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Chapter 2. Beliond's Task--A birthday gift for Perelleth, who has her own Beliond to contend with
Still sheltered in the last of the trees, Beliond gazed across the Green at the palace entrance and stroked his horse's neck. "You should sample the grass on the Green," he told the animal. "Let me know if a king's grass tastes any better."
Two elves came down the steps from the palace, their heads bent together in conference. They crossed the bridge and turned toward a path between the trees. At the path's entrance, they stepped aside to let a woman and elfling pass. She nodded to them, then followed the child onto the Green. She seated herself on a bench and took a needle, thread, and scissors from the bag she carried. While she threaded the needle, the child took off running as if his arse were on fire. He tore around the Green, apparently for the sheer, empty-headed pleasure of doing it. The two who had come out of the palace disappeared among the trees.
Beliond gave the horse a final pat. "Better eat while you have the chance, though. We are not staying among all this crowd."
He strode across the Green, dodging the elfling now on his return trip to his naneth. "Watch him, Mistress," Beliond barked to the woman. "He is probably brainless enough to run right into the river." From the corner of his eye, he glimpsed her mouth dropping open and her brows drawing down. Ignoring her, he marched across the bridge and up the steps.
One of the guards lowered his spear across the doorway. "Your business, good Elf?"
Beliond snorted. "I could not say. The king sent for me and of course did not deign to say what he wanted, so you would have to ask him."
The guard's eyes widened. He had a round, boyish face and the bony-wristed look of one who still needed frequent feedings. Beliond resisted the temptation to tell him to run along and play with the elfling on the Green.
"Uh," the guard said.
Beliond sighed. "The king did send for me, lad, to my dismay as much as to yours."
"Stop frightening the guards, Beliond," said a deep voice.
Beliond peered into the dimly lit antechamber to see Thranduil's tall, broad-shouldered figure striding toward him. The baby-faced guard hastily raised his spear and skipped out of the way. Thranduil clasped Beliond's arm, then drew him into an embrace.
Despite his annoyance over Thranduil's high-handed summons, Beliond's heart lifted at the touch of this friend of his youth, one he had known when their eyes gleamed with hope and the Shadow had not yet spread over them all.
Thranduil pulled away and slapped Beliond's back. "Come. You have not lost your taste for wine, have you?"
"Not your wine." Beliond allowed Thranduil to guide him down a hall and into his office.
Thranduil waved him into a chair in front of the fireplace, poured wine for both of them at the table in the corner, and took the chair opposite.
Beliond raised the cup to his nose, inhaled the fruity odor, and sipped. The thick flavor rolled across his tongue. He sighed contentedly. "Too many cups of ale have made me forget what good wine tastes like. Men will drink anything that fogs their wits enough to make them forget their usually self-induced woes."
Thranduil ran a finger around the rim of his cup. "How did the mission go?"
"Well enough. As always, men prepare to slice one another's throats and possibly ours if the mood takes them. Do you want the details now?"
"Tomorrow will be soon enough. I have no doubt trouble is coming, but not before then." Thranduil cleared his throat. "You have been away from home even longer than usual. I have been thinking that time in these woods would be good for you."
"Too right." Beliond pictured himself alone among the trees, their song in his ears, the smell of green life filling his nostrils. His heart sped up. He set the wine aside. "I hear you want something. Tell me what it is. Let us get this over with so I can seize whatever time I have before I go east again."
Thranduil too set his wine aside. He straightened his spine and settled his shoulders so his chest spread like a shield. Apprehension scuttled into the back of Beliond's mind and made itself at home.
"I do not intend to send you east again for a while, Beliond," Thranduil said. You have spent too much time away from your own people, and I have another task in mind for you."
"And that would be what?" Beliond studied Thranduil's guarded face and carefully stilled body, and apprehension cheerily fluffed itself out to spread from ear to ear inside Beliond's head.
"My youngest son is about to pledge himself as a warrior. I want you to act as his bodyguard."
Beliond froze, half-playful apprehension turned to black ice. "No."
"You know why not."
Thranduil's gray eyes met his, and between them lay the shared sights of Dagorlad, of blood and terror and Elves dying in the mud. Pain swelled in Beliond's throat, and he pushed away a vision of the fragile, broken body of his son, no older than that fool of a guard at the Doors.
He swallowed. "I swore I would never again be responsible for a young warrior."
Thranduil's eyes flicked away, then back. His mouth twisted. "He is my last, Beliond, the baby Lorellin wanted when the world began to slide back into shadow. No one else would look after him as you would."
"You ask too much."
"He needs you, Beliond."
"They all need someone."
"I am afraid I must insist."
Beliond felt as if a heavy pack were settling on his shoulders. He drew a deep breath. "My lord, I beg you not to force this on me."
"If I have to force it on you, I will, because I am convinced you are the right person for the task." Thranduil leaned forward. "But I would prefer you do it for the love you bear me."
Worry gathered in the lines around Thranduil's eyes, and Beliond nearly groaned aloud. The last baby, Thranduil had called this boy. The family had probably sheltered him, probably led him to expect the world would offer him pastries on a platter. Someone would have to watch over him when life slapped him so hard he fell down and was unsure how to get up again. Someone should be there.
Beliond drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. "This is not the one I caught raising a spider as a pet, is it?"
Thranduil's face eased. Wily warrior that he was, he knew victory when it fell into his grasp. "No. Eilian is Maltanaur's problem."
That was something, at least. Maltanaur always had been a bit of a pushover in dealing with Thranduil.
"This is Legolas," Thranduil said, "an easier task, I think."
Beliond snorted and rose. "We will see."
"You need not go yet." Now that he had won his way, Thranduil looked insufferably pleased with himself. "Have some more wine."
Beliond hesitated. "I want to camp where I can have some peace for a while before I take on whatever hare-brained problems your son presents. But if you want to send a skin of that wine with me, I will not object."
Thranduil laughed. "Beliond, I cannot tell you how much I have missed you." He rose, put a hand on Beliond's shoulder, and walked him to the door. There he paused, his face grown serious. "Thank you, old friend. You have eased my heart. I have been worried about Legolas and you too."
Beliond blinked. "Me? Why me? And this is how you show your concern?"
Thranduil's hand squeezed the shoulder. "As it happens, it is." He smiled but did not explain himself.
Beliond rolled his eyes. "The wine, Thranduil." He jerked his head toward the door.
Thranduil laughed again, and they made their way out into the hall.
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