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20

'Him?' said the landlord in an answering whisper, cocking an eye without turning his head. 'I don't rightly know. He is one of the wandering folk – Rangers we call them. He seldom talks: not but what he can tell a rare tale when he has the mind. He disappears for a month, or a year, and then he pops up again.

FOTR: At the Sign of the Prancing Pony


~~~

I walk down the stairs, my fingers busy in my hair, twining its lengths into a braid. The sun rises dimly behind a screen of low clouds, but my feet know the way. In my mind I organize the day. The afternoon, it is clear, will be dedicated to thorny questions of how to convince the Council to yet again build more granaries and to forebear from eating all our harvest, for Halbarad has gone a-ranging upon the northern border of the Angle and shall not attend, and we come swiftly upon the year's harvest. Ah, perhaps I worry needlessly, but I have no way of knowing when they see reason easily and when the jostling among them for position will deafen their ears. And then yet another family bereft of home and seeking the solace of the Angle has come among us, and I have also to find shelter for them.

But, for now, the morning is my own. The loom stands empty in the hall, the weights gathered into their basket, for I tied off the rug the evening before. A field of green leaves fenced in red and blue knots now lies against the solar wall, tickling my fingers with its thick wool as I brushed my hand upon it when I washed and prepared for the day.

Perhaps I shall dress the loom and begin another while I may yet enjoy the quiet of the house. A field of woad-blue the color of a summer evening, perhaps? Silver-gray for the star of the Dúnedain about its border to lie beneath my lord’s feet and keep them warm when he sits? Perhaps a runner of linen of the same color for the table above? A long length of blue with stars upon the ends as they hang over the table’s edge or shall they cluster about the middle? How many stars? Arthedain, Rhudaur, and Cardolan, aye, but to include the Southkingdom or no? Ah, the politics of such simple things. Perhaps it would be best to invoke the stars of the heavens than those of the lands below them.

So caught up in my thoughts am I that when the hall opens out about me I pause and blink at the unexpected sight. My lord is returned, but such is his state my soft footsteps have not awakened him. He lies curled upon his side upon a bench by the hearth, his cloak wrapped about him, sleeping heavily with his head resting on the crook of his arm. His gear lies scattered about him on the floor where he cast himself upon the hard surface, not waiting even to lay aside his knife, pull his boots from his feet, or draw his cloak from off his shoulders. Only his sword hangs secured in its place on the wall, carefully unbuckled from his belt. One look at the arm that lies tightly bound and tucked against his breast and I find my day planned for me.

I tie off my hair and wrap my scarf over it all while I pad softly over to the buttery. There I lift the cauldron from its hook, holding the handle upright so that it will not bang against the pot and ring like a bell. Though he sleeps deeply, my lord, of a habit, awakes easily at the slightest noise. Only when I have all prepared do I re-enter the hall, the cauldron swinging from my hand.

He has not moved, but, though I take care to make as little noise as I can, when I lay aside the pot and stir the ashes to awaken the fire, my lord draws in a swift breath and rises from where he lies. He sits clasping the edge of the bench to steady himself, his eyes wary until he comes to see me and the hall in which he collapsed.

“Your House welcomes you home, my lord,” I say and turn aside to lay kindling upon the hearth.

He rubs at his face and greets me solemnly. "Lady.”

Tongues of flame lick greedily at the wood as I lay the logs upon them. My lord gazes at the fire, but moves little. When I stand, his eyes follow me, but he says naught. He holds his frame with the tension of a bowstring drawn just before the arrow is to be loosed. I do not doubt his arm pains him greatly, for, lying heavily in its sling, its bones are most like to be broken.

“My lord,” I say, and he gives me a look of weary query.

“You are home. Will you not rest?”

I move swiftly to the settle along the wall. I am surprised he did not lay himself down there, for it is the more comfortable, having a mattress thick-stuffed with wool. But perhaps not, as it is new to the hall and in the night he would not have known it for what it was.

“Have you broken your fast, my lord?” I call over my shoulder.

“No."

