2. Chapter 2
Chapter 2: Lessons and Observations
Several weeks later…1
Haldir sighed in impatient frustration as he sat down upon a large moss-covered rock. He had brought three of the Halflings into the forest surrounding the city, the result of a request they had made to Lord Celeborn, to teach them of Lorien flora and fauna. The one called Sam, who seemed to be the self-appointed cook of the group, had said it was important for him to know which plants in this part of Middle-earth were safe to eat and which were not. Merry and Pippin had cheerfully tagged along rather than continuing with the sword training that Boromir of Gondor was trying to instill in them. Only the Ringbearer himself was studious enough to stick with his lesson when the opportunity for adventure had presented itself.
When Lord Celeborn assigned him the task of educating the Halflings in forest lore, Haldir had thought it a good idea to recruit Isilmei to join him. He had taught her about their forest when she was an elfling, and she had proven an eager and attentive student. He knew that she would enjoy spending time with the little people who so fascinated her, and would be able to add her own observations to his lesson. His own thoughts were now so focused on military concerns that he did not often stop to admire the beauty of their woods during these troubled times. Isilmei, with the fresh perspective of youth and her training as a healer, viewed the forest's plants and trees in a way different from his own.
What he had planned was not entirely how the day progressed, however. Periannath, it seemed, had very short attention spans. At least in the cases of Merry and Pippin, a few brief moments of instruction were inevitably followed by several unrelated questions that veered into unpredictable territories. He had struggled mightily during their walk to maintain his patience and composure, efforts which were not aided by Isilmei's irreverent giggles whenever one of the Halflings stumped him with the variety and irrelevance of their questions.
The more focused he became on keeping his new pupils on task; the funnier she found the situation. When Pippin asked that he teach them "an elven dance" so that they would "be prepared to dance with the elven maids" at the feast being given in the Fellowship's honor several days hence, Haldir had been only too willing to turn the task over to his traitorous companion. Isilmei had been delighted to oblige, and now here he was, wasting a perfectly good afternoon watching her attempt to teach Merry, Pippin, and Sam the finer points of Elven choreography.
"No, Master Merry, not like that," she said as she turned him by the shoulders to face the opposite direction. "In three steps, not four."
Merry looked down at his feet and then back up at her. "I thought were supposed to take four steps that time."
"No, Merry," Pippin said. "She said we always take three steps in elven dances."
"Not all dances, Pip," Sam corrected. "Just this one."
"That is correct, Master Samwise," she agreed. "Just this one. In this dance, the music is gentle and it sways like a warm summer's breeze through the trees. All you have to do is count in groups of three, one-two-three, one-two-three, and so on and you will have the rhythm of the dance. Now, shall we try it again? This time without staring at our feet?"
Haldir continued to watch as she lined them up in pairs, Merry and Sam in the places of the male partners, herself and Pippin in the places of the females, and started the steps over again. Merry grumbled under his breath that Elven dances were harder than Shire dances, but Haldir's attention remained focused on Isilmei. He was impressed by the way his student had become a fine teacher in her own right. She was diligent, kind, and positive, and in truth, much more tolerant with the Halflings than he himself had been. Where teaching them had become something of a chore for him, she took obvious pleasure in their enthusiasm and in their interest in Elven culture.
As he listened to Isilmei's patient instructions, Haldir felt his own annoyance begin to ebb while his eyes followed her lithe form. Her face was lit with a warm smile as she led her pupils through the steps and the afternoon sun shone on her silver-gold hair. Simply put, she gladdened his heart. From the time she had been a tiny elfling, just learning to walk across her guardian's counsel chamber to show him her latest treasure; he had always found her smile enchanting. It reached the whole of her face, and her joy was infectious. One simply could not help smiling when she did.
So much about her had changed in recent years, he realized, and yet she still maintained the brightness of spirit and the enthusiastic joy that were a breath of fresh air to his soul. As one of the few senior members of the Forest Guard who was unencumbered with a family of his own and a long-time servant of the Lord and Lady, he had been among the first to volunteer to help them care for their ward. He had spent many happy hours with her in the forest, teaching her about their natural world. It had been duty which had prompted his initial involvement, but it was the enormous pleasure she took in even the smallest things, her excitement about each new type of plant or animal that he showed her, that fed the fondness he developed for the young elleth and kept him looking for new things to teach her.
