Chapter 16: Élanor
When I woke — properly this time — I felt better than I had in weeks.
Don’t get me wrong. I still ached like hell, and there was a thorn in my side you could have pitched a tent with. But even so, it was still a massive improvement on how I’d felt before I’d gone under.
I was in a bed for starters; I knew that before I’d even moved. There was a soft, feather pillow propping my head and back up to what was almost a sitting position, and warm, satiny covers drawn up to my shoulders. A little shift of my limbs also revealed that I wasn’t in my close-fitting rinding greens anymore, but something silky and wonderfully comfy…
Someone had redressed me.
My eyes popped open, and I instantly regretted it. Unfiltered, early morning sunlight assaulted me square in the face. I groaned as my retinas were pan-fried in my head, lifting my heavy arms up to shield my face and rolling over out of path of the beam. My limbs creaked and ached from lack of use, and I felt my muscles shake with the strain of trying to support my weight. Just how long had I been out for?
And… where exactly was I now?
I uncovered my face and slowly took in the world around me, sans the painful beam of light to the eyeballs. I was lying in a white, silk covered bed the size of a small yacht, sitting in a large room the shape of a half moon — a room which I could only describe as something you might see on a Midsummer Night’s Dream set design.
Absolutely everything was white. The floors, the ceiling, the canopy over my bed, even the flowers sitting in a vase on my bedside table. The furniture was all made of a silvery, pale grey wood that had been carved and polished into simple elegance. Everything in that room looked too perfect to be real. Even the woman sitting beside my bed in a white chair was decked out in a splendid white lace gown…
Finally my brain caught up with what I was seeing.
I did an honest to goodness double take, my neck muscles protesting furiously.
Nope, I hadn’t been imagining it. There, sitting serenely in a high-backed chair beside my bed, was a woman. An elven woman. She was dressed in an elegant, floor length gown, with sleeves so long they almost covered her fingers. A book was open in her lap, and she was humming a quiet tune under her breath as she read, the sound effortlessly lovely. Something silver and bright as a tiny star glinted on her left index finger as she turned a page.
If that wasn’t enough of a screaming hint as to who she was, the luminous, silver-gold shimmer of her waist length hair definitely was.
My voice stuck in my throat as I tried to force words past my awed shock.
“Um… hi?” I said wittily, my voice coming hoarse, and I could almost hear the sound of Tink repeatedly slamming her head against a wall somewhere in the depths of my mind.
Galadriel, the Lady of the Golden Wood — the keeper of Nenya, one of the three uncorrupted rings of power, and among one of the oldest beings in Middle Earth — raised her head from the book in her lap, and her crystal blue gaze met mine. The smile she presented me with could have lit up a football stadium, and dazzled the blindest of the blind.
In that same way that Aragorn was ten times more intimidating with a voice to match his face, Lady Galadriel went from being breathtakingly beautiful to simply overwhelming when she spoke. Her voice was soft and gentle, yet edged with near tangible strength all at the same time. It did absolutely nothing to lessen the near mind-boggling effect of her presence.
Looking back, there wasn’t a specific thing I could pick out as being individually lovely about her. She was beautiful as all elves were, with absolutely luminous blonde hair reaching down to her hips, pale skin, and very, very tall — even when she was seated. But somehow it was as if none of that was really relevant. It was as if her external appearance had nothing to do with what really made her presence so overpowering. There was something about her quietly certain expression, the way she held herself, and the weight of ages behind her eyes. It was as if nature itself had deliberately taken every anti-female stereotype in existence and — while flipping the bird at misogynists everywhere — had created something spectacularly beautiful, powerful, and unashamedly feminine out of them all.
She was powerful, with a capital “P.” Just sitting near her was enough for me to know that. I could all but feel it coming from her, like the heat off a bonfire.
I also realised after a moment that I was just lying there with my jaw hanging wide open. Galadriel was still smiling at me, though it had turned from merely warm to laughing at my expression. She gently closed the book she’d been perusing (one on herbs and their medicinal properties, I noted) and placed in on the side table next to her.
“How do you feel, child?”
“Urm…” My own voice sounded painfully dim to my own ears, but I managed to get it to steady a bit after clearing my throat. “I feel… pretty good. I mean, I feel like a troll used my ribcage as a xylophone… but otherwise, I’m good.”
Galadriel presented me with another blindingly bright smile that, to my surprise, didn’t leave me with brain damage. She rose out of the chair to her fully spectacular height and moved to a small side table, where I now noticed a genuine tea pot sat amidst an assortment of dainty looking china on a tray. The regal elven queen plucked up two cups and saucers, and somehow managed to even make pouring hot water over dried leaves look angelic.
“Perhaps this will help you begin to feel as yourself again,” she said in a quietly amused tone when she was finished, returning to her chair with both steaming cups. The smell got to me first.
Tea. Honest to goodness tea.
Not one of the flowery herbal kinds I was used to the elves of Rivendell serving. This stuff was the closest thing I’d smelled to home — my real home — in a very, very long time.
Galadriel obviously noticed because her bright smile widened even further.
“I hear you are quite fond of it.”
“Y-yes… I, ur… yes, I am.”
I wanted so badly to ask how she’d know that; if one of the others had told her, or if she knew some other mysterious way of discovering a person’s favourite beverage. But I was too boggled and brain-numbed to think straight, let alone talk straight.
This was hands down the most surreal situation I’d ever been in.
