Without, Part 28
Haldir strode over to Corinne. “Glad I am to see that you live,” he told her, gaze fixated somewhere around her chin. “But what took you so long to discern a winning strategy? And why are you teal?”
“It took me so long because I’m stubborn,” Corinne replied, allowing her eyes to travel over him. It was the first time she was looking at him since the breaking of the cartouche, and it was disconcerting in the extreme to know him so intimately, to expect the little things such as how he stood or the way he held his shoulders, but yet have so little right to that knowledge.
She’d had much time to think about things over the past few days, what with the walking and the running and the being carried and all. She knew their bond was broken, from the lack of stomach ache at being parted from him as well as their minds being closed to each other, but she found herself thinking about him entirely more often than was reasonable for people of mere acquaintance, wanting to share thoughts with him, to show him things, to listen to his voice, to breathe in his scent, even just to hear him breathe as he slept.
A wry, familiar smirk curled the corner of his mouth, sending a zing of awareness into her belly. So the attraction’s still there, too, she thought. “Stubborn. Yes, indeed.” Then he seemed to remember something, and the smirk fell abruptly from his face. “And your colour?”
“I’m teal because a pygmy shot me with a poisoned dart, and I think it’s turning me into a zombie.”
His eyes deftly avoided hers as he scrutinized her, coming this time to latch onto her left ear. “We will find a way to heal you,” he promised.
There was something… not right about him. “Haldir,” Corinne entreated, reaching for his hand. “What’s wrong? I know that we’re not bonded by the cartouche anymore but—“
He stepped nimbly out of reach. “I thank you for your concern, but all is well.” Now he was looking at her right shoulder instead of her face. “I must speak with Dagnir.” And he was gone, his long stride eating up the ground toward Buffy.
Elessar called for them to begin the march back to Mertsegur, and with Arwen on his arm, began to head south toward that mountain. Haldir was being yelled at by Buffy for some reason while Legolas stood back and grinned in relief that it was not he on the receiving end of her displeasure, and Gimli walked with Radagast—two saturnine figures happy to be silent in each other’s company.
Dawn had yet to release Spike from her death’s grip on his arm and, truth be told, he looked none to eager for her to stop fawning over him, patting her arm affectionately and calling her “Nibblet” every thirty seconds. On the vampire’s other side walked Boromir, seeming more puzzled than anything at the furious spate of chatter between his wife and her old friend.
That left Corinne and Thranduil, and the butterflies in her belly at being ‘alone’ with him took to frenzied flight as he aimed a slow smile in her direction, but she gladly accepted his offer of an arm to lean on, as her leg had started hurting again. “Thanks,” she said somewhat breathlessly.
“It is my pleasure to assist one so brave,” he replied seriously, eyes gleaming like burnished emeralds down at her.
“Brave?” Corinne dismissed the idea with a snort of laughter. “Hardly. I’ve been so scared the past few days I’ve near pissed myself.”
“Courage is not lack of fear, my lady, but carrying on in spite of it,” Thranduil told her gravely. “And it was a brave woman who went, alone, through that portal, knowing what fate might have met her.”
Corinne felt her cheeks warm. “Well, if you’re gonna put it that way,” she conceded, hazarding a glance up at him. Feeling reckless, she added, “How are things going with Legolas and Buffy and you?”
“Beautifully, until Greenleaf remembers we are at odds and decides to dislike me again,” he replied smoothly. “It is ever thus with children, Elrond tells me… glad I am that Elbrennil and I had only the one, for I doubt it would amuse me as much had I three such attitudes to endure.” He flicked a faint smile at her. “Have you any children?”
Unaccountably, the memory flooded Corinne’s mind at that moment of the last time she’d thought of having children, that blessedly perfect moment of making love with Haldir before it had all gone so terribly, horribly wrong. Desire warred with horror as she recalled his hoarsely spoken words of love: “With my last breath, I will love you,” and then the cruel vice of his hands on her arms, the hard press of his mouth on hers, sharp teeth cutting her lips as he shoved his knee between her thighs, intent on finishing what they’d started.
