Mairen - A Life Once Lost - Chapter Four - Peril

Chapter Four:
Peril

Haldir leaned against the tree trunk, spinning the long elvish hunting knife over his fingers while he waited for his brothers' return. Two weeks spent unwillingly inactive in the city sparked an already short temper. Returning the wicked knife to the sheath in his boot, he crouched down among the large roots of the Mallorn tree and forced himself to be patient.

He knew he should not be so desperate to stand the borders so quickly. Too strong would be the reminders of those elves left far behind. Gone now to the Halls of Mandos were those five loyal elves who had followed him into the plains of Rohan never doubting him, following his order with nary a thought to say nay.

Perhaps he should have been more patient and not set out so quickly in pursuit. Yet if he had waited, the trail would soon have grown cold. How many had been lost in the Orcs' raid? Did not the souls of the slain deserve the vengeance Haldir and his elves meted out? He had to weigh both atrocities in his head and come to terms with them. He slid a hand through his hair, disentangling a few strands from the arrows in his quiver as his thoughts became mired in the recent past.

They had come upon the Orcs, and with keen strokes borne of anger and fervor, they had decimated the party of shadow creatures with arrow and sword. But they had not lingered long in their victory, for as soon as the last stroke of death had been brought upon the savage creatures, more had overrun them. Haldir's jaw hardened as his mind slipped back to those desperate hours that had followed their ambush . . .

Twice the number that he had expected, twice the number that they had pursued. Orc and Uruk-hai, both foul kind working together for one cause, to destroy the elves. He had had only five, plus himself. They had fought bravely, but two had been killed instantly when the second set of Orcs hurled themselves from the rocky hills, slaying the two elves running forward guard. He could only be thankful their deaths had been quick.

The remaining elves had struggled, attempting to withdraw from the trap the Orcs had thought to spring, back onto open ground. The Orcs had been prepared, fully aware of the magical qualities of the elven cloak to fade into the background, and they forced the elves into retreat. Three elves against a hundred was a lost cause. They had withdrawn, he himself taking rear guard, the most dangerous position. How many arrows had grazed his skin, their whispers of death flying only a breath from his body? But they nonetheless ran, only to find themselves within another circle of Orcs, for the creatures had planned well. Another elf had fallen; to be scavenged by the Orcs as Haldir and the last elf broke away.

Haldir leaned a hand against the trunk of the tree, resting his forehead on his arm as he fought against the memories and his grief. They had run, with Haldir pushing Tirion to run farther and faster. The Orcs had closed in, slashing at the elves as they spun past the creatures, their agility and quickness keeping them a step ahead, but again the Orcs had gathered, and in their superior numbers had forced the two into a narrow chasm. Both of them had recognized their plight, but it had been Tirion who had turned and leaped back into the fray, sacrificing himself in order for Haldir to escape to the open plain once more. Hounded by the Orcs, Haldir had continued and finally stumbled, an arrow in his thigh, unable to run further. And so it was that he had stood his ground on the rocky hillside, his sword cleaving those who came near him. How long had he fought? Hours. Feeling his strength ebb with every swing, fighting for his life, hating the way the Orcs had begun to toy with him.

And then he had found deliverance.

He could never have imagined a less likely scene. He remembered little from the moment the Rohirrim Calvary had come crashing over the hill. Gravely wounded by not only the arrow in his thigh but the slash he had barely avoided to his head, the world had slowly gone gray and then black. Only the sound of the fighting had remained until that too faded from his mind. The sight of the warrior whose lance had saved him was the last memory that burned into his mind . . .

He jerked himself out of his recollections, hearing his brothers in the distance. It would not do for them to see his melancholy; they would sense it far too soon as it was. He pushed away from the tree; standing within the shadowy roots until the two elves were close enough that Haldir could have reached out and touched them. He stood silent, still, listening with a lightening heart to their banter, pulled back into the present by the light-heartedness of their chatter.

They stopped when they reached him, unerringly turning to gaze into the shadows as he stepped forward.

"Mae Govannen," Rúmil said, reaching out to embrace Haldir's shoulders with one arm, drawing his elder brother into a strong hug that was reluctantly returned.

Orophin leaned on his great bow; unstrung, it stood as tall as he did, a sliver from the heart of a mallorn, cured and sealed with expertise gained from long years in the making of such weapons. A strand of elven hair was wound into the string and this Lórien weapon was valued among the warriors of Middle Earth as one of Arda's finest and one of the most lethal. In the hand of an elven warrior, it was death with one arrow. Oblivious of the qualities of the bow in his hand, Orophin studied Haldir with a gaze that saw far more than the March Warden liked.

"You've been brooding again," Orophin said quietly.

