Actions

Work Header

Compos Mentis (Rávamë's Bane: Book 2)

Chapter Text

 


 Book II : Compos Mentis

- Watch Trailer -


 

- Medical report and notes regarding female patient admitted to St. Agatha’s Hospital, London on the Sunday 10th February at 8:23am -

Patient Surname: Dace
Patient First & Middle Names: Eleanor Lucy
DOB: March 2nd
Blood type: A+
Pre-existing conditions: None
Nationality: British
Next of kin: Sophia R. Dace (mother), Andrew E. Dace (father, blood type match)
Method of identification: British drivers licence (preliminary ID), Mother’s identification (confirmation)
Attending GP: Dr. Elise M. Fournier

Notes:
February 11th - Dr. Elise Fournier

22 year-old caucasian female admitted to Intensive Care Unit for hypothermia, chilblains, and sudden prolonged unconsciousness. No apparent trauma to the head or neck was present upon preliminary examination. Paramedic staff reported the patient was found collapsed in an alleyway just a few feet off a main street. No signs of physical assault or struggle were present to explain loss of consciousness, and excluding the minor skin and tissue damage to the feet and hands due to exposure, the patient appears in near-perfect health.

February 26th - Dr. Elise Fournier

Prolonged vegetative state declared, and the patient has been moved to the corresponding wing of the hospital. Skin and tissue damage due to freezing temperatures has healed well. Permanent damage to the extremities is unlikely, though have advised regular physiotherapy to ensure muscle deterioration is kept to a minimum. No further developments on determining the cause of the patient’s ongoing condition.

March 2nd - Dr. Elise Fournier

The patient’s persistent vegetative state remains unchanged. She maintains both stable breathing and heart rate independently, and continues to require no further life support beyond intravenous fluids and regular physiotherapy to retain muscle mass. While the patient still retains corneal reflexes and pupillary responses when exposed to direct light, she remains entirely unresponsive to sound or pain. Have advised further testing to determine the potential cause of her coma.

April 9th - Dr. Elise Fournier

While the patient’s responses are still limited to unconscious reflexes, brain activity has steadily begun to increase over the past 21 days. Causation for her ongoing vegetative condition still remains unclear, though occasional increases in brain and cardiological activity have regularly corresponded with visits from close family members and friends. Have advised they continue to speak to and read to her regularly. Perhaps that will help produce more encouraging results…

 

Chapter Text

“The next train is approaching the station. Please stand back from the platform,” a monotonous, female voice announced over the Oxford Circus tube station tannoy.

In usual London fashion, every person on the platform completely ignored the safety advice of the ‘friendly’ robot lady. They all seemed to simultaneously get up from their various seats, or from leaning against the station wall, and move forward over the yellow safety line as the train rumbled and clattered to a stop beside the platform in a gust of displaced air.

I was the only one in the station who didn’t hurry to get up.

Instead, I remained where I was, sat right in the centre of the platform on one of the uncomfortable metal benches, a thick book open in my lap, and my hair still whipping in the tunnel breeze. There was no point, after all — the train wasn’t going anywhere without me. It never did, not here. Though the robot lady on the other end of the loudspeaker did tend to get a little grumpy if I procrastinated for too long.

The doors swished open and, once again in true Londoner fashion, everyone waiting to get on somehow managed to make space for everyone getting off whilst remaining clustered around the doors like bees around a honey pot.

I sat there and watched as the commuters disembarked and swarmed past me, one after another.

None of them had faces.

Each man and woman that passed me, all dressed head to toe in business wear or everyday work getup, had only a blank blur where their features should have been. It wasn’t nearly as unsettling as the first time I’d seen it, especially now that I’d had time to understand the logic behind it. This was a dream, and everything around me — from the station, to the people, to the annoying robot woman on the other end of the tannoy — were constructs of my subconscious. All placeholders for the real thing that was so far away from me now.

It still didn’t numb the pang of homesickness that welled up in me though, as I sat there in such a familiar place with such a familiar scene playing out all around.

“Please stand clear of the doors,” the robot lady chimed as the doors slid shut, but as predicted, the train didn't move.

I still didn’t get up. Instead, I looked down at the thick book nestled in hands, hooking my thumb into the pages to keep my place while turning it over to see the cover.

The Two Towers. Cute.

I found myself chuckling through a thin smile, turned it back over and opened it to the page I’d apparently been on, and started to read. Or, at least, I tried to. The second my eyes had focused on the first word, the rest began to blur and shift on the page, as if I was looking at them through flowing water. The more I tried to focus on each sentence, the more the words began to jumble together, until there was nothing left on the page that made sense. I turned to the next page, and the next, and got the same reaction every time before my ethereal head began to throb and I had to shut my eyes.

The sound of the still motionless tube doors swishing open again echoed through the station, and the robot lady’s voice filled the tunnel once more.

“Please stand clear of the doors, my lady.

She sounded distinctly more irritable than before, despite the monotone.

“Alright, alright, I’m coming,” I grumbled, closing the book and getting up off the bench.

I didn’t bother to shove my way onto the crowded train — each construct I came near automatically shifted to make room as I moved inside. A tall man in a crisp black business suit immediately got up from a seat near the door, and I sat down in his place, setting the book in my lap. I didn’t open it again. Instead I just stared vacantly down at the dark cover with its gold lettering and intricate swirl patterns as the train began to move from the station.

Someone sitting opposite me cleared her throat pointedly — too pointedly to be any of my subconscious automatons — and I looked up to see an all-too familiar, gold-eyed version of myself perched on the seat directly before mine.

Tink looked as she always had, completely identical to me in almost every way possible. Chestnut brown hair, worn longer and better kept than my own, a small upturned nose, a narrow chin, and a dimple in her left cheek that only appeared when she smiled or laughed.

For almost three years, I’d laboured under the assumption that she was just another part of my subconscious; just another construct conjured up by my brain in the wake of the trauma I’d endured when I first woke to find myself in Arda.

I knew better now. She wasn’t some conjuration of my subconscious like every other person on the train.

She was Rávamë.

A Maia, one of the lesser angelic beings who had been created to help sing the world into existence at the dawn of time, along with the Valar themselves. She was a primal spirit of the wilds, and what equated to the Middle Earth version of a patron saint of all the creatures, animals and beasts that dwelt within in.

She was also a pathological wiseass.

“The Two Towers,” she commented dryly, her amber eyes glinting as she smirked, jerking her chin at the book cradled in my lap. “Cute.”

“Rather appropriate, I’d say, if maddeningly unhelpful. You both have than in common,” I replied smoothly, returning the dry smile.

The spirit that had secretly shared my head for so long chuckled lightly, and as she did, all the other constructs abruptly began to fade out and vanish until the train was empty save for us two. I set the book down on the now vacant seat beside me and leaned forward, elbows resting on my knees.

“How long do you think we’ve been out for the count?”

Tink crossed her legs and pursed her lips in thought. She was a wearing elvish riding greens and soft leather boots identical to mine, but hers were in a much better state than I knew mine were outside my head. Though very practical and not all that intricate, she somehow managed to make my own attire look effortlessly elegant, almost imposing — something I’d never got the hang of. I couldn’t help but envy her that, especially when she was wearing my face, too.

“Hard to say really. Time isn’t a fixed construct here. At least not in the sense that you understand it. It doesn’t move in a straight line,” she answered, gesturing around at the now empty train car.

I narrowed my gaze at her.

“Really? We’ve been unconscious for God knows how long from a near-fatal antacuilë, and you’re seriously going to pull a Dr. Who explanation on me?”

The amused expression slid from her face.

“I’m being serious. Time does move differently here. We could have been out for ten minutes for all I know,” she replied snippily, then paused. “And you can hardly blame me for the Dr Who refs, boss; I’ve been cooped up in here for long enough to watch every season at least five times. By all rights, you should be grateful I’m not quoting every line David Tennant ever spoke at you.”

My lips curled in a minute smile, and I felt my eyebrows go up in genuine surprise. “You like David Tennant?”

She beamed at me, and nodded enthusiastically without a shred of shame, her golden eyes twinkling.

“He’s wonderfully funny, and has great hair.”

I couldn’t help it, I started giggling uncontrollably. Tink gave me an immediately sour look, and I struggled to smother my mirth with a hand.

“Point,” I conceded, still tittering, “But so help me, Tink, if you dare say the words ‘wibbly wobbly timey wimey,’ I will be forced to smack you.”

That got a smile back on her face, and she leaned comfortably back in her seat as the train rumbled and clattered around the bend in the tunnel. The moment of shared humour was short-lived, however. I felt the laughs die and the smile slip from my face as my mind fell back to what I’d been putting off for however long we really had been unconscious for.

I leaned a little further forward in my seat, clasping my hands together to keep them still.

“We haven’t really had the chance to talk much about… everything really,” I said, looking at her. Her expression didn’t really change, but I saw the lingering look in her eyes shift into neutral caution.

“No, we haven’t,” she replied slowly.

I wrung my fingers together, pinching my lower lip between my teeth as we continued to just look at one another while I thought. “Honestly, I have no clue where to even start.”

She shrugged.

“How about we play Twenty Questions?” she suggested casually. I eyed her, and the shadow of a scowl crossed her face.“What? I didn’t hear you come up with a better idea.”

She had a point there.

“Ok, Twenty Questions it is, though we might end up needing more than that,” I conceded, sitting up a bit as the train banked around a sharp corner, the rails squealing. “First question: Why didn’t you tell me you were Rávamë all this time?”

A flash of guilt abruptly appeared on my mental companion’s face, and she dropped her gaze from mine to the floor of the carriage.

“I couldn’t, boss, and really I didn’t quite know myself. It’s complicated,” she said, rolling her shoulder in a half-shrug.

“How about you just give it to me as simply as you can, and we’ll workshop it up,” I offered. She considered that, chewing her lip again, and nodded.

“Ok, in simple terms, there’s a big difference between knowing something here,” she tapped her temple with her index finger,“and knowing it here,” she made a fist and held against her chest over her heart. “I could ‘feel’ what I was, but since we share the same mental space, I was limited by you and your knowledge. As long as you didn’t consciously ‘know’ what and who I was, I couldn’t tell you anything because I didn’t ‘know' it, either. You had to figure it out for yourself. You follow?”

“Kind of,” I said slowly, trying to. “But you told me you were something else. You said you were a figment of my subconscious.”

Tink looked me directly in the eye, expression very serious.

“Did I?”

I stopped and thought about it.

Being an elf had its various perks, and one of them seemed to be an enhanced episodic memory. If I stopped and concentrated hard enough, I could remember almost any event or conversation that had happened since I woke up in that cave nearly three years back. So I thought back to the first time I’d come face to face with Tink, lying on my back in the grass on the planes of my subconscious, listening to her try and talk me into opening my eyes…

“‘Since when do figments of my subconscious know how to use sarcasm?’” I repeated the words aloud, and they seemed to echo through the whole train. “I said that. I called you that the first time we met.”

Tink nodded at me with a slightly reproachful little smile, and leaned forward with her elbows on her knees exactly like I had done. “You were the one who named me that, boss.Technically it was half true, of course. I do reside and work through your subconscious mind, and I am a spirit of survival, but it was still a very limiting mantle you assigned to me.”

“A limiting mantle?” I repeated, making it a question. Tink opened her mouth to say something but I held up a hand. “You’re going to have to explain this bit from the ground up, before we start throwing blame around, Tink. At least until we’re on the same page.”

Tink pursed her lips, her expression more dubious than annoyed, but nodded in acceptance.

“In short, your perception of reality restricts me. You honestly believed when we first met that I was just a figment of your subconscious, so that’s what I was limited to existing as,” she explained, rolling her wrist in a rather dramatic gesture that encompassed her whole form. “Now that you’ve accepted that I’m something else, something more, I’m more free to share my knowledge and help.” She gestured towards me with a palm upturned. “If you want it, of course.”

I just looked at her, unsure whether the intrigue or exasperation was winning for control of my expression.

“…Are you seriously trying to tell me that the only reason you’re now able to be your true self, is because I subconsciously shouted ‘I do believe in fairies’?”

Tink’s own expression went flat, and her amber eyes practically burned with the temptation to roll skywards, or maybe smack me upside the head.

“You really have no idea how painful it is living inside your head sometimes.”

“Oh, I think I do,” I countered with a slightly bitter grin. My interest beat my confusion back and I crossed my arms and leaned forward on them so mine and Tink’s faces were all but a foot from each other. “Alright, next question: How did you end up inside my noggin in the first place?”

Tink shrugged, flickers of guilt marring her features again.

“I don’t remember.”

I blinked at her, genuinely surprised.

“You’re serious? I thought the memory loss gig was exclusive to me.”

“It is, boss,” she said, and the snark had completely gone out of her tone. She fiddled with the sleeve of her tunic — a nervous mannerism I didn’t recognise as one of my own.“It’s just a hunch, but I think that whatever you did to erase your own memories also erased mine. I can’t remember anything beyond what you do, at least not consciously.”

“But you’re still able to ‘feel’ when something is… I don’t know, right?”

“Essentially, yes.”

“Well, that’s good to know I suppose, if a little frustrating,” I uttered, unsure of how to treat that bit of information. Then I felt a wiry little smile tug at my lip and I looked up at my semi-angelic doppleganger. “Also: ‘boss’?”

I was reasonably sure the mischievous expression that appeared on Tink’s face right then would have been a mirror image of my own were it not for colour of our eyes.

“It’s still your head isn’t it? You’re the one in the driving seat,” she told me frankly, as if I was a little dense. I was a little tempted to throw a joke about her calling me ‘Captain’ from now on, but decided now wasn’t the time for Star Trek gags.

“Ok, one more question. Why the shared mental space? I mean you’re a primal spirit of creation who can conjure fire with a single word. Couldn’t you just… I don’t know, conjure up a body of your own?”

Tink regarded me patiently, but exhaled through her nose in a self-calming fashion.

“The operative word in that statement being ‘spirit’, boss,” she said, and she injected an emphasis into the word that seemed to encompass more than just a single meaning. “We can’t exist fully in the mortal realms without a physical body to inhabit, and when we do we’re severely limited.Why do you think that psychopath Sauron is so hellbent on getting the One Ring back? Once he does, he’ll have enough of his original power back to be able to take corporeal form again. A etherial spirit form is pretty useless when you can’t interact with the world through it; even more so if you’re attempting world domination.”

“So instead of plotting to take over the world, you’ve just decided to casually hitch a ride around Middle Earth inside my head all this time?”

She shrugged, her expression as unreadable as an alabaster statue. I chewed my lip and sat heavily back in my seat.

“Aaaand you also can’t remember why you’re in here because I erased both our memories. This is all… ugh, very confusing and very creepy.”

“Oh quit complaining. It’s not like I’m spontaneously taking possession of you without your permission. That would be creepy, and I couldn’t do it even if I wanted to,” she retorted snippily. I stopped at those words, feeling my face go a bit pale as turned back to face her very slowly.

“You mean taking control of me from inside is actually possible?”

Tink looked uncomfortable again.

“Technically yes, but it’s not that simple.”

“Nothing around here ever is.”

“Touché,” she conceded, sweeping her hand in a gesture of acknowledgement like a fencer. “I can do some things, when you’re emotional enough, or when your self-control is weak.”

The memory of what had happened when I’d fought the Uruk-hai, almost been killed by it, only to find it half incinerated, and me lying in the middle of a patch of dead forest. I shivered.

“Like what you did with the flames?” I asked. Tink inclined her head in affirmation.

“Exactly, but I couldn’t do anything to truly compromise your freewill. It would kill us both.”

“Explain?”

She considered for a moment, feline amber eyes tracking over me.

“Bodies and souls aren’t these disjointed chemical reactions and mystical constructs Earth science makes them out to be. They’re two halves of the same thing, one unable to function completely without the other.”

She held up both hands with both index fingers extended and tapped them together for emphasis.

“I know that,” I told her, feeling a little patronised. “And ‘compromising my free will’ ties into this how?”

“I’m getting to that. If I were to hypothetically force my will over yours, it would severe the bond between your fëa and hröa, and the fallout would damage you,” she explained plainly, lacing her fingers together in front of her and staring pointedly at me. “Now, putting aside the fact that I wouldn’t have a sassy chatting companion anymore if you were brain-dead, it would also make piloting your body all but impossible. It would leave me trapped in here until you died of old age. And since you’re apparently an elf… that could be a long time.”

What do you say to something like that?

“So to summarise,” I spoke finally after a couple of moments of processing time, “I’m not in any immediate danger of you spontaneously seizing control of my body? At least for more than a couple of seconds when I’m jumped up on adrenaline?”

“Pretty much.” Tink confirmed. “The only way I could ever completely take control is if you willingly let me do it. Handed me the reins, so to speak.”

“Right…”

I slouched back heavily in defeat, my back making a dull thud agains the back of the seat. The train screeched around another bend, and I regarded Tink pensively as the both of us swayed in synch to the moments of the carriage. “I don’t suppose that, now that you’ve miraculously regained your own real name, you have mine stashed away in there, too?”

She pulled another apologetic face and shook her head.

“Sorry, boss. I’d tell you if I knew, but I don’t. And I don’t know because—”

“You don’t know because I don’t know. We’re still sharing the same mental space, so we’re still limited by my own lack of conscious knowledge. Yes, yes, I get it.” I cut across, eyeing her with only mild irritability behind my weak smile. “Are you sure you don’t come with a manual or something?”

Tink gave me a flat look of masterful deadpan.

“I’m a spirit of creation, boss, not a lawnmower.”

I snorted in a half laugh, the smile on my face becoming a little more real at the thought. I now had my very own guardian angel, who not only looked like a better version of me, but was endowed with a wicked tongue, mean temper and a vaguely sadistic sense of humour. Super.

“There is something else I’ve been meaning to ask, Tink,” I started to ask, looking at the reflection of myself in the window behind her. “Why do you look like me?”

“Mmm?”

“You said it yourself, you’re an ethereal spirit. Theoretically, couldn’t you take any shape you want? Why this one?”

Her eyebrow quirked in a tiny flash of amusement as she eyed me.

“You’d start taking on another person’s characteristics too if you’d been stuck sharing their head for over twenty years. Honestly though, I don’t know, I’ve never tried. It must be to do with how I ended up in here in the first place. I could probably change shape, I suppose, but this form feels the most comfortable.”

I grinned wickedly at her and wiggled my eyebrows.

“You aren’t even a little curious?”

Tink’s expression didn’t change, but her eyes gleamed with sudden playfulness, and the shadow of a smirk glided over her mouth. She sat up a little straighter in her seat, squaring her shoulders, lifted her chin in a prideful gesture — and suddenly grew a foot taller than before. Her brown, wavy hair turned abruptly pin straight and golden blond, her shoulders broadened, her rinding greens writhing about her to accommodate her suddenly larger, masculine form. The last to change was her face, the recognisable features of my own face abruptly disappearing, only to be replaced with a squarer jaw, higher cheekbones, icy blue eyes…

And I was suddenly faced with the surreal situation of sitting on a London Underground train, staring slack-jawed up into the face of a very displeased looking Glorfindel.

He regarded me in distaste, as one might at finding something unpleasant on the sole of one’s shoe.

“Curiosity killed the cat, Élanor,” Tink said in an utterly flawless mimicry of the elf lord’s baritone, turning his nose up and glaring down at me just like he’d used to do when I’d still been training. The entire tableau sent an actual shiver down my spine.

“Ok, never mind, I surrender! Turn it off!” I squeaked, throwing both hands up in front of me in defeat.

Tink let out a hearty laugh through Glorfindel’s voice, the sound ringing like a bell around the train car. The gold hair and tall, noble features of a wide-smiling elf lord shifted suddenly back down into the form of a familiar, petite, brunette she-elf with golden eyes and a dimpled grin.

Like I said, sadistic sense of humour.

“Proud of yourself?” I asked a bit sourly.

“Very,” Tink sniffed regally, throwing her arms over the back of the empty seats and crossing her legs. I gave her a playful kick in the shins, and she chuckled lightly, watching me with her amber eyes still twinkling with amusement.“Can I now ask you something?”

“Tit for tat, I guess,” I answered, shrugging and taking up the same relaxed posture as her while the after effect of her display wore off. “Knock yourself out.”

“Why are you still calling me ‘Tink’? Haven’t we discovered my real name by now?”

I considered the question seriously for a long minute before answering.

“Because Rávamë has three syllables, and Tink has one. It’s shorter.”

Tink just blinked at me.

“Seriously? That’s it? It’s shorter?

I nodded.

“It’s short, sweet, and to the point. Like you,” I answered, beaming at her.

“I’m touched,” she said dryly. I shrugged with a wave of my hand.

“Think of it as paying rent. If you’re going to remain resident in my noggin, I’m at least going to pick the nickname I shout when I need your attention.”

A look of genuine surprise crossed her face and stayed there for a long while. She opened her mouth to speak, closed it, then shook her head slowly, a minute but warm smile touching her features.

“A nickname, huh?” she said, quietly. I returned the smile, and nodded once.

“A nickname,” I repeated, just as the train suddenly tore from the tunnel and into brilliant daylight.

Chapter Text

I woke from the dream to the sound of laboured breaths, heavy footfalls on hard ground, and the feeling of my cheek thumping gently against something solid but warm.

That, and my stomach was apparently trying to claw its way out through my mouth. It twisted and writhed, needles of pain pulsing up through my torso to my head from my belly, and it was only when I was conscious enough to string a thought together that I realised why:

I was starving.

A soft groan escaped up my throat before I could think, and the footsteps and movement halted almost instantly. I tried to move, to figure out where I was and whose back my face was pressed against, but all my senses were dulled, and my arms and legs felt like lead. Low evening sunlight was all but blinding me, and my neck ached every time I tried to move my head.

“Eleanor?” someone familiar said my name.

“H-hungry…” I rasped out after a moment of trying, my voice a croaky imitation of its normal sound. My throat felt like someone had taken a cheese grater to it.

More voices, two of them this time, more footfalls, and then suddenly I was being set down with my back leaning against the cool stone of a wind-smoothed boulder. The shade of the rock momentarily got the dimming sun out of my sticky eyes, and for a moment all I could see was dried grass, rocks and miles of deep blue, pale indigo and bright orange in the evening sky.

Someone familiar, though still faintly blurry, came into my view. He was tall, rugged, with dark hair, grey eyes, and the imposing posture of one who spent most of his time roaming the wilderness and liked it that way. He was crouched in front of me, his weapon-roughened hand gently gripping my shoulder, keeping me propped upright against the stone so I didn’t tip over.

But far more important that any of that; he was holding half a loaf of lambas bread about three inches from my nose.

The smell of the food hit me like a punch to the gut, and I all but ripped the loaf from Aragorn’s hand, biting into it with no elegance or dignity at all. My stomach moaned in euphoric relief, and the next thing I knew the measly little piece of elvish bread was gone in less than three bites. I’d barely stopped chewing before I was frantically reaching for the other half, my insides howling for more immediately, but Aragorn took a gentle, yet firm, hold of my wrist.

“Slow down. You’ll choke yourself,” his gravely voice commanded quietly, handing me a skin of water instead. I took it a little more carefully in hands that I now realised were shaking badly with fatigue, and drained half of it in a few long gulps before I could force myself to stop and breathe again. By the time I’d wolfed down my third loaf, the writhing in my belly hadn’t ceased, but it had dulled just enough for me to remember how to think straight.

I ate my fourth one much slower, forcing myself to take smaller bites, knowing that if I didn’t, I’d just end up throwing it all back up again.

“H-how… how long…” I managed to get out between bites, chews, and gulps for air.

“A day and a half,” Aragorn answered, understanding what I was asking without me needing to even finish.

A day and a half? I’d been completely dead to the world for an entire day and a half? A cold shiver ran through my spine at the thought. Just how close had I come to draining myself entire during that antacuilë? I didn’t want to think about it.

“… Where a-are we?”

“The western bank of the Onodlo river. We passed into Rohan this morning.”

I looked around slowly, my neck muscles creaking. It was late evening from what I could tell, the sky was darkening but the sun still lingered just over the horizon enough to give us light and a pretty spectacular sunset. I hadn’t noticed immediately thanks to my hunger declaring civil war on my self control, but we were the only two there in the small sheltered area surrounded by wind-smoothed stones and sun-dried grass.

“The others? Where—?”

“They have not gone far,” Aragorn interrupted me a third time, saving me the agony of trying to speak through my mouthful of bread — bless him. He nudged the water skin towards me again in encouragement, and I obediently washed the dry feeling down with another controlled swig. “We have only stopped long enough to rest and sate your hunger. They’ve gone to hunt whatever game there is available nearby. Gimli in particular was adamant that we not give you reason to resort to cannibalism from starvation when you finally awoke.”

I choked on a slightly hysterical giggle.

“Tempting. My insides feel like sandpaper,” I croaked, a hand settling on my twisting belly while the other struggled to push me more upright. I looked at him in question, taking the water skin for another sip. “How did you know about the hunger? Was my stomach rumbling while I was out?”

Aragorn hesitated, looking away from me thoughtfully into the evening gloom for a moment, then shook his head.

“No,” he said slowly. “But Boromir had a similar reaction when he awoke, although he actually did end up choking himself.”

I almost spat out my mouthful of water.

Almost being the key word. Naturally — being me — I ended up inhaling half it, and a generous amount went straight up and out my nose. I started coughing violently and Aragorn had to give me a few firm slaps on the back to get me breathing again.

“H-he’s alive?” I choked finally, trying to sit up and making a wobbly mess of it. “His wounds healed? What happened? Is he alright? Where—?”

“Calm down, stop trying to move,” Aragorn ordered bluntly, taking the water skin from me and all but pinning me in place with one hand. “He is well now, physically at least, if still weak. However…” He trailed off, his eyes drifting from mine again. His expression was a bizarre mix of relief, confusion and real worry I’d never seen on him.

“What?” I pressed. When he didn’t answer immediately I impatiently pushed his hand off my arm and sat up. “What is it, Aragorn?”

He regarded me thoughtfully for a moment, and I knew he was choosing his words with care. That worried me more than anything else.

“Eleanor, you should know, he has not spoken since.”

I just stared at him, uncomprehending.

“What?”

“Boromir has barely uttered a word since he awoke, shortly after you collapsed,” he told me with forced neutrality, his expression deliberately blank as he laid out the bare facts for me. “He was too weak to move for the first few hours, and you were still completely unresponsive. He could barely stand, and none of us could wake you. We had to remain for half a day before he had the strength to walk, let alone run, and we were able to make chase.”

I just sat there, silently absorbing it all.

‘He’s alive… he’s alive… half a day… too weak to walk… he’s alive…’ I repeated it all over and over in my head, dazed past the point of clear thought. I couldn’t quite believe it was true, and I knew deep down wouldn’t really be able to until I saw him myself.

“Where? Where is he?” I said finally, pushing myself up off my perch and making to clamber determinedly onto my still wobbly legs. “He lost so much blood, he shouldn’t be straining himself after that trauma. I need to check he’s not—”

Aragorn planted one very solid hand on my shoulder, and pushed me gently but firmly downward. My legs gave out and I plopped back down to the ground on my butt with a dull thump.

“He is with Gimli, and you have greater issues to worry over right now,” he told me plainly, taking another lambas loaf out of a small nearby pack and unwrapping it from its leaf coverings. He broke it in half and handed a piece to me, and I forced myself to take it calmly, mumbling a quiet “thank you”. Aragorn grunted, and added: “You should probably consider thanking Legolas as well. He ran for five hours today with you slung over his back.”

I blinked.

“He did?”

Aragorn nodded, and I took a carefully slow bite of the elvish bread, my head still doing wheelies around everything he’d just told me.

“I’ll do that…” I mumbled eventually, still numb, nibbling on my piece of bread. Even eating slowly, the bread vanished all too quickly, but before I could say anything Aragorn had already pushed yet another piece into my hand.

I could feel him eyeing me, and my stomach writhed with a sensation that had nothing to do with hunger; a mix of dread and shame at what I knew he must be thinking.

“Eleanor, you—,” he began, but I cut him off.

“I know,” I interrupted him this time, not able to look directly at him, so I stared down at my hands instead. “I was thoughtless and reckless for doing what I did. I not only could have easily got both myself and Boromir killed for naught, but I’ve also put Merry and Pippin’s lives in danger by delaying our progress,” I made myself meet his sharp grey eyes firmly.  “I know, and I’m sorry. But he was dying Aragorn, right in front of me. I couldn’t just sit there waiting and do nothing, I couldn’t…”

His gaze softened very slightly, and the tiniest twitch pulled at the corner of his mouth — a negligibly minute expression on anyone else, but on him it meant the world.

“I was actually going to say you have lambas crumbs stuck to your nose.”

I felt my face go pink. “…Oh.”

We’ll, that was suave of me.

I brushed the crumbs off awkwardly and Aragorn sighed heavily, his shoulders sagging — as if, for just a moment, he didn’t have the energy left to hide exactly how tired he really was.

“Though you are correct, what you did was reckless beyond any kind of sense, and could have very easily killed you both. In fact, I’m stunned you are still able to draw breath after what you did, let alone speak,” h looked at me hard, and although his words were reprimanding, there was none of the cold stone in his eyes that had been there when we’d talked on Caradhras. “But despite that, I cannot begrudge you the decision to save a life in your charge, foolish as it might have been to go about it the way you did. Holding that against you would be hypocritical, since I am unsure I would have done any different in your place.”

A rather anaemic little smile crept onto my face before I could stop it.

“And I’m too thick-skulled at the moment to be susceptible to a lecture on self-responsibility, so you’re saving it for later?”

He didn’t acknowledge the quip with words, but the half smile did grow into the nearest to a real one I’d seen in weeks. He handed me the other half of the lambas loaf, and clapped a warm hand to my back just soft enough so he wouldn’t knock me over.

“Keep eating, you’ll need as much of your strength as possible. We are not far behind the Uruks, but we cannot risk lingering here too long and losing them. We need to reach Merry and Pippin before they reach Isengard.”

I nodded, breaking the half loaf into smaller pieces so I wouldn’t eat it too fast.

“That’s where they’re taking them, to Saruman?” I asked. I stopped suddenly as a thought occurred to me, looking up in wide-eyed realisation the moment the name was out of my mouth. “He thinks they have it. He thinks they have the Ring.”

Aragorn just gave me a grim nod. I swallowed around the dry sensation creeping in my throat.

“Frodo and Sam, they—?”

“Crossed the lake towards Emyn Muil before the Uruk-hai could reach them,” he interrupted me once again, though this time I didn’t mind at all. “They are well beyond their reach now, and ours.”

Relief for them washed over me, which in hindsight was bizarre considering they were now a hell of a lot closer to Mordor than we were — but hey, at least that was one outcome I actually had been expecting.

“Eleanor,” Aragorn asked abruptly, and there was a peculiar touch of hesitation in his tone. I looked up to find him watching me closely, with a carefully guarded expression.

“Y-yeah?”

“The antacuilë, to heal someone that swiftly, I know only a little of the method but…” he said, seeming to struggle with how to phrase what he trying to say. I tried hard to keep my facial expression blank, but I’m sure the sinking feeling I felt must have at least shown in my eyes, because his eyes flicked to mine for an unsettling long second. Then he closed them, rubbed the bridge of his nose tiredly, waving a hand in dismissal. “Never mind, it is of little consequence now. You are alive, he is alive, that is all that matters.”

He didn’t sound entirely convinced by his own words, making little effort to hide it, and I couldn’t help but feel a pang of relief that whatever he’d been about to say hadn’t made it out as a question. One I knew I wouldn’t be able to lie to.

I looked down at my hands and the shredded remains of my sleeves, and my eyebrows pinched in confusion. Now that I was more alert I felt bizarrely unburdened, and it took me a painfully long moment to work out why.

“My knife, my gear!” I squeaked in abrupt panic, feebly patting myself down — you know, just in case some genius had decided to stash them in my undergarments or something.

Aragorn actually snorted. He twisted on the spot, reaching into one of the nearby bundles which seemed to have replaced out heavier travelling packs. He unfurled a roll of fabric and, sure enough, my sheathed knife, medical satchel — both primary and smaller back up — my little pouch of medicinal flowers from Lady Galadriel, and my throwing knife pouch were all present and accounted for.

I reached out and took my hunting knife in fingers that were still a little weak, running my thumb over the carved wooden handle. It had gained a few more dents and nicks over the past few months, but each of the names I’d etched into the polished wood three years ago were legible clear as the day I’d carved them. I clutched it to my chest in relief, biting my cheek to keep my face straight. I never would have admitted it, but I really think I would have started tearing up then if I really had lost it.

“You really need to take better care of this. It would do you no good dropped and forgotten under the pile of leaves where I found it,” Aragorn told me in what might have been a serious voice if I didn’t know when he was trying to mask his amusement. I nodded in defeat, still holding my longest standing reminder of home to my chest.

“Next time I get jumped by an Uruk-hai warrior in the middle of nowhere, I’ll be sure to remember that,” I said, feeling my throat tighten a bit as I looked up to see him smiling minutely. “Thank you.”

He returned it, looking as if he was about to add something more when, without warning, an all too familiar elf silently rounded the corner of stones into the little clearing.

The second Legolas saw us both he stopped dead in his tracks, staring with a vaguely shellshocked expression at me sitting upright, awake, and at least mostly alert. I stared back, my mouth still slightly open. I wanted to say something, but I was suddenly and inexplicably at a loss at how to react to the sight of him there in the evening gloom. He looked more physically tired than I remembered seeing him before at Amon Hen. The shadows under his eyes were a bit deeper, his shoulders and posture wound tighter than before, and for the first time ever his immaculate blond hair was looking a bit windswept. Were he not within five feet of Aragorn — who by comparison looked as if he’d fallen out of a tree — I would have almost been tempted to say he looked scruffy.

He also had his bow in one hand, and in the other he carried two hares and three small partridges, strung together in a hunter’s snare.

My stomach made an impossibly loud growling noise, and my face flooded with colour.

I saw a wide smile stretch Aragorn’s face out of my peripherals, and I knew he was working to hold back laughter. I frowned at him, but to my surprise, he just gave me a pointedly knowing little smirk, pushed another half-loaf of elvish bread into my hand, and stood up.

“Thank you, mellon nín*, I will deal with those,” he said, planting a hand on Legolas’ shoulder than seemed to jar him out of his and my shared daze. “Take some rest. Make sure she doesn’t choke herself, or chew through her own arm.”

I found myself scowling through the colour still in my cheeks.

“That’ll depend entirely on how fast you can cook over a campfire,” I said tartly, though my voice was still a bit croaky. Something like a half-smile twitched at Legolas’ lip, and he handed the game to Aragorn who ignored me entirely, going instead to go get a fire going a just little way off.

For a long moment Legolas and I just looked at each other, the both of us apparently entirely at a loss on what best to say.

‘Hi there, glad to see you’re not dead?’ Tink suggested somewhat awkwardly. Well, that made three of us.

Legolas shook himself out of the paralysis first, setting his bow carefully against the stone before taking a seat on the grass beside me.

“It is almost comforting to know that, even half starved, that barbed tongue of yours doesn’t lose its bite,” he smiled somewhat hesitantly, as if he was trying to keep a limited amount of emotion from leaking into his expression. Still, it was a warm smile, a familiar one, and I felt it reflect on my own face.

“I don’t think there’s a force in the world that could truly put a stop to me being a smart-ass,” I said back.

His smile grew at that, and he snorted through a suppressed chuckle. His grey-blue eyes flicked from mine to the half lambas loaf still in my hand. I was still hungry, but my mouth had abruptly gone a bit too dry, and I didn’t dare try and take a bite now for fear of choking myself again.

“How are you feeling?” he asked earnestly, touching a painfully gentle hand to my shoulder in question. I shrugged, leaning into it very slightly.

“Better than I look, probably.”

“You look well enough, all things considered.”

I laughed quietly at that, leaning my aching head back against the cool stone. “Liar.”

He chuckled again, softer and lower this time, lifting his hand to brush some of the more rebellious strands of my messy hair back from my face. I felt his gaze travel down to my throat and his smile faded. Warm fingers brushed against the side of my neck, and I almost shivered as they lingered on the tender band of finger-shaped bruises that I could feel encircling my throat like a collar.

The ones the Uruk-hai chief had left after nearly killing me, before I’d killed it instead.

“T-they probably look worse than they feel, too,” I said a bit nervously, unable to quite meet his eyes. I was suddenly very aware of the pleasant tingling feeling his touch had left on my neck.

“They look deep,” he said in all seriousness, drawing his fingers back somewhat reluctantly. “And will probably take a long while to heal on their own.”

I rolled my shoulder in another little shrug, waving my half loaf of bread and trying to appear less flustered than I felt.

“I haven’t really got much energy left to spare on healing superficial bruises now, at least not until I’ve got a lot more food into me.”

Legolas’ already concerned expression dissolved into something that made the faint shadows under his eyes deepen.

“I still cannot quite believe that you—. We all thought for certain we would find you both dead after hearing…”

After hearing the Horn of Gondor, followed by my screams as the Uruk-hai tried very hard to literally beat the life out of me. I knew Legolas had incredibly good hearing. I’d known he would be abel to hear me from the other side of the wood.

I suddenly had the absurd urge to reach over and take his hand, hug him, reassure him I was really there, that I was ok — anything to get that awful, pained look off his face.

But I didn’t. I could also see dozens of questions swirling behind his eyes, trying to escape, and the last thing I wanted was for him to ask any of them. Not now. I was terrified one of them would be about how I’d survived that antacuilë when, by all rights, it should have killed me. Or how the Uruk-hai’s face had ended up burned to cinders from the inside out. Or how the body had been left in a perfect circle of completely deadened forest.

I looked down at my hands, one of which still clutched my sheathed knife like it was a child’s comfort blanket. Part of me wanted so badly to tell him the truth, about everything, about who I’d discovered was sharing my head, and what those words scratched into the wooden hilt of my knife really meant. Yet the other half, the weaker half, knew that if I did, then that look he’d given me only moment ago — the one I realised I’d begun to grow far too fond of — would vanish, and maybe never come back.

I would have to tell him eventually, all of them, I knew — but not now, not today.

“Aragorn filled me in on the past day and a half,” I said a bit quickly, jumping on the first thing I could think of. “Thank you for carrying me.”

His smile was a bit crooked as it reappeared, but it was there.

“You’re heavier than you look,” he said with the faintest trace of a chuckle.

I tried to give him a playful punch, but the blow was so pathetic I think he barely felt it. “Rude!”

His smile grew and the sight warmed me more than I expected it to. I definitely had grown fonder of his smile than his scowl over the past few months.

He gestured down to the bread still in my hand and my wobbly legs folded inelegantly beneath me.

“Aragorn wants us to set off again within the next half hour. Can you walk?”

I nodded, waving the half eaten bread in the direction of my feet. “Yes, I’m alright now, I think. I should be able to keep up once I’ve had a bit more to eat.” Legolas gave me a highly exaggerated, sceptical look, arching one dark gold eyebrow. I gave him a playful, but still pathetically weak, shove in the chest that barely ruffled his clothes. “Seriously, don’t look at me like that. If I start feeling weak again I won’t keep quiet. I’ll say something, I promise.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” he told me seriously, but that warm smile had returned to his face again, and it made me happy to see it.

I returned it easily, then winced as the half-healed split in my lower lip stung in protest. I hadn’t really stopped to think about the fact that the last time I’d been conscious I’d just come out of a death-match with an Uruk-hai warrior on the lower end of the seven-foot bellcurve. I was still covered in bruises, I ached everywhere, and now that the pain in my stomach had lessened, the ribs all down my left side felt like a troll had used them as a xylophone.

‘God, I must look like a horror movie.’ I thought, embarrassed, but also a little grateful that I didn’t have a mirror to find out for sure.

A small bead of blood welled from the cut, and before I could react, Legolas had suddenly reached up and reflexively wiped it away, the pad of his thumb tracing lightly over my lower lip.

The touch sent a tiny sting through the cut on my mouth, but one that did absolutely nothing to mask the tinging warmth that suddenly flooded through my entire face and down my neck. The both of us froze, staring transfixed at each other in sudden shock at realising what he’d just done, and what we must have looked like.

But he didn’t pull away.

He just looked at me, his grey-blue eyes suddenly holding a look that I couldn’t read, but made my pulse race. His hand lingered lightly on my face, cradling my jaw, his thumb hovering so close I could feel the warmth of his fingers on my lips…

Then without warning he suddenly jerked his hand away and drew back entirely, leaving my face uncomfortably hot, eyes blinking rapidly, and my heart hammering behind my breastbone. I didn’t have time to wonder what the hell had just happened before the heavy stomp of dwarf boots rounded the edge of the outcrop, and huge red beard came into view.

“The baggage awakes!” Gimli’s gravelly voice boomed through my ears and ricocheted round the inside of my skull like I’d suck my head inside a bell. My temples throbbed, and I saw said dwarf approach us through my wince of pain. He was beaming at me. “Glad to see you conscious again, lass. Was beginning to think the elf was going to have to carry you all way across the Mark.” He slapped huge hand down rather hard on Legolas’ shoulder, and I saw the elf make a conscious effort not to cave under the pressure. His face had gone deliberately blank, though his eyes still lingered on me.

I looked at Gimli instead, hoping my face wasn’t quite as red as it felt.

“Well, we couldn’t have that,” I chuckled a little too forcefully, but my smile at him was genuine. “I’m glad you’re alright too.”

A look of pure relief bordering on elation shone from the dwarf’s dark eyes, though he did his best to hide it with a gruff grunt.

“Don’t ever scare us like that again. You hear, girl?” he said sternly, then turned a bit green and cleared his throat. “And don’t ever ask me to staunch a wound like that again, either. Ever.”

I laughed, and it felt ridiculously good despite my aching ribs and stomach.

“Shame, you made an excellent nurse,” I grinned weakly at him.

Gimli tried to look annoyed, but it was somewhat spoiled by the rumbling chuckle that bubbled up his throat. He glanced down at Legolas who had his neutral mask firmly back in place again, and was looking very deliberately away over the grass. Gimli gave a faintly smug little chuckle, and then planted a rather heavy pat on my still bruised shoulder as he passed.

“Ow,” I grunted, almost falling over sideways, but I was still smiling.

The smile vanished the moment I saw the second person who’d come round the corner when I wasn’t looking.

Boromir stood just ten feet away.

He looked as if he hadn’t slept well in days. His eyes were quite red and sore looking, both his hair and his expression a bit haggard, and clothes and leathers — though now clean of blood — still bore some of the remnants of the fight at Amon Hen. Regardless of all that, however, he was there, upright and standing, and clutching two full water skins that he’d clearly just been to refill in the nearby river.

He was alive. He was really alive.

I hadn’t thought Aragorn was lying when he’d told me he’d survived, but it wasn’t the same as seeing the living proof standing only feet from me, and apparently no more worse for wear than I was.

Our gazes met, and despite my exhaustion, I felt my entire face light up in a beaming smile.

“Boromir,” I all but cried in near overwhelming relief, my throat tightening at the sight of him.

The second his bright blue eyes fixed on mine, all the colour drained from his face.

I felt the joy slip from my face into confusion as I tried and failed to read the look that had suddenly appeared on his face, and Legolas turned to look, too.

“Boromir?”

One second he had looked alert, if tired and lost in thought — the next he was looking straight at me as if he was looking into the face of a ghost.

He didn’t say a word, he didn’t even open his mouth. His jaw tightened, his pupils shrank, and I saw his hands clench and unclench tightly around the neck of the water skin in his hand — an unconscious gesture that I couldn’t help but notice instantly, the bruises on my throat suddenly aching. Then he turned and paced quickly away without a sound, making a b-line straight towards were Aragorn had got the hares and birds roasting over the fire, avoiding getting any closer to us. To me.

I just stared after him with my mouth open.

Legolas said something that I think was meant to be vaguely reassuring — that he was still weak, still recovering from the shock of being healed so quickly, and was still guilt-ridden from what had happened to Merry and Pippin — but I wasn’t really listening anymore.

I knew I wasn’t exactly in the best state of mind myself, but I’d been more than prepared for some confusion and disorientation from Boromir. He had been through a massive physical and mental trauma after all, we both had, and despite not really understanding why the sudden lack of speech, I’d been prepared for the silence thanks to Aragorn.

“He has not spoken since. He has barely uttered a word.” That’s what he’d had said. But…

That look Boromir had just given me, it hadn’t been confusion, or guilt, or even anger.

It was fear.

He had looked at me, and though he’d tried to hide it, he’d been afraid.

I just sat there in the dried grass, stunned, bruised, tired, staring after the friend I’d almost died to save, and wondering with renewed fear all my own:

‘God… what on earth did I do to him?’

Chapter Text

“I never forget a face, but in your case I'll be glad to make an exception.” ― Groucho Marx


 

By the time the last of the setting sun’s light had vanished over the horizon, we were running.

I say running — Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and to an extent even Boromir were all running.

What I was doing could probably be generously described as stumbling, or possibly loping. After four more loaves of lambas two more skins of water, half a hare, and two partridges all to myself a few hours before — though I couldn’t quite work out where Aragorn had kept them all until now — I’d managed to scrape up enough energy to manage a slow but steady jog.

My legs worked, but were still terribly weak and unsteady compared to their usual strength and speed. I paced behind Aragorn and Legolas, who were taking turns leading the way, and I was so focused on keeping sight of them in the dark that I’d lost count of the times I tripped or snagged my foot on a stray stone. There were already some lovely scrapes on my knees and hands from where I hadn’t managed to catch myself in time. It was almost pitch black, the crescent moon and stars overhead providing the only light source, and even with my snazzy elf eyesight, I was struggling to see where my feet were going.

Behind me, Gimli and Boromir brought up the rear of our convoy. I could hear their heavy footfalls on the ground, as well as the occasional grunts and Khuzdul curses whenever Gimli tripped or stumbled over obstructions the rest of us were tall enough to avoid.

Boromir, on the other hand, barely made a sound at all, save for the laboured breaths plaguing us all from running for seemingly endless miles cross country in the dark.

He still hadn’t spoken to me once since I’d woken, but from the look I’d caught of him while we all ate and got ready to leave, I’d got the impression that he wasn’t nearly as weak as me anymore — though he was still nowhere near peak strength. I knew he was more than capable of overtaking me as we ran through the night, but he never did, not once. He deliberately kept pace behind me in the gloom the whole time, his footfalls never getting closer than a few feet behind me. Whenever I sped up a little, he stayed back just far enough to keep me in sight. When I began to tire and started to slow down, so did he, remaining at a constant distance in my wake, like a watchful shadow.

I could feel his eyes on the back of my neck the entire time, and if I hadn’t been so focused on just keeping my legs moving, it might have given me the chills.

Lost in thought, I almost ran straight into the back of Legolas as Aragorn ahead of him suddenly came to a stop. I toppled sideways, but Legolas caught my hand in the dark and tugged me upright again with barely any effort.

“Thanks,” I puffed out between deep breaths. I couldn’t really see his face — it was far too gloomy even with the moon and stars — but I felt his small smile at me. His warm hand gave mine a gentle squeeze before reluctantly letting go, and I tried to ignore the urge I suddenly had to reach out and take it back again.

“Aragorn?” Legolas asked quietly to the man, who had stooped to kneel and genuinely press his ear to the ground.

“Why are we slowing?”

I very nearly jumped at the sound of Boromir’s quiet voice coming from several steps behind me in the darkness. An overreaction to hearing one of my companions speak, perhaps, but it was the first time I’d heard him utter a word since I’d woken — and he most definitely did not sound like the man I remembered. His voice was the same, if a little croaky and breathless, but it had also gone flat, hardened, with an unsettlingly cold edge that made my skin crawl. I’d always remembered him as having a strong voice, and it still was despite his obvious exhaustion. Now, however, it sounded as if some crucial part that made it his was missing, hidden away behind a stony barrier that had gone up the second he’d seen me look at him hours before.

I felt a slow, cold sensation rise inside me, and forced myself not to try and look over at him in the dark, no matter how hard it was to resist. I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to see the expression that went with that voice, or if it was aimed at me. No one else had seemed to take much heed, or else they had already grown uneasily used to it by now. Only Legolas seemed to grow tense whenever he was close, though I couldn’t guess at why that would have been.

Aragorn’s hand lifted in the dim light, a gesture for silence, and we all held as still as possible as he pressed his head closer to the ground still, listening to the vibrations of our quarry running through the earth.

“Their pace has quickened,” he murmured, suddenly back up to his feet and already moving again, with barely any time to let the rest of us catch up. “They must have caught our scent! Come!”

Gimli and I both groaned at the prospect of more running, but we both knew there was no choice.

“I’m wasted on cross country! We dwarves are natural sprinters!” Gimli insisted loudly, charging ahead after Aragorn, as if to prove a point. Under normal circumstances, I would have been running right along with him, but my lungs and legs were still aching with the prolonged effort and limited energy, forcing me to pull in a few deep breaths first.

“Can you still run?” Legolas asked me quietly, and I felt him deliberately lean his head down close to mine so no one else would hear my reply — bless him. I nodded, still forcing myself to take in a few extra breaths before starting again.

“Yes, I’m alright,” I replied just as quietly, tilting my head just a little towards his. “Let’s go.”

With that, we were running again, downhill and straight back into the dark. Clouds had begun to roll over the moon as we continued behind Aragorn, and it was suddenly all but impossible to see more than a few feet in front. I didn’t dare slow down, though. I could hear Legolas’ and Gimli’s footfalls just a few feet ahead, and I didn’t relish the idea of loosing them in the dark. Or falling back to where I’d be on my own with only Boromir’s hard, untrusting gaze on the back of my still vulnerable neck…

I shoved that thought away to the very back of my mind as the ground levelled out beneath our feet, refusing to even acknowledge it. I could worry about why Boromir was behaving this way later. Right now, we all had a bigger issue.

Something big and solid suddenly caught on my foot, and before I knew what was happening, my balance went out from under me, and I’d sprawled face first into the dirt. An embarrassingly high pitched squeak followed by a loud grunt of pain escaped me as I hit the ground, all my aches and bruises suddenly turned to stabbing pangs all up my left side.

I tried immediately to get up and keep going, but something had stuck in the leather of my boot, and I twisted with an awkward groan to see what it was.

The clouds picked that precise moment to roll back from the face of the moon, and the sudden light gave me an up-close and personal view of a very dead Uruk lying at my feet.

Another embarrassingly girly noise escaped me without my permission as I instantly jerked away.

It had been lying so flat against the ground that I would never have seen it in the dark, even with my sharpened eyesight, had I not just tripped straight over it. Now it was lying face up, maw hanging open and eyes rolled back in its head, and there was a generous amount of black blood covering its dented armour from a tear in its neck that looked disturbingly like it had been made by teeth. It was still ugly as sin, but is was also very notably shorter than the kind I’d seen at Amon Hen — squatter, and without that horrifying, predatory look that the monsters who’d attacked us had. One of the jagged spikes on its pauldrons was still caught on my boot.

“Guys, stop! Look!” I called out into the dark just as I heard rather than saw Boromir’s silhouette grind to a halt a few feet from me.

I tried to shake my foot loose, but all I accomplished as the others appeared out of the dark was to drag the dead creature’s corpse across the grass. Gimli appeared at my side, and between the two of us we managed to get the spiked pauldron unstuck from my foot and he helped me back up to my feet.

Only then did I realise, looking around as the moonlight lit up the ground around me, that there wasn’t just one dead creature lying in the grass. There were many, well over a dozen — and all of them very dead. Terrifyingly so.

“What is this?” Gimli rasped, still a bit out of breath from the cross country running, kicking one of the other cadavers that had been stuck with a spear into its back. Its head rolled away from its mangled shoulders, and I felt my face twist in revulsion at the sight and smell of the blackened blood smeared across the ground.

“A hunting party,” Aragorn answered in a grim tone, hunching down just close enough to observe one in the gloom. “Are any of them still alive?”

“No,” Legolas answered immediately from where he’d appeared out of the dark, clearly from inspecting the rest of the bodies. “Sixteen of them, all dead.”

Curbing my sudden urge to throw up in my mouth from the smell of blood and body odour, I hunched down on my sore legs to get a closer look at one. It had the same white paint hand print of Saruman the Uruk-hai had had on the chest plate of his armour, though it was a lot smaller and less conspicuous. Lower ranked maybe.

“Is it just me or are they a little on the short side compared to what we saw at Amon Hen?” I asked, not really expecting an answer, though I got one regardless.

“These are Orcs, not Uruk-hai,” Aragorn informed me, coming to stand beside me and peering down at one of the slightly less mutilated ones. “Likely one of the many that have been tracking us since before Moria.”

I nodded, took a breath, held it, and reluctantly rolled a less bloody Orc’s head to the side so I could press the back of my hand to its neck. I was a little scared the thing would spontaneously spring back to life and try to rip my face off if I got too close.

“They’re still warm. They can’t have been dead for more than a couple of hours at most,” I said, quickly retracing my hand and wiping it on the side of my leg. “What are they even doing out here?”

“They must have encountered the party that took Merry and Pippin, then turned on each other during the night,” Legolas spoke quietly as if he was thinking aloud, eyeing the Orc with the torn throat with much the same expression I’d had. “An in-fight such as this would have slowed them down some.”

“It is almost dawn now,” Aragorn said with grim determination. “Once the sun rises, we may be close enough to track them by sight.”

I was about to stand up when something small lying in the grass caught my eye, reflecting the silver moonlight far too clearly to be any part of the dead Orc’s blackened armour. I nudged the corpse’s arm aside and picked it up, rubbing the dirt and dried blood off with the remains of my shredded sleeve. A small, silver brooch sat in the palm of my hand, the finely wrought metal formed by skilled hands to resemble the shape of a leaf.

My heart leaped as I recognised it instantly — I had one identical to it clasping the neck of my cloak closed. Each of us had.

I whirled abruptly to find Aragorn and Legolas both looking over my shoulder in interest.

“It’s one of theirs,” I said excitedly, holding it up. “They don’t come undone easily. Merry or Pip must have dropped it on purpose.”

Something very much like triumphant hope flickered behind Aragorn’s eyes, and even in the dark it was easy to see.

“Not idly do the leaves of Lórien fall.”

“They’re leaving us a trail, cunning little masters,” Gimli put hope-filled word to what we were all thinking, and Aragorn nodded in solemn agreement.

“Then we still have hope of finding them before they reach Isengard,” I heard Boromir’s voice sound quietly from off to my left, and despite the fact that I’d already heard him speak, the familiar yet alien sound of it still left me with a cold feeling in my chest.

“There is,” Aragorn answered almost as quietly, pressing my hand closed over the leaf brooch of Lothlórien and then turning, taking off into a run again. “Hurry, all of you. We cannot slow now.”

Legolas glanced at me as I tucked the little trinket into one of the empty pouches on my belt, then took off ahead as soon as he was sure I was still able to keep up. I hadn’t missed the cautious look he’d thrown over my shoulder at Boromir as we moved off into the dark again, but I didn’t let myself dwell on it. My mind was too fixated on Merry and Pippin, and despite the hope I now had flooding through me at the fact they were still able to deliberately leave us tracking clues, I couldn’t push away the worry for them.

They were still the Uruk-hai’s prisoners; the same monsters that had come close to killing both Boromir and I. I didn’t want to think about what we would need to face in order to free them when we did finally catch up to them — but I wanted to think about what would happen to the two hobbits if we didn’t catch them even less.

So, instead, I made myself focus on running, just keeping my legs moving forward even as they began to burn and plead for rest.

Dawn came only an hour later, but despite my growing exhaustion I was relieved to finally have the first rays of the morning sun lighting my path again instead of the moon. We’d fallen back into our original convoy pattern with Legolas and Aragorn jointly leading the way, while Gimli, Boromir and myself brought up the rear respectively. I realised that I must have been slowing down more and more the further we’d gone, because Gimli suddenly drew up next to me, huffing and puffing like a hairy, red, steam engine, despite his heavy war axe weighing him down.

I was kind of impressed he’d managed to keep up this far without collapsing — I wasn’t carrying half the weight as him, and I could feel myself tiring to the point of my legs shaking whenever we slowed to catch our breaths.

Boromir however, still remained a good few feet behind us, and I couldn’t help but notice it more and more the further we ran.

“Legolas, what can you see?” Aragorn called to where the other elf had taken the lead and I raised my head from the ground to see him standing high up on the crest of a rocky hill up ahead, eyes scanning the horizon.

“They are almost within sight!” he answered back, gaze still fixed on the miles of grassland that was suddenly stretching out ahead of us. “Their path has turned northeast, straight towards Isengard.”

Aragorn, Gimli and Boromir all slowed to a stop on the ledge just below him, but I urged my tired muscles to carry me further up the hill to his side, intent on seeing what he’d found myself. I had to push my legs to not collapse out from under me as I came to a stop beside him. The über-fit elven showoff didn’t seem tired in the slightest anymore. He wasn’t even breathing hard.

I peered out into the distance in roughly the same direction as him, trying to focus all my attention on sharpening my eyesight like he’d shown me back in Lothlórien, rather than the tiredness now pulsing through my whole body.

Just about managing it, I scanned the horizon littered with stone outcrops and miles of grasslands bathed in watery morning sunlight.

“I don’t see anything out there,” I said quietly from beside him.

“You have your sight focused?” he asked, his tone part curious and part surprised. I pursed my lips at that, feeling his surprised gaze on me, but nodded.

“You did teach me how, didn’t you?”

With no shame whatsoever, he put his hand flat on the top of my head and turned my face a few degrees to the left, pointing ahead of me.

“Look there. Keep your eyes fixed on one point and look hard.”

I did as he instructed, fixing my eyes on the point he’d indicated, and tried determinedly to ignore the irritatingly pleasant feeling of his fingers in my hair.

At first I couldn’t understand what he was trying to make me see — there was nothing before us but miles and miles of open, rolling planes stretching out towards what looked like the edges of a forest, far off on the horizon. My eyes narrowed as I forced them to try and look harder. Then finally I saw it, just beyond a distant shelf of rocks — flattened grass and torn earth where the Uruk-hai had very recently crushed the ground underfoot. And just beyond that, almost too far into the distance for even an elf’s eyes to see, a tall plume of smoke rose from somewhere just on the edge of a line of thick trees.

My eyes widened, along with my smile, drifting in wonder at the sight I’d been able to conjure up from so far away — but the smile vanished as my gaze suddenly found something else that we hadn’t been looking for. Specifically, a lot of somethings, all of them big, armoured, and most of them carrying very sharp-looking spears, their razor tips glinting in the watery daylight.

“Um, guys,” I started, a nervous tremor creeping into my voice as I tried to count them all, and lost count at thirty. “There’s a group of really angry-looking men on horseback headed straight towards us.”

Legolas shifted suddenly next to me, his arm brushing my shoulder as he urgently tried to follow my gaze.

“Where?”

Without looking away, I reached up, pinched his chin between my forefinger and thumb, and turned his face to look in the same direction as I. I felt a very slight shiver run through him from my fingertips, before the rest of his body tensed with sudden alertness the second he saw what I was seeing. That did exactly nothing to lessen my sense of impending danger. I had no idea who they were, or what they wanted, but if they were enough to put Legolas on the defensive, I was fairly sure I would have done well to turn and run like a rabbit in the other direction.

“Who are they?” Aragorn demanded from below as the riders moved close enough for us to see them more clearly.

“Rohan riders — an entire battalion,” Legolas told him clearly, his voice gone hard with defensive caution.

“And they really don’t look happy to see us,” I added, suppressing the urge to bolt at the sight of the man who was leading the horde. He was armoured from head to toe like a tank, carried a sword at his hip, and wielded a spear that could have skewered a bantha. Even from a miles away he looked like he knocked people out with his forehead and buried them in shallow graves for a living.

“Under what banner?” Boromir’s voice cut in, and though they were close enough for us both to see by now, Legolas answered before I could even open my mouth.

“Green, with a white horse under a golden sun.”

“Theoden’s men,” Aragorn muttered, and the name rang a bell of recognition in the back of my head. I didn’t get the chance to contemplate it further before I was jarred out of my binocular-vision by Legolas’ gentle but firm hand on my upper arm. The horde was still headed straight for us, and they were almost close enough to see us, but instead of turning to hide or run away, Aragorn led us away from the outcrop of rock into plain sight.

“What are you doing? Shouldn’t we hide?” I asked a little frantically, coming to stand close.

He shook his head, but didn’t show any overt signs of worry or concern for the riders cresting the hill. He did lean his head down almost imperceptibly though, and whispered to me: “Keep silent, and stay close. Do nothing to deliberately antagonise them.”

I gulped, but nodded once.

“Alrighty, captain,” I whispered back just as quietly, heeding his advice and slipping further behind him and Legolas as the riders charged head-on towards us.

For a moment, I honestly though they were going to run us down, the thundering of hooves barely slowing as they broke over the top of the hill and around us like water over a rock, circling behind us on all sides. Aragorn didn’t so much a twitch as the riders and their mounts roiled around us, but Gimli, Legolas and Boromir shifted noticeably so that their backs were to Aragorn’s, blocking me from direct view or reach of the riders surrounding us. The back of Boromir’s hand brushed my arm as Legolas gently pushed me behind them, and I felt more than saw him jerk away from me — as if the contact with my skin had burned him.

He needn’t have worried about harm coming from me, because the riders chose that moment to display their precise intentions by lowering their spears to aim at the five of us, the tips barely a foot from slicing into skin. I tensed automatically, my body and expression going taught and utterly still, eyes fixed on the javelin tip one of the riders currently had aimed at the middle of a very calm Aragorn’s throat.

My fingers itched to reach into my dagger pouch where my throwing knives were sleeping, but he suddenly raised both his hands in a gesture of peace — and I was fairly sure that putting a blade through one of their necks wouldn’t have helped.

‘Keep it cool, boss. We can save the homicidal heroics for when we aren’t at spear-point,’ Tink whispered through my head, and while it wasn’t exactly enough to make me relax, the sound of her voice of reason did help quell the twitching in my throwing fingers.

I settled for a hard glare at the one holding the spear to my companion’s face instead, hoping the expression hid my nerves.

The armoured riders — all who I now saw were scowling back ferociously under their horsehair-plumed helmets — made a small gap in their ranks as the rider I recognised as their scary-looking leader stepped forward on his massive, chestnut stallion. I’d thought he was big and imposing from almost a mile away. Up close, and towering over all five of us, the effect was tripled, and I was suddenly glad that my mere 5’3 was more than small enough to be mostly invisible behind Legolas and Boromir’s 6-foot-somethings.

The leader glared down at us with an expression I would have normally associated with rotten fish or raw sewage, and when he spoke it was anything but friendly.

“What business do two men, two elves, and a dwarf have in the Riddermark?” he demanded in a basso rumble made all the harder by the obvious anger in it. “Speak quickly!”

Aragorn had barely opened his mouth to respond when Gimli, leaning both hands casually on his axe as if it were a gentleman’s walking stick, beat him to it.

“Give me your name, horse master, and I shall give you mine,” he said, though his polite tone belied the challenging gleam in his eyes. Clearly Gimli didn’t care for being threatened so rudely at blade point — after running all night with no rest, no less — any more than the rest of us.

I could respect that.

Granted, I could have respected it a hell of a lot more if he hadn’t just said it out loud to a bunch of angry men who all looked ambivalent to the idea of turning us into shish kababs — but that was just me.

The human man blinked once at the dwarf, handed his own spear to another rider, and dismounted his horse in one smooth swing — a move that a man so weighed down with armour and bulk shouldn’t have been capable of. He moved forward, all but towering over Gimli like an angry bear, but confrontationally speaking, Gimli was armoured like a battleship. He didn’t look impressed, but he didn’t take his hand off where it rested faux-casually atop his axe, either.

“I would cut off your head, dwarf,” the huge man growled, sounding by all rights more like an animal than a man. “If only it stood a little higher from the ground.

Legolas reacted so fast and so suddenly, then, I don’t think any of us actually saw it happen. His arm moved, and the next thing anyone of us knew, there was a barbed arrow aimed straight at the horse lord’s left eye.

“You would be dead before you sword left its sheath,” he said in an utterly flat, deadly voice, far more frightening and cold than a snarl could have ever been, his eyes gone arctic down the shaft of the arrow.

