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"Perhaps you should consider entering the Guard next year. Give yourself more time," I said, watching my brother.
"Why bother?" he replied, a bit winded.
"Well, at least it might get you and Ada to talk again. I haven't seen you two speak since the other night."
"We've spoken to one another," Onduras grumbled.
"Briefly," Ana piped in.
Onduras sighed, pushing himself up from the ground. Our sister sat casually on his back, her chin in her palm as Onduras lowered the two of them again. He'd done nearly a hundred push-ups already…I was winded just watching him.
"I'm not that interested in talking to him at the moment," Onduras snapped. "I had three days until testing and he wouldn't even help me."
"Well, you did go behind his back by signing the parchment," Ana replied.
"Ana, just be quiet for once, will you?"
Ana and I exchanged a look as our brother continued with his exercises. Ana rolled her eyes at me, but I sighed. I didn't like my brother and father not speaking, and I thought the whole situation was ridiculous. They were both being hardheaded.
"What if you don't pass the tests tomorrow?" I asked then.
"I have to pass eight out of the ten events, Nethin. I think I'll be fine."
"Don't be arrogant about it," I warned.
"Nethin!" Onduras shoved himself up, flinging Ana off his back. She tumbled into the wardrobe and he only glared at her. "Both of you need to get ahold of yourselves. You're worrying more than anyone about this."
Ana rubbed the back of her head as she sat up. "We're only worrying because we love you, Onduras."
"Well back off, would you?" He glared at me. "Both of you." Swiping a towel from a chair, he got up and stomped out of the room. With a slam of the front door, he was gone.
"Ay." I smacked my forehead with my palm. "I thought Elves his age didn't have temper tantrums."
Ana got up only to plop onto the bed beside me. "You know his temper," she grumbled. "He's just like Ada."
I snorted, shaking my head.
"Ashk, you don't sound well."
I swallowed on a dry and aching throat. Looking through watering eyes, I spotted Erestal, the very healer I'd seen all my years in the city, and waved a hand at him while getting the last of the coughs out of my chest.
"Just a chill," I told him hoarsely as he walked to me, standing on the balcony over the training arenas.
He placed a hand on my shoulder. "You should come to see me. I will give you something to rid those coughs."
I smiled at him, idly thumping a hand on my chest. "Thank you. Perhaps I will."
Erestal smiled at me, squeezing my shoulder once before turning and walking away.
"He's right. You should go to him."
My brother-in-law Rumil joined me in Erestal's place. I gave him a smile. "I'm fine. Have you seen Haldir?"
Rumil gave a snort. "Oh, I've seen him. I still bare the scars from that brief encounter."
I grimaced. "He's still in a mood?"
"That's being gentle."
Sighing, I crossed my arms and looked out over the arenas. My eyes searched for my husband – I hadn't seen him all day – and I still couldn't find him. I shook my head. "Onduras's decision upset him more than I thought it would."
Rumil leaned on the railing in front of us. "It shouldn't. He was his age when he joined the Guard."
"Did your parents fight him on the decision?"
A distant smile pulled at Rumil's lips. "I wasn't even a thought when that happened, Ashk. But from what I've heard, Ama did fight him over it…Briefly. Ada never said anything…Though, Orophin thinks he was bothered by it." He turned his head and looked at me. "A parent is expected to be troubled by their child going to battle and war."
"Don't I know it," I murmured, my eyes lifting to the trees above us. A breeze passed and the setting sun's swirling colors shimmered beyond the branches. "I don't know what to do, Rumil."
"There's nothing you can do, Ashk," he said, stepping closer to me. "Your son is as hardheaded as his father. Anything you say will simply roll off his back…and weigh him down tomorrow during the first day of trials. They will be brutal."
I bit my lip and looked at Rumil. "Will he pass the trials?"
He smiled. "I expect your boy to break long-standing records, my dear."
Again, my home's dinner table was silent. It had been three nights of this. Though poor Nethin tried to start conversation, it was often a futile attempt. The tension between my eldest and I was unmistakable.
Perhaps I was overreacting…But it was a parent's duty. I wanted Onduras to join the Guard in his family's tradition, but not so soon. He was still young. He was too young, and I knew that first-hand.
