The morning of the depature to Dol Guldur dawned with a clear, cold beauty that did nothing to assuage Lord Elrond's dread of his loved ones' parting. Arising before Legolas awoke, Elrond took refuge in his library to allow the Elf to bathe and dress in the privacy of their shared chambers. Retiring to the library's upper balcony, Elrond claimed the window overlooking the central courtyard and waited.

Far too soon, he brooded over the sight of Legolas leading two horses out into the central courtyard. One had been chosen for Mithrandir, for the wizard's usual mount had come up lame the day before. Elrond was loaning him one of Rivendell's horses, and Legolas had selected one of the best. The question was, could the wizard actually ride it?

Elrond noted gloomily that it was yet another worry to add to the not insignificant list of concerns as Legolas tried to persuade the shocked creature to stand still while he tightened the girth. That was an indignity this mare clearly was unused tom, and her hooves tapped irritably on the cobbles as the pair spun in yet another tight circle. Laughter floated up toward the elf lord's window seat as Glorfindel stepped into view within the courtyard to watch the argument with amusement. The twins soon joined the group, securing packs and weaponry to their own mounts, making sure all was in order for the journey ahead.

Someone was ascending the winding staircase behind Elrond with a step that was far too heavy to belong to any Elf. Elrond did not turn when Mithrandir came up beside him, puffing to catch his breath after the climb.

"I realize that that you and the twins hope to thwart death by never saying good-bye," Mithrandir panted, "but I refuse to observe any such superstition." An arm stole around Elrond's shoulders to hug him hard.

Sparing the ghost of a smile but never looking away from the golden-haired Elf below, Elrond replied, "It is not superstition, my friend. It is hope."

"Hope filled with fear." Mithrandir spared him a critical look. "You look as if you did not sleep very much last night."

"I didn't."

Below, Legolas had succeeded in making certain Mithrandir's tack was in order. With girth secured and bridle as it should be, the Mirkwood Elf rolled the wizard's spare cloak more tightly than the wizard's haphazard bundle and secured it behind his saddle.

Mithrandir snorted. "That princeling from Mirkwood takes care of me as if I cannot take care of myself."

"More than you know, for it was Legolas who selected the mare you are to ride."

"Then I know who to blame if she dumps me into the gorse, don't I?"

Elrond ignored the comment almost as if he had not heard it, still intent on watching the slender elf below as he moved about the horses.

"You are worried about our journey?" Mithrandir ventured.

"I am." Elrond half-turned from the window to fix the wizard with an irritable glare. "How could I not be worried? Any reasonable being would be worried, sending young warriors into such a danger."

"Your sons and Legolas are well-protected," Mithrandir pointed out. "You might spare a bit of worry for myself and Glorfindel."

That comment drew an even more dire look. "I've no doubt that you two are capable of looking after yourselves."

"As are you sons and Legolas, I daresay. Still, we will all take care of your prince," the wizard reassured quietly.

The censure faded from Elrond's gaze, leaving only aching concern in its wake.

Mithrandir smiled. "How amazing this is, Elrond. My fear when I brought Legolas here was that you would offend each other so badly, neither would have any use for the other. I am happy to know my worry was for naught."

"I care for Legolas, and I will miss him," Elrond admitted. "Moreover, I have a great sense of foreboding that I will never see him again. He does not understand this, and I cannot convince him of my concerns."

"Does he not understand it, does he believe your fears to be unfounded, or does he recognize your fears and think that he still must go?"

"All three, perhaps," Elrond admitted after a moment's reflection. "He has no understanding of my gift of foresight, for he does not share it. When I speak of my vision, he thinks it only anxiety, nothing very serious. He reminds me that he knows Dol Guldur, that he can get in and out and has much support this time than ever he has had in the past. And so what exactly is my worry?" Elrond spread his hands. "How do explain the formless dread that is accompanied by a vague vision of him, huddled and dying, in darkness and distress?"

"So while Legolas may listen to your concerns, he refuses to stay here?"

"Exactly. I must let him go, even as I feel that I will lose him."

Mithrandir's somber gaze held Elrond's. "A foretelling is never to be ignored. Legolas need not go. Glorfindel is entirely capable of seeing himself safely through Dol Guldur."

"Legolas is determined to serve. And he cannot be caged."

"Others have tried to do just that," Mithrandir acknowledged.

"And others have failed." Sighing, the Elf-lord left the window to wander back toward the top of the staircase. "I promised to let Legolas go, so let him go I must. My... benevolence... seems to have won his trust--a trust that I will not shatter, not even for his continued safety and my own peace of mind. He has become my heart's companion these past weeks; I hope that he will not become Sauron's prisoner. But hope is a fragile thing when standing next to such fear as I feel."

Leveling a severe look at Mithrandir, Elrond continued. "It is dreadful enough that Legolas will enter the Dark Lord's fortress. I ask you to give me your word that, come what may, my sons will not cross that threshold. I could not survive losing all three."

"You have my word."

"You have my thanks." Gesturing, Elrond indicated the stairs. "Your companions await, Mithrandir. I will watch for your safe return as I watch for theirs. Elbereth guide you on this journey, my friend."

"Peace be yours while we are away, Elrond."

The Elf-lord returned to his window while the wizard made his way back to the main floor and down into the courtyard. Glorfindel and the twins were mounted now, eager to be off over the bridge and for the adventure to begin. Elrond's sharp eyes found Legolas waiting patiently beside Mithrandir's mare while his gelding grazed nearby.

Joining Legolas, Mithrandir accepted the help that was offered to get him astride his horse. Taking a few circles of the courtyard, the wizard assured the rest of the company that he was capable of handling the mare which was now evidently resigned to bearing both wizard and tack. With a wave, Mithrandir then headed for the stone arch leading out of Imladris.

Vaulting onto his horse, Legolas waited for Glorfindel and the twins to follow the wizard. His gelding moved into place behind Glorfindel's, and Elrond watched as the slender form astride the shining horse moved slowly from the courtyard and the safety Imladris could provide him.

[And that is that,] Elrond thought. [I likely will not see him again.]

But as he watched, loathe to give up this last glimpse of Legolas departing, the last horse in line suddenly turned back. Halting at the archway, Legolas stared up at the windows of the last homely house and found Elrond. Laying a closed hand against his heart, the younger Elf then stretched out his arm and opened his hand. 'My heart stays with you,' said the gesture.

His eyes welling with tears, Elrond echoed the salute and whispered, "My heart goes with you, my prince."

Giving a slow, solemn nod, Legolas smile brightly before turning his gelding back to the journey at hand. Cold sunlight dappled the blonde mane, and then Legolas was gone.


The twins led the climb out of Imladris, with Glorfindel following behind. Mithrandir waited for Legolas on the far side of the bridge spanning the Bruinen, and the Elf braced himself for the questions coming that he knew he would not want to answer.

Mithrandir did not disappoint. "Is it difficult for you to leave him?"

"No more than it is for him to let me go," Legolas said softly, gesturing that the wizard should precede him on the narrow path winding out of the deep ravine guarding Elrond's sanctuary.

"What is that supposed to mean?" Mithrandir half-turned in his saddle to glower at the elf behind him. "You two seem to have become inseparable, yet you have not bonded."

"I feel great affection for Elrond. Please leave it at that for now."

Mithrandir brightened immediately. "Oh you do? You've done well then, youngling, for I sense that he feels the same for you."

"And I sense that you would do well to keep your eyes on the steep path before your mare rather than twist and turn over the relationship between Elrond and myself. You must actually ride today, Mith, for that is not some cart-horse bearing you."

Chuckling, the wizard winked before turning about and taking up the reins. "Common sense rather than romance rules your existence as ever it has, my friend."

Sighing softly, Legolas did not reply. Thankfully, Mithrandir seemed to take his advice to heart and ceased his questioning. For the moment. Unlike Mithrandir, the twins' curiosity regarding Legolas's intentions toward their father had been assuaged in previous weeks. He had no worries regarding them, and he knew how to handle the wizard. Glorfindel, however, was another matter. The legendary elf had watched closely but remained mostly quiet--if pointed in his occasional commentary--and certainly circumspect inside of Elrond's walls, but Legolas knew little of what to expect now that Glorfindel had easy access to him. Legolas would rest easier atop his gelding once he had ascertained what the older elf's attitude was to be toward him for the next five weeks. It would be a very long journey indeed should Glorfindel carry resentment toward Legolas.

The top of the ravine was gained, and the day dulled to gray around them as clouds covered the sun. The twins rode well ahead with Mithrandir for the most part keeping up. Thus it was that no one was paying any heed to Legolas or to Glorfindel when the older elf dropped back beside Legolas once the trail widened enough to allow two to ride abreast.

"Are you the self-appointed rear-guard?" Glorfindel inquired.

