The practiced eye of the elf-maiden sighted down the arrow’s shaft, the string of her bow pulled back to her cheek. All about her, she could hear the comforting sounds of the rising morning, the unending hiss of water pouring from the falls that surrounded Imladris, and the cheerful cry of morning birds awakening. But her thoughts were focused on nothing but the wooden target before her. Her string released with a twang, followed immediately by the familiar thunk of her arrow, burying itself in the center of her target. She grinned and drew another arrow from her quiver. Fitting the nock to her bowstring, she once again drew it back to her cheek, sighted at her goal, and released the string. The arrow struck its mark true, and the girl smiled with satisfaction, seeing the first arrow split cleanly down the middle by the second shaft. Her hand moved to reach for a third arrow, when a welcome voice stopped her.
“Hail, Lady Lalaith, second loveliest maiden of Rivendell.”
Turning abruptly, her eyes lighting with joy, she cried, “Aragorn!”
The man had appeared behind her, pausing beneath the arching gate, a smile of greeting on his bearded face. There was a tired looking brown horse standing behind him, the reins resting in the hands of one of three smaller characters, more hobbits, she guessed, huddled shyly together as they gazed up at her with wide eyes. She barely noticed them as she took in Aragorn’s welcome appearance. He wore the look she had grown accustomed to since his coming into adulthood, the worn, scuffed look of a ranger, and she guessed it had been weeks since he last bathed. But she did not care as she came forward and embraced him, casting aside the characteristic restraint of the elves.
“It is good to have you back.” She sighed, stepping back to look up at the man she loved as a brother. “Since Arwen’s coming with the first hobbit, we have been waiting for you. She has been worried-,”
“So Arwen arrived safely?” Aragorn burst, without letting the maiden finish.
Lalaith grinned. “She arrived with nothing more than a small scratch. You would be proud of her.”
“Where is she?” He asked, almost breathlessly, glancing about as if hoping to catch sight of her.
“Somewhere in her father’s house, of course.” Lalaith giggled. “Go find her. I will see to the pony, and your friends.”
Grasping her hand in a gesture of thanks, Aragorn darted off, leaving her alone with the three hobbits who continued to stare up at her with wide eyes and open mouths.
“Welcome to Rivendell, dear hobbits.” She smiled, and spoke in the common speech she knew they would understand, restraining laughter at the looks of surprise that came onto their faces as she addressed them, shocked that an elf-maid would deem them worthy to be addressed by her. “Have you no tongues?” She asked teasingly after a moment of stunned silence.
The three of them glanced at each other, abashed, before two of them nudged the one holding the reins of the pony, a stout little hobbit with an honest looking face, who seemed to be the leader.
“Begging your pardon, m’- m’lady.” He finally spoke, stepping forward, twisting the horse’s reins nervously in his hand. “We, we’re just a little taken back is all. I-, we didn’t know Elf ladies could do that sort of thing.” He nodded at her target.
She glanced down at the bow in her hand, and smiled. “My Uncle Elrond saw to it that Arwen, and I, were taught the skills of fighting, just as the men of our people have learned.”
One of the remaining hobbits piped in cheerfully, “Have you ever been in a scrap then, er battle?” He stuttered. “With orcs?”
“Once, two hundred years ago.” She nodded, but added quickly, “But far away from here. Our kindred in Lothlorien had a band of orcs wandering near their land. The elves from Mirkwood sent a contingent, and my uncle sent me and my cousins with some of our Rivendell elves. We helped drive them back across the river.”
“Oh.” The stout hobbit in the front nodded, impressed. “Whoever taught you then, must be quite good, too.”
Lalaith dropped her eyes at the hobbit’s words, feeling the familiar rush of blood to her face whenever she thought of the one of whom the hobbit was speaking, and felt the ache that was painful, yet sweet at the same time. “He is.” She nodded, hearing the quaver in her voice as she pictured his fair face in her mind. She glanced up to see the hobbit shuffle his feet shyly, and shook herself back to the present.
“Oh, forgive me.” She smiled. “Of course, you must be tired, and hungry, your horse as well. Follow me.” She turned away down a tree lined path as the hobbits trailed after her. “I will take you to the stables, and see to your horse’s needs-,” she glanced at them over her shoulder, “oh, and what is his name?”
“B-Bill, m’lady.” The first hobbit said.
“I’m Samwise Gamgee.” He said. “My friends call me Sam.”
“Then I would be honored if I was granted the privilege of calling you Sam as well.”
The hobbit smiled at this, and ducked his head shyly.
“I’m Meriadoc Brandybuck, m’lady.” The second hobbit said. “But Merry’s fine.”
