The next several days and nights carried on in much the same pattern. We all started to fall into a comfortable routine. Almost too comfortable.
Intellectually, I understood why a group of all males in this kind of culture had such a hard time allowing a “lady” to perform tasks of a physical nature, but the feminist in me itched at them constantly trying to do things for me.
I began to realize what a fine line the women of my own world had expected our men to walk. We wanted to be able to perform certain tasks for ourselves to feel our own self-worth, but God help the man too rude to open a door for a woman. Being here where the men were taught from childhood to protect and do for their women was an eye-opener to how much my own culture had progressed. I just wasn’t sure if the men here would say it was for the better. Maybe not even the women.
It wasn’t that Boromir and Aragorn didn’t think I could handle certain tasks—I’d proven to them I could march as far as them and take my share of the watches too—but it was a matter of honor that drove them to be so unsettled with allowing me to take on those tasks.
After arguing with the two men about taking my turn at watch duty for the umpteenth time, I’d finally gotten frustrated and told them both to stop thinking of me as a damned woman and to think of me as just another guy. Aragorn had laughed and finally walked away (seemingly anyway) deciding to give up on arguing with me. His people, the Dúnedain, were a wandering people, more used to their women having to perform some of the heavier duties.
Boromir was tougher. His upbringing was more rigid, making it much harder for him to treat any woman as though they were a man. They’re both honorable men. You just have to keep reminding yourself of that.
Ironically, I hadn’t had to have the same arguments with Legolas or even Gimli. Gimli had laughed and said that though their females were very few in numbers, they did not stand much for coddling either. And Legolas—Legolas was still very careful to keep a certain distance between us, and he certainly avoided anything that might cause an argument.
The two men, Gimli, and Gandalf, took turns pairing with one of the hobbits when taking watches, leaving me to be paired with Legolas each day for our turn.
Regardless of my apologizing to Legolas for telling him to stay away from me and being so rude to him, he continued to keep a modest distance. At least at first.
Each day during our watch, he would stand ever so slightly closer to me. And it irked me to know deep down, it was exactly what I needed. Bit by bit, I grew used to his presence, until he could stand by my side and we could quietly chat. At first just about generalities, and what the hobbits had said or done that day. But eventually we began to speak about our lives and our worlds. He reminded me so much of Mike at times. Mike had known not to try touching me in the beginning of our partnership too. He’d known I’d been damaged by something from my time in the Marines, but he’d been patient, waiting for me to trust him, and eventually, he’d become my closest friend.
Of all the Fellowship, Legolas was the least unnerved when I asked about something or someone in their past that they hadn’t yet spoken of. I wasn’t certain if it was elves who were more open to that strangeness, or if it was Legolas in particular. He’d looked startled when I asked what it was like to grow up as a prince, but he hadn’t hesitated in answering me.
It almost amazed me to realize we had somehow formed an uneasy friendship. He was still careful not to approach me if I might not see or hear him coming, and our conversations hadn’t gotten much more in-depth than some basics of each other’s pasts. Still, it was a start.
More than that, I felt like piece by piece, I was burying that old childish fear of my father. That old nightmare that he’d find me and take me to Tar-Na-Leigh or find me and just kill me outright. It had been years since I’d seen or even heard of him. So why had I let my fear of him in particular grow so strong?
Legolas had even begun teaching me bits of Sindarin, a language that he explained was only one of many that elves of this world spoke. I couldn’t piece together a sentence to save my life, but I could count to twenty and name some animals and plants. Mostly I had wanted to learn the language to know what he and Aragorn were always whispering to each other about.
And strangely enough, I found myself wanting to understand what he was thinking. Sometimes I could piece things together, especially when his thoughts were more visual, but overall, his thoughts seemed to be more word based than anyone I’d known. It was a strange turn of events after a lifetime of wishing I didn’t have to hear the nasty thoughts of others, to suddenly want to hear more of what someone was thinking.
Maybe men were right and women just can’t ever make up their minds, I half-jokingly thought to myself.
I woke that afternoon nearing somewhere around three hours after noon. I’d taken to sleeping near the edge of camp each day, and on whatever side was the opposite from Frodo.
“You are already awake,” Boromir commented in disappointment. Just as he did every day when it was my turn for watch.
“Yeah, I’ve always had a great internal clock when it comes to needing to be up at a certain time. Plus, I’m a pretty light sleeper, so I usually hear when you guys come back to camp,” I whispered with a grin, stretching my arms as I sat up. My internal clock came in very handy when dealing with Boromir. If he’d had things his way, he’d have never woken me for a watch.
I couldn’t resist tousling Pippin’s hair as he walked by, though his only response was a muffled goodnight. But it was Boromir I was more concerned about. I could see Legolas already walking away to begin our watch, but I detoured to crouch next to Boromir as he lay down and fussed with his blanket.
“You doing all right?”
