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Stardust - Book I: 9. The Weight of Choice, Part 2
Smells were what first intruded into the grayness, sour and sharp ones that made her nose wrinkle. One hand flailed over her face, rubbing, trying to block the odors, yet they persisted, becoming just noxious enough to force her eyes open.
The most noisome one she found by peeking over the edge of the bed -- the unstopped wine bottle nestled half-under the hem of the covers, its sour tang making her slight headache worse. When Terisda sat up her foot came into contact with something solid, which she discovered to be the remains of the cheese. "Ech," she muttered, drawing her foot away. So much for helping her shake the crumbs out of the bed! In some ways, it seemed, males of all races were very alike.
She sat up, rubbing at her temples with two fingers. Too much wine or too little sleep, or perhaps both combined with her overindulgence in grief, left just a thread of tension behind her eyes. Contemplating cleaning up the remains of her late-night supper added a bit of a throb to the mixture. The sooner she disposed of the evidence, the sooner she could ring for her morning meal, for despite her headache she was hungry for the first time in many days. She had to search diligently for the stopper to the wine bottle, which for some reason was under the bed, and upon consideration placed the bottle prominently on her dresser, dryly thinking its presence might explain much of her behavior to the maids. After gathering as much of the cheese and bread crumbs as she could, she dumped them into the chamber pot, doubting anyone would examine its contents too closely. Sighing, she plucked at the neckline of her dress, which was not meant to be used as a nightgown and uncomfortably bound her in divers places. It was time to pull out another dress and face the new day.
It was during her morning toilette she discovered Legolas right -- she was not with child. Terisda had to sit for a while at that, because she still harbored a bare remnant of expectation, and coming so hard upon the other emotional disturbances of the last two days, this almost overwhelmed her. But her earlier disappointments had also inured her to an extent, and after a few black moments her gaze cleared and she was able to contemplate her situation.
Practical matters first. She could not be "indisposed" for any length of time, and she would have to hide all evidence of this from her maids. The next days would be fraught with all manners of new deceits, she thought wryly. But she had survived many adventures during the last month, and this was just one more.
Perhaps a total of four days passed without any sign or word from Legolas. At first none were concerned, for it was known that the Elf greatly missed his woodland home and the companionship of trees, and he would occasionally slip out of the City for an hour or two seeking the company of green, growing things. By the end of the first day, however, quiet inquiries were being made by several concerned as to his whereabouts, and the inquiries from the Dwarf, Gimli, were anything but quiet on the second day. So it was that, when the Elf was discovered in the dawning hours a few morns after, members of the Tower Guard fell over themselves to inform the Dwarf of his companion's exact location.
He was on the walls surrounding the outer circle, where he had gone every sunrise since their return from the gate of Mordor, but today it did not appear it was to greet the sun. True, the Elf craned his neck back to gaze into the skies, but his back was to the spreading rays and his eyes trained on the birds near the White Tower, which rode the wind currents so well they sometimes appeared motionless. Gimli scowled. He was beginning to develop a strong dislike for gulls. He strode out of the shadows. "A pleasant 'good morning' to you, too, Master Elf," he called out, his voice gruff. "I suppose I should be surprised to see you, since the last few morns were equally fine and yet there was no sign of you, here or elsewhere."
Legolas lowered his gaze to smile at the Dwarf, but the look in his eyes was far away. "I crossed the Anduin into Ithilien. I did not go far, but I can see why Faramir called it the garden of Gondor. It is not so damaged as I had supposed from our march to the Black Gate, and from the living things I heard rumors of groves with great pines, and ancient oaks, and slender olives growing in the North, and far, far more ancient woods in the South."
"You did not go to see these wonders yourself?"
"Time is tight," murmured the Elf. "And there are fell things in Ithilien still. It seemed prudent to return when I found myself with two arrows left."
Gimli looked at the Elf's quiver, which was empty, and decided not to comment on that. "I doubt I've ever heard one of your kind speak of the briefness of time!"
