Lalaith was alone in the high chamber that that had been given her for her own during her stay here in Mirkwood. It had been built like one of the flets of Lórien, high in one of the mighty ageless beeches of Mirkwood near enough to the top of the canopy that sunlight could filter down into her dwelling, catching here and there upon the light gossamer veils that had been hung all around her circular chamber.
Lalaith sat before a high mirror set within a fluted frame of dark wood, but she did not face it. Instead her eyes were turned down as she stabbed her needle with almost vindictive vengeance into the circle of cloth stretched taut upon its frame within her hand. Her eyes could barely see the twining roses of her needlework as they slowly formed upon the cloth, for her eyes were blurred with tears, at one moment angry, and at another, sad, but more often than not, her tears were fearful.
If only Elrohir had allowed her to go with them, she would know what dangers they faced. She would not be here, wondering if they would be returning safely or not. For the news that came back was hasty and fragmented, and Lalaith knew little more than that Thranduil and Legolas as well as Elrohir who had gone with them and all the host of Mirkwood who had marched out, were encamped with the Men of the Lake, beneath the mountain stronghold of the Thorin and his Dwarves.
"Augh, a plague on men of every race, and their abominable pride!" She groaned to herself. "Why not just leave all well alone, and come home, for Varda's sake? A little bit of treasure is not worth all this fuss!" With a groan that was half angry, half fearful, she stabbed the cloth with ferocity, and gasped suddenly at the sharp pain that lanced through her finger. Angrily she tossed her needlework aside, and glanced at the finger she had impaled, and the bright red bead of blood that had drawn out upon her fingertip.
"Lalaith?" The voice made Lalaith look up sharply as Aseaiel's voice reached her from below upon the steps that entwined the tree.
"Your highness." Lalaith returned, pouncing to her feet, and quickly smearing away the tiny bead of blood upon her finger. Her effort was in vain, though, for from the tiny needle puncture, another bead of blood seeped upon her fingertip. Lalaith rolled her eyes in frustration, tucking her wounded hand into the other, and burying them in the folds of her skirt as Aseaiel, unaccompanied, climbed into view.
The queen's eyes were rimmed in red, as if she had been crying herself, though now, her tears were dry. Her ageless face was drawn and as pale as the moon from her own worry and grief. Lalaith gulped, suddenly gripped with a fist of guilt as she realized that this ordeal of waiting, and wondering was not hers alone to bear.
Without a word, Aseaiel crossed the room to her, and drew Lalaith into a tight embrace which she could not help but return. Aseaiel's hair twined loosely upon her head within a silver diadem, smelled sweetly of elanor, and reminded Lalaith for a fleeting moment, of Celebrian.
"You have been crying, Lalaith." Aseaiel murmured, drawing back and studying the maiden's own bloodshot eyes.
Lalaith bobbed her head in silent acknowledgement. "Forgive me, my lady. I know it is not good for me to sit alone in my troubled thoughts, but I have been worried. For Legolas, and for Elrohir, and your people."
Aseaiel smiled at this. "Then perhaps it is good that you have a visitor. One who has come all the way from Lothlórien, out of concern for you."
"Oh, is it Elladan?" Lalaith gasped, her heart suddenly lightening. And without waiting for an answer, she drew away from Aseaiel's side, and hurried out of her chamber, snatching her skirt up into her hands as she hurried down around the twining steps toward the ground below. Her feet within the soft silken slippers she wore, were silent as she moved, so that when at last she alighted upon the ground at the base of the tall ancient beech, her visitor did not hear her.
He stood with his back to her, his silver riding cloak still clasped about his shoulders, though a servant must have already led his mount away, for he was alone, his hands behind his back as his eyes lifted in studious contemplation at the high trees surrounding him, tall and great, though darker than the golden Mallyrn of Lórien.
As she stepped from the lowest step upon the soft earth of the path before her, a low, barely audible growl of disapproval rolled from his lips as he muttered in a soft, slightly arrogant tone, "And he thinks he can win her, only to bring her here?" He muttered, half beneath his breath. "The Golden Wood is not so treacherous a place-,"
"Haldir?" Lalaith called out, and his words cut off as he spun to face her. His eyes, intense and probing, found hers, and Lalaith gulped, suddenly remembering as nervousness weakened her limbs, the words Elrohir had spoken the first day they had come to Thranduil's realm.
"Lalaith!" He cried out in a voice of sudden delight as he drew near, and she found herself, much to her consternation, caught up within the circle of his strong arms, and twirled off her feet in his exuberance.
"We heard the news in the Golden Wood." Haldir said when he set her down at last, his words carrying a far more sobered tone than before. "And I grew worried for you."
"Did Elladan and Arwen, or perhaps my grandparents send you?" Lalaith asked, searching his eyes that sparked and danced as he gazed down at her.
"No -," he grinned, almost mischievously, and glanced away momentarily. "I asked their leave, to be sure, but it was I who wished to come ensure that you were safe."
"Oh, Haldir, I-," Lalaith's words caught within her throat. She had to force herself to speak as she smiled bravely. "I am grateful for your concern, but I assure you, I am quite safe here, in King Thranduil's realm."
Haldir's lips pursed, and he glanced at the ground musing in thoughtfulness, before he spoke in softened tones, "Be that as it is, I still wished to come see you. Do you-," his eyes focused upon Lalaith's, and a distant pleading seeped into his gaze as he queried, "do you wish I had not come?"
"No Haldir," Lalaith sighed, and smiled softly. "You are my friend. I am always glad to see you."
Haldir smiled hopefully at these words, and a shard of pity smote her heart. From his expression, Lalaith suddenly knew, as her heart gave a sudden throb of pain, that Elrohir was right. Haldir felt for her something beyond friendship. But she did not, she could not return his affection!
