1. Children of Lindórinand
Imagine a place with no children. No laughter, no song, and no joy. What have we to be joyful about? They took the children away, and now we have nothing but empty rooms and deserted villages. Only the babies remain. And the parents grieve for them, too, pre-emptively; we know that soon enough the grey men of the Galadas will return to take them.
It started when I was in late youth. Not yet married, but grown out of childhood, I was too old for them to take when they gathered all the boys of our village and marched them east to Caras Galadon. To be educated, they said. They would teach those boys how to read and write, how to use a bow and a sword, how to speak better and how to act like a proper grey man, even if they were Lindyn by blood. They took almost forty. In one day, forty children disappeared. The older boys went willingly, boasting of how big and important they were, and of the great things they would learn in the city. The youngest ones had to be pried, screaming, from the arms of their mothers. Those youngest ones were only four years old.
The next year, they came back and took two more boys, four years old. And then the year after that. And the year after that. Then, when they grew tired of coming all the way to our village to take away only two or three little boys a year, they decided to take the girls. Every girl, between the ages of four and thirty-two. They all went away, on one spring afternoon. That was the day our village became too quiet.
A long time later, when they were grown and educated, many of the boys came back. But the girls we never saw again, except for a scarce few.
The grey men never come at the same time each year. If they did, we would be able to anticipate their coming and hide our children. They come between spring and fall, but sometimes they are early, and sometimes late. They came early this year.
Their earliness was a blessing for my wife and me: our boy, Rúmil, was eleven days shy of four years old. Had they come a little later, had he been fully four, they would have taken him. It was our luck that their unbending rules let him stay to watch two other children, hardly any older, be carried away. So Rindilin and I have our little boy for one year more.
He is the youngest of three. The other two were taken long before he was born. Haldir would now be fifty-one, and Orophin, twenty-three. After Haldir was taken, we swore we would have no more children, to avoid the agony of parting. But then Orophin came, and we swore we would have as many children as we could, to dull the pain of loss. Now, with Rúmil having escaped for another year only by luck, we do not know what to think. All year, until the grey men came early, the fear had been building. We knew he would be taken. All year we worried, and the worry and heartsickness was nearly as bad as parting. Now we have another year ahead of us, relief tarnished by the growing shadow of the inevitable. Every day that we hold him close reminds us that time is limited.
Tonight, at the tail end of summer when nights are still hot, we have pulled our pallets out onto the talan to sleep in the soft, blanketing air. All around us, across the treetop village, other families have done the same. The stuffy heat that gathers inside our huts in summer is not good for babies. They rest better outdoors, with a gentle breeze that rustles the leaves in the trees. It is a sleepy, soothing sound. Rúmil lies stretched out on his belly, naked to the night, while Rindilin traces old patterns down the flat of his little back. I lie on his other side, arm curved around his head and Rindilin's. The leaf-streaked moonlight provides all the shelter we need.
If I could choose one perfect moment out of my life, one moment to stretch on and never end, it would be a sliver of time from one of these nights. I could lie here for eternity, watching Rúmil's soft, round face, utterly at peace, and Rindilin's hand on his back, slowing to stillness as she falls into sleep. They are a beautiful sight to me. When I close my eyes, their image stays in my mind. It segues smoothly into a dream, where the three of us live in alone in a great forest that we have all to ourselves, and I teach Rúmil to hunt in the ways our people have done for aeons without the interference of the Galadas.
But then Rúmil reaches out to touch me in the dream, and I feel a real, solid hand on my shoulder.
"Targol," someone whispers. "Wake up."
I turn as much as I can without disturbing Rindilin or Rúmil. Anoras, who I know is one of five men on watch duty tonight, has crouched over me with his bow in his hand. "What is it?" I whisper back.
"We do not know. Get your bow, and follow me. Some noises to the east."
I am careful enough that Rindilin does not wake as I pull back my arm and sit upright. On every talan around our village, I can see men standing, arming themselves, and waking the others. Some send their wives and children into the huts, but I will let Rindilin stay where she is, blissfully asleep. If there is any true danger, she will hear the alarm when it comes. I grab my bow from inside the hut, along with arrows and a long hunting knife, and leave her to follow Anoras.
Our village is built to keep out intruders. We live most of our daily life on the ground, where we have our wells, cooking fires, and workshops for pottery and tanning. But at night we retreat to our homes high in the trees. The telini are accessible only by rope ladder, which will keep most enemies away if those ladders are pulled up out of reach. Even if those wretched yrc do find their way up, each talan is connected to the next by a bridge of only a single strand of rope, which they cannot walk. We have found the rope bridges effective in discouraging anything more dangerous than the occasional snake or porcupine. With emergency supplies of food and water always kept ready, we can remain safe in our telini while raining arrows down on any threat. Or we can flee over a maze of ropes connecting treetop to treetop.
Mainly, those treetop ropes are used for hunting and scouting, allowing us to stay hidden among the leaves while observing anything that passes below, and this is what Anoras and I do. I follow his silent movements, balancing step by step on the delicate rope as we slip eastward from the village. I can hear noises ahead. They are faint: sounds of the occasional careless movement or snapped twig. At least three bodies are coming, which eliminates the possibility of a wild cat; they hunt alone. And yrc are never this stealthy.
"Either mortal Men have wandered into our forest, or we have some very arrogant and clumsy greys on our hands," I whisper to Anoras.
He turns his head to grin at me. "I was thinking the same."
All around, I can hear rustling in the leaves. To anyone but one of us Lindi it would sound like wind, but I know what it means. Over two dozen of our best hunters are closing in, ready to surround our prey. Whoever approaches will walk right into a circle of us without ever suspecting.
