It was pitch black in the dungeon cell, but Legolas didn't need vision to mark the limits of his captivity. Pacing out six restless steps, he turned. Pacing another six steps, he turned again. Endlessly he circled, like a great cat caught in a narrow cage.
For six weeks he had been incarcerated below his father, King Thranduil's, Mirkwood stone fortress. For six weeks Legolas had stayed on his feet, even during the brief twilight sleep his body demanded intermittently. He dared not sit to rest and dared even less to lie down, lest the resident rats run over anything but his booted feet. From the beginning, Legolas had shared his meager rations with them, so that they might be less inclined to want to nibble on him. It wasn't enough - was far from enough - for all of them.
The Elf felt covered in filth from the centuries-old dust that billowed up to accompany him on his endless journey around the cell. It hurt now to breathe, as he'd inhaled too much of the dust along with the mold wafting from the sickly brown moss he knew grew on the wet walls. His joints ached and he felt that he was weakening bit by bit, day by day. Worst of all, he was locked away from the light of the sun above, away from warmth and life itself.
Heavy metal doors clanged open and shut beyond his cell. Legolas didn't pause in his pacing, for he knew that his visitor was only Mithrandir, come this morning as he came every morning and evening. No guard accompanied the wizard, for none was needed. Thranduil knew his son would not harm the old man, and as for the old man trying to rescue Legolas, Mithrandir would never overstep his bounds by interfering with private punishment meted out to a wayward, disobedient son.
A small hinge at the bottom of the cell door was lifted and a tray was scraped across the cold stone. Porridge, apples, and milk were on the menu this morning, as they were every morning. The rats would descend on the porridge, and if Legolas moved quickly enough, the apples and the milk could be his.
Torchlight flickered between the cracks of the door - the only light the Elf saw each day. Forsaking the food, Legolas widened his eyes and feasted on the desperately needed radiance, but shadows interfered as the wizard moved outside of the cell. The glow disappeared altogether for a brief moment, and Legolas flinched. Had Mithrandir left again so quickly, leaving him in darkness and silence?
An impotent rage seized the Elf, along with a soul-deep urge to claw his way between the cracks of the door and seize the torch, even if it meant breaking the wrist of the hand that held it. Shaking his head, he shook away the madness behind the thought; Mithrandir little deserved such violence, and he had always been Legolas's friend. Every day, when everyone else had forgotten he was trapped below, the wizard brought food and light to the miserable captive. He didn't have to do so, and it was not Mithrandir's fault that the Elf found himself so punished.
"Do you yield?" the wizard rumbled, as he did each time he came. In his mind's eye, Legolas could see him standing with torch in hand and his ear to the door, hoping that he would be answered.
Weeks before, Legolas had stopped answering for in his pride and obstinacy the answer could never change. In defiance, he had ignored the question, had merely scooped up the mug and the apple and continued pacing.
This morning, the Elf broke off his circling and went to the door. Bowing his head against the cold iron, he closed his eyes. No Elven craft save Thranduil's key could open the door, just as no will but Thranduil's own would be allowed to guide his son's life if Legolas wished to escape this dungeon. To gain his freedom, he had to lose it forever. Sometime during the dark time, Legolas had come to understand that some cages were worse than others.
"I yield," he rasped in a voice graveled through long disuse.
A brief silence followed, as if the wizard were trying to manage his surprise. For a moment, Legolas feared that Mithrandir might simply turn and leave him there. Might leave it to Thranduil to descend the stone steps, throw back the door and gloat his triumph before releasing Legolas to walk the insane path he demanded his son follow.
But Mithrandir did not leave. No key jangled in the lock, yet the rusted tumbler still kicked over. The latch was shoved up with a sudden enthusiasm that belied any Mortal or Immortal hand upon it. Wizard-craft slammed back the door, and it tried to claim Legolas's booted toes on the journey.
Leaping backward to save his feet, the Elf blinked painfully as torchlight attacked his eyes. Stepping into the cell, the wizard slid an arm around Legolas's shoulders and squeezed hard.
"It is good to see you, young one. Are you broken within or without?"
Legolas didn't mean the word to come out on a growl, but it did. Turning into the wizard's embrace, he inhaled deeply of the tangled beard that smelled of woodsmoke and pipeweed. His fingers dug into the rough-spun gray robes, clinging shamelessly to the first human contact he'd had in weeks. Long an adult, Legolas still felt like a child, cleaving to the only benevolence left in his life.
A callused hand raked down his hair. "Your usually golden mane is matted, and you look a royal mess. A bath and change of clothes are in order before Thranduil is allowed to witness what will probably prove a sour victory. Say good-bye to the rats and let us leave this accursed vault."
The bitterness in Mithrandir's voice did not go unnoticed by the Elf. Legolas followed to climb upward from the dungeon and entered the main corridors with what he hoped looked like proper humility to the guards stationed at various points around the keep. Extra guards, he noticed, in case Thranduil's youngest was so foolish as to try to escape. Wizard and Elf both kept their silence until they gained access to more private corridors where no guards walked.
"You called him Thranduil," Legolas murmured, testing his voice as they entered the private bath-chamber attached to his old rooms.
"I beg your pardon?"
Frantic to rid himself of weeks of filth, Legolas stripped away his soiled tunic and leggings. "Before, you always referred to him in conversation with me as 'your father.'"
"No parent should ever imprison their child, Legolas, much less force them into an unwanted bond. The Valar themselves would never condone such an action." The wizard's blue eyes were kind, but his voice held a finality which made Legolas think Thranduil had lost all claims to nobility, at least to Mithrandir. "Did any of those rats bite you? Have you wounds that need tending?"
"I am uninjured."
The old wizard still eyed Legolas's nakedness with a critical eye, and the Elf allowed the inspection as he slipped into the warm, soothing water.
"No physical injuries, any road," Mithrandir commented, "as far as I can see at the moment."
Very much aware of watching wizard, Legolas sighed and arched in the sunlight streaming through the windows of patterned stone. Reaching for the soap, he cleaned his hair thoroughly before lathering the rest of him. Ducking beneath the surface of the water to rinse off, he knew that another inspection would undoubtedly follow upon his emerging from the pool.
The Elf was not in the habit of letting others watch him bathe, but Mithrandir's caring was comforting in ways Legolas didn't quite understand. For so private an Elf as he had always been, he was letting Mithrandir creep absurdly close. But during the dark time, Legolas too had ceased to think of his captor as his father.
~ ~ ~
Mithrandir smiled to see the shift of strong muscles across Legolas's back, the easy way he moved while bathing. Such ease said that the Elf's body had not failed him during his captivity.
[He is safe now, and this pleases me,] the wizard thought, gathering an armful of thick towels and placing them well within Legolas's reach. Pacing boldly into the Elf's private chamber, he took the liberty of retrieving a fresh set of clothing and boots and carried them into the bath-chamber as well. Settling on the stone wall and waiting for the Elf to finish, he considered. [No need to wait while he heals: we can leave Mirkwood for Rivendell as soon as Thranduil allows it.]
Mithrandir had arrived six weeks before to deliver a formal message to the king from Lord Elrond of Imladris: a message that had resulted in ongoing apprehension for Mithrandir and almost immediate imprisonment for Legolas.
Thranduil's youngest son had been running with a small group of Elves who had attached themselves to a larger group of Rangers, all in an effort to prevent Mirkwood from being overrun by a colony of orcs who had decided the darkening forests of Mirkwood and Thranduil's keep were only too perfect for their purposes. At 150 years, Legolas was a proven warrior. Battling orcs and spiders over the years to help keep safe his father's kingdom, the Elf had also agreed to keep an eye on Dul Goldur for Mithrandir. He'd turned out to be an able spy, with senses so intuitive that Mithrandir joked, "I have your eyes in Dul Goldur and my own elsewhere in Middle-Earth, but we are so alike in intent that the distance matters not. You're making my task much easier, young one, whether you know it or not."
Legolas gave a rare half-smile at the compliment which had been delivered with much glee and honesty. Seeing the Elf's reaction, Mithrandir found reason to believe that generous words had been scarce in his life. The result of the words had been that as the shadows gathered ever closer to Mirkwood, Legolas was more than eager to spend time sneaking around the outskirts of Sauron's old fortress in an effort to gain additional information that might be of value to Mithrandir. And so it was that the wizard had come to admire and like the young Elf, who was yet unbonded and known even within his own community as being very much a loner.
Mithrandir had delivered Lord Elrond's message, and Thranduil had called his son home immediately after he had received it. It had taken awhile for the summons to reach Legolas, and a little while longer for him to comply with his father's wishes. So it was that Mithrandir and Thranduil received word that evening, during the banquet set in honor of the wizard's arrival, that Legolas had arrived and was waiting in the king's own chambers.
