5. Chapter Four
Night had already fallen when King Thranduil and his small escort rode over the bridge and came to a halt outside the stone gates of his halls. His son was waiting for him, and hidden in the shadows outside the circle of torchlight, the embassy of Lorien watched his arrival.
'At last he is here,' said Haldir in an irritated voice that only Celinn could hear. 'The sooner we can speak to him, the sooner we can go home again.' Celinn looked at him in surprise but said nothing.
Thranduil dismounted, then spent a few moments murmuring to his horse, Menel, fondling his nose and rubbing the white blaze on his forehead. Menel whickered and butted Thranduil gently, then allowed himself to be led away by one of the grooms.
'Legolas,' said Thranduil warmly, pulling him into an embrace and kissing him absentmindedly on the side of the head. 'How are you, my son?'
Legolas smiled with genuine pleasure. 'Well, Adar. Did you find what you sought?'
Thranduil's shoulders sagged. 'It is as I thought; the shadow is beginning to move closer to us. Saelon has been as far south as the Forest Road and…' He paused, gathering himself. 'The trees are sickening, Legolas.'
'You couldn't wait for him to come home with the news,' said Legolas.
'No, I couldn't,' said Thranduil quietly.
'Adar,' said Legolas, glancing over his shoulder. 'We have received an embassy from Lorien. They would like to speak to you urgently.'
Thranduil pulled in a quick sharp breath between his teeth. He jerked his head at his torchbearer who moved closer to the small group of Galadhrim, illuminating them so that they stood blinking a little in the sudden light. Thranduil gazed at them impassively for a moment, then crossed to them with a measured tread. For several seconds he stood in silence, scanning their faces one by one.
'So, the Lord and Lady of the Golden Wood have sent more than messages this time, Haldir, Guardian of Lorien,' he said at last, cold and unwelcoming.
Haldir took a pace forward and stood tall and unwavering before Thranduil, his posture mirroring the coldness and reluctance with which the Elvenking had received him.
'We come to your halls as kin to kin,' he said. 'We have news which we believe you will be glad to hear.'
'That remains to be seen,' said Thranduil curtly. For a moment he looked at Haldir with clear hostility, but then he visibly mastered himself. 'Well, now you're here, you may as well tell me why you've come,' he said, and without another word, he turned and walked towards the stone gates, which opened silently before him.
For a moment Haldir stood rigid with anger, but then he braced his shoulders and followed the King.
'He didn't mean it,' said Legolas' voice just beside him. 'Haldir…'
Haldir quickened his pace, ignoring him. Celinn signed to the others of his company and they walked through the stone gates behind Haldir, mingling with the elves of Thranduil's retinue.
'So that is the last King of the Elves,' murmured Gwirith to Celinn so that no-one else could hear.
'The same,' said Celinn in a low voice. 'What do you think of him?'
'He seems formidable,' said Gwirith, 'but he cares for his lands and for his son.'
'Surely his son comes before his lands?' said Celinn. Gwirith shrugged.
'How could he choose between them?' he said.
They passed the door of the chamber where they had waited that morning, following Thranduil's swift progress deeper into the palace. Soon the passageway opened out into a great hall with pillars cut from the living stone of the hill rising to the roof like the trunks of many young beech trees. On the walls were tapestries all in the soft greens and browns of the wood, and slender torches held in cunningly shaped brackets of shining metal burned with a smokeless flame. At the far end of the hall were two or three wooden doors and a decorated arch which led out into another passageway. But in that place the eye was drawn most of all to the great chair of carved wood which stood by the northern wall, on the seat of which rested a fresh circlet of willow twined with red leaves and berries.
Thranduil spoke a word to those of his party who had followed him into the palace, and they began to leave through the archway.
Then Thranduil called out, 'Galion, stay!' and one of the elves turned and came back. Thranduil unhooked the clasp of his heavy cloak and gave it to him, and then Galion took up the circlet and placed it on his brow. Without his cloak Thranduil seemed much more slender than he had at first appeared. They bowed formally to each other and Galion waited for the King to sit down in the carved chair before giving way to Legolas who came to stand at his father's right hand.
