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Interrupted Journeys: Part 7 The course of love  by elliska

The course of true love never did run smooth.

William Shakespeare

Chapter Eight: The course of true love

Legolas nodded wordlessly to the guard standing at the entrance to the family quarters as he and Galithil walked past him. They both ignored his raised eyebrows. After all, Conuion had been the one to allow them to stay on the Green until the stars had completed well over half their evening course across the skies, and he was this guard's captain.

Silently, they strode down the corridor to their respective rooms. Galithil winked at Legolas before turning towards his door. Legolas smiled back at his cousin and watched him disappear into his room. Then he slowly turned his own doorknob, easing it carefully past the place where it normally squeaked. Unlike Conuion and the guard, his father would have every right to chastise him if he were awakened to find his son coming in this late. Legolas did not need or want anymore trouble with his father.

When he slipped into his room, it was quite dark. Only one dying lamp flickered weakly all the way back in the bedroom. The others that the servants had lit for him in the sitting room had long since run out of oil. No matter. Legolas did not need a light to find his way in his own chambers. He crossed to the table where he and Galithil did their studies. Once there, he unstrung his bow, unbuckled his quiver and laid them both on its surface. He removed his knives and their sheaths from his belt and boot and placed them on the table as well. With a grin, he reached into the pocket of his tunic and pulled out a gold coin. He looked at it a moment and then slid it under one of the sheaths. Then he turned to walk towards his washroom while working to unfasten his tunic.

"Fair evening, Legolas," a voice said quietly, as the lamp in his bedroom flared to life. "Or perhaps, fair morning describes it more accurately."

Legolas spun towards the voice and saw his father seated in one of the chairs next to the fireplace. Legolas swallowed, tunic hanging half open. He was unable to speak to return the greeting and he doubted it would turn out to be a remotely appropriate one even if he could.

Thranduil held out his hand, palm up. "The coin," he said simply.

Legolas bit his lip and went back to the table to retrieve the coin. He delivered it to his father.

Thranduil looked at it and then glanced at the bow on the table. "The Oak?" he asked.

Legolas's heart began to race. Two word commands and questions were not a good sign.

The coin glimmered in the lamp light. It was worth it.

"Yes, adar," Legolas confessed readily, trying to appear penitent. That was a much more difficult task than normal, since he could muster no true regret at all.

Thranduil's fist closed around the coin. "From whom did you win it?" he demanded.

"A First Year," Legolas replied. "I do not remember his name. I was competing with the warriors in the training program."

"You will either remember his name or find it out by lunch time. Once you tell me who it was, I will ask Glilivan to send him to the Hall and you will return this coin to him. It probably represents the sum total of the gold his parents gave him to provide for his needs during his training and his senses were likely too addled to understand what he was doing when he wagered it." Thranduil's tone was disgusted and he was studying Legolas closely.

"Addled?" Legolas repeated. "Are you suggesting that he was drunk, adar? Or that I am?" That was a suspicion that had better be laid to rest and swiftly, else this situation would be exponentially worse.

Thranduil raised an eyebrow. "Coming in this late after gaming at the Oak? I would not be surprised if you drank to excess in that company. Did you?"

Legolas's back stiffened. "Certainly not," he replied. "And neither did any of the First Years. We were having a competition, nothing more. You occasionally participate in the contests during festivals. Uncle Aradunnon often gamed at the Oak, with Dollion, and he is a captain. Dolgailon still games with Dollion..."

"Foolish child," Thranduil interrupted, leaning forward in the chair and openly raising his voice. "You slip away from your guard, give orders to officers of the patrols and then go out to the Green and gamble as if there is nothing wrong with any of that! And now you are going to argue with me about  the propriety of it? You know better and you would be wise to hold your tongue."

Legolas pressed his lips together and looked at his boots. "I will return the coin as you asked," he said quietly after a moment. Returning the coin did not return the victory it represented, so Legolas did not care.

"You will," Thranduil confirmed. "And to teach you the value of that coin--since you clearly have no idea what that might be, else you would not have wagered so much more than you could possibly satisfy had you lost the bet--you will personally prepare one gold coin's worth of the salted pork we are trading with the Men this season. You will begin that work immediately after the festival. Understood?"

Legolas stifled a sigh. His father had chosen one of the most difficult and certainly the messiest of the trade items that Legolas had the skill to prepare. And preparing an entire coin's worth by himself before the meat went bad would mean working nearly non-stop during all the remaining days Legolas and his cousins had free after the festival.

It was still worth it.

"Understood, adar," Legolas acknowledged. "But, just so you know, I do know the value of the coin. I have seen this particular First Year on the range. I knew without any doubt that I could best him, else I would not have made such a bet."

Thranduil only glared at him. "I was willing to accept your right to have asked the warriors to bring their Mannish prisoners to the stronghold, since you managed the way you spoke to me about it in the Hall appropriately. But I am far less impressed with the arrogance you are displaying now. Perhaps my tolerance for the manner in which you clearly overstepped your authority is not warranted."

