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Sacrifice Under Shadow  by daw the minstrel

I borrow characters and situations from Tolkien but they are his. I draw no profit other than the enriched imaginative life that I assume he intended me to gain.

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this for me.

*******

7.  A Brother’s Keeper

Maltanaur controlled his impatience as he watched the scout circle carefully back around the sheltered spot under the trees, looking the ground over once again.  The scout finally looked at Maltanaur with his face puckered in a frown. “One Elf came this way, followed by a dozen or so Orcs.  The Elf was limping.”  He pointed to the uneven depth of the marks in the snow.

“Only one?” Maltanaur asked sharply.  His breath quickened. He could not imagine what would separate the sons of Thranduil from one another unless true disaster had befallen them.

The scout nodded unhappily.

“Which one?” Maltanaur demanded.

The scout looked at the ground again. “Legolas, I think.  The stride is slightly shorter than Eilian’s usually is. Of course, if Eilian were injured, his stride might alter too.”

Despair swept over Maltanaur.  He was fond of Legolas and wished no evil upon him, but he had had charge of Eilian’s safety for many years now, and somehow, the mercurial young warrior had wormed his way into Maltanaur’s heart. Maltanaur and his wife had conceived a daughter, but in Eilian, he had found someone he cared for like a son.

“How old are the tracks?” he asked.

The scout shrugged. “In the snow, it is difficult to tell, but probably no more than three hours.”

Maltanaur nearly groaned. Three hours ago, the search party had been following another group of Orcs that they had found near the caves where the earlier battle had taken place.  They had disposed of them, and when they saw no sign of their lost ones, they had started another sweep back through the area.  These tracks of a single, limping Elf were the first indication they had had of where Legolas and Eilian might be.  They were lucky to have found these, sheltered as they were by trees from the blowing snow.

“Follow them,” he ordered grimly.  Much could have happened in three hours, and given that Legolas was alone and injured, Maltanaur had no illusions about his chances against a band of Orcs.  But the searchers needed to know what had occurred, no matter how horrifying it turned out to be.

The scout nodded and sprang rapidly forward again, running lightly over the snow with his eyes scanning from side to side.  The rest of the search party kept behind him, so as not to disturb the trail, but they too watched for tracks. The Orcs were easy to follow, but they did not want to miss any sign that Legolas had lost his pursuers and gone in a different direction.

Maltanaur could see the scout coming to a sudden halt at the edge of a clear area that was visible through the trees ahead.  He moved rapidly up next to him and found himself at the brink of a pond. What he saw there drove all the breath out of him. The ice on the pond was broken, and water with a thin skin of ice covered the pond’s center.  And on each side of the broken area lay the body of an Orc with an Elven arrow sticking out of it.

Maltanaur motioned his companions to wait and then edged carefully out onto the icy surface.  He inspected the fletching on the arrow in the nearest dead Orc, easily identifying the shaft as one of Sórion’s.  It was gleaned, of course, he thought.  He looked worriedly toward the broken ice.  Who had gone through that hole into the frigid water? he wondered unhappily.

“Maltanaur!” called the scout, and he turned his head to see what the Elf wanted.  “The snow is disturbed in the trees on the other side of the pond,” the scout told him, indicating the oaks that lined the other shore. With his heart leaping, Maltanaur spun to look where the scout was pointing.  And when he looked, he saw what the scout meant:  Snow had been knocked from the branches of a series of oak trees that stretched along the shore, moving back in the direction they had just come.  Someone had moved through those trees, leaping from branch to branch.

Maltanaur’s eyes narrowed at the thought of an Elf who was wounded enough to limp being well enough to make the long jumps whose marks he could see.  And suddenly, he snorted.  Clever elfling, he thought in approval, scrambling back to the near shore and beginning to run along it with his eyes on the trees across from him.  Let us see where you lead us.  You leave a trail that speaks of being in a hurry and you are doubling back.  Where are you going in such a hurry, I wonder?

But the real question was one that Maltanaur scarcely dared to ask, and that was if, by some wild chance, Legolas might be hurrying not because he was going somewhere but because he was going to someone.

