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New Year's Eve

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From the North we came with this purpose, and from Elrond our father we brought this very counsel. We will not turn back.


Elrohir—The Return of the King (The Last Debate)


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Rising over the dark, tortured peaks of the Ephel Duath, the sun slowly cleared the horizon, filling the crisp spring air with light. The sun first glanced off the broad sides of Mindolluin, still covered in snow after an unusually harsh winter, before moving down the mountain to twinkle upon the tall Tower of Ecthelion. Alerted to the sun’s coming, birds newly returned from their winter havens in Lebennin and Belfalas began to sing and chirp, leaving their roosts in search of food and friends. Steam rose from Anduin as it meandered its way through fertile fields beyond the Rammas Echor. The river was already swollen from early snowmelt to the north, and within a few weeks it would begin the annual flooding of the lower plains.


As the sunlight continued its journey into the city of Minas Tirith, sounds began to echo up from the streets. A loud vender calling for business was heard. There came the voice of a young mother scolding her children. The clang of hammer and anvil rose from the lowest circle where the smithies were housed. With the morning firmly underway, more people began to leave their homes, seeking work or pleasure.


Watching all this from the ramparts of the seventh circle, Elladan, son of Elrond and lord of Rivendell, smiled and his eyes danced. To those unaware of what the future held, it was a beautiful, peaceful spring dawn. But this particular dawn was not fated to stay peaceful, and Elladan waited with anticipation, wondering when the veneer of calm would first break. And as he waited, he entertained himself with thoughts of all that would happen this day. By the reckoning of the Shire, it was March 24, but by the reckoning of Gondor, Rohan, and all their allies, it was New Year’s Eve. Fifteen years ago on the morrow, Sauron’s reign of terror had been broken forever and the calendars in the southern portion of Middle-earth had begun anew. Naturally, this called for a time of great celebration. For the elves, it also called for a time of great mischief.


Elladan wondered if Minas Tirith was ready for an elven version of New Year’s Eve. He seriously doubted it. Aragorn seemed to have lost his fun-loving edge since becoming king, and Elladan intended to see that his foster brother regained some of that edge this day, with or without Aragorn’s permission. In fact, he and Elrohir had come to Gondor against Aragorn’s wishes. Well, not exactly against them, but they certainly did not have his blessing to be here. When they had first broached the idea that they might celebrate the New Year in Minas Tirith, Aragorn’s reaction had been one of extreme reluctance. His reception when they had ridden up to the gates of Minas Tirith in the company of Eomer, Lothíriel, Elfwine, Merry, Pippin, and Gimli had been something of a cool welcome. In fact, to Elladan’s shrewd eyes, Aragorn had come within scant inches of completely forbidding them entry to the city.


By contrast, Celeborn had been all too eager to send the twins off. Elladan’s smile grew larger and he shook his head. Since coming to Rivendell ten years ago, the former lord of Lothlórien had endured a decade of New Year’s Eve festivities with something of an ill grace. Celeborn was not without talent when it came to responding in kind, and it had taken nearly two months for Lindir’s hair to grow back after the last fiasco. But when all was said and done, not even Celeborn the Wise had been able to compete with the combined forces of Elladan and Elrohir, who had earned even Thranduil’s grudging respect in this matter—and occasionally his dangerous retaliation, as well. So when an opportunity came to rid himself of Elrond’s twin sons, Celeborn had latched on to it with feverish intensity. His aid in the departure preparations had been so enthusiastic as to border on insulting.


But then, I suppose I cannot truly blame him, Elladan mused to himself. He was not terribly pleased to wake last year and discover an entire battalion of female "Orcs" in his sleeping quarters. And Elrohir wondered if they would be convincing enough… Elladan laughed quietly, remembering the looks of rage, frustration, and weary resignation that had crossed Celeborn’s face that day. It had truly been one of the twin’s greatest moments. He doubted that it could be topped this year, but that would not stop them from trying.


Unfortunately, Aragorn seemed to be all too aware of their game. The previous night as they were eating together, Aragorn had informed both Elladan and Elrohir in no uncertain terms that this was not an elven holiday and they were not in elven lands. Arwen had started to laugh at this announcement while both Elladan and Elrohir summoned their best expressions of innocence. Of course, this only served to elicit a very stern glare from Aragorn that had reminded both twins of Elrond at his most disgusted. The glare then spread to Legolas, who had been laughing quietly in the back of the room where he’d been trying to appear inconspicuous. Elladan smiled at the memory. Clearly, he and Elrohir were not the only ones planning to celebrate an elven version of New Year’s Eve.


Sounds so quiet that they would have gone unnoticed by mortal ears suddenly caught Elladan’s attention, and he turned to greet his brother as he was joined upon the ramparts. Elrohir was looking very satisfied with himself, and Elladan’s grin became larger. "I take it that they are both still asleep?" he asked.


Elrohir began to laugh and shook his head. "Whatever Arwen created to put in their wine yestereve has done its work well."


Elladan chuckled and turned his eyes back out over the city. Since they were old enough to plan mischief, none had ever equaled the children of Elrond in holiday pranks. Arwen was always a minor participant, but she never failed to take part in some way or another.


"Aragorn and Arwen are both awake, as well as Faramir and Imrahil," Elrohir continued, leaning out over the wall and studying the streets below. "And surprisingly enough, Merry and Pippin have also roused themselves. I believe they smelled the breakfasts cooking."


"They ate enough last night to satisfy a mûmakil!" Elladan exclaimed.


"You saw them eat on the journey here," Elrohir answered with a shrug. "You know how much they are capable of consuming."


Elladan shook his head in amazement, thinking back over the trip to Minas Tirith. It had been one of the most unusual six weeks of his life. First of all, they had encountered no mishaps on the journey. That alone was enough to launch the trip into the annals of history, for rarely had the sons of Elrond ever journeyed abroad without something going disastrously wrong. Second of all, they had been traveling with hobbits. When they arrived at Edoras and joined Eomer and Gimli’s party, the dwarf had laughed uproariously as the twins had attempted to explain their astonishment for a hobbit’s capacity to eat. Journey with them when food is rationed, Gimli had said in between gasps for air as his mirth got the better of him. That is also quite an experience.


"So what delights shall we prepare next, brother?" Elrohir asked, tipping his face upward into the sunlight.


"I thought it best to see what exactly is planned and then to work from there," Elladan answered. "This is not Imladris where we control the activities. We shall have to learn the plan for the day and then arrange our own planned activities to match."


"It is good that I am here, then," Elrohir said. "You have no talent for such coordinating."


Elladan scowled and started to respond, wondering if he should threaten to break the unbroken vow about never playing tricks upon one another, but he was interrupted by a sudden bellow that threatened to tear asunder the distant Rammas Echor.


"LEGOLAS!"


The scowl upon the eldest twin abruptly disappeared, replaced by a broad grin and a chuckle. "Shall we see if the hobbits have left us breakfast?" he asked.


Elrohir nodded, his smile equally wide. "Yes. And while we are out and about, let us pay a visit to Gimli in his quarters. I fear that our good dwarf has met with some misfortune."


* * * *


Aragorn, son of Arathorn woke with a feeling in the pit of his stomach that everything on this day was going to go horribly awry. In some ways he viewed the act of waking itself as commensurate with the act of dangling the palantír before Pippin. By even rising from his bed, Aragorn was courting disaster.


He had said nothing of his fears to Arwen, but she sensed his inner turmoil. Her looks of pity had not gone unnoticed, but then, neither had her looks of fleeting glee. Something had happened during the night, and she had been party to it. This only served as confirmation for Aragorn’s growing sense of calamity, and he wondered when the first stroke would fall. He also wondered if there were any serious repercussions to making the city off-limits for all elves this day.


He had come down to breakfast, fearing that all the food in Minas Tirith would have suddenly disappeared overnight, and was pleasantly surprised to find Merry, Pippin, Faramir, Imrahil, and Lothíriel already starting the first meal of the day with no hint of doom hanging over the table. Eomer, Eowyn, and Elfwine had yet to make an appearance while Legolas, Gimli, Elladan, and Elrohir were suspiciously absent, but Aragorn was willing to give the morning a game attempt. Yet his instincts would not be silent. Legolas, Elladan, and Elrohir could not be up to any good. That much was certain. And as for Gimli… Well, Aragorn wouldn’t put it past Legolas to have instilled a bit of elven humor in the dwarf. It would not be the strangest thing to come out of that uncanny pair.


But so far, nothing had happened, and Aragorn was determined to enjoy the brief calm for all it was worth. He was under no illusions that the peace and quiet would last, and he knew very well that his warnings about behaving themselves were going to go completely unheeded by Elladan, Elrohir, and Legolas. He only hoped that he could contain enough of the damage to prevent a coup from an outraged populace.


"Aragorn?"


Aragorn started, broken out of his thoughts, and looked to Arwen. Her expression suggested that she had been calling him for quite some time and he tried to quell rising feelings of embarrassment. "Yes?"


"Were you planning on joining us?"


Realizing that he had been staring at the serving buffet for several minutes without moving, Aragorn shook his head and sighed. He could not miss the puzzled looks that came his way, but he attempted to ignore them as he filled his plate with food and took a seat next to Arwen at the dining table.


"Are you feeling well?" Faramir questioned.


"Yes. A brief lapse in concentration. Pay it no mind," Aragorn said, attempting to dismiss the issue.


"If you wish, sire, I can oversee the preparations in the Pelennor Fields," Imrahil offered, his gray eyes studying the king with concern.


"Your assistance is appreciated, but I also wish to be there," Aragorn answered. "I assure you that I am well. Simply distracted."


"What’s happening in the Pelennor Fields," Pippin asked around a mouthful of meat.


"We are setting up games and contests for tomorrow’s celebrations," Arwen answered. "From what I understand, there are tents, fields, stands, and other structures that require building."


"And we must create a place where horses might be stabled," Lothíriel added, a proud look in her eyes. "For Rohan intends to race even if none shall race against us."


Imrahil laughed and shook his head. "You will have competitors, daughter," he promised. "We shall see how your husband defends his honor as king when I best him in a sprint around the Rammas Echor."


"A sprint it may be for Eomer and Shade, but it shall be an arduous journey for you," Lothíriel shot back.


"What is this?" a new voice asked, and eyes turned as Eowyn entered, closely followed by Eomer.


"Lothíriel has been telling us that Shade seems to be feeling his years," Faramir answered, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.


"Faramir!" Lothíriel reprimanded sharply. "I said no such thing," she continued, looking to Eomer. "I was explaining how you were going to prove Rohan’s superiority tomorrow on the track."


Eomer grinned and took a seat next to his wife, enfolding one of her hands in his own. "Rohan’s superiority is proven already, but we shall make certain that none forget it tomorrow."


"It seems to me that the superiority of Rohan is waning," Imrahil challenged. "Perhaps the older generation can sit the back of a horse, but the younger generation cannot even rise with the sun. I do not see Elfwine in our presence."


"Yes, where is the crown-prince of the renowned Riddermark?" Faramir asked. "Surely the hardy Rohirrim are not going soft!"


"Your accusations are but vain hopes and wishes," Eomer said airily. "Our son is down upon the Pelennor Fields as we speak with the rest of my men, exercising the steeds that shall best you on the morrow."


"A bit young for that, isn’t he?" Imrahil questioned.


"At nine, he is more than capable," Eomer assured them, his face shining with pride. "The Rohirrim grow to men quickly, unlike our lazy allies to the east."


"Has anyone seen Arwen’s brothers or Legolas and Gimli this morning?" Aragorn asked, deciding to interrupt the friendly rivalry in an attempt to assuage his fears. With every boast and every challenge, he could not help but be reminded of the many boasts and challenges that had taken place in Rivendell during his younger years, and they had always ended in trouble. And since his two brothers, the youngest Mirkwood prince, and the prince’s dwarven friend were still missing, Aragorn had a feeling that trouble was about to ram him head-on.


At his question, there was a flash of something across Arwen’s face, but it passed too quickly to be recognized. And before Aragorn could think to question it, Arwen rose and bowed. "If you will excuse me, I think I shall see to Eldarion. He is probably awake by now."


"Our elven visitors have not risen?" Eowyn asked, her brow furrowing.


"I thought elves were always up first," Merry commented as Arwen hurried out of the room, polishing off his second plate and looking for more.


"They usually are," Aragorn murmured, his narrowed eyes staring at the doorway through which Arwen had just left. He was toying with the idea of following her and pursuing this topic at length, but before he could do so, a great cry that rocked the foundations of Mindolluin itself echoed through the palace.


"LEGOLAS!"


As everyone around him jumped in surprise and subsequently shot to their feet, Aragorn shuddered and dropped his head, catching his face in his hands. Why me?! he demanded, sending his pleas to the ears of a seemingly deaf Ilúvatar. By the Valar, why me?!


* * * *


"LEGOLAS!"


Nestled in a bed as soft as feathers, Legolas Greenleaf blearily rolled onto his side and stared at the open balcony, wondering how the sun could be shining. He had only retired moments ago. At least, that’s what it felt like. But then, there was a strange pounding sensation in his head that indicated something might be amiss. And as he attempted to focus his vision and further rouse his hazy faculties, he recognized this pounding sensation as the aftereffects of a sleeping draught. And with this realization came another, more distressing thought.


Elladan! Elrohir! Valar, they have struck first!


Shaking off the last vestiges of sleep, Legolas pushed himself to a sitting position, stopping for a moment so that the room might quit spinning. And while he waited for the vertigo to cease, he looked around his whirling room, fully expecting to see some hideous gift from the infamous twins. But what he did find was even more of a shock.


"LEGOLAS!"


The bellow that initially woke him echoed again, and Legolas grimaced, now having a fairly good idea of what had happened. If memory served, he and his brothers—with Thranduil’s blessing—had done something similar to Elladan, and Elrohir when Lord Elrond and an escort of Noldor elves had paid a visit to Mirkwood. Gimli was not going to be appreciative. Legolas only hoped he could convince the dwarf as to the identity of the true culprits. Eyeing an odd assortment of clothing and weaponry in the corner that had not been there when Legolas went to sleep, the youngest prince of Mirkwood debated about taking the items with him. He ultimately decided against it. Gimli would be easier to talk to if he was not wielding his axe, which was currently lying next to Legolas's bed.


Throwing on his clothes—which had been left untouched for reasons the elf could not guess—Legolas hurried out the door and started down the hall. Quickly rounding a corner and entering the corridor where Gimli’s quarters lay, the prince stopped short and gasped. The young lords of Rivendell had taken their game to new heights this year. Where Gimli’s doors were supposed to be was a series of roughly hewn boards—which looked suspiciously as though they might once have been the doors themselves—lodged between the frames in such a fashion as to prevent entry or exit by anyone larger than a hobbit. They were also cunningly arranged in a complex pattern that would make removal difficult if one did not have an object with a sharp blade, such as an axe. And since Gimli’s axe—as well as all the dwarf’s clothes including those he used for sleeping—had somehow wandered into Legolas’s room, the dwarf was very much a prisoner.


He was also quite a comical sight, and it took all of Legolas’s energy to refrain from breaking forth into a large grin. Clad in a bed sheet—the twins had at least left him that much—the fuming dwarf was standing behind the crossing beams of wood and looking as though murder was not far from his thoughts. But it was difficult to take him seriously when he was standing as a caged animal with naught upon his body save for the sheets from the bed, and a smile was pulling furiously on the corners of Legolas’s mouth.


Unlike Legolas, Gimli was not the least bit amused. Catching sight of his friend as well as the smile that was threatening to appear, he adopted his best glower and turned flashing eyes upon the elf.


"Legolas, if you—"


"Gimli, ere you say aught, I must tell you that—"


"What is the meaning of all this?!"


Legolas turned around and grimaced as Aragorn, Faramir, Imrahil, Eomer, Eowyn, Lothíriel, Merry, and Pippin came hurrying down the hallway. I wonder if the morning started peacefully, he mused, studying the harried look upon Aragorn’s face. It would have been nice to wake early enough to enjoy some quiet before the day began.


"Legolas, what have you done to the doors?!" Faramir suddenly demanded, stepping around the elf and catching sight of the blockade. "And why is Gimli…" he trailed off and stared at the dwarf, who managed a deadly return glare.


Aragorn looked completely flustered—which was a rather unusual look for him—and Legolas decided to explain the situation before things got any worse. Not that I think they will get any better, he added to himself. But perhaps I can keep some of this under control. "Aragorn, I believe that—"


"I understand that you and a few other individuals under this roof feel it necessary to act as children on this day," Aragorn interrupted, and something in his voice caused Legolas to take a step backwards. "But did you truly feel it necessary to destroy a perfectly good door and trap Gimli behind it while at the same time stealing his clothes?"


"I was asleep!" Legolas protested. "I had nothing to do with—"


"You mean to tell me that you heard nothing of any of this and yet you sleep only one hall away?!" Gimli shouted.


"If you will allow me to explain—"


"It had better be a very good explanation," Aragorn warned with a slight growl.


A stifled snort from behind caused Legolas to send a quick glare in the direction of Imrahil and Eomer, who both looked as though they were enjoying this far more than they should have been. Legolas was certainly no longer enjoying it as he had suddenly become the primary suspect. I would not mind being the primary suspect if I had actually played the trick, the elf reflected, turning his attention back to Aragorn but not before he caught a hidden smile on Eowyn’s face and heard some quiet laughter from Merry and Pippin.


"As I said before, I was asleep. I believe I was drugged, as was Gimli. Sometime during the night—"


"If you were drugged, then why did this not happen to you?!" Gimli demanded. "You stand there with your clothing and dignity intact, yet I…" The dwarf abruptly trailed off and seemed to realize that his audience now included more than just Legolas. A red blush crept over his face at the sight of Eowyn and Lothíriel in the crowd of onlookers. "Aragorn, if you would be so good as to—"


"Done," Aragorn said. "Lady Eowyn, Lothíriel Queen, by your leave, we would ask for some privacy."


Lothíriel laughed and nodded, but Eowyn was a different matter. "I was practically raised in the barracks," the shieldmaiden of Rohan answered, folding her arms and making no move to depart. "There is nothing here that I have not seen before, and I wish to be here for the end result of this tableau."


"Eowyn…" Faramir began, but a stern look from his wife quickly stopped him in his tracks.


"There is no reasoning with her in this state," Eomer said with an apologetic shrug. Eowyn narrowed her eyes and glared at her brother.


"What goes forth here?" a new voice suddenly called out.


"You!" Legolas shouted, breaking away from the crowd and hurrying toward Elladan and Elrohir. "Will you kindly explain what happened here?"


"We have only just arrived," Elladan said, adopting an expression of innocence that didn’t fool Legolas for a second. "Would it not be better if you were to explain what happened here?"


"Gimli!" Elrohir cried, feigning astonishment. "Gimli, by the Valar, what have you done to your doors?"


"Legolas, is this why Gimli’s clothes and his axe are in your room?" Elladan asked, turning to the Mirkwood prince with a quizzical expression on his face but with laughter dancing in his eyes.


"Mark my words, half-elf," Legolas hissed, his own eyes narrowing with threats and promises. "You will regret this. The House of Oropher has never before lost this game, and it shall certainly not lose to the House of Elrond."


"Legolas!" Gimli roared. "Legolas, if you do not return my axe and my—"


"Peace, Gimli," Legolas interrupted. "An explanation must be made, for things are not quite as they seem. I woke only moments ago, drugged as I said before, and discovered that your axe and your clothing had appeared in my room. I put forth the charge that our good friends Lord Elladan and Lord Elrohir are the true culprits."


"Bold words, Sindar elf," Elladan said, a smile playing upon his lips. "But answer me this, if you can. Why did nothing happen to you or your room? You say you were drugged. Would that not have been a perfect opportunity for us to act?"


"Yes, and you used it!" Legolas accused, hating the feeling that he was still on the defensive. "You used it to blame this upon me!"


"You have no evidence," Elladan said with something akin to dismissal. "You can prove nothing."


A loudly cleared throat on the part of Aragorn interrupted the debate, and Legolas turned to notice that almost everyone with the exception of Aragorn and Gimli was either trying not to laugh or trying to control the laughter that could not be held back. As for Aragorn and Gimli, the king looked as though he were preparing to battle a Nazgul while Gimli looked as though he had just killed the Nazgul and was ready to take on a second.


"My friends, and at the moment I use the term loosely, if one of you would fetch those things that belong to Gimli and bring them here, it would be appreciated. In the meantime, another could see about dismantling the boards on Gimli’s room while another shall go to the carpenters and request new doors." There was a moment of silence after Aragorn had spoken in which no one moved. His voice had been dark, cold, and somewhat reminiscent of Glorfindel at his most dangerous. "Now!" Aragorn suddenly barked, spurring everyone into motion.


He is definitely king, Legolas reflected, hurrying away to his own quarters in order to retrieve Gimli’s clothes and weapons. But king or no king, this cannot go unpunished. Aragorn will seek to thwart me, of that I am certain, but I have been defying powers greater than he for centuries. Beware, Elladan and Elrohir. The first battle is yours, but we shall see who laughs last.


* * * *


"And what happened after Estel ordered you to action?"


"Legolas went to fetch Gimli’s things, Elladan, went down to the fifth circle to inquire about the possibility of doors, and I attempted to free Gimli from his prison."


Arwen smiled, shook her head, and resumed the somewhat futile attempt to feed Eldarion. The crown-prince of Gondor, now four years of age, had already driven his nurses to exasperation this morning, and Arwen had been forced to assume the feeding process since she and Aragorn were among the few individuals to whom Eldarion occasionally accorded respect. Unfortunately, this morning was proving to be a trying one. Eldarion did not wish to eat but rather wished to play. "Were you successful in freeing him?" Arwen asked as her son wiggled away from her yet again. "For Gimli is wise now in the ways of the elves. I have no doubt that he knows Legolas is innocent."


"And for that very reason, I was not successful," Elrohir laughed. "I had no wish to loose Gimli without another there to hold him at bay. I gave a very convincing performance at prying away boards, though. Even so, it will probably take an axe to get through them."


"It is fortunate, then, that Legolas has learned somewhat in the way of wielding an axe," Arwen said, deciding to give up on feeding her son. If he became hungry, she would feed him then. At the moment, he was far too much of a hassle to bother with, and though she was stubborn, he could be even worse. In this, he had inherited his father’s temperament, though Aragorn claimed that Eldarion’s stubbornness came from Arwen’s elven side. "So Gimli is free from his prison now and fully clothed?"


"I do not know, for I left when Legolas returned," Elrohir answered with a shrug. "The grandson of Oropher did not seem predisposed to casual conversation, and he was carrying an axe."


Arwen laughed. "Then leaving was a wise policy."


"A very wise policy," Elrohir agreed with a wide grin. "I only hope that Elladan recognizes his peril and avoids both Legolas and Gimli until such time as I can accompany him." The younger of the twin brothers suddenly leaned down and scooped up a racing Eldarion, holding the squirming child tightly against his chest. "And what cause do you have for this excitement, young prince? You act as though you wish to join me this day."


"No," Arwen said firmly, her arms folding across her chest. "Absolutely not. I have already participated in your fun and I will not have you involving Eldarion in Valar-knows-what you have planned for today."


"You do not trust me to watch him?" Elrohir asked, attempting to look hurt.


"No, we do not," a new voice interrupted sternly as Aragorn came through the door of the nursery. "Eldarion is not going to be party to any of your foolishness, and if you are wise, neither are you."


Elrohir frowned and studied his foster brother. "You have grown far too serious, Estel," he said at length. "I remember a child who would beg to be included whenever we—"


"That child also received most of the blame," Aragorn shot back, his eyes flashing. "And I have no doubt but what that will remain true today. I am not going to allow you to terrorize the people of Minas Tirith. They are unfamiliar with elven ways and may very likely stage a rebellion by the time you are through."


"All evidence to the fact that they must needs be taught elven ways," Elrohir answered with a cheeky grin.


"They are men," Aragorn said firmly, drawing out and enunciating each and every word. "Let them celebrate as men do."


"But you were once accustomed to celebrating as elves do."


"Elrohir, you are in a kingdom of men who have a very limited understanding of the elves. Surely you learned something of how to behave appropriately."


Elrohir made a show of thinking about that and then shook his head. "Nay, I believe Elladan received all those lessons, and you will recall how terrible his memory can be. Very selective at times. Most strange. But while we are on the subject of appropriate behavior, who are you to order me? I am far older than you, Estel. Moreover, I am a guest in your kingdom. Surely you should cater to my wishes."


"Only insofar as your wishes do not prompt a civil war! And it is usually the custom of guests to act with less insolence."


"Peace," Arwen interrupted, making only a half-hearted attempt at hiding her smile. "Peace, Estel. Our brothers know their limits. They shall not turn the people against you. Correct?" This last was said with a very pointed look at Elrohir, and he nodded reluctantly.


"We shall do nothing directly to your people," he promised. Arwen caught a flicker of rebellion in her brother’s gray eyes, but the tones in his voice indicated sincerity. It was probably the best she could hope for.


Aragorn seemed less than satisfied, but he also apparently realized that no better promise would be extracted from Elrohir. With a sigh, he sent his foster brother a baleful glare—which was neatly fielded and returned with an innocent smile—before directing his attention to Arwen. "Have you plans for Eldarion’s activities this day?" Aragorn asked.


Arwen looked to Eldarion who was still wiggling in his uncle’s grip but appeared to be enjoying the game of attempting to escape. Periodically, Elrohir would pretend to drop the child only to scoop him up again at the last minute. "I had nothing specific in mind," Arwen said after a moment of thought. "I did wish to take him down to the Pelennor Fields as he has an interest in horses. Perhaps he might like to meet some of the fair steeds from Rohan."


"Eomer tells me they are being exercised at the moment, so Eldarion will not be able to see them until this afternoon when they have calmed down," Aragorn murmured, seeming to speak to himself. "That works well, then. Arwen, what would you say to finding someone other than the nurses to tend Eldarion this morning? They might enjoy having the holiday to spend as they see fit."


"I suspect that you have someone in mind," Arwen noted, wondering what her husband was up to.


"Gimli showed himself to be very good with Eldarion when he visited us last year. Perhaps he and Legolas would enjoy spending some time with the crown-prince of Gondor."


Arwen covered her mouth at the look of sheer and utter dismay upon Elrohir’s face. Apparently more had been planned for Legolas and Gimli, but the introduction of Eldarion into the picture complicated things. And judging from the gleam in Aragorn’s eye, choosing Gimli and Legolas as Eldarion’s guardians was no accident. He was doing his best to keep the worst of the troublemakers separated and occupied for as long as possible. A good attempt, love, but you know that all four of them shall find a way to work around it. Perhaps four different ways, which shall make this a very interesting day indeed. Still, I suppose that one must make the effort. "That sounds like a wonderful idea, Estel," Arwen answered with a smile. "Shall we go to them and tell them of their duties for the day?"


"The sooner, the better," Aragorn said, offering Arwen his arm and turning to leave. "Elrohir, would you be so good as to bring Eldarion down? You are doing an admirable job of holding him."


"Enjoy yourself while you can, little brother," Elrohir muttered, getting a better grip on Eldarion and following the king and queen out the door. "This day has only just begun."

 


 

Chapter Text

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Let us hope the Company will be gathered again some day. And for the next stage yours will be the better road, I think. As you jog on your pony think of me clinging here while Legolas vies at horse-racing with those fell Rangers yonder.


Gimli—The War of the Ring (Many Roads Lead Eastward)


…………

 


By the time Gimli finished dressing, he had calmed considerably. Clothing helped. The lack of an audience also helped. An intense surge of relief had swept over him when Legolas pushed his under-tunic and trousers through the gaps in the broken door, and this relief had magnified itself tenfold when he realized that Legolas was the only one in the hallway.


And it was quite fortunate that Gimli was now in a much more amenable frame of mind, because he was still trapped in his room and Legolas still had his axe. Nor had the elf done anything to free the dwarf, though he certainly possessed the necessary equipment for the task. At least Elrohir had made a show of pulling at the boards, though Gimli had been able to tell that the younger of the twins had not given it his best effort. Still, any effort was appreciated at this point in time, and confronted by Legolas’s complete lack of action, Gimli felt his anger rekindle itself.


Apparently sensing the impending explosion of wrath, Legolas stepped up to the barricaded doorway, axe in hand, and began to speak. "I know you wish to be loosed from your room, Gimli, but before I destroy these boards, I must explain something to you."


Gimli shot his friend a look of pure incredulity. "What must you explain that requires I be caged in my room?!"


"I promise that it shall not take long, but you must listen," the elf said. "First of all, I had nothing to do with any of this. I realize that this may seem improbable, especially given that your clothing and your weapons were in my room. But I assure you that I did not stir last night until I heard your yell this morning, and even then, it took me a great deal of time to wake sufficiently so that I might respond. I was drugged as were you."


"Legolas—" Gimli began.


"Please, allow me to finish," the elf interrupted. "I can only explain myself by saying that Elladan and Elrohir wish for it to appear as though I had done this. That is why my things were untouched this morning."


"Legolas—"


"It is obvious to me that Elladan and Elrohir wish for us to be at odds, for divided we are unable to effectively retaliate against them and they are free to enjoy the day and take what actions they will at their leisure. So you see, Gimli, I—"


"Legolas!" Gimli shouted, finally getting the prince’s attention. "Valar, will you cease your prattle and listen?! I know you were not responsible for this."


The elf blinked, seeming both flustered and surprised. "You do?"


Gimli rolled his eyes. "One would have to be blind not to know! By Mahal, how stupid do you think I am?!"


A mischievous look flickered over Legolas’s face. "Do you wish for me to answer that?"


"No," Gimli growled, wondering if Aragorn would justify murder given the fact that it would rid Minas Tirith of at least one New Year’s Eve nuisance. "Now, if you are finished explaining the obvious, would you please be so kind as to chop away these boards? Or better yet, slide the axe in to me and I shall do the honors."


"By your leave, Gimli, I believe I would like to wield a weapon at the moment," Legolas said, shifting one leg back and evenly distributing his weight. "I am rather frustrated with my inability to anticipate the moves of Elrond’s sons."


"And think you that I am any less frustrated?!" Gimli shouted.


In response, Legolas shrugged and then swung the axe over his shoulder. The sharp blade crashed into the boards, causing a shower of wood to explode into Gimli’s room. Backing up slightly and realizing that he would have to find another way to vent his anger, Gimli looked about his room for something large and expensive that he could break.


"So tell me, Master Dwarf. How did you come to the conclusion that I was not to blame for this?" Legolas called in between swings of the axe.


Caught in the middle of a debate as to what would be most satisfying to destroy—he was leaning toward the oak wardrobe in the corner, but the sturdy balcony railing was also promising—Gimli looked back at the elf and blinked. "Pardon?"


"How did you know that I was not to blame for what happened in your room?" Legolas repeated, knocking a large hole in the middle of the barricaded doorway.


"Had it been you, then you would not have left me the sheets."


Legolas laughed. "True enough," the elf conceded. "But what of Elladan and Elrohir? How did you come to know that they were responsible?"


Gimli grunted and shook his head. "Do you truly believe that I am so ignorant? Elrohir and Elladan came walking toward my room. The rest of you came running. Moreover, they had apparently stopped first in your room, for they knew the location of my weapons and my clothes. Beyond that, Elrohir looked too smug for his own good."


"Those could be but a string of coincidences," Legolas pointed out, batting aside the remainder of the boards and creating an opening whereby Gimli could leave the room. "Your weapon, Master Dwarf," the elf said with an exaggerated bow, extending to Gimli the haft of the axe.


"Thank you," the dwarf said gruffly as he stepped through the newly created hole. Taking his axe, he shoved it beneath his belt and loosed a quick sigh of relief before turning back to their conversation. "As for your string of coincidences, to have them all happen at once is unlikely. More than that, something about the situation felt…wrong. I seem to be getting better at catching an elf in a lie. Elladan and Elrohir were less than truthful with us this morning."


Legolas nodded slowly and offered a slight smile. "My apologies for doubting you, then. I believe I have underestimated you."


"You usually do," Gimli reprimanded. "Know this, Legolas. I may be a dwarf and dwarves may be blunt and direct where diplomacy is concerned, but do not think that we have no appreciation and talent for the art of subtle deception. Or that we cannot recognize it at work."


"Indeed?" Legolas looked to be highly amused, which did nothing for Gimli’s current mood.


"I am surprised by your ignorance," the dwarf answered, his voice colored with annoyance and a hint of warning. "Were you not present when Thorin Oakenshield was brought before your father? That was an example of subtle deception on the part of dwarves."


"Thorin allowing himself to be captured was an example of subtle deception?"


"No, you flighty elf! Thorin’s response to the ensuing interrogation. That is the example of subtle deception."


Legolas frowned. "I do not think it was an interrogation so much as our desire to know why thirteen dwarves had decided to interrupt our festival."


Gimli rolled his eyes. There was a reason that they didn’t talk about this particular history subject very much, but at the moment, the dwarf had a point to prove. "Whatever you wish to call it, it still remains that Thorin used subtle deception to mislead you and the other elves."


A fine elven eyebrow arched at this statement. "Master Dwarf, I believe that your beard has twisted itself around your neck and deprived you of air. There was no subtle deception involved when Thorin came before my father. There was nothing subtle about the entire thing! Thorin was asked a few completely reasonable questions and he refused to answer most of them."


"Reasonable? That is not how I have heard the story," Gimli harrumphed.


"And how have you heard the story?"


"It was told to me of how the great Thorin Oakenshield answered only those questions as could be accounted safe, and he did so with great care and caution. When the questions became dangerous and insulting, he fell quiet and with his stoic silence proved to all that the questions had become offensive. Out of chagrin and indignation, your people imprisoned him."


Legolas was now looking at Gimli as though the dwarf had suddenly sprouted a second head. "I know not where you find your sources of information, Master Dwarf, for Thorin was questioned without any of his companions present. Whatever account you are working from must needs be suspect. If you like, though, I will remedy your ignorance and tell you exactly what happened when Thorin was brought before my father."


"This should prove interesting," Gimli said, folding his arms across his chest.


Legolas rolled his eyes but refused to be baited. "Thorin Oakenshield had just interrupted a celebration and had been apprehended by our royal guards. Naturally we wished to know why he, twelve other dwarves, and a hobbit had been intruding, but all he would say to us was that he was hungry. When we asked what had brought him onto our lands in the first place, he refused to answer."


"Exactly," Gimli said. "You were forced to go through other sources before learning the true mission of Thorin and his companions. You were successfully foiled by the art of subtle deception."


"Gimli, the word subtle usually implies a degree of discretion. Thorin had none. Everyone within earshot of the court knew that he was hiding something! When the only answer you give in your defense is that you were hungry and looking for food and you then cease to speak if the subject turns to anything else, it is rather obvious that something important is not being said."


"You are, of course, working from the benefit of hindsight," Gimli pointed out, searching for flaws in the elf’s argument.


"Which is better than you, for you are working without any sight whatsoever, be it foresight or hindsight. Gimli, you were not there. Your father wasn’t even there when Thorin was brought before the king. I, on the other hand, was at court that day. I remember very well what happened and what words were spoken. But enough of this," Legolas said as Gimli was about to jump in with more arguments to the contrary. "Such things are in the past and I would rather focus upon the present. We must retaliate for the morning’s activities. Have you any suggestions?"


"You assured me yesterday that your talents were not lacking in this area," Gimli pointed out, marking the topic change as a victory of sorts for himself. "I thought that you would have suggestions."


"And I do, but I would hear a dwarf’s ideas first. New insight and a new perspective might well turn the tides against our friends from Imladris."


"Ah. You should have warned me last night that you would be seeking my counsel. I have not had sufficient time to plan. Dwarves have our days of mischief, but not quite to the extent that young elves seem to have them."


"Young?" Legolas challenged, his eyes glinting.


Gimli sighed, sensing that this could be a very long day. He cast about his mind for a suitable response, but he was saved when the sound of footsteps coming down the hallway arrested his attention. Curiously, he turned and watched as Aragorn, Arwen, Elrohir, and Eldarion came into view. The faces of Aragorn and Arwen were unreadable, but Elrohir looked rather upset. This could be attributed to the fact that he was holding a very energetic Eldarion, but there seemed to be something more to his expression than just concern that the crown-prince would escape his hold.


"I see you have been liberated from your room," Aragorn observed, and Gimli watched suspiciously as hint of a smile curved one side of the king’s mouth. "My congratulations."


"My thanks," Gimli answered, wondering what new game was afoot. Legolas had shifted behind the dwarf almost as thought he was preparing to cover him in the event of an attack. And an attack was exactly what Gimli sensed coming.


"Arwen and I have a request to make," Aragorn continued, watching both elf and dwarf carefully. His scrutiny was less than comforting, and Gimli fought the urge to back away. "We wish to give Eldarion’s nurses leave to enjoy themselves this day, but while they are gone, someone must needs look after our son. We wondered if the two of you might be willing to shoulder this responsibility."


Gimli blinked and he felt Legolas stiffen behind him. While both had been expecting an assault of some kind, they had not expected this. "You wish us to…" Gimli shook his head and turned his eyes toward Eldarion, who seemed to sense that someone was speaking about him and had taken an interest in the conversation.


"If you would be so kind," Arwen said, her soft yet firm voice making the request a command. "For the morning, at least. You are welcome to bring him down to the Pelennor Fields around noon so that he may eat with us and enjoy the day."


"I recommend that you take him to the Queen’s Gardens in the meantime," Aragorn suggested. "He enjoys the trees and the plants. The flowers are beginning to bloom, and there should be much to keep him entertained."


"Aragorn," Legolas started, "I think that—"


"Come, Eldarion," Aragorn interrupted, taking his squirming son from Elrohir. "Do you remember Gimli? The dwarf who brought you those beautiful toys last year?"


Eldarion turned bright, gray eyes upon Gimli, studied him for a moment, and then nodded excitedly. "Gimli!" he shouted, wiggling free of his father and hurrying toward the dwarf. Throwing himself up into the arms of a very startled Gimli, he seized the dwarf’s beard and tugged firmly on it.


"He apparently remembers you well," Aragorn said. "That is good. Perhaps he will also listen to you, then. Take good care of him, Gimli. And you as well, Legolas. I charge his safety to your capable hands. I pray I do not err in this."


"But Aragorn, I—"


"We shall be under one of the larger pavilions around noon," Arwen said. "Come, Elrohir. Let us find your brother and go down. There is much to be done this day." And with this, not waiting for another word of protest, the three swept out of the hallway. Elrohir gave them a sour look ere he turned a corner, and then they were gone.


"I would guess that this new task puts an end to some of your plans," Gimli said at length, wincing slightly as Eldarion gave his beard another sharp tug.


"It certainly makes them more difficult," Legolas murmured. There was a moment of despairing silence and then the elf shook his head. "But then, I suppose that this is merely a working example of a dwarf’s talents in the art of subtle deception, and you have planned something else. Watching Eldarion for the morning is but a small part of the strategy. Yes, Gimli, I see now. And I can hardly restrain my joy. The excitement and anticipation of witnessing the outcome of this dwarven display of subtle deception is breathtaking. Lead on, elvellon. My heart can only guess at what you have in store for us next."


Were it not for Eldarion’s stranglehold on the dwarf’s beard, Mirkwood would have found itself short one prince that day. As it was, Gimli had to settle for a glare that would freeze Orodruin—though it seemed to do nothing to Legolas—and instead turn his anger toward thoughts of a belated revenge for the morning’s activities.


* * * *


Relishing the feel of new grass beneath his feet, Pippin stretched his arms above his head, yawned, and tipped his face upwards so that it might catch the sunlight. The scent of spring was strong upon the Pelennor fields and reminded him very much of the forests and hills around the Great Smials. As a very young hobbit, Pippin had explored them until he knew every tree and every stone, and his favorite time of year had been spring. Life seemed to reach its peak the moment winter relinquished its grip, and Pippin had always managed to escape whatever chore he was given so that he might enjoy nature in its fullest.


Hearing a grateful sigh next to him, Pippin glanced over and grinned as he watched Merry mimic his movements. "A beautiful day," he offered.


The Brandybuck nodded and smiled. "I’m glad Strider told us to come down here. It’s a wonderful way to start the morning."


"Especially since the morning already began with a big breakfast," Pippin added, giving his bulging stomach a satisfied pat.


"And did you have enough to eat before the interruption?" Faramir asked, coming up behind the hobbits with Eowyn on his arm. "I would hate to think that the unexpected commotion spoiled your meal."


"I wasn’t finished, my lord, but I was full," Pippin answered. "That doesn’t mean I couldn’t do with another meal, though," he added with a grin.


"Now I begin to understand what Elladan and Elrohir spoke of when they rode through the gates of Edoras and promptly began complaining," Eomer said as he joined the group. "Is it possible for hobbits to eat their fill of something? Or is a meal only finished when all the food is gone?"


"It is possible for hobbits to become full," Merry answered lazily, watching a group of horses gallop over the fields near the southern end. "But it is something of a rare event."


"Are those your steeds?" Faramir asked, glancing toward Eomer.


"Indeed they are," the king of Rohan said with unabashed pride. "And at their head rides my son, if you look closely. Where is Imrahil? He should be present to see this."


"He is here," Imrahil called, walking over with Lothíriel at his side. "And he is not suitably impressed. Your stallions seem to have lost some of their speed, Eomer. And your mares sag as though they are heavy with foal. Surely these are not the animals that you intend to race against the mounts of the Swan Knights!"


Pippin rolled his eyes and walked a few steps away so as not to be caught in the crossfire. This contest of words between Eomer and Imrahil had begun the previous afternoon and had occupied the bulk of their conversation ever since. It was becoming rather wearisome, and there were no indications that it would cease until the prince of Dol Amroth and the king of Rohan had raced one another. Judging from comments made by Eowyn, this rivalry had now existed for quite some time. It also seemed to be Faramir’s new role in life to encourage the endless banter, for whenever there was a lull in the conversation, he would subtly find a way to bring up the subject of horses. It only took a few additional words of encouragement, and Imrahil and Eomer would be off on their tangent again.


"Reminds me of Legolas and Gimli," Merry commented, joining Pippin in moving away from the others. "They don’t know when to stop."


"Why can’t they have a race now and get this silly business decided?" Pippin wondered. "There’s not a lot of activity out here yet, and it seems to me that a race could be arranged easily enough."


"I don’t see why not," Merry answered. "But you have to remember the people we’re talking about. They’re not hobbits, Pippin, and sometimes they don’t think the way sensible people ought to think. There’s proper decorum and the like to consider. It would be unseemly for the king of Rohan and the prince of Dol Amroth to take off around the fields in a race."


"Why? Beregond told me that Strider races around the Pelennor often enough."


"Yes, but Strider does it before the sun rises," Merry said. "No one is up to watch, and those that are awake are too sleepy to care."


"Shall we be forced to listen to this for the remainder of the day?" a new voice suddenly asked, and Pippin turned as Arwen wandered out into the field in the company of Aragorn and her two brothers.


"Your pardon, my queen," Imrahil said with a slight bow. "Yet I feel that the courtesy of Rohan is greatly lessened these days while imaginings about its own glory and grandeur have become greatly exaggerated."


This prompted an outraged cry from Eomer—who was not quite up to matching the elegant wordplay of his father-in-law despite Gimli’s helpful tutelage—and the rivalry might have turned ugly had not Aragorn stepped forward. "Peace, both of you," he said, his voice rather stern. "If this is to be the way of it, then race now. There are few enough people upon the Pelennor, and a race shall spare the rest of us the burden of listening to your ceaseless boasts and arguments."


"It seems that there are sensible people about," Merry whispered.


"And a good thing, too," Pippin added quietly. "I was trying to find an excuse that would get me away from this bunch for the rest of the day."


"Oh, well if you were looking for that, you had only to ask me. Arwen told me this morning that the kitchens shall be open all day. There won’t always be cooks in them, but she said that we’re welcome to help ourselves if we wish it."


Pippin blinked and stared at the Brandybuck. "Is that a jest?"


Merry shook his head. "Not at all. But if you like, we can ask again to make certain."


"No, let’s take Arwen at her word," Pippin said, deciding not to look this particular gift horse in the mouth. "I have no desire to be here for the end of the race when Eomer and Imrahil start to argue about who was cheating and why."


Merry laughed. "Very well, Cousin Took. Let us leave the fields and find the kitchens."


Putting their intent into actions, the hobbits quietly slipped past their larger companions, who were now watching as Imrahil and Eomer debated about how long the race should be and what the boundaries constituted. Pippin hoped Faramir would keep his mouth shut for this argument. It was not one that needed to be encouraged. In fact, once Eomer and Imrahil solved the specifics of their impromptu race, they might actually compete and then let the matter rest for the remainder of the holiday. It was something of a wishful thought on Pippin’s part, but then, Sauron’s destruction had been something of a wishful thought on the part of the Wise. As a result, Pippin decided he could also harbor some optimism.


But then, the Wise were working with sensible hobbits when they sent the Ring to Mount Doom, Pippin reflected. They weren’t forced to deal with Eomer, Faramir, and Imrahil …


Glancing at the gathered group and shaking his head in mock despair, Pippin suddenly stopped and froze. There were fewer people than there had been a moment ago. Somebody was missing. No, not just somebody. A pair. Two were missing.


"Merry, where are Elladan and Elrohir?"


Hearing a note of fear in Pippin’s voice, Merry stopped and turned. His face paled and he looked about the Pelennor Fields. "Did you see them leave?"


Pippin shook his head. "Do you suppose Strider knows where they went?"


"If he doesn’t, then we should probably tell him that they’re missing," Merry said. "And we should ask where Legolas and Gimli are, too. Because they’re also missing."


"Right," Pippin murmured, wondering if he and Merry were too late already to make a run for it. He’d heard that Belfalas was particularly nice this time of year. With a weary sigh, he wandered over to catch the last bits of a conversation that seemed to suggest a racecourse had actually been decided upon. In fact, Imrahil and Eomer were leaving to find their mounts while the others waited to watch the match. "Strider?" Pippin called, trying to keep his voice quiet. "Strider, did you know that Elladan and Elrohir are missing?"


Aragorn had turned in Pippin’s direction when Pippin called his name. Consequently, the hobbit was party to a wealth of fearful expressions that suddenly flashed across the king’s face. It seemed he had not known that Elladan and Elrohir were missing. The thought was not reassuring, and Pippin again wondered if it was too late to flee.


"Did you see them leave?" Aragorn demanded.


Merry shook his head as he joined Pippin. "We just noticed they were gone. And what happened to Legolas and Gimli? Where did they go?"


"Legolas and Gimli are currently tending Eldarion," Aragorn muttered. "It had been my hope that my son might act as a buffer between our guests."


"And he will," Arwen whispered at Aragorn’s side. "Our brothers are too fond of Eldarion to put him at risk."


"But what they consider a risk and what I consider a risk are two entirely different things."


"All will be well," Arwen counseled. "Have faith that things shall work out for the best." The queen then turned her attention upon the hobbits and fixed them both with a rather disconcerting elven stare. "And where might the two of you be going?"


"We…we were going to head back to the Citadel," Pippin said, still slightly suspicious of Merry’s claim that Arwen had given them access to the kitchens.


"I see," Arwen said quietly, a knowing gleam in her eyes. "Then I will look for you come lunch."


"You will not be staying for the race?" Aragorn asked.


Pippin shook his head. "You’ll excuse us, but we had enough of Eomer and Imrahil yesterday. I don’t want to be around when one of them wins. I can only imagine the argument that will result."


"A wise decision," Aragorn said with a chuckle. "Then I will also look for you at lunch."


"Come on, Pippin," Merry hissed, giving Pippin’s shirt a tug. "Imrahil and Eomer have their horses down at the other side of the field. If we’re going to leave, we have to leave now."


"Right then, let’s go," Pippin agreed, turning away and following Merry as he hurried toward the City-gate. By the time the race began, the two were well out of sight and sheltered by the walls of Minas Tirith.


* * * *


"When did Estel become so devious?" Elrohir demanded, neatly weaving his way through the streets of Minas Tirith and ignoring the open stares that his presence garnered. Even with Legolas and his colony of elves firmly established in Southern Ithilien, elves within the city itself were rare. Twins were even rarer—virtually unheard of, in fact—and the sons of Elrond were creating quite a stir.


"I believe he learned it from us," Elladan said, dropping behind and allowing Elrohir to take the lead. Elrohir seemed to be better at steering through crowds and the elder of the twins was quite content to let his brother do the work while he followed in his wake.


"Yes, but since we are the teachers, should not we be able to best him?"


"In theory."


Elrohir shook his head and cursed quietly. "Do you suppose that Legolas said anything to Aragorn that prompted this arrangement?"


