"Mother, my back itches!" A lower lip stuck out as the young boy pouted.
"I won't wear it." Thin arms crossed over a small chest in defiance. The twins of Imladris were the very picture of petulance.
It was nearing nightfall, and the sun was casting its final light before dropping behind the mountains. A long day of preparation was coming to a close, and the Lady of the House had but one task left: to fit her sons in the proper attire to greet King Thranduil of Greenwood the Great.
"Please don't argue," Celebrían entreated, briefly pressing her thumbs to her temples. She could sympathize with her sons' discomfort; before she'd reached her majority, she had dreaded wearing the restricting formal gowns etiquette required for the daughter of the rulers of the Galadrim. The Princes of Imladris had barely reached their thirtieth year, and their only desire was to run through the trees and care naught for the worries that stole Elrond's attention.
"But they're stupid!" Elladan complained, squirming uncomfortably in the unaccustomed constraint of the robes his mother had forced him into, dislodging the pins she had just set. Elrohir was twisting strangely, trying to scratch that impossible to reach spot on his back.
"Elladan, do not use the word 'stupid.'" She instructed, reminding herself to have the sleeves of Elrohir's robes shortened.
"They are ridiculous and ill-fitting," he offered sagely, looking disappointed that his mother did not see this. Celebrían reined in her temper and wondered if the tabards should have been embroidered at the shoulders.
"An alliance with the kingdom is necessary. The feelings between Imladris and the Woodland Realm were strained in the time of King Oropher, and we must make a good impression on the King Thranduil," Celebrían tried to explain, motioning for Elladan to turn slowly. He did, and she decided to have a sash made if time would permit.
"Glorfindel said that King Oropher was a pain in Ada's rear. Of course, he didn't say rear. He said -" Elrohir chattered, oblivious to his mother's horrified look. His brother kicked him in the shin before he could finish.
"I won't wear it." Elladan reiterated as Elrohir hopped on one leg, holding his abused limb.
"For the love of Elbereth! I am not asking you to live in them," Celebrían burst out, losing patience. Elrohir nearly toppled over when his father spoke.
"Ionnath, you do not argue with your mother." Elrond ordered, appearing suddenly in the doorway. Celebrían glared at Glorfindel, who was standing comfortably at her husband's side. He met her gaze squarely and flashed an unrepentant smile. Erestor, papers slipping out of a fat ledger tucked under his arm, hooked a stray braid behind his ear impatiently. As always, Elrond's advisor looked as though he was in the gravest hurry to be elsewhere, doing something important.
"I never want to hear that the Princes of Imladris have behaved in such a humiliating fashion again. Is that understood?" Elrond's tone was ice cold. Stung, the twins nodded. "Now apologize to your mother."
"I'm sorry, Nana," Elrohir murmured honestly. Elladan muttered a less sincere apology, waiting until his father had turned away before blinking the tears from his eyes. Glorfindel looked sympathetic, and slipped them both a bit of chocolate before he left. Erestor patted them on the head in an absent but affectionate way.
With the twins' rebellion subdued, Celebrían quickly finished her work, sent the children to bed with a kiss, and departed after her husband. Elrohir carefully removed his robes, folding them so that they did not get wrinkled. Elladan followed example grudgingly, wishing he could throw them out of the window.
The twins lay in their beds that night, still nursing the hurt of their father's words as children will do. Elrohir was curled on his side with his head pillowed on one arm, lulled into a comfortable limbo by the distant roar of the waterfall. Nearly asleep, he stared up at his grandfather's star with eyes half-closed.
"Elrohir," Elladan whispered into the darkness, propping himself up on one elbow. His brother stretched and rolled over.
"Are you awake?" Neither considered the obviousness of this question.
"I've got a great idea," he said with eagerness, and Elrohir bit his lip. Elladan's ideas often got them into a lot of trouble. Especially the good ones.
"What is it?" The boy asked warily, chewing on the skin around his thumbnail.
"We should leave!" Elladan whispered. His brother's eyes widened in surprise.
"You mean, run away?"
"Not forever, just a little while. Then Ada will be sorry he yelled at us." The older twin sounded confident.
"I don't know, Elladan. We really shouldn't have argued with Naneth," Elrohir said slowly. Elladan scoffed in disbelief. The two were alike in so many ways, so close to one another that they often completed each other's sentences – or didn't need to. But where Elrohir was thoughtful and forgiving, Elladan was often rash and nursed his grudges.
"If we run away, no one can make us wear the robes for the stupid king." Elladan knew that this would win his twin over.
As expected, the idea greatly appealed to Elrohir, who nodded eagerly, forgetting his earlier reservations. "Or make us study and take bathes!"
"Exactly!" Elladan swung his legs over the edge of the bed and wriggled out of his pajamas. Elrohir quickly followed suit.
