Legolas was beginning to doubt the wisdom of this Unification Conference. Indeed, after a morning enclosed in a stuffy room with the varied and unwashed representatives of Middle-earth Legolas was beginning to question the need for Unification with Men at all.
Reactions to him and his people ranged from curiosity to suspicion, with more than one delegate ignoring the proceedings entirely and simply gawking openly at them. One Corsair captain, bolder than the others, managed to trap Legolas in a corner during the mid-morning break. It took some time before Legolas was able to convince him that the Elves had no desire to trade directly with Umbar. Indeed, Legolas thought wryly, a closer tie to the Sea is the last thing we need. The Man smelled as if he had come directly from months on ship, and a very small and very cramped ship at that, with no bathing facilities. As Legolas leaned slightly back, trying to breathe shallowly without being too obvious about it, he saw a veiled figure in black robes slip past the door of the conference room.
Instantly Legolas moved to follow. He bowed graciously to the Corsair captain, suggested politely that he take up the matter of trade with Faramir, and was past him and half-way to the door while the Man was still blinking in shock behind him.
He reached the hall just in time to see a door half way down the corridor swing shut with an audible click. He tried the handle, but it was locked securely. Legolas stood a moment before the door, thinking. This same figure in black had eluded him twice now. The glimpses he had caught of robe and veil told him that it was surely one of the foreign Men, likely from one of the Easterling factions. One who had left his party to wander the citadel alone, one who had gained access to the locked doors of the king's sanctuary. He must be stopped. But if Legolas called the guard to search the palace it would surely disrupt the Conference. An open arrest of one of the foreign ambassadors would destroy any hope for peace forged at this gathering.
But if Aragorn were in danger . . . no. Legolas scanned the corridor, getting his bearings. He was in the outer part of the citadel on the south side. Large windows opened to the spring air, allowing sunlight and the fragrance of blossoming flowers to drift through the stone keep. The location of the conference meetings had been set in this, the most open part of the king's house, in deference to the Elves' dislike of solidly enclosing walls. The locked door led only to an interior staircase going down into the kitchens and the king's storerooms. There was nothing of value down there, and it was nowhere near Aragorn's personal chambers. Legolas could stop him before he was ever a threat to the king, and perhaps salvage the peace conference as well.
With a careful look up and down the corridor to ensure that none observed, Legolas drew the dagger again from his boot. The lock was well made and strong, and it took some minutes of careful manipulation before Legolas was able to snap it with his dagger. The delay grated upon him – with every moment the Man was moving deeper into the citadel. But finally the door gave way and Legolas pulled it cautiously open.
The stairwell was empty. A few flickering torches lined its length as it went straight down to the passage below. Legolas closed the door behind him and stood a moment in the silence, listening carefully. Distantly he caught the clink of metal, and a low murmur of voices.
Legolas took a step toward the stairs, and then stopped. Despite his reasoned and extensive arguments the night before, Irluin had calmly presented him with still more flowing robes complete with a newly polished circlet that morning. The steely glint of the advisor's eye, coupled with his two thousand years experience at unarmed combat, had convinced Legolas to don the hated things without objection. But now he had need to move swiftly and silently over the stairs, and possibly do battle with the Man below. Even Irluin could not deny the logic of Legolas' position.
Gleefully Legolas pulled off the heavy robe and folded it neatly in the corner. He set the circlet down on top of it with a slight flourish and smiled. He felt incredibly light, as though he could leap up and simply fly down the corridor. He spun easily on one foot as he abandoned the small pile. Then, clad only in his thin undertunic and leggings, Legolas ran down the stairs and moved into the passage.
He slowed as he approached the murmuring voices. They echoed slightly in the stone passage, overlapping one another so that he could not make out the words. Legolas crept silently along the wall, his knife light in his hand. But as he approached the bend of the corridor the voices stopped, and then he heard the heavy tread of a Man running clumsily away.
Legolas darted around the turn, ready to attack, and froze. The corridor was empty, save for two Hobbits standing in the center. They stared up at him with huge eyes. Legolas approached cautiously, scanning the hall for signs of the intruder.
"Where did he go?" he demanded.
"Good morning, Legolas," Merry said. "So nice to see you again, too. Lovely day, isn't it?"