Legolas tried not to react openly to that statement. He knew his father could justly criticize what he had done with the warriors. But he was not correct in assuming that Legolas was being arrogant about the First Years and they were a sore enough subject that the mention of them still made Legolas's temper rise. But temper would do him no good here. "The two are unrelated issues, adar," he countered with as even a tone as he could manage. "It is not arrogance to state that I am a better archer than the the First Years I was competing with. It is simply a fact. I have seen their skill and I know my own. I knew I would win. If I had not known that, I would never have made the bet. I only wanted you to know that because I do not want you to think that I would be foolish enough to ask you for a coin from realm's stores to satisfy my gambling debts."

"So you knew your skill exceeds that of the First Years', did you?" Thranduil repeated. "That is not an arrogant assertion?"

Legolas only responded by lifting his chin.

"Very well," his father conceded quietly. "I have also seen your skill with a bow. Perhaps your confidence was justified. But you will still prepare the boars. Doing so will serve as a reminder that I have no tolerance for gambling at all, and especially when such ridiculous sums are involved, even if you feel assured you can win." He paused to see if he would hear any further argument. Legolas was not stupid. He kept his mouth shut. Thranduil nodded once and continued. "As for the men...."

"I told you already that my conscience would not allow me to respond differently to them," Legolas interrupted, "so I do not regret what I did. But I also do not deny that I had no right to give orders to the warriors. I knew that when I was doing it. So did they, I think, but they were willing to do as I asked. I think they wanted an excuse to help the woman too. It was hard not to want to help her, crying and pleading as she was."

Thranduil leaned back in his chair. "Tulus and Colloth both said the same--that the warriors, even the officer present, seemed to be looking for an excuse not to obey their captain's orders to find the men and take them to Laketown. I am not so pleased that they would use a child to find that excuse. Better that they take the men to their captain to tell their story and let him make the decision. But, that is a matter between the warriors and their captain. My only concern is my son and deciding if he truly overstepped his authority. I would definitely say you had, if you were one of the warriors disobeying that captain, but you were not. Indeed you were that close to the forest border because you were serving as my representative in a trade negotiation. If Celonhael had been in your place under the same circumstances, I certainly would have expected him to bring the men to me and I would have expected the warriors to obey his orders to do so. Unlike Celonhael, you are underage, but that does not change the fact that your decision to help the woman was undeniably the correct one, difficult as it must have been for you to make, since you sacrificed your camping trip to do it. So, I am proud of you for that," he concluded, his tone warming considerably.

Legolas closed his eyes. Normally, he would have been very happy to have earned such praise from his father, especially when the topic also apparently served to distract him from his anger over the gambling, but the last few days had not been normal days. His father's comment was the first kind thing that anyone had said to him since he had left to go camping. He was startled to find that kindness was nearly enough to bring tears to his eyes. "Thank you, adar," he whispered.

Thranduil was silent for a long moment. Legolas could feel his father's gaze upon him, but he could not face it.

"I am also quite pleased with how you handled the traders," Thranduil continued, still speaking softly, but now he sounded cautious. "You not only resolved the issue of the payment and obtained the salt for our realm, but you did so in a manner that helped the traders as well, for indeed, the wainwright in Laketown was taking advantage of their need. You demonstrated you could listen and manage an unexpected problem to derive a solution that benefited everyone. Again, I was very proud of that."

"Thank you, adar," Legolas repeated, and hoped his voice had not sounded too rough.

"Perhaps, however, despite how well you handled both situations, I should not have put you in a position where you were forced to do so," Thranduil suggested. "You are, as yet, entitled to uninterrupted time for camping and hunting with your friends and cousins. I think I regret that you had to sacrifice your trip."

Legolas remained still for a moment, taking quiet, calming breaths as unobtrusively as possible, until he was certain that he had mastered his emotions. He did not want his father to think he could not manage the small amount of responsibility that he had been given. He certainly did not want his father to regret giving it to him. When he could, he forced himself to face his father squarely. "I do not regret it," he said firmly. "Despite the attitude I had when you asked me to do it, I was perfectly willing to deliver the payment to the traders. I am glad I was able to help them in the process. And if I had not been at the border, it is likely the man and woman's fate would have been considerably worse than it is now. At least with lord Fengel, they have more hope of a just outcome. I do recognize the relative importance of obtaining the salt and helping the men over preserving a camping trip, my lord."

Thranduil adopted a satisfied expression in response to that answer, but he was apparently not well enough satisfied to abandon his current line of questioning. "Tulus and Colloth told me that your friends and cousins have treated you poorly since the camping trip was cancelled, Since you are plainly upset about something, given your reactions to this conversation, I thought it might be that, but apparently not. Once again, I am quite proud of you, much more so than I am of your cousins, at the moment," he said sternly. Then he fixed Legolas with a concerned expression that was enough to force him to once again look away in order to maintain control over himself.  "Please tell me what is upsetting you then, ion nin," he requested.

Legolas shifted from foot to foot. He wished that he could just walk away from his father as he had walked away from his cousins' complaints over the last few days. Unfortunately, he could not. "I confess that I am upset tonight, adar, but the reason is personal and beyond repair. I truly do not wish to speak about it."

Thranduil frowned sadly. "If the camping trip is not what is troubling you, then I suspect that the reason you are upset and the reason that you slipped Tulus are one and the same. Do I hit close to the mark?" he asked softly.

Legolas could not hide an angry grimace and his thoughts raced. How could his father know that! He could not possibly know anything. Legolas said nothing.