Haldir frowned, debating whether to deny what both of his brothers knew to be true. "Aye, I cannot abide idleness," he admitted. "Celeborn will not allow me to go to the practice fields to relieve my boredom. But now that you two have returned, perhaps I may find something to pass the time."

Rúmil chuckled and stepped back to allow Haldir to walk between them. "The borders were quiet. It was as well you did not return for you would have brooded there as much as here. If not more."

Haldir glanced at Orophin, who had grown unaccustomedly silent. The elf stared in front of him, gripping the bow he carried in a tight fist. "What is it that troubles you?"

Orophin stopped on the path, returning Haldir's gaze with haunted blue eyes. "A foreboding, Haldir. It has been with me ever since the young female came to Caras Galadhon. I fear what it may portend."

Haldir's chin lifted slightly, one eyebrow arching. "A foreboding? Have you spoken of it to Galadriel?"

"Aye, he did, just before we left," Rúmil said. "I don't think he liked her answer."

Haldir turned to look at Orophin. "What did she say?"

Orophin set the end of the bow into the ground between his feet and stared hard at Haldir. "Only that I should stay close to your side once I return. For your life may yet be at stake."

*~*

Mairen leaned forward in her saddle, attempting to stretch muscles tight from the long hard ride in anticipation that they would sleep tonight in Edoras, the first in a very long time. She glanced behind her, gazing back the way they had come. Had it only been weeks since she had returned from Lothlórien? It seemed like years had passed. The band of riders pounded over the ridge, the horses running close, lances gleaming in the afternoon sun. How long had it been since they had been in the city? She hoped things were well.

They rode up the hill, leaning forward on their horses as they climbed the steep road. She tried to gain a glimpse inside the city, but the walls surrounding it closed off her view. Above them, on the heights, lay Théoden's home Meduseld, but no banners flapped on the high standards. It was an ominous sign.

They thundered into the city, only to find it deserted. The houses and buildings remained intact but the city was still, deathly quiet. They slowed, the riders glancing about nervously. To leave the city unguarded meant there had been great danger. They stopped and dismounted, pulling swords free. Willem leaped up the steps into the palace, but returned quickly, shaking his head.

They gathered in the street, several riders returning from searching empty homes. Willem turned around, staring at the empty street, the houses.

"They've gone to the Deep, all of them. The Orcs have amassed an army. We are at war."

Willem turned to the old man who staggered from the doorway of a house no one had checked. He leaned heavily on a crooked staff, eyeing the riders from his stoop.

Willem leaped up the hill to grip the old man's shoulder. "Why are you not with them, old one?"

The old man cackled. "Why? To watch the young ones die? Théoden, by the grace of the Valar, has returned to good health, but perhaps too late to save his people. He rides with what few riders remain after Wormtongue exiled Eomer."

Willem stared at the man in astonishment. "You have given me more news in two sentences Old One, than I received in a month. What of the king's son?"

"Dead. Eomer brought him in, but he died a few days later. Ambushed by Orcs. The King hardly noticed, so far befuddled was he by that accursed Wormtongue."

Willem stared hard at the old man. "How long ago did they leave?"

The old man leaned on his walking stick. "Three days past, but the darkness follows them. I fear they shall not make it to the Deep."

Willem spun, shouting orders to the patrol, then turned back, taking the reins of his horse from Mairen. "We follow. I shall hope your words, old man, do not portend what I fear." He leapt onto his horse, nodding quickly to his riders, and they swung around, thundering out of the empty city into the grass-covered plain once more.

~*~

Haldir strode rapidly along the walkways, deftly weaving around the few elves lingering on the wooden paths, Rúmil following a few steps behind. Ignoring the surprised glances of those they passed, Haldir hurried down the stair to the next crossing, his grey cloak flaring out behind him, his long strides eating the distance. They ascended the last stair to the Lady's talan with leaps that took the steps two at a time, arriving on the mallorn leaf flet just as Galadriel descended from the upper level. Celeborn stood waiting at the bottom of the steps, and he took Galadriel's hand in his when she reached his side. They then turned to the two wardens, and both Haldir and Rúmil bowed in greeting.

"My lady, your summons sounded dire," Haldir said, noting Galadriel's troubled expression. "How may I serve you?" Rarely did the elven leader allow events to sway her calm demeanor, but he could see that the Lady was deeply disturbed.

Galadriel withdrew her hand from Celeborn's and slid her hands into the folds of her sleeves. "I see much of what lies around us in the lands of Middle Earth, Haldir. Long have we watched the worlds of men grow, claiming lands once held by the elves. We have secluded ourselves within our worlds, fighting the battles we must, but caring not for the others of this land."

"I fear what lies ahead, for the tidings of war have grown loud," Celeborn added. "But do they touch our world? That is what we must decide."

Haldir shifted, relaxing slightly, his hand resting lightly on the hilt of his sword. "If the elves must fight, then we shall do so with all the honor we possess."

