Marien A Life Once Lost - Chapter 9- Decisions

Title: Mairen: A Life Once Lost-
Author: Fianna
Beta: Julie, Anoriell,
Warnings: violence, does not follow canon.
Rating: this chapter R for violence.
Summary: Mairen finds her path narrowing and has to come to terms with her choices.

Chapter Nine: A Fork in the Road

Mairen groaned and rolled over in her bed, pulling the thin blanket over her head to block out the ray of sun glaring into her eyes, while also trying to block out the intense pounding in her head. It was loud and incessant, and was suddenly joined by an irate male voice that made her sit up with a start. The pounding was not only in her head but also upon her door.

Swinging her legs over the edge of the bed, she staggered a bit as she stood up, clutching the side of her head as she stumbled forward. She unlocked the door and stepped back as it flew open with a crash that shook the wall behind it.

"By the gods, Mairen, I thought you were dead!" Willem snarled. He pushed his way into the room, brushing past her with one arm outstretched to feel for a chair, into which he lowered himself with a relieved if annoyed sigh.

Mairen shut the door carefully, and turned to look at him. "Can a person not sleep, Willem?"

Willem swiveled to face her. "Is that what you call it now? I`ve been pounding on your door for fifteen minutes. Are you unwell?"

Mairen sat down next to him at the small table and rested her head on her arms. "Nay, Willem, I was sleeping. What else would I have been doing?"

Willem snorted. "Sleeping? Until nearly four in the afternoon?" He leaned forward on the table, his brows drawing together in concern. "You weren't up all night were you?"

Four o'clock? She sat up straight as the words sank in. "Four? Is it that late?" She sighed and rubbed her aching temples. "No, I have not been up all night. What makes you think that?"

Willem leaned back into the chair, and it gave a loud squeak in protest. "No reason, sister. Only Eamon said the elf Haldir followed you outside last night from the hall. Should he have followed?"

"Should who have followed?" Mairen asked, deliberately misunderstanding Willem's question. They must not have worried overly much about her welfare for she had seen no one.

Willem smiled, and Mairen sat back, staring at her amused brother. "I think you know exactly what I mean, Mairen. Do not play the coy maiden, for you are not one of those. I know that Haldir went after you, for I followed him."

Mairen blushed, thankful for once for Willem's blindness. "Do you not trust him?"

Willem grinned. "I trusted him to do what he felt needed to be done. And I trusted him to follow those codes of honor most elves abide by, he even more than most I have met. I feared not for you, Mairen, but more for him." Willem chuckled and leaned forward to stare at her with his luminous blue eyes, eyes that could still stab through her even though he could not see.

Mairen stood up, but Willem caught her wrist. "You have feelings for this elf, Mairen. How much?"

She looked down at her brother. "What does it matter, Willem?"

Willem rose to stand beside her. "It matters a great deal, Mairen. Will you not admit to anything any more? Where is the sister I once knew, the one who told me her hearts desires and wishes and dreams?" He slid his hands up her arms to pull her close. "I only worry about you, Mairen."

She hugged him for a moment and then withdrew. "I know. I cannot explain right now." She walked over to the window, noting that the sun was indeed high in the sky.

"So you will not be sad to know the elves have left."

She froze, dismay sweeping through her. He had said he was leaving. They had really not said good-bye. Was he sorry?

She touched her lips, thinking of his kiss. How different it had been from that other kiss. She had lain awake most the night thinking about it, wondering what it had meant to him. What she meant to him, if anything. That kiss had told her he felt something. But was it for her or someone else? She shook her head, for these same thoughts had hounded her throughout the night.

Willem moved to stand with her, resting his hands on her shoulders. "They left, but Haldir said to tell you he will be waiting. He said you cannot deny what you must do."

*~*

Rolfe sat at the table, waiting for the inevitable, knowing in his heart that his decision was sound, but also knowing the ensuing furor would be as difficult as fighting off a hoard of Orcs. He rested his head in his hands, groaning at the image and waited.

Mairen entered the stables, her boots clicking on the wooden planking as she made her way toward Epona's stall. She nodded to Gamling, who stood in the next stall, brushing his horse, and then turned and stared in shock at the empty stall.

"Where is Epona?" she asked Gamling, who looked back at her curiously.

He shrugged. "Renny took her with him this morning. I thought you were leaving as well. Did they not tell you?"

Mairen stared at the captain in growing dismay. "Renny's gone?"