He glanced up at me and at the reduced distance, I could now see the dark circles under his eyes were even worse. “I am fine,” he tried to assure me.
“Bull—I mean, no, you’re not. You’re not sleeping well. I’m worried about you,” I told him, just catching myself to keep from swearing.
His gaze cleared and softened just a bit as he looked up at me. “Says the woman whose sleep is just as troubled.”
I didn’t bother arguing. It had been years since I’d slept well. Sometimes, I wondered if I ever had. “Yeah, but I’m used to it. You’re not. You look like a raccoon with those circles under your eyes. What’s going on?”
His eyes involuntarily jerked towards Frodo. I was certain he was going to refuse answering, but he gave a deep sigh and said, “When I try to close my eyes, I see my city. I see it burning. I see my city and its people falling and I know it is because I have failed them. Failed to protect them.”
I drew small designs in the dirt between us as I considered his words. “That’s a lot of responsibility for one man to take onto himself,” I finally commented. Looking back up at him, I added, “You can’t expect to singlehandedly take on all the forces of Mordor to protect Gondor.”
“I am the son of the Steward, it is my responsibility to ensure that the city never fails,” he attested.
“Yeah, but you don’t have to do it alone. You’ve got a brother to help you, and a lot of well-seasoned soldiers.” I jerked my head towards where Aragorn lay, “Plus you’ve got Aragorn to fight beside you. He promised to return to the White City with you.”
His gaze softened again, “Yes, the Dúnadan. He is an honorable man, I think.”
“I think you both are,” I assured.
He glanced more lingeringly at Frodo. “Still, I wonder if it shall be enough.” He turned to look back at me questioningly.
I knew what he wanted. “You know I can’t answer that.” I clapped a hand on his shoulder as I changed the subject. “Try to get some sleep. Those dark circles under your eyes don’t become you. And remember, you’re not alone.”
He chuckled and lightly touched my cheek. “As the red does not become your features.”
As he touched my cheek, I noticed the tightness of my skin and realized that the shade I’d fallen asleep in had obviously moved as I slept. I grunted and answered, “No, it never does.”
I got up and started towards where Legolas waited. He stood stoically, just as he always did. And as I was beginning to think only an elf could. I hopped onto the rock he stood beside and crossed my legs.
“The ring has begun to breach his mind and torment him,” Legolas commented.
It was the first time since I’d initially joined them, that the ring had really been mentioned.
“Yes,” I answered simply. I remembered the glimpses of Boromir’s dreams that I’d seen in my own mind before I’d started sleeping further from Frodo and the Ring. “It tries to convince him that he could use the Ring to protect his city. It twists his love of country to its own uses.”
He turned and looked at me, “You sleep with as much distance between you and Frodo as you can.”
I answered truthfully, knowing he’d never interpret my words literally, “I hate seeing what the ring is doing to Boromir. He’s a good man.”
“His love of country is his weakness.”
“Can you blame him?” I asked incredulously. “What if it was whispering in your mind that you could take it and protect Mirkwood from the spiders and the issue of Dol Guldur?” His gaze darkened. “Or has it already?” I added.
“Yes,” he answered. “But like most of the others, I ignore its lies. A thing of evil cannot be used for good.” He looked at me curiously. “Has it spoken to you?”
I shook my head. “No. And coward that I am, it’s part of the reason I’ve begun keeping my distance from Frodo. I see how it’s eating at Boromir, and I don’t want to find out if I can withstand that.”
“‘Tis not cowardice to remove oneself from the gaze of evil.”
He looked at me again, puzzled. “Why has your face become so reddened?”
“It’s a sunburn, Legolas,” I laughed. “Tons of women in my world may have dyed their hair red artificially, but at least most of them don’t have the pasty skin and freckles to go with it. They have no idea what a bitch it is. I’d love to be able to tan like other women do. It was hell when I was stationed in the desert in the Middle East.”
I studied his own pale skin, unmarred by such a burn, and wondered. “You wouldn’t happen to have sunblock, would you?” At his confused look I continued, “You know, something to keep your skin from getting burned by the sun?”
“Ahh, I have seen this condition amongst mortals before. Elf-kind does not suffer from such maladies. But I think I know something to ease your burn. Come,” he commanded, offering his hand to me to help me down.
I only hesitated slightly before taking his hand and jumping off my perch. But his hand stayed wrapped around mine as he led me through the rocky ground and scrubby underbrush growing around the area.
It was a friendly gesture, meant to help guide me along behind him, but I felt uncomfortable by it. In my world, it was perfectly acceptable and quite common to sleep with people you didn’t even know. And I was certainly no blushing virgin, but somehow, the simple act of him holding my hand felt more intimate and left me feeling more exposed than the times I’d been completely naked with a man.
Had I even ever held a man’s hand like this before? Or hell, been close enough to another woman that we’d held hands as friends? I couldn’t think of a single time.
