1. Twenty-nine White Horses
'Thirty white horses on a red hill,
First they champ,
Then they stamp,
Then . . .'
JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit, Riddles in the Dark
"Will someone kindly tell me what is going on here?"
Legolas winced at the unmistakable tone of anger in his father's voice; an anger that barely disguised the underlying fear. Oh perfect! Thranduil showing up was all he needed to cap off an utterly humiliating afternoon.
However, he was too busy stifling a groan as Nestalinde's needle pierced the tender flesh of his upper lip to answer.
"My Lord . . . I can explain." Off to the side, up against the wooden shelves that held the crocks of healing herbs, Thranduil's chief general hovered nervously. And well he should be nervous, Legolas thought, considering.
"Yes, Magorion?" Thranduil seemed little mollified. The atmosphere of the healers' chambers, with blood everywhere and Lady Nestalinde busy at her work, was hardly conducive to good temper.
"Prince Legolas and I were in the practice court, sparring. You recall how you insisted he be trained in the use of a sword?"
"Indeed I do, Magorion." Thranduil's voice still had an edge to it. "Please go on."
"Well, Sire, the Prince parried low, turning the sword in my hand. But I brought up the pommel and . . ."
Nestalinde broke the uncomfortable silence. "The upper lip is badly split, my Lord. As you can see."
"How many stitches?"
"Four, my Lord. I am completing the third right now." She paused to clip off the newly tied knot of spider silk. "I need you to hold very still, Prince Legolas. This final stitch at the border of the lip is crucial."
Legolas nodded, narrowing his eyes at the amusement in her tone. Although he did not mind having Nestalinde sitting between his legs, with her breath tickling his cheek, he wished she would at least try to not sound as if she were enjoying herself quite so much.
"Forgive me, Sire," Magorion continued. "Reflex took over and I . . ."
"Whacked him a good one in the mouth?"
"Yes, Sire. I whacked him a good one."
To Legolas's surprise, Thranduil began to laugh. "Good! That will teach him that a sword has two ends."
"Keep your head still," Nestalinde said sharply, her needle taking a bite of flesh.
Legolas responded with a miserable, "Hnnngghh . . ." and slapped his palm down onto the table beside him. Hard. He shot his father a glare over the top of Nestalinde's dark head.
"Better you should learn that lesson here in my halls from a friend, rather than from an orc in battle. You'll heal."
"That he will, my Lord," said Nestalinde, clipping off the final knot and straightening up. "However there is the matter of his tooth. Show him, Prince Legolas."
Careful not to pull out the newly placed stitches, Legolas gingerly eased back his upper lip in a mirthless grimace, exposing the gap where the better part of his upper left front tooth had been before the metal hilt of Margorion's sword had struck it.
"Chipped?" Thranduil asked. "Can it be mended?"
"I'm afraid not, Sire," Nestalinde replied. "It is snapped off down to the nerve chamber. If left in, it will fester."
Thranduil shrugged. "Very well. Do what you must, then."
Without further ado, Nestalinde reached her left hand behind Legolas's head to steady him and grasped the broken stump between her strong right thumb and forefinger. With a quick twist of her wrist she pulled downward, and Legolas felt a rush of blood as she tossed the remaining half of his tooth into a silver bowl.
He groaned, wiping away reflexive tears with the heel of his hand. He wanted to say every vile curse word he had learned out on the patrols, but he found himself far too busy spitting into that same silver bowl.
"Stop that; you'll make it worse," she said matter-of-factly. She handed him a wad of linen wrapped around a core of moss. "Here, bite down on this for the next twenty minutes until the bleeding stops."
Legolas nodded miserably. Over the lady healer's shoulder, he could see Magorion, looking vaguely apologetic. He felt Thranduil's hand on his shoulder. "Cheer up, son. Be glad you're not a Mortal. It will grow back."
