They reached the city in the middle of the night, and although Mairen was impressed by the elves’ speed, she was unused to walking such distances. She would pay for the night’s walk with the blisters that even now throbbed on her feet. Yet their arrival in the city of Caras Galadhon banished such thoughts. It seemed to wait for her, glittering among the forest branches, drawing her toward it with wide eyes, but she had little time to gaze around her.
As soon as they neared the high earthen wall surrounding the city, the elves split apart, disappearing quickly into the trees. Mairen glanced nervously about as they passed through the ornately carved wooden gates, glistening in the dim light. Above, two tall elven sentinels watched them closely, but she tried to ignore them, sensing their coldness and feeling more vulnerable than she had in many years. The small knife in her boot would not offer much in the way of defense, and she only hoped she would not need such weapons among the elves.
Her nerves on edge, she thrust her hands behind her back and followed the blue-eyed elf called Orophin into the depths of the city. Hundreds of tiny lights twinkled above her, but Mairen’s attention was drawn to the elf-lady who was gliding silently down a set of nearby steps in her direction. For a moment, Mairen was struck blind and dumb, assailed by a brief, overwhelming sensation that she’d been in this spot, experienced this instant before, perhaps in some strange dream. Forcing away these eerie thoughts, she clenched her fists and straightened her posture in preparation for a meeting with this personage.
Whoever this elf was, she was quite beautiful. She had long, silver-blond hair that cascaded down her back, and her white dress glittered in the flickering light of the lanterns that were suspended along the path. Her expression was not unfriendly, yet she appeared aloof, even distant as she drew near. Beside her, Mairen felt the male elf stiffen then bow, touching his brow in respect.
“Rúmil arrived in time?” he asked, speaking so that Mairen understood him.
The Lady reached out to touch his shoulder. “Aye, Orophin. We have taken Haldir to his talan and he is being cared for.” She turned to Mairen. “I wished to be among the first to greet our guest.”
As the lady gazed at Mairen, she seemed to pause for a moment, the sapphire blue eyes widening for a brief second before she nodded regally. Belatedly, Mairen realized that this was Lothlórien’s Lady of Light, of whom she had heard stories. She stared back, unable to drag her gaze from the tall she-elf. She knew not why, but she was frozen with the overwhelming feeling that the deepest secrets of her soul lay open to this stunning elf. Mairen stood still, unable to breathe while the wise blue eyes held hers. Indeed, they seemed to envelope her, wrapping around her thoughts, delving deep into her mind.
The small bits of knowledge that Mairen had learned about the elves seemed miniscule in comparison to the questions crowding her mind, and the lady gazed at her for several long moments in silence. Elves were immortal, Mairen knew. How long had the Lady of Light lived? Mairen wondered. She thought once more of the stories she had heard. How unfair those rumors of witchcraft now seemed. Trying not to stare back too openly, Mairen bowed, shaken by the probing blue eyes and the intensity of that gaze. For some reason she felt surprise; she had not expected the Lady to look so youthful . . . or so beautiful.
“Your tender care of our guardian helped save his life. Haldir owes you a great debt.” The Lady’s words slid over Mairen like honey, coating her in their steely softness. The blue eyes pierced her own, and Mairen touched a hand to her forehead in respect.
“I did what I could, my lady. But I must return to my guard.”
Galadriel smiled, but Mairen still felt a shiver travel up her spine. “My March Warden would approve of your loyalty to your people and your duty. You shall join them, but not yet. Be at ease, Mairen of Rohan. Your presence here is welcomed joyfully, for you have brought home one who we would have sorely missed, our own dear Captain and March Warden, Haldir.”
Mairen’s eyes widened, finally realizing what had been tickling the back of her mind earlier. The March Warden? She’d brought back their captain of the Guard! She stared at the Lady with a dismay she did not understand. “He will be well?” She couldn’t stop the question from slipping out.
Galadriel smiled again, her lips curving up at the corners, creasing the corners of her eyes. It was a genuine smile of amusement. “Haldir will be well, but he needs much rest. I must go to him now, and complete what healing we have started. He will want to know about you.”