***

Legolas stood just outside the entrance to the cave and scanned the pale morning light.  It was time, he thought. They could wait no longer.  He would have to give up all thought of rescuers and get Eilian back to camp himself.  His brother was growing weaker by the hour, and Legolas needed to act now to get him to camp, where there would be medicine and food and safety.  He drew a deep breath and ducked back inside the cave.

Eilian lay with his face turned toward the entrance, waiting for Legolas to tell him what they would do now.  His docility frightened Legolas almost more than his wound did.

“We will go now, Eilian,” Legolas said and picked up their waterskins from near the fire. He strapped them both underneath his own tunic, unwilling to sacrifice any of Eilian’s body heat to keeping their contents liquid.  He checked to be sure that the quiver strap was tight over Eilian’s wound.  Then he removed his cloak, wrapped it over the top of Eilian’s, and rose with his brother in his arms.

They emerged from the cave to a snow-covered world.  In the clearing around the caves, the wind had created deep drifts, and Legolas found that, weighed down by Eilian, it was harder to move easily over their top.  He felt as if he were wading in loose sand that tugged at his feet with each step he took.  Moreover, the frigid wind that swept over him slid icy fingers under his tunic.  He clutched Eilian more tightly and made for the shelter of the trees, where the snow would be less deep and there would be some protection from the wind.  It was five leagues to camp.  He would need to keep his footing sound and his wits about him if he was to get Eilian safely back there.

As the trees rose protectively around them, he relaxed a little.  He could hear their concerned murmur and was grateful for their company.  “It is good to back among the trees again, is it not?” he said, and only when Eilian did not answer him did he realize that his brother’s eyes were once again drifting shut.  “Wake up!” he ordered sharply and Eilian’s head snapped up.

Eilian frowned.  “There is no need to shout,” he said with dignity. “I am right here.” He dropped his head against Legolas’s shoulder.

Legolas nearly laughed.  “Talk to me,” he urged.  “Tell me about what happened when you followed Ithilden and Siondel.  Where were they going?  What did you find?”

For a moment, Legolas thought that Eilian was not going to answer him.  Then, slowly, his brother seemed to rouse.  He pulled his brows together in concentration.  “They were going to Siondel’s family’s cottage,” he finally said.  He sighed. “I should have realized what had happened. I knew which warriors had gone south with Ithilden. But how could I even suspect what I would find?”

 

~*~*~

Eilian trotted along the dark path in the direction that Ithilden and Siondel had taken.  He emerged in a small clearing in which three cottages stood.  Two of the cottages were dark, their inhabitants undoubtedly at the solstice feast, but light spilled from the open door the third cottage, the one in which Siondel’s family lived.  Aware that he was uninvited, Eilian approached the doorway with care and peeked inside.

No one was in the small hallway that ran from the front to the back of the house, but Eilian could hear voices coming from the sitting room whose entrance lay just inside the front doorway.  To his concern, he could also hear weeping, not only Siondel’s but also that of his mother.  Then, startling him, he heard Ithilden’s voice, laced with despair. “I am so sorry,” he said.

Eilian’s breath caught.  What could have upset his normally unflappable brother?  Eilian felt as if the solid ground underneath him had suddenly shifted.  It frightened him to hear Ithilden sounding so hopeless, for Eilian had always thought of Ithilden as strong in the same way that their father was strong.  He did not always like it when their strength was exercised in curbing his own actions, but he had never doubted that both of them could solve whatever problem he or anyone else ran into.  With his heart in his throat, Eilian edged into the hallway and looked through the doorway into the sitting room.

For a moment he could not make sense of what he saw.  Siondel and his mother stood weeping and clinging to one another, while Ithilden hovered near them both, his face a study in misery.  And in the center of the room, on a table that was probably the one upon which the family usually ate, lay Siondel’s father, wrapped in his cloak with his ornate knife laid upon his breast.  His eyes were closed and his face was a waxy white.

