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28

'Few other griefs amid the ill chances of this world have more bitterness and shame for a man's heart than to behold the love of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned.'

ROTK: The Houses of Healing


~~~

I think my lord and his kinsman in deep disagreement over me.

I came upon them in the hall from the buttery door, only to find the room cold and the men in it suddenly silent. My lord had a look of weariness about him and Halbarad was much agitated. They are not often at odds and it seemed to wear heavily on my lord's kinsman. For he paced and rapped his fingers upon the table, and then, clearing his throat, pulled roughly on the drawers beneath the settle, folded the blankets and otherwise tidied the place where he slept.

I poured the water I had pulled from the well into the barrel by the hearth, where we would draw from it for the day. Ah, but the sound of rushing water filled the hall and every movement I made, whether setting down the bucket or putting aside the grate and scraping the coals upon the hearth, rang overloud in my ears. When, at long last I was done, and a pottage of mutton and wheat sat upon the grate to simmer through the day, my lord rose, looking upon his kinsman.

As we broke our morning fast, I spoke to my lord of my intent to visit Mistress Pelara after our meal, for I desired her counsel. After the words spoken upon the hallmoot of insults and blows equally traded, I worried for the Angle and the fortress I was to build to shelter its people. I would not have the clay beneath the foundation shift and crack even in its making.

My ledgers lay upon the table waiting for me. Most oft, Halbarad accompanied me when I was about in the Angle, watching o'er his lord's lady's step as we went and spending the hours speaking with Master Maurus or looking in upon the other Elders. I was unsure what was to pass this morn, for Halbarad would not return his lord's gaze and his look was grim. If I had dared believe it, the tightness of his jaw and smoldering of his eyes betrayed mutinous thoughts beneath them.

But, when my lord let loose a soft breath and, releasing his kin from his gaze, reached for my journal to carry it for me, Halbarad spoke, his voice stiff.

"Nay," he said and strode swiftly to the table. "I shall go with her."

"Do you so wish it?" my lord asked, but he was to receive little by way of answer.

Instead his kinsman took up the ledger and, tucking it beneath his elbow, turned to me and said, "I await your pleasure, my lady."

His manner was all but the coldest of invitations. Indeed I felt no warmth in the hand that ushered me forward. But it seemed Halbarad would not wish to be deemed unworthy of any duty once he had assumed it, no matter how onerous, and my lord reluctant to relieve him of it. Who then was I to meddle in matters between them?

He strides silently and allows me to walk ahead, maintaining a discrete if watchful distance as ever. Halbarad carries my ledgers in a basket heavy with blankets and a lidded pot of beans, for the Mistress had sent word ahead of a family in need, and I wished to visit them. But for the spindle that bangs upon my hip from where it dangles and the roving bouncing in my carry sack, Halbarad has assumed my burdens for me, and it seems I know not what to do with my hands. After many fruitless trials, I have settled upon clasping my arms before my breast so I might not betray my thoughts in the clenching of my fists.

It promises to be a fair day. High and white are the clouds that cast their shadows upon the hills. And they are welcome, for they promise relief from the heavy hand of the sun without threatening rain to delay the harvest. A flock of crossbills chatters from the stand of pines as we pass. Brightly they flutter among the branches and rustle through the straw pursuing fallen cones. Oh, soft do my lord's kin's feet fall upon the path and fine is the day, but ever am I aware of the steps behind me, and my thoughts fly beneath them as the dust we stir upon the path.

"Think you Mistress Pelara may have aught of use to say of the troubles between the old and the new of our folk?"

Halbarad's voice startles me so badly I misplace my foot and come full down upon a stone. His hand beneath my elbow rights me, but I draw swiftly away. I marvel he would ask me. And so it must show upon my face, for Halbarad's look is astonished.

"Is it not their discord that troubles you, my lady?"

"Aye," I say. "And why should she not have much of use to say upon the matter?"

