Elrond and I had talked almost until the sun arose. Climbing into my lap eventually, Legolas fell asleep against my chest there in the elf lord's chamber. I took my leave of Elrond as the sky lightened in the east and carried my charge to the large chamber that Arwen had prepared for both of us. Nightshirts were laid out on the bed, and mind proved so large that it dragged the floor when I slipped it over my head. I suspected that the soft, thickly woven nightshirt Arwen had chosen for Legolas had probably belonged to one of her twin brothers, as she'd had time by then to go rummage in storage for supplies. It smelled of cedarwood and was a bit yellowed, but it proved a perfect fit for the slender little body.

Legolas was heavily asleep and did not stir when I laid him beneath the covers. Sliding in beside him, I put out the candle and scowled at the light beyond our small balcony. Not even a wizard could delay the sun's rising, but perhaps the House of Elrond would have compassion for its guests and let us sleep long into the day.

It seemed I'd only just closed my eyes when there came a rustle at the doorway. Someone was approaching at speed, and a gentle slap of a bare palm on the archway served as a request to enter. Opening my eyes, I watched Elrond sweep into our sleeping chamber. He looked grave, his blue eyes were troubled, and my heart sank.

"Mithrandir, we have difficulties approaching."

I glanced down at the small form burrowed beneath the bedclothes beside me. The tension of the moment had reached him before it had me, and he'd gone up on his knees beneath the blankets. He sat very still, his blue eyes wide and apprehensive as they watched me.

"What is it?" I asked Elrond, not needing to know what the difficulty concerned. All three of us knew what – or whom – would be under contention.

"Riders. King Thranduil's guard from Mirkwood. They are entering the courtyard as we speak. I must greet them, but we must decide what we are to do from here. We should have done this last night rather than discussing other matters."

I nodded and laid my hand against Legolas's cheek. Closing his eyes, he leaned into my touch. "We should have, but we had other concerns, and I thought – hoped – that we'd have a bit more time."

I rose from that lovely, soft bed and turned to gently pull my small one out as well. Standing on the edge of the mattress, he leaned against me, evidently seeking some measure of reassurance. My arm around his shoulders would have to suffice for now, as the elven lord commanded all of my attention.

"Elrond, do you wish to bow out of this conflict? We would not blame you if wish to avoid a direct confrontation with Mirkwood."

He frowned, then shook his head. "I have no wish to lead Imladris into an elf-versus-elf situation, but neither can I in good conscience allow this child to be dragged back into that situation. I would feel myself equally his abuser should this happen. From the reactions I'm already getting from others among us, I feel that most of Rivendell would be equally loath to give him up."

"Then shall we run?" I suggested, my fingers carding once more through that soft, heavy hair. "We could slip out another way of if you stall them, and you could tell the riders that we are not here."

"The idea has merit, but duplicity holds no great appeal for me, either." He gazed out over the balcony for a moment, deep in thought. "No, let us confront this directly and settle the matter, so that we need not be skulking and hiding from truths that are, in any case, best brought into the open."

"Thranduil did give custody of Legolas over to me, Elrond. Willingly and repeatedly over the course of a few minutes, before many witnesses."

Elrond seemed pleased to be reminded of that fact. Surprise lightened the grim lines of his expression. "Then we will meet them and remind them it is so. I will greet them while you dress and wait for me near the greeting hall. We'll decide what to do from there."

Legolas had slipped down from the bed. Padding across the room, he stretched on tiptoe to peer over the balcony.

"Gerdan." he whispered.

"Do you know him, little leaf?"

He nodded and pointed at the slender Captain of the Guard who was standing and waiting ahead of the others.

"Gerdan," Legolas repeated, but offered no other information.

Elrond and I exchanged glances and I shrugged, not knowing what the name or the man meant to the child. I pulled him away from the balcony's rail lest the now-identified Captain see and identify him.

"Dress and join us," the elf lord repeated, then swept from the room.

My robes took no time to climb into, and I tugged tunic and leggings onto Legolas so quickly that I was surprised the child still had his ears in place. Boots were forgone, but I did take a moment to try to smooth the tangled, now shining hair. The first sweep of the comb was greeted with a screech from my small victim and had no effect whatsoever on the hair. Legolas stared back at me so reproachfully that I cast the comb aside and satisfied myself with at least pulling a handful of hair back away from his face and tying it off quickly with a heavy thread pulled from my sleeve. Scooping him, up, I headed for the stairs.

Three steps out the door, I decided that I had best look as formal as possible, regardless my child still looked like a waif. Wheeling back into the room, I angled Legolas's small body down toward the desk. "Hat and staff, if you please?"

He grabbed them for me. I donned the hat one-handed as we went striding down the corridor with Legolas still carrying my staff. We arrived at the edge of the entryway just as the captain squared off with Elrond. Eight elves ranged across the expanse, forming a neat, grim line behind the captain. All bore the colors of Mirkwood, and all were armed.

