Daughter of Mirkwood

Chapter 16

A/N: Once again, on indicating which languages are being spoken:

*This means the speaker is speaking in the common tongue.*

"Quotation marks indicate elvish.”

Dawn Brings Many Things

Dawn had just barely breached the horizon on the day the Fellowship was set to depart the Golden Wood and continue on the road to Mordor. Parties of elves followed the Lord and Lady of the Galadhrim to the banks of the Silverlode where they were to farewell the troupe that carried with them the hopes of Middle Earth. Aeslin managed to insert herself into the procession of supplies, eager to wish the Fellowship well. She had come to know them well during her initial tending of them and in the days that followed.

As it was, she stood next to Haldir when Celeborn had the Fellowship outfitted with Lorien cloaks, fastening the mallorn-leaf pin with care as she stood before a stoic-looking Boromir. The Gondorian met her eyes with hesitation, his thanks barely audible when he spoke. Giving him a reassuring smile, she stepped back, allowing Galadriel to preside over the giving of gifts to the Fellowship. She smiled widely when her brother received a Galadhrim bow, something he had told her he desired long before she had ever left Mirkwood, and a desire she had once told the Lady of during one of their many quiet afternoons in each other’s company.

After that, she joined in the loading of the boats the Fellowship were to take. She was distracted, though, by the hobbit named Sam, who was presiding over the packing of his own bags with an almost jealous interest. Gathering up several packets of Lembas-bread she made her way over to him. He looked up, startled as she knelt down beside him, handing over the leaf-bound bundles.

*Thank-you, Milady,* he said bashfully, carefully tucking them away.

*Take this as well, Master Gamgee.* From inside the little purse she had dangling from her belt, she drew out a small, golden blossom. *This is elanor, and it blooms only in Lorien and across the sea. On the road ahead of you there is likely to be little in the way of beauty. Take this,* she pressed the slender stem into his hand, *and let your gardener’s heart be eased whenever you look upon it. It will not wither, I have made sure of that.* The hobbit sniffed, holding the flower close as he looked up at the elf in front of him.

*Why do you give this to me,* he whispered. Aeslin smiled, laying a gentle hand on his cheek. In the short time she had known Sam, she had seen the bond of friendship that extended between him and Frodo and the tremendous loyalty and gentleness that filled the gardener.

*Your road is dark, and my heart tells me that much will depend on your strength of spirit. You are stronger than you think, I believe. Let this little bloom remind you of that.* Standing, she turned, returning to the line of elves packing the boats, but not before she saw the hobbit tuck the delicate blossom away with great reverence next to his heart.

Before long the boats were loaded and the travelers were ready to depart. Aeslin approached Legolas without hesitation for one last embrace, straightening his cloak with care as she pulled away.

“You had better come back from this fool’s errand.” Legolas smiled, brushing a strand of her white-blonde hair away from her face.

“Have I ever broken a promise to you, dear one? I will see you again, of that I have no doubt.” There was a shadow in his eyes that worried Aeslin, but she wanted nothing more than to believe her brother’s words so she said nothing of it. Leaving a kiss of parting on her cheek, he turned, climbing gracefully into the boat he was to share with the dwarf. Aeslin turned when she felt Aragorn approach behind her. She leveled him with a solemn glance.

“Keep him safe, Estel. My brother means the world to me.” Aragorn sketched a small bow, meeting her gaze with a serious one of his own.

“Of course, Milady. I will try to make sure he doesn’t do anything too heroic.” They both laughed quietly before Aeslin grew serious again.

“Don’t you do anything too heroic either,” her gaze fell to the Evenstar lying against his collarbone, her fingers reaching out to touch the jewel, “It would break her heart were you not to return.” A sad look came over Aragorn’s face, drawing a look of concern from the healer.

“She is to take the ship into the West, as she should. She will not be there when I return.” Aeslin shook her head slowly in disagreement.

“Not if I know the sister of my heart. Arwen would not leave you like that. Not after giving you her promise.”

“Can you be so sure?” There was an unconscious vulnerability begging for assurance within his words that pressed like a weight on Aeslin. She wasn’t sure, but she lifted her chin anyway, staring Aragorn in the eyes with a confidence she wasn’t sure she possessed.

