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4

'The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or for others,' said Aragorn. 'There are some things that it is better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark.'

TTT: The Riders of Rohan


~~~

My head is crowned with the earliest blooms of the brier rose. Pink and white their petals flutter as I spin the stem between my fingers.

"Stop that," my aunt scolds mildly around the rose she holds pressed between her lips. With her small hands she weaves a stem into the braids that hold my hair from my face. "Thou wouldst think thou were a child of ten, not a grown woman," she says, the warble of her old voice accenting the Elvish words strangely. "Now leave off or thou shalt ruin them."

I cannot help but smile. My aunt tutts at me and straightens my shoulders so she can better see where to place the flower she has plucked from her lips.

"You would think you were dressing for the child's parade at Loëndë, not preparing to wed the Lord of the Dúnedain," she says and the sharp point of the flower rubs against my scalp.

"Oh, come, Aunt." She speaks as if it were not just yesterday morn that she was giddy with surprise. After spending a night made restless by my worries, I told her of my betrothal when she rose to heat water for our tea. I do not think she spoke for a full hour, so overcome was she, and then, after that, she could not stop.

"Ai me!" she says, dipping her head to peer through the window at the sun as it makes its westward journey. "They will soon be here with the cart and then I must go. Come! Come now!" she says and I press another bloom into her fluttering fingers.

The small thorns catch and tug at my hair. For a long while I am simply content to let my aunt's impatient hands turn my head this way and that and listen to her mutterings. For I know, as her fingers press to my scalp, soon I shall feel her touch no longer. It is not that this realization is slow to come upon me. I knew, I think, before I spoke to my aunt of Halbarad's visit, I would soon be sundered from the last of my kin left me.

"What is it, child?"

My aunt has ceased her fussing and she looks upon my face, her thin, white brow furrowed. Of a sudden, I take up her hand and press it to my cheek. It is so light I barely feel its weight. The smile I offer is small and sad, and her face softens.

"Ah, now, my pet. No regrets."

I shake my head. I am determined, as is she, to have none. We have spoken of this.

She withdraws her hand and taps at my hip, urging me to give her room to sit. I move along the bench so she might ease herself down against aching bones. She sighs as she does so before speaking.

"I had not thought I would live to see you married, my child, but I am more the blessed to see this day," she says and I reclaim her hand.

Her veins are as knotted ropes, blue beneath the thin, spotted skin of her hands, her nails ridged and yellowed with age. But they are lovely to me, for they are the hands of she who has ever been as a mother to me. She has never looked more dear, with her cheeks as apples when she smiles, pink and round, the gentleness of the cloud of white hair that settles about her face, and the small, dark eyes that glitter often with mirth. Oft has her laughter borne me up when all else about us was dark.

"How can I ever repay my debt to you, Aunt?"

"Ai, child, I promised your father I would see you grown, and so I have." She pats my hand, "There are those who need us. Even as we fulfill their need are we sustained by them. There is no debt."

Her small dark eyes glitter as she regards me. I think of my father and my need for the strength of his arm and willingness to forsake his home the better to protect it. I think of his need for a place of rest and laughter between his wanderings. I think of my aunt and her need to fuss and cajole and my own need for mothering. Thus it is.

Perhaps my aunt knows better than me why this makes me sigh, for she says, "Never fear, love will sustain thee."

Aunt," I say, chiding her lightly, for it seems I have explained without end the terms I accepted when I made myself betrothed. "Not all marriages are made in love."

"Did I say this love was from the Lord of the Dúnedain?" she scolds. She rises, reclaiming her hand to swat at mine.

"No." I frown at her as she hobbles behind the bench, stretching her back, for I cannot see her meaning.

"And listen to you, so bent on the belief that this is a loveless match!"

"How not?" I say, laughing of a sudden. "My groom could pass me by in the square and not even know his own bride should she not be named to him."

Her fingers have returned to my hair, where she gently twists and tucks and pats until she is satisfied.

"Ah, no, child," she says as she works, "not all marriages begin with love. But, many end there, that they do."

"Perhaps," I say, and yet think, "and perhaps not." I have no way of knowing what my lord shall make of me. And, I think, it matters little, for I was not chosen out of the desire for love.

Though I give my doubts no voice, my aunt shakes her head, clucking her tongue at me. I am easily read, it seems, at least by those who know me well.

