3. The Blood Runs Gold
'Ah, spring was sent for lass and lad,
'Tis now the blood runs gold,
And man and maid had best be glad
Before the world is old.
What flowers to-day may flower to-morrow,
But never as good as new.
--Suppose I wound my arm right round . . .'
A.E. Houseman, 'A Shropshire Lad'
The Solstice came and went. The Avorren tree had been divested of its jewelry and Thranduil's crown of holly leaves, to be replanted back in the forest where it would thrive for many a year, as did all the evergreens that had briefly stood proxy for the King during the darkest time of the season.
Tonight, the thirteenth day of Narwain, it was Legolas's turn to look as resplendent as the Solstice tree, much as he disliked the gaudy show. As he had done every anniversary of the occasion since his coming of age, he wore a tunic of deep forest green velvet with silver tracery on the sleeves, and in his hair sat the circlet of mithril that never failed to make him look like a girl. Oh, the things he did to please his father!
The weather on his Begetting Day was always unpredictable. Sometimes the woods lay deep under a blanket of snow, as had happened the previous year. At other times the biting cold would turn the river to black ice and make the very rocks crack in the night. This year had brought a post-Yule thaw, melting the snow and setting the branches to dripping in the shifting mist.
"So it was on your actual Begetting Day," Thranduil had told him earlier that morning as the two of them stood together on the bridge in their shirtsleeves, enjoying the unseasonable warmth. "The air was mild enough for me to sit out on the balcony with Mithrandir while he smoked his vile weed. And then, merry with the wine, I went to your mother."
Legolas had dropped his eyes and shifted as uneasily as might any child hearing a parent speak of a begetting. It had happened; he was here; that was all that mattered. He did not need to know the details.
"That night, Mithrandir warned me that in my greatest joy might lie my greatest grief. So far, despite all, I have proved him wrong."
Legolas remembered those words as he stood watching his own celebration. Even while making an even bigger fuss over the occasion than usual, Thranduil seemed carefree for once. He sat on his throne, surveying the festivities with a happy smile, goblet of wine in hand, with Galion standing ready with the decanter to refill it when it became empty. Legolas felt content as well.
" . . . and look how Mereth is wearing the same gown as last year and the year before that. Does she never care for new things?" A voice as clear as the sparkle of sunlight off of water jerked Legolas back to reality, and slender fingers gripped the green velvet of his sleeve proprietarily. "But see that Sarniel has new ribbon on her sleeves and how she tries to get Fefelas to dance every dance with her? They'll be bonded by spring, mark my words. I'd like new ribbons on my bodice . . ."
Legolas schooled his features into his princely smile. Gwilwilleth was exquisitely fair, even for an elf-maiden, but sweet Elbereth on Taniquetil, her head was as empty as -- he cast about for something suitably vacant -- Thranduil's wine decanter after an especially merry night! There had been a time in years past when, inspired by too much wine, Legolas had fancied taking her off into the darkness for a few stolen kisses. But tonight she stuck to him like a burr.
Legolas knew he should feel flattered by the attention, but if the talk of fabric and costume and who was going to plight troth with whom went on much longer he would be forced to counter with talk of books to chase her off. He gazed with longing at a carafe of wine on a nearby side-chest while Gwilwilleth prattled happily on.
"Gwilwilleth, dear, may I borrow our Prince for the next dance?" This new voice was as low and melodious as a reed flute. Legolas started and looked down to see a pale hand laid upon his free arm. He did his best to hide his smile of relief. Guest of honor or no, he must remember his manners.
Thranduil's chief healer had an austere beauty that rivaled Gwilwillith's. Nestalinde always insisted on treating the King and his son herself rather than leaving it to an underling; hence Legolas knew her quite well. She could be rather daunting at times, with her oddly ancient name, which she refused to change despite the difficulties in pronunciation, and the whisperings of awed elves who maintained that there were none among Thranduil's folk who had known her as a child. Over the years, Legolas had secretly come to enjoy his all too frequent wounds just for the opportunity to be close to her while she stitched a cut or removed some orcish arrowhead from his person.
However, something was unusual tonight. The lady healer never danced, preferring to keep herself apart and watch the others.
