Disclaimer: Elaria and Skye live purely in my imagination. The rest belongs to the Great Professor Tolkien.
Authoress' Note: It's been about 1 year and 5 months since my last update. That's pretty bad, even considering my track record! This chapter is actually shorter than my previous ones, yet it took the longest to write. It hasn't been betaed either, because I was trying to upload it as soon as possible. Please forgive me for any mistakes! Anyway, onto the story...
Last chapter: An Elf arrived to tell Elaria and Skye they must come to Lothlórien immediately.
Of course, Elaria and Skye couldn't come right that instance. Supplies had to be gathered and escorts had to be decided on. For Gandalf was not going to let them go without the protection of a few capable, trustworthy warriors. Gimli and Legolas seemed the ideal choice, though Aragorn was reluctant to lose two of his closest collaborators in the war effort. Nevertheless, he quickly conceded to allow them leave, and everything was soon in order for an early start the next morning.
Elaria found it hard to sleep that night. She was going to Lothlórien! She didn't know why she was more excited to see this place than any other. Perhaps it was the lure of its ethereal beauty, or maybe it was the fact that only Elves dwelled there. These thoughts ultimately lead to one being, without whom the city and its Golden Wood would cease to be so special. Galadriel, Lady of the Light. She would have all the answers that Gandalf could not give.
The sun hadn't risen yet when someone gently shook Elaria awake. It took her several moments to realise it wasn't Skye bustling around the room, but one of the maids. Elaria wasn't usually a morning person, but the sight of her travelling clothes on her dresser roused her into full alertness.
It seemed like only seconds later she was down by the stables with the rest of the Fellowship and a few others. The atmosphere was buoyant, though subdued. Only Aragorn was grim and silent. Everyone chatted quietly amongst themselves while three horses, fully equipped, were led out in a row. The white horse belonged to the elven messenger from Lórien, while the other two were Gondorian, dark brown and bred for speed. And speed was what they needed at present, for Aragorn expected them to be back within the week.
Elaria shifted closer to Skye and shivered. It was so cold, that even the thick black cloak she had wrapped around her couldn't keep her warm. Her sister was humming a familiar tune under her breath, though she couldn't recall its name at the moment. Her teeth started chattering as Skye moved away. She watched as Legolas helped Skye mount one of the horses and then jump up behind her himself.
Soon, she was seated behind Gimli on the other horse, feeling grateful for his wide frame that was blocking the wind but not for his bushy hair, which was tickling her face. She was a little apprehensive about riding with the dwarf, considering his track record with horses, but he seemed to handle the animal quite well during the short trip to the main gates.
They halted just outside and said their farewells. Aragorn had a resigned expression on his face while Merry and Pippin looked mournful. They would have loved to come along, if only to be with their friends.
"Bye Merrin and Pippy!" Skye said as they started trotting away.
Elaria turned around and saw that the Hobbits were clearly outraged.
"Sorry, my mistake!" Skye called out, grinning cheekily at them
Elaria could hear Skye giggling to herself and felt sorry for Legolas. Not sorry enough to want to trade places with him though. You'd rather swap with Skye, said a sly little voice in her head. She ignored it, though her face felt a little hot for some reason. It's just the cold, she told herself.
They settled into a steady pace, the messenger in the lead, Gimli and Elaria in the middle, and Skye and Legolas bringing up the rear. She quickly finished off her morning meal, courtesy of Gimli, and then dozed until the first rays of sunlight hit her eyes. She opened them and gazed blearily at the rising sun. Funny, how come it was turning black? As her vision cleared, she realised what she was really looking at and gave an involuntary scream.
"Yrch!" cried Legolas from somewhere behind her. (A/N: 'Orcs!')
The white horse whinnied as the Lórien Elf pulled on its reins, guiding it urgently back towards the others.
"Hurry!" he shouted, whipping past and around them. "This way!"
"There is no time!" Legolas cried. "We must fight!"
