I borrow characters and setting from Tolkien. I gain no profit from their use other than the enriched imaginative life I believe he intended me to gain.

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter and for brainstorming with me for ideas and ways to take it.

Several reviewers also suggested pieces of plot that will turn up in this story. I would name them, but I am afraid of leaving someone out because I get ideas from so many wonderful people.

In addition, I mean this story to be a response to a challenge Karri issued to write a story about a practical joke gone wrong.

This story is set right after "Growing under Shadow," but I hope you will not have to have read that to understand it. If I am unclear, please tell me. Legolas is 27, or about 11 or 12 in human terms.

*******

1. Father and Sons

"Ithilden, it is completely unrealistic to think that we can hold any of that territory south of the mountains," Thranduil said exasperatedly.

"Adar, we are holding it," Ithilden insisted. "According to the dispatch I got from Eilian this morning, the Southern Patrol drove back the band of Orcs that had moved north of the road."

"And how long will it be before they return?" Thranduil demanded, his voice sharpening.

"I do not know." His oldest son's voice was growing sharper too. "But when they do, we will drive them back again."

"We cannot keep doing this indefinitely!"

"But we can do it one day at a time and see where it takes us!" Ithilden exclaimed. "I refuse to cede control of that area to the Shadow. Every inch of territory we give up makes the Realm that much more dangerous."

"Do you think I do not care about the Shadow that fouls the woods?" Thranduil exclaimed. "I care beyond measure. But I will not allow warriors who place their trust in me to be sent into disaster!"

"Is that what you think I am doing?" Ithilden's face was growing flushed. "Sending my brother and his warriors into disaster?"

For a moment, silence reigned in Thranduil's office, as the two of them stared at one another, breathing hard. And as he looked into the frustrated face of his son, Thranduil suddenly pulled himself up short. He knew perfectly well who he thought had led the warriors of the Woodland Realm into disaster, and Oropher was long dead. This was Ithilden who stood before him, his oldest son who was cautious and responsible to a fault. "No," he conceded, leaning back in his chair. "Of course not." Across the desk from him, Ithilden too relaxed slightly.

"I will not keep troops in that area if I believe the fight is hopeless, Adar," Ithilden assured him. "But I can send more warriors now, and they will all be supplied with the weapons we have been buying from the dwarves, so there are no fears about their being ill-equipped."

Thranduil grimaced. He did not like having to depend on the dwarves for weaponry, but Ithilden had convinced him that until he had enough smiths of his own, he had no choice. He sighed. He trusted Ithilden's judgment. He really did. But he found it very difficult to let his son make decisions that differed from those he would have made himself. Thus he found himself looking over Ithilden's shoulder sometimes, even when he knew his son resented the implied doubt about his ability to manage the Realm's forces on his own.

"Very well," he said. "Send the additional warriors. But I expect you to keep a cautious eye on the situation," he warned, "and to act at once if the position becomes untenable."

"Thank you, Adar," said Ithilden, gathering up the papers he had spread on his father's desk when their conference began. "I will take care of the matter at once. And I will be careful," he added. "You need not worry."

"I know that," Thranduil said with a small smile. "As I have told you before, I am well aware of how lucky I am to have you."

Ithilden returned the smile. "By your leave," he said, and at Thranduil's nod, he strode from the room, already intent on carrying out the plans on whose behalf he had just been arguing.

Thranduil rubbed his temples. He hoped he had made the right decision in trusting Ithilden's advice. Ithilden was good at his job, but despite his confidence in his own opinions, he could make mistakes just as anyone else could. Thranduil sighed. The decision had been made, and there was no point in worrying about it now. The Valar only knew no one would agonize more than Ithilden would if he had made an error. Thranduil stood and stretched. He had been sitting all day. He had time to ride before evening meal, and the exercise would make him feel better.

He had not held court that afternoon, so he was already dressed in tunic and leggings and could head immediately for the stables, trailed as soon as he left the palace by the two guards who Ithilden insisted should follow him everywhere. The stablemaster greeted him with a bow and a grin and sent his assistants scrambling to fetch the king's great stallion and the horses belonging to his guards. "He is full of himself today, my lord," he said, eyeing the stallion fondly as Thranduil leapt onto his back. "You will have your hands full."

