Lainien's eyes took in the towering walls bordering Edoras, the sight familiar despite the centuries that had passed since she'd last seen them. They had grown darker, weathered with age, but still a symbol of strength.

"Welcome to Edoras, young Ranger, Master Elf," Déor said, turning to smile at the pair. "Enjoy your first look upon our great city."

The grand double doors opened with a groan and Lainien looked upon the humble city, noting each change from her last visit. Aragorn's usual calm mind was breezing about with excitement.

The small group dismounted, Lainien swinging down easily, ignoring Hamet's proffered hand. Allowing her mind to open, she took in the thoughts of those around her. She stiffened slightly, unaccustomed to the sheer volume of minds, so different than the small amount of familiar strains of thought over the past years.

An elf! How exciting…

Finally, Déor has returned! I was beginning to worry…

Travellers! I wonder what news they can bring us…

Satisfied that the consensus was welcoming, Lainien walled off the edges of her mind, taking a deep breath to concentrate and steady herself. Aragorn stepped up beside her, brushing the back of their hands together briefly.

You can do this…

She met his small smile with a nod, and looked to Déor. The large man had dismounted and was speaking with a guard, motioning to his mare's wound while stroking her neck soothingly. The guard took the proffered reins and, assuring Déor with a smile, lead the mare toward the stables.

He watched the pair carefully for a long moment before turning back to his companions. He nodded to Hamet, who began unloading the packs with Gram, the two speaking in quiet tones.

"Come, friends," Déor said, gesturing to Lainien and Aragorn and heading up the hill. Aragorn turned to his companion and raised his brows. She nodded slightly, and took off behind Déor, mind skimming only briefly over the consciousness of the surrounding townspeople.

Lainien couldn't quite explain the relief and happiness she felt as she made her way up the hill and took in the sight of Meduseld. The last time she was here – when she turned and walked away from her life among men – the youthful Brego had only just begun construction on the great hall.

Now, the grand structure stood immense and proud, the detailing in the stone and wood prevalent even from this distance. She let her eyes roam across the structure until she noticed the woman.

She was slight of frame and conservative in posture, hands clasped together and shoulders stiff. The trio moved closer, and Lainien watched a small smile light up the woman's face. She moved from her post, down the stairs, and met their group at the bottom of the grand steps.

"Dear friends, this is my lovely wife, Léofa," Déor announced, beaming down at the woman. She met his smile with a small, shy one of her own. Her youthful excitement of running to meet them tempered by the self-conscious way she held her shoulders and hands.

"Welcome home, husband," she greeted quietly, the brightness in her eyes betraying her happiness despite her hushed tones. "Welcome," she added, eyes flickering to Aragorn briefly before moving on to Lainien.

Soft brown eyes widened slightly as she took in the elf. Lainien observed the woman's surprisingly fiery thoughts take note of her features with a sparkle of instinctual fear at the elf's wildly fierce countenance.

The elf appreciated the woman's natural instincts – it would serve her well, Lainien thought. She was even further impressed as the youthful woman pushed down the fear and smiled politely.

"Guests are always welcome here," Léofa continued, nodding and turning her attention back to Aragorn. "King Thengel would like to meet you."

Together they ascended the great stone steps, Aragorn's eyes trying to take in everything at once, a small smile blossoming on his face. They came upon two soldiers guarding the huge double doors, their eyes sweeping over each newcomer with care before grasping the wrought iron handles and pulling.

The throne room of Meduseld was grand and ornate, the warm afternoon light adding a golden glow that reflected off dark wood-carved columns with bronze accents.

Eorl would have loved this place, Lainien thought, her heart constricting as she thought of the warrior, easily imagining him at home in this beautiful, warm sanctuary. Her eyes moved from the great gold archways and dark wood panels to rest upon the throne.

Seated primly upon high-backed wooden thrones were the King and Queen of Rohan. Both were beautiful, Lainien mused, each in their own way. The King had clear blue eyes and regal features – long, straight nose, perfectly trimmed beard, and crisply pressed velvet covering broad shoulders.

He met her observations with his own, his eyes hiding none of his emotion as he looked upon her with eager curiosity. Lainien dipped into his mind and found the rolling grassy hills utterly benign and bland.

Unconcerned, Lainien moved to his partner, quite sure the beauty would provide greater interest. Whereas the King was golden and soft, his eyes open and affable, his Queen was a study of stark contrasts.

She was hauntingly beautiful. Sharp cheekbones and full, dark red lips accentuated the contrast between her pale skin and black hair. She held Lainien's dark gaze briefly, utterly unimpressed, before flickering away. Lainien opened her mind slowly, reaching out to the woman, and was rather intrigued.

