Disclaimer: Not mine.

Author's Note: I've been AWOL for a while. A lot of things happened – I quit my job, moved cities, and realized I needed a mental health break to recover from a very difficult couple of years.

And maybe that's why all my previous attempts at settling things between the Elves after Dusk just didn't seem to work? But I think this does. I hope you enjoy!

For anyone following The Morning of Our Days, don't worry – the next chapter is almost done and will be up soon.

Summary: The Fourth Age is not as peaceful as it appears. The Elven presence is not universally welcomed by everyone in Gondor. The joyful Mannish world is full of signs of mortality. And then one of Legolas' friends is taken captive by Men. Sequel to Dusk and Dawn… and everything else that makes up the arc.

You probably need to have read at least Dusk and Dawn to make sense of this. (Also, as soon as I have the next chapter of The Morning of Our Days up, I'll post a chronological timeline on my profile, because I realize at this point it's impossible to track the order of the fics.)


The Peace of the Fourth Age

Legolas

The sight of Aragorn talking with his son brings a smile to Legolas' face – and a pang to his heart. From where Legolas sits, perched on the balcony railing of the room Aragorn's household steward always keeps for him, he has a clear view of the Queen's Garden below.

Aragorn is chortling as he speaks, hands waving in excitement.

He is as tall and broad of shoulder as he was when they fought together on the Pelennor Fields, his laughter merrier than it ever was then, and yet there is no denying the threads of white in his hair and the lines the years have etched on his face.

If this is the gift of the One…

"I know," Elrohir says quietly beside Legolas. "I never realized it myself until I saw them together. Estel is not old, but he is no longer a young man either. And that… means something different for Men."

"Estel is of the line of Numenor," Legolas says, his protest sounding feeble even to him. "His blood runs true. He must have many years yet."

"A hundred years is many, as mortals reckon them." Elrohir pats Legolas' back. "Elladan and I have seen enough of Men that we were always prepared for this. You invited grief for yourself when you befriended him, Legolas. I cannot be sorry you did, but… I wish I could spare you the pain."

"I do not want to be spared it," Legolas says. "Not if that is the price I must pay for Estel's friendship… and Gimli's. But a hundred years is so little time. The oaks we planted by the Anduin will still be young in a hundred years."

"You will still be young in ten times a hundred years. But the world of Men will be changed past Elven imagination – if any Elves remain in Middle-earth to see it."

"Were none of the others your friends?" Legolas asks. "The Men who came to Imladris in all the years of the Third Age?"

"Some were. They died. I will not presume to say to one of the Elven-king's warriors that I understand more of grief than he does. I know what the Woodland Realm sacrificed to hold against Dol Guldur. But mortals are different, Legolas. The death of an Elf while Arda abides is a travesty – something that would never have been if not for Morgoth's evil. But, even had Arda never been marred, Men and Dwarves were not meant to be confined to its circles. To them, the end of a long life well lived is sad, but not tragic."

"How do you bear it?"

"I have enough Mannish blood to understand that the gift of Eru is a gift. Accept it, Legolas. That is all I can advise. Accept it as you would never be able to accept the death of an Elf. The Age of Men is upon us. One day Estel must die – and Gimli – and leave Middle-earth to their children, and their children's children, and all the generations who will come after. Until then, enjoy their company without marring it with regret for the inevitable."

Legolas meets Elrohir's eyes and knows they are both thinking of Arwen.

"I hear you and your friends are planning a trip to the southeast of the realm," Elrohir says, changing the subject. "Those lands suffered greatly in the shadow of the Ephel Dúath. Do you think you will be able to make a difference to them?"

"I hope so. Have we not made a difference to Ithilien?"

"I would be the last to deny it," laughs Elrohir.

Footsteps behind them make them both turn around. Elladan, carrying a jug and three cups, joins them on the balcony.

"What would you not deny?" he asks Elrohir.

"The ability of these foolish woodland sprites to turn barren wastes into thriving forests," Elrohir says. "More and more does Ithilien now resemble Eryn Galen before the Shadow arose in Dol Guldur. But I question whether even they can revive the lands near the border with Harad."

"We do not intend to go as far as the border itself." Legolas takes the cup Elladan offers him with a nod of thanks. "Estel advised against it. He tells me there is lawlessness there. While I am not afraid of being robbed – and indeed we are unlikely to have anything worth stealing when we go there – there is no need to take on more trouble than we must."


Saeldur

and so, since Gimli will be in Minas Tirith tomorrow, I will not return as I planned. I will be no more than a week later than that –

"Which will leave you a night before you leave again, this time to try to persuade trees to grow in some other forsaken corner of Gondor," Saeldur mutters.

Then he sighs.

He is being unfair. He knows he is being unfair. After all, why are they in these Mannish lands at all if not to try to erase the Enemy's influence? And who better than Legolas to do it? The Noldor with their Rings might have been able to prevent their realms from falling to the corruption of Sauron, but to restore lands already corrupted to life and joy takes a true child of Middle-earth, not one constantly longing for the Elvenhome.

Saeldur's mouth turns downward at the thought. Because Legolas does sometimes look to the West with something in his eyes that was not there before. The gulls have much to answer for; Saeldur is not the only Elf in Ithilien who would like to take his bow to Pelargir and slaughter the lot of them. Rochendilwen, at least, would join him with pleasure.

Yet Legolas is coping remarkably well with any Sea-longing he feels. Saeldur expects he will stay while his Mortal friends live, and then…

Then, indeed, it will be the time when they must all leave, for Middle-earth will be theirs no longer.

None of which explains why Saeldur is so frustrated by Legolas' change of plan. A week is nothing. If he were going to the border with Legolas he might not even notice. It is hardly unusual for Legolas to go wandering. He has always been interested in seeing new lands.

"Since Gimli will be in Minas Tirith tomorrow," Saeldur says aloud.

He cannot accuse Legolas of avoiding him, precisely. After all, they are sharing a talan again. And yet…

Legolas is not himself. Something troubles him. Saeldur's hints, probing, and even his direct questions have done no good. Legolas only laughs and says he is quite well and Saeldur is not to worry.

Saeldur's fist clenches, crumpling the letter. No doubt Legolas is telling Estel and Gimli what is troubling him.

Then he is appalled at himself. Jealousy is ugly. It has never been one of his failings. Legolas is merry and lighthearted and he makes friends easily. It has never troubled Saeldur before.

He has never felt as though someone else were claiming his place before. The sons of Elrond have long been Legolas' friends, dear friends, but they were always far away in Imladris. Saeldur was Legolas' second-in-command, the most trusted of his captains, the one before whom he would not trouble to keep up his façade of strength and unquenchable cheer, the one to whom he would reveal his doubts and his griefs.

Is Legolas likely to confide in Saeldur now? Or will he tell his troubles to Estel and Gimli instead?

Abruptly, Saeldur stuffs the crumpled letter into his desk and snuffs the lamp.


Legolas

"I am honoured you waited to see me, laddie," Gimli says around his unlit pipe.

He would not refrain from lighting it for Legolas' sake, but Arwen and her brothers are with them as well, and Gimli has too much respect for Galadriel's granddaughter to risk offending her sensibilities.

"Naturally I did," replies Legolas.

"Of course, I would have come to see you in Ithilien before I left."

"Are you saying you are sorry I stayed?" Legolas asks lightly. He is not offended by the remark; he knows Gimli too well. But he does not want to look too deeply into his own reasons for postponing his return to Ithilien.

"I am saying," says Gimli, perceptive as ever, "that Eldarion's birth seems to have taught you something of mortals – something that one of unmixed Elven blood might never otherwise have learnt. I am saying that when you are hurt by one you truly trust, it takes time for the wound to heal. And I am saying that these two seemingly unrelated facts appear to have the same result. You should be in Ithilien, with your friends, among your trees. But you are here."

"Nobody can accuse you of too much subtlety," Legolas says, half-amused, at least by the first part of Gimli's statement. It is true that he is trying to spend time with Estel and Gimli while he can, and although he would prefer not to discuss it, it is not a secret.

What he feels about Saeldur –

That is too raw to discuss with anyone.

He trusts Saeldur because not trusting Saeldur is incomprehensible, because for years without number he has gone from difficult meetings of the King's Council to Saeldur's room in the warriors' quarters to unburden himself, and he cannot believe it was a lie.

He trusts Saeldur because Saeldur knelt at his feet in the moonlight and bared his soul, and Legolas knows he was telling the truth.

But he is afraid, because he knowsnow how much Saeldur has the power to hurt him.

He realizes Gimli is still talking. Fortunately Legolas' comment about subtlety has led him onto a tangent about Elves who will not say what they mean and he has not noticed Legolas' distraction.

Elladan clearly has, but fortunately he contents himself with a brief warning glance. Gimli has not entirely forgiven Saeldur.

"You should know, Legolas," Aragorn says, when Gimli has at last wound down, "that I have been getting reports of outlaw bands in that area… I do not impugn the valour of King Thranduil's finest warriors," he adds, laughing. "I do not expect brigands, however notorious, to be a serious threat to your company. But I would be remiss if I did not warn you of them."

"It is hard not to pity them," says Arwen, "and not only because they are likely to regret it if they cross Legolas and his archers. Some are truly vile – they trade in human beings as another might in horses or dogs – but some are simply unfortunate. Many farmers in that part of the country were forced to give their wheat to the armies of the Enemy. Those who refused saw their families slaughtered."

Legolas shudders. "The evil of the Enemy has much to answer for."

"And, although it pains me to say it, so does the hardness of Men," says Estel. "Some were able to flee, especially those who had no wives and children. After Sauron's defeat, they returned and drove those they saw as traitors from their homes."

"I have taken many of the women into my household," Arwen says. "People have pity for them. I have tried to help the men, but they are shunned. Their former friends cannot find sympathy for their impossible choice."

Arwen's grey eyes meet Legolas' across the length of the room. Legolas sees the message in them as clearly as if she had spoken it.

Help them, if you can.

Legolas musters a smile for her.


Saeldur

A year away from his bow has not robbed him of any skill.

Saeldur barely glances at the target – he does not need to look; he knows his arrows will make a perfect cluster in the centre.

"It is the archery festival in a month," calls Húrphen, watching from the fence.

Saeldur is aware of that. It will be the first archery festival since his return to Ithilien.

In Eryn Galen, the weapons masters held archery trials every six months. For new warriors they were an opportunity to try their skills against the others. For those more experienced, and particularly for the highly-trained archers of the Colhador, they were a chance to show off to each other… and to spend a merry night wagering on the bows of their fellows.

In Ithilien, removed from the watchful gaze of the King, who disapproves of gambling, the archery trials have not been not given up. Instead, the finest archers of the Woodland Realm put all their ingenuity into devising ever more complicated competitions. Now even an Elf who has not spent years learning the bow has little hope of success.

The best part of the night, in Eryn Galen and in Ithilien, has for centuries been the final archery contest between Legolas and Saeldur. Everyone who is present wagers on that – particularly now, since Legolas' attitude towards the gambling is amused exasperation. It is interesting betting; on the archery field, Legolas and Saeldur are almost perfectly matched – and neither is prone to error.

"Legolas barely even participated in the last two contests," Húrphen persists. "He only came and shot a few rounds – with perfect form, of course – but anyone could see he took no joy in them."

Saeldur does not need Húrphen to tell him that. He has seen how Legolas shoots when he is truly unhappy. His technique at such times is flawless, his arrows released almost faster than Elven eyes can follow. But it has none of the cheer that characterizes everything Legolas does, the half-suppressed mirth that even the Shadow could not touch.

Has it truly come to this?

Saeldur collects the arrows and goes in search of Rochendilwen and Aeroniel. They are in the talan that functions as a meeting room for Legolas and his captains, going over some maps.

"Have you come to help at last?" Rochendilwen asks. "You have certainly taken long enough about it."

"What am I doing here?" Saeldur demands.

Aeroniel sighs. "No, of course you have not come to help. When have you ever been any use over the duty rosters?"

Saeldur sits in an empty chair and looks at the map. It appears Aeroniel and Rochendilwen are planning the route for Legolas' trip to the southeast.

The trip Saeldur has not been invited to join.

"I mean it," he says. "The Dwarf told me Legolas was unhappy. I thought I would improve matters by coming here, but as far as I can tell I have only made everything worse."

"What do you expect, Saeldur?" Rochendilwen snaps. "Legolas has restored you to your old position. What more do you want? That he should suddenly forget that your stupidity and inability to stop blaming him for Candnaur's fate almost led to Legolas' death?"

Saeldur flushes. His confession to Legolas has been only between the two of them.

"I do not expect any such thing," he says. "It is a testament to Legolas' generosity of spirit that I have this much – more than I would have had from anybody else. Do you think I do not know that? I do not want to make matters more difficult for him – if my staying here does that, then I should return to Eryn Lasgalen."

Aeroniel and Rochendilwen exchange a long glance.

Then Aeroniel says, "He has been better since your return. It was worse when you were not here. Give him time, Saeldur."

"As for this," Rochendilwen adds, indicating the map, "if you want to go, tell him so. I doubt Legolas means any insult to you. Most of the route is through Lord Naith's lands, and he probably thought you would prefer not to be near him after your last encounter."

"Oh," says Saeldur, feeling considerably more cheerful now that he has an explanation for why Legolas left him out. "I will write to him."

Rochendilwen shakes her head, mutters something about idiots, and goes back to her work.


