Chapter 1: The Story of Who I Am
There was no chance to talk as we rode across the plains. Gandalf and Shadowfax set a demanding pace, and I could only do my best to stay in the saddle and keep urging Lightfoot on.
Through the night and all the next day we rode, Pippin dozing in the saddle and me struggling not to. But as the next night fell, I could see the golden roof of Meduseld coming into sight.
"We shall stop to rest the night here," Gandalf proclaimed. "Shadowfax has yet more to give, but we cannot overtire either of our mounts before we reach our destination."
Lightfoot was a testament to the fine breeding of Rohirric horses. He was flagging a bit compared to Shadowfax, but he'd covered the distance well. Better than I had. My body ached in places I hadn't known could ache. Even my hair seemed to ache.
We both dismounted in the stables, Gandalf having to first rouse Pippin, and turned our mounts over to the eager stable boys surprisingly still awake at this hour.
"I'll take your horse, sir," a young boy offered, skidding to a stop in front of me.
My words came out choked as I fought a laugh and held out Lightfoot's reins. "Sure. Here ya go."
The whites of his eyes enlarged as he gaped at my face, his head upturned in shock as he beheld a woman instead of a man.
"'S'cuse me," he murmured, finding his voice. "I didn't realize you were a lady. Why are you dressed like a man?" The words must have slipped out because he immediately seemed horrified.
I let out a snort as I walked away, tousling the boy's hair as I went. "Don't know what everyone's got against women wearing pants. Helluva lot more comfortable than all those damned skirts."
Gandalf gave me an odd look as I approached him, but seemed to almost visibly shake it off.
"Male children of the Rohirrim take turns staying with their horses through the night to guard them," Gandalf explained to my curious glances at the boys gathering to peer eagerly at us.
I left with one lingering look at the boys now hustling about. The logistics of protecting so precious a commodity couldn't be argued with, so I pushed it from my mind. The young boys of my own world would likely have benefitted from such responsibilities instead of being allowed to waste their youths with TVs and video games.
Even at so late an hour, we were greeted at the steps of Meduseld by the regal visage of Éowyn. Her summer-wheat locks glistening down her back, and her sword gleaming on her hip.
The dichotomy of her image gave me pause as I mounted the stairs. So soft and fair. Yet hard and lethal at need. I could see what would be the appeal in Faramir's eye. The feminine comfort. The warrior strength.
And I wondered again what Legolas saw in me. Ellith were the epitome graceful feminine beauty. Any beauty I might once have had was fading and creasing with age. And what hadn't, I'd fought and beaten down until it was hardened to more useful masculinity.
I stared at my hand, now scarred and calloused. From use and abuse. Telling the story of who I was. And how I'd gotten there.
They weren't the soft hands of an elleth. I doubted even so soft as Éowyn's slender appendages. Hers were soft but capable. Mine were only capable. No softness left in them. No happy balance between the two extremes.
"Lady Elaina? Elaina? Lane? Lane!" As Éowyn repeated my name, I tore my gaze from examining my calloused hand and fingers. "Are you unwell?" she asked stepping closer and lightly touching my arm.
I forced a reassuring smile, tearing my sluggish mind from thoughts I knew I shouldn't dwell on when I was so tired in the first. "Yeah, I'm fine. My mind wanders to strange places when I'm exhausted."
Her smile was sympathetic if a little curious. "Well I can imagine. Come," she told me, gently guiding me by the arm, "I should imagine you would appreciate some of the cleaner comforts I can offer."
I looked down at myself as she led me away from the main hall Gandalf and Pippin were headed down, and let out a loud guffaw at the sight of the black and red blood crusted on my clothes. "I guess that's your way of saying I'm filthy and in need of a bath."
Her cheeks tinged pink. "I had only thought you might enjoy a warm bath before your rest and to have your clothes laundered before morn."
"Relax," I chuckled, "I'm not mad. And I'd love a bath. But I'm not sure there'll be time to wash those clothes. I'm betting Gandalf'll wanna leave at the crack of dawn."
She negated the matter with an elegant swish of her hand. "It is no matter. I shall ask one of the servants to dry the clothes over the fire," she responded.
