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43

`Then I cannot help you much, not even with counsel,' said Elrond. `I can foresee very little of your road; and how your task is to be achieved I do not know. The Shadow has crept now to the feet of the Mountains, and draws nigh even to the borders of Greyflood; and under the Shadow all is dark to me.

FOTR: The Ring Goes South


~~~

The hall is quiet. So still are we here Elenir's gentle breathing can be heard over the snapping of the fire and the rasp of Halbarad's knife.

I am not at my loom. The evening hours lengthen, yet its wood stands as stark as a leafless tree, its limbs bare of color. I should be dressing its unclad frame with a long mantle of warp, but I am not. Neither do I dangle the spindle from a growing length of yarn or write in my journal of the days. Indeed, it seems nigh more than I can manage to sit upon this bench and guard the soft rise and fall of my daughter's breast there in her cradle.

Winter comes upon us and I have hung the rugs o’er the tall windows of my lord’s hall, and there they shiver at the touch of the wind whistling through the shutters. We should be merry indoors, here in the hall where we are warm. But a quiet has fallen upon us, neither of us speaking. Halbarad watches the fire upon the hearth from his seat. Ever restrained, it is his gaze and knife which betray his unease. Between flickers of light from the short blade, I know his eyes rest upon me atimes. He had thought the trail of orc would lead to the heart of the puzzle of Gelir's death, there hard upon the northern pass of the Road, but it had not. He, too, does not speak, yet so heartsick am I, I care not.

A hard frost stiffens the soil, the sun growing unnaturally dim and the days cold, and men seek the warmth of their hearth by which to work, all but for two of the Angle who upon the hallmoot their folk deemed unworthy. Yoked together they were and together they pull the plough upon their furrows in which to sow the winter wheat. It is slow and hard work, for they lack the aid of the team of oxen over which they fought.

My son and I came upon them just yestereve struggling to turn the plough, their breath coming harsh and ragged and their hands burned by the rope and chapped and raw from the cold. True it is, they suffer a kinder fate than our lord's law would allow, were it taken at its barest word. Before the folk of the hallmoot had I begged for the Angle's mercy and left it to its folk to think what they will of the wisdom of my interference in a matter between men.

My son stared at them solemnly as we passed, and later, when I tucked his bed's furs about him, pleaded with me to relieve them of their suffering. And so I sent Elesinda with a salve of a fine oil, beeswax and comfrey for their hands and asked Master Herdir to find those equally born of the Angle and wandered to it who were willing to pull the plough with them. I dare not countenance any quarrel among our folk with further aid than that, but know not what else to do. A poor substitute I make for my lord. Were not he here and could give me his counsel in this matter, if not many others besides the one.

Ai! Would I could awake upon the morn and see my lord striding swiftly o’er his land, so I may sit beside him and know things are as they should be.

Elenir sleeps. She alone seems content.

And then a first pounds sharply upon the door, breaking our quiet with a suddenness that send me leaping from my seat. The sound echoes in the hall as if we were secreted in a deep cave and Elenir gives a sudden jerk and her eyes fly open. Elesinda appears in the door to the solar, her skirts twisting in her hands and her eyes wide in alarm. Halbarad alone has not moved. His knife falls still, but his eyes come instantly alert. He is poised, listening and tense as a cat coiled to spring upon its prey.

A thin wail rises from the cradle, but I am staring at Halbarad. What of Boradan who walks this house's grounds and gardens? In the normal course we would hear his voice announcing the intrusion and pleading entrance, but there is naught but the sound of the wind beyond the door and a hard fist that beats upon its wood. What became of the youth's vigilance?

Halbarad rises and sets aside his carving, brushing away the shavings clinging to his woolen vest. "My lady, your child."

His soft voice seems to break the spell that kept me bound to my place. I go to the cradle and grab up my crying daughter as Halbarad strides to the door. I seek to soothe her, patting upon her back and bouncing her in my arms, but fear seems to have sapped all comfort from my hands and she only wails the louder, pushing against my breast with stiff arms.

Halbarad has taken to wearing his sword at all times and he draws it now, even as he reaches to touch the beam that bars the door. I back away, putting the hearth between myself and my child and what may wait in the night.