We have halted upon the path and Halbarad rubs at the nape of his neck, looking off. "I thought it more a matter between men, my lady."

I must hide my annoyance poorly, for he goes on. "Ah, lady!" he says, grimacing. "You know what horrors we face! Well I know we need all hands to work to our aid, but it seems much to ask of those who know little of such things." "But perhaps it is not so," he says, as if he struggles with a lesson he has been set to the task of learning, "and I would know your mind more clearly, if you are willing to reveal it."

I confess my temper little mollified by his confession, but I do not speak. For there is more that lurks behind this question and I would have it either spoken aloud or disappear completely from my sight.

"Truly, my lady," he says, "I wish only greater understanding."

"'Tis thee who seeks understanding," I demand, "when it is you who has set me such a puzzle I despair of ever unraveling it?"

"I?" he replies, his voice growing sharp. "I perplex you?" He lets loose a breath that would be a laugh were it not for the sour note it sounded. "Ah! My lady, there you have me, for I know of no duty properly yours that should bewilder you."

Oh, if my lord's kin thought me meek of thought, he is much mistaken. Though I bare come to the man's shoulder, I would still match him eye for eye.

"Who had the choosing of me when my lord had need of a wife?" I ask, though I have no doubt of the answer.

"I did."

"An you thought me so unfit to fulfill the duties my lord would ask from his lady, why then choose me? 'Twas thy choice, none other's!"

He does not answer, but stands before me, his feet squarely planted.

"Did you not know his mind so well? In this did you fail, or is it as they say? That our lord owed my father his life when it was so narrowly threatened? That he but married me to pay the debt of my orphaning?"

"In truth, my lady, you may rest easy on that account," Halbarad says coldly. "Any man of the Angle could have done the same and I would ne'er saddled our lord with such a ridiculous means of discharging the debt."

"Then whose needs led your thought, Halbarad? Do you not know some of the Angle think it was to fulfill your own thwarted wishes?"

"Make no mistake, my lady, it was not thought of my own desires that led me," he says, and now his voice is sharp with disdain.

"Ah, no! 'Twas not I who said so! You have made it very clear to me I fail of what you desired from me."

"Do not twist my words, lady, nor is that what I said, either!"

"How is this?" I am near to tears, so perplexed and thwarted do I feel. "Ai! Will you not answer me, Halbarad? For I know not the answer to this riddle. How was it you chose me?"

He seems to come to some decision, for though his jaw is tightly held, Halbarad stirs and speaks. "Aye, you are right in one thing. 'Twas your father's doing."

"What has my father to do with aught—"

"You come to know a man when upon the Wild as at no other time, my lady," he says, cutting me short. "I knew your father in ways you know not." He takes a great breath and goes on. "I knew him as a man. I knew when his courage wavered and what he drew from to steady himself. My lady, 'twas this: he believed himself well-loved and took great comfort in it when he had need."

I can do naught but return his stare, my mind whirring with my thoughts, for he looks sharply at me as if he would wish I draw my own conclusions and trouble him no more. Tears prick behind my eyes. My father had known himself cherished and it carried him through his darkest hours. How can this cause me sorrow? And yet it does. My head aches and the day seems over-bright.

And then understanding falls upon me as sudden as the sun bursting through scudding clouds. There is no path that shimmers in the distant air, no bright sky nor blinding sun, just the beating of my heart in the tight cage that is my chest and the grey eyes of this Ranger of the North that meet mine.

"You know who she is, this woman my lord loves!" I exclaim and in the next moment gasp at the flash of alarm it drew across Halbarad's features. This was not what he had wished me to know.

Then it is gone. Now master of himself again, his gaze rests upon me with all the warmth of a winter sky and I am sharply reminded where his loyalties truly lie. The sun may blaze down upon the drooping heads of the flowering grasses, but I am cold with an unseasonable chill.

"I did what I deemed best, my lady," he says, "for our lord and for the Dúnedain."