"I see I do," Thranduil continued. "I will respect your reticence to talk about Aewen if I must. I have always been equally reluctant to talk about affairs of the heart, so it is an attitude that I understand well but...."

Legolas put his hands behind his back to hide that they were now balled into fists. "Tulus told you that I was...with Aewen?" he guessed.

Thranduil shook his head. "No. I asked both Tulus and Colloth why you slipped away from the camp--what you might have been doing away from it. Tulus refused to answer me. He said it was not his place to discuss your personal affairs and he would not set that precedent. Colloth responded similarly and reminded me that he had responded the same to my adar when asked about Aradunnon. Your naneth mentioned to me tonight that you are courting Aewen. She suggested that you might have left the camp to seek some privacy with her away from your guards. I do not condone you slipping your guard for that or any reason, but I admit I understand the action a bit better with that as the excuse. And before you declare your affair with her to be 'beyond repair' simply because she is cross with you over nothing more than a ruined camping trip, you must allow that I have more experience in this area than you, so I might be able to help you if you will let me try."

Legolas puffed a heavy sigh, mortified that his parents had been discussing he and Aewen, angry that his father, along with everyone else, insisted upon forcing him to talk about her himself, and miserable because the situation was so much worse than his father understood. "First of all, I admit I did walk away from the camp for some time with Aewen, but I never intended to offer that or anything else as an excuse for slipping Tulus. There is no possible excuse and I know that. Second of all, Aewen is not merely cross with me. She is angry about the camping trip, to be certain. She asked about it everyday for the last few weeks, so she was disappointed when I had to go to the border. And she was all but furious when I decided I must take the Men to you personally and thereby ruin the camping trip altogether. But, on the Green tonight, talking with Maidhien about her betrothal and new lessons, duties and guard, Aewen was frankly distraught. While we were all talking, I saw Tulus and I went to speak to him. When I came back to the Green and looked for Aewen, I found her by the river. Kissing a First Year."

Legolas looked sidelong at his father to watch his reaction. Thranduil's eyes widened and then darted to the closed fist that still held the coin.

Legolas laughed bitterly and nodded. His father could always be counted upon to add up all the facts. "I walked away, obviously," he continued. "I was so embarrassed...and angry.... She followed me and told me that Maidhien might be willing to become part of our family, but Aewen said she was not. She does not care, in her own words, to help naneth manage the stronghold or see Men threaten to kill me or you threaten to execute Men. And she does not want to do anything further to give me the impression that she might make that choice. So, I fancy this is fairly beyond repair and I simply have to live with it."

Thranduil closed his eyes for a moment. Then he stood, walked over to Legolas and embraced him.

Legolas tensed. All he had wanted to do was describe what had happened and drop the subject as quickly as possible. But as soon as his father's arms were about him, he could not deny that he truly needed and wanted the comfort that his father was offering him. Indeed, he found himself taking long, deep breaths in an effort to not break down into tears. The arms around him only tightened, holding him without a word until he had mastered himself. Then, his father released him and gestured to the chair next to the one he had occupied. "Sit down, Legolas," he said softly.

Legolas dropped into the chair, but focused his gaze on its arm, studying the pattern of the fabric that padded it as if he had never noticed it before.

"I am sorry about Aewen," Thranduil said after seating himself.

"So am I," Legolas replied, almost in a whisper, still not trusting his voice.

The room remained silent for several moments. Then, Thranduil laughed softly and Legolas looked up at him in shock, unable to imagine what could possibly be funny.

""I find myself wishing your Uncle Aradunnon was here, since he found it so easy to court so many ellyth," Thranduil explained.

Against his will, a smile tugged at Legolas's lips at memories of his uncle. Stories of his somewhat...'indiscriminate' was the term his father used when he was in a kind mood...lifestyle prior to his marriage had always entertained the family. Legolas could see how his advice on this matter might prove at least amusing, if not helpful.

"On the one hand," Thranduil continued, "I wish he were here now so that he could tell you that there are many ellyth in the forest--though he might not have limited himself to just the forest, but rather included all of Arda. He would have told you that you are better off free to take your time and acquaint yourself with all of them. That claim would be so much more believable coming from him than from anyone else."

As his father had doubtless intended, the smile found its way to Legolas's face, despite the pain of all that had happened with Aewen.

"On the other hand, I suppose I should be grateful that my brother is not here to be a terrible influence on my son, since both his own sons failed so miserably to live up to their father's example. Dolgailon was always such a quiet child, very serious about Arthiel from his youth. And, worse still, Galithil is betrothed before he is even of age. As soon as that could no longer be denied, Aradunnon would have turned to his only other potential victim--you--and tried to lead you down a scandalous path. He and I would have certainly quarreled over that."

Legolas grinned at his father and Thranduil smiled back at him.,

Then Thranduil's expression grew more serious. "I cannot imagine how Aradunnon managed to conduct himself with ellyth as he did. Such behavior is not really a luxury someone in our position can afford. Not without creating a wake of hurt feelings, at the very least, and long lasting political repercussions at worst. Somehow my brother avoided that, though I cannot imagine how. I found courting ellyth extremely difficult after my adar became king of the Silvan, primarily due to the very objections Aewen raised--any elleth that marries you is destined for a much more difficult life than if she had chosen any other ellon. I admit I am more impressed with Aewen than either your naneth or I expected to be. It is very mature of her to recognize that she does not want the heavy burden that would fall to her if she became a member of the King's household."

