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Woman's Observations
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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[Index]

1
Chapter one

Disclaimer: Anything familiar belongs to the esteemed Professor. The plot and original characters are all mine. No profit is being made.


~~~

I look around me at the thick trees whose branches block most of the sunlight from the forest floor. Few humans have ventured so far into King Thranduil’s realm. I know this and count myself doubly fortunate to be here. Not only am I human, but female as well.

I am not fair, I know this. If I should ever marry, it will be because of my father’s wealth and not for my face or form. My father, bless him, is blind in this respect and believes me to be beautiful. He has flouted custom and educated me as he would have the son he was not fortunate enough to have. I know all aspects of my father’s trade and can run his business almost as well as he can.

It is at his insistence that I am here. The other men grumbled, but my father wishes that I be involved in every part of the business so that I can run it when he is gone. They will not argue with him for fear of their livelihood and so they tolerate my presence. I know not what will happen when he is gone, but I am grateful that he values me so.

We are to meet with the Elvenking to discuss trade between our peoples. It is a great honor for my father to be chosen to represent the interests of the village. He is trusted, for he is a man of high morals and fair in his business dealings. He would never allow the men to see it, but he is as excited as a child at festival at the thought of seeing the realm of the forest elves. I am as well, but it is not unseemly for me to allow it to show, at least a little.

We know so little of the elves. They are insular, keeping to their own and having little to do with mortal folk. On the rare occasions that our people meet them, the elves are unfailingly polite but distant, seldom volunteering more information than necessary. My father has traded with a few of them sometimes, mostly trading wine for the fine cloth that the elves weave. On one occasion, a stern warrior traded the finest cloth I have ever seen gossamer and shot through with threads of silver, for carved toys and sweets along with the usual wine. I remarked upon it, only to see the stern visage melt as the warrior told me that elves value their children and tend to indulge them. That convinced me that all the dark things I had heard whispered were nonsense. Any beings who so cherished their young could not be dark and terrible.

We have journeyed into the deep forest. We were told to keep to the path at all times, and we have, not only to show respect for our hosts but because we fear to leave the path and become lost. Odd noises surround us and it would be very easy to become frightened if it were not for the fact that I am convinced that we have guards other than the ones we brought with us. They do not allow us to see them, but I know that they are there.

It seems that we are nearing the king’s stronghold now. All around us, elves drop from the trees, surrounding us. Their weapons are not drawn however and one, their captain I presume, welcomes us to their realm and bids us follow him. I am close enough to him, riding at my father’s side as I do, to see him clearly and I study him. He is tall, as are all of them. His hair is black as night and his eyes are a clear gray. He is beautiful, breathtakingly so, as are all of his fellows but it is the untouchable beauty of one far above such creatures as I. He catches my eye on him and nods politely to me. I manage not to flush with embarrassment and return his nod as coolly as I am able.

Soon, we pass through tall and majestic gates into a courtyard. Our horses are taken by elves in clothing that marks them as stable hands and we are escorted into the great fortress of the Elvenking.

Another dark haired elf, wearing rich robes of velvet and silk, greets us formally. He is the king’s seneschal, Sindadur and he gives us our welcoming goblets of wine and sees us to our quarters.

I have never seen lodgings so fine! The chambers I have been given are light and airy, despite the fact that they are made of stone. There are windows draped with fine fabric, a wide bed with a velvet coverlet and sheets of the finest linen, a large hearth with a table and fine chairs before it, fine rugs on the floor, a wardrobe for my belongings, and even a bathing chamber. I immediately decide to take advantage of the latter, as steaming water already fills the roomy tub. I soak until the water cools, reveling in the opportunity to do so. Usually I do not have time for more than a quick dip in cool water.

Clean and feeling wonderful, I dry my nondescript brown tresses by the fire and bind them up in a respectable style. I put on my best dress and have just settled down when my father knocks twice before entering the room. He, too, has bathed, no doubt delighting in it as I have. His graying beard and hair are still slightly damp and he is wearing his best as well.

We speak of our impressions of the journey and the fortress we are housed in. My father is an unusual man. He values my opinion and listens when I talk. He has never treated me as most girl children are treated, as a commodity to be married off to the highest bidder, and for that I am eternally grateful. We review the strategy we have decided upon for our negotiations, concluding just before one of the king’s household staff knocks on the door to summon us to our first audience with the king.

