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Far Beyond Mirkwood, Chapter 4/?

Authors: Mary A and Malinornë
Pairings: Mainly Thranduil/OFCs
Warnings: One naked wet elf, some smooching...
Disclaimer: This is a work of amateur fanfiction of the parody type and is meant solely for entertainment purposes, no profit is made.
Chapter summary: Mal wakes up alone while Mary and the King head west. Thaladir and Haldir try to be helpful.

~ Mal~

When I woke up, I was a little disoriented at first, before recognizing the very small room with the gigantic bed, which in fact occupied all of it, except for the space nearest one of the doors, as Thranduil's monster of a carriage. It was a lot cosier inside than could be expected from its imposing exterior, although I had no doubt that it wouldn't take Thaladir more than a few minutes to convert this lush bedchamber to a throne room, strict and official-looking enough for receiving prominent guests.

As I lay there looking at the walls and doors and ceiling in the faint morning light I came to think of that I had actually never seen what the carriage what look like with the bed folded away. And with some luck, that would not happen any time soon. The king would likely not have use for official surroundings for many days, not until we approached the capital of Rohan.

There would be many more nights in this bed, and the next would be mine, only mine. It was a very nice thought, even if I didn't mind so much sharing him with Mary, not anything like it had been in the beginning. But then, he seemed to become extra generous when we were both with him. I never felt left out.

Last night had been spectacular. I had almost forgotten what it felt like to have his lips and - very determined - tongue between my thighs, so rare a treat was it. For some time I found it hard to appreciate fully; I was searching for a motif, a reason for him to be so forthcoming. There was none I could think of, at least not fast enough to do it before I became lost in pleasure and couldn't care less. Maybe he was just happy to be out of Lórien, although that didn't make particular sense either. Thranduil did not enjoy travelling.

I sat up and moved closer to the nearest window of the side that was turned towards our campsite, hoping to get a glimpse of him, or at least Mary. It was odd for her to get up this early. The night's activities must have made her extra desperate for a sip of the coffee Miriel had brought.

The sight that met my eye was more than unexpected, and made me sit absolutely still, open-mouthed. There, on the shore, only a small distance away, stood Thaladir, and he was undressing. Lit from behind by a spectacular morning sky in rosy and blue, he was merely a dark silhouette, but it was undoubtedly the king's seneschal.

He was folding something large and heavy, possibly a cloak he had wrapped around himself during the night, and then carefully put it on a flat rock. Then he took off his outer layer of robes, a floor-long and sleeveless one that he usually wore open in the front. He folded it just as carefully as before, and then put it on top of the other garment. It was all done with such accuracy and grace that it could have been part of an ancient ritual.

After that, he untied his sash. His fingers worked more swiftly than I could follow, and it seemed that no more than a second had passed when the broad and long piece of fabric joined the others on the rock. I wondered if it was his favourite one, a nondescript grey-brown, but richly embroidered with beech-leaves, in the same colour as the sash so that it was both exquisite and impeccably modest.

Then the seneschal bent down, took hold of the hem of his robe and pulled it over his head with more elegance than I would have thought possible. He dusted it off with his hand, and just before he was going to begin folding it, he looked up. I held my breath. He cleared his throat, but then proceeded to take care of his robe, even more meticulously than before.

It was fascinating to look at this elf going about his business as if he had been in the privacy of his home. It did not make it worse that he was quite fetching wearing nothing more than leggings and a thin tunic that reached only just below his hips. That may have been standard wear for most of the male elves in Mirkwood during the warmest season, but Thaladir looked naked and very stimulating to imagination. I had just started to breathe again when he took off the tunic, revealing long, lean arms and a fine chest. I only got a glimpse, because he turned away, toward the river, as soon as he had disposed himself of it. It was still more than enough to be exciting, as this particular elf rarely showed more flesh than his hands and face.

The finale almost disappointed me. I am not sure what I expected, but it was not for the seneschal to be just as calm and careful as before when he removed his leggings, folded them neatly and placed them on top of the other clothes. He seemed so free from all sense of shame that it nearly made me feel bad for spying on him. Maybe, if I had been straightforward about it, he wouldn't have minded if I went for a swim together with him.

As I continued to watch the seneschal, he went into the water, stopped where it reached him to his knees and began to wash. It was a true pleasure to witness that. Not because it was sexy, his behaviour was too innocent for that, but it was beautiful in the way of a ballet show. The seneschal was not prudish the slightest, but he had a very strong sense of propriety and correct behaviour in each situation. Showing a knee in public parts of the royal caverns was scandalous, but being naked in a river with no settlements in the vicinity was natural.