Pulling away from Thranduil, she wrapped her arms around her waist and stared at the back of Haldir’s head. In mid-sentence, he seemed to sense her attention, for he stopped and turned to face her. His eyes for once did not skitter away, instead locking with a desperate pain on hers, and she knew that all the despair and fear and betrayal she’d felt—no matter that it hadn’t really been him—showed on her face, in the way she rocked back and forth in unconscious misery.
A tired sort of acceptance settled on Haldir’s face then, and he lowered his head. To see him, this proud and fine elf, so defeated made her hurt terribly on his behalf, and she started toward him before she knew what she was doing. At her first step, his head flew up again and this time his gaze was wary, even warning.
“Do not go to him,” Thranduil instructed softly from behind her. “He will not thank you for it.”
As she watched, stricken, Haldir turned from her and began walking once more, catching up to where Buffy and Legolas stood waiting for him. After that, the exhilaration of their triumph over Satet left her quickly, and it was with more than a little embarrassment that she submitted to being hoisted into Thranduil’s capable arms.
Feeling safe and comfortable for the first time in days, surrounded by the divine scent of the king (what was it about Mirkwood’s royal family? she wondered drowsily) she fell into a shallow sleep.
“You haven’t stopped glancing back at her for the past hour,” Buffy mentioned casually at Haldir’s side. “How long’s it going to take for you to admit that you still feel something for her?”
Haldir sliced her a glance out of narrowed eyes. “I have not looked at her but once,” he protested, the sneaking of another peek at Corinne belying his words. “I do not trust Thranduil,” he said when Buffy merely raised her eyebrows in great skepticism.
“What, do you think he’s going to ravish her? Here? Now?” Buffy goggled at him. “What is it with you jealous elves?” For no reason that Haldir could discern, the Slayer turned to her husband and dealt him a none-too-soft blow on the shoulder. “Aren’t your women allowed to have male friends?”
Legolas rubbed his shoulder and turned an appealingly wounded look upon her. “It is one thing to have friends,” he told her. “I do not begrudge you your friendship with Gimli, or Elessar. But when your friend looks upon you with lust in his eyes…” He turned a piercing stare toward Spike, who gave him a jaunty two-fingered wave in salute, much to Dawn’s amusement.
Buffy sighed. “Sweetie, it’s just a look. Not like we’re gonna go hog-wild and begin ravishing each other…” Her words trailed off as Haldir went a sickly green shade. “Hal?” she asked. “Haldir?” She turned to Elessar. “What’s wrong with him?”
Elessar surveyed the elf before him a long moment. “I believe,” he said at last, “that my lady wife is better equipped to explain the trials we have endured.” He gave her an enquiring glance, not wanting to volunteer her for something she did not wish to do.
Nodding, she stepped forward. “Come, all ye of Dagnir’s party,” she said, “for I would explain this but once, and never again.”
It was a curious group who joined her apart from the rest, eager to hear what she would say; it was a furious group that dispersed once she was finished.
“And suddenly, the way Boromir and Haldir are staying twenty feet away from each other makes sense,” Buffy muttered grimly. “I am so gonna kill Aker…” She turned to Radagast. “Is there some way to resurrect him, so I can kill him twice?”
“If there is, I will find it,” he promised with dour purpose. “I tired of mind-games during the War, and will not suffer them again.”
And in Thranduil’s arms, Corinne pressed her face against his shoulder and wept silently for Haldir and the violation he had endured, not once, but twice.
“The primordial waters, Nun, are the font of all existence,” Corinne explained when they reached the edge of the river that encircled Mertsegur. “Once a year, Isis sheds a single tear, and Satet collects it in her jar to pour it into Nun. It is all-healing, all-soothing, all-curing.” She sat on the ground and began struggling to remove her runners, then glanced upward at the group watching her. “Well? Unless you’re all going to watch while I have a skinny-dip, I suggest you hie yourself elsewhere.”
