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38

Then she fell on her knees, saying: I beg thee!

Nay, lady, he said, and taking her by the hand he raised her. Then he kissed her hand, and sprang into the saddle, and rode away, and did not look back; and only those who knew him well and were near to him saw the pain that he bore.


ROTK: The Passing of the Grey Company


~~~

My lord's son was indeed naked and slippery, wet from his hours spent in the garden with Elesinda. She looked the worse of the two, spattered with water and red-faced with the sun.

"Master Edainion!" she scolded when he leapt from the tub, slopping his bath upon her skirts.

"Atto!" cried he, and at the sight my lord's face was no less bright than his son's.

He ran to his father, who dropped the bundle of reeds and string of river perch he carried to greet him, the boy leaping into his embrace. Laughing, my lord kissed the nose that turned up to him and complained his son was more difficult to catch than the fish he would have for his supper.

'Twas the noise, I believe, that brought Halbarad in from the pastures where he and Master Baran had been seeing to the horses' comfort. For the man's step was quick and his eyes bright in their search for his kin. The tall man's stride brought him swiftly to the garden. Ducking his head beneath the sprays of rosemary that hung over the wicket, he came upon my lord and their embrace was swift and their voices glad.

So fair and cool was the shade of the garden in the waning hours of the day, we gathered there among the faint scent of lavender warmed by the midsummer sun. I pour the water of my son's bath upon the plants so I might watch without disturbing the joy my lord took in his son. 'Tis not only I who looked on. Though I sent Elesinda indoors to bake the bean cakes savory with sage and wild garlic that we would have with our fish, Halbarad sits upon a turf seat below the branches of the plum. The leaves a hard and flickering green above his head, there he rubs a pungent grease into my lord's tack and makes it ready. The fruit hide their gold-green skins among the branches, their sweetness but a moon's turn away, and atimes metal chimes against metal as my lord's kinsman works.

Flowers of feverfew, mallow, madder and valerian spill upon the sunken paths, and I must be careful in my tread to not crush them they are so thick. Well has the earth rewarded my efforts and the water sinks deeply to the roots fed by the generous soil of my lord's house. My garden grows and the air is full of its promise, but it is none so fair as the sight of my lord and his son. For Edainion, now hastily clad in shirt and breeches, leans upon the bench where my lord dresses the river perch.

Naught would satisfy the boy until he had taken his wooden sword and flailed at the air before his father. And soon enough, my lord found a branch of a length to satisfy him and joined his son. There wood clattered against wood as they pressed and feinted among the flowers.

"Aye, there, thou have it!" my lord called. "Keep upon thy toes and thou shalt move at will."

A frown plucked at my son's brow and naught but the very tip of his tongue could be seen poking from between his lips as he moved.

"Come at me, now! Make it swift!" commanded my lord and a smile split his small foes' face asunder.

"Beware my mighty blade!" cried my son as he lurched forward.

With that, he thrust quickly at his father's knees and my lord was caught in the blow but laughed at the child's boldness.

"Ah, indeed! But beware, thee force me to avenge myself upon thee," said my lord and his son laughed giddily for it, torn, I think, between pride for challenging his father and fear of what may come next.

The branch came upon him swiftly and he was hard pressed to twist about so the blows swatted at his flank and arms. Once the boy dropped his sword, his father was upon him, tickling and rolling the lad into a ball of wriggling arms and legs.

"Atto! Stop! Stop! May it please, thee, stop!" cried he, laughing so hard he gasped and hiccupped, and my lord, in his mercy, ceased his attack and smiled down on his son.

"Come, now, onya! Thou canst keep me from striking thee!" My lord rose and, releasing him, gestured for the boy to stand erect. "Know thou thy positions?"

"Aye, atarinya," said Edainion and with quick glance to his kin, looking on from the shadows of the plum tree, found the man smiling upon him. At this the boy straightened his shoulders, picked up his sword and faced his father square on. For he and Halbarad had spent much of the winter training the boy's small limbs to the mastery of his wooden sword.

"I know the first," Edainion said and in a flash of feet and hands he stood lightly balanced before his father. "And the second." Up went the wooden sword in a position of defense. "And the third!" Even more would have come if not had my lord laughed and held up his hand.

