Disclaimer: I borrow characters and settings from Tolkien but they belong to him. I gain no profit from their use other than the enriched imaginative life that I assume he intended me to gain.

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter.

1. Visitors Arriving

"Have a nice time," Annael's nana said and bent to kiss his cheek.

"I will see you tomorrow, Nana." He put his arms around her neck and then released her and turned to run to where Legolas and Turgon waited for him. She waved to them all and shut the cottage door. They started to walk toward the palace.

"What will we have to eat tonight, Legolas?" Turgon asked, shifting the leather pouch he carried to his left hand so he could use his right to adjust the strap of his pack.

"I do not know," Legolas confessed. Given how far the palace kitchens were from his family's living quarters, he almost never knew what the cooks were preparing. Indeed, when he slept over at his friends' houses, one of the things he enjoyed doing most was watching their mothers cook the evening meal. "But on my last begetting day, we had apple tarts for morning meal, so perhaps we will have those again tomorrow morning."

"Tomorrow, you will be twenty, just like us," Annael said. Legolas glanced at Annael quickly, but he just looked happy for Legolas. Annael was almost always kind, so Legolas assumed he had not meant to remind him that he was younger than both of his friends. After all, it was only by a month or two.

"You will be old enough to carry a knife," Turgon added, using his free hand to pat the one at his belt. He frowned suddenly. "Your ada does know that, does he not?"

"Yes," Legolas hastened to assure him. "Ithilden gave Eilian a knife when he turned twenty, and he will give me one too. He said he would." It was a fair question. Sometimes Legolas's ada did not realize that he was old enough to do things such as carry a knife or start training to use a blade. But this time, Ada had seemed to know that it was time for both those things to happen. Next week, Legolas would begin spending two mornings a week learning to use knives and a sword, in addition to the two mornings of archery lessons he already had. The idea thrilled him. A sword was a grown- up weapon.

He glanced at Turgon, who had shifted the pouch again. "Do you want me to carry them?"

Turgon promptly handed over the pouch and reached up to slide his thumbs under both pack straps. "The rocks are heavy," he complained. The pouch twitched gently in Legolas's grasp.

They crossed the green and approached the bridge leading over the Forest River to the palace. "Mae govannen, Taramir. Mae govannen, Elviol," Annael greeted the guards politely. His ada was in the Home Guard, and he knew all of the warriors in it. The guards smiled at the three of them and returned Annael's greeting. Legolas felt a little rude for not having said mae govannen too, but his brother Ithilden said that he was not supposed to speak to the guards because it might distract them from what they were doing. He did not think that Annael or Turgon knew that, however. They did not have guards at their houses.

Legolas led his friends across the antechamber to the Great Hall and down the hallway where his family lived to his own chamber. He pushed the door open to find his caretaker, Nimloth, sitting by the fire and sewing little flowers made of ribbon onto the collar of a small gown, probably meant for her granddaughter. "Hello, you three," she smiled, setting her sewing aside and rising. "Put your packs over there and come and have something to eat to tide you over until evening meal."

Turgon and Annael dropped their packs next to the wall, and Legolas placed the pouch there too, making sure the drawstring at the top was tightly pulled. The three of them hopped onto the chairs at the small table and began to eat the bread and cheese that had been laid out on plates there.

"I think perhaps I will just keep your knives for you until tomorrow," Nimloth said pleasantly but firmly. She held out her hand, and Annael obediently unfastened his sheathed knife from his belt and gave it to her. "Turgon," she prodded, and after another moment of hesitation, he handed over his weapon with a scowl. "Thank you," she said. She turned to Legolas. "I am going home now, Legolas. If you need anything, Eilian is in the sitting room. He promised to come and get you in time for evening meal. In the meantime, you can play in here. Do not go wandering around."

"Yes, Nimloth," he nodded. They had things to do in his room anyway. Nimloth lifted her cloak from the hook on the wall and left, taking the knives with her.

As soon as she was gone, Turgon got down from the table and, carrying a bit of cheese, went to where their packs and the pouch lay. "Save some of the food," he admonished the other two, dropping his cheese into the pouch. Legolas stopped himself only just in time from eating the last of his bread. Turgon was right. They would need this food.

He got down and, followed by Annael, went to where Turgon now crouched, peering into the pouch. "How are they?" Legolas asked.

In response, Turgon held up the pouch so that Legolas could look into it. He peeked in and saw the four little brown field mice that he and his friends had caught the day before. They were climbing all over one another in their efforts to escape from the pouch. "I think we need to build their house pretty soon," Legolas said. "I do not think they like it in the bag."

The other two studied the mice. "I think you are right," Annael agreed.

