8. The Ceremony of Innocence
" A dark child and a fair . . .
Debated ancient childish things --
And we were one of these."
JRR Tolkien, 'Mar Vanwa Tyaliéva'
Two squares up, one over. These mounted horseback pieces were useful, for they could leap obstacles. "Guard your queen."
"Guard your own," Phazan responded. "You just opened the way for my black Vizier."
Legolas smirked. He had a strategy for dealing with the Vizier. "If you do that, you will be in check," he said, indicating his other mounted piece. "Useful fellows, are they not? If you harm my queen, you will be dealt a painful blow."
"Indeed," laughed Phazan. "Useful, but ultimately expendable. Here, we call these pieces knights."
Legolas raised an eyebrow. "That is what the Men of Gondor and Dol Amroth call them as well. In my home, we called them, simply, the 'rohir' for every one of our warriors is considered to be a knight."
"Are you not from Gondor, then?"
Legolas looked up from the game board to find the librarian examining him keenly. "No, Phazan. It is a long story. I am sure you would not be interested," he said with an evasive laugh. "Ah, look -- the hour grows late, and I have a new host today. I must confess, my friend, I am not sure what she will require of me."
"Ah, yes," Legolas replied. When Phazan raised an eyebrow, it could be unnerving. "This afternoon, I attend the king's daughter."
"Nimitha?" said Phazan, in a tone that Legolas found unusually sharp. What kind of nerve had he struck here?
"I am sure you know the punishment for a bêthnaru who transgresses the honor of a lady, especially one so young and so royal, Maitimo."
Legolas nodded. Barlomi had been disturbingly graphic. "I am an elf, Master Librarian. Even without such dire consequences, the princess will be as safe with me as she would be in the company of a loving kinsman."
* * *
Legolas had grown used to the sumptuous apartments of the Haradran nobility, and he found the princess's rooms to be little different save for the presence of a scowling older woman who stood behind Nimitha's divan as the princess offered Legolas a glass of wine.
"You are old enough to drink?" he blurted, before realizing this spoiled his air of sophistication as well as hers.
Fortunately, she giggled rather than taking offense. "Sixteen years old as of my last birthday," she said. "When I turned fifteen Father began to speak of finding a prince for me to wed. If I am considered old enough to marry, I may surely have a glass of wine."
Rodyn, Legolas thought, she was no more than a child! Whatever could she want of him?
"Yes, Princess, but only one glass. I'll not have you spoiling your complexion with a red nose before you turn twenty," said the older woman.
"Yes, Zori," Nimitha said, barely containing a sigh. "When I am twenty I will no longer need my old nurse to tell me what to do."
"I am not your nurse; I am your chaperone," said Zori with an especially pointed look at Legolas. "When you are twenty you will have a husband to guide you and you will need no chaperone. I hope."
Legolas merely sipped his wine -- white this time -- and waited patiently.
"Perhaps some fresh air would do you good," Nimitha said lightly, but Legolas recognized the tone of royal command, having used it often enough himself.
The nurse nodded. "I will be in the garden. Within earshot." She favored Legolas with another stern look, and as if to emphasize, held up her hand behind Nimitha's head and made a snip-snipping gesture that was impossible to misunderstand. She then turned and left.
Legolas cleared his throat and smiled pleasantly. Nimitha smiled back.
"You have pretty hair, Maitimo," she said. "All the court is aflutter about how handsome you look with it flowing freely like that, save for the two braids. I wonder . . . could you braid mine that way?"
"You want me to do your hair?" he said, barely keeping the surprise out of his voice.
He smiled back and shrugged. Why ever not? He doubted the little princess would be taking up archery, but if that's all it took to keep her happy, he was getting off lightly. "Have you some combs and some ribbons for tying?"
"Yes, in the bedroom."
'Oh dear,' thought Legolas.
"Come with me, there's a mirror in there as well." Nimitha jumped up and motioned Legolas to follow her. She still had the slightly coltish walk of a youngster, he noted with a smile.
"I will still be within earshot," came Zori's voice from out in the courtyard. Her hand shot up above the level of the windowsill, and again she made the snip-snip gesture.
