Disclaimer: Not mine.

Author's Note: Here it is at last, the sequel to The Art of Artifice. I strongly recommend reading that and Doubt before you read this, or a lot of it won't make sense.

Summary: There is politics in court and danger out of it, and the Elves of Mirkwood must cope with whatever comes.


Loyalties

Part I: Who Held the Knife?

Feredir hissed when he unwrapped the bandage and saw the wound. "What happened?"

"Nothing extraordinary." Legolas forced himself not to respond too quickly. It would only make him suspicious. "I was careless."

"Legolas."

"I let one of the spiders get too near." Only years of experience in his father's court let Legolas keep his voice even. And it was not untrue, after all. It was simply… not the full truth. "It is only a minor scratch, Feredir. It is not even infected. It is a lesson to me to be more watchful, no more."

"It is certainly a lesson to be watchful." Feredir's hands fell away from Legolas' shoulder. He came around to stand in front of him. "And it is not infected." His eyes not leaving Legolas', he raised his voice. "Barahel, please find Lord Saeldur and the Prince's guards and tell them to come here at once. There is no need to say anything to anybody else."

The young elleth who had been sorting piles of dried herbs at a table in the corner scrambled to her feet, bobbed a curtsy in Legolas' direction, and scurried out. Feredir waited for the door to shut behind her before he crossed his arms in open disapproval.

"Do you take me for a fool?" he asked coolly.

Legolas' cheeks heated, but he met Feredir's gaze squarely. "I do not know what you are talking about."

"What happened?"

"I was careless."

Feredir's eyes narrowed. "Have it your way. We will wait."

The wait was a short one. Barahel must have put some fear into Saeldur, Eredhion and Voronwë, because they ran into the room on each other's heels, barely pausing to knock and looking as though they expected to find Legolas dying.

Saeldur was the first to stop, glance from Legolas to Feredir's grim face, and relax.

"From your message," he said, patting Legolas' uninjured shoulder, "I expected to find myself slipping in a pool of blood as soon as I entered the room. Next time you might want to be specific, Feredir. I can live quite well without the drama of being made to believe that my commanding officer is at death's door."

"He will be, if he will not learn to be sensible."

"What, this?" Saeldur glanced at Legolas' stitched-up injury. "It is not serious, is it?"

"If you are asking whether it is likely to heal without complications, yes. It will heal. But it is serious. Have you had the reports from the warriors who were with Legolas?"

"Yes, I have."

"What did they say?"

Saeldur glanced at Legolas for permission. Legolas gave it with a nod. This was happening; since he could not prevent it, he might as well get it over with.

"They found the nest," Saeldur said, as Voronwë came up to Legolas' other side and examined the cut. Legolas felt disconcertingly outflanked. "They destroyed the spiders. Only minor injuries, which were dealt with immediately after they eliminated the nest. No complications."

"You see?" Legolas snapped. "It is as I told you." He started to get to his feet. "I am expected in Council –"

Saeldur caught Legolas' shoulder and kept him sitting. "Council is not for another hour."

"You can discuss with us now." Feredir's gaze was unrelenting. "Or I will send for the King and you can discuss it with him. The choice is yours."

"Are you truly threatening to complain of me to my father?" Legolas asked, incredulous. "I am not a child!"

"You are not a child," Feredir agreed. "You are the prince of the realm and the heir to the throne. When you return injured from a battle and refuse to give me a satisfactory account of how it happened, I think it is a matter for the King."

"I was careless. It was –"

"Legolas," Feredir interrupted, "I daresay you were careless, but that is not everything. I have not been a healer all these years without learning to tell a knife wound from a spider bite. It was no spider that did that to you." He paused. "Tell me I am wrong."

Legolas felt his cheeks heating again.

"It could easily have been a fatal blow," Voronwë commented, before Legolas could say anything. His fingers traced the line of the injury. "An inch lower, an inch to the right, and you would not be having this conversation with us."

"Too small an entry wound for an Orc's weapon," Saeldur went on. "And for most swords Men would carry. Too small for a sword an Elf would carry, if it comes to that. What happened, Legolas? Did you turn your back on an armed enemy?"

"The newest novice should know better," Eredhion commented. "I find it difficult to believe that the commander of the King's archers did not."

Saeldur's hand tightened on Legolas' shoulder. "Legolas, please."

Legolas sighed. "Very well. Yes. It was a knife. It was an accident," he went on quickly. "There is no need to discuss it any further."