Galadriel smiled, reaching out to brush her fingers along Haldir's cheek. "As you always do, Haldir. But this fight, it is not our own. I have spoken with Elrond; the One Ring has left the lands of Men and now fights its way into the shadow. But closer to us looms a terrible battle, one that may test the very souls of Men."

Haldir frowned. "What do we owe the race of men that we should intervene?"

Celeborn looked at Haldir, before his gaze moved on to Rúmil. "Indeed, what do we owe them? We have long watched them destroy themselves with their thirst for power and greed. They have taken over lands once filled with elves, while we recede, leaving them those lands, returning to our home across the sea. Why should we stay? This fight is no longer ours."

Galadriel glanced at her husband. "I do not agree, though your thoughts side with those of Elrond. We cannot look past this fight, and care not what it portends. Yet among the men fights the one who will come forth and lead that people back to its glory. What would happen were he to fall? The shadow will grow and even our way to the West may be torn from us."

Haldir studied the Lady of Light as she turned away, moving slowly to the edge of the flet to look down upon the city.

Galadriel's voice deepened as she spoke. "Long have we lived among the trees of the Golden Wood, yet our hearts still lie in the old lands. The sea calls us to return home, yet our time here is not over, and what little remains must be handled with great care." She turned slowly around. "My mirror does not show me our future, and I fear what shadows might overcome us. What say you, Haldir? You are among the few of my people who know what lies outside our borders."

Haldir folded his hands behind his back. "The world of Men is growing, my lady, yet their armies are small. Sauron has been drawing hoards of men and shadow creatures to his call. I fear the men will be overrun."

Galadriel moved forward, pausing in front of Haldir. "My mirror shows me one future. I have seen the decimation of Rohan, the destruction of her people. Elrond tells me that even now the King flees to Helm's Deep. Not only do they have the evil of Sauron to consider, but also a new threat comes from the hands of Saruman the wizard. He has fallen deep into shadow and he sends his forces to Helm's Deep on the heels of the Horse Lords."

Haldir's expression did not change, but his head reeled with this information. "The men of Rohan are strong," he replied. "Their fortress has never been taken."

"But all the warriors of Rohan are not with their king," Celeborn said. "Half his men have left and ride the plains with the King's nephew Eomer, who was banished."

Haldir glanced at Rúmil. Orophin and Rúmil had only recently left Mairen with her brother, but he had not mentioned such tidings. Had Mairen's brother known? "Why would the King banish his captain? Has he gone mad?"

Celeborn stepped close to Haldir, his steely gaze locking with Haldir's. "Indeed he had, for the evil wizard took his mind, though it has since been restored. Were it not for Mithrandir, the people of Rohan would already be destroyed. As it is, they are few; mostly women and children fleeing to the castle in the Deep while Rohan's finest warriors ride with Eomer and know naught of the peril that follows their kin."

Haldir absorbed this with a frown. "Then we must help them."

Galadriel spoke. "This may well be a grave sacrifice, Haldir, for I fear you may not return from such a fight. Are you willing to give your life to the race of men?" Her blue eyes met his in a look filled with compassion and concern.

Haldir stiffened, glancing back at Rúmil, who moved forward to stand beside him. "Once, long ago, we fought with men in an alliance of which we were proud. The race of Men has shown courage; I have seen it for myself. And as you say, that race includes the one who must continue to lead the fight against the shadow." He paused. "I will ask those among us who would be willing to go. I will not force any elf to follow me."

Galadriel bowed her head. "I pray to the Valar that you will be safe and return home in good health, though my heart weeps that we must fight at all." She raised her head to meet Haldir's steady gaze. "Go then, with those who would follow you, and tell the Men once more of our gift to them, the gift of bow and sword from the elves of Lórien and from Elrond of Rivendell. For Elrond also is certain of this path, though he cares naught for it." She stepped forward, embracing first Haldir, and then Rúmil tightly before the two elves bowed deeply and departed.

*~*

Mairen sat on the steps leading into the great hall of Helm's Deep, staring at the rising sun, shielding her eyes from the bright rays. They had reached the fortress a day past, and had found themselves drawn quickly into the events of the past weeks in Edoras. She had just glanced back down at the book in her lap when excited murmurs swept through the crowd below her. She stared as a tall man swept up the steps, his dark shoulder length hair lank and dirty, his clothes torn and damp. He looked frightful and yet such strength emanated from him that it brought her to her feet. He passed by her, his eyes dark with worry, and stopped in front of the elf, Legolas, who had been standing behind her. Mairen watched them curiously.

She had been surprised to find the elf within the Keep, his blond hair drawing her attention as soon as they made their way inside. He had stood along the side of the hall, hidden partially in the shadows, but his hair had gleamed in the torchlight, and for a moment Mairen had feared it was Haldir. But she had been mistaken, for this elf was tall and slim. He had not spoken to anyone other than the dwarf who stood by his side, but she had felt his keen gaze sweep over her and her brother, noting their entrance.