Turgon pulled the drawstring closed again, put the pouch down, opened his pack, and pulled out a rock. "They like to live in cracks between rocks," he said. Legolas nodded. He had seen mice fleeing into the tiniest of cracks. They did seem to like them. They must have found them cozy. "Where shall we build it, Legolas?" Turgon asked.

Legolas looked around the room for a likely spot to build a rock house for the mice. Annael's and Turgon's nanas had both said the little creatures could not live in their cottages, so he had suggested that the mouse house be built in his chamber. He liked the idea of having the mice there. They would be his pets, although he would share them with Annael and Turgon when they came to play of course. He thought it was possible that Nimloth would object to the mice just as his friends' nanas had, so he had not actually asked her for permission. His room was big, and they planned to throw a towel over the house when they were not there, so perhaps she would not notice them anyway.

"Over there behind the wardrobe," Legolas decided, pointing to a dusky corner. "It will not be noticeable there."

Turgon dragged his pack over to the corner Legolas had indicated and dumped the rocks out onto the floor. His clean tunic and leggings and night things fell out too, but he tossed them aside. They landed on the floor, and Legolas picked them up and put them on the bed to get them out of the way. He smiled happily at the sight of his bed. When Legolas spent the night at his friends' cottages, he slept on a pallet pulled out from under Turgon's or Annael's narrow bed, but his bed was big enough to hold all three of them, and talking together in bed at night was one of the nicest parts of the visit.

He dropped to his knees between Turgon and Annael and began helping to stack the rocks into a semicircle that would block off the corner. He eyed the construction. "We need to fit the rocks closely together," he admonished, "or the mice will get out." They fiddled with the stones for a little while until all the visible gaps were gone.

They stood and stared at the results of their handiwork. "They might climb over the wall," Annael said doubtfully.

Legolas bit his lip. Annael was right. "We can put the towel over the top when I am not here to watch them," he finally suggested, and the other two nodded in satisfaction. He ran to his bathing chamber and brought back one of the towels.

"Put the food in, and I will get the mice," Turgon directed. Legolas and Annael fetched the saved bits of cheese and bread and placed them in the middle of the mouse house, and when they had finished, Turgon opened the pouch, gently lifted the mice out, one by one, and put them in their new home. To Legolas's disappointment, as Turgon released each mouse, it darted into the stone wall they had built.

Turgon sniffed at the empty leather pouch and wrinkled his nose. "I think one of them must have peed in there."

Legolas frowned at the walled off space they had made for the mice. "We should get some straw from the stable to make them a bed like the horses have," he suggested. "Then we could muck it out."

"Can we get it now?" Turgon asked.

Legolas shook his head. "Nimloth said to stay here. I can get it tomorrow."

"I think they are still a little afraid," Annael said unhappily, looking at the untouched food. Legolas could only agree. He and his friends had been petting and talking to the mice since they found them, and the animals had calmed down considerably, but being carried around in the pouch had apparently alarmed them again.

Legolas picked up a morsel of the cheese and held it out toward a tiny quivering nose that was just visible in a crevice between the rocks. "Look," he crooned. "We have food for you. We will not hurt you. It is just me and Turgon and Annael." He watched with bated breath as the mouse edged further out of its hiding place, darted forward to brush against his fingers and snatch the food, and then ran back into the rocks again. At that moment, a second mouse scurried boldly into view and began attacking a hunk of bread.

"Look how brave he is!" Annael cried. "I think that one is mine." They had each claimed one of the mice as their own and agreed to share the fourth one equally.

"You cannot possibly tell that," Turgon protested. "They all look alike."

"I can tell," Annael said defensively. "Mine is browner than the others."

Legolas sighed. "Turgon is right. We need some way to mark them so we can tell them apart." He looked around his room, hoping for inspiration, and his eyes lit on Nimloth's sewing basket, sitting open on the floor next to her chair. A rainbow of ribbons lay curled in the tray on the top. "Look!" he crowed, jumping to his feet and running toward the basket. He picked up a length of blue ribbon. "We can tie it to their tails!"

Annael's eyes lit up, and he rose and came trotting over. "Can I use the green ribbon for mine?"

Legolas pulled out the green ribbon and handed it to Annael to hold while he took Nimloth's scissors and carefully cut a length of it. Turgon approached and grasped the red ribbon and held it out to be cut, and then Legolas cut a length of the blue and one of the brown. He went back to where Annael had already picked up the mouse that had been nibbling on the bread and Turgon was trying to coax another one into sight using the cheese again. Legolas held Annael's mouse while he tied the green ribbon to its tail. The warm little creature trembled slightly in his light grasp but did not try to bolt. "You like Legolas. Is that not so, Green-y?" Annael cooed. He took the mouse back and set it down in the penned-in area where it promptly disappeared into the rock wall.

