"I know that you would put as much distance as possible between us and Thranduil, but the horses need to rest," Glorfindel reminded him as the mist lifted off and the rising sun slanted rainbowed beams of light through the trees.
"We are being followed."
"I know," Glorfindel said gently. "They will catch up to us eventually whether we rest or not. But likely they are just as weary as we are and will have to rest sometime as well. We can take the time."
Giving a sigh, Elrond led the way off of the main road. Gazing down at the precious bundle he had carried on his lap until his legs had gone numb, he pressed his lips to the dirty hair and whispered yet another prayer to Elbereth. The horses were secured while Elrond made a bed for Legolas next to the fire.
"I'm off in search of breakfast," Glorfindel announced, "and to ascertain how far behind are our pursuers."
"Take all care," Elrond murmured, holding Legolas in his lap.
"Here," said Glorfindel, handing down his own cloak. "Cover him with this as well."
"All my thanks." Tucking the thick material around his prince, Elrond spared not the slightest glance for Glorfindel.
Legolas stirred fitfully as the sun warmed his face for the first time in weeks. His eyes fluttered open, unfocused for a moment before blinking and clearing.
"Are you awake?" Elrond murmured. Taking a waterskin, he uncorked it. "If you are, can you drink some of this for me?"
Legolas's fingers brushed weakly against Elrond's wrist, trying to reach for the offered water.
"Not too much," Elrond warned, "or it will all come up again."
He managed a few sips before subsiding back against Elrond's arm.
"Are you a rat?" Legolas rasped.
"The rats are gone, and I am real," Elrond said gently, smoothing matted hair away from the high forehead. "We are away from Mirkwood and on our way home, Legolas. You are safe now."
"Safe." Legolas closed his eyes as if the effort to hold them open were too much. "There is no safe place. We are being followed."
"You need not worry about that. Rest now."
"Must worry! The trees say they follow!"
"Yes. I know," Elrond acknowledged. "I'm more worried about you. Can you drink a bit more for me?"
Legolas pushed away the skin. "We cannot linger." He struggled feebly, as if trying to roll over in preparation to gaining his feet.
Spreading a hand across Legolas's chest, Elrond held him down. "Be at peace, my prince. Glorfindel is with us and will sound the alarm should we have to leave quickly. Everything is well."
"Everything is not well." Legolas panted, the small struggle having entirely drained him. Shivering, he burrowed more deeply against Elrond. "You should not have come."
"You belong with me, Legolas. I could not stay away."
Legolas' raw, trembling fingertips touched Elrond's face as if to reassure himself the Elf-lord was solid. "When Thranduil imprisoned me the first time, I wanted nothing less than to go to Imladris. Now, I want nothing more. Please, Elrond. Take me home."
"I will. And no one will take you from me again."
He managed to coax a few more sips of water into Legolas before he drifted back into what was more unconsciousness than sleep. Glorfindel emerged from the trees, carrying the nuts and edible berries he had managed to find.
"Some of these will be for Legolas later today. How is he?"
"He was awake for a few minutes, but seems on the edge of delirium," Elrond revealed. "He has had a bit to drink, but it is far from the nourishment he needs." Tears filled Elrond's eyes as he continued, unconsciously rocking Legolas to him. "We are two weeks out from Imladris, Mirkwood's army is nearly upon us, and my prince is not well. He is dehydrated and starved, beaten by the very stone he was forced to live under."
Elrond ran his fingers down Legolas's arm, captured a hand whose fingers were curled tightly inward. "His poor fingers were food for those rats. I do not know the depth of their injuries, nor those covering the rest of his body. I cannot take the time to examine him right now. By the time I can, it may we be that he is dead. Glorfindel, have I brought him out of Thranduil's madness only to have him die in my arms? Would that we had bonded before he left Imladris, that I could lend him my own strength."
Glorfindel knelt beside him. "It's not too late to bond with him."
"Look at him, Glorfindel. It's far too late."
"The same threats pursue him as before. If you were to join with him, those threats would fade away. It is not too late for it to be of benefit to both of you."
Elrond stared at him. "What are you suggesting?"
"Only that it would solve many problems were the two of you to bond now."
"You would have me take him, wounded and unconscious and delirious? What, am I to have my way with him out here in the bushes? That, you feel, would solve all of our problems?
"Yes" Glorfindel replied firmly, unphased by Elrond's outrage. "The contract would be fulfilled. Problem solved."
"No!" Elrond growled, pulling Legolas hard against him as if Glorfindel himself presented a very real threat. Legolas gave a squeak of protest, one hand lifting inches from his chest to bat away an imaginary rat.
"If you bonded with him, Thranduil's army would stop following us," Glorfindel pointed out, his blue eyes more serious than Elrond could ever remember seeing them. "His father would stop trying to take him from you, and the precious alliance between Imladris and Mirkwood would be forged. You would be allowed to tend your prince at your leisure and thereby almost certainly safe his life."
"By destroying his eternity? No."
"You are a stubborn Elf."
"You already knew that."
Glorfindel sighed. "If that is your decision, then may I suggest that the horses have rested enough, and we should be off." Turning away, Glorfindel kicked dirt onto Elrond's small fire. Making certain it was out, he turned his attention to readying the horses for travel once more.
Elrond eyed his friend with all wariness, feeling a deep shock that the older Elf-lord would suggest such a bonding. Elrond pursued the debate once they were all ahorse and again on the road.
"The bonding you suggest would bring only misery when Legolas has recovered," Elrond ventured.
"You know best, of course." Glorfindel's eyes were fixed on the road ahead. "But at least he would have time to heal and recover, rather than being jostled to death on a horse."
Elrond fell silent after that, concentrating on the fading Elf in his arms rather than pursuing pointless conversation with his oldest friend.
* * *
"We should clear Mirkwood's borders by nightfall," Glorfindel observed as Elrond tried to rouse Legolas at mid-day, in a hopeless attempt to feed him some of the fare Glorfindel had managed to find. "If we ride on another hour after dark, we'll be well out of the army's territory. Perhaps they will turn back."
"Will Legolas last that long?"
Elrond handed back the mashed berries Glorfindel had prepared. Not one bit had found its way into Legolas. "He could die at any time, Glorfindel. And I am powerless to prevent it."
The warrior Elf watched silently as, again and again, Elrond combed his fingers through Legolas's filthy mane.
"Don't you leave me, too," Elrond murmured, seeming to forget he was not alone. "The world would be altogether too lonely a place without you in it."
The day droned on with the small group traveling as quickly as Elrond dared while accommodating both horses and Legolas. Glorfindel offered to carry Legolas some small way, to afford some relief to Elrond's tiring arms and numb legs, but the Elf-lord refused.
"You know, Mithrandir and I discovered a lovely little place while traveling," said Glorfindel. "A small, grassy clearing with a hot-spring feeding into a lake. Perfect place for us to camp tonight, and I'm sure I can find it again. I'll get us a rabbit and make a thin soup for Legolas. What do you say to that?"
"It's a grand plan," Elrond offered, all misery. "You know, I foresaw the cell I found him in? I thought it lay within Dol Goldur, that surely the wraiths would take him. But I was wrong, so terribly wrong. I saw it all -- the black cell, the rats running, and Legolas left for dead."
"That cell is behind you," said Glorfindel, laying a hand on Elrond's shoulder as he rode beside him. "Let it go, for your prince is with you now. Neither one of us shall surrender him to pain and death, either in this life or the next."
"Perhaps the kinder thing would be to let him go."
