The sun disappeared back behind the clouds to wrap Imladris in a dull gray chill that matched Legolas's ruined mood all too well. Yes, Elrond would allow him to go to Dul Goldur, but the Elf-lord had made it unbearably clear that Legolas would go only because Elrond allowed it.
Feeling anger and panic boil within him, Legolas reflected, [For all of his kindnesses, I should have known that I've only exchanged one prison for another. Can he not understand that I *must* go to Dul Goldur, else another will be sent in my stead to die? I thought him as concerned with Mirkwood as he is with Imladris. Instead I discover that, like my father, Lord Elrond's greatest interest is in controlling where I go and why. Very well,] he concluded, feeling morose, [I should have expected it. Rule me as you will.]
Legolas followed two paces behind Elrond with his head still held high, but with an emotional distance between them that he'd not felt since the early hours of their growing friendship. The older Elf's mood had also clearly shifted, and Legolas knew better than to attempt any continuation of their most recent discussion; from all appearances, Elrond would probably exhibit little patience with his intended bondmate's mood.
Unlatching the gate leading to the field just outside the new stable, Elrond strode through without bothering to look behind. He had no doubt that Legolas would latch the gate. [However much he may resent my involvement in his life,] Elrond reflected, [he will not risk harm to the horses.]
They were in time to see Glorfindel swing back the stable door.
"Lord Elrond, Lasgalen!" He hailed them with as much enthusiasm as ever, which made Legolas instantly wary. "It's good to see you, you're just in time."
"In time for what?" Elrond all but growled. "I am here to see Assassin."
"You may want to stand aside." Coming up to stand beside Elrond and Legolas, Glorfindel laughed at the four grooms only just emerging from the stable aisle and into the weak winter light. Assassin danced between them, anchored by two Elves on each side who held lead shanks and shrank as far away from the stallion as was Elvenly possibly.
"If you're away from the teeth," Glorfindel murmured, "they can't bite you."
"But their safety depends upon one another," Legolas observed, flanking Glorfindel, "because if either one lets go--"
"Death or dismemberment awaits," Glorfindel said cheerily.
"The horse is not dangerous, and the two of you are vastly overrating the danger of the situation," Elrond asserted.
"Of course we are." Glorfindel winked at Legolas.
Ears back and shaking his head, Assassin cut shapes, danced and blew. Bouncing out of the stable, he leaned and strained a shank, sidled one way and then the other to make both elves skitter along beside him. He paused long enough to indulge in a bit of rearing and head shaking, yanking his escorts about only to suddenly subside to their efforts to stop his forward motion and snorted loudly.
"There, you see? It's all show," protested Elrond, standing with hands on hips. "He's having fun terrorizing them while they lead him out. He's just been confined for too long."
"Oh, yes. Gentle as a kitten is that one," Glorfindel agreed.
Elrond whistled softly and Assassin's head shot up. Ears pricked forward, he stared at his master and settled instantly. Pacing docilely forward to close the distance between them, the horse shoved his muzzle into the hand Elrond offered, which left the elves leading him standing foolishly to either side and holding the slack leads in white-knuckled hands. Elrodn stroked the long neck, and Legolas thought that he caught a glance of relief shared between the nearest elves, but couldn't be certain.
"Glorfindel, we need to assess my stallion's well-being. We'll begin with his breathing: is all of his snorting merely for fun, or is he still subject to respiratory obstructions?" Turning to Legolas, Elrond continued, "I want you to place your hands just so--" he demonstrated, miming cupping his hands over the stallion's nostrils while standing before Assassin, but not actually touching the horse's face, "while Glorfindel and I listen to his lungs."
[You want me to stand here and hold my hands over this stallion's nostrils so that he can't breathe which is guaranteed to annoy him horribly,] Legolas thought. [Leave me in line for death, why don't you?]
The four elven grooms took the opportunity to drop their shanks and back away slowly when Legolas moved to stand directly in front of the stallion to do as Elrond had requested.
Taking up their positions at Assassin's flanks, Elrond and Glorfindel laid their arms over the stallion's back and leaned down to listen at his chest wall. Giving an inward sigh, Legolas placed his hands as Elrond had dictated he should. [There's really other way to find out, but I'd rather be a listening elf than one irritating this beast.]
Assassin eyed him with open suspicion but stood quietly enough as Legolas covered his nose. [No doubt because your lord and master is standing right there.] Seconds later, Assassin shook his head as he discovered he couldn't breathe. Legolas didn't let go.
"If you and I do this right," he murmured, "we'll only have to do it once."
He held on as long as he dared, letting go only when the stallion's gaze hardened and he threw his head upward violently, easily getting his nostrils out of range over Legolas's head. Startled, the stallion took a deep breath and then another.
Closing his eyes, Elrond listened to his horse's lungs and eventually straightened. Doing the same on the stallion's other side, Glorfindel observed, "I can't hear any crackling, wheezing or gurgling. Can you?"
"There's still a bit of crackling over here," said Elrond. "Not much, but some."
"I didn't hear any. Best we do that again."
The two elf-lords looked up to where Legolas and Assassin were glaring at each other.
"Would you please cover his nose again?"
Legolas looked from Elrond's hard gaze to the stallion's blazing glare and decided that the horse was the better to disobey at this point. Cupping his long fingers, Legolas moved them toward the horse's muzzle, only to have the head meet him halfway with teeth bared. Only a quick step backward prevented those teeth from finding their target. As it was, the sharp click left no doubt as to the sincerity of Assasssin's effort.
"Legolas, if you're through playing with him, we're waiting," Elrond prompted.
Sighing, the younger elf startled the stallion by grabbing a lead shank. Pulling it taut, Legolas stood on it. Momentarily perplexed, the stallion allowed the elf the moment of opportunity he needed to clamp his hands over the delicate nostrils once more. Assassint seemed to swell in anger before whipping his head sideways and sending the rope whistling out from under Legolas's boot. Rearing, the stallion struck at the elf, who leaped backward out of reach of those flashing hooves.
"That wasn't exactly satisfactory, but I still maintain I heard no crackles," Glorfindel stated firmly to Elrond, who didn't seem to have noticed the opening attack. "I think Assassin's doing quite well, all things considered."
"I think I heard something still, but if I did it is small. Let's see how he handles stressing his breathing. It's obvious he's feeling well enough to tolerate some exercise." Taking off the halter, Elrond threw it and the cumbersome lead shanks aside. "Lasgalen, get up and take him around, won't you?"
Assassin was still staring at Legolas, with a look filled with smoldering fury over the rude handling he'd just endured. 'Stay off,' said the animosity in that gaze.
"My lord, it might be better if you--"
"Get up on him," Elrond reiterated. "He won't do anything."
"He doesn't want me up there," Legolas dared. "He's yours. Only you can ride him."
"You've already ridden him once, and I'm asking him to carry you again."
"My Lord Elrond--"
"Get up there!" Elrond growled, fingers closing in irritation on a handful of mane and glowering at Legolas every bit as strongly as was Assassin himself. Glorfindel watched the exchange in gleeful silence from across the horse's back, as did the grooms hovering nearby.
"Yes, my lord," Legolas said obediently, obviously not meaning it.
"Sullen rider, sullen horse," Glorfindel observed quietly.
"Hush," admonished Elrond.
"Sullen horse owner, too," Glorfindel managed to get in the dig as Legolas came up beside him. The older Elf-lord made way with a slight bow.
Assassin had his own opinions of the situation. Left with an empty field and no one standing in his way any longer - not to mention an unwelcome stranger clearly preparing to mount - the stallion walked out. Once clear of the startled grop of elves who had leaned and poked and grabbed his nose, Assassin moved into an easy trot.
"He's your horse, you catch him," Glorfindel counter-ordered
Growling softly in exasperation, Elrond whistled again. With head high and tail streaming out behind him, Assassin trotted a wide circle around the small group before turning and walking s-l-o-w-l-y, majestically in to stand quietly at his owner's shoulder.
[He has as much arrogance as the Elrond himself,] Legolas observed, keeping his expression carefully schooled to impassivity.
"Want some treats to keep him anchored?" asked Glorfindel.
"I do not. It's quite unnecessary." Elrond stood with a hand cradling Assassin's chin. "Lasgalen, mount him now. Sooner started, sooner done."
The grooms, Legolas noted, had retrieved the discarded tack and retreated safely to the far side of the fence beside the stable. 'Lasgalen is a good volunteer,' Legolas could see them thinking. 'Eat him. Better him than one of us.' Whether the stallion or Elrond himself would be the first to take out a chunk of this volunteered rider was subject to debate.
It also appeared that their raised voices were drawing a new audience as additional grooms and other servants wandered up to the paddock to find out what was going on. The impertinent scout from Mirkwood was arguing with Lord Elrond who wasn't sounding like a complacent ruler. Legolas could see the arched eyebrows, shocked looks, and wagging tongues from where he stood beside Assassin. Elves loved gossip, but this wasn't gossip; this was here and now and being played out before them, much to their great delight.
"We have a defiant elf?"
"Not only that, we have a defiant elf who has been ordered to ride Elrond's fearsome foundation sire."
"Ooooh, the show will be good, care to place a bet on the outcome?"
"I think the term 'riding' is highly optimistic. Wonder how long he'll last before he meets the grass?"
Heads were coning together, wagers were being placed, and Legolas was well aware of it all. Turning away from the gleeful audience behind him, he squared his shoulders and faced his foes.
"As you wish, Lord Elrond."
Legolas vaulted easily onto the stallion, only to see Assassin's ears go back and his neck arch. The back muscles beneath the elf tightened while Assassin's hind feet advanced two steps under his body.
[He's balancing to rear,] Legolas knew. Weaving both hands into the mane, he tried to sit up straight and looked down at Elrond, who still stood at the stallion's head.
"What do you want us to do?"
He got The Look for that, the one that said, 'You know damned well what I want you to do.' When the Elf-lord spoke, his low voice held a distinct warning for all its seeming patience.
"Track left and circle around us, please. I require two circles at a trot, two at a canter. I wish you to then change directions and do it again. Then return immediately to me."
Nodding, Legolas walked the stallion out in a generous circle around Elrond and Glorfindel. Glancing over, he dind't bother to mask his sullenness. [Assassin isn't and Elrond isn't, so why should I?] "Is this what you want, Lord Elrond?" he said cordially. "Is the diameter correct?"
He was rewarded with an imperious nod from Elrond and an outright grin from Glorfindel. Elrond waved his hand. "Send him on."
Legolas's first request to move into a trot got pinned ears and much tail swishing, but not much else.
[I'm losing patience with this myself,] the elf thought, well aware of the many eyes on him now. Daring to try a small, growly go-on, Legolas nudged gently with his knees and braced for the worst.
Assassin startled him by actually picking up to a trot in a long, lofty stride while maintaining the circle around Glorfindel and his master. Pleased despite his precarious situation, Legolas startled the horse into a canter, so that Assassin glided out in a long, flowing thing of grace before he could actually think about it.
[This isn't bad,] Legolas thought. [I'm not dying. And oh, he's lovely to ride.]
That was before the stallion's nose started sneaking toward the ground to signal, 'I'm going to buck.'
[You will not.] Yanking the mane, Legolas dropped back his weight and booted the stallion in his elbow. [Tampa! Stop that!]
Shaking his head, the stallion cantered sideways. *bounce* *bounce* *bounce*
[Tampa!] Legolas ordered again.
"Very good," Elrond called. "Change directions, please."
Legolas swore softly to himself to realize that he'd entirely forgotten the Lord of Imladris. Feeling somewhat sheepish to have become lost in a world of his own with the horse, Legolas guided Assassin directly across the circle to take them directly past Elrond and Glorfindel. Tracking closer, Assassin deliberately tried to shoulder Glorfindel on the way by. The elf from Gondolin leaped backward.
