We sat together in companionable silence for several moments more. I knew I should get up and either get something to eat, or try to go back to sleep. But truth was, I wasn’t sure I’d get back to sleep now that the city was awake and bustling with activity. And, I was enjoying the easy tranquility.
But those things never last.
“Laney! Laney!” a clear high voice called out. I smiled at the variation of my name. The elflings hadn’t liked calling me Lane, and had a hard time with the vowel pronunciations of Elaina, so they’d taken to calling me Laney.
Legolas and I pulled away from each other to turn around. Three small elflings ran up behind me while the elleth of the trio, a precocious little girl named Caladhiel, clambered into my lap without hesitation.
Grasping my hands, she pleaded brokenly, “Please! Laney play!”
I laughed at her broken Westron. The elflings had been trying to teach me the prevailing language of Lothlórien, Quenya, but I was as hopeless with it as I was with Sindarin. The elflings were proving much faster at learning bits of Westron than they were at teaching me to understand them.
Pulling Caladhiel’s arms out wide, I laughed then spun her around, wrapping our arms across her stomach as she giggled. “Come on munchkin. We’ll go find the others and play,” I laughed.
I used my arms to tumble her through the air as I stood, uncrossing our arms as I did so, and allowing her to land on her feet. She laughed and started tugging on my arm again, dragging me over to the two boys who watched eagerly, one of them holding a leather wrapped ball. The oldest of the boys, Caladhiel’s two cousins if I remembered correctly, enthusiastically held the ball out to me.
“Soccer!” he declared as I took the ball.
“You had someone make a soccer ball?” I laughed as I recognized the size and weight of the ball. Mostly I’d been playing games with the elflings that they were familiar with, but I’d been teaching them about hide-and-seek and other sports that were played in my world. Soccer and football were always favorites in the Corp because they could be played anywhere with very little equipment. I explained soccer to the elflings thinking it seemed like the safer, easier choice of the two, and told them I wished I knew how to fashion a soccer ball for them. It seemed the children beat me to it.
“Teach us,” the smaller boy said, grabbing my hand from Caladhiel and pulling on me. The little elleth immediately started chattering angrily at her cousin in Quenya.
I tossed the leather ball back to the oldest boy and tugged on one of Caladhiel’s golden braids to get her attention. “Come on now, no arguing,” I told her with a smile before scooping her into my arms and resting her on my hip. She was about the size of an eight-year-old child, but I knew elflings were much older. Haldir had explained that they looked like small children for around fifty years, and didn’t really reach adulthood until their first century had passed.
Balancing Caladhiel on my hip, I grasped the smaller boy’s hand and turned to look at Legolas. “You gonna come play soccer with us for a while?” I asked with a grin.
He laughed as the small elfling continued tugging impatiently on my hand. “You still need to eat something, Elaina,” he reminded.
I shrugged. “I’ll grab something in camp. Maybe the hobbits will still be there and will want to play too.”
Seeing that I wasn’t going to be stopped—at least not with three elflings tugging on me—he shook his head and followed along behind me.
“I do not know what this ‘soccer’ is,” Legolas called curiously, as he jogged to catch up to me.
“It’s a sport we played in my world,” I explained. “Don’t worry, I’ll teach you.” A thought came to me. “Hey! You speak Quenya, right? You translate for me as I explain it to the kids. They don’t understand most of my words, so it takes a while to show them things.”
“Of course. I would be very pleased to assist you in this endeavor,” he smiled.
The elflings continued leading towards the center of the city where a large open meadow stood and the children gathered in to play most days. However, I made a quick detour into our camp, delighted to see the hobbits still there and eating. The smaller of the boys immediately released my hand and ran excitedly over to Merry and Pippin.
“You guys wanna come play a game from my world with us?” I asked as I looked over the trays of food set out. Sam immediately started pointing out things for me to try.
“‘Course, we’d love ‘ta. What game was you going to teach them?” Sam asked as Merry and Pippin linked arms with the elfling and ran ahead with his older brother.
