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My Brother's Keeper  by daw the minstrel

I borrow characters and settings from Tolkien, but they are his, not mine. I gain only the enriched imaginative life that I assume he intended me to gain.

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter.

In this story, Legolas is about 35, or 14 in human terms, so it’s set between two of my other stories, “Growing under Shadow” and “See the Stars,” but you should not have to read either of them to follow this one. At least, I hope that’s the case!

*******

1. Lessons

“Turgon, you know I could outshoot you at this distance,” Isendir scoffed.

“You could not!” Turgon protested.

Legolas idly twirled an arrow as he listened to the other two argue. He looked off down the archery training field to the targets, placed at the farthest possible point from where they sat. They had never trained with the targets at such a distance before, and he was looking forward to the archery master’s return so they could begin their lesson.

He privately thought that Isendir was right, because Turgon’s form was erratic. Sometimes he would surprise you and hit something you would have sworn he could never come near, but usually his arrows landed more or less in the vicinity of the target, and Turgon would shrug and say, “Good enough.” So Isendir would probably win a contest between the two of them. On the other hand, Legolas knew that he would beat them both, a fact that made him glow with secret pleasure.

“You are such a braggart, Turgon,” put in Galelas in disgust. He and Isendir were friends, and Galelas was competitive enough himself that Turgon got under his skin on a regular basis. Legolas glanced at Turgon and grimaced to see his friend’s face reddening, a sign that his temper was rising, which would be unfortunate because Turgon was impulsive enough under normal circumstances.

“Let us see who the braggart is, shall we?” Turgon said, jumping to his feet and pulling an arrow from his quiver. “Are you game, Isendir? How about three shots each?”

Isendir frowned. “You know as well as I do that we are not supposed to use our weapons on the training fields unless a master is present.”

“That is certainly a good excuse if you are afraid I will beat you,” Turgon taunted.

Legolas groaned and glanced at the two class members who had been quiet so far. Annael shrugged and rolled his eyes at Legolas. He and Legolas and Turgon had been friends since before any of them could remember, and he knew as well as Legolas did that there was no stopping Turgon once he had taken an idea like this into his head. Sitting next to Annael, Tonduil was pale and wide-eyed with excitement. He was not competitive himself and usually steered clear of anything like a contest.

Isendir apparently also knew Turgon well enough to realize that the other would keep after him endlessly, for he got slowly to his feet. “Let us get it over with then,” he said reluctantly, pulling an arrow of his own.

“You aim for the first target on the left, and I will use the one next to it,” Turgon instructed. “Shoot at will.” He took more careful aim than usual, loosed his first arrow, and swiftly drew another. Isendir too settled quickly to his task now that he had agreed to it. Neither of them wanted to be caught using their bows without a weapons master present. Within a minute, they had each shot three arrows.

The other four students had all stood up as the contest started, and now, led by Turgon and Isendir, they all ran down the field toward the targets. Legolas had not been able to tell from the other end of the field who had won, but he thought that both of the archers had done well. They crowded around the two targets.

“I knew it!” crowed Galelas. Legolas looked and grimaced. Isendir had put two of his three arrows closer to the bull’s eye than Turgon had.

“Best two out of three!” Turgon cried in vexation, but Isendir only laughed, pulled his arrows from the target, and slid them into his quiver. Annael retrieved Turgon’s arrows and handed them to him. Scowling, he stored them and they all started back to the point where their class was supposed to gather.

They had gotten about two-thirds of the way there when Legolas heard Annael murmur, “Uh oh.” He looked up. Penntalion, the archery master, stood at the end of the field, his arms crossed and his mouth pressed into a thin line. Legolas’s stomach tightened, and he stopped for a second before following his companions to stand before their teacher.

Penntalion ran his eyes over the row of them, and along with everyone else, Legolas dropped his eyes to the ground. “What is going on here?” No one answered. “Look at me,” he commanded, and Legolas raised his head with a snap to meet Penntalion’s gaze. “I asked you all a question. What is going on here?”  Legolas carefully did not look at Turgon, who stood next to him. He would be grateful if Turgon and Isendir confessed, but he did not expect them to. Turgon had been in too much trouble lately, and another offense was likely to get him thrown out of the class and ruin his chances of becoming a warrior. And, of course, that anyone else would tell on them was out of the question.

Penntalion drew a deep breath. “Very well. If you will not tell me, then I will tell you. You were using your bows when no master was present. I confess I am appalled and disappointed in you. You are not elflings. Some of you will be novice warriors before too many years have passed. If you cannot be trusted to follow rules now, how will your officers ever be able to trust you? I think you have all indulged in quite enough archery for today. I suspect you would all learn more discipline from doing push ups and then running the warm up track. On the ground, all of you.”

Legolas managed to suppress a groan and thanked the Valar that his companions did too. Penntalion was in no mood to forgive complaining. He dropped to the ground between Turgon and Annael and began doing push ups. As he felt the heat beginning to flare in the muscles of his arms and chest, he wondered how he could be both someone who would soon be a novice and someone who was not allowed to use a weapon on his own.  But he kept that thought to himself too.

***

“I think that is enough for today,” said Penntalion, eying them as they stood panting and red-faced before him. “I will see you in two days, at which time I hope you will actually be ready to learn some archery rather than try to prove your skills to one another. I assure you that Orcs are far harder to impress than you are. You are dismissed.” He turned away from them and started toward a group of younger students, who waited for him while looking at Legolas and his companions with open curiosity.

Legolas resolutely ignored them and walked over to where Annael and Turgon were already trading the dipper from the water bucket back and forth and gulping down huge swallows. He accepted the dipper from Annael, took a long drink, and then poured the remaining water over his head. “I am sorry,” Turgon muttered. “That was all Isendir’s fault though.”

Legolas nodded but said nothing. What would be the point of reminding Turgon of his own contribution to the incident? Legolas dropped the dipper back into the bucket, and the three of them moved away to make room for Galelas, who ignored them, and Isendir, who made an apologetic face. Legolas gave him a faint smile, and then he and his friends began walking along the path that would take them all home for their mid-day meals.

“Ah well, I do not care,” Turgon declared. “I am going hunting with some of the older students this afternoon.” He turned to Legolas and Annael. “You two should come.”

Legolas grimaced. About a month earlier, Turgon’s parents had given into his repeated pleading to be allowed to cease having lessons. As a consequence, he had a great deal of free time, including the entire afternoon when Legolas and Annael were both still meeting with their tutors. “You know we have lessons and will not be free until later,” Legolas said.

“Do not go,” Turgon urged impatiently.

Annael gave a short laugh. “My parents would make my life very unpleasant if I did that, Turgon, and I cannot even imagine what Legolas’s adar would do if he did.” Legolas could not imagine either.

Turgon frowned. “You should tell your parents how unreasonable they are being.” Annael and Legolas both burst out laughing at the suggestion, and Turgon finally gave in. “How about tonight then?” he asked. “In this fine weather, there will be music along the riverbanks. Come with me to listen to it.”

“I might be able to do that,” Annael said. “I will ask.” He was sometimes allowed out at night if he stayed within certain boundaries and was home at the hour his parents had set.

Legolas made a face. “I will ask, but do not count on my being there.” His father almost never allowed him out at night without an adult, a state of affairs that Legolas found increasingly frustrating as he saw his friends being granted more freedom.

“Most of the people singing and harping will be adults,” Annael offered. “Perhaps that will be good enough.”

Legolas shook his head slightly. “I will tell my adar that, but I doubt if it will make any difference.”

“You should just come out anyway,” Turgon said, and Legolas laughed. “You should!” urged Turgon.

Legolas was no longer listening, however, for he had spotted a familiar tall, lean figure leaning with a companion against the fence that separated the path from the field where the warriors had their sword training. Annael had seen him too. “I thought your brother was still in the infirmary,” he observed.

“I thought so too,” Legolas said happily. “He must be better.” Eilian ordinarily captained the patrol that hunted the enemy in the southernmost part of Thranduil’s realm. He had arrived home three days ago, suffering from the depression of spirit that sometimes struck those who spent too much time in the shadow spreading into the woods from Dol Guldur. Thranduil usually insisted that his sons be cared for at home when they were injured, but the healers had told him that warriors so afflicted recovered more quickly if they were in a room with a window that opened to the trees and the fresh air, so Eilian had been staying in the infirmary rather than in the cave that formed Thranduil’s palace. Legolas had visited his brother each day and was overjoyed to see that he had recovered so quickly. He had been surprised to know that Eilian had shadow sickness in the first place, because his brother was usually cheerful and optimistic.

“I will see you later,” he told his friends, who waved as he trotted toward his brother. “Eilian!” he called, and his brother turned with a grin as Legolas approached.

“How are you, brat? Did you manage not to shoot anyone this morning?”

Legolas smiled but did not respond. He had no intention of telling anyone in his family that he and the other students in his class had spent their entire time today doing push-ups and running. He nodded at Eilian’s companion, Maltanaur, who served as his brother’s bodyguard. “Mae govannen.”

“Mae govannen, Legolas.”

Legolas turned back to Eilian. “Have the healers released you then? Are you better?” He scanned his brother’s face, which still looked unusually tense to him.

Eilian smiled briefly.  “I have been sent home to plague you and Ithilden and Adar. You need not worry about me, Legolas. I am not one of those who collapse easily under the strain of shadow. It was just a passing thing.”

“Will you be going back to your patrol now?” Legolas asked. He hated the thought of Eilian leaving so soon, but his brother’s absence from home and exposure to danger were facts he had learned to live with.

Eilian looked back toward where the sword drill had just ended. “The healers want me to spend some time on light duty, so I am going to work for Ithilden for a little while.”

Legolas frowned. Eilian usually hated spending time on the kind of paperwork that seemed to proliferate in their oldest brother’s office as he managed all the activities involved in commanding the troops of the Woodland Realm. If Eilian was accepting this assignment so calmly, then perhaps he was not as well as he claimed.

A warrior who had been taking part in the sword drill now approached. “Mae govannen, Eilian. It is good to see you out again.” He and Eilian clasped arms, and the warrior nodded to Maltanaur and Legolas.

“You swing your sword as if you mean to do some damage,” Eilian observed approvingly, as he turned to rest his hand on the fence again. And suddenly, Legolas drew in his breath with a little hiss at the way his brother’s hand shook slightly before Eilian stilled it by gripping the fence so hard that his knuckles went white. Legolas glanced at the other warrior and saw that he, too, was looking at Eilian’s hand.

“Take care,” said the other warrior, patting Eilian’s shoulder sympathetically. Eilian kept his gaze on the training field, and the other warrior nodded to Legolas and Maltanaur and left.

“Are you coming home for mid-day meal?” Legolas asked. Having Eilian under their father’s watchful eye struck him as a good idea.

Eilian shook his head. “I am not very hungry. You go on, though. Frankly, you smell sweaty enough that I expect Adar would appreciate it if you bathed before you turned up in the dining room.” Legolas laughed and took his leave, but, in his mind’s eye, he kept seeing his brother’s trembling hand. Eilian might be better, but Legolas doubted if he was well.

***

Legolas entered the library to find his tutor waiting for him. “Mae govannen, Galeril,” he said with a sigh and flopped into his chair. The knowledge that Turgon was free for the entire afternoon weighed on him today, and he fervently wished that his father would allow him, too, to cease having lessons, although he knew there was absolutely no chance of that happening.

Galeril raised an eyebrow. “Mae govannen, Legolas. I am happy to see you too.”

Legolas laughed and straightened in his chair. “I wrote the essay you assigned,” he offered, pulling the paper from between the pages of his book and handing it to the tutor.

“Good. You read the scroll I have set out for you while I look at your essay.”

Legolas turned to the scroll that lay spread open on the table. Pictures of various plants had been sketched along one edge of it, and the text dealt with their medicinal uses. He examined the pictures with interest. He had seen some of these plants in the forest, but some of them were new to him. He hoped that Galeril’s selection of this scroll meant they would be going outside for a botany lesson once they had talked about his essay.

Galeril cleared his throat, and Legolas looked up to find that his tutor had finished reading his essay. The assignment Galeril had given him was to discuss what Elrond and Círdan should have done when Isildur took the One Ring for his own after the defeat of Sauron at the end of the Second Age, and Legolas had found the essay difficult to write.

“Isildur’s actions have had disastrous consequences,” Galeril said thoughtfully. “You see them around you every day.”

“Yes,” Legolas agreed.

“Elrond and Círdan might have prevented those consequences if they had taken the Ring from Isildur.”

“Yes,” Legolas agreed, “but I did not think Isildur or his warriors would have let that happen very easily, and it would have been wrong for Elrond or Círdan to kill Isildur. And then, I thought that the Men and the Elves might end up fighting with one another, and I did not think that would be a good thing. They were supposed to be allies.”

“But if they had killed Isildur, they would have saved many lives over the last millennia.”

“I know,” said Legolas, “but I still thought it would be wrong.” In truth, he had been very tempted to say that killing Isildur was exactly what Elrond and Círdan should have done, but in the end, he had recoiled in horror from the act.

“So what do you think the Elves could have done differently?” Galeril asked.

“I do not know,” Legolas admitted. “Maybe they should have stayed with him and kept trying to get him to do the right thing. The trouble is that Isildur was killed so soon. If it were not for that, they could have kept trying to convince him. He was their friend, and he was brave. He saved the White Tree from being completely destroyed in Númenor. They should not have abandoned him to the Ring, and I thought maybe they did.”

“Of course, they had concerns of their own to see to,” Galeril observed. “And my guess would be that Isildur would have been less than happy if they had tried to accompany him and his Men anyway.”

“I know.” Legolas grimaced. He hoped that Galeril was not going to make him write the essay over again.

“I think your answer is as good as any,” Galeril said, to Legolas’s relief. He laid the essay aside. “I thought we would spend some time in the healers’ herb garden today.” Legolas’s spirits soared immediately.  The healers’ herb garden was normally off limits to anyone but them, for in it grew many plants that were both precious and potentially dangerous if someone who was ignorant of their powers consumed them indiscriminately. A glimpse of these plants would be interesting and might some day be useful to a warrior with a wounded or sick companion on his hands.  And besides, the day was a beautiful one, and he longed to be outdoors.

Together, he and Galeril walked to the infirmary and then circled around it to the walled garden behind. The gate was usually closed but today it stood open. They passed through it, and Legolas filled his nostrils with the thick, tangy scent of the herbs. “Let us see what you can identify first,” said Galeril, and the two of them walked among the beds with Galeril pointing to plants and Legolas naming those he recognized and talking haltingly about their uses. Galeril nodded approvingly when he was right and provided correction and further information when he was not. They turned a corner and found a gardener working in a large patch of low plants with thick, grey leaves.

Galeril greeted the gardener and then pointed to the plants. “Do you recognize these, Legolas?”

Legolas frowned. If he had seen these plants before, he had not seen them often.

“They are rare,” Galeril conceded. “Perhaps the gardener will explain them to you. I am sure he knows more than I do.”

The gardener straightened and smiled at Legolas. “This is the dangwath plant,” he said. “The healers dry the leaves and grind them into a powder. Then they mix the powder with wine and use it to treat shadow sickness.” Legolas looked at the plant with renewed interest, wondering if the healers had given this herb to Eilian.

He looked at the size of the herb bed. “Do we need so much of it?” he asked, sobered at the thought.

“No,” the gardener answered. “We supply it to the Men of Esgaroth too. Dangwath is difficult to grow outside of the forest.”

Galeril frowned. “I thought the herb was dangerous for Men.”

“It is dangerous for anyone who is careless with it,” the gardener replied promptly. “Used wisely, it helps the mind recover from shadow sickness. But Men especially can come to enjoy the lift it provides to their spirits and find it hard to stop taking it. Few Elves are so foolish as to harm their bodies so, but it has been known to happen.”

Legolas looked at the herb bed and thought for a moment about the consequences of Isildur’s actions. Perhaps he had been wrong. Perhaps Elrond and Círdan should have used any means possible to rid Middle-earth of the Shadow. He sighed. Sometimes the questions Galeril asked him had no good answer.

***

Legolas pushed open the door to his family’s private sitting room. “You have to trust him,” he heard his brother Ithilden saying, and when he entered the room, he found that his father and Ithilden had preceded him. They turned their heads toward him and there was a second’s silence. “Good evening, child,” Thranduil greeted him. “Would you like some wine?”