Thranduil laughed. "Then he will fit in with others with whom I have been dealing," he said and guided the horse out onto the path, as eager as the stallion was for the run that would leave both guards and their horses straining to keep up.

***

Ithilden strode into the building housing his office, drawing his aide to his feet. "You can send the orders I had prepared, Calith. I want those warriors on their way south in the morning." He tossed the papers onto his aide's desk.

"Yes, my lord," the aide responded, as Ithilden passed through the room and into his own office. Calith followed him. "A dispatch came from the Western Border Patrol. I put it on your desk. They found spiders inside their territory, but they think they have cleaned them all out."

"Let us hope so," Ithilden said, picking up the dispatch that lay in the middle of his desk and frowning over it. "Have the new supplies of venom antidote been sent yet?"

"Yes, and the healers say more will be ready by tomorrow."

"Good. You had better see to it that the Western Border Patrol has plenty." Ithilden sat down at his desk, and the aide withdrew. The supplies of antidote had been low, but that shortage seemed to be easing now. He read the dispatch again, making sure that he had understood correctly that nothing was being asked of him.

He wished he could see the situation for himself. Until a few years ago, he had commanded the Realm's troops from the field, but as the Shadow grew, so did the task of defending against it, and he had had to consent to his father's suggestion that he manage the Realm's defense from a central location. The central command made sense, but he hated depending on others for an understanding of what was happening in areas that were his responsibility.

And there was another problem with commanding from home too, and that was that, as this afternoon's discussion had demonstrated, he necessarily operated under much closer scrutiny from Thranduil. He put the dispatch down and tapped his fingers thoughtfully on his desk, staring out his window at the waning summer day.

It was not that he resented his father's suggestions. Thranduil had millennia of experience in fighting the Shadow, and Ithilden valued that and drew on it. Indeed, until recently, he had seldom disagreed with his father in the privacy of his own thoughts, let alone openly. But as the Shadow had spread further and Ithilden had immersed himself in his warriors' struggles, he had begun to believe that he had a far clearer sense of what they were facing and what they needed than Thranduil did.

As a result, he had had to argue with his father over buying weapons from the Dwarves. In Ithilden's opinion, while Thranduil's experience was usually valuable, it sometimes weighed him down, making him unable to let go of old grudges and old quarrels, even when, for instance, Elves and Dwarves were now on the same side. Ithilden had won that argument, the first real one that he and Thranduil had had over military matters. He was confident that the decision he had urged was the correct one, and he was secretly pleased with how well he had managed his father. He hoped that, in the long run, Thranduil would see the sense in dealing with the Dwarves and recognize that Ithilden had insight to bring to their long struggle against the Shadow, insight that was valuable even if it differed from Thranduil's.

Ithilden sighed and forced his attention to the reports on his desk. He needed to be sure he understood everything that was happening with his warriors before his workday ended. And he wanted to be done in time to meet Legolas and walk him home from his day's penance at the infirmary.

He smiled at the thought. His little brother was going to be beside himself with excitement today. Their father had sentenced him to a month of doing menial tasks in the infirmary as punishment for creeping out of the palace at night to go hunting with his friend Turgon. Even now, Ithilden shuddered at the thought of Legolas and the other child on their own in the woods at night. The two of them had just barely grown large enough to begin using small adult bows, and they were far from ready to face the dangers that could have come upon them. But today was the last day Legolas would have to spend in such penance, and Ithilden predicted that he would be giddy at the prospect of the freedom within his sight.

Moreover, if Ithilden was honest with himself, he knew there was another reason he had fallen into the habit of meeting Legolas at the infirmary. For a second, he paused in his reading the next day's duty roster, and between him and the dry document he was reading came the image of the healer's daughter, the one who sometimes was waiting for her mother when he fetched Legolas, the one with the dimple and the thick braid. His heart quickened at little, and he smiled softly to himself. Then he bent back to his work. He definitely wanted to be finished in time to meet Legolas.