"Is he not hungry?" asked Mithrandir. "Will he not join us here at the table?"
"Legolas is a moody soul, and he is probably feeling a bit surly after being summoned home so summarily." Thranduil grinned. "I doubt his mood will improve after I order him to Imladris, and so we will make him wait a bit."
[No matter how long I spend in Middle-Earth,] thought Mithrandir with some confusion as Thranduil turned his attention back to the wine and the night's entertainment, [I will never understand one creature's glee at another creature's unhappiness.]
Having totally enjoyed the night's festivities while the wizard had not, Thranduil swept into his chambers ahead of Mithrandir in the early hours of the morning. Heading directly to his bed, he flung wide his arms so that his attendants might peel him out of the rich robes he'd worn to dinner and into a sleeping-robe more comfortable for paternal discussions.
Settling just inside the door, Mithrandir stood quietly and watched as Legolas rose from his seat before the fire. His bow and quiver had been set to one side of the hearth, with his knives stored securely behind. Never out of reach, the wizard had come to understand that they were as much a part of the long-legged young Elf as were his silver-blonde hair and blue eyes.
Mithrandir all but gasped as shadow and flame carved the high-cheekboned face into harsh relief. As always, he was struck by the austere beauty of the warrior standing before him: of all the Eldar he'd met in his travels, both male and female, this one was the most beautiful. Oblivious as always to the affect he could have on others, Legolas offered a slight bow and murmured a formal greeting.
"Good evening my father, my king. And to you as well, Mithrandir. It is good to see you." His Sindarin was low and musical, as Thranduil's was ever harsh. Blue eyes cloaked in smoke settled on the wizard, their eager light promising new spy-tales to come.
"Good evening, Legolas," Thranduil's tones dripped ice. "So nice of you to have answered my summons so promptly. I trust you had a pleasant journey and were not pulled away from anything important with your Mortal friends?"
Wariness replaced warmth in the Elf's eyes as they slid from Mithrandir to Thranduil. This, the wizard knew, was the opening gambit in yet another verbal battle between father and son - a battle which the young Elf was never allowed to win. All of Legolas's conquests, Mithrandir knew from speaking with the other Elves, had come from slipping unnoticed from the gloom of his father's fortress to run free in what remained of Mirkwood's sunlight and try to defend the beloved woodland realm that was his true home.
Always, Legolas had run with the woodland Elves and the Rangers while Thranduil tried in vain to keep the younger prince of Mirkwood home and occupy him with matters of state. That was his duty, no matter his older brother didn't need any assistance and neither did the king, so that three royal personages trying to work with the King's counselors would have been a definite crowd. Unfortunately, Thranduil ever sought to prove his ownership and control of every glittering thing within his grasp, and was determined to keep it near him. Even as a child the light that was Legolas had refused to be so kept.
[He will never be happy hiding in dark stone as his father does,] Mithrandir reflected, watching the lithe body tense, the long fingers flex briefly with echoed stress.
"I am where you wish me to be, Father." Terse words, with an unheard message: I am here... for now.
A heavy silence fell between the two Elves, until Thranduil broke it. "May it ever be so."
Waving an impatient hand, the king dismissed his attendants, gathered his robes and stepped closer to the fire. Gazing into the flames, he said, "I have received a message of great interest from the Half-Elven ruler of Imladris this afternoon. Some weeks ago his wife, the Lady Celebrian, met an unfortunate death Oversea. Shortly after her death, word spread out from Imladris that the marriage bond between her and the Half-Elven had been broken. This affords him the opportunity to seek a new mate. It also affords you and me the opportunity to strengthen the relations of our two kingdoms through a marriage alliance."
"A marriage alliance... between whom?" Legolas asked cautiously.
Rounding on his son, Thranduil narrowly avoided catching his robes on fire. "Between you and the Half-Elven, you fool. Surely this is obvious, as I have no daughter and your brother is already bonded? For the first time in your sorry life, Legolas, you will be of use to me and to Mirkwood."
"I am already of use to you and to Mirkwood," Legolas said with what seemed an ominous quiet. "I help guard your shadow-filled borders, keep safe your roads, drive away the Nazgul and the orcs, bring news of Dol Goldur when others are afraid to step within its borders, and--"
"Others are more afraid of me than they are afraid of Dol Goldur. Others will guard our borders just as well after you have joined the Half-Elven."
The younger Elf narrowed his eyes. "Let me make sure that I understand you, Father. You are suggesting that I journey to Imladris and meet Lord Elrond Peredhil for the express purpose of joining myself to him in marriage?"
"No. I am ordering you as your king to do so. The Half-Elven has agreed to my proposal to have you, and I have sent word in return that you will have him. You leave for Imladris in the morning."
A deadly silence fell, wherein even Thranduil seemed to hold his breath, waiting for the explosive tantrum that was surely to come. Mithrandir waited uneasily at the door. [This is beyond tantrum,] thought the wizard. [This is absolute insanity. I thought it the first time I heard of it from Elrond, and I still think it. Legolas and Elrond both deserve happiness, while this arrangement will bring nothing but tears.]
"No." The soft word shattered against the stone walls. Turning away from his father, Legolas retrieved his quiver and set it between his shoulders. The bow was placed just so, the knives checked secure in their sheathes. Gathering his cloak, the Elf headed for the chamber door.
Thranduil scowled. "No, what?"
Legolas turned just short of the door. "No, Father, I will not bond with Lord Elrond of Imladris. I choose exile from Mirkwood rather than fall in with this mad plan of yours."
"Exile is not among the choices laid before you," Thranduil growled. "With time, I think you will come to see that there is only one choice, and you will take it. Guards!"
They poured into the room, some from a couple of entrances behind tapestries that Mithrandir hadn't even known existed. Shoving Mithrandir aside, they nearly bowled over their king in their haste to reach Legolas before he gained the door. The young Elf went down in a mob of Elves, never drawing knife or arrow in any attempt to defend himself.
When the pile of Elves had sorted itself out, one emerged with the quiver and knives still in their sheathes. Another grasped Legolas's treasured blackwood bow so tightly that his knuckles showed white. As for Legolas, he stood quietly among three other Elves, one of which had an arm locked around his throat while the others held Legolas's arms fast at his sides.
Legolas regarded his captors sadly. "I would never hurt you."
[He grew up with them,] Mithrandir realized. [Some may even have helped train him in his youth, but he's proven the better warrior and they know what they risk to attack him. Thranduil commands that which he owns at all cost and these Elves are bought and paid for, but the cost of commanding Legolas may prove dearer than Thranduil knows. Legolas will never yield without honor.]
"Take him," the king growled.
Mithrandir watched as the guard removed the unresisting Elf. "What will you do to him?"
"I, Master Wizard?" Thranduil arched an eyebrow and gave a chilling smile. "I will do nothing to Legolas. The dungeons below will do it for me."
They left at first light, with Thranduil still so furious with his younger son that he had no wish to see him. Legolas's rage, although hidden well, was no less.
"Far better then that the two of you do not meet," said Mithrandir, watching the young Elf gather a new cloak and extra set of boots, stuff extra arrows into his quiver and check the sharpness of the knives for at least the third time in the past five minutes. "We need no more emotional fireworks over this matter, or others."
"I've yielded, haven't I?" Legolas scowled back at the wizard and led the way out of the chambers he'd had since boyhood. "I've promised to join the Lord of Imladris in marriage and signed my eternity away in parchment laid before Thranduil. He's formally handed my 'care and keeping' over to you by return parchment and made you promise to see me safely We all know that my abilities are no match for your magic. If I resist you, there's any number of things you can make me to to come with you. Cast a spell of obedience over me so that I obey you and Elrond without question, or turn me into a toad and tuck me into your knapsack--"
"What an amazing imagination you have."
"You couldn't do this?"
"Of course I could. But what is to say that I would?"
"You promised my father to get me there."
"I need no magic to make you fulfill your commitment."
"Perhaps not, but you never know."
"Legolas, really. You sound as if you want me to consider you unreliable and dangerous. As if you want me to turn you into something unnatural. Would it be easier then to blame someone else for your going to Imladris, rather than your father's idiocy?"
Their horses were standing ready at the gate. For all of his reluctance to be on their way, Legolas lost no time making certain that Mithrandir's saddle was tight and the other tack was in order. Holding the bridle, he saw the wizard safely mounted before swinging up onto his own mount's back.
"My father has wrapped up things as neatly as if I were a maiden Elf." Using only his thigh muscles, Legolas guided his gray gelding toward Mirkwood's fortress gates. "From my brother to my wet nurse to the last guard, everyone said their farewells to me as darkness cloaked them last night. Now, they've all become scarce lest they shed a public tear at my departure and set Thranduil's wrath upon them. No one is allowed to miss me." Sad blue eyes met the wizard's. "I don't blame them, I only wish it weren't so."