Thranduil leaned back in the chair and gazed frankly at the five elves of Lorien who had come to sue for an audience with him. After a long pause he beckoned them to approach and they stood waiting before him. In the well-lit room it was clear how much like his son he was. The rust-red beech leaves of his circlet rested on long hair of the same pale gold, and he had all the beauty of face and body that Legolas had. But whereas Legolas brought to mind the suppleness of a young beech tree, Thranduil seemed somehow less lithe but more solid, like an ancient oak which has weathered many storms but still each spring puts forth new growth.
Legolas' body curved a little towards his father's as he stood tall and quiet beside him, and Thranduil's energy seemed to flow towards his son, as if they dwelt together in a strong place where each was at all times aware of the other, a place where they could make a haven from those who would harm them.
'Well, Haldir of Lorien, and all your company,' said Thranduil at last. 'I welcome you to Mirkwood. You of course I know, and Celinn, who came here in the year of the Battle of the Five Armies. But the rest of you are new to me.'
Haldir stepped forward. 'These others are some of Celinn's own company, Sir. Luinil, his lieutenant, and Gwirith and Aiglin.' Each elf bowed as Haldir named him. Thranduil looked at every one in turn as if memorising his face, frowning a little as he scrutinised the dark-haired Gwirith and Luinil.
'So Celinn, you're a captain now?' asked Thranduil.
'Yes, Sir. Since the year before last.'
Thranduil nodded. 'So. What matter has brought you on a journey to see me so late in the year?'
'We bring you news of the White Council, Sir. The Lady says that the matters discussed touch as closely on your interests as they do on our own. And we also have some news of the death of your nephew Surindel, which I understand your son already knows.'
Both Thranduil and his son sighed deeply, and Legolas laid his hand gently on his father's shoulder, leaning over and whispering a word or two. Thranduil reached up for a moment and their fingers touched, as if they needed to reassure themselves of their own continuing bond.
'It brings us sorrow to open the wound of loss,' said Haldir. 'But we thought you would wish to know what we have discovered.'
'You are right,' said Thranduil, gruffly. 'Can you tell me anything else about those who killed him?'
Haldir opened his mouth to answer but Celinn said suddenly,
'The Lady has written to you with the intelligence we have gathered, both through our own efforts and through our connection with Aragorn and the Dunedain. Sir, you might prefer to read her missive in private, and instead let us tell you now about the White Council and why the Lady sent us to you.'
Haldir looked a little surprised at Celinn's words, but he said,
'The Lady wished to appraise you of the matters the council discussed as soon as possible, Sir.'
'So,' said Thranduil, leaning back in his chair, 'you have come to tell me news of a Council which when it meets, discusses weighty matters only to decide to do…nothing at all. Is that correct?'
'Sir,' said Celinn fiercely, stung into unaccustomed speech. 'The last Council that met rid Dol Guldur of the Necromancer!'
Thranduil turned to him sharply, his hand going up to his breast where an ornament in the shape of a copper beech leaf was pinned to his shirt.
'That name is not spoken here within my halls,' said Thranduil in a low angry voice. 'Who are you to speak of him, who live protected in Lorien by the Lady's power?'
'I was with Mithrandir when he forced the Dark Lord to abandon Dol Guldur, Sir,' said Celinn. 'I have seen the evil that he can do. And it's against that evil that we in Lorien fight, as do you and all who stand against the shadow here in the Mirkwood.'
Thranduil sighed. 'Of course it is. But he has returned, Celinn, and his power grows. And in all the years that the council has met, it has been singularly ineffective. The expedition to Dol Guldur was the exception.' He looked from Celinn to Haldir and back again, seeing the resignation on their faces.