Voronwë glanced at Saeldur. "You know who went with him?"

"I do," Saeldur said grimly.

Legolas scowled at them. "I will not have you terrorizing my archers! It was an accident. It is done."

"Terrorizing them? Legolas, one of them stabbed you –"

"Unintentionally!"

"Even if it was unintentional," Saeldur said, "the archer in question is going to be spending several weeks having additional training with Lord Maeglad."

"And the matter does not end there." Eredhion took a step forward. "This is not the first time that somebody has attempted your life."

"There is no harm done. There is no need to overreact."

"If Voronwë and I had overreacted the first time, this might not have happened again. Who was it, Legolas?"

"Legolas." Saeldur dropped to one knee to look Legolas in the eye. "You know that, one way or another, we must learn the truth. If it was an accident, we must make certain is not an accident that is repeated. If it was not an accident…" Saeldur sighed. "We will deal with that as we must. I find this as distasteful as you do, but we cannot risk your safety."

"So you will not take my word for it."

"I know you. You are always willing to believe the best of everyone. That is admirable, and it is why the archers try so hard to give you their best, but not everyone deserves to be trusted."

"If I cannot trust my archers, whom should I trust?"

"Legolas," Eredhion said tersely, "with or without your leave, we are going to find out who was responsible and speak to them. When it comes to your safety, Voronwë and I do not answer to you. We will do what we must, even if you disapprove."

"Please, Legolas." Saeldur's voice and the hand gripping Legolas' knee said he was in deadly earnest. "I will help them as I can – yes, I will. I will not risk your life, even if that means I must stand before the King's Council for insubordination." He bowed his head. "Please, please do not make me disobey you, Legolas."

Legolas stared at his friend. He had expected Eredhion and Voronwë to react as they had, certainly, but he had hoped that Saeldur would support him. Saeldur knew better than anybody that the archers were unflinchingly loyal to Legolas.

"Legolas, please."


Thranduil was only half listening to Ellaurë and Arbellason.

They had come to his study to discuss an escort for the delegation of Men who had asked for and been given leave to visit the Elven stronghold. But, as with most discussions with his senior commanders over the past few days, the conversation had soon turned to the upcoming court. There was nothing to be said that had not been said a hundred times before.

Most of Thranduil's attention was on the closed door. Legolas must have returned – he had been expected earlier in the afternoon. But he had not been in to see him yet, and Thranduil had not had a moment free to go find him.

He hoped all was well.

"I think both Council and court will ultimately vote in favour of allowing healers on the battlefield," Arbellason was saying.

With some effort, Thranduil dragged his mind back to the conversation.

"If they can satisfy the weapons masters of their fitness," Ellaurë interjected.

"If, as you say, they can satisfy the weapons masters." Arbellason sighed. "It would have been better for all of us if Calathiel had never thought of this."

"I would not say so," said Thranduil. He glanced at the door, and then at his companions. "It would have been less difficult, certainly. But any difficulty we have is because we cannot decide what is right, and that is not a difficulty that should be avoided."

Arbellason dipped his head in acknowledgement before saying, "And what about the escort for the Men?"

Fortunately, Thranduil was saved from having to answer by a knock on the door.

"Come," he called.

The door opened to reveal Legolas.

Thranduil's eyebrows went up at the sight. Legolas had washed up and changed his browns and greens for a formal tunic, but no amount of washing up could hide the exhaustion in his face.

"I hardly thought eliminating a few spiders would be that tiring," Ellaurë commented, voicing Thranduil's thoughts.

Legolas laughed, tired but genuine. "It has been a long day, my lady."

"Sit, then," Arbellason said, pushing out a chair for Legolas. "Have some wine, and tell us about it."

"There is nothing to tell, my lord," Legolas said, taking the offered seat and accepting the cup Thranduil pushed across the table at him. "And it is nothing that need worry you."

Thranduil exchanged a glance with Arbellason. That answer normally meant Legolas had been arguing with one of his friends. That was not worrying in itself, especially considering that they had all been under a great deal of strain. But with court coming up…

Thranduil shook his head slightly. Whatever their private disagreements, Legolas' friends would always support him in public. Of that he was certain.


"What were you thinking?" Saeldur growled.

Míron's eyes gleamed. "So it worked? What happened?"

"Legolas says it was an accident. But it is unlikely – the archers are too well trained. And if I know that, you can be certain that the Royal Guard knows it as well. But… You persuaded one of the archers to betray him? That is impossible! They are all too loyal to Legolas."