Words do not adequately describe King Thranduil. Where his subjects are dark haired, he has hair the color of sunlight. He is more beautiful than any of the elves I have seen thus far in his realm, but his beauty is overshadowed by the sheer power he radiates. His face is hard and stern, though his words are courteous. He is like the flame that fascinates, but that one knows better than to get too close to for fear of being consumed.

We are cordially invited to dine, and as we move towards the great dining hall, I glimpse a slight movement in the tapestry to our left. As I watch, a small hand wraps around the edge and a small face crowned with hair like corn silk peeks around the little hand. Wide eyes of blue-gray stare back at me and the little one catches his lower lip in his teeth. I wink at him, hiding my smile, and he grins, ducking back behind the tapestry, apparently unseen by his kin. I have never seen an elf-child before and I am completely charmed. He is adorable and I fervently hope that he does not get into trouble for spying on us.

Dinner is wonderful. I have never tasted such food, but I find that I must be wary of the wine. It is much stronger than anything I have ever had at home. One of the attendants notices and silently brings me a goblet of water. I smile and thank him and receive a bright smile in return. The king sits at the head of the high table, where we are privileged to also be seated. My father converses with him, hiding whatever nervousness he might feel. I am next to and across from two ladies of the king’s court and am surprised to find myself enjoying our conversation. Elven females are apparently much less restricted than human females. Alphwen, who sits beside me, is an accomplished archer and Caranmir, who sits across the table from me, is a member of the king’s high council. They are sisters, but different as night and day.

I do not dare to ask, but it seems that there is no queen. Thranduil sits alone, though there is space enough for a second chair at the head of the table. A fine chair, the twin of the one the king sits upon, is placed against the far wall beyond the king’s chair. A swatch of golden fabric is draped across the back of the chair against the wall. Alphwen spies me looking at it and whispers that it is indeed the queen’s chair, but that she is no longer among the living. She does not elaborate, and I do not ask, sensing that it is a painful subject best not spoken of.

The dessert course is served then, an amazing creation of honey, nuts, and light as air pastry, along with a sweet cordial the likes of which I have never tasted. We are about halfway through the course, when the king’s attention turns to the tapestry behind my father. I turn to look and catch a slight movement behind it. The king rises and walks to the tapestry, pulling it back to reveal the elf-child I had seen earlier. The little one freezes, flushing, and clasps his hands behind his back. The toes of his light indoor shoes are quite fascinating to him all of a sudden. The king speaks his tone one of stern reproof. The little one replies, shuffling his feet a bit and risks a quick look into the king’s face from under his eyelashes. With a bit of a shock, I realize that the king is struggling to hold on to his stern expression. True, the little one had charmed me with far less effort, but I had expected the king to be immune to such things.

The king sighs and shakes his head ruefully. The little one grins up at the king, sensing his triumph. The king chuckles and holds out his arms and the little one swarms up him like a squirrel. Small arms wrap around the Elvenking’s neck and the elf-child rests his forehead against the king’s. It is then that I notice the resemblance between them and realize that this is the king’s own son.

“This is my son, Legolas,” the king tells us, returning to his chair and settling the elfling in his lap. The elfling turns a serious face towards us and utters an almost perfect greeting in the Common Tongue. He is truly adorable, if a bit on the mischievous side. Thranduil is justly proud of his offspring and it is interesting to see the formidable warrior-king softened by the presence of a child in his lap.

It is not too much later that the prince appears to have fallen into the strange resting state of his kin, snuggled in his father’s arms. It is odd, at first, to see any being sleeping with open eyes, but each race has its differences. Dinner is over at that point, and the tables are moved to accommodate the musicians and dancers. The king excuses himself to tuck his son into his bed, but returns soon. The elves are merry folk, and it is as lively a celebration as any I have ever seen. We seek our beds at a very late hour and I sincerely hope that the negotiations will be late in the day.

Father is very pleased. Although King Thranduil is a shrewd negotiator, we have come to an agreement that is fair and beneficial to both sides. The elves will get the wine, spices, fruits, and other exotic items that they wish and we will get pelts, fine fabric, and medicines that we cannot make for ourselves as well as meat and as much of the forest’s deadfall as we can use from the areas closest to us. It is a good agreement.

