Alright, guys. New story. If you want responses to reviews, either give me an e-mail address or sign in so I can use their new system.

My internet is faulty at best right now, so I won't promise on update times. Once a week if I can, and I'll try.

I've had people complain about being unable to figure out how much time has passed, so I've generally corrected that for this story.

Chapter 1: Shut up and try to act dignified

Year 244 of the Third Age

North of the Elven King's Home in Greenwood

"Shh!" Legolas darted a glance behind himself. "Quiet!"

"What?" Zairil asked curiously, looking behind them as well.

"The only reason Ada has allowed me to leave with only you two is that he thinks we can handle ourselves—as more or less adult elves… well, sort of." He frowned briefly—they were actually quite young yet, and would be called children by most. "If we show him we can't be trusted to behave even before leaving the halls, he's going to send Elowar along with us!"

His companions groaned dramatically. "But we're only now just getting rid of the old boy."

"I know," Legolas hissed, risking another sharp look back. "So shut up and try to act dignified—much as I know it pains you both."

To avoid proving his point, the two elves refrained from either clouting him or sticking their tongues out at him… or both at pretty much the same time, which was usually Zairil's preference. They rode together in solemn silence until they had rounded the northern edge of the wood, putting them safely out of sight of anyone watching them. The planes stretched before them, their wood still to their left as it would be for most of the journey, the Grey Mountains to their right in the distance, their well-loved meadow stretching between. They looked back at their home, then looked at each other, three nearly identical grins crawling onto their faces, though one was a bit wilder than the other two, one a bit more crooked.

"Race to the stone!" Legolas called, getting a head start on his friends.

"Leaf!" Angolar protested, taking off after him.

"Cheater!" Zairil called, urging her horse along with the other two.

"Slowpokes!" Legolas accused, laughing as his horse took an instant to prance a bit as he ran.

"Hear that, boy?" Zairil asked, leaning down to speak to her horse. He laid his ears flat to his skull, lifted his tail like a banner and sped up, soon passing both Angolar and Legolas, who shouted threats at her.

"Hey! Come back here, orc-ling!"

"Come on, Leaf! We can't let a girl beat us!"

"And a child at that!" Legolas agreed, speaking to his own horse.

Zairil laughed and beseeched her horse not to lose, riding close to his neck. A hand touched her back just as they reached the stone. She laughed again, sticking her tongue out at him. "Beat you—which is pathetic, your highness. Losing a race to a female child." She looked dramatically off to the distance, able to affect the imitation of court ladies only for a few moments before laughing again, relaxing to throw her head back, soaking up the sun and freedom around them.

He laughed brightly at the mockingly familiar way she twisted the words before he turned a boastful smile on Angolar that reminded the other elf of his loss. Angolar rolled his eyes, shaking his head. "Well, someone had to stay back and make sure you two didn't break your necks," he offered, deadpan.

Zairil and Legolas stared at him for an instant before they both burst out laughing. "That is fabulous, Ang!"

"Have you been practicing that?" Zairil added, leaning against Legolas to retain her balance atop her horse. He was in a similar state, wrapping an arm around her shoulders to steady them both, trying to avoid the indignity of actually falling to the ground. Not, of course, that such would have drawn anything but laughter. She brushed tears from her eyes with the backs of her hands, leaving a faint streaking of dust over her cheeks.

"Well…" He looked to the sky in a mock-innocent pose that was an admission of guilt, and chuckled as the others began laughing again. "He's just so perfect for mocking," he added, turning towards Imladris again, the three horses falling into a sedate walk side by side.

"He is at that," Legolas agreed, chuckling softly. "But you'd best watch the imitations when we're back home—wouldn't want Ada to know what we really feel about having the old boy along."

"What? It would hurt Elowar's feelings to have the king know what he no doubt does?"

The males blinked at her statement, before shaking themselves after unwinding it. "Zai," Legolas murmured, a smile tilting his lips. "Sometimes…"

"What?" she asked defensively when he trailed off, shaking his head.

He reached out, mussing her hair affectionately, sending the dark gold strands to hide her eyes and annoyed grimace. "We've just gotten rid of him, Zai. If Ada finds out we don't like having him along, he'll suspect we're still young and foolish."

"Aren't we?" she chirped, running one hand through her hair, settling it back in place.

He grinned crookedly. "Yes," he agreed, mussing her hair again, dodging her swat. "But he doesn't need to know that. It's so dull having a guard around all the time."

"Keeping you out of trouble." Zairil added, gathering her hair back once she had smoothed it, tying it with a cord.

"Keeping me from fun," he countered, making a face. "The only good times I've had are when we gave him the slip."

"Which was no doubt in part because we had given him the slip," Angolar observed.

Sapphire eyes gazed solemnly at those blue ones which he had known most of his life, then to the grey ones he'd known for almost all of hers. "All right! Who are you two, and what have you done with my friends?" Legolas exclaimed, looking between them in confusion.

The cousins looked at each other behind Legolas' head. Then they looked at him solemnly.

He groaned, covering his eyes with a hand. "No. Don't tell me—you've been charged to be sure I'm not hurt."