The hobbit who had stuttered before, piped in, “I’m Pip- Pippin-, Peregrin-,” He stammered to a stop, blushing bright red.
“If I am allowed, I will call you whatever your friends do.” Lalaith offered, smiling sympathetically at his embarrassment.
“Pip, then.” Merry offered helpfully. “Don’t mind him. He’s a Took.”
Lalaith smiled as Pip glared at Merry.
“Um, begging your pardon, m’lady,” Sam asked, scurrying to walk beside her, “but I’ve been mighty worried about Frodo. Is there anyway you could take me to him?”
“Of course. My uncle has seen to his injury, and he is beyond the danger now. Gandalf is here with him-,” she paused as a low murmur of happiness came from each of the hobbits, “but I’m certain he would be very happy to see you too, Sam, when he awakens.”
She turned forward and drew to a stop seeing the stables before her. “Here we are.” She offered her bow and quiver to Sam. “Will you hold these for me while I see to Bill?” She asked Sam.
Wordlessly, Sam took her things from her, and handed over the reins as he and the other two hobbits followed after her into the stable.
“Asfaloth.” She smiled in greeting, rubbing the white nose of the first horse with a gentle hand before moving on to an empty stall and leading Bill inside. She gently removed his reins, and packs, before she began to carefully brush him down.
“You don’t have to do that, m’lady.” Sam offered, coming forward. “I could.”
“I don’t mind.” Lalaith said with a smile, running a hand over the coarse brown coat that shivered with pleasure at her touch. “I have a special place in my heart for horses.” She glanced at Sam’s kind, round face and added, “One died to save my life once.”
The hobbits looked at each other, surprised.
“Rorin, his name was.” She said, almost under her breath. She worked in silence until she was finished, then scooped a bucket of oats into his manger.
“Come Sam,” she said, rallying herself, and smiling down at them once again. “I’ll take you to Frodo’s room.”
Elrond strode purposefully along the balcony, his face a mask of staid concentration as he made his way to the room of healing where the Hobbit, Frodo Baggins lay recovering, but still unconscious. His robes swished softly about him as he walked, his feet tapping softly over the marble tiles that lined the corridor. To his left, the constant rush of water, accompanied by the sound of birdsong filled the air, but he could not hear it. His concentration was riveted on one thought alone. The ring was here. Here in Imladris. The One Ring, cut from the hand of Sarong himself by Insider, three thousand years before.
In spite of himself, he flinched and his step slowed, the memory coming back as clearly as when he had been there, standing once again at the edge of the precipice in the heart of Mount Doom. Sweat and orc blood caked his clothing and armor, his body aching from the strain and horror of battle. Elrond could still feel the heated wind sweeping up around him, whipping his cloak about, sucking the air from his lungs.
“Cast it into the fire!” He shouted to Isildur who stood behind him, rolling the ring between his thumb and forefinger, gazing at it as if he saw nothing else. “Destroy it!” He cried out again.
Isildur lifted his eyes then, a look of smug disdain on his face. “No.” The word was a whisper, but the sound of it echoed off the cavernous walls surrounding them.
“Isildur?!” Elrond fairly screamed as the Man turned his back on him, succumbing to the seduction of the ring, and departed the way he had come, the vile tool of Sauron cradled safely in the palm of his hand.
“Uncle?” A clear, musical voice filled with care and concern broke the spell of his stupor, and he lifted his head, surprised to realize he had stopped, and was leaning heavily on the balustrade, his head bent in exhaustion.
The voice that had been spoken belonged to a young elf-maiden who stood at his shoulder, her shining blue eyes gazing up into his with worry. She held a silver tray in her hands, laden with a decanter of wine with two glasses beside it. She set it down on a table beside her, and put a hand lightly on his arm. “Are you well, Uncle Elrond?” She repeated.
The girl’s touch helped to sooth him, and he straightened, smiling gratefully down into her soft, caring eyes. Though it had been more than a thousand years, it seemed as if only days had passed since the Elves of Mirkwood had brought a tiny, golden haired stranger through the gates of Rivendell along with an astonishing and perplexing story to tell. He had known nothing more of the child’s mysterious origin than the Mirkwood Elves had, but still he had taken in the child as one of his own, and she had flourished under the watchful and delighted care of his wife, Celebrian, and his daughter, Arwen, and yes, he smiled to himself, his own. The name her dying nurse had given her, was Lalaith, laughter, and it was well bestowed, for she seemed to find delight in all that was about her. To this name, he had added a name of his own choosing, Elerrina, for the gold of her hair shimmered as if it were crowned with stars. She had become as a daughter to him, and it had been a joy to watch her grow to womanhood over the last millennium. He blessed the day that Legolas, the son of King Thranduil, had brought her here, for he could not imagine life without the bright eyed, golden haired girl who stood beside him now, gazing up at him with concern furrowing her otherwise smooth brow.