"Amin hiraetha," Legolas called an apology over his shoulder, "but what can I do?"
Glorfindel laughed and called back. "N'deta no'ta, don't worry about it. I saw you coming."
A snort from Legolas. A snort from the stallion who tried to lengthen his stride. Building up beneath Legolas, he began moving faster and faster. The elf decided to let him.
"I said two circles only," Elrond called after they'd completed five.
Gritting his teeth, Legolas stiffened his back, dropped back his weight, and closed his legs. Assassin ignored him. Legolas asked again. And again. Rather than slow his gait, the stallion's strides grew longer and faster with each moment to move from the quiet canter requested into a tail-flagging gallop in spite of all his rider could do to dissuade him. Legolas could almost feel the horse laughing at him.
[Fine.] He directed Assassin toward the nearest fence, with the intent to have him obey the barrier if he wouldn't obey his rider.
The long neck stretched, the muscles beneath Legolas bunched in anticipation. 'I'll jump it.'
Careful not to lean forward lest the horse stop abruptly and launch Legolas over his head, the elf whispered into the alert ears, "Elrond is waiting."
Reaching the fence, Assassin rolled smoothly back over his hocks. Switching directions in less than a heartbeat, he trotted serenely back to Elrond. It was then that Legolas noticed the blowing. The coughing began next -- a deep, rattling thing with the stallion dropping his head to his knees with each one.
Glancing at Elrond as they passed close by once more, Legolas asked, "Should we stop now?"
"Yes, I believe so."
Legolas halted the horse mere feet from Elrond, who patted his horse on the neck.
"I told you he'd be no trouble!" Elrond snapped before joining Glorfindel once more in listening to the horse's lungs.
Listening was an easier proposition this time, as much of Assassin's fight seemed to have been burned away by his short tear-away across the field. Pointed ears pressed against his ribs, and the two elven lords listened as the air whistled in and out of his lungs. A more sober look was exchanged between Glorfindel and Elrond as they stepped back to watch Assassin for a moment as he coughed and snorted.
The coughing fit finally eased, with Glorfindel circling Assassin to stand with Elrond.
"He still has enough wind to be comfortable," Glorfindel ventured, "but there's also enough damage that he cannot be used on any sort of a journey."
"I agree." Elrond's eyes filled with sadness at the damage his foundation sire would likely carry for the rest of his days.
The horse, however, was still filled with pride and temper and dislike at being poked and prodded in such a rude and familiar manner. Stomping, Assassin turned his head to snap at Legolas's foot, which the elf jerked away just as Elrond looked back.
"Return him to his stall, please." Turning away once again to wander a few paces with Glorfindel, Elrond said, "Assassin can be bred but little else, I think. The season is coming, what do you think of simply turning him out with the mares?"
Legolas obediently turned the horse toward the stable and nudged him into motion as the stallion no longer seemed so inclined to move out. Assassin walked sullenly, reluctantly, with ears pinned and gave one swift snap at his rider's foot once more. He was cooperative, but only marginally so, and he was letting Legolas know all about his current resentments.
The minute his master's back was turned, however, resentment turned into action as Assassin braced his hind feet, stiffened his back, and gave one almost stationery buck. Legolas, who had relaxed and was eavesdropping on the two elves' conversation, found that still having his hands buried in the horse's mane did little to save him when he wasn't anticipating the move.
The elf was tossed forward without warning to sail over the horse's shoulder. Only his hands in the mane changed the direction of Legolas's flight and allowed him to land squarely on his feet, startled to find himself eye to eye with the irritable beast.
The stallion glared at Legolas, who glared right back.
"Fine, my lord stallion," Legolas hissed softly to the horse. "Do as you will. It was never my wish to ride you, so I'll leave you to your mares and to your master. Our master."
Turning, Legolas stomped off. Behind him, Glorfindel sniggered softly.
Elrond spun around to see Legolas head off across the field while Assassin took two hesitant, almost bewildered steps to follow him. The horse stopped almost immediately, head held high while he regarded the retreating elf. Snorting loudly, Assassin whirled and trotted off to flirt at the fence with a group of mares come to watch his magnificence.
[It's too early, big one,] they seemed to say, milling around and wandering off as they lost interest. [We still have babies, you must talk to us after they're born. Yes, we know who you are and you're a fine stallion, but it's far too early...]
"I thought I told Lasgalen to take my horse into the stable," Elrond commented irritably and staring after Legolas much as had Assassin. "Where is he off to, and why has he just left Assassin that way?"
"Your stallkon had other ideas, Elrond."
Elrond shook his head. "Assassin is weary and needs to go inside. I thought Lasgalen to be more reliable with horses than that."
A gesture from the Lord of Imladris, and two of the grooms stepped forward with evident reluctance, though whether to face the ill-tempered horse or his equally ill-tempered master was not clear.
"My lord?" one elf questioned respectfully.
"Catch Assassin, take him back," he ordered, flicking one hand toward the strutting stallion. Fully expecting the order to be obeyed, Elrond turned to follow Legolas.
Glorfindel stopped him with a hand on his arm. "You are feeling cruel today, aren't you?"
"What do you mean?"
"You just told those grooms to go and catch your stallion."
"Yes. I did. What of it? It's their job."
"These poor, inferior beings are to drag the Magnificent One away from his mares and not kill themselves in the process?"
Elrond looked back to see that not one groom had moved away from the fence. "My horse is not dangerous!"
"Go catch your own horse, Elrond," Glorfindel admonished. "You know where your other young stallion will be, so you can catch him later. Unlike Assassin, Lasgalen isn't likely to kill anyone other than yourself who lays hands on him."
Drawing himself up to his full height, Elrond rocked back and stared down his nose at his friend and most trusted advisor. Whistling softly, Elrond was still staring at Glorfindel when Assassin trotted willingly away from the fence and over to him.
"I don't see any problem," Elrond murmured, retrieving the halter and a single lead shank from the groom who dared to answer the elf-lord's unspoken order when Elrond held out his hand.
"That is too disgusting," said Glorfindel.
Slipping on the halter, Elrond handed the shank to Glorfindel. "There you are. If you are so worried as to the welfare of our grooms, you can take Assassin in yourself."
Glorfindel gingerly took the shank in time for Assassin to wipe horse-snot up his arm. Sighing, he said, "You really should have named this one Balrog. Come on, evil one. There's feed and hay waiting in your stall."
One of the grooms appeared in the doorway to the stable, shaking a bucket that was sure to contain grain. Predictably, Assassin's ears flicked forward and his stride lengthened as he headed toward the unexpected meal being so generously offered inside.
[That groom must like Glorfindel,] Elrond noted.
Elrond watched as his friend led the horse off and smiled to see that the lead shank was always slack.
"You know," said Glorfindel, daring to throw a companionable arm across the horse's withers, "It's not often anyone is always one step ahead of me. Still, you seem to manage it."
Elrond had the wisdom to wait until horse and elf-lord had disappeared inside the barn before heading with all haste after Legolas who had already disappeared from the field for parts unknown.
The last candle in the library of Imladris sputtered out behind the Elf-lord, wrapping him darkness, but Elrond paid it no heed. He'd spent half of the day searching for the elf he wished to see, yet Legolas was far out of reach this night. Scowling into the shadows, Elrond had the unpleasant realization that his Prince of Mirkwood could well have been watching and laughing silently over Elrond's failure to locate him.
[That thought improves my mood not at all,] Elrond snarled to himself.
Abandoning the search in the early evening, Elrond had waited for Legolas to appear at evening meal, but the elf apparently had other plans. [He'd rather starve than encounter me, obviously.] Long fingers dug into the wooden arms of his chair, and Elrond slouched even lower. [Why does this not surprise me?]
Elrond could have ordered his guard to search for the elf in question. He could have ordered, 'Find Lasgalen but do not disturb him. Bring word to me of where he is.' Eventually Legolas would have been found, but Elrond's pride would not allow such a thing. More than that, the searchers could not have passed unnoticed by so skilled a warrior, no matter how hard they might try. Hard on the heels of that realization came the knowledge that to set his guards on Legolas would have been to damage the friendship that had begun between them.
[My prince wishes to be alone, so alone he shall be until he deems otherwise,] Elrond reflected, rubbing the bridge of his nose. [He has had enough of jailers, and I refuse to be considered yet another.]
Stiff muscles protested as he rose from the chair. Pacing to a small table, he poured a goblet of wine and moved to the balcony, but the wine remaining untasted and all but forgotten in his hand while his gaze searched the darkness once more. The night air was still and snow was once again falling in huge flakes over Imladris. Beautiful, or it would have been had Elrond's elf not preferred to linger somewhere in that cold.
Hearing soft footfalls on the hardwood floor of the library behind him, Elrond didn't bother to turn, for it was Glorfindel come to join him rather than the Mirkwood elf he would have welcomed.
"Another storm is upon us," the legendary warrior of Gondolin began, helping himself to some wine. "I believe I've seen more snow and ice upon our fair fields since Legolas came than I have in all the years since I returned to Middle-earth."
Coming to join Elrond at the railing, Glorfindel eyed the first finger of the Elf-lord's right hand: regardless no ring of power was visible, the older elf knew it was there. "In the past you delighted in using Vilya's power to make mild Imladris's weather," he murmured, "an effort those of cold toes applauded, I might add. Have you forgotten how to do that?"
Elrond spared Glorfindel an annoyed glance before turning back to the snowflakes. "I have been somewhat distracted as of late."
"Distracted, is it?"
"Yes. Distracted. With the fire and the horses and completing communications with Thranduil. Those things have taken a great deal of my attention, there's hardly been a moment for me to concentrate on what the clouds and the snow are doing."
"I see," came the reply. Setting his goblet upon the balcony railing, Glorfindel put out an arm to catch snowflakes upon his wrist and watch them melt. "Amazing, isn't it, how frosted ice will reveal that no two of these are alike? What a marvelous world we live in, when the Iluvatar has created each of us -- even Lords of Imladris and Princes of Mirkwood -- as unique as snowflakes."
Grey eyes narrowed, and Elrond rounded on his friend. "I have no patience tonight for riddles. What exactly are you trying to say to me?"
"Nothing," the Elf-lord said mildly, "except that your quest to catch the fair snowflake following you about lately seems to have proven fruitless."
"Legolas is hardly a delicate snowflake. And he does not wish to be found."
"Again? Elusive soul, isn't he? And why might he prefer the snow and wind to your company tonight? I thought you were coming to quite enjoy each other's company."
"Our last private conversation was a bit unpleasant."
"Unpleasant?" Glorfindel prodded. Snowflakes peppered his hair now, were doing the same to Elrond's. "That's an interesting word to choose. It's not because Assassin tipped him on the ground today is it?"
"No, nothing so petty as that." Frowning, Elrond watched a flake land in his wine where it floated for a moment before vanishing.
"Then what manner of conversation could send him off into the shadows? Legolas does not strike me as the sort to flounce off, offended over trifles as would Arwen, so there must be more to tell, yes?"
"He wishes to journey into Dol Guldur, while I wish him to remain safe here," Elrond explained. "We had a clash of wills before meeting you to work with Assassin."
"There is some distance between those two courses of action," Glorfindel agreed. "How was this clash of wills resolved?"
"I demonstrated to Legolas that while I had the power to keep him safe at home in Imladris, I would send him to the Dark Lord's stronghold as he wished, with the caveat that he be accompanied by yourself, Mithrandir and my sons. Legolas is to teach you exactly how he sneaks in and out of that place, and you will take this task from this point onward. I will not risk my elf by letting him go another time."