When he finally began swimming, with powerful yet elegant strokes, I tore my gaze from him and began to look for my clothes in the mess of bed linen. I had just slipped on the pearl-grey dress, which was miraculously wrinkle-free, when someone rapped on the window. A quick peek through the glass revealed the unmistakable profile of the March Warden.

"Good morning," I said as I opened the door and allowed him to help me down to the ground. The still swimming seneschal was right in my field of sight, but I made an effort to ignore him. It turned out to be more difficult than it should with another formidable elf in front of me.

"A very good morning," Haldir replied with a wink and a smile. "I do hope I was not interrupting any interesting... activities?" I chose to ignore that remark. Did he really think I would do what I had in fact just done?

"Have I overslept?" I asked him innocently. "Where is Mary?" I could not help casting a glance over Haldir's shoulder, where Thaladir had now begun to walk towards the shore. The light was much brighter now and I could see the water ripple around his belly, his hips, his...

"Breakfast is ready," said Haldir, and then added, somewhat sourly, "You will have an excellent view of His Excellency from beside the fire." Silly elf. He knew very well that I would have watched him, too, with the same eagerness. And if he would wink at me again like that, I might forget that Thaladir even existed.

"I just haven't seen him swim before," I said. That was almost true. I had seen him in the water, but then he had mostly been running after Mary, attempting to cover her 'unseemly state of undress'.

"I see. And is he aware that you have just, ah, 'beheld his humble person in its most natural state'?" The near perfect imitation made me laugh.

"No!" I exclaimed when I had caught my breath. "Haldir, you can't tell him. Please don't." Thaladir may not care if someone happened to see him bathing, but I thought it unnecessary that he should know that I had studied him that closely.

"No? And what would you pay for my silence, my lady?" He smiled at me coyly.

"What do you want?" I tried to sound indignant, for pride's sake.

"For now, I could settle with a kiss."

~ Mary ~

Thranduil woke me up gently and then put his finger to my lips to keep me quiet. One of the hardest parts about rising before dawn to leave with the king, besides all of the rest of it, was having to leave Mal behind without telling her goodbye. She was asleep; there was only a small lamp lit in the carriage, it's light was no brighter than a candle, and she looked very peaceful in its mild glow.

When I saw the clothes that were laid out for me to wear, it was hard not to squeal. They were my riding clothes and boots from Mirkwood. I vaguely knew that they had been packed in my traveling chest, but I had never thought about them after we arrived in Lorien. The Galadhrim do not ride around in their mallorn trees on horseback, it was not practical. Galadriel and Celeborn had stables, but their horses were mostly for outside adventuring; they did not ride them in the forest for pleasure.

We had a quick breakfast by the morning's freshly lit campfire, and there was even some coffee for me, brewed in a sauce pot, and then strained through a cloth. I was touched, even if it tasted dreadful, and drank it without making a face. We were alone, except for Thaladir, so I did not know who to thank. I was fairly sure the king did not make coffee, even for me. Neither of the ellith were in sight, nor was Anarion.

That left the seneschal, but if I thanked him, and I was wrong, he would sneer at me while correcting my faulty assumption. I wanted to leave on good terms with him, so I pretended like it was a normal thing to have coffee while camping out, and said nothing.

Even Amarth was remarkably quiet and calm when we were finally ready to leave. Thaladir was standing next to him, so the horse did not dare misbehave. Instead of having my own horse to ride, which I would have preferred, although there were none to spare, I was going to ride behind the king. Not a bad place to be if it is the only place available, but my view would be hindered.

We took off at a more leisurely pace than usual for the warhorse and his warrior master, but that was typical if Thranduil expected to travel for a long distance; he did not want Amarth to exhaust himself needlessly by letting him have his own way. I could feel how the steed's muscles rippled in annoyance beneath my legs. He would much rather be racing across the plains at breakneck speeds.

This slower pace made it easier to chat with each other, too.

"Why did you choose me to come with you, sire?"

"I used a system similar to what you mortals would term a coin toss."

"You have coins?"

"I used a small flat stone from the river's edge, which had a marking on one side but was unmarked on the other."