“Yes, please,” Legolas answered. He wondered if he were the one whom Ithilden was urging their father to trust. He hoped so. Maybe his father would allow him out at night if he trusted him more. Now that even Annael was sometimes allowed out at night, Legolas was beginning to think that Thranduil was really ridiculously overprotective. Whatever it was that his father and Ithilden had been talking about, however, the conversation was plainly over. Thranduil poured some wine into a goblet, filled it with water, and handed it to Legolas. He gestured his permission for Legolas to sit.

“How was your day?” Thranduil asked, but before Legolas could answer, the door opened again and Eilian came into the room. He was dressed in a black tunic and leggings trimmed in silver and was plainly not intending to spend the evening in his family’s company. Legolas felt a stab of disappointment. He had been looking forward to having his brother home for a few days, now that he was out of the infirmary, and he was hurt that Eilian seemed to have no interest in spending time with him.

“I only stopped to tell you that I will be out this evening, Adar,” Eilian said.

Thranduil frowned. “Do not overtire yourself.”

Eilian gave him a crooked smile. “I will not. I slept most of the time I was in the infirmary, I think. I look forward to being awake for a while.” He turned to go, caught sight of Legolas, and paused. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but then closed it again, approached close enough to ruffle Legolas’s hair, and was gone.

I borrow characters and settings from Tolkien, but they are his, not mine. I gain only the enriched imaginative life that I assume he intended me to gain.

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter.

*******

2. Summer Solstice

“Wait a minute,” Legolas said, crouching to fiddle with his right boot. “The hilt of my dagger is rubbing against my ankle.”

Ithilden halted and looked back at his little brother, torn between amusement and exasperation. Several years ago, he had taken a dagger away from Legolas on the grounds that he was too young to carry one, which he had been. But Thranduil had given Legolas this one the previous month on his thirty-fifth begetting day, and Ithilden suspected that Legolas particularly enjoyed pointing out its existence to him. Legolas finished adjusting the dagger in its built-in sheath and trotted toward him.  They started once again for the warrior area where Legolas would have a sword fighting lesson and Ithilden would go to his office.

“Is Eilian going to work for you today?” Legolas asked. Eilian had been absent from the table at morning meal, which Ithilden found unsurprising, given how late Eilian had gotten home the previous night.

“Yes. The healers have released him for light duty.” He glanced sideways at Legolas, who looked preoccupied.

“Eilian hates paperwork,” Legolas observed tentatively.

“I know he does,” Ithilden agreed. “I will find something else for him to do if I can.”

“I think, perhaps, that he is still ill,” Legolas said, turning a now-anxious face toward Ithilden.

Ithilden suppressed a grimace. He might have known Legolas would be worried about Eilian. “That is why he is only on light duty.” He smiled at Legolas. “Believe me, Legolas, Adar will make sure Eilian is healed before he allows him to go south again.”

Legolas laughed and his face cleared a little. He knew as well as Ithilden did that their father was a scourge to the healers whenever one of his sons was injured.

They were drawing near to the field where Legolas’s class was to be held, and when Ithilden looked ahead again, he suddenly caught sight of a slender figure with a basket in her hand just starting away from the field. Next to him, Legolas broke into a trot. “Why are you walking so fast?” he complained.

“You will be late,” Ithilden said briskly. “Look. Tonduil is already there.”

Legolas looked toward the training field. “He is always early when his sister walks with him. She goes out and gathers flowers and things to make dyes for her weaving.” He slid his eyes toward Ithilden and smiled smugly. “You like her, is that not so?”

“That is none of your business,” Ithilden said and then could not help smiling himself.

“She will like you too, then,” Legolas opined, with a grin. “She just does not yet realize that you always get what you want.”

“Go to your sword fighting lesson before I decide to teach you one in manners,” Ithilden grinned.

Legolas laughed and ran off to where Tonduil waited for him. Ithilden quickened his pace still further and caught up with Alfirin just before she turned off onto the smaller path that would take her into the woods.

“Good morning, mistress,” he greeted her.

She stopped and turned back toward him. “Good morning, my lord.” Her usually serious face softened into a smile, sending warmth flooding through his chest.

“I saw the weaving you made for the king’s council chamber. It is very beautiful.”

Her smile deepened, revealing the dimple in her right cheek, and his breath caught. “Thank you,” she said. She looked off toward the path she would take but made no move to take it. He interpreted this as a good sign.

“Will you be going to the summer solstice feast tonight?” he asked.

“Yes. My whole family is going.”

“I must attend on the king during the feast, but may I hope you would be willing to dance with me afterwards?”

“I would enjoy that,” she said demurely.

“My lord?” interrupted an extremely irritating male voice. Ithilden spun to find one of his messengers. The messenger took an inadvertent step backwards, from which Ithilden concluded that he looked as fierce as he felt.

“What is it?” he demanded, trying to control his annoyance, and aware, even as he did so, that Alfirin was edging toward the path that would take her on her way. He quashed a disturbing impulse to grab her arm and detain her.

“Your aide sent me to find you, my lord. The master armorer is waiting for you.”

Ithilden grimaced. He had forgotten about that appointment. “Very well. I will be there momentarily.” The messenger bowed and ran off, and Ithilden turned to bid good day to Alfirin, but she had already departed. He stood for a moment looking after her, and then started for his office. As he strode along, he thought about her. From past encounters with her, he was reasonably certain that she found his company pleasant, but she was often unaccountably reserved with him so he was still not sure if she found him anything more than pleasant. Despite Legolas’s claim, he was not certain he was going to get what he wanted with Alfirin, so he was moving cautiously. He did not want to make a fool of himself in public.

He reached the building housing his office, greeted his aide, and went through to his own room, where the master armorer awaited him. They talked for nearly half an hour about the weapons that Ithilden’s troops needed, and then the armorer left.  “Calith!” Ithilden called, and his aide appeared in the doorway. “Is Eilian here yet?”

“He just arrived.”

“I need to see Glarion,” Ithilden told him. The aide nodded and withdrew, and Ithilden turned his attention to the reports that had come in overnight. A border patrol had encountered spiders and disposed of them readily. The southern patrol had battled Orcs. Unfortunately, there was nothing surprising in that. The Home Guard had stopped three Men who had evidently been poaching deer in the king’s woods. Ithilden shook his head at that one. The same Men had been caught poaching six weeks earlier. If the Home Guard caught them again, they would be dragged before Thranduil for judgment. They must be fools. Game was plentiful this summer, so there was no need to risk his father’s temper.

Through the open door to his aide’s office, he caught occasional glimpses of Eilian, pacing restlessly as he read what looked to be supply requisitions.

Calith appeared in the doorway again. “Glarion is here, my lord.”

“Ask him to sit down and wait. I will be with him shortly.”

Calith opened his mouth as if to speak but shut it again and went away when Ithilden frowned at him.

Ithilden spent a good fifteen minutes sorting through the papers on his desk. Then he rose and went to the door.  Calith looked up immediately, relief on his face. Eilian sat at the second desk. He was jiggling one foot, and even from where Ithilden stood, he could see that the paper in Eilian’s hand was trembling. On the bench just outside Ithilden’s door sat Glarion, his wide eyes fixed on Eilian. Glarion, who supervised the supply warehouse, was known as an inveterate gossip, and it was obvious that he had just found something worth gossiping about.

“Go on into my office, Glarion,” Ithilden said. “I am sorry to have kept you waiting.” The Elf rose slowly and made his way into Ithilden’s office, still looking back at Eilian.  “Eilian,” Ithilden said, and his brother looked up. “Would you like to spend some time at the training fields?”

Eilian’s face relaxed immediately. “Yes, I would. I really hate sitting still.”

“Go.”

Eilian wasted no time in leaving the office. Ithilden exchanged a look with Calith, whose brow was puckered. Then he turned and went to meet with Glarion.

***

“One more time,” the sword master said, and Legolas nodded, rolled his shoulders, and slipped into a defensive stance. The sword master started with a slow overhand strike that Legolas brushed away, but then he advanced with vertical and diagonal blows that gradually increased in speed. Legolas blocked and danced out of harm’s way, as he had been taught, waiting for the horizontal blow that meant he was to attack rather than simply defend. When it came, it was such a departure from the rhythm of the vertical and diagonal strikes that he almost let it reach him. But he managed to dodge beyond the sword’s reach and then immediately press forward, coming in behind the sword master’s weapon and stabbing at his belly.

“Good!” the sword master cried, and Legolas could not suppress a grin. His swordwork was getting better. It would never be as natural to him as archery, but then most Wood-elves preferred the bow as a weapon.

“You have all done good work today,” the sword master told the class. Legolas looked around to see his companions all grinning too. After the previous day’s disastrous archery class, they had been dutiful and worked hard today. “Clean your weapons and put them away and then you can go. I will see you the day after tomorrow.” The sword master picked up his gear and walked off toward the hut where the weapons masters had their headquarters.

Legolas wiped off the practice sword he had been using and slid it into the rack so someone from the next class could use it. Annael and Turgon slid their swords in too. “My adar told me that some of the warriors were having an archery competition today,” Annael said. “It is probably still going on. Do you two want to go with me to watch it?”

“Yes!” Legolas and Turgon exclaimed simultaneously.  They trotted eagerly after Annael, who knew which field the competition had been scheduled to use. Legolas loved watching the warriors shoot arrow after arrow with seemingly effortless speed and accuracy. As they drew near the field, they could see warriors standing around the edges watching whatever was happening there. The contest must indeed still be underway, Legolas thought happily. Annael ran to his father, Siondel, who was one of the watching Elves, and Legolas and Turgon wormed their way to the front of the onlookers.

Two Elves stood in the middle of the field, and with a start, Legolas realized that one of them was Eilian. He recognized the other as a weapons master for the warriors, one who drilled them and made sure they had not fallen into bad habits in managing their bows or swords. From comments he had heard both his brothers make, Legolas knew that contests like this one were staged not just so that the warriors could enjoy themselves, but also so that the master could see how they performed.  The master was leaning toward Eilian and speaking to him so quietly that Legolas could not hear what he was saying despite the fact that, as he abruptly noticed, the crowd around him was silent. But he heard Eilian’s reply well enough.

“Just get out of the way and let me shoot,” Eilian snapped.

The master hesitated but then backed away and looked down the field. Legolas looked too and recognized the challenge being set. At various points down the field, wooden barriers had been erected, and behind each of them, a warrior stood, holding a wooden disk and watching the conversation between Eilian and the master. At a signal from the master, they all ducked down out of sight.

Excited about seeing his brother shoot, Legolas looked back at Eilian, who stood with an arrow nocked and his bow drawn, and to his puzzlement, he noticed tension in his brother’s stance.  Instead of the confident, deadly shot that Legolas knew him to be, Eilian looked like one of the younger students being tested on a new skill. What was the matter? Legolas wondered anxiously.

“Go!” called the master, and a disk sailed into the air from behind one of the barriers. Eilian’s bow twanged as he loosed his first arrow and then grabbed for the next one from his quiver. Two more disks flew as he shot and grabbed again, and then disks rose into the sky from all directions. Ordinarily, Legolas would have watched the targets, counting as the arrows found their marks and knocked them to the ground, but now he turned his attention abruptly back to Eilian. Not only had his first two arrows missed any of the disks, but his brother had actually fumbled and dropped the third arrow he had tried to pull from his quiver. Legolas had not fumbled like that in over ten years.

For a moment, Eilian stood immobile, looking at the arrow on the ground. Around Legolas, everyone seemed to be holding their breaths. Suddenly, Eilian gave an incoherent cry, kicked the dropped arrow, and began walking rapidly toward the edge of the field where it merged into the woods. With an answering cry of dismay, Legolas started after him, but someone caught his arm. He looked up to see Siondel, Annael’s father, looking sympathetic.

“You three need to go home now,” Siondel said, glancing at Turgon and Annael too.

“But Eilian--!” Legolas began, turning back to where his brother had just disappeared among the trees. His breath was so tight that his diaphragm actually hurt.

“Ithilden will hear about what happened,” Siondel said. “He will see to it.”

Legolas glanced at the many warriors around them who were now murmuring to one another, and with a sinking heart, he realized that what Siondel said was true. Ithilden would undoubtedly be told almost immediately about Eilian’s lack of control over his weapon and himself. And while he would try to help Eilian, he would also want to know exactly what the matter was. Legolas had a feeling that Eilian was not going to want to talk about that. His brother seemed bent on declaring that his shadow sickness was completely healed. Legolas bit his lip. He hated it when Eilian quarreled with their father or with Ithilden, and he was afraid that was what was about to happen.

***

Ithilden shifted slightly in his chair. The advisor who had approached Thranduil was droning on endlessly about the details of some agreement having to do with river tolls. Ithilden was practiced at tolerating occasional boredom during feasts, but tonight he was impatient for his father to signal that the meal was at an end and the tables should be moved out of the way so that the dancing could begin. The night was dark, and the sky was full of stars, and he wanted to dance with Alfirin.

The advisor sat down in Eilian’s empty chair so as to be more comfortable while making his point. Ithilden suppressed a sigh and glanced around at the Elves collected on the green. Eilian was nowhere to be found tonight, but Legolas was sitting with Annael and Turgon, laughing at some joke one of them had made. Ithilden smiled slightly. He was glad to see Legolas enjoying himself with his friends. He hoped his little brother took advantage of every chance he had to do so, because before too many more years had passed, Thranduil would decide that Legolas was no longer a child and would start requiring him to sit at the head table during feasts. Then he, too, would have to learn to sit patiently while his friends roamed free.

As Ithilden watched, two maidens of about his brother’s age walked arm-in-arm past the table where Legolas and his friends sat, and all three of them fell silent and watched with wide eyes until the maidens had passed, self-consciously ignoring their gazes.  Ithilden’s smile widened. For tonight at least, he was willing to wager that Legolas and his friends would not leave one another and the little maids would cling together, but that would not be so for long. One day soon, one of them would cross the territory that separated them and, one by one, the others would follow. He wondered with some amusement if his father was ready for that. Thranduil still tended to see Legolas as his baby sometimes.

“We should speak of this in the morning,” Thranduil said, and with a surge of excitement, Ithilden realized that he was dismissing the advisor. The advisor reluctantly realized it too and withdrew as Thranduil waved to the servants who leapt to move the tables, helped by many of the Elves who sat at them. Apparently Ithilden was not the only one who had been eager to dance.

Elves moved about in a confused swirl for few moments and then began to take seats on the grass in little groups of friends and neighbors. Then Thranduil’s minstrels shifted from the lays they had sung during the meal to the inviting rhythm of the dance. Thranduil turned his head toward Ithilden. “Do you wish to leave me, iôn-nín?” he asked dryly.

Ithilden laughed. His father did not miss much. “By your leave, Adar, I do.”

“Go,” Thranduil smiled, and Ithilden rose, walked around the end of the head table that still stood in place, and headed for the spot where he had seen Alfirin settle onto the grass with her family. As he approached the little group, an Elf whom he recognized as a healer hurried up to them and bent to speak to Alfirin’s mother, who was also a healer. She turned her head sharply at the other Elf’s message, rose quickly, and left with him.

Ithilden hesitated for just a second to watch her go and then turned his attention back to Alfirin. Those around her fell silent as he approached. “Good evening, my lord,” her father murmured.

“Good evening,” Ithilden responded with automatic courtesy. He held out his hand to Alfirin. “Will you dance, mistress?”  With her face reddening, she took his hand and rose. He led her out among the dancers, who moved a little away from them, although he half-noticed that they were drawing some curious glances. As Thranduil’s son, he was accustomed to being watched when he was in public, but it suddenly occurred to him that Alfirin might be uncomfortable. She kept her eyes straight ahead, and her face was still flushed. He smiled at her encouragingly, took her hands, and whirled her away.

***

Legolas watched anxiously as Tonduil’s mother left the green with the other healer. He could not help thinking about Eilian, whom he had not seen since the episode on the archery field. His brother had not come home for evening meal, and neither Thranduil nor Ithilden had seemed surprised. When he had asked if something was the matter, his father had simply told him not to worry, but he had worried then and was worried now. What if Tonduil’s mother was being called away to treat Eilian because he had had some sort of relapse?