Didn't he understand that I only wanted to protect him?
My eyes lifted and meet Ashk's across the table. She wasn't exactly happy with me lately either. Family disputes were not in her nature, and from her past I certainly didn't hold that against her.
She looked down at her plate, stirring at the food there.
"Ada – What would you do if I joined the Guard?"
I choked on my drink, my eyes shooting to my daughter. "What?"
Ana looked at me innocently. "Would you disapprove?"
"Disapprove is an understatement, Ana."
"But wouldn't you help me?" she asked, her blue eyes staring at me as her brothers looked at her curiously. "You wouldn't want me to fail…or be hurt, would you?"
I sighed heavily. "Of course not."
"Then you'd help me?"
I looked at Ashk as if asking for her help as my children cornered me with their stares. But, my wife said nothing. She simply sat and stared at me with them.
I growled out a breath. "Yes, I'd help you, Ana. The trials are brutal."
Onduras straightened in his chair and looked away, but Ana leaned on the table. "Then why won't you help Onduras?"
"We're not discussing this at the table," I said, warning my daughter.
"Why not?" Ashk said. I absolutely hated it when she did that, and she knew it. She knew I'd bring it up later, when we were alone.
"Why would you help me, and not Onduras?" Ana continued, her voice rising.
"Ana!" My voice boomed over the room. "Do not raise your voice to me."
My daughter's eyes hit the table in front of her. "I just want to know what's happening, Ada. I don't want you and Onduras to be upset with one another."
The sincerity of her voice felt like a hot blade stinging me. I hated this. I didn't want to cause all of this. They just didn't understand. Not even Ashk could understand. And it wasn't just about the terrors of battle that I worried about…There was a difference between the person they knew as Ada and the person I was when I was March Warden. There was a part of me that feared what my child – my eldest son – would think of me after seeing that side I'd hidden for so long.
After a long pause, I looked calmly at my daughter. "I don't mean to say I would help you over your brother. I would simply prepare you, to as much of an extent as I have prepared your brother all these years. You would not pass the trials without my help, Onduras will."
The room fell into a still silence and my son stared at me, his mouth a little agape.
"…You honestly think I'm ready?" Onduras asked quietly.
"If I thought you weren't, I would have taken your name off the list. I would never have you fail if I could help it. I'm your father, Onduras, not your enemy. I want what's best for you…and sometimes we don't always agree on what's best for you, I know. But I hope in time, you will understand."
Nothing but silence hung in the room.
"Yes, Onduras…To answer your question, I do think you're ready."
I saw Ashk smile and some of the bitterness in my son's eyes faded.
"Thank you, Adar."
I didn't have anything to say in return. I could only wonder if he'd be thanking me after the first day of training, when he met the other side of his father.
"Well, this is great," Onduras grumbled as he, Nethin, and I walked through the rain of the early morning. I did my best to keep the hem of my dress out of the mud, but it was useless.
"I think it's a beautiful day," Nethin replied, lifting his face to the clouds. I rolled my eyes.
"It's the human in you," Onduras said, smiling slyly at his own joke.
Of course, to Nethin it was no joking matter. Over the last year or two we'd all noticed that he lacked in some areas where Onduras and I prospered. It was in purely Elvish fashions; archery, balance, stamina. He was more like our mother's race than our father's. It was peculiar, but not something that was really mentioned a lot with our family.
However, when Nethin said nothing to Onduras's joke and kept walking in silence, I shot a glare at my twin and smacked his arm.
Onduras made a face at me before grabbing our younger brother around the shoulders. "I'm just toying with you, Nethin."
Surprised at my younger brother's cold, taut response, I fell a step behind the two.
Before Onduras could say anything further, we had reached the training grounds. Through the curtain of rain, I could see the dozens of young and old Elves lining up and shouting back and forth to each other.
Onduras walked past us and approached Ferevildir.
"Good morning, Haldirion."
"Good morning, Warden Fevervildir."
Ferevildir smiled and allowed Onduras past him into the grounds while Nethin and I stayed behind.
For a split moment, I spotted Uncle Rumil calling out names. Eagerly, hopeful cadets darted toward him only to drop to the ground and start pushing ruthlessly.
