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12

'I have waited on faltering feet long enough. Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will?'
'Few may do that with honour,' he answered.


ROTK: The Passing of the Grey Company


~~~

Within days of his coming, Mithrandir left our company. He made no promise to return, no assurance he would send word, but embraced my lord, pressed my hand and, with a wink, turned and resumed his wandering. Short indeed, had been his visit, but the hall seemed the emptier for his having gone. For Halbarad, too, was gone, riding upon the great Road, gathering news and seeing to the safety of the lands about the Angle. My lord and I spoke but little, settling back into our quiet routine. Now we are come near the weeks of midsummer, his men command much of his time.

Tonight, the spindle and loom lie untended and my lord is away from home. I spent my midday meal in the house of Eldar Maurus, learning the ways of my lord's house and the tithes the Angle owes it. When done, I walked the path back without seeing the dust and stones beneath my feet, for my head teamed with numbers and complex webs of exchanges of goods and services.

I was met on my journey by my lord's bride price, a small herd of round bodies trotting briskly before Master Herdir and his spotted dog. I spent the afternoon inspecting them and settling them into their new home. They were well-purchased, healthy, solid of foot, hard of mouth, bright of eye, and soft of coat. Soon, they would be left to wander the meadow, trusting to their love of home to bring them back, but tonight they clustered about in the shed, bumping each other and bleating as they nudged for places at the manger.

When I finally arrived at the house, my lord was not yet come, nor were he and his men expected for the evening meal. Duties kept my lord to the homes of his people, which was a good, for I stank of sheep, their fodder and the grease that clings to their coats. I sent Elesinda home and, as I ate a quick meal of cheese and bread, heated the water and drew a bath before the hearth. Though I took my time, my lord did not return until the water stood cooling in its great tub and I stood in my shift before the fire, wringing out my hair with a towel.

The tall hinged screen I placed about the tub hid him from my view when he entered, but I knew it was my lord from his step. Firm and sure, I have come to know it. I knew, too, the youth walking the grounds would have let no other enter the house. My lord did not cross the hall to his table, as I thought he would, but, from the creak of the buttery door, sought somewhat of refreshment first. Skins of wine hang from the rafters and barrels of ale sit in the cool shadows of that room.

But he would soon come into his hall. And what then shall I do? Shall I retreat to the solar? True we share a bed and true he has seen me in my shift and even less before now. But the swift undressing and combing of my hair in the dark before slipping between the sheets shall in no way compare to standing before the light of the hearth's flames. And yet, is not this, too, the proper place of a wife?

Considering this, I squeeze out the dampness to the ends of my hair and move to a bench close to the hearth. There, I toss the towel to its surface and, sitting, tuck my bare feet beneath the seat and run my fingers through my hair, catching upon snarls. I have built up the fire and the flames run greedily across the dry wood and sap hisses and whines as it boils.

I shake my head. I have no answer and my thoughts could easily convince me one way or the other, to stay or to go.

Soft footsteps come from the buttery. My lord enters his hall, ducking his head to avoid the lintel of the low-set door. He holds a cup in his hand from which he sips and, by the scent I know it to be the wine. His steps slow as he crosses the hall, watching as I tease the tangles from my hair.

"My lord," I say and I catch his look before I must drop my eyes.

His face seems, at first, carefully blank of all thought. Then he smiles briefly in greeting, more out of courtesy, I think, than with intent. The very air about me thins until I cannot breathe. Shall he stop and come to me? Or shall he pass and still I am but little more than a servant who prepares his home and table and bed?

"Lady," he says softly in greeting and then he has passed.

I know not whether to be disheartened or relieved. In my confusion, I cannot bring my eyes upon him and so do not see that his look yet lingers even as he moves behind me to set his cup upon the table. He does not seat himself, nor return to the work laid out upon his table.

Had I seen through his eyes, I would have known that against the glow of the fire my form was a dark shadow in the halo of the thin linen I wear. And had I but turned my head a little, I would have seen my lord with his hand lying still on the rim of his cup where he set it. For a moment, he stands thus, with his eyes cast down. But, all this I did not know, not until his hand covers mine.

"Allow me," he says when I twist about in surprise. My lord straddles the bench beside me.

I had lifted the comb to draw it through my hair when he stopped me. His face is more resolute than perhaps the task may demand, but I release the comb to him and face the hearth so he may tend to my hair.

"When I was very young, my mother would sit by the fire after her bath." With that, he sets the comb to my hair. "I had almost forgotten, until now." A soft smile graces his face as he pulls the comb. "She would have me run for her comb and pins," he says and his voice grows fond at the memory. "They were a gift from my father, she said. Silver, with pearls at their tips, I would play with them while I watched her dry her hair."