I was sitting there, in an enormous white bed, dressed in (what I now realised was) a pristine silk nightgown, with probably one of the most powerful women in Arda literally serving me breakfast in bed. If it wasn’t for the dull ache in my side as I sat up, where I knew my wound was still healing, I’d have assumed I was hallucinating. Galadriel handed me my perfectly brewed cup of tea with a serene smile, before gracefully seating herself on the edge of my bed, and bringing her own cup to her lips.
I just sat there gawking, my own cup resting untouched in my hands. So many questions tried to shove their way to the front of my brain at once, it actually took me a moment to focus my eyes properly. But the only thing that managed to find it’s way out of my mouth:
“You’re… a lot taller than I expected.”
That brought a bubbling laugh from her, and the sound reminded me of wind chimes.
“You would not be the first to say so, child.”
I found myself smiling shyly and chuckling too, and it felt really good, even if I was aching all over. She still hadn’t properly introduced herself, I noticed. Not that she’d needed an introduction, I’d known who she was the second I’d seen her — and she seemed to be well aware of the fact, too. She’d just greeted me as warmly as if I was an old friend…
I took a tentative sip of my tea. It even tasted of home.
“How long have I been here?” I asked in a small voice.
Galadriel didn’t miss a beat, though she did pause just long enough to finish her sip.
“This is your third morning.” She answered in that voice that somehow mixed earth shaking power with maternal warmth. “The captain of my Guard — or I suppose you now know him as Haldir — brought you here ahead of your companions, due to your critical state.”
Another internal barrage of questions.
How bad were my wounds? Who had healed me? Had Haldir really carried me all that way on his own? Was I going to be stuck in this bed until I’d fully recovered? Was there a bathroom anywhere nearby?
Honestly, you’d think such a simple question would reap a fairly simple answer, but it seemed that each time I asked something and received a reply, another three questions sprang up to take its place. I put down my cup and pushed myself further up on the feathery pillows.
“What about the others? Are they alright?” I forced myself to ask first, pushing everything else to the back of my mind for later. I might be ok now, but the last time I’d seen any of the others, they’d all been at arrow-point. “Haldir didn’t hurt them, did he?”
Galadriel placed her free hand gently on my shoulder. It was a comforting gesture more than a restraining one. But that simple touch left me with exactly no doubts that she could have held me down effortlessly if I tried to do anything to re-open my wounds.
“Do not worry yourself, child. They arrived last night. They are weary, and burdened with much sorrow for Gandalf, but unharmed.” She paused, tilting her head to the side and watching me closely, as if trying to read something in the shadows on my face. “They are also heavy with concern for you. The four halfings in particular have scarcely stopped asking after your condition.”
“Really?” I asked, trying to imagine what that looked like and failing. Galadriel gave me a tiny amused look that clearly said: ‘of course, what a silly question’. I chewed on my bottom lip a little nervously, looking down into my tea. “Where are they now?”
“They have been given a small clearing and camp to rest in the glades below. The halflings were more comfortable remaining on the ground than in the trees.”
A soft laugh escaped me at that, and it felt good even if it did hurt my side.
“Yeah, I thought they might be,” I chuckled to myself off handedly. “I can’t imagine Pippin would last ten minutes up a tree.”
Galadriel continued to smile at me through the silence that followed, and I took another heavenly sip of my tea, avoiding looking directly at her. She tilted her head to the side as she observed me through the gold-silver hair curtaining either side of her face.
“It is interesting that you ask after your companion’s well-being before your own. Especially after coming so close to death yourself.”
“I… I guess so,” I replied slowly, feeling oddly like I was being subtly reprimanded. “But I didn’t. Die, I mean.”
“Indeed not,” Galadriel said softly, her smile faltering a little. Her crystal blue eyes fixed on me pensively, and I could almost feel the weight of her gaze as a tangible pressure against my thoughts.
“Though even with the treatment you received, it is no small feat that you still live. Your companions had good reason to worry as they did,” she said finally.
I thought about that for a moment, for the first time since I’d woken, really stopping to consider how the others must have felt at realising what I’d done. By not saying anything about my injury until I was almost at the point of no return. An uneasy, squirming sensation appeared in my tummy at the prospect of facing them all again…
“You do not wish to see them yet.” Galadriel said gently but firmly, as if it was a fact instead of just an opinion. I looked up at her, a denial already on my lips.
“No, I do…” I countered, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by my own words. I stumbled to follow them up with a good reason, but I couldn’t really think of one. Nothing specific anyway. So I just told her honestly; “But I have a few questions first. Well, a lot of them actually.”
She nodded and smiled at me again. I was almost getting used to the intense luminosity of it by now.
“I know, child. And you shall have answers,” she told me gently, and I believed that she honestly meant it when she said that. “But not right now. For now, you need to regain the strength you lost while journeying here. You will need it.”
She placed a gentle hand softly on mine and gave my fingers a little squeeze, then paused as she looked at me, as if considering a thought that had just occurred to her. Then she let go and rose off the bed in a single, graceful movement.
“Merileth,” she called over one shoulder, the sound ringing even though she hardly raised her voice.