Legolas's smile turned sharply downward. "Mature?" he scoffed, not bothering to hide his disdain for that description of Aewen. "I simply do not see that, adar. How is it mature to be unwilling to serve this realm? It is an honor to do so, not a burden."

"So you have been raised your entire life to believe," Thranduil answered evenly. "Your naneth was raised similarly, to serve in her cousin Amroth's court, which is undoubtedly why she stepped into my household and began managing it with such ease. But your Aunt Amoneth and Arthiel were not raised expecting such responsibilities and they both found them to be quite difficult to bear."

Legolas tried not to openly scowl, turning his face away from his father when he failed. As much as he wanted to, he could not deny that he had heard Arthiel and Dolgailon arguing about how Arthiel could best serve the realm many times. Indeed, Legolas himself thought her selfish for continuing to work as a forester after Aunt Amoneth died. And the stories he had heard of Aunt Amoneth's courtship with Uncle Aradunnon! She had openly caused turmoil, so much so that Thranduil had initially denied Aradunnon permission to marry her. Obviously she had not been prepared, at least at first, for life in the King's household. But the entire time Legolas had known her, she had done her duty, and often had done even more than anyone could expect, so obviously someone not born to such duties could learn to understand them. Aewen could have as well, if she had not gone off kissing First Years.

The stubborn, angry frown returned to Legolas's face, despite his best efforts to squelch it and he sighed loudly. Galithil was unbelievably lucky! He did not even have to make an effort to win Maidhien. She fell in love with him the day he jumped on that boar to save her. Well, jumping onto a boar, unarmed, was an effort, Legolas admitted, but still, she was perfectly willing to accept the 'burden' of becoming a member of the King's family. She was willing to help manage the household, of all things! He grimaced. Of course, only a few hours ago both he and Eirienil had looked at Maidhien as if she had lost her mind when she told them that. Legolas slumped a little in his chair. He really wanted to be angry at Aewen. He was completely unprepared for how much it hurt to see her kissing that First Year. But obviously it was not fair of him to worry for Maidhien's happiness and then not allow Aewen the right to be concerned for her own.

"I fear I have made a mess of things with Aewen," Legoas finally said out loud. "I did not handle what she told me very well. I was rude to her, at best."

Thranduil put a hand on his shoulder. "It would be extremely difficult to react well, given what you have described. None the less, you must respect her decision, for it is her right to make it. Perhaps you should try to talk to her again, now that you have calmed down a bit. Even apologize, if you think you were rude. You may still want to be her friend, even if you cannot be more than that.  And if that is the case, and if you owe her an apology, you should give her one."

"I will speak to her," Legolas agreed. Immediately dread of that conversation set in. He could not imagine what he would say or how to approach her.

Thranduil squeezed his shoulder and sat back in his chair. He opened his hand and looked at the coin on his palm for a moment. "You know perfectly well that I do not approve of gambling, especially for such large sums. Nevertheless." He hesitated. "You are certain that this First Year knew what he was doing when he bet this coin?"

Legolas raised an eyebrow. "Well, he was not drunk," he began. "And I know he has seen me practicing on the range. Many people watch Galithil, Berior and I practice, him amongst them, on several occasions. He should know my skill and therefore know that when I boasted that I could beat him, it was only the truth. But we...I," he corrected himself, not willing to get his cousin in trouble too, though he was certain his father would catch his mistake. He always did. "I may have goaded him a bit into making the bet so large. He is in the training program, after all, and I am still six years too young to join it, so it was hard on his pride to admit that he might not be able to beat someone so much younger."

Thranduil began to smile at that, but caught himself. His mouth ended up, at least for a moment, pursed in an odd sort of way as he strove to control his reaction. He did not manage to dim the amusement in his eyes. "And this First Year--he saw you by the river, just as you saw him, so he understood why you were goading him into this bet?" he asked.

"I expect so," Legolas replied. "He did see me at the river, certainly. And he could not have misunderstood how I felt about what I saw. He knew I was courting Aewen and despite that he had been flirting with her himself. He has known for a while that it annoyed me."

The amusement faded from Thranduil's face to be replaced by open disapproval. "And he knew Aewen is even younger than you? Much younger than he?"

Legolas nodded.

Thranduil tossed the coin back to Legolas. "You may keep it. If the First Year asks for a chance to win it back, I suppose, to behave honorably, you must grant him that chance, but do not wager anything else beyond possession of that single coin, do not agree to a dangerous game for the bet and do not think that this is an invitation to gamble whenever you choose." He paused. "I still want to know the First Year's name. I want Glilavan to keep an eye on him to make sure that he does not want for anything while in the training program. I will not allow this incident to bring him or his parents hardship on top of humiliation."

Legolas kept his gaze lowered to try to hide his surprise. "I will find out his name," he assured his father. "But I have no use for this," he said, offering the coin back to him. "Keep it for the treasury or to help the First Year, if it comes to that. I will let you know if he challenges me again and I need it back."

That caused Thranduil to stare at him. "I was about to add that you need not salt the meat either, but, honestly, Legolas, do you know the value of that coin if you are so willing to give it up?"