"Perhaps. But that is not a decision for either one of us to make. We must do what we can to save Legolas, to restore him to you so that you can both love each other long and well."
"He does not love me, Glorfindel."
"I think that he does. Do you remember what he answered, weeks ago now, when you asked him why he had risked his life to save your horses?"
"He said, 'I like horses.'" The memory brought a ghost of a smile.
"Exactly. I've spent some time with Legolas -- admittedly not as much as you have, but enough to see that he is not a complicated creature. He risked his life to save your horses because he likes horses. He stayed with you those weeks in Imladris because he likes you."
Much as Assassin would have done, Elrond rolled a disbelieving eye toward Glorfindel.
"Will you at least consider the possibility?" the older Elf-lord pressed.
"Not if it leads to where I think it may lead, which is straight back to the bushes and bonding for us. Give it up, Glorfindel."
"I cannot. Thranduil's own are but scant hours behind us, and I do not believe they will leave off once we cross Mirkwood's border, any more than Thranduil allowed Legolas's friends to avoid taking him on the wrong side of Mirkwood's border. We are powerful, Elrond, but not that powerful, and we are only two. We are also crippled in no small way by your obstinence and inability to define the love between you and Legolas in any way that embraces the physical. At least consider what I am saying, while we ride and tonight while Legolas takes his rest under the stars of Elbereth. Those stars may well be the last light he sees this side of Mandos' Halls."
* * *
The clearing was every bit as lovely in the moonlight as Glorfindel remembered it, regardless its beauty was entirely lost on Elrond. Heading off once more with bow and arrow, the Elf-lord made short work of flushing out and shooting a rabbit. The broth for Legolas was prepared in no time, but Glorfindel found himself eating the rabbit alone, for Elrond was interested in nothing but coaxing some broth into Legolas. The semi-conscious Elf cooperated as best he could, clinging with raw fingers to Elrond only to hiss and draw back as the mangled mess the rats had created sent shards of pain shooting through his hands.
Over and over again, Legolas tried to drink, only to be distracted by his pain until total unconsciousness claimed him. Setting aside the skin full of broth, Elrond looked across the fire at Glorfindel in total helplessness.
"I am losing him."
Giving a deep sigh, Glorfindel gained his feet and gathered his weapons. "I'm going to see how much time we have until Thranduil's warriors reach us. In case you have need of it, the hot-spring lies just over there. Legolas might rest better if he were cleaner and free of the dungeon stink."
Glorfindel paced away without looking back.
* * *
The moon shown down, bathing all it touched in a soothing blue light. Lying in Elrond's arms, his long lashes shadowing his cheeks, Legolas looked as if carved from marble. His breathing grew more shallow as the moments passed.
"I cannot simply watch you die," Elrond whispered, stroking the smooth skin with the back of his hand. "And yet... what am I to do with you? Do I watch you die, or perhaps cause it myself?"
At the very least, Glorfindel's observations on the comfort of warmth and cleansing had merit, and with a sigh Elrond gathered Legolas' limp form more securely in his arms and rose. Carrying the Elf to the edge of the spring was easy enough. Dipping a hand into the water, Elrond found it neither warm enough to scald his prince or cold enough to send him further into shock. Peeling away the clothing that was little more than rags, Elrond wept anew to see the biting and bruising on the porcelain skin. Gathering Legolas close once more, Elrond blinked away the tears to see clearly where he was entering the pool.
Handful after handful of warm water caressed and cleansed Legolas, who remained still and oblivious to Elrond's ministrations. Whatever miracle of awakening and healing Elrond prayed for, it did not happen while they were in the pool.
"So you've changed your mind?" Glorfindel's voice intruded halfway through Legolas's bath.
A stream of Elven curses met the question, with Elrond snatching Legolas close, away from prying eyes before glowering up at the Elf-lord. "What are you doing back here? What news do you bring?"
"Legolas is finely made, isn't he? Beautiful. Do you realize that you left your sword back by the fire?" Glorfindel let some of the old mocking cheerfulness creep into his tones. "What if I had been the enemy?"
"Glorfindel, at this point in time, I daresay you might be. And I could cheerfully kill any intruder with my bare hands. Go away."
"Thranduil's army is nearly upon us. Just thought you'd like to know, and there's nowhere for us to go. My bow is ready, my arrows are at Legolas' service. You might wish to retrieve your sword and make a good showing of it before we're demolished."
"Do you mind?"
"It was only a suggestion." He nodded complacently. "Or I can defend our camp by myself. Not unreasonable odds, that one Mirkwood army against one elven warrior. I almost feel sorry for them. But do carry on, Elrond. I'll go defend."
The Elf-lord disappeared behind the thick vegetation surrounding the pool. Holding his breath, Elrond also held Legolas and listened for the sound of Glorfindel's retreating steps. Reassured by what he heard - as well as by what he did not hear in the next few minutes - Elrond finished bathing Legolas, only to lean back in the water and contemplate the situation.
"If you could hear me, what would you choose, my love: life with me or freedom in death? I wish that I knew." Elrond traced the fine eyebrows, the narrow nose with a finger. Bending, he let his lips touch as well. "You must know that I love you, Legolas. You are young, life is a kingdom waiting for you. With me, would you not also have freedom as well? And would I not be happy, merely to see you each day?"
His fingers cupped a fine-pointed ear, dwarfed by the size of Elrond's hand. His fingers trailed down Legolas's throat, smoothed across the chest that rose and fell ever more shallow.
"My prince, my Legolas," he whispered. Pulling the lithe body ever closer, Elrond whispered into the ear he had only just caressed. "One day, I may see forgiveness in your eyes for what I am about to do to you, but I doubt it. I may be damned for all time and eternity, but I cannot bear to lose you."
With tears falling like silver jewels into the warm pool, Elrond set about loving Legolas. With reverent hands and lips he worshipped, drawing a despairing response from his own body and one from Legolas as well. Bending over his lover, Elrond took Legolas as gently as he could. A new bond sparked and exploded between them, only to subside into a steady pulsing inside his own mind. Warm water cradled Elrond as he cradled his bonded mate.
"You are forever free now of your father and his threats," he whispered into a delicate ear, pressing his cheek against his prince. "You will no doubt hate me as I hate myself, but you are free."
* * *
"We mean you no harm," said the she-elf leading the army of Mirkwood as no few of its members surrounded Glorfindel. "Those you see here have known Legolas since he was a babe, and we love him. We know you as a friend as well, and Elrond is not our enemy no matter what tales Thranduil may spin."
Still Glorfindel refused to stand down: twin blades were held at the ready. It was forbidden that Elf-kind should slay Elf-kind, but if that was what it took to defend the Lord of Imladris and his prince, Glorfindel would do so. "What are your intentions this night?"
"Thranduil ordered us to bring back Legolas," another Elf spoke, lowering his bow and stepping forward to speak more closely with Glorfindel. "But each of us has seen or heard of the harm our king has caused him. Legolas, Thranduil said, has committed crimes against Mirkwood. We say that the crimes visited upon a younger son by his father are far greater. Thranduil may say whatever he pleases, but we many of us saw the truth with our own eyes. Those who have not believe the horrified witness of others who have."
Another Elf spoke. "I am one who saw Legolas." He held out a small leather pouch. "Lord Elrond will need these."
"What are they?"
"Herbs, salves and oils to help heal our prince. I saw his wounds and fear their extent. Please allow us to help. Elrond will know what is to be done with what we give him."
