8

AN: This story is set right after "Fire and Shadow." So Legolas is just over 100, the age at which Tolkien tells us many elves first reach their full adult growth. He's assigned to the Northern Border Patrol, where his brother Eilian is the captain.

There'll be flashbacks in this story too. They take place right after "Wood-Elves," so early in the Second Age when Oropher takes some of his people, including Thranduil, to visit Lorien.

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this story.

*****

A Little Slip

Legolas edged along the maple's rain-slicked branch. One more step, he thought, just enough to get to the more open space over the river. He shifted his weight, and the branch sagged into a heart-stopping imitation of an otter slide. He grabbed the branch just above him, jerked his skidding feet to a halt, and leaned toward the tree's trunk.

"Back up, you fool!" Beliond called.

Legolas looked down at his bodyguard, who peered up at him through the fan-shaped leaves. Beliond's brows met over his nose. Behind him, Maltanaur's mouth twitched, and Eilian grinned openly.

Legolas sent his brother a sour look. It was easy for Eilian to laugh. Maltanaur never ordered him around as if he were a stunningly slow-witted elfling. To be fair, Maltanaur was probably trying not to undercut Eilian in his role as the Northern Border Patrol's captain. Still, couldn't Beliond learn from watching Eilian's bodyguard? If Legolas had stumbled on Beliond elsewhere, he never would have believed that he was a Wood-Elf. There were days when Legolas suspected Beliond of being the re-embodiment of a bossy, little Noldor lady whose family had finally had enough and shuffled her off to see Namo during the kin slaying.

"Did you hear me?" Beliond said.

Legolas yanked on the higher branch. Rainwater leapt off the leaves and pattered down. Beliond gave his head a quick, dog-like shake, then regarded Legolas with narrowed eyes. Drops gleamed on his forehead and cheeks. He opened his mouth, but a gleeful Eilian shoved past him.

"What do you see?" Eilian asked.

Legolas steadied himself, stayed where he was, and looked across the river marking the end of the patrol's territory. From this angle and free of the curtain of rain that had finally stopped, he could see behind the rocks that tumbled along the north edge of the gorge the river had carved. Scuffed up grass surrounded a black fire pit.

"Just as you thought, Eilian. It looks like someone camped there recently."

"Dwarves?"

"Probably. There's not enough destruction for it to be Orcs, and they were too heavy-footed to be Men." Dwarves were most likely anyway, Legolas knew. Not surprisingly, they were fleeing the Grey Mountains, where dragons now dwelt. A flash of fire burst in Legolas's mind. His hand spasmed on the branch. He turned his gaze determinedly to where he had glimpsed unexpected color between the rocks. "The red and yellow blotches we saw look like clothes."

"Clothes?" Eilian looked at Maltanaur. "Why would they leave clothes behind?"

"They left in a hurry?" Maltanaur hesitated, then tilted his face up to Legolas. "Could it be a body?"

"Maybe, but I think not." Legolas was gratified to hear how steady his own voice was. "And I believe Dwarves bury their dead."

"If they have time," Maltanaur said soberly.

"How about the burned area?" Eilian asked.

Legolas raised his gaze to the distance. Spindly trees dwindled to shrubs in the increasingly rocky ground that sloped up toward the distant mountains. A league or so away, a tongue of scorched ground stretched toward him.

"Does it look like a lightning strike?" Eilian asked. "Or are we talking about a dragon within spitting distance of the woods?"

"How would I know?"

"Let me see." Eilian sprang toward a nearby tree and began to climb.

Legolas watched him scramble upward. The branches bent under Eilian's slightly greater weight, and he halted a little below Legolas. As Legolas had done, he inched outward. The branch dipped further. Legolas darted a look toward the ground and found Maltanaur with his arms crossed but silent. Now, why couldn't Beliond be like that?

Maltanaur's hands flew upward. "Eilian--"

A loud crack jerked Legolas's gaze back to where Eilian stood on the branch—or rather to where Eilian should have been standing. A section of the tree was in motion and Eilian with it, scrabbling like a squirrel.

"Watch out!" Legolas cried, as if watching would do any good now.

The branch collapsed. With a yelp, Eilian plunged feet first into a leafy sea. He grabbed for a hold, missed, flew through space, and landed on his side at the edge of the river bank. To Legolas's relief, Eilian was at least coherent enough to spin in order to soften the shock. The novice masters who had trained him would have been proud.

Except for the way he rolled over the bank and vanished, of course.

Legolas hurtled to the ground nearly as quickly as Eilian had. Fortunately, Beliond's back was turned as he and Maltanaur ran to look over the edge. Legolas galloped up next to them and looked down. Eilian lay, face up, in a nest of bushes on a narrow ledge about halfway down the twenty feet to the river shore. He stared up at the sky, mouth agape, as if surprised to find himself looking straight at it.

"Are you hurt?" Maltanaur called.

Eilian blinked.

"Eilian?" Maltanaur said.

