Mairen - A Life Once Lost - Chapter 5- Paths
Haldir awoke, listening to the wind as it sighed through his window, carrying with it the lilting sound of an elvish melody that caressed his mind with its familiarity. It soothed him in its way, but it could not erase the memories that flooded his thoughts . . .
The fleeting pain and anguish of when he had been struck from behind, followed by the horrible sense of despair as he'd stared at the fallen elves at his side . . . that interminable moment of his own fall while he struggled deep in his heart to know if once again his decisions had been sound . . . and then darkness . . . black, mind-reeling darkness . . .
And then . . . light? It had grown in the desperate shadows of his mind, a tiny flicker that had summoned him, but not to the Halls of Waiting. No, it had been the light of Galadriel, shining out to him like a beacon in the night. She had stood there, strong and fair, calling him back, lifting away the despair that had tried to pull him down once more.
Haldir, your decisions were sound and right. You are true to what the light signifies, true to your sense of honor. Come back, mellon nîn. Come back to the light. Come back . . .
He blinked, the memory fading slowly, and noticed the sunlight that streamed through the window and the lines of the rafters that curved gracefully over his head. He rolled to his side to find both his brothers sitting beside him, waiting for him to wake.
"How long?" he rasped, his voice hoarse.
Rúmil leaned forward, brushing his fingers gently over Haldir's brow. "Too long, we thought. You have lain as if dead for nigh two weeks."
Haldir closed his eyes. Two weeks? He lifted a hand to his brow, rubbing his temple to ease the ache. "How many returned?"
Orophin leaned on the edge of the bed. "A question to be asked later. Right now you need only to rest and regain your strength and not dwell on those we lost. It was a choice we" --he stressed the pronoun-- "all made. It is not your burden to bear."
Haldir reopened his eyes, gazing at the two elves who held such a deep place in his heart. What would he do if he ever lost these two? They were more than brothers; they were a part of him, part of his life. He wanted to reach out and hug them, but found he had not the strength. Instead he smiled, earning smiles in return, then his eyes fluttered closed and he slept.
Mairen pushed aside the pile of mail, yanking yet another bent and broken sword from the depths of the metal stack. She glared at it and threw it aside. Beside her, several more young boys searched for items still of use. The Rohirrim were set to march once more, this time to the Pelennor fields in aid of the realm of Gondor. With a sigh, Mairen threw another sword aside, wishing Willem were here by her side. However, her brother now sat on the ramparts, feeling the sun caressing his cheek, but never to see it again. She pushed away her despair and turned as a stern voice greeted her.
She stepped back, bowing low before King Théoden as he stopped before her, his blue eyes studying her intensely.
"Mairen, I see you are well. And your brother?"
She glanced up, and gave a small smile. "As well as to be expected, my lord."
He nodded and glanced around, and the young boys sorting the weapons quickly disappeared at a meaningful look from him. His gaze returned to Mairen. "I have some of the most loyal followers a king could ask," Théoden said quietly. He looked at her, tilting his head. "Do you not agree?"
Mairen nodded. "Of course, sire. You are our King. I would expect nothing else."
As if struggling with a decision, Théoden looked away. "I need all the warriors I can get, yet I cannot leave behind those who are injured and unable to follow without some kind of protection."
Mairen's uneasiness flared into dread. "Sire?"
The King turned to face her, reaching out to place a gentle hand on her shoulder. "You must stay behind, Mairen. Your brother needs you. And so do I. I need you to help guard those who must stay here."
Mairen opened her mouth to argue, but closed it with a snap at the look in Théoden's eyes. She lowered her gaze bowing slightly. "As you wish, My Lord."
Théoden gently grasped her chin, forcing her to look up at him. "I do this not because you are a woman, but because I know your strength. I can leave knowing they are as safe as I can make them." His hand moved to settle on her shoulder. "I have watched you since you were a child. I remember well the day you were born, Mairen. You fought hard to come forth; your mother had nearly no warning." His hand fell from her shoulder, but his gaze held hers. "The moment you were born an unusual thing happened. Did you mother ever tell you?"
Mairen shook her head, a strange feeling washing over her.
