From then on, it was easy.
It helped that Cilyawen was awake and lucid. “Are you going to be all right?” Mothlin asked as they lifted her onto Tari’s back.
“I have to be, don’t I?” she asked, artfully turning a grimace into a grin. “Don’t worry. I’ll last.” And then, as Mothlin turned away to start leading Tari forward, she added, “Mothlin, this is highly uncomfortable.”
He looked at her, lying on her back on a horse to keep the wound from jostling, and burst out laughing. “It’s good to have you back,” he said.
“It’s good to be back,” she answered. “Now lead on.”
Mothlin obeyed, grinning.
Elenanar and Cilyawen liked each other right away, which took a huge load off Mothlin’s mind. He could not have imagined how horrible his life would be if the two most important women in it hated each other. He wasn’t sure what to make of the two of them whispering together and glancing sideways at him when Elenanar changed the dressing on Cilyawen’s wound, but it was better than having them glare at each other the whole way.
They encountered no trouble on the way to Thranduil’s palace, for which Mothlin was profoundly grateful. He was exhausted from the adventure in Sauron’s dream-place, and he wouldn’t have given much for their chances if a spider had attacked them. Elenanar felt the same way – relief was obvious in her voice when she announced excitedly that she was starting to recognize this part of the forest. “We’re almost there!” she cried eagerly.
“How much longer until we get there?” Mothlin asked.
She bit her lip, thinking. “Maybe a day, maybe two, no more than three.” Elenanar looked at him from the other side of Tari, her face lit up with happiness. “Oh, Valar, it’s going to be good to sleep in a bed again!”
“You think you have it hard,” Cilyawen remarked, slung across Tari. “At least you don’t get jostled around all day on horseback!” Tari snorted indignantly, and Cilyawen laughed and petted her neck to reassure the horse that she’d only been teasing.
Mothlin fell into step beside Elenanar and took her free hand. She looked up at him and smiled, and he smiled back. The trip had afforded them little time to themselves, and it was nice to simply hold hands and walk together. But finally he broke the companionable silence and said, “You know, when we met, I wouldn’t have guessed you’d be this happy to come back to Mirkwood.”
She laughed softly. “Neither would I,” she admitted. “It just – it’s like coming home. Seeing these places that I recognize, knowing the faces I’ll see when I get back…it feels so nice.”
Mothlin looked down. So if she’s happy here, will she not want to come back to Rivendell with me? Because I can’t stay in Mirkwood, I just don’t like it here – and it’s too close to Dol Guldur for my peace of mind. He held his tongue, though, and spoke none of his thoughts. He refused to let his anxiety ruin Elenanar’s homecoming, even if the smile on her face made him feel like thousands of bugs were crawling inside his stomach.
Elenanar looked up at him curiously. “Are you all right?” she asked, concerned, and got no further than that before three Elves, clad in green and brown, emerged from the forest. One had a bow, strung and drawn and aimed at Mothlin, and the other two held swords at the ready.
Mothlin froze. The fleeing remnants of his presence of mind made him reach out and grab hold of Tari’s mane to keep her and Cilyawen next to him and Elenanar. Then he held still. The eyes of the Elf who was sighting down her arrow at him were very hard and very bright. Beside him, Elenanar was glaring.
“What business have you in Mirkwood?” demanded one of the Elves with a sword.
Elenanar pushed forward, her arms over her chest. “For the love of the Valar, Celebmend, put that sword away!” she snapped. “We’re friendly and peaceful and she needs help! Is that enough?” She indicated Cilyawen with a wave of her hand.
The Elf, taken aback, blinked several times and then gasped, “Lady Elenanar!” He thrust his sword into its scabbard and knelt before her, quickly followed by the other two. “We have thought you dead this past time.”