“I am. She is willing to give up the life of our race for you. Do not abandon hope, or your love for her.” With a reassuring smile, she reached up, tugging at a lock of his hair the way she had when he was a child. Aragorn laughed, though his eyes remained preoccupied. Reaching up, he did the same to her, mimicking the actions of his toddler self many years before. With a final soft word of farewell, she placed a kiss of parting on his cheek just as she had with her brother, and, like Legolas, Aragorn turned and climbed into the boat that waited for him.

After a few short words among the companions, the three Lorien boats carrying the Fellowship pushed off into the main flow of the river. Haldir came to stand behind Aeslin, watching them go with the same hopeful, yet reserved expression that his wife and every other elf watching possessed.

That evening, Aeslin sat in the now abandoned area the Fellowship had vacated. She was quiet and thoughtful, dwelling on the events of the day. Shortly after the departure of the eight companions, Haldir too had left, returning to the borders in the mid-afternoon. Before that Galadriel and Celeborn had withdrawn, the Lady in particular looking more distant than usual.

She was not so troubled that she was oblivious, though. Eventually she looked up to see Lostariel approaching her. Without a word, Aeslin shifted, making room for the older elf to sit beside her in the hollow the healer occupied. It was a long while before any of them spoke.

“It is said that the travelers carried with them the doom of us all; the One Ring.” Lostariel looked to Aeslin, searching for confirmation with frightened eyes. Aeslin did not respond, staring still at the fountain she had been watching as she thought. “Is it true, Aeslin? You are close with the Lady, and it is said that your brother numbers among the travelers. What do you know?” Aeslin sighed, turning her gaze to her friend.

“I cannot say, Lostariel, truly. But know that our hope lies in the Fellowship that departed our shores. We must have faith that they will prevail in their quest.” She smiled faintly, her eyes pleading Lostariel to understand. Though the older elf was not happy with the answer, she did not press, instead turning to survey the clearing before them. Aeslin sighed. After a few long, silent moments, Lostariel’s soft voice broke the silence.

“It is difficult to live in such times. I long for the days when what happened beyond Lorien had little bearing on our lives herein.” There was no mistaking the wistfulness in Lostariel’s voice. Reaching out, Aeslin took her hand, squeezing it give what little comfort she could offer, slight as it was.

“I fear those days are gone,” Aeslin said quietly. A sad look came over Lostariel’s face.

“I suppose you are right.”

Aeslin was to get little rest, it seemed, for as dawn broke the next day, she was summoned to attend the Lady. Awake in an instant, she was out of her flet in minutes. When she reached the Lord and Lady’s set of Flets, she was met by Celeborn, who drew her aside into one of the chambers set aside for close guests of the Lady. Without a word he directed her towards the bedroom.

As she entered, she saw Galadriel sitting beside a figure lying prone on the great bed. Sensing the healer’s presence, the Lady turned, standing and beckoning her closer. Approaching the bed, Aeslin got her first look at the motionless figure. Lying amid the white sheets was the wizard Gandalf, looking gaunt and lifeless. He did not even seem to breathe he was so still. Aeslin looked to the Lady, astonished beyond words.

“I need you to examine him, Aeslin. He has yet to wake, and he has been through much.” Nodding in understanding, Aeslin sat next to the still form of the wizard, placing her hand on his brow as she began reciting the invocations and incantations of her craft. Galadriel and Celeborn stood by, watching as the Healer worked over the wizard, striving to discern his condition and encourage him to wake.

Eventually she ceased, turning to face the Lord and Lady.

“His body is hale enough, though weak, and what injury he had is now healed. His will is strong, though...changed. He will wake in time, likely very soon.” She looked back to the wizard, who still had yet to wake or even stir under her ministrations. He was different than she remembered. “Where did he come from? I thought he was dead.” She turned back to the Lady, who still watched the wizard in concern.

“Gwaihir, Lord of the Eagles, found him amid the peaks of the Misty Mountains and brought him here at my request. Gandalf yet has a purpose, I did not think it likely he had left us for good.”

“What will happen when he wakes?”