Legolas pursed his lips and followed the princess into the bedchamber.
"She won't be able to hear," giggled Nimitha. "She's old. Why, she must be at least . . . forty."
Long years of royal discipline helped Legolas keep a straight face as Nimitha seated herself at a dressing table with a looking glass. "Forty? Indeed," he replied mildly. "I doubt her hearing is severely affected as yet."
"It seems ancient to me," Nimitha said. "How old are you, Maitimo?"
Legolas almost came back with his stock rejoinder about the rudeness of asking an elf his age before rremembering that the tables had turned and he was now the underling who must keep a civil tongue. "I am . . . over forty," he replied.
"You can't be!" When he smiled and nodded, she continued. "Fifty?"
Legolas looked at his own ageless face reflected in the glass, above the tender visage of this girl-child. He smiled, realizing this was his one Belair-bestowed chance to impress someone with his age at last. He bent and whispered in her ear, watching her dark brown eyes go wide. He laughed merrily. "You must never say a word to anyone. But I will tell you another secret -- among my kind, I am still considered very young."
Indeed, being in her presence made him feel young again, and carefree. He picked up a comb from her dressing table and began to undo the plaits of her hair, until it stood free about her head in a dark cloud. He found he quite enjoyed the feel of it in his fingers as he combed through it, smoothing out the waves. It had a texture like satin, thicker and more springy than his own.
"How did you learn to do that?" she asked as he sectioned off and began one of the side-plaits.
"When I was young, my nursemaid did it for me. And then, when I grew older, I practiced on my horse's tail until my fingers had learned to do the pattern without looking. If you try to watch in the mirror you will only confuse yourself." Legolas sighed. How many times had he done this over the years -- three strands, left over middle, pick up a new strand with a thumb, right over middle -- until he could perform it blindfold or even without conscious thought?
"Your horse?" she laughed.
"Yes, and he was not appreciative of the honor. He always tried to step on my foot to make me leave him alone." Sulrion, the first of many grey geldings, had also broken wind frequently to drive him off, but Legolas discreetly withheld that detail from the princess.
"I will try to behave and stay off your feet," Nimitha said.
The right braid complete, Legolas tied it off and began the next.
"Maitimo, do you have a sweetheart?" Nimitha asked, as Legolas sectioned off the hair above her left ear.
Legolas quirked the corner of his mouth. "A sweetheart is rather out of the question in my line of work, my lady."
"I suppose so," she said. "Did you ever have a sweetheart?"
"No . . . well, not really," he said. "When I was younger, I was all the time mooning after this lass or that, and there was one . . . but that was long in the past." He remembered the voice of Elladan, on an afternoon in Imladris so long ago, 'It will pass . . . in a few thousand years.'
"Never? That is sad. Have you ever kissed a girl, then?"
"A few," he said, with a smile.
"I have never been kissed," she said with a dramatic sigh.
"I daresay you have not," he replied blandly.
"I fear that I will not be very good at kissing. And I would hate to disappoint . . . whoever."
Legolas looked up from the plaiting of the long braid and saw her face in the glass, hopeful, and he could swear just a bit sly. She was a pretty little thing for a mortal. "I cannot think that any man would be disappointed to have you for a bride." Knowing how matters stood with mortal royalty and their arranged marriages, Legolas rather thought that any foreign prince would be vastly relieved to find that his intended had both eyes pointing in the same direction and teeth that did not stick out.
"Maitimo, have you ever met Lord Azrulbar? He is a lieutenant in my father's army."
"I have seen him about the court. He has not called on me to attend him, so I cannot say that I have made his acquaintance," Legolas answered.
"Do you think he is handsome?" She smiled into her mirror. "I think he is handsome."
Legolas smiled too. Strangely enough, this was the young man who had been staring at Nimitha at dinner the first night. "Yes, Princess, Lord Azrulbar is very pleasant to look upon." Which he was, for a mortal.
"Now, supposing a handsome man like Azrulbar were to want to kiss me, I would hate to be a disappointment to one such as he."
