside our personal chambers.”

She looked at him with concern, the joking mood now gone entirely. “Most parents find that to be a difficult task, Thranduil. And we are not most parents. You wrestle with very weighty matters everyday. Do you honestly think you can leave them behind in the evenings? You never have before.”

He sighed. “And that is no more fair to you than it is to a child, perhaps,” he replied looking at her sadly. “But yes, Lindomiel. I know that I can. Our child is not yet born, but the mere thought of him brightens my mood. I am thoroughly looking forward to spending evenings playing with him or reading to him or doing whatever else he needs. I was thinking that when I walked into our chambers tonight. And I have a year to adapt to this change. I will do so.”

Lindomiel slipped her hands under his robe to push it off his shoulders, letting it fall to the floor as she turned to unfastening the silk shirt under the robe. “Perhaps we can work on that by spending a few hours each night decorating that room together,” she suggested.

He smiled. “I would very much like an excuse to spend a few hours every night painting, Lindomiel,” he replied.

That brought a bright smile back to her face for a moment before she grew serious again. “So will you tell me what made you so angry?” she asked as the shirt followed the robe.

“It is nothing for you to concern yourself with,” he said, eyes now fixed on her. She was unlacing her gown and his mind was not on affairs of state.

She sighed. “Thranduil, as I have told you many times, it is pointless for you to try to shield me from news about battles and such things. The reality is rarely as bad as what I imagine might have happened. Simply tell me,” she said quietly.

Her gown slipped to the stone floor, leaving her clad in her thin shift. Thranduil watched as her fingers worked on its tiny buttons. They had been married for nearly two millennia but he never tired of his wife’s beauty. Without taking his eyes off her, he sat on a bench and pulled off his boots.

“Dolgailon told me that the men in Dale that he testified against claimed Easterlings have been dealing with elves in this forest,” he replied, deciding to tell her quickly so he might move on to more interesting things. He stood to untie the lacings of his leggings.

Lindomiel slipped into the bath, moaning softly in appreciation as she submerged herself in the steaming water. His statement made her blink and look back at him. “You do not believe the accusations of men convicted of treason?” she asked, voice rising in surprise.

“Hallion spoke with them. He believes them,” he answered as he joined her in the bath, gratefully sinking into the water until it reached his chin. He pulled her into his arms. “We spent a good deal of time tonight analyzing the information that we have about the Easterlings’ movements over the last years. There is a pattern to it. Every time we have caught them deep in the forest it has been in an area within ten miles north or south of the mountains near two particular villages—the same villages Hallion said the men named.” He paused. “Worse still, the only times we have caught them has been when the eastern or southern border patrols have had reason to alter their normal patrol patterns to be in the vicinity of those two villages at an unexpected time.”

Lindomiel studied her husband with wide eyes. “Are you suggesting that elves are colluding with Men against our own warriors? To what possible end?”

“I do not know. The villagers have been persuaded before to believe men would help them protect the southern forest. But given the other activities we have seen the Easterlings involved in recently, I am not pleased at all with this news.” Thranduil shook his head. “I have sent Golwon to speak to the village leaders along the Eastern border. We will see what we learn. But I imagine you have some idea why I was angry.”

“Indeed I do,” she said softly.

He nodded. Then, the serious expression fled Thranduil’s face as he tightened his arms around his wife’s waist, pulling her flush against him. “But I have found much more interesting ideas to occupy my mind now,” he said, placing a kiss on her nose. “Is it possible that you are even more beautiful since you are pregnant?”

Lindomiel only laughed in response as a mischievous look claimed her. “Possibly, but I think we should spend a few moments discussing names,” she declared and smirked as her husband groaned.

*~*~*

Irritably answering the insistent knock on her door, Manadhien stepped back automatically as six elves known well to her stepped into her cottage without waiting for an invitation. It had now been nearly a month since the king and queen’s news had reached her village and she had been expecting visits from these elves. She had not expected all of them at once.

“Have you heard,” one said without preamble. The others looked at her expectantly, some with fear and some with anger in their eyes.

Manadhien scowled at them impatiently. Of course she had heard the king was expecting a child, but their attitudes seemed to imply they referred to something else. “Have I heard what? It is not wise for the whole lot of you to descend on me like this. It will draw attention,” she snapped.

“The Men of the village that Dolgailon attacked were arrested, tried and executed,” the elf that had originally spoken replied dramatically, ignoring her complaint.

That brought Manadhien to a full stop. She stared at them a moment. “Do you know any details?” she finally asked quietly, sitting in a chair by the fireplace.

The others sat around her, some in chairs and others on the hearth or rugs on the floor. Everyone shook their heads.

“But Men are known for their barbaric interrogation techniques. What if they confessed? What if they told everything they know before they died?”

Manadhien snorted derisively. “I think we would have long since known if that were the case—we would have heard when the king’s guards came looking for us,” she said wryly, shaking her head.

“Well, they said something,” another declared. “Lord Golwon is visiting Master Bronior’s village at this moment. My sister told me she saw him there when she was visiting our naneth. And she heard that before that he had visited Gerevegion and Netharasion’s villages and intended to travel further south.” He leaned forward with worry written plainly on his face. “He is questioning village leaders systematically along the eastern border.”

