Disclaimer: I borrow characters and situations from Tolkien, but they are his not mine. I gain only the enriched imaginative life that I assume he intended me to gain.

Author's Note: Big thanks to Nilmandra who beta read this chapter.

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1. Arrival at Imladris (October 22, 3018 TA)

Legolas picked his way carefully down the steep descent that led down from the western edge of the Misty Mountains. Behind him, he heard his horse's hooves slip slightly on the loose pebbles beneath his feet and then recover their hold. The echo off the red rock walls rising on either side of them made it sound as if a rock slide was in progress. He glanced back to see how his three companions were faring in the deep shadow of the cutting. Amdir and Beliond seemed to be navigating the slope successfully, but Annael's horse was struggling and he was whispering reassuringly into the animal's ear. Legolas paused to let Annael gentle the horse into proceeding.

"How much further?" asked Amdir irritably. "Surely we should have met Imladris guards by now. Or does Lord Elrond allow visitors simply to ride up to his house?"

Beliond smiled rather grimly at the young warrior's incredulity. The Woodland stronghold of their own King Thranduil was heavily protected from intruders, and any strangers would have seen the arrows of Wood-elf archers long before getting this close to it. "They say that Lord Elrond has means other than warriors to guard his realm," he told Amdir. "Moreover," he added, "that you have not seen the guards does not mean that there have been none."

"Indeed," agreed Legolas. "We have almost certainly been under observation since we picked up the path leading down toward the valley. I would say that Elrond's people have been taking our measure and that we should be doing our best to look friendly. I believe that Lord Elrond is hospitable, but I would not want to irritate him or his warriors unnecessarily. The news we bring is unhappy enough already."

Annael now approached them with his horse more steady on its feet, and Legolas turned back to lead his party around a bend. Suddenly, as at the end of a dark tunnel, an opening flooded with bright sunshine appeared. And there, waiting for them, was what he had been expecting since they had crossed the High Pass. Two Elves stood with the light at their back, undoubtedly able to see Legolas's party far better than they themselves could be seen. They carried bows seemingly casually in their hands, but the bows were not armed with arrows, much less drawn, as the bows of Mirkwood guards would have been in similar circumstances. Legolas could not help but suspect, though, that these guards were not the only ones whose eyes were upon them. And the bows of the Mirkwood Elves were on their backs, not in their hands, making them innocuous looking enough.

"Mae govannen," one of the guards hailed the Mirkwood Elves.

Next to Legolas, Amdir snorted. "He sounds as if he is holding his nose," he muttered. Legolas threw him a sharp glance and, not for the first time, wondered about his own wisdom in selecting Amdir to be part of this mission. Truth be told, he too found the guard's accent a bit pretentious, but he was not about to encourage Amdir's prejudices concerning the Imladris Elves.

"Mae govannen," Legolas called back. "We are emissaries from King Thranduil of the Woodland Realm come with a message for Lord Elrond."

"Approach," the guard invited, and he and his companion waited until the horses of the Mirkwood party had scrambled down the last of the steep incline and gained solid footing in the grass beyond.

Legolas introduced his three companions and then himself. "I am Legolas, son of Thranduil," he said and watched the guard's eyes widen slightly. Mirkwood Elves were a very rare sight away from the forest of their home, and a son of the Woodland king would be a completely unexpected visitor.

The guard inclined his head slightly. "My lord," he said, "you have a message for Lord Elrond?"

"Yes, one I must deliver to him personally," Legolas stressed, afraid that the guards would keep them from approaching any closer to Elrond's house. Although it would be a relief to send his message through another, his father's charge and his own honor required that he speak to Elrond himself.

The guard seemed to accept his assertion equably however. "Nórith will accompany you and show you the way," he said. "But first," he hesitated slightly, "may I ask if you have seen anything unusual in the last two days?"

Legolas frowned. "No," he said. "Of what do you speak?"

The guard hesitated again and then shrugged. "The night before last, Nazgûl attempted to cross the Ford of Bruinen but were swept away by the river."