He nudged the gray into a canter, with Mithrandir having no choice but to join him as they left Mirkwood behind.
"Thranduil's kingdom will not profit by your leaving," the wizard pronounced, once they'd settled into a sedate walk once more a few minutes later.
"No, it will not." There was no arrogance in the statement, only certainty. Mirkwood needed Legolas, whether Thranduil recognized it or not. And Mithrandir had needed Legolas in Mirkwood, close to Dul Goldur. Where was he to find another spy so able as this one had been?
They rode in silence for a few leagues, with Legolas obviously fuming over the fate the Valar had not seen fit to deliver him from, while the wizard watched the Elf fume.
"Do you know the last thing Thranduil said to me?" Mithrandir finally broke the silence.
"'Send me word when the Half-Elven possesses him,'" Mithrandir quoted.
The Elf made a sound that was halfway between laughter and choking. "Did he even bother to look up from his scrolls to tell you that?"
"I'm afraid not. And I'm not certain whether he means that I'm to inform him once we've arrived in Imladris, or when this maniacal marriage has been consummated."
"Tell him when we've arrived," Legolas advised, "because you must know that I'm still looking for a way out of this alliance."
"Why does this not surprise me?"
"Perhaps a council of Elves to unite the three kingdoms?" Legolas suggested. "Wouldn't that be as good as a marriage between our houses?"
"You know Thranduil despises Galadriel and cares nothing about allying Mirkwood with Lothlorian. He would never agree to send an emissary to any such council. Not to mention that you simply aren't an emissary, young one."
"I could learn to be one."
"In Elrond's court?" Mithrandir laughed outright. "You might learn to hone your flirting there, but never your diplomacy. Additionally, after what Thranduil has put you through, I expect that you'd align yourself with Elrond if only to get a little of your own back."
Legolas gave a quick of a smile. "Probably. But serving Lord Elrond in matters political would be less fearful than what I've agreed to do. Word never reached us before that he prefers the company of male Elves to females."
"He does not."
"Then why does he wish to claim me as his... bride?" The word held all the bitterness the Elf felt at his father's betrayal.
Mithrandir hesitated before answering, took the time to settle back in his saddle and adjusted his pointed hat against the glaring sunlight. When he did answer, he chose careful words. "You have heard that Lord Elrond is blessed with the gift of foresight?"
"For years, he foresaw Celebrian's rejection of their marriage bond."
"But such a bond is supposed to be forever," Legolas pointed out.
"Such a bond is meant to be forever, but Celebrian..." The wizard shook his head. "Some suspect she never wanted to be with him, she only wanted to be the Lady of Imladris. And foresight, Elrond long ago decided, is much more of a curse than it is a blessing. For millennia, he has been locked in a sterile, loveless relationship, powerless to do anything but wait for the bond to die.
"Do not misunderstand me, Legolas. I know that you have never met Elrond and you have no idea what you're walking into. He is an Elf-lord of strong loyalties, a very long memory, a command of magical lore to rival even my own, a warrior fierce in battle who has seen many loved ones fall over the years, and...."
"You must remember that he was trained by Gil-Galad and Glorfindel, and so fights in the old style which rivals your own. Blood weary while Gil-Galad was still alive, Elrond left his king and built Imladris as a sanctuary. He then watched while Gil-Galad decided that, so central was Imladris's location to the wars, nothing else was acceptable but that every army was to be outfitted from there. And so, Elrond's peaceful sanctuary was invaded, but honor demanded that he obey his king."
"As I must obey mine?"
"Not exactly. Gil-Galad fostered Elrond from the time he was a toddler, so the king was the only father Elrond ever knew. He became Gil-Galad's herald in adulthood and their paternal bond was ten times closer then yours with Thranduil. Gil-Galad put serving Middle-Earth ahead of ruling the Elves. Elrond has done no less, regardless some like Thranduil curse him for it. For Elrond to betray a son or a loved one as Thranduil has done... Such selfishness would simply never happen.
"Then how - why has Elrond agreed to this marriage alliance?"
"I'm certain that his own desires do not enter into it, any more than yours do. Mirkwood and Imladris have ever been at odds, with outright war threatening at certain times. Whether he likes it or not, in power and positioning Elrond is central to the Elven kingdoms. Whatever Sauron sends over the coming years, the kingdoms must unite or fall.
"Thranduil will not accept assistance from Galadriel, and Elrond was allianced with Lothlorien even before he married Celebrian. Therefore, in the short term Thranduil has been unwilling to accept assistance from Elrond. If the two of you actually marry, that solidifies Thranduil's alliance with Imladris. It also sidesteps Thranduil's pride to the point that the matter of Galadriel becomes moot. Celebrian is dead and you would be bonded to Elrond. Mirkwood would be bonded to Elrond as well, through you. As you would be Elrond's mate, the alliance between Mirkwood and Imladris would be stronger than that shared between Lothlorien and Imladris. Come what may to Lothlorien, Elrond would be honor-bound to fight to preserve Mirkwood.
"Since the shadows began creeping out again, Elrond has sought a way to protect Mirkwood from Sauron's growing strength. Unfortunately," Mithrandir concluded, "you were the way shown to him."
"I... see," Legolas murmured. "So Lord Elrond wants me as a lover as much as I want him, and I should not expect to be ravished my first night in Imladris."
"I would expect that you should expect to never be ravished."
Legolas looked puzzled. "But the bond must be consummated if this alliance between kingdoms is to be finalized, so how would Lord Elrond and I--"
"That is something you must discuss with Lord Elrond." Mithrandir felt himself blush. If the Elf's eartips were anything to go by, he too was embarrassed. [It's either that, or Elves have learned how to sunburn.] The wizard cleared his throat. "Let's return to safer subjects, shall we?"
"Safer for you."
"Elrond is called Half-Elven, as Thranduil was determined to emphasize," Mithrandir pontificated, steadily ignoring Legolas's gloomy pronouncement. "Never mind that Elrond's actual lineage is closer to eight-tenth's Elven than only half. And he is Immortal by his own choice, which choice was bestowed by the Valar themselves. Elrond is all too aware of the blood some pure Elves consider tainted. It is one of the reasons why he is Lord of Imladris rather than its king. He serves, he does not rule, and he has honor, Legolas, every bit as fierce as your own. Honor, rather than passion, has guided most of his actions and much of his life.
"Once, I'm certain that he harbored hopes of bonding in a more loving relationship when Celebrian finally set him free, but time has a way of destroying such dreams. Time can also destroy all hope of passion, and Elrond is close to 6,000 years old. His willingness to enter into a second, empty bond with you tells me that the Elven lord must think that in his case all hope is dead. If you are so foolish as to want to lock yourself into a bond with him - as Thranduil has led him to believe - then Elrond apparently isn't prepared to refuse duty or cling to any hope of something better with someone else.
"I'm beginning to understand how he feels," Legolas said quietly. "This marriage is not what I foresaw when I looked forward to joining my life to someone else's forever. I've never been kicked in the teeth by a stallion, but losing one's family and one's chance to love forever must feel about the same."
Reaching out, Mithrandir patted Legolas's knee. "Don't despair just yet, young one, for such things have a way of working out."
"How can this work out, if there is no hope of our being attracted to each other, much less falling in love with each other?"
"I do not know, but what I tell you now is for your ears only. I tell you only because as Elrond's promised mate you have the right to know. Elrond loved Celebrian, make no mistake. But she was a cold creature - far colder than her mother Galadriel could ever be. Marrying the Lord of Imladris was the best alliance Celebrian could hope for. She married out of resignation rather than love, and that resignation turned to bitterness after she was attacked by orcs. The public version of that story is that Elrond could not heal her emotional hurts. Privately, he has confessed to me that she simply could not stand the sight of him any longer. So you see, Elrond has never been loved, regardless he loved his wife. I would not wish the same fate to befall you, Legolas."
"I've heard that Celebrian could not defend herself in battle. I can."
"You deliberately misunderstand the fate I fear may be in store for both you and Lord Elrond if you bond blindly to each other. Celebrian's physical injuries healed under Elrond's care. The wounds she carried Oversea and those she inflicted before her departure burrowed deeper than any orc poison could.
"Listen to me and listen well, Legolas: the mate you are committed to claiming is every bit the proud, injured warrior you are. While you cannot make him happy any more than he can make you happy, you would do well not to humiliate him in public or in private. You would also do well to seek a common ground on which the two of you may become friends, as lovers seem an impossibility."
"And why should I do that, Mithrandir?"
"Because Elrond is out of patience with bonds, dreams and empty hope. There is nothing left for him on this side of the Undying Lands but that he continue his neverending quest to defeat Sauron. If you make of Elrond an enemy, if you refuse to fulfill your promise to bond with him or if you bond and then humiliate or injure him further, do not expect the same patient treatment that Celebrian enjoyed.
