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CHAPTER 46

"Are you as hungry as I am?" Unzipping the satchel, Legolas began exploring its contents. "We have apples for breakfast this morning, and it looks like Erestor managed to save out a few scraps of roast beef for sandwiches. There is also hot tea, though it appears we must share the thermos."

"That's nice," she replied automatically, unable to summon the concentration necessary for any real conversation as she was too busy contemplating what that kiss may have meant. She refused the sandwich with a shake of her head. Absently taking the apple he next offered, Ivy held it in her lap.

Pulling out a small, crinkly orange bag, Legolas turned it over in his hands. "What is chee-toss?"

"Chee-toes," she corrected with a grin. "It's a crunchy cheesy snack."

"Dried cheese bits?"

"Um...closer to fried corn bits with artificial cheese dust, I think."

"All wrapped in plastic? How unappetizing." He stuffed it back in the carry sack and selected an apple for himself. "That is all Erestor included, but I believe it is enough, for we'll not be gone any great length of time."

"He didn't put in any scones to go with your tea?" asked Ivy.

"I don't care for scones."

How can he not like one of the official breakfast foods of Scotland? she wondered."Um...okay. I know you don't like the look of the Cheetos - or at least the presentation - but you might be surprised. Try one. Just one. You can always rinse your mouth with the tea if it's too awful."

Legolas looked unconvinced.

"I was right about the Diet Coke," she reminded him. "How do you know I'm not right about Cheetos, too?"

"You have a point." Diving into the breakfast satchel, he retrieved the filmy plastic package only to turn it over and over in his fingers while giving it a doubtful look. "How do I get in without wrecking whatever is inside?"

Ivy reached over to end his doubtful explorations with a mittened touch. "Tear it at the top. Where it's wrinkly and pressed together."

Elven fingers found the film yielded easily. Pulling forth one of the shriveled orange things, Legolas hesitated before taking a deep breath and popping it into his mouth. The next moment, he widened his eyes in gleeful surprise. "It's a brave new world indeed that has such treats as Diet Coke and Cheetos in it."

His tone of voice seemed a bit off, and Ivy couldn't help but wonder if he was as rattled by the kiss as she was. But I don't dare ask. Instead, she said, "You're becoming addicted to junk food while murdering a quote from 'The Tempest'?"

"Why not? Would you like a Cheeto?" He offered her the bag, but she shook her head in favor of keeping her mittened hands warm and eating her apple.

Pulling out another Cheeto, he crunched it happily and then looked at the orange stain on his fingers.

"This is unpleasant," he muttered with a frown. "Is it normal?"

Ivy was startled when he thrust his hand toward her, fingers spread wide.

"I've gone the same ghastly orange as the cheese bits."

"Yup. That's one of the giveaway signs you're a fan of Cheetos. It won't last long." She grinned as he tried licking off the cheese, only to rub his fingers furiously on the branch before diving back into the bag. "I think you're going to adjust to this century without any trouble whatsoever," she predicted with some amusement. "But won't the deer be frightened away by the sound of crinkly bags and our talking?"

"They will not arrive until the break of dawn, which is still some minutes away. We'll see them venturing down that pass before they arrive." He gestured at a distant section of forest that was still cloaked in darkness as far as Ivy could see. "We will see them long before they hear us."

So beautiful did Ivy find his voice, she would have given anything to keep him talking. Legolas' face was also so close to hers in the moonlight that whenever he turned his head she could have nuzzled his nose as the night began to fade.

And what would he do if I did? she thought.

He was leaning on her a little, and his hard thigh was pressing against her as well. Both helped anchor her near the trunk of the tree, keeping her secure while Legolas' mittens and Aragorn's cloak kept her warm, right down to her toes. She swung her legs a little, watching the over-long grey cloak flap as it hung below her boots.Resisting the urge to touch her temple where she could still feel Legolas' kiss, Ivy refused to let her imagination run out on what it might have meant, and what the two of them might become to each other in the months to come.

Grow up and get a grip, Ivy, she scolded herself. You're reacting like some star-struck tweenie here. Sitting ten feet up in an old oak tree while waiting for a warrior-Elf to kill a deer is not the time or the place to start fantasizing about him, she realized. Besides, like the old song goes, sometimes a kiss is just a kiss, and that one wasn't exactly passionate.

He hasn't tried to kiss me again, she noted, but we're sharing this moment right now, and that's more than enough - more than I ever dared hope for - and I don't want to lose this moment by analyzing what it means. I'll have plenty of time to do that later, after Elrond drags me off to Warra. Legolas says it's okay to talk for now, so let's get him talking.

"What sort of deer are you hunting?" she asked, finishing off her apple. Legolas offered her a smile as he moved on to eating his sandwich, apparently grateful for the conversation. "I know it's got to be a stag, but what's up here?"

"Red deer. They are fairly sizeable as compared to other types of deer, so one should be enough today. We want a four-point red buck. Anything older and the meat will be too tough for our guests possessing delicate palates. And Haldir," he added with a disgusted glance toward the castle.

Emptying the remaining Cheeto crumbs into his palm, Legolas peered inside the bag as if he couldn't believe they were all gone. He sighed, then tucked the noisy wrapping material into their satchel.

"We will have to feed everyone for a bit longer," he continued. "Most of the council members would be leaving today if we were not snowed in."

"It's all so frozen. Will it melt today?" she asked, noting that the snow piled on tree branches around her was becoming more visible as the darkness greyed toward dawn.

He shook his head. "It will take more than one day of sun and a great deal of work to clear our roads. And so all the council members are forced to stay, though Elrond and my father usually stay behind until after the ceilidh no matter the weather."

"I keep hearing that word. What does it mean?"

He looked at her in surprise. "Which word did you not understand?"

"The new one. Ceilidh."

"Ah." Legolas nodded and subsided into thought.

Oops. Does he not want to talk about this or is this another history lesson in the making?

He was silent a moment longer, and then began softly. "The ceilidh of today is primarily a party, an evening of entertainment, but ours began as much more in Ithilien. Elves, mortals and dwarves gathered around cottage fires to spend our long winter nights in story and song. These days, the laird of the castle hosts two ceilidhs in the old great hall - one in winter and one in summer. For this ceilidh, we and the villagers will share a supper. And a few words will be spoken to mark the occasion," he added, almost as an afterthought.

"Will there be haggis, neeps and tatties?"

He shot her a quick look. "Neeps and tatties? You have eaten traditional Scottish fare?"

"No, I just watched a TV series called 'Highlander.'"

"I see." He obviously didn't, but let it go. "I'm sorry, but there will be no haggis. That is offered only at slaughtering time in the fall. Beyond that, Erestor flatly refuses to prepare haggis."

"I don't blame him. It does sound kinda gross."

"And you wanted to eat it?"

She grinned. "I just asked in case I'd be expected to eat it. No desire there. So what will we have to eat at this ceiligh?"

Legolas shrugged dismissively. "Nothing exciting. There will be fish, roasted deer, and a few other treats. I'm sure Elrond has kept back some bottles of his good red wine from Warra for us, and more spirits will be brought from Lairg's own pub down the hill. Afterward, there will be music on bagpipe and fiddle."

"Live music is always great." Ivy felt some anticipation start to rise in her for the laird's party. "Will there be dancing?" she tried to ask in a most innocent fashion.

Legolas grinned, and Ivy was amazed at how much younger and positively mischievous he looked whenever he smiled. "There will be much dancing, of a sort you've likely never seen before. For that matter, our ceilidhs are like nothing else I've ever attended. I expect you'll enjoy the spectacle."

Music, dancing and a happy Legolas, thought Ivy. This might be quite an interesting evening.

"That grin of yours doesn't look like you'll have to be dragged to it," she said. "Why do I think you might enjoy it, too?"

"I might at that."

"The ceilidh sounds fine, but I don't think there can be anything better than sitting in a tree with you, sharing apples and Cheetos on a cold winter's morning." Sighing in deep contentment, Ivy let her apple core drop to the ground.