"Of course I know the value of the coin, adar, but I also know there is nothing I can do with it. I do not travel to Dale or Esgaroth to buy anything with it. Even if I did, what do I need that you have not already given me?" He laughed. "And I can imagine your reaction if I used it to gamble with someone else. I do not think I would be foolish enough to make that mistake."

Thranduil smiled as well. "Nor do I," he said.  Then he grew more serious. "So you will not salt the meat as a consequence of the gambling, but I think you will still help with it to keep yourself out of trouble for the remainder of your holiday. Doing so can be one of the consequences for slipping Tulus. One of the consequences," Thranduil emphasized. "Another is that Tulus may no longer be your guard. I gave him the option of being relieved of that duty and told him to consider his answer before he gave it. If he chooses not to guard you, I am giving Belloth that duty, at least until you join the training program. And I will tell him why Tulus was relieved of that duty--because you betrayed Tulus's trust."

Legolas struggled to conceal his horror at the idea of Belloth--the sternest of all the King's guards--as his personal guard and he could not hide a grimace at his father's last statement. "I know that I betrayed his trust, adar, and I did apologize to him for that tonight when I spoke to him. I almost had to beg him to even listen to an apology, to be honest. He told me that you offered to relieve him of his duty to me and I believe he will accept that offer. He was well and truly angry."

"He was well and truly frightened," Thranduil replied. "Tulus is a father with a son who is a captain. A son who has been a warrior in the patrols his entire life. He understands my fears for you all too well. He shares them when you behave as you did with Aewen."

Legolas closed his eyes. "I know, adar. He told me."

Again there was a moment's silence.

"Langon tells me that you and your cousins have progressed a fair amount in your sword training, when you bother to focus on your lessons," Thranduil finally commented.

Legolas's gaze snapped back to his father, both in response to the unexpected change in subject and, most importantly, the implied criticism. "We take those lessons very seriously, adar. We do focus..."

"Except when ellyth are watching, so he told me," Thranduil interrupted, his voice stern. "He says that you have learned enough to be able to do some sparring now," he continued and waited for Legolas to confirm that statement with a nod. "Well, in that case, rather than sparring only with each other, which is of limited benefit because you have limited skill, I am going to ask who ever is your guard when you return to training after the festival to spar with you. And I am going to ask Langon to extend your lessons an extra hour every day to accommodate that exercise. I am doing this for two reasons. First, after this incident, you must earn the trust of whoever is guarding you. It will no longer be given automatically. Training together will help to build that trust if you demonstrate that you are serious, can focus and can work and fight together with your guard. That is something you will need to learn to do anyway, so better to start learning it sooner rather than later. Second, between your normal duties, salting meat and an extra hour of weapons training, you will have little time to find trouble, and that seems fair under the circumstances, does it not?"

"Yes, adar," Legolas agreed quietly. Belloth would be a very unpleasant partner in those matches. Very unpleasant indeed.

Thranduil stood, bringing Legolas to his feet as well. To his surprise, Thranduil drew him again into an embrace. "It will also give you little time to dwell on Aewen, and for the time being that might be a blessing. Talk to her, by all means. Try to make sure you at least remain friends, certainly. And take your time to determine if something more might happen between the two of you. If you think it might--if you truly want that and believe she could be persuaded to want it too--you may have to be very patience to overcome the last few days, but they could be overcome if you show her how much you care about her."

Legolas only nodded against his father's shoulder. He did want that, but whether Aewen would or not remained to be seen.

*~*~*
Birds chirped happily as Legolas walked through the forest. He cut in and out amongst the trees rather than sticking to a path and tried to focus on the songs of the forest rather than on the conversation he hoped to have with Aewen this morning, if she would speak to him at all.

As had happened the night before, Conuion took it upon himself this morning to escort Legolas to Aewen's cottage, but again as the night before, he kept his distance, guarding Legolas much like he guarded Thranduil--hidden amongst the leaves and branches. Since Legolas did not care for an audience to this conversation, that suited him fine.

He stepped out from amongst the trees into the side yard of Aewen's cottage. Her father, Dollion, was in the yard, repairing a trap. He stood to greet Legolas when he saw him, his eyes briefly scanning the trees as he stood. Legolas was impressed when his expression indicated that he had spotted Conuion. Legolas could not always find his father's guards himself. Of course, Dollion was a captain, so it stood to reason he could spot a warrior in the trees.

"Fair morning, Legolas," Dollion greeted him.

Legolas tried not to frown. Dollion's greeting had sounded a bit stiff. Legolas wondered how much Aewen's father knew about what happened. The idea that he might know anything made Legolas very uncomfortable. "Fair morning, Dollion," he responded. Then he looked at the cottage door. It was closed. "Is Aewen about? I would like to speak to her, if I could." His voice sounded normal, he thought. Normal enough.

Dollion remained silent a long moment before he spoke and Legolas had to make an effort to stand still. "I am not certain if I care to tell her that you are here, Legolas. She came home to me last night, crying, and your name was the only coherent word her naneth or I could get out of her."

Legolas looked down at his boots and wished he could sink into them or hide behind them. His own father was fairly well skilled at sounding disappointed. Apparently Thranduil could yet learn a thing or two from Dollion. "We quarreled," Legolas responded quietly. "I would like to apologize to her, if she is willing to listen to me."

Dollion nodded. "Very well, I will try to encourage her to do so. Just a moment," he said, turning and entering his cottage.