"Good, good!" my lord said and his son halted, beaming upon his father. "Then shall I call them out to thee?"

Edainion nodded and, biting up his lip, took up the position which even I, now my child had tutored me in their way, knew for the first.

"Very well!" said my lord and up came the branch.

He began slowly, being generous with the moments.

"Four!" my lord called and up came the little wooden sword and batted away his branch.

"Good! And two!"

Again he was warded off, and soon my lord set to calling out the positions in a steady rhythm while his son danced before him. Atimes the boy faltered and scrambled desperately to beat away the branch, only to right himself and move with an intent smoothness that set his father's eyes to shining upon him. When the branch caught Edainion upon limb or knee, his father and kinsman made a great cry and they halted and Halbarad called the count of blows warded away.

"'Twas a good dozen that time, young master," he said. "Think you can better it?"

The boy nodded, eager for it, and they began again, each time attempting to best the count of the time afore.

They spent much of the hours before our meal thus, Edainion ever biting at his lip and moving with an intent light in his eye, his father smiling in delight at the bright look upon his son's face, and Halbarad calling out the number of blows warded away. In the end, I knew not whose face beamed more with pride, his son or his kinsman, when my lord claimed great weariness at the exercise and called a halt to it.

Ah, 'tis perilous to tread too near the slumbering beast, for I have awakened it and feel again its hot breath upon my neck. An uncertain truce had we made, long ago it seems, the beast and I, and I had been true to the terms, until of late. But then I saw the river run in my lord's eyes and, in that moment, lost all thought for the bargain I had made.

Now I can do naught but await the stinging pain of my heart under its sharp teeth, for my son leans upon the bench and looks into his father's eyes and finds there a light of love that is as a swift bolt into my breast. There the setting sun sets afire their hair as my lord's hand comes upon his son's and together they dress the fish for our supper. Their voices come to me, low and joyful, and I am apart, and watch.

~oOo~

Ai. 'Tis well past time for Edainion to be indoors and sound asleep. The stars gleam above the black net of the trees and the moon sails upon the sky. Yet, my son is not in his bed.

Instead, he sits beneath the old oak that spreads its limbs just beyond the garden. My lord went there to smoke his pipe and watch the moon rise over the field, but, though he had spent the day with him, his son would not be separated from his father. And so there they sit, my lord with his back against the tree and the boy squirming against his side or with his head in his father's lap. There they must speak, my lord telling his son tales of faraway places or my son plaguing him with a thousand questions and more. I know not, for I have not disturbed them, but left them to themselves. Yet, should I stand in the solar and lean but a little over the sill the faint smell of pipeweed drifts indoors and I can see them, two shadows against the darkening meadow.

It is not until the air grows chill I relent, even then reluctantly. They shall have so little time to grow to know each other again.

A cool breeze rises and stirs the forest and the fields of rye. Silver the tall grain waves in the wind beneath the moon. Rain flies across the tops of the distant hills. I can smell it upon the wind and wonder my lord does not bring his son indoors because of it.

When I draw near, I hear little above the rustling of my own footsteps, the drone of insects, and the rush of the wind. I smile. Edainion must have fallen into the sudden slumber of the young, fighting to stay awake until his body betrayed him. I expect I shall find him curled in his father's lap and my lord leaning upon the sturdy oak, having set down his burden for a short while.

But I smell not the smoke of his pipe, nor do I see the sullen glow of burning leaf in the night. Dark and still is my lord's shadow against the moonlit field and I hear a sound I had not thought to hear.

I laugh softly. It is my lord. He snores.

His pipe has long since grown cold and his arm slides slowly down his flank where he clutches it. The trunk of a tree makes for an uncomfortable bed, but there his head rests, if awkwardly.

Ah, my lord is the hardiest of men of this Age. Fear and toil he faces without complaint. The enemies that breed beneath the Shadow he defies without faltering. Yet, 'tis a mere boy of little more than six years who lays him low.

~oOo~

A chill breeze flows across my skin and, waking, I turn upon my side and burrow beneath the blankets only to open my eyes, brought up short by my lord's shoulder. It seems I have become unused to sharing my bed and even these few nights of my lord's return has not taught me the way of it again. I peer at him in the dark, anxious that I have disturbed his sleep only to find my gaze returned as my lord turns his head. He lies upon his back, the window lined in the black arms of trees behind him where once he had been staring.