"And you flipped it in the air, and I won? Which side was I, marked or unmarked?" I do not know why winning a coin toss, or 'stone toss' in this case, made me feel victorious, but it did. Maybe because it indicated that 'the gods' were on my side, if not real gods, then at least the gods of random chance. Not that I am superstitious, I am not.

"Actually," said Thranduil, "Malinorne won the toss, but Thaladir said that he wanted to keep her under observation for at least another full rising and setting of the sun, for medical reasons."

"So I won by default?"

"If you wish to state it thus," replied the king. We rode in silence for a little while. In the dawn's dim light, even with him in my way, I could see the Fangorn forest looming straight ahead. Behind the trees rose the Misty Mountains, and I could see that there was snow on the highest peaks as the sky slowly grew lighter.

It is a good thing, I reminded myself, that I am not superstitious, or else I might start imagining things that I should not think about. Losing a 'stone toss' was not necessarily an omen of misfortune. Neither was it very flattering. Of course, not thinking can lead to problems, too, such as when you blurt out something before rehearsing it in your mind.

"Would you rather have Mal with you, sire? We can go back and you can get her. You know very well that she wasn't really sick, or sick in the way that Thaladir means, he is just being overprotective. She will probably feel sicker now, anyway."

"You do understand that I trust my seneschal's judgment, in these matters of my household's health, more than I trust yours."

"But you really don't want me to come. Why didn't you just leave me back there?"

"Perhaps," said the king, "I needed a reason to appreciate the silence of the plains when I am riding alone."

We had been riding in what seemed to be a bee-line toward some particular destination that was otherwise invisible to me. All there was in front of us was the forest, Fangorn, a relief to the eyes on the horizon after the dreary sameness of the prairie. I peeked out from behind Thranduil to look ahead every once in a while, but I saw no one, or nothing, of any importance, besides the dark stand of trees, like a line of dark green soldiers.

And I kept my mouth shut, I could take a hint.

"Yesterday," said the king, "while I was riding Amarth, I saw what I assumed was a lone tree, of a kind that was familiar, and yet different, to my eyes. It was growing in the prairie, tall and graceful, seeming much out of place for how slender and frail it appeared, with no other trees to support it."

It was unusual for the king to confide in me about anything. and I nearly held my breath as I hung on his every word. He told me how he rode up to the oddly placed tree, and was pleasantly surprised when the creature raised up one of its long, branchy limbs and waved in a friendly greeting.

"It was an ent?" I guessed out loud.

"Here he is coming now, stay here." Thranduil said this last from the ground, after he had dismounted. Amarth stood still, and I tried not to panic as visions of being thrown off his powerful back tickled my thoughts. The king was raising his hand as he strode toward the forest and a tree came out to meet him. Only, of course, it was not a tree.

Amarth lifted a foot and stamped it down with a snort, shifting his mighty hips and tossing me about like I was on a boat at sea. I tried not to scream but I still made a noise, just a small one. The horse's ears pricked back at me, and for some reason I had the feeling that he was not even aware of my presence until that very moment. He turned his massive head and glared at me with one reddened eye.

"Nice horsie," I said, and my voice only shook a little.

~ Mal ~

Haldir of Lórien, I mean Eryn Lasgalen, is an excellent kisser. As soon as I nodded my consent to the forfeit he had asked for, he stepped closer and put a hand on the small of my back. I placed my hands on his firm, somewhat broad for an elf, shoulders and waited. He waited, too.

"Have you changed your mind?" I asked him in a whisper. I would never forgive him if that were the case.

"No," he whispered back, "but it is you who have to give me something, not the other way around."

He winked again and I quickly closed my eyes not to lose myself already to the attraction I felt. I leaned closer to him and tilted my head slightly when my snub nose gently bumped into his formidable one. His lips were soft when I brushed against them tentatively and in a manner that was much shyer than I felt. If I had to let Haldir know about my feelings for him, then I wanted at least to savour it.

I began to stroke his hair as I continued to graze his lips, but had to grab and hold on to it once he kissed me back. His lips became demanding, and his tongue even more so, and I loved it. Hungrily I nibbled his lower lip, then our tongues met in an intricate dance that went on until I had to break free to breathe. One glance into his eyes was enough to make me press my lips against his again, wanting more. This time he returned my touch in an almost chaste way, pursing his mouth to allow nothing more than a small peck.

"My lady," he said with a smile, "I believe you have fulfilled your obligation. Perhaps you were not so disappointed to find out who swam with you last night."