"Lord Elrond." The Captain offered a formal bow to the Lord of Imladris. "I am Gerdan, Captain of the Guard of Mirkwood, under orders from King Thranduil. It would seem that his child has been abducted, and there is word that he was to be brought to Rivendell. We are here to return him to retrieve and return him to his father."

Legolas and I hovered just outside the archway, listening and watching. He wiggled and pointed to the floor, so I reluctantly set him down. He then leaned against my leg, half hiding but nowhere near as tense as I expected he would be..

"What leads your king to believe that I would harbor an abducted child?"

The captain looked less than pleased, but continued with his ordered mission. "The wizard Mithrandir has taken the child, and he was reported by some to have been returning here. My company and I therefore request permission to search for the child within your borders."

"And if you should find the child?" spoke a new voice.

The captain and Elrond both turned to discover Glorfindel had slipped up to stand behind them. Elrond's grown twin sons, Elladan and Elrohir, eased silently across the floor in Glorfindel's wake to flank their father, their expressions forbidding.

"*IF* we should find the child, we are ordered to return him to his father," Gerdan relayed.

"You would take the child back? Even knowing what awaits him there?" Elrond demanded.

The captain glanced down to the shining stone of the floor, then squared his shoulders and looked back up to meet Elrond's eyes with evident reluctance.

"Thranduil is my king, and I owe him my loyalty and obedience. I must do as he orders me." His eyes softened and grew sad, and the formal manner of the guard slipped somewhat. "My king was a good prince in his day, Lord Elrond. He was once also a good leader, as was his father, King Orophir. Thranduil grieves now, and his pain leads him down paths that he would otherwise not embrace, as he is not himself. We have hopes that one day he will return to himself and be the strong, compassionate ruler we know he is capable of being. But while he remains buried in his grief… though we must obey, not all condone what he does in his madness."

"You would still return the child to his abuser?"

Elrond's temper was beginning to fray a bit around the edges, and Glorfindel stepped forward to place a calming hand on his lord's shoulder. Offering a polite nod, he addressed the Mirkwood guard before him. "Captain Gerdan, I am Glorfindel."

Gerdan's eyes went wide. His mouth dropped open but he closed it the next moment, the better to swallow hard. I supposed it wasn't every day that a lowly captain from Mirkwood came face to face with the elven warrior who'd slain a balrog, only to be re-embodied in his beloved Rivendell. Gendan offered a bow that was every bit as formal as the one he'd offered Elrond earlier.

"You are known to us, my lord."

Glorfindel addressed the guard with steady solemnity. "You say that you would wait for your king to pass beyond his madness. The young one he seeks has no such time to wait. He has suffered, and would suffer further should he be returned, as no child should have to."

"This we know, my lord, and we ask only to search, so that we may report that we have fulfilled our duties. We need deal with the question of the child's return only if we should see him here."

The almost desperate emphasis on that qualifier made me narrow my eyes and then step forward, pushing Legolas back behind the archway. "So, you are not certain he is here?"

"Mithrandir?" He looked startled, discomfited by my appearance. "No, Master Wizard. I have only rumors to indicate he is here. But if you are here…."

"You do know that Thranduil gave the child to me."

"That fact is well known in Mirkwood. However, the king has had second thoughts about doing so and now refuses to acknowledge his actions as valid. He insists that it was merely… a game between you. It was not a serious matter. He says that you… misinterpreted."

"I did not misinterpret. Game though it may have been, the bet was as binding as every other bet that night."

"I understand, Master Wizard, but I ask you to understand that I must do my king's bidding. I must search for our prince."

"Our prince?" I had heard that phrase before, and always it had been uttered by Legolas's supporters.

Gerdan's gaze was intense and determined. "Yes, OUR prince. We are to search, my lord, and return him if he is found. However, as none of us here actually saw him arrive in Rivendell, we cannot be certain that he is here."

The guard's gaze shifted then, and I turned to see that Legolas had crept around the archway and up beside me to stare up at the captain. The elf hesitated, expression softening as he watched the young one move up beside me.

"The prince, as we last saw him in the halls of Mirkwood, was shy," Gerdan continued. "He had very dark hair and shunned company. I see no such child here." Turning, he addressed the Mirkwood elves that backed him. "Do you see any such child?"

All eyes were on the small waif leaning against my leg.

"No, Gerdan. We see no such child," one voice answered for all.

The captain turned his attention to the crowd of Rivendell residents that had gradually grown to become quite a crowd behind him. That crowd was muttering and pressing closer on the Mirkwood contingent.

"I volunteered to lead this search for our prince, my lords," Gerdan called to the group. "I asked my most trusted elves to accompany me on this search, so that justice might be served."

"Justice? What justice do you seek, Captain?" Elrond's voice still held an edge, and there was an echoing murmur from the crowd around them.

"I seek to return a frightened, dark elf to Mirkwood upon his father the King's demand. But I see no such elf here." Smiling, Gerdan sank to one knee and reaching into his tunic for a small pouch. "But if I did see our prince, I would firstly return to him something that he left behind at Mirkwood. He sometimes carried a small carven horse and seemed fond of it. As I see no such elf here, perhaps this young one with the shining blond hair would enjoy having such a toy?"

