Chapter 19: Choices Choices
Gweredir did as he promised and lead me to the handmaidens' quarters, eventually.
We got a little sidetracked by him insisting on showing me all his favourite hang-outs along the way, as well as all the best spots to hide from his tutors. We were even more delayed when we finally did reach the handmaidens' quarters only to find Merileth was busy elsewhere. Instead, her youngest brother Colion was there, waiting dutifully to give me the message from his big sister.
I'd all but been a captive of the two boys after that. Only three hours later did I manage to tear myself away from the adorable clutches of Merileth's siblings, but not before I'd been "forced" into several different games with them. I-spy, tag, hide and seek, even a tree-climbing race; when I finally insisted that I needed to head back, Colion had made me promise that I'd be back tomorrow to play with them again.
"All the other maids are so serious, or too busy to play, but you're fun. You laugh and smile a lot, like Merileth when she's not busy working," he stated in the matter of fact way only kids could pull off. "Promise you'll be back?"
I mean, come on. Who could have said no to that?
Plus, I'd really needed something to cheer me up after the night I'd had, and those two kids had pulled it off better than anything I could have asked for.
It was just past midday by the time I finally started heading back, and the sunlight filtering through the golden leaves of the mallorn trees bathed the forest in warm, honey coloured light. Gweredir had given me directions back to the Fellowship's camp from the handmaidens' quarters, though this time it was through the maze of bridges and walkways up in the trees. He'd assured me it was much faster, but I would have taken the route for the view all on its own.
I smiled and hummed quietly under my breath as I picked my way across one of the bridges and along a walkway, the loose braid I'd let Colion pull my hair into swinging against my back. Now that I'd had a chance to properly calm down, get my hysteria under control, and actually think about what had happened with a clear head, I was starting to feel a bit better about it.
Well, better in the sense that I could consider my options clearly now. Hanging out with Colion and Gweredir hadn't only done wonders for my mood, it had given me much needed time to consider everything that I'd learned during my meeting with Lady Galadriel. In between climbing trees and chasing the two kids around the gardens, I'd also been thinking hard over everything Aragorn had said, especially the bomb he'd dropped on the others about my memory loss.
Most importantly of all, I'd made my decision on how I was going to respond to Aragorn's "polite suggestion" at remaining in Lothlórien. Which was why I was currently forcing myself to walk back towards the Fellowship's camp, when really all I wanted to do was turn tail and run. Oh, I was feeling much better than before, and a lot calmer now that I had at least a vague idea of what I wanted to do next. Still, that didn't change the fact that the last time I'd seen any of the Fellowship, they'd all been about thirty seconds into the aftershock of realising that their resident elvish healer was only a two-year trained amnesiac.
'Just keep smiling, Eleanor. Keep humming, and smiling, and walking with a spring in your step, and maybe one day you'll actually convince someone you're not petrified of seeing the looks on their faces again…'
Urgh, who was I kidding? I slowed to a stop on a low hanging bridge, letting the forced smile slide from my face.
I didn't want to admit it, but happy as I'd been minutes ago with the kids, I was really scared of going back now. I'd been gone half of yesterday, all night, and most of the current day. As far as the rest of the Fellowship were concerned, I was likely still hanging out with the other handmaidens, and they were probably expecting me to just stay there. After the way I'd left them after Aragorn's speech, I doubted they were looking to see me back all that quickly.
Yet, if I was going to make my decision known, I was going to have to tell them sooner rather than later. Might as well face the music now while I was feeling brave.
I steeled myself, my fists clenching slightly at my side, and let the forced facade of cheer vanish entirely as I kept walking, my stance turning from chipper to determined. The forest floor below was starting to look familiar, and I could smell the scent of food cooking. Fried, debatably unhealthy food — a good indicator that I was almost there.
I'd just stepped off another bridge onto a low level flet when I heard something that made me stop in my tracks. Two familiar voices, talking quietly from just below the platform I stood on.
Curiously, I moved as silently as I could to peer over the edge, and froze instantly.
Aragorn and Gimli stood not ten feet below. Gimli had divested himself of his battle-axe and helm, and had settled himself onto a moss covered tree root. Aragorn leaned back against the tree beside him, and for once, neither of them were smoking.
Of all the people, it had to be the top two of the entire Fellowship I wanted to face least of all right now. I scrambled away from the edge and pressed my back flat against the tree the flet was built around, so that I was as far back from the edge of the platform at possible. It wasn't a good hiding spot by any stretch of the imagination. If either Aragorn or Gimli so much as glanced upward they'd see me immediately, but I couldn't move now. Not without them hearing my steps on the wooden bridges linking the platforms.
So I stayed there, standing as still as possible with my back against the tree, my fingers crossed, and praying they didn't decide to spontaneously look up to admire the golden treetops.
'Argh, how do I keep getting myself into these situations?'
'If only I knew the answer to that, boss,' Tink answered quietly, whispering even though she knew full well I was the only one who could hear her.
"… she really has no memory before two years past?" Gimli was asking, and I could hear him surprisingly clearly despite the awkwardness of my eavesdropping position.
"It is why Lord Elrond took her in," Aragorn replied, and I couldn't help but listen closely, especially at the realisation they were talking about me and my 'situation.' "Or at least that is what I am led to believe."
Gimli gave a low, gravelly grunt of acceptance that at the same time held a note of arrogant dismissal — it was a sound that I'd learned that only he could pull off. Must be a dwarf thing.
"Well, that explains a lot of her strange behaviour, I suppose," Gimli responded gruffly, with a musing note to his rough voice. A silence stretched between the man and dwarf for a moment before Gimli broke it with something I wasn't expecting him to say. "You didn't have to be so hard on the her before, Aragorn."
Clearly Aragorn was equally as shocked by Gimli's words as I was, because it took him a minute to respond in his usual unaffectedly calm, matter-of-fact voice.
"It would be safer if she stayed, she needed to see that. She won't survive long out there if she keeps tripping up like this," he said back tonelessly. "You think she'll live long enough to see Mordor by being coddled for making such dangerous mistakes?"