"Your elf is he now?" Glorfindel nodded sagely. "Risking me seems a reasonable enough compromise. I do thank you for including me in this exciting little journey. When were you going to share this news with me?"
Grasping the railing so hard that the whites of his knuckles showed, Elrond glanced across at Glorfindel. Uncertain whether sincerity or sarcasm ruled his friend's last remark, Elrond decided that he didn't care either way and returned to scowling at the night. "I would think it a reasonable compromise, but Legolas appears to think otherwise. I set certain conditions upon his going, and now he's behaving like a youngling defying his father, every inch the nasty little prince we'd dreaded receiving originally, locked in the sulks and avoiding me. This is our first clash of wills, I think."
Glorfindel leaned back against the railing and grinned. "Yes, but who's winning?"
Straightening, Elrond snapped, "Legolas will yield to me as did Assassin, or he will suffer the consequences. Better that he find out this now, rather than after we bond."
"The consequences?" Glorfindel pounced upon the word, clearly intrigued. "So there are to be consequences now?"
"He is, after all, very young," said Elrond, ignoring his companion. "Not immature precisely, but very young."
"What consequences did you threaten, Elrond?"
"You said that your beautiful elf will yield to you or suffer the consequences. What consequences might those be, other than his depriving you of his company and obviously upsetting you? And may I remind you that Assassin has yet to yield to you unless by his own choice?"
"Legolas will yield," Elrond insisted. "It is for his protection that I do this."
"I know your temper, Peredhil," Glorfindel goaded. "What did you threaten?"
"I reminded Legolas that I had only to command it, and he would never set foot outside this house, much less journey beyond Imladris's borders. What's more, he wouldn't want to."
"So you threatened to control him not only physically, but mentally?"
"I didn't threaten, precisely--"
"You just said that you did."
"A poor choice of words. I made it clear that should I wish it, I had the power to do so."
"Sounds like a threat to me." Giving a sigh, Glorfindel stepped closer to Elrond. "Surely you know that threats won't work on one as spirited and intelligent as your prince from Mirkwood? Not only that, if Legolas is near enough to hear our words this night, your continued fierceness will not convince him it's time to come home." Laying a hand on the Elf-lord's shoulder, Glorfindel urged, "Don't make this more than it is, Elrond. You're both sulking, that's all."
"*Legolas* is sulking. I am being perfectly reasonable. And you are melting the snow on my shoulder."
Glorfindel chuckled as he batted at the snow still clinging to Elrond's robes. "As I am much older than either of you, I think you are a very young elf as well, my lord, for you sit sulking in your library rather than hiding out in the storm. That is the only difference I can between your behavior and Legolas's."
Elrond drew his eyebrows together over a truly fierce glare. "I am not sulking," he growled.
Glorfindel laughed outright, which only made the Lord of Imladris glower all the harder. "Whatever happened between you and Legolas, both of you met me today all mood and crunch. The grooms were reluctant to come out as much due to your temper as Assassin's." He shook his head. "The rest of Imladris may be used to your bluster and stormy moods, but Legolas is not. Everyone else says 'yes-my-lord' and knows to get out of your way when you're like this, that the mood will pass in its own time with no one the worse for it. It's not that we agree with you, Elrond, we relocate so as not to become targets. That is precisely what Legolas has done, though I don't think he understands that you aren't a serious menace. Can't say that I blame him for staying away, actually. There's no reasoning with you when you're like this."
Staring stonily at Glorfindel, Elrond visibly pondered the older elf's words. Shoulders sagging in the next moment, his gaze grew worried. "As ever, you speak the truth. My mood softened immediately after I left you and Assassin, but an afternoon of not finding Legolas has brought back my...crunchiness, I think you would call it."
Looking down at the snow accumulating on the balcony at his feet, he scuffed at the icy matter with his toe. "I would call him back inside if I could and try to explain myself more clearly, but I have given up trying to locate him."
"If you would just sit down and thing for a moment, put yourself in his position, you'd know where to find him," Glorfindel admonished. "He's a wood-elf, remember? But even if you do locate him, I'd advise against trying to talk to him if you're just going to threaten him again with imprisonment."
Elrond nodded. "I'm little better than his father if I do that."
"Never mind," Elrond hedged, not wanting anyone else to know of Thranduil's betrayal. "And so, Glorfindel, where do you think I would be if I were a wood-elf desiring to evade me on a stormy winter's night?"
Glorfindel grinned before heading back inside the library. "Were it me, I'd be looking for the warmest tree in Imladris tonight."
* * *
The old oak tree was huge, set against the cliff wall behind the burned-out stable on the furthermost edge of Imladris. It offered comfort and cradling to the Mirkwood elf hiding in its heart, surrounded by silence that was marred only by the hissing of snow falling around them. Both comfort and silence were shattered when Legolas heard someone coming at him through the surrounding forest, muffled footsteps squeaking in the new-fallen snow. Sitting up, he peered between snow-laden branches to see the Lord of Imladris come to stand at the base of the tree and stare straight up at him.
Legolas's immediate instinct was to shrink back, but Elrond had already seen him so that cowering back against the tree was undignified as well as pointless. He expected to be ordered down immediately, to face another lecture which would no doubt include another refusal to be allowed to go to Dol Guldur. No doubt he would be hauled back to Elrond's rooms like a recalcitrant child.
[I can always just leap over his head and be off again,] Legolas pondered when the Elf-lord did not speak. [I've greatly displeased him this day and proven just how rebellious I am, so he's certain to make good his threat and lock me away.]
They remained as they were for a long moment while snowflakes made Elrond blink more rapidly and Legolas wished he would just go away.
"May I come up?" Elrond finally asked, so quietly that his words were all but lost to the night.
[No,] was Legolas's immediate, silent response. [But it's his tree, he can climb it if he wishes.] Unable to frame the response manners dictated, Legolas settled for nodding and pushed back from the edge. Climbing a bit higher, he perched on a sturdy upper branch which made room for Elrond's larger frame in the heart of the old oak.
[Please don't let him fall and add to my list of transgressions this day?] he silently asked of the tree.
To his surprise, the older elf could climb better than Legolas had thought, though admittedly not as well as one born to the once-bright Mirkwood forest. The branches may not have parted as willingly for Elrond as they did for Legolas, but the tree would cradle and protect him just as it did Legolas.
[He has tended me and my forebears all of my days,] the tree revealed in images rather than words, with gratitude and humility vibrating in its leaves. [I welcome the chance to protect him as he has protected me.]
Images of fire danced through Legolas's mind, and he sensed the tree's heart tremble. [The flames didn't reach here, my friend. Be at peace.]
[He stopped them before they could,] said the tree.
While Elrond settled only a few feet away from him, Legolas was startled to realize he had never seen Elrond out of robes. Tonight, the Elf-lord wore a set of gray leggings, high black boots and a soft-looking gray overtunic that was molded so tightly against him it outlined every muscle in the barrel chest and strong-muscled back. [Did he change clothes just to come look for me? I didn't know he owned such clothing, let alone made use of it.]
The snow continued to fall, the night wore on, and for a long time Elrond sat in silence with his eyes closed and his head propped against the the tree's trunk. When the elf-lord hadn't found him that day, Legolas had had some small hope of passing a solitary night, to give his anger time to cool and to thrust aside new feelings of entrapment here in this realm. That hope was now shattered, and so it was that Legolas resisted the urge to leap down from the tree in search of another private sanctuary.
[Wouldn't do any good,] he reflected, [he'd just track me there as well. There is nothing I can do in Imladris but submit to Lord Elrond's will, regardless the subject.]
Leaving off worrying his bottom lip, Legolas tried to school his features into immobility in preparation for when the Elf-lord finally opened his eyes. [What is he thinking? And why is he here? I only wish I dared ask aloud.] The snow had stopped falling and the night was late, shrouded in serenity, when Legolas heard someone speak. Someone who was not Elrond.
Sitting up, the older elf locked his gaze into Legolas's and whispered, "I know that voice."
Motioning, Elrond urged Legolas to slip down beside him, the better to lean over the edge of the trunk and eavesdrop on the two men who had come to stand at its base.
"I don't like this, Einar," growled the first intruder, stamping his feet and slapping his arms against himself in an effort to get warm. "It's too cold for your sneakin' an' games tonight."
"Ain't games," said the second man. "One of us has t'see to the job at hand, and you can't think no better than a coney."
"Then let's light a fire while we talk. Leastaways I could be warm while ya insult me."
"You ain't lighting no more fires, Jacoby," the other man growled, sucking on his pipe. "You made a proper mess of the last one, near burnt up the whole place and every horse with it."
"You only near ruint everything. Near burnt me up too, ya half-wit. An' then that elf damn near run over me trying to get in there. You were supposed to create a diversion so I could steal a yearling filly, remember? The whole place wasn't s'posed to go up, you idiot."
"How was I to know it would spread so fast?" Jacoby growled. "You got a better plan, let's hear it. We can't stay here all winter. We've already overstayed our welcome, some of those Elves are starting to look at me funny."
"They're lookin' at me funny, too. They look at everyone funny. Strange folk, the lot of 'em."
"So whadda you want to do? We're runnin' out of time and I don't wanna get caught."
"Next time it snows, we let out the mares--"
"ALL of 'em?"
"Yeah, all of 'em. We drive 'em into the woods, pick one off at our leisure, and climb out of here while they're off lookin' for all the others. They'll never miss just the one, and if they do they'll think she's lost."
"We should get a grown one, not one a' them babies," Jacoby agreed, enthusiasm rising. "An' get a fat one that's already carryin' another one. And one we could ride home, aye?"
"Aye, let's. But only one, mind? We'll have to trade off ridin' back."
Legolas dared to turn his head and meet Elrond's gaze, his own eyes filled with horror at the sickening knowledge just gained.
"All of our friends, lost to greed," Elrond murmured beside him, so quietly no mortal could have hoped to hear a word.
"Where did these men come from?" Legolas whispered.
"My sons found them lost and freezing in the outer woods not three months ago. They were brought in kindness to Imladris and made welcome among us as they healed." The Elf-lord's words were quiet, but when he set his hand upon the younger elf's shoulder, Legolas could feel Elrond vibrating with rage. "Would that we were armed and could deal with this ourselves, this night."
Reaching for the sheath at his shoulders, Legolas withdrew one of his long-knives and set it in Elrond's hand. "I have another and a dagger as well if you wish use both knives."
"One is fine for my purposes."
"I'll take Einer, the one with the pipe," Legolas suggested, half-rising to leap from the tree.
"Agreed." The smile Elrond flashed was grim and cold. Rising up, he dropped silently to the ground on the far side of the tree from the men. He pivoted left as Legolas landed quietly beside him, long-knife in hand as he moved stealthily to the right.
Attacking in tandem, the two Elves finished the fight before it had time to begin. The pipe fell to the forest floor and went out after Legolas shoved his knife at Einer's back, targeting a kidney. Long fingers wrapped around the man's throat.
"Struggle, and I'll break your neck," Legolas growled. "But feel free to struggle if you really want to. I won't mind."
Long white fingers tightened around the grizzled man's throat as Einer wheezed and gulped under the restraint. He did not, however, struggle. Looking across, Legolas saw that Elrond stood with one arm wrapped around Jacoby's torso, with a long knife set against the man's throat.
"Walk," the Elf-lord growled, shoving Jacoby forward and jarring him into the blade so that a thin red line of blood appeared just below his jaw.
"Where?" the man sniveled.
"To the stables."
The journey took thrice as long as it should have, with the two shivering men stumbling on their way, passively trying to interfere with their captivity. In the end, Legolas was forced to draw blood at Einer's back; a superficial wound, it nonetheless dampened the man's jerkin and made him shiver, though whether from chill or fear was debatable. At last, they entered the deserted stable where Elrond lined them up against Assassin's stall wall and told them not to move as the horse stallion came out of the shadows to inspect them.