Haldir had not known Isilmei's mother – an elleth of Imladris – well, but her father had been a ranking member of the Forest Guard and was well known to him. Haldir thought Elurin's daughter had inherited something of her father's sense of humor as he watched her beam at her pupils and laugh at their jokes. She had not, however, inherited his proficiency with weapons. As eager as she had been to absorb Haldir's forestry lessons, she had been far less willing to learn the bow and the sword, recoiling from them as though her delicate nature was offended by their existence. She was correct in her assessment that she would never be a master archer, but he was determined that she gain proficiency in the fundamentals at least.
In her attitude toward weapons he could still see her youth and inexperience, yet the figure gliding through dance steps in front of him was not that of an immature elfling. Her body was long and slender, curving enticingly in all the right places. The dark green leggings and pale blue tunic she wore did little to obscure the lean muscles of her form. The graceful effect of her movements reminded him of a young willow tree. She was an exciting mixture of elleth and elfling, poised just on the edge of her full glory. She was lovely now, he thought, but as she grew further into herself and her natural talents, she would be breathtaking.
"Haldir?" She asked, looking at with him a furrowed brow. "Are you well?"
It was only then that he realized he had been so consumed by his musings that he had missed something. "Just catching a quick nap," he lied smoothly, standing and brushing a spot of moss off the hem of his tunic. "Are we ready to proceed?"
He missed neither the subtle roll of her blue eyes nor the snicker that Pippin did not try to hide. Fortunately for Haldir, her inner goodness caused her to move on rather than to dwell on his lack of focus. "Would you help me demonstrate this next step?"
He sighed; thinking first to argue with her about the time they were wasting but quickly deciding that completing the dance lesson was probably the best way to move the party along. "Very well," he agreed as he took her outstretched hand. He relished the feel of her smooth, soft skin against his callused fingers.
They lined up in two rows, Haldir across from Isilmei and Merry across from Pippin. Sam stepped back to watch. "Watch how Haldir embraces me, Sam." Haldir found that his attention gap was now effectively closed. "It will make more sense when you dance with a partner of your own height. Perhaps you can teach others something of the elves when you return home," she continued as they began the sequence of steps.
It had been years since he had danced with his young friend as the watch schedule was not always conducive to his attendance at court functions. Whoever had taken over this particular piece of her training had done a masterful job. Due to his dawning awareness of her maturity, the sensation of dancing with her was new, and entirely welcome. With a smile he squeezed her fingers briefly as their hands brushed when he stepped past her. He took three steps toward her, and then three back. The next series of steps brought them side by side before he took her outstretched hand and turned her neatly into his arms. He felt a little chill where their bodies contacted one another as he led her through three turns to complete the sequence of steps.
Merry and Pippin had stopped dancing to watch the two elves. "Do it again, Lady Isilmei," urged Sam. "I think I've almost got it."
"Don't they look fine together, Pip?" asked Merry.
"Like something out of a story about…well, the Elves," Pippin agreed.
Haldir stopped listening to the Halflings as he and Isilmei repeated the pattern of steps. As he looked into her lovely face, he reflected upon his earlier musings. His feelings for her were definitely not those a teacher would have for his favorite student. Somewhere along the way, his fondness for his Lord's ward had grown into something more dear. His arm tightened about her waist and his eyes lingered on her lips until he heard her soft gasp. Her gaze was upon his, something both warm and surprised burning in her sky blue eyes. Roses bloomed on her cheeks in a most becoming shade of pink.
Worried that he had given away too much, and feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the awareness blossoming in his chest, he released his hold and stepped back. He bowed slightly over her hand. "My Lady," he said formally, before turning to the Halflings. "Now gentlemen," he said to bring a halt to their observations regarding what an attractive couple he and Isilmei made. "Let us continue with our lesson. Follow me."
With that, he strode off into the forest, trusting that the three Hobbits and the still-blushing Isilmei would trail behind him.
The next day…
The path Isilmei took to the archery grounds wound past a small ring the Guard used for sword training. Had it not been for the two figures sparring in the center of the circle, she would have walked right by without stopping. Yet when she caught a glimpse of a familiar head of white-gold hair and the broad shoulders she was sure she would recognize anywhere, she paused. Shifting the bundle she carried underneath her arm, she stepped up to rope marking the contest ring.
Haldir and his brother Rúmil sparred within the ring as though to the death. Several of the senior Guard members she recognized, including Magolchon, Túnir, and Dagron, stood in various stances of repose as they watched the brothers practice, though it hardly looked like practice. The match must have been going on for quite some time for they were both disheveled and perspiring.
