Haldir shut the door behind him, leaning back against the wood and closing his eyes. He had finished his shift, and he was ready to be home. He looked around the room, eyeing the unfolded laundry in the corner, the dishes piled on the counter, and barely disguised a sigh. The house looked like a storm had swept through it. He moved into the room and picked up a child’s small knapsack at his feet, pushing the books and writing tools back inside the leather.
“Mother? Ru? Oro?” There was no answer and he tensed at the apparent silence, but then he heard the sound of voices in the bedroom. A look inside the room revealed his mother sitting on the floor with his youngest brother on her lap, head against her chest. She was telling him a bedtime tale, and they hadn’t noticed him yet. Hal leaned against the door way and listened along. He remembered most of the story, of dragons and brave warriors and fair princesses and happy endings. It was his mother’s favorite, and he heard it himself as a young child.
Rumil’s head drooped, eyelids closing and his mother wound the story down to a suitable point where it could be picked up next time. She looked up, surprise showing at seeing Haldir there, and she made to speak. Haldir quickly gestured with a finger over his mouth as he moved forward to pick Rumil up off her lap. He was heavier than Haldir remembered, a combination of Rumil growing and Haldir at the end of a long shift. He tucked Rumil in the big bed and received a goodnight that was too sleepy to be excited, and then he turned to help his mother up.
She rose gingerly, a quiet laugh once she finally straightened. They left the bedroom, going into the kitchen before she spoke. “Didn’t realize how long I had been sitting there. Hello, my dear, welcome home.” She hugged him and he kissed her cheek in return.
“Thank you, Nana.” He moved to stack the dishes up and pulled out the washbowl from the cabinet. “Where’s Oro? I didn’t see him.”
“He stayed over with Bainien’s son tonight. No, no, don’t do that, I’ll take care of it. You just got back.” His mother fussed over him working, and Hal took a good look at her before he conceded.
“Let me get you some water then.”
Their flet’s water system consisted of a holding tank worked into the design of their house, gutters directing rainwater into the tank. It was for washing dishes and quick bathing and cleaning, mainly. The laundry was done by the stream as were baths in the summer, spring and fall. There were talans with running water, but it was expensive and far beyond their income.
Haldir opened the valve and filled the pot. The stove was still going, embers glowing, and he fed it with fresh wood, enough to begin heating the water. He watched her stack the dishes. A plate rattled as her hand shook, but then she caught herself and continued on as if nothing happened. His heart twisted in his chest and he distracted himself with the laundry piled in the corner.
“How much of this is clean?” he asked, holding up a tunic.
“All of it, or should be, I had wash day yesterday. Ru still hasn’t learned that clean laundry and dirty laundry shouldn’t be mixed together.” She paused and looked over her shoulder. “Sit down, Haldir, I’ll take care of it. You need anything to eat?”
“You can’t take care of everything,” Haldir said gently. “And no, I’m fine, I ate before I returned to the city.” Truth be told, that had been hours ago, but tiredness won over hunger, and he was only picking his month’s pay up tomorrow. Whatever remained in their cupboards was best left for his brothers’ lunches the next day. He picked up the clothing strewn in odd places, checked their cleanliness with his nose, and folded the clothes neatly. He slipped in the bedroom where there were two dressers against the wall, the limit of their clothing space. Rumil slept on, not stirring as he neatly tucked the clothing away in the wooden drawers.
“How long until your patrol goes out again?” his mother asked when he rejoined her in the main room.
“Two weeks, Nana,” he said patiently. They worked in shifts, two weeks on, two weeks off – easy to remember, but she never did anymore. “I’ve been reassigned to escort duty, though I think I should request a dismissal. It’s several months and I don’t want to be gone away too long.”
“Don’t be silly,” she paused in the middle of washing dishes to look at him. “Of course you should go, why wouldn’t you?”
He passed it off as lightly as he could. “Because Ru and Oro would miss me too much, Mother.”
“And me,” she added. “I would always miss you. You help me so much.” She smiled at him, but her gaze was just a bit distant, unseeing. It was a common sight now. Haldir slid an arm around her waist, aching, and she leaned into him. “But you still should go. We’ll be all right.”
“Maybe,” he said, and picked up the dishcloth to help her dry the plates.
