4. Chapter Three
Celinn listened to the sound of the water rippling along the side of his boat, his body moving rhythmically in time with Gwirith's as they cut their way through Anduin's blue stream. Ahead of him he could see Luinil and Aiglin paddling their boat, and some distance in front of them, Haldir led the small party in his own craft. They had been travelling for a week and were approaching the Gladden Fields, where they would stop to rest before continuing their journey to the place where the Great River joined the waters coming down from the Misty Mountains. There they would stow their boats and continue on foot to the Forest Gate which led to the Elf-path through Mirkwood, which came out at the stone gates in front of Thranduil's Halls.
The light sparked off the surface of Anduin in a constantly moving broken wave. Celinn closed his eyes and let the swing of his body direct his paddle, feeling for the moment when the blade needed to cut into the stream, then letting the muscles of his arms resist the weight of the water and sweep it away behind the boat. It was a strong, satisfying movement, and he had repeated it so many times in the last hours that he felt almost hypnotised by it. In front of him he could sense Gwirith's powerful energy reaching out to him. They had not spoken since they had stepped into the boat at dawn, but from time to time their feas touched and twined wordlessly in gentle communication, and Celinn could feel the vibration of Gwirith's love surrounding him. He knew from these touches that Gwirith was not tired, but that he was worried about Haldir, and also about Celinn himself.
Eyes still closed, listening to Gwirith's steady breathing, Celinn smiled. It was true he himself was still not back to his full strength after being wounded when he was taken by the enemy the previous year, but on this journey it was Haldir who was in command, and despite the strange abstracted mood the Guardian had been in since they had left Lorien, Celinn was grateful for his familiar solidity.
'Celinn, steer a little to the left,' murmured Gwirith.
Celinn opened his eyes and adjusted his stroke, glancing over Gwirith's shoulder to get his bearings.
'Haldir is slowing his craft,' he said.
Following Haldir's lead they made for the crescent-shaped shallow beach a short distance ahead, and within a short time they had disembarked and stowed their boats securely under the trees.
'You've chosen well, Guardian,' said Aiglin, looking around him at the sheltered clearing that sloped down to the water. 'This is a pleasant place to rest.'
Haldir nodded, unsmiling. 'We're making good time. A few hours' relaxation will refresh us, and keep up our speed.' He sighed deeply, dragging his pack out of his boat before kneeling down and beginning to undo the laces that secured it.
Celinn put his hand on Haldir's shoulder.
'Guardian, you have twice as much labour as the rest of us, alone in your boat. Take your ease now, and we will make camp.'
Haldir shook his head. 'I'm not tired, Celinn,' he said. 'I will fetch wood for the fire.' And leaving his pack, silently he disappeared into the trees.
The others watched him go. Aiglin shook his head.
'He drives himself too hard. Why won't he let us take some of the burden from him?'
'Maybe he prefers to be occupied,' said Celinn. 'Leave him be, Aiglin.'
Night fell swiftly, and as they sat by the fire eating a very inferior meal made from a couple of hedgehogs that Luinil had caught, Haldir began to talk about Cerveth, who had been captain of the company before Celinn, and was now serving Thranduil in Mirkwood.
'He'll be surprised to see elves of the Galadhrim again so soon,' he said. 'By his reckoning it will be eight more turns of the year before he can come home to Lorien, and neither he nor Thranduil himself would expect an embassy within that time.'
'Haldir, I know it isn't the custom,' said Aiglin, 'but will you tell us why Cerveth was obliged to take service with Thranduil?'
'I heard it was a matter of honour,' said Luinil.
Haldir was silent for a long time, pondering the question. Celinn watched him, seeing the dark shadows under his eyes and the tightness of the muscles around his jaw. Unconsciously he moved closer to Gwirith who was stretched out beside him.