All of us froze in shock, even the advancing man, stopping dead in his tracks though he didn’t otherwise react. His dark eyes locked on Legolas’ unsettlingly calm gaze, and I saw carefully controlled anger stir behind them.

The look the man directed at my friend scared me, and before I knew what I was doing, I found myself putting a hand gently on Legolas’ bow-arm, holding steady at the man’s face. It was a careful touch, barely there at all, really. I was scared I might accidentally jar him into loosing the arrow and actually shoot the scary git, and then we’d really be in for it.

He barely reacted visibly, but for a split second I felt his shoulders tense under my hand — and while he didn’t look away, my unspoken plea was obviously heard anyway. Reluctantly, his whole form relaxed, slowly lowering the arrow once he was sure the horse lord wasn’t going to try and take another step towards us, though he didn’t take his hard, blue-grey eyes off his target’s face.

I heaved an internal sigh of relief, stealing a glance at the faces of the other men. I don’t think any of us, the other riders included, looked half as surprised as Gimli at what had just happened. I thought for a moment that his eyebrows were going to retreat up under his helm as he stared at the elf. Then, Aragorn pointedly stepped in front of us all, blocking the dither beam still passing between Legolas and the scary-eyed horse lord.

“I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn,” he said with an amiable sort of politeness I felt the other man hadn’t really earned.

“This is Gimli, son of Gloin; Boromir, son of Denethor; Legolas, of the Woodland Realm; and Eleanor, of Imladris,” he continued, gesturing to each of us in turn. The man glanced at each of us as he did, his hard gaze lingering for a fraction longer on Legolas, and to my immense discomfort, softening slightly on me. “We are friends of Rohan, and of Theoden, your king.”

The leader drew his uncomfortably intense but now curious gaze from me, his hardened expression flickering with the shadow of long-held anguish. It looked alien on him somehow — a huge man who seemed more suited to violent battles and probably equally violent drinking contests than that kind of sadness.

“Theoden no longer recognises friend from foe. Not even his own blood, let alone five strangers claiming to be allies,” he told Aragorn, his tone still hard, but less of it aimed at us. He reached up and pulled the helm with its horsehair adornment from his head, revealing a handsome if world-worn face, with a sharp, square jaw, dark brown eyes, and a messy mane of blond hair.

He took another glance at us all, his dark eyes once again lingering curiously on me, and Legolas shifted subtly, but very deliberately so that his shoulder half shielded me from view again. The man met the other elf’s gaze instead, frowned, then gave a negligent wave with one hand, and the riders surrounding us all simultaneously raised their spears and weapons away from us.

You could all but hear the exhale of relief, and maybe even a touch of disappointment. No fighting; not today anyway.

“I recognise your face,” Boromir spoke up unexpectedly from behind Aragorn, his eyes focused at the blond man’s face as we turned to look at him. Both Aragorn and the blond man looked equally surprised by the statement, but the rider recovered first, his surprise sinking back into weary suspicion.

“I am Éomer, son of Eomund, the Third Marshall of the Riddermark. These here are my company,” he answered, jerking his square chin at the men on horseback still surrounding us in a perfect circle.

As per usually, the name rang a bell of recognition at the back of my head, but I had little to no idea of its significance. Thankfully, Aragorn cleared up that confusion by saying with undisguised surprise: “You are King Theoden’s nephew, and one of the key leaders of the Rohirrim.”

The blond man’s — Éomer’s — eyes narrowed at him, but he nodded, and Aragorn went on, accompanied by a small gesture towards the way we’d heading before being surrounded. “I have never known the riders of the Rohirrim to come this far north in such numbers.”

Éomer’s jaw visibly tightened in frustrated anger, but for once, it wasn’t directed at any of us. He glanced out towards the South with a dark look on his face before returning it to us.

“We are no longer welcome in the Riddermark we are sworn to defend. Saruman has poisoned the mind of the King and claimed lordship over these lands. My company and I are those that remain loyal to Rohan, and for that we have been banished.” Dark brown eyes met grey as he fixed Aragorn with another hard stare, filled with blunt distrust rather than anger this time — though it had about as much effect on Aragorn as a strong breeze did on an ancient oak.

“The White Wizard is cunning. He walks here and there they say, disguised as a frail old man, hooded and cloaked,” Éomer told us quietly, eyes shifting between each of us again, before coming to a stop once again on an unimpressed looking Legolas. “And everywhere, his seemingly innocent spies slip past our nets.”

Scary looking as the man was, and bad as it would be to upset him any more than he already was — the more he used that accusatory glare at the others, the more my fear was eclipsed by rapidly growing annoyance at the entire, long-winded display of male ego.

Still obedient to Aragorn, I didn’t say anything, and true to my word, I did keep close. Instead, I took a very purposeful step forward and to my left, so the horse lord was forced to meet my gaze instead of my companion’s. He looked down at me in mild surprise at the sudden movement — I was over a foot shorter than them both even at my full height — and while I didn’t glare, I did give him a thoroughly disapproving elf-like stare down my nose, lifting my chin in unspoken challenge like I’d seen Glorfindel do so many times.

It must have worked better than I’d hoped — despite my still bruised and battered appearance — since Éomer blinked at me in true astonishment, and I felt Legolas’ posture go tense with shock behind me.

“We are no spies,” Aragorn told Éomer earnestly, stepping in and putting enough emphasis into the words to draw the horse lord’s attention away from me again. “We track a band of Uruk-hai westward across the planes. They have two of our companions captive.”

Éomer’s face drew into a frown, the suspicion vanishing instantly.

“The Uruks are destroyed. We ambushed and slaughtered them during the night.”

I felt my eyes widen at those words, my blood running abruptly cold.

“There were two hobbits. Did you see two hobbits with them?” Boromir’s previously monotonous voice took on a suddenly desperate note from behind me. Éomer looked baffled by the word, eyes narrowed again and shaking his head. I came forward again and held up a hand to just above my solar plexus.

“They’re about this tall, curly hair, both wearing cloaks like ours. One has a yellow waistcoat, the other a green scarf.”

Éomer looked at me again in mild surprise — honestly, you’d have thought the man had never heard a woman speak before. Aragorn, however, gave me a sideways look, not out of anger, but of quiet warning. He knew this man was dangerous just as much as I did, but if there was any hope of finding out what had happened to Merry and Pippin, we couldn’t afford to lose it for propriety.

“They would appear no bigger than children to your eyes,” Legolas added seriously, his previous anger gone.

Éomer’s expression shifted into something still cautious, but tinged with something like dismay, and my stomach sank.

“We found none as you described but… we left none alive,” he told us very quietly, turning and pointing to the plume of smoke Legolas and I had seen on the horizon earlier. “We piled the carcasses and burned them.”

I felt every fibre of my body go suddenly weak with shock, then tighten with painful dread as I stared — we all stared — in horror at the pillar of smoke still rising like a tower into the air in the distance.

‘Oh, Valar, no…’ Tink sounded as if someone had just slid a knife between her ribs.

That made two of us.

“Dead?” Gimli rasped out, his rough voice choked, and Legolas immediately reached over and clasped a hand to the dwarf’s shoulder, his own expression gone blank, but his eyes grieved.

Sudden, scolding hot, violent rage flared without warning inside me, and for a moment, just a moment, I irrationally wanted to pull out one of my hidden knives and drive it into the horse lord’s throat for what he and his men had just done. My eyes burned with it, my muscles all but screaming with it, the sound of my suddenly racing heartbeat a deafening drumbeat pulsing through my head.

Yet, the second I saw the look on his face, the burst of rage died instantly, replaced with a sick, cold feeling low in my gut. The agony and rage must have shown on my face, because when I turned back to round on Éomer again, he looked genuinely and deeply stricken, making no show of trying to hide it.

“I am sorry, truly,” he said, addressing us all, but fixing me with a look of honest regret. I felt my sudden anger wither and slip away, replaced with only a near-arctic feeling in the pit of my stomach. I clenched my teeth, and didn’t speak. He turned away suddenly, gave a single sharp whistle, gesturing to the sea of horses and their riders around us.

“Hasufel, Arod, Nymue!” he called.

Two stallions, one chestnut and the other white with a grey mane, and one stormy silver mare — all three still saddled, though rider-less — broke away form the horde and approached him, their heads held high.

“May these horses bear you to better fortunes than their former masters,” Éomer said, taking their reins, and passing them to a still tight-faced Aragorn with an apologetic incline of the head. “I truly do hope you find friends. But do not weigh your plans upon hope; it has long since forsaken these lands.”

Aragorn, expression still drawn with shock and dread, still returned the nod as Éomer slipped his helmet back onto his head and swung back onto his own horse.

“Farewell,” he said one last time, glancing over each of us again before turning to his company and calling out. “We ride north!”

The thundering of hooves as the Rohirrim company took off once again hardly registered with me, the horses and their riders charging past us like wildebeest to follow Éomer towards the hills. My eyes had instinctively turned back to the smoke rising in the distance, the sickening feeling of dread growing in my guts with every passing second.

This wasn’t right. My memories of the original story were getting hazier ever day and couldn’t be relied on as fact anymore — not that they’d been all that reliable to begin with — but I also knew in my bones that this was wrong.

Merry and Pippin weren’t supposed to be dead. They couldn’t be. They were supposed to have escaped earlier in the journey, or outwitted their captors, or something — anything!

I was abruptly torn between wanting to go to search for any sign of them, and not taking another step towards the source of that smoke. Merry and Pippin might not be there, and that glimmer of hope still shone through all the cold dread swirling inside me — but my whole body went icy at even the mere thought that maybe, just maybe, they were on that pile of burning bodies.

The possibility that we might find the charged remains of the two hobbits who had made me smile, and laugh, and feel welcome for the first time in so long, and the reason we hadn’t made it in time to save them was all because I’d—

I felt my gaze drift to Boromir without my consent.

If I’d thought he looked haunted before, he looked as if he was staring into the very gates of hell now. His face had gone bloodless, and his blue eyes were wide and hardened with fear as he stared out at the smoke alongside us.

‘We might not be too late, boss,’ Tink’s voice was very small, echoing quietly, distantly, from with my mind as she read where my train of thought was going. ‘It isn’t your fault if… if they…’

She didn’t finish.

If she had gone and put that unspoken fear of mine into words, I think I would have doubled over and been sick into the grass.

“Eleanor,” Aragorn’s voice came suddenly from behind me, sounding as if he’d repeated it several times already. I turned slowly to find him looking at me with an authoritative, but very gentle expression. He had carefully schooled the rest of his features into neutrality again, but I saw the worry still lingering in his steely grey eyes. He held out the reigns of the white stallion and the stormy grey mare to Legolas and Boromir respectively, keeping the chestnut — Hasufel, I think — for himself. “They may yet be alive. Come.”

He held out a hand to me, and I forced myself to breathe again. Slowly in, count to three, and slowly out again.

Then I nodded, and took his hand.

He hefted me up easily onto the saddle, then swung himself up swiftly to sit in front of me, while Legolas helped Gimli onto the back of the white stallion — Arod. Boromir had already pulled himself onto the back of the mare — Nymue — and by the time Legolas had practically jumped onto Arod’s back ahead of Gimli — without aid of his hands, I might add — we were already moving.

I clung onto Aragorn tightly, my arms locked around his waist as he nudged Hasufel from a steady canter into a gallop down the slopes, heading towards the source of the smoke. The others followed close behind us as we came upon the edge of the expansive plane just before the edge of the wood. Though I couldn’t remember the name of it, I remembered seeing it on a map back in Lord Elrond’s study and remarking on how big it was — stretching from the east of Rohan all the way to the foot of the Misty Mountains in the West.

It was a hell of a lot bigger than that in person, stretching from one end of the horizon to the other as we got close. However, all that paled at the sight of what was coming up directly ahead of us.

Éomer had been kidding when he’d said they piled all the corpses to be burned.

The mound was almost taller than I was, and twice my height across. The flames and thick smoke had cleared enough for us to get close without choking, but the smell of burning flesh, clothes and hair was still worse than a punch to the nose. I breathed through my mouth to keep the bile down and made myself to focus instead on anything that could give a clue to Merry and Pippin’s escape from the entire, horrifying scene.

The grass and ground had been shredded under heavy footfalls and horse hooves, broken only by the occasional discarded spear or piece of armour — one of which had the severed head of an Uruk-hai skewered atop it like a hood ornament.

There was no immediate sign of the hobbits, and despite the horror and the smell, I allowed the glimmer of hope that they’d somehow made it to grow.

None of us spoke as we dismounted, leaving the horses to stand and wait as we approached the site of the slaughter and grisly bonfire, Aragorn already picking his way through the debris. Gimli and Boromir, with far stronger stomaches than I, went over to the smoking pile of bodies, using a few discarded spears to search through. I looked away — praying  with everything in me that they wouldn’t find anything there — in favour of searching the ground around us with Aragorn and Legolas.

We couldn’t have been at it for more than two minutes when Legolas suddenly stooped and picked something dark and metallic up out of the mangled grass.

“What is it?” I asked uneasily, as he stood but didn’t immediately turn around. When he finally did, he held the small object out to me, his face utterly blank again. My insides writhed with dread at that non-expression, taking it, and wiping off the soot with my torn sleeve as best I could to see exactly what he had handed me.

My entire body went numb as I realised I was cradling a small, painfully familiar little belt with a knife sheath on it, and an elegantly wrought gold buckle in the shape of tiny flowers.

That little spark of hope I’d allowed to grow in my chest sputtered and died.

“It’s one of their wee knife belts…” Gimli’s roughened voice was far weaker than I remembered it ever being and seemed far away, from somewhere to my left. He was right, though — it was one of the same ones Galadriel had given both of them before leaving Lothlórien.

There was no way either Merry or Pippin would have parted with those gifts willingly. Not unless-

A sudden, furious clang and a howl that was equal parts fury and frustrated pain came from just a foot to my left, and I looked up numbly to find Aragorn’s calm facade had cracked right down the middle.

Without any kind of warning, his cool mask had fallen away to reveal all the anger and concealed fear that I’d known had to have been plaguing him, for a split second only, but completely unrestrained. Even for just the brief second I saw it, it was almost enough to frighten the numbness out of me, knowing that that rage was at least partially my fault.

He whirled from us, screaming out in fury again, and — I kid you not — unleashed his wrath in the form of a sledgehammer kick to one of the severed Uruk-hai heads lying in the grass, still wearing its crude iron helmet. He hit it hard enough to send it shooting straight past a shellshocked Legolas — who barely blinked at the outburst, unlike the rest of us — and flew straight into the trees like a football, crashing noisily through the branches over thirty feet away.

In any other situation, any at all, I might have smiled, even laughed; instead, I couldn’t feel anything other than numb shock, still clutching the soot-covered belt hard enough for my fingers to ache.

“We failed them.”

Boromir’s lifeless voice was like hearing a nail being hammered into a coffin, and while I wanted so badly to shout that it couldn’t be this way, scream that we couldn’t just give up — that there might still be a chance — I couldn’t make myself do it. I could barely breathe, let alone open my mouth and speak. My eyes were stinging and refusing to blink or focus properly, only seeing just enough to recognise that Aragorn had sunk to his knees in the dirt, Legolas beside him with a hand resting on his shoulder.

I just watched him there in disbelief and numb shock, my mouth opening to say something, but nothing coming out. I had never seen him like this, and I wasn’t sure what scared me more, the burst of rage I’d just witnessed, or the numb defeat I felt and could see mirrored in him now.

“Aragorn,” Legolas said almost silently. He didn’t respond. He was staring at the ground, and didn’t move when Legolas gave his shoulder a tentative shake, as if trying to wake him from a bad dream. “Aragorn?”

For maybe the first time ever, he completely ignored the elf, as if he wasn’t there. Instead, leaning down a little closer to the earth, his eyes abruptly narrowed.

“A hobbit lay here… Both of them. They crawled, their hands bound…” he mumbled quietly, almost too quietly for even me or Legolas to hear, and at first I had no idea what he was looking at. Then I saw it — that same instinctive gleam he’d worn when he’d first found me in Trollshaws three years ago, and he’d found game within the woods to hunt.

He’d found and was following their tracks.

That little spark of hope in my chest that had sputtered out flared back to life as we all watched him get to his feet once more, and walk five paces away from the mound of smoking bodies, scanning the ground. Then suddenly he stopped, leaned down and grabbed something out of the dirt — a long length of thick rope, its ends cut with something blunt enough to fray them.

“Their bonds were cut…” he murmured, still quiet, but getting a little louder with every step, all four of us following right behind him as he strode faster across the shredded ground. “They ran, their tracks lead away from the battle. They were followed, but carried on, straight into…” Aragorn trailed off, coming to a stop and finally raising his head to see where Merry and Pippin’s tracks and lead to.

We had come to a stop at the very edge of the sprawling forest that I’d seen stretch off across the horizon, its huge, thick, twisting trees rising up like the walls of an ancient fortress before us.

“Straight into Fangorn Forest,” Boromir finished for Aragorn, that same, fragile flicker of hope I had kindling in my own chest creeping into his voice, bringing it back to life again. “They did escape!”

“Escaped, maybe,” Gimli said beside us, with equal relief to Boromir’s and mine, but mixed with a distrustful look up at the dark, towering trees that seemed to loom over us like watchtowers. “But what kind of madness drove them in there?

Aragorn had his back to us, but I could both see and hear the adamant determination return to his shoulders and voice with a vengeance when he answered.

“The same madness that is going to drive us after them,” he said with renewed stone and steel, before marching straight into the line of haunting trees ahead of us without hesitating.

Chapter Text

“Alright, I’m not trying to be funny,” I said quietly, my voice echoing eerily back at me through the claustrophobic gloom. “But I swear, we’ve passed that same tree at least three times already.”

Gimli — who had been all but riding the backs of my feet since we entered this forest — followed my gaze to the looming, gnarled mountain ash, its branches resembling some monster’s grasping claws reaching down at us.

“Because we have! We’re going in circles,” Gimli grumbled, head twitching and grip on his axe tightening as his own voice echoed back at him through the trees. The sound resonated weirdly, like we were walking through the bowels of a cave rather than a rapidly darkening forest. At some point during our trek, he’d taken the weapon off his back and now held it at the ready across his chest, presumably just in case something ugly decided to spring a surprise attack on us without warning.

A wise if slightly paranoid plan, I’d thought. So I’d done likewise, taking out my hunting knife and holding it in a relaxed but carful reverse-guard at my side.

“That, or the trees are moving whenever we have our backs turned,” I suggested, trying to sound light-heartedly casual.

I failed spectacularly. Aragorn and Legolas, who had been stoically leading the way once again, actually paused in their steps to look around with nerve-sharpened eyes, and Gimli all but turned to a statue beside me with tension, his axe at the ready. I had to close my eyes to keep from instinctively rolling them.

“A joke, guys. That was a joke.”

‘I hope…’ I thought, peering cautiously up at the branches, swaying and creaking in the wind above our heads.

The canopy was too thick for the breeze to reach us down on the forest floor, and as a result, the further we ventured into Fangorn in search of Merry and Pippin, the more the entire creepy wood seemed to close in around us. How in hell we were supposed to find two Hobbits in here I had no idea, but I’d spent the past four hours of our walk suppressing the urge to climb a tree right to the top, just to get one gulp of fresh air.

Anything to escape the growing feel of claustrophobia none of us — not even Legolas and his obvious love of enclosed forests — seemed able to escape in this place.

“The air is so close in here,” Boromir murmured quietly, mostly to himself from where he once again brought up the back of our single file convoy — though keeping noticeably less distance from me than he had out on the grass planes. “It seems to all but shrink in around us.”

“This forest is old, very old. It is but only a remnant of a much larger forest that must have once stretched as far as the western coasts. Yet, even now, it is still teeming with lingering memories, and anger,” Leglolas murmured just ahead of me, his hand lingering almost reverently on the bark of a particularly gnarled cedar as we passed it. A sad expression crossed his face, leaking into his voice. “It is strange, something of it reminds me greatly of Northern Mirkwood, as is used to be.”

I had to admit, the all too familiar ache of homesickness was probably among the last things I expected to hear in his voice right then — creepy sentient forest and all — but I’d know that sound anywhere. I’d been living it every day for the past three years.

“Mirkwood used to be like this?” I asked curiously, tearing my gaze from the shaded forest to look at him. He was silent and still for a moment, then exhaled in a long sigh and nodded.

“Once, a long time ago.”

Legolas had told me of his original home in the Northern Greenwood — more commonly known as Mirkwood — when we’d been training in Lothlórien together, but only a little. Anything beyond plain old facts and repeated histories, anything that seemed to touch on the home he’d left behind, had seemed a somewhat over-sensitive subject, at least for now. So when he’d evaded my occasional questions about it, I hadn’t pushed. It had seemed only right when he’d extended the same courtesy to me — always curious to know more, but never pushing me if I wasn’t ready to answer.

Still, I couldn’t help but wonder. If Mirkwood had once been like this, what made it that way? And what was it like now?

Pushing the thought aside for a time with less haunted forests, I kept close beside him as we continued behind Aragorn who, as far as I’d gathered, was still following the invisible trail Merry and Pippin had left that only he could see.

It wasn’t that I didn’t trust Aragorn’s mad skills as a tracker — and trust me, they were mad — but it was getting darker with ever passing minute. Pretty soon, the sun would be setting, and with the treetops as thick as they were, we’d have no light from the stars or moon to guide the way, and no mounts to escape on if our ‘Hobbit hunting’ plan went sideways. The horses had been about as amiable to the idea of coming into Fangorn as I did to getting a voluntary root-canal, and I couldn’t blame them. They’d bucked and whinnied so much that we’d been forced to leave them behind at the forest’s edge, halfheartedly hoping that they would be smart enough to wait for us to come back.

If we even made it back out, that is.

Aragorn’s pace suddenly sped up, and the four of us quickened to keep up with him as he lead us into a comparatively clear area, then slowed to a stop.

“What is it?” Boromir spoke up again in anticipation, sounding suddenly very close behind me. “Are they here?”

Aragorn paused, then moved a hand down over the side of a tree trunk, which upon closer inspection had several deep gouges in it. They looked like they’d been made by the edge of a blade, or possibly claws.

“I very much hope not,” he answered grimly, eyes drifting down to the thickets and leaves skirting the base of the trees. Some of them were freshly broken, and coated with a worryingly familiar substance, so dark it was closer to black than red. “These were not made by any animal.”

Gimli stepped past me for a closer look. Then, honest to goodness, he reached out a gloved hand, dipped a finger into the thick dark liquid coating the broken branches, and tasted it.

“Orc blood,” he announced, pulling a revolted face and then unceremoniously spitting the blood out onto the ground.

“Please tell me you didn’t really just put that in your mouth,” I said, staring at him and feeling my own face contort in disgust.

“And spat it out, you’ll notice, lass,” Gimli answered with a defensive look. I kept my totally justifiable look of revulsion and just shook my head at him.

“Seriously, any of do that again, and I’m force-feeding you an emetic, just in case.”

“I doubt the trees would appreciate having their roots graced with man or dwarf vomit,” Legolas commented dryly.

“Or elf vomit. That goes for you too, your highness.”

“Noted,” he responded with the barest hint of a smile, but it faded as he turned to stoop close to Aragorn — who was still scrutinising the marks and tracks. None of us were in any mood to try and hold an optimistic facade right now. “Any sign of them?”

Aragorn pursed his lips in a dubious look, but nodded.

“Yes, but the trail has long since deteriorated,” he said quietly, obviously unhappy with the answer. He touched a hand to the ground before a track I hadn’t even noticed before. “This does not make sense. There is no way they could have come this far quickly enough for their trail to have become this cold. Something must have found them.”

“Orcs?” Gimli voiced all our fears, but Aragorn shook his head.

“If the orcs had found them, we would know by now. All we can do is follow, and hope that whatever has found them is at least uninterested in them as food, and that we can move fast enough to catch up. Come.”

He stood up and marched headlong back into the trees, his head down, searching for more tracks. We all followed without a second thought, falling back into the same single-file formation we’d held before, though sticking even closer than before.

The more we walked, the more the trees seemed to close in around us, and the denser the air seemed to get, until it felt like a weight on all of us. Time didn’t seem to follow the same rules as the rest of the world in this forest — so I wasn’t sure if it was about five minutes or five hours later that I heard it…

Music.

A wordless song, lilting and quiet as a lullaby, drifting towards us on the thick air from not far off.

At first I thought it was just the breeze whistling through the leaves and branches overhead, playing tricks with my mind. But when I looked up, nothing moved.

The song grew a little louder, and my pace behind Legolas slowed as I rubbernecked around, trying to figure out where it was coming from. It was getting clearer by the second, and I recognised the sound of someone singing. A woman, I thought. A quiet voice, softly humming a hauntingly beautiful tune, somewhere nearby through the trees.

A tune that, though I knew I’d never heard before, sounded unsettlingly familiar.

“Where’s that coming from?” I heard myself ask, the sound startlingly sharp against the softer echo of the singing.

Aragorn slowed just long enough to peer over his shoulder at me.

“Where is what coming from?”

“That sound.”

“Sound?” Gimli parroted, his thick eyebrows knitting together in confusion.

“Someone singing,” I said, still looking around for the source. When no one answered me, I stopped and looked around at my four companions, only to be met with four utterly blank stares. My insides squirmed a little. “You… don’t hear that?”

“Eleanor,” Legolas said seriously, “I hear nothing.”

“You sure you’re feeling alright, lass?” Gimli added, trying to sound jovial, but it just came out sounding ill. I looked between them both and Aragorn, who was eyeing me with masked concern.

“I could have sworn I…” I trailed off, looking away in the direction I’d heard the voice singing. It had faded to silence, but I could still recall the tune perfectly, replaying it in my mind, like one of those annoying 90s pop songs that get stuck in your head after hearing them just once. “I… must have imagined it.”

However, something deep in my gut knew I hadn’t.

‘Tink? You could hear that, right?’ I whispered silently, somehow feeling that even inside my own mind it would be a wise idea to keep quiet.

‘I heard it,’  she answered softly, her own confusion and unease mirroring my own as she appeared at the back of my mind.  ‘Is it just me, or did it sound… familiar?’

I didn’t need to answer her. She knew it had, and to both of us no less — which actually unsettled me a lot more than hearing that strange disembodied voice singing at us through the trees. Now I was hearing spookily familiar voices outside my own head as well as inside.

Just what I needed.

“This accursed forest will be the death of us, if it doesn’t drive us all to madness first,” Boromir growled from somewhere behind me, and I once again had to fight the urge to tense at the hostile sound, even though I knew it wasn’t directed at me.

Hearing voices in a creepy forest was bad enough, but whatever it was that was lingering between Boromir and I, it was starting to make my skin crawl every time he spoke.

It had to stop.

A low, creaking groan suddenly shuddered up two of the huge poplar trees either side of us, their trunks and branches shifting together of their own accord, bending down over us like grasping limbs. I almost jumped out of my skin when one small branch brushed against the back of my head, and Gimli jerked into an instant defensive stance, the haft of his axe coming up as he whirled on the spot.

“Gimli,” Aragorn hissed at him with a sharp hand gesture, glancing up at the animate trees. “Lower your axe!”

Gimli gave Aragorn an incredulous look.

“They are only speaking to each other, my friend. You would not wish to offend them,” Legolas told him seriously as he eyed the axe blade, but I could hear the faint teasing note in his voice. Gimli sent the elf a dark look, but did as advised and reluctantly lowered his weapon.

“Offended trees,” he grumbled, stomping quickly ahead after Aragorn. “By Mahal’s hammer, what would trees have to be offended about anyway? Besides having their branches soiled with squirrel droppings.”

Using his stung dignity as a distraction, I let him pass ahead of me without trying to catch up. Legolas had started speaking in low tones about ancient trees and forests becoming more alive the more they aged. I even heard him mention some of them growing sentient enough to communicate and defend themselves from attack, thanks to the guidance of creatures called “Ents” — some kind of fabled ‘forest shepherd' apparently — living among them. Curious as I was to hear more, I didn’t hurry to catch up with them. Instead, I deliberately slowed, listening closely to Boromir’s footsteps gradually slowing behind me, just as he had when we’d been running.

Only this time — when we were both far enough from Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas that I was sure they wouldn’t be listening closely — I stopped, and spun to face him.

Boromir froze in his tracks, his tired blue eyes that only milliseconds before had been fixed on the back of my neck now locked on my face. Something like alarmed surprise crossed his expression for a fraction of a second, but it was quickly covered by the flat, stony look he’d worn before. The same one he’d been giving me ever since I’d woken up.

I hadn’t gone into this with a plan of what to say, so I decided I might as well be blunt.

Very blunt.

“Alright, I give up,” I said, purposefully keeping my voice quiet enough that the others wouldn’t overhear. “Who are you, and what have you done with Boromir, son of Denethor?”

Boromir just stared at me, his hard expression held carefully in check.

“Pa rdon?”

I took an experimental step forward towards him, and I saw his shoulders tense slightly. Bloody hell, just how tightly was he wound?

“You have said a grand total of zero words to me since I woke up,” I answered plainly, deciding it was better to stay where I was. “You’ve been practically burning holes in the back of my head for the past day, and the last time we exchanged any words you were halfway into a shallow grave, and I wasn’t far behind. I can understand trauma. Hell, the fact that we’re both still standing freaks me out too. But whatever else is wrong here, I think we need to at least have a serious talk about it, right now.”

A heavy silence fell between us, and I felt my resolve wavering under the intensity of Boromir’s stare, his normally kind blue eyes hardened over with unfamiliar ice. He shook his head, his jaw tightening very obviously.

“I do not know what you are talking about,” he said, his voice halfway between a whisper and a growl. “There is nothing for us to speak of. Not between us.”

Despite everything, his words stung more than I’d been expecting. I didn’t try and stop him as he strode past me to catch up to the others, but I did turn and fall into step beside him, refusing to let him try and outpace me. He obviously wanted badly to be away from me, but I still needed to understand why.

“What happened to you?” I asked, my voice coming out softer than I’d intended. The memory of clutching Boromir’s hand as he bled out on the forest floor at Amon Hen came back all too vividly — seeing unfamiliar images pass before my eyes that I knew where not mine to see. I swallowed nervously at the thought, and continued. “When I was healing you, I saw… something. Things that didn’t make any sense to me, that I don’t think I was supposed to see. And from the way you’re acting right now, I’m guessing I’m not the only one who saw something strange.”

“I saw nothing,” he lied without hesitating, still not looking at me.

I stopped abruptly in my tracks, my hand coming out to lightly touch his upper arm. I didn’t grab him — one simply does not go grabbing seasoned warriors by the arm if one wants to keep ones limbs where they are, but it was enough to make him flinch to a stop. He turned to face me, and if I hadn’t been more bewildered than intimidated by his behaviour, his expression right then might have frightened me.

Instead, I took a deep breath, and tried to smile at him, like I’d effortlessly used to just a few weeks ago.

“Boromir, please,” I said with all the sincerity I had. “It’s me. You can trust me.”

I really expected him to shrug me off, or maybe even push me away, but he just stood there looking at me. For a tiny moment as he held my gaze, barely half a second if even that, his hardened mask wavered slightly, and he suddenly looked truly exhausted, a whole lot confused, and even more afraid. Then he shook his head, clenched his teeth, and the hard-eyed Boromir I didn’t recognise was back again. He looked away from me towards the others who had slowed ahead of us as Aragorn crouched to study some more tracks in the dirt.

His expression shifted again, then he asked in a dangerously soft voice, “Why did you do it?”

I blinked.

“Do what?”

“Save me,” he said, the words coming out harsh and bitter. “You almost killed yourself to keep me… tethered here. Why?”

I looked up at him incredulously, unsure of whether I was more baffled by his question, his choice of words, or the fact that he looked so utterly tormented by them both.

“Is that what this is about?”

A sudden, totally unfamiliar look of frustrated anger warped his handsome features into something frightening, but before I could take an unconscious step back, it was gone.

“Just—,” he reached up and pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers, as if warding off a migraine. “Just answer the question, please.”

I let my hand drop to my side again and thought about it very carefully.

It wasn’t one that I had a simple, rational answer to — because it hadn’t been a rational decision. In that moment, I’d been frantically searching the Amon Hen camp for any sign of the Hobbits, and as I’d heard the Horn of Gondor, I just knew that if I did anything other than try to save him, I’d never be able to forgive myself. Looking back on it now, I wasn’t sure I’d even believed that I really could save him. I’d probably believed somewhere deep down that I was running towards my own death, as well as his, but even then it hadn’t mattered.

It had never mattered.

The only thing that had was his life, and doing everything I could to save it.

However, there was no way I could condense all that into simple words I knew he wanted, needed to hear. So instead, I gave him the most honest reply I could find.

“Because… I knew there was a chance I could keep you alive. A tiny one, maybe, but still a chance,” I told him in a very small voice that sounded quiet even to me. My eyes flickered over the faint pink scar that was just visible over his torn tunic — the arrow wound I’d healed at the cost of my own body’s strength and a chunk of Tink’s too. I felt my jaw set in resolve as I met his gaze again. “And because it was the right thing to do… because you didn’t deserve to die.”

Boromir just stared at me for what felt like hours, but couldn’t have been more than seconds.

His face was utterly blank, but behind the mask, I could see the storm raging. His blue eyes burned with such a torrential mix of emotions I could hardly even begin to list them.

Frustration, anger, sadness, confusion, outrage, grief, distrust, pain, and most of all, lingering, gut-wrenching guilt. That last one made my heart clench, wishing badly that whatever was wrong between us would just go away so I could clasp his hand, tell him that Frodo and Sam would be ok, and that we’d get Merry and Pippin back, no matter what.

That none of this was his fault, or mine.

If only.

He turned away from me and looked out into the trees, the tired shadows on his face making him look ten years older.

“You shouldn’t have,” he told me tonelessly. “You should not have done what you did.”

I just looked at up him in incomprehension.

“Why?”

“I did not—. I don’t deserve it,” he said firmly, his voice still unnervingly deadened and face still unsettlingly blank. “You were wrong. I do not deserve to be alive now as I am.”

He started to walk away again.

Anger — unfamiliar, strong, and sudden — spiked through me as my frustration broke past my better sense. Before I could realise what my body was doing, my hand shot out again, bruised fingers latching onto his forearm just below the elbow, an alien snarl on my mouth.

“Why the hell not?!” I demanded, never raising my voice, but the words coming out one step below a growl. “Give me one bloody good reason I should have sat there and let you die when I swore to keep all of you in this damned Fellowship breathing as long as I could. Why the hell is your life suddenly less valuable, less worth saving, all because you—”

Boromir spun, almost too fast for me to react to, his big hand coming up and grabbed my arm by the wrist in a grip so tight I felt the delicate bones of my wrist creak. I froze and looked up to find his face had suddenly gone from hauntingly blank, almost dead, to abruptly, blood-chilling savage — his lip pulled back in a snarl.

He didn’t look angry or tormented. He looked one step shy of mad.

“Because it was wrong, Eleanor!” He bit out, shaking my arm hard. “What you did, whatever you are, is wrong!”

Fear, sudden and fierce, and frighteningly familiar to when the Uruk-hai’s skin had suddenly caught fire at my — or rather, Tink’s — command surged up inside me. I could already feel the bruises forming where his fingers still gripped my arm, but that paled in comparison to the look on his face. I had to work hard not to try and jerk away, or worse, go for one of the knives I’d hidden under my tunic.

“Boromir,” I said gently, using the same tone most people would when dealing with a feral dog, though there was an unfamiliarly cold edge in it I hadn’t expected. “Let go, please. You’re hurting me.”

For a horribly long second, he didn’t move. His throat working and his eyes still wide as he looked down at me — though mercifully less deranged than before.

Even so, he didn’t release my arm.

An uncomfortably intense rush of heat surged up through my body and head with the sudden release of adrenaline, and without warning, my eyes suddenly pulsed with a sharp, burning sensation.

Then they sharpened into a razor-like focus, the forest blurring into a mass of colours, and the tiniest details of Boromir’s face suddenly becoming impossibly clear.

Were I not rooted to the spot with shock and fear, I would have jumped. Whatever had just happened, it had done something frightening dramatic to my eyesight — something not even my elf eyes in all their focused clarity compared to. I could suddenly see the beads of sweat forming on his brow, the constricting and dilating of his pupils, and quickening throb of his pulse point at the side of his throat — which my still stinging eyes seemed almost magnetically drawn to.

Boromir went abruptly pale, his hand still on my arm, and I watched as what little colour there was instantly drained out of his face.

He let go of me and took an unconscious step back, the fingers of his right hand flexing in an unconscious grasping motion towards his left hip. It was a small motion, almost unnoticeable unless you were looking for it, but it was one I only recognised from when we’d trained together — right before he went for his sword.

I froze on the spot like a rabbit trapped in headlights, blinking rapidly as my super-sharp vision abruptly died away. The look on my face must have changed too, because he froze as well. Unfortunately, it wasn't a good change. Instead of anger, or near-crazed confusion, he now had a look on his face that I imagine men in the Middle Ages once wore when they were convinced they were looking upon a witch.

He quickly backed away from me, and I wasn’t entirely sure he knew he was doing it.

“What I did — the Ring, Frodo — and then what you did to keep me… It was wrong, unnatural. I should not have survived. Neither of us should have,” he said softly, tiredly, and bizarrely more like himself than anything he’d said these last few days. He looked at me, looked over my shoulder at where I supposed the others were still lingering, and shook his head. “By all that is right and just in this world, we should have both died on that hill.”

A pain that had nothing to do with fear or anger appeared in my chest — dull, and aching, and refusing to lessen.

I didn’t say anything back. I didn’t know what there was to say to that.

For a good few seconds I didn’t move. Not even as he passed me, being carful not to touch me as he did. Only when I heard Aragorn calling to us both, and I turned to find him, Legolas and Gimli all watching us with mixed expressions of concern and caution, did I finally move. Legolas in particular was looking at us with an unsettling intense look in his eyes, and clearly working hard to hold a neutral expression in place.

I fell back into hesitant step behind Boromir as we caught up, and the gap between us two only seemed to grow wider, even though we walked almost side by side again.

I didn’t speak again as the forest went dark around us all, and neither did he.

I still didn’t fully understand why he was acting like this — whatever precisely this was — or what exactly it was that he’d seen to spark it off, but I had seen more than enough in his face when he’d grabbed me. Something about what I had done — the fact that we’d both survived when it was so clear the odds had been stacked high against us — was consuming him, twisting him up under the mask.

Something more than just the guilt at trying to take the Ring from Frodo.

And I had the horrible, twisting feeling deep in my gut that if he didn’t say exactly what it was that was eating him alive inside, I was going find out in a far less pleasant way than in words.

It was almost completely dark when I finally looked over at him again, the last of the sunlight dying over the treetops, and I noticed something. In his current state, despite it being far better than I’d expected, I knew he was a still too weak to carry heavy weapons and armour — the both of us were really.

Even so, I couldn’t help but ask, I needed to ask…

“Boromir, where is your shield?”

He didn’t look at me, but I saw his expression tighten.

“We had to leave a great deal behind to pursue the Uruk-hai on foot,” he answered curtly, not even slowing his pace. I hesitated with my words again, watching his face carefully in the dark.

“And… and the horn of Gondor?”

His steps faltered, only for a moment, but he didn’t look back at me through the lingering silence that followed.

He hesitated for what felt like a long minute, but then he spoke, very softly.

“I no longer have the right to bear that mantle.”

Abruptly, he lengthened his stride again, leaving me behind on the path to catch up on my own. It wasn’t exactly an answer I needed to start making sense of this, not even close, but I knew it was the nearest to one I was going to get from him.

At least for now.

 

~ ♛ ~

 

We rested in the open that night, and I couldn’t decide which was more uncomfortable — the roots poking into my sides, the cold damp air, or the lingering silence that had fallen over us.

I wasn’t sure how much of Boromir’s and my conversation the others had overheard, but it was obvious they’d heard enough to give us both some much needed space. Aragorn was too busy leading the tracking to be concerned with me, and neither Legolas or Gimli asked me about it, though they both gave me looks of open concern that said they’d listen if I wanted to talk.

I didn’t. Not yet.

We risked a small fire in the centre of the clearing Aragorn chose for the camp that night — still sheltered by the branches, but far enough away from the trees for Gimli to stop clinging to his axe like a safety blanket. It was barely big enough for us all to warm ourselves around it, and yet Boromir still managed to maintain at least a blade length’s distance from me.

I pretended not to care. Instead, I made myself focus on anything other than the memory of our talk earlier, trying to block out the hurt, confusion, and fear that still lingered like a weight in my chest.

Turns out, Aragorn had broken two toes with that penalty kick he’d performed on the Uruk-hai’s head. I spent a good fifteen minutes setting and bandaging them enough so they wouldn’t heal crooked, and by the time I was done, Gimli and Boromir were both starting to slip into reluctant, exhausted sleep. Even Legolas was looking a bit worn down, his grey-blue eyes a little unfocused. When I’d offered to take the first watch, however, he and Aragorn both flat out refused.

“You are still not at your full strength yet. You need as much rest as you can get if you are to keep pace with us tomorrow,” Aragorn had said plainly, but not accusingly.

I hadn’t even tried to argue.

Not even when a weary looking Legolas took the first hour’s watch, his back to us, and his bow held across his lap as he stared out into the trees. I just settled down on my side on the moss covered ground as Aragorn settled down, purposefully putting himself between me and where Boromir was already unconscious.

He didn’t say a word to me, but gave me a loaded, meaningful look. A look that said he knew exactly how much my short conversation with Boromir had unsettled me, made me unwilling to turn my back to him. He knew, and he wanted me to know I was safe, so I gave him a weak smile and nod, an affirmation that I was ok, at least enough for him to relax.

He eyed me for a moment, a mix of scepticism and wariness in his face — then he returned the nod, lying down and shutting his eyes for some much needed rest.

I felt bad for the little sigh of relief that escaped me at having him between Boromir and me, but not enough to do anything about it.

I followed his example, curling up on my side a few feet away, though sleeping was the last thing I really felt like doing right now. A dull, throbbing stress ache had appeared in my head shortly after our conversation, and refused to go away. Even when I turned away from the warm fire to face the cool, darkened forest, my closed eyes still pulsed with unrelenting pain that made my head feel hot.

‘Try lying on your side, and putting your temple against the grass,’ Tink’s voice echoed inside my head, gentler and softer than I was used to hearing.

With nothing else to try, and I did as she suggested, and the cool damp of the earth was like a balm to my feverish head, the heat and pain draining away like water into the ground. I almost groaned aloud from the sudden relief.

‘Thank you,’ I said sincerely through our mental bond, allowing a tiny smile onto my face.

I felt her smile too, as if it were a part of my own, but also felt the tinge of unsettled concern in it too.

‘Do you… do want to talk about it?’ she asked tentatively.

I knew immediately what — or rather, who — she was really referring to.

As if alerted by my thoughts, Boromir made a quiet noise of discomfort in his sleep, and I instinctively curled a little tighter, pressing more of my aching head against the grass. I knew there was a lot more that he wasn’t, or perhaps couldn’t, put into words about what was wrong between us. I hadn’t exactly expected our talk to go swimmingly after everything that had been going on between us, but I hadn’t expected for it to be quite that bad. For him to be so… vicious.

The memory of the tone he’d used when he’d said “what you are” sent an icy shiver running up and down my back, and I curled in on myself even tighter.

“What I was?” I mouthed silently.

What the hell was that supposed to mean?

The echoing memory of everything he had said continued to me send unfamiliar lances of cold fear and sadness through me, and my head began to throb again.

‘Boss?’ Tink’s voice chimed in my head again, more worry leaking into her tone. I exhaled in a long, tired sigh.

‘I do want to talk, Tink. Just—. Just not right now. Ok?’ I answered her softly.

I felt more than heard her hesitation, almost as if she was shifting from foot to foot, wringing her hands as she searched for the words to say something else.

‘I think we…’ she began, then trailed off. I don’t know why, but I got the distinct feeling she was deliberately reigning herself, forcing herself to hold back from putting too much pressure on me, to the detriment of her own curiosity. ‘Ok. Whenever you’re ready, boss.’

I felt her begin to slip back into the vaults of my mind, but I called her back before she vanished.

‘Tink? Is something wrong?’

A pause, just a second too long.

‘No. It’s ok, it’s nothing,’ she answered, paused again, and added, ‘Aragorn was right, you need rest. It can wait, Eleanor, really.’

With that, she was gone again, and I was alone with my thoughts, the cool grass against my cheek, and the steady, dull throb of my lingering headache.

 

~ ♛ ~

 

I couldn’t actually remember falling asleep. I must have done at some point, though, because the next thing I knew, the smell of worn leather, metal polish, and pipe smoke was filling my nose, and I was being shaken roughly awake by a large, dwarven hand.

“Lass! Lass, wake up!” Gimli’s low voice hissed through my sleeping head as he shook me by the shoulder. In an instant, I was wide awake, panic jolting me sharply back into reality and my sleepy eyes coming back into focus.

I couldn’t have been out for more than an hour or two; the fire to my left was still glowing with dying embers, and the forest was still pitch dark. Boromir was awake and getting to his feet, still a little bleary-eyed, but otherwise ok. Aragorn and Legolas, on the other hand, both looked as if they hadn’t had so much as a wink of sleep all night, the both of them looking out into the dark, eyes hard and wary, and their shoulders tight with tension.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up.

“What is it?” I whispered at Legolas, too quiet for Gimli or the two Men to hear. He barely moved, only a tiny twitch of his head in my direction to indicate he’d heard me.

“I do not know,” he answered just as quietly, and it was only then I noticed he had an arrow nocked. “There is something out there—”

Beside him, Aragorn hadn’t gone as far as to ready his weapon for a fight, but his hand was placed very deliberately on the hilt of his sword.

“Something is coming this way. Be ready,” he ordered, not wasting any effort on sugar coating it. Not that any of us cared. The last word was barely out of his mouth before Gimli already had one of his smaller battle axes at the ready, Boromir his sword halfway out of its sheath, and I one of my throwing knives palmed and ready to fling at a second’s notice.

None of us dared to move a muscle for fear of making more noise as Aragorn leaned close enough to whisper to Legolas, slipping seamlessly into Sindarin I easily translated.

“What can you hear?”

Legolas didn’t respond for what felt like forever, barely seeming to breathe, and I knew he was focusing all his attention on listening for footfalls through the dark.

When he finally did move again, his entire form went rigid from head to foot.

“The White Wizard approaching,” he answered in the common tongue, just loud enough for us all to hear.

If the name all on its own — and the knowledge of whom it belonged to — wasn’t enough to make my skin crawl with dread, the hardened tone with which Legolas said it would have been more than enough. I had no idea how he was able to tell who it was coming for us by the sound alone, but I trusted him enough to believe him when he said it.

The White Wizard. It was Saruman.

‘We are in very deep trouble.’

“Do not let him speak, he will try to overpower your mind,” Aragorn commanded us all, his voice now barely louder than a breath.

‘He can sodding well try,’ Tink snarled inside my head, her anger mixing with my fear, setting my nerves aflame with the urge to either flee, or fight, or both.

I saw Aragorn’s eyes flick to Boromir for a split second and he gave a short, sharp nod to the half-sheathed sword at his side. Boromir responded by very slowly, and carefully taking hold of the pommel and pulling the blade free, holding it in close to his side at the ready in a low guard. I saw Legolas’s fingers curl slowly around the end of his nocked arrow, and beside me, heard the wood of Gimli’s axe haft creaking beneath his white-knuckled grip.

The little throwing knife in my palm suddenly felt very small and insignificant, but it was better than nothing. I gripped it hard enough to hurt as the tingling feeling of someone coming closer shivered up my spine, ready to reach for any of the half dozen others I had hidden in my tunic the second it was out of my hand.

I couldn’t tell which direction the wizard was coming from, but I could feel he was almost upon us…

“We must be quick,” Aragorn breathed, and I saw his grey eyes flicker once very deliberately to the left, and we all saw it, and knew what it meant.

A mere moment later, there was a crunch of leaves under an unhidden footfall from our left, and every one of us spun in a single unison blur of motion.

It all happened in less than three seconds.

With all my strength, I flung my knife in a backhanded throw at the exact same moment Legolas released his shot, using the momentum of the spin to aim and fire at the pale figure that hadn’t even left the tree line.

A white staff came up, and a blast of blinding white light flared, effortlessly deflecting Legolas’ arrow and my little knife, and searing both our retinas at the same time. I screamed, both my hands coming up to cover my face, and somewhere to my right I heard Legolas cry out in pain too. Gimli flung his axe with a furious shout of effort, and I heard the blade shatter against whatever blazing white shield the wizard had conjured. I couldn’t see what happened to Boromir and Aragorn, still half blind from the light — but from the hissing sound, their sudden cries of pain, and the sudden scent of scolded skin, I guessed the wizard must have heated their blades until they were forced to drop them.

The sound of metal clattering to the ground was the last sound I heard before a terrible silence fell over us all. I tried to open my eyes, but the light was so bright I could barely make out Legolas and Aragorn two feet away, trying to shield their own eyes against the eye-scorching light.

“You are tracking the footsteps of two young Hobbits,” a voice, deep and resonating with what sounded like a dozen unfamiliar echoes spoke in a firm, unquestioning tone — and though I knew it was the wizard speaking, the sound seemed to come from every direction at once.

Using my hand to half-shield my watering eyes I saw Boromir go tense with pain and fury, unable to look directly at the light either, no matter how much he and Aragorn both tried.

“Where are they?” Aragorn demanded in an equally enraged snarl.

“They passed this way the day before yesterday,” the voice, still a barrage of echo from every direction, took on an amused note, as if smiling behind the inferno shielding him from view. “They met someone they did not expect to see. Does that comfort you?”

Aragorn snapped.

Heedless of his eyes and their pain, I watched as he ground his teeth in rage, and forced himself — completely weaponless — to look directly into that blazing light that was all but blinding the rest of us into helplessness.

“Who are you?” he shouted, his own voice thundering around the clearing in almost the same way the white wizard’s had. “Show your face!”

And just like that, the blinding light began to fade away. It didn’t disappear, not entirely, but rather it shifted its focus, like a spotlight being aimed so it was no longer shining directly into your face. The pain of it dimmed, and slowly, my eyes regained their ability to see again as the forest and my shell-shocked companions came back into focus—

Along with the face of the White Wizard before us…

And it wasn’t Saruman.

My mouth fell open the moment I saw him. I tried to speak, but no sound came. Not even Tink, though I felt her right below the surface of my consciousness, could form a single, wiseass word.

The second knife I’d pulled from my sleeve slipped from my fingers, and fell point down into the ground by my feet as Boromir, wide-eyed and pale as a sheet, croaked out three words.

“It cannot be…”

 

Chapter Text

Gandalf.

Gandalf the Grey — only he wasn’t dressed in grey anymore — was stood not six feet from us, leaning lightly on his staff and smiling. As if one of us had just told a crude and amusing joke.

Like he hadn’t been dead for over a sodding month.

I felt like the ground had been pulled out from under me, and it wasn’t until I saw his smile widen with warmth that I realised I’d squeaked out a breathless:

“H-how?”

The old man’s blue eyes twinkled in a way that was so familiar, it physically hurt, and my chest tightened at the sight.

He was unchanged, exactly as I remembered him — and yet, at the same time, completely different. The kind, old wizard who had spoken so openly with me on the slopes of the Misty Mountains had been a humble traveller; strong-backed, but still old and weather-beaten beneath his worn, grey robes. Now he stood tall, almost regally, before us, not in a tattered, grey threadbare, but in pristine, white robes from head to toe. His once windswept, grey hair was now straight and the colour of fresh snow, and even the gnarled, old staff he’d once carried had been replaced with one that looked as if it had been carved straight from the heart of a mallorn tree.

Yet, even among all of that, the wisdom in his eyes and the gentle kindness in his expression hadn’t changed. Not even a little.

“Forgive us, we mistook you for Saruman,” I heard Legolas blurt out suddenly into the stunned silence, and Gandalf — God, bless him — actually laughed.

“I am Saruman,” he answered simply, inclining his head at a stunned Legolas, who — I now realised — had somehow ended up standing between me and the White Wizard, his back half shielding me from view. “Or at least what Saruman should have been, had his mind and heart remained uncorrupted.”

“You fell,” Aragorn breathed almost silently, staring at Gandalf as if he still wasn’t fully convinced his eyes weren’t lying to him. “You fell. We all saw you fall.”

The newly minted Gandalf’s warm expression turned a shade darker, and his eyes coloured with what I knew must be the memories of intense fear and pain. He nodded at Aragorn.

“Through fire and water, to the highest peak in the lowest dungeon, I fought the Balrog of Morgoth. Until finally, after days I threw down my enemy and smote his ruins upon the mountainside. Darkness took hold of me, and I strayed out of thought, and time, and all that this reality holds.”

I felt more than saw his blue eyes drift over us all, lingering for a moment longer on mine before he went on.

“Stars wheeled overhead… and every day was as long as an age of the world.”

I could have sworn I saw a tiny shiver run through the old man, but I blinked and it was gone, the warmth returning to his smile.

“But it was not the end. I felt life returned to me once again. I have been sent back… until my task has been completed.”

“Gandalf,” Boromir rasped, taking an aimless step forward, still too shellshocked to say anything more. The wizard looked momentarily puzzled by the sound of his own name, tilting his head as if he’d heard the name before, but was struggling to remember where.

“Gandalf?” he repeated, testing the sound. Then, slowly, the recognition crept into his face and he smiled again. “Yes… that was what they used to call me. Gandalf the Grey. That was my name.”

“Gandalf,” Gimli spoke up for the first time, and I swear his gruff voice was actually thick with joy.

He looked around at us all, and maybe it was just me, but he seemed to all but radiate joy at the sight. “I am Gandalf the White.”

My feet were moving before my brain could catch up. I slipped past Legolas and Aragorn, and before I realised what I was about to do, I’d thrown both my arms around the wizard in the tightest hug I could muster. Gandalf went abruptly still with surprise for a split second, only just managing to get his fancy, new staff out of the way at the last second. Then he relaxed and returned the embrace with one arm. Behind me, Gimli started laughing, and I could hear and see Legolas and Aragorn chuckling out of the corner of my eyes. I even saw Boromir smile minutely.

Gandalf chuckled and patted my shoulder fondly.

“I am very real, child,” he said, all but reading my mind as he hugged me back. “The Valar would hardly gift me a new form that would simply disperse at your touch.”

“Just making sure,” I mumbled, my voice thick with unshed tears. “I’ve had far stranger dreams than this lately.”

I felt him smile again, and give my shoulder a little squeeze.

“I’m sure you have,” he answered as I released him and stepped back. He took another look at me, his sharp, blue gaze lingering on my eyes. Then, he broke away to look around at the others, who were still staring at him in awe. “I come back to you now at the turn of the tide. Time is short, and I know you all are weary, but this part of Fangorn is not safe. Come, we may all rest closer to the edge of the forest. There is much you must tell me of what has occurred in my absence.”

Boromir stepped forward without a second’s hesitation, his eyes widening.

“What of Merry and Pippin?” he asked desperately. “They are still—”

“Do not worry for them, Boromir,” Gandalf reassured, offering the man a kind, but also knowing smile. “Merry and Pippin are in very safe hands. I will explain all once we are away from this place. But for now, gather yourselves, we must move soon.”

He gestured around at the weapons he’d blocked, disarmed, and destroyed when we’d attacked him with his staff, and we all started regathering our arms after only a brief moment’s pause. The metal of Boromir and Aragorn’s swords had both cooled enough to be retrieved from the ground and replaced gingerly in their sheathes. Gimli’s small war axe and Legolas’ arrow had both been shattered upon impact with Gandalf’s conjured shield. My little throwing knife, however, had miraculously survived ricocheting violently off the magic dome, only to end up lodged nearly hilt-deep in the trunk of a nearby cherry tree.

I went over and tentatively tugged on the little knife’s hilt, but it remained firmly embedded in the trunk.

“Do you need some help?” Legolas’ voice appeared behind me as I struggled. I could hear the smile creeping into his tone and gave him a haughty glare over my shoulder.

“No, thank you,” I replied primly, lifting my nose in the air. “I can manage.”

I tried again, pulling harder. The knife still didn’t move. I braced my foot against the tree trunk and tugged. My fingers slipped and I almost fell backward. Legolas snorted.

“Oh shut up!” I snapped. His smirk widened as he brushed gently past me.

He braced one hand firmly against the tree trunk, twisted the little blade with a strength I couldn’t have managed on my best day, and pulled it sharply out. The cherry tree swayed and gave what sounded distinctly like an appreciative groan, its branches leaning down to brush the top of Legolas’ head in thanks. Legolas patted the wounded tree’s bark affectionately and handed my throwing knife back to me with a small smile, hilt first.

“Show off,” I sulked, but mirrored his grin, taking the blade back. “Thanks.”

His warm gaze remained on my face for a long moment, still wearing that damned, smug smile, before Aragorn’s voice drew my attention away. He was talking with Gandalf in low tones about how he’d found them and where he was taking them, while Gimli grumbled over another of his finely-made axes being shattered like glass.

But Boromir was standing away from them, yet again.

The moment Gandalf had revealed himself, I had sworn I’d seen a glimmer of the old Boromir spark to life in his eyes again. He’d looked shocked, but joyful and filled with hope, and for the briefest second, he’d smiled. Now, however, the dull gloom had reappeared in them, and he was staring unfocused past the Man, Wizard, and Dwarf, out into the surrounding darkness where Merry and Pippin were apparently ‘very safe’.

Though, at least, he wasn’t glaring in venomous mistrust at me anymore.

“Are you… well?” Legolas asked abruptly, an unfamiliar note of uncertainty in his voice. I could feel his eyes lingering on my face even though I wasn’t looking at him.

“I am,” I answered automatically. When he didn’t say anything else I looked up at my companion to find him still looking at me. I raised an eyebrow at him. “Why?”

Legolas hesitated a moment, his dark gold brows knitting together into a frown before speaking again, quiet enough for only me to hear.

“You and Boromir,” he started carefully, then seemed to reconsider his words, his eyes flicking momentarily between me and the Man in question. “If there is anything… anyone that is making you feel unsafe, or making threats against you, however indirectly, you should tell at least one of us. I—”

He broke off, took a contemplative breath, and tried again, “We cannot help you unless you are willing to tell us when you are uneasy.”

I looked back over at where Boromir had refocused his attention on Gandalf and Aragorn, but still wasn’t speaking. I gave up trying to hide the troubled look that was forcing its way onto my face, letting my shoulders slump a little as I turned back to Legolas, my downcast gaze settling on the silver leaf brooch holding his cloak closed at the throat.

“You heard all that, then? Earlier tonight?” I asked, knowing he understood what, and whom, I was talking about. I saw him nod his head a little closer to mine, still speaking softly.

“It was rather hard not to,” he said apologetically. A warm, strong hand came to rest on my shoulder, the touch surprisingly gentle considering how much strength I knew those hands held. I looked up again to see him watching me, and I suddenly felt very small standing there before him, the top of my head barely making it to his chin. He looked down at me seriously, though not patronisingly, and asked again: “Are you certain you are alright?”

I opened my mouth, closed it, looked sideways at our four companions again, and bit my lower lip.

“I… don’t know,” I told him honestly, the words lifting a little bit of the weight off my chest. I looked back up and him and made myself smile, even though it felt brittle. “But I will be.”

He didn’t look entirely convinced, but he accepted my words with a tiny nod, releasing my shoulder reluctantly. His fingers lingered for a moment on the shredded remains of my tunic sleeve before falling to his side.

“I shall not pry,” he said, just as softly as before, though that warm, small smile had returned. “But should you desire to talk—”

“I know where to find you,” I finished, taking hold of the hand he’d gripped my shoulder with, and giving it a gentle squeeze with my own. “Thanks.”

His smile widened, warmed, and for a moment, I thought he wasn’t going to let go. He was still looking down at me, that strange smile softening around the edges yet again. His grey-blue eyes had melted from a cold sky into a colour more akin to summer storm clouds, slowly drifting down my face to linger on my dusty cheeks, my bruised nose…

And my lips.

He didn’t release my hand and he didn’t look away. Instead, his eyes drifted back up to meet mine, and my mouth went suddenly dry as a bone at the look in his eyes. My heartbeat started running in mad circles like a hare and I felt my breathing stop entirely as he seemed to unconsciously lean down just a little closer toward me, half-lidded eyes still locked with mine…

And then one of the branches of that blasted, sentient cherry tree poked me right in the back of the neck.

I shrieked in alarm and flinched violently forward and away from it, slamming face first into Legolas’ strong chest so hard, my nose bounced off his collarbone. Sharp pain and the warm scent of grass and pine fired through my nose, and I felt his hands come up to steady me by the shoulders again as I clutched my face. I felt my cheeks and ears burn with embarrassment at what I’d just gone and done, but looking up at that stunned expression on his face, I was momentarily thankful I’d given myself the perfect excuse to cover my furiously blushing face with my hands.

Had we really just come close to…?

“Come, both of you! We cannot leave any trace of our presence here,” Gandalf’s brisk voice broke through the tense air between us. Startled, we both jumped apart to see the Wizard had cleared any and all traces that we’d ever been there — campfire, embers, crushed grass, and all. He was gesturing for us to follow behind Aragorn, who was already leading Gimli and Boromir back into the trees, their backs to us, though they had glanced over briefly when I’d let loose my girlish shriek.

They didn’t seem to have actually seen any of what almost happened before.

‘Thank God…’ I thought, feeling my neck and face burn again at the thought.

We both moved quickly to join them, Legolas moving slightly ahead of me so I couldn’t see his expression anymore — though I saw the tips of his ears had gone a bit pink under his blond hair.

Rubbing my throbbing nose, I couldn’t help but throw a venomous death glare at that bloody cherry tree as we passed it, vindictively thinking that maybe I should have just left my knife buried in it after all. But then, just before we passed from the clearing back into the dark with nothing but a lit torch Aragorn was carrying for light, I saw Gandalf looking directly at me. He was smiling, an amused twinkle in his bright, blue eyes as he glanced between me and the other Elf.

A knowing look that brought even more uncomfortable heat to my face.

I looked away, feeling my ears, neck and cheeks all burning, and strode quickly ahead after Legolas, though not before I saw Gandalf’s warm, twinkling-eyed smile fall ever so slightly into one of deep, silent sadness as we all vanished back into the dark.

 

~ ♕ ~

 

That night was the first night since Lothlórien that I slept deeply enough to dream again.

A part of me was relieved that I finally seemed to be recovering from almost killing myself healing Boromir. However, another part of me was painfully conscious of the fact that, even in my dreamscape, my mind was still reeling from what I was fairly sure had almost happened in the waking world mere hours before. My memory conjured up the image of Legolas’ face stooping towards mine, his grey-blue eyes still holding my own with such gentleness, as they fell half closed in anticipation—

A small, timid smile crept onto my face, but my eyes widened the second I realised what I was doing.

I stopped daydreaming just as suddenly as I started, and slapped myself.

Actually slapped myself. I was in a dream, so what the hell.

“Not the time, Eleanor. Not the time.”

When I finally did get a hold of my senses again and forced down the heat rising in my dream-self’s face, I finally looked around to see where I was. I was standing on what appeared to be a smooth, dark, glass floor, polished until it reflected the clear night sky above like a cool mirror beneath my bare feet. Stars, nebula, far-off galaxies, and even a couple of falling meteorites — I could see it all reflected in the surface below my feet, stretching off so far into the distance, I couldn’t see where it ended.

If it even had an end.

The luminous, full moon provided more than enough light to see by, and after looking around for a few short moments, I finally saw her. Just a few hundred feet away, Tink was stood, staring up at the moon, like a she-wolf waiting for her pack-mates to return. Her arms hung loosely at her sides, and her bright, gold eyes reflected the moonlight like lanterns as she admired the glorious view. As I drew nearer on strangely silent feet, I could hear that she was humming that same, spooky tune we’d both heard in the forest earlier that night.

I couldn’t place why exactly, but hearing it from her voice — or rather, my voice — made it about a dozen times creepier. At least she was way better at singing than I was.