"C'mon. We can go to the balcony." Nethin turned and began walking away and, after a moment, I followed him.
The rain had begun to subside as the last of the volunteers arrived. I stood high above the grounds on an observing Talan formed solely for myself and the Lady and Lord.
"You have an exceptionally large number of volunteers this year." Lady Galadriel's voice did not surprise me as she silently joined me.
"Your people are devoted to protecting your lands, milady."
Galadriel smiled slowly and Celeborn soon joined us as well.
"I see your son is among them," Galadriel continued.
I didn't want to acknowledge her comment. But, I couldn't ignore neither the Lady of the Light nor the situation.
"Yes, despite my prior reservations."
My eyes slid among the Elves below us only to find my child immediately. He was standing perfectly in line with a dozen others. He stood out distinctly with his dark hair and wiry frame.
"If you will excuse me," I said then, bowing to my Lady and Lord before walking away toward the stairs.
The mud of the earth swelled around my boots as I came to the bottom. Immediately, Orophin was at my side in silence and as I walked, each officer called for attention on the grounds. Soon, only the sound of the rain remained in the air.
The presence of command was something I was taught well. It came from more than a voice or a trusty vat of respect…It was a presence that entitled every eye to be on the commander. It was a way of standing, walking, or looking that forced anyone around to pay attention.
Strict attention, I noted, as I spotted a young Elf wiping the mud from his hands rather than remain perfectly still.
I approached him, leaving Orophin behind.
The moment my shadow cast over the lad, he froze.
"When you are called to attention of a superior officer, you do not move, speak, or look away from him." My voice did not rise. In fact, I was rather quiet.
"Y-yes, March Warden," the younger Elf replied, his hands glued to his thighs as he stood straight.
"Start running laps around the grounds," I told him.
He looked me in the eye, shocked before quickly looking away. "How many laps, my Lord?"
"Until I tell you to stop."
After a brief moment, he bowed and stepped back until he could turn away. Immediately, he began running and I returned to Orophin, walking on through the inspection. No one moved from that point on.
I honestly never expected this. The training grounds were brutal. No Galadhrim - most of whom I'd known since my childhood – allowed any of us to rest for more than a moment. We were constantly being ordered around, hollered at, or doing needless amounts of physical training.
At the moment, I was forced to remain an inch above the forest floor, waiting for the command "Up". Warden Rumil – my blasted uncle – took his time in inspecting all of us each time before saying "Up".
My arms were beginning to shake and I clenched my jaw. I'd be damned if I was the next cadet they'd humiliate.
The last cadet who had fallen from his stance above the ground had a rude awakening by my uncle. The very same uncle I had considered a very kind and joyous Elf my entire life.
"UP!" Uncle Rumil shouted and with a groan, I shoved myself up on my toes. The mud slid back from my feet and I nearly collapsed. Luckily, my stagger was ignored in favor of a cadet who had fallen. The Wardens swarmed on him, ordering him up, out of the mud and sent him to run laps with the others.
My eyes rose to the balconies reserved only for families of the Wardens. My entire family was there. Ana was staring at me intently as if urging me on in silence. Ama was looking away. She had never allowed me to view the training before, and now I knew why. She hated it as much I did right then.
What had I gotten myself into?
Nethin was chatting with Litia, Uncle Orophin's wife. Both of them were as unconcerned with this ridiculous situation as they could possibly be. Did they not realize we had been pushing for over an hour?
As Rumil barked orders yet again, the Wardens walked through us looking for any imperfection. I spotted my father nearby with Orophin as his shadow. His arms were crossed as he looked down at each of the Elves at his feet. I'd never seen my father so cruel looking.
I looked away, glaring at the ground in front of my nose.
The booming voice of my father shocked me. But, this was a drill that we'd done six times already today.
With a curse, I shoved myself up and ran toward the firing range. Each of us were provided with bows and arrows and a hand guard at the beginning of the day. But, as I snatched my bow and arrows, I couldn't find the hand guard.
I looked briefly before I heard my father counting down. We were to be in position by the time he finished, and anyone who wasn't…
Leaving the lost and fairly useless guard behind, I bolted for my position. I'd never used a hand guard before. I would be fine without it now.
