23. Suggestions and Considerations
“I am to take your place until King Thranduil has finished speaking to you,” Belegorn told him. “Do not hasten on my account, though!”
Thanking the older Elf, Haldir made his way back down the corridors to the great hall. The king, for a rarity, was not at the center of a knot of petitioners, and beckoned him over.
“I realize you are on duty now,” Thranduil half-apologized, “but I wished to speak to you sooner rather than later.”
“Certainly, sir. I am at your command.”
The king rose and gestured to Haldir to follow him. “Come, let us speak in my chambers, where it is more comfortable. I will have Guilin bring something to drink – would you care for wine?”
“Thank you, no. If I am to return to duty this morning, I would prefer to abstain,” Haldir answered.
“Well said. Perhaps some tea, then; it is a cold day out. Here we are,” and Thranduil opened the door to the room.
“Your partner Melpomaen gave me to understand that he had had few dealings with Men; is that so for you also? I hope not, for I should like your views on some matters regarding them,” the king said, sitting back in his chair.
Haldir seated himself opposite, saying, “I know somewhat more of Men than Melpomaen, I believe, but what is it your majesty would wish to know? I will do my best to answer.”
“You were there yesterday when that woodsman came and asked to join in the hunt for the creature that stole his son. I could not but say yes to him, yet I have rarely allowed Men to serve with my Elves. Of course you do not know this Man personally, but what do you think of the notion of the two races working together?”
“If he is able to do what is needful to work with the others in the patrol, I can see no reason why he should not do this service. He would – rightfully – pursue the creature himself, otherwise, and that could cause more difficulties.” Haldir paused and pursed his lips. “Does Baldor speak our tongue? If not, I could see that as a problem. But from what I understand he is woods-wise and ought to be able to aid the rest, not slow them.”
“I believe so; he may not speak well, but as I recall he spoke Sindarin when he first came to pledge his oath before taking up his holding in the woods. But have you ever worked closely with Men yourself, Haldir? Is there any other advice you can give?”
The golden head shook slowly. “I have spent some time with Men in conversation and trade, but never worked with them in such a situation. I would not assume any difference, nor any likeness either, no more than I would with any stranger. He holds you as his king; it is for you to say.”
Thranduil held Haldir’s gaze for a moment. “True.” The silence that fell then was broken only when the king called for tea to be brought for his guest, and wine for himself.
Sipping, Thranduil turned to a different subject. “You came here most immediately from Dale – I understand you had an errand there, a message to deliver and a reply to carry back?”
“Yes, that is so.”
“Might I inquire what that message concerned?”
“I fear that the details of it must remain confidential, sir. I am in a position to say neither what the message was, nor the answer.”
“Of course you cannot tell me the exact contents, but I would greatly appreciate knowing in a general way what it bears on: trade, politics, or even if it is just a personal matter. We can become isolated here in Mirkwood, you understand, which most of the time is to be preferred, but recent events have brought home the fact that the external world may impinge upon us against our will. As happened at Erebor, as I am sure you are aware. So if there is some matter brewing in Dale that may have repercussions for my own realm, you will see that it is meet that I should be aware of it.”
Haldir recognized the point of the king’s argument, but still held himself unauthorized to share the information of the proposed alliance between Lothlórien and Dale. “I am sorry, your majesty. All I can say is that it was no personal matter, but one of greater import. There is nothing more I can tell you.”
“Humph.” Thranduil glared at him, then sighed. “Well, you would be no good messenger if you told tales out of turn. I suppose I will have to send to Bard himself to find out, and I cannot spare any to do so until the spring.”
Haldir bowed his head and lifted his cup to his lips. The tea was an unfamiliar blend of herbs, pleasant but distinctive enough that Haldir felt he would not wish to have it daily.