'I am right, am I not?' he said. No-one spoke. 'So, since the Guardian of Lorien has not come in person all the way to Mirkwood to tell me something which I could have guessed for myself, I ask you again. Why are you here?'
Haldir leaned forward and his clear eyes caught and held Thranduil's. 'It is a matter of some delicacy,' he said, low-voiced. 'All of us have sworn not to reveal it, even to our fellows in Lorien.' He paused.
Thranduil pondered a moment, then glancing over to where Galion stood, said,
'Thank you, my friend. I'll speak to you later.' Galion bowed and went out through the archway.
'I assume you don't wish me to swear my son to secrecy,' said Thranduil dryly, but Haldir ignored him.
'It concerns the Rings of power, Sir,' he said, 'and especially the One.'
Even deep underground surrounded by the strength of solid stone, the safety of Thranduil's palace seemed for an instant no protection at all from the power of the shadow. Then Legolas said,
'I offer myself to do anything I can to help bring an end to this evil, whatever it may cost me.'
Thranduil reached up and took hold of his son's hand, gripping it tightly.
'Your place is here, Legolas,' he said sharply. 'Is there not enough for us to deal with in our own lands, that you have to go seeking new dangers?'
'I don't seek them, father. But if there is a need, I will answer it,' he said.
Haldir looked at him directly for the first time. 'I pray that day will never come, Legolas Thrandulion,' he said.
'As do I,' said Thranduil. 'Now what is this about the Rings, Haldir?'
'Adar,' said Legolas softly, 'may our guests be seated now? They must be weary after such a long journey.'
Thranduil glanced at the Galadhrim, and saw that Haldir in particular was looking white and drawn. He nodded impatiently, and Legolas fetched some wooden chairs from the sides of the hall and set them out in a semi-circle around the King.
'So, Haldir, tell me,' said Thranduil, when they were all seated.
'As you foresaw, Sir, the White Council made no plans to act against the threat which is growing around us. Nay, it was not what the Lady wished,' he said, when Thranduil shook his head ruefully. 'She argued most strongly to do all they could to discover the whereabouts of the One Ring, and to begin to prepare for the war that she believes will surely come. But it was Curunir spoke against it. He said the One Ring had gone down Anduin to the Sea and would never be found, and that their efforts would be needless.'
'It has gone to the Sea?' said Thranduil, his face lighting up with momentary hope. 'And we are rid of it at last?'
'It can't be so, my lord,' said Haldir. 'Why then is the Dark Lord stronger than before and how has returned so swiftly to Barad-dur? Why has the shadow risen again above Dol Guldur? If it's not the Ring that gives him his strength, then whence does it come?'
The hope died in Thranduil's face, leaving it grey and tired. 'Of course,' he said. 'We know this only too well, and there is no sign that his power is abating. So what are Lorien's plans, if the Council's ruling is not to the Lady's liking?'
'An alliance, Sir, as we have suggested before. So that we may build up our joint strength, small though it is, and find out all we can about the Ring. The Lady doubts Curunir. She has doubted him since he first was made Chief of the Council. It may be his intentions are good, but she has seen things in her Mirror whose import he will not admit, and…Sir?'
Thranduil was no longer listening. His face had darkened and his eyes had become deep pools of shadow.
'You dare speak to me of an alliance, Haldir of Lorien?' he said in a fierce whisper. 'After what my family has suffered through the years, you wish me to risk the safety of my Kingdom and put myself at the whim of a daughter of the Noldor, you who are kin with the elves of Mirkwood?'
Haldir flushed darkly. 'Sir, you need not remind me of my blood for I have never forgotten it. But these are perilous years, and maybe it is time to forget the quarrels of the past, however difficult that might be.' He glanced involuntarily at Gwirith. 'If we don't unite, what hope do we have against the shadow? We may just as well go at once to the Havens and board a ship to go over Sea.'
'Father,' said Legolas in his beautiful gentle voice, 'At least let us take some time to think on the Lady's words. What harm can there be in trying to find a way back to the first harmony of the elves, before the Great Journey divided us?'