"Did you just drop that? Here, now you've done it." Legolas sounded alarmed.

She froze instantly. "Done what?"

"You've dropped something, and the deer will sniff your scent on it," he hissed, pointing at the small hole in the snow that hid her apple core. "They won't come near us now."

"Oh crap!" she gasped, horrified. "I--I'm so sorry. Don't let me wreck your hunt. If you lower me down, I'll snatch it back."

"It's far too late for that."

"It can't be too late," she whispered in quiet desperation. "The deer haven't come down the hill yet, and they can't smell my apple from up there, can they?" Clutching his arm, she squirmed closer to the edge of the branch. "Legolas, I'll fix it, just lower me down."

"Ivy, no. Please."

"Then I'll jump down. The snow is deep. I can fix it. Let me fix it," she pleaded, leaning over and staring at the ground.

"Ivy..." Setting his hands at her waist, he pulled her back roughly. "Sit back where it's safe." Taking her hand in his, he laid it against his chest. "Forgive me, but I am teasing you."

"Teasing?" She could barely wrap her mind around that possibility. "That was a joke?" She glowered at him when he nodded. "Not funny, Legolas! I really thought I'd wrecked dinner, and I'd have to tell everybody we were eating that horrid porridge, and it was all my fault."

Legolas began to laugh at her, which somehow managed to melt both Ivy's leftover panic and her anger.

"I believed you!" she said, daring to punch him lightly in the arm. "You are a brat."

He only laughed harder, and Ivy began to giggle. How in the world do I reconcile this happy, teasing thing with the sour warrior I met on the plane? she wondered. "You...tease people?"

"On occasion, yes." His eyes were still laughing at her.

"Are you sure?" she asked.

"You needn't make it sound as if my having a sense of humor is the most impossible thing in the world." He sounded offended, but the dimpled grin was still in place.

"Yeah? So the deer aren't really going to run away from my apple core?" she demanded.

"No. In fact, one will probably finish it off for you later."

"Huh. That was mean, you know."

"I am sorry." He didn't look at all sorry.

She tipped her nose in the air in an attempt to look both disinterested and as though she were studiously looking for deer. "I'll be ready for you next time."

"Next time?" He tilted his head. "You wish there to be a next time? For me to tease you again?"

"Why not?" Shrugging, Ivy wriggled for a more comfortable spot on the rough branch. "Just know that it goes both ways, mister."

"I look forward to it." Gazing into the distance, Legolas straightened suddenly. "The deer are on the move."

He wiped his hands on his leggings to clean off any remaining Cheeto residue before swinging the long-bow free of his shoulder and laying the weapon across his lap.

Ivy squinted into the darkness of the hillside. "Where?"

"Just there." He pointed. "Look down the line of my arm, but do not focus directly at the trail. Soften your gaze and look at the trees. At the edge of your vision, you should see shadows moving down the track."

"Oh, there are those sneaky deer," she whispered. "Do I need to hush now?"

"Soon."

"Okay. So long do you think we'll be snowed in?" she asked, still determined to keep him talking for as long as possible.

"Two more days or so."

"We're stuck for two more days in a cooped-up castle with the likes of Julien, Wendy, and the rest of the council?" she said, incredulous. "We'll never make it."

He laughed softly and still watched the deer. "Now you see why I insist on having a private wing far away from the sturm und drang."

"Thunder and lightning? Verbal storms and shipwrecks?" She wrinkled her nose to remember the frightful art and music that had been produced during the artistic movement inspiring the term Legolas had used. "Yeah, I think I've seen a couple of those go by this week."

"Indeed," he agreed, "but Julien did not succeed in dashing us upon the rocks, and I must thank you for that."

"Me?" She shook Aragorn's cloak free of bread crumbs left over from her sandwich. "What did I do?"

"Everything. You saved not only Greenwood, but everything I possess. You also saved the homes of my villagers and their ongoing way of life."

His voice was quiet and contained a hint of the pain he felt over that possible loss. Ivy's heart ached to know he was still hurting. But though his emotions were quite real, what he was saying made no sense to her.

"I know how we saved the Greenwood business stuff," she said, "but how could everything else have been in danger, too?"

The last of the deer herd had once again disappeared in the concealing trees, moving slowly but steadily toward them on the way down the hillside, so that Legolas was able to once again focus on his companion.

"You do not understand how close the vote was that prevented Julien from taking control of Greenwood?"

"I know it was six to seven, but it's not as if I was the only one voting."

"Yours was the last vote," he remarked softly. "It was the tiebreaker, the deciding vote. Without it, Julien would now own everything."

"Everything?" Ivy echoed, suddenly feeling sick. "What kind of 'everything' are you talking about?"

"Everything," he repeated, "as in not only would Julien control Greenwood, but also Lairg itself. He would possess my stables and the horses within, the castle and all it contains. Right down to the trees of this forest, even the old oak we are sitting in." Legolas patted the tree in illustration, ending with a gentle caress of the rough bark.

"Everything everything?" She thought her heart had stopped with that shocking revelation, but it now resumed beating, pounding violently. Fear of startling their dinner that was still on the hoof kept her voice low, but shock and incredulity made her start trembling. "Why would Greenwood's officers leave a vote like that up to an infant like me if it has that much power?"

"You may be young, but you are far from being an infant," Legolas replied, dismissive.

"Are you insane?" she hissed, shoving her shaking hands between her knees to steady them. "Are you all insane? I'm a stupid little girl who paints horses and doesn't anything about big business or the world! I don't even know your Elven ways. What if I'd been seduced by Julien's crap? I could have been, you know? My mom was. What if I had talked to him that first night here, and--and, you know, listened to him? You took a terrible chance."

Her fear-induced explosion was met with a slight, sad smile. "Not so terrible, for I saw Aragorn in you yesterday. In your expression and the set of your jaw, your tone of voice. The way you demanded that Julien list his qualifications. I do believe you enjoyed baiting him at the last."

Ivy groaned. "He pissed me off at the last! I don't care if Aragorn is way back there in my family tree, you or Elrond or somebody should have warned me that the whole scary thing could come down to my vote." Closing her eyes, she leaned against the tree trunk and wrapped both arms around it. "I really do think I'm going to be sick."

"Please don't. That would definitely frighten away the deer." He shifted his grip on his bow, keeping one eye on the path of his prey as he spoke. "As for why you weren't told, we were all of us determined to keep your vote pure. Either I continued running Greenwood on my own merits, or Julien won on his."

"On his what? Demerits? Idiocy? Brazen hubris?" She swallowed hard against the bile rising in her throat. "You may have won in the end, but this is just wrong. Really, so very wrong."

"What is wrong?" Legolas began rubbing her back. The effort to comfort her would have thrilled Ivy in other circumstances. As it was, the Elf's touch only served to make her even more tense.

"Dumping it all on me is wrong," she murmured. "And Greenwood's by-laws are wrong. Or your articles of incorporation, or whatever stupid name those rules go by...those are wrong." She gestured in dismissal before clamping her arm tight around the tree once more. "It's wrong that you were allowed to keep your castle - no, let's make that your kingdom 'cause that's what Lairg is - because I happened to vote the right way. You should never be at risk like that. At all, ever. What if I'd been stupid enough to vote with Julien, and you had lost everything?"

Legolas shrugged lightly. "Things happened as they were meant to happen. But if the worst had come, my father had agreed to go back to Alaska with me."

"Back to Alaska? So Glorfindel would have joined you in exile, and that would have made it all right? The company would lose you, and I'd never see you again? Yeah, that's just great." She blew out a breath in growing exasperation as Legolas only regarded her calmly. "You didn't look so sanguine about all of this yesterday before the meeting started. Surely you know that if my mother had still been Queen's Daughter, Julien would have won?"

"I know. But she is not Queen's Daughter. You are. And there was a chance."

Ivy strangled a screech down to an irate hiss. "That is so not the point! How can you sit there so calmly when your Alaskan sabbatical nearly cost you everything?"

