I am SO sorry I disappeared for so long. I was distracted and afraid I might write myself into a corner. I might still. We shall see. Enjoy!
Chapter 16: Helpless
The sky was beginning to darken when Silraen awoke. Her arm was sore, but so was every part of her body that had hit the rocks as she fell. She reached back and traced a lump that had formed on the back of her head, an ugly wince pinching her face. She was confused, could not remember what had happened, until she looked down at her broken arm where it was lashed to her body in a sturdy splint. She rolled her head and saw Orophin leaning on a rock nearby. In the time she had been out he had fashioned himself a new crutch that was at his side. He would be back on his feet soon, blessed with the fast healing of their kind. But, for now, he showed no desire to roam. He was turning her bow over in his hands, his boredom palpable.
"You can have it," Silraen groaned, "I can't do a thing with it until my arm heals."
Orophin blinked quickly and turned to her. "How do you feel?"
Silraen tried to sit but found that her stomach turned and the canyon walls around her had begun to spin. She managed to prop herself up on one elbow but didn't get any further. "Not good."
Orophin hobbled over and dropped to the ground. He cupped one rough hand like a visor over her eyes and watched her pupils. "You hit your head pretty hard, my friend. I think you're going to be feeling it for a while."
Silraen sighed, squeezing her eyes shut, "I believe that."
Orophin let the silence sit for half a beat before he said, "I'm going to ask you about something, ask you now while you're a little too delirious to side-step the question. Do you know where we are? Can you still find the valley you are looking for?"
Silraen half sat up again, pushing back her hair with her fingers. She pressed the heel of her hand against her eye in brooding discomfort, "Why the sudden doubt?"
Orophin held up his hands, "No doubt. I'm sure you wander better without a plan that most of us could with a map...I just want to know. If something were to happen to you..."
Silraen hesitated for a long time before she said, "It's turning out to be harder than I thought. But, I still think I can find it. I know where I mean for us to go. I see it, the path in. Every time I close my eyes."
Orophin waited for her to elaborate. He held his body very still, trying to hide his impatience. He wondered if she enjoyed the power she wielded with the keeping of this secret. As he opened his mouth to prod her further, Silraen cut him off.
"It is very far into the mountains where no one goes. There is only one way path in and only I know how to find it. It is by a flat rock and three tall pines. That's all I can say, I can't explain it any better."
Orophin watched as Silraen eased up further, crossing her legs. She set her hand in her lap, studying her upturned palm. She reached up and gripped the bear amulet around her neck, the one her father had bought for her in the south, "I went to that valley with my mother and father and my brother. I really thought we might stay in one place. I looked around me and I thought it really could be a home for us. That was all I really wanted. It wasn't until I met your brother so many years later that I got another chance at that dream."
Orophin felt a frown, felt a sad smile twitch at the corner of his lips but fought both expressions with determination.
"It wasn't long before my father said he meant to leave the walls and go for a hunt. We had everything we needed in that valley. But, he was restless. He was a fool, the same kind of fool I turned into. I confronted him that day, I knew what was in his heart. I told him I did not want to be uprooted anymore, I cursed at him for showing me the dream of a home only to take it away again. I was tired of wandering to satisfy his selfishness. I was angry and I let him go and hunt alone. He was attacked by wargs in the wilds."
Silraen let a bitter smile wash over her face, but her eyes were flat and cold as she looked up at Orophin, "Who was selfish in the end, hmm? Was it me or was it my father? Or were we the same?"
"Silraen, you can't—"
"No," she said, "No, don't do that. I don't need the platitudes today. He was just barely alive when I found him, tore up and bleeding. Next to that flat rock under those three pines. He was meant to die there because it was the threshold he would have crossed to his next adventure, had he made it that far. I guess he did. I guess he really was off to his next adventure."
The thick air between them pressed in on Orophin as he carefully weighed what he should say next. But, again, Silraen saved him the trouble. She nodded thoughtfully, her gaze still tethered to the past. "That valley is exactly what we need. I'm sure of it. I'm meant to find it again."
Orophin matched her nod. He still could not find the words to say to her, because there were none. So, instead, he just let his eyes fill with the sympathy and care that he could not form into speech.
Silraen glanced up and held his eyes for an instant. She tried again to rise and Orophin protested, "We should let you rest a little longer…"
"No, we've lingered too long already. We need to move."
The sound of rocks clattering down the rough canyon trail was so faint they might have missed it. But, Orophin ducked down without thought, urging Silraen back down and shielding her.
"I knew there was something down here. I could feel it—" Silraen hissed.
