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6
Riding

//denotes flashback//
denotes elvish


~~~

It was very late at night. The army of Gondor would ride forth on the morrow and Lady Alathiel of Minas Tirith sat alone in the Houses of Healing, thinking. Just an hour earlier, not only Legolas, but also Aragorn had come to her. Aragorn had assured her that his field commanders were more than able to tend wounded men in the field and had bade her not to worry about it. But Alathiel had seen the uncertainty in his eyes. She knew what needed to be done. What she did not know was how she would find the strength to do it.

//

"Pull back gently and keep the bow steady," Boromir said to Alathiel as they stood on the deserted archery field. "You are not strong enough for great distance, so you must concentrate on accuracy. Now let go..."

She released the bowstring. The arrow flew only a few feet and skidded to a stop in the grass, well short of the target. She glared at her husband of three days as the sound of his laughter drifted across the field, and almost blistered his ears with her reply. Then she thought of a better path to take.

"Perhaps, my lord, if you were to steady me, I might be more accurate," she said sweetly.

Boromir came and stood behind her, putting his arms around her and taking hold of the bow. She snuggled against him, delighting in the feel of his sun-warmed chest against her back and the hard length of his leather-clad thighs pressed against her backside.

"Let's..." he stopped and cleared his throat. "Let's try it again." His breath was hot on her neck and did she imagine that his hand shook as he placed it over hers on the bowstring? As he drew it back, his hand brushed the curve of her breast. He let the arrow fly, not heeding where it went, and took her roughly into his arms.

"You have undone me, witch," he laughed, kissing her most soundly and lowering her to the ground. She twined her arms about his neck and responded eagerly to the lesson she'd really wanted.

Afterwards, as he helped her straighten her clothes and pick the leaves from her hair, he joked with her. "If this is how all my lessons are to end, I despair of ever making a warrior of you, 'Thiel."

She looked up at him, gray eyes twinkling. "I do not need to be a warrior, my lord, because I will always have you to protect me."

Suddenly serious, he gathered her into his embrace once more. "I will protect you, Alathiel. Always."

//

Alathiel shook her head, clearing it of the haze of memory. Then she rose, walking resolutely towards the patients' rooms. There was much work to be done, including a long talk with the Lady …owyn of Rohan.

***

In the gray light of dawn, Aragorn gathered together the army of Gondor for a final, hopeless assault on the forces of Mordor. Gandalf had been clear: the battle could not be won. It could only buy time for the ring-bearer to complete his quest. Never had Aragorn felt so helpless.

He rode up and down the ranks of soldiers on his horse, Hasufel, looking into each face as he passed. Some were battle-scarred...the composed countenances of veterans. But most were unmarked and young...so very young.

Aragorn thought on his conversation with the Lady Alathiel. She had inquired about provisions for the wounded. He hadn't the heart to tell her that most would die where they fell, for the battle would be to the very last man. He'd thought about leaving Legolas to guard her--the closeness between them was not beneath his notice--but decided against it. For if he could not assume that those in the city would be safe from harm, the battle was already lost within his own mind.

At that moment, Legolas rode up on his horse, Arod. Gimli, ever faithful, rode behind him. "My lord," the elf said gravely, "We are at your service."

"Thank you my friends. You shall ride beside me into the heart of battle...here now...what is this?" A murmur went up through the rear guard of the army as they made way for another rider. Aragorn heard Legolas utter a soft sound of disbelief as they both recognized the lady who rode towards them. He almost laughed, seeing the expression of gape-mouthed surprise on the elf's usually impassive face.

The Lady Alathiel had clad herself in worn black riding leathers over which she wore a corselet of chain mail. Aragorn marked that the armor belonged to the Lady …owyn. It was of fine make, but much too large for Alathiel's delicate frame, being forged for the more full-bodied shieldmaiden.

A snow-white cloak fell from the lady's shoulders, clasped with a brooch bearing the device of the white tree, and her hair was bound up under a leather helmet. At her side swung a smallsword, and a bow and quiver of arrows were slung across her back. Her back was straight and proud as she reined in next to them.

"My king." She touched a leather-gloved hand to her forehead, then to her heart. "I am yours to command."

Aragorn regarded her sternly. She looked impossibly small on the battle-stallion she rode and he knew from her carriage that she had never worn armor or borne a sword before this. Truly, he thought, her raw nerve would serve her better than any sword could.

"My Lady of Minas Tirith," he replied formally. "I accept your service and I am thankful."

"No!" Legolas cried, but Aragorn swiftly interrupted his protest.

"You will ride with the supply wagons, my lady. Have a care for yourself."

Alathiel looked upon Legolas and said, so quietly that none heard but the four of them, "I must do this, my friend. Forgive me." Once again she saluted, gray eyes aglitter, and galloped back the way she had come.

"Aragorn, what can you think to allow this? She is but a little maid. Send her back to the city, where she can be safe," Legolas pleaded.

"Safe? Where will be safe if the Dark Lord's armies win the day?" Aragorn asked sharply. "Lady Alathiel has more reason than most to wish to defend her city. She will use her best weapons...her healing hands...to see it done. I can only hope we have men left alive to need her skills."

"This is my command, Legolas and Gimli: as she uses her weapons, you will use yours. Guard her. Keep her safe. If all is lost, kill her if you must, to keep her from the hands of the enemy."

The dwarf nodded grimly, saying nothing. But the elf answered in a clear, trembling voice. "If my hand must be her death, it will be mine also. I will not let her face death alone, for she is beloved to me."

"So be it," said Aragorn, and compassion was in his eyes. He clasped arms with his companions one last time. Then he wheeled Hasufel around to the east. "Come, my friends. We ride."

***

Legolas guided Arod automatically, his thoughts in an impossible tangle. What possessed me to say such a thing? I cannot love her--'tis against every custom of my people. I won't love her--after this battle I will go away and before long, I will forget. I don't love her--it is merely the battle-fear that makes me think so.

I can't...I won't...I don't. He rode on through the dust and dirt repeating the words like a mantra. But the image of her would not leave his mind.

I can't...I won't...I don't...Alathiel the first time he beheld her, clad in silver velvet.

I can't...I won't...I don't...Alathiel covered in blood from neck to heels, soothing a soldier with a hideous wound.

I can't...I won't...I don't...Alathiel on the battlements, dark hair caught in the breeze, murmuring to him of the sea...

As he rode on he chanted the words to himself and tried desperately to ignore the tiny voice in the back of his mind that grew louder with each passing mile..

...I can...I will...I do.

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