Arwen stopped short at the sight of a fire glowing through the trees. “Hello?” she called into the woods. “Is anyone there?”
“Just a lone traveler,” called back a voice, gravelly yet feminine. Arwen drew forward, and she could see in the dim firelight red hair and pointed ears. Another elf, then.
“Alone out here is no way to spend the solstice. Would you like to join Rivendell in celebration?” she offered.
“No, but thank you.”
“Well then, may I at least sit with you?” Arwen crept closer again and the stranger nodded.
“If you wish.” She didn’t sound particularly reluctant, but Arwen noticed her pull her hood over her head. The fabric settled, covering the stranger’s face just as Arwen stepped into the firelight. Arwen didn’t comment on this strange behavior, merely sat across from the other elf. For several moments, the only sound was the crackling of the fire and the chirping of crickets. Then the stranger spoke. “What are you doing out here instead of celebrating at your party?” Arwen flushed with embarrassment.
“I’m looking for some pebbles for a ritual.” She hadn’t told anyone where she was going, afraid her brothers would tease her for still believing in such superstitions. “Pebbles for your knowledge, and wishes sung by peepers. Purple for the love you’ll find…”
“And yellow for a keeper,” finished the stranger. “An old wood elf love spell.”
“Yes. My father insisted we learn the traditions of all elvish peoples, not just those whose kinship we share.”
“Your father sounds like a good elf,” the stranger said, then lapsed back into silence. She did not elaborate on how she knew the ritual as Arwen had hoped she would.
“Would you like to join me?” Arwen suggested, preparing once again for rejection. To her surprise, the stranger nodded.
“I would like that very much,” she said. They rose from the ground and Arwen stood awkwardly to the side as the stranger put out the fire. As they walked deeper into the woods, Arwen tried to keep up a conversation, chatting on about her home and her family and various books she had read. The stranger seemed content to let her speak, but occasionally chimed in with a question or a story about her time as a hunter and guard in a kingdom she would not name.
At the river bank, they sifted through the pebbles by starlight.
“The prettier ones are better, right?” Arwen asked, holding up a small, striped rock.
“Aye. And get a variety.” She nudged over a spotted pebble and Arwen slid both into the pouch hanging from her belt.
At the end of the night, the stranger emptied her collection into Arwen’s hand. Their fingers brushed as they pulled apart. Arwen could hear the other elf’s breath catch, a soft almost-gasp that sounded how the simultaneous skip in her own heart beat felt.
Arwen once again invited the stranger back to Rivendell and once again she refused, insisting that she was fine alone in the woods. So Arwen returned home with the pouchful of rocks.
In her room, she spread the pebbles in concentric circles around a tall gray candle. She tried to meditate over the candle flame, tried to focus on what she knew about love and herself and the future she wanted, but her eyes kept opening, kept wandering back to the spotted pebble the stranger had given her. When she slept that night, Arwen dreamt of the mysterious elf with brilliant red hair.
The next night, Arwen returned to the woods. She walked the same path down to the river, hoping to run into the stranger again. There was no sign of her.
Arwen sat by the river bank and waited. Soon, the frogs began to sing and Arwen joined them. She sang quietly, her words made up as she went and her grammar garbled to blend with the gibberish that was the frog song. She sang of yearning and of desire and of loneliness. In the background, hidden by the trees and the dark, another elf sat, listening as silent tears slid down her face.
“Your singing is beautiful,” came a voice from the dark and Arwen jumped. Then a form materialized and fell into step next to her. The figure was tall and slender and shadowed, more familiar than it should be for as long as Arwen had known the elf.
“You heard,” more a statement than a question.
“Yes.” Such a simple answer. And yet, was that a deeper meaning Arwen could sense? Was it just an admission of eavesdropping, or perhaps an expression of understanding?
Just outside the walls of Rivendell, the other elf stopped short. “Someone so kind and lovely as yourself should not have to be alone,” she said and Arwen turned to see her walking back into the woods.
“Nor should you.”
But the elf just shook her head. “If only that were true,” she said, and disappeared into the night.
Arwen spent the next day collecting starflower and lungwart, myrtle and violet, skullcap and aster. All the purple flowers she could find she gathered into a bouquet and carried it with her in the early evening to a small pond just outside the city. She held the flowers close to her chest and spun slowly in a circle, once, twice, then walked backwards to the pond. When her foot hit its sandy bank, she stopped, spun once again, and opened her eyes.
