Haldir sat on the edge of his bed, fighting the dizziness that still assailed him when he moved too quickly. The wound on his head had almost healed, as was his thigh and the multitude of other wounds. But the effects of such healing were still powerful, and they made him weak and irritable.
Very irritable, as Rúmil had just found out. The younger elf sat across the room, distancing himself from his brother on the bed. Rúmil’s offer to help Haldir rise had been met with a scathing retort, bitten back but not quickly enough. Haldir’s heavy sigh told of an apology forthcoming.
“I am sorry, Rúmil. I do not mean to snap at you.”
Rúmil rolled his eyes. “I should have known better. A good laugh at your expense is always welcome. To see you fall flat on your face trying to rise too soon would have been quite amusing.” He only grinned at the glare he received; so much for apologies.
“I cannot lie abed any longer.”
Rúmil leaned forward. “Haldir, you were as close to death as I have seen you in many an age. Even you cannot recover from wounds such as those in a day or two. You must give your body time to heal.” He stopped and looked away with exasperation, Haldir wasn’t even listening! His brother was a hardheaded stubborn… his musing was interrupted by Orophin, who entered, stopping on the threshold with hands on his hips.
“Haldir, where do you think you are going?”
Haldir’s piercing gray glare did not incite the fear he intended. Orophin ignored it, walking over to where Haldir sat on the edge of the bed. His brother was pale, gripping the bedding tightly, a sure sign of his lingering weakness. It would not take much at this point to overpower his eldest brother, but Orophin contended the resulting explosion would find him watching the northern fences for a score of weeks. He kept his hands to himself.
“You cannot rise; Haldir, you cannot even walk yet. I would hate to see you fall flat on your face in front of the Rohirran warrior. She’d probably have to pick you up and carry you back to your room.” His laugh was cut short by the pillow Haldir whipped into his stomach.
Orophin grunted and tossed the pillow to the side as Haldir lay back on the bed. “Even with the combined healing of both Lady Galadriel and Lord Celeborn,” he continued, “you are weak, and need to stay in bed. Lying down.”
Orophin looked pointedly at Haldir, who sighed and stared at the ceiling above him. His efforts made him dizzy again and both Orophin and Rúmil’s keen observations regarding his inability to rise were annoying if not accurate. The fact that both elves saw it so easily only annoyed him further. Still, his lips curved in a small smile at the mention of the female Rohirran.
“Do I detect amusement?” Rúmil asked seeing the quick twitch of Haldir’s lips. “Ah, this poor elf did not even get to see much of the warrior who rescued him.” He grinned at Haldir’s sudden frown.
“I owe her my life. It was her lance that slew the Orc who thought to take my head.”
Orophin’s brows rose slightly. “Indeed? She seems stout of heart for all her youth. A shock it was to realize she was female, but she shows little fear. Do you remember what happened?”
Haldir closed his eyes, trying to pull the memories from within his mind. The ride was fuzzy, only a few moments of the journey could he remember. But he would keep them to himself. He turned his head to look at Orophin. “The last thing I remember was her lance slaying the Orc; other than that I do not recall. Where is she now?”
Rúmil leaned back into his chair. “She wanders the city, irritable that Galadriel has asked her to remain here for a few days. She seems to have no patience and seeks only to join the warriors of her guard, quite like someone else I know. She has been asked to stay here until you can speak to her, but I sense the Lady has more in mind.” He grinned. “I would bring her to you, but thought to spare her your temper.”
“I am not in a temper.” Haldir shot back, staring again at the ceiling above him. In truth, he wanted nothing more than to break something. He might not remember the ride home, but all too vivid were his memories of the beginnings of that day. A derisive snort from both brothers made him scowl, but he sat up gingerly, this time accepting Orophin’s assistance. “What have you seen to make you think Galadriel wishes more from the girl? I asked the Lady to keep her, but you think there is more?”
Rúmil leaned forward, looking unusually pensive. “Aye, I have a niggling sense of something I cannot quite name when I look at her. I mentioned it to Galadriel and she said she understood what I meant. What ever that meant. The lady often speaks in riddles, as you well know. But I think she watches the young Rohirran carefully.”
Mairen accepted the wine from the elven servant with a nod, gripping the silver chalice carefully. It was beautiful, as was everything around her. What a tale she would have to tell the others in the band. The city of the Galadhrim lay nestled in the trees of the Golden Wood. She stared over her head at the spiraling walkways and connecting bridges, glittering in the blue shadows of the trees. Soft light filtered down through the canopy, glistening off ivory colored buildings carefully tucked into the branches. Leaves drifted down quietly, a soft rustling of sound.