I pointed at the retreating back of the taller elfling and the leather ball he carried. “Soccer. It’s a pretty easy game to learn. You’ll love it,” I assured Sam as I grabbed a waterskin and wrapped some fruit and bread into cloth napkin.
“Play soccer,” Caladhiel enthused as she bounced on my hip.
“Yup, let’s go play soccer,” I assured her as I started after her cousins.
Legolas looked into my cloth napkin at what I was eating. “Elaina, you should have some meat or something more substantial than this,” he admonished.
I shrugged. “I like fruit. After two years of not once tasting it, I like to eat as much fresh fruit as I can, when I can. I like meat just fine, but fruit and vegetables are still a real treat to me,” I explained. I wasn’t really sure where they were getting fruit in winter, although a lot of it was dried, but I was still savoring every bite.
“Yet you have not eaten in more than a day, you need something more filling than fruit,” he continued admonishing.
I held up a piece of bread over my shoulder. “Bread is plenty filling. Believe me, I’m fine, I’ve gone far longer than a single day without food. Every soldier has. And having actually been truly starved to the point of skin and bones before, I have no desire to purposely withhold food from myself. I do like to eat when I can.”
“You were starved as well in your captivity?” he asked in a hushed voice.
I glanced at Caladhiel on my hip, but she was still slightly bouncing as I walked and humming to herself, oblivious to what most of our words meant.
My eyes trailed down to take in the sight of my own body—a body I well remembered the sickly sight of after I’d escaped North Korea. “I weigh about one-forty now—a little heavier than most women my height, but I’ve got more muscle than them—but when I escaped, I weighed a little over ninety pounds. If I’d lost much more than that, I probably wouldn’t have had the strength to even escape. I barely did as it was.”
His sadness and grief shone in his eyes and voice as he spoke, “How did you escape?”
Caladhiel stopped bouncing as she heard the catch in his voice and looked up at me curiously. I forced a smile and answered lightly, “I got lucky. They got sloppy thinking I wasn’t a threat anymore and sent only one guard to haul me out of my hole one day.” I smiled wider and bounced the elfling on my hip. “Now, let’s go play soccer,” I told her as we stepped into the clearing.
I collapsed on the sidelines beside one of the smallest girls of all the elflings. She’d come with her brother, but was too small to play soccer with them.
She immediately climbed into my lap and began chattering to me and showing me her doll. Her words were still foreign to me, but I made lots of appreciative noises as she chattered and held her doll.
I was amazed by the open affection of the children of elves. They’d openly welcomed me into their play and showered me with the same affection they gave one another. I’d never been around kids much in my own world, but I vaguely remembered the hostility and fear I’d known as a child before I started avoiding the other children. Being different from them, I was openly castigated and ridiculed by the groups of kids.
Such a thing didn’t seem to happen here. The elflings played and occasionally fought with each other here, but there was no malice to it, and they quickly resolved matters themselves without an adult having to intervene.
They were even open and trusting of me, the strange human in their midst. Mothers had been a little more cautious of course, but even they trusted me now, no longer hovering nearby to watch me.
I held the little girl in my arms as she brushed her doll’s hair, and realized how lucky I was to have been able to fight on their borders and defend this. This city and her people—her children. The innocents.
Withstanding the grief of the blood I’d spilled was suddenly much easier when I saw these carefree children. I could internalize a little of that darkness and grief when I knew it helped to keep these children safe. And it allowed them to have a happy and carefree existence that I’d never known.
Frodo stopped playing and sat beside us. The girl in my lap crawled over to sit beside her new audience and happily chatted with him. Since Frodo knew some Quenya, he happily chatted back with her. I was almost afraid to look at Frodo after what happened with the Ring—afraid he would look into my eyes and know how weak I’d been, but when he turned to look up at me, there was only a happy smile lighting his face, so I returned to watching the game.
The hobbits were about the same height as the taller elflings, but were surprisingly agile on their feet, so they split up on different teams with Sam acting as goalie for one of the teams. Being taller and faster, Legolas and I had carried some of the smaller elflings around as we played, letting them “help” us. As I took my breather, Legolas still played, carrying a little boy on his shoulders.
