Halbarad and Elladan left within the hour. Penny was still sitting at her window, and she watched them leave. She could not bring herself to go down and say farewell, knowing that now was not the time for prolonged conversation.
She was utterly numb: in shock, in some ways. For all this time she had tried not to think about it, had literally shoved it out of the way in her mind, tried to not focus on it or bring it to the fore. Yet it had sat there in the back of her head, gnawing away at her.
What could she do?
What on EARTH could she do?
If she told Elrond, even if she told Halbarad, would that stop them? Of course not! He rode to his potential death every day. Every time he faced an orc or troll or wolf, he knew he could die at any second. All she knew, or vaguely remembered, since she could not even be sure, was that he died at the Pelennor. She did not know how or even when exactly: the battle was a long one.
'You will die at this battle, but I can't tell you by what creature, weapon or when precisely it will happen.' How was that of any use to anyone!
It was some time before she began to cry, and when it happened they were hot tears of blind fury and frustration.
There was absolutely nothing she could do about this. Nothing. She was a bystander, a mere watcher as people fell. This was horrific... nightmarish. She thought of this good, kind man, who had done so much for her, had shown her so much friendship and gentlemanly honour even when she was swearing up a storm at him. She thought of his sons...
A gentle knock disturbed her.
"Pen-ii? Are you quite well? No one has seen you for a little while and you were not at lunch, so I thought I should come and check on you. May I come in?"
She wiped her eyes, doing her best to make herself look presentable as she crossed to the door.
"Lady Arwen. Please, come in."
Arwen took one look at her and knew she had been crying. Like her father, she had also sensed something from Penny, which had passed as quickly as it had arrived, when he had spoken of the decision that had been made.
She smiled at her sadly. "I see you are thinking of yet more of what you know. Do you wish to talk? I understand if you do not. Or not yet, at least."
Penny shook her head. "I thank you, Lady Arwen, but no. I not think I talk. Perhaps to your father. I do not know. I... I..." She stopped herself in a sob, but stood for a little moment, struggling to push it all down inside her, to maintain her composure. She continued, "I am well. I thank you. I am well."
Arwen nodded, realising full well Penny was trying to put a brave face on something, but knowing that she had to respect her decision. She wondered what it might be, and if it was any worse or more extraordinary than Balrogs or Mithrandir's death and return.
"Very well, Pen-ii. Should I leave you to your thoughts? Or can I perhaps distract you for a while?" Penny had only caught some of what she said and was a little confused, so Arwen explained, "Shall I leave you alone? Or will you come with me? I hear you have nearly finished your weaving. Will you show me?"
"Yes, Lady Arwen. Please." Penny was glad to have a diversion, though she dreaded to think what Arwen would make of her fairly scrappy attempt at a rag rug.
Arwen did her best to keep Penny busy over the next day or two. Mireth and Eleniel did the same, indeed had been doing so ever since the Fellowship had left. Now that the weather was warming a little, though not by much, there was plenty of digging and sowing to be done in the gardens, which kept Penny very busy indeed. She threw herself into such work with abandon since several hours, if not an entire afternoon, could be lost in such a way.
The nights were the worst. When she was alone in the darkness, with nothing to distract her, she had a hard time not thinking about it and worrying about what, if anything, she could do.
The third night after Halbarad had left, Penny was lying in bed, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling once more till she could bear it no longer. There seemed little point in even trying to sleep. She got up, pulling on one of the heavier dresses she had and then wrapping her shawl about her. She quietly crept along the corridors and down staircases till she reached one of the many little doors that led out into the night. She lit a lantern and headed off into the dark.
She walked slowly, not really heeding where she was going, and not really minding to go anywhere in particular. She just needed some way of filling the hours, perhaps making herself tired enough that she could sleep in spite of herself. It was cold, admittedly, but she just hugged her shawl a bit tighter around herself and headed on under the trees.
At last she came to the spot she and Halbarad had been to on many an occasion: a clearing with a central fountain covered with a gazebo affair of a roof on four tall, slender pillars. She sat on one of the benches there, resting her lamp on the seat beside her, and stared into the night sky above her.