“Penny for your thoughts?” I asked, breaking the calm of the night air.

I don’t think I’d ever seen Tink jump before that moment. It was a novel experience seeing her damn near leap out of her skin, whirling to face me with an indignant look. I held back a thoroughly amused smile at her, and she snorted delicately.

“I was thinking.”

“I can see that,” I said, trying to rub the grin from my lips and coming to stand beside her. She was wearing a long gown again — dark blue this time — and I noticed on closer inspection that it had been embroidered with golden thread in the shape of ships and gulls around the collar.

I poked her forehead with my ring finger. “What’s got your head so full? I reckon I could fit half a deck of cards in that frown-line.”

Tink irritably batted my hand away and looked for a moment as if she was going to say something smart. Then she seemed to catch herself, sighed heavily, a long drawn out sound, and turned away from me to look up at the glittering night sky overhead.

Honestly, I would have felt better if she’d told me to go and boil my head, or even made some suggestive innuendos on whatever had just happened between me and Legolas. Hell, I would have settled for a crappy knock-knock joke.

I watched her carefully, my own face drawing in concern as I did.

“Tink?”

She chewed her lower lip in thought — a mannerism I recognised as one of mine, which she’d likely picked up over the past few months stuck viewing the world through my eyes.

“I’ve been thinking about her,” she told me reluctantly, hugging her arms around herself in a defensive way I’d never see her do before. “…Galadriel.”

I blinked. Ok, now that really was the last thing I’d been expecting her to say. I wasn’t even sure I’d ever heard her say Galadriel’s name before, even when we’d still been in Lothlórien.

“Ok,” I said slowly, though I didn’t really see where she was going with this. “Care to share?”

She hesitated again, still chewing her lip. Finally she drew her gaze from the sky to look at me. I’d never seen her look so uneasy before, and it unsettled me more than I realised it would.

“Tink?”

“I was thinking about what she said; about the truth being a double edged sword. That it can harm as much as it helps. And I was thinking that — that maybe she was right to warn us about getting our memories back, boss,” she said very quietly.

The look on my face must have shown my confusion, shock, and mild outrage, because she held up her hands in defence the second I opened my mouth, her expression placating.

“Hear me out, boss,” she pleaded, and the surprise I felt at her tone alone was enough to snap my mouth shut. I looked at her cautiously, and she drew another breath, letting it out in a frustrated little exhale.“If Galadriel’s word is to be believed,you were the one who chose to make us forget everything, right?”

I folded my arms and nodded, not trusting myself to keep the biting tone from my words if I spoke. She looked uncomfortable at the expression on my face, but went on.

“I don’t know if I trust her judgement, or really believe she really has our best interests at heart. But I know you. You’re reckless and have potentially the worst poker face in existence, but you’re not stupid, not even close.” She gave me a weak little smile, and there was a tinge of her usual, playfully teasing self visible in her glinting, golden eyes again. “And I’ve seen how far you’re willing to go to protect and look after the people you love. Whatever the reason, it must have been a very good one for you to decide that a life without your memories was better than the alternative.”

I stared at her, unable to formulate a response that didn’t sound furious, petulant, or both. Frustration at her suggestion, the very idea of it, still roiled inside me, but the worst part of it was that I wasn’t even sure I could have made a counter-argument sound convincing. After all, I wasn’t even sure she was entirely wrong. If anything, she actually made a fairly good point. It was a point I’d actually spent a lot of time in Lothlórien fretting over — not just how I was going to get my memories back, but why I’d erased them in the first place.

Whatever the case, she was right about a few things though: I was reckless, and I’d decided a long time ago that there was nothing I wouldn’t do, no pain I wouldn’t endure, for the promise of seeing my family and home again.

I knew I didn’t technically need to breathe in my dream-world, but I took a deep one anyway, trying to get my feelings back under control.

“So what are you saying?” my voice came out icy and sharp as I looked at her, trying to keep my frustration in check. “That I should just give up? Live out the rest of my life as Elf, wondering for eternity whether somewhere out there I abandoned the only chance I have of seeing my parents again? My brother? My home?”

Just the sound of them all mentioned aloud was enough to send a lance of pain spearing through my heart. The air around me seemed to suddenly vibrate with the intensity of the feeling, and for a second Tink looked stunned, almost alarmed. She quickly smoothed the expression away though, and spoke even more carefully than before.

“No,” she said, her voice soft but firm as her golden eyes met mine, more like herself again.“But I am saying we should be careful how we go about looking for answers. I want to find out what happened to us as much as you do. I just don’t want either of us to end up dead or traumatised beyond all return as a consequence.”

Again I didn’t answer, though not from anger or frustration this time, but rather deep in thought at those words. I hadn’t really considered what the consequences of my memories returning might be. I’d been so focused on the fact that remembering how I’d ended up here in the first place was my only way home, I’d never really stopped to think about what it would mean when I had them back. I knew I had a family, friends, and a home waiting for me back on Earth. I’d seen them in Galadriel’s mirror. Yet, I couldn't shake the thought...

What if the same was true of my life here in Arda?

What if somewhere I had a family who were missing their daughter? What if I had parents who were sick with worry for me? I already knew I had an older brother — Var —wherever he was now, but what if I had other siblings too? What if I had a home? Friends? Maybe even a lover?

That last one made a pang of guilt pass through me, along with a torrent of other emotions at the idea. The memory of Legolas and our near-miss-kiss came back to me unbidden. The sight of him leaning down so his face was closer to me, feeling his warm breath on my face, his hand still clasped in mine; and along with that memory came the sudden realisation that — while I’d been surprised when I’d realised was happening — I hadn’t pulled away from him.

No, I hadn’t wanted to pull away. I had wanted to close that narrowing gap between us…

‘What will you do when you have them all back?’

That question stuck fast in my head and refused to go away. It was a question that I knew needed an answer to one day soon, but it was also one I simply couldn’t answer now. Not yet.

I turned away from the sky I’d found myself staring up at just as Tink had minutes before, and looked at her with a softened expression and a weak smile.

“I’ll think about it, Tink.”

She smiled back tiredly and nodded. Then she turned and looked out into the distant dark over the endless glass floor, her own expression darkening. The effect made the shadows on her face deepen, making her look older, harsher — more feral.

“We should leave this place soon. It... it seems to take an unnatural glee in dragging buried hurts back into the light.”

I gave her a confused look, but the almost haunted expression in her face unnerved me so much, I felt my hand reach out and touch her shoulder.

“This place makes you hurt?”

She relaxed at my touch, turning to look back at me. The shadows receded from her face, but didn’t quite leave the space around her eyes.

“This place? No,” she answered, shaking her head as she gestured around at the beautiful sky and miles of empty space surrounding us.“But this damned forest we’re in, and that song…” She shuddered, actually shuddered. “I don’t remember the words, or even remember how I know the tune, but… All I know is it ached, right here.”

She made a fist and held it to the left side of her chest, right over her heart, before letting it fall to her side again. She looked at me once more, her eyes back to their usual, gleaming shade of gold — though there was still a hint of the anxiety she’d shown before lingering in the shadows under her eyes.

“I’ll follow your lead like always, boss. Just, please, promise you really will think about it, before we make that jump we can’t come back from,” she said quietly, softly as I’d ever heard her speak before.

Then she turned and walked away into the night, vanishing like dispersing mist before I could call after her.

I was left standing there alone once again, looking at the spot where she’d disappeared, her words ricocheting around the inside of my head over and over again. That song, this forest; was that really what had gotten her so abnormally spooked? I had to admit, hearing that song echoing through the dark of the trees had been unsettling to say the least — even more so when I’d realised the others hadn’t even heard it.

I believed Tink when she said hearing it had unsettled her, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that she wasn’t telling me the whole reason why it had unsettled her so much.

Or why we both had been the only ones to even hear it.

I sighed and decided it was something I’d have to try and pry out of her later, whenever we got out of Fangorn. I was about to shut my eyes and force myself to wake up when I noticed something odd about my surroundings. The glass floor that I’d thought was reflecting the twinkling lights of the night sky looked off somehow. It took me a couple of seconds to realise that it was because the lights beneath my feet weren’t reflections of the stars at all. They were glinting lights coming from underneath the floor, and as that thought settled in, a second one hit me not even a moment later.

My bare feet weren’t just pleasantly cool against the smooth floor. They were wet.

Without thinking, I looked straight down, and heard myself gasp as I realised it wasn’t glass I was standing on.

It was water.

We’d been standing on a perfectly flat sea that was so still, it reflected the sky perfectly, like coloured glass. Or at least it had, until I looked directly down at the source of the lights, glinting up from deep below the surface of the water.

A city lay sprawled beneath me.

Astoundingly beautiful and huge, stretching for what I guessed was miles in every direction. Graceful spires, towers, domes, and arches reached up towards me, all constructed from glistening, white stone that shone in the gold lights cast from the buildings and streets. Gardens and canals lay dotted and woven between the streets and houses, giving the city the look of a precious, white jewel veined with streaks of jade and lapis. I was too high up to see the people, but lights glinted in the windows and the entire view radiated life and prosperity even from beneath the flat waves.

I had no idea why, but the sight of it filled me with such an overwhelming surge of joy, wonder, and sadness that something in my chest felt like it was breaking.

It wasn’t until a tiny, stray drop of salty water disturbed the glass-like surface that I realised I was crying. Silent tears ran down my cheeks and chin as I stared down awestruck at the spectacular view beneath my feet. Then, as if my tear drop had broken some kind of spell, the perfectly flat surface of the water lost its ability to hold me up.

The ripples churned, waves appeared all around, and with a scream I plummeted down into the water, the golden lights of the beautiful, sunken city vanishing as I was dragged under.

Chapter Text

Waking up from a dream in which you’re drowning is never exactly pleasant. Though all things considered, my return to reality was as gentle as I could have hoped for.

I sucked in a glorious breath of musty, dank forest air as my eyes flew open, my body automatically going to sit up and check I really wasn’t still miles under dark seawater. That plan was well and truly scuppered when my forehead collided with a low hanging branch of the tree I’d been curled under. Pain fired through my head, and I hissed out a curse

At least, if I hadn’t been before, I was wide awake now.

Thankfully I hadn’t seemed to have woken anyone else up with my dopey antics. All around me, the camp we’d set up at the edge of a clear patch of grass between the trees and a small cliff was bathed in moonlight. I could hear Gimli snoring somewhere off to my left, Boromir snuffling somewhere beyond that, along with Aragorn’s slow steady breaths. As my eyes adjusted, I could also just about see Legolas leaning back against a nearby tree on my right, not far from where I lay. His eyes were half open, but he was looking up at the stars with a glazed look in his face, his figure entirely relaxed. He was finally taking a deep, proper and well-earned rest; the sight brought a relieved smile to my face before I could suppress it.

Just beyond him, I could just about see that Gandalf had taken the watch. He was standing near the still lowly crackling fire, puffing leisurely on his pipe as he stared out over the trees below the cliff.

I felt my own body truly relax for what felt like the first time in weeks at the sight and sound of all but four of my companions around me, the last of my worries being chased away as a fresh wave of tiredness hit me. Reassured that I was unlikely to be plagued by anymore bizarre dreams, I lay quietly back down on my patch of forest again, curling up on the soft grass facing Legolas’ tree.

I was just about to close my eyes when the sound of someone else stirring caught my attention.

Lifting my head curiously, I saw Aragorn sitting up from his own chosen sleeping spot on the grass. He got to his feet, and moved near silently over to stand by the old smoking Wizard.

“You cannot sleep?” Gandalf asked quietly, puffing out a stream of smoke that turned into a silver trio of fluttering moths around him. Aragorn paused to watch the dancing smoke figures slowly disperse for a moment before letting out a long sigh.

“I rarely can lately,” he murmured, looking out over the moon-bathed forest. Gandalf took another drag on his piped and eyed him sideways.

“What troubles you so, Aragorn?”

I saw Aragon fold his arms across his chest and chuckle somewhat bitterly. He glanced over his shoulder back towards us all, and I quickly dropped my head back onto where it had been pillowed on my arm, pretending to still be at least half asleep.

“What doesn’t trouble me may be a better question; though it’s likely the same thing that still troubles you, old friend, despite your miraculous return.”

Gandalf rumbled a quiet laugh, and I could see little puffs of wispy smoke coming out of his nose — and ears — through the dark. He coughed lightly through a smile, thumped a fist against his chest to clear it, and extinguished his pipe with a quiet, ominous hiss.

“Sadly, I fear you may be correct. And I fear there are few words of comfort I may offer to ease that worry,” he exhaled, long and deep. “The veiling shadow that glowers in the East is beginning to take shape at last. Sauron will suffer no rival, and from the summit of Barad-dur, his Eye is watching ceaselessly. But he is not so mighty yet that he is above fear. Doubt ever gnaws at him now. The rumour has finally reached him that the blood of Númenor still lives.”

I watched curiously as Gandalf turned his glinting blue eyes over his shoulder towards the rest of us, then on Aragorn, though the other man seemed unusually reluctantly to return the stare.

“Sauron fears you, Aragorn. He fears what you may become, given the chance. So he’ll strike hard and fast at the world of Men. He will use his puppet Saruman to destroy Rohan,” the Wizard went on, turning his eyes away when it became obvious Aragorn was not going to reply.

“War is coming. Rohan must be ready to defend itself, and therein lies our first challenge. The king’s mind has been all but enslaved. His hold over Theoden is very strong, and will not be easily broken. Saruman and Sauron are tightening the noose, and yet we still have one advantage. The Ring remains hidden. Each day the greatest weapon of the Enemy moves ever closer to Mount Doom, in the hands of a single Hobbit.”

Aragorn shifted, as if uncomfortable, and Gandalf seemed to noticed because he turned away from the view too peer at the other man out of the corner of his eye.

“Do not regret your decision to leave him, Aragorn,” he said quietly. “Frodo knows he must finish this task alone.”

“He’s not alone,” Aragorn murmured instantly, and when Gandalf gave him a confused expression he went on a little stronger than before. “Sam went with him.”

There was a weighted silence through which I could all but feel Gandalf’s surprise, tinged with a relief, and something close to pride.

“Did he? Did he indeed…” he murmured, and I could hear the smile as his tone warmed with hope. “Good, that is good.”

 

~ Ω ~

 

“One stage of your journey is over, another begins. We must travel out of this place, then ride to Edoras with all haste,” Gandalf told us early the next morning as we all followed him towards the edge of the forest.

A little bleary-eyed and walking behind Gimli and Aragorn, I was still in the process of waking up from the long night of restless sleep and eavesdropping on the forest floor. A small yawn escaped me as I trudged along ahead of Legolas and Boromir, but it was only when Gimli chimed in that I actually realised exactly where Gandalf said were headed.

Edoras?” the Dwarf exclaimed loudly, sounding not at all thrilled by the idea. “That is no short distance, especially to cross on foot.”

I couldn’t say I was ecstatic with the idea of even more cross country running either, not after the strange night I’d had. But Gandalf didn’t seem at all phased by the idea, and I had to wonder if his new form was kitted out with stronger running legs, or if he was just waiting to surprise us all with an easier means of getting to the other side of Rohan.

I was sincerely hoping for the latter.

“We have heard of trouble in Rohan,” Legolas said from behind me, though unlike me, he didn’t sound the slightest bit tired. In fact he sounded better than I’d heard him ever since we left Lothlórien. Gandalf paused to peer at us over one shoulder and Aragorn nodded.

“We crossed paths with Éomer. He said that the king is not himself.”

Gandalf made a noise of agreement.

“Indeed, and he will not easily be cured of what ails him,” he answered, turning to fix Aragorn with a serious look. “Saruman was among the most skilled of all the Maiar at understanding and manipulating the minds of others. His grip on the king’s thoughts will not easily be broken, and we cannot afford to waste any more time.”

“Then we have run all this way for nothing?” Gimli blurted again, sounding appalled as well as tired. “Are we really to turn around and leave those poor Hobbits here in this horrid, dark, dank, tree-infested—”

A couple of cedars and one large, gnarled oak made a low groaning sound, their branches creaking and knocking together ominously overhead. Gimli jumped, clutching his axe a little tighter.

“I mean charming! Quite charming forest!” he squeaked.

I grinned and let out a chuckle.

“I think you hurt their feelings, Gimli.”

The Dwarf scowled back at me, though halfheartedly. I shrugged, patting the trunk of the oak as I passed it, trying not to jump myself when one of it’s branches affectionally brushed the top of my messy bed-hair.

“It was more than mere chance that brought Merry and Pippin to Fangorn. A great power with many lost secrets has been sleeping here for many long years. The coming of Merry and Pippin will be like the falling of small stones that signal the oncoming of an avalanche,” Gandalf continued to explain softly, glancing thoughtfully out into the gradually lightening forest around us. I saw a genuine smile tug at the corner of Aragorn’s mouth as he came up beside our returned Wizard.

“There is one thing that has not changed about you, old friend,” he said through the small smirk, and Gandalf raised a questioning eyebrow at him. Aragorn inclined his head, his smile warming. “You still speak in riddles.”

Gandalf’s face split into a grin, the corners of his eyes crinkling with laughing lines as he looked back at us all, then around at the quietly creaking trees overhead.

“Something is going to happen soon that has not happened for an age. The Ents are going to wake up — and with them, all the strength and ancient memories of this forest that once covered half of Middle Earth.”

“Strength?” Gimli wheezed, looking untrustingly up at the surrounding trees. “Oh, that is… good.”

“So cease your fretting, Master Dwarf,” Gandalf stated bluntly, jabbing an imperious finger at Gimli before striding off towards what I assumed was the edge of the forest. “Merry and Pippin are quite safe. In fact they’re a lot safer than you’re about to be!”

Gimli grumbled something in Khuzdul I didn’t understand, but could easily guess the generally gist of.

“Is it just me? Or does this new Gandalf seem more grumpy than the old one?” he mumbled to me as I came up behind him. I smiled, patting him sympathetically on the shoulder as I hurried to catch up to where Gandalf had allowed Aragorn to start leading the way. We were obviously nearing the edge of the forest again because the light between the trees was getting brighter, and the ground wasn’t presenting me with quite so many tripping hazards.

Even so, as I moved to walk up beside the Wizard, I ended up stumbling over my own words instead of twigs and leaves. I knew vaguely what I wanted to ask, but I didn’t really know how…

Gandalf glanced sideways at me as we grew just far enough away from Aragorn ahead and Legolas behind that we wouldn’t be heard.

“Ask your question, child. Before it starts devouring you from the inside out,” he said gently.

I snapped my mouth shut where I realised it had fallen open to speak and simply stayed that way when nothing came out. Instead, I chewed my lip in thought for a moment, before deciding that overthinking how best to say what I needed wasn’t going to do any good. And anyway, bluntness had served me well thus far.

I looked at him straight in the eye.

“How long have you know about her?” I asked, Tink and I both watching his reaction very carefully.

He knew who I meant instantly. I know he did, because he didn’t so much as blink in feigned confusion or glare at me in reprimand. Not even a half-hearted tilt of the head.

“Since I first saw you, in Lord Elrond’s Council hall,” he answered simply, without a trace of shame, though he said it very quietly.

I stared at him, reeling, stunned, and livid all at the same time — but somehow not surprised either.

“Bloody hell!” I cursed silently, running a hand over my face, trying to quell the sudden burst of anger before aiming a wrathful glare at him. “All this time? Why didn’t you say something back then? I asked you!”

Gandalf’s calm composure didn’t drop but he gave me a serious glance that spoke more than his tone.

“I held my tongue for the same reason Lady Galadriel did, Eleanor.”

A scoff escaped me before I could reel it in.

“Don’t tell me my past self bullied you into a blood oath of silence too,” I snapped incredulously.

“No,” he said, infuriatingly patient and serene. “But my reasons for remaining silent were equally grave, if not more. I knew you would discover the truth of your companion eventually, but it was imperative that you do it on your own, without outside interference. Especially mine.”

“Why?”

Gandalf gave me a long look, neither angry, nor frustrated — but I somehow got the impression he was a little exasperated that I needed to ask the question at all. Fine by me. He could lecture on stupid questions all he liked whenever he decided to stop talking in mystical enigma-code.

She,” he said slowly, very deliberately not using Tink — or rather Rávamë’s — real name aloud, “Is a creature similar to myself in nature, and we can be easily influenced and changed by the shared knowledge and emotions of the form we inhabit. In my case, an aged, but mortal man. It is our nature. Therefore I thought it best she remain as akin to you as possible, for both your benefits, which meant I could not directly interfere with either of you, even to quell your curiosity.”

Well, if nothing else I supposed that explained Tink and my shared cynical sense of humour and dry wit.

I looked at him seriously, only speaking when I was sure no one was near enough to hear.

“Your nature,” I repeated slowly. “The nature of what you and she both are, right? Maiar?”

He nodded soberly.

“Precisely.”

I let out a long exhale — partly to calm myself a bit, but also to give myself time to think.

I knew he wasn’t lying to me, not about believing keeping the secret about Tink from me anyway. But some part of me also felt sure that he was deliberately keeping something else crucial from me — some important piece I was still missing in this frustrating, perilous puzzle that had somehow become my life.

Tempting as it was though, I knew full well if I hadn’t been able to persuade him to tell me before, there was no way in hell I was going to be able to do it now. So I just made a disgusted noise and threw up my hands in defeat.

“Just when I thought you couldn’t get any more unhelpfully cryptic, you go fall down a giant hole, kill a fiery demon monster, and then come back as bloody Dumbledore.”

That actually got a real rolling laugh out of him, and I had to wonder whether he was laughing at me, or he somehow had actually understood the Harry Potter reference. Hey, weirder things had happened. Either way I couldn’t help but smile back weakly as we walked, turning to look back at the path that was gradually clearing the further we went.

“So, to summarise; I know who and what she is now, but still not how she ended up as, ur… my tenant I guess. So, now what?”

Tink made a sputtering noise from the back of my head.

‘Tenant?’ she exclaimed. ‘You’re my landlady now are you, boss?’

Of course not, duckie,’ I answered sweetly, with an internal smile. ‘Landladies get paid rent. You’re a squatter at best.’

Tink snorted imperiously at that, but I could hear her grin. She fell pointedly silent though when Gandalf glanced ahead of us at Aragorn, and then subtly over his shoulder back at where Legolas and Gimli were speaking several paces behind us.

“Now? What you choose to do with the knowledge you have is entirely up to you. The choice to pursue your past has always been yours. I would not presume to tell you — either of you — what you should or shouldn’t do with the knowledge you have acquired.”

He turned his gaze back to me, and his blue eyes seemed to deepen with seriousness — a look that gave the words far more weight than they otherwise might have had. “However, I would advise caution. I’m sure I don’t need me to tell you that, while the choice remains yours, regaining the memories you seek may cause you more hurt than you anticipate. You… and others close to you both.”

I stared at him for a moment, then I sighed in a long and tired exhale, nodding in neither agreement nor disagreement.

“So everyone keeps saying,” I said a little grumpily, tapping the side of my head with my finger. “Thanks, but you’re literally preaching to the semi-converted here, Gandalf. I’ve already been given that lecture once today, and I’m taking it under advisement.”

Gandalf paused in his stride, not long enough for anyone but me to notice, but long enough to know that what I’d just said had struck him off guard. I looked up at him to find him staring at me, an uncharacteristic look on his face — halfway between surprise and quiet anxiousness. He opened his mouth to speak, closed it, swallowed, then tried again.

“She… speaks to you regularly, does she?” he asked very quietly.

“We both speak to each other,” I corrected immediately, a bit put out by his reaction, but surprising myself with how easily the words came. “She’s kept me alive when I should have died, probably more times than I know. She’s… a friend.”

Gandalf went completely still this time.

So did Tink.

I could feel her surprise mingling with mine through our bond, and it only thinly masked her sudden surge of unexpected, quiet happiness beneath it. Hell, I hadn’t realised how happy those words had made me too until I felt myself smiling.

Smiling because they’d been true, and effortlessly honest.

I hastily beat the expression back though when I glanced sideways and saw the frown lines and shadows on Gandalf’s face deepening. He unfroze and continued moving, sinking back into thought as he did.

“I… see,” he murmured to himself, before turning his attention back to me. “Then I must ask you this. Have you told your other companions of her yet?”

An icy twinge of guilt right below the ribs caught me off guard. I hadn’t thought much about the secret burden of my human life since Lothlórien — since I’d shared it with the Hobbits.

I looked down at the ground ahead of me, chewing my lip until I felt the still-healing cut on my lip sting in protest.

“I told Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin about my, ur… less-pointy-eared-life on Earth. But I only found out the truth about her after Merry and Pippin were taken,” I told him quietly, being carful to phrase the words just in case.

Gandalf nodded, seeming pleased by my answer.

“And the other four?” he asked, inclining his head subtly towards Aragorn ahead of us, and Boromir, Legolas, and Gimli behind.

I glanced ahead to where Aragorn was clearing the way through some thickets, thinking back to the last time in Lothlórien when I’d actually considered talking about the life I’d left behind when I awoke in that cave. The life I was still desperately seeking a way back to, even if my path to find it had meandered and twisted a bit along the way. Back then, there had been no question in my mind that my time on Earth needed to be kept under wraps, if for no other reason than to stop Aragorn from forcing me to remain behind.

But now…

Now, I wasn’t entirely sure why the idea of telling the truth made my insides go so cold — but it did. Back then I’d had travelling companions in those surrounding me, nothing more.

Now I had friends, and the idea alone of revealing exactly how much I’d truly been keeping from them all this time, the idea of seeing their reactions, was enough to make my stomach twist with nausea.

“Not yet, I haven’t found the right moment,” I admitted reluctantly, making myself look away from Aragorn’s back. Instead I turned just enough to make sure the other three were still far enough behind to remain out of earshot. “Though I think Boromir… I think he might have seen something, when I was healing him.”

Gandalf didn’t look back, though his pause before answering said he was very aware of the Man in question following behind us. Instead he continued to look at me, his eyes understanding but still stern.

“What do you believe he saw exactly?” he asked, as I looked away.

“I don’t know,” I said truthfully. “But he’s not been himself around me since we both woke up a few days ago. He seems convinced that what I did was unnatural somehow.”

Gandalf paused again to consider my words before speaking even more sternly than before.

“In that case, I would inform the others of your situation sooner than later, were I you. A time might come when you are unable to explain away her presence in you, as well as her drive to keep you both alive and protected from harm.”

I exhaled a heavy sigh and rubbed my temple.

“All this talking in euphemisms is making my head spin,” I muttered, trying to ease the dread at the idea welling up inside me. Against my will, I took a quick glance over my shoulder at where Boromir was still walking blank-faced at the back of our line, and the sensation of guilt mixed with cold dread only intensified.

“You know,” I murmured so quietly it was almost a whisper, “I really thought for a while that maybe, by saving him, Merry or Pippin would—”

Gandalf placed a warm hand on my shoulder and I stopped for half a step to look up at him. He wasn’t smiling, but there was familiar, gentle kindness in his blue eyes.

“Sparing one life does not mean the equivalent exchange of another, Eleanor. It is a sad reality that the world has never been that kind,” he said, giving my shoulder a squeeze. “Do not regret your decision to save him. What you did was incredibly brave and selfless, and those are rare enough traits to find in any one person in these times. He will see that too, in time.”

I bit my lip and looked away, unable to articulate exactly how much I wanted to believe those words — but also how not brave and not selfless I really felt right now.

Honestly, I felt the exact opposite of all those things. Especially moments after realising exactly what a gigantic info-bomb I was still keeping from my other unsuspecting friends — and was still unable to think of a way to tell them without losing the precarious trust they’d all given me since Lothlórien. But instead of trying to put all of that into words, I just quirked an anaemic smile up at the old White Wizard and sighed.

“Thanks,” I said, though even I could tell from my tone that my heart wasn’t in it. Still, Gandalf returned my smile as we continued walking together, and as I looked at him, another curious thought came to me.

“Gandalf, how exactly do you know all of this? Not just about Boromir, Merry, and Pippin I mean. About everything with me, and her, and—”

I risked another peek back at Legolas and Gimli. The Dwarf was still clutching his axe rather tightly, and eyeing the surrounding trees in suspicion. Legolas was trying, and failing to hide a laughing smile, and when he looked up and caught my eye, he gave me a tiny grin of shared amusement that made my spine tingle. I felt warmth rise up my neck to my ears at that look, a smile of my own creeping onto my mouth, and quickly averted my eyes before the heat could show in my cheeks.

Beside me I saw Gandalf’s lip twitch into that annoying knowing smile of his, blue eyes twinkling with mirth. He chuckled softly at me.

“I am a very old man, Eleanor. And I also happen to be a Wizard, one of the Istari. I have seen a thing or two about how the power balance of the world ebbs and flows, the dangers that come with too much knowledge too quickly, and abilities who’s costs run deeper than you may realise,” he said, reminding me suddenly of the way my grandfather had used to smile gently when he caught me doing something cheeky. “And I also know a little of the way two people’s opinions of each other can change quite drastically given the right circumstances.”

My face burned as I scowled.

“That’s a rather flowery way of saying; ‘Sorry, I can’t tell you anything helpful,’ ” I commented dryly, deliberately ignoring his last comment, though I could still feel my cheeks flushing. The corners of Gandalf’s eyes crinkled with amusement.

“True, though as a Wizard I cannot deny that I have certain fondness for the dramatic.”

That got a quiet laugh out of me — a small one, but an honest one.

I felt the familiar gaze of the one Gandalf had been subtly teasing me about on the back of my neck, and tempting as it was to turn and look back at him, I made myself keep facing ahead. A lot of what Gandalf had said had felt important, and I wanted time to mull it over and commit it to memory without my Prince Charming muddling my brain with his stupid handsome face…

It took me a good five seconds to realised I’d actually thought the words my Prince Charming, and very nearly walked face-first into a low hanging branch.

Dammit, that was definitely not the train of thought I needed to be on right now.

I didn’t dare look back over my shoulder at him or any of the others for the rest of the walk through the forest. Instead, I found myself humming that haunting little tune Tink and I had heard the night before. A near-silent little melody to myself under my breath as I thought of what Gandalf had said. I suppose I half hoped that the sound of my own voice humming it might trigger a fleeting memory, or some kind of recollection of where I’d heard it before.

Sadly, it didn’t, so I just focused on committing what I could recall of it to memory — just in case I heard or needed it again later.

A few more low hanging branches and one very precarious tree root later, we finally reached the edge of Frangorn. Bright morning sunlight poured down through the thinning braces and made my eyes sting, but it was a blissful feeling to have the sun’s warmth on my face again after the closeness of the forest. Stepping out of the tree-line a few seconds later, the forest gave way to familiar, rolling, sun-bathed hills dotted with stones, bushes and miles of shifting grasslands of green and gold. Given any other circumstance, I could have happily stood there and enjoyed the view and fresh air, with my face tilted up to the sun, for hours.

“Daylight, at last. That is a welcome sight indeed,” I heard Gimli murmur near silently from beside me as he and Leglas came to a stop out of the tree line. Then, he added with his usual gruff cynicism, “Though not an especially reassuring one on its own. Edoras is a long way from here, and our mounts have clearly long since fled.”

Gandalf suddenly let out the loudest whistle I’d ever heard only a couple of feet from my ear, and I very nearly flew out of my skin. Rubbing my offended ear, I threw the old man a sharp glare, but he simply smiled and gestured with his staff towards the distance.

Annoyed, but also curious, I relented and looked in the direction he’d indicated along with the others.

Legolas and I saw it first, although the full meaning of what we were seeing was clearly lost on me. While Legolas’ jaw dropped open in astonishment, all I saw was a large, albeit near unnaturally white stallion cantering over the crest of a hill, its long mane billowing in the light breeze.

“What is that?” I asked stupidly, watching the beautiful, regal looking horse slowing to a graceful trot straight towards us.

“That is one of the Mearas, unless my eyes are cheated by some spell,” he explained with a disbelieving tone, as if he wasn’t fully convinced at what he was seeing.

The huge, icy-white stallion came to a stop before Gandalf and leaned his head down towards the old man in what was unmistakably a bow of greeting. Gandalf beamed as he inclined his own head, reaching up a hand to run it affectionally over the impressive horse’s neck.

“He is Shadowfax,” he told us, still smiling warmly at the creature like a long lost friend. “He is the lord of all horses, and has been my companion through many dangers.”

Shadowfax gave a little nicker of agreement, nuzzling his nose affectionately into Gandalf’s shoulder. Then he raised his giant head and gave a loud whinny, the sound echoing through the trees and over the nearby hills like cathedral bells. Ten seconds later, three familiar shapes appeared over the top of a rocky outcrop, coming quickly towards us. Only when they were within a few hundred meters of us did I realise they were our three missing mounts — Hasufel, Arod, and Nymue trotting happily up to come behind Shadowfax, like his own personal herd of obedient tag-alongs.

I gaped from the cheerfully approaching horses, to Shadowfax, then to Gandalf.

“How did—?”

Wizard, Eleanor,” he said by way of explanation, with a playful, twinkling little smile that quickly vanished as he moved towards the horses. “Come, all of you, there is no time left to waste.”

‘Show off,’ Tink muttered grudgingly from the back of my head, but she didn’t sound so peeved as to suggest turning down the ride. Edoras was on the other side of Rohan from us — and just like Gandalf has said — we both knew all too well that none of us had any more time or energy left to waste.

 

Chapter Text

We rode hard, which really does sound a lot more epic — and dirtier — that it actually is.

When most people think of riding a horse at top speed over rolling grasslands, they usually imagine lot of gorgeous panoramic shots, amazing views, combined with an uplifting soundtrack, and even a bit of dramatic hair billowing for added effect.

What it actually involves is a lot of hanging on for dear life to an uncomfortably hard saddle — or in my case, the man sitting in front of me in the saddle — and trying to ignore the cramp forming in your legs as you try to stay upright on a creature three times stronger than you as it thunders across uneven ground at break-neck speed. I'm pretty sure I'd never been less epic or sexy in my life; with my arms locked around Aragorn's waist tighter than a corset, hair in my face, and my legs and butt so sore from bouncing around on a saddle for hours I was likely going to be walking funny for days after.

When at last we began to slow down, I would have moaned aloud in relief if my mouth hadn't been full of my own windswept hair. I turned and indelicately spat it out as best I could, blushing in embarrassment when I heard Gandalf chuckling heartily. I was made to feel only a bit better when I heard Gimli grunting in equal frustration, having to suffer both the pain of riding as a passenger, and the indecency of clinging to an Elf for over four hours to avoid being thrown off.

Resisting the urge to groan and grumble along with him, I sat up on Hasufel's back and caned my neck to see over Aragorn's shoulder. He noticed, and shifted subtly to allow me to see past him more easily.

Less than a mile away in the distance sat what I could only describe as a tall rocky hill in the shape of a cresting wave, rising out of the surrounding grassy plains like a lone dwarf mountain. On its slopes sat carved wooden houses and buildings, most of which were raised on stilts to give the appearance that they were half-floating up the side of the hill. A single road snaked up around the incline, coiling between the houses, shops, and stables, until it finally came to a stop at a far grander looking wood and stone building at the peak — its thatched roof and carved walls glinting dark gold in the morning sunshine. The seat of the king of Rohan, I presumed.

It was a strangely roguish looking city to behold considering the last traces of civilisation I'd seen had been the towering tree spires of Lothlórien, but it was a welcome sight nonetheless after going so long in the wild. It might have even been a happy one, were I not able to clearly see even from half a mile away that the entire city was encircled by an off-putting wooden wall, complete with watch towers, sharped wooden spikes atop the fences, and an easily closable gate gawking open to us like the mouth of a trap.

Bizarrely, very few guards though, I noted.

"Edoras, and the Golden Hall of Meduseld," Gandalf confirmed what I'd already been thinking, coming to a stop beside me along with Boromir, Legolas, and Gimli on their horses. "There dwells Theoden, King of Rohan, whose mind is overthrown. Saruman's hold over King Theoden is strong. Be careful what you say. We are unlikely to find any kind of welcome here."

He gave me a pointed look in particular, and I resisted the urge to roll my eyes.

Instead I just mimed locking my lips closed, and tossing the key over my shoulder as we took off down the hill again towards the gates.

It took barely any time at all to ride down the slope and make our way up to the entrance of Edoras, but my poor backside felt every bounce and bump as we went. No one stopped us as we slowed to a trot through the gates with Gandalf and Shadowfax leading the way. No guards manned the towers, and only a few rather bedraggled looking ones eyed us with suspicious curiosity from the walls and streets as we passed beneath the gates.

Not one of them tried to stop us.

It wasn't like we posed much of a threat, but these exhausted, hopeless looking men and women looked as if they were halfway to not caring if we suddenly decided to start setting fire to their homes.

As we made our way up the road through the city, the truly bizarre sight of us — two men, two elves, and dwarf, and a wizard all on horseback — clearly began to sink in. Passing rundown looking men and women, all of them various shades of dark and dusty blonde, slowed or stopped to peer at us. Some looked curiously at us through the dark circles beneath their eyes, while others glared in blatant mistrust. Most however, just looked tired, hopeless, and more than a little afraid. A couple of young mothers with small children ushered them close as we passed, staring up at Legolas and Gimli in particular with wide eyes as they did.

We passed beneath a carved, painted wooden arch that had probably once been impressively beautiful, and I spotted a banner that had been torn from its post by the breeze, falling emblem-up into the dried grass.

A green banner trimmed with gold, with a white horse beneath a bright yellow sun. The same banner Eomer and his men had been riding under, though this one was far less well kept, despite being in the king's own city.

An unsettling detail, I thought.

"You'd find more cheer in a graveyard," Gimli commented dryly, watching as one of the young nearby maids tried to retreat away further as we approached, only to stumble backwards into another red-haired woman behind her, almost knocking her over along with the bundle of rolled blankets she'd been carrying.

The younger girl spun, presumably to apologise, but the second she saw the red-haired woman's face — and the prominent swell of her very pregnant belly beneath the bland dress — her mouth snapped shut. I saw her eyes flicker over the other woman with obvious judgment, and a sneer crawled onto her face. She turned quickly away without a word, leaving the poor red haired soon-to-be-mother to struggle to pick up her dropped garments on her own. It was a real struggle to reach down over her protruding baby-bump, but she gritted her teeth and did it anyway, without anyone around her bothering to offer their help.

I watched with furrowed brows as she stood, and as her eyes met mine, and I felt the sharp tug of sudden, painful recognition that pulled at my breath out of me. My own eyes widened, and my mouth fell open, but the name never made it past my lips.

I knew that face.

'Katie?!'

I knew those brown eyes, hard with familiar determination, set in a pretty but adamantly freckled face.

It was her! It was really her! But how? When? What in sweet hell was going on? Even Tink sounded like she'd been smacked in the face with a mallet.

'I… I have no idea—'

"Eleanor?"

I jerked to see Aragorn looking at me wearily over his shoulder. He and Gandalf both followed my gaze to the young pregnant woman of Rohan who was the doppleganger to my best friend back on Earth. She was looking at me curiously too.

But not in recognition — just mild interest.

She didn't recognise me. She didn't know me. I could see it in her eyes from ten meters away, and the realisation and confusion tore at my insides as swiftly and as deeply as the shock of seeing her had.

"Ah," Gandalf exclaimed suddenly, covering my reaction with masterful ease. A grandfatherly smile adorned his face as he coaxed Shadowfax to an easy stop and dismounted. Leaning a little too heavily on his staff he approached her, he gestured with a faux-frail hand to on the of the coarse grey blankets in her arms. "May I please borrow this, my dear?"

The woman who looked so painfully like Katie blinked at him, nodding dumbstruck, taking the blanket and handing it to him.

"Thank you," he smiled warmly, and wrapped the coarse grey fabric around his shoulders. He adjusted the cloth about his shoulders until all the white of his finer robes were covered, and the hem dangled all the way down to his ankles. Satisfied, he turned back to the woman with another polite smile. "I shall return it to you shortly."

"O-of course," she said, still a bit shell-shocked.

Bloody hell and brimstone, she even sounded just like Katie.

My insides burned with a torrent of emotions again at the sound, and it took me a moment to realise that Aragorn had dismounted along with Boromir and Legolas — the latter of who was helping Gimli out of Arod's saddle. I just continued to sit there on Hasufel like a moron, my mouth open like I was catching flies, staring at Katie's Middle Earth twin, my mind frantically searching for an explanation.

She caught my eye a second time, and the pain in my chest swelled so suddenly I was abruptly torn between flinging myself off Hasufel, shaking her by the shoulders and demanding who the hell she was to wear my best friend's face, or bursting into tears, and wrapping her in a bone-breaking hug.

A hand suddenly appeared on my leg — a concerned touch just below my knee, that jarred me out of my numb shock.

"Eleanor."

I looked stiffly down to find Gandalf looking up at me sternly. My mouth closed, then fell open again as my neck got stuck trying to look at both him and Katie at the same time.

"H-how?" I managed to stammer out, but his hand suddenly tightened on my calf in warning.

"Later," he said quietly with a deadly serious look up at me. "You have my word. But now is not the time to explain such things. Come."

He offered a steadying hand to help me down, and I took it without thinking. It was probably a good thing I did too, because I was still in such deep shock that I almost fell flat on my face once I'd slid down off the saddle. I'd totally forgotten about the state of my legs and backside, but the second we left the horses and started walking up to Meduseld hall I was reminded as all the muscles below my waist exploded into aches and pangs.

Burying my shock and internal torrent of questions as deep as I could, I staggered up the stone steps behind Aragorn, Boromir and Gandalf, concentrating hard on not falling over my own wobbly legs. I almost walked straight into Boromir's back when they all suddenly came to a stop at the top.

The ornately painted double oak doors of the hall had suddenly swung open, and a rather beefy looking man of Rohan with long auburn hair, a wiry beard, and scaled armour strode out purposefully towards us. He was flanked by about a dozen guards, all of them with their helms down and spears at the ready — though mercifully not pointed at us this time. I wasn't at all convinced I had any patience or energy left for politeness after the day we'd all just had. I was still too busy reeling from the shock of seeing my best friend's image in the face of a woman from another world. As if my life wasn't confusingly, dangerously weird enough already.

Gandalf met the guards and their leader with a beatific smile, which was not returned.

"Greetings Háma! It is good to see you once again."

"And greetings to you, Gandalf Greyhame," the guard captain Háma said in a much less amiable tone, although he did attempt a rather strained smile of welcome. He looked for a moment as if he wished to say something more, but a tiny glance towards his left at some of the guards had him obviously rethinking his words. He faced us with a silently warning look in his face.

"I'm afraid I cannot allow you before Theoden King so armed," his eyes drifted pointedly from Gandalf's borrowed grey cloak to each of us — once again lingering for a confused second on me — before returning to the Wizard. "By order of Grima Wormtongue."

'There's a name and a half,' Tink jibed with a dark chuckle, though I could feel her unease as my own at the sight of all those weapons. One wrong move from any of them, and I could feel she'd be ready to throw me out of the way if needs be.

'Easy, Tink,' I chided silently, risking a look in the direction Háma had glanced back inside the darkened hall. 'Anyway, something tells me they're not the ones we need to worry about.'

A couple of guards came forward to relieve us of our weapons, one of them an old but burly man with streaks of grey in his red-blonde beard, and the other a young man barely out of his teens. Boromir, Legolas, and a very reluctant Gimli handed their weaponry over to the older man — Legolas indulging in a rather unnecessary flourish as he handed his long knives over.

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes, but only just.

The younger guard stepped forward a little hesitantly to take Aragorn's and mine, and I couldn't help but notice the way his gaze kept flicking back to me.

I had to wonder what on earth it was with the men here and their wandering eyes. Had I been wandering around with blood or mud on my face again while the others had conveniently forgotten to tell me?

Beside me, Aragorn calmly unstrapped the scabbard and sword at his hip, and I reluctantly followed suit, unstrapping my knife pouch, and removing the throwing knives I'd hidden in my boots and up my sleeve. Finally I got to my engraved hunting knife, and I had to force myself not to look at the carved names and I pulled it from its sheath. I gripped it tight for a moment, eyeing the surrounding guards with poorly masked distrust. Despite my constant dropping of it, my knife had become even more precious to me over the past few weeks, and I was reluctant to let it go.

But threats were obviously not going to work here, so for once, I decided to try on charm instead.

Hey, I can be charming… occasionally.

I caught the young guard's and made a point of handing my well loved hunting blade over to him hilt-first with much more care than I had my throwing knives.

"Please don't lose this," I said very softly, offering him a pleading little smile. My Charm Mode must have been less rusty than I thought, because the young guard's face coloured a little, and he gave me a solemn nod through a hesitant smile.

"I shan't," he answered reverently, taking my hunting knife carefully…

And almost dropped it as he fumbled to hold it along with Aragorn's scabbard. A guard behind him snorted indelicately, and the boy's face turned even more pink.

"Is that all, my lady?" he asked a bit sheepishly.

Aragorn looked scrutinisingly down at the seven knives I'd handed over, then turned and fixed me with a very pointed, very dry stare. I eyed him back, sighed, and then twisted so I could reach a hand up under the back of my battered tunic. A second later I pulled out my last remaining throwing knife from where I'd stealthily tucked it under the laces of my breastband. The young guard gave me a half startled, half impressed look through a rapidly reddening face as I handed it over, and Tink gave a light, tittering chuckle from the back of my head.

'I think someone has an admirer.'

'Can it, you, or I really will start charging you rent,' I snapped, but on the outside I was smiling. The smile fell a little when I noticed Legolas off to the side eyeing the young guard closely, his eyebrows furrowed in thought. He didn't look angry, but he was wearing a look that maybe made me a teensy bit worried for the young man's future wellbeing.

As the two guards retreated with our weapons, Háma turned to Gandalf once again, and gave a pointed glance at his right hand.

"Your staff, Gandalf," he said in an almost wearisome tone, inclining his head at the tall white-wood stave that was almost taller than he was.

"Ah," the old wizard answered looking at his staff. Then he hunched rather deliberately forward, and leaned heavily on it, as if it were the only thing keeping his upright. "You would not part an old man from his walking stick."

Háma gave him a thoroughly sceptical raised eyebrow, eyed the rest of us dubiously, then nodded once, turning to lead us inside the double doors. Gandalf smiled sideways as Aragorn and me, giving us a tiny wink as we moved to follow suit, making a point to almost limp on tired legs in time with "walking stick" under the eyes of the guards. As if on cue, Legolas came up on Gandalf's left, offering the old wizard a steadying arm like any strapping grandson would, and Gandalf took it with a little more drama that I thought was entirely necessary.

Never mind the fact that the silly Elf prince was probably at least three times as old as the cunning old Wizard on his arm.

The rest of us followed in just behind them, and as we passed the young guard who's taken my knife risked a shyly flirtatious smile at me as we went by. He didn't dare say anything out loud this time though — smart boy.

"Was that necessary?" Aragorn's voice came so quietly I almost didn't hear it through the mutterings that erupted around us as we entered the entranceway. I glanced sideways at him with a raised eyebrow.

"What did I do now?"

"Attempted to dazzle the poor lad with your wiles, lass" Gimli clarified, his voice managing to sound gruff even in a whisper. I threw him a halfhearted glare through the pang of embarrassment.

"It was either I attempt to dazzle him with my so called wiles into relaxing a bit, or you lot scare the knickers off him with your death-stares, and we all get skewered," I whispered back tartly, my face warming.

"The day is young," Boromir murmured, eyeing the spattering of surprised courtiers and guards with narrowed eyes as we made our way from the entrance to the high-ceilinged main hall.

Aragorn followed his gaze and abruptly tensed up next to me. Before I could even ask what had them both so high strung, Aragorn nudged my shoulder with his elbow, and gave a minute jerk of his chin towards the shadows. I looked, and was met with the sight of about six or seven men who did not match the rugged but noble features of the surrounding men of Rohan. These ones might have shared the same dusty blonde hair and sun-warmed features of the locals, but something unsettlingly cold in their hostile gazes had them standing out a mile, and sending ice down my spine. They seemed to move as one through the small crowds, following us as we moved further inside.

The doors shut with a dull boom behind us, and I had to force myself not to whirl and look back.

I abruptly had the sudden, sinking feeling that we may have just walked into a trap. One we might not have an easy time getting out of, if of course things with the king didn't go well.

Which — knowing our luck — they probably wouldn't.

"My lord, Gandalf the Grey is coming," a — there was no other word to describe it — slimy voice came from the other side of the hall in a harsh whisper.

It was so quiet I doubt I would have been able to hear it had I not grown so used to my snazzy Elf hearing. I looked away from our stalkers, down the thrown room of Meduseld to the end where the voice had come from. The hall was a lot bigger than it looked from the outside, and just like the carved wooden arches we'd passed on the way into Edoras, it was easy to see it had once been a beautiful, warm place full of life and light.

But not anymore.

The once intricate paintwork on the carved wooden pillars had been long neglected and begun to fade to dull shadows of their former glory. The stone floor was dusty and cold without so much as a throw rug in sight, and the green and gold banners of Rohan that hang from the walls looked as if they hadn't been taken down and cleaned in years. A couple of long banquet tables and a long neglected roasting pit sat in the centre of the room, running the entire length of the hall. Once upon a time I imagined they had been more than enough to seat and feed the entire court, and then some. Now however, the only items gracing the king's tables were some tarnished silver platters, all containing rather sad helpings of fruit, bread and cheese that looked as if it had been sitting there a few days too many.

I still couldn't really understand why, but the entire sight and feel of the place filled me with equal parts sadness and disgusted anger. Worst of all, however, came when my eyes fell at last on the king of Rohan, seated in a regal, finely carved high-backed throne atop raised stone steps at the head of the hall.

I swear if the man sitting in that wood-worm infested chair hadn't been visibly blinking milky cataracts eyes that had once been blue at us, I'd have assumed he was dead.

Or at least halfway there already.

There are some people in both Arda and Earth — like Gandalf and my own dear departed grandfather for instance — who had managed to embrace old age with grace and decorum, proudly wearing every single white hair and smile-line as a badge of honour with no shame or apology. King Theoden was not one of them. He looked like something had crawled inside his soul and started shrivelling him from the inside out. He was sat bent over in his chair, wrapped in so many cloaks and furs to keep warm it was hard to see how far over he was hunched. A regal but heavy looking bronze diadem encircled his balding head, and was one of the few things that was keeping the remains of his unkept ghostly white hair out of his pasty, liver-spotted face.

I knew instantly, without any reminder of what Gandalf had told us earlier, that this was Saruman's doing. And the knowledge only made it more painful to look at the unnatural suffering that had been inflicted on the king.

The poor sod couldn't have been past middle aged, but he looked like he was well past a hundred.

Beside him sat a second man with dark greasy hair, and fine robes of what I assumed was an advisor. He was perched on a lower chair to the left of the king, but the old man was so heavily hunched over the second man had no trouble at all leaning over and whispering into his ear.

"They are all heralds of woe," he hissed, throwing us all a harsh glare as we approached, and I got a good look at one of the creepiest pairs of eyes I'd seen. One was icy grey with a dilated pupil, and the other a dark green and shrunken, set in a face so pinched and pale, and sneering at us like we'd all dragged horse dung in on our boots. He looked like he could have been an understudy for Severus Snape, though I suspected even Snape in all his greasy-haired Slytherin glory could have been insulted at being compared to the slimy little man who I assumed was Grima Wormtongue.

He all but radiated malice and venom from all the across the room, and my skin had started trying to crawl away just looking at him.

"The courtesy of your hall is somewhat lessened of late,Theoden King," Gandalf called out in a dry tone. He'd released Legolas' arm, though he was still pretending to limp. The rest of us had spread out instinctively to either side of him as we approached the stone steps and dais — Boromir and Gimli on his left, Aragorn, Legolas and me on his right.

All of us were facing forwards, but still watching the dark-faced men in the shadows from the corners of our eyes.

"He's not welcome," I heard Wormtongue hiss into the king's ear again, still watching us with his creepy, narrowed glare.

The king seemed to stir at those words, his dry mouth opening as if to speak, but the sound that came out was so rasped and croaky it almost didn't sound like a real voice.

"W-why should I-I welcome you, Gandalf S-Stormcrow?" Theoden demanded, though it sounded as if he wasn't really sure what he was even saying. Beside him, Wormtongue smiled, and gave the king an approving nod.

"A just question, my liege," he said with a haughty smirk, rising from his seat and moving towards us down the stairs — one part wraith to one part snake.

Beside me, Aragorn's elbow nudged my arm again, a little harder than before.

"Be ready," he whispered, barely moving his lips. I glanced uneasily from the dais to the men in the shadows.

"For?" I whispered back.

'Sudden gratuitous violence, I expect,' Tink said bluntly.

"To defend yourself, however you may," Aragorn answered in soft but fierce tone, and I had to fight not to let a hysterical giggle escape my throat.

'I was really hoping neither of you were going to say that,' I groaned silently.

"Late is the hour in which this grey conjurer chooses to appear before us," Wormtongue drawled to the watching courtiers and guards, stalking towards us with that ugly sneer still plastered on his face. "Lath-spell I name him. Ill news is an ill guest."

The thin veneer of politeness melted from Gandalf's face, and he gave Wormtongue a glare that could have frozen vodka.

"Be silent! Keep your forked tongue behind your teeth. I have not passed through fire and death to exchange crooked words with a witless worm."

Wormtongue's sneer gained an even sharper edge, and for a moment he looked at if he was about to spit even more venom at us. His expression of snide confidence vanished like a puff of smoke though, the second he noticed the object Gandalf had begun to raise towards him.

"His staff!" the slimy man all but squeaked, backing up so quickly he nearly fell over the steps, and shouting at the men in the shadows. "Idiots! I told you to take the wizard's staff!"

And then, inevitably, the hall exploded into the impending obligatory tavern brawl. Because obviously we'd all been left in peace for far to long without being chucked head first into a good old-fashioned dust-up — sans weapons.

But hey, at least we weren't boxing Uruk-hai this time.

The half dozen dark-eyed men that had been shadowing us since we entered burst into the centre of the room from between the stunned courtiers and confused guards, and charged straight for us.

Boromir's arm and shoulder blurred so fast that I only saw it as movement, and the false guard who's tried to aim a blow at his face went flying backwards over a table. Another made the mistake of trying to lunge at Legolas from behind, and the Elf simply jerked his arm backwards in one sharp movement, barely looking, and caved the man's nose in with his elbow.

Unfortunately for us, the rest weren't quite so stupid.

'Heads up!' Tink shouted, pulling my attention to the left just in time to see one of the men making to grab me in a headlock. For once, I thanked God I was the height I was, because I ducked just in time for the man's hand to miss, skimming to the top of my head and almost losing his balance as I threw my weight into his side and shoved him away. Regaining my balance, I instinctively reached down for my hunting knife at my hip, only to remember with a shot of dread it wasn't there.

With a half frustrated, half panicked curse, I aimed one of Aragorn's wicked-fast tutored kicks at the man's unguarded stomach.

Or at least, I meant to hit him in the stomach.

He managed to stand up a little quicker than I'd expected, and my boot connected hard with an area a little lower and a tad more sensitive on a man than his belly. The man made a sound halfway between wheeze and a squeak, and he folded over onto the floor like a collapsed deck chair, clutching his nether regions in twitching agony.

'Or down. That works too,' Tink cackled manically, her glee mixing with my adrenaline in a bizarre and heady torrent.

Gimli let out a battle roar that would have scared the hair off any sane man, and I saw one of the fake guards go flying past into a pillar with a crash out of the corner of my eye.

"Theoden, son of Thengel, too long have you sat trapped in the shadows!" Gandalf was calling loudly, but quite calmly over the bangs and crashes of the fighting. Aragorn, Legolas and Boromir — all embroiled in their own respective punch-ups with multiple assailants — weren't allowing any of the attacking men to come within five feet of the approaching wizard. It was also in the short moment that I realised none of the real Rohan guards were helping or attacking us at all. In fact, I could see and wide-eyed Háma quite clearly holding the older guard who'd taken our weapons back by the arm, speaking quickly into his ear.

"Eleanor, behind—!" Aragorn's voice suddenly bellowed, and I realised I'd made one really, really stupid mid-fight mistake.

I'd stopped paying attention to my back.

One of the fake guards got behind me and I felt his breath on the back of my neck before I saw him. One of his arms looped around my middle, and the other snagged around my throat. His hip dug into the small of my back, and he pulled my head back sharply, cutting off my air. For a split second I panicked as the pressure on my throat and the lack of oxygen to my brain made my vision go dark, frantically kicking and thrashing against the hideously strong man behind me.

Then, as suddenly as the fear driven panic had come, it vanished into a strangely detached calm. I still couldn't breath, but it was as if I'd been able to put the part of my brain that had started running in unhelpfully frantic circles on mute, and I could think clearly again.

'Pinky!' Tink barked at me through the haze like a drill sergeant, and I instantly knew what she meant for me to do.

Clawing at my assailant's arm around my neck, I found his littlest finger and wrenched viciously it back until there was a loud popping sound right next to my ear. He howled out a cry of shock and sudden pain, and I twisted in his embrace, catching him in the jaw with my elbow. He released me instantly, staggering back as I staggered forward, sucking in blessed oxygen. He recovered surprisingly quickly from having his fingers broken, because I'd barely been able to take two breaths before he gave a snarl of rage, crawling his twisted hand, and lunged at me again with rage in his eyes.

Rage for rage, I guess.

My blurred vision went red around the edges and I snarled back in wheezy outrage right back at him. Without pausing to think, I reached back, seizing one of the biggest silver platter of fruit I could reach off the banquet table, and swung it with two hands over my head. Fruit flew, and the metal bounced off the man's skull with a loud gonging sound. The look of rage fell from his face, his eyes rolled back, and he dropped to the floor like a stone.

Sucking in rasping breaths through my sore throat, I stared down at him for a moment in shock, the platter still held loose in my hands.

Bloody hell, I didn't think I'd hit him that hard.

Still breathing a little hard, I looked up to find half the room — including, I was a little pleased to see, a rather impressed looking Aragorn and Legolas — were staring at me in shock. Every faux guard that had tried to jump us was now either lying unconscious, or in too much pain to be a problem, and every courtier who wasn't staring at us was gawking at Gandalf and Theoden.

Wormtongue, who at some point had been knocked to the floor entirely, made a squeaking sound and tried to shuffle backwards away from us on his butt. He didn't get far before Gimli stomped over and very calmly planted one of his big boots on the man's chest.

"I would stay still if I were you, lad," he said with an eery little smile.

"Harken to me!" Gandalf's voice rang through the room again. He was barely five steps from Theoden now, his hand raised palm up towards the old king. "I release you from this spell."

A gentle, shifting sensation rolled through the room, like the pull and push of the tide when you stood waist deep in the sea. I felt that power wash over me in a wave of gentle warmth, seeming to relax every muscle and ease every ache in my body for a moment, from the top of my head to the ends of my fingers. Out of my peripherals I spotted Aragorn and Legolas both experience similar reactions, their tense forms easing very slightly as the entire room stilled…

And then Theoden started laughing.

His old body wheezed and shook in cackling, mocking guffaws, and it was by far the most unsettling laugh I'd ever heard in my life — because I realised after a moment of horror that it wasn't just Theoden laughing.

One part of the old man's voice still sounded like his own; croaky and dry. But overlaying that was another voice; far silkier, and elegant, and poisonous as frozen arsenic.

Saruman's voice, I realised.

Superimposed over Theoden's like a blanket of viscous oil over water.

"You have no power here, Gandalf the Grey," that chilling voice chuckled confidently, somehow managing to twist the old king's crinkled face into an unnatural, triumphant looking sneer.

Gandalf regarded the possessed king with a long look that mixed disappointment with resolve. Very slowly, he lowered his hand back to his side, closed his eyes, and then very calmly allowed the concealing grey blanket to fall from around his shoulder.

Ok now, I remembered Gandalf's new white regalia being pretty spectacular the first time I'd seen them — but I can't say I remembered them blaring with near-blinding light, and accompanied by a surge of far less gentle power that all but set my teeth on edge with static. There were CGI washing detergent ads and thunder storms that despaired at not being as flawlessly flashy or impressive as Gandalf was in that moment.

Theoden's spooky two-tone laugh was cut abruptly short as he was thrown back against the back of his chair with a sharp cry of shock, milky eyes gone wide.

"I will draw you, Saruman, as poison is drawn from a wound," Gandalf stated loudly with calm certainty, another roll of that static-charged power billowing out through the room as he aimed his staff directly at Theoden's chest.

The king — barely recovered from the first barrage of invisible force — was once again hurled back against his throne like a butterfly in a hurricane. Even from ten feet away I could feel the fallout of that power building like an impossible, near-painful pressure against my own mind. I could only imagine what it must have felt like to be in the full blast range of that power.

Theoden gave another harsh shout of defiance in that ugly double voice, more Saruman's than Theoden's this time.

"Uncle!" a female voice suddenly screamed from the side of the room.

I whirled to see a woman about my age with long, dusty-blonde hair and a fine, white gown shoving her way frantically through the courtiers and guard. An expression of horror mixed with outrage marred her otherwise beautiful face as she charged at Gandalf — but Aragorn seized her by the upper arm at the last step, stopping her just in time.

"Wait," he said, gently enough to quell the fury in her eyes as she whirled on him, though the horror and fear at what was happening remained.

Theoden's arthritic body twisted in his seat in a bizarrely spider-like motion, a venomous glare aimed at Gandalf that I was sure was not really his own.

"If I go, Theoden dies," Saruman snarled through the king's mouth.

Gandalf responded with chilling calmness by thrusting the end of his staff in another blast of invisible power at Theoden, wiping the unnatural look from his face as he was flattened back against the throne.

"You did not kill me, you will not kill him."

The blonde woman who had called Theoden her uncle made a sound halfway between a snarl and a sob, but she didn't struggle against Aragorn who was still holding her gently back from the dais.

"Rohan is mine!" Saruman shouted through Theoden's body in a strangled, high voice that was almost painful to hear.

Or maybe that was the strange pressure I could still feel still building up in my head with the power in the room, making my ears ring, my eyes sting, and my head throb…

I saw Gandalf's face fall ever so slightly at the sight of Theoden still writhing under Saruman's control, barely enough to see unless you knew to look for the shadows under his eyes deepening. But Theoden saw it, and there was no way I could believe the look of triumph that twisted his old withered face could have truly belonged to him. The old king gave one last painfully high pitched howl of challenge, throwing himself forwards out of his chair at the wizard. Gandalf's staff came up again, and another blast of power, stronger than any of the previous ones, blasted through the room, throwing Theoden back into his thrown.

That painful pressure in my head suddenly surged again, and although I didn't quite cry out, I felt my mouth open in a silent gasp and my hand lurch up to clutch my temples — the pain behind my eyes continuing to build, and build…

Until finally, I felt something snap deep inside.

I think my eyes must have rolled back, because the room suddenly went dark, and I was suddenly spinning through a torrent of shadowy figures and haunting, far-off sounds. I lost all sense of which way was up or down, and for a few seconds, all I could heard was the roar of my own blood in my ears. Then, before I could even try to think through the panic of what was happening to me, or why, I heard something else echoing up through the sound of my own heartbeat…

Music. That same hauntingly familiar, wordless song I'd heard only a day before in the depths of Fangorn forest.

Only this time, it wasn't wordless.

"Hush little one, fear not the night.

I'll still be here come morning's light…"

My stomach lurched at what I realised was hearing. What I was recognising in those words — still sung by that strange, echoey, woman's voice — even if I couldn't quite remember the words themselves…

"Hear not the drums that beat they're coming.

Feel not the heartbeats all a thrumming."

Pain spiked through my head again in lancing waves, but I forcefully shoved them back, trying desperately to hear the words of the song echoing around the inside of my mind more clearly. Trying to make myself remember where the hell I recognised them from…

"Tis not for you to fear or cry,

To see the Lady with—"

Something warm and strong suddenly grasped me by the shoulder, I was abruptly pulled right side up again. My eyes rolled and came painfully back into focus of the world around me again, and the sudden vertigo made the floor tilt so violently that I almost toppled over. It was only when the world stopped rocking that I realised I'd staggered sideways against the banquet table, barely managing to keep myself propped upright on two violently trembling legs, one hand braced against the wooden surface, and…

And my nose was bleeding.

