Searching. That is all we ever seem to do now. The days go by with a blatant routine. We have breakfast, during which I conjure up some excuse to leave, and then we are off. Rarely do we ever stop for a midday meal (something of which I was forced to quickly adapt to). Throughout the day and well into the night, we keep our eyes peeled for any signs of Caladhiel. And every day it is the same. No trace. Not even a scratch.
Aradan and Orodben begin to wonder if she vaporized into thin air. But I know for a fact that she is out here. Somewhere. And most likely, she is hiding.
With Aradan at the head of our little troop, we almost never rest. She constantly rests on his mind, though I know he tries to hide it. Oftentimes, he stares off wistfully into some imaginary distance, evidently thinking of her.
And I know he fancies her.
If it were at all possible, they would make a good match. Aradan is a strong and steady character with a heart of gold, and to those he loves, he is remarkably loyal (not unlike the princess). But he also knows how to respect a person's space without being too distant, a quality of which Caladhiel always pined for, and undoubtedly still does. If it were to ever happen, once he earned her trust, the relationship would soar. But alas, though he is one of the Dúnedain, he is still a mortal man. Thus he could never wed her, not without a stinging sacrifice from the princess and her house. And as much as Aradan respects her father, he would never want to put them through anything that drastic. However, his heart undoubtedly pines for her.
As we trudge through the wood, his face holds the same look of longing. When I catch his eye, sharp pangs of grief and even guilt hit me, for reasons that I cannot say. For reasons that I will not say.
Soon enough sweet night is finally upon us. A contented sigh escapes me as I plop down on the soft ground, my aching feet practically screaming relief. Orodben mirrors my actions almost exactly, thrusting his pack off of his shoulder and quickly converting it to a makeshift pillow. Aradan gets a fire going and is soon distributing our nightly rations. After shoving his in his mouth and gulping it down, Orodben flops down and rolls over, grumbling something of which the only thing I can catch is my name. In a few minutes, he is snoring.
Too tired to even bother to think about getting up, I elect to wait until Aradan too is asleep before I eat my own ration. The Ranger sits as usual, with his back propped against a tree and his pipe in his mouth. He softly croons to himself, and when I finally recognize the tune and the lyrics I come to the complete decision that Aradan may have officially lost his mind.
The song of Beren and Luthien.
Of which I think he has renamed "the song of Aradan and Caladhiel" in his own mind.
Slightly annoyed, I lie back, yank my cloak around me, and let out an exasperated sigh. Perhaps if I pretend to sleep, he will stop with this nonsense. I curl up in a little ball and let my mind drift off just enough to make myself look asleep. For a while I lie there, perfectly still, hoping that eventually, he will stop.
The only thing that has evaded my mind is that Aradan always takes the first watch. I shall be listening to this for a good while…
All goes quiet and my mind fully drifts off.
For a while, I lie there dreaming of home. I can smell the venison. Taste the wine. Hear the soft, graceful pluck of the harps. See the king plopped on his throne with his legs propped on one side. Feel the warmth of a huge fire. Happiness. Safety. My mind drifts back to the good times, times of laughter. Before the curse. The Dwarves. The Dragon. And the battle that I was never meant to partake in that changed my life forever. Our greed had gotten the best of us that day, especially my own…
Just as the Warg pounces I wake with a start, and he melts away.
Aradan is bending over me. His hand still perches on my shoulder.
"Are you all right?"
"It was only a dream." Automatically I know my reply is excessively curt. Regret slowly wrenches an apology out of me.
Silence comes over both of us as I sit up and stretch. The wind whistles. An owl hoots mournfully. Then all is eerily still.
Aradan sighs. "It is your watch."
The Ranger's grey eyes do not leave my face. Finally he breaks the silence. And the randomness of his words completely catches me off guard.
"I was in these very parts of the wood, and I was attacked by a small party of goblins. By some miracle, I managed to escape, but I was gravely wounded. I dragged myself as far away from the area as I could, knowing full well that they would most likely soon return. Little did I know that I was stumbling straight towards the Elvenking's palace. I did not make it to the gates. In fact, I did not see a single Elf.
"The trek took two days. I was exhausted. Finally, my wounds got the best of me, and I collapsed. I know not how long I lay there, but I know that I lost consciousness. I managed to regain it just as voices came into earshot. One of them was the princess's; the other, as I would learn later, belonged to her brother. The next I knew, she was kneeling beside me, hesitantly taking a pulse, trying to get words out of me, which would not come. Her brother joined her. I knew not if I was saved at the time; they both seemed wary (as the Mirkwood Elves always seem to be around strangers) -"
I cock an eyebrow, though I know this to be true.