Legolas shrugged. "It seems a good idea, though my original intent was only to keep Mithrandir ahead, so that I might ascertain his skills aboard the mare we assigned him. At the very least, I can collect him if he slides off."

Glorfindel nodded. "He seems to be doing well enough."

"He does indeed." Legolas thought. The mare in question took the opportunity at that moment to snatch at the greenery growing along the side of the trail. Mithrandir wheezed at the sudden stop. "Well enough for the most part."

"It's a two week journey to Dol Guldur," the older elf commented. "Elrond was worried whether you can prepare me in so short a time."

"Descriptions will serve you little, my lord. I can offer warnings, but entry into the fortress itself will inform far better than anything I might say."

"Then how shall we pass the two weeks?" Glorfindel persisted. "We all bore easily. Has Mithrandir brought along fireworks and a pocket dragon to amuse?"

"Of course he has," said Legolas as they caught up to the wizard in question. "Why else would we bring him along?"

Mithrandir rocked back and stared at the younger elf. "My purpose is to messenger back to Saruman whatever you two scoundrels might discover in that Valar-forsaken fortress."

Glorfindel shrugged. "Nice to know you're not just here to take in the view and eat your share of the rabbits we snare for supper." Leaning out, he patted the wizard's mare on the rump, and she agreeably moved off as their horses drew alongside her.


"Now that we've settled that," said Glorfindel, "perhaps Legolas has a few questions he'd like to ask now that we're alone?"

"Questions? What sort of questions?"

Glorfindel untangled his mount's mane. "You've lived with Elrond a number of weeks, while I have lived with him a number of years. Is there anything you'd like to know about our esteemed host while he's not around to censor the conversation? Something you'd dare not ask the twins, but know I'd safely gossip about?"

"Gossip?" Mithrandir sounded incredulous. "Glorfindel, you are a fount of truth and knowledge. You never gossip."

"Of course I don't. What was I thinking?"

Legolas thought a moment. He did have questions, but didn't want to voice them when anyone else was near. Mithrandir wasn't a problem, but the twins might be if the conversation was to waft close enough for them to hear. "May I consider your offer?"

"Consider away, my prince. If you think of anything, you know where to find me." Beaming at Legolas, Glorfindel urged his mount forward and so missed the frown the younger elf gave him.

"'My prince' is it?" Mithrandir humphed. "I thought only Elrond called you that."

"He does." Legolas glowered after the Elf-lord. "If Glorfindel does it again, I shall have to speak to him. I am no one's prince but--"

Clamping closed his mouth, Legolas lifted his chin and looked across at Mithrandir in open defiance, as if daring him to challenge or ridicule what Legolas had very nearly admitted.

"Hmmm..." said Mithrandir, gray eyes twinkling and mouth turning up at the corners so that his beard twitched. "So that's the way it is, is it?"

"The way what is?"

Straightening in the saddle, Mithrandir stroked his beard and squinted at the forest path. "I should look to the road, you know? Terrible habit, allowing myself to be distracted like that." Dropping the reins momentarily, he patted down his robes. "Where did I put that pipeweed?"


"Ah, here it is. Now to find my pipe, and the morning will be that much more pleasant. Look about you, Legolas, and what do you see? A fine spring morning, an adventurous outing with wonderful friends, and we're all on our way to Dol Guldur. What more could anyone possibly want?"

"A better destination!" Legolas snapped. He waited until the wizard had found and lit his pipe. Bitter smoke wafted through the air, headed straight for him as if by wizardly design. Waving aside the smoke and choking on the stench, Legolas shook his head. "Some days, Mithrandir, you are impossible."

"Me? What?" Innocence filled the wide blue eyes. The wizard took the time to blow smoke rings that just happened to drift in the Elf's direction, causing his horse to snort in irritation. "What did I do?"

Shaking his head by way of reply, Legolas booted his gelding into a canter to leave the smelly smoke and impossible wizard behind.

* * *

One of the twins shook Legolas awake. It was impossible to tell which one it was in the moonlight, but from the silence Legolas suspected it to be Elrohir. Waking instantly, Legolas was on his feet and reached for his bow, was making sure his knives when Glorfindel joined him. Departing the camp, the two Elves diverted to check on Mithrandir, only to discover he was snoring softly in his sleep.

"He still smells of pipeweed," observed Glorfindel.

"He ever smells of pipeweed," Legolas rejoined, falling into step beside the Elf-lord. "I tracked him from the scent alone whenever he came to call in Mirkwood."

"Small wonder then that, given the exquisite sense of smell Wraiths possess, he dares not venture inside Dol Guldur."

They settled in a tree not far from their camp as had become their habit over the past weeks, climbing high enough to observe and defend yet not so high that their sight was obstructed.

Legolas broke the easy silence long minutes later, once he was certain the twins were asleep and could hear nothing of the conversation. "I know that a few days have passed since you offered to answer any questions I might have regarding Elrond, but are you still willing?"

"Of course."

"Then tell me of Celebrian."

"Celebrian?" Sighing deeply, Glorfindel stared up at the moon for a long moment. "Celebrian is not Elrond, young one, and not what I promised to discuss."

Legolas did not reply, uncertain if he had overstepped some boundary of propriety with this question.

Glorfindel sighed before continuing. "I suppose it is no surprise that you would wish to hear of her before all else. Elrond has told me that their marriage was a failure from the beginning. The twins and Arwen are its only light."

"Why did they bond, then?"

"Elrond bonded for love, Celebrian did not. This, Elrond did not know at the time. She felt that joining with him was the best she could do, for your older brother would not have her and no other elf-lords were about. Elrond was young and naive regarding matters of the heart fifty-five hundred years ago, but he remained neither young nor naive for long. You know that he is called the Peredhil--the half-elven--and ever Celebrian resented this and thought less of him for it, even to the point of being unable to bear his touch for any length of time. She avoided Elrond for years on end, visiting her parents in Lothlorien and ignoring as much as was possible that she had taken him for a mate. You know the story of her capture and abuse by Orcs?"

"I know that she was waylaid while returning to Imladris, and that the twins managed to locate and save her."

Glorfindel nodded. "Elrond was able to heal her physical wounds, but some deep injury remained that he could not touch, or that she would not allow him to touch. She sailed oversea in hopes of easing the agony of her memories, but that hope proved false with her death. Perhaps she will petition Mandos to return to life without the memories she has, or perhaps she has chosen oblivion. In any case, Elrond felt her die and their bond shatter. They are lost to each other, and Elrond is now free."

Shifting uneasily, Glorfindel braced his back against the trunk of the tree, laid his bow more comfortably across his lap. "My bottom is going numb," he muttered irritably.

"Did Elrond foresee all of this?" Legolas pursued.

"He suspected it might come when she could not bear to remain here with him. While joined with her, Elrond learned well to hope for the best, yet prepare for the worst. Until a few weeks ago, he was trapped in a loveless bond. I know that little has changed with his being set free."

"Thranduil has seen to that." Bitterness tinged Legolas's voice.

"Thranduil?" Glorfindel shook his head. "Regardless your betrothal, Thranduil is not responsible for Elrond's aloneness. Neither are you, my pri... Erm, little prince," Glorfindel amended, seeing the look of death Legolas shot him. "Elrond's aloneness began long before you and your father's schemes were conceived, when Elrond's brother, Elros, chose a mortal life and subsequently died. Gil-galad's death at Dagorlad contributed to Elrond's isolation and responsibilities in ways we can never understand. He is always alone, always surrounded by responsibilities. There has been no real happiness in his life. Until you came to Imladris, there was only duty."

Glittering blue eyes found Legolas's in the moonlight. "You must know that you are making him forget Celebrian. He does not miss her or resent her dying. He only hopes that, whatever happens, she finds peace. In many ways, his trust in love was shattered, but then so was yours. No matter what Celebrian did, Elrond has three beautiful children who love him. And he has the sanctuary that is Imladris. He also has you, if you will allow it, which is a far better outcome than I had hoped for him. Are you coming to love him, Legolas?"

"He is a good friend," Legolas said carefully.

Glorfindel nodded and considered for a moment. "For now, I think that is more than enough."

* * *

The Mirkwood scout glared through the moonlight and shifted slightly to get a clearer view through the thick leaves of the thorn bush. Careful to disturb neither twig nor leaf that might inform the two Elves on watch of his presence, he nodded and backed away from his quarry.

He relished the thought of returning to Thranduil's hall and sharing what he had discovered. Cold morning would see him there and on his knees before his king to relay how he had discovered Thranduil's youngest and most disobedient son dallying with some new friends just outside of Mirkwood's borders. The scout's efforts would find favor with his king, a rarity these days, and he found that he actually anticipated giving this report.

Circling the intruders' camp, the scout further discovered that their tracks were leading into Mirkwood rather than out. Five was the number of their mounts, and further careful observation revealed that Legolas was traveling with three strange Elves and a snoring Mithrandir.

