The path beneath his feet dipped and turned as Haldir strode along beneath the stalwart, majestic Mallyrn that towered above him. He was looking for something, though he did not know what.
But then his footsteps stilled as laughter, clear and joyful, rang about him, echoing through the trees. He spun, seeking the source.
"Haldir!" The maiden's voice laughed once again, echoing about through the trees, its source unseen. "Come find me!"
"Where are you?" Haldir laughed, his eyes darting about, though he could see nothing.
"Here I am!" The maiden's voice cried, now from behind him, and he spun to catch a flashing glimpse of skirt as a maid darted between two trees and disappeared.
"Wait!" He cried out, hurrying to dart after her upon the path she had taken, a narrow, rarely used trail jutting over with the roots of Mallyrn.
"Come, Haldir!" The maiden's voice rang clear and high, though he could not see her, as the scamper of her feet faded ahead of him. "Come find me!"
His heart tugged her in the direction she had gone, and suddenly he knew. She was the one whom he had sought. Knowing this, he darted after her fading voice that yet called for him to come, following the narrow path as it wove deeper into the forest.
Her laughing voice grew further and further away. He was beginning to fear he would never catch her, when the path suddenly widened, and a clearing opened to him. One he knew well, though it had been many years since he had come last to this place. A high wall of tumbled stones edged one side of the clearing, with a small waterfall clattering down its face into a pool of water so clear that he could see the sandy white bed beneath the sparkling surface.
A maiden stood with her back to him, her golden hair spilling down her back and catching in the wind as the hem of her silver skirt fluttered about her feet.
"I've caught you, at last, my love." He breathed, drawing to a stop, and smiling.
"Indeed, you have." The maiden sighed brightly, and slowly turned, her bright eyes finding his, shining with joy as her lips once again parted in a merry laugh.
Her laughter was contagious, and Haldir found himself beginning to chuckle along with her.
"Ai, Lothirien." Haldir murmured at last, his laughter fading to a gentle smile as he studied the familiar lines of her face. Seeing her eyes and smiling lips, so soft to touch, and knowing that he loved her, was as natural as the rising of the sun. Emotion that had been ever present, though dormant in his heart awoke now, and grew within him, stretching tendrils of light through his body. And he wondered at why he could have ever thought he would see another maid here. Lothirien was his love, she had always been. For he had loved her all his life, even when he had not known that he had.
"I have been a fool." He whispered softly as Lothirien smiled and came toward him. He ached to reach out to her. To take her into his arms.
"Yes, you have." She laughed lightly, shaking her head at him. "But you have ever been a good hearted fool. All is forgiven."
Haldir sighed at her words.
"Will you come to me now?" she asked him, reaching out her hands, and beckoning to him. "Will you let me love you, as I have all my life? Will you love me?"
Haldir took an eager step toward her, yearning to go to her as she bid, to draw her softness into his arms, to claim the sweetness of her mouth with his. But he hesitated as the truth of his senses filtered through his sleeping mind. This was not real.
"This is a dream," he muttered, drawing back, and forcing his arms to fall at his sides. For to allow himself to admit his love to this dream maiden, to hold her as he wanted to hold Lothirien, would only make the pain more vivid when he woke to the reality that was the waking world, knowing she cared for him only as a friend could. For how else could she have stood faithfully by, watching his pursuit of Lalaith? Had she loved him, the pain would have driven her away from him.
"You are not real. This-," he glanced about himself at the bright colors of his dreamscape, and shook his head, "this is not real."
"Haldir?" The dream maiden breathed, her face furrowed now with timid fear. "Do you not love me?"
"Lothirien cannot love me." He returned in answer. "I am too great a fool, and she knows it. She would choose someone far more worthy of her."
