Leindir returned Aphador's salute and took the roll of parchment he presented. Turning back towards the river, he continued to watch his wife.

She was speaking to Belem, the commander of the relief force. Leindir knew his wife well enough to hear what she was saying in his mind.

"Your men performed well…. Good soldiers… We were fortunate to have you come to our aid…". Small talk, even if it was true, but it wasn't Belem his wife wanted to talk to.

He watched carefully for a reaction from the man. Usually not an easy task at 75 paces, but even at that distance it was clear. Belem was a professional soldier, and he gave a short response, one or two words, along with a quick bow of his head to show respect. Not a man to be overwhelmed by a diplomatic charm.

"Did you find out what I needed?" Leindir directed this question to his aide without removing his eyes from his wife.

"Yes Commander. I noted what I have learned in the report."

No doubt he had. Aphador had been with him since….

By the light, had it been that long? They had stood together at the Black Gate and survived the siege of Barad Dur. Three-thousand years then.

"Thank you old friend. I will read it as soon as I have the time." Aphador saluted and left.

Arawel was now walking down the river bank with the large, silver haired lad. Leindir had counseled against what his wife had planned, not that he didn't understand the need for it. Galadwen wasn't their child, but she had been placed in their care by her father and he expected that this trust would be repaid by keeping a good eye on her. If she returned to Lorien smitten with some human boy, that would not reflect well on himself or his wife.

Arawel was walking with the giant now. "This can go nowhere", she was probably saying. "She is immortal and you will leave her lonely and broken hearted for an eternity," or words to that effect.

He watched the youngster absorb this with quiet, attentive patience. No juvenile displays of angst then. Not that Leindir expected that from Earendil. Even the name gave him away. The blood of Numenor ran in that lad, and fairly pure blood, if he had to guess. Only the Valar knew how he came to be 17 hands tall, however.

The pair stopped walking, and the giant turned to face his wife. "She's not going to like this response", Leindir thought. He tried to imagine what the lad was saying.

"Go to Morgoth?" Leindir laughed to himself at this. That wasn't this lad's style, although he'd buy the first man to say that to his wife a barrel of the finest dwarven ale just for having the nerve. Well, he'd buy it when Arawel wasn't there, of course.

The giant was leaning slightly forward now. Whatever he was saying, he wanted his words to be understood clearly. Leindir ran other possibilities through his head.

He settled on, "It's none of your damn business," though probably phrased more gracefully.

Whatever he said, Arawel seemed willing to accept it, or at least not pursue it further at this time. The boy placed his pack on the ground, and drawing something from it, handed it to his wife. She took it, but he didn't let go, instead speaking earnestly for several seconds. It was Arawel's turn to listen now, and she appeared to be paying close attention.

Finally he released whatever he was holding and took a step backwards rendering a crisp, military salute. Leindir stared closely. He had been a soldier for millennia, and a salute could mean so much. Straining his eyes, he tried to catch the details.

Not an open hand, a fist over the heart. Not a good start. An open hand showed that you didn't look on the other as an opponent, showed you held no weapon. He dipped his head noticeably as he saluted, so respect was given. That was good, but did he close his eyes as he did it? Leindir wasn't certain, but he didn't think so.

This all told a story. We are not friends, but I respect you. I don't however, trust you enough to close my eyes around you. Leindir had told his wife that lad wouldn't be cowed, but he had learned a lot through 33 centuries of marriage. There would be no, "I told you so".

His wife was talking to a soldier now, probably pointing out where she wanted her tent pitched. The lad was heading off towards Long Lake carrying his pack and staff. Leindir knew his wife would wait for the pavilion they shared to be erected, offering her the privacy to talk uninterrupted with her husband, so he turned and stepped back inside his command tent.

Pouring some water into a pewter mug, he quenched his thirst and unrolled the report Aphador had prepared. Much of the information was of little use. Earendil's mother was almost certainly not the Witch King, didn't consort with demons in the forest on the summer solstice, or poison her ale to make dwarves fall in love with her. But not all of the information was this trite. He read it over and prepared to answer his wife's questions.

The sun was dropping towards the distant mountains when his summons came. Aphador announced himself before entering and informed his Commander that Lady Arawel was asking to meet with him. It seemed a formal way to go visit one's wife, but formalities were important when the military and political had to coexist, even if the military had been married to the political since the middle of the second age.

