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21
Hostage

Dalf:

At the house, Lily, her eyes reddened with weeping, admitted me at once and directed me to the library. Lady Silwen had not wept, but her face was pale and strained. “Lord Dalfinor, is Silma with you?” she asked. “Have you seen her? She would not leave the house unaccompanied, she knows the danger!”

“No. We talked for a little, and I gave her a small gift—“ I indicated the box, still on the table “—and I left a bit abruptly. She ran after me, we parted amicably, and she set out to return here. I have been at the carpenter’s whom she recommended to me on the Fourth Circle until Wil at the King’s Head told me she was sought for. But she was well! What danger is this, that she not stir out alone? And Rimbor was with her.”

“He has not returned either,” she said.

“What is this danger you fear?” I asked.

She sighed. “Her brother! Do you know, he tricked both her and me into thinking that the other was in possession of this property for the past few years, when he had it?”

“Renting it? I thought he had a house of his own.”

“He does! Sheer spitefulness, and because he was able to do so!” she said bitterly. “But he not only helped to harm both her and my son, her first husband, but he also managed to estrange us! I have no one else, and always loved her as a daughter, and things might have been easier for her and Master Clerk had he not meddled!”

“Your pardon, lady, but I understood from her that her leaving your son her husband caused a great scandal,” I said as delicately as I could.

“It did, a nine-days’ wonder as such things go, but I did not care. My son was not a good man, my lord, although it pains me to say it. I suspect he was even worse than his father, my husband. When Jerenemir returned from the refuges, he was furious to discover that we were both living here in harmony. He tried to bully each of us, and was forced to retreat by Erragol and Samno. But he was uttering threats, and we have been careful, all the women in the house, not to go abroad unescorted. How far from here was she when you parted?”

“Several houses from the Circle gate,” I answered. “I watched her out of sight, and she was walking with her hand on Rimbor’s head, hurrying back to some task—“

“That would be a-helpin’ Rhylla with her readin’,” interrupted Lily eagerly.

“—But she was well. I am sorry I did not escort her back, but I had no idea it might be necessary!”

“She would have to pass his house to get here,” she said darkly. “I sent to Lady Ėowyn, and she sent to Lord Faramir and Lord Húrin at the Citadel. Lord Faramir is having the Doorwardens search, and so are the Men of our house, including those of the Rohir who can, but legally we cannot simply march up to his door and demand he let us in!—Lily, for the last time, will you please put that ridiculous sword in her room, or in a closet out of our way?”

“But I have, my lady! I’ve tooken it upstairs three times already, and put it in her room each time!” Lily protested.

“Then how comes it here again?” she demanded. “There, girl, don’t begin weeping again! I’m sorry I spoke sharply, but I am tired of stumbling over it! I told Nahemion to move it twice!”

“Aye, my lady, but he said as how it stung him,” quavered Lily.

Lady Silwen was opening her mouth to deliver what was no doubt a scathing remark when I said hastily, “Your pardon, my lady, but do you know where Lady Ėowyn might be?’

“In the parlor with those of her folk unable to go out,” she answered promptly.

“Excellent! Lily, could you ask her to attend us here, please, now?” I asked. “Forgive me for making such a request in your house, my lady.”

She waved it away. “You have an idea, don’t you? If it will get her back, unhurt, I will do whatever you ask!”

The White Lady strode into the room. “How can I help?” she asked bluntly.

“My lady, you have examined this blade more than I have. Am I right that it is ensorcelled, and has a bond forged with Silma?” I asked.

“Aye, as you surmised.”

“Has she been strengthening that bond?” I inquired.

“To a degree, aye. I have noticed that it is eager to be with her. She cannot leave it behind within this house without its appearing at her side fairly soon.”

“How can this be?” asked a perplexed Lady Silwen.

“I am certain that Lily did indeed take it to her chamber as you bade her,” I began.

Lily nodded vigorously. “So I did!”

