Without, Part 15
Corinne was having a wonderful time on their journey. Sure, she was dirty most of the time, and it sucked having to pee behind a bush, and sleeping on the ground wasn’t very fun (so she started sleeping on Haldir, vastly preferable for a variety of reasons). But after living in cities most of her life, it was amazing to see the unbroken dark stretch of Mirkwood to her right as they travelled north, and the rushing silver waters of the Anduin to the left.
Even when it rained, the smell of it was clean and crisp, not dirty and mildewy, and she rather enjoyed tasting the drops of moisture on her tongue. Of course, sticking her tongue out for any reason was sure to be commented upon by Haldir, and there was that one time he’d tugged them behind a small copse of trees and taught her about the ancient elven custom of bathing in the rain. It had eventually resulted in happy smiles for them, and deep glowers from everyone else who’d been waiting for them to finish.
When she wasn’t enjoying her surroundings—or Haldir—she was pelting the others with questions. Orophin got the brunt of it, but he didn’t seem to mind overmuch, and in fact plied his drawing skills to sketching various things Corinne wanted a pictographic record of, like the Gladden Fields where Gollum had found the Ring so many years after its loss, and the Carrock clearly visible even so far in the distance.
Boromir she asked all about being Gondorian; and when she exhausted his life story, began asking about the kingdoms around Gondor. She was very disappointed indeed when the extent of his knowledge of Rohan consisted of “Er… they’re very fond of horses.” Dawn rolled her eyes and motioned Corinne over.
“C’mon, I’ll tell you more,” she said, then added, “no, put the notebook away. I don’t want you writing as I talk. Feels weird.”
Disappointed, Corinne did as she was told and then faced Dawn expectantly. However, the other woman didn’t seem too inclined to discuss Rohan or anything else scholarly. “So, how are things between you and Haldir? Pretend I care.”
Corinne shot her a cool glance. “If you mean the sex, it’s great. Mind-blowing. Pardon the pun.” Dawn smirked. “If you mean our emotions, they’re shot to hell. We can’t decide if we want to break our bond or not.
“Then there’s the things we’re feeling independently… he’s ashamed he’s not able to fight it, because he’s used to having total control over himself and he perceives it all as weakness on his part. I, on the other hand, feel debilitating guilt for putting this whole debacle in motion in the first place.” She heaved a mighty sigh. “Of course, I think I was tricked, but still.”
She waved her hand dismissively. “Enough about me, it’s depressing. Tell me about your life. Got a kid, I hear? And Buffy tells me your best friend back on Earth was a vampire. That’s gotta be interesting...”
They’d had only a few skirmishes with what the others were calling “fell beasts” and “dark creatures”. At the first sign of trouble, Haldir stationed himself on her right, and Orophin took position on her left. She got out her pepper spray and Tazer as promised, but between the two brothers there was nothing for her to do beside try to breathe through her mouth so she didn’t accidentally catch a whiff of orc pong.
She was particularly pleased one day when a smaller orc slipped by Orophin and she got a chance to do a little damage. When everything settled down and Buffy called out, “Everybody alright?” she happily replied, “Super! I kicked an orc!”
“It was already wounded,” Dawn felt it necessary to point out.
Corinne frowned at her. “Don’t spoil my fun. I’ve never kicked an orc before.” She glanced down at it, where Haldir was just standing after slitting its throat. “Maybe next time I’ll get a chance to mace something.” Her voice was wistful.
Her chance came sooner than she realized, when a group of Mirkwood spiders emerged from the forest one night in search of some fresh dinner. One of Elessar’s soldiers was on watch, and his cries swiftly woke everyone in camp. The spiders were everywhere, and amazingly quick—no fewer than three came after Corinne, and she Tazed the bejesus out of them before pulling the long knife Haldir had given her and stabbing them in the space between their heads and bodies, just as he’d shown her.
The last one popped when she stabbed it, blowing yellowish gunk all over her, and she stood there a long moment, disbelieving she was covered in spider guts, until everyone else started laughing at her expression. “Haldir?” she asked in a small voice, trying not to open her mouth too far for fear of ‘something’ getting in it.
“Yes, doll-nîn?” he replied, striving elf-fully to keep from laughing at her.