Two seconds later a beautiful, young, elven woman entered the room from the balcony door. She looked to be about the same age as me (relatively speaking) and was tall — though not nearly as tall as Lady Galadriel. She had the fair, utterly unblemished skin all the Lothlórien elves seemed to share, and long pale blond hair that fell in a pin straight sheet to her waist. She also had a very unusual but beautiful set of almond shaped, hazel eyes. It was a colour I’d never seen on any elf before, let alone any of the elves of Lothlórien — who as far as I’d gathered, all seemed to lean more towards shades of pale blue and cool grey.
She smiled directly at me with such warmth and enthusiasm it was almost unsettling, as if she was literally bursting with excitement to speak to me.
“Élanor, this is one of my most trusted handmaidens, Merileth,” Galadriel informed me. “She shall be at your disposal for the time your wounds are healing.”
I found myself shaking my head frantically, throwing both my hands up in front of me in the bed.
“Oh, no! You really don’t need to do tha—!”
“It would be an honour to assist you, my lady,” she interrupted me in perfect Common speech before I could finish, dipping into an elegantly low curtsy. I just stared at her with my mouth open, making an uncertain noise that was something between a groan and a mumble. Galadriel faced me with another amused smile, carefully tucking a strand of my messy hair behind my ear.
“We shall speak later, child. For now, I pray you rest and make yourself welcome here.” And with that, she swept out in a swish of white skirts and glowing, golden hair.
I was left there, sitting up in a white, silken sick-bed, dressed in something entirely inappropriate for a sick person, with one eager looking blonde elf maiden standing by, awaiting my any request.
I sighed, and threw back the covers.
“Alrighty then,” I said, swinging my feet onto the wooden floor. My legs were stiff beneath the nightgown, and I rubbed them to get the feeling back into them. “Since you’re now officially my babysitter, would you mind showing me where the nearest bathroom is?”
Merileth did as I requested with damn near dizzying enthusiasm. She’d beamed, taking me quickly by the hand and leading me out of my recovery room, and onto a small balcony that skirted around a huge mallorn tree.
Legolas hadn’t been kidding when he said they grew tall. The city of Caras Galadhon was built entirely around them, spiralling up hundreds of feet around the silver trunks, and vanishing up into the yellow-leafed canopy overhead, the early morning sunlight making them burn gold and amber. I almost went dizzy again looking down at the maze of whitewood flets, walkways, and platforms running like spiderwebs all through the thick branches below…
Or maybe that was just because I’d suddenly realised exactly how hungry I was.
Merileth led me down a series of long spiralling stair cases and narrow walkways that curved and twisted down through the trees like ribbons until we were finally reached the forest floor. The first thing I noticed looking at the ground was that it wasn’t bare like you’d expect from a forest in late winter. It was a rich green, warm, and dotted with tiny yellow and white flowers that were just starting to peek out. The path we followed was lined neatly with white stones separating us from the greenery — but if anyone was expecting me to keep off the grass they should have put up a sign.
I deliberately stepped over the line as I walked bare foot behind my guide.
I knew it was silly, but come on. Bare feet on grass after a week of almost non-stop running in leather boots? Utter heaven.
I slowed to a gradual stop, closing my eyes and just standing there for a second, wiggling my toes and enjoying the blissful feel of the grass tickling the soles of my feet. Somewhere far off there was the sound of someone singing, though I couldn’t quite make out the words from there. It all felt ludicrously good, and I was half temped to just stay there and let Merileth walk on without me.
The sound of giggles and soft laughter met my ears. My eyes popped open and I looked around.
A couple of children were playing in the gardens at the foot of a tree just a little way away. Elf children, I realised — though to me they looked like any other, exceptionally cute eight to four-year-olds you could imagine. I watched in fascination as they chased each other around one of the huge mallorn trees, shrieking with glee as the elder chased the younger. Then the youngest suddenly tripped over a root and went sprawling over the grass. He didn’t cry, or even look upset, just surprised that he’d lost his balance so easily. His brother was immediately there helping him back up again, dusting off his dirtied tunic and breeches.
The youngest one spotted me looking, and his brother glanced over too. They both caught my eye from across the grass, and I noticed that they were almost exactly the same shade of hazel as Merileth’s.
Both boys gave me near identical curious smiles, and I automatically smiled back, raising a hand in an awkward little wave. The eldest finished helping his little brother to his feet, and youngest one gave me a big smile and a wave back before running after his brother again. I stood there on the grass watching them play for a moment, realising suddenly that it was the first time I’d ever really seen elf children before. The few elves living and working in the house of Rivendell hadn’t had any of their own — at least not as young as this — and certainly none who were young enough to enjoy playing tag. I didn’t know what I was expecting elvish kids to be like when I did finally see one, but I hadn’t expected them to be quite so… normal.
Merileth cleared her throat, and I abruptly turned to find she’d stopped too, looking back at me in confusion.
“Is something wrong, lady Élanor?” she asked, looking a little worried and probably questioning whether I was truly well enough to walk about yet.
“No, not at all,” I answered, ignoring her concerned-nurse look, the relaxed smile remaining on my face. “And it’s just Eleanor.”
She smiled blandly and nodded.
“As you say, my lady.”
I sighed again, but smiled and continued following her down the twisting path through the beautiful wood.
“We shouldn’t linger too long. Lord Haldir will be along shortly to show you back to your companions,” she told me as we walked. I pointedly ignored the subtle squirming sensation in my belly at the mention of seeing the others, and just continued walking beside her.
“Where exactly are we going?” I asked as we passed yet another little patch of early blooming flowers. My stiff legs had begun to ache despite only walking for a few minutes.