“Legolas, are you listening to me?” Turgon asked impatiently.

Legolas sighed and returned his attention to his friend. “I am sorry. I did not hear you.”

“Did you hear what I said you should tell your adar about why he should allow you to come out with Annael and me?”

“Yes, I did hear that.”

“Are you going to tell him?”

Legolas grimaced. Turgon would keep after him until he gave in on this so he might as well do it immediately. Besides, he wanted to be allowed out at night with his friends as much as Turgon wanted it for him.  “Yes, I am. I will do it tomorrow.”

“Good.” Turgon looked pleased with himself. He was good at thinking up arguments, Legolas thought. Legolas usually found Turgon quite persuasive when he was suggesting things they should do, and only noticed the flaws in his friend’s reasoning after they were already in trouble.

He looked up to find Miriwen and Aerlinn strolling past them again. He dropped his gaze and watched them from under his lowered lids so they would not know he was looking. Miriwen’s hair was the color of polished autumn oak leaves, and it flowed like a broad ribbon down her back. And she was . . . rounder than she used to be. He could feel heat rising in his face.

“Mae govannen,” ventured a voice, and he turned to find that Tonduil had wandered to their side of the green.

“Mae govannen,” the three of them chorused.

“Sit with us, Tonduil,” Annael invited, and, looking pleased at the invitation, Tonduil dropped to the ground and folded his legs under him.

“I saw your naneth leave,” Legolas said. “Is someone hurt?”

Tonduil shook his head. “No. Something is missing from the infirmary, and she went to help look for it.”

Legolas let out a long breath. Good. Then at least Eilian was not back in the infirmary. They sat in companionable silence for a while, watching the dancers. Suddenly, a familiar laugh came from behind them, and Legolas turned quickly, feeling the tension in his shoulders ease instantly at the sound of it. The other three had turned too. Eilian and Maltanaur were walking along the edge of the green, and Eilian was talking animatedly and waving his hands about.

“I tell you if they give me half a chance, I will beat them all tomorrow,” Eilian cried loudly.  He stumbled suddenly, and Maltanaur put out a hand to steady him.

Turgon looked curious. “Has your brother had too much wine?”

“I do not know.” Legolas glanced toward the head table and saw his father frowning in Eilian’s direction. His mouth was set in a thin line, and Legolas flinched, in no doubt at all that Eilian had just provoked their father’s anger. Thranduil was unlikely to forgive public drunkenness from one of his sons.

He looked back toward Eilian to find that Ithilden had left the dancers and was taking Eilian’s arm and turning him toward the palace. “We will go home,” he said firmly.

Eilian jerked his arm away. “Do not tell me what to do, Ithilden. You are not my commanding officer here, and I want to stay and have a good time.”

Ithilden murmured something to Maltanaur and they each took one of Eilian’s arms and steered him toward the bridge leading to the palace, but he could be heard protesting until they had disappeared.

Legolas looked at Thranduil again and found his face set in forbidding lines. He could not remember when he had been so dismayed. Eilian was in some sort of trouble and there did not seem to be anything Legolas could do to help him.

I borrow characters and settings from Tolkien, but they are his, not mine. I gain only the enriched imaginative life that I assume he intended me to gain.

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter.

*******

3. Along the River

Thranduil glanced at Legolas, shifting in his chair, and waited placidly for his youngest son to say whatever it was that was making him play with his porridge rather than eat it. He could see Ithilden watching Legolas too, amusement on his face.

“Adar?”

“Yes, Legolas?”

“Is something the matter with Eilian?”

Thranduil blinked and could see Ithilden sobering immediately. They exchanged a glance, and then Thranduil turned to find Legolas watching them anxiously. “As you know, Eilian has been ill, but he will recover,” he said, as reassuringly as possible. In truth, Thranduil had been worried since Eilian had come home with shadow sickness, and the last few days had not brought any relief, but he was not about to admit that to Legolas.

Legolas looked down and pushed his spoon around in his bowl. “Was he drunk last evening?”  He kept his eyes averted while he waited for Thranduil to answer.

Thranduil put his own spoon down and thought rapidly about how to answer that question honestly without saying more than he wished to say. “Legolas, I know that you are worried about Eilian. But you must believe me when I tell you that Ithilden and I are aware of Eilian’s actions and are doing what we can to help him. And Maltanaur is with him too.”

Legolas looked up now, studying Thranduil’s face as if not quite sure whether to believe him or not. “You heard about what happened at the archery contest?”

Thranduil nodded. “I heard. Legolas, if you want to help Eilian, the best thing you can do right now is leave him in peace. Go to training and to your lessons and have fun with your friends. Trust Ithilden and me to look after Eilian.”

Legolas paused for a second more and then, to Thranduil’s relief, he nodded. “Very well,” he said. A slow smile crept onto his face. “If you say I should have fun with my friends, I will try to do that. Turgon and Annael are going to listen to the singing by the river tonight. May I go with them?”

Ithilden snorted inelegantly and Thranduil threw him an admonishing glare before turning back to Legolas. He eyed his youngest son sharply, trying to decide if his expression of concern for Eilian had been a way to maneuver Thranduil into this position, but he immediately dismissed the idea. Legolas loved Eilian and was worried about him. Of that, there could be no question. No, Legolas had simply taken advantage of an opening that Thranduil himself had provided.

“Please, Adar,” Legolas begged. “Annael is allowed to go if he asks each time and stays between the far edge of the training fields and the pond and goes home within an hour after it grows dark. I could do that too, and I would be with Annael and Turgon.”

Thranduil sighed. Ah yes. Legolas would be with Turgon. Somehow, Thranduil did not find that that made him feel any better about letting his youngest child out after dark without an adult. Turgon was a source of endless mischief, and the problem was that Thranduil knew only too well that Legolas was at an age when what started as mischief could easily grow into real trouble.

“When Eilian was my age, you let him go out after dark,” Legolas argued.

Thranduil frowned and wondered how Legolas knew that. Really, Eilian should know better. “When Eilian was your age, the Peace was still in effect.”

Legolas looked at Ithilden. “Could you go out at night when you were my age, Ithilden?”

“I cannot remember,” answered Ithilden promptly, and when both Thranduil and Legolas glared at him, he threw up his hands and laughed. “Really, I cannot, but if you will excuse me Adar, I think I will go to work and let you two finish this discussion without me.”  Thranduil nodded stiffly, and Ithilden rose and left the room, and as Thranduil watched him go, he found that he could not remember whether Ithilden had been allowed out at night at Legolas’s age either. He rather thought that was a decision that Lorellin had made. He sighed.

Thranduil looked at Legolas’s serious face, thought about his son’s good heart and the responsible way he usually behaved at training and at lessons, and made up his mind. “If I let you do as Annael does, Legolas, you will need to remember that you are not just like Annael. You will be seen as my son even when you do not intend to be. Can you keep that in mind?”

Legolas’s face had lit up as soon as he realized that Thranduil was about to give in, and he answered almost before Thranduil had finished speaking. “I will remember, Adar. You do not have to worry about me. And thank you!”

Thranduil smiled, still uncertain about the freedom he had just granted his youngest son. “You are welcome, child.” Legolas began shoveling porridge into his mouth, happy at the prospect of what awaited him at the end of his day. Thranduil watched him briefly, hoping his decision was not going to lead to trouble, and then glanced at Eilian’s empty chair and sobered.  Eilian’s actions were an entirely different matter, he thought unhappily. There was no doubt at all that there was trouble there of a very dangerous kind. He had already asked Eilian to stay away from Legolas. He would have to see to it that Legolas also stayed away from Eilian.

***

Alfirin opened the cottage door in response to the knock and found the king’s oldest son standing on the doorstep. Her breath caught. His back was to the setting sun, so his face was in shadows, but he looked very large, silhouetted against the dusky sky. “Good evening, mistress,” he said.

“Good evening, my lord.” They stood staring at one another for a moment before she remembered her manners. “Will you come in?” she asked hastily, hoping she was not blushing but fearing that the warmth in her face meant that she was.

He stepped into the hallway, and she closed the door behind him. She led him to the sitting room, where her parents and brother were sipping chamomile tea. “Lord Ithilden is here,” she said, and they all turned startled faces her way.

Standing in the sitting room doorway, Ithilden bowed slightly. “Good evening,” he repeated.

Alfirin’s mother jumped to her feet. “Come in, my lord. Please sit. Would you like some tea? Tonduil, run to the kitchen and get another cup.”

Ithilden stepped to one side, as Tonduil edged past him, his eyes huge. Alfirin had to smother a smile. She had heard her little brother speak about the troop commander often enough that she suspected he both admired Ithilden and was overawed by him. Her mother indicated the chair Tonduil had just vacated, and Ithilden sat down.

“I hope I am not imposing.”

“Of course not,” Alfirin’s father said. Silence immediately descended on them all, broken only when Tonduil came back into the room with a cup and saucer, which he handed to his mother. She filled the cup and handed it to Ithilden, as Tonduil settled on a stool next to the fireplace. They all stared at Ithilden as if waiting for him to speak.

He took a tiny sip of the tea and swallowed hard. “The tea is very good.”

“It is a lovely evening …”

“The music at the feast last night …”

“I gathered the chamomile …”

Alfirin and her parents all spoke at the same time and all halted. Alfirin could feel the faint heat in her face deepening. What must he think of them?

At that moment, behind Ithilden, Tonduil’s cat appeared on the sill of the sitting room window, which stood open to the long summer evening. Alfirin saw it eye the pitcher of milk on the table and leaned forward quickly to defend it, just as the cat leapt from the sill to the back of Ithilden’s chair, startling him enough that he fumbled with his cup and spilled hot tea into his lap. He jumped up with a stifled exclamation, and Alfirin gave a cry of horror, snatched up a napkin from the table, and began dabbing at the wet spots on his tunic and leggings. He seized her wrist.

“Do not trouble yourself,” he said, sounding as if he was struggling for air. “I am fine.” She stared at the area to which she had been ministering and felt as if her face had gone up in flames.

Alfirin’s healer mother was plainly concerned. “Are you burnt, my lord?  Let me take a look.” Alfirin barely stopped herself from moaning in humiliation. She wished she could jump through the window after the vanishing cat.

“No!” Ithilden said forcefully. “I assure you I am fine. The tea was not hot enough to burn me.” He drew a deep breath and set his empty cup on the table. “I fear I must take my leave now. Thank you for your hospitality.”

“Let me see you out, my lord,” said Alfirin’s father, who actually had the nerve to look amused as well as slightly horrified at what had just happened in his sitting room. He and Ithilden went out into the hall, and Alfirin heard the front door open and close. He came back into the room and the three of them stood staring at one another.  Abruptly, they all burst out laughing.

“Why are you laughing?” demanded Tonduil in horror. “We spilled tea on the troop commander!”

Alfirin sobered and put her hand to her mouth. “I know. He will never come back.” Suddenly, the situation was not funny at all.

Her parents both smiled at her. “I think he will,” her mother said affectionately and patted Alfirin’s shoulder.

***

Eilian strolled along the riverbank, listening to the songs being raised by groups of Elves who had gathered to share music and wine in the summer twilight. Occasionally someone called a greeting to him, but he noticed that no one invited him to join them. He could hardly blame them, he thought wryly. He was not good company these days by anyone’s standards and had not been for at least two weeks before Maltanaur had approached him in camp that day and declared that he would drag Eilian home forcibly if he did not consent to go on his own.

“I will not stand by and watch you destroy yourself,” Maltanaur had said, grasping his arm roughly as he had tried to pull away. “You need to be away from the shadow for a while, Eilian, and you need to see the healers.”

For just a moment, Eilian recalled the black despair that had engulfed him and shuddered. He had seen many warriors with shadow sickness and had felt its faint tinge in himself, as did anyone who ventured near it. But he had never before had it wrap its tendrils so insidiously around his heart, sucking all joy from his life. He had always sympathized with those who suffered from the sickness, but he had taken pride in believing that he could serve in the south for year after year and not succumb. He had been lucky, the healers said: His naturally optimistic temperament had protected him and was helping him to recover quickly now. At least they claimed his recovery was quick, although it did not feel so to him, but then he was no longer telling the healers everything. He was proud of having brushed the sickness off rather well, but that he had had it at all had shaken his faith in his own strength.

I will not have it again, he vowed to himself. I know the signs now. I will do anything I can to fight the last bits of it off now, and I will not have it again.

He halted his steps for a moment to listen to a song that blended particularly well with the music the river made as it rushed by on his left. The sound of the river spoke of home to him, and his heart eased a little. “The Valar bless you, my lord,” called a voice from among the trees, and he smiled slightly and raised his hand in thanks, but he did not want to stop here. Tonight, he needed to be alone.

As he resumed walking, he scanned those seated on blankets or reclining in the grass, people whom, for the most part, he had known all his life. Did they all have dark moments? he wondered. If he had been so mistaken about himself, could he be mistaken about some of these seemingly cheerful people too?

If he were honest, he thought, he would have to admit that what really galled him was that no one else had been as surprised by his illness as he was. He pictured the looks he had seen on people’s faces at the solstice feast, ending with the angry face of his father, and he grimaced. He supposed that no one would have been very surprised by that either.

***

Legolas ran across the bridge to where Turgon and Annael waited for him. They were grinning and Annael cried, “I still cannot believe your adar allowed you to come with us.”

“I cannot believe it either,” Legolas grinned back.

“Come,” said Turgon. “People are singing and harping along the river.”

“My naneth gave me cider and seedcakes for all of us,” Annael added.

Legolas happily followed his two friends toward the path that meandered along the edge of the Forest River. As they had said, Elves were scattered in small groups along the river and music flowed all around them. They stopped occasionally to listen to a song they liked and then wandered on to the next group.

Turgon eventually led them to a small clump of beech trees that were a little off the path, and the three of them scrambled into one of the trees and settled on branches within reach of one another. Legolas accepted a seedcake and a drink of the cider Annael offered and then leaned back against the tree’s trunk to look at the stars that were just beginning to open. For a moment, he was struck speechless by their beauty and that of the music of the Elves and trees.

“Penntalion was grouchy today,” Turgon observed, swinging his foot lazily.

“He was grouchy with you,” Annael corrected.

Turgon scowled. “He does not like me. I hit the target at least as often as Tonduil did, but Penntalion did not scold him at all.”

Legolas lowered his eyes to regard his friend. “Tonduil is not as good as you are, Turgon, but he tries. Your form is sloppy, and you know it.”

Turgon rolled his eyes. “If I hit the target, I do not see why the rest of it matters.”

Legolas was about to explain yet again why a consistent form mattered when he caught sight of Eilian, pacing toward the shadows of an oak tree. His brother flung himself to the ground under the tree, drew his knees up, and began tapping his fingers against them. He looked restlessly left and right and then leaned his head against the tree and closed his eyes for a second, only to open them and once again scan the area.

“Is something the matter with Eilian?” Turgon whispered in Legolas’s ear.

Legolas turned to find Turgon eyeing Eilian curiously. Beyond him, Annael was looking sympathetically at Legolas. When he saw Legolas looking at him, he bit his lip and hurriedly withdrew his gaze. Legolas felt his stomach tighten. Annael’s warrior father talked to him about things that Thranduil refused to discuss with Legolas, and now Legolas wondered what Annael knew that he did not.

He looked back at Eilian and was surprised to find that someone had joined him in the dusky space under the oak. An older Elf whom Legolas did not recognize had sat down next to Eilian and was leaning close to speak to him. He handed something to Eilian and then rose and faded away into the forest. Eilian sat for a moment, staring at what lay in his hand. Then he rose to his feet and started down a path that would lead him deeper into the woods.

Without even thinking, Legolas began traveling through the branches keeping Eilian in sight but trying to stay out of view himself. Fear quickened his breath. The stranger’s approach and his gift had both seemed very odd to Legolas. Eilian was involved in something very disturbing, and Legolas intended to find out what it was.

He jumped when a shadowy figure dropped from the trees onto the path where Eilian walked, but then relaxed and halted in the branches when he realized that it was Maltanaur. Annael and Turgon lit lightly on the branch next to Legolas, and they all watched in silence as Eilian and Maltanaur spoke to one another in voices too soft for them to hear. They began walking together further into the woods, and Legolas was getting ready to follow when Annael caught at his sleeve.

