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Mirkwood and Beyond

Chapter 10 / ?
Authors: Mary A and Malinornë
Pairings: Mainly Thranduil/OFCs
Warnings: Humph, only a teeny amount of nudity and elves in bed, but still... oh, and a wee bit more angst.
Disclaimer: Just playing with Tolkien characters, for fun, and not profit, do not claim to have created them. Helca and Thaladir, the king' seneschal, are our own creations and we will lend them out if asked for permission in advance.
Chapter summary: Mal further explores the king's feelings for her, Mary has unexpected company at her door, and Thaladir tries to do his best, as usual, to keep everyone in their proper places!
A/N: Yéni is the term for the long 'years' of the Elves. These are main units of time used by the Elves; one yén was equivalent to 144 years.

~ Mary ~

For a split second, I thought that Thaladir would feel tempted to drop me right on the floor after I told him that a hot bath would sober me up. I braced myself to at least receive a lecture about the unseemliness of my suggestion. However, instead, he nodded at my normally stick-stiff door guards, and, to my surprise, they both not only nodded back at him but they smiled, too, and one of them even opened my chamber door.

"Hey!" I said, "They can move! That was great! Can you make them do that again?" Unfortunately, this burst out of me before I remembered that I was supposed to be weak to the point of being a danger to myself. Just in time, I think, I quieted down and groaned as if in pain from the exertion of noticing that my sentinels actually were awake.

And they looked really cute when they smiled, too. But I did not get a chance to enjoy the view very long, for the door was shut behind us and we were alone in my bedchamber. Instead of a bath, I was apparently going to be put right to bed. And probably get a sleep spell put on me for good measure.

The traveling chest that I had been issued sat open and empty on the floor by the dressing room door. I pretended like I did not see it, because I wanted nothing to do with it. In no uncertain terms, I had forbidden Miriel to pack a single thing before I informed the king of the woeful condition of my wardrobe.

The gowns Mal and I had been given for the spring season in Mirkwood were pretty, but I was bored with them already. I wanted something sleeveless for the balmy weather of Lorien, and some nice new lingerie, too. If I was going to have to strip down for old Celeborn like I had to for Lord Bard, then I wanted something really pretty for him to see.

"So, a bath is out of the question?" I had to ask, after Thaladir put me on my bed, even though it was obvious.

"Not at all," said the seneschal, surprising me. He added, as if I should know better, "There is no reason to take a circuitous route when there is a more conveniently located entrance at hand." This made no sense because the entrances to the bathing pools were located far from my room. One was in the royal bedchamber; the other was down a few long corridors with a couple of turns along the way.

Maybe Thaladir was losing his mind? Had I said or done something to make him disoriented?

"Whatever you say, Excellency," I replied, trying not to sound as dubious as I felt.

"If you will rest there quietly, I will investigate the availability of the bathing chamber."

"Okay." I sat up and watched him step around my bed only to stand in front of the wall on the other side of it. Convinced that I was right, and that he had at last gone mad, I was just as sure that the king would blame me. Hurriedly I tried to recall everything that had happened and where I had gone wrong and driven Thaladir into the abyss, but I did not get far in my musings, for the wall slid away to reveal that there was a secret passage.

"How come I...?"

"Hush, Lady Mary," he spoke in a sharp whisper with his hand up, and from somewhere down the passageway, it must have been from some distance, I heard a noise, the echo of whatever it was that he heard before me. It was a sobbing sound, or maybe a whimper, but whichever, it was a noise emitted in distress and it came from Mal.

Instantly, Thaladir plunged into the doorway, but I stayed behind and cursed my stupid idea of acting too weak to walk. Running after him was out of the question if I wanted another bath under his capable hands.

I hoped that Mal was not alone, or the seneschal would never come back. It was no secret that he preferred her company over mine, and if she was in any way injured or ill, he would carry her to Thranduil immediately. And I could have been dying there in my room. Cautiously, and as quietly as I could, I slipped off the bed and crept to the doorway to listen.

There were no sounds at all. I got back up on the bed and laid still. Thaladir returned after a few minutes, looking pensive. He turned and leaned into the opening to listen one last time, and then, apparently satisfied with the ensuing silence, he slid the door shut slowly.