Éowyn soon led me into a spartan, but elegantly decorated set of rooms. She gestured to a tub behind a partition of screens, obviously freshly filled from the sight of the steam still rising in the cool room.
"I wouldn't want to intrude on your space, my lady. If you've drawn a bath for yourself, I can find sleep elsewhere."
She glanced at the tub and smiled beneficently. "Nay, 'twas drawn for your use. When the guards at the gate sent word of your arrival, I ordered it filled. 'Tis the least I can do to atone for the poor hospitality you received upon your last visit."
Her guilt was genuine and palpable, even of it wasn't her fault, so I decided to take her offer if it would assuage some of her guilt. Though truthfully, I also rarely turned down a chance to get clean. I could carry on for as long as it took in my filthy clothes, but I really did prefer not to.
Dropping my bag and weapons one by one by the wooden chair behind the partition, I then started peeling out of my blood-crusted clothes. One glance over my shoulder as I started removing my tunic revealed Éowyn still waiting near the opening of the partition.
"I had thought to check the state of the wounds I stitched when you were brought to Edoras," she explained.
Again, I shrugged. She'd obviously seen me in some state of undress to stitch me up, so I didn't hesitate to finish shimmying out of my clothes and a few of the bandages yet remaining on my arms and sliding into the warm tub. Biting back a groan of near ecstasy at the warm water enveloping my body, I held my arms out for my own inspection. The stitches Éowyn had done were neat and evenly placed. But as I looked at them, I could feel the skin around them beginning to itch.
"If you have some small scissors, I think these stitches are healed well enough to come out now."
She came closer and knelt beside the tub, taking my nearest arm and drawing it into her grasp to examine it. "Yes," she exclaimed, surprise coloring the word, "it would appear these stitches are ready to be removed. I should have hardly thought such wounds would have so swiftly healed." She released my arm and looked up into my face. "Are you one of the Dúnedain to have the ancient Númenórean blood in your veins?"
"No," I answered with a gentle shake of my head. "But something like that I guess. Descended from another ancient line that lends a bit of speed to my healing." Although nothing like the speed of healing for my Fae ancestors. Even wounds like mine made by pure iron would not have taken so long for a fairy to heal. Of course, further internal damage done by iron would take a fairy longer to heal from than a human would. Bur flesh wounds like mine would have seemed superficial to them. My own healing was only slightly accelerated from a normal human's. But it had still mostly served me well, only failing me when I was held captive in North Korea and too badly injured and too starved to expend any energy on accelerated healing.
Éowyn left briefly, carrying away my dirty clothes and returning with a small scissors to begin removing the many stitches. I'd sluiced the water and a cake of soap over myself as Éowyn worked, noticing many of my bruises were shifting to mottled colors of sickly yellows and greens, and fighting sleep as I turned my head to the side, letting her remove the stitches from my head as well.
I must have dozed off for a few moments, for the next thing I was aware of was Éowyn removing the soapy washcloth from my hand and gingerly shaking me.
With a smile of appreciation, I stood and accepted the sheet she held out for me to dry off with.
"I am in hopes you do not mind sharing my quarters for the night, Lane. The rooming of Meduseld is stretched thin with the influx of refugees from the Westfold while many of the soldiers left in Edoras are sleeping in the Great Hall. I thought you might prefer a night of privacy from the menfolk and a soft bed, though I have but one to offer," she explained, holding a cotton shift out to me, her eyes fixed steadily on her hands.
I gratefully took the sleeveless nightgown, pleased by her simple use of my nickname, and watched her downturned face as her eyes shyly avoided mine. It struck me then how truly young she seemed. Though she had been forced to mature early and embrace her place among her people, likely leading and commanding them behind the scenes more than her uncle knew in his decline, she was in fact still quite young. Perhaps sixteen or seventeen by my estimation. No doubt a woman to her people, but still with that flush of youth.
"I would be honored that you'd share your quarters with me," I gently offered, pleased by the childlike light and delight in her eyes.
Following her around the partition, I watched as she grabbed extra bedding out of a trunk at the foot of her bed. Seeing no cot or other bed, I stalled her movements, realizing her intentions.
"We're both grown women, Éowyn. We can share the bed. No sense in you sleeping what's left of the night on hard stone."
