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25

Indeed there is a power in Rivendell to withstand the might of Mordor, for a while: and elsewhere other powers still dwell. There is power, too, of another kind in the Shire. But all such places will soon become islands under siege, if things go on as they are going. The Dark Lord is putting forth all his strength.

FOTR: Many Meetings


~~~

"My lady," Elesinda says. "Shall I save this or put it to the geese?" She tips a bowl toward me with the heels and scraps of bread, near half a loaf.

"Yes, save it and let it dry," I say. "The plums ripen quickly and we could make a pudding of it."

She smiles and I know she thinks either of Halbarad's love of sweets or my attempts to cozen my lord, or perhaps both. Either thought brings a fondness to her face and I am well pleased.

My lord spends far too many of his day much too gaunt of frame, to my way of thinking. He caught me, once, as we lay in the solar and I marveled how, were the world just, my lord would be eating more oft of the bounty of the land he protects.

"How many ribs have I?" His voice had been mild, taking delight in knowing my thoughts ere I had spoken them.

"Far too many that I can count, my lord," I said and he had given me his gentle smile in exchange.

Aye, he must spend much of his time away dining on hard crackers and rainwater; for I know he pushes himself without relenting and spends more time in swift travel from one place to another and precious little time in filling his belly. I might put much thought into the baking of my lord's provisions, adding flavor with rosemary or eking out the rare spices from the pantry with honey to sweeten the taste, but a constant diet of the stuff must dull the palate. Bread, a simple stew of smoked pork, white beans, onion, and greens from our gardens I laid before him tonight and my lord ate as if he had not seen the like since last he was home, and I doubt not that this be the truth of the matter.

"Would you finish with the rest?" I ask and Elesinda nods.

"Aye, my lady," she says and I leave her with a brief hand upon her shoulder.

When I come to the hall, my lord sits, his long legs stretched beneath his table and a cup of ale within reach. Halbarad is about the lands of the Angle someplace gathering word from my lord's men and we shall not see him until after the harvest. My lord has commanded the table upon our return from the fields. There he gathers all news to one place where he can see it spread before him. He does not look up when I enter nor when I pile the pots one into the other from where they cool about the hearth. He scrubs at his jaw and his face is grim as he reaches for and sips from his cup. It might as well contain rancid water than the smoky ale I know he favors, little as he seems to enjoy it. Ah, my lord is at his maps again.

The coals have cooled beneath the grate. Kneeling, I pour water into a clean pot and set it upon the metal, stirring the fire and raking coals into position below it. I have had ale with my supper. Some tea, perhaps then, while I write in the day's journal and plan for the morrow.

Ah, we have little honey left. I must send Elesinda to the market upon the morrow or the next day. My lord deserves better meat upon his table than he had tonight. And perhaps I shall take another try at a dish of pease. I have mint, and though it is not to my taste, I know of those who boil pease with mint and a spoon of honey. My own taste has misled me before in the way of what my lord finds pleasing, perhaps I shall have more success going against it. And then, butter and eggs we have to spare, but my lord's pudding shall need sweetening. Honey, then it is. Aye, he may be tall, but my lord need not be so lean. This, at the least, I can do.

"Lady, come sit with me."

I raise my head to find my lord looking upon me. He lays a light hand upon the bench near him that I had abandoned after the meal. Puzzled, I grab up a cloth to clean my hands and, leaving the water to come to a boil on its own, make my way to the table. I fear not, for I have seen the set of my lord's jaw tighten in anger before, and though his look now is solemn, he seems in no way displeased with me.

"Aye, my lord?"

"What know you of our position in the North?" he asks when I round the table, and my brows rise in response. I wonder he would want to hear my thoughts on the matter.

But my lord drags the bench close beside him and there I sit. Before us lie his maps. I pore over their surface as I wipe my hands, my lord watching me, until I toss aside the linen and cast about, frowning in thought. As ever, my lord seems to know my mind and he twists about in his chair, reaching his long arm and snagging his bag of colored stones. I take them from him and pour them into my hand, cream and black. They are cool and smooth as I weigh them in my palm.

"Well, my lord," say I and take a deep breath, "our foes swiftly hem us in, and if we do not prevent it, we shall soon be sundered from the rest of our kin."

My lord looks upon me a long moment before shifting in his chair until he sits upright.

"How do you know this?" By the solemnity of his voice, his words seem more a prompt for me to continue than challenge.

"Those who take refuge here have tales to tell, my lord."