“P’raps I should stay with you,” Spike offered, sending her a licentious grin that was more joke than anything. “Just to make sure you don’t float away.”
Buffy cuffed him playfully over the head. “That’s gallant of you, Fang Jr., but I don’t think so.”
“Actually, Buffy, that’s a decent idea… my fingers stopped working properly hours ago, and I could dictate notes to him while I swim,” Corinne interjected.
Spike frowned. “Oi, I was just trying to get a cheap look,” he protested. “Not volunteer myself for secretarial duty.”
“Too late, you’ve got it,” Corinne told him with a laugh, and tossed him the little notebook and pen Dawn had given her, and in which she’d scribbled (to Thranduil’s puzzlement and amusement) until her hands had failed her. “Point number one: lava-land. The paths seemed to have been formed of cooled magma, approximately two meters wide, of uneven surface…”
Grumbling, Spike dropped heavily to the ground and began to write. Buffy turned away with a grin, allowing Corinne to finish undressing, and joined the others. A splash a few moments later told her Corinne was in the water, and her exclamation of “holy crap, it’s cold!” confirmed it.
An hour later, nothing had been accomplished but the filling of the notebook, cramps in Spike’s hands from all the writing, and Corinne had turned a deeper shade of teal from cold.
“Pet, it’s not working,” Spike told her flatly. “Get your arse out of the water.”
She stumbled out, letting him wrap her in a cloak. “I d-don’t think that the Tear of Isis is in the w-waters yet,” she said, more to herself than to him. “Go get Satet’s quiver, will you?” He left her, and she curled onto her side to try and generate a little warmth until his return.
When the quiver arrived, it was borne not by Spike, but by Haldir. “What is wrong?” he demanded, a current of concern underlying his gruff tone. “What need do you have for this?”
She reached for the quiver, uncaring how the cloak fell open and exposed her ample charms for the world (or in this case, Haldir) to see. Not like he hasn’t seen them before, she thought crossly, and thrust her hand into the quiver. Arrows, arrows, and more arrows. “Dammit,” she muttered, and turned it upside down. Out fell arrows, a small jar of bowstring wax, and…
“Ha!” she exulted, catching the tiny phial before it could fall to the ground. “Here,” she said, thrusting it at Haldir, “you pour it in.”
He frowned. “Why me?”
“You’re closer to being a god than I am,” Corinne replied. At his expression of frank disbelief, she continued. “You are! Beautiful, immortal, talented… “
“And vastly unworthy of every one of them,” he finished bitterly, standing. “What I have done negates every good characteristic I possess.”
“None of it was your fault,” Corinne told him urgently.
“It was my body that forced itself on you; my body that would have raped you,” he replied, his face pained. “And my memories that play in my head, reliving the moments without end. And that does not count what occurred with Boromir… ai…” He covered his face with his hands, shaking his platinum head.
“I knew when it happened that it wasn’t you, Haldir,” Corinne told him gently. “And Boromir knows, too.”
“It could not have happened, were I not capable of it,” he insisted. “I do not know who I am anymore. All that I can be sure of is that our bond is over, Corinne, and whatever we had because of it… whatever we felt because of it… that must be over, as well.”
“You don’t just wake up one morning and stop loving someone,” she said softly, reproachfully. “The cartouche made us want each other, but I fell in love with you all by myself.”
“Corinne, do not!” Haldir exclaimed, his shoulders rigid. “I cannot endure more of this.”
“We can help each other, Haldir,” she entreated, the hope on her face fading to resignation when he turned away from her. Wrenching off the phial’s plug, she tipped it over the water. A single, thick droplet hung poised at the lip of the phial for a long moment; a ray of sunlight hit it and a multitude of colours refracted and bounced round the woman and the elf. Quivering, it fell into the water, and where it hit, a thousand light-filled ripples undulated in response, the clear depths of the water seeming to gain an effulgence before being whisked away by the current.