"I sit quietly because Julien did not win, and all of my friends are safe."

Legolas' voice had lowered to hold a bit of a bite, but the last thing Ivy wanted was to heed that warning. The fearsome responsibility was still on her shoulders, and he needed to take it off.

"What about next time?" she demanded.

Gritting his teeth so hard that Ivy saw his cheeks hollow, Legolas looked away. "There will be no next time."

"Uh-huh." She didn't bother to hide her incredulity. "Of course, little Julien learned his lesson, and we're all one big happy Elven family, right? Never underestimate the power of the Dark Side," she added in disgust.

"What are you on about?" Legolas sounded just as disgusted as she did.

"Never mind." She waved away the obscure advice that would have taken far too long to explain in context. "So who set up the stupid voting system that way? Whoever it is needs to be taken out and shot."

"It was your father."

Ivy rocked back violently at that news, and Legolas instantly grabbed her arm, the better to keep her from falling backward out of the tree.

"Let go, I'm fine!" She wrenched free of his grasp. "Elrond can't have been that stupid!"

"Elrond created the voting process in Imladris, and we followed your father's example while establishing Ithilien." Legolas' voice had gone cold, his body rigid, his fingers clenched tightly around his bow. "Elrond's original counselors debated matters fiercely, but once a decision was reached they completely supported one another and did what was best for their world as a whole. Self-interest never influenced their decisions. Ithilien has always been governed along those same lines and with the same unified outcome, but obviously over the centuries something has changed."

"Damn straight something has changed! The whole world has changed since you took off for Popsicle Land." Her outright panic, even though the crisis was over, was nearly intolerable. The thought that wormy Julien should seize power and destroy everything Legolas loved was more than she could endure. "I cannot believe you've tied your home and the village's ownership into the corporation!"

"And I cannot believe how very much you sound like Isabel right now!" he snapped in reply.

"I--what?" The harsh statement made her stop mid-sentence, widen her eyes, and gape at him.

The laughing Elf of moments before had vanished as though he had never been, and Legolas was suddenly more frightening than he'd ever been on the plane. His eyes blazed ice-cold in his anger, and that coldness was boring holes right through her.

"I am speaking softly so as to not alarm the deer, but no doubt you still heard me." His teeth were clenched, but Legolas still managed to enunciate every syllable clearly. "I chose very little words and used English, did I not?"

The sky had lightened enough for her to see that Legolas' expression was far harder than any of the hostile looks he'd thrown her during their first meeting. Her sharp criticism had chased away the patient, sensitive friend she had been coming to know. In his place was a proud Immortal who looked as if he'd like nothing better than to punt her out of the tree and bury her face down in a snow drift.

"I...I'm overreacting, aren't I?" she managed to get out, her voice small in the face if his fury.

"Are you?" Lifting his chin, Legolas all but looked down his nose at her.

"My grandmother's the last person I'd ever want to sound like." She made her tone as meek as possible. "I didn't mean what I said like that, like Grandmother would have. I didn't mean to criticize you. It's just...I guess I forgot."

"What did you forget?"

I've done it now; that was a definite growl, she thought.

"I forgot for a moment who you are. Everything you've been through." Unable any longer to meet the icy contempt in his blue eyes, Ivy gave a shiver and bowed her head to stare at her hands. She felt more than a little grateful when the hood of Aragorn's cloak fell forward to shield her from the Elf's harsh gaze. But she could still feel his outrage drilling holes into her.

"I'm sure you know how to take care of your home. And your people," she offered. "You know what's best. How to untie Lairg from whatever and...everything. And I just got through telling you I'm an infant who doesn't know anything at all. I was just kind of...scared by what you said. That's all. Those awful things can't happen to you. Ever."

He did not respond, but sat so still beside her that Ivy bit her lip and scarcely dared to breathe. Oh, please let him say something. Anything. Call me a pushy brat butting in where I don't belong, or tell me my opinions aren't welcome...but don't let him just sit there in silence. Being growled is better than being ignored. Please Legolas...say something. Anything.

"You have asked some important questions about how our institution is run." The admission seemed dragged from him, and Ivy knew without looking that his expression would still be unforgiving. "I would give you the answers you seek, but they are not in this tree."

"I know. I'm so sorry."

He didn't acknowledge the apology. "I have added the matter of Lairg's ownership to my list of things to attend to, right behind presiding at the céilidh, taking care of Halden Greenwood's funeral arrangements, grooming myself to rejoin the business world of Men, and meeting with Haldir for at least half a day while he arranges my month's schedule and I learn the players on it. And bringing home a damn deer."

Every one of the icicles from the storm has moved into his voice, Ivy realized. Her heart sank and she dared not raise her head, lest she see the same contempt in his eyes that she could hear in his voice. Legolas didn't speak again, and Ivy closed her eyes against the tears that came without warning.

"I didn't mean to sound like my grandmother, and I didn't mean to sound as if I'm questioning your competence," she whispered. "Truly, I'm not."

She waited, but received only silence once more for her efforts at reconciliation. Despite her strongest efforts, a sob snuck out. It was the quietest sob she'd ever managed, but Ivy knew those elegant pointed ears had to have heard.

Is there anything else I can screw up this morning? she wondered. Knowing it didn't matter any more if Legolas knew she was crying, Ivy swiped at the tears dripping off her chin before they froze into stupid mini-icicles. She didn't need to look up to know Legolas was pointedly ignoring her, fixed on scanning the darkness for deer. I can't make another sound. Not one. His buck will be here soon, and I can't wreck the hunt on top of everything else I've wrecked this morning.


CHAPTER 47

It was still dark when Elrond arrived in the kitchen. The sole occupant looked up when the Elf-lord stepped through the door, but the cheerful smile and salute with a mug of tea rated only a scowl. It not the Elf that Elrond had hoped to find, and he felt his mood darken even further.

Glorfindel's smile faded, and he sighed. "So it is not a good morning after all. And here I thought that it was. Would you care to explain to me why it is not?"

"Did you see Ivy?" Elrond demanded.

"Ivy?" Golden eyebrows rose as understanding reached him. "Ah, so it's Ivy again, is it? I should have known."

"She is not upstairs, nor is she here. Therefore, she is out hunting with Legolas."

"That was the plan, was it not?"

"I had hoped to see her before they went out, but obviously your son he has hauled her out into the cold and darkness far earlier than was necessary. She is not accustomed to this intense cold, nor has she sufficient clothing for prolonged exposure to this pre-dawn deep freeze Legolas calls home. He has shown very poor judgment in this, and it is Ivy who will pay for it."

Glorfindel nodded, then went to pull a mug from the stack on the drain board. "Tea?"

Elrond glared in response, but Glorfindel filled the mug anyway and pushed it toward him.

"There. Sit, have a cuppa and do try to relax. They haven't been gone that long, Legolas has equipped your daughter for the cold most admirably, wrapping her up in Aragorn's far-too-big Elven cloak and woolen everything else he could lay hands on, and he will be most attentive to her needs." Glorfindel gestured toward the window, directing Elrond's attention to the blackness that was beginning to thin to grey. "Besides, sun's nearly up. They'll be back within the hour. You'll have plenty of time to smother her with your attentions then."

Elrond sighed, then reached to accept the steaming tea. "I pray you are correct. I do worry for her, out there in the cold with him. He'd best be attentive to her needs."

Nodding, Glorfindel headed for the sink behind him. "He will. You know how seriously he takes the responsibility of being the Queen's Daughter's protector. Now, where has Erestor hidden the bread knife? He's sleeping in, and I would at least like some toast with my tea."

* * *

Legolas tried not to feel the anger that Ivy's challenging words had raised in him, tried not to feel the pain and hurt brought to the surface by memories of other scathing words. He tried his best to concentrate on the task at hand, on the cold and the thinning darkness...anything but the tiny little sniffles coming from beside him, and the ever-so-slight quivering of the branch beneath them as the shaking shoulders caused by her stifled sobs spread across their shared perch.