Looking over the report one last time, he tucked it into his belt and walked the 100 paces to the large tent he and his wife shared at night. Belem was stepping out through the door as Leindir arrived and saluted as he approached the taller elf. A closed hand, Leindir noted, returning the salute with a dip of his head and an open palm across his heart.

"He may not trust me yet", Leindir thought, "but he did save my life, and possibly the lives of everyone in my command. I owe him a sign of thanks for that."

"I trust you have received supplies for your men and horses, Commander?" Belem was not tall and had begun to develop a bit of a paunch. He wasn't the image one had of a life long, hardened soldier, but Leindir had watched him closely over the past two days. he carried himself with authority and was respected by his men.

Leindir nodded. "Yes Captain. I thank you for what you have provided. I know you have little to spare as this mission came upon you suddenly."

The man shook his head. "I assure you, it is not an issue. Your wounded are well?"

"In that regard I will be forever in your debt. Many of my soldiers survived their wounds because of your aid. The giant lad under your command is a gifted healer and I could not ask for better care. Where did you come across such skill in these parts?" It was a sincere enough statement of thanks, but if Leindir garnered another small piece of information about the giant, all the better.

Perhaps Belem smiled a little as he answered. "He has been the center of quite a bit of interest over the past two days."

The Captain knew of his interest in the boy. An attentive man.

"He is not under my command, in the truest sense," the soldier replied. "I would have him in the royal guard in an instant, had he come of age yet."

This surprised Leindir. "How old is the boy?"

"Fifteen, Commander. His birthday is still some months off, in mid summer, at which time I will press to have him inducted into the guard." The man sighed deeply. "I already know he will turn me down."

Leindir was stunned. He knew the lad was young, but it would seem that he was not yet even fully grown. That was a bit frightening.

"As to where he gained his skills," the Captain continued, "That would be from his mother."

"His mother is a healer?"

Belem laughed. "Not that you don't already know this from the good Aphador, but she owns perhaps the most popular tavern in Dale. Her ale will heal you of many things, but a wound from a goblin's sword is not one of them."

The Captain must have see a reaction from the elf at the mention of Aphador, and he lifted both hands in a gesture of apology. "Do not concern yourself that I consider your interest in the boy intrusive. I have been having words with the lad myself, and I assume your wife and I did so for the same reason."

Leindir reminded himself not to underestimate this man. This one knew everything that happened within his command.

"He has had eyes for that golden haired lass in your party since he cared for her after the battle. Galadwen is her name I believe. An aide to your wife?"

Leindir had not been the only one snooping, it seemed.

Belem again read the Commander's face. "I asked Bellamdir about her when I noted how smitten young Earendil seemed. If he spoke out of turn, don't be too harsh on your scout. If anyone should be thanked for saving your command, it is he."

Leindir made note of that. "I will ensure he is recognized, Captain. Thank you."

"At any rate, the boy will not be bothering you for a week at least. I sent him north to Dale to inform the king concerning the success of the mission."

This was not the first time royalty had been mentioned in the conversation and Leindir was confused. "I'm sorry for my ignorance, Captain Belem, but I thought Laketown had an elected Master?"

Belem nodded. "That is does, Commander. But the troops you see are not of Esgaroth. Other than a dozen boatsmen the Master generously loaned the expedition, we are the entirety of King Bard of Dale's personal guard. And one young barkeep," he added with a smile.

Leindir could tell by the tone in Belem's voice that he held some animosity towards the Master of Esgaroth. This would complicate his wife's diplomatic mission, he was sure. "Bard has declared himself king?"

The Captain nodded. "Aye, as is his right as the descendant of Lord Girion of Dale."

"His being of the line of Girion certainly entitles him to Lordship," Leindir agreed, before adding, "although slaying Smaug would seem claim enough."

Belem laughed loudly at this. "It does at that good elf. It does at that."

The Captain saluted once more, this time, Leindir noted, with an open palm and closed eyes. It was good that trust was being earned. "Your wife is expecting you, and has asked me to locate her handmaiden. I hope we will get to drink together some time Commander. I believe it would be good for the both of us to get to understand each other."

Leindir returned the salute in the same form. "I would be honored to join you Captain."

With that, the Captain left, walking at a brisk pace towards the lake. Leindir turned back to the tent flap, announcing himself by clearing his throat.

"Come."

