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7

In any case, I did not intend to tell you all about myself at once. I had to study you first, and make sure of you. The Enemy has set traps for me before now. As soon as I had made up my mind, I was ready to tell you whatever you asked.

FOTR: Strider


~~~

I open the shutters and fresh-washed blue streams into the solar. It rained the night before, in gentle mists that lulled me to sleep, and the day dawned bright and mild. From the window, I stand tall above the meadow and can see far atop the forest. Faint are the distant glimmers of water beneath its canopy. Tender green ghosts the bare limbs of the trees and the river runs deep and swollen. Come summer, the river shall shrink within its bed, the forest shall deepen its green cloak and I shall be unable to catch the sun's play upon the water.

At the sound of a slow sigh, I place my back to the meadow to find my lord turning upon his side. He yet sleeps.

After some negotiation, my lord and I have come to an understanding. He will stay abed until after the midday meal if I promise to assist him down the stairs come the afternoon. Slow we creep riser to riser, he clinging to my shoulder and I to his side until he may sit at his table and satisfy the disquiet of his mind.

In our first few days of marriage, we had no need of such arrangements. Between wedding of the night before and council of the day after, my lord exhausted himself past the limits of both body and spirit, and undid many days of healing. My lord did not appear below stairs nor hold audience for days on end. Let the people of the Angle smile and talk fondly of the pleasures of the newly wedded, the eagerness of his wife, and the great stamina of their lord, I knew he slept.

But then, when the fifth day dawned, I came upon my lord at the head of the stairs. He clutched the wall and attempted to lower his body down the steps. One look at the grey sheen that clung to a face made grim with pain and I dropped the basket of bedding I carried and raced up the stairs.

"Daro!" I cried as I ran, to both his wonderment and mine.

Too alarmed and frightened to either know or care what I did, I glowered at him and refused to move. He had not the strength to both descend the stairs and push me aside and so he called to one who might assist him.

"Halbarad!" he commanded and a scrape of wood answered from the hall.

At that, I picked up my skirts and pounded back down the stairs, nearly slipping on the spilled linens in my reckless flight, coming to a halt only at the dark shadow that filled the doorway.

"No!" I cried and threw a hand up in warning.

I do not know what Halbarad saw in my face but he settled upon his heels and, after a brief moment of considering me and the slumped figure beyond my shoulder, called up the stairs, "My lord, it seems I am turned away by your most biddable and modest wife."

"Halbarad!" my lord called. When no answer was forthcoming, I heard a deep sigh from the solar.

"Lady."

I did not know what would await me at the top of the stairs, but return there I must. It was with surprise I saw my lord lift his hand for mine. When we touched, I knew his limbs trembled with effort and threatened to collapse beneath him. Together we lowered his body and sat upon the stairs.

I know many men who become loud in their anger, their voices rising and their words sputtering forth from their reddened faces. My lord is not such a man as this. His anger comes upon him coldly.

"Lady," said he, his voice a bare whisper for all its sternness. "I do not require your hindrance."

"My lord, I beg you, do not think me unkind, nor obstinate, but there is no charge so urgent that cannot wait until you are healed."

"You seek to lecture me on the nature of duty?"

In this, his voice was sharp and I was glad of the shadows, for I blushed. Indeed, he had read me aright. And, indeed, who was I to stand in judgment upon him?

"No, my lord, I am your servant in this and in all things." My voice seemed small and I could not meet his keen gaze. "But, as one who depends upon you, my lord, can you not see what it would mean should you needlessly fail of your cure?"

At that, he fell silent, gazing upon me solemnly for some time. "Very well," he said at last and a small smile twitched at his lips. "It seems I am your prisoner. Take me to my bed."

