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Battle of the Golden Wood  by Marnie

"My lady, all the wounded who can be safely moved have been brought within the city walls."

Galadriel looked up and saw the smooth, competent face of Aelinoth, her crown of black plaits haloed by a swift sunrise. It was a fair morning, and the roof and walls of the great talan had been rolled away, leaving the land's affairs to be conducted in the glory of a fresh sky. She took the tally of names from where it rested on the empty chair beside her own, and felt the healer's worry as a small dissonance in the song of the dawn. "This is a long list. Is there water enough for all in the fount of Caras Galadhon?"

"That is my concern," said Aelinoth, her eyes downcast, "For now there is enough, but the spring is falling and it will ere long run dry. Unless we can take water from the rivers soon, I know not how we will continue to live."

Nimrodel and Silverlode sweltered still under their load of poison, so she had read only an hour ago, but on Galadriel's left, Osdan - the elf charged with the clearance of Anduin - stiffened almost unnoticeably. His mind was open, and she could feel his eagerness to speak, an underlying sense of satisfaction, bordering on smugness. She smiled and said "I believe both bridges and bodies have now been removed from the Great River, and it is fit to use." Turning, she looked at the slightly crestfallen engineer with mild enquiry. "Is that not so?"

"Yes," he said, impressed, "I had just come to report it."

"Let it be done so, then. Are you answered?"

"Very well, Lady." Aelinoth departed with an air of new hope, and to soothe his ruffled feathers Galadriel praised Osdan in words that sent him forth glowing.

When he had gone there was a pause in which, but for guards, she was alone with the day. She smoothed a wrinkle in her skirt and thought of how easy it had been - ringless or no - to overawe her people with her knowledge. Doubtless Osdan had gone forth believing that she still knew every last detail of what happened in her realm. Such tricks she had long engaged in, knowing that her illusion of omniscience comforted her folk and made outsiders think twice about challenging her. In private Celeborn laughed at it, and called it vanity. In public, out of his kindness, he indulged her. But he did not understand. He had not grown to manhood in a huge family of warring cousins or learned, early in life, the value of appearing invulnerable.

She spread her hands on her knees and looked down. Nenya sparkled on her finger like a spidersweb bedewed in sunlight, its visibility a jarring reminder that it was now powerless.

With it, the seeming infinity of her knowledge had not been so far from the truth. But what was she without it? She had been a ringbearer so long. So long accustomed to its unseen weight, to the sense of largeness, to the way it opened her like one of the living flowers of the ocean, and washed the scents of all the world into her waiting mind. The first thing she had done, after her husband departed leaving her bereft, had been to find it and put it back on. Her hand had felt so empty without it, and her heart cold. But just as Celeborn had no sympathy to offer her, so Nenya failed of comfort at last, broken and drained as she herself.

The trees sighed about her, a soft susurration like the lap of a gentle sea against a white shore, where pearls lay scattered among the sand. Last night, in dreams, the Valar's pardon had been offered to her a second time. Wearied to the point where she could be humble, torn between joy and heartbreak, she had at last accepted it. And now all her thoughts were of the ocean. A tide of longing for Valinor swept from beneath her the foundation which held her in these mortal lands, washed into the great sea all ties of love and longing; calling, calling, in a voice she had spent centuries denying, but could resist no more.

On her left hand Nenya's beautiful corpse shone like light on the waves. But on her right there gleamed a ring of gold - as plain and unmarked as the One itself. Her wedding ring. For many years she had felt no need to contemplate it. It just was. But now - recalling that flash of bitter resentment - she wondered if this ring too would prove as perilous to her as the Enemy's. For this ring had not lost its power - it lay on her hand as heavy as a chain, holding her back from healing, imprisoning her in this darkened, meaningless land. She had done now what she came from Valinor to do, for Morgoth was defeated, and Sauron overthrown. Her pride, abased though it was, was satisfied, and she could now go home, but for this ring, but for Celeborn's love.

All you begin in hope will end in ruin, she thought. Such had been the Doom of Mandos. Her fea, and that of her husband, had been joined eternally not by any Vala, but by Iluvatar Himself, and throughout the years she had clung to the knowledge that it could not be undone, even by Namo himself. But perhaps the 'ruin' of their marriage might come not through dissolution, nor separation, but by enduring forever in hatred, as a torment to one another until the end of the world.

She was tempted to say 'the Valar could not be so cruel'. But she had seen the madness in the eyes of the sons of Feanor, and she knew that they could.

At the foot of the tree the trumpets sounded. She stirred, clasped her hands together, covering both rings, and raised her head to watch as there bounded onto the booming deck a messenger from the host of Lorien. "Lady," he said, throwing himself to one knee, sodden cloak leaving a curling stroke of black orc blood on the pale wooden floor. "The enemy is utterly routed, and Dol Guldur is ours. The Lord asks that you come and tear it down, so that your victory may be complete."

"He is not returned himself?" Galadriel could, had she so wished, have stretched out and brushed her husband's mind - distance was no matter to those linked by love. But the last time she had done so he had been closed to her, armoured as if her touch had been the Eye of Sauron. That too had hurt. Suppose he remained thus? Unwilling to find it so, she did not try.