Glorfindel took the pouch, trying not to snatch in his eagerness.
"We brought also these clothes, to replace those damaged these weeks." Another satchel was passed to Glorfindel. "Please, won't you stop running? Stop risking Legolas' life for fear of losing him?"
Glorfindel eyed the Elf before him. "You're a healer, aren't you?"
The Elf nodded earnestly. "I tended our prince's birth, I would not harm him for all of Arda."
"The army surrounding you means you no harm," the she-elf interrupted, "for you travel with the Lord of Imladris who did what none of us dared: he brought Legolas out into the light and claimed him within our sight. This patrol would petition your lord to admit two- thirds of Thranduil's army to his lands not to fight Imladris but to settle there and serve Prince Legolas. To live in peace and never return to Thranduil."
"Our mates and our children travel behind us," said the healer. "They creep through the wood and wait for permission to join you on your journey back to Imladris. We could not leave them in Mirkwood, so great is our fear of Thranduil's wrath. But we love our prince and would help you protect him. That is our intent, nothing more and nothing less, to keep safe those we love."
Staring at each of the Elves in their turn, Glorfindel could sense no duplicity. All were woodland Elves, wilder and less peaceful than their Sindarin counterparts, more dangerous in battle and yet more loyal and capable, Glorfindel suspected, than any of Thranduil's inner minion. And their loyalty, it seemed, lay with Legolas.
What am I to do with this? he wondered. "I thank you for your honesty, and your loyalty to Legolas. Wait here for a moment, please."
* * *
A stunned Glorfindel made his way back to the clearing. Elrond was there, dry and clothed once more and tending the fire. Legolas lay close by, his face even paler without the coating of grime, and his hair shining damply in the firelight. His chest rose and fell more deeply and evenly than before, or so it seemed to Glorfindel.
Elrond turned to greet Glorfindel the moment he sensed his approach. Elrond's sword, Glorfindel noted, was close at hand, though still in its sheath. The warrior's keen gaze swept over the Lord of Imladris.
"You bonded with him." It was not a question.
"Legolas is mine now." Elrond's eyes held a sadness that Glorfindel could not hope to fathom. "He regained consciousness a few moments ago, drank all of your broth, and now he sleeps."
"That is an improvement, certainly." Gorfindel could not keep his smile away, though Elrond only glowered at him in answer.
"What news do you bring of Mirkwood's army?"
"They send gifts." Glorfindel held out the pouches he had been given. "The smaller contains healing things, the larger contains clothes."
"Gifts? Why would they bring gifts?" Elrond looked at his friend in confusion. "Healing supplies?" he demanded, reaching up to pull them from Glorfindel's fingers. "Let me see."
"It would seem that I misjudged Mirkwood's army: they have come not to fight and return Legolas to his father, but to join us."
"Join us?" Elrond echoed absentmindedly, tearing into the smaller pouch.
"They seek permission to journey with us to Imladris. To stay."
"Of course they can stay," Elrond murmured absently, sorting through the things he'd been given. "Glorfindel, this is wonderful. Legolas's wounds are clean now, and I can wrap them with what's provided here. This is exactly what's needed, he can begin to heal." The gray eyes were full of joy now, in equal measure to the sorrow Glorfindel had glimpsed only a moment before.
"Elrond..." He followed the Elf-lord around the fire, to Legolas's side. "Were you listening to me? Do you not understand?"
"Of course I understand. Look at his poor hands, at his fingers where the rats gnawed. The wounds are down to the bone here, and I had feared gross infection. Yet his other hand - the hand bearing the seal of my house? - that hand is uninjured. How he managed to keep it safe from them I shall never know. He has other injuries--"
"--How could he not have other injuries? I burned his boots, they were ruined. Did they give you new boots for him? The rats chewed those as well, and his toes are in worse shape than his hands. They will take some time to heal, but we have time now."
"Elrond, you must know that I failed you," Glorfindel protested. "You need not have bonded with Legolas because Mirkwood's army--"
"A portion of Mirkwood's army is asking to return to Imladris with us, yes?"
"That means a portion of Thranduil's guard is still loyal to Thranduil, who would never relinquish control of Legolas, were he and I not bonded. They would come against Legolas at the earliest opportunity, which is removed now. Do you not see the truth of your own advice, my friend? No matter. You must help me with these bandages. No wonder Legolas seeks not to be conscious, the agony of these raw nerve endings must be intolerable to him. But he has something warm in his stomach now, and he is sleeping rather than fading, and I can help him now. This is the miracle I needed, Glorfindel - this, and these oils you have brought to me."
"Elrond, could you give me your full attention for just a moment?" Glorfindel snapped. "What am I to tell those from Mirkwood? They wait for your answer."
"Tell them that they are welcome, of course. Imladris turns no one away, most certainly not Elves seeking sanctuary. And we will need them on this journey. They care for Legolas, there are other dangers lurking about, and we will need their help to see him safely home." Elrond continued to lay out the healing supplies within easy, orderly reach of his patient, the spared Glorfindel a glance over his shoulder. "Well? Go tell them and get back here. We've a lot of bandaging to do."
Glorfindel managed a nod before turning to head back to the waiting elves with his head still spinning from the startling turn of events. But in his heart burgeoned a hope that had been impossible only a few minutes earlier. Legolas had a chance now, Elrond had said, and that was all that really mattered.
Consciousness gnawed at Legolas, or perhaps it was the rats. He had become used to it being rats.
Pain beckoned him up from blissful sleep, his fingers and hands and head throbbing. He pulled back, unwilling to claw his way up and open his eyes to empty darkness and agony. Elrond would not be there to love him, or Glorfindel to tease him, or the twins to spar with him.
Imladris was far, far away from his dank cell and nothing was here with him but darkness, dampness and emptiness. Hunger had abandoned as futile its gnawing complaints long ago. And so all that was left to him was darkness and pain. Nothing remained of his life or his future but the anticipation of death. Legolas was ready to embrace death - if death would deign to knife through the pain and take him, long-willing, over to the Halls of Mandos. It would be soon now. Surely it had to be soon. Hopefully Mandos had no rats.
Death, it appeared, smelled of tired horses and the clinging mist that rolled over Mirkwood as the sun sank beyond the damp earth. The river outside his cell now sounded like Elven feet whispering over the ground, like low voices murmuring in the gathering gloom, and the sounds of a camp being set up around him. Was he drawing closer to the Halls of Waiting so that he might hear those already safely within?
Death next felt like a horse shifting beneath him as he was carefully handed down into waiting arms, and his feet were jolted against the ground. Legolas cried out against the raw agony beating through his hands and feet. No, this wasn't death. It had to be Mirkwood's dungeon still, for surely he would leave the rats and pain behind once his spirit had fled his body? Aching with disappointment that he was still alive, Legolas curled in on himself, drawing back into the dark place where he'd been waiting for so long.
"His wounds need tended again." Glorfindel's voice vibrated against him, sounding close to his ear but surely half a world away.
"I'll need hot water and fresh bandages as before," Elrond responded.
"The journey is too hard on him. We should have stopped before this. At the very least, I should have sent him to sleep more deeply before moving him again. Here, give him back to me."
Startled, part of Legolas' numb mind tried to make sense of this new assault. Glorfindel could not be there, any more than could Lord Elrond, and so Legolas fought against the hands unwrapping his bandages, thrashed across the lap of his newest captor. What punishment had his father decide upon now? Did the rats need assistance? Had he injured too many of them, or was he taking too long to die?