Anoras freezes as we reach the next tree. He points to the ground and I follow his gesture. Five of them, five grey men, walk below. One of them speaks to his fellow, quiet enough that I can hear the murmur of his voice but not his words, and the other laughs. How stupid they are. Anoras sneers at their carelessness, but seems to curse himself in doing so. As he takes hold of a branch to better lean over and observe them, it breaks in his hand, dead and dry, and crashes down from our hiding place. He nearly falls with it, though I catch his arm in time to help him regain his balance.
The greys are not stupid enough to ignore our mistake. Immediately, they have arrows drawn and aimed in our direction. Anoras swears under his breath, but there is nothing we can do now. It was an accident. And even if they know we are here, they are still surrounded.
"Who is there?" one calls up to us. They have such strange accents.
"Probably an animal," says another.
"No. We would hear more sounds if it were."
Another steps forward with his bow drawn. "Whatever it is-" he begins, and then, before any of the others can shout to stop him, he has loosed an arrow at our tree. It strikes the trunk directly between Anoras' head and mine.
He and I share a moment of shock, but only a moment, before he returns the favour to the greys down below. The one who nearly hit us screams and collapses sideways with the fletching from Anoras' arrow sticking up from his leg.
We hunters of the Lindas rarely shoot to kill. We shoot to maim first. Killing can always be done later, once we are sure of our enemies and that they know nothing useful.
"Danath!" one of them says in his grey man's accent. "That is an Elvish arrow!"
Another holds up his hands. "Please, do not shoot!"
"You shot first," one of our hunters replies from a tree on their other side.
Now they know they are surrounded. They huddle into a circle around their injured companion, weapons held ready and eyes darting nervously from tree to tree. "Please!" one of them cries. "We come peacefully!" At his feet, the injured one groans. They seem very young for grey men. All the greys I have ever seen have been stern-faced, arrogant, and not easily frightened. They should be demanding we show ourselves by now.
"Weapons on the ground!" someone shouts from a tree to my left.
They do so fearfully and without complaint, and another voice to my right calls, "Now do not move, or you will all be pinned to dirt with arrows!"
"Anoras..." I mutter. "Look at them. They are hardly more than children."
"Children!" he snorts. "They are full-grown men. Barely, but still full-grown. They shot at us, and they should have the courage to own their actions."
All around the greys, our hunters are climbing down from the trees to form a tight circle of arrows and knives. There are nearly thirty of us to five of them. Anoras climbs lower before jumping to the ground, and I follow. By the time we reach the circle, Deruir, Anoras' father, has our young grey visitors on their knees with their hands on their heads and Lindyn knives at their backs. Up close, I can see my guess is correct: each of them appears to be little more than fifty years old. They are hardly more than children, and they look ready to wet themselves with fear. The one with the arrow in his leg remains on the ground, still rolling and moaning like a dying wolf.
"Names, then tell my why you are here," Deruir snaps. "Are you little boys lost?"
"No, sir," the tallest one answers. "We seek-"
Deruir interrupts him with a kick to the thigh. "Name!"
"Brechad!" he gasps. "My name is Brechad!"
The rest of the able-bodied speak their names as Deruir points to them with his knife: Thaldin, Hatholir, and Faregon. A slow murmur begins to spread through the circle. These names sound familiar to us. Not exact, but they are close echoes to names we have not spoken in nearly fifty years. And though they are clothed in grey, their faces are much like our own. A man close on my right steps forward.
"Hiadolir?" he asks in wonder.
Like a timid animal, the one who called himself Hatholir looks up in response to the Lindyn name he cannot have heard since he was four years old. "Adar," he whispers.
And then everything breaks down into chaos. The man by my side throws himself to the ground, smothering his long-lost son in an embrace. All around us, cries of "Our boys have returned!" ring through the air. We need to place the others. Faregon's uncle is here, and Brechad, or Bregad as he should properly be, has a family waiting for him back in the village. The father of Staldin-called-Thaldin was killed years ago in a skirmish with the yrc, but his mother and grandparents still live. We make such a din that I am sure they can hear it even in Caras Galadon, whooping and shouting and welcoming back these five children we lost years ago.
Deruir and Anoras have tied a binding above the arrow-wound of the fifth, the injured boy, and are helping him to stand. Unlike the other four, who seem happy at the reunion, if still a little fearful at the sight of us warriors of the Lindas, he is scowling and his eyes burn with resentment. "Someone shot me," he growls.
"Ah, that was I!" Anoras answers with a laugh. "But you shot first. Missed my head by a handspan. I hope you have learned your lesson, now?"
"Danath," the boy spits. He speaks the word as if it is filthy.
Deruir claps his back in a way that is perhaps too hearty, and the boy winces at the impact. "You can 'Danas' us all you want, son, though I should warn you, the folk around these parts find that word crude and prefer to be called 'Lindas'. There are a number of things for you to learn, now that you have come home. Those grey Galadas can only teach you so much. But first tell me your name, and I will help you find your parents and where you belong."
The boy's cold eyes flick from Deruir to Anoras and back. He shrugs away from their grasp, testing his weight on his injured leg, but the pain is too much. Gasping, he squeezes his eyes shut. He teeters, and Anoras catches him under the arms before he can fall.
"We can tend your wound once we return to the village," Deruir says gently. "My sister is a skilled healer. Now stop trying to be so tough and come with us. What is your name?"
Grudgingly, the boy puts one arm over Deruir's shoulder and lets Anoras support the other. He glares down at his feet as he speaks. "My name is Haldir," he says.
We walk back to the village slowly. Or, more exactly, Anoras and I walk and Haldir limps between us, dragging his injured leg. Deruir has gone ahead with the others. Haldir complains now and then of dizziness or exhaustion, which I know means he has lost a good amount of blood. He needs a healer and a proper bandage. Otherwise, he says nothing to me. He refuses to so much as look in my direction. Worse, I find I have nothing to say to him.