'There could be a great deal of harm, Legolas, as your grandfather found out at Dagorlad,' said Thranduil harshly. 'Since then we have been better off alone. Alliances can be a great mistake, as I believe this one could be. I am loathe to consent to it, whatever its terms.'
He had spoken loudly and his words were followed by a ringing silence. At last Celinn said,
'Sir, you are a father to your people and have made a haven for them in this place away from the shadow which has spread so far. Do you not dream of a day when that same evil could be destroyed and the forest restored to its original beauty?'
Again Thranduil's hand strayed to the beech-leaf clip on his shirt. 'If I did not dream of it, I would no longer be here,' he murmured. 'But maybe the defeat of the shadow lies with those who never made the journey to the West, the 'more dangerous and less wise' who welcomed me and my kin when I came to these lands after Doriath fell. Although she had the chance, the Lady of the Wood refused the pardon of the Valar, because she could not put aside her desire for a land of her own to rule. Oh, I know you will say that I call myself a King, and rule over these elves who had no monarch before my father came. But it was not my will which made me so, but theirs, and my life belongs to them. Here they live the life for which the elves were woken at Cuivienen: a life of peace in the forest, without much craft except the things we barter from other peoples; without ambition to greater power or glory, without magic except the natural magic of the elves. This is not what Galadriel or Elrond stand for, they who have been caught up in the long story of the Noldor and the Sindar.'
'But they did not make the evil which they resist,' said Celinn urgently. 'The Silmarils are gone now, the Curse has spent itself. If we don't fight shoulder to shoulder, then the dark lord will make a way between us and break us one by one. Maybe even now he works against us in this way.'
Thranduil looked at him, and his face was full of sadness.
'Maybe so,' he said heavily. 'But tonight after what I have seen in the forest, I can't think any more of these matters. The power of the shadow is moving closer to us; even the trees north of the Forest Road are beginning to sicken. Sometimes I see the terrible day when the shadow will cover all Mirkwood, and maybe all of Rhovanion and further still, until there is nowhere that is not under its sway.'
He sighed deeply and stood up, taking the circlet from his brow and placing it on the seat of the wooden chair.
'I have listened to all I can,' he said. 'My heart is too sorrowful now to give your words a true hearing. We will speak more on the morrow.'
Rising swiftly to their feet, the Galadhrim bowed, then watched him walk, stooping a little, through the archway and out of sight.
'I hope you will forgive this abrupt ending,' said Legolas, trying to hide his distress.
'There's nothing to forgive,' said Celinn. 'I confess I hadn't expected him to give us even so long a hearing as he did. Haldir, should we give Legolas the letters the Lady sent for the King?'
Haldir took them quickly out of his pack and handed them to Celinn, who put them in Legolas' hands.
'I'll see he receives them tonight,' said Legolas. 'Will you come to the dining hall and eat with us? My father will probably stay in his own chambers tonight.'
'Thank you,' said Celinn, glancing at his company and meeting with approving glances. 'Haldir, will you come and eat?'
'I'm not hungry,' said Haldir.
'Then come and taste the wine,' said Legolas. 'We have a new vintage sent to us from Dale since last you came to us.'
Haldir looked as if he might have liked to refuse, but he fell into step reluctantly behind the others.
The dining hall was near the stone gates of the palace and was used by whichever elves were in Thranduil's service at any particular time. It was as spacious and airy as all the other rooms they had seen, and Aiglin wondered out loud how they kept the air so wholesome.
'We have channels in the roof and the walls which lead to the outside air,' said Legolas, indicating them. 'When we built these caves, my father was put in mind of Menegroth at Doriath, although we have never aspired to the splendour of Thingol's palace.'
'We've heard tales of your father's treasure,' said Luinil, 'but it seems you are all fond of ornament.' He looked around him at those elves who wore belts and halberds studded with green and white gems.
'Those are the colours of my father's house,' said Legolas. 'Yet as you see his only ornament is a circlet made of the fruits of the wood.'