“That is for him to decide. Unless I am mistaken he is no longer Gandalf the Gray as we knew him. Yes, he is very much changed indeed.” Galadriel became pensive as she spoke, ultimately falling silent. Celeborn looked to his wife in concern, a thoughtful expression coming to his face as well. Aeslin turned her gaze back to the wizard before standing.

“Changed to what?” As if listening, the form on the bed began to stir. They all turned back to him, Galadriel strode forward, taking back her seat on the edge of the bed. After a moment, a pair of piercing blue eyes opened on the wise and familiar face. Aeslin retreated to stand back near the door, giving the Lord and Lady a measure of privacy with their old friend.

At first, the wizard did not speak, and barely moved, listening instead to the quiet words of the Lady. Eventually though, he did speak and as the day passed his story came out. The Balrog, defeated by Gandalf, had also nearly destroyed the wizard. But eventually he came back to himself, reaching out until he brushed the mind of Galadriel, who knew what had befallen him and reached out to help. After that, he had slipped out of consciousness, not stirring until he woke in their midst.

The Lady was also right in that Gandalf was changed. No longer the Gray pilgrim, he was now to be known as Gandalf the White.

Another day passed after the day of his waking, and after one final examination from Aeslin, it was decided that he had recovered enough from his ordeal to be on his way.

So it was that at yet another dawn Aeslin found herself standing to bid farewell, this time to Gandalf. There was little ceremony this time. Gandalf, clad head to toe in white, as befitting his new epithet, bid a fond farewell to Galadriel and Celeborn.

Before that, though, he had paused by Aeslin, leaning on his staff as she bowed her head in respect. He smiled, looking at the healer with a twinkle in his eyes.

“I owe you thanks, my dear Healer, for tending me during my—somnolence.” Aeslin smile, nodding her head briefly again.

“It was my duty, My Lord, though I truly did very little.” He chuckled.

“That may be, but nevertheless, I thank you. You are gifted, Aeslin of Lorien, and you are strong. Do not forget that in the days to come.” A faint frown threatened to appear on Aeslin’s face, but she suppressed the urge, giving the wizard a smile before he moved on.

“Mithrandir,” she hesitated as he turned back to look at her, both uncertain if the name was still appropriate and if she was overstepping in asking the question she wished. “Forgive me, but do you go to meet the rest of the Fellowship?” He nodded, a thoughtful look coming over his features.

“After a time, yes. I do think I will see them again.” Aeslin nodded, unsure what she meant to ask in the first place. However, a knowing smile came to Gandalf’s face.

“You worry for your brother, and your friends.”

“Yes.” Her voice was quiet, but he still heard her. He laid a hand on her shoulder.

“I will not say do not worry, for there is much to worry about in these times. But have faith, my dear healer. Your friends are strong, and your brother possibly the most skilled marksman across Middle Earth. I do not doubt that they will live to see the end of this darkness.” Then he moved on to bid the Lord and Lady of Lorien farewell before taking his leave of the City of Trees.

Unease began to seep into Aeslin’s heart as the days passed. Never before had she been so aware of the passage of time. There had been times when years had gone by in what seemed to be the span of days; now, days seemed to endure for years. She felt Haldir’s growing concern on the borders as skirmishes with Orcs grew more frequent. She felt his worry at news pouring in from beyond their lands, of devastating raids across the lands of Rohan and Gondor alike, and the growing power of the traitorous Saruman in Isengard and Sauron in Mordor.

Yet no news came of the Fellowship, or their progress. While to some extent that was comforting, with the quest dependent on being shrouded in secrecy, it was also nerve-wracking to those who waited on news.

When news did come, it came from Rohan of all places. It was early one morning when Haldir returned from the border, surprising Aeslin since he was not due back so early from his rotation. When she questioned him, his face took on the grim cast he usually reserved for others, but never for her.

“The Lady has called me and a handful of others from the border. It would seem there is news from Rohan.” Aeslin frowned, unsure why he was telling her until he continued. “Part of the Fellowship is there, including your brother.” She didn’t hesitate to follow him to the Lord and Lady’s flet, where several other elves already waited.

When Celeborn and Galadriel appeared, their faces were more solemn than usual. Celeborn was the first to speak.