Gamling moved to the stall door. "Aye, he traded patrols with Frenden, although I know not why. They left this morning for the borders."

Mairen stepped back and then spun around and ran out of the stable.

Rolfe heard her coming and braced himself, still holding his head in his hands. The door was flung open, slamming loudly against the wall as Mairen stomped into the room.

"What have you done with Epona?" she demanded without preamble.

Rolfe sighed. "She's gone."

Mairen curled her hands into fists and Rolfe winced slightly. "I realize that, Rolfe. Where has she gone?" Her voice was tight, her green-brown eyes narrowed in anger.

Rolfe leaned his elbows on the table. "With Renny. She will be remain gone until I send word to him to return."

Shocked to the core, Mairen glared at him. "She is my horse! You have no right to send her off with him!"

Rolfe stared back at her, his brown eyes dark with determination. "No right? I am head of this family, Mairen, and I will do what I must to protect us."

Mairen marched forward to plant her hands on the table, her eyes flashing with fury. "I don't care if you are the King! I want Epona, and I want her now!"

Rolfe sat back, one brow lifting slowly as he studied her. "You don't care?" he repeated. He rose to his feet and leaned his fists on the table, his eyes now narrowed with his own fury. "You have dreams that you do not speak of, you nearly burn to death in the great hall, and the elf says this will only continue until you weaken and die unless you accept what they mean. And you don't care? Dammit, Mairen, I do!" He shoved an agitated hand through his hair. "I sent Renny with Epona and you are hereby commanded to stay within this city until I say otherwise. You have been released from duty."

Mairen gazed at him in dismay. "Released from duty? You can't do that, Rolfe!"

Rolfe moved away from the table to stare out the window. "I can and I have. And I have already spoken to King Eomer, so do not look to him for help."

"Why are you doing this to me?" she said, almost forlornly. Inwardly, she was a seething mass of frustration, confusion and hurt. To add to that, she felt a sense of betrayal, even though her common sense told her this was not the case.

Rolfe turned back to face her, his demeanor inflexible. "Because I must, to protect you. Until you find some way to cure yourself of these visions and dreams, I will not endanger my men, or anyone else with your distraction."

Mairen stumbled back as if physically hit. "I would not endanger your men, Rolfe. This is not fair. What am I to do?"

Rolfe frowned, his baffled gaze sliding over her. "I do not know, Mairen. That will be for you to decide."

*~*

Haldir stood at the edge of the flet with his distant gaze focused on the edge of the forest. The sunlight filtered through the leaves of the canopy above him, dappling the wooden platform in blotches of green tinted light. The wardens with him watched his back, their concerned gazes touching him briefly before they too turned to face the forest.

How long had he stood here, staring at the distant border of his lands, seeking a connection that was as yet still closed to him? He frowned, gripping the long bow in his hand. It was too close, the day of her reckoning was fast approaching; he could feel it. He glanced behind him at the wardens gathered on the flet, but then turned back to gaze once more into the distance.

The messenger slipped through the trees, and his approach quickly caught Haldir's attention. Haldir slid his bow over his back, and climbed down out of the flet, gracefully dropping out of the tree to meet the elf.

"By your leave, March Warden," the elf greeted him, with a hand to his heart. "I bring word from Orophin and Rúmil. Orcs, a large party, heading their way."

Haldir frowned and with a quick glance at the wardens who hovered near, nodded. "Well done. I will send for reinforcements." The elves slid through the trees, disappearing quickly into the shadows of the forest.

*~*

Rúmil crouched down on the sturdy branch, only a few trees separating him from the open expanse of grassy verge that separated the woods of Lórien from the banks of the Celebrant. He glanced down, noting the elves below him as they spread closer to the edge of the woods, the rank smell of Orc burning his nostrils as he waited.

They were irrational, these Orcs to come so boldly to the edge of the wood. Rúmil gripped his bow, an arrow nocked and ready.

Orophin moved to the last tree facing the river, sliding behind the narrow trunk, to peer around it. Like Rúmil above him, he pondered the reasons for the Orcs being so foolhardy, for they camped in plain sight of the wood, just outside of bow range.

Were they baiting the elves? Did they think to draw them out into the open to fight, while more hid among the rocks along the stream? Did they think the elves so foolish? He didn't think it likely and that worried him even more.

The elves settled in to wait, and Orophin sank down in a crouch, leaning on his bow as he scrutinized the Orcs. How long he leaned there he was not sure, but the pressure of Haldir's hand on his shoulder came as a welcome distraction. He rose to face his brother.