"Of course, Nestalinde." Gwilwilleth spoke in a tone of pure sweetness, yet Legolas marked how she arched a disdainful eyebrow at Nestalinde's simple dress of deep brown linen and her lack of jewelry. Women! Legolas thought Nestalinde looked lovely. Her healer's braid, now thrown over her shoulder in a glossy black rope, set off the color of her gown to perfection and was finery enough.
The harpist struck the first note of the next set. With a quick parting nod to Legolas, Gwilwilleth disappeared off into the crowd to attach herself to Glavras, who had been in the midst of a drinking game with two of the other guards. The elf shot Legolas a glance of surprised gratitude before bending to whisper something into the maiden's ear.
"You looked as if you might be in need of rescue," Nestalinde said as Legolas took her arm for the dance.
"I hate to admit that, but . . . yes," he replied with a quick laugh.
"Even the greatest warrior requires help at times," she said, placing her palm to his.
Either by fortune or design, the lady had chosen a dance where the partners remained together throughout. The pace was sedate as well; all the better for conversation. "Alas, I fear the empty banter of the court is not my battlefield," Legolas said as he circled about her, pressed palms high in the air, then switched hands and circled the other way. "I wish I could be as self-assured in the throne room as Father is."
Nestalinde merely laughed. "Oh, I can assure you that our Prince Thranduil spent much of the previous Age shy and awkward. He stepped up into the role of King when it was thrust upon him, but why do you suppose he hugs his throne on these occasions? Compared to him you are the epitome of grace. All the maidens sigh after you, Legolas."
"Truly? I fear it has escaped my attention," Legolas said with a rueful quirk of his lips. "Save for Gwilwilleth, there, they do not seem to have noticed I am alive."
Nestalinde let out a low chuckle. "They have all noticed, Prince, believe me. They are merely all too frightened of Thranduil to approach you. Except for Gwilwilleth who is young and . . . not of the keenest wit."
Legolas smiled. That was one way of putting it. "I am sure she has a very good heart, though," he added diplomatically.
"Oh, yes," Nestalinde replied. "And a good eye for clothing." Even as she spoke, Legolas could see the corner of her mouth twitching. He caught her gaze and the two of them burst into simultaneous laughter.
He could hear the measures of the dance coming to an end, and he had a sudden desire not to let her slip away. "Lady, would you think me a great churl if I were to leave my celebration early?"
"Of course not, Legolas. It is your Begetting Day after all. Tonight of all nights, you should do as you wish."
"And would you then think me an even greater churl if I were to ask you to come with me? I would far rather spend the evening in conversation than in frivolity."
She smiled. "On the contrary. I would expect such boldness from the son of Thranduil and the grandson of Oropher."
"Then follow my lead," he said, becoming the elusive wood-scout of his days with the patrols. As the stately steps of the ending dance brought them to the right spot, he deftly guided her behind a pillar. From there it was only a short sprint to a side doorway. On his way out, Legolas snatched up a full jug of wine from a nearby sideboard, doing his best to hide his silly grin at the prospect of time spent alone with Nestalinde that did not involve the piercing of his flesh by sharp needles.
Where should he take her, though, to talk in comfort and privacy? His first choice, his bedchamber, would not do, for obvious reasons. Legolas often entertained in his room, but the lady healer differed from Glavras or his other friends from the forest guard.
A walk in the woods was out of the question. A chill drizzle had begin early that afternoon. Even swathed in cloaks they'd soon be cold and wet. Then he hit upon it.
"This way," he said, leading her up the long staircase with its stone banisters carved into the shape of branches, and down the torch-lit corridors. Her hand remained in his, warm against his palm, and her slippers made no noise on the stone flags.
The smell of dusty books and old parchment never failed to lift Legolas's spirits. How different from eighty years ago, when he had entered the library, filled with resentment at having his command withdrawn as punishment for what Thranduil had deemed reckless behavior. Although with the extra years of perspective, Legolas admitted to himself that his desire to gaze upon the old Amon Lanc without the protection of his guards had been nigh unto suicidal. He never wanted to lay eyes upon Dol Guldur or any other place belonging to the Enemy, ever again.