Ice. Lainien could nearly feel the chill emanating from the vast tundra of the woman's mind. Her observations of her guests were swift and cutting arctic winds, moving briskly and harshly, contrasting her bored countenance. Truly fascinating...

" – until our friends happened upon us."

Lainien blinked, drawing away from the chilly enigma that was the woman's mind, and returned to the conversation.

"Déor gives us much greater service than is due," Aragorn replied after a brief questioning look toward Lainien. She met his eyes and nodded minutely. "We merely aided in ending the skirmish sooner."

"And our guest is much too modest," Déor beamed, clapping a hand on Aragorn's shoulder jovially. "Both have great skill and selflessly joined battle against the dark creatures."

The King's eyes sparkled as he looked upon his two guests, smiling easily at the fortunate coming of two skilled fighters. "How marvelous!" he exclaimed, bring his hands together. "Rohan thanks you, good travellers."

"Do these travellers have names?"

The Queen's voice was cut like her cheekbones – harsh and pronounced. Her green eyes finally focused upon her guests once again. Next to her, Aragorn shifted minutely.

Lainien caught his glance briefly and lifted a brow. He nodded.

"You may call me Thorongil, my lady," Aragorn said, bringing his right hand to his breast and bowing his head. "I am a young Ranger from the North assigned to patrol the lands north of here."

The woman's green eyes shifted for the first time to observe Aragorn. Lainien, who had felt no ill will toward the woman, suddenly felt her hackles rise. The Queen's eyes, which had previously watched the group with a dry sort of indifference, suddenly widened. She eyed Lainien's charge with a bright, calculated gleam, her icy mind suddenly breezing about, taking note of the youth's stature, weapons, and youthful appearance with unhidden interest.

Lainien would be watching this woman closely.

"And this is my companion, Lainien," Aragorn continued, unconcerned with the Queen's gaze. "We have travelled many miles together."

"Marvelous!" Thengel repeated, smiling jovially down at the pair. "It has been many years since we have welcomed one of the Fair Folk to our humble halls."

Lainien nodded at the King in response, idly noting that she was likely the last of the 'fair folk' who had traversed this part of the Kingdom of Men. However, she wasn't likely to divulge this information.

"We were lucky to have their aid, Sire," Déor added, his face sobering. "The Orcs were greater in number and stronger in will than ever before. It took us nigh on two days to finish them off, and not without injury."

Thengel waived his hand, smile still on his face. "Ah, but good Déor, you have thwarted them yet again! And I have faith that you will continue to do so in the future!" He turned his sparkle to Lainien, continuing, "Now, why don't you all get settled, I am sure you are all fatigued."

"Sire," Déor began, frown heavy upon his brow. "I believe there must be more done about the creatures. They have grown arrogant and bold – attacking the outer villages with greater frequency."

"Yes, yes," the King replied, his smile still plastered on his face. "And you have never failed yet! I am sure you will continue to defeat the creatures each time they bring their filth close to our walls."

"Yes, but Sire," the warrior continued sincerely. "We do not ride out until the villages have already sent word of the attack, after many have already given their lives and after fields have been destroyed. We have the men now, Sire, we should –"

"Now, now, Déor," Thengel said, the smile only lilting slightly. "I have heard your views on this, and I have been quite clear on this matter. I will not risk my soldiers for such a small issue!"

Déor's jaw clenched, but he nodded stiffly. Beside her, Lainien felt Aragorn's mind stirring in indignation.

"Respectfully, Sire," Aragorn began slowly. "What is the purpose of a King if not to protect his realm's people?"

The King looked startled for a long second, his thoughts stuttering to a stop before picking up again. "I must ensure the safety of the whole realm," he finally retorted, his smile ebbing away. "Not a mere handful of villages in the outer regions. If their sacrifice acts as a warning for a bigger problem, then so be it. I will not risk my men."

Aragorn's frown deepened, shoulders stiffened, and his hand clenched at his side. "Each person is important. Your people are not simply 'some mere villagers'," he said disdainfully.

Lainien's eyes flickered around the room, noting the whispers, mental stirrings of shock, and a good deal of awe from the few gathered.

The King too had noticed the murmurings, and he paled slightly before arranging his face into a forced smile.

"Now, now, my new friend," he said, chuckling shrilly, "the decisions and priorities of Kings are unique, I do not expect all of the complexities to be understood by even those as wise as the Dunedain." He nodded as if to give deference to the youth.

Tiny flickers of flame sparked around the edges of Aragorn's mind, taking Lainien by surprise. She turned to gaze at her charge, noting the tense line of his shoulders and the clenching of his fits.

