Set about eleven years after The Hobbit.

I've been relatively inactive in fanfic for a long time, but I'm celebrating the publication of my first novel, FINDERS KEEPERS, is out. It's really real, on Amazon and everything.

Ada's Little Girl

"Legolas?" Alfirin said.

Legolas looked up from the double knife sheath he had spread on the sitting room table. He'd just concluded the worn straps might not be salvageable, which was a pity because the design on them had been worked by his father as a begetting day gift.

Alfirin's loom had been clacking away with fierce speed as she wove yet another soft wrap for her soon-to-be-born daughter. Legolas had taken the clatter as a sign of her tension but hadn't asked its source because he thought he already knew. Ithilden was late returning from his inspection of the Eastern Border Patrol, and Alfirin was worried he wouldn't reach home in time for the baby's birth on the day after tomorrow.

"I am becoming concerned about Ithilden," Alfirin said.

Legolas traced a finger over the leaf design on one sheath strap. "Do you sense danger to him through your bond?"

She hesitated. "I am not sure. It can be hard to tell with Ithilden because he never believes he's anything but invincible."

Legolas returned her wry smile. He knew what she meant. Ithilden was one of the rocks in Legolas's life, in the lives of everyone who knew him really. "You are uneasy though?"

"Perhaps I am just anticipating what I will do to him if he misses this birth." She was aiming at a joke, but he heard the underlying fear.

"Would you like me to go to meet him?"

"If you would, please." She sat back on her bench, looking relieved.

He rose, gathering his work as he did. "If it will make you easier, of course. I'll get ready at once." He went to his room and loaded a change of clothes into his saddlebag. Surely he wouldn't need more than one. Ithilden would hack through a pack of a thousand Orcs to be there for this baby. As far as Legolas could tell, his oldest brother intended to guard this child from being harmed by so much as a cool breeze. Legolas didn't have to think hard to know why. Ithilden still blamed himself for the death of his son.

As he reached for his door latch, the raised voice of his other sister-by-marriage, Celuwen, came from the hall. "Loriel, where did you get that? I told you no honey cakes until after your evening meal."

"Grandfather gave it to me," Loriel piped. "He gave me one for the baby too, but he said I would have to eat it for her, so I already did."

Knowing what was likely to happen next, Legolas waited, unwilling to step onto a battlefield raging with someone else's fight.

"No!" Loriel wailed. "Don't take it!" Her cries faded as Celuwen presumably led her away.

Cautiously, Legolas poked his head out. From the library down the hall, his brother Eilian also peeked out. Eilian grimaced. "Loriel is apparently at what Celuwen says is at a 'difficult stage.'" His eyes went to the saddlebag. "Are you going somewhere?"

"Alfirin wants me to retrieve Ithilden."

Eilian's face lit up. "I will come too."

Legolas looked down the hall in the direction Celuwen and Loriel would have gone. "Coward."

"Just an Elf who knows his own limits. Celuwen is much better at this than I am. I give in too easily. I can't stand it when Loriel cries."

"Evidently neither can Adar. Oddly I don't remember his handing out cakes when I was an elfling."

"Me either," Eilian said. "Maybe Celuwen is right, and it would be better for Loriel if we had a house of our own. But I hate to remove her from the safety of the stronghold. Give me a moment to pack." Eilian hustled away and returned quickly, carrying a saddlebag and grinning widely. "Celuwen is planning to speak to Adar. I'm tempted to stay to watch, but we're better off out of everyone's line of fire.

Legolas laughed. He would be glad for his brother's company. Once Ithilden's baby was born, Legolas was due to take up the captaincy of the Southern Patrol. Eilian had led that patrol for years. Legolas had been meaning to ask for whatever advice Eilian could give, and this would be a good chance. More than that though, after he'd gone south, Legolas wouldn't see his family for months. Every moment with them would form a memory to be retrieved and treasured when he was far away.

