As always, I own nothing but the characters the professor would not touch with a ten-foot pole. LOTR belongs exclusively to the estate of J.R.R Tolkien, New Line Cinema and anyone else who I might not be aware of having staked a legal claim. This story is written only for my own pleasure and hopefully for any who choose to read it.

Thank you to Meckinock for her patience and skill in beta reading. She's a trooper. And for her diligence in trying to teach me the difference between breathe and breath. Eru knows she's tried….

Thanks to daw the minstrel…just for good measure. She's darn good with that Chicago Manual of Style. And her Mirkwood has brought me many hours of reading pleasure. Yes, I've been influenced….

And thanks to Nilmandra for allowing me to post here and for her kind support.

Chapter One: Daeron

"If I get any hotter," I complained, "there will be nothing left of me but a muddy puddle." I watched as Legolas drew a dipper of lukewarm water from the bucket seated on a stand at the side of the training field. Without bothering to take a drink, he poured it over the back of his neck. His hair and clothing were already so wet from sweat that he looked no different when he finished dousing himself, and certainly, he appeared no cooler. He handed the dipper to me. I took a long and unsatisfying drink of the stale water and then drenched myself by pouring the remainder straight over my head. I gained little relief.

"Everything hurts," Legolas moaned as he sank slowly to the ground in the shade. He stretched his legs out and leaned back to prop himself on his hands. I dropped down beside him, wiped the spill of water from my eyes, and watched as more novices began to move in our direction. All of them looked as devoid of enthusiasm as we felt.

But there was one novice who caught my wary eye. Belas was in the oldest group and was without a doubt, the biggest nuisance I had ever known. He was not only arrogant, he was a menace to anyone who did not do things the way he thought they should. And he was not shy about telling anyone what a failure they were and what a complete disgrace they were to each and every warrior who had come before them. He tended to target younger novices as I think the ones of his age were on to him and paid him no more mind than an annoying fly. In the past, I had seen him reduce younger novices nearly to tears as he ripped them apart. The thing that amazed me was that the masters seemed to ignore him and if they had ever reprimanded him, I did not know about it.

Legolas flopped onto his back and stared up at the leaves above us. "I forgot to get a drink while I was up." He turned his head toward me and gave me a lopsided grin. "Get me one, will you?"

I let out a disagreeable chortle. "You will have to get it yourself. I am not moving until forced."

He raised his head enough to see the water bucket and when he saw our friend, Belas, was at the bucket, he sighed and lay back down. "I will wait."

"Just think," I said in a horribly-feigned, cheerful tone, "we will get to spend the next ten days out in the forest with Belas, the bellower."

"Shoot me now," Legolas groaned. "I would rather go by your hand than by his constant criticism."

"And what would he criticize you for?" I asked. "That you are better with your weapons than he is?"

"For breathing, I suspect, is enough."

With a firm pat to Legolas' midsection, I said, "Do not worry, little cousin, I will protect you from the big bad warg's rump."

Legolas laughed out loud. "And who will protect you?"

"Just back me up when I give him a new orifice or two," I said. Legolas chuckled and closed his eyes.

We lapsed into silence, and I took that time to look around the fields in hopes that the masters had succumbed to the heat and left, but they were still there, waiting out our paltry little break. As I scanned the area, I also saw our older brothers beneath a beech tree at the edge of the path. Seregon, my older brother and the king's second in command, was leaning against the tree with his arms casually folded as he watched the fields. Aldamir, the king's heir and chief commander, stood at his side with one foot propped on the short split rail fence that separated the training fields from the path. I begrudged them both their shade and their positions of not being novices. "What are the two hawks doing here?" I asked, nodding in their direction.

"Wagering on which of us drops dead first," Legolas said without even bothering to look.

"You would think they would feel sorry for us," I complained. "We are their brothers, after all."

"They feel no pity for us," Legolas said. "As a matter of fact, I think they find our suffering amusing. Perhaps they dropped by for one last laugh before the masters take us away to never be seen again."

"They will have to suffer us one more day before we leave for the Endurance Games," I said. Glancing back at Legolas, I said, "I do not suppose there is any way out of this upcoming torture, is there?"

Legolas whipped his head toward me. "You do not want to go?"