"Why?" she was muttering to herself. "Why... why is this happening to me? How can I just sit still and let this happen?" There was a long silence before she whispered, "But what can I do about it?"
She heard and sensed a movement behind her and spun round on her seat with a gasp. Lord Elrond stepped forward with his hand held up to her by way of an apology.
"Forgive me, Pen-ii. I did not mean to startle you. I saw you walking with a lantern, and wondered what you were up to so late. It is late for you to be walking at night. Very late. You can not sleep?"
She shook her head.
"May I join you?"
"Yes. Please, Lord Elrond."
She was suddenly aware that they had never really sat and talked alone together.
He came to sit beside her on her bench and said nothing for quite some time. The two simply stared up at the stars shining bright above them, the still night air enveloping them both.
At last Elrond stirred a little. "Your candle is burning low, Pen-ii. I think you should return inside. It is too cold for you to be sitting here."
She understood enough to be able to nod and thank him and agree he was perhaps right.
"Pen-ii..." Elrond hesitated. "Pen-ii, you should talk to me. I know Mithrandir told you to do so. I understand why you waited to tell me of his fall, but do not forget I am here, Pen-ii."
He turned to her slightly, and by the glow of her lantern she could see his face clearly enough to tell how kindly he was looking at her. His eyes were full of concern, his brow furrowed gently as he looked at her. He softly placed a hand on her shoulder as he continued, "You carry a great burden. Your knowledge is difficult for you. I understand this. Truly I do. I know there is something about the decision we made that is hard for you. I feel it. Can you talk to me of it? Or not yet?"
Penny understood him, could feel the tears pricking her eyes. "No, Lord Elrond. Forgive me. I have not decided if I talk or if I not talk."
He nodded. "Very good, Pen-ii." He glanced at her, and she could tell that he was studying her, as if assessing whether she was making the right decision, as if wondering how burdened she was. "I will not press you on this," he murmured. "Now go, please. Go into the warm. Go and sleep, Pen- ii."
She thanked him as he walked with her back to the halls and then left her at the foot of the stairs that led up to her bedchamber.
There was something about his demeanour with her that night that meant that, two days later, she made her decision. It was clear to Erestor she was barely concentrating in her Sindarin lesson that morning and he was mildly irritated with her.
"Pen-ii, what is the matter with you? I have explained this three times now; you are barely listening to me!"
She murmured her apologies, furrowed her brow in concentration and tried to give him her full attention.
As soon as her lesson was over and she had taken her books and papers to her room, she made her way back downstairs to Elrond's study. She hesitated a moment, steadying herself, before she knocked tentatively on the door.
"Come in," said the low musical voice from within.
Elrond looked up from his desk as she entered and could not help his eyebrows rising a little in surprise to see her.
"Pen-ii? You wished to see me?"
She nodded. "Are you busy? I want to talk. A little. If now is not good, then later."
"No, no, now is good." Elrond smiled a little to hear himself using her own idiomatic fractured Sindarin. "Now is very good. Do, come in and sit." Indicating one of the more comfortable chairs beside the fireplace, he crossed over to join her.
"Do you wish Erestor or Arwen to be here also? To talk to them as well?"
Penny shook her head vigorously. "No, I thank you. No. Only you. Please."
Elrond nodded. "Very good, Pen-ii." He looked at her for a moment, his face serious but his eyes kind. "Well, what did you want to tell me?"
Penny did not really know where to begin. She stared at her hands for a while, trying to think of what to say and how to say it. Elrond watched her patiently, realising this was hard for her, and letting her come to it in her own time.
At last she looked up at him, her eyes bright with tears. Her voice was thick as she tried not to break down completely. "Halbarad. You must not let Halbarad ride south with the Dúnedain."
Elrond looked at her with a little surprise and concern. "Why?" was all he said, though he guessed rightly enough.
"Please, Lord Elrond. You cannot allow him to ride. Please." A tear rolled down her cheek.