“Yes, doll-nîn,’ Haldir told her, lifting her gingerly and bringing her down to the riverside to clean her off.
“That,” she declared when she was rinsed of bug spooge, “was disgusting.”
“Yes,” he agreed, “but this.. this makes it worthwhile, does it not?” He had removed all her clothes, “to get them clean, too,” he’d said, but now he was naked as well and Corinne was positive he hadn’t been gooped on…
“Have you got soap?” she asked breathlessly, loving the wet slide of his skin against hers. “Dear God that feels good.”
“I do not think we need soap,” Haldir replied, lowering them to the grassy shore. Above them, the wide bowl of the sky was darkest blue, and spangled with stars almost as bright as his eyes.
“Ok,” she agreed on a moan as his fingers delved within her. “No soap necessary.” The feel of the soft grass under her caressed her back and legs, the soft breeze dried their bodies and raised faint goosebumps, and Haldir’s taste and flesh filled her mouth… it was ecstasy, pure and simple, and she had no way of knowing the depth of the pity directed her way when her cries of love for Haldir were easily heard back at the camp.
They were only a day away from Rhosgobel, and arrived at the Old Ford to refill their water skins to find an old woman crouched in the shallows, scrubbing at a shirt. Long, straggly grey hair escaped from a cap of tattered cotton lace, and the shadows thrown by the sun over the craggy hollows of her face made her even uglier. Her dun gown fit her loosely, like a sack, and had been mended many times.
“The stains shall not come out,” she said sadly. With a final twist to wring the shirt dry, she spread it out over a rock and stood. She squinted up at those who stood watching her from horseback, and when her beady gaze passed over Haldir, it sharpened, as if she recognized him.
Then her body seemed to melt, squashing down shapelessly before reforming, and then she was a bird—a massive rook with plumage so black it was almost violet. With a single, piercing caw, she spread her wings and took flight, spiraling up over them before heading east.
“Should I take her down?” Legolas asked Elessar, arms rock-steady as they aimed his bow at the fleeing bird.
“No,” Elessar said after a moment. “We do not know if she were a changeling of evil or of good. I would--”
“Strider,” Buffy interrupted, catching his attention. “Look at Corinne.”
He turned to find the woman standing frozen in a circle of the others, hands clenched on Haldir’s sleeves as she stared up at him, her face the very picture of horror. She was speaking rapidly, her voice panicked. “The washer at the ford… ill omen, a rook… Morrighan… can’t be, isn’t possible…”
“What is she talking about?” Boromir demanded of Dawn, who was looking almost as unnerved as Corinne.
“The washer at the ford,” Dawn told him faintly, looking back at where the old woman had been scrubbing the garment. “Is the shirt still there?” she asked, and he went to fetch it. “It’s an ancient Celtic legend, where a woman is seen scrubbing bloodstains from the clothing of a warrior fated to die soon…”
Her words trailed off as Boromir came back with the sodden fabric in his hand, because it was the exact duplicate of the tunic Haldir wore, exact in every way right down to where the trim was pulling free of the collar. The only difference was in the bloodstains that liberally decorated the one the old woman had been washing.
“No, no, no, no,” Corinne began to chant, rocking back and forth a little, and Haldir began to look worried for her. Tatharë stepped forward, wetting a square of linen from a small bottle, and pressed it to the woman’s nose. Almost immediately, Corinne slumped against Haldir, unconscious. Arwen reached out to take the tunic but before her fingertips could touch it, it began to fade and blur, and then it was simply gone.
“Ok, that’s reasonably freaksome,” Buffy commented. “Anyone else feeling pretty wigged out?” Dawn immediately raised her hand.
Haldir stared skyward. “We have six hours of daylight left, perhaps seven. Let us make haste, for I would have shelter at Rhosgobel this night.” Elessar himself held Corinne as Haldir mounted, handing her over to her lover before climbing astride his own horse and spurring it to a fast canter.
They rode hard all the rest of the day, turning off the Old Forest Road when Legolas directed. The path became rougher and more winding as they penetrated deeper into the forest, and when the light began to fail, torches were lit to guide their way. In Haldir’s arms, Corinne slept, insensible to the anxiety of those around her.
“Water in the distance,” Legolas murmured. “A stream.” They came to it, and Elessar instructed only one to cross the rickety wooden bridge at a time. By the time they came to the end of the path, it was almost entirely dark.