Splendid protector you are, he growled to himself. Even if she does think I'm hopeless and helpless, just as Isabel did, that is no reason to be hurtful in return.

Another sniffle reached him, and there was no denying the truth of its source. I made her cry. Poor child didn't deserve that. I should at least explain.

A sidelong glance showed Ivy huddled under the cloak, her head bowed. Legolas risked a more direct look in hopes of learning more, but the hood had fallen over her face, totally obscuring her expression.

"Ivy?"

"Yes?" she answered, but didn't move to look at him.

Grasping the edge of the hood, Legolas pulled it back gently. "Look at me, please?"

She lifted her head as he commanded, and Legolas fell into big green eyes brimming with tears.

"I am sorry," he said softly. "I did not mean to make you cry, and I did not mean to alarm you with my observations."

Her chin trembled, and the tears began flowing down her cheeks in earnest. "I don't want to be like my grandmother."

"You are not."

"You said that I am." That was followed by a wince and a not-so-silent sob.

The memory of Isabel must be as cruel to her as it is to me, he thought. I hadn't intended to be that hurtful.

"I should not have said such a thing to you. It is not true, and it was very unkind of me. Please forgive me."

She shook her head so hard that the hood fell back, and her hair began escaping the cloak itself. Legolas' heart sank at her rejection of his apology, but as he drew breath to address it, the first rays of the just-rising sun caught the long, tangled waves of her hair.

Seeing her in sunlight for the first time stopped any other thoughts Legolas had, for the natural light revealed that Ivy's hair was not just red, but a mixture of bronze and deep gold that Legolas found absolutely intriguing. He reached out to touch part of a strand stuck by tears to her cheek. His fingers freed the hair, simultaneously stroking away the remnants of the tear tracks. His gaze moved from that strand of hair to her wet cheek and up to her eyes, only to return to her nose.

"Ivy..." He wondered, staring unabashedly at her pale skin. "You have freckles."

"Don't look at those." She sniffled, pulling away from his touch. "They're dumb. I wish I could get rid of them."

She dragged the back of a mitten, child-like, across her eyes, then swiped ferociously at the sticky strands of hair to have them cling to the damp wool. Growling, she grabbed and a handful of long, tangled curls roughly twist them into a fat rope, then thrust them back into the hood.

Legolas fought the urge to protest, knowing it would only result in her hurling more insults at herself. Instead, he dared reach out to touch her cheek again, which directing her attention back to him.

"Ivy, I am sorry for my words--" but he got no further before she interrupted him.

"No, I'm sorry. Really, really sorry," She hiccupped, swiped at more tears, and Legolas doubted she had even heard his attempts to apologize. "I just want everything to be okay for you, and I'm trying to think of ways to fi...fix it all. I didn't mean you don't know how to take care of things, I just want weasel-boy to stop messing up your life so you can be happy."

She pushed back more wild strands of intriguing golden-red hair that floated forward in the morning breeze. Tickling her cheeks, they got stuck on the tear tracks and refused to budge.

"Here, let me," Legolas murmured, gently gathering the rebellious tresses and pulling them back, well out of the way of her impatient fingers.

She sighed. "I know you're so much older and wiser than me, so I'll just shut up. But I am not like my grandmother."

"No, you are not," he agreed, heartened by the green eyes that dared glare balefully at him before Ivy ducked her head again to hide behind another curtain of that wonderful auburn hair. "Isabel never apologized to anyone, much less to me."

Her hair floats and dances as though it welcomes the touch of the sunlight, he thought, wanting nothing more than to gather it between his hands and watch it flow through his fingers.

Strands caught on the tree trunk's bark, and Legolas reached past Ivy to loosen it, determined that no harm should come to it. For her part, Ivy merely gathered the wretched mass of long, tangled curls at her neck, pulled them harshly back, and cared nothing but to get it all out of her way. Giving another deep sigh, she wiped away the last of her tears and gazed at her companion with reddened eyes.

"How could I forget how wild and independent and imperious you are? You're an Elf - a really important warrior Elf - and I bet nobody ever talks to you like that. I've gone and wrecked things, haven't I?"

He had to smile at her choice of words. "You think me imperious?"

She looked so startled, Legolas thought she must have spoken her thoughts aloud without actually considering who was listening.

"I...um...I think you can be commanding and...and--"

"Dictatorial?" he prompted.

She shook her head. "No, you're no dictator, just a leader, so you can't be dictatorial. You're more like autocratic. Sometimes."

"They are the same thing," he pointed out, careful to keep his voice gentle. I want no more tears.

"But autocratic sounds better. Like it's tied to being aristocratic. Which you are. Aristocratic," she repeated firmly, as though relishing the sound of the word on his behalf.

He arched an eyebrow at that, but said nothing.

Shivering slightly, she asked, "Do you hate me now? Have I wrecked everything?"

"I could never hate you, and you have wrecked nothing." Reaching out, he dared caress down the riotous flow of her hair. "We have both been under a great deal of pressure this past week. I apologize for thinking you had lost faith in me."

"Lost faith? In you? I have not!"

"I realize that now." He continued petting her hair since she didn't seem to mind. "I brought up the matter of Julien and the vote to thank you - however belatedly - for your role in saving my home."

"But--"

"The polite response, I believe, is, 'You are welcome.'" He made certain his tone carried all of the imperiousness she believed him capable of.

"You're welcome." Ivy promptly responded, her green eyes once again gone huge, and her voice meek.

"Very good." He nodded regal approval. "I was also hopeful of using you as a - what is the current term - a sounding board? To confide my ongoing concerns regarding...weasel-boy, as you call him."

"Oh." She nibbled her lip. "You wanted to talk? Bounce some ideas around?"

"I had hoped." He hated the hesitance in his voice, but she could so easily refuse him, and that would close a door between them that he did not want closed.

"Oh," she replied, startled. "Is that what you were doing? Wow, I totally missed that. But I get it now." She offered him a wobbly smile. "I'm totally willing to be your sounding board regarding Julien. Or anything else. Anytime."

"That is well." Giving a final pat to her hair - which refused to be tamed no matter how often he smoothed it down - Legolas captured Ivy's hand and set it across his thigh. "Now. Please listen to me. Whatever the actual, legal circumstances regarding Lairg and my home, Julien certainly believed that everything of mine would become his. He already accepted a bid to cut down my trees."

"He did wh--" Ivy very nearly shrieked before Legolas' hand was across her mouth, cutting off her cry of outrage.

"Mind the deer, please?" he whispered in her ear.

Grasping his hand, she tugged it away from her mouth. "I remember. And it was only a squeak." She let go his hand and swiped her own across her mouth. "You smell like Cheetos."

Her hand came to rest on his, and he took the liberty of closing his fingers around it.

"There's no way Julien could own your stuff," she reiterated. "Even if he'd won, he couldn't do that, could he? I mean, this forest is ancient Caledonian, it's irreplaceable." She swept her arm widely to encompass all the trees around them, making herself wobble on her seat and Legolas flinch. "And don't all the forests belong to the Queen or something, like the swans?"

"Julien cares nothing for that." Steadying his bow, Legolas peered once again down the game trail.

"I know," she growled in disgust. "Look, I'm trying to rein back my temper here, but..."

She made a strangling sound, which forced Legolas to fight back a grin. She is small, but her spirit is a strong one.

"Did nasty weasel-boy hide the logging bid in his report?" she asked. "I know he didn't have the cohones to tell you face to face."

"Neither, actually. The trees told me. I finally calmed enough after the day's turmoil to feel their worry when Glorfindel and I went to check the horses last night. I discovered then that strangers had come into the forest, and yellow ribbons had been tied around a great many of my friends. A late call to Alastair informed me that two men came a few weeks ago with their maps and survey instruments. They wrote notes on clipboards and stopped at the pub for a drink on their way out. Duncan noted that the side of their truck read 'St. Andrews Foresting Company.'"