Théoden frowned slightly. "The night was stormy, a furious onslaught, with lightning that flashed with such intensity that you had to turn away. The ground shook when the thunder erupted, as if the Valar were angry and fighting. Your mother's cries were all but muffled by the raging tempest outside." He looked away for a moment and then held her gaze once more. "When you came forth, the room was lit by a brilliant flash, near blinding those present. Most thought only that the lightning had struck near, but the mid-wife spoke to me later."
Mairen rubbed her forearms to warm away the chill that swept over her.
To her surprise, Théoden took hold of her hands and squeezed them. "She told me the light was not from the lightning. She said it came from within the room at the very moment of your birth. She feared what it meant. She was a suspicious woman and would have left you in the wilderness had she the chance. But I came to visit and spoke of it with your mother. She too had seen that the light did not come from the storm, and feared what I might do." He smiled, his eyes distant as if remembering her as a child. "But when I held you Mairen, I had the overwhelming sense of your strength and determination. Even as a babe you resisted, fighting against odds that might have defeated you."
Mairen bit her lip. "Why do you tell me this now, my lord?"
Théoden's brows drew together, his blue eyes becoming hooded. "Because I do not feel you belong with us in this next battle, Mairen. Long have I felt that your destiny lies elsewhere, not with me, nor with the Rohirrim. I do not tell you this to hurt you, but to make you aware. You have always been a bit different. Your skills were enough to earn you a place among my best riders. You have led many of our women to become what they might never have become were it not for your example. I can count with pride the number who ride for me, for I could not deny you or them the chance to defend those you love." Again he turned away, facing to the side as he slid a hand through his hair, before looking back at her with narrowed eyes.
"And now I tell you," he said, gripping her chin gently. "I know not why I feel this so strongly, only that it seems right. You will stay here, guard those that are injured, and wait. Word will be sent of the outcome of this battle, for there, on the plains of Pelennor, shall the world's future be decided." He stared into her eyes as if searching for answers to questions he had long pondered. "Whatever your destiny, it now leads you on a different path." He let go, and with a last lingering look, spun and walked from her, and Mairen stepped back, stumbling over a forgotten sword, and turned only to be brought up short by Eowyn.
"Mairen. He is right, you know. You have been an inspiration to the women of Rohan."
Mairen grimaced. "And what has that brought me now, Eowyn, but to be left behind? It is what I have fought against for half my life."
Eowyn clutched her arm, pulling her into a nearby alcove. "I understand your frustration, for I live that feeling every day. At least you have been able to be free, and ride and fight alongside your brothers. I have never had that chance." Eowyn's eyes glittered with determination . . . and something else.
"You are of royal blood, Eowyn. We have spoken of this before."
Eowyn slid closer, her fingers tightening in a grip that was almost painful. They were of the same height, sandy-haired and slim, alike in build as well as temperament. "You have felt the thrill of valor," Eowyn said. "I heard how you took the elf back to his lands alone and unafraid! What I would give for such a chance to do such a great deed! I thought you of all people would understand."
Mairen grasped Eowyn's forearms. "I understand what you wish, but it is not all valor and bravery. It is also pain and anguish, fear and death. And blood." She shuddered and looked away, fighting the tears that blurred her eyes, but Eowyn's hold forced her to turn back.
"I can no longer stay behind. You must help me, Mairen! You have been ordered to stay. Let me go in your stead. Please."
Mairen stifled a gasp. "If you are injured or killed I will be held forfeit. You cannot ask this."
Eowyn's widened eyes held hers, her mouth thinned to a narrow, determined line. "I will not allow that. I will take responsibility for my actions. I will tell them whatever I must." She shook Mairen slightly. "Please!"
Mairen debated within herself, recognizing much of herself in Eowyn. She studied the other woman and finally sighed. "My mail should fit you well."
Eowyn's face lit with hope. "Indeed, and my clothes should also fit you. You will do this for me?"
Mairen looked deep into Eowyn's eyes. "May the Valar forgive me, Eowyn, but I will do this."
Orophin carried the small tray up the last of the steps, only to stop in consternation when he found Haldir leaning against the wooden door of his talan, staring into the leafy canopy above his head. Admonishments that it was too soon to rise would be tossed aside by the restive patient and so Orophin simply set the tray beside Haldir and took a seat next to him.