She seemed demure, but pleasantly surprised at my words. "If you have no objection to such an arrangement neither do I." She snuffed several lanterns around the room, leaving only a candle by the bed lit and climbing into the bed near the wall.
As I slid in next to her, I was glad she'd taken the space near the wall, leaving me the side of the bed easiest to escape from. Not that I feared I'd need escape--some things were just seared into my Marine mind.
After I'd blown out the candle, we laid in the roughly full-sized bed in silence. Éowyn was still and quiet, her breathing shallow so that I'd have thought her asleep but for the gentle buzz of her thoughts. Thankfully, most of Edoras was asleep so her thoughts did not prove too difficult to avoid.
"How went the battle at the Deep?" her voice suddenly questioned in the dark.
I rolled over to face her inquisitive stare. The soft moonlight spilling into her room must have highlighted the question in my expression for she clarified. "I have received word from my mother-brother of course, but 'tis just simple words saying the battle was won and listing our losses. I meant, what was it like to fight in such glory?"
The awestruck hero-worship in her words was heavy on my heart. I knew she needed to ride to the Pelennor Fields believing the only glory or fate she could ever find was to fight and die greatly in battle. But my heart knew battle wasn't glorious. And it was no great fate.
"I lived. And so many didn't. Boys too young to ever know all the wonders that life should have in store for them: friendships, loves, marriages, children. And wizened men too old to recall such wonders. There's nothing truly so glorious about battle. And old warriors who speak of it are too tormented by what they've seen and done to admit they can never again attain the purity of those simple wonders in life. I am proud of my accomplishments as a warrior, Éowyn, and I wouldn't take bake the sacrifices I've made so others didn't have to, but some days, I wish I'd never started down the path that hardened me into this woman."
She was silent after I'd spoken, and I almost hoped she'd heard my words.
"I think to die in such a battle that the people would sing of it for ages to come would be a great honor," she timidly, but resolutely whispered.
"The people of the highest honor are the ones who lead quiet existences, loudly singing the tales of those who never were granted their quiet peaceful lives. We sing tales and tell stories of the tragic lives, not the truly blessed ones," I answered.
She had no response to my words, but I knew in my heart that she wouldn't understand until it was too late.
"Hello?" I cautiously called to the void.
Am I somehow back in my hole in that North Korean cave? No. There was some residual light there. This is utter darkness. Absolute absence of light.
I'd been in a few caves in my youth with absolute darkness like this. So far under ground that not the tiniest bit of light penetrated it. It was rare to experience such blackness in my modern world. If it wasn't artificial light brightening the night, it was the moon or stars aiding human sight. But this? This was a rare experience for most. Utter blackness.
Yet, this was worse than the utter blackness of those caves. This embodied more than darkness to my sight. This was utter darkness to my senses and my soul. Oppressive. And crushing.
And a sensation I'd felt once before.
"Námo! Or whatever the hell your name is, get the hell out here! You know I don't like the whole talking to a disembodied voice thing anyway. And what the hell did I do to piss you off again? I haven't tried to save anyone who was supposed to live. That I know of," I added under my breath. I knew I was likely rambling, but my nervousness at the oppressive dark made my tongue hard to hold.
Light suddenly illuminated everything around me, highlighting the scene before me. A cozy, snug cabin seemed to be my surroundings. Though how I'd gotten there, I couldn't say.
"Wait a minute. I'll be damned, is this--" but I trailed off, not knowing how to finish my question.
"This is the home you were born to. Though faint to your recall, a small part of your memory recognizes this place as the only home you knew."
I turned towards the corner of the room by the window where the alto voice called from. Seated in an old, careworn looking rocking chair, was the figure of a woman. Faced away from me, and busily bent over something.
"You're not Námo." Though I'd meant it as a statement, it instead seemed to come out uncertainly.
"How do you know?" she asked curiously, not looking up as I began painstakingly inching closer around to in front of the figure.
"You don't feel like him." At the curious noise she made, I elaborated, feeling more certain that this wasn't Námo. "You don't feel so pissed off and angry." Wanting to bite my impetuous tongue off, I corrected myself. "I mean, you don't seem so dark or foreboding. Friendlier somehow. Though still with the undercurrent of oppressive power."