"That was Mal," I said. "What happened? Did she hurt herself?" I hoped she was not crying because she was by herself, and that the king was neglecting her. He had been noticeably too busy for any kind of fun all day, so that was not unthinkable.

"It is none of our business," intoned Thaladir. "Even so, as I know you will not let the matter rest, irrespective of what proper protocol dictates, I will tell you this at least. His Majesty has the lady Malinorne in his competent hands, and that fact alone should alleviate any imagined fears that you might have about her physical well-being."

If Thranduil was with her, then I knew he would make her feel better. I lay still on the bed and regarded the seneschal, who had just reassured me about the king's concubine, without breaking one of his own strict rules about proper palace protocol. I could not help but feel kindly toward him.

"You know what, Your Excellency?" I made myself more comfortable, pulling half of the covers over me because I just wanted to curl up and be alone now, and continued, "Sometimes I can't tell who you love more, the king or Mal, sorry, I meant His Majesty or his most royal concubine, the lady Malinorne. But it doesn't matter, really, because I think it's wonderful that you love both of them, because I love them, too."

With that said I rolled over and closed my eyes, suddenly feeling wearier and sadder than I wanted to feel. "I just wish," I heard myself saying, before I could stop it from coming out, "that sometimes you would love me as much as you love them. Now please go away, I want to go to sleep."

If Thaladir had anything to say in reply to my last remark to him, I will never know, because as soon as I said it, and before I could even regret it, I heard the outer door to my chambers being opened. The seneschal went out into the sitting room to greet whoever had entered, while I stayed where I was on the bed, pretending to be asleep in case any one cared to take notice.

If it was the king, he would not be fooled. But I had little hope that it was he, considering the episode with the secret passage and Mal's apparent distress. He was with her now and had no time for anything else. I was not suffering for any reason, so he had no cause to leave her in order to join me.

~ Mal ~

What a question. Would I accept the pale imitation of love that Thranduil offered me in return for loving him so hard it hurts? Would I let him get away so easily, just so that I could bask in his attention again, feel precious again? I still had my dignity! Or had I?

I refused to answer him. I wanted to yell "No! Never!" and perhaps cause him a little of the hurt he had caused me. It would only be right if the Elvenking would suffer a fraction of the agony he had put me through ever since I arrived to his halls, and even before that.

He had been just as selfish the first time I met him, assaulting me and automatically assuming that I would be content with serving him in any way he required just because he was an elf. Or a king. And even if I had been happy then, and countless times afterwards, it didn't mean that he could continue to use my trust for his lowly needs as it pleased him.

I wanted to yell at him, to kick and scream, but I didn't even trust myself enough to open my eyes. It was sufficiently hard to rest against his smooth body and not touch him with my hands. I knew I would capitulate the second I looked into his gaze, and gladly at that. I kept my mouth closed too, and tried my best to shut him out from the little voice in my mind that just wanted to whisper a soft "yes" and make all things well again.

"Mortal love is deceitful," the Elvenking said. "It flares up for no reason, flashes brightly but for a moment and flees with the swiftness of a swallow across the summer sky."

His poetic language took out some of the edge in his words, but they still pricked my heart. As if being capable of loving was some flaw of mortals that I ought to be ashamed of. How could he think that, how dared he! My eyes flew open and I stared at him angrily, but I fear my effect was lost, as his eyes appeared unseeing for moment.

"Certainly it burns brightly while it lasts," he continued in a distant voice, as if repeating something he had heard told, rather than speaking from personal experience, "and its flames rise high like those of a bonfire built of dry twigs in spring, spreading their heat far. Some burn for a night, a few last a season, the rare occasion for a quarter of a yén [Elvish long year]. But, the result is always the same after the matter nourishing the fire is consumed. Ashes."

"You don't know anything about love," I told him.

"Ashes... and death," he repeated, and looked deeply into my eyes, "do you wish that for me?"

A cold shiver ran down my spine. No, I would never wish him that, or any other elf, almost at least. I couldn't help considering Helca. I didn't understand exactly what he meant, but just the hint of sorrow in his voice was enough to make me shudder. The thought of this perfect being ceasing to live because of me made me feel ill.

