One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree.
“Which road do I take?” she asked.
“Where do you want to go?” was his response.
“I don’t know,” Alice answered.
“Then,” said the cat, “it doesn’t matter."
-Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
She took the left fork, because that was where her heart told her to go.
Erin followed the well-marked path, fallen leaves crunching under the soles of her boots as she passed among the tall cedar and fir trees. Intermixed among them she saw maple, oak, and alder trees as well, their autumn colors contrasting sharply against deep evergreen. Birds chirped and sang overhead, and she heard the familiar scolding of chipmunks whenever she passed too closely to one of their trees; it made her smile.
The path curved and twisted, the trees grudgingly giving way to more open grassland, and Erin found herself climbing a small incline that gradually grew steeper as she walked. By the time she reached the top, her calves were aching from the climb, and she paused a moment, resting at the crest of the hill and taking stock of her surroundings.
Several yards ahead she could see the glitter of sunlight reflecting off the surface of water; a modest sized river cut through the grass as it made its way across the landscape, and she moved towards it, following the gentle slope down to the shallow banks. The water looked cold and refreshing as it ran swiftly over rocks, and she saw a fish leap from the clear depths to snap at a small insect, it’s silver scales glinting briefly in the sun, before it returned to the river with a small splash.
Erin dropped to her knees beside the water and brought a cupped handful to her lips, her fingers numb from the coldness of it. It was sweet and good, and she repeated her gesture several times until she could drink no more, her head growing dizzy with the familiar sensation of brain-freeze. With a laugh, she fell back on the soft grass, staring up at the blue sky above her, folding her hands across her belly.
A sense of contentment filled her as the sun warmed her face, the grass cushioning her like a soft bed. She closed her eyes, stretching slightly, basking in the warmth of the sun like a cat. I will just rest here a moment, she thought drowsily. It’s so nice.
Moments later, she was asleep.
“Mommy, will you tell me a bedtime story?” a tousle-haired, six-year-old Erin asked sleepily, blinking up at the young woman who was tucking her into bed.
Her mother laughed. “Of course, poppet. What story should I tell you tonight?” her mother asked, her slim white hand brushing the strands of dark hair from her daughter’s forehead.
“Oh, I want to hear the story about the baby. Will you tell it, mommy, please?” Erin wiggled like an enthusiastic puppy, dark eyes pleading. “The fairy baby in the woods.”
The young woman’s blue eyes closed for a moment, before she smiled gently at her small daughter. “That one again, my love?”
“Very well,” her mother sighed, tucking the covers over her daughter’s body once more. “Once upon a time there was a poor couple who loved each other very much. They lived together in a small cottage just beyond the borders of the woods, and every day the man would go into the forest to gather firewood and to hunt for food, and the woman would stay at home, waiting for him to return. They were poor, but they were happy in their love for each other, and there was very little that the woods could not provide for them.”
“Except for a baby. They wanted a baby more than anything,” Erin interjected, knowing the story by heart.
Her mother nodded with a small smile. “Yes. They wanted a baby more than anything. Many years passed for them, and still they had no child, and they began to despair that they would ever be blessed, when one day…”
“A woman dressed in blue appeared on their doorstep, carrying a bundle of blankets.”
Her mother shook her head. “Do you want me to tell you the story, or do you wish to tell me the story?” she scolded gently.
Erin smiled. “I’m sorry, mommy. You tell it.”
Her mother pressed a soft kiss to her forehead before continuing. “A woman dressed in blue appeared on their doorstep, carrying a small bundle in her arms. She was the most beautiful woman that either of them had ever seen; tall and fair, with long hair that flowed like a golden waterfall down her back, and eyes bluer than the sky. Though they were awed by her presence, they invited her in and gave her the warmest place by their fire, offering her tea and food. The woman in blue was pleased by their kindness towards her. ‘The trees speak well of your goodness and your love for each other’, the woman said in a voice that was like the sighing of the wind. ‘They say you long for a child to share your love, yet none have blessed your hearth.’ The couple knew then that the woman was one of the fair folk that dwelled in the forest, and they were frightened. ‘Do not be afraid’, the woman said, when she saw their fear. ‘I have brought you what you have longed for with all your hearts.’ She opened the bundle of blankets and revealed what she held; a beautiful baby with dark brown eyes.”
“That’s me!” Erin said excitedly, wiggling once more. “Right, mommy? That’s me!”
Her mother gave a light laugh. “Silly poppet. Do not interrupt, or I won’t get to the end of your story.”