Sensing conflict, Lainien shifted, brushing the back of their hands together. Grey eyes found hers, and she could see the burning indignation there. She raised a brow.

He is wrong, he projected, fury emanating both for the injustice, but also for the patronizing tone the King had used. Lainien's lips twitched in a flicker of a frown.

Aragorn held her gaze for another short moment before breathing out heavily through his nose.

"Understood," he finally replied, turning to face the King, his expression held carefully bland.

"Marvelous!" Thengel exclaimed, bringing his hands together to steeple his fingers. "Now," he continued, his smile returning unnervingly quickly. "My dearest sister, Léofa, will show my guests to their rooms." Léofa straightened and stepped forward, bowing her head slightly.

"Let Rohan show you the hospitality of the West, my friends!" he said, eyes sparkling again as he gesturing broadly around the grand room. "I daresay you will enjoy a warm bath and a soft bed."

Léofa bowed her head again before turning to the two companions. "Please follow me," she said softly.

Aragorn bowed his head stiffly at the King, Lainien merely locking eyes with each briefly, and the two followed. As she passed him, Léofa pressed her hand gently against her husband's arm in a small gesture of affection that made Lainien's chest clench.

The two followed behind their host quietly, Lainien noting with humor that the woman's gentle demeanor did not extend to her thoughts, where a wild fire of indignation burned quietly. A large door leading off the hall took the trio into a warmly lit hallway lined with tapestries, and Léofa moved through the space quickly and quietly.

She halted at a door halfway down the hall and turned to address the two. "You and your companion will have these two rooms," she said softly, pointing to the door before them and the next-door down. She met Lainien's eyes. "The rooms are prepared for your stay, but if there is anything you require, please do not hesitate to ask."

Lainien nodded to her in thanks and Aragorn offered her a smile, which she returned with one of her own. "I am truly thankful for the aid you provided my husband, Lady Lainien and Thorongil of the Rangers," she said solemnly. "I am aware he underestimates the peril he faces, and I am glad to hear he will have the support of such powerful companions."

Aragorn's smile grew soft and he placed his hand to his chest again. "I can understand your apprehension, my Lady. We will do our best."

Léofa smiled again and turned her eyes to Lainien. "Déor said you needed to send a message to your Chief," she said. Lainien nodded. "We have a hawk you may use. Come find me when you have had the chance to settle in and rest."

"Thank you," Lainien said, nodding in thanks. Léofa offered another small smile before returning down the hall, her steps silent.

Lainien met Aragorn's eyes, which sparkled. A real bath!

Lainien snorted, rolled her eyes, and opened the door to her private quarters.

-:-

Aragorn strode through the torch-lit corridor, his feet making no sound upon the hard stone, and paused at his guardian's door. Upon meeting no warning, Aragorn grasped the handle and entered.

Lainien sat barefoot and cross-legged in the middle of the large, quit-covered bed, elbows on her knees and her chin resting upon her folded hands. Her hair lay damp and tangled down her back, and she was clothed in a simple, sleeveless tunic and loose-fitting trousers – the picture of relaxed that Aragorn hadn't seen since leaving Imladris.

The elf hummed in acknowledgement of his entrance, but her eyes never left the sprawling pile of parchment laid out before her. Aragorn made his way to her side, eying the strewn papers, detailing various maps of the region, each with a separate level of detail.

At his continued silence, Lainien raised her eyes to his in question.

And suddenly, he felt childish. Lainien's brow rose.

"My bed is too soft," he mumbled quietly, looking down at his feet, toeing the spot where two stones came together smoothly.

He peaked up at his guardian to meet soft eyes. Her lips quirked minutely as she watched him, and Aragorn grinned sheepishly at her.

The elf rose from her position on the center of the bed and stepped down to the floor with ease, moving swiftly to the small stove in the corner. She leaned down and grasped the fur pelt rug, dragged it over next to the bed, and then tossed the pillows down atop it.

Aragorn watched, bemused, as his guardian pulled off the quilt, adding it to the pile, after unrolling her traveling mat from her pack. After a short inspection, the elf turned to him, crossed her arms, and met his gaze with a raised brow.

Aragorn laughed, stepped out of his boots, and folded back the quilt, settling into the makeshift bed with a smile on his face. Lainien watched him idly for a moment before picking up one of the maps and settling down next to him, resuming her cross-legged position.

The youth closed his eyes and surrendered to the warmth and the quiet breathing of his companion.

"Is it strange?" he whispered, eyes still closed. "Being back here?"