"Who is more loyal than you are, Saeldur?" Míron smiled, patting Saeldur's shoulder. Saeldur resisted the urge to flinch at his touch. "Perhaps I have persuaded one of the archers what is in the best interests of the realm – just as I persuaded you. Did you think of that?"

"Did you?"

"No." Míron shrugged. "One of our… allies… knows a great deal about the effects of herbs."

Saeldur's blood ran cold, but he kept his voice even as he said, "One of your friends is a healer."

"One of our friends, Saeldur. You are one of us now, are you not?"

"Of course. One of our friends."

"I cannot tell you her name, of course, just as I cannot tell her yours. It is safest if everyone knows as little as possible, in the event that one of us is found out and persuaded to betray the others."

"Of course," Saeldur said tightly.

"In any case," Míron went on, "she told us it would reduce coordination and possibly induce hallucinations. What we wanted was to test whether the effects would be strong enough that the one who took them would be incapable of defending himself." Míron shrugged. "We certainly were not expecting Húrphen to strike Legolas, but it is as well – at least that will deflect some suspicion in his direction. But we cannot do it again. It is too risky. Our aim is to kill Legolas, not to compromise the defence of the realm."

"Of course not," Saeldur got out.

"Good. And Legolas thinks it was an accident." Míron scoffed. "If he is such a fool, he deserves to die. And I notice nobody is hammering on my door to take me to the dungeons."

"Why would anybody suspect you?"

Míron smiled. "Why, indeed. You understand – I had to be certain. Unlike Legolas, you are not a fool, so I knew you would see my hand behind any incident that took place on this little spider-hunting quest. I had to know you would not go straight to Legolas – or to the King."

"And now you know."

"Now I know… And you had best leave, Saeldur. We should not be seen together."

Saeldur left, fingers clenching into fists as he made his way down the corridor. Legolas' orders or not, he had to speak to Húrphen.


Legolas' arm and shoulder were aching again as Council drew to an end, the effect of Feredir's draughts wearing off. He was relieved when the King dismissed them, only half-listening to his lecture about maintaining a united front in court.

He would dearly have liked to go to bed. The next day would not be easy for anyone. But he had no doubt that there was a pile of correspondence waiting on his desk, and it could not be left unseen. Although Calathiel's request was likely to be the highlight of the day, and take up most of the court's time, it was certainly not the only thing scheduled.

He made quick work of most of it, setting aside what could be handled by Istuion and scribbling quick responses to what needed his personal attention. There was another request from Norgalad for Legolas to accompany him to the Mannish settlements in the East. He seemed to think Legolas' presence honoured the leaders of the Men and consequently gave Norgalad better bargaining ability.

Legolas usually enjoyed visits to the towns of Men – he had met enough of them in Imladris that their odd habits were no longer a surprise. But he could think of few things he would enjoy less than spending the better part of a week listening to Norgalad talking.

Legolas put it aside as well, hoping he could find an excuse not to go.

He had just finished with the last of the papers when there was a sharp rap on the door, followed immediately by the entry of Lord Thorontur.

"My lord." Legolas got to his feet. "Is there something wrong?"

"Are you all right?"

"I am perfectly well. Why would I not be?"

To Legolas' astonishment, Thorontur took him by the shoulders to look him over.

"My lord," Legolas said carefully, "what –"

"Feredir told me you had taken an injury, and he seemed worried – but it does not look so terrible."

"It is not serious," Legolas said, stepping away. "Surely Feredir must have told you that."

Thorontur laughed, short and sharp. "If you think so… It is not pleasant in my home at the moment, Legolas. Calathiel is unhappy with me, Feredir is unhappy with her and tries not to show it, and angry with me and does show it. Celebwen thinks we are all fools and Melda has been avoiding everyone."

"I am sorry to hear that, my lord."

"I suppose I brought some of it on myself – Feredir's anger, at least. Legolas, you know I never meant to suggest – I would not – you know I would never risk your life lightly."

"I never supposed you would, my lord."

Thorontur shook his head. "Thranduil could not possibly understand. He worries for you – I worry for you – but you are one of the finest warriors in the realm. Neither of us could protect you better than you can protect yourself. But Calathiel and Feredir – and Melda, if it should come to that…"

"They are not warriors," Legolas said. "I understand your concern."

"No matter what happens in court tomorrow, Legolas, I am proud of you, and of everything you have done. Know that."


What did you think? Good? Bad? Please review!