"Haldir, please." The maiden began. "That is not true. Surely you-,"
But what words she meant to speak he did not hear as Haldir thrashed suddenly awake, and jerked upright. He blinked at the moonlit darkness of his chamber, and shivered as the cool night air that filtered through the slatted screen of his flet brushed across his bare chest where he sat shivering on his bed, his crumpled coverlet fallen to his waist. A cold sweat had broken out on his skin, and he shivered again as he remembered his dream.
A sick feeling gripped him in the pit of his stomach as his curled his knees up, and buried his bent head in his arms. He had lost Lalaith, and the pain had been difficult to bear, knowing that she had not, indeed could not love him back.
But now as he sat with his mussed hair clenched in his fingers, and his forehead bent against his knees, he realized that the pain of losing Lalaith would be nothing like the pain of losing Lothirien, a maiden he had never even pursued, nor even truly could lose, for he had never tried to win her. Yet as he thought of her now, pictured her soft, loving eyes that had so often teased him just over the edge of his consciousness, his heart ached. As he thought of her now, of the years of her loyal friendship, the centuries of familiar, comfortable companionship that they had shared, he ached for her, as his lungs ached for breath. And he knew as with the sharp pain of a blade in his chest, that he loved her.
But now, it was too late. He could not have such a generous, gentle hearted maiden as Lothirien. She would not want him, for he was too far beneath her, and he knew it, as well as she. And at this realization, the black pit that had formed in his stomach grew into an ache of despair. Were he ever to hope for her, she would reject him without another thought, as would be her right.
He lifted his head, and surveyed the moonlit interior of his room. He could never let her know of what his heart contained. He would need to learn to steel himself to his feelings for her if he were to learn to survive, so that he could serve his people.
"You are a fool, Marchwarden," he snarled bitterly at himself. "An abominable fool."
He flung himself again against his pillow, though he knew sleep would not come easily now. "And now, all you can hope for, is to watch Lothirien lose her heart to another, more deserving of her. You have nothing to look forward to but an eternity of loneliness."
And as this thought entered his mind, a thick lump of emotion formed in his throat, and a single tear stung his eye.
Lothirien smiled as a spear of sunlight pierced the plaited branches of the Mallyrn above her head, and lighted, warm and soothing, upon her face as she strolled along the path that led toward the high Mallorn where Lady Galadriel's chambers were perched. A basket of freshly picked flowers she held balanced against one hip swayed lightly as she walked, making her way toward the bottom-most step upon the staircase that twined upward toward the high arch roofed chambers where the lady and her lord, Celeborn, dwelt.
It seemed that in the past few days, the smallest thing, a butterfly perched delicately upon the pink lip of a flower, or a solitary beam of sunlight resting before her upon her path, could cheer her heart all day. For Lalaith had refused Haldir's proposal, and returned home with Elrond's sons. Haldir had been bitterly hurt, and Lothirien still ached for him. But he would heal; Lothirien would see that. He still sulked. He still moped. But he still lived, and his heart would one day inevitably recover. And for that, Lothirien found herself singing through her days.
She had never disliked the fair maiden from Imladris, but now, with Lalaith gone, the hope that Lothirien had once thought was dead within her heart, came again into flower. And the elaborate daydreams she had once entertained of a life beside Haldir returned. She found herself dreaming shamelessly of him again, both morning and night. And she smiled at the path beneath her feet as she recalled the dream she had experienced the night before. One which she could not fully remember, but which she knew had included Haldir. He had been chasing her through the trees as they had once done when they were only Elflings. And she vaguely recalled the pond that was their own secret place known only to the two of them, and where Lothirien had always fantasized to be the setting of their first kiss.
She glanced downward at herself, at the creamy white gown she had chosen that morning, hoping that when she and Haldir met, as she expected they would upon the steps, that she would be pretty to him. That he would pause and trade trivial pleasantries with her, perhaps talk to her a moment, was her hope. And, with good luck and the blessings of the Valar, perhaps she would be able to ask him to join her for supper. Only because she was his friend of course, and was concerned about him and his happiness since Lalaith had gone. He would bring his brothers to her flet with him of course, so the setting would not be so intimate and close as it would be in the future after they had spent more time together, without the distraction of Lalaith to take his attention away. Then surely, after enough time had passed, and they had enough chances to be alone together in each other's company, he would finally realize what his feelings truly were for Lothirien. And then-, she would never be alone again.