They left the stronghold and headed for the stables. "I assume we are not telling Beliond and Maltanaur about this," Eilian said.

"We are going east, probably not far from the stronghold, and we are both warriors. I see no need for bodyguards." Legolas grinned at his brother, who grinned back, looking more than ever like an elfling escaping from the schoolroom.

"They'll make us pay," Eilian said cheerily as he slung his saddlebag over his horse's back and led it out of its stall.

"I expect so." Legolas couldn't claim to care. He intended to enjoy these last few days of freedom before he had to resume living with Beliond never out of reach and nagging about Legolas's safety.

In the stableyard, they mounted and headed east, taking the same trail Ithilden had taken when he left and would undoubtedly follow on his return. For the most part, it edged the Forest River. The spring afternoon slid over Legolas's skin and into his body and fea. The song of the trees changed as he and Eilian passed, including warm notes they always sang for Legolas, entwined with the lighter ones that belonged to his brother.

They came to a point where a stream crossed their path to empty into the river, and as they turned upstream toward where the ford lay, Legolas spotted a mound of freshly turned earth near the bottom of a slope running up to their right. "What's that?" He dismounted and walked a few steps to investigate.

On its south side, the rise sheltered a hollow where Legolas remembered camping once when he'd been with the Border Patrol. It had been no more than a yard deep, barely enough to shelter him, Beliond, and their horses from an icy rain. Now he saw that someone had been digging it deeper. Or trying to. Whoever it was had hit rock in all directions and apparently abandoned the effort.

"What do you suppose this was for?" Eilian asked. A scout to the bone, he was already scouring the ground, looking for an answer to his own question.

Legolas joined him in the search. With the arrival of the Nazgul at Dol Guldur, the woods had become too dangerous to let any intruder escape unnoticed. Not that his father had ever wanted an intruder to escape unnoticed, of course. But Thranduil's concern had strengthened along with the threat to the forest, as if he shared its very being, which, in truth, Legolas thought he did.

"Two people." Eilian pointed to a barely perceptible disturbance in the leaf litter. "A Man and a boy. Also a mule. Three days ago, I'd say."

"From Esgaroth?" Legolas asked.

"Probably. I can't tell."

Legolas rubbed his forehead. His father's people and the Men of the lake were allies, but Men still weren't allowed to roam the woods at will. They didn't respect it enough and were often careless enough to damage it. Witness the overhang on this rise that would now be more likely to collapse. "Were they searching for something?"

"It looks like it, but I can't imagine what." Eilian looked east, the direction the Men's traces led.

Legolas had no trouble reading his brother's thoughts. Ithilden was inexplicably late. A Man and a boy were inexplicably digging in the woods. In two strides, he and Eilian were on their horses and heading for the ford.

#

Tonight, Ithilden thought. If he kept riding after dark, he'd reach home tonight. Riding by yourself at night is dangerous, whispered a disapproving voice in his head, a voice that sounded disturbingly like his own.

Not this close to home, he assured himself.

What if something goes wrong?

Nonsense. Surely everything that could go wrong already had.

At that moment, his horse stumbled and began to limp.

Ithilden was so stunned by the treachery of the world that he halted his horse and remained on its back for a long moment, as if the horse's state would change if Ithilden only waited a bit and tried again. First, spiders had attacked the Eastern Border Patrol just as Ithilden and his guards were leaving for home. Then both his guards had been bitten. The Border Patrol's captain had tried to send one of his men with Ithilden as a guard, but the patrol was short-handed after the battle, and they needed to scour the area to make sure they'd rid it of spiders. Frantic to be home, Ithilden assured everyone he would be fine on his own.

"Thinks nothing would dare attack him," he overheard one of his guards mutter.

"He's probably right," an injured Border Patrol warrior whispered back.

Ithilden ignored them and set off despite it being well past mid-day. Now here was the Valar's joke on him, a reward for his hurry.