This moment is nothing like what I had always envisioned. Of all the times I had imagined Haldir returning to us, it had never been in a way like this. In my mind, he would be full of joy at finding his childhood home again. Or, in darker moments, he would be quiet and sad as he related the stories of how cruelly the Galadas treat his people. What I see now, his contempt, is a shock.
What can I say to that? He is nothing like what I thought he would be, and nothing like the little boy who left forty-seven years ago. I see nothing of my old memories in him. I cannot even be sure he is truly my son. All he has is his word, which will do little to prove who he is. He might not be my son. He could even be another boy named Haldir, who was taken to Caras Galadon from another village. Haldir is not a rare name among our folk. I have met two other Haldirs in my life: one from Ern Calin, and one from a village similar to ours near Cerin Amroth. I have met another Targol as well. Sometimes, we find those who bear familiar names. This Haldir might not be my son.
"Do you remember anything of the village?" I ask him. He might remember a different village: one to the east or south. He could be confused or misinformed about his place of birth, which would mean he is not my son.
After a long silence, he answers, "No."
"Nothing?" asks Anoras.
"No. Only the huts in the trees. But they have those in Caras Galadhon as well, and they are nothing new."
The memory proves nothing. Many of the Lindas build their homes in the trees.
"How can you be sure you have come to the right place, then?" I ask. "There are other similar villages in Lindórinand."
Anoras regards me with an expression of horror, as if to say, how can you doubt he is your own son? I know he thinks I should be glad, overjoyed, to have my boy return. I know I should be, as well. But I can feel little more than suspicion. With a shrewd look, Haldir turns to speak to me. I can tell by his eyes that he knows exactly what I am thinking: he can see my disappointment as plainly as the sky on a sunny day.
"You need not worry, Adar," he says, subtly and poisonously stressing the last word. "I know where I am going. I have been with Hatholir and Brechad since the beginning. If they came hence, then so did I. And yes," he adds, "I am your son. I recognise that trinket around your neck."
I cannot help but touch the charm that falls down against my chest. It is an ancient flint arrowhead, made long ages ago when our people lived back in the east, and it has been passed down through the generations as a symbol of strength and honour. My father gave it to me when Haldir was born, just as it had been given him by my grandfather when I was born. I should give it to Haldir when he has a son, though that thought creates a knot of uncertainty in my stomach. Would he even respect our family history?
We say nothing else until we have arrived at the village. Then, Haldir is given to the care of two healers, who have seen worse and promise him a full recovery in good time. We are accustomed to weapon wounds, broken limbs, and animal attacks among the hunters and warriors of our village. It is a rare man among us who has no scars to remind him of old injuries or youthful folly. My own back is corded from shoulder to waist down the left side: a gift from a mountain cat I foolishly thought I could take on my own with nothing but a knife.
Haldir's injury, though, should leave little for a mark. The healers are able to remove the arrow easily and stitch his skin with thorns. He complains, fussing and groaning about the pain, throughout the whole process. The women tease him for it, and rightly so; he deserves their teasing for mewling like an infant at a few stitches. His pride must be greatly diminished. I know it is an insult to mine to have so delicate a son. As soon as it is over and his leg bandaged, Anoras and I haul him away from the healers' hut to spare him the jibes of the men.
"Have you anything for him to wear, Targol?" Anoras asks me, and I look down to assess the torn and bloody remains of Haldir's clothing. His tunic is filthy with dirt and blood, and the leg of his breeches has been ripped up to the thigh to allow the healers access to his arrow wound. None of it is fit to wear.
"Yes. He can borrow something of mine until we have a chance to find him new clothing of his own."
"I have no need of it," says Haldir.
"Yes, you do, boy," laughs Anoras. "Your breeches are split, and you are sodden with gore, in the attire of a grey man. Do you wish your mother to see you this way?"
He does not reply, pretending that he did not hear Anoras in the commotion that surrounds us. Even though it is the middle of the night, the entire village has woken to celebrate the homecoming of our five sons. One of the big cooking fires has been lit, and someone has hung a pot to make soup for the blossoming festivities. Others have hauled out drums, and women are dancing. But if I follow Haldir's sightline, the thing he sees most clearly is his friend Hiadolir stripped of his fine grey man's garb, sitting by a small fire with his mother clinging around his neck. Hiadolir is wrapped in a rough-woven blanket, a colourfully striped piece that his mother must have made, and someone has draped a garland of feathers and animal teeth around his neck as a mark of honour. He looks so happy to be home; his father looks so proud to have him.
That is how I imagined Haldir's return would be. We would welcome him with gifts and open arms, and he would be grateful to receive both. But instead of that happy scene, he limps alongside me through the darkness on the outskirts of joy and neither of us can think of one loving thing to say to the other.
Rindilin is in our hut, trying vainly to calm Rúmil's sudden midnight burst of childish energy. I can hear them before we even climb onto the talan: Rúmil's chant of no! no! no! and Rindilin's voice pleading with him to lie down and try to go back to sleep. As I pull back the curtain over the doorway, she says to him, "Now look, your father is home, and you are being very bad!"
Rúmil, radiating the kind of excitement that can only be found in naked four-year-olds who refuse to go to bed, ceases jumping like a rabbit long enough to yell, "Ada!" and run toward my legs. But then he sees Haldir at my side: Haldir, covered in blood and scowling with a dark menace, and he stops so abruptly he falls on his bottom.
"Rúmil!" Rindilin gasps as she rushes to gather him into her arms. He is not hurt, only shocked, and too shocked to cry at that. He stares round-eyed at Haldir for as long as he can bear before hiding his face against Rindilin's shoulder. Rindilin stares as well. A similar expression of shock and uncertainty has frozen on her face.
"This is Haldir, Rúmil," I say as calmly as I can. "He is your older brother. Since before you were born, he has lived with the other boys his age in Caras Galadon. But now he has returned to live with us here."