"No, but mistake though she may have made, she survived it. And what more, she learned from it. No permanent harm done. Except perhaps my ears, the lass can really scream," Gimli replied, unaffected by Aragorn's noticeably defensive tone. I imagined the dwarf giving him a pointed look past his beard and thick eyebrows, and Aragorn staring down at him with those storm-cloud-grey eyes narrowed in warning.
"You fight as family do," he said simply. Aragorn's response came instantly and sharply.
Gimli chuckled lightly, though the sound didn't hold much amusement.
"You sure about that, laddie?" he asked pointedly. I could all but see the hard look on Aragorn's face, and hear Gimli's dismissive shrug. "Could have fooled me, the way you treat her."
"Like she's made of glass. Like she'll go to pieces out there without you there to shield her," he clarified in a gruff and faintly impatient voice. "I'm no expert, but for just two years training she seems to be a pretty decent healer. No amount of balms or pain relief salves are going to replace that, especially if one of us gets stuck with an arrow or breaks a bone."
"And what if she's the one who gets hit with the arrow, or the blade, or any weapon? What then?"
"Then she will have already made the decision to risk that for herself. You made damned sure she knows that," there was a pause as Gimli took a sigh, as if longing to take a drag from his pipe. The silence that hung in the air was so thick I was sure if I reached out a hand I'd be able to physically feel it. Then finally, Gimli broke it one last time.
"She's a good lass, Aragorn. Smarter and tougher than you give her credit for, and she's learning fast that the world outside Imladris is an unforgiving place to live in. Don't let her start hating you for that."
I felt strangely numb by the time I finally reached the edge of the Fellowship's camp, and it was a stark contrast to how I'd felt entering it the previous day.
For ages I'd just sat there on the flet where I'd slid down the tree, half shocked and half baffled until Gimli and Aragorn had walked away. I hadn't expected to feel what I did when Gimil, of all people, had come to my defence. Out of all of them, I'd been expecting him to care the least about my choices — and yet, he had. It made a strange, squirming feeling of warmth appear in my gut, accompanied by the sharp twinge of guilt at having not come clean with them all sooner.
The entire glade was near empty when I came down the stairs and rounded the corner. I wasn't expecting the entire company to be there or anything, but I'd certainly expected to find more than just the four hobbits. They were reclined on the cushions that had been circled around the fire the other night, now set up under one of the white, silk awnings, and seemed to be enraptured in a deep conversation in hushed but relaxed tones. That all combined with the steady streams of smoke rising from their pipes made the whole scene look like an Arabian shisha den.
They'd also just finished eating a round of what smelled unmistakably like pancakes.
Pancakes, at lunchtime.
I suddenly had the oddest feeling of nostalgia for being student again, back when I'd been in the halls of residence during my first year. Sam must have decided they were all in need of a late lunch — probably the second one of the day.
Merry was the first one to notice me this time, his face falling into wary surprise as he looked up to see me wandering towards them. The others looked around too. I tried to smile, but it felt a little wooden and tired on my face.
"Mind if I join you?" I asked softly. None of them protested, and Frodo pulled a cushion over for me to perch on. Sam and Pippin gave me equally uncomfortable smiles as I'd given them, but I noted that Merry hadn't lost the slight frown he'd had when he'd first seen me. I sat down beside Frodo, tucking my legs under me, and tried to ignore the awkward silence crushing us all.
"Where are the others?" I asked when no one else said anything. Sam cleared his throat, little puffs of pipe smoke coming out of his nose, and I saw him give Pippin a surreptitious nudge with his foot. Pippin fumbled with his own pipe, coughing awkwardly too.
"They were around a few minutes ago but…" he began to answer slowly with a strange, puppy-like look at me, but it clearly wasn't the response Sam had wanted because he interrupted brusquely.
"Boromir left to find the training grounds. Aragorn and Gimli went to wander around the gardens just a few minutes ago, and Legolas…" Sam trailed off, suddenly squinting at me in puzzlement before asking, "Are those flowers in your hair?"
I blinked and looked down to see the flimsy braid Colion had put my hair into had swung into view over my shoulder. It wasn't anywhere near as intricate as the one his sister had given me the previous day, but he'd made up for it by working dozens of the pretty, yellow, star-like flowers into the plait.
"Oh, yeah," I answered with a fond little smile, twirling the end of the braid around my finger. "One of the elf children heard my name was Eleanor and wouldn't take no for an answer. Next thing I know, I'm rocking a flower-power braid."
"That makes sense," Frodo chipped in conversationally, his interested tone making me feel a little less awkward.
"'Élanor'. You share the same name as that flower," he clarified, gesturing with his pipe to my hair. "Legolas was telling us their names earlier."
I raised an eyebrow and looked down at the end of my flower adorned plait, thumbing it absently and mildly surprised that I hadn't realised that sooner. Herbs and plants had kind of been my specialty as Lord Elrond's apprentice; it was partly why I'd done so much work for the house apothecary. Though when I thought about it, all the flowers and herbs I'd studied during my apprenticeship had been exclusively for medicinal purposes, and I'd never seen these ones growing in Rivendell.
"Huh, I guess I know why the elves have such a funny way of pronouncing my name now," I said lightly, feigning casualness I didn't feel. I couldn't tell if Sam, Frodo or Pippin were fooled, but Merry sure as hell wasn't. He'd sat up, fixed me with a hard stare and cut straight through the lingering tension like knife through half-melted butter.
"Why didn't you say anything?"
We all stared at him, even Pippin. Then, all four hobbits turned to stare at me. I swallowed nervously, somehow feeling more off balance now than when I'd had my tiff with Aragorn the previous day.
"I… I just…" I trailed off, feeling the pressure of all of their gazes on me.
"You didn't trust us," Merry stated calmly, calmer than I'd ever heard him before. It was an eery sound to hear coming from him, someone I would probably be laughing and joking with under normal circumstances.