“I have to go home,” he whispered. “It is getting late.”

“We can stay a little longer,” Turgon urged. He sounded excited, and Legolas knew he had enjoyed following Eilian, even though Legolas was certain that Turgon was not particularly concerned about his brother.

Legolas turned and saw Annael’s anxious face and then turned back to look in the direction in which Eilian and Maltanaur had disappeared. If it was time for Annael to go home, then it was time for him to go home too, and he did not want to be late on this first night he had been allowed out. “Annael is right,” he conceded reluctantly, and although Turgon continued to grumble, the three of them started for home.

***

Maltanaur dropped from the trees and approached. “Did you get what you needed?”

“Yes,” Eilian said. He opened the flap of the small paper packet of dangwath that the strange Elf had given him, and Maltanaur looked at it with loathing in his face. “Did you see him?”

Maltanaur nodded soberly.

“Do you know him? I have seen him occasionally, I think, but I do not even know his name. I was waiting for someone to see I was alone and approach me, but I was surprised when he did.”

“His name is Hiolith,” Maltanaur said. He gave a ghost of a smile. “We should go elsewhere to speak though. Your little brother and his friends followed you and are watching us now.”

Eilian felt an instant stab of alarm. He knew Thranduil had allowed Legolas out this evening, but he also knew that he himself was looking for trouble and he certainly did not want his brother anywhere near it. “What are they up to?”

Maltanaur shrugged. “Nothing, I think. They were nearby when you and Hiolith met and were probably curious.”

“Come,” said Eilian and set off immediately, listening for any signs that the youngsters were following them.

“Let me check,” said Maltanaur, and he disappeared into the trees. He returned shortly and shook his head. “They went toward home.”

“Good.” Eilian relaxed a little. “My adar told me to stay away from Legolas until I am not involved in this any more, and, for once, I could not have agreed with him more.” He and Maltanaur found a fallen log and sat down. “Tell me about Hiolith.”

Maltanaur sighed. “I have not thought about him in years. He was a warrior. He served in the south just after the end of the Watchful Peace, and the shadow always weighed heavily on him, but every time Ithilden reassigned him, he would ask to come back again as soon as he was healed. He felt it was where he was most needed, I think. Then something happened to his family, although I am not sure I know all the details. I think they were traveling to visit his wife’s naneth when Orcs attacked the party. His wife and two young children were all killed.”

Eilian flinched. His own mother had died under circumstances that were similar enough to make his heart constrict. “What happened to him after that?”

Maltanaur shook his head. “I do not know. He was devastated, of course, and he was suffering a bout of shadow sickness at the time, as I recall. I have not seen him in years, and truthfully I thought he must have sailed west.”

Eilian turned the packet of dangwath over and over in his hand, remembering the rush of relief he had experienced the first time the healers gave it to him. He had been lost in darkness and had feared he would never see light again, and then the sun had broken through. He sighed. “I will need to see him again.”

“Are you sure you have to do that?” Maltanaur asked, his brows drawn together.

“Yes,” Eilian said simply.

Maltanaur pressed his lips into a thin line. “I have already told you that I do not think you should be doing this, but if you must, then I will go with you.”

Eilian nodded and then looked up into the branches overhead, trying to let the trees’ song bring him comfort.

 

I borrow characters and settings from Tolkien, but they are his, not mine. I gain only the enriched imaginative life that I assume he intended me to gain.

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter.

*******

4. Helping Out

Legolas swung the practice sword experimentally, testing its balance. Every one of the practice swords was balanced slightly differently, and he could never be sure what one would feel like when he chose it from the rack. The master said it was good for them to learn to use different swords. A warrior never knew when he might lose his own sword and have to use whatever was to hand. He sat down on the grass between Turgon and Annael.

“So what do you think Eilian was doing last night?” asked Turgon.

Legolas shrugged. “I do not know.” He was not sure he wanted to talk to Turgon about Eilian, although he had spend a large part of the night worrying about the same question that Turgon had just asked. On his right, he felt Annael shift slightly and suddenly he remembered the look he had surprised on Annael’s face the previous evening when they had seen Eilian near the river. He turned sharply. “Do you know something about Eilian, Annael?”

Annael grimaced, obviously dismayed at being drawn into the conversation. “Not really.”

“But you suspect something,” Legolas persisted. “Or more likely your adar told you that he suspects something.” Annael opened his mouth and closed it again. “Please tell me,” Legolas begged, throwing dignity to the winds. “I am worried about him.”

“My adar said that Eilian is a brave warrior, and he has shadow sickness,” Annael finally said.

“I know that,” Legolas said impatiently. “What else?”

Annael’s reluctance was almost painful to see. “He said that the healers use an herb to treat bad shadow sickness, and sometimes people cannot stop taking the herb and it makes them act foolishly.” He looked miserably at Legolas. “He said that we should be grateful to warriors like that for what they have done for us and not scorn them but try to help them get better.”

Legolas stared at Annael, wanting to disbelieve him but knowing immediately that he was right. His tutor had asked the gardener to explain the properties of dangwath only a few days ago, and even then, Legolas had wondered if the healers had given the herb to Eilian. He felt sick.

And as if his thoughts had conjured his brother, he saw Eilian walking with Maltanaur between the field they were in and the next one, going along a path that would lead them into the woods. Immediately, his worry deepened. At this time of the day, Eilian should have been in Ithilden’s office. And what was Maltanaur doing with him anyway? Maltanaur was supposed to protect Eilian, but on the previous night, he had seemed to be cooperating in whatever it was Eilian was doing and now he was with him again. Without thinking, Legolas rose to his feet and took a step toward where he had just seen his brother disappear into the forest.

“What are you doing?” Annael asked anxiously.

Turgon had listened to Annael’s explanation and now was watching Legolas with excitement on his face. “We should follow them!”

“But we have a class,” Annael protested.

“Legolas is worried,” Turgon declared, “and your adar said we should help warriors like Eilian.”

Legolas looked down at the practice sword in his hand. If there was one area in his life that he always treated seriously, it was his warrior training. He never missed a class if he could help it, and he valued every small thing a master taught him and every moment he had to practice it.  But he knew just then that he could not stay on the field and spar while Eilian might be sinking deeper into trouble. He walked to the rack that held the practice swords and slid his into place.  With a little crow, Turgon did the same thing, and then, more reluctantly, Annael followed suit. Legolas was more grateful than he could say for his friends’ support. He started to trot toward where Eilian had gone, passing Tonduil, who was just arriving.

“Where are you going?” Tonduil asked, his eyebrows drawn down in confusion.

“Tell the master we were called away,” Turgon answered over his shoulder, as Legolas broke into a run.

***

“I asked around about Hiolith last night after you left,” Maltanaur said, “and again this morning. It took me hours to find someone who knew where he lived. No one seems to have seen much of him.”

Eilian grimaced. He could not imagine what it would be like to fight shadow sickness and the loss of his entire family at the same time. When his mother died, he had drawn strength from the simple presence of Thranduil and Ithilden and even more from the uncomplicated love of Legolas, who had been small at the time. He knew that his father and brothers supported him without hesitation now, as he struggled to escape the grip of shadow. And, that did not even count Maltanaur’s support or that of his fellow warriors in the Southern Patrol, whose concern for him had been obvious once he had been willing to see it. He did not want to think what his life would have been like if he had been in the position Hiolith was in, seemingly lost even to friends and neighbors. How could this have been allowed to happen?

He thought of the glimpse he had caught of Legolas, waiting on the training field with his friends for his sword fighting lesson to start. What would he have done if Legolas had been with their mother when the Orcs attacked and killed her? He shuddered and thanked the Valar that his little brother was safely tucked away under the care of the weapons masters. Legolas had been far too close to him last night when he had finally found someone who could supply him with dangwath. Eilian did not want Legolas around at all as he tried to find out if Hiolith had enough of the stuff to function as a continued source.

Maltanaur led him along narrower and narrower paths and finally left the path altogether to pick his way between trees, pausing once to reorient himself, and finally emerged in a tiny clearing holding a ramshackle cottage that probably consisted of a single room. “Let me speak to him first,” he said in a low voice. “We were friends of a sort at one time.”

They advanced to the door and Maltanaur knocked. Hiolith opened it almost immediately, which did not surprise Eilian, given how small the cottage was. “Mae govannen, Hiolith,” Maltanaur said. The other Elf blinked at him and then looked over Maltanaur’s shoulder at Eilian, recognition plain on his face.

“Maltanaur,” he said slowly, “it has been a long time. Did you come to talk about this one?” He pointed with his chin at Eilian.

“I did,” said Maltanaur. “May we come in?”

Hiolith hesitated for a second and then backed out of the way to let them enter. Eilian glanced quickly around the room. As he had expected, the cottage was tiny. A single chair sat near the hearth with a small table next to it.  A pot, a plate, and a cup stood on the mantelpiece. A narrow cot was wedged into one corner with a shabby blanket spread over it. A cloak and single change of clothing hung from pegs on the wall. With the three of them in it, the cottage was crowded. Hiolith did not ask them to sit, and Eilian could not see where they would have sat down if he had. He saw Hiolith eyeing him and shifted restlessly from foot to foot, drumming the fingers of one hand against his thigh.

“How are you?” Maltanaur said. “I confess I did not know you still lived so close to the king’s stronghold. I even thought you might have sailed.”

Hiolith shrugged. “What do you want, Maltanaur?”

Eilian repressed a grimace. This was not going well.

Maltanaur gestured toward Eilian. “You know that the king has charged me with his son’s well being?”

Hiolith nodded but said nothing.

“He is sick with the shadow,” Maltanaur said. “And I think you have something that will help him feel better.”

Hiolith looked at Eilian from under half-lowered lids. “If he already needs more of what I gave him last night, then he is sicker than you realize.”

Eilian bit his lip. “I just want to be sure there will be more when I need it,” he broke in. Maltanaur threw him an unhappy glance.

Hiolith looked thoughtful. “You have been in the south?”

“Yes.”

Hiolith seemed to consider that. “I have what you want, but I do not have it here,” he said slowly.

“Do you grow it?” Eilian asked. Hiolith nodded. “How can I be sure it will be there?” Eilian knew his voice sounded strained. “And what if you are not around when I need it?”

Hiolith looked at the floor for a minute and then sighed. “I will show you.” He gestured for them to follow and led them out of the cottage and along a lightly worn trail. They walked in silence for perhaps half an hour, and then Hiolith stopped on the edge of a clearing. Eilian came up beside him, and his breath caught. He had expected to find a small garden patch of dangwath. Instead, the herb spread before him in an area that was perhaps twenty feet by thirty. No wonder Hiolith claimed he had enough of the herb. Even after he picked and dried enough to see himself through the winter, there would be enough here to supply two dozen people.

They stood in silence for a minute. “There is far more than you need here,” Maltanaur observed mildly. Hiolith looked at him sharply.

“And given that, may I take some?” Eilian asked hastily. “I do not want to take a chance on being without it.”

“You may take what you need now or later,” Hiolith said.

Eilian gathered a few of the leaves and tucked them into a pouch at his belt. “I can pay you,” he offered.

Hiolith shook his head. “I know what the south is like. I would not deny some comfort to a fellow warrior.” Eilian blinked. He did not quite know what to make of Hiolith. The Elf was not what he had expected. “You can come here any time,” Hiolith said. “You do not need to come to the cottage again.” And with that, he turned and started for home, leaving Eilian and Maltanaur standing in the clearing looking after him.

“We should go, Eilian,” Maltanaur finally said. “You are overdue to your brother’s office.” Eilian nodded, and the two of them struck off toward the stronghold.

***

Turgon dropped to the ground and ran toward the cultivated area in the clearing, with Legolas and Annael following more slowly. Legolas looked off in the direction Eilian and Maltanaur had taken. He could hardly believe what he had heard as he and his friends listened from the trees. Annael’s father had been right: Eilian was still taking dangwath, even though the healers had apparently stopped giving it to him. How could this be happening to his gallant brother? he thought, feeling something akin to panic.

“Is this the herb Annael was talking about?” Turgon asked, bending over the plants.

Legolas looked at the characteristic thick, grey leaves. “Yes,” he admitted. “That is dangwath.”

“Why do people take it if they are not sick?” Turgon demanded. “I hated the taste of the herbs I had to take when I broke my arm, and they made me sleepy and I hated that too. Why would people keep taking herbs when healers were not making them do it?”

“My adar says it makes them feel better when they are ill,” said Annael, “and they want to keep feeling that way, and they think the herb will help them do that. And then their bodies get used to having the herb, so they feel sick again when they stop.”

Legolas was barely listening. What was he going to do? How could he help Eilian? How could he stop him? The task seemed overwhelming. Should he tell his father what he had learned? He recoiled at that idea. He had seen how angry Thranduil was with Eilian at the solstice feast. He did not want to get Eilian into any more trouble than he was already in.

“We should leave now,” Annael urged. “We will be late for our mid-day meals.” He looked worried, and Legolas recalled that they were all supposed to be at the training fields rather than wandering in the woods.

He and Annael climbed back into the trees, and after a moment, Turgon followed. They leapt rapidly through the branches, coming to ground again as they neared home. As they hurried along the path back to the fields, Legolas suddenly became aware that Turgon had taken something he had tucked in his belt and was moving it into the pouch attached to it. And almost instantly, he knew what it was that Turgon had.

“Do you have some of the dangwath, Turgon?” he asked.

Turgon blew out an exasperated breath. “I just want to see what it is like.”

“Give it to me,” Legolas demanded, advancing toward his friend with his hand out. He could not believe that Turgon would be so stupid. But then again, he could. This was exactly the kind of thing that Turgon was likely to be curious about, and he seemed to have absolutely no fear. And Legolas knew quite well that Turgon’s parents were not likely to notice what he was doing, much less try to stop him.

“Give!” he insisted, and reluctantly, Turgon handed over the crumpled leaves. Legolas shoved them into his own belt. “I will see you both after my lessons are over,” he said and took off for home at a run, intent on being on time for his mid-day meal.

***

“Legolas, what did I just say?” Galeril asked in some impatience.

Legolas looked blankly at the tutor. He had been trying yet again to think of how he might be able to help Eilian, and he had no idea of the answer to Galeril’s question. “I am sorry. I was not listening,” he admitted.

“So you told me five minutes ago too. Is there something on your mind?”

Legolas lowered his eyes. If he had not been able to look untroubled in front of even Galeril, then he counted himself lucky that Thranduil and Ithilden had both been too busy to eat mid-day meal with him. “Nothing is the matter.”

“Stand up,” said Galeril.

Legolas sighed and pushed himself to his feet. Sometimes when he was inattentive, Galeril made him continue his lessons while standing, thinking that might leave him less susceptible to daydreaming.

Suddenly, Galeril frowned. “What is that in your belt?”

Legolas glanced down, flinched, and clapped his hand over the dangwath leaves that protruded from the top of his belt. He looked up quickly at Galeril’s serious face and realized that concealment was pointless. Galeril had plainly recognized the leaves. Slowly he removed his hand and stood meeting his tutor’s eyes as steadily as he could. Galeril held out his hand, and Legolas pulled the herb from his belt and gave it to him.

“I think we need to talk to your adar, Legolas.”

Legolas all but moaned. His father would not take this well. “I did not use any of it and I would not have,” he protested. “You could punish me for my inattention, and that could be the end of it.”

Galeril shook his head. “This is too serious for me. We need to see the king. Wait here.” He left the library, presumably to send a servant to see if Thranduil could see them now. Legolas sank into his chair, propped his elbows on the table, and dropped his head into his hands. He could not imagine what his father would have to say about this.

Galeril came back. “Come,” he said, and Legolas got reluctantly to his feet and followed the tutor down the hall to his father’s office, the door of which stood open. Galeril rapped on it once to announce their presence and then they filed in. Thranduil was seating himself at his desk, having evidently just arrived. He ran his eyes over them both, and Legolas dropped his gaze.

“You have something important to tell me, Galeril?”

The tutor stepped forward, and from under his half-lowered lids, Legolas could see him put the dangwath on Thranduil’s desk. “Legolas had this in his possession, my lord.”