After she went to bed, Hal finished cleaning the house. When he was done, he came and sat outside, on the walkway connecting one housing tree to another. It was quite late, but he didn’t need to be up too early and couldn’t sleep anyway. His legs dangled off the bound wood – living in Lorien meant early on one learned not to be afraid of heights.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to go to Imladris. He’d never been to the realm before, and he had never been out of the Lorien forest. But he knew better than to leave. He would not leave his mother alone with the boys and he was loathe to ask anyone else for help.
Since his father died, life had its difficulties, but they managed to get by. His mother had never been the same after, but Haldir and his brothers learned how to handle her. He worried for Orophin and Rumil - they were young, their mother needed care, and Haldir’s much-needed job took him away for long periods of time. The only other alternative to this life was their mother sailing. Lady Galadriel had said if she grew worse, Valinor was still an option for her, but Haldir was determined to do his best. He knew his father wouldn’t be out of the Halls of Mandos for some time, and he couldn’t stand the thought of his mother alone in Valinor.
They were making ends meet, but only just. His mother made some coppers from her washing, but their main income was what Haldir brought home. Rumil and Orophin’s schooling was free, but the supplies were not. They owned their home, at least; their father had purchased it before he asked for their mother’s hand. It was suitable for a new couple, but as their family had expanded, they had long since outgrown the two-room flet. Hal was still a junior warden, and it would be some time before they could afford to move elsewhere. It was one of the reasons he was hesitant to turn this offer down – he could prove himself capable of bigger and better things, his pay would increase and his family’s life be better. It was time to swallow his pride and ask for help.
Calen was a longtime friend of Haldir’s, they had shared a study table during much of his school years. They’d gotten into many adventures and just as many scrapes, but their paths split after the time for book learning had passed. Haldir had followed his father’s path, while Calen had gone the way of the smithy, earning an apprenticeship straight after his studies ended. They spent far less time together, due to their work, but the strong friendship remained.
Haldir still considered Calen his best friend and trusted him, which was why the next morning, he made the trek to the Copper Swan. He was greeted with a cheery hello, having been to the smithy often through visits and business, and they pointed him in the direction of Calen, who was in the back, working on forging a sword. He worked the metal skillfully and Haldir watched with interest.
Calen finished one stage of shaping the sword before he dunked it into a barrel full of water to cool the metal. “Give me five minutes,” he said, wiping his face with the back of his hand.
“Meet you outside,” Hal replied, grateful to get out of the heat. The back of the smithy was open to the air on one side, but still quite hot. He stood there for a while, watching the people pass by before Calen joined him.
“Wondered when you’d get back,” he was told as Calen clapped a hand on his shoulder in greeting.
“I just got in last night. Collected my pay and I need to bring some food home, but I wanted to talk to you first.”
“Oh?” Calen raised an eyebrow. Possessed of average good looks, he was more sturdily built than most elves and was teased for it badly during school. He put it to good use in his occupation, and the blue eyes that looked out of an ash-smeared face were kind. “What do you need?”
Haldir hadn’t meant to go about it so directly, but it was probably best to get it over with. He hated asking for help, even from friends, and he’d been told his pride would get him into trouble one of these days. He squared his shoulders and made the best of it. “Actually I came to ask for your help.”
“Really?” Calen grinned good-naturedly. “Quick, we need to get some record of this, make it official.”
“Yes, yes, I know, signed and dated in blood,” Haldir waved a hand dismissively, this was not the first time he’d been teased. “I’ve been called to go to Imladris, escorting Lady Celebrían back home. Expecting to pick up some cross-realm training as well, it could go well towards a future promotion.”
“That’s really great, Hal.” His answer was quick and enthusiastic, but Haldir could see Calen didn’t fully understand the help aspect at first. He waited a moment and then watched as comprehension sunk in. “Your mother.”
“Yes,” Haldir said simply. “My mother. I’ve not left her with Orophin and Rumil for longer than two weeks at a time, and I’m looking at three months, more likely four.” He was brief, not showing the worry he felt at the thought of going away that long, but his friend sensed it.
“Don’t worry, I’ll look in on her and the boys while you’re gone. You’re meant to do this, it’ll be good for you.”
“I hope so,” Haldir replied, still caught up in the idea of leaving his family behind.
“It will, and everything will be fine. You might even get laid while you’re gone, and Yavanna knows you need that.” Calen said cheekily.
“Oh be quiet. All that soot is going to your head, addled what little brains you have,” Haldir retorted, feeling at ease and a little less burdened by the near future. Calen always did that for him.