“And I am equally certain that the next person to pass her door felt a compulsion to enter, pick it up, and bring it down here. They might not even be consciously aware of doing so. This is an ancient and powerful blade, my lady, and it has chosen her.”

“’Tis like a tale!” the maid marveled.

“Well, if anyone had told me Riders of Rohan would live in the parlor, or Dwarves would give us enough gold to ransom six dragons, I would not have believed either two months ago, but both are true, so why not?” said Lady Silwen. “Why isn’t it at her side now?”

“Because she still has many reservations about that bond,” Ėowyn replied before I could. “Nor is she as trained with it as I would like.”

“Is she afraid of it?” I asked.

She considered for a moment. “I would say rather, cautious—and incredulous. Her priorities place working with it much lower on her list of daily tasks than I would prefer, and I have not really nagged her about it, since we have all been very busy with nursing. She has worked so hard, Dalfinor, that sleep comes only when she is too weary to resist, and food is snatched only when she is reminded more than once.”

The maid and lady were both nodding confirmation. “But it will tolerate the touch of another woman?” I persisted.

“It will abide mine, reluctantly, because next to her, I have handled it most, and that little,” she answered.

At my gesture, she picked it up and withdrew it from the scabbard. “Alas, for me it is not awake, but merely—waiting,” she said.

“You can sense that?” Lady Silwen asked.

“Oh, yes, my lady. But I am a shieldmaiden; I think it recognizes that. However, I am not its shieldmaid.”

“If you will permit?” Carefully I placed my hand atop hers, and thought at it as hard as I could. Conquering a powerful desire to let go and step back, I held on, “asking” it one question: She is in danger. Can you lead us to her and defend her?

“O wisest of Dwarves!” said Ėowyn with a tight smile. “But I am coming with you! You’ll need me to hold it!”

“But where will you look?” asked Lady Silwen. “We still can’t just demand him of her, and he is so sly, I misdoubt he has her hidden somewhere! She might not even be yet within the city!”

“Has he left his house?” I asked.

“Nay, he has not,” spoke up Rhylla, who had slipped in so silently I had not been aware of her. Like Lily, she too was red-eyed, but calmer. “The parlor looks out on the street, an’ m’ brother and Wilmet’s beds’are beside the window. They've been a-keepin’ watch. But they also tell me that nobody’s gone in or out all day neither.”

“If he is as arrogant as you have indicated, my lady, he might take pleasure in having her close by,” I said slowly as I thought it out. “He would know the laws here, and might enjoy staying just within them. Since he has been at the refuges until lately, he does not know that anyone else is aware of any of the tunnels in the city; he may not know how extensive they are. I doubt she’s told him about the sword, and few outside us and the Houses know of it. If I correctly recall the map she showed Lords Faramir and Húrin and myself, there were tunnels under it as well.”

“But how can we get into these tunnels?” Lady Silwen asked. Then she blinked. “Tunnels? Under the city? I never heard—“ She looked sternly at the two maids. “And we still haven’t heard of such a thing, have we?”

“No, milady. I swear it!” Lily said fervently.

Rhylla gave her a limpidly innocent look. “I swear by all the Valar, I haven’t heard a word, my lady, Lord Dalfinor. Even if I knew where they were.”

“There is an entrance in your own cellar, my lady,” I replied.


Minutes later we were ready: Ėowyn had borrowed a pair of breeches from one of the Rohir, changed, and buckled on Ull’s sword. Supplied with a glow-worm of a shuttered lantern, Orcsbane in her other hand, she lit our way once I opened the grill. My hands were occupied with my axe. We moved as quietly as we could, until we found the branching tunnel to another grill. I used the pattern Silma had shown me, but no, it would not budge. Ėowyn ground her teeth, and I whispered in her ear, “Hold the lantern closer,” taking out my small tools, a small vial of oil, and a feather. The screws holding on the grill were rusty, but eventually I managed to work each one free as silently as possible, and Ėowyn caught one side of the grill in time to prevent its clanging to the floor. I helped her ease it down, and we crawled through.