"Wait here. Do not move." Orophin drew away, retrieved a crutch and started down the trail. Silraen tried to find calm, tried to sit up, tried to see what approached them. Then she heard an unexpected sound…laughter.
"You are going to be in big trouble with your mother. Maybe I can hide you in my pack and she'll never know you came down here."
Silraen sat up fully and saw Orophin and Taurnan on the trail before her, matching smiles on their faces. Taurnan rushed to her, arms flailing with the untamed gait of a little boy. Silraen gathered him to her with one arm for a moment and then set him away, meeting his eyes.
"Tell me where you are supposed to be."
Taurnan hung his head, "Up there with grandmother."
"What is your grandmother going to do when she can't find you?"
"Worry herself half to death."
Silraen almost smiled at how well-trained Taurnan was but bit back the expression.
"You need to promise me you will never run off ever again and you will never disobey me or your grandmother like this again. Being naughty can get you killed out here, do you understand?"
"Look at my face and tell me that you understand."
"I understand Mama, I was just bored and wanted to have adventures and—"
"No more. Not another word. All I have to show for my adventures is this," Silraen jerked her splinted arm skyward and grunted at a spike of pain. "We are going back to camp right now."
Orophin stepped closer. "I don't know if you're ready to—"
Silraen shot Orophin a look that made the rest of that sentence shrivel in his throat. "March."
Orophin laid down in his drag without a moment's argument. Silraen pointed to the horse's back and Taurnan scrambled onto the animal as if the ground were stinging his feet. Silraen took the reins and began to lead the three errant males up the canyon wall.
Silraen looked at the narrow line of sky above, trying to gauge the time. It was deceptive, the depth of the crevasse obscured the slanting light. Bats were beginning to dive over the surface of the river after the gleaming insects that hovered there. The deepening shadows drew Silraen's stomach into a knot. It was too late, they shouldn't attempt an ascent now…
The climb was difficult and Silraen had never felt more grateful for the horse. He was steady and warm as she pressed a hand against his neck and paused for what felt like one of one hundred breaks. Most of the switchbacks were too narrow to get the horse and the drag around the corner, and after much frustration and arguing, Orophin spent most of the ascent limping along with her. They were a sight. Dusk was falling as Silraen looked up and could see the last stretch of the trail above her, faintly hear the voices of their friends. Those voices soothed her and she thought she might float to the canyon edge. Orophin peeked around the pile of provisions and his nephew on the horse and watched Silraen. She was swaying, pivoting from where her feet seemed rooted below her. Her eyes regained their focus as she suddenly seemed to remember where she was, gripping the horse's neck and leaning against it. Orophin looked down into the jagged rocks far below them and said, "All right, that is enough of that. You are about to fall again." He limped to her, grunting like a tired mule. "Sit. On the trail. Now."
"We're almost there…"
"Sit. I am going up there to get help and you are going to be carried the rest of the way."
"I should be the one getting help so you can be carried..." Orophin didn't stick around to hear the rest of that predictable sentence. He started up the trail, at times bracing himself with his hands and going on all fours for the last push to the top. He kept glancing down at Silraen to ensure she did not try to follow him. It was in one such moment, as their eyes held that they both heard it. Halnorel's scream.
The canyon acted as an amplifier, repeating the horrible noise of screaming children and orcish calls, weaving the sounds around Orophin and Silraen like a net of echoes. Orophin found himself unarmed, frozen for one moment before he half ran half fell back to Silraen. "Stay," he grunted, looking up for a second to Taurnan, who clutched the horse's mane, "Just stay." He was reaching for her bow, his sword, wrenching the strap of a quiver over his head. Silraen was trying to stand, frantically rasping, "I can't shoot…I can't use my sword. I…"
He looked down at her, his green eyes hard. They lost their edge for one moment as he pulled the dagger from his belt and pressed it into her hand. He looked down at the dagger, their joined hands, then back into her eyes. "Stay here. We need you to guide us, you must stay safe. Please. Please don't move." His eyes were searching, imploring her to obey. Before he could sense her answer, he bolted over the rocks and to the battle.
Silraen was choking on her impotent frustration, fighting back tears as she reached up with one arm and gathered Taurnan to her. A limp body flew from the sky above her, a flash of gray cloak, fletched arrows and blond hair, then blood as it bounced down the rocks before Silraen. She pressed Taurnan's face into her neck so he would not see but she could not bring herself to look away. There was nothing more unnatural than the glimmer of an elven life being extinguished, stolen, swallowed up by a chasm of rock and violence.
