Mothlin supposed Mirkwood had been a lovely realm once, before the shadow fell on it, but there wasn’t much to admire of it from the outside. He stared at it as the shadows of night deepened over the trees, wondering why anyone would choose to live within the darkness of that forest.
He dismounted from Tari and patted her neck. “We’re sleeping here tonight,” he told her. “I want to make Thranduil’s palace in one day – I don’t much fancy sleeping in there, fair game for a spider, and neither do you, I’d bet.” Tari shook her head emphatically, making her mane swish around Mothlin’s face, and he laughed as he unsaddled her. “Wake me if anything comes, all right?” he whispered, grinning. “Here, girl.” He fished out an apple and held it out on his palm. Tari lipped it, and then bit into it eagerly. Mothlin kept it on his hand as she ate the whole apple, then wiped off his hand on his tunic and cut himself some meat.
Night was coming fast, and Mothlin was getting sleepy. He barely had time to finish his dinner before his eyelids were drooping. He wrapped his cloak around him, carefully tucking his two dagger hilts close to his hands and within the cloak’s folds, then lay down. Despite the pebbly ground, Mothlin was asleep in less than five minutes.
He woke up to dawn, dew, and a blade at his throat.
At first he didn’t notice the blade, only the softly growing light and the unpleasant dampness of his cloak. He opened his eyes, and only then did Mothlin register that there was something cold and hard and pointy at his neck. He froze, his eyes finding the long sword and traveling up the length of the blade to a long-fingered hand. Past the hand and covering the arm was a sleeve, a long silken sleeve, and past the arm in the sleeve was a face. Mothlin tipped his head back carefully and stared up at the face. It was a girl, and an Elf at that, with very long and very red hair framing her face. “Good morning to you too,” he said, fighting to keep his voice casual. “Is this the Mirkwood way of reminding travelers that they overslept?”
Was it the early morning light, or did the girl almost smile before she bit her lips to stop it? “Who are you? What is your purpose in Mirkwood?”
“In case you hadn’t noticed, my lady, I’m not technically in Mirkwood. I’m just outside Mirkwood. My purpose is my own, but my name is Mothlin. And I would greatly appreciate it if you would remove your sword and tell me your name.”
She looked skeptical, but she moved the tip of the sword. Now it rested in the grass just by Mothlin’s ear. “I am Elenanar,” she said, “and this is part of my training as a patrol guard.”
“Patrol guard? In a dress?” Mothlin just barely choked off his laughter. Elenanar glared at him, and the look in her green eyes made him very glad he had not laughed.
“This was the first thing I found when I woke up four hours ago,” Elenanar informed him, “and Berne was yelling at me to get moving, so I put it on. And I had enough about it from him, and I don’t need it from someone I don’t even know!”
“All right, all right!” Mothlin held up his hands in surrender. Elenanar looked so smug, though, that he added quietly, “But a court dress?”
Mistake, Mothlin thought, as Elenanar returned the sword tip to his throat. “All right, I really apologize now, and I won’t mention it again!” he protested. “I just need to pass through Mirkwood very badly. Now be a good girl and let me through.”
“`Be a good girl’?” Elenanar repeated. She sounded angry, but also affronted. “I am a thousand and forty years old, and no one has called me a `good girl’ since I passed eight hundred! And anyway, no one gets through without telling a patrol guard their purpose.”
Mothlin groaned. He could hardly tell this unpredictable girl that he was going to Dol Guldur – she’d probably drag him before King Thranduil, and then there would be more delay. But she was as obstinate as her red hair had promised she would be, and there would be no getting by her without giving her his destination. And she would probably slit his throat if she found out he was lying.
He curled his hands around his dagger hilts, working the blades free of their sheaths under his cloak. “I’m going to Dol Guldur,” he said, and rolled instantly away from her swing in to where his throat had been. Mothlin came up on his feet, and tossed his cloak away, his hands glittering with the twin daggers. Elenanar blanched visibly, but she got her sword up and waited for his attack. Mothlin noticed that her grip on the sword was rudimentary. I thought the Mirkwood guards would be especially well-trained, Mothlin thought as he too fell into a crouch, waiting for her attack as she waited for his.