"Then be glad that it is not possible." His chuckle held a tinge of bitterness. "What I have, I offer you."

I almost accepted, and I am not proud of myself for hesitating. But I wanted him to beg, if only a little. If he could just make it sound like he cared to have me with him, rather than any random mortal woman he could fetch from the modern world the next moment, and like he wasn't quite so convinced that I would come running as soon as he wound that silky voice around me. Mary made him say 'please' once, and I would not be contented with less.

There was an angry flash in his eyes and I winced, thinking I had gone too far, but that gentle warmth that just melted me, every time, soon replaced it.

"Will you accept my love, such as it is?" He sighed, but now he sounded more amused than resigned. "Please?"

The dangerous flashes of anger came back when I didn't respond immediately. Then it had cost him something to say it! It felt like a very small victory, but my willpower was waning fast and I realised that if I would continue to ask for more, the tables could easily be turned.

"Yes," I said out loud. My mind was in such a mess at the moment that I wasn't sure how much he could figure out of what went on in there. He nodded.

Then his arms wrapped themselves around me, and I held onto them, hard. I suddenly needed to make sure that Thranduil was really there, with me, and that I had not lost him.

His presence at my side was evident, he felt very much alive and real, and suddenly also very interested in taking up the pleasurable activities we had engaged in earlier this night. His lips grazing my neck felt good, as did his hand slowly gliding over my front. They sent me into a dreamy, half-awake state, where I was resting on lazy waves and felt a soothing breeze blow softly in my hair. Little kisses fell over my face like rose petals, and warm waters washed over me.

Then the foam of the waves took on finger-like shapes and began to apply slight pressure as they concentrated more and more on certain areas of my body. It was good, incredibly so, and I eagerly opened my legs to let the elements flow freely where they wished to.

But then there was something hard poking at my thigh. The water was gone, and I was lying on a beach with hard rocks and dry branches sticking up from the sand. Something touched my shoulder, and not in an unpleasant way, but when I turned my head to look, I saw that it was a large crab pawing me with all its legs. I screamed, scrabbled away from it and woke up in Thranduil's bed.

I was near the edge of the mattress, close to falling off, but, though his outstretched hand looked nothing like that ugly crab even in the faint light from the single torch left burning, I preferred to wrap the sheet close around me before I moved back closer to him. I made sure not to come so near that any protruding body parts of his would touch me.

"Interpreting the wishes of a mortal mind is at times an exercise in futility," he said, sighing. "Sleep, if that is what you need."

But then, I thought before I feel asleep, if he could not read everything, or at least not make sense of it... was it possible that he had not realized that I had not understood before how it worked? Or that his watching me with another would upset me? It was simply too much and I needed to sleep now, badly.

~ Mary ~

It was Miriel who had come to my chambers. She had brought dinner on a tray for me that she had saved, bless her heart. But I continued to pretend that I was asleep until she went away with the seneschal, leaving the tray behind. I wondered if Thaladir was going to tell her that I had too much wine to explain my lack of response, but of course he would not.

Feeling blue, I pouted for a long while and wished that I could go crawl into the royal bed with Thranduil and Mal. Even if I no longer hate it that I can not be with him every night and that I have to share, I can not say that I ever feel happy about it. Sometimes I can handle it well, sometimes not. This particular night was a not. I missed the king, and all the more so because he was not 'with me' inside either, or I could not feel him there.

I assumed that Mal was taking all of his attention right now, which was probably fair. I had him for two nights and she probably needed double the usual amount of king to bring her back to normal balance, or something. I knew I would have if I had slept alone for a whole two nights.

But even though I wanted to be left alone, I felt lonely. I had not even seen Thranduil since that morning, by the carriages. And that made me sad because I knew we were leaving for Lorien the next day, after Legolas got there to take over, and I would probably not get another chance to be truly alone with the king for many days, possibly weeks. I would have started crying except that I heard the oddest noise, and had to sit up in bed to get a better listen.