Elrond shifted forward in his seat and took one of her hands in his. "Pen- ii. Will he die?"
Her entire body stiffened. She nodded slowly, struggling to not collapse into a weeping heap.
"Pen-ii, do you know how? When? Where?"
She realised the futility of her request of him, and knew Elrond was about to point it out to her. "There were be a great battle. He will fall. I do not know how. I do not know when exactly. I know... he will fall." She could not bring herself to say 'die.'
"Pen-ii," Elrond began, his voice as gentle as a summer breeze, and the warmth and understanding in it were near enough in themselves to make her weep, "what would you have me do? Or say? I cannot stop Halbarad. Even were you able to tell me the details, he would not let me. His friend, one who is like a brother to him, is in need. Aragorn needs help. Halbarad cannot stand by and do nothing, nor will he, nor would I ask him to."
He was not sure how much of what he was saying she was understanding, but he was trying to keep his Sindarin as simple as possible for her. "Pen-ii, you have to understand. Do you think if he knew he would not ride? No, he would ride south whether he knew or not. He is a soldier, Pen-ii. One used to fighting and battles. He faces death all the time. He is not afraid."
Penny was understanding enough of what he said, and could easily fill in any gaps, since this was all the same argument she had told herself often over the past few days. It was all things that Mithrandir himself had said to her.
There was a silence as they looked at each other: the elf-lord with the wisdom of millennia in his eyes, and the weeping human woman utterly lost and bereft of hope.
Elrond's voice came quiet as he asked, "Pen-ii, does Sauron fall?"
She stared at him wide-eyed. He could not be asking her that. He could not!
Elrond insisted gently, "Pen-ii, does Sauron fall? This story you know, this book you have read, I presume has survived, lasted all that time, for a reason. I only hope and pray it was because it was worth the telling. I hope you know our story because it was a good story, a big story: the story of the fall of Sauron." He hesitated. "Do you understand what I am saying to you?"
She nodded. She did. And she knew where he was going with this as well. Her tears fell all the faster.
"Pen-ii, does he fall? Does Sauron fall?"
She looked into his deep grey eyes and knew. She knew he knew: that he had guessed or perhaps had already sensed it. Whether from her or something else she could not know.
"Yes," she whispered, her voice barely audible.
Elrond's eyes closed for the briefest of moments and he took a breath. Then he nodded slightly, his face filled with sadness as he looked at her once more. "Then, Pen-ii, I cannot change what has been decided. You know that. You should not ask me to do so. I..." and Penny saw his eyes were wet with tears of his own now. "I have know Halbarad since he was a child. I have known many men, and women, who lie in the cold earth now. We elves have to learn to live with your mortality. You die. We do not. This is the way of it. But, Pen-ii," his voice became more urgent now, and he brought his other hand to clasp hers now as well, "nothing is more important than the fall of Sauron. I know that Halbarad would say the same were he here and even if you told him what you know. Do you understand me?"
She nodded, the tears streaming down her face. "Yes, I understand. I did understand. It is why I decided not to talk. Then it was too big, too hard for me. Halbarad is my friend. He is very kind." She was frustrated by not knowing enough Sindarin to be able to truly express what he meant to her, how much this was hurting her. "I do not have the language to say," she faltered.
Elrond lifted a hand to her cheek. "I know," he whispered. "I understand, Pen-ii. Believe me, I understand."
She broke then, sobbing uncontrollably, and Elrond held her till the weeping passed. She felt very foolish and was very apologetic for having lost it so completely in front of him like that but Elrond was very kind and understanding. He even produced a handkerchief from somewhere for her.
"There is little I can say to comfort you, Pen-ii. Do not think I am not greatly saddened and troubled by what you have told me. But there is nothing we can do, nor should we do anything even were we able to. Go. Go and keep yourself busy."
They were standing in front of the open door of his study now, and he held out his hand for hers. He looked her in the eye and said, "Stay strong, Pen-ii. You must. Talk to me, also, whenever you wish to. I am always here. You may come and see me, any time of night or day, you understand?"