"That would be a shame,' Legolas agreed. "Highly unlikely, but it would be a shame."
Her eyes went wide. "Unlikely that he would want to kiss me?"
"Of course not. Highly unlikely that he would be disappointed." Legolas looked longingly at the decanter of chilled wine, visible through the doorway. He had finished the left side plait, and he pulled her remaining crown hair back and tied it. "There, very pretty. You make quite the perfect warrior, my lady Nimitha."
"My brother was a warrior, but that was before our army went away to fight the evil men of the North." Before Legolas had a chance to wonder about this, she continued, "Oh, I am sorry, Maitimo. You are so sweet that I sometimes forget you are from the north yourself. In fact, you are so kind that I would like to ask a very great favor of you."
'Oh, Belain, here it comes,' Legolas thought. "What may I do to please you, Princess Nimitha?"
She turned from her mirror to look up at him shyly. "Maitimo, would you teach me how to kiss?" When he took a moment before answering, she hurried on, "I have practiced on my pillow, but it simply is not the same. I think I can trust you to do this, because it is your profession and you are safe. Kissing you would be like kissing my . . . brother."
"I daresay," he answered, trying not to show his amusement. "It would be my honor, Princess. I think we will need to sit someplace where we can be closer, though."
"On the bed, then," she said.
Legolas followed her and sat down gingerly beside her on her white muslin coverlet. He was not overly enthusiastic about sitting on the bed, but he much preferred it to the divan in the parlour, with the nurse, Zori, peering suspiciously in through the grille.
"Comfortable?" she asked brightly.
"Yes," he lied.
"Good. How do we start?"
Oh, yes, how to start? At home the kisses simply happened, without much thought, after enough wine, revelry, and a walk in the dark. "Turn your head to face me and tilt your chin up. Yes, that's good. We will begin with something simple." Strangely, he did not feel as if it would be simple at all. "Now, purse your lips, just as if you were saying, 'Mumak,' and shut your eyes."
"Why shut my eyes?"
"You may leave them open if you wish, but you may tend to go cross-eyed if you do. I will begin by touching my lips to yours."
"Mumak," she said, and raised her face to him trustingly.
Legolas bent his head and kissed her gently. The feel of her soft flesh against his lips was like touching rose petals, or the fur on the top of a kitten's head. Something about the innocence of her reached out to his faer, and his heart gave a little leap. He pulled back slowly.
"Very good," he said. "Now, this time, part your lips just a little and relax your mouth. Do not be surprised when you feel my tongue."
"Your tongue?" she said, dubiously, "And that is supposed to be pleasant?"
"Yes, it is pleasant . . . if you are not kissing someone who is like unto a brother. Have no fear. I am very clean."
She closed her eyes again, and once he touched his lips to hers, feeling the softening of her mouth against his. Cautiously, he flicked his tongue across her lips and teeth, tasting the sweetness of the wine and the girl herself. He broke the kiss and pulled back. "There, that was not so bad, was it?" he said with a bright, brotherly smile.
She grinned back at him. "Not at all. You taste very nice, Maitimo. Now what?"
"Now, you do the same to me."
She licked her lips solemnly and he bent to her again. 'Like a brother, like a brother,' he chanted to himself as her pointed tongue passed over his lips and brushed his own tongue in passing.
"Did I do it well?" she asked gaily.
Legolas favored her with his serene princely expression. "Very well indeed. I do believe there is nothing more I can --"
"I think I need one more chance to practice," she said quickly, reaching up to bring his head down to her again. "Just so I get it right."
This time, Legolas felt her tongue force its way between his lips, wrapping around his own, which, quite defiant of his conscious will, caressed back. Her other arm came around his shoulders, holding him fast even if he had been of a mind to pull away. Her hand stroked the back of his head. 'Oh, Elbereth -- not the ears!' he thought desperately. These Southron women matured young, and their blood seemed as hot as the climate that fostered them.
Nimitha released him and Legolas pulled back with a little grunt. "Oh, hello, Zori," she said, turning to face her glowering nurse. "Maitimo was just giving me some lessons."