***

Legolas swung the mop in wide arcs over the floor of the infirmary. Damp curves showed his progress down the hallway, but he was not watching them. Rather he was keeping his eye on Gwaleniel, whom he could see through the open doorway, carefully portioning out the newly-made doses of spider venom antidote. Surely she would soon turn around and tell him that he had done enough work for the day. And when she did, he would be finished with his whole month's servitude. No more cleaning up vomit or emptying bed pans or running to fetch needed items the healers had forgotten! By tomorrow, he would once again be spending his afternoons playing with his friends when he was done with his lesson, rather than working in the infirmary.

As if compelled by his thoughts, Gwaleniel glanced back, and seeing him looking in her direction, she smiled. "Are you finished with the floor yet, Legolas?"

"Almost," he said hopefully. And indeed he had only the half-dozen feet between himself and the front door to finish mopping.

She put down the small packet in her hand and came toward him. "You have been a big help to us this month," she said. "I will tell your adar how hard you have worked and how you have hurried to do whatever we asked of you."

He flushed with pleasure. He had not liked a great deal of what he had been asked to do in the infirmary, but he had usually tried his best to do it anyway because he did not want his father to be any more angry with him than he already was. And besides, he liked the healers and even felt that he had sometimes helped the injured Elves for whom the healers cared. Still, he was ready to be done with working for a while. He missed riding his horse and hunting in the summer woods and doing the dozens of other things his friends were out doing.

The door to the infirmary opened, and Legolas spun around in alarm. "Do not track dirt on the wet spots," he ordered a surprised looking Ithilden, who stood in the doorway. "I just washed them."

Ithilden grinned. "I will be careful," he promised, sidling around the edges of the newly washed places. "Mae govannen, Gwaleniel."

"Mae govannen, my lord," the healer responded, with a smile of her own. "Legolas will be ready to go as soon as he has finished with the floor." Legolas dipped his mop in the bucket of water and began hastily swiping it over the remaining stretch of floor.

"I will wait for him," Ithilden said, glancing along the length of the hallway lined with benches.

"You do not have to wait because I am finished!" Legolas said triumphantly, picking up the heavy bucket and lugging it out the door to empty it in the flower bed next to the step. He came back in and shoved the mop and bucket in the cupboard on one side of the hall. Then he stood, wiping his wet hands on his tunic and bouncing on his toes a little in his impatience to be gone. Ithilden, however, was still talking to the healer and looking past her into the room where she had been working.

"I am told you have more spider venom antidote for us," he said.

"Yes, it will be ready by the end of the day," she answered.

"Good," he nodded, and Legolas reached for the doorknob. Ithilden hesitated for a second and if trying to find something else to say. Then, finally, he nodded farewell to Gwaleniel and started toward the door too.

"Yes!" Legolas shouted as he jumped off the step. He turned and ran backward, facing his brother. "I am finished!"

Ithilden grinned at him. "Behave yourself now, and you will not have to do that again," he admonished.

Legolas shrugged. Sometimes Ithilden sounded just like their father, as if he thought that Legolas was still an elfling. Legolas turned and walked facing front again, lingering enough that Ithilden caught up with him. He would not admit it to Ithilden, of course, but he had been glad every time Ithilden came for him at the end of the afternoon. He liked walking with Ithilden when his brother was not being bossy. It made him feel grown up. Any warriors they passed saluted Ithilden and other Elves spoke to him respectfully, but when he and Legolas walked together, he talked to Legolas, and other people must have seen that Legolas was going to be a warrior too.

They rounded some bushes where the path turned and came face to face with Gwaleniel's daughter, Alfirin. Legolas skipped to one side of the path and kept walking, but Ithilden stopped dead in his tracks. "Mae govannen, mistress," he said, and Legolas turned to look at him. His voice sounded funny.

"Mae govannen, my lord," she responded. She had stopped walking too. There was a moment's silence as they stood looking at one another.

"Are you coming?" Legolas asked impatiently, and Ithilden scowled at him.

"Do not be rude," his brother snapped. Legolas could feel himself flushing. He had not been rude. Ithilden was the rude one to scold him in front of someone else.

Alfirin had now edged her way around Ithilden, who was big enough to block the path and was rudely doing so, in Legolas's opinion. "I will not keep you," she said, and with a nod of her head, she walked off and disappeared around the corner. Ithilden stood staring after her, looking as if he had forgotten Legolas completely.