Mairen flushed, remembering all too well Willem’s words, which continued to hound her thoughts. “I am needed elsewhere. I fear to leave my guard for long.” She knew intuitively her arguments were futile. The lady’s expression had grown slightly colder. Haughty even. Had Mairen insulted her? She bit her lip.
“Your guard will be well, for your brother is a strong leader. I will send him word you are safe and that I require your presence for a short while.”
She was not given an opportunity to argue, for the lady turned and began to ascend a wide staircase, leaving Mairen behind. Mairen clasped her hands behind her back to stop her trembling fingers. Friendly or not, she had not expected to be detained and did not like it.
We mean you no harm, Mairen.
Mairen flinched as the thought rang through her mind, for she somehow knew it came from the Lady. She bowed her head to hide the confusion that must surely be written upon her face.
She felt a hand touch her elbow and turned to find Orophin waiting. He drew her gently forward, and they followed the Lady of Light high into the trees of Caras Galadhon.
They rose quickly, following the spiraling staircases around the huge, massive trees so large in circumference that ten men could not have stretched their arms around the trunks. The wood of the stair glittered iridescently from the tiny flickering lamps that hung overhead. The shadows were deep, hiding the ground below her as she walked beside Orophin. Small, ornately carved rooms nestled among the huge branches, the buildings an extension of the tree that embraced them. Higher and higher they climbed, and as they did, more elves came forward to lean over balusters and railings, concern etched on their faces as Galadriel passed, their curious glances settling on Mairen.
They reached a fair-sized house tucked back against the tree trunk, and entered. The first room was a living area, with small cushioned benches beneath tall open windows covered with silken draped panels drawn open to allow the light breeze to whisper into the room. To the left was a small table and chair on which a metal lantern glowed softly. Tall lamp stands stood unlit in the corners, the metal wrought into shapes mimicking the flora she’d seen in the forest. A few more smaller cushioned chairs were arranged around the room, and on the far wall were tall cabinets, one of which held an assortment of books, the others, various trinkets and artifacts she recognized from several different cultures. She glanced at the books, assuming they probably were all in Elvish, before Orophin drew her into the next room.
Inside, she found Haldir lying unconscious on the bed, surrounded by several elves who were whispering fiercely. Galadriel moved to the side of the bed, leaning over him.
Orophin released Mairen’s elbow, but did not step away. Did he stand as her guard? The elves hovered around the bed, and Mairen could see they had cut away portions of Haldir’s tunic, and had cleaned many of his wounds. Mairen dragged her eyes from the injured elf to look around the room. This room was sparse compared to the first; only the bed and a large cupboard took up space, one full wall opening onto a small terrace. Banners hung over the remaining walls, soft and silky, they caught the light from the candles lit around the room, and the slight breeze, ruffling softly amid the whispered murmurs of the elves around the bed.
“The head wound concerns her the most,” Orophin murmured, glancing down at Mairen. “They have placed him in a healing trance. Would that one of us were there when he first fell. He would not then have fared so badly.”
Mairen shifted slightly, easing her left foot off the floor to gain some respite from her own pain. “You could have healed him then?” she asked in amazement.
Orophin smiled slightly. “For the most part. For all his stubbornness, Haldir heals quickly. Many are the times we have had to heal him, for he is fearless and willful, always placing himself in the front, always protecting those who have fallen.”
Mairen glanced at the tall elf, sensing his pride in his brother. “I wish that were possible for all of us. It is a true gift from the Valar to heal so rapidly.” She looked away, thinking for a moment of her mother, dead long ago. Would they have been able to save her? She shook off the thought as the door opened, and Orophin pulled her back a step when a new, very impressive-looking elf entered the room.
“That is Lord Celeborn,” Orophin whispered.
Mairen studied the regal newcomer. He was very tall, with the same silvery blond hair she’d seen on others. In addition, he emanated an aura of calm and stillness that was curiously soothing. She bowed her head in greeting, and then looked up to meet his eyes, which were as fathomless and ancient as the Lady’s, yet they also held a hardness. Instinctively, she knew his warrior’s eyes picked up details most would never see, and she fought an urge to squirm as he stared back at her for several long moments before he moved toward Haldir. What was it about her that gave them such pause, she wondered as Celeborn slid his hand into Haldir’s hair and examined his scalp.