A small annex off the main room had become a sanctuary to him, as much his own spot as Thranduil's private study belonged to the King alone. Here he led her. The light crystal in the ceiling had gone dark with the coming of night, and only one candle burned in the wall sconce. Legolas knelt at the banked fire in the hearth, throwing on another log to start the blaze anew.
"How pleased Oropher would have been to see you working with the books."
Legolas looked up over his shoulder to see Nestalinde standing at his drafting table, examining his latest copy project, a crumbling scroll of poetry by one of the lesser-known bards of Doriath. "You knew my grandsire?"
"Yes," she said, running a tentative finger over the handles of his brushes where they stood propped in their holder. "Very well. Since he was a young scribe in Thingol's court."
Legolas swallowed. Of course he had known she was old. Although her face remained as fair and unlined as a maiden just coming of age, Nestalinde's eyes showed the weight of long Ages. He had not stopped to think that she might know the man Legolas had only caught a glimpse of through his oddly upright lettering in faded ink and through the occasional pithy comment inscribed in the margins of scrolls he copied. "What was he like?"
"A lot like you," she replied, sinking down onto a low, backless couch that rested along one wall of the alcove. She patted the seat beside her. "You have his hair, and his eyes . . . and his nature."
Legolas rose from his crouch at the hearth and joined her, bringing the wine with him. He realized, to his chagrin, that he had neglected to bring goblets. Shrugging, he drank from the jug itself, turning the edge around politely as he offered it to the lady. "His love of books, you mean?"
Nestalinde smiled and turned the jug back, to drink from the spot where his lips had touched. "That . . . and he had a reckless streak when put to the test. You are so like him it frightened your father, I think. Oropher had a touch of destiny about him. Right up until the end"
Legolas took back the wine. "My poor father. I confess I did not make things easy for him. Truly, I wish I could have been a healer or a harpist, as he hoped. But ever since I was small, I've had a sense that fate held a special purpose in store for me; that I was not meant to be a man of peace."
"You are like your grandsire in that respect as well, Legolas. Yours is not a peaceful spirit."
"How could I be, living in such times? I don't like killing, you know, but I often find it required of me. As Father is so fond of saying: kings rule and princes serve."
"Even tonight," she said, with a cryptic smile. "You wear your crown as a gift to your father. And your return has been a gift to all of us. You give to others each day of your life, and yet, tonight, I have nothing for you."
"Your very presence is a gift, Nestalinde," he said. "Being here alone with you is the closest I have come to peace in quite a while."
"Still," she said, eyeing him carefully and reaching for the wine, "it seems not enough. If you could ask for anything at all on this, your Begetting Day, what would it be?"
"Anything?" he laughed.
"Within reason, of course," she said, coloring faintly as she raised the jug to her lips. "And assuming it is within my power to grant." She handed back the wine.
Legolas threw one leg over the other and leaned back against the stone wall behind the couch, sipping his wine meditatively. He really needed very little. Then a mischievous thought wormed its way into his mind. "Did you really mean it -- about anything at all?"
"In that case, I would like a kiss. From you."
He halfway expected her to take offense at this, prince or no. As his father's chief healer, Nestalinde was the ranking lady in the realm, standing high in wisdom, and he was but a cheeky child in comparison. Instead she smiled. "Put the wine down, Legolas. I thought you'd never ask."
Feeling his pulse begin to race, Legolas set the jug on the floor, suddenly shocked back into the awkward uncertainty of the years following his coming of age. He'd kissed girls before, but Nestalinde was no silly maid to be groped behind the trees. Truth to be told, mindful of his position, he had not done all that much of that either.
Swallowing, he slid closer to her on the couch. "Thank you," he whispered, reaching out with his right hand to stroke her smooth cheek before bending his head to press his lips to hers.
She was soft, moist and pliant against him. Legolas shut his eyes and wound his left arm about her back, bringing her in close. If he were to have this one kiss, he would make the most of it. He let out a happy sigh as her lips slowly parted, allowing his tongue entrance. Emboldened, his mind followed, reaching out to touch her faer . . .
He let out a grunt and jerked away as if burned. "You . . . you . . .?"
She stared back at him, silent.
"You love me . . .?" He realized he was stammering. "You love me!"
She looked no more than a girl-child herself now, vulnerable and uncertain. Slowly she nodded.