"Nay, Legolas and Gimli both wished for retribution. You told me yourself that Legolas looked horrified at the prospect of watching the crown-prince, and I doubt that Gimli wished for the task. Their duties to Eldarion now hamper their own efforts."


"And ours," Elrohir muttered. "We cannot act in a way that will endanger Eldarion or reveal our hand. Which means that for the moment, Legolas and Gimli are beyond our reach."


"While Aragorn is sheltered by Arwen upon the Pelennor Fields," Elladan added. "She will not leave his side so long as we are about. We are indeed presented with an interesting dilemma, brother. What does your strategic mind suggest?"


"Diversionary tactics."


"Is that why we are wandering aimlessly through Minas Tirith? If it is, may I point out that it is becoming rather tedious?"


Elrohir threw up his hands, stopped, and turned to face Elladan, who performed a rather impressive sideways skid in order to avoid running into his brother. "And what do you suggest? As the oldest, should it not fall upon your shoulders to plan the next move? Our schemes have gone awry thanks to our kingly brother, and we have devised no counter-strategies."


"How could we?" Elladan asked with a shrug and a slight smile. "We knew not what we faced. How were we to guess that Estel would take his role as king and protector so seriously this day?"


Elrohir’s eyes narrowed and he frowned. "You have something in mind."


"I always have something in mind."


"No, you have something specific in mind right now. Why have you said naught?"


"You did not allow me to speak. You were too busy ranting about Estel’s deviousness."


"So you do have an alternate plan."


"Of course," Elladan answered. "It is unwise to have only one option available. And since you have been so set on our carefully laid plans, I took it upon myself to create others in case the originals were foiled."


"Then by the Valar, tell me your alternative plan!"


"Adapt."


There were times—and this was one of them—when Elrohir did not exactly see eye-to-eye with Elladan. It did not happen often, but upon occasion, their two personalities would meet in a head-on collision of perspective. As twins, they shared many of the same viewpoints and many of the same ideas. But there were a few differences, and sometimes these differences became problems. Elladan was more patient, more perceptive, and gifted in the invention of grand strategies. By contrast, Elrohir was bolder, more talented in the arts of war, and had a gift for thinking quickly on his feet. But by sheer virtue of his vast patience, Elladan had a knack for taking Elrohir’s last talent and turning it upside down by so thoroughly confounding his brother that no immediate response could be formulated. This was one such occasion.


"Adapt?" Elrohir questioned, pushing down a rising surge of impatience. "You wish to adapt? That is your plan? Your entire alternative plan? Adapt?!"


"With your scheming mind, I am certain that this alternative plan will blossom into a fruitful feast that we might enjoy," Elladan said with infuriating serenity.


"And now you decide to wax poetic!" Elrohir exclaimed. "Elladan, have you anything useful to add to this discussion beyond the suggestion that we adapt?"


"Nay, except to remind you of something that father often said," Elladan answered, not the least bit daunted by the warning tone in Elrohir’s voice. "Immediate resources often make for the best weapons. Sometimes an enemy’s strategy can be turned on him simply by using the tools at hand. Sometimes they are the same tools that the enemy has deployed to thwart you."


"Indecipherable suggestions, poetic turns of phrase, and now you play at riddles!" Elrohir gave a most unelven cry of frustration and only with effort refrained from throttling his twin. "If your mind does not decide to take a more logical turn within the next few minutes, I strongly urge you to hold your tongue unless you wish me to remove it!"


"Then I shall speak plainly, brother, for it seems you are incapable of understanding anything else," Elladan said with a slight grin. "Use Eldarion."


Elrohir frowned. "Eldarion? But he…" The younger of the two brothers trailed off and blinked. "You mean as in the story that father told us when Oropher used mother against Galadriel?" A slow smile found its way onto his face, and his eyes glinted with a mischievous light. "You are clever, Elladan. You would give Thranduil cause for fear."


"At the moment I will settle for giving Thranduil’s youngest son cause for fear," Elladan said, his own smile spreading itself wide. "Shall we see what arrangements must be made?"


"Yes, and immediately," Elrohir answered. "How is it that you saw this alternative and I did not?"


"Age and experience, young one," Elladan said sagely, neatly dodging a swipe from his twin and setting off toward the Citadel. "Now come. We have been challenged by the House of Oropher, and I intend to see that the House of Elrond proves itself superior in every way."


* * * *


Beneath him, Eomer could feel Shade practically dancing with excitement. The horse sensed something was happening, and he was eager to be out and running. Stroking the dark gray neck, Eomer murmured quiet words and watched as Imrahil mounted his own horse, a tall, brown mare with coloring so dark it was almost black.


"You insult Shade with this nag," Eomer said casually, backing the chief of the Mearas up a space. The stallion was becoming slightly skittish, sensing his rider’s enthusiasm. "Surely Dol Amroth is not so depleted in its stud herds that you must rely on the old mares!"


"Say on, young one," Imrahil answered. "The paces of your own aging horse suggest that he would be better off slumbering in a pasture. It is a marvel that he can even bear his own weight, much less the added weight of his rider’s ego and pretension."


Eomer scowled but could think of no suitable rejoinder to the prince’s jest. He needed to pay better attention to Legolas and Gimli when they argued. Those two had become almost evenly matched, and it was Eomer’s current goal, foolish thought it might seem to some, to equal the prince of Dol Amroth in the art of verbal warfare. His wife had warned him against playing word games with her father, but Eomer had never been one to shy away from a challenge.


"Feel yourself ready?" Eomer asked, laying a soothing hand on Shade’s neck as the horse tossed his head restlessly.


"Once around the pole where the main pavilion will be raised and then back," Imrahil said. "And no sabotaging this race to save your pride."


"I should be saying that to you and your aging bones," Eomer retorted. "They say that the older generation becomes upset when those who are younger show them their mettle."


"Only because the young ones can never seem to lose with good graces," Imrahil answered, taking a firm hold of his mare’s reigns and moving forward slightly in the saddle. "Ready?"


"Go!" Eomer yelled, driving his heels into Shade’s sides and feeling a rush of adrenaline as the powerful warhorse leaped forward. The thunder of hooves echoed beneath him, and Shade shot into the lead, moving quickly in front of the brown mare and neighing a mocking challenge to the horse that thought to best the chief of the Mearas.


A whinny from behind told Eomer that the challenge was fielded and answered by Imrahil’s mount, and he felt Shade lengthen his stride, drawing even further away from the pair that hurried to catch up. Risking a glance over his shoulder, he frowned when he saw Imrahil tugging at the reins and slowing the mare’s hard gallop. What is he planning? Eomer wondered. Imrahil knew very well that he could not outrun Eomer’s horse, but surely he was not giving up!


With a shake of his head, Eomer turned his eyes forward and watched as the pole to which they were racing began to draw near. He swung Shade slightly away from it so as to achieve a better angle for rounding the halfway marker. Slowing his stallion only slightly, he waited until he was almost abreast of the pole and then swung Shade inward. Snorting at this sudden change in direction, Shade skidded into a turn, his back legs pounding away relentlessly as his forelegs struggled to achieve the desired direction.


Watching the ground closely as Shade began to complete the turn, Eomer suddenly swore and turned the stallion away from the pole yet again. Just behind the post, there was a small depression in the ground, and this depression had collected much of the winter’s rainwater. It was a muddy bog without any traction whatsoever. And as Eomer pulled Shade away from this danger, he suddenly saw Imrahil’s intention.


Moving at a slower pace, Imrahil was making a much sharper turn and going in the opposite direction, ensuring that Eomer would be forced into a wider and subsequently longer path. Imrahil was probably counting on the fact that Rohirrim battle tactics demanded that a horse be in almost constant motion at breakneck speed, making him a harder target to hit. It was a good plan, and if Imrahil had been able to gain the lead through use of a slower but shorter route, he would have moved his mare in front of Shade and sought to keep Eomer behind him. However, Imrahil did not take into account the state of the ground around the poll, and he was not aware of the muddy trap until it was too late.


Eomer reined Shade to a jarring stop and watched in horror as Imrahil’s mare slid and lost her footing when she attempted to gallop over the muddy terrain. Acting on instinct, Imrahil threw himself from the saddle so as not to be caught beneath the weight of the tall horse and hit the ground as though preparing to go into a roll. But the angle was and the mud prevented it, and his upper body absorbed the force of impact. At the same time, Imrahil’s mare collided with the wooden post at dangerous speeds, brayed loudly, and then crashed to the ground.


Immediately dismounting and commanding Shade to wait, Eomer quickly hurried over to Dol Amroth’s prince, who showed no signs of rising. "Imrahil!" he cried, brushing mud away from the man’s face. Bleary eyes blinked open and studied the king of Rohan with a mixture of pain and confusion. He must have struck his head when he fell, Eomer realized, immediately looking for injuries. "Imrahil, are you—"


A loud cracking sound arrested Eomer’s attention, and startled, he looked up just in time to see the pole, weakened by the hit from the mare, start to fall. Wrapping his arms around Imrahil, Eomer lunged out of the way, but the muddy ground betrayed him. His feet slipping out from under him, he managed to push the prince out of harm’s way but fell flat on his own stomach directly beneath the crashing pole. Hearing Shade’s startled whinny and knowing that he was only seconds away from death, Eomer tried to roll away, hoping he had enough traction for that. And with fortune’s help, the king of Rohan was just fast enough to remove the bulk of his body from the path of the falling post.


But he was not fast enough to escape a glancing blow across the top of his head.

 


 


 


Author’s Notes: To those who keep asking about sequels to "While the Ring went south…" you’ll be pleased to know that most of the outlining is completed. And I tend to write the first chapters without finishing the outline. Gives me more freedom to move once I’m in the fic. However, I’m trying to finish my other fics first before it shows up, so you’ll have to be patient. This fic shouldn’t be that long (length being a very relative thing for me) and we’re nearing the finish line in my other two fics. So hang in there.

Chapter Text


 


…………


Had I seen her in any other company, I would have said all that you could wish. But now I will put Queen Arwen Evenstar first, and I am ready to do battle on my own part with any who deny me.


Eomer—The Return of the King (The Steward and the King)


…………

 


Nodding pleasantly to some rather puzzled looking stable hands, Legolas casually led Faensul out of the stalls in Minas Tirith’s sixth circle. He was followed by a towering black stallion and a shorter, restless bay. The servants made no move to stop Legolas or his unusual escort, for the lord of Ithilien was known in Minas Tirith as one of the king’s closest friends. As such, none questioned why he would be leading three horses about as though he went to exercise them—a menial job that the prince of Mirkwood would never undertake himself unless it involved solely his own mount. Deciding at length that this was another peculiarity of the unfathomable elves, the stable hands eventually ceased their stares and resumed their work.


Once safely out of their sight, Legolas pulled Faensul’s head close to his own and whispered quietly. The horse snorted and then nickered, bobbing his head as though agreeing to instructions. Feeling eyes upon him, Legolas glanced back and smiled innocently at the questioning looks given him by the other two horses. "Togo Gaearsul a Mornaecco," Legolas instructed, pitching his voice to include the stallions behind Faensul. "Togor lim."


Faensul tossed his head and neighed, starting down the streets at a slow trot and gesturing for Gaearsul and Mornaecco to follow. Gaearsul, Elrohir’s mount, snorted and hurried to catch up, his fiery eyes flashing at the thought of being left behind. Mornaecco, though, seemed to have the temperament of his rider, Elladan, and favored Legolas with a long, studying look from eyes as black as his coat.


"Aphado, mellon nín," Legolas encouraged, gesturing toward Faensul and Gaearsul, who were turning down an archway and descending into the fifth circle.


Mornaecco sniffed haughtily, clearly distrustful of what was happening, but since no one seemed ready to lead him back to his manger and he did not know his own way through the city, he truly had no choice. Reluctantly, Mornaecco sent Legolas a parting glare filled with deadly promise should this errand come to disaster and trotted after the other two horses.


With a smile, Legolas shook his head and made his way back up to the Citadel. He was now glad of the many times he’d brought Faensul to Minas Tirith, despite the fact that the horse did not seem to enjoy the city. Faensul was an intelligent animal, and he knew how to get from the stables in the sixth circle to the City-gate and the Pelennor Fields beyond. Legolas only hoped that the horses would be able to reach their destination without a certain pair of twins finding out. Still, if he knew Elladan and Elrohir, they were looking for ways to work around the sudden presence of Eldarion and would not be paying attention to the activities of three horses.


But it is so very inadequate, Legolas sighed, wishing he had more freedom of movement. Unfortunately, he was now obligated to assist Gimli in watching the crown-prince of Gondor, and such obligations were not lightly overlooked even on New Year’s Eve. Until he divested himself of his unwanted duty in caring for Eldarion, he was tethered to the seventh circle.


Returning the salutes of the guards as he entered the tunnel that would lead him up into the Citadel, Legolas cast about in his mind for further methods of retaliation. The future actions of Mornaecco and Gaearsul would ensure that Rohan’s wrath fell upon Elladan and Elrohir, but the twins themselves would not be harmed unless Eomer felt it necessary to take personal action against the two. And even in that event, it would be Eomer doling out punishment, not Legolas. But the list of things that could be done while confined to the Citadel was short and dreary. There were not many options.


The sound of laughter reached his ears, and Legolas shook himself free of vengeful thoughts. He could not dwell on such things now. Gimli would need much aid in tending to Eldarion, for although the child was mortal, elven blood ran in his veins. If nothing else, he would be a handful.


Entering the Queen’s Gardens, which was a large, walled enclosure situated just south of the palace, Legolas soon found Gimli and Eldarion hashing out the rules for a game of hide-and-seek. Shaking his head at this, the elf moved behind Gimli and sat down upon a convenient rock. Rules were limitations, and at his age, Eldarion would not be bothered with them, particularly rules that set boundaries on where one could and could not hide. But if Gimli felt the need for rules, so be it. Legolas would be ready to assist him when the time came, provided the dwarf swallowed his pride and did an adequate amount of groveling. The help of an elven prince came with a price, after all.


"Ah, Legolas, you’ve returned," Gimli noted. "Would you care to join our game?"


"Nay, friend, I would rather watch," Legolas answered, allowing a slight smile to curve his lips. "This should prove entertaining."


Gimli scowled, recognizing the slight, but Eldarion was tugging at the dwarf’s sleeve, ready to begin. "Go on then," Gimli commanded. "And hide yourself well, for dwarves are difficult to deceive."


Eldarion giggled and shot away, quickly vanishing into the thick underbrush that covered all ground not marked by stone paths. "Are you certain you are up to this task?" Legolas asked, his sharp eyes following slight movements of plants and marking Eldarion’s path as one that would take him near a gnarled tree next to the high, stone wall on the far side.


"I have chased Uruk-hai across the plains of Rohan and walked the Paths of the Dead," Gimli answered with a slight growl. "Think you that I am not qualified for the task of watching one small boy?"


"How does chasing Orcs and walking among the deceased qualify you for watching Eldarion?" Legolas wondered, his brow furrowing in confusion.


Gimli sighed. "I mean only to say that I have faced far more difficult challenges."


"Ah. Are you certain of that?" Legolas asked, watching as Eldarion suddenly popped into view atop the gnarled tree and from there clambered over the wall and out of the Queen’s Gardens.


"Of course," the dwarf answered, reminding Legolas very much of Gaearsul’s actions when he had followed Faensul unwittingly to his doom only moments before. "How difficult can it be to amuse Eldarion in the gardens?"


Legolas almost lost his composure, for he knew well that Eldarion was now far from the gardens and probably somewhere along the Citadel’s outer wall. But he harnessed his mirth and settled for raising his brows at the dwarf. "You invite trouble with such words, my friend."


Gimli grunted and shook his head. "You are underestimating me again. But now that you have spoken of trouble, tell me what trouble we can cause for Elladan and Elrohir. And where did you go after we left the palace?"


"I left to cause trouble," Legolas answered, choosing the vaguest response he could think of so as to better annoy the dwarf. Smiling at the scowl he received for his words, he laughed softly before shaking his head and releasing a quiet sigh of frustration. "Indeed, I left to cause trouble, but unfortunately, I can only cause trouble in small amounts. I must linger here with you to ensure that you do not find yourself well over your head."


A flash of anger passed across Gimli’s face, but he shook it off, curiosity managing to overcome insulted dwarven pride for the moment. "And what trouble did you cause?"


"I loosed Faensul from the stables in the sixth circle," Legolas answered. "I also released Gaearsul and Mornaecco, the twins’ stallions. Faensul is now leading them down to the Pelennor Fields."


"What good shall that do? The twins can find their horses easily enough," Gimli pointed out with a skeptical frown.


"True enough. However, if I know the twins, they are no longer down on the Pelennor Fields but rather making their way back to the Citadel by secretive routes. Thus, our equine friends shall arrive on the fields without the supervision of the twins and Faensul shall unerringly guide them to a paddock of mares that lies near the northern gate. If I read the signs aright yestereve, most of those mares are ready to breed. I trust that both Gaearsul and Mornaecco shall thoroughly enjoy themselves. Faensul has been instructed to return without taking any action of his own."


Gimli blinked. "These mares you speak of…are these not the mares that Eomer specifically set aside for breeding with horses from Rhûn later this year? He was planning to keep them here in Gondor so that they would not mix with his own stud herds back in Rohan. He spoke of wishing to improve balance and agility in mountainous terrain."


"I fear he must needs find other mares for the task of breeding with studs from Rhûn, for if things go as planned, these mares will soon be heavy with foal." Legolas frowned and leaned back against a tree trunk. "Still, it seem very inadequate. Elladan and Elrohir will be forced to make compensation to Rohan and Rhûn, but such compensation is of no great cost to Rivendell itself, given its resources. Nay, Gimli, we must take more direct action against the twins themselves. However, I do not know how such a thing will be accomplished while we are forced to watch Eldarion."


"Perhaps we could rotate Eldarion between the two of us," Gimli suggested.


Legolas grimaced and shook his head. "I risked venturing forth alone on the chance that Elladan and Elrohir would still be somewhere in the lower parts of the city. I would not trust myself to walk out of the Citadel again without company. Unless they have completely changed their tactics, at least one of them shall soon be watching us—who knows but what we are already watched—expecting us to divide our forces as you have suggested. And they will strike again the moment we do so. To separate successfully and have one of us leave the safety of the Citadel, we would have to do so away from prying eyes and then continue to keep out of sight. Eldarion will not allow for such secrecy. He is too conspicuous."


"I did not know that elves took their holiday foolishness so seriously," Gimli grunted. "It seems to have reached a level where it ceases to be a game and becomes instead a chore and an obligation."


"Among lesser elves, it is still very much a game," Legolas said, thinking back to some of the things his father’s guards had pulled in Mirkwood from time to time. "But among nobles and royalty, it has become a matter of honor. And there is also something of an unspoken war between Mirkwood and Rivendell in these things."


"Elves," the dwarf grumbled with a roll of his eyes. "You are so obsessed with perfection that you cannot even enjoy your fun and games."


"We enjoy winning," Legolas pointed out with a grin. "Those who find themselves on the victorious side at the end of the day are quite pleased with the outcome."


Gimli snorted and shook his head. "I suppose. But be that as it may, I have now exhausted my ideas for working around the problem of Eldarion. It is your turn to ponder. In the meantime, I shall search out the young prince, who is undoubtedly wondering if any are coming to look for him."


"If you need help, I stand ready to assist you," Legolas called after the dwarf as he headed into the parts of the garden that were thick with trees and vines.


"I am quite capable of finding a four-year-old child on my own," Gimli hollered back.


"Perhaps," Legolas mused quietly to himself, looking up into the tree against which he leaned and studying the budding flowers and sprouting leaves. But you have never played this game with a four-year-old child possessed of elven blood. No matter, though. I will be here when you cannot find him, and you may then grovel for my aid. In the meantime, I will think on other things to do to the twins.


* * * *


When the first crack of the pole echoed across the Pelennor, Eowyn was already running. From afar, she had seen Eomer suddenly swing Shade away from the post, and she had immediately guessed his reasons for doing so. The ground was slightly depressed, and it could easily collect water from winter rains. It would be muddy and treacherous. When Imrahil had charged his mare into the place that Eomer had sought to avoid, Eowyn had bitten her lower lip and started moving forward.


She broke into a run when she saw Imrahil’s mare stagger and slip. She heard others gasping behind her and starting to follow, but Eowyn was fast. Hitching up her skirts, she practically flew across the field and watched in horror as Imrahil went down and his horse slammed into the wooden pole.


She was too far away to see Eomer’s face as he knelt next to his father-in-law, but she could sense his surprise and fear when the pole above the two men cracked and began to fall. In horror, she watched as he attempted to move both himself and the prince of Dol Amroth out of harm’s way, and her breath caught in her throat as he stumbled and fell. Imrahil was thrown free, but Eomer was not fast enough. He made a frantic attempt to roll away, and then his head jerked violently to the side as the falling pole clipped him on its way to the ground.


"Eomer!" Eowyn cried, pushing herself to faster speeds. Faramir and Aragorn had now caught up with her, and Aragorn was beginning to move past, his long legs eating up the distance in an effortless, loping run. He was soon before her and moving further away, but Faramir did not leave her side, matching his pace to hers as she fumbled with her dress and tried to coax more speed from her legs. She did not know whether to be grateful for his concern or insulted by it, but in the end, it mattered not as concern for Eomer trumped both feelings.


It seemed to take an eternity to cross the vast Pelennor, and Eowyn was almost certain that several years ticked by before she drew near her brother. Aragorn was nearly there, but he suddenly stopped, frozen. Eowyn blinked, wondering what force could be delaying him, and then the reason for his halt made itself clear as she reached his position. Shade was now standing guard over the fallen king of Rohan, and his challenging neigh warned all within hearing distance that he would tolerate no hurt to his master.


"Eowyn, can you control Shade?" Aragorn hissed, watching the stallion cautiously as the horse neighed again and squared his heels at the king of Gondor.


Her breath coming hard, Eowyn nodded an answer and moved towards the dark, gray horse. "Come, great one," she whispered, holding out her hand. "Come. You know me as a friend. Come to me and let them help."


Making her motions slow and deliberate, she began to hum quietly, hoping to placate the chief of the Mearas. Shade was a temperamental horse, and he could be extremely difficult at times, especially if Eomer was not around to help. Fortunately, he seemed to be listening to Eowyn at the moment. Hesitantly, he nickered and then took a step away from Eomer.


"Yes, that’s right," Eowyn coaxed, drawing close enough to take his reins. Gently and quietly, she began guiding him further away. She spied Imrahil’s mare attempting to regain her feet and decided to lead Shade in that direction. "Allow them to help. Easy, my friend." She was now quite close to the mare—Eowyn thought her name might be Moralph, but she was not certain—and reaching out she managed to catch her reins. Carefully pulling both horses after her, she continued to encourage them to follow. "Gently, now," she coaxed, watching as Shade seemed to calm in the presence of the mare. "Good, great one. All is well. Simply follow me and I shall see that all turns out for the better."


Sensing that the horses were calm for the moment, Eowyn risked glancing away from her charges to look back at her brother, and she saw that Aragorn had already moved in and was even now examining Eomer. Lothíriel and Arwen were also on the scene, and Faramir had been directed to see to Imrahil, who seemed to be groggy and disoriented but otherwise unharmed. Others on the fields were now gathering, and Shade was beginning to sidestep and toss his head again, his nervousness returning. Moralph was faring no better, and she was favoring her left foreleg. If she wished to keep the horses calm, then Eowyn would have to lead them away from the growing crowd of guards and onlookers. But she was reluctant to leave her brother until she knew how he fared.


"Father!"


A sudden shout from those gathered arrested her attention, and she watched as Eomer’s son pushed through the people to stare in horror. "Elfwine!" Eowyn called, putting force and authority into her voice but keeping it calm so as not to upset Shade and Moralph. "Elfwine, I require your assistance!"


Frightened, blue eyes turned her direction, and then the boy took hesitant steps toward his aunt. "Lady Eowyn, what—"


"Elfwine, you are your father’s heir. Shade trusts you. Lead him and the mare away from these people. They are only upsetting them," Eowyn said firmly, allowing no room for refusal. "The mare is limping, so take care."


"But my father—"


"I will find you shortly," Eowyn promised, reaching out and physically pulling Elfwine toward her. "But at the moment, we need to give King Elessar space in which to work. Take Shade. Take him to the stables here on the Pelennor, see that he is cared for, and then you may return."


Elfwine’s eyes widened slightly as the reins were thrust into his hands, but he eventually nodded and started walking Shade and Moralph away. Satisfied that the horses were in good hands and that her attention could turn elsewhere, Eowyn ignored her own words about giving Aragorn space and rushed to her brother’s side.


"Is he—"


"Peace," Aragorn soothed, looking up at Eowyn’s approach. "Peace, he lives." Glancing around, the king of Gondor frowned and then turned to Arwen. "Would you see what you can do about dispersing this crowd? The fewer spectators, the better."


Arwen nodded quickly. "Lothíriel, come. I could use your aid. Come," she repeated when Rohan’s queen seemed to hesitate.


"Eowyn, would you assist Faramir in seeing to Imrahil?" Aragorn asked as Arwen took Lothíriel away.


"And by that, my liege, you mean to say I am a hindrance," Eowyn returned sharply, indignant at the dismissal.


Aragorn smiled slightly and once again looked up from his ministrations. "I should know better than to brandy words with you, Lady Eowyn. Very well, I will be blunt. You are a hindrance, and I wish you to find another place to stand while I try to rouse your brother."


"Then by your leave, my liege, I will see to Imrahil," Eowyn answered, not able to keep from smiling at this strange game they played from time to time.


"An excellent idea," Aragorn retorted wryly. "Would that my own thoughts were so clear."


With a shake of her head, Eowyn grudgingly left Eomer’s side and moved toward Faramir and Imrahil. Out of the corner of her eye, she noted that Arwen and Lothíriel were organizing guards and directing the gathered crowd to various parts of the Pelennor, giving them tasks to do that would keep them occupied. Much as Aragorn did with us, Eowyn thought with a hint of mirth.


"Ah, Eowyn, your presence is welcome here," Faramir called out as he helped Imrahil to a sitting position. "I am attempting to help this aging prince to his feet, but I fear that such a task is beyond me."


Catching the forced levity in her husband’s voice and knowing it was directed toward Imrahil, Eowyn tried to match the smile and moved to assist them. "You grow weak, Faramir," she chided, a teasing gleam in her eye. "Governing Ithilien has dulled your senses and wasted your body."


"Peace, both of you," Imrahil interrupted sharply, a touch of impatience coloring his voice. "Lady Eowyn, perhaps you would be willing to speak of how King Eomer fares. Faramir seems to have no knowledge."


Eowyn hesitated a moment, and then shook her head slightly. "I fear I know little. He has not yet regained consciousness."


"Then let us go and see him," Imrahil said, surging to his feet and immediately staggering. Faramir and Eowyn both hurried to support him, and the proud prince of Dol Amroth was forced to accept their aid.


"Softly now, uncle," Faramir whispered quietly. "Let us return to Minas Tirith and—"


"I will not return to the city until I first learn of how Eomer fares," Imrahil interrupted sternly. The look on his face was one that had occasionally caused even Denethor to back down, and Eowyn shivered slightly. Sensing that he now had their full and undivided attention, Imrahil grunted and nodded. "Better. Now, let us see inquire of King Elessar as to King Eomer’s condition."


Shooting Faramir a questioning glance, Eowyn was met by a shrug and a resigned look. Imrahil could be extremely stubborn at times. Realizing she could not win this argument—and wanting to see to Eomer herself—Eowyn nodded and turned, lending her shoulder to the prince of Dol Amroth as he struggled to regain his balance. Their progress was slow, but they had not far to go and were soon peering over Aragorn’s shoulder. This caused him to look up at them with an expression of both bemusement and annoyance, but a groan from Eomer stopped short any complaints he might have had.


"Eomer?" A new voice entered the scene, and Eowyn looked over as Lothíriel hurried into view and knelt by her husband’s head, ignoring the mud and water that soaked her dress. "Eomer!" Lothíriel cried, her hand caressing his brow and smoothing away tendrils of hair.


"Call him again," Aragorn encouraged, a hand upon Eomer’s throat as he monitored his pulse. Arwen joined them, then, standing at Eomer’s feet and looking as though she was prepared to assist. "I believe he may be waking."


"Eomer!" Lothíriel said, her voice rising. "My king, come back to us!"


A second groan echoed up from the depths of Eomer’s chest, and he turned his head slightly, wincing almost immediately. Eowyn grimaced in sympathy, for her brother had taken a hard blow to the head and she could well imagine what horrific pounding now echoed through his skull.


"Again," Aragorn commanded, watching Eomer’s progress closely. "He is almost awake."


"Eomer?" Lothíriel whispered, her voice gentle this time as she ran her hands down the side of his face.


The king of Rohan sighed and his eyes fluttered open. A dazed look came over him, and he flinched back from the brightness of the sun. Arwen moved to shade him, and Eomer blinked, glancing about with a look of complete and utter confusion.


"Eomer?" Imrahil questioned, moving forward against the holds of Faramir and Eowyn. "Eomer, how do you fare?"


Eomer shook his head and hissed, immediately stopping the movement. With an expression of increasing concern, Aragorn waved Lothíriel back slightly, and ran his hands gently over the back of Eomer’s head. "My friend, can you speak?" Aragorn asked quietly.


Turning toward the voice, Eomer looked at Aragorn and frowned, his brow creasing with what could only be interpreted as bewilderment. "Where am I?"


Aragorn froze and then leaned forward, his eyes flashing with alarm. "You do not remember? Know you who I am?" When Eomer shook his head slightly, Aragorn’s face became even graver. "Know you your own name?"


Eomer closed his eyes and groaned. "Nay," he whispered, his voice wracked with torment. "Nay, I do not."


"Sweet Varda," Faramir swore quietly, and Eowyn could only nod in agreement, her eyes fixed upon her brother’s face as she tried to think of words to say that might stir him to remembrance.


"Eomer, do you recall anything?" Arwen asked, sharing a worried look with her husband.


Opening his eyes, Eomer turned her direction and something in his expression abruptly changed. The confusion lessened, some of the anguish drifted away, and a light appeared in his eyes that had both Lothíriel and Aragorn immediately stiffening. "I have but vague images that mean nothing," Eomer said quietly, never taking his eyes from Arwen. "But I believe I may say this: though I have no memory, I do not think I have seen a woman more beautiful or more perfect in the course of all my days than she who stands before me now. And if you would but give me your name, I would keep it safe within my heart until the last breath of my body is spent and all that remains is the memory of your face."


The ensuing silence was deafening.


Eowyn had heard Arwen’s beauty praised many times, and often had such compliments been given in Aragorn’s presence. Until now, Aragorn had never reacted to any of them save to add his own agreement. He seemed to understand that such praise was unavoidable with a queen as beautiful as Arwen by his side. Beyond that, the praise was always harmless enough as it was said with the knowledge that Arwen was beyond the reach of any man save the king of Gondor. But Eomer’s words had been spoken from the heart, and he had made no effort to hide the desire burning in his eyes. And in the face of such unabashed affection, Aragorn’s eyes were becoming dark and stony.


Lothíriel was no better. Eomer’s eyes were still fastened upon Arwen’s ageless face that put to shame the best features of any mortal woman, and the queen of Rohan was flushing with anger. Concern was also present, but it was dwindling quickly in the heat of a fiery rage that was causing Lothíriel’s fists to clench and unclench at her sides.


Arwen, on the other hand, was a perfect contrast for both Aragorn and Lothíriel. She was making a valiant attempt at keeping her face blank, but her features were beginning to twist with what seemed to be vast amusement. It was Eowyn’s considered opinion that, had the queen of Gondor been alone, her laughter would have taken her to the ground. She could clearly see Arwen’s shaking sides, and the hitches in her breathing indicated that she was having great trouble controlling her reaction to the situation.


"Perhaps we should move Eomer inside," Imrahil suddenly said, his voice calm but hard as steel.


"Your counsel is good," Faramir immediately seconded. Eowyn stole a quick glance at her husband and noted that he also seemed to be enjoying the situation immensely. But he was doing a better job at hiding his amusement than was Arwen. "Guards!" Acting quickly and without waiting for Aragorn’s approval, Faramir waved some of the soldiers over and directed them toward Eomer, who had made no effort to rise on his own but seemed content to stare longingly at Arwen. "Take the king of Rohan to the Houses of Healing. Send word ahead to the healers so that they might be prepared. We shall join you shortly."


Reacting to the sudden assumption of authority on the part of Faramir in prematurely taking his patient away, Aragorn sent the steward a dangerous glare that would have put Wormtongue to shame, and Eowyn knew exactly how dangerous those looks had been. But fortunately, a measure of common sense remained in Aragorn. If the king of Rohan insisted on proclaiming his love to the queen of Gondor, it would probably be best if they moved all concerned away from the public eye. Rising to his feet and stepping back as the guards moved in to carry Eomer off the field, Aragorn sighed and shook his head. "Valar. We did not need additional problems this day."


"You view this as a problem?" Arwen asked, her voice shaking slightly with ill-concealed mirth.


"I certainly do not view it as humorous," Aragorn said rather archly with a dark look at his wife.


"My apologies, love," Arwen said, her tone consoling. "Of course this is a very grave matter. But I have great faith in your abilities as a healer. I doubt not that Eomer shall soon come to his senses and see the folly of his ways."


Aragorn grunted, apparently somewhat mollified by this response, but Eowyn wondered if this reaction might not be premature. While Arwen’s words might offer comfort to her indignant husband, her expression told an entirely different story. Eowyn could not be certain if she read Arwen aright, but the look on the face of Gondor’s queen seemed to indicate that she was ready to milk this latest development for all it was worth.


* * * *


Safely removed from the drama now playing itself out upon the Pelennor Fields, Merry and Pippin conversed cheerfully about topics of little importance as they walked the streets of Minas Tirith, holding in their minds the image of the large kitchens that awaited them in the palace. Their trip was largely uneventful—a rather pleasant surprise on this day—with but one exception.


In the fifth circle, a sudden whinny had startled both hobbits and prompted them to quickly sidestep. Their timing was impeccable as a large white horse and a smaller bay stallion cantered by. They were followed at length by a tall black horse who gave the appearance of being very miffed. Conversation in the streets halted as the steeds flew swiftly by, their hooves sounding loud upon the stone paths. Many stopped to stare, a few moved as though to go after the animals, and then they vanished, turning a corner and descending into the fourth circle.


"Now there’s something you don’t see every day," Pippin commented at length. "What did you make of that?"


Merry narrowed his eyes and stared after the horses, though they could no longer be seen. "I can’t be certain, but I think that two of those horses were Elladan’s and Elrohir’s. And I’m fairly sure that all three were elven horses."


"Ah." Pippin was silent for a moment, his face suspiciously blank. "I suppose that leaves Legolas with the white one."


"It would make sense," Merry reluctantly conceded, trying not to speculate as to what the horses might be doing.


"Right, then," Pippin said with a brisk nod. "Kitchens?"


"Kitchens," Merry confirmed, hoping that such an innocuous place in the lower portions of the palace would be safe from any of the more frivolous activities planned for this day.


The two continued their journey, eventually picking up the conversation from the point at which it had been interrupted. It was actually turning into an interesting debate—interesting by hobbit standards, at least—about the origins of pipe-weed. Pippin was insisting—and rather erroneously so, in Merry’s opinion—that Tobold Hornblower had come by pipe-weed because of inspiration from the Tooks. Having just compiled quite a bit of history on the subject and written much of it in a book that was now fairly well known in the Shire, Merry sternly disputed this claim. Old Toby had clearly come by pipe-weed thanks to his visits with hobbits in Bree—some of whom might have been distantly related to the Brandybucks.


"It doesn’t make any sense if you think about it," Pippin reasoned in a tone that was painfully close to patronizing. "Old Toby lived just south of the Great Smials. He was leagues away from Buckland and Bree. Maybe you’re right and they had an influence, but the greater influence surely came from his neighbors to the north."


"You have absolutely nothing to back that idea," Merry returned, nodding politely at the guards as they turned into the tunnel that would take them up to the Citadel. "You’re well out of your depth, Pippin, and until you can dig up one shred of evidence, none of your words will hold any weight."


"Why bother with evidence when common sense and logic can make everything clear?"


"I challenge you to name any period of your life during which you understood the meaning of either common sense or logic."


Pippin scowled, his eyes flashing slightly as they emerged from the tunnel and started walking toward the palace. "Clearly you do not know me well, Cousin Brandybuck. Nor do you know my family. We Tooks are renowned for common sense and logic. My entire life has seen a steady stream of these qualities."


Merry rolled his eyes and shook his head, wondering if this latest statement was even worthy of a reply. The two were now skirting the edge of the walled gardens, and snatches could be heard of a rather strange conversation from within. The conversation’s participants were clearly Legolas and Gimli, but as for the subject of their conversation… Did Gimli just say something about Rhûn and Eomer’s mares?


"I suppose that answers the question of what the horses were doing in the streets," Pippin said quietly, apparently also listening to the conversation.


"Let’s hurry," Merry suggested, throwing a cautious look over his shoulder. "I’m not sure I want to know any more of what they’re talking about."


Pippin nodded his agreement and the two hastened their pace slightly, eventually reaching one of the palace’s side entrances, which also happened to be the entrance closest to the kitchens. Silent as only hobbits can be, the two slipped inside and down the hallways, nodding respectfully at any they happened to meet but doing their best to keep out of sight and avoid notice. Pippin clearly didn’t trust the fact that Arwen was allowing this, and Merry shared his feelings to an extent. He wanted to believe that the offer of free access to the palace kitchens was a sincere one, but it was an unusual gift from the queen of Gondor and unusual gifts were to be accepted but scrutinized.


The hobbits eventually reached a narrow corridor that would take them directly into the middle of the usually bustling kitchens. It was their normal mode of entrance as it was a rather obscure passage, allowing them to walk in and out quickly and quietly. The familiarity of the surroundings now afforded them a moment of relief, but the relief did not last long. No sooner had they begun their trip down the narrow hallway than they both stopped.


"It’s too quiet," Pippin whispered, wincing slightly at the sound of his own voice. "Why? Why is it so quiet?"


"I wish I knew," Merry answered, his eyes narrowing. "Let’s keep going and see if we can’t find some answers."


"Slowly, then," the other hobbit cautioned. "I don’t like this."


With a caution that would be completely alien to most inhabitants of the Shire—particularly when an accessible and well-stocked kitchen lay less than a stone’s throw away—Merry and Pippin crept forward. Tentatively pulling open the door, two sets of wary eyes peered around the frame and examined the large kitchens that served food for the king and his household. It did not take them long to realize why it was so quiet. The area was completely deserted.


An empty kitchen is a very foreign concept to most hobbits. Merry and Pippin were fortunate enough to know that empty kitchens did exist outside of the Shire, but they also knew that kitchens such as these were rarely vacant. With the occasional exception of the dead of night, something was always baking or rising or boiling or sizzling within the palace’s kitchens. Different members of the household ate at different times, which required that these kitchens be constantly staffed. Yet now…


"Merry, you’d best have a look at this."


Merry shook his head, his thoughts broken by Pippin’s interruption. Managing to overcome his shock and confusion, he made his way toward a ground-level cupboard that Pippin had opened and was investigating. "Did you find something?" he asked, still glancing about warily and half expecting the entire kitchen staff to descend upon them at any moment.


"Yes and no," came the answer as Pippin straightened and turned toward Merry. "I think I found the reason why the kitchens are deserted. And I found this reason because of things I didn’t find."


"Pardon?" Merry asked with a blink, hoping that he could catch up to Pippin’s reasoning quickly enough to have a partially lucid conversation.


"The older cooking ware."


Merry frowned and wondered if he had swooned sometime during the last hour, subsequently missing vital parts of this dialogue. "What about the older cooking ware?"


"I didn’t find it. But the newer cooking ware and some of the nicer pots are still here."


"All right," Merry said slowly. "You didn’t find the old but you did find the new." He stopped and cocked his head to the side, attempting to see the significance of this development but failing miserably. "Pippin, this might sound like a foolish question to you, but why should I care that the nicer pots are still in the cupboards?"


"Think about it," Pippin answered, his tone taking on a note of condescension that thoroughly irritated his companion. "What comes to mind?"


"Someone decided to do a bit of cleaning?"


"No! You don’t see it?" Pippin scowled and folded his arms across his chest. "It’s obvious, Merry. And now I remember a conversation I overheard just before breakfast. It all makes perfect sense, but it didn’t mean anything to me then."


"Well, it seems to mean something to you now, so why not share this something with me?" Merry said, struggling to control his rising feelings of anger and frustration. The fact that his stomach was starting to growl certainly didn’t help matters.


"They’re on the Pelennor Fields!" Pippin exclaimed. "I know you were there at breakfast when Arwen told us that the entire palace was having lunch on the fields and possibly dinner, too. They must have taken the food they needed with them. And we saw them setting up when we were down there earlier. That big tent along the northern wall is where they had everything. That’s why Arwen told us we could wander in and out of the kitchen all day. She knew there would be nothing here for us!"


"But what about those of the household that are staying up here during the day?" Merry protested, unwilling to believe what Pippin was trying to say. "The guard and such. Surely they will need the kitchen for meals. There must be food here somewhere."


"Actually, that was also part of the conversation I heard," Pippin answered. "I didn’t understand what they were saying at the time, but now I think I do. Some of the guards were talking about showing up early for lunch because some of the attendants were going to be joining them at the butteries in the Tower. It makes sense now. The kitchens are abandoned here so everyone in the Citadel is stuck with the food in the Tower."


It was not possible. It could not be possible. And yet… Merry shook his head. No, he refused to believe that Arwen could be so cruel. She would not grant them access to the palace kitchens knowing there would be no food for them. This was obviously a misunderstanding. Like the misunderstanding that Gimli had with his door this morning? a cynical little voice asked.


"It’s like Frodo used to say," Pippin continued, his voice dropping and a note of despair creeping in. "Elves will tell you both yes and no. And that’s just what Arwen did. She said yes to the palace kitchens and no to the food, only she didn’t say that last part aloud. She let us figure it out the hard way."


"It was a dirty trick," Merry murmured. "You’d think that a queen would know better than to toy with a person’s hopes like that."


"Yes, but I don’t see that we can do anything about it. I suppose we’ll just have to wait for the noon meal like everyone else," Pippin sighed dejectedly.


"Perhaps not," Merry murmured, a sudden idea coming to him. "The kitchen is just a place where the food is prepared, correct?"


"Correct," Pippin said hesitantly, one eyebrow arching.


"That means there should be a large store of food here in Minas Tirith."


"There is, but it won’t be very large right now. We’re just coming out of winter. No one has had a chance to restock the supplies. Merry, what are you thinking?"


"It makes sense that these kitchens, which are huge and feed everyone in the palace, connect to a storeroom of some kind. It would be easier to transport things.


"The only storerooms I know of are those in the Tower next to the butteries," Pippin said, his voice somewhat skeptical. "I’ve never seen a storeroom here."


"Of course you haven’t. For some reason, they’re not particularly fond of us in this kitchen. They won’t let us explore. But why would they waste time dragging supplies over from the Tower when there’s room enough in the palace for them? There must be a storeroom here somewhere, and since no one is currently in the kitchens…" Merry trailed off and looked expectantly at Pippin.


Pippin caught on quickly and grinned. "Where do we begin looking?"

 


 


 


 


 


Togo Gaearsul a Mornaecco. Togor lim—Lead Gaearsul and Mornaecco. Lead them on.


Aphado, mellon nín—Follow, my friend.

Chapter Text


…………


Well, here is the strangest riddle that we have yet found! A bound prisoner escapes both from the Orcs and from the surrounding horsemen. He then stops, while still in the open, and cuts his bonds with an Orc-knife. But how and why? For if his legs were tied, how did he walk? And if his arms were tied, how did he use the knife? And if neither were tied, why did he cute the cords at all? Being pleased with his skill, he then sat down and quietly ate some waybread! That at least is enough to show that he was a hobbit, without the mallorn-leaf. After that, I suppose he turned his arms into wings and flew away singing into the trees. It should be easy to find him: we only need wings ourselves!


Legolas—The Two Towers (The White Rider)


…………

 


For much of the early morning, the Pelennor Fields had been peacefully quiet. And after the long journey from Edoras, the Rohirrim were extremely grateful. Most of them were staying without the walls of Minas Tirith, having pitched a camp in the northern fields near the paddocks and pastures where their horses were being kept. The hustle and bustle of the city was a bit much for the riders, many of whom spent the bulk of their time upon the open fields of the Mark. Only a few guards and the royal family were actually staying within Minas Tirith itself. The rest were enjoying the fresh spring air upon the Pelennor and making the most of a rather lazy holiday.


At least, that had been the case for a good part of the early morning, but things had changed quite abruptly. King Eomer had collected Shade, mentioning a sprint against Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth—an idea that amused the Rohirrim greatly—and then something had happened. None were exactly sure what, but a great commotion was brewing in the southern parts of the field, and many of the Rohirrim were hastening there to discover what had transpired. The sheer number of people as well as the clamor now rising suggested that something ill was unfolding, and given the usual luck of the Rohirrim, Eomer was probably in the thick of it.


Watching the chaotic activity and wishing for the sight of the Eldar so that he might see what was taking place, Elfhelm clenched his fists and debated about deserting his post. Guarding the horses stabled in the northern pastures of the Pelennor was really nothing more than a formality. All here knew that the animals were under the protection of Rohan, and none stole from the Rohirrim with impunity. But Eomer had decided that appearances needed to be maintained, and Elfhelm’s company had drawn guard duty this morning. As such, they had been unable to join their fellow soldiers in rushing to see what had befallen their king. But as Marshall of the East-mark, second only to Eomer and Erkenbrand until Elfwine came of age, Elfhelm wondered if he was actually required to stand with his men. Erkenbrand had been left in charge of Rohan, which meant that should anything happen to Eomer, Elfhelm was in charge of the Rohirrim that had come to Minas Tirith. With this in mind, it could easily be rationalized that he needed to know what was happening and was justified in leaving his post.


Yet even as these thoughts crossed his mind, the obedience that had been drilled into him ever since the day he had first taken up the sword came into play. He had been ordered by his king to guard the mares that were set aside for breeding with Rhûn. He could not abandon that duty. And he would know soon enough what had transpired without having to leave his station. Arhelm’s company was not on duty, and if there was anything to report, Arhelm would return and seek him out. The crown-prince, Elfwine, had also gone to investigate, and he was a smart lad that knew the proper chain of command. Had something befallen his father, he would seek the Marshall’s counsel.


But until such time, Elfhelm was constrained to stand and wait, looking on with the rest of his men as more and more people began to gather. And waiting was something the Rohirrim did not endure well. They were a bold people, charging bravely and swiftly into whatever problems confronted them. They did not stand to the side while others raced to help. If deeds were to be done, then they were to be done swiftly and efficiently. There was no room for dawdling or tarrying in the Rohirrim mindset. Subsequently, Elfhelm and those in his company began to grow anxious, and anxious soldiers of Rohan are an open invitation to trouble.


Fortunately, the wait was not long enough to provoke rash acts on the part of Elfhelm and his men. After a few minutes—though each minute seemed to last several years—one rider called out and pointed, indicating a small figure making his way toward them while two horses trailed behind. One of the animals was an older mare of good breeding, though she would never compare to the mares of Rohan. Elfhelm believed he had seen her in Dol Amroth’s company, but he could not be certain. The other horse, though, was instantly recognized as Eomer’s stallion, Shade. And at this realization, murmurs and whispers began to spread among the men even as Elfhelm sprang forward to discover what had happened.


"Prince Elfwine!" he called, for he could see now that it was Elfwine who led the horses forward. "Prince Elfwine, what tidings?"


At Elfhelm’s shout, Shade suddenly snorted and reared, fighting Elfwine’s hold on the reins. Startled by his sudden movements, the mare shook her head and reared as well, neighing loudly in protest. Taking in the situation quickly, Elfhelm raced to Elfwine’s side and took the mare, pulling her back to the ground and hauling her away from Shade. With quiet words and coaxing, he managed to soothe the skittish horse, but his eyes could not help straying to Elfwine and Shade. Elfwine had begun riding almost as soon as he had begun walking, and though Shade was solely Eomer’s horse in both body and soul, the stallion would occasionally permit Elfwine to groom him and speak with him. But Shade did not appear to be calming down now no matter what Elfwine did or said. Rather, he was becoming more and more frantic with every move, and though he had not lashed out directly at the boy, Elfhelm felt that such an event was only moments away.