Even after only a month, Haldir stubbornly pushed his body, whether healing or fighting, to its limit. And none would or could gainsay him. So Orophin ignored his concerns and popped a large grape into his mouth, leaning back beside his brother to look into the shadowy darkness of mallyrn branches. "What do you see that so draws your gaze?" he asked.
"I see leaves," Haldir grunted, then slanted an amused glance at his brother.
Orophin nodded thoughtfully, rubbing his chin. "Ah, leaves. I see."
Haldir examined the food on the tray and picked up several grapes, staring at the crisp globes of fruit, the sheen of moisture that reflected the morning sun. "Indeed. Just as I see these grapes, and you, my brother. Things I thought I would never see again." He stared out across the trees, searching for the one talan that stood higher than his own. He had yet to see Galadriel. But he soon would.
Orophin rested his wrists on his knees, tilting his head to study his brother. "I feared what I saw on that day. You lay as one dead and yet Mairen stood by you, torn between you and her brother . . . yet by your side did she stay. Twice she has been there when death loomed at your door, beckoning you to the Halls of Waiting. What pull does she have to hold you upon the threshold of mortal life here in Middle Earth? I do not see logic, nor any answers to my questions."
Haldir plucked at the thin fabric of his leggings, not answering for a moment. He crossed his ankles and leaned back his head, staring once again at the leaves overhead as if they offered answers.
"I do not know why the Valar have brought her to my side, not once but twice. But I sense she has some path to take that leads her to us, as if we are but a stepping-stone on her journey. Perhaps Galadriel will have some other sense, for we know that she studied the maid often while she was here, whether the Rohirrim realized it or not."
Orophin smiled, popping another grape into his mouth and handing Haldir several more. "Aye, that is so. Rúmil says the maid looked favorably upon you, though he thought she fought against those feelings." He set the plate on Haldir's lap and leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest.
Haldir smiled, his glance meeting Orophin's for a moment. "I had that sense as well, and I fear I took advantage of her in that regard. It was perhaps unfair of me, and should I have the chance, I will apologize . . . although I do not think she minded as much as she believes." He sighed and gazed at the fruit in his hands, mulling his brother's words.
Were their paths separate? Or would they converge once more sometime in the future? Orophin sat quiet as Haldir slowly ate, speaking aloud only of minor things though the question nagged at him still. He knew he would bring it to Galadriel's attention, for his heart realized he was not yet through with the female warrior. In plain truth, he hoped to see her again.
The musty stable smelled of horse, sweat and straw, a familiar and welcome tang that Mairen breathed in as she shoved open the door to Epona's stall. She sank her hands into the horse's mane, burying her forehead against the warm flank of the roan while the horse stood patiently, shifting only slightly as Mairen curled her fingers into the horse's coarse hair. Finally, with a sigh, she released Epona, sliding her hand along the horse's sides in a familiar caress that soothed her as much as the horse. She had missed Epona; they had not ridden for weeks, since returning to Edoras. How many more weeks would they have to wait for news from Minas Tirith?
She picked up a brush and began to stroke the long mane, untangling knots from the long strands. Epona snorted softly and shifted again, pushing against Mairen as she worked silently. Only the sound of the brush moving over the horse's back broke the silence, Mairen's thoughts drifting with the monotony of her movements.
She had not slept well since the Rohirrim warriors had left, leaving only the women, children, those injured or just too old to fight behind in the caverns of Helm's Deep. For a while they had stayed, then they had slowly made their way back into the city to await news of the war.
Little news had come in. Weeks passed, weeks of waiting, weeks of worry for loved ones that kept most people silent and guarded. Feeling left behind, Mairen had moved among the people, sensing their despair. Each day she grew more edgy and frustrated. Something was happening; they could all sense the overwhelming darkness, feel the threatening shadows. Then suddenly, on a day like any other, the shadows fled. The sight of the fire in the sky drew people outside and the tremors shook the ground even there, high on the plateau, in Meduseld.
What had happened?
It took several more weeks to gain news. The war was over, the men had triumphed, and Aragorn had been acknowledged as king. Eomer was coming home soon, with Eowyn, but for now he waited while his sister recuperated from injuries, assisted by Aragorn's healing. Those tidings had given Mairen pause, that Eowyn had been hurt, yet she breathed a great sigh of relief that the king's niece had survived. She was fond of Eowyn.