At last Haldir spoke. 'It was indeed a matter of honour,' he said softly. 'A matter that goes back to Dagorlad, where Cerveth's brother Maldor died. Two years hence we received at Lorien a party of messengers from Mirkwood with a reply to a message the Lady had sent. After resting for a week, they were about to take their leave when the subject of the Last Alliance was broached. It began merely as a question of lore, but something touched Cerveth's memory of his brother's death, and harsh words were said concerning Oropher, Thranduil's father, and his refusal to serve under Gil-galad. Cerveth voiced the opinion held by many that the heavy losses that followed for both Mirkwood and Lorien might have been avoided if there had been greater unity among the elves. Naturally the Mirkwood envoys, especially their chief, Aradhil, were offended and asked Cerveth to withdraw his words, but you know how hot-headed he is when he is roused, and far from withdrawing them, he said more, impugning equally the honour of Oropher and his son.'
Haldir sighed heavily, massaging his face with both hands. 'If I hadn't been there, maybe the elves of Mirkwood would have found a way to let the matter drop, but it was as if some madness seized them. Galadriel and Celeborn were summoned, and none of their entreaties could persuade Aradhil to accept a settlement in kind. Nothing but service to Thranduil himself would wipe out the offence Cerveth's words had given.'
Haldir raised his head and looked out into the darkness. Only a few feet away, Anduin's voice rippled softly. 'I still remember Cerveth's face when he realised we would not be able to undo the damage he had done, and that he would have to take service with those he had hated for so many years.'
'So that's why you never sent him on a duty to Mirkwood,' said Celinn.
Haldir turned to him. 'There were always other tasks for him to fulfil. I couldn't ask him to go somewhere which would touch a wound he hadn't been able to heal.' Something rang suddenly in his voice and he looked away into the darkness again.
No-one spoke for a long time. A fox barked in the woods behind them, and was answered by its mate.
'How do you think he is taking it?' said Aiglin at last, but Haldir shrugged himself deeper into his cloak and did not answer him.
After a while Luinil got up and went to fetch blankets from their packs. 'I will take first watch,' he said, and looked on while the others made themselves comfortable around the fire.
Gwirith and Celinn stretched out together, sharing their blankets. At first, aware of others around them, they lay still, only their hands touching, but once their fellows had fallen into elvish sleep, Gwirith reached out for Celinn who turned to him at once.
'I can't stop thinking of Cerveth,' said Celinn quietly, so as not to disturb the others. 'What he must be suffering, so far from home, with those who remind him of his brother's death.'
'Then let me help you to forget,' said Gwirith, his hand on Celinn's cheek, drawing him closer.
'Gwirith, I can't take my pleasure with you while I think of his sadness,' said Celinn.
Gwirith drew back a little. 'Then speak of what troubles you, sweeting, and your heart may be lighter after.'
'You didn't know him, Gwirith; he left Lorien before you came to us,' said Celinn. 'I've never met anyone so lively. He played pranks on everyone as if he were still an elfling, and his nature was to bring happiness to all around him.'
'He seems a strange choice for a captain of the pellarim,' said Gwirith.
'No, he was a good captain. On duty his mind was strong as steel, and would find a way out of all troubles. It's only because of his leaving us that I became captain of our company.'
'Well, you would have received the rank sooner or later,' said Gwirith, 'gifted as you are.'
'Don't waste your time on flattery, Gwirith,' said Celinn, pretending to kiss him and pulling away at the last moment.
Gwirith seized him and kissed him hard. 'Teasing is worse than flattery,' he said when they had moved apart. 'Celinn, now what is troubling you?'
'The same thing that troubled you when we were on the river: Haldir.'
'It's true he seems unusually subdued,' said Gwirith. 'But the journey is tiring, and he bears the burden of it, and its safe conclusion.'
'There's something more,' said Celinn.
Gwirith pushed himself up on to his elbow. 'Did you have a seeing?' he asked.
'No,' said Celinn. 'It's just that out here in the Wild, it's become clearer to me how much he has changed. When I was an elfling, Haldir was very different; strong, brave, fair: and joyful. He was once as lively as Cerveth, and never without a lover. But now…'
'He's still strong and brave and fair, and normally gentler than he has been on this journey.'
'Yes, but now he's always alone. It's said he is wedded to Lorien, and to his task as her defender, because the change in him began when he became Guardian. But it's more than that, Gwirith. Before when he had many lovers, he never gave his heart. Always he was the one admired, while he remained aloof. We used to chastise him for his heartlessness, but he simply laughed and found another lover.'
'Then you must be glad that he's changed,' said Gwirith.