Elesinda whispers to me from where she stands, her young face wretched with fear. "What is it, my lady?"

"Hush, girl! All is well. Go to my son!" I command and she whirls about. I can hear her feet slipping up the stairs as she obeys.

"Who is without?" Halbarad calls through the heavy wood, his voice sharp and demanding.

A muffled voice replies, "A weary traveler. Wilt thou not open? It is cold. I wouldst warm myself by thy fire if thee allow it."

I am uncertain, for the passing of the seasons have clouded my memory. Yet Halbarad seems sure and quickly he sheathes his sword and draws the bar from the door, flinging it wide. I bounce my child in my arms to still her alarm.

"Mae govannen," Halbarad greets the dark gladly, and from the night emerges a grey-cloaked old man. Halbarad ushers him into the light and the Wanderer removes his tall pointed hat as he enters and bows. Familiar eyes twinkle at me from below the thatches of hair that serve as his brows.

It is as if I had forgotten the simplest of skills and know no more how to breathe. How is this, that the wizard's wandering brings him here?

I bow, though hindered by my squirming burden and the high voice that is a pain in my ears. "You are welcome to my lord's House."

"I was beginning to have my doubts." He glances from Halbarad to the wailing child I clutch tightly.

"Indeed, you are welcome, Master Gandalf." I come forward and Halbarad closes the door upon the dark and the cold air that crosses our threshold from without.

I call to the anxious face that peers down at me from the top of the stairs, the light in the solar playing about her head, "All is well, Elesinda. How is my son?"

"He sleeps still, my lady," she says after a glance away.

"Stay with him," I say and she nods and disappears.

My attempts to soothe Elenir seem destined only to excite her temper, and I think it shall put him off, but when I reach his side, the wizard takes the hand I offer and bows over it in formal greeting. He has not yet smiled upon me, and I find I miss that mirth which he had brought first into this house of all our guests.

"And who have we here?" He sets his keen eyes upon the red, screwed up face of my daughter. Her little fists squirm in my wrap as she screams and her legs work against my belly where I clutch her to me.

"Here you see my lord's daughter," I say, turning so he can see her face. "Elenir she is called, though I am afraid she has taken fright."

"Tut-tut," he admonishes in a kindly voice, peering at her over my shoulder. His great wrinkled hand rubs her back and he speaks in a rapid flow of words I cannot follow. At his touch, she quiets, taking deep breaths between cries and looking nigh unto surprised, as if he were explaining what she had feared had not come to pass in a language only she can understand. Her hands relax against my breast and soon, her fingers pluck at my wrap. She looks upon the wizard with the wide, open gaze of an infant as her warm weight settles against me.

"Yes, this will be glad tidings amidst so much of dark, indeed," he murmurs. "Forgive me, little one," he says with a soft caress to her brow, "for having woken you from your sleep."

She blinks her dark eyes at him and yawns. I should give him a more generous welcome, my guest, but I am struck dumb by his words. And so, instead, I dry the little face of her tears and offer my knuckle for my daughter to suckle, tickling her lips and toothless gums. She latches onto it and her mouth works busily, and as I walk her eyes drift closed. Halbarad laughs softly from where he has been watching. For a Ranger with no wife and home of his own, he is well learned in the upset a small child can produce.

"A neat trick, that," he says. "I do not suppose you could teach me the way of it, Mithrandir."

"Halbarad.” I go to a press upon the wall and open it as best I may with but one hand to use. "Would you be so good as to take our guest's pack and make him comfortable?"

"Aye, my lady," he says and gathers the old man's hat while the wizard shrugs off his cold gear and cloak.

"No trick to it, my dear Halbarad," Gandalf says with a somber wink. "All good creatures, great and small, know who to best trust."

The Ranger snorts his disbelief, but with good humor, and hangs the wizard's things upon the hooks by the door. I pull a blanket out of the press, holding my now drowsing daughter to my breast as I lean over. Gandalf sets his staff nearby and, patting his waist for the small roll of leaf, plucks his pipe from the twining fingers of the top of his staff before he leans it to the wall.

"Come, sit by the fire, lord Mithrandir," I say, inviting the wizard to the hearth. "Halbarad, my lord's chair, if it please you."