Not a whole lot, just a little trickle that I easily wiped away, and the same throbbing pain in my head I'd had the other night was back again — a dull pulsing ache behind my eyes.

A familiar, strong hand holding me firmly but gently up by my upper arm. Legolas' hand to be precise.

"Eleanor?" he made my name into a question, and I waved him off with a slightly stiff smile of reassurance — not wanting to show exactly how much what had just happened had really affected me.

"I'm alright, just dizzy," I answered truthfully, wiping my nose on the remains of my ruined sleeve, mercifully able to keep my words from slurring together despite how much they wanted to.

Legolas released his hold on my arm when he was sure I wasn't about to fall over, but his hand remained resting gently on my shoulder just in case.

Up on the dais — once I had finally managed to focus my eyes again — I saw something had started to happen to Theoden in the wake of Gandalf's powerful display. The wizened old man had gone boneless with seeming exhaustion on his throne, and as Gandalf stepped away, looking fairly exhausted himself, the king began to teeter forwards.

The blonde woman wrenched herself out of Aragorn's grasp, and caught her uncle before he could fall to the stone floor. Her lovely face was drawn with pain and fear as she helped him straighten again, and as he did, we all saw the repentants of whatever spell Saruman had held over him slowly ebbing away like sunlight through fog.

He seemed to grow taller in that seat, his hunched spine straightening, his shoulders straightening with renewed strength. His paper-like skin evened out, a healthy sun-graced tone replacing the sallow paleness, and his milky eyes grew clear and bright as a summer sky as he looked around at us all in shock. Within the space of a few moments, he wasn't a shrivelled husk of an old man anymore. Whatever had been done to him by Saruman, it had all but disappeared. All that was left were several thick streaks of silver-white at the temples of his dark gold mane, and for some reason, I was certain they had not been there before Saruman had invaded his mind.

When we had first entered, the old man on the throne of Rohan had looked on the verge of a death. The warrior king who stared around at us with sharp, intelligent blue eyes barely looked a day over forty-five.

Those eyes fell on the young woman at his side, still holding him upright and close to tears with relief, and his confused expression melted into warm recognition.

"I know your face…" he said quietly, with the tone of a father seeing his child for the first time in years. He lifted a slightly trembling hand to cup her face, and his own broke into a bright, beaming smile. "Eowyn."

Eowyn let out a sob of unapologetic joy, leaning into her uncle's touch and covering his battle scarred hand with hers as she cried.

"Breathe the free air again, my friend," Gandalf spoke with equal parts warmth and satisfaction, though he sounded weary, leaning heavily on his staff. Theoden looked up at the wizard and then around at the rest of us and the court, as if he'd completely forgotten we were all there.

His eyes landed on the five of us unfamiliar faces, lingering on me with a puzzled raise of an eyebrow — and it took me a moment to realise I was standing there in a half ruined, filthy tunic, with blood smeared on my face, still holding the big silver platter I'd used to brain one of his imposter guards with.

I cleared my throat a bit awkwardly, sheepishly setting the platter back on the fruit covered table as Eowyn helped Theoden get properly to his feet.

Now at his full and rather impressive height, he regarded us all before him — courtiers, guards, wizards, and weirdos — with a pensive expression, as if trying to remember how exactly we all came to be standing there before him. He looked down at his hands, so much younger than they'd been before, yes still heavy with the lines and scars of an eventful and adventurous life.

"Dark have been my dreams of late," he murmured absently, though it was loud enough for us all to hear him.

"Your fingers may remember their old strength better if they grasped your sword," Gandalf suggested, and as if he had been only waiting for the opportunity, Háma emerged from the surrounding spectators holding a fine looking sword held in an ornate, but well worn scabbard. The hilt of the sword had been crafted to resemble two elegantly rearing war horses, their backs to the blade. Theoden reached a steadily strengthening hand out towards the sword, and the second his fingers brushed and gripped the worn leather of the grip, his eyes lit with the shadows and light of years worth of memories. His face fell slightly, then hardened, a tiny, strong smile crinkled the corners of his eyes as he drew the blade from its resting place.

Háma's face split into a beaming grin that he and the rest of the watching guards could barely managed to keep to formal levels at the sight of their renewed king. But the look on Eowyn's face outshone them all — as bright as a star, her eyes filled with tears and fierce joy as she beamed at her uncle.

I couldn't help it, I found myself grinning too. And when I glanced to my left, I caught Aragorn, Legolas, and even Boromir doing the same at the sight.

Theoden raised the blade up to the vertical, and caught Eowyn's gaze as he observed the edge. He smiled at her warmly once again, but the expression withered and vanished like flowers under frost as he looked past her…

Straight to where Gimli was still keeping a truly petrified looking Wormtongue pinned to the floor beneath his boot.

If I hadn't been well and truly a part of the crew that had kicked the crap out of the real imposters on his hall of warriors, the look king Theoden sent his ex-advisor would have sent me running for the hills.

He didn't look anything close to a weak, dying, suggestible old man anymore.

He looked like a furious bear standing over the body of one of his cubs.

"Out!" The king of Rohan growled, low and dangerous as an approaching earthquake. "I will not sully the halls of my forefathers with his filthy blood!"

Legolas pulled me quickly backwards with him, almost falling straight into him as several very eager guards — including Háma and my apparent young admirer — surged past us straight for Wormtongue.

To say they threw him out of the halls of Meduseld really doesn't do the guards of Edoras as a whole the justice they deserve. Five of the burly mortal men picked up the frantically kicking and shrieking servant of Saruman by the arms, legs, and scruff of the neck, and bodily tossed him from the room like a bale of hay. The slimy little man flew straight out the double doors onto the stone patio where we'd been divested of our weapons. He tumble once, bounced twice, got tangled in his ostentatious advisor's robes on the edge of the steps, and went sprawling backwards down them into a painful heap.

Theoden strode out after him and down the stone steps with as much strength and purpose as he could muster on his weakened frame, still gripping his sword with white knuckled rage. The rest of us quickly followed out to find everyone on the street outside frozen in shock and awe at the sight.

"I've only ever served you, my lord!" Wormtongue was pleading frantically, crawling backwards away from the furious king on his backside and hands, eyes wide with fear. There was blood dribbling down his chin from where his lip had split open.

Theoden might have still been weak from his whole possessed-by-an-evil-sorcerer ordeal, but he still looked more than capable and willing to use that sword in his hand on the terrified, greasy man at his feet as he advanced.

"You and your leechcraft would have had me crawling on all fours like a beast!" he snarled, and the look on his face was enough to drain the blood from both Wormtongue's face and chill mine. After seeing what the little bastard had done to the king and his house, I didn't object to seeing him punished for it.

But punishment and butchering were two very different things, and the look in Theoden's eyes spoke loud and clear as to which he was leaning towards.

"Mercy, my lord! Send me not from your sight!" Wormtongue was still howling, but Theoden wasn't listening.

The renewed king of Rohan swung his sword up over his head with two hands and a roar of fury. Wormtongue screamed. I heard an involuntary gasp fly up my throat, one hand instinctively coming up cover my mouth, and the other instinctively gripping the arm of the person beside me tight as the blade came down.

Aragorn lunged down the steps so fast I almost thought he'd fallen down them too, his hands flying out to latch around Theoden's, and pulling the sword to the side at the last second. The blade missed Wormtongue's sobbing face by barely an inch, and Theoden bellowed in fury, trying to wrench the blade back up for another swing.

"No, my lord!" Aragorn shouted, managing to overpower the enraged king just enough to stop him again. "Let him go. Enough blood has been spilt on his account."

Theoden looked for a moment as if he was contemplating the merits of taking Aragorn's head off his shoulders along with his ex-advisors. The enraged king of Rohan met the ranger's gaze — stone for stone — and slowly, hesitantly, his anger began to dissipate.

Exhaustion crept back into his face and body again, and he relented reluctantly, dropping his blade arm heavily to his side again as his shoulders slumped with tiredness. You could almost hear the collective exhale of mixed relief and disappointment from all those watching — me and whoever's arm I was gripping included. I glanced sideways to find it was Legolas' left wrist I'd grasped. And though he still watched Theoden and Aragorn with sharp blue-grey eyes, I felt him watching at me too — warm fingers coming up and linking suddenly with mine, giving a gentle squeeze of reassurance.

Below us on the steps, Theoden took one last venomous look down at his traitorous ex-advisor, then very deliberately turned away.

No one, I think, was more surprised by that reaction than Wormtongue, because for a moment, he barely noticed Aragorn stoically reach out and offer him a hand up from the ground. The pale man drew his baffled, shell-shocked gaze from his king to look at Aragorn, and his outstretched hand…

His pasty, pinched face twisted instantly into a poisonous sneer up at my friend, and then he leaned forward, and spat blood and spit straight into Aragorn's upturned hand.

Aragorn reacted with far more dignity than I would have. He pulled a disgusted face, and retracted his hand, but did nothing more. He just watched as Wormtongue scurried backwards away in the dirt, clambered to his feet, and fled through the gathered crowd, shoving people violently out of his way as he went.

Outrage boiled up in me as I watched the cowardly git flee — but I was more than a little surprised to feel not all of it coming entirely from me.

'That little bastard!' Tink ranted furiously from the back of my head. 'That evil, conniving, poisonous little wanke—!'

"All hail, Theoden King!" one of the guards shouted, cutting Tink's tirade of obscenities off suddenly.

The awed crowed and triumphant guards who were all still watching took a moment to react, but when they did, there wasn't a single person — man, woman, or child — who didn't dip to one knee and bow their head in submission. Even Aragorn did the same, and the rest of us all inclined our heads in solemn respect as the king turned back to face us all.

The anger was gone entirely now, and his weather-worn face had taken on a look of confusion.

Confusion and quiet dread.

"Where is Theodred?" I heard him ask, so softly, so silently that I was sure Legolas, Aragorn, and I were the only ones who had heard him. He looked up around at the blank faces of his courtiers and guards, and raised his voice just enough so everyone could hear.

"Where is my son?"

Chapter Text

Funerals are awful.

The last one I’d been to had been my grandfather’s, when I’d been barely twenty. He’d been someone whom I’d grown up knowing all through my childhood, loved, and still felt the loss of even now, years after he was gone.

I hadn’t known prince Theodred.

I hadn’t known what he was like — whether he was kind or cruel, funny or boring. I hadn’t known what his smile looked like, or what his laugh sounded like. I wouldn’t have even known what his face looked like, if his body hadn’t been laid out at the head of the burial precession before us.

Not that his face now was any real representation of the man he had been during life. The body of the king’s son was bloodlessly pale, but strangely peaceful in death, adorned in his full battle regalia, and being carried on a raised litter by six men of the court. Men who, from the expressions on their faces, I realised had to have been his close friends. His own sword — a less ornate, but equally well loved version of his father’s — had been clasped to his chest along with a small posey of white alfirin* flowers.

I hadn’t known him at all.

And yet, it was still a painful sight to watch: that empty shell that had once been a man, being carried and committed to the earth by a people who had so obviously loved him.

Behind him, moving as if drifting through a dream, walked Theoden. He was also garbed in his formal regalia, and while he did look ten times more the strong and capable king than he had that morning, the blank look in his eyes made him seem brittle somehow — as if he might simply shatter if struck at the wrong angle.

Flanking him were a stone-faced Gandalf, Aragorn, and Boromir, keeping a respectful but supporting distance behind the king as he and his guards walked towards us. Legolas and Gimli — both of them obviously unfamiliar with the customs of a mortal funeral, let alone a royal one  — had chosen to stand aside with the crowds of people congregated around the path to the city’s burial mounds, heads dipped respectfully as they watched. I stood just a few feet away from them at the mouth of the tomb that had been prepared for the fallen prince, surrounded by a dozen quietly weeping women of the court.

With very little time to make ourselves presentable in the chaos following the king’s return to his senses, I had been given a simple black and grey gown with tight sleeves and a modest neckline to wear in lieu of my shredded tunic and filthy riding greens. I had also scrubbed as much of the dirt off my face as I could in a bowl of cold water, and pulled my mostly de-tangled hair back into a loose braid that hung over the sides of my face and halfway down my back. Still, I couldn’t help but feel disrespectfully unpolished standing there among the mourning women, trying to keep my expression sombre and to avoid meeting anyone’s eyes.

Beside and a little in front of me, Eowyn also wore black, her golden hair pulled up under a dark grey veil and thin gold diadem, and she looked as if she was fighting to stay upright as her cousin’s body was carried into view. Her face was rigidly stoic, fists clenched at her sides, but I was standing just close enough to hear her shuddering intake of breath, and see her eyes dampen at the corners.

She took several deep, deliberate breaths, her expression unchanging until she’d quieted the buried sobs. Then she began to sing with an equally strong and beautiful voice, in a language that I couldn’t understand, and yet was left with no doubts as to the meaning. 

“Bealocwealm hafadh freone frecan forth onsended

Giedd sculon singan gleomenn sorgiende on Meduselde

Thaet he ma no waere his dryhtne dyrest

And maga deorost, bealo…” **

After a while I couldn’t keep listening without risking my composure dissolving completely, so I did my best to tune out the sound of the other woman’s pain into background noise. How she managed to sing so beautifully while forcing herself not to cry, I’d likely never know. I’m not even sure I wanted to know, either. I tried for a moment to imagine what it must feel like for her, to be expected to hold a straight face in front of all those people, all while someone you loved like a brother was being put into the ground…

Then, I imagined how it might have felt if it was my own gangly little brother, Theo — with his goofy smile, snarky wit, and endless sci-fi trivia — being lowered into a cold grave.

My eyes stung, and I quickly shut them before anyone could see.

When it was all mercifully over and the crowd began to retreat back into the city, we all made our way back up towards the hall of Meduseld, leaving the king to mourn alone before his son’s grave in peace.

I drifted behind the other women in a numb daze, the memory of Eowyn’s haunting song still echoing around the inside of my head. I was so far gone into my own thoughts, I didn’t even hear Aragorn coming up behind me until his hand was on my shoulder. My funeral-face must have been worse than I’d thought, because his own expression softened when he met my eye.

“Are you alright?” he asked gently.

I opened my mouth to say I was fine, but the words wouldn’t come, so I quickly shut it, automatically reaching up to rub at my still aching neck. The half-healed bruises left on my throat by the Uruk-hai had begun to feel tender again after the dust-up in the throne room, and I’d had to suppress the urge to touch them all through the ceremony.

“Yes, I just… I just really hate funerals,” I managed to say after a moment, forcing myself to not think about the hurricane of emotional pain we’d all just had to sit through stone-faced.

“I cannot imagine anyone who would enjoy them,” Boromir murmured quietly, looking more tired than anything else as he came up beside us.

“That slimy little imp of an advisor we allowed free, perhaps?” Gimli, who was also looking a bit washed out by the proceedings, suggested. Boromir grunted in agreement, and Legolas nodded with a faintly pained look at Aragorn.

“I cannot help but feel the decision to turn him loose may return to bite us later,” he commented dryly. Aragorn gave the Elf a stern glare.

“His life was not worth sacrificing our integrity for,” he said plainly.

Gimli snorted indelicately in answer, folding his arms over his barrel chest. “I still say you should have at least let the slippery little bastard get battered up a bit before sending him running.”

“Seconded,” I said at the same time Boromir growled, “Agreed.”

We glanced sideways at each other, and I could have sworn I saw the ghost of a smile twitch at the corner or his mouth, before it disappeared back into a frown. Aragorn just gave us all a flat look that said this was not a decision that had been or would be up for debate. I heaved a heavy sigh, my shoulders slumping as I ran a hand from my bruised neck down over my braid, which had come loose in the wind.

“I need a drink,” I heard myself groan before I could think better of it. To my surprise Gimli beamed at me, his worry lines vanishing instantly.

“Now that sounds like a fine plan.”

Then my stomach let out an insistent growl that sounded embarrassingly like a car engine turning over.

“And some food as well, if my ears do not fool me,” Legolas added with a wry, sideways smile at me, and I did not flush with embarrassment — not even a little.

“Come on, lass, let’s find us all something to eat. Hopefully, they’ll have something beyond the swill most Men call drink stashed away somewhere,” Gimli grinned at me through his beard. Then, he strode off with determined purpose towards the kitchens of the house where no doubt the staff were already preparing the wake feast.

I hadn’t actually meant alcohol when I’d said the word drink, but now that I thought about it, I hadn’t had a good glass of wine in months. Though I suspected even lukewarm, swill-like ale would taste like heaven right now, provided there was a hot meal to wash it down. Aragorn gave me a halfheartedly disapproving look out of the corner of his eye, but I smiled dryly up at him, promised to bring them all back something too, and trotted off to catch up with Gimli.

When it comes to food and good drink, I swear, Dwarves must have some kind of inbuilt radar. We found the Meduseld kitchens in less than five minutes, despite having been shown only the throne room a few hours before. The smell of fresh bread and cooking meats hit me like a wave as Gimli shouldered open the back door to the kitchens and ushered me through. The cooking staff were already hard at work preparing for Theodred’s wake, and the room was filled with busy people and wonderfully delicious scents.

The matronly head chef with grey-streaked hair and flushed cheeks spotted us immediately and bustled over, demanding to know why we were clogging up the routine of her precisely organised domain. However, the second she heard my stomach growling over the noise and discovered via an unusually polite Gimli that we hadn’t been fed since we’d arrived, a look of scandal appeared on her face. She swept us away into the servant’s mess hall and piled a small feast of breads, salted meats, cheeses, and dried fruits in front of us with such speed, I was half convinced she’d been prepared for something like this in advance. A flagon of ale was quickly set in front of a very pleased Gimli, and a mug of watered down wine was given to me after the cook spotted my expression at the sight of the ale.

I could have kissed her for that.

“This looks wonderful, miss…” I trailed off as I took the carved mug from her, trying to ignore the sound of Gimli’s slurping on the other side of the table. She beamed warmly down at me, round cheeks red with pleasure and pride.

“Please, m’lady Elf, call me Ilda. And you’re most welcome.”

I smiled and nodded, resisting the urge to insist she not call me by my race as well as my apparent nobility. Instead I took a long, deep gulp of my watered wine. It tasted less sweet and more earthy than the stuff we’d been given in Lothlórien, but I wouldn’t have swapped it for the world. I took another deep swig, savouring the taste along with a large bite of sourdough bread and cheese, before glancing back through the doors into the busy kitchen. At least a dozen middle aged women and a few younger ones were flying about in all directions, seeming to pull copious amounts of food out of literally nowhere.

Maybe my brain was still a bit fuzzy with hunger and the aftermath of the funeral, but I couldn’t help but notice there wasn’t a single splash of red hair anywhere among the greys and blondes. I hadn’t seen the woman who looked so much like Katie since we’d entered the city, and Gandalf had hardly left the king’s side long enough to exchange monosyllables, let alone a secret conversation about potential parallel universes.

Ilda, still looking very pleased at our enthusiastic eating, was just about to turn and return to her busy domain when I gently caught her arm, deciding to take a risk.

“Ilda, can I ask you something?” I found myself saying, quietly enough that I hoped Gimli wouldn’t hear me over the sound of his own chewing. Ilda regarded me in surprise, but still smiled.

“Of course, m’lady.”

“You must know most of the people in Edoras right?”

“Aye, for the most part,” she confirmed.

“Do you know a girl a bit taller than me, early twenties, red hair, freckles, about eight months pregnant?”

She looked a bit confused as to where I was going with this for a second, but then the expression that crossed her face belied that she knew exactly who I was talking about. I didn’t release her arm when she tried to hide it, but forced my expression to soften.

“Who is she?” I asked a little more gently.

The look of recognition that had crossed her face shifted into an uneasy one, then a faintly sad one. She looked down, chewing the inside of her cheek before looking back to me. She’d just opened her mouth to answer when the door Gimli and I had entered through banged open.

“Bring the lad inside, quickly!” someone shouted, and I recognised the voice as Háma’s before I saw him. Two other familiar faces barrelled through the door. The first was the young guard who had sheepishly taken and then later returned mine and Aragorn’s weapons, his face pale as he held the door open. The second was the older guard who had done the same to Gimli, Boromir, and Legolas; only this time he wasn’t carrying blades and bows in his arms.

He was carrying a half-conscious, teenage boy who was bleeding from a gash in the side of his head.

Gimli and I were immediately out of our seats, the both of us knocking our chairs over backwards as Ilda’s jaw fell open.

“Suns and stars, Gamling! Háma! What in the Abyss have you brought into my kitchen?!” she squawked, looking stuck somewhere between scandalised and horrified as the four of them clambered inside.

“The infirmary is still full up, Ilda. And this isn’t the kitchen, it’s the mess,” Gamling answered with a calm that didn’t quite show in his grave face. He didn’t even look out of breath lifting the kid. “This boy just took a head first tumble off a seventeen hand gelding.”

Ilda’s hand went to her mouth in shock. I didn’t know much about horses beyond how to stay on one at high speed without getting chucked off, but I was guessing seventeen hands was pretty huge if the cut on the boy’s head was anything to go by. For all his insistence that he made a terrible nurse, Gimli reacted faster than any of us, sweeping the food and ale aside on the table in a business-like fashion and waving them over.

“Set the lad down here,” he instructed, and Gamling lifted the softly groaning boy onto the dining table. There was nothing else handy to support his bleeding head other than the dense loaf of bread we’d been given, so I wrapped it in a napkin and slipped it gingerly under his neck to elevate the wound.

“H-he said he was tired, then he j-just fell!” a small, quavering voice was trembling from behind Háma, and it wasn’t until I really looked that I realised the sound had come from a tiny girl clinging to his chainmail. She had the same sandy blonde hair as the boy, though she looked to be at least five years younger than him.

“Go fetch one of the healers,” Háma told the younger guard, pushing him back towards the door. Gamling shook his head.

“They’re all still seeing to survivors of Lord Theodred’s battalion.”

Without a second’s hesitation Gimli pointed straight at me.

“The lass is a healer. Let her look at him,” he said. All four of them turned to look straight at me with mixed expressions of surprise and scepticism.

“You are?”

Finally pulling my hunger-fogged head out of my ass, I straightened my spine and nodded.

“I am,” I answered, then turned to our hostess. “Ilda, could we have a bowl of water and a clean rag please?”

“O-of course,” she sputtered, turning and bustling back into the kitchens, shouting for rags and water. While all that was going on, I rolled up the sleeves of my dress and set to work inspecting the poor kid’s head. He looked less like he’d just taken a tumble off a horse and more like he’d gone three rounds in the ring with an angry wallaby. He was absolutely covered in bruises, sweat and dirt — but the deep cut on his head was definitely the worst injury of his collection.

“This is going to need stitches,” I stated, turning with a pleading look to my dwarf companion. “Gimli, could you get my medical pack?”

The words were barely out of my mouth before Gimli had turned and started marching towards the door with a wave over his shoulder. “Only for you, lass. I’ll be back.”

As Gimli vanished out the door, Háma turned to the still trembling girl sticking to Gamling’s side like a limit.

“Where did you ride from, girl?”

“W-wyndmere, in the Westfold,” she sobbed, a hand pressed to her dusty face, trying and failing to hold in the tears.

“That’s a three solid day journey from here,” the younger guard sputtered, apparently both shocked and impressed at their achievement. Three days straight riding flat out — no wonder they were both so bruised.

On the table, the boy began to stir fitfully, one foot in consciousness and the other apparently in a nightmare.

“I n-need to t-tell—” he slurred up at me as I gently held him down by the shoulders, “the k-king… need to…”

“The boy’s been mumbling nonsense since we found him and his sister outside the walls.” Háma explained while Gamling was helping me keep him still.

“You think he’s been possessed too? Like the king?” the younger one whispered in a voice he probably thought was too quiet for me to hear. The poor kid on the table gave another pained groan, and I resisted the urge to snap at the two wittering guards that they were the ones talking nonsense. Instead I gave them a sharp stare over my shoulder.

“He apparently just rode here on a horse twice his size for three days with his little sister riding shotgun. He’s exhausted, dehydrated, probably starving, and banged up from falling headfirst into the ground. Make yourselves useful and find him some drinking water, bandages, and something simple to eat before he falls unconscious again.”

Háma, Gamling and the younger guard all blinked at me in shock. They glanced at each other like extras in an unscripted play scene, but none of them moved.

Bloody male pride. I glared hard at them all, channeling a grouchy Lord Elrond.

“Sometime today would be nice.”

The younger guard actually flinched a bit and quickly retreated out the door to the kitchens, followed reluctantly by an irritated looking Hama and Gamling. I snorted once they were gone and went back to checking the boy’s head wound. Ilda came back in a moment later and set a bowl of steaming water, soap, and several clean cloths beside me on a bench. As I set to work cleaning the kid’s head, a pair of small dusty hands appeared on the table beside mine, and I looked over to find the little blonde girl who had come in after Gamling. She was looking down at the wounded boy with even more tears in her eyes, cutting little wet channels down her dusty face. Burying my annoyance at the three guardsmen, I gave her the gentlest smile I could manage.

“What’s your name, sweet-pea?” I asked. She looked at me and answered through a wobbly little hiccup.

“F-Freda.”

“Mine’s Eleanor,” I offered, then looked down at the boy lying half conscious on the table. “And his?”

“Eothain, m-my brother,” Freda sniffled, trying to wipe the tears off her cheeks, but only ended up leaving muddy streaks across her face. “Is h-he going to be alright?”

“He’s going to be fine. The cut isn’t too deep. Beyond that, he’s just tired and bruised, all easily fixable.” When Eothain’s wound was clean and Gimli still hadn’t come back with my medical kit, I dipped one of the other cloths in the warm soapy water and started gently cleaning the mud from Freda’s bruised face too. “You look like you’re pretty beat-up too under all this dust. Three days is a long way to ride for two of you on your own.”

Freda’s lower lip trembled again as she looked up at me, then she looked down and nodded, obviously trying to force herself not to cry. A big part of me desperately wanted to wrap her in a hug, tell her it was all going to be ok — but something told me that was the last thing she needed right now. She was trembling so much…

‘Too much for just exhaustion, boss.’ Tink’s voice drifted up from the depths of my head where she’d been strangely quiet. ‘Some of those bruises on the boy are too deep and in the wrong place for saddle sores.'

I frowned and glanced down at Eothain again, noting for the first time the bruises on his fists as well as the rest of him, and a thought struck me followed swiftly by dread.

“Freda,” I said carefully, “Eothain was mumbling something about speaking to the king. Do you know what was he talking about?”

Freda gave me another watery sniffly, and told me.

And my eyes widened as she did.

Chapter Text

“Uruk-hai raiding packs,” King Theoden repeated as if the words had knocked the wind out of him, and fell back against the seat of his throne. “Valar’s mercy.”

“They were unprepared, unarmed. They had no warning, and if these estimated numbers are even close to accurate, half the Westfold is probably in flames by now,” Háma added, then winced at his own words, glancing at where Freda and Eothain were sat at the centre table just a few feet away.

Upon hearing Freda’s tale of what had happened to their home village, Háma had wanted to take the two kids immediately up to the king to repeat their story. I had politely informed him that if he wanted to try and move either exhausted children before they’d had their wounds properly seen to, he’d have to incapacitate me first — with a sword. He’d been less than happy being spoken down to by a “wisp of a she-elf,” but much to Freda’s relief, Eothain had woken while I was tying off the last bandage. As soon as I was sure he was coherent enough to walk in a straight line, Háma and Gamling led us up to the much healthier looking throne room. Ilda had brought up some fresh food while they’d both relayed their story to the king, Gandalf, and the rest of us misfits, and the second the shell-shocked Theoden had heard their stomachs rumbling he’d bid them eat as much as they needed.

Kids after my own heart, they fell on the food like wolves on a carcass — but at Hama’s words they both looked up with wide, shaken brown eyes.

“All of the Westfold?” Eothain choked, his sixteen-year-old voice still a bit croaky from his ordeal, and being about halfway through puberty. “They couldn’t have really got that far, could they?”

“But Mama would have made it out in time, right?” Freda asked in a very small voice.

No one had the balls to answer her as she looked around from the king, to Gandalf, to the somber faces of Gimli, Legolas, Boromir and Aragorn further down the table, then finally to where I was sat helplessly opposite her at the table, unable to force my face to give her the lie she needed. She had told me and the king that they had seen what equated to a small army of Uruk-hai raiders swarming over the hills surrounding their village — and that as they’d fled on their father’s horse, leaving their mother behind so they would ride faster, they’d passed the burned remains of at least a dozen other towns along the way.

Freda’s face fell as she looked at me, and she stared back down at her food in utter defeat, her eyes turning misty again; never before had I wished to be good at lying so much in my life.

Eothain immediately reached across the table and grabbed his sister’s hand.

“She’ll be alright, Fre. She just sent us ahead on Garulf so we’d be safer. She’ll be fine, she’ll find us,” he whispered, but the look on his face said he couldn’t make himself believe those words either. No one mustered the nerve to say anything until Gimli cleared his throat.

“You listen to your brother, lass,” he said, gently patting Freda’s tiny shoulder with his battle-scarred hand, sitting down beside her. “Your Ma wanted to protect you two, and here you are. She’ll be glad knowing you’re safe now.”

Freda nodded numbly, still not looking up, and seemed to instinctively curl up against Gimli’s side without letting go of her brother’s hand. Gimli looked a bit surprised at the gesture from the little girl, but gave her an affectionate ruffle of the hair and nudged her to keep eating her bowl of stew.

“This is but a taste of the terror that Saruman will unleash. All the more potent, for he is driven now by fear of Sauron,” Gandalf spoke quietly to the king but it was hardly difficult to hear him in the quiet throne room. He didn’t sound angry as he gestured to the two distraught children, but he did sound firm. Theoden looked sideways at the wizard in unease, then rubbed his forehead as if trying to banish a migraine, his fingers brushing over the white left in his hair after Saruman’s puppeteering.

“What would you have me do, Gandalf? Weakened as we are thanks to Wormtongue’s interferences.”

“Ride out and meet him head on,” Gandalf answered immediately but more gently, leaning over and laying a hand on the king’s shoulder. “Draw him away from your women and children. If you wish to protect them from further harm, you must fight.”

The king grimaced. “With the numbers we have left here? We have barely a few hundred soldiers and guardsmen left.”

“You also have a company of two thousand good men riding north as we speak,” Aragorn spoke up for the first time since Freda and Eothain had told their story. Theoden glanced at where Aragorn and Boromir were both sat further down the table, along with Legolas standing somewhat rigidly beside them with his arms folded.

“Éomer?”

“He is still loyal to you,” Boromir said assuredly. “He and his men will gladly return and fight for their king.”

‘If they even have a way of getting a message to him in time,’ Tink voiced my own concern quietly.

At the same time something glimmered in the king’s eyes at Éomer’s name, but instead of the hope or relief I would have expected to see on his face, only pain and regret stuck there. He rose from his throne and began furiously pacing the dais.

“They will be three hundred leagues from here by now,” he muttered, running a hand through his white-streaked blonde hair. Eventually he came to a reluctant stop, his shoulders heavy with the weight of the situation. “Éomer cannot help us now. I know what it is that you want of me, Gandalf, but I cannot bring further death to my people. I will not risk open war.”

Now it was Gandalf’s turn to look defeated, but before he would open his mouth to argue, Aragorn’s voice cut through the silence like a hot knife through ice.

“Open war is upon you, whether you will risk it or not,” he said plainly, and despite the truth of the statement, I felt Tink and I both internally wince.

‘Tough love.’

‘Tough, but true,’ I answered. ‘If what Freda saw is anything close to accurate, this city is right in the path of a certifiable firestorm. No point sugarcoating it.’

Silence rang through the room, and for a moment I thought Theoden was going to attempt to burn Aragorn to cinders with his glare.

“When last I looked, Theoden, not Aragorn, was king of Rohan,” he growled, low and dangerous and daring anyone there to try and argue. No one did, and Aragorn didn’t flinch. He just looked at Theoden for a long moment, glanced very pointedly at the down-cast children, and then took a long drag on his pipe. Theoden still looked like he wanted to vent his frustration and grief on someone, but thank God Gandalf intervened.

“Then what is the king’s decision?” he asked. Theoden went still with thought before finally he turned to look hard Gandalf, and then at Háma, who waited patiently for his king’s command.

“Prepare the city for the march to Helm’s Deep,” Theoden ordered. “Tell the people to take only what we need. We must leave before sundown.”

“Yes, sire,” Háma bowed instantly, then hesitated, glancing towards us at the table. “And the children?”

“They will remain under the protection of my house, either until this ordeal has passed,” Theoden answered, heading toward the doors. He paused before exiting and glanced at Freda and Eothain pityingly over his shoulder. “Or until they are reunited with their mother.”

Beside me at the table, Eothain stiffened, the hand that wasn’t still holding his sister’s clenching as he stared bitterly down into his half-eaten bowl of stew. I’d thought the silence after Aragorn challenged Theoden had been heavy, but that had been light as goose feathers compared to what was left as the king and guard captain departed. I looked uneasily around at the others, each of them wearing varying looks of unease, incredulity, or simply dread — although Gimli had decided the best course of action was to just continue eating the second meal Ilda had brought up for us all. The only sounds to echo through the room were of him gnawing away on a roasted chicken leg.

Unable to stand the silence not even a deeply troubled looking Gandalf seemed willing to break, I forced a cough and looked around with a strained smile.

“Sooo, Helm’s Deep? Anyone care to fill me in on why we’re going there in particular?”

I knew from my increasingly foggy memories of the books that it was a sanctuary and the site of some kind of battle — at least I was reasonably sure that it was. But, as usual, the specifics of exactly why it was important were frustratingly vague in my mind, and trying to remember details without external prompts was like trying to trap a plume of smoke with just my hands. Lucky for me, Eothain seemed grateful for the distraction, and jumped on it before anyone else could so much as open their mouths get a word out.

“It’s the biggest and oldest stronghold in Rohan,” he explained, the bitter look in his eyes vanishing into what might be have enthusiasm on any other occasion. “It’s never been breached once since it was built. The Deeping Walls are as thick as three horses, and under the Keep there’s a maze of caves with walls that glitter if you shine a light on them. Da used to say there…”

He trailed off with a sudden pained look at his sister, who was still staring blankly down at the remains of her rabbit stew. It didn’t take a genius to figure out from his tone and Freda’s face that their father was sadly no longer in the picture in the most permanent way possible. And now, thanks to Saruman and his minion Wormtongue, perhaps now there was a good chance their mother had gone the same way, too.

‘God, it’s never the ones that actually fight the wars who suffer most, is it?’

Tink didn’t answer me because she didn’t need to. I could feel her torrent of outrage and pity for the two children tangled up with my own. I didn’t dare try and ease the silence a second time for fear of putting my foot in my mouth again, but thankfully I didn’t need to because Gimli did it instead.

“Pile some more onto those plates, wee ones. The pair of you could do with more meat on your bones,” he insisted jovially, dumping another helping of stew and bread into each of their bowls before helping himself to another chicken leg and looking at Eothain. “Your head feeling any better now, lad?”

Eothain looked a bit startled, but nodded vigorously.

“Yes, a lot better. Well, enough to help defending the march to Helm’s Deep too if I can…” he seemed to realise what he was saying a second later and glanced around at all of us watching him with a faintly self conscious look. “We saw them burning down our home. I want to be able to do more than sit around being coddled like a child. I still have my Da’s blade and I—”

“You’ve got four sutures in your head, boy,” Boromir interrupted him bluntly around his pipe. “And a lump on your crown that would knock off a helmet.”

Aragorn gave an agreeing nod, but at least he tried to offer the kid a sympathetic little smile as well. “Rest and get your strength back before anything else. You’ll be no good for protecting your sister or the march to Helm’s Deep if you collapse from exhaustion again.”

Eothain looked as if he wanted to argue, but Freda’s small hand found its way across the table again and clutched at his.

“Eothain…” she whispered pleadingly, and his expression faltered as he looked at his sister. There weren’t any tears in her eyes now, but she still looked like she desperately needed a hug, and a big brother to hold her hand. Taking one last look round at a still serious-faced Aragorn and Boromir, he shook his head and forced a weak smile at Freda, returning the gesture and giving her hand a comforting squeeze. Satisfied that Eothain’s delusions of revenge were averted, Aragorn stood and extinguished his pipe.

“Don’t take too long to finish; we will also need to prepare to leave before too long,” he said, and strode past us toward where Gandalf was still so deep in thought, I wasn’t sure he was even aware we were still there. At the same time, Legolas decided to drift over and join us mere mortals closer to the food, and I couldn’t help but smile as I saw Freda’s eyes go a bit wide and her face go a bit pink as she looked up at him. Legolas was probably the closest thing I had to a best friend in this world by now, but he was still by far one of the most beautiful men I’d ever seen — and I’d spent two years living in Rivendell with Glorfindel. Poor Freda looked nothing short of star struck at just being that close to him, but he just smiled kindly at her and pointed at me.

“Eleanor is a good story teller. If you ask, you might persuade her to tell you one while you finish eating,” he suggested.

I narrowed my eyes at him, but he just kept on smiling at me, innocent as a kitten.

“Aye!” Gimli agreed heartily through a mouthful, waving the chicken leg he was eating at me in an encompassing gesture. “Tell them the one you told us that first night we camped on the river bank. The one with the brother and sister, the witch, and the breadcrumbs.”

I gave them both a glare of indignation, but one look at the curious expressions of the kids had me sighing in defeat.

“I’m not sure Hänsel & Gretel would be entirely appropriate, all things considered,” I answered awkwardly, running a hand over my braid again as I thought. It took a moment, but finally a smile broke over my face as an idea struck. “I do have another one I’ve been saving, though.”

And so I told them the story of Mulan, the girl who secretly went to war in her father’s place.

Thanks to my dad’s travels around Asia when I was still a kid, I was already familiar with the original, less cuddly and more tragic story of Mulan. But for Eothain and Freda’s sake, I decided to stick entirely to the Disney version this time, and sweet Lord did it go down well. Eothain ate up every detail of the glory and excitement of training and battling the invading Huns, while Freda soaked in every word of Mulan hiding the fact that she was a girl and saving her handsome captain from being buried in an avalanche. The talking side-kick dragon got Gimli grumbling a bit, but no one else seemed to mind — especially when it came to the part involving soldiers cross-dressing as concubines to break into the Emperor’s palace. Eothain had snorted with laughter through a mouthful of bread, and Freda had covered her face to hide the scandalised smile. Finally, when I got to the end, after Mulan had accepted both the Emperors and the entire kingdom’s thanks, but had refused his offer of staying on as his advisor, they were both hanging on each word.

“Why did she do that?” Freda asked with wide eyes.

“Because she wanted to go home. That was the whole reason she joined the army in her father’s stead in the first place. So she would have a home and family to return to,” I explained, and despite my smile I felt the words cut into me, just a little. Eothain eased that feeling when he gave an amused little snort.

“Her Da must have been furious when she got back.”

I returned the wry grin and nodded.

“That’s what she thought. So as soon as she got home, she presented him with the Hun leader’s sword and the Emperor’s seal as a sign of their family’s restored honour, hoping he wouldn’t disown her for her disobedience.”

“What did he do?” Freda whispered.

“He dropped them.”

Freda and Eothain’s eyes widened in horror. “He dropped them?!”

I nodded sagely, trying hard not to grin.

“He dropped them, and hugged her so hard she thought her ribs might break,” I said, still smiling at them. “What Mulan never realised until she returned home was that honour wasn’t her father’s greatest treasure — it was her, his irreplaceable child. And despite all the honour, praise and riches she had earned from the Emperor in her family’s name, there was nothing more precious to him than having her return home to him safely.”

I have to admit, I’d been a bit worried that the mention of fathers and families at the end of the tale might have set the kids off mood-wise again, but to my relief I was met with smiles from them both. Freda looked as if she was in danger of tearing up a little, but her smile was warm and genuinely happy, and Eothain’s was too — if a little less watery. Gimli, who had only stopped eating to comment or cackle at the occasional battle I’d described, let loose a booming chuckle, leaning back on the bench opposite.

“One of these days you’re going to have to share with us where you get all these from,” he rumbled. I tried not to grimace at the pang of guilt that went through me. Instead, I pushed it down and forced a grin at him, popping the last of the rye bread in my mouth.

“Trade secrets, I’m afraid. I’ll take them to my grave.”

He and Eothain chucked, and I saw Legolas crack a little smile out of the corner of my eye. The heavy feeling of dread had lifted almost entirely, and the hall no longer felt uncomfortably silent as more and more of the Meduseld staff began gathering the essentials for the trip to Helm’s Deep. I’d peeked another glance at Aragorn and Gandalf who were still neck deep in a very serious looking conversation when a familiar warm hand I was becoming rather fond of appeared on my shoulder.

“We had best gather our things as well,” Legolas said, following my gaze to the debating Man and Wizard with an expression that said he didn’t want to interrupt them, either.

“Good idea, they might look up and see us actually smiling. Can’t have that,” I rose out of my chair, giving the two kids and the still feasting Gimli one last grin. “See you lot later.”

Gimli and Eothain both grunted through mouthfuls of food and Freda waved at us shyly as we left. As we passed a still very quiet Boromir, I tried to ignore the uncomfortable feeling of his eyes following us, but the second we were out of the throne room and into the vestibule the pressure was gone. I hadn’t even realised I’d been holding my breath until it came out in a long sigh of relief.

“It was getting rather tense in there,” Legolas commented, reading my mind.

“Right? I thought the air was going to turn solid,” I looked up as we walked through the surprisingly quiet halls towards our temporary quarters to see him smiling minutely to himself. “Nice moves with the story idea, highness. Though, you could have warned me, first.”

His smile only widened and he shrugged. “They looked like they were in need of it, adults included — and it seemed like it worked.”

“True,” I conceded with a sly grin, “But admit it, you just wanted to hear another story.”

He stopped walking so suddenly it took me a couple of steps to realise he wasn’t beside me. I stopped as well, near a half open window, and peered back to find him frowning slightly at me.

“Of course I did,” he said without a trace of sarcasm, his expression softening as he looked me straight in the eyes. “I was not gracing you with false praise for their sake. You are a fine story teller, and I enjoy listening to you.”

I don’t think he could have gotten a more stunned reaction from me if he’d sprouted antlers. I stepped up and pressed the back of my hand to his forehead. Normal pupils, no temperature, if a little pink around the ears.

“Are you sure you’re feeling alright?”

“I am,” his frown came back as he looked down at me, perplexed. “Why?”

“You’re actually complimenting me, on something non-survival dependant. It’s unsettling.”

“My complimenting you is unsettling?”

“It’s…” I was frowning too now, chewing my lower lip and trying to find the words. “It’s been a while since anyone paid me an honest compliment on something other than my ability to stitch people back together or run away from things trying to kill me very fast. You know, frivolous stuff.”

With a little sigh, I added sheepishly, “I guess I’m out of practice.”

Legolas’ frown vanished instantly into that wide, boyish grin that occasionally came out just to get the butterflies in my stomach all hot and flustered.

“Would you feel better if I lied and said you were terrible? That you should never tell another tale again, lest all fourteen of the Valar return to Arda to put a stop to your reign of torment on the ears of the Free Races?”

I burst out into a fit of bubbling laughter and it felt ludicrously good.

“It might,” I giggled, wiping tears from the corners of my eyes. “I’d still punch you in the gut for daring to say it, but it might make me feel a little better.”

His playful grin continued to warm me from the top of my head right down to my toes. He patted my shoulder in mock apology. “Sadly for you, I am not that good a liar. You will just have to live with the truth.”

“A bad liar huh?” I smirked. “Lucky me.”

His smile didn’t fade, but it softened around the edges as he looked down at me.

“I meant it, Eleanor.”

“I…” my auto-wiseass reflex went to say something smart, but the look of utter sincerity on his face stopped me. I swallowed and looked down, trying not to show just how happy the compliment made me. “Thank you.”

He didn’t answer, but I could feel his smile still on me like warm sunshine.

Or maybe the warmth was just me.

I was suddenly very aware of how empty the hallway was, and how close we were standing together, his hand still resting on my shoulder. I felt his fingers shift slightly, brushing against the still tender skin at the base of my neck, and I instinctively looked up. He was gazing down at me with a faintly hazy expression, as if lost somewhere deep in thought.

My hot and bothered butterflies came back with a vengeance.

‘Settle down girls,’ I told them all severely. ‘It’s not like he’s…’

Like he was what? Interested in me? Making a move on me? Trying to seduce me?

Just the idea made everything south of my chin suddenly churn in a mix of nervous excitement and a familiar rush of nerves that made my knees tremble. I knew full well I’d been deliberately putting off really thinking about us, and I knew I couldn’t keep it up forever. It had been the first time in a while when the mayhem around us had quietened enough for us to simply look at each other for more than a minute, let alone find a moment alone to truly stop and consider… whatever this was we had between us now. And I knew I’d been putting it off because the truth — well, the truth was, I was scared of looking at what it had grown into.

Since I had awoken from my second near-death experience, he’d been confusing as hell. One moment he would smile boyishly at me, appearing to all the world not a day older than I was. Then the next, his face would fall, the weight of centuries appearing behind his blue-grey eyes. And while part of me really hoped it was what I thought it was, another more damaged part of me half hoped it wasn’t — just so I wouldn’t have to risk baring that cracked side of my heart again.

I mentally kicked myself. Dammit, now I was the one getting lost in my own head.

“You are staring,” Legolas’ low voice brought me right back down to earth so fast I found myself blinking up at him stupidly.

I had indeed been staring at him, just like he’d been staring at me.

“Maybe I like the shape of your ears,” I blurted before I could even think about running it past my filters, and I immediately wanted nothing more than to just skin straight through the floor. But he just chuckled, low and genuine, and leaned down towards me very slightly with the kind of smile I wished I could keep there forever.

“Perhaps I like the shape of your ears.”

I found myself laughing along with him, though the sound came out a bit too breathlessly and a bit too close to a nervous giggle to be anything dignified.

God, what a pair of dorks we made.

His hand had slid further around the back of my shoulder, his fingers just close enough to brush the sensitive skin at the nape of my neck under my hair — a gesture that could have been accidental, but wasn’t. I tried not to shiver as I looked at him, trying to think clearly through my sudden, frustrating nerves.

If I was truly honest, I hadn’t really dared to consider the idea of becoming close to someone in a not-just-friendly way since I’d fallen out of reality and into this very dangerous fairy tale. I hadn’t even planned on being able to trust anyone in that way again for a good long while after what had happened between Mark and me. I knew full well — that disaster of a relationship was responsible for the bulk of my nerves, fears and doubts. Yet even now, two years later and an entire world away, I still couldn’t seem to completely escape it. Even though Legolas had proven multiple times that he was worthy of that trust; if only I was willing to try…

And like someone turning a light on inside a part of me that had stayed in the dark for a long time, I realised that I did want to try.

I was scared, nervous, and terrified enough for my legs to feel like pudding at the thought of making myself that vulnerable again; still, I wanted to see where that path might lead. I wanted to know if there was hope in whatever was growing between us. That maybe, if given the chance, it would flourish into the kind of thing I’d once hoped for. And if — no, when — someday I found the courage to tell him the whole truth from start to finish, everything that had happened back on Earth to make me the way I was now, I knew he wouldn’t use it against me. I could trust him.

“Eleanor,” I heard him ask, concern bleeding into his voice this time. “Please, tell me what is bothering you.”

My legs had finally stopped trembling but the rest of me had gone unusually still, none of my usual fidgeting or shifting from foot to foot, and he’d noticed. The list of what I was able to hide from him really was shrinking fast.

I looked up at him, taking in the details of his frustratingly handsome face — my stupid, smart-ass Prince Charming — and swallowed hard, trying to bury the storm of too many thoughts and doubts. I really did want it, did want him, I knew that now — but beyond our camaraderie and goodnatured banter, did he?

There was only one way to really find out, and thankfully there were no sentient cherry trees to interrupt this time.

He was still looking down at me, waiting patiently, unmoving and watchful as a statue. This close, I could count the tiny flecks of silver in his grey-blue eyes, and see the traces of uncertainty beginning to creep into the lines of his face. Yet still he waited, leaving those few inches of meagre space between us for me to do with whatever I chose. And for the first time since I’d woken in Arda, I truly cursed my abnormally small stature. He was over a head taller than me, and even looking straight down, our chests almost touching, his face so close to mine that I could feel his breath on my cheeks, I still couldn’t quite reach…

So before I could lose my nerve, without a word, I lifted my hand up through that space between us, my fingers touching painfully light to the side of his jaw. I saw the look in his eyes intensify as he realised what I was doing, what I meant to do. But instead of shock or distain, he leaned into that touch, my touch, gaze darkening to a devastating smoulder I didn’t know he had in him as he looked at me. I felt both our pulses begin to race as I slid my hand gently around the back his neck into his hair, warm and soft under my fingers. Our half closed eyes never wavered from each others as I rose up my toes, and gently pulled him down—

The sound of a door being thrown open was like a canon going off right next to my ear. Legolas and I sprang apart on pure instinct, both of us reaching for weapons that weren’t there, and whirling towards the noise with my heart thudding like I’d just run marathon. And there standing in the doorway to a second corridor not four feet away was my young guard “admirer” from earlier that day — and he was staring at us both with his eyes wide, his jaw hanging wider still.

I wanted to scream, or punch him, or sink through the floor, or possibly all three at the same time, and Legolas must have appeared the same, for when he spoke his voice was dark as a thunderstorm with repressed wrath.

“Yes?” he all but growled at the young guard, who now looked very much like he wanted to retreat back out the door he’d just crashed through and hide quietly under a rock. His face went from flushed to ghostly pale and he quickly bowed in apology.

“S-sorry to intrude, but your companion is asking for you. The ranger, I mean,” he babbled nervously, trying to cling to some kind of propriety through the desire to run from the duo of angry looking elves. “He said it was important he speak with you and the wizard.”

Legolas still sounded like he was one step short of biting the boy’s head off, and I almost felt sorry for him. Almost. Sweet and adorably awkward as he’d been that morning when he’d taken my weapons so carefully, I too couldn’t help but want to wring his skinny neck now.

“Where?” Legolas demanded.

“The king’s stables. Your horses are being tacked and prepared there.”

“Fine, we will be there momentarily,” he said curtly. The last word was barely out of Legolas’ mouth before the guard bowed again, and took off back the way he’d come, walking so fast I thought he might trip over his own boots in his haste to get away from us. When he was gone, Legolas let out a long, heavy sigh, rubbing at the back of his neck and closing his eyes.

“There is never a moment’s peace,” he muttered. I forced out an awkward, breathy little laugh and coiled my arms around myself, trying to calm my racing heartbeat down to a sensible pace.

“Not for this Fellowship there isn’t,” I said. I didn’t want to look at him — for fear my treacherous mind would start replaying the image of that heated gaze of his — but I made myself do it anyway with a smile. “Why don’t you go see what Aragorn and Gandalf need us for. I can deal with getting the last of our stuff together. I need to change back into my riding gear, anyway.”

He nodded, opening his eyes at last and looking down at me with an anaemic smile.

“Alright, I will find you out there,” he said, and I’d just turned to flee before my face could give away exactly how affected I’d been by what had almost just happened between us when his voice stopped me again. “Eleanor—”

I halted as if I’d walked into a brick wall and turned hesitantly to look at him. Just as I’d feared, the half pleased, half disappointed expression on his face sent my heart racing again, and I knew my face had probably gone red as a phone box.

“Yeah?”

He hesitated, looking uncharacteristically unsure of himself for a split second.

“If you are willing, I would very much like to continuing this… discussion at a later time.”

My butterflies started doing synchronised aerobatic manoeuvres of joy through my insides.

“I—” Oh, to hell with it, who was a kidding anyway? I let my face break into the shy smile and blush I’d been trying to hide under my mask of stoicism. “I’d like that.”

If his words hadn’t already sent me into a tailspin, the answering, blindingly bright smile on his face would have.

“Later, then?”

I returned the smile without a trace of sarcasm or self-consciousness, despite my butterflies now doing something akin to a Mexican wave.

“Later,” I whispered. Then, I turned and fled down the hall, my heart pounding so hard it almost hurt, but grinning like a moron all the way.

~ Ω ~

The quarters we had been assigned following the king’s healing-cum-exorcism were in the residential wing on the other side of Meduseld’s halls, and it took me a couple of wrong turns to find my way back to the room I’d used to wash and change for the funeral in.

When I did, I was a little surprised to find not only my clothes, weapons and gear had all been cleaned and set out neatly on the cot; the laundresses had obviously decided the green tunic I’d left Rivendell in was too shredded to be wearable anymore, because they’d left a loose linen shirt in its place, alongside a simple jerkin made of soft leather to wear over the top.

Silently thanking whoever it was up there watching over me, I stripped out of my funeral dress and began pulling on the clothes. The shirt was a little big and gaped across the chest, but once I’d laced up the jerkin and pulled it tight, it held everything secure and close to my figure. A little closer than I was used to, honestly, and as I turned to inspect myself in the small mirror on the washstand, I had to stop to stare.

I’d thought, after seeing myself in Lothlórien following my recovery, I couldn’t be surprised by my own reflection anymore. Yet, once again, I found myself surprised to see a familiar face and yet unfamiliar girl looking back at me through the glass.

I had a waist — a slim and very noticeably toned waist — under the snug jerkin. My shoulders looked a little stronger, my chin held a little higher, and the way I stood now was both steadier and more relaxed at the same time. So different to what I’d once been used to seeing in myself back in Rivendell; a naive young woman not quite fitting into the beautiful but dangerous world around her. Even my face looked less tense now, more self assured — at least under the surprised expression and lingering blush. I wasn’t any more or less beautiful or ugly, or anything as superfluous as that. But I guessed that everything we’d been through over the past few weeks — coming close to death, running for miles chasing kidnapped companions, wading through haunted forests, then riding a horse flat out for days across uneven terrain — must have been one hell of a transformer, both physically and mentally.

The last time I’d seen myself, I had been lean, but still wispy and breakable-looking. When I looked at my reflection now, I didn’t look like the delicate slip of a she-elf any longer. I looked strong, and capable, and vividly alive in my own skin — like I actually belonged out here there with the rest of my companions, warriors and wizards alike.

No wonder Eomer and the mortal guardsmen had all looked at me with such astonished curiosity.

‘Your butt looks pretty awesome too,’ Tink added with a smirk so wide I could hear it. ‘Just sayin’. That might have something to do with it.’

I snorted through a cackling laugh, grateful that she was still there to snap me out of my self-gawking before I turned into the evil queen from Snow White.

‘Sweet of you to say, Tink,’ I said silently in reply. ‘But a little biased, since it’s technically your butt, too.’

‘True, though I’m sure your pointy-eared admirer would support the observation, if you asked him,’ she said primly. My stomach did a nervous little backflip, and I knew she must have felt it too, because a dash of satisfaction crept into her tone. ‘You and his royal sassiness seem like you’re becoming pretty cosy.’

I tried not to notice how my cheeks darkened again in the mirror and went to splash some water on my face as a distraction.

‘You disapprove?’

Tink scoffed. ‘Oh stars, no! In fact, I’m kind of shocked it’s taken you two this long to wake up and smell the pheromones. The least you both could do now is get on with it and give the rest of us a good show.’

I sputtered through the water on my face, and didn’t need my reflection this time to know my face had escalated from pink to scarlet at those words. Never mind the idea of what she’d just implied with them.

‘Wow, I can’t even—hey, wait a second! Were you there the entire time?!’

Tink made an impatient tutting sound, but I knew her well enough to catch the evasive note in her voice.

‘Give me some credit, boss. I’m not that pushy. I was, I guess you could say, listening from another room…’

‘Tiiink,’ I said slowly. She folded.

‘… possibly with my ear pressed to the door.’

‘God you’re terrible! My guardian angel is a rabid shipper as well as a voyeur,’ I groaned, unable to hide my embarrassment but also relief that she wasn’t insisting that I was being an idiot and had bigger things to worry about. ‘So then, what is worrying you? You’ve been really quiet since we got here,’ I asked, drying my face with a small hand towel.

‘Been thinking, mostly.’

‘About?’

‘Aside from a certain yummy princeling and his very yummy smoulder?’ she asked cheerfully, but then sobered with an audible shrug. ‘Well, us actually.’

‘Us?’

‘Us, you and me, in relation to your other guardian angels, specifically. The ones on the outside of your head,’ she elaborated.

‘Ah,’ I said, pausing to consider what could have sparked off her train of thought, the last of my euphoric near-kiss high slipping away. ‘You’re thinking about what Gandalf suggested in Fangorn, right? About the others not knowing about you sharing my head?’ I guessed, and Tink made a sound vaguely reminiscent of a submarine’s alarm going off.

‘Direct hit, boss,’ she confirmed, though she sounded uneasy at the idea. ‘I only think about it because, well… hypothetically how do you think they’d react if you were to tell them?’

‘That I’m carrying around the disembodied spirit of a Maia around in my head with no clue how she got there?’ I thought about it for a moment, staring vacantly at myself through the mirror — the little ring of gold in my green eyes glinting back at me. ‘I don’t know Tink, I haven’t really considered it. Everything’s been so frantic the past few days, I’ve barely even thought about how to tell them, much less how they’d take it. Why? You think I should just come out and tell them now?’

She didn’t answer immediately, and I got the distinct impression that if she’d been standing in the room with me, she’d have been shifting from foot to foot in unease.

‘I think… I think they’re going to find out one way or another, and it would be better coming from you than from me, figuratively speaking. I also think that you should do it soon.’

‘Ok, but why now?’ I asked.

‘You’ve felt Boromir eyeballing the back of your head for days now, boss. You told Gandalf you thought he might have seen something that spooked him during the antacuile. I agree. I think he did see something, and it’s freaked him out so badly that he’s scared to come within six feet of you.’

A chill went down my spine at the idea. I’d always thought it might be a possibility, but hearing it straight from Tink it seemed to make it unsettlingly likely to be true.

‘You think he saw you when I was healing him? Like Frodo did when he used the Ring?’

‘Maybe. Look, all I’m saying is that I don’t think we’re going to be able to keep this secret forever. It’s getting… difficult to keep things separate and under control in here.’

The little chill that had rolled down my spine turned to ice, and I found myself standing up straighter, my expression in the mirror turning to one of instant alarm.

‘What do you mean? Tink, are you ok? What’s wrong?’

‘I’m fine, boss,’ she answered, and with little dash of surprise, I recognised the tone in her voice as guilt. ‘It’s you I’m worried about actually.’

I blinked. ‘Me? Why me?’

‘You remember what happened in the throne room? During the fight with the fake guards?’

I thought back for a minute, and at the same time realised I was still staring blankly at myself in the mirror. I shook my head, and just to give my hands something to do I pulled my loose braid out completely and began trying to comb the tangles out with my fingers.

‘I got ‘Hulk-smash’ levels of angry and scared, and knocked a man out cold with a fruit platter,’ I said, then paused. ‘Oh yeah, and my nose was bleeding. I must have got hit and didn’t realise.’

Tink’s uneasy shifting went up a notch, and I could feel it stirring up my own anxiety along with her own.

‘Yeah… only you didn’t get hit, boss. And it wasn’t just you who got angry and scared, then. It was me too. Angry enough to want to smash a man’s head in with strength you shouldn’t have had — and you almost did,’ she told me, her voice thick with both bone deep worry and a little dash of shame. ‘Boss, this is just a theory, but I think the more I feel your feelings, the more you end up using my power.. Ever since Amon Hen I’ve been feeling… more of what you do. Every time you feel something strong, unless I make an effort to block it out, it spills in. And I think mine is starting to spill over into you, too.’

I considered that, scary idea as it was.

‘And you getting angry and letting me use your strength made my nose bleed?’ I asked sceptically. It still sounded a little out there, even for us — but Tink persisted.

‘Mortal bodies aren’t designed to use the kind of power the Maiar wield, not even elf bodies. You’re too breakable physically and mentally to handle it for long.That’s why conjuring that fire with a creation word knocked you down so hard, and your nose started bleeding during that fight. You weren’t just using your own anger and strength and instincts, you were using mine too — and it hurt you.’

I reluctantly thought over not only the fight when I’d somehow used strength I didn’t have in my anger, and the moment back in Fangorn when Boromir had grabbed me and my eyesight had suddenly sharpened along with my fear. My guts went a bit cold. God, she was actually right. When I stopped chasing my tail and focused, I could actually feel it even now, her own anxiety and worry tangling with my own, our emotions building on each other until we both felt the effects — like sunlight concentrated through a magnifying glass.

‘So, what Gandalf was talking about when he said: “abilities who’s costs run deeper than you may realise.” You think this is what he meant?’ I asked finally, remembering my unhelpfully critical conversation with the wizard that morning. Had it really only been that long?

‘I think it’s a fair guess,’ Tink answered. ‘And maybe the reason he wants you to tell the others about me and you sooner rather than later.’

I found myself nodding, agreeing with her, but also grimacing at myself in the mirror. I’d been trying to imagine a good time in which I could tell the others the entire truth about me ever since I told the Hobbits. Not only about how I could casually bring up the topic of not only the semi-angelic being who’d been riding around Middle Earth with us for months, but also about me technically being from an entirely different universe. I wanted to tell them; I really did.

Still, every time I tried to picture a scenario in which I explained it all to them without them collectively agreeing that I was lying or off my rocker, I realised — I just couldn’t do it, even with Gandalf backing me up.

Giving up on my hair as a lost cause, I exhaled, long and heavy, slumping over the wash basin and resting my head against the mirror.

“Great,” I groaned aloud this time. “How in hell am I supposed to do this?”

‘If only I knew, boss,’ Tink said, audibly wincing, and I imagined if she could, she would be patting me on the back. ‘Sorry.’

I sighed, but smiled weakly.

‘It’s ok. I guess we’ll have the journey to Helm’s Deep to think long and hard about it. It’s not like we have to tell them right this second anyway.’

‘Yeah…’ she hesitated, then let out a nervous little giggle. ‘Though maybe when you do, you could leave out that bit where it was me who got us all attacked my a sea monster and then trapped under that mountain? Just a thought.’

I laughed out loud at that, though it came out a bit dry. Try as I might to put on a brave face, what she’d told me had left me more worried that I wanted to admit.

‘Agreed.’

Forcing my worry and anxiety down, I stood up and checked myself in the mirror one last time to make sure I was decent. It was the first time I’d let my hair down since Lothlórien, and even then, Merileth had usually insisted on constantly pulling it back in a tail or complicated braid so it wouldn’t get in the way when I trained. Now it fell almost to my mid-back, curling around my face and neck in messy waves, almost completely disguising the points of my ears. I might have changed from the neck down over the past few weeks, but for once in a very long time, with my ears hidden, I felt and looked almost like my old self again.

My human self.

My weak smile brightened just a little, and I turned away from the mirror towards my weapons on the bed, deciding to leave it down.

Just this once.

Five minutes later I was geared up, marching out a side entrance a guard had assured me would get me to the king’s stables quicker than any other route. I’d slung the last few bits and pieces of Aragorn’s and Gimli’s freshly cleaned armaments into a knapsack over my shoulder, and strapped my knives and medical pouches securely to my belt. My hunting knife in particular had been cleaned and polished until the clumsy words of the engraving stood out like brands against the light wood, and it felt good to have it resting against my hip again.

I stepped out of the king’s hall to find the city in frenzy of preparations. Most people were dashing about, gathering what little they deemed necessary for their own stay to Helm’s Deep, but there were also a few going out of their way to help others less capable than themselves. I spotted the young guard who’s head Legolas and I had nearly bitten off lifting a heavy sack onto a cart for an old woman.

I couldn’t help but smile as I headed past them towards where I assumed the guard had meant for me to go. He’d said the king’s stables would be easy to spot once I was close enough to hear the horses, but with all the other noise of the preparations going on it was all but impossible to hear anything distinctive.

It took yet another duo of wrong turns down some gaps between various homes for me to realise I had obviously gotten myself lost, again.

“Some sense of direction I have,” I grumbled, annoyed with myself. At least, the little sheltered alley behind the houses was a bit quieter. I listened for the sounds of Shadowfax or the other horses neighing, but there was nothing.