Her attention focused on the bedraggled ranger, knowing this must be Aragorn, for she had heard much of him since they'd arrived in the fortress. He and the elf were long-time friends, she'd been told, and she could sense the bond between the two as they stood together. She tried not to stare, but the elf drew her gaze as he had from the first time she set eyes on him. Noting that his dress was different from the Lórien elves, she'd wanted to speak to him, but instead had asked Eowyn about him. Eowyn had turned away from the elf, her eyes dark with despair, and explained about Aragorn and the fellowship of which Legolas was a part.

Mairen sighed; gripping the book that Haldir had given her while she wondered what had happened to Aragorn and why he looked so grim. She watched him move past Legolas to push open the doors to the hall and disappear inside. She then turned to stare out beyond the walls, uneasiness sweeping through her.

Several minutes later, the doors flew open once more and Théoden stalked out, still deep in conversation with Aragorn. The elf followed, but to Mairen's surprise, his blue eyes settled on her, catching her gaze. With elflike grace, he came to her side.

"I saw you earlier," he said. "I thought you meant to speak to me, but you turned away. Did I frighten you so that you could not speak?" He smiled a bit mischievously, and Mairen flushed.

"Nay, I did not want to intrude," she said. "You seemed lost in thought."

Legolas glanced back at the retreating figures of Aragorn and Théoden. "I feared I would not see my friend again and my heart was heavy." He touched the binding of the book in her hand. "A book on elvish history? An odd choice for a warrior."

Mairen glanced at the book, and then smiled. "A gift." She reached out to touch the elf's arm when he began to turn away. "Please, what news does Aragorn bring?"

Legolas turned back to her, his mouth now a thin line of frustration. "War. And odds that far outweigh us." He turned around, hurrying to catch up with Aragorn and King Théoden.

Mairen sat down, staring blindly at the book. War. So it was finally here. She glanced around her at the motley assemblage of men, feeling her heart sink as she took them in. More boys and old men than stalwart fighters. They had so few.

*~*

The wind had grown stronger as the day wore on, blowing from the east with a cold clammy feel that made Mairen shiver despite the many layers she wore. Beside her, the men on the ramparts waited expectantly, the darkness hiding the fear in their eyes, the tremble of their limbs. Inexperienced and untrained, many stood wavering in the torchlight, listening with great unease to the pounding of the many steel shod feet outside the walls.

Uruk-hai. Thousands, against so few. She hovered at the end of the line, gripping her bow tightly, Willem standing next to her, his blue eyes trained angrily on the hoard below. She had forced her way to the front of the line, ignoring Willem's attempts to keep her back. He stood now, glaring at the creatures, and then turned to her with a grin, cocky and sure.

"We'll be rid of them in only a few hours, Mairen."

She scowled. "With only untrained men and boys to defend us? Nay, we are lost."

Willem glanced at her. "But we've got the elves, Mairen! Were you not amazed when they marched in?"

Mairen looked below her at the long line of elven archers. Unwilling to reveal the blush that stained her face, she stared down along the row of elves to where she knew Haldir must be. Amazed? Nay, stunned would better describe her reaction. She gripped her bow, wishing it might be the only weapon she would need this night, yet knowing the oncoming conflict would likely require all her skills.

She pulled her gaze away from the elves, Willem's words still echoing in her thoughts. How could one not be amazed to see the company of elves that had arrived so short a time ago? Announcing themselves with their stately horn, their banners held high above their heads, they had marched into the Deep in strict order--unemotional, well-armed, and as beautiful as they were deadly. A boon to the weary Rohirrim, but it seemed like only yesterday that she had been within their midst and Mairen could only feel the horror of knowing they were here. She bit her lip to still the trembling. Had she helped to save Haldir only to see him die this night?

Willem nudged her. "Mairen, are you well? What is it?"

Mairen glanced at him. stilling the nervousness that fluttered in her fingers. Willem seemed not to have recognized the elf leading the procession, nor her reaction to his presence. Though she hated to admit it, Haldir still had the power to affect her. Even after all these weeks apart, she could feel the intensity of his gaze, the power of his touch.

She brushed her hand across her forehead, recalling the moment when she had seen him arrive. She and Willem had stood on the rampart directly above Théoden when the King met the procession of elves. She had been frozen, suddenly unable to breathe when Haldir had stepped forward. How had she missed his approach? The scarlet cloak he had worn was a striking reminder of the blood he had so recently lost, and his golden mail had shimmered almost mockingly in the torchlight. Haldir had been glorious, fully armed with a Lórien bow and his long bladed sword at his hip. The March Warden of Lothlórien had bowed to Théoden, the elf's words echoing on the ramparts although he spoke only in normal tones of voice. Smooth and flowing, his words had given hope. Except to Mairen.