The house that squatted before them was, at the same time, both the most disreputable and most welcoming, comfortable sight most had ever seen. Small and low, of brown mud-brick, an unruly thatched roof bristled a faded gold in the deepening gloom of twilight. Its bright blue shutters were flung open and warm yellow light shone from the windows to form wavy squares on the ground outside.
A lopsided chimney, listing to starboard and seeming about to tumble at any moment, emitted puffs of fragrant smoke that trailed lazily skyward, joining with the few low-hanging clouds above as if linking this humble abode with the heavens. Gardens lined the walkway from the dirt path to the cerulean door, but not gardens of flowers; these brambles boasted not roses, but berries-- so fat and heavy with juice that they bowed the branches with their weight.
Elessar dismounted, as did Arwen, and together they walked to the door but just as he lifted his hand to knock, it opened. The man who stood there tilted his head to the side and smiled crookedly. Of medium height, dressed entirely in shades of russet and earthen-brown, his most notable characteristic besides a drooping mustache of indeterminate colour were his eyes: piercing and jetty-black, they saw all, and missed nothing.
“You made good time, I see,” he said by way of greeting. “The barn is behind the house; settle your horses for the night, then join me for a bite.” And he began to shut the door.
Elessar was not king for nothing; he wedged his foot between door and jamb before it could close all the way,. “You are Radagast?” he inquired somewhat testily, and gestured back to where Corinne was still lying insensible in Haldir’s arms.. “We have a—“
“Yes, I am, and she is fine. Tend your horses.” Radagast looked pointedly at the intruding foot and Elessar pulled it back. The door snicked shut in his face, and he turned to the rest of them looking mightily disgruntled. “You heard him,” he grumbled. “Tend the horses.”
It was fully dark by the time all the animals were ensconced in their new temporary home and they could tramp back to the house. Buffy had long been hungry, and started to eat the berries from the bushes that surrounded them at every turn. “Mmm, honey, try one!” she encouraged Legolas, holding up a particularly luscious specimen to his mouth, her own lips stained red with juice.
He leaned down and kissed her swiftly. “Delicious,” he declared, his voice pitched low so only she could hear, and she found herself hoping for a private room that night. Studying the house as she entered, she didn’t feel very optimistic—it was absolutely tiny, and she had no idea how they were going to fit thirty-three people inside for dinner.
Brightly lit from candle-sconces every few feet, the aged floor was worn from centuries of feet treading upon it, but clean-swept. A table took up most of the space, but one corner held a spinning wheel while another was lined with racks from floor to ceiling, racks from which dangled all manner of metal implement and tool. In the massive fireplace at the back end of the room, what appeared to be half a deer was turning slowly—and independently—over the flames, drippings running from it to crackle and sizzle on the hearth.
The brick walls were whitewashed, and a high shelf ran all around the room near the ceiling, holding various sundry items—baskets overflowing with vegetables, dried flowers and herbs, and other things—moving things. There was, along one wall, a most amazing collection of jars and bottles in every imaginable shape and colour, and the firelight glittered through the dust coating them.
Buffy’s attention was torn from them, however, when one of the baskets began to jostle from side to side and first one kitten, then another and another and another, leapt out. They padded on silent paws along the ledge, effortlessly skirting anything in their path before coming round to the mantel of the fireplace and hopping down to it, and from there to the floor, the better to twine themselves around the ankles of the newcomers.
Her doubts for fitting everyone were soon allayed. Though it seemed small on the outside, somehow the cottage was large enough to handle all of them with perfect ease. In fact, it seemed to expand with the entrance of each new person, but that couldn’t be possible, could it? She was just about to dismiss the idea when Dawn and Boromir entered and suddenly a second fireplace sprouted on the far side of the room. It, too, held a generous haunch of venison on a spit, and the air was doubly perfumed with the smell of roasting meat.
“I saw it as well,” Legolas confirmed in her ear, and she became aware her mouth was gaping in astonishment. “Look you at the table.” As they watched, and more of the elven archers and Elessar’s soldiers sat down, it expanded to create two more seats on either side, over and over until there was a place for every single person.