Legolas paused, refocused on the small beings before him. Pippin was holding something long and silver. He flushed when Legolas looked at him and quickly hid it behind his back.
Legolas decided to ignore this for the moment. "A Man came this way. Where is he?"
"Um, a Man?" Pippin said. "You mean . . . one from the Conference?"
"Yes," Legolas said impatiently. "An Easterling, from his dress. He was just here. Did you not see him?"
"I . . . he . . . that is, I . . ." Pippin stuttered under the Elf's intent gaze.
Legolas did not have time for this. The intruder could even now be making a strike against Aragorn – poisoning his food, perhaps. He turned to try the adjacent door. But before his fingers touched the knob Merry darted around him and stood in the way. The Hobbit stood with his back against the door, arms braced at the sides. "Not that way! I mean," Merry hesitated as Legolas stared at him, "he didn't go in there. There's nothing in there. Nothing at all."
"Then you did see him! Where is he?"
"I . . ."
Pippin came to lean casually against the door next to Merry. "He was lost."
"Lost?" Legolas narrowed his eyes.
"Yes. He said he was looking for the, um, the Council room. He just left."
"The Council room." Legolas breathed. "Thank you, Master Took." He spun on his heel, sheathed his knife, and ran.
The two Hobbits watched him go. "The Council room? What did you tell him that for, Pippin?" Merry asked.
Pippin shrugged. "It was the first place I thought of."
Merry sighed. "Well, I just hope Bergil has enough sense to stay clear of it."
"He should. I don't think any of the Easterlings were meeting there, were they?"
"I don't know." Merry opened the storeroom door and the two Hobbits went inside. "There is one good thing, though."
"Legolas is on the alert for any suspicious activity now. If anyone else tries anything he'll catch them." Merry smiled. "Really it's for the best."
Legolas approached the Council chambers cautiously. It made perfect sense, now that he thought about it. The room had not been scheduled for use in the Conference meetings that afternoon. But surely it would not be left empty while every other chamber in the Citadel was filled with dignitaries. No, it was far more likely that the king and his Council intended to meet in secret there. Somehow the Easterling had deduced this and was planning an ambush. Legolas simply had to get there first.
The door was unguarded. The Council door was never left unguarded. Legolas crept forward cat-quiet, then ducked and rolled easily around the frame, coming swiftly to his feet with his back against the wall and knife raised to throw.
The room was empty. Legolas crouched to look under the heavy council table. Nothing. He swiftly investigated the rich hanging tapestries, the huge cold fireplace; he leaped up to look in the small windows cut high in the thick stone walls. But he already knew that he would find nothing. The dry air had the musty feel of a room that has been undisturbed for many long hours. The Easterling was most likely occupied in somehow distracting the guard. He would return soon, of that Legolas was certain. All he need do was wait.
Gimli was in excellent spirits. He had negotiated that morning with Éomer's representative to renew the Dwarves' custodianship of the Glittering Caves in Helm's Deep. And in the Hobbits' absence he had arranged to act as envoy from Rohan to the Shire. Men were forbidden to enter the Shire by order of Elessar, but there was no such restriction on Dwarves or Elves. And he had no doubt that Legolas would be willing to act as ambassador on behalf of Gondor. If they left immediately after the Conference ended they would arrive in time to see Sam's new baby.
And speaking of Legolas . . . Gimli's smile broadened as he approached the Council room. The customary guard had been relieved on order of Queen Arwen herself, at Gimli's suggestion. Imrahil would be arriving shortly with the banners, but Gimli had some arrangements to make himself first. He hefted his pack higher on his shoulder and strode into the chamber.
There was a blur of movement behind him, and then something struck Gimli heavily between the shoulder blades. He grunted in surprise and fell forward, landing hard on his hands and knees with the thing on top of him. "Gerroff!" he bellowed, and jerked an elbow back hard. But the assailant avoided his blow and the next instant he was rolled onto his back, pinned flat with something sharp at his throat.
He found himself staring up into a pair of wide blue eyes framed by a cascade of long blond hair. He froze. For a long moment no one moved. Then Legolas said in a small voice, "Gimli?"