The two dressed quickly, and Elrohir packed wisely, making sure they both had the necessities. Gildor Inglorion, friend to their father, had often schooled them on how to survive in the Wild.
It was no hardship for the twins to crawl out their bedroom window, jump down onto a pavilion roof, and shimmy down to the ground. The moon was just beginning to wax, shining a feeble silver light over the world. The stars were bright, however, and with their keen Elven sight, the twins had no trouble navigating their way east towards the mountains and away from their home.
They knew the forests surrounding Imladris faultlessly, and did not fear of roaming creatures. Elladan led them through the woods. The time that past was marked only by the fading of the moon and the lightening of the sky as Anar began to illuminate the horizon. At last, when Elrohir was growing tired once more and Elladan had begun to fear that they were lost, they stumbled across a secluded dell nestled against a natural stone wall.
It was perfect. There was a grotto hollowed into the rock face which would shelter them from the elements, and a wide stream that eventually fed into the Bruinen spilled over the precipice overhead a few hundred meters from their little cave; they could get water for drink and bathing - when they felt like it - from it.
Elrohir, once more of the opinion that they had indeed wronged, decided that it would do until his dramatic sibling decided that it was time to return home. Elladan fancied that they could live here forever, with dirt under their fingernails and telain in the trees like in the land of their grandparents.
Two days later, Elrohir had had it with his brother's temper and wanted to go home. Elladan was weary of Elrohir's constant complaining. Tired and grumpy, they sought to let out some frustration through sword practice.
"I will vanquish you, dirty Orc!"
"Never, laes." The insult was hardly credible, as the dark haired child that spoke it was little more than two minutes older than his twin.
The taunts flew back and forth, gaining momentum as the sun continued to rise, shedding more and more light upon the valley. Each taunt was accentuated by the clacking of wooden sticks that had been whittled to some resemblance of a weapon.
"Give over," the younger of the twin jeered, faking a jab to the right and attempting to hit his brother with the flat of the make-shift sword.
"Balrog dung!" returned the elder swiftly, grinning at the cleverness of his dig. His twin was impressed as well, and the other took advantage of his momentary lapse to tap him smartly on the collarbone.
Gritting his teeth against the throb, the younger twin was quiet, searching his mind for the grievance to top them all. He ignored his brother, letting the attempts to rile him roll off like water from a duck's back.
It came to him in a great moment of inspiration. He was so thrilled to have thought up the perfect insult that he did not notice his brother had set the point of his child's weapon against the ground and was bowing respectfully.
Taking advantage of his twin's exposed shoulders he rapped him hard with his weapon and yelled with pleasure, "I have defeated you, Woodland scum!"
The air was suddenly tense and silent. Elrohir swallowed, realizing belatedly that they were not alone in the clearing. Without looking, he knew exactly who it had to be.
"Thranduil?" he mouthed at his brother, and Elladan nodded looking torn between amusement and horror.
Elrohir slowly pivoted to discover a host of Wood-Elves standing silently among the trees. Surveying their expressions after his humiliating blunder, he was relieved to see no great anger written upon their fair faces. Closer at hand was a gray-clad figure who wore a crown of woodland flowers. Elrohir sudden found it hard to swallow. The King's sea-green eyes were unreadable as he slowly swung his oak staff back and forth like a pendulum. Bejeweled rings on most his fingers winked in the sunlight.
"No doubt these are the errant sons of Elrond Peredhil." Some unseen tension was broken when Thranduil spoke, the words in soft, gentle Sindarin which rolled musically off his tongue. Glorfindel led his mount Asfaloth forward to stand behind the ruler of Eryn Lasgalen. There was a brush of ruddiness staining his cheeks, betraying his embarrassment. Elrohir dared not meet his eyes; there was surely none their usual kindness there.
"My lord, may I present -" he began to introduce them with proper formality, but Thranduil waved a hand dismissively. Glorfindel stepped back, biting his lip to hold back a retort.
"You can speak for yourselves, can you not?" The king addressed the twins, tilting his head to one side just slightly. His very stance radiated arrogance and yet somehow they did not feel insulted. Rather, the twins felt as though they'd been chastened. Elrohir stood up straighter and Elladan brushed the front of his tunic.
"Aye, Lord Thranduil," Elladan murmured. "I am Elladan Elrondion."
"And I am Elrohir Elrondion."
"Delightful." Thranduil glanced over his shoulder at his company. "You may leave now. We shall be along shortly."
"What have you here?" He asked when the Silvan company was gone, gesturing broadly to encompass the entire dell.
Elladan opened his mouth to speak, and the golden haired king sent him a sharp look. "I would have the truth, younglings."