At first, I was convinced that the sound must be coming from the direction of the newly revealed secret passage, and I got out of bed to press my head against the wall where Thaladir had been standing a while before. I heard nothing, and every attempt that I made to open the secret door failed. But while I stood there, contemplating the smooth stone surface, I heard the odd noise again.

It was coming from behind me, from the main room. I followed it to my door. Just outside, there was a scraping sound, like one of the guards, or even both of them, were moving their spears around, or something equally strange. Maybe the nod from the seneschal, earlier, had sprung them into motion finally and they could not keep themselves still any more? That could be interesting. I opened the door and peeked out.

"Hey! What happened to my sentries? What are you guys doing out here?"

"We were given the duty at your door tonight, darli... er, I mean, Lady Mary," said Elladan, staring straight ahead, trying not to grin, while gripping his spear in front of him, with as much protective ferocity as he could without snapping it in two.

"And it is a proud duty," added Elrohir. I had to wonder how many times they had whacked each other with those spears before I had heard them.

"Come in here and help me eat my dinner," I told them, and of course they did, quickly depositing their spears just inside the door, with their thick leather tunics beside them. Under their issued armor, they had linen shirts on, and they looked very handsome. We spread a cloth on my bed and ate there, while they told me what had happened with them since we had last been together.

"We are going with you to Lorien," said Elladan. He had taken it upon himself to set the late dinner out for us, and used a pocketknife to slice us some cheese for our bread.

"To see our grandparents," added Elrohir. There was no wine on the tray to drink with our meal, but he had a flask in his pocket that he drank from to wash his mouthful of apple down with before speaking.

"And lend our swords to His Majesty's honor guard as we march there through the forest." As he said this, he reached for his non-existent weapon that was normally attached to him, and sighed. Elladan took the flask from him and passed it to me when he was done.

I could tell that the twins missed their swords. Unconsciously their hands would travel to their scabbard hip every once in a while, a well worn habit that neither could stop themselves from performing. It made me feel sorry for them.

"So who sent you here to guard my door?" I had to assume that the king at least was aware of this situation, and did not fear anymore that the twins would try to rescue me. But I was astonished to learn that it had been the seneschal who had ordered them to trade with my normal wooden sentinels, and I wondered why he had done it.

"Maybe," I guessed out loud, "he felt bad about interrupting us earlier?" The twins just shrugged, equally puzzled over both Thaladir's request and his underlying reasons why. "Or it could be a test, to see if you two could behave yourselves here before we take you with us?"

"No one can stop us from visiting our family," remarked Elrohir. Elladan agreed, but he did not say so, because his mouth was stuffed with honey cake, instead he had to settle for nodding enthusiastically.

"Well, whatever the reason, I'm not going to worry about it," I concluded, once I was full enough from the delicious food to think of something better to do with my time than miss Thranduil all alone in my room. "Who wants to help me put on my dancing skirt? I have a feeling I am not going to be allowed to take it with me to Lorien."

And this time, one of them even remembered to lock the dang door.

~ Mal ~

Thranduil was gone in the morning, like I had expected him to be, but it annoyed me nevertheless. He should have guessed that I needed to be reassured again, to rest calmly beside him and just be held. What good was mind reading if he couldn't even guess something that simple?

But I wasn't really angry with him anymore, even though I felt it would take time before I would trust his motives again, if ever. I contemplated the faults of the Elvenking as I washed and dressed, and realized that the benefits of staying with him at large outweighed the disadvantages, despite the recent shocking revelation.

On my way to the great hall I met Canath, the normally shy treasurer. He seemed uncharacteristically happy and confident, and there was nothing of the usual anxiety about him. Perhaps he had accepted it then, that he would rule in the absence of the king, his son and seneschal. The thought didn't seem quite as impossible now as it had the day before.

"He is here," the elf declared with joy, and I thought he meant the king. Such devotion only had to make me happy about being with Thranduil. I was just going to tell him how fortunate the wood-elves were to have such a formidable ruler, when he spoke again. "His Majesty's son is home."

Legolas was here! I thanked Canath for the information and rushed to the dining hall. I had begun to believe that we would again leave before the rightful heir was back and I got the chance to meet him again.