"Legolas!" Gimli struggled to sit up. The Elf was kneeling on his chest. Legolas rolled off him and onto his feet in one smooth movement. He reached down to give the Dwarf a hand up, but Gimli knocked his hand away and gained his feet on his own power. "What in Mahal's name are you doing? Can't a Dwarf walk in peace anymore?"
Legolas glanced up at the rafter from which he had dropped onto his friend. "I . . ."
"And why are you in here anyway?" Gimli demanded, straightening his tunic and using the advantage of the Elf's distraction to nudge his dropped pack to the edge of the door, hoping to avoid notice. "Don't you have a Conference to attend?"
Legolas straightened and pushed back his disheveled hair. "I was . . . merely taking a breath of air."
Gimli looked around the musty chamber, the cold fireplace, the thick stone walls and dark tapestries. "In here?"
"And you were up on the rafters . . .?"
"Yes," Legolas said with dignity. "It is very dusty up there."
"I don't doubt it." Gimli looked his friend up and down, and felt a corner of his mouth twitch. The Elf was clad in only a thin grey undertunic and leggings, both of which were liberally streaked with dust and cobwebs.
"Well," Legolas said when the silence had stretched long enough. "I am sorry, Gimli. You caught me by surprise, but I trust no injury was done. You can go on your way."
"Me?" Gimli said in surprise. "I've only just arrived. But don't let me keep you. You'll be wanting to get back to the Conference now."
"Not at all. Irluin can manage without me for a time. But surely you have business to attend to."
Gimli gritted his teeth. Yes, he had business to attend to. But that business rather depended on the absence of a particular Elf. He folded his arms across his chest. "Nothing pressing."
"No?" Legolas shot a quick glance into the corridor, and then faced the Dwarf with a strained smile. "That's fortunate."
"Yes." Gimli rocked on his feet. "It is nice here, isn't it?"
Legolas was looking into the corridor again. "Hm? Oh, nice, yes."
"Quiet. Peaceful, away from all that chatter."
The Elf bent down quickly to adjust his boot. Gimli continued calculatingly. "Good solid stone here. It really blocks out the noise from outside, doesn't it? Birds, wind, trees . . . I bet even you can't hear them in here."
Legolas was looking slightly strained now. It was a small thing, a tightening of the Elf's normally impassive features, a faint compression of the fine lips and narrowing of the eyes. Few mortals would have noticed. But Gimli did.
"Keeps the sun out too. Cool and dark. Almost like a cave, really. You remember the caves of Aglarond, Legolas?"
The Elf nodded. He was rather paler than usual.
Gimli hid a smile. Victory was nearly within his grasp. "I was thinking that we might go to visit the Shire after the Conference. And we could stop by the Lonely Mountain again too. It's been far too long since we were back there, hasn't it?"
"At least seven years. I'm told that they've opened a whole new lower level for mining. We should go and see it. Untold wealth in minerals, they'll have, hidden away in the dark, revealed only to the flicker of torchlight deep, deep beneath the earth . . ."
The day had started off so well, Aragorn thought wistfully. He had half a dozen counselors tying themselves in knots with worry over the details of the Conference, but the actual meetings were going smoothly. Well, there had been a bit of a snag when the chief ambassador from Harad had abruptly demanded that his tents be moved farther from those of the Corsairs, because, he said, the stench of fish was unbearable, and then the head Corsair had made that remark about the Haradrim and their horses, which the captain from Rohan had misinterpreted, but the delegates had yet to declare war on each other. Aragorn took this as a good sign.
He had retreated to his study for just a moment between meetings to have a soothing smoke. He had just gotten the pipe going, and was leaning back in his chair with his feet propped up and starting to relax, when the door burst open and an irate Dwarf charged into the room, waving his arms about and shouting at him. Apparently he had begun his tirade while still in the corridor outside, and was in mid-sentence when he gained the room. "— and we can't hang the banners while he's in there, to say nothing of the fireworks! Aragorn, do something!"
Aragorn sat up so quickly he dropped his pipe and knocked a cascade of hot ash over himself. He swore and brushed the burning embers from his tunic before looking up. The Dwarf was pacing the cluttered study and chewing the edge of his mustache. "Gimli," Aragorn began.