"How long?" he managed to choke out.
She shook her head. "Too long."
How could he have failed to notice it? "I don't care -- tell me."
'I felt the strength of your faer when you were born into my hands, and I knew you had come to us for a reason. I would not let myself feel that it might be for me. You grew from a beautiful boy into a beautiful young man, and still -- it was not right. You were the King's son and I . . ."
"Not right," Legolas whispered. Things fell into place now, like the pieces of a puzzle. He had been just a green youth and she an august lady -- one of the wise.
"And then there came a time," she continued, "when I thought it might be not so impossible. The passion, at least, was returned."
Legolas coughed and blushed, remembering the first of many sessions with needle, thread and his skin, and his body's response to her closeness, despite all. "You noticed."
"Of course," she replied, with a soft smile. "We women cannot fail to mark such things. The idea took root. But I thought myself a fool, and an ancient one at that. Someone had already taken your affections."
"Ai!" He grimaced, having to admit the truth of it. For the past eighty years his heart had not been his own, even after Aragorn's mother had handed it back to him on a platter. Even now, years after her death, he still felt the ache.
"I kept my peace," she continued, "thinking I would outgrow the foolish fancy, that I would forget you. But last autumn when I saw you ride off to Imladris, a feeling of doom passed over me: that you would never return to us -- at least not unscathed -- and my heart broke at the thought of it. When you came back, I felt as if I had been granted a reprieve, the chance to make things right. I knew I would have to speak if ever the opportunity presented itself."
Legolas picked up the wine and took another long pull, taking the occasion to study Nestalinde's face in the firelight. She was beautiful, as were all elf-women, but with her, the beauty went deep. He delighted in her company, always had, but the thought that she might be within his grasp had never occurred to him. Now that it had crossed his mind, it took root and bloomed into full realization: He had been pining for a distant, unattainable star, while all the while overlooking the very real woman standing right next to him. "I've been a fool," he whispered. "I think I love you too."
"You think?" she laughed.
"Well," he said, putting the jug back on the floor and moving in closer, "I'll have to kiss you again to know for certain."
This time he used both arms, drawing her to him hungrily. His kiss was fierce, demanding, as she opened to him, her tongue caressing in return. Her hands came up around the back of his head, stroking his hair and the tips of his ears. "Mmm, yes," he murmured. "Now I know for certain."
Slowly, he brought his right hand around to stroke her cheek, the slender cords of her throat and down her neck to the hollow of her collarbone. Did he dare? Oh, yes, he dared. With infinite care, he moved his hand along her bosom, slipping it sidewise down her bodice to cup the treasure that lay beneath.
Thranduil had, on more than one occasion, said that more than a handful was a waste. Nestalinde had not even a handful to fill Legolas's long fingered grasp, but it was perfection indeed. As he gently kneaded, he felt her breast swell beneath his touch. Her tiny nipple hardened, tickling the palm of his hand and sending a line of keen pleasure shooting up his arm and back down to his groin. "Oh, Stars!" he gasped. "I'm certain. I love you. I love you!"
Spurred on by instinct, he felt a pressing need to push her body back down onto the couch, to cover it with his own.
"Legolas . . . Legolas!"
He barely heard her voice over the pounding of his own heart. "Yes?"
"I want you too. Say the vows. Seal it tonight."
Ah, sweet Elbereth, what was he doing? He wanted nothing better than to take her at her word -- to make the oath and have her right then and there. But once done, it could not be undone. He took a deep breath, trying to regain control of himself. He was a prince, after all, and should show a modicum of wisdom. "Are you certain of this, Nestalinde?"
"I know my own heart. Do you have doubts, Legolas?"
He searched his feelings. The more he thought on it, the more the prospect of an eternity with her seemed natural and desirable. To lose her now would break his heart. He shook his head. "I've made my choice. But you are a great lady, high in the esteem of this realm. If you wish the courtesy of a one year betrothal with all due ceremony, I owe you that. I will wait."
She looked at him gravely. "You still have feelings for this other woman?"
"Yes." It hurt to admit it, but he could not lie at such a solemn time. "I will always hold a place for her in my heart, even while I love you. Can you forgive me for that?"
