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37

'But I must admit,' he added with a queer laugh, 'that I hoped you would take to me for my own sake. A hunted man sometimes wearies of distrust and longs for friendship.'

FOTR: Strider


~~~

The sun beats upon my head so that the hair on my neck is a torture. I cannot bear to wear a scarf about my head and so have abandoned it. Still, though I wear my hair in a braid as always, errant strands cling to my skin. They itch and tickle and I push at them, wishing I had thought to coil their length atop my head. Ah, but it is hot! My very shift seems as a second skin pasted to my back. The current rushes burbling against my knees as I gingerly balance my bare feet on the river stones. The distant rattling beat of a woodpecker echoes over the river and, when I scoop up cool water and pat it upon my face and beneath the line of my shift, I search the trees for the bird's telltale flicker.

Come this winter it shall be three years since the folk of the Angle need hide themselves behind my lord's fortress of earth and timber. We have had no need of it, though it still stands well-kept and more greatly provisioned and settled in the location of its granaries, paddocks, cellars and sickhouses. My lord did not return with his men to the Angle after their victory, but sent word with them and took to long months on roads that led far from the land of his birth.

I did not speak to my lord of Master Bachor and his bitter thoughts. For, in my lord's absence, it soon came to a cautious ease between us. It was no greater understanding we achieved, but merely a lack of urgency to our disagreements. Once we faced what may be our sudden end and spoke of a death that wiped out all we knew, what mattered the petty deals of furlongs and ploughs? For there was much of that, for peace lay upon us again and though our folk ne'er forgot their fears, they need not live only in wait of their deaths. And so the Angle went on.

Today, the air lies heavy upon the pastures, fields, and garden. The forest is dull as a long-closed room and its beasts sleep in the heat of the day. Staying indoor is insufferable, for in these days of midsummer no breeze will begin to stir until the sun has set, and I have come to the river to find relief. Here within call of my lord's toft the creatures of forest and air are awake, rustling in the grass and singing from the trees whose boughs hang over the water. The young Ranger set to guard his chieftain's family paces the bank upstream and, forbearing all other tasks, I kilted my skirts in my belt and wade out to gather reeds.

True, it is much late in the season to gather their newborn shoots for eating, but their tough siblings have many uses, and their roots can be dried and ground for a thickener in soups and stews. The thatch above the pantry is wearing thin and the last storm sent water trickling onto the crocks of preserved goods. A mold has attacked the baskets in the buttery and weakened bottoms of one or two, and so they need replacing. But, today, with the sun shining brightly upon the water and the foliage a thicket of green upon the shore, I think I shall boil the plants to make a soft dye the color of newly opened leaves. I have a wool in mind, a thin yarn of creams and flecks of brown that will take the color well, or perhaps, in its stead, a fine linen spun from last year's flax.

The reeds crunch in my arm as I wade to the shoals and lean to the water again. In my mind, I weigh the merits of wool and linen and listen to the warblers' high twittering coming from amidst the reeds. Their shadows fly across the water as they skim the air for the bright buzzing insects aloft above the river. The water is blessedly cool when I dip my hand below its surface and grab hold of a reed. The Shadow seems but a distant thought today, and I hum a simple tune while I work, singing when the words come to me.

By dint of much tugging and wrenching, the plant comes free and, shaking it in the river, I clean its root of mud and resume my song. The woodpecker's thrum sounds loudly, as if just nearby. Still humming lightly, I glance up to find the bird when, at a glimpse of a tall dark shape lounging against a tree along the riverbank, I straighten and twist about. He stands there among the grasses and seems to have been there for some time.

"My lord!" I call. So pleased am I that I cannot help but exclaim, "You are come!" Ah! But he has been so long gone!

His face lights with a smile at the warmth of his welcome and pushes away from the tree. "Aye, and just in time, it seems."

I am deep in the water and must fight against the current to approach the shore where he comes to the edge of the river. The rocks in the bed of the stream are large and smooth, but the brown moss that covers them is slippery and I make less progress than I would like.