At last my aunt is done, or has at least acceded to the necessity because of the lateness of the hour. Stepping back, she smiles, her face crinkling with pleasure.

"Ai, me! Do you not look fine!"

I reach up to gently pat the flowers that ring my head, for I have no other way to know what she sees.

"Ah! Do not touch!" she protests and brushes aside my fingers. "Else you shall ruin all my hard work!"

A distant jingling of harness and clopping of hooves interrupts us and we turn to the window at the noise. I was smiling at my aunt's fussing, but at the sound outside, I feel as if I have swallowed a bowl of stones.

"Oh my, dear child!" my aunt says, squinting vainly into the dimming light out of doors. "They are come for me. Quickly, now! Get me my stick and wrap!"

She shoos me off the bench and I see to making her ready.

"Be sure to blow out the candles, there's a dear. Do not sit too long or you will crease your skirts, there's a good girl, but please try not to wear yourself out with pacing," she says, her voice breathless. A bright pink blooms in her cheeks and a fond light glitters in her dark eyes. She turns every which way, confounding my attempts to bundle her from the chill.

"Now, I shall bank the fire, my pet, as I leave," she says as she clutches the shawl to her and I hand her her cane. "I do not want you near those flames in that lovely dress of yours. Valar knows that fine stuff will flash into fire in an instant," she says and wags a warning at me. "And I'll not have any child of mine going to her wedding smelling of wood-smoke and ash."

"Aye, Aunt," I say as I brush leaf and broken buds into a pile on the tall chest.

"Leave those things," she says, waving me off before turning away, "I shall get them in the morning."

"And do not keep our lord waiting," she admonishes. She has made it to the door and pushes me back into the room. "Now, now. You'll not have long and I shall see you when you arrive at the house of the Dúnadan. I do not want you standing out in the wind and for pity's sake, leave those flowers alone!"

Her parting words are said from out the door and she soon taps her way from my sight. When she has purpose, my aunt can move with the spring of a much younger woman's step. I hear her moving about in the hall, putting the fire to rights until, by the sound of rattling of the wheels and hard, quick footsteps, the cart has arrived outside our door. I cannot see them through the window of my room, but their voices are bright and I know my aunt has stepped from the hall and charms her driver with her smiles and light words.

When the cart rumbles from my hearing, I blow out all candles but one, careful to hold aside my long sleeves for fear of catching them in either flame or spattered wax. For a moment, I watch the flickering of the one remaining flame and listen as the wind rises. Leaves rustle before its fitful breath, scattering about the path that runs before my father's home. A glance out upon the path before I close the shutters and I bite at my lip. The way is clear. I see naught but the gathering clouds and I hear naught but the rising wind.

For want of aught else to do, I wander the room, touching upon the wool that covers the bed I share with my aunt. It is but a small world within that circle of light cast by the candle I bear, but one that is all I have known and loved. I shall carry but one thing from my home with me when I leave, all else has been bundled in baskets and carted off to my lord's home, where both groom and house await me. But I would trust this one small thing to none other. Even now, as I sit, I clutch at the bundle that hangs from my neck. Yes, it is there still, its sharp edges softened by the layers of silken velvet, linen and fine broidery work. It is there.

Thus comforted, I wait.

~oOo~

That night, of all nights, it rained. Oft, since then, have I wondered what portents the weather told. Clouds hung heavy in the sky as I rode to my lord's family home. Dark they scudded against the far horizon and hid the sun's setting. It is said rain upon the day of a wedding brings good luck, a blessing of fertility upon both land and wife. Perhaps, for, in the end after all things, was it not so?

The horse I rode was not mine, nor was the dress found for me to wear. Indeed, I was lifted atop my lord's own mare, her coat a grey the color of unburnished steel, and her mane wound with ribbons. I ride seldom and my lord's mare is many hands tall, but, as he led the horse, Halbarad set a gentle pace and he moved easily. I, on the other hand, clung to the high saddle and struggled with the wind for control of my dress and the mantle that hung from my shoulders.

The velvet garment was beautiful, of a rich, dark gloss I had not heretofore seen. Tiny stars sparkled in clusters at the neckline and hem, both lower than is my wont. The fabric of the sleeves was a silk so fine they floated in the slightest breeze. I wrapped the sleeves about my hands and was grateful for their length, for my fingers and nails still bore the pale marks of woad leaves, lending them an age greater than my years. The mantle, of the same material as the sleeves, drifted shimmering behind me as we moved. The dress was overlong for me. But I dared not alter it, for it had been my lord's lady mother's, brought with her from the house of Master Elrond when she removed herself hence. The lady Gilraen was a woman of fairness of frame as well as face. I was not so tall. But, out of respect for its maker, I knew I had not the skills to take needle and thread to the dress.

