<strong><u>Chapter 1: Cleansing</strong></u>
Mithnen sat with her legs crossed, the damp ground slowly penetrating the seat of her leggings. It was all she could do to keep from throwing herself to the ground and pounding on the earth with her fists, screaming: “Why? Why her? Why now?” Staring at the twig in her hand, she began breaking it into pieces and then looked around the fire. All the other faces were staring back at her, as if they were expecting her to do a trick. She tossed the pieces of twig into the fire and got to her feet. She heard a slight rustle from the others as she turned her back, as if they had all unanimously let out a relieved sigh. She shook her head, shouldered her pack and went off to find a place to sleep. As she rolled out her mat and blanket, she felt a hand grasp her shoulder. She stood suddenly to find Halbarad looking down at her. He didn’t say one word, but she gathered all of his meaning in that single look. She held his solemn gray gaze and felt a single tear roll down her cheek. She was utterly alone.
The night was waning and Mithnen had yet to fall asleep. She was completely exhausted, both physically and mentally, though it meant nothing. Her eyes would reluctantly droop shut – only to fly open again, haunted by the ghastly images of smiling orcs and stained battle axes that were burned onto the back of her eyelids. She wanted desperately to sleep, to forget for a few hours what had happened. She could not.
Throwing off her blanket and leaving her bedroll sprawled on the ground, Mithnen snuck as quietly as she could out of the Rangers’ camp and headed down towards the river.
Early summer mornings in the Ringló Vale, the heat was not so unbearable and the occasional breezes from the not so far-off sea tinted the air with a salty aftertaste. The trees grew green and gold in the rising summer sun, which was beginning to shine through some of the leaves and branches and make tiny dancing shadows on the forest floor. By all accounts, this was a lovely time of a lovely season in a lovely realm. Mithnen hated everything about it.
As she drew closer to the rocky shore of the Ringló, her mind flashed back to a more southerly point of the river where the clear water ran dark, where bodies lay scattered and decaying in the rising sun. A stain on a clean land, the only ugliness in a realm of beauty. She could see the few orcs that had not died quickly writhing in the knowledge of their imminent end, cowering in the shadow of Death as they lay contorted and bleeding. She imagined them hissing and spitting as their blood refused to clot, refused to heal them, as the sunlight burned their scabby flesh. She imagined them trying to crawl away from the open air by the river and into the darkness of the trees, their perceived sanctuary; but even that would not save them. They would die, just as Armithlas had. They would have no sanctuary. They would find that the price of her slaying was not easily paid. They deserved every second of pain.
She gulped, as if the horrible things she was thinking were a bad taste in her mouth, and shook her head, plunging her hands below the surface of the river. After splashing some cold water on her face, Mithnen took off her boots and removed her belt, stockings, and tunic. The rocks on the shore were bleached white and perfectly rounded. After years of erosion their normally sharp edges had been worn smooth and seamless. Gasping a few times in shock of the coldness of the river, she slowly waded far enough from the shore for the water to come up to her waist. Deciding to just get it over with, Mithnen bent sharply at the knee, quickly submerging the rest of her body up to her shoulders beneath the surface.
“Ai! Elbereth!” she swore inwardly, feeling her flesh goospimple under the water.
After a few minutes the water began to feel quite temperate. After diving below the surface, Mithnen felt somewhat cleansed from the action of the day before. She could at least enjoy her surroundings for a moment or two before memories and images of the previous day crept into her thoughts, poisoning her mind. It was a start, at least. She scrubbed her arms and neck, then leaned backwards, letting her hair swell out in the water, and rubbed her head. This is what she needed. She should have done it yesterday evening, perhaps then she could have fallen asleep properly.
“No,” she said to herself, knowing that no matter what, she would not have been able to sleep that night.
Half of an hour passed before Mithnen paddled her way back to shore. Upon emerging from the river she regretted not bringing her blanket. After adjusting to the coldness of the water, the air seemed to be ten-times as frigid as it was before she went in. Hurriedly pulling on her stockings and lashing her belt tight around her hips over the tunic, Mithnen began walking barefoot back to the camp, hoping that her absence had gone unnoticed.
Her hair dripping, Mithnen entered the encampment as silently has she had left it. Unfortunately, this time there were witnesses. Head hung low and eyes downcast, she made her way towards her simply-constructed lean-to, which housed her pack and bedroll. Before she could reach the safety of her bed, she heard a familiar voice address her.
“Mithnen,” Halbarad said, half whispering and half commanding her to face him.
With a sigh, and tears already welling in her eyes, the girl clenched her jaw and turned around. She remained silent, knowing that if she spoke at all, every emotion that she had been trying so hard to contain would spill out of her mouth and eyes against her wishes. She knew why Halbarad wanted to speak with her, and it was a subject that she desired to avoid at all costs. Simply thinking of what she knew he was about to say made her eyes burn with unshed tears, forcing their way to sunlight upon her cheeks. She tried to brace herself.
“Breakfast is on,” he stated simply.
She nodded, trying to hide her surprise.
“Afterwards you and I shall go north while the others tend to business across the river.”
Again, she nodded, biting the inside of her cheek.
Halbarad bowed his head. “Right,” he muttered. “Come over to the fire when you’re hungry.” Then he turned and walked away.
She knew that she would not be able to stomach any food. All she wanted was sleep. Looking down at the ground, Mithnen’s mind flashed with thoughts of how Armithlas’ death would affect others, not only herself. She was not the only one to have grown close to the Ranger. Halbarad had known her all his life; they were cousins, after all. Despite this ideation, Mithnen still could not fathom anyone else feeling as deeply hollow as she felt. All she wanted was sleep. She didn’t care for dreams, for with dreams came the inevitable nightmares. Crawling onto her bed roll, she halfheartedly tossed her blanket over her shoulders and pulled into the tiniest ball she could become, tucking her knees into her chest and her head into her knees. All she wanted was sleep.