Who the other Elves were, the scout neither cared nor wished to find out. They were Imladris elves most likely and of no importance beyond the fact that they wandered with Mirkwood's escapee. The scout wanted no names. Neither, he suspected, would Thranduil. All the king would care about was that his unmanageable son had returned unbonded.

One thing the scout could report with total confidence: the tall, thin Elf sharing watch with the wayward one resembled in no way, shape or form the dark, somber, formidable Half-Elven of Imladris.

Clearly, then, Mirkwood's youngest prince had no intention of fulfilling the promise he had made to his king. The scout suspected that while he would be rewarded handsomely for his intelligence, the fate awaiting Legolas would be far less pleasant. The scout hesitated at that thought, then shrugged. Legolas' fate was not his concern, nor could it have any impact on what was to come next. The scouting elf's duty was clear, and it was time to see it to its conclusion with all possible speed. Slipping into the shadows, the scout turned toward the Mirkwood stronghold and disappeared.


Lightning flashed and thunder rolled. It was a fierce storm for so early in the season, but its violence continued unabated. The trees whipped hard about in the wind while a blinding rain lashed all of Imladris. The storm had driven everyone indoors hours ago at sunset, for all that it had been too dark to tell the time, and Elrond was contented that it should be so. Seated alone in his library, the Elf-lord twisted Vilya round and round on his middle finger while watching the water creep higher and higher across the grass, ever closer to his beloved books.

So engrossed was he in counting the days, hours and minutes since he had last seen Legolas, so lost was he in letting his dark mood find its match in the fury of the weather, that Elrond very nearly didn't hear the clatter of horses' hooves on the courtyard's cobbles outside. Almost didn't hear, over the howling wind, his sons' voices shouting with a panic Elrond had not heard since they had carried home their mother, half-dead. But hear them Elrond did, attuned as he was to the pitch and timbre of those voices since Elladan and Elrohir had first drawn breath to cry at their birth.

The Elf-lord's heart pounded, his breathing came fast and shallow as he bolted through the library, out through the main doors, and down the steps into the courtyard. He was in time to see Elrohir leap from his white gelding and take the steps two at a time, while Elladan paused only to command both their mounts to stand, steaming and shivering, at the base of the steps in the cold rain.

His sons were alone. Glorfindel was not with them, nor was--

Elrond's heart nearly stopped.

The twins carried no limp form in their arms as they came this time, but their alarm was no less than the last time they had stood here in fear. Water poured over Elrond, instantly plastering his robes to his body as he stood shivering as well, and Elrohir skidded to a stop at the head of the steps.

"They took him," the usually silent twin gasped, wiping water from his eyes. "Dol Guldur was safely behind us, Mithrandir had departed for Orthanc. We were beyond Mirkwood's borders, and they took him. While he was on watch. I told him he shouldn't be alone. Told him--"

"We both told him, Father." Elladan slid up beside his brother. "Glorfindel offered to watch with him, but Legolas said no, that Glorfindel needed to rest after Dol Guldur. The Wraiths had been averted. Truly, we thought the danger had passed. We all believed it to be so."

Elrond's heart constricted in his chest. "The Wraiths took him?"


"We'd have heard them screaming, or felt them and awoke if they had been near."

"Then who took him?" Elrond demanded, taking Elrohir's arm and very nearly snarling. "Tell me."

"We found his bow."

"And his arrows in their quiver."

"Unbuckled. As if he had set it on the ground and walked away."

"His knives were in their sheathes."


"He didn't fight. The grass was undisturbed."

"He took only his horse."

"He could have awakened us with but a word, but--"

"But he didn't because--"

"WHO TOOK HIM?" Elrond thundered.

Elrohir jumped back, startled. "We think he knew his captures, else he'd have fought. Whoever it was, we think they took him to Thranduil."

"The trail led into Mirkwood, Adar. They took him home." Elladan fell silent and could no longer meet his father's gaze.

Horror and mortification reflected in Elrohir's grey eyes. "We failed him."

"We will get him back," Elrond ground out. "Come with me."

Whirling, he strode up back into Imladris and headed for his private chambers with his sons on his heels.

"Glorfindel stayed behind, said he'd watch the fortress and talk to any guards who would talk to him," Elladan continued, as he all but trotted along in the wake of his father's sweeping stride. "Glorfindel knows some of them."

"Glorfindel said he'd visited Mirkwood before settling here with us." Elrohir was babbling now, and Elrond idly realized that this was the most he'd ever heard his son say. He could also hear his son's teeth chatter with the cold and the stress.

"Glorfindel traveled with Mithrandir," Elrohir relayed. "He introduced the wizard to Thranduil."

Pushing into the inner bedchamber, Elrond pulled his longsword down from the wall. It desperately needed oiling, but there was no time, it would have to be tended on the road. Elrond claimed its sheath a moment later. Sliding home the sharp blade, Elrond blessed the Elven workmanship that saw its leather as strong and supple as the day it had been tooled.

"We went to relieve Legolas and found his weapons on the edge of the glade," Elladan relayed. "We brought them home, they're downstairs tied to my horse." He stared to see his father stripping off his wet robes. "Adar, what are you doing?"

Throwing back the lid of a trunk, Elrond retrieved a set of light armor with a mail overskirt and belt. "I am going to bring Legolas home."

"You're... leaving Imladris?"

"It's the only way to reach him. Thranduil isn't going to deliver him here to me again."

"Let us change, Ada, into something dry--"

"Why bother?" snapped Elladan. "We'd only be soaked again before we reached the horses. But we'll need new horses. Ours are exhausted, pushed too far. We'll ready yours as well, Adar."

"No," replied Elrond. "You two must remain here. You're exhausted as well."

"Adar, you can't go alone!"

"It took you two weeks to reach me. It will take another two weeks for me to reach Legolas. I do not know how long it will take for us to return, and so the two of you must govern Imladris in my absence. You will need this." Removing the ring of power from his finger, Elrond waited for it to wink into physical existence before pressing it into Elrohir's palm. The jewel winked in the candlelight.

"What?..." Elrond's son stared at the ring, slack-jawed.

"Vilya. It will shield this sanctuary from darkness and intruders. It will also obey your thoughts, so be careful what you think. As your first task, you may concentrate on aiding my journey by stopping the rain within Imladris's borders."

"This is... This ring is one of... of..." Peering down at the ring in his brother's hand, Elladan poked at the metal. "Adar, this is one of the original three? Gifted to the Elven rulers?"

"It is. Use it wisely, my sons."

"No," Elrohir breathed. "Take it back, Ada. It -- it belongs in your hands, not mine. Sweet Elbereth, you can't go."

"I will go." Pulling the armor over his head, Elrond buckled on his sword and cast about for his boots. "I will bring Legolas home."

"You'll need something for the journey ahead," Elladan insisted, following close on his father's heels as they left the bedchamber and headed down the stairs, into Elrond's library.

Elrohir followed somewhat more slowly behind them, staring at the the ring cradled in the palm of his hand and whispering dreads and wonderments that neither Elf-lord nor twin brother had the time or the inclination to pay any attention to.

"I need only lembas and water." Rummaging in a library drawer, Elrond tossed an oilcloth pack at Elladan. "Please see to it, my son, as quickly as possible."

"You'll need snares for rabbits and flint to start--"

"I will start no fires, snare no rabbits. I will travel straight through, stopping only to rest the horses. In that way, I will reach Legolas sooner."

Striding out to the stables, Elrond was only marginally aware of Elrohir and Elladan consulting with each other. Elladan broke off from their group before reaching the gate guarding the fields--hopefully to get the requested lembas and water. Elrond went first to Assassin's stall, to stroke the velvet nose when the stallion's head appeared over the stall door.

"Would that you were sound and could carry me on this journey," Elrond whispered.

Assassin was not, and a final caress was all that Elrond could spare before turning away and considering other equine candidates. The Elf-lord was sick to realize that most of the alternates had lost wind and strength as well in the fire. Time and new breedings would replace what had been lost, but time was a luxury Elrond did not have this night.

He finally settled on two broad-chested, well-built stallions that had escaped the fire. Both were fully trained, but only one had been tested in actual battle. Elrond did not know how he or they would fare if it came to that. He knew only that they were swift and strong and well-favored by both Legolas and Glorfindel. Surely they would carry him safely to Mirkwood and back.

"You will be as safe as we can make you, Adar," Elrohir whispered behind him.

The next words Elrond heard was Elrohir urgently urging Vilya to stop the rain, to clear the skies, and let the light of Elbereth watch over him on this journey--Elrond's first in hundreds of years. Elrohir watched the jewel cradled in his palm, hesitated, poked at the ring with an insistent forefinger, then began his entreaties to the ring again.

A broad hand closed over Elrohir's palm, which still cradled the ring of power. Elrond's other hand stroked down his son's soaking wet hair.