"Come, Mairen, stop daydreaming. Do you dream of the elf captain? You certainly stared at him enough," Willem teased, though she doubted he realized how on target his words were. "I knew sending you into their midst was not a good decision."

Mairen glanced warily at her brother. "I will admit he is pleasing to gaze upon, and that is as far as it goes. All elves are beautiful, and he no less than the others." She turned back to look over the wall, her eyes rising to the sky as the first drops of rain splattered her face. Aye, he'd been breathtaking with his long silvery blond hair and those striking gray eyes. She had not forgotten their depth, or her very physical reaction to his kiss. The elf's hesitant acceptance of Aragorn's enthusiastic greeting had made her smile, but the memory of that humor drained away as she closed her eyes, feeling the rain as it poured from the heavens, distracting her from her thoughts.

The Uruk below began to pound whatever weapons they carried on the ground. Thrumming boots, swords, and spear staffs mingled with low grumbling voices more than a thousand strong. Lightning split the sky and illuminated the slack faces of the men watching. Fear, it was strong, yet she could see them gathering their courage, forcing away the terror. The rain poured down and she could hear Aragorn shouting in the distance; he must be speaking elvish for she could not understand what he said as he paced tirelessly among the elvish warriors.

She gazed at them, awed by their calmness, their amazing precision as they spun their bows from their backs to the ready. She clutched her own bow, tiny in comparison to the elvish longbows, and her eyes shifting from elf to elf. They stood stoically, their faces unreadable, the eyes directed forward toward the enemy. What were they thinking? Did they realize that even with their strength and ability the fortress was most likely lost? Did they know the sacrifices they were about to make? Mairen shuddered, wiping the rain from her face with her sleeve, ignoring the cold bite of her mail against her flesh.

The air was thick with tension; the elves drew back their bows. Mairen looked down the line, searching instinctively for Haldir. Where was he? Did he too draw bow, his stance frozen in the interminable wait for the order to fire? The elves did not move, but Mairen did, her fingers twitching as she faced toward the terrible hoard below.

An arrow pierced the stillness and broke the anticipation. Its whistling arc struck, and a creature fell. Mairen slowly pulled back her bowstring, aiming her own arrow at the shouting mass. Beside her, Willem drew his own, and the arrows flew at the Uruks. It had begun.

They stood on the ramparts, firing the arrows they had, picking up the few from the Uruks that landed on the stone floor and firing those as well. The minutes seemed like hours, and perhaps it truly was; she had no way to gauge the time in the rain and darkness. Thunder boomed over their heads, but the sound was drowned out by the screaming and thunder of the battle below.

Mairen tossed aside her bow at the order to draw swords, and shivered at the chilling sound of blades drawn from scabbards. The elves drew back, and as the Uruks and other black creatures scrambled over the walls, they slashed them with keen eyed strokes. But elves died as well, killed by arrows and the hacking slashes of the crazed Uruks who first climbed over the walls.

She was taken aback by the ill-gotten creatures' ferocity and blood lust. They swung their vicious weapons with abandon, hacking and cleaving anyone unlucky enough to stand in their way, and they died fearlessly, impaled on sword or arrow, to fall back with angry screams into the mass below.

The men, successful against the first rush of Uruk-hai, had decimated many of their numbers, taking many down as ladders were shoved away from the walls, or boiling oil, pitch and stones were dropped on heads below. Mairen ducked under several Rohirran soldiers, avoiding their swings as she pushed her way down the steps to the next level, shoving man and elf aside to gain better footing.

She was met with growls of anger and surprise. Most of the men knew her; the elves did not, but recognized her gender quick enough. She could hear the shouts of the men, the screams of the wounded, the near soundless cries of the elves when they fell. The horror, the blood and death surrounded her, and she slid into a small alcove for a moment to gain her breath, Willem only a step behind her.

He knew better than to tell her to go. His face was grim now, the cockiness gone now that the battle raged around them. He leaped forward, wrestling with an Uruk; smaller than the other, but still wily and agile. He slipped under the creature's guard to impale him on the wide Rohirrim blade.

Mairen leaped forward, using her smaller size to advantage, stabbing another Orc from behind. She made her way down the rampart wall, her blade flashing, coated in black blood, taking the places of those who had fallen. She watched the elves fight in front of her, ducking to avoid the long elvish swords as they fought around her.

She heard the shouts first, turning to see Aragorn waving furiously toward the Uruks below. She looked back in confusion toward Willem only to be thrown to the floor of the rampart by the explosion, the thunder of the blast ringing in her head. She could feel the bite of stone in her cheek, the blood running down her jaw. She rolled over, groaning at the pain in her shoulders, aware now of the huge gap in the wall in front of them. She sat up, searching in panic for Willem, and found him leaning against the granite wall, grinning stupidly at her.