"I mean, what does he want to be in there for anyway? I thought the main problem would be to coax him to come when we were ready for the surprise, but trust an Elf to be contrary. A plague on him and his whole bloody stiff-necked colony!"
"Gimli!" Aragorn bellowed. "A plague on who? What are you talking about?"
"Legolas!" Gimli shouted back. "Weren't you listening? He's barricaded himself in the Council room!"
Aragorn sighed. "Why would he do that?"
"I don't know! He won't tell me anything. But he won't leave, either. I nearly had him convinced, but then he pushed me outside and closed the door. How are we supposed to decorate with him in there?"
"Well, perhaps you could do it someplace else. Maybe the courtyard, or the library . . ." Aragorn trailed off. Gimli had stopped and was staring at him. His eyes were very bright.
Aragorn found himself tensing as though for an attack. "What?"
"Brilliant! It's perfect!"
"What are you . . ." Aragorn stopped. Saw the glint in Gimli's eyes. "No," he said.
"Yes! We'll have it in your chambers!"
"Oh no. No, no, no."
"Aragorn, you are a genius! Legolas will never suspect, and we'll have all the privacy we need. I don't know why I didn't think of it before."
"Those are my private chambers. Arwen'schambers. You can't –"
"I just need to tell the others. Imrahil can tell the Elves, and Lothíriel will make sure the Rohirrim know. Thank you, Aragorn! You've solved everything!"
Gimli paused at the doorway and looked at him seriously. "Just think, Aragorn. Legolas will be so honored that you opened your home for his begetting day party. You are a true friend."
With that the Dwarf vanished through the door. Aragorn sank back into his chair in defeat. He looked at his empty pipe and the ash scattered over the floor. He thought about Arwen's reaction when Gimli showed up to measure the rooms for banner hanging. And today was going so well.
Dusk came slowly over the city. Most of the Conference delegates were heading out to the tents scattered over the fields around the city wall. The higher ranking attendees were making plans for various small receptions to celebrate the peaceful conclusion of the second day's meetings. There was a general feeling of tired satisfaction and contentment in the air.
But all was not calm. Bergil stood in the lengthening shadow of the courtyard wall and watched intently as small groups of Dwarves and Men gathered and then broke apart on the lawn. There was an air of suppressed excitement about them. It was unusual enough to see Men from Gondor and Rohan speaking with the Dwarves, much less making plans with them. Every now and then one or another would break away and glance up the high wall of the citadel. They were looking at the king's private balcony.
Bergil frowned. Something was definitely going on. He hesitated. Ordinarily he would head down to join the Easterlings' encampment for the evening. But the Easterlings and Southrons didn't seem to be plotting anything for this evening. Well, it was hard to be sure, because in all honesty they didn't seem to talk much around him. And when they did it was in their own language, which he didn't understand. They seemed friendly, though. At least they usually seemed to be in a good mood when he was nearby. Which was good. He had been concerned that they'd be suspicious, since he always kept his veil on when they usually took theirs off in the tents.
But whatever was going on tonight, it wasn't in the Easterlings' camp. Bergil couldn't imagine that the Rohirrim or Dwarves would have any plots against the king. But all the same, Elessar might want a guard on his balcony tonight. His mind made up, Bergil headed into the citadel. He needed to get to the king's chambers.
Legolas couldn't understand it. He had spent all day in the Council room, and there had been no sign at all of the intruder. The faint light that filtered through the small windows had slanted up the wall as the day went on, growing slowly more golden and finally fading entirely. Legolas pressed his cheek against the sooty rafter on which he lay. Despite Gimli's earlier words, he could hear the faint song of the trees outside, the sigh of the wind and now the high squeak of bats as they hunted in the twilight. But those sounds were muffled by the thick stone walls.
Pressed against his rafter, Legolas could feel the brush of heavy stone just over his head. He could hardly move without touching the ceiling or wall, and the room was growing steadily darker as evening came. It was growing more cave-like, as Gimli would say. Legolas concentrated on slowing his pounding heart. He breathed slowly and deeply of the musty air. The walls are not closing in. The walls are not closing in.
But no one was coming, either. Clearly, if there had been a Council meeting scheduled for that evening it was cancelled. And so whatever plot the Easterling had must have been discovered, or changed at the last moment. Legolas was not going to find him here.