"No, it wasn't that. It just…" I stopped and considered it for a moment, a brief flashback to what Haldir had said to me earlier about trust. I closed my mouth, took a breath to settle my nerves, and started again. "It didn't seem relevant at the time, when I joined the Fellowship I mean. Everyone at the council meeting already thought I was incompetent and shouldn't be allowed to come. Adding that information to the mix would have just added fuel to the fire, made things worse."
None of them moved or spoke for a moment. They just looked at me with vaguely befuddled expressions, like I'd just said the whole thing backwards.
"You were truly that determined to come?"
I nodded without hesitation. "Yeah, I did."
And there it was, the question I'd been dreading most of all. The question that, even though I'd been asking myself it over and over again since we'd first left Rivendell, I still didn't have a sane-sounding answer to — let alone one sensible enough to present as a reason to anyone in the Fellowship.
Yet, for them, I'd give it a try.
"You know how Aragorn said I couldn't remember any of my life from before about two years ago?"
They all nodded.
"Well, the only time in those two years I remembered anything from my past was in the Council meeting, when Gandalf used the Black Speech," I explained tentatively, unsure of how to deal with how they were all looking at me now, curiosity mixed with confusion.
"I remember that," Merry said, still not loosing his frown but sounding a little more amiable. "You and the other elves looked like you were going to be sick."
I nodded, my fingers wringing together anxiously.
"It was the first time it had ever happened. It was only for a few seconds, and it didn't really make sense. I guess at the time, I thought that if I could just get out of Rivendell and come with you all, help somehow, I might be able to make it happen again. Get something else to happen to get more of my memories back, so I could…"
The looks of surprise that appeared on all four of their faces almost made me cringe — their eyebrows all but vanishing up into their curly hair.
Ugh, this had all sounded so much better in my head. I had honestly tried my best to rehearse my explanation; why I'd kept all this from them, that I hadn't meant to hurt or betray any of them, and that I was sorry for not trusting them. Now, however, all I was doing was mangling it to pieces. I wanted so badly to just sink into the earth and maybe stay down there for a few hundred years.
"So everything Aragorn said before that, about your two years training, living in Rivendell, and not remembering anything at all before then, that was all true?" Frodo asked in a voice that suggested genuine interest, rather than accusation. I looked at him and couldn't keep the relieved sigh out of my reply.
"Pretty much," I said with a little shrug, then hesitated and asked curiously, "How much did Aragorn tell you all after I left?"
"Only a bit," Pippin spoke up for the first time, his uncertainty vanishing. "He told us about how he found you two years ago, said you'd woken in a cave somewhere in a forest not far from the valley."
I nodded with a cautious little smile at the memory.
"He also told us all how you were brought to Lord Elrond, made his ward, then eventually asked to be his apprentice, and got accepted."
"That too," I said again with another tense little shrug. "I suppose he did tell you pretty much everything after all."
Another heavy silence fell over us all, and I glanced around at them quizzically. All four of them had gone unnervingly silent, the expressions on each of their faces unsettlingly tense, and all of them aimed at me. I shivered.
"What is it?"
There was a short pause before Merry took the lead for all of them.
"There's more to it than just that, isn't there?" he spoke carefully after a few seconds of thought. I eyed him questioningly.
"How do you figure?"
"Whenever any one of us asked you about your or your life, you'd try and avoid the question. I understand that now, I suppose. You don't have much you can remember," he explained, looking to the others for confirmation. They all made their agreement obvious even if they didn't voice it as Merry continued, far more carefully and gently than I was used to hearing from him. He was looking at me in the way one might at a frightened, stray dog. "But when any of us ever asked you about family, or friends, or anyone really, you always looked sad and quickly changed the subject. It's like you were remembering something, something that made you really unhappy, not just sad over lost memories."
My stomach writhed at those words. A small chip of ice in my chest grew as the thoughts I'd been suppressing for so long came rising to the surface. I tried to hide it, not wanting them to see how close to home Merry's words had hit, but I couldn't quite do it. I just didn't have the will left to keep pushing it back down. I saw the expression on his face change as he looked at me, his voice faltering a bit in uncertainty.
Pippin suddenly edged over and placed a hand on his friend's shoulder, giving it a reassuring squeeze and picked up where he'd trailed off.
"Aragorn said he shouldn't have said anything to us, that it wasn't his place to tell any of us your secrets. However, he also said that, if we really wished to know more about you, we should ask you ourselves," he explained tentatively.
"We know you lost your memories and all that, but…" Merry found his voice again, and though he seemed to have found the words he'd been searching for, they sounded hesitant and jumpy coming from him. "Well, sometimes you talk as if you come from another place entirely. Other than Rivendell, I mean. Somewhere you still remember, and you don't want to forget, but don't want anyone else to know about, either."
Say what you like about hobbits, but never ever say they aren't wiser and more perceptive than they get credit for.
Not that this did anything to quell the sudden torrent of icy panic swimming through my guts. If I hadn't wanted to get up, run and hide before, now I certainly did. I'd been prepared for questions and comments about my lost memories and what I could and couldn't remember, but I'd not even considered that anyone would pick up that there was more to my story than just amnesia and two years in Rivendell. I'd decided long before that one way or another I'd eventually have to tell the Fellowship about my lost memories of my life in Arda.
The one thing I hadn't given any thought to was coming clean about everything about my situation. Namely, my life before my human body had fallen into a coma and my mind been sent to Middle Earth. Another pang went through my chest at the mere thought of my home, of the memory of the last time I'd spoken to my mother, seen my father, called my brother, or just walked down the streets of my city.
My eyes stung a bit and I blinked furiously.
I'd wanted so many times to talk to someone, anyone about the home I missed so much, but I'd always told myself I couldn't. Even the benevolent and trusting Lord Elrond's reaction to the truth had been to declare me either a liar, a mad woman, or part of one the strangest paradoxical situations he'd ever come across in his life. The idea of willingly telling anyone besides my mentor about my life as a human, my family, my home, and my desperation to find a way to return frightened me to my core.
Then again, that was what trust was about, right?
Out of the entire Fellowship, the four hobbits had always been unquestioningly kind and respectful to me, even when I hadn't always deserved it. If I couldn't bring myself to start trusting them now — really trusting them — when was I going to?