"You must put on the ring if you wish it to serve you," the Elf-lord took the time to relay, speaking with a calm he was far from feeling. Taking the ring, he slid it onto his son's middle finger. "For your own safety and that of Imladris, Vilya and its power should be kept secret from all but Elladan."

Elrohir gasped as the ring winked out of view, becoming invisible even to him. He rubbed a finger over it, as if to reassure himself it was still there.

"Yours is now the gift of foresight, Elrohir, be it blessing or curse," Elrond continued. "Yours is also the responsibility of looking after our people."

Capturing his son's hand, Elrond also gained his attention. "Gil-galad gave Vilya to me moments before he was lost in battle, and he left me with as much information and guidance as I leave with you now. Vilya's power helps guard Imladris and all within this valley. The ring is powerful, but it will obey your will. Don't be afraid of it. Counsel with your brother whenever you feel a decision must be made. Together, you will do well, and I shall return in no time."

Elrond turned back to ready his mounts.

"How does it work?" Elrohir whispered.

"Vilya sees whatever you envision. If such a manifestation is within the ring's power, it will see it done. In this way you can control the weather, ease a mother's pain in childbirth, seek to sense the movements of your enemies, and shield Imladris itself from unwelcome eyes. For the moment, return to concentrating on clearing the skies, and let me see to Legolas."

Elrohir nodded jerkily, then squinted at the rain briefly before returning to his whispered conversation with his hand.

Elladan appeared with a satchel of supplies and a black cloak as Elrond prepared to mount.

"The rain is clearing," he announced, settling the heavy cloak over his father's shoulders before strapping two bulging oilskin packs over the stallions.

"That is well." Elrond spared a smile for the still-trembling Elrohir. "Well done."

Elrohir looked momentarily relieved at his success and stood aside with his brother while Elrond finished preparing the horses. Closing his eyes momentarily, he explained to each war-horse where they were going and what might be expected of them.

[The kind one has need of you,] he relayed, sending a strong image to them of Legolas as they had seen him last, at Elrond's side. [Will you help me save him as he fought to save your friends?]

"Adar." Elladan laid a hand on his father's arm once Elrond was astride the horse. "Please take one of us with you. I will go."

Elrond shook his head. "You must both stay here and guard Imladris. If I do not return, this sanctuary is yours. Your task is to keep it and yourselves safe."

Turning his mount, he headed for the same exit Legolas had taken only days before. Behind him trotted the second, younger war-horse, eager to be off and prove himself.

No further farewells were exchanged. The only sound was the horses splashing through the puddle at the gate.

* * *

Elrond relinquished all control to the stallions and let them set their own pace. They ran together, ecstatic at their unexpected freedom. They were also aware of their rider's anxiety, answering his urgency with speed and knowing what was needed to carry the Elf-lord to their other elf-friend, to fly the night away. Vilya's power had stopped the rain as far as Imladris's borders, and the unrelenting, cold rain invaded their journey all too soon.

Pounding down the beckoning open road, the stallions abandoned it at every opportunity, flying through thick forest and over fallen trees to ford rivers and gullies with a surefootedness that terrified Elrond as much as it reassured him that he'd chosen the right companions for this journey.

The horses agreed upon their path without consulting their rider, leaving him a mere passenger as they followed paths only they could see. They carried the Elf-lord easily on the night-wind and through the still-blinding rain, shaving off valuable minutes at Elrond's quiet urging. He relaxed into the trust he shared with these creatures, letting them see him safely to Legolas. Elrond knew that they could not continue indefinitely like this, but they shared his eagerness to reach Mirkwood, and he let them go as they would as he held onto the hope that Legolas would be waiting safe at the end of their days-long journey.

Bending low to the stallion's neck, Elrond let him make his own way while the Elf-lord's thoughts traveled on. [He was right. Legolas was right.]

Elrond groaned under that knowledge. Was Legolas also right to assume that Thranduil's rage at their not bonding would have more serious consequences than his locking Legolas in a dungeon cell? Legolas had not fallen to the Wraiths in Dol Guldur, so what had been the warning behind Elrond's grim vision?

[His captors were not brave enough to try taking him on the way into Dol Guldur,] Elrond reflected. [The risk of alerting both Wraiths and those Legolas traveled with was too great. And so, his attackers must have watched and waited until the mission was completed, until Mithrandir had lessened their strength by leaving. They had the patience to wait until Legolas was alone, knowing that he would choose to surrender rather than endanger his companions, regardless those companions were obviously from Imladris.]

Tree branches whipped at Elrond's face: he barely felt them. [Legolas is clearly unbonded, clearly still only Thranduil's son and not my mate,] his thoughts hurtled on. [Legolas was discovered and ordered taken, exactly as he foresaw. Of that, I have no doubt.]

Elrond changed mounts soon and circling once to get his bearings by the moon before heading off again. Still his thoughts cycled, flooded with fury, blame and regret.

"I love him," Elrond whispered into a velvet ear, which flicked back toward him, listening. "I want him back safe with me in Imladris, as safe as my own sons."

Elrond halted their journey at dawn, when the threat of orcs attacking was lessened and the horses could graze and rest in peace. The night would be Elrond's day for weeks to come, and what little sleep he allowed himself would be found in full sunlight.

Dreams of Legolas haunted his waking sleep--how could they not--with some so vivid that Elrond found himself burying his nose in his beloved's hair to inhale the fresh scent of it. Hugging the lithe, muscular body to him, the Elf-lord drew back to see vivid blue eyes staring up at him, trusting and wary all at once.

More than once, Elrond awoke at sunset from such a dream with the horses circling restlessly beneath the tree where he had taken shelter, having learned Elrond's schedule and urging him to the night's run.

It rained the entire way, days and days of it, until Elrond blessed his son for giving him the cloak that wicked the water away and keep him relatively dry. The rain was cold and constantly in his face, so that it touched even an Elf: his skin and his lips grew numb.

He pushed to travel twenty hours a day, allowing the horses only four hours of rest and knowing that he was treading dangerously close to the limits of their endurance. They made no complaints, only adjusted to his demands and slept more deeply during the day, occasionally even collapsing to stretch out in the grass for a few moments of slumber.

Regardless Elrond's watchcare, he lost the older stallion a week and a half into the journey: orcs waylaid them as the three travelers prepared to cross a swift-moving river at dusk. Drawing his sword, Elrond fought them off as the young stallion beneath him reared and struck out with flashing hooves before and behind.

The orcs quickly abandoned their efforts, turning instead to concentrate on the other horse that seemed easier prey. Rolling back an eye, the older stallion bared his teeth and lunged at the closest orcs. Whirling in a circle, the stallion bucked continuously to slam the nearest attackers against trees and boulders. Rearing, he slammed others, stomped them to death.

The older stallion bellowed loudly when Elrond urged his mount closer to the fight. Shaking his head in their direction, the stallion bellowed again and Elrond felt the animal beneath him tremble.

Abruptly and without warning, the younger stallion deliberately disobeyed Elrond. Whirling, it crouched and leaped into the flowing river beside them, to carry an unwilling Elf-lord away from the fight. Tears blinded Elrond as the stallion left behind bellowed his approval and screamed with a furious determination. Clinging to the mane, Elrond looked back in time to see the war-horse fight closer to the river in an effort to follow his companions. For a moment, Elrond thought the horse just might make it, but a sudden shower of blood from the stallion's white belly told him an orc had managed to get in what would prove to be a fatal blow.

The orcs cackled as the war-horse crashed down, screaming in pain. Mercifully, the screaming stopped as the roar of the river drowned out all other sounds. Turning away, the Elf-lord knew that they were alone on their journey now.

Carried but a short distance downstream, Elrond's remaining mount swam for the farther shore and stumbled out of the water. Sliding off of the stallion's back, the Elf-lord clung to the mane and breathed heavily. Resheathing the sword he still held in his hand, Elrond wiped the rain from his eyes and gazed across the river to where something large and shining white lay still on the ground. The orcs surrounding it leaped and danced in obvious delight.

Circling slowly around Elrond, the remaining stallion called to his friend, but there was no answer. Laying a hand across the horse's withers, Elrond tangled his fingers in the long mane and leaned against the wet hide as the ribs heaved beneath him, pulling in great, panting breaths.

"Peace be with you, my friend," Elrond whispered to the distant shore. "May you walk with Elbereth and run forever with the other companions of your life who were parted too soon from us as well."

The young stallion walked away from the shore and headed into the surrounding trees. Halting, he looked back as if to make certain Elrond was following. [Horse-friend is no more. Elf-friend is waiting.] The thought was all but shoved into Elrond's mind.

"Yes. Legolas is waiting." Elrond followed the horse.