His mind made up, Legolas rolled off the rafter and dropped silently to the floor. He was not abandoning his post, he told himself firmly. He was adapting to a change in his opponent's tactics. But that did not change the overwhelming rush of relief that swept over him as he escaped the enclosing walls and ran down the corridor to the main hall. He saw no one as he left the citadel and walked out into the cool night air. The courtyard was nearly empty.
Legolas breathed deeply of the fresh air, turning his face up to the stars and smiling as their slow deep song filled him. He turned, opening his arms to the brush of the night zephyrs. He could see the city stretching away below him, could hear the sounds of Men as they wound their way through the narrow streets, could see the distant flicker of lamps in the tents upon the fields. He deliberately resisted looking toward the river, turning his back to it when the temptation became too great. Instead he looked up at the citadel. He looked toward Aragorn's rooms, which blazed with light. And saw a figure in black upon the king's balcony.
Against all odds, the cake had turned out very well, Merry thought. The creamy frosting hid the disjointed layers of carrot and lemon and white. To look at it, you would never suspect what hid beneath. And, as Pippin said, the candles added a lot. They'd found a fairly large store of narrow beeswax candles in the porter's cupboards. Pippin had been set on five hundred – a nice round number, he said, and perhaps Legolas would be flattered if they had underestimated his age a bit. But they had lost count somewhere in the three hundreds. And the cake didn't hold much more than that anyway.
Pippin was upset. He had suggested that perhaps they could make some additional cupcakes to hold the leftover candles. But Merry cited the press of time – they had to get to the Council room before Gimli brought Legolas there. And besides, he argued, who could count all the candles anyway?
Legolas could, Pippin said, and Merry had to admit that he had a point there. Gimli had told them about the Elf counting the spears of Éomer's eored, on the plains of Rohan. But it couldn't be helped now. All they could hope was to get the cake through the citadel without being seen.
Which is why the near collision with an Easterling in the front hall upset him so much. Merry nearly dropped his end of the cake platter, and Pippin made a surprisingly graceful side-step to keep the whole thing from sliding to the floor. The Easterling was not so lucky. Upon seeing the Hobbits directly in front of him he tried to make a sharp left turn, but tripped on his robes and crashed heavily to the ground. He lay flat on his back, staring at the ceiling and breathing hard.
Merry sighed. "Hello, Bergil," he said.
The Man made to get up, winced visibly even through his veil, and settled for sitting gingerly against the wall. "Hello," he said. He looked at the Hobbits. Looked at the cake they held. "Um," he said.
At that moment there was a tramp of heavy boots behind them. Merry exchanged a frantic look with Pippin. But there was no where to hide. And a moment later Gimli strode into the hall. He rapidly evaluated the scene and focused immediately on priorities.
"There you are!" he shouted at the Hobbits. "Get that cake to Aragorn's room before Legolas sees it! Where is Legolas, anyway? Have you seen him? No," he continued, answering his own question, "you'd better not have. Now go!" He pointed at the stairs, then paused and glanced at the Easterling on the floor. "Him," he said, and gestured toward Bergil. "Is he bothering you? Should I kill him?"
"Uh, no," Pippin said.
"Don't kill him," Merry clarified. Bergil nodded in frantic agreement. He seemed to be having difficulty with the clasp of his veil.
"All right then," Gimli said. "Now go!" He turned and strode off toward the Council room. Merry and Pippin exchanged looks. Then with a shrug Merry got a firmer grip on his end of the platter and headed toward the stairs. Pippin followed, raising up his end to keep the platter even as Merry backed up the stair. The Easterling trailed behind, holding his skirt up around his knees.
Aragorn's private chambers were packed with a sea of Men, Elves, and Dwarves and draped with a multitude of brightly woven banners. The cake was greeted with hearty cheers from the Men and Dwarves, and the Hobbits were guided carefully through the room to set their burden upon a table near the opened balcony doors. The table was a gift from Éomer king of Rohan: small, polished and delicately carved with the sigil of a horse in full gallop. Arwen watched the placement of the teetering mound of cream and frosting upon it with a thin smile.