I found Legolas in the centre of attention, surrounded by a large group of elves that I recognized as younger court officials. The stories he entertained them with were obviously of the humorous sort, because there was much laughter and grinning faces around.

"Did they really have beards this long?" asked a tiny voice that could only be Mirime's. Legolas answer drowned in high-pitched giggles.

My attempt to make a discreet entrance not to interrupt them turned out to be hopelessly unsuccessful. As if it hadn't been enough that Mirime came to fetch me from the table I had chosen, the other elves began to dissipate as soon as the two of us approached Legolas. She excused herself, saying something about dusting bookcases for His Excellency, and I was suddenly alone with the prince. He patted the bench and I sat down next to him with my breakfast plate and drinking bowl of apple juice.

"Have some wine?" He looked at my juice and chuckled. "No, you don't drink that in the morning either, do you?"

After the mandatory exchange of pleasantries, I asked how he had been all this time, with only dwarves for company, and Sheraiah. His silly grin at my mentioning his mortal girlfriend's name stretched nearly all the way to his ears.

"Ah, I have suffered no harm," he said. "Gimli's people are an entertaining lot once one gets past their gruff appearance. If only they would keep a more varied drink to their meals!"

He raised his now empty goblet and smiled fondly at the elf who hurried to refill it. "I think I shall enjoy myself on my father's throne, for as long as it lasts."

I was sure the Mirkwood elves would enjoy having him with them again, too, regardless in which capacity. Though the Elvenking's halls were never gloomy, Legolas' presence seemed to add a light, fresh playfulness that was contagious.

"Perhaps," I told him after we talked some more, "there is something you want me to bring back from Lorien? Or someone to give your regards to? As you can't travel with us, I mean, which is a pity."

I had thought about that, how unfair it was that he had to come back here only to wave goodbye to Elladan and Elrohir, and knowing that he was missing out on an adventure. But he didn't appear at all sad, and said he had plenty of freedom to travel where he wished at all other times.

"Give Haldir a kiss," he said, and laughed heartily at my expression of shock. "Not from me, silly, from yourself. And do not be coy about it. I know that you like him." He grinned wolfishly, but then his features became serious.

"But, as you do ask, there is someone else who would have a message brought forth. Normally, Ada would be the one to convey an official greeting, but in this particular case I believe him to be an unwilling, and perhaps even unreliable, courier." The dwarven King under the Mountain would hardly have anything to say to the elves of Lorien, but I thought I knew already who the greeter was.


"Aye. He asks that the Lady of Light be reminded of his utmost respect for her." I nodded. "And also - but only if her high husband is not near, his instructions were very clear about that - his undying love." He grinned, and I had to do the same. It was touching how the dwarf had come to appreciate the elf-lady he had first been so suspicious towards. I promised him that I would be very discreet and complete the mission in perfect accordance with Gimli's wishes. He'd probably come chasing me with an axe in my dreams if I did it wrong!

Legolas laughed at that thought, and then said that he, regrettably, had to leave me to my food and drink, as there were a few others he wanted to be sure to meet before our departure in the afternoon. As he left, I caught a glimpse of two dark heads and two identical grins in the door, and I didn't doubt he would do his best to enjoy the few remaining hours as irresponsibly as possible. Poor Thaladir!

~ Mary ~

Even though Elladan and Elrohir had done their best in bed to make me forget about other elves, especially royal ones, I still felt grumpy when I got up the next day. They were gone, along with their helpful spears, and Miriel was nowhere in sight. I hoped that we were not leaving too soon, at least not before I had a chance to ask for some nicer dresses, but figured that I was probably the last one up and everyone else was downstairs, waiting for me.

The twins had enjoyed and applauded my private dancing performance the night before, and were impressed with both the flimsy skirt and the fancy slithering movements I had learned from watching the exotic troupe of performers while I was in Dale. I was paying for all of it now, as well as the vigorous gymnastics my temporary sentries had put me through afterwards, with some stiffness and soreness in interesting places.

The dining-room was empty, but there was coffee for me; the cooking elves had learned how to prepare it exactly how I liked it and I went back into the kitchen to thank them. I had no idea where anyone else was and what they were doing and I did not want to know. I stayed in the kitchen and ate; at least I was not alone in there.