For the next half hour, they worked industriously, luring the mice from the wall and tying the ribbons to their tails. By the time they were through, Legolas's mouse had grown bold enough to remain in the center of the mouse house, eating as much of the bread as he could stuff into his mouth. "Blue- y is hungry," he laughed, reaching out a tentative finger to stroke the mouse's back. To his delight, the animal did not flinch away.

A knock sounded at the door. Blue-y scurried out of sight, and Eilian came into the room, making them all jump away from the corner. He had arranged his leave from his warrior patrol so he could be home for Legolas's begetting day, and Legolas was glad, but at the moment, he was less than happy to see his brother. Legolas hastily seized the towel and threw it over the mouse house. "It is time for evening meal," Eilian told them. He eyed the shrouded space in the corner and then scanned them, with his head cocked to one side and his eyebrows raised. "What are you doing?"

"Nothing," they chorused.

A smile spread slowly over Eilian's face. "Is this the kind of nothing it is better for Adar not to know about?"

"We are not doing anything wrong," Legolas insisted, feeling his face grow warm. "And after you knock, you should wait to come in until I tell you that you may."

Eilian laughed. "Whatever you say, brat. Go and wash your hands and then come and eat. I will wait for you out in the hall so you can deal with the nothing." He stepped out of the room and closed the door behind him.

Legolas immediately ran to lift a corner of the towel and check on the mice. All four of them were out gnawing at the bread, but they fled into hiding when he lifted their sheltering roof. He dropped the towel again. "They are eating," he announced. "We should try to bring them more food from our evening meals."

"Good idea," Annael agreed, and the three of them went into the bathing chamber to wash their hands.

"Will your brother tell your ada we were doing something?" Turgon asked, splashing his hands in the hot water.

Without hesitation, Legolas shook his head. "Eilian will not tell. He is grown up, but not all the way, my ada says. Besides, we are not doing anything wrong. Nobody told us not to bring the mice in here."

Both Turgon and Annael turned to look at him. "That is true," Annael said, obviously pleased. Annael did not like getting into trouble.

Turgon shrugged. "If he does not tell, then I do not see how anyone will know they are here anyway. Your room is really big. No one will notice them." He reached for a towel to dry his hands and the three of them went out to meet the waiting Eilian.

"I got a dispatch from the northern border patrol just before I came home, Adar," Ithilden said. "The last few days have been quiet there."

"Good," Thranduil responded and then looked toward the door of the small dining room through which a smiling Eilian was escorting Legolas, Turgon, and Annael. Legolas ran to take his place on Thranduil's left, and Annael lowered his eyes and smiled shyly as he took the chair next to Legolas. Turgon seemed unintimidated by dining with his king, however, and his eyes darted curiously around the room as he slid into the chair Eilian pointed to at the foot of the table. Thranduil watched him in exasperation. The child was simply too bold for his own good, and more to the point, too bold for Legolas's good. He wondered yet again if he should try to prevent Legolas from spending so much time in Turgon's company and decided yet again that the effort would be pointless. The community in which they lived was simply too small. Legolas would see Turgon every day no matter what Thranduil did. Moreover, he knew that his son was fond of the other child, and he did not want to tempt Legolas into disobedience. He sighed.

Eilian took his seat too and a servant moved around the table, offering a platter of roast fowl with new potatoes. "May I have a little more?" Legolas asked, and Thranduil smiled approvingly at his good appetite. The servant left, and Turgon stretched his arm toward the center of the table and took an extra piece of bread. They must have played hard, Thranduil thought, although Annael seemed less hungry than the other two, for he had pushed a part of his meal into a little pile on one side of his plate and was eating only the rest.

"Did you do anything at all today, Eilian?" Ithilden teased. "You were still in bed when I left this morning."

"And I stayed there a good long time," Eilian answered promptly. "So the answer to your question is yes, I did do something today. I enjoyed my leave!"

Thranduil smiled at him. He was glad to see Eilian enjoying himself. Most of the time, Eilian served as the lieutenant of the patrol that hunted in the dangerous southern parts of the forest. Every time he came home, Thranduil rejoiced in his safe return and tried not to think of how soon it would be before he went back to the fight.

A sudden movement from Legolas caught the corner of Thranduil's eye, and he turned to look at his youngest son, who promptly picked up a forkful of pheasant and began nibbling on it with his eyes on his plate. Thranduil frowned. He could have sworn that Legolas had just put a potato in his lap, but that was absurd. He must have been mistaken.

"So, brat, tomorrow is another begetting day," Eilian said to Legolas. "You are getting to be quite an old thing."

