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Legolas came out of the palace and into the hot summer morning, glad to have escaped the chaos that reigned in his usually orderly home. Today was a day of great importance to Thranduil and his people. Legolas’s oldest brother Ithilden, the crown prince of the Woodland Realm, would be married this evening on the green in front of the palace. All of Thranduil’s people had been invited to the feast and bonding ceremony. This morning, the preparations going on inside the palace had reached the point of frenzy. Preparations were also under way on the green in front of Legolas as Elves hung lanterns and arranged silken hangings and tables and places to sit. But at least out here, no one was likely to corner Legolas to ask his opinion on a flower arrangement.
At the end of the bridge that crossed the river in front of the palace, he found his friend Annael, leaning lazily back against the bridge railing and munching on roasted sunflower seeds. In the last few months, he had seen Annael less frequently than had been their custom because Annael had joined the ranks of novice warriors, something Legolas would not do until the autumn. At least, he hoped it would be in the autumn. Annael’s time was less his own now, for he not only had intensified weapons training, but also performed chores in the stables and armories and rode out on training missions that lasted for varying periods. Legolas tried to rejoice for Annael’s progress and to control both his jealousy over Annael’s new status and his loneliness at the loss of his friend’s more or less constant companionship, but he sometimes found it difficult. To both of their satisfaction, however, today was a holiday and they had planned to spend it together amusing themselves.
Annael looked at him and grinned. “You look like you are escaping a pursuing Orc,” he said. “How are the wedding preparations proceeding?”
“Every one of my naneth’s aunts and cousins is here,” Legolas said in exasperation, “and they all have ideas on how the feast could have been better organized. I cannot understand why they are so agitated. It is not their son who will be bonded; it is Ithilden, and Adar is not disturbed at all, so far as I can see.”
Annael laughed. “My naneth was fretting yesterday that the affair would not be elaborate enough because there were only males in your household.”
Legolas snorted. “Between my adar’s steward and the housekeepers, things were plenty elaborate enough.” He shook himself slightly as if shaking off an unwelcome memory. “Let us go before someone decides to ask us to wind daisies around the bridge railing.”
“You might want to look over there first,” said Annael, jerking his head to indicate the river behind him. Both of them turned and leaned on the railing.
On a rock at the edge of the river sat two maidens with their backs to the bridge. They were dangling their feet in the water with their skirts pulled up to their knees. Legolas immediately recognized one of them as Miriwen, whose company he had shyly sought for months now, speaking to her when they met accidentally and, when he could, sitting next to her during events taking place on the open green in front of the palace. Miriwen’s hair was the red-brown color of polished autumn oak leaves. Ordinarily she wore it loose, flowing over her back in a wide silken ribbon that reached to her waist. But today, perhaps because of the heat, she had braided it and then twisted the braid to the top of her head. Legolas looked at the back of her long neck and her shoulder blades, clearly outlined through the thin fabric of her dress, and felt his heart contract at what seemed to him to be the exposure of her vulnerability.
He looked back to see Annael grinning at him. “Are you going to talk to her?” he asked.
Legolas grimaced. “She is with her friend,” he said.
“But if you go to talk to her, the friend will probably leave,” counseled Annael. He, too, had been making tentative forays toward maidens in the last few months, and he had learned some things about the dance of approach and withdrawal that the young perform.
Legolas hesitated and then finally shook his head. “I will see her tonight at the feast,” he said. “Let us do as we planned and go to swim in the pond. It is so hot that I cannot imagine how people will be able to eat and dance tonight.”
“It looks like it might rain anyway,” said Annael.
“Do not say that,” Legolas shuddered. “If the whole ceremony and feast had to be moved inside at the last minute, the cousins and aunts would all grow frantic.”
The two of them set off together toward the path that led to the pond.