Legolas's shoulders were encircled, he was hugged against a hard body. His wrists were captured next, preventing further injury to his naked, hands. Trapped within his mind and certain he was still buried in Thranduil's dungeons, Legolas was aware only that his frantic strength was dissolving. The rats were winning, the rats always won. Much to his disgust, he was powerless to do anything but whimper softly before subsiding against that hard chest. The heartbeat beneath his ear was no less fast or frantic than his own.
"Peace, Legolas," came Elrond's voice again, inside of his mind as well as over his ear. "Be at peace, my own. Let me take care of you, for you are free and you are safe."
Freedom? Safety? The King of Mirkwood and his dungeon smothered all peace, held only darkness and death for his trouble. You make promises you cannot possibly keep, he snarled inwardly-would have snarled out loud but for the pain and exhaustion that pressed him down into the darkness once more.
"The rats will not find you here," the rat using Elrond's voice insisted.
Legolas turned away from that voice, unable to believe it came from anywhere but his own dying imagination, seductive though it might be. He could not want anything more desperately than to be held in Elrond's arms once more, but deliverance was not possible twice from Thranduil's dungeons, and Elrond was safe in Imladris where he belonged.
Fingers gently enfolded Legolas', spread them and stroked across his scarred palm. That roused him, drove him to his greatest efforts. They could eat the rest of him, but they could not have that. Gasping at the sheer agony of effort it took, he closed his fingers over the Seal of Elrond, trying desperately to protect his last treasure from this latest intruder.
"No " he whispered, eyelids fluttering. Cradling his hand to his chest, Legolas folded in upon himself.
Legolas was left alone for a while, he could not know how long. His hands still hurt, and he drifted in and out of semi-consciousness. Eventually, someone tilted his head, and a wineskin was pressed against his lips. Someone rubbed a finger against his bottom lip, coaxing.
"Drink, my own, and sleep," someone whispered, sounding very much like Elrond.
Liquid flowed between his teeth: Legolas choked, then had no choice but to swallow. Elrond's voice still surrounded him, but the words were growing muffled, indistinct.
Whatever dream this is, Legolas thought, it has not bitten me. Let it carry me over to Mandos. What a gift to hear Elrond's voice again, even if it is a rat.
* * *
It was full night when Legolas awoke again to find that he was lying on his side. Gradually, his vision cleared; blinking, he focused on a small fire burning safely in a ring of stones only a few feet away. Fire. That was a startling discovery his muzzy mind turned over for long moments. Light. Warmth. He could smell the woodsmoke. That was impossible in the river-damp dungeon, and he stared at it, trying to see the reality behind this teasing hallucination.
Yes, it seemed to be a fire, and wasn't the warmth wonderful. Finally tearing his eyes away from the beauty of the flames, Legolas let his gaze roam without direction. Moonlight through tree branches was his next discovery; the moon hung huge and heavy in the trees beyond the fire, lending possibility to the thought he was no longer deep beneath Thranduil's keep. Fire and moon and sweet forest scent in his nostrils instead of river muck and stagnant water life instead of death. It was so beautiful, all of it. And it seemed so very real .
Could it possibly be real? Where were the stones? Feeling more lucid than he had in days, Legolas reached out gingerly with his senses, half afraid the forest he found himself in would melt into slick stone and sewage.
A leg shifted beneath him: his head was resting in someone's lap. Fingers were sifting through his hair, gently caressing the shell of his ear. Breathing deeply, Legolas was startled to have Elrond's scent fill his senses. Safety and security were in that scent, all the world to Legolas. But how could Elrond be there with him? For that matter, where was 'here'? Breathing deeply once more, Legolas tried to force his eyes focus beyond the fire.
Elves moved there, Elves carrying knives and bows and arrows, familiar figures from Thranduil's army. Fear spiked within Legolas and he half-raised his head, horrified as his latest hallucination of comfort and rescue dissolved into a new nightmare. He and Elrond were surrounded by Thranduil's warriors, and they would capture not only him again, but the Elf-lord as well. Elrond would be trapped beneath the stones and at the mercy of the rats. He would be taken from Legolas, Thranduil would kill him too, and nothing Legolas did would make any difference. That was far worse than dying alone in the dark by himself.
But wait There was Glorfindel, seated and smiling in conversation next to the fire with an Elf who bore more than a passing resemblance to Daeron, a friend of Legolas's childhood. Other elves wandered closer to the fire, their faces becoming visible for only a moment before they faded back into the darkness, going about their business of the night.
Hallucination? His friends had been used against him in the past, yes, but everyone looked so at peace. The confusion was almost painful, and still he feared for Elrond.
Elrond's hands stilled in Legolas's hair. "You are awake?"
"Yes" he managed, though it was merely a hoarse whisper.
"That is well."
Legolas was lifted up by strong, gentle hands, was urged to lean against the broad chest behind him. Elrond's arms encircled him, and a mug of broth of broth appeared before him.
"Will you taste this for me?"
He tried, but his bandaged hands fumbled with the earthenware. Pain lanced through his fingers, making him hiss despite his determination to be strong, and embarrassment of his clumsiness made him abandon the effort, but his stomach rumbled at the thought of something hot inside it. Elrond's murmured reassurances cradled him. Familiar large hands cradled the mug as well, making certain it did not spill. Elrond's warmth encircled him and seemed to caress his mind, encouraging gently. Sliding his beneath the Elf-lord's, Legolas lifted the mug to his lips.
"Not too fast," Elrond admonished, "else it all may come right back up again."
Legolas hadn't the strength to manage more than a few sips, anyway. Leaning back and closing his eyes, he felt Elrond move beneath him as he set the mug aside. Blankets were gathered, draped around him. A pair of strong arms nestled them in place, and then those arms were around Legolas once more. Finally, his weary mind accepted the possibility of the impossible.
"You came for me," Legolas whispered, turning his nose against Elrond's neck.
"I said that I would."
"I told you not to."
One day, Legolas, you will learn that I never do what I'm told, The Elf-Lord's voice was in his head again. Not when doing otherwise would save your life, even if it means you will leave me.
Leave you? What does that mean? Legolas wanted to voice the question aloud, but could not get the words out. It did not help that Elrond was stroking his hair again and distracting him terribly.
Legolas had other questions and tried to remember them, but failed. The pain was receding and sleep was once again tugging at the corners of his mind. He was floating in a peaceful place he was beginning to half-suspect was herb induced, compliments of the Elf-lord holding him. His stomach was warm and well pleased at being given something more than icy river water. Such comfort was a memory almost forgotten until now.
"It was good," he murmured.
"What was good?" Elrond asked.
"I will tell Glorfindel you liked it."
Elrond braced his chin
against the top of Legolas' head. A moment later, something wet and cold fell
on Legolas' cheek. Legolas wiped it away with his wrist as he could not use
his fingers. Another fell, too slowly and erratically to be rain. Tears? Why
is Elrond crying? Laying his hand atop Elrond's, Legolas could not hold on
to the thought, and so he set it aside for later. It was far easier to bask
in the feeling of being warm for the first time in a long time, of having
something good in his stomach and someone he loved holding onto
him. Until the thoughts returned and he could manage them, Legolas thought he would stay where he was.
The younger Elf's breathing slowed and deepened until Elrond thought him asleep. And then, so softly that the Elf-lord almost did not hear it, Legolas offered, "Thank you for coming for me. I must remember to be unhappy with you later for doing so."
"I've no doubt that you will," Elrond whispered, wiping away more tears. "But we've time for that now."