She seemed amused by my assessment, and though I still couldn't see the face beneath the dark auburn curls falling forward over her shoulders, I could see a flash of one corner of her lips curling upwards. "You are bold in your words. I can see why my husband bears a grudging fondness for your plight," she chuckled lowly, her fingers continuing to busily work. I could see now she was seated at something with her hands busily moving yarn or some other kind of threading.
"Your husband?" I queried in confusion.
"My lord husband," she absently spoke, her hands backing up a weave and restarting, the threads seeming to change colors in her hands as she continued again. "Námo, the Lord of the Halls of Mandos."
"Oh?" I repeated, straining to hide my shock, I didn't remember really reading about the Valar too much though I had vaguely remembered Mandos. "I didn't realize Death was married." My tardy mind finally supplied what she was seated at: a loom. She was weaving something. Something long.
Now she did pause to glance up at me. "He is the Judge of the Dead and Master of Doom. He is not this Death you speak of. He is much more," she patiently explained.
"Mom?!" I exclaimed, taking a shocked step back.
The woman gave a soft smile as her fingers began their dance again and her eyes returned to her work. "Nay, I am not your lady mother, merely borrowing her form as your mind so chooses."
"Then who the hell are you?" I asked, fighting the need to look away from my long-dead mother's visage.
"I am Vairë. The Weaver," she almost carelessly answered as she backtracked a weave before beginning again.
"The Weaver? I'm guessing you're a Vala too if your husband's one and you're using my mother's image. But why the hell do the Valar need a weaver? You don't have physical bodies, right? So why do you need cloth?"
She chuckled lightly again. "You misunderstand my purpose. I weave not cloth, but tapestries. The tapestries of the world, telling its tale."
I stood dumbfounded. She was right, I still doubted I understood.
She paused and gestured to the mound of cloth sitting on the other side of the loom. The tapestry that she had already finished. "This is the past. The tale of Arda as it occurred." She gestured back to the section she was currently working on at the loom. "And this is the present, that tale which is now being written. I am the Weaver. The Keeper of Arda's Tale."
I mulled over her words, watching her elegant hands gliding through the threads as she wove them. It was easier watching her hands than watching my mother's face.
"So I'm guessing if you're the one recording history and minding fate, you're just as pissed at me as Námo was," I speculated.
She laughed again. "Nay, I am not displeased with you. I understand my lord husband's ire at your machinations, but my dominion is not his. He worries for the order and procession of those souls destined for his halls, but he does not have the scope of sight that I am granted by my position. None of the other Lords or Queens of the Valar sees things as I. You may not have been meant for this world before, but you have cast your ripples in it now."
I waited for her to continue and finally prompted, "What do you mean? I've done my best not to change this world. But unless I go find a mountain to live like a hermit on, it's not possible. Even without trying, I've changed things. Maybe I should try to change some things for the better."
She gestured to the mounds of tapestry again. "Aye, you have changed things, child. Since your entrance unto the plane of Arda, I have been forced to change and reweave my tapestries, as I have not found cause to do since I first began to record Arda's Tale. For ages I have weaved without being forced to go back, yet now I find myself often reweaving a tale. If only small pieces of it," she replied. She didn't seem all that upset by my changing things, her smile was small but wistful, so I began to relax, thinking she understood that perhaps some things should be changed.
"Nay, 'tis not what I mean," she replied with a shake of her head, seeming to hear my very thoughts. "It is unavoidable to change some of this world's fates by your presence and perhaps those things were intended to be as they now are, but to set out to purposefully change fates in Arda would be a perilous mistake."
I stiffened and turned away from my mother's image, standing at the rough-hewn window in the log wall, seeing the same green hills that this window had shown in my vague childhood memory.
"So you are here to give the same warnings and threats Námo did. Don't change things or else," I responded.
She answered to my back. "Heed my advice as you will."
"But what about the hobbits and the others. I've already changed things by getting close to them and knowing them. Are you saying I can't be with him?"
She didn't need me to say whom I'd meant.
"As I told, I am the Weaver. As such, I see more than the other of the Valar do. Námo spoke truly when he said you were not meant to end the life you were given in our world. You must be returned to finish this life in the world you were born to. You cannot begin anew while one story remains unfinished. Balance must be restored."