Legolas found a hand hold in the bushes and swung off the bank to plant one foot on a protruding rock and reach for a crack in the side with the other toe. Intent on his next perch, he barely glimpsed Maltanaur working his way down a yard or two away. Overhead, Beliond swore.

Legolas slid the last few feet to the ledge on which Eilian lay and dropped to his knees next to his brother. "Are you all right?"

Eilian turned his head. "I think so," he said weakly.

Maltanaur landed next to Legolas and crouched, grim faced, to run his hands lightly over Eilian's arms and legs. He dropped his hands to his thighs. "Nothing seems broken, unless possibly your head." He glared at Eilian. "Do you have enough brains left to realize that a moment's thought and planning might have saved you from a possible injury?"

"Sorry," Eilian said, his voice strengthening. "I should have been more careful."

A rope slapped against the rock just above Eilian. Legolas looked up to see Beliond peering over the edge. "Can he climb up?" Beliond asked. "Maybe you should tie him."

Eilian pushed himself up to sit. "I can climb."

Maltanaur had already grabbed the end of the rope. He passed it under Eilian's arms and tied it in front. Legolas seized Eilian's elbow and helped him up.

"Can you really climb?" Legolas asked.

"I am a Wood-Elf," Eilian said, which would have been more reassuring if he had not just fallen out of a tree. Still, when he pulled himself free of Legolas's grip, he stood without swaying.

"The Valar protect fools, they say." Maltanaur let go of the rope and took a step back.

Eilian grinned, seized the rope, and pulled, walking his feet up the side of the river bank while Beliond braced him from above. Legolas watched a little anxiously with Maltanaur at his side, face turned up.

Under Legolas's feet, the broken bushes gave way further, and he grasped an exposed tree root to steady himself. Simultaneously, Maltanaur reached for a protruding rock. The bushes dropped again. Legolas looked over at Maltanaur, whose eyes widened. Abruptly, Legolas realized that the bushes weren't what was giving way.

The ledge fell out from beneath his boots. The bank slid past, snatching handholds out of his reach. He skidded on his leather jerkin like a sled zooming fatefully down hill. Then his feet jammed onto the river bank, and he bent his knees and tumbled to the muddy ground. Fire flared in his right ankle. He curled himself over and grabbed it, and lay there fighting to draw enough breath to moan.

"Are you all right? Legolas! Maltanaur!" Eilian's and Beliond's voices blended in Legolas's head. He forced himself to look up. Beliond was already sliding down the rope, saying words in combinations wholly new to Legolas.

Maltanaur leaned over Legolas, face white, clutching one shoulder. "Are you hurt?"

"Just my ankle." Legolas prodded at his own injury. "I do not think it's broken though. Your shoulder?"

"Dislocated, I believe."

Beliond landed next to them in time to hear Maltanaur's assessment of his own injury. "If that is all it is, you are fortunate." Beliond's face was red with fury. "Did it occur to either of you that a moment of caution might have saved you from injury?"

Legolas frowned. Maybe his brains were more scrambled than he realized. Surely someone had already said that.

***

His arm around Beliond's neck, Legolas hopped along, glad to see they were nearing the camp site Eilian had decided they would use. Eilian and Maltanaur were just ahead, watching for it. From Maltanaur's silence and the way Eilian kept having to check his pace, Legolas assumed they were eager to get settled too. Beliond had popped Maltanaur's arm back into place and rigged a sling from a spare tunic, but the injury had to be painful.

Beliond's arm tightened around Legolas's waist. "I understand that injuries are sometimes inevitable, but this was unnecessary." Theoretically, he was speaking to Legolas, but his voice was pitched to carry to Eilian's ears too. Legolas drew what amusement he could from watching his keeper struggle to respect Eilian's role as captain while still telling him he had been stupid.

"I suppose it should not be a surprise," Beliond went on. "Your adar occasionally behaves rashly too."

Eilian whipped his head around to blink at Beliond, and Legolas had to grab a fistful of Beliond's tunic to keep from toppling facefirst.

"I think of my adar as rather…restrained," Legolas said.

"In some ways, he is." Beliond glared at Eilian. "But he is certain he is right and determined to do what he likes."

Maltanaur snorted. "I know why you are really thinking of Thranduil." He and Beliond exchanged a look. To Legolas's surprise, they both laughed. Under Legolas's hand, the muscles in Beliond's shoulder loosened.

"It did make me think of that," Beliond admitted, still smiling.

"What?" Legolas asked.

"Not for your ears," Beliond said.

Legolas's eyes met Eilian's. Eilian lifted an eyebrow, and Legolas had to laugh because for a moment, Eilian really did look like their father.

"Here we are," Maltanaur said, and they entered the campsite.

Beliond lowered Legolas to sit against a tree. Maltanaur dropped down next to him, and for a while, Beliond and Eilian worked peaceably together doing what they could for both injuries.

Finally, Eilian sat back on his heels. "We will camp here tonight and tomorrow. Neither one of you is badly hurt, but there's no point in traveling with an injury if we do not have to. We are not due back at camp for four days yet anyway, so no one will be worried."