My heart was suddenly pounding like a kettle-drum in my ear, and I hadn't even realised how scared I was of what I'd decided I was about to say until I opened my mouth to do it.
"That's because, I…" I fumbled my words, shoving back the tiny part of my brain that had started screaming "no!" as I did. "I kind of… did come from another place before Rivendell."
Silence dropped on the five of us like a stone through water. Ok, maybe that had been a tad melodramatic, but hell, there wasn't much about my situation that didn't sound ridiculously insane anyway — nd if I went through with this, it was about to get a whole lot worse. I just let it sink in for a moment, resisting the urge to nervously start picking at the skirt of my dress.
"How do you mean?" Frodo put forward finally, confused and not bothering to hide it.
I took a breath to steady myself, looking around at the four hobbit, moving from face to face, each of their gazes fixed on me. I hated the fact that I felt so scared again. So many doubts were whispering through me in that moment.
Was this a stupid idea? How would they react? Would they think I was insane? Would they even agree to listen once I started? Would they even believe me if I did? And if they didn't, would they call me a fraud? A liar?
'Only one way to find out, boss.'
I looked away from the four of their expectant faces, and down at my hands. They were shaking slightly, and I clenched them hard to stop the tremors.
"Before I woke here in Arda, in that cave Aragorn told you about, before any of that I… I had another life, somewhere else," I spoke very slowly, treading as carefully over my words as I knew how. "You where right, Merry. There's one more part to this 'story' of mine I haven't told you yet. Not anyone, except Lord Elrond and Gandalf, but I don't know…" I tired to clear the nervous lump in my throat. "I have no idea how to tell it, not without sounding completely mad."
This time, Sam — honest and wonderfully straight forward Sam — broke the silence with possibly the best reassurance I could have ever hoped for.
"That's easy, Ms. Eleanor," he replied to me gently in that kindly accent that reminded me of home. "Just talk, and we'll listen."
"We all will," Pippin added softly, a tiny smile appearing in his voice.
So I did.
I swallowed my fear, my doubt, and my hesitation, and I told them. I told them every single thing in that crazed, messed up tale of mine, right from start to the finish.
After all, if there was anything I'd always been good at, it was telling stories.
I don't know how much time went by as I talked, but once I'd started I could no longer stop.
I'd already done all this once before — trying to explain my home world of Earth to someone who'd only ever been exposed to the medieval world of Arda. You'd think that it would have been easier to explain second time around. Practice makes perfect and all that.
Trying to explain the idea of towering cities of steel and glass and electricity to an elf lord was one thing. Trying to explain it to four hobbits who's idea of a city was anything one house bigger than Bree; now that was a completely different ball game. I did my best, though, starting with simply describing my family home in the English countryside (likening it to the Shire), how my family did a lot of travelling because of my dad's job in the army, and my time living away from home at university.
There were many questions, and a lot of deviations as I tried my best to give them the clearest image of what my home world was really like. It was only when they started asking about my life there, my parents, my brother, my friends that things got really difficult. I even told them a little bit about Mark, though I left out the part where he and his new girlfriend had accidentally butt-dialled me on my last night — that was just a subject with way too many pitfalls in it. I tried to keep a brave face as I told them about my family, biting down hard on my lower lip every time I felt my throat clench, but I couldn't keep it all in. I guess after almost three years of holding everything bottled up inside, not being able to really talk about it to anyone, I just couldn't hold back the river anymore.
Even so, I refused to let myself cry, but it was a near thing. Sam offered me one of his spare handkerchiefs just in case, and I took it without question.
There was only two things I deliberately left out of my explanation — Tolkien's books, and Tink.
It was only a theory, but the reaction I'd got from Tink at almost given away the Watcher in the Water had left me thinking that keeping the 'original' plot of the Lord of the Rings story was probably a sensible idea after all. Telling the others the things I could still remember from the story would affect their decisions, and would only help to speed up the rate at which the 'plot' of this timeline was changing. At least if I just let things play out as they should for now, it would be easier for me to remember what was going to happen next — in theory anyway.
Plus I had the sneaking suspicion if I did try and give the game away again, Tink would be flexing her incorporeal fingers to try and cut off my airway again, just like she'd done outside Moria.
It got easier once I got past the part about Earth and my family, instead getting into talking about my experience of waking up in Arda for the first time. I knew Aragorn had already filled them in, but they prompted me on and listened, enraptured as I told them everything from meeting Aragorn, Elrond, Arwen, and Bilbo, and everything in between, right up to the day I was called in to help heal Frodo's morgul stab wound.
By the time I finally finished talking, Merry and Sam's eyes were as round as dinner plates, and Frodo and Pippin were doing some masterful impressions of a pair of baffled goldfish.
"That's…" Sam began in a croaky voice.
"Wow," Pippin finished in a breathy rush. I shifted uncomfortably on my cushion, fiddling with the small white handkerchief Sam had given me earlier, when I'd been talking about my parents. It was still dry, but it had been creased and twisted from where I'd been using it to keep my nervous hands busy.
"I did warn you it would sound insane."
"I don't…" Frodo started, but stopped to reconsider his words, still staring at me with mixed shock and awe. "You said Gandalf knew about this? All this?"
I nodded slowly.
"That's at least what I thought. He made out like he knew it all. My human name, where I really came from, everything. Aside from Lord Elrond, I think he was the only one who knew everything, but now…" I let the sentence trail off as I saw all of their expressions sink a little at the mention of the wizard's fall. I wrung the handkerchief awkwardly between my fingers again, unsure of what else was left to say. "I didn't intend to keep it a secret from you all, not forever. I just… didn't know how to say any of this without sounding utterly crazy. I'm sorry."
Silence stretched on as Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin all just continued to stare at me with too many different expressions on each of their faces to read. I sighed heavily, abruptly too tired to feel anything other than resigned to whatever would come next — be it anger, outrage, or just more silence.