“The Looking Pools, my lady,” Merileth told me cheerfully.
“Um, the what now?”
She repeated herself with a bemused look at me. “You said you wished to bathe, yes?”
“I actually asked if there was a bathroom nearby.” I clarified plainly, then looked down at my creased nightdress and tangled hair sheepishly, adding; “But yes, now that you mention it, a bath does sound nice.”
She smiled again and led me towards a slightly thicker glade of smaller trees, past which I could hear the sound of voices and running water. As we got closer, I realised that all the voices were female, though the significance of that didn’t really click until we’d rounded the final bend of dense trees. The view opened up on to a scene from a fantasy landscape painting.
When Merileth had said ‘bathe’ I hadn’t realised she’d meant literally in the middle of a forest river, in full view of a bunch of very pretty, very curious looking elven handmaidens. They were clustered around a small embankment lined with smooth moss-covered stones. Most were luxuriating in the crystal clear waters of the river, while a couple were perched on the rocks in full view of the world as they cleaned their hair and chatted. Every one of them was lightyears beyond Earth standards of beautiful — and none of them had so much as a stitch of clothing hiding any of it.
I felt like I’d just stumbled into some odd version of a renaissance painting that had been photoshopped past the point of perfection or believability.
The second I’d stepped into view with Merileth leading me, they all paused in their conversations, turning to look and whisper to each other, glancing curiously over at me and my etherial nursemaid. My face turned a bit hot, and I tried to convince myself that they were looking at Merileth, not me. I couldn’t think of a good reason why they’d be staring so intently at me…
“Is there something wrong, Lady Élanor?” Merileth asked as I hurried to keep up with her across the riverbank. She was leading me around to the opposite side of the pool to the bathing elf women, thank God.
“It’s a little… exposed out here, isn’t it?” I said nervously, looking around the at the surrounding trees. They were denser than the ones around my sick room, but not so much that they’d keep someone close enough from peeking through.
Merileth gave me a perfectly blank look.
“Is that a problem?” She asked innocently. I shrugged, feeling almost painfully awkward as I fiddled with the thin strap of my flimsy nightdress.
“What if someone… ur, someone not female comes through here?”
Comprehension dawned on Merileth’s lovely face, and she looked as if she way trying to stop herself from laughing. She took my arm gently with a playful smile and continued leading me around the embankment.
“The pools are only used for women’s bathing during the morning hours. The men know never to come here during the first half of the day,” she told me reassuringly. It did make me feel a little better. Then there was a splash and one of the bathing elf girls let out a bell like laugh that was so pretty and perfect I actually winced.
“Right, only women. Only flawless, spotless, perfectly proportioned, slightly creepy women…” I mumbled more to myself than my nurse. I glanced over my shoulder again, trying to appear nonchalant. They were still watching and whispering to each other, one or two even pointing directly at my back as they spoke.
“Why are they all staring at me like that?” I asked quietly, deeply unnerved.
Merileth glanced over at them. A few had the sense to look away and pretend they weren’t interested, but most of them did’t bother.
“Many of them are my fellow handmaidens, and they’ve heard that you are the only female member of the fellowship now under my Lady’s protection. They are simply curious to see you,” she explained, turning back to me.
“To see how I measure up, you mean,” I joked dully, though the humour was painfully forced. Merileth wasn’t fooled either, and she gave me a pointed look over her shoulder.
“There is no reason you should feel embarrassed before them. I saw nothing worth noting when I was dressing you. Save for your wound of course, though that is healing well, according to my Lady.”
I was pretty sure she hadn’t meant that to be quite such a backhanded reassurance, but I didn’t say anything. Then another thought struck me.
“Wait. You where the one who… ur, redressed me? While I was unconscious?”
“Of course,” she replied simply with a blank look. “Why?”
I was so tempted to just put my face in my hands, or maybe bang it against a nearby tree, but I resisted.
“Oh, nothing. Ignore me and my dented pride,” I mumbled, pausing and looking down at myself, then sideways up at her. “I’m guessing you picked out the nightdress too?”
She led me into a fairly large tent, which presumably acted as a makeshift dressing room for the bathers. There were a few benches half covered with discarded clothes, some screens also with garments draped over them, even a couple of full length mirrors. She brought me over to stand in front of one leaned against one of the tent posts. She turned me around so she could help me pull the silky gown I’d been sleeping in over my head.
A familiar, chilling sensation of dread crept through me before I could stop it, and I flinched away automatically. Merileth looked a bit confused and tried again, but I pulled back, firmer this time.
“No, please,” I said, forcing my voice to sounds calm even though I suddenly felt anything but. My stomach had lurched and my heartbeat went from zero to ninety miles per hour in a second. I tried to sound polite and reassuring through my fake smile, but inside I was suddenly wound tight as a bowstring. “I’m ok, really. I can manage.”
She must have seen through the expression because she didn’t smile. She just gave me an understanding look and nodded, though she continued to watch me carefully. I turned sheepishly back to the mirror, a little embarrassed for my suddenly harsh reaction.
I could understand Merileth’s confusion. She didn’t know the reason why I hated anyone helping me undress. Nor did she need to — even if I had just accidentally insulted her.
At that moment I was more focused on the puzzle of getting the nightgown over my head. The thing had multiple thin straps that were more flimsy and more complicated than I was used to. Somehow I managed to get the damned thing over my head, wincing as I did. The movement wasn’t enough to aggravate the wound enough to reopen it, but I could still feel it like little needles in my side if I stretched too far. Finally once the dratted gown was off, I curiously looked to inspect my side properly in the mirror for the first time, but I stopped when I saw an unfamiliar person looking back at me.