Erin managed to look contrite, though she could not keep from wiggling just a bit more.
“The woman opened the bundle of blankets and revealed what she held. ‘This baby is not one of our own, yet she was not born to this world. Love her as your daughter and give her joy, but know that someday she will leave you for the place where she belongs.’ The woman gave the baby to the couple and rose from her seat by the fire. She left them, knowing that the baby would be well loved and cared for by the kind couple. The man and woman were happy; they did not care that their new daughter had not been born to them. They were happy to have a child to share their love,” her mother finished with a smile. “And now it is time for you to go to sleep.”
“Yes, mommy.” She reached up with her skinny arms. “Hugs!” Her mother enfolded her in her embrace, hugging her warmly.
“I love you, Erin,” her mother said, placing a kiss on her cheek.
“Love you too,” she replied sleepily, blinking as she watched her mother rise from the edge of the bed and move away. “I wouldn’t leave you and daddy,” she said stoutly, trying to stifle a yawn. “Not ever.”
“Go to sleep, poppet,” her mother replied with a small smile, turning off the light. “Sweet dreams.”
A sudden and unexpected noise made her pause in mid-flight, and …owyn turned, her blue eyes widening as she saw movement from the previously still form lying pale on the straw of Mearagar’s stall.
Brown eyes fluttered open and stared at her uncomprehendingly for a moment. Relief and something else crossed the woman’s face, and she struggled to sit up. …owyn’s hands supported her back until Erin was upright, and she was alarmed to see the same conflicting mixture of expressions on her friend’s face.
“What happened?” Her voice sounded funny to her ears, as if they were stuffed with cotton.
…owyn shook her head, settling on the straw next to Erin. “I do not know,” she said, her face betraying her worry. “You were strange - not yourself, I think, and then you simply collapsed. I could not rouse you.”
Erin bit her lip, trying to remember what had happened before the most interesting and weird conversation of her life. She remembered leaving the wall and following the rider into the stable. She remembered her surprise at seeing …owyn all dressed up like she was going to battle, complete with helmet and sword. After that, it was pretty much a blur. She closed her eyes, feeling the beginnings of a headache coming on, and rubbed her fingertips across the bridge of her nose. Something the man said to her about being their voice; it lingered and teased just beyond the edge of her memory.
“What did I say to you, …owyn?” Erin asked finally, opening her eyes once more.
The lady glanced away a moment and frowned unhappily. “You told me not to follow the riders. Not to follow him. That it was not my path.” She turned her face back to her friend, and to Erin’s surprise, she saw her eyes held tears. “I do not want to be left behind.”
"I know," Erin replied softly. "And I understand, more than you realize." She dropped her head into her hands and took a deep breath. "I can't make you stay here if you don't want to. I could try to stop you by alerting the others, but I won't." She lifted her head and met her friend's gaze. "But I can tell you that you're not supposed to go - that much I know for sure."
…owyn regarded the woman before her with uncertainty. "How do you know this?"
"Oh God, …owyn," Erin sighed. "I don't even think I could begin to explain it without you thinking I was crazy and locking me up. I hardly believe it myself." A bubble of hysteria welled up within her and she bit back the inane giggle, feeling a little more than crazy at the situation.
Her friend's dark eyes were wild, reminding her of a skittish horse, and …owyn found herself responding in a manner similar to what she would use to calm a frightened animal. "Hush, my friend," she said softly, stroking Erin's arm with slow and light touches. "If you cannot speak of it now, it will wait. Your warning was given, and I will accept it, though I do not want to."
"You won't follow them?" Erin asked hopefully, feeling her sense of dread lift.
…owyn nodded reluctantly, dropping her hand back to her lap. "I will not," she agreed finally. "But you must tell me, when you are ready. I will not think you mad."
Erin grimaced but did not reply. That would remain to be seen.
I've made my bed, apparently, and now I get to lie in it.
Erin sat on the edge of the bed, feeling the mattress give beneath her weight, and swallowed the hard knot that had formed in her throat. No sense feeling sorry for myself. I knew what I was doing when I chose the path I did.
Still, it hurt, knowing she would never see her mother or father again, nor her friends. The modern conveniences she could survive without, as much as she missed them. But knowing that she would never see her family again hurt more than anything.
Did I choose right? Did I?
The man had said that there would be sorrow no matter which path she chose, and now she knew why. She had considered all these things when she had made her choice, but it still didn't ease the pain, now that it was done. Now that she knew there was no going back.