"They sit as if waiting. I don't like it," Orophin muttered softly, his glance returning to the far camp. He turned back to Haldir. "Do we advance?"

Haldir shook his head, his gaze scanning the forest, noting the elves that waited. "Nay, it is what they want. Let them wait as we wait. They can make the first move." He gestured to another, and the elf slipped through the trees toward them. "I will send word to the Lady to reinforce the other borders. I know not if this is only a diversion, but I will take no chances."

The elf left quickly with his message, and Haldir climbed high into the tree with Orophin, returning Rúmil's signal with a trilling whistle. Haldir leaned against the trunk of the tree as Orophin settled on a branch below him.

"The Orcs grow hungry," Orophin murmured quietly. "I have had word they come from Moria in large packs, hoping to snare an unwary elf during the night." He glanced up at Haldir. "It does not bode well for any travelers."

"I am aware of that, Orophin. We can only protect those who are near." He settled back against the tree, his icy gaze trained on the far camp.

*~*

Celeborn paced restlessly, his silver hair falling in a soft sheen down his back as Galadriel followed him with her gaze. He turned, flashing her a brief glint of icy blue eyes and then turned back to pace again, his hands laced together behind his back.

"It does no good to pace, Celeborn," Galadriel said softly, walking over to stand beside him.

Celeborn glanced at her, an ironic smile easing the frowning lines from his face. "Ah, of course not, but one must do something. I fear it is times like this that I grow impatient."

Despite her concern, Galadriel's eyes twinkled. "Impatient? Dear Celeborn, you are a patient as a rock, and as solid. Fear not for them, for they stand firm." She rested her hand on his arm and he relaxed, covering her hand with his own.

"I do not fear for Haldir, Galadriel, or for his wardens. The Orcs play their games. We have countered their attempts at distraction and the borders are guarded well. Nay, it is other thoughts that have me concerned."

Galadriel pulled Celeborn to sit. "I know your worries. Haldir too grows concerned, for Mairen's time draws near. The weeks since his return have flown past. She reaches her age of majority soon, if what Haldir told me is true. Her brothers say her birthing day lies late in the summer."

Celeborn sighed, gripping Galadriel's hand. "I have not been able to connect again since that first time. The maid guards her thoughts now. I cannot tell how she fares."

Galadriel rubbed his hand. "Haldir has a slim sense of her, though nothing really tangible. She has the stone. She knows what it can do. She will use it."

Celeborn looked at her. "Will she? Does she truly understand? Haldir said she would not listen. A story too farfetched for her to comprehend her danger."

"Aye, for the girl, that is so. But inside her mind lies someone else, and I have to believe eventually she will understand what she must do."

Celeborn glanced at her with a worried look. "But will it be in time, Galadriel? Will it be in time?"

*~*

Mairen threw the mug against the wall of her room as the ache grew inside her head, spilling ale over the wood to run in pale streaks to the floor. Another headache, another vision. They had grown worse as the days passed. The elf had been right and it irritated her to know it.

She sank against the wall, rubbing her forehead in an all too familiar habit. The dreams bombarded her every night now, and she often sat morosely staring at the fire, unable to prevent them and unable to understand what they meant. All she knew was that she was beginning to despise the person whose memories she shared.

That's what they were, she realized. Memories. She grasped that concept even with her vague understanding of Haldir's explanation. Not her own memories, but those of another person, an elf. What did it mean? Why was she receiving these memories now, at this time? Why? She leaned her head back, groaning in frustration and pain.

She rested her forehead on her hand, staring blankly at the sodden floor. Weeks and weeks of forced inactivity with only the growing memories to hound her had driven her nearly insane. Rolfe was adamant and had not recalled Renny. And Willem had not helped either. Since when had he become Haldir's ally? He had sided with the elf, and she wondered perhaps if the blow to his head had addled his brains. When accused of that, he had not thought it funny and had avoided her for days.

She now wished that she had not been so stubborn. Now what to do? She knew she was growing weaker. The thought of food made her nauseous, and sleeping had become a rarity. A few spare minutes of complete exhaustion to fall asleep, and then the dreams would return. She didn't dare walk to the walls anymore, for fear that she'd be unable to walk back up the hill. Even more, she feared that her brothers would see her as weak and helpless.

