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31

The further you go, the less easy will it be to withdraw; yet no oath or bond is laid on you to go further than you will. For you do not yet know the strength of your hearts, and you cannot foresee what each may meet upon the road.'

FOTR: The Ring Goes South


~~~

I cup the wick with its bright petal of flame in my palm. A mist creeps down the river and throughout the meadows of our home, muffling the sounds of nightfall. Indoors, we are comfortable, with the fire to warm us and our beds awaiting our slumbers. By rights, it is my lord's voice that should call the blessing, but in his stead it is I who give thanks.

"Thanks we offer to the One for the giving of his gifts," I say. "I name my lord, son of Arathorn, Lord and Chieftain of the Dúnedain, and am blessed for the strength of his will that shelters his people against the Shadow and preserves his life where his foes would claim it."

With a breath the flame gutters and dies, leaving a thin thread of smoke to twist in the air. The hearth glows dimly behind me as I stand between it and the table. My lord's chair stands empty, long shadows playing across its surface in the flickering light of the remaining candles. I had hoped my lord would have returned in time, we see so little of him.

Ah, no, 'tis not the truth, my lord makes the long lonely journey across the Wild to the Angle more oft since his son was born. But his time here was never lengthy and his son must learn his father anew upon each return.

Aye, the child shall run to my lord's kinsman and squeal with joy should the man speak to him or take him upon his lap. And Halbarad's face lights with joy for it. And, true it is, my son is much fascinated with his father. When e'en an infant, I would wake in our shared bed to find my lord solemnly returning his son's intent look, his finger in the child's fist. When the boy first took to crawling, he would make his way to my lord's table and, by dint of fistfuls of his father's tunic and breeches, pull himself to standing upon unsteady legs. He would peer over the arm rest of my lord's chair, but then drop to the floor and scramble away should his father turn to him. And when he took to walking, he would cling to my skirts as if he grew there and follow me from hearth to buttery to table, but his eyes never left my lord. Aye, for all the awe in which he holds the man, my son is more like to turn to my lord's kinsman for comfort or in joy than his father, and a heaviness grows in my heart for it.

On this the last night of fall with the harvest well put to bed, my son and I lit candles in observance of Eruhantale, for Halbarad had taken himself upon the Road and was not at home. Alone, after Elesinda left us as the sun set, I lit a flame for each of our small house in thanks for the gift of their time among us. With my son's body heavy on my arm, I lit each taper, speaking the words of thanksgiving. He tucked his small head beneath my chin, plucking absently at my shirt, until I came to calling his name among those to be blessed. He then squirmed and I kissed the soft hair atop his head.

"Aye, yes, you too, little one," I said, for we had had a difficult day together, he and I, and he quieted.

The day had grown overcast and chill, and I kept my son indoors for it. He liked it not, but I had none to watch him play in the garden or upon the toft, for Elesinda and I were much occupied with preparing the house for the change of season. The winter rugs must be pulled from their chest and beaten of pine shavings and dust. The pantry walls and roof, and barrels and bins must be examined for any holes or signs of damp. Wheels of cheese, smoked meats, dried fruits and roots we packed and hung in the pantry. Herbs we brought from the shed and hung from the eaves of the buttery. We made ready for winter, for though the sun might shine warmly midday, 'tis a fleeting thing and the long cold days would soon be upon us.

At first my son was content to occupy himself with his toys, for, when he was away, Halbarad had taken to carving the boy figures of horses and Rangers and other folk of the Angle. There he played with them upon the floor where he would not be underfoot. We ignored his noises and cries. Loud he babbled on, mixing stories I had told him with the life he knew of the Angle. But it did not hold his mind for long and soon he trailed after me and begged for my attention. Surely the day was a sore trial for both of us, for I had not the time to spare and the harder we closed upon his usual time of rest midday, the more ill his temper grew. He was not so used to having his will thwarted, so did Elesinda and Halbarad dote on him.

It was with relief then, upon the ending of the day, a shoulder and head bumped against my arm as I sat in the solar, sewing and waiting for my son to settle himself down. He sat upon the edge of his trundle bed, pulled from beneath the big bed my lord and I shared and covered with blankets of wool and fur to keep my son warm, and there kicked at the wooden frame with his heels. Oh, did his lip ever pout forth and his face look much woebegone. After much time, he finally chose to rise and draw off his shoes and tunic. I had been waiting, unwilling to wrestle with a boy well into his fourth year and very capable of doing these things for himself.