Knowing he cannot see my face, my lips have pressed themselves into a thin line. Taking up the pillow from the settle, I drop it to his bench. He watches silently as I kneel before him, pull at his laces and tug at his heel to lift his foot, his face grave.

“I think I shall take it as a compliment of my cooking, then, that you would hoard your hunger until you return home, my lord,” I say and toss one boot to the end of the bench, smiling up at his face.

A ghost of a smile teases his lips. “Yes, now I do recall it, that must have been my reason."

“And what would my lord request to eat now he is returned?” The second boot drops to the floor and he lifts his feet, stretching out upon the bench.

“Whatever is to hand, lady,” he says and lets out a long breath, "so long as it is hot.” He has already pressed his face into the pillow and closes his eyes.

Kneeling there, I allow myself one moment to look at him. My lord has fallen quickly into a light drowse. Not only has he not eaten, I doubt he allowed himself much rest in the last days of his journey. Though I long to draw a hand along his shoulder and press a kiss onto his unshaven cheek to seal his welcome home, to do so would only rouse him. It is enough that I must move about in the hall to make things prepared, so I let him lie.

He stirs little as I draw and heat water upon the hearth and set a pipkin of rolled grain, apples, honey and sheep's milk to simmering, but when the water begins to boil and I roll the great barrel tub from the buttery, his eyes open and he rises from his sleep. He rubs his face and seems to gather himself before thrusting up from the bench and slowly walking through the buttery and out the back of the hall. When he returns, I have filled the bath with well water and am pouring in the contents of the cauldron. A screen protects the tub from the cool outdoor air and from view of the door and windows, reflecting the heat of the hearth back onto the bather.

He is quiet, already removing cloak and belt without comment as I stir the water with my hand, testing its warmth.

"Your bath is ready, my lord," I say as I walk to pick up his gear. "I shall heat more water, if you wish."

He nods and moves behind the screen where I can but see the crown of his head.

“Elesinda shall start the laundry once you are done, my lord,” I say, having caught her earlier and set her to milking the ewes where she will have no need to come indoors. I have gone to his pack and am unlashing his blanket as I speak. “If you throw me your things, I will have them added.”

My only answer is the flight of his tunic, followed soon by shirt, breeches and braes. I shake my head in amusement only to halt and sigh at the ragged edge of my lord's blanket where he cut it with his knife. I thought the cloth of his sling a familiar one, and now I know from where he had obtained it. Ah well, as it is, the wool has nigh worn through in great patches, its usefulness near at an end. I gather up my lord's discarded clothes in what is left of his blanket and draw the corners into a loose knot. As I do so I hear my lord’s long sigh from where he lowers himself into the water.

~oOo~

I bear my lord's meal and my feet stumble in my stride. It is all I can do to stifle the exclamation that comes upon my lips. My lord turns his head to look upon me at the sound. His back, side and arm are one great bruise; purple, blue and black. His knuckles are raw, and a multitude of scratches mars the skin of his neck where his clothing gave him no protection.

I set the board across the tub and he takes up his spoon. I forbear from brushing my fingers upon his bruised skin, though a small, soft sound of anger and dismay must have escaped from me for my lord speaks.

“I do what I must, lady,” he says and, turning away, takes up a large spoonful of the sweet pottage. “It was a fall, in truth,” he says wryly once he has swallowed and turns to his ale.

“From what, my lord, the tip of Silvertine?” I ask and then color for the forwardness of my tongue. Yet, I am rewarded with a soft snort of mirth.

“Not quite, luckily.” My lord’s eyes twinkle at me over his cup. "Though perhaps not far from it."

I think, now, my lord must grow to enjoy vexing me, for, when I leave him to his bath and scoop up his bundle of soiled clothing, the cluck of my tongue at the foolishness of men serves only to make him smile.

When I return to the hall, he has finished his quick meal and lifted the board from the bath. He eases his sling about his neck and leans back against the side of the tub. There he sips at his ale, and, should the tub have been of greater size, should soon to slip into slumber, so weary is he.

With me I bring linens, clean and new clothing, a cloth to replace his sling, and a cake of green soap. My lord rouses a little and makes to take a small square of linen from me.

