Mothlin drifted into consciousness some time later, and the first coherent thought he had was, Why is everything lying on top of me? Then he blinked and shifted position, and he realized that, in fact, he was merely lying on the ground. He carefully pushed himself upright and saw, lying beside him, Elenanar. The skin of her face was drawn tightly over her bones, and Mothlin reached out without thinking and gently massaged the corners of her eyes, trying to loosen her face. His memory returned in a rush, and with it one overriding thought. She saved me. We would have been killed by that spider, and she saved me. He picked up one of her hands in both of his and, as a lord might to a lady, kissed it lightly in gratitude.
She gave a faint murmur, and Mothlin quickly dropped her hand. It would seem awkward if she woke and found him holding her hand. Mothlin busied himself with crawling across the ground to reach his bow and quiver. Most of the arrows were gone – probably they had fallen out of the quiver when Tari carried them away from the spider. But a few were left, and the bow was still intact, even if it looked strained from being strung indefinitely. Sitting back on his knees, he slipped the string off of the bow, and when he turned around Elenanar was awake and sitting up. “Are you all right?” he asked her.
“What?” she mumbled, blinking like an owl at him. “Oh, oh, yes, I’m fine.” She groggily staggered to her feet. “I’m going to find a stream,” she muttered.
“No!” Mothlin said quickly. “No, are you crazy? You only just got up.”
“And I need a drink of water, or at least I need the water to wake myself up,” Elenanar muttered.
With a sigh, Mothlin reached out and caught her hand as she walked unsteadily past him. “No,” he repeated firmly. “No, you will sit down, and if anyone goes for water it’ll be me. At least I woke up sooner than you did.”
“But your leg -” she objected.
“Lie down,” interrupted Mothlin hastily, unwilling to be reminded that he was an invalid. “I’m not actually convinced you’re awake even now.”
“Neither am I,” she answered dryly, but she obeyed him. What put Mothlin a bit on edge was the fact that when she lay down, she curled up with her head in his lap. Within moments she was breathing deeply and evenly.
Mothlin found it very hard to concentrate on thinking about his leg and Tari and their whole mission with the constant, light pressure of her head resting in his lap. Hesitantly he lowered the bow to the forest floor and touched her bright hair. Elenanar didn’t move, and Mothlin brushed his hand lightly along the length of her hair, once, then twice, until he was carefully stroking it. Elenanar’s only response was, once, to shift position slightly.
I could go to sleep myself, Mothlin thought with some longing. I could just lie down next to her and close my eyes and go to sleep…
A whinny woke him from his drowsy state. Mothlin looked quickly up, and his heart leaped when he saw Tari trotting carelessly across the grass to him. “Tari!” he whispered with a smile, and held out his hand. She lipped it affectionately and butted his head with her nose. The jostle woke Elenanar. “Oh…” she muttered, slowly sitting up. “Oh, Mothlin, did I go back to sleep in your lap?” she asked, blinking.
“Yes,” Mothlin answered, steeling himself to look straight at her, even though what he really wanted was to hide in the forest until she forgot that she had ever possibly put her head in his lap, let alone slept in it.
Elenanar actually blushed, and it was she who looked away first. “Sorry,” she said, her face hidden as she got to her feet behind Tari. “I mean, I didn’t mean to -“
“It’s all right,” Mothlin interrupted, before she would embarrass herself by babbling. “Pass me the water skin – I’ll go get some water.” She reached into his saddlebag and extracted a water skin one quarter full, bouncing it on her hand to gauge its emptiness or fullness.
“Here, you drink half of what’s in there,” Elenanar suggested, tossing the skin to Mothlin. Gratefully he uncapped it and drank. The warm water moistened his dry throat – he let some of it run on his face to loosen it up, then tossed the skin back to Elenanar. She finished it and gave it back to him, and he limped off in the direction she pointed him in.
Sure enough, when Mothlin emerged from the bushes, there was a stream that looked quite harmless running quietly through the forest. Still, it never hurt to be certain, so Mothlin picked up a leaf lying on the forest floor and stuck it partway into the water. It stayed a leaf – in fact, all that happened was that it got wet. Reassured, Mothlin filled the water skin with water from the stream and bathed his whole head in the cool stream before he returned to Elenanar and Tari.
When he came back to their impromptu camp, he found Elenanar staring, wide-eyed, at his map of Mirkwood. “What?” Mothlin asked, setting down the water skin and coming to stand behind her. “What is it?”