His wife had her back to him as he entered, a small glass in her hand of what he assumed was wine. The cask it was drawn from was several paces beyond her on a low table. It was of a truly exquisite vintage, and was meant to be for toasting their hosts once they had reached Esgaroth. That she had tapped it was not a good sign.

Arawel took a sip from her glass. "Bard has declared as King of Dale, did you know that?"

"I just found out," Leindir replied.

Arawel continued. "Bellamdir reported that upon his arrival Bard and the Master of Esgaroth were in discussions as to how trade from the Lonely Mountain would be divided. Bellamdir feels there is considerable strain between the two men."

"I got the same feeling speaking with Captain Belem," Leindir confirmed.

"What did the Captain say?"

Leindir walked past his wife and poured himself a modest glass of wine. "It was not what he said, but in his tone. Did you know that the master sent no troops to our aid? Only the boatsmen are of Esgaroth." Turning to face his wife, he sipped the wine. It was a good vintage.

Arawel nodded. "The Master first asked what the Lady of the Golden Wood would grant him, should he choose to help her emissary? As I had told Bellamdir to grant whatever demands were made in order to secure aid, he was about to submit to any request, when Bard interjected."

Arawel drained her glass and walked to the table. Refilling her cup, she continued the story. " 'I am far from my court, and have only my personal guard', said the King of Dale, 'but as that is all I have, I offer it freely. Such requests as I have will be modest, and should the Lady of the Woods deem them unreasonable, I shall retract them.' "

Leindir shrugged. "That seems very commendable of King Bard."

Arawel smiled. "My beloved. You are dearest to me, but sometimes I think you can only see the trees immediately in front of you."

Leindir remained silent. 3300 years of marriage a taught him when to remain silent.

Arawel explained. "Since Bard re-founded his kingdom three months ago, I am told nearly a third of Laketown has departed for Dale, or for farmland in it's sway. The Master is rapidly losing his tax base. Furthermore, Bard is great friends with Dain Ironfoot and is likely to become the controlling force where trade with Erebor is concerned. So the Master sees the loss of trade revenue as well." Arawel shook her head.

"Perhaps Bard is as noble as he seems," she continued, "but he is in a struggle for control of the trade from Erebor and in reality, for all the men living within what used to be the Kingdom of Dale." Arawel looked pointedly at her husband. "That, my sweet, includes Esgaroth. The goodwill of the Lady Galadriel would be a tremendous boon for him. He shames the Master while the lord of Laketown sits in his own council chamber, generously offering his personal guard to elves he has never met. News of this will slip out into the city, and the tale of his nobility and generosity will further erode the support of the Master, elected or not."

Leindir was beginning to see why his wife had opened the good wine, and his second glass was more generous than his first.

Thinking through it out loud, Leindir said, "So Bard is either so noble and kind that he will win over the people of Laketown and force a confrontation between himself and the ruling council of Esgaroth, or he is so politically manipulative that the result will be the same." Leindir took a deep draw from his cup. "And if the Galadhrim wish to deal with Dale, Esgaroth or Erebor, we will have to pick a side."

His wife nodded. "That is a part of it. Dain will have to pick a side as well, as will Tharanduil and our cousins in the Woodland Realm."

With this, Arawel waved her hand towards a scroll case lying near the cask. "By the way, the giant was in possession of the replies from both the Master and King Bard." Another sip of wine. "Bard outmaneuvered the Master in this as well. Calling for quill and ink, he wrote his response directly there in the council room, and without revealing what he wrote placed it in that case. Then he passed the quill to the master. 'Come, we will seal them and send them together', said the king, without revealing what he wrote."

Leindir chuckled softly. "So the master was forced to respond without knowing whether his political adversary was being magnanimous or demanding, but ensuring that they would be read together and a direct comparison made."

Arawel nodded. "Was he demanding too much, or letting an opportunity slip through his fingers? The Master didn't know, but he knew enough to ask Bellamdir whether his demands would be taken seriously."

The Commander groaned, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Let me guess. Fine Bellamdir didn't answer diplomatically."

"If by diplomatically you mean he didn't lie, then you are correct. He answered as I had told him, that if aid were sent, we would honor any demand, were in our power to do so."

Leindir signed. "What were the demands?"

"See for yourself," she said, nodding to the table once again.