She leaned out the window, staring below her. A copper lantern hung beside her room, its shape mimicking that of the trees surrounding her. The elves had had centuries to perfect their city and it had a sense of permanence to it, not unlike the huge trees in which it sat, -all untouched by time.
Her life was just a moment in theirs, she mused. How old was Haldir? His brothers? What they must have lived through. How many ages past had these elves endured? Her thirst for knowledge was never quenched. She had learned to read at an early age, the one pastime she had not revealed to Willem or her other brothers. They lived day to day, never wondering how the past affected the future. Never wanting to know anything beyond the scope of their own lives. But she had wanted more than that. She had learned the history of her people, and of many of the other races of Middle Earth. But the elves remained a mystery and her knowledge of them was limited.
The week spent in the city had passed much more quickly than she might have thought, her wanderings engrossing her for the most part. Mesmerized by the city around her, she had begun to wonder how much longer she would have to wait.
She turned to the door when it opened. Orophin stuck his head in the door with a smile. “Galadriel has given you permission to leave and we are to guide you to your brother.”
Mairen smiled in relief. “When?”
“We shall leave tomorrow morning. Haldir has requested you see him before you go.”
Mairen nodded, casting a curious glance at Orophin. “He is better?”
Orophin rolled his eyes and Mairen had to laugh at the familiar gesture. Brothers were similar no matter what race it seemed. “He is healed in body, but he has not taken the deaths of our wardens well. It will take him some time to come to accept it. Until then, his temper remains short. But he is up, which is an improvement.”
Mairen followed Orophin down the stairway to the attached bridge, caressing the carved wood railing as they walked. “Your city is very beautiful. I am honored to have been able to see it.”
Orophin frowned. “It is rare for anyone other than the Galadhrim to see it. We do not venture out into the world as we once did. Few of us leave the city at all. Haldir leaves, for he is one of the few of us who can speak many of the languages outside our own. But there is always peril whenever we venture forth.”
Mairen had to agree. The world had become a place of shadows and terror. Théoden, their King lay withering under the spell of his advisor. Théodred, his heir, and Eomer, the King’s nephew grew fearful of his survival. The two men as well as Willem were some of the many riders who distrusted the wretched Wormtongue. Hopefully, her brother had met with both Eomer and Théodred to work out their plans to dislodge the wizard.
They crossed another arched bridge, and up yet another staircase, coming to the high building that she remembered was Haldir’s home. They had called it a talan, she had learned. She slipped inside with Orophin, hesitating once again at the inner door.
Orophin turned around. “Mairen? Are you coming?”
Mairen gripped the door for a moment, “Will you be staying as well?” she inquired nervously, her gaze scanning the empty room in front of her.
Orophin looked amused, his blue eyes sparkling as he pulled her gently into the room.
“I must go,” he said. “I have other things to attend to, but I promise he will not bite, nor shout, for although he is still weak, he at least now can move about, and that has assuaged his temper somewhat.”
Mairen moved aside as he pulled the door from her fingers, watching as he shut the door. She spun around when the bedroom door opened quietly and Haldir spoke from behind her.
“You return to your people then?”
She nodded stiffly, and he frowned. He wore black leggings and a simple deep blue tunic that hung to his knees. His feet were bare, but his face was devoid of the luminescence that most of the elves carried. His eyes were dark with an emotion she could not name and which she hoped was not pain, for she could not read his expression well. His silvery hair hung loose down his back and she could see no trace of the gash along his hairline as he turned away from her, moving carefully toward the bookshelf.
“I wished to thank you, but know not what I can do. My knowledge of you and your people is limited. It has been a long while since I have stayed among the Riders of the Riddermark, although we traverse your borders often.” Haldir pulled a book from the shelf and gently leafed through it.
“There is no need, Haldir. That you are well is enough.” She folded her hands behind her back, gripping them tightly together. How the elf managed to make her nervous perplexed her, for he was not even looking at her. “You are well or soon will be, are you not?” She studied him for a moment longer. “Although I am amazed at the quickness of it.”
Haldir turned his head, his eyes dark and brooding. What was he thinking? He was imposing, this elf. He stood taller than Willem, who had reached six foot at age thirteen. The hair gleamed against the blue of his tunic where it hung nearly to his waist. The strands shimmered; silver-streaked amber and gold and even a hint of copper when the light hit it just right.
