Adáriel breathed a sigh of relief, and dismounted. She was safe.
Placing a hand on Giliath's strong neck to steady him, she turned and looked expectantly out into the dark, waiting for her adversary to appear; she was kept waiting for no more than a few moments.
A form melted from the forest, and Adáriel felt her eyes widen a little, but then she couldn't help it. The male Elf approaching her, she found, was very attractive: his hair, stained dark by the night, was a light, silvery blonde, and fell down over his wide shoulders - the shoulders of an intensely trained archer. He wore Elven garb: a tunic of shadow grey material, and hose of a slightly darker shade, that looked fairly heavy-duty and substantial, in the study of which Adáriel decided he must be a warden or patrol guard of some sort, who spent much of his time out in the open, enduring all weathers; a job which would require resilient clothing. He wore also a cloak of the same material, though it was woven with silver thread, giving it an iridescent sheen in the frosty moonlight. His sleeves were that of his under-tunic, which was black, a colour akin to that of his boots which trod softly over the snow-laid ground.
An Elven long-sword hung from the belt around his waist, and a bow was still grasped in his moon-paled hand as he walked towards Adáriel.
'Yes' She thought. 'He is very handsome...'
Yet it was then, and only then, that Adáriel noticed the long arrow shaft protruding from his shoulder, and from that moment on, she wondered how she could have been so blind as to not have seen it before.
"I hit you!" She exclaimed, more in self-surprise than to him.
Haldir looked down his nose at the she-Elf.
'Quick witted.' He observed with silent cynicism.
"What is your business," He asked aloud. "To travel so near our borders?"
Adáriel looked at him.
'Borders?' She puzzled.
"My business is not with you." She answered him evenly. "And I mean not to travel near any borders but those of Lothlórien."
Despite herself, Adáriel blushed under the other Elf's searching gaze.
"Then you journey is over." He answered finally.
"No - Lothlórien is at least a *league's ride North of here."
The male Elf - she didn't know quite how he did it - seemed to intensify his gaze, without actually changing anything in his features or his eyes. His expression also remained quite unreadable.
"What are you navigating by?" He asked. It was a simple, passive enough question - not accusing in any way - but for whatever reason, Adáriel suddenly felt incredibly stupid.
"A map." She replied, trying to keep her tone sounding as reasonable as possible, despite her ambiguous embarrassment.
Haldir chose to ignore the humiliation that was evident in the she-Elf's beautiful fa...in the she-Elf's face, and shift the subject.
"This is the realm of the Lady of Light." He informed her coolly. "But whatever your business, be it with her, or anyone else, I cannot allow you to continue on your own way in."
Adáriel had been expecting him to say something of this sort along the course of the conversation. She nodded, absently mindedly caressing Giliath's smooth hide with her fingertips.
Then it suddenly surfaced in her mind that all this time, the other Elf had been standing talking to her with her arrow sticking out of his shoulder, with no apparent consciousness to the injury. And she found the whole concept incredibly amusing.
Haldir noticed a sudden light appear in the she-Elf's eyes, and that, on close inspection, the corners of her mouth were twitching. He wasn't quite sure whether to ignore her mirth, or whether to question it, as he would have done of one of his guard.
"How long will it be before you have that treated?" The she-Elf asked, her dark eyes, no less full of amusement, flickering to the arrow shaft in indication.
"Not long." He replied in his drawling, unconcerned tone. Inside, however, he was puzzled. Normally, he was entirely sure of how he felt and how he appeared to feel to others, but now, for some reason, that usual self-assurance was completely thrown by her question.
'Do I look like I'm in pain?' He wondered. 'Is it that obvious to someone who doesn't even know me?'
Then he felt the age-old anger flare in his stomach.
'Why do I care? Why does it matter to me what she thinks? It doesn't. I am unknown to her, and that is how it should, and will stay.'
"Who are you?"
No matter how much Haldir denied it afterwards, there was something deep inside him that was pleasantly disturbed by the soft sound of her voice.
"Haldir." He answered. "I am March Warden of the Lothlórien Guard."
Unbidden, the she-Elf replied with a disarming smile that made Haldir's heart give such a jump that he nearly started in surprise.
"I am Adáriel of Mirkwood." Then, as an afterthought, she added with indoctrinated bitterness: "Southern Mirkwood."
Something in Haldir's mind sneered at her words.