I twirled to face her. "So you're saying I'll be sent back to my own world? Now that I want so desperately to stay here?"
"Your ending must be written in your world," she steadfastly answered, pausing her weaving again.
"That's bullshit! I want to stay here though. Can't I at least live out my days here and return to my world when my life is finally spent," I pleaded.
One brow delicately climbed her forehead. "You presume much to think you should be given so many years here in Arda before your withered days. You also presume much to assume you shall not be slain in battle before such an end."
"Granted," I conceded. "I'm the first to admit the perils of battle. But I've got no home to return to. No place I belong. No people I belong to. For the first time in my life, I'm happy here."
Her face softened. "None of the Valar is callous to your plight. And I confess to being compassionate to your quandary myself." She picked up a part of the tapestry, and let her fingers trail across an odd section that was frayed and raised with small bumps. "The parts of the tapestry that fit difficultly with the rest are those I hold dearest in my heart. They are perhaps not perfect as how the rest of the tapestry fits together, but I find the pieces that are unusual more intriguing than the others are. They have many difficulties finding their own places. All of the Valar understand this. We are few while the First and Second Born are many. They have their own communities and populaces with which they belong. It is as it should be. Eru Ilúvatar made all things to live in harmony and in kinship. In the end, you will travel peacefully to where you may at the very least find tranquility, if not kinship."
"So I get no choice. No say. I'm just going to be sent back to my world, where I guarantee you, I won't find peace or tranquility," I ground out.
She smiled sympathetically, but gave me no words of advice.
"Isn't there anything I can do to stay here?" I pleaded. Now that I had found even a sliver of happiness, I wanted to hold on to it with both hands. And maybe all ten toes.
She stepped away from her loom, for the first time stepping closer as she reached out and placed a hand over my own clasped ones. "To gain what you wish most, you must let go first. Choices are yet before you to be made. Choose judiciously, and you may reap the end you so desire. But be forewarned, the words spoken by Artanis, the one you know as the Lady of Lórien, were spoken truly. If there be even the faintest of hopes for you to gain your wishes, you must first pass through the flames."
Her smile turned sad as her other hand reached to lightly touch my cheek with her fingertips. "I will not lie; I do not wish to see you so suffer in such a choice. When the time comes for you to be returned to your own world, I pray you choose to remain happy in your own world. Do not choose the path through flames. You can be as you were before in your world. You can be satisfied and help the humans there."
She bent forward and gently kissed my cheek, whispering against my skin, "Choose well, Elaina Rowan of Loughill."
And then, darkness descended once more.
I awoke to nearly blackness. Yet I knew it wasn't the utter dark I'd been emerged in in my sleep.
And I also knew, despite Vairë's words, I could never return to my world and again settle for my "satisfactory" life. I'd tasted such sweetness here. And like the moth to the flame, I would stay to keep dancing with that magnificent warmth and light, even at the cost of my downfall. Moths knew the secret, the reward of that dance, was worth the price of destruction.
It was not yet even brightening to a gray sky yet, but I doubted I'd sleep any longer. And I knew Gandalf would want to leave as soon as the sky was showing any hint of light.
I glanced to Éowyn laying on my right side, and was surprised by how closely she'd moved as I slept. She'd curled into me, her face pressed against my shoulder and her hands wrapped around my upper arm. She looked even younger than she had before. And I imagined many young children wrapped around their mother's arms like this as they slept.
But like me, Éowyn had lost her mother at such an early age. And like me, I doubted she'd ever had any one to replace her mother in simple matters like offering a comforting touch or presence. It was a simple thing that men did not understand a child's need of. Though I was certain Théoden had done the best he could in raising his sister's children.
Moving with care, I pulled my arm out of Éowyn's embrace and slid from the bed. My clothes were miraculously cleaned and dry on a table just inside the door, so I slid into those clothes again, rather than dirty or stain the extra shirt or pants in my pack. Éowyn never moved or woke as I quietly changed and again donned my weapons and cloak. Even as I carefully closed her bedroom door, she never twitched.