I blew out a tired chest full of air and leaned back on my hands. "It is not that I do not want to go. I do. But it is so hot and the thought of spending ten days with Belas destroys my enthusiasm."

"He will not bother us," Legolas told me. "He will most likely choose one of the youngest of our group to pick apart."

I smiled. "That would be you," I reminded him. I was one of the oldest of our group and Legolas, one of the youngest. Of course, this only made me a whole eight months older than Legolas. Even though I frequently reminded him that I was his elder, he never seemed properly impressed.

Legolas smiled. "He will not bother me."

"Is that so?" I said, raising my eyebrows. "What makes you immune to his rants? Is it because you are the king's son?"

"No," Legolas said, sitting up, "it is because he knows I can shoot rings around him, and he will not challenge anyone who can best him. He will accost those who are less confident to start with."

"Of course, if you show any weakness…."

"He will not miss it," Legolas finished for me.

"Belas being along will only make this whole exercise more unpleasant," I moaned. "Is it not bad enough that Melda chooses the most dreadful weather he can find to conduct the games? This is the hottest summer anyone can remember, and since many of the Elves making this statement are older than dirt, that extends a long time into the past. Add to that that this is our first time to go on the games, and we do not know what exactly to expect. All we have been told is that this is the most difficult training we have yet to face." I screwed a sour smile on my lips. "Even Seregon said he reconsidered the wisdom of wanting to go after his first time. I do not want to be left hanging upside down in a tree if I make too big a mess of things. I fear my brother will leave me there."

Legolas laughed. "Your naneth will make him come for you. Besides, if we are to make fools of ourselves, then at least we will humiliate ourselves together."

Melda gave a low whistle that signaled the end of our rest period. All the novices dragged themselves back to the fields were we would be punished further for having the audacity to live. I did not think I had ever seen a more ragged looking group of future warriors. No one had been left unscathed by the oppressive heat or by the masters' devious plans to torment us. All we had done for the two weeks prior was strength training and at that point, this was all we were doing still. When this was over, I thought I would surely be able to toss boulders with one handif I still lived.

When the masters dismissed us, I went straightway to my chambers, ripping off my sodden garments the moment I passed through my door. They dropped like boggy hay onto the floor.

I was underwater in my bath when I heard something dully clamoring around in my bath chambers. As I broke the surface, I saw my naneth placing a clean drying cloth on the chair. "How much longer do you plan to stay in that bath, child?" Since she was smiling, I knew she was not angry, or at least she was not so annoyed that she had lost all semblance of congeniality.

"Until I come of age," I said dryly. "Perhaps the masters will forget about me."

She laughed. "I hardly think that will happen. As it is, you need to hurry. The feast will begin soon, and we will need to be in the family sitting room in a few minutes to go with the family. Your uncle will not want to keep the visitors from the outlying villages waiting."

I yawned. "Very well. I am hungry."

"Then do not tarry," she said and went out.

This feast was being held in welcome for the village leaders, and those who were traveling with them. They had come to meet with my uncle, Thranduil, more commonly known as the king. I supposed the meeting was over problems they were facing, but I was not certain of their purpose. Being uninformed was no surprise for me. As a general rule, I was not consulted about such things. Still, something was apparently going on in the forest to our west. I had heard rumors about the giant spiders that inhabit portions of our forest increasing in numbers and moving further north of the elf-path. My cousin, Erelas, the king and queen's second son, had been traveling with his patrol through those areas for some weeks now. I knew he was sending regular dispatches, but I, of course, had no way of knowing what they contained. Legolas and I were the last Elves in all of Mirkwood to know what was going on most of the time. What little we did know was absolutely forbidden for us to mention, discuss or even act as if we had any idea about if someone asked us. To tell the truth, not being privy to realm business was easier, though this mattered little as no one usually bothered to ask us anyway. However, if spiders were involved, then I most definitely wanted to know. Wherever there was a spider, regardless of its size, I would do my best to be somewhere else. I could barely stand to think about them, much less pursue them. I admired Erelas for his braveryor stupidityI am not certain how I truly saw this. At any rate, I wanted to know exactly where the spiders were so I could be on the opposite side of the forest. Seregon repeatedly told me that I would have to get over this aversion to eight-legged beasts since when I became a warrior I would undoubtedly run into them. I had already decided to request to be posted to areas of the realm where there are none. Perhaps I could guard the wine in the cellar.