'A Mirkwood Elf.' It scoffed. 'Inferior to the Galadhrim, then.'
The March Warden couldn't help but feel disgusted at his own thoughts. Aside from the fact that she did things to his head that most confused and angered him, Haldir banished the degrading voice from his mind, and vowed never to listen to it again. But he didn't regret. It wasn't in his nature to regret.
"Come." He said quite suddenly, turning from Adáriel and starting back towards the trees. "You will follow me."
Adáriel cocked a sleek eyebrow after the March Warden.
"Will I now?" She murmured.
It had started snowing again when they reached the flet. Silver-light lanterns hung above them in the branches, making it look as though the smooth girths of the trees were coated with frost.
Haldir gave a trilling whistle, and suddenly, a rope ladder with slender rungs unfurled down the trunk. Standing back, yet still wearing an unreadable expression, Haldir gave a barely perceptible nod to indicate that Adáriel should go up first.
Adáriel took a deep breath, and then went lightly up the ladder. At the top, another male Elf also with blonde hair (but green eyes) offered out his hand to help her onto the flet. Adáriel gave him a smile of thanks and taking his hand, stepped up and off the ladder.
Soft footfalls behind her a few moments later told Adáriel that Haldir had reached the talan, and she turned to face him.
"Will I be required to stay here long?" She asked in a businesslike tone.
Haldir's face remained ever the mask it had been.
"That remains to be seen." He answered, before leaving her standing on her own as he walked over to converse with his fellow guard.
Adáriel felt a slight pang of anger as he abandoned her there, and with a heavy sigh she went and seated herself with her back against a thick limb of the tree.
"I hope to Valar I will not be kept here long," She muttered. "Lest something unpleasant should occur to the March Warden." And following this, Adáriel proceeded to amuse herself with visions of Haldir falling from the edge of the flet.
"Have some sense, Haldir and have a cleric take that thing out!" Thalion whispered to Haldir quietly, indicating to the arrow in the March Warden's shoulder as they stood in the shadows, talking in their soft tongues.
Haldir simply fixed Thalion's pine-spray eyes with his own piercing blue ones in response, until his comrade was forced to look away.
"Should I go to Caras Galadhon, and inform the Lord and Lady?" Thalion asked, keeping his eyes averted.
"The Lady will already have knowledge of Her passing our borders." Haldir answered in his usual drawl, referring to Adáriel with indifference.
Thalion nodded, all the while feeling more than a little frustrated. He knew asking Haldir why he had brought the she-Elf to the guard post would merely bring him the lashes of a sharp tongue and an arrogant glare, so he kept his mouth shut, choosing instead to silently tighten his grip on his bow shaft until his knuckles turned white.
"I will keep guard." Haldir informed his comrade, looking out to the North East. "Watch the she-Elf. Closely."
"I am fairly certain that She has a name." Thalion growled, unable to contain his frustration at Haldir's arrogance any longer. "Or did She not introduce herself to you, March Warden?"
Haldir shot Thalion an icy glare.
"Watch her." He repeated, before sweeping away into the deeper shadows.
Thalion let out a heavy breath between his clenched teeth, and rapped the butt of his bow shaft on the flet in anger, sending a sharp 'clap' echoing out through the branches.
From where she sat, Adáriel looked up at the noise, and saw the green-eyed Elf standing a little way away, staring furiously ahead of him.
"Are you trying to set the leaves aflame with your glare, Tura Vä?" She asked quietly.
The green-eyed Elf turned his head to look at her, and his features melted into a smile.
"No indeed, my Lady." He replied. "It is the March Warden that sets my temper aflame."
Adáriel's laughter warmed the night air like peels of candlelight.
"May I ask your name?" She inquired.
"Thalion, Arwenamin, of the Lothlórien Guard." Said the green-eyed Elf. "And yours?"
"Adáriel of Southern Mirkwood."
"You have travelled far." Thalion noted respectfully. "May I ask your business?"
"To see Lothlórien. With the permission of the Lord and Lady of the Wood." She added hastily. "I have heard it described in many songs and stories back in our Lady's halls, and they sparked a burning curiosity and will to travel here and walk beneath the gilt boughs." Then she looked Thalion directly in the eye. "A very strong will."
"That, it seems, you have." Thalion chuckled.
At that moment, Haldir swept back into the halo of silver lantern light, melting from the shadows.