There was a moment of absolute silence and then Legolas saw his father’s hand reach to touch the herb with an extended finger. He raised his eyes to look anxiously at Thranduil’s face, which was as unreadable as Legolas had ever seen it as his father looked at the dangwath.

“I have seen no sign he has taken any of the herb,” Galeril added, much to Legolas’s relief.

Thranduil cleared his throat. “Thank you, Galeril. You may go.” The tutor bowed and withdrew from the room, closing the door softly behind him. Thranduil raised his stony eyes to meet Legolas’s. “Have you an explanation?”

Legolas swallowed hard. “I would never have used it, Adar.”

Thranduil regarded him steadily. “I trust that that is true. Where did you get it?”

Legolas bit his lip and remained silent. He saw no way to answer that question without implicating both Turgon and Eilian.

“I am waiting for an answer, Legolas.”

Legolas flinched at the bite of his father’s whip sharp voice. “Not from Eilian,” he finally said, and watched the flicker of relief in Thranduil’s face.

“Who then?”

Legolas dropped his gaze again and held his tongue.

“The weapons masters have sent me word that you, Turgon, and Annael were not at training today,” said Thranduil. Legolas looked up swiftly in alarm. He had forgotten all about the fact that he and his friends had left the training field that morning. “That is another matter I intended to speak to you about. I assume the three of you were together. Annael is highly unlikely to have had anything to do with dangwath, but Turgon strikes me as a different matter.” Thranduil’s face was grim as he watched for Legolas’s reaction to his suggestion.

“He did not use any of it either,” Legolas declared desperately. He found he could not make himself say that Turgon would not have used it given enough time.

“Where did Turgon get it?”

Legolas bit his lip and looked down again.

Thranduil drew a deep breath. “Very well. Except for your lessons, you are confined to your chamber until I tell you otherwise. A guard will escort you to and from the library and will keep watch outside your room.”

Legolas’s mouth fell open. “You are putting me under guard?” he asked incredulously. “And what about weapons training?”

“This is a matter of your safety and I am taking no chances. You know as well as I do that you have occasionally slipped out of the palace without permission, and today you were not at training when you were supposed to be. I must say I am surprised at you, Legolas. I thought you were serious about your training. If you miss classes now, it is your own fault.” Legolas could barely contain his dismay. His father’s last barb had hurt. And even more crucially, he would be of no use to Eilian if he was confined to his room.

“But Adar--,” he began and Thranduil silenced him with a quick move of his hand.

“I will also send word to Turgon’s parents that he had dangwath and ask them to ask him where he got it. This is a serious matter, Legolas.”

“I know,” Legolas said miserably.

Thranduil regarded him in silence for a long moment. “You may go.” Legolas left his father’s office and started toward his own chamber, unable to remember when he had last felt so wretched.

***

Eilian came out of the door of the building housing Ithilden’s office and started down the path for home. He needed to get something to eat as quickly as he could because then he wanted to be on the move in the woods again. He blinked when someone fell into step beside him and then realized that it was Annael’s father, Siondel.

“Mae govannen,” Eilian said cautiously. He and Siondel were about the same age, but while they had never been enemies, they also had never been friends. Siondel was far too serious for Eilian to find him a good companion.

“I wish to speak with you, Eilian.”

Eilian bristled at Siondel’s tone, but nonetheless he smiled at him. “Then speak.”

“Annael left the training fields today and went off into the woods with Legolas and Turgon. The only thing I could get out of him was that Legolas was worried about you, and they were trying to help you.”

Suddenly, Eilian found it hard to breathe. Legolas had been in the woods today? What had his little brother been up to?

“Eilian, I sympathize with the strain you have been under in the south,” Siondel went on. “I know that you are a courageous warrior. Use some of that courage now. Whatever you are doing is unworthy of you. Consider the example you are setting for Legolas. Let the healers help you.”

Eilian was tempted to draw himself up into the best imitation of his father that he could manage, but instead he bit his tongue and kept quiet. He supposed that if he acted the way he been acting, then Siondel had a right to rebuke him. After all, the well-being of Siondel’s son was one of the things at stake here.

Siondel waited for a moment, evidently to see if Eilian was going to respond. “Good evening to you,” he finally said. “May the stars shine on your path.” And he veered off again, as suddenly as he had come.

Eilian drew a deep breath and let it out again. He hated being admonished even by his father, much less by people like Siondel. Never mind, he told himself. I will feel better once I get going tonight. His blood began to thrum in excitement at the thought.

***

Eilian entered the sitting room and found it empty. Evidently the rest of his family was not yet gathering before their evening meal. He did not intend to stay himself, for he had already had a meal brought to his room, but it was not quite time for him to leave yet. He crossed to the small table, filled a goblet half full of wine, and topped it off with water. Then he sat down and let his head droop against the back of his chair. He had to admit that he was tired. He had been on the move both day and night for a while now, and the healers had warned him that the shadow sickness would leave him less resilient than usual.

The door opened and Thranduil entered, drawing Eilian to his feet. He said nothing but poured himself some wine and then turned to Eilian, with his face grim. “Well?”

 

I borrow characters and settings from Tolkien, but they are his, not mine. I gain only the enriched imaginative life that I assume he intended me to gain.

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter.

*******

5. An Evening’s Occupation

“Well?” said Thranduil. “What have you learned?”

“Did Ithilden tell you that Maltanaur found out where Hiolith lived and that he showed us where he grows the dangwath?”

Thranduil’s mouth tightened. “He did.”

Eilian hesitated. He was still trying to decide what he thought about Hiolith. His own shadow-driven despair and gratitude for how dangwath had made him feel were still too fresh in his mind to leave him comfortable with condemning Hiolith. “He is growing far more than he would need for just himself,” he finally admitted.

“Then he is probably the one who is selling the herb to the Men of Esgaroth.” Thranduil looked grimly satisfied at having that fact in his possession.

“He did not want payment from me,” Eilian protested.

“He may see Men differently.” Thranduil’s manner was brisk now. “What do you plan to do next? I want this finished soon, Eilian. I want to be able to tell the Master of Esgaroth that no more illicit dangwath will be spread among his people, and more than that, I want you out of this situation so that you can rest and recover fully before you go south again.”

“I am well enough!”

“No, you are not. I consented to this scheme because Ithilden convinced me that you were the only person who would be able to carry it off in a believable way, but I will not let you get so deeply into this that you harm yourself.”

Eilian looked down into his cup of watered wine. He had not admitted it to anyone else, but he found it simultaneously flattering and insulting that his father and brother both thought he would be convincing as someone who could not stop using the herb. He looked up again. “If Hiolith is supplying the herb to Men, then he has to meet with them at some point. Maltanaur and I are going to keep watch on the dangwath and see if anyone comes.” He put his cup down. “With your leave, I will go to meet Maltanaur now.”

Thranduil nodded his approval. “Go. But take care, Eilian.” He gripped Eilian’s shoulder and looked earnestly into his eyes. “These Men could be dangerous, and you are not yet fully yourself.”

Eilian smiled wanly, feeling again the mixture of emotions his father tended to rouse in him, as gratitude for Thranduil’s love warred with exasperation at his failure to see Eilian as competent and trustworthy. “I will be careful, Adar.” Thranduil released him, and he took his leave.

***

Legolas lay back on his bed with his hands clasped behind his head. The ceiling was no more interesting now that it had been an hour ago, but he had finished the work his tutor had given him and was too restless to read or even finish fletching the new arrows he had made. He had been confined to his chamber for only a few hours and already he was sick of the sight of his four walls.

Moreover, he was worried about what Eilian might be doing and even more worried about what he should be doing to help his brother. If he could follow Eilian, he supposed he could try to stop Eilian from taking the herb or even just talk to him about it, but he could not do that if he never saw Eilian.

A knock sounded at his door and he sat up quickly. “Come in,” he said eagerly, but when the door opened, it was Ithilden who came through it rather than Eilian. Ithilden was dressed in a tunic of deep green silk, so Legolas assumed he was going out, and his own desire to be out of the palace deepened.

“How are you doing?” Ithilden asked. “I missed you at evening meal.”

Legolas made a face and flopped back on the bed. “I am bored.”

“That is not too surprising, I suppose. Would it brighten your spirits to know that Adar sent me to tell you that you are to take meals with us starting tomorrow?”

“I guess it is better than eating by myself in here.”

Ithilden laughed, which Legolas found annoying, but then his brother sat down on the edge of the bed. “I am sorry you are confined, Legolas, but you could not have expected Adar to do anything else. He is worried about your safety.”

“I did not take any of the dangwath, and I told Adar that!”

“But you had some of the herb and there is no way you could have gotten it legitimately. And that means you were around other people who were thinking about taking it without a healer saying they needed it. I am afraid that Adar suspects you got it from Turgon. I think you are fortunate he has not forbidden you to have anything to do with Turgon. It is what I would have done.”

“You did not tell Adar that!” Legolas sat up in alarm. He already knew that Ithilden thought he should not be allowed to spend time with Turgon, because his brother had told him so on more than one occasion, but so far as he knew, his brother had never tried to tell their father so.

“No,” Ithilden said. “And he would have taken my head off it I had.”

Legolas relaxed. That was true enough. Thranduil bristled when anyone, even Ithilden, tried to interfere with the way he treated Legolas. “Turgon did not take any of the dangwath either,” Legolas asserted. Ithilden regarded him steadily, and Legolas found it hard to bear the scrutiny of his serious grey eyes, so he lowered his own gaze. “And anyway, people who do take it might not be all bad,” he added cautiously.

“I agree,” Ithilden said immediately, “but you still need to stay away from them.”

Legolas chewed the inside of one cheek. “What would you do for those people?” he finally asked. “How can you help them if you stay away from them?”

Ithilden hesitated. “What I would do is different from what you should do, Legolas. If you think someone needs help, you should tell an adult who is in a position to help them.”

Legolas considered that. Should he tell Ithilden or Thranduil about Eilian? He really did not see how he could do that. His father was already angry at Eilian, and Ithilden was Eilian’s commanding officer and would probably discipline him if he knew what was going on. Besides, he rather thought that Ithilden underestimated what he could do for Eilian himself if given a chance. Eilian loved him, and if Legolas could get him to listen, then there would be no need for angry words to fly between Eilian and his father or Ithilden.

“Are you worried about Eilian, Legolas?” Ithilden asked suddenly.

Legolas looked up in surprise. How had Ithilden known that? “A little,” he admitted. “He is ill, and I never get to see him.” He certainly was not going to tell Ithilden about Eilian taking more dangwath.

“Are you worried about something in particular?”

“No. Just what I said.” He was determined to say no more.

“Try not to be too concerned, Legolas. Adar and I are taking care of Eilian, and soon he will be himself again.”

Legolas hoped that was true. He eyed Ithilden. “Are you going out?”

“Yes.” Ithilden rose, accepting that the conversation was at an end.

“Have a nice time,” Legolas said rather forlornly, and Ithilden grinned and ruffled his hair.

“This will not last forever, little brother.”

Legolas sighed as Ithilden departed. He already felt as if he had been confined forever.

***

At the sound of a knock on his office door, Thranduil looked up from the petition he was reading in preparation for holding court the next day. “Come in,” he called, and Ithilden entered. Thranduil raised his eyebrow. “I thought you were going out.”

Thranduil was trying to leave his oldest son to court the healer’s daughter in peace, but he was finding it difficult. He was still uncertain if Alfirin would be willing to live her life in the palace with the king’s oldest son who was also the troop commander and whose self-confidence occasionally extended to the point of arrogance, but he liked her and thought she might be good for his son. And of course, Ithilden was showing very few signs of arrogance in his approach to the maiden, which was slowing things down more than Thranduil would have preferred. Of course, his son’s reticence also gave Thranduil hope that he might actually love this maiden. Hence his impatience at finding Ithilden still at home.

“I am on my way,” Ithilden responded, “but I wanted to tell you that I just spoke to Legolas, and as you thought, he is worried about Eilian. He has undoubtedly seen more than we wished him to and has drawn the obvious conclusion.”

Thranduil sighed and rubbed his temples. “I thought he probably had. The first thing he said about the dangwath was that he had not gotten it from Eilian, and I had not mentioned Eilian at all.”  He frowned. “Legolas and his friends were absent from training this morning when Eilian found the place where Hiolith grows the herb, and then they turned up with some of the dangwath in their possession. They must have followed him. I probably should tell Annael’s and Turgon’s parents, but I do not want to reveal Eilian’s subterfuge to anyone else if I can help it. I trust Annael’s parents at least, but they might react differently to Eilian’s actions if they knew what was happening and that could be dangerous not only for him, but for them.”

“I think Annael is safe enough,” said Ithilden. “His parents will keep him close because he left the training field, if for no other reason. And Turgon does not usually act on one of his schemes without Legolas or Annael in tow.”

“I hope this will all be over soon,” Thranduil said. “I do not like the strain it is placing on Eilian. He is still not well.”

“He will be fine, Adar. This is the kind of thing he is good at and enjoys. He is very convincing.”

Thranduil grimaced. “That Eilian is convincing is, unfortunately, probably true.”

Ithilden smiled sympathetically. “I will be on my way then.”

Thranduil waved permission for him to go, and he left the room. For a moment, Thranduil sat lost in thought about his middle son. Eilian was indeed very convincing, so convincing that although Thranduil was ashamed to admit it, he had had occasional flashes of doubt about whether Eilian’s behavior was entirely an act. Eilian was, after all, still suffering from shadow sickness, a fact that had made Thranduil vigorously resist the idea of using him to hunt for those who were providing the dangwath to the Men of Esgaroth. But Ithilden had complete confidence in Eilian’s ability and discretion, and Eilian himself had wanted to undertake the task, so Thranduil had reluctantly allowed it.

He sighed and tried to turn his attention back to the petition on his desk. Maltanaur was with Eilian and Legolas was under guard. His sons were as safe as he could make them. Much as he hated to acknowledge it, he would simply have to accept that there with things that were beyond his control.

***

Ithilden drew a deep breath and knocked on the door of Alfirin’s cottage. Things would surely go better tonight than they had last night. He smiled wryly. They could hardly go worse after all, he thought. The door opened and Alfirin stood before him, looking gratifyingly pleased to see him.

“Good evening,” he greeted her. “It is such a fine night that I wondered if you might like to go for a walk.” He had decided that it would be much easier to talk to Alfirin without her family hovering over them.

She smiled a little shyly. “I would like that, my lord. Just let me get a shawl.” She ran down the hall and ducked through a doorway. He stood on the step and listened, but he could near no one else in the house. Either they were all out or they were all sitting in breathless silence in the sitting room, listening to him and Alfirin. He decided he did not want to know which of those things was the case. Alfirin came back with a shawl woven in different shades of blue flung over her shoulders.

“The shawl is beautiful,” he said. “Did you make it?”

She nodded and took the arm he offered, and the two of them started along the path toward the river. Her hand rested trustingly on his arm, and his heart quickened. The silence stretched out a little too long, and he cast about for something to say.  “How does Tonduil like the weapons training?”

She frowned slightly. “He likes archery, and of course, he needs to know how to hunt. But I do not think he likes the sword training. He dislikes having to spar, and he came home with a big bruise on one arm today.”

Ithilden was surprised by her obvious disapproval. “Everyone gets bruised during sparring. It cannot be helped and indeed is part of how one learns to do better.”

“He is too young for this,” she declared. “I hate to see him having to learn to fight when he should be playing in the trees.” Suddenly she flushed and bit her lip. “I hope you are not offended,” she apologized.

“Of course not,” he said, although he had to admit he did feel a little defensive about the training that was, after all, part of his responsibility to supervise. Ithilden hated seeing Legolas being groomed as a warrior too, but the reports he saw every day told him that it was only too necessary. He sighed.

They had reached the river now, and music sounded from all around them. She turned her suddenly glowing face to look up at him. “This is so beautiful. I am glad we came.”

He relaxed a little and smiled at her, and they strolled in silence that now seemed companionable. She pulled her shawl more closely around her. “Are you cold?” he asked in concern. The evening had grown chilly.

“A little,” she admitted.

“Come,” he said and led her toward where several Elves were grouped around a fire.

“Mae govannen,” the Elves greeted them, and Alfirin stretched out her hands to the flames.