'And a pin shaped like a beech leaf,' said Aiglin.
'It was a binding-gift from my mother,' said Legolas, and when Aiglin looked at him questioningly, he went on, 'She died many years ago. I am my father's only close kin, save for his sister who was the mother of Surindel. I envy those with brothers or sisters, like you, Haldir. How are Rumil and Orophin? I'm sorry they didn't come with you on your journey.'
'They're well,' said Haldir, then picked up his glass and drank deeply.
The food in the Elvenking's halls was simple but plentiful and they ate their fill, all except Haldir who drank Dorwinion wine steadily without any apparent effects. Legolas and the Lorien elves tried to draw him into their conversation, but he was quiet and withdrawn and answered shortly if at all. At last he asked Legolas' leave to return to his chamber.
'Of course,' said Legolas. 'You may do as you please. But I had hoped to have some speech with you tonight.'
'Forgive me, but I am weary,' said Haldir. 'I would be poor company.'
Legolas nodded. 'Well, goodnight then, Haldir.'
Haldir made his farewells to his fellows and left them.
'He had more work than the rest of us on the journey, paddling his craft alone,' said Celinn in explanation.
Legolas gazed at him, noticing that the silver scar was no longer visible on his cheek. He seemed about to speak when there suddenly came a cry and they turned to see that a tall dark-haired elf stood transfixed in the doorway of the dining hall.
'Aiglin! Celinn! And Luinil as well! Galion was right!'
Celinn pushed back his chair, a great smile lighting up his face.
'Cerveth!' he cried, and the dark-haired elf came leaping across the room and pulled all three of them into his long arms.
'Oh, my dearest brothers, I never hoped to see you again so soon,' he said, his voice cracking and his cheeks wet with tears. 'But…what has happened to you all? Your hair…'
'Peace, Cerveth, we will tell you the story later,' said Aiglin in his ear, his hand tightening on Cerveth's shoulder.
'By Elbereth, Aiglin,' laughed Cerveth, 'I swear you've bruised me! I see you've lost none of your old strength.'
Aiglin smiled but Cerveth caught the warning in his eyes and said no more about their appearance. Gwirith stood back, watching with a half-smile until at last Cerveth released his friends and wiped his cheeks with his big hands.
'I don't know you. ' said Cerveth, seizing his hand. 'You must have come from Lorien with the others. I am Cerveth.'
'So I understand. I am Gwirith. I have indeed come from Lorien, with Celinn's company.'
'You're captain now, Celinn?' exclaimed Cerveth. 'So I'll have no company when I come home!'
'Cerveth, I'll give way to you when you return,' said Celinn, laughing. 'Do not fear.'
'No, you mustn't,' said Cerveth, a long untidy lock of hair falling across his face. 'I'm sure you are a better captain than I was. You would be able to hold your tongue and avoid offending the envoys of Mirkwood, as I did. You wouldn't get yourself exiled for a ten-year to the company of those who would barely speak to you, let alone offer you friendship, even at festival time.'
'Are you so unhappy among us, then, Cerveth?' said Legolas.
Cerveth turned to him, his face scarlet.
'I beg your pardon, Sir,' he said humbly. 'I didn't see you there or I wouldn't have spoken as I did.'
Legolas smiled and laid a hand lightly on his arm. 'There's no need for such formality, Cerveth. I only ask because I would not have you spend the next years in the solitude you have described.'
Cerveth glanced down at Legolas' hand where it still rested on his arm. His face settled into lines of grim determination.
'I can endure, Sir, if I must.' His mouth closed like a trap and he looked down at the floor.
Legolas removed his hand and stepped away from him.
'I'll leave you all to become reacquainted,' he said, smiling, but it seemed that Cerveth's coldness had touched him.
'Call on me at any time if there is anything you need,' he said, and left them.
'You didn't have to be so hard on him, Cerveth,' said Aiglin reproachfully. 'He has shown us kindness since we came here: you take offence too easily.'