Ok, that’s half a lie; she wasn’t completely unfamiliar.
She was just… not what I’d been the last time I’d seen myself in a looking glass.
I was leaner now, the sinewy muscles in my arms and legs more noticeable. I’d never been podgy or anything, but several weeks of almost endless walking/running, and living of nothing but dried meat and stale bread would shave excess weight off even the sveltest of figures. My face was a bit thinner too, my cheekbones and narrow jawline more prominent. I still wasn’t pretty exactly, not in the way the other elves were, and I was still practically doll-like compared to Merileth and Galadriel. But now that I was clean and recovered from days of running, I was fascinated by how my reflection had changed since Rivendell. I looked vaguely like what you’d expect from a fairly serious cross-country runner — a bit stronger, faster, and I held myself with more self-awareness than I had while living in the Imladris Valley.
I allowed my eyes to travel down myself, taking note of things that were different, and things that were mercifully the same. Then my gaze fell on where the goblin arrow had hit me…
I saw Merileth’s face fall in the reflection of the mirror, her voice taking on a worried note.
“Lady Galadriel is sure that it will heal fully with time. Once the stitches are removed you will not be left with a permanent scar,” she told me gently, coming over and carefully taking the night gown from me. “It really doesn’t look that bad. It was much worse a few days ago.”
I knew she was saying it to try and comfort me, to reassure me that my physical appearance wouldn’t be marred by it. But in that moment, I honestly couldn’t have cared less if the scar was on my stomach, on my back, or on my face. I hadn’t realised exactly how close I’d come to actually dying until I’d seen that mark emblazoned on my side. Seeing the pale pink scar tissues pucker just above my hip bone. The neat stitches that held the two-inch wound closed as it healed. The tiny dark red lines spidering out from where the poison had spread into me…
I touched my fingers gently to it, feeling the delicate skin which was still only half healed, and still tender.
I just stood there, staring at myself in the mirror. I stared and stared at that scar on my body for what felt like an age — drinking in the result of my choice to stay silent when I’d known I shouldn’t have. That one little decision, that one tiny choice I’d made… had almost cost me my life.
That was what had shaken me.
I realised after a moment that I was standing there half naked in front of the mirror, gawking at my own reflection like a gobsmacked prima ballerina fixing her makeup. Suppressing the urge to blush, I pulled off the remainder of my undergarments (which mercifully I’d been left with), trying to avoid looking at Merileth while I did it. I could feel her watching me, resisting the compulsive urge to come over and help me — but she kindly respected my request and let me undress myself.
Once I was done, she handed me a towel and led me out to the edge of the water. Setting the towel down on a smooth-topped rock I quickly waded into the calm river pool, more because I wanted to get out of sight more than to get clean. I could feel their eyes on me, even if I was refusing to meet them. The water was cool, though not nearly as cold as it should have been, given that it was late January. I didn’t do much to ease my taught nerves, but it was heaven on my aching muscles and healing bruises. I went damn near boneless with relief as I sank into the water of that river basin, the last of my pains washing away.
I heard Merileth say something vague about finding me a suitable dress from the tents, and I gave a halfhearted grunt of reply, not really listening anymore. I’d sunk shoulder deep into the clear waters of the river, leaning my back against a nearby stone covered with soft moss. I felt ridiculously good, I didn’t want to move for a long, long time.
Even the sounds of the elf women chatting seemed to fade away…
Until one of them quietly said a word that stuck out so much I couldn’t have noticed it more if she’d shouted it.
My eyes popped open again for the second time that day, and I sat up a little in the water, peering over at them. They finally seemed to have lost interest in me in favour of a different and more interesting topic. Now they were talking about ‘Thanduilion’ — the son of Thranduil. The same name Haldir had addressed to the only other elf in the Fellowship.
They were talking about Legolas.
‘Just how well known is this guy?’ I wondered silently, though I got no answer. I suspected Tink was too busy scheming my untimely death to give a witty reply. I pretended not to care.
Closing my eyes and pretending to relax into the water again, I concentrated all my focus onto my hearing — and I listened. The handmaidens were talking about him in the hushed excited tones I usually only associated with teenage girls, not ageless elf maidens probably more than five times my humble twenty-four years. It was difficult to hear them clearly from across the entire pool, but I couldn’t help but catch the odd word that drifted over the water. Words like “tall,” “handsome,” and “unmarried.”
Ye Gods. Nice to see mortals weren't the only ones with a monopoly on gossips. Or man-eaters.
I smiled, surpassing the urge to giggle. It was a bit immature, I knew, but still the thought of Legolas having his own group of rabid elvish fangirls was completely hilarious to me.
But it also made me wonder about something else. When Haldir had addressed him as ‘Thranduilion’, and when the elf maids had said it too, the name had sounded like it held more weight than I knew — more than a mere statement of parentage at least. It sounded like some kind of title…
“You have lovely hair, Lady Élanor.”
I jumped, the movement making a splash as I fell inelegantly sideways into the water. I pulled myself up with an embarrassed splutter to find Merileth standing there on the bank with a long pale blue dress in her arms, and a laughing little smile on her perfect mouth. She’d been so quiet I hadn’t even heard her footsteps on the stones lining the bank.