"He should give you lessons in hospitality rather than . . . other things. Perhaps Master Maitimo would care for another glass of wine."
"Master Maitimo would very much like another glass of wine," said Legolas, flashing Zori a look of gratitude. Her arrival had been as welcome as that of the Eagles at the Battle of Erebor. "But first, may I use your washing chamber to freshen myself a bit?"
"Of course," Nimitha said, and Zori nodded with what Legolas could have sworn was a wink.
Once in the washing room, Legolas stood for a moment, breathing deeply before pouring water from the ewer. It felt tepid, as did all water in this land. How he longed for the cool water of a running forest stream! But he splashed it over his face and neck just the same. Nimitha had a looking glass above her wash stand as well, and he stood for a while, gazing at his own pale reflection before carefully composing his face and returning to the parlor.
"Better?" asked Nimitha, as Zori held out a full glass of wine.
"Indeed, my lady," Legolas answered.
"I am glad to hear that. Maitimo, tell me truthfully, was I any good at kissing?"
He looked at her hopeful face. Behind her, Zori had a most inscrutable look about her. Legolas could swear she was trying not to laugh. Choosing his words very carefully, he said, "Nimitha, no man who receives your kisses will ever be disappointed."
"Good," she beamed. "Maitimo, may I call upon you in your quarters tomorrow, for this has been a most diverting afternoon."
"Why . . . of course. It would be my pleasure, Princess," he replied guardedly. He looked into the nurse's face for a hint of what this was about, but he found no answers there.
* * *
"Miki, see that the floor is swept, and when you have done that, remove the vase of yesterday's flowers. They are wilting." Legolas fussed about the room, fluffing pillows and making sure any embarrassing notes from Lord Huzun were safely tucked out of sight. "I am expecting guests, and I do not wish them to find disorder."
"Yes, Master," the boy sighed wearily, managing to sound like a much younger version of Galion. "I am tired of throwing out flowers. I wish Yanâkhim would send more of that candy."
Legolas stopped his puttering and turned his head sharply. "What do you mean? I told you to put that down the privy." He went to the boy and took him by the shoulders, staring deeply into his eyes. "You didn't eat any of it, did you?"
"No, Master. But I did take some home to Grandmama."
"You gave those sweetmeats to your grandmother? Nuath! Is she all right?"
"Yes, Master, and she sends you her thanks. She says she hasn't moved her bowels so well in twenty years."
Legolas shook his head, resolving never to place temptation in the way of his young servant again. It was a dangerous line he walked here.
"Did I do wrong, Master?" The boy looked and sounded chastened.
Legolas took Miki's face between his palms. "No, lad, but the next time I tell you to do something, do it . . . please?"
Miki nodded, and before Legolas could say anything further, there came a knock at the door.
"Go -- answer it. And then make yourself scarce. This afternoon is for those who are grown." Legolas actually doubted that, but he could only hope.
In came Nimitha, followed by Zori, who looked only marginally happier than she had yesterday.
"Welcome, welcome," Legolas said. "Please be seated. Would you ladies care for some sweet oranges? Or perhaps some wine?"
"Wine would be nice," Nimitha replied quickly.
Legolas had procured some light watered white especially for this occasion, given Nimitha's youth, and he noticed with amusement that her hair was still plaited into warrior braids. He was beginning to like this girl, although he had no idea why she was in his parlour. "How about you, Mistress Zori?" he asked gaily.
Zori nodded, thawing ever so slightly at the prospect of a drink. Just as Legolas had finished filling the two women's glasses, there came another knock at the door.
"Whoever could that be?" Nimitha asked innocently.
Legolas shrugged. He was cursed if he knew who might be calling on him without warning. Miki having been dismissed, Legolas answered it himself. He opened his door to a nervous looking young man holding a bunch of flowers. "Lord Azrulbar," Legolas said, taking the flowers. "For me? How lovely! You really shouldn't have."
Azrulbar began to stammer out something about Master Maitimo's charms and might he pay a call, but Legolas held up a hand. "Save it. Come on in. And I think the lady Nimitha would like these flowers more than I."