Finally she broke, and came at him, wielding the sword with both hands. Mothlin rose up from his crouch and caught her blade between his daggers. A few deft twists and the sword flew from Elenanar’s hand and onto the grass behind him. Elenanar froze perfectly still for a moment, the muscles of her face working furiously. It looked to Mothlin as though she were trying not to cry. Then she stepped back. “Very well, then. But you still have not gotten past me, and you won’t unless you kill me.”
Mothlin’s eyes widened. “Believe me, I have no wish to kill you.”
“If you want to pass to Dol Guldur, you will have to. I may not like being a patrol guard, and I may not be a very good one, but I will not move and let you go to the Enemy.” Her delicately pointed chin was quivering, as was her lower lip, but she stared, white-faced and resolute, at him anyway.
With a sigh of hopelessness, Mothlin lowered his daggers. “Sit down, Elenanar. I haven’t told you the whole truth, and there’s no need for you to die without knowing all the circumstances.”
“Don’t patronize me,” she replied, stung, but she sat cautiously down on the ground, watching Mothlin carefully. He too sat, and laid his daggers by his side.
“Have you heard in Mirkwood that Lady Cilyawen was captured from Rivendell?” Mothlin began.
Elenanar’s face lit up. “The one who was the Enemy’s prisoner for her whole life? We heard about her escape from Dol Guldur with Lady Undomiel and Mithrandir.” Her face fell as she registered Mothlin’s news. “She’s been captured again?”
“And taken back to Dol Guldur,” Mothlin finished grimly. “Orcs came into a feast one night and took her away. I was – I am her foster-son.”
“Oh!” Elenanar gasped. “Oh, I’m so sorry -” Comprehension registered on her delicate features. “So you’re going there to rescue her!”
“Yes,” Mothlin confirmed, surprised at how swiftly she had put it all together. “I stopped a week ago in Lothlórien and told Lady Galadriel of the news. If it would convince you of my good faith, you can look at my cloak – it’s Lórien-woven.” He reached for his gray cloak and passed it to Elenanar. One glance was enough to assure her that he was telling the truth.
Then she looked up. “But you cannot reach Dol Guldur without help,” she said. “The spiders are particularly thick there, and you can’t fight them all off on your own.”
He grinned. The flush in her cheeks and the spark in her eyes betrayed her idea. “You’re welcome to come with me if you want,” he said, before she could offer to do the same thing.
“Oh!” Elenanar flushed as red as her hair. “Thank you.” She leaped to her feet eagerly, but then suddenly burst out, “But I’m not very good with weapons, you saw that. And – well, it’s not fair to burden you with me when I can’t help you all that much.” Conscience pangs were written all over her face.
“Elenanar, it would take me far too long to hunt down a more skilled companion, and time is the one thing Cilyawen does not have.” Mothlin got to his feet and scooped his daggers up from the ground. “Are you a good guide?”
“Yes!” she answered proudly. “That’s the one part of being a patrol guard that I’m good at.”
“Why are you training to be one if you don’t like it and aren’t good at it?” Mothlin wondered.
Elenanar groaned the groan of one who was long surrounded by blockheaded fools. “My cousin’s idea. He thinks that it runs in the family to be skilled with weapons.” She blushed embarrassedly. “I suppose I am, if a needle counts as a weapon. But real weapons, bows, daggers, swords – I’m hopeless with them. At least I proved my cousin’s belief wrong. Maybe then he won’t inflict it on my sisters.”
“Who is your cousin?” Mothlin asked curiously.
“Prince Legolas,” Elenanar answered in surprise. “Didn’t you know? I’m part of the Mirkwood royal family.” She noticed Mothlin’s face, frozen in shock, and stopped talking abruptly. “But it doesn’t really matter, does it?” she finally asked after a few moments of silence.
“Matter?” Mothlin repeated. “Matter? Elenanar, I’m going to be riding toward Dol Guldur with a close kinswoman to the king of Mirkwood and you think it doesn’t matter?”