There, between the two of us, we settle the wizard, wrapped in a blanket and seated comfortably before the fire. He lets loose a long sigh as Halbarad strides to the door and lifts his cloak from its peg. My lord's kin's face has now fallen stern and I know where he goes.

"Halbarad," say I as he throws its folds about his shoulders, roused to striding swiftly to him. "He is young."

"Aye, and in need of a good scare." Halbarad ties fast his cloak and seems ready to go, but I have drawn near.

“Surely no harm was done," I say, lowering my voice so our guest must not be put to the discomfort of hearing of our quarrels.

I would think Halbarad’s soft grunt answer enough, but he thrusts his hands into his gloves and gives me a sharp look. "My lady, do not indulge my men."

"Men, Halbarad, these men of yours are naught more than boys."

"Aye, but men they must be and shall not be if you treat them as you do. They have mothers of their own, though you may think I have cruelly separated them from their breast, untimely. Do not seek to feed them their favorite dishes, my lady. Do not make soft their beds, and, please, upon the pity of the Valar, do not invite them to shelter when it is cold.”

"You do not protest when I do the same for you." My daughter’s hand slips from its grasp upon the wool of my wrap and I must look away to settle her more deeply into the crook of my shoulder and neck.

"Aye, but I am a man full grown and my tendencies already fixed. These youths do not need the distraction, their minds are untempered enough. I have none other to send upon the Wild and I would have them return safely from their journey upon it."

At this, he holds my gaze with a stern look. Ah! He is in the right, though I may wish it otherwise.

"Very well then," say I. "Though the Wild shall use them cruelly enough when it is their time, I shall do as you insist and hasten them to it."

“And well you should, my lady. For had you not thought of Boradan as little more than a boy, perhaps you would not bear that mark upon your face.”

Of itself, my hand comes up to brush at the bruise upon my cheek and temple. An ugly purple, it does little to improve my looks, though it fades now and grows a soft green about its edges. To my displeasure, I can think of naught to say in retort and his pointed look at my silence before he closes the door behind him does not do much to ease my uncertain temper.

I bar the door, cradling my child tightly against my breast.

"See what you have wrought?" I say, teasing the wizard lightly in hopes it shall cover my discomfort.

He packs the weed into the bowl of his pipe, but has been watching our exchange from where he sits comfortably by the hearth.

"I?" says he with a glint of light shining deeply hidden in his glance. "I did naught, which, by all accounts, seems to be the same crime as that committed by your young guard. Shall you have a good scare planned for me, as well?"

I am startled into laughter by his words. "I do not think I shall put myself to the test of attempting to outwit a creature such as you, Master Gandalf."

"Good," he says, leaning from his chair to pull a piece of kindling from the fire with which to light his pipe. "I have not dared to taste smoke this fortnight since Rivendell. I would hate for a good smoke to be spoiled for naught."

With the stem of his long pipe firmly clenched between his teeth, the flame sends shadows swooping across his face as he draws it into his pipe with quick breaths. Soon, smoke the color of his beard drifts in curls from his nose and he tosses the kindling back onto the hearth.

"Lady," he then says and leans back into the chair, "bless you. By your grace, I shall soon have warm hands and feet. I lack but two things."

"And what are those," I say as I go to the hearth. I bend to my daughter's cradle, and grabbing up the blanket from within, ease it about her so that I may not disturb her light slumber.

"Ah," he says, with a soft smile lighting his eye. "I have naught to warm my heart nor my belly. Perhaps somewhat to fortify myself against the weariness of speech after long days of traveling, eh?"

I start in shame. "Your pardon, Master Gandalf! The manner of your arrival seems to have chased all proper thoughts from my head."

"Not to worry, my child," he says, "if you were to hand your daughter to my care for but a moment you shall go far to warming my heart and all shall be forgiven."

"And it shall free my hands to find aught to warm your belly, as well."

'Indeed," says the wizard, "a happy chance it is that the two things are of accord."

I draw near, but somewhat of reluctance keeps my steps slow. "Do you know the way of it?"