"My, what a coincidence," Zori exclaimed, as Legolas led Azrulbar into the parlour. Legolas shot her a look.
Nimitha fluttered her lashes when Legolas handed her the flowers, but her eyes were only for the young lord. "Perhaps, Maitimo, you could show Zori your garden and sing her a song?"
"It would be my pleasure, Princess," Legolas replied. "But first, might I have a word with Lord Azrulbar in private?"
The young man nodded and followed Legolas into his bedchamber. One inside, he looked around nervously, as if he feared to be suddenly seized and ravished by the evil courtesan. Legolas almost laughed but managed to keep his face stern.
"Lord Azrulbar," he said, "the princess is young and she is innocent. While in my apartments, she is under my protection. I will say this only once -- should things go amiss with her, I will not be inclined to keep secrets for the likes of you. On that occasion I will not be the only one submitting to the sweet ministrations of King Khorlai's surgeon. Do we understand each other?"
The young man nodded solemnly. "Master Maitimo, I love Nimitha more than life itself. I would die rather than to harm one hair of her head."
Legolas shrugged. It was not the girl's head he worried about. "I'll keep the nurse occupied. But we will be within earshot. And I can assure you that, as good as Mistress Zori's hearing is, mine is ten times keener." He took up his harp and the two of them rejoined the women.
Legolas offered his arm to the nurse. "Will you take the air with me, Mistress Zori? My garden is very lovely this time of day." Zori looked out into the courtyard, where the afternoon sun beat down fiercely and snorted. As they went outside, Legolas turned and raised his hand behind Nimitha's head in an unmistakable snip-snip gesture. Azrulbar blinked, and beside Legolas, Zori laughed softly.
They sat on the stone bench in the far corner of the garden, under the shade of a vine covered arbor. Legolas quirked his mouth at Zori and she raised an eyebrow back. "You think me an old fool, do you not?" she said.
Legolas shrugged. "Hardly. But you knew?" Legolas had never been used as a blind before, but he found himself more amused than insulted.
She nodded. "Against my better judgment. But I would do most anything for Nimitha. I have loved that child from the moment I first laid eyes on her. She was less than a day old, but already so beautiful. My own baby daughter died on the same day as King Khorlai's wife. He came to me in grief himself to beg me the boon of nursing his motherless babe. He did not know what a gift he gave me." Zori sighed. "She filled the emptiness in my arms, eased the ache in my breasts, and in time, she filled the void in my heart. She is all I have left now, since my husband went away to the war in the north and did not return."
Legolas knit his brows. How many times would he have to see the wrack of that war? For all he knew, one of his own arrows had made this woman a widow. He had fought many a battle in defense of home and folk, and he had thought himself inured to its costs, yet rarely before had he been forced to see the human price of his own handiwork.
"She has pined in secret for young Azrulbar for several years now," Zori continued. "I could not deny her the chance to meet with him alone. Your coming was a stroke of luck, for I doubt any of the other bêthnari could be trusted with such a scheme."
"He feels the same way about her, it is obvious," Legolas said. "But do you not think you play a dangerous game here?" Legolas kept his ears open for the cessation of conversation from inside, and at the first creak of the bedstead he would be in there like a shot. Azrulbar seemed a nice enough young man, but mortals were mortals and flesh was flesh. "Nimitha speaks of being given in marriage to some foreign prince. Will not this make the parting harder still?"
Zori shrugged. "It was a great disappointment to Lord Azrulbar that he was too young to go north to the last war, but I thank The One everyday that we still have him with us. Perhaps Khorlai can be persuaded to keep his daughter here too, especially now that his son is unlikely to marry. Our king will need an heir, and a fine man like Azrulbar would be a good match for Nimitha."
Legolas kept his tone carefully neutral, for this was something Barlomi had not told him. In fact, Barlomi had told him very little, he began to realize. "King Khorlai has a living son?"
"He has a son," Zori said sadly, "although that son might as well be dead for all the use he is. Prince Phazan returned from the war so grievously injured that he will not show his face. Our king is saddened by this, I know, but he lets him hide himself away and spend his days as he will. At least Khorlai still has a son to grieve him; many of our folk do not." Legolas could not help but hear the faint bitterness in her voice.
