"Ioreth, the army rides out tomorrow, not a year hence," said Alathiel with much exasperation. "Please attend to the task at hand without so much commentary." She and the few women who had not fled to safer quarters were sorting medical supplies into crates. Small boys ran in and out loading the crates onto wains to travel behind the army.
"'Tis no use to send all these supplies when there is no one to spare for the running of a field hospital. That is all I was saying," Ioreth sniffed. "All the men are needed to march with the army and still will not be enough to defeat the Dark Lord's forces. Or so I have heard said by those in a position to know it."
"Speak not of things beyond your understanding," snapped Alathiel. Her patience with the witless chatter of the older woman was wearing thin. But the woman's comments were true enough to cause Alathiel more than a little worry. "Think you that Lord Aragorn will allow men to lie where they have fallen, untreated? You should know better than that." But the thought nagged at her. Who would tend the wounded in the field?
Finishing her last roll of bandages, she tossed it into the waiting crate and set out to find Legolas. The elf had been a source of constant comfort and assistance since the night of his arrival. Alathiel had quickly learned to go to him with pressing problems others were too busy to help her solve.
She found him leaning with his elbows on the edge of the battlement, his eyes unfocused. He was gazing at a pair of gulls wheeling overhead, crying out their raucous laughter. Gently, she touched his arm. "Am I disturbing you?" she asked softly, for he seemed deep in contemplation.
He did not answer he question, but asked one of his own. "Have you ever seen the sea, brennilen?" he asked lightly, but his dark eyes were troubled.
"Once, when I was a child."
"Will you tell me of it?"
"Well, let me think..." She leaned on the ledge next to him, close but not touching. He often held her hands or stroked her hair while speaking to her, and she thought that such easy familiarity must be customary with his people. But she, raised for the strict formality of the Steward's court of Minas Tirith, found she could not easily return the intimacy.
"It is big...you came here through Rohan?" He nodded. "It is like to the fields of ever-swaying grass they have in that country. I could not see where it ended. Not to the left, nor to the right, nor in front of me."
Legolas shifted slightly and put his arm around Alathiel's waist, as casually as if they were lovers of many years, rather than friends of but a few days. At first she tensed, uncomfortable with the liberty that a man of Gondor would never take uninvited. But she reminded herself again that his customs were different and made herself relax under his gentle touch.
As she did, a deep peace stole over her, such as she had felt when he had comforted her sorrow two nights before. It seemed then entirely natural to lean against him and rest her head on his shoulder.
"The smell of salt hung ever in the air and I could feel the wet spray on my skin. The sea roared with a rhythm so insistent I could hear it for days afterwards," she murmured. "When I looked upon it, I felt small and weak, and yet hopeful. Because it seemed to me eternal, like no bad thing could ever affect it."
The sun was setting in a gilded haze, so different from the darkness that had hung over the land in recent days. In its beauty and in her memories of the sea, her grief and her fear of the coming battle began to diminish. She felt at peace with herself and her world and it seemed to her in that moment everything was golden and filled with promise.
"Well, I said this to her but she wouldn't listen..." A familiar, strident voice shattered the moment. Alathiel realized that Ioreth would shortly find her, standing on the battlements in the elf's embrace, and would trumpet the news all through the castle and beyond. No matter that there was nothing to it but friendship...the woman delighted in gossip and was not above stretching the truth. Alathiel stepped back, regretting the loss of Legolas' comforting touch. The elf gave her a sweet-sad smile and she knew he felt the same.
Reluctantly, she returned to the original reason for her visit. "I came to see you with a question, Legolas. Do you know what provisions have been made for the wounded in the field? Is there to be a field hospital? Who is to take charge of it?" she spoke quickly, feeling more than a little unsettled.
Legolas laughed, a silvery warm sound. "Brennilen, that is not one question, that is three at least. But to answer you, I do not know. I will try to learn for you, if you wish it."
"I do," answered Alathiel. "I will likely be in the Houses of Healing most of the night, tending patients and preparing supplies. Will you come to me when you've found the answer?"
"Yes, I will come to you." The elf reached out and gently tucked a stray lock of Alathiel's hair behind her ear. His fingers were cool against her cheek, which suddenly felt like flame. "Until then, tithen cua."
"That name...you called me by it once before, in the garden. What does it mean?" she asked, suddenly wanting to delay her leave-taking and not knowing why.
"When first I met you, you reminded me of a bird we have in Mirkwood that is small and shy, yet fierce in defense of its nest. We call it tithen cua...a little dove."
There was such warmth in his dark eyes as he replied that Alathiel felt unaccountably ill at ease. "Oh...well...until this evening, then."
As she walked back to the Houses of Healing she chided herself. "What is there to be so flustered about, silly girl? It is a nickname, no more, for we are friends," she thought. "Nothing more than friends."
Legolas watched her go, amused and touched by her sudden shyness. In her, he had discovered contradictions that no elf-maid would ever present. Her tongue could be sharp as a blade one moment and gentle as a dove's call the next. The same woman who laid steady hands on the most fearsome battle wounds could not touch him without trembling.
He swore he could feel her mortality when he held her, searing him with its heat and energizing him with its vigor. It felt so different from the cool embraces of elf-women. He found himself wondering how it would feel if he held her more intimately still, beneath him, on a bed of ferns in an endless forest...
Strange thoughts indeed for an elf, Legolas thought, shaking his head impatiently. Though perhaps not so strange for one many months from the comfort of a female. But Alathiel was not a woman to be tumbled lightly, even if the novelty of coupling with a human was what he truly desired.
He tried to distract himself from such thoughts by inspecting his weapons for readiness for the coming battle, but thoughts of Alathiel still preyed upon him. For no matter how much he wanted to believe that his desire came from curiosity or basic need, he knew there was more to it than that. And what that meant for him, for them both, he could not guess.
brennilen = my lady
tithen cua = little dove