“Good, Lalaith. Very good. Well done.” Haldir praised, his smile broad as he stepped back, casually spinning a pair of long silver knives in his hands as his chest rose and fell from his previous exertion.
Lalaith smiled wanly at his garrulous approval, knowing she had done little to elicit his flattery. Her throat tightened as she guessed at his reasons behind his effusive praise, but she gulped it down. His attentions were easier to handle when the two were sparring, for now she found an outlet for her nervous energy, and the casual environment allowed for more flurried and trivial conversation than the deep and nearly dangerous path Haldir had attempted to take that morning.
Thankfully, he had not attempted to talk along that vein the rest of the day, and since then, she had found his company quite pleasant, though her nervousness had never quite left her. But now, as she held her own knives, spinning them back and forth with the casual grace that Haldir exhibited, she found the tight sense of fear in her almost entirely faded.
“Ah, yes, Haldir.” She gasped, running the sleeve of her loose tunic across her damp brow. “But nothing compared to you. You at least, are not constantly slipping and scratching me to pieces.” She nodded at the arm of his own sleeve that she had only moments before, sliced through. “I am sorry.” She continued, furrowing her brow. “Is it bleeding?”
“Pah, no.” Haldir glanced down at his arm in complete indifference. “You didn’t even break the skin. The mark will be gone in but an hour or so. Do no worry.” His eyes traveled over her appreciatively as he added, “But even if you were to cut me, I doubt I would even notice.”
Lalaith’s lips pursed as she watched his eyes travel over her, noting how his eyes seemed to linger on the rise and fall of her bosom, and she tightened her jaw in agitation.
“Haldir!” She practically barked, and he jerked, his eyes flying to her face. “Then shall we?” She skipped backward to the center of the clearing where they had been practicing, her eyes bright with challenge as she clasped her knives within her hands, and took a defensive stance. “Since you have essentially, given me permission to cut you to ribbons, I shall not feel too terribly guilty-,”
Her words were cut off as Haldir grinned wickedly and fairly threw himself across the clearing at her.
Lalaith gasped and ducked away from his sudden attack, rolling away delivering a few playful slashes at his abdomen as he flew over and past her. She straightened, grinning as Haldir stopped, his gaze flying about as if seeking for her before he turned, and narrowed his eyes, offering her another vicious grin.
“Very good, Lalaith.” He seethed, slowly striding toward her.
“Thank you.” She nodded, drawing backward as he came toward her. “It is a trick I learned quickly when Legolas started teaching me. I learned right away with his tutelage that I do not have the physical strength to challenge such a frontal assault like that, but I do have the agility to avoid it. And I slowly perfected it with the help of Elladan and Elrohir.”
“Hmm.” He nodded, and continued to come at her.
“Ah,” she gulped nervously, “so you’re dead. Now we start over.”
“Good.” Haldir offered her a breathless half nod. “Then we can start from here.”
All in the same moment, two unexpected things happened. Haldir dropped suddenly out of her vision, and Lalaith found her feet kicked out from under herself.
“Oumph!” She coughed, finding herself suddenly and awkwardly upon her backside, which stung aggrievedly from her abrupt landing.
She blinked hard and shook her head, glaring at Haldir, whose eyes were now level with her own as he smirked proudly, settling cross legged in front of her.
“What-,” she grumbled, “did you do?” She shifted her weight uncomfortably, certain her wounded appendage would bruise from her rough landing.
“I swept your feet right out from under you, and you did not even see it coming.” He chuckled. “Though when I do that with Lothriel she is far more adept at falling, than you I must say.”
“You great scoundrel!” Lalaith grumbled. “You mean to tell me that you masquerade around Lothlórien as an honorable gentlemen, whilst unbeknownst to any others, you derive great joy from going about tripping up young ladies?”
“Ha!” Haldir smirked. “Your pride is sore because you lost this round.”
“Rascal.” Lalaith cursed. “Thanks to you, my pride is not the only part of me that is sore.”
But her words were cut off as Haldir threw his head back and in an uncharacteristic display, laughed merrily.
“Oh, be silent!” She cried, perturbed. “Be silent, Haldir!”
“Oh, forgive me.” He sniffed, shaking his head, and stilling his laughter. “I do nothing of which you accuse me. I have taught Lothriel a little, how to use weapons, a bow, and long knives, swords, too. And-,” he grinned again. “My little trick I just demonstrated to you. She’s become quite adept at them all.”