“Urm, really?” I said slowly, embarrassed and curious. I looked at my damp dark brown hair, stuck to my neck and shoulders, picking at it dubiously. “I always thought it was a bit of a boring colour.”
“Not at all. It is rare to see anything such a dark shade among the elves of Lothlórien.” Merileth seated herself on a nearby rock, setting down the dress beside her. She tilted her head to the side and pinched her lip between her teeth in thought. “I wonder, may I braid it for you? When you are finished bathing of course.”
“Sure, knock yourself out,” I said without thinking.
Merileth looked like I’d just slapped her.
“Knock myself out?” She spluttered, eyes gone wide with shock.
“Oh God, no! I didn’t mean literally!” I floundered, realising exactly what I had just said to the poor girl. “It’s, um… it’s just a saying we, um, sometimes used in Rivendell. It means ‘help yourself.’”
“Oh, I see,” she smiled, though it seemed a little wooden. I returned it, and we both chuckled at the awkwardness at the same time, the tension easing a little.
We chatted for a while after that, mostly me asking about Lothlórien and Caras Galadhon and Merileth answering my numerous questions while I washed my hair and face. A few of minutes later she helped me out of the water and into a towel, helping me dry of with only minimal assistance (bless her angelic heart). Then she led me back into the tent where I’d undressed and led me to a bench in front of one of the mirrors.
“Your speech is so unusual, and strangely charming. Do all the elves of Imladris speak as you do?” Merileth asked as she sat me down and went about finding something to tame my hair with.
“No, I’m something of a black sheep,” I replied, pleasantly surprised to find how relaxed I was talking to her by then. I guess after everything she’d seen me go through up until now there was no real point in being embarrassed anymore. I kept my head still and facing towards the mirror as she expertly took a wide toothed comb to my tangled hair. “Have you ever been to Rivendell?”
“No, I have spent my whole life in Lothlórien. Though lord Haldir has. He speaks very fondly of it,” she told me, working through the knots so carefully I hardly felt a thing.
“And you speak fondly of him,” I noted, unable to keep the little smile off my face. Merileth looked surprised, but the blush that coloured her pale cheeks left no doubt that she knew exactly what I meant.
“Oh? Do I?”
It was the second time she’d mentioned him in half an hour, and every time she had I’d seen that quiet, wistful little smile appear on her face. I might have been hopeless in the romance department, but even I wasn’t that clueless.
Merileth, for her part, seemed content to leave me to my pondering while she dried and brushed my hair. When she finally got to the braiding stage she started to hum a light tune quietly under her breath. It was pretty, but also a little sad somehow — the soft notes reminding me of birdsongs just before the sky turned dark at night. I closed my eyes and tilted my head back, lazily enjoying the feeling of being pampered and the sound of Merileth’s humming.
“That’s a pretty song.” I heard myself say, and I could all but hear the small smile in her tone.
“A song my mother used to sing,” she explained fondly, then her voice dimmed slightly, “She used to sing it for me almost every night when I was a child.”
I opened my eyes and found that Merileth’s pretty smile had vanished, replaced with a neutral expression — but there a sorrowful look hidden behind her eyes.
Merileth nodded and continued working on my hair.
“She was taken from this world two years ago, along with my father. There was a sneak attack on their travelling party as they passed through the mountains.”
I saw my own face fall, and it was a genuine reflection of what I felt at those words. In a way, when I’d come to Arda, I’d lost my family too. But at least I knew that somewhere, they were still out there. I could scarcely imagine loosing my parents in the way she had. Especially when, as an elf, death wasn’t something you normally had face.
“I’m sorry, Merileth,” I said quietly, and meant it.
“As am I,” she replied, a soft, flickering smile appearing in the place of the sorrow like a tiny flame. “The pain still lingers for me. I might have departed for the West by now, if not for my brothers.”
“You have brothers?”
“Yes, my lady. Two. Both of them much younger that I. Gweredir is nearing his thirty-fifth year, and Colion is but eighteen.”
It took me a moment to get over the mental speed bump. If my mental maths was anything to go by, that would have meant that Gweredir appeared about nine, and Colion about four in human terms — the same age as the two elf children I’d seen playing in the gardens.
“I think I saw them both earlier. Curly blond hair and hazel eyes?” I asked. She nodded with a small smile. I nodded too, returning it. “They’re both cute boys.”
Her smile brightened at that, completely eclipsing the sadness that had marred her features moments before.
“They are why I remain,” she told me, her voice welling with the kind of tangible affection that only a much older sibling could invoke, “I could not abandon them for my grief.”
I returned that smile in the mirror, feeling a level of empathy at that statement that I couldn’t have possibly put into words. So I didn’t even try. I just sat there, thinking about my own brother for a moment as Merileth continued to weave my hair into a complicated plait.
“What of you, my lady?” she asked tentatively after a long but amiable silence. “What of your family?”
Although I had no logical reason for wanting to, I suddenly wanted desperately to tell her the truth. The truth about my real family back on Earth. How much I really missed them… and how painful it was to think of them for too long. How I tried to avoid thinking about them because of that pain, but how I was also scared of forgetting them completely.
But as always, the truth was out of the question.
“They’re…” I faltered, my voice hitching a little bit before I could get it together. “They’re a long way from here. I haven’t seen them in a long time.”
“I see,” she said, sensing my unease and not pushing the subject. “What about a suitor?”
