Lalaith walked slowly, her head bent down, as she made her way along the twining path that led down to where Elladan and Elrohir waited with the horses. For they were to ride with her over the mountains, and into Imladris. The gown she wore was woven of thick durable cloth, as was her cloak, plain and unadorned as she drew her soft leather riding gloves upon her hands. She smiled, though only slightly as she lifted her head, and saw through the trees, the path where the horses waited, stamping impatiently at the ground. Elrohir stood near, a gentle hand resting lightly upon the soft muzzles of each horse. Arwen stood with Elladan, embracing him tearfully, for she would not be returning home for a few years, at least. And Galadriel stood by, hand in hand with Celeborn to bid their grandsons and Lalaith farewell.
Lalaith sighed, her heart feeling heavy within her. None knew, but herself, and Haldir, and Lothirien, perhaps, why she was leaving to return to Imladris when she had only just arrived from Mirkwood. But none had questioned her. Though perhaps, by the look within Galadriel's eyes that she had been giving her since she had announced her desire to return home, the Lady of the Golden Wood somehow knew, anyway.
Again Lalaith glanced downward, absently adjusting the belts of her quiver where her knives and bow, and a number of arrows, rested.
"Lalaith." The voice brought her head up, her heart breaking anew at his gentle tones.
"Haldir." She sighed, managing a weak smile as she drew to a stop, and gazed long at her friend as he stood before her, just off of the trail as if he half expected her to pass without a word. "I wondered if I would see you before my departure. I had hoped I would."
"You should know I could not let you go without saying goodbye at least once more." Haldir said with a weak attempt at a smirk.
"I am glad to see you." She sighed, drawing a tentative step toward him. She dropped her eyes, gnawing softly at her bottom lip as she did. "For I had feared that we might not part as friends."
"Lalaith," Haldir murmured as he drew toward her, and gathered her hands up lightly within his own. He smiled at her, though she could see behind his eyes, the pain still there, as fresh and raw as a new wound. "Fairest lady of Imladris. We will always be friends. You know that, do you not?"
"Ai, Haldir." Lalaith breathed, shaking her head. "I am amazed that you could forgive me."
"Forgive you?" he asked softly. "For following your heart's path? There is no need to forgive you, for you have done no wrong."
Lalaith smiled lightly, though her smile could not reach her sorrowing eyes. "You have always been able to cheer me, Haldir." She sighed, gently squeezing his hands. Warm and secure, they had always been, bearing soft calluses. "I pray that the Valar will bless you for your great heart."
"Perhaps, one day, they will." He breathed, and his smile trembled as his eyes fell away. His eyes rose again and met hers, shimmering with tears he would not let fall. His brows twitched as his hands dropped hers, and rose to lightly cup her face. "But I have already been blessed, for I have known you."
His thumbs gently brushed her face as he leaned down, gently kissing her on the cheek. His lips were soft and lingering upon her flesh, his breath warm. Then without another word, he pulled away from her, and moved away down the path from whence she had come.
Lalaith remained where she stood, one hand touching the spot upon her cheek that he had so lightly kissed. Her eyes searched the ground as she asked her heart questions it could not answer before she resumed her steps again toward the lower path where Arwen and the others waited.
Legolas slowed his mount to a light canter as the golden trees of Lothlórien closed over his head, and he drew in an appreciative breath of the clean sweet scent of the Golden Wood, though he did it with a measure of envy. For as he gazed about him at the light of the forest that lingered even in the dark of the night, as now, he could see how Lalaith might favor such a place as this, over his own home. His heart gave a fierce throb as he saw again, her face upon the surface of his thoughts. What would he do when he saw her again? He knew he would not be able to restrain himself from confessing all of his heart to her, but did she love him in return as he loved her? A breath of nervous anticipation swelled in his chest.
"Ah, what have we here?" The last voice Legolas wanted to hear, echoed from the trees above him as Haldir, with several of the Lórien guards dropped lightly from the trees overhead, upon the path before him.
"My lord, you grace us with your presence." Haldir replied, offering him a stiffened bow, his hand against his heart, though Legolas knew it was a forced politeness that the Marchwarden used.
