"Welcome, Lord Elrohir, and Lady Lalaith, the children of my friend, Elrond of Imladris," Thranduil said, from where he sat upon his throne, high above the floor of the brightly lit stone cavern which was his throne room. It was a throne of polished wood, carved intricately along the curve of the grain to imitate the appearance of many interlaced vines woven gracefully together, giving the strong carven wood a deceiving impression of frailty. The throne sat upon a stone dais, reached by many stone steps, and the ruler of Mirkwood sat upon it. Thranduil gazed down on the two Elves of Imladris through eyes that seemed at first glance to be stern and burdened with many toils, yet after a few moments, began to show through with a hidden smile which grew only greater as his eyes rested upon Lalaith.
"I trust your journey here was safe?" he asked again, speaking chiefly to Lalaith.
"Yes, sire." Elrohir answered, where he stood a half step in front of his cousin. "Other than a few cobwebs, and the Dwarf footprints we saw upon the dried ground, our journey through the forest was without incident."
Thranduil smiled broadly now, his grin much like his own son's, and leaned slightly forward so that the warm torchlight caught upon the crown of red berries and autumn leaves that rested upon his long golden hair that hung long over his shoulders and down his chest. "So you already know of our extra guests, do you?" He asked with a wave of his oaken staff toward the far oaken doors at the end of his hall that stood open to a corridor. "Legolas is down with them now, trying to ascertain why they are here. Though I doubt he will learn anything more than what they told me. Their being here can bode no good, though they will say nothing beyond that they accosted my people at their merry making three times only because they were hungry. That I can see. But why they are here at all, they will not say. Secretive little folk they are."
"Are there many?" she asked, feeling an odd sense of morbid curiosity. She'd never seen a Dwarf before, and to see one now, when it would be safe behind bars, was a thought that intrigued her.
"Strangely enough, we found only thirteen," Thranduil shook his head with a short sigh, and added, "The fourteenth, we can only guess, has starved, for those we found were already haggard and thin when they were brought in, or he has been eaten by the spiders."
These words he spoke, only with a small measure of regret. And Elrohir returned the news with a shrug, and the look of one who was commiserating with another who had lost a favorite cloak, or was missing a glove. But Lalaith felt strangely sad, and surprised that she would, for she had never met a Dwarf before, let alone felt pity for one.
"Ah, Lalaith! And Lord Elrohir. I was told you had arrived."
Her thoughts were interrupted by a pleasant, feminine voice, and Lalaith had barely turned before Queen Aseaiel had drawn near, having approached silently from behind them, as she caught one of Lalaith's hands up in a delighted greeting.
"It is good to have you here, my dear Lalaith." Aseaiel sighed, drawing back, though she still held the young maiden's hand within her own. "You look wonderful. One would barely guess that you had been traveling."
Lalaith glanced down at the gown she wore, of a soft rust colored red that she hoped did not look rumpled from having been worn beneath her riding cloak.
"This will go perfectly with your dress." Aseaiel smiled, lifting her free hand to reveal a braided crown of autumn colored flowers. "Legolas made it for you."
"In anticipation of your hoped for arrival." Thranduil added with a grin as he arose and slowly descended the high steps from his throne.
"Thank you, my lady." Lalaith said in a soft breath, bowing her head as Aseaiel lifted the crown of flowers, and set it upon her head. Lalaith lifted her eyes as the weight of the circlet of flowers settled upon her unbound golden hair. Lifting her eyes, she offered a smile to Aseaiel, then turned and smiled again at Elrohir who offered her a half grin, though now, his eyes seemed troubled.
"He will be glad to see you are here." Thranduil continued as he reached the floor, and smiled down into Aseaiel's eyes as his arm slipped around his wife's waist. "Especially with the feast tonight, for which your arrival has been most timely. It means to be the pinnacle of our autumn celebrations."
"Here are servants to show you to rooms that have been prepared for you." Aseaiel added, gesturing to the great oaken doors at the far end of the hall that had been thrown wide where two maidservants waited. "I know how you prefer the openness of the trees, so I have seen to it that your quarters will be in the houses that we have built amongst the limbs of our beeches."
"Thank you, sire, my lady." Elrohir said softly, and with a low bow to the King and Queen.
Lalaith followed his example, dropping into a low curtsy before the two turned away to follow the lead of the servants who turned away, moving down the stone corridor, many steps ahead of the two Elves from Imladris.
Behind her, Lalaith heard soft whispering, and though she did not turn, she sensed the eyes of Thranduil and his queen fixed upon her back.