Thranduil listened gravely to his wife’s Aunt Glilan as she worried about whether the lanterns currently being hung on the green needed to be wreathed in flowers or could be left as they were. Behind Glilan, out of her sight, his wife’s cousin Galenadiual smiled broadly at him, daring him to keep a sober face. But Thranduil had not sat through centuries of court sessions without learning how to control his face when petitioners became overwrought. Under ordinary circumstance, he quite liked Glilan; she was simply excited about this wedding, and so she fussed.
Thranduil finally held up his hand placatingly. “Glilan, I bow to your judgment in these matters and give you leave to order them as you think best.”
Glilan flushed at the compliment. “Thank you, Thranduil. I will see to it now.” She began to leave but then turned back. “You have remembered the bride’s gift, have you not?” she asked anxiously.
He looked at her and frowned. “Bride’s gift?” he said uncertainly. “What bride’s gift?” Then, at the look of horror on her face, he gave in and laughed. “Yes, I have remembered the bride’s gift,” he said. “Do not worry. All is in order. My steward has been planning this affair for a year now. I do not think that you will be disappointed.”
At this point, Galenadiual stepped forward and took Glilan’s elbow. “Come,” she said. “Let us see how things are proceeding on the green.” She led the other woman from the room, throwing a mischievous smile back over her shoulder at Thranduil as they left.
Left alone, Thranduil relaxed and thought with satisfaction about his oldest son. For centuries, he had respected and relied on Ithilden’s judgment and his capable command of the Mirkwood forces. That he was now about to bond himself to Alfirin pleased Thranduil mightily. He had wished for Ithilden to marry for some time, and that wish had nothing to do with a concern for securing a successor to the rule of the Woodland Realm. The immortality of Elves and the existence of Ithilden’s two younger brothers meant that his people were reasonably assured of secure governance, or as least as assured as was possible in a time of war. No, his wish for this marriage sprang to a small degree from his sense of propriety and to a much larger one from his wish for his son’s happiness. Thranduil had experienced a fortunate marriage that had made him a better person. He wished each of his sons to have that experience too. Even now, he felt the tug of his own bond with Lorellin and wished that she were here to see this day.
Lorellin would have liked Alfirin, he thought. He liked her himself. She was an artist, a weaver whose work hung in many Mirkwood homes, including Thranduil’s. And to his home, she had brought a new dimension, even during the betrothal period. Thranduil and his sons were not insensitive to beauty; no Elf could be. But they were sometimes too absorbed in their duties to Mirkwood to take time for beauty. Alfirin always took such time because to do so was part of her being. She had brought more color and texture into their lives. He would look up one day to find that the serviceable woolen throw on the back of his chair had been replaced with one that was immeasurably soft to the touch and in which muted purples and blues and greens faded into one another to form a shimmering whole. Or he would reach for a cup of tea and realize that someone had found the cups and saucers that Lorellin had chosen and brought them out again. The spirits of everyone in the household benefited from what she brought even though they had not previously recognized its absence.
In response, Thranduil’s closely-knit family had gradually opened up to make room for Alfirin. She had captured Legolas’s devotion rather easily. She had a brother who was about his age and plainly understood how awkward the age was. In his buoyant moods, Legolas amused her, and she laughed at his jokes. She also sympathized discreetly on the increasingly rare occasions when he got into trouble. As he grew used to her, he seemed to find her easy to be around, perhaps because she never acted as the source of discipline that his father and older brothers represented.
Eilian, she saw much less often. He was home only occasionally, spending most of his time captaining the patrol that hunted to the south. For reasons that Thranduil did not understand, Alfirin had been cautious around Eilian at first, only gradually responding to his straightforward simplicity and the love and respect that he and Ithilden obviously bore one another. In contrast, Eilian seemed to have liked her from the start, and in any case if she made Ithilden happy, then Eilian would love her. Thranduil had been surprised and then worried by her early wariness, for they were of an age and must have known one another growing up. Whatever had troubled their relationship had now passed, however, and they seemed to have formed a peace based on their mutual love of Ithilden.