"Stop that!" she snarled. "What do you find so funny?" She wiped the offending blood from her cheek only to feel a fresh rivulet trace its way over her skin.

Willem rose slowly, and pulled her to her feet. "You. You look as if you could strangle an Orc with your bare hands."

Mairen scowled and turned toward the breach. Aragorn was below, amid the confusion with the regrouped elves, and she watched as they ran to stop the Uruk-hai that were forcing their way through the shattered wall. Arrows arced over her head from the reformed elven archers, flying with deadly accuracy into the swarm below, while the Uruks returned fire, less accurate but still finding their marks among the elves and humans on the walls. The clang of swords, the echo of thunder, beat inside her head as she ran along the wall, searching for one particular elf.

Théoden's call to pull back was a distant echo as she caught sight of Haldir in his scarlet cloak, his graceful movements mesmerizing her for a brief moment. Haldir was so elegant, so fluid and yet so deadly, swinging the long elvish blade with precision, slicing one Uruk only to spin his sword over his head and impale another, his thrusts and parries clean and quick and beautiful to behold. As if sensing her gaze, he turned to stare at her and Willem as they approached.

"Get off the wall," he snarled, seizing Mairen's sleeve and pulling her against him as an arrow whizzed too close to where she had just stood. Wondering if he recognized her, she fought against the curl of cold fire that flickered in her stomach. He shoved her against the wall, and yanked Willem along beside her. She noticed he showed no trace of his former injury, but Mairen had to wonder if he was truly well.

"What are you doing here?" he growled. "You are too young to be fighting such a battle. Go find a safer haven." For all its anger, his voice was silky and musical.

Mairen met his icy gray eyes. "I will not hide," she snapped, and pushed up from the wall, only to be yanked roughly down once more.

"You will be only a memory if you persist in sticking your head up over the wall. The Uruk may not shoot well, but the arrows are many." Haldir gripped her arm as she tried to pull away. The fighting was growing heavy, and more Uruk were climbing onto the ramparts behind them.

Haldir rose to spin his sword, cleaving the Uruk in two, the body dropping over the edge to crash below. Mairen stared at the long elvish blade. She had known he possessed amazing skill, but to see him in front of her, wielding his sword, its blurring movement telling a tale of death, was both frightening and awe-inspiring. Although a warrior herself, Haldir's intensity and agility astounded her, and she was frozen for the moment in admiration. She gasped when he reached down to grab her arm and haul her to her feet.

"Go, Mairen! Do as I say! We are pulling back." He began to shout in Elvish, waving the remaining elves back along the ramparts, his hair swinging around his shoulders as he spun around.

She was pushed along with several others, getting separated from Willem, who remained close to Haldir. She tried to twist back, but an elf beside her gripped her waist, pulling her with him. She heard him grumble something low, but could not understand what he said. She struggled to free herself, turning back to see Willem duck under Haldir's next parry, swinging his blade over her brother's head at the Uruk-hai climbing over the wall.

She watched more Uruk flood the rampart, and felt the sudden rush of foreboding as Haldir turned to face the new threat, for once too slowly to avoid the creature behind him. To her horror, she saw Haldir stagger, pain contorting his face as he and Willem drove their swords into the black-faced creature before them. Stricken with shock, Mairen broke free of the hold around her waist, then froze as she saw Haldir stumble, appalled by the blank look on his face as he slowly stumbled and fell to the stone rampart. Willem screamed in anger and lurched forward to plunge his sword into the Uruk who stood behind Haldir, but not before the massive creature swung its broad fist, slamming her brother in the temple. They both fell over the edge of the rampart and out of Mairen's sight.

Her heart pounding, she fought her way back along the wall, struggling against the tide of fleeing elves and men, her blade flashing against the few Uruks who crossed her path. She was shoved back, pushed aside, and fell once, scrambling to her feet in time to see Aragorn cradling Haldir in his arms. Seeing this, her fear nearly overwhelmed her, yet when she finally reached Haldir, Aragorn was gone, back into the fray. Haldir lay still, his eyes wide and unblinking.

Kneeling beside him, she moaned aloud in acute and unexpected grief, then rose to look over the edge of the rampart for Willem. He lay far below, but she saw he was moving slightly, having landed on the Uruk as they fell. Seeing Willem alive, she turned back to Haldir. Dropping to her knees once more, she lay her head against the bloody armor, the metal cold and sticky against her ear. Beneath his breastplate, she could hear his heart beating slowly, a soft thud that was music to her ears. He was alive! She brushed her hands over his cheeks, pushing aside the blood-soaked hair from his face, and felt him shudder violently. His gray eyes closed and his face grew white.