She rose from the bed and moved to the window, leaning against the casement as she watched the riders below. They were leaving in a matter of moments. If she wanted to say her farewells, she'd better do it now. Her self-pity would have to wait.
Grabbing Aragorn's borrowed cloak, she twirled it over her shoulders and fastened it, rubbing her arms against the chill that had settled on her as she made her way to the door. The hallway was busy with the usual activities of the hall, the comings and goings of its people, who paid little notice to the short woman who made her way through them and down the stairs. She passed through the large main doors and crossed the landing, taking the steps quickly.
The main host was already mounted, and she could see Théoden and …omer talking with Aragorn and Halbarad, their expressions grave. Théoden was shaking his head at whatever Aragorn was telling him, and she could see the determined set to the Ranger’s jaw. As she drew closer, she could hear their words, but could not understand them, for they spoke in the language of Théoden’s people.
Sighing, she walked past them, not wanting to interrupt what was obviously an important discussion. She spotted Elladan and Elrohir and managed a cheerful grin, making her way to them.
“You two were just going to leave, and not even say goodbye,” she accused, coming to a stop at Elladan’s boot, looking up at the elf. “I see how you are.”
Thalion shifted slightly, his hooves dancing with eagerness as Elladan grinned down at her. “My apologies, lady. We have been rather busy.”
“You had time to say farewell to Lady …owyn, gwannig,” Elrohir commented with a smirk.
“Aye, you did,” Melaphríl agreed, moving his horse next to Elrohir’s, his own smile teasing.
Erin’s eyebrows shot up in surprise as she looked back at Elladan. “…owyn? Really?” She was surprised to see the faintest of blushes on the elf’s face. “When did that happen?”
“Sometime in the night,” a familiar voice answered from behind her, startling her.
Legolas’ dark eyes were bright as she spun on him, giving him a glower.
“You truly get a kick out of scaring me, don’t you?” she groused.
The fair elf nodded. “It amuses me,” he answered easily, turning his smile from her to Elladan. “How is it that you seem to be so lucky in the matters of the heart, cousin?” He shook his head and sighed. “Not even here one full day, and you have made a conquest of the lady …owyn.”
Elladan glowered down at them, although his gray eyes twinkled with humor. “And how, cousin, did you hear of this?”
Legolas laughed. “I did not hear of it, cousin. For it was plain to see as I passed her on my way here. Her eyes beheld only you.”
Erin’s eyes widened slightly as she made the connection with several of …owyn’s comments that had puzzled her earlier. Her friend had wanted to follow Elladan, not Aragorn.
Elladan’s head lifted and his eyes narrowed slightly as he looked ahead of them. “Aragorn is anxious,” he said. “The king would hold him here with his arguments if he could.”
Legolas shook his head, his cheerful smile fading. “Nothing that Théoden can say will dissuade him. He has seen what he must do, and the path he must take to achieve it.” He turned to look at Erin, his smile returning. “Have you come to wish us well?”
Erin nodded. “I have.” She turned her head and looked up at the twins and at Melaphríl. “I also wanted to thank the three of you again, for all your help. I would be dead if it wasn’t for you.” She lifted her chin slightly. “Please be safe and be careful.” She fixed her gaze on Elladan. “Come back alive.”
Elladan nodded, his hand touching his heart. “Navaer,” he said. “Until we meet again.”
“You are welcome, Erin,” Melaphríl said quietly. "Do not worry, I will watch over them both." The last was said with a playful grin at his lover.
Elrohir rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Navaer, Erin. Be well."
Swallowing past the knot in her throat, Erin turned away from them and did not look back. Goodbyes suck, she thought. Especially if I don't know if I'll ever see any of them alive again. She saw Legolas fall in step beside her and glanced at the elf, the corner of her mouth twitching. "Where's Gimli?"
The tall elf pointed ahead of them and gave her a brief grin. "He is standing next to Arod and complaining. He does not wish to ride."
They reached the grumbling dwarf and Erin bent to give him a hug, ignoring his sputtering protests that it was undignified for a warrior of his stature.
"Hush, Gimli," Legolas told him mildly, a bemused smile curving his lips. "That is the way of women, and you must yield gracefully to it."
"Hah," Gimli replied, inwardly pleased. "Then I suppose I should be grateful that only few are witness to it." He gave the woman an approving look, before turning to Legolas with an aggravated sigh. "Well, are you going to help me up onto this confounded beast or not?"
"Aye, Gimli," Legolas replied with at twinkle in his dark eyes. "Should I get you a box, or would you prefer to have me pick you up?"