Lainien took her time to respond, bringing her eyes up from the map to gaze around the guest chambers.

"In some ways," she admitted finally. "Much is so new that I can easily separate my old memories from now."

Aragorn hummed quietly. "What's changed?" he asked, yawning.

Lainien chuckled lightly. "Hundreds of lifetimes have come and gone since I left Edoras, Estel." Aragorn pondered the idea for a while, but found himself unable to quite grasp it. Sometimes it was easy to forget how old his guardian was.

The elf chuckled again and he felt a tug on a strand of hair. He opened one eye to send her a weak glare, earning himself a small smile.

Silence reigned again and Aragorn drifted comfortably amid the warmth, until finally sleep took him.

-:-

Lainien folded her arms and shifted her weight to lean against the wooden posts lining the training field.

Surrounded by a group of young Rohirrum soldiers was her charge, sword in hand and smile on his face. The young Ranger took turns sparring with each soldier, parrying blocks here and there, trading easy blows while talking amiably.

He is quite happy here, she noted, feeling a smile tug at her lips.

"Young Thorongil wastes no time," Déor said, coming to stand next to Lainien, clasping his hands behind his back. He glanced at her, continuing, "I was surprised at his request to join us this morning."

Lainien snorted, drawing a grin from her companion. "The child learns with his hands," she said.

"And you with your eyes?" he queried.

She hummed in response, eyes still on the sparing ground. They fell silent, each studying the men as they traded blows and laughed.

"Come now," the large man said, breaking the silence and unclasping his hands. "Let us come to know each other through the ways of warriors." Lainien lifted a brow, her arms still crossed. Déor chuckled. "Surely you grow weary of idleness," he pressed, grinning. Lainien rolled her eyes. "'Tis not idle to take keen study," she retorted. Déor laughed, his eyes crinkling warmly. "Aye, that is true." He sighed dramatically, his great shoulders heaving. "I suppose I shall merely swing my sword through the air and but wish for a worthy opponent."

Lainien rolled her eyes again as the man strode into the clearing and began moving through a series of strokes and blocks. She met Aragorn's eyes from the other side of the sparring ground and received a cheeky grin. Come on, Lana, he pressed. Scared?

The elf snorted. "Fine," she muttered, pushing off from the post and entering the clearing.

The men she passed fell silent and moved to make way, and the tall Captain turned to face her with a grin.

"Ho, good Lainien, what a surprise!" he called. She glared and he chuckled good-naturedly.

Aragorn watched the exchange with happiness blooming in his chest. His guardian mumbled quietly under her breath, but he could see the humor in the slight quirk of her lips.

Déor unsheathed his sword, the metal singing as he spun the weapon in a wide circle. Lainien followed the large man, each step measured and sure, before turning to face him, leaving several meters between them. Déor brought his sword up high and settled into a striking stance.

Lainien kept her face smooth as she drew her swords, but Aragorn could see the gleam in her eyes belying the calm. The dark blue glinted with excitement, and Aragorn smiled. She needed this.

By now, the rest of the men had ceased their training, and had turned to watch eagerly. Aragorn could hear the murmurs between several, some placing wagers, others expressing their interest.

No doubt Lainien could hear them as well, but she made no outward sign of acknowledgement. Aragorn sheathed his sword and prepared for quite the show.

Déor was the first to move, his lunge faster than Aragorn had expected of a man his size. The blow was impressive, but Lainien sidestepped it without bringing up her blades. She turned on balls of her feet, eyes ever-watchful, as Déor recovered.

The man's eyes twinkled even as he frowned in concentration before mounting another attack. His next lunge was more controlled than the first, and he changed midstride to counter Lainien's sidestep, bringing their blades together for the first time. Lainien twisted her wrists, deflecting the long blade with both of her shorter ones, and stepped closer.

Déor took her proximity to his advantage, bringing his sword up with a heavy backhand, forcing Lainien to block again with both her blades. The strength of his blow pushed the elf backwards, forcing her to take two quick steps to recover.

Hoping to catch Lainien off balance, the man used his momentum to mount another attack. He brought his sword down in a heavy flash, but found his blade blocked again by the elf's dual swords. Déor visibly increased pressure, using his greater height in an attempt to break Lainien's block. The elf held strong, the two locked in a battle of strength for several long seconds.

Finally, Lainien heaved upward before dropping her arms and springing into a roll to escape the large man's downward strike.

The men around Aragorn murmured in appreciation of Déor's show of strength, and the Ranger fought back a smile. Lainien was putting Déor through his paces. First she'd test his strength, next would be –

Lainien mounted her first attack, spinning on her knee and lunging low, forcing Déor to maneuver his blade vertical to block. Then she darted to his exposed side, stepping even closer, forcing Déor to shift position and correct his stance.