I was then at his beck and call, upon his insistence that if I were to restrict him to his bed and only briefly allow him to his table, then I needs must be his feet. And so I was, though not unwillingly. It was not a heavy burden. Mostly, he spoke with Halbarad, who had ever been his hands and eyes in the Angle. When Halbarad was abroad, seeing to his kin's will, my lord read through the books that lined the tall chest in the hall and made notes in his journals. And when he became too restless and this would not hold his mind, I loaded the table with uncut quills, the ingredients for iron gall ink, his gear and weapons, his clothes, washed and brushed but in great need of mending, and the tools with which to accomplish all these tasks and left him to it. I had enough to do with the ordering of the house and grounds that I did not keep him company.

In truth, he needed little of my attention and demanded little effort from me. For, though he tired of his sickbed, his own weakness and frequent want of good food and a safe bed were my best allies. Those times I saw him outworn and so took the quill from his hand, stoppered the ink horn, and laid aside whatever task he had set himself, my lord did not complain. He was content to eat what I brought him, drink what I poured him, and sleep when I put him to bed.

In my turn, I found, for all they had disturbed my rest in those first nights, his breathing and the weight of his body shifting upon the mattress soon came to usher me to my sleep and I awoke only when he had been too still or too quiet for too long. Then, I lie silent in the dark and listened, and only closed my eyes upon the rustling of sheets or soft sigh.

With a quick intake of breath, my lord scowls and stirs as I watch from the solar window. He will soon awaken, but I do not hasten his climb from sleep, puzzling as I am over this man.

For my attentions, my lord sees to it I want for neither occupation, nor shelter, nor a soft place to rest my head. Ever, in their giving, he treats me with a kind and deliberate courtesy. I have no complaint. But not since he named me for the Daughter of the Twilight have I seen aught of desire or longing kindle in his eyes.

"Do you wish me to close the shutters, my lord?" I say when his eyes open and he squints into the light.

"No."

Taking a short, cautious breath, he stretches his limbs. His look is puzzled at the scent on the air as he pushes himself to sitting, his back leaning against the wall.

"Did it rain in the night?"

"Aye, my lord," I say and turn to the long, flat chest at the foot of the bed. There, I have laid a board of pottage of beans, the earliest of greens, and barley, a bowl of boiled and mashed pease with bits of sausage, and a thick, dark bread. "Do you hunger?"

"Yes!"

Behind my back, he has arranged the pillows to his liking and tucked the sheets about his waist without needing to ask why I have entered the solar to disturb his rest. I turn my head against my shoulder to hide my smile as I cut into the bread. I think, perhaps, my lord is becoming overly accustomed to being served his meals abed.

When I rise, I find my lord looking upon the columbine at his bedside table, occupying himself with the trembling of their petals while he waits.

"When did you bring these?" He touches the flowers with a light finger. His brow furrows.

"Yestereve," I say, taking up the tray. "I thought you might enjoy them, my lord."

"Indeed? I had not known it was yet the time of their blooming," says he. "How long have I slept?"

He leaves off his examination of the flowers to lift the board from my hands and rest it upon his knees.

"Since before the evening meal last night and it is now well into midday."

He takes the spoon from me and shakes his head, taking first to the pottage. "I have lost track of the days."

I am not surprised. He sleeps often and for long hours. No doubt one day blends into the other. Pain, I yet see in the spasm that comes upon his face and body with incautious movement. But his voice is strong, his color is good and he eats with more zeal than I had yet seen in him. In truth, he attacks the pottage and bread with large bites as if he has not eaten in many days, though it seems he is careful to eat the pease in smaller portions and only then with bread or meat.

I lay my wrist upon his brow and he halts in his eating to stare at me, his spoon hovering between bowl and lips. His eyes are bright as they gaze on me, but he is neither overly warm nor cold.

"And how do I seem to you, lady?" he asks when I remove my hand. Though his eyes shine softly with mirth his voice carries a hint of challenge. "Do I seem well enough?"

"Aye, my lord," say I and leave his side to pour him his drink. I did not bring water up the stairs for fear of spilling it and so now fill his cup from the pitcher on his bedside table.

"What then says my gentle gaoler?" he asks, watching me, a smile faint upon his lips. "Shall I be allowed to wander about within the daylight? Keep hours below stairs of my own making?"