Nonetheless, so we proceed, I atop my lord's mount, and his kin striding tall and silent before me, his hands upon the reins and halter of the steed. Glad am I for Halbarad's quiet, for I cannot think what I would say in reply to even the simplest of speech, so greatly do my misgivings weigh upon my tongue. Ah! What terrible pride or perversity forced me to give my consent to this marriage?

The steady clopping of hooves draws our folk from their homes and they stand in their doors to watch as we pass. Many nod in greeting at their lord's lady and salute their lord's man. A young girl, her dark hair bouncing upon her shoulders as she runs from her granddame's side, lifts a handful of flowers plucked from the forest. I clutch at the saddle, for I must lean dangerously low to receive them, though she stands on the tips of her toes.

"Blessings upon you and our lord," she recites in a breathless rush as our hands meet.

I hold the bluebells lightly, fearful of crushing their delicate stems, and stare as she runs back to her family's side. She is not the only to offer me flowers, and soon my hands are full of the delicate white petals of nightcap, the bold yellow of buttercup, and the soft pink of butterbur, as well. With each touch exchanged when they press flowers into my hands, it seems the pit of my stomach drops further, for eyes old and young, man and woman search mine. What sign they seek from me, they do not say, but my heart tells me they wish for hope. So should I wish, were our places reversed.

We collect people in our wake as if we ride the current of some slow moving stream. Soon, the women of the Angle follow us, leading their children by the hand. At first, their look is subdued and their voices soft. But, when we reach the last of the homes, first one and then other voices rise in song. The women begin to clap and their steps match the brisk tempo of the music they sing. Smiles warm their faces.

They weave a tale of two young lovers who meet by chance by the river. They sing of hands that touch, of kisses sought and kisses found. Much more is alluded to but not fully said. It is a song of love offered and love received. I go not to a lover's house, yet it lightens my heart, for it brings a faint blush upon Halbarad's cheeks and, though his manner is forthright in all other things, he cannot seem to meet their eyes. This, more than aught else, makes me smile. It is not often that my lord's Rangers find themselves out of their depths.

When we come within sight of his family's home, my lord steps from his door to stand in the midst of his men clustered upon his croft. My heart thuds to a stop and I know, now, there is no turning back. He is much as I remember him, dark of hair, tall of frame, keen of eye, and grim of countenance. His look is resolute, as he is in all things. I am less well acquainted with the marks that mar his face and the hollows that darken his eyes and cheeks. About him he bears the pains of battle but barely healed, as do his men. His breath is shallow and he stands very still, as if he dare not move. Yet, he holds himself with a quiet authority that even this cannot abuse. Were you to come upon this gathering and not know who he is, still your eye would be drawn to him.

The light laughter of women must be a welcome thing to Rangers' ears, for the eyes of the men about my lord gleam with a warm light as they wait, holding aloft torches that flare in the false twilight of the heavy sky. Their flames sputter and stream upon the fitful wind as they watch our arrival. Halbarad's gaze has sought my lord out and he measures him with nigh the care I take as well. I think then, should he have the strength to stand so tall, perhaps my lord is not so bad as they say. I know not what are Halbarad's thoughts.

My lord's thoughts are the more plain to tell. When I meet his gaze, I refuse the reserve that rises within me. His glance is sharp, appraising me keenly and, as I lean upon Halbarad's shoulder to alight to the ground, it lends steel to my spine. It was my lord who asked for my hand, be he satisfied with what he sees or no. I must lift my chin to meet his gaze, for he is a full head taller than I, and when I do so, somewhat about his look gentles.

I keep my eyes upon my lord, hoping to forget all those assembled here. I do not think I have ever had as many of our folk looking upon me at once, and I fear most to trip upon the overlong skirts I wear. The thought of sprawling upon the ground before my lord in the company of his Rangers on such an occasion both alarms and amuses me, so that when I come to him, I am sure a smile quirks at my lips.

I shall not enter his house until we are wed, so my journey ends when I stand before my groom. The wind stirs his hair, sending tendrils across his face, and lifts my sleeves and mantle to dance about me. With it, the air brings the smell of the softness of night and wet earth. My lord's voice is deep when he says his first words to me. Though he speaks low as if it were just the two of us here, in the hush that has settled upon the gathering I think even those upon its fringes know what he asks.