Legolas

and so, if you will permit it, I would like to accompany you when you go to the border.

Legolas heaves a long sigh. Saeldur would not normally bother with such a formal request.

When Legolas declared his intention to move to Ithilien to restore the forest, Saeldur simply asked when they were going to ask the King's permission. He did not indicate for a moment that he thought Legolas intended anything else.

Legolas pulls out a sheet of paper to reply.

Before he has time to do more than write Saeldur's name on the back and a line inside, there is a knock. Elladan enters the room.

"Here you are," he says. "Naith wants to see you."

Legolas groans. "What, again? I spoke to him this morning."

"Indeed you did. Now he wants to speak to you more. It is your own fault for being the most delightful young ellon in Middle-earth. Come, Legolas. He declares he will not leave until he has spoken to you, and you and I are not the only ones longing for his absence. We can go riding afterwards," he adds consolingly.

Legolas folds up the paper and gets to his feet, meaning to finish the letter later.

He follows Elladan to one of the antechambers. Elladan waves him in and then goes on about his own affairs. Legolas takes a moment to compose himself, to remind himself that he must not quarrel with Estel's liegemen, and enters.

"Lord Naith," he says, and he manages to say it with tolerable courtesy. "How may I be of service?"

"Prince Legolas." Naith gives his title with exaggerated care. "The King tells me you and your companions intend to engage in your… Elven… activities… near my lands."

"With King Elessar's consent, yes. The southeastern part of Gondor has suffered greatly from the ravages of the Enemy. We hope to restore something of its former beauty. We also have hope that it will improve relations with Rhûn and Harad if the road there from Minas Tirith is more easily travelled."

"The road is easy enough," Lord Naith says contemptuously. "It appears that beauty is all Elves care about." After his altercation with Saeldur, he has stopped making even a pretence of friendliness. "You are aware, I hope, that those of us who dwell in that part of the country do not share the general delusion of the superiority of Elves."

"I claim no superiority over the race of Men, Lord Naith. Nor do my friends. We are here as guests of your King, no more. Our only intention is to bring life and joy back to the lands that were destroyed by the Shadow."

"Destroyed because of Elves," says Naith. "Destroyed because of a war that Elves caused, and whose consequences Men have had to endure."

"Perhaps that is so," Legolas acknowledges. There is no point discussing the intricacies of Sindarin and Noldorin politics with Naith. "It is all the more reason for us to endeavor to undo some of the damage."

"I will tolerate no disruption of the peace of my lands, I warn you," says Lord Naith. He tries to sound dire, but his most valiant attempt has little effect on one who has had to confess his misdeeds to the Elven-king. "I have seen what you cause in Minas Tirith, Elf. Ladies staring at you, the wives and daughters of the city standing at windows to watch the golden prince ride past. Boys chasing after you and begging to be taught the bow. I will have none of it!"

"It has certainly not been my intention to cause any disruption to the peace of Minas Tirith."

"I suppose I must tolerate your presence," Lord Naith says, "since the King orders it. But I tell you now – I am lord of my own lands, as I was long before Elendil's heir returned to Gondor. Stay away from my people. Stay away from the archery fields. Stay away from the markets. Plant your trees and go. I doubt they will last long after you leave," he adds with a sneer. "But by all means, make the attempt."

He stalks out, leaving Legolas in an uncharacteristic foul temper that he only works off by going to the archery ranges and emptying four sheaves of arrows into the targets, much to the delight of Estel's weapons masters and their students.

He does not know that in a few minutes the page whose duty it is to collect the correspondence for Ithilien, over-zealous in his attempts to impress the friendly young Elven-lord, will go to his room, pick up the barely-written letter to Saeldur, seal it, and send it off with the others.


Saeldur

Saeldur,

Certainly, come if you wish. You may not find it enjoyable.

There it ends.

Legolas has not even bothered to sign his name.

Saeldur does not take that as a sign of displeasure. Legolas would never write him a letter such as this out of anger. He has far too much ingrained courtesy for that.

But it makes Saeldur wonder if something else is wrong – something that Legolas, for some reason, will not tell him. That is the only explanation he can think of. Legolas is fearful of saying too much, because no matter what has happened between them, Saeldur knows him as nobody else does. So he decided instead to say as little as possible.

He decided to say as little as possible to Saeldur.

It would not surprise Saeldur to learn that Legolas confided in the Dwarf and the Man.

Legolas might also have confided in the children of Elrond; but that possibility troubles Saeldur less. Saeldur is accustomed to the children of Elrond. They have been Legolas' friends nearly as long as Saeldur himself – he has a vague recollection of Elladan and Elrohir being present at the feast to celebrate Legolas' birth.

They are not mortals who were not even thought of a bare handful of years ago.

Saeldur grimaces. Jealousy is ugly – and unfamiliar. There have been countless Elves – and, for that matter, Men – over the centuries who have been surprised that Saeldur is not, could never be, jealous of Legolas. Legolas, whom Saeldur can equal on the archery field, but who has the clearer head and surer hand in battle; Legolas who makes friends wherever he goes as easily as he would draw an arrow from his quiver; and who, as some have seen it, usurped Saeldur's place in the realm.

Every time, Saeldur has practically laughed in the faces of those who asked. Legolas, who would never for a moment dream of taking anything that was not willingly given, who gave his faith and his friendship freely, even too generously… who could possibly begrudge Legolas anything?

Saeldur now finds himself begrudging Gimli and Estel every moment of Legolas' attention that they claim.

For a moment he is ready to weep from desperation.

Then his spirit reasserts itself. He and Legolas have quarreled before. Perhaps one day they will laugh at this.

Saeldur looks at the letter again.

It might not be precisely what he wanted, but it is permission. He intends to avail himself of it.


Legolas

The morning is a grey one. There is no rain yet, but there will be soon.

Legolas is glad of it. It will make their work easier. He underestimated how dry the ground would be. The soil has hardened to iron; no hoe will make an impression on it. But the rain will help.

He glances at the edges of their camp. He sent Baralin and Duvain to scout the area and is awaiting their return. Normally he would not bother, but enough has been said of the perils in the region to make him wary. He can imagine few things that would be worse than an incident here, with Lord Naith's keep the nearest source of assistance.

There is no tree cover, although that is not of particular concern. His archers are more accustomed to fighting in the trees, that is true, but they are equally formidable on level ground.

It is a small company that has made the journey. Lord Naith made himself sufficiently unpleasant that Legolas and Estel decided that it was best not to make the Elvish presence too strongly felt. Other than Baralin and Duvain, Legolas is accompanied only by Feredir, Rochendilwen and Saeldur – and Gimli.

Legolas wishes it were not too early in the day for wine. If he had a cup, at least he would have somewhere to hide his smile at the sight of Gimli, caressing his axe, watching with growing discomfiture as Feredir and Rochendilwen call birds down to learn the latest tidings.

He looks at Saeldur, expecting him to share in the mirth, but Saeldur has firmly averted his gaze.

Saeldur seems to think Legolas is still angry, which he is not

Only frightened, prompts a taunting voice in his mind that sounds too much like Bregolien's. Afraid. The legendary archer, Thranduil's heir, Eryn Lasgalen's beloved warrior-prince, is afraid.

Legolas should be past the fear – he knows he should be. He knows Saeldur told the truth about everything that happened. Trying to help Legolas and causing unimaginable chaos in the process is exactly the sort of thing he would expect of Saeldur.

He knows that Saeldur also told him truth… afterwards. He knows Saeldur well enough to know when he is lying.

He knows Saeldur would never wantonly cause him harm, he knows Saeldur's own guilt over what happened is far greater punishment than any the Elven-king could pronounce. He knows Saeldur is doing everything he can think of to prove that he can be trusted.

He knows all of that…

But he also knows how much Saeldur can hurt him, and it frightens him.

"Elf," Gimli snaps suddenly, startling him out of his thoughts. "Are we going to be doing this all morning? I thought you were here to put plants in the ground. Not that this ground will reward you much," he adds, looking around with Dwarven contempt. "If indeed it is not too corrupted to grow anything worthwhile."

Involuntarily, Legolas' eyes go to the horizon, and the shadow that is the Ephel Dúath.

Little wonder, with the Enemy so close, that this land is so barren.

Although Sauron is gone, there are still Orcs in Mordor. For the first few years after the destruction of the Ring, they tended to spill over the mountains into Ithilien. They soon learnt better of it: to the archers who had patrolled the darkening forest as the evil of Dol Guldur grew, the rabble of leaderless Orcs was easy to handle. Now the Orcs stay within the barrier of the mountains, and the Elves leave them to their own affairs.

But once they must have roamed this land freely.

Legolas shivers.

He is not any more worried about the Orcs than he is about the Mannish outlaws. Few as they are, they are more than capable of defending themselves.

All the same…

The sooner they leave this place, the better.

He lets out a relieved breath when he feels the first drops fall from the sky.


Saeldur

"We will have to work quickly."

It is a light rain, practically a mist, and Legolas seems quite calm. The clouds do not appear heavy and low enough to grow into a thunderstorm.

Legolas looks around. "It will be easier if we separate. You have all seen the ground we intend to cover. Go no further than the stream to the east – I am told the land beyond that is dangerous, and it is best we do not engage in unnecessary battles here. Start there and work your way back towards the west. The birds will help you. We should cover at least a third of the ground today. We will meet here at dusk." He glances at the Dwarf. "As for you, Gimli –"

"Aye, I will stay with you," grunts Gimli. "No birds are helping me."

Legolas laughs. "And that is all to the good."

Gimli thumps his axe haft on the ground. It barely sinks into the soil.

For once the Dwarf has not come armoured, although the thick leather of his jerkin is nearly the same thing. His helm has been replaced by a blue hood that is surprisingly finely made.

"Remember," Legolas says, "dusk. I know you are all capable of taking care of yourselves, but this is unfamiliar land, and even those who are ostensibly our allies may be unfriendly to us. We should try to avoid trouble."

There is an edge to Legolas' voice that means he has somebody specific in mind.

He is probably not referring to Saeldur.

"Come along, Elf," Gimli says, heaving himself to his feet. It seems to Saeldur that he is moving slowly. Perhaps the rain is bothering him.

Legolas smiles in response to the Dwarf, a sunny smile such as Saeldur has not had since before… everything.

Something clenches in Saeldur's gut. He hoped this would be a chance to speak to Legolas in private – they have little enough privacy in Ithilien, with the constant traffic of Men. He cannot fathom why Gimli felt the need to come with them – uninvited; Saeldur knows that, since Legolas was clearly as surprised as anyone else when he came to Ithilien on the morning of their departure.

For a moment Saeldur almost wants to weep.

Then, realizing that the others are moving out, he picks up his pack and chooses his path.

He is soon out of sight of his companions. This is not a forest – not as an Elf would describe it – but there are some trees, and an overgrowth of brush, that mean the going is not quite as easy as it might have been.

Is it truly – truly – over?

Saeldur forces himself to ask that question. He never believed it possible before now. Not where Legolas was concerned, Legolas who could forgive anyone for anything and who gave trust freely to all he met. Legolas, who had forgiven Saeldur

And was still uncomfortable.

It would be just like Legolas, to say he forgave him, to truly forgive him, because he wanted to ease Saeldur's mind, without acknowledging the fact that he was still –

Afraid.

Saeldur knows it. He knows Legolas too well not to know it. He knows the look in Legolas' eyes. He has seen it before, although rarely.

He never dreamed that one day he might be the cause of it.

He knows without a doubt that, rather than admit what he feels, Legolas will go on pretending, because Legolas thinks it is shameful that he is afraid. As though it is not to Saeldur's shame that the bravest Elf he knows should be afraid of him.

Suddenly, Saeldur is resolved.

It will be difficult, but he will leave. He will. He will not stay here and force his company on Legolas. It has barely been three years since it all happened. Legolas needs more time. The least Saeldur can do is give it to him.

He will tell Legolas when they return to Ithilien.


Legolas

"Out with it, laddie." Gimli's voice is as gruff as it always is; all the same, there is no mistaking the concern in it. "What are you worrying about?"

Legolas darts him a quick glance and goes on with his work. The sapling is in the soil, its roots secure. Legolas lets his fingers run over the leaves. It is too small, yet, to truly speak to him, but he can sense its stirring as the gentle rain soaks into the earth.

"Well?" Gimli presses, his voice barely audible above the cacophony of the birds.

Gimli gets to his feet, more stiffly than he would have done a few years ago. When Legolas allows himself to look closely, the Dwarf's beard is frosted with white.

How do Mortals bear this?

He returns his attention to the birds. There is a great flock of them, swallows and starlings and thrushes, warblers and robins. They will not peck at the saplings Legolas puts in the soil here, or pull off their leaves before they have a chance to grow. The birds want the forests to return even more than the Elves do.

"It is yours," Legolas murmurs to them, with a breath that is not quite a sigh. "This place. For I… I will not be here long enough to see the trees grow as much as I hope they will."

"Legolas," Gimli says insistently, and the use of his name gets Legolas' attention at last.

"I am quite well, my friend," he says, smiling. "I promise you."

"Not brooding about the Elvenhome?"

"Not at all. It is the fate of all my kin to go there at last… or to stay here and fade into memory."

"Fading into memory is not a fate I would wish upon any of my friends," Gimli says seriously. "If it is not the Sea-longing, what does worry you? Have you and Saeldur had an argument?"

"No," Legolas says promptly.