She nodded, having got the gist of it. She looked at him. "Lord Elrond. I not know if I should talk what Aragorn do, the eight. If I talk before Dúnedain ride south. Do I talk to you now or after?"
She had given up trying to make sense of this, trying to eke out the information given little by little. Halbarad's imminent departure was too overwhelming for her to see any coherent way through this now or how she should behave with the information she had.
Elrond studied her for a moment. "What did Mithrandir tell you to do?"
"He said when I had the language, the Sindarin, to talk to you."
"Well, you have the language now, do you not? Or enough of it, at least?"
She paused, looking at him for a moment before nodding slowly.
Elrond stood back, spreading his arm into the room in a gesture to invite her to step away from the door while he closed it once more.
"Then, come and talk to me, Pen-ii. If that is what Mithrandir told you to do, we must trust in his wisdom. Come back in and sit and tell me what you know."
So the entire morning till lunch was spent with Penny relating as best she could what the Fellowship went through as they travelled down the Anduin. As she spoke of Boromir she wept once more and Elrond then finally understood her behaviour with him. She did not tell Elrond that Boromir tried to take the Ring, and Elrond sensed she was keeping something from him at that point, but did not press her. Penny was not sure why she did so. She felt... it would be dishonourable in some way to tarnish Boromir's name. He was such a good and noble man. Elrond would no doubt find out from Aragorn, but right now there was no need for him to know. So she kept the details of Amon Hen sketchy, talking of the attack of the Uruk-hai and nothing else.
After an hour there was a knock on Elrond's door. He went to see who it was, and there was a murmured conversation, though with whom Penny could not hear or see. After a few moments Elrond returned to her and bade her continue.
The bell for lunch had rung some while before she finished. The fall of Isengard, the Ents' decision, as well as the great victory at Helm's Deep had near moved Elrond to tears. He still could not get over how much she knew, how detailed it all was.
"You will stop there?" he was now asking.
She nodded. "Then Aragorn find the Dúnedain and your sons. I will stop now. Tell more after they ride south."
Elrond nodded. "Where do they meet? Where should I tell them to look for him?"
Penny looked at him, not sure if this was a question she should answer. "Talk with Halbarad and your sons. Tell me what they say, what you decide. If wrong I tell."
Elrond nodded. "Very well. Now, Pen-ii, we must eat. We are late for lunch." He motioned her to the door.
Penny felt much better than she had done in a long while. It had helped to get it out, even if not all the tale was told. Elrond had been most understanding, listening quietly and kindly, murmuring at some of the more surprising parts of the tale, beaming at Aragorn's heroism or the feats of kuduk in persuading the Ents. His cheeks had been wet with her news of Boromir's fall.
"A noble man," he had muttered. "A great loss for Gondor."
As Elrond opened the door for her and ushered her through, Penny gasped. In the corridor were four Dúnedain, one of them with his back to her, though she could guess who it was immediately. Glorfindel and Elrohir were also with them. All showed signs of long travel still and were leaning up against the painted walls, chattering and muttering quietly, clearly waiting for Elrond to finish whatever it was that was more important than their news.
They fell quiet as they saw her and Halbarad turned, his expression changing from one of surprise to see it was her who had kept them waiting for well over an hour in the corridor to delight at seeing her once again and guessing what she had been doing with Elrond all this time.
"Pen-ii, I am pleased to see you," he beamed.
"Well met, Halbarad. Well met, my lords."
Nods and murmurs from the assembled company. The reek of unwashed bodies was near overpowering. She tried not to wrinkle her nose but Halbarad saw her and laughed.
"I believe we are offensively smelly, my lords," he smirked. "Forgive us, Pen-ii, for not washing first." There were chuckles around him.
"Indeed you are," said Elrond. "Why did you not go to lunch? This could have waited till after you had eaten, surely?"
"We were not sure how long you would be, Adar," said Elrohir. "You weren't terribly specific when I spoke to you, so we thought it best to wait."
"Well, is there anything I need to know urgently, or can we discuss it as we go to eat something?"