"Elrond will not send you to anything so simple as a dungeon if you make him miserable. There are no dungeons in Imladris, and I doubt that he would ever send you into a world of relative freedom Oversea. You would not escape him so easily, nor would your torment be as brief as six weeks. He would keep you here and make you more miserable than you could ever imagine being. For there is a difference between you and Celebrian that I am certain you would never consider."
"And what might that be?" Legolas asked, plainly dreading the answer.
"Lord Elrond loved her. He does not love you."
Brushing out the hood of his cloak, Legolas discarded the inch of snow that had settled on the cloth over the past two hours. Replacing the hood, he watched as Mithrandir shivered in the storm, still searching as he had since nightfall for the hidden path leading into the steep ford before them. Imladris was somewhere down there, safely hidden in the snow. The cold didn't affect the Elf, but he was starting to be concerned for the wizard.
"We could make camp here," he suggested. "The trees offer some shelter. We could begin a fire, and you could sleep until dawn and try again then. When you are somewhat more awake, perhaps?"
"Stubborn old wizard."
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I am." Whirling, Mithrandir nearly slipped. "Each time I come here, it's a bother to find this path. I swear that Elrond changes it with every season. He's entirely capable of doing so, you know?"
"Is he?" Pulling off his cloak, the Elf offered it to his companion. "Put this on, please? The cold will not bother me, and you need the extra layer of protection."
Mithrandir sputtered a protest, but Legolas ignored it. Pulling the rough-spun dampened cloak from the wizard's shoulders, he bundled Mithrandir up in the less-damp scarf and Legolas's own cloak. Layering the dampened cloak over it all for insulation, Legolas fastened the layers with his own broach. Pulling the smaller hood up over the wizard's head, he crammed the gray, pointed hat atop it and then yanked the hood of Mithrandir's own cloak atop that to make the old man as warm as he could. Satisfied that Mithrandir wouldn't freeze to death in the next couple of hours, regardless the wizard had very little peripheral vision, Legolas set to searching the ford's edge himsElf in an exact pattern with the ease of one familiar with tracking through the wood in all weather.
"What, exactly, are we looking for?" the Elf asked.
"A space large enough for two horses to move abreast," said the wizard, "protected by brambles and Elbereth knows what else."
"Like this?" Legolas shook a gorse bush free of snow and used his bow to shove back the thorny branches. The bush yielded easily, untangling from its companions to reveal a bare track which led steeply down the side of the gorge. "The track is more narrow than you describe, but--"
"Ah, you've found it and Lord Elrond *did* change it, the wretch! I was here but weeks ago, and I swear to you that it was wider and certainly more obvious. Mount up, young one, we're nearly there. There shall be mulled wine to warm us and soft beds to cradle us. You'll soon learn that Lord Elrond is no stingy host."
Less than an hour later, they crossed the bridge over the River Bruinen and entered Imladris's courtyard. The snow was still falling and no one appeared to greet them or to take the horses, but the twinkling lights were a welcome sight all the same.
"I've not known Elrond to be this inattentive to those arriving at his borders," Mithrandir observed, glancing about the courtyard from his now-stationary horse. "I wonder what occupies everyone?"
"The sky is glowing," said Legolas, helping the wizard off of the animal.
"Hmm? Glowing?" Turning as Legolas gestured, the wizard looked over the tall spires of the Last Homely House this side of the Grey Havens, where a bright and shifting orange light suffused the snowflakes falling through the night.
"It looks like the forge is on fire." Looking more than a little alarmed, the wizard gathered his robe and hurried along the stone wall bordering the gathering of dwellings.
Leaving the horses unattended in the courtyard, Legolas followed his companion, who soon gained entrance to a garden. Well-kept paths and groomed terraces lay in winter silence, dormant until spring, but Elven hearing could pick up the sounds of panicked shouting beyond the stillness. Breaking into a trot, Legolas left Mithrandir and the garden behind. Within seconds, he had crossed a small stream and was traversing an expansive lawn that served as a break between the main house and the forge.
The forge was intact, but the stable beyond it was not. Smoke billowed from the gabled roof, flames licked at the snowy sky, and Legolas was close enough now to hear the screams of the terrified horses trapped within. He skidded to a halt in the snow not far from where three Elves were struggling to hold back a fourth.
"You can't go in there, Elrond!" another Elf called from where he stood, close by the stable entrance. Pulling back his long golden hair, he quickly secured it with a clasp. "You'd go up like a paper candle in those robes, and you're too valuable to lose."
"They are my friends, Glorfindel, part of my family for years." It was a voice Legolas knew had commanded armies, but in this moment, Lord Elrond sounded more vulnerable than the Elf had ever imagined an Elven warrior could sound.
"You know as well as I do that there's no way to put out this fire or to save the stable--"
"You can't expect me to stand here and watch them burn!"
"I most certainly do not. I will see to the horses while you organize watering down the roofs and walls of Imladris. There is more at risk than the stable."
"Glorfindel, you cannot go in there alone."
"We're wasting time." Ignoring the Elf-lord, Glorfindel stalked up to a group of Elves who stood trembling and chattering in disorganized fear nearby.
"You four, help Lord Elrond!" he snapped, grabbing the sleeve of a paralyzed bystander and shoving him toward the Elven lord. The others leaped into motion at his heels. "You -- prepare to open the stable door and slam it after me. And you--" Glorfindel pointed at another Elf who even now was inching away from bright, falling embers, as if he was fearful they would set him aflame. "Stand with your friend at the other door and do not move until you hear my shout from within. I'll have your liver if a horse we send out can't run free because you've deserted your post. Close the door behind each horse as we release it, so its instincts can't lead it right back inside."
Buried in the crowd of Elves now hustling him along, a miserable-looking Elrond was being forced to head for the main house. Having caught up with Legolas at last, Mithrandir laid a hand on his shoulder.
"There's nothing to be done to stop the fire," he murmured as the Elf threw his bow aside in the snow.
"I know. The flames are too hot, too overwhelming." Kneeling, the Elf sorted through the layers of cloak Mithrandir wore. Pulling a small knife from his boot, Legolas cut a large square of cloth and tied it securely over his nose and mouth.
"Just what do you think you are doing, young one?"
"At least I'm doing something, unlike the rest of that useless lot. Is that the best Imladris has to offer? I'd expected better." Unbuckling his quiver, Legolas tossed it and the knives in their protective sheathes aside before striding toward the stable..
A broad hand caught his elbow. "You can't be thinking of going in there. At least wet the cloth on your face!"
"Glorfindel will need help, and cloth heats more slowly if it's dry." He shivered as another equine scream of fear and pain reached over the noise of the flames, then brushed away the fingers holding him. "I've done this before, Mithrandir. Don't fret."
"Have you any idea what your father will do if something happens to you?"
"I have to try." Grey eyes locked into blue, but Legolas did not waver.
Heaving a great sigh, the wizard nodded his acceptance. "My powers cannot stop this fire, but I will help as I can. You have about eight minutes to get everyone out, including yourself."
~ ~ ~
Legolas moved forward and pushed up on Glorfindel as he slipped through the tall door. Heat surrounded them as the door slammed closed behind them, and the older Elf spared the newcomer a startled glance as if to say, 'who are you?'
"Mithrandir says we have eight minutes!" Legolas shouted over the roar of the flames, which suddenly seemed to pull back, away from the Elves and up into the rafters of the huge old stable. A result of the wizard's seldom seen but still formidable magic, Legolas assumed. He thought it was a pity that Mithrandir couldn't pull away the smoke and heat as well.
"Best we don't waste time!" Glorfindel shouted back. "The foals are in a round paddock at the back of the barn. Stallion stalls line the west wall, while the mares and geldings are housed to the east." He gestured, illustrating. "They're separated by the tack room, which has a door on each side, and this fire is closest to the stallions. Start with them and work your way around to the mares. I'll release the foals out the back, then head for the ladies. We'll send them all out the front."
[Better to send the stallions and the mares out onto the lawn than mix big horses with the foals and let them be trampled.] Nodding his understanding, Legolas dared to ask, "How long has it been burning?"
"Best guess is about five minutes. Lantern tipped and broken in the tackroom," he added as they moved through the smoky aisle.
It was a five-minute headstart, but Mithrandir had gifted them another eight. Stripping off his soft leather tunic and bundling it in one hand, Legolas moved away from Glorfindel and headed for the first stall. He quickly lost sight of the other Elf in the smoke and knew that they had less than seven minutes now to rescue whoever would allow it. After that, smoke inhalation could end each horse's life, no matter anyone's efforts to save it.
Flames poured out of the door of what Legolas assumed was the tack room. Using that room as a corridor to reach the mares was already an impossibility. Ignoring that problem for the moment, Legolas obeyed Glorfindel's instructions and headed for the first stall on his left.