Elrohir beside her, uttered a low sigh, and once they were within the corridor beyond the great doors, he finally spoke, keeping his voice low so that the maids who walked a discreet distance ahead of them could not hear. "Lalaith, when are you going to decide?"
Lalaith cast an annoyed glance at her tall, dark haired cousin, and muttered, "What?"
"When are you going to decide?" he repeated, turning his eyes upon her. "Which one are you to choose? Or are you going to play them off of each other until the ending of the world?"
Thoroughly confused by his words, Lalaith hissed, "What on Arda are you talking about?"
"Great Valar," Elrohir hissed, exasperatedly. "Do you truly not know what you are doing?"
"Not know what, Elrohir?" she demanded, her expression swiftly growing into a frustrated scowl.
Elrohir turned his eyes to the carved stone of the ceiling as he walked, muttering softly beneath his breath before he once again glanced at Lalaith, shaking his head ruefully. "By Arda, I don't know why I should not simply tell you straight out. But Father said not to. He said it would be better for you if you discovered it on your own. But by the Valar, you are such a little innocent, it makes me absolutely sick!"
At this, Lalaith ground to a hard stop, and snatched Elrohir by his arm. "What?" She barked, not caring whether the maids heard it or not. But they did not turn, having disappeared up a wide set of steps, not realizing that their charges were no longer behind them.
"What am I doing that makes you so, as you say, sick, cousin?" she demanded through gritted teeth, her eyes burning fiercely.
At this, Elrohir visibly calmed, his eyes taking on a penitent look. "Lalaith, forgive me. You of yourself have done no wrong. Not intentionally, at the least. It is only that-," Elrohir shook his head and glanced downward, staring hard at the ground, his mind visibly churning as he remained silent for long moments. At last, apparently having decided on his words, he tentatively asked, "I suppose I can say it this way; are you aware Lalaith, of what the Marchwarden's intentions are?"
"Haldir's intentions?" Lalaith asked. She swallowed, feeling a sudden dryness in her throat. "His-," she gulped again, "his intentions for what?"
Elrohir stiffened at these words, and though he struggled to hide it, Lalaith could see impatience behind his eyes. "Are you truly this ignorant?" he muttered. But as Lalaith opened her mouth to snap at him, he shot her another apologetic look and quickly clarified, "His intentions for you."
Lalaith's mouth froze open, her retort unspoken.
"For me?" She asked softly. "He said we were naught but friends."
"That is what he says. But it is not what he means, Lalaith." Elrohir smiled now at her, a smile that seemed almost sad. "Haldir is honorable, that I do not doubt. But he means, as he has meant from our arrival to the Golden Wood, to use friendship to gain, eventually, your love."
Lalaith said nothing to this. She could say nothing. At his words, her mind had frozen, and her body along with it. Vaguely she felt Elrohir's hand upon her shoulder, squeezing compassionately.
Elrohir murmured gently, "He is in love with you Lalaith. I do not doubt that one day, soon, he will ask your consent to marry him."
The heavy shock that had weighted Lalaith's mind before, and that had petrified her limbs, grew only heavier now at these words.
"Lalaith," Elrohir continued plaintively, reaching for, and taking her limp hand within his, "Haldir is a good man, he would be worthy of you if you loved him in return, but I do not think you do. Your heart has already been-,"
Again Elrohir stopped, and glanced hard at the ground, staring at the stone floor of the corridor as if he wished to bore a hole in it with his eyes before he glanced up again, gently, into Lalaith's troubled face. "Follow your heart, my little cousin." He said with a gentle squeeze of her hand. "Stay true to its direction, and it will lead you right."
Lalaith blinked her eyes weakly. Strange that Elrohir would nearly repeat Galadriel's instruction from so many decades before, when they left Lothlórien after the battle with the orcs.
"I don't love Haldir," she heard her voice say as if from far away. "I love-," She sighed, and found at last the strength to look up into Elrohir's face.
"Oh, Elrohir," she muttered, hearing her voice choking as she spoke. "I must go find Legolas. Will you forgive me for running off so suddenly?"
"There is nothing to forgive, Lalaith." Elrohir answered, offering her that casual half grin that had always so aggravated her. "But what if you become lost? It has not been often that you have wandered through King Thranduil's palace all alone."
"No doubt I will find someone who will direct me if I cannot find my way," she murmured with an assuring smile.
"Very well." Elrohir grinned, gave her hand a reassuring squeeze, then turned and set off after the two maids who had long since disappeared.
Lalaith watched him go, smiling after his back, before she turned, and began to hurry in the opposite direction, breaking into a run after a moment, as the cool air of the corridor whipped through her hair, and the red torches on the walls passed her in rapid striations of light and shadow.