I cheered as the two of them scored a goal on Sam who was playing goalie in the makeshift net outlined with baskets.
But like clockwork, mothers came to fetch their children for the noon meal, and our game was stopped. I reclined in the grass as Merry and Pippin walked by, arguing over what the score was and which team won.
“Come now, miss Lane. Mister Legolas said you been skipping meals, and that just won’t do,” Sam admonished as he stood looking down at me.
I pushed up to my elbows to see said elf standing a little ways off, grinning at having carried through with his threat. Frodo laughed from where he still sat beside me.
“Now don’t you be mad at Mister Legolas, he’s only looking out for you, same as what I do with Mister Frodo. And I’m gonna make sure you both eat a decent meal for once,” he continued admonishing, shaking his finger at us both.
Frodo and I both stood, laughing and offering a quiet, “Yes, Sam.”
I paused to kiss Sam on the forehead. “Frodo and I couldn’t ask for better friends than you and Legolas,” I told the blushing hobbit.
We returned to the campsite together. As always, food was already laid out, but Sam wouldn’t take any himself until he was satisfied Frodo and I had more than our share heaped on our plates. Aragorn, Boromir, and Gimli were there too, and it was nice to once again share a meal altogether. Even Boromir seemed in a bit better mood as Merry and Pippin excitedly explained soccer to the men and regaled them with play-by-plays of the game.
I was amazed at the speed in which the hobbits could make their food disappear. All too soon, they were off to explore the city more, but I was thankful to see that this time, they were dragging Boromir with them. Maybe it would lift his spirits somewhat.
Suddenly, as I was replacing my plate on the long table of food, an elleth stood at my elbow, bowing her head to me and speaking softly but at a furious pace. She repeated bowing her head several times as she spoke, and then grasped my hand and kissed the back of it as well.
I stared at the back of her bowed head as she continued her frantic words, completely baffling me with her actions.
“She is thanking you,” Haldir said as he walked closer. I looked up to see him drawing nearer while carrying the same girl who’d been showing me her doll earlier. “For saving her husband,” Haldir continued as he handed the girl to the elleth who finally was forced to release my hand.
“Oh, you’re Rúmil’s wife,” I said, finally understanding. “Is this your daughter?” I asked her.
“Yes,” Haldir answered for her, “and she is my niece.”
“Well, tell her it’s no problem. I’m just glad he’s alright,” I replied.
Haldir translated and then the elleth bowed again before hurrying away with her little girl.
“Rúmil’s really doing okay?” I asked.
“My brother is very well. He mentioned his ear still rings however,” he answered with a raise of his eyebrow.
I laughed and gestured to the gun on my hip. “Yeah, sorry about that, I guess they’re a bit loud for your sensitive ears, when I saw Rúmil was in trouble, I just pulled it without thinking.” I’d told Haldir about my guns and weapons in my world, but I don’t think he’d really understood them or how loud they were.
Haldir waved it off. “I am certain he will be fine in time. Vanya is certainly pleased with your swift action to save her husband.”
“I didn’t realize Rúmil was married. I thought he was your younger brother.”
“Both of my brothers are younger,” Haldir laughed. “And both are married as well,” he added.
I looked him up and down. “But not you?”
He laughed again. “Nay, not I. I have not yet found one who appeals to me.” He returned the favor of looking me up and down.
I looked away uncomfortably.
Haldir cleared his throat though a twinkle remained in his eye, obviously enjoying my discomfort. “I came by to see if you wished to accompany me. I must visit several of the warden stations along the border to ensure they are well supplied in the event of further Orc attacks,” he told me, stepping closer. “You were able to keep up quite well with my men on our trek to the northern border and I wondered if you would care to keep me company.”
Playing soccer with the kids had actually energized me, and I looked forward to a chance at stretching my legs again and exploring the woods. “Sure! I’d love to,” I told him. Turning towards my tent, I added, “Just let me grab my things.”
After donning the rest of my weapons, I was ready to head out with Haldir. Leaving my tent, I saw Legolas waiting for me.
“Hey, we were gonna head out and make some stops at the warden stations, you wanna come with us?” I asked him.