Other riders now appeared on the scene, but their presence only served to further incense Shade. Immediately realizing what was happening, all began to back away, but eyes were turning desperately to Elfhelm, demanding orders. For his part, Elfhelm had never felt more helpless in his entire life. This was the chief of the Mearas. He was effectively the king of Rohan’s horses. He could not be manhandled as lesser steeds might be. Yet if they did not do something soon, Elfwine would be crushed beneath Shade’s powerful hooves.


Fortunately for the torn Marshall, a chorus of whinnies suddenly echoed up from the pastures. Other horses had heard the distress of their leader and were calling out to him. Upon hearing their cries, Shade paused, and his hesitation was long enough for Elfwine to regain his feet and take a firmer grip on the harness, all the while whispering reassurances and promises. Shade tossed his head and his ears fell back against his neck, nostrils flaring. One foreleg stomped hard against the ground and his tail whisked the air, but he made no other action. Elfwine continued to speak to him, the other horses continued to call, and after a moment, Shade’s eyes lost the fires of rage. He was still agitated and his ears were still back, but he was no longer fighting Elfwine’s hold.


With gentle, cautious words, Elfwine again started forward. Shade resisted, his muscles bunching as though preparing once more for action, but with steady coaxing, he at last consented to be led toward the paddocks. The gathered Rohirrim hastily cleared a path, unwilling to further upset the Mearas chief, and after a few painfully long minutes, Shade was released into the area containing the other warhorses.


A soft whicker behind him reminded Elfhelm that he was still holding the mare. He gave her a rather absent pat on the neck by means of acknowledgment and then began leading her forward. Two steps later, he stopped, immediately seeing the limp in her stride. But he had no time to care for her now as too many other things were happening. Waving one of his riders to him, he passed the reins over and quietly ordered that a physician be summoned to see to the animal. Having taken care of that, he looked for Elfwine and found him leaning against the fence that formed one of the paddock boundaries.


"Prince Elfwine?" Elfhelm walked over to the boy and placed a hand on the lad’s shoulder. Elfwine appeared as though he was ready to fall over, but answers could not wait until he was better prepared to give them. Under normal circumstances, Eomer would never have allowed Elfwine to handle Shade when the stallion was so upset. The king knew better than anyone just how short Shade’s temper could be. Therefore, something must have happened to Eomer. "Elfwine, where is your father? Where is the king?"


At the mention of the king, Shade loosed a scream of anger and rushes the makeshift fences that had been set up. Shoving an exhausted Elfwine out of the way, Elfhelm placed himself directly before the great stallion, daring him to make the leap and kill in the process. Shade skidded to a halt and snorted angrily, his eyes promising that if Elfhelm did not move, he would not hesitate to trample the man.


"Shade!" Elfwine called out, his voice soft but firm. "Shade, peace. I promise to give you news when I have it."


Shade snorted and his eyes flashed, but he made no move to rush the fence. Wary but feeling safe for the moment, Elfhelm turned back to the crown-prince, his eyes questioning. "Elfwine, what has happened?"


"There was an accident," Elfwine whispered, shaking his head as though still in shock. "I was not there when it happened, and the Lady Eowyn sent me away ere I could learn much. But…" He stopped and frowned, his brow furrowing in concentration. "King Elessar was with my father. Prince Imrahil was also upon the ground, and Prince Faramir was seeing to him. More than that I truly cannot say for I was entrusted with the horses. I believe there was a fall. The pole that had been set up to support tomorrow’s main pavilion was upon the ground, but…" He trailed off again and raised helpless eyes to Elfhelm.


"Your answers give more information than what I had earlier," Elfhelm assured him, squeezing his shoulder gently. "Did you know the condition of your father when you left?"


"He was not moving and King Elessar seemed anxious, but I know no more than that," Elfwine said. "Lady Eowyn sent me away. I could learn nothing else."


"Then we shall educate ourselves," Elfhelm promised. Glancing about he spied an errand rider and signaled to him. "Fréalaf, seek out Captain Arhelm and inform him that he is to assume command here in the Pelennor. He is to report to me immediately."


"At once, my lord," the prompt reply came, and then the messenger was off, quickly mounting his horse and thundering off across the fields.


"And now we wait for Arhelm," Elfhelm said. "Once he is come, we are free to go up into the city and seek out your father."


"I should go now," Elfwine murmured.


"Nay, you have a responsibility to Shade, young prince, and I have a responsibility to the men upon the fields," the Marshall said gently, deciding to forget the fact that he had been sorely tempted to shirk his duties earlier. "Until our responsibilities are given to another, we cannot abandon them. It will not be long. Arhelm is no doubt on his way here even as we speak, and I suspect he will have information that you do not. Patience, Prince Elfwine."


The boy sighed and folded his arms across his chest, but he said no more, seeming to accept his fate. Hoping this dejected anxiety was not seen by Shade, Elfhelm glanced over his shoulder and sighed in relief. The stallion seemed much calmer now and was actually sniffing at the grass as though he was tempted to graze. But he was not totally at ease, for he kept lifting his head and turning his black eyes south, seeming to search for a sign of Eomer. Still, he was now more or less manageable. If Shade had chosen to jump the fence, Elfhelm did not think that any could have caught him once he was free.


"How long will it take Captain Arhelm to arrive?"


Startled by the question, Elfhelm blinked and glanced down at the crown-prince. "We sent for him but moments ago."


"But you said he might already be coming this way."


"He might," Elfhelm nodded. "But then again, he might not. I have no way of knowing with any certainty. It would be safe to say that he will arrive soon, though."


"How soon?"


The impatience in Elfwine’s voice reminded Elfhelm very much of the boy’s father. Eomer was not one for waiting either, and the desire for action rather than speech had led to complications more than once. Wondering if there was a way to instill more patience in Eomer’s son, Elfhelm searched for an answer but was suddenly interrupted by a loud whistle.


Jerking with surprise, Elfhelm swung around and stared. Shade was no longer looking to the south but rather to the north, and his posture was one of a challenging stallion. Confused as to what he might be challenging, Elfhelm turned his eyes beyond the paddock housing the warhorses and saw—


"By the blood of Eorl!"


"Those are the mares that were to be set aside for breeding with Rhûn’s studs!" Elfwine exclaimed.


"Come," Elfhelm commanded, racing toward the far paddock and summoning riders as he went. Shade began running as well, clearly intent on driving away the two stallions that had suddenly appeared among the mares. One was a tall black steed and seemed rather nonplussed with the situation, but the smaller bay horse was clearly enjoying himself. Upon hearing Shade’s challenge as well as the shouts of the men, both horses glanced their direction. The black one took several paces back, his ears flipping from side to side. But his companion was not so intimidated and instead reared, sending out an answering challenge while assuming a stance that indicated he was not ready to abandon his newly found mares any time in the near future. And judging from his stature, small though he was, he was quite capable of defending his claim. In fact, upon close inspection, Elfhelm decided that he had seen both these horses before. But when… "The elven horses!"


"The elven horses?" Elfwine echoed, his breath coming hard as he attempted to keep pace with Elfhelm.


"The mounts of Lord Elladan and Lord Elrohir. They joined us at Edoras and traveled with us here."


"I remember now," Elfwine exclaimed. "But how did they come to be…" He suddenly trailed off as Shade leaped the paddock fence and charged toward the pen where the mares were being kept.


"Shade!" Elfhelm shouted, but his cry fell upon deaf ears. The chief of the Mearas thundered toward the interlopers as an angry king intent upon vengeance. And with a challenging neigh, the bay horse raced to meet him.


* * * *


Most hobbits were not particularly vengeful. Family grievances were sometimes remembered for several generations and grudges did have a way of sticking around small communities far longer than was needed, but as a general rule, if a hobbit was wronged, he did not start looking for ways to seek retribution.


But Peregrin Took was not most hobbits. He was the son of Paladin II and a descendent of Isumbras the III, the same Isumbras that fathered Ferumbras the II as well as Bandobras the Bullroarer. He was a knight of Gondor, honored as a hero and friend to both King Elessar and Prince Faramir. He was a member of the Fellowship, known to be one of the Ring-bearer’s original companions. He was a survivor of the desperate battle before the Morannon and had witnessed the coming of the eagles and the breaking of Sauron’s reign. He was anything but a fair representation of his kin back in the Shire. And today, he was a hobbit with a mission.


Starting at one end of the vast palace kitchens while Merry started at the other, Pippin began looking for anything resembling a storeroom or an entry to a storeroom. The two had decided that it would probably be a passage leading downward, as it was easier for things to be preserved if they were kept below ground in a cool environment. To this end, they tapped out patterns on the floor, listening for echoes or hollows. They slapped the walls, attempting to uncover secret rooms. No cupboard was left unopened and no shadow was left unexplored. Stomachs would be sated, the storerooms would be found, their mission would be accomplished, and in the future, Arwen would think twice about toying with a hobbit’s culinary sentiments!


Pippin was scrambling atop a counter to investigate a stone that was a slightly different color than the other stones when Merry suddenly gave a shout. Startled, Pippin nearly rolled off the counter in surprise. As it was, he barely managed to stop himself just before falling to the ground. Looking across the kitchen, he muttered something rather uncomplimentary beneath his breath and quickly spied his cousin. "Merry, the next time you decide to yell, warn me. I almost—"


"Pippin, you are the greatest fool of our day," Merry interrupted with a sigh of disgust. "Here we are looking for hidden passageways leading to a secret pantry when all we needed to do was open a few doors."


Pippin blinked. "Pardon?"


"Quite honestly, I don’t know why I ever listen to you," Merry said, shaking his head. "Your mind is so addled it’s a wonder you can tell Hobbiton from Michel Delving."


"Is there a purpose to this or are you—"


"Here, Pippin. The stairs leading down to the storerooms are right through here." Merry pointed to an open door next to him and then fixed Pippin with a rather pointed stare.


"You’re sure?"


"What else could they be?!"


"Well, I don’t see why you’re so upset," Pippin answered, jumping down from the counter and walking over to investigate. "We found it, didn’t we?"


"Why did you have us looking for disguised trapdoors and—"


"Because we’re in a palace kitchen, Merry," Pippin said with a slight roll of his eyes. "Don’t you remember those stories they used to tell around campfires back in the Shire? All palaces have secret compartments where they hide their valuables. It’s clear to me that Arwen used something like that to hide things from us. Otherwise, the way to the cellars would have been obvious."


"It is obvious!" Merry exclaimed. "But you were too busy prattling on about a hidden storeroom to notice."


"You didn’t have to listen to me," Pippin pointed out, eyeing the dark stairs. They spiraled downward at steep yet manageable angle, but little else could be discerned. There was no illumination save what the large kitchen windows provided.


"No, I didn’t have to listen to you, but I did because I thought you knew what you were talking about. You are a knight of Gondor, after all."


"If you were wandering about Meduseld, could you have found the storerooms right away?" Pippin challenged, glancing about for something that might be used as a candle.


"At least I wouldn’t have gone searching for some shadowy corridor that led into mysterious rooms filled with heavily guarded food."


Pippin scowled. It had all made sense at the time, but Merry’s words contained a rather condemning element of logic. But logic aside, Pippin felt it had been quite natural to assume that the door to the storerooms would be hidden. Arwen was devious enough to give the hobbits access to the kitchens while making certain that accessible food was elsewhere. Going from that, it was a natural step to conclude that she would have hidden any food that remained at the palace. Of course, the storerooms would have been built long before Arwen hatched her heinous plot and hiding the door might have been slightly implausible, but elves had a way of getting around things like that. At least, that’s what Pippin had told himself. He was no longer quite so certain.


He would have continued to examine the situation, but his inner musings were cut short by a gurgling growl from his stomach. Deciding that rethinking his assumptions could wait until after he had satisfied his appetite, he turned around and found a lantern, lighting it before turning back to Merry. "Well, whatever you might think of my methods, we’ve still found what is probably the way down to the storerooms. I say we investigate."


"Agreed. But let’s try to be a little more efficient this time."


With a weary sigh, Pippin bit back a retort and started down the dark stairs, feeling Merry fall in behind him. They moved slowly, uncertain of their steps and somewhat leery of the shadows cast by their lantern. Moreover, the steps were unevenly spaced and difficult to navigate quickly, so care was required. Pippin vaguely remembered Faramir saying something about stairs like these being a defense mechanism against attackers, as it prevented those unfamiliar with the steps from running up and down them quickly. That was all well and good for times of war, but at the moment, Pippin could only see such precautions as a nuisance. He was not an invader but a hungry hobbit with a mission to eat as much of the larder as he could manage before his stomach burst and the buttons of his waistcoat popped off.


"Maybe I was wrong," Merry whispered behind Pippin. "Maybe this isn’t the way to the storerooms where they keep the food."


Pippin frowned and shot a curious glance over his shoulder at his cousin. "You were certain back in the kitchens that this is the way. What’s wrong?"


Merry’s eyes flickered over the dark walls and he bit his lip. "Nothing. I just…" He frowned and shook his head, absently rubbing his right shoulder as he did so. "Forget I said anything. Let’s keep going."


Pippin studied the other hobbit for a moment, paying close attention to the way Merry suddenly seemed to be favoring his sword arm. From time to time, Merry would fall strangely ill and have unusual pains or feelings of numbness in his right arm. The most recent occurrence had happened nine days ago on the anniversary of victory on the Pelennor Fields. They’d been in Rohan at the time and Merry had hidden his discomfort well, but Pippin was not so blind that he could not see what was happening. He knew well that Merry still suffered from the blow he had dealt the Witch-king, and he knew that dark, silent places had a tendency to remind his cousin of the foul dreams that had haunted him after he fell beneath the Black Breath. "If you like, you can stay in the kitchens while I investigate," Pippin said at length, attempting to show naught more than simple concern. Merry could become very offended if he felt he was being coddled. "I can bring what I find back to you. In any case, it would be more enjoyable to eat up there where it’s lighter."


Merry frowned and then shook his head. "No, I’m fine. Let’s go."


"Merry, I—"


"Must I repeat myself?"


With a sigh, Pippin reluctantly turned away. It was clear that Merry would not be swayed from their journey. There were times when Pippin wondered just how much of Rohan’s haughty pride had rubbed off on the Brandybuck. Still, nothing could be done about that now, and so Pippin began walking again, moving faster so that Merry’s mind would be on his feet and his balance rather than on the shadows of his past.


After countless spirals down the winding stairs, they eventually came to the bottom. They found themselves in a wide, clean room with a low ceiling. A table next to the entryway contained several lamps, and Pippin wasted no time in lighting these. The more illumination, the better, and he could feel Merry relaxing as the shadows began to flee. "That’s better," Pippin said, forcing his voice to be light and casual as though fears of the dark were the furthest thing from his mind. "No sense in tripping over what can’t be seen when we can simply light a lamp and see it."


"True," Merry agreed, looking around the room. "But exactly what are we seeing?"


Pippin turned away from his task of lighting the last of the lanterns and blinked. They had found a storeroom, but this storeroom did not seem to be one used for housing food. Lining the walls and much of the center of the room were large casks that looked as though they held wine. There was writing on the sides of many of the barrels, and Pippin moved to inspect it, curious as to where so much wine could have originated.


"Greenwood," Merry announced, also inspecting the casks. "These are all from Greenwood."


"There is enough wine here to keep every hobbit in the Shire happy all the way into the next Age," Pippin whispered with awe. "Do you suppose this is for that banquet tonight that Strider was talking about?"


"Perhaps, but I didn’t think he would serve wine from Mirkwood. You remember those casks that Legolas’s father sent to the coronation?"


"I try not to remember," Pippin muttered, rubbing his head. That had been an interesting night, if nothing else. The hobbits had known that elven wine could be rather potent, and Legolas had warned them that wine from Mirkwood was stronger than most. But after a glass or two, all such considerations no longer mattered. Pippin could not remember exactly how the night had concluded, but he had found himself on the floor of the baths the next morning with a headache so large it would have made Treebeard wince.


A sudden growl arrested Pippin’s attention and he froze, searching the room for anything that might be construed as a threat. "Sorry, that’s me," Merry piped up with a hint of laughter in his voice. "My stomach does not appreciate the delay."


"Oh." Pippin gave a rather sheepish smile and relaxed, glancing about the room once more. "Well, we’ve found at least one storeroom, but it’s for wine and not for food. I guess we’ll need to—"


"What about this room?" Merry interrupted, moving toward the back of the room. Hidden in the shadows, he had spied a sturdy door. The wine casks had been placed in such a way as to form a path to this door, and it looked to have seen recent use. Pippin hurriedly joined his cousin in the back of the room and his spirits lifted as his keen nose caught an unmistakable scent.


"We found it!" he exclaimed. "This is it. The storerooms for the food are behind this door! I can smell it!"


"Apples," Merry agreed with a broad grin.


"Wheat."


"Flour."


"Dried venison."


"Cheese."


"Spices."


"Master Took, we have done well," Merry said, reaching out and grasping Pippin’s hand.


"We have indeed, Mastery Brandybuck," Pippin answered, pumping Merry’s arm. "Shall we feast?"


"We shall!"


The moment of triumph had come, and Pippin was nearly bursting with anticipation as Merry reached for the door’s handle. He would soon be within a room that contained the palace’s wealth of sustenance. They could concoct a feast the likes of which had never before been seen in Gondor. Arwen had failed, and this knowledge brought Pippin sweet satisfaction. He grinned, imagining the look upon Arwen’s face when she realized that she had been bested by two hobbits. It would be a moment of wondrous joy, and Pippin only hoped that he would not be too full to miss it.


It was then that the unthinkable happened. Merry pulled back on the handle and met with solid resistance.


The door was locked.


* * * *


With a scowl and a muttered oath about kings that ordered guests to watch their children, Gimli glared at the garden, searching for any clue that might tell him the whereabouts of Eldarion. But save for a soft humming that came from Legolas on the other side of the enclosed haven, there was no sign that any were in the garden other than the dwarf and the elf.


Knowing his father, I should have expected this, Gimli though dourly. Aragorn also had a tendency to take matters into his own hands. The incident with the palantír along with several other examples were swift in coming to mind. And it seemed that Eldarion was following in the footsteps of his esteemed sire. If the situation didn’t suit him, then he would change the situation. Unfortunately—like his father—Eldarion seemed to forget that others should be informed of the change of plans, thus leaving companions to learn about events after the fact.


Folding his arms across his chest, Gimli cursed quietly and fervently before turning around and glaring in the general direction of Legolas. If Eldarion had indeed left the garden, the elf had probably witnessed it. And in true elvish fashion, he had neglected to inform Gimli. Exactly why Legolas had decided not to tell was another matter entirely and undoubtedly had to do with a twisted sense of humor born from far too many years of hunting shadows and spiders in Mirkwood. And even if Eldarion was still somewhere in the garden—which Gimli greatly doubted—Legolas probably knew his location. In any case, the best course of action now was to ask the elf for assistance. The very thought made Gimli cringe, but he was running out of options and becoming more than a little embarrassed with his inability to find one small boy. So with a growl of annoyance and a mental promise for future retribution of some kind, the dwarf stalked back to his friend.


Upon seeing his approach, Legolas ceased his song and arched one elegant elven eyebrow, a move that immediately put Gimli on his guard. The elf looked entirely too casual, and a slight twitch in his right cheek indicated that he was holding back a smile. This only served to confirm Gimli’s suspicions that Legolas knew exactly where Eldarion was, and the notion did not put him in the best of moods. Deciding to take Legolas for a long sojourn in a cave and then find a way to leave him there, the dwarf sighed, came to a stop before the prince, and waited.


"It appears that Eldarion is winning the game," Legolas observed after a moment of silence. The twitch in his right cheek was becoming more prominent. It was only through a concerted effort that Gimli refrained from clouting the elf upside the head for his insolence.


"Where is he, Legolas?"


The elf’s expression became one of shock. "Do you not know? How is such a thing possible? You, who have walked the Paths of the Dead, stood before the horror of the Morannon, fought valiantly to repel the invaders of Helm’s Deep, witnessed the fall of—"


"I am well aware of these events. I was present for them," Gimli growled, interjecting a stern note of warning into his voice. "Now, know you where Eldarion has gone?"


"An elf knows many things," Legolas said loftily, a slight twinkle entering his eyes as his left cheek began to spasm in harmony with his right. "But it was my earlier understanding that you required no assistance. Has that changed?"


"No, it has not," Gimli answered briskly. "But it would shorten the search if you could use those highly touted elven abilities of yours and tell me where Eldarion is."


"Ah, it becomes clear! You do not need aid. You simply wish to cheat at the game." The elf shook his head and clucked his tongue sadly. "Gimli, I am appalled. I thought dwarves were creatures of greater honor."


"Legolas!" Gimli glared at the prince only to have his look neatly fielded and returned by an expression that combined infuriating innocence with calculating cunning. Exactly how Legolas managed to create that particular look was beyond Gimli, but somehow he did it and he did it well. Durin’s beard, whatever possessed me to make friends of an elf?! Still, it was either play the elf’s game or start a futile search for Eldarion that would ultimately result in asking for the elf’s help anyway. Knowing what was required of him, Gimli gave a heavy sigh and took a healthy swallow or pride, reaffirming to himself that vengeance would need to be planned. "Legolas, my most sincere apologies. I should have enlisted your aid in the beginning. I know not what I was thinking. Will you help me now?"


Legolas’s eyes sparkled and Gimli gave a mental groan, sensing that more was going to be required of him. "It is rare that a dwarf asks for the wisdom and counsel of an elf," the prince said slowly, drawing his words out with obvious relish. "I know not what to say. What is it you see in me that prompts this request?"


"By the craft of Mahal, Legolas, if I am forced to—"


"Then I was mistaken?" the elf interrupted, sounding as though he was deeply hurt. "You do not wish for my assistance?"


Oh, you shall certainly pay for this, my friend. May your trees fade, your rivers run dry, and your wine sour. And may it happen within the span of my life so that I am allowed to laugh at your misfortune! "Legolas, you have elven senses and I do not," Gimli muttered. "For this reason, I desire your aid."


"You desire it? Then this is not a necessary thing? You could carry out a search for Eldarion on your own?"


"I need your aid," Gimli snarled. The elf was pushing his limits far beyond the mark of safety.


"Ah, so you are unable to find the boy on your own. And why is that, my friend? Why should I be able to do this when you cannot?"


"Because, friend," Gimli hissed, "elven senses are better than my own. And if you wish for your head to remain attached to your neck, then you will—"


"Say no more, Gimli," Legolas interrupted, his face breaking forth into a broad grin that nearly earned him a severe beating. "I shall go now and seek out our missing charge. You have made to clear to me why my involvement is a matter of great importance, and I shall not fail you. Rest here until our return and ponder on that which you have said."


"Legolas, you—"


But the dwarf’s angry curse faded even as it began, for Legolas effectively vanished from sight, leaving Gimli alone in the garden. Ai. It is bad enough that I must watch Aragorn’s son while others enjoy themselves upon the Pelennor. But was it truly necessary for Legolas to watch him with me? If I am forced to endure the company of that elf much longer… Gimli’s thoughts trailed off into something akin to an angry buzz accompanied by detailed images of a certain Ithilien lord dying in rather ingenious ways. The dwarves were nothing if not creative, and Gimli’s imaginative mind made good use of his anger, concocting a plethora of vengeful schemes. Most of these schemes would never come to fruition and a few were so impractical that Gimli wondered if elven nonsense was beginning to negatively impact his engineering ability. Nevertheless, the pursuit of unique and inventive ways to destroy Legolas was quite relaxing. And after his temper cooled and his pride recovered, these ideas would be converted into safer and more harmless plans that could actually be used.


Finding a comfortable rock and taking a seat, Gimli leaned back and turned his eyes toward the sky, his mind still devising unusual methods of assassination. He would have to play his hand carefully, though, for an alliance with Legolas was still needed in order to retaliate against Elladan and Elrohir. Their mischief had been far more damaging to Gimli’s pride than Legolas’s smug word games. It would be necessary to work with Thranduil’s intolerable son for yet a little longer until vengeance against Elrond’s intolerable twins could be enacted. And unfortunately, it would probably be necessary to work with Legolas in denying whatever they did so as to prevent Aragorn’s wrath from descending. After that, though, the way would be free for a dwarven version of retribution.


Perhaps I should tunnel beneath his home in Ithilien and destroy the foundation, Gimli mused. That would certainly be entertaining, and were I clever enough, he would never know the true culprit. Or rather, he would know, but he would have no evidence to support his accusations. And it would be difficult for him to retaliate as he is barely able to endure my own home. Aglarond would certainly be safe from elven scheming. Intrigued by this idea, Gimli called up a mental map of Legolas’s home and began examining the surrounding area. He would have to begin tunneling quite a distance away from the court itself, or the elves would find and catch him. And he would have to strike a final blow when none were within the halls so as to avoid injuring anyone. Perhaps he should start near the Ephel Duath. Nay, they patrol those regions too often, the dwarf decided. They would be drawn to any suspicious activity and the game would be up. Near the Anduin? Nay, too much trade. Too far south and we risk alerting the men that have taken up residence there. And though they might help us in our endeavor, they are completely unable to keep a secret.


Frowning, Gimli pursed his lips and began drumming his fingers upon the rock. Where could such a tunnel be started so as to keep its existence a secret from the elves? Would Faramir be willing to take part in such a scheme? If that were the case, the tunnel could be started near Emyn Arnen. But could Faramir’s men be trusted to keep this a secret? It would be a long undertaking as they worked their way through the bedrock. Beregond would be willing, and his lips would remain closed, Gimli mused. Bergil would also enjoy this scheme, but I do not think he could keep word of this from slipping. It will have to be a select few that knew of it, and that will prove difficult. Still, the greatest risk to secrecy would come in beginning the project. After that, the entrance could be hidden and we could work at will, periodically checking direction when none were around. Or perhaps we could create a ruse. Perhaps Faramir wishes to begin a mining project and we would come to aid him. None would think to question that. In fact, we could then position ourselves closer to the elven realm and—


"Gimli, we may have a problem."


Curse elves and their silent feet! Startled into jumping, Gimli swung around and fixed a stern glare on Legolas, who had come up behind him. "Is it too much to ask that elves announce themselves as would any courteous being?!"


A ghost of a smile flickered across the elf’s face, but it vanished quickly. "My apologies for the deaf ears of the dwarves. However, we still have a problem."


Gimli glowered and then looked around. "I thought you went to find Eldarion."


"I did. But it seems that—"


"You did not find him." The dwarf’s face broke out in a broad grin. "Your keen elven senses were unable to find him. You—"


"Gimli!" Legolas interrupted sternly, and something in his voice made Gimli pause. "I did not find him because he is no longer in the courtyard. According to a guard I spoke with, he has gone into the palace."


"The palace? But…you did not find him there?"


"I did not go into the palace. I came back for you because I told the guard that you were with Eldarion and I merely sought your whereabouts. I decided that would be best to hold back alarm and panic."


Gimli frowned. "Alarm and panic?" he echoed.


"Apparently, Elladan and Elrohir were also seen entering the palace. This was shortly after Eldarion went in."


There was a long pause following this announcement. "What would they do?" Gimli asked at length.


"I am reminded of a story my father told about his father. It seems that Oropher in one of the only individuals aside from Lord Celeborn who has been able to make mischief for Galadriel in Lothlórien itself. He kidnapped Celebrían."


Gimli stared at Legolas in astonishment. "Your grandfather kidnapped Elrond’s wife?"


"She was not more than ten at the time and was returned within a day," Legolas answered. "Still, the uproar lasted for centuries."


"I can imagine," Gimli murmured, overwhelmed at the very thought of such a thing. Though I cannot say that this act would be beyond Oropher or any of his descendents. If anyone was to risk angering the Lady of Lothlórien, it would be the foolish elves of Mirkwood.


"Gimli, I believe Elladan and Elrohir may try something similar here in Minas Tirith. It would explain why they have not come after us again. And if they succeed in their plans, then Aragorn is going to be most displeased with you."


This last statement was enough to shake the dwarf from his inner thoughts concerning the sheer audacity and stupidity of Legolas’s sires. "Me!?" Gimli gifted his friend with an expression of pure outrage and indignation. "I was not watching him alone, Master Elf! You are just as responsible as I!"


"Nay, Aragorn specifically gave Eldarion over to you. He was your responsibility. I suggest you either find him quickly or become missing yourself."


"I will not take the blame for this alone!" Gimli shot back, his anger mounting. "Valar, Legolas, are you losing your elvish hearing?! When making his request to watch Eldarion, Aragorn included your name as well. My name. Your name. Gimli. Legolas. Me. You. Two different names. Two different individuals. Both responsible for one small prince. And if we do not find that one small prince before a pair of arrogant Imladris lords do, then we are both going to be mûmakil fodder!"


A long silence fell during which elf and dwarf traded dark glares. Eventually, Legolas looked away and sighed. "This is pointless and we waste valuable time by standing here. We must begin the search."


"And where do we search?" Gimli asked, still fuming but grateful that Legolas seemed to be accepting responsibility. "Where do elven children go when they run away?"


"Elven children do not run away."


"Oh?" Gimli’s eyebrows arched, and though he knew time was of the essence, he could not quite forego this opportunity. After all, Legolas had already exasperated him several times that day. Some retribution had to be made in order to preserve the dwarf’s sanity. "I seem to remember you telling me about a time in Mirkwood when—"


"If they do run away, it is for very good reasons," Legolas interrupted quickly.


"A desire to avoid your lessons was a very good reason?"


The elf sent Gimli a withering glare. "As I said before, we are wasting time. Eldarion did not run away. Rather, he sought a better hiding place than what the garden could offer and decided to seek it in the palace. He could be anywhere. It will be difficult if not impossible to find him."


"My thanks for your words of comfort," Gimli growled.


"I did not intend to comfort you. I intended to portray the situation accurately."


Gimli clenched his fists in frustration. "Very well. Now that all things are portrayed accurately, what do you propose we do?


"I propose that we slip into the palace using the servants’ entrances and then we separate. We ask after Eldarion and also after the twins. If you are questioned, say that Eldarion is with me. If I am questioned, I shall say he is with you. None shall be the wiser, and Valar willing, we will find the crown-prince before Elladan and Elrohir do. But we must act quickly and above all else, we must act quietly! Great discretion is required. In fact, this situation might call for your dwarven expertise in the art of subtle deception," Legolas concluded with forced levity.


Muttering a rather foul dwarven curse beneath his breath, Gimli pushed past the elf and walked out of the gardens. "And what happens if we cannot find Eldarion or if Elladan and Elrohir find him first?" he asked as Legolas fell into step beside him.


The elf grimaced and looked away. "In that event, we should probably hearken to the voice of discretion. I would suggest running."

 

Chapter Text

 


…………


Good morning!
What do you mean? Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?

Bilbo and Gandalf—The Hobbit (An Unexpected Party)


…………



 


Arcing bridges of white stone flashed high overhead, creating a rather bewildering display of light as the sun appeared and disappeared behind the arches. They journeyed quickly on horseback with many bumps and jolts, though it was evident that the man charged with his wellbeing was taking as much care as he could. Still, it seemed strange that there should be such a fuss. Aside from a horrendous pounding in the back of his head, he felt fine. Well, perhaps fine was not the best term to use. Dizzy would work. So would disoriented. Bewildered, confused, and lost also came to mind as apt descriptions of his current state. But after seeing a woman that challenged the beauty of the stars themselves, bewildered, confused, and lost were minor irritants.


Glancing about in the hopes that the mysterious woman had followed him, he winced as he moved his head too quickly and felt the throbbing pain behind his eyes escalate violently. His vision blurred and the sound of hooves echoing off stone streets pounded through his head. Where was he being taken? And where had he been to begin with? Not that he was in any condition to resist these men. He had a rather strong suspicion that he would swoon the moment he attempted to take any substantial actions of his own. And he didn’t feel as though he was in any danger, thus eliminating any need to escape in the near future. But how can I trust my feelings when I am not even certain of my own identity? He paused at this thought and felt a twinge of frustration. All creatures have identities. Surely I must have one. They called me something. Something…Eomer? His face creasing in a frown, he murmured the name quietly, feeling it roll off his tongue. Eomer. It sounded…right. And since he was quite unsure of anything else at the moment, he latched on to this name quickly, binding it to his soul and whispering it repeatedly as though to assure himself that he did have a place in this world. Exactly what that place was…well, that was another matter.


Turning his attention back to his surroundings and once more looking for the beautiful woman, Eomer watched as they wove their way through hushing crowds. His eyes were keen, and he was quick to notice that his group was drawing a good deal of attention. Nay, not the group, he suddenly realized with something of a shock. I am the one drawing the attention. The people are staring at me. Uncomfortable with the scrutiny, Eomer looked about for something that might strike him as familiar, but the many shops, taverns, and walls that met his eyes were strange and foreign. He did not feel at home here. He did not feel like an intruder, but he was very certain that he did not belong in this stone city. He belonged…where did he belong?


The horse was suddenly brought to a halt, and Eomer could not hold back a low moan as his vision blurred once again and the pain in his head became a blinding agony. Voices rose around him, and he felt himself lifted down from the horse. His hand brushed against the animal’s sweaty coat, and Eomer found himself wondering why there should be so much perspiration. Not enough grain, he decided, turning his attention to the horse’s breathing. He should not be so winded from so short a run. It must be a lack of grain. ‘Tis no wonder his stride was so uneven. He has had greens enough and now needs something more sustaining. Corn, perhaps, would be good if they plan to use this horse for messengers. And here, Eomer stopped, confused. How was it that he could so easily determine the horse’s ailment and feel so confident of his diagnosis? For there was no doubt in his mind as to the chief cause of the problem or what the solution should be. It would seem I know something of horses, he decided. Interesting. I suppose it is a rather useless bit of trivia at the moment, but it is interesting nonetheless. Every creature must have a hobby. Mine apparently involves horses.


Eomer would have continued to study this seemingly innate knowledge, but hands were suddenly about him, lifting him and carrying him forward. His contact with the horse was lost, and Eomer felt as though something familiar had just been taken from him. Then the world fell dark as he moved through a tall doorway and into winding halls. The scent of many strange herbs caught his sudden attention, and his mind identified this as a place of healing. Feelings of instant rebellion rose in his heart, and he began to struggle, not knowing why he should feel so leery of a healer’s care but deciding that these feelings were too strong to question. Doubting one’s instincts only led to trouble. He could not say where this conviction came from, but he trusted it completely and knew it to be truth.


Reacting to his struggles, the hands upon him tightened and a voice ordered him to cease. But the idea of being commanded by another stirred even more feelings of rebellion, and thoroughly disgusted by his situation, Eomer began to fight in earnest. He jerked himself to the right, feeling the men carrying him stagger at this sudden shift in weight. With his opponents off-balance, Eomer lurched forward, dragging himself upright and squeezing his eyes shut against the blinding pain in his head. He did not need to see in order to escape, for his body seemed to know exactly what to do. Once his feet hit the ground, he turned and swept one arm outward while keeping the other close to his body should he need to fend off a blow. His fist connected solidly with someone’s jaw, and as his victim fell, Eomer changed tactics yet again, seizing the man and using him as a living shield against any who sought to charge him.


Backing against a wall with his hostage held firmly immobile before him, Eomer opened his eyes and hissed as his headache became even larger. The world spun wildly, but he was not about to let himself be taken by these healers. They were naught but trouble. Leaning against his hostage and assuring himself that his hold around the man’s neck and head was secure, Eomer eyed those who sought to capture him and began looking for a method of escape.


"Eomer!"


The stern voice immediately caught his attention, and against his will, Eomer felt his eyes drawn toward a man now striding toward them with firm, determined steps. Gray eyes flashed in what seemed to be a strange combination of frustration and resignation, and jaw muscles tightened as though biting back scathing words. Rebellion surged again in Eomer’s heart, but even as it did so, something in the face of this man drove these feelings back.


"Eomer, release that guard."


Before he even knew what he was doing, Eomer dropped his arms and stepped to the side, allowing his captive to stagger forward. The logical portion of his mind screamed at him, demanding to know why he had done such a thing, but he could give it no answer that made sense. He only knew that this was a man to be obeyed without question. A sliver of annoyance edged its way into his mind at this thought and he wondered why anyone should deserve unquestioning obedience, but this rebellious inkling was too small to be of any use in escaping the gaze of this man.


"My thanks," the other said, his voice filled with what might have been reluctant amusement. He approached Eomer slowly, much as one might approach a wild animal, and held out his hand. "Come. You are not well."


"I am well enough," Eomer answered, but he did not back away.


The dark-haired man snorted at this and shook his head, his gaze turning inward for a moment. "And they say elves are bad patients," he murmured before raising his voice and once again addressing Eomer. "Believe me when I say that you are less than hale, my friend. Come. It would be best if we found a place where you might lie quietly."


"I have no wish to lie quietly," Eomer said, but he still could not seem to move away.


"I am hardly surprised," the other retorted. "Nevertheless, you should not be up and about in your condition." His hand fell upon Eomer’s shoulder and he gently pulled him away from the wall. "Let me help you."


Eomer stiffened, his rebellion once again rising. He would obey this man to a point, but no further. And his wariness concerning the healers was still strong. "I assure you that I am fine," he warned through clenched teeth.


"And I assure you that you are not," came the answer, now tinged with rising impatience. "Now come with me before I—"


"King Elessar, might I have a moment with him?"


Eomer flinched violently, having forgotten that others were in the room, and then he clutched his head as the pounding agony behind his eyes flared back into life. He felt hands upon his arms seeking to steady him, but he pulled back and shook them off, all the while moaning quietly and willing his pain to cease. Bracing himself against the wall, he felt those around him withdraw, but the low hum of hushed conversation told him that they were still near.


"Eomer?"


The gentle voice was difficult to ignore, and Eomer eased his eyes open slowly. He found himself staring back into a face that was so familiar he felt he might have been looking into a mirror. A woman stood before him, her hair the color of burnished gold and her eyes flashing like moonlight upon a polished blade. An overwhelming sense of kinship washed through Eomer, and as she placed a gentle hand upon his shoulder, he felt himself relaxing despite his fears.


"I know you," he whispered, his hand reaching up to cover hers.


"And I you," she said. "Do you trust me?"


"Yes," he answered, not understanding his sudden change in feeling but willing to accept it.


A smile flashed across her face, but it was strained and lacking in real mirth. She was tense and uneasy, and Eomer was overcome by the need to comfort her. Too long had she endured the darkness and too long had fear haunted her bower. She was meant to be free and happy. She had more than earned it.


"Walk with me," she commanded, taking his elbow and turning him away from the crowd in the hallway. "There is much that must be done."


Eomer allowed this lady to lead him forward, somehow knowing that whatever plans she held in her heart, they were for his wellbeing. He felt as though he had protected this woman for years and that she had done the same for him, though the methods of protection differed greatly. How this was, he could not say, but he was convinced that such was the case. And so he willingly gave himself over to her care, an honor he would bestow upon no other. He would follow her no matter where her course led, and he would—


Eomer’s thoughts and sense of familiarity abruptly vanished as he caught sight of a figure standing to the side. Stopping cold, he felt fire rush through his veins, and his breath caught in his throat. The woman who held his arm turned, her face showing confusion, but Eomer was no longer aware of her existence. All noble intentions of standing beside his kinswoman disappeared in the face of the dark-haired enchantress he’d seen while out on the field.


"My lady," he breathed, his eyes wide as he stared at the flawless face framed by hair as deep as midnight. Her skin was pale, her eyes glittered with stars, and the slight tug of a repressed smile upon her full lips almost sent Eomer to his knees. "My lady, I did not know you had come."


Had Eomer been more attentive to his surroundings, he would have immediately noticed the change in atmosphere. The hallway seemed to darken and several faces clouded in anger. Orders were barked sharply and hands suddenly fell upon Eomer’s arms, but he took no note of these things. He had eyes only for the vision before him, for indeed, what else could this creature be save for a vision? She was the embodiment of perfection come to grace the cheerless earth with a moment of priceless beauty. She was a treasure beyond treasure, with neither equal nor rival. None could touch her. None could draw close to her. All the kings of men arrayed in all the splendor of their glory and renown could never hope to hold a candle to such natural grace. To such ageless wisdom. To such perilous beauty…


A sharp stinging in his shoulder jolted Eomer from his trance, and survival instincts somehow managed to overcome infatuation. Turning his head to the side, he stiffened as he saw a dart of some kind being pulled from his skin. His eyes flashing in anger, he looked up to discover that the culprit was the man who had spoken to him earlier. King Elessar, his mind recalled, and he moved to defend himself, outraged at the interruption. But much to his dismay, his limbs were heavy and would not obey his commands. He felt himself falling, and the king who had drugged him stepped forward to support his weight, though it seemed that he did so reluctantly. Eyes the color of fierce storm clouds glared out at him from beneath lowered brows, and Eomer wondered exactly what he had done to incite such rage. He opened his mouth to speak, but he no longer had the strength to voice words. The surrounding world started to dim, and his head lolled to the side as he lost control of his body.


"Believe me when I say that we will speak of this again and at length," a taut voice promised grimly, and then darkness fell, banishing Eomer to a dreamless world of shadows.


* * * *


With the forlorn look of a lost kitten that has inadvertently stumbled into a puddle of water, Pippin backed away from the locked pantry door and turned beseechingly to Merry. Had the situation not been so serious, Merry might have laughed. Pippin appeared utterly devastated. But then, Merry knew that he probably wore a very similar expression himself. Beyond the door before them, a menagerie of smells taunted their senses and teased their hunger. But the lock was a strong one, and not even Pippin’s nimble fingers had managed to crack it.


"It wouldn’t surprise me if Arwen herself held the key to the door," Merry sighed when Pippin started to play with the lock again.


"I don’t understand how she could do this to us," Pippin murmured.


"You saw what Elladan and Elrohir did to Gimli," Merry shrugged, attempting to take the situation in stride despite the complaints of his belly. "And you heard Legolas telling Gimli what he did down on the Pelennor. Or rather, what was going to be done on the Pelennor. Based on all that, should we really be surprised?"


"But this is Arwen!" Pippin protested, tugging vainly on the door’s handle. "I thought she was…above all that."


"Then I guess we both thought wrong," Merry answered with a grim shake of his head. "And you can quit trying, Pippin, because we’re not getting into that pantry without the key."


"I don’t see you doing anything useful," his cousin retorted.


"Then you aren’t looking closely enough. I’m thinking." Ignoring Pippin’s look of disbelief at this statement, Merry backed away from the door and studied it for a moment before turning and examining the walls. "The door is wooden," he said at length. "The walls are stone. And between the two of us, we should be able to move everything out of the way so that nothing else is damaged and things can be contained. And we’ve got the wine to help us start."


Pippin frowned and narrowed his eyes. "If you’re suggesting what I think you’re suggesting, then maybe I should suggest that you suggest something else."


"But Pippin, if we—"


"No!" the other hobbit said firmly. "Absolutely not. I know all about the Brandybucks and your fires. You’re too eager to use them and you always overdo it. Why, just think of the Old Forest! The trees planted themselves near the Hedge, and what did you do? You tried to burn the entire place down."


"That was a long time ago," Merry reasoned.


"Not long enough ago. The Brandybucks still have this unusual need for fire. And didn’t you try to do it again a few years ago? I heard that the flames swept out of control and almost reached—"


"The stories were exaggerated," Merry interrupted quickly. "There were Bolgers helping at the time who didn’t understand that we had everything under control."


"I see," Pippin said, nodding complacently. "Then I suppose that those homes near the southern end of the Hedge were destroyed in a completely different fire that happened to take place during the same time that you were trying to burn down the Old Forest."


"We weren’t trying to burn down the Old Forest!" Merry exclaimed. "We were just trying to teach it a lesson. It’s not as if there are any Ents to watch over the trees like in Fangorn. It was getting too dangerous again, and the Bonfire Glade was completely overgrown."


"And there you have it," Pippin said triumphantly. "Only a family possessed of an unhealthy obsession with fire would name a clearing the ‘Bonfire Glade.’"


"It was a fitting name!"


"It struck the rest of us as a bit of Bywater humor."


Merry rolled his eyes and turned away. Attempting to explain methods of dealing with the Old Forest to anyone who didn’t actually live next to it was quite hopeless. The Tooks were usually more accepting than most, but even they could never understand what it meant to have rather ill intentioned trees living just on the other side of the Hedge. "We’ll do this your way, then," he said, making a mental note to bring up the possibility of fire once Pippin’s idea failed. "How do you propose we get into the pantry since you’re against my plan?"


"I don’t know yet," Pippin answered. "But give me a moment or two to look around and I’m certain that I can come up with something."


This prompted a rude and rather derisive snort on Merry’s part, but Pippin chose to ignore him, moving away from the locked pantry door and examining the rest of the cellar. Predicting that he would be here for a while, Merry clambered up on one of the wine barrels, dusted it off, and sat down. From his perch, he could see that there was actually quite a bit of dust on the casks, which meant they’d been here for a while. That seemed odd to him. Why wouldn’t this drink be used? Mirkwood made extremely fine wine if one could handle its potency. Of course, its potency was something of a legend and had gotten many of them into trouble once, so perhaps it was understandable that Strider would be reluctant to serve it. After all, it wouldn’t do to have ministers and governors staggering about the Citadel in a drunken and somewhat giddy stupor.


A sudden rumbling sound in the pit of his stomach interrupted Merry’s musings on wine and brought him back to their current predicament. He was starting to get hungry, which was definitely not a good thing since they couldn’t seem to get their hands on any food. And lunch was still several hours away. Beyond that, they would have to journey down to the Pelennor for it, and Merry didn’t know if they could make such a long trip on an empty stomach. While it was true that they’d traveled further distances on shorter rations, it didn’t seem necessary to make such a sacrifice when there was perfectly good food stored only one room away. One very inaccessible room away, the hobbit amended grimly.


"Merry?"


Merry turned toward Pippin, hoping that his cousin might have found something, only to freeze as a shiver of fear crawled down his spine. Not this! Please not this! Of all the problems to face today, why did it have to be this?! Pippin had a look about him that suggested a combination of boredom, frustration, and a slight twinge of curiosity. It was an extremely unnerving look, particularly when considering the circumstances in which it had previously appeared. Pippin had worn that expression just before he dropped a pebble into the well in Moria. He’d also worn it the night he’d stolen the palantír from Gandalf and eventually came face to face with the Dark Lord himself. As a result, seeing this look upon Pippin’s face gave Merry great cause for alarm, and he wondered if it might not actually have been safer to stay on the Pelennor Fields. True, elven pranks were abroad this day, but elven pranks were nothing compared to Pippin when he set his mind on something. Or perhaps I could sneak into Ithilien and climb up to Cirith Ungol. Sam was wondering just how many steps were on that trail. I could count them for him. That should be long enough for Pippin to get into trouble and back out again.


"Merry, it’s become clear to me that simple measures will not work. We will have to do something drastic."


Merry inwardly cringed at these words. Cirith Ungol, he decided. I will definitely be climbing the trail to Cirith Ungol. I’m sure it will be good exercise.


"Arwen seems to be thinking one step ahead of us, so that means we’ll have to change our strategy. We need to think one step ahead of her, which means two steps ahead of us. So we have to plan our next two ideas completely and then skip to the last one."


I might even become famous as the hobbit that counted all the steps.


"Of course, Arwen could already be two steps ahead, which means we need to be on the third step. And if we add a fourth step just to be on the safe side, I won’t say that’s a bad idea. But we shouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves or we might circle back and accidentally use the first idea, which is what Arwen would be counting on."


But what if some of the steps are broken? Should I count those as half a step or a whole step? And what about different sized steps? Should they be counted as something different? Perhaps I ought to count all the stairs separately. If anyone wants a total, they can add them together later.


"Merry, are you listening?"


"Steps," Merry answered, still going over the problems of accurately recording the trail to Cirith Ungol. "You were talking about steps."


"Well?"


Merry blinked. Pippin usually talked himself out of his inane plans by the end of the monologue. Asking for input before deciding that the plan was a waste of time—or even revealing the crux of the planet itself—was something of a rarity. Consequently, Merry had only noted that he and Pippin both seemed to be thinking about steps but that they were considering them in vastly different contexts. And at the moment, Merry could not say exactly what Pippin had been thinking about doing with his steps. "I…believe we might want to consider other options," Merry said at length. It was a safe answer and undoubtedly sound advice, given Pippin’s usual plans.


"You weren’t listening, were you?"


Well, it would have been a safe answer fifteen years ago, but Pippin had grown significantly since the War of the Ring and had developed a strange ability for determining whether or not others were being completely honest with him. "Sorry, Pippin," Merry confessed. "I suppose I wasn’t. What were you saying?"


With a long-suffering sigh and a shake of his head, Pippin folded his arms across his chest and tapped one foot. "This is serious business, Merry. We can’t take this insult lightly."


"I know, and I’m sorry. Would you tell me again what you were saying?"