Just the uncomfortable feeling of the hair on my neck raising a bit, like there were unfamiliar eyes on me.

I shoved the sensation aside, hoisting the knapsack higher on my shoulder as I headed back towards the main square. I was just anxious about breaking the truth to the others, that was all. It would be difficult, but it needed to be done. If I expected them to trust me, the least I could do was to extend them the same courtesy.

I’d tell them the next chance I got, I promised myself. Once we were at Helm’s Deep maybe, or even before on the road, if I could get any of them alone for long enough. Or maybe even—

“A woman in a man’s breeches,” an unfamiliar, slurring voice came from behind me. “Now that’s something you don’t see every day.”

Chapter Text

I really wish I could say that over the past few months I’d become a little better at sensing when anyone — be they friend or foe — was attempting to sneak up behind me. Sadly, if I did, I’d have been lying through my teeth.

I part squeaked, part jumped out of my skin at the sudden voice behind me, and spun inelegantly to find myself looking down the alleyway at a man. He was probably only a couple of years older than me if I were to guess, and handsome enough to get himself into a lot of trouble if he’d come from my world. He was leaning a bit heavily against a wooden wall, and grinning like the cat who’d stolen the cream, the cow, and the milkmaid to boot. Looking a bit closer, I realised he must have been one of the surviving soldiers from Theodred’s company; he was dressed a bit haphazardly in the same uniform of the platoon I’d seen at the funeral, minus the chainmail and weapons.

Also — unlike his comrades — he’d apparently decided to numb the pain of his friend’s fall with booze instead of war preparations.

A lot of booze. Like, enough to float a small battleship. He was still clutching a mostly empty bottle, and I could smell the fumes from over eight feet away now that I was facing him. I hitched my bag a little higher on my shoulder, noting that my body had instantly gone taught as a wound spring without me even telling it to.

“I-I’m sorry?” my voice came out an octave higher than normal.

His grin widened into a leer.

“No need to be sorry, sweetlin’. They suit your… assets beautifully.”

A significant part of me wanted to snort-laugh at the truly terrible pun. But the rest of me — the sensible part — knew that nothing good could come of sticking around, and began urging me to burn rubber, now.

I tried to turn and move back the way I’d been headed, but suddenly found myself unable to move, like a deer caught in the beam of headlights. He took one lumbering step towards me, then another, eyes drifting non too subtly over the areas of my figure Tink had been praising not ten minutes ago, and a familiar feeling of dread I hadn’t experienced in a long time began pooling in my stomach.

Cornered, frozen, alcohol fumes, glassy eyes looking at me like I was a dessert on a plate…

I’d been here before.

‘Oh hell!’ Tink swore through the rising panic inside my head, and I knew immediately what she’d realised. With full access to my emotions and the deep memories driving them, she’d finally caught on to what was happening inside me, and she sounded genuinely scared now. ‘Boss, you need to get away from him! Run!’

A surge of adrenaline finally kicking in, I managed to take two tiny steps back towards the street beyond, but my knees had started to shake, and I was suddenly irrationally terrified that if I tried to run, I’d fall.

Fall, and not be allowed to get back up again without a fight.

“Saw you earlier, offerin’ yourself up to that pretty-boy elf like you were a feast on a platter,” he was slurring, full on grinning, his eyes glazed and still crawling all over me as he came even closer. “Figurin’ if you’re that desperate for the eye of a man you wouldn’ mind a real one instead.”

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to realise whom he meant, and what remained of the calm and rational side of my mind realised that he must have seen us through that open window Legolas and I had passed. Not that it mattered. The man was less than three feet from me now, and moving surprisingly smoothly for someone so inebriated. Actual sickness began churning in my belly, and bile rose in my throat. I still had my weapons, but my hands had begun to be consumed by the same paralysis as my feet, absolutely refusing to obey.

And even if I could, what would it look like if I cut a drunk man to ribbons in an alley just after his king had given us sanctuary? It was a stupid fear, and irrational at that, but it was more than enough to make me hesitate as I reached for the sheath at my hip. Not long, but just long enough.

His leer turned into an unfocused grin — either unable or unwilling to see the terror I knew showed on my face — and reached a hand across the precious few feet of space still separating us.

‘No, no, no!’

My stupid elf memory kept forcing those familiar images and sounds I didn’t want into the front of my mind, paralysing me, fixing me in place like a bloody rabbit caught in a trap. I’d got so good at shoving them down before when it was just me alone. Locking them away where they couldn’t get to me; but now that I was forced to see them again, reflected in this scene that was too familiar. It was too close to home, far too close. Too much like—

His hand touched clumsily to the side of my neck, right over where Legolas had only a little while ago.

I couldn’t tell if it was Tink consciously helping me wrench back control of my frozen limbs, or if the sickening feel of his unfamiliar skin on mine catalysed my reaction, but my fear was suddenly eclipsed by a surge of revulsion that broke the shackles on my limbs. My hand shot out and seized him by the wrist, jerking his hand away from my neck and shoving him back with the other as hard as I could — which, thanks to the amount I was shaking now, wasn’t all that hard.

“Don’t touch me!” I snarled, and hated the fact that I sounded so much more scared than angry. The lazy smile didn’t fall from the soldier’s face, but his eyes flashed with all too familiar impatience.

“Come now, dove,” he tried to croon, but it came out as more of a slur. “’m sure we both want the same thing here.”

He tried to reach out for me again, and this time I definitely felt Tink helping me. The moment I knew my limbs were about to freeze in terror again, a surge of adrenaline and outrage fired through me, and without thinking I shot my hand out and seized the man’s hand by the wrist again, just as he went to rake fingers into my hair.

Several things flashed across his face in rapid succession in that brief moment. Anger, annoyance, impatience, but then his bleary eyes focused a little more on my face, and then his expression had dissolved into shocked horror. It took me a solid five seconds to realise that he was staring slack jawed at my now plainly exposed, very pointy ears.

“Y-you’re, you’re—!” he sputtered, instantly sober, or as near as he could manage at least. “M-m’lady Elf! I hadn’ realised—! I thought you were—!”

I shoved him back hard again, and this time he let me, despite my trembling arms.

“Thought I was what? Some other girl you caught on her own? Who exactly did you think you were just trying to molest?” I found myself gritting out, my voice still trembling with the remains of my fear, but giving way quickly to raw anger; at him, at myself, at how close I had come to being terrified into utter defencelessness. Again.

Oblivious to my internal turmoil though, the sloshed soldier rubbed at the side of his head, still looking at me through obvious beer goggles.

“No, I just… You look so much like one of our — that is, a mortal woman. If I’d known you weren’t a — I’d have never tried to…” he babbled, but if he said anything beyond those word I didn’t hear it. Everything inside and out of me had gone instantly, terribly still; so suddenly silent that I could hear myself breathe.

“…What?” I asked, so quiet and cold it barely came out at all.

Some of the colour drained out of my pursuer’s face as he saw my expression, the look in my eyes, but he held true to form as gave a clumsy shrug. “I meant no disrespect to you of course, my lady Elf.”

Lady Elf. Elf.

As if that was the most important part of why this was wrong.

The anger, the sudden fear, and the searing unexpected outrage at what he had just tried to do to me; all of it suddenly screamed up inside, turning my vision scarlet around the edges before I could understand what was happening. Not that I really cared. I couldn’t stop hearing what he had just said. What he’d meant by it.

“So…” I asked very softly, in a voice that was too low, too frozen to be entirely my own anymore, “If I had been a human woman, one of your own, it would have been acceptable? It would have been fair? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”

His brows furrowed at me, some of his confused annoyance returning as he peered into my eyes.

“Well, aye, my lady. But—”

I hit him.

Punched him right across the face so hard that all four of the fingers on my right hand popped and my knuckles screamed. The mortal man who had stood before me flew sideways in a blur of colour, his shoulder and head slamming into wall of the house so hard that his lower lip split open on his teeth. If I hadn’t been so incensed with rage, the sound of the blow would have startled me. I could never have been able to strike anyone with that much strength on my own…

But I didn’t care.

Rage howled up inside me like a beast beneath my skin, and memories from back on Earth, unbidden, unwanted, and deliberately buried deep for so long came charging up with it.

Waiting patiently at a house for someone to come home, that one night almost a year before I’d fallen into a coma. A night that had meant to be a happy surprise. The sounds of drunken, husky chuckles, then angry snarls the night when Mark had tried to—

I forced the images down, but they just came back again, like water boiling up inside a container too small to hold it; again, and again, and again. Rage blinded me, deafened me, tore at me from the inside me like a hurricane trying desperately to get out. The mortal man must have had a thicker skull than I’d originally thought, because he miraculously managed to stay conscious and upright, if a bit glassy eyed. I saw his stunned expression twist in an incensed, inebriated sneer, reflexively raising his hand to slap me across the face.

He snarled something that sounded like “ducking witch,” spitting saliva and alcohol fumes into my face.

I didn’t know or care what my body was doing until it was actually happening. I blocked the blow with the back of my arm with a livid snarl of my own, just like Boromir and Gimli had taught me to, the impact rattling painfully off my bones. I ignored it. Instead, I returned the open handed slap meant for me with all my strength, raking my fingers across his face. He cried out in pain as my nails drew blood, leaving four jagged red lines diagonally from temple to chin.

A good start, but it wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough…

‘Boss!’ Tink was screaming, trying desperately to hold me back. ‘Eleanor, stop! Stop it! You’re going to kill him!’

I knew her words made sense, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember why. Or why remembering why even mattered. All that mattered now was the red beginning to cloud over my eyes, and the rage burning like an exploding star in my chest.

The soldier — who no longer looked anything close to a threat — tried to lunge for me again, this time going straight for my throat. He had hands large enough to easily choked me unconscious if they got around my neck, but they never got the chance to try. Swinging both my arms up I smacked the palms of my hands over both my prey’s ears. The sudden, unexpected pain of his eardrum popping under the pressure sent him into a fresh wave of screams. Then his shrieks died to gargles and my own bloody-tipped fingers latched and tightened on his throat with a strength I knew damned well couldn’t possibly be my own.

It didn’t matter. None of it mattered.

He struggled as I slammed him back against the same wall he’d tried to trap me against, gasping and choking under my hands, his face going white, then red, then purple. He might as well have been trying to fight back the hands of the Reaper for all the good it did him.

“P-please!” he managed to rasp out, wasting the last of the air in his lungs on a pointless plea, his eyes wide with fear as they stared into mine.

I didn’t listen.

Everything was completely covered in a haze of red and fiery gold now, and somewhere far back in the shifting maze of my mind I could hear Tink still desperately trying to call to me, screaming at me to stop. But I didn’t hear her, either. Everything was glorious, unrestrained chaos inside me. Nothing mattered, and nothing hurt anymore. I couldn’t even remember where I was, who I was, or why I was so furious. Only that the man before me had earned my wrath, my punishment. That he was in pain, terrified, and dying with terror and regret for what he’d done in his eyes as he looked up at me — and it felt right.

It felt good.

Eleanor!” Someone familiar roared my name from outside my head.

The next thing I knew, I was being wrenched away. My fingers had been dug so tight into the man’s neck that my nails took scrapes of skin with them. He collapsed to all fours in front of me, retching and gasping, clutching his reddened, bruised neck — bruises just like the ones that had been left on me by the uruk-hai.

No. Not enough. It wasn’t enough, snarled the wrath inside me.

Mad, red-hot rage was still boiling up inside me, screaming for release. I wanted to kick the wretched worm of a man at my feet in the face until his teeth went flying, but the person behind me, holding me back, was too strong. I tried to wrench myself free, and while I was vengefully strong for someone my size at that moment, whoever was holding me in a crushing bear hug was well out of my weight class. Thrashing against their chest, I managed to twist in their embrace, hands ready to fight and teeth bared in a snarl.

Only to come face to face with Boromir’s thunderstruck face.

His eyes were wide, and he’d gone bloodlessly pale as he stared down at my face, and I realised with a twinge of intrigue that my eyesight had sharpened again, just like it had back in Fangorn. I was close enough to see what little colour remained in his face drain as his eyes met mine, see his pulse jump in his throat, and his alarm replaced by fear as he still forcefully held me back from my prey…

And I was close enough to see my reflection in his widened, horror-struck eyes.

Sometimes in life, you’re confronted with an event so sudden and brain-fryingly alarming that your mind literally cannot process what is happening fast enough to react. It’s a bit like seeing a speeding car coming towards you when you step out into the middle of the road. You know logically you should jump back, but your brain can’t make your body move fast enough for it to matter.

That’s what happened to me the second I saw my face, reflected with frightening clarity in Boromir’s pupils.

My whole body froze solid, as if I’d been staring into the face of Medusa instead of my estranged friend. The insane burning rage in my chest didn’t vanish, but it was as if someone had suddenly cut off its oxygen supply, dousing my whole body with ice water. I couldn’t breath, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t think.

Because the reflection I saw in his eyes wasn’t me.

Well, technically it was, but only in the loosest possible sense. It was my face, but it was twisted into an unfamiliar, animalistic snarl, teeth bared back to the gums, the shock of seeing myself not quite enough to wipe the mad expression away. My loose hair looked like it had been caught up in a typhoon, whipping violently about my head as if still caught in a wind only I could feel.

My eyes, however, were the worst.

They’d gone completely gold, the little ring of the colour expanded out to completely swallow my normal green, and the pupil’s gone slitted like a hungry, predator cat’s. It was hard to remember that only a little while ago I’d been admiring my reflection, the new strength and light I’d seen in myself. It was as if someone had taken that image and cracked it down the middle, like a mirror breaking to reveal a second reflection lurking just beneath. I didn’t look angry. I didn’t even look human.

I looked like a monster wearing a girl’s skin.

The beast inside me howled in furious protest as my own rage died away to stunned horror, cutting off its grip on my sanity. Boromir blinked, and the image vanished, but it was too late. I couldn’t un-see what had just been there — the madness I’d just seen in my own face. More of the red haze died away, and I felt myself twisting in my friend’s grip to see what I’d done. He didn’t let me go, but relaxed his hold just enough to let me look down at what I’d inflicted on the man who’d just tried to assault me.

The soldier who’d followed me into the alley had been swaggering and smug in his superiority. Most of that was likely because he was sloshed, admittedly, but his body language had all but screamed complete confidence that he was the predator in this game of cat and mouse, and I’d been his prey. He’d just been proved wrong in the most brutal way possible. Still on the ground, coughing and spluttering in gulps of air, he half hunched, half crouched against the wall I’d thrown him into. Blood was dribbling down his face from the gouges my nails had left in his face, there was a goose egg already growing on his left temple from where he’d hit the wall, and there was a ring of deep purple bruises appearing in a collar around his throat — and he was staring up at me with wide eyes, still unable to draw enough breath to speak, but looking at me as if he was staring into the face of Sauron himself.

Not a bruised, confused, 5’3 elf girl with crazy hair and absolutely no idea what the hell had just happened.

“I…” I heard myself wheeze. Boromir’s grip suddenly tightened to twin vices on my arms.

“What did you do?” he growled, low and dangerous. I looked up to find him glaring down at me with something wild and frightening in his eyes. I swallowed, trying to find my voice.

“Boromir wha—”

“What are you?” he snarled, his expression twisting, verging on mad, and his grip tightening even more as she shook me. “Answer me! Tell me what you really are, now! What you did to me! What you made me see!”

Fear lanced through me, and before I could think, my adrenaline fuelled hands shot out, trying to break out of the hold and throw him off me. But Boromir was no drunken, lecherous guardsman. He was a seasoned warrior is full control of all his faculties, and he didn’t let me get three inches from the wall. I saw fresh fear and instinct flare in his eyes, and he instinctively slammed me hard back against the wood of the building, his hand tightening on the base of my neck, thumbs pressing into my still tender windpipe as my air was instantly cut off.

The last of the red haze vanished with the air in my throat, and I frantically tapped his arm to show I surrendered, just as we’d done during training bouts in Lothlórien.

His grip faltered for a split second, but he didn’t let me go.

“B-Boromir, plea—!” I managed to choke out, staring desperately up into his face.

His expression wavered again, as if not quite able to believe what he was doing.

But then it went hard as granite again, his grip tightening on me, and last of the air in my lungs was trapped there. He wasn’t going to let me go. I could see it in his face as the red that had clouded the edges of my vision was replaced by black. He wasn’t himself, not the man who’d become my friend. He wasn’t going to release me, and whatever strength I’d used on the drunken soldier was long gone now. I couldn’t fight him off. I couldn’t even scream for help. He wanted to kill me. One of my dearest friends in Arda was going to murder me, and I had absolutely no idea why.

“Boromir!” A familiar dwarven voice bellowed from what sounded like miles away.

Gimli.

The last of my vision was almost gone, along with the oxygen in my lungs, but I had just enough to see the tall figure of a human man appear behind Boromir, and raise the point of a sword to the centre of his back.

“Release her, now!” Aragorn growled with absolute authority, pressing the tip of the blade hard into Boromir’s spine, just behind his heart. Boromir didn’t react immediately, but his hands did slacken on me just enough that I was able to suck in a painful, coughing breath.

“Step back from her, lad. Easy now,” I heard Gimli say calmly between my own choked rasps, playing the good cop to Aragorn’s bad.

It took a far longer moment for him to comply this time, but eventually the man of Gondor obeyed, releasing his hold on me, and stepping back with his hands raised. I slid down the wall, falling straight onto my hands and knees, retching and gasping in painful breaths before someone helped me gently into a sitting position against the wall. My eyes were watering too much to see properly, but I’d recognise that scent of pine and rain anywhere. I all but sagged against Legolas’ shoulder in relief, choking on sobs and gasps, one hand gripping his while the other clutched at my burning throat.

“Explain yourself, now,” Aragorn’s tone was only one step up from a growl, his blade still aimed at the middle of Boromir’s back. Boromir didn’t move, but I could feel his eyes like ice against my skin. And when he spoke it was in a voice half mad with anger-fuelled fear I could hardly believe it came from him.

“I saw what you are,” he said only to me. I didn’t have enough breath left to answer, and when I tried, I just dissolved into another coughing fit. Gently, I felt Legolas’ hand slip under my chin lift it back up, allowing me more breath, and at the same time, giving them all a good look at the state of my throat.

It must have been bad, because I heard Gimli and Aragorn inhale sharply, felt Legolas go deathly still against me, and there was a moment where the only sound in the alley was my own, rasping breaths.

“You have severely injured her,” Legolas said finally, softly, and the ice in his voice was like an incoming storm compared to Boromir’s, though his grip on me remained gentle. “Why?

The question was low and dangerous, and left absolutely no question that if his answer was not satisfactory, there would be instant, violent consequences.

But it wasn’t Boromir who answered it.

“M-monster!” the soldier who’d followed me spluttered, his voice a bit garbled from his ruptured eardrum, and one step shy of hysterical from where he was still sprawled on the ground near Gimli. “He was right to end her! She’s not right! Those were a demon’s eyes! S-she’s no elf, she’s a—”

“I wouldn’t finish that sentence if I were you, boy,” Gimli stated plainly, an angry rumble lurking just below the surface.

Finally, finally, I managed to stop choking and open my eyes.

Boromir was still just a few feet from me, and though Aragorn still had him at blade point, it was still an effort not to flinch back from him. Off to their left, Gimli had the soldier who’d assaulted me by the scruff of the neck, not strictly hurting him, but not exactly being gentle either, and making damned sure he wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry.

Beside me, Legolas had slipped an arm under mine, and was carefully helping me to shaking feet. As he did, I caught a glimpse of myself in the metal of Aragorn’s sword, and sucked in a startled breath. My face was no longer twisted into a lunatic snarl and my pupil’s were no longer slitted — thank God — my eyes were still almost completely flooded with that strange, animalistic gold.

The exact same gold as Tink’s eyes.

The bottom fell out of my stomach as that realisation finally dawned on me. I wasn’t the only one who noticed, either. The second I looked up at the faces of my companions standing around me, I saw each of them go utterly still, all of them looking at me with expressions lost somewhere between shocked, confused, and alarmed.

“Eleanor,” Aragorn said carefully after a agonising silence. “What happened?”

I swallowed a few times before I found my voice, and even then it was croaky and rough as sand on stone.

“He cornered me,” I rasped out, jerking my head at the soldier, who was still shaking slightly, and staring at me as if I had fangs and blood running down my lips. “I was trying to find the stables and got lost. He followed me, came up behind me and… I don’t know what happened. One second he was trying to touch me and I was shoving him away, then…” I trailed off.

What had happened? I didn’t know for sure, but judging from the animal colour of my eyes, the bestial rage in my chest, and the echoes of Tink’s terrified cries still ringing in my head, I could take a pretty good guess.

“I… I lost control.”

Aragorn stared down at me for another agonisingly long moment in absolute silence. Then an expression crossed his face that I’d never seen before.

Horrified realisation.

It was gone a split second later, and just as quickly he was sheathing his sword and gripping Boromir hard by both wrists, steering him back towards the alley’s mouth.

“We need to bring this one back to the barracks for questioning, quietly. Then report him to Háma,” he said tonelessly, jerking his chin at Gimli and the downed soldier, before his eyes flickered back to me. They lingered on my eyes a beat too long, and I swear I saw some of the colour leech out of his face as he looked quickly away.

“And then, we need to talk. All of us.”

Chapter Text

The walk back to the barracks was done in perfect, terrible silence.

Even the soldier — who was being frogmarched by Gimli as far from me as possible — didn’t dare even complain at his wounds. He did send me the occasional look that mixed stung pride, anger and fear over his shoulder in between Gimli ordering him to keep moving, though.

I didn’t return the looks.

If there was a manual on the proper etiquette of treating someone you’d just come close to murdering after they’d tried to force themselves you, I hadn’t read it, and had no desire to. Unless it involved burying them in a shallow grave.

Legolas all but carried me on his side all the way to the barracks, into a mercifully empty side chamber, and helped me collapse onto one of the benches. He’d tried planting himself between me and Boromir when he and Aragorn followed us in, but Aragorn told him to wait with Boromir outside and make sure he didn’t try to run.

Legolas didn’t protest, though I could tell from one look at his face that he didn’t want to leave. Even so, it was clear that he wanted Boromir near me even less, so he gave my hand a gentle squeeze and obeyed.

I remained the next best thing to catatonic after that, arms coiled around myself as the others began calling for a healer to see to me, and calling Háma’s guards to see to my first attacker, whom Gimli shoved so hard into a chair on the opposite side of the room that it almost went over backwards. I just sat there in silence while an elderly female healer appeared and began fussing over my injuries, unable to look at anyone as I listened to Gimli “gently coax” an honest account of what had happened in the alley out of the soldier.

The now very sober young man tried to flat out lie at first. I didn’t see the looks on Aragorn’s or Gimli’s faces with their backs to me, or heard what they whispered to him, but he’s taken one a look up at them both and turned an unhealthy shade of green-grey.

Reluctantly, he’d admitted to following me with the intent of cornering me and, in his own words, “just having some fun.”

Bile rose in my throat, and I hunched over a little more, curling into myself, as I fiught down the nauseous rage that was still trying to claw its way back up to the surface. The healer murmured something soothing at me, rubbing a hand against my back, but I didn’t really hear her. It was a good thing Aragorn had insisted Legolas wait outside and guard Boromir. I honestly thought Gimli was going to put the boy’s head through a wall for a moment, but then he got to the part where he’d told me that, had I been human, I’d have been fair game. The part where my eyes had shifted colour. The part where I changed…

The entire room had gone deathly quiet after that, and only moments later Háma and a few stone-faced guards arrived.

None of them were stupid.

They’d taken one look at me and my bruises, my assailant and his wounds, and the looks on Aragorn and Gimli’s faces, and they’d put it all together.

Not one of them breathed a word as Gimli yanked the young man to his feet and shoved him toward them with a quiet: “You’ll live to see your captains’ punishment. Keep your trap shut about this if you wish to keep it that way, boy.”

The clawing anger in my chest dissipated once they’d gone, but the queasiness and trembling didn’t go anywhere. I was too busy trying to keep myself from either collapsing or being sick to notice when Gimli came and rested a warm, calloused hand on my shoulder.

“My lady, could you give us the room please? And send the two men waiting outside in, if you would,” Aragorn said quietly to the woman at my side. The old healer made a clucking sound of disapproval but did as requested, and a moment after she left I looked up to see Legolas enter again, followed shortly by a grim-looking Boromir.

The blind anger had mostly gone out of his face, but there was still something hard and untrusting in his expression as his eyes fell on me. It set my stomach to churning all over again, but I forced myself not to look away.

Then my numbed brain finally caught onto the fact that there was a face missing among our troupe.

“Where’s Gandalf?” I croaked, looking around for the absent wizard.

“He’s gone, lass,” Gimli answered gently.

“…Gone?”

“He set off to search for Eomer and his riders. We waited for you but he could not delay any longer. If the king wishes to defend Helms Deep he needs his riders back,” Legolas explained, coming to stand nearby again, his carefully controlled expression still torn between worry and wrath. He was very deliberately not looking at Boromir, and I had the feeling that was the only thing keeping him from beating the man to a mushy red pulp right then and there, Aragorn’s instructions be damned.

Pathetic as it was, and hating myself a bit for it, the part of me that was still trembling in shock wanted badly to just grab his hand and hold on for dear life. But something in the air was still setting my nerves on edge. It wasn’t until I looked up at Aragorn that I realised what. He stood in the centre of us all, his arms folded over his chest, giving me a gentle but firm stare. Then he aimed the exact same look at Boromir, and the other man looked as if he was working hard not to look away.

And then Aragorn said what I’d been dreading since we walked out of that ally.

“Explain yourselves, both of you. Now.”

No fuss, no beating about the bush, just a simple demand for the truth. And I couldn’t have possibly thought of a worse time for him to ask me that than now.

I found myself looking at Boromir, who in turn was staring back at me until I thought his arms and shoulders would snap from the tension in them. Legolas didn’t move from my side, but he shifted his weight in a way that made it obvious that if Boromir so much as sneezed in my direction, he would be able to take the man down before he got within two feet of me.

“Why did you attack her?” he asked with icy calm. When Boromir didn’t answer and just continued to stare hard straight at me, Gimli cut in.

“Boromir!”

The Gondorian man snapped a look between each of our companions, expression flickering between uncertainty and frustration, his hands clenching and unclenching, until they returned to me with renewed anger.

“Because I saw what she really is.”

If his words had been any colder, I’d have been a girl-shaped ice sculpture sitting on that bench. Gimli scoffed at him.

“What are you on about, lad? What is she?” he demanded, slapping me on the shoulder in his usual, bruising way that would have normally made me smile-wince. Now, it just made me wince. “She’s exactly what she looks like; a brazen, small, but otherwise normal elf lass. One who was just forced to fight off two men on her own, I’ll add.”

His words, spoken with such trust and certainty, felt like lead weights being dropped onto me, but I couldn’t say anything. I could only watch as Boromir’s face twisted in warped hate he could no longer hide, and it was all aimed right at me.

“No…” he murmured, and his voice was enough to chill my bones. “She is not. Not even close.”

“Speak plainly then,” Legolas bit impatiently, still looking like he was contemplating twisting the other man’s head off if he didn’t start making sense. Boromir didn’t look away from me once, but his jaw tightened with emotion, and when he spoke it was as if he had been holding back a flood for the past three days.

“When I was dying, after I took those arrows, I knew I was gone. I could feel myself slipping away, and I was content with that. I was ready for death, my just deserves for what I’d done… But then I saw you. You’d rolled me over, and I could hear you shouting, trying to save me, trying to heal me despite it being impossible. I already knew it to be too late, that there was nothing you could do. Nothing any healer could have done.” He drew a shaky breath, and I couldn’t tell if it was in anger, or dread at the memory of the pain. “But you refused to let me go. I could see the lights dim, but when you put your hand over my heart, it was as if something had begun pulling me back, anchoring me to life as death was still trying to drag me away. It was agony. It felt like my soul was being torn in half, and then…”

He hesitated, glare sharpening on me, and fresh dread flowed through me in a flood. As if I already knew instinctively deep down what was coming.

Perhaps I did.

“Then… images started flashing past my eyes. I saw things that do not make sense, and could not possibly exist. Towers of metal and glass, lands covered with rust and smoke with barely anything green for miles into the distance… Strange, metal contraptions, moving on their own. Men and women packed so close together between towering buildings, with barely room to breathe. I saw an entire city of stone and steel and glass, and not a single man within seemed to see what was around them. To even care.”

I didn’t make a sound as my body went cold from my legs up to my chest. My fear and dread had turned my body to stone. I didn’t dare look to see the reactions of my other companions, but from their ghostly silence I could guess what they were thinking.

Boromir had gone mad.

Only, the truly frightening thing was that he hadn’t. None of them had any idea how far from mad he was for what he was describing, what he’d seen in my memories.

Not even him.

“It was too much,” he went on. “I tried to speak, tried to tell you to stop, to let me go, that even if I somehow lived, the pain, and visions would surely leave me broken and insane, but when I looked at you I saw — there you were — but there was also a second form, wreathed in flames, standing exactly where you did, two bodies overlapping each other; one looking at me as you did, and the other looking into me with eyes that burned gold. Just as they did when you tried to murder that soldier. And I saw those flames moving down your arms, into me, as you... you healed me, leeching into me, tethering me when I should have already been gone. It was the last thing I saw before I fell unconscious.”

Such stillness had fallen over the room I could hear myself breathing. I could hear my own pulse beginning to race as I felt the weight of what he’d just said crushing down on me.

He’d seen her.

Just like Frodo had. Just like I’d feared. He’d seen Tink. He knew, and now he was going to—

“It is what he is planning. Isn’t it?”

That stopped my panicked thoughts dead in their tracks. I looked up to find myself staring directly into Boromir’s completely serious face.

“W-what?” I wheezed.

“What I saw. That abomination of a civilisation. It’s what he is planning to create of this world, isn’t it? When he finally takes the Ring back. A world of metal and smoke.”

I just stared at him with my jaw hanging open. I couldn’t quite believe I’d heard him right. Under literally any other circumstances the suggestion that Sauron’s ultimate dastardly plan was to turn Middle Earth into a perfect replication of Piccadilly Circus during rush hour would have sent me into hysterics.

I almost laughed.

Almost.

“How the hell would I know what Sauron’s bloody plans involve?!” I demanded, my voice trying to rise to a shout, but breaking over the strain, my throat still too raw. I managed to stand up, though. Boromir convulsed back away from me like I’d spat fire at him, his hand automatically going for his now empty sword sheath.

Legolas moved so fast I couldn’t physically see it, only feel it as the air rushed past me, and hear it as he slammed the flat of his hand against the man’s chest. Boromir was sent staggering backwards with a grunt, almost going over the back of the chair my attacker had been interrogated in, catching himself before he could go crashing to the floor.

“You do not touch her a second time,” Legolas snarled, tone low and dangerous. But Boromir wasn’t deterred, baring his teeth at the elf in a damn near animal-like growl.

“You would defend such a serpent?! When you have seen with your own eyes what hides beneath that face?”

“I saw only you attempting to choke the life from her with hand that should have been protecting her,” Legolas seethed, but I could see the expression on his face as his gaze flickered toward me for a second.

Oh, he’d seen alright — and despite his adamant defence of me, it had indeed unsettled him more than he was letting on.

Whatever was left of Boromir’s sanity snapped, then. He lost it.

“That figure had his eyes! His!he roared, throwing a finger right at me. “Inescapable, wreathed in flame, the pupil slitted like an animal’s! They were the eyes of nothing mortal! Are you so blinded by affection that you would ignore that?”

Enough!” Aragorn bellowed.

Boromir and Legolas both fell instantly silent, staring at him with wide eyes, and I realised with a twinge of macabre amusement that it was probably the first time I’d ever heard Aragorn raise his voice at either of them. He still didn’t look angry, or even upset. Just calm and focused, but when he turned his attention to me again, I still felt myself shrink under that neutral stare. “Eleanor, can you or can you not explain what he saw? What we all just saw.”

I opened my mouth to speak, not sure what I was going to say, but the sound that came out was another croak that turned into a choking cough. Legolas reached out to support me again but I shook my head. If I was going to do this then I needed to be able to stand and say it without anyone’s help, much as I might want it.

When I finally got my breath back again, my throat had recovered just enough to get the words out.

“I… I can, yes,” I said, barely able to speak above a whisper for both the pain and dread in my throat. “But… it’s complicated. And I really doubt you’re going to believe me if I do.”

Boromir made a sound somewhere between a growl and a snort, and Gimli, thoroughly sick of the all posturing, seized the front of his tunic and shoved him none too gently down into the chair he’d almost tumbled backwards over.

“Let her speak, laddie. After what you did, you owe her that much at the very least,” he rumbled, then turned and gave me what might have been an encouraging look.

I couldn’t tell what hurt more, the trust in Gimli’s eyes, the neutrality in Aragorn’s, or the blatant suspicion in Boromir’s. I didn’t dare look at the elf at my side. I knew if I did, I wouldn’t be able to get the words out.

If I did, I’d break under the fear of what I was about to do.

How was it that I was somehow brave enough to charge headfirst into a one-on-one fight with an Uruk-hai warrior, but the thought of telling the people I cared for the most about where I really came from absolutely crippled me?

“Eleanor…?” Legolas breathed low so only I could hear.

I wondered how my name would sound on his voice once he knew the whole truth about me…

I looked down at my battered fingers — nails torn and still bleeding a bit despite the bandages the old healer had wrapped my knuckles in — knowing it didn’t matter now. I’d almost killed a man with those hands in a fit of rage thanks to the secrets I’d been keeping. If Boromir hadn’t been there to stop me, I probably would have; and I wasn’t even sure I would have been sorry for it.

I had to tell them.

‘Finally time to tell our story, I guess,’ I thought, knowing there was only one person in that room could hear me, and understand what those words cost.

And in reply, from deep within my mind, I felt incorporeal fingers wrap around mine, and gently squeeze.

‘I’ll be right here,’ she whispered, and I drew one last deep breath before looking up at them all again.

“If I’m going to explain this, I’ll need to start from the very beginning. The figure you saw, Boromir, I can’t explain what—” I stopped and corrected myself, “who she is without telling you the whole truth, first. My whole truth. And I might as well warn you now that it’s going to sound mad. More so than any of the stories I’ve been telling up till now.”

“Your whole truth, lass?”

God, this was such a huge, frigging mess. I couldn’t bring myself to look at the expression on Gimli’s face, so I kept my eyes fixed on the floor at his feet and stumbled onwards.

“What you all found out in Lothlórien, about me not knowing who I was, about not remembering anything before two years ago. It… it was only half the truth about where I can from.”

I saw Aragorn’s head tilt from my peripherals. “Am I to assume this has something to do with your hysterical protestation at being called a she-elf when you first stumbled delirious into my camp near three years ago?”

Sometimes I hated how perceptive he was.

I had to fight not to wince at the vividness of the memory; the confusion and panic I’d felt at finding myself in a dangerous place I didn’t believe could exist. At being trapped with no way home.

I nodded.

Aragorn seemed to contemplate that for a second, then made a grunt of acceptance. “Start from the beginning then. We will listen till the end. All of us.”

It was an unspoken promise to hear me out, no matter how mad what I was about to say was, and I wasn’t sure there was a way of phrasing this in any language that didn’t sound off the rails. It was the best I was going to get under the circumstances, though. So I steeled myself, sucked in a deep breath, and started what was probably going to be my longest and least believable story yet.

“That city you saw in my mind Boromir, it isn’t part of Sauron’s plan. It can’t possibly be because — because it already exists. And… it’s where I’m really from. My home.”

I hadn’t really thought about reactions I was going to garner, but I still hadn’t expected quite the shocked silence I got in response before the inevitable landslide of questions came.

“You…?”

“What do you—?”

“You mean you remembered where you’re from at last?”

Aragorn silenced them all with another look. He was the only one who’s expression hadn’t so much as flickered. I swallowed and continued, trying to gauge their reactions and choose my words carefully.

“No, not exactly. I still have no idea who I was here. But before…” My voice failed again as the feat of what I was doing, what I was about to tell them threatened to choked me. “… Before I woke here, in that cave two years ago, I had another life… One that I left behind when I came here.”

You’d think after explaining all this once to a quartet of hobbits I’d have improved my process for telling this story. Lady Luck and her evil twin brother Bad Timing must really have it in for me.

“I don’t understand,” Legolas murmured. “What do you mean: ‘when you came here’?”

A spike of visceral pain came with the memory of that night and all the emotions that went with it. The still vivid memory of mine and Mark’s fight, of my parents, of the last time I saw Katie disappearing into a crowd of dancing party-goers, thinking I’d be right behind her…

I closed my eyes tight and wrapped my arms around myself, trying not to let the stinging in my eyes turn to tears. If I let myself stop now, I might never get the words out.

“I wasn’t always an elf, alright?” I blurted, my voice breaking around the words. “Before two years ago I was just a normal girl living in a city exactly like the one Boromir saw. I was born and grew up in a world where all this?” I gestured a bit viciously around at our surroundings, “It doesn’t even exist. Arda, elves, wizards, orcs, Maiar, none of it was real. None of it. The closest I ever got to those kinds of things was in the books and stories I was studying at my college.” I had to stop to suck in a few more shaky breaths, but this time, no one interrupted me. “On February the 10th, two years ago, I was walking home from a party in the snow and suddenly fell unconscious. I don’t know how or why, but the next thing I knew, I was waking up in a cave in the middle of Trollshaws forest with tree roots growing around me. I had no idea where I was, or how I got there, or where to find help. I didn’t even realise my ears were pointed until… If Aragorn hadn’t found me…”

My throat burned again, and I wasn’t sure if it was from my neck injuries or from the flood of emotions still fighting for dominance inside me. I hadn’t even noticed I’d sat down on the bench again until I felt my fingers ache from clutching the edges. The silence was crushing, almost painful, and seemed to stretch on forever. No one seemed to know what on earth to say, and I couldn’t blame them one bit.

I could all but hear the thoughts going through their heads.

Is she insane? Is she making it up? What if she’s actually telling the truth?

Just like master Elrond had done.

Then finally, of all people, it was Gimli who broke the silence over us all. He was shaking his head at me, eyes a bit wide behind his helm.

“Mahal’s beard, lass. I know you’re good with tall tales, but this is unbelievable even for you.”

“It’s not a story this time, Gimli. If it was, I’d have bloody well figured out a better way of telling it by now.”

“If… if this is really true, and not some conjured tale to avoid judgment, then how is it even possible?” Boromir asked, curiosity eclipsing his mistrust. “How in the abyss did you end up going from a human girl to… this?

I couldn’t hide the hurt on my face, and Gimli obviously noticed because his expression softened at me.

At least he was still trying to be kind, even if he now thought I was mad.

“I have no reason to lie to any of you, not now,” I said quietly, unable to ignore the sting of his words. “The only reason I kept quiet about this until now is because I didn’t know how to explain it without you all writing me off as insane. I couldn’t… I couldn’t deal with that. And I truly don’t know how it happened. Not even Gandalf could tell me exactly how I got here when I asked. Only that finding out who I was in this world before, and how all this happened in the first place, is probably the only chance I’ve got of finding my way back.”

Gimli sputtered. “Gandalf knew? You told him, and yet not us?”

“He already knew. He called me by my human name before we even reached the foothills of the Misty Mountains. He’d learned everything from Lord Elrond, not from me. He was trying to help me remember who I was before we lost him in Moria. After that I… I didn’t know what else to do but keep quiet and keep going. I didn’t have anyone left who knew my secret, and with everything else happening, if I brought it up, you would have left me behind without a second thought.”

I saw Aragorn’s arms tense, and a faint flash of guilt in his gaze, but he still gave me a look that was impossible to read. And still he didn’t say a word as the others reached for more questions.

I could practically hear the gears of Legolas’ mind whirring beside me, trying to wrap his mind around what I was telling them.

“If this is really so, then why in the Abyss did you still wish to come with us so desperately?” he asked finally, softly. I exhaled, looking down at my lap as if I’d find the answer there, unable to make myself look at him.

I was already terrified of what I’d see there.

“There have been only a few times I’ve been able to remember scraps of my past self’s life, like I told you. But they’ve all been tiny, not enough to piece together who I was before I was alive in London.”

“London?” Boromir asked, the harshness softening a bit around the edges.

“The name of the city you saw.”

Gimli threw one meaty hand up as if to stop me.

“So, let me see if I’ve got this right, lass,” he said frowning in concentration through his beard. “You lived here in Arda before you were born into this metal world you and Boromir speak of? London, you called it? And now, somehow, you’ve returned to your body in this world, but without memory of who you were?”

Stupid as it was, I almost felt like crying in relief.

I nodded, unreasonably thankful that one of them grasped what I was trying to say enough to summarise it. I’d thought my explanation to the hobbits had been mangled, but this was somehow coming out in an even bigger mess. It was as if, all this time, I’d put a dam up in front of everything that had happened to me, and now that a little had come crashing down, the rest was quickly following.

“You all had half the truth already. Just… not the parts that made it all make sense.” I gestured weakly to myself with a sweep of my hands. “I had a life here before. This body I’m walking around Middle Earth in now didn’t just spontaneously appear in that cave. As for my other body back in London, I got a glimpse in Galadriel’s mirror when we were still in Lothlórien. I’m in a hospital stuck in a coma. My…” I almost choked on the words, my already tender throat tightening. “M-my family are still waiting for me to wake up, but nothing the healers are doing is working. Galadriel seemed to believe that while my soul is inhabiting one body in one world at a time, the other falls into a deep sleep without my spirit there to drive it. I don’t know how it happened, or how to reverse it, but I’ve been trying to find a way to remember for the past two years.”

“Your family,” Legolas whispered so quietly, more to himself than anyone else, and I looked at him just in time to see his grey-blue eyes widen in realisation, gaze flicking down to the knife at my waist. “A Elbereth Gilthoniel*, the names on your knife…”

Another flash of memories. Another stab of pain.

Breathing slowly so I wouldn’t break apart, I closed my eyes and nodded. Without needing to look, I took the hunting knife off my belt and held it, my fingers running over the engraving I’d carved all that time ago. When I opened my eyes again, my vision was blurry, but no tears fell.

“Andrew was… is my father’s name. Sophia is my mother. Theo is my little brother. Katie’s been my closest friend for so long she’s more like a sister. And February the 10th two years ago was the date I fell into that coma. I carved them there so no matter how long I was trapped here, I wouldn’t forget about them.”

Silence descended over the room again, but this time I didn’t care to break it. I was too focused on trying to quell the pain growing inside me at the thought of my family. I hadn’t thought about this properly in a long time, and now that I was being forced to, it reminded me why.

It hurt.

God, it hurt so much I could barely breathe.

“If what you say is really true…” I heard Boromir say softly, cautiously, and it was the closest to his old self I’d heard since before Lothlórien. I looked up to find him still watching me, but his expression had turned conflicted. “The city I saw, the one you called London. It was filled with Men. No elves, or dwarves. There was nothing there to suggest any other race at all. You said there was — is no such thing in that… in your world. If that is all true, if what I saw is true, then that means you must have been…”

I looked right at him, meeting his eyes and seeing the realisation clearly in them. A wry smile somehow found it’s way onto my face, but it felt wooden, hollow.

“Human,” I confirmed quietly.

“Mortal…” I heard Legolas breathed beside me, and the shock in his voice forced my eyes up to meet his. I instantly wished I hadn’t. He looked like someone had gutted him where he stood, and he was only remaining upright by sheer will. He swallowed thickly, his low voice forming a question I knew would change everything for us. “Then… Eleanor… how old does that truly make you?”

My insides twisted.

I knew what he was really asking, and I wanted to fold in on myself at the thought. Curl into a ball beneath the floor and never see daylight again. I couldn’t lie to him now even if I wanted to, but I couldn’t bare to meet his eyes as I answered his question, fixing mine instead on the silver leaf pin at his collar.

“I’m… twenty-four.”

Blue-grey eyes widened, and every drop of coloured drained from his face in the space of a breath.

“Well…” Gimli exhaled in a rush, dropping down onto a nearby bench so hard, I thought it might break beneath him, “That all certainly explains your strange speech, and attitude towards other elves at least. But I still don’t understand what this has to do with that fiery figure Boromir saw when you healed him.”

It took a substantial effort to pull my gaze from a shell-shocked looking Legolas, but I forced myself to take a proper look at each of them first. I wanted to at least try and see past the shock to what they were thinking now.

All things considered, they were taking it rather well. Not good exactly, but not nearly as badly as I’d feared. None of them looked angry at least. Stunned, yes. Gimli’s head was still shaking in bemusement at me, Boromir looked as if he was trying to solve a complex riddle in his head, and Legolas hd gone as pale and still as a marble statue.

But not one of them looked enraged or suspicious anymore.

Not even Aragorn, who through my entire tirade of muddled explanations, still hadn’t moved or uttered a single word. He just watched me with steel-grey eyes, sharp as I’d ever seen them, as I sucked in one last steadying breath.

The very last deep breath before the plunge.

“When I first arrived in Rivendell, I had a… voice, I guess, stuck in my head. Every time I fell unconscious or slept I could hear her, talk to her. She helped me, kept me alive at times when I’m sure I should have died. At first I thought I was going mad, that she was just a construct my mind had created to deal with the trauma of what was happening. It was almost like having a corporeal survival instinct in my head. It made sense at the time. Whenever I dreamed she looked and sounded exactly like me, but with golden eyes instead of green, and was fixated on keeping me safe.” I explained, trying hard to sound calm though the nerves were all but eating me alive from the inside.

“I didn’t tell anyone, not even Lord Elrond. At the time it just seemed like one more mad thing to add to the pile. My first day in Rivendell, he tried to help me access some of my blocked memories. I didn’t get much, but I did get one name; Rávamë. I didn’t immediately put it all together; the name, the voice in my head, what you told me about her, Legolas. Not until after I healed Boromir. When I…”

“When you healed him and survived,” Aragorn finished when I trailed off. “That antacuilë should have killed you, but it didn’t, because you weren’t working with just your own power. You had hers too.”

I swallowed hard, and nodded.

“And… the soldier who attacked you?” Boromir asked. It was strange, the more I seemed to delve into my story, and the more my own nerves grew, the more his steadfast suspicion of me seemed to be eroding.

“Aye, you damn near tore his face off, lass. You have a temper I grant you, but I’ve seen nothing like that. That was her, too?” Gimli added. I shook my head, instinctively jumping to Tink’s defence despite myself.

“No. Not exactly. She was actually trying to snap me out of it. I’m not totally sure, but I think something… went wrong at Amon Hen, when I used her power to kill that Uruk-hai, then heal Boromir. It’s been like this every time I’ve felt angry or scared recently. It’s become harder and harder to keep it under control. When that soldier… when he…” I couldn’t make myself say it; even now the anger was too fresh. “I couldn’t think past the rage. She seems to think that the more of her power I use, the more we’re starting to bleed together. My anger. Her power.”

“Not a healthy combination, if that lad’s face is anything to go by.”

“Or that patch of deadened forest we found you in at Amon Hen.” Aragorn murmured, still eyeing me with an uncomfortably intense expression I couldn’t quite read. “That was her too, was it?”

Something in my guts writhed, but now that I had everything out in the open at last I felt oddly liberated of the fear I’d felt before. I sat up a little straighter and met his gaze head on.

“I am not lying, Aragorn.”

He just watched me for a long moment, before finally speaking again.

“Then prove it. Show me.”

I blinked at him. “What?”

“Boromir was able to see this figure — this spirit you say is trapped in your mind — and your memories when you healed him. You should be able to do the same for me at little risk, since I’m not dying.”

I looked at him with my mouth slightly open, trying to understand what he was suggesting. When I finally did, my already fragile voice began to fracture over my words again.

A limifëa.

He was asking me to show him the inside of my mind through a limifëa, almost just like I’d done with Frodo back in Rivendell.

I stammered as the memory of the hobbit struggling agains the morgue splinter’s cold stole my breath. “But I… I don’t even know if I can—”

“You must,” Aragorn insisted, taking a step towards me. “Truth or not, if we are to fully believe or help you, there must be at least some kind of proof what you claim is real.”

“And my eyes changing colour on their own just now wasn’t?” I snapped on impulse, but he just continued to look at me in calm challenge. I threw my hands out to the side. “Why would you believe anything you see in there? If you think I’m lying now, I could just be deceiving you again.”

Something strange happened to his face. It softened very slightly, and while he didn’t look any less serious, the corner of his lip twitched in what once might have been a wry smile.

“You have never been a talented liar, Eleanor. Not when you first stumbled into my camp, and not now.” Then he knelt down in front of me, so we were near eye to eye. Grass green to steel grey. “Show me the truth now, or this is as far as we can go.”

I looked at him for a moment, then turned my attention away as I searched for an alternative. There was none.

I knew what he was saying clearer than if he’d explained it word for word. He was willing to believe me, help me, trust me. But only if I was willing to trust him — and by indirect extension, all of them, since I couldn’t preform a five-way soul-link on my best day — with seeing the truth of what was in me.

Of seeing her face-to-face.

‘Tink… can we?’

She hesitated, and with the stilling of my own emotions, I could now feel hers like an echo of my own deep down. She was uncertain, too.

‘Technically yes, but…’ she hesitated, seeing out through my eyes at them all watching me. At Aragorn waiting patiently for my answer. ‘He’s different to Boromir and Frodo somehow, boss. I can feel it. We can do it, but there’s no way to know what he’ll see… or what we will on the other side.’

So that’s what it all came down to. To trust, or go it alone from here on.

Liar, madwoman, or unlikely truth teller…

“We don’t have a choice, not anymore,” I breathed aloud this time, almost too quiet to hear. Then I looked up at him. “Give me your hands.”

He did.

And I took them in mine, and let the floodgates of my mind open wide.

~ ~

The last time I’d preformed a limifëa I’d had my eyes shut when it all happened. I’d been so focused on keeping the link as gentle and soothing as I could that I hadn’t thought too much about what I was going to see. Not until it was already there forming behind my eyelids.

This time, I didn’t shut them, and I’m still undecided whether it made the experience better, or much, much worse.

The world around us disappeared in a sudden burst of blurred colours, sounds, and rushing vertigo, stronger than anything I’d felt before with Frodo or Boromir. I couldn’t see Aragorn in front of me anymore, even though my eyes were still open, but I knew he was there because I heard his sharp inhale along with my own. And even as my own perception of what was happening outside our linked minds vanished — as the blurred shapes and echoing sounds began to condense into recognisable figures — I could still feel his calloused hands clutched in mine.

A swirl of colour took sudden form like smoke solidifying, showing me a beautiful young mortal woman with long red-gold hair and a simple gown pulling me to her in a fierce hug.

“Be brave, my love, my precious son,” she whispered, her lovely voice thick with tears as she pressed one last kiss to my temple. “You will see me again, I promise.”

Then she was gone again, vanishing into a stream of more swirling shapes like ink in water.

Moments later, I was suddenly watching Katie pulling me by the hand down the side of the Thames, cars and taxis rushing past as the London Eye towered behind her. She was laughing, her brown eyes bright in the sunshine, holding a digital camera over her head, our beaming faces reflected in the flip-screen.

Another surge and I was standing in a clearing, a bow and knocked arrow in my hand, shouting in a furious teenage boy’s voice at a familiar blond elf with grey-blue eyes. Legolas looked exactly the same, yet his eyes seemed somehow younger, more boyish, despite the serious look on his face as he raised both his hands and spoke carefully in answer. I couldn’t see the expression on my face, but I felt the anger dissipate, replaced by exhausted fear, and sadness as the arrow tip dropped to point safely at the ground.

Another surge, and I was sitting in a busy street cafe with Mark opposite me. I was listening to him trying to convince me not to go, to not leave him behind while I went off to study in London. I stared down at the reflection of my human face in my mug of cooling tea, and felt the familiar rush of writhing emotions in my gut as I tried to ignore the long look a passing waitress gave my boyfriend — and the look he gave her in return.

Another surge, and I was staring down at a familiar stone podium I’d last seen in Rivendell, calloused ranger’s hand running over the shards of a broken sword resting on it, Lord Elrond’s stern voice echoing in my ears…

No. Enough.

‘Stop!’ I thought hard, and with a mighty effort, I managed to pull myself from the tirade with a silent cry of effort.

We needed to push through this. I knew we could both spend forever trapped in here if we carried on, lost in each others memories if I didn’t do something to get to what we came here to see. What we attempted all this for.

So with one mental hand, I reached out and pulled Aragorn from the storm of our combined memories with me, and with the other I reached out through the darkness surrounding my thoughts with incorporeal fingers, reaching for her…

And instantly felt the whisper of warm, invisible fingers gripping mine back.

A tug, a gasp, and we were both suddenly falling. Down through the darkness, I could suddenly see Aragorn beside me, corporeal, real, steel-grey eyes wide, and still gripping my hand tight as a lifeline as we both plummeted towards the ground.

When we hit the grass, it was like falling from a tree. Not enough to break bones, but enough to knock the sense from you for a few seconds. It took me a moment longer than Aragorn to pull myself onto my elbows with a groan. He was already on his feet and looking around as I sat up to do the same. Trying to figure out what part of my mind and memories we’d ended up in…

And my heart just about stopped.

I knew exactly where we were the moment I saw it.

I’d have known it if I’d been trapped in Arda a thousand years, instead of near three.

We were in a garden, dark with the early evening and lit by a balmy summer moon. Or at least I knew it as a garden. To anyone else it would have looked like nothing more than a stretch of well-kept but untamed grass and wildflowers sprawled out behind a house maybe sixty meters away. The distant building was an old, English farmhouse, with a tall, thatched roof, oxblood pink walls, and boxes full of geraniums under the windows. Vegetables grew in a small plot by the open kitchen door, and there was a wind-chime made of sea glass I’d crafted when I was ten, tinkling just outside.

We had landed out back almost to where grass and wildflowers of the lawn gave way to fruit and woodland trees, a couple of beehives buzzing quietly nearby, but we were still close enough to see that there were lights on in the house. Smoke was rising from the chimney, and every now and then, I heard a familiar laugh. Could see the silhouetted shadow of someone moving inside…

“Eleanor…” Aragorn murmured slowly, quiet as if someone might hear him. “What is this place?”

My chest burned with an ache I couldn’t stop. My eyes blurred as I stood up beside him, unable to look anywhere but at the house through the tears filling my eyes.

It was just a construct. Just an illusion built by my mind in place of the real thing, and yet…

And yet.

“It’s m-my…my…” I could barely breathe, my eyes squeezing shut as tears streaked down my cheeks, shuddering as the breath left me in a whisper. “… My home.”

Aragorn was utterly silent for a long time, standing beside me in the grass, no sound but the gentle breeze in the trees and the distant sound of chatter and clinking of glasses coming from the house.

“It… looks like the Shire,” he stated, as if the idea both confused him and made sense all at the same time. “Nothing like the metal buildings I saw just now.”

“This is my parents’ house, far outside the city. My father was in the army, but he and my mother moved back here when he retired.” I heard myself say, my voice coming out in a shaking whisper. My hand reached out of its own accord and brushed over the tops of the swaying wildflowers, their buds tickling at my palms.  “I… I thought I might never see it again.”

He shifted toward me, a rustle of grass and cloth before his hand settled hesitantly on my shoulder. “It’s… beautiful. Peaceful.”

“Not all of her world is metal and glass, ranger,” a voice I knew as well as my own — probably because it was my own — came from the trees right behind us.

Aragorn spun like a dervish, his hand automatically going for his sword, but my own hand moved shockingly fast, seizing his wrist before he could draw the weapon.

“Don’t! It’s ok.”

I looked up away from the house, and sure enough, there was Tink.

She was standing a respectful distance back behind us, her form shaded from the moonlight by the rustling trees, but I could see her amber eyes gleaming like a pair of fireflies through the gloom.

Aragorn didn’t relax, but I was reasonably sure he wasn’t going to try and draw his blade again. So I hesitantly let go and stepped to stand between them. For the tiniest moment, with the tensed look of suspicion on the man’s face, and the alertness of the being behind me, I felt oddly like I was back in the Cat & Canary, about to break up a bar fight before it could escalate.

“I told you I had some kind of spirit trapped in my head, Aragorn. Well…” I said carefully, gesturing with an upturned hand to the identical, golden-eyed version of myself behind me. “This is Tink. Also known as the lost Maia, Rávamë.”

Tink chose that moment to step entirely out of the shade of the trees and into the moonlight. Aragorn had one of the best poker-faces I’d ever seen, but even he couldn’t hide the shock in his expression at the sight of my face being worn by something so obviously different. Oh, Tink and I might be identical in shape and form, but I knew for certain now from the look on his face that — even without the colour of our eyes — to another’s perception we were about as different as night and day.

As opposite as creation and destruction.

They regarded each other for a painfully long moment, unspeaking and unmoving.

“Tell me who you are,” Aragorn growled at last, in the voice he normally used for battle orders, not taking his eyes off her. Tink inclined her head at him, one of my — her —  eyebrows elegantly arched, and when she spoke, even though it was my voice, it was almost painfully obvious it wasn’t me speaking through it.

“She just told you who I am, Son of the West. Are you deaf? Or do you trust her word so little after all she’s done?”

Aragorn’s face darkened into an even deeper frown, anger and sharp mistrust deepening the lines at his eyes, obviously resisting the urge to draw his sword, for all the good it would do him here.

“I would hear it from your own mouth, Maia.”

Tink eyed him, amber eyes glinting like a cat’s in the moonlight. Then she looked pointedly at me, and her expression softened into that knowing little smile of secrets shared between close friends.

I understood that look. I knew who she was now. She wasn’t bound into silence by my ignorance anymore. She could introduce herself now, without me needing to do it for her first.

“Very well. I am Rávamë of the Wilds, vassal to Yavanna Kementári, and learned of Oromë Aldaron the Great Rider of Aman,” she said, with a rather unnecessarily flowery bow and a sardonic smile. “Pleased to meet you at last, Aragorn, son of Arathorn. Best ask your questions quick though. If you truly wish to keep my host well and whole as I do, you will not push her to keep this link open any longer than necessary. It is already tiring her.”

Aragorn’s attention flicked to me for a second, and I gave him what I hoped was a reassuring smile, but it probably looked a bit wooden, all things considered.

“I’m alright for now. Ask away.”

He paused for a moment, then nodded, turning back to Tink. “You are truly one of the Ainur? As Gandalf is?”

She folded her arms over her chest. “I am indeed. Though, I’d say I’ve aged better than Olorin** has.”

Aragorn ignored her barbed sass with all the grace of a saint. “You were responsible for powering the antacuilë that saved Boromir?”

“I was. Though he has Eleanor’s skill to thank for his life,” she sniffed.

“And how is it that you came to share the same body as Eleanor?”

“I can’t say because I don’t know,” she told him transparently, gold eyes drifting back to me for the briefest of moments. “When Eleanor destroyed her memories ands put herself to sleep in that cave, she took mine as well. I can tell you no more than she can.”

“Destroyed her own…” Aragorn turned suddenly on me, a look close to horror in his eyes. “You destroyed your own memories?”

I nodded, the same feeling of hopelessness I’d felt then slipping back into my gut like a dagger between the ribs. “Galadriel told me back in Lothlórien. Apparently she helped me do it some time ago, but couldn’t tell me why. Blood oaths, wailing and gnashing of teeth, and all that.”

“Neither of us know how or why it happened, ranger, only that it affected us both when it did,” Tink cut in, drawing Aragorn’s attention sharply back to her.

He narrowed his grey eyes at hers again. “And you cannot simply leave her body?”

“No, I simply cannot,” she answered, seemingly unaffected by his razor sharp gaze. “Not as we are now, at least. I can sense that much. It would damage us both, and I won’t do that to her.”

Aragorn mulled all that over for a second, his eyes drifting over her, not in the way a man would look at a woman, but just as one might study an especially complex chessboard.

“You also speak and appear as she does. Why?”

Tink rolled her head to the side, giving Aragorn a look as though she thought him rather thick. “You and that pointy eared princeling have known each other for, what? Seventy years? And lo, you both speak similarly too! Companions and friends often do when they spend near every waking hour in each other’s company.”

Aragorn gave the maia a thoroughly irritated glare, and it would have been enough to make me laugh if I hadn’t been so on edge about two halves of my world colliding in a dream-scape version of my parent’s back garden. I watched with bated breath as he held her stare for an agonisingly long.

“You are… not what I expected,” he said slowly. Tink dipped into an elegant mock curtsy, miming lifted skirts.

“I live to surprise. Now, any other questions I can enlighten you by half-answering, dearest ranger?”

“One,” he said, low and quiet as if choosing the words. “What is it you intend in all this? Helping Eleanor, and by extension us. Why do you show yourself here of all places? In a place that obviously means so much to her? Tell me, what is it you truly want, Rávamë of the Wilds?”

Tink sobered, and didn’t answer immediately. Instead, she dropped the sardonic expression entirely, and drew herself up.

The sight was downright eery. She didn’t get any bigger, but it was as if the shadow she cast in the moonlight grew to three time its size, writhing behind her like it was cast by a much larger, stronger form. Her amber eyes burned like coals in the mirror of my face as she stared into Aragorn’s, and when she spoke, it was in a strange double tone — like two different voices laid perfectly over each other.

One calm, the other quietly furious.

“The same thing I see you intend, Son of the West. I intend to protect the one whom’s body contains me, and I intend to help her regain the past that was torn from both our minds, so she may one day return to this place that is most precious to her, and I may return to mine.” Then her face softened, and she looked away from Aragorn and straight at me, her voice returning to normal again, yet somehow more gentle than I was used to.

“I am an ally and friend to the woman you stand beside. I care greatly for her wellbeing, body and spirit, and by my power, I won’t allow any harm to come to her.” Her expression didn’t change again, but her eyes sharpened to jagged edges as they returned once more to Aragorn’s. “Not even from you.”

Aragorn for his part, didn’t balk at the flaring of Tink’s temper. He didn’t look away from her either, but I did notice that his hand had drifted from his sword hilt to hang at his side. Almost as if the her words — dramatic with a capital “D” as they were — had reassured him more than anything else could have.

“I see that now,” he murmured, and gave her a single, solemn nod, which she returned after second’s pause. Then his eyes hardened again, and he raised a hand to point squarely at her face. “And I in return I tell you now that she is also my charge to defend, and I have no intention of allowing harm to come to her from within either.”

To my baffled surprise, a big cheshire cat grin spread over Tink’s face like melted butter, wide and genuine as anything I’d ever seen from her.

“Then I suppose we have that much in common, at least,” she said, and almost, for just a second, she sounded like she might have been pleased. Then she blinked and it was gone, turning back to me in all seriousness again. “You both should go. Any longer will start costing each of you strength you don’t have to spare.”

I went to argue on instinct but felt Aragorn’s hand on my wrist.

“She’s right, Eleanor,” he agreed, lifting my arm up so I could see my hand. My fingers were starting to tremble violently. They had a point, but I wasn’t at all convinced my suddenly exhausted body was solely because of the link I was holding open.

Warm relief flooded me from head to toe as I stared at my other self for what felt like hours, my passenger, my friend who had come to my defence, standing in the constructed illusion of my family’s garden with tear tracks down my cheek, and had no idea what to say.

“Tink…” I breathed, but she cut me off.

“It’s ok, boss,” She just smiled softly, winked at me, and though her face still held the lingering flickers of a worry and wariness, the raw care and affection I saw there was far brighter. “I meant what I said. I’ve got your back. Always.”

And with that, she was gone again, and Aragorn and I were falling down through a flurry of colour, falling leaves, and the lingering scent of wildflowers.

Chapter Text

I crashed back into reality at the exact same moment Aragorn did.

Sharp gasps exploded from each of us as the link I’d formed between our minds snapped like a violin string put under too much tension. The mental recoil flung our hands apart, and I, being the lighter, was sent flying straight back into Legolas. He caught my shoulders just in in time for me to see Aragorn go crashing backward into a wide-eyed Boromir, who just about managed to stop the both of them sprawling onto the floor.

