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A Very Rain of Sparrows
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King's Men

'Here do I swear fealty and service to Gondor, and to the House of Elendil, to the king of this realm, to speak and to be silent, to do and to let be, to come and to go, in need or in plenty, in peace or in war, in living or dying, from this hour henceforth, until my lord release me, or death take me, or the world end.'

—oath of royal service, Gondor, the Third Age

Wisdom! Give us wisdom, O Giver of Gifts!
Make wise our hearts and ways,
Let us not fall again, yet again, into darkness!

—traditional Haradric prayer


The days that followed were uncertain, plagued with doubt and anxiety, as the folk of the Eastshore hurried to put their crops to bed while looking north over their shoulders. Everyone was worried, looking to their larders and their purses, both more empty than they ought to be even for spring, and wondering what would become of them if the Rangers didn't come. Nor were evenings any relief now, either, or at least, not for Aethrin. There was the dread of finding Calandil waiting for them, and Fardhan's mood was blacker than ever, so that Aethrin feared to know what might be said one night—said, and irrevocably so, not that Aethrin had such words. But he knew that some things, once said, could not be unsaid, and he did not want to hear such pass between Fardhan and Alweth.

To make matters worse, they had scarcely been at their ploughing two weeks than the skies darkened and ominous clouds began to drift in from the east off the Ephel Dúath. "Cursed Shadow Mounts!" folk muttered, hoping this would not be a fourth year of near-flooding to stunt their harvest and roil the rivers.

"Ent gonna be anything worth selling if these let fall on us," Meithel muttered, as he and Aethrin dragged their harrows back to the sheds, to store against the possibility of rain.

"What'll you do if there's naught?" Aethrin asked.

"Well, Gilly’s right ‘t’about family. Dalaphel's husband and my cousins'll take us a year—can help out my aunt, while he and the boys go to Pelargir, or maybe down a ways in the Ethir, if someone'll take them on," Meithel said, and shrugged. "Suppose I might go with 'em, if Mam wanted me to."

"Good of tha's aunt 't'and uncle, that 't'is," Aethrin said, and his friend shrugged again.

"Lot 't'of folk've done the same already," he replied. Then he wrinkled his nose. "Aunt Dalaphel's quick to pinch the ears, though. Don't much like the thought 't'of bein' under her roof!"

"Would tha want t' go west with tha's cousins and uncle?" Aethrin asked.

"Ne. Would do it if Mam wanted me to, but 't'I told tha: I'm for stayin' in Eastshore! What 't'about tha? Ent got 't'any family here still." Which was true—Faladan and both his brothers had been killed in the war, and both of Aethrin's widowed aunts had left Eastshore, taking his cousins with them. None had heard from them since. As for Alweth, her brother, too, had not come home, and her sister had died in childbirth long before Aethrin had ever known her. Lot 't'of folk like us, Aethrin thought. Likely as many as are like Meithel. And what'll we all do, if we don't hear from the north soon?

"Hey. What ‘t’about tha, eh?" came the repeated inquiry, breaking into his anxious reverie.

"I don't know," Aethrin said honestly. Meithel bit his lip, looking worried for once.

"Mal and Fardho are going to Pelargir again, I heard."

"Aye, come week's end. There’s a need for salt soon enough for makin’ soap and suchlike. Ent like we’ve never done ploughing without ‘t’em," Aethrin replied.

"Goes tha with them?"

"Mam said I should learn to do my duty," Aethrin replied. "Fardhan doesn’t much like it, though."

"Gilly said her Mam might send her west. Got 't'an uncle or suchlike about Pelargir."

"Has she? Didn't know that."

"Got the feeling Gilly didn't know it 't'either," Meithel said, frowning worriedly. "Don't much like the sound of that!"

Neither did Aethrin, especially thinking on what Fardhan had said (and refused to say) the other night about the girls on the Westshore. But despite that, he couldn't quite forbear to jest, "A moment, Meitho. She told tha all that?"

"There's something, eh?" Meithel said, with a slight grin, though he seemed still worried. "Caught her skulking out by the Ranger barracks."

"Out bein’ milk, like tha said?" Aethrin asked, and got a shrug. "What was she doin' there, then?"

"What's Alweth doing round Calandil, eh?" Meithel said significantly, and Aethrin winced. "Don't know as she fancies a one of 'em, but... She'd stay in Eastshore, most like, if she caught 't'an eye or two—that's what she said."