Too promptly, it would appear, because Gimli's brow creases in a frown.

"I see. Have you and Saeldur spoken at all, other than as necessary to plan this…" He waves a hand about. "This expedition?"

Legolas sighs. "Gimli, truly –"

"I have seen how he looks at me when he thinks I am not looking – and at Aragorn too, for that matter. It is almost as though he hates us."

"I am sure he does not –"

"And I would not blame him if he did." That startles Legolas into silence. "Now that I have your friendship and know what it is, I can safely say that I would not look kindly upon anyone who took it from me. If Saeldur thinks you no longer have the affection for him you once did –"

"That is absurd," Legolas protests.

"Is it? Truly?"

Since Gimli has asked, Legolas pauses to think.

And knows the answer at once.

"It is," he says. "Saeldur has been more than a brother to me – he is more than a brother to me. I would die for him. Nothing could possibly change that."

"Believe me, Elf," Gimli grunts, "I have heard enough from your companions by now to know that the heroic warrior-prince of the Woodland Realm would risk his life to protect any of his father's people. It is your confidence he misses. Not because you think he means you harm – any idiot can see that he is only waiting for you to give him an order so that he can prove he is still the most faithful of your captains. But you are afraid that he will hurt you as he proved he could."

Legolas feels heat rising his cheeks. He bends over the next sapling to hide his face.

"I cannot take that power from him, even if I would," he says. "I have tried to be the son my father needed – and the warrior his people needed – and Saeldur knows that. But I have also tried to be everything Saeldurthought me, when he knelt and swore to follow me and defend me. He does not know how much I have tried to be worthy of his faith."

"Trust me, laddie, he does." Gimli digs his axe handle into the ground, making a hole big enough for Legolas put in the next sapling. "How would you feel in his place?"

Legolas shivers at the thought. If Saeldur had been in Bregolien's hands owing, however indirectly, to Legolas' actions… if Bregolien had threatened to hurt him…

"I will speak to him this evening," Legolas says, a promise meant more for himself than for Gimli. "It is past time."


Saeldur

The plants have exuded a faint sense of unease since they arrived. Saeldur puts it down to the unfamiliar presence of Elves, whom they have not yet learnt to love, and he pays little attention when the unease grows.

Perhaps the birds are worrying them. Or one of the others has strayed near.

In response to that thought, he moves away, walking through the trees until he is almost at the stream that Legolas told them must be their boundary. He stares at the rippling water, lost in thought.

It is not until he hears the unmistakable whisper of a sword being drawn from its sheath that he comes to full alert. His bow is in his hand, an arrow at the string, as he looks around for the source of the sound.

"Show yourself!" he calls.

There is a rustle somewhere behind him, and he could turn and shoot at it without even looking, as he has done in countless battles.

But it might not be an enemy. If it is simply a child that wandered too far from home –

He turns in a full circle, sees the figure leaping from the bushes with sword raised, and releases the arrow without thinking. The Man cries out and falls, clutching his thigh.

"Who are you?" Saeldur demands, wishing, not for the first time, that he were more fluent in Westron. The courtiers of Gondor speak Sindarin, albeit with the strange inflections that come from Noldorin influence, but this is obviously no nobleman. "What do you want?"

"Help," groans the Man, but Saeldur is not fool enough to be taken in by that. He backs away slowly, looking around for more threats. He shoots at a sound in the trees to his left, and another Man stumbles from the undergrowth with an arrow in his shoulder.

They cannot have snuck up on Saeldur, or followed him. He would have heard them.

That means they have been lying in wait.

There might be more of them.

Almost before the thought is complete, they emerge from behind the few stunted trees this place boasts, from the bushes, from behind large rocks –

At least twenty, with weapons bared, and if Saeldur had even one companion – if Legolas were here – they could guard each other's backs and make short work of this rabble, but alone he cannot fend them all off.

He looks at the nearest bird.

"Fetch Legolas!"

He does not know if it has understood him – the birds here are not used to bearing messages – but it chirps and rises into the air.

"Drop your bow, Elf," snarls one Man, obviously the leader, in a voice roughened by wild living. "One more arrow and you will die. There are far more of us – you cannot eliminate us all before we kill you."

Saeldur's first instinct is to ignore him – if he must die, better to die fighting – but he knows that is foolish. The bird might not deliver the message, but when Saeldur does not return Legolas will know something has happened –

And Legolas will come for him. Saeldur has not the slightest doubt on that score. Legolas might be angry with him at the moment, but nothing – nothing – will prevent him from helping anyone at all who needs it. And despite everything, Saeldur knows Legolas does not hate him. It might be easier if he did; Legolas would have been less hurt by everything.

"Drop your bow," the Man repeats. "And your arrows."

Slowly, Saeldur lowers his bow to the ground, followed by his quiver.

"And the hunting knives," the Man prompts. "I know Elves." When Saeldur has obeyed, the Man says, "Back away."

At his nod, one of his companions comes forward to pick up Saeldur's weapons. Another pulls Saeldur's hands behind his back and binds them.

"Walk," he grunts, pushing Saeldur in the direction of the stream.

If there were only some way to leave a sign for Legolas.


Legolas

"Am I late?" Baralin pants, as he bounds into the clearing.

"Just in time," says Legolas, with a smiling glance at the setting sun. Rochendilwen, Feredir and Duvain returned some time ago, which leaves only Saeldur unaccounted for.

Legolas' smile fades. As argumentative as Saeldur can be in private, in the field he has always been the perfect captain, following Legolas' orders to the letter – unless, of course, he thought Legolas was putting himself in danger unnecessarily.

Especially now, and in a cause that, while important, can certainly wait until tomorrow, Saeldur would not be late.

"Should we look for him?" Rochendilwen asks.

"I think it would be best."

"I sense no evil here," Baralin volunteers. "No surviving arts of the Enemy."

Of all of them, he spent the most time in the southern reaches of the realm when Dol Guldur rose. If anyone would recognize the evil of Sauron…

"Arts of the Enemy do not worry me," Legolas murmurs. "There are far more immediate dangers."

He gets to his feet. The birds are already roosting, but a long, low whistle summons an owl down onto his arm. It hoots at Legolas, putting its head on one side to look at him. Yellow eyes stare unblinkingly into his.

"I need your help."

The owl hoots again.

"My friend should have returned by now. I do not know where he is. I fear he may have found trouble. Will you look for him?"

With a sweep of powerful wings, the owl is in the air. Legolas watches its flight for a moment, hoping it has understood.

At least the clouds have cleared. It is a moonlit night, and the lights of Elbereth shine like beacons. Saeldur's trail should be easy to find.

They have not made a formal camp, so it takes no time to gather weapons and be ready to move. Gimli, despite the stiffness that Legolas cannot help seeing, moves as quickly as the rest of them.

Legolas glances at Rochendilwen and Duvain, who have served in the Colhador so long that it takes no more than that for them to know what he wants and fall in. He says aloud, for the benefit of the others, "We should stay together. If something has prevented Saeldur from returning, nobody should meet it alone. He went southwest." He leads the way, bow in one hand and an arrow in the other. "Be prepared for anything."

He hopes that Saeldur has simply lost track of time – though that is so unlikely he does not bother even to voice the thought. If he has found trouble – such as the outlaw bands Legolas has been hearing about –

His fingers tighten around the bow. The outlaws will think better of their ways before Legolas has finished with them.


Saeldur

Saeldur feels distinctly ill.

It is an unusual sensation for an Elf, but, perhaps, an inevitable one when one has been slung upside-down over the back of a horse for the better part of half a day.

At first he had been delighted with the arrangement, thinking that he could persuade the horse to break away from the Men. But he soon found that the poor beast had been kicked and beaten so much in its short life that the only thing it understood was fear. Saeldur's attempts to communicate with it only made it snort and rear. After being thrown off for the second time, he desisted.

The horses allow the Men to make far better time than they would have done on foot. When they halt, night has fully fallen – a bright night, so that Saeldur can see every detail of where they are. It is what seems to be an abandoned farm. The long lines of fields that should have been golden with wheat are overgrown. The Men make for a broken-down stable that would have been large enough for four horses.

Saeldur is hauled roughly off the horse and pushed into the stable. As soon as he is inside, the smell of rotten hay assails his nostrils.

"Tie him to the post," grunts the leader of the Men. "I do not want to deal with escape attempts."

"What do you want with me?" Saeldur snaps, as he is dragged in the direction of one of the posts supporting the thatched roof. "Do you have any idea what you have brought on yourselves? You will regret this."

"Oh, will we? An Elven lordling, are you, and expecting the King of Gondor to come to the rescue, since Elves are now his kin? Wait, Dalamus." The Man holding Saeldur pauses. The leader approaches them, looks at Saeldur with loathing, and, without warning, drives a fist deep into his gut. "You're not in Gondor any more, Elf. Nobody is going to save you."

"Legolas will come for me," Saeldur snarls. It is no effort to sound perfectly confident. He is. "Wherever you try to hide." The next blow lands on his chest, and a sudden sharp pain tells him a rib has cracked. "And you will answer for that when he does," he adds, forcing the words out.

"Legolas? Who is Legolas?"

"The Elven-lord of Ithilien," volunteers Dalamus, as he finishes tying Saeldur to the post and moves away. Saeldur tests the ropes. They have no slack. "I have heard talk of him in Gondor. They say he is a fine warrior, and a friend of King Elessar and Queen Arwen Undómiel."

"Is he?" sneers the leader. "No matter. We are no Orc rabble, nor Elf-trained soldiers who worry about honour in battle. We fight to win. If this Legolas comes here, he will know it."

Saeldur almost laughs, because truly this Man knows nothing if he speaks so casually about encountering Legolas, particularly in the unpleasant mood that he is likely to be in when he gets here. That is a delusion many in Gondor share. Legolas participated in the battles in this land as no more than a common soldier, and now they see only the merry young Elf.

Something of his thoughts must show in his face. The Man's face contorts.

"You filthy, smirking sprite," the Man hisses. "I would break your jaw for that… But I don't want to damage your pretty face." He pats Saeldur's cheek. "Never fear. You will learn your place."

Saeldur knows he should not antagonize this Man. He knows he should be patient for the few hours it will take for Legolas to find this place.

But when the Man pats his cheek again, he cannot stop himself.

"Touch me again," he says, "and after Legolas is finished with you I will –"

An arm at his throat cuts off his words, and his breath.

"Legolas will come here and find us gone. What then, Elf?" He pulls back his arm. "Who will rescue you?"

"Release me," Saeldur says, "now, and I will try to persuade Legolas that there might be a spark of good inside you somewhere. But if you think you can run away from him, you know nothing."


Legolas

"They have left tracks like a herd of oliphaunts." Rochendilwen sounds incredulous, but also a little awed that a group of no more than two dozen riders beat a track at least thirty feet wide. "Have they no control over their horses?"

"They are hours ahead of us." Duvain is kneeling to examine the grass. "Who knows how far they might have gone?"

"We will catch up," Legolas says. It is not a question. It is not even a hope. They will catch up, because he will not allow it be otherwise. And when they do – if Saeldur's captors have done him any harm –

He stares into the bushes, willing them to reveal what has happened.

A hoot makes him look up.

The owl he asked to help him search for Saeldur is returning – and holding something feathery in its claws. Legolas feels a stab of pity for the owl's prey, and also mild exasperation that it has been chasing birds instead of looking for Saeldur.

Then the owl flies directly over him and releases its victim. Instinctively, Legolas holds out his hands to catch the bird. It is a sunbird, he sees, and although it is trembling in his gentle grip and he can feel its heart racing, it does not appear to be injured, only frightened.

The owl lands on Legolas' shoulder with a self-satisfied hoot.

"Why are we wasting time on birds?" Gimli says. "We cannot let them get further ahead."

"Patience, Master Gimli," says Rochendilwen. "Birds are among the most helpful of creatures."

Legolas ignores them both. The sunbird is obviously still terrified. He holds it close to his chest, putting one hand over it to shelter it from the owl.

The owl hoots in question.

"I know, my friend," Legolas says, "and I commend your enthusiasm, but I think you have frightened him."

The sunbird, evidently preferring its new position, gives several excited chirps.

"Elbereth Gilthoniel," Rochendilwen breathes.

"What is it?" Gimli demands.

"Saeldur asked the bird to call me," Legolas says. "But it decided to follow him first to see where they took him. Can you show us?" he adds to the bird.

It chirps, hopping up and down in his palm.

"I imagine you are tired," Legolas says. "That is a long way for small wings. Do not worry, my friend. I will carry you. You only need to tell us where to go."

The bird flutters from his hand to his shoulder, perching on his quiver strap.

Legolas lets out a breath. The weight of his bow is comforting in his hands. Everything else – whether Saeldur blames him, Legolas' own fears – can wait. First there is a rescue to be made. He knows how to do this. It is not the first time he has ventured into enemy territory to retrieve someone who was taken – and this group of outlaws and brigands poses no threat to Elves who are armed and forewarned.

They would not even have dared attack Saeldur if he had not been alone.

Legolas' brow lowers at that thought.

"Laddie," Gimli says softly, "not for all the gems in the Glittering Caves would I be one of the band who has taken your friend. Be glad Naith cannot see you now. As little as he likes the golden Elven-lord who distracts his people, I think he would be terrified of Thranduil's warrior-prince."

"One thing at a time, Master Gimli," Legolas responds, just as softly. "The Men were clearly lying in wait. They knew we were coming. If I find that Naith had anything to do with it…"


Saeldur

"Volmar has sent word. It is ready."

