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

Thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter.


1. Dodging Attacks

"Faster! Go! Go! Go!" shouted Lómilad, urging the Elves through the trees. Legolas twisted and turned, flinging himself through the branches and seeking the dense cover that would lessen his chances of being a target for the short Orc bows that twanged below them. Despite the extra conditioning that he had been doing daily for the last six months, his breath was starting to come in ragged gulps, for this chase had been going on for over an hour and this was not the first time today that they had been required to flee through the trees. Off to his left, he caught occasional glimpses of Annael, and he could tell that Annael too was tiring. The burning in his own lungs and arm muscles told him that he would not be able to keep going at this break neck speed for too much longer.

Fortunately, he did not have to, for just as this thought occurred to him, their goal came into sight. Through the trees, he could see the clearing where safety beckoned. He focused on it, trying to distract himself from his own exhaustion. Suddenly, something skimmed past his ear, entirely too close for comfort. Startled, he drew on the last reserve of his waning strength and leapt forward into the sunlit glade.

He landed on the grass with a roll that broke his fall and left him lying on his back, gasping for air. Isendir had reached the clearing a few seconds before Legolas had. Now Annael burst quickly into sight, and Galelas and Tonduil followed. The five novices lay panting on the ground as the three masters emerged from the trees, breathing heavily from their own run, although they had covered only the last half of the course, replacing two other masters who by now were home trading in the stubby Orc bows for the longer and far more elegant Elven ones. Penntalion, the archery master, grimaced at the bow he now held, which looked particularly awkward strung with the slingshot like device that had enabled him and Maldor, the unarmed combat master, to fire brittle, clay pellets at the novices as they scrambled through the trees.

"On your feet," ordered Lómilad, the novice master, and the five young Elves struggled upright. They were beginning to recover although Legolas was certain that all five of them shared the unspoken hope that they were not going to be ordered to repeat the drill again today. "Who was hit?" Lómilad asked.

Reluctantly, Tonduil and Galelas stepped forward. They both had tell-tale streaks of crumbled clay on their clothes, and Tonduil was rubbing the spot on his arm where the pellet had struck. The pellets were unlikely to do much harm, but, as Legolas knew only too well, they stung sharply on impact.

"What happened?" Lómilad asked them.

They paused, glancing at one another to see who would speak first. Tonduil finally sighed and spoke. "I was too low in the branches," he said, "so that the pellets had time to find me before I had time to move. I realized my mistake and started to climb, but it was too late."

Lómilad nodded and turned his gaze inquiringly to Galelas. "I was in an area where the foliage was too sparse," he said somewhat defensively.

"And what were you doing there?" Lómilad asked briskly. "Could you not see that such an area was ahead and adjust your course?"

Galelas grimaced. "Yes," he said grudgingly.

"Then do so the next time," responded Lómilad. He turned to Penntalion and Maldor. "Does either of you have anything to add?" he asked.

"Yes, I do," said Maldor. To Legolas's dismay, the unarmed combat master was now looked at him. "Legolas," he asked, "what were you doing at the end? You were not hit, but it was a near thing."

Legolas thought quickly. Of all the masters, Maldor was the most demanding and, to be perfectly truthful, Legolas found him a bit frightening. "I allowed my concentration to waver?" he suggested tentatively.

"You certainly must have," Maldor agreed emphatically. "When safety appears near, that is a time when more care must be taken, not less, especially when you are tired." He studied Legolas for a moment. "You cannot expect the enemy to cease attacking just because you are weary. Orcs do not do that for anyone."

"It will not happen again," Legolas said, struggling to keep his tone free of resentment. He was usually good at learning from the corrections of the weapons masters, but Maldor's criticism often had a sting in the tail that made it hard to take well. Maldor nodded, however, apparently satisfied by his response.

Lómilad, on the other hand, still had something to add. "You might think about imitating Ithilden, Legolas. I have never seen a warrior who can maintain his focus better than your brother can."