"I am ready, Mamil," the soft voice said, muffled as it was against my side.

"Very well."

I set down the wool that will be my son's winter tunic and helped with the untying of his breeches. Soon I had him wrapped in a blanket and upon my lap.

"What wish you to hear?" I asked of the crown of curls lying upon my breast.

He stirred a little, making himself comfortable against me and, I thought, pondering his choices.

"Wish you to hear of my father and the honeybees or perhaps the adventures of Master Maurus upon the bull's pasture?" I asked, but he shook his head.

"Ah, then, shall I tell of your father and the King of the Horse Masters?"

This, on the other hand, was greeted with an eager nod.

"Ah, so it is, then," said I and took a breath to begin.

"We, the folk of the Dúnedain of the North, are a people of much pride. And, indeed, it is a proper pride, for we are of the line of the Men of the West, and the blood of the Eldar race runs strong through us. Great were our lines of kings, high were our halls, bright were our swords and fierce were our men in battle, and, one day, shall be so again."

"But we are not the only House of Men that walks upon these shores. For were you to follow the great South Road, you would come to the high tail of the Misty Mountains. Should you then cross the wide waters of the Isen you would come upon the great Masters of Horses riding upon the plains of Rohan. Tall they are and, unlike your dark curls, bright is their hair as the soft white of beaten flax or the gold of wheat ripened by days of summer sun."

"Do them have hair like Mistress Linmir?"

I looked down to find my son's eyes upon me.

"No, onya, her hair is lighter than most here, but still not so bright as that of the Rohirrim."

My son gazed upon me with a puzzled frown.

"Never fear, onya, one day you will see them for yourself and know what I mean."

This seemed to satisfy him, and so I went on and his head came to rest against me again.

"Oh, but they laughed at your father's halting attempts at their tongue and sent him on many a fool's errand for his ignorance of their customs when he first came among them. There they called him not by his own name, but he came to love them and settled in their company. Still, they thought not much of him, setting little account by him for his poor seat upon a horse, or so they claimed. Oh, do not think your father lacking in skill, onya, but 'tis difficult to match the Rohirrim, for they are set upon the high back of a horse even upon their birth and ride so even as they breathe."

"And so he served among them, riding to their aid and lending a hand to their work, and bore their jests with good humor. Until, one day that dawned bright and clear, word came of unrest upon the Westfold. There the men of Dunland did send raids upon the folk of the open plains and steal their horses. And so Thengel, the King of the Rohirrim, came forth and mustered his best riders to call upon the folk of Dunland and demand either what was theirs or recompense for their loss."

"Your father was not to go, for he was yet deemed unworthy of the task, they knew him so little. But he was among those set to guard the encampment and keep it safe for the King's return. And so, when the King was to ride forth, with his banners snapping in the wind and he seated high upon his mount, your father was there. But all was not well, for even as they set out, the King's horse plunged and reared beneath him. They knew it not, but 'twas a hornet that had stung the horse and so distressed was he, the beast seemed desperate to unseat his Rider and plunge the King to the ground."

"Many leaped to the King's aid, for he was much loved and they feared for him. But 'twas only your father who was bold enough to step beneath the hooves of the rearing beast and catch upon his bridle. It was he who soothed the mount and brought him to calmness beneath the seat of the Rohirrim King. For your father lay gentle hands upon the horse and spoke to the King's mount with the words of the Elves, that which all good beasts know and allow. For the Elderborn walked this land long before the fathers of Men awoke under shadowed hills, and it was they who taught all beasts of good will to hearken to their speech. For this some called him Ælfwís, that is Elvenwise in their tongue, and the tale grew in the telling."

No question interrupts my speech and no eyes seek mine to marvel at a tale half understood, for my son was asleep. There is more to the tale. Seldom do I get the chance to tell it, though I know it only imperfectly from the hints dropped by my lord and his kinsman. But it is enough. And so I left my son to his sleep and returned to the hall, where candles burned low and it was time to end the day.