"And even if Nimitha is sent from here," Zori went on, "at least she will have a time of happiness to look back on, however short."
Legolas felt a pang for the young lovers inside. Changing the subject, he said, "Shall I sing a song, then, to help pass the time?" Inside, the sounds of conversation had ceased, but the mortal breathing had not grown too heavy as yet. Legolas knew he would still be able to hear them over the sounds of his own voice.
Zori nodded. "That would be pleasant."
Legolas took up his harp. What to sing, then? A love song; something sweet but not too stirring to the blood. He recalled one day long ago, coming upon Thranduil alone and hearing his father singing to himself in secret. He did not know the name of the tune, but he had never forgotten it, nor the look on his father's face as he sang. He cleared his throat, struck harp and began.
"Oh the summertime is ending, and the leaves are sweetly turning; and the wild mountain thyme blooms among the purple heather . . ."
Zori smiled, and in that smile Legolas could see the ghost of the girl she had been peeking through.
"I will build my love a bower, by yon freely flowing fountain; and inside it I shall pile all the flowers from the mountain . . ."
He broke off as tears began to run down Zori's cheeks. "Mistress Zori," he said, putting his harp swiftly aside and laying one hand upon her shoulder, "what is amiss with you? Have I done something to make you sad?"
She shook her head helplessly. "It was the song. Something in the words and the melody took me back to the days when my husband courted me, reminding me how it felt to be young and in love." She paused and her breath came out in a shaky sigh. "It has been six years, and still I miss him so very much. Forgive me, Maitimo, I am a foolish old woman."
Legolas knew then what he must do, and he took Zori into his arms, drawing her in close. "Hush," he said. "You are neither old nor foolish. I am the fool for making you cry." And he was a fool for not realizing the song's power. Looking back on it, there had been a great sadness in Thranduil's eyes as he sang, and Legolas supposed he had stumbled onto an old mystery.
She nestled into his chest. "Oh, Maitimo, you have no idea how good it is to feel a man's heartbeat again."
Legolas bent his head and tilted up Zori's chin, and without further thought he kissed her, full on the mouth. She was not young and tender, like Nimitha, nor so well tended as Zamin. The lips beneath his own were thin and a little dry. Most likely, Zori had not been beautiful, even in her youth, but there was something about the honesty of her kiss that moved Legolas to an unexpected passion. Rather than pulling away, he deepened the kiss. Zori's arms came up around his shoulders, one hand stroking his hair.
"Oh, yes," he whispered, "touch my ear like that . . ."
Legolas let go of Zori and jumped back guiltily. He looked up to see Nimitha, cheeks flushed rosy, staring at them with her hands on her hips. Azrulbar trailed a few paces behind her, looking utterly besotted.
"I am here to collect my chaperone," she said, her dark eyes sparkling. "We must be gone."
"I am sad to see you leave," said Legolas, quickly recovering his composure. "Please feel free to call on me anytime, and you too, Lord Azrulbar." He had a feeling that the two visits would coincide often in the days to come.
The two ladies left, but Azrulbar stayed behind. "I must not be seen to leave at the same time as the princess," he said sheepishly. "It would look amiss. I shall tarry a while if I may."
Legolas reclined on his divan and put one foot up. "So, I take it that the two of us are having a flaming affair?"
The young man nodded, coloring. "That is to be the story."
Legolas shrugged. "Suits me. I am sure we are having a wonderful time." When Azrulbar shifted uncomfortably, Legolas laughed again. "Cheer up, my lord, it will do wonders for your reputation. Pour yourself a glass of wine and have a seat. And then tell me, have you read any good books lately . . . ?"
* * * * * * *
To be continued . . .
Thranduil's secret song is the Scottish folk tune 'Wild Mountain Thyme.' See my previous stories, *removed*, *removed*, and *removed* for enlightenment on the 'old mystery.' If Legolas can be that most prolific of composers, Anonymous, his father can be the second most popular, Traditional.
Translation from Sindarin:
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.