There was a pause during which Pippin stared at his cousin with a look that Merry assumed was reproach. But it was difficult to tell because some of the lanterns near the stairway were burning low, and the rumblings of his empty stomach were becoming distracting. Beyond that, Pippin had never been very good at giving reproachful looks despite the vast number of times he’d been on the receiving end of said looks. The current glare resembled indigestion as much as it resembled reproach. Nevertheless, Merry tried to appear properly contrite—hoping that contrite was the desired response—and eventually Pippin sighed again and continued. "I was saying that we seem to be one step behind Arwen so it would now be best to think at least two steps ahead. Three might be even better."


Merry blinked. "And how are we going to go about that?"


"It’s really quite simple. We’ll plan out our next steps and then skip all of them except for the last one."


Rubbing his brow, Merry frowned and thought the idea over. "Let me give you an example and you tell me if you still think this will work," he said after a long pause. "I’m going to float my boat down the Brandywine. First, I will get in my boat and check to see that it’s in good condition. Then I will cast off. Then I will start rowing, steering around obstacles when I come to them. When I reach my destination, I will find a dock, get out, and tie my boat up. If I understand you correctly, you’re suggesting that I skip everything except the part where I get out of the boat and secure it."


"Exactly."


"Pippin, I can’t get out of the boat if I’ve never gotten in! And I certainly can’t tie it to a dock it’s never reached."


"Yes, but Arwen doesn’t know that."


Merry stared at his cousin and wondered what had brought on this sudden madness. "Perhaps you’d better lie down."


Pippin rolled his eyes. "Think about it, Merry! Arwen will be expecting you to cast off and row down the Brandywine. She’ll have set things up so that one event leads to another. But what if we skip ahead? Find another way around so that we don’t trigger anything in between?"


"As in carrying the boat overland?"


"Something like that."


"Sounds like a lot of work."


"With a boat, it would be," Pippin agreed. "But we’re not working with a boat and we’re not back in Buckland. That’s the Anduin out there, not the Brandywine."


"I think we’d better change stories, then."


Pippin shook his head. "No, we’ve already wasted enough time. Come on. We have things to do. I’ve planned out our next steps, and I know what we’d do last. So we’re going to do that first."


"Wait," Merry called as Pippin headed for the stairs. "You know what we’re going to do next? What about me? What if I would do something different?"


"Arwen would be expecting you to take the lead. Therefore, I have to be the one doing the deciding."


"Ah." Merry debated about making further attempts to understand Pippin’s twisted line of reasoning but ultimately decided that such a tactic could only result in trouble. He would simply have to sit back and try to keep the damage to a minimum. And with this in mind, he hurried after his cousin, thinking that if nothing else, the rest of the day would be interesting.


* * * *


Though he could be fiercely independent from time to time, Prince Elfwine of Rohan was usually not too proud to admit that he was young and had seen very little of the world. There were yet many mysteries to be discovered and many realms to explore. However, Elfwine was reasonably confident that what he witnessed now was something that even the weathered Marshall beside him had never seen, and he doubted that he would ever see it again. A rival stallion that knowingly challenged the chief of the Mearas was either overly confident, hopelessly foolish, or a combination of both. None of the studs throughout the Riddermark would dare take such a risk, and all the horses in Gondor and the surrounding area were too frightened of Shade to place themselves in such danger. But it seemed that horses of the Eldar were not so constrained, and Elfwine watched in amazement and fear as the smaller of the two elven stallions sped toward an outraged Shade.


Piercing screams hit the air as the horses raced for one another, and then the bay stallion leaped the fence that separated the breeding mares from the rest of the herd. Almost he seemed to float over it, and he landed well, resuming his pace and stride with all the grace of the elves that he served.


"Eorl’s balls!" Elfhelm swore violently, and Elfwine blinked, grateful that his mother was not present to hear such language.


"What can we—"


"Naught," Elfhelm answered the prince, slowing his pace. "We can only wait. Should any interfere now, it is likely that they would be killed."


Slowing his own frantic run to match the other’s pace, Elfwine shook his head in disbelief. "But—"


"We cannot step between those two lest we be trampled in the process. And Shade will not let any incursion into his herd go unchallenged. We can do nothing!" Elfhelm spat. He turned and motioned to other riders, signaling them to create a loose half-circle around the closing stallions. "We can only hope that the bay horse retreats, and if he does retreat, he must retreat far enough for our ropes to snare him. If not, Shade will kill him before he allows us to take him away."


"Kill him?! Why would—"


But Elfwine was not allowed to finish his question, for Shade and the bay had quite literally collided with one another, ramming shoulders together with a sickening crunch. The harsh sound of their impact echoed off the Rammas Echor, and twin screams of rage tore through the morning air. Shade reared, his forelegs flashing and his teeth bared, but in a surprising display of ingenuity and innovation, the bay took advantage of his own small size and scooted beneath the taller stallion. Flailing hooves clipped his back, but the elven horse took no notice and squared about as soon as he cleared the other, lashing out with his back legs and registering a solid hit on Shade’s hindquarters.


Elfwine felt his breath catch in his throat as Shade stumbled to the side, but the chief of the Mearas quickly regained his balance and lashed out with his own hind legs, striking the elven horse in the shoulder and driving him back. Whirling upon one another, the horses tossed their heads and screamed, leaping back and forth in mock charges as they evaluated one another’s health.


"Elfhelm…" Elfwine hissed.


"We can do nothing until Shade feels himself avenged," Elfhelm answered, his voice betraying his own frustration. "If we interfere now, he will turn on us."


"If we do nothing, they might kill one another," Elfwine answered.


"Both are too wise for that. One shall back away before that happens."


Had Elfhelm sounded even remotely confident of this statement, Elfwine might have been reassured. As it was, though, his fear only grew. But he was not given the chance to pursue the conversation, for a new voice was suddenly added to the scene. Forgotten for the moment by all involved, the taller black stallion now joined the fray, his challenging screaming ringing strong across the Pelennor and his pounding hooves swiftly closing the distance between himself and the other combatants.


Shade screamed an answer and whirled to face the newcomer while the bay stallion whinnied shrilly and charged the chief of the Mearas. Shade turned back to face his first opponent and the two horses reared, striking out at one another. Then the bay lunged forward and shoulders met. The two horses reared again, their necks snaking together and their forelegs failing wildly. And in the background, the pounding thud of approaching hooves grew louder and louder as the second elven horse approached. A ripple of fear went through the surrounding riders, but as Elfhelm had said, there was nothing that could be done until dominance was established by one of the participants. And so Elfwine watched in growing horror the bay stallion and Shade pressed against one another, biting and kicking, while the black horse charged.


What happened next was so unexpected and so fast that Elfwine had to mentally reconstruct it afterwards. In a blur of confusion and hooves, the sounds of a collision were heard and then the dust cleared, revealing a rolling bay horse, a snorting black horse, and a very confused Mearas chieftain.


Apparently as bewildered as everyone else, the bay surged to his feet and stomped before screaming and rearing. But the black elven stallion leaped at him, catching his chest with his own and pushing him back by sheer virtue of superior size. In the meantime, Shade snorted loudly and also reared, clearly issuing a challenge to both elven steeds. But the black horse was resolute and continued to push the bay away from Shade. And for his part, the bay seemed to grudgingly accept this intervention, though it was obvious that he was less than pleased with the situation.


"Never in all my years have I seen anything like that," Elfhelm murmured.


"Now we can send riders in, correct?" Elfwine hissed, keeping his voice down so as not to alarm the horses.


"We may not have to. The elven horses seem to be coming to us."


And Elfhelm was right. It was, perhaps, one of the strangest sights any of them had ever seen. The bay snorted and reared periodically, his head swiveling back and forth between the black elven horse and Shade. Shade did not move from his spot, but he would stomp the earth and toss his head, occasionally loosing a challenging scream. But the black horse was studiously ignoring him and steadily pressing his companion toward the waiting Rohirrim, who stood with ropes and halters ready.


"Call Shade."


Elfwine blinked and looked up at the Marshall. "What?"


"Call Shade. Distract him. Get his attention away from those two."


The crown-prince of Rohan nodded and took a small step forward, his eyes focused upon the chief of the Mearas. "Shade? Shade, hear me. Come, my friend. You need not stand there."


Shade’s ears flicked and he turned dark eyes upon Elfwine, almost as though he was uncertain of the situation. Unfortunately, this action did not go unnoticed by the bay stallion, who whistled sharply and attempted to charge him. The black horse held him back, but Shade was already whirling about, rushing the two and crying out in challenge. Now the black elven horse turned and reared, though he made certain he was blocking his companion’s path as he did so. His shrill whinny carried overtones of warning but also something of a plea. Shade skidded to a halt and snorted, his head tossing and his forelegs pawing at the ground. The bay horse attempted to leap around the black one, but his friend was ready for him and quickly dropped to the ground and shouldered him back, making no pretense about being gentle. And his shove managed to push the bay into range of the riders.


A rope sailed through the air, neatly looping about the bay’s thick neck, and it was quickly pulled tight. The stallion screamed and reared, but the black reared as well, knocking him back to the ground and pushing him even closer to the men. Apparently having enough of this treatment from one who should have been an ally, the bay bared his teeth and snapped, grazing the other’s neck. And then a second rope was seen, falling onto the black horse and jerking him away from his companion. Shade neighed loudly, but fortunately for all involved, he made no move to interfere. He seemed satisfied with what was happening, though his posture made it clear that he was still tense and angry.


"My lord, your orders?" a rider called, struggling to keep the bay horse under control. The black stallion was allowing himself to be led away with something of an ill grace, but his companion seemed affronted by the fact that he was being handled by mortals.


"Tether both near the city, and keep them together," Elfhelm answered. "And keep men with them at all times. We cannot risk an escape."


"And what of Shade?" another the rider asked, his voice low so as not to attract the attention of the Mearas chief.


Elfhelm grimaced and then turned toward Elfwine. "My prince, when you feel it is safe—and only when you feel it is safe—I would have you go to Shade and lead him back to his paddock. But give him time to cool his temper first! And if he wishes to visit the mares, allow him to do so. We can certainly remove a few from the breeding herd if it will aid in assuaging his anger. We will probably have to remove some of them anyway thanks to our elven friends."


"It may take some time before he will allow any to handle him," Elfwine murmured.


"You are probably correct."


Elfwine frowned, his young brow furrowing. "And what of my father? I must know how he fares."


"You will," Elfhelm answered. "But as I said before, we have duties that cannot lightly be dismissed. We both must wait."


"I thought you said Arhelm would be here soon."


"He may have been sent on some errand or other by King Elessar," Elfhelm said quietly. "If that is the case, it will take time for Fréalaf to find him."


"And until he comes, we must wait," Elfwine said bitterly.


"We wait, and we tend to such duties as come to us," Elfhelm answered firmly. "But we can also take action to ease our fears," he added, his face softening into a smile. He then turned back to the rider who’d asked about Shade. "Send more men out in search of Arhelm. He is to report here immediately. Also, send others to seek out the king and ask after his condition. If he is hale, they are to tell him of what has happened here."


"By your command, my lord," the rider said. "Do you have anything else you wish done?"


"Yes," Elfhelm said slowly his eyes narrowing. "Before you go, have someone look through our supplies for a gelding iron. I feel the king may want one close at hand when he learns of what has happened. Dismissed!"


"Those stallions are stud horses of Rivendell," Elfwine protested even as the rider hurried off. "My father would never go so far as to—"


"I did not say the gelding iron would be for the horses."

 


 

Chapter Text

 


…………


Hurray! Here is our noble cousin. Make way for Frodo, Lord of the Ring!
Hush. Evil things do not come into this valley; but all the same, we should not name them. The Lord of the Ring is not Frodo, but the master of the Dark Tower, whose power is again stretching out all over the world! We are sitting in a fortress. Outside it is getting dark.
Gandalf has been saying many cheerful things like that. He thinks I need keeping in order.

Pippin and Gandalf—The Fellowship of the Ring (Many Meetings)


…………

 


Elrohir was impressed.


He was also frustrated.


He was far more frustrated than he was impressed.


Elrohir considered himself rather skilled as a hunter, and rightfully so. He had been taught by some of the finest elves in Middle-earth, and he was a good student. Whether it was following a trail, choosing a location for an ambush, or actually making the kill, Elrohir was known as one of the most adept hunters in all of Imladris. And considering the competition, that said quite a bit. Of course, Elladan was sometimes given more of the glory. And in all fairness, Elrohir would concede that his brother was usually better at finding the trail. Occasionally, Elladan’s uncanny intuition would also cause him to nock his arrows before everyone else, sometimes giving him the first shot and consequently the kill. Those were the things that other hunters remembered, and thus it was understandable why some might view Elladan as more skilled than his twin. But as talented as his brother was, no one could match Elrohir for strategy and accuracy. He had a gift for guessing the minds of others and anticipating their movements. His ambush tactics alone would have won him limitless renown among the greatest mortal hunters. And when he loosed an arrow, it almost never failed to hit the mark. His skills formed the backbone to any hunting party, for while Elladan might endlessly trail an animal, Elrohir could bring it within range. After all, what good was the world’s best tracker if his quarry simply stayed one step ahead of him?


But at the moment, Elrohir, renowned warrior of Rivendell and arguably one of Middle-earth’s greatest hunters, found himself completely baffled. The talents he had developed, honed, and perfected over centuries of training did him no good, and he was struggling to control a rising surge of exasperation and anger. Had he been looking for anyone else, Elrohir might not have felt so upset. But when his target was a four-year-old boy…


This is Estel’s doing, he decided grimly. He has started teaching Eldarion already, and this is the result. The boy has learned to disappear within his own home, and I am not familiar enough with these halls to know where his favorite hiding places might be. My apologies, Arwen, but I fear that your husband is no longer safe. Training Eldarion shows anticipation of this day as well as a malicious desire to thwart our fun.


The thought did occur to Elrohir that perhaps Aragorn had not specifically trained Eldarion to hide from his uncles but rather had trained him in the art of stealth as would any father who had once roamed with the Rangers. It was possible that Eldarion was now simply putting that training to use in a game against Legolas and Gimli and was not deliberately involved in the New Year’s Eve festivities. In fact, the more he considered it, the more likely this scenario seemed.


Still, Elrohir groused, whatever his intentions were, it cannot be denied that Estel’s teachings now stand in my way, and for that, Estel must suffer. Training Eldarion was a vile move that I would expect only of Orcs and Mirkwood elves.


A slight smile crept over Elrohir’s face when he envisioned what Legolas might say about that last thought. Having fought a losing battle against the power of Dol Guldur for so many years, the elves beneath Thranduil’s command had become rather sensitive about comments that compared them to creatures of the Dark Lord. Suggestions that the elves of Mirkwood were in any way connected to the Orcs that roamed their forests would cause even their most tolerant warriors to fly into a homicidal rage. Naturally, this prompted the younger elves of Imladris to devote entire afternoons to the crafting of inventive insults for their Silvan counterparts, ranging from basic biological comparisons to sophisticated wordplays that made reference to genealogy and mating preference. Elladan and Elrohir had introduced Legolas to some of the more creative insults in the years following the destruction of the Ring, and the results had been exhilarating. The twins had learned just how quickly and accurately Legolas could throw his favorite hunting knife in addition to just how far this blade could sink into supposedly hard wood. The twins were now careful to voice their insults only when they had a clear opportunity for escape.


Elrohir sighed and shook his head. As entertaining as it was to torment Ithilien’s lord, there would be no torment today if he did not find Eldarion. It was ridiculous. Surely it could not be that difficult to locate one small boy! Yet here he was, Rivendell’s finest captain, with no inkling of where Gondor’s young crown-prince might be. The entire situation was so absurd that had he not been in the thick of it, he might have laughed. It was New Year’s Eve and the honor of his house had been challenged by Thranduil’s youngest whelp, but was he allowed to meet the challenge and carry out holiday duties as was his right and responsibility? Nay! Instead, he was blindly searching the mansions of Gondor’s king for a four-year-old child who had apparently received a Ranger’s training in the art of disappearing. It was enough to drive any self-respecting hunter to the ragged edge of sanity! "Orc scion," he muttered darkly.


"I beg your pardon?" an icy voice demanded.


Elrohir froze and blinked, abruptly realizing that his mind had wandered one direction while his feet had wandered another. He was not quite certain how it had happened, for he had believed his senses to be focused on his surroundings. He should have been able to detect another’s presence long before being seen himself, but it seemed that his frustrations had occupied more of his mind than he'd thought. He now stood at one end of a short, richly decorated corridor, and assuming a warrior’s stance at the other end was none other than Legolas.


"Elladan," Elrohir said quickly, watching Legolas’s right hand carefully as it edged toward the knife on his belt. "I was speaking of Elladan."


A skeptically arching brow revealed just how convincing his words were, but at least Legolas did not draw his blade. "Indeed?"


Elrohir nodded in what he hoped was a genuine manner. He could not reveal that the subject of his muttered comments was Eldarion—and also Estel, to a lesser extent—for that would give away his mission. Legolas would be stupid not to have already guessed his mission, but the game still had to be played and his twin would have to bear the brunt of his insult, which only seemed fair since Elladan had taunted him earlier with his vague suggestions of adaptation. "Yes, Elladan," he confirmed. "He and I had a difference of opinion. I fear that I am still harboring some resentment."


"And the fact that you were looking directly at me when you spoke means nothing," Legolas said caustically.


"My mind was wandering," Elrohir protested. "I did not even see you."


"The vaunted son of Elrond, renowned throughout the elven kingdoms as one of the most accomplished warriors known to Middle-earth, did not see me standing little more than a sword thrust away?"


"Anger can blind even the best of us."


Legolas stared at Elrohir for a long minute, his eyes narrowed as though contemplating a spider that he was about to disembowel. But after a moment, the intensity left his gaze and he seemed to accept the explanation, though it did not appear that he believed it. "I do not suppose that you have seen Gimli wandering about," he said, changing topics abruptly.


"Gimli?" Elrohir questioned. He had actually encountered the dwarf a short time ago, and after casually inquiring as to the whereabouts of Legolas and Eldarion, Gimli had informed Elrohir that the two were together but that he was not certain of their location. The lie was so obvious that it was difficult to keep a straight face after that, and Elrohir had ended the conversation quickly, almost fleeing the opposite direction so that his laughter would not be heard. If Legolas intended to keep Gimli as a partner in this game, he would have to instruct the dwarf in the art of deception. "Yes, I have seen Gimli," Elrohir continued, his mind suddenly twisting itself around a new idea. "I met him on the level below this one." He paused as though in reflection and then made a show of looking about. "I found it odd that he did not have Eldarion in his presence, for the crown-prince seems most fond of him. He told me that all was well because you had taken charge of him for the moment, yet he does not seem to be here."


To his credit, Legolas kept his face completely impassive. Only a slight bunching of muscles along the line of his jaw revealed his unease. "Eldarion is now with Gimli again," he answered.


"Then it seems you would have seen the dwarf more recently than I, even though I saw him only a few minutes ago," Elrohir said serenely, enjoying the look of consternation that danced across the other’s eyes. "Surely you did not send Eldarion to him alone."


"Of course not," Legolas scoffed. "But then I left their company on an errand of my own and it seems they have moved."


You are quite good at this, my friend, I will not deny it, Elrohir conceded. Had he not known that Eldarion was currently making complete fools of them all with his ability to hide, he might have considered believing Legolas’s story. He spoke with conviction, and his face betrayed almost nothing. The few signs of concern might have easily been attributed to general fear about what should happen if Elrond’s sons found Gimli and Eldarion without Legolas at their side for protection. "Well, they cannot have gone far in so short a space of time," Elrohir mused, one hand coming up to rub his chin. "If you wish it, I will help you look for them."


"Nay, that will not be necessary," Legolas said quickly. "I have no great need to find them now. It was but a passing whim. However, if you wish me to hunt for Elladan with you, then I will be more than happy to assist. It pains me to know that the two of you are grieved with one another."


Curse you, Legolas. You have been taking lessons from Narsigil again, Elrohir growled silently, thinking of Legolas’s older brother who possessed a remarkable gift for turning conversations and challenges back on themselves. It seems I will not be able to bring you and Gimli together and then inquire after Eldarion. A shame, as that would have made for a truly interesting conversation. "Your offer is a generous one," Elrohir said in answer to Legolas. "But I think it would be better if Elladan and I solved this difficulty on our own."


"As you wish," Legolas said, inclining his head slightly. "And now if you will excuse me, there are things I must tend to."


"By all means," Elrohir answered, stepping to the side and gesturing for Legolas to pass him.


"My thanks," Thranduil’s son said, walking by. "You have my best wishes in solving this dispute with your twin," he added. "Perhaps if you resolve your troubles, we might all enjoy a ride this evening ere dinner." And with that, Legolas disappeared down another corridor.


Elrohir frowned, trying to decipher Legolas’s last words. What was this about a ride before dinner? Was it some kind of strange, cryptic warning? Did Legolas mean that evening would be when he and Gimli would choose to strike? But if that was so, why tip his hand by revealing his intentions? It made no sense. Granted that making no sense was not entirely unusual for Legolas—or any Wood-elf, for that matter—but still…


"My lord?"


For the second time in almost as many minutes, Elrohir was startled to find that he was no longer alone. But this time, it was a servant who surprised him, and indignation flared to life. It was one thing for Legolas to approach unnoticed, for the elves of Mirkwood were famous for their stealth. But for a mortal to elude his senses… Just how distracted am I?! Eldarion could probably walk by without so much as a blink on my part. It is fortunate that Elladan is not present to witness this or I would never hear the end of it. "Yes?" Elrohir asked, turning a rather piercing gaze on the man.


Backing up and seeming to sense that he had somehow caused offense, the servant bowed deeply and averted his eyes, unable to match Elrohir’s gaze. "My lord, the Lord Elladan has sent for you. He requests that you join him in the Queen’s Gardens and that you do so with all possible haste."


Fires of outrage flared to life in Elrohir’s eyes. It was not possible. It was simply not possible. Elladan would only be in the Queen’s Gardens if he had found Eldarion, as that was their appointed meeting place. But how had Elladan discovered the whereabouts of the boy when Elrohir—who was certainly the better strategist—had not? Muttering a quick word of thanks and dismissal to the poor servant who seemed to be trembling in fright before the incensed lord, Elrohir stormed away, all the while trying to fathom how Elladan had accomplished what he could not. This is his way of further taunting me, Elrohir decided. He has done this to spite me. Well, we cannot let that stand. Perhaps not today, but in the future, Elladan will learn that challenging me is not for the faint of heart. And with that thought tucked away in the back of his mind, Elrohir schooled his expression, calmed his emotions, and hastened to meet his brother.


* * * *


It was Faramir’s considered opinion that Elfwine might become king of Rohan before the day was up.


Trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, the steward of Gondor waited in the doorway to the quarters that Eomer had been given in the Houses of Healing and watched the room’s occupants like a hawk, ready to interfere should things get out of hand. And in addition to that, he tried to suppress the tickle of laughter that was building in his throat.


It really wasn’t a matter for humor, but the circumstances and the reactions of those involved were just too much for him. True, there was a danger that Eomer might be seriously harmed, perhaps even permanently marred, but Faramir doubted it. The Rohirrim were too hardheaded to let a knock on the skull rattle their minds for any significant length of time. And Faramir supposed he should have been outraged for his cousin’s sake, but Lothíriel had always been a little too sure of herself and the steward couldn’t quite bring himself to side with her. Besides, he also had familial obligations to Eomer, as he was his brother-in-law. No, taking offense one way or another was too complex a matter for Faramir, and so he had decided to sit back and enjoy the situation while it lasted. He was fairly confident that it would all work out in the end.


Or rather, it would if Aragorn would let it. But the king of Gondor did not seem to be in a forgiving mood.


Here was the one reason that Faramir could not relax and enjoy the situation as it was meant to be enjoyed. Hovering above Eomer’s unconscious form like a demon of death come to collect payment, Aragorn’s imposing figure was silent and still. Far too silent and far too still. After moving Rohan’s king here and stripping him of his riding clothes, Aragorn had ordered Arwen and Eowyn to fetch willow bark tea in addition to extract from something called a ginkoto. Faramir was unfamiliar with this second item, but the name suggested it hailed from Rhûn. Regardless of its origins, though, Faramir had determined that he would not allow Aragorn to give any of this ginkoto extract to Eomer without first learning more about its properties. After Arwen’s departure, the king of Gondor had gone completely still and glared at Eomer with a gaze that suggested murder. Nor had he moved since.


Unfortunately, finding an opportune moment to converse with Aragorn concerning the drug was somewhat problematic. The king had an air about him that suggested anyone who questioned his orders might not live to regret it. And while Faramir could understand his anger—he himself would probably gut any man that looked at Eowyn in the way that Eomer had looked at Arwen—the fault did not lie entirely with the king of Rohan. He had lost his memory and then come face to face with the most beautiful woman in all of Middle-earth. And while he could have certainly exercised some restraint in voicing his awe, Eomer had never been one to beat around the bush. Perhaps it was even better this way, for now all things were out in the open and could be dealt with before Eomer decided to act on any of his desires.


Or perhaps I should speak with Eomer about restraint, Faramir sighed when he heard what could only be classified as a low growl coming from Aragorn’s direction.


To be fair, though, Faramir could not be certain that the author of the growl was Aragorn, for standing beside the king of Gondor was Lothíriel. Here was an interesting situation, for in watching her actions, Faramir come to decide that while Lothíriel was quite upset with Eomer, she had more or less forgiven him already. It was a rather bizarre turn of events but not nearly as confusing as the fact that the brunt of Lothíriel’s anger seemed to be directed toward Arwen, who was blameless in Faramir’s eyes. Well, perhaps blameless was not the correct word to use. Like Eomer, she could also use a good lecture on what it meant to exercise restraint. Her reaction to the situation was less than circumspect. But she was certainly not encouraging Eomer in his misguided infatuation. Arwen had not even spoken to him after he was taken from the Pelennor fields. Aragorn did not seem to blame her for what was happening. Why should Lothíriel?


After pondering this question for a moment but arriving at no satisfactory answer, Faramir eventually gave up and turned his thoughts toward his uncle, who stood beside him in the doorway. Imrahil seemed to be mimicking his nephew in attempting to be inconspicuous about his presence. This greatly puzzled Faramir, primarily because he had yet to discern Imrahil’s feelings about what had taken place. The prince of Dol Amroth was as enigmatic as he had ever been, and even Denethor had occasionally been forced to accept the fact that Imrahil was not one to give away his thoughts until he was ready to reveal them. But Faramir could not wait for that. Not now. While he was enjoying this, he was also very aware that severe political complications could arise. If Imrahil chose to take offense with either the king of Rohan or the queen of Gondor on behalf of his daughter, there would be trouble. His vote carried significant weight in the councils of Minas Tirith.


But Imrahil’s face remained impassive, and he completely ignored his nephew’s scrutiny, leaving Faramir to hope for the best as they hovered quietly in the doorway together. Turning his eyes away from Imrahil, the steward once again looked toward Aragorn and wondered what was going through the king’s mind. Was he even aware of the two men standing behind him? Of course he is aware, Faramir told himself with something of a wry laugh. How could one not be aware? We think to be inconspicuous, but when the prince of Dol Amroth and the steward of Gondor block the room’s only entrance, it is difficult to go unnoticed. He knows very well that we are here, and he probably knows our purpose. Or my purpose, at least. Valar only know what Imrahil is currently thinking. So much for subtle observation. Faramir shook his head and sighed, but what else could he have done? He wished to keep a close watch upon Aragorn, Lothíriel, and Eomer, but he also wished to stay far enough away to avoid being caught in any outbursts of temper. And the doorway was the only place to meet both of these objectives. Which brings me back to Imrahil. Why is he standing in the doorway? If he has not my intentions, then I should claim the right to be here. And he was injured upon the fields, though he shows no sign of it now. By all accounts, he should be resting. But of course he will not listen when any tell him that. And I am not going to invite his ill will by insisting he do something that he will not do anyway.


Faramir grimaced and leaned against the doorframe, wondering how much longer this would go on. It felt as though Eowyn and Arwen had been gone for ages. Aragorn had not moved since they left and Imrahil might have been made of stone. Lothíriel was slightly more interesting to watch as her fists would periodically clench and unclench, but this was not much of a distraction.


Normally, the lack of activity in the room would not have been a problem. Faramir was used to long periods of waiting and watching, for that had been his role as captain of the Rangers in Ithilien. But at least then, he had known what emotions and strategies to embrace. He had known the enemy and he had known what reactions to expect, both from the forces of the Nameless One and from his own men. Yet now, he did not know what mindset to invoke because there were too many unknown factors to consider, namely Aragorn, Lothíriel, and Imrahil. Thus, he kept himself painfully balanced between humor and concern, which was no easy thing for Faramir as he liked to have matters settled and done. Once he made a choice, he would stand by it no matter the consequences, but asking Faramir to delay a decision was like asking the Rohirrim to stand still.


The sound of footsteps in the hall drew Faramir’s attention away from the room, and he loosed a quiet sigh of relief when he caught sight of Arwen and Eowyn. But at the same time, he realized that he still knew absolutely nothing about this ginkoto extract and that if he did not act, Aragorn would doubtless use the substance to treat Eomer. And who knew what that would do! Faramir had no real fears that a political assassination was about to take place, but he was concerned that Eomer was about to suffer needless discomfort. The fact that Aragorn had asked for willow bark when there were other pain relievers that lacked such a foul, acidic taste was foundation enough for that fear.


But Aragorn still looked as though he was ready to throttle anyone who spoke out of turn, and Faramir could see no healers close at hand that might be able to answer his questions. Hoping that Eowyn had come across this plant in her own healing studies, Faramir backed out of the doorway and motioned his wife toward him, assuming a position where he could still see both Aragorn and Lothíriel. Eowyn’s face became grave and she handed the cup of willow bark to Arwen, who nodded encouragingly before hurrying toward Eomer’s chambers.


"How does my brother fare?" Eowyn asked worriedly, her voice hushed as she approached Faramir.


"There is no change insofar, as I can tell," he answered, watching as Imrahil stepped back so that Arwen might enter the room. "He is yet asleep and shows no signs of waking."


"I had hoped there would be some improvement," Eowyn murmured.


"There will be," Faramir assured her, continuing his vigil. Aragorn had turned to Arwen and was mixing things in the bowl she had brought while Lothíriel moved closer to her husband. Or perhaps she is moving further away from Arwen, Faramir thought with a slight frown. "Eowyn, what can you tell me of ginkoto?"


"It is a tree in the east," she answered, turning with Faramir to watch Aragorn and Arwen. "The settlers around Lake Nûrnen in Mordor use its nuts to clear their mind of shadows from time to time."


Faramir nodded, digesting this information. The drug sounded promising, and some of his fears concerning Aragorn ebbed away. "Think you that it will restore your brother’s memories?"


"Perhaps," the shieldmaiden answered hesitantly. "But I cannot be certain. Its properties are still somewhat unknown."


Someone moved at Faramir’s side and he started slightly as the prince of Dol Amroth stepped into view, unaware that another had been listening to their conversation. "Then it is safe to use?" Imrahil asked.


"Safe?" Eowyn said, her voice taking on a puzzled tone. "Of course it is safe. We would not use otherwise." Her eyes narrowed and she studied Imrahil. "You do not mean to imply that—"


"I am merely concerned for the wellbeing of Rohan’s king," Imrahil said smoothly, stopping her before she could get any further. "Will you be staying with your brother for a time, my lady?"


"Yes, I will be," Eowyn answered, her gaze still suspicious.


"It is well," Imrahil murmured. "My lord steward, would you walk with me a moment?"


"At your leisure, my lord prince," Faramir said, sharing a confused look with Eowyn.


"My leisure would be now," he said. "If you will excuse us, my lady?"


Eowyn nodded, still looking slightly suspicious and moved toward Eomer’s room. "Of course. Join us when you are able," she said before passing through the doorway.


"If you would accompany me," Imrahil said, turning and walking the other way. They traveled to the end of the hallway before stopping, and then Imrahil turned toward his nephew, his eyes shrewd but otherwise unreadable. "It has not escaped my attention that you find the current situation rather humorous," he stated.


Faramir had spent too long in the service of his father to allow surprise or dismay to show upon his features, but he did groan inwardly. Still, he should have expected this. Imrahil had a talent for reading any mortal as easily as one might read a scroll. "I will admit that certain aspects strike me so," the steward answered.


"Know you your wife’s feelings on the matter?"


Faramir's brow creased slightly. "She is concerned for her brother, but more than that, I cannot say. Until a situation is over, she usually displays no reaction whatsoever."


"And we can clearly see the reactions of our king as well as my daughter."


"Queen Arwen, as well," Faramir added, wondering where this was going and deciding to press for information while they were on this topic. "And you, kinsman? What are your feelings?"


Imrahil pressed his lips together and glanced back toward the room, his eyes narrowing for a brief moment before turning back to Faramir. "I do not believe I have enjoyed myself this much in years."


Had Faramir not been raised to hide his emotions, his jaw would have hit the floor. As it was, he blinked and presented a rather good imitation of a landed fish for a split second before he composed himself. "Pardon?"


Imrahil’s lips twitched and his eyes gleamed. "I am concerned for the political situations that might arise from this…incident," he said. "However, I am not blind to just how amusing this is."


"But…Lothíriel…should you not —"


"Lothíriel has always been too confident for her own good," Imrahil answered with a dismissive wave of his hand. "This experience will be instructive for her."


"And the political situation you mentioned earlier?" Faramir asked.


"The actions of the king worry me, but so long as the queen is happy, I doubt that aught will come of this. And Queen Arwen seems to be quite content."


"To put it mildly," Faramir murmured with a shake of his head. "But should word of this leak to the councils, then—"


"I will handle the councils," Imrahil said with something of a derisive snort. "They are no match for me, in any case. You shall have to handle the king, though, for you are closer to him than I."


Faramir grimaced, not relishing the prospect. "If you wish it, I will take the councils instead. They know better than to directly oppose me."


"Nay, for who would then calm the king? The queen?" Imrahil laughed quietly. "The queen shall be fortunate if she escapes this unscathed. Her amusement is not aiding King Elessar. Nay, my dear nephew, I fear that the task of restraining our sire’s wrath shall fall to you. I would suggest that you enlist the help of Legolas and Gimli, possibly also Lord Elladan and Lord Elrohir, but they might be otherwise occupied."


"Valar!" Faramir swore, his eyes going wide. "Aragorn assured me that he would see to keeping those four in check today. But if he is occupied with this, then—"


"Peace, I have already considered your fear," Imrahil interrupted. "Indeed, I believe I shall now depart for the Citadel to make certain that our friends have not destroyed it. I trust that you and the Lady Eowyn will be able to manage things in my absence?"


"Yes, that should work well," Faramir answered with a quiet sigh of relief. "My thanks to you for this."


"Do not thank me yet," Imrahil warned. "We know not what might have already been done. But if things are well, I shall return shortly and relieve you. Then it will be your turn to watch our friends."


Faramir smile slightly. "Which of these tasks will prove easiest, do you think?"


"Unfortunately, I believe that both will be troublesome at best," Imrahil said with a shake of his head. "Still, such is our lot for the day. I will now take my leave of you, my lord steward, and return soon if I am able."


"Fortune go with you, then," Faramir said, bowing slightly, "if she has not already deserted us."


* * * *


"We’re going to do what?!"


With a long-suffering sigh, Pippin looked back at his flustered cousin and wondered if telling Merry the details of his current plans had been a wise thing. "As I said before, we’re going to ally with Legolas and Gimli," he explained slowly, as though speaking to a child. "They agree to help us get into the pantry and we agree to help them in whatever they need to do to get back at Elladan and Elrohir."


"But why? It’s madness!"


"No, it’s desperation," Pippin corrected, wondering if Merry had always been this dense or if this was a new development brought on by hunger. "Allying with any of the elves on New Year’s Eve is an act so stupid that we would only do it if we had tried everything else. Therefore, we’re going to try it first because Arwen won’t have planned for that yet. She’ll never even expect it until it’s too late. It’s not madness, Merry. It’s genius."


"In one thing, at least, you’re right," Merry muttered darkly. "Arwen will never expect genius from you."


Pippin scowled, growing rather tired of his kinsman’s skepticism. "If you don’t like my plan, then say so."


"I have. Several times," Merry snapped. "Pippin, think back on what we’ve both seen and heard today. These elves aren’t playing parlor tricks; they’re staging a war!"


"And what were we doing when the fate of Middle-earth hung in the balance? We weren’t playing parlor tricks either. We were right in the thick of things, and I say that if we can survive that, we can certainly survive one day of mischief."


Merry rubbed his temples and muttered something about the steps up to Cirith Ungol, but what that had to do with anything, Pippin couldn’t imagine. "I don’t think you understand quite what we’re getting into," his cousin eventually said when he stopped mumbling to himself. "I don’t think I understand quite what we’re getting into. But by all accounts, we don’t want to be involved in whatever schemes are being concocted. This plan is not the last thing we’d try. It’s one of the things we wouldn’t try."


"Which makes it all the more unexpected for Arwen," Pippin reasoned. "Merry, do you really think we can’t handle ourselves? We’re hobbits! We’re the ones everybody turned to when that silly Ring needed destroying. Surely we can—"


"There!" Merry shouted, stopping mid-stride and waving his arms. "That right there. That’s what worries me."


"What? Where?" Pippin demanded, looking around.


"Not what or where. Who! You! ‘Silly Ring’? Pippin, the Ring was what nearly brought about the downfall of Middle-earth and you’re calling it silly? You just aren’t taking things very seriously today, and everybody else is!"


"On the contrary," Pippin answered, trying to fill his voice with confidence and certainty. "I’m taking this very seriously. I’ve put a lot of thought into this, and it’s the only way we’ll be able to get into that pantry. Arwen clearly has the day set up to keep us away from a proper meal. I don’t intend to let her get away with it. I’m outraged, really, but I’m managing to keep my head."


"If you ever had it to begin with," Merry grumbled.


Pippin sighed, closed his eyes, counted to ten, and then began walking again. "Dear cousin, if I am any judge, what you need is mirth," he announced sagely. "You claim that I am not taking this day seriously enough, but you, my friend, are far too sober for a hobbit’s good. What you need is some light-heartedness. Some cheer."


Merry frowned. "You do remember what happened the last time we started drinking Mirkwood’s wine, don’t you?"


"Not that kind of cheer, you ninny! I mean real cheer. A good laugh. And I’ve got just the thing."


"And what, pray tell, would that be?" Merry asked, his voice practically dripping in derision.


"Do you remember those jests and riddles I started when we were journeying through Moria?" Pippin asked. He was facing away from Merry at the moment, and so he failed to see the sudden look of horror that paled his cousin’s face. "I was thinking about those a few months ago and decided that I ought to improve on them."


"Pippin, I really don’t think that—"


"I’ve expanded these jests and riddles to include all the various groups of hobbits in the Shire, and I think I’ve come up with some good ones. And I also have ones about Gondor, Rohan, Lothlórien, Ithilien—"


"Pippin, this isn’t really necessary," Merry protested, shaking his head wildly as the look of fear increased.


"Nonsense! I’ve been wanting to share these things with someone, but I’ve never found the right moment until now. And I’d be more than honored to share them with you. It will improve your disposition, too."


"Pippin—"


"Let’s start with one that hits close to home. I think you’ll like this one. How many Brandybucks does it take to light a torch?" Pippin waited patiently for a response, but after a few minutes of silence, he began to grow bored. Sighing, he stopped and turned around. "Really, Merry, it’s not that difficult. Think of…"


Pippin trailed off and blinked, only now realizing that he was completely alone.


"Ten," he murmured to himself. "One to light it and nine to fend off all the trees in the Old Forest while that one tries to burn the place to the ground." Shaking his head in disgust, Pippin started back, all the while looking for places that Merry might have used to hide.


That was when he saw Elrohir storm down a side corridor.


Stopping suddenly, a new idea came to Pippin. He was almost certain that he could enlist the aid of Legolas and Gimli in raiding the pantry, but it would be much easier to do so if he had information with which to buy their assistance. And what better information could they ask for than the latest plans of the lords of Imladris?


For a moment, though, he hesitated. His strangely distraught cousin had wandered off, and Pippin was more than a little concerned. It wasn’t like Merry to abandon a conversation so suddenly. One might expect that from an elf, but not from a hobbit. Perhaps the hunger has become too much and he’s off to the Tower for some food, Pippin thought. It wasn’t an entirely satisfactory explanation, but it was better than nothing. Deciding that Merry would have to fend for himself in the immediate future, Pippin took one last look around, hoping to see his errant friend, and then turned to follow Elrohir.

 


 


 


 


 


 


Author’s Notes: Some of you may have picked up on the fact that ginkoto sounds a bit like ginkgo. The similarity is not accidental. I didn’t want to put ginkgo in this story as that feels too out of place, so I created the tree ginkoto and gave it origins in Rhûn, attempting to go for a more Far Eastern feel. For those of you who don’t know, the ginkgo biloba is a tree that has uses in herbal medicine (as well as religion). Recent scientific studies show that ginkgo might sharpen and clarify the mind. It is now suggested as treatment for Alzheimer patients in the early stages of the disease. Ginkgo use can be traced back as far as 2,000 years ago in China and Japan, where its fruit and nuts were valued. The gingko biloba has survived with very few adaptive changes since the time of the dinosaurs, when it was believed to have grown all over the world. Today it has been transplanted from southeastern China and once again can be found in many areas of the globe. Thought you might enjoy a quick botany lesson.

Chapter Text

…………

Strange are the ways of men, Legolas! Here they have one of the marvels of the northern world, and what do they say of it? Caves, they say! Caves! Holes to fly to in times of war, to store fodder in! My good Legolas, do you know that the caverns of Helm’s Deep are vast and beautiful? There would be an endless pilgrimage of dwarves merely to gaze at them, if such things were known to be. Aye, indeed, they would pay pure gold for a brief glance!

And I would give gold to be excused. And double to be let out, if I strayed in.

Gimli and Legolas—The Two Towers (The Road to Isengard)

…………

 


The vast kitchen in the king’s palace was as silent and empty as it had been earlier in the morning. It was…wrong. A kitchen should not be so still. It was disconcerting. Eerie. It held not the creeping chill one might feel around the forces of Sauron, nor did it inspire the confusion and fear that a dark mystery might provoke. But to Meriadoc Brandybuck—a hobbit that had been raised in Brandy Hall and had lived with the ever-bustling, ever-busy kitchen facilities of constantly ravenous hobbit families—the silent, empty kitchen was almost frightening.


But that means my job is easier, Merry told himself firmly, moving toward the doorway that led into the wine cellar and the pantries below the kitchen. This is a good thing. A good situation. I should appreciate the empty kitchen.


Unfortunately, twisting one’s view of reality did not fall within Merry’s area of expertise. Such things were usually left to Pippin, who seemed to have a unique talent for completely altering his outlook on life at the drop of a hat. But Merry was not wholly unskilled in changing his perception. Indeed, all hobbits were blessed—or cursed—with an ability to think of a worst-case scenario that might be used as a contrast with their current situation. Merry put this gift into practice now and reminded himself that he could have stayed with Pippin. Almost immediately, the eerily silent kitchen became a cheerful, welcoming place. After all, the alternative called for following a hopelessly optimistic Took into certain disaster while enduring an insidious bombardment of bad jests.


Feeling somewhat more confident now that he was armed with the right perspective, Merry found the lamp they’d used when leaving the cellars and lit it before pushing open the door to the stairs that would take him to the storage rooms. While moving down the uneven steps, he also picked up a torch that was probably used to light the oil in the wall sconces. This would come in quite handy. Since he was no longer a part of Pippin’s plans—and he thanked the Valar fervently for that—Merry had decided to go ahead with his own ideas of how to get into the locked pantries.


He couldn’t quite understand why Pippin had been so against his plan. After all, burning down the door was such a simple solution! It would have been understandable if Sam had been the one doing the protesting. But not Pippin. Pippin was a Took! And Tooks understood the need for risk and adventure. At least, they were supposed to. Granted that they didn’t have the love for boats and water that the Brandybucks did. And perhaps they didn’t experiment as much with fire as they should. But there had been instances of controlled burns around Tuckborough before, and that was essentially what Merry planned to do here, though on a much smaller scale. And so long as the fire was kept small, it could certainly be managed.


Rounding the last turn on the twisting stairs, Merry quickly moved to the table by the entryway and went to work on lighting the other lanterns and lamps. He would have lit the wall sconces, too, if he had been able to reach them. He was normally not so squeamish about dark places, but nine days ago had witnessed the anniversary of the Pelennor Fields. Nine days ago, an old ache in his arm had started to throb. Nine days ago, he’d endured nightmares of the Witch-king.


Nine days ago, he’d remembered the horror of a Nazgûl’s scream.


He’d been on the road when it happened. The group from Rivendell had been nearing Edoras when he felt the first pricks of pain in his arm. It had gotten worse as the day wore on, and the night was nearly unbearable. He’d been reasonably successful at hiding his pain from Pippin, but Elladan and Elrohir had not been fooled in the least. They had not pressed him for details, but whenever he woke during that long night, one or both of them were near, keeping watch over his sleep. Sometimes they roused him when he cried out with fell dreams, and afterwards they lulled him back into slumber with quiet songs. When dawn came and Merry recovered somewhat, they said no word to anyone, but they rode beside him all day, occupying his mind with light conversation and jests. So well did they seem to understand what he was enduring that Merry now wondered if the twins ever experienced anything similar. Surely they had encountered many terrible things during their lives. Merry knew that there was a day set aside in Rivendell to mourn the capture of the Lady Celebrían. There was now a week that honored the departure of those who had borne the Three Rings. Perhaps there existed other days or moments, not officially recognized, during which the sons of Elrond suffered.


With a weary shake of his head, Merry lit the last of the lanterns and sternly refocused his thoughts. He was not here to reminisce and ponder such things but rather to overcome the heinous duplicity of Gondor’s queen. And with the lanterns now holding the darkness at bay, Merry was ready to go to work.


The first order of business was to clear the area around the locked door. There was enough wine in this room to start a fire big enough to destroy the entire Citadel. The flames would bear careful watching, but Merry was not too concerned. He’d managed fires before. In fact, controlling the fire once it was lit was usually the easy part. It was setting things up that often proved to be the most difficult part about a fire. And that seemed to be the case here.


When elves drank wine, they tended to do so in copious amounts. At least, that was how the elves of Greenwood did it, if Legolas was any example. And as a result, when they made casks to hold their wine, they made very large and very heavy casks. Essentially, they made casks large enough to hold an adult dwarf. That had been advantageous for Bilbo during his stay in Mirkwood, but it was now working against Merry. He was not strong enough to move these large barrels by himself. But he couldn’t seek help in moving them. To whom would he go? Pippin? The Took was already carrying out his own inane plans. And everyone else was either caught up in a strange war of pranks or would be firmly against the idea of starting a fire in the basement.


With a sigh, Merry slowly walked around some of the casks that rested beside the locked pantry door. Perhaps if he pulled them down onto their sides, they could be rolled away. It sounded like a workable plan. It would take considerable effort, but it might be possible.


"Well then, I’d better get to it," Merry said aloud, rubbing his hands together. "No sense wasting time when there’s a room filled with food just waiting to be opened!" And putting actions to words, he reached up and seized the rim around the top of one of the barrels. Gathering his strength and planting his feet firmly, Merry closed his eyes, took a deep breath, leaned back, and pulled.


The cask did not move.


Merry opened his eyes and frowned, panting slightly from exertion. Shifting about as though looking for something upon which to brace his feet, he pulled again, angling downward so that his weight factored into the equation.


This time, the cask shifted slightly, but then it settled again and did not stir.


With a grunt of frustration, Merry released the rim and stepped back, examining the barrel. Clearly it was too heavy for him to overturn by simple means. But perhaps…perhaps if he rocked it back and forth, it would build up enough speed and momentum to overturn on its own. A certain amount of timing would be required, but it would not be unlike tipping a boat. Merry had some experience in that.


Once more gripping the rim, he lifted his legs and let himself dangle for a moment before planting his feet against the sides of the wooden cask. Then he began to shift his weight back and forth, arching away from the barrel and then swinging back toward it. Initially, he felt no change and despair crept into his heart. But as he stubbornly continued, he felt the cask begin to shift, and after a minute or so, it began to rock in time to his movements. Elation swept the hobbit, and he summoned more energy as he continued to swing. He had it now! He could feel it!


Then the barrel was suddenly falling on top of him.


With a startled yelp, the hobbit released his grip and twisted away, barely managing to role clear. The barrel landed on its side with a resounding boom and the wood split asunder. An explosion of wine caught Merry full in the face, and he shouted with surprise, his voice echoing loud off the walls of the cellar. The rich liquid drenched his clothes and soaked his hair, trickling down his face.