The process was slow, for we came to other grills, each having to be opened in the same way, and several times we had to backtrack according to Orcsbane’s indications. A few times I heard the drip of water; once I thought I heard a cry.

Eventually we made our way upward, until we could go no further. This time we emerged into a narrow, dusty passageway. We were up under the roof, for I could see the backs of the roof tiles above us. Slowly we slipped from beam to beam, lest we crash through plaster, for there were no floorboards. Taller than I, Ėowyn was almost doubled over. The sword all but leaped from her hand suddenly, and I grabbed it just in time to keep it from hitting the wall. It vibrated—no, she vibrated in my hand, and I felt emotions:

?

I thought at it. I am her Dwarf.

Aulë keep me, Silma is my lady, and I wanted her safe—without any wild actions to foul things up.

Ėowyn was laughing almost soundlessly. In the merest breath of sound, she murmured to me, “She has accepted your leadership—for now. What next?”

Again I got out my tools, and began the tedious task of quietly removing enough boards to allow us to look into the next room.

...Except that there was no light, and my hand encountered something spongy when I felt at the aperture. “Cork!” I whispered to her.

She was puzzled. “Cork? From a wine bottle?” Seeing my face, she bent closer. “What is it?”

“Cork absorbs,” I muttered, getting out my belt-knife to cut through the layer of cork.

She looked as sick as I felt.

At last I was able to lower the lantern closer to the hole I had made—and the first thing I saw in its dim light was a small bare foot—and Orcsbane was again straining to get through. I heard a startled, low, “Who’s there? I’m armed!”

Ėowyn giggled. “Just us, Silma, Dalf and your sword and me.”

“Let me get out of the way,” she whispered. The small foot disappeared, and presently, we were able to wiggle through into an attic. Ėowyn had to tug on me, for I almost got stuck.

She opened the lantern’s slide slightly, and we saw my lady, clad in something grayish, barefoot, her hair in an untidy braid, a dark mark from her cheek to her chin, holding something dark that …rumbled?

“Are you hurt?” I demanded, as Ėowyn asked, “What are you armed with?”

“A cat,” she replied calmly. I bit back semi-hysterical laughter rising in me at such a weapon, and wondered if the White Lady would laugh aloud, but Ėowyn merely nodded. “We have to find Rimbor,” my lady added. I realized that she was furiously angry.

“Are you hurt?” I asked again. “What’s that on your face?”

“Blood— but mostly his!”


Silma:

I must admit that I had been so intent on catching Dalfinor that I had completely forgotten Jerenemir—and what could he do on a public street, in broad daylight? And I will admit, here, in this private journal, that I was filled with such emotion from the events of the past hour, that I was less attentive than I should have been.

It was Rimbor who alerted me at the last instant, with a low growl, hackles rising along his back. I turned my head in time to see two men running out of an abandoned garden. One threw a huge dark object at him, that seemed to hover as it unfolded and I had just time to realize that it was a net of some kind, meant to immobilze him (and succeeding) just as the other man put something to his mouth and then something sharp struck my shoulder. I felt as if the air was becoming gelid. Somehow I was lying on the ground, numbness spreading through my body as I managed to turn over. A wisp of cloud above me seemd to cartwheel, taking the light with it….and I was falling down a dark, dark tunnel.

A sharp yank at my hair pulled my head back, and someone slapped me across the face, then dug fingers into my jaw, shaking my head. I felt as if part of it slid off my skull, and bile rose in my throat; my head pounded horribly, the light seemed overly bright, and there was a ghastly taste in my mouth. “Wake up!” Something pricked my face; I felt blood ooze down it.

My eyelids seemed to weigh more than an oliphant, but I opened them to gaze into my brother’s smiling face. It wasn’t a nice smile.

“That’s better.” He patted my cheek in a parody of affection, one finger brushing a corner of my lip.