'I'm glad we no longer have to warn his lovers to expect to suffer at his hands; but now it is he who suffers, for even the careless love he practised before he denies to himself now. And slowly he has become sharper, colder, more cynical. I miss the Haldir I used to know, Gwirith.'
'Maybe it's just as you said: he's wedded to Lorien, and wishes to use all his strength in her defence.'
'Then he denies himself needlessly, as did Aragorn until you persuaded him to speak his heart to Arwen. Love and duty do not always run in harness, but duty without any love at all is a hard and cold road. Those who follow it may appear strong, but their loneliness is like a hidden flaw that can break them unexpectedly.'
'He has his brothers: they have always been close.'
'We have our brothers too, but they can't give us what we give each other, beloved.'
A slow smile spread across Gwirith's face. 'You're right, sweeting. And in any case, it seems our brothers might be growing slowly more and more occupied with each other.'
'I've noticed it,' said Celinn. 'But Aiglin is a little like Haldir was: passionate, but light-hearted when it comes to love.'
'Well, there is something of which I am sure,' said Gwirith.
'And what is that?'
'That no-one could be as well-matched as we are.'
'Indeed?' said Celinn.
'Of course,' said Gwirith. 'I thought you knew it.'
Celinn smiled and, taking Gwirith's face in his hands, kissed him gently.
'Ahh,' said Gwirith. 'That was better than the last one you gave me,' and he reached out to take Celinn in his arms.
'Gwirith, we must rest, beloved. We have many more days to travel,' whispered Celinn, but Gwirith's mouth was on his, stopping his words, and his hands were on his body, searching for the lacings of his clothes.
Celinn felt his resistance melt away as his lover warmed him with his touch. Gwirith's craftsman's hands were on his face, pushing aside his hair, feeling the shape of the bones beneath the skin before kissing him again. Although he tried to give back as much as he received, Celinn felt himself carried away by the power of Gwirith's loving, and could do nothing but surrender to him. It was many days since they had been together in body and soon they were at the peak of pleasure, and Celinn felt tears fill his eyes and spill out on to his cheeks as Gwirith hid his face in his shoulder and groaned soft and deep as he came.
Afterwards Gwirith lay half across him, pressing him down against the earth. Celinn reached out and wrapped his arms round him, whispering to him softly, but Gwirith was already asleep. In other times Celinn had stayed awake the whole night for the pleasure of watching him, but at dawn they would be on their way again so he let himself drift into the path of dream, soothed by the warm weight of Gwirith's body against his.
'Celinn, of all of us, you have been to Mirkwood most recently,' said Haldir. 'By your reckoning, how much further is it to the gate?'
Celinn gazed out on the sea of beech trees from the low ridge on which they were standing. They were looking almost due east, and in the dawning light Haldir's long silver hair was ghostly fair.
'Not far: two or three leagues. They will stop us soon,' he said.
'Maybe it will be Cerveth,' said Aiglin.
'Nay, they will keep him close within their sight, at least for a few years,' said Haldir. He hoisted his pack back on to his shoulder, smoothing down his best cloak with its twisted gold clasp, then glanced round appraisingly at the others, arrayed this morning in their smartest gear. 'You are a fine sight, all of you. Even Thranduil cannot but be impressed.'
'Haldir, we may be fair, but you they will take for a prince of the Galadhrim, so pale and solemn are you today,' teased Aiglin gently.
Haldir turned away quickly, joining in with the ripple of laughter, but Celinn who was on his right side saw his hand tighten convulsively for an instant in the folds of his cloak. Then Gwirith leaned over and murmured in Celinn's ear, and his secret words on the subject of Celinn's own fairness sent a tingling charge through his body.
'Let us walk on, brothers,' Haldir said then, and the small party began to move along the Elf path.
In response to what he had heard, Celinn contrived to step closer to Gwirith, and out of sight of the others, slid his hand gently down Gwirith's strong back, letting it linger tantalisingly for an instant just where the swell of his buttocks began. Faster than thought Gwirith's hand had seized his and woven their fingers lightly together, and with a fierce little tug he pulled Celinn to him and kissed him swiftly. Then just as quickly he dropped his hand and walking ahead, left Celinn alone, glancing back over his shoulder at him with a wicked smouldering look.
