Back in their room, Elrohir sank into one of the
with a sigh, feeling desperately weary. He closed his eyes
then opened them again to glare at Elladan. “Say nothing,” he
Elladan spread his hands defensively. “I was not going to!” he protested. “I was not going to query the wisdom of venturing to the stables. I was not going to mention that you were only allowed out of bed for the first time yesterday, or that the meal last night was the first time you had eaten in days. I was not going to say –”
“Good!” Elrohir interrupted sharply. “Continue not to say it. I know. I know.” He leaned back, propping his feet on a low stool. “I needed to do something, El. To get out; to feel alive again. I just feel so helpless like this!”
“I know you do,” Elladan replied, more sympathetically. “You are not a good patient, Elrohir. I remember when I have been in your position; how I hated it – and how you berated me for not heeding good advice,” he added caustically.
Elrohir sighed. “Am I really that bad?” he asked. “I seem to have put the fear of Eru into one of Calmacil’s apprentices yesterday.”
“Would that be Thalion? I noticed how nervous he was when he brought breakfast this morning. Although you were asleep, he looked at you as if you were a serpent poised to strike! What happened?” Elladan settled himself in the other chair, listening avidly. “It is not like you, El, to terrorise younglings like that.”
“I know. I hope I did not get him into trouble with Calmacil.” Elrohir felt he should give his brother a little more explanation. “He escorted me to the bathing room, and offered to help me wash – as if I were some decrepit wreck!” He watched as Elladan raised one eyebrow silently and eloquently. “Oh, shut up, El!” he retorted inelegantly.
Elladan grinned. “What did you say to him?” he queried.
“I said nothing; I just looked at him, and he fled in terror.” Elrohir felt a little guilty at the memory.
“I am not surprised. You can look horrifyingly like Grandmother at times,” Elladan reminded him with a laugh. “It was foolish to send Thalion away though, if you were bathing – I know you were still feeling faint at times.”
“Father told me the same thing. And I believe Calmacil may have told him that – there is little that escapes his notice. I think I owe young Thalion an apology,” he admitted.
They sat in companionable silence for a while. The fire crackled softly, and outside trees rustled in the breeze. Elrohir felt his eyelids growing heavy, and jerked himself awake, frustrated at his weariness. “El? Do you want a game of chess? I see the set over by the window.”
“Are you sure? You look tired,” Elladan said incautiously.
“Exactly - I do not want to sleep all the time!” Elrohir snapped. “I think I am capable of playing chess – it should not be too strenuous; and you do not need to worry that I will overdo it!” He paused as he heard the irritation in his voice. “I need something to keep me awake. This will give me something to think about,” he added in more moderate tones.
Elladan nodded, and rose to move the table closer to where they sat. “You will probably beat me again,” he said ruefully. “You usually do.”
“Of course I will. You are too impetuous; you do not think through your moves. Besides, I am simply better than you,” Elrohir told him with an air of great superiority. Elladan lacked the patience to plan ahead in a game, and played with an impulsive recklessness that usually resulted in him losing. Such impetuosity in real battle would have quickly led to his death, but there his brother was focused and disciplined. Elrohir silently thanked the Valar that matters were not the other way around.
Elladan’s opening moves were fairly predictable; an attacking formation aimed at eliminating Elrohir’s opposition. Elrohir studied the board with a frown. His head ached, and it was difficult to concentrate on the intricacies of the game. Then he smiled. Elladan’s last rash move had left his tower exposed to Elrohir’s knight. He moved, and took the piece.
Elrohir looked up in triumph, then frowned in confusion as Elladan sighed deeply, and shook his head. “You have not fallen for such an obvious trick like that for a very long time, little brother,” Elladan said sorrowfully. He moved again. “Checkmate,” he said with irritating smugness.
Disbelievingly, Elrohir stared at the board. From out of nowhere his king was now threatened, and there was nothing he could do about it. He studied each piece in turn, but still could not see a way out. He sighed with frustration. It had been many years since he had lost to Elladan – he must be even more tired than he realised. “Checkmate,” he agreed in weary defeat. “Well done. I did not even see that pitfall.”