One benefit of spending time with warriors such as the Rohirrim and our guardsmen: I had heard over and over that almost anything could be a weapon, and that it was always better to take an enemy by surprise. I knew that my hands and feet were bound, and I seemed to be tied to a chair. Whatever drug his ruffians had used on me had left me weak and still almost immobile.

I attacked.

An instant later, the chair was tipped over, my mouth was filed with the coppery taste of blood, and the rest of me ached from a barrage of blows and kicks.

The secret to effectively biting someone, as a prostitute I had once helped Hedda treat had told me, was to not only sink in one’s teeth, but to jerk the head sharply sideways.

Jeren howled as one of his slippered toes struck the solid wood of the chair-arm instead of my flesh, and I heard a faint chuckle from behind me.

So did he; immediately he whipped out a small dagger and flung it. I heard a groan and a protesting, “Aw!” from next to the groaner.

The two men who had assaulted Rimbor and me were there; the one who’d thrown the net was pulling the dagger out of his shoulder.

“You find this funny, do you?” snarled my brother.

“N-no, m’lord,” said the other one hastily. “Must’a been something he et. Right, Bondon?”

“Right,” grunted the ruffian. “Damned dog bit me, too.”

In an echo of our mother, Jeren said, “You probably deserved it! Put him in the cellar,” he ordered.

“Can I stomp ‘im to death?”

Rimbor! I struggled harder against my bonds.

“Not yet. Later you can send Lady Silwen bits of him. I am going to send bits of my sister to that damned Dwarf and mayhap to that whelp Faramir. Herdach, take her up to the dungeon.” Jeren dragged my chair upright and leaned over me, his face inches from mine. “You should have died, sister mine, instead of being so inconvenient. If you would just learn your place, we’d get along much better, you and me. I’ve told you that all your life. Why won’t you listen to me? But no, you insist on being a bad, disobedient wench, and bring things on yourself—like this.” He put his hands on my breasts, and twisted the nipples. I screamed with the pain, almost blacking out.

“That’ll teach you to raise your hand to your elders,” he said self-righteously. “If you would just behave, we’d have no problems.”

“I could teach her for you, Chief,” said the one he’d stabbed, with a dreadful eagerness.

“Do you hear that? Bondon wants to play, and he knows a lot of ways to tame wild things.”

“It’d be a pleasure,” the strongarm crooned. I noticed spittle on his lips.

Jeren yanked my chin so that I was looking at him again. “Scared yet, little sister? You should be.”

“You’re going to regret this,” I promised. All three of them laughed.

It isn’t easy to sound menacing when you are wearing only your shift and tied to a chair, but I tried. I was afraid, but I was also very angry, and I deliberately stoked that anger.

He said, “I doubt it. Pity I can’t do anything now to that crippled lowlife embarrassment from the lower Circles whom you wed, but there’s always Silwen and your dog. I have quite a lot to get even with you for, sister mine. Bondon may have a chance to play with you—once I’m done. You’ll be begging for him by then. Your former noble husband was the merest amateur beside me. Take her up to the attic dungeon right now, Herdach, but don’t touch her otherwise. You either, Bondon. You tend to get too impatient, and I want to take my time with her. Melkoth help me, I have plans for her!”

Herdach slung me over one broad shoulder, and carried me out as Jeren threw back his head and laughed wildly.

My brother was mad.

No one knew where I was.

The Northman carried me up several flights of stairs, and at last, after unlocking a door, tossed me to the floor and locked it behind him. I could hear his heavy tread dying away as he descended.

I pushed myself to a sitting position against the wall and surveyed my prison.

There was a tiny, tiny hole under the eaves, and by its light I could see dark walls, a dusty splintered floor of old planks, and several sets of manacles and nasty-looking metal objects, including a small brazier and what looked like an altar.

It could have been much worse, for I knew where I was, and I also knew that I was not completely defenseless.

Dalf:

“If that Herdach untied you, then I will let him live for a minute before I take his head off,” I growled after she had told us what had happened.

“He didn’t.”

“Then how--?” whispered Ėowyn.