She drew herself up proudly, until Mothlin almost forgot her ripped and dirty dress, tangled red hair, and weary face. “As you can see, Celebmend, I am not dead. My companions and I have traveled long and are weary. If you would escort us to my uncle the king’s palace, we would be most grateful.” Mothlin looked at her in surprise – he had never seen her go royal. She wasn’t bad at it, either.
Celebmend stood up and whirled on his companions. “Curucam, go with them. Silwen, stay here.” The Elf woman with the bow did not move from where she knelt – the other Elf with the sword bowed as he got to his feet, an extremely odd motion. Celebmend looked extremely embarrassed at not having recognized a princess of Mirkwood as he said apologetically, “I would take you myself, Lady Elenanar, but someone must stay -“
“Understood,” Elenanar said quickly. “Let’s go, then.” Curucam, his sword still out, took the lead, and they followed, Tari and Cilyawen bringing up the rear.
“You might have warned me there would be patrols,” Mothlin muttered to Elenanar as they made their way through the forest.
“I forgot!” she said defensively. “I wasn’t really thinking about how to avoid the patrols. I was more concerned with Cilyawen’s health.”
The object of Elenanar’s concern lifted her head from where she lay and asked interestedly, “Did I hear wrong back there, or are you a princess?”
“Yes,” Elenanar admitted, “a princess and a failed patrol guard and a successful adventurer.”
“You might have mentioned that too,” Cilyawen teased.
“I had a lot of other things on my mind,” said Elenanar grumpily.
Mothlin put his arm around her shoulders. “We know,” he reassured her. “We’re just teasing. And it turned out fine, didn’t it?”
“I suppose,” she said, and put her head against his shoulder.
The path that Curucam led them on took them up a river that burbled along beside them as they walked. “This eventually empties out into a marsh,” Elenanar said, pointing to the river. “I think this is the one by the palace.” Suddenly she caught her breath and darted in front of Curucam. “This is it!” she cried. “Right up there, it’s the palace!”
Mothlin looked. It was a huge cave, with many small caves opening off it. A bridge spanned the river running in front of it, and the walkway to the bridge was lined with trees on either side. The huge stone gates looked formidable, and Mothlin suddenly recalled Arwen’s stories about traveling with the Dwarves who had been caught in Mirkwood and taken to this palace and this king. He swallowed, and then reproached himself for ridiculous nervousness. This was Elenanar’s home. She knew what to expect, and she wouldn’t let anything happen to him or Cilyawen.
Cilyawen tugged his sleeve. “Not very pleasant, is it?” she said in a low voice. As always, she had a knack of knowing exactly what Mothlin was thinking of, and her eyes were sad and wise. “You should get Elenanar out of here as soon as possible,” she went on under her breath, so Curucam wouldn’t hear. “I’m surprised that someone as bright as she could have grown up in this place. If she stays here any longer, she’ll start to dull – she won’t be able to help it.”
“She would,” Mothlin insisted, although Cilyawen had just given voice to his own fears. “She’d fight it. She’d stay just the way she is.”
“You would have said the same about me under Sauron’s control,” Cilyawen reminded him, “and I gave in. The Shadow is powerful, Mothlin. Never believe it can do less than what your nightmares tell you.”
Mothlin looked at Elenanar. She was far enough away that all he could see was a ragged green dress and a fall of long red hair running unhesitatingly toward the bridge. He could have burst with the love he felt for her, and hoped desperately that he and Cilyawen were both wrong about Mirkwood – but he didn’t know, and the uncertainty tormented him.
They followed Elenanar at a more decorous pace. Curucam, annoyed at the slowness with which they were moving, finally lifted Cilyawen from Tari’s back and carried her in his arms across the bridge, while Mothlin led Tari and glared at Curucam to make sure the Elf didn’t jostle Cilyawen. Once on the other side of the bridge, Mothlin turned Tari over to the hostler, after giving her a reassuring pat, and followed Curucam into the cave-palace. The stone doors shut behind them with a gloomy resonance that made his shiver.