"Maybe not," I replied with a lot less certainty than I felt. My thoughts were swimming, too, and I wondered if it was a sign that Thranduil had peeked at the kissing through my mind. Knowing that he could, and liked to, do that had made it easier to understand why he did not mind his concubine occasionally being with other elves, in fact even seemed to encourage it. At least for as long as he could be sure that I would return to him immediately at his slightest wish.

Haldir wanted to investigate a track beside the river, and when I felt reasonably safe that my cheeks were no longer rosier than normal, I went to join the others by the fire. As soon as I rounded the shrubbery that was between it and the king's carriage, I noticed that His Majesty was still missing, as was Mary.

I decided that I could well allow them some time alone, and took my breakfast chatting with Ithilwen and Miriel about nothing in particular. When some more time had passed without any sign of the king, and Anarion went to prepare the horses for departure, I couldn't wait any longer without at least asking where he was.

"Where is His Majesty?" I asked Miriel. "And Mary?"

"He took Lady Mary on a small excursion," she said merrily. "Only for a few days; he has a royal errand to see to while we enjoy the wonders of Fangorn forest. His Majesty is very generous."

"A few days?" I asked, dumbstruck.

"Yes," came Ithilwen's reply. "But do not worry, we will have a guide so that we can visit the best parts despite the haste."

It took me some time to realize that both of them were too excited about the prospect of seeing more trees to even notice my lack of enthusiasm. Indeed, Thranduil was so very generous - this explained perfectly well why he had been so keen on having me in his bed the previous night, and with the extra treat, too. Of all selfish elves... And to sneak off in such a way that he didn't even need to see how upset it made me!

I gulped down the last of my tea, rose with as much dignity I could muster, and went to the shore, where I sat down on a boulder - possibly the same that had served as a clothes rack this morning as well as yesterday night. I no longer cared. The sky's bright colours were there only to mock me, and the water seemed dull. Ugly bushes with half-dried leaves lined the muddy shore. How come I had not noticed earlier how dreary this place was?

And beyond lay Fangorn. More trees, no doubt gnarled and misshaped, waiting to stretch their disgusting fingers towards anyone who was stupid enough to enter their sorry realm. The air would be suffocating, stuffy and reeking with odours of rotting wood and unhealthy fungi. Moss and lichen hanging from branches like giant spider webs. Slimy pools of stagnant water. Still, I had been prepared to endure it, for the sake of the treacherous Elvenking.

~ Mary ~

Before Amarth could figure out a way to kill me, Thranduil came to the rescue, with his tree-friend close behind. I could not tell who this ent was more interested in, me or the horse. He regarded both of us carefully, with his smooth shiny arms at his hips, just like a human would stand.

"Bregalad, this mortal woman is a member of my court, she is called Lady Mary."

The ent bowed and reached out a twiggy looking hand, with extraordinarily long fingers that felt leathery to the touch, and not stiff like they seemed they would feel. I shook it.

"Pleased to meet you, Mister Bregalad," I said, and he laughed. Amarth jerked at the sound, but otherwise stayed still. Thranduil stood by his head and patted him.

"My business is within the forest," the ent said, after he had slowed down to a chuckle. "Therefore it is not often that I have the opportunity to see a mortal, let alone a woman, you will have to forgive my staring." It was almost shocking to hear the tree-like creature speak, even though I knew that he was going to do it.

His eyes were the most like Thranduil's that I had ever seen yet, lit from within as if there were tiny candles burning in them, and deep with wisdom, and life. The ent's voice was more jovial and kind, however.

"Don't any women from Rohan come riding through here?" I asked. The grasslands were greener here near the forest, thick and lush, than they were along the road. I wondered if it had anything to do with the ents, did they take care of the grass here, too?

Instead of answering me, Bregalad laughed even louder, a merry musical laugh, and his whole slender body shook. A flock of birds moved overhead like a small ragged dark cloud, but they avoided the forest and swerved as one, their shiny dark feathers flashing in the morning sun, and flew off toward the west. This made the ent laugh harder.

A few of the birds broke away from the flock and circled back over the three of us, they cawed somewhat like a crow, but were a bit smaller and cuter, and they seemed to enjoy flying. I had the distinct feeling that they were watching us, but not in an unfriendly, suspicious way. They flew off and Bregalad laughed again. By this time, his merriment was too infectious for me to resist, and I laughed, too. This made the ent nearly convulse before he could catch his breath again, he laughed so hard.