He slid to the ground, and, murmuring reassuring words to the horse, he inspected the foot it was favoring. A stone was lodged deep. He pried it out with his dagger, but it had gouged a hole that would need rest to heal.

Straightening, he looked west toward home and fought down a moment of panic. He'd have to walk, leading the horse, but he would still reach home some time late tomorrow with time to spare for his daughter's birth. It would be fine. He simply couldn't dawdle.

Clucking to the horse, he set off. What would his little girl be like? He pictured her, soft-spoken and gentle like Alfirin. Ithilden would teach her to play the harp. He'd have to keep her under close guard as long as Sauron's creatures lurked in the woods. She probably shouldn't be allowed more than a league from the stronghold. He could make that a rule. His daughter would understand that he was guiding her out of love and long wisdom.

He became aware that the trees' song had shifted to include a questioning lilt, a note of curiosity. He snapped to attention. His hand going to the hilt of the sword on his hip, he turned in a full circle, looking for anything unusual, anything out of place. He stopped, facing the Forest River. Something felt wrong in that direction.

He hesitated. Maybe he could keep on his way and send someone else back to investigate. Even the thought sent a powerful wave of guilt rippling through him. Still, turning away from the path home gave him an almost physical pain. He felt like a fish on a line being relentlessly drawn in, freeing himself only by tearing the hook through his own flesh.

He murmured an order to his horse to stay where it was and, sword in hand, crept silently toward whatever strangeness the trees were reacting to. Through the tree trunks, he glimpsed a lighter gray shape. It shifted and he recognized a mule.

"What do you see?" called a woman's voice. "Do you want the shovel?"

Ithilden emerged from the trees to see a slim figure in dark leggings and a leather jerkin. A young woman stood with a shovel in one hand and the other hand braced against a rock while she bent to peer into an opening between two boulders. The nearby river bank had newly crumbled, probably from the spring floods. That must have shifted the rocks to open a space between them because Ithilden had never seen it before and none of his warriors had reported it.

"What do you think you're doing?" Ithilden demanded. Driven by his anger at being delayed, the question sounded threatening even to him.

With a frightened squeak, the woman whirled toward him. The shovel slipped from her grip and vanished down what was evidently a hole. A man howled. "Watch what you're doing, Sera! You nearly took my foot off."

"There's an Elf here, Father," she said in a slightly shaky voice.

"Move." Ithilden pointed his sword to a place near the pile of supplies at the mule's feet. The girl—Sera—slowly obeyed. They circled one another until Ithilden could peer into the hole.

It was surprisingly deep, perhaps twenty feet. A rope was tied around a boulder, dangling down to where a man sat scowling and rubbing one foot. A lantern flickered somewhere out of Ithilden's sight.

"Come out of there," Ithilden ordered.

"Give me a moment," the man said. "My daughter just crippled me."

"Get up," Ithilden said unsympathetically. What kind of man took his daughter with him on a raid into the Woodland Realm? "You need to be out of the Elvenking's woods. Count yourself lucky I mean to let you leave." No need to say he didn't have time to fool with this careless father.

"Toss that sword as far away as you can," Sera said.

Ithilden turned to find her, bow drawn, pointing an arrow at him. He tightened his hand on his sword hilt, then looked at the arrow and rethought. As unthreateningly as he could, he threw his sword into the underbrush.

"Now, go on your way." Sera smiled sweetly. "Count yourself lucky I mean to let you leave."

"You're in the Woodland Realm," Ithilden said evenly. "You can't possibly expect to be left alone to take whatever it is you're looking for."

"I do expect it." She raised her chin, the arrow jittering a little. Ithilden flinched. "The treasure is ours. That Hobbit took what belonged to Dale."

"Hobbit? You mean Bilbo?"

She jerked a nod. The arrow wobbled again. "Everyone knows he buried some of it in a cave. It was so heavy, he couldn't carry it all."