"And she just told tha everything, straight like?" Aethrin demanded, incredulous and more than a litte suspicious.

"Well, of course not!" Meithel said, and snorted. "Had to scuffle with her first. Finally got her claws out 't'again," he said, proudly.

"That's what that is, then?" Aethrin asked, indicating the scratch marks and bruise Meithel sported on his arms and one cheek.

"She gives pretty good for a girl, eh?" Meithel said, grinning toothily a moment, before his mirth quite uncharacteristically faded. "Aye, we fought 't'a bit, and then all of a sudden, like, she started cryin' and talkin'. Ent 't'ever seen the like from her."

This was worse than Aethrin had imagined. Gilriel, crying? It hardly seemed possible, but if it were true, and her mother had thought to send her away... Her blood's here, Fardhan had said, and said also that Gilriel would go to Pelargir if it were needed. Maybe not, Aethrin thought. Or maybe, he amended to himself, thinking of his mother and Calandil, and Fardhan's complaints of Westshoremen buying into Eastshore marriages, maybe we've enough of Pelargir here already.

"Tha's going west, ‘t’ent tha?" Meithel's words interrupted his thought, and Aethrin blinked, then gave his friend a confused look, only to find him staring back rather glumly. "Tha's going, eh?"

"Fardhan says no," Aethrin replied, but then finished, "I should try, though. Like as not they won't want me, but 't'I haven't 't'any thought how Fardhan's saying 'no' puts more coin in our purse than me working over there. Even if it 't'ent much, it's more than nothing."

"If tha and Gilly go, 'twill be dull round here."

"Eh. Likely have to wait 'til Fardho goes north anyway to try. And who knows? Like as not, they really won't want 't'any of us. Ent fond of Eastshoremen across the water, that's sure!" Aethrin replied.

Meithel gave a disdainful snort. "Eh, that's Westshoremen for tha," he said disgustedly. "Throwin' good coin in the weeds!"

Which was purely contrary of him, Meithel wanting to see nothing of worth go across the water, but Aethrin would not argue with him about it. Not when he thought of the Charter Tax, or of the danger that threatened all Eastshoremen taken north. Better to find work in Pelargir, if one could find it. At least one got coin for all one's pains, not just for some of them, and for fewer of them each year.

Of course, there were other ways out of their troubles, too—Rangers, like all soldiers, did not pay the Ship Tax. Aethrin, watching as Calandil chatted up Alweth at table, could hardly avoid memory of his mother's bitter words, not with Fardhan looking grimly on. Aethrin kept his head down and concentrated on swallowing, on trying to quell the odd flutter inside of himself, and that made him feel vaguely sick. Which was also contrary—there was nothing wrong with supper, and Aethrin ought to be glad to have it, even if Calandil were bringing it.

"Just that it makes me feel strange, like," Aethrin tried to explain one evening, when Fardhan questioned him about it. His brother had noticed him picking at his food earlier.

"Strange?" Fardhan echoed.

Aethrin shrugged. "Just... like I'm all over heavy, and... and naked! Shouldn't 't'anybody feel that way," he said, blushing. His brother only sighed and gave him a wordless pat upon the back before sending him off to bed.

The end of the week dawned cool and cloudy, but still, the rain held, and so Fardhan announced that he and Malgath would indeed head down to Pelargir that day.

"Make a last run before the Rangers come," he said. "Maybe find work to keep us."

"Tha should take Aetho—" Alweth began, but Fardhan shook his head.

"If I’m gone, tha’ll have a need for him here. And they'll not be taking him anyway, Mam. If tha can tell me to think of his own good, then tha knows it’s true and tha knows why," Fardhan said steadily. Alweth's lips thinned, but after a moment, she bowed her head, apparently accepting that rebuke for once. "Don't wait for me this eve—might be awhile in Pelargir," he said, as he quickly folded up a bit of flatbread in a kerchief.

"Can help tha with a trap, at least," Aethrin offered. "Set one out last night, since tha said tha was going."

"Ent 't'a need, I can hand—" Fardhan began, but Aethrin was already on his feet and heading for the door.

"Won't take a moment," Aethrin told him, hurrying on his way.

"See that it doesn't," Fardhan called after him. Aethrin did not reply, but simply dashed down towards the riverbank and the tree, where the traps were laid, and once there, began reeling his in. There were a few more snaplegs within it than last time, which was good, and he hurried downstream to meet up once more with Fardhan and Malgath.