When the river could no longer be seen, the stallion turned back to nuzzle Elrond's hand. Weary and heartsick, Elrond climbed astride the animal. Grasping the mane with both hands, he swore softly through gritted teeth and took a moment to hug the shining neck. The moon was rising. The clouds were clearing, the rain had stopped.

"Thank you for saving my life. We have lost one friend, we shall not lose another. Can you continue on?" he asked softly of the stallion.

The horse walked further into the moonlit forest. The rain had been nothing to this one, the cold meant even less as the stallion walked on, seeming to search for something. Another few minutes, and the horse had found a narrow game trail. Breaking into a smooth canter, the animal forged ahead without hesitation. Elrond ran a hand down the horse's neck in thanks, hoping that his gratitude was understood.

"Death will not claim another, and Thranduil shall not have Legolas," Elrond growled, settling into the rhythm of the horse. "He is ours."


**Sinking deeper into the warmth of the bed and burying his nose in the soft pillow, Legolas smiled to hear Elrond moving about in the outer chamber. The low rumble of the Elf-lord's voice offered comfort, as did the reflected light of the fire dancing on the walls. Closing his eyes, Legolas drifted off into sleep. Moments later, he felt the bed dip and Elrond's body pressed close against his back. A long arm snaked around his middle, and the Elf-lord's other hand reached up to comb his fingers through Legolas' hair. Murmuring softly in contentment, Legolas shivered at the affectionate gesture, only to come bolt upright and gasp when Elrond bit his neck hard enough to draw blood. **

Waking abruptly from a fevered dream, Legolas grabbed the rat scrabbling for purchase on his shoulder and flung it hard away. The rodent slammed against the far wall of the cell with a satisfying thud. The moment of silence following the impact was broken when the scratching sound of claws on stone marked the rush forward as the stunned rat was set upon violently by its fellows. Tumbling and biting in the darkness, they feasted on the welcome meal while Legolas subsided against the damp rock wall of the cell. The rats were not terribly picky about dining while their meal was still among the living, as he knew all to intimately, but at least he would have a few moments respite before they turned his way again.

Wiping a hand down his neck, the elf felt the sticky warmth of his own blood. Shivering, he pressed closer to the wet cell corner he'd claimed and rolled tighter into himself.

His waking dreams had gone beyond nightmares to the point that Legolas feared he had begun hallucinating. Tortured by memories of Imladris whenever he dared to close his eyes, the Elf fought to stay awake. There were other reasons to stay ever watchful and avoid surrendering to sleep, for the starving creatures he shared the dungeon cell had proven all too willing to eat him alive. If Legolas dared to be still for any amount of time or let himself fall into sleep, the rats leaped on his feet or gnawed at his arms. Their particular treat seemed to be the ends of his fingers.

Legolas knew all too well the rats' hunger and desperation, for he shared it. Mithrandir had brought food and light the first time Thranduil's youngest had been imprisoned beneath the stone keep. The wizard had not bothered to seek the king's permission, and Thranduil had pointedly ignored Mithrandir's kindness and compassion. At that time too, the wizards' visits served Thranduil's purpose: the old man came to ask if Legolas yielded to his father's demands that he go to Imladris and be bonded to Elrond. The fact that the messenger brought a meal with him was of no interest to the King.

Now, apparently, the delivery of food still was not of any interest to Thranduil, as none ever appeared in Legolas' dank cell. The elf accepted that his father had no interest in him. No bonding had taken place in Imladris, and Legolas suspected his father had no further demands - or use - for his disobedient son. No one would come because Thranduil required no answer this time. For that matter, Legolas thought the king probably didn't require a son any longer either. Let the rats gnaw, there was no reason to prevent it.

With no cycle of light and dark to guide him, Legolas had lost track of how long he had been captive. Last time, he had spent six weeks in the darkness. There had been no rats attacking him, or at least there had been food enough to satisfy their hunger before they began eyeing him as a food source. Last time, his cell had been dry. Last time, there had been a voice that had spoken to him kindly from time to time.

This time, the small cell assigned to Legolas abutted the river. Early exploration in the darkness had informed him that foul water unfit for drinking all but buried a twisted corner grate that was too small for him to fit through, which made escape impossible. Unfortunately, it was not too small for the rats to gain entrance.

Water pooled on the dirt floor, rising through the grate when the river ran high. Between exploring the possibilities for escape and Legolas' constant pacing in the early days, he had churned the water to mud. How many days had it been since he had sank to the dirt floor, despairing of ever gaining his freedom? He had no idea. Not that it mattered, keeping track of the rising and setting of the sun. Likely he'd never see the sun again.

No one came this time at all, not even the odd guard to check on him, and the silence beyond the iron door told Legolas that the rest of the dungeon was deserted. It was as if he lay forgotten by everyone in Mirkwood and everyone beyond its borders as well. As for Thranduil himself, Legolas had not seen his father before being cast into the dungeon.

His longing for a bit of food was fading as the days passed, and the easing of the gnawing hunger as his belly accepted the inevitable was a mercy. But more than that, Legolas longed to be warm and dry and clean. He longed also to look on Elrond one last time before he died, to thank the Elf-lord for the comfort of his home and the gentle ministrations of his heart and his hands. To thank Elrond for showing Legolas what it was like to feel welcomed and loved.

Sometimes, he thought perhaps he was going mad in the darkness. He had come to fear that all he remembered, all he had come to love while with Elrond had been nothing but a dream created by his fevered brain in the confines of the dank cell. But how could it all have been a dream when the very seal of Elrond's house was still seared into the palm of Legolas's hand?

Taking a desperate, deep comfort in the scarring, Legolas traced it over and over again, closing his fingers and cradling his hand to his chest, and smiling to remember the close care Elrond had taken with the injury. Legolas remembered too the small comforts and caresses he had been gifted with during his stay in the Elf-lord's sanctuary. No one other than Elrond knew of the seal and no one would, so that no one could take it from Legolas.

Not even the rats, he thought as clenched his fingers fiercely around the branded palm. Not while I still live. After that, the rats and the river were welcome to have their way with his flesh and his bones. The guards that had set upon Legolas on the borders of Mirkwood had made him lose his beloved knives, had made him leave his beloved bow on the forest floor, but nothing could separate him from the deep, scorching scar that marked him and reminded him that once, in all but body, he had belonged to the Lord of Imladris.

Sometimes Legolas dreamed of Elrond riding over the long miles that separated Imladris from Mirkwood. He dreamed of the Elf-lord coming to rescue him as Elrond had promised to do. Even as the dream comforted his heart, it panicked his mind. Elrond should not, could not come for him. Had Legolas himself not warned the Elf-lord to avoid Thranduil, to avoid confrontation elf to elf and kingdom to kingdom, to stay safe in Imladris?

Elrond cannot come, he must stay safely there, Legolas thought in sadness, closing his fingers slowly over the palm of his hand. Thranduil would only hurt and starve him as well.

* * *

The mist had rolled in with the setting sun, thick and heavy to cloak all of Mirkwood in chill gray shadows. Shivering slightly where he was perched in a tree outside of the main gates guarding Thranduil's keep, Glorfindel cocked his head and listened. The sound of a horse's hooves whispered across the damp leaves covering the forest floor, and the Elf-lord peered in vain through the mist. Was a lone horse and rider sneaking through the Mirkwood night, or was the animal only returning home alone after having dumped its rider?

Glorfindel was certain of one thing: the intruder was no one come to help him save Legolas. Barely enough days had passed for the twins to have reached Elrond, much less for any liberators sent by the Lord of Imladris to have reached Mirkwood--except for perhaps an advance scout. More than one champion would need to be sent for any rescue effort to succeed.

The mist swirled and cleared as the horse drew nearer, so that finally Glorfindel could see its rider. Halting only a few feet away, the cloaked figure slid silently to the ground and whispered a command into one velvet ear. No guard from Mirkwood was this: Glorfindel would have recognized the long limbs and large, tense frame of the Lord of Imladris anywhere.

"Elrond," Glorfindel hissed through the mist.

Whirling, the Elf-lord stared up at Glorfindel's tree. Throwing back the hood of his cloak, he locked gazes with his friend a moment before Glorfindel dropped to the forest floor. Elrond's gelding snorted and danced with alarm, but a gentle touch and whispered word was enough to calm the animal.

"I thought you might come," Glorfindel said softly, laying a hand on Elrond's shoulder. "At the same time, I hoped you would not."

"How could I not?"

"By simply stay home and leave the fighting to others." Glorfindel offered a weary smile in answer to the deep frown he got in response. "Who, pray, is protecting Imladris?"

"My sons." Shaking water from his cloak, Elrond glanced at Mirkwood's gates. Torches burned there, winking and hissing in the rain. "Is Legolas within?"

"He is. Those who took him from under our noses were a group of Mirkwood warriors whom Legolas considered his friends. Twice Thranduil has forced them to betray their friendship."