The two cringed away from the stallion, but it took only one snap of mighty teeth to persuade them that standing still was the best option available. While Assassin watched, swords and daggers were collected and thrown into a heap, and Legolas tied their hands.
"Don't cut the rope," Elrond ordered, tethering the men together. "We'll need two horses."
The horses, Legolas learned, were for himself and Elrond only. They chose carefully reliable geldings that he knew had escaped the fire, two who were battle-ready and well-able to run down two mortal men if they should try to escape. Elrond did not offer to bind the men's wounds before vaulting onto his mount's back and taking the rope Legolas offered.
Teeth chattering out of fear, the men stumbled behind Elrond's mount as the Elf-lord headed out over the mostly empty fields, across the river and up the slippery slope leading out of the sheltered valley of Imladris. Riding in silence at the rear, Legolas guarded against any attempts to escape.
The men were whimpering and stumbling, already cold past their endurance as they reached the top of the cliffs. Legolas watched their fate unfold over the next hour, after Elrond had gained Imladris's borders only to travel another twisting couple of leagues.
"A little further," ordered Elrond.
Finally calling a halt to the excruciating march, Elrond turned his mount to confront the two men. While Legolas knew where they were, he suspected that the men were lost once again.
"Take off your cloaks," the Elf-lord ordered mildly. Legolas slipped down from his horse, the better to guard.
The men did as they were told, dropping the apparel where they stood.
"Burn the cloaks, Legolas," Elrond ordered again, still mounted and holding the mens' tether.
"No!" Jacoby protested, whirling and diving for his cloak.
"Make sure the wood is wet. Let it smoke," Elrond ordered further, ignoring the man's outburst.
Startled, Legolas met Elrond's cold grey eyes before bowing his head and nodding. "As you wish, m'lord."
"You can't just leave us out here!" Einer protested as Legolas set about making the fire and took Jacoby's cloak from his cold, reluctant grasp.
"Leave you as you left my horses to burn?" Elrond asked. "On the contrary, I can and I will. A choice is set before you: you may huddle at your small fire until morning and some warmth returns to our world, and hope that the smoke does not attract hungry orcs to find you in the night. Or you can walk in the cold woods and try to scout a path that will lead you into some Ranger's camp or to a road traveled by men who will take pity on you and return you to your own world."
"'At's leagues away!" Einer protested. "It's clear that you mean t'freeze us out here."
"I am doing nothing to you!" Elrond snapped, circling his gray gelding closer to the two men.
Jacoby had begun weeping, Legolas noted with only casual interest.
"I am actually being quite restrained, as my first desire was to avenge the cruel and painful deaths of my gentle horses by merely cutting your throats," Elrond growled over them. "Elves, however, are above such random barbaric acts as men favor, and so I will give you a chance to survive. You'll admit it's a better chance than you gave my horses when you consigned them terror, flame and--"
Elrond broke off abruptly, his broad hand clenched on the long-knife as he fought to suppress his anger to more manageable levels. Sensing his fury and agitation, the gelding danced beneath him.
"I have returned you to where you were found by my sons," Elrond continued finally, in a soft voice that held no gentleness and no compassion. "I leave you in the same condition as when you were last here. As I recall, you had no provisions, no cloaks, only the clothing you stood in."
The Elf lord's gaze raked over them once more, then he sighed. "I will let you keep the boots, as yours were ruined by the time you arrived in Imladris. All in all, I think it is a far better fate than the one you visited upon my friends, isn't it?"
Poking at the sullen, smoky fire he'd started, Legolas knew that the boots had been made for feet that did not mind the cold.
Elrond continued mildly. "Live or die, I care not. If you live, I would advise you to never set foot inside Imladris again unless you wish for death. Perhaps you will stumble upon a way out of here. Perhaps, between the two of you, you possess the skills to survive the cold. Perhaps you will indeed freeze to death or be eaten before morning. But you are getting a better chance at survival than the one left to my horses."
Abandoning the rope as he abandoned the men, Elrond turned his horse. "Come, Lasgalen."
Vaulting onto his horse, Legolas ignored the pleas for clemency that faded as they rode away. Legolas didn't bother looking back. The two rode in silence until, well on their way back to Imladris, Legolas glanced over to see that Elrond was trembling with fury.
In his mind, Legolas recalled Mithrandir's words of only a few weeks before: 'Elrond will not send you to anything so simple as a dungeon if you make him miserable. There are no dungeons in Imladris...You would not escape him so easily, nor would your torment be as brief as six weeks. He would...make you more miserable than you could ever imagine being.'
[This is what he was talking about,] Legolas realized. [This is what the Lord of Imladris is like when his wrath is roused. I don't think he's yet been angry with me, for I have never hurt him or those he loves. Elbereth willing, I never will. My request to visit Dol Guldur did not command his wrath, it elicited another reaction from him. But what reaction? Possessiveness, perhaps?]
Riding behind Elrond as they descended back into Imladris, Legolas continued thinking. [I don't understand this, ] he finally concluded with some exasperation. [I do know that he should not be left alone this night. The flames are before my eyes and the screams of his horses still ring in my ears; I know he hears them as well.]
They returned the horses to the stable, where a silent, drawn Elrond helped Legolas settle them for what remained of the night and gave a slight bow when he returned the younger elf's long-knife to him. Legolas then followed Elrond across the field and into the main house, up the stairs and into his private rooms.
Not seeming to notice his companion, Elrond went lean a hand against the fireplace and stare dolefully into its flames. Retreating to the shadows of the otherwise darkened room, Legolas considered what might be needed.
"Is there anything I can do to help, Lord Elrond?"
Elrond shook his head. "There is nothing for this pain, Legolas. You cannot bring back my friends who were lost... and for what? Because two greedy men coveted a Perendhil yearling or mare to strengthen whatever pitiful herd they possessed?"
Bowing his head, Elrond rubbed at his eyes. "They had but to ask, and Elven generosity would have given them both. They would have been taught how to train the yearling, how to make a lifelong companion of the mare so that she carried them willingly as protected their mates and children to the end of her days. Her get would have taken care of them as well, unto the tenth generation. But they did not ask and so because of their clumsy greed our friends are gone. Gone to flame and sword and pain and terror--"
Elrond's voice choked off. He fell back into his chair before the fire, his gaze once again focused on the flames - tamed brothers of those who had roared, destroyed and devoured so much that night.
Coming cautiously forward, Legolas sank down to sit beside the Elrond's chair, reached out to lay a hand against the Elf-lord's face and sweep away his tears with the back of warming fingers.
"So much pain," Elrond whispered, staring down at Legolas. "So much loss. And now, I fear that I will lose you as well."
"Lose me?" This leap startled and confused Legolas. "But...I am here."
"I fear losing you to the wraiths and the darkness that is Dol Guldur. It fills me with horror to think of you trapped in the fear and darkness of that place. And yet, I must let you go."
Long fingers wrapped around Legolas's wrist and caressed gently where before their touch had threatened to break bone. Elrond's eyes were black in the firelight, haunted with what might be.
"I must go," Legolas murmured quietly. It hurt, having to lay more pain upon Elrond this night, but the answer was the same as it had been a day earlier, though Legolas realized he was far less eager now to pursue this fight.
"Yes, you must go," Elrond agreed, "or others will die. But mine is the gift of foresight. Be it blessing or curse, I know that something will happen, and I fear that you will not return to me." Elrond's tears had stopped, all of his wrath seemed to have melted away to leave only an obvious, aching sorrow.
Stroking a hand down the raven-black hair, Legolas momentarily considered matters, then cocked his head and dared to ask, "Was it fear that drove you yesterday then, when we talked of my going to Dol Guldur?"
"Yes." Barely a whisper, with dark eyes pleading for understanding. "I do not wish to cage you, Legolas. I would only keep you safe, yet I cannot. You will not let me."
"I will be safe," Legolas assured, still stroking down that hair much as he would have stroked a horse's mane. Elrond had not yet objected to the touch, and he hoped it offered some comfort. "I promise this."
"You cannot offer such a promise," Elrond replied, hints of something darker creeping in his voice, something of sadness and almost resignation. "And I dread what I have seen. I care about you, Legolas. I would not lose you."
"I cannot remember anyone caring about me in the past, except perhaps Mithrandir."
Elrond summoned the ghost of a smile. "A foolish oversight, my prince."
"Mithrandir voiced no objections to my going. He knows what I am capable of, and I have been inside the Dark Lord's fortress before."
"Be that as it may, things happen. There are events we cannot control, and you+ cannot control what transpires within that dark place." Elrond sighed sadly and turned to look down upon the slender elf beside him. "Truly, tonight I feel very little is actually within my control. I would not have you go, but you must go and so I will let you go. But nothing will induce me to be at ease with your going."
Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Elrond reached out to caress one long, golden braid and ran it between his fingers. "With you, I send my sons who possess other parts of my heart. I send also the wise wizard Mithrandir and Glorfindel whose powers are not inconsequential. These will protect and watch over you, regardless you think you do not need such protection."
Legolas pressed his cheek against the Elf-lord's hand and leaned in to increase the caress as might a cat. "I would not have you risk so much. I would not have any of them injured or lost because of my efforts."
"Then best you take care to come back to me safely," Elrond said gruffly. Legolas could hear the affection behind the gruffness now and did not pull away. "If you return, they will be safe as well. And they will bring you back safely to me as well."
"If it will bring you ease, then I will welcome their protection. And yours."
"I hope so, my prince."
Warm fingers opened to release the braid only to caress beneath Legolas's ear. He shivered, enjoying the touch and surprised even as he drew comfort from the simple intimacy. Closing his eyes, he leaned against Elrond and enjoyed the small touches -- touches Legolas was certain offered their own reassurance to the Elf-lord simply because they were allowed. Meeting Elrond's gaze once more, Legolas nodded as the final pieces of the clicked into place in his own mind.
"I think that I finally understand you," he offered hesitantly.
"And what is it that you understand?"
"Rather than caging me as you seemed to threaten yesterday, you will ignore your wishes and your fears and set me free to do what must be done."
"Yes," Elrond whispered. "I have lost too many that I love, Legolas. Elbereth grant that you are not the next one lost to me, that you return safe home to me."
"I will." Nodding, Legolas shifted around so that he could stare into the fire and lean against Elrond's thigh. Long fingers sifted again and again through his hair.
When Legolas did not object or move away, Elrond dared to unfasten the braids at the sides and the leather thong at the back so that the hair flowed freely through his fingers like rivers of light. Almost shyly, Legolas wound his arms around Elrond's calf. Laying his cheek against the strong thigh, he allowed the contact and the caresses and basked in the warmth of the fire and Elrond's protectiveness.
"It will be an early spring," Elrond observed, pacing beside Mithrandir in the garden behind the main house and gazing over the fields to see his beloved animals grazing in peace. "The horses are already shedding out their winter coats."
"How wonderful that your elven vision can see that at this distance." The wizard puffed contentedly on his pipe. "How wonderful as well that Legolas has not made himself scarce since your sons and I returned from Lothlorien, and I've actually been able to see him. Where is he now, out practicing with Elrohir?"
"I believe he is within my library, reading. And I must caution you to remember to call him Lasgalen."
"Lasgalen it shall be." Grey eyes narrowed up at the Elf-lord. "So you've not yet told your people who he really is?"
"I thought this little deception was for the benefit of the horses, who are all very well this day. Why, therefore, does it continue?"
Elrond considered his answer for a moment. "He does not feel comfortable with having all of Rivendell know his identity just yet."