"Aye, lady," he says. "This I know." He taps a finger upon the map. "Show me what has come to pass and what you fear may yet be."

I take a light-colored stone from its mates, where they clink one against the other.

"The farmsteads and villages of your people, my lord, were, at one time, greatly scattered." Here I place the lighter stones between the Misty Mountains and land of the Halflings and Breefolk. "When first I came to your house, my lord, they spread as far north as Mount Gram and the Twilight Hills and as south as Tharbad, but no longer."

My lord is silent and it seems I am to continue.

"Your people, my lord, tell me of trolls who venture forth from the Ettenmoors, orcs spilling from the Misty Mountains, and men of old Carn Dm who attack our northern holdings."

As I speak, I prod the stones from their places and herd them toward the tip of Angle and the Hills of Evendim upon the shores of the Lake.

"They speak of wolves that run in packs of the size and boldness ne'er seen before. Those who live apart from their folk dare not go out when the sun sets and go hungry for the flocks and cattle they have lost. They speak of fear and the growing darkness in the Wild, and seek comfort in greater numbers."

I then turn my attention to those stones I have placed south of the Angle, and sweep them west into the arms of the Blue Mountains.

"Strange men have been seen along the Old South Road, traveling in groups or singly and tales of your folk put to the sword follow them, driving them to the sea."

At this, my lord's face grows grave and sad. It seems to me he walks amidst the wreckage of some distant memory. I fall silent and toy with the stones in my hand. They have grown warm and stick to my skin. The telling brought me no joy and brings my lord only pain.

With a touch, my lord brings my restless stirring of the stones to a halt. Gently he opens my fingers and empties my hand. Dark stones he places in Mirkwood, the High Pass north of Imladris in the Misty Mountains, about the Mountains of Angmar, upon Caradhras the seat of Moria, and upon Dunland to the south. Yet, even then, he does not stop, but pours out more stones from their pouch and goes on until small islands of light pebbles float amidst an embracing black sea and then, finally, are submerged beneath it.

I know not what I feel at the story my lord's stones tell. It cannot be news, surely, to any who live in these times, yet, how bleak the tale to see years unfold before me in a moment's span.

My lord's face is grim. He sits back in his chair and eases his arm in his lap. Of late, it pains him seldom, and then only when weary or heavy of heart.

I think I know my lord's thoughts. His men are thinly spread and we are most vulnerable to the east and the south. Tightening the net about the land of the Halflings as he has done has left great rents in our defense against the orcs multiplying beneath the Misty Mountains. I know not his full purpose in doing so, but it seems my lord seeks to buy time. Precious, indeed, may be its price.

"My lord," I say and a soft sound grants me the right to speak. "What of the men of the Angle? Can they not relieve your Rangers for other duties?"

A keen glance from him tells me my lord has considered this. "Does not the Angle require their services to provision and shelter her people?"

"Aye," I say and shift a bit uncomfortably upon the bench.

"You believe the Angle could manage." His eyes seem made of lances, so sharp is their gaze, and he leans over the table the better to take in the tale of the stones.

"Not easily, perhaps," I say. "But I think, my lord, they will feel the better for a hand in their own defense."

My lord is silent and he scrapes his fingers softly through his beard, staring at the letters and crudely drawn maps littering his table.

"Is it not a matter of pride," say I, "that a man may provide for the safety of those he loves? I see little reason why it must be reserved only for your Rangers."

A soft huff of laughter greets this pronouncement and I lift my gaze.

"No, I suppose not." I see he is smiling, though the mirth is slight. "Very well," he says, sobering. "If you think it best, we shall muster the men."

At these words my heart gives a startling thump and I feel as if the floor tilts beneath me. Ai! If I think it best! I had thought only to relieve my lord of his fears. What have I done?

My lord leans back against his chair and shakes his head, frowning. "But I deem it unwise to withdraw all the Rangers from the Angle. A portion will remain and watch upon the furthest borders. And I would not have a small force of men of the Angle dedicated to the task. The day may come when we will need every man who may wield ax and knife and bow as well as a hoe or spade. It would be best to set them all to it, and share the burden among them." "Or rather," he says and his face lightens, "to share in its honor."

"Lady?" I hear. I find my lord frowning, and I wonder how long he has been speaking and I did not know it.

His frown eases and he looks upon me with some pity. "Worry not overmuch, lady." His thumb comes to gently smooth away the line between my brows and then drops away. "I had it in my heart to ask this very thing of our folk, but knew not how it would be received and thought to wait. Think you this day is upon us and they will accept the charge?"