Something about the intensity of the combatants' movements told her that this was more than a practice match, though she had no clue as to the cause of their ferocity. Haldir was thickly built, a head shorter than his brother but solid through the chest and shoulders. His long arms more than made up for any disadvantage his shorter stature may have given him. By contrast, Rúmil was as tall as a young mallorn, lithe and long with attenuated limbs that swung his sword with murderous accuracy.
The two ellyn kept their eyes locked on each other as they thrust and blocked their way around the ring. First Haldir seemed to have the advantage, but then a ferocious counter attack won the lead for Rúmil. As their aggression increased, the pace of their movements quickened until they were both moving so speedily it was hard for her eyes to make out individual movements. It looked to her as she stood there watching them that the two engaged in a deadly, beautiful dance as metal struck metal time and again. The cold sound of blade against blade provided an oddly juxtaposed accompaniment to the obvious heat of their belligerence.
She had never seen him this way. The gentle, laughing Haldir – her good, true friend – was nowhere to be found in the lethal grace of the warrior fighting before her. The cold focus of the combatants frightened her a little, and she longed to see a warm smile return to Haldir's face. And yet she knew that her Haldir – the one who had such a sharp sense of humor and yet at the same time such thoughtfulness and gentle warmth – would not fit in this setting. There would be no place for the tender side of him in battle. For reasons she could not explain, the thought of him in battle caused a bubble of worry in her stomach, though his prowess was clearly on display as he battled his brother within the ring.
With a flurry of refined motion, Haldir had his brother on the ground with the blade of his sword pressed against Rúmil's throat. Isilmei raised a hand to her own neck as though her fingers could protect her from the cold press of unbending metal against tender flesh.
Haldir broke into a wide, feral grin as he lowered his sword and extended a hand to help his brother to his feet. Rúmil accepted the assistance, though the look on his face was still hard as the other guardmembers clapped and congratulated the brothers on a well fought match. She clapped politely as she stood there feeling entirely out of place amid the circle of masculine strength and ferocity.
Haldir glanced up and caught her eye. His expression softened and his eyes glowed liquid silver as he crossed the ring to stand in front of her. "Lady Isilmei, you came. And on time, no less," he said with a smirk.
"I was told I had no choice in the matter," she replied with a glare.
"Quite correct," he nodded in a way that suggested he was too pleased with himself for her liking. "Give me just a moment and then we will be on our way."
He walked back to his wardens and spoke with them briefly before turning in her direction. As he ducked under the rope that cordoned off the ring, he tugged his tunic back into place and smoothed a hand through his long hair to straighten it. With a playful bow he gestured toward the archery targets and smiled. "This way, my Lady."
She sighed as she joined him and walked toward the archery range. Determined not to submit quietly to another embarrassing display of her dearth of talent, she played her carefully planned gambit. "I have the most brilliant idea," she said breezily.
He looked at her and arched one eyebrow in a way that suggested he knew what she was up to. "And what would that be, little one?" he asked with fond indulgence in his voice.
She was determined to win her case. "It is such a beautiful day. A day for which we should rejoice. Therefore, let us forego practice and have a picnic along the Celebrant. I have prepared a feast." She raised the bundle in her arms as proof.
Her friend had the audacity to laugh at her. "A tempting notion, but no," he said as he shook his head and lifted the satchel from her arms. "We have serious work to do."
He pointed to a target and she stood obediently, if not willingly, in front of it as he walked over to a storage shed and collected the necessary supplies. She nervously glanced down the length of the range and was relieved to find it deserted. At least there would not be many witnesses of her spectacularly bad efforts.
Her eyes followed his movements with growing interest as he placed her satchel on the ground next to the shed and bent down to reach for a quiver. She found that she was beginning to see him in a new light and indulge in romantic notions she had not entertained since she was much younger. In recent weeks, it seemed, she had become aware of Haldir's very obvious, and very powerful, masculinity. In addition to seeing him as her dear friend, she was not able to help herself as she noticed the quick, sure grace of his body, the tightness and tone of his muscles. Within her mind flashed an image of his face when he had danced with her just a few days earlier. Before he was able to cover it, she had caught him staring at her lips as though he wanted to kiss her. The memory made her blush as much as the moment itself had, particularly when she realized that she would not mind at all if he decided to follow through on his urge.
She glanced quickly at the ground as he turned and approached her. Reluctantly she accepted the weapons he held out, but she was unable to suppress an annoyed sigh. He grinned in response and shook his head as though she should refrain from complaining.