With that, my lord falls silent. I can think of naught to say in reply while the comb works its way into the hair about my scalp. It is difficult to imagine my lord as a small boy, innocent and eager to bask in his mother's warmth. In his grooming, my lord comes upon a snarl. His brow puckers gently as he works at it, pulling upon my hair. My lord is unpracticed in the skill and I wonder if I should endure the pain for the sake of encouraging him to continue, that is until a particularly sharp tug upon my scalp forces the decision for me.

His hand stills when my fingers light upon his. And though I dare not meet his eyes while I do so, I show him the way of holding the strands above the knot as the comb puzzles it out so that the hair does not tear and my head does not smart.

He makes no comment when he takes up the comb again. Though he takes great care to do as I showed him and cause me no further discomfort, his face is solemn and he seems to weigh somewhat in his mind.

The silence lengthens as my lord's fingers work, gathering up my hair and pulling the comb through it, and I hear naught but the wood settling in the hearth as it burns and the crack of the sap. He is thorough in his work, drawing the comb through, and then taking each lock in turn by its end and shaking it gently to urge its drying. I can feel each strand of hair as he touches it and soon, though the silence presses as a dark cloud upon me, I ache with somewhat for which I have no name. The brush of his fingers along the nape of my neck as he gathers my hair and the slow gentle breathing beside me do little to ease the pain.

"It must—," I say and turn only to find my lord frowns and has drawn breath himself.

"My pardon, my lord," I say, hoping that he will speak, but he shakes his head before giving a slight bow, his hands returning to their task as I turn away.

It seems my mouth is full of wool. Aye, I have my lord's ear, but, unfortunately, naught of great consequence to put in it. I had only hoped to break the silence with the first thing that came to mind. Now I only wish I had not opened my mouth.

"Oh, 'tis naught, my lord." I scratch at my brow. "I was thinking of what you said. It must have seemed a sore trial for you, so young, to wait with naught to do," I say and when his look does not lighten, go on, "waiting upon your mother."

"Ah," he says and scowls when the comb snags upon my hair before answering and my heart sinks.

"I minded it little," he says with a slight lift of his shoulder as he slowly teases apart the knot with the end of the comb. "She was beautiful."

At this, I must smile, though I turn my head to do so. For they say of the men of the House of Elendil, distant sons as they are of Beren the One-Handed, that, for all their strength, it takes naught but a woman of fair form and face to lay them low, just as his only weakness was for Elu Thingol's Nightingale.

My lord catches my eye. "Your father must have done much the same, did he not?"

"Aye," I say, recalling myself, "he would praise my swift feet just to give them speed when he had an errand for me to run."

"Just so," my lord says and briefly returns my smile, but then falls still.

The quiet of his hands draws my notice and I find my lord looking upon me solemnly, the comb and the hand that holds it lying upon his lap. Some debate passes behind his eyes, but I know not what it might be. After what seems a moment of hesitance, he lifts a hand to pull a wayward curl of my hair through his fingers. He frowns a little and releases it before he speaks.

"Is it such a difficult thing to be at ease with me, lady?"

It is not a question I expected and, for an instant, my mind is empty of thought.

It is not that I lack for answers. I am far too rich with them. I cannot tell my lord to lay down the weight of experience his years give him that outstrips even those of my father. I cannot tell him to dull the keenness of his gaze that lays me bare. And I cannot tell him to set aside the power of his House that is far beyond my ken. That he might be born of mortal woman and have the appetites of a mere man seems a fearsome and yet powerfully stirring thing. I hardly know whether to cower or throw myself in his arms and pray I might somehow survive the stern fire that burns so brightly within him.

"I hardly know you, my lord," I finally say, for lack of aught easier to say.

By his expression, my lord considers this as he runs his hands upon his knees, and then he lifts a shoulder.

"What would you know?" he asks and I wince at the meagerness of thought he must assume lies behind my explanation.

There I am, caught in the simple-mindedness of my own trap. What would I know? Do I wish to plumb the source of my lord's reluctance? Do I wish to know why he must gather his resolve when he thinks to touch me? Who the Tinúviel of his weary dreams might be? Why it is I who am here and not she?

And would the answers give me ease with my lord?

Distracted by my thoughts, I have reached for the comb where my lord holds it, for he has groomed all he can reach and the weight of wet and uncombed hair upon one side begs for attention. The shake of his head breaks me from my musings and, with a jerk of his chin, my lord urges me to move.

"Come," he says and, taking my hand, directs me to step over the bench and settle beside him again where he can complete the task he started.

"Well?" my lord prompts gently as his fingers press into my scalp, and he pulls his fingers through my hair before setting the comb to it.