Bergil felt intensely uncomfortable. He was hot, the infernal veil was wrapped securely over his mouth and nose and somehow the clasp had become stuck, and he could feel the growing stares from the assembled people, especially the Elves. He had never had much experience with Elves, and didn't feel that this was the best way to begin an acquaintance.
He didn't know quite what was going on here, but it didn't seem immediately dangerous. Still, remembering his earlier determination, he maneuvered through the crowd to the relative quiet of the balcony. He stood near the railing and breathed deeply of the cool night air.
Gimli ducked and covered his head as he entered the Council room. But no attack was forthcoming. "Legolas?" He scanned the shadowy rafters carefully. Then he made a careful circuit of the dark room. But there was no one there. Gimli stood with his hands on his hips in the empty room and swore softly. He had suspected it before, and this was proof positive. That Elf's sole purpose in existence was to make his life difficult.
Legolas took the most direct route to counter the threat on Aragorn's balcony. He ran and leaped straight up the citadel wall. It was not as easy as climbing in the trees, but the ancient stone was worn and chipped enough to give handholds to a determined Elf. He climbed swiftly toward the king's windows, a shade of grey and gold against the starlit stone.
Gimli came out into the courtyard and looked around. There was no sign of Legolas. He growled under his breath. Where else could the Elf be, if he wasn't out under the stars? With a heavy sigh the Dwarf turned back toward the citadel. And his night-sharp eyes caught a glint of movement against the stone wall. He stared.
Legolas was climbing the sheer slope of the citadel wall. He was a good twenty feet above the ground, moving with sure grace up the stone. Perhaps another ten feet above him was the king's balcony. Gimli drew a sharp breath and turned and ran.
Legolas gained the railing of the balcony and swung himself silently up onto its edge. He crouched there a moment. The Easterling stood not five feet from him, but his back was turned. He was facing the king's chamber, and even as Legolas watched he reached a hand to draw the light draperies aside.
Legolas sprang. He leaped forward and struck the Easterling full in the back. The Man's legs crumpled and together they fell into the brightly lit chamber. Legolas twisted, pulling the Man over and rolling to pin him, his dagger clasped tightly in one hand, when his side struck something hard. He hardly had time to register the blow when there came the sound of splintering of wood and something struck him on the shoulder. Then a cake fell on top of him.
A trained Elven warrior is not easily distracted. Legolas kept his grip on the Easterling beneath him, his blade not wavering from beneath the Man's chin, despite the avalanche of cake and cream that crashed over his head. He could see the Man's wide grey eyes staring up at him through his veil and a mound of dripping frosting. Somewhere a platter clanged against the stone floor.
There was a silence. When nothing else seemed likely to fall on him, Legolas cautiously looked up, blinking through the smears of frosting. He first registered the blaze of light that surrounded him. Then he saw that the room was full of Men. And Elves. And Dwarves. A lot of them. And they were all staring at him.
He looked around. Faramir was there, he saw, and Éowyn, and Imrahil, and Lothíriel, and Merry, and Pippin. And so was Arwen. The Queen had a hand pressed over her mouth, and her shoulders were shaking. The Evenstar was laughing at him.
Then Aragorn came forward through the press of people, grinning broadly. The king reached a hand toward him, but Legolas was not about to release his captive yet. He stayed where he was and brushed a glob of cream from his cheek.
The door crashed open. Gimli came panting into the room, his chest heaving. He'd clearly run up the long flight of stairs to the king's chamber. He looked at Legolas as the Elf pinned his prisoner in a mound of broken cake. Legolas glared back at him, daring the Dwarf to say anything. Gimli's mouth opened and shut in silence. Then he smiled weakly and spread his hands. "Surprise," he said.
It was, as Arwen said, the sort of thing they would all remember and laugh about later. Although she and the others seemed to have no difficulty laughing about it now. Legolas took this with good grace, as he had been taught, and allowed Bergil to get up from the floor un-impaled. He even took some pleasure in the expression of utter shock on Irluin's face as the advisor stared at his prince, who was now not only free of robe and circlet but also streaked with soot, dust, cobwebs, and a generous amount of cake.