Glorfindel approached a moment later, kneeling beside the Elf-lord and his charge to retrieve the mostly empty mug and tip what was left of the broth onto the ground.
"Is he worse?" the older Elf asked in dread.
"On the contrary, he has begun healing." Elrond summoned a watery smile. "He liked your broth." Hugging Legolas more tightly to him Elrond kissed the top of the Elf's head before blinking away tears and staring off into the fire.
"I see." If he has begun to heal, then why are you weeping? Glorfindel wondered, Reluctant to force an intrusive discussion with the Elf-lord, Glorfindel went to rinse the mug in the stream and reflected that Elrond was easily the most confusing Elf he knew.
The next few days fell into an easy pattern, with Glorfindel constantly watching a near silent and always somber Elrond, who never let go of Legolas except when he was forced to. The Elf-lord's arms and legs went numb from riding with an armful of Elf stretched across his lap and supported by muscles that, while well-equipped to do the job, were ill-prepared to do it for hours on end.
"Let me carry him," Glorfindel begged every few hours. Elrond had refused at first, until his muscles had warned him that to insist on continuing their abuse meant that he'd find himself dropping his charge into the bushes at the most inconvenient opportunity.
And so Elrond was forced to hand over the deeply drugged, sleeping elf as they rode together. The elf lord hovered over him, watching anxiously as he rode cradled against Glorfindel, though there was no possibility of the young elf being aware of the change in his caregiver. It was great trust indeed that Glorfindel was even allowed to touch him. Having grown more than a little fond of Legolas, Glorfindel decided that getting to take care of the Elf of the crunchy one's heart had to be a special blessing from the Valar.
Sliding off of his horse, Elrond paced ahead of the animal and beside Glorfindel -- the better to keep an eye on Legolas and more quickly force the circulation back into his numb arms and legs. It had been more than a little amusing to watch Elrond's inexperienced war-horse dance and blow when first the Elf-lord had taken to flapping his arms and stomping about in an effort to make the blood flow more rapidly so that he might reclaim his elf. What was frightening soon become commonplace in its frequency, so that the beast now paid Elrond no mind when he repeated his strange stork-like mating dance. All too quickly and several times a day, Glorfindel was forced to return Legolas to his rightful keeper.
Two days later, the lazy walking motion of the horse beneath Elrond had all but lulled him to sleep. Spring had given them their first warm day on the road, with the sun dappling through the trees and the dust motes dancing in the still air. Two-thirds of Mirkwood's army wove their way through the woods behind them, complete with women and children and wagons laden with goods.
More than once on this maddeningly slow journey, Elrond and Glorfindel had discussed the vulnerability of the large group. They were nowhere near the borders of Imladris yet, and every night spent beneath the stars left them open to attack from orcs and wargs.
"I refuse to quicken our pace," Elrond told his friend. "Legolas' condition will not allow it."
"And I am uneasy at the thought of continuing to travel as we are - creeping along like snails through dangerous lands," rejoined Glorfindel, only to have Elrond's burning glare turn his way. "Still, I understand and respect your concerns. We must remain as we are," he added soothingly, but still he had grave concerns.
What good would it do to win back his life now, only to lose it tonight to a creature from the shadows? Elrond ventured, gazing down at the Elf cradled peacefully in his arms. Even as he watched, Legolas drifted in and out of wakefulness. Turning his face to the sunlight and lifting his head, Legolas stretched a bandaged hand up toward the sky.
"That's the sun," Legolas murmured.
"The sun?" Elrond echoed, bewildered. "Yes, that's sunlight. It is day now."
The bandaged hand waved again, wobbling as it reached through the dappled light, weaving patterns back and forth through the streamers of light.
"I never thought to see the sun again," he sighed. His hand became more unsteady, evidently too heavy to hold up any longer. "I like the sun." Legolas turned his attention to Elrond. For all his seeming lucidity, the younger Elf's eyes were unfocused, confused. "Are you a rat?"
"No, Legolas," he confirmed for the eighteenth time that day alone. "I am Elrond."
"Are you real?"
"I am very real."
"And I, Glorfindel, am very real as well," the Elf-lord echoed, riding alongside.
Sighing, Legolas snuggled against his protector. "Sun and Elrond and Glorfindel. You're a good dream."
Capturing the hand that had flopped down to bounce against his thigh, Elrond tucked it safely into the blankets wrapped around his Elf.
"He's not all that lucid, is he?" Glorfindel asked.
"Is that your doing?"
"Mostly. I cannot end the pain for him, but I can keep it at bay." A large hand smoothed down the shining blonde hair. "Poor little Elf."
"Better not let Legolas hear you call him that," Glorfindel warned with a grin. "He is not little."
"He is now. Not much weight on him at all. It's one of the things I'm left to worry about."
Glorfindel frowned. "Perhaps it is time to add some rabbit meat to that broth."
"Perhaps it is." Elrond smiled at his friend. "You must know how grateful I am for the food you're providing us each day. If I had the time-"
"Your duty is to hold onto that one, to nurse and make him well," Glorfindel interrupted sharply. "He needs to heal quickly," he added in response to Elrond's startled expression. "There are colts to be started this season, and we need the extra hands."
"I'll help with the horses," Legolas murmured, his nose buried against Elrond's chest. "Will we see Mandos soon?"
"Mandos?" Glorfindel exchanged a look with Elrond.
"The Halls of Waiting are warm and safe. No rats," said Legolas. "And dry. The Halls are dry, aren't they?"
Pulling Legolas more tightly against him, Elrond stared at Glorfindel. "I think we should stop for the day, let him eat and rest."
"What?" Glorfindel frowned. "Why? The sun's not yet at its zenith. We will lose half a day's travel, which is scant enough distance as it is at this pace."
"Legolas is seeking Mandos! He wants to die!"
"He doesn't want to die," Glorfindel scoffed. "What he wants is for the pain to end. He's dreaming that he's still alone in that cell, surrounded by rats. He's stuck there because you keep forcing him into that herbal-induced half-sleep. What are you afraid of, Elrond?"
"I am afraid the journey will be too much for him. Too painful!"
"Liar." Glorfindel leaned closer. "You're afraid he'll wake up and realize he's bonded to you. You're afraid-"
"Enough!" Elrond growled, aware of listening ears all around. "Now is not the time to discuss this."
Glorfindel made a visible effort to rein in his temper. "You're the one who's bonded to him," he managed through gritted teeth. "And you're the only one Legolas can hear inside that wounded head of his. You tell him where he is, oh wise Elf-lord. You tell him that Mandos can't have him. Tell him that you love him and want him to stay here. With you. You're so rattled you are not thinking properly."
Elrond glowered. "Don't you think I have told him that? Repeatedly?"
"Not where I've had the hearing of it, you haven't, and I've been riding beside you for days. Go on-tell him. Legolas needs to hear it in those exact words."
The Elf Lord's protests faltered, and he hesitantly turned his attention back to the elf in his arms. He spared an apprehensive glance back toward Glorfindel, who nodded firmly toward Legolas. "Go on. Now."
"Legolas..." Elrond swallowed against the pain and fear blocking his throat. "You are not going to Mandos. You are going to Imladris. To me... to Elrond."
"Going... to see Elrond?"
"Yes. You are going home to Elrond, who loves you very much."
"To Elrond?" Legolas sounded incredulous.
"Yes. You're going home to Elrond. Wouldn't you rather be with him than with Mandos? There are no rats in Imladris."