"Here, Fardho," he said, handing them over. "Give tha good morning, Mal."

"Hey, Aetho," Malgath said, as he eased the boat off the shoals and into the shallows. "Give that here," he prompted Fardhan, who handed the trap over. "Sure tha's not 't'a want to come with us?"

"Fardho won't let me," Aethrin replied.

"Because there ent 't'even work for us," Fardhan said.

"Ah, Fardhan, have tha some heart, eh? He's right here," Mal protested. But Aethrin merely shrugged.

"It's true, though," he said, looking from Mal to Fardhan. "They don't want me there."

"An' that's some luck for tha, lad," his brother sighed, and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Now list tha a moment. There's plenty of work needs doing, but there's a thing I want seen to, and I want tha t' promise me 'twill be done. Hear?"

"What 'tis it?" Aethrin asked, brow furrowing, concerned and surprised, both at once.

Fardhan took a quick glance round, then leaned down to say in a low voice, "Now I'm off to Pelargir, it's a perfect time for that Calandil t' come sniffing round Mam. And tha knows now what he's after. I want tha t' promise tha'll not let that happen—he ent 't'askin', because he ent getting any time alone with Mam. There's no need for him. Tha hears me?"

"Well, aye, but how am I stopping him?" Aethrin demanded.

"Tha'll find a way. Tha's clever, ent that so?" Fardhann asked, turning a pointed look upon his brother, who rolled his eyes.

"Not that clever, and I heard what Mam said, too, that night!" Aethrin protested. But then he sobered and drew himself up a bit. "I'll try, Fardho. But best tha hurries home."

Fardhan grunted at that. "Come home when I can. Just tha mind me now, eh? Tha's promised, don't forget!"

"Won't," Aethrin assured him, and felt his brother's hand tighten on his shoulder, 'til it hurt, even. "Aiya, Fardho! Need that 't'arm, I do!"

"Sorry, lad," Fardhan apologized, moving instead to clap him on the back, then ran his hand brief and swift through Aethrin's hair, before he moved to join Malgath in the shallows. "Go tha good this day, Aetho!"

"Give you both good day!" Aethrin called back, waving as the two of them shoved off and climbed into the boat, paddling out into the center of the river before turning to make their way downstream. Aethrin stood upon the riverbank for a time, watching, then slowly turned away.

With Fardhan away, Aethrin ended up with a seed satchel round his neck and the harrow harness over his shoulders, scattering seed as he trudged along, so that Alweth could take Fardhan’s place on the plough. Meithel would wave at him sometimes from up ahead, by way of encouragement or friendly mockery, he knew not.

Noon came, and with it, a pause for such lunch as might be had. The girls came out, then, bringing their morning’s labor for all to partake of.

"Here," said a familiar, if somewhat subdued, voice, and Aethrin, who was disentangling himself from the harrows’ harness, looked up to find Gilriel standing before him, holding out a piece of flatbread.

"Thanks," he replied, accepting it gladly. Somewhat to his surprise, she folded down next to him, sitting on the edge of the newmade furrow. "Ent tha got ‘t’others to see to?" he asked.

"Meithel can wait ‘t’awhile, the lout," she replied, casting a dark look in his direction. Aethrin swallowed a mouthful of bread, giving her a sideways look.

"What’s it now?" he asked.

Gilriel flushed a little. "Ne. Nothing." A pause, then: "He told tha anything lately?"

"Told me how he got ‘t’all bruised up an’ scratched," Aethrin replied, and she sighed angrily.

"He would!"

"Well… he’s my friend. An’ he was worried, is all."

"That one, worried?" She scowled. "What’s he got t’ worry him? Got ‘t’a place, family he knows. Ent ‘t’anything t’ trouble him that ent been troubling us all these years past."

"I meant he was worried about tha leavin’. Thought it wasn’t right, sendin’ tha over t’ some uncle or cousin tha ent ‘t’ever heard of. Didn’t like tha bein’ upset."

"He told tha that?" This, with a frankly skeptical look.

"Didn’t have to tell me. Was on his face," Aethrin replied, truthfully. Gilriel grunted, perhaps a little thoughtfully, and after a few minutes more of silent sitting, she reached over and patted his arm.

"Got ‘t’a few pieces left. Suppose I should feed him," she said, by way of excuse. "Go tha good."