Predictably, Rúmil does not reply, nor does he look away from the safety of his mother's skin. A new person in his life is something too frightening to accept this late at night and without warning. I shall have to reintroduce them in the morning. Rindilin, though, cannot wait.
"Oh!" she whispers. "I had not even hoped you would come... I thought it was only the other four..."
"I am here, Naneth," Haldir answers stiffly. He shifts more weight onto his good leg and releases his hold on my arm.
I take Rúmil from Rindilin, letting him cling at my neck and bury his face in my hair, and step aside. I will give the reunited mother and son their space. Haldir and I had a wrong-footed start together, but it needs not be that way with Rindilin. I carry Rúmil to the back of the hut and sit on the bed, out of the way, and half watch the scene from the corner of my eye.
"You are injured!" I hear Rindilin say. "Oh, Haldir..."
"It is nothing," he replies. "The healers have stitched and bandaged the wound, and they say I should make a quick recovery."
He shakes his head. "It is nothing, truly, Naneth."
"My boy... my poor boy..." She embraces him, though tentatively, wary of the blood on his tunic. "But you are home now. Thank the stars, you are home."
"I am home."
"Come over here with me. You are all dirty. But I have some new clothes I was making for your father; they are nearly done and will do for you."
"Naneth, no; I can wear what I have."
She leads him to her sewing basket, from which she pulls a new pair of soft leather breeches. "I have done the fringe at the bottom, but not at the waist, and I had planned to have some stitchwork down the sides..."
He will never wear such a thing. It is too Lindyn for him: too primitive. Why should a great grey man like Haldir wear anything other than the fine cloth of Caras Galadon? He puts on a good effort of being as polite as he can to refuse Rindilin's offering.
Rúmil, now having found either bravery or curiosity, peeks up from my shoulder. "Is he really my brother, Ada?" he whispers.
"Yes," I whisper back. "He is your brother, and his name is Haldir."
That is bravery enough for Rúmil. He asks no more questions and makes no effort to investigate this new brother for himself, but shifts in my lap to face toward the room so he can watch at a safe distance. One hand he has stuffed halfway into his mouth, and the other tangles its little fingers through my hair.
"Just try it, Haldir, please, try," Rindilin pleads. "You cannot keep wearing those dirty clothes!"
I am certain he will continue to refuse. In my mind's eye, I see a quarrel erupting, and Haldir running off to spend the night somewhere in the forest on his own. Instead, he proves me wrong. He releases a long, wounded sigh, as if the act of wearing Lindyn clothing is a heavy burden for him to bear, and takes the breeches from Rindilin's hands before retreating behind a curtain we have hung across one section of the hut. Minutes later, after what I am sure must have been a struggle to undress and dress again with his injured leg, he emerges.
"That is much better!" says Rindilin, placing her hand on his arm. I must agree. Now, in these familiar clothes, he looks more like the son I had always expected him to be. The breeches are too short, which must mean he is taller than I: something I had not noticed with him bent over and limping outside. Still, the style suits him well. He has undone his hair from the numerous braids that held it back from his face, and it looks better falling loose. He looks like one of us. Only the embarrassed expression on his face and the way he fidgets with the ties on the breeches betray his foreign tastes.
"The leg is somewhat tight," he mutters, and this could be true: I can see the raised outline of bandages around his thigh.
"Does it hurt you?" Rindilin asks.
Haldir shakes his head. "No," he admits. "It is a little tight, but nothing painful."
She cannot drape her protective arm across his shoulders, because he is so much taller, but she can manage a half-embrace around his back as she leads him to sit on Rúmil's bed. "Yes, sit here," she says. "My poor boy."
Her touches are still hesitant; she still holds her arms stiffly. I know by watching her that she is as uncertain of Haldir as I am. She is only trying to hide her uncertainty behind forced concern and affection. It is a play at how a family should be, though underneath, at the deepest layers, we know it is wrong. We try, and fail, to force reality to bend to the sweetness of our dreams.
"Ada... must I share my bed with Haldir now that he will live with us?" Rúmil whispers up to me.
I kiss the soft crown of his hair. "No. He will have your bed for tonight, but you may sleep here between your Nana and me."
"Must I share my toys with him?"
I nearly laugh, but stop myself at the honest fear in Rúmil's eyes. "No, little son," I murmur. "You need not share your toys."
It is a difficult night. Rindilin, though she tries her best to fool me with slow breathing, does not sleep, and nor do I. The celebrations roar on down below the telini, but it is not the noise that keeps me awake. I am not the least bit tired. I feel tense, as if every muscle in my body is alert and ready to fly into action. It is the feeling I get while hunting, or on the watch for attacking yrc: an expectant, suspenseful, and excited feeling.
Haldir does not sleep, either. All night, on Rúmil's pitifully small bed, he rolls and grunts and arranges his body, trying to find a comfortable position. If he lies out straight, his legs are on the floor. Rúmil's bed is only long enough for a four-year-old. If he curls up like a child, I hear him hiss from the pain in his thigh.
By the time the sun rises, each one of us save Rúmil, who carries a child's good fortune of being able to sleep in any situation, is weary from a long night of tension and no rest. Rindilin leaves with Rúmil to fetch our daily water without speaking a word to either Haldir or me: a sign that she will be short-tempered today. Just as broodingly silent, I pull on my clothes and only speak to Haldir when I am halfway out the door.
"I will be gone for the day. Have you any plans?"
"No," he answers flatly. "I suppose I will sit here and do nothing."
I know I should feel sorry for him. And I know I should make an effort. "You could..." I begin, "come with me if you like. I am helping a group of men cut and haul logs to make some repairs in the village. You cannot help with that injury, but you can watch, and it is better company than lying here alone."
As with the breeches, I expect him to refuse. What good is sitting idly in a forest all day while others work? However, he nods to me. Perhaps he, too, is trying to make an effort at strengthening our brittle relationship. "Very well. It is not my idea of excitement, but it is better than staying in this hut. Hold on a moment."