"No rats...." Legolas considered that so long, both Glorfindel and Elrond looked to see if he'd fallen asleep. Elrond shook him a little.
"Yes..." Legolas said slowly. "We should go to Imladris."
"To Elrond. Not to Mandos?"
"Mmmmhmm. Elrond. Can we go see Elrond?"
"Yes, we are on our way there now. You will be home very soon."
A faint smile crossed Legolas's face then, even as his eyes drifted closed once more. Legolas did fall asleep then, and Elrond let out an explosive breath.
"Can't say the words, can you?" Glorfindel growled. "You can't bring yourself to say, 'Legolas, I love you and need you to stay with me.'"
"I have said it," came the defensive protest.
"I haven't heard it. Neither has he." Shaking his head, Glorfindel nodded at Legolas, who was breathing evenly and oblivious in Elrond's arms. "Don't feel badly, young one. He doesn't listen to me or tell me he loves me, either."
Booting his horse in the flank, Glorfindel and his frustration rode ahead.
Seated next to Elrond that night and enjoying the rabbit stew he'd had the pleasure of catching, cleaning and cooking, Glorfindel nudged Elrond in the ribs and gestured with his wooden spoon. "You're being watched."
The rain had returned at dusk, offering a rainbow through the clouds as the sun had gone down, but drenching the earth and making Elrond worry after keeping Legolas dry. Commandeering a wagon, Elrond had positioned it close to the fire, settled Legolas beneath it, and had piled a number of blankets atop him. Two bright, shining eyes were all Elrond could glimpse in the firelight of the lump beneath the blankets that was Legolas. Those eyes, indeed, were watching him.
Setting aside his stew, the Elf-lord ladled up a helping for Legolas and went to kneel beside the wagon. "Are you hungry?"
Legolas shook his head. His gaze seemed fastened on something beyond Elrond, who turned to track what so fascinated his Elf. From Elrond's vantage point, all he could see was the host of Mirkwood readying themselves for the night. Warriors bedded down their families, parents settled their children. Games were ending, quiet time was beginning. Those on watch moved stealthily to the perimeter of the camp, vaulting onto low branches of trees to seek vantage points higher up. Others set up watch at the perimeter itself, their bows strung and arrows ready in their quivers. Elven eyes constantly scanned the darkness as the moon was obscured by clouds and the rain settled into a heavy drizzle.
"What are you looking at, Legolas?"
"In which direction are we going?" the elf hissed. "To Mirkwood or to Imladris?"
"To Imladris," Elrond answered levelly, "and we are among friends. Two-thirds of Thranduil's army left Mirkwood with us, and they now serve you. They are on their way to Imladris to live with us."
A look of open disbelief was Elrond's reward for that bit of news. Fighting free of the blankets and panting with the exertion, Legolas sat up and returned to watching his army with great suspicion.
"It's a trick. Thranduil is wicked that way, you know that."
"Legolas, I promise you, we are going back-"
"I will not go back," he hissed. "I will never go back. I will die first." He glanced around anxiously, then turned worried eyes toward Elrond. "I want a bow and some arrows, I've lost mine. No, did not lose them. His warriors took them from me, made me abandon them and my bow." Pain at the memory flashed through Legolas' eyes before returning to the stormy gaze of a moment before. "I need a bow, Elrond. Look out there - they are gathering even now!"
"A bow and... erm, certainly." Elrond gestured over one of the guard. "Might Legolas borrow your bow? He wishes to do his part in keeping watch over the camp."
Startled, the warrior glanced from Elrond to the invalid Legolas beneath the wagon, eyes wide in disbelief. Elrond merely raised his eyebrows, questioning the hesitation.
"Certainly, my lord." Kneeling, the guard handed his bow into Legolas' keeping. The quiver followed next, packed full of straight, beautiful arrows the Elven warrior himself had no doubt fletched. "I am honored that you believe my bow worthy to be of service to you, my prince."
"Thank you." Legolas offered a regal nod before testing the bow's strength.
His first pull was very brief as his damaged fingertips took the pressure of the bowstring. Hissing with pain, he releaseed the string, which caught and pulled at the careful wrappings. Clenching his jaw, Legolas once again set his fingers to the string and pulled. The draw was longer this time, though the archer's arms trembled under the strain. Legolas' muscles quivered, his bow arm shook, and bloodstains began seeping through the bandages. This time, the released string caught at the wrappings and pulled them askew.
Elrond sighed. "I'll need to rewrap that for you."
Setting an arrow to the string, Legolas tried a third time. Regardless the Elf did not let lose the arrow, the erratic travels of its tip bore witness of a new danger to the Elves of the camp for the prince's arrow could end up anywhere - or in anyone. The guard exchanged a worried glance with Elrond, who set a hand on the Elf's shoulder.
"Right now Legolas' state of mind is more important that his wounds," He murmured in a voice too low for Legolas to hear. "He hasn't enough strength to pull the bow and gain any distance, and this will not continue for long. Legolas' strength will not last this night, but your reassurance will. He will fall sleep soon, and your weapons shall be returned to you. I will mend any damage to his hands then, as well."
Nodding, the guard climbed to his feet and offered another bow of respect. "Shoot well, my lords."
Elrond watched the warrior depart, uncertain whether that was blessing or warning. Returning to the encampment some distance away from Elrond's fire, the guard alerted another warrior of his lack of weaponry. A glance their way, and the second warrior was loaning his bow and arrows for use on watch. With a smile and a nod, the original guard resumed his post.
Panting, Mirkwood's prince propped himself up against a wheel and positioned himself on watch against his own army. Given the betrayals he's experienced, I think I would as well, Elrond pondered as Glorfindel approached.
"Good evening, Legolas," he called cheerfully after seeing the wavering arrow suddenly pointed his way. "If you are hungry, you might try this." He handed the mug to Elrond, who bent and slid the stew Legolas' way.
Legolas turned his stormy, suspicious gaze from the newest intruder to the mug, then back again. But only for a moment, as the aroma from the stew rose beside him. From the way Legolas was eyeing the mug, Elrond thought it probable the Elf would sample the fare inside. But later rather than sooner as long as any perceived threat were near. With a gesture, Elrond gathered Glorfindel and left Legolas to his watch.
"Have you given any more thought to traveling a bit faster now that he's regaining a bit of his strength?" asked Glorfindel, watching Legolas position his bow and arrows very carefully before him. "Have you also thought of what might happen, should he actually take aim at anyone tonight? I don't think he's quite sound yet, do you?"
"No. But neither do I think our encampment will give him anything to fire at. They are all quite aware of the danger and will take care not to alarm him. Legolas is good for only another twenty minutes or so, after that he'll nod off again. My hope is that he will be set at his ease enough with a bow in his hands again to eat something."
Elrond drew a deep breath. "As for our traveling more quickly, I share your concerns for this army, and for Imladris with only my sons to guard it. Let the she-Elves and the children ride ahead with you to Imladris, where you may help ready homes for everyone. Leave a small host behind to travel with Legolas and me, and we shall follow at our own pace."
"I believe that would be best," Glorfindel agreed, watching as Legolas set aside his bow and took up the stew. Picking at it, the younger Elf sorted through the thick offering and sampled it as any Elfind would have--he saved what he liked and discarded into the dirt what he didn't care to eat.
"I think he might just be getting better," Glorfindel remarked, directing Elrond's attention toward Legolas. "Ah, look at that. I was so pleased at finding that for him, and look what he's doing with it!"