"Elowar," Zairil agreed, somewhat sheepish, but also clearly annoyed. "As if we would intentionally let you get hurt."

"Yeah! We never intentionally get into trouble."

"Well…" Zairil and Legolas qualified at the same time, before looking at each other and laughing. Their laughter grew to see the annoyed look Angolar was trying to project, which was ruined by the smile beginning to curve his lips as he watched them slump with their laughter, each leaning onto the other once more.

"You two are terrible!" he scolded, before giving into a chuckle himself.

They slowly calmed a bit, pushing apart to ride fully upright again. "You have to admit," Legolas murmured when he was able to draw enough breath, "we do sometimes actively get into trouble."

"Not truly dangerous trouble, though," Zairil added, a lazy smile touching her lips once more as she tilted her head back to the sun.

"No," Legolas agreed. "Though we've found our share of that, too."

"In our enthusiastic aspiration to be ignorant no longer," she insisted airily.

Legolas chuckled, while Angolar looked slightly confused. "I thought you got out of your lessons with Anslan."

"So did I," she admitted, her mouth curling in disgust as she righted her head. "Why I have to learn is beyond me."

"Well, perhaps it was Ada's doing. He does know how often I wind up with you two, after all, even when I am supposed to be elsewhere."

"So maybe he thought if I spoke properly—befitting a noble—that it might rub off on you?" she asked, again doing her best to sound proper.

"Something like that," Legolas agreed, laughing at how foolish she sounded. "Ridiculous, isn't it?"

"Truly," she agreed, stretching her arms over her head before lying down, one knee drawn up near her horse's neck to sustain the pose. The males shook their heads, accustomed to seeing her do it, but still not understanding how it could be even remotely comfortable. "Why bother with language that makes you sound more pompous than the whole prince thing?"

"Hey!" Legolas protested, before laughing, placing a hand to his chest, head bowing slightly. "Some respect, I beg of you!"

"For you?" Zairil asked, sitting up, affecting astonished, wide eyes. "Why?"

"Orc-ling," Legolas muttered, before a fast move had her hair free and mussed.

"Argh!" she groaned, looking at him pitifully through her hair.

He saw a rare spark of anger light her eyes, and was instantly wary, holding up his hands. "Zai, I—" He paused as she drew one of her daggers. "What are you—Zai!" He reached out, trying to wrest the dagger from her, but she wriggled away, leaping from her horse to the ground, keeping the horse between them just long enough. Legolas landed an instant later and nudged her horse aside with his shoulder, looking at what she had done in stunned disbelief.

Angolar lifted a brow at her actions, but didn't join the others on the ground. "Zairil, couldn't you have waited until we stopped to do that?"

"We have stopped," she muttered, braiding her hair in a fashion much like Angolar's—small braids from each temple joined at the back, binding all that would easily fall or blow into her eyes, leaving the rest free. Then she replaced the dagger, turned to her horse, and mounted quickly. "Well?" she asked, looking down at the prince.

Legolas looked up at her, watching her with shocked, sad eyes. "Zai, I didn't mean to make you do that," he murmured quietly, looking down at the pool of dark gold hair lying on the ground.

"You didn't," she assured him. "Well, at least you didn't make me do anything I wasn't planning on doing, anyway. You just… hastened it a bit."

Legolas looked to Angolar, who smiled reassuringly. "She's done it before, Leaf." He snorted. "Nearly gave her mother a fit—avoiding her sent Zai chasing after us."

Legolas nodded slowly and mounted his own horse, looking at the golden strands which were being slowly plucked from the mass to lift into the air by the wind. "Your mother is going to turn your ears red when you get home," he warned quietly.

"I know," she agreed, but smiled faintly. "But that won't be for quite a while. It should have mostly grown back by then."

He looked at her curiously, his head tilted to one side. "I've never seen a girl your age with hair so short."

"It's longer than yours, Leaf."

"But still… not very feminine."

She gave him a semi-disgusted look. "Do I need to be? We're going to learn what Imladris can teach us."

Legolas and Angolar exchanged glances, knowing full well they had both expected to leave her in the healing houses while they learned more of the arts of war from the masters residing in the haven Lord Elrond had provided. Then they both shrugged, Angolar grinning at the thought of anyone trying to tell his young cousin what she couldn't do… or that she couldn't tag along with them as she had been for the last thirty-odd years.

Zairil stopped, her horse coming to a dead halt. Legolas and Angolar both nearly ran into her, though their horses took over the direction long enough to keep that from happening.

"What is it?" Angolar asked, a bit testily as he straightened his horse out.

"I… I don't know," she admitted, frowning slightly.

Legolas tensed. "Which direction?" he asked, much of the laughter draining from him.

She motioned vaguely off to their right, towards the Grey Mountains, then shook her head and looked expectantly at Legolas, who had turned his attention in that direction, his eyes focused intently beyond what could really be seen. When he snapped around, there was no humor within him, the merry light in his eyes gone.

"Quickly, quietly," he murmured softly, setting off at a slow trot.