Agility, Aragorn thought wryly, watching Déor succeed in parrying Lainien's blow. The elf moved with sure feet, using both blades to strike at Déor while circling him, forcing the larger man to constantly reposition his stance to avoid her next attack.

As the pair moved swiftly around each other, Aragorn watched with fondness as a growing smile blossomed on his guardian's face. The elf was slowly increasing her speed – her final test for the man – and each passing moment brought a crack in her calm façade.

Sure enough, her blows came faster, each step moving her either into a new position, or out of the way of Déor's blow. The larger man kept on his toes, but sweat was steadily forming on his brow.

The murmuring of the gathered men grew as Lainien's speed increased. Déor was panting slightly, quiet grunts breaking the music of metal upon metal, as he moved constantly to parry another attack.

Then, in a move literally too fast for Aragorn's eyes to track, Lainien spun and struck out with both swords.

Déor froze, two sun-warmed blades resting one on either side of his neck. Lainien lowered her blades after a moment, then stepped back and offered the warrior a small bow.

"You are a fine swordsman," she said quietly, sliding her dual blades into their sheathes.

Aragorn's jaw nearly dropped. Déor did not appear to understand what a high compliment he had just received, but he sheathed his own broad sword and covered his breast with one hand.

"And you the finest I have ever seen, Lady Lainien," he replied formally, bowing. Lainien's jaw twitched at the "lady," but she returned the nod without comment.

The elf straightened and turned to face her charge, and Aragorn beamed.

She rolled her eyes.

-:-

" – and he took the great beast by her mighty jaw and stared into her eyes with passion!" Déor exclaimed, bringing up his own hands. "With such great power belying his youth, Eorl then commanded the beast to his will in payment for his father's life!"

A young child, no more than eight, leaned further forward, elbows on his knees and chin tucked atop his knuckles. "And she listened, didn't she?" Prince Théoden pressed, eyes dancing with awe.

"Aye, lad, that she did!" Déor exclaimed, beaming brightly down at his nephew. "From that day forward, the great Eorl the Young strode into every battle atop his noble and faithful steed, Felaróf, the first of the great Mearas."

Lainien settled more comfortably with her back against one finely carved dark wood column, eyes slowly observing the scene. The fires roared merrily on the far wall, the tables pushed to the sides, and a scattering of soldiers, their wives, and palace workers sat together in groups, chatting quietly and smiling.

The elf felt a smile tug at her lips at the sight of such a happy community. Next to her, Aragorn nudged Lainien with his elbow.

Was she truly magnificent? he projected, mind absorbed in Déor's story.

Lainien considered her charge briefly, noting the childish glee he tried to suppress in the swirl of his mind. She gave the man a small smile. He beamed.

"Uncle Déor, tell us a love story next," called the small girl curled up in Leofa's arms.

Déor turned his eyes to the youth, smiling at the impatient frown on her face. "Ah, dearest Théodwyn," he called. "But of course, have I yet told you the story of how my beautiful Léofaand I first met? The way our eyes caught –"

"YES," came the resounding calls of the men around him. Léofahid her chuckle in Théodwyn's curly blonde locks, her eyes dancing.

"Ah," Déor said, not sounding apologetic in the lease. "I suppose I might have mentioned it before." He met Lainien's eyes and gave her a wink. She rolled hers at him.

"Very well then," he began, rubbing his hands together. "What of the greatest romance – next to my own," he amended, smiling slyly at his wife, "that Rohan has ever seen?"

"Tell us!" Théodwyn giggled, bouncing in her aunt's lap. Déor sat up straighter and brought his hands atop his thighs.

"It was after the great battle upon the Field of Celebrant," he began, causing Aragorn to straighten beside Lainien. "And the great young Lord Eorl returned to the upper Vales of Anduin to inform his people of his victory." (1)

From his position cross-legged on the floor before his uncle, the young Prince Théoden squirmed with excitement.

"He road into the lower town, regal upon the back of the powerful Felaróf, and his people came forward for a glimpse of their young Lord."

Lainien smirked. 'Regal' wasn't how she would describe the wan but please smile on the twenty-five year old Eorl's face as he slid of the side of Felaróf's saddle, the horse nearly shaking with exhaustion.

"He and his war generals rode to the center of their modest town," Déor continued, ignorant of Lainien's distraction. "And when he dismounted, he cast his eyes 'round for the one he desired to see most."