"Enough with the pleasantries, Haldir." Legolas sighed. "Where is she?"
"She, my prince?" Haldir queried.
"Lalaith." Legolas seethed, his jaw growing taut beneath his flesh. "I have come to see her."
"You missed her, my lord." Haldir returned, and Legolas could hear the grating of his voice, though Haldir fought to keep it smooth. "She left Lothlórien with the sons of Elrond, only this morning, bound for Imladris."
"She did?" Legolas asked, unable to keep a strain of hope from his voice which Haldir heard, and crushed his teeth together as he forced his tepid smile to remain upon his face.
"Do you wish to speak to her kin, perhaps?" Haldir offered, his politeness forced and wooden. "The Lady Galadriel could relay to her a message, if you wish it."
"Very well." Legolas returned, drawing out the small bag of jewels from within his jerkin, and testing its weight within its hand. Galadriel could be trusted with this small gift. She would see it safely to its rightful owner. "Take me to her."
"As my lord wishes." Haldir said with a stiff bow, his eyes never leaving those of Legolas.
"You came all this way, young Legolas, to bring Lalaith this?" Galadriel asked gently as she and her lord, Celeborn, stood a step above the Mirkwood prince, holding within her hand, the small bag of jewels he had just surrendered into her slender hand.
"Yes, my lady." Legolas returned with a nod as Galadriel's eyes search his, seeming to see all the depths of his soul in her gaze. Yet, hers was a gaze that would not judge harshly, what she found there.
"May I?" She asked softly, and at Legolas' nod, she gently tugged the bag open, and emptied into her palm, two sapphires, two emeralds, and two diamonds. At the sight of the small stones, she sighed softly, letting them sift about on her palm, clinking softly as they moved over each other.
"They were a gift to her from the young Pherian, Bilbo." Legolas explained softly. "From his share of the Dwarves' treasure."
"Two of each, and formed exactly as would fit the settings." Celeborn offered in a muted voice as he gazed down upon the six jewels, his eyes equally alight as Galadriel's. "This can only be the will of the Valar, my lady."
"Indeed, my lord." Galadriel agreed in a soft voice of awe, before she turned her eyes again on Legolas.
"Long we have sought such jewels as these for a gift we had made for Lalaith and-, another, long ago." She explained in a voice that had grown slightly husky as she glanced again at Legolas with a bright, piercing gaze. "Necklaces that have been waiting many centuries for such jewels as these. With your leave, might I have them set with these fair stones?"
Legolas assented with a nod, relieved that Galadriel could provide this gift for Lalaith with a fairer setting than a small leather bag.
"Thank you, my lady." He said with a bow and a grateful smile. "I do not doubt that Lalaith will be pleased."
"As, I hope you will, my young prince?" Galadriel asked, almost teasingly.
Legolas paused, uncertain of her meaning. "Yes, my lady," He murmured.
At this, Galadriel smiled, and offered a look filled with happy secrets to Celeborn, whose eyes returned his silent understanding.
The ever murmuring falls that surrounded Imladris soothed their ears like a the tones of a gentle lullaby as the mists of the tumbling rivers washed over the weary but elated faces of the three travelers as their horses' hooves hit the soft soil on the north side of the stone bridge just before the gate into the sheltered haven that was their home.
"Ah, it seems a millennium since we left." Elrohir sighed, standing enthusiastically in the stirrups as he threw a grin back at his younger cousin who followed behind the mounts of her older cousins. Lalaith smiled in return, feeling a sense of renewal and healing, and drew in a deep breath as she closed her eyes, drinking in the sweet scents of home.
"Father no doubt, has word of us." Elladan called back as he too flashed his younger cousin a grin. "He'll be in the courtyard to meet us."
But as they passed through the gate, only three people came forth to greet them, a young man, a stranger, Lalaith noted, with some measure of curiosity, and two younger stable hands who gathered the reigns of the horses in their hands as the three dismounted, and gently led them away toward the stables. The smiling stranger who remained, was not a child, so he could only be a visitor, for they had been gone in Lothlórien not many years. Above them in the Hall of Fire, many bright voices, and music echoed down, filling Lalaith's heart with light and anticipation. A feast was already under way, and the three new comers traded a questioning glance with one another before they turned their eyes upon the young man who had stopped in front of them, and was smiling shyly in welcome.