"You are wakeful, my lord?" I ask and lift a hand to smooth the coarse hair upon his breast.

He says naught, but, lifting my hand from him, pulls me into his side and settles my head upon him. There he brushes back the hair from my brow and returns to staring out at the night. The moment draws out and I think he has no answer to give me, but then a long wavering cry sounds out across the distant hills. I stiffen and his hand stills upon my hair. There are wolves in the Angle, where once there were none.

Ai! The Dark presses close and the promised week has yet to come to pass. My lord has come home for only a little, no more than a handful of days. So little time of peace and he already so weary.

"I have not prepared your farewell, my lord," I say when the howl fades, my voice soft so as to not awaken our son.

At that, my lord breaks his study of the outside world and, turning, puts me away so he can see my face.

"How stands my fortress, lady?" he asks, his voice a mere whisper, and grim.

His gaze is sharp even in the dimness of the night but I have no fear to return it.

"The foundation is well-laid and the walls take shape, my lord," I say and, tracing a curl of hair that lies upon his neck, "and I hope to fortify its battlements even now."

He does not speak nor make any other sign, but I know of his approval in the subtle shift that plays across his face.

"Then be at peace, lady," he whispers. "I am well content with your farewell. You could give me no better."

I think he has done and shall roll to his back and close his eyes for the few hours of sleep he might claim before he must leave. But it is not so, for my lord's eyes do not leave mine.

"Lady." Stirring from his stillness, he comes close so he may speak low. "Need sends me far from the lands of the North. I shall not return either this season or the next. Indeed, like as not, I shall not return until it be summer again."

I have started and pulled away.

"So long?"

The words burst from me, and my lord's fingers press to my lips. We fall still a moment, listening to the faint rustle of our son turning about in his bed.

"Guard well your walls, lady," he whispers and I find my lord's eyes keen upon me again, an avid light in an unquiet face. "The Shadow is coming."

I fall mute and cold, and his hand, though it alights upon my hair and his arm lies warmly upon my shoulder, I feel them not.

"I go to find what chance there may be for light beyond this Darkness," he says, his voice coming swiftly. "You asked me, once, should there not be some folly, some arrogance of our Enemy's we could exploit. Do you remember?"

I nod. I well remember that day, for it was my first in his house.

"I said, then, it was not within our reach."

"Aye, my lord," I say, my voice rising with my hopes.

"Ah, lady, perhaps it is what we seek, perhaps only," he warns. "I have searched long but not found the answer and must go further afield, into lands where I can send you no word. Indeed, my heart tells me the trail I seek lies beneath the very shadow of the Black Gates."

"My lord!" I say but softly, for my voice is no louder than the brush of leaf upon leaf outside our window.

My lord's brow lowers and his thumb brushes upon my cheek. "Hist, lady, listen to me. I leave my people in the care of you and my kinsman. Halbarad I have charged with their safety. You are my voice, here. Speak for me! Give my people hope to which they may cling. They must endure!" Words pour from my lord as if he had but moments, not hours left in his house. "If you must abandon the Angle, do so without regret. If we must rise from a scattered and beaten people, so be it, but at all other cost keep them alive!"

"Remember, too, the House of Elrond," my lord goes on. "He will provide you and my son with safe haven, should there be the need."

And when by my face my lord knows I would protest, for he can read my thoughts as if I spoke of my distaste for fleeing and leaving our people to their fate, he clutches my head and his eyes burn into mine.

"Watch over my son!" he whispers fiercely, and ceases to speak until I agree.

"Ah, lady," he says, his hand growing gentle again and his thumb resuming its path across my cheek, "I ask much of my master-builder, but she has not failed me yet."

With that, my lord draws me to his breast, tucking my head beneath his chin so he might hold me close.

He sighs and whispers into my hair, piercing my thoughts, "The time may be long before I return and I leave you a bitter task. What of my master-builder, what need she to complete her labors?

I shake my head against my lord and press my face into his breast. It seems enough to hold and be held, my arm wrapped tightly to his back and his chin snug upon the crown of my head. I know each breath he takes and his warmth shields me from the night's chill.