“This is my late husband’s private torture-chamber,” she told us softly. “We are actually in a hidden room at the top of Jeren’s house. I discovered it right before I left Ornamir. And I left something behind, lest I ever find myself imprisoned here.”

“What?”

She opened her hand, and we saw a tiny sliver of a knife, scarcely the length of the first joint of her forefinger. “I put it in a crack, right next to the smallest set of fetters. It took a while to release myself, and the cat came to keep me company. One set of teeth and eighteen claws make a weapon; I was going to throw him at whoever came for me through that door.”

I knew she was in shock, but I was so proud of her courage that I leaned over and held her close for a moment.

Ėowyn cleared her throat. “Pardon me, but shouldn’t we think about leaving?” she suggested gently.

“Aye, we need to go rescue Rimbor,” she agreed.

“I think that we should take you back and then go get him,” I suggested.

“He’s my dog,” she pointed out.

“I know that,” I said. “But you are weary and in need of care.”

“They hurt him, and Bondon wants to torture him to death,” she said. “Neither of you know him well enough to be sure he’ll obey you. He will obey me. He’ll be quiet for me.” She looked at Ėowyn and explained, “I have to protect him.”

I wondered if she meant the dog or me.

Ėowyn nodded. “We’ll all go, because the longer we tarry, the more we risk being discovered.”

Both of them glowered at me, and I glowered back. But what right did I have to tell her what to do? I must simply make sure that she got back safely.

Restoring the tiny knife to where she had originally stashed it, we withdrew as we had come; I hoped that the overall dimness of the room would prevent them from immediately noticing the cuts in the cork sheeting that lined the walls after I replaced all but one of the boards that I had removed. Silma, with her small hands, reached through and tried to lean the sheets against the boards before I completed fastening the last one. The entire place stank of old fear, sweat, and blood.
Ėowyn girded Orcsbane on Silma’s back, and we put her between us as we made the slow journey back down the tunnels, pausing often for her to rest. She had not said precisely what her brother had done to her, other than threats, but from the way she moved I was certain that he had hurt her, and I burned with the desire to avenge her.

At last we reached Jeren’s cellar, and she guided us to a small, barred, dank room where we found the dog, whining eagerly through a bloody spiked muzzle, his fore- and back-legs lashed to posts so far apart it must have been excruciating for him.

Lady Silma petted him as Ėowyn and I sawed through the stiff leather straps. He wagged his tail feebly and licked her hands. Leaning close, she whispered a command into his pricked ear, and the low, rumbling growls diminished. As she did so, her shift slipped and I saw ugly bruises darkening the fair skin of one shoulder.

“What did he do to you?” I demanded.

“Will you please shut up?” hissed Ėowyn.

It was too late—the door opened, and a burly Man in a dirty tunic came through with a candle in one hand and a large sledgehammer in the other.

In a single bound, Rimbor leaped across the intervening space and fastened his teeth in the strongarm’s throat. He went down with a gurgle and was dead before hitting the floor.

“Leave it!” I commanded, and to my amazement, the dog stopped shaking him and obeyed, sitting on his haunches and grinning at me. Silma cut off a piece of her skirt with the strongarm’s knife and dabbed at the blood on his muzzle. “Could you help me get the sheath off his belt?” she asked.

I stared at her until she snapped, “He used your gift to me to cut off the prettiest gown I’ve had in five years, and I am not leaving it or the sheath behind!”

I unbuckled his belt, slid it off—and at her suggestion, rebuckled it. She clutched both the sheath and the knife, Rimbor crowded close to her side, and we went out; I rebarred the door.

And she smiled at me!

I had been worrying that she was more badly injured than she had admitted, but this cheered me. The misuse of the knife I had given her had not soured her on it!