With a sigh I reach for the next candle and think to form a blessing in my mind when the flame twists about itself in a sudden cold breeze and the great door to the hall snaps shut.

"Wait," a soft voice commands.

It is my lord and my heart lightens to see him. By the gaze that searches about me I know my lord wonders at the whereabouts of his son.

"He is asleep, my lord."

At this, a weight seems to settle upon his shoulders. Wearily my lord eases off his pack and draws away the cloak beneath it. I doubt not he pressed his journey hard to arrive upon this eve.

And yet I wait and, once free of the gear of his ranging, my lord comes to his table where I stand.

"Your House welcomes you home, my lord," say I when he has reached my side and my lord smiles gently down upon me. He then takes a breath and turns his gaze to the candles I have left burning.

"Thanks we offer to the One for the giving of his gifts," he says. His hand glows bright about the flame where he shields it against the draft. "I name Halbarad and am blessed for the greatness of his heart."

He completes the ritual and under his soft breath the flames gutter out.

"I name my son, Edainion, and am blessed for his soundness of limb and mind."

"I name Nienelen and am blessed for the gentleness of her care for my House."

Glad am I for the sudden fall of dark, for surely I must glow a furious red from neck to crown.

~oOo~

"It is market day, tomorrow," I say when we have laid ourselves down upon our bed, my voice low so I shall not wake Edainion. "My lord, perhaps in the morning you shall ride with your son into the square upon Roheryn."

A soft intake of breath and my lord rolls to his side, the better to see me. The faint light catches the gloss of his hair, but his face is in shadow.

"Lady, it is scarcely more than four furlongs distant and the horse is trained for battle, not trotting lightly down a village path," my lord whispers, his voice soft in the night.

"I am sure the beast could use the gentle exercise, my lord, and your son would enjoy the ride."

A long pause and he lies still. I wonder if sleep had reclaimed him, but then he speaks.

"Building your fortress, lady?"

"Aye," I say. "Our numbers have grown with new wanderers from the south, my lord."

"So I have heard," comes the acknowledgement and my lord sighs. "Are they provided for?"

"Yes, my lord, as best we can, in all their bodily needs."

He scrubs at face, the calluses of his hand rasping against his beard.

"You should know, too, your house runs low on rye flour," I say and he falls still.

"Indeed?"

"And Edainion is partial to the storyteller. Should you ask for the Tale of the Lord Glorfindel and the Witch-King of Angmar, he would sit upon your lap in rapt attention until the tale is done."

A shift of light upon his cheek and I know my lord smiles. He chuckles gently.

"Very well, it sounds a pleasant enough errand," he says and rolls away from me, the sheets rustling about him as he moves.

"Be sure to wear the green long-coat," I say and his voice comes back to me, muffled by the pillow.

"Green long-coat?"

"Aye, my lord, you shall find it in your press."

The bedclothes rustle and I look over to find my lord twisting his head off his pillow. "I have a long-coat in the press?"

"Aye, my lord."

"I do?"

"Yes, my lord." I am nigh busting with laughter and can barely breathe for the effort to contain it.

"How long have I had this coat?" He has propped himself up on his elbow and I can see the faint lines of a frown and puckered brows.

"Oh, perhaps no more than a fortnight or so."

"What it is crafted from?"

"Good leather, my lord."

He grunts softly in reply. For a long moment it seems he is considering this before he lies back down.

"And have you aught in mind that the horse should wear, lady?"

"No, my lord," I say, "but I taught Master Baran to braid his mane in the manner of the Rohirrim, much as I saw in your books. He agreed to see to your horse before you go."

A snort of laughter bursts from the shadow and my lord struggles to keep his voice low. "Deck me in finery as you will, I shall run your errand, but leave my poor warhorse be. Now, let me sleep!"

Ah, but they will look a fine sight to see. My lord dressed in his new clothes that dark color of green that sets off the light of his eyes and the black of his hair, tall upon his steed with his young son tucked before him in the saddle. Overjoyed to be in his father's arms, the child will be bright with delight and squealing with laughter. And all sent on a lowly errand by his lady wife. Ah, yes. It shall lift their hearts and they will be speaking of it for days.

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