Were they any other hands, I think, I would be content to forgo conversation and lose myself in the faint roar of the flames, the heat of the fire upon my back, and the warmth of the fingers in my hair. In truth, I do not know this man who now works to divide a length of my hair from the rest. I almost despair of finding a question to ask him, but then, I recall his look when my lord spoke of his mother.

"Have you memories of your father, my lord?"

"Few." He frowns in thought, but then his face lightens. "He was very tall."

I smile behind my curtain of damp hair, for I am sure the Lord of the Dúnedain must have looked as the very trees of the forest to his infant son.

"I think he must have placed me on his horse once. I remember him leading it about and I clutching to the saddle, just out there," he says and points the comb through the wall and at the garden before drawing it again through my hair.

"Did it frighten you, my lord?"

"No, I remember being quite delighted," he says and smiles, "that is, until my mother pulled me from the saddle."

At that, I laugh, for I am sure the woman gave his father a tongue-lashing that awed their young son.

My lord's face is fond as his fingers slide down a length of hair until he has it grasped by the end, where he shakes it gently. For a long moment, we sit in the small circle of the hearth's light and he seems to relive the memory of a time when the house and its grounds must have been as wide as the world to him. Then my lord sighs a little and his face grows solemn.

"But I remember best my mother when he would return home," my lord says, though his look is far grave for what must be a remembrance of sudden joy.

I, too, know a day when the return does not bring joy and he must see it in my face.

My lord lifts aside the weight of my hair.

"It seems you and I must take what comfort in memories we can." With the very tip of a finger, he traces the line of cord that lies upon my neck.

I fall still beneath his touch, as if, were I to move, I might cut myself upon his hand. I am unsure how I thought he would not know it for what it is, this thing I wear, for I do not remove the string with its small, colorful purse, bearing it about my neck even into my lord's bed. He must wonder at what it contains, and who gifted it to me. Perhaps he thinks I come to him wearing the token of a love lost, a heart already broken before I might offer it to him, and would banish the mystery of this ghost that stands between us. I know not what a man such as my lord might think of having a rival, no matter how insubstantial.

But when I raise my eyes from the floor, the look I receive from my lord is a thing of sorrow and pity. I am unsure what impulse drives me next, but I grasp the small packet and pull the necklace of string over my head.

"When I was a young girl, my lord," I say as I draw the cord down my hair, "I would beg my father to bring me things from his travels." "I thought, I suppose, in my youth," I say with a swift and sad smile for my fancies, "he journeyed to exotic lands with the Elven princes of his tales."

When I pull at the purse's strings and have it open, a small stone sits in my hand. It is irregularly shaped and as common as any such rock as can be found, wholly indiscriminant of color and surface, but I hold it as if it were the most precious of gems. My lord studies it and then my face. He waits for explanation, but does not demand it.

"So, he began bringing me these," I say and now my lord smiles. It seems he thinks of a child's wonder and dismay at such a gift. "Each had its own story, my lord. My father would tell me of the places he had been and how he came upon each pebble. A different story for every stone, and I knew them all."

"And this one," he asks, touching the stone, "what tale does it tell?"

I slip it back into its sack and draw the purse closed again, clutching it to my breast. I cannot look upon my lord, for I know not the story of this my father's final gift.

My lord is silent, watching while I pull the cord over my head and settle my hair over it. Then, of a sudden he lays the comb aside and rises, striding swiftly to a chest upon the opposite wall. There he rifles through his gear until he holds a pouch that must hang from his belt when he is about. He brings it with him when he returns to the bench and resumes his seat. The pouch is greatly worn and the thong that keeps it secure has been recently replaced. My lord's face betrays little when he opens it and it is a very small thing he withdraws from its depths. I cannot see it until he places it in my palm. There we look at it together.

A single hairpin lies in my hand, gleaming darkly. Air and damp long ago marred the shine of its silver surface. At its tip, where it would have nestled in my lord's mother's dark tresses, is fixed a teardrop of pearl that glows with the light of the hearth. I think it would have shown in her hair as a soft, small gem, a thing of simple beauty.

"She had many of these that my father gifted her and she wore them in the last," he says, "but for this one."

He takes the small thing back from me, his fingers careful when they pluck it from my palm.

My lord's face is so filled with grief and regret as he steadfastly looks at the pouch and secrets the pin inside my heart gives a startling thump in answer. With a barely heard sigh, he closes the pouch and smoothes its leather flap in place as if the bag itself were precious to him.

My lord lays the pouch aside and lifts his eyes to mine. His face is as resolute as at my first view of him standing before his door and awaiting my arrival and, by this, I know the time has come.