Leindir saw the scroll case lying open near the cask, two seals broken, the ribbon that had held it shut having been torn through them. Both in red wax, the first seal bore a boat with many oars, the second was a tower with a single arrow centered upon it.

The contents of the case lay alongside, and Leindir picked them up. The first was written in a flowing script, the letters easily discernible, but not perfectly formed. It was from Bard, King of Dale, and bore his signature at the bottom. He asked for 500 elven longbows, of fine quality, and the training needed to use them so that he might more effectively defend his people. He also asked for a permanent ambassador from Lothlorien, so that the two realms could remain in contact and become friends. Beyond that he asked only that other exchanges of culture and trade be negotiated with the memory of the aid he had freely given.

Leindir was impressed. No real demands, and the requests he made were reasonable and showed a King looking for security and friendship.

Picking up the second piece of parchment, he read again. This script was perfect in form and size. "A scribe wrote this on behalf of the Master," thought Leindir. Reading further, the Commander shook his head.

"As you can see, the Master took Bellamdir at his word," Arawel said dryly, seeing her husband's reaction.

That seemed certainly to be the case. In exchange for sending troops to relieve the besieged force: Exclusive rights to trade between Lothlorien and Gondor, acknowledgement of Esgaroth's right to direct control over all trade from Long Lake down the River Running, support for the position that the dominion of Dale should be limited to the northern shore of Long Lake and two dozen Mallorn saplings with guidance as to their care and nurturing.

"The Master is mad if he thinks our Lady would allow Mallorn trees to be taken from Lorien," Leindir stated flatly. "And it looks like the Galadhrim will be dragged into this trade war whether we like it or not."

Arawel nodded her agreement over the lip of her glass. "And you wondered why I broke open the cask of fine wine?"

Leindir laughed. "You know me so well, beloved. I am sure you will find a way to turn this in our favor. Perhaps things went better with the lad?"

Arawel snorted. "Bah! I saw you watching, and you can guess how that went."

Leindir wasn't about to guess any such thing, so his wife continued. "I pointed out that he would be old and dead before she had begun to even begin her life, that this would leave her heartbroken and despondent. I further pointed out that his involvement with her would complicate the relationship between Lothlorien and the men of the lake." Another deep sip from her cup. "Perhaps you could remind me whether you counseled me to follow that line of reasoning?"

Leindir said nothing.

"Well I do remember," she snapped, frustrated at not being able to goad her husband into the fight.

Another sip, and she continued the tale. "'I will take your words under advisement, My Lady', he said, and then, leaning over me like I was a schoolgirl receiving instruction, he had the gall to tell me that I didn't have the measure of that girl's strength, that I should trust her instincts and allow her to grow as a woman." Arawel downed the remainder of her glass, and went back to the cask.

Leindir nodded, silently giving himself credit for getting it right. The lad had told his wife to mind her own damn business, and had done so with diplomacy. "What did he have to say about the demand letters he handed you?"

"I knew you had your eye on me, hushband"

Leindir looked his wife over carefully. How many glasses was that?

"I have to give the lad shum credit," she continued. "He told me he was a loyal servant of King Bard of Dale, and that he would understand if I distrusted his opinion conshering the master of Laketown."

Arawel was rapidly draining her glass yet again, and had begun to eye the cask once more. "Six glasses, perhaps more", thought Leindir.

"On his word as a man of Dale, he said, we should not trust anything the Mashter said. His mind was always on coin, and the power that came with coin." Arawel peered into the empty glass and made let out a disappointed sigh. "Could you pour me another glash, beloved? I am so tired I am feeling a bit unshteady."

Leindir stepped forward and took the wine glass from his wife. "Of course my dear," he lied, taking her gently by the arm. "I can see you can barely stand in your weariness." Leading her around the folding screen used to add some privacy to the sleeping area, he guided her gently to the bed. "Perhaps you should sit, dearest. I wouldn't want you to fall from exhaustion."

Sitting unsteadily on the edge of her bed, Arawel began to remove her boots as Leindir began clearing up the rest of the tent.

"May we enter?" It was a male voice, and sounded like Captain Belem. "I have Galadwen with me as the lady Arawel requested."

Leindir winced. This was most certainly not the right time.

"My handmaiden is with you?" Arawel called from the back of the tent.

"Yes my lady".

"Well show the little temptress in."

Leindir shuddered. This was not going to turn out well at all.