He didn't run, nor did he fling open the stall door, as to do so was the surest way to further terrify the stallion within. Legolas had seen others try to hurry during smaller fires, had seen precious seconds lost by their chasing the horse around its stall. Unlatching the stall door, the Elf projected calm and control to the animal standing at the rear of the small box with its head held high and its dark eyes wild.
Smoke billowed in from above, and the roar of the flames was deafening. Legolas could see that the stallion was already panicked. Running to the rear of the stall where safety usually waited, the animal had tried to climb the wall in an effort to get out of the smoke. His hooves had only scraping futilely on the smooth wooden boards lining his stall, and his head was up in the thickest smoke, as it probably had been for long minutes already. The stallion came down on the smoldering bedding, only to rear once again.
[His lungs are surely damaged,] Legolas thought, despairing of being able to save this one, even if he managed to get him outside.
Murmuring calm words of assurance, the Elf used his tunic as a blindfold, tying the sleeves below the animal's throat and letting the body of the garment fall to cover his muzzle as well. Now blind to the terror around him, the horse could only focus on the Elf at his side.
"Tolo," Legolas ordered firmly. 'Come,' but the trembling horse resisted all of the Elf's efforts to make him move forward. Legolas pushed him sideways to break his stance, then tugged on the ends of the tunic wrapped tight around his chin to lead him forward. "Tolo," he ordered again.
Much to Legolas's relief, the horse stepped up. Leading him swiftly from the stall, the Elf pounded on the stable door. It swung open immediately, and Legolas yanked his improvised blindfold from the stallion's head and released him into the night. The door thumped shut behind him as he headed for the next stall.
He had only a moment of satisfaction at the first horse's release from the inferno. [One down, how many to go?] Legolas wondered as he dove back into the rapidly thickening smoke. He worked his way systematically down the aisle with some horses cooperating and some not, and he skipped the blindfold with any horse that did more than jerk its head away. Some greeted this stranger with aggression borne of panic as Legolas slipped into the stall. He had to leave those who reared to strike or whirled to kick him: there just wasn't time to argue the point, and if he were injured, Legolas knew that he couldn't save any others, much less himself.
Large embers were floating on the smoke now, and the rafters were beginning to crack and moan. Time was growing short, and Legolas realized that he wouldn't make it across the stable to the mares or the geldings on the other side. He only hoped that Glorfindel would.
The heat was heavier, the smoke was thicker, and even through the protective cloth both were attacking Legolas's own lungs. Some of the more aggressive stallions were trying to bite him out of fear, were lungeing at the stranger who had emerged out of the smoke without warning. The result meant that Legolas had to be even more careful when he wanted to do was hurry a bit more. The Elf's arms were still covered by his outer tunic, so that many of the bites snatched at the shining blue undergarment and not at him. A few stallions allowed him to blindfold them once they'd tasted the cloth, but others would not stop fighting, so that Legolas had to leave them in their stalls, no matter he knew he was leaving them to die.
If an animal fought, Legolas simply had to move on to the next which might not fight at all. It mattered not that he wanted to save all of them, that he felt as if his heart was breaking every time he backed out of a stall and left its occupant behind. He knew all too well that these war-horses were the heart and soul of Lord Elrond's breeding program; to own one was to be owned by the finest and fiercest Middle-earth had to offer. Their reputation to protect and defend their riders spanned millenia, and Legolas had never thought to be so close to one in his lifetime, much less to have to abandon so many to terror and flame.
[I came in here knowing we wouldn't save every one,] he thought. [If I get the chance, I'll come back. Once they've seen others led out, they might cooperate.] In any case, Legolas left the stall doors open, to leave room for them to change their minds. More than once he was gratified to find a shadowy form waiting at the door, but not often enough. The screaming in the stalls was intensifying as the drifting embers caught in the straw bedding.
[Mithrandir,] he begged silently, [Don't let them burn, please don't let them burn--]
Smoke was pouring out from the stalls themselves and into the wide center aisle by the time Legolas reached the last box. The seal of the House of Elrond graced the door of this stall and the cheekpiece of the halter hanging on a hook beside it, all well out of reach of the eager teeth of the stallion within. The halter itself was an ominous sign that other Elves could not handle the beast within without resorting to the tack used by Men.
Legolas pushed the thought aside and ignored the halter, which was already cracked and charred; using it was probably an impossibility, but no matter the risk this horse still deserved a chance at life. Legolas knew that the stallion he was about to meet was probably Elrond's foundation sire, housed in what was supposed to be the safest and most secure stall in the entire barn. The smoke was so black by now that the halter seal was one of the last things Legolas saw clearly.
Unlatching the door by touch rather than sight, the Elf snatched back his hand and sucked in his breath as Elrond's seal burned the palm of his hand. Cradling his damaged hand, he entered the stall to see flames licking over the tops of the walls and felt smoke singe his lungs.
A huge white stallion stood to the right of the door, his head lowered and ears flattened at the hot, roaring threat. Swinging his great head, he eyed Legolas almost angrily, bared his teeth, and drove a hoof into the bedding.
"I'm not responsible for this," Legolas murmured. "I've come to take you safely out of here if you'll let me."
Rafters groaned and cracked somewhere close above, making both Elf and horse start at the sound, and Legolas knew without looking that his eight minutes were up.
[So this is how my life will end,] he thought, strangely at peace with his fate. Still, he had to at least try to save the majestic creature before him. Raising his uninjured hand, he showed the stallion his tunic and tried to slide it over the top of the horse's head.
"Will you let me do this?" he rasped through a throat made raw by the heat.
The stallion threw his head, snapping at the cloth as he spun past him and circling the stall: the answer was no. Wheeling around, he shoved at the stall door just as a burning beam fell heavily in the middle of the aisle. Sparks shot out, attacking the horse. Screaming, he reared and struck at the door as part of another rafter fell. The door swung back violently, struck the stall wall with a sharp bang. The stallion had a clear path if he'd only take it.
"Go!" Legolas yelled, swinging the tunic to slap him on the rump. Flames licked close to the stallion's forelegs and he trembled, but he also refused to move. Snorting and coughing in the smoke, he canted an ear and an eye toward Legolas. The flames crept closer, starting to devour the stall wall itself and crept across the ceiling above their heads. Sparks showered down, tiny stinging pinpricks landing on unprotected skin and hide..
Legolas knew that his own means of escape was in doubt as the stable died around them. And still the stallion waitedfor what? For some word? Some unknown command? From a stranger? Perhaps from a rider?
"Let's get out of here," Legolas muttered.
Legolas knew that the stallion might fight and even kill him in this effort to escape, but he also knew that he had nothing to lose by trying. Grabbing a handful of mane with his good hand, the Elf leaped onto the horse's back. Muscles bunched beneath him, and Legolas tightened his own thigh muscles. Gathering himself, the stallion leaped over a flaming beam to land further down the aisle. Stretching his long neck, he cantered defiantly toward the unseen stable door.
"Open the doors!" Legolas shouted, lying almost flat on the horse's neck in an effort to avoid the black smoke billowing around them. "Open the doors!"
His voice was so hoarse, so raspy from the smoke that he wasn't sure anyone could hear him. The fire roared its anger at their attempted escape, surely drowning out his shouts. Legolas could feel the determination of the stallion beneath him and knew better than to interfere. Elrond's finest would never yield to the fire; the stallion would fight until the flames claimed his dying breath and take the Elf with him.
[That's just fine with me,] Legolas thought as he recognized the selflessness and courage of a great horse that would give its all. [I will die in good company, should it come to that. I only wish I had reached you sooner.]
Whole wooden beams were falling now, smashing into the stalls and tumbling around them. The sound of hooves on stone told him that other horses were clattering down the stone aisle behind them -- others were following the stallion out. The horses remaining in the collapsing stalls screamed in anguish, but the stallion beneath Legolas did not flinch. Reaching the back doors, he pulled up and screamed a warning at the solid wood. When it did not yield, he circled once to gain his position, reared, and struck with his front hooves. Dropping down as the door did not open, the stallion reared again, laid on with his weight and slammed back both doors as easily as he'd slammed back the stall door.
Grooms shouted in the snow and scrambled out of the way. Legolas had a brief image of Glorfindel standing to the side and staring as they streaked by. Holding tightly onto the mane with both the sound and the burned hand, Legolas didn't try to do anything else; the stallion was plainly in control and, given the fact that he'd just rescued his rescuer, Legolas was contented to have it so. Wincing as the cold night air hit his badly singed lungs, Legolas wondered briefly how much smoke the stallion had inhaled, and if this grand escape was all for nothing.
[One miracle at a time,] he reflected as the animal singled out one Elf in the night and came to a sudden stop before him. Someone's hands were in the horse's mane, groped over Legolas's own. Someone else's hand was sliding up Legolas's thigh, and he heard Mithrandir's voice.