Turning, Elrond watching as Legolas' picked with bloody, half-wrapped fingers through Glorfindel's offering and flicked away another unwanted bit of sweet-root. Looking up with his mouth full, Legolas noticed their scrutiny. Glancing from Elf-lord to Elf-lord, he all but growled, "What?"
"Nothing," Elrond assured, waving a dismissive hand. "We were just talking."
Narrowing his eyes, Legolas set aside the stew and reached once more for the bow with stained fingers. Not wanting to defeat their purpose of having Legolas finish his dinner, they left the younger Elf to it. Moving back to their small fire, Elrond and Glorfindel settled down. Within minutes, Legolas had once more discarded the bow in favor of his supper and was picking anew at the contents. A few minutes more, and Legolas was blinking and yawning despite his best efforts to remain on watch. He soon nodded off with the bow cradled in his lap.
"There. Just as I told you," remarked Elrond.
"Did you drug him again?"
"What makes you ask that?" Elrond looked across at his companion.
"I no longer think you administer your herbs exclusively for your prince's comfort and healing. Again, I ask: what are you afraid of?"
Not bothering to answer, Elrond left Glorfindel to tuck in his Elf and return the bow to its rightful owner as he had promised.
Mithrandir was within
Imladris' library, trying to read some ancient tome or other but thinking
how empty and wrong it was to be without its lord, when word came from the
watchtower of the last homely house that Elrond's party had been sighted descending
the twisting path leading down from the forest ridge. Gathering his robes
and taking the stairs in all eagerness, the wizard was waiting in the courtyard
when the first horses and their riders trotted through the ivy-stoned archway.
A trio of Mirkwood warriors dismounted and Mithrandir stepped forward eagerly,
only to be disappointed that none of them were
A great many of the refugee warriors were greeted by wives and children who had been waiting for them for days. The warriors in question were led off to new homes, to begin exploring the vast sanctuary that was now their home. They will find Elrond a more benevolent ruler than ever Thranduil was, Mithrandir reflected.
Footsteps pounded up from behind, and Glorfindel skidded to a halt beside the wizard, having run with no great decorum from whatever region of Imladris he had been tending when word had reached him that Elrond's party had been sighted.
"It's taken them long enough to get here," he grumbled. "All of the ice has melted from the river, and the flowers are starting to bloom. They probably stopped to pick a few on the way. Where are they?"
They appeared eventually, riding at the end of the tired group, as Elrond made certain everyone in his charge made it safely home.
Mithrandir's gaze swept over the assorted elves assembling before them. "Do you realize those escorting Elrond are none other than those Elves who originally took Legolas?"
Glorfindel nodded. "The gossip has informed me further that they took Legolas not once, but twice to dwell in the cold stone beneath Thranduil's keep. The king chose them well, for they were companions of Legolas' childhood. Wickedly clever, wasn't it? I couldn't raise weapons against my dearest friends were it to come to that. It will be interesting to see how Legolas receives them, once he has recovered."
The five warrior Elves in question rode in respectful silence, weary regret and guilt apparent on every face as they escorted their new lord and prince. Well they know how deeply they have betrayed him, Mithrandir realized.
Dismounting, the Mirkwood guard stood at attention and waited at the base of the stone stairway leading up to the last homely house. Glorfindel and Mithrandir stepped forward as one, the Elf-lord to steady Elrond's mount while the wizard reached up to take the young prince whom he had known since Legolas had been an elfling.
Elrond handed his charge down and winced as the dead-weight that was Legolas shifted. Mithrandir knew from his own adventures on the winding path leading down into Imladris that the journey had been long and arduous, an exercise in patience. The Valar alone knew how often Elrond had refused to give the care of Legolas over to someone else on the journey home since Glorfindel had left him; the wizard suspected it had been far too often.
Mithrandir had hoped Legolas might be conscious when he arrived, but that hope came to nothing. The sunlight cast a springtime glow about Legolas as he lay as still as death in the wizard's embrace, showing clearly that the Elf's arms were very thin, his skin translucent. Beside Mithrandir, Glorfindel caught his breath at the fragile life laid before them.
"My little leaf..." Mithrandir murmured, tears choking his voice. "What has been done to you?"
"What has not?" Glorfindel growled.
" 'm a'right, Mith." Legolas' voice was but a ghost of what Glorfindel had heard shouting through the fire that seemed to have happened aeons ago. "Need t' rest..." He blinked at him blearily, then squinted at him suspiciously. "'re you a rat?"
"A... rat?" The wizard looked to Glorfindel, startled by the accusation as Elrond dismounted.
"Long story," Glorfindel murmured. "He doesn't care much for rats. It's not an insult, Mithrandir; we are all rats these days."
Coming up beside Elrond, he steadied the Elf-lord as he stretched his back and forced the circulation back into his legs.
"I accused you of drugging Legolas because of the shame you feel at your bonding," Glorfindel whispered, holding Elrond's gaze and speaking quickly, that other ears might not hear. "Only now, after my absence, I see what you saw so clearly all along: bonding alone will not keep Legolas with you. Forgive me for doubting you."
"You did not doubt me," Elrond murmured. "You looked after Legolas. And you were right, my concern was not entirely for his physical well-being. I was acting partially through my fear. I still am, I believe, for I do not anticipate the conversation Legolas and I must have, once he is well enough to realize what I have done to him in the name of saving his life. No matter how fragile he may still be, I do not think he will die. As for the fate of his spirit..." Elrond's grey eyes were tired and sad. "That, I cannot -- dare not - predict."
"The damage done to body and soul by eight weeks in darkness under stone cannot be healed by eight weeks in sunlight and rain," Glorfindel said gently, trying to reassure his friend. "Both of you are home now. Both of you have time to heal."
"We shall see."
"At the very least, you shall both rest in a warm, dry bed tonight. Take comfort in your having seen him safe home from Thranduil's dungeons."
The twins descended the steps to interrupt their conversation in a tumbling rush that reminded Elrond of when they had been young Elves, eager to meet their father after a successful lesson or hunt.
"We're very glad to see you, Adar," Elladan began.
"Glad that you made it back," Elrohir finished. The conversation tumbled on, resembling the twins' own entrance.
"All has been made ready in your chambers, you must be tired-"
"And we know Legolas needs to rest."
"Would you care for some refreshment? All is well here."
"Glorfindel relayed your requests to see to the Mirkwood refugees-"
"And that we've done. Are doing."
"And will be doing for some time. There are quite a few of them. Thank you for sending Glorfindel on ahead-"
"We appreciate the warning. Aside from our Mirkwood guests, all has been quiet and is still quiet. We really had to do very little to keep things going. Let's get you upstairs."
"We readied your chambers for Legolas, thought you might want him with you." Looks were exchanged, grins appeared.
"Here, let me take your sword and cloak. Mithrandir, let us carry Legolas-"
"I think that your Adar would rather do that," the wizard contradicted as Elrond abruptly stepped forward.
And so Elrond did, retrieving
his limp Elf with practiced ease and entering Imladris with Mithrandir, Glorfindel
and his own sons hovering like watchful nannies at his side, admonishing him
to mind the steps and be careful. Elrond didn't bother to even try to talk,
and Glorfindel was contented eventually to be left at the foot of the stairs
leading up to the Elf-lord's private chambers. In the end, only Mithrandir
gained entrance with Elrond to those chambers, and that was only because the
wizard shot such a fierce look at the twins that they
"H-here," said Elrohir, shoving his father's sword into Mithrandir's hands as the wizard prepared to ascend the steps. "This goes back onto Adar's bedroom wall."