There was a discreet knock at the door, and Thranduil’s steward Nyndir entered. “My lord,” he said, with a sketchy bow, “we have finally gotten the big bed moved from the guest quarters and set up in the Crown Prince’s chambers.”
“Good,” said Thranduil. “And the other matters?”
“The mattress has been restuffed, and there are new linen sheets. They should be very comfortable.”
“Good,” said Thranduil again. Then the two Elves grinned at one another, memories of their own wedding nights flashing through their minds.
At that moment, a wail sounded from the hallway, and Glilan burst into the room. “It is raining,” she cried. “And I vow it looks as if it will rain all day. Thranduil, you must do something!”
Eilian leaned back against the tree trunk and enjoyed the mist of fine summer rain that occasionally penetrated the dense foliage overhead. He and Ithilden had taken refuge from the wedding preparations in a tree not far from the green. Now they relaxed and shared a cache of bread, cheese, and cider that Eilian had snared from the busy palace kitchen. Time between them was precious because it was rare and likely to become rarer still once Ithilden was wed.
Eilian eyed the flurry of activity now occurring on the green as servants hastened to shelter anything that might be damaged by the rain. “I am always astonished to see what an involved occasion a wedding is,” he commented. “Somehow it seems that the two people involved should simply be able to gather with their families.”
“Would that that were so,” said Ithilden fervently. “If you think it is bad observing a wedding, you should be one of the participants. You will see what it is like when you wed.”
Eilian shrugged. “That is unlikely to happen for some time,” he said cheerfully. “I would not wish anyone to tie themselves to me while I am away so much.” And in such dangerous circumstance, he did not add, although both of them thought it. “It would not be fair,” he said.
Ithilden mused quietly. Eilian was right, of course. A marriage between Elves was permanent, and even the death of one spouse did not release the other to marry again. Thranduil was still married to their mother, even though she had been in the Halls of Mandos for over thirty years. Warriors often hesitated to marry when they knew they were likely to be in constant peril. Moreover, Elves tended to have children soon after they married and the strength and wisdom of both parents was needed for their successful bearing and raising.
“I cannot remove you from command of the southern patrol,” he said slowly. “I have no one that I trust so well to replace you, and besides I think that Adar would object if his son were brought home while other people’s sons stayed in danger.”
“I am not asking you to remove me,” Eilian responded rather sharply. “I have told you before that I like the excitement. Serving in the home guard would render me mad in about a month.”
Ithilden shook his head regretfully. “Still, I would wish for you to have what I have with Alfirin.”
Eilian grinned. “Some day,” he said cheerfully. “For now, I will settle for flirting with all the pretty maidens that I can find.”
Ithilden smiled, hesitated, and then carefully asked, “Eilian, what has been between you and Alfirin?”
“What do you mean?” Eilian sounded puzzled.
Ithilden hesitated again. “You and she are of an age. I had thought, perhaps, that you might once have been...,” he groped for the right word. “Friendly,” he finished unhappily.
Eilian stared at him in surprise. “Nay,” he said immediately. “Never.”
Ithilden looked relieved. “Then why was she so standoffish with you at first? I asked her, and she would not tell me, so I thought, well, never mind what I thought.”
Eilian smiled wryly. “You are marrying an honorable woman, Ithilden. I suppose that she hesitated to spread gossip about me.”
“To be truthful, I have very little memory of Alfirin as a child. I know that you find it hard to believe that I, along with everyone else, was not instantly in love with her, but she was quiet as a child, and I was not.”
Ithilden smiled in memory at that admission and waited for his brother to go on.
“I do remember her from the time I was a bit older than Legolas, I suppose. I made a few tentative overtures, but she would have nothing to do with me. She thought that I was too wild. An opinion, I might add, that Adar shared,” Eilian finished dryly.
Ithilden blinked at him. “She rebuffed you?” he asked in astonishment.
“Yes,” Eilian was amused. “It happens from time to time with the more sensible women.”