“I am told you play the harp too, my lord,” she said, and he felt a warm flush of pleasure that she had been talking about him with someone. She turned a little toward him. “Will you let me hear you play some time?”

“Look out!” cried one of the other Elves, jumping to his feet, and Ithilden looked to find that Alfirin had dragged the edge of her shawl through the fire so that flames were now creeping up it. With a cry that obviously startled her, he snatched the shawl from her shoulders, flung it to the ground, and stamped out the flames with the help of the Elf who had first spotted them. Then he turned back toward her, only to find her staring at him with wide eyes, while holding the top of her dress in place with both hands.  Suddenly, he recalled the loud tearing noise he had heard when he grabbed her shawl.

“I am so sorry,” he gasped.

“Do not apologize,” she said, her voice tight. “Indeed I should thank you. You just saved me from possibly being burned.” He started toward her, but she backed up hastily, and one of the maidens who had been sitting around the fire jumped up to put her own shawl around Alfirin’s shoulders.

“I will walk you home,” he said, wondering desperately if this was really happening or if he was perhaps caught in a nightmare.

“No!” She sounded close to tears. “I would rather go by myself.”

“We will walk with you, Alfirin,” said a second maiden, and she and the one who had given Alfirin her shawl took up positions on either side of Alfirin and then started up the path leading away from the river. Ithilden stood staring after her.

“That was bad luck, my lord,” commented one of the other Elves and then flinched away when Ithilden threw him a fierce glare before he began striding rapidly toward the office of the Home Guard, where he intended to find someone on night duty and make him spar until he dropped. At least that was something he was reasonably sure he could do without committing some egregious social offense.

***

Eilian shifted slightly in his vantage point in the tree and then forced himself to be still again. He grimaced. Ordinarily he could wait quietly for an enemy to appear, and it worried him a little that he was restless now, despite the fact that the healers had told him he was not yet completely over his shadow sickness. Surely his recovery was taking too long, he fretted. He looked at the dangwath, gleaming silver in the moonlight, and for just a second, he wondered how damaging it would be it he took the herb again. Too damaging, he decided immediately. And if the herb did not harm him, Maltanaur, Ithilden, and Thranduil would take turns making up for its failure. He smiled slightly to himself. He had to admit that there were times when he could still see the value of his father’s firm hand.

A movement caught his eye, and he saw Hiolith emerge from the path and enter the patch of dangwath. He glanced across the clearing to assure himself that Maltanaur had seen him too. He and Maltanaur had agreed that they would not alert one another using the bird signals that were common among warriors because Hiolith had been a warrior and might recognize them. But Maltanaur had plainly seen Hiolith and was watching him as he moved through the dangwath, cutting leaves and storing them in a sack he wore on a strap around his neck. Hiolith took the leaves of some plants and not others, so Eilian assumed that they were maturing at different rates.

Hiolith took about an hour to work his way completely through the herbs, and when he finished, the sack was bulging. At that point, he sheathed his knife and struck off through the woods in the opposite direction from that in which his cottage lay. Aware of Maltanaur echoing his moves on the other side of the clearing Eilian slipped through the branches, skirting the clearing and then following Hiolith.

Hiolith walked steadily along, and eventually, Eilian realized that he was heading for a small ravine located not too far from the river. When he saw Hiolith enter the ravine, he veered off to his right so that he could take up a position on the top of one side and keep the other Elf under easy observation. He edged out onto an overhanging branch, and Maltanaur crept silently up beside him.

“You took your sweet time getting here,” someone said, and looking toward the voice’s source, Eilian saw three Men emerging from behind a rock and approaching Hiolith, who wordlessly took the bag from around his neck and handed it to the burly Man who had just spoken. A tall, thin Man and a smaller one hung back a little, suggesting that the bigger Man was the one in charge.

“This isn’t enough,” the Man said, hefting the sack. Eilian could not see his face, but he could see him draw threateningly near to Hiolith, who, to his credit, stood his ground.

“I brought all that was ready to be picked,” Hiolith said, his voice calm. “It takes time to enlarge the garden so as to grow the amount you are demanding.”

“You had better not be lying to me,” the Man growled.

“If you do not believe me, go and look for yourself,” Hiolith shrugged.

The Man gave a short laugh. “Oh yes, you’d like it if one of those patrols caught us again. Even if they still bought the idea that we were poaching, they wouldn’t be very welcoming. But let me tell you what would happen, Hiolith. They would drag us before your king, and we would tell him about that big patch of dangwath you are growing, and even if he was more merciful with you than he is likely to be with us, you would lose your precious plants. And if you don’t cooperate, our superior might tell him anyway. An anonymous letter would be easy enough to send.”

Even from where Eilian watched, he could see Hiolith stiffen at the threat. “I told you I would give you the herb, but I cannot make it grow faster than it does.”

“Let him go, Sirard,” said the tall, thin Man. “It’s true enough what he says about growing things.” He looked at Hiolith. “This will help some suffering soldiers, and I thank you for it.” Hiolith nodded stiffly.

The big Man glanced back over his shoulder. “You’ve been eager enough to get the stuff, Bierd. I would think you’d want to be sure there was enough.”  Bierd said nothing and Sirard turned back to Hiolith. “Go, then. But don’t forget that we’ll be here again at the same time two nights from now. See if you can’t coax those plants along a little.” Hiolith turned on his heel and left the ravine, walking with his normal long stride, as if he had forgotten the Men the minute they were out of his sight. For a moment, Eilian admired his ability to be insultingly indifferent.

Sirard faced the other two Men. “You were no help at all, Bierd. Do you think the boss will be satisfied with this amount? I don’t.”

“I don’t care,” the tall Man said. “All I want is enough for my brother anyway. You and Rhon can keep the rest.”

“Don’t be a fool,” said the small Man, who Eilian assumed was Rhon. “We can make a lot of money from this herb. There’s more than one old soldier who’d sell his grandchildren to get it. We had the evil one’s own luck the day we stumbled on that Elf’s little patch of it.”

“And if you think the boss is letting you come this far and then quit, you can think again,” Sirard snapped. “Come on. He will be waiting.” And the three of them started out the ravine.

Eilian could barely hear the last few words for the blood roaring in his ears. For the sake of a few gold coins, these Men, these piles of Orc dung, were taking advantage of soldiers who had been harmed by the Shadow, Men who had suffered because they protected these three and those they loved. Eilian could not think of a fate that was bad enough for them.

With his mind fully on vengeance, he moved to go after the three Men but was brought up short when Maltanaur caught his arm. “Let me go,” Eilian hissed. “I want to follow them.”

“You want to beat them bloody,” Maltanaur corrected, and when Eilian turned sharply, he gave him a grin. “And if you behave yourself, I may let you do it, but not tonight. We need to try to learn the name of their superior.” Eilian gave an exasperated sigh and looked longingly after the Men. “They will be back and so will we,” Maltanaur comforted him. “Now come. We have done what we can tonight. You should get some sleep.”

Reluctantly, Eilian nodded, and the two of them started back toward Thranduil’s stronghold.

 

I borrow characters and settings from Tolkien, but they are his, not mine. I gain only the enriched imaginative life that I assume he intended me to gain.

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter.

*******

6. Taking Action

“Are you ready for your evening meal?” the guard asked cheerfully from the doorway. Legolas frowned at him, as he put down his book. He knew that the guard was not to blame for Legolas’s confinement, but he found it hard not to resent him. Wordlessly, he walked past the guard and started down the hall.

A familiar voice behind him made him pause and look back. Maltanaur stood in the doorway of Eilian’s room, his back to Legolas as he listened to Eilian’s low voice. “We will meet at his cottage at sundown then. I want to be sure we catch him before he leaves to gather the herbs.”

Legolas stiffened, and Maltanaur turned around and saw him. They stared at one another for a moment, and then Maltanaur smiled. “Mae govannen, Legolas.”

Legolas failed to return the smile. This Elf was supposed to be protecting Eilian. Legolas found it unforgivable that he would help Eilian get illicit dangwath. At Maltanaur’s words, Eilian came hastily out into the hall. He glanced quickly at Legolas, exchanged a look with Maltanaur, and then gave an exasperated sigh.

Maltanaur gave a short laugh. “I will take my leave then.” He nodded to the guard and gave Legolas a pat on the shoulder as he passed, but Legolas jerked away from his touch and glared at his back as he left the royal family’s quarters.

“Come, brat. We should not keep Adar waiting.” Eilian started toward the dining room. Legolas was acutely aware of the guard walking just behind him. He fervently wished he could talk to his brother in private, but before now, he had seen him only at the evening meal on the previous night.

They reached the door of the dining room. “Eilian,” he said, deciding he would have to simply ignore the guard and grabbing at his brother’s sleeve, “please do not go out with Maltanaur tonight.”

Eilian grimaced and reached to caress Legolas’s head. “Legolas, I know you are worried about me, but you really should not be. I promise you I will not do anything stupid.”

“But --.”

“Come,” Eilian cut him off. “We are late.” And he opened the door to the dining room, effectively ending the discussion. Reluctantly, Legolas followed him inside and pulled the door shut behind him, leaving his guard in the hallway. He considered Eilian’s claim that he would not do anything stupid but was unable to draw much comfort from it. How did he know that Eilian thought taking the dangwath was stupid?

The two of them took their places at the table where Thranduil and Ithilden were already seated. Thranduil glanced from Legolas to Eilian and raised his eyebrows slightly, but he said nothing and signaled the servant to begin serving the meal.

“Will you be visiting Alfirin tonight, Ithilden?” Thranduil asked as the servant withdrew.

For some reason, Ithilden glanced at their father sharply before he said, “Not tonight.” Legolas heard Eilian give what sounded like a suppressed laugh, turned to him in puzzlement, and then looked to see that Ithilden was glaring at Eilian.

“What is the matter?” he asked.

“Ithilden has a ripping good story to tell you,” Eilian said with a grin.

“Nothing is the matter,” Ithilden said in the tone that meant that any further questions would be met with a sharp reply.

Thranduil raised one eyebrow but then seemed to concede Ithilden’s right to privacy and allowed him to change the subject by asking how Thranduil’s horse was recovering from a pulled muscle in one leg.  Legolas quickly lost the thread of the conversation as he sat pushing his food around on his plate and considering his options.

He could ask Eilian to come to his room after the meal and try to talk to him there, but Eilian might very well refuse, especially since he had an appointment with Maltanaur and would have to leave before long to keep it, for sundown would come soon even on this long summer day. With the guard out in the hallway, Legolas would be able to do nothing to stop him. Reluctantly, he asked himself if he should simply tell Thranduil or Ithilden about Eilian’s appointment. He supposed he could do that but it felt like a betrayal, and in any case, he could not do it with Eilian sitting right next to him. There seemed to be no good option.

“Are you finished eating, Legolas?” Thranduil asked, and Legolas looked up to find the rest of his family all watching him. He looked down at the food still on his plate and felt his stomach rebel at the idea of eating any more.

He put his fork down. “Yes.”

“Then you can go back to your chamber now.”

He looked at Thranduil, suddenly realizing that he was being dismissed and was not likely to see Eilian again before he left. He turned to his brother and, in desperation, opened his mouth to say something, anything, that might make Eilian reconsider. Before he could speak, Eilian smiled at him. “It will be all right, brat,” he said. Not knowing what else to do, Legolas rose and started to leave the room, but Thranduil caught at his arm, pulled Legolas toward him, and drew his head down to kiss his brow.

“Good night, child,” Thranduil said, and Legolas stiffly pulled away. With one last miserable glance back at his family, he returned to his own chamber with the guard in tow. He simply could not think of a good course of action.

He had flung himself on his bed and was staring at his ceiling when he was startled by a knock at his door. “Come in,” he called, and to his surprise, Turgon bounced into the room, grinning and smelling of the outdoors and shaking rain off the shoulders and hood of his cloak.

“Where have you been?” he demanded happily. “Annael’s parents are angry that he left the training fields and will not let him come out in the evening, and you have disappeared, and I have had no one to spend time with.”

Legolas could not resist smiling as he sat up. There was something comforting in Turgon’s endless energy. “How did you get in?”

“I just said I was visiting you,” Turgon shrugged. “The guards always let me in to do that.”

Legolas considered that. Ordinarily, he was not allowed to have visitors when he was confined to his chamber, but apparently the guard at his door did not know that, and the ones at the Great Doors had not been told he was being punished. That did not surprise him when he thought about it. Thranduil often tried to keep such knowledge within the family. “Were your parents not angry about your missing the sword fighting class? And what about the dangwath? My adar said he told your parents that he thought you had had some.”

Turgon made a face. “My adar was very angry. He made me promise I would not touch the herb again.”

“And will you?” Legolas asked curiously.

“Probably not,” Turgon answered without much thought. “But why have you not been at training? And what is happening with Eilian? Is he taking dangwath?”

“My tutor found the dangwath I took from you, and my adar confined me to my chamber.” Legolas had decided that he would not tell anyone else about Eilian if he could help it.

Turgon looked surprised at what must have seemed to him to be an unbelievable overreaction on Thranduil’s part. He pulled his cloak off and tossed it onto the bed. “I will stay with you. What should we do?”

But Legolas did not answer. He was staring at Turgon’s cloak with his mind racing. He lifted his eyes and looked at his friend. “Can I borrow your cloak for a while, Turgon? And would you be willing to stay here while I did it?”

Turgon’s eyes widened. “I want to go with you!”

Legolas shook his head. “Only one of us can leave.”

Turgon eyed him for a minute and then gave a conspiratorial grin. “Will you tell me what happens?”

***

Hiolith opened the door in response to Maltanaur’s knock and slid his eyes nervously from Maltanaur to Eilian and back again. “I told you that you could just get the herb for yourself. You did not have to come here.”

“We need to speak with you,” Maltanaur said, pushing past Hiolith at the same time. Hiolith turned toward him with a scowl, and Eilian too entered the little cottage and shut the door behind him.

Hiolith’s eyes narrowed, and his hand went to the hilt of the knife at his belt. “What do you want?”

“What we want is to help you,” Maltanaur replied.

Hiolith gave a short laugh. “I had not seen you in years before you turned up wanting dangwath for your charge here.” He jerked his head toward Eilian. “I find it highly unlikely that you want to ‘help’ me now. Indeed, I cannot even think of what help you could give.”

Eilian studied him, trying to imagine what it must be like to be Hiolith. What would it be like to live in the world made by the dangwath with nothing else and no one else in your life? “You ask us what we want, Hiolith,” he said curiously. “But what is it that you want?”

Hiolith looked surprised at the question and then curled his lips scornfully. “If you do not know yet, then you soon will that when the shadow has sunk its teeth deeply enough into you, the question is not what you want but what you need.”

Eilian drew a deep breath. He had decided that he would help Hiolith if he could, but just now, they needed to get underway if they were to meet the Men tonight. “We know that Men are making you give them the herb. We want to make them stop doing that.”

Hiolith stiffened. “How do you know that? No, never mind. Do not tell me. You have been spying on me.” He regarded Eilian closely and a flash of insight showed in his eyes. “Let me guess. You do not really need the dangwath. You are working for the king, and I am about to be seized and dragged before him.” His breath quickened, and he turned wildly back to Maltanaur. “Is that your idea of ‘help,’ Maltanaur, my old friend?”

Eilian let his own hand move to his sword and held his breath as he waited to see if Hiolith would draw his knife, and Maltanaur put his hands up placatingly. “We are not going to take you into custody, Hiolith.”  That was true enough as far as it went, Eilian knew, but Thranduil was unlikely to let Hiolith continue to grow dangwath, even for his own use. He had declared a law against its being grown by anyone except the healers. Eilian’s heart misgave him a little at the deception they were practicing against this Elf.

“I cannot go to the king’s dungeons, Maltanaur,” Hiolith said desperately. “You do not know what that would be like for me!”

“We do not want to send you to the dungeons,” Maltanaur said soothingly. “And I will tell the king myself that you do not belong there.” Eilian glanced at him in surprise but he went on without acknowledging the look. “We want to stop the Men who are selling the dangwath to anyone and everyone in Esgaroth. Surely you do not think that is a good idea?”

Hiolith seemed to hesitate a little and then drew himself up with something resembling dignity. “There are warriors who need that herb. I know what it is like to feel the touch of the shadow on your spirit, and I would not see another warrior suffer if I could prevent it.” He glanced at Eilian in disgust. “That is why I offered some to you. I had heard that you had come back from the south with the sickness.”