Eilian stared at him in fascination, and suddenly it dawned on him that Siondel’s father was dead.  He drew a deep, trembling breath and took a step into the room.  He had never seen a dead Elf before.  He knew that in the past Elves had died. His own grandfather had died in battle at Dagorlad.  And he knew that when Ithilden had been young, Elves had battled Orcs and giant spiders right here in the Woodland Realm and not all of the Elves had survived the fight. But Eilian had never even known anyone who died.  Black spots began to dance at the edge of his vision.

Suddenly, Ithilden caught sight of him standing in the doorway, and his face filled with dismay.  “Get out of here, Eilian,” he said sharply.  He took two steps to cross the room and shoved Eilian roughly out of the sitting room and then out of the cottage.

They stood for a moment on the cottage doorstep with Ithilden’s hands on Eilian’s shoulders and Eilian breathing hard and trying not to disgrace himself by fainting.  Ithilden’s face softened a little.  “Go home, Eilian,” he said. “Siondel may need you tomorrow, but for now, this is not a place you should be.”

An Elven couple came hurrying up from the direction of the green, sorrow written large on both their faces. Eilian recognized them as the neighbors who dwelled next door, and he moved out of the way so that they could go inside to Siondel and his mother.  Ithilden patted Eilian’s shoulder, more gently this time. “Go home,” he said again and went back into the cottage, closing the door behind him.

Eilian stood in the dark for a moment, trying to comprehend the way his world had just changed but finding it beyond him.  Abruptly, he whirled and began to run, through the trees, along the path, across the bridge, and up the steps to the palace.  He sped past the startled looking guards and down the hallway where the royal family lived, not stopping until he was in his own chamber.  But whatever he had been fleeing had followed him home.  He flung himself onto the bed with his heart pounding so hard that it felt as if it would come out of his chest.  He closed his eyes to try to calm himself but saw again the white face of Siondel’s dead father and opened them in a panic.

“Eilian, what is the matter?” His mother’s alarmed voice brought him suddenly to his senses.   He turned his head to see her standing in the doorway and tried to get up but she was across the room and sitting on the edge of his bed with her arms around him before he could rise.  “What is it, my sweet? What is the matter?”

He gulped, swallowing the sobs that threatened to escape and reduce him to childhood.  “I am all right. I am sorry I frightened you, Naneth.”  He drew a deep, steadying breath. He would not increase his mother’s alarm if he could help it.  “Do you know about Siondel’s adar?” he asked hesitantly.

Her face suddenly creased with sorrow, and she drew him closer in her embrace. “Yes, I do.”  She stroked his hair.  “It is as your adar and Ithilden have feared,” she told him. “The Shadow has returned to Dol Guldur. Orcs are beginning to multiply again and the forest is twisting.”

He leaned his head against her shoulder and was somehow calmed rather than frightened by the horrors of which she spoke.  At least Orcs were an enemy one could fight.  He was growing more skillful with a sword and a bow by the day, and he could suddenly imagine the use to which he would put those skills. The thought made him feel less helpless. They sat for a time in silence.  Eilian drew comfort from his mother’s warm presence and hoped she took the same solace from him.  Finally, he sat up.

“Naneth, am I a problem to you and Adar?” he asked.  “Because if I am,” he went on hastily when she looked startled, “I can change. I can do better. I know I can.”

Understanding was creeping into her face. “Eilian, did you overhear your adar and me talking at the feast?”

He nodded.  “I did not mean to,” he hastened to say.  He did not want her to think he had been eavesdropping.

“Foolish child,” she chided him gently, “why do you think I want another baby if not for the fond memories I have of you and of Ithilden too?  And even now, you are not a problem for me, Eilian. You are a joy to me with your excited grasping after life.  You often lack judgment, it is true. But you are young yet, and you are one of those who will not come into his own until you can take your excitement from life’s real problems and challenges so you do not have to make them up.”  She patted his cheek and smiled.  “I understand, my sweet.”

“Is something the matter?” Thranduil’s concerned voice suddenly asked.  Eilian looked up to see his father standing in the doorway and struggled to his feet.

“Eilian knows about Siondel’s adar,” Lorellin told Thranduil.  His father grimaced and looked at Eilian.