"I really do not see why I need to learn this skill," she grumped. "Why should I when I have you to protect me?"
When he frowned in response the look in his eyes was a study in tired patience at this recurring conversation between them. "Because," he explained, "if ever there comes a time when I cannot be here to protect you, I need to know that you are safe."
She scowled at his usual answer, which made him laugh.
He leaned down to select an arrow from the quiver she had dropped at her feet. "Please, sweetling?" he entreated with his most winning smile. "For me?"
She could deny him almost nothing, and they both knew it, but she was unwilling to relent just yet. "I am afraid to practice with you after what I witnessed in the sword ring." She gingerly accepted the arrow he held out to her.
Haldir's expression grew smug as he crossed his arms over his chest and regarded her. "You are well capable of handling a blade should you choose to do so. When I attempted to teach you the art of swordplay, your natural facility and your love of dance made you a very good pupil, as I recall. Until I told you to think of the practice stick as a blade, that is. Then you acted as though the thing in your hand tried to attack you."
She regarded the bow and arrow in her hands dubiously as he continued.
"I turned your studies to the bow in effort to give you a means of defense which would not involve the hand-to-hand combat that so offended your delicate nature. And yet you continue to spurn my efforts."
An impish thought seized her as she glanced at him through lowered lashes. "Surely there are other efforts in which you could engage that I would not spurn."
He laughed as his eyebrows floated toward his hairline in surprise. "I should sincerely like to have that conversation with you at some point, but right now, our job is to practice your technique with the bow."
"Must we?" she implored, knowing that once again, she had lost the contest of wills between them.
"We must," he nodded. "Now, show me a basic stance as you aim for the target yonder."
"I would rather pull out my own hair, truly," she grumbled.
He studied her face for a moment as though trying to determine how far she would take her foul humor. "I will make a deal with you," he finally said as a gleam appeared in his clear gray eyes, "one I would not make with any of my other students." He paused for dramatic effect. "If you hit the target three times, we will have your picnic this very afternoon."
Her smile was broad as she sensed victory. "You will put aside your duties to entertain me?"
"My Lady, it will be my distinct pleasure," he said with a decidedly wicked grin. "Now, show me how you properly string that arrow."
Feeling much happier about the afternoon's prospects, she placed the arrow's notch against the string and faced the target. She pulled the string back and waited for his command to fire.
"Turn your hips so that they are more perpendicular to the target," he said as he stepped forward and placed one hand in front of her stomach and the other at the small of her back. She noted with interest when she glanced down that his broad hands could nearly encircle her waist. He slid his hands toward her hips and she allowed him to turn her to the position he wanted. She decided that she did not mind this lesson nearly as much as she had thought she would. "Good," he said as he stepped back and appraised her stance. "Release."
So mesmerized by the lingering feeling of his hands on her hips, she was not focused on the target in front of her. She released the string and the shot veered wildly off to the right.
"It works better when you do not close your eyes," he laughed.
She blushed, having no intention of telling him why she had failed to concentrate on her shot.
"Also, the alignment of your elbows is incorrect." He stepped toward her and held up another arrow. "Again."
She notched the second arrow as he came to stand behind her and encircled her with his arms.
"Your left arm should be tensed," he said as he ran his hand down the length of her arm making corrections, "but there should be some flexibility at the elbow. Not softness or weakness, but it should not be locked stiff. Like so. Yes. Good." His touches were making her lightheaded and she could feel the flush rising to her cheeks. "Now," he continued in a tone that was matter-of-fact and suggested he was unaware of the effect he was having on her, "at full draw your right forearm should be parallel with the ground, like this." His fingers rested underneath her hand, supporting her as she drew back the string. When he was satisfied with the position of her arms, he bent his head slightly forward until it was just above her own. She felt engulfed by his body, the power of his presence. "Release," he whispered. His breath was warm velvet against the tip of her ear. Her shot went wild.
"Isilmei," he said with a chuckle as he stepped away from her and calmly went about procuring another arrow. "You must concentrate, my dear."
She glowered at him, hot blood coloring her cheeks and ears. "How do you expect me to concentrate with you breathing in my ear that way? You are supremely distracting."
His smile was unapologetic as he raised one eyebrow suggestively. "Am I now?"
She narrowed her eyes at him in irritation. "I believe you know that you are."