"Good," grunts the leader. "We had best move… just in case this Legolas truly is on the way here." He jerks his head at Saeldur. "Untie him. He can prepare to meet his new master. I hope you are good at taking orders, Elf," he added with a sneer.

"I take orders from Legolas," Saeldur spits, "and nobody else."

"What a pity. It appears you will learn the hard way."

Saeldur sees the blow coming, but he does not flinch. He will not give this wretch the satisfaction of saying Saeldur was frightened of him.

It takes him in the stomach. He is almost glad he is bound, because it keeps him from doubling over.

"Volmar knows how to break slaves," the Man grunts, his breath hot on Saeldur's face. "He will break you. Make no mistake about that. We have never had any complaints about the obedience of the slaves we provide once Volmar is finished with them. An Elf will be a new challenge for him. You will regret your defiance."

"I take orders from Legolas," Saeldur repeats, quite calmly. "And nobody else. I think you will find that you have more to regret than I do. Legolas will come for me. You, and Volmar, and every other Man who calls you lord will answer for what you do to me – and for what you have done to the others you took."

"Lord?" the Man says contemptuously. "I am no Elven-lord. We do not have lords among us. Nobody could lead simply because he was the son of some foolish Woodland sprite."

Saeldur is so incredulous at hearing the Elven-king described as a foolish Woodland sprite that he does not speak… which is all to the good.

The Man laughs as he steps away.

"Dalamus! Untie him and bring him."

Saeldur cannot prevent himself. As soon as his hands are loose, he elbows Dalamus, kicks him firmly in the shin, and rolls away, his chest afire with pain from the sudden movement. His hand closes around a dagger someone dropped on the floor. It will be no good in close combat, but Elven archers are just as accurate with other missiles as with their bows. Saeldur flings the dagger in the direction of the leader of the Men without even looking.

A cry and a curse tell him he has found his mark.

"Get him!" the Man shouts.

Saeldur seizes the nearest sword – clumsy and poorly balanced, even by Mannish standards, but he can make do – and is halfway across the stable yard before they surround him again.

"Try me," Saeldur says, adopting a guard stance. This time he has no compunctions about killing. The Men have shown that they are, in their own way, as vile as Orcs.

"You cannot fight us all off," says Dalamus.

"Perhaps not, but the first one to find my blade will die. Who will it be?"

With an incoherent cry, a Man to Saeldur's left attacks. He turns and runs him through with barely a thought, and spins and accounts for two more before they manage to bear him to the ground.

"Wait!" says the leader. "We do not want permanent damage – but take the sword."

Saeldur tightens his fingers around the sword, but it does no good. One of the Men puts a knee on his wrist, bearing down with his entire weight until, with a flare of pain, the bone snaps.

"I said no permanent damage!" snaps the leader.

The Man shrugs. "It is only a broken bone. Elves heal."

"Get him on a horse. And bind his hands and feet this time. I want no more mistakes. Volmar is already threatening to charge me double to deal with an Elf."

Saeldur struggles as much as he can, but in the end his hands and feet are tied and he is shoved into a corner to wait while the Men saddle the horses. He does not know what hour it is; the sky is still dark and starlit.

He watches the activity with little interest, until one of the Men comes and stands before him.

Saeldur looks up. It is the one who was addressed as Dalamus.

"What?" Saeldur snaps.

"It will be easier if you give in," Dalamus says softly. He crouches before Saeldur. "I have seen Volmar. He… he is… different. Everybody breaks."

"Legolas will come for me," Saeldur says, "and I assure you he can handle Volmar, whoever he is."

"Are you certain your friend is coming for you?"

"If you knew Legolas, you would not ask that question."

"I… your wrist. Does it hurt?"

"Do you think I am going to make friends with you?" Saeldur snaps. "With one who engages in vile business of selling people into a life that cannot end soon enough? I would not have thought any but the Enemy could sink so low."

"You know nothing about me," Dalamus says. "Not all of us are fortunate enough to have friends on whose loyalty we can rely." After a pause, he goes on, "I am not proud of what I do. But I have no choice. I wish I could help you."

"You do not have to listen to him."

"To Ordstan? He is not all bad. He gives us hope – a life – where we would have had none."

"So would your King, I am certain."

"The King has been kind. My wife has some skill as a weaver. She and my daughters were taken into the Queen's household. But the King can do nothing for me. Every year the agents of Mordor came to my farm – and every year I gave them my wheat, for the sake of my family. The people of Gondor hate me. There is no place for me there."

"Does your wife approve of your new profession?"

Dalamus' s face contorts. "I send her money when I can… She thinks I am still working the farm, and I bid her stay in Minas Tirith for fear of the outlaws roaming the countryside. She does not know I am one of them."

Despite himself, Saeldur feels sorry for the Man.

"Release me," he urges. "Legolas cannot be far from here. We will find him –"

"Your prince cannot help me," Dalamus says. "I do not think, despite what you say, that he can help you. We are going now to Ordstan's camp in the forest. Nobody has ever found him there, though many have hunted him. The best course for you is to give in. Not all slave masters are cruel. Some will treat you kindly, provided you serve them well."

He walks away, leaving Saeldur alone… and suddenly very cheerful, despite his throbbing ribs and wrist.

He thinks he cannot do better than to go willingly to Ordstan's camp in the forest.


Legolas

Legolas knows as soon as he steps into the stable that its occupants have left.

There is nothing to show that Saeldur was here. It might simply be a common resting-place for vagrants or travelers.

"Are you certain?" he asks the sunbird that is still on his shoulder.

It chirps a weary affirmative.

"You have my gratitude. You have done well, my friend. I would suggest you stay here and rest, but it might not be safe." He turns to Duvain and Baralin. "See if you can find any sign of where they have gone."

Leaving them to look around the bales of old hay, Legolas steps out into the yard. It is muddy and covered in the prints of Men and horses.

"They have gone southeast," Rochendilwen offers. "I can find no prints that might belong to Saeldur. But I would expect none. The ground is soft enough to hold a Man's footprints, but not an Elf's." She raises her foot to demonstrate; her shoe leaves no mark on the soil. "If Saeldur was not with them, we will waste valuable time chasing a false trail."

Legolas looks around.

If Saeldur possibly could, he would have left a sign for Legolas. If only he knew –

He stops, spotting something familiar in the moonlight. He makes his way to one of the fence posts and drops to his knees to examine the ground beside it.

The rune for S is scratched unsteadily into the ground, inside a lopsided triangle – such a triangle as an Elf might make if his hands were bound, and the symbol Saeldur used to leave messages for Legolas when they were children. Beside it are some more, even less legible letters. It takes Legolas a few minutes, but he is well rewarded for the effort. Saeldur is a warrior. He knows what information is useful.

"Twenty-four men," he says, getting to his feet. "And horses. They have gone into the forests to the southeast. Saeldur says," he goes on, mouth twisting in distaste, "that they are slavers. Aragorn spoke of this, but I did not know how to credit it. That Children of Ilúvatar should stoop so low!"

"We found this," Duvain says, emerging from the stable and handing a crumpled sheet of paper to Legolas. Legolas glances at it. It is not in any tongue that he can understand.

"Haradrim, I suppose," he says. "No matter. We know where they are now." He turns to Feredir. "If you would rather wait –"

"I am coming," Feredir says firmly.

"Feredir –"

"I do not enjoy fighting," Feredir says, "I am the first to admit that. But I can, at need – I daresay this may not be that need," he goes on. "You could make short work of the Men without my assistance. But if Saeldur is injured, you will need me."

"That may be," Legolas acknowledges with a rueful smile, "since Saeldur is the only one of us who learnt enough healing to satisfy Lady Celebwen. Does anybody have any idea how far ahead of us they are?"

"No more than two hours, I would judge," says Rochendilwen, who is crouching over some of the tracks. "They seem to have spent some time here."

"Good. We will catch them soon enough."

Legolas leads the way back to the road.

He does not repeat the last line of Saeldur's message – three words scraped out laboriously at the end and meant for Legolas' eyes alone.

I trust you.


Saeldur

"Why do you insist on doing this?" Dalamus dabs at Saeldur's arm, ignoring Saeldur's scowl. "You are only making it more difficult for yourself."

In all this time, Dalamus is the only one of the band who has troubled to treat Saeldur with anything resembling kindness… and how much that kindness is worth, Saeldur will not venture to speculate. Dalamus is not trying to help him escape, only to spare him the worst of the beatings Ordstan's men would inflict on him. He may simply be trying to get the best price.

Saeldur's stomach turns.

"They would leave you alone," Dalamus goes on, "if you simply gave in and forsook your allegiance to the Elven-lord."

Saeldur narrows his right eye – his left is swollen shut.

"Legolas…" he gets out, "will come –"

"Legolas will come for you," Dalamus repeats. "So you say, but there is no sign of him yet. The Forest of Donder is a dark place, and Ordstan knows it as nobody else does. Even if Legolas is looking for you, he will not find you among these trees."

Saeldur has to laugh at that, despite the pain it causes his broken ribs. Ordstan might think he knows this forest. Perhaps he does, as well as a Man can know any forest. But he is in for a surprise if he thinks that trees, even trees that have never spoken to an Elf in their lives, will not cheerfully betray him the moment Legolas asks it of them.

Dalamus shakes his head. "Why will you persist in your delusion? Even if Legolas finds us eventually, it will be too late. Nobody can help you."

"Why," Saeldur manages, "do… you… stay?"

"With Ordstan? I have no choice."

"Always… always a… choice."

Dalamus shakes his head. "You do not understand. My wife and my two daughters were taken into the Queen's household. Ordstan holds my son. I see him once a month. If I do not obey…" He shudders. "I have seen what happens to those who do not obey."

"Legolas –"

"Legolas might come to save you," Dalamus snaps. "Although I doubt that very much. Why would the Elven-lord trouble himself about my son? A hundred years is nothing to an Elf, and in that time, my wife and I – and all our children – we will all be gone."

"Dalamus!" Saeldur hears the low growl and just manages not to flinch.

It would be too much to say he fears the Man they call Volmar – if Saeldur were free, he could teach Volmar courtesy – but he is beginning to learn that Men can have a taste for casual cruelty.

"Have you made any impression on the Elf?"

"If you give me time," Dalamus begins, but Volmar shoves him aside.

"The buyer is expecting him," he says, still in that gravelly voice. "And I have many leagues to travel to deliver him. I have made a long journey to be here, Elf, and I will be very angry if it has been in vain because you are too stubborn to acknowledge your new master." His voice drops further. "You do not want me to be angry." He kicks at Saeldur's leg. "So tell me, Elf. Are you ready to obey?"

"Just listen to him," Dalamus says, sounding almost despairing. "Words are only words. Why do you care so much?"

Words are only words.

Legolas is coming for him, and Legolas will not hold it against him if he says what pleases Ordstan and Volmar in order to spare himself pain.

"Are you ready to obey?" Volmar says again.

Saeldur looks up at him.

"I… obey… Legolas."

He braces himself against the flurry of blows. He could do nothing to protect himself in any case, with his hands bound behind him. He will not cower.

"Just say it," Dalamus says. "What does it matter? Legolas need never even know."

Saeldur feels a flash of contempt. No wonder Dalamus could find no friends to support him, if he would so easily give them up over a little pain.


Legolas

"This is it." Legolas stares at the dark bulk of the forest ahead. Even he, who dwelt in Mirkwood as, inch by inch, the Enemy took it, is surprised by the air of evil he feels.

"Are you certain?" Gimli says, eyeing the shadowy depths. "It does not look to me as though anything could survive there."

"Silence, my friend." Legolas glances at his companions. "Stay here." He advances slowly, as though approaching a strange and skittish horse, until he can lay both hands on a tree at the outer edge. At once he feels a sense of grief that nearly overwhelms him.

These trees have seen dark things.

Yet they are themselves not twisted. Legolas can sense their sorrow for what they have been forced to shelter, their helplessness and anguish, but he can sense no evil.

"Will you help me?" he murmurs.

He does not think the tree actually understands his words, but it must sense his intent, because he feels it quiver slightly.

"My friend is there. I must get to him." Legolas tries to convey everything he is feeling – fear for Saeldur, guilt for not having realized what was happening sooner, terror that he would not be in time to stop something terrible from happening. "Please. I need your help."

The tree quivers again, and suddenly he has a sense of darkness, horror, screaming – not Saeldur, he knows that, but others who have been taken into this forest.

"I am sorry you have had to endure that. It should never have been. I can help you. Let us go in and deal with them, and I promise it will be a long time before such an abomination is seen in your home again."

A sense of worry, and a question.

"There are few of us," Legolas acknowledges. "But my companions are the archers of the Elven-king. Do not fear for us. If you will only show us the way, we will make certain that they do not trouble you again."

The tree seems willing, almost relieved.

Legolas goes back to the others.

"The trees will guide us," he says. "Feredir – Gimli –"

"I am coming," Feredir says firmly.

"So am I, laddie. I know Saeldur is dear to you – and that makes him dear to me as well."

"But –"

"Have you learnt nothing of the stubbornness of Dwarves?"

Legolas cannot help laughing.

"Keep your axe lowered until we see them," he warns. "The trees are not accustomed to Dwarves – or to Elves, for that matter – and it is best not to alarm them. Bows at the ready," he adds to Rochendilwen and Duvain. "Visibility may be poor."

