Never Say Never – Part Nine
The next morning found Rían at the stables, brushing the bay filly. She had been there for some time, as she had not slept well at all. How could she rest when Haldir’s image filled her head? All night long, she thought of nothing but how wonderful he looked at the feast. It truly shocked her to see him dressed so formally and his hair not in warrior’s braids. A lock from each temple had been plaited into a single braid at the back of his head; the remainder of his golden hair falling past his broad shoulders.
At that thought, Rían dropped the brush and cursed herself, yet again, for not resting more.
“Stupid galadhel,” she muttered under her breath as she bent to retrieve the brush.
“Did you call me?” a cheerful voice calls out.
Turning quickly, Rían sees Orophin smiling as he pets the horse’s nose.
“No, I did not,” she answered, her face flushing with embarrassment.
“Oh, I apologize. You said *stupid* galadhel, my mistake. Then, of course, you must be referring to my dear, thickheaded, oldest brother.”
Orophin’s eyes twinkled with merriment as Rían refused to answer.
“Come, they are almost ready to draw the teams for the race,” he says breaking the now awkward silence.
Feeling herself smile in anticipation, Rían quickly finishes with the filly and walks outside with Orophin.
As they joined the crowd gathering around the pavilion where the drawing would take place, Rían spotted Haldir talking with Elrond. They must have been discussing business as her uncle was just now putting away a couple of scrolls. Erestor caught her gaze and smiled as she nodded in greeting.
Haldir witnessed the brief exchange. He could never remember the stern councilor ever smiling for someone, unless it was for Rían. He saw the warmth of emotion in their eyes as they looked at the other and with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach; he decided they complimented each other.
Quickly, Haldir pulled his emotions back under control. He would go home to the Golden Wood and leave these enigmatic, maddening, dark elves to each other, he thought with a disheartening sigh.
As the selection began, Haldir left the pavilion to stand with Rúmil. He did not enter the contest, but would enjoy watching his brothers participate.
Glorfindel held out a basket to Elrond, who began drawing out pieces of paper with the entrants’ names on them.
As the teams were drawn and name after name read, Rían began to feel a sense of foreboding wrap around her. Elrohir was teamed with Orophin and Elladan with Rúmil. What were the odds of that? She felt the tension rise as she saw the secretive smile plastered to Glorfindel’s handsome face.
“And for the final team,” Elrond announces, holding the last two names. “Our own Rían will team with…Haldir of Lothlórien?!”
The lord of Imladris looked puzzled, shocked even, and looked to Glorfindel who just shrugged innocently.
As everyone made their way to the starting point, Rían grabbed the seneschal to halt his retreat.
“I cannot, will not, be paired with him!” she hisses. Her heart beat almost uncontrollably at the thought of coming into close contact with the marchwarden again. Was it anticipation; was it fear? She did not know and did not want to find out!!
“Why ever not?” he asks, his azure eyes filled with feigned concern.
“The last two times I have had his acquaintance he has come unhorsed,” Rían argued. She could not believe this was happening and she grasped at some reason, any reason, to get out of this predicament. If she had not been so flustered, she would have known better than to say, “He cannot ride.”
“Well, pen-neth, maybe he needs proper motivation,” Glorfindel chuckles to himself and walks away.
“You!” Haldir hissed into Rúmil’s ear. “You entered my name. Why?”
“I thought you would enjoy the competition, tôr,” Rúmil smiles widely as he walks quickly to the starting area.
“If I had wanted to participate, I would have entered myself.” Haldir’s voice dripped in anger, his grip on Rúmil’s shoulder bruising.
“What is the problem? Do you object to being teamed with an elleth?” Rúmil continues questioning his brother.
“No! I object to being forced into something I would rather avoid.”
“You could withdraw. There is no shame in that…much.”
With a quick shrug, Rúmil slips away from Haldir and finds his own teammate.
Rían looks at the horses each team was assigned and grinds her teeth when she saw hers. Scanning the crowd, she finds Glorfindel looking very pleased with himself. Growing angrier than she had been in a long time, Rían sees Haldir looking ready to spit nails. If he was furious now, just wait until he heard what she had to say!
Haldir turns to find Rían not two steps from him. Her eyes flashed with barely controlled fury and her black hair whipped about her in the breeze; adding to her half-feral look.
Funny, he thought. He should have been wondering how she got that close without him noticing.
“Do not turn your wrath on me,” he begins, his voice edged with warning. “I did not enter but was-“
“Please listen,” she interrupts, “We are being manipulated.”
“Explain,” said Haldir when he realized she was not angry with him.
“Elladan and Glorfindel are in charge of the drawing of the teams. You just said you did not enter, someone did for you.”
“Rúmil,” was the growled reply.
“What are the odds that your brothers *coincidentally* teamed with Elrond’s sons?”