"Tryin’," he replied, watching as she made her way over to Meithel and a few of the other boys with her bread. He sighed, glancing mournfully down at his own nearly devoured piece. "Trying," he repeated softly to himself.

And try he did, for the next couple of hours. But about mid-afternoon, the clouds lowered, and rain began to fall—big, fat drops that at first were few and far between, but as the day wore on, they grew steadier. At last, as drizzle gave way to a soaking, folk began to head back to put the oxen in their stalls and the ploughs and harrows in their sheds. Meithel and the other boys who had been planting ended up with rags, drying off the metal bits that they might not rust.

Aethrin, however, because of his labor, was excused from such duty, and he hurried home, doing his best once he got there with a rag and rainwater to get the worst of the mud off of himself.

"Would be today it rains," he complained, as he and Alweth dried themselves off. "Think Fardho and Mal should come home tonight?"

"Might, if it lets up, or if they were on the water already," his mother replied. Then she sighed and went to the wood box and took out an armful of sticks and deadwood, which she brought back to the hearth. "Matches, Aetho, please, and then go tha and find the netting. Might ‘t’as well be sure there’s naught needs mending."

Thus they passed the afternoon, mother and son sitting before the fire and carefully going over the net lines. It was dull, tedious work, but there was something to be said for it after a day mostly spent ploughing. With the rain beating steady on the roof and the glow and heat of the fire, Aethrin could almost have fallen asleep, for fingers knew their task and kept on without much thought. But hunger still pressed sharp, and its growls and writhing within him kept him awake.

At last, after a particularly noisy rumbling, his mother laid her netting aside and rose. "Best ‘t’I see to supper," she said, even as Aethrin blushed. "Move a bit for me, but keep tha at it."

"Aye, Mam. Sorry," Aethrin replied. Alweth winced.

"Naught t’ be sorry over," she said. "Just see tha to the nets. We’ll want them soon enough."

To that, Aethrin said nothing, only bent over the netting as Alweth moved about the room, humming to herself. But he could not but wonder, in light of the news about Gilriel perhaps leaving Eastshore and Meithel’s family moving in with an aunt, whether they really would be needing the nets. Suppose we might go lookin’ for my aunts, if it got bad. Worse, he amended. And there was always the chance they might end up in Pelargir, or that he might. Just because Fardho gets work there, if he does, doesn’t mean I might not have t’ go, too. Ship Tax and Charter Tax being what they were, it might not be enough one day to have Fardhan over there…

But he said nothing of such thoughts, and instead struggled to concentrate on his mending, despite worry and hunger. Meanwhile, the storm outside grew worse.

"Think it’ll pass by tomorrow?" he asked Alweth, when a low rumble of thunder shook the house.

"Storm always passes," came the low-voiced reply, as Alweth brought her pot to hang over the fire. Then she seated herself again across from him and took up another end of the netting once more.

Night drew on, and the scent of soup filled the house: stew of a sort, with a little bit of dried fish crumbled in it, and also flatbread to thicken it, and some of the dried herbs. "Calandil coming over again?" Aethrin asked at one point.

"Don’t know. ‘Tis wet ‘t’out—folk shouldn’t have to be about," Alweth replied, abandoning her repair work to attend their supper for a moment.

"Ent much for tha if he won’t get ‘t’a little wet to come see tha," Aethrin dared to say, and got a very flat look from his mother.

"Don’t tha start!" she said, sharply, and Aethrin hung his head.

"Sorry, Mam."

"Ought to be," Alweth sniffed, as she stirred the pot. But after a little while, she sighed. "Aetho, tha’s got to understand, there’s things a body can’t choose in life. Things happen, bad and good, and sometimes they go together." A warm hand touched his chin, and Aethrin lifted his face to look up at her. "I know what Fardhan tells tha," she said. "But Calandil and me, it’s good from bad, if he’s for marrying me. Ent ‘t’about tha’s father anymore."

"I know that," Aethrin said quietly, straightening a bit to ask bravely, "It’s about me, ent it?"

"’Tis about ‘t’all of us," Alweth said, but too late. Aethrin had heard the telltale hesitation, brief as it was. And he saw the realization in her face: the knowledge of knowledge wounded, and the tightness of hurt pinched her brow and mouth then. He looked away, feeling his eyes sting.