"There is nothing to forgive," she said. "Have you never wondered why, in all the long-years of my life, I never wed?"
He shrugged. "It was not for me to speculate. I had assumed that you were not inclined to marriage. Or that none had yet been worthy of you."
She shook her head. "Ages ago, in my youth, I had a sweetheart. Not long before we were to join, he disappeared, taken by the Dark Hunter, or so they said. I suspect that many of the orcs who trouble us now -- the ones you kill -- are his progeny. Even so, I love him and do not forget him."
Legolas drew in his breath in a sharp gasp. "I'm sorry, Nestalinde."
"Don't be. These things happen for a reason. He was taken from me for a reason. You were born to us for a reason. Fate gives back what it took. Love is not finite, Legolas. There is room in the heart for more than one." She looked up at him, hopeful yet vulnerable. "Do you still want me after this?"
He kissed her and drew her in close, inhaling the sweet scent of her hair. "More than ever. It isn't that. I just wonder why you choose tonight, in this time of uncertainty and coming war. We'll have all the time in the world when it's over."
"For that very reason," she answered. "Let me tell you a story, Legolas. Some time ago, I tended a woman in her last illness. She confided much to me near the end. The man she loved had done something very reckless, and she feared him lost. When he returned to her alive she resolved not to wait another day, not to risk losing him again. She took him to herself that night, custom and prudence notwithstanding."
Nestalinde sighed. "At the hour of her death she told me that, even though they'd spent almost an entire age together, she cherished every moment and would have begrudged the loss of even a single hour."
Legolas swallowed. "My mother."
She nodded. "When I saw you ride back in on your return from Imladris, I understood what she tried to tell me. War comes upon us, Legolas. We may have only a short time together, or we may have until Ardhon Meth. Either way, I don't want to waste one single, precious second of it."
He laughed. "Then I would be a fool to gainsay you. We'll do it right here, right now."
Taking her cheeks between his hands, he looked her in the eye and recited the secret invocation to Elbereth and the Allfather, binding himself to her until World's End. Eyes glittering, she repeated the same. It was done. Almost . . .
"Ah --" he said, suddenly remembering himself, "wait right here."
He jumped up and sprinted out into the library proper. The great door had no lock, but he shut it firmly and left the latch pointing downward, the generally understood signal to any of his father's people that those within desired privacy. He doubted that anyone this night would find themselves in need of a good read, but it would hardly do for one of the subjects to walk in and find their Prince, bare buttocks gaily pointed to the ceiling, in the midst of consummating his marriage.
That done, he returned to the annex. Nestalinde lay back on the couch, waiting for him with a patient smile. "One more thing," he said, giving her a quick grin over his shoulder as he threw another log on the fire.
He walked back to the couch, kicking off his boots one by one as he went. He removed his circlet, setting it carefully on the drafting table, and then sat down beside her.
His fumbling hands tore at laces and fasteners, removing the layers of clothing that lay in his way. When at last he was naked and she too, he paused for a time to savor the enchanting sight of her bare flesh glowing in the firelight: the tender column of her neck, the twin mounds of her tiny breasts, the gentle swell of her belly with its soft triangle of hair below. Finally, he undid the tie on her healer's braid, undoing the plait and running the soft strands through his fingers until her hair spread out around her like a dark halo.
"You are so very beautiful," he said, lowering himself into her waiting arms.
She reached up to stroke his cheek. "You're trembling."
Legolas shook his head and laughed ruefully. How could he explain it? Although what passed between men and women was no mystery to him, his knowledge of it was purely theoretical. So many conflicting thoughts ran through his mind. Was he good enough for her? Would he please her? And the age-old prayer of any man facing his first time with a woman: 'Please, Elbereth, let me last!'
Aloud he said, "It is just that I've dreamed about this moment for so very long . . ."
She smiled up at him. "Don't worry, my love. No matter how long you have waited, it has not been so long as I. It will be all right."
"I love you," he murmured, and covered her. Despite his inexperience, his body knew what to do. He felt a brief resistance, Nestalinde gave a soft gasp, and then he had claimed her. His arms surrounded her; her flesh surrounded him. "Such joy!" he whispered as his faer reached out to join with hers. "Such great joy . . ."
Ardhon Meth: World's End
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.