Manadhien scowled but responded with an unconcerned tone. “No matter. Indeed, that is a good sign. If Golwon is fishing for information, then that means Thranduil does not have any. And he will certainly not learn anything. We have nothing to worry about.”

The others looked at each other with varying levels of discomfort.

“Thranduil has also increased the number of warriors in the eastern border patrol and concentrated them further south. And a good portion of the southern border patrol has been ordered to stay closer to the eastern edge of their patrol area. That is going to complicate things,” one of the elves armed with a sword said gravely.

Another nodded. “I do not think this alliance is worthwhile. We must break with it and devise a different strategy. Too much has not gone to plan. The Easterlings are not capable allies.”

Manadhien frowned. “I think they are very capable allies,” she said thoughtfully. “We have gained a great deal from them and from the Northmen. But I agree that their immediate usefulness has come to an end. And they recognize that. They have focused their plans on more limited goals given the failure to capture Lindomiel. Unless we can deliver her, I do not think we can count on them.”

“And that leaves us, again, without any specific course of action to achieve our goals,” someone sighed with obvious frustration.

“Perhaps we need to reevaluate our goals,” another said before Manadhien could reply. All eyes turned to him. He was the oldest amongst them and the most experienced. A central leader. “Perhaps rather than focusing on the king, we should simply focus on the forest…on fighting the spiders and orcs….”

Manadhien blinked at him. “Indeed,” she exclaimed angrily. “That is certainly where our focus should be. Everyone’s focus. And what stands in the way of that? Thranduil. Instead of eliminating spiders and orcs, he reigns richly in his palace along with his favored people while the rest of us languish in despair. We cannot focus on the forest because he directs precious resources to himself rather than where they are needed. You know that.”

The other sighed. “Yes, I do. We have repeated these arguments. We all know them. But what will really change if we remove Thranduil…?” he began again.

“We can stop wasting troops in the north protecting a stronghold that only houses the Royal Family and send them south where they belong,” retorted the elf with the sword hotly.

“We can stop wasting finances to provide Thranduil with a regal lifestyle and use those funds to buy weapons and hire soldiers from neighboring lands,” said another.

“We can stop rejecting useful alliances,” Manadhien added. “The Easterlings have said they would help rid the forest of the orcs and spiders.”

The dissenter scowled. “I do not trust any Men, much less Easterlings,” he said, refusing to be quieted now that he had spoken his mind. “And I know more than any of you about the ‘resources’ the king has. There are fewer than you think unless things have changed dramatically since he moved north. To be utterly honest, I am not convinced any of us could manage them better.”

Several of the others stood angrily at that assertion and he stood to meet their aggression.

“I am only saying that if our goal is truly to stop the spread of the Shadow, we are wasting resources ourselves. I think we should recognize that.”

Most of the elves in the cottage glowered angrily at their apparently traitorous friend while Manadhien fixed him with an intense glare.

“We are temporarily diverting our resources to remove the major obstacle to achieving the rest of our goals,” she declared firmly. “I am perfectly aware of your hesitation to stand against the king—your remaining loyalty to him. It is misplaced. You are not bound by any oaths to him. On the contrary, you have the right and the obligation to stand against him. Thranduil has failed, nay refused, to comply with his oath to protect this forest and serve this people. Given that refusal, we are absolved of any obligation to obey him. He broke faith with us first; he violated the agreement according to which he and his adar were chosen to rule. He must be removed and replaced with someone who will protect these people. The surest means to fight the Shadow is to do so with an effective leader to coordinate the battle. Thranduil is not such a leader. The perilous conditions in which we live are proof of that. The fact that each of us has lost family is proof of that. Our history of retreat upon retreat and defeat upon defeat is proof of that. We will not have peace until Thranduil is removed.”

By the time Manadhien had finished that impassioned speech, the rest of the elves in the room were nodding their heads in vigorous agreement. The dissenter merely frowned at her silently.

She returned his gaze coolly. “Your own son has suffered due to Thranduil misrule. Surely you would not see him suffer even more by allowing our plans, in which he plays a central role, to be discovered?” she asked meaningfully.

He drew a quiet breath. He was no fool. He had been a warrior in Greenwood the Great since long before the Sindarin had returned east. He recognized a threat when he saw one. And he knew this elleth well enough to understand its weight. “I do not intend to betray our plans,” he answered, looking at Manadhien unwaveringly. “I am only suggesting that now that we have an opportunity to reevaluate them, we keep closely in mind what our true goals are so that we will serve them best.”

Manadhien raised her chin slightly. “I always have my goal in mind. Never doubt that,” she said coldly, seating herself in her chair by the fireplace and looking at all the elves in the room. “Without our Mannish allies, we are forced once again to make due with our limited resources. But my suspicions that new positions close to Thranduil will soon be available were correct.” She glanced at the old warrior still standing to one side of the room. “Your son confirmed that for me. He, at least, has made some very useful connections. So useful that we hope to see him posted to one of those new positions.”

That comment elicited hopeful exclamations from everyone in the room except the old warrior. He turned his back to the company, under the pretense of returning to his chair, in order to conceal his grimace.

*~*~*

Adar/ada---Father/Dad

Naneth/nana—Mother/mum

Ion nin—My son

Elleth/Ellyth—Female Elf/Elves

Ellon/Ellyn--Male Elf/Elves

Meleth nin—My love

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