Clearly she was forcing herself on will alone through the tunnels until we at last emerged in Lady Silwen’s cellar, where we found her, Master Samno, Erragol, Ull, Rhylla, and Faramir all waiting for us, the men armed. I had taken the precaution of calling out, “We have them!” as I began opening the portal, to prevent an attack. Lady Silwen began issuing orders; in a trice, Master Samno had carried my lady away, Faramir was embracing Ėowyn, and Rhylla was leading Rimbor out. I was left, suddenly very tired, leaning on my axe and gazing rather stupidly at Ull, who grinned at me and clapped me on the shoulder.
“Looks as if it went well, my lord Dalf,” he said cheerfully. “The womenfolk’ll cosset her, and the rest’ll take care of the dog. I misdoubt Lord Faramir and Lady Ėowyn’ll be occupied for a bit. You come with me. I have some ale waiting for you!”

“My thanks, Ull. Where is Erragol?”

“Letting the rest of our men know.” A hand under my elbow, he had somehow detached me from my axe and was leading me up the steps and finally into the small room they used for bathing. I reminded myself that I must see to fixing something more permanent than ewers and basins, pails and a tub. To my pleasure, the latter was already filled and steaming, with soap and towels set nearby. “We took the liberty of sending down to the King’s Head for your gear, since you’re going to be living here anyway. The sooner the Goldtrader realizes she’s under your protection, the better. From what Master Samno and Nahemion’ve been telling us, he’s a real bad’un. Hard to believe he’s her brother.”

I stripped, climbed into the bath, and an hour later, much refreshed and in clean clothing, entered the kitchen. Mistress Samno beckoned me to where a place was set at the end of her table, deserting her vegetable chopping to fill a plate for me from several pots while she directed Nahemion to cut me some bread and bring it and a firkin of butter to me. “How is she?” I asked.

“She’s bein’ seen to,” she assured me. “Not only by Rhylla, Lily, Rose an' Lady Silwen, but by Lady Ėowyn, an' I don’t doubt she’ll be fine, now that you rescued her.”

I laughed ruefully. “As to that, I didn’t do much! ‘Twas Rimbor who killed the one.” Between bites, I told her about it. Nahemion, to his obvious regret, had to leave before I was finished, summoned away by Rose, but when I was done, Mistress Samno gave me a treacle tart before marching over to open the back door and call, “Puss, puss, puss! Here, puss!” and set down a large saucer of milk just within the door she left open.

“I reckon you didn’t even notice it followed you, Lord Dalf,” she said to me. “I don’t hold with cats as a rule, other’n keepin’ vermin out, an’ for that I’d as soon have a varmint-dog ‘cause m’ man’s partial to dogs, but if this one helped my lady, why, it can have all the milk and scraps it can drink an’ eat, an’ a spot by the fire for the rest of its days!”

She returned to her end of the table and resumed stirring something in a huge bowl. “For the matter o’ that, Lord Dalf, what you said ‘bout doin’ much, why, any female in her position’d take into consideration the wish as much’s the deed. You did go after her, an’ you would’ve even if Lady Ėowyn hadn’t took the sword, we all know that. An’ Lady Silma’s the fairest minded lady I ever seen. Don’t you worry ‘bout that.”

Master Samno entered the kitchen at that moment, saying angrily, “Vanessë! How could you even think o’ leavin’ a door open with what just happened an' 'em still loose next door? ‘Twouldn’t take but a minute for a tall man to hop over the wall an’ come in here!”

She straightened up and shook her wooden spoon at him, her accent thickening with her anger. “You take that back, Feren Samno! That’s insultin’ not only t’ me, but also Lord Dalf, or didn’t you notice ‘im a-sittin’ here with his gurt axe?”

He looked sheepish. “I’m a mite on edge, Vanessë. No offense meant, Lord Dalf.”

She sniffed as I nodded. “That’s right, ‘pologize to him an’ not t’ me! I’m just a mere female! You should know after fifty-four years as m’ man, an’ five years afore that courtin’that I c’ud take t’ heart Lady Silma’s example! That cat what was her weapon ain’t on close terms with me yet, but I an’t helpless at defendin’ what’s ourn!” She swept aside a cloth on the table, revealing a wickedly sharp cleaver next to a butcher knife, and pointed to a bowl. “That’s the last line o’ my defense,” she said proudly. “First I throw these—peppered chopped onions ought to slow ‘em down, an’ ‘f they don’t, here’s a kettle of hot oil on the boil over the fire what I c’ld use as well, ‘f need be. An’ you leave that cat alone, Samno! He’s earned the right t’ live here, so he has! If you want any dinner t’night, you’ll get out of my road!”