His mouth closed with a soft click. Elladan eyed Thranduil and wondered what magic the Elf possessed.
Appearing to be in no hurry, the king casually ambled away from them towards their grotto. Thranduil admired the carefully contained fire pit that had been dug into the mouth of their dwelling. Two neat little pallets made of leaves and pine needles were tucked into a niche near to the fire. Nestled into natural pigeonholes in the walls were their supplies; knives in one, canvas in another. Various berries and nuts that the twins had collected. A coil of rope.
"Your have a suitable camp here," the king praised. He did not sound grudging or fawning. Identical gray eyes glowed with pride.
"Did you know King Gil-galad?" Elrohir wanted to know, holding his hands behind his back and tracing a circle on the dirty ground with his big toe.
"I did," Thranduil acknowledge. "Never let it be said that Ereinion Gil-galad was not hospitable; when I was in Lindon during the Second Age he was most kind, and lavished many gifts upon our kingdom."
"Our Ada knew him too. He was his herald," Elladan announced importantly. The king smiled kindly.
"Indeed; your father served the High King faithfully."
"Erestor says-" Elrohir began.
"-that you hate the Noldor," his other finished.
"Indeed, that may be true," Thranduil mused serenely. He braced his shoulders against the wall. "My knowledgeable kindred often call us the 'Avari' and 'less wise' because we chose not to run to the shelter of the Valar. You know of the Last Alliance of Elves and Men, do you not?"
"We do," Elladan answered for them both. They watched Thranduil expectantly, caught up in the low gentle tones of his voice. The sea-colored depths of his eyes were slightly unfocused as he stared into the past.
"My father was unwilling to be dominated by the supreme command of Ereinion Gil-galad. I doubt he would even have joined with the Alliance were it not necessary. Our people were exhausted and the losses outweighed the victory."
"Erestor said that Oropher was foolhardy with pride," Elladan asserted.
"He told us that it was his haste that killed him," Elrohir added.
Thranduil nodded sadly. "My sire's stubbornness was his end. At the battle of Dagorlad, he rushed forward before the order was given. He and his soldiers were cut off and killed."
Sensing the sadness in the king's voice, Elladan toed the ground, reluctant to say what was on his mind. Thranduil smiled. "What else does this Erestor say, Elfling?"
"He says that you are inordinately fond of pretty things, and -"
"- that you hoard wealth like a dragon."
To the surprise of the young boys, who had expected anger or at least indignation, Thranduil threw back his golden head and laughed until tears filled his eyes.
They looked on curiously as the Elf gained control of his mirth, wiping his cheeks with the backs of his hands.
"I very much look forward to meeting your father's advisor." He said finally, making a gesture in the air with one adorned hand. "As you can see, I do indeed love things that sparkle."
"Are you greedy, then?" Elrohir asked, unsure. "Father says that greedy Elves are bad."
Thranduil's face turned serious. "I enjoy amassing beautiful things. But I have never allowed it to come before my people, ever."
The younger twin, who had in the excitement of Thranduil's unexpected arrival had forgotten that he wished to be back home, leaned closer to his twin and whispered behind his hand.
"We should show him the lake."
"I thought it was to be our secret," Elladan whispered back, but his gray eyes lit up with enthusiasm for the idea. Thranduil regarded them with clear green eyes, tapping his oak staff lightly against the ground to the tune of his inner song.
"Come, hîr-nîn," they chorused with delight, each grabbing hold of one of his hands. There was a barely noticeable smile on the lord's face, laughter hiding in the depths of his green eyes.
The twins led him out of the grotto and along the stone wall to where the miniature waterfall tumbled. Thranduil showed no hesitation in getting his gray robes wet when they pulled him straight through cascade. A fissure in the wall was revealed, less than two meters tall. It started as a thin crack and tapered into a meter-wide split.
Inside the hidden cavern it was dark and damp, smelling musty with age. His keen eyes adjusted quickly, and Thranduil studied the thick ribbons on the ceiling, dripping faintly salty water every so often. He enjoyed the patient feel of the rock around him. Similar to the Caves of Menegroth, his father had built his stronghold underground.
He lost his train of thought as the ceiling abruptly soared upwards, turning the narrow tunnel into a large cavern. His sensitive ears detected the sound of splashing water and lapping waves. A dozen meters ahead, a large expanse of water lazily washed against the stone.
Pale beams of light gently shone down from openings above, reflecting off the gently moving water. Thranduil was amazed by the cavern, which had doubtlessly started as a crack in the rock worn by the constant trickle of a tiny stream. The shifting silver lights that shone on the walls revealed crude markings; an early shelter for a primitive band of men, perhaps.
Two nearly simultaneous splashes pulled him from his investigation. He laughed at what he saw: Elrond's sons, as bare as the day they were born, splashed one another playfully in the water. The king was perfectly content to watch over them while they had their play, and perhaps have a look around, but the boys had other plans.