Maybe they had all left without me. That could be a good thing, except that I would miss the king. But I would not have to lift my skirts for Lord Celeborn, or be frowned at for days by Thaladir. No matter what the seneschal had said about trusting me to behave like a lady, I knew that he was not about to let me out of his sight in Lorien. Very little fun would be had amongst the Galadhrim with that vulture hanging over my shoulder.

And if Thaladir was gone from Mirkwood and I had been left there, then maybe I would get a chance to sneak back into his room and see his record books. Legolas might even help me. In fact, there was a lot that I would be able to do, such as go barefoot and wear my leggings all day long, and I was starting to actually like the idea of being left behind when I noticed that the entire kitchen staff had disappeared while a familiar voice broke into my happy daydreams.

"Did you truly believe that you had been forgotten?" He was standing right behind me; as usual I had not heard him approach.

"I didn't think you were listening to me." I turned to look at Thranduil's face and added, "How's Mal? I heard her crying last night, in the bathing chambers, by accident." It was not as if I expected him to tell me a single thing about her, but I did want him to know that he would have to pretend not to know what I was talking about if he tried to change the subject.

"Our pending departure has been needlessly stressful on a few of my subjects. One would think we were journeying to Mordor with some of the long faces about the palace this morning. Only the perpetually restless peredhil seem eager to be off." I could imagine how happy Elladan and Elrohir probably were just to have their swords back on their hips.

"Is everyone ready to go right now, except me?" It would be typical, if true, and one more demerit for the record books, I assumed. And I never had packed nor could I remember if my chest was still in my room when I got out of bed earlier, come to think of it.

"My son has arrived; we will depart shortly."

"Rats, because I was going to ask you about..."

"Done. You have your new gowns. They are already aboard your carriage."

"What about...?" I was going to mention something about new lingerie, too, but was stopped again.

"Yes, that too," he answered with a wicked grin. "And I am sure Celeborn will be suitably impressed."

"Well then, what about a kiss? Can I have one? Or did you pack those away, too?" The king pulled me out of my chair to grant this request without further speech. His hands moved over me, too, magically removing all the aches and pains of my demanding night with the twins.

Legolas interrupted us, but I was getting a little dizzy anyway, and it was time to breathe again. It was good to see the prince, and I was full of questions as the three of us left the dining hall. He told me that Sheraiah did not come as I had hoped, but was currently holding her own with the dwarves under the Lonely Mountain, in Dale.

Specifically, she was assisting Gimli in caring for his aged and ailing father, Gloin. A natural-born nurse, she had impressed even the doughty dwarves with her stamina and cheerful willingness to take on any task she was capable of doing. The dwarves of Gloin's household also believed that her 'killer pancakes' were all that was keeping the white-bearded patriarch alive so far.

"Sheraiah still would have come along with me," said Legolas just as we reached the gates, "pancakes or no pancakes. But, sadly, Gloin's health has taken a turn for the worse in the past few days, and she refused to leave Gimli there without her help."

It sounded just like Sheraiah, to care for the ill even if it meant missing a trip to Mirkwood with Legolas, and I loved her so much for that.

The entire royal traveling party was assembled, ready to go, with an even larger contingent of honor guards to escort us. Legolas told me that thirty six elves would be riding along with us this time, which meant that twelve more had been added since the last royal tour to Dale. I could not imagine why, since we would be traveling for most of the way right through Thranduil's own lands. But maybe they needed the practice.

Elladan and Elrohir were dressed in the dark green tunics of the Mirkwood royal escort, and only they could appear to swagger while seated on horse-back, so proud they were of having their swords back on their hips. Mal had an anxious air about her, but she was smiling, even if a bit wistfully. However, the farewell ceremonies had not even begun yet. It would still be a little while before we went anywhere.

~ Mal ~

As the royal party, minus the king, and Mary, gathered around the two small carriages under Thaladir's critical eye, Ithilwen told me that I had better not get seated yet. It would be some time before the seneschal was satisfied with the appearance of the honour guard, though I couldn't see anything about them that wasn't perfect. Neither did she, at least not in Anarion.