Gimli was already leaping off the horse with his axe in his hand and Skye was by her side, tugging on her arm, and she was falling, falling... but Legolas was there to catch her. He set her on her feet but there was no time to be embarrassed for he was gone, and the horses were galloping away and Skye was yelling at her to draw her sword and suddenly, the Orcs were among them, and then there was no time to think, no time to do anything, but slash and block and stab with the same two words repeating in her head keep moving keep moving keep moving...
There was pain, but she ignored it, as she battled teeth and spikes and sharp, sharp blades. Strange noises filtered in from all sides, howling and snarling, and all she could see was darkness and where the hell was everyone else? She leapt over the mangled body of an Orc and the smell hit her, the stench of blood and battle. She doubled over, retching. Oh God, Skye always hated it when anyone vomited...
She stood up, feeling dizzy, and automatically ducked as something pointed and heavy flew towards her through the air. Big mistake. She swayed dangerously on the spot, struggling to stay conscious, keep moving, keep moving...
"I've got your back, sis," she heard dimly, as the world finally closed in on her.
"Move over lass, let the Elves tend to her."
"This is most unusual, Legolas, it is like she has never fought before..."
"That is not important. She needs water now."
Elaria let the voices wash over her as she stared upwards, not seeing the figures huddled around her. She sat up slowly, vaguely aware of a hand supporting her back. Somebody held a flask up to her lips and she drank reflexively.
"Elaria?" Legolas said gently, peering into her face intently. "How are you feeling?"
She continued looking past him and did not reply.
"Elaria?" her sister repeated. "Can you hear me?"
She nodded dumbly.
"Are you in pain?" Legolas continued.
"...No," she said after a long pause.
"I have dressed your wounds as best as I can. Luckily, they are shallow," Legolas said, obviously relieved at getting a verbal response. "Rest for now. We will be leaving shortly."
He walked away with the Elvish messenger leaving Gimli to guard the two girls. Skye sat down beside her and wordlessly handed her some food. She ate it automatically.
Soon, Legolas and the other Elf were back, this time with the horses. Legolas helped Elaria to her feet and watched with a worried frown as she swayed slightly.
"Here, Elaria, you will ride with me," he said, guiding her to one of the horses.
They set off again at a quick pace, and though Skye tried repeatedly to talk to her, she remained silent for the rest of the day.
Elaria drifted between sleep and consciousness, lost and confused. Both were filled with dark shapes and horrible cries.
Wake up, Elaria.
She couldn't tell whether the voice came from her dreams or from the outside world.
How do you feel now?
She sensed concern, and though she tried to reassure the voice, nothing came out.
I understand. This is the first time you have fought before.
No, they were mistaken, there had never been a battle, she was still-
This is the first time you have...
"...killed," Legolas said as reality came crashing down all around her.
Great sobs wracked her body, squeezing her chest until her lungs were on fire and she couldn't breathe. She panicked, she was going to die, she was going to die...
"Deep breaths, Elaria!" Legolas commanded.
Elaria struggled to control her panic and gulped at the air like a fish. She breathed in deeply and the pain was so great she wanted to cry again. But she forced herself not to give in and just kept breathing in and out, in and out, until she felt a little better.
"Are you ready to talk now, Elaria?" Legolas asked her gently.
"I think so," she replied, her voice unsteady.
"This experience has shaken you, I know," he said tentatively.
"Yes," she replied, feeling slightly foolish for some reason.
He was silent, waiting for her to continue of her own accord.
"Like you said, this is the first time I have... you know..." she trailed off, not wanting to put it into words.
"It will not be your last either, Elaria," he said more firmly this time.
"That... that scares me," she admitted. "It seems... wrong somehow, unnatural..."
"Why?" he asked her.
She could tell from Legolas' voice that he was genuinely puzzled.
"I, that is, my world, well... only murderers kill," she said.
"You kill in self-defence, Elaria," Legolas pointed out. "A murderer does so in cold blood."
"I know, but it feels like it shouldn't, that it's not normal. Something like this. I'm... I'm scared that I will do it so often, I'll just... get used to it."
"Elaria, taking the lives of others never feels right, no matter how many times one has done it."
"How do you live with that, knowing what you have done?" Elaria asked.