Taurnan was shaking and Silraen thought that surely his life was too new, he was too young to have seen the things he had seen. The feeling that it was all unfair, all wrong assaulted her again. She shuffled on her knees to the side of the trail, to a cleft in the rocks that was the perfect size for her son. His whimpering grew more insistent as she tried to set him there.
"Orophin said to stay. Please don't leave me here. Please."
A deeper wince, gritting of her teeth but Silraen was able to force out, "I'm just going to see if I can help. You will be strong and wait right here until I come back. Here," Silraen reached up and drew the old copper amulet from around her neck. She held it out and Taurnan took it in his small hands, studying it with reverence. For a moment, he was distracted from his fear. "Do you see the stone at the bear's heart? It gives the bear his strength. You have strength in your heart, Taurnan, just like this bear." She tapped a finger against his thin chest, "Right here. Now, stay, be quiet and wait for me." Taurnan gave her a tearful nod, his glistening eyes serious. As she turned away, without thought, she said, "I love you, Taurnan," and saw him pulling the cord of the amulet over his fine hair and around his neck.
As Silraen reached the last moment of protection from the canyon wall, she heard rough shuffling steps above her as an orc stumbled and fell toward her. It spun over the edge with two of her own arrows deep in its neck. She sidestepped and it tumbled behind her. She scrambled behind some boulders, finding others shielding themselves there. Silraen took one quick glance around the rock and could see Orophin, the other injured warriors, and whoever else had had the presence of mind to take up arms finishing off the last of the orcs. Their enemies were beginning to scatter, and the warriors were struggling to pick them off as they spread in all directions. The battle was thankfully at its end. Silraen leaned back against the rock, panting in relief, and closed her eyes.
Her eyes snapped open again as she felt a hand on her forearm. Linaya was there, looking at her with concern. "You are injured, Silraen."
"I'm all right, I just took a fall. Is it clear out there, do we have wounded?"
She saw her mother-in-law and many others emerging from where they had hidden among the rocks. She ran to them and wrapped her good arm around her girls. Orophin was close at her heels, helping his mother to her feet as best he could. "I didn't get them all," Orophin said quietly to Silraen, "Some of them ran. It was chaos."
"Those that escaped could tell others. We need to move. Do we have wounded? We need to get them patched up and mobile fast."
Silraen and Orophin set to checking on their group, relieved to find few injured. But, most were stealing glances at the canyon edge, thinking of what had been lost there, unsure what to do next. "I don't know if we have time to get the body," Silraen whispered to Orophin, looking up at him with uncertainty deep in her eyes.
"It depends on..." Orophin swallowed hard, "It depends on how far she fell."
Silraen nodded, drawing in a slow breath, "Taurnan is still down there waiting with the horse. I'll go down, send him back up, take the horse down and get the body. You keep them going away from the river, I'll catch up."
"No, it would be better if I take care of all of that, then I'll find you. You lead them on. I can catch up."
"Orophin, no, I'll go into the canyon and you can..."
Orophin stood fully, a head taller than Silraen, and closed his eyes for a moment as he fought for calm. With a voice that was deliberate, patient, he said, "We've been having the same argument across a forest, a plain and now a mountain range. You have to let me get back on my feet and you have to trust me."
Silraen let out a sharp sigh, her irritation evident. Why did he have to make her feel so foolish and irrational when she was just trying to do what was best for him? But, a part of her softened and she realized he was right. She had to quit trying to do it all alone, she needed to trust. "Go." she said with a shrug of feigned indifference, lifting an arm and waving it vaguely toward the canyon, "Go on."
The group was shaken and nearing panic. It was clear many had not completely recovered their center since the attack on the city and this latest incident had set them back to that place of fear and apprehension. Silraen threw herself into reassuring and bandaging and packing for quite some time when she finally felt a hand grip her shoulder. She turned and saw Orophin beside her, breathless, his eyes wild. "I thought you were bringing Taurnan up."
"Silraen, he's gone. I can't find him anywhere. I don't know if he ran...or if he was taken."
The words echoed to Silraen from a faraway place, from the lip of the well her soul was toppling into. She turned away, away from Orophin's gaze of fear and shame, away from up uplifted eyes of her daughter and the accusing eyes of Haldir that watched her only from her imagination. Her boy, taken? Her boy that she had left alone.
Silraen shook her head sharply, trying to chase from her mind the terrible images of her boy afraid, hurt, helpless. All anyone saw was one last flash of yellow hair as she disappeared from their view, on the trail of her son.