She had never wanted to be weak. She had learned to bear the fiercest pain in silence. She had trained countless hours to be an equal. And now it was all gone. She wondered bitterly if she could even throw a lance with any skill.

And for what? What stubborn purpose had motivated her to refuse the help that had been offered? She shook her head, unable to voice an answer that would not sound childish and roughly brushed away a tear with the back of her hand.

Fear. In all her years she had fought against fear, hiding it, trying to control it, but in the end, it had reared its ugly head and swept away her control. Fear of the unknown, fear of her lack of control of her mind. Fear of caring for a creature so unlike herself. Fear of her own emotions. She pushed herself to her feet, and made her way to the door.

It was time to acknowledge her fear.

*~*

Willem stared at Mairen, his eyes trained on her, but his expression distant and his gaze dim. She sat with her head on her arms, wearied beyond measure and he seemed to feel it, for he reached out to rest a comforting hand on her shoulder.

Eamon leaned against the door, his arms folded over his chest, his face inscrutable as he gazed at her. Rolfe sat next to her and leaned closer to put an arm around her shoulders.

The night had been long. She had described her dreams, her memories of what she saw, avoiding only the few she could not bear to tell. Her brothers had listened, at first unwilling to believe, but now they sat around her in silence, unsure what more to say.

"Why did you not tell us sooner, Mairen?" Rolfe asked softly, squeezing her shoulder.

Mairen did not look up, only sighed. "I was afraid, Rolfe. I still am afraid." She sat up straighter, knowing her face must be pale. "I am afraid of what it all means. Haldir told you I have the fëa of an elf inside me? That I have been reborn? But I am not an elf! I am Rohirran! I have parents that are of a long line of Rohan people. You are my brothers. And all this makes no sense."

Rolfe frowned. "I know, but what he says fits. You are having memories of an elf, things you should never know, words you can speak as if you were born to them."

Mairen shuddered, hiding her face in her hands. "I know, but I am afraid. I do not want to be an elf, especially not this elf. I do not like her!"

Rolfe sat back. "You are not her, Mairen. You are who you are. No matter what her memories are, you will not become her."

Mairen took a deep, wavering breath. This had been so hard, and she was so tired. "I wish I could believe that. Truly I do."

Rolfe gripped her arms, pulling her around to face him. "You must! If Haldir's words are true, if you do not accept and believe, then you will die, Mairen. You have to accept these memories as yours."

Mairen sighed, gazing at her brothers in defeat. "I do not know how."

Rolfe glanced at Eamon and Willem, reaching out to touch the blind one's hand. "Then you must go to Lórien."

*~*

Mairen watched Renny ride into the stable, dimly aware that Epona followed, but her sight blurred as another memory took hold.

Seothlindë. She knew the name now. Not that it mattered. She was a separate entity in her mind. Controlling her thoughts, her feelings, nearly overwhelming Mairen with her memories. Mairen had come to despise her.

The elf had been young, from what Mairen could make out, but yet a warrior of great strength and ability. She had felt this, known it inherently as she fought in her remembrances. She had trained among the best. A trait Mairen found too similar to her own.

But the last vision had shaken Mairen, the last vision of the elf as she had stood guard duty at the harbor. She had faced the sea, her keen eyes seeing far out onto the horizon, the bustle of the wharf a distant murmur as she focused on the tiny vessel sailing into the bay.

It was not unusual for the elven city to gain visitors from all nations, for indeed they were a harbor, and many traders sailed to and from the elvish port. Humans, a few dwarves . . . inferior races that to Seothlindë defiled the pristine elvish stronghold with their presence. But one she was often forced to endure.

She followed the vessel with her eyes and then ignored it once she had discerned its human origins. Weak, pathetic creatures, they were, who knew no honor. They understood nothing of grace and elegance and knowledge. No, they only sought supremacy through greed and corruption. They destroyed beauty in the name of power. She sneered at their efforts to rule the world, and was dismayed by the retreat of her own people.

How could they give in? How could they relinquish the hold of their lands, leaving them to the humans? Seothlindë did not understand, and found fault in the race of Men.

Mairen shuddered at the emotions Seothlindë felt, agonized over the elf's unwillingness to see another side. How could Seothlindë have been so cold? Mairen didn't understand her. Didn't want to.

She rubbed her forehead, preparing once more for the onslaught of memory, unaware of the concerned gazes that flew to her as she slid in a heap in the middle of the stable.

