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Well, hope you all enjoy!
Chapter 1: The Trials
"An absolutely pathetic lot, Legolas."
Legolas lifted a brow and looked out over the elves who were sparring to see if he could find any redemption among them. He winced and gave up when one tripped over his own feet and nearly impaled himself on a practice sword. "Thank the Valar we don't give them sharp blades."
Elowar snorted with laughter, but his humor was soon replaced with melancholy as moments nearly as bad abounded before them. He sighed wearily, lifting a hand to the back of his head, fisting the dark hair in an absent gesture of thought. "Not even sixty recruits, Legolas—and of those, maybe a handful who already know enough to patrol."
"We always have to train them ourselves, Elowar. Why would it be any different when we actually need more soldiers?"
Terine sighed. "It would be nice if it were, Legolas."
"Agreed." With a sigh of his own he dismounted, clapped on the back by Elleri once his feet were on the hard-packed ground.
"We found a few decent ones in the southern village—and Jarthey is chomping at the bit to get a hold of the rest."
Legolas snorted at the human phrase, wondering if Elleri had perhaps spent just a little too much time among the humans they traded with. Deciding to say nothing, he pulled his mind back to the topic at hand. "Isn't she always?" he asked dryly, still well able to remember his own training with the elder elf, long past though it was.
Elleri grinned, not as far past her training—and occasionally prone to the typical bouts of affection for her displayed by all who had looked back once the training was complete and understood how much she'd really done for them, harsh and uncompromising as she had always seemed at the time.
"How far along are the trials?" Jietere asked, riding up to the others with a few more recruits, all masked as the rest were.
"Not too far—just first elimination."
"Meaning we'll be here at least until dinner," Hathien murmured.
"That's the right attitude to have!" a cheerful voice burst out from the direction of the gates.
Hathien winced slightly, but a faint smile touched his lips. "Oh?" he asked, as soft footsteps announced her approach, even if most of them didn't feel more or less obligated to watch her arrive—still learning soldiers, next to her, for all their titles and centuries of service.
"Yeah… if you never want to be a full captain," she added, crossing her arms over her chest as he turned slightly to acknowledge her.
Elleri laughed but Legolas just shook his head with a faint smile. "I didn't think you were going to come down to these anymore," he mused. "Too depressing, I believe you said? And that what, ten trials ago?"
She smiled enigmatically, flipping her long braid over her shoulder. "Your father asked me to see how things are. I believe he was sure you would gloss over things a bit when you report to him this evening."
"Whereas you couldn't gloss things over to save your life," he murmured back.
She chuckled—both at the tease and how much truth was behind it—and shrugged without a trace of elegance—or self-consciousness, for that matter. "Well, any way you look at it, I'm here… and I'm depressed." With a shake of her head she studied the eliminated soldiers. "All right, you sorry lot! Back to the hall for dinner!"
A few annoyed glances were her only response as the defeated elves gathered their meager things to do as bid.
"How many do you think will quit, Jar?"
She shrugged, toying with the slightly frazzled end of her braid with fingers that could never stay still. "I'd guess a few of them are already planning to leave. Hopefully most of them will wait until morning so I can stop them properly."
Each of the captains—all of whom had, of course, trained with her—had to smile, in varying degrees of ruefulness. Her initial speech each first day hadn't changed much through the centuries, but it still worked just as it had before—only as she aged, she became something more of a fixture in the King's service… which both made her a legend and not a little scary to the new recruits. It was a bit daunting even for the captains themselves—there were very few left in the military service of such age and years of experience. Most of the elder elves either moved on, settled down to have families, or became advisors to the captains and the King.
"You scare those who are planning on staying in service, too, you know."
She laughed heartily and rested a calloused hand on Jietere's shoulder. "Keeps you interested, doesn't it?"
He snorted. "Oh, sure," he agreed, rolling his eyes behind her back.
"See any you like?" Legolas asked, leaning back against one of the posts, crossing his arms over his chest.
She chuckled, releasing the tortured braid to slide back behind her. "Your first pick, as it's your choice this time."
"Oh?" he lifted a brow.
She nodded, then inclined her head at one of the recruits waiting on the other end of the field. "That one."
He focused on the recruit, taking in the thinner form than most good warriors had, and would have dismissed him for that alone but for the slight shift that was made as he watched. The elf moved his weight from one leg to the other—a hand resting lightly, now, on the haft of a blade. Familiarly. The handle was well worn, and wrapped in strips of inexpertly tanned leather. He could see a hint of another blade ensconced in a well-hidden pocket on the elf's thigh, another sticking out of a worn boot. There was a wear pattern in the faded cloth covering each shoulder, indicating the lack of a quiver and perhaps another set of blades that were usually carried. "Over armed."
"Keep looking, lad."
He smiled faintly at her gentle rebuke and focused on the other elf once more. His eyes widened slightly when the obvious hit him. "Not from Mirkwood."
"Or at least, not clothed from Mirkwood."
He inclined his head shortly. "Then I shall indeed choose him," he agreed, eyes narrowing.