"No, Lady," the messenger grinned, and she felt rebuked by the happiness of everyone around her. It was irrational, having taken care that no one would see her pain, to feel slighted by their disregard of it, but when had such emotions ever answered to reason?

"We took the fortress some eleven days ago, and cleared all danger from the forest about it - Lord Merethir would not let me depart until he was sure it was safe for you. But my Lord Celeborn is gone himself with all haste to Thranduil's aid, taking the greater part of the army with him, not knowing what they might find. Dol Guldur stands empty and resists every weapon we can throw at it. Will you not come?"

There was a chance, Galadriel thought, that she could go, bring down the fortress, and return, ere ever Celeborn had done with Thranduil's war. Perhaps she could put off the moment of facing him, just a little longer. Her own uncertainties should not come between herself and her duty. She stood. "Let an escort be prepared for me," she said, and smiled a costly smile - so that all would see how pleased she was at their triumph. "I will assemble some of the healers, lest Thranduil's folk have need of them. We will depart within the hour."

She took care that no one on Middle earth would ever know that - though it would make her choices easier - still what she feared most was to look upon her husband and find at the last there was nothing left between them but detestation.

Haldir sat among the healers and rolled up bandages. Boiled and dried they were now ready for use once more, though there seemed some hope that not all would be needed. The human child, Gytha, helped him, so intent on being useful that he had not the heart to tell her he could have done the work twice as well, and in half the time, alone. She had picked up a great deal of Sindarin and chatted all the while in a mix of Grey-elvish and Rohirric that fell barbarously on his ear. He learned much about the frolics and follies of some of Lorien's youngest maidens as he watched her small hands wind the linen in loose, cumbrous spirals - which he knew someone would take away with effusive thanks and do again correctly. She was more serious than many a five-hundred year old elf, but in a body that did not yet obey her commands. A strange but delightful creature. There was no wonder the Healers had taken her under their wing as one of their own.

From the corner of his eye Haldir noticed Leofwyn, watching them. Her expression was clouded, and every time Gytha returned some Sindarin phrase, or gestured in a way she had learned from the ladies, Leofwyn's concern seemed to deepen. He understood it well enough, for there had been other Men slain on the borders of Lorien through the years - orphans brought in and raised by the elves, and though it had been better than leaving them to die, the results had rarely been happy. Like a kitten raised among a litter of pups, the children had not, by nature, fitted in to one kind, nor by upbringing into the other. Lavished with love and affection, still they grew out of shape, and tragedy overtook them, as it had Turin, Thingol's famous fosterling.

"I must see if they will let me visit my brother," he said. He put the bandages into a basket and handed it to her, turning her around and pushing her towards her own folk. "Go take these to your father."

When he did not improve, Orophin had been moved to a curtained pavilion so that - Haldir thought sourly - his death should not disturb the other patients. He and Rumil had been urged to make themselves useful elsewhere, but it did not stop them from visiting every time the wind changed, or the trees spoke, or a woodpecker knocked...or their hearts failed them in terror that he might have woken in their absence and died alone, thinking himself abandoned.

Now he stopped outside the small tent and watched Rumil come, picking his way through the injured like a walking flame - so bright was his hair in the dawn sunlight, and the polished hilts of the knives which lay at his shoulder. Rumil was arrayed for war, and, though the Lady had withdrawn the army from Moria, saying there would be no further attacks, still Haldir understood. It would be a while before anyone felt secure enough to go unarmed.

"Any news?" Rumil looked at his older brother with entreaty, but Haldir had no reassurance to give him. He sought for something to say, but was spared from filling his mouth with the ash of platitudes as the healer, Rian, approached. "How is he?"

She lifted the tent flap and put the bowl and soaked cloth she carried inside on the long grass. When she finally looked at them both her eyes were hollow, faintly guilty. "I grieve to say this, but unless the fever breaks soon either he will die, or when he does awaken you will not know him, nor he you."

"What do you mean?" Haldir was aghast at this further anguish on top of all others.

Rian shook her head, "To struggle this can take away some part of the fea - memories, or strength, even wit. I do not council you to lose hope just yet, but he must wake soon, or it will be too late."

Haldir breathed in sharply. There seemed to be a great pit in the centre of his chest - an endless darkness like the abyss of Khazad-Dum. His breath could not fill it, and it had such a weight his legs could hardly bear it up. Rumil choked, and then - eyes widening - covered the sound with a hand over his mouth as he bowed awkwardly to someone behind Haldir. Turning, Haldir saw that the Lady Galadriel stood at his shoulder, as pale in face as she was in raiment.

"Rumil," she said, "I would not normally take you from those you love in this dire pass, but these are not normal times, and the list of unscathed warriors left in Lorien is a short one. You will head my escort to Dol Guldur, and witness for Orophin's sake our final victory over our age long enemy."

Rumil stepped back, almost staggered, but he lifted his chin and looked at her. She held his gaze, and after a long time he straightened, both their faces saddened by the same small smile. "Yes, Lady," he said, "For Orophin, and for you."