As tired as I was, I was pleased when we got to the feast. The food looked and smelled wonderful, the minstrels were already playing softly, and the welcome speech by Uncle was short and sweet. Once we were released from the royal family duties of standing still while Thranduil spoke—duties which I have come by due to living in the palace and being the son of the queen's brother—I trailed after my cousins to the tables. Unfortunately, I was also required to wear formal robes and a circlet just like my cousins and my older brother. I would have much preferred to wear something more comfortable and less hot, but the night air had cooled enough to where if I did not move around too much, I would not drip into my plate.

I was still eating in earnest when Legolas nudged me and nodded his head toward where Aldamir was talking to an elleth I had never seen before—a very beautiful maiden, I might add. She was tall, but delicately shaped like a finely blown glass vase. Her hair was dark and nearly to her waist with the only curve being at the ends where they turned under slightly. A few wisps of hair had escaped the braid that held her hair back from the crown of her head to frame her face. I could not see her eyes, but they were trained solely on Aldamir. "Oh…," I said around a mouthful of venison. "I do not know her, but I would like to."

Legolas smiled. "I think she is the daughter of one of the village leaders. I do not know her name, but I know she is quite beautiful. Wonder why she is talking to Aldamir?"

"Perhaps she likes him," I said, putting another bite of roasted meat into my mouth. I chewed slowly and watched the way the firelight lit her hair with a shine so generous it looked as if it had been polished by hand to a full, rich sheen. As she moved, her deep blue gown swayed and flickered with airiness. She did not appear too bothered by the unusual warmth of the night. And I was enjoying watching her.

Legolas looked startled for a moment, and then a slow smile played across his lips. "Indeed," he said. "Perhaps he likes her, too. My brother looks as if a band of orcs could sit down next to him, and he would not take notice." Obviously pondering this situation, Legolas nodded toward a group of elleths we have known all our lives. "I think I will see what I can find out about her. Míriel knows everything that is going on." He cast a sly glance my way. "Why do you not come with me? Isilya is with her."

I looked up. "Yes, she is," I said dryly. But my heart did skip a beat. I did not know exactly why Isilya made me all flustered and jittery, but I did not seem to be able to breathe right when she was near. Isilya and Míriel have been friends for as long as I can remember. However, Míriel, also known as Fluffy, had been the bane of our existence for as long as I can remember as well. She has improved with age to where she no longer teases us unmercifully, but she is still not someone I would wish to spend any time in her company. I suppose I can carry a grudge. She made our lives miserable. Now that she is older, she is merely the source of information for anything to do with someone's love life, and since I did not have one to report to the entire realm, she paid me little mind. I found her lack of interest in me to be an agreeable arrangement.

I have always thought that Isilya found Míriel to a bit tiresome herself. Over the previous few years, Isilya had ceased to keep company with Míriel as much as she did when were younger. I cannot say I blame her. But there has always been something about Isilya that intrigues me. I did not know if it was nothing more than mild curiosity as to how she could stand Míriel, or if it was the slight impishness about her smile that made me feel she could be one of us. At any rate, she made me nervous. And I could not tear my eyes away from her.

"Why do you not go talk to her?" Legolas suggested.

"Why?" I snapped my attention back to my plate and slathered jam on a thick slice of crusty bread before I crammed it into my mouth.

Legolas smiled. "No reason. I merely thought you might like to talk to her."

I chewed slowly while mulling this over. After taking as long as possible to grind up the little piece of bread, I finally washed it down with a drink of wine. I sat quietly for a moment longer, letting him stew while waiting for my reply. I did not want to give him the satisfaction of knowing that I did indeed find Isilya fascinating. "I will wait on you to return with the life history of the mysterious maiden."

"Uh, huh…" Legolas laughed as he stood. He placed his hand over his heart in a mock formal salute and bowed to me. "I shall return after I have completed my mission, my lord." With that, he turned smartly on his heels and stalked off toward the group of elleths.