He stared at me for a moment, his face void and impassive. Then he slowly shook his head. “I cannot. I promised Gimli I would spend the afternoon with him. He wishes for me to show him the forgery and blacksmith. As dwarves are the masters of metalworking, he wished to see the skill of the eldar.”
“Oh, that’s too bad. But I mean, it’s great you’re spending time with Gimli. I’m glad you two aren’t spending all your time trying to insult each other anymore,” I laughed, genuinely happy with the development. I knew they would form a lasting friendship that would one day see them both through until they reached Valinor. And I felt privileged to see it blossom.
“Are you certain you wish to do this, Elaina?” Legolas asked lowly, stepping forward to grasp my hand.
I looked at him curiously, but couldn’t read anything in his face. “Yeah. I told you, I did a lot of scouting in the Marines. I want to feel useful while I’m here.” I leaned forward and gave Legolas a quick hug. “Have fun with Gimli,” I whispered in his ear.
Pulling away, I turned and jogged over to Haldir. He stared over my shoulder at Legolas for a moment, but when I turned to look, Legolas was already walking away.
“Shall we?” Haldir said, gesturing towards the path to the city gate.
I nodded and together we set off at a brisk jog.
Over the next several days, Haldir and I jogged to the different warden stations and back each day. When we reached the station, we only stayed long enough for Haldir to talk to his men and assess their conditions before we’d start back for the city.
When we returned each night, Haldir would send runners with the supplies they needed, or send more troops if he deemed a station needed more men to defend against the increasing threat of Orcs. The next day, we’d begin again, heading out for a different station.
The number of stations surrounding the borders of the forest surprised me. These Galadhrim didn’t mess around when it came to protecting their lands, and I felt honored to be able to assist them.
Haldir was surprised at how easily I was able to keep up with him, especially on jogs to the further out stations. Those trips took all day, and even at a steady jog there and back, we wouldn’t return to the city until after nightfall. But not once did I fall behind.
It felt like being in the Marine Corp again. I felt useful, like I was scouting with my partner, watching each other’s backs.
And Haldir was an easygoing companion. Able to keep up lighthearted banter even at a steady jog, but also able to lapse into comfortable silence. And I relished not having this male constantly hovering because I was a woman or suggesting I take easier tasks. He seemed to understand the deep-seated need I had to prove I could perform as well as the men. Or ellyn, I guess.
We finally stopped jogging one day at a spring to refill our waterskins. I knelt to splash the cool water on my face, washing away the sweat and grim.
Haldir crouched beside the water, pulling out food wrapped in a cloth bundle. We usually ate as we jogged, but Haldir obviously decided we were making good time today.
I took the opportunity to rebraid my hair, finger combing the loose hair and tangles. My hair had filled with curls and waves from my sweat, so I pulled my hair over one shoulder and quickly started a herringbone braid near my ear. It always looked best when my hair was wild and full of waves to give it body.
“I have not seen such a braid before,” Haldir commented as he ate. “It is very beautiful.”
“Thanks. I’ve never been good at doing anything elaborate with my hair. Women in the military are supposed to wear their hair up in a French braid or in a bun, but I could only ever manage a bun. A herringbone braid is easy enough and looks pretty good too,” I told him as I finished the braid and tied a leather thong around the end.
He handed me my share of food as I came to sit beside him.
“I spoke with the son of Arathorn this morning before we left,” Haldir suddenly said.
“Oh? What did Aragorn have to say?” I asked. I was just thankful that over the last several weeks things had gone back to the way it had been before between Aragorn and me. Or at least, Aragorn had decided to pretend that nothing had happened between us. Not that I minded.
“He told that the Fellowship would be meeting this eve to discuss their departure tomorrow.”
My heart clenched at his words. “Already?” I asked in surprise.
“A month has already passed, Lane,” he laughed. Sobering, he continued, “Orcs have continued attacking our borders in increasing numbers. Lady Galadriel and Lord Celeborn have said it is time for them to continue their journey.”
“Oh, it doesn’t seem like a month has gone by,” I whispered, unsure what to say.