"I don't expect you all to believe me. Honestly I wouldn't blame you if you think I'm a liar now, but you asked for the truth, so…"
That got the first recognisable reaction out of them. All of them looked even more surprised than they had before — where that even possible.
"Why would we think you're a liar?" Pippin asked innocently, genuinely confused. I stared at him, then at each one of them in turn. None of them had the looks of accusation or scepticism that I'd been expecting, not a single one of them.
"You mean, you believe me?" I floundered, staring aghast at the four of them. "You don't think I'm making it up? Or I'm completely off my rocker?"
The hobbits looked at each other, as if silently asking each other the same question. The serious look had melted from Merry's face and he gave an off-handed little shrug and a tiny smile at Frodo and Pippin. In the end, it was Sam who decided to answer me.
"I'm no expert on tall tales, or knowing what's true or not, Ms. Eleanor," he told me quietly, glancing at the others as he did, "But I do know what homesickness feels like, and that you can't fake feelings like that."
Frodo nodded and added: "That's why you never wanted to talk about any of this before, right? You missed it."
I let my gaze fall to my hands for a moment, still clutching Sam's handkerchief, and nodded at them with a sad little smile.
"I still do."
Frodo smiled back at me, the edges of it tinged with the same sadness I recognised in my own expression. He looked around at the others, and I suddenly got the impression that all four of them were thinking back to the Shire. Imagining just for a moment what it would be like if they were back there again, safe and sound at home — just like I'd done so many times before now.
Surprisingly Pippin was the first to shake himself out of the reverie, turning back to me with an inquiring look.
"So, before you lived in this world where you're human, you had a life here, in Middle Earth?"
I nodded at him.
"But you've been able to remember only bits a pieces of it since the Council meeting?"
"And you think that figuring out your past here in Middle Earth will help somehow?"
Relieved as I was for the relatively positive reactions, I was starting to feel like I was being interrogated in a really bizarre police investigation. I shrugged and nodded again a bit sheepishly.
"Pretty much. Lord Elrond and Lady Galadriel both seem to think finding out who I was here in Arda is pretty much the only chance I've got of finding out how I got here in the first place, and finding a way to get back home again."
"That's why you were so insistent on coming with us?" Merry asked abruptly, and for a moment I felt a bit off balance, realising what my explanation for helping them must sound like to them. That I only wanted to come along to fulfil my own goals, rather than help them with theirs. Selfish reasons, I realised, with a little stab of guilt.
It might have been true once upon a time, but now?
"Well, yes…" I answered him timidly, thinking about it hard as I tried to figure out what I wanted to say. "But I also don't really like the idea of this world being swallowed by darkness any more than you do. Arda might not be my home, not really, but there are people here I care about now. I don't want to see that happen to anyone's home, least of all yours."
And I realised as I was saying the words aloud, that I meant them. Really meant them.
Oh, I hadn't been trying to come up with some self righteous explanation for my strange decisions, but I hadn't realised how much my own motives for coming had changed over the past month until I'd spoken them aloud. I only noticed the reaction my word had had on the others when I pulled myself out of my mental tangent.
They were smiling at me. Honestly smiling.
"For what it's worth Ms. Eleanor," Frodo said simply, "I think what you did was very brave."
I gave him an utterly baffled look, my composure falling completely off balance by what he'd just said.
"Getting myself into an all male party to a mountain of doom, trapped under in a orc infested cave, KO-ed by a troll, and then shot with a poisoned goblin arrow — that was brave?"
His face fell and he frowned a bit, shaking his head.
"No…" he thought for a moment, then said in a matter-of-fact way, "I meant what you did at the council, and with Aragorn yesterday, what you did just now, telling us this."
Well, that had to be just about the last thing I'd been expecting to hear. I'd thought of myself as many things up until now, and been called many things too — most common among them being 'baffling' or 'touched in the head' — but not once had I ever felt or thought of myself as brave.
I almost laughed, and the feeling was a welcome surprise.
"I think most would have called it stupid," I chuckled breathlessly, and Frodo beamed at me.
"Well, perhaps," he replied, his own voice light with repressed laughter too. "But I also know it must have been hard for you to decide to come with us. It must be still hard for you. Either way, I'm glad you did decide to come. I'm glad you're here now."
The clenching feeling that had appeared in my throat and chest earlier intensified, relief and an unexpected burst of happiness bringing down the last of my restraint. I knew I'd promised myself I wouldn't cry anymore, but hell, some rules are made to be broken.
"Dammit guys," I laughed thickly, hiccuping slightly, and catching the tears with Sam's handkerchief before they could fall down my face. "You've been secretly conspiring to make me cry all this time, haven't you?"
Pippin and Merry grinned widely at me while Sam and Frodo just smiled fondly. I tried to apologise to Sam for the state I'd left his handkerchief in once I'd stopped, but he shook his head and insisted that was what it was for. He also insisted that I hang onto it, just in case I needed it again some time.
"What about the others? Aragorn, Bormir, Gimli, and Legolas? Are you going to tell them, too?" he asked seriously when I'd finally pulled my composure completely back together again. Frodo and Merry gave me curious looks too, though Pippin looked a bit worried at the idea. I chewed my bottom lip in thought.
"I want to, really," I told them honestly, the memory of Aragorn's cold tone and his temper snapping still fresh in my mind. "But I'm not sure now is a good time. Not after what happened yesterday."
The hobbits seemed to be thinking along the same lines, because they exchanged worried looks with each other, all but wincing at the idea.
"That's true," Sam said.
"Though when will be a good time, I wonder?" Merry added, and I gave him a sheepish nod of acknowledgment.
"Fair point, but this isn't really the kind of thing I can just casually drop in conversation."
'Oh, sure it is,' Tink's sardonic voice echoed suddenly inside my head. 'That would go down a treat. "By the way, lads, I'm not only suffering from memory loss and extremely limited medical training, I'm also from an entirely different universe, one where I'm human. Also, my human body is currently in a near-death like coma, and only regaining the memories of my past life here will allow me to figure out how the hell this all happened and allow me to find a way to wake up." Pure genius.'