Celinn sent him back a similar look full of meaning, silently promising to take a full and pleasurable reckoning from him as soon as he was able.
After an hour or two they began to see signs of the wood elves' trail, and soon they heard the sound of a patrol in the distance. It was a matter of satisfaction to the Galadhrim that they had sighted their Mirkwood cousins before they themselves were seen, but as they would have expected their own trail was soon picked up, and within minutes they were face to face with four silent silvan elves, their bows at the ready.
'Declare yourselves and your business within our borders,' said one of them curtly.
Celinn heard the Guardian sigh heavily before speaking. 'We are envoys of Lorien, sent to your King by the Lord and Lady of the Wood,' said Haldir. 'We offer our greetings and our respect to you and to King Thranduil and all his house.'
The elf who had spoken before eyed them suspiciously. He didn't give the command to his company to lower their bows.
'Aradhil, you know me,' said Haldir gently. 'There is no need for weapons.'
Aradhil frowned. 'Things change quickly outside our borders. In these perilous times the King takes no risks.' He jerked his head at the three archers and they formed a silent bodyguard around the Galadhrim.
'Follow me,' said Aradhil, and without another word began to lead them along the path towards the King's halls.
Haldir looked heavenwards and shook his head, but signed to the others to do as they were bid. The Lorien elves gathered close and followed him, loose-limbed and relaxed. They appeared not to have noticed the polished iron arrow heads only inches from their necks.
It was only a short journey to the bridge over the Forest River which led through slender grey beech trunks to the great stone gates of Thranduil's halls. Their footsteps echoed hollowly as they crossed the wooden planks over the swiftly flowing green water, and as they approached the gates opened without any summons. The silvan elves walked in without looking back, but Celinn was surprised to feel a twinge of disquiet as the gates closed behind them, drowning them suddenly in darkness. It was only an instant before torches flared around them and Celinn remembered the wide airy tunnels from the last time he was here, just over a ten-year past. The Mirkwood elves had lowered their weapons but their arrows were still in their hands as Aradhil led them down passages and through halls which despite being underground were clean and wholesome.
'How do you remember your way around here?' said Aiglin in amazement, his voice echoing in the cavernous space, but no-one answered him.
The path descended slowly until they were deep into the side of the hill, and then Aradhil stopped outside a sturdy wooden door. He spoke a word that only his guards could hear and two of them came to stand on either side of the door as he opened it and led the way inside. The room was bare except for a plain table and two or three chairs. A half empty jug of wine and some dirty glasses were scattered haphazardly around the table.
'If you would consent to wait here, someone will attend you,' said Aradhil, lighting the candles in a branched candlestick on the wall.
Haldir bowed. 'We are grateful for your courtesy,' he said in his familiar ironic tones. 'I'm sure your King will reward you for showing such hospitality to an embassy sent from his kinsman in Lorien.'
Aradhil paled a little but he turned without a word and left, closing the door smartly behind him. Haldir waited until the sound of his feet had died away and then opened the door. At once the two elves who were standing guard outside clashed their swords together in front of him, blocking his way. Haldir smiled at them without haste, then drew his finger slowly down the edge of the blade nearest to him. A bead of blood appeared on his skin and he nodded approvingly before shutting the door, sucking his finger to stop the flow.
'Well, my children, King Thranduil's hospitality isn't what it was; don't you agree, Celinn?'
'Yes, indeed,' said Celinn.
'It is said that the wood elves of Mirkwood are more dangerous and less wise than those of us whose kin came long ago out of the West, and that certainly seems to be the case,' said Gwirith wearily.
Haldir turned to him slowly. 'And yet at the beginning of days, Gwirith,' he said, all the fiercer because he spoke so softly, 'all the Quendi woke together under the starlight on the shores of Lake Cuivienen. Then there was no difference between us; and those of us whose forefathers and foremothers did not make the great journey over the mountains with the other clans, but instead dwelt in peace among the trees…is that less wise than the dark fell stories of the Noldor and the Sindar?'
'Haldir, I didn't mean…' began Gwirith, two bright spots of colour on his cheeks.