The dwarf stared at him a moment in consternation, before he chuckled. "Hah. Give me your hands, you foolish elf. Pick me up, indeed.” He placed his foot into the step Legolas formed with his hands and, with the aid of his friend’s strength, was boosted rather ungracefully onto Arod’s back. Gimli perched there nervously, obviously uncomfortable, and Legolas patted his friend’s boot with a grin, before turning back to Erin.
“Navaer, mellonen,” he said softly, touching his heart. “Be safe. Be well.” She hugged him fiercely for a moment, kissing him lightly on the cheek before stepping away. He smiled and shook his head. “Two kisses in one day. Gerin galu,” he chuckled, swinging easily into the saddle in front of Gimli.
Erin raised her hand in farewell and watched him turn Arod and join the others, stifling the sigh that rose within her. She turned and saw Aragorn was mounted as well, guiding his horse behind Halbarad. He saw her wave and smiled briefly, touching his forehead with his fingers, before turning his horse once more. She watched them ride away without a backwards glance, the thunder of their horses’ hooves fading gradually until there was only the quiet noise of the courtyard filling her ears.
She turned back towards the hall, her steps feeling heavy as she crossed the courtyard. Her eyes fell upon a small figure at the bottom of the steps and she started in surprise.
“Merry, what are you still doing here?” she asked, coming to a stop beside him. “I thought you would go with Aragorn and the rest.”
“Aye,” the hobbit replied, his expression somewhat forlorn as he looked up at her. “But I have given my pledge to the king to serve him,” he said. “I gave him my oath on my sword, and now I am in his service.”
Erin sat beside him on the step, her eyebrows raised in surprise. “Well, that was awfully brave of you, I suppose. What made you think to do that?”
The hobbit shrugged. “I was tired of feeling useless, I suppose. Pippin has gone with Gandalf, and though Aragorn never spoke otherwise, I felt I was a burden to him.” He managed a small smile as he glanced up at her. “The king has been kind to me, and I was overcome with joy.” He gave a soft chuckle and shook his curly head. “Treebeard would have said I was hasty, and indeed, perhaps I was.” He gave a soft sigh and leaned against Erin. “But the words have been spoken and I am honor bound by them.”
“Do you regret your choice?” Erin asked, playing with his soft blonde curls with her fingertips, not minding his small warmth pressing against her.
“No,” Merry replied with another sigh. “I think I will be of more use here. And there is no sense in regretting what I cannot change.”
Erin felt a brief pain in her heart at his words; they mirrored her own thoughts regarding her choice of paths. “I know what you mean, Merry,” she said softly.
…owyn’s fingers tightly gripped the edge of the stone wall as she watched the rider’s depart, her eyes fixed on the fluttering blue cloak a dark-haired rider as he rode farther and further away. It was difficult to stand and watch him go, but Erin’s words, and Elladan’s parting, had convinced her that her choice to remain behind had been the right one.
The handsome elf had found her shortly after she had brought Erin to her room, letting her obviously troubled friend have some time alone with her thoughts. She had questions – so many that needed answering, but for now, she would let her friend rest. Turning away from the closed door, she had made her way down the long hall and stopped at the top of the stairs. Elladan had been at the bottom, waiting for her.
“What is this you wear?” he had asked, his keen eyes noticing the chain mail beneath her tunic immediately, and he gave her a troubled look. He tipped his head slightly and regarded her, his expression carefully neutral. “Is this the fashion among the women of Rohan?”
She had pushed past him, giving him a brief smile. “One never knows,” she said with false lightness. “These times are troubled.”
He had fallen in step beside her, his hand lightly resting on her arm as they walked. “True enough,” he agreed, before pulling her aside, his hands holding her arms as he looked down at her. “If I did not know better, I would guess that you were planning something foolish.” His pewter eyes had narrowed for a moment. “You did not strike me as an overly foolish woman.”
…owyn had pulled back slightly. “I know not what you mean,” she said with a light laugh, her heart fluttering at his nearness. “Speak clearly, my Lord, not in riddles.”
He had studied her a moment. “Very well, pen-velui. You would not be thinking of following the Grey Company, I hope? For that would be foolish indeed. I would most dislike to take my bow to your pretty backside before I sent you home – the ride would be most uncomfortable.”
…owyn had sputtered in surprise, pulling her arms free of his grasp. “You would not dare!”
A dark eyebrow rose as graceful as a raven’s wing. “Would I not?” he had replied. “For I dare much, it seems, these days.” He reached for her indignant form and pulled her easily into his embrace. Before she could utter protest, he silenced her with a kiss.