I have learned so much about these wonderful beings. Not dark creatures at all, but merry and bright they are. Still, there is far more that I do not know and likely never shall know. Strangely, that does not dismay me at all. It seems important to me that they keep some of their secrets.

My first impression of the little prince was quite accurate. He is a mischievous little imp, but an adorable one. His father’s people universally love him and dote upon him. Unlike a human child, who would be spoiled beyond redemption by such treatment, the prince retains his sweet nature. He is a bit fascinated with me, it seems, and has crept away from his nursemaid and tutors frequently to seek me out. I have not the heart ever to reveal his whereabouts when I am asked and he takes care never to place me in a position where I would have to lie. In this, too, he merely proves that he is far more than any human child could ever be. Surprisingly, he also has a fair command of the Common tongue for one so young. His accent on certain words is a bit odd, but I do not find it at all difficult to understand him when he speaks.

He is as curious as a cat, asking endless questions. I find that I do not mind as I would with a child of my own race because his questions are about things I know such as why we use the river for our trade and why I do not know how to use even the simplest of weapons. He is a bit shocked by this, but accepts my explanation that out customs are different.

“Mistress Almiria, you would be good at archery,” he insists and I laugh indulgently, knowing that he thinks so only because it is his favorite.

“No,” I reply, still laughing, “but I can hit unruly customers over the head with an iron fry-pan with a great deal of skill!” I know this because I have had to do it when the weather was so severe that famine was upon us. He thinks about that for a moment then giggles infectiously, sobering suddenly when another thought occurs to him.

“I do not think that will work with orcs,” he says, his small face grave as he looks at me. “They are very nasty. Sometimes a warrior has to shoot two arrows into them to kill them.” His face hardens in an uncanny imitation of his sire. “And they kill elves sometimes, too,” he confides, his expression sad as I have never before seen it. I wonder if he has, perhaps, escaped his protectors one time too many and seen things that he should not have seen. I wonder also if one of the elves killed was his mother and my heart bleeds for him. I do not ask, however, and merely nod acceptance of his greater knowledge. As suddenly as the melancholy appeared it is gone and he is chattering about trees talking to each other. This sudden shift of mood is common to his race as well, I have noticed, and I allow myself to be swept along. His cheer is as infectious as his sorrow. We both know that I will leave soon now that the agreement has been signed and that his tutor will be searching for him. We move deeper into the garden, buying us a small amount of time.

The king’s entire court has turned out to see us off. I am sad to be leaving. I have enjoyed our stay here, even more so because it has been so successful. King Thranduil makes a courteous speech and my father reciprocates in kind, thanking the Elvenking for his hospitality and generosity. The prince is by his father’s side, dressed in his fine court clothing and undoubtedly uncomfortable. The little one wears a solemn expression, mimicking his father’s demeanor and actions with a precision that speaks of long practice.

I wish I could bid him farewell as I would a kinsman or the child of a close friend, but I dare not commit such a breech of etiquette. He breaks away from his father momentarily and runs up to me. I drop down to kneel before him, bringing me closer to his level and he smiles brightly.

“Mistress Almiria, I want you to have this to remember me by,” he states seriously, pressing a small bundle into my hand. I glance at the king for permission and he nods graciously. My estimation of both of them rises even further as I realize that Prince Legolas has not kept his meetings with me from his father. How clever of the king to glean information from his child’s questions. Still, as the agreement is fair to both sides, I do not have cause for complaint and I reply to his nod with as much of a curtsey as I can manage on my knees.

I unwrap the cloth around the gift and gasp as a strand of beautiful pink river pearls is revealed. I immediately place them around my neck and the prince beams as I thank him. They are not priceless gems, but they are lovely and I appreciate them all the more because the little prince was the giver of them. We start off for home then and I look over my shoulder several times to see the prince waving at us from the shelter of his father’s arms. It is a sight that I will remember for all of my days.

My father died in the harshness of winter several years later. I wept bitterly for the loss of him, but was comforted by the thought that he had lived to see me marry, not as I had supposed for my dowry but for love to a good man in my father’s employ. That he had also lived to see and adore his grandson was a comfort as well.