With an awkward lunge, he is able to balance on his good leg and stand while keeping the other straight. He rolls his soiled clothing into a ball and grabs his travelling pack from the floor. "Will I need my bow?"
"We are staying close to the village," I say. "You can leave it here."
He brings it and his arrows nonetheless. Whether he feels he needs them or is too untrusting to leave them in the hut, I say nothing, and let him arm himself. We leave together, him leaning on my shoulder for support. His wound has improved even since last night. He will be able to walk unassisted within days.
We had some trouble ascending the rope ladder last night, though Haldir managed well enough by climbing mainly with his arms and only resting his good leg on the rungs. Descending is trickier. I need to help him through the trap door, making certain he is balanced before releasing my grip on his wrists. The way down is a slow process through which Haldir clings to the ladder, hops with his good leg, and slides his hands down the rope. Still, slow as it is, he neither falters nor falls. His determination is impressive. Then, once we have reached firm ground, he finds a sturdy walking stick he can use for balance to free him from dependence on my shoulder.
"Over this way," I tell him, and he follows with a nod.
All day, as the others and I work, he sits at the side of our little village stream to wash and mend his clothes. He has a needle and thread in his pack, which causes a riot of mocking from the men at work on the logs. "Women's work," they call it, teasing that he will make a good wife someday. While they laugh, he shrugs.
"Imagine this," he tells them. "You and your fellows are up in the mountains on a five-day hunt. What will you do if your breeches split in the seat on the first day? Spend the next four with your arse hanging out?" The laughter subsides to a few snickers. "The way I see things, is it not better to know how to repair your own clothing? You would make a better wife than I," he says to one who laughed loudest, "crouched over with your pretty little girlish buttocks bared to the world."
They roar again with laughter, though this time, it is not at Haldir's expense. He struggles to his feet with the help of his walking stick and shakes out the mended breeches. "There, you see?" he says. "Real men require adequate clothing, to distinguish them from the children and the animals."
He has managed to wash away almost all of the bloodstains; only a faintly darker ring remains around the area that the arrow pierced. Where the healers ripped the leg open, he has mended the jagged edges with such skill that the seam hardly shows. His tunic, too, has been well cleaned.
"And the washing?" someone asks. "You will steal all of your mother's work!"
"Oh, not necessarily," I reply on Haldir's behalf. "Think of the example he gave before. Were you injured on a long hunt, would you not rather know how to properly wash your own clothes than wait for your mother and risk being stalked by wolves or worse? Old blood is a danger deep in the forest and up in the mountains."
Haldir grins at me. "My father is smarter than all of you lot. And for my own part, I would rather be seen doing woman's work than wait like a naked, bloodstained fool for my mother to mend and wash my clothes."
That evening, while the women lose their breath laughing at the very idea of it, Haldir and his friend Bregad conduct a mending lesson for the five men who are either not easily embarrassed by the prospect of learning to sew or arevery easily frightened by the spectre of what might happen if they are caught unprepared in the woods. They have borrowed needles and thread from their mothers or wives. The needles of the Lindas are made of porcupine quill rather than the silver that Haldir has, but the technique is the same in any case. By night's end, one man has successfully mended a worn hole at his knee.
As to washing, Bregad explains, the best technique is to use sand or fine gravel to scour the stains. Sand can also be used to wash blood and dirt from skin, and to clean hair.
After thirteen days, Haldir is the only one of the five returned sons to still wear his grey clothing. The others now dress themselves in the leather and plain-woven garb of our people. Even Bregad, who is second to Haldir in his loyalty to the Galadas, proudly dons new clothes that his mother has made. It shames Rindilin that Haldir does not.
Though he and I are on better terms than when we started, I can never rid myself of the feeling that he still does not, and never will, belong here. His ties to Caras Galadon are too strong. And while I try to understand and defend him as much as I can, the other men of the village are relentless in their belief that the only way to turn him to our ways is through constant mockery. They laugh at his ways. Everything he does differently is wrong, in their eyes. The way he speaks, like the Galadas, is wrong. Every small failing is worthy of ridicule.
Haldir cannot walk a rope. None of the boys who returned can. This is one thing the Galadas did not teach them: how to balance on a single span of taut rope and use it as a bridge. As it is one of the essential skills of our village, families of the boys have tied a low training rope between two stumps to teach them. Haldir is the last to begin his lesson due to the injury to his leg. However, given the difficulty of the task, he is hardly at a disadvantage for starting thirteen days behind the others. No-one can yet walk the training rope. The one who has made the most progress is Faregon, and he can only manage a quarter of the span at best before falling.
This is a skill that should be acquired in early childhood. My parents taught me when I was five or six years old, and Rindilin has decided that since the training rope is in place, she will begin teaching Rúmil along with Haldir. I have no doubt that Rúmil will be the one to first master rope-walking. Children learn quickly, whereas adult bodies are slower to adapt to new ways of balance and movement. The men of our village who learned as children can now run from treetop to treetop across our bridges, as if they were flying like birds. The women need not even think as they walk a rope from talan to talan, balancing a baby on one hip while carrying a pail of water. The few who return to us from Caras Galadon as adults never reach that level of comfort. Some never learn to walk the ropes at all.
But even though all five boys are beginners on the training rope, Haldir attracts the most scorn. He is easily the worst today, due to his newness and partially healed leg. The injury earns him no mercy.
"The younger brother is better than the elder," Anoras says to me as we watch the five boys and Rúmil try, and fail, at walking the span of rope. "Look: he can go fully to the other side with only lightly touching your wife's hand for balance."
Anoras speaks the truth: Rúmil's small, light body is a clear advantage for him. With his arms out like wings and just the very tips of the fingers brushing Rindilin's outstretched palm, he can walk from stump to stump across the training rope. Haldir, following him, must keep his hand flat on Rindilin's shoulder to manage the same.