The wood-elves with him looked at each other curiously, but followed, knowing he wouldn't tell them… not after a command like that. Angolar touched Zairil's horse's head, then looked at her with a nod. She turned, shifting so she was sitting, facing whatever threat Legolas had determined she had sensed. She focused her attention inward as well as she could, expanding that sense, trying to focus it. For a long moment she was unsuccessful, but finally her reach encountered darkness. A large darkness, growing closer.

"But it's not nighttime!" she protested softly.

"They haven't left the cover of the trees," Legolas answered quietly, a bit absently, his gaze somewhat unclear as he focused his attention and senses on the coming threat. "As long as they don't, they can travel in daylight."

"Then why don't we have more at home?"

He looked at her, lifting a brow. "You want more?"

"Of course not," she scowled, shuddering. "But it would make more sense. There is nearly no light in Greenwood, the trees grow so close, while they would have to be cautious wandering here, above ground."

"It is likely just a stop. I can't imagine such a force living in such a small stretch of trees… though they could have hacked tunnels in the mountains."

"You mean they're right there?" Angolar hissed, turning wide eyes to the trees they were riding beside. By human sight it would seem far enough away, but to elven eyes… the threat seemed very close, indeed.

"Yes. Quiet. Try to appear as warriors. Zai… Valar must have been pushing your hand." Solemn sapphire eyes lifted to her frightened grey ones. He smiled when she visibly forced the fear back, a faint smile touching her lips.

"They will follow that scent, as well as us when night falls."

"Yes. That one more, for they will smell it all through the day, with the wind blowing as it is today."

She looked back, before staring straight ahead, shifting her shoulders to feel the comforting weight of her full quiver slide against her back. "Then they will know, and come full force after us."

He nodded. "Quickly, quietly. We don't rest until dawn sees them well away from us, and even then we continue, for we don't know what paths they may have."

The other two nodded, waiting for him to feel they were far enough from the imminent threat to urge more speed from their horses. They slowed when the horses needed it, all wishing at least once that they hadn't raced so hard earlier. They would have made it to this point even if they hadn't… and their horses would have been better rested for this continuous travel.

"So it begins," Angolar murmured, watching the sun set over the distant mountains.

"If we outdistance them well tonight, we will be able to continue without fear," Legolas murmured softly, though a faint frown touched his brow, indicating to the others he had thought up a reason for his words to be considered untrue. After a moment, he turned to Zairil. "I will lead. Watch."

She nodded, waiting for him to speak with her horse. She turned around, focusing her attention on the land behind them. Fires burned, springing up from the darkness, their words reaching her ears over the sounds of the horses around her.

"Elves, we saw. Elves we find."

"More elf-smell from where they came. She-elf."

"They leave their she-elves defenseless?" A rough, garbled laugh. "All the better, though I wouldn't mind killing a few more elves to get to the females."

A few snarling hisses and other noises which might have passed for laughter panged gratingly in her ears. "We break up, then! Some after the she-elf, some after the warriors!"

Zairil fought to breathe, hearing the majority coming towards them after a brief—and bloody, from the sound of it—skirmish, settling who would get to go for the she-elf.

"Zairil? Are you alright?"

She barely heard Angolar, listening so intently to the orcs racing after them. Those things were freakishly fast! "Leaf!" What was she to do?


Reacting to his voice automatically, she reached over her shoulder, snapping out of her slight panic the instant she touched her bow. She knew this, this was familiar. It wasn't the first time they'd faced orcs. It was just the first time they had done so in unfamiliar terrain, in the dark, with only the three of them… She drew an arrow from her quiver, forcing her fear aside as she had to do, knowing it would only hinder her. A small smile touched her lips as she picked her first target, fear gone or at least well hidden in the knowledge that there would be death in the enemy ranks at her hands.

Angolar glanced back after hearing an arrow fly, his heart jumping to his throat to see how quickly the beasts had come after them, before it swelled with hope and pride to see one of the lights drop to the ground before being extinguished. "Good girl," he murmured, before slinging his quiver from his back, shifting it to her.

She paused to accept the quiver, awkwardly putting it on her back as well. Before she could even run through her quiver, she knew it wasn't going to work.

So did Legolas, who had been monitoring the group behind and beside him as well as he could without looking away from the land before them. "Turn around, Zairil."

She glanced over at him, seeing the faint glow of his skin clearly in the moonless night. He glanced at her, waiting for her to do as instructed. Once she had, he urged more speed from his horse, leading them away at a wild pace which would have been insane in any other circumstances. As it was, Zairil and Angolar fanned out, each straining their own eyes to search the dark for impending problems for their horse's hooves. They streamed around some rocks, a few seemingly misplaced trees, and continued running.

Often in their young lives the three friends had wished for the passing of time. Sometimes in waiting for Elowar or a tutor to leave for something so they could sneak away from him, others in awaiting their scolding after having done so. On occasion, it was even a more average desire to be done with the day to reach their beds and lay their play-worn bodies down for a few well-deserved—or ill-deserved, depending on who's view was accepted—rest. Despite their history of wandering into situations they shouldn't, they had never so fervently wished for the coming of the dawn. Even a faint hint of it would do to drive their pursuers away.

That night, though, the stars had chosen to hide with the new moon behind clouds that helped coat them in the depressing darkness that lent the abominations behind them speed.