And of course it is red wine, he thought bitterly as he struggled to his feet. I must look as though I have just come from a battle! Cursing quietly, Merry rubbed at his eyes and licked his lips, not noticing the wine’s sweet flavor as leaked into his mouth. This had not been part of the plan. His stomach rumbled its agreement and clamored loudly for food, reminding him that it was well past the time when he should have fed it. Almost of its own accord, his tongue against traced the contours of his lips, and the taste of the elven drink set his stomach off once more.


Struggling to ignore the incessant demands of his belly, Merry shook his head sharply and winced at the shower of liquor that subsequently rained down around him. This wasn’t working out at all, and he was actually beginning to think that he might have been better off staying with Pippin. The rational part of his mind recoiled in horror at that thought, but the desperate part of his mind—the part that was slowly being driven to the ragged edge of sanity by the screams of his stomach—was almost willing to consider the idea. He was still hungry, he was still locked out of the main pantry, and now he was thirsty from his exertions and as well as covered in red wine.


Yet again, his tongue flicked out, craving the sweet nectar that ran down his cheeks, and Merry suddenly felt a strong desire for more of the intoxicating drink. His first impulse was to reject the idea outright, for he knew well that he could not hold elven liquor. But the more he thought about it and the more he thought about the day in general, the more he found himself drawn to the wine that stained the floor. Elven wine had the power to comfort and to calm. The dull ache in his right arm had died away after tasting the drops that had collected around his lips. Would one more sip—taken only to quench his thirst—really hurt? In addition to soothing his throat, it would also calm his nerves, and perhaps with a clearer head, he would be able to think of another way to move the casks away from the door. He certainly wasn’t making any progress now.


One sip, then, he told himself firmly after debating the matter a moment longer. Only one. No more! And after that, it’s back to work. Confident that he could control himself, he moved toward a nearby cask, and seized the rim. Pulling himself up, he clambered on top and then reached toward another cask, tracing the seal of its lid before finding a place to grip. Then he began to pull. It took a concerted amount of strength and twisting on his part, but after a long minute, the lid gave a popping sound and flew backward. It happened so suddenly that Merry nearly toppled off his own barrel, catching himself just in time to prevent a fall.


So far, so good, he assured himself, turning back toward the cask. The rising fragrance drew him forward, and cupping his hand, he reached into the barrel and submerged it before raising it to his lips. He hesitated once again but only briefly, and then he drank.


At that point, he suddenly remembered why he could never seem to limit himself to just one drink.


The rich wine filled his mouth and washed over his tongue. It tickled his throat and warmed his chest as he swallowed. A tingling sensation began to spread outward from his belly, and as it did so, he suddenly found himself pulled inward. The wine seemed to summon strange thoughts, and he was flooded by a wealth of memories containing laughter and cheer. Days of innocence flashed by, and he remembered when he had been untouched by the stain of fear or the grip of shadow. His senses reeled with nostalgia, and once again he walked the fields of Buckland in the early spring, knowing nothing of Mordor or rings.


How could he have forgotten? How could he have forgotten the wonders of elven wine, particularly wine brewed in Greenwood? Legolas had once explained that his people made their wine with the idea of temporarily escaping the creeping darkness that surrounded their lands. And this desire for escape now swept Merry far into the past, banishing both the pain in his arm and the memory of the Witch-king. Gone were the days he had spent as a captive of the Orcs. Gone was the grief he’d felt at Boromir’s passing. Gone were the shadows of Moria and the flames of the Balrog. Gone was all the horror and all the heartache he’d ever known, and he walked for a time in younger days. Unaware of what he was doing, he reached into the cask for yet another drink, and as the wine filled his mouth once more, he felt himself fly further afield in his quest for innocence. For naiveté. For a return to the way things used to be. He took another drink and then another as the years rolled back and the hardships faded behind him. His cupped hand splashed into the barrel over and over again until—


What am I doing?!


Merry stiffened and drew back in confusion, shaking his hand as he pulled it up out of the wine. This was most certainly not part of his plans! He had intended to take one and only one sip of wine. But judging from the feeling of complacency that now crept over him, he had taken quite a few drinks. Quite a few more than was good for him.


Steadying himself atop the barrel upon which he perched, Merry rubbed his brow and tried to remember exactly how one sip of wine had turned into so many. But then, this was elven wine. There was no accounting for what effects it might have on mortals. He had probably been doomed the moment it erupted in his face.


A strange wave of fatalism swept the hobbit, and he sat back as he considered the options now set before him. He could continue to indulge his taste for elven wine, knowing full well that he would pay for it later with a headache the size of Caradhras. He could attempt to continue moving barrels about and hope that the wine he’d already drunk would not inhibit his movements and reactions too much when he set about controlling a fire. Or he could attempt to catch up with Pippin and help his cousin in the foolish quest to enlist the aid of an elf and a dwarf.


He immediately discarded the last option. Dragging Legolas and Gimli into this was an open invitation for certain disaster. Even his rapidly blurring mind could see that much. As a result, he was left with the two options. The first was very enticing, and the wine already coursing through his system encouraged him along this path. But Merry had not forgotten Arwen’s betrayal. He needed to get behind that locked door if only to spite her! Food had almost become a secondary concern. And yet… Looking at the large barrels and forcing himself to evaluate the situation honestly, Merry realized that he would never be able to move the casks by himself. At best, he could knock them over and spill their contents onto the floor, creating a fire hazard that would be almost impossible to clean up.


He had been outmaneuvered. There was no reason not to admit it. Arwen, Pippin, the wine casks…they had all played a part in a vicious game of manipulation. And since greater forces had conspired against him, why not give in? Why not wait out the day in a blissful, drunken stupor? It made as much sense as what Pippin was planning to do.


"Oh, Sauron take all," Merry muttered to himself, and with a shake of his head, he abandoned the last of his hobbit sensibilities and plunged his cupped hand back into the cask for another drink.


* * * *


"I pray that your nimble elven mind has devised another plan for further and more successful searching. Your current plans have come to naught."


His eyes narrowing, Legolas shot a dark glare at his shorter companion. "We would not even be in this mess had it not been for your plans. If I remember correctly, you were the one who instigated a game of hide-and-seek with Eldarion."


"And if I remember correctly, you were the one who watched him climb over the wall and said nothing!"


"Had you been observant, you would have also seen him leave the gardens!"


"Had you been considerate, we could have stopped him before he had a chance to hide himself so well!" Gimli returned angrily.


Legolas closed his eyes and tried to calm himself. He and Gimli had met up with one another shortly after Legolas had parted company with Elrohir. It had been a rather disappointing reunion. Neither had seen any sign of Eldarion, and none of the servants—what few there were in the palace on this holiday—could give them any information. It was maddening, and had Legolas not possessed a good measure of restraint, he would have long ago impaled his knife in the wall out of sheer frustration.


"If it gives you peace of mind, Elladan and Elrohir have not found Eldarion, either," Gimli offered after an uncomfortable silence had settled. "One of them stopped me not long ago and inquired after his whereabouts."


"Elrohir was the one that stopped you." Legolas murmured, still trying to quell his frustration.


The dwarf frowned, his eyes betraying confusion. "How do you know?"


"He had no signet ring upon his right hand. Therefore, it was Elrohir. Elladan wears the signet of Imladris as he is technically its ruler, and the seal is a symbol of his authority. Elrohir does not exactly recognize this authority, but that is another matter entirely."


Gimli shook his head. "This is well and good, but you were not there when I was stopped. How do you know it was Elrohir?"


"Because he chanced upon me, as well, and mentioned speaking with you," Legolas explained, his face twisting into a scowl. "And thanks to your vaunted powers of subtle deception—or lack thereof—he learned that we have also failed to find Eldarion."


Gimli bristled, his eyes flashing with indignation and his chin jutting out in honor of his bruised pride. That does interesting things to his beard, Legolas mused as he regarded his friend. Almost it seems…fuzzy. I wonder if I should tell him that…


"I have already proven to you that dwarves are quite gifted in the art of subtle deception, and if you cannot appreciate that, it is no fault of mine," Gimli said heatedly.


"I would never think to fault you," Legolas answered, deciding that telling Gimli about his fuzzy beard could wait for another day. "I willingly take full responsibility for the ability to resist the lure of your delusions." The dwarf sputtered angrily at this, but Legolas continued before his friend could find a suitable retort. "Enough. We waste time here. We should either split apart and once again continue the search separately, or we should find a place where we may discuss our options undisturbed."


A hint of rage was still lurking in Gimli’s eyes, but to his credit, he did not pursue the argument. Nodding slowly, he glanced around the hallways and then started off. "As our current strategy has failed—a strategy that you endorsed, I may remind you—we would be well-advised to seek another plan. Let us move this conversation to the nursery. Once there, we should be able to speak without fear of listening ears."


It was Legolas’s turn to be confused, and his brow furrowed as he mulled over the dwarf’s suggestion. "Why the nursery?" he finally asked.


Gimli blinked. "Is your head intended only for displaying that fair face of yours? The nursery is the last place that Eldarion would go. It is a room set aside for sleeping and rest. On a day filled with excitement and things to do, Eldarion would do everything in his power to stay away from the nursery. Therefore, everyone will assume it stands empty because no one will have a use for it. If anyone looks for us, they will certainly not look there. Now come!" the dwarf commanded even as he turned away and began moving down the hall. "In one thing at least you are correct: We should not be seen together without the crown-prince. We must get out of sight!"


Quickly falling into step with the dwarf, Legolas decided that there was a certain amount of skewed logic to Gimli’s line of reasoning. It was not a conclusion that he would have drawn himself, but then, he was not a dwarf.


And I thank Elbereth every day for that.


It did not take them long to reach the nursery, and surprisingly enough, they reached it without seeing a servant or a guard. But then, the time was drawing close to lunch, and most of the household would either be heading for the Pelennor Fields or for the soldier’s butteries in the Tower of Ecthelion. The upper levels of the palace were essentially deserted.


Slipping through the nursery’s door after Gimli, Legolas quickly shut it behind him and then sighed as the fires of frustration began to rise again. As the youngest prince of Mirkwood, he’d been saddled with some very strange requests during his years, but this current search for Eldarion was, without a doubt, the most ridiculous and inane task he’d ever undertaken. The fact that neither he nor Gimli could find Eldarion only added to the problem.


"I cannot believe this is happening," Gimli growled, apparently sharing the elf’s thoughts on the matter. "Surely between the two of us we should be able to locate one small crown-prince!"


"I believe we both underestimated this small crown-prince," Legolas said reluctantly. "And we also underestimated Aragorn’s training. It seems our friend has been giving his son lessons that might benefit a Ranger."


"I would think that your vaunted elven senses would be able to find him regardless."


"What of dwarven senses?" Legolas asked somewhat defensively. "Are we not in a city of stone? Should not you be able to feel things that others cannot?"


Elf and dwarf glared at one another for a moment or so before exchanging mutual sighs of resignation and turning away. Silence reigned while each became lost in his own thoughts. After the passage of several minutes, Gimli stirred and rubbed his brow. "What do you believe Aragorn shall do to us if we fail to find his son?"


Legolas grimaced and shook his head darkly. "I would prefer not to dwell on that."


"Perhaps—rather than searching for a child that cannot be found—we should be searching for credible explanations," Gimli said. "Noon is nearly upon us, and Aragorn requested that we take Eldarion down to the Pelennor for lunch. He will know something is amiss when we do not come."


"Credible explanations will be hard to come by," Legolas murmured. "But there is always the option of running. Hiding works well, too, as Eldarion has clearly shown us."


Gimli grunted and shook his head. "Maybe there is a conspiracy among the guards," he offered, though he did not seem to believe his own theory. "Maybe they are hiding him from us."


"They would have had to plan this with the foreknowledge that we would let Eldarion out of our sight," Legolas pointed out. "It is highly improbable. Too much would have been left to chance."


"Then by Durin’s beard, where could he have gone?!" Gimli demanded. "You cannot find him. I cannot find him. Elrohir cannot find him. Elladan cannot find him. Together, I would be willing to bet that we constitute the greatest team of hunters in all of Arda. And yet we are foiled by a simple child!"


"Sauron was foiled by simple hobbits."


"We are not Sauron and Eldarion is not a hobbit!"


Legolas turned his eyes toward the ceiling and murmured a quiet plea for patience. Gimli was never very appreciative of analogies and comparisons. When he was upset or frustrated, he tended to dismiss them outright, preferring that things be direct and candid. It almost reminded Legolas of his father. Thranduil did employ the use of symbolism to make a point, but his symbolism had a tendency to be just as blunt as whatever it was he was trying to say. In this way, at least, Thranduil’s version of diplomacy was very much like a dwarf’s version of diplomacy. "I only meant that—"


"Peace," Gimli interrupted gruffly. "I should not have lashed out at you." He shook his head and then sighed. "Let us concentrate on what we came here to do. Our previous methods of search have yielded nothing. I propose that we narrow our options." The dwarf began to pace as he spoke, absently fingering some of the toys lining the shelves. "Were you his age, Legolas, and did not wish to be found, where would you go?"


"I know not," Legolas said wearily. It was a question he had now been asking himself for some time, and he had yet to come up with an answer that seemed to work. "I would certainly have my favorite places in which to hide, but I know not where those would be in Eldarion’s case. I am unfamiliar with the areas in which he plays."


Gimli’s brow furrowed and he tugged at his beard with one hand. "Would these hiding places be inside or outside?"


"Either. Both," Legolas said with a helpless shrug, moving to the nursery window and looking out over the city. He had never been completely comfortable inside the walls of stone, and he was beginning to feel twinges of claustrophobia. "For myself, most would probably be outside. But I have always been one to take to the trees. I do not know Eldarion’s preference."


"But would there be a…a theme to these hiding places?"


Legolas arched an eyebrow and looked back at the dwarf. "A theme?"


"Something they all had in common. Something that attracted you to them," Gimli explained, once again glancing over the toys.


"They would all be places where I felt myself concealed from prying eyes," the elf said, not quite sure what his friend was looking for. "But other than that, I can think of nothing that might link them together." He turned again toward the window and cast his eyes southward, a sudden swell of longing overtaking him. He thought he had seen a pair of seagulls wing by…


"Concealed from prying eyes," Gimli murmured, oblivious to his friend’s sudden and unhealthy distraction. "Concealed…" He trailed off and became very silent. Too silent. Absolutely silent, actually, which succeeded in drawing Legolas’s thoughts away from the sea by virtue of sheer novelty. The dwarf was usually making some kind of noise or another. In fact, Legolas had once entertained the theory that dwarven custom required continual sound. But now…now there was nothing whatsoever.


Wondering if something ill had befallen his companion, Legolas turned around and studied Gimli. He was quick to decide that something had indeed happened to the dwarf, but what that something was, he could not say. Gimli bore an extremely thoughtful look upon his face. He was motionless, not even rocking back and forth on his feet as was his wont when he had naught else to do. Yet for all his stillness, there was a graceful poise about him as though the slightest provocation could trigger swift reflexes and send him into motion. It was almost as if the dwarf had been transformed into a short, stocky, bearded elf.


"Gimli?" Legolas questioned hesitantly, uncertain as to what he should make of this. "Master Dwarf, are you well?"


"You say you would go to a place where you would be concealed?" Gimli asked, abruptly breaking with his brief stint of elvishness and resuming his dwarven traits so suddenly that it was disorienting.


"Yes," the elf answered, blinking his eyes and wondering if the last few minutes had been the product of an extremely vivid imagination.


"Well concealed?"


Legolas frowned, still attempting to account for what he’d seen. "That is the point of a hiding place, is it not?"


Gimli nodded and then moved toward the nursery’s back wall with an air of discovery and importance. Legolas could not see anything worth discovering about the back wall that had not been discovered already, but then, Gimli was a dwarf. Dwarves did strange things from time to time. Perhaps examining a back wall was a new method of relieving stress. Gimli had never done it before, but the dwarf was always surprising Legolas with odd habits and traditions. Maybe this was one of them. Still, they could not afford to waste time on frivolous gestures of frustration.


"Gimli, perhaps it is best if we—"


"I believe that we have one more area to search," the dwarf interrupted, running his hands over the wall.


"You wish to search between the stones in the wall?" Legolas asked, wondering if perhaps Gimli had broken under the fear of what Aragorn was going to do to them. "Elves are very adept at finding places of concealment, but even we cannot—"


"No, you fool! Behind the stones. Blessed Mahal, are there not hidden passages within your father’s halls? If not, you should advise him to build some. They provide endless entertainment as well as security should the stronghold need to be evacuated."


"Hidden passages?" Legolas echoed. His former home in Greenwood was actually riddled with secret tunnels, but that had nothing to do with the likelihood of such things existing in Minas Tirith. "Gimli, Aragorn has said nothing of—"


"If Aragorn spoke of them, they would cease to be hidden," Gimli said, sounding rather annoyed. "Surely you are not as naïve as you appear to be!"


The elf scowled, noting that he had just been blatantly interrupted three times in less than a minute, and searched his mind for something truly scathing to say in response. But ere he could sufficiently muster his wit and his ire, a sudden click echoed through the room and then the back wall slid away, revealing a dark passage of black stone.


Gimli stepped back and beamed, looking for all the world as though he had just unearthed the seven lost stones and the three Silmarils. Legolas, on the other hand, was not impressed. Moving closer so as to get a better view, he could not help an involuntary shudder. There was no light in the corridors, and what little he could see revealed them to be very narrow. The air that now flowed out of them felt dank and stale. Legolas was reminded very much of a tomb, and the last tomb he’d entered had been on the Paths of the Dead. It was not a pleasant memory.


"Perhaps Eldarion has discovered these passages and is in them now," Gimli suggested, seemingly unaware of his friend’s lack of enthusiasm. "He is an observant child. It would certainly not be beyond his abilities. What think you, Legolas?"


"Perhaps," Legolas allowed reluctantly. He kept reminding himself that while Eldarion carried elven blood, he was a mortal child. He might actually enjoy tight spaces. Certainly they could give him a sense of adventure.


Sharing none of his companion’s compunctions about entering these secret halls, Gimli strode confidently into the darkness and disappeared from view. "I can think of nowhere else to look," the dwarf said at length, his voice ghosting back to the elf. "And if I am any judge, these passages will snake all over the palace. Even if Eldarion is not in here, we might be able to hear him in a hallway and find an exit that leads us directly to him. Perhaps fortune shall grace us in this endeavor."


Legolas shivered and eyed the shadowed walls, trying to ignore the sudden knots that were twisting about in his stomach. He was of the opinion that fortune would go nowhere near such a terrible place and would probably leave them stumbling blindly in the shadows.


"Legolas?" Gimli moved back into the light and frowned. "Legolas, is aught wrong?"


"It is very dark," Legolas managed to say, though his voice trembled slightly.


"If the lack of light concerns you, then you will be pleased to learn that there are a few torches lying on the floor in here. They are not lit, but I can remedy that quickly."


Legolas groaned and turned away. Gimli was right. The hidden passages would probably make an excellent hiding place for Eldarion, and yet… How could any child with even a hint of elven blood in his veins endure those dark corridors? The little that Legolas could see of them was almost sending him into claustrophobic fits. More light was not going to help this! It dispelled the darkness, yes, but it did nothing to expand the space between the walls.


"Legolas?" Now holding two burning torches, the dwarf came forward and studied his elven friend. An unreadable expression passed over his face and then he grimaced slightly. "Legolas, my apologies. I am not thinking clearly. If you wish it, I will search these ways alone. Perhaps you should—"


"Nay," Legolas interrupted quickly. He didn’t want to be caught anywhere in the Citadel without Gimli and Eldarion, especially since they were nearing lunch and Aragorn might send someone to look for them. He would never be able to explain what had happened, and he wasn’t about to be the first to confess that they had somehow managed to misplace the crown-prince of Gondor. "Nay, I am coming with you. You will undoubtedly lose your way in the darkness."


The dwarf cocked his head to the side, studied the elf, and then shrugged, moving forward to hand Legolas a torch. "Then let us go. But do not blame me for whatever pains you endure along the way. I am not forcing you to come." And with this, Gimli ducked back into the dark passages.


You shall pay for this, son of Glóin, Legolas vowed, steeling himself before plunging into the darkness after the dwarf. Gimli then pressed his hand against a protruding stone, and the nursery wall slid shut on its hidden axis, cutting off the light of day and plunging the pair into a world of shadows and torchlight.


* * * *


"Now?"


Elladan sighed and reminded himself that he was supposed to be the patient one in the family. "Nay, not yet," he murmured, tightening his grip on his nephew. "We must wait a little longer. Elrohir seems to be taking his time in coming."


Eldarion wiggled around in Elladan’s arms until he could watch the palace’s main entryway without craning his neck. His young face was set in a glare of extreme frustration, and Elladan was immediately reminded of several glares that Estel had employed when he was that age. The likeness was eerie, and almost it seemed as though he was back in Rivendell helping Gilraen corner her son long enough to get him to eat. The memories brought a smile to his face and he allowed his mind to revel briefly in nostalgia before returning to the present as Eldarion began to squirm.


"Peace!" Elladan cried, readjusting his grip. "Peace, where are you going, young one?"


Eldarion gave his uncle a look that somehow managed to combine both a command and a plea. "Down."


"I am afraid not," Elladan said, shaking his head. "We have spent too long seeking you out already. Patience. I promise you that we will soon be on our way!"


Eldarion’s face twisted into an imploring pout, mirroring yet another classic expression from Estel’s younger days. His eyes grew wide, his lower lip began to quiver, and his hands balled into fists as they clenched at Elladan’s tunic.


"Nay!" Elladan said firmly, well aware of what was happening. He had been a victim of this look in the past, but over the years, he had learned to guard against it. Or rather, to endure it for a greater period of time before ultimately caving to whatever demands had been issued. And if he could hold out long enough, Elrohir would arrive and help him. Elrohir was better at being firm.


Apparently sensing that he was not going to escape his uncle’s hold in the near future, Eldarion loosed a sigh that sounded much too old for him and turned back to watch for Elrohir. Elladan whispered a silent prayer of thanks to any Valar that might be listening and bolstered his defenses for the next time that Eldarion chose to assail him with a pout. There seemed to be something about Isildur’s heirs that made them exceptionally good at pouting. Gilraen had once complained of Estel’s ability to get whatever he wanted through the use of a cunning pout to which Elrond had replied that if she thought Estel was difficult, she should have tried to raise Arahael, the second Chieftain of the Dúnedain. Arahael was the first of his line to be fostered in Rivendell—thus beginning a tradition that would endure until Estel’s birth—and the elves soon discovered that they were very unprepared for the simple yet confounding machinations of a mortal child. Arahael was able to charm anything out of anyone, and the moment a pout appeared on his face, even Erestor’s stern resolve would crumble before its power. After experiencing Arahael’s childhood, Rivendell’s inhabitants tried to school themselves against further manipulation, and they succeeded to an extent. But it could not be denied that Isildur’s heirs were unusually clever even as children, and some exasperated caretakers claimed that the Chieftains were born with a knowledge of how to manufacture the perfect pout and so achieve their desires. It appeared that Eldarion had inherited this infamous gift.


"Elrohir!"


Elladan started slightly, jerked out of his musings by Eldarion’s excited call. Scanning the grounds, he soon caught sight of his brother entering the courtyard and moving toward the Queen’s Gardens. "Elbereth be praised," he muttered, glancing about once more to make certain that a certain elven prince and his dwarven companion were not in sight. When he assured himself that no unwanted eyes were present to see them, he hurried to greet his brother. "Did you find aught to distract you on your way?" he asked when he neared Elrohir. "Or did you decide that a leisurely stroll better suited your interests?"


Elrohir blinked. "I came when I received your message."


I am the patient one. I am the patient one. Elladan took a calming breath and tried to silence his emotions. The elder of the twins was a creature of habit and procedure, but he was usually able to adapt to changing situations quickly. However, Elladan had quickly discovered that the task of controlling an energetic four-year-old mortal was more difficult than he’d anticipated. He’d found himself wishing desperately for someone else to join him so as to help shoulder such a burden, and for every moment he’d been forced to wait for Elrohir, he’d felt his legendary calm and patience slip further and further away. Still, there was no need to take his frustrations out on his brother. "My apologies," he sighed. "I did not think it would take the messengers so long to find you."


Elrohir made a rather indistinct sound that was somewhere between a sniff and a grunt. Elladan didn’t know how his brother managed this as a sniff required inhalation while a grunt required the opposite, but however it was accomplished, the noise was made. And at that point, Elladan realized that his twin seemed to be…upset.


"What is wrong?" he asked, wondering how he had missed the signs of anxiety.


Elrohir pursed his lips and his brow furrowed, exhibiting two well-known trademarks of frustration within the House of Elrond. "How did you find him?" he finally demanded.


Realization swept through Elladan, and his own feelings of frustration vanished as a hint of glee overtook him. "You mean Eldarion?"


"Yes," Elrohir all but spat out. "I mean Eldarion. How did you find him?"


The smile simply could not be denied, and Elladan nearly laughed aloud when he saw his twin’s eyes darken in response. Any who knew the twins well could vouch for their brotherly bond of love and loyalty, but they could also vouch for a fierce streak of competitiveness. To a certain extent, Elladan and Elrohir accepted that they each had strengths and weaknesses that the other did not. But they were very much equals in many things, and it was in these gray areas that their drive to be first and best often set them against one another. "It was really quite simple," Elladan said, unable to hide the smug tone that colored his voice. "I merely remembered what Estel did on those rare occasions when we played this game and could not find him. He returned to his starting position. Eldarion has done the same. It took him longer to do so, for I believe he possesses more patience than Estel, but after a while, he indeed returned to the Queen’s Gardens. And when he did, I was waiting for him. Strange that your able mind did not think of this."


The expression on Elrohir’s face was priceless. In his younger days, Elladan had once absently wondered what a Balrog’s glare might look like and had asked Glorfindel to describe it. The response had either been an imitation of said glare or a warning against such questions in the future, Elladan could not tell which. But in any case, he felt that this idle question had now found a definite answer, for Elrohir’s face could easily be mistaken for the face of an enraged Balrog.


"After all, is not every child instructed to make for an established rendezvous location after a time?" Elladan continued, quite incapable of stopping himself. "Eldarion has obviously been trained to do so. Again, I am surprised that you did not remember this, Elrohir, for if memory serves, you spent many days trying to teach Estel that very lesson when he was younger. Surely you did not think that he would neglect such instruction for his own son."


Elrohir’s glare had now surpassed the level of a simple Balrog and was swiftly approaching the strength of a glare one might receive from Morgoth. Unfortunately, Elladan was unable to study and enjoy this new expression because Eldarion chose that moment to decide he was thoroughly bored and wished to do something else. To this end, he began to fidget and wiggle, struggling valiantly against his uncle’s hold and very nearly escaping. Cursing quietly, Elladan hastily readjusted his grip, but his quiet curse abruptly escalated into a loud oath as one of Eldarion’s kicking feet landed several inches below his belt.


Elladan immediately doubled over, completely taken by surprise. Never one to miss an opportunity for vengeance, Elrohir’s expression went from rage to mirth with a speed that would have impressed Oromë’s hounds, and his shoulders began to shake with silent laughter. "Having difficulty containing your quarry?" he inquired blandly even as hints of sniggers edged their way into his voice. "You really should take better measures to—"


"Hold this," Elladan interrupted hoarsely, and before any question or protest could be made, he shoved Eldarion’s squirming form into the surprised arms of his twin.


Much to Elladan’s disgust, Elrohir proved quite adept at handling his nephew, tossing the child into the air and then catching him around the waist before flipping him upside down. Eldarion squealed with glee and clapped his hands, his hair flying wildly as Elrohir started to swing him back and forth by his feet. "You are as filled with energy now as you were this morning," Elrohir laughed, shooting Elladan a look as though to make certain that the older twin was watching this. "I fear you require special handling by those who are knowledgeable in such things. Otherwise, many might find themselves at great pains to restrain you."


"Nazgûl take you," Elladan hissed, groaning slightly as he willed the pain to pass.


"Do you not usually wear some sort of protective padding to shield such an area against injury?" Elrohir inquired, his voice far too casual for his own good.


"Only when I dress for battle," Elladan snapped, slowly righting himself. "And should you continue this, you will give me reason to do so!"


Elrohir laughed and flipped Eldarion over, catching him once more about the waist and then hoisting him up onto his shoulders. Eldarion squealed again and seized Elrohir by the ears. "If you have recovered, then it seems we are ready to go," Elrohir said, tipping his head back to wink at his nephew. "I suppose that your calculating mind has already decided where and how we shall depart the Citadel? Or has Eldarion managed to drive such things from your mind?"


Elladan hissed softly but refused to be baited, for he was now faced with yet another embarrassing problem. He had not gotten far enough in his thinking to consider leaving the Citadel. Once he found Eldarion, his thoughts had concentrated on keeping the boy still long enough to rendezvous with Elrohir. He should have considered their next few steps, but somehow, that had escaped him. Like so many other things. I swear, by Ilúvatar himself, there is something about Eldarion that drives one to distraction! "I would like to hear your suggestions, if you have any," he said after a moment. "And perhaps they will coincide with my own plans."


Elrohir gave his twin a rather knowing look as his smile widened marginally. "Perhaps they might. But then, it is easy to fill a void with imitation."


"Elrohir—"


"Fear not! I will have pity upon one so injured," Elrohir laughed, bouncing his shoulders slightly to occupy his nephew. "The thought occurred to me that the roof of the stables down in the sixth circle is high and not too far from the top of the Citadel’s wall. The jump would be manageable, even with Eldarion, and the climb itself over the wall would be easy enough as there are vines growing on this side of if. Moreover, many of the guards are upon the Pelennor to aid in the preparations for tomorrow’s celebration. If we take care, we will not be seen."


Elladan nodded slowly. "And how shall we let ourselves down from the stable’s roof? Leaping onto the streets is certain to draw attention."


"There is a window set on the slanting side of the roof that looks in on the loft. I judge it would not be difficult to open from the outside, and we could enter through there. Then we could saddle our horses and take Eldarion for a ride. We will probably reach the Pelennor in time for lunch, and we could obtain food before taking Eldarion on a longer journey." Elrohir looked up at the crown-prince perched on his shoulders, who was currently waving at a pair of seagulls that had flown in from the Anduin. "Would you enjoy that?" he asked. "Would it please you go to for a ride?"


"Horses!" Eldarion cried, nodding enthusiastically as all interest in the birds was lost.


"It is a good plan," Elladan conceded. "Of course, it would have to be a good plan to match my own intentions."


"Of course," Elrohir murmured, his voice dripping with sarcasm.


"Well, let us be off. The longer we stand here, the greater the chance of discovery. Will you be able to handle our brother’s young terror?"


Elrohir grinned. "Naturally. Only a fool would falter in such a task."


Elladan sighed but decided that they had delayed long enough already. A response on his part would only make things worse. "Then come. And take care. Eldarion has attempted to pout once already."


Elrohir’s eyes widened and he angled his head so as to look up at his nephew. "You attempted to pout?" he said with mock horror. "For shame! You know well that Elladan has no defense against such a thing."


Eldarion giggled while Elladan scowled and shook his head. "Are you finished?"


"Lead on, oh wise one," Elrohir answered, gesturing for Elladan to precede him.


Firmly silencing the words that begged to be unleashed upon his impossible twin, Elladan started off, vowing that at some point in the near future he would wipe the smirk from Elrohir’s face. Seemingly oblivious to his brother’s dark thoughts, Elrohir followed smugly, wearing a broad smile at the thought that he had finally gotten the upper hand.


In a rather significant testament to their distracted states of mind, neither twin noticed Eldarion turning around and waving at a small figure that trailed after them.

 


 


 


 


Author’s Notes: During the last section of this chapter, Elrohir mentions saddling their horses, and I thought I’d take a minute to explain my views on elven equestrians. The Two Towers has Legolas riding Arod bareback, but The Fellowship of the Ring mentions that Glorfindel rides Asfaloth with a full compliment of tack (including bells, apparently). So like many other writers out there, I’ve gone with the assumption that this is a difference in culture between Mirkwood and Imladris. Elrond’s elves used tack. Thranduil’s didn’t.

Chapter Text

…………


Well if that isn’t a plague and a nuisance! All because of a pack of crows! I had looked forward to a real good meal tonight: something hot.

Well, you can go on looking forward. There may be many unexpected feasts ahead for you. For myself I should like a pipe to smoke in comfort, and warmer feet.

Pippin and Gandalf—The Fellowship of the Ring (The Ring Goes South)

…………


 

One of the lesser-known facts about hobbits was that in the absence of mitigating circumstances, they could actually move quite quickly if the occasion called for it.

There were many that adamantly argued against this point. The dwarven, elven, and mannish members of the Fellowship, in particular, liked to contest the notion of hobbits approaching anything that even remotely resembled speed. During such debates, Aragorn often called to remembrance one instance two nights after the Fellowship left Rivendell in which the goal for the first part of the night had been to reach and ascend a certain hill where they would stop at the summit for lunch. A brisk pace was required to meet this goal, but it was by no means an unreasonable expectation. During routine scouting trips, Boromir and Legolas both climbed the hill twice before the rest of the Fellowship even neared it. But the hobbits resisted the faster speed, and in the end, the midnight lunch was held about a mile from their objective when it became clear that the hobbits would not go another step without first having something to eat. Aragorn’s conclusion from the experience was that hobbits were completely incapable of speed, for in his mind, the fate of Middle-earth should have easily classified as an occasion that called for swiftness of feet.

The hobbits of the Fellowship would agree that Middle-earth’s fate certainly warranted speed, but they were also quick to point out that there had been mitigating circumstances that slowed their pace. Namely, they had been required to climb similar hills the following night, as well as the night after that and the night after that and the night after that. Their reluctance to move quickly was not ignorance of the importance of their quest but rather a need to conserve energy for the days ahead. They moved as quickly as they could while keeping in mind the fact that they would be asked to maintain the same pace on the morrow. And as Sam had pointed out, it wasn’t as though the top of the hill was going to move if they didn’t reach the summit before midnight.

To this, the surviving members of the Fellowship who were not hobbits would usually shake their heads in exasperation and walk away, firmly unconvinced that hobbits were capable of speed. But they might have reconsidered their beliefs had they seen Pippin leave the Citadel in pursuit of Eldarion, Elladan, and Elrohir. Rushing past the guards so quickly that they barely had time to recognize him, Pippin hastened toward the stables, for that was where it appeared Elladan and Elrohir were going to land after they made it over the wall. There were no mitigating circumstances to slow his pace and the objective of obtaining food despite Arwen’s villainous attempts to the contrary was clearly an occasion that called for haste. And so Pippin virtually flew through the tunnel that connected the Citadel with the Sixth Level, putting to shame Gimli’s callous remark that the only thing fast about a hobbit was its stomach.

Unfortunately, Pippin’s speed was cause for the revelation of yet another lesser-known fact about hobbits: When they did move quickly, they tended to forget that others might be in their way. And so it was that Pippin, in his rush to get to the stables before Elladan and Elrohir could make their escape, ran headlong into Imrahil at the end of the tunnel.

Thrown backwards from the sudden impact, his arms flailing madly, Pippin soon found himself sprawled upon the pavement gasping for air. Imrahil might have met with a similar embarrassment had he not been thrown toward a wall. As it was, he managed to quickly regain his balance by bracing himself, but the collision had winded him and he did not immediately push off of the wall at his back.

"That was unexpected, Master Peregrin," Imrahil said as one hand clutched at his side.

Pushing himself into a sitting position, Pippin rubbed his head and blinked. "My apologies, Prince Imrahil," he hissed, wincing when he felt the telltale signs of swelling around his right eye. "I did not see you."

"Obviously," the prince murmured, testing his balance as he gingerly stepped away from the wall. "Might one inquire as to where you are going in such a hurry?"

Pippin froze, uncertain of what to say. "I…I was on my way to the markets."

A slight smile flitted across Imrahil’s face. "I suppose I should have anticipated that. It is said that Halflings are perpetually hungry."

Indignation boiled through Pippin’s blood, but he squelched his reaction when he remembered that he needed to make haste. Deciding that correcting the prince of Dol Amroth could wait until another time, he merely shrugged his shoulders and got to his feet, dusting himself off as he did so. "I once heard something similar," he said blandly, hoping to end the conversation so that he could be on his way.

"Well, if it is not too great an inconvenience, perhaps you could calm your appetite for a moment and assist me," Imrahil said, clearly not understanding that Pippin needed to be elsewhere. "I am looking for either Legolas and Gimli or Elladan and Elrohir and have been told that they are probably somewhere in the Citadel. Would you have more specific information regarding this?"

Several harried thoughts crossed the hobbit’s mind and he grasped desperately at them, searching for something to say. "I have not seen Legolas and Gimli for some time," he answered at length.

"What of Elladan and Elrohir?" Imrahil pressed, something unreadable flashing across his face.

"I…have not seen them since I left the Citadel."

"Which was only moments ago, if I am any judge," Imrahil observed, his eyes narrowing. "And apparently you did see them in the Citadel, yes?"

"Only briefly," Pippin answered, fervently hoping that Imrahil would ask no more questions. "I didn’t stop to talk to them, if that’s what you mean."

"Did they leave the Citadel?"

Pippin pressed his lips together and tried to come up with an honest response. "When last I saw them, they were nowhere near the tunnel," he eventually said.

"Indeed." Imrahil’s expression was difficult to read, but Pippin received the impression that the prince was less than satisfied with his answer. "Where is your companion?"

Pippin blinked. "My companion?"

"Master Meriadoc. Is he not usually at your side?"

"Oh. Merry. Yes. Merry is…Merry is somewhere else." Pippin stammered, realizing that this was certainly not his best response. "He didn’t want to come with me, so he stayed in the Citadel."

"He did not wish to accompany you to the markets? It is nearing the noon hour. Surely he is hungry."

Inwardly cursing himself and wondering where his usual poise had gone, Pippin tried to mentally regroup. "Merry is strange, sometimes. He gets odd ideas and then he wanders off. Sometimes he forgets about food altogether. I think he was dropped on his head as a child."

Imrahil’s gray eyes bored into Pippin, and the hobbit had to fight to meet his penetrating gaze. A part of him wanted to cower in terror and confess everything to the prince while another part firmly forbade any movement. You’ve met elven stares before. You can surely meet this! a remote corner of his mind encouraged. But as time wore on, Pippin became less and less certain of his ability to endure.

"I should probably be going now," the hobbit finally said, breaking the silence that had fallen. "I want to get to the markets early so I can pick the best foods."

The prince of Dol Amroth frowned and then looked away, releasing Pippin from his piercing eyes. "I wish you luck, then," he said. "But if you would be so kind, watch for those I mentioned earlier. And if you see them, ask them to come and speak with me. I would appreciate it greatly."

"I will do that," Pippin said, nodding hurriedly as he sensed an opportunity for escape. "If I can stop them long enough to speak, I’ll tell them what you said."

"Thank you," Imrahil said, inclining his head briefly. "Off with you then. I would hate to think that I kept you from your meal."

Quickly sketching a bow, Pippin hurried away, not even bothering to vocalize a farewell. Too much time had passed already, and he needed to reach the stables as soon as possible. Elladan and Elrohir might have already left by now!

Hurrying along while trying to keep in mind that there were others out and about this day, Pippin wondered if he should have shared his plans with Imrahil. It might be advantageous to have someone with longer legs about. So far, Pippin only knew that Elladan and Elrohir had been leaving the Citadel via the wall and that they had been taking Eldarion with them. Moreover, they had chosen to leave over the same point in the wall that Legolas sometimes used. It overlooked a steep drop to the roof of the stables that was apparently a manageable height from which to jump if the jumper was an elf—or a half-elf, in this case. But after their descent to the stable roof, Pippin did not know what Elladan and Elrohir would do next. This was something he needed to discover if he wished to buy the aid of Legolas and Gimli with information. And for this reason, the assistance of another with longer legs might prove useful. Longer legs could cover more ground than a hobbit could.

But even as he considered this, Pippin decided that he had ultimately done the right thing. He really didn’t know Imrahil well enough to judge whether or not the idea of allying with Legolas and Gimli would be well received. He had met the prince many times and had talked with him at length, but in the end, he didn’t know him. In fact, it seemed to Pippin that very few people knew Imrahil. And as the hobbit pondered further on this, he decided that Aragorn and Faramir were the same way. Pippin had traveled extensively with Aragorn and he had helped care for Faramir when the steward lay racked with fever after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, but Pippin was not sure that he truly understood either of these men. Not as he would understand another hobbit, anyway. And now that he thought about it, he had never really known Boromir or Denethor, either.

And as he continued to study this notion—his distraction perhaps explaining why hobbits habitually ran into things when moving at fast speeds—Pippin’s mind turned to elves and dwarves. Here were entire races where it was difficult to understand anyone. It was almost as though barriers had been set up. But why should that be? Pippin considered his friends to be one of his greatest treasures. Why should elves, dwarves, Aragorn, Faramir, Imrahil, Boromir, and Denethor feel differently? Was it because they were all gifted with long—or immortal—lives? No, that could not be, for hobbits were also considered long-lived when compared with the race of man. And hobbits had many friends that knew one another intimately. Life-long friends were common in the Shire, and…

Pippin blinked, his mind running back over that thought. Life-long. That was the difference. The Shire was peaceful. With a few very rare exceptions, wars and battles did not darken the hobbits’ tranquil lands. But that was not the case for the rest of Middle-earth. And perhaps that was why it was so difficult for elves, dwarves, and men of Númenórean blood to let down their guard and allow others into their souls. They had seen too much misery and heartache. They had lost too many comrades. And because of this, they could not afford to let others see them for who they truly were. Familiarity was often accompanied by close friendships, and close friendships were simply too dangerous for long-lived people in perilous times. A man could only take so much loss before losing himself to grief and despair, and Pippin assumed that this was also the case for elves and dwarves. So they eliminated the threat of pain by eliminating the threat of friendships.

And perhaps this was also why the Rangers were so vigilant in protecting the Shire. The hobbits possessed something that the Rangers never would. They possessed long lives that were, for the most part, free from pain and strife. Hobbits could form friendships without fear that their friends would be killed the next day. They could be happy and they could surround themselves with family and loved ones until the moment they died. The Rangers could do none of these things, so they instead sought to preserve the innocence of those who could.

What a lonely way to live, Pippin thought sadly.

But the hobbit was allowed no more time to reflect on this, for a part of his brain that was tracking his progress abruptly informed him that he was moments away from smashing into the wall of the stables.

Skidding to a jarring halt, Pippin blinked and found himself inches away from the white stone that houses the horses of Gondor’s messenger riders. Making a mental note to pay better attention to his surroundings in the future, Pippin shook his head and flattened himself up against the stable wall, listening intently. The stables were set back beyond the passageway that led to the Fifth Level, and as such there was very little in the way of traffic. Nevertheless, those few who did pass by watched Pippin with fascinated bemusement as the hobbit slowly eased himself toward the stable door. But Pippin paid them no heed, intent only on listening for any that might be within.

For a long time he heard nothing, and his heart sank within him. Perhaps his conversation with Imrahil had proved to be his undoing. He had seen neither Elladan nor Elrohir leaving the stables or making their way down to the Fifth Level, but if they were exceptionally quick, they could have done so long before he arrived.

And then he heard it: a childish squeal of delight followed by a slight thump as though something light landed from a great height. This was followed by a pause, an exclamation of surprise, another pause, and then an intense but hushed conversation in an elven tongue. Curious, Pippin edged closer to the doorway, wondering what was happening. Elladan and Elrohir were the most likely participants in the conversation, yet they sounded upset. Very upset. But what cause would they have to…

And then Pippin remembered the three elven horses galloping down the city streets. This was followed by the recollection of the overheard conversation between Legolas and Gimli in the Queen’s Gardens. What was it Merry had said? Something about how he didn’t want to know any more about what they said. And I agreed with him. Pippin frowned and shook his head. The rational part of Pippin’s mind still agreed with Merry about not getting involved in whatever plans Legolas and Gimli had initiated, but the incensed part of his mind—the part that still fumed over Arwen’s deception—had decided that food and retribution were worth the risk. So he stayed by the doorway and listened intently, hoping that some of the conversation might become intelligible, though his grasp on any form of elvish was limited at best.

Fortunately, Eldarion chose that moment to demand that he be taken for a ride, and he did so in Westron, for that was the language he seemed to know best. This, in turn, forced Elladan and Elrohir to respond in kind.

"Patience, young prince," one of the twins soothed, though whether it was Elladan or Elrohir that spoke, Pippin could not say. He had trouble enough telling them apart when looking at them. Separating them with sound alone was far too difficult a prospect. "Patience," the voice repeated. "We will take you riding soon."

"This cannot go unanswered. It is clear who is responsible, for Legolas’s horse is also gone."

"But we must find our own horses ere we can do anything. There is no telling what Legolas has done with them!"

"They are intelligent creatures. They would not easily submit to Legolas should his plans bode ill for them. More likely than not, they have only been set free in an attempt to distract us should we note their absence."

"You are probably right. Still, I would feel better if I knew their whereabouts."

"Perhaps someone saw them leave. We have only to ask."

"They might have been seen leaving, but that will not tell us where they are now."

The voices were beginning to grow in anger, and Eldarion’s frequent pleas for a ride were more or less ignored as the twins debated about what to do. Suddenly realizing that he should probably not be near the doorway when the twins decided to leave the stables, Pippin began backing away, trying to make his movements as silent as possible.

"Think, brother! They cannot be in the city for neither of our horses enjoys this place of stone. They will have gone somewhere open where they may graze and run. It is probable that they are upon the Pelennor Fields."

"Which is also where we left Estel and Arwen."

"Valar, you are right. We cannot take Eldarion there!"

"But neither can we wait here and do naught!"

There was a pause during which Pippin could hear Eldarion talking quietly to what he assumed was one of the horses still in the stables. The hobbit had reached the edge of the building now and was slipping out of sight of the main doorway, grateful that the open windows allowed him to continue listening to what was said inside.

"It is near noon, and I know that Estel meant to return to the Citadel after he ate. We can take Eldarion down to the markets and taverns in the Second Level, feed him, and then venture out onto the Pelennor once Estel and Arwen have left."

"I do not like the idea of leaving Gaearsul and Mornaecco alone with Legolas’s horse. Who knows what mischief has been wrought? And as they are our horses, whatever they cause shall be blamed upon us."

"I do not like it, either, but what choice do we have? At least we shall keep Eldarion hidden from Legolas and Gimli."

"I suppose. Well, let us depart. You are correct. It seems we have few options for now. Come, Eldarion. Shall we go out into the city? You shall see many sights, and it may be that we might find something tasty for you to eat."

Hand clapping and an enthusiastic affirmative on the part of Eldarion answered this, and Pippin flattened himself against the side of the stable as he heard Elladan, Elrohir, and Eldarion leave. The twins made no sound, but Eldarion seemed to be carrying on a conversation with himself, enabling Pippin to track their movements. Holding his breath and praying that none of them would glance his direction—though Eldarion had seen him up in the Citadel and had failed to give him away—Pippin closed his eyes and held completely still, doing his best to blend in and become part of the architecture. And for once, fate was kind. Caught up in their anger and frustration, Elladan and Elrohir did not notice the hobbit crouched around the corner of the stables. With a few angry mumbles in elvish that were probably less than complimentary, they made their way past Pippin’s position and eventually turned down the corridor that would lead them into Minas Tirith’s lower circles.

Loosing a sigh of relief, Pippin relaxed for a moment before shaking himself and stepping out into the streets. Having traveled with taller folk before, he knew well that if Elladan and Elrohir hastened, he would never be able to match their pace. Beyond that, it didn’t seem necessary to follow them anyway. He knew their plans. They would linger in the Second Level, possibly finding somewhat to eat, and then they would make their way onto the Pelennor after Strider and Arwen left. If he offered this information to Legolas and Gimli, he was certain they would suspend their own plans long enough to help him break into the food cache beneath the kitchens. Besides, the elf and dwarf were probably hungry, too. All Pippin needed to do now was find them. That should not prove too difficult a task.

With a satisfied nod and a pat on the back for his ingenuity, the hobbit turned and headed back for the Citadel.

* * * *

When she was very young, Eowyn had learned that a little perseverance went a long way.