“Death is not easy to accept,” he said soberly, “but I am afraid this is not the last death you are likely to see, iôn-nín.”  He crossed to where Eilian stood, put his hands on Eilian’s shoulders, and pulled him close to kiss his brow.  “I will keep you safe as long as I can, but the day is coming when you will have to go forth to protect the safety of others as one of the Woodland Realm’s warriors.”  He held Eilian at arm’s length and studied his face. “When you do, you will need to be responsible and mature. I will have to trust you not to engage in the kind of nonsense I saw and heard this evening, Eilian.  I will expect better of you.”

Eilian nodded.  At the moment, he could not understand why he had drunk so much, and had he actually meant to race his father’s stallion?  And Celuwen, he suddenly thought.  I will have to apologize to Celuwen. “What will happen now?” he asked.

Thranduil sighed.  “Tomorrow, Ithilden and I will begin making plans for the realm’s defense.  And you,” he added with a wry smile, “will go back to training where you will obey the masters and cease risking harm to yourself from your own foolishness.”

Suddenly, such a normal course of action seemed like part of a noble mission. “I will,” Eilian resolved. “Or at least,” he amended honestly, “I will try.”

A half smile crossed Thranduil’s face. “See that you do.” He turned to Lorellin. “We should go now.  I told Ithilden we would visit the family after the feast was over.”  Lorellin rose and put her hand in Thranduil’s.

“Good night, my sweet,” she said to Eilian, and the two of them left the room.

Eilian dropped into a chair near the empty fireplace and let his head fall back against it. What would he ever do without his mother?  He knew he would soon be old enough that he would be supposed to need her no longer, but he could not imagine how he would ever sort himself out without her help.  Still, he thought that tonight he had begun to understand what it would mean to be one of his father’s warriors. At least I did not weep, he thought with some satisfaction.  I was enough of an adult that I did not to do that.

He was surprised that his father had not scolded him, but he supposed that Thranduil had been so preoccupied by the death of a warrior and, even more, by what the return of the Shadow would mean for his people that Eilian’s offenses had seemed small in comparison.

He considered going to bed, but he felt restless, and he was seized with a sudden desire to see the stars.  He rose and made his way past the guards, more calmly this time, and crossed the bridge to enter the palace gardens.  He shut the gate behind him and began to wander among the flowers and fountains.  It was always so peaceful here. The scent of his mother’s roses was in the air.

He froze, as a sudden movement caught his eye.  In a dark corner, where a bench nestled under a shady arbor, someone sat, quietly waiting for him to pass.  His hand sought the handle of the knife that was sheathed at his hip as he cautiously moved closer to the intruder.

Someone sighed.  “It is only I, brother,” Ithilden’s voice came out of the darkness.  With relief, Eilian let his hand fall from his weapon and approached the bench.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, sinking down beside Ithilden, who moved something out of the way to make room for him.  With a start, Eilian realized that what Ithilden had moved was a wine bottle.

“I am contemplating the notion of mortality,” said Ithilden, wrapping his tongue carefully around the work ‘contemplating.’  “I find I do not like it.”  He poured wine from the bottle into a silver goblet in his other hand.

Eilian frowned. What was Ithilden talking about?  If he did not know better, he would think that his brother was drunk.

“I do not like it at all,” Ithilden repeated, his voice tight.  “One minute someone is alive, and the next they are dead.  That strikes me as unacceptable.”  He took a deep draught from his goblet.  “Unacceptable,” he murmured again.

Shock flooded Eilian’s system.  Ithilden never drank too much.  Not ever.  Eilian turned sideways on the bench to regard his brother.  He tried to think of something to say but could think of nothing that did not sound ridiculous. This was Ithilden after all, Ithilden who was supremely capable and self-confident to the point of arrogance sometimes.

Ithilden looked at him.  “The Shadow was here and Mithrandir drove it out,” he said, his voice growing bleaker by the moment. “Now it is back, and we begin all over again, and I do not know if I can bear it.”  To Eilian’s utter disbelief, his brother’s voice had begun to tremble.

Eilian did what seemed the only thing he could do.  He took his strong, dependable, self-possessed older brother in his arms and held him while he wept.