'And he is very fair,' said Luinil. 'Maybe you should seek him out next festival night.'
'He never celebrates the festival,' said Cerveth dourly. 'It's well known.'
The elves of Lorien looked at one another in amazement.
'One as beautiful as he, with no partner?' said Aiglin. 'It cannot be!'
'It is,' said Cerveth. 'But never mind the King's son, tell me about Lorien. What's the news? Does Falariel still love me?'
Seeing them look away from him, he gave a wail of despair. 'Who does she love? You, Aiglin?'
'Not I,' said Aiglin, laughing. 'I don't know about this year, but last Midsummer it was quite another sort of pleasure that she chose.'
'What?' said Cerveth, his eyes wide. 'What pleasure? Did she seek out another nis? More than one partner?' he went on, as they shook their heads. 'Tell me, before my imaginings break my heart!'
'No elf was her partner, Cerveth,' said Luinil.
'No elf? Then who?'
'A Man,' said Aiglin softly.
Cerveth blushed scarlet again. 'It isn't true! How could this be? You're teasing me!'
'We're not,' said Aiglin. 'It was Elrond's foster-son, Aragorn, who needed someone to teach him the arts of love.'
'She was his first? And are they bound?'
'No, Cerveth,' said Luinil. 'How often do elves and Men marry?'
'Luthien chose Beren,' said Cerveth triumphantly.
'But Falariel has not chosen Estel,' said Aiglin soothingly, 'although Caranfir and Sirion fell out over her choice.'
'Caranfir!' wailed Cerveth. 'Celinn, you must help me. I'll write her a message of love, with a gift. You must ask her to wait for me. Caranfir isn't the one for her!'
'Of course I will,' said Celinn. 'Now calm yourself and tell us how you have been these last two years.'
'Not here, it's too close in these tunnels,' said Cerveth, pressing his hand to his chest. 'Is there somewhere else we can go?'
'Come to our dwelling,' said Aiglin. 'Legolas left us a bottle of sweet wine from Dale to finish.'
Cerveth leapt up at once and almost dragged them to the gate, where the gate warden gave him permission to go out if he gave a surety to be back on duty at dawn.
'I'm not a prisoner here,' said Cerveth angrily. 'I am in service!'
'We'll see he's back at dawn,' said Celinn soothingly, and the gates opened silently before them.
The fresh smell of the forest met them as they walked out into the moonlight. Celinn breathed in deeply, reaching for Gwirith's hand in the dark.
'This part of the forest smells clean and wholesome,' he said, 'unlike some of the parts we travelled through on our way here.'
'It doesn't smell like home though,' said Cerveth, 'without the mellyrn.' Suddenly he was in tears again. Aiglin and Luinil went one on either side of him and put their arms round him.
'It isn't justice to hold me here for a ten-year,' he said, through choking sobs. 'Aradhil was too harsh, but the King would not commute the sentence he had given because it was his father's memory which I offended.'
'Some of the time has already passed…' said Luinil.
'Not even two years,' said Cerveth in despair. 'How will I endure the rest? You don't know how I long for home.' His voice fell to a whisper. 'Many times I've thought to break my promise to serve ten years and make the journey home alone. I know their ways now, I could evade their guards and find my way to Anduin…'
'Cerveth,' said Celinn, 'the Lady would send you back.'
'I know she would,' said Cerveth hopelessly. 'There's no way out, I know that. Unless I lived alone in the forest…'
They had reached Aiglin and Luinil's dwelling and they all went in and made Cerveth sit on a long bench made of willow padded with a soft cushion. He was shivering so much that Celinn fetched a blanket from one of the beds and wrapped it round him while Luinil lit the fire. There was the welcome sound of a cork leaving a bottle, and then Aiglin brought some glasses and the bottle of Dale wine and put it down on the floor.