As we began firing, the Wardens shouted mantras and orders. Our quivers were replenished and we were ordered to continue firing.
When a solid half an hour had passed, almost half of the cadets had been plucked from their places. They had either paused, missed their targets, or complained.
An older Elf and I remained out of our squad. We moved in perfect rhythm and I found his presence somewhat soothing as my bare hand began to wear under the constant pull and release of the taut string.
I focused on him while staring at my targets. Nearly all of them were fully used…But not quite.
"Where is your hand guard?" the older Elf whispered, firing effortlessly.
"I don't need it. I've been in archery for years."
He said nothing as we continued to fire and more cadets were set aside, failed at this task.
My father was nearby me. I could feel his eyes watching me, critiquing my stance and aim the way he always had. I had to think of him as my father…Thinking of him as this insufferable Warden was unbearable.
More time and arrows passed. The pain in my hand increased and my aim began to falter.
"Stop," the Elf in my squad said.
I ignored him.
"Lad, stop before you hurt yourself."
"I'm fine," I hissed back, yanking on the bowstring and letting it release again.
As more minutes passed, the string began to saw into my fingers. Blisters had formed and were breaking. I felt the string dig through my flesh and draw blood. With each release, crimson red stained it and sprinkled into the air.
My last arrow was notched and I yanked back, grinding my teeth as the string rubbed into the bone of my fingers.
I released only to feel it rip out of my hand and open the raw wounds deeper.
I cursed. Loudly. So loudly that my voice echoed in the forest as I dropped my bow and clutched my hand.
"Stop!" a Warden shouted. Others echoed him. The remaining few Elves halted and stood at attention. Those who were sitting to the side, defeated, stared on in interest.
I forced myself to attention, my entire arm throbbing.
Suddenly, my father stood before me. His eyes darted to my hand where I could feel the blood dripping.
"Where is your hand guard?"
I swallowed. "I was unable to locate it before your designated count-down, March Warden."
He said nothing and simply stared at me. I waited to see some bit of concern in his eyes. I waited for something familiar of my father there before me in the rain as I bled, but there was nothing. He was solely the March Warden I had been warned of time and again.
"You will be escorted to the healers and retire for the remainder of the day."
Fire swelled in his eyes, daring me to continue just so he could burn me. I bit my tongue and looked straight ahead. "Yes, March Warden."
He motioned aside and an enlisted Galadhrim darted to him. He didn't say anything. Instead, he just turned away and left me. The Galadhrim gave me a sympathetic look and motioned for me to follow him.
With one last look at my father, the March Warden, I followed the other Elf.
As I cut the vegetables for dinner, I looked through the window to see the balcony. Onduras was still standing out there by himself. He hadn't said much when he'd returned from the healers. His hand was bandaged, and despite my questions, he remained aloof.
Putting aside the tedious domestic task, I left the kitchen and walked outside.
Onduras glanced at me over his shoulder.
"You know, you were never very good at talking about what bothered you. Ever since you were this big," I put my hand down past my hip, remembering when that tall, handsome young Ellon was a small, innocent child with a giggle that made me smile for days.
He said nothing, and I walked to his side. "Onduras, brooding about today will do you no good for tomorrow."
Silence hung in the air a moment before he turned to me, giving me a look only a child could give his mother. "I failed today, Ama."
The quiet stroke of his voice almost made me flinch. He sounded so heartbroken.
I shook my head. "Why do you say that?"
"I was excused from the field, Ama. It is a dismissal. From the March Warden, no less. I heard others talking about it."
Perhaps it was the immediate snap in my voice that made him frown slightly, but soon it passed.
"It doesn't matter."
He was about to turn away when I placed a hand on his arm. "Honey, you didn't fail. I've seen those trials before. You surpassed your company and your squad…No matter when you were dismissed, you are accepted into the tests tomorrow."
He stared at me, obviously unsure of what to think.
"Have you been studying for the tests?"