Her reflection was not alone in the water. Across from her was a woman, beautiful and elven, her face framed by long red hair. At first Arwen thought she was just an image conjured by the ritual, a fleeting promise of someone she might someday meet. Then the image moved, reaching a green-sleeved arm towards the surface and Arwen could see she held a leather waterskin. The moment it touched, ripples spread towards her and Arwen realized the elf was no mere mirage.
She looked up quickly and the two locked eyes. Arwen had never seen the stranger’s face, but now that she knew that the reflection was real she had no trouble recognizing her by her clothes and her hair. They stared at each other for several seconds before the stranger dropped her waterskin and bolted back into the trees.
“Wait!” Arwen called. “Wait! At least tell me your name!” She tried to run after the other elf, but barefoot and clad in flowing skirts she could not keep up.
She collected the discarded waterskin on the way home, hoping that the stranger would come to ask for it back. The flowers she left by the pond.
Footsteps startled Arwen at the bathing pools that dusk. Half-dressed, she whirled to see the stranger standing behind her. She no longer hid her face and she held Arwen’s purple bouquet.
“My name is Tauriel,” she said, holding out the flowers, “and I must leave.” When Arwen took the flowers back, she purposefully brushed her fingers along Tauriel’s and she could she see as much as hear the elf’s sharp inhale.
“My people do not welcome me. I am an outcast and I must live as such.”
Arwen took a step forward, then another. “Well,” she said once she had nearly closed the distance between them, “I, Lady Arwen of Rivendell, welcome you.” And then she leaned forward and kissed Tauriel.
After a brief hesitation, Tauriel kissed back, pressing her lips into Arwen’s and wrapping her arms around the lady’s waist. Arwen hummed with satisfaction and, still holding the flowers, reached her free arm around Tauriel’s shoulder. She stroked her fingers softly across the other elf’s neck and slid them into her hair. It didn’t take long, though, before Arwen’s hand hit a snarl in Tauriel’s hair.
Arwen pulled back from the kiss. “Your hair,” she began and Tauriel looked away in shame. Arwen felt a sudden surge of sympathy for the elf. “Let me brush it for you,” she offered, placing a hand on Tauriel’s shoulder. Tauriel nodded and Arwen grabbed her hairbrush from the rock she’d left it on.
Tauriel gradually relaxed as Arwen brushed her hair, and soon she was telling Arwen everything. Arwen listened to the story without interrupting and when it was over she pressed a kiss to the top of Tauriel’s head. “That is over now,” she whispered. “You can start anew here.”
Slowly, so as not to startle Tauriel, Arwen undressed the other elf and then herself. They slid together into the pool. After a few half-hearted protests that she could do it herself, Tauriel let Arwen help her bathe, and soon the two were swimming around each other with casual ease, scrubbing dirt and sweat from each other’s bodies. Then Tauriel flicked a handful of water at Arwen who squealed and splashed her back. The bath devolved into a laughter-fueled splash fight that culminated in another kiss. Arwen held Tauriel against the wall of the pool as she kissed her. The water’s slight chill cooled the warmth between their lips and beneath the surface their hands ran up and down each other’s sides.
The sun slipped behind the mountains, and in the sudden darkness Tauriel scrambled nervously out from underneath Arwen. She pulled herself out of the pool and grabbed one of Arwen’s towels. Arwen followed suit.
“You aren’t leaving again, are you?” she asked nervously. Tauriel shook her head.
“No, I don’t think I am.”
The elves returned to Arwen’s home, Arwen wearing her dress from the day and Tauriel in Arwen’s bathrobe. They settled into Arwen’s bed together. Tauriel sighed happily as she wrapped an arm around Arwen. “Thank you for everything,” she whispered before falling into sleep.
Arwen woke early the next morning and crawled gingerly out of bed. Tauriel was awake as well when Arwen returned.
“You dropped this yesterday,” she said, and handed back Tauriel’s waterskin. Tauriel took it, then registered that it was filled with the purple bouquet arranged around a freshly picked yellow rose. The red-head’s gaze went to Arwen, then back to the flowers, and back again to Arwen.
It was Tauriel who kissed first that time.