"Lady," he says, "you know what it is that has been asked of you?"

"Aye, my lord."

"And you are willing?" His eyes search my face.

"I am."

"Then let us proceed." His face loses none of its hardness of expression when he steps back and nods to his kin, nor does his voice betray feeling. I know not how he perceives our union, but, nonetheless, it is soon to be.

We have neither mother nor father between us to join our hands, so it is my aunt and Halbarad who come to stand at our sides. My aunt's dark eyes twinkle with mirth as she leans upon her stick and cocks her head to peer up at the Dúnedain across from her. Pressed against her cane, she clutches ribbons whose ends skip upon the breeze.

"By the Waters of Nenuial, that lad is tall!" she whispers to me in the tongue of the Elves, but her ears of those of the very old and her voice carries to the assembly.

Soft laughter ripples through the crowd. A swift smile lights my lord's face and he shares a glance with his kin, who snorts his amusement. Some of the grimness falls from my lord and it is with an easier look that he stands before me to accept my hand.

At that, the burden of the gathering lifts from my shoulders. My aunt smiles and I know from the thrust of her chin she is deeply satisfied with herself. When I feel the familiar feather-weight bones and lumps of joints grown swollen and painful with age beneath my fingers, I press them briefly in acknowledgement of my debt to her.

My aunt's voice quavers beneath her words, but she draws herself to her greatest height. She speaks as for the women of the North, and does so with the dignity and grace of her age. Mixed with the words of binding, thunder rumbles distantly above our heads.

"Who is it would take this daughter of the Dúnedain?" And so she begins the ritual with the tongue of the Elves and the lifting of my hand.

"It is I, Aragorn Arathornion," my lord says, his voice smooth and sure. "Before my kin gathered here and in the presence of the One, I bind myself to this daughter of the Dúnedain. May they hear and consecrate my oath. Here and from henceforward, I vow to give her and the children she bears of me my name and my safekeeping."

"Who is this would give her hand?"
asks Halbarad as raises his own.

"It is I, Nienelen, Melendiriell," I say, bringing as much force to my voice as I am able to overcome the sound of thunder and rising wind. "Before my kin gathered here and in the presence of the One, I bind myself to this son of the Dúnedain. May they hear and consecrate my oath. Here and from henceforward, I vow to take upon myself the duties of his lady, to provide for the safekeeping of my lord, his people and his heirs, as my lord commands."

With that, my aunt places my hand in Halbarad's, saying, "Then I pass her into thy care, Aragorn Arathornion and to that of thy house. May thy days with her be filled with the blessings of the Valar."

"And so we receive, then, the hand of Nienelen Melendiriell, and count ourselves blessed."

So saying, Halbarad passes my hand to my lord, who takes it in his own. He lifts it before him. His knuckles are much battered, but his touch gentle. I feel the first drop strike my shoulder and find that my lord's sleeve is spotted with rain. As he speaks, my aunt tugs the ribbons from the hand that clutches her cane. The wind catches them and they flicker in the firelight.

"Thus do I receive the hand of Nienelen Dúnedainiell, and accept her vow," my lord says and Halbarad captures the ends of the shimmering bits of cloth and winds them about our clasped hands, "and count myself blessed."

About us, rain strikes the leaves and roof with a restless patter. My aunt tucks in the ends of the ribbon gently so that the wind will not pull them asunder. She pats my hand warmly when done.

"Thus do I forsake the house of my father's for that of Aragorn, son and Lord of the Dúnedain," I say. "I accept his vow, and count myself blessed."

My aunt and Halbarad step aside and he winces as a drop falls upon his brow. Light splits the shrouded sky asunder and here and there the people shift and turn their faces to the darkening sky. A wind chill with the touch of rain rushes through the trees and, lifting my mantle, tosses it about my head.

I struggle to contain its flapping with my fist laden with flowers. I am trapped in a film of silk and do not see the corner of the cloth that floats dangerously close to the torch until my lord steps before the flames, grabbing the material. He waits until the wind abates, his breath shallow, and face pale and quite still, before drawing the mantle from about my head and letting it drift behind me.

"Come, let us inside," my lord says, drawing my wide-eyed gaze away from the flames. With our hands bound, he leads me through the door and into my new home.

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