He held up the arrow. "In battle there are many distractions. Again." She gave him a dimpled glare. "Remember," he cajoled, "three hits and we picnic."
She snatched the arrow from his hand and turned her sights on the target with renewed determination. Quickly loading the arrow and drawing before she had time to second guess herself, she released and watched as the arrow flew away from her hands. With a satisfying thud it hit the target.
"Good," he said as his eyes glowed with pride. He bent to pull another arrow. "Again." He stepped back to give her more room to maneuver, but she found that she missed the nearness of him.
Smiling to herself as an idea occurred to her; she drew the string and fired, knowing full well that the shot would miss. Her ploy worked.
Haldir lifted an arrow from the quiver and enclosed her within his arms, smoothly adjusting the position of her elbows and wrists. "You dropped your elbow. That is why you missed." His hands guided her as she pulled the string back once more. The arrow struck the target just a few inches from the first hit. "Good!"
She glanced up at him and gave into the temptation to flirt just a bit. "One more and I get my picnic."
"Indeed." He stepped away just long enough to grab an arrow before surrounding her again. She was far more aware of the length of his body behind her, the hardness of his thigh against her hip than she was of the arrow he handed her before guiding her arms into the proper position. His right hand ran up her arm to the shoulder before coming back to support her fingers. "Strengthen your shoulder so you can support the tension your fingers place on the string."
She took a deep breath and released the string. The arrow struck the target between the other two, and she broke into a huge smile as she stood within his arms. She turned to look up at him, feeling quite satisfied with herself. None of her shots landed near the center ring, but the three shafts protruding from the practice board fulfilled his requirement.
His eyes were glowing as he quickly bussed her cheek. "Picnic," he whispered. The word brushed against her skin and caused her to shiver as he released her and stepped away.
"You shoot well, Lady Isilmei." She whirled around, caught completely unaware of another presence in their vicinity. Prince Legolas smiled warmly at her as he stood with his own bow slung over his shoulder and a quiver of arrows fletched with the amber-hued feathers preferred by Mirkwood archers hanging from his arm. Behind him, she caught a glimpse of Haldir's brother Rúmil standing at the edge of the practice field. The look on his face was dark with disapproval. When he realized she saw him, he turned around and walked quickly away.
She found her voice only when she realized that the prince waited for some sort of response. "Thank you for your kindness in not pointing out my obvious flaws, Your Royal Highness," she hurried to say as she dropped into a quick curtsy. "I have a wonderful teacher, but alas, his student leaves much to be desired."
"Never, Lady Isilmei," Haldir said quickly as he placed a hand at the small of her back. "Are you ready?"
She nodded, but felt the need to be more polite to their guest. "I have heard that your skill with the bow is unapproachable," she said. "Surely you have no need of practice?"
"In Mirkwood only the very youngest elflings had the luxury of practicing on any but living targets," he explained. "Our woods are so corrupted by the influence of Dol Guldur it is said we are born with quiver and bowstring in hand."
She tried to imagine what it would have been like to grow up in such a threatening place, but could not fathom it. "Then it is no wonder your reputation is so good. Would it be too much to ask for a brief demonstration?" The prince looked pleased at her request, but she caught Haldir scowling at her before he composed his features into a polite mask of indifference.
"As you wish, my Lady," the prince replied with a slight bow. He removed his bow from his shoulder and shifted the quiver onto his back as he walked toward the targets and chose the one set farthest back from the firing line. In the blink of an eye he had fired three shots, all of which hit the target in rapid succession. His fourth and fifth shots landed so that there was a perfect vertical line of arrows bisecting the target.
Isilmei was stunned. "Perhaps your reputation is not flattering enough."
He smiled brightly. "Thank you."
"My Lady," Haldir said from beside her, "we should allow the prince to practice in peace."
"Of course," she said. She nodded her goodbye to Mirkwood's prince and allowed Haldir to lead her off the field. He stooped to collect her satchel of picnic supplies as they passed the storage shed before quickly leaving the archery fields behind.
1 The Fellowship of the Ring film is non-specific, but according to the book, the Fellowship entered Lothlorien on either the 15th or the 16th of January in the year 3019. They leave on February 16th of the same year (The Lord of the Rings, "Appendix B: The Tale of Years," pg. 1208). For the purposes of this story, I have chosen to go with bookverse which gives the Fellowship a month in the Golden Wood. Also, anyone who feels like referencing page numbers should please keep in mind that my copy is electronic. I have no idea how page numbers will jive with the various hardcopy editions in circulation.