A hand suddenly gripped her shoulder, and she looked up into Orophin's grave blue eyes. "Orophin!" she said quickly. "Haldir is injured severely and Willem as well."

Orophin nodded, his attention already on Haldir. He gently lifted his brother's arm, shaking his head at Haldir's wound, and then gently rolled his brother on to his side. She heard him utter a soft gasp.

"I will do what I can, Mairen, but I will need your help."

She shivered and nodded, wondering if they could heal Haldir again, so soon after the last time. This appeared even worse than Haldir's earlier injuries. Would he have the strength to withstand such another brutal blow?

She helped turn Haldir onto his stomach, once more brushing the bloody hair away, while Orophin cut the straps to Haldir's mail and pulled away the leather crossing over his back. Orophin's face was devoid of emotion as he pulled the offending garment away, along with a layer of blood-soaked tunic. Orophin glanced around, aware of their peril, for the ramparts were still flooded with Orcs. Yet several elves remained near, defending their captain with determination. Orophin leaned closer to inspect Haldir's wound--deep, bloody, and black with orc blood. Mairen looked away, biting her lip. How could the elves heal so serious an injury?

"You must sit on him, Mairen, for he will jerk and shudder. I cannot fully heal him, for I have not the strength. But I can do enough so that we can be sure he will live. When he gains consciousness, we will move him to safety, though he will be in immense pain."

Mairen sat carefully on Haldir's hips, thinking her weight would not hinder the elf beneath her at all, while Orophin laid gentle hands on the injury.

"Haldir is my commander," he said, "and I am defying his direct order in healing him now. I will not be much good when I am done here." The elf looked at her, his blue eyes grave. "It takes much power to heal. But he is near death and I dare not wait for Rúmil. I called to him, but he is too far."

Mairen leaned forward. "I will do what I can, but my own brother lies below."

Orophin glanced toward the edge of the rampart, indecision crossing his face. "He will survive if he did not die from the fall."

Straddling Haldir's hips, Mairen took hold of his armor and tightened her grip. "My weight will do nothing to hold him down."

Orophin actually smiled, his blue eyes glinting in an unexpected moment of humor. "I do not expect you to hold him down, Mairen. I merely want you to distract him with your presence. Having you on top of him should force him to control his reaction to the healing. Unkind it may sound, but he must not rise or he will sunder what little I can do to hold him together. I can only hope your memory clouds his mind as fully as I think it does."

He put his hands over Haldir's wound and closed his eyes. Immediately, Mairen found herself drawn into a haze, felt the strands of the elf's magic as they swept through his hands into the limp form beneath her. Haldir remained limp for only a moment, then he heaved up, nearly throwing her aside.

"Lie still," she commanded, bending down so he could hear her better. "Come now, handsome elf, do not force me to lie down on you. Lie still if you wish to live." She felt him relax, but could feel the taut muscles in his back as he shivered violently. She saw his hands curl into fists as he fought against the ghastly pain.

Still, she pushed down on the bloody armor, fearing he might buck again, and watched him carefully. His jaw tensed, and she could feel waves of something sweeping through his body. When she looked up again, she saw the blood draining from Orophin's face, as though he was giving part of himself to Haldir. Then a sound from behind made her leap up, but instead of an Uruk-hai, she saw another elf rushing forward, his blond hair tangled with blood, a slash across his nose and cheek

"Rúmil! Thank the Valar!" Mairen cried, kneeling down again.

Rúmil threw aside his sword as he reached them, catching Orophin just as he released Haldir and collapsed backward.

Mairen reached out to touch Haldir's cheek. His skin was warm, but not clammy, and his eyes opened instantly at her touch. Without warning, his hand shot out and grasped her wrist, causing her to gasp. He glared at her, his gray eyes clouded with pain yet still piercing.

"You are more than a fool," he rasped painfully. He shifted, struggling to rise but two pairs of hands held him down.

"You cannot rise," Rúmil said sternly. "Your injury is too grave. We must leave this place, but we'll have to carry you." He and Orophin leaned forcefully on Haldir's arms to hold him still, yet Haldir retained his hold of Mairen's wrist and she was afraid she would hurt him if she tried to pull away.

Haldir shuddered and closed his eyes for a moment, and Mairen watched him closely. His grip was so tight; how could he have such strength when injured so dreadfully? She gently tried to pull her arm back, but he only opened one eye and scowled.

"You should not be here," he whispered hoarsely, his eyes glittering as he squeezed her wrist.

Mairen curled her hand into a fist and glared back. "I am a warrior. I am here where I am supposed to be. I would rather die fighting than cowering back in the caves with the children."

Haldir drew her closer until she could see the long eyelashes of his eyes, his gaze pinning her. "A life is not so easy to create, Mairen. It is foolish, this wish to die so soon."