"I live, because the part of me that kills, that takes life, is the same part that values life above all else."
She wasn't entirely sure what Legolas meant by this grave statement. Nevertheless, it brought a little comfort, and she thought perhaps, with time, she could accept this as just a part of life here in this other world.
"Diola lle, Legolas," she said softly. ('Thank you')
"Amin saesa, Elaria," he replied. ('My pleasure')
Elaria leaned back and sighed, then immediately froze. Oh, My, God, she thought. She'd just realised that all this time, for the duration of this entire conversation, she had been sharing the same horse as Legolas. All this time, she had been practically lying in his arms and she hadn't realised.
She sat up straighter and tried not to panic. How do I get off without looking rude or killing myself? She was acutely aware of every single point his legs were touching hers and it was pure agony. He shifted behind her slightly, briefly bringing his chest in contact with her back. Her breath hitched at a sharp spike of mingled pain and pleasure in her chest. Please, she begged internally. Oh please, somebody, stop this torture!
"We will stop here for a quick meal, Elaria," Legolas said soon after, to her immense relief.
Feeing like she would start sobbing with gratitude if she didn't get away, she leapt off the horse and practically flew to her sister's side.
"Skye," she cried, grabbing the astonished girl in a great hug and squeezing tight. "Oh, Skye!"
"Good to see you too, Elaria." Skye awkwardly patted her sister on the back. "A little oxygen would be nice though."
Elaria let go reluctantly. Skye backed away and peered into her sister's face.
"How are you feeling now?" she asked gently.
"I think I'll live..." Elaria replied.
As long as you keep me away from Legolas, she added mentally.
It was just before noon the next day when they entered the Golden Wood of Lórien. After listening to Gimli talk about Galadriel all night long, Elaria was no longer as eager to meet her. In fact, she was distinctly feeling a bit of trepidation. It seemed that Galadriel was more beautiful than kind, though she apparently did not lack compassion. Elaria had gotten the impression that she was distant, like a deity who made direct contact with her followers only in important matters of life and death.
They rode slowly along a path through the forest, sunlight basking them in a warm glow. It seemed to melt like honey over everything, both the trees and the travellers. There was not a single patch of shade to be spotted, aside from their shadows. Elaria felt her spirits lift slightly. The light here was so liquid, it seemed to wash away some of her doubt and sorrow.
It felt like centuries had passed when they finally arrived at the heart of the woods, yet she had not been conscious of the time until that moment. Great mallorn trees rose majestically into the air around them, fitted with staircases winding around their smooth grey trunks. It felt like a cathedral, a hush descending over them, silencing their respectful murmurs.
Elaria gazed upwards at the dwellings blending almost seamlessly into the canopy. Some faces peered back at her, small figures leaning over balconies and out of windows. Elves! she thought. Looking back down, she saw that two were approaching them. And how astonishingly beautiful they were, such perfection she had never seen before that she was suddenly at a loss of what to do or feel, it was all so overwhelming. She shifted uncomfortably in her saddle, unable to cope with her mixed emotions. Not even Legolas had had this effect on her.
Then, the moment passed. Her mind seemed to clear and she was able to look at them directly without feeling such discomfort. Legolas and the Lothlórien rider dismounted from their horses to meet the Elves and it was almost surreal seeing the four gleaming heads of gold bent together.
The rest of the group followed Legolas' lead and got down off their horses too. Two of the Elves came over, including the one who had ridden with them to Lórien, and led their horses away, presumably to the stables. Legolas motioned for Elaria to join him and as she drew closer, her heart started beating a bit quicker. She still wasn't feeling totally in control of herself around him, despite the relaxing ride through the Lórien woods.
"Eldir will take you to the Healer to be treated," Legolas said, indicating the Elf next to him with a nod. "Come join us in the Hall afterwards. We will all be sharing a meal."
Eldir smiled at her and started walking away. Elaria sighed, but followed him dutifully. She glanced behind, but Legolas was already guiding Skye and Gimli in the opposite direction and didn't see her.