My head was still spinning, the room pitching, the scent of wild daisies and poppies heavy in my nose, and the burn of homesickness still raw in my chest. I didn’t know what my own face looked like, but if it was anything like Aragorn’s opposite me, I must have looked like I was one wrong move away from throwing up my lunch.

He was gazing only at me, eyes slightly bleary as if struggling to focus, but he wore the same expression he had in the moments before Tink and the garden had vanished.

Understanding. Comprehension.

He’d seen her. Talked to her. He knew everything now.

And he believed me.

There were actual tears in my eyes now, threatening to spill over with the vision of home still fresh in my mind. I quickly wiped them away with my sleeve before they could fall.

“Aragorn?” Legolas’ voice came from over my right shoulder. His warm grip on my upper arm was still steadying me, but more hesitant than before. Something about it didn’t sound quite right.

“She spoke true. Every word,” Aragorn rasped, still looking only at me. His voice was steady, though he was still reeling from the shock of the broken mental link. “It is all real. She is real.”

“She isn’t dangerous,” I said quickly, gasping around my words too. Then I realised exactly how ridiculous that sounded, after everything I’d just told and showed them. “Ok, she is dangerous, but she isn’t malicious.”

Aragorn shook his head, blinking away the last of the dazedness.

“No, not malicious, but not anything like harmless either,” he agreed, getting back to his feet with Gimli’s help. He was still a bit wobbly, but he managed to offer something like a reassuring little smile for me, adding: “However obnoxious, she is no immediate danger to us.”

“You saw her?” Boromir demanded dazedly.

“And spoke with her. She has no ill will for us. Her only concern is Eleanor’s continued survival, just as she said.” Aragorn said, looking meaningful at the other man as he did. Boromir looked as if someone had struck him over the head with something heavy. He couldn’t seem to stop looking back and forth between me and Aragorn, unable to form anything more than the outline of words.

“So it is really is true then. The lass truly carries a Maia within her,” Gimli murmured, his rough voice barely above a whisper.

“Manwë’s breath and balls,” Boromir swore quietly, and if you’ve been paying attention at all, dear reader, you’ll know the significance of a swear that vulgar coming from a man like Boromir.

I won’t lie, the fact that they all seemed more floored by Tink than the fact that I was from a different reality entirely was more than a tad befuddling. Then again, maybe it made sense. I’d never made an effort to hide the fact that I was different, a mismatched puzzle piece lost in the wrong box. Far-fetched as other realities must have sounded to them all, if any of us could have plausible claim to be from another world, it was definitely me.

I’d almost begun to relax, thinking the worst was over, when the warmth of familiar hands suddenly vanished from my shoulders.

“Two souls in one body…” Legolas strained whisper came from behind me, and this time I knew there was something wrong with the sound of his voice. It was as if he were suddenly being carful not to let any emotion leak into it at all. When I turned to look at him properly for the first time since the limifëa had broken, I found him already several feet away.

Backing away from me.

“Legolas?” I murmured, his name a question that he didn’t answer. He just stared at me with an unnervingly blank look in his eyes.

Then he turned and walked calmly from the room.

“Legolas!”

I went to stand and go after him, and almost immediately fell back onto the bench as my legs refused to hold me up. I’d been so caught up in coming clean with them all that I’d almost forgotten what had happened with me and that soldier outside in the alleyway. In the face of everything else, one drunk man-child who could’t keep it in his trousers seemed almost laughable now, but my body didn’t seem to agree. It was still reeling and drained from the shock of too much adrenaline, too much anger, too much fear, and really, just too fucking much of everything.

I damn near fell straight onto my face in my determination to get up off the bench, only managing to catch myself after banging my shins hard on it. With a curse of frustration I shoved myself up onto my wobbling legs before anyone could try and help me, and staggered after him.

Boromir, who was still looking like someone had struck him between the eyes with a mallet, got up to try and go after me, but I saw Gimli push him back down with a firm hand on his shoulder.

“Let them be, lad. You’ve more important things to worry about right now.”

I didn’t wait to hear Boromir’s reply, dashing out the door as fast as I could manage on my unsteady legs. I had to shove past a few surprised guardsmen and serving girls, but I caught up to him just in time to see him heading for the main doors to the barracks, almost falling over again when my foot caught on a loose floor stone.

“Dammit, would you stop for a minute!” I cried, reaching out to pull him to a halt.

The second my fingers touched his arm, he flinched.

Flinched.

Jerking his arm away as if the touch of my bare fingers on his skin had burned him, turning those familiar blue-grey eyes on me. And they didn’t look angry, or hurt, or… anything.

They just looked blank. Cold.

My blood chilled in my veins.

For one long, terrible moment, we just stared at each other. Neither of us moving, neither of us speaking. Not a single flicker of emotion showing anywhere on his face. I wasn’t certain what I’d been expecting; anger, fear, contempt. Some combination of all of them. I’d prepared myself for all of it. But not this.

Not a blank icy wall.

“I…” I started, all my clever words totally deserting me. “I was going to tell you—”

“When?”

His toneless voice was like a jab to my solar plexus. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t look away.

There was the muffled sounds of movement somewhere in the hall behind me, and for a split second, Legolas’ expressionless eyes flickered over my shoulder. The shadow of suppressed fury darkened his fine features to something frightening.

Leave,” he growled at the people behind me, and the sound of retreating boots followed without so much as a peep of protest.

I was only partly thankful when that chilling expression on his face vanished the second he looked at me again. Instead he covered his face with one hand, as if trying to wipe away the riot of emotions from his features.

“I thought…” he began, seeming for a second to have lost his words too. “I thought that perhaps you remembered her name so strongly because you once knew her, or followed her even, before you lost your memories… Not once did I think it was because you were carrying her very essence within yourself all this time.”

I could barely stand to meet his gaze without cringing, but I forced myself to look anyway.

“I know…” I didn’t know what else to say.

Not in the face of that blank, stony barrier going up between us.

“You lied to us. To me,” he told me.

The blood in my veins turned to icicles beneath my skin, my head shaking on its own. “I didn’t.”

“But you did.”

“I never said—”

“No, you didn’t,” he interrupted without raising his voice or looking away, voice and gaze still sharp as knives. “Each of us trusted you with our lives, and you knew. You knew all this time, and you said nothing.”

Anger fuelled by exhaustion and frustration kindled to life inside me. I already felt like a bitch of the first order for everything that had happened, and that was without having my guilt hammered home with a lecture.

“And what else was I supposed to say?” I demanded, flinging my hands out to either side. “A secret that big wasn’t exactly the kind of thing I could drop casually in conversation, Legolas.”

“And yet you managed to keep us all completely blind to it for near three months,” he countered, still maddeningly controlled, keeping his emotions on a tight leash. “We were with you every day and night, through Caradhras, Moria, Lothlórien, and Amon Hen. And yet in all that time, still you didn’t trust a single one of us to know the truth of you.”

“You know, you weren’t exactly honest with me about who you were when we first met, either,” I spat without thought, my temper still flaring. A flicker of anger slipped through a crack in his mask, and he took a long, slow breath before responding.

“Withholding a meaningless title until we were on better terms is not the same as hiding the fact that you carry the spirit of a long-lost semi-divine being inside you, Eleanor,” he said at last, and is voice came out strained and harsh. I stared hard at him, at that crack in his emotionless mask, and realised something.

He wasn’t just frustrated, confused, angry with me. He was sad.

Almost grieved.

“What’s happened to you?” I breathed, and it was enough to crack his mask right down the middle, showing for a split second every inch of the rawness beneath.

“What happened to me? I just discovered the woman I—!” he quickly cut himself off with a sharp intake of breath, covering his face with his hand again, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Manwë’s breath, twenty-four years!

“So this is about my age, is it?” I demanded, fuming, and his stare turned so cold, it actually sent goosebumps rippling over my skin.

“No, Eleanor, it isn’t.”

I had a good feeling that was a heap of steaming troll shite. I’d seen the crippling shock on his face, the realisation that in elven years that made me barely older than a babe.

“Then what is it?” I asked as calmly and reasonably as I could manage. When he didn’t answer and just continued to look down at me in stony silence, I threw up both my hands. “For God sake, I can’t read your mind, Legolas! Would you please just spit it out! Tell me exactly what it is about all this crap that’s suddenly made you shut me out.”

Legolas shifted minutely, and I couldn’t tell if it was towards or away from me. I didn’t let myself think about it.

“She… the spirit sharing your body, does she control you at all?” he said at last, tonelessly. I shook my head.

“No, she can’t. She says it would damage us both if she did.” I touched a hand to my chest. “This is all me, I swear.”

“But she influences your emotions?”

I swallowed. “Yes. But only the strongest ones, and only recently, like I told you. Fear, anger…”

“And that anger brought you to beat a man into near senselessness when he tried to force himself on you.” It wasn’t a question, but I could practically feel the sudden rage coming off him like heat off a bonfire.

Not at me this time, but at what had almost been done to me. And at the one who had tried to do it.

“Yes,” I admitted, my voice coming stronger this time. “She tried to stop me from hurting him, but I did that. And I’m not sorry for it.”

“You almost killed him,” he said softly.

No anger, no disapproval. Just a plain statement of the truth. It still felt like a punch to the gut. My fists clenched until my torn nails dug into my palms, the pain beating back the memories of Mark that tried to crawl back out of the shallow graves I’d buried them in.

“I wanted to.”

“You could have easily killed Boromir in that state,” he told me, his voice gone quiet and oddly flat again.

Another statement of fact, not a judgement, but I didn’t have an answer to it. Nothing but a cold chill that slithered down my spine to rest in the pit of my stomach like frozen metal. I could have killed my friend to defend myself, but I didn’t because deep down I knew he was a friend who wasn’t in his right mind. Unhinged as he’d been, ruled by the fear I now knew must have been plaguing him all this time, I still cared for him. I’d wanted to see him healed of whatever had been tearing at his heart and mind, and it had almost cost me my life.

But for better or worse, that was between me and him. Not Legolas.

I straightened and forced myself to look him straight in the face without flinching, all my lingering anger and unapologetic wrath clear on my face.

“I will never apologise for defending myself. Not ever.”

Legolas’ gaze softened ever so slightly, and I saw his fingers twitch slightly as if about to reach for me.

But he didn’t.

“And I would never ask you to. I am not upset that you protected yourself, Eleanor. Only that you didn’t trust m—” he stopped and pointedly corrected himself through a clenched jaw. “Us, to help you when you needed it. Again.”

Just like you did outside Moria, when you were so badly wounded, his unspoken meaning hung thick in the air.

I made myself breathe slowly, trying to keep myself calm and barely managing. I had so many emotions clamouring for rule inside me that I couldn’t tell if I was livid, guilty, frustrated or one step shy of angry tears anymore…

But my eyes were beginning to sting again.

“So to summarise,” I said through gritted teeth, still holding his gaze as if my life depended on it. “You aren’t angry that I defended myself, and you aren’t angry that I almost murdered a man doing it. But the fact that I have the spirit and power of a hyper-protective Maia stuck in my head and I didn’t tell you is more of an issue than the fact I’m apparently from a different bloody world entirely?”

I’m not sure what it was that set it off, but at that, the final pieces of that mask he’d been wearing over his emotions shattered and fell away. His face twisted into something that mixed fury and pain, blue-grey eyes icy, every line and hard angle sudden a razor’s edge.

“I never cared where you were from!” he snapped at me, his voice almost a snarl.

I flinched.

I couldn’t help it. My own eyes went wide and I nearly took a step back, but the shock of the storm I saw in his face froze me to the floor. And this time, he didn’t even try to smooth it away, voice harsh and cold as his words sliced into me.

“I have never cared. I still don’t. Just as you did not care when you discovered who I truly was. All that matters is that you said nothing. Not a single word. Again and again, you would rather come within an inch of letting yourself be killed rather than—” Again he forced himself to stop, visibly biting his tongue to keep from striking with it again.

Then he closed his eyes, breathed deep just as I had earlier to calm himself, and said the words that finally broke me:

“I cannot know whether what comes out of your mouth is the truth, a lie, or something in between anymore.”

I’m not sure how much time passed while I just stood there, my feet frozen to the floor. Seconds? Minutes? Days? It felt like infinitely longer. There was suddenly such silence inside me, I could hear my own heartbeat stutter. It was as if every burning emotion had been pulled out of me in the space of a breath, leaving nothing but a cold, hollow shell behind. I think I must have forgotten to breathe too, because when I finally did hear my own voice again, it was so quiet and choked it was barely there at all.

“I never lied to you. Not to any of you. Not once.”

Legolas’ torrent of emotions had faded back, but his eyes were still sparking with the embers of it, jaw tight with strain. It only made the softness of his voice even more painful.

“But you were never entirely honest either. Not about yourself, your plight, your… passenger,” he said, stumbling over the word like it tasted foul in his mouth. “And not about what you truly wish for at the end of this journey.

“To leave… and never return again.”

I was looking straight at him as he said those last words, and it was only because I was that I saw the look in his eyes, the sudden flash of agony that told me everything.

‘To leave and never return.’

Oh…

Oh God.

The icicles beneath my skin grew thorns as finally, finally I realised what he meant. What the rage meant. What all those masked flickers of sadness had meant. What his sudden departure just now had meant…

I hadn’t just deceived him — I’d been leading him on.

I might not have been doing it intentionally, or even consciously, but that hardly mattered when all was said and done. Elves bonded far more deeply when they chose to fall in love than any other race; the kind of bond that lasted for millennia. And it only ever happened once. I’d known that. I might not have even considered until earlier that day whether I was even ready for the idea of becoming romantically involved with anyone, let alone with him, but… I had also never once stopped to think what it would do to him if we became so entangled, only for me to eventually leave Arda, never to return again.

Everything we’d exchanged over the past few months flashed through my mind in terrible, agonising clarity. All our close talks and joking together in Lothlórien, sharing secrets and stories, all our awkward, tender moments when I’d been recovering, all our near-misses when we couldn’t seem to find ourselves alone long enough. All of our gradual, tentative journey past the point of mere friendship into something more…

And none of it mattered.

Because when all this was done, when we were finally at the end of the road and I had my answers, I would go. I’d depart this world and maybe never return…

And I’d leave him behind.

It’s a much harder thing than you’d imagine, suddenly waking up and realising you’re actually a lot more selfish than you thought you were.

“I…”

I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t think past anything but that he was right. He was right.

God damn him.

It felt like my chest was collapsing in on itself at the sight of him now — the sight of him combined with the knowledge of what every one of those emotions meant. All the broken pieces of the trust he’d had in me, lying at our feet. The meagre few inches of space between us seeming to grow to miles.

My hand made its way to clutch at my chest on its own, as if trying to hold together something that was cracking apart inside. My eyes burned now, and I squeezed them shut tight.

It hurt. It all hurt so fucking much.

Every cell in my body howled with regret at the look of hurt and pain I could still feel in him, even if I couldn’t see it, and the knowledge that there was nothing I could do to take it back.

But even then, I couldn’t regret finally telling him the truth.

“I…” The words that came as a choked whisper didn’t seem anything close to adequate, but they were the only ones I had. “I’m sorry.”

I meant them. I meant them so much it hurt.

My eyes were still clenched shut, but I heard the soft rustle of his tunic as he moved, felt the warmth of familiar fingertips not quite touching the skin of my cheek.

“Eleanor, I—”

The door at the end of the hall creaked, and I opened my eyes to find Legolas’ expression had dissolved into something broken with what looked painfully like grief. He’d reached a hand out across the gap between us, perhaps to cup my cheek, but he’d frozen mid-movement the second the entrance to the barracks had opened and Eowyn stepped inside in a swish of practical travelling skirts and long, gold hair.

“Ah, there you are, Lady Eleanor. One of the healers informed me that there was an altercation with one of the soldiers. Is everything al…” she trailed off, eyes flickering between the pair of us. “Apologies, am I interrupting?”

That space between us seemed to yawn even wider, that one final moment of tenderness breaking around us like glass.

Legolas still extended hand drew back away from me as it closed, fingers curling into a fist as he let the arm drop back to his side. He closed his eyes for a long moment, and when he opened them again, all trace of the vulnerability he’d shown me was gone.

“No,” he answered softly before I could even open my mouth. His newly hardened gaze flickered back to me for one painful second, brushing over the circle of fresh contusions I could feel burning on my neck, and then to the bruised and bloody tips of my fingers where I’d torn my nails clawing at my attacker’s face…

He didn’t meet my gaze again as his jaw tightened, and his eyes went flat with silent, terrible fury.

“Please, excuse me.”

Then he turned, and walked out of the hall without a backward glance.

~ ♛ ~

I didn’t follow him, but I didn’t dare go back into the barracks with Eowyn either. She’d heard about what happened and wanted to inform me and them that the soldier who’d accosted me was being dealt with. I accepted the news and numbly left her there to find the others on her own.

I didn’t want to talk to her.

Or Aragorn. Or Gimli. Or Boromir. Or anyone.

Instead I found the stables — better late than never — almost as soon as I got outside again. A twinge of gratefulness made its home in my gut upon finding it was completely empty of all traces of men and horses, except for a few saddlebags piled up at the back. All the preparations for the journey to Helms Deep must have already been completed, and now everyone was gathering down near the gates, ready to leave together.

Everyone…

The thought sent a stab of pain through me, and I found myself clutching my chest again as I stepped inside and half-heartedly kicked the stable door shut behind me.

‘Eleanor?’ Tink’s worried voice drifted up from the depths of my mind. ‘Are you…  are you ok?’

I just stared into the dimly lit stable, the only light coming in through the few un-shuttered windows and the crack in the door behind me.

Please Tink, just… I just need to be alone for bit.’

A pause as long as an age, and an ocean worth of understanding in it.

‘Ok,’ she said quietly. ‘I’m… I’m really sorry, boss.’

There was the brush of what felt almost like a hug against my thoughts, and then she was gone.

I drifted numbly over to one of the walls and slid down it onto my backside on the dirt floor. I just sat there staring at the empty paddocks, my stinging eye beginning to mist over completely.

It’s funny, in all that time, I couldn’t really remember the last time I’d truly cried. Not the kind of physical pain, like I’d done when Haldir took the arrow head out of me, or the hysterical tears of fear for a friend’s life I’d shed as Borormir lay dying. I mean the rawest kind of tears, that come only when there is something ripping you apart inside, and there’s nothing you can do to mend it but let the feelings out.

I’d promised myself back in Rivendell years ago 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 there was nothing I could do to fix this, nothing I could do to mend what I feared was now permanently broken.

So I cried.

I cried and cried, covering my face with both my hands, curling into myself as the sobs I’d been holding in for so long wracked through me.

I must have wept there on the stable floor for a long while, because by the time my sobs finally began to quiet, my eyes were bone dry and my voice had all but gone. And even after the tears and hiccuping little gasps had stopped completely I stayed there. I knew I’d need to move eventually, drag myself up off that damned floor and start moving with the others out of the city, but right then even the idea made my throat tighten enough to strangle me.

I didn’t even react when the door to the stable creaked open and someone stepped inside, halting the moment they saw me there.

“My lady?” a confused voice I knew from another life pierced the silence I’d wrapped myself in.

Katie.

I uncoiled myself just enough to look up and find the heavily pregnant woman I’d seen upon entering Edoras — the one who bore such a startling resemblance to my best friend — staring down at me. She’d tied her wavy red hair back in a loose braid, draped a travelling cloak over her shoulders, and was carrying a small basket of linen on one shapely hip. She was also gazing down at me with bright brown eyes so familiar, it made my heart leap in my already aching chest.

But it wasn’t her.

She wasn’t Katie. Not my Katie. Not the same girl I’d known for years. Not the one whom that name on my knife belonged to, no matter how much I wished in that moment that it was her…

The thought brought a fresh wave of pain up to the surface, but I didn’t have any tears left to shed.

“Sorry, am I in your way?” I heard myself croak, scarcely able to believe the broken sound was really my own voice. Katie’s doppelgänger bit her lip, eyeing me.

“Not at all…” she said gently in that painfully familiar voice, taking a step inside so she could close the stable door behind her. “Are you alright?”

I almost laughed, but it came out as a strangled choking sound instead, and I had to cover my mouth until I could control myself again. The woman who looked so much like my best friend look alarmed, immediately setting down her basket and crouching down before me. It was no easy task; from the look of it she was well into her final month of pregnancy, and the prominent swell of her belly was nothing to sneeze at.

“My lady, please. Are you unwell?” she pleaded, face breaking with compassion that only made it harder to control my sobs.

I’d really thought I’d spent all my tears. Shows what I know, I guess.

“N-no. I’m alright, r-really,” I hiccuped once I’d finally got myself under control again, gesturing to her swollen belly without thinking. “Besides, you r-really shouldn’t be here, fussing over me. Your husband is probably already worrying himself sick.”

The woman’s face didn’t lose any of its compassion, but it fell slightly.

“I doubt that greatly, since I have no husband,” she stated simply, pulling one of the clean linen rags from her basket and using it to gently dry my face. I looked at her through sore eyes, not quite understanding.

“But… you’re…” I mumbled stupidly, eyes falling to her belly. She placed a hand tenderly on the bump, looking down with a sad little smile.

“He walks the same path as Lord Theodred does, now.”

Wow, Eleanor, pull your head out of your ass, why don’t you.

I felt like kicking myself, and it showed in my voice as I sputtered a garbled, “Jesus, I’m so sorry.”

The sad little smile didn’t fall from her face as she turned her gaze back up to mine.

“You’ve nothing to apologise for,” she insisted, pressing the linen rag into my hand. “Though if you remain sprawled on the floor like that, you’ll soon find yourself apologising for tripping someone up.”

I hiccuped again, but nodded, pulling myself away from the wall and back onto my feet. The young soon-to-be-mother had a harder time of it than I did with her little passenger weighing her down, so I did my best to help her up without insulting her pride. Something about her demeanour made me think that she wasn’t kind of girl who reacted well to being pitied or coddled.

“My thanks,” she smiled once she was vertical — half a head taller than me, just like Kaite was, I noticed — and took up her basket again. “I’m Sarra, by the way. Do you have a name, my lady?”

I hesitated, my creaky voice not obeying immediately, but I cleared my throat until it worked again.

“Eleanor. Just Eleanor. No ‘lady’ required. I’m the healer of my travelling party.”

Sarra nodded, moving down the rows of paddocks to the pile of empty bags and stalls at the end of the row, with me following just behind.

“So I’ve heard. Ilda said you did a masterful job patching up that boy who fell off his horse.”

A stiff smile broke over my face at the memory of Eothain and Freda, treating their hurts and telling them a story over food. Had it really only been that morning?

“Yeah, that was me,” I confirmed as she started packing the folded cloth into a single canvas satchel. “You know Ilda?”

She nodded, her hands stilling for a beat.

“I’m… I was one of my Lady Eowyn’s shield-maidens, before my—”

She gave a sudden wince of pain, a hand going to her belly, and I had to restrain myself from leaping to her aid, just in case she fell. She really was just about ready to pop.

“Are you alright?” I asked seriously, finding my voice stronger than before. She cringed and nodded, waving me away.

“It’s nothing, just the cost of a long pregnancy.” A warm, wide smile broke over her features as she stroked a hand over the bump, turning her already lovely face to raw beauty. “More than worth it, though.”

To my shock, I found a genuine smile creeping onto my face too, but it vanished the moment I thought about the long trek across the grasslands ahead of us.

“Maybe we should ask one of the healers for something to help—”

“They will not help,” she interrupted me flatly before I could finish, folding more of the clothes into the bag. I blinked at her.

“What do you mean, they won’t help?”

She didn’t answer immediately, instead focusing on getting the last of the linens and clothes into the satchel and tying it closed.

“They believe my child is not worthy of their treatment, as other newborns would be,” she said with simple finality that did little to mask the bitterness underneath.

I just stared at her.

“They refuse to help you because the father of your child died?” I asked, appalled. Sarra chuckled and shook her head at me.

“No, they refuse to help because the father of my child was not my husband,” she explained, with all the delicacy of an anvil being dropped onto a house. I realised what she meant after only a second of spinning my wheels.

“Oh…”

Honestly, it didn’t seem like all that big a deal to me, but I wasn’t completely naive either. I’d been alive in Arda long enough to know that having children out of wedlock here wasn’t looked on with anything like the kind of acceptance it did back on Earth. Still, as a healer, I had always been taught by Lord Elrond that it was my duty to help any and all whom I could with my skills if they were in need. The idea that Sarra and her unborn baby were being denied that basic right when they so obviously needed it was enough to turn the lingering pain in my chest into cold, distilled anger.

Good. Pain and sadness were treacherous. But anger I could work with.

That quiet outrage must have shown on my face more than I’d intended because Sarra gave me a politely curious look, and I scrambled for something else to ask, before the sound of my teeth grinding got too loud.

“How did he… I mean, was he…?”

Sarra knew what I was fumbling to ask, but I wished I’d picked something else when the sadness on her face grew deeper.

“He was one of the Rohirrim riders, one of Lord Eomer’s lieutenants. We… I conceived before we could officially wed. Before my family could publicly approve the match and arrange a wedding, he was killed in a raid.”

Her hands had automatically drifted to cradle her belly again, long, elegant fingers stroking over the bump like a mother might stroke her baby’s hair.

“I don’t know if he truly loved me, but he loved this child. I saw it in his face the moment I told him. He wished to be a father, and he would have been a good one. He did not deserve the fate he was dealt, and neither does our son or daughter. My deeds are my own, my choices are my own, how ever anyone else sees fit to judge them. But my baby has done nothing, not to anyone. They have not even taken their first breath yet, and yet these people who claim to know best would presume to tell me…” The sorrow in her face had morphed to cold fury through the story, and she did her best to quell it with a few deep breaths, turning to me with an apologetic little smile. “Forgive me, it was not my intention to throw the weight of my problems on you. Especially when you appear to have plenty of your own.”

It might have been a bit presumptuous, but I smiled and reached over and took her hand, giving it a gentle squeeze.

“There’s nothing to forgive, Sarra. If anything, I should be thanking you,” I told her honestly, testing the sound of the name on my tongue and finding strangely that it fit. She looked surprised, but not at all displeased. I took my hand back and looked towards the door as I heard the distant sound of Háma calling for the city to start emptying. “I know it’s sudden, but would you maybe mind if I walked with you? I hear it’s a long way to Helms Deep.”

Whatever reaction I’d been expecting from her, it paled in the face of the beaming grin she gave in answer.

“Indeed it is,” she chuckled with a warmth that made her face glow. “And I would welcome your company, Eleanor.”

I picked up the bag she’d been packing before she could protest and slung it over my shoulder. I seemed only fair. Sarra was already carrying another person around in her, and I already had everything I owned either strapped to me, packed in my the medical satchel at my hip, or hidden up my sleeves and in my boots. One extra bag of clothes was a tiny price to pay for someone kind to walk beside.

A lance of pain spiked through me again at the thought of not travelling with Aragorn, Gimli, Boromir, and…

And…

I swallowed the lump in my throat.

I couldn’t face them. Not just yet. But I also couldn’t just sit here and wallow in tears and silence forever, not when there were far more important things that needed focusing on than drowning in my own self pity. I couldn’t take back what I’d done. I might not be able to fix what was broken.

But if Sarra could stand up and keep moving forward after everything she had been through, then I bloody well could, too.

We stepped out of the gloomy stables into the brilliant sunshine I hadn’t noticed before I’d gone in. It hurt my sore eyes a bit, but I stopped for a second to tilt my face up to the sun and let it warm the skin of my cheeks and eyelids. It had been winter when we’d all left Rivendell several months ago, but now it seemed spring was truly on the way.

A thought struck me just as my new companion stepped out of stables beside me, and I turned to her.

“What’s the date today?” I asked, and Sarra eyed me curiously.

“The second day of Súlimë by the Steward’s Reckoning,” she answered, baffled. “Why?”

The second of March by Earth’s calendar.

A hollow laugh found its way out of me, as I turned my face up to the sky again, an impossibly wide expanse of pure, cloudless azure stretching out over the grasslands in every direction.

“So I did lie after all,” I whispered.

I’d told them all I was twenty-four, but…

“Eleanor?” Sarra asked, and I shrugged, tugging the bag a little higher up on my shoulder as we walked down the hill.

“It’s my birthday today.”

~ ♛ ~

- Continued In Part II -

Chapter Text

Grass, sun, horse shite, and casual misogyny. That's the simplest way I can describe the walk from Edoras.

I'll let you take a guess at which one was currently irritating me the most.

"You'd think oestrogen was contagious," I muttered irritably, glaring at the long line of migrating people ahead of us. A line that, coincidentally, seemed to have divided itself into exclusively male and female sections — with the occasional exception of families and elderly relatives mingling between the two.

It hadn't happened immediately, but the further the population of Edoras walked, the more they seemed to naturally separate like oil and water, and with it, the more my silent frustration at the sight grew. It was no bloody wonder that soldier hadn't realised what he was doing was wrong until I was raking my nails down his face, if this was truly the unconscious mentality of the population.

It was funny though; in spite of everything that had happened earlier, and the hole I could still feel left in my chest because of it, I was almost glad for the anger and silent raging of my inner feminist.

If I was angry, I didn't have room to be sad.

And if I let myself be sad, I thought of…

Beside me, Sarra just chuckled, having adapted unusually quickly to my comparatively bizarre speech pattern and word choices. If anything, she seemed to enjoy the way I talked, and had taken to laughing frequently and loudly as we hiked side-by-side across the hills together. And her laugh — painfully familiar as it was — was wonderfully contagious.

"You can't blame them," she smiled wickedly at me from the corner of her eye, the shadow of Katie's wit dancing across her features. "They're such delicate creatures, menfolk. We wouldn't want to get too close and scare them so with our talk."

"Oh, aye," I grinned right back at her. "All this talk of babies, birthing, and post-natal preparations, they might start blushing. Some might even swoon."

One of the older women a little way ahead of us tisked loudly, throwing a disapproving glance over her shoulder right at Sarra. She ignored it with all the poise of a queen, raising her chin and walking tall and proud as a mountain — which was no small achievement seeing as we'd been walking for several hours already, and Sarra was carrying a passenger of at least eight pounds in her belly already.

I, on the other hand, didn't ignore it with poise. In fact, I didn't ignore it at all.

I death-glared the back of the woman's head until she felt it, turned, and caught my eye. I had the brief satisfaction of seeing her blink in surprise before turning quickly to face ahead again, ears a bit paler than a moment before.

I'd been distracting myself from my darker thoughts for the past few hours talking to Sarra about her pregnancy, and trying to offer as much of the advice and care she'd been deprived of as I could. She was due in only another week, and though I'd disbelieved it at first, she'd been completely right about healers refusing their help to her.

And it wasn't just limited to the healers.

Not all had turned their noses up, but after climbing a particularly steep hill I'd asked one of the younger women for a swig from her water skin, which — upon seeing my blasted ears — she had offered up generously. However, when I'd passed it to Sarra who'd been all but gasping, the dark look that had passed over the other woman's face could have summoned thunderstorms. She'd snatched the skin from my hand when I passed it back to her, and it had taken the last of my precious self-restraint not to kick her skinny arse back down the hill we'd just climbed.

Like I said, anger was good.

I could work with anger, or annoyance, or silently fanning my feminist temper…

Anything to avoid the temptation to look up, focusing my elf eyes on the largely male section of the convoy ahead. I'd done it a few times already, and every time it was like I'd run straight into someone's fists at full speed and had all the air knocked out of me.

I'd spotted Aragorn a few times since we'd passed each other leaving Edoras, a simple nod to each other as assurance that I wasn't being left behind, but also that I needed some space. He was riding Hasufel and often talking with either Háma or Gamling — the latter I'd learned was one of Theoden's most trusted lieutenants, and Sarra's father.

I hadn't seen any sign of Boromir, but Gimli was easy to spot since he'd spent most of the journey chatting loudly with — or rather, at — Eowyn while she led Arod for him. Lucky for him she'd been willing to walk, lead and listen, since he hadn't been so keen on riding the horse on his own without…

My thoughts caught like a thorn on the name.

I'd seen the occasional flash of familiar braided gold blond hair further up in the crowds ahead, but every time I did my stomach had leapt with… something.

Longing? Dread? Guilt?

I wasn't sure I could even tell the difference between them all anymore.

I'd told Sarra only enough of what had happened between me and my companions for her to know that we needed some space from each other, and I wasn't really in any state to think or talk about them more than that. She hadn't pressed, and when my words had failed me, she just rested a hand gently on my shoulder, and calmly told me one of the filthiest jokes about "sword loving soldiers" I'd ever heard in my life.

I'd laugh-cried until my sides aches.

Since then the only member of the male species who'd deigned to walk — or ride — among us ladies voluntarily was Eothain, and I suspected that was mostly because he didn't want to leave his sister's side longer than necessary. He'd drawn up their horse — Garulf — beside us after recognising me as the one who'd patched them up and told them stories.

I was sorry I didn't have the heart to muster any happy tales for them this time. Freda still seemed to be bearing the weight of being separated from her mother, and could have probably done with the distraction. However with her brother riding behind her on their father's horse for a few hours in the sunshine, she'd lifted in spirits enough to start quietly humming to herself.

I hadn't even really noticed she was doing it at all until the tune changed to something hauntingly familiar. A tune I'd heard when we'd been wandering through Fangorn, and again for that moment in Meduseld when Gandalf had cast out Saruman…

I didn't realise I'd stopped suddenly in my tracks until Sarra almost walked straight into the back of me.

"Eleanor?" she asked, eyeing my sudden reaction with concern. "Are you well?"

I didn't answer her. I'd spun on the spot to find Freda and Eothain riding just a little way behind us. But before I'd even taken a step in their direction one of the older women in the line shot out a weathered hand and grabbed Freda rather roughly by the leg.

"Stop that singing, girl! You want to bring cursed luck down on us all?" she snapped, squeezing her leg until Freda winced. My gaze sharpened on that grip, on Freda's guilty expression, and I suddenly wasn't moving toward them for the song anymore. The woman saw me coming and let go, but not before I'd sent her a look that could have frozen brandy.

"Why don't you let me lead Garulf for a bit, Eothain. You both must be getting tired," I suggested. Eothain gave a halfhearted grumble of protest, insisting he wasn't tired, but one look at Freda took the wind out of his sails.

I took the reins from him, and started walking the old horse at an easy pace.

"What's so bad about that song anyway?" I asked conversationally, despite the rapid fluttering of my heart. I'd intended the question for Eothain but the same woman that had grabbed Freda's leg cut in before he could.

"It's nothing, m'lady elf," she insisted a bit too quickly.

"Just a foolish old wives tale," another added timidly, shooting Freda a warning look that was a little too intense for my tastes.

Maybe it was a little petty, and maybe a little vindictive, but if they were going to draw attention to the fact that I was a bloody elf every time I opened my mouth, I was going to sodding well use it to my advantage. I blinked slowly at both the women, giving them the same imperiously annoyed look I'd seen Glorfindel use on me so many times, one eyebrow elegantly arched.

God strike me dead if it didn't work like a charm. The women looked suddenly uncomfortable and turned back to the road ahead. I turned back to Freda, my face softening again, and gave her a prompting little wink.

"I'd still like to know, if you don't mind."

Freda smiled weakly, shifting uneasily on the back of her father's horse, her gaze shifting from me to the women pointedly not looking, but very obviously listening. She tried to speak, but she seemed unable to find the words. Eothain put a hand on her shoulder.

"It's ok, Fre," he said gently, turning his attention back to me. "It's an old song Da used to sing when Freda and I misbehaved. He said his Ma used to sing it to him when he was disobedient, and her Ma before her. It's about the Hravarim, Untamed Ones."

"Hravarim…?" I repeated, testing the word and finding though it did sound distantly familiar, it didn't ring any bells. "I've never heard of them before."

"Hardly surprising I think," Sarra commented with a dark expression as she fell back into step beside me. "It's not a happy tale, and there are few families who choose to pass it on anymore."

"What do you mean?" I asked, looking between them. "What was so bad about them?"

Sarra's hand drifted down to unconsciously cradle her belly, searching for the right words, but Eothain got there first. He leaned down a little so he could talk in a quiet voice to me, eyes flickering towards the crabby, sour-faced women up ahead.

"They're supposedly an old legend from the east," he told me with the kind of quiet excitement of a kid about to tell an impressive story to an adult audience. "A massive hunting party the size of a small army, all made up of madmen, beasts, and creatures no people have names for anymore. They supposedly roamed the wilds during the First Age, pillaging and tearing down entire cities that had turned wicked, leaving no one and nothing alive behind them but the children. They're gone now, but the legends say one day when the world turns rotten they'll ride again, with their Lady leading the hunt once again. And when they do, Da said they'll come and punish you by stealing away your parents and family if you are wicked, and if you remain wicked they'll eventually come for you when you're grown up and no longer a child."

If Eothain saw the quiet chill his tale had sent through me, he didn't comment. He only excitedly nudged his sister where she sat ahead of him on the horse.

"Sing it for her, Fre. The rest of the song. You know the words better than me."

Freda looked nervously ahead to the women who'd scolded her, then back to me. Despite the chill growing in my gut, I gave her what I hoped was a encouraging smile.

"Please. I'd like to hear it."

Freda bit her lip, nodded, then opened her mouth hesitantly, and began to sing.

The song itself had been unsettling enough the first time, fragmented and sung by an adult woman in the echoes of my memory. But hearing the dark words and haunting tune of the song coming from Freda's young, innocent little voice in the fading sunlight, it sounded nothing short of disturbing.

~ ♛ ~

"Hush little one, fear not the night.

I'll still be here in morning's light.

Hear not the drums that beat they're coming.

Feel not the heartbeats all a thrumming.

Tis not for you to fear or cry,

To see the Lady with wicked eyes.

"Wilder she-wolf, fair and cold,

Eyes aflame with burning gold.

Comes prowling 'neath the howling moon,

Red as blood and heralding croon;

'Taint sweet air,

They'll see Death soon.'

"Hush little one, fear naught at all.

Tis not for you they're coming for.

The raving, screaming demons seek,

The blood of Men at age's peak.

You are safe now, do not fear.

When morning comes, I'll still be here.

"At the head of monsters wild,

Is she, with smile sweet and mild.

With all a gentle love and care,

She'll pluck her bow and pin you there.

That smile will be your final sight.

First your left eye. Then your right.

"Hush little one, please do not cry.

If you do, they'll hear us inside.

The Lady of the hunt will find,

And wring your father from his mind.

Mama will sing you lullabies, see.

Hush little one, let demons be.

"But by the light, when vengeance took,

Not one soul was overlooked;

Not man or woman, nor cattle or sheep.

None but you, who's fast asleep.

All you know, bathed in blood and sun.

Worry not, little one. Your time will come.

"Hush little one. Fear not the night.

Fear what you'll see come morning's light. * "

~ ♛ ~

The silence that was left behind as Freda's song ended was unsettlingly heavy. Every conversation within about ten feet had fallen completely silent, and even the horses had gone oddly quiet.

I had to hand it to Freda's family, if that was the kind of nursery rhyme they'd been brought up on it was small wonder they were so well behaved. Though I suspected my world's Child Services would have had a thing or two to say about it.

'Well… that's not ominous or anything,' Tink murmured inside my head, and she sounded almost as put out as I felt. Something about that song had chilled us before, but now with the words, it had left me with a small pool of ice in my gut.

'You recognise the words at all, Tink?' I asked.

'Not exactly. I don't remember hearing them, but they somehow felt… wrong. Like the taste of something rotten or poisonous on your tongue…'

And for a moment, I could physically feel what she meant, the barrier between us thinning with our shared, silent dread.

"They disappeared, some time in the Second Age, the Hravarim I mean. I don't know exactly when," Eothain was saying, still enthusiastically trying to inject some excitement into the crushing silence. "Some say they grew tired of merely hunting the land and took to the seas instead, raiding ships and sinking entire fleets."

"But as the other women said earlier, it is a very old story, and is probably far from accurate now after so many centuries of being handed down only through songs and tales," Sarra added, not even trying to mask her discomfort as she looked sideways at me.

Freda looked as if she silently agreed, but Eothain came as close to pouting as I'd ever seen a teenage boy do, thrusting out his lower jaw in what I assumed was an attempt to look strong.

"I think it's stupid to fear something so long dead. Even if they were real once, it's just a song now."

Sarra shrugged. "There is no point remembering songs and tales of glory if we fail to remember the ones of loss and fear as well. Only through remembering both can we ever hope to learn from them."

Eothain opened his mouth, then closed it, his gaze flicked to where their few belongings and a sheathed blade were strapped to Grarulf's saddle. Their father's sword I supposed, remembering when he'd mentioned it back in Meduseld.

The rest of the walk passed mostly in silence. No one else in our little travelling party of varying sized misfits felt like breaking the silence, and I didn't feel ready to try and break it with more questions — despite the cold feeling in my gut growing with every thought of that song's haunting words.

We walked all afternoon, and well into the evening, and by the time the entire travelling line finally stopped for a short rest, food, and to water the horses, it was almost dusk. The sky had quickly turned from the blistering azure of the day, to pale pink, to burnt orange, to soft purple. By the time I dropped down onto a grassy bank just a little way from the rest of the rest of the group I was starting to feel the gentle burn the constant sun's light had left on my face.

Sarra headed for the river bank to wash the dust from her face, and Eothain and Freda wandered off in search of some much needed food. I honestly didn't feel like moving, so I stayed there slumped on the slope of a hill, keeping an eye on Garulf who was happily munching at the grass where we'd tethered him to a tree stump.

It can't have been long, but it felt like hours as I sat there on my own, making myself watch as the last of the dying sunlight turned the sky violet and the stars began to peek through. It was actually quite beautiful…

Almost enough to distract me from the tempest of thoughts and feelings from that morning still clamouring for dominance inside me.

They'd dimmed enough to talk and smile during the walk from Edoras, but the moment I was alone with my thoughts, they came back with a vengeance.

I was so focused on keeping my outward composure in place I didn't notice that someone had approached me, until they cast a shadow over me from a nearby campfire. Numbly, I looked up to find a thick red beard half-hiding a gruff but kind face, a heavy metal helm, a heavier brow, and a familiar battle axe slung over his back.

"Gimli?"

"Alright, lass?" His beard twitched in a somewhat awkward smile.

"I…" The automatic response of "I'm fine" died instantly on my tongue. I swallowed and looked away, blinking rapidly. "I'm not sure."

Gimli grunted, as if he'd been expecting that kind of answer.

"Well, you look like you need a stiff drink." Setting his battle-axe against Garulf's stump, he dropped onto the grass beside me, and pulled out his hip flask — which I realised he kept on a cord around his neck under his beard.

No wonder I could never work out where he kept it before.

"Here." He handed it to me.

"Thanks," I said automatically, taking it. I took a swig without bothering to sniff it first, hoping that whatever it was it might be strong enough to quell the churning feeling still torturing my insides. I wasn't quite prepared for it to be that strong though. I almost spat it straight out again, choking as Gimli let out a loud rumbling chuckle.

"W-what is this?" I gasped, eyeing the flask like it had insulted my mother. Gimli's eyes creased with a wider smile at me.

"Erebor Goldwine, from the Lonely Mountain. The best whiskey you'll ever wet your lips with."

"It's definitely the strongest, I'll give you that. And that's coming from an ex-barmaid," I half smiled, taking another smaller swig this time. The burn was more pleasant the second time, though I had to wonder how he'd managed to make it last this long. We hadn't exactly had anywhere to stock up on booze since Lothlórien, let alone Dwarven booze.

"A barmaid, huh?" Gimli grunted, resting his elbows on his knees as he went about filling and lighting his pipe. "Knew there was something I liked about you."

I chuckled through another swig, smiling sideways at him just a little.

"I'm pretty sure you thought me an insolent hot-head when we first met."

"Oh aye," he confirmed with a rumbling chuckle. "Doesn't mean I didn't admire your spirit though."

I laughed again, a little more freely this time, and it eased the twisting in my gut, just a bit. We sat in silence for a few long moments while Gimli puffed his pipe to life, and I stared down at the flask in my hands. I ran my thumb over the dents and nicks absently, my thoughts wandering back to the source of the unease inside me…

"You still think I'm a liar, don't you…" I heard myself say quietly.

Gimli didn't answer instantly. He took a long drag on his pipe, letting the smoke out in a long sighing plume that drifted away on the calm breeze.

"Nah," he said at last, with a simple shrug. "I always thought you were odd, lass. Doesn't make you a liar."

I turned to look at him properly, incredulous.

"Seriously?"

He shrugged again, breathed out another cloud of smoke, and gestured around us with the end of his pipe. "Be pretty pointless for you to lie now, I reckon."

I almost found myself laughing again, with relief, disbelief, or pained agreement, I wasn't entirely sure.

"Yeah. Yeah it really would," I chuckled shakily, taking another swig, deeper this time. It burned with warmth on the way down, but didn't quite banish the lump that was growing in my throat at the thought of… of…

I gripped the flask so hard I thought the metal might actually bend, my voice a harsh whisper.

"He thinks I am."

I didn't dare say his name. I wasn't sure I could without my voice choking on the sound of it.

Gimli, again, didn't immediately reply. For all the flack he got for his dwarf's temper, when he wanted to, he seemed pretty damn good at considering his words carefully before unleashing them upon others. He took another drag, set the pipe down entirely, and turned to me, his expression kind.

"He's a stubborn, hard-headed, proud elf lad. Probably used to dealing with stung pride over decades instead of days," he said seriously, but the hand he used to pat my back was gentle. "Can't say I'm an expert on these things, but my guess would be that he's more hurt than angry right now. He can't stay that way forever, especially at you. Might take him a wee bit longer than most to come around, but he will."

The lump in my throat didn't disappear, but it changed. I had to blink several times and bite my tongue to keep the gratitude at his words from spilling out through my eyes. When I finally did get a hold of myself entirely, my eyes were misty, but dry.

"Thanks Gimli," I smiled fully at him this time, stoppering his beloved flask and offered it back to him. "For the drink, and the talk."

He beamed and took it. "Any time, lass."

Then his smile flickered as something caught his eye somewhere behind me.

"I think there's someone else who has some words for you, too," he murmured, pointing over my shoulder. I looked, and my body went instantly rigid.

Boromir stood not ten feet away.

He looked terrible, hovering near the edge of the soldier's encampment like a hollow, shadow-eyed wraith. He hadn't exactly looked his best lately, but it was like he'd gone through several days of sleep deprivation and exhaustion in the space of a few hours. And he was looking straight at me.

Not with hate. Not with mistrust. Just intent.

And… guilt?

Gimli's warm hand on my shoulder almost made me jump, but when he spoke it was enough to calm my jumping instincts.

"Hear him out. Just for a bit, if you can," he said softly, getting to his feet, taking up his axe, and walking back towards where the soldiers were being served food. A respectable distance, but still close enough for him to hear if I shouted for help…

I didn't move as Gimli left. Neither did Boromir.

He just continued to linger there at the edge of that island of men in chainmail and leather armour. I honestly wasn't sure what I felt, sitting there watching him. Him watching me. The pair of us acutely aware of the significance of whatever was going to happen next, despite that gaping distance between us.

Then finally, ever so slowly, he took a tentative step towards me.

He did it so carefully, so uncertainly, it took me a moment to realise he was moving toward me in the same way one might approach a frightened animal caught in a trap. He'd even divested himself of his scabbard and other weapons, in what I could only assume was an effort to look less threatening.

I was still anxious, and even a little scared, sitting there watching him move towards me.

Yet still, that little gesture made a tiny warm spot begin to blossom beneath my ribcage.

I didn't even notice Sarra had returned from washing her face in the stream until she appeared directly in my line of sight, blocking a startled Boromir from my view almost completely. Despite her shifted centre of gravity, she'd come out of nowhere and planted herself like an exceptionally curvaceous wall between him and me, standing there with hands on her wide hips.

"Are you all soft in the head?" she demanded, glaring straight at the friend I'd told her only passingly about, but she'd seen the sadness in me when I spoke of them, and had clearly decided she wasn't willing to stand by and leave me undefended either. "Can you truly not tell that you and your companions are among the last people she wishes to see right now, let alone speak with?"

Boromir looked genuinely taken aback for a moment as he looked down at Sarra, her wild red hair, freckles and baby-bump doing absolutely nothing to soften the hardened ex-warmaid glare. He'd halted not five feet from me, and seemed unable to do anything but stare at her for a long moment.

Then, without a trace of anger or disdain, he straightened and dipped his head in a respectful bow of apology to her.

"My lady, I am sadly unable to understand how most mortal women's minds work. It will be a good many decades more before I am even able to guess at what an elven maid's wishes are."

Sarra blinked at him, her scrutinising stare losing some of its bite. She regarded him with renewed consideration for a beat, her brown eyes narrowed on his. Then she inclined her chin in an almost regal gesture of acceptance.

"Good answer." Then turned to me with a softer questioning look.

I swallowed nervously but nodded.

"It's ok, Sarra. Really."

She relaxed a little, returning the nod.

"If you should need me, I will be within earshot." And with that, she strode off towards the supply carts with as much grace and dignity as her protruding belly and sore feet would allow.

Hell, I really must have been a wreck and a half if I was getting bodyguard offers from a pregnant woman.

Boromir and I both watched her go, a shared look of curious admiration on each of our faces. Then reality reasserted itself and I remembered our last meeting. I stiffened on instinct, my hands instinctively twitching as if readying to defend myself. He noticed instantly, and his face crumpled. He tried to speak, but seemed completely unable to find his own voice, let alone words. I let him wrestle with his conscience, forcing myself to sit still and be calm. I understood why I was instinctively afraid. I knew it was the rational, sensible thing to feel. But still, as I looked at him, trying to think of what he could possibly say, I couldn't bring myself to flinch away.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, he found his voice.

"Words of apology are nothing close to sufficient for the wrong I have done you, but… I'm afraid words are all I am able to offer," he croaked, hands clenched at his sides to keep from moving, and his gaze fixed on the ground at my feet. I forced myself not to react as he pulled in a shaking breath, lifting his gaze to mine — raw, honest, and tormented as it was. "I am truly sorry for what was done to you, Eleanor. For what I did to you. And for every moment of cruelty and pain inflicted on you in my ignorance."

I just looked at him for the longest time.

Only looked, taking in every detail of the man I saw before me now, silently comparing him to the one I'd first met back in Rivendell. The one I'd befriended in Lothlórien. The one I'd saved at Amon Hen. The one who'd almost killed me in his fear just a few hours ago.

I soaked in the sight of his trembling hands, once so steady when he'd helped me pick up my scattered books. The quaver in his voice, once as solid and steady as the ground beneath our feet. The dark, haunted circles beneath his blue eyes, once clear and bright with confidence and silent laughter, and now so broken.

Broken just like I was, I thought.

Then my eyes drifted to his left hand, clenched at his side, around a familiar looking pouch of…

"Is that the last of the dried venison?" I heard myself ask very quietly.

Boromir blinked at me, baffled, his gaze drifting very slowly down to the pouch of dried meat he'd brought from Lothlórien at his side, then back up to me.

"Yes?"

My stomach chose that moment to let out a startlingly loud gurgle. It was only then that I realised exactly how hungry I really was. I had been so weighed down with a torrent of emotion for the past few hours I'd forgotten that I'd tapped into Tink's power and then performed a limifëa without replenishing the fuel reserves it had used up in me.

It was kind of a wonder I was still able to stand up.

"Then I guess then… you do have more than just words to offer me," I said softly, and to my shock, I realised I was smiling.

Broken, tired, but truly smiling.

"I…" The sight seemed to stun him into compliance because he looked down at the pouch in his hand only once before offering the whole thing. "Of course, here."

I took it, opening it up and inhaling the spicy scent of the dried strips of meat inside. It was funny how good simple spices could smell and taste after so long eating unseasoned rabbit, nuts, and dried fruit. Boromir only watched me chewing for an uncomfortably long moment, shifting uncertainly as if the ground might go out from under him at any moment. I made an impatient sound, and thumped the grass beside me for him to sit. Hesitantly, he did, and we sat there in silence for a while as I sated my hunger, relishing the taste and toughness of the cured meat.

Eventually, as my hunger ebbed, my pace slowed, and I turned to face my friend. He was watching me out of the corner of his eye, trying hard to seem unthreatening.

"You really don't need to tread on eggshells around me, Boromir. I won't break."

He didn't look at me immediately, seemingly unconvinced, and when he did, he winced as his eyes drifted over my still bruised throat.

"I…" he croaked, cleared his throat, then tried again. "I hardly know what to say."

"Yeah, I know that feeling," I agreed quietly, feeling my smile turning a bit brittle as I eyed the half-eaten piece of meat in my hand. "I feel like I should be apologising too. None of this would have happened if I'd just told you all the whole truth to begin with."

A wheezing sound exploded out of him, and I realised it was a startled laugh. He shook his head at me in disbelief.

"Stars, you of all people are the last of us who should be apologising, Eleanor. I still cannot quite believe—" He cut himself off, biting down on his tongue but continuing to shake his head, his gaze fixed on me with a bizarre kind of awe. "You must have endured much, to contain… her for so long."

I pulled a face and looked away.

"Not really," I murmured, taking another bite of venison to hide my sudden discomfort. Being looked at like I was some kind of hidden terror was one thing, but being looked at like I was awe inspiring was somehow worse. "Sure she can be scary, and a bit of a pain in the backside at times, and I know now that she has a lot of power to throw around… But she's also been kind, chatty, and in all this time she's only ever used that power to protect me. She's shielded me, kept me… us alive when we might have otherwise fallen."

My thoughts drifted back to the time Tink cut off my breath to keep me from revealing the Watcher beneath the water outside Moria. I'd been so furious at the time I hadn't really thought about why she'd bothered to do it, and why she hadn't done it since. With her kind of strength, I realised now she could have easily bent me to her will if she'd wanted to.

But she hadn't.

"I vaguely remember hearing a strange female voice. It spoke a… well, I think it was a word, back at Amon Hen. As I lay dying, I saw it called up fire on that Uruk that was beating you." Boromir said thoughtfully after a moment, turning a questioning gaze on me. "Was that…?"

I nodded. "That was all her."

"She was… trying to save us?"

"She's got a funny way of helping, but yes. Nearly knocked me unconscious with that stunt." I don't know why, but I chuckled around the words, suddenly feeling the need to defend her. My face fell as I went on. "What you saw earlier today though, that wasn't… That wasn't her. That was me, messing with power I should never have tried to touch."

From the look on his face he didn't quite seem to understand, so I curled an arm around my squirming tummy, chewing on another piece of dried meat.

"What happened back in that alleyway, it… it sparked some unpleasant memories from my human life, ones I'm not fond of reliving. She was trying to help me escape, but her power reacted badly with my heightened emotions. I lost control. If you hadn't stopped me I…" I trailed off, unable to finish the sentence aloud, or look to see the reaction it had garnered from my friend.

He was silent for a long time.

Then ever so hesitantly, I felt the brush of calloused fingers on the back of my hand. I think he expected me to flinch away, but when I didn't, he settled his hand over the back of mine and gave a very gentle squeeze.

"I suppose I too know something of what power and fear can do to a mind. And that combined with your family…" he whispered. I looked up at him, unable to tell if I was more relieved or surprised.

"You believe it then? Where I'm really from?"

"Aragorn told us of what he saw within your mind. Of your home…" His handsome face looked genuinely pained. "I am sorry, Eleanor. Truly. Had I known what you were enduring…"

I put up a hand in the universal sign for silence, despite the pang in my chest.

"It's done. You couldn't have known. Shall we agree that it'll be safer for both of us if we are honest about things like this in future?"

A flicker of his old, warming smile ghosted across his mouth.

"You mean about traumatic shared memories of far-off worlds and of a Maiar spirit being mistaken for a servant of the Enemy?"

"That, yes."

He laughed softly, the sound a bit creaky, like the sound was rusty, but still there.

"I think that would be for the best," he smiled at me.

I smiled back.

Then I put my arms around the broken, complicated, perfectly imperfect man who had somehow become my friend over these past few months, and pulled him into a bone crushing hug. At first he didn't move, seemingly afraid if he did I might change my mind and flee from him. But then, every so slowly, he returned the embrace just as tightly, the warmth and strength of him painfully gentle, as if he might crush me if he wasn't careful.

"I'm glad you're back, Boromir," I said against his shoulder, my voice going a little wobbly, and I heard the trembling smile in his voice even though I couldn't see it.

"As am I."

We released each other easily, and still smiling, he pointedly eyed the meat pouch I still had in my lap.

"Might I steal some of that back, before you finish it all yourself?"

I laughed, the weight in my chest just a little bit lighter now.

"Go right ahead," I said, grinning as I handed him the pouch. I'd gone to town on the meat and there were only a few pieces left, but Boromir seemed content to take whatever was left over. We sat in far easier silence than before, the last of the sunlight dying below the hills, and one by one torches being sparked to life by the soldiers. It was only thanks to the lights that I finally noticed Boromir's and my conversation hadn't gone as unnoticed as I'd thought.

A few of the guardsmen from Meduseld and soldiers were glancing at us both with expressions ranging from curiosity, to contempt, to mild smugness. I narrowed my eyes at the more assertive of them, refusing to look away first until their gazes drifted back to their food, pretending they hadn't been looking at me in the first place.

"I'm really starting to get sick of being stared at. Even the soldiers are at it now," I muttered darkly. Then a sinking thought occurred to me and I turned with wide eyes to Boromir. "Oh crap, did they hear what I did to their—"

He looked past me with a narrowed gaze, but shook his head.

"No. Háma has kept your identity out of it. They probably only stare because you're quite lovely to behold," he shrugged matter of factly, without a trace of sarcasm or flirtation, taking a bite out of the dried venison.

I just gaped at him incredulously.

It took him a moment to notice, glancing up at me with a confused tilt to his head, as if to say: what?

"Pardon?" I sputtered in disbelief.

He swallowed, shrugged, unfazed by my reaction and gestured at the packs of soldiers over my shoulder.

"I have little experience of what the standards of attractiveness are amongst the Elves, but it's plain to the eyes of Men that you are very fair. Yet you have little of the intimidating air about you that other Elves do, which is likely why they look upon you as they do," he explained, a little discomfort at the idea creeping into his tone. "Just an observation."

I eyed him, not sure if I was understanding correctly.

"You're basically saying I'm pretty enough to get noticed, but trashy enough to be approachable?"

He winced.

"I would not have phrased it as such."

"Of course you wouldn't, you're too reflexively chivalrous for that," I shrugged this time, my smile a bit wooden. I risked another quick glance over my shoulder at the soldiers with Boromir's words in mind, and sure enough, several of them were looking at me again — one of them I recognised as my starry-eyed young admirer guard.

Well, crap.

Mary-Sue as it sounded, being the kind of girl who stands out for her looks instead of her barbed tongue and no sense of self-preservation was something I was super unqualified to handle. A childhood as an average human girl with wispy hair, two years in Rivendell as a sub-par elf, and then a month in Lothlórien with Merileth had seen to that.

"Eleanor," Boromir's uneasy tone caught my attention, and I turned back to find him shifting uncomfortably again, wringing the empty pouch between his fingers. "I must tell you something now, for clarity's sake, and because I do not wish for us to have any more misunderstandings."

Nerves settled into the pit of my stomach, suddenly fearful of whatever had turned him so serious.

"Alright…?"

He took a steadying breath and faced me directly, suddenly all business.

"Eleanor, I realise now, in hindsight, that our… closeness may have originally stemmed from something more than mere friendship. You say you were once mortal, and you had been living among the Elves for two years before we met so informally." He gave me what I realised what a kindly pitying look, taking my hand gently in his again. "I understand that must have been… confusing for you. I must apologise both for my ignorance towards your feelings, but also that I cannot return those affections. You are a trusted companion and a dear friend to me, but I… why are you laughing?"

I couldn't help it, I'd started snort-giggling uncontrollably. I just couldn't believe it.

The fool was actually trying to let me down gently.

"Did you just… friend-zone me?" I cackled manically, and the baffled look on his face only sent me into fullon peals of laughter. Some of the watchful soldiers were peering openly at me as if I'd lost my mind, but Boromir's face had split into a wide, relieved grin.

"I take it you are not offended by my rejection then?"

I reined in my giggles and beamed at him, my unease gone.

"Of course I'm not, you idiot. I'll admit the girl who does catch you will be a lucky one, but it was definitely not going to be me."

Boromir's tired features softened at me in the torchlight.

"Indeed not. Especially since it is clear there is another far more suitable contender vying for your affections now," he said plainly. I choked on my giggles and looked at him with wide eyes. He gave me a fond look that made me feel a teeny bit thick. "I was traumatised, Eleanor. Not blind. I see how he looks at you now."

Well, he had me there.

I folded my arms and leaned them on my knees, trying to ignore the blush I could feel rising in my face. And the squirming feelings of embarrassment and sadness deep in my gut.

"Well, what about you? Is there someone waiting for you back in Gondor?" I asked off handedly, and regretted it the moment he didn't immediately answer. I turned to find a far-away look in his eyes, his smile gone. "Boromir?"

He shook his head, as if shaking away unwelcome thoughts, leaning his elbows on his knees too.

"There was… once."

I sat there watching him for a moment, seeing the tired lines deepening at the corners of his eyes, his jaw clenching and unclenching with restrained emotions buried deep. And as I did, the image of an unfamiliar but beloved young face flashed through my mind, one I'd glimpsed in memories that weren't my own as I'd healed a broken man's body…

"The girl I saw… the one with dark hair," I breathed quietly, knowing I'd struck home when I saw his shoulders flinch. But still I asked; "Who was she?"

Boromir didn't speak for several long moment, and I didn't press. Then finally he drew in a shuddering breath, and spoke on the exhale.

"Dhalia…"

"It…" I stumbled over the memory of her hands clasped in mine — in his — and the wave of emotion that had come with it. "It looked as if you cared for her a great deal."

"I did."

"Where is she now?" I really did regret asking the moment the words left my mouth. His face fell even further, but his voice was deliberately stony this time.

"Gone."

I winced.

"I'm sorry."

Silence stretched between us again, but just as I was about to try and awkwardly break it by asking if he wanted some of the food the soldier's were being served, he spoke.

"She was not fully of Gondorian blood. Her mother was one of the Haradrim, from the South, and her father was a merchant from Osgiliath, but she was one of the kindest and wisest people I have ever known," he explained, and something in his voice told me this was the first time he'd ever had the opportunity to talk freely about it. "Her family was lowborn but wealthy nobility for the most part, but because of her mixed blood her parents had… trouble finding her a suitable match when she came of marrying age. When my father heard of their plight, and my… affection for her, he offered to help."

A knot of dread formed in my gut.

"Offered to help how?"

A flash of grief twisted his handsome face.

"I'd made no secret of my wish to marry her. I was eighteen and didn't care where she was from, or whom she was born to. But my father always insisted that I would need to marry a highborn lady, more suited to my station," he spat out the last words as if they were poisonous. "At first I thought he had finally come around to the idea. That at last he could see the bond between us for what it was: one of honest love between equals.

I swallowed, afraid to watch his reaction, but refusing to allow myself to look away.

"Why do I feel like there's a but coming…?"

He chuckled humourlessly.

"He arranged her marriage to one of his advisors; an uncaring man nearly three times her age who'd traded in a favour for a pretty young bride. Because of my father's position her parents couldn't refuse. I watched their wedding day from the top of the Tower of Ecthelion, banned from attending by my father. Faramir tried to console me, but I…" he trailed off, his voice gone hoarse, grieved expression all sharp edges cutting open old wounds.

I hadn't the faintest idea what I could possibly say.

"Your father sounds… unpleasant," I offered feebly.

He sounded like a dick of the first order, but I thought that might not be the best thing to say right then—

"He is among one of the worst men I know of," Boromir said flatly, as if reading my thoughts. Then he sighed, adding; "But he was not always that way."

"Most terrible people aren't," I murmured in agreement, shifting uncomfortably beside him. "What… happened to her? If you can tell me, of course."

He gave me a gently forgiving smile that didn't reach his eyes, before looking out over the night-swept grasslands around us.

"She died attempting to give life to her first child… neither of them survived," he answered finally.

My already bruised heart truly ached for him in that moment, and very gently, ever so slowly, I placed a hand on his shoulders, grateful when he didn't flinch away from my touch.