"And he remains indoors examining musty old tomes rather than running free with your sons?" Mithrandir chuckled. "It would seem that you have succeeded where Thranduil could not."
"How is that?"
"You're taming him, Elrond. Making him more like you."
Elrond snorted. "Hardly. He has become interested in his family history, and I have tamed him not at all; he goes where he will and does what he wishes."
Mithrandir nodded in apparent acceptance of the explanation, but the laughter in his eyes gave Elrond the feeling that he was merely being humored. To himself, Elrond admitted to a certain bewilderment that Legolas was not out with his sons, or out anywhere that did not include the Elf-lord. Legolas was indeed inside the library and reading of his forebears, but that had happened only after the young prince from Mirkwood had grown bored with feigning interest in the endless parade of meetings in Elrond's library, another activity that had baffled the Elf-lord.
[I must remain inside with dusty old elves and dusty old tomes, but Legolas must not.] That the younger elf did was as much a mystery to Elrond as it was to Mithrandir, though the wizard seemed more entertained than curious. That was annoying as well.
"Have you noticed?" went the house gossip, "Lasgalen of Mirkwood scarcely leaves Elrond's side."
For once, the gossip was right. For two weeks after the capture of the men responsible for the stable fire and before Mithrandir's return, Elrond and Legolas's days had fallen into an easy pattern. Rather than returning to his tree against the back cliff or seeking solitude with the horses, Legolas had made a point of remaining close to Elrond. Joining Glorfindel and Elrond at breakfast, he also made an effort to join in their debates - at least over matters involving the horses - and he remained to listen when discussions had ranged beyond. After breakfast, when Elrond had assumed Legolas would prefer to accompany Glorfindel to the stables, the younger elf had stayed with his lord. Yet another mystery.
"Are you sure you would not rather be with the horses? Or out with my sons and preparing for your journey to Dol Guldur?" Elrond had asked only that morning as Legolas settled opposite Elrond's desk with his latest book.
"It will only take a few moments for us all to gather supplies for the journey, and there will be time enough on the road to prepare Glorfindel for Dol Guldur." Hesitating, Legolas added softly, "Our time together grows short, and I would rather spend it with you."
Shaking himself mentally from his musings, Elrond laid a hand on Mithrandir's shoulder. "Council begins soon. We should head inside."
"Will Lasgalen's voice be heard again today?" Mithrandir asked.
"Only if the prince of Mirkwood is mentioned. Lasgalen may be quiet by nature, but when he speaks it is memorable."
"Those musty old advisors of yours are far too settled in outdated opinions, Elrond. They need a good shaking up. Lasgalen will do them good."
This time it was Elrond who smiled. "I doubt any of my advisors would agree with you, but I do. I've no idea if Leg… if Lasgalen will join us, but I certainly hope he does."
Leading the way to the library, Elrond crossed the inlaid wood floor and climbed the stairs before glancing across the library proper. Candles burned in their sconces, illuminating the gloomy interior, and the Elf-lord's eye was caught by the bright light of Legolas's golden hair where he sat within, still engrossed in his book. Giving a slight smile to have located his elf, Elrond settled into his chair and smoothed his robes.
"Istian," he addressed the dour elf seated opposite him. "Will you begin?"
Istian would and did. It seemed half an age later when the meeting finally adjoined, long after certain parts of Elrond's anatomy had grown numb. Rising with a groan, Mithrandir leaned on his staff and popped his back. Grimacing, he followed Elrond down the steps and into the library.
"Do my aches deceive me, or did the particular boredom we just survived last much longer than usual?"
"It did," Elrond agreed. "Everyone seems to be determined to regain their status as a contributing member of the council after Lasgalen made them look so foolish not many—"
The elf-lord and wizard whirled as a book was slammed hard against a wooden table. Leaping to his feet, Legolas cast a look of disgust at the book he'd just abused and stalked out of the library.
"And he's away," Mithrandir muttered, staring at the open archway through which Legolas had disappeared. "What was he reading?"
Pacing across the floor to the reading table Legolas had just vacated, Elrond opened the book and leafed through the first few pages. "It would appear that he was reading an account of the Battle of Dagorlad. Specifically of Lord Oropher -- Sindarin Lord of the Silvan elves and sire of Thranduil Orophilion, King of Mirkwood."
Oropher was also the grand-sire of Legolas Thranduilion, Prince of Mirkwood. Elrond had been present at the Battle of Dagorlad, which had occurred not all that long before Legolas had been born.
Gil-Galad and his armies had prepared and marched forth from Imladris with Elrond at his side. Oropher and Thranduil had joined the Last Alliance of Elves and Men on the slopes of Mount Doom, and it was there that Oropher had been slain along with two-thirds of his army. A bitter Thranduil had survived and returned to Greenwood the Great to solidify his rule of the woodland kingdom and father two sons--the youngest of which was even now betrothed to the Lord of Imladris.
"Refresh my memory, Elrond. Which battle was Dagorlad?"
"The armies of Elves and Men fought on the wide plain before the Gates of Mordor, and many were lost in the marshes bordering the battlefield to the west," Elrond relayed. "Sauron fled back to Barad-dur, and we conducted a bitter siege there of seven years. The Dark Lord was finally defeated, and so it was that the Second Age ended shortly before Lasgalen was born." Gently closing the book, Elrond smoothed the cracked spine with a tenderness usually reserved for living patients. "He could have been kinder to the book."
"His grand-sire and other Mirkwood relations fought in that battle, did they not? Came to a brutal end of their leader's own making. Perhaps Lasgalen has never heard the tale before," Mithrandir murmured.
"Thranduil managed to survive, but Dagorlad devastated him. I doubt it’s a story told often in Mirkwood."
Settling into a nearby chair, Mithrandir retrieved his unlit pipe. "Given Thranduil's heartbreaks and ego, he'd hardly find reason to speak of it." Hidden pockets in the rough robes were patted in search of a small pouch of Shire weed. Without looking up from his taske of preparing to light the pipe, the wizard added casually, "You'll be off then to smooth your elfling's ruffling feathers?"
"Lasgalen is hardly an elfling, nor is he feathered."
"But he is yours." The wizard's gray eyes twinkled. "First by political machination and now, amazing as it might appear, by choice it would seem."
Elrond glared at him, but Mithrandir smiled and waved him off. "Be gone with you, my friend. I'll still be here when you return and you'll know where to find me, which is more than Lasgalen is promising given the headstart he has and the many acres in and out of Imladris."
Elrond gave a half-smile. "I believe I know where to find him."
* * *
The Elf-lord found Legolas where he thought he would: in the same giant old oak they had shared only a snowy fortnight past. The younger elf had perched on a lower branch this afternoon; one with much headroom between it and the next one and ideal for the activity he had chosen, which was to split arrow after arrow into a distant target.
Approaching softly behind Legolas, Elrond narrowly missed having his nose scraped by the next arrow that was ripped out of its quiver, smoothly nocked, and released. It struck a near tree with a violence that was unnecessary given the slight distance to the target, but it was still effective: the arrow that had preceded it shattered with a most satisfying, brittle crunch.
Coming up on Legolas's bow arm, Elrond made sure he was well away from the pointed end of the next arrow before leaning against Legolas's perch and watching for a few minutes.
"Do you never miss?" he finally asked.
"Not often." The answer came through gritted teeth. Another arrow sang. Another died.
"That's a fair bit of work you're destroying. Have you arrows to spare then?"
Legolas spared him an icy glance before slowly, deliberately drawing another arrow from the dwindling number left in his quiver. "I've enough. And I can make more."
The younger elf's voice was quiet, cold and angry. Deeply, bitterly angry, Elrond realized.
Daring to stroke a hand down Legolas's gleaming blonde head - regardless the gesture was totally ignored - Elrond asked, "Had you not heard of the battle on the slopes of Mount Doom?"
Thwang-CRUNCH! "I'd heard."
Legolas's body vibrated beneath Elrond's hand. Given the younger's elf's obvious fury, it seemed a miracle that he was tolerating the Elf-lord's touch at all.
"What I was told during my schooling," Legolas continued, "is a slightly different version than the one in your tome. My fath...Mirkwood's king seems to favor his own version of the truth in more than just his correspondence with you regarding me."
Laying his bow across his lap, Legolas drew a deep, ragged breath and looked across at Elrond who stood at a level with his shoulder. "I had heard that many from Mirkwood died that day. What I did not know until now is how inept a leader my grand-sire was during battle. It seems to me that Oropher is as much responsible as Sauron for his own death, not to mention the death of the Elves who trusted him to lead them into battle."
Anger fairly crackled from the lithe form. Leaping down from the branch, Legolas slung his bow across his shoulder and stalked into the surrounding forest. The snow crunched beneath his feet.
[So much for the silent passing of Elves,] Elrond pondered. Falling into step beside the younger elf, he follwed where Legolas willed. A few minutes later, it became obvious that movement rather than destination was what Legolas had in mind as they crossed and recrossed their path in the snow.
"Many lives were lost that day," Elrond began quietly when Legolas's stride showed some small chance of slowing. "Men as as well as elves from all the realms."
"You lost more because of my grand-sire!" Legolas snarled, sparing a hard glower at the tall Elf-lord pacing so calmly beside him. "You were there, as was Thranduil. I know now how easily the King of Mirkwood twists facts and betrays his people to suit his purposes. And so it is that I trust your memory much more than I trust his tales. I need to hear the truth, Elrond, which is apparently seldom found in Mirkwood. I need to know what the rest of Middle-earth knows, not just Thranduil's pretty fables."
"Just this morning, you read multiple accounts from Elves who were there."
"I want you to tell me," Legolas snarled. "I want to know what you saw and what you remember. Through your words, I want to see and feel what happened." Stopping on the path, Legolas drew a deep breath before looking up and meeting Elrond's eyes. "Will you please tell me, my lord, with honesty and candor, what actually happened at Dagorlad?"
Startled at Legolas's insistence, Elrond nodded in agreement and took a moment to gather his thoughts. "It is a long and sorrowful tale, Legolas. Are you sure you wish to start this now?"
"We do not leave for Dol Goldur until tomorrow. I believe I have time to hear your words."
"As you wish, my prince." Leaning against a tree, Elrond cast his mind back a thousand years. "Your grand-sire claimed Greenwood the Great in the name of your father before the building of Barad-Dur and Sauron's rise at Dol Guldur. Greenwood's realm extended into the woods surrounding the Lonely Mountain then, and its people were kin and neighbors to those dwelling in Lothlorien."
"What of you here in Imladris?" Legolas asked, standing before Elrond and holding his gaze.
"Imladris did not yet exist; I served Gil-Galad in Lindon then. When Galadriel and Celeborn settled in Lothlorian, Oropher and your father resented their 'intrusion' and broke off connections. Still, Greenwood's people traveled and traded with those in Lorian. Imladris was founded after the fall of Eregion; your people visited here as well and were made welcome."
Pushing away from the tree, Elrond wandered through the forest with Legolas falling into step beside him. "Oropher knew that peace in Middle-earth was impossible unless Sauron was destroyed," the Elf-lord continued. "No race could do this alone, and so when Gil-Galad and Elendil called the Last Alliance, your sires assembled a great army in Greenwood and Oropher led them to battle."
Elrond's voice softened as he continued the tale. "Though courageous and strong, Greenwood's Silvan host was ill-equipped compared to others among us. We could have compensated for this, but Oropher was obstinate and unwilling to place himself under Gil-galad's sovereign command. So it was that he did not wait for Gil-galad to signal the advance at Dagorlad. Your grand-sire rushed forward and was cut off from the main host. Driven into the Dead Marshes to the west of the battle-field, he, your older brother, and most of Greenwood's army was slain by Sauron's men."