Legolas stood where he was in the yard without moving. He hated this. He hated what both Aewen and her parents must think of him right now. He just hoped he could fix it, at least to the extent that Aewen did not hate him.

After what seemed an eternity, the front door of the cottage opened again and Aewen stepped through it. As soon as she saw Legolas, her face turned red and she began to pick at the embroidery on the front of her gown. The yellow gown, Legolas noticed. His favorite, for the way its very full skirts twirled when she danced in it. He looked away, trying to banish such thoughts from his mind. She took a few steps into the yard and stopped. No one else came out of the cottage, but Legolas noticed that the door to the cottage remained open. Like it or not, they were being chaperoned.

He sighed. "Aewen, I want to apologize for the way I spoke to you last night," he said softly. "You were honest with me and that took courage and maturity. Rather than respecting that, I responded rudely. I know that my behavior hurt you and I truly regret that. I did not think before I spoke. If I had, I would have never, for all of Arda, said or done anything to hurt you. I hope that you will be able to forgive me so that we can still be friends. We have been friends all our lives and I would hate to lose your friendship because I behaved so badly."

Aewen listened to Legolas speak with her eyes closed and face turned towards the ground. When he finished, she cast a backwards glance at the open cottage door and began walking quickly down the path that led into the forest, motioning for Legolas to follow. He did. Aewen did not stop until they were surrounded by nothing but trees. Then she looked into their branches. "Where is Tulus?" she asked.

"Not with me," Legolas replied. "Conuion is, but he is keeping his distance."

Aewen seemed to relax a bit at that. Then she bit her lip. "Legolas," she started slowly, obviously not sure how to say what she wanted to say. "I owe you an apology too, of course," she finally managed. "Torthil...." that was as far as she got.

That was the First Year's name, Legolas thought, only barely recognizing it. He shook his head. "Torthil is truly none of my affair, Aewen, You owe me nothing," he said trying not to sound as if he did not care, but trying to sound respectful of her choices at the same time. This is impossible, he said to himself silently.

She closed her eyes again and her face screwed up as if she was about to cry.

Legolas had to stop himself from gathering her in his arms. He did not know how she would react to such a gesture.

"I did not want to..." she finally began, only to cut herself off. "I was just so upset about the camping trip and everything Maidhien said and then you just up and left the Green without even asking me to dance. So, when Torthil asked me, I went with him."

Legolas looked down at her, confused. He had not asked her to dance? She had refused to look at him when he tried!

"I never intended..." she continued, not noticing his expression, "I did not really...I do not know how we..." She frowned severely and tears welled up in her eyes. "But I wish I had not..."

Legolas stared at her, his whole body tense. If he found out that First Year cajoled Aewen in some way, or simply took some liberty assuming she would welcome it, he would...well he did not know what he would do, but he was fairly certain his father would not approve of it. "Aewen," he said in a very low voice when she finally gave up attempting to speak or hold back her tears. "Did Torthil...do...something...you were not...expecting...."

Aewen quickly shook her head without looking at him. Then she made a face and loosed a frustrated breath. "Well, of course I did not plan to...I barely know him...but I can see where he might have thought I did want...Oh, Legolas, I made a fool of myself, both with him and with you and, honestly, I am so embarrassed that I wish I never had to see either of you again." With that she turned to flee back to her cottage.

Legolas stopped her, catching her hand. "Aewen, please," he begged. "You did not make a fool of yourself. Not with me. And not with Torthil. I participated in a game with some of the First Years last night and Torthil spoke about how he truly thought you lovely and how he hoped that you would see him again once you had...spoken with me." Torthil had indeed said those things. He has been speaking to his friends while Legolas took his turns in the contest, obviously in an attempt to distract Legolas and cause him to miss his targets. It had only made Legolas more determined to win, but if those words made Aewen feel better--feel as if Torthil had not trifled with her or thought less of her--he would repeat them to her now.

Aewen's brows drew together, and she still would not meet Legolas's gaze, but she gave up trying to flee down the path.

"For my part," Legolas continued, "as I said, you were very brave to speak to me honestly about how you felt. If anything, I made a fool of myself by acting like a petulant child that could not have what he wanted. I do apologize. All I want is for us to still be friends. Please allow that."

She finally looked up at him.

"I swear, we never need to speak of anything that happened ever again and, I promise, I will respect your decision. But I do not want to lose your friendship," he pleaded.

Aewen nodded and threw her arms around his neck. "I do not want to lose yours either, Legolas," she whispered.

Legolas struggled not to react too stiffly or too familiarly to Aewen's embrace. What he truly longed to do--what he could barely keep himself from doing--was put his arms around her waist and draw her against him. Instead, he put his arms around her shoulders, comforting her as he might comfort Eirienil or Maidhien. After a moment, she pulled away and looked up at him sadly.

He reached to brush the tears off her face. "Your adar might hang me from a tree if he sees I made you cry again," Legolas said, with an attempt at levity.

Aewen smiled, sadly, wiping her face. "I fear I might have worried him last night."

They looked at each other for a long moment. Now that Legolas had said what he wanted to say, he had no idea what to do.

"I promised adar, since we are not camping, that I would set his trap lines for him. Do you want to come and help?" Aewen finally suggested.