He glanced at her again, his firm lips curving in a slight smile. “You sewing skills are impeccable.” He probed the gash carefully, but did nothing more except to speak quietly with Galadriel.
Orophin folded his arms over his chest as he listened to the soft conversation near the bed. “They cannot heal him fully for he has lost too much blood. The head wound will have to wait until tomorrow.” He paused, catching Mairen as she shifted her feet once again. Mairen caught the look that passed between Orophin and Lord Celeborn, and found herself being pulled gently out of the room.
“Sit here, I will have some food brought. Rest for a while.” Orophin bowed, and left the room.
She could hear the soft murmurs from the other room. How long would they detain her? Ignoring her aching feet, she walked to the window and stared dismally at the magnificent city sprawled out below her. She wondered how her brother fared, then wondered how the handsome elf Captain fared.
Sighing, she turned around and limped to a chair, leaning back to pull off a boot and rub her foot. She was tired and hungry, and her feet were on fire. They had ridden hard before coming across the elf, and it had been another full day’s ride into the night to reach the Golden Wood. Added to the long walk, she found her exhaustion catching up to her. The elves did not look tired. Did they not sleep? She sighed again and closed her eyes, if only for a moment . . .
She woke to find sunlight streaming through the window. Someone had put her feet on a stool and tucked a soft blanket around her. Her boots had been removed and sat on the floor near her chair. She sat up, realizing that her feet no longer ached, then rose to her feet, disturbed to think that she could fall asleep so deeply that she did not awake when they tended to her.
She ran a hand through her long hair, and glanced around the room. A tray sat on a small table, and she walked over to inspect it. A pitcher of chilled wine glistened with condensation, and a small plate was filled with an assortment of breads and fruit. She picked up a piece of fruit, popping it into her mouth when the door opened and Orophin stepped inside, a smile touching his lips when he noticed she was barefoot.
Mairen folded her arms. “What did you do to my feet? Who took off my boots? Why did you not wake me?”
The elf gave an elegant shrug, his eyes glinting mischievously. “Such questions! You did not wake because we did not mean you to. Boots? Were you wearing boots?” He ignored her first question and moved near the table.
Mairen frowned, tapping her fingers on her arm. Orophin stared at her fingers, then at her face, one brow rising in amusement. Did she use her brows so expressively? She squelched the urge to touch her own. She unfolded her arms, resisting the urge to twitch her fingers. She was going to have to learn to control that habit.
“You healed my feet,” she said coolly.
“Nay, it was not I,” Orophin responded. “It was Lord Celeborn.” He tilted his head, then smiled suddenly, his eyes lighting up. She could hear voices in the other room, and a new one sent a thrill of pleasure rushing over her nerves. She rubbed her arms as Orophin slipped through the door into the bedroom, leaving her behind. The soft murmurs grew louder for a moment before the door shut quietly.
Trying to be calm, Mairen ate another piece of fruit. Lord Celeborn? How had he known? And why were they keeping her here? She knew nothing of use, no more of Haldir’s battle.
Chewing absently, she crossed to the window and gazed down. Below her the city lay quiet save for a haunting melody wafting on the air, lulling her for a moment. She could not understand the words, but the music seemed to find its way into her head. She leaned on her elbows, listening to it.
“Do you like the singing?”
She turned quickly. Lord Celeborn stood in the doorway, watching her closely.
“It’s very soothing.” She gazed into the deep blue eyes that were now filled with quiet amusement. “Thank you.”
The elf tilted his head. “For what?”
Mairen looked down. “My feet. I am unused to walking such distances. The people of my land ride horses.”
Celeborn smiled. “It was the least we could do to repay your act of kindness.” He changed the subject. “The music is a lament for Haldir. One he will not appreciate.” The elven lord glanced toward the door to the bedroom. “He is awake. Come, you should meet him. I am sure he would like to meet you.” He motioned for her to follow him into the next room.