"Welcome, my lords, Elladan and Elrohir, and Lady Lalaith." He said in a mild voice, though edged with a slight accent as he offered them a polite bow. "I am honored to meet you at last. Lord Elrond, your father and uncle said you would arrive soon, and he bid me wait for you. Gandalf is here."
"Ah, Mithrandir!" Lalaith cried excitedly. She loved the visits of the grey-bearded wanderer, never tiring of his stories, or his gentle, kindly manner.
"Yes, my lady." The young man nodded, his eyes twinkling as he smiled at her. "And he has brought a friend with him, one of the Pheriannath, named Bilbo Baggins."
"Indeed?" Elladan grinned. "It is no surprise. Mithrandir always brings along some curiosity or another."
"They were both there with us, at the LonelyMountain. Bilbo had come with the Dwarves, and Mithrandir met us there." Elrohir added. "We must have arrived home just as they did, for when they parted from us, they took the long way around Mirkwood on the north road. Which is fortunate for us." He nudged Lalaith in the shoulder. "For you will like Bilbo, Lalaith. Rather squeaky and excitable. Much like you."
Elrohir raised his brows as Lalaith shot him a mock scowl, and they with Elladan shared a chuckle to which the young man easily joined in.
"They are with Lord Elrond in the Hall of Fire now," said the young man, turning his head to beckon over his shoulder. "And he bid me have you join them when you arrived."
As the youth turned his head, Lalaith's smile fell away at the sight of his unusual ears. The tips were blunted, round ended like a little mouse's, instead of tapering to a point as they ought.
"Ah, but you are the son of the Lady Gilraen!" Elladan breathed, his voice betraying sudden awe.
"Ah, little Ara-," Elrohir blurted, but at a swift nudge from Elladan, finished, "yes, you are much bigger than when we saw you last. It is easy to forget that mortals mature much more quickly than do the children of our race."
"Yes, my lord," the young mortal answered, turning his eyes again to the three Elves. "My mother brought me here when I very small, before I can remember, to live under the care of your father." He shot a grin toward Lalaith. "And in that, we have much in common, you and I, my lady. From what I have heard. Though, I must confess, I knew not of your existence before this morning. For Lord Elrond has only spoken to me of his sons."
And with these words, the young mortal offered her a gallant bow, and the crook of his arm. "But what I have heard from what can only be rumors of you, my lady, the stories do not do you justice."
"Rumors, my lord?" Lalaith asked as she took his proffered arm, and with the brothers trailing behind, followed the young mortal's lead upon the path that wound upward toward the Hall of Fire above.
"Since my coming, when I was so small a child that I cannot easily remember, I have heard tale, from many of your uncle's people of a maiden of Imladris whose beauty rivals that of Lúthien Tinúviel of old. As I have not met her before this day, I can only guess that you are she, for I can think of no other but the fabled Tinúviel whose beauty could rival yours."
Behind her, Lalaith could hear Elrohir stifle a chuckle, followed by a harsh nudge from Elladan's elbow, but she hardly heard. Her eyes fell as color darkened her cheeks at the young mortal's praise. And for a moment, fear touched her heart that his intentions would become as Haldir's had. But when she dared to lift her eyes to his, she could see no hidden desire veiled behind his gaze. His eyes shone clear and bright with admiration, but only that which one might show who hoped for a dear friendship, and nothing more.
Lalaith returned his wide, easy grin, with a soft smile of her own, and released a sigh of relief.
"You have the advantage of me, my lord, though you only learned of me today." Lalaith said, to which the mortal softly chuckled. "For I know nothing of you, or of your lineage, nor from whence you have come."
"What would you know, my lady?" He asked.
"Well, perhaps," she chuckled, "your name?"
"Ai, my lady, forgive me!" The young Man cried, shaking his head in consternation. "My father I know little of, for he died before my memory can recall. But my mother is named Gilraen. And by your uncle, and all who know me, I am called Estel."