“I did,” Eilian said simply. “But the healers helped me, and they would help you too.” He would see to it that they did, he vowed to himself. If necessary, he would beg his father to refrain from punishing this suffering ex-warrior. Hiolith made Eilian too uncomfortably aware of his own unhappiness and weakness for him to feel anything but dismay at the idea of imposing any further pain upon him. Surely Thranduil would be able to see beyond the Elf’s actions to the reasons underneath them.

“The healers would tell me to stop taking the dangwath,” Hiolith said wearily. “And I cannot do that.”

“Hiolith,” Eilian said, “I know that dangwath can help a person with shadow sickness. Believe me, I know. But those Men are selling it at exorbitant prices to people who would be better off in the healers’ care. They are exploiting those people. Take us with you to meet the Men tonight. We need to find out who they are working for, and then we will tell the Master of Esgaroth and he will take care of matters, and they will never bother you again.”

Hiolith regarded him in silence, plainly tempted by the offer, and Eilian tried again to put himself in Hiolith’s place and think as he would. If he were Hiolith, what would he feel now? What would he want to do? “You are a warrior, Hiolith,” he said, “one who has been injured in the fight against shadow, but you can fight it again here. Please help us.”

Hiolith stared at him and then looked away, and Eilian’s heart leapt in exultation as he recognized what he was seeing. “Very well,” said Hiolith. “I will take you with me.” He looked back at Eilian. “I assume you have a plan.”

***

“We have waited long enough, I think,” Legolas said and flung Turgon’s still-damp cloak around his shoulders. They had tried to judge just how long a guest would have to stay if the guard was not to become suspicious, but Legolas did not want to wait so long that he missed Eilian. He raised the cloak’s hood, and Turgon hastened to tuck a strand of his blond hair out of sight and pull the hood a little further forward.

Turgon looked him over critically. “That should do it,” he approved.

Legolas drew a deep breath, trying to calm the flutter in his stomach. His father would be furious if he ever learned about this little excursion, but Legolas just could not let Eilian do something so stupid and harmful without trying to stop him. He pulled the door to his room open slightly. “Good bye, Turgon,” he said, loudly enough to be sure the guard would hear.

“Good bye,” Turgon responded in a matching tone. His eyes danced with excitement, even though Legolas knew he was disappointed that he would have to stay behind. He only hoped that Turgon remembered his part of the bargain and did not give in to the temptation to leave and try to find out what was happening.

Taking one, final deep breath, Legolas ducked out the door and pulled it shut behind him. “Good evening,” the guard said pleasantly, and Legolas raised a hand to him and hurried down the hall toward the door leading from the family’s quarters. At each step, he expected to hear a voice behind him, calling to him to stop, but it never came. Instead, he found himself in the antechamber outside the Great Hall and then passing through the Great Doors and descending the steps leading to the bridge across the Forest River.

On the bridge, he paused, grasping the rail with a shaking hand. He could not believe that he had made good his escape. He realized that he was panting and deliberately slowed his breath. Then he released the rail and walked off toward the woods, trying to make his step as casual and as much like Turgon’s as possible.

The minute he was in the shelter of the trees, he felt better. They were singing their night song, and it comforted him as he swung up into them to make the trip to the cottage where he knew Eilian and Maltanaur would be. Before he had gone very far, the rain stopped, and the clouds parted enough to allow him to see stars. The forest was fragrant with damp earth and greenery, and he began to hope that he would succeed in helping Eilian.

When he reached the cottage, however, he could see no sign of life.  The windows were dark, and as far as he could tell, no one was in the trees around him either. He waited for a moment or two to be sure he was alone, and then, with his heart pounding, he dropped silently to the ground and crept forward to look through the window near the cottage’s door and confirm that the single room was empty. Eilian and Maltanaur had agreed to meet here at sundown, he knew. Where could they and the Elf who lived in the cottage have gone? But even as he wondered that, he guessed, and he had to bite his lip to keep from moaning: They had gone to pick dangwath.

He ran back toward the trees, scrambled up into them, and flung himself rapidly through the branches, going toward where he thought the herb patch was. He slowed only when he approached the patch and wanted to be sure he was moving quietly. He came to rest in a high branch and looked down to find that Eilian, Maltanaur, and the other Elf were at the far edge of the patch. The Elf wore a leather bag around his neck on a strap, and as Legolas watched, Maltanaur cut a bit of the herb and stuffed it into the top of what was obviously a full bag.

“There,” Maltanaur said. “That should be enough.”

“We need to go now,” Eilian said. “I want to be there before the Men arrive.” The three of them started through the woods on the other side of the clearing, and for a puzzled second, Legolas stared after them. What were they doing? Whatever it was involved a great deal of dangwath. Alarm flared in his breast. What kind of trouble was Eilian in? He began moving through the branches to follow them.

They led him toward a ravine that was not far from the river, and then they stopped to confer. He drew as near as he could, but he still could not hear what they were saying. Maltanaur pointed to a clump of maples standing just inside the mouth of the ravine, and Eilian nodded. Eilian turned as if to go, but then he stopped, and he and Maltanaur bent their head close together and exchanged a few more words before Maltanaur disappeared in the direction he had been pointing. Legolas quickly lost sight of him among the trees.

He turned to watch Eilian again. He was speaking to the other Elf, who responded by shoving one side of his cloak back and putting his hand on the hilt of his knife. Legolas tensed. Was the other Elf threatening Eilian? Eilian rested his own hand on the hilt of his sword, but the movement seemed casual.

The song of the tree he was in broke into a small quaver, and he jerked his head to look around in alarm. Suddenly, strong arms grabbed at him from behind. He had time to give only a terrified half cry, before someone clapped a hand over his mouth. Desperately, he pushed at the arms, trying to pry them away from him, but his assailant pulled him off his feet and jumped to a lower branch and then to the ground. Legolas kicked backward as hard as he could, connected with something solid, and felt a savage triumph at the strangled cry his attacker gave.

The arms that were holding him shook him hard. “Stop it, you little fool! I am not trying to hurt you, but I will give you a good whack if I have to!”

For a frozen second, Legolas could not believe his ears. Maltanaur. It was Maltanaur who had hold of him and was now dragging him toward where Eilian stood.

***

Eilian whirled with his sword in his hand, only to find Maltanaur dragging a kicking Legolas out of the underbrush. For a second, he stared in disbelief and then he gave a low moan.

“It is a child,” Hiolith said in surprise.

“It is my brother,” Eilian acknowledged, sheathing his sword again.

Legolas shoved Maltanaur’s hand away from his mouth. “How can you do this?” he hissed at Maltanaur, and Eilian could hear his voice shaking with fury. “This is your fault! The one with the dangwath is your friend and you led Eilian right to him. What is wrong with you? You are supposed to protect Eilian.” He sounded near to tears, Eilian thought in horror, even as he worried about the Men hearing them, for they were due any minute.

Maltanaur clapped his hand back over Legolas’s mouth and struggled to get a grip on him that would prevent Legolas from kicking him in the shins. “Be quiet!” he growled in a low voice. Finally, he shoved Legolas to the ground face down and put one knee on his back.

“Be careful!” Eilian admonished him sharply. “Legolas, just keep quiet and stop struggling!”

Legolas did as he was told, but he still quivered with wrath. He turned a dirt-smeared face to Eilian, who dropped to his knees beside him and stroked the blond head. “Are you all right, brat?” He still could not believe that his little brother was here.

With his knee still in Legolas’s back and his hand still over his mouth, Maltanaur looked at Eilian in some exasperation. “What do you want to do?”

Eilian looked at Legolas and then at Hiolith, who was shifting nervously from foot to foot. If they left the scene now, they might never again get a chance to find out who the Men worked for, and surely he owed something to this fragile ex-warrior who had agreed to help them. But he felt slightly sick at the thought of Legolas being anywhere near this potentially dangerous situation. “You take Legolas home,” he told Maltanaur, immediately provoking a muffled protest from his brother.

“No,” said Maltanaur firmly. “You are not doing this by yourself. For one thing, the king would have my hide if I let you.”

“The Men are coming,” Hiolith murmured. “I can hear them, and it will not be long before they can hear us.”

Eilian looked at Legolas, whose face was turned beseechingly toward him. And then he closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. “Legolas,” he said, a little unsteadily, “this is not what you think, but I do not have time to explain it to you now. You have to go with Maltanaur, and you have to keep quiet or someone might be harmed.” He avoided Legolas’s eyes and looked at Maltanaur. “Do not hurt him.”

“Of course not,” Maltanaur said and then pulled Legolas to his feet and hauled him off to hide among the maple trees. Eilian stood for a second looking after them and then hastened into the ravine with Hiolith right behind him.

*******

The next chapter may be a bit slower in coming. Sadly, school starts tomorrow.

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.

This story has been a response to a challenge issued by Karri at the Stories of Arda Yahoo list to write a “Mirkwood Vice” story. Many thanks to her for the wonderful idea.

*******

7. Rescue

Thranduil frowned at the chessboard. “Are you humoring me?” he asked sharply.

Ithilden looked up in surprise. “Of course not.” A faint color rose in his cheeks. “I am simply finding it difficult to concentrate tonight.”

Thranduil studied him and suppressed a smile. He could not remember the last time he had seen Ithilden blush. It was possible, of course, that Ithilden was distracted by worry about Eilian. Thranduil was certainly worried tonight. But while Ithilden had drilled Eilian thoroughly on what he planned to do, he had also shown complete confidence in his brother’s ability to handle the situation with the Men, and the blush told Thranduil that something very different was on Ithilden’s mind. “Is there something you would like to talk about, iôn-nín?” he asked as innocently as he could.

Ithilden’s eyes narrowed slightly. “No,” he said stiffly.

Thranduil laughed out loud. “Never fear, Ithilden. I do not mean to interfere in your private life, although I will tell you that I like the maiden.”

Ithilden glared at him for a moment before his face softened and he gave a rueful chuckle. “I like her too, Adar, but I seem to be fated to make a fool of myself in front of her.”

Thranduil picked up his wine and sipped it thoughtfully, recalling the tale of disaster that a courtier had told him earlier that day. Thranduil had frowned at the Elf for carrying gossip, and although he had been both amused and dismayed by the story, he understood how deeply Ithilden would be discomfited by such a humiliating experience. He hesitated. “There are worse things than making a fool of yourself.”

Ithilden grimaced. “She might disagree with you.”

“She might, or she might not. That will be for her to decide.” Thranduil smiled slightly. “You cannot control everything, Ithilden, and you have a strong enough self-love that it will survive even if she does decide that you are not the one for her. But if there is one thing you are not, it is a coward, and you surely would not let happiness elude you because reaching for it was sometimes painful.”

For a moment, Ithilden looked down into his own wine. Then he raised his head and smiled at his father, and Thranduil could not help but think that if the maiden did not see the worth in his handsome, strong, responsible son, then she was a fool. “Are you advising me to return to the battle?” Ithilden asked dryly.

Thranduil laughed. “I suppose I am.” He set down his wine and rose, signaling that Ithilden should stay seated. “If you are not going to give me a real game of chess, then I think I will go and look in on Legolas. He looked as if he could use some reassurance at evening meal.”

Ithilden immediately sobered. “For all our sakes, this thing with Eilian needs to be over soon.”

“Indeed,” Thranduil agreed and went out of the sitting room and down the hall to where the guard stood outside of Legolas’s chamber. He nodded to the guard, knocked once, and then opened the door and walked into the room.

The dark-haired youth sitting cross-legged on the bed sharpening a knife stared at him in surprise, and for a moment, Thranduil could not take in what he was seeing. He glanced swiftly around the room. “Where is Legolas?”

“He is not here.”

Thranduil took two swift strides toward the bed, and Turgon dropped the knife and whetstone he had been holding. “Where is he?” Thranduil demanded, making his voice as menacing as possible. He had absolutely no intention of fooling about with Turgon.

Turgon’s eyes widened. “He left.”

“Left the palace?” Thranduil asked incredulously. Turgon nodded. In one lunge, Thranduil crossed the rest of the short distance to the bed, grasped a handful of Turgon’s tunic, and pulled him up onto his knees. “Where did he go?”

Turgon swallowed convulsively. “He went to help Eilian.”

For a moment, Thranduil found that he could not breathe. Then he released Turgon, turned, and all but ran out into the hall again. “When did my son leave?” he demanded of the guard.

The guard blinked uncertainly. “He did not leave, my lord.”

“You imbecile! Of course he did! When did someone my son’s size leave?”

Suddenly, all the color drained from the guard’s face. “About an hour ago,” he croaked.

“Come,” Thranduil commanded and strode back down the hall to the sitting room, with the guard trailing anxiously behind him. “Legolas has gone to ‘help’ Eilian,” Thranduil told a startled Ithilden. “We need to go after him now.” He whirled and started back into the hall again.

“Wait!” cried Ithilden, hurrying after him. “Adar, we need to be careful that we do not do anything that would alarm the Men and thus endanger Eilian and Legolas too.”

Thranduil turned back to him. “I know that! Do you think I do not know that? But we are not letting Legolas run around at night, in the forest, near Men who deal in dangwath,” he said, biting off each word savagely.

“Of course not,” Ithilden defended himself. “But let me organize a patrol to carry out a silent search.”

“No,” Thranduil cut him off. “There is no time. We will have to make do with you and me, my guards and this fool.” He indicated the sick-looking guard with a curt gesture. “We will go through the trees and retrieve Legolas, and we will make sure that the Men never even know we were there. Get your weapons.” He started down the hall toward his own chamber, only to stop at the sight of Turgon venturing from Legolas’s room. “And tell someone to send for this one’s adar,” he ordered angrily. “He needs to be taken home and kept there for a year or two. By the time I am through with Legolas, he will be in no condition to have visitors anyway.” He swept past the hapless Turgon, whose eyes were round with fascinated dismay.

***

Legolas twisted furiously and tried to thrust an elbow back into Maltanaur’s stomach, but Maltanaur tightened his grip until Legolas felt as if the breath was being squeezed out of him. Maltanaur dragged him deeper into the underbrush and then put his mouth right next to Legolas’s ear.

“Stop it!” he breathed so softly that Legolas could hardly hear him. “You heard your brother. This is not what you think. He is not going to use the herb. He is trying to stop people who are selling it to Men.” Legolas froze. Could that be right? His heart leapt at the idea, but he was not sure he trusted Maltanaur to tell him the truth.

Maltanaur breathed into his ear again. “I need my hands free to use a weapon if things grow dangerous. You must keep quiet if you do not want to risk Eilian’s safety. Do you promise to be still?” Talk of needing a weapon made Legolas’s heart skip a beat. He nodded as much as he could with Maltanaur’s hand pressed to his mouth. If Maltanaur thought he needed a weapon to face whatever was about to happen, then Legolas was all for him having one.

Besides, Legolas wanted to be let loose, and if his momentary truce with his brother’s keeper proved unwise, he was not sure how much he was obligated to abide by a promise given under such circumstances anyway. Cautiously, Maltanaur loosened his hand and then the arm he had around Legolas’s chest. When Legolas stayed silent and immobile, he eased his bow from his shoulder and fitted an arrow to the bowstring. Then he stood, peering through the screen of branches before them.

Legolas looked in the same direction and realized that Maltanaur had positioned them so that they could see the mouth of the ravine through a screen of branches. The sound of approaching footsteps drew his attention, and three Men emerged from the trees and started into the ravine. Then from Legolas’s right, Hiolith emerged from the shadow of a boulder with Eilian slightly behind him. Legolas blinked. Eilian had seemed normal enough a few moments ago when he and Hiolith had run toward the ravine, but now he seemed agitated. He came to a halt when Hiolith did and stood jiggling one leg. Legolas drew a slow breath. Had Maltanaur been telling him the truth? Was Eilian only pretending?

The Men stopped in their tracks at the sight of Eilian. “Who’s this?” the big Man in the front demanded, drawing his sword. Legolas stiffened, and Maltanaur raised his bow and pointed the arrow at the Man.  The two Men behind the leader drew their swords too, but Eilian held his hands out ostentatiously away from his side to show that they were nowhere near his own weapon.