 

~*~*~

Legolas tightened his tired arms around Eilian, struck by this image of Ithilden in a moment of despair. To him, as to Eilian, Ithilden had always seemed a rock to which he could cling, and he was shaken by the idea that Ithilden had been so beaten down that he had gotten drunk and then wept in Eilian’s arms.

“That night was when I realized what the return of Shadow meant,” Eilian murmured into Legolas’s shoulder.  “I was so self-absorbed that it took a great deal to penetrate my thick skull, but what I saw that night did it.”

Legolas glanced down at Eilian’s drawn face.  “You always say you are self-absorbed, Eilian, but in truth, I have never found you so, not with me.”

Eilian smiled slightly.  “I had that extra twenty years to grow wiser before you came along.”

Legolas smiled back and then bent his head to plow on through the deep snow.  We are at least half way to camp, he told himself.  You will have help soon.  But even as he thought this, he felt something warm trickle over the fingers of his left hand.  Without looking, he knew that Eilian’s wound was once again bleeding enough to soak the bandaging and run down his hip.  Panic fluttered in his belly, and he looked quickly at Eilian’s face.  His brother’s eyes were half shut.

“Wake up!” Legolas cried, but with a perverseness that seemed drawn from the story Eilian had told about his younger self, his brother’s eyes now closed all the way.

Legolas halted and stared at Eilian.  Perhaps he should stop and put snow on Eilian’s wound.  That would slow the bleeding and rouse Eilian too.  But could he take the time? He needed to get his brother back to camp as swiftly as possible.  Despair born of love and fanned by the Shadow nearly made him sink to his knees, and he knew with certainty that he would not be able to bear it if Eilian died in his care.

A bird trilled hopefully in the distance.

Legolas stood for a moment in silence, too stunned to be certain of what he had heard.  The bird song came again, and with a wildly beating heart, he answered.  Within three minutes, Elves were dropping to the ground all around him and Maltanaur was walking toward him with his arms out.

“Give him to me, Legolas,” he commanded.

In an unreasoning reflex, Legolas tightened his grip on his brother.  Gelmir appeared suddenly at his side and touched him gently on the shoulder.  “Let Maltanaur take him, Legolas.  You have done enough for now.”

Maltanaur stepped in closer and lifted Eilian from Legolas’s arms.  “Where is he hurt?” he asked briskly, as he moved into a clearer space under a pine tree and set Eilian down.

“His hip is bleeding,” Legolas said. “There was poison on the blade.”

“Were you able to slow it at all?”  Maltanaur had removed a healing kit from his belt and was opening it.

Legolas licked his lips. “I tried,” he said and heard his own voice trail off.  Maltanaur looked up at him sharply, and Gelmir turned from where he had been helping Sórion build a fire.  “He kept bleeding again,” Legolas said thickly.

Gelmir put his arm around Legolas’s shoulders.  “You and I should go back to camp now, I think.  Maltanaur will bring Eilian.”

“No!”  Legolas could not imagine leaving Eilian now.

“Yes,” said Gelmir.  “You can trust Maltanaur, Legolas. He has been taking care of Eilian for a long time.

“No,” Legolas said stubbornly.

Gelmir gave him a long, level look.  “Then come by the fire and let me make you some tea,” he finally said, and Legolas allowed himself to be led away, although he made sure to sit where he could see his brother.

“Get me some warm water, Gelmir,” Maltanaur ordered, grinding haru against a rock with the flat of his knife.  He loosened the quiver strap around Eilian’s hips, lifted the blood soaked bandaging, and then paused in silence for a moment. He glanced at Eilian’s pale face. “You fool,” he said, his voice harsh.  “I left you safe and sound.  How did you let this happen?”

Eilian remained blissfully unconscious, but Legolas jumped to his feet and evaded Gelmir’s grasp to approach his brother and his keeper.  “Stop scolding him,” he snapped.  “The Orcs had been hunting him in particular. Did you know that?” Gelmir brought a water skin that he had warmed near the fire, and Legolas snatched it from his grasp and held it out to Maltanaur. “Fix the herb,” he commanded.