"If you were to ask it of them, my lord, aye, I believe they would."

"Then I shall," says he. "But I shall expect you to stand beside me when I do so. Should you think yourself able to take a hand to the decision, then you must see it through, to the bitter end if need be."

I suppose it is only truth he speaks, though I quail at the thought.

"To Halbarad I have left the ordering of the Rangers of the North. He it is that provides for the safety of the Dnedain when my travels take me from the Angle. But now the need is great and the numbers of those who may meet it grows ever smaller. Even now I must send Halbarad where I would send myself, we are so few."

Here my lord sweeps a hand over the darkened map. "The Shadow grows, lady. My voice must be heard in the councils and in the ordering of the people of the Angle, and I need Halbarad free of these duties."

Of a sudden I am aware my lord studies me, his gaze burning upon my face.

"What do you wish of me, my lord?"

My lord does not smile, but somewhat softens his gaze. "May I take from you your Hound, lady?"

And by this I know I shall sit upon the Councils of myself and bend their ears by my voice alone. And, aye, it is time. For there is small thing a woman may know in her heart that may both ease her fears and add swiftly to them. And though I knew not at the time to trust it yet, I was willing to take the risk.

So fond, then, is the brush of his knuckles along my cheek, I think then my lord will press his lips to mine and there give me thanks, for but a hint of desire burns in his eyes. But he does not, for in an instant the warmth of his gaze has fled, and he turns away swiftly to hide what follows.

~oOo~

I left my lord in the hall. He had moved to a bench before the hearth so he may lay upon it in comfort, looking upon its embers and smoking his pipe. Though I lingered in my tasks of the evening, soon the hall was tidied and prepared for the morn, my account of the day was complete and the ink dry, and the wool and spindle put away. I did not bid my lord his good night, for I thought, despite the reserve that settled about him as the hours lengthened, he might yet follow me upstairs. But he did not, and when I unlaced the dress from my body, unwound the length of cloth from my hair, and washed the day from my face and hands, I did so alone.

I stand beside the bed, dressed in naught but my shift and know the groaning of the boards beneath my feet tell my lord the tale of my preparations. Mayhap my lord waits until he hears the wood of our bed creak with my laying down upon it. But, now I consider it, even then I think he shall linger in the hall, until all noise is stilled and he knows me asleep.

The bed is soft and would gladly welcome my weight, cradling my limbs until I fall to my slumbers. Less certain am I of the comforts to be had should I set my feet to the solar stairs and return to the hall, but it is there I go instead.

I come before my lord and kneel at his feet, sitting upon my heels. His pipe had gone cold and yet he lingered, watching the fire burn down. At the sound of my bare step upon the stairs and into the hall, my lord had raised himself to sitting and laid aside his pipe.

"Lady," he says, and by his voice I know him worried for me, but I do not answer.

Ah, but my heart pounds so wildly within my breast it sends the blood rushing to my head and I am weak and deaf for it. Though I dare not meet my lord's gaze, ne'er have I been so bold, for I untie the thong that holds my hair in its braid. Aye, I make a mess of undoing the plait, so unequal are my fingers to the task, but I know enough now of my lord's desires that he would wish to set his hands in my hair.

It is when I tug upon the tie that draws my shift closed about my shoulders my lord's hand comes up beneath my chin and forces me to look upon his face. There I find, not the refusal I most greatly feared, but a look of grave concern that falls away of a sudden when my lord laughs.

"What is it you have planned, lady, that lights your eye with such wickedness?" he asks and I must smile in return. For, indeed, I would make of my lord an accomplice in my scheming, and by the look he gives me, I think him not wholly unwilling.

"There is a thing, my lord, of which the wives of the Angle speak."

"Indeed?"

"Aye, my lord."

There is naught about my lord of reluctance, indeed his mirth, too, has fled and leaves behind an intent look. With that, my hands have found their way to my lord's knees and there do they run upon the cloth that covers them. There he suffers my touch and, despite its boldness, raises no protest.

Perhaps, then, I have learned the price my lord would have me pay for the right. Perhaps, then, he would wish I bear some small part of his troubles with him. I do not think I mind paying the debt, for his burden is surely more than one man can carry and there are times when I doubt not he wearies greatly of it.

"And would you tell me of this thing, lady, this thing of which the women speak?"

"No, my lord."

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