When Mairen stepped through the door, Rúmil and Orophin were in the process of raising Haldir upright against the pillows piled against the headboard. She would have halted on the threshold were it not for Lord Celeborn’s firm grip on her elbow. His grip tightened when she hesitated, and he propelled her further into the room.
Haldir lay quietly on the raised pillows, the blanket tucked around his waist. His eyes were closed, his face pale and drawn, but he seemed far more alive than when she had last seen him. It disconcerted her to find her heart leaping when he slowly opened his eyes to look at her. She stared into a gaze that turned her knees to jelly, and tried to ignore the chill sensation that she had been here before.
The eyes she expected to be like his brothers’ eyes were not blue, but a deep blue-tinged gray. He studied her so intensely that she fought the unfamiliar urge to turn and run. Instead, she pulled her gaze away and found herself staring at the long silvery hair that draped over his shoulders and spilled onto his chest. It was a very broad chest, one that bore only faint signs of his previous injuries. She soon found that this was not a good place to look either, and quickly raised her eyes to his face just in time to see the twitch at the corner of his mouth. Her fingers began to tingle in her palm.
Lord Celeborn crossed to Haldir’s side, gently running his fingers over the remaining gash on his head, and Haldir closed his eyes again. Was he still in pain? His face was still very pale and he looked weary.
“I had not heard that the Rohirrim allow women among their ranks,” Lord Celeborn remarked, glancing at her. “You are a surprise.” He leaned over Haldir, speaking to him softly in elvish.
Mairen took the chance to take a deep breath and looked over at Orophin, who sat in the chair next to the bed. He was leaning back, resting his chin on his hands while he watched the elven lord intently. Rúmil, however, was propped against the wall beside the bed, watching her in apparent amusement. It seemed her reactions had not gone unnoticed.
Mairen looked back at the March Warden in time to see him frown and reach up to grip the elven lord’s wrist, pulling the long fingers away from his head. Celeborn sighed and stepped back. Haldir opened his eyes to stare again at Mairen.
“I owe you my thanks,” he said.
His voice had a deep timbre, and he spoke her tongue fluently. His long, dark brows rose slightly as his piercing gaze swept over Mairen, studying her closely. She fought the urge to fidget. What did he see?
“None is needed,” she replied, “but you are welcome.” She folded her arms, tucking her hands under her arms.
Moving closer, Orophin spoke to Haldir in Elvish, and Haldir smiled briefly, his gaze never leaving her. Mairen felt the panic rising in her mind, the need to leave, the sense she was in jeopardy flaring to a point where she had to fight to control her nerves. Willem had been right to warn her not to linger.
“Orophin said you have the heart of a true warrior to travel alone a full day’s ride and enter the realm of the Lady. Even with me, you risked much.” Haldir took a deep breath, and shifted against the pillows, closing his eyes for a moment.
“I did what was necessary,” Mairen said, trying to sound detached.
Orophin smiled and came around the bed to where she stood. Haldir was still and his eyes were closed, making her suspect that the pain had returned. His dark brows drew together when Celeborn leaned over him again, murmuring quietly.
“He is still weak, but Celeborn feels we must heal him anyways. Come, Mairen.” Orophin chuckled softly. “Haldir does not like to be healed and is not usually in a good mood afterward so I will spare you his wicked tongue.” He guided her from the room with his hand, but Mairen could not resist the urge to glance back. She saw the March Warden watching her again.
Mairen followed Orophin down the many steps of this strange city in the trees. She wanted to see Epona, but he had told her the animal was taken outside the city where they kept their own herd. She didn’t like that, for it implied that she would be here for a while.
She sat down near a small stream that meandered through the city, beside a moss-covered statue of an elf. The statue was elegant, its long flowing robes were carved of stone and flowed gracefully over its form, and its wide, intelligent eyes seemed to gaze down at her. She braced her elbows on her knees, staring blankly. Had the lady sent word to Willem as she had said? And how? What would he think?
With a sigh, she ran a hand through her hair. It was tangled and needed a good brushing. She wouldn’t mind a bath either. She sat up, shaking her head. Why was she thinking like that?