“She wanted you to teach her?” Lalaith asked, sitting up straighter, and drawing her legs into herself as she clapped her knives upon her lap. “But she seems like such a lady-,”
“And so do you!” Haldir quickly retaliated with a swift though gentle grin as he hopped easily to his feet, and bowed low, offering her a hand. “Yet look at you! Attempting to slice the honorable Marchwarden of Lórien to ribbons-, falling as heavily as a boulder upon-,” he choked and finished, “upon the ground.” He shook his head as his eyes danced mischievously as his warm hand circled around her own and drew her gently to her feet. “Yet at all other times, you are one of the most impeccable and graceful ladies I have ever known.”
Haldir cleared his throat softly and asked, with an effort to keep his voice light, “I trust you enjoyed Legolas’ Autumn Festival. Did you dance much-, with him?”
“No, I, eh, slept through the entire feast, I am afraid.” She murmured, softly clearing her throat, and drawing her hand from his own.
“So the rumours are true, then?” He asked, soft slyness oiling his voice.
Lalaith looked up, her eyes questioning him.
“You got drunk?” He chortled. “So drunk you fell into a swoon?”
“Oh, Haldir! Who told you?” She moaned, throwing up her hands. “Oh, it doesn’t matter. You must despise me now!”
“Lalaith, do not fear.” He muttered with a soft smile that grew gradually softer as he spoke. “You have not decreased in my eyes, for such a small infraction. As Lothriel is, you Lalaith, are a many faceted jewel.”
Lalaith’s eyes dropped at this, and she felt heat rushing again to her face. Haldir’s voice had been light as he spoke, but now, as his eyes rested upon her, she felt the heated weight of his gaze. And she did not dare to look up.
Releasing a huff of air, Lalaith turned away from him and strode briskly toward the edge of the clearing where their extra gear had been casually flung. “It is time we return.” She grunted, snatching up her quiver, and sliding her two knives into their places. “The sky, for some reason, seems to be darkening far sooner than it ought.” She glanced upward, though she knew all she would see where the interlaced branches of the thick canopy. “And it is best not to be on this side of the bridge when the night has come. We must go into the city.”
“Indeed.” Haldir muttered, glancing about him through the air that was swiftly dimming. A low mist was beginning to creep over the ground, and he suppressed a shudder as he moved to Lalaith’s side and snatched up his own gear, slipping his quiver over his shoulders. He caught up his cloak, and moved to fling it about his shoulders, when he paused, and glanced at Lalaith as she faced away from him, busily clasping the belts of her quiver across her chest. She had brought no cloak, and the air was swiftly growing cold.
Lalaith’s eyes were down, her back toward Haldir as she adjusted the weight of her quiver across her shoulders. But her movements stalled, and her shoulders stiffened as she felt the soft warmth of cloth settle across her back and the gentle weight of Haldir’s hands upon her shoulders.
“I don’t need it.” He offered as an explanation to her silent inquiry as she turned toward him, and glanced down at the lengths of his cloak that encircled her shoulders. “I am warm enough.” He grinned and drew a step back. “Besides, I worry about you.”
“You have no need to worry, Haldir. I am safe.” Lalaith assured him with a slender smile. “It is Elrohir and Legolas I am worried about. I wish they were here.”
“Well,” Haldir sighed, his tone carrying a hint of haughtiness, “Legolas is not here with you, is he? Instead, he is off seeking for shiny things locked away in dragons’ hoards.”
At these words, the slender smile upon Lalaith’s face fell away, and she drew a step back, gazing with eyes that had suddenly grown cold up into Haldir’s suddenly worried face.
“That is-,” Haldir stammered, watching as Lalaith’s jaw softly tightened, “I meant that-,”
“You meant that while Legolas is incapable of protecting me, you thought you would come, and see to my care while he is absent.” Her words were soft and cold, and laced with a saddened pain, and at this, Haldir flinched.
“Well,” Haldir began haltingly.
“Let’s go.” She clipped, turning away upon the narrow trail that led upon a twisted path through the thickness of the trees eventually to reach the wider elven road before the bridge that led into Thranduil’s city.
“Lalaith,” Haldir stammered, rushing to catch up with her as she strode at a fierce pace, “forgive me. I did not mean to-,”
“You have no need to ask my forgiveness.” She seethed through teeth that were crushed together.