“Suitor?” I repeated, puzzled, and taking a moment to realise exactly what she meant by that word. I looked back over my shoulder at her and she nodded, tilting her head to the side curiously.
“You are of age, fair and kindhearted,” she stated plainly, without so much as a trace of sarcasm, tucking a stray stand of hair behind my ear. “Is there not one who holds your affections?”
“No,” I said a little too quickly, the sharp sting of unwanted memories surfacing again. It had been two and a half years, almost to the month since I’d last heard Mark’s voice. But his final words still chilled me every time I remembered them:
“You’ll never find anyone who will love you as much as I did, Ells. Ever.”
I cleared my throat and looked away, shaking my head.
“No, there’s no one.”
Merileth eyed me in the mirror and clucked her tongue.
“I’m not so sure I believe that,” she said wryly. She paused for a second, tending to a more complicated part of the braid, and chewing her lip slightly in thought before adding; “Your companions seem to care a great deal for you.”
That piqued my curiosity. I peered at her over my shoulder with a sceptically raised eyebrow.
“How do you figure?”
A knowing little grin played across the elf woman's lips. She opened her mouth to answer, but was interrupted when one of the other fair-haired handmaidens swept inside. She was garbed only in a loose white robe that somehow managed to accentuate rather than conceal her supermodel’s figure and perfect skin. I hated her already.
“Merileth, Haldir is here to return Lady Élanor to her companions,” she glanced over me with interest, then gave Merileth a knowing, almost sly look. “He also wished to see you, if you were available to speak.”
Merileth’s cheeks coloured again, darker this time. I felt her fingers tremble very slightly against the back of my shoulder where she’d been tying off the end of my braid. Well, I say braid. To me it looked like she’d spun my hair into something resembling a long and extremely complicated basket weave.
“Of course. We’ll be but a moment.”
Maybe it was just me, but Merileth seemed a lot more intent on getting me prepared quickly after the other handmaiden swept from the tent.
She all but pulled the towel off me, throwing the silky blue dress over my head, and turning me around as she tugged it down into place — a flustered but excited little smile stuck on her face the entire time. I tired to keep up as best I could, obediently turning and twisting in whichever direction she ordered before finally she was satisfied I looked presentable again.
The dress was beautiful once it was on. Silky, pale blue, with long sleeves and a flattering neckline; and it fit surprisingly well. But it was way, way longer that I was comfortable with. I had no idea if the skirt was supposed to drag along an entire foot behind me, or I was just epically shorter than the person supposed to be wearing it. Probably a bit of both. The Rivendell elves, despite their fabulous architecture, seemed to value function over form. Lothlórien, on the other hand, seemed to be an entirely different ballgame — all etherial floaty fabrics and flamboyant safety hazards.
Ah well. Just as long as I didn’t have to run away from anything intent on eating my face.
I picked up the long skirt over my feet and followed Merileth as she led me outside, being extra carful not to trip over the hem and go tumbling face-first into a tree.
It was harder than you’d think. By the time I’d skirted the bathing pools and followed around the copse of screening trees after Merileth, she was already strides ahead of me. I slowed as I watched her walking quickly in the direction of the steps we’d come up to get to the pools, and stopped entirely as I saw who she was so intent on reaching.
Haldir stood about fifty meters away, waiting patiently with his back to us. He was still wearing the hunting leathers of the Galadrim I’d seen him in when his patrol had found us. And he still had that stoney, unyielding expression on his serious face.
I watched curiously as Merileth slowed in her strides towards him, her posture suddenly turning from excited to nervous, her hands wringing together. He obviously heard her approach, because he suddenly looked up and smiled warmly at her — far warmer and kinder expression than I’d ever seen him wear before.
Merileth returned the smile with so much brightness it turned her already beautiful face into something that could have broken a human man’s heart in seconds. Thankfully, Haldir wasn’t human, and it seemed to only make his own smile that little bit warmer. He didn’t drop the formal stature though. He gave her a polite bow and said something I couldn’t hear. Merileth replied quietly and equally politely, but it was easy to see even from the other side of the clearing that the formality was forced. Though she hid it well, I could tell she was disappointed by Haldir’s pointed reservedness.
You would have had to be blind or going for a Darwin Award to not see what was going on between those two.
I suddenly felt deeply uncomfortable standing there watching them as they gazed doe-eyed at each other. Don’t get me wrong, they were just talking — but there was something about it that made me feel like I was intruding upon something very intimate right then.
I decided after another second of hovering there like an awkward pale blue cloud that Merileth could probably survive without me. I managed to silently slip away down some white stone steps while the two of them were making gooey eyes at each other, disappearing before either of them could notice I’d vanished. It was obvious Merileth had all but forgotten about me anyway, and that was fine with me. I’d felt the itching need to be alone since she’d shoe-horned me into that dress anyway.
But even as I vanished down the stairs in the other direction, I couldn’t keep the knowingly gleeful smile of my face at the thought of her and the Marchwarden though.
‘God help me if I ever end up looking that mushy about someone ever again.’ I chuckled silently to myself, not expecting, nor wanting, an answer.
I made my way to the bottom of the stone steps until my bare feet hit soft grass, and I found myself walking through yet another small garden, this one filled with the same yellow flowers I’d seen earlier. They grew almost everywhere. Up through the grass, in the flower beds, around the trees — and I imagined them in the light of the currently unlit silver lamps, looking like tiny gold stars against the dark green grass.