"Rúmil is young," I say in excuse. "You know small children always gain these skills quickly. Also, Haldir is injured. It cannot be easy to learn a new way of walking on a bad leg."
"It cannot be easy falling on a bad leg," Anoras says as Haldir lifts his hand from Rindilin's shoulder, takes one step on his own, and falls to the side.
I cringe for him. "You are right. He should not be trying this at all; he could injure himself further or open the wound."
As if able to read my thoughts, Haldir staggers away from the rope, holding up his hands to Rindilin. Enough, he seems to say. He shakes his head. He is done with training for today.
"Alas, poor Haldir," Anoras sighs. He is grinning, and I know he finds nothing unfortunate about the situation. He, like everyone else, prefers to mock. "He will never walk a rope, and never be a true man. Or woman, for that matter. Even women can walk ropes."
"He is injured," I say sharply, "and this is his first day. Give him time."
Anoras shakes his head. "You have high expectations of him, Targol. I suppose all fathers do of their sons. But you need to see what the rest of us do. That boy will never belong here. He will never be one of us."
I have no chance to reply; Haldir is walking toward us, still favouring his bad leg, and I would rather not have him know what a popular topic of conversation he is. "Haldir!" I call. "Well done. You made good progress."
"I abandoned it for today," he says. "Fine balance is still too difficult. I should wait until my leg is fully healed."
"A wise choice," says Anoras. "By the time your leg is healed, your baby brother will have mastered the art of rope-walking, and there will be no more unfavourable comparison of you two in training."
As always, Haldir gives no reply. He seems impervious to these insults. No hint of acknowledgement passes over his face, and he looks to me as if Anoras had not spoken at all. "I was wondering if you could show me to the archery ranges," he says. "I believe my leg is healed enough for shooting, and I would like to stay in practice."
"Are you better at shooting than you are at walking?" asks Anoras.
"Very much so," Haldir answers. "You may not remember, but I nearly struck your head. And that was in the dark with you hiding in the trees where I could not see. I am an excellent archer."
Anoras narrows his eyes. "Show me."
Haldir has left his bow and quiver near the training rope. Once he has fetched both, he asks Anoras, "What can I do to show you?"
Anoras glances about the clearing until his eyes come to rest on a thin branch sticking out at eye-height from a nearby tree bole. "There. That little branch. If you can split it cleanly down the centre, I will believe you to be as good an archer as any man in the village."
"Impossible," scoffs Haldir. "I can see from here that the branch is unevenly forked, which means it will split to the side. The arrow will deflect and could end up missing the tree entirely. Only an idiot would attempt it." He pauses for a leisurely breath before continuing, "Only an idiot would attempt to split any branch down the middle. You never know how the wood will react. It is a beginner's fantasy."
To that, Anoras has no response but a hardened jaw. Haldir has correctly answered the trick question.
"How is this," says Haldir. "You find a good leaf on the ground, and throw it into the air in front of me. I will shoot the leaf."
"Shoot the leaf?" I ask, but Haldir only grins and draws his bow.
"Watch this, Adar."
I stand back to watch. Anoras takes his time selecting an ideal leaf from the trampled matter underfoot, and finally chooses one that is about the size of his palm, yellow-green and not too tattered. He tosses it into the air before Haldir. Slowly, the leaf begins to fall in a zigzag back to earth. It flutters left and right, always in Haldir's gaze. Finally, when I am almost sure it has fallen too low for Haldir to strike, he makes a lightning-fast step to the side and releases his arrow.
The arrow sings through the air, too quick for eyes to follow, and Anoras and I only notice where it has gone when it hits a tree with a dull thud. We both go to investigate the result. And there it is: the thrown leaf, pierced by Haldir's arrow, which is embedded in the tree less than a finger's width from the forked branch Anoras originally asked him to split.
Haldir's success with the arrow and the leaf does not put an end to the ridicule, but it helps. Anoras, at least, treats him with a new degree of respect, and some of the men follow. Through the summer, things slowly improve, and continue to do so into fall and winter. Haldir refuses to abandon his grey clothing, but it does not draw as many taunts as it once did. Those have subsided to the occasional, good-natured joke. We are accustomed to the sight of him now. Even Rindilin's disapproval has faded. Now, she concentrates her efforts on a new aspect of Haldir that she finds deficient.
"You need to marry," she insists. "You need to find a nice girl and build your own talan. Or even your own hut, here on our talan. There is room. But you need to find a nice girl and have a nice family. Then you will be much happier."
"Of course, Naneth," he answers. He never answers her seriously. His side of this conversation is always a vague dismissal.
"I mean this, Haldir," she continues. "We have discussed this before, and always you answer with, 'Of course, Naneth.' 'Of course' will not help you. You and your father must go into the forest and gather wood to build a hut."
"Not now, Rindilin," I say. "It is the middle of winter. We should wait until spring."
She pauses long enough to listen to the rain, pelting against the thick hides that compose the walls of our hut, and she shivers at the sound of it. "Yes, yes, fine," she says as she pulls her blanket closer around her shoulders, wrapping Rúmil, who sits nested in her lap, more tightly. "In the spring. When spring comes, Haldir, we will build you a hut."
Looking at his hands, Haldir shrugs. "We will see."
"No, we will not see. You and your father will build a hut. The other boys are building theirs already. You cannot live in here forever; it is far too small."
He sighs, letting his shoulders slump, and looks up at her. "There is no need to build me anything, Naneth. I am leaving in the spring."
His words must shock her as much as they do me. We both stare at him a moment before shouting, "What?" and leaning closer. Even Rúmil, half asleep, twists in Rindilin's lap to better view the older brother he has come to follow everywhere.