Ithilden leaned back against the tree trunk. “Sensible,” he rolled the word in his mouth. “Yes, she is usually sensible, but there are times when she is not sensible at all.” A slow, sensuous smile spread over his face.
Now Eilian was really amused. “Come,” he said. “We are getting wet, and we had better go in. Although,” he added with a laugh, “judging from the look on your face, perhaps a dousing in cold rain is just what you need. Hang on for only a little longer, brother.”
The wedding feast was to begin at the hour of star opening. Contrary to Glilan’s prediction, the rain had stopped by and the grounds had had time to dry. Wood chips had been scattered in the few places where mud still lingered. To everyone’s relief, the rain had brought cooler temperatures and the evening was fine.
At the appointed hour, the two families had assembled in the palace for the traditional exchange of gifts. The families now stood facing one another in formal array. Alfirin stood with her mother, Gwaleniel, who was a healer, her father, Erendrinn, who was one of Thranduil’s foresters, and her younger brother. Thranduil and his sons faced them. As was traditional, Thranduil began the exchange. He approached the tall, slim young woman with the deceptively fragile appearance who was to be his daughter-in-law. Thranduil had worried at first that she might not be strong enough for life in the palace with a warrior husband. But her strength of character had emerged gradually to his deep satisfaction. Now he placed around her neck an intricately worked gold chain from which hung a row of delicate pearls.
“My daughter,” he said, “I welcome you to our family. No jewel in my realm is more precious than you are in the love that you and Ithilden bear for one another.” He kissed her gently on the forehead and then stepped back.
Gwaleniel now approached Ithilden. Thranduil knew that Alfirin’s parents too had worried when the couple first announced their desire to become betrothed. Ithilden had serious responsibilities both as crown prince and as commander of Mirkwood’s forces. They had been concerned that he would be preoccupied and might neglect their daughter. And Ithilden was sometimes self confident to the point of arrogance. He could overwhelm someone who was less assured without even knowing that he was doing it. During the last year, however, they had come to value him as patient, dutiful, and serious, and they believed that he loved their daughter wholeheartedly. Now Gwaleniel placed a chain around his neck from which hung a single red jewel that caught and reflected the light of the candles on a nearby table.
“My son,” she said, “I welcome you to our family. We treasure you as we do our own children, and take you into our hearts as you and Alfirin have taken one another.” She drew his head down so that she could kiss him on the forehead, and then she stepped back to her place.
Thranduil smiled. He signaled to the servant at the door, who slipped out to alert the musicians that the time had come. Alfirin and Ithilden joined hands to lead the procession, and neither of them was able to hide the jolt of excitement that coursed though them at the other’s touch. Ithilden remembered Eilian’s earlier joking words, “Hang on for only a little longer,” he admonished himself and only hoped that he could.
Thranduil’s minstrels began to play as the two families approached the green, and the assembled guests could not suppress a cheer. The families walked to their places at the tables and everyone sat down to try to do justice to the elaborate meal that the palace kitchen had spent a week preparing. The musicians wandered about the green playing songs that guests requested as well as those of their own choosing. Thranduil decided to ignore the fact that some of the requested songs were bawdy. Such play was traditional at weddings, and given that weddings were about the joining of bodies as much as about love and the joining of families, bawdiness was to be expected.
The feast was long, with many courses, and as it drew toward its end, people rose to wander around and speak to one another. Eilian left his seat to Thranduil’s left and set off to speak to a young woman some way further down the table. Thranduil watched, knowing that his middle son was exerting the light charm that came so easily to him. The young woman’s manner suggested that she knew exactly what Eilian’s attentions were worth and intended to enjoy them, temporary though they might be. Thranduil sighed. He knew as well as Ithilden did that Eilian was in no position to marry. Still, Thranduil wished for better things for him. But then, Thranduil also wished for peace and safety and the restoration of
As if by unspoken accord, Legolas and Miriwen drifted off into the trees at the edge of the green. They had watched one another from their places with their families, and when people began to leave their places at the table to speak to friends and neighbors, the two of them had risen and circled the green toward one another. Now they had joined hands and walked away into the woods until the voices on the green were muted. They stopped and turned toward one another in silence. For a moment they stood looking at one another, and suddenly neither was in any doubt about what they had come here to do.