"I believe Bilbo found treasure in a cave. He didn't leave it. And the cave wasn't here. What's more, he didn't even return through the woods after the Battle of Five Armies, so he couldn't have left treasure here, even if he had it, which he didn't. I was at that battle. He left with next to nothing."

"Liar." To his dismay, she sounded close to tears. "He took what once belonged to my family. I need it for a dowry." Her voice rose to a wail. "Mica wants to marry me, but he can't unless I have a dowry."

"What's going on up there?" the man called. "Sera, what are you doing?"

The rope wiggled and jerked taut. Ithilden risked a glance back and saw the man about halfway up the rope. Ithilden gave him credit for wanting to protect his now weeping daughter, but he noticed the father had jumped to the conclusion that she must be the one "doing" something.

Where the rope stretched over the edge of the hole, a few pebbles broke off, and then a good yard of earth gave way. Ithilden leapt for safety as Sera's father gave a shout of pain. An arrow whizzed past Ithilden's ear, accidently (he assumed) released as Sera rushed to look.

Ithilden grabbed her arm. "Don't get too close to the edge." He took the opportunity to relieve her of her weapon.

"Father, are you all right?" she cried.

"No, I am not all right! Sauron's snot, I think my leg is broken."

Sera glared at Ithilden "This is your fault. Let go of me, and help him."

Ithilden had a brief, satisfying fantasy of tossing her in the hole too and leaving. Instead, he let her go. "Stand back." He edged toward the hole, gripping the rope, just in case. The man was once again huddled on the ground, with the shovel next to him. "Tie the rope around your chest," Ithilden called. "I'll haul you up."

The seated man reached for the end of the rope, but it dangled a yard above his fingertips. He dragged himself directly under it and tried to stand, but his leg gave way immediately. "I don't think I can," he ground out through gritted teeth.

This was taking too long. Ithilden hoped the mule and Sera could get the man to a healer on their own because he had no time to do it. He supposed he'd have to splint any break first, but that was it. Then he'd leave.

Gripping the rope with both hands, he gave Sera a fierce glare. "Stay away from the edge." He played the rope out and let himself down into the hole. The wall he slid down was earth held together by tree roots, but a curve of rock arced away like an underground cave. The lantern whose light he'd seen from above rested between two rocks near a gap the man must have been exploring when Ithilden arrived.

He jumped the last two yards and crouched next to the man. "Let me see your leg, sir." He sliced the man's trouser leg with his dagger.

"Call me Fodor," the man said. "And you?"

Ignoring the question, Ithilden slid his fingers along Fodor's right shin. The man howled.

"Broken." Ithilden sat back on his haunches. "Not badly though." He should splint or otherwise protect the break before he dragged Fodor to the surface. He could use the shovel handle, but that would make hauling him out awkward. Better to just immobilize it with straps for now. He unbuckled his belt and gestured for Fodor to do the same.

"Not much for chitchat, are you?" Fodor handed over his belt.

Ithilden wrapped the thick leather around as securely as he could, then stood. He helped Fodor to his feet and propped him against the wall on his good leg while he tied the rope around his chest. "I'll pull you out as soon as I get to the top. Be ready."

Fodor nodded, teeth still clenched.

Ithilden reached for the rope and pulled on it as he walked his feet up the wall.

"What's taking so long?" Sera called. "How badly is he hurt?"

A pebble struck Ithilden's shoulder, and his foot slipped. He looked up to find Sera peering down at him. "Move away," he ordered.

"You're slipping. You need help." She grabbed at the rope where he could just glimpse it rising to the boulder anchoring it. She leaned as if trying to pull. "No!" she suddenly cried.

The rope slackened and crumpled toward Ithilden's face. He crashed to the ground beside Fodor. Sera shrieked, and he saw only a blur before she landed on top of him, still clutching the other end of the rope. Ithilden lay stunned but otherwise unhurt.

He was in a hole with a Man, his daughter, and a tangle of rope. He would need a few moments to gather his resources.