Turning to Haldir he said, "Make sure he's still here when I get back, or we will have words." Then, bowing once more, he went without a backward look, and only his brother saw the effort it cost him in his braced and painful stride.

"So much loss..." said the Lady softly, and laid her hand on Haldir's shoulder. A strength flowed through the touch, so that although in every other part of him he was as brittle as ice, only there did he feel himself alive. Daringly, he looked up into her eyes - so tall she was! It was as though he looked into the clear waters of her mirror, and saw there the pain of all Lorien. She carried his grief, with a thousand - a hundred thousand - other hurts. And though she offered no solace there was some balm in the knowledge that she too understood what it was to be in agony when all around were turning their thoughts to bliss.

"You are great and wise, my Lady," he said, moved, "Can you not do something for him? Can you not heal him?"

What flashed through her eyes then looked less like regret than guilt. It surprised and dismayed him, and he chided himself for awakening some ancient regret which should have been left buried, for surely she had done nothing for many ages of the world for which she should be ashamed. Looking aside, she smiled softly, and her voice was gentle and full of sadness. "Ah, Haldir, my touch will bring your brother no weal. For he lacks not strength, only a reason to stay. Go call him, and see if your love can be the hook which hauls him back to these shores. If you cannot do it, I deem no one can."

At that she moved away. Haldir stood a moment, watching her speak to Leofwyn - from the woman's grateful smile he guessed she had been asked to go to Mirkwood with the Lady's party, and would as a result the sooner be reunited with her son. Then he drew together enough courage to move, lifted the flap of Orophin's small tent and ducked inside.

It was dim and still within. Orophin was tangled in linen sheets, but lay utterly still. To Haldir's eyes, able to tell a sparrow from a finch at a mile's distance, the skull glimmered visible beneath the stretched, famished face. Always it was eerie in here, hearing the sick man struggle with enemies of his own mind's making - tossing and burning, crying out, his wide eyes seeing into some other, fouler world. Though he loved his brother, Haldir had come to dread the hours spent with those nightmares - the ache of hearing fears and agonies he could not assuage. Sitting crosslegged in the dim dark, bathing the furious fire from Orophin's livid, glowing skin, Haldir had already begged - as Lady Galadriel said - for him to return. He had pleaded, holding and rocking his youngest brother as he had when the boy was first born, the cheek that lay against his collarbone painfully hot. But Orophin heard nothing, only writhed in his grip and called out nonsense, or screamed, his voice raw and parched.

All was silent now.

The quietening of Orophin's pain at first pleased Haldir. He breathed in deep, but the sigh of relief became a sob as he came further in, knelt to take the open hand in his own, and found it was cold.

It was cold.

Haldir's heart stopped. He laboured to inhale but found he had forgotten how as he dropped the hand and smoothed back sweat-damp tangles of yellow hair from Orophin's brow. Oh Eru! That too was cold, and the face was white, damp and white and chill as clouds. Moving, he knew not how - so separate from his body had his mind become - he found himself clutching the limp, thin form in his arms, Orophin's head on his knee, his own head bent over and a darkness that was his hair spilling over both of them, cutting out the light. "Muindor, gwanur...mellon nin," he said softly, as tears welled and fell unnoticed from his eyes, splashing on the bruised, sunken face of his brother. "Orophin, oh Orophin, please!"

So his worst thoughts had proved true. As he sat, occupying his hands with useless work, his beloved brother had died alone. Closing his eyes he pulled the frail body closer and keened, his voice rising in a wordless litany of grief like the groan of the earth itself under Sauron's torment.

A hand touched his cheek, wiping away his tears. It was a large, bow-string calloused, cold hand that trembled with effort. Haldir choked on his lament, eyes flying open, and saw Orophin watching him with weary concern. "I dreamed of rain," Orophin whispered, and smiled.

Haldir set him down swiftly, scrambled away, and collided with Rian - who had come running when she heard his outcry. Turning, he grasped at the maiden's arm as if at sanity. "He is... He was..." Dead. He was dead. "I came in and he was..."

She pushed him aside and knelt to help the sick man lie more comfortably on the pallet. Touching his forehead and his throat she sang a little, a sound of running water, cool and clean. Then she looked back at Haldir with a gaze full of both sympathy and barely restrained laughter. "Thou poor fool! He was but cold because his fever had broken, and still because - at last - he slept a healing sleep. All is well now." She smiled brightly, "All is very well. Now stay here while I bring a draught he must drink, and clean sheets, and take down this pavilion that he might see the sky..." All business, her own happiness transmuted into bustle, Rian left on the first of her many errands and Haldir met his brother's tired eyes with a shamefaced look, and a heart that was afraid to sing.

"Did I scare you?" said Orophin.

And Haldir thought of years gone by when an elf-child would leap on him in ambush, would wake him in the mornings with Balrog-roaring, or fill his moments of quiet with the unwelcome howls of ferocious, unconvincing wargs. Past days of sunlight dappled on a willow-wand of a boy, who ran after him with worship and challenge. Did I scare you?

"No," he said as he always had, and wept again, in painful joy. "Not for a moment."

'Muindor, gwanur, mellon' = 'Brother, friend.'

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