Legolas felt his heart speed up and realized he was having a difficult time drawing a breath. Then he and Miriwen leaned toward one another and pressed their lips gently together.
Legolas was inexperienced but he was not unobservant, and he had spent the last year in almost daily company with a betrothed couple. Ithilden and Alfirin had been discreet, but Legolas had still seen more than they undoubtedly intended. He used his new-found knowledge now.
He parted his lips and drew Miriwen’s lower lip between his own, sucking at it gently. She gasped slightly and opened her mouth in surprise. He tentatively slipped his tongue along between her lips and was deeply gratified when she made a small astonished sound. In his mind, he faintly sensed her wonder and her trust in him.
They pulled back and stared at one another, dazed by the power that they had sensed in the touch of lips and tongue. They had cautiously begun to approach one another again when a voice that was all too near called, “Legolas!” They jumped apart in dismay, and after a moment, Eilian emerged from the surrounding greenery. “I think that the ceremony will start soon,” he said easily. “We should return to the green.”
Reluctantly, Legolas and Miriwen nodded agreement. Legolas would not have trusted himself to speak just them. Holding hands, they followed Eilian back to the green. As they reached it, a soft voice to their right called, “Miriwen!” They turned to see Miriwen’s mother beckoning her. “Hello, Legolas,” she said kindly, and then turned to her daughter. “Come, child. We have been looking for you.” And she put her arm around her daughter’s shoulders and led her back to her family.
Eilian put an echoing arm around his little brother’s shoulders and murmured in his ear, “Kissing maidens in the woods is dangerous business, brat. The next time, you might not get a warning before someone interrupts you.” Legolas flushed scarlet, and Eilian drew him in the opposite direction from Miriwen to join a group of young warriors arguing about the best way to ambush Orcs. Eilian ruthlessly repressed any idea that interfering with Legolas’s activity might be hypocritical on his part. This was his baby brother, and he had no intention of letting him venture into perilous territory.
From across the green, Thranduil saw the young couple emerge from the trees, hand in hand, saw Miriwen’ mother retrieve her, and saw Eilian steer Legolas into safer pursuits. Even from that distance, he could see that Legolas’s face was flushed. Much to his son’s chagrin, his fair coloring had always made it impossible to hide the tell-tale rush of warmth. Thranduil sighed, half in amusement and half in dismay. His youngest son’s rush toward adulthood still caught him by surprise occasionally. He had seen Legolas hesitantly approaching this girl over the last few months and had recognized that he was now at the age when young Elves began to cautiously test what it meant to be male and female together.
He had never worried overly much about this age with either of his older sons and did not with Legolas either. In Elves, the linking of sex and bonded love was so deeply ingrained that the young usually limited their physical experimentation to match their more shallow emotional attachments. Sexual attraction led to and from bonding, from serious love, not infatuation. Still, he thought, it would not hurt to prevent these two from having too much privacy together. And it was probably a good thing that Legolas would soon become a novice warrior and would have less time on his hands to spend in such interesting activities. Elves as young as Legolas and Miriwen sometimes chose their mates and waited until they came of age to be bonded. But like Eilian, Legolas was not going to be in a position to marry at any time in the near future.
Thranduil thought again of Lorellin, as he had so often on this day. He wished for his sons nothing less than the joining of spirit and body that he had had with their mother and hoped one day to have again.
Ithilden and Alfirin sat quietly between their parents at the table at the head of the green. They had spoken little this evening. What they had to say to one another tonight would be said at the bonding ceremony and after. Now they picked at their food and waited, although their wait was not altogether patient. Ithilden alternately held Alfirin’s hand, put his arm around her shoulders, and ran his hand lightly down her arm. She, in turn, stroked his palm with her fingers or put her hand on his chest as she leaned her head against his shoulder. Each touch sent both of them into shivers. They had waited for a year, their love and their desire for one another growing stronger with each passing day.