The wizard saw the sword back on the wall before slipping around the Elf-lord and turning down the bedcovers. He then stoked the fire in the antechamber and watched while Elrond tenderly undressed his charge and redressed Legolas' hands and feet, as well as other miscellaneous wounds that needed attention.
"How is he really, Elrond?"
"He is healing," came the terse reply.
Coming up to stand beside the bed, Mithrandir stroked back the long blonde hair, swept his fingers down over the high cheekbones. The hollows beneath were even more pronounced than before. "Thranduil's cruelty is unbelievable. To have reduced one such as this to but a shadow of himself...."
"Legolas knew this would happen. He tried to warn me." Settling Legolas' newly bandaged hands atop the covers, Elrond sat on the edge of the bed. "I know now to listen to him. Never have I met such wisdom in one so young."
"In many ways, this one was born old."
Elrond's long fingers caressed Legolas' hair, moved down to cradle his cheek. Sighing, the Elf turned into the caress, as if to deepen it.
"Sleep now," he murmured. "You are safe home, Legolas, even as I promised."
"Saruman has the information Legolas and Glorfindel gleaned at Orthanc," Mithrandir relayed, thinking perhaps a change of subject might prove a welcome distraction. "Did Glorfindel relay it to you as well?"
"He did. Thank you, Mithrandir." Elrond fell into silence, staring down at Legolas where he lay so still, so pale against the bedclothes.
The wizard stood in silence a moment, watching, before venturing, "Glorfindel told me you and Legolas have bonded."
No further details were forthcoming, and the wizard dared press for none. Concentrating on his Elf, Elrond continued stroking the golden mane. Some deep worry obviously gnawed at him, regardless Legolas was home and healing. Mithrandir thought perhaps he could get more details from Glorfindel, now that his friends arrived and he might abandon pacing and start speaking. There certainly would be no further conversation from the Elf-lord today, not while he hovered over Legolas.
"I will leave you to it, then." Sketching a brief bow, Mithrandir left Elrond alone with Legolas.
Elrond remained upstairs with Legolas all that day and all of the night. He did not appear at morning meal the next day, and Mithrandir went in search of food only to find Glorfindel and the twins looking uneasy about a great many things.
"So you three are still running Imladris?" he queried, reaching for a sweet roll.
"Unfortunately," said a gloomy Glorfindel. For once, the twins were silent.
The rain punctuated their meal, the most quiet one Mithrandir could ever remember having in Imladris. Abruptly, one of the twins broke the silence -- Mithrandir didn't know which one it was, he could never tell them apart.
"They've bonded," said one twin. It was not a question.
"Yes," Glorfindel confirmed without embellishment, not looking up from his plate.
"Adar loves him, doesn't he?" asked the same twin.
"Very much," Glorfindel murmured. "Enough to leave Imladris to go after him."
"And Legolas loves Adar?" Again, the same twin.
"Of course," said Glorfindel.
Glorfindel scowled, and the interrogating twin fell silent.
End of conversation. Mithrandir wished it wasn't, but what was to be done? His eagerness for answers would have to wait, it seemed, for Legolas to be back on his feet and explain what exactly had happened to bring him and Elrond together.
The twins exchanged a silent look between them before rising from their chairs. Leaving an unfinished meal in the form of crumbled bits of abused bread, the twins left the table and headed up the stairs toward their father's private chambers.
"I wouldn't interrupt him if I were you two," Glorfindel called behind them.
"We have business with Adar that will not wait," the leading twin called down over his shoulder.
The Elf sounded assertive, almost aggressive. Probably Elrohir, Mithrandir decided.
* * *
The twins appeared in the doorway to Elrond's private bedchamber without warning, standing shoulder to shoulder just beyond the threshold. "May we come in?"
Elrond looked up, startled from his reverie of staring down at Legolas while he slept. "Of course."
Moving into the room, Elladan stared down at his father's patient. "Will you allow him to wake soon?"
"And stay awake?" Elrohir pursued. Both twins were all too familiar with their father's usual habit of getting someone out of the way while he dealt with the injury; Elrond had used the same technique on them numerous times over the course of their childhood injuries.
"Legolas will awaken soon. No matter what Glorfindel or Mithrandir may say, and no matter what the two of you may think, Legolas has neede time to heal away from the pain."
"We know that, Adar."
"He awoke far too often on the road, which only caused him additional distress. I want nothing to remind him of Thranduil's filthy dungeons when he awakes. I want him to know the instant he awakes that he is safe within our walls."
Ignoring their father's
glower at the absent and impotent enemy of Mirkwood, the twins stepped further
into the chamber. Coming to stand side by side at the foot of the bed, they
saw that Legolas' hands were no longer wrapped. Elrond had recently bathed
his charge, had washed Legolas' hair and spread it out to dry over the pillows.
Whispers had already spread, compliments of Erestor, to tell all within hearing
that the Lord of Imladris had refused all help. That Elrond himself had carried
Legolas down to the baths at dawn and back up again before
breakfast after issuing strict instructions that no one was to intrude on them.
Legolas was wearing a new night-robe--not one of the twins', but a new one of many that had been woven at Elrond's order. The fire, as always, was high, but today the terrace doors were closed to keep the spring chill away.
Exchanging a look, one twin nodded at the other as if to say, 'Go on'. Pulling something from his finger that could not be seen, Elladan held out his father's ring of power.
"You didn't ask for this back yet, but we want to return it anyway." The way he shoved it at his father left no doubt in the Elf-lord's mind that his sons wanted nothing more than for Vilya to be on any other fingers but their own--now and forever.
Taking the ring, Elrond considered it briefly in the winking light from the fire.
"In truth, I had forgotten to ask for it back." Looking sheepish, he continued, "I would have remembered when I had need of it. For the weather or some such." Pushing it onto his finger, Elrond watched with his sons as it disappeared, winking out of sight as if it had never been there at all.
"There. Imladris is back with its rightful owner," said Elrohir.
"Owner?" Elrond arched an eyebrow.
"Why so uneasy, my sons?"
"Because we don't know what we're doing and you do. We'd like to return to our patrols-"
"We'll stay and help if you like, Adar, but you are home now-"
"And we think we'd be of better use to you out and about."
"--If that's all right with you?"
"If Legolas is well enough to wake, Adar, he will be well enough to want you to spend time taking care of Imladris and not neglect your duties."
"Given this a lot of thought, have you two?" Elrond interjected, smiling despite himself.
"-rather than neglect your duties as though he's an invalid or infant who needs looking after," Elladan finished.
"How long did it take you to think up that argument, and to memorize it?"
"Only half a day," said Elrohir. "We wanted to have it perfected and ready in case you thought we should continue taking care of Imladris--"
His brother elbowed him in the ribs, bringing him to abrupt silence.
"So you wish to return to your patrols?" Elrond was still smiling. "Will you take Mithrandir with you?"
"We hadn't planned on it."
"We think he'd rather stay here--"
"And help you take care of Legolas."
"No doubt he would, regardless I wish he would not." Giving a sigh, Elrond rose from the bed knowing that his time alone with Legolas would end, and soon. Leading the way from the bedchamber, he pushed open the terrace door. "I will let the two of you go because I know you must. Walk with me now in the gardens, and tell me more about your plans."
"Only if you will tell us more of Legolas' rescue."
Elrond nodded. "Fair enough, my sons."
On to next chapters