At that I wonder if he had given any thought to what it would cost me. And, there, I see my answer in his eyes, mixed with his anger. Pity.

I whirl about, for I would not have him look on me thus, and so I put my feet to the path and walk.

If he could not have her, this woman my lord loved, and for his sacrifice his kinsman would then recompense him with the love he had lost. Aye, in this I truly fulfilled all of Halbarad's hopes for his kin.

I have left Halbarad staring as I walk from him. Yet he seems to have followed the trail of my thoughts as they played across my face, for soon I hear his voice and footsteps behind me.

"My lady." In one great stride to my two he will have caught me.

"Do not blame Aragorn!" Though he implores, his voice is stern. "He knew naught of this. He is not free to speak the lady's name and the matter was of my own discerning. If you have cause for offense, let it rest with me."

I turn. I tremble so I know Halbarad only by the shadow that falls across my face. I know not what he sees, but it widens his eyes and causes him to halt and take an abrupt step back. I rush upon him and strike him full in the chest with all of what strength I have. To my hands he is as a wall of stone, yet he staggers and drops the basket he carries for me.

"Even now you give offense!" I shout and he stares at me, mute and blinking. "How is it only you can love him, can sacrifice all for him?" To my shame, though greatly am I wroth, tears fall to my cheeks, blinding me. "Do you think the rest of us are without feeling or honor? Are you not one of his men, his kinsman, his Ranger, one of the Dúnedain of the North? Would you not lay down even your body in his service?"

"Aye, and gladly, too!" he says, his voice loud with his confusion and eyes bright with his simmering anger.

"Then think you a woman of the Dúnedain would not do the same?" I demand and he could look no more shocked than if I had slapped him.

"You wished for understanding, Ranger Halbarad? Then let us come to one," I say, my voice low as I step closer to him. I stab at his feet with my finger. "It matters not what my lord should ask of me, I shall do it. Should he wish me to sail upon the Sea to seek that unreachable shore and beg the Valar for their aid, I would do it. Should he wish me to tear down yonder peaks with but these two hands so he might build a fastness of stone for his people, I would do it. It matters not whether these things are within my grasp or not. It matters only that he has asked it of me and so I shall do it, or die in the attempt. And, though it may not seem so at the moment, should you ever have the need of me in the service of our lord I would do the same for you. You need never doubt it. But I expect, when you ask, not hide behind half-truths and things unsaid!"

His jaw flies closed with a softly-heard click and then, drawing himself fully erect, he bows his head sharply. I turn away and care not if he follows. He need not shepherd me down the path as if I cannot see, for I am blind no longer, but walk it with eyes open. But, soon, I hear his steps behind me upon the soft dirt and know he has joined me.

~oOo~

I have learned to sleep quietly, to school my restless limbs into a stillness that will not disturb my lord's slumber. In the first few nights of his return, he awakens at each rustle of the mattress or pull upon the coverlet, and springs upright. Long ago, when first we came to share this bed, the sight of his face contorted by alarm and the swift hands that closed upon my throat and pinned me to the mattress when I chanced to brush upon him had frightened me. Slowly he came to know what he had done and a horror came over him. His brow dropped to rest upon me, leaving me to stare at the wooden canopy in grim reflection, the crown of his head dark upon my breast. Long seemed the moments until he spoke, and then when he lifted his face, words failed him. For, though I swallowed and blinked them away, I could not prevent the fall of my tears.

"Ai, lady!" he sighed and wearily seemed as if about to beg my forgiveness.

But I did not let him speak, and instead clutched him to my breast where I wrapped my arms about him as if they had some power to shield him better than his sharp-edged blades. There he lay, if somewhat stiffly, until I had mastered myself. When he rose, by his look I think he marveled that I had wept for him. It was then he pulled my back into his breast with soft words seeking to make amends. His arm lying heavy upon me and his breath slipping along my shoulder had gentled me to sleep, but I ne'er forgot that look upon his face. For, in that night, I had come to pity the lightness of sleep he must assume when weariness overcomes him in the Wild.