"That was certainly amazing. Are you hurt?"
"I don't think so."
Sliding off of the horse, Legolas gasped and leaned against the wizard. Yanking off the cloth protecting his face and shaking strands of damp hair from his face, the Elf stepped back as someone invaded his private space, stood almost on his toes. The stallion and Mithrandir's solid chest prevented Legolas from going too far. Looking up, he met the smoldering gray eyes of the austere-looking Elf he'd heard addressed earlier as Lord Elrond.
The Elf-lord opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. With his high brow furrowed in seeming confusion, he absentmindedly stroked the mane and chest of the stallion who stood quietly beside him, his long fingers futilely trying to soothe the blackened spots in the white hair where the embers had burned. Snowflakes peppered Elrond's Elf's long black hair which flowed wildly across his shoulders. The wind whipped the stallion's long white mane across it, joined it in stark contrast.
"How did you...." Elrond finally managed.
"He came to find you," Legolas said simply, trying to get the words out before the urge to cough became overwhelming, "and he was kind enough to take me along for the ride. I hope Glorfindel managed to save the foals and some of the mares and geldings; I couldn't reach them in time."
"Glorfindel saved all of the foals. As for the others..." He gestured shortly at a makeshift paddock nearby, where the animals circled restlessly, endlessly as the fire continued to burn. The screaming within the stable had stopped now.
Legolas nodded and stifled a cough. "That is well."
The wheezing was becoming more pronounced, and his hand stung unbearably. It was time to end this conversation. Turning away from Elrond, Legolas found himself enfolded in Mithrandir's protective embrace.
"You reek of smoke," said the wizard, starting to lead his charge away from the crowd. "A bath is in order, and then I think a long rest."
"You are a stranger here, are you not?" Elrond interrupted their departure. Off of Legolas's brief nod, the Elf-lord continued, "Why, then, did you risk your life for my horses?"
"I like horses," Legolas replied quietly before Mithrandir led him away.
Legolas started awake, tearing himself from yet another nightmare of burning stalls and screaming horses only to discover he was struggling against an unseen foe. Happily, the foe was only his own hair, which had wrapped around his throat, and a blanket, which seemed determined to cocoon him.
Coming fully awake, he calmed to find himself lying haphazadly across a broad bed in an unfamiliar chamber. Leaf-shadowed sunlight streamed through windows open to all of Imladris, and a slight breeze caressed the Elf as he coughed spasmodically. Neither the coughing nor the repulsive black phlegm he expelled eased the heaviness in his chest or the pain throbbing in his head. Wheezing, he thought that the acrid smell of smoke surrounding him had to be carried on his own foul breath. Reason returned a moment later to argue that the stench was only an unhappy part of his hair and clothes.
Legolas remembered Mithrandir suggesting a bath the night before, but the Elf had been too exhausted to comply. He had a vague memory of the wizard steering him toward a bed and pushing him down onto it. Still dressed, except for his boots, Legolas now found his physical condition replusive.
[I'm getting very tired of getting dirty through no fault of my own,] he reflected. [First my father's dungeons, and now this? A bath is definitely in order this morning, but where are my weapons?]
Sitting up, he shoved the hair from his eyes and looked about. There his things were, resting haphazardly nearby along with the packs he'd brought from Mirkwood. From the way the bow had been piled on top of the quiver rather than propped respectfully in the corner, Legolas thought that Mithrandir had to have seen to them.
[At least they weren't just left abandoned in the snow.] Legolas had known the wizard all of his life, but it was the first time he could recollect Mithrandir's cleaning up after him.
Moving stiffly from the bed, Legolas sorted through the packs for a change of clothing and gathered his boots before leaving the chamber.
"Could you tell me which way to the baths?" he asked after stopping an official-looking Elf in the corridor.
The Elf sniffed in disgust at the smelly visitor before directing him down a narrow flight of stone stairs set in a corner of the corridor. Following them until their end, Legolas took the right archway as he'd been instructed, which led into the underground hot springs sectioned off for the male citizens of and visitors to Imladris. Entering the steamy chamber, he set aside his boots and bundle of clean clothing before stripping down.
~ ~ ~
Water lapped gently at the edges of the pool, and Elrond considered purring as its warmth soaked into his very bones. The night had been long and the struggle to save his beloved horses was only just beginning. Still, the Elf-lord was determined to start the battle as relaxed as was possible after snatching only a few hours of sleep. Stretching his arms out over the stone terrace, he rested the back of his head on the stone and basked in the privacy and warmth.
The sound of bare feet moving quietly over damp stone reached his ears, and Elrond half-slitted his eyes open to see who dared to invade his reverie. The invader wouldn't dare be Erestor, as he'd ordered his majordomo to stop hovering like any mortal nanny and disappear until mid-day meal.
Erestor it was not. Instead, Elrond found himself recognizing the strange Elf who had appeared the night before. Moving stiffly and looking much the worse for the damage of the fire, the mussed blonde elf set about undressing.
The process went slowly as he tried to use his left hand, which appeared to be injured. Even at a distance, Elrond could see that the burn to his palm was swollen and livid red, surely sending knifeshards of pain throughout the hand whenever thumb or fingers were shifted. Thonged lacings fought the Elf's efforts without compassion, so that he hissed in a breath only to cough uncontrollably on the exhale.
"You're not well," Elrond murmured, and the cavernous room amplified his voice fivefold. "Your lungs have been singed by smoke and that hand needs tended."
"I am well enough." The Elf's voice was raspier than Elrond remembered from the night before. It was impossible to tell what he had sounded like before the fire had burned his airways.
Elrond watched as sheer determination eventually conquered the scorched clothing, which the Elf then tossed disdainfully into the discard basket sitting at the door. Turning, he avoided meeting his host's gaze and stepped down into the water. A natural elegance and pride etched every move this Elf made, so much so that Elrond thought if this one had been a stallion the Elf-lord would have sought to add him to the herd.
[Nice lines,] he thought. [Very nice lines.]
Elrond had scant time to note the long legs of his guest, the well-formed chest and muscular shoulders before the water embraced him. The injured hand, Elrond noted, was held well above the water's surface. Settling into a niche across from his companion, the stranger mournfully eyed the floating tray of soap as well as the stack of washing clothes that were well within reach at the edge of the pool.
"You know," Elrond said conversationally, "there are times after a battle when no matter how much you want to, bathing is simply too much of an effort. It would be a bit of repayment for your efforts last night to let me help you this morning, would it not?"
The Elf considered the question for what seemed an inordinately long time. Finally, albeit reluctantly, he nodded. [Do we hate being vulnerable?] Elrond wondered. [Who among us does not?] Elrond observed, sliding up beside the Elf and reaching for the soap as it floated by. Wary blue eyes regarded him. Imperceptible to anyone but another warrior-trained, the Elf tensed.
[Doesn't he like being touched?] Elrond wondered.
"Let's start with your hair, shall we?" He used his most casual tone, the one which many years ago had been reserved for his children. "Wet it for me, please?"
Consent came in the form of wet hair, but the thin lips were now pursed tight and the jaw was locked so tightly that the Elf's cheekbones were set into sharp relief.
"Relax," Elrond murmured, liberally lathering the tarnished golden strands. "There is no dishonor in needing help occasionally."
The Elf's breathing accelerated to the point that he began coughing again. Resting a hand on his back, Elrond listened to the wet sound with growing concern.
"You've inhaled as much smoke as some of the horses you saved," he commented when the fit had passed.
"I am fine."
"Your lungs are not fine, and that hand is not fine." Authority weighted the Elf-Lord's words. "Neither injury will heal without aid - aid which I can provide if you will allow it. Or would you rather suffer?"
The Elf wheezed painfully, obviously against his will. "Your skill as a healer is well-known, Lord Elrond."
"I do not wish to suffer...unduly."
[Unduly?] Elrond thought, [As if he expects some suffering to be unavoidable or even appropriate at my hands? Most Elves would welcome my help; why does this one react so strangely?] "If you will accompany me to my chambers after this bath, I will make every effort to ease your suffering."
A short nod, reluctant in the extreme, but yielding nonetheless as if the Elf had no real choice in the matter. Soaping the cloth, Elrond moved to clean rigid shoulders and a tension-ridden back, as well as the Elf's right side before handing the cloth over to its owner.
"You can tend other places yourself?"
"Yes." Almost strangled, that agreement.
Growing frustrated with his own bewilderment and inability to reassure his patient-to-be, Elrond departed the pool abruptly. Padding across the wet stones, he rung out his hair before gathering the long strands into a towel and using another to dry himself off. When he turned, he found the stranger's eyes upon him once more.
"Do you wish help drying off?" Elrond asked.
"No. And...yes." The revelation came so softly, it was all but lost in the chamber.