Luckily, Thranduil remained calm during all of the hilarity; he stood staring into the dark trees of the forest, instead of becoming irritated. When our laughter had finally dwindled down to an occasional chuckle, and nothing else happened to trigger any more of it, the king turned his attention back to us and talked to Bregalad in Elvish for a time. The ent made sweeping gestures as he spoke, and I could tell that he was giving directions and possible expert guidance to the king for our journey.

Finally, when I felt as fidgety as Amarth did, they saluted each other, bowed, and Thranduil mounted up. We set off in the direction Bregalad had pointed out, and Amarth was allowed to lope along now.

"I thought ents talked really slow, and hummed a lot."

"That particular ent," said the king, "is named Bregalad for a reason. His name means Quick Beam."

"They should have named him Chuckle Head," I told him. "It would have made more sense."

We rode over a few hills and then the prairie flattened out for as far as I could see. Thranduil kicked Amarth into a full gallop, a relief for the restless beast, and we flew. The combined sounds of thundering hooves and whistling wind made it impossible to hold a conversation.

While we rode, I thought about Mal back by the Limlight, and I realized that I was going to miss Haldir, too. I might even miss the seneschal, but I was doubtful about that. Did they miss me? Was Mal mad at the king for leaving her behind? Would Thaladir tell her about the coin toss? It was hard to feel really sorry for her, with both Haldir and Thaladir around her to keep her not only safe, but supervised. And then I wondered about where the king was taking me to, and why.

When we paused for a picnic lunch, Thranduil actually answered some questions.

First, I asked him to point out the direction of Edoras, the city where Eomer was just establishing his rule over Rohan. It was south of us. We were headed west. That probably meant that we were not visiting the Golden Hall in advance of the royal tour's arrival, which had been one of my guesses, although I could not figure out why the king would do that. Then I asked him why Bregalad had not seen many women before me.

Mostly the Rohirrim in this part of Rohan, Thranduil told me, were nomadic, and somewhat wild. They followed their herds of horses around the grasslands, making temporary camps along the way, returning to their home villages only when the winters were too severe for the horses to survive on the land. By now, it had occurred to me that the reason no one would tell me how long it would be until we reached Rohan is we were already in Rohan, or at least in a section of it.

At times, Thranduil referred to the Rohirrim as Northmen, and he told me that before the dark lord was overthrown, they avoided coming near the Fangorn forest. The river Entwash provided an imaginary boundary line. They steered clear of the plain that grew near the forest beyond that point, if they could help it. They were getting over their fears, but they still kept their women away from the trees, and their shepherds.

"Can you tell me now where we are going, majesty?" It was a shot in the dark, but I was tired of guessing.

"Orthanc." he said, and he pronounced the word differently than I was used to thinking of it, and for a moment, I was not sure what he had said. "Isengard," he added

"Can you tell me why, sire? Or is that a state secret?" For a moment, I wondered if the king fancied himself living in a tower, where he would have a good view of everything he owned.

"There is only one among the tree-shepherds that I desire to confer with, face to face," he said. "My son told me of him." He paused and smiled faintly before continuing, "Legolas said that in his ancient presence, even I would feel young again. That remains to be seen, and I have not felt young in many long years."

"You must mean Treebeard. Oh, he is there at Isengard? Of course he is."

~ Mal ~

Whoever said elves were not to be trusted was right. For all of the king's talk of how I belonged to him for the rest of my life once I had chosen to, it was surprisingly easy to discard me. Apparently, the he tired of his toys easily. But then, patience had never been one of Thranduil's more prominent character traits.

It was my own fault, of course. I shouldn't have believed him to have more than a fleeting interest in me. Not when Mary was there, his cheerful little lady with her bratty habits. How on earth could he choose her over me? But he had. And now he had left me, to rot beside this gloomy river.

But I would not cry. I would sit here on this very spot until he returned to find nothing but scattered bones. And then he would be sorry. He would regret that he could ever be so cruel to me, his poor, faithful concubine. Perhaps he would even cry. Great tears would fall like diamonds from the eyes of the mighty king of the wood-elves. Maybe he would even give up his immortal life, here on this very shore, and the waters would bring news of his sorrowful demise...

"My lady." The sound of the seneschal's voice from behind made me hastily clear my head of images of a dramatically perishing Elvenking and arrange my features into an expression I thought would be befitting of a deeply offended, possibly forever discarded, but hopefully still somewhat royal, concubine.