“Will you listen to good advice now? You look terrible,” Elladan told him with his usual affectionate bluntness.
“Very well. Go away and leave me in peace, and I will rest. Go and tell Gilmith about the race tomorrow.” Elrohir leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes. He was warm, and comfortable, and it was too much effort to move to the bed. He could hear Elladan moving quietly about the room, but gradually all sound faded and he slept.
The next day dawned dull and overcast. Low
gloomily, and there was a clear threat of rain. It was too late
postpone the race, though – word had spread, and a large crowd had
gathered to watch. There was much speculation and ribald comment
the outcome, and wagers were being placed on the likely winner,
enthusiastically encouraged by Alfiel.
Elladan led Gilmith and Alagos from the stable, while Legolas carried the saddles. He dumped them both onto the ground as Elladan inspected them and picked one up. He pushed the other towards Legolas with his foot. “This is Gilmith’s. Do you need help to saddle him?” he asked demurely.
There was a ripple of laughter from those watching, but to Elladan’s surprise Legolas took the saddle and placed it on Gilmith, adjusting the straps confidently. “I have travelled with the two of you for many years,” he reminded Elladan. “I have seen you do this often enough – I should know how to do it by now!” he pointed out. There was another flurry of betting at this. For the first time Elladan felt a qualm of unease – perhaps Legolas would not be at such a disadvantage after all. It never paid to underestimate him.
He watched Legolas carefully as he mounted, smiling at his expression of discomfort as he settled into the saddle. One or two crude comments were shouted out from the safe anonymity of the crowd, amid much laughter as they both walked the horses to and fro, each adjusting to an unfamiliar mount. Elladan found Alagos restless beneath him – he was Elrohir’s horse through and through, and had never been ridden by another. He leaned forward and patted the soft neck. “Shh. I know I am not Elrohir, but I will have to do for now.” Elladan glanced around the clearing, searching for Elrohir. “Look, there he is!”
Elrohir stood with their parents beside the post that marked both the start and the finishing line, watching them, his face bright with laughter. “Legolas, I hope you will still be able to walk by the end!” he called. “You look a little uncomfortable!” Alagos moved towards him, pushing his nose against Elrohir, still a little indignant at the thought of his new rider. Elrohir stroked him absently. “You will have to put up with Elladan for now, I fear – I am still forbidden to ride you – but I am sure he will look after you.” He stood close to Alagos, and murmured something into his ear, then stepped back quickly.
Alagos snorted, and bucked sharply, twice. Elladan, taken by surprise, nearly fell, and flung his arms around Alagos’s neck. He glared at Elrohir. “What did you say to him?” he demanded.
Elrohir looked up at Elladan with a grin. “I told him that you called him a pitiful bag of bones, that was all. He seems to have taken offence. Good luck, El – do not let us down! Just leave all the thinking to Alagos.”
Elladan scowled at him, and as he moved away, kicked Elrohir lightly on the shoulder. Alagos snorted in disapproval.
Elrond stepped forward and caught his arm. “Good luck. Remember the honour of Imladris rides with you!”
“So there is no pressure on me to win, I see. I will do my best, Father,” Elladan promised with a grin.
Elrond glanced surreptitiously over his shoulder. “Do not tell your mother, but I have wagered Thranduil a gold piece on the outcome. I think she may not approve!” he explained in a low voice.
Elladan grinned again. “Your secret is safe with me,” he promised.
The two riders moved to the starting line, and at a signal from Thranduil, the race started. The course they had to follow wove between the trees, sometimes on the forest paths, sometimes off them, across open ground and through thick undergrowth. Elladan bent close over Alagos’s neck, ducking under low branches that could easily sweep him off. When he could spare any attention to see how Gilmith was faring, he noticed that Legolas did not seem to have that particular problem, and recalled the odd affinity his friend seemed to have with the trees. It was not that he suspected Legolas of deliberately cheating – he had too much honour – but the trees themselves seemed to be aiding him. “Wood Elf!” he muttered to himself in disgust.