"That makes sense." Beliond sounded surprised.

Eilian slapped Beliond on the shoulder and rose to his feet. "Come on, Beliond. You fetch water. I will make a fire." Beliond scowled but obeyed.

Feeling useless, Legolas watched as they moved around setting up camp. "I can cook," he offered.

"You stay where you are," Beliond said. "You will only make that ankle worse if you put weight on it."

"I can cook sitting down," Legolas said.

Beliond pointed. "Stay!"

Eilian grinned, and Legolas glowered at him. Eilian would go out of his way to be difficult if Maltanaur spoke to him like a badly-trained dog.

They ate, and Eilian and Beliond carried dishes off to be washed in the nearby stream Beliond had found. When they came back, Beliond sat near Maltanaur by the fire, but Eilian paced around the campsite. He glanced at Maltanaur.

"I feel much better," Eilian said, "as if I had not fallen at all. I guess I really was fortunate."

Maltanaur crossed his arms. Legolas looked apprehensively from him to Eilian and back again. He had no trouble at all reading his brother's restless behavior. The patrol had been told to leave the dragons alone, but today's little scramble showed yet again that Eilian was having a hard time doing that. Partly it was that the idea of such creatures so close to the Woodland Realm made him frantic, but partly he was drawn to the excitement of pitched battle like a moth drawn to the flame. Legolas grimaced. The analogy was too apt for comfort.

"As long as we are going to be here," Eilian said, "I think we should check on that campsite and also on the burned area."

"By 'we,' I assume you mean 'you,'" Maltanaur said.

"Well, yes," Eilian said. "You and Legolas need to rest, and Beliond can guard you."

Legolas threw Maltanaur a pleading look. To his relief, Maltanaur said, "No, Eilian. You are not going alone, and with this shoulder, I would be useless to you."

"Too right," Beliond said. "You're not to use a bow until you feel better, and Legolas will not try walking until I say he may."

Legolas fought a strong urge to stand up and dance a jig. Eilian must have seen his reaction because he took time from his pacing to shoot Legolas a grin.

"Beliond could go with you, Eilian," Legolas said.

His brother took a step backward, almost as if he were avoiding a blow. Beliond and Maltanaur both gaped at Legolas.

"Why not?" The more Legolas thought of the idea, the more he liked it, in an evil sort of way.

"I can't leave you and Maltanaur unguarded," Eilian said. Beliond nodded vigorously.

"I can still shoot," Legolas said, "and if it will make you feel any better, we can sleep in a tree. That sounds appealing to me, anyway."

When Eilian hesitated, Legolas knew he was seriously tempted. Maltanaur must have known too because he hastily said, "Night is coming on."

"It might be even more useful to watch that area at night," Eilian said. "We would be more likely to see dragon fire that way, and our night vision is better than that of most of the creatures you want me to stay away from."

As one, they all turned to Beliond, who had been unexpectedly silent. Beliond rubbed his hand over his jaw. He looked from Maltanaur to Legolas. "I hate to leave you."

Legolas realized with a start that his keeper was considering the idea.

Eilian cocked his head. "You know, Beliond, it would be disastrous if dragons were hunting in this part of the Woodland Realm."

Slowly, Beliond nodded.

Maltanaur let out a little moan.

"We should help them into that big maple there," Eilian said. Legolas had the distinct impression Eilian wanted things to happen before Beliond changed his mind. Eilian swung into the branches, and Beliond lifted both Legolas and Maltanaur up to him. Legolas found himself on a broad branch with a blanket tucked around him and his bow and quiver hung nearby. Maltanaur was soon settled next to him.

"We will be back by dawn," Eilian said. He hopped to the ground, and he and Beliond slipped away into the gathering dusk.

Beliond shot one look backward. "Behave yourself," he called, then vanished into the trees.

Legolas laughed softly. "My only regret is that I will not be there to watch."

Maltanaur shook his head ruefully. "I should have known Beliond would be tempted. He likes an adventure once in a while, though he is unlikely to let Eilian have too much fun."

"If he can stop him," Legolas said.

Maltanaur laughed.

For a few peaceful moments, Legolas leaned into the tree's embrace, wondering what Eilian would find and reliving the moments at the edge of the river. As he turned over the events of the day, he recalled something that had nagged him on and off since it happened. He turned to Maltanaur.

"What were you and Beliond talking about when you said you knew why he thought of my adar?"

Maltanaur shifted. "That was a slip of the tongue. At one time, we all pledged not to tell one another's children about the less wise actions of our youth."

"Oh, come on," Legolas said. "You know you want to."

Maltanaur looked down at his hands. "When I think of it," he said slowly, "this story is really more about me and Beliond than it is about your adar." He looked up at Legolas. "You cannot tell Beliond I told you this story, but I suspect you need a little insight into the kind of Elf he is at heart."

Legolas leaned forward. "Tell."