“Yes, mistress. Your pardon, mistress. I’m just a city lad what don’t know no better an’ loves the ground you stand on.” He knuckled his forehead to her after an elaborate bow and a cheeky grin. “I am sorry, my Beauty,” he added in a different tone. “It’s just I couldn’t bear it ‘f aught bad befell you.”

Her face softened. “Nor me wi’ you, Feren. Now get!”

He blew her a kiss and turned to me. “If you’d come with me, please, my lord.”

“Thank you for the excellent repast, Mistress Samno,” I said, rising with a bow.

“You’re always welcome in my kitchen, my lord. Do you think he’s hungry?”

“Why, thank you—“ her husband began.

“Not you, the cat!” she said scathingly, gazing at its head just within the door, daintily lapping the milk.

Chuckling, Samno hustled me out of the kitchen and led me along the hall. “I can be right stupid at times,” he said philosophically. “Stands t’ reason my girl’d be ready! I’d back her ‘gainst an oliphant—but I don’t want to, ever! You know how that is, Lord Dalf.”

“Is it proper for a Man to court a woman for five years?” I asked.

He laughed. “Now here’s a sample of how different we are, my lord! I say we courted for six months, but she says five years. That’s ‘cos we met for the first time when she first come here, t’ see could she ‘prentice. I seen her at the market, but didn’t get a chance t talk with her, nor I didn’t know where she went, to begin. ‘Twas five years on when I seed her again, in the Cooks an’ Bakers’ Fellowship Hall, where I was a-doin’ some work for ‘em, a big table for a competition the journeymen was havin’, to show off their masterworks for their mastery. She won. Made an entire village street, she did, out o’ cake an’ frosted it like ‘twas a winter settin’. An artist, my gal, only better’n an artist, ‘cause you can eat her work!”

“But what is the custom?” I asked.

“I reckon you’d get different answers from different folks,” he said. “Now, the highborn, them’s what’s High Men, they live the longest, so they take longer’n most t’ choose. I dunno ‘bout the Periannath nor Elves nor your folk, nor the Southrons nor the Rohirrim, nor even the folk ‘round Rhovanion an' the Trollshaws. With Common Men, it depends on how the family’s situated, too, if one o’ the couple’s needed t’ help their folkses, or how far ‘long they are in learnin’ their trades. Some demand a certain thing, like a snug house or at least a rented room, or a shop or shares in a business, or a certain amount o' money. Some folks 'spect the wife t’ provide a dowry. Us, well, m’ da died just afore our weddin’, an’ he left me his shop an’ the house. M’ stepmother was still in it, which wasn’t so good for the first year, but then she decided to move in with her own folk. I never asked, but Varessë might ha’ encouraged her t’ go. Varessë took pride in bringin’ me a crate o’ chickens an’ a cow. Each of our childer, when they wed, got a cradle an’ woodenware from me an’ a bed, an’ Vanesse made the weddin’ feast an’ made sure the lasses knowed how t’ cook, bake an’ brew so’s they wouldn’t both starve, includin' the ones married our lads, asides some chickens. We did make Talaverra wait to wed her Tamrod, an’ we always regretted that, him dyin’ so young, an’ then her losin’ the babe, but they wasn’t even journeymen then, an' how was we t’ know? ‘Tis an unchancy world at times!”

“And just what are you gossiping about, Samno?” asked Lady Silwen acidly, opening the door we stood before in the upstairs hallway. “I sent Rose down to the kitchen after I sent you, and she’s already back, or did you stroll around the entire city on your way up one flight of stairs?”