For all his humor, I have lost my compliant patient and know well he will no longer tolerate any attempt on my part to confine him.

"As it please you, my lord," I say and hand him his cup, my eyes downcast as is proper. He takes it from me, a most curious look lighting upon his face.

I am about to leave when his touch startles me. He has grasped my wrist and frowns up at me, forcing me to return his gaze.

"It would please me to know more your mind, lady. Come," he says, "will you not sit with me?"

An invitation, it seems, more than command, for his touch is light and I could easily draw away if I so wish.

He smiles gently when I hesitate. "You have kept all others away. Would you deny me all company?"

"No, my lord."

And so, I sit myself upon the foot of my lord's bed. My hands lie in my lap, at rest as they have not been since before I came to the house of the Dúnadan. Here we are at leisure, my lord and I, and yet, he does not speak. He has returned to his meal and looks upon me with a brief, measuring glance between bites. I am left with naught to do but watch.

No longer burdened so heavily by pain and weariness, a light shines in my lord's eyes, and his features, given life by his thoughts, look the less grim. Until this moment, I had paid no heed to the comeliness of his make. Let the women of younger years and better houses speak of the intensity of his gaze and the strength of his frame, for me he might as well have been far beyond my reach as one of the Eldar race, their beauty distant as the stars in the night sky.

With these matters are my thoughts occupied when his voice startles me.

"You have what you need for the house, lady?" he asks, and I am only now aware that I clutch my hands tightly.

"Aye, my lord."

He nods and stirs the pottage. "I see you have found room for your things."

"Aye, my lord," I say, thinking of the loom that now leans against a wall in my lord's hall. The tools of a woman's work are most often placed in parlors, away from the halls of men, but the ceiling of all other rooms in my lord's home could not accommodate the loom's height. I placed it in the hall without consulting him.

"I will remove the weaving, if it is your wish."

"No." He glances up at me almost in surprise. "Leave it where it is. It does not disturb me."

I nod and then return my gaze to my hands, aware that my lord studies me though I know not what he wishes to see. He pushes the pease about in his bowl before taking a bite.

"We have not yet spoken of the grounds. What think you?"

I shift uncomfortably. "The water of the well is sweet," I say, alighting upon somewhat, at least, to say. The midden and pasture lay downhill from the one source of drinking water upon the land, and the well should, with luck, remain fresh.

"Aye," says he. He must read my face for his next words reflect my own thoughts. "But other than that, the grounds need work, do they not?"

"Aye, my lord."

He nods, breaking off a piece of bread and wiping at the bowls. "Then I shall see to it," he says, and a sudden smile warms his face when he adds, "if I am allowed out of doors?"

"I think, my lord, you do not need my permission."

"Good,' he says. "I had hoped not to be forced to remove you from the door should I take it in my head to step across its threshold."

I smile in return, for my lord seems to require it, but my mirth is weak and my hand comes up to play with the hairs that spring from out the winding of my scarf.

My lord has finished his meal. His spoon lies within an empty bowl, naught but crumbs remain of the bread, and he has drained his cup. Still he sits with the board settled upon his knees and I wonder what else he may require of me.

"Have you aught other need?" my lord says and, at first, I shake my head but then halt. I bite at the inside of my lip. It is an awkward thing I have to ask.

"What is it?"

"My lord," I say, "what am I to do with your mother's things?"

He frowns as if it had not occurred to him that they be in question.

"They are yours to do with as you see fit," he says and then shrugs. "If there be tools, you may use them, if there be candles, you may light them, if there be clothes, you may wear them."

My doubt must have played upon my face, for my lord goes on, "Lady, my mother was a fair woman, and I am sure, had fine things that were the gifts of Master Elrond and those of his house, but she was also of a practical bent. She would be ill pleased were her things idle and there were need."

"Yes, my lord."