The first step was already at her feet, and Lothirien paused suddenly, realizing her thoughts had been carrying her away with them, making her barely aware of the path she was on, and her planned mission. But now, the sound of men's voices and light footfalls above her jerked her back to reality, and she felt her heart suddenly collapse in fear within her.
She gulped her fear back, and straightened her shoulders as Haldir and his brothers, Rumil and Orophin came round the golden white trunk of the Mallorn, and into her view.
Haldir had a cloak about his broad shoulders, and weapons belted across his back. They were off to guard the borders. Lothirien gulped swiftly. His eyes had been down as he worked at a knife upon his belt, but at the sight of her, his gaze flew up to meet her own, and his footsteps faltered. His face visibly paled.
"Oh, Haldir!" Lothirien breathed, feigning surprise. She barely noticed as Rumil and Orophin cast each other a look of understanding, and continued past her off the steps and down the path, disappearing around the trunk of a young Mallorn. "I had not expected to see you."
"What are you doing here?" He breathed, his tone low and flat.
Lothirien's brows lifted. This was an unusual greeting for him. But then perhaps he was only surprised to see her.
"I am one of Galadriel's servants, Haldir. Or have you so soon forgotten?" She smirked up at him. "I thought she might like some new spring flowers. What are you doing here?"
"We have just received our orders, and are off toward the Naith." He offered her a crisp nod, and continued past her down the stairs. "Farewell, lady."
Lady? Lothirien gaped, turning to stare at his broad back in silent bewilderment.
"Haldir, wait!" She cried, leaping from the bottom most step and darting after him. "Can you not spare a short moment-,"
Haldir paused upon the trail, and only half turned toward her. He drew in a deep breath, as of someone who strained to keep his patience in check.
At the very sight of his clear reluctance to speak to her, Lothirien paused, and shrank back, her eyes growing suddenly wide as a great void, black and hollow grew within the center of her being. What was the matter with Haldir? Why was his behavior taking this turn? Had Lalaith's rejection hurt him more than she had at first thought?
"Forgive me, Lady Lothirien." He returned, his retort stingingly sharp. "But my duties, which are quite pressing, are calling me elsewhere."
"But-, Haldir-, I, uh," she gulped hard, feeling to her great consternation, tears welling in her eyes. "Lalaith's rejection must truly have hurt you badly."
"I am recovered well enough." Haldir muttered to the ground, his voice softening, but only somewhat. "My heart was not broken beyond repair. Though I do thank you for your concern."
"Could I not come with you? At least for a short distance? We could talk-," her words faltered and fell away.
With his back turned to her, Haldir crushed his eyes shut. She clearly did not understand his suddenly aloof behavior. And Haldir heard the hidden pain within her words that unknown to her, broke his heart afresh and caused wretched pain to crackle along his veins.
"I have my duties to guard the borders. You have your own duties to Lady Galadriel." he breathed, keeping his eyes focused ahead. "Our paths take us in different directions. And there is after all, little that we have to talk about."
Behind him, Lothirien said nothing to his words, and Haldir drew in a deep breath. Her thoughts could be leading her on any number of paths. She could be hurt, or angry at him, and the thought wrenched his conscience. She had, after all, done nothing of herself to warrant his cold words.
Regret surged in his heart, and he spun quickly. "Lothirien, forgive me, I-,"
But she was nowhere to be seen. All that remained to give any indication that she had ever been nearby, was a small woven basket tipped sideward upon the ground where it had fallen and rolled, the flowers it had once contained, spilled forlornly across the path.