Legolas gritted his teeth and struggled to avoid reacting to the novice master's unwelcome comparison. He could feel Annael stir slightly by his side. "I will do that," he said neutrally.

Lómilad now swept his glance over all five tired looking novices. He smiled slightly. These were the youngest of the twenty or so novices for whose warrior training he was responsible. None of them was forty-five yet and neither Legolas nor Annael would be forty-two for several weeks. They would spend the next ten years or so under his supervision until they came of age, when those who qualified would become fully-fledged, though still beginner, warriors. His task was to make sure that when that happened, they would have the skills and, just as important, the attitudes that would allow them to survive and serve Mirkwood competently. Today they had done well.

"I must say that you are all getting faster," he said encouragingly. Five relieved young faces responded to his praise. "That will be all for today," he went on. "Tomorrow is a holiday, of course, because of the king's begetting day, but I expect to see you all ready to work hard the next morning, so do not celebrate too hard." They were grinning happily at him now. "On your way," he said, waving them off and turning to Penntalion and Maldor, who waited to hear any last minute requests he might have for them.

The five novices started back through the woods towards their homes, fatigue forgotten in the prospect of a holiday. "You were lucky not to get hit, Legolas," said Galelas, still smarting from Lómilad's mild criticism. He and Isendir were friends and were the oldest of the five, and he often tried to make sure that the younger three recognized their greater experience.

"Nonsense. It was pure skill," Legolas said in a self-mocking tone, making Annael and Tonduil snort. For some reason, Galelas had apparently taken an instant dislike to Legolas when he had become a novice six months ago. Legolas was at a loss to explain it, because they had had very little contact until now. He had occasionally seen Galelas on the weapons training field, but they had never spent time together off it. He usually tried to take whatever Galelas said lightly, but the older novice often managed to get under his skin.

"You really do need to learn to concentrate," Galelas went on.

"As you were concentrating when you wandered into an area with little shelter?" Legolas asked sarcastically.

Galelas stopped and whirled to face him. "Has it occurred to you that the masters might hesitate to shoot at you?" he asked hotly. Legolas blinked. He had no idea what Galelas was talking about.

Tonduil stepped hastily between them. He was a year older than Annael and Legolas and was actually part of Legolas's extended family, for his sister, Alfirin, had married Ithilden, Legolas's oldest brother, the previous summer. "Stop it before one of the masters hears you," he said urgently. "That is unless you want us all to have some sort of duty tomorrow."

Legolas clenched his teeth. Tonduil was right, of course. They had been told often enough that an individual warrior's skill with weapons was not enough to win a battle. Warriors needed to work together as a unit. Lómilad would not be forgiving if he found them quarreling.

Galelas glared at Legolas for a moment and then, responding to Isendir's tug on his sleeve, he turned and walked quickly away.

Legolas slowed his step so that Galelas and Isendir could draw ahead, while he, Annael, and Tonduil fell behind. "What was Galelas talking about?" he asked irritably. "Obviously the masters were shooting at me. One of them nearly hit me!"

Annael laughed softly. "I would not pay too much attention to anything Galelas said," he answered lightly. "He has always let his mouth run far ahead of his brain." Annael knew the other novices better than Legolas did, for he had never been set apart from them in the way that a king's son inevitably was. As elflings, they had all roamed in and out of one another's cottages far more easily than any of them had entered the palace, although Annael and Legolas had always been friends.

Tonduil had already dismissed the two older novices from his mind. "Did Lómilad really train Ithilden, Legolas?" he asked.

Legolas grimaced. "Evidently," he said dryly, "and Eilian too." Today was not the first time that one of the masters had compared Legolas unfavorably to his two older brothers, who were both accomplished warriors. Moreover, as Thranduil's sons, Eilian captained the Mirkwood patrol that hunted in the dangerous southern part of the realm, and Ithilden commanded the entire Mirkwood force. The small size of Elven families meant that the novice masters did not often train brothers, and it did not seem to occur to them that Legolas might find the comparisons a little overwhelming rather than inspiring.