'The Galadhrim and the elves of the Mirkwood are kin,' said Haldir, angrier than any of them had ever seen him. 'It was the wood elves of Lorien who welcomed you Noldor after the fall of Eregion, making no distinction of blood or history. As for Thranduil's people, maybe it is the shadow with which they have lived for two thousand years without the aid of the magic that has protected Lorien and Imladris that has made them more dangerous. As to whether the Galadhrim themselves are more dangerous, Gwirith, I am available to you at any time you may wish to test that proposition.'
There was a breathless silence, and then Gwirith said, incredulous,
'Haldir, are you offering me a challenge?'
Haldir opened his mouth to answer, but before he could speak Celinn laid a hand on his arm and said hastily,
'Guardian, this is not the time…'
Then Aiglin was speaking too, and Luinil had crossed the room to Gwirith's side, trying to turn him away from Haldir and to press a glass of sour wine into his hand. But despite their efforts Gwirith's pride would not let the insult pass, and Haldir's anger was too hot for Celinn's words to touch it.
So it was that when Thranduil's son Legolas walked swiftly towards the door and, the guards' swords parting to admit him, opened it to welcome the embassy from Lorien, he was unable at first to make himself heard above the raised voices of those he had come to greet.
Celinn noticed him first, then Aiglin and Luinil, but it was not until Gwirith suddenly fell silent that Haldir turned and saw who was standing there. Some unreadable emotion passed swiftly across his face and then in an instant his anger had given way to iron self-control and he stood tall and defiant before Thranduil's son.
'Forgive me, Sir,' he said, cool and sardonic. 'We were disputing a point of history.'
Legolas stared at him, unspeaking, for a long moment. Celinn thought he looked pale, but the sight of Lorien's envoys at each other's throats would be enough to discomfit even a King's son.
'Of course,' said Legolas gently.
His voice was beautiful, and so was he. Of Celinn's own company only Celinn himself had met him before, and even he, deep in love with Gwirith as he was, could not prevent himself from gazing with the others at Legolas' fair face and slender, well-made body. Only Haldir seemed unmoved, looking without expression at the floor. Legolas waited a few moments patiently as though he were used to being looked at, but there was no vanity in the way he stood quietly before them; indeed he seemed a little subdued.
'I should like to welcome you, Haldir, Guardian of Lorien, and all those who have travelled with you, and to offer you more comfortable chambers,' he said at last. 'These are scarcely fit for you even to wait in. In my father's name I wish to receive you with honour, and I ask your pardon that you had to endure our suspicion; but we are a beleaguered people, and cannot afford to let down our guard, even for our own.'
'We would expect nothing less,' said Haldir ambiguously, and one by one he introduced those whom Legolas had not previously met. 'When will the King be able to see us?' he asked.
Legolas looked at him, but Haldir was busy with the clasp of his cloak.
'My father is out in the forest, but he will return at sunset,' he said. 'Maybe you would like to rest until then? Or else I could take you to walk under the trees if you find these caverns too close. There is much I would learn about what has passed in Lorien these last years.'
'I can't speak for the others,' said Haldir, glancing round at his fellows, 'but the journey has been long and wearisome, and I would welcome a chance to be alone and to rest.'
Legolas nodded slowly. 'Whatever you wish,' he said in a shadowed voice. 'I will make sure food and drink is sent to you.' He opened the door and made to go out, but Celinn said,
'Sir, may I ask a favour of you?'
'Anything,' said Legolas.
'We are honoured to be offered chambers in the palace, but would it offend the King if some of us choose to dwell under the trees as your people do?'
Legolas' smile lit up his face. 'My own dwelling is under the trees,' he said. 'There are two or three close to mine which you could use.'
'By your leave,' said Haldir formally, 'I would accept the King's offer of a room in the palace. I have much to discuss with him on behalf of the Lord and Lady of Lorien, and I would be close to his chambers. Celinn may join me when the King grants us an audience.'
Strangely for a moment Legolas looked grey and exhausted, but he said mildly, 'Everything will be done as you wish it. I will take you to the guest wing myself.'
'Please,' said Haldir, and there was something weary in his voice. 'I would not have you trouble yourself. Let the others go with you; I will find my own way.'
He bowed deeply to Legolas, who returned the courtesy.