"Oh, Aetho." Alweth’s voice was sad and soft, but there was no yielding in it as she said,"Look me straight, lad." The habit of obedience would not let him refuse, and so he raised his eyes once more to hers. She gave him an unhappy smile for that. "Aetho, tha’s got to see that—" she began, but then stopped suddenly, going absolutely white, as the sound of a bell ringing wildly cut through the rain.

"Somebody’s on the alarm?" Aethrin said after a moment, disbelieving. Every town on Anduin had an alarm bell—in the Ethir, and even in Pelargir, there was always the threat of pirates getting bold enough to strike, but even in more northerly villages and towns, the bell served as a warning in case of fast flooding or, east of the river, in case of attack. Ithilien bordered on dangerous lands, after all, and Minas Ithil and Emyn Arnen were not vigilant for nothing. Orcs still lurked, and there were the people of Rhûn, too, whom folk still cursed.

And the pretender’s men lately, Aethrin thought, feeling a thrill of fear. Could that be why the bell rang? Had the pretender’s men come so far? Is that why the Rangers haven’t come yet? Were the folk of the Eastshore about to get that first messenger that Calandil had spoken of in the form of an invading army?

"Stay a moment," Alweth ordered. "Watch the pot, ‘t’I’ll just go and have a look. Mayhap ‘tis the Rangers they’re ringing in." By her determined tone, it seemed she was trying to make herself believe it. Nevertheless, Aethrin nodded, if mechanically, and moved to take her place, though he but held the spoon loosely in his hand, watching as Alweth got a lamp down and a shawl, which she wrapped about herself and over her head. She lit the candle, then cracked the door, peering out a moment before she hurriedly made her way down to the town yard.

Almost as soon as she was gone, Aethrin abandoned the stew and scurried to the door, hanging on the post. Out in the yard, he could see lamps converging, as the folk of the Eastshore, drawn by the clamor, emerged from their homes, hesitantly at first, but then seeing their fellows, with more speed. The lamp by the bell was lit, too, and there were several green cloaks standing beneath it, adding to its brightness with their own lanterns.

But the Rangers were not the ones sounding the alarm. It was hard to be certain, in the darkness and at such a distance, but it almost looked like… Mal? Aethrin thought, squinting, even as he felt his heart flutter. A moment he hesitated, and then swiftly he went to grab a rag, which he used to grasp the handle of the pot and carefully lift it from the hook down onto the hearth, so it would not burn or boil over. Then throwing it aside, he darted out the door in his mother’s wake.

It was indeed Mal on the bell, he saw, as he drew nigh, and by the time he arrived, folk were starting to call questions: "What matter, lad?" "Why’s tha drawn us out, ‘t’a night like this?" "Speak up, lad, tell us the tale an’ make it good!"

Malgath ceased his frantic ringing, but he was pale and sounded almost breathless, still, as he answered: "It’s the pretender!" he gasped, as murmurs went around the crowd. "He’s come back! Been all over the north, he has, so I heard it ‘t’over in Pelargir. Got ‘t’a lot ‘t’of his folk with him."

As Malgath spoke, Aethrin was dimly aware of others’ reactions—the shock, and the fear; he was aware of Gilriel, edging her way forward, her eyes wide, and of Meithel, staring at Malgath, mouth agape. He could see the elders huddled together, whispering to each other, and the younger men of the town gazing nervously about. The Rangers were talking amongst themselves, hands tight upon their sword hilts. But bad as the news was, there was but one question he wanted answered, though he could not bring himself to ask it.

He did not have to, however, for Alweth stepped forward, her back rigid, as she demanded, "And where’s my son, then, Malgath? Tha was with him today in Pelargir—why ent he here to tell us of this?"

Mal swallowed hard, and if possible, he went even paler. "Fardho… he’s, ah…" he stammered.

"Tha’ll tell me straight, Mal," Alweth snapped. "Where is he?"

"He’s with the King’s Men," Malgath said hoarsely.

"What?!" Aethrin could not contain himself, and he shoved through the press to the front. "What’s that, then?"

"He took up with the navy soon’s we got there. Wasn’t looking for dock hire. Most like, he’ll ship out tomorrow," Mal explained nervously, glancing between Aethrin and Alweth.

"With the navy?" Alweth repeated, dully, shaking her head. "With the navy? Can’t be with the navy—he ent got ‘t’any liking for them! Not for any greencoats or King’s Men!"

"Alweth," a new voice murmured, and Aethrin blinked, realizing for the first time that Calandil was present, and had left his fellows to move to Alweth’s side.