I kept my face straight, but gave a mental snort of reply.
'Yeah, and maybe Smaug will invite us round to the Abyss for tea and fairy-cakes,' I replied silently. She snickered, and I could feel the tension ease out of her tone as she did. I knew she'd been worried I was going to tell them about the books, or possibly about her — I'd felt her anxiety when I'd been talking. I did also notice, however, that she hadn't done anything to forcefully try and stop me this time. Whether that was though courtesy, or for some other reason, I didn't know.
'You asked me not to, boss,' she explained quietly, sensing my train of thought. 'I won't apologise for doing it back then, but I won't do it again, unless you let me.'
Glad as I was to have Tink back to her usual wittily sarcastic self, I couldn't help but wonder what she meant by "let her." I decided that for now it didn't matter. I felt miles better that I had at the start of the day when all this started, but my head was throbbing and I felt suddenly very tired. It could wait.
"Regardless," Sam was saying when I came back to reality, "I believe you should tell them at some point soon. Once you're ready, of course."
"Until that time, we shall keep quite about it," Frodo promised in a serious but warm voice directed at me.
"Well, we three will," Merry said jovially, the accusing seriousness he'd had earlier completely vanishing. "We might have to gag Pip. He couldn't keep a secret on a deserted island."
I laughed, really laughed, which only set them to laughing too, and it was the best I'd felt all day.
"Thanks guys, really," I said softly when we'd finally managed to stop. "And I will tell them soon, I promise."
"So, I guess the only question left now is; what about Aragorn?" Merry put forward, his tone reluctant. I furrowed my eyebrow.
"What about him?"
"He still thinks you staying here would be best," Frodo explained, his expression falling slightly. Sam nodded, also wearing a look of mild worry.
"He'd probably just feel even more validated in his opinion if you told him all this now."
I sighed heavily, deflating a tiny bit at the thought.
"You're probably right," I agreed, thinking back to what he'd said to me yesterday about not having enough experience. Now that I'd come clean with the hobbits, I wanted to do the same with the others, but I also knew that if Aragorn was still of the same mind he'd been yesterday, there was no way having my human life spontaneously revealed would end well.
'It's your choice, boss,' Tink spoke up suddenly at the back of my thoughts. 'He can disprove of it all he wants, but when it comes down to it, he can't make you do something you don't want to any more than I can.'
I didn't respond for a long moment, not to Tink or the hobbits. I just sat there chewing over the predicament before me. Suddenly, a thought occurred to me, and I turned to look at Frodo, though I addressed them, all when I asked: "What do you think? With everything you know about me now, do you think I should stay here when you all go?"
Merry and Pippin looked at me, then at each other, then at Frodo. Sam did the same, and it was obvious that no matter their own opinions on the matter, Frodo was the Ringbearer, the linchpin of the entire Fellowship. Whatever the others, Aragorn included, might think, it was his opinions and decisions that were going to be the ones to matter most. This one included.
Frodo glanced at us all a bit anxiously, his brows coming together in thought as his blue eyes rested on me again.
"I think…" he began slowly, carefully. "I think it was your choice to join us back in Rivendell, and it should be your choice now too. It wouldn't be fair to take that decision from you now, just because we know this about you. However…" he hesitated, his thoughtful frown relaxing into a hesitant micro-smile. "However, if I were to be selfish, I would say that you're no less brave and no less a friend now than anyone else here, and I would be grateful for one more friend with us on a journey such as this."
I had to fight hard to keep the beaming smile off my face as I looked at him. I hadn't seen Frodo smile much since Gandalf had fallen in Moria, so when he returned it with just as much brightness, I couldn't help but feel my hope and excitement soar.
"In that case," I said finally, "I guess I'm just going to have to find a way to prove Aragorn and the others wrong then."
"What are you going to do?" Pippin asked me curiously.
I chewed my lip in consideration. I'd had an idea earlier of what I was going to do, but only now that I'd had my morale boosted by the hobbits was it actually gaining momentum.
Lady Galadriel had hinted there was only a slim chance of me regaining my past, and only if I made the right choices, and asked the right questions. Something in that warning had frightened me on a level I didn't really understand — but it had also made me absolutely sure that staying in Lothlórien would be the wrong decision. I'd be safe and sound here, well looked after, and potentially very happy, but I would find no answers. Which in turn meant that I would likely never see my family again.
Mad as it was, I think I'd already known which path I was going to take before I'd even entered Galadriel's garden. I already knew which option could lead me to what I was seeking. I also realised, now, that it didn't matter how dangerous or scary it was going to get — I simply couldn't let that sliver of hope go, no matter how small it was.
Not without a fight.
Still, I also knew that if I wanted anything better than a snowball's chance in hell of surviving long enough to make a difference, I was going to need to learn how to fight, literally. Whether improving what feeble combat skills I already possessed, or taking up something entirely new, I needed to improve my chances of survival, and I needed to do it quickly.
So, I'd gone over my options, counting them off mentally as I went down the list.
Learning to wield a sword was out of the question, though I expected Boromir would have been happy to try and tutor me. Two years of learning from one of the best sword masters in Rivendell had left me with little more than a very efficient way of severing my own fingers. I wasn't even going to attempt to wield an axe either. Gimli would have laughed himself sick watching me trying to lift one off the ground. Knives were ok, but they weren't going to do me much good if — sorry, when — we ended up fighting things that were twice my size and three times my strength. I might manage to cut their face up decoratively before they snapped me in half.
That left one option. The bow.
I'd seen in Moria that Aragorn was competent with a bow, but nowhere near what I'd need to teach me effectively. Also, he had the habit of pulling the weirdest faces when he shot. If he taught me, I'd spend half the time trying not to break out into fits of giggles.
Again, that only left me with one option.
"Where's Legolas?" I asked, starting to get suddenly to my feet. Merry, Pippin, Sam and Frodo just blinked at me, confused.
"He said he needed to see to something around the Looking Pools earlier," Sam informed me reluctantly. "But I don't think you should—."