I slowed in my walk and picked one, using it as an excuse to slow to a stop and try to remember whether I’d ever read about this type in my herbal studies. But really, I knew I was just putting off the inevitable.
Merileth had mentioned briefly during our chat where the others were camped out on the forest floor, and I knew I was heading roughly in the right direction. I was sure that even with my appalling sense of direction, I would find them eventually, but I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to face them just yet…
It was Gandalf that convinced me I should. Well, figuratively speaking.
The soft elvish singing I’d heard earlier that morning while walking to the pools was clearer now that I was properly awake and alone enough to focus on it. I listened and realised with a little pang of sadness and guilt that it wasn’t a song at all. It was a lament.
“Olórin, who once was
Sent by the Lords of the West
To guard the lands of the East
Wisest of all Maiar
What drove you to leave
That which you loved?
Mithrandir, Mithrandir O Pilgrim Grey
No more will you wander the green fields of this earth
Your journey has ended in darkness.
The bonds cut, the spirit broken
The Flame of Anor has left this World
A great light, has gone out.” (1)
The Sindarin and Quenya words cut deeper than any knife or arrow I could imagine as I translated them in my head. My eyes stung a little, and I realised it was the first time I’d truly had the opportunity to stop and really let the loss of the old Wizard sink in. Gandalf was dead, and I had no idea if he was truly gone forever or not. Somehow, that lack of closure was worse than anything else.
I felt myself sink down onto a moss covered stone, the little gold flower still cradled limply in my hand, my eyes suddenly a bit damp.
I’d promised myself years back during my first few months in Arda that I wouldn’t cry anymore. That if I had time to cry, I had time to get up and do something about it. But I knew this was different. This wasn’t anything to do with me, or my problems, or my homesickness. It was simply the sinking realisation that a kind, wise old man who had guided and protected us all was gone.
So I let myself have that moment. Just a moment to let the reality of it sink in, and let whatever emotions I had suppressed until now out. It felt good to let it out, weird as that sounds. Even if it was just for a moment, it was good to let the fear, frustration, grief and confusion go without the fear of appearing weak.
Finally when I was calm again, I knew what I needed to do. I knew that there was no way Gandalf, or my mentor, would have approved of me shirking the others for fear of being reprimanded. And in all fairness, I probably deserved the roasting I’d be getting when I saw them.
I’d still do it. But I also knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
‘What in this ever world is?’ Tink’s voice echoed up from the depths of my mind for the first time since our fight. I sighed, and smiled through my half-dried tears.
Taking a deep breath to quell the last of my hiccupping breaths, and wiping away the last of my water-works, I got up off my rock and started moving barefoot in the direction Merileth had told me about. Following the paths paved with white stoned, I reached another set of winding stairs leading down through some more huge mallorn trees. I followed the silver lanterns on either side of the walkway, being carful not to trip over my ludicrously long skirt.
About half way down the heavenly smell of bacon hit my nose, and I almost grinned. The scent was so unbelievably familiar and welcoming it was almost enough to calm my suddenly jumpy nerves.
I followed the smell of cooking food down the stairs on shaky legs, and around the base of a tree until I could hear the sounds of the hobbits talking quietly. Presumably over their freshly made breakfast. I could hear Gimli’s gruff voice complaining about something, and the occasional tenor of Boromir chipping in too.
I tried hard to distract myself from my nervousness by wondering if they had any leftovers for me. But as soon as I rounded the last tree and saw them all there, my courage abandoned me.
They were all there. Every one of them.
All four hobbits had divested themselves of their travelling gear, and were clustered around a small cooking fire in their looser clothing and talking quietly. Gimli was nearby too, and for once was not wearing his heavy metal helmet. He was reclined against a tree root with his axe propped against it next to him, his head tilted back resting on the bark with his eyes unfocused and muttering something about ‘the rabbit food the elves call a meal.’
Boromir was there too, sitting just far enough to one side to keep the sound of him sharpening his sword with a whet-stone to a minimum — a sound which, oddly, didn’t sound menacing even though it logically should have. And just a little way behind him stood Aragorn and Legolas. The two of them were talking quietly to each other in Sindarin with their backs to me near some trees, both wearing looser clothes and relaxed stances, and Aragorn calmly smoking his pipe. Seriously, did the man ever stop smoking?
Sure enough too, they all looked like they’d just finished the remains of a good, old-fashioned fried breakfast. Merry was helping Sam clear away while the others continued to sit and talk, or simply enjoy the feeling of calm and safety that seemed inherent to the wood we were now sheltered in.
I just stood there for the longest moment, simply looking around at them all in their various states of relief and quiet. It was a strangely peaceful moment to come in upon. I’d never seen any of them quite like this before — calm and relaxed, but with a lingering hint of sadness; no doubt left over from their own grief over Gandalf.
Then, I suddenly had the oddest feeling like I was intruding. Like I shouldn’t be there.
Maybe it was the nerves, or the lack of food, but I couldn’t shake the sudden feeling of suddenly wanting to turn around and go back up the stairs again…
Then Frodo looked up suddenly, and for a split second our eyes met. We just stared at one another, the Ringbearer’s blue eyes widening. Then he opened his mouth and said in a stunned but unmistakably relieved voice loud enough for every one of them to hear:
(1) “Lament for Gandalf” from The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien (original translation in Sindarin and Quenya)