She had to laugh at herself. In her twenty-five years of life, Mairen had scorned a woman’s role in life. The only girl child out of five boys, daughter to one of King Théoden’s advisors, she’d been set apart from birth, somehow never fitting in, never quite accepted by those of her own gender. As a result she had chosen to run with the Rohirrim boys, feeling among them a kinship she had not felt among the girls or women. The skills of the warrior had suited her too, which had made it only natural that she would want to join the guard. But Théoden had balked.
Mairen rubbed her forehead. It had been fun, yes, but hard as well, living with brothers who often took advantage of her, teasing her about her looks, knocking her off her horse into the mud, forcing her to do the meanest of duties. She’d endured it all in order to be one of them. And so she had become.
But on some days, she still felt alone, bereft, almost as though she was not where she was supposed to be. It bewildered her. Once she had told Willem, but he had laughed, remarking that it was because she was a woman and needed a man. He had not ever said it again, she recalled, not after she tossed him into the Anduin. After that she had continued to tag along with the boys, which in the end had earned her their respect. Now she was their equal, not a subservient, whimpering female to be left behind when danger came. She defended what they defended with the same vigor and determination. She had even earned Théoden’s respect.
So why did she suddenly feel the need to bathe and comb her hair? She shuddered to think that it was because of this elf. Still, she had to admit she’d never felt the way she did when he looked at her. Perhaps it was only his reputation. She has seen his skill firsthand . . . or the effect of his skill in any case, during the battle. Never before had she felt uncomfortable at the sight of bare male skin. Riding with thirty men, she had left modesty behind a long time ago. But staring at him had sent waves of heat flooding through her. She scowled again. She wasn’t like that! So he was pretty, but it meant nothing.
“You do not seem happy with your thoughts, my dear.”
It was Galadriel. She smiled down at Mairen, who rose quickly and brushed off her clothes. The luminous blue eyes twinkled, telling Mairen that the elven ruler somehow knew exactly what she’d been thinking. When Mairen flushed, the Lady’s smile grew, and she moved closer and tucked Mairen’s hand through her arm.
“Do not be angry with yourself. You cannot control what your heart decides to feel. You are dismayed at my decision to keep you here?” Galadriel smiled again at Mairen’s surprised look of dismay.
“I will do as you ask, my lady,” Mairen said with stiff courtesy.
The Lady drew her further along the stream, gliding gracefully among the moss-covered stones. “I felt Haldir’s peril, knowing I could do nothing to protect him.” She stopped, looking down at Mairen, for she was the taller of the two. “I also felt you nearby. I saw you when I looked into my mirror. I did not know if you would sense him, and I praise the Valar that you have such keen hearing. Haldir would have been a terrible loss to our people. I worry every time he leaves my realm, for he is fearless.”
Mairen nodded, aware of this aspect of his personality. “Why was he alone?”
The Lady looked sorrowful. “In the beginning he was not alone, but those who accompanied him now lie in the Halls of Awaiting. They were ambushed. The Orcs they pursued were joined by a second party lying in wait. The first were bait, the second sent to destroy us. Haldir alone survived, one among the six that set out. It is an unprecedented loss for Haldir. He will not soon forgive himself.”
“But he could do nothing to prevent it!” Mairen cried. “The Orcs hide among the rocky hills. He would not have known they were near.”
Galadriel laughed bitterly. “Haldir feels he should know everything. His gaze sees all . . . or so he thinks. He does not like to be reminded that he is still imperfect. As are we all.”
Mairen digested this. Imperfect? Hardly. She pushed away the memory of the broad chest, and felt a hand brush her shoulder.
“As much as you wish to deny it, you are still a woman. Sooner or later such feelings were bound to awaken.”
Embarrassed, Mairen looked away. How did she know? Was this part of the elves’ magic? “It means nothing,” she said gruffly. She ignored the amused look on the lady’s face.
“Forgive me, Mairen,” said the Lady. “I do not mean to pry into your feelings. Haldir wishes to speak more with you, but he is too weak and ill tempered to do it right now. It is for his sake that I keep you here. Please bear with me a few days. I ask you not to disregard his wish to express his gratitude, for he owes you a great debt. It will not an easy thing for him to do.”
Mairen sighed. “Very well,” she said. “I will stay.”