She stared at the vessel, watching it weave erratically toward the shore, angling first one way and then the next, as if no one handled the rudder, or did so while distracted by something else. They couldn't even sail true, she thought irritably, as the vessel narrowly missed another, angling once more toward the wharf.

Seothlindë marched toward the pier, signaling the other guard to follow, gripping the long sword at her hip in irritation. Her father was gone for the day, and as Harbor Master he would have inspected the vessel as it docked. She would have to do it for him, and frowned in distaste.

The warden paused beside her as she waited for the vessel to draw near, stepping back as the humans rushed to toss ropes to the elves on the pier. The vessel bumped roughly against the stone, and several men sprang out, turning quickly to face her.

"Where have you been, and what is your purpose here?" she demanded, her eyes narrowed as they bowed to her.

"We seek aid, warden. For we have sick on board."

Seothlindë frowned. "There are none here who can aid you. Seek out another harbor where there are human healers." She turned around, but one of the men caught hold of her arm.

"We have sought other harbors, and healers," he said. "They cannot help, but we were told that the elves are great healers. Please, ma'am, it is my mother. You must help."

Seothlindë stared rudely at the man's hand, and he released her.
"There are none here who will aid you, human. Leave now, for you will find nothing here." She spun around and marched away from the dock, her cloak flaring out behind her. The man stared and then raced behind her, turning her roughly around only to back away from the sword that she drew and pointed at him.

"Touch me not," she warned.

The man dropped to his knees, shaking and afraid. "Please, I beg you, it is a matter of life and death!"

The vision faded, and Mairen sat up, sweating profusely, horrified by the coldness that filled her heart. I would have helped him, she thought desperately. No matter, I would have helped . . . She then collapsed, drifting off into a welcome darkness, unaware of the arms that carried her home.

*~*

Haldir sheathed his sword, scanning the forest around him as the elves gathered close. Orcs lay in fetid heaps, their recent battle still echoing in Haldir's mind. The Northern fences had been harried constantly in the past few weeks, along with the southern border by the Moria Orcs. Bereft of the power of Sauron, the Orcs were no longer controlled, and had fallen into packs of snarling evil that preyed on everything. If they would only fight among themselves, Haldir thought, but the Orcs had thought to gain other fare for dinner, to their demise. But still the attacks had to be rebuffed, and Haldir had spent the past weeks plotting defense after defense, tracking the creatures, and sending his brothers to the southern fences to guard them while he traveled north.

He had a nagging feeling that he would regret that choice.

He strode away from the carnage, thrusting his way past a large thicket of brush to reach the trees that held the guard flets. He rose into the canopy, climbing effortlessly, and pulled himself onto the platform. One of his messengers waited and Haldir spoke with him, sending him quickly back to the city with news.

That done, he moved to the edge of the platform, watching the work below with a cold, distant gaze. The elves worked tirelessly, piling the bodies of the Orcs and burning them. Haldir was thankful the wind blew the stench away from him, yet he also knew that in itself was also a disadvantage since it would lure more of the Orcs to his borders.

He fingered the hilt of his sword, his eyes narrowed in distaste. Without warning, a whisper brushed his mind, a tiny tendril of thought that slowly seeped into his consciousness. Haldir stiffened and cocked his head, searching his mind for any echo of that thought. He gripped his bow in frustration, knowing that the slim connection he had to Mairen was tangible yet tentative. With her inability to focus and her lack of awareness of how to use the inherent magic of her soul to join their thoughts with any strength, she was largely using her own willfulness to connect with him. But she did connect, if fleetingly, in a brief moment of clarity that brought a sudden curse to his lips. He spun, shouldering his bow as he flew down the tree. She was coming now. And he could not reach the border before she did.

She was riding straight for his southern border . . . and the Orcs.

*~*

Mairen leaned back precariously, her mind too weary to think, holding onto the pommel of the saddle as she swayed in the slow gate of Epona's steps. Willem leaned beside her, feeling for her arm, and pulled her upright.

"Even I can tell that you do not sit your horse as you should, Mairen. Do I need to make you ride with me or Eamon?"

Mairen forced her mind to clear. She held tightly to the reins, gritting her teeth. "Nay, I will not ride with another. I will tie myself to the saddle if need be, but will ride my own horse." She glanced at her brother and saw him shake his head.

"You will arrive only because of your stubbornness," he groused, but reached over to pat her knee.