She bounced slightly on the branch and stared at him. "How can you be so calm about this?"

"You think me calm?" Unable to fight down the surge of fury that rose once more within him, Legolas straightened so abruptly that his arrows rustled. "Sharp, sour rage fills me at this newest discovery, but the fight I seek is not with you, so why should I alarm you with it? I may yet murder Julien with my bare hands, though. Right now, I quite like the idea."

"You could just crack him another good one across the nose and drive some bone shards into his brain," Ivy said sweetly. "Even if it didn't kill him - and keep yourself out of Valinor, if you remember - it would probably be enough to give Julien a really messy frontal lobotomy."

"I dare not think long on such things, much less voice them in jest," the Elf confided. "It is too tempting. For centuries, I used violence to protect those I love. For this reason, thoughts of such violence are still my first response when those I love are threatened. Your mother was right to call me dangerous, for if Julien had dared cut down so much as one of my friends, your mother's dear friend would even now be lying dead upstairs in a pool of his own blood."

"No loss." She shrugged, apparently savoring the idea of payback for Julien.

"And I would have no regret for my actions," he added, waiting to see if any negative reaction for his wildness would be forthcoming.

"Glad to hear it," came the calm response.

She met his gaze easily, and Legolas wondered that the slip of a girl beside him was not shocked or sickened by what he had revealed.

"But Legolas," she was continuing, "you founded this place, and you have every right to defend it. It can't belong to the corporation, it has to belong to you. Personally. Even if Julien had won the vote, it makes no sense that Lairg would have been given to him."

"One would think so, but I am not sure. I have never made any effort to separate business holdings from personal property. Lairg pre-dates the business, but Lairg is also the headquarters for Greenwood Limited, and I fear that my carelessness may have left them hopelessly entangled. Certainly that is Julien's interpretation, and he may have the right of it."

Ivy nudged him lightly with her shoulder. "This is going to eat away at you. At me, too. So how can you find out, and how soon?"

He thought for a moment. "Haldir would know. Your father as well, since he is my legal counsel in matters domestic and international. We will ask them at the first opportunity, yes?"

"Yes." She squeezed his hand. "Speaking of Julien's trespassing where he's not welcome, do you know he was on my doorstep in San Francisco a few days ago?"

It was surprisingly comforting, this unlooked-for ally, but the comfort was once again overwhelmed by a spike of anger at the thought of Julien's intrusion at Ivy's home.

"Elrond mentioned that to me," he replied, carefully biting back his feelings. "He believes Julien was either seeking to take your mother to London early or to present his plans to her. Your reaction to him here must have been a most unexpected and unwelcome surprise, for he no doubt assumed your mother had prepared you to take up where she left off with him and Wendy." The memory of Ivy baiting Julien suddenly reappeared, replacing Legolas' anger with the amusement of fierce little Ivy taunting Julien. "I understand Marian came up from London with them to our meetings and left with Julien and Wendy afterward."

"Huh. I'll bet Mom went shopping with them in London too, because she brought me a doll from Hamley's every summer and winter. Probably at Julien's urging because they were all creepy."

"Creepy?"

"They were all made of delicate porcelain and looked like proper little Victorian ladies, not girls. Mean ladies, too, because they all had that critical-teacher expression. Except one. She was smiling, but it wasn't a nice smile. And she had teeth." She shuddered. "My grandfather built shelves for them in my room, but I didn't want the dolls staring at me, so I'd shove them back in their boxes and stack them at the very back of the closet. Face down, too," she added. "I didn't want them peeking out at me from those cellophane windows in their mini-coffin boxes."

"I can understand your dislike of them. I could never understand why children valued them so."

"I didn't value them, I couldn't stand having them anywhere near me. The Breyer horses Grandpa gave me went onto the shelves instead, much to Mom's disgust, but at least they were nice to look at, and I didn't have to worry about them attacking me in the middle of the night."

"You preferred horses to dolls?" Legolas said with some amazement.

"I preferred horses to anything! Including people."

"I see." As did I as a child. He thought about that for a moment. "I have horses. We must go and have a proper look at them, get to know them."

"Didn't we already do that?"

"Not really. Not properly, anyway." He played with her fingers. "I only fed them. I didn't want to know them before now."

"Why not? They're beautiful. I don't know how you could keep away."

"I was afraid they would belong to Julien by the end of the meeting," he confessed. "Better not to care about them as individuals if that were to happen."

"Oh. I understand."

The sympathy in her voice was echoed in her eyes, and it was almost startling for Legolas to have someone sympathize so easily.

"You know," he said slowly, weighing every word, "yesterday morning I was afraid I would lose everything. Everything dear to me, everything that I had fought so hard to build and for so long to protect. Lairg means all to me, it has for years." He waved a hand at the world in general, seeking words to explain what he was feeling. "I can always make money, you see? Buy more things. But the safety of my people...my people and this forest...they are irreplaceable. They depend on me. If Julien had won, I would have failed to protect them."

He looked away, fighting the helplessness and fear that came with the memories, and entirely amazed he was admitting such things - things that mattered deeply - to Isabel's grand-daughter. "I have done things in my attempts to protect this small world that would shame most Elves, but I would willingly surrender my honor to defend them."

"Things like pretending to fight on the side of the British at Culloden?" she ventured softly, her fingers caressing his.

Startled, he cast her a sharp look. "Who told you about that?"

"Haldir, but I had to squeeze it out of him. It must have been horrible being imprisoned on the Thames."

"I survived," he replied, his voice flat with painful memories. "Lairg survived. That was the important thing." Straightening abruptly, he stared down the path. "Quiet, now. We have company."


CHAPTER 48

"Don't move," Legolas murmured, reaching back to pull an arrow from his quiver. "Don't breathe. Just sit."

The deer are here? I can't see any, so how does he know they're here? She squinted into the bright slanting rays of early sunlight but was smart enough not to turn her head, lest she alert the invisible deer to her presence.

The softest whisper sounded in the trees beyond Legolas, and Ivy sensed it wasn't the snow falling off the branches to the forest floor. The soft sound was repeated, then motion caught her eye as a red doe stepped beneath a neighboring tree, pausing to scrape at the snow and then nibble something there.

Oh, they're under the trees! Walking underneath the trees. Of course, she belatedly realized, the snow is shallower there. They'd be up to their necks in snow if they tried to walk down the game trail. She watched, fascinated, as more deer moved under the nearby trees where the protective branches of the big oaks and ash limited the snowfall to only a few inches.

Another doe walked past only to stop, tilt her ears, and listen. Ivy literally found herself holding her breath as the deer canted her head sideways, the better to look up at the intruders.

Those two big blobs weren't there yesterday, she seemed to ponder. Sniffing the air, she tensed and considered. Danger? Run?

Don't move, Ivy ordered herself. Of course her nose chose that time to itch. Her heart sped up, and her breathing wanted to increase. I can't hear when you do that! she protested inwardly as her pulse began pounding in her ears.

Finally satisfied that the strange new shapes in the tree meant no harm, hunger won the argument, and the doe dropped her head and used her sharp hooves to paw at the ground and uncover frozen fern and bracken beneath the snow. Nibbling delicately, the doe ignored the changes in the tree in favor of breakfast.

Two more does wandered past. They too stopped, looked and listened before walking on.

Legolas wants a buck, she remembered. Those sneaky boys really do send the girls out in front to test if it's safe to walk out, don't they? Chauvinist Scottish stags. Glancing at the Elf out of the corner of her eye, Ivy realized his attention was riveted, not on the deer passing so close, but on something off to the right of their tree.

Sitting behind him like this, I can't see a thing beyond Elf shoulders. She smothered the urge to lean and peek around him. So much for box seats here. What's beyond him, anyway? A natural shooting lane? Maybe two or three? Wish I could ask.

Legolas shifted slightly on the branch, and the next thing Ivy knew, a four-point buck was leaping through the snow in front of her. A streak of red marred its shoulder, but no arrow was in sight. His companions bolted as well, bounding awkwardly through the deep snow and leaving behind the wounded buck.