“At least I’ll still have more than what you had to begin with.” Quick with a response, Calen nevertheless sobered. “I’ll look after them. You can go, they’ll be safe. I mean it, I’ll do my best.”
Haldir closed his eyes briefly, drawing a deep breath before looking at him. “Thank you,” he said quietly, heartfelt and humbled.
Calen took it all in, made no comment save reaching for a quick, tight hug. They withdrew and there was a beat of silence before Haldir broke it with a complaint. “How come whenever I see you, I always wind up getting dirty?”
“Did no one tell you getting dirty is half the fun?”
“Not with you, you ass,” Haldir replied, making a face.
Calen just laughed before he disappeared back into the smithy.
It was late afternoon when Hal finally returned home. He was burdened with food and supplies, so he was very grateful to catch sight of his brothers at the bottom of the long, winding stairs that encircled the mallorn tree on which their flet resided. They were just out of school for the day; Orophin had Rumil by the hand, and they both were wearing their book satchels.
“Hey, come here, help me with these,” he called, and they both looked up. Rumil broke into a smile and ran to him, and Orophin followed long-sufferingly behind him.
“Hal!” Rumil yelled, arms raised, the universal sign for wanting to be held. Haldir set down his bags and picked him up.
“Hello there. You miss me?” He grinned as Rumil launched into happy chatter about his day and the frog he found at the table outside during lunch. He shifted Rumil onto his hip to free a hand and reached for his bags. Orophin helped him and took a few of the bags for himself, rolling his eyes at Haldir.
“He’s been like that all the way back, he won’t shut up.”
“Well, I can’t help it my day was better than yours,” Rumil stuck out his tongue.
“What is so darn special about a frog?” Orophin said with the confidence of a teenager already quite beyond his years.
Haldir interrupted before a battle started. “I think finding the frog is very cool, Ru,” he soothed, “and thank you for walking him back home, Oro. How was Mother this morning?”
“I took Ru to school too. Mother was very excited about you being home, but she wore herself out and had to go back to bed.” Orophin started climbing the stairs. “What did you get?”
“A little of everything, the cupboards were pretty bare,” Haldir observed.
Rumil looked up at him, arms around his neck and shoulder. “Breakfast was awful. Oatmeal. Again. But no fruit or nuts or honey or anything! Just plain oatmeal.”
“You’re so dramatic,” Orophin shook his head.
“Well, I’ll make you a proper breakfast tomorrow, how’s that sound?” Haldir smiled at him, giving him an extra squeeze.
“Proper?” Rumil echoed, suspicious. “Will it have bacon?”
“Oh yes, it will have bacon, I promise,” Haldir laughed. “As much bacon as you can put in that belly of yours.”
“Well, you must have gotten a lot of bacon then, because I can eat a LOT.”
After dinner their mother cleaned the dishes, then left to pick up work from a neighbor. Haldir helped Orophin with his numbers and promised to dazzle Rumil with tales of the wild forest outside of Lorien. When he tucked Rumil into the big bed, he fulfilled his promise of a bedtime story, leaving his brother almost on the edge of the mattress with eyes very wide. When he finished, Rumil was nearing sleep, but visibly resisting.
“What’s on your mind, Ru?”
Rumil fidgeted before he finally spoke up. “Nana says you’re going away.”
Haldir sighed deeply, before lying on the bed, looking down at Rumil. “I need to go, my captain assigned me,” he explained.
“Where is it? How long will you be gone? Can I go?”
“No, little frog-catcher, you can’t come with me.” Haldir smiled. “At least not this time, maybe when you’re a little bit older. And it’s Imladris, you know, where Lady Celebrían and her family lives? And Lord Elrond.”
“Oh yes, I know about that, we learned about it in school. Imladris, the mortals call it Rivendell and then there’s also Mirkwood, which didn’t used to be called that.”
“Yes, you’re right. I’m proud of you for learning your lessons well. It’ll be all right, you’ll see.” Haldir ruffled his hair and made to get up.
“Will you come back?” The question was softly voiced and stilled him immediately. “Ada never came back.”
Haldir’s heart rose to his throat and his chest tightened painfully. “Yes, Ru. I’ll come back. I’ll be back home before the snow comes.”
“So long? It’s spring, the trees just got flowers…” Rumil looked distressed and Haldir was quick to reassure him.