'I will come to find you when my father returns,' he said.
'A messenger will do,' said Haldir, turning to the Galadhrim. 'I will see you all at sunset, children,' he said, and turned to leave.
Gwirith reached out to him, taking hold of his sleeve, but Haldir shook him off roughly and walked away. Watching his departing back, Celinn felt much the same ache in his heart that Galadriel had felt on the day she had asked him to undertake the journey to Mirkwood, with no more understanding of the reason than she had.
'Celinn, quickly, give me the towel,' called out Aiglin, standing naked and shivering on the banks of the forest river. 'The elves of Mirkwood must be hardy to bathe in such cold northern water.'
Celinn finished drying himself and threw the towel to his brother, who wrapped it round himself hastily.
'Where are my breeches?' cried Aiglin. 'Luinil, you're standing on them!' Still damp, he dragged on his clothes. 'If anyone tells you they have assignations on the banks of the forest river, you will know at once that they are lying.' He tucked himself into his breeches and shaking his head, began to do up his lacings. 'Such cold would make anyone unfit to please his lover. Mark my words, Celinn, Gwirith would be most disappointed in you if you offered yourself to him now.'
From a short distance away, Gwirith, already dressed, turned and looked at Celinn, scanning his naked body slowly from his feet up to his head. Celinn gave him a slow smile.
'I have no complaints,' said Gwirith in a husky voice.
Aiglin laughed. 'Do you see, Luinil, what love can do? Even cold can be conquered by it, and render one immediately fit to the task!'
Celinn blushed and quickly turning his back on them, began tugging on his breeches, hopping from one foot to the other until he lost his balance and fell over. Gwirith reached out a hand to help him up and for a moment pulled Celinn into his arms, caressing the smooth skin of his bare shoulders.
Luinil walked over and put an arm round Aiglin.
'Don't you wish you had a love that could generate such heat?' he said teasingly.
Aiglin began to dry his hair. 'Maybe at Midsummer or at the fire festivals,' he said, then leaned closer so that only Luinil could hear him. 'But every night and every festival the same? How can such a flame continue to burn, Luinil? I admire their constancy, but fear I couldn't emulate it.'
Luinil ruffled his hair, already wild from its towelling.
'You're like an elfling, not yet fully grown to man's estate, Aiglin,' he said fondly. 'Maybe you should leave off your kinbraid, since you're too young to bear the responsibilities of age.'
Aiglin straightened up instantly and threw the towel at him, reaching out and pulling the single braid that fell straight and raven-black on to Luinil's right shoulder.
'Maybe I should cut this one off to match the rest of your hair, then we'll be equal in our youthful carelessness,' he cried.
'I was going to ask all of you about your hair,' said a quiet amused voice behind them.
Aiglin dropped Luinil's braid as it if were on fire and frantically smoothed down his own disarranged hair.
'Sir, we didn't hear you,' he said, staring at Legolas. 'Forgive our foolishness.'
Legolas laughed and sitting down on the grass, began to unlace his shoes.
'Please, call me Legolas,' he said. 'I came to ask if you would like to join me for lunch, but since there is a little time to spare, I thought I might cool my feet in the river.'
'It's certainly cold enough for that,' said Aiglin. 'You Mirkwood elves must have tough hides.'
Legolas rolled up his breeches and submerged his feet in the water, closing his eyes and making a sound of pleasure.
'Think you?' he said lightly. 'I had not heard that the Galadhrim had become so delicate.'
For a moment Aiglin looked offended, but then Legolas opened his eyes and grinned at him, and he knew he was being teased. Too good-natured to mind, he threw himself down beside Legolas on the bank.
'The Galadhrim are not delicate,' he said, 'but living further in the south, we are used to water that doesn't reduce us to…'
'What was it you wished to ask us?' interrupted Luinil, shoving Aiglin out of the way and sitting down beside Legolas.
'About the unusual style of your hair. I've never seen elves with hair so short, and only one braid. And why on the right shoulder and not the left? I guessed there must be some meaning to it.'
Even before he had finished speaking Legolas felt the mood change. Luinil glanced quickly at Celinn, then away again, and the silence which followed his question became heavy with whatever the Galadhrim would not say.