They both turn to see the elves in question laughing and patting each other on the back in what could only be described as celebratory.
Rían continues, seeing the comprehension flash in Haldir’s, now stormy, grey eyes. “Glorfindel assigns the mounts and our horse is one of his favorites; a young colt, full of himself who only listens to that cursed Elda. Now tell me we are not being set up to fail miserably.”
To say Haldir was furious would be like saying hobbits like to eat. A gross understatement!! Oh, they were being set up all right and he was confident their clothes disappearing last night was no accident. But why?
Haldir sees the fire in Rían’s eyes and smiles.
“Then we must make sure we beat them at their own game,” he says. “Tell me how this contest works.”
Rían returns the smile and quickly explains the rules.
Glorfindel grinned widely. Haldir and Rían were standing shoulder to shoulder, their heads inclined toward each other. It looked like they were going over strategy as he watched them for a few moments. He had been correct! Now that they were battling a common enemy, they had no time to fight with each other.
He was about to congratulate himself when he felt a cold chill down his spine. He turns slightly and sees Erestor.
“I warned you,” the advisor smiles; cold and predatory. He slips silently away from the seneschal to stand beside Elrond.
“Do I need to worry about a kinslaying?” he asks.
“No, the marks will barely show,” Erestor answers calmly, his midnight gaze falling on his niece.
Elrond saw this and sighed.
“They mean well, Erestor,” he said gently.
“Rían will not be a pawn in their juvenile games.”
“Tell me you do not see the way they look at each other, “Elrond begins.
“All I see is the way they glare daggers at each other. Each time they are together, they argue or ignore the other. What is so special in that,” the advisor says, his bored voice belying the turmoil he felt.
“They argue because they do not want to admit the connection they share,” continued Elrond, his voice quiet and calm.
Swallowing hard, Erestor closed his eyes. The peredhil had *seen* something. Elbereth, help me, the advisor sighed.
“Rían and the marchwarden would be a good match. They are of equal station and they share many common traits and —“Elrond was interrupted as his advisor turned quickly to face him.
“If the Valar wills it, then yes! I would see her happy,” Erestor snapped, his dark eyes showing the conflict in his heart. “I will let Rían choose, whenever she is ready…but I will not have anyone forcing the issue.”
Elrond watched his advisor for a moment. What were they so afraid of? What continued to haunt Erestor so badly he still felt he had to protect his niece from her heart?
“I will take the first stage afoot,” Rían says as she ties back her hair.
She and Haldir had been arguing over who would be the first one on foot; each having a valid point that would fit their strategy. They were oblivious of the other contestants casting looks and grins their way as they continued their *discussion*.
At this point, everyone was now astride their horse except Rían, who was still pressing her bid to be the first on foot.
“All right,” says Haldir.
Rían stopped in mid-sentence, not quite sure she had heard correctly.
“You are familiar with the contest and the terrain. It would probably be best that way,” Haldir explained.
It was then Rían noticed how easily the galadhel sat the rambunctious colt who bounced about as if on springs. Haldir appeared unconcerned with the horse’s antics and gently laid a calming hand to the animal’s neck as he watched Rían.
She had known the only reason Haldir had fell in Rohan was his horse had tripped badly and yesterday was all Glorfindel’s fault. Obviously, the warden knew what he was doing.
“They are preparing to start the race,” Haldir says, holding out his hand.
The moment Rían placed her hand in his to swing behind him she felt the surge of energy go through them both. It left her briefly stunned and she did not hear the signal to begin the race.
A horn sounded and the ground shook as the horses charged from the start line. As they approached the first post, the colt started crow hopping about. Rían prepared to dismount and leaned away from Haldir when he reached back to steady her; thinking she was fixing to fall. The colt suddenly shied and Rían gasped, No, when she felt a hand grab her tunic as she slid from the horse’s back. Haldir quickly let go to rebalance himself and regain control of the horse.
Landing lightly on her feet, it took a moment for Rían to get her bearings and she saw all the teams had dropped their first runners. She began to race to the next post and saw Haldir glance her way. He made sure she was unharmed then urged the colt faster.
Most of the teams reached the second post at the same time. The horses knew to stay put as the elves raced ahead on foot.
“I cannot believe you threw off the chief advisor’s niece,” an elf stated as he ran alongside Haldir.
Haldir glanced at the other elf who had obviously mistaken what he had seen.
“I did not throw anyone off — what did you say?” the marchwarden says, not breaking stride.
“The chief advisor’s niece,” the elf repeats. “It looked like you pushed her off the horse.”
His brows pulled together in confusion, Haldir did not notice as he drew away from the other elf. What had he been talking about?
The chief advisor was Erestor, of course. He threw no one off the horse, Rían had slipped when the horse —By the Valar!! Elrond’s Lord Councilor was not courting Rían; she was his niece! For several moments, Haldir felt both relieved and terrified.