Legolas stared up at Elrond and nodded understanding. Snowflakes began to fall, peppering his hair only to melt and stain his leather tunic. "I am sure that no other outcome was possible that day. Unlike my sire, I see where lies the true responsibility for the slaughter of the Greenwood elves."
"There would have been heavy losses regardless who led the armies," Elrond cautioned. "The slaughter was terrible, and I cannot assure you that the numbers would have been far different had Orophir completely handed his command over to me."
"Perhaps not, but I more fully understand the reasons for the animosity between our houses. Oropher's arrogance and impatience lives on in Thranduil. Now I see how willing Mirkwood's king is to deny truth in deference to his ego."
"In deference to his anguish as well, no doubt."
"No matter the motivation, you must agree that lying is wrong." Blue eyes lifted from the trampled snow beneath their feet to meet Elrond's. "I offer apology and sympathy to you in Thranduil's place."
"You have my gratitude for that." Elrond laid a hand on Legolas's shoulder. "My accounts of the battle angered you, then?"
"Senseless death angers me," said Legolas. "Untruths anger me, and there has been much of both in this tale." Scuffing his foot in the snow, the elf added, "I must also admit to a certain amount of fear."
"Fear?" Elrond arched an eyebrow. "What is it you fear?"
"That our going to Dol Guldur will be for naught. That my father will reject your counsel as Oropher once rejected Gil-galad's. That another Alliance will need to be forged in some not-too-distant day, and my father will not admit it until it is too late for everyone in Mirkwood and all races in Middle-earth. Given what I have learned of the Dark Lord's stronghold and of my father in recent weeks, I'm certain this must come to pass. I fear that the new battles will fall to you and Lord Celeborn, without Mirkwood's deficient assistance this time."
"You believe Sauron is not defeated?" Elrond asked softly.
"I know that he is not, for I have been inside Dol Guldur and have seen what evil stirs. Sauron watches and waits like a fat black spider until the time ripens for his return. I fear Sauron, yes. But I also fear that for all of Thranduil's pretty words on parchment and his giving me to you, he will never share your dream of a united Eldar, much less another alliance with Men. He is too selfish, too prideful to admit that we are all of us connected and must unite if our world is to be made safe."
"It has ever been thus, Legolas," Elrond said mildly, caressing Legolas's shoulder with his thumb in hope of soothing him somewhat. "All we can do is continue our efforts and offer your father the best alliance we can. He may yet be convinced to set aside his prejudices against Galadriel and me for the good of all."
Tightening his jaw, Legolas offered a sceptical shrug and looked away to stare into the swirl of snowflakes. "He will do so only if the good of Thranduil comes first. Or perhaps that of his his people. I dare hope it is so."
"Tell me how is it that you do not share his prejudices?"
"I was left to grow up beyond our fortress walls," said Legolas, "with minders who did not object to my running with any warrior as long as he was capable and not likely to leave me to the spiders. Mirkwood also welcomed the Rangers and I have run with them as well – not that my minders or I have ever told my father that," he added with a hint of a smile. "My Mirkwood teachers caught and taught me as they could. A few of our archers and strongest warriors also ran with us when I was younger. All taught me diligently. I thought it proved their dedication to my education, but I wonder now if it wasn't eagerness to get out of Thranduil's court."
"So you avoided court?" Elrond ventured.
"As much as possible. Thranduil focused his attention upon my elder brother - the heir to Mirkwood - while I was the spare and blissfully ignored for the most part." Legolas smiled at the thought, offering Elrond a glimpse of a dimple.
"Glorfindel and I have both wondered how it is that you grew to be so unlike Thranduil."
Legolas's smile was grim. "I am told that I have much in common with my mother. It is said that she could not long bear to stay with Thranduil after her first son died at Mount Doom. My father's grief made him a bit difficult at times, and with her own grief so great she had not the strength cope with it. Thranduil gave her a third child - me - hoping to distract and help heal her, but she faded only a few months after my birth."
"How did Thranduil fare then, looking on you?" Elrond asked.
"She was dying before I was even conceived, and so the blame was never mine to bear. But Thranduil feels that I failed in that first task set for me, as my mother could not love me enough to stay. It was her whom he wished alive and not me, so that after her death he had no need for me nor desire to have me underfoot. I was much ignored and left alone to make up my own mind about things, so long as I didn't cause any great disturbances."
"As your brother was not," Elrond concluded.
"My brother has always been kept close to Thranduil's side and carefully schooled in his ways. He is to be the next ruler of Mirkwood should something befall Thranduil, and I have no doubt that he will carry on in the standards of both Thranduil and Orophir. Though he is not as strong, I think," Legolas added after a moment's thought.
"And so," Elrond concluded, "the past is done, and none of us can undo it. All of us, even your father, gather the broken threads of life and weave them into whatever future we can."
Pushing away from the tree, Elrond slid a companionable arm across Legolas's shoulders, which seemed somewhat less tense. "I believe the twins should have returned from their patrols by now. Would you care to join them and Mithrandir at mid-day meal?"
Legolas knew that in life the solution to one problem was inevitably followed by the presntation of yet another problem. So it was no great surprise for him to find that as he and Elrond seemed to achieve a new level of affection and understanding in their relationship, Legolas began having problems in his relationships with a few other Elves dwelling in Imladris.
Not with relationships precisely, Legolas reflected, but more of a problem with certain members of Elrond's court who were always bored and ever watchful of any new mischief they might begin. Unfortunately, their attention had currently focused on becoming more friendly with Lasgalen, the mysterious scout from Mirkwood, who had not only saved the lord's horses but dared argue openly with Elrond before all the host of the stable.
Not only had this strange elf challenged the Lord of Rivendell, he had survived for them to tell the tale, and Lord Elrond actually seemed to favor him afterwards. It was all quite the mystery and delightfully intriguing. And so it was that every move made by the strange Mirkwood elf was observed, cataloged, and discussed with great enjoyment by many in Rivendell.
Legolas had never been comfortable at court - any court - which was why he'd frequented Mirkwood's own but a handful of times in his entire life. While he might have enjoyed dancing with the right partner - had he ever been allowed the freedom to find the right partner - he would never be comfortable with what others saw as playful banter or casual flirting. It was a strange game with rules he did not understand and meanings difficult for him to decipher, and he viewed it all with grave suspicion as to motives of those involved.
[I have better things to do,] he also thought of that past-time, knowing that to have voiced the thought aloud would have sounded more than a little arrogant. It also would have startled and hurt those he worked so hard to protect in Mirkwood. And so he did his best to leave them to their games and find matters to occupy him elsewhere. In Mirkwood, that was not difficult, but Rivendell was proving to be another matter altogether.
Legolas was no longer allowed to protect anyone in Mirkwood, and while Elrond would not have objected to Legolas protecting the citizens of Imladris, the younger elf did not think it a good time to run the wilds of his new home. Instinct told him to stay close to the Elven lord instead.
"Elrond fears losing me to the darkness within Dol Guldur," Legolas acknowledged privately to Glorfindel after the older Elf had inquired as to why Legolas was spending so much time within the sanctuary of Elrond's library when there were the twins to trounce. "Even if I believe my lord's fears unfounded, I must still respect them. I cannot forego this journey, and therefore I cause him distress. But I can try to ease what little I might, and so I would not leave his side until I must."
Unfortunately, staying close to Elrond meant accompanying him to dinner in the Great Hall each evening and remaining after the meal to witness courtly activities like dancing and singing. It also meant enduring and trying to subtly discourage special attention from certain female elves who weren't hindered by Elrond's gentle attachment to him.
"And why should they be?" Glorfindel had laughed when an agitated and irritable Legolas sought him out for counsel after no less than five elven maidens - FIVE! – had made it clear that they expected Legolas to pay court in the form of dancing with them that evening.
"Elrond is betrothed to Legolas, Prince of Mirkwood," Glorfindel had pointed out with an annoyingly cheerful grin. "No formal claim has been staked upon Lasgalen, scout from that woodland realm. You are therefore free for all of the residents of Imladris to try to win your favors."
Grinning, Glorfindel had mockingly wound a long strand of Legolas's hair about his finger. "All they want is a dance, Lasgalen. I hardly think your virginity or theirs is in jeopardy."
"So what are you telling me to do?" Legolas had growled, slapping at the intruding hand and pulling away to scratch his scalp.
"Relax and enjoy the attention." The Elf-lord winked before walking away. "I would."
Unable to resist the temptation, Legolas mimed firing an arrow into Glorfindel's insufferably confident, retreating back. Satisfying though the gesture might have been, it didn't help the situation at all. Minutes later, on the way back to the table he was sharing with Elrond and Glorfindel, Legolas was cornered by one of Arwen's friends. Giggling, she grabbed the reluctant elf's hand and hauled him into the ongoing ringdance. Short of using his archer's strength to wrench free of her suprisingly strong yet dainty fingers, there was nothing to be done but submit.
A bemused Elrond watched from the head table, chin in hand as a very stiff Legolas grudgingly fell into step. "He seems strangely reluctant to participate in the festivities."
"Indeed," Glorfindel said somberly, sinking down into his own chair with a new pitcher of wine and deciding not to confide Legolas's frantic conversation with him only minutes before. "More wine?"
"Thank you, no." Elrond waved away the offer without taking his eyes off of the bright elf who was winding his sour way across the floor.
For a long moment, Glorfindel watched Elrond watching Legolas. "She's pretty, isn't she?"
"He is that. Though I think I'd choose another word to describe him."
Glorfindel laughed and shook his head. "Not Lasgalen, Elrond. Her. I said her."
Elrond favored him with a scowl. "Who?"
"Oh. Her. I hadn't noticed."
[Was that a growl?] Glorfindel waited another few minutes before intruding again. "He intrigues you then?"
"Because he has shattered every expectation I had of Thranduil's son." Elrond slouched down into his chair, still without taking his eyes from the gracefully resistant Legolas. "He doesn't act like a prince, and he requires no special treatment except to be treated fairly. In fact, he will go out of his way to evade any special recognition. He is quiet, undemanding, and watches everything around him. He tries to understand everything as well, including me, and I think you'll admit that's no small task?"
"Definitely not something to be undertaken lightly," said Glorfindel. "Perhaps Lasgalen simply didn't understand the magnitude of the tast when he started it."
Elrond spared him a glare, then returned to ticking off elements that he'd discovered about his new companion. "Regardless his youth, Lasgalen is a fighter to equal my sons, and he hates participating here." Elrond's wave encompassed the Great Hall. "He's also very much a loner and seems much older than his few years, something that I find disturbing and almost sad in a way, as though his very youth has somehow been stolen away. I've never met anyone like him and so yes, he intrigues me. Do you see something wrong with that?"
"No, nothing. I think it's lovely." Glorfindel hid a smirk behind his goblet of wine, which he then raised to salute the couple whirling past. "His new friend thinks he's lovely as well, and seems to be trying to make that clear. Just look where she's maneuvered his hands."
Elrond narrowed his eyes at the dance floor where Legolas was all but carrying his dance partner, so closely was she wrapped against his chest. Legolas cast a particularly uncomfortable, desperate glance his way as they whirled past, and Elrond rose to his feet. "Excuse me please, Lord Glorfindel."
"LORD Glorfindel? You've not called me that in an age. What is wrong with you tonight?" He didn't expect an answer and it was a good thing, for Elrond gave no indication of having heard him.
Gathering his robes, the lord of Imladris moved smoothly down the side of the room and up behind the elven maiden who had now draped herself across Legolas to the point that he was required to put his hands in questionable places if only to keep her propped on her feet. By now, any other elf would known her as a willing partner and whispered an invitation into her delicate ear for her to join him in the gardens.