His expression remained impassive, a statue carved in stone, but the dark grey eyes studied her. They moved over her slowly, gleaming darkly, drawing her unwillingly into their glittering depths. She was engulfed in them until he spoke and the spell was broken. “I am well enough, I suppose, although it will take a few more days for me to fully heal. Do you like to read?”
Startled out of her reverie, Mairen felt the flush of embarrassment rising to her cheeks at her inattentiveness. “Aye, when I have time.”
Haldir nodded. “I thought so. Orophin said you looked at my books with interest.”
Mairen was taken aback. The elf had noticed that? What else did they see? She wasn’t sure if she liked being watched so carefully, but then she was a stranger in their midst. They did not know her, or her intentions. So it was natural they would watch.
“Would you care to look?” Haldir’s voice held a trace of amusement, and she shook herself mentally to stop daydreaming. She walked over to stand beside him, extremely aware of the tall, solid body next to her. Mairen scanned the books, seeing many written in languages she did not recognize. She ran her hands over the bindings, sensing their frailty, the knowledge that lay locked inside. How she would love to read them! He reached past her, brushing her arm with his and Mairen drew back. He smiled, pulling a book from a shelf over her head.
“Perhaps a book on your people? But then you must know your own history.”
She took the book, opening the pages to see it detailed much of what she already knew. “Aye, I have read accounts like these before.” He took the book from her, replacing it on the shelf, and drew another.
“Perhaps an chronicle of the elves then?”
She took the book from him, her fingers accidently brushing his. Elves? How wondrous to read about them; perhaps they would not be so mysterious. She opened it carefully, running her fingers over the parchment pages, and without intention, she closed her eyes to savor it.
“You may keep it.”
Mairen gasped with surprise. “Nay, Haldir! I cannot take something so important!” She attempted to hand the book back to him, but he shook his head.
“You would deny me my right to express my gratitude? If the book would give you pleasure, then it is yours. It is not the only copy.” He stared at her, his left brow rising as he looked down at her, his lips curving into a hint of a most beguiling smile.
Mairen clutched the book to her chest and stiffened, sensing a subtle change in his demeanor. He seemed determined, his eyes piercing hers, and she was suddenly aware of the controlled emotions he held in check. What was he feeling? Was he angry at her refusal? She fought against the overwhelming urge to look away when his dark gray eyes narrowed.
“How old are you?” he asked, moving closer until she could smell him, enveloped by his scent redolent of the forest, an earthy smell that seemed dark and mysterious.
Mairen frowned, surprised by his question, and struggling to keep her mind on their conversation. “I am five and twenty.” She raised her chin; doubtless he would think her only a child. His smile told her she was correct.
“And you ride with your brother? Have you no other family?”
“I have four more brothers. All ride in patrol since my parents died when I was very young.”
Haldir reached out, brushing a strand of hair off her shoulder, causing her to flinch. “Sad, to be raised among so many men. Do you not wish for female companionship?”
Mairen snorted, earning her another raised brow. “Why? To watch them bat their eyelashes at the men and giggle?”
Haldir laughed, and Mairen felt a shiver run through her at the sound.
“But Mairen, you bat your eyelashes at me. Do you not know this?”
Mairen looked at him aghast. “I do not!” She gasped in surprise and a twinge of embarrassment. She stepped away from him, her chin raised proudly. “I have never done such a thing!”
Haldir tilted his head to the side. “You have never felt an interest in a man? Ever?”
How had they gotten onto this subject? Mairen scowled. “Nay.” She refused to comment further, unwilling to let him delve further into her life.
Haldir’s lips twitched slightly, “you deny yourself too much, Mairen. Love is part of life. To push such emotions away will make your life long and sorrowful. Love is where our strength comes from. You are young yet. And pretty. There must be those who seek your attentions.”
He thought she was pretty? She wanted to laugh at the thought, for it did not seem to fit her, and then stubbornly pushed the notion away. “Nay, I care not. I like my life as it is.”
He moved even closer, staring down at her for a long moment and then he sighed and looked away. “I am sorry, I do not mean to be so intrusive. It is not my place. It is only that you are an enigma to me. I know the Rohirran are a stalwart people, but I have seen few women find rank such as yours.”