“I hear good reports of you,” said Thranduil, shifting abruptly. “You carry out your assigned duties well and faithfully, bear yourself courteously, and have taught a few new fighting techniques to your comrades. The only complaint I have heard is that you are not always as social with the others as is commonly expected. But that is a minor point. Tell me, would you have any interest in returning here to serve me on a permanent basis after you complete your errand this spring?”
To cover his surprise Haldir took another sip of the hot tea. “I. . . would have to consider the matter carefully. Melpomaen and I have an understanding that we will continue to work together after our present mission, you understand, but I am most flattered by the offer, sir.”
Thranduil shrugged. “It applies to him too; that need not restrain you. Think on it, if you will. It is not yet even midwinter, and I would not advise you to risk leaving until spring, so you will have plenty of time to weigh the merits of the idea. If you decide to return, either or both of you, you would be welcome.”
“Thank you, King Thranduil. I do appreciate it,” said Haldir, and set his emptied cup aside.
He would have been happy to take his leave then, having more than enough to think about, but Thranduil held him for a few minutes more with questions about his experiences there and how they compared to his earlier life: how the officers behaved, how duties were scheduled, and similar points. When he finally was dismissed from the king’s presence, he leaned for an instant against the wall of the corridor outside Thranduil’s rooms before pulling himself upright and walking back towards the gates to resume that day’s duty.
As he passed through the great hall, though, he heard his name called. Sighing, he turned and waited for Vida to reach him.
“Thank you,” she said. “I suppose you are busy now, but can you spare just a moment of your time?”
“If it is only a moment, yes.”
She tugged him over to one side of the hall. “Please, you have been so kind already, will you tell me truthfully what you think of Baldor’s decision to hunt for this creature? What are his chances of success, of returning to me unharmed?”
Haldir saw the worry in her face and wished he could reassure her, but he could not. “You know your husband’s skill better than I could, Vida. If he has the abilities, he will be as safe as any. He will not be going alone, after all, but with an entire patrol on the hunt. I do think that his decision to go is the proper thing to do – you would not wish him to allow your son’s murder to be unavenged, would you?”
Vida looked down, tears trickling from her eyes. “No. . . but if Baldor were to be injured or killed in this pursuit, then would I have lost everything.”
He patted her on the shoulder. “Try not to worry. It is most unlikely that he would be killed, and he risks injury every day, in the woods. If you can, indeed, I would say that you should rather encourage him to do as he feels best, so that his thoughts are bent on that rather than being half back here with you.”
She nodded reluctantly. “I understand what you are saying. Is there any chance that you or your friend would be on this patrol? I would feel better, were there someone I knew nearby.”
“I am afraid not. We are both assigned to guard duty here, at the caverns. But I am sure that those who are out seeking the creature are well-trained and skilled at their work – there is no cause for you to fear that Baldor will have any trouble. Vida, I’m sorry, but I must return to the gate now. Someone else is standing in for me, and I cannot leave him waiting.”
“No, of course not. Thank you for telling me what you think, Haldir. I will see you again.” She turned away and walked with slow step towards the kitchens.
Haldir shook his head and strode off toward the gates. Belegorn was in the midst of telling a story to the other three guards when Haldir arrived, and nodded while continuing his narrative.
When the story was over, Haldir thanked Belegorn for taking his place for so much of the morning.
“Do not think of it – you may do as much for me, or someone else, another time. In the winter, in any case, it is not as if this is hard duty. We have seen no strangers all morning, only a few of our own folk going in and out. Well, I’m off to count supplies in the storerooms again. I will see you all this evening in the mess.”
The rest of the afternoon passed as it ever did guarding the gate, in pacing the space before the great doors and in desultory conversation with the other three. Haldir knew that he ought to think about both Melpomaen’s proposition and Thranduil’s offer, but he felt awkward doing so on duty, and decided that perhaps in the evening would be better.