"In time, my lord? In time for what?" A suspicion rises in my mind. "How long were you standing there, my lord? And where is Treldir? Why gave he no warning!" I say, raising my voice above the plash of water as I wade heavily through the river. I slip and catch myself among the stones, the folds of my skirts now laden with water.

"I sent him back to the house," my lord says and, seeing me struggle, with a quick motion pulls off his pack and rolled cloak and coat where he has lashed them about him. "I heard you singing."

The sun dances through the leaves, lighting his hair and confounding my vision. He has taken a step to the edge of the land along the river where it rises above the shallows and alights to one knee as I approach. I shade my eyes against the glare and laugh.

"I wonder, then, it did not drive you away."

"Indeed? Quite the contrary," my lord says, his smile broad. He knows full well I do not raise my voice in song where aught can hear it, and with good reason.

I stand there in the shallows, my arm wrapped about a bundle of long grasses and my legs bare. As I am still, tiny fishes dart about my ankles and nip at the hairs. My lord is much grimed by dust and sweat. Yet, still, his eyes shine with the shimmering river and I can think only of the warmth of his voice.

"Shall I take that for you?" he says and extends his hand down to me.

Hastily, I add the last plant to my bundle and raise it to him. The reeds squeak as they rub one tother but soon my lord has lifted them from me. My lord's face clouds with confusion and, I would think, some dissatisfaction, when I do not take the hand he now stretches to me.

"Shall you not come to the house?" he says, and his hand drops. For a heartbreaking moment, it seems he is taken aback by my apparent refusal to welcome him home.

"My lord," say I, "truly does your House welcome you home, but you have not visited it yet and so do not know what you ask. The house is unbearably hot. I have put Elesinda to watching your son splash about in the bathing tub. If you like, you can chase after your naked and slippery son in the shade of the garden."

At this, he laughs and lays aside the bundle of reeds.

"My son is well?"

"Aye, my lord," I say, "last I saw, he had doused Elesinda from his play in the bath."

"She is most patient with him," he says, his eyes bright with a fond pride and the dazzling sun.

I peer at him through the shifting light, but my lord is silent, looking upon me as he leans his arms upon his knee. It seems I cannot read the tale his face would tell. The throb of insects from the trees and the steady rush of the river are broken only by the swirl and plop of water running over hidden boulders.

"My lord?"

"Perhaps the house can wait," says he, and then a smile lights his face, "and I may be convinced to aid you in gathering rushes were I promised to receive a song in exchange."

"Ha!" I say. "My lord would do better to implore the frogs to give him a chorus, 'twould be the sweeter of the twain." I turn for the deeper water, calling lightly over my shoulder, "Did not the Elves teach you their speech in your youth?"

"I learned much in Rivendell, lady," he says, raising his voice as he stands at the river's edge. "But I do not believe its Master studies the tongues of the river frogs."

"Seems a strange thing to neglect, my lord," say I. "Very well, then, perhaps you should join them in the shadows of the beds of reeds, where they may tutor you in their way of song and complete the lack in your education."

Whatever answer my lord may have made is lost in the rush of deep waters. I do not need to glance behind me to know that he does not stand at the river's tall edge; for his keen glance no longer burns upon my back. Insects buzz undisturbed from the grasses, for my lord walks the bank to find an easier place of entrance. As I wait, I wade to a bend in the river's course where the trees lean over its currents and send shadows reaching across the water. Silt collects in the river's trap and my toes sink deep in mud. The heads of the reeds, heavy with their lace of blown flowers, nod above me. I slip my hands into the murk of the shallows and tug against the bulbous roots of the reeds, but my mind is on my lord.

Soon I see his shadow through the lens of the river. He has stripped to his breeches and plunged into the river’s depths. Sporting in the water, he lets the current carry him downstream and then strikes toward the shore. His hair is as sleek as the river otter’s when he breaks the surface and finds his feet among the stones of the riverbed. The current roars against him as he trudges toward me, wiping the water from his face and wringing out his hair. It is as if I had never seen him before. Ai! I cannot take him all in at once. A glance is all I manage before I must look away.