"Why is it called a begetting day?" Turgon asked, setting his piece of bread carefully on the edge of the table. "What does 'begetting' mean?" Much to Thranduil's dismay, the child looked at him expectantly, waiting for an answer. Indeed, as he glanced around the table, he found the three elflings and his two older sons all looking at him with interest. The three little ones all looked serious, but Ithilden had his hand over his mouth to cover its twitching, and Eilian's eyes were dancing.

"That is a very good question, Turgon," Eilian said. Thranduil threw him a repressive look, and he actually snorted with poorly suppressed laughter. Thranduil decided that he had not wanted Eilian to enjoy himself quite this much. He drew himself erect and turned to face Turgon. If Eilian and Ithilden thought this simple question was going throw him, they were wrong. He had answered this question before.

"When an ada and nana want a child to love, they ask Ilúvatar to grant that a baby be sent to live and grow with them, and the day on which Ilúvatar grants their request is the baby's begetting day."

"See?" Legolas crowed to Turgon. "I told you it was the day my parents knew they would be getting me and not what you said at all."

Eilian and Ithilden both burst into guffaws, and Legolas scowled at them. "Why are you laughing?" he cried. "Ada just said that was what it was!"

"We are sorry, Legolas," Ithilden apologized, obviously struggling to suppress his mirth.

Thranduil made a mental note to talk to Legolas about whatever it was Turgon had told him, and then, as the talk flowed around him, he found himself caught by a vivid memory of that day nearly twenty years ago when Lorellin had led him into the woods and at last had her way. She had wanted another child for years, but Thranduil had been reluctant to bring a child into his realm to which the Shadow had returned only a further twenty years earlier. They had two sons living their lives as warriors, and he did not know if he could bear to watch a third child's life be misshapen by sorrow and danger. But Lorellin had been so sure that this was what they should do. "Think about it, my love!" she had wheedled. "There can be no better way to defy the Shadow than to have a baby." Sitting at the table now, with the small, blond figure of Legolas on his left, Thranduil could not help smiling wistfully to himself. He had never been able to deny Lorellin anything she really wanted.

And then, nineteen years ago tomorrow, he had awakened at dawn to find her pacing the room, caressing her swollen belly and murmuring softly to their soon-to-be-born son. "We have chosen a good name for you, have we not, Legolas? You love the trees already, I can tell. But of course, you were conceived among them, although I do not suppose you remember that."

Experienced father that Thranduil was, he had sat up without alarm. "Shall I send for the midwife?"

"Not yet," she had answered, turning to him with her face glowing with excitement. "Let it be just us for a while." He had risen, picked up her shawl from the back of a chair, and draped it over her shoulders. Then he had dressed, readied himself for what he knew would be a long day, and returned to put his arm around her when she stopped moving and grasped the mantle piece as a contraction swept over her. "Soon," she had panted. "Soon we will have a baby again, someone to watch grow and gain strength as his brothers did." Then the contraction had passed, and she had straightened and turned an anxious face to him. "Has Eilian come yet?"

They had expected Eilian home the previous evening, in time for the birth of his little brother, but he had not arrived. Although Thranduil tried not to show it, he felt as worried as Lorellin looked. Eilian would have been coming from where he served in the realm's dangerous south, and he would have had to cross potentially perilous territory. "I will find out," Thranduil had said and gone out to seek word of Eilian, worrying yet again over whether he and Lorellin were doing the right thing. It is a little too late to be fretting about that now, he had told himself wryly.

The door to the dining room opened, and a servant entered, bringing Thranduil out of his reverie and back into the present where Turgon appeared to be storing pieces of bread inside his tunic, for what purpose Thranduil could not imagine. "A messenger has come for Lord Ithilden," the servant announced.

Ithilden grimaced but rose immediately. He commanded the realm's troops and was often called out in the evening to deal with one emergency or another. "By your leave, Adar," he said, and at Thranduil's nod, he left the room, only to return in a very short time. "Some of the eastern border patrol warriors are escorting three Men this way, Adar. The Men were apparently on their way to see you when the warriors found them. They should be here shortly. I left instructions for them to be brought to your office."

Thranduil raised an eyebrow. "Very well," he said, rising to accompany Ithilden. "Eilian, you keep an eye on Legolas and his friends until I am free."

Eilian looked dismayed. "I have plans to see Amelith tonight, Adar!"

Thranduil shrugged. "Send someone to bring her back here. You may go elsewhere if you like once I am finished with the Men." He started toward the door, caressing Legolas's head as he passed, and ignoring the grimace Eilian gave. It would not hurt Eilian to be the responsible one for a change. As Thranduil pulled the door shut behind him, he caught a quick, startling glimpse of Annael spooning bits of roast pheasant into a little bundle in his napkin. What in Arda were the elflings up to? he wondered with some amusement.