"She wishes to see you." He said, his tone apathetic.
Adáriel didn't need to ask who Haldir was referring to - it was perfectly obvious, and she felt a sudden onset of nerves in her stomach. She was finally about to face the Lady of Light.
"In the morning." Haldir continued, replacing Adáriel's butterflies with mixed relief and disappointment. "We will go on to Caras Galadhon at dawn."
Adáriel nodded and then began to examine the cloth of her skirts, as it was obvious that the conversation had now ended.
Thalion turned to Haldir.
"So is She a servant of the Enemy?" He asked the March Warden, a hint of sarcasm in his voice. Haldir looked at him with characteristic coolness.
"She is not." He replied, unflustered.
"Then may I be relieved of the duty of watching her as though She is about to grow fangs and start screaming in the Black Speech?"
Haldir gave Thalion one of his piercing, expressionless stares.
"You have a sharp tongue." He said quietly. "It is only a grief to me that your sense of duty does not remain as such."
Thalion felt his heart errupt outrage in his chest, and he opened his mouth to blast Haldir with a verbal attack, but the March Warden cut straight across him.
"Loosen your watch on Her, and turn your eyes instead to our borders - that is where the threat of the Enemy lies tonight." Then he paused, and leaned in closer to Thalion. "But for Valar's sake, do not let Her off this flet!"
"Yes Captain." Thalion answered, his tone so bitter it was barely above a sulky hiss.
Regardless of the manner of his reply, Haldir gave Thalion a controlled incline of his head, and turning away, faded back into the shadows to the deeper recesses of the flet.
It had been a very long night. Adáriel had not found much rest, having surfaced from her open-eyed sleep many times only to find it was still dark and that the stars were still very much awake. After about the fifth lapse, she had given up, and simply lain there thinking, consciously trying not to wait for sleep, in the vague hopes that it would just come.
Her mind covered a lot of thinking ground through the hours, but she found it slightly annoying that it didn't take long for her thoughts to drift onto the March Warden amid other trains of thought, their veering not detectable at all until they were already on the subject.
As she had done with her fitful sleeping, Adáriel attempted several times to push Haldir from her head, but eventually, and most definitely against her will, she resignedly and grudgingly gave up the fight. Or had it been against her will...
Adáriel didn't know why, or what, but there was definitely something slightly attractive she found about the March Warden. He was handsome, but it wasn't that - not just a physical pull...intelligence, perhaps? It was obvious that he was very intellectual, but something in Adáriel always felt doubtful whenever she landed on that answer. Attitude? Adáriel's cynicism was so overpowering, she had to give a quiet laugh - ridiculous! What on earth was attractive about his attitude? But the longer she thought about it, the more her opinion on the possibility became open. Perhaps there was a certain appeal to his cold, aloof attitude, she pondered, but whatever it was, it was a very obscure appeal.
Across the flet, Haldir stood well-hidden in the shadows, watching the She-elf.
'Beautiful.' He mused thoughfully. 'Admitted, yes. But then all the Elven maidens in Lothlorien - indeed, in Middle-Earth - are beautiful; that does not make her anything special. Intelligence she has, but that is nothing exceptional. But her attitude...' Haldir's mouth twitched into a smirk. 'She could teach a mule stubborn. Her hair colour, maybe...' Had Haldir been more mindful of his actions, he probably would have been horrified with himself at the leisurely length of time he spent inspecting Adáriel's long, deep auburn hair. 'Her hair colour is rare amongst us...Yes, she is beautiful, but a highly decorated bow will often shoot no better than a plain one - there is nothing so exceptional about her.'
And then, from the depths of his mind, a little voice rose up, strangely familiar:
'If there is nothing so exceptional about her, then why are you spending so much time devoting your thoughts to her? You think that she is beautiful - you have admitted as such, and you even honour her presence in your mind with a smile. She is more than just a travelling stranger to you...'
And in that second, it came to Haldir, with avenging horror, that the voice was right - he was smiling!
"She is nothing more to me than a travelling stranger." He hissed angrily to the shadows, the smile turning to a dark scowl, his eyes still fixed on the She-elf. "Why would she mean anything more? I do not even know her name!"
'Oh, but you do.' The voice insisted. 'It's...'
"Adáriel. I know!" Haldir growled. And then his eyes widened at the realisation of what he had just said.