Within my lord's embrace, it is as if I know him for the first time, no longer a myth, but a man of deep wells of strength and feeling. He offers me no more than he had on that first night when his company danced about us and he suffered for the wounds he had taken to meet our need. His heart is no more mine to gain than it was then, but I find I love him no less for it.

"That, when" I say and then fall silent, for, despite my best intentions, my voice breaks and tears prick beneath the lids of my eyes. With a breath I go on, my voice harsh to my own ears, "That, when this task you set yourself is done, you return, my lord."

"Hush, lady," I hear, and my lord's arms tighten about me and his lips press into my hair. "That you have without the asking."

His embrace loosens at length when I do not reply and he draws away. "Must I ask again?"

Ai! The one thing I would wish, he has it not in him to give. And yet, it seems my reluctance to ask aught of him causes him dismay. What is left? What does my lord have to give that I treasure over all other things?

"My lord," I whisper, "I would bear all the children you would have of me."

He says naught, but cups my face in his hand before reaching across me to pull the heavy drapes of our bed closed and then draw me onto him. There my lord lies beneath me, his hands resting upon me, quiescent, waiting for me to begin. I pull the covers over our heads to muffle the sounds of our love-making from the ears of our son as he sleeps, and the constraint makes the pleasure all the sweeter.

~oOo~

"Hold still, little one!" I say and jerk my hand back from my son's head.

He has twisted about and the points of shears are but inches from his face.

"Where is it? Have you done, Amm?"

"No!" I say and shake my head, sighing. It is simply by chance I did not gouge a great slash across my son's cheek. "Turn about," I command, "you will see it when I am finished, but not before then."

"Onya," I say, lighting upon an idea when he yet shifts restlessly and I lose my hold. "Do you remember what the hares do when you go out into the pasture?"

He nods, his eyes brightening, for this scamp of a child often likes to sneak upon them and chase the small animals into the brush, laughing at their bounding flight.

"Not that," I say and cluck my tongue when he seems as if about to leap about the room, and my son grins. "What do they do at the very first when you appear?"

"Oh," he says and falls very still.

If I were not intent upon quickly completing my task without harming my child, I would laugh at the wide-eyed stare he mimics. It seems he is a Ranger born, alert to even the smallest nuance of the wild things that share our home.

"Done," I say and, released, he whirls about.

His face twisted in puzzlement at the thing I now hold, his hand reaches back to tug at his hair.

"Atarinya will like it, Amm?" he asks, perplexed by adult tastes that must seem so foreign to him. I think he would like it better were I to give his father a handful of honeyed hedgehog pastries to collect all manner of dirt and lint in his traveling pouch.

"I think so," I say and smile at my son's skeptical look as I rise from my knees.

The slow clopping of my lord's mare's hooves comes through the open window and the voices of the men in the hall soften.

"Now, hurry, onya." I nod to the bed, and there Edainion rushes to sit upon his low mattress and pull on his boots. "Your atto is near ready to go."

It seems I have just brushed out and straightened my skirts when my son's feet pound down the stairs. He does not wait for me, but, most like, springs from the door into the hall, for I hear Halbarad's laughter and his deep tones urging his charge out of doors. I follow, my feet not much the slower in their trip down the stairs.

When I find them, they are clustered just outside the open door, my son at his father's side and Halbarad taking the reins from Master Baran. There my lord's gear is lashed tightly to the saddle. He shall ride to the edge of Eriador for speed, and, from there, freshly equipped, send the mount home and take the rest of the way upon foot, for stealth.

"When you return home, Atto," Edainion asks, "you will take me to the forest?"

His father's face is greatly fond as he looks down upon his son. "What do you wish to see there?"

"I want to walk like a wolf," he says, his face alight and his shoulders hunched with an eager anticipation.

My lord laughs but his smile is both adoring and uneasy when he lifts my son into his arms. There, Edainion runs a finger along the clasp that closes my lord's cloak, testing its edge as his father holds him.

"There will be many lessons I would teach you, Edainion," he says and the child grows still.

"You will be much grown before I return, onya, and you must make yourself ready for them," my lord says to the face just inches from his own that watches him intently.