Elrond took full advantage of the opportunity to watch the strange Elf exit the pool. More curious than he would have admitted about this one who had indebted its owner so completely the night before, Elrond assessed the lithe body with an experienced warrior's gaze.
[He has an archer's shoulders and back,] the Elf-lord noted. [And then there are the braids.]
The Elf came to stand before him, and Elrond reached up to finger the ragged braid at the stranger's temple. To give the younger Elf credit, he flinched but did not move away.
[Are you afraid of me?] Elrond wondered. Aloud, he commented, "These will need repaired."
"They are not necessary at the moment." Deftly and despite the hand injury, the Elf undid both braids. He then motioned as if to gather and pull back the front hair, but abandoned the effort as if only just remembering he would need both hands to do so.
"Once it dries, I will pull it back for you, if you wish," Elrond offered.
Another tight nod of acquiescence.
Laying a hand on the Elf's shoulder, Elrond waited until reluctant blue eyes once again met his. "I can sense how much you hate the situation. Think of me only as a healer, and I will be as quick and impersonal as possible each time I touch you."
A look of stupified confusion met that attempt at reassurance, as if such consideration from the Lord of Imladris was the last thing this Elf expected. Reaching with careful gentleness, Elrond retrieved a fresh towel and began drying his charge. To his gratification, the lithe body did not tense further. Neither, however, did it relax.
[He startles as easily as a new fawn. He also seems to think that he must obey me against his will or that I will seek to dominate or control him in some way. Most Elves trust me, so something is terribly amiss here,] Elrond thought. [I do not know what, and I fear prying to discern what it is will only make him flee my presence.]
Elrond's gaze followed his hands, and he was unable to avoid assessing the conformation of the body beneath them as he was unable to avoid assessing any stallion's conformation when it stood before him. A glance at the long fingers still busy with the braids confirmed Elrond's first assessment; the heavy callouses of an expert archer were easily visible on his fingertips. Nodding to himself, Elrond continued his visual inspection.
[Here are the long, elegant legs of a runner. And here are the firm calf and thigh muscles of an experienced rider. Perhaps he is a scout. Given his reactions - so obvious and easily read - I would say that he cannot be more than two hundred years old.]
"You are as beautiful as Sereg'wethrin," Elrond commented softly, wicking the towel down the long back and letting his hand glide around and over a hip one last time.
Long fingers clenched, the damp head turned. If those eyes had held wariness before, they held downright hostility now. Quickly dampened, their expression still held smoldering resentment.
"Sereg'wethrin? The assassin?" the Elf asked. Turning to his clean clothing, he pulled on tunic and leggings, yanked on his boots with a speed that belied the wound to his hand.
"Assassin, my foundation sire whom you saved last night."
"Why do you call him that?"
"Because he protects those he loves and respects, and tries to kill all others whom he considers a threat."
"I... see." For some reason, the resentment in the Elf's gaze had softened into thoughtfulness.
"Would you like to accompany me for an update on the horses once we tend that cough and your hand?"
"Yes, Lord Elrond." No hesitation there, at least.
Shrugging into his robes, the older Elf led the way from the baths, shortened his stride to accommodate his companion's injured lungs, and waited for him to pace him in the corridors.
"It took me a long time to rest last night," Elrond confided. "Every time I closed my eyes, I saw the stable in flames, my friends dying."
"The same dream woke me up," came the quiet confession. "Such nightmares will probably continue for some time." The Elf glanced up at his taller companion. "I don't wish to be critical, my lord, but building a stable that close to a forge seems the height of folly."
"I agree, which is why its replacement is being build some distance away on the opposite side of the fields. You realize that this fire was probably set deliberately?"
"Deliberately? Glorfindel said that someone was careless with a lantern in the tack room."
Elrond nodded. "Many races pass through Imladris. By a very old tradition based on the value of the horses we breed, only Elves are allowed inside the stable, which includes the tack room. Elven sight has no need of lanterns in the dark, so tell me why a lantern would be needed within last night?"
Pausing in the corridor, Elrond regarded the Elf at his side. "I would welcome any help in discovering the who and how of the fire. Given your role in saving my friends last night, there are visitors in Imladris who might be encouraged to speak to you as they would not to others."
The Elf gave a slight bow. "I will seek information as I can, my lord."
Legolas followed Elrond through what appeared to be a very large library and up a staircase leading onto a narrow balcony. He had little time to study the life-size sculptures and wall murals before they reached an arched doorway graced with delicate carvings at the end of the balcony. Following Elrond through the archway, Legolas found himself in an antechamber to what appeared to be the elf- lord's private chambers.
Setting aside parchment and pen, a tall, blonde Elf turned to greet them. "Ah, so you haven't drowned. I had given up and was writing you a note."
"Glorfindel. Have you been waiting long?" asked Elrond.
"Long enough. Erestor said you were bathing. I understand now why it so long to finish the job." He raked Legolas with a critical gaze, then arched an eyebrow and smirked.
Regardless he could feel the tips of his ears growing red, Legolas refused to look away. [I should become accustomed to such innuendo,] he thought. [Am I not, after all, here to become Elrond's consort?]
"It is not as you think it, Glorfindel," Elrond murmured.
"Of course it's not."
"Have you forgotten that we're expecting Thranduil's son to arrive any minute?"
"Of course not."
The words were respectful, but the tone was not. For a long moment, no one spoke, and Legolas wondered with some confusion if Glorfindel had managed to render Elrond speechless.
A heavy hand descended on Legolas's shoulder and squeezed briefly in what might have been meant as reassurance. "Glorfindel means no disrespect to either your king or your prince. Would you mind waiting here while I address his...impertinence?"
"Of course not... erm, no, my lord," Legolas amended. Glorfindel was smirking again.
The bigger Elf slipped past Legolas before he could move away. Raven-black hair caressed his cheek and Elrond's barrel chest brushed against him, offering a brief warmth and strange comfort.
"Come inside, Glorfindel, and tell me what you want, other than to embarrass me and my guest."
The two lords moved into the next chamber, where their conversation was no less clear to Legolas for the distance. Taking a deep breath, he discreetly moved into the winter shadows at the far corner of the antechamber. Here, he could see the entire room without immediately being seen. Standing with his arms folded over his chest and guarding his hurt hand, he tried to master his inner agitation.
Elrond's words from the bath echoed as loudly in Legolas's mind now as they had when the elf-lord had originally uttered them: 'I can sense how much you hate the situation. Think of me only as a healer, and I will be as quick and impersonal as possible each time I touch you.'
[Think of him only as a healer, when I am bound to become his bonded lover? How, in the name of the Valar, am I supposed to do that when his hands touch me... as he will touch me? Our brief contact has been considerate and caring, but I do not desire him as a lover. How do I conceal this from him when the time comes?] [I have promised to accept him and I will. But I cannot feel what I do not feel, and the time of pretending will be over quickly. What will happen between us then, bound as we will be for all time?]
Legolas's shoulder still felt warm from where Elrond had touched him. Idly, he rubbed it. [Impersonal, he is not. He has been kind to me - so far, any road. I don't understand why, unless it is because I tried to save his horses.]
Glorfindel was speaking within. "So where is Thranduil's son?"
"How should I know?" Elrond sounded exasperated. "I thought he would arrive with Mithrandir."
"Perhaps you should ask the wizard."
"I've not seen the wizard this morning to ask him anything."
"It was an eventful night for all of us, Elrond. No doubt he's sleeping in - something I sometimes wish we Elves could do as Mithrandir seems to enjoy the decadence of it so much. And what of the fire sprite standing in your antechamber? Perhaps he knows, as I'd say he's from Mirkwood. Who is he?"
"I can only assume he's an advance scout sent with Mithrandir to assure all is in order," said Elrond. "I doubt he knows much of Thranduilion's actions. He's obviously not of Thranduil's court. Firstly, he's not dressed for it and secondly, none of them would risk their life for any among us, much less an animal. I can only assume that Legolas Thranduilion and his blissful entourage will arrive soon, with all of the pageantry and splendor demanded by a spoiled prince of Mirkwood."
Glorfindel chuckled. "You are looking forward to his arrival, aren't you? So what were you doing down in the baths with the scout?"
"Bathing!" Elrond spat. "You know me far too well to think I'd be doing anything else, except work long and hard to coax that one into joining me here so that I might tend his injured lungs and hand. Which I will do as soon as you leave."
[He doesn't know who I am,] Legolas thought with some elation. Breathing easier regardless the pain of his lungs, he dared to relax just a little. [I send you all my gratitude, Elbereth, for this is a respite I would never have dared hope for. He will find out soon enough, I expect. But for now... it is a bit of latitude I never expected.]
"You are always so grumpy in the morning," said Glorfindel.