Lainien quirked a brow at the man. One he desired the most? Where is this going? Eorl did not marry Fíriel until several years after the Battle of the Field of Celebrant.

"He was not disappointed," said Déor, beaming at his niece. "Standing before the healing houses, hands wringing in passionate anxiety, was one of the most beautiful woman upon all Middle Earth.

"She ran toward Lord Eorl, her white-gold hair shimmering behind her, and threw herself into his open arms!" Théodwyn giggled and clapped happily.

Déor beamed down at her. "And Eorl held her desperately, his love for the fair woman exploding in his breast. 'Oh, sweet Eorl,' said the beautiful Fíriel," Déor continued, twisting his hands together and speaking in a high voice. "'I have waited with bated breath for your return, how happy it makes me to see you whole.'"

Lainien burst out laughing so hard, she nearly fell over.

When she came to, her eyes filling with mirth, she saw every eye in the room watching her, astonished.

"I am sorry," she gasped, still chortling. "But that is utterly ridiculous."

Déor frowned at her. "I do not understand, friend Lainien," he said slowly. Lainien could sense the barest breeze of unrest stirring in the minds of her companions, and she rushed to explain.

"That is nothing close to how it really happened," she said, holding back another snigger at the mere thought of Fíriel throwing herself into Eorl's arms – especially before Eorl's head had deflated.

Now, every mouth was gaping in her direction. She shifted uncomfortably after a moment, realizing her mistake.

The next second, a tiny child nearly threw herself into Lainien's lap, tangle of golden curls nearly catching in the elf's mouth.

"You know how it really happen, Lady Lainien?" Young Théodwyn exclaimed, leaning back to gaze beseechingly into Lainien's dark blue eyes.

Lainien caught Leofa's shocked gaze for a moment. Her widened eyes turned warm, however, and she nodded to the elf in encouragement.

The elf shot a side-eyed glance at her charge, only to find the youth smirking at her. Well, go on then, he projected smugly. Or are you telling me you can say no to those eyes?

Lainien turned her attention back to the bright baby blue eyes shining with excitement, and she folded.

"I do," she conceded, earning herself an excited wiggle from her new companion. Lainien turned her eyes to Déor, who was now looking at her with new appraisal in his gaze.

"I fought in the Battle of the Field of Celebrant alongside Eorl, and before that, served along side his father and fathers before him since the days of Marhari."

Déor's eyes widened. "But that was nigh on the year 1850," he said, his booming voice carrying easily to the few gathered around. Shocked whispers broke out around the group, and Lainien caught Hamet's eyes, noting the excitement bubbling in them.

Lainien nodded. "I helped Marhari's son Marwhini gather the surviving members of his clan and settle in the lower Vales of Anduin, near Carrock. I stayed for many years, ensuring that Marhari's line were strong, then continued to roam until early 2000." (2)

She caught the flicker of unease from her charge, and she met his eyes with a raised brow of her own.

He smiled at her sheepishly. I do not like thinking of you alone for so long, Lana, his thoughts whispered almost silently.

The bouncing of the small child in her lap then distracted Lainien. "But what of the Lady Fíriel and King Eorl?" she asked, impatience biting her tone. Lainien smiled softly, removing one fine curl from out of the child's eyes.

"Fíriel was entirely unimpressed by Eorl for more than twenty years," she chuckled. Théodwyn gasped, covering her mouth with her hands.

"No," the young girl breathed out. "So she didn't come out to meet him?"

Lainien chuckled again. "Aye, that she did," she confirmed. "But only to ensure he would be treated by one who would not faun over him."

"You mean," she said hesitantly, "she didn't love him?" The child looked horrified. Lainien chuckled.

"She grew to love him quite ardently," she reassured her young companion, "but she loved the man he grew to be."

Théodwyn just blinked up at the elf, confusion in her bright eyes.

Lainien smiled. "Fíriel was nearly ten years Eorl's senior," the elf explained. "And she was rather unimpressed by the youth's haughty demeanor." Théodwyn giggled, trying to hide it behind her tiny hands.

Spurred by her charge's excitement, Lainien dropped her voice, smiling, and said, "His head had grown so large, that poor Felaróf could barely carry him upon her back!"

Théodwyn's giggles turned into bright laughter.

Lainien straightened her face best she could, and said in her best Very Serious Tone, "Eorl believed the way to a woman's heart was through arrogance, assuming his position was all he needed to court her." She lifted her eyes briefly to meet the young Prince Theoden's eyes. "A man is more than his title. He must prove with his actions that he is worthy."

The young Prince sat up straighter near his uncle's knees and nodded vigorously.

