Somehow Mothlin managed to sleep after he had splinted his leg. He lay without moving on the ground so as not to bounce his injured leg, and his breathing came far too fast for his own comfort. He studiously kept his eyes away from Elenanar’s sleeping form, gently curled up on the leaves a good distance away from him. But he could not keep her from his dreams, and in them her face swam before his tear-filled eyes as he told her no, they mustn’t, it was too complicated, and then her face blurred and disappeared. He cried out her name, and Cilyawen’s, but there was no answer, only the dead and dark solitude that echoed back his desperate cries until they rang in his ears and shook in his very bones.
He opened his eyes with a start, staring up at the trees above him, and noticed that there was a thin film of sweat on his face, and that he was breathing very fast. Carefully Mothlin wiped his face with the cleanest part of his tunic, and then he lay flat on his back until his breathing was under control.
It was daybreak by that time, and the sun was gently touching the leaves and ground with gold. We should get moving, he thought, and for the first time since the almost-incident the day before, Mothlin looked at Elenanar.
She was sleeping, one arm tossed negligently above her head. Her hair was filled with leaves, and her chest rose and fell with her steady breaths. Mothlin reached out to pull a leaf from her hair, but checked his hand midway. He lay on his side instead, looking at her, while the sun climbed inexorably higher in the sky. Soon it would fall on Elenanar’s face, and she would wake up, and the rest of the journey would be unspeakably tense with the weight of the words and actions of yesterday. Mothlin was fairly sure he could stand it, and certain that she could, but the prospect was not a pleasant one.
And the thought of leading her into danger made him hate what he saw, in the early morning light, as cowardice. He could picture her perfectly, striding boldly through the ruins of Dol Guldur, her hair and eyes flaming, and he could see waiting for her, just around a corner, an Orc, and more importantly that Orc’s blade, to slice into her and color her the red of life’s blood. At the thought, Mothlin fell down on his back and closed his eyes tightly.
He couldn’t. He couldn’t live with himself if she died on a quest that she had no stake in. Cilyawen was not her mother, and much as he loved Cilyawen, he could not ask Elenanar to die for her. It was wrong, and it was not fair. Elenanar had a life far beyond him, far beyond their friendship. If he left, if he disappeared and went on his way, she could go back to it and live.
She had shown him the map yesterday, he remembered, and pointed out their location. He dug it out of Tari’s saddlebag and examined it. The stream they were close to was easy enough to find – he remembered her finger pointing at it. And she had said they were a day’s ride from Dol Guldur.
If he was going to leave her alone in the middle of Mirkwood, as unskilled with weapons as she was, he was going to leave Tari as well. The prospect of carrying all his supplies on his back didn’t appeal, but neither did abandoning Elenanar completely. Mothlin scanned the map closely and made a rough guess what direction he should head in to get to Dol Guldur. Hoping he was right, he stuffed the map back and heaved the heavy saddlebag over his shoulder.
“Mothlin?” she asked behind him, her voice shaky. “Where are you going?”
He spun around, his stomach clenching. It would have been so easy to leave her without saying anything, he thought, and it will be so hard to look her in the eyes and explain everything. Mothlin drew a breath. “Go back to sleep,” he muttered, not meeting her eyes.
“Where are you going?” Elenanar insisted, sitting up. Her eyes took in the saddlebag over his shoulder. She registered his furtive behavior, and her eyes widened. “Don’t leave,” she said.
Mothlin braced himself. “Elenanar, there’s no sense in asking you to die for my mother.” This was even harder than he had thought. “You – you could go back, you could not take the chance of dying…I – it’s not fair to you, Elenanar – it’s my quest…” He trailed off. The arguments that had such eloquence in his head turned to air and blew away when he spoke them aloud to her.
She sat in utter silence, her face growing whiter with every word he spoke. Finally, once he stopped, she whispered, “Maybe it would be better if I left.” She didn’t look him in the eyes either. “I thought about it, yesterday. I thought – maybe you’d rather not have me with you, that you’d prefer to do this yourself. I thought you were angry with me for intruding on your task, and then I remembered that you didn’t want me to come with you from the very beginning. So – I think it would make more sense if I left. You could do this on your own, without me to -” She faltered, then swallowed and went on. “Without me to make you angry, to worry you, to – to distract you from what you have to do.”