Elrond was already walking down the corridor, his son now at his side and explaining whom had been contacted, where word had been taken, who was expected to meet them at Imladris, and who was congregating further south.
Penny, immediately forgotten, ambled along behind them unable to help but gawk slightly at the tall, powerful figures walking ahead of her.
Halbarad hung back a little and fell into step alongside her. "So you have told him? Spoken to him?"
She nodded, immediately feeling uncomfortable as she was reminded of her primary purpose in going to Elrond that morning.
"Good. I am glad, Pen-ii."
He did not press her further. Something on the expressions of both Penny and Elrond as they had come out of his study had been enough to tell him that she had related much, and much that was serious.
That Elrond had kept them waiting in the corridor while she spoke to him spoke volumes.
Already a few Dúnedain had come to Imladris over the last day or two. They were heartily greeted by Halbarad and his companions, and were all introduced to Penny. It was pleasant to be surrounded by human company, somehow, and to finally meet more Rangers face to face. Penny could not stop beaming through most of lunch.
At supper there were yet more seated at the tables, and Elladan had also returned. By the following day a steady stream of Dúnedain were arriving in ones and twos throughout the day.
After lunch she was summoned to Elrond's study once more. His sons were with him, as well as Halbarad, Erestor and Glorfindel. Only those who knew of her and her situation, she noted.
Elrond did not beat about the bush, but got straight to the point. "Pen- ii, they will head south to the Gap of Rohan. They will make their way to Edoras in the hope they might find Aragorn there. I have told them nothing of what you told me, I hasten to add - other than the main events leading up to Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and Mithrandir being in Rohan in the first place. Can you help us further?"
He repeated himself more simply to make it clear to Penny what he was asking.
She moved forward, seeing they had a map spread out on the table. "Did you speak of the battle? Of Isengard?"
"No. Not yet."
The others were looking from one to the other, intrigued at what she had said but knowing better than to interrupt Elrond or insist he tell them anything.
"Should they be going through the Gap of Rohan? It is the only way with horses, and to get to Rohan with speed," Elrond was saying.
She nodded. She pointed on the map. "Look for Aragorn here." She drew a circle with her finger just south of Isengard.
She glanced at Halbarad, and saw he was looking at her keenly, a soft smile on his lips and a knowing expression on his face.
"Do not ask more, Halbarad. Maybe even this too much."
He nodded. "I understand, Pen-ii."
And that was that.
Penny had had little time to think about it all. In a strange way, speaking to Elrond had helped quite considerably. She had seen the depth of emotion he had shown in learning her news, and yet he was able to carry on, to deal with Halbarad quite normally. Above all else, she did not want to give Halbarad any reason for suspecting something was wrong. That alone was enough to make her keep going, to push it away from her and try to not think about what lay ahead.
She felt like a pressure cooker about to explode, but she would not allow herself to, or at least not before he left.
She let her thoughts drift back over her time here, the mad situation she was in. So much had changed. She had changed. She was not the same girl she was. She would never be the same. Even if she woke up tomorrow back in her little London flat, she would not be the same Penny Baker she had been.
The night before they left, she was sitting with Halbarad, Elrond and his sons and daughter in a small antechamber. Glorfindel and several other Dúnedain were there also. Penny took the opportunity of some lengthy discussion being held between Elladan and his father to lean towards Halbarad a bit.
He looked at her.
"Tomorrow, when you leave..." She was hesitant, unsure of quite what to say.
He smiled sadly. "I am off to war, Pen-ii. It will be dangerous, difficult."
She nodded, feeling her throat constrict a little.
Halbarad took her hand in his. "Pen-ii, come, I want to talk to you." He stood and led her out of the antechamber and down a few corridors till they were alone. The only light was the flickering torches in the walls.
"Pen-ii, you have to realise I may never see you again," he said quietly. "Perhaps some of the men you have met in the last few days will not return. Do you understand me?"
She nodded. She was keeping her gaze firmly on the floor, desperately trying not to break down.
"I want you to promise me you will stay strong, Pen-ii. That you will carry on what you have learnt here: learning Sindarin, horse-riding, the many skills. You have changed so much, Pen-ii. It pleases me to see it."