He pulls a fold of his cloak over his head. The moonlight on his hair will give them away in a heartbeat if the Men have had the sense to place a guard.

His Elven companions all take out their bows as they enter the forest, but Feredir and Baralin, not trained to shoot at sounds in the darkness, do not hold them at the draw. Legolas, accustomed to the endless chatter of the trees, feels almost uncomfortable walking in this silent forest. They show him the way, swaying and sliding to right and left to reveal a path, but there is no encouragement, no warning –

Only, under everything, a faint feeling of hope.

They walk, the only sound Gimli's heavy breathing. The sky is beginning to grow light, but the forest itself is still dark.

Then there is a noise ahead. A Man's voice, discordant in its anger.

"You will learn, Elf! You will learn to know your master."

Legolas has an arrow pointing in the direction at the sound at once, as do Rochendilwen and Duvain. They glance at him, questioning, and he responds with a slight shake of the head, even when a dull thud makes him flinch. As difficult as this is to hear, they should keep the advantage of surprise.

They pad forward swiftly, silently, until they have reached the clearing where the Men are gathered. Astonishingly, they have not posted even one guard. They must be confident of staying hidden.

Clearly, they have not encountered Elves before.

"Please," says one of the Men, "just do as they ask, Elf. You gain nothing by resisting."

Saeldur, hands tied behind him, is on his knees at one side. He is bruised and bloodied. Legolas does not dwell on the sight too long.

Two Men are standing before Saeldur. One, with broad shoulders and thick arms, is obviously the cause of the bruises. The other appears to be the one who just spoke.

The other Men are standing around the clearing in varying attitudes. Legolas does a quick count. Twenty-five. It appears they are all here. The folly.

Folly for which he is grateful. He glances at Rochendilwen and Duvain and tilts his head slightly. That is all the instruction they need; in a moment; they have disappeared into the trees. To Feredir and Baralin he gives a few whispered orders.

Then, to Gimli, "Stay here, if you will, my friend, until we have shown ourselves. Then we will welcome your aid."

Gimli nods, and Legolas slips away.


Saeldur

A kick in the stomach makes Saeldur fall back against the tree behind him. He gasps, trying to catch his breath, but he does not manage it before Volmar smashes the hilt of his broadsword into Saeldur's ribs.

"You are beginning to try my patience, Elf," he snarls, crouching. "We get a better price for undamaged goods, but better to sell a maimed slave than one who will not obey." He puts his knee on Saeldur's chest and bears down with all his weight. "I am going to make the delivery at the promised time. How much pain you are in when I do it… that choice is yours. Now, for the last time, will you forsake your fealty to your Elven-lord?"

"I… answer to… Legolas," Saeldur manages.

Volmar growls and draws a dagger from his belt.

"Wait!" Dalamus rushes forward. "Wait. Let me speak to him."

"Do not interfere, Dalamus!" Volmar says, voice rising. "We have had enough of your tendency to pity. If you cannot learn not to feel sympathy for the goods we deliver, perhaps you would rather throw yourself on the mercy of the King of Gondor? I am sure he will understand the compulsions that forced you to do all that you have done."

"Would you not rather deliver him uninjured?" Dalamus asks. "Let me try."

Volmar is about to reply, but Ordstan interrupts him. "We do not have time to waste. I will give you five minutes, Dalamus, and then Volmar will do what he must."

"Elf," Dalamus says, getting to his knees beside Saeldur, "I do not know your name – and I suppose there is no point. I have heard that Lord Legolas is merciful. He will understand if you try to spare yourself what Volmar will do to you now –"

Saeldur shakes his head.

"He will make you suffer," Dalamus says.

"Legolas… would not…"

"Yes, yes." Dalamus is nodding his head eagerly. "Legolas would not hold it against you –"

"No," Saeldur says fiercely. "Legolas… would never… give… in."

He knows that is true. He knows that if Arahael had reached Bregolien in time on that horrible day, if Bregolien had tried to get the truth of Míron's death from Legolas as he threatened to do, Legolas would have died before betraying Saeldur's confidence.

"Elf," Dalamus says, "be sensible. If you think he will come and rescue you, would he not rather find you alive?"

"I will not… betray…"

"Enough!" Volmar pushes Dalamus aside.

"Wait – Ordstan promised me five minutes –"

"Why waste time? The Elf is so eager to suffer to prove his loyalty to his lord. Let him do it."

Volmar draws his dagger.

Saeldur braces himself.

There is a sudden, sharp, familiar whistle. Before Volmar can do more than look up in surprise, he is lying on the ground, roaring in agony, an arrow through his hand.

As the clearing erupts in chaos, Legolas, with the softest of thumps, lands on the ground in front of Saeldur.

"The next one to touch him will die."

Snarling, three of the Men come at Legolas. He easily disarms them and follows up with a few well-placed strikes to ensure they are no more threat. Then he casts a swift glance around to see that the others have matters in hand – Saeldur can hear shouting that can only be the Dwarf – before he drops to his knees beside Saeldur and slashes through the ropes in one quick movement.

"Elbereth Gilthoniel… what have they done to you?"

Saeldur looks up into familiar, anxious blue eyes, Legolas' face framed by golden hair that is unaccustomedly untidy –

And he laughs in sheer relief as he flings his arms around Legolas' back.

"I knew..." he stops and gasps for air. "I knew…"

He hears Legolas' breath catch as he returns the hug. Saeldur allows himself to drift into darkness.


Legolas

"Well?" Legolas says. He tries to keep the anxiety from his voice, but he knows he has not succeeded.

Rochendilwen, Baralin and Duvain are rounding up the Men, a task to which they are more than adequate, particularly with Gimli standing by holding his axe. The Men are sufficiently accustomed to Elves that, despite everything, they seem more unnerved by the sight of the Dwarf with an axe than the Elven warriors.

The Man who appeared to be trying to help Saeldur has been left to himself for the moment. Legolas will speak to him later. For Saeldur's sake, he will help that one leave this place, if he wishes it.

The others are a problem that must be solved.

Later.

At the moment, his main concern is Saeldur.

Saeldur did not stay unconscious long; he woke as soon as Feredir began his examination. But he said nothing, resting his head on Legolas' shoulder and only grimacing when Feredir touched a tender spot. The quiescence is so unlike him that Legolas is alarmed.

"He will be well," Feredir says reassuringly. "Perfectly well. I will need to splint his wrist and bandage his ribs… some stitches… and poultices," he adds, grimacing at Saeldur's swollen face. "A few days' rest, and he will be challenging you to archery contests again."

"Should we stay here until he has healed?"

The draws a reaction from Saeldur, who says quickly, "No."

Legolas exchanges a startled glance with Feredir.

"We will be safe," Legolas says. "Even if the Men have friends, we will keep watch. The trees will be able to warn us if anybody comes. Nobody will surprise us here."

"You will find it easier if we wait," Feredir adds, "at least a day or two. You will find riding a horse painful –"

"Legolas," Saeldur gasps, "please."

"Saeldur –"

"Please… please. I… I cannot…"

Legolas cannot refuse that tone in Saeldur's voice. He tightens his arm comfortingly around Saeldur's shoulders and turns to Feredir in question. "Can he stand the ride?"

"It will not do him any particular harm," Feredir says slowly, "but he will be very uncomfortable."

"If you give him something for the pain, he can ride with me."

"I will prepare a draught."

Feredir hurries off.

Legolas lets himself relax the smallest fraction. Knowing that Saeldur is safe and suffered no permanent damage from what happened has eased, if only slightly, the tension in his gut. He did not allow himself to feel guilty until now – did not allow himself to feel anything while the need to act was imperative – but now that it is almost over –

Saeldur mumbles his name.

"What is it?" Legolas says. "Try not to talk. Whatever you want to say, it can wait."

"Legolas… I did not… I promise I… did not…"

"I know," Legolas soothes, although he has no idea what Saeldur means. "Rest, Saeldur. We can speak later."

Saeldur clutches at Legolas' sleeve with his uninjured hand.

"No… please… you must… must know… I would never…"

"I know you would not." Whatever Saeldur is thinking of, it is agitating him far too much, so Legolas changes the subject. "Did you learn anything about the Men?"

"Dalamus… he tried… to… help me…"

"I saw that. He has my gratitude," Legolas said. "Do not worry about him. I will help him if I can."

Saeldur sighs. "I told him… I knew… you would… come."

"I am only glad we were in time. Slavers." Legolas cannot keep the distaste from his voice. "I know Men do things differently, but this… Unfortunately Estel's writ does not run in Harad." He glances at the Men, those who survived the battle now sitting in a tight group guarded by Duvain and Baralin. "It is as well they did not take you further into the country. I would not want to start a war with Harad… but it might have become inevitable."

Saeldur laughs wearily.

"You would… have managed… somehow."

Rochendilwen appears beside them. "How is he?"

"He will heal, Feredir says."

"Good." She pats Saeldur's hand. "If we were in Eryn Galen I would be tempted to send you to novice lessons for a month to teach you never to lose track of your surroundings."

Saeldur smiles at her. He seems remarkably cheerful, despite the pain he must be in.

"Legolas," Rochendilwen says, "what do you want to do about the Men? There are four from Gondor – Saeldur's friend is one of them – but the others are all Haradrim. We could take them to Minas Tirith to Estel's court –"

"That would only make trouble," Legolas says. "Are they injured?"

"Oh, yes," Rochendilwen says, a dark edge in her voice. "Those who are still alive to know it. All of them will think twice before treating the Children of Ilúvatar as trade goods again. Except Saeldur's friend," she adds, laughing. "He surrendered as soon as he saw you."

Legolas manages a smile in response. "Saeldur says he cannot stay here. We will go back across the border into Gondor. Will you round up the horses? If we take them with us, the Men cannot follow. We will take the Gondorians to Minas Tirith. The others… we must leave to the justice of their own lands."

Rochendilwen hurries off, just as Feredir returns with the draught.


Saeldur

There is something Saeldur must tell Legolas… but Feredir's draught has made him so drowsy that he cannot remember what it is. He tries to focus, but his thoughts keep drifting.

"What shall we do with the saddles, Legolas?" a voice asks.

"Leave them. We do not need unnecessary burdens."

"We have over a dozen extra horses. Transporting them will not be a problem."

Saeldur, although he is only half-awake, can barely stifle a snicker. Baralin means well, but he knows very little of Legolas, even after all these years in Ithilien.

"Baralin," Legolas says, patiently and without the slightest hint of exasperation in his voice, except to one who knows him very well, "enough evil has been wrought in this place by these misbegotten Men, who seem to use it for all manner of vile purposes. We are not going to add to it by taking their goods – goods for which we have absolutely no use. Find out if the Gondorians need saddles. If they do, keep four. Everything else stays here."

Saeldur closes his eyes.

Hurrying footsteps, quick questions, Legolas' rapid orders… Saeldur is surprised by how comforting the sounds are. But he is accustomed to the aftermath of a battle.

If only he could remember what he wanted to tell Legolas, he would be quite at peace.

Saeldur drowses, until he hears another voice say, "What of the Men we leave here?"

Rochendilwen.

"I have spoken to the trees. I managed to make them understand, I think. They will make certain the Men cannot follow until we are well clear."

Only Legolas.

"Then I think we are ready to leave."

"I will ride with Saeldur. Will one of you take Gimli?" Legolas asks. "Unless he fancies trying to ride by himself."

"I heard that," booms Gimli's voice from somewhere nearby. "I am wrestling with no intractable beast. I will ride with Lord Feredir, and thank him for his assistance."

There is a great deal of movement after that, and Saeldur is aware of very little, until he feels the easy canter of a horse, and Legolas' arm holding him steady.

Some time later – he is not certain how much time – he is aware of lying on a makeshift cot. Someone – Feredir – takes his arm, but the first light touch to his broken wrist makes him cry out and pull his hand away. Of course, that only makes the pain worse.

Where is –

"I am here," Legolas says. Saeldur feels fingers squeeze his uninjured hand. "Let Feredir look at it."

"Stay… stay with me."

"Of course."

And suddenly Saeldur remembers. He must make Legolas understand.

"I did not give in." He forces himself to concentrate, and Legolas' face swims into focus above him. "I knew… I knew you would… come… but even… even if…"

"Saeldur." Legolas squeezes his hand again. "You are safe. Do not worry. We will speak later. You must rest."

"Legolas, please."

"Drink this."

A cup is held to Saeldur's lips. He drinks.


Legolas

"Do not look so anxious," Feredir says, tying off the last of the bandages. "I told you, Saeldur will heal in a few days – the broken wrist might take a little longer, but it will be well. I know it looks bad, but the Men have done no real damage."

"Saeldur is worried about something."

"He is, but at the moment he needs rest. When he is better, you can let him talk to you about whatever is worrying him." Feredir pats Legolas on the shoulder. "He will not wake for a few hours, so if there is anything you should be doing –"

Legolas sighs. "Yes. I must go and speak to Lord Naith. I promised him I would. He is not pleased about having us camping on his land, although in the circumstances he did consent. I will return as soon as I can… but you will send me a message if anything happens?"

"Of course. Now go, Legolas. Go and deal with Naith. Saeldur will be here when you return."

Legolas leaves the tent.

Rochendilwen is tending to the horses, while Dalamus watches from a distance. She looks up at his approach.

"Feredir says Saeldur will be well," he says, in answer to the unspoken question.

"As he said earlier. What troubles you?"