In that one question, I accepted what he had done. I accepted that my baby wanted to fight and defend…To test death almost every day of his life. I didn't need to tell him I approved or disapproved. I didn't need to coach him or encourage him. Not my Onduras. He understood when, in that question, we both went back to days when he was studying herbs and animals, not weapons or brigade structure.
That was so long ago…
"Well? Have you?"
He smiled. "Not today, Ama."
"Then I think you should probably get started before dinner. Bring your things to the table. I'll help you."
The flet was silent when I came home. It was near the middle of the night. I had only finished with critiques and reports minutes ago and had nearly run home.
I half expected Ashk to wait up for me. I wanted to speak with her…But the flet was silent, holding my sleeping family.
I walked down the hall. And, as I had not done in years, I slowly opened the door of each of my children's rooms.
Nethin was sleeping, half dangling off his bed. I smiled at him. He had an unfinished painting rested near the window – open as usual. I walked in to close it, locking out the chilly breeze of the night. My son stirred, throwing himself deeper into his pillows.
Across the hall, Ana slept peacefully behind the shear curtain around her bed. Moss dutifully lay beside her, curled around her arm. I stared at my daughter, noticing the beauty in her face – so like her mother – and the soft glow that surrounded her in the night. It wasn't so long ago that she was a toddler; a bundle of energy with bouncing curls and a squealing laugh.
Again, I crossed the hall and entered my eldest's room. Onduras still kept his bed directly under the window in his room. And, as I had so often found him as a child, he was leaned on the cushioned sill of it. But, unlike the boy he once was – the boy who stared out into the night imagining great adventures and quests – he was surrounded with study papers and books of the Galadhrim.
I glanced at his wrapped hand. The healer assured me it would be fully healed by morning. It was a minor injury, but an injury none-the-less. And it would be the first of many in his years of service to our Lady and our city and to me, the March Warden.
I frowned at the thought, stepping out of the room and closing his door. I didn't want to think anymore today. I just wanted to stop feeling the anxiety rolling through me, strangling my every moment.
Ashk stretched as I opened the door to our bedroom. Pulling the heavy blankets closer to her, she rolled over; her hand reaching out to my empty side of the bed. I heard her sigh – heard the disappointment as her hand hit nothing but cold sheets. Her eyes opened, staring at my empty pillow and I didn't miss the sadness there.
For years, I had known the nights I left her alone in our bed had taken their toll on her. And they had taken their toll on me. I was often separated from my young family; called to the duty I'd pledged myself to so long ago.
Onduras didn't understand how his decision would affect the rest of his long life. He didn't know the sacrifices he would have to make, and the sacrifices he would have to ask others to make. When he had a family of his own, he would be forced to leave them just as I was forced to. And it would hurt him, just as it hurts me.
And, like any parent, I don't want to see him hurt…I dread it, knowing it will come. He will lose friends and lovers alike because of his devotion to the Guard. Beyond battle and the horrors on the fields, there is so much more he doesn't know will happen. So many more scars he will bare.
I close my eyes, forcing my thoughts to stop. I can't think any more. It just bothers me so that I can't protect him…
"Haldir. What are you doing?" Concern laced her voice, now sitting up in bed and staring at me. "Are you all right?"
I smiled warily at her, finally walking out of the doorway. The bed dipped under me as I sat down on the edge.
I didn't have to say anything. With Ashk, I never had to say anything. She knew. She always knew – even when no one else in the world could understand me, she did. And I was grateful for that.
"Oh, honey…" She reached for my face, her soft hand resting against my jaw and cheek. I leaned into her warm touch, savoring it. "Come here," she murmured, pulling me close to her as she laid back. I rested my aching head on her chest, listening to her heart beat. The steady melody of it calmed me.
"Our babies are growing up."
I barely heard her through the first drifts of sleep. I pulled myself further onto the bed; cloak, boots and all. "I hate it," I murmured.
"I know you do, darling…But we've done good in raising them. I'm sure we have nothing to worry about."
Nothing to worry about except the rest of the world…
"Let's not talk now," I muttered.
Her hand slid down my face. "Go to sleep then, Husband. Tomorrow will be a better day." She laid her cheek on the top of my head. "I love you."
"I love you."
And I did.
- - -
Again, the next update should be within the week. Thank you all so much for your support!!