He joins me in the shallows and, without speaking, bends to pluck the reeds from their muddy bed. We work in silence among the music of the river. Dragonflies whisk downstream, lighting briefly upon the reeds, their bright bodies flashing colors of green and blue. We move from sun to shade, working our way down the river and its tune changes as we move through its stream. Soon, for the heat of the sun and the plucking of the reeds, I forget my discomfort and work easily beside my lord.

"You said my son is well?"

I look up from where I am washing away the mud of the river to find my lord squinting into the reeds.

"As well as ever, my lord," I say. "He eats heartily, grows plump, sleeps well, has Halbarad twined about his fingers, and turns the house upon its head at least twice a day. You should recognize the likeness, my lord."

A great laugh bursts from him, halting his attempt to gain a hold upon a plant. "Indeed?"

"Indeed," I say and return to my task.

"Plump, you say?" he asks after a moment. He grins broadly, as if inviting me into some source of mirth only we two have shared.

"Ah, in truth," I say, smiling, "perhaps no great resemblance now, but I am sure you will grow more like with your stay."

"I look forward to it."

In my mind, I rifle through our pantry and gardens. Honey, flour and eggs, I surely have, and the brambles I planted about the outer wall of the garden are heavy with a dark, sweet berry. Yes, my lord's frame will not be so spare for long, should I have aught to say in the matter.

"I did not realize I turned your house upon its head," my lord says, though he sounds less contrite than pleased at the thought.

"Did I say so?" I ask, my voice sweetly puzzled.

“I believe you did.”

“I do not recall it.” I shake my head, frowning.

“Perhaps, then, if you have forgotten, it is time for me to reassert my proper authority."

I laugh. None would question that he stood in last judgment upon his house, but my lord ruled with such a gentle hand it lie lightly upon us. He lays the reed upon the stack growing in his arm.

"I note you do not contest your effect upon Halbarad." I swipe at the hairs loose along my neck, hoping to dislodge them from where they cling to my skin and tickle.

"I do not think he minds terribly."

"No, perhaps he does not," I say. "He certainly does naught to discourage your son and the child would command every spare moment Halbarad has to offer."

“Are they grown so fond?”

He speaks quietly and, at a glance, I see that his look is solemn.

"Aye," I say, "you chose your Great Hound well, my lord. He dotes on the boy.”

My lord does not answer, but peers into the reeds and grasps one close to the root. By his silence, I know his dilemma. Torn in two, no doubt. For the sake of the son, he would have Halbarad's heart fully his. For the sake of the friend, he would have his son return that regard. And yet, he would not see his son consider another as he should his father, no matter how much he may love the man who stands in his place. But perhaps I do him an injustice. He has chosen a particularly fibrous weed to attack and for this he may have fallen silent. His hands are deep in the water and he tugs mightily.

I go on, speaking lightly, cleaning the roots of a reed as if that of which I speak is of no matter. "Still, your son looks forward to your return with an eagerness that is unmatched by his other appetites."

“I cannot see how, at his tender age." The reed comes free and my lord straightens.

“Ah, but my lord, you know not."

He has abandoned all pretence at gathering reeds and scowls mildly at me, his mirth twinkling in his eyes. “What is it I do not know?” He knows his wife well enough to see she enjoys the spinning of more than just wool.

“You do not know, my lord, the insistence with which your son demands his favorite tale every night. He will not sleep without hearing it.”

“And what tale is that?” he says with a jerk of his chin.

“When your father returns home…” I say and glance up from where I work. Reeds sway in my lord's arm where he has them pressed against his breast. He pays them little heed, for he gazes upon me as if he were seeing the dawn after a night of weary toil.

Wilt thou tell me the full tale?”

Smiling, I look away. I lean into the reeds and my voice falls into a patter over the burbling of the stream and the rasp of the long leaves.

