"State your business in Mirkwood," a voice demanded from behind the wall of arrows.

"The king's business," Legolas answered, before Aragorn had a chance to.

There was a murmur, and the arrows were lowered. An elven hunter, clearly the captain of this group, bowed his head in apology.

"I am sorry, Prince Legolas," he said, "I did not realise you were among this company of men."

"I would not think to look for myself in their company either," Legolas acknowledged, "now let us pass."

"Of course, your highness." The elves parted, melting into the trees as silent shadows. The men rode on a short way, and Legolas was aware that one of the elven guardians was trailing them. He saw Aragorn glance over his shoulder, and guessed that the man had also noticed their shadow. He must have sharp ears, for a human.

The path ran through a large clearing, and here Aragorn stopped, his men gathering round him. They were only a short distance into the forest, but Legolas was already beginning to feel at home.

"I gave my word to see you safely to Mirkwood," Aragorn said, "this I have done. Now I must leave to attend to business of my own. I trust that you will find your way safely home from here."

"I can," Legolas answered.

"Surely we can't just leave him unprotected in this place," Ethindal protested. The children looked nervously around at the forest, as though expecting monsters to jump out of the trees.

"He will not be unprotected," Aragorn stated, "there have been elven soldiers following us since we arrived. They know this forest far better than we do, and will certainly do a better job of protecting the prince from its dangers than we can."

"Thank you," Legolas said, clasping the man's hand, "Know that you will always be welcome in Mirkwood. I hope you will come and visit often, so that I have a chance to repay the debt I am in."

"I will visit gladly," Aragorn answered, "as often as my duties allow it." Legolas said his farewells to Damial and Eltha, then Aragorn led the men back along the path. Legolas stood alone beneath the ancient trees. Well, almost.

"If you are going to be accompanying me to the palace," Legolas said, "you might as well show yourself so that we might have some conversation on the trek." A silver-haired elf came out of the trees, bowing with respect.

"Tell me all that has happened in Mirkwood during my absence," Legolas ordered. The elf spoke, but it seemed that very little had transpired. In an elven realm, events of note were often well spaced, since elves had just long lives for events to occur over. It seemed strange that so much had happened to him, while so little had happened at home. But what was clear was that King Thranduil had been frantic with worry over his son.

Legolas was all the more glad to arrive at the palace because of this news. His usually withdrawn father showed an unprecedented amount of emotion over Legolas' return, even lowering himself to hug his son.

"Where are the men I sent?" Thranduil asked.

"They had to leave on urgent business," Legolas answered, "but they insisted on seeing me far enough into Mirkwood to be met by a patrol." He nodded towards the elf beside him.

"Legolas!" a voice called down the steps of the palace.

"You should know better than to go and get into trouble," an identical voice said, as two identical elves appeared.

"At least without us to share in the excitement," the first added. The twin sons of Elrond grinned at Legolas.

"Tell us everything!" they demanded.

"Not now," King Thranduil interrupted, "There are matters I must discuss with my son in private. He can share his tale with you later." He put a hand on Legolas' shoulder to lead him into the palace, but the twin's voices followed.

"Try not to get kidnapped or killed before then."

"We want to hear all the details." Legolas felt free to grin, since the twins couldn't see his expression. Once they reached his father's study, his expression became more sober, as did the subject of conversation.

"What news do you bring from the south?" Thranduil asked.

"The Haradrim claimed not to believe our warning," Legolas answered, "though I believe they not only believed but had already heard it from another."

"Whom do you suspect?"

"I suspect messengers of Sauron have already visited the lands that allied with him of old."

"Then you now feel certain that the evil the White Council drove from Dol Guldur and the ancient enemy are one and the same."

"I can't doubt it, and the number of orcs we encountered on our journey north prove that his forces are growing and becoming more confident in their roving. Sauron has returned, his armies are growing in preparation for war, and when that war comes the Haradrim will be riding with him."

"Our messengers to the west report that they will not be the only ones. Men, as ever, are proving their weakness and siding with the force they feel greatest, no matter how evil it may be."

"Not all men," Legolas countered, "What of the Dunedain?"

"Lord Aragorn is the finest example of that race," Thranduil answered, "because of the elven blood that flows in his veins. But there are none equal to him, and few that even come close. I fear we cannot even count on Gondor when this new war dawns."

"The elves will not be easily defeated," Legolas said, with more confidence than he felt. Mirkwood had been struggling for centuries with the fight in its land, and always the darkness seemed to creep closer about their dwellings. It was all they could do to hold back the tide, they could not fight a war as well. Rivendell and Lothlorien, under the protection of their Rings, were not used to battles.

If Sauron chose to attack them, the elves could easily be destroyed.

***

Legolas' mood had cheered somewhat from his gloomy discussion with his father. He and the twins were sitting in the gardens as he told them everything that had happened to him since his enslaving. They teased him over his stubbornness and refusal to give up his name. With the wisdom of hindsight, Legolas could agree that it might have been easier if he'd just told Aragorn, but at the time it had seemed best.

They were curious to know why Thranduil had sent men rather than elves to get him out.

"In the lands were I was travelling, the men considered all other races inferior, and so wouldn't trade with them. Any elves my father sent would be as likely to be sold themselves as to buy my freedom. And Father couldn't free me by force without risking a war we can ill-afford to fight." Especially with the threat of Sauron, he added to himself.

"It just seems strange that your father would trust a human, even one of the Dunedain," Elrohir said.

"What was the man's name again?" Elladan asked.

"Aragorn," Legolas replied, "Why? Do you know him?"

"No," Elladan answered.

"No," Elrohir agreed, "we've never met him."

THE END

Author's note: Bet you weren't expecting that! And I'd just like to point out, for the record, that this isn't an AU. The truth is far more sinister than that. . .

I'll try and be quick with the sequel. Reviews may speed up the process. Thank you to everyone who's reviewed this story. If you left your email address, I did try to get back to you, but sometimes time didn't allow it. If I never got back to you, I apologise. You're still appreciated.