"I'm sure his royal sassiness can spare a moment for little old me," I interrupted tartly, standing up with renewed determination and started to move off. I thought I heard Sam and the others call something after me, but I was already gone, hurrying down back up the forest steps towards the Looking Pools.
Five minutes later, I'd found my way back to the familiar part of the wood that led to the pools. I'd taken a few wrong turns in my haste to get there, and by the time I did, I'd only just noticed it was starting to get dark. I came jogging up a familiar forest staircase to find the clearing I'd first seen Haldir and Merileth in together. The silver lamps lining the paths had been lit, and the glade was almost completely deserted. Only two blond she-elves I recognised as the youngest of Galadriel's handmaidens were walking past the trees skirting the pools, carrying baskets of what looked like towels in theirs arms. They were talking in conspiratorial whispers, their cheeks a bit pink and the occasional bell-like giggle escaping them both.
I marched straight up to them both and asked bluntly: "Have you seen Legolas?"
The two maids stopped dead in their tracks, their eyes wide and faces colouring, as if they'd just been caught doing something they shouldn't have.
"W-who, my lady?" one of them stammered.
Good grief, she was even worse at lying than I was.
"Legolas," I repeated, lifting a hand to about a foot over my head. "He's about this tall, blond, pointy ears, and an ego the size of a small country."
They both just blinked at me. I sighed impatiently.
"Thranduilion?" I tried, enunciating the name irritably.
That got their attention. Both handmaidens blushed scarlet and looked at each other. Then one of them pointed vaguely in the direction of the other side of the trees, at the opposite side of the pool from where Merileth had first taken me.
"Thanks," I smiled brightly, and breezed past them in the direction she'd indicated. One of them spluttered something in elvish after me, but I didn't stop to translate it, or wonder what they were both so flustered about. I was too focused on figuring out what I was going to say when I did find him, how on earth I was going to convince him to help me. I was so lost in thought, I actually started muttering quietly to myself as I moved through the meandering corridor of trees to the other side.
"You'd think finding someone with a head as big as his would be…" I broke off, my voice stuck in the back of my throat as my lungs forgot how to do their job.
Well, I'd found him. I'd come around the corner and instantly ground to a halt, because I'd come face to face with a very nice view of someone's back. Legolas's back to be precise. Only there was one important thing missing…
The only other elf of the Fellowship was standing there by the side of the river pools with his back to me, utterly bare from the waist up. He'd obviously just got done bathing because he was using a small towel to dry off his dark gold hair. It was still damp from the bath, and was hanging loose from its usual braids in casual disarray over his neck and shoulders. The motion he'd taken to dry it off was giving me what would have been a really nice view of a very well proportioned back, as well as the lithe but strong muscles in his shoulders and arms.
That is, it might have been a nice view, if it had been on anyone else on the face of the earth. As it was, I had been utterly paralysed with horror at what, and who, I had just gone and walked in on.
Merileth had told me the pools were used only by the women during the morning hours. I hadn't stopped to consider that, logically, this meant the evening hours would be used by the men. I should have counted my lucky stars it was only Legolas there half naked and bare foot, and not half the Galadrim. I also thanked sweet merciful God he still had his breeches on, or I might have just collapsed and let the ground swallow me whole.
Something like a hiccup, a choking sound, and a startled squeak found its way out of my throat, and I all but died where I stood, clapping a hand over my mouth. How he didn't manage to hear me coming until right then I'll never know.
Stopping in his routine and lowering the towel, he turned around curiously, and immediately locked eyes with me.
I froze too.
For about twenty seconds, we just stood there, staring at each other. We must have looked like a pair of deer caught in oncoming headlights, standing there in paralysed shock, just looking at each other. Him entirely naked from the belt-line up, and me just standing there hypnotised by the sight with sodding flowers in my hair.
'Not. A. Word. Tink.'
She didn't say a word, but that didn't stop her hysterical cackling from echoing around the inside of my head.
Very slowly, Legolas lowered the towel to his side, his shocked expression shifting into carful neutrality as he turned to face me properly.
"Can I help you?" he asked, his voice completely toneless and void of emotion.
Now instead of a front row seat view of one of the nicest backs I'd ever seen, I found myself faced with possibly the most distracting chest on the face of Arda. I had to bite my cheek hard enough to draw blood to keep from melting into a humiliated puddle on the river stones.
I recovered my composure a second later, dropping my hand from my mouth, straightening my frame regally, and contemptuously flicking my flowery braid over one shoulder, trying to look unimpressed. I might have managed it too — if my bloody voice and steadily reddening face hadn't betrayed me.
"Ineedyoutoteachmetouseabow," I forced out, my voice reaching several octaves higher than normal.
Stupid sodding voice.
Legolas frowned deeply at me and tilted his head to the side, a look of honest confusion rather than annoyance crossing his features.
I felt my face go even more red. I wanted so badly to just curl into a ball and shrink into oblivion, but I refused to let it show on the rest of me. I took a deep breath, forced my panicking brain to count to three, then tried again.
"I'm asking you to teach me to shoot with a bow," I spoke slowly and calmly this time, adding as an afterthought: "Please."
A silence as thick and as awkward as a concussed donkey rang through the air between us. Legolas didn't move or look away from me for a long moment. I don't even think he was breathing, he was so still. Eventually, he took a few steps to my left and dropped the towel he'd been using onto a small bench —which, I also noticed belatedly, had the rest of his clothes casually draped over it.
"May I ask, why the sudden interest in learning to wield a bow?" he inquired, straightening to face me again from just four feet away. I crossed my arms a little tighter, shifting my weight from foot to foot.
"I have my reasons."
"And those reasons are?"
"What do you think?"
He gave me a pointed look, and I responded with a defeated sigh and glanced away.
"Fine," I exhaled heavily. "Aragorn was right with what he said yesterday. I am inexperienced, I am lacking the skills I need to stay alive. If I don't figure out some way of making myself less vulnerable, I'm going to end up slowing you all down, or just dying horribly somewhere along the way."
I thought I saw a tiny look of astonishment cross Legolas's face for a second, but I blinked, and it was gone again.