Maltanaur looked at Gelmir.  “Can you not keep him out of my way?” he asked in disgust.  “He looks worn out enough to fall over.”

“I will stay out of the way, but I will stay here,” Legolas announced, and with a glare that made Gelmir back away, he moved a little to one side so that Maltanaur could tend to Eilian.  The keeper cupped the ground herb in his palm and then poured a little warm water over it to make a paste that he spread on Eilian’s wound.  Then he put clean bandaging over it and replaced the strap.

As he was drawing the strap tight, he glanced at Legolas.  “The quiver strap was a good idea, Legolas.  Eilian was lucky to have you with him.”  Legolas felt suddenly unbelievably grateful to have Maltanaur’s help for his brother.  The keeper rose and signaled to two Elves who had been building a litter with branches and a cloak that belonged to one of them. They lifted Eilian carefully into the litter, covered him with more cloaks, and started back to camp.

Legolas started after the litter, but Maltanaur caught at him and then wrapped Legolas’s bloodstained cloak around his shoulders.  “Eilian is warm enough,” he said roughly, “and I think you need this back.”  He ran after the litter, leaving Legolas to hurry after him with Gelmir at his side.

With Eilian securely in a litter, they made the trip to camp in a shorter time than Legolas could have dared to hope.  As they entered the campsite, the dozen or so Elves waiting there jumped to their feet and ran to meet them.  Legolas started to trot forward, anxious to help move Eilian from the litter, but suddenly found himself face to face with Beliond, who was leaning on an improvised crutch but was still mobile enough to make sure that Legolas could not get past him.

“Are you injured?” Beliond demanded, grasping Legolas’s arm with his free hand.

“No.”  Legolas tried to shake him off.  “I need to help move Eilian.”

Beliond spat a word that made Legolas blink. If nothing else, having had Beliond for his keeper had expanded his vocabulary considerably.  “You had better be grateful that I need this crutch to hold me up,” Beliond went on, “because if I did not, I swear I would beat you with it.  What you need to do is lie down! There are others who will care for your brother.”

Legolas eyed him cautiously.  Beliond was obviously near the edge of reason and had perhaps slid slightly over it.  “I will lie down as soon as I know how Eilian is,” he said placatingly.  Beliond slightly relaxed his grip on Legolas’s arm but did not release it.  Together they made their way to where Eilian was being examined by the two Elves who were the best emergency healers in the patrol.

One of them looked up as Legolas drew near. “He will have to go home,” the Elf said, “but I think we can keep the bleeding in check until the healers there get hold of him.”   And suddenly, Legolas sagged against Beliond, who stumbled slightly and braced himself with his crutch.

“Yes, yes,” mumbled Beliond.  “Now you see sense.  Come.  You can sleep now.”  And Legolas let himself be tucked into a snowy sleeping den.  He could sleep now indeed.

***

Legolas sat next to the litter upon which Eilian lay, wrapped in several blankets and waiting to be carried home.  The camp life of the Southern Patrol flowed around them but left them a small space in which they could exchange a few, last, private words.  Eilian’s face was still pale. It would be some time before he recovered from the kind of blood loss he had suffered, but at least he was unlikely to freeze to death during one of his occasional bouts of unconsciousness.  Legolas brushed a stray hair out Eilian’s face.

Eilian turned to him and smiled faintly. “Behave yourself while I am gone, brat.  You have turned out to be quite a warrior, and I would not like the patrol to lose your services.”

“I will take care of things for you here,” Legolas told him.  “You do as the healers tell you at home.”

Eilian’s smile broadened.  “Just as I always do.”  They both laughed.

Sórion approached.  “Dispatches came while we were engaged in the battle, Eilian. I can take care of them, but there was a letter for you too.”  He held out a sealed message.

“Legolas will read it to me,” Eilian said weakly. Sórion handed the letter to Legolas and left them again.

Legolas glanced at the graceful handwriting but did not recognize it.  He slit the seal with his dagger and began to read: “My dearest Eilian.”  He stopped suddenly and hastily scanned the next few lines. Then he looked up at his brother, who was patiently waiting for him to go on.  “It is personal,” Legolas said tentatively.  “It is from Celuwen.”