"I'm so sorry, Boromir."

"Do not be. I am the one who failed her," he said softly.

"You were eighteen, barely more than a boy." I shook my head at him. "What could you have possibly done?"

"Not much," he granted, glancing sideways at me with a bitter smile. "But it still should have been more than nothing."

I wanted to argue with him. To wipe that tortured look from his face and make him see that for all his faults, this wasn't one of them. That I'd seen how much Dhalia had cared for him in that vision. That I'd felt how much he loved her. And that neither of them were responsible for what his father had done to them both because of what they'd felt for each other.

But I didn't. It might be that someday he'd be ready to hear it, but not tonight. I didn't want to see my friend in pain. But I wasn't willing to rip open such a painful wound just so it could heal to my liking.

"Rabbit stew either of you? It's not much, but it's hot."

I jumped a bit as a familiar female voice invaded my thoughts, and I looked up to see Eowyn standing over us, a large pot of steaming broth in one hand and a ladle in the other. The sight looked a bit incongruous. Eowyn looked as if she was more suited to wielding a sword and shield than kitchen utensils.

"Thank you, Lady Eowyn," Boromir said graciously, his previous pain disappearing behind the chivalry I now realised he wore just like armour. "I think we could both use a proper meal."

He was right.

We were both starving, even after finishing the last of the dried venison, and we both took a bowl each without hesitating.

"I must apologise if I was intruding earlier, my lady," Eowyn said sincerely to me, ladling a generous amount of the stew into my bowl. "I did not intend to cause you or your companion more unease with my presence."

I shook my head, ignoring the pang in my chest and forcing my mood to be lifted by the scent of the broth. It had a slightly odd scent to it, but I wasn't about to turn away free food.

"It's alright, Eowyn. Really. You did nothing wrong."

"Even so," she bit her lower lip, filling Boromir's bowl and handing us a pair of wooden spoons. "Please, eat. You both must be hungry."

I lifted a steaming spoonful to my mouth, delighting in the anticipation of a hot meal, and…

And froze the moment it touched my tongue. Beside me I felt Boromir do the same, glancing panicked at each other for a split second, then forced a pair of stiffly grateful smiles up at her through our mouthfuls. Eowyn smiled back and wandered off towards the outer edge of the soldier's camp, making a bee-line for a familiar looking man with a ranger's garb and a pipe sitting off on his own.

The second poor Eowyn's back was turned and out of earshot, both Boromir and I immediately spat our mouthfuls back into our bowls.

"Bloody hell," I choked, staring flabbergasted into my dish. "What parts of the rabbit did she put in this?"

"I didn't know it was possible for a stew to taste like boiled boot soles," Boromir agreed, gingerly lifting what looked suspiciously like an eyeball out of the brew with his spoon. We looked sideways at each other then, and after a brief moment, we both broke into wide easy grins.

As easy as any we'd shared before.

"A shame, I was truly looking forward to a good meal before the rest of the walk," Boromir sighed, looking mournfully down at his bowl before setting it aside.

"You and me both," I agreed, checking quickly over my shoulder before tipping my helping of rabbit bits into a nearby bush.

Just a little way away, I saw Eowyn had handed Aragorn a bowl of the dubious stew, and was talking animatedly at him while the poor man tried very hard not to choke on the first mouthful. I couldn't help the smile that crept onto my lips, turning back to find Boromir had forgone his dodgy meal in favour of inspecting the one weapon he had kept on him when he'd come to talk to me.

The gold hilted throwing dagger — his gift from Lady Galadriel.

He'd taken it from its sheath at his hip and was inspecting it untrustingly, as if it might bite him.

"You tried throwing that thing yet?" I asked, peering at it. It really was a gorgeous weapon, a similar size and shape to my own hunting knife, only far less battered.

"Not yet," he admitted, frowning at the blade. "I must confess, for all my training with a sword, I never proved talented with anything smaller than a dinner knife."

I found myself smiling anew, pointing to the dagger with a questioning look.

"It's pretty straight forward. I could show you, if you want."

He quirked his lip and nodded, handing it to me without pause for pride. I began walking him through the process, demonstrating as I went.

"Hold the knife lightly by it's lighter end; in this case the blade instead of the hilt. Draw it back to just behind your ear, lead the throw with your elbow, and release just above where you're aiming for."

He tried a few times without releasing, before attempting a few throws aiming for a nearby barrel on the back of a cart — the nearest object we could safely use as a target. He allowed me to correct him without complaint whenever the blade went astray. However — despite his novice level aim, and true to Galadriel's promise — the blade struck true every time, sinking point-first into the wood.

"You know," I said dryly, frowning in accusation at the knife after Boromir retrieved it for the twelfth time in ten minutes. "I'd have happily swapped both my gifts for one of yours. That knife is damn flawless."

Boromir chuckled, pointedly sheathing the little blade back on his belt before dropping onto the grass beside me.

"Speaking of, have you worked out the purpose behind your own gift?"

I shrugged, pulling out the little vial of memory poison from where it hung around my neck and fiddled with it. I still had no idea what the riddle on the stopper was supposed to mean, and the only other gift I'd received were the medicinal flowers. I took them out, too, and brushed my fingers over the dried stems. I was still unsure of exactly how they were meant to come in useful. Most of them I knew were only used in minor pain relief, blood replenishment, immune system boosters, and one used primarily in strong sleeping draughts. They were all the kind of remedies used in ongoing treatments, not immediate battle wounds or trauma.

"Not yet," I admitted reluctantly, a thought occurring to me as I looked up, my gaze scanning the darkened camp for Sarra's distinctive red hair. "It's weird though… they all seem like they've been picked out for—"

A sudden, terrible scream pierced the calm of the camp.

For a split second I thought it was an animal's cry, but as it gurgled back into silence I realised it hadn't been a beast's cry. It was the sound of a man.

A man dying in horrific, excruciating pain.

Boromir was on his feet before me, already away and snatching up his sword from where he'd left it by the time I'd staggered upright. All around us the soldiers, children and women had all reacted similarly to the sound — in either panic or sudden alertness — and before I could figure out who had made the noise, Sarra and Gimli both materialised at my side.

"What in the abyss was that?" Sarra demanded, her voice hard with carefully repressed fear.

We got our answer before any of us could so much as draw breath.

"Wargs!" A terrified guardsman hollered from the dark, and a second later he came flying into the camp — what could only be his watch-partner's blood soaking the front of his armour. "We're under attack!"


Credits:
* "Dirge of the Hravarim" — written for Rella's (RealityWarp) Rávamë's Bane series by the amazingly talented Saphrose (Authorqueen)

 

Chapter Text

Everything is scarier in the dark.

Horror movies, camping in the woods, Steven King novels.

But I'll say it from first hand experience: there's nothing quite like seeing a terrified warrior barrel into your line of sight, drenched head to toe in his friend's blood. I'd have taken an evil clown in a paper-mâché hat and bad face paint over that any day.

The smell of gore hit me from over ten feet away, and the scent alone was enough to pull every nerve in my body taut as a violin string. But the reaction of the people around me was what really drove the fear home. There's something about herd mentality that means if everyone around you is suddenly instinctively scared — no matter how you may be able to rationalise the sensation away — you are scared too.

And right then, everyone around me wasn't just scared.

They were pants-wettingly terrified.

A moment of eerie calm was all we got before the crowds of women, children, elderly, and soldiers all simultaneously dissolved into varying levels of hysterical panic. Some screamed, some fumbled to run, but most just stood rooted to the spot, paralysed by the base instinct that should have been urging them to protect themselves.

"Riders, to your mounts! Now! Move!" Theoden's voice bellowed over the sudden chaos, and though it took a beat longer than it should have, the guardsmen all did as instructed, running straight for wherever they'd left their now spooked horses to graze. With a booming shout Gimli tore from my side along with them, though I had no idea how he was planning on swinging himself up onto a horse without someone to help him.

I turned a frantic look to Boromir who had gone a bit white around the eyes. He looked fretfully down at me only long enough for us to exchange a short nod of understanding. They were needed, but I was no warrior. I couldn't help this time.

"Keep yourselves safe," Boromir said over the noise, clapping my shoulder in a firm grip just once, before quickly following the other soldiers to the horses.

"Make for the lower ground!" Eowyn was shouting at the women and children somewhere off to my left, herding them in the other direction. "Stay together!"

"Eleanor!" Sarra's voice finally penetrated my nerve-driven catatonia, and I spun to find her fearful but controlled gaze boring into mine. "We must go too."

I violently shook myself out of my daze, biting my nails into my palms to wake up my senses.

"Right, yeah. We need to find Freda and Eothain before…" I trailed off as a sudden flash of torchlight off gold blond hair dragged my eye to the riders. They were mostly mounted now, charging out into the dark, and I'd turned just in time to see him swing up onto Arod's back. Grey-blue eyes somehow found mine in the crowd of fleeing women, as if drawn there by a magnet, and for an impossibly long moment we just stared at each other. No anger or resentment or pain, just a lingering look.

And for the tiniest moment, that gaping pit that had opened between us seemed to shrink, and I wished more than anything I was close enough to say… something.

Anything.

Then the spell was broken by the sounds of fresh screams, and the feral howls of wargs on the hunt. They were closer, and would be over the hill and on top of us if we stayed any longer.

"Eleanor!"

Sarra jerked me sideways with a strength I didn't realise she had, and I instantly snapped out of it.

We couldn't run. Or at least, Sarra couldn't, and I was unwilling to leave her behind. The best bet we had was to find the kids, and get Sarra and Freda up onto Garulf's back. They could ride ahead while Eothain and I managed on foot. If we could just make it across the river—

"Eleanor!" A tiny, shrill voice screamed somewhere in the chaos, and I whirled, following the sound until I found Freda. Her little face had gone bloodless with fear, and she was fighting to keep a spooked Garulf on his tether. I dashed over to her and snatched the reins from her hands, doing my best to calm the frightened horse before he accidentally kicked her in his terror.

"Where's Eothain?" I demanded, looking around for any sign of the sandy haired teenager. Garulf was still stamping and thrashing, eyes rolling.

"I don't know," Freda whimpered, hugging herself tight and trembling. "He ran off the second he heard the king shouting."

"We cannot wait for him here," Sarra's voice was beginning to leak panic too as she appeared behind me. The last of the blood ran from poor Freda's face at those words, tears filling her wide eyes.

"B-but we can't leave him behind!"

Another bestial howl and a scream echoed over the hills, and Garulf gave a loud neigh of terror in reply. I was almost pulled over trying to calm him, and when I did I turned to see Freda and Sarra both had their attention fixed on me. They both looked mindless with fear now, desperate expressions on both faces as they stared at me, like they were waiting for me to tell them what to do.

Bloody hell, I was so not qualified for this.

"We need to get you both to lower ground," I said finally, trying and failing to hide my own panic behind a mask of calm logic. "The river isn't far. If we get across we should be safer."

Freda's eyes spilled over with tears, her whole body shaking.

"But—!"

I reached out, gripping her shoulder just enough to steady her. She was trembling so badly I couldn't believe she was still standing.

"We won't leave without him, Freda," I promised her as gently as I could. "But if we stay up here we'll all be trampled."

She blinked up at me, then clenched her eyes shut as the tears ran down her chin. She jerked her head in a single, quick nod, and I didn't waste any more time.

"Sarra, you first," I started, passing the reins to Freda and making a stirrup with my hands beside Garulf. Sarra didn't need telling twice. Despite her awkward baby-bump, she let me boost her up with only a little difficulty onto the horse's back, taking the reins and bringing him under control with firm, practiced hands. Reluctantly, Freda let me boost her up next to sit behind, her skinny arms wrapping around the older woman's rounded middle. But when she looked down at the saddle to get her feet in the stirrups, I saw her freeze.

"Oh no…" she breathed. My bones went cold.

"What is it?"

"Da's sword," Freda cried in sudden dismay, "it's gone!"

I just stared at her, then at the empty scabbard on Garulf's saddle, then out at the panicking people, a full five seconds dragging by before the reality of what had happened truly hit me like a kick to the stomach.

"Oh… flaming shite from hell!" I swore, spinning towards the sounds of fighting, howling, and clashing blades over the hill. "He didn't!"

But he had.

I knew it before the words were even out of my mouth. None of us needed to guess where Eothain had gone now. He and his sister had seen their home burn to the ground, their village destroyed, their mother left behind to likely die in the raids. Left with nothing but their father's blade, and a gut full of grief. He'd all but sung his intentions at me from the moment he'd woken after I'd stitched his head closed.

Ever since I'd told him and Freda that bloody story about Mulan going into battle in her father's place.

'Shit! Shit! Shit!'

With a new mix of horror and guilt whirling through me, I spun back to face Sarra on horseback. Her freckled face had gone ghostly too, and she was already shaking her head at me, as if knowing what I was about to say.

"Both of you head for the river crossing, I'll catch up with you on the other side!"

"You cannot go up there alone!" Sarra insisted, still shaking her head vehemently. "You'll be cut down in seconds!"

I smiled up at her, bitterness and fear twisting the edges.

"I'm not alone, and they'll have to catch me first," I said honestly, feeling the familiar brush of my passenger rising from where she had hidden deep inside me, and I knew without needing to see it that a flicker of gold had sparked in my eyes. Another howl, louder this time, bellowed over the hill, and I gave the pair of them a frantic push. "Go! We'll be right behind you!"

Sarra and Freda gave me one last helpless look, then Sarra kicked Garulf into a trot down the hill. He was an old horse and couldn't move fast, but in the torrents of fleeing people the gait was quick enough. I caught one last glimpse of Freda watching me with wide, fretful eyes over her shoulder before they both disappeared into the dark.

I turned away, refusing to think too hard about what I was about to do, and started sprinting up the hill.

Straight towards the sounds of the battle I should have been fleeing.

It didn't take me long to reach the top, but when I did, I no longer had the luxury of a consistent light source. Some of the soldiers still carried torches through the chaos below, but they were barely more than streaks of flame in the field below, lighting up brief flashes of chaos and carnage.

I saw a soldier on horseback firing an arrow into the dark, drawing a high pitched squeal from whatever he'd hit. Then the next second something wolf-shaped, covered in matted brown fur, and the size of a small pickup truck blurred out of the shadows and tore the man from the back of his mount. He barely had time to scream before the beast's finger-length teeth silenced him forever in a spatter of red.

And that was only one.

There were dozens of other scenes being played out in flashes of torchlight, each one bloodier and more terrifying than the next. Off to my right I caught sight of a mount-less soldier taking down a snarling warg with a spear. The armoured orc riding on its back flew off and crashed face-first into the ground, its neck snapping with a sickening crunch. To my left, a mounted rider caught an orc rider in the neck with a flaming arrow, only to have his own horse's legs scythed out from under him by another of the mangled hounds. He went crashing off into the gloom, too far away to see if he survived the landing.

Everywhere.

The chaos, and blood, and screams were everywhere.

I could barely recognise the soldiers from the orcs in the dark were it not for their mounts, and the bodies looked frighteningly similar lying twisted and broken on the grass. I couldn't see Aragorn, Boromir or Gimli, but I could hear the latter bellowing his distinctive war cry off somewhere in the distance.

The fear I'd forced down in front of Sarra and Freda started to sink its claws in deep.

There was no way I could hope to find Eothain in this madness on my own, let alone get him out of it…

"Tink!" I yelled, only realising I'd called for her out loud when my throat almost closed in terror. "Please, I need you!"

'I'm here, boss!' Her voice flowed through my mind like a cool breeze, the familiar sensation a balm to my tightening nerves. I pulled in a breath, using the precious moment of calm to force myself to think. Even with my elf sight I couldn't see a bloody thing outside the flashing torchlights, but there were too many riders belting about below on horseback to risk running in there unprepared. I had to know where I was going or I'd be crushed.

'I need to see, Tink,' I said inside my head, thinking deliberately back to when my gaze had sharpened to a hawk-like clarity when Boromir had grabbed me in Fangorn, trying to show her what I meant. I should have known better than to force the idea. She understood my train of thought faster than if I'd tried to say it aloud.

'It might hurt you, boss. Are you sure?' She asked seriously, not bothering to sugar coat it.

'It's the only chance we've got. If we go down there blind we'll be trampled,' I answered. 'Can you do it?'

Instead of answering, a sudden stinging, tingling sensation pulsed through my eyes, forcing them painfully shut. For a couple of awful seconds I couldn't see at all, the pain too much to open my eyes. When I finally did, I couldn't just see again — I could see everything that had been masked by the dark moments ago.

And for a moment, I really wish I had just gone in blind after all.

Everything is scary in the dark, but there are some things that are so much worse when you can actually see them for what they are. And I couldn't just see random flashes of the mayhem anymore, I could see every detail of what it had wrought. Every body, every spatter of blood, and torn grass — and I'll tell you right now, it's not a memory I'd be in a hurry to re-live, perfect elf memory or no.

'Hurry! I won't be able to hold this for long!' Tink's voice had become strained and gritted, like she was struggling to hold up a crushing weight that was only getting heavier by the second.

'Just keep it up as long as you can without knocking us out,' I answered, forcing down my terror, and charging down the hill at breakneck speed, straight for an opening in the fighting.

I didn't allow myself to think too much over the next few seconds, and it was seconds, even though it felt like hours running through that screaming chaos. My heightened night vision skimmed over dozen and dozens of corpses, forcing myself to ignore the howls of the dying and mortally wounded, dodging and weaving night-blind horses and wargs in the dark. There was too much going on for any of them to notice one stray elf girl charging like a madwoman through the melee, but it didn't stop me from running as fast as I possibly could, praying that if I moved fast enough, even a stray warg wouldn't be quick enough to catch me.

Just when I was beginning to bump up against my own limits, and my legs were beginning to cramp, I spotted him. I almost fell flat over a dead guardsman and impaled myself on his spear in my haste to stop in time.

A splash of sandy blond curls had caught my eye like a beacon, barely fifteen feet away in a sea of mangled grass, dying beasts, and black-spattered bodies.

He was upright, shouting, and swinging his father's long blade in a trembling two-handed grip at something in the gloom, and only when it came further into view did I see what it was. A orc rider, sans its warg, but no less deadly for the lack of a carnivorous mount. It was snarling and laughing as it lunged at the boy, toying with him blade-to-blade like a cat playing with its dinner. Eothain screamed something I didn't hear properly, lunging for the orc in a clumsy over-hand swing, and I saw instantly what was about to happen.

'No!'

My hands moved on their own, and it was only when I looked back on the whole scene later in recall that I realised it must have been at least partly Tink, her muscle memory overriding mine for a fraction of a second.

But a fraction was all she needed.

My hand shot out, closing around the shaft of the spear I'd almost fallen over, and jerking it from the ground with a strength that couldn't possibly have been mine. Though I'd seen it done plenty on the athletics pitch, I'd never actually thrown a javelin in my life, yet my body seemed to know what to do entirely on instinct. I flipped the spear over easily in one hand and drew it back, my throwing arm extended out behind me until the lance tip pointed just past the side on my face, my other arm pointed forward as a guide and counter-weight.

The orc blurred with a grin straight for Eothain's exposed side, and with a grunt of effort, I threw with all my strength.

For a second the spear seemed to hang suspended in the air over the battlefield, spinning through the air in an impossibly graceful arc — my aim and Tink's strength working in perfect tandem.

Then it hit the orc square in the chest, the point striking right through the heart and out the other side. Eothain screamed in surprise this time, as the body fell backwards to the ground in a spatter of blackened blood, its blade clattering away into the dark.

Achilles, eat your heart out.

But I didn't have time for a victory dance, or for utter shock at what I had just done. I charged down the hill at full speed, barely avoiding stumbling on the torn up ground, and only vaguely aware that I was still revved up way past my normal adrenaline level. I'd almost forgotten about Tink's night vision too, right up until I reached Eothain and almost scared the pants off him when I reached out and grabbed his arm. The over-sized sword almost fell straight out of his hands and onto my foot. To be fair though, he had just come close to being gored by an orc, and to his eyes, I'd just sprung out of nowhere with a likely mad gleam in my eye.

In for a penny, in for a pound, I guess.

"Come with me if you want to live," I growled in a surprisingly good imitation of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Eothain stared at me wide-eyed, blond hair swishing as his head shook automatically. Thinking fear had paralysed him, I tried pulling him hastily back the way I'd come, but he only gripped the blade tighter and pulled back.

"N-no, I won't! My Da, my family's honour! I need to—!" he babbled. I wasn't sure he even realised he was speaking out loud, but it didn't matter. My own fear and frustration flared without warning, and I seized him by the front of his shirt, all but lifting him off the ground thanks to Tink turbo-charging my engines.

"I wasn't asking, kid! Your sister needs you alive! If we stay here, we'll both die!" I snapped, shoving him gob-smacked back toward the hills. "Start running, now!"

Maybe it was the damn near animal snarl in my tone, or the gold I could feel flashing in my eyes, or the scream of a nearby guardsman as he was thrown from his horse and gored beneath a snapping warg, but Eothain didn't argue again. He only swallowed, eyes wide on mine, then he turned and started bolting back up the slope like his tail was on fire, his father's sword gripped tight to his chest like a lifeline.

'Well, at least you can add 'babysitter extraordinaire' to your resume after this,' Tink commented dryly, despite her strain. The ghost of a smirk tugged my lip as we started to hot-foot it after the blond teenager.

I'd barely made it three steps when my instincts suddenly screamed at me to duck.

I did, but something snarling and hideously strong still managed to reach out and grab a fist full of my hair, wrenching my head back to expose my throat. Another mount-less orc, bigger this time, raised its blade, gleeful to stab down at my jugular, rotten teeth bared to black gums.

Thrashing in panic I automatically fumbled for the blade at my hip, unsheathed my knife just in time, stabbing it straight down into the orc's upper thigh with a scream.

Actually I stabbed a little higher than that if I'm being honest, but I really didn't want to think about that any more than I had to.

The newly gelded orc squealed and jerked like a stuck pig, falling backwards away from me in twitching spasms of agony as I scrambled away. Its warg however, howled in fury and sprang from the darkness behind as I spun to face it, only this time I didn't have time to duck or dodge.

I didn't even have time to open my mouth and scream as a flash of torchlight lit up its fangs…

Then, right at the moment I was sure I was about to feel teeth pierce my throat, the beast flew sideways in a blur of fur, and blood, and a yip of pain. The scream left me in a rush of air, and for a second I couldn't understand what I'd just seen. Then I spotted the shaft of a Rohan spear sticking out of the dead warg's flank, and whirled just in time to see a pair of familiar steel grey eyes in a furious face bearing down on me from the back of a horse.

"What in the abyss are you doing here?!" Aragorn yelled, bringing Hasufel to a grinding halt barely a foot from me.

I'd never been so happy to have him there shouting at me.

My ears rang and my night vision suddenly sputtered and died like a burned out lightbulb. I winced as my head throbbed, something warm tricking from my nose down over my lips, and the taste of copper touching my tongue.

My nose was bleeding again.

'I'm sorry, boss. I can't… I can't do any more…' she groaned, her voice gone tinny and quiet.

'It's ok, Tink. You've done enough.'

I had to blink and shake my head a few times before I could see and hear properly again, and by then it was apparent that Aragorn was close to detonating.

"You need to get away from here! Now!" he was bellowing, pointing violently back in the direction I'd sent Eothain. "Go!"

He really needn't have yelled.

I couldn't have agreed more now that my night vision had gone.

Before either of us could so much as twitch in the direction of safety however, another bone chilling howl exploded from my left, and another warg and its rider screeched as they bounded straight at us from the gloom.

Aragorn's blade blurred up in an instant eye-height slash that would have taken the orc's head clean off if it had been going for him.

But it hadn't been going for him.

The warg charged straight for me, and the orc rider seized me by the scruff of my tunic before I could dive away. A choked scream escaped me as I was tugged back hard enough to strangle me with my own collar, my body being dragged alongside the running beast. I heard Aragorn bellow my name somewhere back in the dark, but honestly, I was more concerned with the fact that both my airway and the blood to my brain was cut off. If I couldn't do something about it in the next seven seconds, I'd be unconscious.

More than fifteen and I'd be dead.

Struggling against the pull of the orc, with my free hand trying desperately to pull the fabric noose from my neck, I flung my knife hand back searching for anything to stab into. I only needed a bit of leverage to lift the weight off my throat.

I'm not sure how, but the blade somehow hooked right through the top of the orc's breastplate, right between its skin and the leather.

It wasn't even a wounding blow, but it was enough.

I heaved, yanking it sideways, pulling myself off the ground as the orc howled in protest. The second my airway was clear enough to gasp in a breath I flung my other hand up and caught the struggling orc by the neck of its armour, the perfect reverse of where it still had hold of me.

Again, I don't know how I managed it, but kicking my legs off the blurring ground I somehow used my own momentum and my death grip on the orc's collar to swing myself up in front of it, barely catching myself in a half-straddle, half-crouch on the warg's upper back. I almost fell straight off the other side with a scream, but I caught my balance, barely avoiding falling headfirst onto the ground to be trampled under both the running warg and Aragorn's horse.

I could still hear him shouting, and they were quickly catching up.

The warg didn't stop running, but the orc rider gaped at me like I'd just appeared before it in a puff of evil smoke. I didn't have the mental space or the time to gloat. Knife still in hand, and twisting around with my teeth bared, I plunged my blade back once, twice, straight into its diaphragm. It was damned impossible to aim properly in the dark, but the ranger-made steel punched straight through the leather breastplate like it was cardboard, and I knew I'd hit my mark when I heard the creature let out a strangled gurgling noise. Spasming violently as it choked on its own blood, the movement jerked the warg's reins sharply to the left, and with a startled whinny, I felt more than saw Hasufel's legs tangle with the hound's loping gait.

The poor horse went down with a terrible crash, and with a startled shout, Aragorn flew off the horse's back like a burly discus.

He smashed straight into the dying orc, knocking it sideways off to the blood-covered ground, my knife still buried in its gut.

My insides twisted with the urge to dive after my weapon, but I didn't have time as Aragorn — apparently dazed by the collision — was suddenly slipping over the other side of the running warg's saddle. With a sharp cry I sprang after him, trying to catch his arm. I grabbed him just over his left elbow, pulling up hard, but his leather gauntlet twisted and snagged tight on the side of the warg's spiky saddle.

"Oh, come on!"

Gripping the warg's sides with my legs, I leaned down and tried to find the latches for Aragorn's gauntlet, all while trying not to be thrown off the sprinting beast's back.

It was like trying to untie a tricky knot while riding a carnivorous rollercoaster with no seatbelt.

The warg, for its part, didn't seem to realise the girl on its back wasn't its rider, but it was pretty damned determined to drag Aragorn along until he was either mincemeat or pulled off. It thrashed and wove as it ran, and Aragorn came out of his daze just as the warg decided its best bet was to just run even faster.

His un-trapped hand came up to grab the saddle beside mine.

"Eleanor, let go!" he ordered, all but shouting right into my face. I gritted my teeth and ignored him, pulling the second of the three latches free.

"I've almost got it!"

I saw him shake his head frantically, his voice more panicked than angry now.

"Leave me! It's going for the—!"

The last buckle snapped open and his arm came free.

"There!"

Then suddenly we were in the air…

The ground vanished from under us and I saw Aragorn's hair fly up as if in a sudden gust of wind, both our bodies completely weightless for a fraction of a second…

Then we were falling.

The torchlight vanished upward along with the sounds of the fight in a blur. My stomach flew upward to bounce off the roof of my mouth, and the wind suddenly rushing past my ears was deafening. I couldn't scream, but the air still rushed out of me in a silent, painful exhale as I realised what had happened.

We'd run straight over the edge of a cliff.

The last thing I remember seeing was Aragorn's grey eyes going wide in a flash of moonlight, his freed hand desperately reaching for me as we fell down into the dark.

I couldn't remember hitting the water of the river below.

All I remembered was cold pain, sudden, and intense, and everywhere.

Then nothing but silence.

Chapter Text

When the lights came back on, I was sure I was dead.

I mean, the speed at which I'd hit the water alone should had been enough to knock me out cold. And even if by some miracle I hadn't landed on my head and died instantly, the water should have surely got me. I'd only need to have been under long enough for one lung-full, and it was certainly bright enough around me to inspire the stereotypical light at the end of the tunnel. But the blurred brightness around me wasn't at the end of a tunnel exactly…

It was everywhere, and colourful, and I didn't feel particularly dead.

In fact, I felt… happy? Excited, almost. Like I was exactly where I wanted to be, and looking forward to something special. Something fun.

'What the…?'

I couldn't unscramble my half-numb mind to work out what was happening to me. At least not before the blurred colours all around started to slowly sharpen into focus like the lens on a camera. It was like watching a film opening, the world gradually coming into crisp and sharp focus, only I was watching it through my eyes instead of a screen.

My eyes, and every other sense I had, too.

I could suddenly smell dry grass and sea-spray, feel summer sunlight on the skin of my arms and face, and as my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw that I hadn't been looking at a light at the end of a tunnel at all. I was looking up at a midday sky as clear and bright as coloured glass — the polar opposite from the darkened one I'd seen only moments before as I fell from the cliff.

What was this? Some hallucination as I lay unconscious and dying at the bottom of the river?

But instincts rising up inside me said otherwise.

'It's a memory.'

A full-sensory, full panorama, come-along-for-a-the-ride memory, with HD surround sound, clearer than anything I'd come close to before. And I'd only had to fall headfirst off a cliff into a cold river to get it — good to know.

My heart was suddenly thundering like a war drum in my chest, and I couldn't tell if it was me, or my dreaming self, or both that the feelings were originating fro—

"Feeling whimsical, sister mine?"

My war drum heart just about stopped.

That voice.

Slowly, my gaze drifted on instinct from the sky down to where the voice had come from, and I came face to face with a smirk I'd only seen in flashes of painfully cloudy memories. Only in dim echos of a long forgotten life.

He was right there, barely an arm's reach away, grinning at me over one shoulder where he rode astride a chestnut horse, curly brown hair falling into laughing green eyes.

'Var… my brother…'

The thought came as easy as breathing, and the smile that spread over my face even more so — though it didn't do the sudden storm of emotions within me justice. I wanted to cry, to scream, to reach out across the gap between our mounts and fling my arms around him, despite barely knowing who he was past a name and a surge of painful recognition.

But when I tried, my limbs wouldn't move.

Instead I felt my shoulders just roll in a shrug, the smile on my face turning vulpine as sudden claustrophobia built inside me.

With a flash of panic, I realised that I wasn't in control of my own body. I tried telling my fingers to twitch, my toes to wiggle, but I might as well have been trying to push over a brick wall. I was trapped inside a body I wasn't in command of, but despite the unnerving sensation, I still didn't exactly feel unsafe. If anything — when I managed to push past the instinctive fear clawing inside me — I felt oddly calm. It felt as if I was being gently walked through the steps of a dance I'd once known by heart, and was only rediscovering as I repeated each of the movements.

It took a moment, but with a conscious effort, I stopped trying to force my present-day will into my memory's body. Instead I just watched, rapt in wonder at the scene, emotions, and echoes of old thoughts unfolding around me.

We were both on horseback, Var and me. I hadn't even noticed we were trotting over wild grasslands until I felt my body shift to keep my balance. I somehow knew without thinking about it that we'd have normally have taken the cobbled road to wherever it was we were headed. If we had though, I also knew we'd have been spotted, recognised, and drawn attention to in seconds — which in turn would have completely defeated the point of sneaking away from our own birthday celebration back at the palace.

I felt myself grin wider at my brother, nudging my grey stallion to speed up, overtaking his chestnut mare.

"Merely giving you a sporting head start, brother mine."

He quirked an eyebrow at me.

"A head start, huh? Are we racing?"

"Always!" I kicked my horse into an abrupt gallop and took off ahead, shouting over my shoulder. "Last one there has to sweet-talk Ma!"

Behind me, Var swore up a rainbow and kicked his own horse into a sprint, but it was too late. I was already leaning low over my horse's back, my steed and I tearing down the hill at breakneck speed over grass and wildflowers, straight towards—

'A cliff?!'

Present-Day-Me tried and failed to scream as Memory-Me left it to literally the last second to jerk hard on the reins, just in time to bring our horse to a whinnying, snorting stop right at the edge of the cliff. Seriously, half a second later and I was sure we'd have sailed straight over the edge into—

The smell of saltwater and sea breeze hit met, twice as strong as before. And as the adrenaline in my blood died away, I looked up I finally saw the view before me — what my memory-self had been rushing so recklessly towards. A deep turquoise sea sprawled beneath a cloudless sky. A horizon that stretched for miles, the sound of waves crashing against rocks, and the feel of cool air and warm sun on my face. And just for a moment, one little heartbeat, I completely forgot I was in a memory.

It all felt so wonderfully, painfully real, I wanted to reach out and catch it. Lock it away inside me, so I couldn't ever lose it again.

I hardly noticed I'd dismounted and tethered my thoroughly displeased horse to a nearby post — one that looked suspiciously like it had been put there specifically for that purpose. Only when my brother and his own horse came to much safer stop behind us did I recall this was but a memory.

"Aaand I beat you again," I grinned, turning from the view to look up at him. He made a disgusted noise at me, but smiled.

"Only because I didn't wish to go in with all my clothes and my horse. You on the other hand never seem to concern yourself with potential death by recklessness."

"Bravery comes in many forms, brother mine."

"Bravery? Or just insanity?"

"The two aren't mutually exclusive."

He just laughed at me, sliding off his mare and tying her to the post alongside my stallion. While Memory-Me waited impatiently for him to be done, Present-Day-Me took a moment to truly look at him — take in every detail of this person I knew so well, and yet didn't at all.

He must have been in his mid-twenties, and where I knew from my fragmented memories he'd once been lanky and awkward as a teenager, he now stood almost a head taller than I. While he wasn't anything close to burly, he was built with the kind of whipcord muscle that came from long hours training with a light blade — and endlessly attempting to beat his lighter, faster sister in races. At a glance, you might not immediately guess we were as closely related as siblings, let alone fraternal twins. The only true features we shared that were completely identical were our ears, the points peeking out from under our hair, just like our father's. And our eyes, green as a summer field, just like our mother's.

And not a hint of gold in sight, I noticed.

"How long do you think we have?" I heard myself ask, as Var fondly patted his horse's neck.

"Maybe an hour. Two if we're lucky," he answered. I nodded, glancing back towards the cliff.

"Then we best make the most of it."

And without further ado, I turned away, and began unbuckling the slender belt holding my dress closed, and pulling loose the side ties.

Ok, for the record, it's a surreal enough feeling to be living a memory inside a body you don't really have any control over. It's an entirely different thing when said body starts pulling off its own clothing in a business-like fashion. I was too shocked to even try stopping myself, let alone immediately notice that Var had started doing the same. He was busy pulling off his boots just a few feet away, completely unfazed, as if it was his best friend changing a few feet away, instead of the sister he'd shared a nursery with until the age of five.

"You know you didn't have to do this for me, right?" I said, sounding utterly unconcerned for my own modesty as I pulled the dress over my head, leaving me in my breast-band and a pair of breeches I'd secretly been wearing beneath.

"Do what?" Var asked, taking a minute to wiggle his freed toes in the grass. I clicked my tongue at him, and hopped on one foot to start pulling off my dancing shoes.

"You know what. Spring me from a formal gathering under the noses of over fifty of Ma's stuffy guests."

Var shrugged, looking as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth.

"Didn't I? I was under the impression it was either this," he gestured to the scenery around us, "or I resort to my usual tactic of 'suitor diversion.'"

I snorted, raising a brow at him. "Like you don't enjoy said brand of 'suitor diversion.'"

He made a mock-offended face, a hand going to his chest.

"Hey! It is a noble sacrifice for the honour of my beloved sister! Always. Valar's truth."

"Of course it is," I scowled playfully, throwing my discarded dress over his face. "My darling twin, self-sacrificing seducer and heartbreaker of every unsuitable lad to dare turn their lecherous gazes upon me."

He pulled the mass of fabric from his head to reveal a sly grin.

"Do I detect a hint of judgement?"

"Only for assuming I can't manage the heartbreaking bit myself," I answered, a little too quickly to be truly honest. Var's expression didn't change, but it softened, and I knew without him saying a word that he understood.

Even when neither of us said a word, he always understood. He always had.

"I think we both know you're far too kind-natured for that, Éla," he said gentle smile that broke into a wide, wicked grin. "Beneath all the poisonous spines, of course."

I threw one of my dancing shoes at him.

"Get over that damned cliff, before I kill you."

He just laughed again, loud and genuine, and finished pulling off the rest of his non-essential clothing. A minute later we were both standing in only our calf-length breeches (and breast-band for me) peering over the edge of the cliff I'd nearly charged my horse over. It was a fair way down into gorgeous, clear turquoise water, and though shielded from the worst surf by a series reefs, it was still rough enough to give all but the most practiced of swimmers pause.

"A bit rough for low tide," I noted idly.

"Having second thoughts?" Var teased. "Should I retrieve your gown and dancing shoes?"

"Please," I snorted, taking a few steps back. And without further pause I lunged forward, taking a running jump straight over the edge of the cliff with a loud yell of challenge. Curling my legs up into a tight ball, I plummeted down towards the sea, the rush of wind and adrenaline enough to send my heart flying. I hit the water with an almighty splash, plunging down several feet below the waves, before orienting myself and kicking easily back up with a few easy strokes.

Var was laughing when I broke the surface, and I looked up to see him grinning down at me.

"Are you coming down here? Or do you plan to sit up there cackling until an unsuspecting sheep farmer finds you?!" I called up. He threw me a hand gesture that a prince really shouldn't have used in the presents of a lady and followed my lead, taking a lunge straight over the edge with a shout.

He hit the water barely a few feet from me, giving me a face-full of seawater in the process. My laugh died quickly however, when he didn't immediately resurface. Looking around, I tried and failed to see where he'd come up among the waves.

"Var?"

Nothing.

Seconds ticked by and he still didn't resurface. Panic turned my blood cold, and I spun frantically in the water, searching for any sign of him at all.

"Var! Vardamir!"

Something suddenly grabbed hold of my both ankles under the water, and yanked me sharply downward. I shrieked, flailing, and instinctively tried to kick away whatever was dragging me beneath the waves and—

And then my idiot brother released my legs and broke the surface right in front of me, his curly brown hair plastered to his grinning face. He was all but pissing himself laughing, but his laugh and smile died when he saw the expression on my face.

"Éla?" he asked, voice gone instantly worried, coming close enough to see if I was ok. "I was only teasing, I'm sor—"

I spat a jet of seawater directly into his face. He yelped through a surprised laugh and tried to splash me back, but I was already swimming away, cackling gleefully.

"You make it too easy!"

"You'll pay for that, treacherous wench!" he promised, coming after me.

"I'm not sure the Queen would approve of hearing the Princess addressed as such, my prince," a new voice called soundly from above. Var and I looked up in unison to find its owner peering straight down at us from above.

Abrazîr, the Captain of the Royal Guard — the name came to me so easily, and with it a familiar little rush of pleasant warmth and a flutter in my stomach that I couldn't quite ignore.

Well that was interesting…

He was a tall human man with dark wavy hair and deep bronze skin, standing at the top of the cliff looking down at us. He was also flanked by two other guardsmen not much older than Var and I, but all looking far more dignified in their dark blue and gold uniform, weapons at their belts. Abrazîr was trying valiantly to hide the amused smirk, but the other two men just looked scandalised down at the half-dressed royal siblings treading water in the sea below.

So much for us having an hour without being found. They must have followed our tracks. That was Abrazîr's forte after all.

"I doubt there is much about this scene that she would approve of, Az!" Var called up jovially, turning a grin that would have looked at home on a fox at the other guards. "Care to join us, good sirs? The water is quite refreshing."

One of the younger lads actually turned a bit pink around the ears, but Abrazîr just chuckled, gaze flickering and lingering momentarily on me.

"I'm sure that would not be at all proper, my prince," he called down with a wide, white smile against his sun-rich skin.

And something about that smile, that laugh — it too was achingly familiar.

Var snorted. "Since when have you worried so much about propriety, Az?"

Abrazîr shook his head, chuckling as he turned away out of sight. Then, not three seconds later, he appeared once again — only this time sans a shirt and boots. The other guards got barely a second's warning before their captain flew head-first past them over the cliff with a wild shout, plummeting straight down into the water with us, laughing the entire time.


The dream dissipated and I woke to cold, darkness, pain, and the taste of blood and dirty water in my mouth.

For a second my dazed brain almost didn't realise I was still under water, and I almost inhaled a lungful of river water. Then reality smacked straight into me, and I was instantly awake, every one of my senses pulling as much information in as they possibly could. I was underwater, still in the river, and being pulled steadily downstream. The currents were strong, but not enough to make kicking myself to the surface impossible once I'd figured out which way was up despite the blackness all around.

It was dark when I broke the surface, gasping in breath after breath. I could barely see a thing past the water in my eyes, and it was a couple of seconds before my brain had enough oxygen to think past the burning in my lungs.

Where the hell had that memory come from?

How long had I been under?

How the hell had I even survived the fall?

Question after question bombarded me until I managed to shove them down, telling myself I'd deal with them later. I was still in a bloody river in near-pitch darkness after all, and Aragorn was—

Realisation punched me in the gut.

Aragorn.

'Shite!' I swore internally, not enough air in my body to curse aloud. I spun in the water, trying uselessly to see the surface of the water around me and keep my head above the rapids. 'Tink! Where's Aragorn?!'

I barely felt Tink's awareness rustle softly against my own, her voice sluggish deep inside my head.

'Don't know… he hit the water with the warg… thirty seconds ago.'

I'd never heard her so tinny and weak before, and it scared me a bit.

'Did you catch where he fell?'

'Your left… eight feet back…' she answered, before falling silent into what I could only assume was her equivalent of exhausted sleep.

I spun in the water, not unlike I'd just done in my lucid dream. We were already well out of range of the torches and fighting, and I couldn't see anything through the dark. Not even the stars.

"Dammit!" I just about sobbed. He had to be here somewhere, but if I couldn't see him then—

Just then, as if some higher power had decided to throw me a bone, some of the clouds parted ever so slightly, allowing a beam of milky moonlight to fall over the river.

I spotted him almost instantly, a dark shape on the surface of the water not ten feet away. He was clinging weakly to the tangled remains of the warg's body, using it as a make-shift flotation device. I couldn't tell if he was even conscious, but from his slackening grip and the leather armour I knew he had on, it wouldn't matter in a moment.

"Aragorn!" I screamed through the agony in my throat and chest, trying to get his attention.

He didn't respond. He just lost his grip on the warg's body and slipped soundlessly beneath the rapids as the moon vanished behind the clouds again.

"No, no, no damn you!"

I threw myself back under the water before my fear could hold me back, kicking myself hard through the currents. I'd always been a decent swimmer as a human, but I couldn't remember ever being quite this strong. I propelled myself through the river fast, holding the spot where Aragorn had sunk in my mind for all it was worth, both hands outstretched and praying they'd find their mark.

My left hand latched around a warm wrist with a weak pulse two seconds later, and I pulled as hard as I could just as moonlight spilled down from above once again. Aragorn's unconscious face appeared in my sight under the water, his dark hair floating up around his head and his eyes closed.

Swearing up a silent storm while holding my breath, I pulled one of the small throwing blades out of my sleeve; neither of us had time for me to worry about buckles now. Tearing his over-tunic aside, I sliced the leather straps holding his thin but heavy leather cuirass closed, and yanked it free. Only once the damned thing was off him did I make the attempt to try and drag him to the surface, slipping one of his arms over my shoulder, and kicking furiously off the river floor toward my only source of light.

I'm still not sure how in hell I managed it without Tink's help. Aragorn wasn't exactly a small man, nor light with all the muscle he carried on that stoic frame. We nearly sank twice when the rapids got stronger, and I was sure that if I took my eyes off the blurred shape of the moon for even a second I'd lose the will to keep my weakening legs kicking.

But still, I did it.

My lungs were burning when we finally broke the surface, my legs and arms screaming for mercy. I choked in loud lungfuls of air, but not a peep came from the human ranger in my arms. I didn't even try and call his name, I already knew he couldn't answer.

Blind panic was the only thing that got me to the rocky edge of the riverbank, dragging a limp Aragorn after me by his armpits, my body pleading with me to just stop, to rest, to give up and let fate take him to whatever end it desired.

I told my body and fate to go fuck themselves.

My clothes and limbs were heavy as I heaved and dragged him out of the water and onto the bank, setting him on his back and dropping quickly to my knees beside him. An ear to his mouth and nose immediately told me he wasn't breathing, and two fingers pressed into his neck said his pulse was barely there.

"Come on, you stoic idiot. This is so not the time for a tragic bloody hero's death," I muttered, balling my hands into fists over each other. I placed them against his solar plexus and used the entire weight of my body to start pushing down in short, hard compressions.

A side-note for all you romance fans: anyone who ever tried to make CPR sound anything like a dramatic opportunity for accidental kissing has clearly never tried it before. Rescue breathing isn't anything close to romantic, or anything like kissing. It's difficult, and messy, and seriously hard work. Especially when the person you're trying to save is twice your size and weight. I was struggling enough to catch my own breath after the swim, so the task of trying to force air into Aragorn's uncooperative lungs was tiring me out far too quickly.

I wouldn't be able to keep this going for long. If he didn't start breathing soon — I couldn't let myself think about it.

"Don't you dare do this to me now, you Dunedain bastard! Wake!" A compression. "The!" Another compression. "Fuck!" A third compression. "Up!"

He still didn't move, so I kept trying. Thirty more compressions, and another breath. Thirty compressions. Another breath. Over and over.

Still nothing.

My arms began to tremble.

"Come on, breathe damn you!" I was crying now, the cold river water dripping from my hair mixing with warm tears of panic.

Nothing.

I screamed.

"Aragorn! Aragorn, wake up! Please!" I abandoned the compressions in favour of simply slamming my aching fist on his chest, as if I was trying to beat him into the ground for abandoning me here.

He woke up.

Grey eyes flew open so fast, I shrieked and fell back as he rolled onto his side, coughing up half the river's worth of water. The shriek turned into a laugh as I damn near sobbed with joy.

"Oh, thank you! Christ, thank you!"

Aragorn just sputtered and heaved for a couple of seconds, more river water coming up before he could even look at me. He looked pained and dazed, but also strangely exasperated despite the near-death experience.

"E-Eleanor…" he choked out between ragged gulps of air. "Y-you… the warg… could have… killed y-yourself… idiot…"

The relief that flooded me was better than Gimli's Erebor Goldwine, and the look on Aragorn's face suddenly struck me as hilariously funny. So I laughed. I laughed hard through tears of relief until my whole body ached and my chest burned, falling back on the stony shore beside him, my arms and legs splayed.

"Yeah, I'm an idiot. An idiot who just saved your life, you crazy bastard," I tittered, wheezing through my own abused lungs. "Now we're even."

There was a pause while Aragorn choked down more air, and I just let my exhausted body go entirely limp.

"Twice," he groaned eventually, still coughing, though his breathing began to steady. "I… saved your life… twice. You owe me one more."

"Fine," I snorted, too tired to argue. "I'll buy you a drink sometime, make it up to you."

He grunted softly in reply, then went still and silent, and for a second I felt alarmed that he'd stopped breathing again. When I rolled my head to the side to see, his chest rose and fell in a steady cadence, but his eyes had fallen shut into a dead sleep.

I sighed, long and hard.

He'd be ok now. He'd had enough air and sense to talk smack at me, but I'd have put gold on the fact that his body had forced his mind to shut down to give itself time to recover. It made me realise just how much exhaustion he must have been hiding under the stoicism and cool pokerface before we'd left Edoras, let alone ended up in the river.

For a moment I felt bad for not asking after him more often.

Then again, I had just saved his life.

"Stubborn, self-sacrificing git," I muttered through a knackered smile, letting my own eyes fall shut, and a deep, dreamless sleep finally take me under.

Chapter Text

Something warm, wet, and foul-smelling was nudging against the side of my face.

“Mmmfrmf…” I heard myself mumble, eyes still firmly shut.

A baffled pause.

Then the warm, wet thing pushed against the side of my head yet again. Once more, I grumbled, one foot still firmly in deep slumber, and unwilling to come out but by force. The wet, smelly annoyance nuzzled my cheek a third time, and this time I made a louder groaning sound, trying to lift my hand to swat whatever it was away, but my arm was too wobbly. Instead, I kind of flopped sideways, away from the sound of the snorting, fumbling for a pillow to pull over my head.

“Piss off…’m tired…” I groaned into my mattress, which seemed a little hard and damp now that I considered it.

Stars, how long had I been asleep for? However long, it didn’t feel like long enough. I could feel warm sunlight on my eyelids, feel a hundred different aches, bumps and bruises all starting to demand my attention one by one. And this cold, hard mattress I was curled up on really was the worst—

Ow!

My hand flew to the back of my head where the wet, smelly thing intent on waking me had taken a big mouthful of my hair, and pulled hard.

Potentially, I realised, as a prelude to eating the rest of me.

I sat bolt up and tried to twist onto my feet, but didn’t quite manage it for my shaky legs. I ended up falling straight back onto my butt on my ‘mattress’, which, now that I was well and truly awake, I remembered was in fact a stony river bank.

And my wake-up-caller?

A horse.

A big, thunderstorm grey stallion stood before me, as tall as I was if I’d been upright. He had no saddle, and no bridle, but from the look of his shape, size and musculature, he had to have been one of the Rohirrim war mounts. No wild bronco could have got to be that big and carry that many battle scars from roaming the Riddermark. And no wild horse could have fixed me with such a distinct, almost sentient look of disapproval.

We just stared at each other for a moment, me sat stupidly on my arse until the stallion gave an imperious snort, as if to say: Well? Are you going to just sit there and gawk?

I choked on a giggle.

Thinking a rock was a bed, and now a horse is judging me for it. A good start to the day.

“Now where in hell did you come from?” I asked a tad suspicious, my voice a bit croaky and the back of my head throbbing as a got slowly to my feet. My legs were still a little weak, but the horse didn’t seem to mind my jerky balance. He just watched me with interested dark eyes as I came towards him, hand cautiously outstretched, palm flat. I’d never been fantastic with horses, but they seemed to tolerate me for the most part — only dispensing bites when I refused to share any food I happened to be carrying.

To my surprise though, this one didn’t back away or simply ignore my approach. He took a little step forward, deliberately pressing his nose against the flat of my palm. I found myself smiling, running my fingers gently over his muzzle and neck.

“Well, at least you’re friendly-ish. Thought you were a warg about to chew on my head for a second there,” I told him. The stallion gave another offended snort and bumped me with his nose. I raised my free hand in defence. “Not that you’re anything like a warg. Much too handsome, of course.”

That seemed to pacify him, since he allowed me to continue petting him.

I glanced around in vain search of where he might have come from, or where his rider might be, but there was nothing but stony cliffs, grassy slopes and gnarled bushes dotting the riverbanks for as far as I could see. The current must have really carried us a long way.  Far enough for there to be no trace of our convoy from Edoras.

Had the others made it out of the fight ok? Clearly no one had come after us, but there were no wargs sweeping the area, either. I hoped that meant Theoden and his men really had slain them all.

Pushing aside the feeling of dread that raised inside me, I turned back to my new friend.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know your name, boy.”

Another impatient snort, and a light toss of the head, as if to say: I know that.

I pursed my lips in thought, eyeing him.

“Mmm… how’s Benvolio sound? At least for now?”

The unsettlingly intelligent horse seemed to consider this for a second, then flicked his tail once in what looked like assent. I smiled tiredly, and sighed.

“Lucid dreams about cliff diving, and now I’m talking to a horse. I must have hit that water harder than I thought.”

A soft snore suddenly came from behind me, and I remembered where I’d left Aragorn dead to the world on the bank the night before. He hadn’t moved from where I’d pulled him out of the water and revived him, but he was breathing steadily, and there was colour coming back to his bruised face again. I chuckled at the sight despite myself. Crazy falls off cliffs into rivers aside, the rest was probably doing him a world of good.

“On the other hand,” I mumbled aloud, peering up at the sky. “I don’t think we have the luxury of sleeping on the job right now. I doubt those wargs will be the last to scour these hills. We need to get back to the others.”

Squinting up at the pale blue sky, I tried to focus past all my aches and burning desire to just lie back down on my stony mattress and sleep again. If my sun-tracking skills were anything to go by (and they weren’t, but that was beside the point) it was late morning. And if my stomach was anything to go by (and that was reliable) we hadn’t been out for more than a few hours.

“Which means we might still make it to Helm’s Deep before dusk,” I murmured excitedly. Benvolio made a chuffing noise and nudged my arm with his nose. I spun to face him, not even caring about the fact that I was addressing an equine anymore. “We need to get out of here quickly, but my friend is unconscious. Can we get him onto your back someho—?”

Before I’d even finished talking Benvolio gave light whiney, stepped gingerly over to Aragorn’s side, and knelt down so his back was only a couple of feet off the ground, just high enough for me to get the unconscious man on with a bit of creativity and hard work. I beamed at the horse.

“And your masters just let a genius like you go? Shameful.”

Benvolio gave a self-important snort, then looked pointedly towards the downed ranger.

“Right, right,” I agreed, glancing around the bank. I needed something to fasten Aragorn to me while we rode, something to stop him falling off. I’d cut away his armour in the river, so I couldn’t cannibalise the straps, but then I spotted the warg carcass. It had washed up against some stones on the bank a little way downstream, twisted by the fall. But I could see it miraculously still had its rider’s saddle attached.

Maybe it was all the river water I’d swallowed, but if I’d been a cartoon character, a little lightbulb would have gone off over my head.

“Give me two minutes,” I told Benvolio, and jogged as fast as my exhausted body would allow down the side of the river. Two minutes later, I came back with a set of long, coarse leather straps and buckles I’d cut off the warg’s saddle. It had been a tough job cutting through the thick leather with only my throwing knives, but my hunting knife had been lost during the fight — stuck in that orc’s chest when Aragorn and I had gone over the cliff.

I felt a sharp pang in my own chest at its loss, but pushed the thought aside for later.

Benvolio just watched as I worked, looping the straps together with the buckles until I had what resembled a medium sized sling with a smaller loop at the end. The horse gave me what I imagined was a skeptical look, a metaphorical eyebrow raised.

“Yeah, yeah, I know it’s not pretty, but it’ll do.”

With a bit of creative struggling, I managed to loop the sling around Aragorn’s back, using it and his arms to pull him into a sitting position beside Benvolio. He grunted but didn’t wake, and surly as the horse might have been, he didn’t move once as I manoeuvred the ranger clumsily to sit astride his back. Then slowly, carefully, I encouraged the horse to stand, keeping Aragorn balanced precariously on his back.

It was dicey as hell getting myself up onto Benvolio’s back without stirrups or a saddle, or without accidentally knocking a boneless Aragorn off sideways, but we managed. Once I was seated astride the stallion’s back with a still unconscious man behind me, I took his limp arms and fastened them around my middle, securing them with one of the smaller loops of the sling. If he decided to fall off in his sleep he’d definitely take me down with him, but as Benvolio took off up the river bank at a gentle trot it wasn’t as hard as I’d feared keeping us both balanced.

Exhausted, lost, and increasingly scared as I was suddenly becoming, I found myself smiling, running a fond hand down the beast’s neck.

“Thank you, bud. I couldn’t have done that on my own.”

Benvolio gave a soft nicker and pressed his cheek into my hand.

It was a long shot, but if this horse was as smart I was hoping he was, and I’d been right about where he’d come from, we might have had a hope of getting to where we needed. A fool’s hope maybe, but a hope nonetheless. And after all, we had survived the night despite a surprise attack, being dropped off a cliff, almost drowning, and sleeping on a wet stone mattress for half the night.

So, I leaned down and spoke very seriously into my new steed’s ear.

“Get us to Helm's Deep before dark, boy, and I’ll owe you an entire bucket of apples.”

Benvolio gave one last light whinny of assent, turned west, and took off at a canter straight towards the mountains looming in the distance.

 


 

I’d thought riding shotgun behind Aragorn during our flight to Edoras had been tough on my backside. But not even that, in all its indignity and saddle-soreness, compared to this.

My butt was just about ready to murder me, my legs and fingers had gone numb with the effort of keeping me on Benvolio’s back without a saddle or reins, and that was all without the dozens of other bruises, aches, and pains that had appeared as a result of our fall into the river. I couldn’t see for myself, but I didn’t have to to know that I was likely black and blue by now.

And my blasted hair was probably a mess, too.

Benvolio seemed to know exactly where he was going without me attempting to navigate or steer, so I just focused on keeping myself and Aragorn balanced on his back as we rode west over increasingly rocky hillsides. An added bonus, if a little concerning, was that it was all utterly quiet inside my head for a change. Tink, as far as I could tell, was still resting, and I’d decided it was best to leave her to it. I had the suspicion that whatever had knocked my lucid memory loose had taken a sizeable toll on her, and the last thing we needed was for one of us to burn out at a crucial moment from excessive super-power use.

Dread was beginning to pool in my belly every time I thought of Helm’s Deep, too. If I’d learned anything in the past few months of this journey, it was to trust my instincts, even when they didn’t always seem to make sense.

Benvolio began to clamber up the side of a craggy hill rather nimbly for a horse his size, and Aragorn’s head bumped against the back of my shoulder. I adjusted my grip on my makeshift seatbelt and Benvolio’s mane, hoping that the fall into the river hadn’t given Aragorn a concussion as well as a near-drowning experience.

“Survive now. Worry about everything you can’t fix later,” I muttered. That’s what I imagined Tink would be saying were she conscious, so I did my best to push my troubling thoughts of Helm’s Deep aside. It didn’t take long for the memories of the waking dream I’d had in the river to take their place — and with them, the sound of my brother’s full name echoing inside my head like an old song I’d once known by heart.

“Vardamir,” I murmured, testing the sound of the word aloud. The image of my twin’s lopsided grin immediately pushed its way to the front of my mine. Green eyes, curly brown hair, and pointed ears exactly like mine. And just like me, he was just about as far from a regal, majestic elf as I could possibly imagine.

It was odd, I thought. I’d always assumed my lack of elfy-ness had been down to my human life back home on Earth. But Vardamir (if the memory was anything to go by) had been all but the same. Human in all but pointy-eared evidence to the contrary. By now I was desperately wishing I was back in Rivendell with a mountain of genealogy books at my disposal. Before, I’d had only a nickname, but now I had not only an description, but a full first name and a title too. My recollection of this Abrazir — Az — had labeled him as a Royal Guard captain, and he’d addressed Var as my prince.

Prince of what though? And where? Whatever the title referred to, it was at least official sounding, not just some teasing nickname. That meant there had to be some kind of record somewhere of hi—

My train of though stuttered to halt, my eyes suddenly widening as I at last put two and two together.

“Wait a second… he called me princess?!

That train of thought was quickly derailed when Aragorn chose that exact moment to wake, making a sleepy groaning noise behind me. I twisted to peer back at him, only to realise he was trying to shift his weight over to the opposite side, still only half conscious. I grabbed his hands around my middle and threw my own body to the other side as a counterweight, trying to keep us balanced as he swayed drunkenly.

“Whoa, whoa! No sudden movements, sleepyhead! Or we’ll both end up kissing dirt!”

Aragorn gave another semi-coherent groan, and while he didn’t exactly wake up immediately, he did at least stop trying to drag us both down to the ground. Benvolio, apparently sensing something was amiss on his back, slowed to a steady walk, giving the ranger the chance to slowly come back to reality.

“Wha…where are…? Eleanor?” he mumbled, the closest to drunkenly I’d ever seen him. He peered dazedly at me through half-shut eyes, at the improvised sling still securing his arms around my middle, and the animal we were both sat astride. “We’re… on a horse,” he murmured eventually.

I nearly laughed, partly in relief that he was finally alive again, but mostly because I think it was the first time I’d ever seen the man truly surprised.

“Excellent deduction, Watson. Now,” I twisted and held up a hand over my shoulder, wiggling my digits. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

He half glared, half squinted at me, still blinking the sleep from his eyes.

“Five,” he answered at last. “Incidentally the same number of questions I have at this moment.”

Suitably convinced that he wasn’t concussed — just cranky and confused — I nodded soberly. “Ask away. Though I make no promises to having the answers.”

He took a moment to fully gather himself, taking a few deep breathes and peering around at the sprawling rocky hillsides.

“Where are we?”

I rolled my shoulders in a shrug.

“Not sure, truth told. But my friend here seems to know his way, so I’ve been letting him lead.” I patted Benvolio’s neck, and he tossed his head in acknowledgement of this praise. Aragorn made a quiet sound of assent, then winced.

“Stars,” he grunted, pressing a hand to his solar-plexus, and glancing at me accusingly upon noticing his cuirass missing. “Did you do something to my chest?”

“I had to get you breathing again.”

“Did you have to stomp on me to do it?”

I threw him a filthy look over one shoulder, and gestured to our mount.

“Be grateful I didn’t get Benvolio to do it.”

“Benvolio?” Aragorn gave me a long look of aggravated confusion, then seemed to recall something. “Ah, same as that fellow from the tale of two lovers you told us in Lothlórien?”

I shrugged through a small smile, silently pleased he’d remembered. “It seemed to fit. He was pretty intent on helping you specifically.”

“I recognise him.”

I blinked, honestly surprised. “Really? From where?”

“I calmed him in the stables and set him loose before we left. He was Theodred’s horse, too traumatised by the attack to remain,” he explained, reaching carefully past me to stroke the beast’s mane. “His name was Brego, I believe.”

“Brego, huh?” I mused, eyeing the horse.

“He seems to prefer Benvolio now.”

“Seems like.” I smiled a little more. “A new name for a new horse, huh boy?”

Benvolio gave a light snort of agreement, and I patted his neck fondly before turning back to Aragorn.

“That’s two. And your remaining three questions?”

His fond look at the familiar horse dropped instantly.

“Third, how long since we fell?”

“About half a day I reckon,” I said, glancing at the mid-morning sky spread over our heads. “It was dusk when we were attacked. I woke at dawn, maybe a couple of hours ago.”

“Long enough to put us far behind the others,” he muttered, more to himself than me I think. “Did you see anyone else whilst I was unconscious? Anyone else who fell or strayed nearby?”

I shook my head.

“I don’t know. I didn’t see anyone else fall, and no one came after us after we got onto the bank. No riders, no orcs, nothing.”

“Then they may well assume us dead by now.” The look on my face must have betrayed my distress at the thought of being abandoned, because when Aragorn saw it, he offered me a gentle smile. “We are lucky, in no small part thanks to you. That fall would have killed most, and if not, then the river would have. But Theoden likely does not have the time or men to search for us now. Not with his own people in such danger.”

I bit my lip and turned away so he couldn’t see the struggle going on inside me. I knew logically it made sense, but I also couldn’t help but wonder if Boromir, Gimli and he had given up on finding us so quickly, too.

“I guess not,” I sighed, only peering back over my shoulder when I was sure I was ok again. “That was number four. Your fifth question?”

“Fifth,” Aragorn said slowly, staring me straight in the face and demanding: “What in the abyss were you thinking, Eleanor?”

I winced, my internal angst-fest instantly forgotten.

“I know, I know! I was going to stay with the women and children, I swear. But Eothain ran off with his dad’s sword during the attack, and I was the only one there to go after him. I was bringing him back when that orc grabbed me and you turned up.”

“Eothain? The same boy who’s village was burned?” Aragorn asked, and when I nodded he cursed softly, looking strangely guilty past all the exhaustion. “I should have guessed as much. One of us should have seen him and stopped him.”

I gave the hand looped around my middle a gentle pat.

“You were otherwise occupied. And if it’s any consolation, I think it was my story that put the idea in his head.”

“Perhaps, but it still should not have been on your shoulders to save him from his own recklessness. That boy owes you a great debt,” he muttered, then paused, eyeing me as if a thought had just occurred. “How in Varda’s name did you even survive to get that far? The battlefield was near pitch dark at best by the time I spotted you.”

“Tink was helping me.”

“… Tink?”

“My ride-along Maia? The one you met inside my head earlier yesterday?”