"You may regret stirring up Míriel," I said aloud to myself and took another swig of wine. Trying to look as disinterested as possible, I watch him walk over to where the elleths stood in a tight little circle. They parted and allowed him to join before they gathered again with Legolas in the center. Isilya smiled as she welcomed him. My heart sunk. I have to admit I was slightly jealous that she was smiling at him instead of me. My heart lurched again as I thought that she might like him. I mean, like him in a way that I would not like. The elleths seemed to like Legolas a great deal and for that, I would eternally be annoyed by him. I threw the rest of my slice of bread down on my plate and crossed my arms. Perhaps I had made a mistake after all in not going with Legolas.

He was not gone for more than a quarter of an hour when my stouthearted scout returned, flushed and smiling. I hoped his blushing was due to suffering such close contact with Míriel and not because he was enjoying Isilya's company. He quickly pulled out his chair and sat down. "Her name is Elenna, and her father is Sordien, the leader of the northernmost village. Her mother is a healer and could not accompany them because her older sister is expecting a child soon. So Elenna came as her representative. She is a tutor for the elflings of their village and often aids her adar with the trees in the forest. She is very skilled with growing things. The rumor is that she was or is involved with an Elf in her village, but her parents do not approve of him." He lifted his eyebrows in a very Thranduil-like manner. "Míriel suspects that this trip may be an attempt to distance her further from the undesirable Elf."

"Why is he undesirable?" I asked.

Legolas gave me a look that told me I had asked an irrelevant question or one for which he did not know the answer. "Apparently her parents have deemed him as such."

I swatted my hand through the air. "Speculation. Pure speculation."

"Perhaps we should tell Aldamir," Legolas said.

"About what?" I asked. "He is a grown Elf. He would not appreciate us interfering in his personal affairs." I shrugged. "Besides, he might not care one way or the other."

Legolas glanced back to his oldest brother and the maiden. "He looks quite interested." Then he sighed. "But you could be right," he said. That would be a first, I thought with amusement. "Perhaps, he is merely being polite."

We watched, completely captivated by the scene of Aldamir taking the hand of the beautiful-beyond-measure maiden's hand as he led her into the dance circle. However, by all appearances, we were no more captivated by her beauty than Aldamir.

"Why do you not tell Seregon?" Legolas said finally. "If he thinks Aldamir should know, he will tell him."

I drew back slightly and snorted. "You must be mad! And have Seregon lecture me on minding my own business?" I shook my head. "I do not think so." I would not touch that with the longest limb in the forest. My cousin would have to take his own care where maidens were concerned. Besides, I was not one to be giving advice on elleths. I had never even kissed one, much less entertained the idea that I knew anything about what went on in their heads. For pity's sake, I did not even understand my own naneth.

Legolas let out a long sigh and settled back in his chair as we watched his brother and the mysterious maiden smile at one another as they danced. I poured more wine into my cup and sighed as Seregon blew past, stopping only long enough to fill the remainder of my cup with water. When Legolas laughed, my brother poured water into Legolas' cup as well. I laughed aloud then too. With only a raised eyebrow of warning, Seregon disappeared into the crowd. "We need to get rid of him," I mumbled to Legolas.

Legolas stood, clapping me soundly on my shoulder. "Come. Let us find a place where we are not under his watchful eye." He brightened. "Perhaps, if we can find Seregon a maiden, then he will pay us no more mind than Aldamir."

I snorted as I pushed my plate away and stood. "There are no maidens who would have him."

If possible, I believe the next morning was hotter than the day before. When we reached the training fields that morning, the sun bore her brutal eye down upon us with the practiced skill of one who would never allow anything to escape her intense gaze. The trees were quiet and lethargic in the heat with no breeze to stir the air over their silent leaves. The river, as it wound its way through the widened banks and exposed rocks, was low and sang a softer song than normal. I could not help but feel the dread of knowing what a long miserable day it would be with the masters punishing us with the physical routine I knew they had planned. That was not to mention that we all seemed on edge in anticipation of the games as we continued to push ourselves to lift heavier weighted sacks and to repeatedly pull the unbearably heavy sacks set on pulleys. Then the masters would make us run…and run…and run.

As we neared the training fields, Legolas chuckled out loud. "I was thinking…"

"Excellent!" I said. "That is often a good way to pass the time."