“Things go ill with the Kingdom of Rohan. Isengard has been emptied and now marches on Théoden’s people in Helm’s Deep. Should the fortress fall, the world of men will soon follow. We have conferred with Lord Elrond and King Thranduil and have agreed that the ancient treaties with the King of Gondor still hold true, and that our support is necessary for men’s survival. Already a combined contingent of volunteers that can be spared is en route from Rivendell and Mirkwood, ready for battle. They ask that we join them.” Aeslin’s heart began to pound as Celeborn’s eyes fell on her and Haldir.

“The Fellowship of the Ring has parted ways, and three of their number are even now preparing to defend Rohan. As the Heir of Elendil, Aragorn, son of Arathorn is owed our aid, and Legolas of the Woodland realm also fights among the men of Théoden. We cannot let them stand alone.” Galadriel’s voice was grave as her eyes too came to rest on Haldir. Aeslin fought to keep her expression blank as her husband straightened under scrutiny.

“We do not ask this lightly, Haldir, but it has been requested that you join them. Your leadership, experience and skill are well known, and you know the tongues of men, where many of the others do not.” Haldir did not speak for many moments, while Celeborn and Galadriel continued to speak, directing instruction to the others around them. Aeslin was barely listening, lost as she was in her own thoughts.

“Aeslin,” she was brought back by the sound of Galadriel’s voice. Looking up, she met the concerned gaze of the Lady. After a moment the Queen of the Golden Wood continued.

“It has also been requested that a group of Healers from our lands follow to aid in the aftermath, whatever that may be. As one of our strongest healers and one of the most learned in the treatment of men in addition to elven-kind, you have been considered as the best candidate to lead this group. Would you accept this charge?” Struck dumb by this turn of events, Aeslin nodded, unable to speak lest she should say something she regretted.

A short while later, the gathering was dismissed and, without a word, Aeslin slipped from the room before anyone else, not even waiting for Haldir to join her. In moments she was back in their flet, pacing through the handful of rooms in agitation. It was not long after that Haldir rushed into the flet himself, his thoughts shielded from showing on his face. Aeslin didn’t even turn to face him.

“Did you accept?” When he didn’t answer, she stopped, turning to face him. “Did you?” He sighed, his resignation to the mission apparent on his face.

“Not yet.” Aeslin clenched her jaw, resuming her pacing. “There is no one else, Aeslin.”

“There has to be,” she whispered, almost too quiet for him to hear.

“I wish that were so, Aeslin. Truly I do. But this has to be done.” She stopped again before all but flying to his side, her pale eyes boring into his. He reached out to touch her, but she flinched away.

“They cannot ask you to do this, Haldir. They just can’t. It is suicide.”

“We do not know that. You cannot know that for sure.”

“But I feel it in my heart, and it terrifies me. I can’t lose you.” She was close to shedding frustrated tears, but she held them back. This time, when he reached out to her, she let him take her hands, bringing them to lie against his chest.

“I have every intention of returning, Aeslin.”

“That doesn’t mean you will.” She held his gaze, letting her anguish pour through their bond. She could feel him shudder at the blending of their emotions, but he held firm.

“This is my duty. I am honour-bound to see it done.”

“You and your honour will get you killed.” A quiet reserve made its way into Aeslin’s voice, drawing a frown from Haldir. She pulled away, going to look out on the City of Trees. After a moment he came to stand behind her, laying his hands on her shoulders, leaning his cheek against her pale hair. Her eyes closed, fighting the well of emotions building within her.

“I can not fight this feeling of dread, Haldir. I don’t know what to do.” The sorrow in her voice cut at the Marchwarden. Abruptly she turned, taking his face in her hands. Her voice was resigned, but desperation and sorrow tinged her words “You were right; even here we are not safe from the darkness. You must come back. You must.” Her eyes were wide and fearful, glistening with desperate tears. He took her hands again, laying gentle kisses on her slim knuckles before pulling her into his arms. But he had no words to reassure her. Not this time.