"Come, now, lady," he says mildly when I hesitate to surrender it. "I have traveled through the Hills of the Fells and the moors to get here, and all with the use of but one hand. I think I may just be able to bathe myself."

"Oh, aye, my lord," I say and, laying aside the linens, sink to kneeling beside the tub. "I doubt it not. But I would think, too, the going was difficult. I cannot see how you could have kept to the Road in such a state, for fear of what eyes may see you thus. And I cannot see how you could have found much sleep for the pain and much to eat without the use of both hands."

At this, my lord looks upon me with somewhat of surprise, and then lays his knuckles in a brief touch upon my cheek, and by this I know he will submit.

"Two years it has been and yet I deem you still unused to the comforts a wife would give. Forgive me, my lord, but perhaps you have not given it your full effort."

My lord leans forward in the tub and huffs a sharp laugh. ""Tis not what Halbarad says."

"Aye, well, my lord, you know not the simple pleasures he seeks while you are gone." I set to rolling up my sleeves. "I am fair surprised the man has not grown fat for all his love of sweets."

My lord chuckles and the sound echoes against the side of the tub. "Was always so, lady, yet I think he had not had the chance to indulge it so often before."

I smile, for I know now Halbarad is sure to be sorely teased by his kin. Aye, my lord is a lean man, and none so lacking in fat as when he first returns home. Ah, he has his own tooth for sweets, but best loves the savory tastes of sausages and hard ale. I have found a dish of smoked fish, soft sheep's cheese, garlic and other herbs that he will spread upon toasted bread, eat until it is gone, and then scrape at the corners of the pot with bits of the bread. All manner of pottage, fresh green things, and roots he eats well and with much eagerness. I lack only a manner of serving pease to my lord that he finds pleasing.

I lower the soap into the water beside my lord and lather the wet cloth with it. The bath is hot and a gentle steam rises to settle against my cheek. I begin with his back, scrubbing at the tender flesh gently. He sways a little under my hands, his loose hair slowly coming to hang over the water's surface. Should he allow it, perhaps I shall trim his hair of their ragged ends. At the moment, my lord seems content with the heat of the water against bruised flesh and so I lay the cloth upon his shoulder. The spice of bay leaves mingles with the sweet scent of almonds rising from the cloth.

"Did you make the soap, lady?" he asks, his voice thick with gathering sleep.

"Elesinda and I." I refresh the warmth of the cloth from his bath and lay it again upon him.

"The smell is pleasing."

"I thought it might be easier to endure your kinsman's teasing should you not also smell of lavender and sheep's milk, my lord."

He smiles at the thought and his voice sharpens. "Tis very kind of you, lady."

When I have done with his back, my lord shifts in the tub, the water squabbling softly along its sides as he moves. He lifts his chin and I take to washing his neck and breast. Between us two, we complete the bath, he lifting his arm aside and I lathering him with soap. The water bubbles against the rim of a pitcher as I lower it in the bath.

"Will you tell me of what has passed in the Angle?"

When I raise both eyes and pitcher, I find my lord looks upon me, his eyes clear of his drowse.

"Is there a reason you would not wish to tell of it?" he asks when I do not speak.

"No, my lord," I say and tip the pitcher so I may pour water upon him. "I know not what you would wish to hear."

"I would hear told whatever you wish to say, lady."

I wipe at soap that lingers beneath his arm, considering. "Did you hear aught of Melethron and his wife?"

"No," my lord says and frowns. "What of them?"

"She is with child again."

"Another?" he exclaims. "How many have they now? Six? Seven?"

"This last makes eight, my lord."

He lets loose a fond huff of laughter. "Melethron shall be insufferable."

I smile in return. "Indeed he shall, my lord." And, I think further, his house in happy chaos.

I lather his arm when my lord speaks again. "I would know more of your efforts for the House. The ledgers I gave you, you keep them still?"

"Aye, my lord."

"Would you show them to me, then?" he asks and I nod, but keep myself much occupied with pouring water where I have washed. Ai! They are well-kept, my books. I have not that to fear, but have done much without my lord's knowing and I worry what he may make of it.