Melpomaen was finishing his own meal when Haldir arrived in the mess for supper, and they were only able to smile their greetings before Melpomaen had to depart for his assigned patrol that night. Pushing his stew around the bowl with a thick slice of bread, Haldir tried to take part in the talk around him. Thranduil’s hint had not gone unnoticed. He saw Legolas at the far end of the table raising a brow at his unwonted animation, and hoped that his captain would not wish to speak to him later; he had been intending to go to the common room for a while, and then back to his room to think.
Haldir’s hopes were not fulfilled, however. Carrying his dishes away, Legolas stopped and said, “I understand the king spoke with you this morning about staying on. Please come to discuss that with me in my quarters after you have finished eating.”
Haldir ate the rest of his meal in annoyed silence, but did as he was commanded and presented himself at Legolas’s door shortly thereafter. The captain greeted him cheerfully.
“What was it that you wanted?” asked Haldir.
Legolas stopped and looked surprised. “Have I done aught to offend you? I thought with Melpomaen on duty you might wish for company, but not so much as the common room must afford.”
“No, sir, you have not offended me,” muttered Haldir, avoiding Legolas’s eye. “I apologize for my churlishness.”
“It is forgotten. I do want to speak about the possibility that you and Melpomaen might remain here, or rather, return after you have completed your present errand. You would be assets here, as I am sure my father told you. Have you given it any thought?”
“I have not really had time to consider it yet, and of course have not been able to speak with Maen, either. Is there any urgency in making a decision? King Thranduil seemed not to think so.”
“No, no urgency, at least not until you leave in the spring. By then I would like to know if you plan to return, simply so that I can add more men to the roster as needed. If you two will be here, I would leave places for you,” said Legolas.
“But if we were to return, I imagine that we would be treated just as all the ordinary guards are, is that not so? Sleep in the barracks-room with the rest, for instance, rather than in our present quarters.”
“Most probably,” admitted Legolas, “although that might be negotiated, were you employed in a more regular fashion. We do allow those guards who have bond-mates here to share quarters with them, when space permits. Erentar, for instance; his spouse works in the weaving-room. And this would be a permanent position; since at present from what you have said you seem to be working from commission to commission, I thought this might be preferable.”
Haldir did not choose to correct the captain’s misapprehension of his activities. Instead he said, “I will certainly think about it, and discuss it with Maen, too – I am sure he will be pleased at the offer.”
“I am glad for that.” Legolas looked around. “Here, I have been remiss. Would you care for something, perhaps a glass of wine?”
On the verge of refusing, Haldir thought better of it. A longer conversation with Legolas might help him to reach a decision about whether or not to go along with Melpomaen’s outlandish notion of inviting the other Elf to watch them. “If you have it here, I would, thank you,” he accepted.
Legolas’s expression smoothed. “I thought you would decline,” he remarked, rising and pouring two glasses. “You seemed unwilling to be here, when you arrived.”
“Oh, well,” said Haldir. “Now that I am here, I have no especial desire to leave.”
Clear eyes held his own. “Thank you.” Legolas handed Haldir a glass, then reseated himself.
“I know that you have not had time to consider, but what is your initial feeling about staying, Haldir? Are you inclined to accept, or refuse?”
“To be honest with you, my first thought is to refuse.”
“Why? Have you not been happy here?”
“I have,” Haldir assured him hastily. “But it is not home, you understand, at least, not yet. Which may change over the course of the winter. Maen may also feel otherwise, and this must be a mutual decision. There would be clear benefits for us in returning to Mirkwood, as you understand. As I told you once before, our people would be scandalized – at best – were our bond to be known to them. Here that seems less condemned, from what you have said, and we would not need to hide our true selves in the same fashion, nor feel that we were in some way outside the community of which we ought to be a part. That is tempting to me, I confess, and I know will be more so to Maen.”
Legolas nodded, and Haldir continued, “But then, if we cannot be – physically – together here either, the appeal is less, you can see that.”
“Surely,” said Legolas. He leaned back and drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. “That is something that I, and you two, would have to deal with. It will depend on how many requests for individual quarters there are, and I will not know that until the time comes. Preferential treatment for newcomers would cause problems, which would also separate you from the others with whom you would be working.”