It didn't take long for the Healer to attend to the few cuts she had sustained during the battle. They had stopped bleeding by now and would apparently heal in a few hours. Just another remarkable Elvish trait among the many she now possessed.
Eldir was waiting for her outside the Healer's lodge. By the time they arrived at the Hall where everyone was eating, Elaria was starving. He led her over to a table in the centre of the room, where she recognised her sister. She unceremoniously dumped herself next to Skye, eyeing the glorious food laid out before her.
It was awhile before she was able to tear herself away from her plate, and when she finally did, she could only gaze in awe at her surroundings. The Hall was not actually a building as she had first thought it was, but a clearing surrounded by a ring of narrow trees, their thin grey branches and dark green leaves forming a natural canopy over the white birch tables and benches arranged neatly in rows beneath.
A swift nudge in the side from Skye brought her back to reality. She had not really been paying attention to the talk about the feast and ball taking place the next evening, which is why she had missed the fact that an Elf, young as he looked, was chatting her sister up!
"You are a guest of honour, my Lady," the Elf was saying in what he obviously thought were smooth tones, but merely sounded pretentious. "Your beauty and standing dictates that you simply cannot attend without an escort."
"Well then, who will Elaria's escort be then? I cannot leave her all alone," Skye replied, shooting Elaria little pleading looks.
"I already have an escort," Elaria said loftily, the corners of her lips beginning to turn up.
"What?" Skye was clearly aggrieved. "Who?"
"Gimli, of course!" Elaria declared, smiling mischievously.
Skye turned to her sister with a murderous expression on her face.
"You were only supposed to serenade him, not date him!" she hissed through gritted teeth.
"Serenade?" Elaria's grin was threatening to split her face by now.
"Remember the bet?" Skye scowled at her. "How you would serenade Gimli if I was better with a sword and bow and arrow than you?"
"A wager?" They both glanced sharply over at the youthful Elf. "That sounds delightful."
"Yes, well, we have no time for contests, what with balls to attend and all," Elaria said smugly.
"There is still tomorrow morn," he suggested, far too eagerly for Elaria's liking. "Moreover, I am sure we can secure the weapons and a suitable place easily."
By now, they had attracted the attention of some of the other Elves at the table, who professed it a fine idea, and how brave of young Skye to verse an Elf in archery! Even her sister had warmed up to the idea of the contest and was grinning at her in an alarming manner. In the face of all this, Elaria found, to her horror, that she was forced to go through with something she had never intended to be public.
Before she knew it, the meal was over and the contest was all set for the next morning. Her only consolation was that Gimli had not been at the table and so had no idea what she would have to do, should she lose. Not that she was planning to.
The arrogant Elf, who turned out to be Eldir's cousin, herded the two girls off to the weapon storeroom to borrow some equipment and then led them to a practice field. He left, promising Skye he would be supporting her in the contest tomorrow. Elaria glanced sidelong at her sister who was not looking as annoyed as before.
They trained separately on opposite ends of the field, despite Skye's suggestion that they should practice together. Elaria didn't think that would have been very helpful - it would just give Skye a chance to taunt her some more. Particularly since she was still a little weak on her archery.
By the time Skye wandered over an hour later, her arms were aching and she could feel a headache coming on. They returned their gear to the weaponry and managed to find the room they were staying in, after asking several Elves for directions. The room was cosy, with two beds covered in soft downy sheets, and a small oak dresser. Elaria wanted to take a short nap, but found that Galadriel had other plans for the two of them.
There was a knock at the door and when Skye opened it, they found a smiling elvish maiden on the other side. She explained that Galadriel had sent her to prepare them for the ball tomorrow. So they learned the basics of proper Elvish dancing, important phrases they must use and other things which Legolas had not taught Elaria. She supposed he had not expected they would ever attend a ball when a war was coming up.
The Elf left soon after with a promise to return the next day with appropriate dresses for them to wear. Elaria was glad for all she wanted to do was sleep, her headache having gotten worse with all the spinning they had been doing. Even Skye was a little tired and she normally had endless amounts of energy. The sisters climbed into separate beds and bid each other good night, both wondering what tomorrow would bring them.