“When your father returns home, my love, he will rise upon the morrow and wake you to the day. He will lift you from your bed into ours. There you will be warm and snug under the blankets with your sires.

"When your father returns home, my child, he will race you down the stairs. There he will seat you at our table and you will eat together of pottage sweetened with honey and topped by fresh cream.

"When your father returns home, my lamb, he will walk with you through the fields. There he will take you upon his shoulders and you will see all the lands to which you are heir.

"When your father returns home, my little one, he will take your hand and lead you into the forest.
There he will teach you to walk softly as does the wolf when he stalks his prey. There he will teach you the names of all the trees that tower over your head and of all the green leaves that scatter beneath your feet. There he will teach you to have the hands of the guardian and the healer.

"When your father returns home, my son, in the evening he will take you upon his knee. There he will tell you stories of the Eldar race, the house of Beren the One-Handed, and the kings of Númenor. You will hear how you bear the blood of the Faithful and how you will hold our people in your care.

"But tonight, my precious one, you must sleep and dream of your father, and await his return home."

My lord stands as one entranced, the head of the reed he holds bobs gently in the river. He takes a deep breath and recalls himself. “You say he never tires of this?”

“Never, my lord, though he may know it so well he corrects me if I speak the words out of turn,” I say, straightening my back against hours of bending.

A slow smile breaks across my lord's face, as if a great burden has been lifted from him. He bends to drag the roots of the reed he holds through the water, rinsing them clean. Slowly, he strides through the river toward me.

"I see you have set me the task of satisfying my son. Perhaps I should command Halbarad to keep my return to himself so that I may do so undisturbed. What think you?"

“I think, then, you will tire of us my lord, and return to your ranging all the sooner.”

“I think not, lady.” He stands near, gazing down upon me.

I bend again to the reeds, unwilling to look upon him so closely; for in his eyes I see the river running.

“Mmmm,” I say. “We shall see once our son has visited the wrath of ever heir of Elendil, from Isildur to your father, upon you.”

His solemnity falls from him as he breaks into laughter. I say it lightly, but, in truth, I am proud of my son. He has the strong will of his father and shall have need of it. From his look, it seems my lord takes pride in him as well.

"It is the battle of the wiping of the nose," I say, "the washing behind the ears, and the laying down to bed while others are yet awake that he fights, my lord. I am afraid to say victory eludes him on these fronts, though I have yet to prevail in the battle of the eating of the mush of cold pease."

"Glad am I my son has at least one field on which he does not submit. I would not have him abandon all hope."

Though his words are light on the surface, their undercurrent flows dark and deep. I rise from the river and study his face.

"Does the Shadow press so near?"

"It does," he says and will say no more.

Instead, he takes the reeds I have gathered in his arm and waves away a dragonfly that buzzes to a rest upon my shoulder, sending it flying over the water. The touch of the river seems to have grown cold and I shiver.

"I would not have you abandon hope either, lady," he says, drawing my eyes; for he has laid a light touch upon my cheek and stands so near that, were I to raise my hand, it would brush across his side. "Not when you brighten my return with your tales."

My heart seems near to leap from my breast at his touch and his eyes fasten upon me intently. I dare not meet his gaze.

"How long will your stay be, my lord?"

"Days, a week, no more."

The sun darts in through the shifting leaves and the light sparkling off the water plays across his face. He is in no hurry to return to our task, but, instead, his gaze seems to trace the tendrils of hair that have worked their way from my braid and trace the line of my neck. It seems I can look anywhere but in his eyes.

"I am sorry to hear it, my lord. Your House will barely have time to welcome you home then, before I must prepare your farewell."

"It cannot be helped."

He bends toward me momentarily under the force of the river and I wish this to end, this torture.

“Then we will make the most of you while you are here,” I say lightly, attempting against the warmth that rises in me to strike a tone of fondness that will not press for more than he can give. I touch his arm with a briefness that will both reassure and send him back to gathering reeds.