Tonduil, too, seemed oblivious to Legolas's reaction to the mention of his brothers. "Did you see Ithilden defeat Thelion with swords yesterday?" he asked. Legolas and Annael both nodded. Thelion, the blade master, was popular with the novices, and they had all cheered for him in the bout, although Legolas had felt a little guilty doing so. The match had been even but Ithilden had eventually prevailed, thus impressing Tonduil, who was inclined to hero worship his new brother-in-law.

The three were now drawing near Thranduil's fortress, and cottages and flets were beginning to appear interspersed throughout the trees. Tonduil bid the other two farewell and trotted off home. They watched him go, and then Annael turned to Legolas with a grin. "One thing I have to be grateful to you for, Legolas, is helping to reconcile me to my status as an only child," he said.

Legolas laughed. "You know that I love my family, but sometimes I cannot help but wish that I were just Legolas, not Ithilden's and Eilian's brother and not Thranduil's son," he said ruefully. Annael slapped him on the shoulder and the two of them walked on down the path.

Rather than heading straight back to the palace, however, Legolas indicated that he intended to take a path that veered off to the right. "I have to pick up my adar's present," he told Annael, who left him with promises to meet again the next day, intending to spend some time in the woods doing whatever they pleased with absolutely no one around to issue any orders.

Legolas made his way through the chill of the fading spring afternoon toward the cottage of Furion, the silversmith. The smith was waiting for him, having promised Legolas that he would have his gifts ready this afternoon. "Here is the brooch," he said, holding it up for Legolas to admire. And admire it, Legolas did, for Furion had created a graceful, lightweight, silver oak leaf with a line of small pearls swirling down its center.

"It is beautiful," he said honestly, thinking of how handsome the brooch would look when Thranduil used it to fasten one of the light silk cloaks he wore in the warm weather.

"And here is the other thing," Furion went on. "It came out nicely too, if I do say so myself." He held up a thin silver chain, with the same leaf shape in miniature suspended from it. No pearls decorated this piece, for Legolas had not been able to afford them, but the necklace was delicately lovely nonetheless.

It would look beautiful around Miriwen's long, slender neck, Legolas thought. The leaf would nestle in the little hollow spot at the base of her throat. He smiled slightly, warmed by the thought.

Legolas thanked Furion, paid him, and slipped the jewelry into his pocket. Then he hurried toward home, for it was growing late, and they had guests who had come for the next day's celebration. He needed to bathe before evening meal, which, with all the company, would be in the Great Hall rather than the family's smaller private dining room, and Thranduil would reprimand him for rudeness if he were late for the meal for any reason other than an order from one of the masters.

As he reached the green in front of the palace, however, he found three horses being led away toward the stables, and his mother's aunt Glilan just crossing the bridge to the palace where his father waited to greet her. "Legolas," she cried fondly, as he approached. "You have grown so since I was here for Ithilden's wedding." He smiled weakly, never having been able to think of an appropriate answer for this particular observation which his relatives all seemed to make.

Thranduil frowned at him. "Should you not be wearing a cloak? It has become quite cool," he observed.

Legolas bit back a retort that would certainly have led to trouble and managed to substitute a milder one. "I have just come from training, Adar. The exercise has kept me warm enough." He occasionally wondered if he somehow reverted to being an elfling when he crossed the bridge to the palace.

"Evening meal has been put back an hour," Thranduil went on, "so you have time to dress appropriately. You will need formal robes." He turned to lead Glilan into the palace, and thus fortunately did not see his youngest son rolling his eyes. In the last year, Thranduil had begun requiring Legolas to appear in formal dress as part of the royal family on more and more occasions. Dressing for dinner was sometimes like dressing for inspection from the novice masters, he thought. This was going to be a long evening.