"Humph," he grunts and waves a hand to urge me onward, "I have held smaller babes than this one here. The children of the Halflings could fit three to your daughter's bed. No one complained of my skills when I was pressed to their service." He holds his pipe away with exaggerated care, no doubt to soothe a mother's anxious heart.

"I doubt they would dare," I say, but, nonetheless, lay my child in the wizard's arms.

Despite my misgivings, but for a moment of dismay at being moved, she seems content there. As I wrap the wool about her, he cradles her against his breast and she works mightily to find her fist, scowling until it seems, by chance, her fingers comes upon her mouth. Soon she will waken hungry, but now she sleeps the deep slumber of the very young, her mouth working faintly in milky dreams.

"Well, then, lady," the wizard says, taking his pipe into his mouth again and drawing upon it. "Now that that is settled, perhaps you would see fit to extending some of your tending to the old man sitting at your hearth." Smoke curls about him when he speaks.

"And what would he wish for?" I ask and rise from where I am bent over my child. "Some tea, perhaps? I would not recommend the ale, it is thin and bitter, but we have it if naught else will satisfy. And I shall make you some toast and cold meats, if you wish."

"Tea, if it please you then, the hotter the better," he says, and I leave him to his pipe and the quiet of the hall. For the wizard does not speak, not revealing the path his labors had set him upon nor his purpose in coming hither.

The light creaking of the boards where Elesinda walks above our heads continues faint among the crackle of the fire and the sigh of smoke from the wizard's lips. I dip the beaker in the barrel of water by the hearth and fill the pot for his tea, setting it above the fire. Still a strange reluctance grips me. I should ask my guest of his journey, see to the comfort of his mind as well as that of his body, but I do not. Ai! Perhaps it is the worry that darkens his glance as there he studies my daughter's sleep and the light of the fire plays upon his face. Of all those who travel upon the wide lands of Middle earth, is it not the Grey Wanderer who knows best my lord and his doings? What knowledge might hide its dark truth behind his silence?

In a small drawer I find a cup and the dried leaves and herbs I seek. Then, once I close the doors to the tall chest, carefully there so I do not disturb what lies therein, and set my burden upon the table, I have lost all that might occupy me and delay the conversation that awaits me. And so I go to the bench and settle there. Of themselves, my hands clasp one upon the other between my knees even as I grapple with my heart.

"I see your garden blooms, lady," Mithrandir says, gazing upon the small face in his arms.

"Have you somewhat you need tell me of my lord?"

Though it is softly asked, the wizard's eyes come upon me sharply and in them I see there reflected a gentle pity I have oft seen shining from the eyes of my lord.

“I beg of thee, Mithrandir, have pity upon me and if you have news that would bring me grief speak it now and plainly!”

"Ah! Do not distress yourself, child!" he says. "If I had known these were your thoughts I would have spoken sooner. No, Aragorn was well enough when last we parted company. If I had known I would be traveling so far west, I would have brought you his greetings."

And more he might have said, but I could not hear it for the newborn beating of the blood within my veins. For slowly it comes to me the wizard had not made the journey across the Wild only so he may bring news of the Lord of the Dúnedain's death to his lady wife. I press my brow onto my palms, there hoping I might still their trembling.

"Then what news brings you so far from your path?"

The wizard grunts and examines the shadows of my face. Smoke twists in a narrow ladder from the bowl of his pipe where it rests loosely clasped. "Nigh on three months, I make it now," he says, "and we parted company at the fording of the Gladden River, he making his way south and I returning to the north."

South?

Before I know what I am about, I launch myself to my feet and have lifted my daughter from Mithrandir’s arms, giving the wizard little heed. Her softly rounded limbs lie heavily within mine and I cradle them there. Dear is the bow of her lips, a pink bud not yet fully bloomed. Ah, but she smells of milk and the lavender of her soap and I press my nose against her soft cheek. She stirs but does not awaken when I set her again in her bed by the hearth. There I smooth the wool and furs over her sweetly sleeping form.

"All our hopes rest upon this venture, Nienelen. We cannot look back," Gandalf says and I need not turn to know, for all the pity that yet lingers in his glance, the wizard's face has grown stern, for his voice has sharpened. In it I hear the rising of the chill wind and the patient creak of stone upon stone. What fortress had the wizard in his care? And who shall find themselves beyond its pale walls when the storm blows upon it?