Hearing hoof beats drawing near, he sees Rían race by on the colt. She raises a hand briefly in greeting; a mischievous smile on her face as she yells something to Elladan and Elrohir. He thought it was a dwarvish curse but was not sure since they were quickly out of hearing range.
Erestor’s niece. Now that he thought about it, he could not believe he had been blind to the family resemblance. His heart hammered in his chest but it was not from the running. Erestor’s niece. Not realizing he was smiling, Haldir found himself speeding up.
Despite the fact that the colt gave Rían and Haldir endless fits, they stayed up with the rest of the teams. By the fifth post, three teams had begun to pull ahead; Elrond’s sons, Haldir’s brothers, and the marchwarden himself and Rían.
The look of shock and surprise on Elrohir’s face as Haldir and Rían kept just ahead of him and Orophin was priceless! Obviously, he thought they would be floundering in last place by now!
Rían was in high spirits as she closed in on the last post. She could hear Elladan and his twin just behind her laughing hysterically. She looks up as the post comes into view and sees Haldir barely able to keep their last mount under control. Her heart sank when she recognized the horse. Asfaloth!
“You two and your friend the Balrog Slayer will pay for this!” she promises as she sprints away faster.
Rían had just swung up behind Haldir when Asfaloth reared. As the marchwarden leaned forward to keep his balance, Rían wrapped her arms around his waist to keep from sliding off backwards. At that instant, the energy surge hit them again. They had no time to react as Asfaloth’s front feet touched the ground and he raced away like the wind; Elladan and Elrohir’s teams within spitting distance. And did Rían feel like spitting at those two!!
As the teams came into view, all the elves lining the finish line began cheering. Elrond smiles seeing the leaders but it quickly turns to a frown upon spotting Asfaloth; who even now was bowing up his neck and pinning his ears.
“Glorfindel, you will never learn,” Elrond sighs.
“Learn what?” asks the seneschal, his expression innocent. “Oh, look. Asfaloth looks cranky.”
Rían could feel the stallion tense but had no clue to the reason. No doubt his horrible owner had given him instructions to behave as a Nazgûl mount!
/You cost us this race, Ash, and I will geld your master first then you/ Rían thought.
Almost as if he read her mind, the grey stallion runs even faster. He pulls ahead of the other two horses and a blink of the eye later, flashes across the finish line.
A loud cheer went up and Rían caught sight of her uncle smiling. She was about to ask Haldir to slow down the horse when she felt the stallion tense yet again. Everything after that happened very quickly.
She remembered tightening her hold around Haldir in response to the unseen threat. There was the eerie feeling of flight as Asfaloth ducked his head and spun all at once. There was a splash then silence. Slowly, Rían opened her eyes to see Haldir looking back at her hesitantly. She had landed on top of him in the tiny stream that ran parallel to the finish line. It only held a few inches of water this time of year but it was enough to soak both of them.
They sat in the stream for several minutes, silently inventorying themselves for any injuries. Suddenly, Rían realized she was still half-lying on Haldir. They stared at each other for what seemed hours then simply broke into smiles. The two elves laughed softly realizing how they must look then Rían carefully disengages herself from the marchwarden, stands, and offers her hand to help him to his feet.
Again, the pulse of energy as they touched.
“Does the winning team get dunked every year?” asks Haldir, his eyes twinkling with a hint more blue in them.
“No, but maybe Imladris can begin a new tradition,” Rían answers, unaware she was looking his wet form over from head to toe.
“Are you both all right?!”
They turn to see Orophin slide to a stop before them, his expression filled with concern. Obviously, their dismount had been quite spectacular.
“We are fine,” Rían answered as she glanced at Haldir. “Are we not?”
He nods once, watching her with a new perspective. Erestor’s niece…that did explain quite a bit.
Suddenly they are overcome by elves wanting to congratulate them. Elrond’s voice is heard above the din when he drew near.
“Let us give our victors a chance to change into dry clothes before the awards! We will meet back in an hour.” Elrond bit back a grin. He sensed the connection strengthen between Rían and Haldir, even as they separated ways for the moment.
As the horses are taken to the stables and the spectators move back to the pavilion, Glorfindel stops beside the twins.
“They were supposed to lose. What happened?” asks Elrohir.
“We underestimated them,” Glorfindel smiles.
“Remind me to never get them angry at me,” Elladan states. “If they work that well together over a race…”
“That is a frightening thought,” Rúmil adds, appearing next to Elrohir.
“Having them win is even better than I thought,” the seneschal continues. “If they had lost then their day would be over, now they have to face the victory celebration.”
Elladan and Elrohir smile widely in understanding.
pen-neth – young one
elleth – elf maid