Against her better judgment, she had found herself melting against him, her hands pressed against the unyielding hardness of his chest as his mouth plundered hers. When he finally released her, she had found it difficult to remember why she had been angry with him.
“Promise me you will not follow, melethen,” he had said softly, his thumbs lightly brushing her cheeks as he cradled her face with his hands. “I could not bear the thought of you taking such a dangerous path.”
She nodded slowly, and he had kissed her again, his hands gripping her shoulders lightly. “I promise,” she said, when he released her and she could speak.
She had given him and Erin her word that she would not follow, but it was difficult beyond words to watch him leave.
The riders had cleared the city gates and were well beyond them when …omer found her, standing alone on the terrace overlooking the city.
“How fare you, my sister?” he asked quietly, approaching to stand by her side.
She glanced up at him and gave him a faint smile. “Well enough, my brother. How is it with you?”
He gave her a brief smile in return, before settling his weight on his arms as he leaned against the stone wall. “I am well, though troubled by our friend’s departure.” He shook his head, his expression tightening. “Lord Aragorn is brave beyond reckoning, or foolish beyond measure.”
…owyn’s chin lifted slightly. “He is brave. Nothing he undertakes is done lightly or without consideration.”
…omer gave a soft chuckle. “If I did not know better, I would say you are smitten by him, dear one. Yet I was not the only witness to your encounter with the elf lord in the hall. Many eyes saw him kiss you, and you kiss him in return.”
Her eyes widened slightly, but she detected no disapproval in his tone. “It does not trouble you?” she asked softly, turning to face him.
Her brother shook his head again. “Nay, dear one. It does not. For I have seen this one in battle, and have had the pleasure of knowing him these past days. He seems an honorable elf; indeed, he is the foster-brother of Lord Aragorn, who speaks highly of him. And he was gentle with the lady Erin, he and his brother both.” He saw her glance away and frowned. “What is it?”
“Erin is not well. I spoke with her in the stables earlier this morning, and she was in a mood more than passing strange.” …owyn shook her head slightly. “She is troubled.”
“She is a stranger in a strange land,” …omer replied easily. “These times are dark. It is no wonder, then, that she would be troubled.”
…owyn nodded. “Your words are true enough, yet I do not believe that is what is ailing her. She will not speak of it to me.” She glanced up at her brother, frowning. “She believes I will think her mad.”
…omer did not bother to hide his surprise. “Mad? How so? She seems frightened, no more,” he said, remembering how she trembled against him, clinging to him in terror when the winged shadow passed over their heads, and again, when he had killed the orc.
His sister did not answer for a moment; instead she fiddled with the sleeves of her gown, glad she had changed before coming to watch the riders depart. …omer would no more have been fooled than Elladan by her explanation of her garb; he knew her too well. Finally she lifted her head and met his gaze. “If she will not speak to me, then perhaps she will to you? She regards you most kindly.” …owyn managed a faint teasing smile at her older and handsome brother.
He shifted slightly under her gaze, wondering if Erin had told his sister about the stolen kiss at Helm’s Deep. “No more than you, dear sister,” he said.
…owyn shook her fair head. “You saved her life on the plains. She trusts you, I think, more so than myself at the moment. Will you speak to her?”
…omer shrugged. “She was sitting on the steps, speaking with Meriadoc when I passed her. She did not look too troubled.” He saw the stubborn glint in …owyn’s eye and hastily retreated. “Aye, I will speak to her, if it will ease your mind.” He was startled when his sister embraced him, placing a sweet kiss on his cheek.
“Thank you, brother,” …owyn said softly, smiling up at him.
Merry had wandered off to find something to eat and Erin found herself climbing the steps once more, wondering what she was going to do with herself. Others in the hall obviously had tasks they were appointed to fulfill. She didn’t have anything.
Maybe that’s something I’d better ask …owyn about, Erin thought, stepping through the hall doors. Maybe she’ll let me be her maid or something. The thought depressed her. She was just three months shy of earning her Master’s degree in English literature, with a possible career in teaching or writing. Now, it appeared, she was good for nothing more than menial labor. Maybe I should have considered that when I made my choice, she thought.
Tears formed in her eyes and she ducked her head, not wanting anyone to see them as she made her way quickly up the steps that led to her room. She held them back, managing to reach her room without bawling, and closed the door behind her.
What was I thinking?
She buried her head in her hands and let the tears come.