Did Legolas fire? Ivy wondered, now feeling free to look from stumbling deer to motionless Elven hunter in confusion. I never saw him move! He had an arrow cocked and ready, and his bow is empty now, so I guess he shot that stag, but I sure didn't see.

She waited a few seconds more, but Legolas still didn't move. Is he just going to let the buck go? I mean...I know it'd be easy to track in the snow, but it'd be a cold trek. Why not just shoot it again?

"Wait," he whispered, almost as if she had spoken aloud. If not for the puff of his chilled breath in the still air, she would have thought she had only imagined it.

The buck stopped after bounding a few more yards, ears swiveling as though listening for the assailant that had injured him. Ivy kept still, willing to wait until later for explanations to her mounting questions. The stag lowered his head as she watched. Folding its front legs, it laid down in the deep, now blood-stained snow.

She chewed on her lip. I don't get this at all. This isn't a thing like hunting elk with Grandfather. She started when Legolas dropped lightly out of the tree and slung his bow over his shoulder before turning around, looking up, and spreading his arms wide.

"Toss down our satchel. Then jump, and I'll catch you."

Ivy gestured at the buck, which never moved. "Did you--is he--"

"I did, and he is." He gestured shortly. "Come down now, please? There's work to be done."

Tossing down the satchel was easy, but once it was safely in Legolas' hands, Ivy found herself reluctant to follow it through the air. She opened her mouth to negotiate for more time to gather her courage because suddenly getting down was looking even harder than being launched upward. She thought better of saying anything as the warning look in the Elf's eyes told her he wanted to check his deer, and that his patience with her lack of Elven hunting skills was wearing thin.

"That snow was only knee deep on a deer, so you'd better not drop me," she muttered before setting her hands on the bark. Closing her eyes, she leaned forward and tried to push off the branch. Her bottom remained firmly in place, however.

"Okay," she said out loud to both herself and her safety net below. "One, two, three, jump!"

This time, she shoved hard away from the tree branch without giving herself any more time to get scared. Her instincts and stomach had other ideas, however, and so she shrieked in terror all the way down and seemed to be falling at least half an hour.

Two strong arms caught her, and her eyes flew open as Legolas bent his knees to sink a little and absorb the impact. Her arms were somehow around his neck, her mittens ruffling the fletching on his arrows, and then he was setting her on her feet.

"Not to worry. I told you I'd catch you."

"I wasn't worried. Not at all."

"Hmm. So I heard," he replied with a hint of a smile. Bending to retrieve the empty satchel, he handed it to her. "Now to see to our deer."

He set off over the snow with her trotting behind him. "You shot so fast, I totally missed it."

"So did the deer, obviously." His tone was dry.

"Which is the point, I know. But how did you do it?"

"I took my shot when he put down his head to feed, and the arrow flew true. He squatted to jump, but the shaft penetrated his heart, just as I intended. And so, as you see, he went down after a short run." Coming up behind the animal, Legolas touched the bottom tip of his bow to the deer's open eye. He nodded in seeming satisfaction when there was no reaction.

"But where's the arrow?" Ivy demanded, as the wound showed no signs of shaft or fletching.

"I'd imagine it's laying somewhere back there."

"It went completely through?" Damn, I knew that bow was powerful, but that is impressive. Poor deer, I hope it didn't hurt too much, Her compassion rose, even if it was to be dinner.

Moving to stand in front of the deer, Legolas laid his hand over his heart, closed his eyes and bowed his head.

He's sorry it died, too, Ivy realized with surprise as Legolas murmured what sounded like a prayer in Sindarin. I guess Elves apologize or say thank you to the spirit of the deer? Either way, it's much nicer than watching cowboys gloating over how good the head will look in the den, or the antlers nailed to the porch. No beer, no cameras, no Buck Bomb. I think the Elven way is much, much nicer.

Ivy took advantage of the moment to get her first good look at the red stag. No delicate white-tailed deer, its coat was dark brown, and it carried a magnificent mane of long hair. And it was definitely not small. That thing is almost the size of a Montana elk! And Legolas brought it down with one little arrow.

Ivy waited respectfully until he finished speaking before blurting out, "Could you show me?"

"Show you what?" He looked puzzled as he rolled the buck onto its back.

She grabbed a slender leg to help. "Could you show me how you shot it?"

He still looked puzzled, so Ivy elaborated, her hands drawing an imaginary bow. "Could you maybe draw another arrow and show me, slow-motion like, how you shot?"

Legolas' expression of confusion shifted. He was now looking at her as though she might be daft, and Ivy hurried to explain.

"I was really looking forward to seeing you shoot, and I missed it. You must have shot too fast for my eyes. And besides, you had me sitting behind you."

"Ah. Very well." Nodding solemnly, Legolas straightened and took the bow from his shoulder. Holding Ivy's gaze so long that she itched to twitch, Ivy wondered if he might be planning to use her as a target.

"Only for you would I do this," Legolas warned. He then pivoted on his heel so that he was in profile to her. Reaching back to his quiver, he said slowly, "I took an arrow and nocked it thus--" His hands moved as slowly as his words.

She put her hands on her hips, shifted her weight onto one leg, and narrowed her eyes. "Do I hear mockage?"

"Not at all. I then lifted my bow...am I moving slowly enough for you to follow?" Legolas asked so sweetly, he might have been asking if she preferred one lump of sugar or two in her tea.

"Yes, you wretch. No, wait! I need to be on the other side."

"The other side of what?" he asked, watching her trot around him.

"The other side of you. I want to be on this side, so I can watch your release." She nodded with satisfaction as she reached her destination. "Yeah, this is better. You may continue," she said as regally as she could manage, waving a mittened hand at him.

"Hmm." Raising his head with the majesty only his kind was capable of, Legolas offered a smirk. "You needn't have moved. I can shoot with either hand."

"Yeah, but can you pat your head and rub your tummy while you do it?"

Legolas blinked and opened his mouth to answer, only to close it and glare at her momentarily before focusing once more on his target when she giggled.

"I always anchor the string at my back molar," he explained, and Ivy wondered if he wasn't trying to regain the focus she had so completely interfered with. "I looked not at the entire deer but only at his shoulder and took my aim. In this case, however, I am aiming at the ground between the old oak entangled with the pine tree, just over there," he added, pointing with a lift of his chin. "It was then simplicity itself to inhale, hold, and wait for exactly the right moment...."

Watching Legolas inhale deeply, Ivy couldn't help but mark the shift of his pectoral muscles beneath the tight buckskin tunic he wore. Only just realizing the probable origins of that buckskin, she glanced back at the waiting stag and very nearly missed Legolas' release for a second time. He did not pull the bow to its complete pressure, and she swore his fingers never moved on the string, but the arrow flew in a beautiful, clean arc to hit the exact target he had designated.

"Very impressive." She applauded lightly. "Robin Hood would have actually hit the tree. He was always shooting trees in the movies, but I knew you wouldn't. You love your trees and would never do such a thing. And--and I'm impressed," she trailed off.

Legolas closed the space between them to stare down at her. I don't remember him being that tall, or his eyes that blue, she thought, resisting the urge to back up a couple of steps. Or did I sink in the snow again? A quick assessment showed she was still in partnership with the snowflakes. Maybe it's just that he's never stood on my toes like this before?

"I would rather you were more impressed with my trees than with me, but I thank you for your sympathy for the trees. Now, would you mind holding my bow and quiver while I field dress our friend here? And might you also retrieve my arrow? The clean one I shot beneath the tree, not the other."

His hand cradled her elbow. His eyes were bluer than the sky, and his irises ringed in grey. Those adorable dimples were peeking out again - so incongruous in a warrior's smile - while a thin strand of his hair lifted to caress and tickle her cheek.

"Um...sure," she agreed, only half-aware of what she was agreeing to.

"You have my thanks."