Mairen slid away from the bookcase, and the elf. The scent of him was making her mildly dizzy, distracting her. She took several steps, then turned to face him. “There are more women than you think. They remain hidden behind helm and armor. A needless gift to the Orc if they knew more of us rode. The men grow fewer and our people struggle against the shadow. We have few choices anymore.”
Haldir seemed to be deep in thought, for he did not at once answer. A brief grimace flashed across his features. “Aye, few choices do we have. And the consequences of those choices are often heartbreaking.”
Mairen searched his face, but the elf had once more grown impassive, the gray eyes dark and devoid of any emotion. Did he lock away the sorrow that must be tearing him apart? The Lady Galadriel’s words regarding Haldir’s ambush and the losses came back to her and she felt the urge to reach out to ease the pain and anger he must feel.
“I am sorry you lost so many,” she told him quietly.
His face did not change. “A choice, and consequences,”
Mairen shivered at the coldness she sensed in him. She returned to his side and laid a hand on his arm. The strength she felt did not surprise her. “Would you have made a different choice had you known what would happen?”
Haldir stared at her hand for a moment. “Nay, I knew the chances of ambush were high, I knew as we ran that they led us into a trap. But my arrogance colored my decision, for I felt we could defeat those we followed.”
Mairen could see his anger now. It was reflected in the tension of his jaw, and of the arm still beneath her hand. “You could not have known they had more in wait. They are led by one who is more cunning and evil than we dare believe.”
Haldir turned away, staring at the bookcase again, touching the bindings briefly. “So I tell myself. But it is not a comfort.” He seemed to shake himself, and turned back to her, the eyes aloof and expressionless once more. “But I speak of things that mean nothing to you. My brothers will lead you from the Wood. Where shall they take you from here?”
She blinked at the sudden change of subject. “I am to meet my brother at the river, where it meets at the foot of the mountain. A glade we often seek for respite.”
Haldir nodded. “A place I know well. It will take you several days to reach it.”
Mairen nodded. “Aye, he gave me a week, but I fear I shall not make it in time.”
Haldir frowned. “The Lady sent word to him, he shall wait.”
Mairen gripped the book again. “So she said.” She started to turn away, but Haldir caught hold of her arm.
“I remember some things from our ride here. Did you know I could hear you?”
Mairen flushed. What had he heard? She had a habit of talking to herself. To her astonishment Haldir’s smile grew mischievous, reminding her of Rúmil.
“I swear I heard you call me handsome. Did I not feel a caress of your hand on my back?” he said softly.
Mairen’s eyes widened, startled by his directness but knowing what he said was true. She had not thought he could hear. He took the book from her hand and set it gently back on the shelf. “I must go,” she said with sudden nervousness.
Haldir only smiled. “Not yet. I have one favor to ask.”
“A favor?” she faltered.
Haldir’s fingers caressed her arm, sending tiny dancing spirals of flames along her flesh. What could he want? His eyes were still aloof, but something in the gray depths had changed, intensified. He leaned closer, and all at once she was drawn against him, his long fingers wrapping around her arm.
“I wish to show my thanks with more than just a boring book on elvish history.” He gripped her chin with his other hand and before she could speak lowered his lips to hers. The warm press of his lips stunned her, and her heart thudded in her chest as it had only during the heat of battle. She opened her mouth to protest, but he only deepened the kiss, his fingers tightening on her arm while the other hand slid around her neck and into her hair. She couldn’t seem to stop the tremors that ran along her spine, or her slight moan when his lips traced the line of her jaw. She was lost… lost in a flood of feelings long denied. The years of ignoring her emotions, pushing away anything resembling feminine sentiments, fell away replaced by an inferno of desire. It raced through her body, flaring flames that threatened to engulf her, and she trembled violently at the intensity of her feelings. No! She would not do this! She pushed him away, ducking under his arms, her breathing ragged.
“I am not like that!” Mairen gasped, backing up several steps as he stared at her, those gray eyes gleaming. “I am a Rider of the Mark! I will not give up what I have worked so long to gain.” She spun on her heel and reached for the door, but he was quicker. He braced his hand against the door, holding out the book.
“I am sorry if I offended you.” Haldir said quietly.
Mairen glared at him, then took the book, clutching it tightly to her chest. “Thank you. I will read it with pleasure. You owe me nothing more, March Warden.” He stepped away from the door and she pulled it open; slipping through quickly to hurry down the stairs, away from him.
Away from the torment one tall elf had just created in her heart.