“Time passes unnoticed in an Elven home,” he answered. “Many years can pass without notice in our realm. The years are not felt here as a mortal feels them in their homes.”
Haldir cleared his throat and looked away from me, gazing at the gentle flow of the spring. “I asked the human if you would continue with them, but he did not know. He told the choice was yours alone whether to continue on their path.”
I followed his gaze as I picked at my bread, my appetite suddenly gone. Instead, I threw bits of the bread into the stream, watching small fish hungrily snatch at them. “I don’t know what I should do. Or where I belong,” I whispered.
Haldir turned and grasped my hands in his. They were warm and calloused from shooting his bow, a lot like Legolas’s hands, but I felt uneasy by the contact. I’d grown used to Legolas’s touch—his closeness. This contact felt somehow strange and foreign.
“You could stay here. With me,” Haldir whispered fervently. My attention immediately pulled away from our hands up to his imploring eyes.
“What do you mean?” I gasped in surprise.
“I had given up hope of finding someone to share my life with. No elleth has truly tempted me before. Never have I wanted to marry an elleth whom I would ever leave behind as I perform my duties. Long have I dreamed of finding a wife to stand and fight by my side. One who understands me and what I do.”
He cupped my cheek with one hand and I couldn’t help closing my eyes and leaning into that warmth. “You have been happy here,” he continued. “I have seen the evidence of it. Your smile as you play with the elflings warms my heart. And you could be ever at my side, fighting and defending our borders.”
My breath caught at his words. His offer was everything I had wanted and could hope for. My husband had constantly fought with me over my military service, and I saw the handwriting on the wall in our arguments, saying we’d have the same fights if I had quit and worked with him as a cop instead. But Haldir had never tried stopping me from coming with him or fighting on the border. And after proving myself to him during that first battle, I knew he wouldn’t hesitate to trust me again.
“But I’m not an elf,” I told him, still astonished by his words.
“It matters not to me. No elleth would stand at my side as you have. I crave that, not an elleth,” he assured me.
“I’ll die one day.”
“Yet every day until then we could be happy.”
I shook my head, no words coming out and not knowing what to say.
“You have been happy here. You could stay and be happy with me,” he repeated, his thumb stroking my cheek.
My eyes closed once again at the sensation.
“Can I have time to think about this?” I whispered.
My eyes were still closed, but I felt Haldir’s body moving closer. His lips pressed to mine in a surprisingly soft and chaste kiss. “You shall certainly have your time,” he whispered next to my ear, before he pressed another soft kiss to my cheek. As he withdrew, he pulled his hand away from my other cheek, and I finally opened my eyes to gaze into his.
The open, earnest look in his eyes made me look away. Standing, I said, “We should get back to the city.”
“Of course,” he replied.
After entering the city, we silently went our own ways. I knew I had a lot to think about—likely I’d be up all night considering Haldir’s offer.
As I walked back into camp, I saw that the Fellowship was gathered around the table nearest the fire.
Aragorn looked up as I got closer. “Join us,” he invited, gesturing to a bench beside him. “We were discussing the continuation of our journey.”
I took the bench, smiling when Gimli poured a mug and passed it to me. “Beer?” I asked in pleasant surprise when I tasted the cool liquid in my mug.
“These elves are surprisingly hospitable, Lass,” Gimli laughed. He sounded like he’d sampled quite a bit of the beer himself.
“Have you any words of advice for our journey,” Aragorn asked.
I shook my head. “I told you. I can’t tell you what’s gonna happen or what to do. It would change things. I’m really sorry,” I told Aragorn, laying my hand on his arm.
He actually smiled kindly, and placed his hand over mine. “I know,” he softly answered. “I understand.”
I returned to happily nursing my beer as the others talked about their coming journey and what their path should be. I barely heard their conversation or their heated words as they argued about where they should go from Lórien. Instead, I stared at the ornately carved white wooden mug in my hands and considered what I should do. What I would do.
Haldir’s offer was more than appealing, I couldn’t deny that. Part of me had always dreamed of finding a man like this—even if he was an elf. There was an easy, almost effortless companionship between us. We could laugh, play, and fight alongside each other with such ease.