Mairen leaned against Epona's stall, reflecting on the prophecies of the King who would return to Gondor. Aragorn was a Dunédain and had lived many years among the elves in Rivendell and Lothlórien, so she wasn't surprised at his knowledge, or healing skill. Idly, she wondered if he might have been able to do anything for Willem, but pushed the thought away since it was now too late to speculate on what might have been.
As if drawn by her thoughts, the doors to the stable were pulled open and Willem moved carefully inside, using a lance as a staff to feel his way. The area was usually well kept; still an unwary step might send him to his knees as he had found out only too many times before. He stopped, cocking his head to listen, and then turned toward where Mairen continued to brush Epona.
"Looking for me?" she asked as he smiled and moved slowly toward her.
"Aye, I was."
Mairen set the brush back into its place and moved outside the stall as Willem sat down beside her on a bale of straw. He sighed and leaned back, resting his head against the wall.
"What is it, Willem?"
Willem turned his head to look at her, his blue eyes drawn toward her as if he could still see. "You have been avoiding me, Mairen. I did not mean to upset you when last we spoke, but I was frustrated by your hovering around me as if I were a child. I am blind, not ill, nor unable to look after myself."
Seating herself beside him, Mairen patted his knee and laughing quietly in apology. "I am sorry, Willem. I do not mean to coddle you, and I see you are adjusting as well as you can. I only wish to be around if you need me."
"I will call you if I need you," he said. "Epona is restless."
Mairen glanced up; the horse was tossing her head and whickering softly. "I know. She feels my own frustration."
"You've not been sleeping well. I sometimes hear you through the wall."
She looked away; although Willem would not be able to see her expression, she knew he could sense it.
"You don't have to stay," he pointed out.
"Yes, I do. I was ordered to stay behind and so I have."
"You read more into Théoden's orders than what he meant. You guard those of us who cannot fight, but your duties do not mean you must stay within the city. Renny has returned and patrols once more. Go with him, Mairen. Go with our brother."
Mairen looked down at her feet, encased now in slippers, and at the dress she wore occasionally. She no longer had her mail, though she still had several tunics. But it felt odd to wear them without her armor. She plucked at the straw bale with her fingers. "I have no armor. Renny would not allow me to ride without it."
Willem scowled. "That is an excuse. You will have to try again." He waited for her to say more, but she remained silent. "I don't want you to stay for me, Mairen. You grow quieter every day, your thoughts distant. You sleep little and eat less. What ails you? Is it your dreams? I hear you mutter and cry out, but you do not tell me what you dream."
"I cannot. It matters naught," she whispered, unable to deny his accusations.
Willem gripped her hand. "It does matter, for it is you who are ill, not in your body but in your heart. I say nothing to Renny, or Eamon. Rolfe will return with Eomer, and what then? Will you continue to play my nursemaid until you are old and feeble? That is not your path."
Filled with sudden anger, Mairen surged to her feet. "Paths! Everyone thinks they know my path! My so-called destiny! How do you know this is not what Eru intends for me to do? I know what I must do and I am doing it."
Willem laid his lance on the floor and placed hands on his knees. He seemed far calmer than she was. "Do you, Mairen? Are you so sure that I require you near me? I do not. And I think you are frightened because you know that is true. You know your place in this world is not here playing my nursemaid. Tell me otherwise and I will leave you alone."
Mairen moved away a few steps, sliding a distracted hand through her hair, kicking the skirts out of her way with a curse. "I do not know what is my path, Willem, and yes, I am frightened. I was once so sure of my life, my calling to be a warrior. I still feel that is what I must do. But Théoden told me he has felt for many years that my path does not lie here with the Rohirrim, my own people! What would you say to that, Willem?" She leaned against an empty horse stall, one of the riders with Eomer, taking a deep breath to calm the wild beating of her heart.
Clutching the staff-lance, Willem rose and moved to her side. "I don't know, Mairen," he said gently. "But perhaps back out on the plain your mind will clear and you will find some answers. Or at the very least, you'll gain some freedom. Please, go to Renny and tell him you will ride once more. Or I will tell him myself."
Mairen slid her arms around Willem's waist and gave him a hug. "Very well, Willem. I will go to Renny, I promise, as long as you are certain you do not need me."