Legolas sighs. "Saeldur is worrying about something. He is not sufficiently aware to explain – and in any case Feredir says it is better for him to rest now. But if there is something we should know about…"

"Perhaps I can help," says an unexpected voice.

Legolas and Rochendilwen turn to the Man.

"Master Dalamus?" Legolas says. "Did something happen to him?" When Dalamus looks hesitant, he adds, "You may speak freely, whatever it is. We will not hold your former companions' actions against you."

"Ordstan wanted your friend to acknowledge him as his master. He would not do it – those Ordstan captures seldom want to admit that their freedom is lost. Lord Saeldur insisted that he would acknowledge nobody's right to give him orders but yours. That… angered Ordstan more than usual. Volmar – the one who – was – trying to persuade him – knew that Ordstan was angry, and acted on it. Volmar is cruel. I suggested to Lord Saeldur that he should say what they wanted simply to spare himself pain."

"I doubt that suggestion went down well," Rochendilwen comments.

"No. He would not consider it."

"Thank you, Master Dalamus," I say.

The Man nods and slips away.

"Legolas," Rochendilwen says softly, as soon as he is out of earshot, "it is not your fault."

"No? If I had not let matters come to such a pass that Saeldur thought he needed to prove his loyalty by drastic means –"

"That would not have mattered. The Saeldur I knew and served with for years beyond number would not have given up his loyalty to you no matter what fate threatened him. The only difference it has made is that he now feels he needs to tell you he did not give in – and earlier he would have expected you to know."

"What am I to do?"

"For now? Go and deal with Naith. By the grace of Elbereth, you will have plenty of time to talk to Saeldur when we are home."


Saeldur

Saeldur opens his eyes to find daylight pouring into the tent and Dalamus sitting beside him staring at his hands.

Saeldur blinks. Feredir must have given him a strong draught.

"Where is Legolas?" he says.

Dalamus jumps.

"You are awake! I did not realize – I was to summon Lord Feredir as soon as you woke."

"Wait," Saeldur says. "Where is… everybody? I thought Legolas was here."

"Indeed. Your… the… your Elven-prince sent two of your companions to Minas Tirith with the… the prisoners. To the King's justice. He consented to allow me to remain until he has time to take me to Minas Tirith himself. He will speak to King Elessar on my behalf. I should thank you for that mercy, I know."

Saeldur laughs. "Legolas' first instinct is always sympathy. You have no need to thank me for that. Where is he?"

"I… I fear I do not understand, entirely. I believe he went to meet the local lord – as a courtesy, to tell him we are here. He said he would return as soon as he could, but the Elven-lady said he should expect it to take some time. She was sitting here, but I believe she thought it would keep me out of trouble if she asked me to sit with you."

"Oh."

"I will call Lord Feredir."

He leaves.

If Legolas has gone to meet a Mannish lord, it could be hours before he can return. At least Legolas is likelier than any of them to be able to spend that long in the company of one of Aragorn's courtiers without coming to blows.

Feredir comes almost at once, Dalamus trailing behind him.

"You look quite well," he tells Saeldur cheerfully. "A few days here and you will be quite fit to travel. If you want to read quietly until your next draught –"

"I do not need a draught. I am in no pain."

"You say that because the last one has not yet worn off. Do not worry. Legolas promised to return in time for it. I would not venture to persuade it into you without assistance."

Saeldur does not know how, but it feels as though the world has suddenly returned to its normal state. He still has to explain matters to Legolas, but he can do that as soon as Legolas returns.


Legolas

Legolas knows Lord Naith means it as an insult that he has kept him waiting for an hour while he deals with "urgent business". Legolas knows, but Lord Naith does not know that centuries of serving the Elven-king's court has inured Legolas to far greater rudeness than being asked to sit in the antechamber.

An attendant arrived some time earlier and left a jug of wine. It is not quite Dorwinion, but good all the same. Legolas poured himself half a cup, for courtesy, but he has too much sense to allow his judgement to become befuddled.

He has enough to think about in any case.

Too much to think about.

Legolas has seen enough battlefield injuries to know for himself that none of Saeldur's will cause permanent damage.

But it could have been so much worse.

Legolas never truly understood until now what Saeldur meant when he said that the knowledge of what might have happened to Legolas in Bregolien's hands was a far greater punishment than any the Elven-king could impose.

Of course it might have been any of them. Legolas knows that. They were all working alone, and it was simply a quirk of fate that Saeldur was the one who chanced upon the Men. And Rochendilwen spoke truly when she said that Saeldur's loyalty to Legolas has, in the past, overpowered every other instinct including self-preservation.

But if they had been on their usual terms – if Legolas had not been allowing his own fears to overcome his sense – he might have realized sooner that Saeldur was gone, and not only when he failed to return at dusk. For all his fretting about how much Saeldur has the power to hurt him, it was so much worse worrying that Saeldur might not be there to use the power.

It would not have come to that – Legolas knows that. If the Men had taken him deeper into Harad, Legolas would simply have done whatever was necessary and explained himself to Estel later.

All the same…

Is he truly destined to bring grief to all whom he cares about?

When the attendant comes to tell him that Lord Naith is ready for him, Legolas is almost relieved. This, at least, is a foe he can handle.

He is ushered into a long room, reminiscent of Theoden's hall. Lord Naith is seated on a chair at one end of it. The chair falls just short of being ornate enough to be classed as a throne. He has four men-at-arms standing around him as an honour guard.

Legolas straightens his back. Even alone, clad in his warrior's garb, he is the son of the Elven-king. He knows how to play this game.

Lord Naith's eyes narrow.

As courtesy demands, he gets to his feet and gives Legolas his hands in greeting.

"The Prince of Eryn Lasgalen," he says, "for so I must call any Elf who stands so proud before me. How may I serve you? I hope my men were able to direct you to a suitable site for your camp?"

"They were very helpful. I thank you for your hospitality, Lord Naith."

"It is my duty… and my honour. How is your friend?"

"Saeldur is much improved. I am assured he will be fit to ride soon. I hope we will not presume upon your kindness much longer."

Lord Naith smiles. It does not reach his eyes.

"As much as I wish your friend a quick recovery, I cannot so quickly wish you gone. After our talk in Minas Tirith, I had scarcely expected to have this honour." There is a cold edge to his voice. "I know you will wish to return to see Lord Saeldur now, but might I request the honour of your company this evening?"

Even if Legolas did not want to stay with Saeldur, he would rather do anything than come here again. But Lord Naith's tone makes it clear that there is no choice, as long as they remain on his land.

"It would be my honour, Lord Naith."

"You see, Prince Legolas, I have recently had the good fortune to employ a minstrel who travelled much before coming here to me. He knows several Elven songs. I promised him, if I could arrange it, he would have the chance to sing them before an Elf. It would delight him beyond measure to perform before, not just any Elf, but the heir to the Woodland throne."

"Your kindness is unparalleled."

Lord Naith bows his head.

"I fear that I will not have the pleasure of your friends' company, since they must stay with Lord Saeldur."

The message is clear. Lord Naith wants Legolas here, alone, as the price of the few days' peace Saeldur needs for his recovery. There is no point speculating about what his intentions are – there is no choice.

"My friends will be very sorry to miss the chance of hearing your minstrel," Legolas says evenly. "But no doubt there will be other opportunities, if he intends to travel with you the next time you are in Minas Tirith."

"No doubt."

Lord Naith smiles. It makes him look like a wolf.


Saeldur

Feredir spoke truly when he said Saeldur would feel it when the draught wore off.

Saeldur can feel it.

He is not quite certain whether his ribs are more or less painful than his wrist, he can feel every single one of the far too many stitches every time he moves, his swollen eye is throbbing, and –

"No," he says firmly.

"Saeldur." Feredir sounds put-upon, but Saeldur cannot summon the energy to care. "Drink this. You will feel better. I promise. Legolas is on his way. He would have been here by now, but I was not expecting the draught to wear off so soon."

"No."

Where is Legolas?

"Saeldur –" Feredir breaks off and glances towards the tent entrance. "At last."

Then there are footsteps. Saeldur's hand is taken in a familiar, comforting grip. Before he can muster another protest, he is settled against Legolas' shoulder sipping at the draught. The pain eases a little and he manages to open his eyes, blinking a little at the bright sunlight.

"Is that better?" Legolas says lightly.

He sounds almost normal. Only somebody who knows him very well will know he is troubled.

The pain has been replaced by the fog of the medicine, or Saeldur might ask questions. As matters stand…

He finds Legolas' fingers and squeezes them. It is all he can offer by way of comfort, at least until he no longer needs Feredir's draughts and his head is clear. He suspects Legolas' tension is at least partly the effect of worrying about Saeldur.

"I would not," Saeldur murmurs, struggling to stay awake, "I would not have… forsaken… forsaken my oaths."

"I know."

"I knew you would come."

"Rest, Saeldur," Legolas says. "There will be time to speak."

As though Legolas' words are permission, darkness descends again.


Legolas

"Prince Legolas." Lord Naith's voice oozes false courtesy. "As expected, an Elf of your word."

"Lord Naith." It is at times like this that Legolas wishes he had the freedom to tell courtiers what he thinks of them – or at least to avoid their company if they insist on greeting him with oily smirks. "I thank you once again for your hospitality."

He knows his expression is perfectly even.

"Do come in. You must meet my lady wife. She was angry with me for keeping you waiting so long this morning. It was not, as she pointed out, the courtesy due a prince. I told her I was certain you would understand that on his own land, a lord has many matters that cannot wait."

Legolas has centuries' of experience listening quietly to his father's councillors complaining. He can endure this.

He follows Lord Naith into what appears to be a formal sitting-room.

There are three women there. One, with white hair and a wrinkled face, in which her eyes twinkle like stars, must be Naith's mother. She smiles at Legolas, a genuine, happy smile, and he finds himself liking her at once.

It is the woman to her right who gets to her feet.

"Prince Legolas." The smile with which she favours him is timid. "You are welcome to our home."

"My lady."

Is this Naith's wife? Legolas supposes he must have met her in Minas Tirith, but he cannot recall it now. He cannot imagine her being angry about anything. She looks terrified.

The woman whom Legolas took to be Naith's mother rises and, stepping forward, takes his hand in a firm grip.

"Prince Legolas. When you reach my age, you find that you care little for the forms of introduction. I hope you are comfortable."

"Very much so, my lady. Lord Naith has been most generous in providing supplies."

"I do not doubt it," says Naith's mother. "I know my son very well. He will never fall short of propriety. You have of course, already met my daughter-in-law. This is my daughter."

The other woman nods at him, but does not rise.

"The children are still at their lessons, but we have promised them that they can come and see you before their supper. My granddaughters have heard a great deal about you from their friends in the city, and they –"

"You must forgive us, Prince Legolas," interrupts Lord Naith. "You must be tired. We have not invited you to sit."

Legolas cannot remember anyone ever interrupting his own mother so rudely. He would never have dreamed of doing so himself. But Lord Naith's mother seems unperturbed by her son's discourtesy.

"Come," she says, holding out her hand, so that Legolas has no choice but to offer her his arm to lead her back to her seat. "And do tell us about Ithilien. I have not been there since the war, but my son tells us you and your people have made great strides in restoring it to beauty that none of us can remember."

Between her and Lord Naith's wife, the conversation stays on neutral subjects – largely the state of Lord Naith's wheat fields. Legolas manages to compress his lips and say nothing when Lord Naith's mother reveals that they were all aware of those forced to serve the Enemy being turned off their lands –

"Turned off?" Lord Naith says coldly. "Mother, you do the wretches too much honour. They were allowed to leave with their lives, which was more than they deserved."

"You are brave, for one who dwelt in Minas Tirith for years, lest coming here would bring him too close to the Enemy's reach," snaps Lord Naith's sister, speaking for the first time.

"I was willing to give up my lands, rather than put my family at risk. I would do it again, even if you blame me for it."

"Children," Lord Naith's mother says sharply, "what must Prince Legolas think of us?"

"I am certain Prince Legolas has had disagreements with his friends before," says Lord Naith, his smile almost a leer. "Is that not so? Of course, now it appears that you and Lord Saeldur have settled your differences."

Despite all the training of his father's court, Legolas cannot immediately find a response, because this –

This came too close to becoming another tragedy. Legolas has finally learnt to forgive himself for his mother's death – he can accept that he was little more than a child, that he was completely unprepared for treachery, that Bregolien was to blame for the tragedy. But now he is an adult and if –

If it had come to the worst –

If Saeldur had died thinking he had to prove something to Legolas –

A knock at the door saves Legolas from having to find an answer.

A nursemaid enters, a bevy of children trailing behind her. After a moment's shyness, they cluster about him in an excited group. Legolas, accustomed to the children of Faramir's rangers, is relieved to be in easier company. Lord Naith purses his lips at their eagerness, but he makes no objection, and the half-hour until their bedtime is relatively pleasant.

When the children are taken away by their nurse, and Lord Naith leads the way to the dining hall, Legolas learns exactly what price he will claim for permission to stay on his lands. The minstrel is waiting, face alight with eagerness. Legolas cannot help but smile at him –

Until, with the first liquid notes on his lyre, the minstrel begins singing.

It is a lament for the Elven-queen of Eryn Galen.

"Elven songs," Lord Naith says to his wife, "are often about loss and sorrow. Perhaps that is the truth of the gift of Ilúvatar. Men do not live long enough to see the ravages of time upon all they love."