She smiled a little and whispered a thank you.
"Pen-ii, I know you know something of who may die in this. It may be you know what my fate is."
Oh God. Her heart was in her throat as she guessed his meaning. Her entire body stiffened in spite of herself and it took all her strength of will to not burst into tears or throw herself into his arms.
"But know this, Pen-ii. I would ride south even if I knew with certainty I would die. So would Elladan and Elrohir. So would all those who ride with us. We are needed. Even with our help, the numbers we will have will be small compared to those of Mordor. It may be we will not win, but we cannot do nothing. It would be shameful and terribly wrong to not try and fight this evil: unthinkable. I know you have not known war, and I know you are not used to men being soldiers and warriors. This is our way of life, so I felt I needed to talk to you a little, to help explain."
She was catching most of it, could guess the rest.
"Pen-ii, do not fear. I know what I face. We all know. If it is death, then so be it. But I would rather die in battle, fighting a great evil, than sit here doing nothing, knowing my friend, my brother, is in need: that he asked for me and I did not go to him. Can you understand this? I know it is hard for the women when they wait at home. Too often I have seen their grief when their men do not return – their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons. We are friends, Pen-ii, and it will be difficult for you if I do not come back. I know this. If that happens, know I would not have changed my going, but that also does not mean I do not care what happens to you."
She had silent tears on her cheeks and he pulled her to him to embrace her. They stayed like that for several minutes. Penny's eyes were wide open as she stared ahead into the dark corridor, her heart breaking and yet unable to say a word to him.
What could she say?
At last he stood back from her a little and looked down at her, a gentle smile on his face.
"I understand, Halbarad," was all she could find to say. "May Elbereth protect you. May Eru guide you all in this."
He nodded, his smile widening a little. "I thank you, Pen-ii."
The next morning they were to leave early. Penny was there, watching the horses as they snorted and champed their bits. Halbarad was astride his stallion already when Arwen came out of the Halls, bearing a furled banner. Halbarad nodded as he took it from her, murmuring a few words to her.
As they all readied themselves and turned their horses to face towards the gates, Halbarad urged his steed towards where Penny was standing. He reached down his hand for hers.
She took it, her eyes filled with tears, and her throat too tight to speak.
He said nothing, just held her gaze for a few moments, and smiled slowly. Then he squeezed her hand and murmured, "Navaer," before turning his horse to join the others.
Penny had not noticed that Elrond had moved to stand beside her, and Arwen on her other side. She also did not notice the glance that was shared between them, as if Elrond had imparted to his daughter what Penny had told him.
As Penny watch them leave, her vision blurring with her tears, her throat so tight it was hurting her, she felt Elrond take her hand in his and squeeze it slightly.
As Halbarad reached the gate, leading the Dúnedain riding with him, he glanced behind him and raised his hand to them, smiling as he did so. Penny managed to force a smile through her tears and raised her hand in reply, though her grip on Elrond's hand tightened at the same time.
She stood there, frozen, her hand in the air and the tears running down her face as she watched him disappear from sight.
She faced the long wait of war ahead of her and then would have to try to make a life for herself, here in Middle-earth for as long as she stayed. But at this moment Halbarad of the Dúnedain was riding south, and Penny knew she would never see him again.
I would like to thank, once again, every one who has read this as well as those who have reviewed and shown such support for this fic.
In particular I would like to thank my betas - bodldops and Mumstheword - as well as my 'canon beta' NL. Without you I would have been sunk. BIG hugs for you all.
Thanks also to those others who have spotted mistakes and helped with corrections – in particular Lippy, Hellga & NancyBrooke.
There WILL be a sequel continuing Penny's tale from the end of the War onwards. It is likely to be called "Okay, NOW Panic". My thanks to everyone who helped me choose the title – that one was the overwhelming favourite ('Mostly Harmless' and 'Stop The World, I Wanna Get Off' being close seconds).
Till next time...
Boz4PM is signing off. (watch this space) grin