“Indeed it would, so you can understand why I hesitate, at least at first thought.”
“But you will consult with Melpomaen, will you not? We – my father and I – would be more than pleased if you chose to return, and would certainly make any reasonable accommodations that we could.”
Legolas blinked. “Why what?”
“Yes. Why are you so anxious that Maen and I should return to Mirkwood?” asked Haldir bluntly. “Neither of us is exceptionally skilled beyond your own people’s abilities in tracking or fighting, nor have we any other unusual talents to offer. So why do you urge me so strongly?”
The king’s son sighed. “Do you know why my father has begun to accept Men into his service and is allowing them to take up lands in his realm?”
Haldir shook his head.
“Because we diminish, our people. Oh, not a great deal, not yet, but what is coming is clear. Our fighting against the Orcs and great spiders and other evil wights has of necessity meant that some are slain, and fewer and fewer are born to replace them. I have remained unwedded, but many others who have found their partners have chosen not to sire and bear children – and so we gradually dwindle. My father foresees this, and knows that it is inevitable, but he wishes to prolong the good of his realm so long as he may. Therefore he encourages any Elves who pass through to consider staying, especially those who have no strong loyalties, such as yourself and Melpomaen. It is my duty to support him in this aim.”
“I see,” said Haldir slowly. “What do you think of this? I ask you not as the king’s son, but as Legolas, dweller in Mirkwood.”
“I do not know,” confessed Legolas. “I have naught to say against Men, indeed, and they reclaim and make safe lands we might otherwise be forced to relinquish to our enemies. But I find myself uncomfortable around them at times – their lives are so brief that it is hard to understand their ways of thinking, so limited by the knowledge of their own near departure from Arda. I would rather see Mirkwood flourish under the Elves, as once was; but since I have been unable to do nothing myself towards that goal, it is hard to quarrel with my father’s decision.”
“You would then support my return with Maen?”
“Of course. Why would I not? You are both skilled in your duties, and I enjoy your company.” Legolas looked quizzical.
“I thought – given what you have hinted – that you might be more comfortable in my absence,” said Haldir. “Or Maen’s.”
A slight flush stained the other’s cheeks. “Ah. Well. What is, must be, must it not? I have accepted that, though I may still harbor some regrets. It would be foolish of me though to let that shape all my actions, would it not?”
Haldir shrugged. “Not all would respond that way. I would not wish unwittingly to make a choice that would cause pain to another.”
“No, I assure you. Indeed, sometime soon I would like to spend another evening with the two of you and learn more about the different customs you know – and tell you more of ours. Perhaps that will help persuade you to stay.”
Haldir was not entirely convinced by Legolas’s protestations that he would be undisturbed if Haldir and Melpomaen ultimately decided to return and dwell permanently in King Thranduil’s realm, but left the matter for the time being. “I would certainly enjoy learning more of your customs and beliefs, regardless. Some that you have mentioned surprise me, and I imagine the same is true for you.”
“Yes,” said Legolas eagerly. “Very much so. Would, say, four days hence suit you? Melpomaen will be back in the records room then, and free in the evening, if I remember the schedule correctly.”
“That would suit, I imagine,” accepted Haldir. “I will check with Maen that he has made no other obligations, but if I do not tell you otherwise, expect us to be here that evening, sometime after supper.” He glanced at the coals in the hearth. “It grows late, though, so I will bid you good night for now.”
Legolas rose to open the door as Haldir left. “Thank you, my friend. Do not forget to tell Melpomaen of the offer from my father.”
“I will not,” promised Haldir, and strode away down the passage.
He was tired, after all the conversations he had had that day, and still had not had time to reflect on Melpomaen’s proposal. He decided to simply go to sleep and consider it the next day, when he was scheduled to be on patrol rather than gate guard, and all would be quiet in the wood. He slept soundly, and was awakened by a kiss from Melpomaen.