Actually, she had learned that a little perseverance and a blood relationship to the king of Rohan went a long way. But the important lesson—and one that she never forgot—was that kinship alone did not suffice. Determination also played a part. As a result, Eowyn had grown into a woman of purpose who did not easily forsake her goals. So persistent was she from time to time that Eomer once declared that she could probably beat down a stone wall with her head if she ever had the desire to do so. There was general laughter in response to this and Eowyn had smiled at the jest, but in her heart, she knew her brother was right. She knew that if she beat her head against anything long enough and hard enough, she would either knock it down herself or someone else would become so annoyed that they would knock it down for her. Either way worked for Eowyn, and here was the root of yet another lesson she had learned: If fortune grants a favor, do not question the means by which the favor comes.

That last lesson, though, was sometimes accompanied by unwanted consequences. Eowyn was discovering that this seemed to be the case now, and she wondered if she ought not to have questioned the methods used to render her brother unconscious. She was grateful that he no longer fought them or resisted their attempts to probe his head for further injuries, but Eowyn was not wholly certain that the means to achieve this end could be completely justified. Eomer should have regained consciousness by now, yet he continued to sleep, unaware of the turmoil that his words and his injuries had wrought.

Her mouth pressed into a thin line, Eowyn gently swabbed her brother’s brow while at the same time shooting a suspicious glance toward the other side of the room. Aragorn was mixing and grinding herbs together, and the abrupt movements of his arms indicated that he was upset. And watching this, Eowyn silently reaffirmed her vow that she would not leave Eomer until she was certain she could trust the people around him.

This was a decision she had made shortly after Faramir and Imrahil spoke with her in the hallway. Until then, fear of her brother’s injuries had occupied the bulk of her thoughts, and as Eowyn had a tendency to be rather single-minded upon occasion, she had allowed nothing else to divert her attention since arriving at the Houses of Healing. But Imrahil’s words had woken within Eowyn a fierce protectiveness that had driven many of her actions during the time that Wormtongue held sway in Rohan, and Eomer’s continued inability to rouse had caused this protectiveness to completely overtake her. Several attempts had been made to lead her away from her brother’s side, but these had all failed when Eowyn’s legendary perseverance asserted itself. She had chosen her duty and she would cling to it regardless of what anyone else said, especially when the king of Gondor seemed to have given her brother too much sedative.

In her heart, Eowyn knew that Aragorn would never intentionally harm Eomer. The two kings certainly had their share of differences, but they were good friends and trusted one another implicitly upon the field of battle. But even though Aragorn would not bring further injury upon her brother, he might make him slightly…uncomfortable. There were herbs that worked wonders in healing head wounds, but they had unpleasant and nauseous side effects that took several days to overcome. Eowyn was not sure that Eomer was in need of these herbs as she was not sure of the extent of his head wound. Aside from memory loss and a concussion, he seemed to be fine. But these herbs were the first things Aragorn had suggested when they arrived at the Houses of Healing. Eowyn had dissuaded him from using them, but only moments ago, Aragorn had suggested them again.

"Eowyn—"

"I am not leaving, my lady," Eowyn said sharply, turning to glare at Arwen. "And though you can command me, you will be required to enforce your orders through the use of guards. And I will resist them as well."

A ghost of a smile fluttered across Arwen’s face and she shook her head slightly. "I had not thought to pursue that topic. I only wondered if Eomer showed signs of waking."

"Ah." Momentarily flustered but recovering quickly, Eowyn glanced down at her brother and shook her head, barely restraining her growing frustration. "Nay, he sleeps still."

"Is that wise?" Lothíriel asked from somewhere near the doorway where she had been speaking with Faramir. "I did not think sleep was prescribed for head wounds."

"He was lucid enough when we woke him upon the Pelennor Fields," Aragorn answered, his voice low and curt. "And I have seen nothing in the way of blood from his nose or ears. I judged it was safe to put him to sleep. Moreover, he was fighting us. He could have further injured himself and also those around him."

"Even so, you gave him a rather liberal dose, did you not?" Arwen asked, and her eyes twinkled slightly. "Ere you took matters into your own hands, I was going to suggest that I lead him to this room. He seemed responsive to my influence."

A quiet growl on the part of both Aragorn and Lothíriel accompanied by a weary sigh from Faramir were Arwen’s answers, and Eowyn closed her eyes as she tried to master her feelings. The sedative Aragorn had used in the dart would cause Eomer no lasting harm, but when used in excess amounts, it did tend to upset a person’s balance for a few days. If nothing else, it would interfere with Eomer’s ability to ride, and Eowyn wondered if Aragorn had perhaps intended this, seeking vengeance for Eomer’s words to Arwen.

"Where is Imrahil?"

Aragorn’s sudden query jarred Eowyn from her thoughts, and before she could stop herself, she looked toward her husband, remembering that Imrahil had asked to speak with him in private. Following Eowyn’s glance, Aragorn turned and studied his steward, clearly demanding an answer.

"Imrahil, my lord?" Faramir questioned, affecting a convincing air of innocence.

"Yes. Imrahil," Aragorn said coolly, apparently neither fooled nor amused by Faramir’s act. "He was also injured upon the Pelennor. Where has he gone?"

Faramir sighed and glanced behind him into the hallway. "He spoke to me of returning to the Citadel."

Aragorn’s eyes narrowed. "I did not give him leave to depart. He is still in need of rest and care."

"My lord, if experience has proven anything, it is that very few can command Imrahil’s comings and goings," Faramir answered. "Varda only knows how often my father attempted such a thing and failed."

"He returned to the Citadel?" Eowyn asked, her brow furrowed. Imrahil did not particularly like the Citadel as he felt that the stones were too close and there was no room to breathe. Whenever he stayed at Minas Tirith for extended periods of time, he spent many hours down upon the Pelennor Fields. Why would Imrahil return to the Citadel now, especially since he had been injured?

"He spoke of things that needed to be looked after," Faramir answered, his gray eyes boring into his wife’s before flicking an almost imperceptible glance toward Arwen.

Ah, the elves, Eowyn realized. And as she realized this, she also realized why Faramir was loath to speak of it. Aragorn had enough on his mind as it was. He did not need to be reminded that chaos might be brewing elsewhere.

Unfortunately, Eowyn’s thoughts seemed to curse them all, for at that moment, a commotion began to fill the corridors of the Houses of Healing. Shouting voices and echoing footsteps could be heard approaching rapidly, and Eowyn felt her anger start to rise above her ability to control it.

"Eowyn, would you be so good as to handle that?" Faramir asked, stepping into the room and moving toward his wife. "I will watch your brother in your absence."

Eowyn opened her mouth to protest, but the reassuring look in Faramir’s eyes put her at ease. She could read his promise that he would let no harm befall Eomer, and she knew her own limits well enough to know that if she did not release her frustration soon she would lash out at someone. Faramir probably sensed this as well, thus explaining his offer to relieve her for a moment. Nodding her acceptance and flashing him a quick smile of gratitude, Eowyn rose and addressed the others in the room. "If you will excuse me, I will see that we remain undisturbed."

No one offered to accompany her, which did not come as any great surprise. Aragorn did not wish to leave Eomer and Arwen in the same room without his supervision, Arwen was enjoying Aragorn’s consternation too much to leave herself, and Lothíriel had been as adamant about remaining by Eomer’s side as Eowyn had been. With a shake of her head and a silent question as to how she had become involved with such stubborn and strange people, Eowyn left Eomer’s chambers and hastened down the hall, fixing her face into a stern frown and preparing to unleash all of her anger upon those who caused such a commotion.

Turning a corner and brushing past several startled healers, Eowyn caught sight of what seemed to be a small scuffle and stopped, taking stock of the situation. It needed only a moment, though, to identify the cause of this fight, and biting back a silent groan, Eowyn stepped forward. "What goes forth here?"

At her commanding tone, all instantly fell silent and those in the hallway parted to let her through. "My lady," a voice answered her, followed by a deep bow. "My lady, you have come upon us in good time."

"And you have come upon me in bad time, Captain Arhelm," Eowyn answered sharply, pinning the Rohirrim captain beneath her furious eyes. "Tell me quickly why you have raised such a cry in these Houses."

The momentary look of fear in Arhelm’s eyes was swift to vanish, but it had lingered long enough for Eowyn to know that she had intimidated him and now had his full and complete attention. "Forgive me, my lady, but the men upon the fields and the king’s son demand to know how it goes with him. I have been summoned to return to them, but I vowed to at least discover something of my king’s condition ere I left. Yet these healers can tell me nothing, nor will they allow me access to my king’s chambers."

"There is good reason you were not allowed access," Eowyn said coldly, though some of her anger was dying away. She remembered how the nation had pined after Theoden when he labored beneath the lying words of Wormtongue, and the possibility that something had happened to their current king had probably awakened this fear again in the riders.

"That may be so, my lady," Arhelm agreed with a short bow as though to placate her. "Yet we still wish to know how our king fares. Are you able to tell us these things?"

Eowyn’s anger was now fading quickly as she saw in these riders the same determination she possessed in herself. Had their places been exchanged, she would have probably acted no differently. Still, the perseverance she had learned as a child continued to hold her, and she intended to see that these Rohirrim were made aware of her displeasure. "Why have your brought so many with you, Arhelm?" she asked, ignoring his question and gesturing to the riders that stood behind him. "Had you come alone, it is likely that you would have been granted an audience with your queen. But this crowd only serves to upset the patients here, including your king!"

"I came with only one other, my lady," Arhelm said. "The rest were sent to join me by Prince Elfwine and Lord Elfhelm. But I could not send them back or go with them myself until I knew how Eomer King fared."

With a sigh, Eowyn recognized that she was currently beating her head against one of the hardest walls to knock over: Rohirrim stubbornness. And though her own pride and stubbornness demanded that she continue to beat against this wall, her desire to return to her brother was greater. Deciding to let this incident slide for the moment, Eowyn finally relented. "The king is asleep. He suffered a blow to the head that has given us cause for concern, but with care and rest, he should recover. I fear that is all I can tell you."

"Thank you, my lady," Arhelm said, bowing again.

Eowyn nodded, indicating that he was dismissed, but Arhelm did not leave. Instead, a rather curious came into his eyes. "You have something else that must be discussed?" Eowyn asked.

"I was not present for it, but the latest riders that Lord Elfhelm sent have brought…tidings that should be made known to the king," Arhelm said, hesitating slightly over his words. He turned and beckoned one of the men forward. "This is Thendril, my lady. He can better explain what has happened."

"Speak, then," Eowyn commanded. "I will see to it that the king and queen receive your words."

"My lady," Thendril began, bowing shortly. "When we left Rohan, my king brought with us mares to be kept here in Gondor. They are to be bred with horses from Rhûn."

"I know of this," Eowyn said. "Continue."

"We have kept them separate from the other horses so that they might be ready when the delegation from Rhûn arrives. However, shortly after the incident upon the Pelennor, we discovered two stallions among the mares. And based on their actions, we think that some of the mares will now have to be removed."

Eowyn frowned, puzzled. "This is grievous, true, but surely this is something that can wait until the king is better prepared to deal with it. Remove the stallions, reprimand those who were charged with their care, and—"

"My lady, you do not understand," Thendril interrupted. "The stallions we found were not our own. They were elven stallions, my lady. They were those ridden by Lord Elladan and Lord Elrohir. And Lord Elfhelm believes that no accident led them to the paddock with the mares."

Eowyn blinked. This was unexpected, and she cast about for an appropriate way to react. "You are certain?"

"Yes, my lady."

Anger flared within Eowyn once more, and she mentally cursed Elrohir, Elladan, Legolas, Gimli, and anyone else who might have even remotely been involved in the altercation. How dare they extend their own private war into the affairs of other kingdoms? But even as she began thinking of ingenious ways to draw and quarter them all, her attention was caught by something in Thendril’s hand. "What do you hold?" she demanded, suddenly fearful.

Thendril glanced down at the object in his hand and grimaced slightly. "It is a gelding iron, my lady."

"I can see that it is a gelding iron," Eowyn snapped. "I wondered at its presence here."

The rider shifted uncomfortably. "Lord Elfhelm said that the king might be in need of it."

Eowyn’s blood froze. She knew Elfhelm well, and he was not above bending orders to the point of completely breaking them. Through their joint deception, Eowyn had ridden to war upon the Pelennor Fields within his company, and before then, Elfhelm had been a quiet source of constant support against the whisperings and machinations of Wormtongue. He had long been accustomed to taking matters into his own hands, and that had not changed much during the past fifteen years. And if he had gone so far as to order that the elven horses be gelded… Not that they were undeserving of such action, but the twin’s horses were among Rivendell’s primary studs. A few mares lost to the breeding agreement with Rhûn did not warrant the gelding of Rivendell’s dominant stallions. "Did Elfhelm elaborate as to why the king might be in need of such a tool?" Eowyn asked.

"Nay, my lady," the rider answered, his face showing a look of confusion. "Lord Elfhelm only bid us take it to the king."

Muttering a few Rohirric stable curses beneath her breath that really should not have escaped anyone’s mouth—much less a lady’s—Eowyn massaged her temples and closed her eyes. She was sorely tempted to wander down to a tavern in pursuit of a good drink. "Was there any chance that he did not mean for you to take his orders so literally?"

"My lady?"

"Naught. Let me have the gelding iron," Eowyn ordered, deciding that this rider was not bright enough to warrant further questioning. Instead, she examined the gelding iron when it was handed to her and found, to her relief, that it had seen no recent use. Elfhelm had probably intended it to be used as a threat or a warning, which was acceptable. But he could have told his riders as much without forcing Eowyn to guess at its purpose. "You are dismissed," she said, turning the gelding iron over in her hands. "I will see that the king receives this as well as your messages. Return and report to Lord Elfhelm."

"As you command, my lady," Arhelm said, reassuming charge of the riders around him. "With me," he ordered, turning and retreating down the hallway.

Left to herself, Eowyn studied the gelding iron—ignoring the shocked looks of the healers that she would be handling such a tool—and eventually shook her head before making her way back towards Eomer’s room. Anger festered still in her heart at those responsible for loosing elven stallions among the breeding mares, but nothing could be done about that now and so she pushed the feelings aside. Eomer’s health was more important.

But if she met with Legolas, Gimli, Elladan, or Elrohir in the near future, she would make certain that they learned the error of their ways.

* * * *

Not long after Imrahil began his search of the Citadel for elven and dwarven individuals, he realized what a truly monumental task he’d undertaken.

He’d known more or less what would be required of him when he decided to give himself this assignment, but he had not truly appreciated just how difficult a job this would prove to be. Never before had he been aware of the fact that there were so many places of concealment in the Citadel. The gardens were a tangled web of hiding places, the Tower of Ecthelion was a maze of light and shadows that bewildered the eye, and it was best to not even think about the king’s palace. There were too many avenues to search, and there was a good chance that he would miss one of those he sought by simple oversight in his haste to move on to another location and cover them all. To make matters worse, questioning the guards had revealed that Legolas, Gimli, Elladan, and Elrohir had all been seen at one point or another that morning, but no one had seen anything of them recently. This was not an encouraging discovery, and a somewhat worried Imrahil now stood in the courtyard beside the White Tree, his brow creased in thought as he tried to think of a better way to go about this business. But no ideas came to him, and this only added to Imrahil’s frustration. Very rarely did he find himself so completely at a loss. Perhaps the fall on the Pelennor had been more of a shock than he thought.

Or perhaps my sons are right and I am finally feeling my age, Imrahil sighed, remembering a comment that Elphir had made to him just ere he left Dol Amroth. That had actually been one of the reasons why none of Imrahil’s three sons had accompanied him to Minas Tirith. Their endless remarks about their father’s age—brought on by the discovery of graying hair—was beginning to try Imrahil’s nerves. And given the fact that Imrahil was renowned as an unusually patient man, this said quite a bit.

Shaking his head slightly and frowning at the tendrils of gray hair that fell into his eyes almost as a reminder of his sons’ words, Imrahil refocused his mind on the current problem. How was he to go about finding four individuals who were somewhere in the Citadel and probably did not want to be found? Imrahil frowned, rethinking that. Actually, he really only needed to find one, for if he found one, he was almost guaranteed to find another. And once he had a pair of them, the other pair would probably be close at hand.

Of course, this is all based on the assumption that none of these individuals have left the Citadel, Imrahil thought. Pippin was less than forthcoming about that. But I did glean other things from our conversation. The hobbit had obviously seen Elladan and Elrohir. Moreover, though he claimed not to have seen Legolas and Gimli, I received the impression that he knew or guessed something of their whereabouts. And if this is true for Pippin, would it not also be true for his kinsman? For they are rarely apart, save until now. And did Pippin not say that Master Meriadoc was still within the Citadel? He should be easy enough to locate as we are nearing the noon hour. And though he had no wish to join Pippin in the markets, Merry is still a hobbit. He will still be in search of something to eat, and thus will I find him.

Invigorated now that he had something resembling a plan of action, Imrahil made for the butteries in the Tower. There were only a few places in which one could obtain in the Citadel, and the Tower’s butteries seemed the most logical of these as they were the only area in which servants and guards were still working today. All other kitchens and storerooms had been shut down since lunch for the palace population as a whole was supposed to take place on the Pelennor. If Merry wished for a meal in the Citadel, he would probably go to the Tower.

Unfortunately, a quick search of the butteries revealed no sign of Merry. After posing a few questions to some of the guards, Imrahil learned that no one had seen anything of Merry since he returned to the Citadel earlier that morning. But the prince was not one to easily lose hope, and he next turned his attention to the palace kitchens, leaving the Tower and making his way past the gardens while at the same time keeping a sharp eye out for anything that looked like an elf, a half-elf, or a dwarf. The palace kitchens were not as promising a prospect as the butteries for the staff was down upon the Pelennor, but even so, there were probably things there that might satisfy a hungry hobbit. And if Imrahil had learned anything about hobbits from his few encounters with them, it was that they could turn almost anything into a full course meal if given enough time.

Moving at a brisk pace, it was not long before Imrahil entered the palace and made his way toward the kitchens in the back. The halls were disturbingly empty and the normal hustle and bustle that accompanied life in these corridors was gone. It was somewhat eerie, and yet at the same time, Imrahil was grateful for it. He often battled feelings of claustrophobia within Minas Tirith, and these feelings became more intense when surrounded by a press of people. Thus, he was thankful for this small reprieve.

Unfortunately, the fact that the halls were virtually silent also meant that his hopes for finding Merry in the kitchens began to dim. If they needed to, hobbits could move with a surprising amount of stealth, but when they sat down to a meal—even if they did so alone—they were rarely quiet. They would sing, hum, talk, and drum out rhythms on the tabletop. But Imrahil heard none of these sounds now, and he began to wonder if his search for Merry was going to prove as futile as his search for Legolas, Gimli, Elladan, and Elrohir.

His fears seemed to be realized when he reached the kitchens and stepped inside only to find them empty. Pinching the bridge of his nose, Imrahil sighed and shook his head, leaning against one of the counters. This venture was not going as planned, and very few things upset Imrahil as much as a foiled plan did. I suppose I shall have to engineer a new plan, then, he thought wearily. Or perhaps I could return to the Houses of Healing and offer Faramir a chance to search. He volunteered to do so earlier. But then…that would leave me with King Elessar. Imrahil grimaced slightly at the thought. I suppose there are worse things, but I cannot think of many. Still, it was clear that he was making no progress by standing here in the kitchens, and so he turned to leave.

That was when he heard the crash.

Freezing for a moment, Imrahil held his breath and closed his eyes, allowing his keen ears to track every sound that came their way. And after a small eternity of waiting, he detected something that seemed to be drifting on the edge of his senses. Turning his attention to this faint noise, so distant that it was barely discernable, the prince eventually identified the sound as voice. And it seemed to be coming from…below him?

Imrahil frowned and turned around, eyes scouring the kitchen until they came to rest on an open door toward the back wall that led to descending stairs. Unfamiliar with the workings of kitchens, a voice in Imrahil’s head nonetheless offered the opinion that this door should probably not be open. Moving closer, Imrahil stopped to listen again, and now he caught the last, faint vestiges of what might have been a song. Someone at the bottom of the stairs was singing. It could have been a servant who returned in search of a forgotten tool, but something in Imrahil’s heart told him otherwise. Whoever was down there was not supposed to be down there. And Imrahil felt he knew who this someone might be.

Walking to the doorway and peering down the spiraling staircase, Imrahil noticed that a faint light seemed to be coming up from the darkness below. And now that he was at the top of the stairs, he could clearly hear a light voice lifted in a careless song about food, family, and the Brandywine River. There were only two people in Minas Tirith at the moment who would sing such a song. Smiling, Imrahil began to descend the stairs, rejoicing in the fact that his search had not proved vain after all.

That was when he heard the second crash.

Startled into an abrupt stop, Imrahil quickly shook off his surprise and hurried forward, hastening down the stone steps and watching his feet carefully as he noted that these steps were not of uniform width or height. Nevertheless, he made good time and swiftly rounded a corner at the end of the stairs only to be met by one of the strangest sights of his long life.

"Imra’il!" a voice shouted happily.

To say that the prince of Dol Amroth was shocked would be to severely understate the case. What struck him first was the almost overpowering scent of aged wine. It required only a quick glance to reveal the cause of the smell. Dozens of wine barrels crowded the storeroom, but perhaps a quarter of them had been overturned and broken, their contents now pooling on the floor. Standing in the midst of what was quickly becoming a lake of wine was a hobbit who appeared to have gone swimming in it. And not only was he standing in the midst of it but he was also waving an open lamp, the dancing flames coming perilously close to his dripping hair.

"Merry!" Imrahil cried, springing forward and seizing the light. But his boots slipped and he suddenly found himself skidding across the floor. His arms flailed madly and it was only through a stroke of fortune that he did not fall or drop the lamp. As it was, he managed to stop himself against a wooden door on the other side of the storeroom, his breath coming hard and his mind whirling.

"I didn’t ‘xpect you," Merry slurred with a wide grin as Imrahil tried to regain his composure and make sense of what was happening. "Did you come to join me?"

In a rare moment of complete and utter bewilderment, words failed the prince of Dol Amroth. He stared at the hobbit in shocked silence and then stared at the room in general. Feeling slightly faint, he put his free hand behind him, intent on bracing himself against the door he’d come up against. But as he touched the door, he frowned and turned. The wood was soaked from top to bottom with wine, and it appeared as though someone had done this deliberately. "Merry," Imrahil began, finally finding his voice in the midst of his confusion, "did you do…this?"

"Of course." the hobbit answered, pride evident in his voice. "And I’ll tell you a secret," Merry continued, his voice dropping to a loud whisper. "There’s food in there."

"There is food in…" Imrahil shook his head and tried to gain control of the situation, but the scent of the wine was beginning to make him heady. Faramir was not exaggerating when he spoke of the potency of elven wine. "Merry, in the name of Varda, what happened!?"

"I drank elven wine!" the hobbit cheered, waving his arms about.

"I can see that," Imrahil said slowly, struggling to be patient. "Why?"

"Good."

"Good? You mean that the wine is good?"

Merry nodded, his wine-drenched hair flying wildly.

Swearing quietly to himself, Imrahil gingerly walked over to Merry and reached down to take his hand, deciding that holding a conversation with an inebriated hobbit was probably an exercise in futility. Answers could wait until he got Merry out of this storeroom. "Come. I think it perhaps best if we speak of this elsewhere."

But Merry had other ideas. Scowling, he jerked his hand from Imrahil’s gentle grasp and staggered backward, ultimately landing with a plop in one of the larger puddles and sending a fountain of wine up around him. "Can’t," he protested with a slight hiccup. "Arwen told us we could get s’more food here." He paused, then, and frowned, hiccuping again. "I should say Queen Arwen. That’s good and proper."

"Believe me when I say that correct protocol is currently the least of your concerns," Imrahil said. "Now come."

"S’posed to set a good example for Pippin," Merry slurred, attempting to get to his feet and failing miserably. "Ninny doesn’t ‘member things like that. Have to remind him."

Watching Merry’s ineffectual attempts to rise, Imrahil shook his head and marveled that the hobbit had managed to avoid setting fire to the storeroom. Deciding to let Merry flounder for a bit, Imrahil backtracked to the stairs and began extinguishing the lamps and candles that rested on a table near the entrance. The fumes were becoming strong enough that he worried about the lamp he currently carried. While he was waiting for Merry to decide which way was up, he could certainly lessen the danger.

Finished with the lamps and candles, Imrahil turned around and surveyed the room, once again marveling at the sight, before directing his attention back to the hobbit. Merry had finally made it to his feet and was leaning heavily upon one of the undamaged barrels, looking slightly bewildered. The area around the hobbit glistened red as light reflected off the wine that coated almost everything. And as Imrahil continued to study the storeroom, he was overcome by a sudden urge to join Merry in the blissful state of intoxication. It would save him the trouble of having to take care of this mess.

With a dutiful sigh, Imrahil shook his mind free of such enticing thoughts and stepped forward. "Come, Merry. I know not what you were attempting to do, but if it is food you desire, I can see that you receive some."

"Was gonna burn through the door," Merry said, yawning as he spoke.

The prince of Dol Amroth stared at the hobbit. "Burn through the door?" he repeated carefully.

"To get to the food."

"You would have burned not only the door but everything else as well, yourself included!"

"Toasted food is best."

Imrahil shook his head wearily and gave up. "Come, Merry. There is food in other places."

"But Arwen said there was food here!"

"She was wrong," Imrahil said, taking Merry’s shoulder and gently steering the hobbit toward the stairs. "I can find better food. But let us first get you to your room."

"No food in m’room," Merry complained, though he did stumble along next to Imrahil.

"There will be soon," Imrahil assured him. And that was true enough, he supposed, as the hobbits always seemed to create a cache of food wherever they went. At the moment, though, Imrahil was intent only on seeing that Merry made it somewhere safe and wine-free where he could sleep off the effects without setting fire to the Citadel.

"Must tell Pippin," Merry murmured to himself. "He’s looking for elves and dwarves."

Imrahil blinked and glanced down at the hobbit. "Pippin is looking for elves and dwarves?"

Merry nodded and promptly tripped as they began to climb the stairs. "Went to find Legolas and Gimli."

"Do you know if he found them?"

"No. Left him too soon." The hobbit giggled suddenly and hiccuped. "He was talking ‘bout torches, and then I was talking ‘bout torches!"

Imrahil shook his head in confusion but decided to ignore that last bit. "Merry, do you know where Legolas and Gimli are?"

"Watching Eldarion," Merry answered helpfully.

"Indeed? Could you tell me what they are watching him do?

Merry stopped his drunken waddle up the stairs and thought about that. The idea seemed to amuse him after a while and he laughed. "Don’t know. Just watching, I s’pose."

Imrahil frowned. "A moment. By watching, do you mean to say that they are tending him?"

"Yes!" Merry exclaimed, wagging his head up and down so vigorously that Imrahil was certain it would fall off. "Tending!"

"Oh, Varda," the prince of Dol Amroth swore quietly, thinking through the possibilities that this now presented.

"What?" Merry demanded loudly, looking confused.

"Naught," Imrahil sighed, taking his companion firmly by the shoulders and steering him up the last set few steps. "Let us get you to your room so that you may settle down for a long nap."

"Not sleepy," Merry protested even as a large yawn overtook his face.

"Indeed," Imrahil noted dryly. "Nevertheless, I think it best if you rested for a bit. I know it would set my mind at ease if you did."

"Then I shall rest," Merry announced grandly. "Anyt’ing to set your mind at ease." He was silent for a moment and then blinked rapidly as he and Imrahil stepped out of the dark stairs and into the open kitchens. Looking around, he glanced up at Imrahil and smiled. "You smell nice."

Imrahil sighed. "Come, Merry. We must get you to your room."

"And food?"

"One step at a time," Imrahil answered, pushing Merry toward the hallways and marveling at his strange fate. "For now, let us simply get you somewhere safe and secure."

"Do you want some wine?"

"Yes," Imrahil answered bluntly. "Yes, I do. But I fear that such a luxury is denied me."

"Oh." Merry was quiet for a moment and then spoke again. "I’m sorry."

"As am I, Merry," Imrahil murmured somewhat wistfully, quite certain that, as the day wore on, he would come to deeply regret his reluctance to drink. "As am I."


Chapter Text

…………

In the deep places of the world! And thither we are going against my wish. Who will lead us now in this deadly dark?

Boromir—The Fellowship of the Ring (A Journey in the Dark)

…………

There were times when Elfwine, crown-prince of Rohan, found his nine years of age to be a stifling hindrance. He would admit to his elders’ claims that he was young and inexperienced, but in his mind, that only meant he should have the first chance at opportunities that offered more experience. He was still a boy according to Rohirrim standards, but he considered himself just as mature and responsible as any adult. Well, perhaps not any adult, but he was certainly more mature and responsible than most nine-year-olds in the kingdom. But the king and queen rarely saw that. They were always telling him that he could not do certain things because he was too young. His father maintained that he should be at least fourteen before he was allowed to handle the wild mares they occasionally brought in from the plains. His mother had made him promise to wait at least another year before learning swordplay from the back of a horse, and she would undoubtedly extract from him the same promise next year, just as she had the year before. Yes, there were many times when Elfwine’s impressive nine years of life counted for next to nothing as far as privilege and responsibility were concerned.

But this was not one of those times.

Rather, this was one of those rare times when the privilege and responsibility he did have became a serious disadvantage. In fact, Elfwine was on the verge of using his age as an excuse to forsake his duties and seek out his father, a testament of just how frustrated he had become. Elfwine had inherited an awareness of words from his mother, and he knew very well that a statement made one day could easily turn on him the next day. If he pleaded that he was too young to remain here on the Pelennor, Lord Elfhelm was certain to remind everyone of that remark the next time Elfwine tried to do something that was normally handled by older boys. But at the moment, Elfwine did not care. He wanted to see his father, and he was quite ready to subjugate himself to decades of being considered "too young" if it would get him off this cursed field and up to the Houses of Healing!

As if sensing his tension, Shade snorted loudly beside him and danced away, shaking his head and flipping his mane back and forth. Immediately becoming still, Elfwine took several long, deep breaths and managed to gain a handle on his impatience. If he had to stay here and look after his father’s stallion, then he might as well do a good job of it. "Easy, my friend," he whispered to Shade, approaching the horse cautiously and laying a hand on the broad shoulder. Stroking gently, he kept his voice quiet and calm, hiding the restlessness he felt within himself. "Easy," he whispered again. "I am not upset with you."

The stallion tossed his head and stomped, but he seemed to relax a bit. Now that the two elven horses were over by the City-gate, Shade was significantly calmer than he had been earlier, but he was still skittish enough that Elfwine did not feel comfortable leaving him alone just yet. Besides, there was little else for him to do. Unless he wished to plead off his duties using youth as his excuse—which was becoming a more attractive solution by the minute—he was obliged to wait upon the Pelennor with the rest of Elfhelm’s company until Arhelm and his men arrived to relieve them. It wouldn’t be so bad if someone would at least send word of his father’s condition! But there was not, and Elfwine felt as though he was going to go mad with worry. It seemed as though hours had passed since Elfhelm had sent Thendril to make inquiries with the healers, and he had yet to return. And as the minutes ticked away and still no tidings came, Elfwine felt his tenuous grasp on patience slip further and further away.

To make matters worse, the tantalizing aroma of food was beginning to waft about the Pelennor, and Elfwine realized just how very hungry he was. His stomach rumbled, and he raged against the knowledge that when he was relieved from his duty, he would skip the noon meal and journey to the Houses of Healing, where he would be forced to make do with whatever the healers were having for lunch. That thought made him shiver. He had heard far too many tales of terror from both Eowyn and Merry about the quality of the food that those in the Houses were forced to endure, and he had no desire to brave such perils himself.

But perhaps I can use the food to my advantage, Elfwine mused as he absently rubbed Shade’s neck. If my father learns that I survived the healer’s food on his behalf, he may think me strong enough to let me assist him in breaking the wild mares. Intrigued by this idea, Elfwine began to envision a stoic bedside visit with the king during which he ate whatever nefarious concoction had been created for lunch, thus proving his fortitude and ability. Even if that did not work, he could always adopt the part of a martyr forced to dine on the evils of the healers and later user the situation to guilt his father into greater leniency.

At his side, Shade suddenly lifted his head and snorted, his ears pricking up and his expressive eyes turning to watch the City-gate. Drawn from his thoughts of great deeds in the face of hostile cuisine, Elfwine turned in search of whatever had caught the stallion’s interest and promptly loosed an exclamation of joy. Emerging from the mithril gates of Minas Tirith was a party of Rohirrim, and within that party he spied both Arhelm and Thendril. At last! He could turn his duties over to another, hear word of his father’s condition, and then depart to see his father for himself!

Studying Shade briefly and reading much of his temperament from his stance and his eyes, Elfwine decided that the stallion could probably be left on his own. So long as the elven horses remained far away from the breeding mares, there should be no problems. Giving his father’s horse a final pat, Elfwine turned away and hurried toward the gathering Rohirrim, leaping the paddock fence and only dimly registering Shade’s farewell whinny.

"There you are, my friend," Elfhelm called out in greeting when Elfwine neared the others. "Lord Arhelm has been telling us that he was in the Houses of Healing along with Thendril and that they both spoke with Lady Eowyn."

"And my father?" Elfwine questioned as he joined them. "Did you speak with my father as well?"

Arhelm traded an uncertain look with Thendril, causing a pang of fear to blossom in Elfwine’s heart. "No, I fear that we did not have opportunity to speak with him."

"But you saw him, surely," Elfwine pressed, ignoring the sinking sensation in his stomach. "How did he appear?"

"My lord prince, we were not allowed to even see the king," Arhelm answered grimly. "We were told that he was resting and could not be disturbed. But as Lord Elfhelm has stated, we did speak with Lady Eowyn. She came to…greet us when we were denied entry."

"She did not seem pleased with the gelding iron, my lord," Thendril added.

Elfhelm emitted a strange, choking cough that sounded suspiciously like a laugh, and in other circumstances, Elfwine would have been interested in pursuing the matter. But his father was foremost in his mind, and his anxiety was growing. "Did Lady Eowyn tell you aught of the king’s condition?" he asked, trying to keep his voice steady.

"She said that the king was sleeping and that he would be well with rest and care," Arhelm answered.

Elfwine blinked. "She said nothing else?"

"She spoke of a head injury, my lord prince," Thendril said. "But the Lady Eowyn seemed confident that the king would recover."

"Yet you were not allowed to see him," Elfwine observed flatly.

Arhelm and Thendril both shifted uncomfortably. "I am sorry, but the healers were rather adamant on that count," Arhelm answered.

"It could simply be that they were protective of the king’s sleep," Elfhelm suggested, but his voice lacked conviction.

"Or it could be that they are hiding something," Elfwine muttered darkly. It was his experience that when evidence was kept from view, someone was harboring secrets. He had come up against this many times when his parents felt that he was too young to know something, and he suspected that healers—who seemed to consider themselves older than everyone around them regardless of their actual age—would employ a similar tactic.

"Then we must discover the truth of the matter for ourselves," Elfhelm said. "We will arrange things here with Arhelm’s company, and then we will depart for the Houses."

Elfwine felt his heart drop. It was, of course, necessary to tell Arhelm of the elven horses and advise him to keep a close watch upon Shade. Arhelm might have heard some of this from Thendril, but an official report from Elfhelm was still needed. And then they would need to inform the men of the change in command in addition to taking stock of how many of Arhelm’s men were here to relieve Elfhelm’s men, for not everyone had yet arrived. This was all fairly routine and would not require much time, but even so, Elfwine chafed at the delay. He wished to see his father now.

Perhaps sensing his anxiety, Elfhelm studied the prince for a while and then smiled slightly. "If you wish it, Elfwine, I shall handle the changing of the guard here," he said, his voice sympathetic. "You may go ahead of us to the Houses of Healing. Perhaps by the time I arrive you will have convinced the healers that we should be allowed to visit the king."

Relief and indignation warred within Elfwine. He was loathe to receive special treatment from others because of either his age or his position, but at the same time, Elfhelm was releasing him from his obligations and giving him leave to see his father. And would not Elfhelm do the same for any in his command under similar circumstances? Do not let your pride rule you in this instance, a voice at the back of Elfwine’s head chided him, and in response to this, he found himself nodding. "You are certain you do not need my aid?" he asked Elfhelm even as he prepared to hasten away.

"Shade seems calm, and all else can be handled easily enough," Elfhelm answered. "Go, my prince. Your father needs you."

"As you command, Lord Elfhelm," Elfwine said with a quick bow. And then he was off, trying to keep his pace somewhere between a run and a brisk walk. The healers might have been able to foil the efforts of Arhelm and Thendril, but they had not been tested against the crown-prince of Rohan. Elfwine had experience in getting information that he was not supposed to have, and if the venerable masters of the Houses of Healing thought to hide things from him, they would soon learn the error of their ways.

* * * *

While staggering down halls and up stairways with Imrahil’s hand upon his shoulder as a guide, Merry came to the conclusion that the world made much more sense from a drunken perspective.

The king’s palace was a good example of this. The day before, Merry had considered the many rooms and corridors to be bewildering and tiresome. It was almost as though the architects and builders had intended for visitors to become hopelessly lost and confused. But now Merry had a very different view of these same rooms and corridors. He had realized that they were more than trimmings and trappings. They were an adventure. An exciting journey. A maze of possibilities. It was a wondrous experience marred only by the burning hunger within his stomach, a hunger that would have been sated by now if Imrahil had not interfered.

Not that Merry blamed Imrahil. His mind was not working well enough to make connections that would assign fault or responsibility. It was true that the basement contained food. It was true that Merry had been in the basement at one point. And it was true that Merry was no longer in the basement because Imrahil was taking him elsewhere. But joining these facts was currently a task far beyond the inebriated hobbit, and so he trailed along passively behind Dol Amroth’s ruler, admiring the twisting hallways and wondering why he had never seen the adventurous aspects of the palace before. Perhaps when he returned to Buckland, he would suggest that Brandy Hall be redesigned in this fashion…

The ground beneath him suddenly became angry and rocked beneath his feet, upsetting his balance. Moments later, Merry blinked at the stone floor that slammed into his face and wondered what he had done to offend it. Somewhere in the rather nebulous region above his head, he heard Imrahil sigh wearily, and then he felt himself lifted back up.

"Come, Master Brandybuck. We are nearly there," the prince said, and Merry blearily realized that he was being addressed in a formal manner.

"At your service, my lord," the hobbit answered in what he intended to be a clear voice except that it sounded more like a drowning Ringwraith. Not that Merry had ever heard a drowning Ringwraith, but his imagination was currently very active. He could easily envision the cold, dead whispers of the Black Riders struggling to rise through several feet of water, eventually coming out as bubbling, garbled nonsense. Perhaps these winding halls had done something to his throat to make him sound like that. Perhaps his throat now wound around and around so that when he spoke, his words were jumbled from having to find their way to his mouth.

But this could be a problem. How was Merry to express his excitement over his new adventure to others if his words continued to sound lost and confused? Perhaps he should give them a way to escape his throat. He could try burning a doorway for them like he’d intended to do for himself while down in the storeroom. But there was no guarantee that his words would find the opening, and he might hurt himself in the process. Pippin would then have no one to look after him, and it was vitally important that Pippin have supervision.

Speaking of which, where was Pippin?

Imrahil had been pushing him down the hallway, but Merry now moved away from his grasp, stumbling as the traitorous ground decided to tremble and buck again. He would have to sit down later and sort out whatever he’d done to make the floor hate him so.

"Merry, we are nearly there. If you will just be patient, I—"

"Have t’ find Pippin," Merry mumbled. This time he sounded less like a drowning Ringwraith and more like a troll with a head cold. The thought made him giggle.

"Pippin is fine," Imrahil answered, his voice seeming to echo in Merry’s head. "I met him rushing out of the Citadel not long before I found you."

Merry frowned. He could only dimly recall what Pippin had been intending to do—even with the assistance of wine, he could make very little sense of the Took’s convoluted ideas—but he was fairly certain that leaving the Citadel had not been part of the plan. Well, unless Legolas and Gimli left the Citadel, in which case it would make sense for Pippin to leave as well. Except that Imrahil had just asked about the elf and dwarf, which probably meant Pippin hadn’t been with them. And that meant…what? Merry shook his head. This was far too complex for his mind at the moment. He could make simple deductions, but when he neared a conclusion, he couldn’t seem to trace his way back through the logic to make the final step. "I’m hungry," he complained after a moment, though what that had to do with anything was beyond Merry. Oh, wait. The storerooms. Why wasn’t he in the storerooms again? He’d just been there. Hadn’t he? Or had he been in the Shire?

"Come along," Imrahil said firmly, guiding the hobbit forward. "I promised you food and rest, but we cannot stop here."

"Why not?" Merry asked, confused as to why their current location would deny them the ability to stop. He also noted that his own voice echoing around his head. Perhaps his mind had become a cave…

"Because you need to be in your own room."

Merry seemed to recall Imrahil saying this before, but he no longer remembered the reasoning behind that assertion. "S’posed to find Pippin," he said. "Can’t leave him alone."

"When I locate your friend, I will send him to your rooms."

Merry had the strangest feeling that he was being patronized, and he suspected that Imrahil was the one doing it. Nothing else had said anything to him recently, though the floor still seemed to be agitated. It wouldn’t hold still. "Need to find Pippin now," Merry tried to explain despite a sudden assault of hiccups. "He’s looking for Legolas and Gimli. Maybe even Elladan and El’ohir. But if there’s food in the room, he doesn’t need t’ look!" He then concluded his logic with a rather loud hiccup.

"I will tell Pippin that when I find him. And I will do all within my power to see that he stays away from those he seeks."

"Need to find him now!" Merry insisted, and once again, he lurched away from Imrahil’s hold. As before, the ground attacked, sliding out from under his feet and sending him crashing into the wall. Perhaps something about Imrahil kept the floor happy. This didn’t happen as often when Imrahil was holding his shoulder. Rubbing his head, he pushed himself into what he felt to be a fairly upright position, his back braced against the wall, and discovered that Imrahil was kneeling before him.

"Merry, listen closely to me," the man said, and his voice seemed a bit too controlled. "You are in no condition to go looking for Pippin. I will find him for you and then he will see that you receive food and rest. But until that time, you must trust me and do as I say. Do you understand?"

Merry didn’t, but Imrahil looked so tired that the hobbit nodded anyway.

"Good," Imrahil sighed. "Now, let us get you back on your feet and—"

"Merry!"

The addition of a new voice to his spinning world made Merry’s head pound, and he wondered why everyone was suddenly shouting.

"Merry, what happened? You’re covered in…in…what are you covered in? Prince Imrahil, what—"

"I am pleased to see you again, Master Peregrin, as I have somewhat to say to you. As for your kinsman, he seems to have overindulged in some very potent elven wine."

"He what?"

Merry blinked and tried to make his eyes focus on the newcomer before him. "Pippin?" he asked, not quite daring to believe his good fortune.

"You ninny, what were you doing with elven wine? You look as though you bathed in it!"

"Was only trying t’ start a fire," Merry muttered, somewhat annoyed at Pippin’s outraged tone.

"By swimming in wine?!"

"No. Used the wine on the door so I could light it."

Despite the haze of inebriation, Merry quickly realized that this had been the wrong thing to say. His cousin froze, his face paled, and a hard look crept into his eyes. "Didn’t we talk about fires earlier, Merry? Didn’t you learn anything from the Old Forest? I honestly don’t know what I’m to do with you. You should have known better! You could have been killed if Prince Imrahil hadn’t found you!"

Pippin’s concern was touching, but Merry was now tired of having his judgement challenged. "Would’ve worked," he snapped, folding his arms across his chest and sinking back against the wall.

"If I may interject, Master Peregrin, I do not believe you can reason with him at the present time. We should secure him in his rooms and then see to other business."

"You’re right," Pippin sighed, and he looked at Merry with what seemed to be a wistful expression. "It’s just that I didn’t expect him to go back to the cellars and try burning his way in. We’d already discussed that, and I thought we both agreed that it wasn’t feasible."

"It appears that your cousin reconsidered the matter. But come now. Perhaps you can help me get him on his feet and keep him there."

"No moving," Merry slurred firmly. He was feeling unusually petulant and had decided to vent his feelings on Imrahil and Pippin. After all, they were the ones making him do things without his consent.

"Merry, you can’t sit here in the hall all day."

"Why not?" he demanded. Imrahil had been unable to answer that question and Merry was interested to hear Pippin’s response.

"You’re right. He really can’t be reasoned with," Pippin murmured. His cousin backed away and scratched his head, glancing down the hallway. "Do you think you could continue to look after him, Prince Imrahil?"

"I have matters of my own to attend to, but I could be persuaded otherwise."

"Persuaded? What do you mean?"

"Ere we left the kitchens, Merry revealed that you were searching for Lord Legolas and Lord Gimli. I wondered if you might be able to tell me of their whereabouts."

"Oh." Pippin hesitated, and even Merry could tell that he paused for too long. "Well, I haven’t seen them. Not since breakfast, at any rate."

Breakfast! Merry remembered. That is when Arwen told me that Pippin and I could help ourselves to the kitchens! We have to punish her for that!

"When last we met, you were in a great hurry to leave the Citadel," Imrahil said. "You seemed to be pursuing something. Perhaps you received word of Legolas and Gimli? Or of Elladan and Elrohir, maybe?"

There was another long pause, and this pause extended to the entire palace, or so it seemed to Merry. Even the walls felt tense, as though they waited for a great announcement.

"I was trying to catch Elladan and Elrohir," Pippin finally revealed. "They had scaled the wall and were landing on the stable roof. Eldarion was with them, and I thought that if I could learn their plans, I could use the information to buy some help from Legolas and Gimli."

Imrahil now had a strange look upon his face. Merry was certain he’d seen that look before, but for the life of him, he could not remember where. He’d seen it recently, though at the moment, the elven wine coursing through his veins was making time a very relative thing. Bilbo’s birthday party and this morning’s breakfast felt as though they had both taken place yesterday evening.

"Elladan and Elrohir had Eldarion?" the prince of Dol Amroth said slowly. Merry smiled at the names, noting that they were all quite similar. Behind him, the wall seemed to thump in agreement.

"It doesn’t bode well, does it?" Pippin sighed. "And that’s not all. I overheard Elrohir and Elladan talking in the stables. Apparently their horses are missing, and Legolas’s horse as well. And though I didn’t see them, I did overhear Legolas and Gimli in the Queen’s Gardens earlier talking about something they’d done with the horses. They said something about Rhûn and Eomer’s mares. I didn’t hear much more, but it can’t be good." Pippin rubbed his temples and shook his head. "All I wanted was a nice meal! Was that too much to hope for?"

Now Merry remembered where he’d seen the look on Imrahil’s face. It was the same look that some of the elves had given him the first time the hobbits had visited the kitchens in Rivendell. Frodo had still been unconscious, fighting the Morgul wound, and Sam had refused to leave his side, so Merry and Pippin had been charged with obtaining food. They’d gone to the kitchens and made a few requests, after which one of the elves had said that they only needed to order enough food for a single meal, not enough food for several days. To this, Merry and Pippin had replied that they indeed ordering enough food for a single meal. In response to that, the elves had given the two hobbits a look of complete disbelief and utter shock. Imrahil now wore the same expression.

"Do you want some wine?" Merry offered as the wall behind him thumped again. After all, wine had done wonders for him. Maybe it would help his friends.

"Yes," Imrahil said wearily. "Yes, I would. Unfortunately, someone here should retain the ability to think clearly."

"I can do that," Pippin volunteered.

"Indeed?"

"So what’re we going to do now?" Merry asked, and a giant yawn split his face. That was odd. He didn’t feel tired. Or did he? It was becoming so difficult to tell. All the moments of his life were running together, and he couldn’t work whether he’d just stumbled off the Pelennor after the Witch-king’s death or whether he was sleeping on the talan in Lothlórien.

"You, Master Brandybuck, are going to sleep," Imrahil said, putting a hand beneath Merry’s arm and lifting. "Master Took and I are going to have a long discussion about the possible whereabouts of certain elves, half-elves, and dwarves."

"But I need to find Legolas and Gimli," Pippin protested.

"We both need to find Legolas and Gimli, and to that end, we shall work together. Now help me with your cousin."

Together, the two of them managed to pull Merry off the floor and away from the wall, which now seemed to be pounding in earnest. Merry wondered why no one else was paying attention to it. Perhaps something had happened to their hearing. They were doing quite a bit of shouting. If they would only lower their voices just a bit…

"Merry? Come on, Merry, you can walk. One foot in front of the other. Even that shouldn’t be too difficult for you."

Merry fixed a dark glare on Pippin. At least, he assumed it was a dark glare. The light seemed to be fading, and so it stood to reason that anything he did would become dark, just like this hallway.

"Merry?"

It’s this silly floor again, Merry thought dismally as the ground spun away. It truly does not like me. The two of us must have a long talk soon.