'I'm sorry,' said Legolas at last, a little distressed. 'I didn't mean to intrude into private matters. I shouldn't have asked such a personal question when I have known you so short a time. Except Celinn, of course,' he amended, turning to him, and was amazed to see a long faint silver scar had appeared on his cheek.
Celinn leaned sideways a little so that his shoulder was touching Gwirith's. His gaze was direct and calm.
'We wear our hair like this to mark a day which was important to our company,' he said, reassuring and gentle. 'We rarely speak of it, but it is natural that those who see us should be curious about it. Don't be concerned, Legolas.'
Legolas sighed deeply and a little colour returned to his cheeks.
'Well, I'm glad I haven't offended you,' he said. 'My father has often chastised me for speaking my mind too freely, but this time it seems I haven't done too much harm.'
Celinn smiled at him. 'Speaking your mind is not a fault in the Mirkwood, is it?' he said. 'I know my company value it greatly. Otherwise how could we endure the presence of Aiglin and Luinil all the time?'
'So you're captain now?' said Legolas delightedly, but was drowned out by the protests of Aiglin and Luinil.
Later when they were finishing their meal with a light sweet wine the colour of pale honey and a bowlful of green apples, Celinn said,
'Legolas, there's something I must give you,' and he took a small dark red velvet bag out of the inside pocket of his shirt. 'Aragorn, Elrond's foster-son and Chieftain of the Dunedain, sends this to you, and although it is as much for your father as for you, I thought you might prefer to receive it in a more private place than the King's audience chamber.'
Legolas took the bag from him and undid the lacing at its neck, then tilted it so that something fell out on to the open palm of his slender hand. It was a freshwater pearl, large and tear-shaped, in a gold setting, made to hang from a chain. He looked at in silence for a long moment, then got up and walked away from them.
The Galadhrim spoke quietly among themselves, giving Legolas time to compose himself. At last he came and sat down with them again.
'This belonged to my cousin Surindel,' he said. 'We are indebted to the Galadhrim for bringing his body back to us last year. And now we have recovered Surindel's binding gift.' Slowly his face filled with anger. 'Curse those who took his life, and that of his partner who has died of grief.'
The others murmured in agreement.
'Where did Aragorn find this?' demanded Legolas.
'He took it from an outlaw he captured in Dunland, one of a band of men who had been preying on the dwellers of the vale of Anduin.'
'The Galadhrim who brought Surindel home told us of these men, and their leader, Adanwath. Who was he? Do you know what has become of him?'
'He's dead,' said Celinn sharply.
Legolas looked at him, head tilted a little, weighing up his reaction.
'I'm glad of it,' he said softly.
'Many others of his band were killed,' Celinn went on quickly. 'Of those who survived, Aragorn is using some to find out if there is a greater mind behind their wickedness.'
The prince's piercing blue eyes were still on Celinn's face, searching. Celinn felt himself flinching away from the penetrating gaze. At once Legolas looked away.
'I'm grateful to you for bringing me this,' he said, looking at the pearl glimmering in his hand. 'If you meet Aragorn before I do, please thank him from me and from the King. He didn't suffer at the hands of these men?'
Celinn looked down. 'He was held by them for a while, discovered while he tried to gather information. But he has recovered from his injuries.'
Legolas sighed deeply. 'The darkness grows, Celinn,' he said, almost whispering. 'I don't know if we will have the strength to hold it back this time.' He looked more closely at his face. 'So many of us have left Middle Earth, I doubt we could raise even half the force who fought at Dagorlad and Barad-dur. Our numbers at Erebor were small…' his voice died away as he gazed out at the trees. Then his face cleared.
'My father would send me on extra duties for a month if he heard me talking like this, my friends, and I would not oppose him.' He stood up. 'Take your ease, and I will see you at dusk when my father returns.'
The others made to stand up out of respect for him, but Legolas signed them to be seated.
'No ceremony, brothers, only friendship. Until later,' he said, and they watched his lithe figure as he strode away towards the King's halls.
'He is fair,' said Aiglin.
'Very fair,' said Luinil. 'But he isn't what I expected a prince to be like.'
'What do you mean?' said Aiglin.
'He is sad,' said Luinil. 'For all his gaiety, yet he is sad.'