“I am well, Lalaith.” He nodded at last. “Only a little weary.”
Lalaith sighed a breath of relief, and stepped back, taking up her tray again. “Aragorn has arrived, did you know? And he brought the other hobbits with him. One especially, Sam, he is called, was happy to hear that Frodo was still with us.”
Elrond smiled. “Yes, the wound is healing. Thankfully, he was not yet beyond our aid.”
Lalaith nodded, satisfied, and turned as if to continue down the corridor when Elrond asked, “And you, Lalaith?”
The girl turned to him, a question in her eyes. “I have not been wounded by the Nazgul, Uncle.” She smiled. “Of course I am unhurt.”
“Oh?” He asked, reaching out, and taking the tray from her hands, setting it once again on the table beside him. “I have been neglectful of you lately, my duties focused elsewhere, but I am not so ignorant that I have not noticed a change in you. You name means laughter, but I have heard little these past several months since you and your cousins returned from your last journey to the Mirkwood. I have been worrying about you.”
At this, Lalaith bit her lip and visibly blushed, as her eyes shot down to her clasped hands. A ring of gold, set with a blue sapphire he had given her for her seven hundredth birthday became the sudden focus of her attention as she twisted it around on her slender finger.
“Is there something you wish to speak of with me?” He asked gently, resting a hand softly on her shoulder.
Lalaith smiled weakly, sadly, and glanced away.
“Come. Sit down.” Elrond beckoned to a stone bench set against the wall. “Tell me your thoughts.”
“But Frodo-,” Lalaith murmured weakly, though she followed Elrond, and sat down.
“I have seen to Frodo’s wound.” Elrond smiled, his eyes studying the girl’s intently. “But the wound upon your young heart is still unhealed.”
“Surely, Uncle, there are other, more pressing obligations that you must see to.” She stammered, twisting her ring. “With the coming of the One Ring here to Imladris, the future has become so uncertain. The hidden thoughts of a maiden’s heart must seem of little importance in the eyes of one such as yourself-,”
“Not when that maiden is one who is as a daughter to me.” Elrond returned gently.
“You say I am one who is as a daughter, but I am not your daughter.” Lalaith sighed, her voice remote, her eyes gazing away from him to some distant, imagined scene. “I have no parents, no bloodline to speak of. I am nothing. No more than a castoff, a foundling. I am your ward, raised as a princess only because of your great heart, and your generosity. And because I am not truly of noble blood, I am unworthy of,” She could not finish.
Elrond watched her fair, tormented face, her soft bottom lip as it trembled with reserved emotion. Her eyes would not lift to his, but he knew without looking into them, that he would see pain, and a heart that was breaking.
“I wonder,” He began, speaking slowly, and carefully, “if the mortal woman who died saving you would think of you in the same way. As nothing. As a castoff, a foundling.”
Lalaith sighed, but said nothing, and did not look up.
“I do not know why she spoke the words she did as she died.” Elrond continued. “Why she spoke my name, and the name of Rivendell. But I do know this.” He leaned forward and placed a hand firmly, yet with gentleness on Lalaith’s slender shoulder. “You belong here. You are a princess, noble, brave and kind, and-,” he tucked his finger under her chin and lifted her face, forcing her to look up at him through eyes shining with tears, “worthy of the love of the son of King Thranduil.”
Lalaith gasped suddenly, and her hands flew to her flushed face as she glanced away. Elrond leaned back and sighed. He had guessed right.
“How did you know?” Lalaith whispered. “Not even Arwen, not Elladan nor Elrohir guessed, and they were with me in Mirkwood when-,”
She looked up at him, and studied his sober grey eyes that gazed on her with fatherly compassion, and suddenly felt the need to share all that was in her heart with this man who had been as her father for longer that she could remember.
“Oh, Uncle Elrond.” She gasped, and with a sudden sob, fell against his shoulder where he gathered her close, like a child, hushing her gently, and stroking her hair as her tears subsided. “There are so many things I am unsure of. So many questions I have about myself, my past, that have never been answered. That never can be answered. You have not the time to listen to me, when my uncertainty in who I am is of so little importance.”
Elrond’s brow furrowed at this, but he shook his head. “For you, I would listen to the thoughts of your heart, if your story took all the ages of this world to tell.”
Lalaith sighed brokenly, and pushed back, brushing the tears from her cheeks. “Truly?”
Elrond smiling gently, and nodded his encouragement.
Taking courage from the gentle patience she saw in Elrond’s eyes, she drew in another jagged breath, and began her story.