Legolas was not any other elf. He not only seemed oblivious to what the next step in this intimate dance should be, but appeared highly annoyed by his dance partner's efforts. Elrond was well-pleased with that assessment. He also had the impression that were he not to interfere and quickly, Legolas's solution to the problem in his arms would be to let go the she-elf so that she collapsed to the floor in an undignified heap while the scout from Mirkwood made his escape into the surrounding dancers and beyond.
[He doesn't play games well, does he?] Elrond reflected, not at all upset by the realization.
Sliding a hand beneath Legolas's to cup the she-elf's elbow, Elrond met Legolas's gaze before bodily lifting his partner away from him. Leaning down, Elrond rumbled into her ear. "My apologies, lady, but I have a prior claim on this one."
Stiffening, she whirled to snap at the elf who was spoiling her carefully crafted plans. "And who are you to lay claim to--oh!
The affronted feminine presentation dissolved as the elf's eyes widened in surprise. She shrank back, embarrassed to realize who the intruder was.
"I... I'm so sorry, Lord Elrond -- Lasgalen," came the stammered apology, along with a very strange look at both elves. "I had no idea…nobody said anything about…and with the Prince…and…Oh, excuse me!" she mannaged to stammer, her cheeks growing red. Gathering her skirts, she offered an abbreviated curtsey before fleeing through the crowd and not looking back.
The room had stilled during this brief encounter with the musicians falling silent the dancers stilled. All too aware of the eyes and ears of the curious surrounding them, Elrond murmured, "Come, Lasgalen."
Nodding to the silent musicians to continue, he led the way from the midst of the dancers.
Legolas needed no further encouragement to follow the elf-lord from the middle of the room and over to the large stone fireplace which afforded some shadow and privacy. The dance continued and Legolas stood beside Elrond, relief all too obvious in the blue eyes glimmering at him in the firelight.
"Thank you," came the heartfelt words, low and intense.
Elrond offered a crooked smile. "Don't thank me quite yet, as I undoubtedly phrased things badly and have given her the wrong idea. Or the right one, depending on your point of view. Either way, word of my claiming you will spread quickly tonight. I dare say the gossip will create its own problems, but you won't be troubled again." He paused, then offered a small smile. "At least not by our ladies. My news may, however, cheer some of the males."
"I knew of no polite way to reject her advances," Legolas protested. "She was rather persistent, and conversing with her was like dancing on raindrops."
"Not a comfortable position at all to be in. I think you managed quite well, considering how determined she seems to have been to have you for her own tonight, whether you wished it or not. That one is quite good at getting what she wants," he added in confidential tones. Glancing back at the dance floor, the Elf-lord confessed, "To solidify my claim, we should have danced, but I doubt you're ready for that."
"I am tonight," Legolas growled.
"Not for this particular dance."
"Why not?" he protested. "I'd rather dance with you than with her or the ones lined up behind her. That dance was…She wanted me to put my hands…in inappropriate places," he finished unhappily. "She wanted to touch me as well. How could dancing with you be worse than that?"
"Because this particular dance ends in a traditional kiss," said Elrond, "and I don't think you're quite ready to kiss me in public."
Sudden silence met that announcement. After a time, Legolas remarked, "I don't think I care much for this dance."
"I can see where you would not. It is a dance for lovers and those who wish to be. As we are not part of either category, it is a dance we had both best sit out. Not to worry, we'll make certain you are not trapped again. One way or another, I will make certain you are safe from whatever displeases you here."
Legolas nodded briefly. "I thank you for both the rescue and your thoughfulness."
Affection and trust reflected in the blue eyes holding his own – a simple and so important gift that the Elf-lord stared back.
"I take it my plans meet with your approval?" Elrond asked.
Legolas's eyes crinkled at the corners and he laughed softly - a low, almost seductive sound that had Elrond staring down at him in disbelief as the change in the younger elf was remarkable. Gone was the solemn, oh-so-serious and formal elf he'd known until this moment. In his place Elrond glimpsed a complex, occasionally mischievous creature with much warmth, affection and loyalty, one who might actually be ready to claim Elrond as a friend.
"You do realize that my rescue extends only to the ladies of the court?" Elrond cautioned. "You will now be considered a delightful trophy for any male who might find you attractive."
Legolas gave the matter a moment's serious consideration, the smile fading from his eyes. Heaving a sigh, he nodded decisively. "I think I may be ready for you to tell everyone who I really am. Quickly, I think."
"Before you change your mind? Lose your nerve?"
Stepping closer to deliberately invade Legolas's space, Elrond was gratified to see that the younger elf's only reaction was to drop back his head, the better to look up at Elrond.
"You realize that I must tell them also we are promised to bond? We needn't do this if you do not wish it."
"I wish it. This night and right now, for to continue the charade will only cause further difficulties for everyone. I will not allow your reputation to suffer because of my fears, and your announcement will destroy any speculation that the Lord of Rivendell has suddenly developed a taste for any and all males from Mirkwood."
The blue eyes were steady as they held his. Elrond could sense no misguided feelings of self-sacrifice; the elf standing so close before him radiated only a calm confidence and no little affection. Reaching out, he touched Legolas's hand – the one bearing Elrond's own seal. When Legolas didn't withdraw, Elrond carefully entwined their fingers, feeling the archer's callouses slide across his skin. Legolas remained beside him, watching him expectantly.
"So it will be," Elrond whispered. "Tonight."
With Legolas's hand in his, Elrond made his way back to the table where Glorfindel remained slouched in his chair, watching the room and having missed nothing. He had been joined by Elrond's sons and Mithrandir as well; the three had come late to the hall and were only just finishing their supper.
"All is made ready for our departure tonight," Mithrandir informed Legolas with a gentle smile and a nod.
"That is well." The elf moved on with Elrond who set his chair aside, so that he and Legolas might stand before the crowd.
"I'm not sure who's glowering the harder," Glorfindel ventured. "Those who want you, or those who want Elrond."
"They are all going to have to stop glowering and start smiling, even if they must pretend their happiness for us," Elrond pronounced as his sons exchanged looks of dread with Mithrandir, who was looking almost as amused as Glorfindel.
"Oh?" Glorfindel straighened in his seat, his interest peaked by Elrond's intensity. "Is something happening, then? Something you might share with Mithrandir and me?"
"You've behaving as one, aren't you? The tale will be told to everyone in a few moments." Raising his voice, Elrond addressed the crowded hall. "Attend me, if you will?"
The music died, the dance halted. Eager faces turned toward the Lord Rivendell. The twins frowned and Glorfindel grinned, sensing what was coming. Legolas watched the servant elf Aniviel – his acquaintance from the bath - finish refilling Elrond's empty goblet, hurrying to complete her task before her ruler began speaking over her head.
Remembering her complaints about having to clean up after the horses, and her having kicked his last clean clothes into the bath only a few days before, Legolas thought, [Let's hope she can at least complete the task without pouring out over the table.]
Glancing Legolas's way, she scowled as if to say, 'No love lost here, either.' Hurrying, she joined Erestor near the doors.
[I've made my choice, there's no turning back now,] thought Legolas. His hand was still held tight in Elrond's own, and Legolas left it there, realizing he was gripping fingers every bit as hard as was Elrond.
Not for the world would he have pulled away, for he remembered all too well Mithrandir's warning of days past: "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."
"I present to you this night Legolas, Prince of Mirkwood."
There was a long moment of total, stunned silence during which Legolas held his breath. A single voice whispered in the deep silence of the hall, followed by another. He heard his name in each whispered comment which was followed by others. They turned into a steady murmur as the crowd realized that the elf they'd considered one of lowly rank from Mirkwood, moving freely for days among them and witnessing their warts and weaknesses, was actually Thranduil's youngest son.
"I've seen the same terrified look in the eyes of a hare ensnared," Elrond murmured, so quietly that not even Glorfindel – seated but a few feet away and exhibiting keen interest - could have heard. Releasing Legolas's fingers, he laid his hand on the younger elf's shouler. "Be still and trust me a little longer if you can."
"I do trust you."
Reaching down, Elrond retrieved his wine. The crowd quieted again when he raised the goblet in Legolas's honor. "To you, Legolas Thranduilion, I promise my protection, my love and my life."
Sipping from the goblet, he offered it next to Legolas, who drank from it as well. Behind him, chairs scraped back as Glorfindel and Mithrandir rose to their feet. Legolas didn't need to look to know that the twins were following with more than a little reluctance.
"Our father's betrothal is welcome news indeed. Welcome, Prince Legolas of Mirkwood," Elladan murmured. Silent Elrohir offered no verbal chalenge. Instead, he favored Legolas with a stony bow of respect.
Mithrandir toasted the two of them with apparent sincerity. "May your eternity together be filled with peace, happiness, and much love."
"Our lord is betrothed," said Glorfindel, grinning. "Let us celebrate through the night in song, dancing and many good wishes."
Complete silence met Glorfindel's urging. Legolas sensed that the elves in the hall were simply too shocked at their lord's tying himself to Thranduil's shabbiest son to have any reaction other than disbelief. From somewhere close to the door, a loud feminine voice rang out to echo through the hall. "THAT's a prince?"
Elrond narrowed his eyes over Legolas's head and gave what might have been a low growl, but Legolas himself had no need to turn to ascertain the owner of that voice. Closing his eyes, he thought, [Aniviel.] No love lost between them indeed, and yet wasn't her pointed, three-word analysis of Legolas's status all too appropriate? He didn't behave like a prince, and Elrond was getting a poor mate in exchange for his alliance with Mirkwood.
The ironic truth was suddenly too much for Legolas. Life or fate and kings were much stronger than any mere elf or even the ruler of Imladris. No matter what he or Elrond wanted, others had maneuvered and manipulated until rather than rail against the Valar or go insane trying to fight the manipulations, he could only accept and step blindly into tomorrow.
Looking up at Elrond, he let himself smile. Laughter - hysterical or not - bubbled up inside of him until he had to let it out. It rang through the hall, chased Aniviel's words and Aniviel herself down the hallway with Erestor in hot, embarrassed pursuit that one of his household should insult their masters so.
Legolas knew that Aniviel would pay the price for her tactlessness; she would be forever banished to the kitchens or perhaps to the stables – to become a mere groom, mucking out stalls until she constantly smelled of horse and callouses formed on her delicate white hands. Though Legolas himself might ask that her fate be different, if only to spare the horses her incompetence, Aniviel herself had sealed that fate.
To Elrond and the listening crowd, he said, "Given my untidy arrival from Mirkwood and events shared by all of us in the aftermath, she spoke but the truth. I am not upset, neither should you be." Still in possession of Elrond's goblet, Legolas raised it. "I thank you for your welcome, my lord. Your happiness will be mine."
A cheer did go up then, as dismay was replaced by happiness and the elves of Imladris wished to believe this betrothal was for the good of all. Legolas thought Elrond's gray eyes held more than a little relief at his words.
"Let us go," Elrond murmured, draping a companionable arm about Legolas's shoulders.
Legolas fit beneath it as though made to be there, and he jumped only a little – so little that he thought no one but Elrond might notice. Knowing what was expected of him as he was now betrothed, Legolas slid his arm around the Elf-lord's waist for all to see as they walked from the Great Hall. Neither Aniviel or Erestor were anywhere in sight as they journeyed back to what the household would now think of as their private chambers.
"For better or worse, you belong to the Master of Imladris now," Elrond said grimly once the doors had been closed and privacy had been gained. Shrugging out of his outer robe, he laid it across the back of a chair and smoothed a hand across it, as if seeking comfort from the soft cloth. "No one will dare pursue you in any capacity."