After a dinner during which he had sat stiff and dour for fear of pulling out his stitches and exposing his gap-toothed smile, Legolas made his way up to bed. As far as he was concerned, this day could not end soon enough.
As he settled between the covers and put a hand beneath the pillow he felt the unmistakable chill of metal against his palm. Furrowing his brow, he pulled out a small round object on a fine chain, and held it up for a better look, examining it in the red glow from the banked fire.
He jumped up, pulled on a robe and made for the secret stairway that connected his room with Thranduil's bed-chamber on the floor above. He took the stairs two at a time, barely feeling the cold stone against his bare feet. He smiled, recalling all the times he had climbed these stairs in the night, seeking the comfort of his father's bed after some bad dream or night terror.
Those times were longs past, though. He was no longer a child. He knocked on the heavy wooden door.
He found Thranduil seated in front of the fire in his dressing gown with his hair loose, one leg crossed carelessly over the other. One hand held a book; the other held a glass of wine.
"What's this?" Legolas thrust out his fist, letting the object swing gently on its chain.
His father raised an eyebrow and set aside his book. "Sit down, Legolas. And have a glass of wine. I daresay you could use it after today."
"I don't mind if I do," Legolas muttered, and took a seat across from his father on the hearth. He took the glass from Thranduil's outstretched hand and sipped gingerly, feeling the faint sting as the wine hit his wounded upper lip. By now the stitches had begin to pull and itch, and Legolas could still not keep the tip of his tongue from straying to the empty socket, where he could feel the flat blade of the new tooth poking down through the partly healed gum.
"Remember," Thranduil said, "how when you lost each of your baby teeth I would leave you a present under your pillow? A sweetmeat, a small toy, or even a coin?"
Legolas nodded, trying to keep the exasperation from his voice. "But Father, I'm one hundred and eighty-three."
"And I was five hundred and forty-seven the night Oropher gave that same token to me."
"What is this, anyway?"
"It's an Iathren coin, very rare. You're never too old to get a gift for a lost tooth." Thranduil smiled. "In my case it was teeth. Just like you, I had been sparring with my father's seneschal, Helegui. I tried to disarm him and he pulled the same maneuver Magorion did with you today -- smashed me in the mouth with his sword pommel. Only he managed to knee me in the groin at the same time. He said he lost his balance and tripped, but I've always had my doubts. That man never liked me."
Thranduil grinned wider and tapped his front teeth with his fingernail. "All four, and it spoiled my pretty looks for the six weeks it took them to grow back in. I thought Adar would be angry with Helegui, but he just laughed and said it would teach me a good lesson. And so it did."
Legolas held up the object on its chain and peered at it more closely in the light from his father's fire. He'd recognized it for a coin the moment he pulled it out from under his pillow, drilled through and hung on a chain. Now, he made out the profile with its blade-like nose and strong chin. "Is this . . .?"
"Elu Thingol. When Father put it into my hand he said it would always serve as a reminder to me that overconfidence can be fatal." Thranduil's face fell and he swallowed hard, turning to stare into the fire for a time. He looked back again with a wan smile. "We all could take that lesson to heart. The coin is yours now, Legolas."
"Thank you," Legolas said and drained his wine.
"And now you had best be getting to bed, son," Thranduil said gently. "Regrowing teeth takes strength."
Legolas nodded and rose. At the head of the stairs, he paused with his hand on the jamb. "Just how long, Father, are you going to treat me like your little boy?"
Thranduil grinned, the firelight glinting off his teeth and tinting them red. "Ask me that question again once you're a parent yourself."
Legolas sighed and turned away.
"Legolas . . .?" His father's voice called him back. "Until the end of all things. Get used to it."
Smiling, Legolas shut the door behind him and descended the staircase, slipping the chain over his neck as he went.
Thank you to Nieriel Raina for letting me go ahead with this, since she beat me to it -- long since.
Thank you also to Ignoble Bard, who suggested the title.