Eilian’s face lit up with painful hope.  “Give it to me,” he said, trying to extricate his hand from the blankets.

Maltanaur approached them.  “It is time to go.”  He frowned at the way Eilian was disturbing the blankets and tucked them around him again.

“I will give it to Maltanaur,” Legolas said hastily.  “He will make sure it does not get lost, and you can read it yourself when you are stronger.”  He handed the letter to Maltanaur, with Eilian’s eyes following it greedily.  Maltanaur glanced at it and then tucked it into his belt.

“Not now,” Maltanaur told Eilian firmly, ignoring his faint sounds of protest. “You may have it later.”  He turned to Legolas.  “I have told you this several times already, Legolas, but I will say it again before we go.  You did well, and you saved this one’s skin when he had once again wandered into such trouble that he could not save his own.”

Legolas flushed at the praise, but still felt he had to protest.  “Eilian was not doing anything reckless, you know. He was seeing to me.”

“Then it is you who should have been taking more care,” said Beliond’s voice from behind him.  Legolas grimaced without turning. Since their return, Beliond had been hovering over Legolas, with lectures about the need to keep from letting down his guard at any time.

From his litter, Eilian laughed weakly.  “You tell him, Beliond.  Take care of him for me.”

Maltanaur signaled to two waiting Elves, and they picked up Eilian’s litter to begin the long trip home.  Legolas watched them leave and felt suddenly alone.

***

Thranduil poked at the fire and then returned to his chair at Eilian’s bedside.  The healer had been reassuring, but Thranduil was taking no chances on his son becoming chilled.  Eilian was awake now and was groping for the letter that Thranduil had placed on the bedside table while he slept.  Thranduil put the letter in Eilian’s hand and watched with a faint smile as his son’s face relaxed.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

“Better,” Eilian answered automatically, and Thranduil gave an exasperated smile.

“Shall I read you the letter again?”  he asked.

“No,” Eilian answered.  “I know what it says.”  They remained for a few moments in companionable silence, and then Eilian turned his head toward his father.  “Do you remember the summer that the Shadow returned, Adar?”

Thranduil was startled by the question but nodded grimly.  That was a time of horror that he would never forget.

“I was telling Legolas about it,” Eilian continued.  “I do not think I have ever told you how sorry I am for the trial I was to you and Naneth at that age.”

Thranduil patted Eilian’s arm gently.  “You are still a trial to me sometimes, iôn-nín, because I worry that you do not take sufficient care of yourself. But you are also a source of pride to me now, just as you were then, and I would never wish to have been without you.”  Eilian smiled faintly, and his eyelids drifted shut again as he fell into a deep sleep, with his letter clutched loosely in his hand.

Thranduil studied him as he slept.  When Eilian was awake, his face was always mobile and lively, stamped by the active imagination that was tirelessly at work.  But when he slept, his face relaxed, and he looked once again as he had when he was young and still untouched by what he had seen since then. Thranduil took the letter gently from his son, put it on the table again, and pulled the blankets up to Eilian’s chin.

Thranduil sat for a while then, stealing time that he should have spent with his advisors, but unable to leave the son who lay before him or his thoughts of the one whom Eilian had left behind in the south.  Thranduil had not been happy about posting Legolas south, but Ithilden wanted to make Legolas a lieutenant soon and had argued that he needed to have had wide experience before Ithilden could do so. Besides, he had said, Eilian will look out for him.  And now Legolas was on his own.  Not entirely on his own, of course, Thranduil reminded himself dryly.  There were other warriors, and there was Beliond.  Still, Legolas was in a dangerous place with no one from his family to protect him.

Thranduil sighed.  He supposed that he would have to accept the fact that his youngest son was an adult now and, from what he had been told, a ferocious warrior too.  That was good. That was what Legolas needed to be.  And yet, in his mind’s eye, Thranduil saw a small, blond elfling running to him with his arms lifted to be picked up.  Where had that elfling gone?  Resolutely, Thranduil turned from this vision.  Legolas was what he was, and Thranduil could only trust that his son would come home safely again.

The  End

 





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