"I am not grumpy. I am irritated. The prince of Mirkwood will more than likely arrive today and require my undivided attention, when I wish my sole focus to be Assassin and his fellows. How are they, by the way?"
"I was heading for the stable to find out when you arrived. Was scribbling a note saying you could find me there when you wanted an update."
"Very well. I shall tend our guest's injuries and join you there."
"As you wish. And I still say you're grumpy." Exiting the inner chamber, Glorfindel winked at Legolas as he moved past. "It's your turn."
With some reluctance, but no where near the level he had felt a few minutes before, Legolas joined Lord Elrond in his most private lair.
"Have a seat, please, while I prepare a few things."
Legolas settled at a round table where books and scrolls had been stacked and moved aside to clear a space. The chair was broad and comfortable, made as it had been for a larger frame - as had all of the furnishings within this room, Legolas noted. Even the bed in the next room looked larger than any Legolas had seen before.
[Mithrandir is probably not the only one enjoying his creature comforts,] thought Legolas.
Moving to a multi-drawered wooden cabinet, Elrond gathered a selection of bandages and bottles before settling opposite his patient, who was now looking around the chamber without bothering to hide his curiosity.
In one corner stood a suit of Second-Age armor, battle- scarred and much worn, while mounted on the wall behind was its companion - an Elven longsword that had seen much use in latter days.
"I've never seen armor of that sort before," he commented. "Mirkwood's own was unique, and my... king did not preserve any specimens of it."
"I'm not surprised. Our last battle at Mount Orodruin holds no happy memories for Thranduil. He lost many from Mirkwood, his father among them. Imladris and Lothlorian tried to offer comfort afterward; your kind would have none of it."
"You were there as well, were you not?"
Elrond nodded. "With Gil-Galad and many others that day. The Dark Lord was defeated though not entirely destroyed. A watchful peace ensued, the fruits of which we are still enjoying though some believe Sauron is gathering strength while his shadow creeps forth once more."
"Dol Goldur has reawakened," Legolas offered camly.
Elrond gave him a sharp look. "When issues regarding the horses are no longer pressing and we have more time, you must tell me what Mirkwood has learned of that. Imladris has not yet been touched by the Shadow, but some among us have foreseen it."
[He has the gift of foresight,] Legolas remembered and was suddenly reminded that he was in the presence of one of the most powerful elf-lords ever to walk Middle-Earth.
[Gil-Galad raised him, trained him three thousand years ago,] Legolas thought. [He's a master of lore and the architect, ruler and guardian of Imladris. He breeds magnificent horses and my father wants him to help guard Mirkwood. Well he could, and I'm nothing but a child to him. My meager skills are those of an infant next to his, so why would he ever desire me as a mate?]
[No wonder Father believes that I can be of use, but what use can I be to Elrond? There is much he could teach me, much I would learn if he would be willing to teach me, but I fail to see why he would wish my company.]
"Give me your hand."
Legolas didn't think to protest but offered it freely, only to find his entire hand was being immersed in a bowl of some clear, viscous liquid that smelled like a flower.
"What is this?"
"Oil of lavender. Leave you hand within until I take it out."
[I am willing to learn from him if he would allow it. I would be honored to be with him, were it not for...] Legolas shivered inwardly to remember how, exactly, he was to secure the alliance between Mirkwood and Imladris.
"Is it what you expected?" Elrond asked as he poured some potions into a crucible. Stirring it, he then poured it carefully out into a smaller bottle and searched for a stopper.
Legolas jerked his attention back to his host. "Pardon me?"
"Few are allowed to see these rooms. I've always wondered what is seen by those who do."
"It is an elegant sanctuary within Imladris's own," Legolas offered slowly, uncertain what the elf wanted to hear. "It speaks of your own ancient heritage, of the battles you've fought--"
"And lost--" inserted Elrond.
"And won," Legolas pressed. "After all, we sit within Imladris itself. A waterfall flows peacefully out there--" He nodded toward the open window. "It is reassuring in its music, telling that no matter the events in the lives of the people nearby, it will flow on as it has for hundreds of years. It is warm within these walls and the fire on your hearth is another welcome companion, no matter the snow falling outside. Rivendell itself is a battle won, is it not?"
"If so, it was won out of sheer desperation." Elrond's smile was grim. "When I served at Gil-Galad's side in endless battles and my dreams became filled with blood, I fled to this dell and begged Elbereth to grant me peace. She told me in another dream that such peace could not be granted, I had to build it. Imladris was the result of that dream, and it was a very long time before my king forgave me for leaving him."
"But the fact remains that he did forgive you. The two of you went on to defeat the Dark Lord and to forge the Watchful Peace."
"He died at Sauron's hand."
"As did my grandfather and many others, as you reminded me earlier." Legolas cocked his head thoughtfully as Elrond removed his hand from the oil of lavender. Much of the pain had gone.
"We have all lost loved ones to the Darkness," said Elrond, wrapping the injured hand carefully. "We may again."
"In the meantime, are not these rooms more peaceful than, say, a dungeon cell beneath King Thranduil's keep?" Legolas asked.
[They will become the site of my ruin shortly,] he reflected, calmly meeting Elrond's startled gaze. [Here, he will claim me, body and mind. Here we will bond and my freedom will be forfeit. But Mirkwood will be served, and my father will be pleased.]
Elrond tied off the bandage and sat back. "Have you seen those dungeons?"
"Far more closely than I would care to again." Experimentally, Legolas flexed his hand. "I would not have a problem firing a bow with this bandage."
"I would not advise you to try until the skin beneath has a chance to heal properly. You are an archer, then?"
"I have some skill with a bow. And my hand feels much better."
"It may feel better, but it is not healed. The oil has soothed the wound and begun its work, but it will be slow, fragile work for some days. You must leave the hand wrapped so that the oil does not evaporate. You may unwrap it at night if you wish, but more oil and a moisturizer must be added daily so that the skin heals properly. We must wrap it daily to protect it, and you must be careful to keep the bandages clean."
"Yes, Lord Elrond."
The elf-lord frowned. "That wound is very deep. So deep that I can do nothing to keep it from scarring permanently. I'm deeply sorry."
Shrugging, Legolas set about pulling back the hair that was now dry and getting into his eyes. "It doesn't matter."
[How appropriate that it would scar, given that I'm to belong to him.] "You've been very kind."
"Kind? That is not a word most would use to describe me. Tending your wounds is the least I can do. You were, after all, injured in my own stable's fire."
Finger-combing his hair, Legolas gathered it awkwardly together. Rising from the table, Elrond took a leather thong from an overflowing jarful sitting on a nearby bookshelf.
"Allow me to help." Going to stand behind the Elf, Elrond ignored Legolas's protests and pulled his hands away. The golden hair fell in disarray, only to be gathered up once more to be secured comfortably by the thong. "There is no shame in needing help."
Legolas grit his teeth. "So you said before, but it annoys me."
"It annoys each of us when it happens to us, but it won't last forever. Time and patience heal all wounds."
[Will it heal the treachery of my father?] Legolas wanted to ask, feeling a wrenching pain and a thrumming wrath deep within whenever he thought of how he had come to be in Imladris. [Will it heal my dreams and comfort either of us when you take me and learn just how unwilling Thranduil's son is?]
"Thank you," Legolas said aloud.
"Now, as to your cough." Leaning over, Elrond retrieved a long phial and handed it to him. "This tincture contains a mixture of herbs to encourage your lungs to expel the sickness created by the smoke. Drink half of it now with this."
He handed the Elf an apple from the bowl half-hidden by scrolls. "Drink the other half after noon-meal and I will make more for you tonight. The cough should clear by tomorrow night."
Nodding, Legolas drank as he'd been told, only to grimace and gasp. Never before had he tasted anything so vile. "It's..."
He searched for words that would not offend. "Very bitter."
Elrond smiled. "You're very diplomatic. When I gave Glorfindel his last night, he said it tasted like balrog piss."
"He should know," Legolas rasped and glowered at the rest of the liquid in the phial.
Elrond laughed outright. "But you will notice that his voice is restored this morning. Yours will be by nightfall if all goes well. Don't forget to eat the apple, you need something in your stomach. And now, I must join Glorfindel at what remains of the stable to check on our friends. Do you still wish to accompany me?"
[You're not at all what I expected,] Legolas thought at Elrond's back as he followed him from the chamber. [Not after Mith's warning and my father's disrespect. Are you this nice to all of your guests, or only those from Mirkwood? And what will you do when you find out that I've deceived you - let you go on thinking that I'm a scout when I'm actually your consort? Will you think I've come to spy on you, to carry tales back to my father? Will you fly into a rage and cancel the alliance, send me straight back to Mirkwood in disgrace?]
[Probably,] Legolas decided. [This season of grace can't last. More than likely, my father's wrath will be visited upon me, and this disobedient son will see the dungeons of Mirkwood again all too soon]
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