“Welcome,” Radagast said, and even though he hadn’t raised his voice, was clearly heard throughout the now-sizeable chamber. He came to stand beside Haldir, and touched the tip of his finger to the centre of Corinne’s forehead. Immediately, her eyes opened and latched on Haldir’s face above her.
“What—“ she began, confused, then seemed to remember because she searched the crowd until she found Tatharë, and glared at the elleth. “Did you really need to knock me out?” she asked, wiggling until Haldir put her on her feet.
“Perhaps not, but 'twas easier,” Rúmil answered for his betrothed. “You were shaking like a leaf.”
“Hmph,” she replied, nose in the air. “Who’s this guy?” she demanded, jerking her thumb at Radagast. “This is a question no one particularly wants to hear, but after the weird presto-chango deal with the old girl at the ford, how can we be sure he’s on our side?”
Haldir’s face took on that expression he wore when he was mentally chastising her, and Corinne’s face similarly acquired the expression she wore when suffering said chastisement.
“No, do not scold her,” Radagast said, his mustache smiling faintly. “For she is correct; even with the One Ring destroyed, still there can be evil afoot. Or,” he paused a moment, “awing.” And then the edges of his shabby form shimmered and blurred, and he seemed to melt before them, convulsing until he stood before them, a rook once more. One of the archers reached toward him but, fast as a flash, he flew away and transformed in mid-air to the old woman.
“Of course,” she continued in her reedy voice, and gave them a gap-toothed smile, “you are not to know what is evil and what is not.” Another shimmer, another melting of form, and Radagast was again the man he had been. “The inability to discern which is which is what has landed you in the stew-pot, is it not?” He addressed the question to Corinne, who stood staring in awe before nodding numbly.
“It is a skill that can elude even the eldest of us,” he said, and there was a wistful tone to his voice, as if thinking of mistakes he’d made himself. “I am Radagast the Brown, Istari and Maia of Yavanna.” He swept an imaginary hat from his balding head and bowed low. “At your service.” It would have been more impressive if not for the thread of mockery running through the words.
“What was all that at the ford?” Dawn demanded. “How did you know about the washer? You scared the crap out of Corinne, was that really necessary?”
“I wished to meet you before I met you,” Radagast replied enigmatically, unperturbed by her hostility. “I took a form that would have meaning to the one who set all in motion.” His black eyes under bristling brows were intent on Corinne’s face. “Ever have you been impetuous, child. You need to better learn how actions are followed by reactions.”
“Thank you, Buddha,” she muttered, scowling at him even as she snuggled deeper into Haldir’s embrace, trying to shake off the residual terror she still felt at the thought of his impending death.
Radagast smiled once more. “I propose we eat, and then sleep, for tomorrow will bring more adventure, and a visitor that I believe you, young Greenleaf, will be… interested in seeing, if not exactly pleased.”
Legolas looked alarmed, and entreated the wizard to explain his meaning, but Radagast would not elaborate. The food and drink was pronounced delicious by no lesser a critic than Gimli himself, and when all were finally sated, their host showed them to their rooms. Once again, any worries of being crowded were dispelled as the hallway lengthened and stretched, pairs of doors on either side popping into existence as each previous set were filled.
Corinne pushed open one door and found a small but comfortably appointed chamber. In it was a bed for two, lumps at its foot indicating that hot bricks had been placed within to warm the sheets. A lone candle illuminated the space from a low stool by the bed, and pegs on the wall waited to hold discarded clothing.
In spite of her lengthy Tatharë-induced nap, she found herself yawning as she undressed and was very glad to finally slide into bed and feel Haldir’s arms wrap around her. “He’s pretty weird,” she said sleepily. “But at least no more sleeping on the ground.”
“'Twas not you sleeping on the ground,” he corrected. “As I recall, you slept on me, all the better to press me into the stones and pebbles that would lodge themselves into my backside.”
“Poor backside,” she commented mischievously, her fatigue suddenly not seeming so severe, and reached around to massage the injured area. “Should I kiss it better?”
His eyes gleamed down at her. “I think you had better,” he replied gravely. “It would be the wisest course of action.”
“Wise?” Corinne laughed a little before trailing moist kisses up the column of his throat. “Not really. But desirable?” She pushed him to his back and began to shimmy down his length, tasting his skin as she travelled south and darting her tongue into his navel. “Oh, yes, indeedy.”