Dawn came much too swiftly, and too soon Aeslin was watching as her husband prepared to depart. She had seen him ready for his deployment on the borders before, but this was far different. Instead of donning the garb of a Marchwarden, he was preparing for war. His mail glittered in the early morning light as he pulled it over his tunic, though it was soon covered by a steadily growing assortment of gleaming armour. Resigned to his choice, Aeslin helped as she was needed, securing the ties of his breastplate and attaching his shoulder-guards as he adjusted his bracers and a leather finger-guard on his right hand. As he drew his bright scarlet cloak about his shoulders, she turned, picking up his long-handled sword from where it lay on their bed.

As she held the blade, a wash of emotion overcame her, nearly breaking through her carefully maintained composure. She had sworn not to let him see her sorrow at their parting. He was fixed on his duty, but she knew the decision had still been a hard one, and that it broke his heart to see her despair. Closing her eyes, her grip tightened as she struggled to push aside the fear that clutched at her heart. Haldir came up beside her, reaching down to pick up the quiver that lay next to where his sword had rested. He hesitated when he saw the look on her face and the white knuckles gripping his sword.

With gentle hands he pulled the sword and its sheath from Aeslin’s hands, laying it down before taking her hands in his. He leaned forward, resting his forehead against hers. No matter how hard she tried, tears began to stream silently down her face. Raising a hand, Haldir brushed them away, his fingers lingering on her cheeks, brushing against her feather-soft lashes.

“I want you to promise me something,” he said, struggling to keep his voice level. Her lids quivered, but she did not open them.

“Anything,” came her soft reply after a long moment.

“I want you to go to Rivendell. It would ease my heart to know you are safe. Do not follow me to Helm’s Deep.” She looked up at him then, but there was only sorrow in her pale eyes. Unable to restrain herself, she threw her arms around him, burying her face in his golden hair. His own control waning, his arms snaked around her waist, clutching her slender frame to his.

“Only if you promise me something,” she said in response, her voice wavering with the emotions she was trying to keep under control. Haldir’s own eyes closed in pain. He was trying to be strong for her, but like her, he feared the outcome of this battle; he felt nothing but dread about the path he was on. She pulled away, laying her hands on his face, forcing his eyes to meet hers.

“You must meet me there.”

“I will,” was all he could manage, but their bond was too strong for him to hide his reservation. Not only that, but she saw in his eyes how little hope he had. She dropped her gaze, her hands moving to adjust the draping of his cloak.

“You must come back.” Her voice was little more than a whisper, but her tone said so much more than any words could. Catching her chin, he leaned in for one more kiss. Her tears once again flowing freely, Aeslin pressed against him, pouring everything she had into that last kiss; her despair, her fear, her hope, her love, everything she had.

There was nothing left to say when they parted. With quick, efficient hands, Haldir swept up his quiver, while Aeslin picked up his sword, handing it to him when he had secured the straps over his shoulder and around his waist. Finally, when he had attached the scabbard to his belt, she handed him his bow, hesitating for a moment as his hands closed over the smooth grip next to hers.

With nothing further to be done, they turned, leaving their flet together.

The City of Trees was quiet as the warriors gathered in the main clearing. Even the birds and the trees were unusually silent, as if echoing the solemn mood pervading the city. Volunteers streamed in from all corners of the Golden Wood, armed, ready and willing to go to battle. Aeslin and Haldir were some of the last to arrive. Pausing at the edge of the clearing, Haldir turned, his blue eyes boring into hers.

“Do not forget your promise,” he said quietly. Aeslin breathed deeply, her stoic façade in danger of slipping as he laid a hand on her cheek.

“Only if you do not forget yours,” she replied, just as softly.

Without another word, he turned to join his men, pausing only before the Lord and Lady of Lorien to receive their blessing. After a few hushed words with Celeborn and Galadriel, he strode to the head of the assembled column, his face betraying none of the doubt or sorrow Aeslin knew he felt in his heart. He looked almost confident as he took his place, ordering the line ahead.

Already the contingents from Rivendell and Mirkwood waited in the clearing, arrayed in the battle finery of Lorien in homage to their united front as a single race, each one ready and waiting to make their way to Helm’s Deep. They would be there by evening, and then… to battle.

As face after face filed past, Aeslin couldn’t help but wonder how many would live to see the dawn.

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