A silence settles upon us in which my lord's gaze is upon me, but he does not speak. I think, perhaps, he ponders some great puzzle. I know not what knotty problem he seeks to unravel, but surely I have failed in some way, for he frowns and makes no move. The minutes pass until I can take it no longer.

"If you are finished, my lord," I say, rising, "I shall take your tray and then return when you are ready to come downstairs."

"No." He raises a hand to stop me, and I falter, caught in the act of reaching for the remains of his meal.

"My lord?"

"No," he insists gently and then sighs. My lord lifts the board from off his knees and sets it upon the bed beside him. I wince at the strain I know he puts upon barely healed flesh as he twists aside, but ball my hands into fists so I do not reach for his burden to relieve him of it.

"Please you to sit." He motions to the bed before him.

I settle stiffly to the mattress below my lord's feet, feeling all of five years of age, called before my father to hear of my transgression upon his return. To my shame, in some unknown way I have displeased my lord and I cannot think how. Perhaps I have been too forward in my interference. If so, so be it. I can only beg that my concern was for his well-being. My lord's face is grave as he studies me.

"Your aunt is safely away?"

"Aye, my lord," I say, wondering to where his thoughts tend.

"And have you no other family in the Angle?"

"No, my lord." And 'tis true, for my father was the only child of an only child, and my elder cousins of his house have long since passed or removed elsewhere.

At this, he sets his elbows upon his knees and draws a finger idly upon the linen, releasing a long, quiet breath as he does so. I know not what my lord ponders that so unsettles his mind. Surely it is not an uncommon thing that a wife of a Ranger of the North must accustom herself to solitude. Was that not required of even his own mother? Did she not live in this very house alone, with no family to give her company?

"Lady," he says and I leave off considering the line where his finger passes, "when Halbarad spoke to you in my name, what did he say I required of you?"

Swiftly, I look away. I know the answer, but the words refuse to form themselves upon my lips. It seems I have no more skill in repeating his kin's demands than Halbarad did when he spoke to me. I am sure I blush, and should I speak, my words will come out in a stammer that reveals my discomfort. I cannot look upon my lord. But then a hand comes to lift my chin, and I find my lord staring at me intently.

"I do not wish for a servant," he says, "no matter how willing. It was not for this I asked you to set aside all home and kin."

He releases me and, I think, hopes I will not again hide from his eyes. I do not, for there is a measure of regret in his gaze and I marvel at what placed it there.

"What say you, lady? Shall we begin anew?"

I suppose I should be heartened by my lord's words. But I am not, for in my days as his wife, he has not asked more of me than to see to his house and run his errands. Is this not what a servant would do? Other than bringing him food, he will not let me tend to his person, but cares for his own hurts when I am not about and keeps his own counsel when I am. If I am not to serve him, it will leave little to bring me within his company. But, I must give him answer, for my lord waits, and as the moments pass the sorrow in his eyes deepens.

"Aye, my lord," I say and he nods solemnly, taking me at my word. I know not to what I have just agreed.

"What say we start the day, then?"

I would have laughed and gently teased any other who had lain abed for the morning and then had the temerity to speak so. Instead, I say naught.

My silence did little good, for my lord, whose eyes have not strayed from examining my face, says wryly, "Perhaps you will allow me to catch up with you."

I rise and, looking down upon him, say, "Aye, my lord, and if you will be so kind as to hand me the board, I shall take it while you dress."

He considers this. "I may assure you, lady, I have the strength and would not wish you to do for me what I can do for myself."

"No, my lord," I say, interrupting him before he can go any further, "my fear is that, given your lack of practice in bearing such burdens, you shall tip the bowls upon the stairs. And if you do not wish for me to play your servant, my lord, that leaves but you to clean the mess."

A smile comes upon my lord's face of a sudden. He bows his head, conceding the point, and offers me the tray with his empty crockery. "Very well, but I expect to be granted permission to make my own way downstairs for my supper."

"Aye, my lord," I say, taking it from him.

With that, I leave. Had I turned back, I would have known that the look that followed me as I made my way from the solar was gently amused.

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