Elenanar stood up. “If I went with you, you would have to worry about me as well as yourself and your mother. If I can’t protect myself, I probably shouldn’t be going with you at all. I wouldn’t want you killed on my behalf.” She blinked fiercely, and Mothlin stared at her in surprise – was she crying? “It’s not fair for you, since you – since you didn’t want me to come in the first place.”
Mothlin saw a faint tear roll down her face. She brushed it away angrily, but he had already dropped the saddlebag and was halfway to her. He caught her hands and said, “No, that’s not it at all! It’s not that I don’t want you along -” He couldn’t think of what to say to her to convince her she was wrong. His mind was racing, but blank, and he needed to say something before she got too committed to the idea.
Elenanar pulled her hands free and stepped back from him. Her eyes were now red with crying, and her face was wet, but she stared at him angrily. “Don’t give me half, Mothlin!” she cried. “I’m not someone who can be happy with halves!”
He stared at her, and she at him, and both knew exactly what she meant.
Then she swallowed, and wiped her face, and stepped carefully around him. “I’d better take these back,” she said quietly, but the anger from her outburst was still in her voice. She scooped up her weapons, which lay scattered around the clearing, and methodically counted the arrows in her quiver.
“Elenanar -” Mothlin’s throat closed up. He couldn’t think clearly. There was only one thing pounding resolutely in his mind – She shouldn’t go. She shouldn’t go like this.
She turned around, bow in hand. “Yes?” she asked.
“Please,” he said, very quietly. “Please don’t go.”
She sighed heavily and set her bow and quiver down. “Mothlin, think! How can we go into Dol Guldur like this? How can we trust each other with our lives like this? It’s wrong, and it’s a guarantee that we’ll both die. And I’m fairly sure I can’t persuade you to not go there. And if you died because of me, I don’t know if I would ever forgive myself.” Elenanar smiled sadly. “And what I said before was true. I can’t be happy with whatever tidbits of affection you give me. Not anymore, and I wish to the Valar that we could still just be friends, but we both know that can’t be after – what happened yesterday. Mothlin, please. Let me go. I need to. Neither of us was made for halves, and we’ll break if we try. Please.” He opened his mouth to speak, but she forestalled him. “I’ve made my decision, Mothlin,” she warned, “and I can’t change it. Please don’t make it worse for both of us by trying to convince me to.”
She meant it absolutely. Mothlin could see it in her eyes, in the quivering but determined set of her jaw. He swallowed, trying to get rid of the enormous lump in his chest, and the prickling in his eyes that meant he might cry. “Take Tari, then,” he said, hating himself for the way his voice shook. “If you insist on going, take her with you.”
Evidently Elenanar could tell that Mothlin was as determined on that as she was on leaving. She nodded and picked up her weapons again, slinging them on her back. Tari came to Mothlin’s whistle, and he handed her reins to Elenanar. She mounted up.
“Elenanar!” Mothlin said suddenly. She looked down at him, biting her lip to stem her own threatening tears. “I did want you to come that first day,” he told her. “I didn’t want you leaving and thinking that I wanted to do it on my own.”
She looked down at him, and she could almost hear her heart break. “Go!” she commanded Tari, speaking louder than she had wanted to and kicking her heels into the horse’s flanks. Startled, Tari set off at a trot, looking once back at Mothlin. He waved her on, and Tari didn’t turn around again.
It was then, only then, when they were out of sight, that Mothlin kicked at a clump of leaves and leaned against a tree to stifle his weeping.
Gradually he came back to his senses and wiped his face. His heart might be raw and bleeding, but he had a task to do, and Sauron cared nothing for the state of his captive’s rescuer. He had wasted yesterday in rest, and today would be long and hard and on foot.
Mothlin shouldered the saddlebag and began to plod in the direction he hoped Dol Guldur was in, but when he stared down into the forest, something deep within him said urgently, This is not the right way.
What? he asked it. It seemed utterly independent of him, and for an instant he wondered where it had come from. Which is the right way, then?
Follow me, it said, sounding relieved. I’ll get you there. Trust me.