"He ent with them!" she repeated. "Can’t be!"

"Said it ‘twas the only way," Malgath continued, and Aethrin felt that awful, hollowing-out feeling creep over him again.

"No," she repeated. Then again, more forcefully, as she pulled away from Calandil, who was trying to comfort her: "No! Don’t tha lay hand on me now! I can’t."

"Alweth, I—"

"I know, I know. But ‘t’ent decent, when it’s on account ‘t’of us he’s gone westside," she replied, her face wet with rain or else with tears, it was impossible to say.

"Listen to me, Alya, the choice was his—"

"Choice ent part ‘t’of this," said another voice, then, as other voices began to sound.

"The pretender’s men are comin’, they’ll sweep through here like plague—"

"She’s right—‘t’ent ‘t’a choice in it, they’ll come for us."

"Then are we sendin’ our sons west, ‘t’or what’s our place…?"

"Think the crown'd even think t’ send anyone this way? If the Northmen’re comin’, like as not he’ll want the Rangers closer to ‘em, up Emyn Arnen way."

"Got t’ hope that Ship Tax covers us, now, what ‘t’I hear about the pretender’s folk an’ war."

"Calo, he’s my son—"

"Alweth! Alweth!" Gilriel’s high voice pierced the babble, and brought Alweth to her in a hurry, even as Aethrin, who had retreated a ways from the crowd, doubled over and sunk to the earth, his breath coming hard as if he had run for miles, as if there were a weight on his chest crushing the air from him. Nausea made his head spin, but could find only bile to work upon, and he tasted it hot and bitter on his tongue. "Tha’s all right, ‘t’Aetho? Ah, Meithel, don’t be prodding at him!" Gilriel’s voice sounded in his ear.

"Not prodding, shaking," Meithel countered, and resumed doing just that, while Aethrin panted and shut his eyes, struggling between dry heaves to catch his breath.

"Aetho, lad," his mother’s voice murmured worriedly, and her arms slid about his shoulders, drawing him close, even as Gilriel scrambled back, dragging Meithel along with her.

"Can’t breathe," Aethrin managed to croak.

"Surely tha can. Just tha sit ‘t’a moment here," Alweth replied, rocking him gently. Aethrin shut his mouth and concentrated on breathing deep as he could, while his mother murmured encouragement. "That’s my lad. There now, it’s all right."

"No, it ‘t’ent," he whispered back hoarsely. "Fardhan…"

"He’ll be comin’ home soon enough, Aetho. Don’t tha worry—king’s got so many with him, after all," Alweth reassured him.

Ent ‘t’a matter of many or few, Aethrin wanted to say, but couldn’t seem to force the words out. For he felt himself struck dumb with an awful certainty: He ent coming back. Fardho ent ‘t’ever coming back. Just like Da. Just like Faladan, who had ever sought to take care of his family, and come never home again. Aethrin sat limply in his mother’s arms, feeling his heart pounding, sending grief pulsing all through him like a pain, and he felt emptier than even the hungriest of nights.

And: Sick thing, sick thing, nothin’ but nothing at ‘t’all! he thought, for hollow as he felt, he felt still there was too much of him. Should just disappear! But he could not. He had not. And in the end, it likely wasn’t any foresight that gave the force of certainty to conviction, but the ugly, unwanted knowledge that, whatever Alweth might tell Calandil, in the end it was not on their account that Fardhan had gone to the King’s Ships he so loathed. That, in the end, it had always been about him. Come home when I can, Fardhan had said, and left silent when that might be. He wanted to vomit, then, to empty himself out of all he had and more—to rid himself of himself. But horror and hunger were too well rooted in the world for one boy to escape them, though he might gag upon them.

And what’s t’ come of it now? he wondered, sickly. Now he’s gone, an' the pretender's back, what’s that to get ‘t’us, even? What happens to us now? With an effort, he opened his eyes and gazed at the pale silent faces ringing him: at wizened old Dame Eldrith’s; at Calandil’s taut expression; at Mal’s face, grave at last; and at Meithel’s unwonted anxious look, with his arm awkwardly about Gilriel’s shoulders; and Gilriel herself seemed stricken with horror. So many faces more, and all of them fearful now! What does happen now? What becomes of the likes of us? he demanded of the unfeeling sky.

But the thunder was muted, and the night gave no answer.


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