Haleth adjusted her pack. The right strap had worked itself loose and dug into her shoulder blade. She meant to fix it; but whenever they stopped, there had always been something more pressing that demanded her attention. This would not have been a difficulty if Inglor had been in less of a rush.
She glanced surreptitiously at her companion. The Elf strode beside her, as beautiful and tireless as ever, the light that shone from his hair and skin fading with the approaching dawn. She couldn't help but wonder why a High Elf of the royal household had chosen to traipse around Middle-earth with a mortal woman. It was a question that had bothered her for years, and one she refused to ask for fear that he would demand similar information from her.
Her foot glanced off a stone, the impact barely cushioned by the worn leather of her boots. Hissing in pain, she shifted her attention to where she was going. The road wound like a silver ribbon through the forest of the western coast; a wide, clear border on either side. Haleth wondered who kept it clear now that Círdan and the folk of Lindon had sailed to the Blessed Realm.
'The sun will rise soon,' said Haleth as she glanced over her shoulder at the fading stars in the eastern sky and adjusted her pack again.
'It will,' Inglor agreed in the same, calm, even tone of voice he used from everything from commenting upon the weather to announcing the arrival of a troop of orcs.
'Shall we stop for a while?' she asked. They had walked from Rhûn to the eastern borders of Lindon, barely pausing for more than a day to replenish their supplies. There had been several occasions when Haleth had thought to stop or turn aside. In spite of her intentions, she had never been able to part company with Inglor.
'There is not much further to go,' said Inglor, smiling a faint smile that was probably meant to be encouraging.
'True, but the feet of mortals are not as tireless as those of the Elves," said Haleth.
Inglor stopped so abruptly that Haleth nearly stumbled into him. He studied her with an air of deep concentration.
'Are you tired?' he finally asked. He sounded as though he could not quite bring himself to believe it.
Haleth was torn. Her pride insisted she deny the accusation and march onwards to the Grey Havens, but her body demanded rest. For once, she let her body take precedence. 'As a matter of fact, yes, I am,' she said with wounded dignity.
Inglor continued his examination until she grew uncomfortable and began to fidget.
'You have never complained of this before,' he said.
'No,' she said sullenly.
'Why are you tired?' he asked.
'Inglor!' she burst out indignantly, 'I'm mortal. I'm getting old.'
'Old?' he echoed as though he had never heard the concept of the word before, much less the word itself.
'Yes, old,' she snapped. 'Old and…what do you Elves say?…weary.'
He stared at her with complete incomprehension.
Haleth threw her hands in the air in frustration.
'Inglor, don't tell me you don't understand what happens to mortals. I know you have seen it. We age. Our skin wrinkles, our hair turns grey…' She pretended not to notice when his gaze flicked to the corners of her temples. In the rare, brief glimpses she had gotten of herself in mirrors, Haleth had noticed the strands of iron grey in her hair. She tried to ignore it, but just knowing it was there bothered her. Inglor's silent reminder of her advancing years pierced her already wounded pride and she continued in a harsh voice. '…Our backs bend and we die.'
'Your back is not bent,' he said.
Haleth's jaw worked soundlessly. 'I suppose this means I have wrinkles, too,' she thought bitterly. There was no point in asking. Inglor's answer was bound to be honest which was certain to further irritate her.
'We also tire more quickly when we age,' she said.
To her unending shock, Inglor resumed walking. If anything, his pace was faster than it had been before they had stopped.
'Inglor! What are you doing? I said I was tired,' she called. 'Fine!' she shouted to his retreating back. 'You just carry on. I'm going to stop here and rest.'
Without waiting to see his reaction, she stamped to the side of the road and threw herself onto the soft earth. He could march all the way to the Grey Havens for all she cared. In fact, this would be the perfect time to make good on the promise she had made to herself half a year ago. Once she had rested, instead of following Inglor, she would turn around and walk back to the Shire…well, maybe not the Shire. The Hobbits did not seem overly fond of strangers. But she could go to Bree; there were humans there. Except she was known in Bree, and her reputation was not the best. While that could be overcome in a larger city, it would be far more difficult to change the minds of the Breefolk. Rivendell was unwelcoming. Perhaps she would walk right back to Lake Town; Berengil would give her a place to stay.
Her angry thoughts were interrupted by Inglor's return. He loomed over her, the soft gleam that accompanied him at night fading in the light of dawn.
'Are you well?' he asked calmly.
'Yes,' she sighed in exasperation. 'Inglor, I'm just tired. We've been walking all night. I must rest.'
'Very well,' he said. 'I shall gather wood for a fire.'
'That shouldn't be necessary,' she said, standing to wrap her cloak around her. 'I only need a few hours of sleep. I know you're in a hurry.'
'Are you not cold?' he asked solicitously.
'No,' she lied as she stretched out on the ground. There was dew on the grass and it immediately soaked through her tattered cloak. 'Why do you ask?' she wondered.
He inhaled audibly and seemed to be weighing his words with care while Haleth silently fumed. 'If he says he's worried about my health because I am getting old, I'll hurt him,' she thought.
'I should like a hot breakfast. I shall cook it while you sleep,' he finally said.
'Very well,' Haleth grunted. She strongly suspected there was more behind his reasoning, but there was little use in arguing the point, especially with sleep beckoning.
Sleep, however, refused to come. The light brightened, but the air was still cool and the dew made her cold and uncomfortable. She could have chosen a better place for a nap. She felt very exposed lying at the side of the road. She was just contemplating moving to a more sheltered area beneath the trees when Inglor returned.
He lit a small cooking fire while she pretended to sleep and listened to his soft singing. Much to her consternation, the flames were too far away to give her any warmth. She could roll closer to it while feigning sleep. With luck she would not roll too far and set herself on fire.
While she was considering the best course of action, someone grasped her by the shoulders. Before she could react, she was rolled on her side and her wet cloak was stripped away to be replaced by a soft, warm blanket.
With the fire warming her face and Inglor's music in her ears, Haleth slipped into true sleep.