Alagos swerved sharply sideways, avoiding a muddy patch, and Elladan concentrated all his attention on the race. With Gilmith, he and the horse moved as one with the ease of long familiarity. Alagos felt very different, and sudden movements like that were unsettling. They would have to work together to win. At home in Imladris, he and Elrohir often raced for the sheer joy of it, and a keen rivalry had developed between the two horses. Alagos would be just as determined to win as Legolas and Gilmith were. “Come on, Alagos – we will do this together. For Elrohir,” he urged softly. The horse found a new turn of speed from somewhere, and streaked forward.
The mid-point of the course was a venerable oak in the centre of a clearing. Two strips of cloth hung from the branches high overhead – to reach one, he would have to stand in the stirrups and stretch. It would be easy enough, but he wondered how Legolas would manage. He stood, reached high, and snatched one of the strips before dropping back into the saddle as Alagos looped around the tree and started back. Risking a glance behind, he watched in amazement as the branch with the remaining ribbon dipped down towards Legolas as he passed beneath. He faintly heard Legolas call ‘My thanks!’ to the tree, and swore softly.
More determined than ever, they streaked along the path towards the training grounds. The final stretch was a straight gallop the length of the field. The route was lined with spectators, cheering and shouting. Most of the encouragement was for Legolas, of course, but he heard his own name called often enough. As Elladan shot past Taniquel, he heard her cheering them both impartially and waved at her. A movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention, and he glimpsed Legolas gaining steadily as Gilmith strove to move ahead of Alagos.
The noise was deafening, and he felt a thrill of excitement. Although he still hoped desperately that he and Alagos would win – for his parents, for Imladris, for Elrohir and for himself – it did not really matter in the end. He had enjoyed the race, and there were far more important matters to rejoice over. He leaned forward over Alagos’s neck. “Come on Alagos – are you going to let them win?” he whispered into his ear.
With a snort of derision, Alagos tossed his head and made a final effort. They crossed the line half a length ahead of Gilmith and Legolas, to cheers, shouts and tumultuous applause. Celebrían’s hair flew around her in a silver cloud as she jumped up and down clapping her hands, as unrestrained as Arwen would have been. Elrond clapped Elrohir on the back and said something that made him laugh and nod.
Elladan swung down from the saddle, and turned to greet Legolas first. “Well done,” they said simultaneously, and laughed. “Congratulations,” Legolas added. “You did well.”
“As you did,” Elladan agreed. “Even if you did have a slightly unfair advantage. Wood Elf!”
“Noldor snob!” Legolas retaliated. “I cannot help it if the trees favour me!” He winced slightly. “Though I cannot fathom how you endure that saddle. I hope my father never has any desire for grand-elflings – I fear I may be permanently damaged!” He stepped back with a grin.
Elladan was engulfed in an embrace by Elrohir and his parents all at once. Their congratulations and praise warmed him. Then he turned to watch as Legolas slowly approached Thranduil, walking rather carefully.
Legolas bowed to his father very formally. “Forgive me, Your Majesty, for besmirching the honour of Lasgalen and the House of Oropher. The Noldor used a fiendish torture device known as a saddle to defeat me. I throw myself on your mercy.”
“The only loss is a single piece of gold that I gambled on your success. I think the treasury can withstand it,” Thranduil responded dryly.
Elladan looked around as Elrohir leaned close to whisper in his ear. “He is not the only one to rue your win. I think the good people of Lasgalen are regretting betting quite so heavily that their prince would be victorious. Look!” All around them small trinkets were changing hands. There were many coins, mostly silver or copper, but there was an occasional flash of gold. They both watched in amazement as Mireth approached Celebrían and gave her a small silver brooch.
“Even Mother made a wager!” Elladan exclaimed in utter surprise. He watched the crowd. There was no resentment, but many congratulations and commiserations voiced, and an air of festivity. He turned to Elrohir, who was laughing again at Legolas’s obvious discomfort. The shadow of pain, fever and exhaustion had all but gone, and his eyes danced with mirth. Elladan returned his smile. “Remember today, little brother. Today is a good day.”