15. Chapter Fifteen
Strider woke the next morning to find that sleep had indeed helped with Laeriel's fever. Her body beside him was cool to the touch. A quick peek told him the wound in her shoulder had stopped seeping as well. She was well on the mend. Miraculously since the attack had only been just over a week ago.
"Were you really that worried?" she asked, slowly opening her eyes.
"I was. Maybe I shouldn't have been, but by the Valar, I don't want to lose you."
Laeriel slowly sat up. She eased between his arms, resting her head against his shoulder. "I'm not going anywhere, Strider. Though I think we should head to the encampment soon. Aron will be worried after us."
Strider sighed. He agreed. They had to return to the northern camp soon. Aron needed to know about the Wargs they had run into. He just was in no hurry to start the journey. Every step they took closer to camp was one step closer to his losing Laeriel. Once they returned, Laeriel would disappear and Thurin would reappear.
"We will head back as soon as we break camp. It will take over a week to return to the stronghold. We will have to travel by day and look for adequate shelter at night. Neither of us is at full strength. It would not bode well if we were to run into trouble."
Laeriel sighed, slowly nodding her head in agreement. She didn't want to leave this small cave any more than Strider did. But they had a duty to the rangers and they were both fit enough to travel. It was best that they do it now, before either of them changed their minds.
Laeriel pulled out of his arms, then slowly eased to her feet. There were things they had to repack. Strider would need her help. The sooner they got underway, the better. She bent down, picking up her bedroll. With relative ease, she rolled it, tying it off with a piece of twine. Then she turned to the task of readying her steed.
She approached Maethor, her hand withdrawing a small piece of the fruit she had hidden away in her pocket. Holding the apple under his nostrils, Laeriel reached the other hand over his neck. She hadn't really spent time with him since the attack, Strider taking care of him. So she wanted to reacquaint herself with him.
"Maethor…steady. That's right."
Strider watched as Laeriel readied her horse, placing his saddle and pack over his back. He sighed. He had work of his own to do. Salo was anxious to be on the move. He was not used to being cooped up for days as they had been. It would be good to get him out in the open. He just prayed to the Valar that they steered clear of trouble.
They traveled a good ways that first day. Unhindered, which pleased Strider. He kept looking over his shoulder, half expecting to be jumped from behind at any moment. When the sun began to dip below the horizon, he scanned the surrounding area, looking for a safe place to camp for the night.
Luckily, he found a small copse of trees that should provide protection. He just wished it was better. He missed the small cave. He had felt safe there.
"We will be fine, Strider," Laeriel said as though she had read his thoughts.
Strider nodded, and then swung off the back of Salo. He pulled his supplies from his back and hobbled him so he wouldn't run off. He turned to help Laeriel, only to find that she too had dismounted and was removing her things from Maethor's back.
Quietly, Strider set about looking for wood for a small fire. While he did that, Laeriel unpacked enough food for the two of them for their evening meal. Then she set about preparing the horses for the night. She gave them food and fresh water. She was wary of removing the saddles in case the worst happened. But she did, thinking of their comfort.
Rolling out the bedrolls against a tree, Laeriel sat upon them, resting. Not having been in the saddle for several days, she was tired and truth be told, sore. And if Strider's movements were any indication, he was feeling the effects of being out of the saddle as well.
"I will look around. Stay here and be on your guard," he warned, laying the wood at her feet.
Laeriel nodded, patting her sword at her side. She felt better knowing it was close. As he walked off, she set about building the small fire. They needed it more for warmth and protection from the nocturnal hunters than they did for heating their food. It was best if the meat didn't draw attention to them.
Hearing rustling in the brush behind her, Laeriel stood, slowly drawing her sword. She stood very still, her eyes scanning the brush around her. Just as she heard the crashing of the deer through the brush, Strider appeared, scooping her up and out of the path the stag had taken through the camp.
Laeriel looked up at him, smirking. "I heard the stag, Strider. I am not some helpless maid that you need to rescue."
"I know. Some habits are hard to break. I'm sorry."
Laeriel rolled her eyes. She wiggled until he put her down, then she returned to the task of building a fire. She bent down, laying the kindling in first. Then she added a little of the moss he had found. Finally she placed the larger pieces on. Lighting it took a few tries, but she got the small blaze going. Sitting back, with a smile on her face, she turned to find his eyes on her.