"Of course I will," Legolas responded, trying to sound pleased to accompany her. Or at least to sound normal. What he really wanted to do was go ride one of the horses down the Path at too fast a speed or destroy a target on the archery range. But he did not want to seem uninterested in doing something--anything--with Aewen after begging for her friendship.

Aewen smiled at him and started back towards her cottage.

Legolas started to take her hand as they walked, but caught himself.

"You participated in one of the games last night?" she asked, looking at him side long. "You are a good archer. Did you beat many of the First Years? Torthil? Did you beat him?"

Legolas nodded, keeping his expression neutral. "I won, actually. I beat Torthil and all his friends."

A bright smile lit Aewen's face. Was it Legolas's imagination that she seemed as satisfied as he did? "Congratulations," she said.

He smiled back at her. "Thank you."

*~*~*

Legolas walked quickly towards the training fields. He and Aewen had set her father's traps. Then he had helped her gather firewood for their cottage and draw water from the river, since their rain barrel was running low. He had even sat and talked with her while she did her sewing. By the time he excused himself under the pretense of returning to the stronghold for lunch, he was as tense as he had ever felt. Remembering not to take Aewen's hand or look at her in certain ways or lean close to her...being her friend when what he really wanted to do was kiss her was going to be difficult. But his efforts had been rewarded. She seemed truly happy with him when he had finally left.

But he was not going to lunch. He had asked his father if he could miss the afternoon meal if he and his friends were busy elsewhere. Since today was supposed to be a holiday for him, Thranduil had agreed. Legolas had no idea where his cousins or friends were, but he needed to burn off some pent up frustration much more than he wanted to eat, so he headed towards the weapons shed on the training field. He did not take his bow with him to visit Aewen, naturally, and he did not want to go back to the stronghold to retrieve it now, for fear of being waylaid by something on the way. So he intended to borrow one of the spares from the shed and use it to destroy a target.

He had not seen Conuion all day, though he was certain he was still in the trees somewhere. He wondered how the captain of the king's guards felt spending the whole morning watching Legolas and Aewen do cottager's chores when he normally guarded the king in court. Then he wondered, a little guiltily, if, after doing that all morning, Conuion really wanted to spend the beginning of the afternoon watching him on the archery range.

"Conuion, you would tell me if you had something better to do and needed to return to the stronghold, would you not?" he called to the thin air.

"I have no more important duty than to guard the king's son," Conuion's voice drifted down to him. He sounded a bit teasing.

Legolas snorted and shook his head.

"And frankly the forest is a pleasant change from the stronghold," Conuion added.

 Legolas laughed at that. "Now we come to the truth of why you did not simply assign another guard to me. You wanted an escape yourself."

"Officer's privilege," Conuion replied.

Legolas grinned. "Well, I am going to take a few shots at a target. Join me if you wish. It would have to be better than watching," he called back.

"May I join you, Legolas?" another voice called. It was Tulus, striding quickly down the path that led from the Green. He must have seen Legolas approaching the training fields and was taking long strides to intersect with him now.

Legolas looked over at him, a little startled. He had spent a difficult morning trying not to appear tense with Aewen. He was not sure if he had the strength to do the same with Tulus, but he did not want to refuse him either. "Of course, Tulus," he responded, trying to sound normal when he felt anything but. He was becoming good at that.

Tulus smiled at him and then looked into the trees. Conuion leapt down from one of them and he and Tulus nodded to one another. "It seems my freedom in the forest was destined to be short-lived. I will return to my other duties then," Conuion said. He turned to Tulus. "Bring him in at least an hour before supper, as the King requested."

Tulus nodded and Legolas raised his eyebrows. He did not know his father had requested that he return to the stronghold so early.

Before he could ask about it, Conuion sketched a semblance of the bow he customarily offered Thranduil when leaving his presence. "I will see you this evening," he said, heading off towards the Green and the Gates.

Legolas's brows climbed even further at that. "Do you know why adar wants me home so early, or why Conuion seems to think he and I will be seeing each other again this evening?" he asked Tulus, hoping that the answer to his question would not be, 'because we must make arrangement for Belloth to be your guard.' If it was, Legolas wanted to be forewarned right now so he could destroy two targets.

Tulus's expression darkened. "The King and Conuion received some information related to the security of this realm last night and they wish to share it with you, Galithil and the rest of the King's guards," he responded.

Legolas's eyes widened, but he asked nothing more. The middle of the training fields was no place to talk about such things. Instead, he resumed his march to the weapons shed. As he walked, he pondered what matter of security his father would specifically discuss with he and his cousin rather than Hallion or his other advisors. He could think of nothing except a new assignment for Belloth. Perhaps that was the case and Tulus simply did not want to face him with his decision directly. But if that were true, why would Tulus have relieved Conuion now? Legolas sighed as he jerked open the door of the shed. Hopefully, shredding a target would prove to be a good distraction. He needed one.

"Could I perhaps persuade you to spar with me instead of practicing archery," Tulus asked, as Legolas reached for one of the spare bows. He put his hands on the hilts of two practice swords, pulling them slightly forward out of their rack ."I should like to see a bit better how you handle your sword before Langon is standing over us both. It might make that exercise a bit more pleasant," he concluded.