"That is well." Legolas watched Elrond disappear into the bedchamber beyond, no doubt to shed the other heavy robe he wore, to be more comfortable in the night. "Between the intense interest of my dance parteners and of Erestor, I was beginning to feel that peace would never be mine here. I dared not offend, but neither had I any wish to endure their attentions."
Elrond all but leaped back into the outer chamber. Naked. "Erestor? You were being approached by Erestor?"
Legolas smiled mildly at Elrond's shocked expression. "You were bound to the Prince of Mirkwood, my lord, not to some lowly scout. What harm could come to Erestor if he dared approach me?"
"Erestor was interested in courting you?"
"Erestor has been interested since I was trapped without clothing in the bath. He evidently liked what he saw and was merely waiting for you to be distracted once your prince arrived."
Elrond moved closer, obviously seeking to somehow reassure, to offer comfort in this awkward situation. Legolas turned away from him, however, his gaze fixed with determination on the winter scene outside on the balcony rather than on the large, well-built and very naked Elf-lord at his side. With a sigh, Elrond turned away and left again, hopefully to cover what was disturbing Legolas.
Music and gentle laughter wafted up from the Great Hall. Legolas bore no illusions as to what those below would be talking about, or laughing about for that matter.
[Aniviel is right: I am no prince, regardless my birth,] he thought, standing at the door overlooking Elrond's private garden. [It's far too late for me to be anything but what I am. All that's left is for Elrond and me to bond this night, and for me to try not to make him too miserable afterward.]
A few seconds later, Elrond emerged from his bedchamber to begin extinguishing candles until none were left. Coming to stand beside Legolas, the Elf-lord did not try to touch him again.
"I thought to leave us in darkness," Elrond explained, "so that if anyone is watching, our intimacy will be assumed."
Nodding, Legolas said, "The snow is falling again, as heavily as it did when Mithrandir and I arrived. It's so calm, so quiet and peaceful now compared to the chaos of the fire."
"Calm, as your heart is in chaos this night?"
"I am all right."
"You were not offended by Aniviel's outburst?"
"Legolas shrugged. "As I said in the hall, she spoke only the truth."
"I was offended, even if you were not. You are very much a prince in heart as well as by birth and heritage."
"She spoke the truth," Legolas replied with quiet determination.
"As we should, one to the other." Reaching out, Elrond ran a hand down the golden mane that was bleached to white in the snowlight. When Legolas did not move away from his touch, Elrond continued the caress. "You seem at least at ease with this affection."
"You are touching me as a friend. Since I arrived, you have taken great care to look after me as a friend."
"I would like to think so." Elrond sounded pleased.
"At the very least, I owe you the same."
"Legolas, you owe me nothing."
"I have never known the sort of kindness you are offering. How could I not wish to return it?"
Turning with a sigh, Elrond lowered himself into the nearest chair. "What I offer has never carried a price, Legolas. If payment is required, then please consider that your saving my horses and helping me punish those resonsible have indebted me to you."
Legolas made an impatient gesture. "Our betrothal and impending bond do not involve the horses. Until tonight, Thranduil's trap has been a quiet, if not private, matter between us. Now that all of Imladris has been told, the trap has further closed about us."
Elrond cocked his head.
"So soon you are regretting our announcement?"
"I regret nothing, as you have made everything happen in the most gentle way possible."
"You should have faith that it will continue to be so." Elrond slouched in the chair like a great, insouisant cat.
Giving a low growl, Legolas began pacing. "Are you attempting to distract me from the point I wish to make? I am no diplomat, Elrond, my skill with words is little. I beg your patience this night, to try and make you understand. Surely you will bond with me tonight, for to do otherwise would humiliate you before all of Imladris."
"Indeed?" The Elf-lord sounded half-amused.
"I enjoy your company," Legolas ploughed on. "Surely that is enough to ensure that the bond between us is not the unhappy, eternal horror you fear it will be?" Halting before Elrond, Legolas all but glowered down at him.
The Elf-lord waited a moment, until he was certain Legolas was finished speaking. "Let me make sure I understand you, my elf. You do not regret that all of Imladris knows we are betrothed?"
"That is correct."
"And you feel that we must make love tonight and become bonded, else I will suffer untold humliation?"
Elrond arched an elegant eyebrow. [Where did he get that impression, I wonder?] "Have you changed your mind then? Discovered that you want me as a man may want another?"
The elf all but wrinkled his nose. "Elrond, I…"
"That is as I thought." Slouching further in the chair, he gave a deep sigh and rested his chin in his hand. "No, Legolas, I will not take you, this night or any other."
"Then I will have failed and Thranduil will send for me."
"He shall not have you," Elrond said mildly.
"You do not understand either the king of Mirkwood or me!" Legolas exploded. "To bond with you is what I came here to do, and I will honor our agreement."
"And just how do you propose to do that?" Elrond asked mildly. "Tie me down and have your way with me?"
"It is only because of your patience and tolerance of my immature attitudes that we are not already bonded," Legolas said, ignoring Elrond's question. "It must be done, and you do care for me. That is far better than I ever antipated. It is enough."
Elrond stopped slouching and gained his feet to confront the younger elf nose-to-nose. "It is far from enough!"
"It must be, for two such as we are, caught in Thranduil's—"
"I do not consider myself trapped, nor should you." Elrond loomed over Legolas, crowding him so close to the table that he shoved against it and set a pile of manuscripts sliding toward the floor. Sparing them them the briefest of glances, Elrond reached past Legolas and shoved them back atop themselves. "You are under my protection, elfling. Whether you or your recalictrant father recognizes that or not, it is a powerful thing. Let his guards come – they shall not have you. Thranduil shall not have you."
"It is a pretty picture you paint, but it cannot be so."
Elrond stepped back a pace. "You have so little faith in me?"
"It is not faith in you that I lack." Legolas sounded desperate. "It is knowledge of Thranduil and his wrath at being thwarted that prevents me from believing what you say. Mark me, Elrond: if we do not bond, he will reclaim me."
Reaching out, Elrond fingered the braid at Legolas's temple. "He shall not have you tonight, and neither will I. You belong to yourself, Legolas. If I am willing to send you into Dol Guldur and let you fight the wraiths to protect our people, why will you not fight for yourself?"
"Because the outcome of the battle is assured." Tears filled the blue eyes glittering at him in the dark. "Thranduil will win."
Elrond cradled Legolas's face in his hand, stroked the high cheekbone with his thumb and brushed away a wayward tear. "He will not win."
Closing his eyes, Legolas subsided and leaned into Elrond's hand. "Enough, my lord. Let the last night we spend together before your sons and I depart not be lost to contention. You will not yield on this matter. Neither will I, so we will leave it for some little while. I will tell you instead that no one has ever touched me as you do. I think no one else has ever wanted to."
"I find that hard to believe, my prince. Perhaps it is simply that no one else has dared discover you enjoy such touching?"
"Probably." Legolas kept his eyes closed as Elrond moved onto stroke his hair, down over his shoulder.
"You have learned to enjoy this particular touch rather than simply endure it, then?"
Elrond stepped closer. "Then on this our last night, will you lie with me in my bed? To talk and nothing more?"
Opening his eyes, Legolas held Elrond's gaze and considered the question for the longest of moments, until the Elf-lord thought he should withdraw the invitation and offer apology. And then, much to Elrond's surprise, Legolas slipped past him and the table piled high with books and scrolls to disappear inside his bedchamber.
Disbelieving, the Elf-lord followed a few minutes later to find Legolas's tunic folded neatly over the nearest chair. His boots were tucked next to Elrond's, and the elf himself was stretched out on his side along the far side of the bed.
Glittering blue eyes held his in the shadowed light. Elrond noted that Legolas had shed none of his clothing but the boots and the tunic: newborn trust extended only so far, after all, which was only to be expected. Smiling to himself at his elf's modesty, Elrond decided he had decided well not to take Legolas this night, no matter the eagerness he felt to do just that.
Sliding gingerly into bed, Elrond settled on his side, face-to-face with his bed-companion. "You have been spending a great many days close to me. Forgive me for asking, but do you enjoy that as well?"
"I enjoy your company," Legolas acknowledged, seeming relieved at the harmless question. "I enjoy the talks we have, regardless I am not used to being contained within walls." There was a long pause, and then he added, "But I do not enjoy listening to your councellors."
"Nor do I sometimes. You and I have come a long way from the first night you spent in these chambers. That night, pulling honest answers from you was like trying to get the twins to take a bath in their younger days. I felt as though I had caged a wounded hawk, but now my hawk comes to rest without fear. It is a vast change, though you still think my walls are cumbersome."
"Not your walls specifically, Elrond. Any walls."
"Ah. I remember a life not contained by walls," Elrond said wistfully, as it seemed the night for confessions. "I too miss it at times."
Legolas's hand was instantly on his shoulder. "Then come with us to Dol Guldur. I would teach you as I will teach Glorfindel."
"I cannot. I am needed here."
"Everyone here is over five hundred years old except me," Legolas observed. "Surely they can do without you for a few days."
Covering Legolas's hand with his own, Elrond felt the long, fine bones of the archer's fingers. "Imladris cannot do without me, for reasons I cannot explain."
"Imladris cannot do without its lord?" Legolas sounded incredulous.
"I...help keep this place safe and must maintain that safety. However strange it sounds, I am this sanctuary's sole guardian. Without me, it would be lost, and I cannot take the chance of leaving it unprotected, not even for a single day."
Legolas nodded and fell into silence for the next few moments. To Elrond, it seemed a sympathetic, almost companionable silence. Such was new to the Elf-lord, as he was so used to being utterly alone with his responsibilities.
"My father spoke of a choice given to you and your children," Legolas finally said, tactfully changing the subject. "That you may choose once between being Eldar or Mortal. Did he speak truth?"
Elrond nodded. "My brother Elros chose a Mortal life."
"What made you choose as you did?"
"Inside myself, I have always belonged to the Eldar. When the time came, there was no choice. My twin felt otherwise."
"Have you ever regretted that choice?"
"I regret having to watch my brother age and die. I mourn his absence and will always miss him. But regret that I am Elven? No. I am who I am and where I belong. The world of Men never held any attraction for me."
"What then attracts you?"
Almost as if he were unable to resist, Elrond found himself reaching to touch Legolas's hair once more where it fanned across his shoulder and flowed onto the bed. "This fascinates me. This attracts me."
He heard Legolas's swift intake of breath but did not stop sifting his fingers through the heavy hair. "I am deeply attracted to you, Legolas, but I suppose you already know that."
"I did not."
"You do now. Such attraction, I assure you, is something I have never before felt for any male." Elrond fell silent then, preferring to let the drifting exploration of his fingers speak for him.
Abandoning the fall of Legolas's mane when his elf shivered, Elrond moved on to the neat braid at his temple. Untangling its end, he was encouraged when Legolas did not protest its unraveling. Lifting his head, the younger elf allowed Elrond to unravel the other braid before reaching behind and undoing the heavy herringbone center braid himself.
Elrond resumed stroking the now-free silver-gold hair, whiel Legolas's tension over Elrond's confession melted away. The silence soon become companionable again, and Elrond heard his companion's breathing slow to a steadier rhythm.
"I do enjoy your touch," Legolas reiterated softly.
Gliding a hand once more over the golden mane, Elrond dared slide his arm about Legolas's shoulder to gently pull him closer. Murmuring softly, nearly asleep, Legolas allowed the contact, body to body. Sliding his own arm across Elrond's ribcage, Legolas nestled beneath the Elf-lord's chin.
[So he welcomes my touch instinctively as well as when he's awake,] Elrond wondered. [And he will reach for me in sleep?] Elrond's arms went around his elf in a fierce hug. [Then, sweet Elbereth, if you return safe home to me from Dol Guldur, then I believe there's yet hope for you to one day love me as I am coming to love you.]
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