He threw a cold glance in my direction that would have frozen a robin in mid-flight. "As I was saying, I thought that Aldamir looked rather smug this morning. He must have enjoyed himself last night."

I nodded. "Indeed. While he looked like the frog that caught the fattest fly, Seregon had the appearance of an Elf who had not been to bed. Seems to me, this arrangement should have been the other way around. Aldamir should have been dancing all night while Seregon slept soundly all tucked in bed."

Legolas laughed. "Seregon must have taken the night rounds last night. Aldamir's turn was last night. I heard him mention it yesterday at morning meal."

I swiped my hand through the air. "I do not know why they just did not forget about the rounds last night. Nothing is going to happen. Aldamir only does rounds as a courtesy to the guards after feasts anyway. The guards can handle the increase in Elves roaming about."

Legolas nodded. "I do not doubt the guards either, but I think he likes for them to know that he is paying attention to their needs, and that he is watching them."

I could not contain the laugh that caught me square in the chest. "And just who was watching the commander last night?" Legolas joined me in my fit of glee. Seeing Aldamirour always-in-control commander and kinsmanacting like an ellon suffering his first pangs of infatuation was simply too good to pass up. And we were enjoying every moment of this rare occurrence.

Our fun at Aldamir's expense was short lived. By mid-day we were all tired and soaked with sweat. Orocarni added a little excitement to our physical training by having us run while shooting at targets with feathers sticking out from the top. Our job was to knock the feathers from as many of the targets as possible. To make this exercise more interesting, fellow novices crouched behind plank walls with the targets mounted on sticks that they moved erratically in all conceivable directions as we ran, one by one, full speed from the starting line to a blind made of hay where we had to roll over the hay and crouch behind it. The point, of course, was for those us who were the runners to hit the feathers and not the novices darting about behind the walls. I am pleased to say that all the target-novices survivedby a hair's breadth. A few shots did dip at the wrong time, and the wall came in handy. And I am sorry to say, for the most part, the feathers were safe from our arrows.

Alar, the youngest of our group and the smallest by far, was one of the worst offenders in pinning his arrows to the wall. I heard more than one mumbled curse when his arrows struck the wood that separated the target-novice from a sudden impalement. By the end of our run, I was starting to feel sorry for Alar. He was really a very nice person. And he tried quite diligently to do as he had been instructed. However his size was not to his favor. That did not even address his aim. He made Legolas and me look absolutely proficient in a little escapade of our youth when in a fit of anger, we shot practice arrows at Míriel and Isilya. I try not to think about the look on Uncle's face when we were hauled into his office for our consequences of being dumber than a rotting log. I suppose this episode did give me some sympathy for poor Alar. I knew how he felt when his arrow seemed to have a mind of its own.

Belas, however, seemingly had never made an error in his life. Unfortunately, he was one of the novices dodging Alar's wayward bolts. When he emerged from behind the wall, his face was as red as a smashed cherry. His fury was not lost on anyone. Orocarni, our archery master, immediately sent Belas on an errand to the master's hut to retrieve a different type of arrow. I supposed the master was attempting to forestall bloodshed among his charges. When Belas returned, he was not quite as irritated as he had been, but it was plain to see that Alar was a marked Elf.

"Alar is in for trouble with Belas," I whispered to Legolas.

Legolas looked up from where he was filling his quiver and studied the haughty older Elf who was sizing up Alar as if he were a scrawny buck that would not make a meal. Until the last few weeks we had rarely been in a training session with the older novices. We were trained in our own age groups. But we had now officially joined the ranks of older novices, and we would be together more often. This, of course, included the games. "Belas will not let this rest. He is spoiling for someone fresh to torment," Legolas said as he went back to placing the longer range arrows in his quiver. "Poor Alar; he is trying."

I squatted down beside Legolas. "What do you think will happen to Alar? I cannot see him as a warrior at this point. But he insists that this is what he wants to do."

Legolas shook his head. "I do not know. I suppose he will grow more, and then perhaps he will become more capable with his weapons. He is really not so bad with blades, and his archery skills are improving."

"But he is terrible in hand-to-hand combat," I pointed out. "He is so small that even some of the younger novices could pick him up and toss him like a pebble."

Legolas smiled. "Naneth says that we grow faster in warm weather. Let us hope that this hot weather will make him grow like a weed."