“Do you have a cold?”
“No, what makes you ask that?”
“I could hear you snoring from the hallway, before I opened the door,” grinned Melpomaen, pulling his tunic over his head. “They could probably hear you in Lórien.”
“Sh,” Haldir flapped his hand at the door. “Not even here.”
Melpomaen, unrepentant, rolled his eyes and flung himself onto the bed next to Haldir. “Come on, get up. I haven’t eaten yet myself; I thought we could go to the meal together.”
“All right.” Haldir slipped out from under the coverlet and began to dress. “I have a message for you.”
“The king called me to speak with him yesterday, and offered us both a place in his service, if we choose to return after our present errand. Legolas reiterated the offer last night. Oh, and we’re to meet with him four nights from now. Not to answer about that – there is no hurry there – simply for conversation.”
“Just that. I haven’t had time to think about your wild idea yet, Maen, first the king spoke with me, then Vida, then Legolas. I hardly had a moment to myself all day. But I should today, and I will consider it, I promise you, just as you had better think about this offer from Thranduil. We will have to choose together whether to take it up.”
“Yes, yes. Aren’t you ready yet? I’m hungry.”
As he had expected, Haldir was indeed on patrol that day. He had enough experience from his many years in Lothlórien, and had learned enough about the Mirkwood forest, that he could keep most of his attention on his duty, but use one corner of his mind to think.
Walking through the woods – the three others in his patrol were just within earshot – reminded him of all the many times he had wandered among the trees of his home. Mirkwood’s trees were different, but the remnants of the first snowfalls on the moist earth beneath them recalled the pale niphredil of Lórien. He was glad that there were no silver-trunked mellyrn here.
He set himself seriously to think. Melpomaen had suggested that they pleasure themselves before Legolas, then make love with the other watching, as a way to both assure Legolas that seeking one’s own pleasure did not preclude any later bond – and who among the Elves of Mirkwood could have invented that idea, and why, he wondered – and to perhaps give him some ease. Could such a wild scheme be effective in helping Legolas feel less sorrowful, less desperate about his unbonded status? Haldir shook his head dubiously, even as he ducked to avoid a low-hanging bough.
Then again, it was not his to decide for Legolas. He need only decide if he himself was willing to participate in this. Melpomaen seemed very much to desire it, and Haldir wanted to please his partner if he could, but still he felt reluctant.
Now he was moving into less-familiar territory and slowed his pace, alert to hear any signal from his companions. Silence prevailed in the chill air. He skirted a tangle of bramble and paused, frowning in near-recognition. This place looked like. . . and then he knew. It resembled the place in Lórien where he had once seen two other binn. Though he had had no choice, and had learned much good from that, he still felt deep shame that he had watched them, remaining hidden. He could not possibly put himself into such a situation, and cause Legolas shame in the same way.
Haldir stopped to listen again. Still all was quiet. He resumed walking and continued to argue with himself. If he was truthful about it, it was not so much that he had seen those other Elves, as that they had not known of his presence. It smacked of underhandedness, of dishonor. Would he have felt differently had they seen him, spoken with him, perhaps even shown him willingly some of what he had watched as a voyeur?
Wrestling with these questions, he finished his morning sweep and rejoined the other three Elves for a quick bite at noon. The afternoon passed uneventfully and they returned to the caverns as twilight fell.
Melpomaen raised his eyebrows at Haldir as the latter slid into place beside him at the table. Haldir nodded, then shrugged his shoulders. Melpomaen gave a tiny sigh, then nodded acceptance. They both knew Haldir would continue to consider for the next day or two.
In the common room after supper, Haldir placed himself on the fringes of a group telling stories, listening but not talking, seated where he could steal glimpses of Legolas as the captain moved about the room. Once or twice he thought he saw a shadow cross the other’s face as Legolas looked toward him. He tried to imagine what it would be like to have Legolas present as he loved Melpomaen.