My husband is cut from the same cloth as my father was. He values me not only as the mother of his children and for the comfort I provide him both in and out of our bedchamber, but as one who knows well how to run our business. I am never beaten as some wives are and my husband listens to my counsel as he would have my father’s. I am truly blessed and I give thanks daily for my family both the ones here and the ones who await me when I should leave this world.

The little prince has not forgotten me, it seems, for I receive letters from him now. They are clearly the work of a child, shaky and charming and usually accompanied by pictures. My son draws pictures to send to the prince, and I wonder what will be made of them when they are received. Somehow, I think that the prince will like them. I wonder if I will ever see him again and if I will live long enough to see him reach adulthood. I know not how long it takes an elf to pass from babe to warrior and I would not know how to ask any of the ones we see in our store now.

I am an old woman now. My hair is white and my skin wrinkled. My husband is gone, taken from me by a harsh cold last winter. My sons are grown and now run the business that my father built. My daughters are both married and have families of their own as does my oldest son. My youngest son and his wife care for me now and live with me in the rooms above the store. I find that my minds has a tendency to wander into the past now and I relive both the joys and the sorrows of my life.

The prince still writes to me. He is not yet an adult, but neither is he a child and his letters reflect that. I have not seen him since the day that I left his father’s fortress and I wonder what he must look like now. Tall, probably, like his father, but with a more merry disposition. He is still as sweet natured as he always was judging from his letters and I write back to him as best I can with my twisted and pain filled fingers.

My letter is far shorter than I would like, but it cannot be helped and I seal the letter and place it on the pile to be sent out. It will be sent with the next shipment which goes out later today. I hope it finds him well and happy.

Spring is finally in the air, and the elves will soon be arriving with their trade goods. I find that I feel better than I have in a long while. It must be that the weather is warmer now and does not pain my joints as much. I insist on meeting the boats as they arrive, as I always have done. I have friends among these elves; most of them have been assigned this task since my father’s day and remember him fondly.

I have not long to wait. The first of the boats rounds the bend in the river and the elf at the front of it waves cheerily at me. I wave back, smiling broadly. The boats reach the dock and are swiftly secured. I exchange greeting with all the ones that I know. There are a few new ones this time and I greet them. One in particular catches my eye and I blink, not believing what I think I see. He grins almost bashfully, his golden hair shining in the early morning sun and a faint blush gracing his cheeks.

“It is good to see you again, Mistress Almiria,’ he says, bowing and placing his hand over his heart.

“Oh, how you have grown!” That is all I can think to say and he smiles beautifully. He is as beautiful as his sire, but much more approachable. He comes inside with me and we talk while the boats are unloaded.

He is within a few years of his majority now and is well on his way towards becoming a warrior. One of the other elves states matter of factly that the prince is the finest archer in Arda. Prince Legolas blushes and tries to play off the remark, but the others insist that it is nothing but truth.

The conversation moves on to other things and all too soon it is time for the elves to leave. I walk them back to the dock, and the prince insists that I take his arm. He will not have me slipping and falling, he says. I can see that he is dismayed at the effects of time on me though he tries to hide it. I bid him farewell, smiling and waving until the boats pass beyond the bend in the river.

I lead the blond elf to the grassy hill behind the store. His expression is sad, and I wonder at it. My mother had often told me the story of the elven prince that she had met on her journey to the elves’ fortress with my grandfather, but I had never met him before now.

“Here is where we laid her to rest,” I tell him as we stand together before the grave that is marked by the slab of carved stone. “She had a very full and happy life,” I tell him. “She was also very happy to have seen you again before she died. She spoke of you often to us.”

“I am glad to know that, Mistress Leanis. She was a rare jewel and I am honored to have been able to call her friend,” he says softly, his eyes never leaving the stone. From a pocket, he draws a handful of flower petals and sprinkles them over the grave. He begins to sing then, a sweet, sad song in his beautiful language and my throat closes tightly, my eyes stinging with tears. He does not translate the song for me, but it is not necessary. My mother would have loved it and understood perfectly what he meant. Bowing to me, he takes his leave and walks back down to the dock where his companions are waiting. I watch as the boats disappear around the river bend and I know that I will never see him again.

[Index]

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