The first touch of my lord's lips is tentative, slow and soft, almost as if he discovers for himself the way of it. His hands remain in the lap over which he leans and I know not what to do with my own but clasp the bench so I may not fall. When he breaks the kiss I must catch myself, for in seeking his lips I am unbalanced.

My lord's face is solemn and his hands gentle as he sweeps my hair from my face to lay its length upon my back. There he studies me, gauging my mood. The fine brush of his fingers makes me long to see him smile and feel his kiss again. Though willingly he bends to press his lips to mine, his face does not soften and he does not smile. And yet, his hands come to grasp my shoulders and draw me near, and mine have found their way to his arms, to clasp cloth warmed by the flesh it covers.

And thus we begin.

~oOo~

My lord left by the end of the week. For all that he had lain with me as does a groom with his bride, his farewell was swift.

He gave me little sign of his going, and yet, I knew, for his face had grown grim and his feet restless. No longer did he ride upon the lands of the Angle, for he had seen to what must be seen. No longer did his men attend upon him, for he had sent them across the Wild to see to what he could not. But it was not enough. I knew. So it had been with my father.

And so he rose upon the morning and called me to him. There he stood before our door, his pack at his feet and his kin caught up in a hard embrace.

"Ah, Halbarad," says he. "Be well."

"And you," is the reply, and Halbarad slaps his great hands upon my lord's back and his kin does the same.

My lord puts his kinsman from him, though not far. "Look for me, but not too soon."

At this Halbarad huffs a soft laugh and, with his hand upon his neck, pulls my lord's head to him until they are brow to brow. "As ever."

My lord smiles and buffets him upon his ear with his open hand. And with that Halbarad releases him and steps away, for it has come time for my lord to say his farewells to his wife. Still, though silent, Halbarad's eyes never leave his kin, and I marvel at the yearning kindled there, whether it be Halbarad would wish my lord to remain or he to go with him out into the broader lands of the Wild.

"Lady," says my lord and, taking my hand in his, bows gravely over it. "Keep well my house until my return. It is yours to do with as you see fit, as it ever has been used by those of my sires."

"Yes, my lord." I bow my head as deserves his command.

"Be well, lady," says he and releases my hand.

His feet are swiftly set to take him upon the path from our door when I step after him, calling out.

"My lord," I ask, "will you take no gift in farewell?"

My heart thuds loudly and it is a wonder I can hear above the noise. I know not what my lord shall think of this. But it is my duty as a woman of the Dúnedain, wedded as I am now to a Ranger who needs must travel far from his family's hearth, to give him the family's well-wishes to take with him. My lord goes I know not where and what dangers he faces I know not. No matter my timid heart, I would not send him away unblessed.

The face that turns upon me is dark with startlement, but, as I approach, his look softens and seems more grave and full of a kind pity.

"Aye, lady, I would gladly take your blessing," he says and stands as if ready to submit to it. "But I am loath to take more than your words as gift."

It comes to me, then, my lord must have some regret at this leave-taking, for I hear the words he does not say. He speaks not of what little comfort he will provide in his absence. He speaks not of what shall be the loneliness of my days. But I would not have it said my lord gives naught in return, that he makes a poor husband, not when by his efforts is my home made safe and my days free of care but for the lack of his company.

"I have both words and gift to give, my lord," I say, my voice having grown strong. "And both are mine for the offering."

At this, a gentle mirth gleams in his eyes. "Very well, lady, but I, too have the right of refusal."

"As is only just, my lord." With that I reach deep into my sleeve and withdraw what I had secreted there upon my dressing.

He takes it from me, and at first I think him puzzled, but quickly does understanding dawn upon him and his eyes rise to mine.

"I cannot take this, lady," he says and offers back the small, silver box I had placed in his hand. Bright is the morning light upon the vines and leaves that chase across its surface.

"Have you better, my lord?"

"Nay, lady, I have none at all."

"Then will you not take it?" When he yet hesitates, shaking his head, I go on. "You said, once, your mother would not care for her things to be idle, should there be need, my lord. I would think my father of a similar bent."

He considers this, his brow drawn and then sighs. "Very well, lady, I shall take it." He brings it to his breast, his face solemn, and bows in salute to me. "I shall be honored to carry it, then, as I was honored by he whose once this was."

Sternly I call myself to task, for my lord's words do lodge most piteously within my breast, not least for I have heard rumor of how my father met his fate.

"Then, my lord," I say to the dark crown of his head, "hear you this blessing and may its words carry you through times when you are troubled. May thy feet find their way sure though the path be unknown. May thy heart speak ever true though the way be dark. May thine enemies' sight be clouded by doubt and fear. May the Valar stay the hand of those who might strike at thee. And may they see thee safely home."

And with that, my lord left and his kin ushered me back into his house.

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