"Aye, Gandalf," I say and rise. "But at what price?"

Perhaps he would have answered, but I shall never know, for it was then I heard Halbarad’s voice at the door and his fist upon its wood.

When I raise the bar, the door opens upon Halbarad’s startled look, for I had not challenged his knocking nor demanded satisfaction before allowing entry. A fierce anger comes over him at it, but it falls away quickly, for I doubt not he has caught sight of my face. I know not what its look tells, but he seeks out Mithrandir’s gaze and is reassured, if not relieved of his puzzlement, by the shaking of the wizard’s head.

I go to the hearth, for the water gallops in the pot I set there. Boradan comes from behind the tall man’s shadow, his face over-pale and his fingers tight about the hilt of his sword. I wonder at the censure visited upon him but know, now even more than before, we shall have need for him to abandon all ways of his youth. It is a hard lesson for us both to learn, I think.

“Our lord's Ranger has come with apologies, my lady,” says Halbarad when he closes the door. “He begs you to receive them.”

I straighten from where I ladle water into the wizard’s cup. Behind me comes the creak of wood when he shifts in his chair and I think him done with his pipe, for the smell of burning leaf has become thin.

"My lord counts upon you to keep us safe, Ranger, as do I," I say, my voice low, "and so do my children."

The young man's face blanches still further as his eyes are drawn to the helpless infant that sleeps by the hearth, oblivious to aught of danger in the world outside this hall. I can guess at what images must fly through his head, not the least of which is the sight of his lord and chieftain's face should he fail of the trust given him.

Ranger Boradan draws himself up to his greatest height, his shoulders square as he solemnly bows to me.

"I can only beg your forgiveness, my lady," he says, his voice firm for all his shock.

"You have it," I say, "but let us not repeat this lesson.” In this I include his captain and I think the youth knows and is the more shamed for it.

"My lady, you shall not have the need," says Boradan and, waiting upon Halbarad to give his permission, leaves us in the hall to return to his guard.

“He is well,” I say, for I know well Halbarad's mind and shall not wait to settle it.

The door is again closed and barred and Halbarad pulls the gloves from his hands. He need not ask who I mean.

“Aye,” he says, and with slow hands withdraws the cloak from about him. “But not yet found what he seeks.”

At that, the wizard rises with a weary noise and, by dint of rapping the bowl of his pipe against his palm, knocks the spent ashes onto the hearth. He tucks the pipe into a fold of cloth about his belt so he might take the cup I offer him. The tea's scent is of my lord's gardens and, under the guise of preparing a second cup, I turn away so I need not smell it so closely.

“And what think you, Halbarad," the wizard asks, drawing the long folds of his gray skirts about him and sitting himself down with a grunt, "how fares your labors if the Dúnedain of the North's lord cannot yet return?”

Halbarad’s face tells no tales as he comes near. It is a close thing and perhaps he debates the wisdom of voicing fears that would only serve to weigh upon his kin's heart when it cannot help its absence.

“It proceeds much as he had foreseen.” Thus, with a lift of the shoulders Halbarad resumes his seat before the hearth and warms his hand above its flames there. "But we will do as we ever have, until we can do it no longer."

The look Halbarad turns to me when he takes the cup I offer is brief and he gives me his thanks.

"And you, lady," asks the wizard. "What tidings shall I bring to Aragorn from you?"

At first I do not speak, for I have much to do to still my hands. Were I not so acquainted with the man, I would have missed the disquiet that darkens the deepest shadows of my lord's kin's glance and I most wish to forget the careful steps of our dance in my lord's home and lay a hand upon his burdened shoulder.

No, I shall not, not even now. And I shall not have my lord's friend bear him tales of the Angle's fears. Neither shall I speak of my lord's son who sleeps upstairs, ever present though he is in our thoughts this eve, Halbarad and I. For a fever has taken the boy. Awash in the pale light of the candle I can see them even now, Elesinda and my son who lies pale and wretched upon my lord's bed.

Ai!

Where is the father of my children and when shall they see him again?

"Tell him his fortress stands."

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