Saeldur

"Prince Legolas asked if I would like to tend the forests here."

Saeldur is having a rare period of wakefulness. He was hoping to see Legolas, to talk to him properly, but Dalamus said he had to go speak to the Mannish lord again. Legolas spent most of the previous evening there, returning in time to sit with Saeldur while Feredir changed all his bandages – but he did not stay long. Not nearly long enough for conversation.

Saeldur is only glad he is spared the need to see so much of Aragorn's courtiers. He cannot truly blame the Man; no doubt it is an honour to host the Elven-prince, but all the same…

"He said he will teach me what I must know about the trees."

Saeldur forces himself to pay attention to Dalamus.

"Nobody better than Legolas to teach you about forests," he says. "Trees adore him."

"I have noticed," Dalamus says with a wry smile. "I doubt I will ever have his gift."

"Nobody does," Saeldur says cheerfully. "You might tend an oak for a hundred years and it will betray you in a moment for a few sweet words from the Elven-prince… as I have good reason to know."

"Prince Legolas has been very kind. He tells me the King will send men to Ordstan's hideaway to retrieve my son and any others he may have held hostage. Prince Legolas says he will go with them himself if necessary."

"You need not worry, then. Legolas will see that your son is returned to you."

"He suggests that I and… and others like me," Dalamus goes on in a rush, "others who were forced to help the Enemy and have been shunned because of it… and since turned to…" Dalamus' cheeks flush and he drops his gaze. "To outlawry."

Saeldur knows that expression.

"Now, when I think of all the ways in which I might have tried to avoid it," Dalamus goes on, confirming Saeldur's suspicion. "I could have fled to Minas Tirith with my family when the first Enemy threatened us. We might have been beggars, but we are little better now. At least my wife and children would not have had to live with the shame of my being branded a traitor. And certainly I should have done anything rather than stand by while my countrymen were taken and sold."

"Or, indeed," says Saeldur, "as every last one of the Elven-king's archers knows, better to do anything rather than disappoint Legolas."

"He has offered me the means of my redemption," Dalamus says gravely. "Me… and others who were led down a dark path, as I was. If King Elessar consents, then as his wardens we will not only preserve the forests, but protect the people from those who would harm them, whether Gondorian or other. More than that, we are to provide the King with all the information we can about those who were taken, and the King will see what can be done to retrieve them. If King Elessar can be persuaded… I would feel as though I had redeemed myself a little."

"I expect your King will consent to what Legolas wants," Saeldur says, not adding that Aragorn is not one of those noted for the ability to deny Legolas anything.

And indeed this is a good plan. Dalamus might have been given an impossible choice, but that he has caused harm is undeniable. His people might be more accepting of him if they see that he is trying to make amends.

"Prince Legolas thought so," Dalamus says. "He says if the border is safer, it will encourage trade between Gondor and Harad, which will please King Elessar. The Haradrim lords will not mind if we rescue our own, if we are also opening trade routes for them. Prince Faramir's rangers will teach us warcraft… Prince Legolas said that might be easier."

Saeldur only nods. He had worried about Dalamus, although he had expected – rightly – that Legolas would find a solution. Arwen, as always, will take Legolas' part, and between them they will convince Aragorn that it was for the best.

"You look tired," Dalamus says suddenly, "and Lord Gimli wanted to speak to you. I will fetch him."

Gimli?

Saeldur makes no protest, but he is surprised. There is little love lost between Saeldur and Gimli. Saeldur can admit, at least to himself, that he does not like Dwarves, and he surely cannot be expected to like one who claims every possible moment of Legolas' attention –

But, in fairness, the Dwarf did come with Legolas to help him.

Of course, he probably wanted to show off his own good nature, going to the rescue of an Elf he has never pretended to like –

"Elf," Gimli says, and Saeldur realizes that he is there. "You look better." He nods, and sits on the camp stool just vacated by Dalamus.

"I owe you thanks, Master Gimli."

"How difficult was that to admit?" Gimli smirks at him through his beard. "Legolas would never have forgiven himself if you had come to harm. He has been anxious about you… but that was to be expected. I want to speak to you about him."

"About Legolas?" Saeldur says warily.

Gimli eyes him, and shrugs. "We should get everything out in the open. You do not like me because you think I am trying to take your friend from you. I do not blame you for that, laddie. I might feel the same in your place. But do you not realize that if Legolas gives his attention to me, and to Aragorn and Faramir and the Hobbits and others who have been given what you Elves call the gift of Eru, it is precisely because we have been given the gift of Eru? We do not share the long years of companionship that you have shared with Legolas – and we never will."

Saeldur flushes. "Forgive me, I –"

Gimli waves him to silence. "I did not come to speak of that. I am here because he is giving me some cause for worry."

"Why?"

"As I said, he was anxious – about you. But since he first went to speak to Lord Naith, it is worse. He is less himself every time he returns from Naith's hall."

"I – I have not – seen enough of him –"

"Naturally not. You have barely been conscious. Legolas will not tell me what is happening there. Rochendilwen spoke to him, but I think he did not tell her anything either. She says he is avoiding you while you are awake, because he knows you will have the truth of him, one way or another. She says when he wants to hide something, he starts by hiding from you."

"He seldom tries to hide things from me, but if he does… yes." Saeldur makes a face. "If I had not needed so many of Feredir's draughts, I would have noticed. I doubt I will need more though. I feel far better."

"Feredir told me. I am pleased for you, but I expect Legolas will make an excuse not to see you."

"I leave that to your persuasive abilities," says Saeldur. "As soon as Legolas comes back, send him here. I will speak to him."


Legolas

Legolas cannot blame the minstrel. He obviously has no idea Legolas might not care for his songs. He might not even know that the Elven-queen in the lament is Legolas' mother. Mortals have very little conception of how long Elves live.

From Naith's smirk, he is enjoying Legolas' discomfort.

He thought he could cope – and he can cope, with a few lays, such as one might reasonably anticipate. Nobody, he thinks, can expect him to listen to hours of songs mourning his mother, especially after everything that has happened already –

But perhaps he deserves this, for allowing Saeldur to think –

"Where you learn these songs, Master Unwyn?" Legolas asks, hoping the minstrel will answer and give him a reprieve – and genuinely curious. The only Elves who have been in Gondor are Arwen, Elladan and Elrohir, and Legolas' friends in Ithilien. None of them is likely to have taught songs about Legolas' mother to a Mannish minstrel. For that matter, nobody in Eryn Galen is likely to have done it. Although the grief is distant –

And even as he thinks it, Legolas feels like a hand is clenching on his heart –

"They are in ancient books, Prince Legolas," says the minstrel. "I found them in Minas Tirith, in the library. I had much difficulty, but my lord bade me look for the songs of Eryn Galen that we might better understand our neighbours."

"Ancient books?"

"Four hundred years old. The pages were crumbling."

It has been more than four hundred years since his mother was murdered, and yet it seems to Legolas that the grief of that loss, and all its attendant sorrows, his mother's pain, his father's loneliness, are as fresh as on the day she died.

Never has Legolas felt more strongly the brevity of a mortal life. He will have to find the strength to face grief again, soon, for Aragorn and Gimli –

At least Saeldur is safe. Legolas could not have borne another loss to add to those he must already endure.

The minstrel is singing again. Another lament.

Was there not even one cheerful song in that book? The Wood-elves are a merry folk, and any traveller in the Woodland Realm could not help but hear mirthful songs about ill-behaved birds and unlikely talking deer.

"You are not eating," Lord Naith's mother says, with a pointed glance at Legolas' barely-touched plate. "Is the food not to your liking?"

"It is very good my lady," Legolas says, not untruthfully, bringing a forkful to his mouth. He chews, barely aware of what he is eating, listening to the minstrel, the words no less poignant for being translated into Westron.

He cannot help feeling like he deserves this. He knew Saeldur was troubled and did nothing about it. To be reminded of how badly things could have gone…

How he gets through the meal he does not know, but at the end of it, Lord Naith's sister draws him aside before they can follow the others into the sitting-room.

"You must know something about her," she says. "The Elven-queen in the songs. You look as though you did."

Legolas is taken aback for a moment. Until he joined the Fellowship, he had seldom met people who did not know his family history. He has no occasion to discuss his past with Estel's courtiers, and he simply assumed that Lord Naith knew – everyone who knows the songs mourning the Elven-queen knows also why Legolas does not like to listen to them.

His eyes flicker to the door through which Naith has just passed. Has he misjudged the man?

"I thought it must be something like that, when Naith bade Unwyn learn those songs. But Naith would not tell me what it was, only that he had reason to know you… well, he said he had reason to believe you would appreciate the gesture, but you have seen how he is. I knew he meant the opposite."

Legolas nods. Somehow it is worse to know Lord Naith meantto trouble him.

"Who was she?"

Legolas considers her carefully before he says, "She was my mother."

She gasps. "I am sorry. I thought… I know you are an Elf, but I thought you must be far too young for… Forgive me." After a pause, she goes on, "I… I heard there is a man called Dalamus with your company. He was among those who kidnapped your friend."

"Yes. He fell in with a group of evil intent, but I have hope that he will find redemption."

"I… I should explain, I think we owe you some measure of truth… but please do not tell anybody that I told you this. My sister-in-law… She loved Dalamus. Her father was a farmer. She wanted to wed Dalamus, but when Naith decided he wanted her instead…" She shrugs. "My brother is truly fond of her. He has treated her with honour. She has tried to be a good wife. But I think, if you had left Dalamus where you found him, Master Unwyn may have been singing other songs."

"Perhaps, if Master Dalamus had not committed the crime of once being loved by a farmer's daughter, he might not have been driven from his lands. His lord might have helped him find courage, instead of punishing him for the lack of it."

"I will not pretend to know the answer to that. Men can be vengeful."

"So can Elves, my lady," Legolas says ruefully.

It is another hour. Another hour of listening to songs, most of which Legolas has never heard before, describing in excruciating detail the beauty and torment of the Elven-queen, the malice of her murderer, and even of the courage of the young Elven-prince who could not save his mother – Legolas cannot keep from flinching at that, and he wonders if Naith put that part in; he cannot imagine any of his father's people doing it –

But at last it is over, and he can leave.

He hopes Saeldur is able to ride soon. He does not know how much more of this he can stand.


Saeldur

Saeldur manages, with Feredir's help, to sit on the edge of the cot. Then he orders everyone out of the tent.

It would be easier if he could persuade Legolas to go for a walk in the forest… but since that will have to wait until he is steadier on his feet, and Gimli and Rochendilwen both seem to think that whatever is troubling Legolas must be resolved now, the privacy of the tent will have to do.

He hears Legolas canter into the camp. There are voices – briefly – and then the tent flap is pulled open and Legolas is pushed inside – by Gimli, Saeldur guesses.

For a moment Legolas simply seems startled.

Then, as his eyes meet Saeldur's, there is a flicker of something. It is brief and gone in a second, but that second is long enough for Saeldur to identify it.

He knows that expression.

He hates that expression.

"I am going to kill Naith," Saeldur says.

"You cannot kill Estel's courtiers."

"For bringing that look to your face? The next time I encounter him, you will see how I do it. And King Elessar, if I know anything of him, will make no objections."

Legolas shakes his head, crosses the brief distance to Saeldur, and crouches to examine his ribs and still-bandaged right wrist.

"You seem better," he says at last, looking up into Saeldur's eyes.

"You will not go unchallenged on the archery field for long," Saeldur says lightly, and regrets the words when Legolas flinches as though Saeldur has struck him. "I was joking," he says hastily. "A stupid joke, I admit. Everybody knows that even I cannot outdo the finest archer of the Woodland Realm."

That does not bring a smile either.

Legolas holds his gaze a moment more. Then he lets his head fall to Saeldur's knee. He is shaking – not with tears, but with the effort of holding them back. It is on the tip of Saeldur's tongue to tell Legolas to weep if he must, but he stops himself. Legolas does not have to be strong for Saeldur, that is true, but there are others here – Duvain and Baralin, and Dalamus, and perhaps some of Naith's men lurking nearby. Legolas does not, at the moment, have the luxury of being anything other than the Prince of Eryn Lasgalen.

"Tell me about it," Saeldur says instead, "if it will help."

Legolas settles himself more comfortably on the ground. Saeldur is about to protest – but they are alone, after all, and Rochendilwen knows not to allow anyone in. He drops his uninjured hand to Legolas' head.

"Promise me you will not go and quarrel with Naith," Legolas says.

Saeldur frowns. That means Legolas thinks it is a very real possibility.

"Tell me what he did."

"He… he asked his minstrel to learn Sindarin songs." Legolas' head is bowed, so Saeldur cannot see if that look is in his eyes, but he suspects it might be. "Laments for my mother. I did not even know so many existed."

"Legolas."

"I thought… I thought I could stand it, now that it is… that Bregolien is…" Legolas shakes his head. "But it only reminded me of how much I failed her – just as I –"

"I hope you do not intend to say you failed me," Saeldur says. "Because I would have to be angry, and that is impossible when you are like this. And you did not fail the queen, Legolas. You know that. You were barely more than a child."

If he were capable of walking unaided, Saeldur would go and teach Naith some courtesy now, regardless of any difficulties Elessar might have later.

"You promised not to quarrel with Naith," Legolas says, guessing what is in his mind.

"I made no promises," Saeldur retorts. "But do not worry. At the moment I think it is best we return to Ithilien as soon as possible. I do not want to waste time on Naith."