The hall falls quiet, and the fire snaps, sending a plume of smoke into the air and the water chimes softly as I refill the pitcher. He has washed his face and I pour the water upon his upturned brow.

He wipes at his closed eyes and cheeks, and then sighs. "Have you been comfortable here?"

"Aye, my lord. Your kinsman takes good care of me."

Since the breaking of the cold weather, Halbarad has taken to journeying atimes upon the lands about the Angle, seeing personally to its safety where once he had other men on which to rely. Still, when e'er he leaves, he would not have me be alone and assigns another as my guard.

"I have no complaints, my lord." And he nods in reply, his look content. "Shall I wash your hair, my lord?"

He leans over the water by way of answer and I refill the pitcher. His hair darkens and falls straight and long about his neck, moving softly with the warm water as I pour. I then roll the soap in my hands and lather his hair. His eyes are closed and I think his thoughts distant until he speaks again.

"How do find Halbarad?"

"He has been attentive, my lord, guarding my person and your lands and folk, as is needed." His head rocks gently beneath the pressure of my fingers at his scalp.

"And how is this seen?"

A delicate question. It holds within it both inquiry and warning. I am unsure if he speaks to his people's thoughts or my own. But I know he will not take impropriety or the perception of it lightly. By necessity, he will brook no question of the paternity of his heirs. True, Halbarad is much in my company and I feel a great fondness for the tall, quiet Ranger who shadows my steps, but I lack the feeling for him that this man who sits compliant under my hands evokes within me.

My lord opens his eyes at my silence, and frowns when my thoughts quirk my lips.

"They have taken to calling him Huan," I say.

At that, my lord throws back his head and laughs loud and long, his mirth writ large upon his face. It warms my heart to see him so at ease and I smile. My hands, full of soap as they are, rest upon the edge of the tub.

When he quiets, my lord asks, his face alight with mischief, "And, lady, shall you take your Great Hound with you into the market tomorrow? For fain would I see their faces and know, for once, what they whisper behind their hands when I have passed."

"Nay, my lord, not when I have Beren to keep me company," I say lightly and smile upon him.

Then, with a shock, I wish to have caught my words before they had slipped into the air between us. So taken with the joy that lights his face am I, I have become careless. I have said too much, and I know it when I see the change come upon his face. His lips yet smile, but their curve is sorrowful and his eyes above them are pensive and dark. Ai! I am a fool! I should not have recalled his forefather who married for love, setting aside all fears, nor should I have placed myself in the role of Luthien.

When he catches my somber look, my lord comes to himself and shifts in his bath. His eyes are hidden from me by the lids that have fallen over them as he stares at the water, but still I can see the consternation he would hide in the set of his jaw and angle of his shoulders. It is my own fault, this ache in my heart, I know, for I have sent a barb straight into my lord's most open wound and asked more than he can give.

He lifts his gaze to mine and in his eyes I see but the faintest shadow of regret.

"Then I must take care not to place my hand in the mouth of the Wolf," he says in a thin attempt at our earlier cheer.

My lord takes my hand and lifts it from the side of the tub, and I smile in return, for that is what he would wish, but my heart has fallen. I do not resist when he would press his lips there, for should he wish to ease my hurt it is not in me to forbid it. But then a sudden scowl comes upon his face, for a thick lather yet clings to my fingers. Swiftly, he plunges my hand into the bath to rid it of the soap before lifting it and pressing a kiss there. When he releases me, silent laughter draws fine lines about his eyes and the smiles I turn to him are the more true for it.

Smiling still, I take up the pitcher where I have set it aside and send it below the water so I might fill it and rinse my lord's hair. He then must remain silent. With my fingers at his scalp and the bath warm upon them, I ease the soap from his head. Water falls in thin streams from his hair and his breast rises slowly, but my lord is still and looks upon me not. We let the chatter of water falling to the bath fill the silence for us and are content merely to listen to its talk, foregoing our own conversation.

When the task is done, and he stands before me wound in a sheet, his hair dripping onto his shoulders and his skin flushed and warm, my lord leans to me and presses his lips upon my cheek. It is a chaste kiss, rich in affection and dismissal.

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