“He wants to talk to you about the herb, Sirard,” Hiolith answered. “He needs it.”

Sirard kept his sword at the ready as he eyed Eilian. “What do I care if he needs it?” he asked scornfully.

“Hiolith says I cannot have any because you want all that he grows except for what he uses himself,” Eilian whined, and Legolas flinched. He had never heard his brother sound like that. He glanced at Maltanaur, but the keeper’s face was impassive.

“Hiolith had better remember that,” Sirard said menacingly. He jerked his head at Hiolith. “Give the bag to Rhon.” Hiolith walked slowly toward the shorter of the two Men behind the leader, removing the strap of the bag from around his neck as he did so. Maltanaur exhaled softly, and Legolas glanced over to see him trying to edge slightly to his right so that he could keep his arrow aimed at the leader without having Hiolith in the way.

“I can help you,” Eilian sounded desperate now. “I can keep the Home Guard warriors away if you let me have a steady supply of the herb.”

Sirard laughed. “You have some sort of influence with the Elven guards? I doubt that.”

“I do,” Eilian insisted anxiously. He seemed to hesitate, and then he blurted, “I am the king’s son.”

“That’s a lie,” Sirard sneered. “I’ve seen the king’s son. He has a stick shoved permanently up his arse.”

Legolas stiffened and looked indignantly at Maltanaur, who was still trying to get a good angle on the leader. He seemed not to even notice the insult to Ithilden.

“That is my brother.”

Legolas turned to look at Eilian again, drawn by the scorn in his voice. And suddenly, he could not help smiling, for he knew with an absolute certainty that Eilian was pretending.

“My brother and my adar see eye to eye about everything, including me,” Eilian said bitterly. “And I swear to you I can keep the guards away. Is there someone else you have to ask? Let me talk to him. I can explain things to him.”

“He is telling you the truth, Sirard,” Hiolith unexpectedly put in. To Maltanaur’s increasingly agitated dismay, he had stopped midway toward Rhon and still clutched the bag of dangwath.

The tall Man behind the leader had lowered his sword and now spoke for the first time. “We should let him have it, Sirard. He really does seem to need it.”

“Shut up, Bierd,” Sirard snarled. He looked at Eilian from under half lowered lids. “If I let you have a constant supply of dangwath, you’ll keep the guards away? How are you going to do that?”

Eilian’s eyes narrowed slyly. “I do not think I trust you. I will explain how I would do it but only to someone in charge.”

Sirard snorted. “Then you get nothing.” He waved his sword toward Rhon. “Take the bag,” he commanded.

Rhon started to move forward, but Hiolith clutched the bag to him and took a step back. Legolas caught his breath as Rhon lunged and grabbed for it, bringing the hilt of his sword down to strike Hiolith on the side of head, but Hiolith raised his arm in time to ward off the blow and kept hold of the bag.

Legolas was aware of Maltanaur shifting frantically, but it was not until Sirard shouted “Hiolith!” that Legolas looked to find that the big Man had moved next to Eilian and was pointing his sword at Eilian’s side. Eilian seemed to have made no effort to draw his own weapon and was smiling weakly at Sirard, but what made Legolas draw in his breath sharply was the realization that his brother was now between Maltanaur and Sirard.

With a courage born of fear, Legolas snatched the knife from his belt and broke from the underbrush to run toward the Men. As he raced toward them, he had time to see the surprised looks on the faces of the Men, and the appalled look on Eilian’s. Then he heard Maltanaur erupting from shelter behind him and saw Eilian whirl to drive his fist into Sirard’s face and seize the wrist of the Man’s sword hand.

Rhon shoved Hiolith hard, and then, to Legolas’s surprise, he jumped forward to intercept him, knocking the knife from his hand with a painful blow to his forearm and then grabbing him. For the second time that evening, Legolas found himself held from behind, and this time, the blade of a sword was set against his throat.

“Back off or I’ll slit his throat,” Rhon snapped. Legolas froze, feeling his breath catch and his heart thump hard against his rib cage. Hiolith had started to rise, but now he stopped, and Maltanaur skidded to a halt a few steps away.

Across a space that abruptly seemed to be very wide, Eilian broke away from Sirard and stood looking at Legolas as Sirard brought his sword back around to point at Eilian. Eilian’s face was calm, but it had turned stark white.

Suddenly the tall Man was at Rhon’s side, with the point of his sword in Rhon’s neck. “He’s a child,” the tall Man said through clenched teeth. “Let him go.”

“Yes,” said a cold voice. “Let him go.” And if Rhon had not been holding him, Legolas’s legs would have given way beneath him when he saw Ithilden standing behind Sirard, with the point of his sword prodding the Man’s back.

“Drop the sword,” said Thranduil’s voice from behind Legolas, and after a frozen second, Rhon’s hand opened to let the weapon fall to the ground. He loosened his hold on Legolas, and Maltanaur jumped forward to pull Legolas away from him. Legolas could not help leaning against Maltanaur and shuddering, even as he turned to see his father standing behind Rhon, with the tip of his sword against the Man’s back.

“Are you hurt, Legolas?” Thranduil asked.

“No.”

Thranduil smiled nastily at Rhon. “In that case, I will let you live,” he said, and Legolas saw Rhon sway slightly. “Bind them,” Thranduil ordered, and Maltanaur patted Legolas’s shoulder and moved off to help the guards who now appeared to bind Rhon’s and Sirard’s hands behind their backs, while Thranduil and Ithilden still held them at swordpoint.

“What about him?” a guard asked when he came to Bierd.

Thranduil eyed the tall Man. “Bind him,” he said. “I will tell the Master of Esgaroth that he tried to help Legolas, but I am taking no chances.”

Bierd looked at Thranduil. “His name is Herat,” he said.

“Shut up, Bierd!” Sirard cried frantically. “Do you want to get us all killed?”

Thranduil raised an eyebrow. “Of whom do you speak?” he asked the tall Man.

“The one to whom we take the dangwath,” said Bierd steadily.

“Fool!” Sirard spat.

Thranduil looked at Bierd thoughtfully. “Why do you do this? We provide the herb to the healers in Esgaroth. What need have you to obtain it this way?”

Bierd stood in passive dignity, allowing the guard to bind his hands. “Not everyone can do as the healers ask,” he said simply.

Legolas saw his father’s gaze go past Bierd to Hiolith, who had gotten to his feet and now stood holding the bag of dangwath. Maltanaur was speaking to him quietly. “That is true,” Thranduil conceded. He lowered his sword and turned to look at Legolas, with his eyes narrowed.

Suddenly, Legolas found himself caught in a hard embrace. “You little fool!” cried Eilian. “You could have been killed!”

Legolas pulled away from him and grinned. He was safe; Eilian was safe; and Eilian was not taking dangwath. “You are lucky I was here,” he said cockily. And then he jumped and gasped as something hard struck him on the backside. He spun to find his father directly behind him and realized with a shock that what he had felt was the flat of his father’s sword.

“Just what did you think you were doing?” Thranduil hissed. Legolas’s stomach tightened as he looked at his father’s furious face.

“I wanted to help Eilian.” Even to himself, his voice sounded shaky.

Thranduil closed his eyes for a moment. “Ithilden,” he said, opening them again, “you and I will take Legolas home. Eilian and Maltanaur will sort things out here.” Legolas bit his lip. Perhaps he was not yet as safe as he had thought he was.

***

Legolas pulled himself wearily from the cooling bath. He was used to incurring occasional injuries in weapons training, but he had been handled roughly by a number of different people tonight and he felt bruised and sore. He toweled himself dry, pulled on a clean sleep tunic, and made his way into his room. He sat down on the bed and then jumped up quickly before lying gingerly down on his side. He had forgotten about that particular bruise. He wondered what had happened to Turgon.

He wished he could just go to sleep and forget all about this day, but his father had sent him to bathe and said he would come to speak to him once he had sent a message to the Master of Esgaroth. The trip home had been nerve rackingly silent, as Legolas had moved through the trees with Ithilden ahead of him and Thranduil behind. Legolas wished his father would come to his room right now. He hated waiting.

As if in answer to his desire, a single sharp knock sounded on his door and Thranduil entered without waiting for Legolas’s response. Legolas started to get to his feet. “Stay there,” Thranduil bid him, and he lay down again. Thranduil pulled the blankets out from under him and drew them up to cover him. Then he sat down in the chair by the side of the bed and leaned forward with his forearms on his thighs and his hands clasped.

“How do you feel?”

Legolas shrugged. “I am all right.”

Thranduil looked away and then back again. “Legolas, I confess I am at a loss as to what to do with you. I thought I had taken sufficient measures to keep you away from a very dangerous situation, and you merrily slipped away into the night and rushed right into it.”

Legolas bit his lip and studied his father. Thranduil looked grave but far less angry than he had looked earlier. “I was worried about Eilian, and I did not know what else to do.”

“Both Ithilden and I told you not to worry.” Thranduil sounded exasperated.

“But you did not tell me what the matter was, and I could not help being worried! And I thought maybe you did not know everything Eilian was doing, and I did not want to tell you because that might get him into trouble.”

“Legolas, if Eilian had been taking dangwath, then you certainly should have told me, because if he was, then he needed help, more help than you could have given him. Surely you know that I would have done everything in my power to help him stop. You and Eilian and Ithilden are the most precious things in Arda to me.”

Legolas suddenly felt overwhelmingly tired and tears prickled his eyes. “I was afraid for Eilian, and you and Ithilden just kept saying not to worry, and I thought you were not doing anything, so I thought I had to.” To his horror, his voice quavered, and immediately, his father was out of the chair and onto the edge of the bed, drawing him into an embrace.

“I would never let any of you suffer if I could help you,” Thranduil said, stroking Legolas’s hair, and Legolas could not resist pushing his head into the caress. His father sighed, pulled away a little, and looked down into Legolas’s face. “I will admit that I probably should have told you something of what was going on, particularly once you were confined to your room and could not accidentally give Eilian away.”

Legolas felt a small surge of excitement. “I would like it if you would tell me things like Annael’s adar tells him.”

“Hm,” said Thranduil noncommittally. “You know that I am going to have to confine you to your room for a month, do you not? And you should assume that I will be checking regularly to make sure you are in it.”

Legolas grimaced. “I suppose so.”

Thranduil smiled, released him, and stood up. “You will go back to weapons training, though. And when you are not at lessons or training, you will attend me if I am holding court.”

Legolas tried to hide his dismay but feared he had not succeeded. He knew from experience that court was usually deadly dull. “I could just stay in my chamber,” he offered weakly.

Thranduil looked deceptively benign. “You will learn about the realm and its people by attending court, and I will be able to keep an eye on you. If you behave well, I may allow you out of my sight occasionally.” Legolas could not suppress a groan, but Thranduil ignored it. “When you see Turgon tomorrow, you should tell him that the guards have been told to admit no one to see you.”

Legolas lay back on the bed with a sigh. “Did you frighten him?” he asked curiously.

“I believe I did.” Thranduil sounded satisfied, as he moved toward the door.

Legolas grinned, even as he felt his eyes begin to slide out of focus. “I wish I could have seen that.” The door to his room opened and closed softly, and he ran lightly onto the dream path.

***

Eilian’s eyes focused on the bow hanging on the wall, and he knew at once that he was in his own bed, in his own room, in his father’s stronghold. He stretched beneath the sheets, and abruptly realized that he had slept long and well, something he had not done in at least two months. Rolling from his side to his back, he considered that fact for a moment. I must be getting better, he thought in surprise and felt a sudden, joyous surge of relief. I am getting better after all.

Propelled by a flood of energy, he rolled out of bed. His innate sense of time told him that it was late enough that he might have already missed his morning meal. He barely had had time to think that Thranduil would be displeased when he caught sight of a tray of bread and fruit set on the small table near the door. He blinked. His father must have ordered that his meal be brought to his room and left for him to eat at his leisure. He could not think of the last time that had happened.

And suddenly he laughed. He picked up the bowl of strawberries, tossed one up into the air, caught it in his mouth, and then started for his bathing chamber, taking the berries with him. He would have a long, hot soak, nibbling strawberries and deciding what to do for the rest of the day. He had done the task Ithilden and his father had asked him to do, and the healers had not yet released him for active duty. He supposed he should go to Ithilden’s office where he was theoretically assigned, but he doubted if his brother expected him. A bath was just the thing he needed to make every muscle in his body purr.

Nearly an hour later, he left his room and strolled down the hallway toward the door leading out of the family quarters intending to go out, but the guard stopped him. “The king left word that he wished to see you before you went out, my lord. He is in his office.”

For one dismayed second, Eilian considered ignoring the message, but he thought better of it and turned back to his father’s office. He knocked and then entered at his father’s invitation. Thranduil looked up from his work and smiled. “You look to be in good spirits this morning.”

“I am,” Eilian acknowledged with a grin.

Thranduil leaned back in his chair. “You did very well, Eilian, particularly given that you are still struggling against the shadow yourself. I wanted to tell you how proud I am of you.”

Eilian felt absurdly grateful for the praise, knowing that his father did not give it lightly. “Thank you, Adar.”

Thranduil rose from his chair and came around the desk. “Shall we go for a walk around the warrior training grounds?” he invited.

Eilian blinked. “I had thought I might go and visit a friend,” he said cautiously.

“She can wait,” Thranduil declared with a grin. Then he sobered. “You have done a great deal of damage to your reputation in the last week, ión-nín. Ithilden is making sure the truth is spread as widely as possible, but I think it best that everyone has a chance to see you walking with me while I look approving. Your ‘friend’ will welcome you more gladly afterward, I think.”

Eilian looked at him with open mouth. “Adar,” he said with a slow smile, “you never cease to amaze me.”

“I hope not,” said Thranduil serenely and put a hand on Eilian’s shoulder to steer him toward the door.

***

Ithilden walked out of the dim hall of the infirmary into the bright morning sunlight and nearly ran into Alfirin, who was presumably on her way to visit her mother. Both of them skipped sideways to avoid the collision, but she moved to her left as he moved to his right, and he found himself standing only four inches from her, looking down into her upturned face.

“I beg your pardon, mistress,” he apologized, feeling a little breathless.

She blushed slightly and took a step backward. “Think nothing of it, Ithilden.” And averting her face, she circled around him and went into the infirmary.

He stood looking vexedly after her for a moment and then sighed and started toward his office. He seemed fated to make a fool of himself every time he met her. Suddenly, he stopped in his tracks, recalling every one of the few words they had just spoken to one another. “Think nothing of it, Ithilden.” She had called him Ithilden! She had called him by name! He gave a shout of laughter that greatly startled the two warriors who had just saluted him and been ignored.

***

Maltanaur sat down in the bedside chair after Ithilden left the room.

“You do not have to stay with me,” Hiolith said. The healers had propped him up with pillows so he could talk to the troop commander, and he was still sitting up.

“I do,” Maltanaur answered peaceably. “You are fighting a hard battle, and you need someone to watch your back.”

Hiolith smiled slightly and reached with a trembling hand for the water glass on his bedside table. The glass shook so badly that water slopped over one side, and Maltanaur put one of his hands over Hiolith’s to steady it. Hiolith drank and then let Maltanaur take the glass and put it back on the table as he sank against the pillows.

“I have tried to stop, you know.”

“I thought you probably had,” said Maltanaur, “but I do not think this is something anyone should try to do on their own. The healers will help you now.”

They sat in silence for a moment. “I am sorry,” Hiolith said.

“So am I. I am ashamed that we all lost track of someone who had suffered in the service of the realm. We owed you better than that.”

Hiolith bit his lip, but Maltanaur saw, rose from his chair, sat on the edge of his bed, and took the now shuddering Hiolith in his arms. He began to rock slightly murmuring soothing words as he had done for his daughter when she was small, as he had done for Eilian when the shadow sickness had finally overwhelmed him, as others had done for him in those moments of his long life when grief had overcome him. This summer day would be long, but he had time. He would stay here as long as he was needed.

The End

*******

AN: Nilmandra has written a story about Thranduil’s first meeting with his future wife and he had some problems that suggest that Ithilden’s awkwardness is inherited. The story is called “First Celebrations” and it’s at Stories of Arda.

Many thanks to everyone who has read this story and particularly to those of you who have taken the time to review. You can’t know how much I appreciate it.





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