Pippin was disappointed at the loss of a good cake, but Legolas had tasted quite a bit of it, and he assured the Took that it was excellent, particularly the carrot. And there were enough other refreshments to keep even the Hobbits satisfied for the evening. Gradually the crowd began to break up, with many toasts to Legolas' good health and wishes for a happy begetting day. Legolas himself retreated to the balcony with a hand towel, attempting to wipe the last of the frosting from his hair and ears.
Eventually Gimli and Aragorn joined him there. The prince was staring out at the stars. They stood next to him for a moment, breathing the cool air. Then Legolas spoke. "Gimli," he said softly.
"Thank you. For all of this."
Gimli looked triumphantly at Aragorn. "You're welcome, Legolas. Happy begetting day."
Legolas turned toward the Dwarf, his forehead creased in a slight frown. "That part I do not understand. Why do you think that today is my begetting day?"
Gimli froze. "Because it is! He said so!"
"Who said so?"
"I did." Irluin came onto the balcony. He was carrying a folded pile of cloth in his arms. Legolas stared at him. The advisor looked back at him calmly. "You have encouraged us to improve our relationship with Men and Dwarves, my lord. It seemed to me that a celebration of your begetting day was an appropriate way to do this." He pushed the cloth into Legolas' hands. "Your robe, my lord. You seem to have forgotten it by the kitchen stairs. Fortunately the Periain remembered it."
"Yes," Legolas managed to say as Irluin set his circlet on top of the pile. "I must thank them for that."
Aragorn was looking at him curiously. "It is your begetting day, isn't it, Legolas?"
The Elf shrugged. "If Irluin says it is. I do not know, myself, but he has kept the record of the House of Oropher in Mirkwood."
Aragorn turned toward the advisor. "How old is Legolas?"
Irluin gave a distinctly Elvish smile. "The prince is as old as the seventh oak by the gates of Mirkwood's palace." He bowed and retreated back inside.
"What?" Gimli said.
Legolas set his robes down at the edge of the balcony. "An oak tree was planted upon the birth of each son of Thranduil. It grows with us, and marks the passage of our time in Middle-earth." His voice softened as he said this last, and he looked out over the distant fields toward the river; toward the Sea.
Aragorn clasped his shoulder gently. "We are grateful for that time, mellon nin. However long it is, we treasure it."
Legolas turned into the Man's touch, and smiled, but his eyes were dark. "As do I. I would not abandon my home, nor the friends that I love."
There was a pause. Gimli shifted his weight, uncomfortable with the weight of love and grief in the Elf's voice. "Well," he harrumphed, breaking the silence, "it's easy enough to discover Legolas' age, then."
Man and Elf turned toward him. "And how is that, Elvellon?" Legolas inquired.
"Cut down that oak tree. Count the rings, and then we'll know."
Aragorn gave a startled laugh. Legolas stiffened. Gimli swallowed nervously. "I was only," he began.
But Legolas interrupted. "Cut down the tree?" he said slowly. "It is an interesting suggestion, Elvellon. Not something I would have thought of, but then I am not a Dwarf."
"It was only a jest!" Gimli said. "A joke! I didn't mean it!"
"Ah," the Elf said. "A joke. And Dwarves have a unique sense of humor, I have noticed. Ambushing their friends with cake, for instance."
"Now really," Gimli said, taking a step back. "You can't blame me for that. I had nothing to do –"
But Legolas was too quick. Swift as a striking snake he swept a large glob of cake from the arm of his tunic and sprang forward to push it into Gimli's face. The next moment the Dwarf was sputtering as he tried to wipe the cream from his face and beard. Legolas laughed, bright and clear as bells ringing in the spring night. "You are right, Elvellon! That is a good joke! Now, as for my oak tree . . ."
"I didn't mean it! Durin's beard, Elf, I didn't mean it!"
"Ah, very well then. But you must tell me if you change your mind, Gimli, when we return to visit the Lonely Mountain. I would not have you abandon me in a cave and slip away alone to cut down my tree in Mirkwood."
Gimli choked in indignation. With a smile Legolas turned and walked back into the warm room. After a moment his friends followed him. The night breeze ruffled the edge of the discarded robes and swept on down over the fields to the river, toward the Sea.
lComing in 2013: The Gloaming, an original novel by Lamiel. In a world ruled by monsters, you have to be a monster to survive.