But it is as if he has been waiting for that touch to bridge the gap between us. I cannot draw my hand away for he has found the small of my back and gently pulled me into him. The river rushes against us and I sway, losing my footing but my lord strengths his embrace, crushing the reeds between us. He does not seek my lips. Rather, he releases me to run tender fingers along the damp skin of my leg. His gaze softens as he watches me blush, the heat crawling from his touch. His lips part and it seems he must breathe deeply or breathe not at all.

I think my heart will break for my shame. Tears well in my eyes. I cannot look upon him, for I shake with the strength of my need and the fear he will spurn me because of it.

"Ah, lady," he murmurs when I turn my head, and sighs. His hand returns to my back and he clasps me to him. His lips press warmly into my hair where he lays his face.

I must not weep. Should my tears fall, he will know it, for I lay my brow against his bare breast, the reeds creaking between us as my lord brushes a fond thumb upon my back. I am in a confusion so deep it seems I drown in a pool made bitter by longing and regret. I wish he would not tease me so, my tender tormentor.

My lord speaks softly, his breath in my hair and my eyes closing at the sound of his words.

"How stands your fortress, lady? Is not the foundation well-laid?"

"Aye, my lord," I say, my voice a whisper against his skin.

"Do you not deem it time we build upon it?"

He draws back his breast, though his hand remains against my back. By refusing me refuge or release he forces me to either return his gaze or spurn his affections outright. He will accept none other.

When I raise my face, my lord's eyes are all I see. They gaze upon me and fill my view. I know naught else. In them, I see a fire that well I know, for have I not come too near before and been burned by those flames? And yet, truly, what choice have I?

The topmost reeds slide from the bundle and splash into the water, but I care not, for my lord has claimed my lips in a kiss the warmth of which threatens to send us both sinking into the river. I cling to him against the rushing waters, the smell of the river about us until we can stand no more.

~oOo~

The grass along the river is green and sweet and makes for a soft bed. There my lord lays me down and kisses me. I twine my fingers into his damp hair. My heart pounds like a wild thing caged in my breast. Between the touch of his lips, he says naught, but runs his hand along my back until he presses a kiss onto my ear.

When I trail gentle fingertips along the bones of his neck, he murmurs, "Ah, little wren," his voice soft and fond.

My eyes fly open.

"Wren?"

In all the years we have been married and all the nights we lie together as husband and wife, he has never spoken to me nor named me. Though delighted by the impulse, I am dismayed at the word he has chosen. Is this how he thinks of me? A drab wren?

"Aye," he says and draws a hand down my hair until he can tug loose the tie at the end of my braid. "For the darkness of your head," he says, "the brown of your skin where it has seen the sun, the white of your breast where it has not, and the high warble of your voice when you sing." Here he presses kisses into my neck though his lips smile against me.

"It does not sound so ill in the high tongue," he says when I tutt my annoyance at his teasing.

"'Tis not the sound which offends, my lord"

He laughs gently and returns to distracting me with soft kisses.

"I suppose I should be grateful you have not chosen to call me aught else," I say as his kisses trail down upon my shoulder and his fingers untwine my braid. Though I protest, his lips draw fire upon my skin and my voice thickens. "For all I know, you might think 'little crow' would be as fitting."

At that, he bursts full into laughter. Overcome, my lord must cease his attentions and lies helpless and heavy upon me, his breast shaking against mine. Then, struggling to contain himself, he lifts his head to nuzzle at my ear.

"Ai, little woodpecker," he whispers and it is my turn to break into laughter.

For a long moment it seems we cannot move, but cling each to the other, quaking with mirth. When I can breathe again, I find his face above mine, smiling. Locks of his dark hair have tumbled from his neck where they have dried and sway between us. I gather one and twine it about my fingers. It is heavy and warm with the sun. My lord's face quiets, his eyes first searching mine and then resting upon my lips where they linger. But it is I who tug his head gently down as I rise, so that they might meet.

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