Gerdan set the tiny horse on his open palm and extended it toward Legolas, who crept forward to take it. With the toy safely in his hands, the child looked up at the guard captain, blue eyes shining, and favored him with a toothless smile.

Gerdan laughed softly with such delight, I suspected that he'd never seen such a sight before.

"Little Prince, are you safe here?" he asked quietly.

Legolas nodded.

"Does anyone here hit you, or frighten you?"

A solemn shake of the head, with hair flying everywhere.

"Do you get enough to eat?"

A nod.

Do you want to stay here?"

An emphatic nod, with more hair flying.

"Then you are happy here, little one?"

A nod and another smile, and a backward pat on my knee as I'd moved closer to hear the conversation.

Gerdan sighed with apparent relief. "Good. Take care, my prince. Grow strong and be happy. And perhaps, when you have grown and strong, you might come visit us in Mirkwood, for there are many who care about you, and will miss you."

"When he is grown and strong and able to decide for himself," I answered for Legolas. "Until then, this little elf will stay here where he will be educated and trained under Lord Elrond's care and my guardianship."

"Many will be glad to hear of this little elf's good fortune, whatever his name might be." The smiles we exchanged were pledges of silence, and of loyalty to a small member of Mirkwood's royalty.

Gerdan rose and squared his shoulders to face the elven lords of Rivendell. "I thank you for your leave to search Imladris for the missing prince, Lord Elrond. Lord Glorfindel, I thank you for your assistance. It is regrettable that we found no dark-haired child resembling the missing prince of Mirkwood. We will take our leave of you now, lords, as we must report the failure of our mission to our King."

He bowed again -- they all bowed, before filing out to the horses waiting at the edge of the courtyard path, and I scooped up my little elf to follow them. Predictably, at least three of the horses nickered in greeting when Legolas appeared. The guard mounted swiftly yet still hesitated, waiting for their commander's signal to lead off. Gerdan, however, was staring with amazement at the white-blond hair of my elf as I carried him into the sunlight.

"Wanna thhee," Legolas lisped.

I obligingly moved over to Gerdan's horse that extended his nose eagerly to the child. Legolas patted the huge head gently, then looked up at the captain.

"Thank you for my horth," he said, so softly that I wasn't certain Gerdan would hear the words.

The captain smiled and cautiously reached to run a hand over the shining hair. Legolas did not shy away from the touch, and Gerdan rubbed a strand of hair between his fingers, as if making a memory. "You are welcome, my prince. But I never saw you. Remember that."

My little leaf nodded, clearly understanding secrets and duplicity even at his young age. Gerdan backed up his horse and Legolas waved at him, then to the others, all of whom returned the parting gesture.

"And the king thinks he's likely mute," Gerdan remarked dryly to his men, well within earshot of the group from Rivendell that had followed us down. "Now I can surely tell him this one is not his son."

"We will go now and report our failure to King Thranduil. Then we shall return to search the roads to the Grey Havens, and then likely to Lorien, Lord Elrond," he called back to us as he turned toward the road. With a final wicked grin, the guard raised his hand and waved his men down toward the road. As the hoofbeats faded, Elrond, Glorfindel and the twins turned to share equal surprise at the conclusion of this meeting.

"That went more smoothly than I expected," Glorfindel remarked cheerfully.

"The prince does have supporters in Mirkwood," I confirmed. "They fear for their own position and safety, so there was little they could do for him in the open, but their honor and loyalty is showing now."

"This will not end it," Elrond warned sourly, in sharp contrast with the air of success surrounding us. "In time, Thranduil will realize that Legolas is here. He will petition for his return."

"He will," I agreed. "But we have won the first round.

"May I see your horse, little leaf?" said Glorfindel, sliding up beside us.

Legolas eyed the newcomer solemnly before offering the carved pony for the lord's inspection. Glorfindel turned it gently between his fingers, studying it while Legolas watched.

It was a well-crafted carving, with the horse's graceful lines frozen in a gallop, tail flagged and neck arched proudly.

"He is quite a fine horse," said Glorfindel. "Who gave him to you?"

"Gerdan," Legolas whispered, taking back the carving and pulling his treasure close again.

Eyebrows rose all around. I knew that if the captain of the guard cared so much for this child, Thranduil would have a difficult time accomplishing any action against him with the king's own army deflecting every effort he made.

"I think that we have little to worry about, at least for awhile. Perhaps even years." I smiled at Legolas, who wrapped his arms about my neck and smiled back. I bounced him slightly to set him better against my hip before heading back into the elf lord's home. Legolas giggled at the movement, and my heart was warmed by the sound. "How about some breakfast, my friends?"

"Breakfast?" Elrond sounded incredulous, following in our wake. "You two slept through breakfast; it was hours ago."

"Then let me introduce all of you to the wonderful Hobbit custom of second breakfast."