"I am sorry," he says softly. "I should have told you sooner. I put it off too long, thinking a better time would come... But here is the truth. I must return to Caras Galadhon at the coming of spring. I have been accepted into the Grey Guard and will be travelling to Imladris for a chance to train in diverse styles of combat. It is a great honour, Naneth!"
A great honour, he says. There is honour to be found in serving the Galadas, I am sure, but I can see none of it for the blinding disappointment that has come falling down around me.
"Why?" Rindilin asks. Her voice is no more than a whisper, edged with the threat of tears. "Why would you return to them? They are evil people!"
"They are not!" Haldir shouts in reply. His defensive anger comes suddenly.
"They steal our children!"
"For good! For the good of the children!" He seems ready to shout more, but stops himself. Rindilin is so close to weeping. He continues more gently.
"Naneth, I know how this seems to you. The soldiers of the Galadhrim come to the village and take away your children. But they do not do it out of cruelty! Those children are taken to a good place, and are cared for well."
"They are so small," Rindilin sobs. "And my Rúmil..."
"Yes," Haldir admits. "I agree, that is one flaw in their ways. The children are so young. But you know yourself, and Adar, you know this, that learning is best done in early childhood. It is easier to learn to read and write at the age of six than twenty-six. But listen to me!" he says, holding up his hands as I open my mouth to speak. "You may not believe what I say, but they are good people. They treated us well. I spent forty-seven years with them, and I have no unkind memories. I remember only being happy. I remember good friends, and great men who taught archery and swordsmanship, and wise women who told stories of the past, and patient teachers who helped me to read and write. It is all more than a child could have staying in this village."
"A child staying in this village would have parents," I tell him. "Or do the Galadas provide you with new parents as well?"
Clearly frustrated, he turns his face to the roof. "You do not believe me. You need not believe me. But I speak the truth. And soon enough, Rúmail will discover it, too. He will be given every opportunity that I have, that you would rather deny him."
"He will not-" Rindilin begins, but Haldir interrupts.
"He will. Naneth, he should be there already. He is nearly five years old! I am surprised they did not take him before. And it is unfortunate, because all this time, he could be living a better life with the other children in Caras Galadhon."
"That is enough!" I say. I am on my feet before I even realise I leapt up, and I have my hand on Haldir's shoulder before he can shrink away. "You will not speak to your mother so! And you will not speak of your brother so! It is a foul thing that those Galadas do, and I will not have you speak in favour of them!"
"And I will not have you malign them," Haldir answers with a passion that equals mine. "Lord Celeborn is a great man, Adar, and he and the Lady rule this land well. They are wise and just."
"They are arrogant and delusional! They force their foreign will upon us, for our own good, they say, without a thought as to whether we want it or not!"
"Only because you are too backward to recognise that their ways are better, and too stubborn to change on your own!"
"They are trying to destroy us, Haldir!" I shout. "Do you not understand that? They are not doing what they do out of kindness or friendship, but because they hate us! They hate our difference, and they hate our independence! They want to be rid of us! And how do they do that? By turning us into them! Our children grow up with their language, with their traditions, and forget everything that is important to our people! In a few generations, they may even succeed! The Lindas will cease to exist! That is what they want!"
Haldir, not arguing any further, simply shakes his head. He picks up his bow from where it leans against the wall of the hut, and his quiver of arrows, and pulls open the hide door-flap. "Perhaps I agree with them," is all he says before he stalks out into the night and its cold rain.
I cannot bring myself to go after him. Angry as I am, in that moment I am convinced that he would be better off wandering in exile like the traitor he is than shame our house with his loyalty to the Galadas. I swear at him and tie the door shut to prevent him from returning. My hands shake as I do. Behind me, Rindilin has started weeping loudly, and Rúmil wails along with her.
Two days later, once I have had time to calm myself and become sick with the thought that I have cost my eldest son the protection of our village, I learn from Anoras that he is perfectly safe and living with his friend Bregad. Then, I become angry all over again.
The last time I see Haldir is in the early spring, when the heavy winter rains have trickled into warm showers. All winter he has avoided me and I have seen him only in the distance, standing on another talan or stalking off with Bregad. He keeps well away from me, and I make no effort to approach him. We have become strangers again.
On this day, an average day, Rindilin is making bread with a group of women and I am making arrows with some of the men. I return to the talan to fetch the feathers I have been saving, and on the way back I pass Haldir, sitting at the base of a tree. Rúmil is with him. Haldir has his Galadyn things with him: a knife, a metal hair comb, an archery glove, and other items, all spread out on display. Rúmil regards them with amazement.
"What I wear is the garb of a warrior," I hear Haldir saying, "and it must be grey to blend into the trees. But in the city, you can have a fine robe of orange or green or lilac, and a cloak pin made of gold or silver. And you will have a new name. Rúmil is what they call you here, but that is a Dadhren name. In the Galadhren speech, you will be Rúmail."
The look of wonder in Rúmil's eyes makes my blood pound through my head in anger. In five steps, I am there at his side, scooping him up over my shoulder. He hollers in surprise. Haldir merely scowls at me as he quickly gathers up his things.
"I will not hear that kind of talk," I warn Haldir. "I will not have you fill Rúmil's head with your ideas."
"Why not?" he answers lazily. "He will see for himself soon enough."
"He will see for himself soon enough that the Galadas are cruel brutes!"
Rúmil squawks again, and I carry him off before Haldir can say anything further. "Do not listen to Haldir," I tell him. "He lies to you. Everything he says is a lie, meant to stop you from fearing the Galadas. But you should fear them, Rúmil. They are strange and foul. If they catch you, they will take you away to a dark place and you will never see me or your mother again."
I set him down near two smaller children, who have been given the bleached bones of a deer to bang on a hollow log. He stares at me with an expression halfway between confusion and fear, glances back to Haldir, then looks at me again. "But..." he begins. He looks to Haldir. Where once there was fear, now there is only adoration. I know he has grown to love Haldir desperately. He adores him in a way that only a younger brother can.