"Yes, Your Excellency?"

"My lady," he began again, "allow me to point out that if there was the slightest possibility that the tears of an elf were in possession of the, indeed most rare, ability to transform into gems, His Majesty would most certainly at all times carry a substantial amount of onions on his person."

He almost made me laugh. I did not know that Thaladir even had a sense of humour, and if he had, it would be far from him to joke about his precious king. He probably had no idea how funny he sounded, and I wasn't about to tell him. I put up an injured face.

"Furthermore, His Majesty's return is expected in less than seven days, an amount of time surely insufficient of causing death through starvation of a lady not previously displaying apparent signs of malnourishment. According to observations made by Caranthir, third son of Fëanor - may Mandos keep him -, the human body is capable of withstanding considerably longer periods of minimal intake of food without permanent injury occurring."

I sighed. So, on top of it all he thought I was fat. I could probably survive here on my own for a couple of days, eating bitter roots and drinking dirty river water, but that wasn't really the point, was it? Could he not see that I had just lost my reason for living?

"However, remaining seated on that rock of, no doubt, inadequate temperature is not advisable. Additionally, imminent departure is desirable. May I therefore suggest that you return to the carriage provided for your comfort?"

I shook my head and stared at him. It was hard to see clearly through the veil of tears that had began to cover my eyes in a very irritating way. I would soon cry if he didn't leave. He actually appeared somewhat uncomfortable, probably trying to decide which would be a greater breach of protocol: arriving late to Fangorn with an indisposed concubine, or leaving her behind to arrive on schedule. He left without another word.

Instead came Ithilwen and when she wrapped her soft arms around me and rested my head on her shoulder I could no longer hold back my tears. She helped me wash afterwards, and arranged my hair in a complicated fashion with many ribbons and braids she said would liven up even the most ancient ent. She even made me smile with her talk of how I had intimidated the seneschal so much that he hadn't been able to tell me the king's message yet.

"A message?"

"Yes, I heard him instruct Thaladir that you would travel in the king's carriage now as you would represent the court in Fangorn during his absence. And there is more than enough space for Miriel and me to both come with you. If you like?"

"I would love it," I told her and hugged her again.

~ Mary ~

We rode all day until we reached the Entwash, another river as large and swift as the Limlight had been. There was a place to ford, and near to that was a fishing village, although there were plenty of horses around, too. The town appeared to be mostly under construction, with half built and newly built structures and the smell of sawdust everywhere. Night had fallen and everything was dark, except for one large inn and a few small buildings near it. We actually found decent lodging for the night.

In a way, I was almost disappointed that we would be sleeping inside, instead of camping. Amarth bore some type of elvish-made gear, like saddle bags, with straps over his wide back that we sat on top of, and two pouches attached to them that hung down on either side. I had assumed they bore supplies for sleeping out of doors. The idea of having the king all alone to myself, beside a cozy campfire, had sustained me for many miserable miles. When we reached the river, my bottom was numb from riding all day and it hardly mattered anymore.

Also, I was aware of what a mess I must have been to behold. That morning, Miriel and Ithilwen were still sleeping, or at least were not in sight, when we left the royal party. It was not hard to put my hair into a braid, but they both knew how to make sure almost none of it escaped, and that was a trick I never mastered. By the end of our ride, masses of it had been blown out of the braid and hung in strings around my face, every ounce of body or curl having been stripped away by the wind.

The king stabled Amarth first, before we entered the inn. When we passed the common room, which seemed to do double-duty as the town's tavern, I paused to peek inside. The people there were tall and blonde. Mal would fit right in here. Even Thranduil did not seem out of place. I was curious about how the king would conduct business here; I had never seen him handle money before.

"Your finest room," the king ordered when he stood at the front desk. "Make sure," he added, "that there is a bathtub, hot water, clean linens on the bed, and clean towels." The king reached into his tunic, there must have been some sort of pocket within, and pulled out a leather pouch. He withdrew a glittering white gem, which made me say 'ooh', and I was not the one who got to hold it, and handed it over to the man.

The innkeeper's eyes grew wide, he swore that he would provide all of Thranduil's requests, while bowing low, a few times, and then croaked out, "Would ye be needful of a separate room for the boy here?" I heard the king heave a sigh while I peered around the room to see who the man was referring to. What boy? Then it hit me.