And hadn’t I thought just a few weeks ago that being in Lothlórien was almost like paradise? Maybe this could finally be home. The idea was more than tempting.
Realizing a silence had filled the air, I broke away from my musings and looked up and around the table. The others were looking down at their own mugs in silent contemplation.
I looked up to see Legolas sitting across from me, a contemplative look on his face as he considered me.
“Shall you come with us when we depart, Elaina?” Legolas asked me.
“‘Course she will. Why wouldn’t she?” Pippin declared.
The others looked up at me curiously, waiting for my answer.
“I don’t know,” I honestly answered.
“You are certainly welcome to join us,” Aragorn told me with a dip of his head. “You have been a welcome companion.”
“We are no longer the Nine,” Legolas broke in. “With you, we would once again be the Nine. Why would you not come with us?”
I looked down guiltily. “Haldir has asked me to stay here. With him,” I quietly admitted.
A loud scraping noise startled me into looking up again. Legolas stood across the table staring down at me, a shocked look on his face and the bench behind him shoved back from the table. “And shall you?” he whispered incredulously.
“I haven’t decided,” I admitted, staring up into his eyes and trying to read the emotion there. Before I could say anything else, he turned to stalk silently away from the table.
“You aren’t coming with us?” Merry asked in a quiet voice.
“I haven’t decided,” I repeated.
Aragorn broke the heavy silence that followed. “Whatever your choice, you shall be welcome to join us, but we shall be leaving in the morning.”
I nodded and stood from the table as well. Aragorn grabbed my wrist to stop me. “If you choose to stay, Haldir is an honorable ellon. But if you choose to come with us, you shall greatly please a number of our group.” He released my wrist with an almost meaningful nod, and I continued away from our campsite, looking for somewhere quiet to think.
Walking on autopilot, I came around the corner walking towards the stream near our camp. I stopped when I saw Legolas already standing at the stream.
Before I could turn around, he seemed to sense my presence and he turned towards me. Rather than cowardly walking away, I closed the distance between us.
“Will you stay here, or will you come with us?” Legolas immediately asked.
“I don’t know. It’s a tempting offer Haldir makes,” I told him.
“Do you love him?” he pushed, stepping closer until our bodies were almost touching.
I sputtered but couldn’t come up with an answer.
“You do not love him,” he told me confidently, his eyes narrowing.
His self-assured declaration only served to anger me. “How do you know? Maybe one day I could love him.” I pushed angrily on his chest, forcing him back a step. “I don’t belong anywhere in this world, and Haldir’s offering me a place in it. I’d be a fool to pass that up. I could have a home here. An actual home. And I could be happy for once. Haldir wouldn’t stop me from fighting by his side. I could be happy and useful.”
“What about me?” Legolas asked as I felt a wave of sadness from him. He looked away. “That is, what of the Fellowship? The hobbits and the others shall miss your presence if you stay.”
My heart lurched at his words against my will. My head told me there was nothing but friendship between us, but my heart yearned for something I feared to reach out for or even name.
Haldir was fun and easygoing, but Legolas soothed and touched something within me I hadn’t known could be reached.
I stepped closer to Legolas again and reached out to clasp his hand between mine. The words screaming from my heart tumbled out before my head could censure them. “Give me a reason to go. Give me a reason.”
He stared at me for a moment, and then his face fell. “I cannot,” he whispered.
I dropped his hand and turned away. “I guess that’s my answer,” I whispered in return, fighting the tears that suddenly threatened to fall.
As I started away, Legolas grasped my elbow and turned me partially towards him. My eyes were still closed against the pain, but I felt him press something hard and smooth into my hands. I barely caught Legolas’s whispered words as I turned away again, “I hope you find your happiness, Elaina.”
“Me too,” I whispered brokenly to myself as my fist clenched around the object in my hands. “Me too.”
A/N: Sorry I didn’t update sooner, I’ve been trying to stick to updating once a week, but the past two weeks were kinda hectic for me. However, here’s this installment, and thank you to everyone for all of your kind words and fantastic support. Every email I get with a review just makes me excited to return to this story! Thanks again!