Dropping the cloak, Corinne stepped into the water, braced for the cold but pleasantly surprised to find it as warm as bathwater. “Mmm,” she said, and dove under the surface to submerge herself. Coming up for air, she gazed at her hands and with great satisfaction noted that they were turning, albeit slowly, from teal to their normal peachy-pink colour. Reaching down to feel her wound, she found that the swelling was all but gone, and the puckering of the scar Spike had given her barely able to be discerned. “Whoo!” she cried in delight.
Her delight was short-lived, however, when a rumbling began under the water, intensifying with each second until the water around Corinne was bubbling and roiling. Scrambling out of the water, she grabbed the hand that Haldir proffered and fell heavily against him, knocking them both to the ground.
As suddenly as it started, the rumbling stopped, but the world could have fallen apart for all the notice Corinne and Haldir paid it. “I love you,” she said, cupping his cheek in her hand. His skin felt, as always, like the finest-grain suede, and she couldn’t resist laying her own cheek against him. “Please don’t do this to us.”
His eyes, charcoal-dark, were anguished when she pulled back to look at him. “I must.”
“I can’t believe this!” she shouted, bounding to her feet, clutching the cloak haphazardly around herself. “I never thought I’d see the day when I was the brave one and you were the coward, Haldir of Lothlórien.”
Anguish turned to anger; in a heartbeat, his eyes were snapping sparks at her, and he opened his mouth for rejoinder but the others bounded around the line of trees, drawn by Corinne’s yelling. It was clear to all assembled what they’d been arguing about.
Spike and even Thranduil grinned widely at her state of undress, and with a rebellious glare at Haldir, she unblushingly allowed Mirkwood’s king to drape his own cloak around her shoulders and lead her away.
“Many fine sons could you bear with those hips,” Gimli said admiringly, following them. “Tis a fine shape you have to you, lass.” The look he shot Haldir spoke volumes. “Even if some are too stupid to claim you, there are dozens of others who would leap at the chance.”
“Enough of this,” Radagast grumbled. “How I long for the lot of you to be struck mute.” He glared them all into silence before continuing. “A bridge has risen from the waters, but shows signs of instability; we should cross ere it disappears again.”
Corinne hurried to change behind the curtain of Thranduil’s judiciously held cloak; a quick inspection by Spike of her wound proclaimed her good as new and so it was only her heart that hurt as she stepped onto the bridge. Made of stone, each massive block was heavily carved with hieratic script and hieroglyphics.
“What does all this say?” Buffy asked, mystified, but Corinne was too occupied in taking a rubbing of a particularly fine carving to answer immediately.
“See those bits with ovals around them?” she called to the others at last. “Those are cartouches; don’t touch them, just in case.” Immediately, Boromir, Arwen, and Gimli jerked back, looking sheepish. “This is the entrance to Ta-tenen,” Corinne continued. “There seems to be some dissent on whether or not things that occur within can change the course of history, as if all existence is in an ungelled state of flux and anything can happen, but…” She waved her hand over one of the stones. “It’s only on that one block, and I think it’s more superstition than anything, a warning to be careful of consequences.”
Elessar looked far from happy, having to accept her educated guess, but as there was little else to go on, clamped his mouth shut and proceeded. The opening in the mountain, at the other end of the bridge, loomed like a great dark mouth, ravenous and insatiable.
Feeling a thrill of fear ripple up her spine, Corinne did something she’d never done in her life: she prayed. “Please, Seshat, hear your child,” she entreated in a whisper so faint even the elves and the vampire could not have heard her, hoping that deity was aware of her plea. “Protect us, guide us, help us to survive this.” She had no idea if Seshat actually heard her, but it made her feel a little stronger, and it was with this tiny extra bit of strength that she stepped over the threshold and into the mountain of Mertsegur, en route to the isle from the dawn of time.