Willem hugged her back. "What I need is for you to be the sister I once knew. And yet I fear you can never go back."
Orophin stared into the gray eyes of his brother, aware of their challenge, juggling his concern for Haldir's well-being with his desire to take advantage of his elder brother's momentary weakness. His choice was snatched from him when Haldir leaped forward, the razor-sharp tip of his sword sheering several inches of silver hair from Orophin's almost waist-length locks. Orophin lowered his blade, regarding the shorn edges of his hair with consternation.
"I think that was unnecessary, Haldir!" he protested with indignation.
Haldir shrugged, the corner of his mouth curling slightly. "You may find yourself looking more like a Rohan warrior than an elf if you do not focus on the task at hand." His sword flashed out once more, and another set of thin strands fluttered to the ground.
"So the gauntlets are off!" Orophin shot back. "I try to take it easy on you and this is how you repay me. I warn you, brother, I no longer feel sorry for you."
Haldir flicked his blade toward Orophin, who slapped it away with his own. "Sorry for me? Is that why you play at fighting with our swords? I thought you just had become neglectful of continuing your training."
Orophin's eyes narrowed. He was aware Haldir was goading him, but still it irritated him. "Neglectful? My strokes are far keener than yours ever were. You only have more weight behind your blade." He ducked below Haldir's arm to whack his brother firmly on the backside with the flat of his sword-blade, arching his brows in amazement at being able to do so. "Score for me! You have become as slow and ungainly as the Rohirrim you mentioned. I shall have to take great care not to hurt you."
Haldir leaped forward, and the two blades met with the crisp resonance of metal followed by the scraping hiss as they were drawn swiftly apart. "So you say, but I only allow you an edge as your mind wanders." He whirled, his elvish blade glittering in the morning sunlight to collide with a shoulder-wrenching clang against Orophin's.
"My mind wanders?" Orophin snapped through gritted teeth. He slid his blade away from Haldir's and spun under the March Warden's next thrust. "Yours seems so far off of late that I fear you do not remain here in Lórien? Where do you go on your mindless travels?"
Haldir grunted as they collided, blades locked between them, and he glared at his brother. "I stay firmly put in Lórien." They twisted apart, each spinning in opposite directions to clash together once more.
"Hah!" Orophin choked, taking a step backward as he doubled over from the force of Haldir's elbow ramming into his stomach. Recovering quickly, he growled, "You fight like a mortal woman," and parried Haldir's next swing, slamming his blade against Haldir's to knock it aside.
Haldir laughed, quickly adjusting his stance to avoid the wide arc of Orophin's next swing. His blade held in two hands, Haldir swept it outward, forcing Orophin to leap aside to avoid it.
Orophin stumbled and Haldir moved in, his blade flickering as Orophin struggled to block it and regain his balance. He lost, earning him a large gash on his upper thigh, and he stood up, gripping the leg as the blood oozed from between his fingertips.
"Oh, so the fight becomes serious now? No parley, no holding back?"
Haldir shrugged. "I thought that was the intention all along, brother."
With a sudden laugh, Orophin whirled, using his slim agility to gain advantage. Haldir was a better swordsman, but his injuries of the past year had slowed him a minute amount, enough for his brother, one of few who stood near the March Warden in skill, to press his luck. Orophin spun his sword, flipping it over between his hands to meet Haldir's blade with a resounding clang. They struggled for a moment, each trying to gain advantage, and then the blades slipped apart, spinning in a glittering whirl of metal to separate and reconnect with a ringing shudder.
Orophin blinked, distracted for an instant by the dazzling sunlight glaring off Haldir's sword, and suddenly found himself on his back with the tip of Haldir's sword poised over him, held not near his throat, but once more over the fine strands of hair lying on his chest.
"Shall I shear a few more locks from your head, or do you cry surrender?"
Orophin dropped his blade and Haldir straightened, reaching down to pull Orophin to his feet.
"Well done, Orophin. I truly thought you might best me for once."
Orophin grinned, throwing an affectionate arm around Haldir's shoulder. "You know I let you win. I have to do my part to keep up your reputation."
"You worry too much about my health. I tell you again I have healed and am the same as I always was." He strolled over to a bench near the wall and sat, leaning against the long sword between his knees.