"So he proved himself?" Théodwyn asked, one tiny hand tapping Lainien's forearm to catch her attention again. "He made his head smaller?"

The men gathered around them chuckled.

"Aye," Lainien agreed, looking down again and giving the girl a small smile. "The silly boy got knocked off his horse enough times that he learned some humility."

Aragorn snorted, absolutely sure who it was knocking the youth off a horse. Lainien sent him a glare.

"It took the boy nearly a decade to turn her favor," Lainien continued. "But he grew into the mighty young Lord of the stories, learning of the responsibilities of leadership, the grief of a King, and the joy of a ruler of a prosperous people."

"And she loved him?" Théodwyn pressed, bouncing slightly in her enthusiasm. Lainien chuckled.

"Yes," she said simply. "The youthful game of pursuit became an earnest courtship nourished with respect of her skills and admiration of her keen mind."

"And she was pretty," Théodwyn added, nodding fervently. A few of the men raised their tankards and cheered. Lainien sent them all an unimpressed glare.

Théodwyn seemed satisfied by Lainien's tale as she stood clumsily and skipped back to her Aunt. The surrounding men, however, instantly began peppering the elf with questions.

"Tell us of Eorl!" one called.

"Nay," called another, "tell us of the battles!"

"Tell us of Eorl in the battles!"

Aragorn elbowed her in the side as Lainien watched her audience clamoring for her attention. She turned to lift a brow at the youth.

Tell us about a boy who turned into a King.

Lainien smiled.

-:-

Must find the King.

Must get the King.

So close. Must get the King.

Lainien bolted up right, her eyes focusing as she came out of her waking dreams.

Must get the King.

In one swift movement, the elf slid off the bed and grabbed her swords before crossing her room and out the door.

The next moment she was gliding along the dark hallway, her bare feet ghosting over the heavy stone floor, listening.

The sleepy tendril of thoughts from the majority of the stronghold's occupants swirled distractingly through her mind, and she cast them aside with a mental brush. Focus. Fully awake as she was, it was more difficult to sift through the volume of thoughts – even more so when she attempted to concentrate on the one in particular.

So close, the errant thought whispered, a pebble in the sea of consciousness. Lainien entered the throne room, her mind attempting to grasp onto the thought, gaining as much success had she tried to capture the smoke rising from the dying fireplaces.

Must get the King.

She came to the double-doors and threw them both open, eyes cast toward the town's gate in the distance.

"Lady Lainien!"

The elf's eyes slid to the startled guard on her right, noting his half-raised sword.

"Someone is coming," she replied, turning her full attention to the gate again.

The guard gaped at her for a moment before turning to peer out into the same direction, his hand tightening on his weapon.

The distant whirling of surprise and apprehension tickled the edge of Lainien's mind before –

Piercing wails of warning bells sounded from atop the city gate, accompanied by the command to open the gate from the warden. Beside her, the soldier turned about and sprinted back into the throne room, calling for more Déor as he went.

Lainien strode quickly down the stairs and through the square, her footsteps quickening as she drew closer to the gate. The frantic half-formed thoughts of the villagers pushed at her mind, but she shook them away to concentrate on the threat.

So close, the mind whispered, growing more faint despite his closing proximity. So close. Must get to the King.

Finally, the doors opened and Lainien's sharp eyes sought the wide plain beyond. Far in the distance, a lone rider galloped at a fierce and desperate pace, his body slumped forward over his horse's neck. Lainien narrowed her eyes to watch sweat slide across the man's gruff face adorned with a splattering of dried blood.

And suddenly, she understood.

Stowing her blades, Lainien raced the final distance to the gate and, ignoring the cries from the guards, flew through the opening and out into the plains. Her bare feet made not a whisper as she lengthened her strides and increased her pace, allowing herself a brief moment of euphoria as she flew through the dark.

Just meters from the two, Lainien saw the man slowly slipping from his mount, and she lunged. The elf fell to her knees as she caught the man, trying to gently lower him to the ground while searching frantically for a wound.

"...the King," the man rasped, his chest heaving with effort to speak. "Must..."

"Shh," she soothed, clearing away the dribble of blood leaking from his mouth. "Do not speak. Call the images to your mind," she instructed him in a soothing voice. Her fingers found a spot on the man's back that was slick with blood, and she pressed hard, earning a groan from her companion.

"Show me what happened," she pressed, keeping her voice low. The man opened hazy brown eyes blown wide with fear fever, and met her gaze.

Fire. Great billowing smoke rising so thick it stole the breath from the lungs. Screams echoed and horse shrieked, creating a cacophony of fear and death.

Lainien's breath hitched as the images flowed, mirroring some of her worst nightmares.