"Merry!"

The wall thumped once more, and that was the last thing Merry heard as the elven wine finally overwhelmed him and sent him into a deep and pleasant slumber.

* * * *

Gimli watched with a mixture of concern and confusion as Legolas ruthlessly pounded his shoulder against the wall of their dark corridor. Several minutes ago, the elf had stopped suddenly and informed Gimli that he heard voices on the other side of the wall. Gimli had started to ask why these particular voices were relevant, but he was immediately shushed. Quiet moments had passed during which the flickering torchlight revealed that Legolas had closed his eyes and pressed his ear to the stone wall, listening intently. Then, almost without warning, Legolas had started beating against the wall, muttering angrily under his breath. Once he paused and run his hands over its surface as though looking for something, but then he resumed hitting it.

"Legolas?" Gimli said hesitantly, uncertain of his companion’s sanity.

"Make it open," the elf said, his eyes hard and dark in the meager torchlight.

"Make what open?"

"The wall. Open it as you did in the nursery. We must get out of these passageways!"

Ah, he feels the closeness of the walls, Gimli realized, trying to decide how best to handle the situation. He’d actually been expecting Legolas to exhibit signs of claustrophobia long before now. Truth be told, he was starting to feel slightly claustrophobic himself, though he would sooner give up a mithril mine than admit that to Legolas. Even so, these corridors were extremely narrow. In several places, his broad shoulders had brushed against the walls on both sides. The elf was undoubtedly in a state of near panic, and it was up to Gimli to calm him before he could harm either himself or those around him, namely the dwarf. "Peace, Legolas. It will be well ere long. I want you to close your eyes and take deep breaths. We will find Eldarion soon and then—"

"Elladan and Elrohir have Eldarion."

Gimli blinked. "Pardon?"

The elf glared at him. "Elladan and Elrohir have Eldarion," he repeated.

Gimli opened and closed his mouth silently for a moment before again finding words. "How do you know this?"

"Pippin, Imrahil, and what sounded like Merry were speaking together on the other side of this wall. Pippin just told of watching Elladan and Elrohir escape the Citadel over outer wall near the stables. He says that they took Eldarion with them."

Gimli blinked again. "You…you are certain?"

Legolas narrowed his eyes. "Open this wall, Gimli."

The dwarf shook his head, reeling slightly. "How is it that they found him before we did? We looked everywhere!"

"I do not know, and at the moment, I do not care. I only wish to escape these dark corridors so that we might pursue our foes and retrieve Eldarion before Aragorn learns of what has transpired. Now if you would be so kind as to employ your dwarven touch to these soulless walls—"

"Legolas, not every wall in this palace was made to open," Gimli interrupted. "I doubt very much that there exists an opening here that will lead us into the corridor without, and even if it did exist, it would be difficult to find in this darkness."

A flash of something that might have been terror flitted through the elf’s eyes and then vanished. "You mean to say that we are trapped in here?"

"Certainly not!" Gimli snapped, puffing himself up indignantly. "I would not have led us in if I could not lead us out again."

"Then by all of Elbereth’s blessed stars, lead us out!"

Realizing that a combination of claustrophobia and frustration had given Legolas a short temper—which was saying much, considering that the elf had a relatively short temper to begin with—Gimli wisely decided to comply for the moment. Walking back toward the elf and squeezing around him with a slight grunt, he began to retrace his steps. "It would be best if we return to the nursery," he said, glancing over his shoulder as he went. "We might try to find another opening, but I already know where the switch is that will open the wall into the nursery."

"Then let us move quickly," Legolas muttered as he fell into place behind the dwarf. "I wish to spend no more time in these dark places."

"That is the problem with elves," Gimli sighed, testing his friend’s state of mind with a light jest. "They have very little sense of adventure."

"And the problem with dwarves is that they have very little common sense," the elf retorted sharply.

No longer unduly frightened, but angry still, Gimli decided. He feels as though things are slipping beyond his control and that unnerves him. He will last the journey to the nursery, but unless circumstances change, he may not last the day.

"Should we not turn up those stairs?"

Gimli stopped and looked back to see Legolas indicating an off-shooting corridor that led to spiral steps. The dwarf examined the walls, the width of the hall, and then shook his head. "You are slightly off in your reckoning," he said, trying to make his voice casual and unassuming. That last thing he needed was for Legolas to take offense. "We should follow this corridor around several turns before ascending into the upper levels."

"I thought we had traveled only a short distance before I heard the voices on the other side of the wall," Legolas said doubtfully.

"Distances are difficult to judge in the darkness," Gimli said with a shrug. "Come. Trust the instincts of a dwarf. My people have long wandered the stone beneath the earth. A man’s house shall not bewilder me."

The elf still looked skeptical but he nodded once, and Gimli took that as an indication to proceed. Which he would have done anyway, but it was nice to know that the elf would follow.

They started off again with Gimli setting a rather brisk pace. He told himself that it was to prevent disaster on the part of Elladan and Elrohir and alleviate Legolas’s fears, but in his heart, he knew that he also longed to reach more open spaces. The very idea was an affront to his dwarven pride, and he tried to ignore the sudden desire to see blue sky above him. Clearly he had been spending far too much time around elves. When they had finished with their business of mischief, perhaps he would seek out the hobbits and spend time with them. They did not have a dwarf’s love for caverns and deeps, but at least they were more sympathetic to his musings than the elf that trailed behind him.

The pair came upon an off-shooting corridor that dipped down slightly and Gimli turned into it, grimacing slightly when he was required to turn sideways in order to fit through. His torch bobbed before him, its light revealing just how confining the space was. He told himself firmly that this was as nothing when compared with some of the back hallways in the depths of Erebor, but it was still difficult and the nearly tangible tension on the part of his elven friend was not helping.

At length they came to a wider passageway, and Gimli turned left into it before making a right when they came to a crosscutting hall, winding his way confidently toward the stairs that would take them up to the nursery and telling himself over and over again that this was no worse than anything back home. "How do you fare, Legolas?" Gimli asked, thinking that talking might enable him to focus on something other than the dusty corridors.

"I will fare better when we are free of these confining walls," the elf said shortly.

Gimli sighed and decided to forego attempts at conversation. Legolas was probably too concerned about maintaining his stoic elven façade to keep a civil tongue in his head. The wrong words now would only upset Legolas further, and though the elf had done remarkably well in these secret passages, it was best not to push him. Further agitation could lead to an erosion of control, which would give his claustrophobic leanings a chance to move in. Then the dwarf would have a frantic elf on his hands, and that was to be avoided at all costs.

So they continued their journey in silence, passing stairways and weaving their way through the maze of passages that riddled the walls of the king’s palace. It was not exactly an awkward silence, but it was quite tense. It was something of a waiting silence, Gimli decided. As though something needed to happen, but until that time, it was best to keep quiet and still.

They turned down a new corridor, passed other staircases, and the silence seemed to become more pronounced. At this point, Gimli decided that Aragorn’s home was nothing like Erebor. When the dwarves created secret passages, they did so with skill and finesse. Not too much finesse, of course, because atmosphere had to be maintained, but these cramped corridors could not compare with the cunning of Erebor’s secret hallways. The passages of Erebor might be small and tight, but they still managed to convey the vastness of the mountain above them. They maintained the depth and power of the stones out of which they were carved. The rough stonework here in the Citadel was nothing more than that. It held no echoes of cavern depths or ageless earth. It was silent and stifling. The only sounds came from the sputtering flames of the torches and the tread of Gimli’s boots against the stone floor, thudding dully off the walls as…

Gimli abruptly stopped and frowned. Why could he only hear his own steps?

His frown deepening, he turned around to look for his companion. Legolas moved with complete stealth in forests and fields, but upon rock, he could not entirely hide the sound of his feet. Gimli should have been able to hear him. And as the dwarf turned toward his friend, he discovered why he no longer could.

Legolas had stopped a good twenty feet back.

Wondering if he would need to talk Legolas through his claustrophobia after all, Gimli sighed and started toward the elf. "Are you well?" he asked, his voice echoing through the hall.

"We have not been here before," Legolas murmured.

The dwarf blinked and looked around. "Yes, we have. We came down this way when you thought that Eldarion might be interested in a broader hallway."

"Nay, the ceiling was higher when I said that," Legolas argued with a shake of his head. "This hallway is new. We have not been here before. The dust is undisturbed."

"We haven’t disturbed much dust. I do not think that is a good sign of where we have or have not been."

"We have not been here," the elf insisted. "We should have turned at those last set of stairs."

"We have only descended spiral staircases," Gimli reminded him. "The stairs that we most recently passed were straight. We did not come down them."

"Nor did we come through here!"

With a grimace, Gimli looked around in the hopes of placating his friend. He studied the width of the corridor, the height of the ceiling, the dust upon the floor, the distance between adjoining halls, and the occasional wall sconce that sat upon the walls. And he came to a rather shocking realization: the elf was indeed correct. They had not passed through this hallway earlier.

Panic hit the dwarf hard. How had he missed the way back? He had been so confident of his path. So sure of his destination! How had he, a dwarf of the mountains, managed to lead them astray in a building of stone? He was certain he’d kept a good mental map of their travels in these back hallways. There had been many twists and turns, but Gimli was a dwarf! Twists and turns were easy for him!

"I think," he said at length, "that this might be a shorter route."

The elf stared at him askance. "You think?"

"I believe that I was trying to lead us back to Eldarion’s nursery using the quickest way available. I struck out as the crow flies rather than as the passageway turns. But," he continued before Legolas could interrupt, "I know the palace fairly well and I believe I can make an educated guess as to our current position."

"And that would be?" the elf challenged, a steeling glint creeping into his eyes.

Gimli hesitated. "We are…"

"Yes?"

"We are just now beneath some of the upper corridors near the library."

The elf looked at Gimli for a rather long and uncomfortable moment, and then he spoke, his voice dangerously quiet. "It is as I said before. The dwarves lack much in the art of subtle deception. You have no more idea of our whereabouts than I do."

Gimli drew a tight rein on his temper. "You have a better guess?"

"I am wise enough to know that guessing will lead to further trouble," Legolas answered sharply.

Anger was beginning to rise in the back of Gimli’s mind, but knowing himself to be far more comfortable in these surroundings than the elf, he decided that it fell upon him to act as the rational one. "We have this far," he reasoned. "And I trust my instincts. I still believe I can get us to the nursery. Shall we continue?"

"No, we shall not continue. We should go back and attempt this again, but we should heed my council and climb the steps I saw in the beginning of our return journey."

It was not a bad suggestion, but Gimli did not know if he could get them back to their starting point. He hadn’t known exactly where they were when Legolas had stopped to listen, and they’d taken so many turns so quickly since then that he was doubtful of his ability to retrace their steps. "It would take too long," he said, deciding not to tell the elf about his self-doubts. "We are already this far. It cannot be much further. If we simply continue, then—"

"Then you will lead us further into passageways we have not walked," Legolas snapped. "You do not know where we are or where we are going, Gimli. But at least I remember where we have been."

Dwarven pride began to rankle, and Gimli felt his grip on his temper weakening. "You imply that I do not know where we have been?" he demanded, though he was forced to admit to himself that this was, in fact, the truth. And as it was the truth, it stung all the more.

"I am certain that you do not know where we have been, else we would not have come here!" Legolas answered.

"But I suppose that you could lead us back easily."

"At the moment, I have more confidence in my own abilities than I have in yours."

"An elf dares to challenge a dwarf within walls of stone?" Gimli’s blood was running hot now. He knew that the elf’s nervousness was making him deliberately provocative, but Gimli could endure only so much. "I have walked more caverns, explored more tunnels, and descended into more mountains than you can ever dream of."

"May the Valar take me if I ever I dream of anything so dismal," Legolas spat. "It was a mistake to come in here. A mistake made by you, I believe."

"You were under no obligation to follow me! You did that of your own volition. I gave you every opportunity to back away."

"And it is well that I did not, for it seems that my expertise is now needed to rescue you."

Gimli’s fury reached fever pitch. "Rescue me?! Watch your words carefully, Master Elf. I am in no need of rescuing. I am going to press forward and find the nursery just as I said I would. And if you doubt my abilities, you are welcome to find your own way."

"I will, then, for forging ahead will only result in greater delay," the elf shot back heatedly. "I would advise you to follow me, but I see that your dwarven pride prevents you from saving yourself."

"We will see who needs saving when I go out to find Eldarion and you become hopelessly lost in these tunnels!"

"A challenge, then," Legolas proposed, his eyes flashing angrily. "You go your way and I shall go mine. Whoever finds the nursery last is required to play squire to the other on the morrow."

"I expect my boots to be polished by breakfast," Gimli said tightly, folding his arms across his chest.

"And I expect my bath to be drawn by daybreak," the elf answered curtly.

"So long as the bath does not interfere with your attention to my boots, I will permit it."

Legolas’s cold smile sent chills down the dwarf’s back. "As any squire of mine should be presentable, I shall be sure to tell you whether or not you must put an extra shine on your boots before breakfast. And now I will depart, for I have not forgotten that we must see to Eldarion. I wish you good fortune, Gimli. You will certainly need it."

And with that, the elf turned and walked away, moving in a fashion that was vaguely reminiscent of a dwarven stomp. It was something he’d picked up from Gimli’s guards during his visits to Aglarond. They were frequently stomping about whenever the elf was around, and Legolas had slowly—almost unconsciously—integrated the stomp into his own behavior. Unfortunately, the renowned dwarven version of the stomp was famous primarily for its sound, and sound was something that Legolas lacked when he moved. Even when he tried, he could not generate much in the way of noise. It was simply not a part of his makeup. As a result, his involuntary dwarven stomp was more in his posture and his motion than in his noise. It was a curious thing to watch, actually, and sometimes the elf looked very much like an indignant kitten forced to tiptoe through a puddle of water. Gimli allowed himself to chuckle at the sight until the elf turned a corner and vanished from view, the light of his torch eventually receding altogether. Then Gimli turned and went his own way, still fuming over the audacity of the elf. Did Legolas seriously think that he could best a dwarf in these hidden passages? Gimli shook his head and moved on.

A few minutes later, the ramifications of what he’d just done came crashing down around him.

"Great Mahal," he murmured, stopping and looking back. His anger dissolved as swiftly as it had come, and he cringed to think of the hapless elf stumbling around in these dark, narrow corridors. Should he go after him? Legolas had been moving quickly, and he doubted that he could catch the elf. And if Legolas turned one way and Gimli turned another, they would both be even more lost than they already were.

"Legolas!" he called, hoping that the elf would hear him and return. But all he heard were the echoes of his own voice. "Durin’s beard, what has that elf done now?" he sighed with a shake of his head.

After a moment, he shook his head, turned back, and continued on his way. It would be fruitless to search for Legolas. He would have to trust that elven instincts proved partially useful here and that Legolas found his the way out. If not, then Gimli would see to Eldarion and enlist the assistance of those who knew the passages well. Faramir, for instance, though how he was going to explain what Legolas was doing in the passages in the first place was beyond the dwarf. Still, if he went to Faramir and only to Faramir, he could probably trust him to remain discreet. But until then, he would have to hope that Legolas could hold his sanity together long enough to be rescued.

And with that thought, Gimli hurried on, anxious to reach the nursery and put this entire ordeal behind him.

 

Chapter Text

…………

You were not wholly frank with me, Frodo.
I told no lies, and of the truth all I could.

Faramir and Frodo—The Two Towers (The Window on the West)

…………

"The Rohirrim wish to know how their king fares," Eowyn announced as she walked through the door. "They were the cause of the disturbance in the hall."

From his position next to Eomer’s bedside—a position that also happened to place him directly between Eomer and Arwen—Aragorn looked up and immediately frowned, his eyes snapping to the brand that Eowyn held at her side. Under other circumstances, he would have focused on her remark about the Rohirrim, but Aragorn could guess well enough why the Riders of Rohan had caused an uproar in the Houses of Healing. Their actions were to be expected. What he could not guess was why Eowyn was carrying a gelding iron. That was unexpected, and Aragorn did not appreciate unexpected things. At least, not this day. From the early morning destruction of Gimli’s door to the disastrous horse race to Arwen’s surreptitious support of Eomer’s misguided infatuation, Aragorn had endured enough unexpected events already. He did not know if he could handle another, especially when he knew that there were two half-elves, a wood-elf, and a dwarf who were probably making life even more unexpected elsewhere in the city.

Aside from all that, a gelding iron was not exactly the cleanest thing to have in a sick room.

"Eowyn, why are you holding that?" Aragorn demanded, his voice perhaps a touch harsher than was necessary.

Eowyn stopped and looked at him, her face betraying a moment’s confusion as though she did not understand the question, and then her eyes widened and she glanced down at the item in her hand. "You mean the gelding iron, my lord?" she asked after a somewhat lengthy pause.

"Yes. I mean the gelding iron," Aragorn said, attempting to rein in his frustration. He felt he had calmed down significantly since the events on the Pelennor, but he was still annoyed and the situation was not improving. Eowyn had hesitated before responding, and if there was one thing that could be said of the former shieldmaiden, it was that she did not hesitate, no matter the conditions. This did not bode well.

All eyes now upon her—with the exception of Eomer’s as he was still unconscious—Eowyn pressed her lips into a thin line and studied the gelding iron. "It is part of a message from Elfhelm," she eventually said.

Aragorn blinked. The others in the room did likewise. "A message from Elfhelm?" Faramir repeated slowly.

"Yes," Eowyn answered, and she drew herself up, seeming to come to a decision of sorts. "A message that I shall deliver only to the king of Rohan."

Biting back a rather foul curse that he had once heard in Lothlórien of all places—and from Celeborn, no less—Aragorn pinched the bridge of his nose and silently fumed. He had known this day would be bad, but he had expected the disasters to come from an entirely different direction, namely an elven direction. One more thing that is unexpected, he thought as he ground his teeth together. "Just what manner of message requires a gelding iron?" he finally asked.

"One that should be delivered to he who rules the Mark," Eowyn said, making it clear that the presence of the gelding iron would remain a mystery for the time being. "I would not have you concern yourself over it, my lord. It is not a matter of emergency." She paused, then, tapping the brand absently against her leg. "Although it should be discussed as soon as possible. Perhaps Lothíriel—"

"Nay," Rohan’s queen said quickly, shaking her head. "If it is a message that involves a gelding iron, I have no wish to hear it. When my husband regains his memory, we will let him deal with the matter." A hard glint entered her eyes. "It can be part of his reparations for the trouble he has caused."

"Trouble?" Arwen’s voice was innocent. Too innocent. "Aside from holding our attention here, I do not think he has caused much in the way of trouble. And he has certainly not caused that trouble intentionally."

Lothíriel’s face went suspiciously blank, and she took what seemed to be an unconscious step toward Arwen before stopping herself. Aragorn felt his own face become stone even as the irritation he harbored towards his wife passed the stage of annoyance and progressed rapidly towards anger.

Perhaps sensing the surging tide of emotions, Faramir cleared his throat and rose from his seat at Eomer’s bedside. "So the Rohirrim were the cause of the commotion in the halls?"

The change in topic was far from subtle, but Aragorn appreciated the effort.

"Yes," Eowyn said, visibly relieved at Faramir’s intervention. Claiming the seat that her husband had just vacated, she reached out and took hold of one of her brother’s hands while placing the gelding iron atop a small table. "They came not only to deliver Elfhelm’s message but also to learn of Eomer’s condition. Enough witnessed the accident during the race to begin rumors, and they fear for him. They have not forgotten what it is like to lose a king to darkness."

Aragorn’s anger drained away, leaving him once again filled with little more than a vast sense of irritation. It was difficult to be upset when a man he accounted a close friend lay pale and still on a sickbed. He was not overly concerned about Eomer—Valar knew how hard his head was—but the sobering thought of what might have happened had Eomer not reacted so quickly still hovered in the back of his mind. Dol Amroth and Rohan could have both been thrust into mourning over something so trivial as a horse race. They were fortunate that a glancing blow on the head was the only real injury, though the resulting amnesia and apparent devotion to Arwen were another matter altogether.

With a quiet sigh, Aragorn decided that what he really needed to do was to leave this room. He was very much of two minds concerning the entire situation, and he required time away from others in which to sort his thoughts and feelings.

But did he dare take that time? Arwen was enjoying this a bit too much while Lothíriel seemed to share none of her humor. Aragorn could ill afford to have an incident arise between the two queens. Nor could he risk the possibility that Arwen might encourage Eomer’s passion. There was far too much already happening this day, such as whatever mischief was being perpetrated by Elladan, Elrohir, Legolas, and Gimli. Aragorn harbored a faint hope that Eldarion might be able to keep them all in check, but many years as a Ranger had taught Aragorn that wishful thinking could be dangerous. Someone should look into their activities.

But do I really wish to learn what calamities have befallen the Citadel during my absence? Aragorn thought about that for a moment more, considered the options before him, and then decided that looking in on Eldarion and the four miscreants was a job for Faramir. And he can search them out on the pretense that he is telling Legolas and Gimli about a change of plans. For they were to bring Eldarion down to the Pelennor now, and we were all to lunch together. But that will not be the case, and it seems only fitting that I should send my steward to inform them of this.

Satisfied with his choice as well as the excuse that Faramir could use, Aragorn began to feel much better about the day, nearly forgetting his earlier desire to leave. His cheer lasted for several wonderful seconds, and then Eomer groaned and shifted beneath the covers, murmuring what sounded like poetic nonsense regarding a dark-haired elven beauty with eyes of silver twilight. He subsided quickly, but a glance around the room revealed that his words had been heard by all. Eowyn wore a look of concern, Arwen’s lips were twitching with a hidden smile, Lothíriel’s eyes were dark as a stormy sea, and Faramir had abandoned all pretense of subtlety and was openly watching both Aragorn and Lothíriel.

Probably with good reason, Aragorn thought, noting with a touch of bemusement that his fists were now clenched. I seem to be more upset than I realized.

The king of Gondor did not consider himself a jealous man, and in most cases, he did not act as one, either. He knew very well that Arwen was accounted unusually fair, even among the elves, and that her beauty drew the attention of other men. This had never been a problem for Aragorn because he was always certain of Arwen’s devotion and also because her admirers had been content to remain at a discreet distance. But Eomer’s current obsession with Arwen was something different. The possibility that Arwen might be bound to another did not seem to enter his head, and he had made no effort to conceal his ultimate intentions toward the queen, which roused something dark and rather dangerous within Aragorn. Moreover, Arwen herself did not seem inclined to defuse what could easily become a volatile political situation. Aragorn knew that Lothíriel was wise enough to keep her anger to herself while around her subjects, but he also knew that, when pressed, she could be as brash and temperamental as the man she had married. All in all, the situation was telling on Aragorn’s nerves and both his frustration and his ire were growing rapidly.

One thing is abundantly clear, Aragorn decided, relaxing his clenched fists with a conscious effort. I must leave this room. Faramir will see to the others, but I must also venture elsewhere.

However, there was still the problem of leaving Arwen and Lothíriel in the same room with a sleeping but clearly ardent Eomer. Aragorn supposed that he could order them to leave, but that seemed excessive and he was not convinced that they would listen to him anyway. No, he would have to trust that Eowyn could maintain the peace for a time. She was handling the situation admirably, and now that he thought about it, Aragorn decided that she was probably the best person to leave with these three. Eowyn had learned to maneuver around Gríma Wormtongue’s machinations, and though she might not have the silver tongue of elven diplomats, she was more than able to hold her own should push come to shove. She could keep both Arwen and Lothíriel in check if need be. And if Aragorn did not wander far, he would be within calling distance should the situation get out of hand. In fact, a trip to the House’s storerooms would probably be an adequate distance, and its purpose would be two-fold as there was an infusion he could concoct that Elrond had used specifically for head wounds.

Now armed with a plan that would further several goals, Aragorn stepped away from Eomer’s bedside and beckoned to Faramir, moving toward the door. "Eowyn, there is a draught I can brew that was used in Imladris for injuries of these kind," he said. "It will take perhaps an hour to create. May I entrust Eomer’s care to you?"

Eowyn nodded. "Of course, my lord."

"Good. What he needs above all else is quiet and rest. See that he is not disturbed." He put a faint emphasis on this last word, and the flash in Eowyn’s eyes indicated that she understood. He was not leaving her with only Eomer but also with Arwen and Lothíriel. Judging from Arwen’s raised brow, she had also understood the message and was not yet sure if she should be amused or offended. Irritation still simmering in the back of his mind, Aragorn decided that she could remain uncertain. "Faramir, would you accompany me. There is something I would have you see to." And without waiting for acknowledgment or agreement, he turned and walked out the door, leaving Arwen to wonder if she had been consciously snubbed or simply forgotten.

He stopped at a hallway window that overlooked the gardens and listened to the sound of following feet, turning away from the outside world as his steward reached his side. "You have a task for me, my lord?" Faramir asked, his voice crisp and formal. It reminded Aragorn of the early days of his kingship when Faramir was uncertain of his role beneath his new lord.

"Two tasks," Aragorn answered. He looked back out the windows, wishing that the garden walls were shorter and the Houses placed differently. From this angle, it was impossible to see the Tower of Ecthelion, and Aragorn suddenly wondered whether or not it was still standing. "First, I would have you seek out Legolas and Gimli. They are tending to Eldarion and were instructed to take him to the Pelennor Fields at noon so that we might all dine together. I would have you inform them that there has been a change in plans."

"Ah." Faramir’s eyes gleamed. "Am I correct, my lord, to suspect that the second task you have for me is to determine whether Legolas and Gimli have done aught in the way of mischief? And while I am about this business, do you also wish me to learn the whereabouts of the lords of Rivendell?"

"It would be very much appreciated," Aragorn said, his eyes still intent upon the garden wall. "And yes, that is the second task I would give you."

"Then if I may make a confession, Imrahil has already left to see to these matters."

Aragorn nodded slowly. "I suspected as much. Nevertheless, he has yet to return, and it is quite possible that he is in need of assistance."

"True," Faramir said, his voice reluctant. "And I would have accompanied him when he left to inquire after our guests, but I felt my presence was needed here."

"I see," Aragorn murmured, and his irritation with Eomer and Arwen redirected itself toward Faramir. "You were to stay behind and watch my actions, correct?"

Faramir frowned, but the slight tick in his jaw told Aragorn that his guess was not far astray. Denethor’s son he might be, but if he wished to fool a Ranger raised among elves, he would have to do better. "My lord, I stayed to watch my over my wife’s brother and also to comfort Lothíriel should my cousin wish it."

"Yes, I noticed that Lothíriel was sorrowing greatly," Aragorn observed, making no effort to hide his sarcasm. "Indeed, she could use much in the way of comfort. Her current state of mind makes her somewhat akin to an irate Warg, and I know well just how much comfort such creatures desire."

Faramir blinked, which was the equivalent of slack-jawed astonishment in a lesser man. Aragorn wondered whether it was a reaction to the unspoken rebuke or to the fact that the king of Gondor had just compared the queen of Rohan to a Warg. "I was uncertain of her mind at the time I decided to stay and offer comfort," Faramir said at length.

Aragorn arched his brow. "Faramir, son of Denethor and steward of Gondor, did not know his cousin’s state of mind?"

The steward sighed and looked away. "I suppose it is possible that watching the actions of my king and my queen played a small part in my choices."

"I suppose that may indeed be possible," Aragorn said, feeling slightly mollified. There was a certain amount of satisfaction in forcing his steward to admit to something. "And now that we understand one another clearly, let me assure you of your wife’s capabilities. I am certain that Eowyn will keep a close watch upon all in your absence. You need not stay on my account."

Faramir looked dubious, but he nodded slowly, apparently realizing that Aragorn would not be gainsaid in this matter. "As you wish, my lord. Think you that Legolas, Gimli, and Eldarion are yet within the Citadel, or would they have already descended to the Pelennor?"

"I am uncertain," Aragorn confessed with a shake of his head. "It would probably be best to speak with the sentries in the tunnel and inquire there after those you seek. Elladan, Elrohir, and Legolas can escape the Citadel through other means, but Gimli and Eldarion would still have to use the tunnel to reach the Sixth Circle."

"I will heed your advice, my lord," Faramir said, sketching a quick bow. "And Varda willing, I will return soon with news of our guests."

"If the news is less than good, you may wish to right whatever was wronged ere you return," Aragorn warned.

Faramir’s eyes were sympathetic but without promise. "If it is within my power to do so, I will," he said, bowing once more before taking his leave and disappearing down the winding corridors.

And having said that, it will of course not be within his power to do so, Aragorn sighed, moving away from the window and heading toward the storerooms where the herbs were kept. I wonder if it would be premature to send guards after Legolas, Gimli, and my brothers. If nothing else, the results might be entertaining…

* * * *

With the same ferocity and desperation he had once used to defend his father’s realm against the spreading darkness of Dol Guldur, Legolas waged a relentless war against the overwhelming desire to panic.

And like most of the battles he had fought within Mirkwood, Legolas lost.

As if this was not insult enough, he lost slowly so that he could feel every moment of mounting panic, which was also reminiscent of his years as one of Thranduil’s captains. Legolas was no stranger to defeat. Centuries of vain struggle against the wiles of Sauron and the Nazgûl had taught Legolas just how easily and how often he could be defeated. To his credit, he was rarely defeated the same way more than once, but this had only served to illustrate just how innovative his enemies could be. As a result, Legolas was uncomfortably familiar with defeat. But defeat by slow, painful degrees… That was something he had never been able to accept no matter how often it happened or how well it described the history of his people in the Third Age. It was something he’d raged against in Mirkwood, frustrated by his own helplessness, and he still harbored feelings of resentment, convinced that there should have been a way to strike back. Unfortunately, he had never found that way, and he was stymied yet again as he looked around at the dark walls of stone that pressed in around him.

A cold shiver of fear crept along the length of his spine. What had he done? And why had he done it? Legolas had not been paying close attention to his surroundings when he followed Gimli into this labyrinth of hidden passages. In order to guard his mind against fear, he’d left all matters of direction and location to the dwarf, trusting that his friend would be able to lead them out as easily as he had led them in. The possibility that Gimli would become lost had not occurred to Legolas. Or if it had, it had been ruthlessly shoved aside so as to avoid undue panic. Except that the panic had not been undue because that was exactly what had happened. So in a reactive fit of anger, fear, and absolute stupidity, Legolas had stormed off on his own, hoping that he would somehow be able to escape a maze of stone that had managed to confound even a dwarf.

Ai Elbereth, Legolas thought, making another doomed attempt to push back his rising fear. I am truly a fool. Moreover, I shall be an eternally lost fool unless I can think of something that might lead me out of these cursed passages!

But thinking—at least, thinking coherently—was proving to be a difficult task, especially since the walls seemed to be moving closer and closer. Pippin had once asked why Legolas felt uncomfortable in caves and stone fortresses when he had been raised in Mirkwood’s underground stronghold. To this, Legolas could give no answer that a mortal would understand save to say that the closeness of his father’s halls was more akin to the closeness of tightly-knit trees than the closeness of oppressive and implacable stone. Legolas now tried to imagine that the same concept applied here. He was not trapped in some forsaken cave far below the surface of Arda but rather was walking freely in the home of his friend and liege. There was naught here with malicious intent—unless one counted a certain pair of twins—and the moment he found a way out of these dark, stale hallways, he could leave. This was not so unlike the halls of Greenwood.

Yet hard as he tried, such imaginings did not work. The caverns of his father had been skillfully and beautifully crafted by dwarves and had been the home of elves for many centuries. There had come to be an elven feel about the rocks that did not exist here. For all its splendor, Minas Tirith’s stonework was a far cry from the intricacies of Thranduil’s halls, and Legolas felt the ragged edges of panic overtake his thoughts.

To make matters worse, his torch chose that moment to flicker.

Legolas froze and his breath caught painfully in his throat. His eyes snapped to the meager flame, and it sputtered fitfully in response. It was burning low and would not last much longer. Fear surged through him, and knowing that he was but moments away from madness, Legolas decided to do something that would cost him his pride, his dignity, and every ounce of self-respect he had ever accumulated over several centuries as a prince of Mirkwood.

He decided to go back to Gimli.

Forcing down his rising claustrophobia, he turned around and began to retrace his most recent steps. It was a daunting task, for Legolas knew very well that Gimli would no longer be where he had left him. The dwarf would have moved on, and Legolas would be forced to track him as best he could. But though he was skillful enough in the woods, Legolas was not at all confident of his ability to track Gimli over stone. His fire was failing, his mind was wandering, and dwarves moved lightly over stone anyway. In fact, such a task might well prove impossible, but Legolas had little choice. If his torch burned out, he would not be able to continue, and he would never find his own path back to the nursery before the torch died. Gimli was his only hope. If he could reach the dwarf in time—

Legolas suddenly stopped and stared into the darkness before him. He did not remember this crossroads. He did not remember it at all.

"No," he murmured aloud, reaching out with one hand to steady himself against a wall. He was keenly aware of how close the wall was on his other side, and he stared at the branching corridors, wondering why even a few steps backward had proven so difficult for him. "I have wandered too far," he whispered. "I have wandered so far that I cannot go back! I have crossed the threshold of Dol Guldur and shall never see daylight again!"

The torch flickered once more, and when the fire caught again, it was only half as bright as it had been. With something akin to a strangled sob, Legolas sank to the floor, his back pressed firmly against one wall so as to put as much distance between himself and the other wall. He felt he now had two choices. He could continue to wander aimlessly until the torch was completely gone, or he could sit here and mount a mental defense against the inevitable. He chose the latter, for if he could survive the stifling darkness, then Gimli would come looking for him. Legolas winced at the thought of being "rescued," but there seemed to be no alternative. It was either that or an eternity of clinging shadows and madness.

Setting the failing torch beside him, Legolas closed his eyes and tipped his head back and to one side, letting his cheek rest on the stone wall behind him. He used the cool touch to calm his racing thoughts, and he felt his heart slow in response. His breathing became deep and even, and the muscles across his shoulders and back relaxed. His composure regained for the moment, Legolas tried to settle into a more comfortable position, and he turned slightly, pushing his shoulder into the wall and using it for a pivot.

Something in the wall clicked.

The stone beneath his shoulder moved inward, and Legolas’s eyes snapped open in surprise. Before he could do anything more, though, the wall upon which he leaned abruptly slid to one side. Caught off guard, Legolas tumbled backward and immediately became entangled in a…a blanket?

No, a tapestry! his mind realized as he struggled to free himself. His panic emerged briefly once again when the heavy fabric refused to let him go, and he frantically ripped his way free, scrambling to his feet and kicking away the remains of a beautifully adorned tapestry that depicted the fall of the Morannon. It was, Legolas decided, not inappropriate for the situation.

Free of both the confining corridors and the clinging tapestry, Legolas took a moment to slow his breathing and look around. His eyes first went to the wide windows on one side of the room, and the sight of daylight made him faint with relief. He looked back at his former prison, the doorway to the hidden corridors partially obscured by the now ripped and lop-sided tapestry. Then he looked at the arching ceiling, the walls filled with books, the double doors at the far end of the room, the tall hearth beside him, and the oak table next to it upon which sat numerous stacks of parchment and scrolls.

The king’s study, Legolas realized, the last vestiges of panic fading from his mind only to be replaced with chagrin. Valar, this is a full three levels away from the nursery! If Gimli learns of how far astray I wandered, I shall never hear the end of it.

Legolas’s mind hastily called up all that he knew of the guards who served in the Citadel, wondering if any would be outside the study at the noon hour. He could remember a few patrols that went near this room, but he did not think any passed it directly. At least, not if the king was absent. When the room was not in use, the door was kept locked, and it was generally assumed that none would have a desire to enter the study as there was nothing of great value within it.

His fears assuaged, Legolas relaxed slightly. All was well. He had the skills to defeat a locked door, and if he was careful, none would hear or come to investigate. Satisfied that he could leave undetected and confident that he could deflect any of Gimli’s questions, Legolas turned to go. But then his glance fell upon the torn tapestry and the opening in the wall. That would not do! Even if he escaped into the outer hallways unseen, the trail he would leave behind was unmistakable. Yet what could he do about it? He did not know how to repair the tapestry—if indeed it could be repaired—and he did not know how to close the opening in the wall. He was not even sure how he had created it in the first place, and he certainly had no desire to reenter the hidden hallways in order to find out.

"Sweet Elbereth, I am still trapped here!" Legolas exclaimed, no longer caring of who might hear him. He cast his eyes about the room, hoping to find anything that might offer a solution, and then he spied something small and seemingly innocent sitting on the large oak table.

Suddenly struck with inspiration, Legolas moved closer to the table and picked the object up. It was a signet bearing the White Tree of Gondor as well as the winged helm of the Citadel guards. Its sole purpose was to seal the wax upon military orders, and only the king and his captains were allowed to use it.

Perhaps I will allow Gimli to know where I left the hidden passages, Legolas thought, slowly turning the signet over in his hands as he considered his idea. For perhaps I can convince him that my actions were intentional. Particularly after what I shall do with this. Filled with a renewed sense of purpose, Legolas put the signet down and began searching the desk for blank parchment.

* * * *

When Elladan suggested that they amuse Eldarion in the Second Circle while waiting for Estel to leave the Pelennor, Elrohir had been concerned for several reasons. First, the twins did not know what mischief had been done using their horses, and Elrohir was anxious to learn that and put a stop to whatever it was. Second, he was not certain that he would be able to endure the confining quarters of the city’s lower levels where stone buildings crowded about the streets and the walls rose high on all sides. But third and most important was the fact that Estel would have to pass them when he returned to the Citadel, and Elrohir had not been confident in their ability to hide from his keen gaze. Elves within the city had a tendency to stand out, and twin half-elves stood out even more, especially when they carried the whirl of energy that was Gondor’s crown-prince.

But as he was shoved aside by a bustling merchant and nearly tripped by several impatient customers, Elrohir decided that his last concern was groundless. He had trouble enough locating Elladan in this teeming mass of people out celebrating the eve of the New Year. They should have no trouble eluding Estel’s eyes.

Someone’s hand seized his upper arm, and Elrohir started before recognizing the firm grip of his twin. "Move toward the inner wall," Elladan shouted, struggling to make himself heard above the clamor. "The crowds are thinner there."

Elrohir nodded his agreement and followed the pull of Elladan’s arm. Between the press of people and the rising din, his head was beginning to ache. He hoped that finding a lull in the crowds would help. Tightening his hold on Eldarion’s legs as the crown-prince bounced excitedly on his shoulders, he forced his way past several crowded market stands and ducked into the shade of a tall tavern. A bawdy song could be heard within, but the sounds were muffled by stone while the cries of the crowd behind them seemed to lessen.

"A busy day, it seems," Elladan remarked, releasing Elrohir.

"Busy indeed!" Elrohir exclaimed, turning his eyes back upon the choked streets. "I have never witnessed the like, even during Estel’s coronation. It is a wonder that we were not trampled!"

"This will probably ease once the noon hour passes," Elladan said. "Many here seem to be vying for food. They may take their business elsewhere when their hunger is sated."

"I can think of another who may need to sate his hunger ere long," Elrohir said, tilting his head back to look at his nephew. Eldarion was beginning to squirm, and Elrohir could feel the vibrations of a small, rumbling stomach. "If I remember correctly, he did not eat much this morning, despite our sister’s best efforts."

Elladan ran his eyes over Eldarion and frowned. "What do you suppose he wishes to eat?"

Elrohir blinked. "You do not know?"

"You are usually the one to handle the details of a plan. I fulfilled my role in giving us an objective."

Readjusting his grip on Eldarion’s kicking legs, Elrohir advanced on Elladan with narrowed eyes. "May I remind you that—Ai!"

With a move that took both Rivendell lords by surprise, Eldarion dove to his right and nearly succeeded in freeing himself. Feeling his hold slipping as Eldarion dangled precariously to one side, Elrohir loosed his legs and quickly caught him about the waist as he began to fall, tossing him into the air and then catching him again with a better hold.

"You see how difficult he can be?" Elladan demanded.

"He is not unlike a certain brother I know," Elrohir said pointedly. "Impossible to bind to any agreement and incapable of taking responsibility for aught."

Elladan rolled his eyes in a very mannish show of exasperation. "Say what you like so you long as you also consider the problem of feeding Eldarion. I do not think some fruit would go awry. Perhaps we may find a vender who is selling some."

"I wish you luck in that endeavor," Elrohir scoffed as Eldarion’s struggles intensified. "You seem to have forgotten that it is barely spring. Perhaps we might find some apples, but they will be few and expensive."

"Dried fruit, then," Elladan said, seemingly unconcerned by the fact that Elrohir was moments away from losing their nephew. "That should not be too difficult to locate. In fact, the stand opposite our position seems to have—"

"Lord Elladan! Lord Elrohir!"

The twins snapped their eyes to the left, searching the pressing crowds for the owner of the young and strangely wrathful voice that had called out to them. Elrohir found him first, and he silently swore. "It is Elfwine!" he hissed. "But how could he have found in this madness?"

Elladan blanched. "It is too late to concern ourselves with that. Elfwine cannot know that we have our nephew. Haste! Hide Eldarion!"

Elrohir looked at Elladan, looked down at the wiggling fury in his arms, and then looked back up at Elladan. "Hide Eldarion?" he repeated incredulously.

Elladan’s eyes blazed, but it was too late. His face dark, the crown-prince of Rohan broke free of the larger crowds and stormed towards them with an air of purpose and rage. "You!" he cried.

"Lord Elfwine," Elladan said, stepping in front of Elrohir and inclining his head. "Are you in need of assistance?"

"I am not, but I think that you shall be once my father learns of what happened!"

Elladan glanced over his shoulder at Elrohir, but Elrohir shook his head, equally baffled by Elfwine’s accusatory tone. Elladan frowned and began to turn back to Elfwine, but then he froze and an uneasy look passed over his face.

"Horses," he murmured.

Elrohir felt his stomach sink, a sensation that had nothing to do with the fact that Eldarion had just kicked him in the gut. He still did not know what had happened, but whatever Legolas had done with their horses, it seemed to involve the Rohirrim. That did not bode well.

"My father was saving those brood mares for the stallions that the clans of Rhûn were to send!" Elfwine went out, heedless of the exchange between the twins.

Elladan’s eyes widened marginally, Elrohir winced, and Eldarion gave an angry growl of frustration as he increased his struggles to escape. Legolas, you shall rue your actions! Elrohir vowed as Elladan turned back toward Elfwine. "You mean to say that Mornaecco and Gaearsul are among your mares?"

"They were until Shade challenged them," Elfwine snapped. "When my father hears of this, he—"

"Eomer does not know?" Elrohir interrupted, pulled from rather elaborate and involved plots of revenge on a certain Ithilien lord. He moved up beside his twin despite Elladan’s warning glance and gave Elfwine an intent look. "Is Eomer no longer upon the Pelennor?"

Elfwine stared at them silently, a brief flash of fear filling his eyes. "You do not know, my lords?"

"Nay, we do not," Elladan said, taking a step forward. "Speak, Lord Elfwine. What has happened?"

"I…I am not certain." The haughty pride of Rohan melted away from the boy, and he bit his lip. "I believe there was a fall. I did not see it myself, but one of the large poles was upon the ground when I arrived, and Lord Imrahil and my father were also upon the ground. Perhaps they were racing and slipped on the wet ground, for there was a marsh near where the pole used to stand. Lord Imrahil’s horse looked as though she had been knocked about. She may have hit the pole and knocked it over."

"They would not tell you?" Elrohir asked, unconsciously flipping Eldarion upside down as a means of distracting him.

"They might have been willing to, but Lady Eowyn sent me away with Shade and I do not know what has happened after I left. My mother and King Elessar were with my father, as was Lord Faramir. And Queen Arwen was there. But then they all went to the Houses of Healing and I could not follow. I had to watch Shade." The spark of anger suddenly returned, flickering to life so quickly that Elrohir actually felt like taking a step back. "I would not have had to watch Shade for so long had you better controlled your stallions!"

"Peace, Elfwine," Elladan soothed, a worried frown upon his face. "You have heard no tidings whatsoever?"

Elfwine scowled and looked away. "Captain Arhelm and Thendril did come back with tidings," he said. "They spoke with Lady Eowyn and she said that the king would recover with time and rest. But they did not say anything else."

Elrohir struggled to keep his relief from showing on his face. He did not know Eowyn well, but he knew her well enough to know that she would not make a promise she could not keep. "I would not worry overmuch," he told Elfwine, sensing that the youth needed consolation. "Your father is a strong man, and whatever mishap may have befallen, he shall recover quickly."

"But the Riders were not allowed to see him!" Elfwine pressed. "Why would they be denied an audience with my father?"

"Most likely, he needed rest," Elladan said soothingly. "It is not an unusual occurrence. My father is a great healer, and he has taken similar actions upon occasion. Even those not grievously injured sometimes require quiet sleep. It does not necessarily mean that—"

"Down!" Eldarion suddenly shouted.

Elrohir, Elladan, and Elfwine all started in surprise and looked at the crown-prince of Gondor, whose dignity and birthright were severely compromised by the fact that he was dangling from his feet and flailing his clenched fists about with enough force to make him swing. Elfwine frowned. "Should he not be with his nurses?"

Elrohir froze, his mind working furiously even as Eldarion tried to chew a hole through his tunic. "His nurses were given the day to spend as they wished," he said. "King Elessar thought they might enjoy a holiday together." Which was true enough, as far as it went.

"And Eldarion was given to you, my lords?" Elfwine asked skeptically.

"King Elessar felt that Eldarion might wish to spend the day with those he did not see often," Elrohir said smoothly, deciding to stick with the partial truth.

"Are you going now to the Houses of Healing, Lord Elfwine?" Elladan asked, diverting the conversation.

"I am, my lords, and I think that you should accompany me." The note of anger returned to Elfwine’s voice. "I plan to tell father of what has happened on the Pelennor. And if you do not come with me willingly, then allow me to inform you that Lord Elfhelm and his men follow me and will arrive shortly. And they may not be as accomodating as I."

At the mention of more Rohirrim to come, Elrohir and Elladan traded slightly panicked looks. "They might miss us in the crowd," Elrohir hissed.

"As Elfwine did?" Elladan retorted, his voice scarcely more than a whisper. "Nay, I believe we should separate. One must distract Elfwine while the other looks after Eldarion. He still requires food."

Meaning I shall have either the young and angry crown-prince of Rohan or the younger and angrier crown-prince of Gondor. It did not take Elrohir long to decide which he wanted, and moving too quickly for protests, he shoved his flailing, kicking nephew into his Elladan's surprised arms. "Enjoy. I shall return in time."

"Elrohir—"

"Gently, Elladan," Elrohir cautioned. "Eldarion is already upset. Do you wish to upset him more?"

"What are you doing?" Elfwine demanded.

"Have you eaten, Lord Elfwine?" When Elfwine shook his head, Elrohir nodded and took the young prince by the arm. "Then come. We shall wait for the other Rohirrim together, and while we wait, you and I shall dine. I have no desire to eat whatever terrible creations the healers deign to live upon."

Judging from the flicker of relief upon Elfwine’s face, Elrohir had discovered a weakness. "I suppose that would be all right," Elfwine said slowly, allowing himself to be led away. "But what shall we eat here?"

"This tavern smells as though it could offer good possibilities that would be both quick and filling," Elrohir said. "Elladan will keep watch outside for Lord Elfhelm and find things suitable for Eldarion to eat. He enjoys the open air more than the closeness of a tavern. Is that not so, brother?"

The dark glare upon Elladan’s face would have cracked a Silmaril, but to his credit, he did not argue. Instead, he swung Eldarion up under one arm and fished around in a belt pouch, eventually pulling out a small roll of leather. "Take this," he said, tossing it to Elrohir. "Legolas was kind enough to leave it out in his room this morning. I know how much you enjoy these particular herbs on your food."

Blinking, Elrohir caught the leather and unwound it slightly, looking at the leaves within and then looking back at Elladan. "Only if you insist. I would not have this laid upon my shoulders."

"Only enough to suffice our needs for a ride."

"As you wish." Elrohir put the herbs in his own belt pouch and then turned to Elfwine, who had watched the discussion with a mixture of both curiosity and suspicion. "Come, my lord prince," Elrohir said, putting a hand on the youth’s shoulder. "Let us see what the taverns of Minas Tirith have to offer a pair of hungry travelers from afar."

* * * *

Imhran, captain of King Elessar’s personal guard and veteran of the War of the Ring, was used to being caught unawares. He knew this did not say much for his capabilities as either a soldier or a captain, but he was not overly worried about his reputation. To his knowledge, no one had been able to develop a sure method for anticipating the approach of either the king or the queen. Lord Faramir could also move with uncanny stealth when he wished, to say nothing of the elves who occasionally frequented the Citadel. So when a hand suddenly landed upon his shoulder without warning, Imhran went through the familiar routine of surprise—complete with shameful jump and muffled oath—before turning around to see who it was this time.