"How do you know this?" The elven lord sought answers, but his gaze never strayed from the gates, as though seeking to see what he desired within.

"They told me. I see them quite often, twice a day in fact. They've opened their hearts and shown me their despair. They've also been quite kind about keeping me informed of goings on within. And they've fed me," he added, almost as an afterthought. "I was not subtle in my pursuit, so all of Mirkwood knows I'm here--including Thranduil I would assume. I couldn’t find a way to sneak within, and I've been perched in this tree for days waiting for some opportunity to present itself, so I'm sure they're expecting someone to join me. I doubt, however, that anyone expects the someone to be you. Why did you not tell me that Thranduil imprisoned Legolas and forced him to come to you in Imladris?"

"That sort of betrayal is no one's business," said Elrond. "If Legolas had wanted you to know, he would have told you."

"What sort of a father could do such a thing?"

Elrond pointed toward the gates. "That sort. The sort who would have his son abducted by his friends. The same sort who wished his son to bond with me regardless the misery that would follow." Elrond scowled. "If all of Mirkwood knows you are here, then why have you not gone in to retrieve Legolas?"

"The patrols are quite friendly, but they've made it clear I'm not welcome beyond those gates. They are not afraid of me--what can one Elf do, after all, against all the host of Mirkwood? They are afraid of Thranduil, of what he can do when he is displeased. I think that is what is holding them back. And, therefore, it detains me as well."

"We shall see." There came a sudden tension to Elrond's body, a smoldering fury in his gaze. He gestured imperiously. "Go on."

"Mirkwood knows me from when Mithrandir and I visited before joining you in Imladris. Therein lies the rub: Thranduil knows that I dwell with you, and he won't let me in. While they have been half-expecting a company of Elves to come and offer negotiation for Legolas, you personally have not left Imladris in centuries. In any case, they wouldn't believe that you would come to claim their prince."

"And why not? He is mine."

"Erm... not quite yet he's not. To Thranduil and his minions, your failure to bond with Legolas indicates a significant lack of desire to do so. The gossip has it that Thranduil blames his wayward son for failing to keep his agreement. Privately, the citizens of Imladris believe the responsibility is yours. They say you are certainly grieving the loss of Celebrian and have no interest in taking another mate. Regardless where the blame is laid, the result is the same: Thranduil has thrown Legolas back in the dungeon."

"What?" Elrond hissed.

"It's all quite justified from Thranduil's point of view," Glorfindel said almost conversationally. "Your Elf is accused of deliberately destroying the alliance between Imladris and Mirkwood. Basically, he's been imprisoned for committing treason toward king and kingdom."

"That is absurd."

"That is the tale carried by the guard of Mirkwood."

"Legolas knew this would happen. He tried to warn me, but I would not listen. I thought my authority and my word was enough to keep Thranduil at bay."

Glorfindel eyed his companion. "Why have you not bonded with Legolas? Do you not love him?"

"Of course I love him!" Elrond growled. "I am all too willing to bond with Legolas if he loves me, but he does not. I had hopes that, in time, Legolas might come to regard me with some affection. Obviously, Thranduil is unwilling to give him that time. It is my fault he once more finds himself in whatever black place Thranduil has thrown him."

"Then Legolas' imprisonment is indeed Thranduil's fault," Glorfindal concluded. "He's the one who isn't respecting your betrothal."

Elrond didn’t reply, his gaze raking across the gates closed tight and high against him.

"I know where your prince is being kept," Glorfindel offered.

"That's some small progress."

"But as I said, I can't get past the guard," Glofindel continued. "What is your plan of attack?"

"I will walk in and claim what is mine." A deep, calm fury was reflected openly in Elrond's austere face.

"Woe take any Elf who thinks to stand between the Lord of Imladris and his love," said Glorfindel. "But what is your plan?"

"But what is your plan?" Glorfindel demanded.

"I am going in the front door."

"Right down their throats?" Glorfindel worried his lip and nodded. "Suicidal but effective. I like it. I'll go with you."

* * *

The two Elf-lords exploded from the treeline at a gallop, riding abreast and pushing for Mirkwood's gates. Swords held aloft, they bellowed as if battle-crazed, which Glorfindel had every reason to suspect Elrond was. Running to the gates from every corner of Mirkwood, the guards assembled a line of defense, drew their weapons, and yelled a warning.

Elrond growled a command, and the horse beneath him surged forward. Glorfindel knew that gelding, knew him to have only only five summers under his hooves and green battle-training by none other than Glorfindel himself. Still, the gelding had a greater stride that the horse Glorfindel rode and so, left behind despite himself, Glorfindel watched in helpless disbelief as Elrond's horse carried himself and his rider ever closer to the band of elves who were sworn to defend, even if it meant destroying and Elf-lord. the Lord of Imladris.

Or two.

Shouting his own command, Glorfindel rode to catch up. Only a few yards away, the guard showed no signs of breaking as Elrond rode them down.

"Will you ride through them to your death?" Glorfindel yelled as Elrond lowered his sword and set himself in balance. "That will certainly help Legolas."

Leaning over his horse's neck, Elrond gave no answer but urged his companion to even greater speed. Surely the line will break, thought Glorfindel. Surely it will not, said the set faces of the guard.

Glorfindel sensed Elrond's command the moment it was given. Resisting the urge to close his eyes and avoid seeing his dearest friend impaled on Mirkwood spears and swords, Glorfindel watched helplessly as Elrond's mount gathered himself and leaped over the heads of the Mirkwood guard. Oh, Elbereth, he did it.

Having watched Elrond for far too long, Glorfindel was ill-prepared to execute the same move. Pulling up, he wheeled his gelding about and watched the guard falter. Should they go after the Lord of Imladris who was now clattering his way over the cobbles up to the keep's front door, or should they reform to confront the second Elf-lord who was riding back now to attempt the same move as his predecessor?

Glorfindel evidently did not look as deadly as the Elf-lord that had tried to trample them, so they turned their attentions back to Glorfindel and reformed their line. Setting himself, Glorfindel rode hard at them. Circling his sword slowly over his head, he bellowed a challenge in his native Gondolic - a tongue all but lost with Gondolin's fall, but still good for bloodcurdling curses whose meaning was clear in any language.

This is fun, thought the Elf-lord seconds before reaching the line of ashen-faced, shaking Elves who broke ranks at the last minute. Haven't had a good fight in at least an age. Scattering, they fell back as the waves of the sea parted on the shores of the Grey Havens for Cirdan's ships.

He caught up with Elrond just as the Elven lord kicked open the heavy wooden door to Thranduil's keep, caught the guard waiting beyond on the nose and sent him sprawling. There was muffled howling, followed by rather moist cursing as the guard tried to stem the flow of blood from his nose, which he seemed to find far more pressing than the intruder himself.

"I think you broke his nose," Glorfindel observed idly, slapping Elrond's cloak aside as it threatened to tangle Glorfindel in it.

A healer Elrond might have been, but he spared not a glance at his bleeding victim before heading for the next guard in line. Raising his sword, the Elf-lord growled, "I am Elrond, Lord of Imladrism, I mean you no harm. I have come to claim my prince, and you will let me pass."

Giving a slight bow and saluting, the guard fell back. Elrond stalked on.

I'd find it hard to believe he meant me no harm if he held that sword over me, Glorfindel decided. He grinned and nodded at the startled guard before following Elrond.

"I am Lord Glorfindel of the House of the Golden Flower," he called over his shoulder. "It's good to see you again, Daeron. Please give Thranduil our regards, as I don't believe Elrond has a mind to pay him the courtesy of a personal visit. Hope you and yours are well."

"Thank you, Lord Glorfindel," Daeron said cheerfully. "Always a pleasure to have such honored guests in hall.

"Where are these dungeons?" Elrond bellowed ahead of him.

"Two more corridors, then turn left. No, not that corridor, THAT one. You're wanting that hallway, and mind the stairs, they're slick. The dungeons are below."

A lone guard was posted at the stairway. A wobbling sword was raised to block Elrond's path, the young Elf's face a mask of determination and fear. "My lord, I cannot allow--"

Elrond slapped the blade aside, loomed over the elf and glowered. "Get by."

Sliding up beside the Elf-lord, Glorfindel smiled. "Probably a good idea if you'd like keep all appendages. We'll tell everyone that you tried your best to stop us."

The Elf nodded nervous agreement to Glorfindel and backed hastily out of the way.

"Keys would be a nice afterthought," the Elf-lord mentioned, holding out his hand.

The retreating guard pitched something toward them before diving around a bend in the corridor, and a ring of keys came sliding across the stones to stop just inches before Glorfindel's boots. Snatching them up, he handed them to Elrond.

"I'll guard your back. Go get your prince."

Sheathing his sword, Elrond accepted the keys and took a torch from its wall sconce. The stairs were wet and slick, he took special care descending them. All below was black and silent, except for the steady, maddening drip of water on stone. Reaching the bottom of the steps, Elrond was confronted by a three-way intersection of tunnels. Cells appeared to line each one.