"-and one was armed with a bow. Finally, after some debate, and despite the consensus that Thranduil would most likely be just as uncomfortable as they were, they took me in. Once again I lost consciousness. I awoke within the palace walls, tended to and safe.
"Eventually I would meet her formally, and thank her for saving my life. Still a bit wary, she spoke little, but her eyes shone with a quiet curiosity. Her father," he said with a slightly nervous chuckle, "was much more straightforward. They both, however, eventually warmed up to me. She visited me often while I recovered, and I stayed with the Elves for more than a few fortnights. Which gives me all the more reason to grieve the loss of her."
"She is not dead. And she did not save your life. Thranduil did." My utterance is blunt and cold.
For some reason this abrupt story has made me wildly grumpy. That and my stomach is screaming for food. These things do not justify my words, though. I search for something kinder.
"But do not lose hope. As far as we know, she could be right under our very noses." My voice trails off on the last word of the stuttered sentence. Finally I force out more. "Get some sleep."
He rolls over and in seconds is sleeping soundly.
As soon as I know he will not rise until awoken, I yank my mask off and stuff as much food as I can handle at once in my mouth. Just as I am guzzling down my water does a sound come to my attention. Soft. Grungy. Terrifying.
Once again it hisses in my ear. Slowly, I pull the mask up, grab my bow and quiver, and stand, waiting for the growl's reemergence. When it sounds again, I tip toe off in its direction to investigate.
This proves to be a fatal mistake.
Piercing my ears are the grotesquely high-pitched shrieks of goblins.
Now the cries of the Rangers are mingling with them. Swords ring in the air. Orodben's bow hisses. By the sounds of it, my friends seem to holding their own. But are heavily outnumbered.
"Esgalion!" Aradan's desperate voice screams. "Esgalion!"
Overcome with sheer terror, I cannot bring my legs to move.
I begin to tremble.
Everything goes eerily silent.
My heart stops.
Finally I break the shackles of my fear. Adrenaline courses through me as I charge through the wood, my arrow drawn taut. I crash through the brush…only to find that I am too late.
The bodies of the goblins and broken arrow shafts litter the ground. The grass is drowning in their black blood. Orodben is nowhere to be seen. Not even a scrap of clothing attests to his existence, only a gruesome pool of bright red blood. Aradan, however, lies with his back propped against his tree, and axe wedged into his chest, his sword dead in his limp hand. By some miracle he is still alive.
Stunned and stricken to the core, I stumble over to his side. Slowly, almost hesitantly, I kneel beside him.
"Where is Orodben?"
Aradan only shakes his head.
"They took him…didn't they?"
I am barely able to perceive his nod. His eyes do not leave my face. Pain is a mask that covers his features. The agony in his countenance causes my heart to shatter.
"I am so sorry…"
Despite the fact that he is dying, Aradan's grip on my shoulder is surprisingly strong.
"There was nothing you could have done," he whispers. "There were so many of them. They would have taken you, too."
"I would have died beside you!"
No you wouldn't have, my conscience hisses. You would have run away. You would have been hiding…like you are now.
And all this time, I had convinced myself that I did not trust him. That my shunning of his friendship was justified. Even that I hated him. And worst of all…that there was nothing wrong with it. Now, as I sit here, helpless, watching him die, I realize that he was one of the best friends that I could have ever asked for. That he returned my glowers with a smile. And all I have ever done is hide anything and everything from him. Regret begins to tear me apart like a wild animal. For the first time in ages, tears fill my eyes.
"I am so sorry," I whisper. "For everything!"
"There is nothing to forgive," he replies.
Anger mingles with my grief. My voice raises up to a pained, almost hoarse, cry. "I have been nothing but cruel! Heartless! And now you have paid the ultimate price! I did not deserve your kindness then! And I do not deserve your forgiveness now!"
Though he cannot see my tears, I know he knows they are there.
"I offer it to you anyway," he says. "I beg you to take it."
Hesitantly I nod. What kind of a man is this?
"You will find Caladhiel?"
At the question, a huge, poisoned dagger wrenches its icy teeth into my heart. More hot tears spill down my cheeks. I can only nod. As I do so, his hand leaves my shoulder and travels up to the mask. So torn up am I that, for the first time, I do not shy away.
When he pushes my hood back, shock flies into his eyes, which quickly fill to the brim with tears. Raising a finger to my cheek, he whispers something that I cannot catch, then slips away.
By now, I am shamelessly and quite loudly sobbing.
For after all he had given me…all I gave in return was heartbreak.