Just like that, he had handed her his bow and was shrugging out of the quiver to surrender that as well. Holding the bow in one hand and the quiver in the other, a bemused Ivy looked from one Legolas artifact to the other.

He's disarming in a lot of different ways, isn't he? Oh, my paws and whiskers, Mom, if you could see me now. She couldn't suppress the grin that grew as she looked from Legolas to the items she'd been charged with carrying, and back again.

Oblivious to the mental squeeing and physical trembling he had just incited, Legolas bestowed another dimpled smile on her before releasing a short knife from its belt-sheath and striding back to tend his stag.

With his golden hair shining white in the pale winter sunlight, Legolas roughly parted the rear legs of his prize before cutting lightly through the deer's soft underbelly and exposing the internal lining protecting its intestines. So startling was the violence, primal grace and beauty inherent in the Elf's gestures - even as he was bending over a very dead animal - it took Ivy a few seconds to blink, refocus, and recall Legolas' request to retrieve his arrow.

There are times I really do forget who I'm with, and that can't be good, she thought as she headed for the arrow. Finding it easily where it stuck out of the ground at the base of the tree, she pulled it free and held it up for a closer look.

It was hand-made, of course, not of the modern buy-'em-at-Wal-Mart variety, and astonishingly beautiful in its own way. Brushing the snow away and smoothing the fletching, she pushed the arrow into the quiver, only to find herself all but gagging at the smell wafting up from inside the stiff leather case. Oh! Oh, that's bad. I guess he hunted a lot and cleaned this thing only a little in Alaska?

On impulse, she set off back the way they'd come to trace the deer's tracks in the snow, back to the point where it had leaped forward and tried to run. Our tree is here, Legolas aimed in that direction, and the arrow is...there it is! It sat atop the snow as if waiting for her.

Rolling the arrow to clean the blood and hair from the shaft, she hesitated to return it to the quiver. Instead, she turned it round and round in her fingers while heading back to Legolas.

I do forget everything he is, she reclaimed her line of thought on the way, and then, with one simple gesture he'll bring it all back. The wonder of his existence and the fascination of his...Elvenness...it all comes crashing back down on me so that I don't have any words.

I know he thinks I'm nuts, and that he'd say, 'I am just an Elf,' but is there any such thing as just an Elf? Since the moment I met him, I've felt this terrible knowing of how small and weak and inconsequential I am next to him. Not to mention next to Glorfindel and Elrond, who are even more important. Elven Lords of Consequence, she concluding, capitalizing the words in her own mind. The Lord of Ithilien and bestest friend to the former King of Gondor and Arnor let me come hunting with him this morning, and though I know I'm slowing him down and am acting like a total novice, I don't think it's turned out badly...but how will I ever fit into his world when everyone else in it has such a huge head start on me?

Legolas was very nearly done dressing the deer by the time Ivy returned. "You're almost done already? Darn it, I should have timed you."

"Maybe next time," he replied without looking up and cutting through the last bit of tissue to free the entrails. "Here, hold this." He offered her the bloody hilt of his knife, and the bright grin accompanying it told her he was definitely tormenting her.

Holding up her hands, she backed up a step. "I don't think so, mister. Where I come from, you take care of your own bloody knives."

"You won't clean it for me?" He sounded so hurt, and his blue eyes were so wide, innocent and earnest, that Ivy couldn't possibly believe a single, beseeching word he said.

Not that my not believing matters, she thought. I mean, he'll get everything he wants and more whenever he looks at me like that. Here's to hoping he doesn't know that.

She grinned back at him. "Of course I'll clean your little knife," she all but cooed. "Just lay it on the snow, and I'll get right to it."

He did, only to sober instantly in the next moment. "Be careful, it's very sharp."

"I wouldn't expect a knife of yours to be anything but." Leaning down, she scooped handfuls of snow around the wooden handle and its shining blade to clean off the worst of the blood before cradling the knife carefully between her mittened hands and wiping as much wetness away as she could. The mittens suffered somewhat with the effort, but she only shrugged as she looked at the stains. They're his mittens, after all, and he did ask.

By the time she'd finished cleaning the knife, Legolas had pulled out the entire pouch of entrails, had laid it a few inches beyond the tail, and was cutting it cleanly away from the carcass.

Hearing a rustle of feathers overhead, Ivy looked up to see a pair of ravens alighting on a nearby tree.

"That didn't take long," she remarked as they ruffled their plumage and began cawing down at the pair. "Someone wants you to share."

"Someone must be brother and sister to my black-winged friends in Alaska. Those birds - the entire extended corvus corax family - followed me on every hunt," he said, swiping out the large clumps of blood still caught inside the open carcass. "They seemed to consider me some sort of Elven vending machine. There was always food to nick, and they helped themselves freely. If it wasn't hunting spoils like this," he said as he shoved the offal aside, "it was what I was trying to preserve for later. They always stole half of my jerky while it was drying. I ended up making twice as much as I would need so they would have their share. It looks like they'll have their share today, as well." Peering up into the trees, he waved acknowledgement of their demands, which did nothing to silence the pair. "The viscera will make a fine feast for them when we've gone."

"Are you sure they'll wait that long?" Ivy asked nervously, as one of the birds hopped to a lower branch. The other soared to the ground and eyed them.

"Not really, no. I've had ravens join me before." Lifting the stag at the shoulders, Legolas drained away the blood.

The stag's head lolled back and the staring eyes met Ivy's, making her shiver. Oh, I hate it when they stare at me like that. Makes me feel so guilty.

Determined not to let that show, she squared her shoulders and looked instead at Legolas. "Can I help you carry this back so you don't get your cloak all bloody?"

"There is no need. We will pack the interior with snow to contain most of the remaining blood and let the carcass begin cooling." He dropped it back to the ground and was gathering handfuls of snow, but paused to startle her with another grin. "Mine is not an original Fellowship cloak, so you needn't worry for its fate."

"What happened to yours?" she couldn't resist asking, getting down on hands and knees to shove more snow in his direction. Not that there was any shortage of the white stuff, but she did want to feel useful.

"I continued using mine and wore it out. Aragorn did not. It wasn't kingly enough."

"Oh." Ivy brought even more snow, and Legolas packed it in hard until no room was left and it would stay until they reached home.

"Thanks for letting me help you," she said, waiting quietly while he washed his hands clean in the snow.

"You are most welcome. I must admit I was surprised at your offer."

She shrugged. "It's a lot more fun to help than to stand around like a dainty maiden and watch while the big, bad Elven warrior does his thing."

"Our adventure isn't over yet." Legolas wiped his hands dry on his leggings. "You might aid me further in the walk home by carrying my bow and quiver." He reached for the latter. "Turn around and let me put this on you."

"You want me to wear your quiver?" she squeaked, disbelieving, and then hesitating as she remembered the smell. That invitation might not be as special as it sounds.

"And carry my bow. It would be easier if I do not have to manage them as well as the deer on the way back."

"Oh, yeah," she breathed, her shoulders itching to feel the quiver. "Sure, I'll carry them for you." Won't I just? Don't really care if your quiver stinks, wouldn't tell you for the world.

All but leaping into position in front of him, she tucked her arm though the leather strap as he instructed and shivered when Legolas gathered and moved her hair out of the way. I may not have gotten to actually dress the deer with him, but I'm still doing stuff that he'd have to do by himself if he was out here alone.

"Is that comfortable?" Legolas asked, testing the tension of the leather securing the thing on her back.

"It's fine." Heavier than I expected, but hey, it's an honor, right?  

"You must tell me if it begins to chafe on the way back," he warned. "Quivers are custom fitted, and you are not quite my size or shape." Guiding the bowstring over her head, he settled the bow itself above the quiver, across her back. "Mind the width of the bow as you move through the trees. Don't let the string strangle you."

"Okay." She wondered if she sounded as dumbstruck-thrilled as she felt.

"Ready? Then let's go home." Going to the deer, Legolas hefted it easily across his shoulders and led the way back to the game path.