I looked over to see Alar standing off to the side…alone. My heart really did go out to him. "I fear that Belas will try to pluck him and in the process, he will really hurt him."

Legolas stood. "The masters will not allow Belas to harm him."

I stood too. "When they know about it they will not allow him to be unkind. But you know how Belas is. He will do his damage when there is not a master around."

Legolas shoulder his bow. "Then I suppose we will have to watch out for Alar. We will just have to do this without causing problems."

I blew out a gush of air between my lips. "I knew you were going to say that."

Legolas chuckled as we started toward where we were to gather to begin our next run. "You do not fool me, Daeron; you are itching to say something to Belas."

"Fair enough," I said. "I admit that I would like to cut him down to size, but I am not itching to be on the receiving end of Melda's displeasure."

"Then we will keep anything said away from the masters' hearing."

I turned to him and put a look of surprise on my face. "You mean that is possible?"

Legolas laughed as he clapped me on the back. "There is always hope, my cousin. There is always hope."

At that time, Orocarni motioned us all to take our place for running while shooting at stationary targets. We practiced this drill often, and it had not gotten any easier. The targets were placed at varying distances, and we were to run, shooting at each of the five targets as we ran. I felt I made a respectable showing, but when in any archery competition with Legolas, I felt as inadequate as a maiden with a wart on my nose. Not that I have ever seen a maiden with a wart on her nose, but I have heard some interesting conversations between Seregon and Aldamir after their trips to Dale or Esgaroth. Apparently human females vary considerably.

As we ran the drill over and over, I watched Alar. He did not perform poorly at all in this run. Of course, everyone could only look better after shooting at erratically moving feathers. But this time, Alar did as well as anyone else, except Legolas, of course. My cousin put his bolt in the center nearly every time. Belas caught my eye again. I was not pleased to see him intentionally bump into Alar when Alar completed his run and returned to the line. Belas was subtle about it, but I know he could have avoided Alar. Belas's friend, Moralendi chuckled. Belas's clumsiness was no accident. Alar simply asked for forgiveness and took his place in line. I think that irritated me even more. Alar had nothing to apologize for. I had no doubt; the games were going to be a long ten days.

At the end of our last run, Melda appeared and motioned us all to take a seat on the grassy knoll of the archery field. I quickly found Legolas and settled down beside him. My stomach was tied in knots. The games had become to me something like eating a food that one found disagreeable, but you knew it was good for you, and you had to eat it anyway. At that point, when I glanced at Legolas, he looked flushed and in deep concentration. I suppose he was trying to get himself ready too. As a matter of fact, I did not think the older novices looked any more confident that the younger ones who had never participated in the games. This realization did little to comfort me.

Once we were all quiet as a barrow at midnight, Melda strode to the front and looked us over. "I am certain that you are anxious to get underway on the games tomorrow. A few rules need to be remembered. You will comport yourselves as warriors at all times. You will obey the orders of the masters without question, and you will follow the orders of the chosen daily captain. These ten days will be an intense time, but there are none among you who will not do well if you follow orders, remain alert, and learn from you triumphs and mistakes. We are all here to support one another and to learn from one another. We are a team. We work together. We all win together, and we all lose together. At the end of each day we will meet to evaluate your performances and to discuss where we need improvement. Our goal is for you to come away from this exercise with more confidence, a better understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses, and an understanding of what warriors encounter in the field. Some of you have already participated in these trials, and for the younger ones, you will be good guides. Do not be afraid to ask questions or to discuss your concerns about your performance. By following these simple rules, everyone will find the games rewarding. Now," he said, "we will depart at sun rise. Pack lightly; take only what you would require for a ten-day patrol. Be certain you have your healing kit, your weapons in good repair, and your personal items." He smiled. "We will see you in the morning. Dismissed."

All was settled. For ten days, we would be stuck out in the forest with Belas, the bellower, and a group of demanding masters who could also get quite loud when aroused. I looked over at Legolas and smiled. Whether we were prepared or not, we were only hours away from our first taste of the Endurance Games. And whether Belas knew it or not, he was only a short time away from meeting two younger novices he could not intimidate. This thought almost made the difficulty of the games seem worthwhile.