He frowned slightly when he saw that it was Lord Legolas. The king, queen, and steward no longer found amusement in their ability to startle the guards. At least, not often, and when they did, they made an effort to conceal their mirth. Lord Legolas was another matter, though, and his spreading smile told Imhran that he was enjoying himself immensely.

"My lord," Imhran greeted with a bow, ducking his head so that the elf would not see his irritation. It would only encourage him.

"Captain Imhran," Legolas answered, dipping his head and handing Imhran a rolled parchment. "I bring a message bearing the seal of the king. Your company has received new orders for this day."

Imhran tensed. "Has something gone amiss, my lord?"

"Nay, but precautions have been advised."

Imhran had dealt with enough elves during the last fifteen years to know that this was going to be all the answer he received until he read the orders for himself. Putting his questions aside, he broke the seal on the parchment, read the contents, stopped, and then read them again. "These are the king’s orders?" he asked at length.

"Yes."

Imhran’s brow furrowed and he stared at the words now before him. "With all due respect, my lord, this is not the king’s handwriting."

The elven lord of Ithilien raised his brow at this, and something flashed deep within his eyes. "You doubt the authority of the king’s seal?"

"No, assuredly not, my lord," Imhran said hastily.

"Then perhaps it is my authority that you doubt?"

"No! My lord, understand that I meant no offense. However, I have been told nothing of a mock assassination attempt. An undertaking such as this would usually involve planning several weeks ahead of time and—"

"This is a test of your ability to be decisive within the moment," Legolas said. "Should you receive word that there was indeed an assassin within the city, would you pause because you did not have weeks to plan for it?"

"Of course not, my lord, but—"

"I will not disclose all that I know to you, Imhran, but I will reveal this much: the threat you prepare against now is directed at the crown-prince. Today’s training exercise must be taken seriously."

"My company is one of two that is guarding the Citadel today, my lord, and we are scattered," Imhran warned. "Myself and ten others are the only guards in the upper levels of the palace. The rest are upon the lower levels or within the Tower of Ecthelion."

"A slight delay is to be expected, and we have already taken that into account." The elf paused, his expression thoughtful. "In fact, an even greater delay would be acceptable if you managed to prevent word of this from being spread. We have no desire to cause panic in the streets, especially over an imagined threat staged for you and your men. And were this a true assassination attempt, you would not want to the assassins to know that you had tidings of their coming. Indeed, one might even say that this called for subtle deception," Legolas concluded, and for some reason that Imhran could not fathom, this seemed to amuse the elf greatly.

"Then I will quietly gather the men, my lord, and we will begin our search of the city as soon as we are able," Imhran said.

"Good. I shall go ahead and let the assassins know that the game has begun," Legolas said. "Send forth the men the moment you are prepared." And with that, he nodded his head in a parting gesture and turned away.

Imhran frowned as he watched the elf leave. Something about this felt…wrong, but Imhran could not say what. Legolas’s words were convincing, and there was no reason not to trust him. And given some of the threats they had faced in the recent past, it was reasonable to train against the possibility of assassins infiltrating the city. Yet even so, something about this did not ring completely true.

The guard sighed, looked at the parchment in his hand, and then set off to find his men. Whatever else could be said of him, Imhran was a man who followed orders, and he could not deny his nature now, even should some greater scheme be afoot. He still thought it strange that he had heard nothing of this before now, and he thought it even stranger that Elladan and Elrohir would volunteer to play the assassins in a mock assassination attempt. But then, they were elves. Elves were a strange lot any day. Perhaps that was reason enough.

 

Chapter Text

…………

Nothing decided! Then what were you all doing? You were shut up for hours.

Talking. There was a deal of talk, and everyone had an eye-opener. Even old Gandalf. I think Legolas's bit of news about Gollum caught even him on the hop, though he passed it off.

Pippin and Bilbo—The Fellowship of the Ring (The Ring Goes South)

…………

Gimli would be the first to admit that when it came to finding one's way around an unexplored cavern, there were better dwarves for the job.

Not that Gimli was unskilled in such matters. Far from it. He was leagues ahead of any man or elf and far more adept than most hobbits. But among his own people, Gimli's talents beneath the earth were considered average at best. He had a discerning eye when it came to the potential of virgin lodes, but the actual exploration and excavation of a mine were things that had not interested him as a child. Instead, he had spent most of his youth accompanying ore shipments across Eriador, protecting the goods from thieves and negotiating prices with prospective merchants. A dwarf of "many journeys" was how he had once described himself, and Gimli considered the long years of travel to be years well spent. But he now wished that he had paid better attention to his instructors when they had spoken of the subtle nuances in stone that could enable one to forge a path through uncharted territory.

Glaring up at the dark, dusty walls around him, Gimli lifted his torch and studied the hallway carefully. He took note of the size and quality of the stonework as well as the width and height of the passage. He even spent a few minutes inspecting the blackened wall sconces where torches once sat in days long gone. He examined everything he could and made a guess about everything he couldn't, but in the end, he lowered his torch with a sigh, his spirits as dark as his surroundings. He had yet to come across anything that looked familiar, and the further he traveled in the hidden passages of the King's House, the more this concerned him.

He still felt that he was going in the right direction. That was a comfort of sorts, though it would have been a greater comfort had Legolas been at his side. The elf was altogether hopeless beneath the ground and had once confessed that the only reason he could navigate his father's subterranean halls was because he had lived in them for centuries. If Legolas's bewildered instincts had been available for comparison, Gimli's vague notion that he was on the correct path would have felt like a near certainty. There was sometimes much comfort to be drawn from the incompetence of others.

But Legolas was not here, and therein lay another problem. Gimli's attention was divided between himself and his fear that somewhere a lost and frantic elf had succumbed to the dark and was now beating his head against the stone walls. It might have been an amusing thought under other circumstances, but given the extent of these passages, it could easily take hours to find Legolas once Gimli reached the mains halls and enlisted help. By that time, the elf would have driven himself mad. Madder than he already was. And though Legolas had insisted upon joining the dwarf in these passages, Gimli still felt a measure of responsibility for him. If Legolas removed himself even further from the land of the sane, it would be upon Gimli's head.

Scowling at the implications, the dwarf stomped around a corner and found himself at a crossroads adjacent to an ascending staircase. He needed his concentration to decide his next path, so with an embarrassing amount of effort, Gimli pushed Legolas to the back of his mind. There was no use worrying about the elf until he could actually do something to help him, and he would not be able to help him until he found his own way out of the passages. Once Legolas was safely removed from his thoughts, Gimli considered his choices and tried to determine where he currently stood. Calling to mind a mental map of the King's House, he decided that he was probably one level below the nursery, which meant that he should take the stairs. But he was far from certain of this choice, and there was a very good chance that he was already on the nursery's level. He had lost track of the number of stairs that had been climbed, and he was not entirely sure of how many had been descended.

Absently tugging at his beard, he walked over to the steps and raised his torch, hoping to see something in the darkness that might help him. But the shadows were loath to give up their secrets, and the dwarf found nothing. Pursing his lips, Gimli wondered what his old instructors would say if they could see him now and decided to hazard one more set of stairs.

At the top of the stairs, Gimli was faced with corridor so narrow that he was obliged to turn sideways in order to walk it. Fighting off a disturbing bout of claustrophobia—it was almost elven in nature—he hastened forward and burst into a wider corridor. Stopping to clear his mind, Gimli closed his eyes and sagged against a wall, suddenly grateful that Legolas had decided to become lost on his own. The elf's absence would undoubtedly cause problems later, but at least there had been no witnesses to Gimli's sudden panic.

Composing himself, he took a deep breath and opened his eyes, focusing once more upon the stonework. His torch was beginning to sputter, but it still burned brightly enough for Gimli to see something that made him pause. The stonework here looked very similar to the stonework that had lined the walls of the nursery. It was not the same but it was close, and Gimli felt a tremor of excitement race through him. With one hand tracing the patterns upon the wall, he started forward again, scarcely noticing his failing torch. After a few minutes had passed, he came to a crossing hallway, and his eyes were immediately drawn to something in the dust upon the floor.

Footprints.

His footprints.

And with them, scarce to be seen, a slight distortion in the dust that could only be an elf's footprints.

He had done it. He had found a way back to the nursery without the infuriating elf and without taking the same passages they had used when leaving the nursery. Feeling immensely pleased with himself and deciding that he had not needed to pay attention to his old instructors after all, Gimli quickly backtracked along the trail. The torch was dimming quickly now, but Gimli was not concerned. The stonework had begun to look very familiar indeed, and he was convinced that he could reach his goal before the torch failed completely.

And a short time later, with his light reduced to no more than the red glow of embers, Gimli stumbled over a pile of unused torches.

Even as he tripped, he let out triumphant cry, for he recognized this pile. At least, he thought he did. There was not enough light remaining to be certain, but Gimli felt sure that this was the same pile of torches he had discovered upon entering the secret passages. Dropping his own torch as it fizzled into darkness, he seized one of the new torches and reached into his tunic for his flint and steel. Within moments, the dusty passages were brightly lit once more, and Gimli proceeded to study the walls around him.

What he found made him smile. He was correct. This was the same pile of torches that had supplied him with his first torch, and this meant that the nursery was just beyond the walls. Gimli paused to wonder why there was a collection of torches here and not elsewhere, but he pushed that thought aside for more practical concerns. He could ponder the mystery of the torches once he was back in more approved hallways.

A quick analysis of the stones in the wall revealed the nursery doorway's exact location, and having discovered that, Gimli looked around for the switch to open it. He expected it to be opposite the stone he had used to close the door, but after a cursory search yielded nothing, he realized that he was working with something a bit more sophisticated than that. With grudging respect for those who had built the King's House, Gimli went back to basics and examined the depressed stone that had closed the nursery door. An experimental push and a tug resulted in the sound of a rattling chain, and Gimli nodded to himself. He was dealing with a locking mechanism and a set of opposing weights. If the door was open, pushing a certain stone inwards—as he had done earlier—raised a weight and a chain that allowed a lighter weight and chain to pull the door shut, whereupon it locked in place. If the lock was released, the heavier weight fell, dragging the door open. It was a simple enough device, and Gimli was familiar with the engineering. There were a few doors in Aglarond that employed a similar design. All he needed to do now was find the stone that released the lock.

For a dwarf specifically trained in hidden doorways, this should have taken about two or three minutes. For a dwarf of Gimli's caliber, it should have taken about five minutes. And for a dwarf of any caliber, it should have taken no more than ten minutes.

Fifteen minutes later, Gimli was still searching.

He had searched the base of the door. He had searched the wall around the door. He had searched the wall opposite the door on the off chance that those who had engineered the lock had run the release over the ceiling and down the other side as a perverse joke. In an act of desperation, he had bodily thrown himself against the door several times, hoping to force the lock. But after all this, the door was still shut and the dwarf was still trapped.

Stepping back and giving the immovable stone a baleful glare, Gimli once again felt grateful that Legolas was not here to witness his failure. Or his next actions. For when faced with problems like this, where all attempts had met with defeat, the best recourse was to yell for help.

* * * *

Children were among the most confusing and confounding creatures that Elladan had ever met.

The previous evening, he had joined Arwen and Estel in the Queen's Gardens and watched with bemused fascination as Eldarion ate a bug despite his mother's best efforts to prevent it. Elladan now watched that same child adamantly refuse far more conventional fare on the basis that it was repulsive. The bread and dried fruit Elladan had purchased in haste had been all but thrown aside, and even though his stomach was rumbling loudly, Eldarion resolved to have nothing to do with such things. It was only after Elladan bought some especially smelly cheese and complimented it with his own stash of elven bread that Eldarion agreed to eat.

By that time, it was almost too late. Watchful for approaching Rohirrim, Elladan caught sight of Lord Elfhelm and a small contingent of Riders entering the Second Circle, and he immediately began looking for places to hide. The markets were still crowded enough that there was little chance of being seen, but he was not about to take chances. Not after Prince Elfwine had managed to find him so easily.

"Eldarion?" he hissed, pushing his way to the edge of the streets.

Perched on his uncle's hip, Eldarion looked up expectantly, his cheeks flaked with a cheese so strong that Elladan's stomach rolled over.

"Eldarion, we are going to play a game," Elladan said, forcing himself to ignore the smell. "But I need you to give me your food for just a moment and climb onto my back. And I need you to be as quiet as possible. Just as you were when you were hiding from Gimli this morning. Can you do that?"

Eldarion studied Elladan with solemn, gray eyes that seemed far too old for his four years of age. But then his face brightened in a wide smile and he nodded eagerly, handing over his food and shifting around until his arms twined around Elladan's neck and his legs pressed tightly against his sides.

"Good," Elladan said, glancing back at the Rohirrim. They were blocked by the masses but making surprising progress, and Elladan hurriedly ducked into an alley where he had noticed some vines growing down the side of an inn. "Now hold tightly," he whispered, stuffing Eldarion's cheese into a belt pouch as he made his way to the wall. "We are going to do a bit of exploring in an upward direction."

Eldarion seemed to approve of this activity, and he giggled softly, spewing cheese across Elladan's shoulders. Deciding not to breathe for the next few minutes, Elladan gauged the distance between himself and the tangled vines, took a few steps back, and then leaped.

Forgetting the earlier admonition to be quiet, Eldarion squealed with delight, but Elladan did not stop to hush him. He could feel the vines trembling under their combined weight, and he hastily began climbing, hoping that no one bothered to glance down this alley and that if they did, they would pass this off as an oddity of the elves. Valar take you, Elrohir, he thought darkly as he struggled up the wall. Had you any respect for me at all, you would have allowed me to see distract Elfwine while you cared for Eldarion.

A wild shriek in his right ear jerked him from his thoughts, and he suddenly realized two things: he was choking and Eldarion's feet were no longer against his side. Instead, the crown-prince of Gondor was swinging from his uncle's neck and laughing excitedly. A jolt of fear enabled him to hurriedly scramble up the rest of the vines, and with a gasp of relief that involved inhaling a large quantity of Eldarion's cheesy breath, he hauled himself over the edge of the flat roof and collapsed.

"Again!" Eldarion commanded, releasing his stranglehold on Elladan's neck and clapping his hands.

"In a moment," Elladan said, pulling Eldarion away from the edge. "This is the part of the exploration where we must hide."

"Why?"

"Because there are men looking for me and I would rather they did not find me."

"Why?"

Elladan was suddenly reminded that aside from the infamous pout of Isildur, Isildur's heirs were also notorious for incessant interrogation sessions. "Because there is a game of sorts going on, and some of those playing the game have been less than kind," he explained patiently.

"Who?"

"Legolas, for one, though I suspect that Gimli was also involved."

"Legolas and Gimli weren't kind?" Eldarion wore an expression of disbelief.

"Nay, they were not," Elladan said, crawling to the edge of the roof so that he had a view of the street below. The Rohirrim were now marching by, but fortunately, they seemed unaware that the subject of their anger was less than a stone's throw away.

"You're lying," Eldarion declared.

Elladan frowned at the accusation but did not look away from the street. "And what cause have you to say that?"

"Because you said Legolas and Gimli weren't kind, but that's wrong. Gimli is always kind."

The omission of Ithilien's elven lord caught Elladan's interest, and he glanced back at his nephew. "And what of Legolas?"

Eldarion folded his arms across his chest and assumed a look of supreme indignation. "He won't let me touch his bow."

Elladan hastily turned back toward the streets and transformed his laugh into a cough. "Ah. Yes, well, I understand how that could be seen as terribly unkind. My condolences. But now I am curious: What of Gimli's axe? Does he allow you to play with it?"

Elladan could sense Eldarion's scowl deepening. "He says he would if mother and father would let me. And the nurses, too. But they won't."

"I see. Therefore, it is not Gimli's fault that you are unable to wield the axe." Elladan shook his head, impressed in spite of himself. Gimli, of course, would never let such a young child near such a dangerous weapon, but by shifting the blame, he had earned himself a place of high favor in Eldarion's eyes. Elladan had not thought the dwarf capable of such devious maneuvering, but then, he had been spending quite a bit of time with Legolas of late…

"Can I have my cheese?"

"May I have my cheese," Elladan corrected absently, his eyes following the last of the Rohirrim as they departed up the street, finally clear of the crowded market place. "And yes, you may. I think we shall wait here for my brother. We have a good view, and we shall see him the moment he emerges."

"It is indeed a good view, but I doubt you will linger long enough to enjoy it."

Elladan froze, his eyes widening, and then he spun around, leaping to his feet and feeling for his belt knife. "Legolas!"

On the side of the roof closest to the towering wall that separated the Second Circle from the Third, Thranduil's youngest son stared back at Elladan, his face unreadable but his eyes burning. "Is not this an interesting meeting?" he observed coolly.

Elladan immediately stepped in front of Eldarion, determined to keep his prize. "It is," he answered, matching the other's tone. "This is also an interesting place for a meeting."

"True enough," Legolas said with a slow nod. He took a casual step toward Elladan and Eldarion, the latter of whom seemed fascinated by this new development. "I am amazed that a creature of Imladris was able to venture so high without mishap."

Firmly bridling his temper, Elladan did not move from his protective stance. "And I am amazed that a creature of Greenwood was able to venture so high without the coddling assistance of trees."

Something flashed in Legolas's eyes, and he took another step closer. "I am reassured, at least, that Rivendell is not bereft of all its traditions. You have managed to cleverly conceal yourself in a place where all looking down from above might see. My congratulations."

Elladan frowned and struggled to understand this insult and also to answer it. This inn was among the tallest buildings of the Second Circle. There was no opportunity to look down from above unless… "Did you just come from the Third Circle wall?" he demanded, surprise getting the better of him.

"I did," Legolas said.

"How?"

Legolas arched one elegant eyebrow. "I jumped."

"From the wall?"

The archer shrugged. "It is a reasonable jump if one knows what one is doing."

Elladan looked up at the towering wall of the Third Circle and blinked, deciding that it was a reasonable jump only if one was a Wood-elf who cared nothing for the safety of his own neck.

"But enough of this," Legolas said, tearing Elladan from his thoughts and assuming a purposeful look. "Where is your brother? I must speak with you both."

Wondering if this was a test of sorts and well aware of the fact that Legolas was more comfortable with heights than he was, Elladan attempt to craft a safe answer. "I fear that Elrohir is away at the moment, but he is within calling distance should need arise."

Something that might have been a smirk flashed across Legolas's face, and he glanced toward the streets. "Would I be wrong in assuming that you are both avoiding the Rohirrim?"

Elladan checked his temper sharply by promising himself that vengeance would be sweet, satisfying, and extensive. "You may assume whatever you wish."

The smirk returned, tugging at the corners of Legolas's mouth. "Very well. To business, then, since you seem loath to call Lord Elrohir. I have come to collect Eldarion, and I would rather you give him to me than I force him from you. Are you willing to concede?"

"Concede?" Elladan's anger dissolved into an outright laugh. "My dear Legolas, the morning has clearly wearied your mind. In order to concede, one must be defeated, and I am not."

"I can see to that shortly if you insist upon it," Legolas replied with unnerving confidence.

"Truly? If you refer to the actions you have taken upon the Pelennor, then allow me to point out that one crown-prince is of far more importance than a few brood mares," Elladan answered.

"Perhaps," Legolas allowed, the smirk becoming more pronounced. "But your own dignity coupled with the respect that Minas Tirith accords Imladris may be worth more than one crown-prince."

Now somewhat nervous, Elladan decided that Legolas was too sure of himself and that a prudent retreat was in order. "If you can offer naught but vague threats, then we are done here." He turned to his nephew, careful to keep one eye upon Legolas. "Climb on my back again," he instructed. "It is time for us to depart."

"Stay, my lord prince," Legolas commanded when Eldarion started forward. "I have somewhat more to say to to your uncle, if you will allow it."

And much to Elladan's surprise, Eldarion stopped. Apparently pleased by Legolas's sudden formality, he responded in kind and nodded gravely. "You can speak to him," he announced with every ounce of dignity that a four-year-old child could muster.

"My thanks," Legolas said with a deep bow. Elladan suspected the bow was primarily to hide a growing smile than to show respect. "Lord Elladan of Imladris, a word in private?"

"If you believe that I am so foolish as to—"

"I ask for no more than a short discussion," Legolas interrupted, raising his hands to show his good intentions. "You have my word on my father's realm that I wish only to speak with you."

Elladan frowned, but there was not much he could say in response to that. A refusal to take Legolas at his word constituted a breach of trust and an insult to his honor. Such insults were not born lightly by those of Thranduil's line, even on light-hearted days. After a quick look back at Eldarion to see that he was both out of Legolas's reach and not too close to the edge of the roof, Elladan moved forward. "And what have you to say to me?" he demanded, attempting to regain control of the situation.

"I propose an exchange," Legolas whispered, his eyes straying to Eldarion for a moment. "You surrender the crown-prince to me, and I promise to forego certain actions this evening."

"Certain actions?" Elladan echoed. "If seems to me that we are dealing with vague threats again. Or perhaps you refer to further activities among Rohan's horses?"

"Nay, nothing so banal at that," Legolas said with a dangerous smile. "Rather, I had an idea to speak to the minstrels that will be present at the feast this evening. It occurs to me that their repertoire of songs might be enlarged."

Elladan blinked in surprise. What did Gondor's minstrels have to do with anything?

"The king and queen have been very helpful in supplying old lays remembered only within the House of Elrond," Legolas continued, his eyes gleaming. "But there have been some grievous omissions. I believe it is time to correct that."

Now thoroughly confused, Elladan could only stare at Legolas and wonder if there was a point to all this.

"Tell me if you are familiar with this song," Legolas said. "O! Where are you going with beards all a-wagging? What brings—"

"Enough!"

The shout escaped ere Elladan could stop it, so great was his horror at hearing part a song that was regarded as one of Rivendell's most closely guarded secrets. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Eldarion jump in surprise, but Legolas seemed to have expected his reaction and was now smiling serenely.

"Nay, I think more is required," Legolas said. "For after all, the valley is jolly. Ha! Ha!"

Attempting to restrain his anger, Elladan took a deep breath and fixed Legolas with a glare worthy of Glorfindel. "Where did you learn those words?"

"Bilbo Baggins," Legolas answered. "Just ere he departed, I asked if I might have a copy of some of the songs he heard while in Rivendell. He was only too happy to share, and on the topic of this particular song, he decided to share more than what he included in his book. Truly fascinating, I must confess. Of course, many of us in Greenwood had long suspected the existence of a balancing song. Something that offset all those dour laments of the First Age and your eternal pining for the Undying Lands. But never did we think to hear of a song so inane as the one recorded by our esteemed hobbit friend." Legolas shook his head, his expression one of unfettered glee. "Really, Lord Elladan. Tra-la-la-lally?"

Torn between a desire to curl into a ball and disappear and a desire to throw Legolas off the roof, Elladan settled for a burning glower and clenched fists. "If you breathe one word of this to Gondor's minstrels, I will—"

"But that is the point! You can ensure that Gondor's minstrels are never subjected to such nonsense and that Rivendell's madness is kept safely contained within its own borders."

Elladan stared at Legolas, bringing to bear everything he had ever learned from his father on the subject of intimidating looks. Legolas responded by calling up one of Thranduil's most infuriating expressions: smug victory. And unable to think of an alternative offer or threat, Elladan was forced to admit that the Wood-elf was right. Keeping Eldarion for the rest of the day would be enjoyable, but Rivendell's dignity came first. Thanks to Bilbo's records, a few verses of the infamous Tra-la-la-lallly song were already common knowledge among hobbits, but until now, Elladan had believed that the full scope of the song remained mercifully unknown. If Bilbo had shared the other verses with Legolas…

"Take him," Elladan snapped, stepping aside and nodding to Eldarion.

"My thanks for your cooperation," Legolas said, inclining his head with a smile. "Though I will miss hearing that song tonight."

"See that you do."

Legolas's smile grew, but he said nothing more on the subject and walked toward Eldarion, dropping down on one knee in order to speak with the prince. Disgusted with himself, with Legolas, with Bilbo Baggins, and with the world in general, Elladan fumed silently and headed for the vines. He sensed the beginnings of a large headache and felt it would be best to leave before anything else happened.

It was only when he was halfway down the vines and he heard Eldarion's voice suddenly rise in a demand for his food that Elladan remembered a certain smelly chunk of cheese still hidden in his belt pouch. Deciding it should remain there, he quickly dropped the rest of the distance to the ground and hastened away. Petty, yes, but at the moment, Elladan would take what he could get.

* * * *

It did not take Pippin long to discover that Meriadoc Brandybuck was much heavier than he looked. Even with Imrahil's assistance, Pippin was exhausted by the time they dragged the inebriated hobbit into his quarters. He was ready for a nap himself, and he probably would have curled up right there on the floor had it not been for a sudden rumbling outburst from his stomach.

"Are you concealing a small dragon, Master Took?" Imrahil asked, turning down the blankets on Merry's bed.

Pippin scowled and shot a glare at Merry, who was propped against one wall and blissfully unaware of his surroundings. "No thanks to him, I haven't had anything to eat since breakfast."

"Then it sounds as though lunch is in order. It is certainly time for it, and I feel the need for nourishment myself. Help me put your friend to bed, and once he is settled, we shall seek out the butteries in the Tower. Afterwards we can search for Legolas and Gimli. Once we are assured of their whereabouts, we should probably go together to search for Elladan and Elrohir. It may be difficult to find them, even if they are still in the Second Circle."

"I suppose that will have to do," Pippin sighed, bending down and pulling Merry's left arm over his shoulder. "But I was looking forward to the feast down on the Pelennor. I had some choice words to say to Strider about Arwen. If we hurry and find Legolas and Gimli, do you think we can still catch them on the fields?"

Imrahil had been taking Merry's other arm, but he stopped at this and flashed a sharp look in Pippin's direction. "You mean to say that you do not know?"

"Know what?"

There was a slight pause, barely noticeable, and then Imrahil shook his head. "Naught. I am merely surprised that word of this has not spread. The citizens of Minas Tirith are not usually so discreet." He gripped Merry beneath his right arm and pulled the hobbit to his feet.

"Discreet about what?" Pippin asked, forgetting his exhaustion in the face of his curiosity.

"There was an accident upon the Pelennor this morning," Imrahil answered, moving Merry toward the bed with Pippin's assistance. "I will not tire you with the details, but the king and queen are currently in the Houses of Healing tending to one of the accident's victims."

"Do I know this victim?"

"You have met before. Here, lay him against the bed and we shall lift his legs."

Pippin obediently let Merry's upper body flop forward onto the bed. "So where have I met the victim?" he asked, not about to let Imrahil divert the conversation. "And what kind of accident was it?"

"It involved…horses," Imrahil said, gasping slightly as they maneuvered Merry the rest of the way onto the bed. His face creased with pain, and one hand went to his side.

"Horses?" Pippin blinked, thinking back over what he had heard just ere he left the Pelennor with Merry. "Did something happen during the race between you and Eomer? Is Eomer hurt? And are you hurt, too?"

"You are perceptive, Master Took," Imrahil murmured, straightening and pulling the blankets up over Merry. "As for your questions, yes. Something did happen during the horse race, and Eomer was injured. Thanks to his actions, though, I am only bruised."

Pippin gave him a rather skeptical look. "How badly was Eomer hurt? And how certain are you that you're all right?"

"I am reasonably certain of my own health. As for the king of Rohan…he suffered a blow to the head. We are convinced that he will recover in time, but for the moment, he is in need of rest."

Imrahil sounded confident and Pippin wanted to believe him, but experience had taught him that just because someone sounded confident didn't mean they were telling the whole story. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, in particular, were quite good at claiming one thing when the opposite was true. Sam thought that it had something to do with being a leader over a large group of suspicious-minded people, and if he was right, then Imrahil was probably equally skilled at deception. Which meant that Pippin would have to press harder for answers. "So how much rest does Eomer need?" he asked.

"As much as King Elessar deems necessary."

"And how much is that? How severe was the blow to his head? Did he fall and hit it on something? Or did something fall and hit him?"

Imrahil's face took on a bemused expression. "A little of both, I believe. Are all hobbits so inquisitive?"

"Both?" Pippin echoed, ignoring the last part. He started to ask more, but his stomach suddenly let out another loud growl.

"Perhaps we would be better served discussing this over lunch," Imrahil observed.

With a grimace, Pippin nodded. "Probably. I feel as though I could—"

"Lunch!"

Pippin flinched violently and spun around. "Merry!? You're supposed to be asleep!"

"Am I?" Merry blinked and rolled over, tangling himself in his blankets. "Have I been awake long? Wha's the time?"

"It is time for you to sleep again," Imrahil said. "You have already been awake far too long."

"Can't tell what time it is!" Merry said crossly. "Everything keeps changing."

"That's what happens when you drink Mirkwood wine, you ninny," Pippin scolded. "Now close your eyes and—"

"Greenwood."

"What?"

"The wine's made in Greenwood," Merry corrected.

"The wine is aged. It was made when Greenwood was still Mirkwood," Pippin answered, wondering why he was bothering to argue with a drunk.

"But it's still p'lite to call it Greenwood."

"Of course it is," Imrahil said. "And we shall certainly do that in the future. Now close your eyes and go to sleep. We will be returning later to see how you fare."

Merry's eyes had already begun drifting shut, but he opened them wide at this news and hiccuped. "You're leaving?"

"Just for a little while," Pippin assured him. "I promise that I'll be back as soon as I can."

"No!" Merry said, shaking his head violently. "Have to watch on you. S'pposed to keep you out of trouble."

Pippin stared at him. "And who will keep you out of trouble? Honestly, Merry, you can barely walk! And I don't need a minder. I'm a grown hobbit with a wife and a—"

"Always same ol' Pippin," Merry interrupted, somehow managing to roll to the edge of the bed. He peered over the side and squinted at the floor. "Why's it still moving?"

"Perhaps we should slip away now," Imrahil murmured, moving towards the doorway.

"No!" Merry cried, promptly falling out of the bed. Stunned, Pippin could only watch helplessly as Merry tried to sit up, fell over, and then began patting the floor soothingly. "S'alright," he whispered. "You can hold still now."

"Or perhaps I should slip away while you remain here," Imrahil said.

Pippin bit his lip and stared at the other hobbit. "But Legolas and Gimli—"

"Are better left to others."

"But I need their help to…" Pippin trailed off and decided that telling Imrahil he needed to do something horrid to Arwen was probably not a wise decision. "I need to talk to them. And I need food and—"

"It will be easy enough for me to send food to you," Imrahil answered, his tone growing firm. "But I would rather not have Mastery Meriadoc wandering about without supervision. He has already attempted to start a fire in the storerooms. Who knows what he shall attempt next?"

Recognizing defeat, Pippin nodded reluctantly as his stomach let out a petulant growl. "I'll look forward to whatever you send, then," he sighed. "And if you don't mind, could you send something for Merry, too? He may not want food now, but he will once he properly wakes up."

"A wise idea, Master Took." Imrahil turned to leave but then paused for a moment. "You will be able to handle him?"

"Yes, we'll be fine," Pippin said. "Usually the situation is reversed, but I've had to help him out of a few taverns back in the Shire."

"Very well, then. I will send a guard around with a plate presently."

Pippin nodded and bowed slightly as Imrahil left the room. Then he turned to Merry, who was still patting the floor solicitously. "Well, you've now decreased our chances of getting into the pantries downstairs. I hope you're proud of yourself."

"It's calming down," Merry answered. "Don't you think so?"

"I…suppose," Pippin said slowly.

"I think so," Merry said, laying his cheek on the ground.

Pippin shook his head and decided that all discussions could wait until Merry was more coherent. "Yes, well, do you think you can get back into bed now?"

Merry looked as though this was the most ridiculous idea he'd heard all day. "Bed? But it isn't night! The time's all funny, but the sun's still up."

"Yes, but you need to take a little nap," Pippin said. "I know the floor would appreciate it."

Merry giggled. "All right. But if it acts up, you might try singing to it. I think that would help. It likes Imra'il, and he sings."

Not knowing how to respond to that, Pippin said nothing and helped Merry to his feet, bracing him when the other hobbit swayed dangerously. With a bit of coaxing, he was able to push Merry back into bed and straighten out the blankets. "Now," he said, "go to sleep. You'll feel much better when you wake up."

"I'm ‘wake now."

Pippin bit back a groan. If Merry insisted on babbling throughout the duration of his inebriation, it was going to be a very long afternoon. Pippin had once been forced to listen to several hours of drunken prattle during an evening's ride home from the Golden Perch, and though amusing at first, it had become tiresome quickly. "You might be awake now," he reasoned, "but perhaps you shouldn't stay awake. Don't you think you'll have nice dreams if you sleep?"

Merry considered this for a while, and Pippin held his breath as the silence began to stretch into minutes.

"Would you tell me a riddle?"

Pippin almost choked. "Excuse me?"

"A riddle. You were going to earlier, but I ran away."

Shaking his head, Pippin tried to adopt a soft and soothing tone. "If you go to sleep, I'll tell you all the riddles you want when you wake."

Minutes ticked away again in silence, and Pippin held his breath once more.

"Pippin?"

He sighed. "Yes, Merry?"

"What if I tell you a riddle?"

"I think you ought to be sleeping."

"No, this is a good riddle. I think you told it to me b'fore, but maybe you'd like to hear it again. Do y'know how many Bolgers it takes to light a torch?"

"No, I'm afraid that I don't. And given your current condition, you probably don't know either."

"None!" Merry announced triumphantly with a wide grin plastered across his face. "They don't care ‘bout the torch. They just need the food."

"Well, this particular hobbit doesn't need any food whatsoever. He needs sleep!" Pippin said firmly.

"But I'm not tired!" Merry protested, lifting his head and staring at Pippin with wide eyes.

"Yes, you are. You are very tired. You just don't know it yet. But for my sake, I hope you figure it out soon."

* * * *

Walking briskly before an armed contingent of Rohirrim, Lord Elfhelm of Rohan threw open both doors to the Houses of Healing with a thunderous crash. Years of laboring against Wormtongue's lies and deceptions had taught Elfhelm the value of a good entrance, and a quick glance around at the startled healers told him that his entrance had been more than adequate.

Elfhelm gave the entry chamber a swift but thorough glance, taking in how many shocked healers stood between him and the hallways most likely to contain the king. His first reaction was one of surprise, for he had expected to find Elfwine arguing with the healers about seeing his father. Yet the prince was nowhere to be seen. Was it possible that some healers held sympathy for the young heir of Rohan and had surrendered to his wishes? Studying the bewildered but stern faces before him, Elfhelm decided this to be highly improbable. The more likely scenario was that Elfwine had sneaked in another way, and Elfhelm nodded in silent approval. The boy showed promise.

But whatever the reasons behind Elfwine's absence, it was clear to Elfhelm that he and his men would not readily be admitted entrance. Already the expressions of surprise were turning to anger, and the advantage gained by an impressive entrance would soon be lost. Moving quickly, Elfhelm stormed across the threshold with enough speed to make his cloak billow behind him.

"I am here on business for my king," he announced, coming to a stop in the middle of the chamber. Seizing one edge of his cloak, he pulled it back around him with an authoritative snap and gave the healers an imperious look, daring them to challenge his presence. "It would expedite matters if one of you revealed the way to his rooms," he continued. "However, should you be otherwise occupied, I will take what measures I must in order to find him myself."

His words were met with incredulous stares, and deciding that he would need to provoke a reaction, Elfhelm signaled the other Rohirrim forward. The results were immediate. Galvanized by the presence of armed warriors in a healing ward, the attendants threw off their shock and moved to block the entrances to the hallways. "Who are you to issues orders in this House?" one of the older healers demanded, walking forward until he stood but a few feet away from the intruder.

"Lord Elfhelm of Rohan, and I mean to speak with my liege lord immediately," Elfhelm answered coolly. "Now am I to be given an escort to his rooms, or shall my men forcibly conduct a search?"

Elfhelm could see a multitude of arguments marshalling in the healer's eyes, and he closed the remaining distance between himself and the man, releasing his cloak so that it could billow outward again. Appearances could sometimes be far more persuasive than logical reasoning.

"My lord," the healer stammered, and Elfhelm had to fight back a snicker. It would not due to ruin his ominous visage with an ill-timed laugh. "I am sure that your errand as urgent, but I cannot disturb the rest of any patient unless I am satisfied that there is sufficient cause."

"You doubt the word of a lord of Rohan?" Elfhelm hoped that the growing tightness in his jaw would be interpreted as anger rather than his desperate attempts to hold back a grin.

"Certainly not, my lord!" the healer exclaimed. "But if you would take into consideration the needs of—"

"My only consideration at the moment is the safety of my king and the welfare of his kingdom. And that should be more than sufficient for you." For emphasis, Elfhelm let one hand stray to the ceremonial knife hanging from his belt.

Another warrior would have immediately recognized the implied threat, but the healer simply stared at Elfhelm, oblivious to the fact that he could be gutted within seconds. With some exasperation, Elfhelm repeated the action and exaggerated his movements, allowing the dagger's jeweled sheath to flash in the sunlight that streamed down from high, arching windows. This time his efforts met with success, and the healer stepped back, his eyes widening. "The guards—"

"Will not wish to provoke an incident between Gondor and Rohan," Elfhelm interrupted smoothly. He studied the man just long enough to create an uncomfortable silence, and then he spoke again, his voice low and deep. "All I ask is that you take me to my king. My men will stay here if it will ease your mind, but I must be allowed to pass. Surely you will grant me that much."

Another uncomfortable silence ensued, but Elfhelm made no effort to break it this time. He kept his eyes upon the healer, intense but not quite challenging. And after a bit of restless shifting on the part of the other attendants as well as the waiting Rohirrim, the older healer nodded slowly. "Your men will wait here, my lord?"

"If that is your wish, I will so order it."

"Please do, and then follow me. I will take you to your king."

And they say the Rohirrim are unskilled as negotiators, Elfhelm thought wryly as he gave the healer a gracious smile and a quick bow before turning to his men. Snapping off a few commands in Rohirric, he watched as his men drew together before the entrance, somewhat offended at being kept from their king but obedient nonetheless. Satisfied, Elfhelm turned back to the healer and indicated that he was ready to proceed.

They traveled down one of the wider hallways, and as they walked, Elfhelm fought off the urge to throw back his head and shout in triumph. He had been practically helpless all morning. Helpless to aid his king, helpless to control Shade, and helpless to corral the elven stallions. But now he was acting. He had overcome the healer's reservations. He had gained entry where other Rohirrim had failed. He was on his way to see his king, and he would learn exactly why Eomer was confined to the Houses of Healing! These victories more than made up for the morning's frustration, and it was all he could do to keep from proclaiming his excitement to the world. When the healer finally stopped and knocked quietly on a door, Elfhelm could contain himself no longer and pushed the door open the moment he heard a voice call from inside.

His euphoria died almost instantly.

A wave of silent tension hit him with enough strength to make him gasp. Reeling with shock and struggling to right his churning feelings, Elfhelm shook his head and stopped on the threshold. Triggered by the animosity that seemed to fill the chamber, battlefield instincts flared to life, and Elfhelm's hand fell to his knife as he cast his eyes about the room, searching for the source of the tension.

His eyes came to rest upon Eomer, who lay still and listless upon a healing bed.

"Lord Elfhelm. It is good to see you again."

Elfhelm blinked and turned to find the queen of Gondor at his side. Bowing more out of reflex than anything else, he moved his attention back to Eomer and took one step forward. "We…we received word that—"

"He is sleeping at the moment," another voice said, and Elfhelm looked over at Lothíriel, who hovered near the bed alongside a very haggard-looking Eowyn. "Have no fear. He is merely in need of rest."

Deciding that this statement was very much at odds with the amount of tension in the room, Elfhelm turned around to confront the healer who had accompanied him. "And your opinion?"

"I…do not know much of his condition," the healer said.

"Lord Elfhelm, you have my word that Eomer is in no immediate danger," Eowyn said, rising from her chair. "He requires time and rest. And unless I am very much mistaken, I gave orders that this rest was not to be disturbed," she added with a stern glare for the healer.

"My lady, he was most insistent and—"

"Oh, I am certain that he was," Eowyn interrupted, turning her glare upon Elfhelm.

For his part, Elfhelm was doing some rapid thinking. Eowyn never gave her word lightly, and if she insisted that the king was in no immediate danger, then he was in no immediate danger. But this did not explain the tension, and Elfhelm was beginning to wonder if he had been mistaken about the cause. He could not help but notice that Arwen was staying at least an arm's length away from Lothíriel at all times, and Lothíriel seemed to avoiding eye contact with Arwen. Eowyn was pointedly ignoring both of them, and on the subject of ignored persons, Elfhelm now realized that Elfwine was missing, a rather suspicious absence considering how anxious the boy had been to see his father. Yes, something was happening here that had nothing to do with Eomer's injury, but Elfhelm did not have time to decipher what that something was. At the moment, he needed to deal with Eowyn, who looked as though she had just reached the end of her tether.

"My ladies," Elfhelm said with a deep—and hopefully appeasing—bow. "Please accept my humblest apologies if I have caused harm. But on behalf of the Rohirrim, I wished only to assure myself that our king was yet whole so that I might comfort those still anxious for news." Elfhelm paused, debating about what to say next, and then decided to forge ahead. He had an opening. He would take it. "I am certain that the prince can vouch for my intentions, for he knew of my coming. Where is Lord Elfwine?"

Three blank stares met his eyes.

Feeling as though he had just stepped into a stable that had not been properly cleaned for weeks, Elfhelm swallowed and rephrased the question. "Is not the prince here?"

Eowyn frowned, Arwen pursed her lips, and Lothíriel's eyes hardened. "Did you expect him to be here?"

In the hallway, the healer said something about needing to see to other patients and hurried away. Pushing aside the urge to follow him, Elfhelm tried to think of a good answer to Lothíriel's question, but his mind drew a confounding blank. "I sent Elfwine ahead of my men, my lady," he eventually said. "He should have arrived ere we did."

"Did he know that his father was here and not in the Citadel?" Arwen asked.

"Yes, my lady, he did," Elfhelm said, his mind racing.

"Then you mean to tell me that my son is lost in Minas Tirith!?"

Lothíriel did not lose her temper often. As Imrahil's daughter, she was confident almost to a fault, and this confidence took the form of a maddening serenity in times of crisis. She could be stern and commanding if needed and she had raised her voice upon occasion, but until now, she had never been provoked into shouting. When this shouting was coupled with flashing eyes the color of storm clouds and a glare cold enough to freeze the Anduin, the end result was quite intimidating, and Elfhelm found himself on the verge of a tactical retreat.

"Peace," Eowyn said, stepping in to save her former conspirator. "Peace, it could be that Elfwine merely stopped to find something to eat. He was up quite early this morning, and I doubt he has had aught in the way of food since breakfast."

Lothíriel turned a murderous look upon Eowyn. Elfhelm might have pitied her had he not been so relieved at escaping the look himself.

"Is that possible?" Arwen asked. "Is there somewhere that Prince Elfwine could go where your men would not see?"

"Perhaps," Elfhelm said slowly. He was now very certain that the tension in the room had little to do with Eomer and everything to do with the three women standing before him. "The streets were quite busy, my lady."

"Or perhaps something else has happened," Lothíriel snapped, transferring her glare to Arwen, who took a discreet step backwards.

"There is a simple way to end this," Eowyn said, pitching her voice to carry over the intensity of Lothíriel's glare. "We need only send forth a team to look for Elfwine."

"An excellent idea," Elfhelm said quickly, sensing a chance for escape. He still knew very little about his king's condition, but his thirst for knowledge and assurance had waned in the face of a problem that he was certain he did not wish to investigate. Beyond that, the search for Elfwine could prove just as useful to the welfare of Rohan. "I will gather my men and—"

"You will remain here," Eowyn interrupted sharply, her eyes flashing with something that could not be readily identified. "I will not have you upon the streets with your mind in an uproar over all the incidents down on the Pelennor."

Elfhelm blinked. "Lady Eowyn, I assure you that my mind is clear."

"So clear that you sent a gelding iron to the Houses of Healing?"

Out of the corner of his eye, Elfhelm saw both Arwen and Lothíriel withdrawing from the conversation. He wished that he could do the same. "It was intended as a message," he said weakly. "In the days of Wormtongue, Eomer and I devised a means of—"

"I have no wish to hear it," Eowyn said, interrupting once again. She moved to a table near Eomer's bed and picked up the gelding iron. "You may personally deliver this to your king when he wakes. I will take the Rohirrim and search for Elfwine."

Elfhelm frowned and looked at the brand in Eowyn's hands. "Surely your healing talents would be of better use here. It would be a simple thing for me to—"

"If I do not leave now, I may find cause to use this," Eowyn snapped, shoving the gelding iron into Elfhelm's hands.

Elfhelm flushed and hastily dropped his eyes, wondering if the stifled laugh from Arwen's direction was his imagination. "Lady Eowyn, if you are intent upon going, I cannot stop you. But I do not believe it is within your rights to command my actions."

There was a hiss of anger, and then Eowyn seized Elfhelm by the arm and pulled him into the hallway. "One of us must remain here," she said, lowering her voice. "And since I am more familiar with Minas Tirith than you, it stands to reason that I should look for Elfwine."

Elfhelm's eyes narrowed. "Your reasoning is sound with but one exception: why must one of us remain here?"

Eowyn said nothing for a long moment, studying Elfhelm intently, and then she sighed, seeming to come to a decision of sorts. "What I say now must not be repeated. I do not entrust you with this information lightly. Eomer is in good health given the circumstances, but he suffered a serious blow to his head upon the Pelennor. He does not remember who he is."

"He does not remember?" Elfhelm echoed blankly. "What do you—"

"Just what I said. He has no memory of Rohan, of Gondor, of himself, or of anything else. And when he woke earlier…" She paused and glanced back into the bed chambers where Lothíriel had returned to Eomer's side and Arwen lingered near an open window. "When he woke earlier," she continued, dropping her voice even more, "he decided to declare his love for the queen of Gondor. Lothíriel has taken exception to this, as well she might, but Queen Arwen is more amused than anything else. And because of this, it was decided that a third person be present to act as a mediator. I trust I can rely upon you in this matter?"

Elfhelm stared at her for a long moment, taking in everything she had told him and making a fairly good guess at some of the things that were being left out. "The king's sleep is not natural, is it?"

Never one to back away from a challenge, Eowyn met his gaze evenly and nodded. "You are correct. King Elessar has ensured that Eomer will sleep for some time."

"And where is King Elessar? Surely he has taken more than a passing interest in this!"

"At the moment, he is mixing a draught that might help. He will not be back for a while."

"And he left you here as the mediator."

"A task I am now delegating to you," Eowyn said, and judging from the gleam in her eyes, she was as anxious to escape as Elfhelm was.

"So you would countermand the orders of your king?"

Eowyn's eyes flashed. "I would go where I am most needed while you will remain here and suffer the consequences for sending Thendril to the Houses of Healing with a gelding iron!"

Elfhelm winced, glanced down at the brand in his hands, and then decided to make one last effort. "But what of your brother? Are you prepared to leave him in another's hands?"

There was a brief moment of hesitation in Eowyn's eyes, and Elfhelm thought he might have won. But then she looked back into the room at Lothíriel and Arwen, and the hesitation vanished. "If Faramir were here, I would not leave," she said quietly. "But he is gone, and I do not trust my temper. Were I to stay, I would do more harm than good." She flashed a quick smile at Elfhelm. "You are not the only one to be threatened by the gelding iron."

"I am…comforted," Elfhelm said slowly.

"Good," Eowyn said, her smile growing. "Then are we agreed?"

Elfhelm sighed and nodded. "Were it anyone else, I would refuse. Béma lend you speed."

"Thank you, Elfhelm," she said, already moving away. "If Eomer wakes, send for Elessar or one of the healers. And if you can convince Arwen to leave the room, I think Lothíriel will become better company."

"I will certainly make the attempt."

Eowyn's smile turned sympathetic, but she said nothing else and hurried down the hallway. Left with two angry queens and an unconscious king, Elfhelm decided he would have been better off staying on the Pelennor.

 

 

 

 

Author's Notes: Gimli's claim that he is a "dwarf of many journeys" comes from a debate he had with Legolas and Aragorn. You can find it in the chapter "The Riders of Rohan" in the Two Towers, page 33 of the Ballantine paperback 50th anniversary edition. The bits of song that Legolas uses to blackmail Elladan are part of a rather strange song that the elves of Rivendell use to taunt Thorin's company in the chapter "A Short Rest" in The Hobbit, page 48 of the Ballantine paperback 50th anniversary edition.