As I rounded the corner into the Great Hall, I marveled at how much the bath and a bit of sleep in a bed had helped my aching body, and lost in my thoughts, I nearly ran into Gandalf's imposing white robed form.
"You are awake, that is well. We should be off. We have yet much ground to cover," Gandalf whispered, his voice low in consideration of those still sleeping in the Great Hall.
I shrugged. "Sure. I'm ready to be off."
Gandalf turned and I glimpsed Pippin's trudging form following behind him.
Tousling his hair, I pulled him close as he rubbed his eyes and whispered to him, "Still tired, huh? Well, it's gonna be a long ride yet. Best get what sleep you can while we ride."
"Don't understand why we have to go so early," Pippin grumbled.
I laughed softly. "It's the best time to leave for a trip, Pip. Before everyone's awake to slow you down by trying to talk to you and get in your way."
Pippin continued grumbling as we made our way back out to the stables.
"Stop your bellyaching young Peregrin Took. It was your own actions that brought you here," Gandalf admonished gruffly as we entered the stables, causing the boys there to spring up at our unexpected entrance.
"Jesh, Gandalf, lighten up. Pip's just tired and not used to this kind of hard traveling. If he wants to grumble a little, let him."
The wizard turned and rounded on me. "It is by your own actions that you are here as well. You should not be here any more than the young hobbit. Do not speak out of turn."
Gandalf bypassed the young boy trying to hustle into Shadowfax's stall, and I did likewise, stepping into Lightfoot's stall to ready him myself rather than leaving him to one of the boys to saddle.
"I'm getting sick and tired of the high and mighty of Middle-earth constantly running around telling me what I should and shouldn't do and where I should and shouldn't be. Think because they're a wizard or some high and mighty Vala they automatically know everything," I grumbled as I finished pulling my cinch tight.
"Vala?" Gandalf repeated behind me. "What is this talk of the Valar?"
I twirled to face him. "Damn wizards," I gasped. "Have to put a bell on you if you're gonna keep sneaking around like that."
One white brow arched. "The Valar?" he prompted.
I turned back to my horse again and fastened my pack across the front swells of the war saddle on Lightfoot's back and slipping his bridle on. The seat of the saddle was over-large, made for a Rohirrim man in armor, so more than large enough to accommodate my pack and myself.
"Yeah, damn Valar keep butting into my mind when I'm sleeping or knocked out and telling me what I can and can't do. And what's with them waiting until I'm asleep or knocked out to waltz around in my mind?" I questioned, turning to face the wizard again, leading Lightfoot forward with rein in hand.
Gandalf looked surprised at my question. "The Valar oft choose to appear to a mortal in their dreams as it is easier on their fragile minds," he replied offhandedly, not moving as I walked up to him, where he blocked my path. "How often have the Valar appeared to you?"
I shrugged. "Twice, I guess."
"And what pray tell, did they speak of with you?" he pressed.
"None of your business. They were just trying to tell me how I shouldn't change fate and such."
He looked away for a moment and then nodded and moved out of the doorway to the stall.
The young Rohirric boys stood around nearly wringing their hands, obviously upset that we hadn't allowed them to perform their duties.
"Keep your shirts on. I'm sure you'll have plenty of other work to do," I told them as I walked out into the cool air.
Gandalf rode up beside me, Pippin already dozing upon Shadowfax in front of the wizard. I swung into my own saddle, loath to allow anyone such height advantage over me.
"Well, let's get on to Gondor," I told the wizard. "Neither of us is getting any younger."
But Gandalf didn't move and instead seemed to be sizing me up. "Your manner is nearly as gruff as when you first came into this world."
I bristled. "So? I've always been a woman in a man's world. Being soft doesn't get you anywhere."
The wizard shook his head. "Nay, you had softened much in the time since my fall, and much you had gained. You need not return to your gruff ways to cover the hurt in your heart."
I looked away to the southwest and what our path to Minas Tirith would be. "Other women may think bellyaching about their hurts and upsets will make it better, but I know it doesn't do a damn thing. The hurt will still be there. Best to bury it in work." I turned back towards the wizard. "We've got a lot of ground to cover to get to our destination. We'd best get moving."
And thankfully, the wizard pressed no more. And on we silently rode.