Shock swept through Legolas, and he heard one of his party (Annael, he thought) draw a sharp breath. The Mirkwood Elves were only too well acquainted with the Nazgûl; they had lived in the shadow of Dol Guldur for too long.

"What were they doing here?" Legolas demanded.

"I will let Lord Elrond tell you that," said the guard. Then he turned and signaled to Nórith, who whistled softly, calling a bay horse from the dense trees that grew up to the edge of the cutting. He mounted and motioned for the Wood-elves to mount too and follow as he led them along a path that would not have been discernible without their guide's help. Legolas hoped that they were nearing Imladris when valleys began to drop sharply away on either side of them. As each new sheltered area appeared, he scanned it eagerly for signs of the waterfalls that he had been told created perpetual music in Elrond's refuge. Finally, they began to descend along a path that was narrow enough that they again had to dismount and lead their horses. The scent of pine trees was heady in the air, and the murmur of falling water began to grow. As they rounded a sharp bend, the House of Elrond appeared in front of them, surrounded by the houses of the people of Imladris. They crossed a last bridge and stopped before a wide porch.

Legolas had to admit that he was a bit daunted by the house before him and indeed even by the lesser houses surrounding it. It was not simply that Elrond's house was large; Thranduil's palace was large enough to serve as a refuge for his people should the occasion ever arise. But Thranduil's palace was in a cave carved from a hillside and thus was not visible from the outside. And the Elves who lived near the palace lived in simple cottages or in even simpler shelters on flets in the trees. Elrond's house rose before him in a size that he found imposing. And in addition to that, the house and those around it were spectacularly beautiful. Their stonework was so delicately devised that it looked like lace, and they were open to the trees and waterfalls around them. Graceful towers rose above the tree tops, and balconies extended from the buildings, blurring the line between outside and inside. And always, there were the waterfalls, running down the sides of the valley and leaping through its center. Legolas had to consciously close his mouth to keep from gaping.

He glanced at his companions. Annael and Amdir looked as overawed as Legolas felt. Of the four of them, only Beliond had previously been to an Elven realm other than Mirkwood. He was of Thranduil's generation and had been to both Imladris and Lorien. He now was looking studiously unimpressed.

Legolas suddenly became aware that an Elf was waiting to take his horse. Embarrassed to have been caught staring, he handed over his horse and allowed Nórith to lead them up the stairs and into the house. He turned right toward the doors of what was evidently Elrond's Great Hall, where a herald in a tunic richly threaded with silver waited to announce them. Nórith gave their names to the herald and then bowed slightly and left them. The herald opened the doors and announced them, and a moment that Legolas had been unhappily anticipating for two months had arrived.

Straightening his back, he led his companions toward the other end of the room. Legolas had only a moment to take in a dark-haired, noble Elf who was wearing a circlet of silver. He placed his right hand over his heart, bowed, and then stood with his eyes cast respectfully downward, waiting politely for his host to speak first.

Elrond had been alerted that Elves clad in the green and brown of Mirkwood had come down the eastern path, but he had not realized until the herald announced them that one of them was the son of Thranduil. He had recognized that Legolas must be that son the moment he had set eyes on him. The blond hair that father and son shared was highly unusual among Wood- elves. Now he was disconcerted by his guests' silence and their failure to meet his eyes. With a jolt, he recalled his previous encounters with Mirkwood Elves, including the father and grandfather of the young Elf who stood before him. He had learned through painful misunderstandings that politeness customs differed and now drew out that knowledge to use again.

"Mae govannen," he said. "I welcome you to Imladris." Their eyes came up and met his.

"Mae govannen," said Legolas. "I bear a message for you from King Thranduil, my lord, one that I have been charged to deliver in private."

Again, Elrond blinked at the abruptness. There was indeed no doubt that these were Wood-elves, he thought in some amusement. "Of course," he said and turned to ask an attendant to clear the room. At that moment, a messenger entered in breathless haste.

"Lord Elrond," he said without waiting to be recognized. "You are needed quickly in the hobbit's chamber."