Haldir began, “Lalaith-,”
“I said, you have no reason to apologize.” She cast him a sharp glance over her shoulder. “You are here for me, when Legolas is not. When he and Elrohir are off playing soldier in some silly game I do not entirely understand-, and whether they come back unharmed or not is-,”
“You love him, don’t you?”
Lalaith’s heart stopped in her throat at Haldir’s impassioned demand. Her feet stopped as well, and from the heat at her back, she knew Haldir had paused just behind her, wavering within a breath of touching her.
“Of course I love Elrohir. He and Elladan are the closest to true brothers that I have ever had.”
“Lalaith.” He said, his voice low as slow fingers settled upon her shoulders. “You know that is not what I am asking.” She could feel the warmth and the pressure of his hands through the cloth of his cloak that he had draped about her shoulders.
“Haldir, I-,” She sighed to the murky gloam. “We must go now.”
Behind her, Haldir uttered a low sigh, but did not speak at all. With that, Lalaith continued on, feeling somewhat relieved that she did not immediately hear his footsteps following after her, though she knew she could not evade him forever. The trail was dim, and a low mist crept over the ground. The path dipped and turned, narrow through the dark forest as high mould covered trees crowded in on both sides. When the light had been in the forest, this path had not been so forbidding. It had even seemed quite an adventure to go beyond the bridge over the river that led into Thranduil’s city, to take Haldir to practice in the small clearing where Legolas had taken her before. But now, she began to regret her decision. Especially now that they had delayed, and the darkness had grown. An unnatural darkness it seemed, and rightly so, for evening still should have been a few hours away, at the least.
A glimpse of the road with the bridge beyond it, peeked at her through the slowly parting trees, yet Lalaith suddenly stopped. A half unheard sound, as the scuttling of leaves, brushed across the path behind her, and she spun, gazing hard through the misty haze that was growing thicker as the air about her darkened. But she could see nothing.
A soft, light scampering now from between herself and the road made her spin again, only to see nothing. “Haldir?” She called out, hoping he would appear soon.
“What is this little plaything that has wandered so foolishly into the dark?” A soft hissing whisper rumbled, in what sounded a feminine voice, but was thick with an animalistic tone.
Lalaith gasped and lifted her head, glancing around, her heart suddenly hammering in her throat, her muscles taut. A pain twitched in the back of her shoulder, but in her fear, she paid it no attention. The voice sounded frighteningly familiar, but where she had heard it before, she could not remember.
“Ah, is it the dear little thing the dark one sent our mother to bring to him, do you not remember?” Seethed another voice similar to the first. Though as Lalaith’s eyes darted about her, she could see no one, nothing that could be speaking with such voices, and so close to her.
“By all the dead, my sister!” Gasped the first voice that had spoken. “Indeed it is! Is this little one then, the reason that our famed mother never returned, do you think?”
“Come little one, tell us, how did such a little poppet as yourself defeat her, when the poison of her venom was so strong, that it dripped like lava from her fangs, and burnt all it chanced to drip upon?” Asked the second voice, feigning a gentle tone though seething bitterness lay behind it.
A primal fear, spurred by a long forgotten memory bubbled in her blood, and Lalaith cried out, half choking on her fear. “Show yourselves, vile spiders!”
“Gladly, little one.” Laughed one of the voices, now from above her.
Lalaith’s head jerked up, and to her abject terror, she saw two great spiders, as massive as large dogs, slowly trailing down toward her, from the netted tree limbs, letting out thick cording from the spindles upon their globular abdomens as they came.
With a gasp, Lalaith made as if to run, but in that moment, the spiders dropped, one before her, and one behind her with soft thumps upon the trail.
Gulping back her fear, Lalaith reached behind her shoulders, and snatched her knives, clutching them tightly within trembling fists as she glanced one way and then the other into the many black eyes of the two spiders who seemed in no hurry to attack, for they knew she was trapped.
The spiders hissed and seethed at the appearance of her knives.
“Elves’ sharps!” Hissed one spider, waving its foremost legs, thick with black thornish bristles as its fangs, dripping eagerly with thick black venom, groped back and forth, greedy and hungry. “She will hurt us!”
“Not if we strike her at once!” Seethed the other, skittering eagerly about over the ground, its legs rustling over the earth like many dried, dead leaves. “Come, sister. Her blood will be sweet.”