Ithilden put his arm about Alfirin and drew her back to lean against him. Ai, how he loved her. He loved her artist’s sense of beauty and her gentleness, both of which were comforts to his spirit when he had seen too many ugly things. And he had come to realize that even as her healer mother and forester father had taught her to despise the evil being done to the people and the very trees of their home, they had not shielded her from it. He valued the quiet strength that lay beneath her gentle manner. And he loved her body. He loved the wavy dark hair that now spilled over his shoulder and chest, and the high roundness of her breasts, and the curve of her hips, where his hand would just fit. He loved the warmth of her mouth and the feather-light brush of her fingers against him. In Ithilden’s opinion, it was time for the bonding ceremony to begin. He and Alfirin needed to get away to the privacy of their newly-prepared chambers, he thought, and they needed to do it soon before he did something he would regret.
Alfirin leaned back against Ithilden and listened to the beating of his heart. As she waited for the time of the ceremony to arrive, she thought about this strong, honorable, competent Elf to whom she was about to bind herself. She loved his devotion to his family and his people. She valued his sharp intelligence and the tongue that could be surprisingly poetic when he spoke to her. She respected his role as a warrior, even as she was dismayed by its violence, because she knew it was necessary and was the means by which she and those she loved lived peaceful lives. And ever more urgently over the last year, she loved his body. Ai, yes. She loved the strength in his chest and arms, the length of his legs, and (she blushed as she even thought it) the tight muscles in his backside. She loved his mouth and his hands and the promise they made to her. And she wished that this evening would speed to its close.
Thranduil observed them as they sat quietly on his right. It was time for the bonding ceremony to begin, he thought. Indeed, judging from the flushed faces and trembling hands of the couple, it was past time. He rose and signaled to the assembled guests that it was time to move away from the tables and into the center of the green itself.
At last the feasting was over, and the guests moved to stand in a circle around the young couple, who stood with their families in the center of the green.
As the feast had stretched on, darkness had fallen completely, but the green was bathed in soft light from many different sources. Stars glowed overhead, and candles and lanterns answered their glow all around. In addition, this night had been chosen for the ceremony because there was a full moon that now spread silver light over the people in the green. None of these lights, however, matched the light of the lovers. Alfirin and Ithilden both glowed with a happiness that they already knew was one of the sweetest gifts that life had to offer them. As they looked at one another, and their parents began to speak the ancient words that blessed their bonding, all thoughts of anything other than one another in this moment were temporarily gone.
The words of the blessing were sacred and closely held. Thus all bowed their heads in reverence as Gwaleniel called on Varda and Thranduil called on Manwë to witness the love of Ithilden and Alfirin.
Then Thranduil took Ithilden’s right hand as Gwaleniel took Alfirin’s. They removed the silver betrothal rings that gleamed on their index fingers and took these precious objects into safekeeping. They handed gold rings to their son and daughter and the couple placed them again on each other’s right hands. Then the mother and father joined the couple’s hands and called down a blessing in the name of the One. For a breathless moment, all was silent.
Then the guests began a low murmur of approval that grew to a roar. The musicians began to play again and the couple’s parents at last escorted them off the green and toward their chambers so that they might complete the bonding in the joining of bodies that would ever be a joy and comfort to them.
As the little party entered the palace, the minstrel’s tune changed and the people on the green began to join hands and form a seemingly endless line that wound about the green in an ancient Elven dance of joy. The hands of their family and friends and neighbors drew Eilian and Legolas into the line, and they too danced away into the starlit night.
And alone at last in the privacy of their chambers, Ithilden and Alfirin danced a dance that was more ancient yet and bound themselves together for joy and for sorrow until the end of time and perhaps beyond.
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