“Ah, yes. Her.” He made a face that was stuck somewhere between deep thought and looking like he’d bitten into an unripe grapefruit. “Again, I should have guessed that she was assisting you, considering our conversation.”

“Yeah, well. When she’s not mouthing off and changing my eye colour, she can actually be helpful.”

“And you call her… Tink.” Aragorn said slowly.

“Yep.”

“As in, the tiny fairy from your tale of… what was it? Peter Pan?” A nod from me, and a slightly exasperated shake of the head from Aragorn. “You seem oddly fond of naming the more dangerous of your companions after unassuming side characters.”

I chuckled a bit nervously, unsure of how I felt about the direction this conversation was going.

“You know, I meant to say back in Edoras, you’re kinda taking the fact that I’m semi-possessed by a snarky spirit of creation remarkably well.”

I felt Aragorn’s shoulders raise and fall in a tired shrug behind me.

“I knew there was something more afoot with you than mere oddity, Eleanor. I just never knew it’s… her nature until now.”

“Master Elrond filled you in before we left?”

“He didn’t need to. But Gandalf implied enough to be watchful before he fell in Moria. He believed something… worrying was happening within you, and that someone should know to watch over you, in case he fell.”

I opened my mouth to throw some shade about the wizard and ranger talking about me behind my back, but stopped, thinking about it. About how even when he was maddeningly cryptic, everything Gandalf had said and done so far had always ended up being in support and protection of me and the rest of the Fellowship. And based on the fact that I was carrying around the fantasy equivalent of uranium around in my head, could I really blame them both for being quietly cautious?

In the end I just exhaled, my shoulders slumping.

“Well, he wasn’t wrong, on both points.”

“Eleanor,” Aragorn said, the change in his one catching me off guard. I turned back to find him looking at me with deliberate gentleness, as if he was unused to wearing the expression. “I hope you know that, while I might not always agree with your methods and choices since beginning this journey, I do understand your motives more than you know. And I am grateful you were brave enough to share your truth with me.”

That was it.

No fluff. No fanfare. Just a few short sentences delivered honestly and without fuss.

It had never been Aragorn’s style to mince words or give grandiose speeches, and that was fine with me. Those few short sentences meant more coming from him than they would have from anyone else in this world. I caught myself beaming back at him, despite all my aches, bruises, weariness and worries.

“Thanks,” I said quietly, turning back to the hills ahead. “And if it means anything, I’m pretty sure meeting you face-to-face was an experience for Tink too, even if she sassed you in the process.”

Clearly the sound of her name being said aloud for a change was enough to wake her up.

‘Boss…?’ Tink’s voice croaked from the back of my mind.

‘Speak of the devil and she rises! How are you doing back there, sleepy?’

‘Like I’m nursing a dwarven ale hangover,” she groaned, not unlike Aragorn had when he’d been waking up.

‘Rest up then. I’m reasonably sure we’ll need to be high alert again before long.’

‘Twist my arm why don’t you,’ she muttered without venom, slipping back into the quieter parts of my mind to gather herself. I came back to reality to find Aragorn studying me closely.

“You were speaking with her just now, weren’t you,” he said, not quite making it a question. I eyed him right back, uncertainty creeping into my tone.

“How’d you figure? Did my eyes change again?”

“No, but you get an unfocused look in your eyes sometimes. I believed it just daydreaming at first, but now…”

“Now you have context.”

“Indeed,” he said, continuing to look at me with a ponderous expression. And maybe I was just exhausted and seeing things, but I could have sworn I saw the corer of his lip twitch with a repressed smile. “Has she always been so…?”

“Sarcastic?” I suggested lightly. “Mouthy? Insolent? Ballsy?”

‘See, now you’re just being mean,’ Tink called, still eavesdropping despite her power hangover. Aragorn pursed his lips.

“I was going to say similar to you, actually.”

‘Oh, burn!’

I was honestly too relieved they were both ok to be annoyed. But only just.

“Well, she’s been cooped up in my head for at least three years now, probably a lot more,” I reasoned, to which Aragorn inclined his head in acquiescence.

“Then it’s small wonder you not only appear but also behave akin to sisters.”

“Sisters huh…” I thought about it, and the more I did, the more I saw his point — and the more the idea warmed me inside. I had only recently begun to think of Tink as a friend, but when it came down to it, she really was more than that now. We shared more than just a dry sense of humour, and an understanding of each others emotions that to some extent I hadn’t had with my own family. We really were more similar than I’d originally thought, and growing more similar by the day.

Something Gandalf had warned me about in a roundabout way back in Fangorn, though he’d inevitably failed to explain why.

Then again, he’d avoided explaining a lot of important things to me, I thought bitterly.

“I’ve had a thought,” I said suddenly.

“I’m sure you’ve have more than just one,” Aragorn answered me without missing a beat. I glared at him, deadpan. He simply smiled.

Clearly Tink and I weren’t the only ones with a monopoly on dry wit.

“Oh yes, hilarious, side-splitting you are. I was thinking it’s odd that Gandalf seemed more concerned with my problems than Merry and Pippin’s kidnapping. I mean we did literally divert more than half the Fellowship from our main goal to go after them. I’d have assumed he’d be more concerned about, you know, saving them?”

Aragorn made a sound of comprehension behind me.

“Ah, I forget you were not present for his departure. Gandalf informed us before he left that Merry and Pippin were both in the care of an old friend of his, and were being taken back to Lothlórien under his protection. Boromir, as you can imagine, did not take kindly to the thought of leaving the hobbits to unknown mercies. But Gandalf insisted we need not worry for them, and keep our attention on the task of assisting the king first. I’m certain he meant for you know hear this all as well, but you were…”

“Otherwise occupied,” I finished for him, quickly squashing the memory of what had kept me from the others back in Edoras.

What I’d done to that soldier in the alleyway, and… everything that had followed.

Instead I tried to imagine what kind of old friend Gandalf would trust to leave Merry and Pippin alone with, considering it was Saruman himself who was after them. Moreover, what kind of old friend would he trust to cope with the two hobbits for any extended period of time? I myself loved the small, cheerful men and their boundless energy to pieces. But when it came to their penchant for mischief they were a handful at the best of times — arguably requiring an entire Fellowship to keep them out of trouble.

Who would be capable of not only keeping them protected, but also from straying into harm’s way again?

I turned back to face Aragorn directly.

“Do you trust they’re safe?” I asked seriously.

As always, he didn’t answer immediately, turning the question over again and again in his mind.

“I trust Gandalf would not lie over such a thing,” he said finally. “The hobbits are all as dear to him as any of us. Perhaps even more so. I believe he would sooner fling himself into the abyss a second time than see them harmed.”

Coming from Aragorn, that was all I needed to hear.

I grinned and turned back to our path ahead, Benvolio leading us nimbly up the side of a steep set of cliffs.

“Then I guess there’s naught else for us to worry about then. Except—”

The words had barely left my mouth when we crested the top of a hill and something caught my gaze. Squinting, I tried to get my eyes to focus to the long distance, just as I had the first time we’d seen Eomer and his riders bearing down on the horizon. It was a bit trickier than normal thanks to my tiredness, but a moment’s effort later I managed it.

And my eyes widened at what I found myself seeing.

“Except… for maybe for that massive army headed straight towards us.”

What?!” Aragorn and Tink both exclaimed at exactly the same time.

I pointed straight down at where my gaze was still focused, right at the base of the cliffs maybe a few miles into the distance. A dark blur I’d first assumed had been a stretch of scorched grassland at the base of some cliffs was moving — no, marching — in our direction, the sound of them gradually becoming clearer as they got closer.

My insides turned over at the sound. I’d heard the sound of those inhuman howls once before.

On a hillside at Amon Hen.

Facing down a monster alone, as my friend bled out on the ground.

“Back!” Aragorn hissed in my ear, and I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or the horse, or both. “Back behind cover! They must not see us!”

Benvolio whinnied and stamped in agitation beneath us, but quickly obeyed. We cantered to an outcrop of stones at the top of the hill that shielded us from view below, whilst allowing us a good look straight down at the approaching horde’s path.

Once I managed to untie Aragorn’s hands from around my waist we quickly we dismounted and crouched silently behind our barrier of rocks, trying not to move or even breath too loudly as the sounds of snarling, clanging and heavy footfalls on the earth got louder. Neither of us dared creep too far outside our cover, but honestly we didn’t need to. We could see exactly what we were up against once they were close enough.

Uruk-hai.

Thousands of them. Each one decked out in jagged armour as black as charred bones. Helms that did little to hide the monstrous faces beneath. And the ones that were not carrying an array of cruel weaponry — everything from serrated short blades to seven-foot poleaxes — were bearing tall, dark banners at the head of each column.

A white handprint on a black base.

I felt myself hunch in instinctive fear at the sight. The tracking party of Uruk-Hai Saruman had sent after us at Amon Hen had been maybe a couple dozen at most, and those had been bad enough.

This was no light-weight hunting pack.

This was an army.

‘That,’ Tink murmured, putting voice to all three of our thoughts, ‘is a lot of badass monsters.’

Thankfully the spot we’d chosen to hide meant we were downwind of the horde, and high enough above them that the breeze was unlikely to turn against us. I couldn’t be sure, but I’d have bet good money that if the wind hadn’t been favouring us, they’d have caught our scent in seconds.

As the horde moved through the canyon below I spied several sections of troops that had a handful of smaller, less heavily armoured orcs pulling what looked like large, collapsed siege ladders set onto carts behind them. I didn’t know how tall Helm’s Deep’s walls were, but judging by the length of them while they were compact, those things looked like they were up to the task to scaling a small skyscraper.

“Ok, I’m calling it,” I whispered so quietly I wasn’t even sure Aragorn would be able to hear. “This is really, really bad.”

Aragorn’s face was grim as we looked down, but he didn’t disagree with me.

“Twenty columns of them,” the ranger murmured equally quiet, and I realised he’d been counting their number. “Likely about five hundred to a formation, at a guess.”

I just about got my exhausted head around the mental maths, and turned wide eyes back on him.

“Ten thousand?!”

“At least.”

Bleeding hells. Ten thousand bloodthirsty, heavily armoured monsters, against a few hundred tired, bruised, demoralised human soldiers, holed up in an old fortress.

And us.

‘Shite.’

My gaze fell back on the unstoppable tide of beasts below, the realisation of what we were truly facing finally sinking its teeth into my guts. If those formations or Uruks had even half the number Aragorn guessed, Helm's Deep was going to make the Battle of Thermopylae look like a middle school football match.

‘This is Sparta?’ Tink offered, but even she sounded shaken now.

“There’s too many of them,” I breathed, the truth of it hitting me like a fist. My thoughts were suddenly flying to Sarra and her unborn baby, to Freda and Eothain and their missing mother, to Ilda and her busy kitchen staff, and the teeth in my insides went icy. “There was barely enough of us to hold off a normal attack, let alone this. They’ll turn Helm’s Deep into a slaughter house.”

“Not if we can warn them in time to prepare. And we still have speed on our side,” Aragorn came close to growling, his jaw setting in determination. I turned to find him moving quickly but carefully back down to where Benvolio was waiting uneasily for us. He turned back and offered a hand out to help me. “Come on, we must get there before nightfall.”

I glanced back down at the massive army below, then at Benvolio, and then Aragorn.

“Galloping?” I asked despairingly. He nodded, though he didn’t look pleased about it either.

“Galloping.”

I winced, but nodded, taking his hand.

“Lets hope my legs can hold out that long.”

Chapter Text

Helm's Deep was a monster of a fortress, though you wouldn't know it at a glance.

Sarra had told me during our walk that over half of it was actually below ground, dug straight into the side of the mountain it was built against. But as Aragorn, Benvolio and I crested the final hill that brought the valley into view, the parts that were visible were breathtaking all on their own.

The Hornburg — the main fortress of Helm's Deep — stood out from the sheer wall of the cliffs like the bow of a ship, its two levels and internal walls formed entirely from the same dark grey stone of the mountains. It had been built so that it was slightly raised above the valley it overlooked, the only access via a long, narrow causeway leading up to a set of heavy wooden gates.

Unless, of course, you felt like scaling the enormous Deeping Wall that stretched literally from one side of the valley to the other, with only a thick steel grate at the base to let the stream flow through.

It wasn't quite dusk yet, but the sun was hanging low enough in the sky to cast a forbidding red hue over the cliffs as we cantered past the empty trenches and ramparts.

One tiny, stupid part of me was almost reluctant to guide our Benvolio up the stone walkway towards the entrance, the intimidatingly huge walls of the citadel looming up over us like some kind of sleeping giant that would swallow you if you got too close.

But deep down, I knew exactly why I was truly reluctant to enter, and who I would face inside.

That feeling of dread quickly disappeared the moment the lookout guards began pointing and shouting all along the battlements. Eventually, one had the presence of mind to bellow for the gates to be opened, and the colossal wooden doors began to swing outwards. Benvolio — who had carried us the entire way without so much as a snort of complaint — staggered inside before coming to a shaky stop only a few steps past the threshold. Tired soldiers and nervous refugees lined the walls of the first courtyard, all of them turning to watch open-mouthed as Aragorn slid off the horse — indecently spritely for someone who'd been on horseback all day, in my bruised opinion. I carefully swung my creaking legs off Benvolio's back too, trying to ignore the clamouring, pointing people beginning to surround us, and immediately fell as my knees gave out.

My annoyance at Aragorn's supposed lack of exhaustion disappeared as he caught and steadied me.

"Can you stand?" he asked, no trace of judgment in his tone. He obviously knew how much the journey had taken out of me by how naturally quiet I'd been. It took a moment to properly get my feet under me, and even then they were barely steady enough.

"Yeah, just give me a second."

He nodded, slipping an arm gently around my back. The action was partly to disguise the fact that he was still mostly holding me up from the growing crowds around us, but also to make sure I was the only one who could hear him whispering.

"Don't say anything about what we saw. We must tell the King before anyone else."

I nodded, trying to Keep the look of dread off my face. The last thing we needed was to panic the civilians with the news of what was really coming our way.

A gale of furious shouting erupted suddenly from the back of the crowd, cutting off any reply I might have had. I couldn't immediately see who it was coming from, but it wasn't hard to guess — I'd have recognised that angry, dwarven baritone in a crowd of a million people all shouting at once.

"Where are they?! Get out of the way! Out of my way, I said! I'm going to bloody kill them!" Gimli was howling as he literally shoved his way through the crowd, almost kicking over a gawking young soldier when he didn't move fast enough. Aragorn and I both just gaped as our resident dwarf appeared in the gap he'd created, his fuming, helm-less face almost as red as his beard…

And bloody hell, there were tears in his eyes.

"Gimli—?"

"You two are the stupidest," he shouted, cutting me off and jabbing a thick finger at us with every ground-shaking step towards us. "The luckiest, canniest, and the most reckless pair of sodding lunatics I've ever known in all my days!*"

I'd barely had time to draw air to spout some kind of fumbling apology before he drove into us, arms as strong as tree roots coming around to pull us into a hug so hard my breath left me all over again. "Bless the both of you bleeding basket cases!"

The embrace was clumsy, warm, and made every one of my bruises scream with protest, but it was by far the best thing he could have given me right then. I let my body fold over with the force of the hug, my arms automatically returning it as hard as I could.

Well, crap. Now there were tears in my eyes, too.

"I'm so glad you're ok," I managed to mumble through the knot in my throat. Aragorn let out a soft laugh that I could hear the tired smile in, giving us both a comforting pat on the back.

"I, too, am glad to see you well, master dwarf," he said softly, the weariness beginning to creep into his voice at long last. "Are the rest of you well?"

"Aye, for the most part," Gimli answered, releasing us with some reluctance. "A few bumps, a few bruises. We all made here in one piece at least. But what by Mahal happened to you two fools?" He jabbed a finger straight at my face, his glare like stone. "And you, lass. What in the 'byss were you doing in the middle of the bloodbath? And losing your knife, again!"

I suddenly had the unsettlingly familiar feeling of being scolded by an affectionate but exasperated kindergarten teacher.

"I—"

I didn't get the chance to finish my train of thought, let alone my sentence, because I suddenly felt a pair of familiar eyes on me, and turned to find an equally familiar face staring straight at me.

Though, granted, not the one I was both hoping for, and dreading all at the same time.

Boromir was standing open-mouthed at the foot of the stone steps leaning up to the upper battlements. He looked as if he had been awake for far too long, and on his feet for even longer, and if the expression on his face was anything to go by, I either looked truly amazing or like I'd just crawled out of my own grave — probably the latter.

I felt myself give a sheepish smile and an awkward little wave, and his face split into a wide, joyous smile. He pushed his way through the gap in the crowd far more gently than Gimli had, but the hug he wrapped around me was no less strong.

"We thought you both dead," he mumbled quietly against the top of my head.

"It was a near miss," I admitted, hugging him back as hard as my shaking arms were able before pulling back. He had a few new cuts and bruises from the warg fight, but otherwise looked as healthy as I'd left him. If anything, there was a renewed spark in his eyes that I was sure I hadn't seen before. "Are you alright?"

"Am I—?" He threw his head back and burst into a loud rumbling laugh, pulling me into another one-armed hug. "I'm quite well, you tiny madwoman. Next time, for once, worry about keeping yourself in one piece before fretting over protecting the rest of us."

I couldn't quite hide my surprise at the warmth of his reaction, but I also couldn't hide the wide grin that came with it. I gave an exhausted but genuine laugh as I rested my forehead against his shoulder.

"I'll take it under advisement."

The Gondorian warrior released me and turned to face Aragorn with equal relief as he had shown me, if a little more restrained. He clapped the ranger hard on the shoulder, the nearest battle-worn men like them ever seemed to get to an embrace, but they both looked genuinely pleased to see each other alive.

"We found the Orc who saw you go over. You have much explaining to do," Boromir started to tell us, but Aragorn raised a hand to him.

"Later, friend. Right now we must see to Theoden, urgently."

Both Boromir and Gimli's faces fell at the severe tone of his voice.

"You saw something?" Gimli guessed, and Aragorn nodded, eyeing the surrounding crowds who were still shellshocked at the reappearance of two of the supposedly dead.

"On our way here. It's imperative we're all prepared."

Boromir had taken one look at the expression on Aragorn's face and nodded, immediately flagging down a couple of passing soldier. Less than a minute later, Theoden's lieutenant — who I recognised as Gamling — had appeared at the bottom of the steps leading to the second level. After a brief moment of shock at the sight of me and the ranger still alive and walking around, he started conversing in urgent, hushed tones with Aragorn and Boromir while the soldiers started dispersing the crowd and led a knackered Benvolio off toward the stables.

I couldn't help but scan the crowd with a searching gaze as the curious soldiers and Edoran refugees started to lose interest and move away. I hadn't intended to voice my thoughts as my eyes failed to find who I was searching for, but my mouth moved before I could stop it.

"Where's—" I cut myself off, but Gimli saw the look on my face and knew instantly whom I meant.

"He's not here, lass," he told me gently. My stomach dropped at the words, icy dread forcing its way past my flimsy composure.

"Oh God, he's not—?!"

Gimli threw up his hands in a calming gesture.

"No, no, he's alive," he reassured, seemingly not at all surprised to see the fear on my face. "Though I wouldn't say he's well, exactly. He's assisting the women and children down into the caves."

I felt my whole body sag in both tiredness and sudden relief.

He was alive, and helping. At least that meant he wasn't injured. The weight that knowledge lifted from me was a surprise. I'd been so focused on keeping myself and Aragorn alive after our fall, I hadn't stopped to realise Boromir had been right — I had been worrying about them all. Not knowing whether they had been hurt in the fight, whether they were even alive…

I felt sudden, humiliatingly exhausted tears stinging the corners of my eyes, and I had to clench them shut to stop them falling.

Gimli cleared his throat and gave me a gruff pat on the shoulder.

"Here," he said, reaching into his spare scabbard and withdrawing a familiar-looking blade with a clumsily carved handle, now slightly stained with Orc blood. He took my hand and pressed the handle into my palm, pointing a warning finger straight into my face. "And I swear by Mahal, you lose this again and I'll have the smithy weld it to your side."

I hiccuped a laugh, and it was just what I needed to get myself under control again.

"I do have the worst luck with that knife," I agreed, clutching it to my chest once before stowing it safely back in the sheath at my waist. "Thanks, Gimli."

"Bah," he waved me off, but I saw the smile lurking behind that beard.

Just then, a woman appeared out of the crowd still moving around us. I wouldn't have otherwise noticed her, she blended into the other refugees so seamlessly in her dusty travelling clothes, wavy blonde mane and tired look. But the moment she spotted us she made a bee-line straight for me, dark brown eyes intent.

"Pardon, m'lord and lady," she said as soon as she was close enough, her voice holding a similar Rohirric accent to the one Sarra had. She still had her gaze fixed on me, eyes flicking occasionally up to my ears. "I don't mean to intrude, but, you are the one called Eleanor?"

"Aye," Gimli answered before I could even open my mouth, clapping a solid hand on my back and almost collapsing my spine. "This is she."

The woman never looked away from me, and there was something uncannily familiar about her…

"M'lady Eleanor, my name is Etain," she told me solemnly with a slight bow.

Suddenly I realised why I felt like I'd seen her before. Her hair might have been threaded with grey, but it was exactly the same as Eothain's sandy blond, and her eyes mirrors of Freda's warm brown.

"You're Eothain and Freda's mother," I blurted stupidly, but she smiled, the expression weary but warm as a midsummer afternoon.

"That I am," she confirmed. "My children tell me you are responsible for their lives."

I fumbled for some kind of response, suddenly feeling — against all reason — truly embarrassed by the blunt statement that made me sound far more heroic that I was.

"I, well…"

She hugged me.

Crossing the small distance between us in one smooth stride, she wrapped me in an embrace so similar to my own mother's, it almost floored me. I suddenly found myself fighting back the sting of tears a second time.

"Thank you," Etain whispered, her own voice thick with her own unshed tears. "I am in your debt, m'lady. Thank you."

I hesitated a bit before giving her a gentle pat on the back in acceptance of the hug, honestly unsure of how else I should react.

"You don't owe me anything, Etain," I told her gently. She released me and gave me a disbelieving look.

"Of course I do! You are the reason my son and daughter have not joined my husband in death."

"I was… only doing my job," I said feebly, and the overly humble reply seemed to amuse and please her because she beamed, taking both my filthy hands tightly in hers.

"Whatever your reason, should you need anything, any request I can grant, it is yours."

"I—" I was about to try and deny that she should offer me anything, but something about the look in her eyes told me that refusing her graciousness would be deeply insulting. Or worse, ungrateful. So I swallowed the impulse, hoping I wasn't too red-faced and ducked my head in a small bow. "Thank you, Etain. Where are Freda and Eothain anyway? Are they alright?"

"They are both well. Already safely down in the caves," she said, a questioning glance from me to where Gimli had joined the grim conversation with Boromir, Aragorn and Gamling. "Will you be joining us, m'lady?"

I quickly promised her I would come and check on them once I'd seen to my companions. She'd just moved off towards the archways leading down to the catacombs below the Keep when Aragorn appeared at my side again.

"Theoden is preparing the Keep for defence. We must inform him of what we witnessed," he said with a pointed glance at the retreating Etain and the other refugees. I blinked at him, more than a little surprised.

"You want me there too?"

Aragorn eyed me as if the answer was obvious.

"Of course. You saw them as clearly as I."

"Likely clearer, depending on how hard you hit that river," Gimli added dryly, to which Aragorn threw him a dirty glare. The dwarf simply smirked, clapping the ranger on the arm.

"Go. We will continue with the preparations. Come find us after," Boromir urged.

So we left them to the refugees, making our way up towards the main hall of the Keep in Gamling's footsteps. I couldn't help but peer back over my shoulder as we left, glancing at Boromir's back as he assisted an elderly couple carrying their provisions towards the caves.

'Something's different about that one,' Tink piped up from the back of my head, eyeing the smile the man offered his charges as they left. I made a silent noise of agreement, turning to catch up with Aragorn and Gamling.

'He's definitely a little closer to the old Boromir I remember.'

'Not just that. He feels… lighter somehow. More so even than before Lothlórien,' she told me seriously, though she didn't sound displeased by the observation. I smiled to myself, suddenly glad to have that second voice echoing around the inside of my mind again.

'Well, that wasn't cryptic at all. Glad to have you back in the land of the living, Tink.'

'Likewise, boss. Here's a thought, let's never do anything like that again,' she suggested in the driest tone I'd ever heard from her. I resisted the urge to chuckle aloud and give the watching refugees even more reason to stare as we passed.

'Don't hold your breath. We've still got an oncoming siege to survive, remember.'

'Right, an army of badass monsters. It's all coming back to me now…'

The rest of our silent conversation devolved to tension-easing jokes as we moved up the Keep towards the Hornburg's main entrance.

If I'd been in any doubt before about the magnitude of the fortress from the outside, the climb up through its levels cleared it right up. The Keep was laid out kind of like the tiers of a wedding cake, with the bottom one housing the front gate, lower courtyard, and the stables. The second was accessed via a curved set of wide stone steps that levelled out to hold the armoury, barracks, upper courtyard and entrance to the caverns. As we passed through the throngs of loitering refugees I spied what I assumed was the smaller rear gate of the Keep, its doors open to show the steep, winding stairway leading down to the gully behind the Deeping Wall. The final level rose up only a little higher than the second and was almost entirely devoted to the entrance to the King's hall, the stone watchtower holding the horn of Helm Hammerhand looming up above it like a spear piercing the gap between the mountains. When we finally reached the doors to the main hall, Aragorn shoved them open to reveal a room the size and hight of a cathedral. Carved wooden arches and stone pillars made for a cavernous room, and at its centre, a war table had been set up — surrounded by grizzled, tired-looking Rohan soldiers, and one stunned King.

The moment Theoden saw us standing in the entranceway, he was out of his chair and striding around the table, past his shocked advisors. He'd barely managed to utter a word before Aragorn started speaking over him, no time or patience left to stand on formalities.

We had one hell of a bomb to drop.

I was mostly content to stay quiet through the briefing as Aragorn filled everyone in on what was coming, only speaking up to confirm his descriptions and add in details of my own. Surviving the fall into the river, the journey to catch up with them, the army we'd seen: the King took it all in with a grim expression, the hand resting on the pommel of his sword flexing with agitation. When Aragorn finally finished telling them about the horde of sunlight resistant Uruk-hai marching with siege equipment, an unsettling hush fell over the entire hall. I wasn't even sure anyone was breathing.

"How many?" Theoden finally asked, piercing the silence.

"Ten thousand strong," Aragorn answered.

"At least," I added.

Theoden just stared at us, looking as if someone had just danced the foxtrot over his grave.

"Ten thousand…"

"They had the white hand of Saruman on their helms," I told him, glancing around to see the King's expression of shocked dread mirrored on almost all of his men. Aragorn made a sound of agreement.

"All of Isengard has emptied. They will be here by nightfall if they've kept their pace."

Theoden looked as if he needed to sit down, but instead, he only hunched forward over the war table, resting heavily on his arms.

"Why?"

"It is an army raised for a single purpose," Aragorn said without any preamble, or sugarcoating whatsoever. "Ending the race of Men."

For what felt like minutes, Theoden just stared at us across the war table, gauging the weight of Aragorn's expressions and the consequences of the info-grenade we'd just thrown at him. Then he very obviously buried his own fear and dread, stood straight, and met the expectant looks of his men with renewed confidence.

"Then let them come. We shall be ready for them."

The soldiers surrounding him didn't quite appear to share in his confidence. Some of them even looked alarmed by it.

"My King, we do not have the numbers to fight that many," one older captain with greying hair said.

"Even within the mouth of the valley we would be swarmed in minutes if we manned the ramparts," another added.

Theoden ignored them all, leaning back over the war table to observe the map of the valley spread over it.

"We will do as we have done before. We endure the barrage from within the Hornburg as a cliff withstands the sea," he told them, his tone brokering no argument. "We have enough supplies stored in the caverns to last us at least two weeks. This army will doubtless pillage and burn as they go. But homes can be rebuilt, crops resown. As long as we are within these walls, we will withstand them."

"Withstand them?" Aragorn repeated under his breath, and I think it was the first time I'd ever seen him truly lost for words. I was kind of stunned too. Had Theoden completely missed the part about them toting battering rams and thirty-foot scaling ladders?

"You really think an army raised and armed by a wizard will come unprepared to storm a Keep?" I asked aloud before I could think better of it.

The King of Rohan looked up barely long enough to throw me the kind of look normally reserved for finding dog shite on the sole of your boot.

"I think as King I know how to defend my own fortress from those who would see it burned to the ground, my lady," he said, emphasising the title as if it was something beneath his concern.

I felt my temper flaring, the sudden urge to smack that expression off his face so great, I was kind of glad for the sprawling table between us. Beside me, Aragorn was no better; he looked as if he was about to burst a blood vessel.

"This horde does not march on us to destroy crops or buildings, they come with the will and means to wipe out its people," he argued, stepping up so he was leaning over the opposite head of the war table from the King. "Your men are right. You cannot repel this threat alone. You must call for aid, my lord. Send out riders to your allies."

Theoden fixed Aragorn with a toxic scowl.

"And who will answer us? The old Alliances are long dead, and if what you say is true, then there is no time left even if we did have the men to spare." He shook his head, blond hair with its white streaks falling to hide the wavering confidence in his eyes. "No, we must devote all our resources to the Keep's defence."

"Gondor would answer if—" Aragorn started to argue, but was cut off as Theoden slammed a fist onto the table with a thunderous bang, making the candles flicker and several of the younger soldiers, myself included, jump in alarm.

"Gondor?!" he spat, furious eyes on the ranger. "Where was Gondor when my people cried out for aid as the Westfold burned? When our enemies closed in around us and families were murdered in their beds?! Cloistered in an ivory city behind thick walls and thicker politics!"

Aragorn didn't respond. He simply absorbed the King's vitriol with the same stony look I'd seen him wear in combat, not contradicting or defending, but not backing down either. The silence hung thick in the air for a few moments before Theoden managed to reign his temper in again, breathing deeply and shaking his head. "No. I will not place a fool's hope on aid that will never come. We are alone in this, Lord Aragorn. As we have ever been."

'Bleeding hell. This man's pride is going to get everyone in this Keep killed,' Tink muttered from the back of my exasperated thoughts.

'We'd better hope Gandalf makes it back in time with some kind of miracle in tow, then,' I agreed.

"We will need to repel any who come close to the walls. Station archers along the battlements. I need every man and strong lad armed and ready for battle by nightfall," Theoden was saying, directing his captains to begin putting the plans into actions. Aragorn — despite still being incensed by Theoden's refusal to even send a raven for help — looked as if he intended to stay and at least put his strategic skills to good use. I, however, had had quite enough of everything going on in that hall. And anyway, when it came to war plans, I'd probably be as helpful as a shot of brandy to someone dying of heat exhaustion. So, with my witnessing job done, I turned for the exit, hoping to slip out and off to find Sarra unnoticed.

At least until the King's voice stopped me.

"M'lady Eleanor."

I halted in my tracks, feeling a dozen sets of eyes suddenly focusing on my back, preventing me from pretending like I hadn't heard him.

'Busted,' Tink groaned.

I turned slowly to see Theoden frowning at me again, though with mildly less disdain and more caution than before at least.

"Yes?"

The King shifted to stand a little straighter as he regarded me.

"I hear from Gamling you near smashed in the face of one of my junior soldiers before we left Edoras," he stated in a deliberately neutral tone that didn't match the faintly disapproving tilt to his expression. I saw the mirror of that same silent judgement reflected in several of the other captains as I looked around, and the shadow of a grimace cross Aragorn's face out of the corner of my eye. He obviously knew the reaction that comment delivered in that tone would garner from me.

And he was absolutely right.

The anger that had sparked earlier kindled into a searing flame. Over the past twenty-four hours, I'd been attacked, shunned, dropped off a cliff, almost drowned, ridden bareback for miles with an unconscious man strapped to my back — and all in the knowledge that the person I'd grown closest to in the past few months never wanted to speak to me again.

And I had exactly zero patience left to spare on subtlety.

'Right, screw this!' I thought, anger pulsing through me. I turned away from the door to face them all head-on, raising my chin partly in challenge, but also to clearly show the ring of bruises still fresh around my throat.

"I hear that same soldier of yours tried to sexually assault an unwilling young woman in an alleyway whilst drunk off his rocker, my lord," I replied, loud enough so the entire room could hear every word.

The hall went suddenly, deadly silent — enough that I could hear the roaring of my own furious heartbeat in my ears. Half the younger men visibly cringed back in shock, clearly unused to hearing some of those particular words said aloud, let alone as an accusation of one of their own. The older ones that didn't either averted their eyes or gave me genuine looks of shame. But to my surprise, not one of them attempted to contradict me or call me a liar. Theoden himself looked faintly stunned behind his poker face.

I probably should have left it there, but my flaring temper was long gone, and my mouth just kept on going without me.

"I also heard," I continued, holding the King's gaze hostage, "That this soldier only backed off when one of the woman's companions heard the commotion and came to intervene. And that if he hadn't, she would have been justified in beating your junior to a pulp to defend herself from such a violation."

'Drag him, girl!' Tink was hollering at the back of my mind, but I ignored her in favour of watching the King's reaction like a hawk. I might have been counted as a guest and friend of his court, but I was acutely aware that if his pride was truly too great, he might treat this outburst as a great insult. Or worse, a threat to his authority.

Turns out the King of Rohan was many things, but someone who tried to belittle ugly truths was not one of them.

Theoden watched me for an agonisingly long moment of complete silence. Then he straightened, placed his hand to his heart and bowed low to me — a gesture I recognised as a deliberately Elven mannerism.

"I beg you to accept my humblest apologies, my lady. There is no excusing such an act. Under normal circumstances a shame of this magnitude would be met with banishment at the least, the headsman's axe at worst," he said, and despite the anger still beating through me, I couldn't sense any deceit or insincerity in his voice. A look of regret with a tinge of guilt coloured his expression. "Please know he will be dealt with severely when this crisis has passed. But given our number and what we are now up against, we will need every hand we have to defend the Keep, and the innocent people within."

I stared long and hard at the King of Rohan across the table, mine and Tink's mingled fury a silent storm beneath my skin.

What he said made perfect sense. But that didn't mean the part of me that still raged at the injustice had to like it.

I gave a single sharp nod of acceptance, not trusting myself to Keep from spitting venom a third time if I opened my mouth. I needed to get out of there before my anger got the better of me.

"Please excuse me," I managed to get out from between clenched teeth. The King nodded.

"Of course. You are excused—"

But I was already out of the doors before he'd finished speaking.

'Mother fu—!' Tink was still yelling, but a second voice drowned her out before she could finish the obscenity.

"Eleanor, wait!" Aragorn called, following me out of the hall before I'd made it halfway down the steps. He caught up with me just as I reached the courtyard. The soldiers had already started herding the last of the women and children into the caves and guiding the young men towards the armoury, and several curious heads turned to watch us as I stopped and spun to face him.

"What you said in there—" he started, but I cut him off. I could barely deal with the idea of a lecture right then, let alone enduring one.

"Aragorn, I swear if you tell me I should have held my tongue and said nothing I'll—"

"I was going to tell you that it was deeply brave," he interrupted me. My outraged counterargument fizzled out along with the anger. I blinked stupidly at him.

"What?"

Aragorn gave me a lopsided smile: the fond, borderline affectionate kind I'd seen very rarely from him. It threw me off balance almost as much as his next words did.

"Not many could have said what you did to whom you did. Let alone in a room full of that boy's brethren and friends. It was brave of you to do that."

For a moment I couldn't think of a damned thing to say, torn between genuine shock and crippling relief that he was on my side. Truly on my side this time.

"It… needed to be said," I replied at last, giving a feeble little shrug that really didn't feel adequate. "It was me that guy went after this time, but it could have been another girl later. One who didn't have a Maia and posse of warrior friends backing her up. I just said what they all needed to hear."

His lip twitched in a micro-grin at the word "friend", and I couldn't help but mirror it.

"Nevertheless, I wished you to know," he said, and his face fell slightly as he glanced back up at the entrance to the main hall. "It is… surprising sometimes, the lengths good men will go to avoid painful truths."

I thought back to the King's mask of confidence, and faces of the older soldiers inside. The ones who had said nothing to stop me, but also had turned their gazes away when I'd voiced what had been done. And also of the younger ones who had appeared shamed, but had not once condemned the actions of their fellow.

"I guess so," I muttered, heaving a heavy sigh and turning from the hall, the last of my outrage vanishing to be replaced by weariness. I was suddenly so bloody tired. "Anyway, I thought I'd see if I can help out down in the caves. See if anyone was injured in the warg attack who still needs help."

I imagined Sarra would be down there somewhere along with Freda and Eothain as well, all of them likely sick with worry by now.

I felt Aragorn rest a warm hand on my shoulder, substantially gentler than Gimli had.

"A good idea. Your skills will be greatly valued among the refugees," he said, then paused, eyeing me with a suspicious raised brow. "And you plan to stay down there during the fighting?"

I chuckled, lightly batting his hand away.

"Oh, I will. I'm barely any help in a fight, let alone a siege." I pointed a warning finger at him. "But make no mistake, I'm doing this because I know I'll be more useful there. Not because some beardy horse King orders me to."

"Noted," he smiled again, but then something over my left shoulder caught his attention and the expression fell into shock. Confused, I turned to see what he was looking at…

And found Legolas standing on the other side of the courtyard, staring at us as if he'd seen a pair of ghosts.

I honestly wasn't sure what I was expecting to find when I saw him again, but it wasn't what I got. I remembered all too clearly the outward signs of worry I'd noticed on him after waking from healing Boromir at Amon Hen — the disarray where there had normally been composure, dark circles under grey-blue eyes.

But the person I saw staring back at me for that tiny fraction of time looked as if he had just woken from a horrendous nightmare, and wasn't certain if he was still trapped inside his own torment. His dark gold hair was mussed and dark with dirt and blood from the warg attack as if he hadn't even touched it since the fight. There was sill Orc blood staining his hunting leathers and hands, unwashed, and untreated cuts dotting his knuckles. The circles under his eyes were back, but they were dark, restless bruises this time, exacerbated by the bloodless pallor his face had taken on.

But the worst part was the look in his eyes.

He looked haunted, disbelieving — a raw emotional wound open to the elements.

My mouth just kind of fell open. I think I meant to call out to him on instinct, but the sound caught in my throat. For that split second, I couldn't look away from the ruin that Aragorn's and my supposed deaths had left in their wake.

Was this the effect I'd had on someone I'd grown to care for so much?

It was true I had never considered the repercussions of becoming emotionally attached to someone who quite literally would live forever unless killed in battle, what it would feel like to care so deeply for someone who would be around long after you were gone. But I also had not considered — at least until our fight at Edoras — what such a loss would mean for him. I had at least led enough of my human life to know death firsthand; what it looked like, how to deal with it, and how to shield my heart against it.

He didn't.

And this is what that loss had done to him.

That terrified me — more than I was entirely able to understand.

The horror inside me turned to terrible sadness, guilt and panic, and it was more than I could handle.

"Mellon nín…**" I heard Aragorn murmur, and the sound of his own shock only brought my own emotions down harder, crushing the air from my lungs.

I couldn't handle this.

My inner turmoil-hurricane was abruptly cut short by the sudden sound of a familiar war horn, along with the chaotic shouts of the watch guard cutting through the air, and the moment shattered. I realised with a strangely disjointed rush that I recognised that sound of that horn — I'd heard almost every day back when we had still been in Lothlórien when the Galadhrim had been running drills in the training grounds.

The crowds filing into the caves surged with sudden alarm at the noise, and the clusters of shifting bodies momentarily blocked Legolas from my view, and us from his. I didn't know if the feeling that washed over me was relief or frustration, one part of me desperate to charge through the crowd after him, the other unable to bear the thought of seeing him —yet knowing that I would break apart right now if I heard the same pain in his voice that I saw in his face.

The storm of things going on inside my head and heart was suddenly too much.

Everything was suddenly too much.

'Boss?' Tink's voice brushed hesitantly against my awareness.

'I… I can't…' I felt my own chaotic thoughts echo through my head in response. 'I can't… I can't handle this. Not now. I can't do it…'

'Boss, are you ok? Your emotions are going all over the place.'

I didn't even try to explain what was happening inside me. Instead, I took one last look back at the place where I'd last seen Legolas' haunted form — the person I both wanted to see again more than anyone else, and yet the one I couldn't bear to look at right then for the ruin I'd made of him…

And I turned and ran for the battlements, leaving a stunned Aragorn behind in my place.

"Eleanor?!" he called after me, but I didn't answer, my feet barely touching the stone as I flew down the steps towards the lower courtyard.

'You coward!' Tink shouted, her outrage returned and firing through my head like a banshee's howl. 'You utter fucking coward, Eleanor Dace!'

I didn't deny it.

I was a coward. But right then, much as I loathed myself for it, the only thing I could bear to let myself focus on was the last person I'd heard create that horn blast.

And the hope that he had brought an army that might save us with him.


I regretted it the second I took the first step, but I couldn't stop moving once I started.

I almost knocked over four different people as I flew down the stairs; one old man even shouted after me in what I assumed was some colourful Rohirric swear words. My heart was racing more than I'd ever felt it do, even when I was running for my life, even after I came to a gasping halt at the edge of the lower courtyard.

I hadn't had a true anxiety attack in so long I wasn't sure my Elf body was capable of it, and it took a minute to realise what was happening to me. It wasn't quite the same as I remembered experiencing when I was human, but it was close enough that I knew what I needed to do. I quickly found a free patch of wall in a corner and let myself fall back against it, resting my hands on my knees and breathing deeply and slowly as I could.

Tink didn't try and ask me if I was ok again, obviously sensing what was happening on some level. She just let me deal with everything I was feeling as I could.

It took a minute of deliberately deep breathing to slow my racing pulse before I finally came back to myself, and when I did I realised my eyes were wet with tears. I wasn't sure what was more shocking to me then — the fact that I'd had my very first anxiety attack as an Elf, now of all times, or that it was the sight of Legolas in such clear emotional pain which had somehow triggered it.

Shoving the thought away for later I wiped my sleeve across my face, hoping none of the surrounding people had noticed, and looked up to see the gate guards running for the doors as another horn blast echoed over the walls. It took three grown men to lift the wooden bar across the gate and push each door open, but at last they swung outwards.

And as they did, over a hundred Elves marched into the Keep, all of them armoured, carrying an assortment of blades and bows, and all garbed in the familiar grey and indigo of the Galadhrim. They moved in the perfect unison, the picture of militaristic discipline, three columns of them led by banner bearers that filed in to form symmetrical groups wherever there was space in the courtyard.

It wasn't until the entire lower level of the Keep was nearly full of Galadhrim warriors that their leader finally entered after them. The Marchwarden of Lothlórien strode over the threshold of the Hornburg flanked by his two brothers, Rumil and Orophin — all three of them armed in the elegant but durable armour of the Elves heading into battle.

"Haldir!" I cried, a wave of relief drowning out all other feelings as I saw him. He spotted me, and a tiny upward twitch at the corner of his mouth was all the reaction I got as he moved cooly past the wonderstruck human soldiers.

"Lady Élanor," he said, offering me a small bow and a sardonic look at my bedraggled state. I was still a mess from the fall into the river — torn clothes, dirt everywhere, and my hair all over the place. "I am pleased to see you alive and arrow-free."

I was too stunned to even notice the reference to the first time we'd met.

"How?" I spluttered, staring around at them all, flabbergasted. "How did you know? How did you know we needed help?"

"A certain former Grey Wizard thought it best to send a preemptive call for aid," Haldir explained quietly. "His raven's message gave the impression that you were in dire need of armed reinforcments, although you did not know it yet."

I grimaced, glancing around at the Rohan soldiers, who now appeared hopelessly exhausted and under-equipped beside the perfectly armed Elven warriors.

"He wasn't wrong." I was about to tell him about the army headed our way in Sindarin so the surrounding refugees wouldn't understand, but the sound of heavy boots on stone steps got there first.

We both turned to see Aragorn and Theoden both appear at the top of the stairs with Gimli and Gamling in tow, and the rows of Elven warriors all turned in perfect parade-synchronisation to face them. Theoden's mouth dropped open, the sight of an entire Elven war party on his doorstep clearly the limit of what he could plausibly hide behind his mask.

"I bring word from both Lord Elrond and Mithrandir. There once existed an Alliance between Men and Elves." Haldir addressed them without preamble, clear and loud enough that his voice carried around the courtyard. He offered them all a serene, diplomatic smile. "Once we fought and died alongside each other in the defence of all the Free Peoples of Middle Earth. We come now to honour that promise once again."

Theoden appeared to have almost completely lost the ability to form words.

"How is this possible?" he murmured, nearly too quiet for anyone to hear.

"Gandalf seemed to believe you would be in dire need of our aid, and your guest here," he gestured at me. "Concurs. Were they mistaken?"

"They were not," Aragorn spoke before the King could gather himself, striding down the stairs and surprising all of us — Haldir included — by pulling the Elf lord into a manly embrace that would probably leave bruises. "Mae govannen, my friend***. You are most welcome here."

Once Haldir had recovered from the sudden application of masculine affection, he smiled and returned the embrace before pulling away to address the leader of Rohan again.

"If you will allow it, Theoden King, we would be proud to fight alongside you in defence of your people."

The entire courtyard seemed to zero their attention in on the King who was still stood paralysed at the top of the stairs, myself and Aragorn included. For a long moment Theoden did nothing — or probably could physically do nothing — but stare around at his abruptly full courtyard. Then at long last, he slowly descended the steps one at a time until he was face to face with the Elven warrior.

Then he bowed, considerably lower than I'd seen him do to anyone else, including me only five minutes before.

"And we would be honoured to have your blades and bows at our sides," he said, and the raw gratitude in his voice was unmistakable.

Haldir offered the King one final, fierce smile, and immediately threw a couple of rapid-fire commands in Sindarin to his brothers. His men swept into immediate motion, the bulk of them moving straight towards the Deeping Wall, while a good chunk remained to help barricade the gates and stock the battlements with arrows and heavy stones.

No time left to waste with the sun sinking, Gimli headed off to the armoury with the intention of "finding some chainmail that might actually fit him" whilst Aragorn, Theoden and Haldir began conversing rapidly about strategically staggering the archer's shots over the walls. I followed them up onto the battlements, lingering and watching the preparations get underway. I wasn't entirely sure why, but felt the need to talk to Haldir specifically before leaving to head down to the caves. Some unsettling part of me felt like I'd not get a second chance if I left it too long.

I waited patiently until they'd clearly decided upon some key tactics, Theoden excusing himself to see to his men's equipment, and Aragorn to find his own ranged weapon — having not carried a bow since Moria.

As he passed, the ranger reached out and gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze.

"When you next meet, give him a chance to speak, if you can," he whispered to me, providing no further explanation before he headed off for the armoury. I stared after him, brows furrowed in confusion until I finally realised he wasn't talking about Haldir.

The same rush of anxiety I'd had just minutes before rose up inside me, and I scrabbled for a way to crush it back down again.

"How's Merileth?" I blurted suddenly at the Marchwarden, and I realised as I said the words that I really did want to know — my memory flying back to the days I'd spent playing with the two Elf children in the Golden Wood. "Gweredir and Colion?"

He turned to me, and even armed to the teeth and garbed in plate mail, the smile he gave at their mention warmed every inch of his presence.

"They are all well," he said, the fondness emanating from every word. The smile didn't vanish but he shot me a pointed look, adding: "And the former far more grateful for your meddling than I originally was, Lady Élanor."

Despite everything that had happened, everything I'd felt in the past hour alone, I couldn't help but feel my face spread into a small, wicked smirk.

"I don't know what you're talking about."

Haldir snorted.

"Indeed not," he said dryly, but the tone didn't reach his eyes. I shrugged.

"She's my friend, Haldir. Knowing what I did about you both, did you really expect anything less?"

"From you? I suppose not. However, I cannot say I am unhappy with the outcome," he admitted. My victorious smirk turned to a genuine smile.

"I didn't get to say before we left, but I'm very happy for you both," I told him earnestly, and while I knew the Marchwarden wasn't truly gloomy by nature, I honestly think it was the first time I'd ever seen him really smile at me without any irony or cynicism at all. He rested a hand over his heart and bowed slightly to me.

"I must see to my men. Even with our added numbers it will not be an easy fight…" he said, straitening as his gaze drifted momentarily over my shoulder. "And it would seem someone else desires your attention far more than I."

My stomach flipped over as Haldir moved smoothly past me.

I already knew exactly who it was behind me, but this time I didn't immediately turn to look. I could suddenly smell the faint scent of pine and rain as the breeze rolled past, but I still wasn't sure I could make myself turn and see him. It was stupid. I don't know when I expected to be faced with him again, but whenever it was, I hadn't been prepared for it to be so soon.

Then again, I thought — looking around at the battle preparations going on all around us — it wasn't like we had the luxury of time anymore. That strange anxiety shoved its way to the surface again, cutting through my flimsy composure. But I fought it back, forcing myself to close my eyes and breathe slowly.

No matter what I felt, I thought, I wouldn't run this time. Not this time.

I turned to face him.

The sight of him had the exact same sharp, painful effect it had before, but I was braced for it this time. I forced myself to stay rooted to the spot, watching with a kind of paralysed detachment as Haldir passed close to him on the narrow walkway.

The two elven men nodded to each other in silent greeting. And to my surprise, the Marchwarden gave him a companionable pat on the shoulder as he passed, far less formal than any of their previous greeting. Then he simply walked away…

Leaving Legolas and me alone, standing opposite each other on the battlements.

Every detail of him that I'd seen before was thrown into painful clarity up close — every harsh line looking like a crack in porcelain, every dark shade like a fresh bruise. He looked so ill. But I knew all too well that it was no disease or sickness that had made him appear like that. Elves simply didn't get sick, at least not of the body. All those dark circles and harsh lines were a sign of something much deeper.

Far more difficult to heal.

I couldn't honestly say how long we just stood there, staring at each other. I think we were each hoping the other would speak first, but I for one couldn't find any words. So much had happened in such a small space of time, and so many emotions were rattling around inside me. Where the hell was I even supposed to start?

I drew a breath to speak at the same time Legolas did, and we both stopped, waiting for the other to go first. When I continued to remain hesitantly silent, he tried again, his voice coming so coarse I could barely hear him on his first attempt.

"You're… truly alive," he tried again.

It was almost a question, as if he still couldn't quite make himself believe it. And I was right, the sound was like having salt-covered knives pushed under my skin.

"Mostly…" I said, my own voice losing almost all of its strength. "Are you… alright?"

It was such a ridiculously stupid question, I wanted to bury my face in my hands. Of course he wasn't. Anyone with eyes could see that. But still he considered the question, as if his own wellbeing hadn't crossed his mind until right then.

"I…" he cleared this throat again, the rasp coming back. "I believed I was, until now."

That simple statement pierced me deeper than any blade could have. All the clever words in the world, in several different languages, all at my disposal — and I couldn't think of a single bloody thing to say to that. I wanted to hug him, scream, and burst into tears all at the same time, but I did none of them. I could barely continue breathing steadily without struggling or falling to pieces.

My eyes closed unbidden, my fists clenching at my sides, trying to hold it together.

"Eleanor," he breathed, but I heard him as clearly as if he'd whispered the words against my ear. "I am sorry."

I went abruptly, painfully quiet inside, the word echoing around my head like a voice in a completely empty cathedral.

"You're sorry," I repeated blankly, and the shamed look Legolas gave me made me realise he thought I was still angry with him.

"The word is woefully inadequate, but yes," he told me, taking the tiniest of steps forward. "I am truly sorry… for everything I both said and did in response to your honesty."

The numb silence inside me was deafening. I didn't know what to say, where to start. It was so much worse than if I'd been silently howling with fury.

There was only one thing I could pull from the numbness. One simple question, the answer of which I knew would either break or mend me.

"Why—?" I asked, and the sound of the word was all it took for holes to start appearing in the dam holding my emotions at bay. I was suddenly having to bite my cheek against the sting of tears. "Why did you leave?"

Legolas tried to remain stoic in the face of the words, but it was clear they had hit him like a tangible blow.

"Why did I…?"

"Why did you go?" I asked again, my renewed feelings giving my voice its strength back. "Back in Edoras. Why did you leave before we could talk, before I could explain?"

I think it was the first time I'd ever heard him truly, painfully unsure of himself.

"I… I was not attempting to punish or hurt you, I just…" he trailed off softly, searching for the words. "I needed time."

For a tiny moment the invisible space between us seemed just a little bit narrower.

"I don't know how much of that I have left to give," I answered far more calmly than I suddenly felt. "That's three times now I've escaped dying by the skin of my teeth. I'm not sure I have a fourth in me."

He looked truly pained by the answer, but nodded.

"I know that now. More so than ever before."

The uneasy silence came back again, the only sounds between us the clatters of shields and weapons being prepared as men readied for battle.

"I want to know something," I said abruptly into that silence, unable to look away from him now that I'd worked up the courage.

"Ask," he said without hesitation. "Anything you wish."

"Are you only telling me this because you thought I was dead?"

I don't think I could have conjured a more surprised look onto his face if I'd stabbed him and pushed him off the battlements. Of all the questions he was clearly expecting from me, this can't have been one of them. But I pressed on. "If Aragorn and I hadn't gone over that cliff, would you still be giving me the cold shoulder? Would I still be wondering if I hadn't made a huge mistake telling you the truth?"

It was the first time since we've faced each other that he couldn't meet my eye. Instead he glanced down at my hands — still scratched and filthy as they were — before forcing himself to look at me again. I didn't need any kind of Elf sight to see the struggle going on behind his eyes.

"I will not lie, the thought of you… gone…" he stumbled over the word slightly, but cleared his throat and continued. "I regretted everything I had said and done before I'd taken a step away. But once I had, I believed the damage was done, and my pride would not allow me to try and undo it. After that it was simple cowardice. I knew what I had done, but hadn't the bravery to face you after truly seeing the damage I had wrought. But then… believing I had lost the chance to atone permanently…" He trailed off again, and this time he closed his eyes and breathed deeply to quell whatever he was wrestling with. "So to answer your question, I do not know. I don't know if I would have mustered the courage to apologise. All I can say is that I put my pride ahead of someone I've come to care greatly for, and it is a mistake I will not repeat again."

The dam I was only just starting to realise I'd built to hold all my more painful feelings back began to buckle and break. The sting in my eyes was becoming too much. I closed my eyes and dropped my head, breathing steadily just as I had to calm myself before.

When I looked up again I was calmer, but my eyes were still wet at the edges.

"I suppose near death experiences are good for more than just proving how durable we all are."

Ignoring the surprise on my friend's face, I walked up to him, closing that gap that had formed between us and slipping my arms around his waist and into a hug. My forehead rested against his collarbone as his scent washed over me, eyes clenched shut tight against the tears that suddenly didn't feel so bitter anymore. There was the briefest beat of shock. Then warn, strong arms closed around me, his tall form hunched over to curl around mine. It was tentative at first, as if half afraid I would break or vanish if he held me too tight, but I only hugged him tighter, a storm of feeling where there had once been numbness as I felt the press of his lips and nose against the top of my head.

"Aragorn told me of what happened, what you did," he whispered. "I am so sorry I was not there."

"I'm sorry too," I whispered against his tunic, the word sounding totally inadequate for the host of things I now wished I could have done differently. I only felt his arms hold me tighter, the press of his hand on the back of my head and his breath against my hair.

"You have naught to be sorry for, mîr nín," he said, the tiniest tremor in it I might not have noticed had we not been so close. A fresh wave of tears came, and this time I didn't try to hold them in.

"I didn't lie before," I said shakily, voice suddenly thick with the knot in my throat. "I wanted to tell you everything for so long, but I just…"

"You don't have to explain yourself to me."

"Yes I do," I insisted, and he surprised me with a soft laugh against my hair. I felt the press of his lips on the crown of my head, and backed up in surprised to see him smiling down at me — the hint of dampness at the edges of his eyes too.

"Then I will gladly listen to every part of your tale, and likely ask a thousand questions for every word. But not here, not now," he told me, a hand stroking over my hair. "For now, just let me be grateful you still live."

I bit my lip and clenched my eyes shut again as he pulled me into another gentler embrace, not wanting to give up my voice to embarrassing sobs of relief just yet.

"Later, then?" I mumbled, unwilling to look around at the battle preparations going on and remember exactly what we were up against. "If there even is a later."

This time Legolas pulled back, making me look up at him.

"There will be," he said with blunt finality. Inexplicably, it made me smile.

I might not have gotten out everything I needed to yet, but still everything felt suddenly lighter. Lighter than I had since I'd first joined the Fellowship, I think. Like a weight I hadn't realised I was carrying all that time had suddenly been lifted off my chest.

"I guess there will have to be, if you really do want to hear my entire mad life story. It's a lot longer than the others I've told," I said quietly. I put my hand on his arm until he let go, allowing me to take his hand in mine, giving it a gentle squeeze. "Besides, you still owe me."

His brows furrowed, momentarily confused.

"For?"

"Our bargain. Back in Lothlórien, remember? I told you what those names on my knife meant. You still owe me a translation on what mîr nín means, and I intend to collect."

Another tiny, breathy chuckle escaped him, a light and easy sound in stark contrast to how he looked.

"So I do," he admitted, that familiar fond, slightly crooked smile creeping onto his face again. Just as it had been before this whole mess had started, back when we'd talked in the Meduseld corridors.

One of the guards outside the entrance to the caves had started calling for the last of the women and children to come inside before they closed the entrance. Past Legolas I spotted Haldir and the last of his archers heading out to line themselves across the Deeping Wall; the first line of defence for when the army came for us.

The awareness of exactly where we were, and what was about to happen fell on me again — and while it didn't completely diminish my new-found relief, it did force some dread back into me.

"I guess that will have to wait too…" I murmured, unable to hide my disappointment and worry. So I tried to do what I always did: make a terrible joke. "Break a leg out there."

Legolas gave me a genuinely startled look.

"Surely a broken leg would be detrimental to our survival."

"No, I didn't mean—" I took one look at his perfectly serious expression, and threw up both my hands. "God, you know what? Never mind! Just promise me you'll come back in one piece."

His eyes were still marred with dark circles, and he could still have done with a comb and some water to wash the dirt away, but the smile he offered me then was the brightest, fiercest, and most beautiful I think I'd ever seen from him.

"Maybe two pieces," he said, echoing my own words from all the way back in the Council chamber in Rivendell.

Then he pulled me to him again, this time wrapping his arms around me in a rib creaking hug without a trace of fear in it. I returned the embraced with as much strength as I possibly could, my arms around his waist, his cheek against my hair. We stood there just a little longer than was technically proper as Men and Elves passed us, and I didn't care in the slightest. I just buried my face in the space where his neck met his chest and hugged him tighter, breathing in the warm, familiar scent of him as he clutched me to him. When we finally did release each other, there was a strained look in his eyes, as if he badly wanted to say something more, but—

A shrill cry, too young to be any of the soldiers came up from bellow the battlements. Legolas and I both instinctively turned to look in its direction, only to see a tiny, scruffy little girl with wide brown eyes and dusty blonde hair racing up the steps as fast as she could. She was so out of breath by the time she reached the top it took a second to realise she was calling my name.

"Freda?" I blinked, relieved to see her completely unharmed, but muffled by the panic in her eyes. "What are you doing ou—?"

"Eleanor! It's Sarra!" the little girl gasped out, pointing frantically back towards the entrance to the caves. "Her baby! It's coming!"

You could have punched holes in the beat of silence that followed, right before the panic dropped.

'Oh shite, bollocks, and flaming balls from hell! Now?!Tink squawked. My own mouth just kind of dropped open in shock, some odd part of me insisting Freda was joking for a second. That this was once again just a badly timed, not-all-that-important message being delivered as a failed punchline.

Then the reality of what she'd just said hit home.

Sarra was in labour, and none of the healers were willing to help her.

My eyes went wide, looking between her and an equally pale-faced Legolas, only he was staring straight down at my suddenly panic-stricken face.

"She — I-I need to — oh God, I don't think—" I started babbling, unable to form coherent thoughts let alone words. I'd read plenty while studying with Elrond, but never actually participated in a live childbirth. How was that even possible? Had he deliberately left out that part of my training for fear I'd not be able to cope? How was I supposed to focus on something I'd never practiced before with an army marching on us? What kind of healer was I if I balked at the mere thought of—

Legolas' warm hand closed around mine, and I was suddenly forced to look back into the abruptly calm face of my friend.

"Go to her," he told me gently, giving my hand a comforting squeeze. "Help your friend. I will be here when this is over."

I suddenly felt tiny and fragile standing beside him, my composure slipping, and renewed fear leaking into my voice.

"Swear?" I croaked in a very small voice.

He smiled tenderly.

"I swear it."

It was enough. I forced another deep breath, letting go of his hand and turning to the little girl — who was all but hopping from foot to foot in agitation.

"Ok, ok, let's go Freda."

"Mîr nín…" Legolas' voice sounded suddenly hoarse.

I turned.

"Wha—?"

A warm, weapon-calloused hand was suddenly cradling my cheek, turning my face back to him, and before I had the chance to so much as inhale in surprise, his lips were on mine.

My heart stopped. My breathing stopped.

Everything stopped.

The kiss was so sudden but so gentle that it barely seemed real. I heard Freda and Tink both inhale sharp little gasps as if from far away, and then everything else disappeared completely from my awareness. All I could process was him. Pine, rain, earth and the wind through tree branches. His scent filled my head, the echo of his voice still in my ears. His mouth pressed against mine. I hadn't expected his lips to be so soft, or so gentle — almost timid. As if he half expected me to shove him away, but I couldn't have even if I'd wanted to. I couldn't have been more paralysed with shock if someone had shoved the head of Medusa straight into my line of sight.

It all happened so fast I didn't even get time to recover from my brain short-circuiting, let alone think about returning it. So when I didn't immediately respond he began to pull away. I saw doubt, and what looked like true horror at what he had just done begin to creep into his face, a fumbled explanation or apology forming on his lips.

That was more than enough to catapult me out of my stasis.

I didn't want to hear his excuses. I didn't want anymore hesitations, interruption, or painful near-misses because it was never quite the right time, or someone else needed something.

I'd said it myself, I'd almost died for the third time today.

And I was done with waiting for a chance that we might never get again.

So, before I could think about what the hell I was doing, I lunged after him. His eyes went wide as one of my hands pulled him back down by the front of his tunic, the other catching around the back of his neck, forcing his tall form to stoop back down to my level. It was a tad more aggressive and a lot less elegant than I'd hoped, but if I'd expected to be met with disdain for it, I was very, very wrong.

His arms instantly came around me again, gathering me hard against him. I felt like I'd jammed a penny into a wall socket as our lips met a second time, no time or patience left for gentleness. The difference in our height made it awkward, clumsy; our noses bumped hard enough to bruise, his fingers knotted in my tangled hair, and my toes almost left the ground. It was fumbling, embarrassing, desperate, and wonderfully imperfect. I was only distantly aware of the stunned silence of the Men, Elves, and Freda that had fallen around us, and the echoing of Tink's howling cheers — but I didn't care about any of it.

It didn't matter.

For one tiny, glorious flickering moment, nothing else in this entire bloody world — or any other — mattered at all.

It ended far too quickly, still leaving us both a bit breathless as we finally tore away from each other. He looked down at me, face flushed, blond hair mussed, eyes still half closed, breath hot against my filthy cheeks. His hand went from the back of my neck to cup my jaw, leaning down to rest his forehead tenderly against mine. And when he spoke it was so softly I knew I was the only one in the world who could have heard him.

"It means treasure," he whispered. "My treasure."

Then with one last brush of his lips against the edge of my mouth he was gone, disappearing down into the crowds of other men and elves readying themselves for a hopeless fight.

I just stood there staring after him, speechless. My jaw was hanging agape, and I was only vaguely aware of Freda tugging frantically on my sleeve, asking what was wrong with me. I just shook my head, my cheeks, ears and neck all burning, and my lips still tingling from where he had brushed them so tenderly with his own.

"You… bastard," I breathed all but silently, unable to think of anything else to say.