"No, Rúmil. He was only telling you a story. None of it is true."
He looks crestfallen. I smooth down his hair.
"I will tell you a better story. Later tonight. Right now, you must stay here. Play with these children. Will you do that?"
"Yes, Ada," he whispers.
I leave him there with a parting smile, and return to my arrow-making. Later, when I go back to fetch him, he is gone, but I think nothing of it. Rindilin must have taken him back up to the talan.
We refuse to admit that he is gone until well into the night. Inside our hut, Rindilin weeps on her mother's shoulder, waiting for him to come home, while Anoras and Deruir take a party of men to search the forest. They run toward Caras Galadon shouting his name. I know, though, that their efforts are useless. Haldir may be hindered by the presence of a small child, but he has nearly a full day's head start. And he knows they will be coming. If he carried Rúmil on his back and fled, he could be well past Cerin Amroth by now.
I feel too sick to run with them: sick in my stomach and heart both. Rúmil is gone. Haldir has taken him, and he is gone. One son betrayed me to rip the other from my life. The sickness churns in my stomach and clenches my heart. It fills my head with despair, pushing out any whisper of clarity. I cannot think.
"Will they find him?" Rindilin's father asks. He has left the hut to sit out on the talan with me under the stars. His voice sounds foolishly optimistic.
"No," I answer. "Haldir will reach Caras Galadon first."
"Then our warriors will have to find Rúmil there, and bring him home."
"Rúmil is nearly five years old. The Galadas will keep him. Nothing in their law will let us take him back."
Rindilin's father looks at me with something halfway between pity for my loss and disgust for having abandoned hope so easily, but I cannot bring myself to care. His disrespect means nothing now. I need to see Rindilin. The feeling comes over me so suddenly and with such power that I nearly collapse. I need her. I need to hold her close and know that she is safe. With Rúmil gone, she is all that I have.
I stagger inside while clutching a hand to my head as if it could stop my thoughts from their futile spinning. Rindilin reaches out to me and I pull her into my arms. We both sink to the floor, unable to stand or even kneel through our grief. Her whole body shakes with the effort of her sobbing, and my own tears wet the top of her head where I rest my cheek. Something hard like a bone presses my chest from the inside. I never knew that loss could cause such pain to the body as well as the spirit. Neither of us speaks. There is no need; we both know exactly what the other feels, and to speak of it would only bring more pain. And so we suffer in compassionate silence, and stay as we are, on the floor, until morning.
By then, by the time the sun has risen enough to send shards of yellow light through the gaps around the door to our hut and the birds sing loudly in the trees, I have had a whole night to sift through my spinning thoughts. One of them sticks in the fore of my mind. It is something I have considered before, and dismissed, but now it returns with renewed strength.
"We should go," I whisper to Rindilin.
"Away from here."
"Away?" She pulls back enough to sit and look down at me.
"Leave this place. Leave Lindórinand. I was thinking..." I hitch my words, knowing already what her reaction will be. "We should go to Ern Calin."
"No." Her eyes immediately harden, and she leans further back.
"Consider it, Rindilin," I press. "What have we left here? Nothing. Our children are gone. Every year, the Galadas extend their influence and disturb our villages. They have already overrun Cerin Amroth, and it will not be long before all of the forest is under their complete control. Celeborn is not Amdir. He will never stop until he has taken our history and our language and even our lives and forced us to live by his laws. But Thranduil in Ern Calin allows the Lindas their own freedom. Think of it! There, we could live as we wished, with no more worry of the Galadas!"
"But with new worries," she says. "You know what the Galadas call that place now. Taur-e-Ndaedelos: the forest of great fear. They say evil has taken it, and that Thranduil himself has been driven into the north."
Moving to sit beside her, I shake my head. "I do not believe it. That is nothing but a false tale from Caras Galadon to keep us loyal to Lindórinand and make us fear the east. How many of our people have already gone? If Ern Calin were so bad, they would have returned. I think that evil is a lie. And your own brother went there," I remind her. "Is he a fool who lives in danger? No."
She sighs. For every argument of mine, she has a counter. "And what of the children, Rúmil and Orophin?" She lists the two names carefully. "What if they return and find us gone? I think they will return." Her voice wavers on the brink of a sob.
"Then someone will tell them where we have gone. They will join us in Ern Calin, and they will live there happily without the fear that their own children will someday be taken from them."
Her eyes soften. This something she wants desperately to believe.
"Would you not like to see your grandchildren live in the freedom that was denied our sons?"
Sadly, she nods her head and whispers, "Yes."
"Then we should go," I say, and a lone spark of joy flickers inside me at the thought: Ern Calin and freedom. Life by our own rules.
"I will think about it," she replies.
We leave in early summer. Rindilin and I have gathered everything we own into two baskets that we can carry on our backs, and we are not the only ones. Four families in the village with small children have decided to come with us, to spare themselves the torment of loss, and three young men have decided that their prospects for marriage will be better in the east. We packed up our lives amid sorry looks from those who will stay. Some, like Anoras and Deruir, refuse to leave because they believe it will mean the Galadas have won. Others, who have known nothing but Lindórinand all their lives, are too afraid of what may lie outside.
But what I see out outside, as Rindilin and I reach the forest's edge, gives me nothing to fear. The summer sun is bright overhead. Birds soar against its vast blueness, and tall grasses wave on the rolling hills below. The open air welcomes us with the promising embrace of something new. Out here, the damaged past can be sloughed off like the skin of a snake.
"Goodbye!" I scream to the Golden Wood as we pass from beneath its leaves and out into the world. "May yrc burn you to the ground!"
"Hush," says Rindilin, as if the trees might hear and claw us back in.
I can only laugh. It is a bitter laugh. But ahead on the horizon, across the river, the misty grey-green border of Ern Calin awaits.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.