"You decided you wish to continue with us, after we leave?" he sounded surprised, though not as displeased as I'd been expecting.
"Even though Aragorn thinks you should not?"
"He doesn't get to make that decision. I do," I replied sharply, looking back at him as my anger and determination from the previous night came back in a tidal wave. "I refuse to be left behind just because one man thinks I'd be safer here. If that means I have to learn to use a proper weapon by the time we leave just to prove a point, fine. I'll do it."
Legolas just stared at me with that irritatingly unreal expression of his. I took a few deliberate breaths, counting to three between each before speaking again.
"So, how about it?"
Legolas continued to regard me silently for what felt like an eternity. While he thought, I was left standing there, hopelessly trying to avoid glancing at the fair-skinned expanse of his toned chest, or arms, or shoulders…
'Give it up, boss, you're gone,' Tink was still cackling manically at me.
Hell. I had died, and now I was in hell. The situation couldn't have gotten any worse if it was written by Oscar Wilde during a fit of opium-induced mania.
Finally, Legolas put me out of my misery and answered my original question.
"I can teach you, in theory," he told me, folding his arms across his bare torso, and I pretended not to notice. "But learning to use a bow effectively isn't something that happens quickly, let alone in just a few weeks."
I squared my shoulders and fixed him with my best unyielding stare.
"I learn fast."
"You must do, to have trained to the level you have in only two years," he nodded with a casual shrug of one shoulder, though I could see in his eyes he was taking a poke at what Aragorn had revealed yesterday.
I looked away from him, my cheeks and ears heating slightly.
"I didn't come here to play guilt games, Legolas," I stated plainly, refusing to look directly at him for fear my face would turn into a strawberry. "If you can't do it, I'll ask someone else. Are you willing to teach me or not?"
He paused for a moment, and I saw him tilt his head curiously at me in my peripherals.
"I might consider it, my lady," he said in a polite but unmistakably playful tone. "If you were to apologise for intruding upon my bathing."
My face flooded with heat and I snapped my gaze up to see him watching me lazily with his arms still folded…
And he was smirking. The smug elvish bastard was smirking at me.
I felt my nerves abruptly vanish, replaced by vindictive anger at the self-satisfied grin plastered on his mouth — a look I wanted very badly to smack right off his face. I narrowed my eyes into what I hoped looked like razorblades at him.
"Don't take this the wrong way, but hell will sprout daffodils first," I told him flatly, standing up a little straighter and trying hard to hide the fact that my pulse had just spiked again. "And you weren't bathing. You had your trousers on."
'Thank God, or you might have gone into apoplexy at that—.'
'Not. Another. Sodding. Word.'
"True, though if you'd arrived only moments sooner, that would have not been the case," he shrugged casually, as if he's just commented on the weather. My face turned roughly the same temperature as a furnace, my jaw working soundlessly and unable to quite believe what he'd just said to me.
His self satisfied smile turned into a laughing, boyish grin.
"Am I making you uncomfortable, my lady?" he tried to say casually, but he couldn't quite hide the laugh bubbling up behind it.
My pointed ears burned.
"I… oh for God sake!" I spat, unable to stop the blood rising in my face. I could feel my ears going more red than hot pokers fresh out of a fire. "Would you please just put your shirt back on!"
He grinned at me like the devil himself. The arrogant ass.
He did as he was told though, grabbing his pale blue tunic off the bench and slipping it over his head. I forced myself to look anywhere else until he was done, and even then I couldn't quite meet his eyes. I focused on a spot just over his left shoulder.
"So?" I demanded, uncoiling my arms and placing my hands firmly on my hips, making myself as tall as I could. Legolas's expression turned serious again as he stood opposite me. He folded his arms loosely over his chest again and looked away from me out over the empty Looking Pools.
"You really wish to do this?" he asked, and I didn't hesitate.
"Yes, I do."
He nodded slowly just once, the looked me in the eyes again.
"Then meet me at the training grounds tomorrow morning at first light. We'll see how fast you can pick it up," he turned away from me to the bench where the rest of his clothes had been left and began to gather them together. Pleased, yet surprised by the sudden agreement, I turned to leave him to finish dressing in private, when he added quieter than he had before: "Also, I would advise wearing something less likely to catch."
I glanced back at him with my eyebrows pinched in puzzlement.
"Likely to catch?"
He turned his head marginally back towards me, just enough to catch a look at half his face, though this time his expression wasn't serious, or playfully mocking. I couldn't read it, but the tips of his ears seemed just a touch more pink than before. Though maybe that was just the light. He shrugged and rubbed absently at his neck just below his left ear, and said: "That dress suits you, it would be a shame to ruin it while training."
I just stood there speechless as he turned back to folding his clothes.
Had that been a compliment? Had that been a real, honest to goodness compliment?
I suddenly wanted very badly to look up and check the sky for flying pigs…
Then, I noticed the tiny, teasing smile quirk the corner of his lip, and just like that, the moment was gone. I narrowed my eyes at him.
"I am going to go now," I stated decisively, turning quickly away and walking back the way I'd come minutes before. "Try not to get crushed under that planet-sized ego of yours."
I could hear his chuckling coming from behind me as I left, following me like a phantom echo in my head along with Tink's as I strode off back down the path. So it was settled; I was going to learn how to use a bow. My pride and dignity had taken a blow to accomplish it, but somehow, I'd managed to pull it off.
For the briefest second, my brain treated me to the mental image of Legolas from moment ago.
No shirt. Bare chest. Strong but lithe shoulders. Gold hair loose from its braid, still slightly damp from bathing… And grey-blue eyes, shocked, but somehow not displeased, staring back at mine. The image had been perfectly etched into my memory, as if the sight of him had left a permanent mark on my retinas.
He really was a handsome bastard…
I stopped suddenly in mid-stride, my eyes widening. Then I groaned, and banged my head against a nearby tree.
Stupid elf memory! Stupid perverted brain! Stupid Tink! Stupid Legolas!
I knew was going to have a very hard time thinking of him as 'pretty' again after that.