Elenanar turned to face him, her eyes alight. “Mothlin, I finally pinpointed that stream you were just at – and we’re little more than a day’s ride from Dol Guldur!” Mothlin gaped at her in shock, and she pushed the map in front of him. “Look! I think we were attacked by the spider about here.” Her finger tapped a spot deep within the southern tip of the forest. “And according to Legolas, who travels Mirkwood frequently and who I have no reason to doubt, there is a small stream that runs a little more than a day’s ride from – well, from you-know-where. And I think that’s it, because we don’t know how long we were unconscious, and Tari – conceivably – could have carried us that far partly out of sheer fright.”
Mothlin lifted his head, whirling with the news, and stared at Tari. “You, my beauty, are the most wonderful horse in all Middle-earth,” he whispered.
Elenanar nodded fervently. “But of course today will be lost.”
“What?” Mothlin demanded, whipping around to face her again. “Elenanar, that’s my mother in there! She may have been tortured, she may be -” He couldn’t say it – saying it would make the prospect more real.
“She may be dead,” Elenanar said quietly, and Mothlin closed his eyes tightly against the sting that threatened tears.
“Stop it,” he whispered, turning his back to her. “Don’t say it. Don’t say it again.”
She laid aside the map and took a step closer to him. He could feel her at his back, but she didn’t touch him. “Don’t you realize,” he whispered, “that whenever someone says – something like that – it makes it more real? That I remember then that she’s in danger of her life every single moment that I waste by not going to her?” The tears would come. He could feel them swell behind his eyes, and he didn’t want to cry in front of Elenanar. Angrily he swiped at his eyes with a hand dirty from forest floor and spider webs.
“Careful!” Elenanar cried, reaching for his hand to stop it. “You’ll get dirt in your eyes.”
Mothlin ignored her. His back still facing her, he scrubbed his hand on his tunic front, then wiped his eyes again. I will not cry, he intoned as he stifled the tears. I will – not – cry.
But his shoulders shook despite his best efforts, and Elenanar saw. Impulsively she reached out and put her arms around his waist, resting her cheek on his back, hoping that contact with another person might comfort him. His back was warm through his shirt, his tunic dirty from the spider fight.
Mothlin tensed the moment she slipped her arms around him. He could feel every inch of her that was touching him outlined with needles in his skin. But although he wanted to push her away, he helplessly took the comfort she offered, and turned around to bury his face in her shoulder, his arms wrapped tightly around her. Elenanar held him gently, whispering words he couldn’t hear. He shook with stillborn sobs, but somehow Elenanar’s arms remained a constant presence around him, cradling him while he cried without sound.
When there were no more sobs left within him, Mothlin tried to slip away from her, but she held him more closely. He looked down at her, and she up at him, and she reached up and brushed away a strand of his hair that had fallen into his face. She was really quite lovely, up close, Mothlin thought as the wind played with her red hair. He reached out to touch her face, carefully, as though she were made of fragile glass. Her eyes were wide, but with what emotions he couldn’t tell. She caught his hand midway in its journey to her face –
Mothlin abruptly pulled his hand away and slid out of Elenanar’s arms. All the air that was in him deflated without warning, and he swallowed hard, his heart beating fast and hard. He didn’t look at her as he reached for the map to fold it up. “Mothlin?” she asked, quietly, her voice shaky. “Are you all right?”
“We can’t, Elenanar,” Mothlin said, tucking the map back into Tari’s saddlebag. “We can’t. Not now. There’s too much going on to add…that…to it as well.” He still didn’t look at her. The moments-ago memory of her wide eyes and lovely face were too clear for him to be able to look at her.
There was a long silence following his words. Finally Elenanar answered, in little more than a whisper, “Then we won’t.” She paused, then added, still quiet, “We need to splint your leg, and we both need today to rest. We can start for Dol Guldur tomorrow.”
“I’ll splint my leg,” Mothlin said. He didn’t want to think about the possible outcomes if Elenanar did it. “You need rest more than I do anyway.” He heard her give what might have been a regretful sigh. Then she curled up on the floor of the forest. Mothlin held perfectly still until he heard her breathing grow even. Then he whirled away from Tari and sat down far away from Elenanar, trying to control his own breathing.
He had spoken the truth. It was too much to think about at the moment. He couldn’t conceive of Elenanar as more than a friend – but somewhere within him, he desperately wanted to go back five minutes and not pull away…
He was scared. That was the real truth. He was scared of what might happen to him if he had stayed there and touched her face. And the worst part of it was that every time he looked at her from then on, he knew he would wonder what they would be like if he had not pulled away from her.
And he didn’t want to find that out – but he knew he did.