Elrond rose immediately. "Forgive me," he said to Legolas. "I must see to this at once. We will speak later." He turned to an attendant. "See to it that the Mirkwood warriors are made comfortable in the barracks, and prepare a guest room in the house for Lord Legolas. All of you, please join us in the Hall for evening meal." With that, he swept from the room, leaving the Mirkwood Elves startled by what they took to be an unseemly lack of interest in their news. Surely asking for privacy had given sufficient signal of the importance of their mission. They exchanged glances, but Legolas only shrugged and gestured in the direction of the attendant who was now waiting to show the warriors to their quarters.

Legolas allowed himself to be led along several long corridors and up a stairway to a guest chamber that was unlike any room in which he had ever stayed before. The exterior "walls" were almost non-existent, being completely open to a balcony, with a curtain ready to be drawn across them when the room's inhabitant desired privacy. The bed was huge, with silken hangings that drifted like gossamer in the breeze from the balcony. Staying in the room, he reflected, would be rather like staying on a flet that had been furnished with unheard of opulence. He stepped out on to the balcony and had barely had time to be struck once again by the omnipresence of falling water before a servant brought his packs into the room. The servant offered to put his things away, but Legolas dismissed him, more desirous of being alone than anything else.

Exploring further, he found that a door discreetly set in one wall led to a bathing chamber with its own boiler in which a fire burned. The thought of a hot bath after so long a journey almost made him groan aloud. He began stripping off his travel-stained clothes and then went to draw the curtain across the balcony in the sleeping chamber. The inhabitants of Imladris might feel comfortable with that degree of exposure, he thought, but he did not.

He eased his way into the tub, hot water rising to his shoulders, and then submerged completely, savoring the feel of the water flooding his scalp. He surfaced again and reached for the soap resting in a small silver dish on the tub's edge. As he raised the soap to his face, he realized that it was floral scented. Of course it would be, he thought a little sourly, and then wondered why he was being so sharp. This Elven realm was just different enough from home to make him uncomfortable, he realized. He felt out of place. All the more reason to deliver their news to Elrond quickly and depart.

As he lay in the hot water, he thought about the events that had led to this mission: the captive creature they had been entrusted with, the kindness they had extended, the Orcs, the dead or taken guards. That had been in June, and they had searched for Gollum long and hard before losing all track of him. By August, however, they had realized that they had to tell Mithrandir of the escape and had decided that the best way to reach the wizard was through Elrond. Legolas had determined immediately that the task should fall to him. He had been responsible for the arrangements by which Gollum was held. The escape was thus the consequences of his choices, and he should be the one to stand before Elrond and tell of it. He had volunteered and Thranduil had agreed to his going, suggesting to Legolas that he too placed the need to account for their failure squarely on Legolas's shoulders. Thranduil had never flinched from holding his sons accountable for their actions. Legolas sighed. That pity should be a mistake saddened him, and despite what had happened, he clung to the idea that their kind treatment of Gollum had been a chance worth taking.

The bath had cooled as he brooded on the past. Finally, he shook himself free of useless regrets, climbed out of the tub, and padded into the sleeping chamber to find clothes that he thought were formal enough to wear to evening meal in Elrond's Hall. He pulled on loose dark trousers and a long, high-collared silk shirt. Over these he donned a sleeveless, dark green surcoat that buttoned up the front with ornate silver buttons and was slit up both sides. He tucked his pants into his boots, belted the surcoat, and attached his long knife in its elegantly tooled scabbard. Dressed as he was now, he could have gone to a high feast in Thranduil's Hall, he thought wryly. He trusted his appearance would meet the standards of an evening meal at the house of Elrond.

Worried about finding his way back to the Hall when the bell rang, he set off early, a decision that proved wise because he did, indeed, get turned around and wound up at an exit leading to a porch on what he thought was the opposite side of the house from the one he was seeking. He was turning to reenter the hallway and try again when a voice from the porch called to him: "Ah, young Thranduilion. I heard you had arrived. Well-met."