Jarthey smiled faintly, watching the being in contentment. "Now, let us see him fight," she murmured, when one of the group leaders running the trials motioned for him to come forward.
The elf straightened a bit, a worn glove lifting to tighten the edges of the masking hood the recruits wore until the final trials were fought—then those who made it into the last pairings were separated out by the captains to immediately join the patrols.
Last time they had only three join in that way, the time before a more acceptable dozen. Legolas had been the only captain lacking a new member the previous round, so he had first choice in this one.
Legolas snorted at Elleri's comment after the very brief match. "Eloquent as ever."
Elleri glared at him for a quick moment, a faint smile quirking his lips. "But… wow." He ran a hand through his gold hair, watching the elf that had been defeated so succinctly in some sympathy as he struggled back onto his feet without an offered hand, one arm clasped painfully over his middle. "It… that…"
"Wow?" Legolas suggested dryly.
"I think that looked how I felt it must have that time you decided to remind me I hadn't learned much of anything yet."
Legolas chuckled softly at the memory and affectionately nudged Elleri's shoulder with his own. "You needed to be put in your place."
"Yes," Elleri agreed at once, fully sober as his bright eyes sought Legolas's darker ones. "That lesson most probably saved my life."
Legolas snorted. "Hardly, Elleri."
"I don't doubt it. I had in mind to join your patrol… and I was far from ready. If I had snuck out that night, Legolas… I probably wouldn't have come back."
Legolas's eyes darkened fractionally as he recalled the night Elleri meant. One of the others hadn't come back. Of those who did—a thankfully large number—none had done so uninjured. It was only the deep trust won through time and their hard-earned skill that had allowed them to return at all. He shook his head slightly and rested a hand on Elleri's shoulder. "You were still upset."
Elleri sighed, glancing down. He snorted after a while. "It still hurts."
"You loved her."
"And I always shall. I just wish I knew…"
Legolas's fingers tightened along with his lips against several caustic replies. "You may never know. Any of it."
"Why, how, why…"
Legolas smiled faintly and nodded once.
Elleri sighed, down enough from his usual high spirits that Jarthey felt compelled to join them once more. "Younger brother depression, young prince?" she asked.
He managed a slight smile for her. "No. Just simple depression."
"Anything that isn't simple enough to joke about isn't simple," she observed.
He gave her a wry smile, but didn't answer.
She had been around far too long not to understand, and found him a distraction he could use as the elf she was most interested in was up for the second round of elimination. It was concluded just as swiftly as the first—this elf had no equal among these recruits. There were a few who might give a little more work than the last two, but none to give a true challenge.
Legolas had just come to the same conclusion. "You!" he called.
The masked head snapped up.
"You will report at the gates at dusk tomorrow."
"Making your choice already, Legolas?" Terine asked, lifting a brow.
"Why not?" he murmured. "It doesn't look there will be many to choose from—let Elleri choose a second for me if there are enough."
"Sure, Legolas," Elleri murmured with a nod. "I'd love to stand around here doing your work while you go eat. After all, I didn't eat lunch either."
Legolas chuckled at the dry manner in which his brother made his displeasure known. "And you have waybread in your pocket, as you always do, if you're so hungry. You asked for this, little brother."
Elleri rolled his eyes. "You going to have him unmask before you run off to Father?"
"Of course," Legolas half-grinned, a brow lifted as he turned back to the new recruit. The smiled faded. "You've been chosen. Off with the mask."
With a barely audible sigh the wooden sword was tossed at the heap of other discarded practice weapons. With a quick and practiced move the mask and hood fell down at the same time.
"Well…" Elleri blinked as well. "You… you have permission?"
"Of course," the elf snapped, sparing him a quick glance. Then the dark grey eyes ran through Legolas. A muscle twitched in her jaw. "Will I need anything for duty besides my weapons?"
"Something for food and water will be provided if you don't—"
"I very well do," she replied quickly, pulling the hood back up over her black hair. She inclined her head curtly and turned to the mountain, a shrill bird-call rousing one of the slumbering horses. The black creature cantered over, accepting her weight quickly, with old familiarity. In very short order she was out of sight.
Elowar was the first to regain his tongue. "Well… That's a first in… how long, Jarthey?"
"She's the first in nearly two thousand years. Don't underestimate her for it, boys."
"After being trained by you?" Hathien muttered dryly.
"Not to mention that rather impressive display just a few moments ago," Terine added. "If it wasn't your choice, I would have taken her as mine."
"You might want to watch your wording, Terine," Legolas murmured dryly. The captains snorted softly and, for the most part, turned their attention back to the trials.
"Something bothering you, Prince?"
Legolas glanced up at her, and tilted his head, consciously trying to relax… or at least appear relaxed. "She has a chip on her shoulder."
"One the size of the mountains," Jarthey agreed. "But she is a good fighter."
"That's hardly everything that makes a good soldier."
"True," she agreed, smiling slightly. "But it helps."
He would have given her an annoyed or exasperated look, but, since it was her, he studied her eyes for a long moment. Slowly he shook his head. "Will I ever understand?"
She almost smiled, something easing in her eyes. "If you keep trying to learn."