Legolas looks up at him suspiciously, but then he relaxes. His eyes are far too bright: even now, the tears are not far.

"I am so sorry," Legolas murmurs.

"You know it was not your fault. They could have taken any of us. We should just be grateful it was not you, since none of the rest of us would have been able to persuade the trees in that forsaken place to help us mount a rescue."

Legolas shakes his head slightly. "I know that was not my fault, but… but you should never have thought you had to let them – let them hurt you as they did. If you thought I would hold it against you that you said whatever they wanted to spare yourself –"

"Dalamus told you about that, did he? Men never know when not to talk."

'Do not blame him. You were worried, and anxious to tell me, though you could not form the words –"

"If Dalamus had held his tongue, I would have told you, without making you feel bad about it. Do you think I did not know that you would forgive anything I said under those circumstances?"

"Then why –?"

"Are you truly asking me that? What would you have done?"

Legolas drops his head again. "If you can forgive me –"

"No, I cannot forgive you, Legolas, because you are not responsible for the actions of others. What do you want me to forgive you for? Saving me?"

"It is not that. I have been frightened."

Saeldur knows Legolas is not speaking of the Men now.

"Why?" he asks, although he thinks he knows the answer.

"Because…" Legolas shifts to look up at Saeldur again. "Because until… until it all… happened… I did not truly know how much you could hurt me, if… if you chose to." Colour is rising in his cheeks. "Saeldur, I… I know you would not. I trust you. I do. I am sorry."

Saeldur gives Legolas' arm a light tug. In response, Legolas gets up and sits on the camp stool.

"We are leaving tomorrow," Saeldur says. "At first light."

"We will see what Feredir says –"

"We are leaving tomorrow at first light," Saeldur repeats. "I can manage the ride well enough. There is no need for you to endure any more of Naith, and I cannot answer for my own restraint if see you again with that look on your face."

"I must return to see him tonight."

"You are not going."

"There is no choice," Legolas says. He sounds much calmer. "We will see what Feredir says tomorrow morning, but you are not fit to leave now."

"Tomorrow morning, then, Legolas," Saeldur insists. "We will leave tomorrow. I can handle the ride, I promise you." Legolas does not look convinced, but Saeldur will deal with that when the time comes. "Thank you," he goes on, "for what you did for Dalamus."

"I would have helped him in any case," Legolas says. "You do not have to thank me. Nor does he, as I already told him. If he should thank anyone, it is himself for showing kindness to you. For that he deserves anything I can do for him."

Saeldur knows Legolas well enough that the sudden, fierce embrace does not take him by surprise.


Legolas

For a man who complains so much about how unnatural Elves are, Naith seems to pay little heed to heightened Elven senses. The door that separates Lord Naith's sitting-room from the antechamber where Legolas is waiting is thick, but not enough to prevent Legolas from hearing as Naith harangues, in turn, his steward, a tenant farmer, a shepherd and – to Legolas' astonishment – even his sister, in the last case for growing too friendly with Legolas.

When he hears Naith snarl something about how his sister is making herself as foolish over an Elf's golden hair as the idiot girls of Minas Tirith, Legolas feels his cheeks flame. That Lord Naith should treat his sister so poorly on Legolas' account –

"I suppose I should not blame you," he hears Naith say, as clearly as if Legolas were standing beside him. The Man must be shouting. "The Elf must have used some mysterious magic to entrap you, to get his revenge on me. I have seen that he can be vindictive."

Suddenly Legolas realizes that Naith is, has been all along, fully aware that Legolas can hear him. He means to be heard.

This is almost worse than the laments for his mother. Under anything less than the present need, Legolas would not stand for it. But – bad enough that Saeldur is likely to insist on leaving tomorrow morning. He is in no condition to leave tonight.

Naith's vileness is unparalleled, if he is willing to speak to his sister in that manner in order to make Legolas uncomfortable.

"And what of you?" Naith's sister snaps suddenly, clearly pushed beyond endurance. "How dare you speak of anybody else as vindictive when all know that you made certain that miserable creature knew the Elves would be there? I am grateful they have taken him."

It takes a moment for the implication of her words to sink in. When it does, Legolas is furious.

He thought it was suspicious that the Men knew exactly where to wait – and he was right.

A door slams. A moment later, Legolas is summoned to Naith. He manages to remember to thank the man who leads him into the room. Something in Legolas' face seems to warn his guide not to linger. He bows and is gone in an instant, slamming the door in his haste.

Naith looks up.

The smirk dies on his lips as he takes in Legolas' expression.

"You did it," Legolas says. "Bad enough that you have been allowing this to happen on your land without trying to stop it, but you used those Men to try to do us harm. Saeldur might have been killed because of you."

Naith evidently realizes there is no point denying it, because he shrugs and says, "I should have known no good would come of provoking my sister. She always had a sharp tongue."

"That is what you regret?" Legolas forces himself to speak softly, but Naith's eyes widen in fear all the same. "You regret only that you were caught?" Legolas steps forward and closes his hands on the back of a chair, lest he be tempted to take up his bow. "Lord Naith, if we were in the Elven-king's halls, you would regret a great deal more."

"You are in my hall, Prince Legolas, lest you forget." Despite the brazen words, there is fear in Naith's voice.

"If I do forget, in these circumstances, Estel will understand." Naith pales visibly. "Take my word for it, Lord Naith."

Long experience in the Elven-king's court allows Legolas to keep his voice even. It seems to alarm Lord Naith more, because he scrapes his chair back from the table and looks towards the door.

"By all means summon your men," Legolas says. "If I intended to harm you, their presence would be no barrier."

"What do you want?"

"I want to warn you against any further attempt of this nature. I quite sympathize, my lord, with your fear that the presence of Elves will change your lands beyond recognition. So long as your antagonism is directed only towards me, I will overlook it. Threaten my friends again, and you will not find me so understanding. Do I make myself clear?"

"Abundantly, Prince Legolas."


Saeldur

Legolas returns with a very different expression on his face – one that Saeldur knows, and is grateful for.

"How far did he run?" Saeldur asks, as Feredir unwraps the bandages around his wrist to check it.

"He knows not to try to harm my friends again." At Saeldur's questioning glance, Legolas explains, "Naith told the slavers we would be there – and perhaps even that we would work separately in order to finish more quickly. That is how they knew to lie in wait."

"So you told him…"

"I told him I would overlook his enmity towards me but I would not be forgiving of anything he did to my friends."

Saeldur groans. "Legolas. You are not serious."

"Why?" Legolas sits on the edge of the cot. "How is he, Feredir?"

"Feredir," Saeldur says, "will you please help me talk some sense into this fool, who seems to have given Naith the impression that harm to Legolas will go unpunished?"

"Never mind Lord Naith. I can deal with him. Feredir –"

"Saeldur is much better," Feredir says, laughing. "We can leave tomorrow morning, if we do not ride too hard."

"Of course we can leave," Saeldur says. "And I will stop and speak to Naith on the way."

"You promised not to quarrel with him!" Legolas protests.

"I made no such promise, and in any case you know perfectly well that my oath to defend you supersedes all other promises. Feredir, I am certain it will do me no harm if we take a small detour to Naith's hall –"

"Feredir, it cannot possibly be good for Saeldur to get unduly excited about Lord Naith –"

"Enough!" Feredir holds up his hands, although there is still mirth in his voice. "Saeldur, I am sorry, but I will not allow you to hamper your healing by attempting to shoot Lord Naith –"

"I am one of Legolas' archers. I do not attempt to shoot anything."

"Drawing your bow will injure your hand further – no," Feredir says firmly. "I know you can use a knife or sword left-handed, but you are not going to do it now. We will go straight home. No detours."

"Perhaps if I speak to Rochendilwen," Saeldur says, "and explain to her that Legolas missed out important information when communicating with Lord Naith, she will agree with me about the need for greater clarity."

Legolas shakes his head. "We cannot terrorize Estel's courtiers."

"Are you telling me that Naith is not even a little frightened of you now?"

Legolas laughs, eyes gleaming. "If you must be specific, we cannot terrorize Estel's courtiers any more than I have done already."


Legolas

Legolas and Saeldur stand, blindfolded and back-to-back, in the centre of a ring of spectators.

Long ago, Rochendilwen decided to promise the archers that if they had a flawless showing on the night of the trials, they could devise any archery tests they chose for Legolas and Saeldur at the end of them. The archers have not managed it every time – even one arrow hitting anything other than the very centre of the target, or a fraction of a second after time is called, would count as a failure, for Legolas' archers.

But, when they do manage it, they tax their inventiveness to give Legolas and Saeldur far greater challenges than the weapons masters ever do.

"Lay your wagers for this round," someone calls – it sounds like Húrphen. Legolas would roll his eyes if he were not blindfolded. Away from the King's disapproval, the archers gamble as freely as Men in the taverns of Eriador.

"Last time you took a jewelled dagger from me," somebody else complains.

"Is it safe?" That whisper is obviously Éowyn. The archery trials are even more of a spectacle in Gondor than in Eryn Lasgalen. Faramir and Éowyn, along with most of Faramir's Rangers, make a point of coming, as do Aragorn and Arwen. That, of course, leads to a few courtiers from Minas Tirith arriving every year.

The Men were not behind the Elves in learning to wager on archery.

Elrohir laughs at Éowyn's question. "Considering that Lord Thorontur has not had oversight of the children's archery for some time, I would not rely on it. But even with their poor bowmanship, we should be in no danger."

Legolas knows a challenge when he hears it.

Without a moment's pause, he raises his bow and sends an arrow into the post behind Elrohir, an inch from his ear.

"Pitiful," Elrohir says. "Considering that you once sliced off a strand of my hair like that."

"I will slice of more than a strand of your hair if you go on," Legolas says.

"There will be no more talking," Rochendilwen says firmly. "From now on, Legolas and Saeldur will aim for every sound."

Legolas is expecting that it will not be made easy, so he is unsurprised when he hears the tinkling of eight clay practice balls flying into the air on Saeldur's side. Saeldur drops to one knee as he releases his first arrow, so that Legolas can turn and shoot over his head at the three leftmost. He leaves the others for Saeldur to handle and straightens in time to knock two balls out of the air on his side.

This round lasts ten minutes. When it is over, every ball shattered before it could hit the ground, Legolas and Saeldur pull off their blindfolds, but they do not leave the field. No doubt there is more to come.

"We could not have done that a month ago," Saeldur says, for Legolas' ears alone.

"That would have been disheartening," Legolas murmurs. "I am glad the archery trials were not a month ago."

"Opposite sides of the field," Rochendilwen orders. "And no quivers. Three arrows each, in your hands."

"I think we should introduce a new rule," Saeldur says when it is over. "Anything Legolas and I do at the archery trials, the rest of you will have to do in training."

Since he says this every time, and does not follow through on it because he knows it will cause chaos, nobody other than Dalamus takes him very seriously. He and the other Men who took advantage of Aragorn's offered amnesty are in Ithilien learning the art of tending forests from the Elves, and other skills from Faramir's Rangers.

"In Harad," one of the Men offers, "I have heard that archers shoot fruit off one another's heads. Perhaps you should try that."

The look Saeldur gives the Man is dire enough to melt gold.

"We do not do that," Húrphen says indignantly. "Not for the archery trials!"

"Enough," Legolas says. Húrphen smiles furtively – he knows as well as Legolas does that pursuing the subject is likely to try Saeldur's patience – bows, and bounds away.

"Legolas," Estel says, "I have been meaning to speak to you. I have had a letter from your father."

"What does he say?" Out of the corner of his eye, Legolas sees Saeldur flush guiltily, but he also looks very pleased with himself. Legolas turns to face him. "Saeldur, what did you do?"

"What does the King say?" Saeldur asks Estel, with an unmistakeable smirk.

"He suggested that the bottom of the Anduin might be a good place for Lord Naith," says Estel. "He also recommended pushing him into Orodruin and feeding him to an oliphaunt. I do not even have an oliphaunt."

"A lack we can correct, I am sure," Saeldur says brightly, "especially once the trade route is opened."

"Saeldur," Legolas says, "what did you do?"

He does not for a moment suppose that Saeldur would betray a confidence, even to his father, but the Elven-king does have a tendency to imagine the worst when it comes to people threatening Legolas.

Saeldur looks at Legolas in mild exasperation. "What do you think I did? I told the King only that Lord Naith does not like you and goes out of his way to show it and I thought it was time he did something about it." He pats Legolas on the shoulder. "No more than that, I promise. It appears he agrees with me, judging by his suggestions to Estel."

Estel is frowning. "I cannot, unfortunately, push Lord Naith into Mount Doom."

"I can," Saeldur says, with a hard edge to his voice that makes even Dalamus look at him warily. "If the King has ordered it – or even if he has not –"

"No," Legolas says. "Nobody is pushing anybody into Mount Doom."

"I have a better idea," Estel says quickly. "I think even you will approve, Saeldur. Dalamus and his companions," he goes on, smiling at Dalamus, "are now in the employ of the realm of Gondor. I think it is only fair that Lord Naith should cover their wages, since his land will benefit the most from their work. Trust me," he adds. "Lord Naith would probably prefer Mount Doom to parting with any of his money."

Saeldur smiles. "In that case, may I inform him?"

Legolas does not want to imagine what sort of visit Lord Naith will be getting from Saeldur. But Saeldur looks happier than he has in years, and perhaps Lord Naith deserves it.


THE END