His gaze was piercing. Those grey eyes seemed to look straight through her to her soul. She blushed from the intensity of the stare, averting her eyes. There was blatant desire shining in them, a look of lust that scared her, though she felt perfectly safe with him. She felt his hand on her chin, tilting her face up so she had to look at him.
"If it were safe…if we had the walls of the cave around us right now…" he began, his voice low and husky.
Laeriel swallowed. She knew what he would do. He would pull her clothes off and push her to the ground, covering her body with his. He would slip into her heat, his thickness filling her like no other ever would. And together they would ride to the highest plains, the tallest mountains, until they reached the stars.
Strider and Laeriel found themselves on the road to the northern camp at first light. They had quickly disassembled their camp, wiping away all traces of their existence. They could not afford to have the enemy discover them while neither was at full strength. Mounting their horses, they turned north, silence between them. They rode for several hours, neither one of them speaking aloud the foreboding thoughts they each harbored.
Strider was worried about Laeriel's condition. He could see how tired she was. He wanted to stop, to rest, but he knew she would protest. He just wanted to prolong his time with her. He didn't want to return to the northern camp. He wanted to stay in the wilds with her. Loving her, being with her, protecting her.
He knew that once they returned to Aron and the rest of the rangers, Laeriel would be forced to hide her identity once again and it would be next to impossible for them to be together. How would he be able to be around her, knowing that she was hiding under the guise of a man?
Should he give her away to Aron? It would be protecting her. But he had promised not to betray her. He had promised to keep her safe. Tracing the white wrap around his hand, he smiled faintly. He couldn't give her secret away. He had promised. Sworn an oath to her.
With a quick glance behind him, he checked on her progress. She looked tired, but when he asked if she needed to stop and rest, she shook her head no. Sighing, he turned back to the road ahead of him, continuing on to the one place in Arda he didn't want to go.
Laeriel rode behind Strider, her gaze locked on his rigid back. She could tell he was worried. She knew he was slowing the pace, so she could keep up. But all she wanted to do was stop completely. Stay in the wilds with him; never return to the camp, or the rangers. But she knew they couldn't do that. They had a duty to the rangers and those they protected.
When he had asked if she wanted to stop and rest, she wanted to say yes. She wanted to dismount and follow him into the grove of trees. She wanted him to take her in his arms, make love to her, and tell her that everything would remain as it had been. But she had said no, knowing that the time they had spent together would have to come to an end.
As soon as they drew near to the camp, she would have to don her Thurin disguise. She would have to go back to being the young man the others knew her as, and never again be Laeriel, the woman that Strider had awakened. Tears welled up in her eyes at the thought of never being held by Strider again. Never feeling his lips against hers, or his hands on her naked flesh. Stifling a sob, Laeriel raised her eyes to the sky.
Silently, her lips moved, praying to the Valar. There had to be a way the two of them could be together. If there was, only the Valar knew.
They stopped before dusk, finding a small clearing at the base of a cliff. Strider tied the horses at the base of the cliff, keeping the sheer wall to his back. It wasn't what he would have wanted as a secure camp, but with the high rocks behind him, he had a sense of security.
He watched as Laeriel set about collecting wood for their fire. She moved slowly, stacking the pieces of wood she picked up into her good arm. It was obvious to him that she was favoring her shoulder. He said a few choice words under his breath, words that his brothers had taught him, and headed for her.
"You should have told me to stop sooner," he scolded, taking the wood from her.
"We didn't have a safe place for camp. We do now. I'm fine," she said, her voice betraying just how tired she was.
Strider mumbled something under his breath and followed her back to the small outcropping of rocks they had chosen for their camp. He tossed the wood to the ground and knelt down to build a small fire ring. She was right, of course, which made him all the angrier. They had not had a safe place to camp before this. But hearing her say what he already knew didn't make him feel any better.
Ignoring her, he continued building the fire circle. He stacked the wood in the center and reached for the flint.
Hearing the panic in her voice for the first time, he glanced up. Seeing shadows along the edge of the clearing, his hand went immediately to the hilt of his sword. Easing to his feet, he guided her behind him, drawing his sword. He heard her pull her sword as well, but his eyes were trained along the tree line.
What was out there? He strained his eyes and ears, trying desperately to determine whether the sounds he heard were friend or foe. Rustling to his left caused him to turn in that direction. Then sounds came from his right, making him turn back around.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.