Orophin lifted the shorn locks of his hair, studying them with wry dismay. "So you say, but I see you differently. Your physical body may have healed, but your mind still lingers in a place none of us can go. Where is that, Haldir?"
Haldir frowned, and when he looked up, his gray eyes were dark. "I fear my path yet turns once more, Orophin. I feel a sense of foreboding that I cannot explain."
Mairen shifted on the hard ground, cursing the rock that lay embedded under her right shoulder as well as the one under her hip. Two blankets did not provide enough cushion for her thin body and she sighed, shifting again. The night was cold, the stars glittering overhead in a darkly frozen sky, wisps of white clouds now and then gliding over the moon to veil it for brief moments. The fire crackled beside her, warming half of her body while the other side remained chill. Cold and uncomfortable, she had not slept but for a few brief moments.
She couldn't sleep. She hardly dared to close her eyes lest the thoughts that had hounded her throughout the day return. Even now, away from the city, she feared she had cried out in her sleep, and now lay breathing shallowly, wondering what she had said.
She rolled over, curling her arm under her head, and looked across the fire to see Renny staring at her from his blankets, watching her. She must have woken him.
She sighed and sat up. "I am sorry if I woke you."
Renny pushed himself up, brushing his blond hair away from his eyes. Of her three brothers, he was the most handsome, his flashing brown eyes normally filled with teasing good humor. Except for now as he stared grimly at her from across the fire. "Nay, I have not slept, nor have you. You mutter quietly to yourself, though I think I am the only one who hears. How long have you had these dreams?"
Mairen shrugged. "Too long."
Renny frowned and rose gracefully. Towering over six feet, the Rohirrim warrior was solid, a broad-shouldered man easing past thirty. Lines she had never noticed until this past week wrinkled the corners of his eyes, and his mouth had narrowed to a thin line of worry. Renny never worried about anything.
He moved around the fire and bent down, hauling Mairen to her feet. "Come with me."
They moved away from the warmth of the fire and the other sleeping warriors. Renny signaled the sentinel on guard, and they moved past the rocky promontory, further into the grassy plain, and finally to a low stone that erupted from the earth. Mairen's brother pulled her down to sit beside him, shoulder to shoulder.
"Willem told me you've not been sleeping well, but I did not think he meant every night. You hardly sleep at all, Mairen. You cannot go on like this."
She leaned her arms on her knees, tucking in her chin to conserve heat. She had borrowed Willem's mail but it was too large for her, and it held little warmth. "I cannot sleep," she said quietly.
Renny slid an arm around her, pulling her tight against him, and she relished the bit of warmth he gave her. He said nothing, but fished in his pocket, and a moment later pulled out a small stone, worn smooth from years of handling, and handed it to her.
Mairen took the stone, staring at the flecks of gray color in the moonlight, the bits of quartz glittering in her palm. "What is it? It is so smooth."
Renny chuckled, taking the stone and holding it up. "Smooth from years of touching. It is called a worry stone and was given to me long ago by our father. For some reason he felt I should have it. I have carried it near me since then, and whenever I feel concern, I touch the stone and it seems to calm my fears and ease my heart."
Mairen stared in surprise, and Renny dropped the stone into her hand, curling her fingers over the smooth rock. In moments it seemed to warm, and the heat tingled her skin, and she felt a lightness sweep over her heart. She opened her hand to stare at the stone.
"Does it work?" she asked.
Renny grinned. "Do you ever see me worry?" He gazed out over the plain. "I think you need it more than I do, Mairen. I know not if it will help you, but at least I can offer you something to ease your mind, and perhaps I can take on some of your worry." His gaze swung back to hers. "Can you tell me about it?"
Mairen gripped the stone, but shook her head.
Renny sighed. "As Willem predicted. I do not know why you hide it, but whatever it is that eats at you will come out eventually." He rose, pulling her again to her feet. "Try to rest. We head back to Edoras soon." Under the light of the moon, she saw him smile, but the dim light hid the lines around his mouth as he started to turn away. Then he paused and looked at her once more, a curious expression on his face.
"It has been a long while since I heard the language of the elves," he said, "but it is unmistakable. These words you mutter in your sleep . . . I know them not. You must have learned them in Lothlórien." He gazed at her for a moment, and then turned away, heading back up the hill in the direction of the fire.
Mairen followed behind.