'Drink it while it's cool,' he said, handing round glasses then sitting down beside Cerveth on the bench. Luinil sat on the wooden floor, his back against Aiglin's legs, while Celinn and Gwirith were half in and half out of the shadows at the edge of the firelight.
Cerveth drank his wine in three great gulps as if it were water, then, suddenly empty of tears, stared broodingly into the fire. No-one had lit any candles and they sat unspeaking in the light of the flames, hearing the crackling of the wood as it split in the heat, and the soft muted voices of the night birds in the trees.
The silence went on for a long time, and in this place so far from Lorien Celinn begin to feel the same homesickness that Cerveth had been describing, and to wonder how it could possibly be endured for ten years when it was so painful to contemplate it for only a few weeks, and that with Gwirith by his side.
'Did you think to apologise to the King for your words?' he said suddenly to Cerveth. 'Maybe then he would be merciful and send you home.'
Cerveth sat up straight and stared at him.
'Apologise?' he said, half-laughing. 'How could I do such a thing and keep my honour?'
'But you didn't intend to lack respect to the memory of Thranduil's father,' said Celinn.
'Did I not?' demanded Cerveth. 'How could I have respect for the King who charged forward before Gil-galad gave the command and took half our army and more than half of his own to their deaths, and my only brother one of those who died?'
'And that's what you said to Aradhil?'
'That's what I tell everyone who wishes to know my opinion on the matter.'
'Cerveth, think you that Oropher can carry the blame for all the deaths at Dagorlad?' said Celinn gently. 'For Maldor's death? I was born too late to fight in that war, but I know that in battle even I, a mere captain, do what I can to protect those I lead. Maybe Amdir, who was King of Lorien, was wrong to follow Oropher, but those who knew him said he acted in good faith, even if he and so many of our kin paid with their lives.'
Cerveth turned away, melting into tears again.
'Maybe this is why you have few friends Mirkwood,' said Aiglin ruefully, pulling Cerveth closer to him. For a while the only sounds were Cerveth's shaking breaths and Aiglin's voice murmuring soothingly to him.
Celinn sighed deeply, thinking longingly of Lorien and the talan he shared with Gwirith. Their bed would be made with the thick white linens his sister had given them for a binding gift, and his harp would be standing in the corner, waiting to teach him new melodies. And there would be wood shavings on the floor from the new carving that Gwirith had been trying out. And then Gwirith's fea was touching his, feeling what was in his heart, comforting him, and Gwirith's arm was round him, holding him firmly.
'It's time we went to bed,' said Gwirith low-voiced. 'Cerveth will be in good hands with Luinil and Aiglin.'
'It is your hands that interest me,' murmured Celinn into his ear, tracing the line of Gwirith's lips with his fingers. He heard Gwirith take a sharp breath, then his lips parted and he nipped the end of Celinn's index finger gently.
'Bed,' he said again. 'Now.' And he pulled Celinn to his feet.
'We'll leave you to your slumbers,' he said, looking down on the others. Cerveth was wrapped in Aiglin's arms with his head resting on his chest. He had fallen asleep with his lips slightly parted and a shock of untidy dark hair across his face.
'We will take care of him,' said Aiglin.
'We'll be back before first light to take him to his duty,' said Gwirith.
'That's if you get any sleep tonight,' said Luinil, looking at them from under his lashes.
Celinn actually blushed, but Gwirith pulled him out into the forest before the others could laugh at him. Their dwelling, similar to the one they had just left, was only a hundred paces away, but their need for each other was suddenly too sharp to be put off even for such a short time, and half way there Gwirith took Celinn's face in his hands and kissed him deeply, feeling arrows of pleasure shooting from his mouth into his groin. Celinn melted against him, his hands sliding down Gwirith's back and coming to rest on the soft swell of his buttocks, pulling him closer so that the heat between their legs sparked and leapt through their bodies.
'Celinn, I can't wait,' gasped Gwirith. 'I want you now.'
'Take me, then,' said Celinn, breathless, and stood passive while Gwirith stripped off his clothes and then fell suddenly mute and motionless, gazing at him in the soft light of the stars.