“It’s not so long. It’ll pass before you know it; you’ll be busy with school and helping Oro with Nana, won’t you? You’re going to have to tell me all about it when I get back, so it will be like I didn’t miss anything.”
He received a nod in return. “I promise I’ll be back, Ru.” He paused for half a beat before adding, “and I’ll bring presents home too.”
Bright eyes turned up to his. “Oh really? Like what?”
Hal laughed and got up from the bed. “Can’t tell, that would ruin the surprise. Now get to bed or you’re going to sleep through tomorrow.”
“Then go to sleep.”
Orophin was waiting for him in the main room, leaning against the wall, foot propped up against it. He looked very serious and Hal fought the feeling that he shouldn’t leave, this was too much to put on his brothers.
“Feet off the wall or it’ll leave a mark.” He himself didn’t care overly much, but no one ever knew what would set their mother off to clean the flet from top to bottom. They had to make her stop once; it was an unsettling experience that was best not repeated.
Orophin must have remembered because he dropped his foot quickly. “When are you leaving?”
“Three days from now, time to get everything in order and report to Hêvaer.” Haldir pulled out his sleep mat from the closet. “I asked for an advance, and payroll knows to give the following three months to Mother, so make sure she goes every fourth week. I’m going to leave the advance with you. If there’s any emergency, use it, and if it runs out, talk to Calen. He owes me some money anyway. Just – be careful with it.”
“I know,” Orophin said, irritated, then he sighed. “I’ve managed before with you on your shifts, I can do it with this too.”
“If you hadn’t been doing such a good job, I’d not be leaving at all,” Haldir admitted. “Thank you. I rely on you while I’m gone.”
Orophin shrugged. “It is what it is. You do more than me.”
There was a moment between them of silent understanding. No sense in complaining about their lot, it was their life, so it was best to just get on with it.
Haldir broke the quiet. “There’s a little extra in there, for your music teacher. Might be best that she meets you here and gives you lessons, so you don’t need to worry about how to manage it all.”
Orophin looked up at that, a smile brightening his face. “Really?”
“Yes, really,” Haldir said. He knew how important music was to Orophin, and while it meant he’d hardly have any walking around money in Imladris, it was worth it to see what it meant to his brother.
They were in that awkward stage where hugging was considered unacceptable, so simple thanks were given. Orophin reached for his own mat and went into the bedroom, shutting the door behind him.
Haldir laid out his own mat in the corner of the main room. There wasn’t quite enough space for all four of them in the bedroom, so he slept there instead. It wasn’t terribly different from being out on his shift, and he didn’t mind. He’d just settled when he heard noise at the door and his mother opened it, coming into the room with a laundry sack in hand.
“Can I help, Nana?” he asked, preparing to rise.
“No, no. Stay, love. I’m fine. Faelien seems to have just doubled her family’s laundry. Those girls of hers run around with the boys and get as messy as you would back in the day.” She set it down on the table, he knew her work was set out for the next day.
He crossed his legs and watched her move around the flet, picking something up out of place and then moving it to elsewhere, still not where it belonged. “Well, I was a very active child.”
She laughed. “You were the closest thing I’ve seen to the fabled tales of the monkey creature. All grubby and climbing everywhere.”
“I’ve always been really curious.” Haldir allowed with a small smile on his face.
“I know, baby, that’s why you should go. You are going, aren’t you?” She fussed with the sack’s tie. it was easier to see when she was unsure these days, her nervous ticks increased and became worse. He stood up, off of the mat and joined her at the table, putting an arm around her.
“Not if you are unhappy, Nana. I’ll stay.”
“You can’t stay.” She looked up at him – Haldir still thought it was strange to look down at his mother – and he saw the toil that losing their father had on her. Her hair had lost some of its shine, the years sat more heavily. He wanted to protect her from everything. She must have noticed this, she smiled sadly and reached up and cupped his cheek. “You need to go. Not for me, or so things will be better here, but for you.”
Her eyes became distant as she said quietly, more to herself than to him, “And I will be all right. For the boys.”
“No.” Her focus returned, steadily on him. “Trust me. I am your mother and I know this.” She was firm, and for a moment sounded like who she was before, as though none of the recent past had happened. “We’ll all be fine. You go, make me proud.”
Haldir remembered something Hêvaer told him once: one of the most important things was to know when to bend like the willow. Haldir knew when he was outmatched.