"Which cell, Glorfindel?" he shouted up the stairs.

"The one furthest from where you are standing, closest to the river."

Elrond took the right fork. The corridor was far too long and narrow for Elrond's liking, its air was dank and foul. Reaching the end at long last, Elrond surveyed the heavy door confronting him. The corridor had flooded in years past, so that silt and dirt and the Valar knew what else had settled against ancient stone and wood and iron. None of the other doors had been opened, but it looked like this one had., for thick waste had been shoved back recently along its hinge-track, and the keyhole of the original locking mechanism was rubbed cleaner than the rest of the door. A new level of wrath claimed Elrond as he eyed a shiny new lock gracing the crampon that held shut the door.

His sword sang, and the lock shattered. Swinging open the cell door, he held the torch high to peer into the gloom beyond. A quick sweep of the small area revealed it to be empty of his golden prince. But it was not completely empty, for a mound of rats occupied with a heap of offal at the far end of the cell scattered at Elrond's invasion, leaping in every direction and falling over themselves to evade him and his light. Some tumbled into the water rising up from the river, and the sound of their splashing made louder beneath the oppressive stone.

His heart sank to find the cell empty, but then the mound of refuse fetched up against the stone wall twitched. Stepping across the cell, Elrond bent down for a closer look. What he was not river trash, but a booted foot. The booted foot shifted ever so slightly while the owner of the boot moaned softly.

"Legolas?" Elrond's heart felt as though it had frozen in his chest. Forcing himself to breathe, he managed to move across the cell, if only to deny that this poor victim was... was anyone he knew.

Going down on one knee beside Thranduil's latest victim, Elrond wiped away some of the slime covering the Elf's face and saw by torchlight the tip of a delicately pointed ear, the remains of a golden braid above it. Sweeping the light downward, Elrond saw that Legolas lay with his arms wrapped tight about him, as if to ward off a blow. The tips of his fingers were shiny, dripping with what appeared to be fresh blood.

"You shouldn't have come," a weak voice rasped. "But you're not really here, so it doesn't matter." The bloodied fingers closed, and Legolas shuddered. "Don’t bite this time."

Elrond continued his visual inspection only to see that Legolas' clothes and boots were in tatters. Bloody scratches could be seen beneath what remained of the cloth. Dirt was ground into injuries that seemed to be older, while others were far too fresh and still clean.

"Valinor's light, you're being eaten alive."

Tossing aside the torch, Elrond slid his hands beneath Legolas and lifted him into his arms. His prince weighed far too little and offered no protest beyond a soft moan. Nestling Legolas close against his chest, Elrond left the cell and blessed the moon-moss growing on the dungeon walls. Luminescent, it offered a faint light by which the Elf-lord could trace his steps and locate the stairway leading up to the surface.


"We're collecting quite a group up here. It's about time you--" Glorfindel's cheerful tones rang out, only to cease abruptly when he caught sight of the filthy, bloodied shape in Elrond's arms. "Sweet Elbereth, what did they do to him? Please tell me he still lives."

"He was without light, warmth and food. There were also rats. Beyond that, I do not yet know."

Glorfindel led the way through the tangle of corridors and back into the main hall. The main door was in view when a cold voice rang out at Elrond's back.

"Peredhil!" a commanding voice rang out. "You invade my hall, strike down my guards and for what? What could possibly claim your interest here in Mirkwood? My treasure-house is well-guarded and quite in the opposite direction."

Turning, Elrond saw Thranduil standing some distance down the broad corridor. At his side stood a slender, thin-faced Elf that Elrond assumed was the Mirkwood king's eldest son. At least twenty well-armed guards ringed the two royals.

"I come to claim what is mine," Elrond ground out.

"I came to help him." Glorfindel stepped up to stand at the Elf-lord's side, his hand on his sword hilt.

Thranduil smiled. "Lord Glorfindel, I know that you have enjoyed the hospitality of my trees and the conversation of my people over the last weeks. We are friends, and I have no quarrel with you, just as Mirkwood has no alliance with Imladris." His blue eyes grew colder. "Half-Elf, the prisoner you are attempting to claim is a treasonous little brat who keeps his promises about as well as you do. He stays here in Mirkwood."

"The prisoner I claim is my betrothed mate whom you have kept locked in a dungeon cell without food or light, where you left him to become food for rats!"

The guards immediately surrounding Elrond began murmuring as Legolas' bloodied hands and other injuries drew their attention.

Elrond shoved Legolas' limp form against Glorfindel. "Hold him."

Startled, Glorfindel managed to awkwardly cradle the unconscious Elf as Elrond drew his sword and began striding toward Thranduil with deadly purpose.

"You seek my death, Half-Elf? More likely, you will find your own. Is he worth it?"

One of the guards lunged, but Elrond quickly disarmed his attacker to send him sprawling against the wall. Another and yet another were on him next, with the Elf-lord defending himself with cold, deliberate anger. He did not kill his attackers, but none cared to rise and challenge him again. As soon as his way was clear, Elrond stalked once more toward the king of Mirkwood.

"I command you to stop him!" Thranduil bellowed as the guards behind Elrond enclosed Glorfindel.

"Get by," he growled at the latest obstacle that leaped before him. Sword locked sword before Elrond struck the guard on his helmet and sent him spinning into the nearest stone column. The elf smashed head first against the granite and slid unconscious to the floor.

"Here now, what's this?" said Glorfindel from behind Elrond. "I can't exactly defend myself with an armful of prince, can I? If one of you would care to hold Legolas while I take care of your fellows--"

Elrond spared a glance behind to see how his friend was faring as other voices drowned out Glorfindel's protests. Glorfindel was well able to defend himself, and his abilities were legend. He'd killed a balrog: Thranduil's minions posed a miniscule threat. As yet, however, Elrond heard no swordsmacking or cries of agony.

"Carry on, don't mind us," Glorfindel called out, unseen for the crush of the crowd. "We're all fine back here. Yes, see that? That's where the rats got at him. Chewed the flesh clean off, it looks like. Down to the bone, you say? Oh, is that bone sticking out there? Yes, I think it might be. On the other hand, he's really too dirty to tell for certain, isn't he? Have a care there, the mud is making him rather slippery to hold."

The guards' voices strengthened around Glorfindel, and Elrond heard snatches of cursing. The murmurs rose only to fall into low growls and hisses of discontentment and disapproval. What the Elves were disapproving of, Elrond couldn't tell and didn't wait to find out. He kept moving toward Thranduil.

The murmuring spread like wildfire among the remaining guard. Within moments, the men surrounding Thranduil appeared to be deserting their king. Hurrying past Elrond without challenging him, they all seemed bent on reachig Glorfindel and his charge.

Raising a fisted hand, Thranduil bellowed, "Come back here!"

Glancing uneasily at his father, Thranduil's son stepped in front of his father as Elrond finally reached them. Drawing his sword, the slender Elf-prince tightened his grip and took a deep breath. Raising the sword before him, he met Elrond's gaze steadily. "Leave the traitor, and return to Imladris."

Elrond struck the broadsword so hard that it rang. The prince shuddered as the force of the blow traveled up his arms and throughout his frame. Blanching, he shifted his stance but did not move away from his father.

"Your brother is no traitor," Elrond said.

Thranduil sneered over his son's shoulder. "He failed to honor the treaty, you are unbonded, and he had to be returned to Mirkwood. If he is not a traitor, then what is he?"

"He is mine."

"You did not bond with him!" Thranduil bellowed. "As our agreement is forfeit, so is his life!"

Elrond towered over the younger Elf, stood nearly on his toes. "Put down your weapon and let me pass."

"You'll kill my father."

"Elves do not kill Elves."

The prince stared up at Elrond, his puzzled eyes the same light blue as Legolas'. "But my father the king--"

"Your father abandoned Legolas—my Legolas and your brother--to death beneath these stones. As for you, you will get out of my way. Now." Wrapping his strong fingers around the prince's wrist, Elrond applied pressure to a well-known nerve and shoved him aside.

Crying out, the prince let go the sword in order to brace his fall. Elrond caught the sword as the prince went sprawling, and Thranduil scrambled backward, eager to get away from the Elf-lord descending on him with two weapons in hand.

"I sent word to you that Legolas and I were betrothed," Elrond said conversationally, pursuing Thranduil down the corridor. "Did you not receive my message."

"Sauron-spawn, the both of you!"

"You gave us no time to come to know each other, much less to bond," Elrond continued, backing Thranduil against the nearest stone column. The tip of one sword found its way to rest against Thranduil's throat. The other pressed against his belly. "Whatever else you may wish to believe, Legolas is no traitor, neither by intent nor by behavior. We would have bonded in our own good time, as was communicated to you. If anyone here is guilty, it is you with your singular lack of patience, m'lord."