A harsh, guttural voice sounded to the right – the sound of a grotesque creature leveling a command. Before he could turn, pain erupted along his back, eliciting a scream of pain.

Lainien hunched her shoulders and clenched her jaw, fighting a phantom pain that twinged in sympathy.

He fell, face first into the ground, and lay as still as possible. Not even daring to breath, he willed the beasts to pass by.

I must get away, he thought, I must warn the King.

Lainien closed her eyes as the images continued to flow, showing the man's halting, pained progress through a smoking village, stopping only to free a tethered horse and clamber into the saddle.

Must get the King, his thoughts whispered. Lainien opened her eyes to watch the man in her arms.

"Your name," she asked, keeping her voice soft. "What is your name?"

The man opened his mouth only to cough out more congealed blood. Lainien shook her head, placing her finger against his lips once again. The man blinked at her, confused for a moment. Then –

Calen, he thought, the name coming out like a question rather than an answer. Lainien nodded. Calen of Mering.

Lainien gave the man a small smile. "You did very well, Calen of Mering," she whispered. "Your ancestors would be proud of your bravery and strength."

Calen coughed again, this time a great hacking sound, his face twisted into a grimace. Lainien rested a hand atop his chest.

The sound of heavy hooves and anxious minds brought Lainien's gaze up. Déor and three guards from the palace were making their way to them. The elf turned back to Calen.

The man's coughing fit ceased and he took a great, shuddering breath. Brown eyes found hers, and Lainien saw the glimmer of absolute surety in their depths. He was dying.

With great effort, Calen rested a hand on top of hers and held her gaze. Warn the King, his thoughts whispered. Lainien nodded fiercely. "It will be done," she whispered.

Finally drawing to her side, Déor slid gracefully from his saddle and lowered his great weight onto his knees. His eyes were lidded with grief as he added one large, calloused hand atop the man's chest as Calen took one final breath.

Silence reined in the early morning light, and the two sat for a long moment, the warmth of the rising sun doing little the chase away the chill of death.

"Sir," one of the guards pressed gently. Déor heaved a sigh before moving to his feet. Lainien gently lowered Calen's eyelids before wiping another drip of blood from his lips.

"Here, Lainien," Déor said softly, his head bowed and arms reaching. Carefully, Lainien shifted her burden so that the warrior could place his arms under the man's knees and across his back. With only a slight bend of the knees, Déor lifted Calen from Lainien's arms and turned to march back toward the city.

The elf watched him go, his back stiff and shoulders straight, holding his burden gently.

As the man passed Aragorn, Lainien met his eyes. The youth's mind whirled with a mix of emotion – sorrow, anger, and a tinge of fear. He will be forced to listen now, he projected. Lainien nodded, and Aragorn's eyes hardened. We will make them pay.

-:-

Author's Note: Thanks for waiting so long! I can promise I'm still working on this story, and I won't abandon it! I'm going to be posting shorter chapters in the hopes that I can get them out more frequently. Hang in there with me, please!

1) Vales of Anduin: The large valley of the Anduin, east of the Misty Mountains, was the first real birthplace of the people of Rohan. Marhwini, the son of Marhari (see 2), retreated from their horrific loss of the Battle of the Plains in 1856 to this valley, where his people took in many wayward villagers and soldiers from the surrounding areas, and made a permanent settlement there in the Vales of Anduin. Here, the nomadic horse people became more organized, created a more centralized culture, and created an identity as the Éothéod – the ancestors of Rohan – meaning "horse people." 2) Marhari and Marhwini: Marhari was the leader of the Northmen, a nomadic horse people with ancestry stemming from all the early clans of men. Marhari's ancestry in particular stems from the Kingdom of Rhovanion, of which he was a member of the Noble House. The Rhovanion had been home to a strong culture of men, but a horrible plague in the 1200s wiped up much of their people along with most infrastructures. By the mid 1800s, with the invasions of the Easterlings, the area was mostly nomadic. Marhari was a fierce war general, and road against the Easterlings with King Narmacil II of Gondor in the Battle of the Plains in 1856, where he was killed.

In this story, a young (around 800 years old) Lainien stumbled upon Marhari near the edge of the forests of Mirkwood while he and his men prepared for battle. They were starving, having little knowledge of the particular forest, and with few rations left. Lainien gave them her help, and Marhari gave her a home amongst his people. She road into war at the Battle of the Plains, her first ever battle, and helped Marhwini recover his father's body for a proper burial. She then helped Marhwini settle his people in the Vales of Anduin, providing valuable lessons on marksmanship and survival in the forests.