Elenanar’s lip and chin were quivering again. She was making a valiant effort to hold them still, but it was no use. “I can never get past that!” she cried. “I can never do anything without being reminded that I’m royalty and have to be careful of myself! I’m so stifled as a princess that I can never be a person! I thought you knew and wouldn’t worry about that – I thought you were different.” She balled her hand up and covered her mouth with it. “I’m not crying,” she said as a lone tear fell down her face, her words muffled by her hand over her mouth. “I’m not,” she repeated defiantly.
“Of – of course you’re not,” Mothlin replied quickly, somewhat uneasy. No girl he’d ever talked to had cried in his presence. He had often fantasized about Laureloth coming to him in tears for comfort, but he had never had any experiences with a real-life crying girl. Not even Cilyawen had ever cried in his hearing. But here was Elenanar, crying and bitterly disappointed and trying to pretend that she was not in tears. Mothlin was flabbergasted. Finally, unable to stand the silence that was broken only by Elenanar’s stifled gasp-sobs, Mothlin stepped over to her and touched her shoulder. She looked up, startled, and coughed quickly, surreptitiously wiping her eyes. “I wasn’t crying,” she whispered. “I’m sorry to have yelled at you.” She coughed once more and straightened. “You may pass through Mirkwood, Lord Mothlin. Forgive me for my behavior.”
Her resignation, especially after her spirited outburst, broke Mothlin’s heart. “Stop that,” he said in what he hoped was a soothing tone. “Stop that. I don’t mind if you’re royalty, and I’d love to have you accompany me if you want to.”
She looked up, her eyes both painfully hopeful and conflicted. “But – but you’re right, it does matter, and I wouldn’t be much help anyway -“
“Do you want to come with me?” he interrupted. “Yes or no.”
“Yes,” Elenanar said hesitantly.
“Then come. I honestly don’t mind.” Mothlin grinned at her. “We can ride double on Tari, she won’t mind either.”
“Oh. Oh!” Elenanar cried. “But these are the worst clothes to go adventuring in, and I don’t have my own supplies -“
“Stop it!” Mothlin told her. “We’ll manage. You can sew the dress into pants and cut off the loose parts of your sleeves. And we’ll just share around the food. Tari can crop grass, and there’s more than I’d ever eat by myself.” He could see that, tempted as Elenanar was, she still wasn’t convinced. “Please,” Mothlin asked softly. “Please. I really would like it if you came with me.”
“Honestly?” she asked, her eyes wide with hope.
“Honestly,” Mothlin confirmed.
Elenanar’s wet face broke into a smile. “Thank you, Mothlin,” she said quietly. “Then – I think I will come.”
“Good!” Mothlin heaved a relieved sigh. “Breakfast first, then. I’m starving, and if you’ve been up four hours before dawn, I’d guess you are too.” Elenanar nodded eagerly, and Mothlin laughed. “Come on then, let’s see what I have from Lothlórien in the way of food.”
“Not lembas bread, I hope,” Elenanar said, following Mothlin to where Tari, blithely unconcerned, was eating what grass she could find that was not within the eaves of Mirkwood. “All the patrol guards eat is lembas, or at least that’s what it feels like to me.”
Mothlin laughed again. “Not right now, I promise – I’m getting sick of it too.” He reached inside and rummaged around. In no time he had come up with a loaf of proper bread, some cheese – Bless Lady Galadriel, he thought fervently, cheese! – and his refilled water skin. “Will these do for breakfast?” he asked, holding them up for Elenanar to see.
Her face lit up with glee. “Perfect!” She appropriated the loaf of bread and began cutting it into slices with one of her daggers. Mothlin sat down on the ground, leaning against a rock, and did the same thing with the cheese. This is going to be nice, having company, he thought. He looked over at Elenanar, expertly slicing bread with a clearly inexpert grip on the dagger, and smiled. Very nice, he thought happily, feeling relaxed for the first time since he left Rivendell. “Want a piece of cheese?” he asked, holding it out to her.
She took it and smiled back.