Thranduil's laugh was filled with scorn. "That one is neither good nor faithful, as you will one day discover, should he actually survive his days in my dungeon. I thought to keep him from harming either of us any further. But it seems that you, in your infinite wisdom, have other plans. Fine then, Half-Elven. Take him. Bed him and bond him to you if that is to your liking." Thranduil wheezed and coughed as the swordblade pressed harder against his throat. "May you have joy of each other."

Elrond stared at the glowering king for a long moment. With delicate deliberation, he guided the sharp point of the sword down Thranduil's neck. The Elf-king's blue eyes went wide and his hands flew up to touch his throat, only to find his fingers came away stained with blood.

"So," said the king, again and again exploring the injury that was bleeding enough to stain his robes but not nearly enough to kill him. "I have Mirkwood's treaty with Imladris which you have now sworn personally before all of these witnesses to uphold by bonding with Legolas, and you have drawn my blood. I do not intend to defend myself, Half-Elf. Either kill me or let me go."

"You would like me to kill you, would you not?" Elrond's voice was dangerous and low. "Yes, kill you so that you may travel to Mandos' halls and accuse me of murdering an unarmed Elven king. You would enjoy seeing cast out, and your son with me. That would solve your problems very nicely, would it not?"

"Such a thing never occurred to me." Thranduil's smile belied his denial.

"I have something quite different in mind," Elrond said with a dangerous calm. Reaching out, Elrond spun the shorter Elf about, locked his arm tight around Thranduil's neck, and began dragging him back down the corridor. Thranduili's guard fell back to allow the Elf-lord by. "You called Legolas a traitor. I say that as a father an as Mirkwood's king, you are no less a traitor."

"Your accusation is meaningless!" Thranduil choked, clawing at the long arm holding him in a vise grip.

Relentless, Elrond dragged the Elf toward the doorway leading down into the dungeons. "My accusation is as meaningless as the letters you sent to Imladris, signed in Legolas' name by your own hand. Admit your betrayal and deceit – admit that Legolas knew nothing of your plan to unite my people with yours through sacrificing him."

"He agreed--"

Having reached the stairs, Elrond shoved the Elf-king below. Thranduil stumbled at the top before falling, head over heels, down the slippery, moss-covered steps. Landing in a slime-covered heap at the bottom, Thranduil staggered painfully to his feet.

"Legolas agreed!" Thranduil panted. "He chose to journey to you in Imladris."

"He did," Elrond admitted, descending into the dungeons at a more sedate pace. Behind him came Thranduil's eldest son, creeping cautiously along lest Elrond's fury turn next to him. Following after the Mirkwood prince came other Elves, some bearing torches to light their way.

"Legolas chose to join me after you imprisoned him in utter darkness here for some weeks," Elrond reminded Thranduil.

"He was willful and disobedient to my command," Thranduil protested. "He needed a lesson, needed discipline." Thranduil stumbled backward, taking care to stay well out of Elrond's immediate reach.

"You commanded Legolas to bind himself to someone he did not know and did not love. You did this after deceiving me with letters and a proposal you claimed were his," Elrond pointed out. "The letters you sent to me expressing Legolas' willingness to bond with me contained nothing but lies."

"He came to agree with their substance, if not their sentiment," Thranduil sputtered. "I left the sentiment up to the two of you."

"You speak of sentiment when, as a father, you obviously feel nothing but contempt for your son?" Elrond backed Thranduil further down the dungeon corridor.

"Legolas has ever been a disobedient--"

"I have experienced disobedience in my own sons, which may well be reinterpreted as their desire to defend our lands and those they love the way they know best. Legolas' talents and desires parallel theirs. Mind your head--" Elrond ordered a moment before Thranduil cracked the back of his skull on a low-lying support beam. Thranduil began raining epithets down on Elrond's head as the ceiling rained down bits of dirt and moss, and Elrond gestured shortly. "Keep going."

"What is your intent, forcing me down into this disgusting place?" Thranduil shook the filth from his long blonde hair and glowered as best he could in the torchlight.

"My intent is that you understand fully the undeserved punishment you meted out to Legolas" Elrond said reasonably. "A loving father and king commands through affection and gentle persuasion. You also know that it is the right of every Elf to choose whoever he or she will as their eternal mate. As we rule and serve others, it is our sacred duty to govern and to guide with compassion and honor -- without deceit -- else we are no better than the wraiths who follow the Dark Lord."

"You brought me down here to lecture me. Wonderful." Thranduil grunted. "I don't mind listening or even debating your points, but surely we could do it in the comfort of my great hall? Over a goblet or two of that fine ale you sent us the other week?"

"That particular setting does not suit my plans for you, just as it did not suit you where Legolas is concerned. Honor and compassion, the love of a father for his son... I suspect that you have offered little of these things to Legolas. Is it any wonder he rebelled?"

"That is not your concern or his. I commanded him as king." Thranduil fetched up against a dirty iron door. With nowhere left to go, he watched with obvious apprehension while Elrond bore down on him. "The joining of Imladris with Mirkwood is necessary if my people are to survive."

"And there we have the simple truth," Elrond said wearily, resting a heavy hand on Thranduil's shoulder. "What prevented you from sending Legolas to me with that message? We would not have turned you or your people away. Instead, you created lies and set out to force Legolas to make a loveless bond, to punish us forever. To serve what, your endless pride?"

"To protect my people! By making this agreement between Imladris and Mirkwood one that could not be undone!"

"You seek to protect your people by destroying your son?"

Thranduil opened his mouth again as if to argue the point, only to stand staring up at Elrond as if the thought had never before occurred to him. "It was -- it was for the good of Mirkwood and her people that I--"

"You cornered Legolas, captured him, and ordered him. You imprisoned him when he refused to compromise his honor. You hurt him and hoped to break him. You used him as nothing more than property, something useful in your greedy machinations to grab some of Imladris' prosperity for your own."

"I did not force Legolas! He agreed to bond with you and went to Imladris of his own free will!"

Elrond's fingers dug into Thranduil's shoulder. "What choice did you leave him other than to bond with me or to die in the darkness that even now surrounds us? And what choice do you leave me this day?"

Hard fingers guided Mirkwood's king into the filthy, cramped cell that had so recently been vacated by Legolas. An unwilling Thranduil shuffled back into the middle of the small space only to stare incredulously as Elrond swung closed the door.

"You can't mean to leave me here!"

"I mean to do precisely that." Slamming the door, Elrond turned the rusty lock. Removing the key from its ring, he pocketed it. The heavy iron door muffled the outraged bellowing of the king locked behind it.

Thranduil's son dared approach the Lord of Imladris "My lord, there is but one key to that lock."

"Is that so?" He handed the prince the ring bereft of the key in question.

"I know that you would teach my father a lesson by locking him here as he did my brother. But I would ask that you leave the key in my care, so that when you have gone I might let him free."

"No." Turning, Elrond headed back to the surface, to retrieve the Elf he had come for.

"But my lord...There is no other way out for him."

"There was no way out for Legolas, either." Elrond spared but a glance at the pale Elf following on his heels. "Your father has one thing Legolas did not: servants willing to reach out to him from the other side."

"The... other side?"

"The river side of the cell."

"But there is darkness and rats! And it smells down there. We cannot even reach him to feed him, my father cannot bear this." The younger Elf subsided at the look Elrond gave him. "It will take us weeks to dam up that portion of the river, to drain it and to reach him, my lord."

"Then I suggest you get started."

Reaching the light of the hall, Elrond strode over to the corner where a group of Elven guards were huddled tight. Noting his approach, the Elves parted to reveal Glorfindel squatting on the floor with Legolas braced across his lap.

"Is everything in order?" asked Glorfindel as Elrond gathered Legolas to him.

"It is." Settling the far-too-slight weight in his arms, Elrond cradled the unconscious Elf close and headed for the front doors.

Guards leaped to open it for the little group, to usher them outside. Sweeping through the doorway, Elrond whistled to bring both his and Glorfindel's geldings trotting across the cobbles. Elven guards who had been trying to capture the rearing, biting war-horses scattered.

"Please take Legolas once more while I mount," Elrond ordered.

Keeping an eye on the Elven warriors creeping ever closer, Glorfindel did as he was asked.

"Legolas..." One of the Elves murmured, reaching out to touch the dirt-caked mane that had once been shining gold. The hand traveled on to trace bloodied clothing and rough, torn skin. The Elven warrior's eyes filled with tears. "Our king did this?"

"Yes." Mounting his horse, Elrond pulled the cloak from his shoulders and spread it across his lap. "Glorfindel, if you please?"

Legolas was handed up carefully, and Elrond bundled him into the cloak. Cradling the Elf tightly against his chest, Elrond walked his horse through the still, silent crowd of Elves.

On to next chapters