Soon, as the nights spread behind him in the comforts of our bed, my lord learns again the safety found within these walls and eases into a deep sleep from which few nightly noises rouse him. When the mattress has been taught the hills and hollows of his form, his body falls to a quiet repose lasting until the dawn. This night is such a one.

High in the dark sky rides the moon, bathing the Angle with an unearthly light. At this hour, even the small creatures that scuttle beneath the undergrowth or tuck themselves in the grass about the foundations of the house have fallen silent. All is still. In the quiet of the solar, my lord's face is lit by the moon, the skin upon the lids of his eyes and the curve of his brow and lips touched by a cold fire. A cool breeze floats into the room, bringing with it the smell of deep shadows under green leaves. It lifts fine hairs about his face, but he does not wake. This night he sleeps where I cannot.

In this bed which bears the weight of my husband and moves when his dreams loosen his limbs, I watch the rise and fall of his breast. What bitter words I said beneath the heat of the sun have cooled here in the shadows. My mind is free to roam paths that once were obscured by the fog of too-strong feeling.

'Tinúviel' he once called me, and then no more. Nay, I can hardly be mistaken for the Daughter of the Twilight, but there is one he knows from his youth who could. My lord reaches high in his yearning, yet who am I to say him nay. I know not her thoughts on the matter, nor those of her father, who might not countenance her stooping so low as to forsake the immortality he had gifted her. For all the grief it brings me, I pity my lord, this man who sleeps beside me so gently. I know the thirst with which he burns and the despair he must feel of having it quenched.

He sighs, and breathing deeply, his slumber lightens and he shifts, rolling to his side so he faces me, his body a broad canvas to bear the light of the moon. I think I could stay like this through the hours until he wakes, reveling in the warmth coming off his skin that shields me from the night air. Here, I can forget, for so long as my lord sleeps, that he is not mine, that his love belongs to another. Here, I can watch the lashes that shadow his cheek and the strong fingers that rest upon his thigh and keep him all to my selfish heart. The dawn will come soon enough.

While I watch, his eyes open and glimmer with the reflected moon. Heavy with dreams, they see naught. After a long moment, his gaze sharpen upon me and he shrugs his face into the pillow to bring wakefulness.

"You do not sleep, lady?"

"I have a thing to tell you, my lord."

Secure in the comfort that rest merely awaits the closing of his eyes, he does not protest. He is but newly awake. The coolness of the night and the softness of the bed bring a languor that invites him to stretch his limbs before attending to aught I might need to say. He resettles upon his side with his arms crossed against his breast, and smiles upon me.

"What is so pressing it cannot await the morn, lady?" he asks, his voice soft and slow with sleep. "Have you secrets that can only be told in the deepest watches of the night?"

"I do indeed, my lord," I say and trail fingers down his arm until they rest upon his wrist.

His brow lowers and he peers at me without comprehension, but I am already pulling his hand from where he has it wedged between his side and the crook of his arm. I draw his hand toward me where I can lay my cheek aside his knuckles. I long to kiss his hand and pull him into my arms, and, if they could, have my voice and touch pour fire into his veins, but, instead, I move his hand until his palm rests upon my belly.

"My lord, you shall leave somewhat of yours behind when next you must go," say I, and he is instantly alert, all lassitude fled with the knowledge of what I intend.

He has come up on his elbow and his hand presses me to my back. His fingers move against my flesh as if he searches for signs of the child within. His hair shadows his face and I cannot see what tale his features would tell. I know not if he is silent out of joy or despair. I wait, as frozen as the hunted hare under my lord's touch. And then he moves.

"My thanks to you, lady," he says softly, and, poising his body over mine, kisses my brow.

Moving away, he takes my hand lightly and eases himself to comfort, and closes his eyes. We sleep thus, his hand holding mine, bridging the distance between us.

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