The throne of the king of Mirkwood was at the far end of a hall that the doors led straight into. “The Lady Elenanar will have gone in her,” Curucam threw over his shoulder at Mothlin as he went directly into the hall. Mothlin cursed the arrogance of Mirkwood Elves as he trotted after Curucam. Like a good little puppy, he thought peevishly.
Mothlin got three steps into the hall, after Curucam’s five, when he stopped at a cry of joy. “Cilyawen!” it said, and then one of the Elves by the throne detached from it and ran toward them, and Mothlin could have jumped for joy, because it was Elrohir. Cilyawen too had recognized him, and she wriggled out of Curucam’s hold to be upright and standing on her own when Elrohir reached her. And then he did reach her, and he caught her up in his arms and held her close to him, carefully avoiding the bandage over her wound. Mothlin couldn’t hear what his foster-father was saying, and he looked away with a smile, not even trying to listen for it. Curucam was seething, affronted at Elrohir’s lack of dignity, and one look at his face made Mothlin want to laugh.
A cough from the throne recalled his foster-parents to themselves. They stopped hugging, but Elrohir lifted Cilyawen in his arms as though she weighed nothing more than a feather and carried her tenderly back to the throne. Biting his lips to conceal his grin, Mothlin followed them, a few steps behind. He could understand why Elrohir hadn’t even noticed him, after all, and understanding helped relieve the faint hurt at the fact.
Elrohir bowed his head to Thranduil of Mirkwood when he reached the throne. “My lord,” he said formally, “may I present my wife, the Lady Cilyawen Aglarfin.” Cilyawen too inclined her head. Thranduil looked extremely displeased at their lack of decorum, but he returned the greeting with a gracious nod.
Mothlin tapped Elrohir on the shoulder. His foster-father turned around. His face was very interesting to watch. First he blinked for just an instant, not understanding, and then he remembered that Mothlin had gone after Cilyawen and his face showed surprise, and then it was all wiped away by sheer joy at seeing him again. “Mothlin!” he cried. Mothlin quickly stepped up to hug Elrohir, since his foster-father could hardly let go of Cilyawen.
“And who is this?” demanded Thranduil. Mothlin let Elrohir go, but Elenanar moved forward and said quickly, “Uncle, this is Mothlin of Rivendell. I was his companion on our travels to bring back the Lady Cilyawen.” She looked over at Mothlin, caught his eye, and grinned – he grinned back.
Thranduil looked at Elenanar with some surprise, although she’d just come running into his throne room. “Elenanar,” he said, “I have not asked you. I asked Lord Elrohir.”
Oh, Elenanar… Mothlin’s heart was a sudden mass of pain on her behalf. She herself stared at Thranduil with wide eyes. The abrupt whiteness of her face was exaggerated by her red hair, and Mothlin could see a tear shaking in the corner of one eye.
Elrohir said quickly, to give Elenanar time to control herself, “My lord Thranduil, she spoke truly. This is the foster-son of Lady Cilyawen and myself, and his name is Mothlin.”
Thranduil nodded in acknowledgment, and Elenanar stepped back into the shadows behind the throne, her proud head bent to hide her over-bright eyes and wet cheeks. “If she stays here any longer, she’ll start to dull – she won’t be able to help it.” Cilyawen’s words came flying back at him, and as if to mock him, his response came back as well. “She’d fight it. She’d stay just the way she is.” But Cilyawen was right – she had a knack for that sort of thing. The truth of her words was in every line of Elenanar, shocked into subservience. He thought of his bright, fiery, sensitive companion in the forest, and he wanted to yell with anger when he compared her to the crushed Elenanar he saw before him now.
Thranduil was saying something – Mothlin wasn’t listening. All his being was focused on Elenanar. Look at me, Elenanar, look up at me. I love you. I want to help you. I want to take you to Rivendell and let you drink in the sun there and shine with it. Look at me and see it on my face.