"I could say the same to you," she replied with a frown. "And be still. You should not be talking."

He closed his eyes as a shudder of pain caught hold of him, and turned his head away from her as his brothers eased him into a sitting position.

Mairen watched them, and then froze as she suddenly remembered Willem.

She leaped to her feet, running down the rampart steps to her brother's side. He was still lying on the dead Uruk, his head covered in blood. She touched him gingerly and heard him moan.

"Mairen . . . I think I've broken my ribs," he gasped. "I could hear you above. For some reason, you sounded like you were right next to me. I...I can't see anything, Mairen. I checked my eyes, and they are open, but I can't see a thing!" He waved a feeble hand in front of his eyes, but they did not blink nor appear to focus.

Mairen leaned over him, checking his body, feeling the broken bones of his ribs with a shudder, but finding no other wound. She touched the gash on his forehead gingerly; it was wide, and still bled freely.

"Your ribs are broken, I dare not move you yet. Your sight will return." She looked up to see the elves making their way down the steps, Haldir held tightly between them. She paused, a thought crossing her mind, then she rose and ran to meet them at the base of the steps.

"You can heal others, can you not?" she cried, touching Orophin's arm as he reached the base of the steps.

Orophin looked back at the chaos that reigned on the ramparts above them, the elves protecting them, forcing back the Uruks who thought to follow. He glanced past her to Willem, and she saw regret on his face.

"I dare not, for I do not know how our magic will affect him," he said as he staggered slightly, his face almost as pale as Haldir's.

Mairen hurried alongside them as they carried Haldir toward the back, near steps that led into the fortress, pulling them to a halt beside the high granite wall. She glanced back to where Willem still lay. "Please, you must try! He's lost his sight, but it's only a small wound. Please!"

Orophin and Rúmil laid Haldir gently on the ground. The March Warden was still, his face ashen, and Mairen looked away, fighting her fear and concern for him as well as her brother.

"I am sorry, but I can do no more," Orophin declared softly. "Rúmil has not the skill, only Haldir and I can heal. Not many are given this ability, Mairen. It is a gift and must be used wisely."

"But it is such a small wound!" she said desperately, knowing her words were futile. A part of her brain understood and accepted Orophin's position, yet her fear for Willem made her unreasonable.

Rúmil reached out, pulling her aside, and looked down, his nose still bloody. His blue eyes were grim, but he held her arms gently. "We cannot, Mairen. The battle still rages and we must get Haldir to safety. You need to get your brother to safety as well, and you must hurry. The elves are drawing back and you have little time."

He set a hand on her shoulder. "A small wound it might seem, but to lose his sight means the injury is worse than you think. Perhaps Orophin can come back to him later, but for now you must understand that we have no choice." With a stern look, he set her back a step, then turned to assist Orophin once more. They picked up Haldir, carrying him quickly up the path that led toward the caves and relative safety.

Mairen turned back toward the rampart, struggling with her anguish, and hurried back to her brother. In the hours that followed she half dragged, half carried a brother taller and heavier than she was without a second thought, the fear and adrenaline of battle giving her the will and strength to get him to safety. Finally aided by Renny, another brother, she arrived inside the glittering caves. Outside the battle continued to rage, and Mairen huddled close to Willem, watching Eowyn bandage his head with a numbing sense of despair. Unable to drag herself from the depths of her emotions, Mairen did not hear Eowyn's words of concern as she sat bleakly against the rocks, staring at the elves across the cavern where they hovered near Haldir.

She had tempted fate and braved countless dangers to bring Haldir to safety, how could they not return the favor when she needed it? She couldn't understand, and yet at the same time she could, and knew her anger to be irrational. Eowyn's hand on her arm drew her attention, and she looked into the troubled eyes of the King's niece.

"They would help if they could," she said kindly. "They have their own to consider."

Mairen pulled her eyes away from the elves, and glanced at her brother, who slept fitfully. She sighed and brushed away a tendril of blond hair that lay across his bandaged brow. "They will not come," she replied, her voice low. "They will take their captain home to heal, and we will never see them again."

She stood, glancing once more at the elves, and then strode quickly out of the caves into the Deep's halls now ringing with the cries of the victorious.

Later, she sat on the edge of the rampart, staring down at the men whose task it was to gather the bodies of the dead. So many lives had been lost. Only a few elves remained, and those that did wandered the fortress with faces grim and mournful. But they had come, knowing full well their possible sacrifice. She was sure Haldir had known he might not return.

Why had he done it? Had he returned her favor by leading the elves to Helm's Deep? Or was it an old alliance that brought him here? Or did he come merely out of duty, on orders from the Lady? She knew not. She only knew the battle today was over but not the war. Nay, the shadow still loomed darkly overhead.

But what did the darkness portend? For her and her people? And what of the elves? Would she ever see Haldir again?

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