Mairen sighed, and fumbled in the pocket of her tunic, finally drawing out the worry stone to gaze at it. She remembered Loriel's words, and Haldir's. Had its powers truly allowed him to see her thoughts? She knew he had seen her memory of him, known instantly the moment he had connected. Was it the stone that had enabled him to do so? And would the stone connect them again, at this distance? She hoped so.

She gripped the stone in her hand, closing her eyes briefly, feeling it grow warm, the heat spreading its way up her arm. She focused her thoughts on Haldir, picturing him as she remembered him, consciously keeping that other vision of him in the recesses of her mind, but seeing him as the warrior he'd been, at Helm's Deep, fighting Orc after Orc in a graceful dance of death.

I am coming, she told him desperately again, having done so several times already as they rode toward the lands of Lothlórien. And once more the darkness began to seep in at the edges of her thoughts. I am coming to you for aid. She bowed her head, but then sat up as an image of trees she could not see flashed in her mind, their golden leaves fluttering in a breeze she did not feel, and heard an Elvish curse that she was sure she did well not to understand. The darkness grew and took hold, and she knew no more.

"Please, I beg you! It's a matter of life and death!" the man had said.

Seothlindë ignored him and turned back around only to come face to face with the very elf of her dreams. She had not known he was coming. She stepped back as he frowned, pushing past her.

"Such little compassion, warden. Have you no heart?" The March Warden gripped the man's arm and pulled him to his feet. "Where are your sick?"

Seothlindë gasped. "You do not intend to heal them?"

Haldir glanced at her, his expression cool and aloof. "Indeed, I do. The Valar give us gifts, Seothlindë, and they are to use, not to hoard only for ourselves."

He turned away from he and followed the man onto the docks, disappearing into the hold of the tiny vessel while she watched in astonishment.

A moment later, Seothlindë hurried after him, drawing back at the stench of the hold, holding her nose as she stared through the gloom.

She found Haldir bent over a prone woman whose face was nearly gray. The woman appeared to be resisting the pull of death with a last effort, her watery eyes locked with the March Warden's while he eased down beside her, his large frame blocking much of Seothlindë's view. He spoke softly, soothingly, placing his hands around the woman's damp face.

After a few long moments, the woman sat up, clutching the elf's tunic desperately, her face flushed with sudden color, and then Haldir caught hold of her arms and gently lowered her back to the cot. In moments, she closed her eyes, her face no longer gra, but pale, her breathing soft and unhampered. The man fell to his knees, reaching out to clutch Haldir's hand.

"I cannot thank you enough, my lord."

Haldir pulled the human to his feet. "I am no lord, but only a warden, a guardian. She will sleep, and will need food as soon as she wakes." The man nodded and Haldir made his way out of the hold back into the bright sunlight.

Seothlindë followed again, pushing past the other elves to catch at Haldir's sleeve.

"Why?" she asked him. "They are insignificant, these mortals. I do not understand why you would heal them."

Haldir stopped, his grey eyes settled on her face. "Who are we to think ourselves above them, Seothlindë? I would aid a dwarf, though I like them not, just as I have the human, for I carry a gift I must pass on. You would do well to let go of your ill feelings, for I fear the tidings of evil will sweep you away."

Failing to understand, Seothlindë stepped back and the March Warden bowed slightly.

"I thought we might have some things in common, you and I, but I see you have much to learn about life. Perhaps when you grow in both age and wisdom we shall find each other again." He smiled, a bit sadly. "I do not think you are yet ready."

Mairen woke with a start, and found that the stench of the ship's hold lingered on to sting at her nose. She rubbed it absently, and then froze as realization hit. She knew that smell.

"Orcs!" she screamed at the same time Willem did, drawing back on her reins, spinning Epona around as the patrol began to splash through the river in front of them. Willem bent over the side of his roan to avoid a black arrow that hurdled only inches from his face. The other Rohirrim split, forming their lines of defense and Mairen urged Epona through the shallow water, releasing her lance to grip it tightly in her hand.

The Orcs swarmed out of the rocks, and a Rohirran guard fell in front of Mairen.

The Rohirrim spread out, lances thrown with deadly accuracy, but Mairen held on to hers, knowing she would not be able to wield her sword. She gripped Epona with her knees, whirling the lance to strike the advancing Orcs who drew near, while Epona snapped and bit anything that came close. They moved back out of her reach and Mairen was suddenly afraid.