And she did look up, as though the force of his thoughts had drawn her gaze. He leaned forward slightly. Her face was wet and her eyes sunken, but she looked at him with wonder at whatever she read on his face. Then she stood up very straight and jerked her head off to one side. He knew what she meant as clearly as if she’d said it.
When their audience was done, Mothlin slipped away from the Rivendell Elves. They would probably be very worried once they found out he was gone, but he didn’t think this would take very long. As they left the throne room, Mothlin darted into the room adjacent to it. It was a small room with a few chairs. He sat down in one and waited.
Elenanar came in a few moments later. He jumped to his feet and held out his arms, and she barely hesitated before wrapping her arms around his neck and burying her face in his shoulder. Mothlin stroked her hair and waited for her to be ready.
Finally she released him and stepped back. “I don’t need to cry,” she said brusquely. “I’ve done that already.”
“Elenanar,” Mothlin said, “I am so, so sorry -“
“Don’t apologize!” she snapped, holding up a hand. “What could you have done about it? Why should you apologize for something you had nothing to do with?”
“All right,” he said, smiling faintly, “I apologize for apologizing.”
She struggled for a few long moments before she gave in and laughed. Mothlin laughed too, mostly for the pleasure of increasing her laughter. When they were laughed out, she sat down in the chair closest to his and said, “That was nice.”
“What?” he asked. “To laugh?”
Elenanar said, “Yes. I don’t laugh that often, have you noticed?”
“No,” said Mothlin truthfully. “You laughed plenty when we were traveling.”
Her face drew tightly in on itself. “I know,” she said. “It’s here. This forest, this palace, these people – this is why it feels so nice to laugh. I don’t, here.”
Mothlin held his breath, hardly daring to hope that she would say what he wanted to say to her, but wasn’t sure if he could, or should…
“I really thought it would be different,” said Elenanar, her tone one of bitter wonder. “I really did think that I would come back, and they would all see that I’d changed, that I wasn’t just the spoiled princess with a temper like Morgoth’s anymore, that I might be worth something to them and to Mirkwood. And now I come back, and nothing’s changed but me, and I can’t stand it here anymore.”
Mothlin caught her hands between his. “Elenanar,” he said, all in a rush, because unless he got it out fast he’d never be able to finish it, “come back with me – with us. Come to Rivendell.”
She stared at him in disbelief, and he plowed ahead recklessly. “It’s beautiful there, you’d love it. No one would mind at all – they know about Cilyawen, they’re used to having people turn up there. And they’d love you, because you’d be a hero and a wonderful person, and you wouldn’t have to learn any more weapons unless you wanted to, and there’d be no more patrols, and you could do whatever you wanted, and you could meet the rest of my family, and – and I want you to stay with me.”
The silence that followed was very long and very tense.
“But – I can’t,” she whispered at last.
“Why not?” Mothlin demanded. “What have you got left here? Cilyawen started all over when she came there, and look at her! I was just dropped there, and I couldn’t think of a place I’d rather be. Elenanar, it would do wonders for you, and you would do wonders for it.”
She looked away from him, down at the floor, and then back at him, still uncertain.
“I love you, Elenanar,” he said then, quietly and emphatically. “I love you, and I want you to be happy. Elenanar,” he said. “Your name is star fire. I don’t want to see that fire put out.”
Elenanar looked straight at him then and said, “All right, then,” in a voice shaking with nervousness but fully decided.
Mothlin cried out with joy and sprang up, catching her with him and pulling her close and swinging her around in his arms. Her laughter rang out again and he spun her even faster, until she slid down so her feet touched the ground and said, “I have one condition, though.”
“Name it!” he said.
Grinning mischievously, Elenanar got down on one knee and said, “Mothlin Elrohirion, will you marry me?”
He answered her by dropping to his knees beside her and kissing her very thoroughly. “That’s a yes, then,” she gasped when he finally broke the kiss.
“Most definitely,” he agreed, and toppled over backwards when she leaped at him for confirmation.