"And here, boys and girls," Ivy said as if announcing a story of great consequence to a group of elementary school children, "we see real Elven magic at work. Because even if the mighty Elven hunter is carrying a two-hundred pound stag, he is still tripping lightly over the snow."

"Now who is mocking whom?" Was that a growl? And he didn't bother turning around.

"At second thought and glance," she quickly amended when Legolas struggled to balance the stag more evenly across his shoulders and continue walking. "Our magnificent Elven tour guide isn't tripping lightly but he is still walking atop the snow rather than falling through it. Impressive. Do you want some help?" she asked, sidling up next to him. "We could drag it between us."

"No," he grunted. "And I want you to well stay away from the bouncing, still-flashing hooves and very sharp antlers. As you can see, I am not magnificent while carrying a beast that weighs so much. Your father is magnificent on occasion. My father is when he wishes to be. I am but a humble wood Elf whose skull and neck are beginning to freeze. Ivy...you might change the subject and distract me on the way home as Aragorn once did. Please?"

"Okay. Um...." I guess now wouldn't be the time to mention how heavy this quiver is and that it's chafing, or to ask what subjects Aragorn used to distract him? She searched her mind for some safe subject. Is there such a subject when Legolas is getting cranky? Wish we had more Cheetos. "So, who taught you how to hunt deer?"

"My father. I had gained competence with the bow at targets, but live targets are another matter. Missing my target when I was young drove home the points he taught me."

"You were taught to shoot by Glorfindel and missed? I don't believe it."

"Perhaps it would be more accurate were I to say that since Imladris' woods were intensely hunted by bowmen, the deer repeatedly jumped my string."

Ivy's mind was filled with visions of deer leaping over Legolas' head as stereotypical sheep might leap an insomniac's mental fences. "The deer did what?"

"They can hear both the string releasing and the arrow flying. Which means they can also move before the arrow can hit them," Legolas clarified. "That is known as jumping the string. It takes only a slight shift on the part of the deer to be out of the path of the arrow."

Ivy nodded in agreement, having seen the reaction time of deer. "I get it."

"I did not believe deer could do this, not even after my father stood me behind a tree twenty yards to the right side of his target. When he released the string, I heard the arrow coming before it struck the target, but I believed Elven hearing had to be superior to any animal's and said so. Glorfindel did not argue the point, he simply ended my lessons. Which is what he would usually do when I wanted to argue with him," Legolas added, smiling at the memory and pausing to once more shift the deer's weight across his back. "He then advised me to take what I had learned out into the wood and report back my successes."

Legolas fell silent, and Ivy thought he might have finished the story. But he began the narrative once more after adjusting his grip on the deer's legs and wiping a bit of the snow away from his neck. "I returned to my father a few days later, much humbled and apologizing for my presumptuousness. I also begged him to tell me what to do about the deer and their wretched hearing."

"What do you do about it?"

"Either anticipate the move the deer will make, or shoot so close that the stag hasn't time to move before the arrow hits it."

"Anticipate it? Anticipate...how?"

"Anticipate how a deer will move. They tend to drop sharply before the first bound, so you aim lower."

She drifted up beside Legolas again, so that conversation between them was a bit easier. She then spared the sharp antlers a wary glance and sidled another step away.

"Which technique did Glorfindel recommend?" she asked, trying to keep the conversation going.

"He left the choice up to me." Legolas was breathing a little more heavily beneath the dead weight, but didn't slow his speed over the snow. "After thinking about it, I refused to depend on an animal to move a certain way. I preferred to depend on my own predictable behavior with the bow, and so I learned to school myself to patience and shoot a deer from no more than twenty yards away. Glorfindel can drop one up to thirty yards, but he has always used a faster bow."

Legolas was starting to pant for breath as Castle Lairg and its stables came into view. Ivy stared at him in silence for a moment, but was unable at the last to refrain from commenting.

"You really know how to take all the mystery and romance out of hunting, don't you?"

He wheezed a laugh. "You did ask, Ivy-mine. Perhaps I should also mention that archery lessons with Glorfindel were my first introduction in discipline and responsibility. At ten years old, I realized for the first time that if I did something over and over, I could become quite good at it. When Glorfindel let me begin competing with other archers, I learned that as shafts cluster inside a target they reveal not only skill, but also the shooter's mental and emotional focus on that particular day."

"So you were gauging the emotional focus of the deer?" she asked skeptically, fearing that he was having her on.

Legolas laughed and shook his head. "You must remember the skill of the bow was, at that time, not just for providing meat. Glorfindel taught me to gauge the mood of both friend and foe - an invaluable skill when I began traveling with a wizard who could become intensely distracted as well as intensely focused during a fight."

"How could Mithrandir do both?"

"He always knew who was before or beside him in a fight, but Mith fought in a straight line and pushed forward no matter what. This made him terribly unaware of what might approach in his periphery, or what might attack from above or below."

"The professor wrote that the balrog took Mithrandir from below," Ivy volunteered quietly as they approached the stables.

Legolas' mood altered instantly with that reference. His hands fisted around the deer's stiff legs, he stared straight ahead, and his cheeks hollowed as he gritted his teeth.

"And so it did," he replied quietly after a moment's pause, "for Mithrandir forgot the length of the balrog's whip, as well as the many directions from which it might come."

Trudging around the stable fence, Legolas drew a deep breath, only to let it out on an equally deeper sigh. "Our mission was to protect the hobbits, and my immediate task on the bridge of Khazad-dum was to defend their way across it. Especially that of the Ringbearer. Aragorn and Boromir went in front to fight our way ahead, and I had put my bow to good use to see the last hobbit safely across. Mith was close behind when I shot the last orc archer and went to follow the others up the last stone stairs. We were all impossibly close to gaining safety in the bright sunlight when I sensed that Mith was no longer behind me. When I retraced my steps, I saw that he had stopped halfway across the bridge and was shouting that the balrog would not pass."

Standing back even as she desperately wanted to help, Ivy watched as Legolas lowered the heavy deer to the snow-covered courtyard behind the castle. Straightening, the Elf stretched his back before once more regarded her and continuing.

"I could not help him, and I watched him fall." Legolas' eyes were filled with sadness and shadows. "I could offer no defense against a balrog, and Mith once again forgot the many directions an enemy could come at him."

He shook his head and stared at the dead stag at his feet, but Ivy sensed it wasn't the stag he was seeing. "My Maia was wrapped in a fragile, aging body to come to Middle-earth, and perhaps its weariness caused him to break focus time and again. I do not know, for I could not ask Mith after he was dead, and there was no convenient time to ask after he returned as The White. I do even not know if he would have answered had I asked. I only know that I failed to protect him."

"Oh, Legolas." Ivy's eyes filled with tears in response to the raw grief in his, and she wanted nothing more than to go to him, wrap her arms around him, and offer all the comfort he would allow. And yet she sensed, for whatever reason, that he would allow none of it in that moment. I guess we can share Cheetos and Diet Coke, but not yet affection or comfort. No wonder he was so determined to protect all of Ithilien and Aragorn and all his children. "I'm so sorry."

Legolas squared his shoulders as he put away the memories, but did not look up from the deer. "It was a very long time ago and of no consequence, Queen's Daughter, for the Valar had other plans for Mithrandir anyway. Plans I was not aware of. But so you see, the shooting of an arrow seems a simple act, but it must be refined endlessly."

She had to say something, some word of comfort or encouragement, even if he did shrug it off and close the topic of conversation. "If the balrog could have been killed by arrows, I'm sure you would have destroyed it."

Legolas looked up, startled, to meet her eyes. "So said Aragorn when we were free of Khazad-dum."

They stood regarding each other in the cold for a long moment until someone came around the corner of the narrow stone building opposite the stable.

"Hallo and good morning." Glorfindel approached with a bucket and three very limp, very dead coneys swinging by their ears in his fist. "I see that you two managed to find dinner." He held up the rabbits. "And I've got lunch."

 

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