She lacked the strength to kill, and she could barely maim. All around her, Rohirrim fought bravely and Orcs fell, but more flooded out from the rocks. The great trees of Lothlórien swayed in the near distance, close yet too far.

Willem charged past her, still gripping his lance. He swung at the Orcs that had backed away from Mairen, scattering them. She didn't know if it was merely luck or his intuition, but was grateful for his intervention.

The Orcs were howling, the horses screaming, and Mairen twisted as several again advanced rapidly toward her. The darkness hovered on the edge of her vision and Mairen shook her head to clear it. She would not let it take her; she could not. She drew her dagger from her boot, and with a brief shudder jabbed the point into her own thigh, hissing at the shock of pain.

The darkness fled amid the pain, and Mairen bent over, trembling as she held the bloody knife in her hand, her lance now leveled at the advancing Orcs. The other Rohirrim had moved away from her, and she spun Epona in a circle, swinging the lance around in an arc to hold off the evil creatures.

They laughed, seeing her as easy prey. Mairen snarled, swinging her lance over her head and swiping it at the closest Orc. To her horror, the creature caught the lance, laughing at her shock, and with a jerk that was far too easy, swept her off Epona to land in the shallow water of the river.

Still gripping her knife, Mairen stood up and whistled a keening note; Epona responded with a snort and spun around, leaping into the air. With amazing strength, the horse kicked out her hind feet, slamming the Orc nearest her in the head. He fell back and Epona screamed, rearing up on hind legs. Mairen spun as an arrow whistled past her head, ducking the shaft, and then crouched shivering amid the boulders of the river, watching in despair as the other Orcs slowly advanced on her.

One picked up the lance that floated near the fallen Orc, staring at it in anger, and snapped it cleanly in two, throwing aside the tail end. He hefted the short spear in his hand, and turned to Mairen, wading toward her through the shallow water.

Mairen drew back, but the Orc guessed her intention and slammed the spear across her stomach. Gasping for air, she bent over, twisting in an attempt to embed the knife into the Orc, but it only slapped the thin dagger out of her hand. Its beefy arm lashed out, throwing her onto her back into the river. She had only a moment to prepare for the worst, hurling her arm protectively over her face, but the blow never came. Instead, the Orc lay face down in the water, an elvish arrow protruding from its back.

An instant later she heard the elves, calling out to the others. Relieved, she picked up the remnants of her lance and whistled for Epona, turning to search for the horse, when she was suddenly knocked off her feet once more. This time she fell face down, gasping at the shock of cold water, and struggled to rise again. Somehow she managed it, staggering slightly as she flung off her helmet and shoved her wet hair out of her face. An Orc loomed over her.

She wasn't fast enough to avoid the fist that knocked her back off her feet. She groaned loudly as the cold blasted her, atrophying muscles that were far too weak for this fight. She struggled feebly as the Orc grabbed her tunic, lifting her into the air.

Somehow she managed to slam the short spear across its face. The Orc snarled, drawing her closer to its leering mouth, rank with decay.

Mairen writhed desperately, and the Orc dropped her only to raise its sword. However, before he could thrust it into her, another elvish arrow imbedded itself in his back, and he fell into the water beside her with a great splash. Feeling sick, she looked around frantically for the elves and could see them running toward the river in her direction.

Her feet numb, shivering uncontrollably, Mairen slogged through the water, and then gasped as an Orc arrow slammed into her shoulder, spinning her around with the force of it. With a last groan, she sank once more into the water not far from the dead Orc.

She was going to drown. The will to move her limbs was gone, yet she held her breath, struggling to regain control. She was yanked roughly out of the water, rolled onto her back on the rocks and she opened her eyes to find Orophin bending over her, his blue eyes raking over her body.

"Anything else other than the arrow?" he asked quickly, unable to tell for sure from the blood that splattered her clothes.

Mairen's teeth chattered. "N-no," she gasped, shuddering with cold as well as pain.

Orophin glanced quickly around him, and then bent close. "I have to break off the end and push it through. It has hit only muscle, but I cannot pull it out. The tip is barbed."

Mairen nodded feebly.

Orophin quickly snapped off the end of the arrow, ignoring her sharp hiss of pain, and then shoved the shaft through her shoulder. Mairen shuddered violently, and groaned, gritting her teeth to hold in her cry of pain.

Orophin rose, shouting for Rúmil, who ran over, dragging Epona with him. Orophin gripped Mairen's tunic and hoisted her onto Epona's back, as Rúmil left them to hold off several Orcs heading their way.