There seemed to be horses everywhere, one for every elf. The Imladris twins made theirs dance over the courtyard in perfect unison, and the noble steeds appeared as eager to get on the way as their masters.

Then Thranduil came, accompanied by Mary and Legolas, and I looked around for the huge carriage that was his. I could see part of it down by the stables, and as far I could tell it was looking quite deserted. Had the king changed his mind and would not travel with us?

For a second I thought that he would stay, and that it was my fault for making a scene the previous night. But then he assisted Mary into her carriage and as I watched them, I heard a throat clearing right beside my ear. Thaladir bowed his head slightly and offered me his hand.

I took it and soon was seated comfortably in my carriage. It felt bigger than it looked from the outside, and although there was already some luggage inside, there was plenty of room for me. Ithilwen could easily fit in beside me on the cushioned seat, but I was told that she preferred to go on horseback.

Everything seemed ready for departure, but then the farewell ceremonies began, and the speeches. I found it hard to concentrate, because of the lack of sleep, and didn't pay too much attention to what was being said, not until someone tapped at the collapsible roof of my carriage. It was up at the moment, which seemed a bit unnecessary, as the sky was clear and the afternoon sun not hot enough to be unpleasant.

"You will want to keep that raised at all times," Legolas said in a low voice as if he was telling me a secret. "There are still spiders in some parts of the forest," he continued, "and though they are not very poisonous, most ladies find it less than pleasurable to have one fall into their lap." I shuddered at the mere thought of it.

"Legolas Thranduilion," a stern voice said, and said elf smiled guiltily. "My lady, do not believe His young Highness. Although I am confident that he will take adequate care of the realm, his playfulness at times oversteps the boundaries of decorum." He frowned. Legolas stuck out his tongue in an endearingly funny gesture that Thaladir hopefully did not notice.

"I assure you most firmly," the seneschal continued in a even voice that was probably supposed to sound competent and comforting, but was more on the sleep-inducing side, "that all creatures inhabiting His Majesty's forest are capable of fending for themselves. Consequently, those of them that choose for their habitat the trees, such as the great forest spider, Ungol-e-Daur or, in the ancient tongue, Alta Taureliante, are able climbers and do not lose their foothold. You have nothing to fear."

Finally, the travel party began moving, with Thranduil taking the lead on his black stallion. Six of the guards followed, three abreast, and then came my carriage. I could see six more guards behind me, and assumed that the last group would follow behind Mary, possibly with Thaladir among them so that he could keep an eye on everyone. Ithilwen rode beside my carriage, and I was happy for her company.

I felt both excited and anxious as we crossed the bridge and set out into the unknown. True, Mary and I had often ventured into this part of the forest on our horses, but it felt totally different now that we were leaving the place that had been our home for so many months. Soon, however, the steady rocking of the carriage lulled me to sleep.

My slumber was disturbed by fat spiders that landed on the carriage roof with a soft smack and then rolled off onto the ground with their legs wiggling in all directions, and until I woke up I counted myself lucky for having followed Legolas' advice.

Later, I was relieved to find that the bouncing sounds had come from large drops of rain. The fabric over my head was dotted with moist spots, just as the cloaks of the elves riding in front of me, and there was nothing wiggly in sight. I even leaned out of my carriage to look at the forest road. Nothing there either, only the soft, even carpet of last year's brown leaves.

The rain became heavier, and I was again grateful for my roof, though for a more realistic reason. It made sense that neither the seneschal nor the soldier elves of the honour guard would complain about getting wet, but it impressed me that Ithilwen seemed likewise unaffected. She had raised the hood of her cloak over her head, but made no sign to be annoyed with the weather. I sank back onto my cushions and put a blanket over my legs.

When I awoke the next time, the carriage was standing still. The air was full of the fresh smell that comes after a summer rain, and a sheer mist rose from the ground. It was nearly dark, but the grey dusk was still enough for me to discern the king's flaxen hair as he walked towards me with long steps.

"Come," he announced as he opened the carriage door, "here we shall make merry."

To be continued...

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Chapter posted: March 23, 2005

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