He stepped out onto the porch and looked in the direction from which the voice had come. There resting on a bench was the first welcome face that Legolas had seen in Imladris. "Well-met, indeed, Mithrandir," he cried, first bowing with his hand over his heart and then advancing to embrace the wizard. Good, he thought. He could tell Mithrandir directly of Gollum's escape, and he and his party could be on their way as early as tomorrow.

Mithrandir returned the embrace and smiled benignly at this youngest son of Thranduil. He had known Legolas since birth and had seen him develop from a charming, if noisy, child, to a rebellious youth, to an unusually capable warrior whose loyalty to his family and his people was absolute. You could say what you liked about Thranduil, Mithrandir thought, and he himself had occasionally said much - "unapproachable" being the mildest term that came to mind immediately. But he appeared to have a gift for raising sons. In the harsh world of Mirkwood, all three had all proven to be reasons for hope. Mithrandir was delighted to find one of them in Imladris now, when crucial events were beginning to unfold.

"Come walk with an old man," he invited, "and tell me how you like Imladris."

Legolas offered Mithrandir his arm to lean on and hesitated before answering. "It is very beautiful," he finally temporized.

Mithrandir chuckled. "Seems a bit decadent, you mean to say?" he asked.

"No," Legolas protested. "It is just different from what I am used to. I had thought that Elven realms would be more alike, but this is as different from Mirkwood as the towns of the Lakemen are. Although in a more elegant way, of course," he added.

"You will find it more alike than different in the ways that matter, I think," said Mithrandir.

"I am sure that you are right," Legolas hastened to agree. Then he brought up a subject that he had been wondering about since their meeting with the guards at the end of the cutting. "The guards who met us today said that the Nazgûl had attempted to cross the Ford of Bruinen the night before last. Do you know anything about that?"

"The Nazgûl and what they are looking for is a long story about which you will undoubtedly hear more," responded Mithrandir. "Indeed, your arrival is fortuitous. Elrond is hoping to hold a council and your contribution to it will undoubtedly help us to better understand the situation we are facing."

Legolas blinked. He could not imagine what Mithrandir assumed his "contribution" would be to a council held by Lord Elrond. "Perhaps," he said, "but the council would need to be soon. I have a message to deliver to you, Mithrandir, and then my companions and I must be away home again. We are needed there."

"Ah, well," said Mithrandir vaguely. "Perhaps your message can be delivered at the council."

Legolas frowned, trying to work out what Mithrandir was hinting at and then decided that directness on his own part was the most useful course. He drew a deep breath. "The creature you left us to guard has escaped," he said bluntly.

Mithrandir patted his arm comfortingly. "I know," he said peaceably.

Legolas stared at him. "What do you mean? How could you know?" He checked himself. Of course Mithrandir knew. He was Mithrandir.

Mithrandir sighed. "How I know is a long story that will be told at the council," he said. "And your story must be told there as well."

Legolas was suddenly annoyed. Why was Mithrandir insisting that he tell of Mirkwood's failure to hold Gollum at a public gathering? Did he intend it as some sort of punishment? "I am charged to return home as soon as possible," he said stiffly. "I cannot linger for some council that Lord Elrond 'hopes' to hold."

"'As soon as possible' can mean many things," said Mithrandir serenely. "I am afraid that I do not believe you will have discharged your duty to me until you have spoken of this matter at the council. Until then, you must say nothing of it to anyone, not even Lord Elrond."

Legolas opened his mouth to protest this high-handed treatment, but at that moment, a servant approached seeking Mithrandir. "Lord Elrond asks you to come to the hobbit's chamber," he told him.

Mithrandir patted Legolas's arm again, bid him good evening, and immediately set off after the servant, leaving Legolas frustrated and puzzled. I forgot to ask about the hobbit, he thought irrelevantly. I wonder if it is the one who was at the Lonely Mountain. He was acquainted with Elrond, as I recall.

Then the bell rang calling him to evening meal and all thoughts except finding his way to the Hall were temporarily forgotten.