"Try not to give Elesinda more grief, hmmm?" he asks. "You have many things to learn from your mother and Halbarad before I return. I leave them here to care for you and teach you to be strong. Will you mind them?"

"Good," he says to Edainion's eager nodding. "Will you go to bed when your mother says it is time?" he presses. "Stay close to Halbarad when you are about? And learn to control your temper?"

My lord smiles at the less than enthusiastic agreement that greets these proposals.

"Good! I hope to see what you have learned when I return. But," my lord says and inclines his brow to his son's, "I shall not expect, my son, that you eat your pease." His eyes light with mischief and his son grins in return.

"No pease!" Edainion repeats, his voice exultant and his smile much pleased.

"No pease," my lord confirms, chuckling. His face twists with playful disgust. "Especially as they become a cold, thick, green paste."

At that, my son tucks his head into his father's shoulder, wrapping his arm about my lord's neck and squeezing tight. His father rubs the small back vigorously.

"Farewell, my son, and may the Valar keep thee in their care," my lord whispers onto the head that lies against him before kissing it.

Gently uncoiling the child's arms, my lord sets his son to the ground and leaves him there with a lingering touch to his hair and soft smile for the eyes that gaze up on him steadily.

"Go with Halbarad, he will see to your morning meal. It is set out and ready for you."

It is plain Edainion does not wish to go, nor does his father wish to see him gone, but my son has just given his word to obey and he would not be so early foresworn. He steps away to Halbarad's side, awaiting his kin's pleasure. There he leans into the tall man's leg and permits the hand that rests lightly upon his hair.

My lord and Halbarad have had their farewell. They spoke much of the morning, their voices low and swift over ale and maps and tablets. The look they now share is of such depth of feeling that words seem unfit. And so they do not speak, but embrace hard and clap the other upon shoulder and back.

"Be well," Halbarad says and hands him the reins to his mount.

My lord nods sharply, looking away quickly as his kin leads his son indoors with a gentle hand upon the child's head.

And now my lord stands before me as if unsure how to end this ritual. His face has grown quiet and grim.

"And how do I say farewell to thee?"

I shake my head. "As ever you have, my lord," I say, for I am determined this parting shall be no different at its beginning, just as it shall find its resolution when my lord returns as it has so many times before.

My lord's face softens and his hand brushes upon my arm. I think he is about to give me his embrace in farewell.

"My lord," I say swiftly. "I have prepared aught for your farewell. Will you receive it?"

A frown of surprise passes quickly across my lord's face. "Have you any doubts on that score, lady?"

"No, my lord," I say and, raising my hand, reveal the small thing that lies curled upon my palm where I kept it hidden until now.

It is a thin length of hair, dark strands braided tightly and tied upon the ends to keep it secure for my lord's journey.

My lord takes it in his fingers, turning it end upon end. His eyes flicker from the coil to my hair, measuring their lengths. His face is full of regret and pity as he holds the gift with a light touch, gazing at it pensively. I know that, in his mind, he wonders if there is a refusal gentle enough not to wound should he give it.

"My lord," I say, "it is your son's," and his sudden smile dazzles me with its brilliance.

"I shall treasure it, lady," he says and clutches the small braid to his palm before he bows and adds it to the pouch hanging from his belt, where I know it joins the last small token of the woman who bore him.

When done, my lord pulls me into an embrace, and I think his arms shall crush me should he tighten them just a little. I am unsure if I do not return the favor.

"Guard well the walls of your fortress, lady," I hear low, close to my ear.

My lord's embrace loosens and I know I must let him go. But I cannot let him go far. Before he lets me loose, I clasp the sides of his face and pull his head low.

"Farewell, my lord," I say and kiss his brow. "May the Valar watch over thee and guide thy steps, no matter what dark place is the path they trace. May they lead thee to aid unlooked for, shield thee from harm and fear, and may they see thee safely home."

I have no word to name the look on my lord's face when I release him and he draws away, for I can see naught but a wavering blur of light and dark mixed. Gentle thumbs come to brush my eyes and soft lips press their lids closed as if in mute blessing. With that, my lord is gone from my touch, and the loss is as a wrenching away of some vital limb.

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