Legolas turned to face Tulus fully as the meaning of that question registered. "Am I correct in assuming that you have decided not to ask to be relieved of your duty to guard me then, Tulus," he asked cautiously.

Tulus nodded. "I would not want to forfeit this duty, Legolas. It may sound presumptuous of me, but I fear I have come to care too much about you to trust your safety to anyone else."

Legolas relaxed into a broad smile. "How can that possibly be presumptuous, Tulus?" he asked, reaching for the practice sword. "I am every bit as close to you as I am to my uncles. I am very relieved to hear your decision," he said, gesturing for Tulus to proceed him to the training yard. "Very relieved. Did you know adar intended to give me to Belloth to guard?"

Not unexpectedly, for Tulus always treated Legolas and his cousins deferentially, Tulus held the door open and stood aside, waiting for Legolas to proceed him. "I did," Tulus replied with a grin. "I care about you too much to allow that too," he said.

Shaking his head but still smiling, Legolas bounded out of the shed, giving the sword a few practice swings to warm up his muscles as he did. Things were not exactly as he would have liked them, but they were, at least, getting better.

*~*~*

Maidhien sat at her family's dining table, a large book in front of her. With her father's pack and belongings also strewn on the table, she barely had room for the paper and ink Rodonon had given her. She was trying to write the lesson he had set for her, looking carefully at the book to make sure she was properly spelling the strange Mannish words. It was difficult to concentrate as her father dumped item after item on the table next to her, threatening to spill the valuable ink onto the precious book. She held the jar with one hand to prevent that, making writing on her paper with the other even more difficult. With a loud sigh, she gave up. She capped the ink and watched her father stuff shirts and leggings into his pack.

"How long are you going to be gone?" she asked with an exasperated tone when what seemed like a dozen shirts had been stowed away.

"I do not know," Dannenion responded. "It will be a pleasure to be free to be gone as long as I wish and I intend to enjoy that."

"I do not see why you will not take me," Anastor muttered, leaning against the hearth with his arms crossed over his chest.

"I told you that  your uncle and I will be taking care of business that is none of your concern. We do not need to worry about children getting themselves into trouble while we are doing it," Dannenion snapped back at him.

"You do not want witnesses," Maidhien said under her breath.

"What did you say?" Dannenion demanded, turning narrowed eyes on her.

Maidhien pressed her lips together, belatedly remembering the King's warning that she not challenge her father or involve herself any more than she could avoid in their feud.

"I asked you what you said," Dannenion repeated, leaning over the table so that his face was even with hers.

"I was practicing pronouncing my vocabulary words," she lied, pointing at the list of Westron words on the paper in front of her. "Who are you visiting in the south?" If he told her a name, she would ask Galithil if he recognized it. Despite the King's order that she not meddle in this affair, she found it impossible not to. She hoped that while her father might hate the King, he would not truly act against him. Unfortunately, she could not make herself believe that. So she could not stop herself from looking for signs of what he might be plotting.

"Old friends," Dannenion answered standing up. "Ones I have not seen in many years since Thranduil has seen fit to hold me prisoner here your entire life." He took her paper and looked over it. "Your pronunciation leaves much to be desired," he concluded, letting the paper fall back to the table. "Mind your own business more carefully and leave me to mine." He paused for emphasis. "And I suspect you would be wise to gossip less with your betrothed, as well," he said, his tone clearly a warning. "He could not possibly know everything you may think he knows."

She made a face at him--the same face she always made when he scolded her--but rather than holding his gaze while she did it, she looked at her book. "Be certain that I will speak to him as I wish," she replied.

Dannenion glared at her, picked up his pack and stalked from the cottage without another word.

"What was that about?" Anastor asked, looking from their father's receding back to her.

She shook her head and opened her book again. "Nothing. Do not get between us," she said, gesturing with her chin at their father. "It would mean nothing but trouble for you. And this trouble is serious."

"Whatever is between you, how much trouble does it mean for you?" Anastor asked in reply, sitting across from her at the table and fixing her with a demanding glare.

"No more than I can handle," she answered back. Then she focused fully on her lesson.

*~*~*

Tulus stood in front of the door to his cottage, blocking Glilivan's path out into the yard, where music from the Green sounded merrily. "I want you to listen to me," he said sternly.

Glilivan scowled, stopped trying to dodge around his father, and put his hands on his hips. "I heard you, adar. I told you that it does not matter to me."

"It matters to me, ion nin. He has reached the end of his tolerance for this. He is setting a trap for the lot of them and when it is sprung, I do not want you in it. I want your word that you are not involved..."

"I told you, this trap does not concern me. Is that not enough for you?"

Tulus shook his head. "No, it is not. It sounds like one of your half truths, but I will not allow that this time. I am in no position to turn a blind eye to it. But you are my only son. My only family in all of Arda. Do not think I will lose you too. Now give me your word. Say it."

Glilivan rolled his eyes dramatically and shoved past his father. He flung open the door and rushed out of their yard without pause.

*~*~*

Adar/ada--Father/dad
Naneth/nana--Mother/mum
Elleth/ellyth--Female elf/elves
Ellon/ellyn--Male elf/elves

AN: That is the end of Part 7. I hope to continue soon with the next part, which takes in the same year as this one. It will be called Journeys through Shadow and Flame (note the date of this story and it might ring a bell as a significant one). Thanks so much for reading!





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