"I'm a girl!" I protested, but when the man's eager face turned red and shameful, I instantly forgave him. I knew what I must look like. I added, my voice softened to a Thaladir-approved tone of graciousness, "Or I should say, I'm a lady, who needs a bath."

"Indeed, forgive me, ma'am," said the flustered innkeeper. "I will see right to that, please, follow me." We were led to a small, private parlor, with a fire place and prickly horse-hair couches. I was happy to be wearing leather breeches. While we waited for our room to be ready, a serving woman brought us tea and oatmeal cookies.

Neither she, nor the innkeeper, seemed as intimidated by the elf king as the Lakemen were, and the menfolk along the Anduin. Maybe Thranduil's height and fair hair made him blend in here as one of the Rohirrim, more than he would anywhere else, except another elven realm. Of course, there were his ears, but he wore his hair down, and they were not visible.

We did not have anything like a menu to choose from, instead, after we were shown to our room, we were brought servings of what everyone else in the common room was eating for supper. The innkeeper hurriedly laid out our dinner on the table in our room. He was eager to make a good impression after his earlier mistake, and it showed. His nervousness made it evident that he had not hosted many, if any, outsiders before this night.

The room itself was spotlessly clean and smelled of pine, as if the white-washed walls had just been nailed up that day. The fireplace and hearth were made of river rocks, and they were clean, not blackened by soot. I wondered if anyone had even stayed in this room before we did.

There were bowls of barley soup, with carrots and leeks for flavor and color, and a platter of warm oatcakes with butter. For dessert, there were sliced baked apples. I felt more like I was eating horse fodder than human food, but it was good.

"What is this?" I asked the king, holding my goblet up, after the man had left us alone. We were poured what looked like frothy beer, which the innkeeper brought in a pewter pitcher. It felt thick on my tongue and tasted yeasty, and there was a honey flavor to it.

"Barley wine," said Thranduil, smacking his lips. "Drink it slowly."

"Do I taste moss?"

"Undoubtedly," he said. "There is no accounting for mortal taste." And then, after a moment, he added, "At least they have strained it well." He was gazing about the room, his eyes would rest on something, such as a piece furniture or some aspect of the decor, like a rug or wall hanging, he would stare at it, as if registering it in his mind, and then move on to something else.

Heeding his warning, I sipped the strange beer-like wine, or wine-like beer, slowly, and it tasted better after a while. I liked our room, it was larger than the rooms at Laketown, or any other human made inn that I had slept in during my time in Middle-earth, and had real glass in the windows.

As promised, there was a bath tub, in a closet all by itself, which I thought was very civilized. There was a little ledge built into the wall, for soaps and towels, within my reach, so I put my wine glass there. I left the door open and bathed alone, while Thranduil sat beside the fire across the room from me, and watched. It felt wonderful to soak in the funny tub, it was more like a wine barrel stood upright and cut in half, and had a little seat inside of it. I had to climb into it with a step-ladder.

Afterwards, I stretched out on our bed, which was notably long, although not as wide as the king's bed back at the caves, or even in his carriage. I still knew it would be a treat to watch Thranduil stretch out in it, and I watched his face when he climbed in next to me. Except there were two faces.

"Hold still, majesty," I said, while I reached out to touch at least one of the faces, to know whom to address.

"You have had too much wine," he said.

"Nonsense," I said, "I'm perfectly sober." Except it came out wrong the first time I tried to say it, and the second time. I finally settled on, "I'm fine." The kings did not look convinced, neither of them, they both shook their head.

"Now I am sure that you have had too much," they told me, both of their faces were looming over me, sometimes merging, sometimes splitting, always so handsome, so beautiful in the fire's light, even though they did make me dizzy.

"Kiss me," I said, or wanted to say, and really intended to say, except that I fell asleep first.

~*~ From Thaladir's Notebook: ~*~

Status of daily schedule: Uncertain

Remarks: His Majesty's departure for Orthanc accomplished with only minor deviation from schedule, the success thereof plausibly originating in the most favourable effect coffee has on Lady Mary. Lady Malinorne initially continued to display a somewhat improper interest in my person, which, notwithstanding, may be deemed useful under current circumstances. I am, however, presently commencing to experience some degree of doubt concerning the correctness of my advice to His Majesty regarding his choice of travel companion. I shall have to place my trust in ladies Ithilwen and Miriel in this matter. Long live Eryn Lasgalen!

To be continued...

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Chapter posted: December 13, 2006

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"Long live Thranduil, great Elf-king of Greenwood!"