Orophin turned as Loriel ran up to them. "I will ride with her," she stated. "You are needed here more." Orophin nodded, and she mounted quickly behind Mairen.

"Ride swiftly," he instructed. "Haldir will be coming on the road from the north. She is very weak."

Loriel nodded, kicking her feet, and Epona leaped forward over several Orcs to fly toward the tree line and safety.

*~*

Haldir raced down the path, drawn by fear and frustration as he ran swiftly, his bow in his hand, over the well-worn trail.

He could feel her fear. The connection had been opened, and he had felt the terror that rushed over her. And he could do nothing.

He leaped over a shallow dip in the path, landing solidly on the other side, hardly breaking his stride, his cloak flaring out behind him as he ran.

She was still there, and for that he was thankful. He could feel the connection growing thin again, as if stretched. He grasped for it with his mind, aware of his steps, yet focused on the tiny thread bridging him with Mairen. Only a few more leagues to go.

He came to a sudden halt as the sound of the horse galloping toward him echoed through the forest. He drew aside the path and waited the few moments it took for Loriel to appear amid the leaf-covered trail. She reined in the roan and Epona reared back, but settled down quickly as Loriel let go of Mairen and Haldir pulled her into his arms.

Mairen groaned as Haldir laid her gently on the ground, spinning to look at Loriel. "The others?"

Loriel gripped Epona's reins tightly. "Still fighting. The Rohirrim fight well. I saw only one or two down, but the odds are evenly matched."

Haldir waved his hand. "Go back, then. I will take her. More are coming."

Loriel spun Epona around, urging the balking horse to ride back the way she had come. Haldir bent down, gathering Mairen in his arms, and strode rapidly back along the path. In moments the elves who had been following him passed by with brief questioning glances answered by his gaze. And then he was once again alone with Mairen.

She was trembling, whether with cold or pain or both he was not sure, and he soon stopped, setting her gently down again on the ground.

"Mairen, can you hear me?" he asked.

She opened her eyes and blinked, biting her lips in a futile attempt to stop them from quivering. "Aye," she whispered.

"You're freezing and injured. I have to take off your tunic to get to the wound on your shoulder. And I need to rid you of the wet clothes."

Mairen smiled feebly. "You can't look though." She laughed weakly.

Shaking his head in exasperation, Haldir reached out to unbuckle the armor at her sides. She shivered violently, and he pulled the leather armor away, then reached to withdraw his knife from his boot. With a quick slice up the sides of her tunic, he eased the woolen garment off.

"Where is your mail?" he asked. "Mairen, you have no chain mail on."

"T-too heavy. I couldn't s-stand it."

Haldir frowned. "How often do they come?"

Mairen curled into his arms as he wrapped his cloak around her. "Too often. I get n-no rest." She shuddered as the leggings came off, along with her boots. The rush of cool air did not help and her teeth chattered even more loudly.

Haldir pushed her back against the ground, sliding his hands along her body, noting the thinness with narrowed eyes, and then probed her shoulder gently. "Who pushed the arrow out?"

Mairen blinked, as the warmth of his hands sent a different kind of shiver through her. "O-Orophin."

Haldir gave a sigh of relief, and then pressed on her shoulder. Mairen closed her eyes as the shock of the heat swept through her shoulder, and suddenly the pain ebbed to a dull ache. She took a deep breath, still frozen but at least free from most of the pain. She gasped when Haldir's hand brushed her thigh.

"This is not from an Orc blade," he said, drawing her attention to his face with his tone. The grey eyes searched hers, demanding an explanation.

"N-nay. I did it."

Haldir's chin rose in surprise. "Why?"

"The d-darkness . . was coming. I couldn't let it take o-over . . ." she explained, and shook as a violent tremor swept through her.

Haldir's lips thinned and he bent over her, drawing his cloak carefully around her shivering body. "I have to get you back to Caras Galadhon."

Mairen closed her eyes, but shook her head. "No! My brothers, you must go and help them."

Haldir picked her up, holding her close to him. "They are in good hands, Mairen. Do not fear for them."

Mairen sighed with a contentment that was new to her. Being enfolded in Haldir's arms felt glorious, and the warmth of his cloak was calming the shivering of her limbs. It was wonderful.

"Am I in good hands, Haldir?" she murmured, her head resting against his hard chest. She felt his arms tighten around her.

"Aye, you're in mine, Mairen. You could have no better."

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