"Sire, do you swim?" Elladan called a moment before his brother pushed him under the water.
"Aye, lad," Thranduil answered. Spitting a stream of water, the elder twin surfaced and brushed his hair back.
"Come and play, sire!" Elrohir yelled even as he backstroked away from his twin. Thranduil laughed again and graciously declined. He took a seat on a smooth boulder, leaning his oak staff beside him. Watching Elrond's sons frolic made him feel peaceful. He thought of his son Legolas, who was near to their age and had the same mischievous glint in his baby blue eyes.
It is a sorry day indeed when a pair of unclothed Elflings manage to sneak up upon the ruler of an ancient Elvish kingdom and push him into the water.
This day was a particularly sorry one, Thranduil would later muse; he had fallen head first.
The boys maintained their cheerful disposition until Rivendell came into view. Elrohir, who had been merrily recounting a tale that Thranduil had heard many times before, fell silent as if on cue.
Greenwood's king said nothing; this was their lesson to learn and Elrond's to teach.
His people awaited him in the courtyard, clearly relieved to see him as hearty and whole as they had left him. The Lady of Imladris was also among them, and he was pleased to note that she did not think herself too well born to stand among his people. He grudgingly admitted to himself that the Lord and Lady of Lórien had done well by their daughter.
When Elrond turned his stare upon the twins, they quailed. All defiant thoughts drained away, and both became suddenly fascinated with the palms of their riding gloves. Thranduil winced in sympathy as he dismounted. His wife came to him, smiling a greeting. Eyes lighting up, the king caught her around the waist and swung her around. She laughed, warming his heart.
Celebrían squeezed her husband's hand, watching the affectionate display. "Do not be too hard on them, love. They are still children."
"When I think of all that could have happened to them…" Elrond muttered, and stepped from her side to fetch his sons. The look on his face promised a scolding.
"Welcome, Heru Thranduil. Your arrival has been long anticipated," he greeted courteously, speaking formally in High Quenya. "I regret any inconvenience that my sons may have caused."
Thranduil nodded, and responded calmly in Sindarin. "They were no trouble, Hir Elrond."
Elrond gritted his teeth. Thranduil was just as stubborn as he remembered. "I pray that you will excuse me for a moment. My advisor shall see you settled."
Erestor hurried forward, tucking his hair behind his ears.
"King Thranduil, welcome to Imladris. Please, allow me to show you to your chambers." Peeking around his father, Elrohir waved a dejected farewell before they turned the corner out of sight.
"You are Erestor, are you not?"
"I am, hir-nîn."
"We have much to discuss, you and I."
"Do either of you care to explain?" Elrond asked, very softly.
"I was-" the twins began in unison.
"Completely to blame; yes, I know." He nearly smiled, but reminded himself how worried he had been. "You two jump to defend one another. I always blamed things upon my brother, and he on me."
"No, really-" they started again.
"Silence." The room fell silent. Elrohir stuck one thumb into his mouth and began to chew on his nail. With hardly a thought, Elladan reached over and pulled on his wrist. Elrohir stopped.
"I forbid you from ever causing you mother and me such needless worry ever again. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, Father." They waited for their punishment.
"You will assist the stable master each morning after breakfast for as long as I see fit." Elrohir smiled behind his hand; Elladan braced himself for the rest.
"Go on now; I have important business to see to." They stared. Elrond raised an arched eyebrow. "Is there something else?"
"No Father." They chanted. The twins paused for just a moment more, and then threw their arms around his hips in a hug. Then they raced away before he could change his mind.
"Elflings, where do you run?" Thranduil called, stopping the twins as they raced laughing through the gardens. His arm was wrapped securely around his wife's waist as she leaned against his shoulder. The branches of a peach tree blocked the sun and provided ample treat. He tasted the delicate fruit, and then offered it to his mate.
"We wish to be far away when Father changes his mind." Elladan informed him seriously. Elrohir scurried effortlessly up another fruit tree and threw two apples down to his twin, then swung down to land in front of the king.
"So these are the little mischief makers that stole you away all morning," the queen teased gently.
"We're sorry," Elrohir apologized sincerely, sounding upset. Elladan nodded. The she-Elf laughed throatily.
Shy now, the twins plucked blades of grass from the ground. "Ah, do not be bashful younglings. I am most eager to hear of your adventures."
"Truly, Lady?" Elladan asked softly, eagerly. They scooted closer.
"Truly." She nodded to encourage them. Excited, Elrohir leaned toward his twin and whispered in his ear. Delight lit his eyes.
"You'll never believe it! There was a dragon-"
"-and we killed it, and kept its treasure…"