“Just answerin’ a question Lord Dalf asked me, my lady,” Samno replied. “Didn’t he say as how he needs t’ know our ways?” He bowed to her, winked at me, and trotted away.

She had pulled the door to behind her when she came out. “Lord Dalfinor, Silma needs to sleep—Lady Ėowyn’s given her a draught—but she wanted to see you. Please keep it brief. By ordinary convention, I shouldn’t allow any male into her chamber, but this is scarcely an ordinary situation! Please be brief.”

“I will, my lady,” I promised, and she stood aside, opening the door for me.

Ėowyn rose from beside the bed, smiling at me before she retreated to a table at the other end of the room, giving us such privacy as she could. I took her seat and looked down at Silma.

She had been bathed and put into some soft, fleecy blue garment—but it could not disguise the ugly bruises on her throat and arms, nor the bandage somehow affixed to her cheek, a scant two inches below her left eye.

“Please don’t look so worried,” her voice was a thread of itself, but she tried to smile at me.

“Your face—“

“It’ll heal, and it’s not as if I’m some pretty young lass with looks to mar.”

I took her hand carefully—there were bandages around her wrists too, I saw. “You are far more than merely pretty,” I told her.

“Wait until you see the brunette beauties at Court!” she said. “I don’t think I properly thanked you, for my gift, and for rescuing us.”

That was when I noticed that Rimbor was lying next to her blanketed legs, because he wagged his tail. The dog looked rather odd, since poultices had been tied around his head. Orcsbane lay on the other side of her legs; she rested her other hand on its hilt.

“I did very little,” I said truthfully.

“You gave me courage. I knew I would see you again, and I wanted to see my lovely box.”

“Not the basket of flowers?”

“Oh, aye, those too. But I love the box the best.”

“Why?”

Kind as the others were, I don’t know them. You made the box. I wish I could see it—or did I dream it?” she asked drowsily.

“It’s still in the library, but I will have it brought to you,” I promised.

“Please tell them about it.” She yawned. “Sorry—“

“Sleep, my lady. Rest and grow well. Sleep now, Silma. You are safe.”

She smiled again, pressed my hand slightly, and closed her eyes.

Ėowyn touched my shoulder. “Go and fetch this box she spoke of, please.”

When I came back, Silma was asleep, and the White Lady drew me aside as soon as I set the opened box on the table next to the bed. “How is she?” I whispered.

“It seems her spirit is largely unharmed,” she said cautiously. “For the rest, no major hurts, mostly bruises.”

“Her face?”

“I am not certain; I sent to Master Kinfinning to come see her when he can. But I think it would have been much worse without her having the sword so soon afterwards.”

“You think it has healing properties?”

“I don’t know, but I could see that it lent her strength coming back through the tunnels. She is completely exhausted, though; she insisted on using her Elvish techniques on Rimbor. Now, please tell me about this marvelous box! The aroma is exquisite, but it’s not kingsfoil, is it?”

“No, but the blossoms and leaves are from an Elvish tree,” and I told her the tale of the gift’s creation.
Wonder filled her eyes, and a smile tugged at her mouth as she glanced at me sideways.

“Did you know, Lord Dalf, that among the Gondorians it is customary to exchange tokens when a couple marry, as with my folk?”

“I did not. What kind of token?” I inquired.

“Often it is a piece of jewelry, although I know of clothing, or some special item significant to them both.”

“I thank you for the instruction in your ways, my lady,” I said solemnly, and she laughed.

“I’ll stay with her for now, Dalf. She’s going to sleep for several hours, perhaps until tomorrow morning.”

“I must go out on an errand,” I said thoughtfully, “but I will return soon.”

Outside her chamber door, Erragol sat with his bared sword across his knees. “How does she?”

“Sleeping.”

“One of us will be on guard here, and at the cellar portal and doors at all times. Ėowyn has sent to the Houses for her sword, so Ull can have his back.”

“My thanks,” I said inadequately.

He nodded. “We all value her, Lord Dalf.”

I nodded back.

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