With a hiss, the first spider lunged forward, leaping into the air as she came, her legs coated with thick, black bristles conjoined into the underside of her narrow thorax. Desperately, Lalaith lashed out, the shining blade of her knife flashing across the creature’s bulbous abdomen, hot black blood, hissing like boiling acid, burst forth, and splashing across the front of Lalaith’s tunic as the spider shrieked, her legs crumpling in upon herself as Lalaith flung the creature’s weight off that hit her like a dead, heavy sack. And then Lalaith spun, drawing in her breath in swift heavy gasps as she sought the second spider, thinking she would leap at her as her sister did. But the creature had disappeared.
Had the monster fled, or had she scampered to a different vantage point to leap down upon Lalaith? Lalaith’s gaze shot upward, but the spider had not climbed back into the tangled bows of the trees. Perhaps the monster had fled when she had seen what had happened to her sister. With trembling limbs, Lalaith slowly lowered her knives, and began to draw in a low breath.
But the air had scarcely filled her lungs, when she felt a heavy force strike her in the back, so fiercely, that she stumbled forward. Eight barbed talons, hooked wickedly, had clamped around her from behind.
Lalaith did not even have time to scream before two tiny pricks, like sharp, burning needles, had punctured the soft flesh upon the back of her neck. Lalaith tried to twist, to fling the monster off of her, but then the fog entered her mind as the black poison pulsed into her blood. Lethargy stiffened her limbs and her breath stilled. Her knives dropped from her hands. A cold numbness swirled through her body, stilling her blood within her veins.
“Oh, Elbereth,” she whispered as she fell to her knees, and then upon her face.
She could feel the spider relax her hold, hissing and spitting satisfied curses over her, but she could do nothing. And then came a soft pressure though there was no pain, as if the spider were digging her teeth deeper into Lalaith’s veins, and softly, there came a wretched sucking sound as the monster began to draw out her congealed blood. Lalaith’s mind screamed in alarm, but there was nothing her petrified limbs could do. The spider was eating her alive.
“Vile miscreant!” A shout, startled and fearful seemed to echo about the trees, and the spider released its fangs, but not its hold. “Release her!”
“Haldir.” Lalaith breathed. Her weary mind latched upon the distant hope.
“ Put away your arrow hurler, Elf, and leave me to my prey if you do not wish to share its fate.” The spider hissed.
“Release her now, or die!” Haldir barked.
“What is she to you?” The spider laughed. “Your mate?”
“No.” Haldir growled, though there was an underlying grief in his voice. “But I would die to save her nonetheless.”
“Then,” the spider laughed, “die for her, if that is your wish..”
The harsh scratching pressure of its legs left Lalaith. In the darkness of her thoughts, Lalaith could hear the scuffle of its feet, a harsh angry hiss, followed by a sharp, hollow thump. Then there was silence.
What had happened? Had the spider killed Haldir? Would it return to complete its unfinished task? She could not move, nor even turn her head as something drew near, its steps soft, and almost silent. Quietly she waited. For death or deliverance, she was not yet certain.
“Oh, Lalaith, what did that beast do to you?” Haldir’s voice wrenched with heavy emotion broke from his lips as he knelt at her side. He touched a hand to the base of her neck where the spider had struck, then with gentle hands, turned her over, his face pleading and fearful, coming into her view.
“Haldir-,” She managed to rasp.
“Hush, Lalaith. You fought well, my friend.” He said, trying to grin bravely though she could see the worry in his eyes. “The other spider is all but gutted.” He nodded to the spider she had slain, the contents of its depleated abdomen spilled across the trail, then at the one he had slain, an arrow pierced clean through its midsection where it lay, still twitching in its death throes. “And here are your knives.”
He gathered up the hafts of her knives into his free hand, examining the one covered in the black acid of spider blood, before he wiped it clean upon his own breeches and slipped them into his own quiver.
“Haldir.” She mumbled through a mouth that felt thick and dry, “what is going to happen to me?”
“You will be fine, Lalaith.” Haldir breathed, offering her a heavy smile, his voice weighted as his arms circled about her limp, chilled body and gathered her to him, cradling her against his chest, and lifting her in his arms as he stood, as if she weighed nothing. “The healers here in Mirkwood are well skilled.”
“If I die,“
“You won’t die,” he protested, shifting her gently, and clutching her closer against his warm chest as he walked through the dark mist of the forest.
“Oh, Haldir-,” She muttered, before the thick black clouds, cold and turbulent that boiled within her mind, rose up in a swell, and dragged her consciousness down in the inky blackness of their depths.