Her eyes had fallen away without her willing them to, and even Haldir's gentle voice could not bring her gaze up.
"Lord Haldir of Lórien,"
The voice was Queen Aseaiel's, and Lalaith looked up gratefully as she drew back from Haldir to see the Queen's gaze, flitting back and forth between the maiden and the Marchwarden.
"Evening is drawing on, Lord Haldir." Aseaiel murmured crisply. "Supper will be ready, and your journey was undoubtedly taxing. Will you not come share our table?"
"Yes, thank you, your highness." Haldir said, turning to the queen and bowing low, before he straightened, and offered Lalaith the crook of his arm. "May I have the honor?"
Lalaith hesitated. Her eyes flit from his proffered arm to Aseaiel's suddenly questioning eyes, and back again. Her eyes lifted to Haldir's, and she gulped hard as she saw the hopeful smile within his eyes slowly begin to fade at her hesitation.
"Of course." She managed to choke, laying her hand lightly within the crook of his arm as she forced and affable smile upon her face. "But the honor would be mine, Haldir."
Legolas lay awake in the dark, staring up at the canvas ceiling that hung limp and unmoving in the heavy night air that lay over the camp. Outside, the cooking fires were dying slowly, casting weird and mottled shapes against the walls of his tent. Beside him, Elrohir slept, snuggled warmly in his blanket, a smile of contentment curling his lips like a little Elfling, even in sleep.
With a soft groan, he sat up, and rubbed his sleepless eyes, wishing he did not have such thoughts tumbling so mercilessly through his brain. Again and again he saw the face of the maiden to whom he knew his heart belong, her hair flowing long about her, her hand raised in a silent farewell where she stood beside his mother as he marched out beside his father and Elrohir. Her eyes had been swollen with unshed tears as she returned his gaze steadily, without wavering. It had not been many days before, but it had seemed like ages since he had been with her last.
What was in her heart for him? He wondered. Even with her declaration that she did not love Haldir, could he dare to hope that she might love him?
What did it matter, anyway? He demanded of himself. Why should such trivial thoughts torment him and keep him from sleep, when graver matters were at hand?
With a sudden burst of angry energy, he scrambled to his feet, spatting aside the tent door in almost the same motion. The camp was silent, and aside from the flickering of the fires, and the soft silver lights of the elven lanterns hung here and there before the door flaps, nothing moved among the tents.
He could hear the low gurgle of the near river some distance away, and knowing nothing else to do, he made his way toward it.
Two night watchmen stood together leaning on their tall spears at the edge of the tents, conversing together in soft voices, but at his approach, they turned swiftly, lowering their spears.
"Daro!" One called out in a nervous voice, but Legolas held his hand up.
"Peace, my friends, it is Legolas." He returned.
"Ah, the king's son." The second Elf muttered in a breath of relief as once again, the points of their spears were raised. "Forgive us."
"No need to ask my pardon." He assured them easily. "These past days have brought that which we have not expected, and much that makes us unsure. The Dwarves unwilling to bargain, and that little companion of theirs, what manner of creature he is-,"
"Will Thorin the Dwarf be softened on his stand at all, do you think, my lord?" The first watchman asked.
"Not in the least measure, I fear." Legolas returned with a low breath as the others mumbled in low disappointment. "He will not come down out of his stronghold unless we retreat entirely and leave the Men to parley with him as he has demanded, or unless by some miracle, we were to obtain something that is of value to him with which we could bargain-,"
As these last words left his mouth, a loud splash came rocking up from the near bank of the river, and all eyes jerked in that direction.
The ribbon of the river was not far from where they stood, a broad silver band, beneath the light of the night sky. But though the sound had been close, Legolas could see nothing.
"Come with me." He ordered, and the two watchmen obeyed, but not before they had darted to the nearest tents, snatching up clear elven lanterns, a silver unwavering light set within clear crystal, and followed his shadow as he made his way swiftly and cautiously down toward the edge of the water.
"That was no fish!" Legolas breathed, as his eyes scanned the edge of the water. "There is a spy about!"
One of the guards hurried forward, his lamp swinging wildly about in his hand, casting silver light all about that danced crazily off the flowing water, and the rocks at their feet.
"Hide your lights!" He hissed, his brows knitting as his eyes found the large, wondering eyes of his two watchmen. "They will help him more than us, if it is that odd little creature that is said to be their servant."
"Servant indeed." A voice piped up nearby, speaking in the choppy tones of the Common Tongue, followed by a bellowing sneeze. "Let's have a light!" For as small a voice as it was, it was menacing and fearless in its right. "I am here if you want me!"
A moment later, Legolas drew in a hard breath of awed shock, for before him, beside a rock, where no living thing had been in the moments before, a small person appeared, a child, it first seemed, but it was not a child. More like a small Man, he was, dressed in breeches that only reached halfway down his rather thick calves, his feet large and bare, carpeted with thick curling brown fur, his eyes frightened in spite of his stalwart bearing. He wore also, a ragged looking little coat over a small shining shirt of what seemed to be mithril, and a portion of his coat bulged outward, something large and round that he carried hidden beneath. Whatever it was, it seemed to be of some vital importance, from the way the creature clutched it closely, as if he feared to drop it, or expose it to their view. Legolas remembered seeing him from a distance, up within the mountain beside Thorin, but at a distance, he had not been able to discern what manner of creature it was. Now, though he'd never seen one of its kind this close before, the answers fell quickly into place in his mind. For he remembered hearing once, from Lalaith, that she had read about such creatures in her uncle's books. Little creatures who lived far in the West, beyond the Misty Mountains, even beyond the empty wild to the west of Imladris in a distant land. And this particular little folk, the Pheriannath, Lalaith had said, called themselves Hobbits.