I knew to Legolas it was a simple, friendly gesture, so what did it say about my culture that this felt more intimate than sex with any man ever had?
I continued to follow Legolas, but pretended to steady myself against a rock, gently pulling my hand from his to mime the action before pushing away and following him. He glanced at me in surprise, but kept going.
“Ahh, here it is,” he said crouching and removing his long knife. He used it to carefully cut away part of a leafy looking plant. Turning to me, he began breaking and squeezing a milky substance from the leaves. “Hold still and shut your eyes,” he commanded.
I smiled faintly at his order, but did so. I could feel his fingers carefully spreading the substance over my skin, and I had to admit, it did feel good. It felt nice and cool on my heated flesh, and it seemed to take the tightness out of my skin too.
“Thanks,” I told him when he was finished.
“You are most welcome,” he smiled. He put more of the leaves into the pouch at his belt, saying, “You might need to apply it to your skin again when we stop again tomorrow. I don’t know how long it will take to heal this ‘sunburn’ you mortals suffer from.”
I laughed, “Not all mortals. Just us fair skinned ones. Us redheads are especially susceptible.”
He reached out and pulled my braided hair over my shoulder. I had let it grow longer than I normally kept it when I’d been a Marine, but it still only swept the bottom of my shoulder blades. I was sure in this world it seemed woefully short for a woman.
“There are some elves that are born with red hair, but I have never seen so dark a shade. At times, it seems merely brown, at others, it shines red in the sunlight, and still others, I am certain there are strands of gold. Is it a common hair color in your world?”
I laughed. “Well, not naturally. Red hair is pretty rare, especially the darker auburn shade of mine, but a lot of women dye their hair to achieve the color too. But most of my mother’s family had nearly the same dark auburn hair as me, so it’s not too special in my family.”
“You have never spoken of your mother nor her family,” he carefully commented.
“She killed herself when I was a little over two, and I really never spent that much time with her side of the family afterwards. Not much to talk about there, I guess,” I answered shortly.
He nodded and didn’t press further.
We had just started back when Legolas went stone-still. His gaze was fixed on the south where a dark cloud seemed to hang.
“What is it?” I whispered to him.
I studied the cloud then too, and realized it was moving too fast, and in our direction. Suddenly I realized it was a great host of birds that wheeled and circled, looking for something.
As a group broke off from the others and turned towards us, Legolas grabbed my hand and pulled me down below some low underbrush. I pushed myself flat against a rock in the shade of the brush as Legolas braced his arms around me and pressed close to hide in the shade as well, our chests brushing with our closeness. We both looked upwards to see large black birds flying overhead. They were larger even than crows, and the feeling of menace permeated the air around them.
I suppressed a shiver at their proximity, and felt Legolas do the same. I wondered what I could do, and realized how unprepared I was for this world. I had my guns, but what would happen when I ran out of bullets. I vowed then to have one of the men begin showing me how to swing a sword.
When the birds had finally passed, Legolas grasped my hand again and pulled me along towards the others. After the cold, menacing feeling left in the wake of those—things—I didn’t attempt to pull away from him. We saw in the distance Aragorn and Sam making their way back towards the others. We must have been gone from the others longer than I realized if they had begun their watch already.
We jogged up to them as Aragorn was speaking to Gandalf, “—Hollin is no longer wholesome for us: it is being watched.”
“And in that case so is the Redhorn Gate,” Gandalf answered, “and how we can get over that without being seen, I cannot imagine. But we will think of that when we must. As for moving as soon as it is dark, I am afraid that you are right.”
“Luckily our fire made little smoke, and had burned low before the crebain came,” Aragorn commented. “It must be put out and not lit again.”
No comment was made about where Legolas and I had been, but we both crouched side-by-side in the shade of a bush. Sam and Aragorn returned to their watch, and though the others all remained lounging in whatever shadows they could find, it was an uneasy rest. Those same large birds—crebain—continued to fly and circle overhead periodically. Everyone remained quiet and somber.
We started our trek again that night, but the heavy silence still hung in the air. For the first time, Legolas walked close by my side instead of roving both in front and behind our group. When a dark shape flew overhead again, momentarily blocking out the moonlight, only Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf commented on it and what that great shadow might be.
But both Legolas and I stopped and flinched away from its sharp menace. We glanced at each other, both knowing that we felt that darkness more severely than any of the others. I wasn’t sure if I felt it so acutely because of my mixed heritage or my telepathy, but it was somehow comforting to know I wasn’t the only one who sensed it.
His hand found mine again, and I started to pull away from the once again too intimate sensation, but looking up into the elf’s pleading eyes, I realized he needed the gesture as a comfort. The comfort of a friend.
And so, for the first time in my life, I walked on hand-in-hand with another. It still felt strangely intimate, but I couldn’t argue that it was comforting to feel the closeness of a friend.