'What's the matter? I thought you wanted me…' said Celinn.
'You're so beautiful,' whispered Gwirith. 'I can't believe that you're mine.'
Celinn felt the soft wind of the forest on his skin, and then Gwirith's hands were on him, touching him with such sureness that it was as if Gwirith knew him better than he knew himself. And then Gwirith too was naked, and Celinn reached out for him and began to kiss him, his mouth, his face, the long bones of his shoulders, and then the freckles on his upper arms and on his back, his skin sliding under Celinn's lips. And when he had kissed his way down Gwirith's spine, his hand came round and took hold of Gwirith's cock, and Gwirith groaned and fell back against him, his hips undulating gently as Celinn massaged the sweet juices that oozed from the head into his skin, until his whole length was slick with them. And then Celinn offered himself to his lover, and Gwirith said,
'Do you want this?'
And when Celinn nodded, Gwirith slid his fingers into the soft cleft between his buttocks, and after he had prepared him, he pulled Celinn back hard onto his thighs and entered him in a single stroke, gripping on to his hips with both hands. And Celinn's cry of pleasure mixed with pain rang out into the night air, and almost at once he abandoned himself and began to buck against Gwirith, murmuring incoherent words of love. And Gwirith thrust into him, one hand going round to grip Celinn's cock, and the other still on Celinn's hip, steadying them both. Neither knew what sounds fell from their lips, but in their dwelling Aiglin and Luinil heard them and smiled at each other.
And Celinn felt the pleasure in his body building until he thought he could bear it no longer, and then he cried out as his seed sprang from him. And Gwirith groaned deeply and kissed him hard on the edge of his shoulder, and then the sweetness of the moment of coming was so great that he clung tightly on to Celinn wherever he could get hold of him, and unknowing bit the hard muscle of his shoulder which a moment before he had kissed.
When they had passed the moment of climax, they stayed joined for a long time, Gwirith draped across Celinn. And when Gwirith withdrew from his lover's body, Celinn gave a gasp of loss and turned to hold him tightly in his arms, feeling Gwirith's chest rising and falling as if he had been running.
At last their breathing quieted and the heat of their joining was cooled by the breeze that hushed through the trees. Gwirith gathered up their clothes and they walked the last fifty paces to their dwelling and pulling together the two beds that had been prepared with soft green linens, they fell into each other's arms, and with his head on Gwirith's chest, Celinn fell asleep to the sound of his lover's heart.
Much later that night Legolas knocked lightly at the door to Haldir's chamber. When there was no response he knocked again, then called softly, but still the carved wood stayed uncompromisingly shut. He was just turning to leave when the handle turned and a pale face framed with damp tousled hair stared out at him.
'Who is it?' said Haldir drowsily. 'Does the King summon me?'
'No, Haldir, not the King. It is I, Legolas.'
Haldir's eyes seemed to come into focus and his arm twitched so that he nearly shut the door in Legolas' face. He stared at him with deep reluctance.
'What do you want?' he said. 'I told you I was tired.'
'Only to see you,' said Legolas gently.
'Well, now you have seen me, so I bid you good-night,' said Haldir, beginning to shut the door. Legolas put a hand on to the wood.
'Haldir, why must you do this?' he said. 'Can you really deny…'
'I didn't want to come here,' said Haldir harshly. 'I did everything I honourably could to refuse the task, but the Lady insisted. Now all I wish to do is to finish the job and go home.' He stopped talking abruptly, and the sound of his breathing was loud in the silence.
'I can't see you, Legolas. You know I can't. Please, leave me now. I'm very tired.'
Legolas stood straight and quiet before him, but his eyes were very bright.
'This is not the end,' he said. 'I will speak to you before you leave Mirkwood.'
'This is the end,' said Haldir, and shut the door.
1. References to Thranduil's palace taken from The Hobbit p152 ff HarperCollins (1978)