Legolas turned and stomped off toward home, but he had not gone more than a few steps before Ithilden's hand was on his shoulder. "It would not have hurt you to wait a little more patiently," his brother said.

Legolas glanced at his frowning face. "You do not have to walk with me, you know. I can walk home by myself."

Ithilden paused for a second then and took a deep breath. "I know you can," he said, his frown fading, "but I enjoy walking with you."

Legolas blinked in surprise. "Really?" he asked with a little thrill of pleasure.

"Really," Ithilden assured him. "At least when you are being polite, I do."

Legolas grimaced, pulled his shoulder free of Ithilden's hand, and resumed walking with his brother next to him. His friend Turgon said that adults were all alike, and sometimes Legolas thought Turgon was right.

***

Ithilden entered the family sitting room, where Thranduil already sat with a cup of wine in his hand. He poured himself some wine and then, at his father's invitation, sat down. "The extra warriors for Eilian will be on their way by morning," he said. Thranduil nodded, but before he could speak, the door burst open, and Legolas bounded into the room.

"Good evening, Adar," he cried happily.

"Good evening, my heart," Thranduil smiled at him. "Would you like a little wine?"

"Yes, please," Legolas nodded and came close to watch as Thranduil poured a few drops of wine into a cup and then filled it with water. He accepted it from Thranduil's hand and then carried it carefully to the chair his father had indicated. "Today was my last day in the infirmary, Adar," he declared as he took a sip of his drink. "Do you remember that?"

"Yes, I remember," Thranduil said. "Now you need to remember that I make rules for you to keep you safe, and I expect you to follow them."

Legolas scowled a little at his cup of wine tinted water. "Yes, Adar," he said, not altogether graciously. A thought seemed to occur to him, and he looked up again. "Adar, Turgon and Annael have been building a flet behind Annael's cottage. I am going to help them work on it tomorrow. When it is finished, they are going to sleep in it. Can I do that too?"

Ithilden glanced at Thranduil and, as he expected, he saw irritation flare in his father's face. "Legolas," Thranduil said, "you and I just had a discussion about how dangerous the woods are at night. No, you may not sleep outside without an adult."

"This is not in the woods," Legolas argued. "It is in the trees right behind Annael's cottage. And Annael and Turgon are going to do it. And you said that if I behaved well in the infirmary, you would try to find chances for me to walk safely under the stars."

"Do not argue with me," Thranduil said sharply. "I said no, and I mean no." Legolas bit his lip and looked down, but not in time to hide the rebellion in his face.

Ithilden grimaced. He predicted that this matter of the flet was going to be subject of repeated arguments, probably until the pieces of it fell out of the tree in which it was built. Thranduil was unlikely to bend, however. For one thing, he thought that Turgon was a bad influence on Legolas, and Ithilden had to agree with him on that one. Indeed, he thought that Thranduil might do well to forbid Legolas to play with the other child any longer and could not really imagine why his father seemed so hesitant to do it. But then Thranduil allowed Legolas much more latitude than he had ever allowed Ithilden or Eilian, one of the advantages of being the family baby, presumably.

When Eilian had been home on leave the previous month, he had casually mentioned to Ithilden that he thought Legolas needed more attention from their father, and that it was a pity that Thranduil was too busy to provide it. Eilian was usually right about matters having to do with Legolas, for the two of them were close, and Ithilden knew that Legolas told Eilian things he did not tell him or their father.

Thranduil sighed. "We will not talk about this any longer tonight, Legolas," he announced. "We will have a pleasant family meal, and then you will do your lessons for tomorrow and then, if you like, I will read to you before bedtime. Would you like that?"

"Yes," Legolas muttered and Ithilden groaned inwardly. Their evening meal would be tense if Legolas sulked all the way through it.

"How was archery class today?" Thranduil asked, and it was suddenly clear that he had spoken the magic words. Legolas looked up at him and grinned.

"It was fun!" he declared and started on a long story about learning to shoot while moving. Ithilden relaxed. You had to hand it to their father. He certainly knew how to bring Legolas out of a bad temper. If only he could see that Legolas needed his attention even when he was not in a foul mood.