"Rarely do we feel time, and yet I have become very aware of it as late. Ai, I am under a compulsion, my friend. I must cross the water, and soon. Not today or tomorrow, but soon. There is no longer any peace for me in Middle Earth."
"It will be a dull place without you and your kin," said Gimli in a tone meant to be bracing, "although I suppose I will be able to sleep mornings instead of marching up here while you watch the sun rise, so there is some good in everything."
To his amazement, Legolas threw back his head and laughed, but it seemed to the Dwarf that it held the edge of hysteria such as he heard from Men who had just unexpectedly survived a battle. Then his astonishment shifted to dawning alarm as the Elf twirled about, setting his back against the wall and slowly sliding down, until he sat on the paved walkway, his head buried in his hands with his long hair cascading across his face, obscuring all expression. "Durin's Beard, what ails you?"
"I have been far too generous to my cousin, whomever he was, or she, who contributed so obviously to the House of Imrahil. I think it was not affection that held him here. I think he heard the call of the gulls, and was torn as I am torn, between the need to answer and the desire to remain. And so -- he did what he did, so some part of him would live on in Middle Earth, even though he was compelled to take to the sea."
"It is in the nature of Elves to prattle," observed the Dwarf, "but even so, you are prattling more than usual."
After a moment Legolas laughed again, and this time it was more the shimmering sound Gimli was used to hearing from Elves. He dropped his hands, and gazed on the Dwarf with fond amusement. "How right you are! Dear Gimli, I am not making much sense because I am beside myself with indecision. Alas, the clarity I seek will not be found in conversation with you, my friend. Forgive me! I have been neglectful of you as late, and I am about to desert you again. Ithilien was hard used by the Shadow, and too many things of beauty have already passed from it. I will not let what remains pass as well."
The Dwarf watched him go, and thought he had a good idea of where he was bound. For he was not unobservant, and he had twice stood near Legolas when the widow Terisda came before the King, and he knew the Elf well enough to mark reactions Legolas may have thought well disguised.
But this he did not tell Legolas for many, many years.
In truth, Terisda's ingenuity was not much tested. The new servants had been warned that she was temperamental and unpredictable, and when she snapped at the poor maid that came in to set her suite to rights for the day, it proved to be all that was required to gain her as much privacy she needed. She was somewhat concerned when she heard Hiranion's voice in the hall, but then she heard other voices as well. A careful peek through a cracked door confirmed her suspicions; Hiranion's wife and children had finally arrived in Minas Tirith. There were large wardrobes in the hallway, and the sound of a wailing, irritated child drowned out most other conversation. Terisda availed herself of the confusion briefly to sneak out and dispose of the evidence, suppressing her irritation that, if Andina and her noisy little orcs had but arrived a few days earlier, and perhaps at night, her escape from the house might have resulted in no evidence needing disposal.
Upon her return she was met on the stairs by one of the new servants, who stared at her wide-eyed and wrung her hands in distress as she begged forgiveness. Terisda was hard put not to laugh at her discomfort, but instead she scowled mightily and testily demanded what the girl was on about. "It weren't our idea!" the maidservant wailed. "He told us to put her up in the Master's suite, my lady!"
Terisda sniffed, doing her best impression of the haughty lady she had encountered in the King's halls, and brushed the girl aside.
It wasn't until she was safely back in her own rooms that she realized the import of the maid's words. By taking the main suite for his family, Hiranion was establishing his claim as the new lord.
It was her own fault, Terisda told herself angrily. She easily could have claimed the Master's rooms for herself, but she and Hirgon had spent time there before their relocation to the officer's barracks. Her first nights back in the house she spent trying to fight off memories of her husband, and one of the ways to do that was to consciously avoid the rooms they had shared. The suite she currently resided in was quite a bit smaller, but she had chosen it for its windows, ostensibly because it got less sun in the morning and she did like to sleep in. The windows opened onto a narrow, little-used street and there was a sharp incline across the way that, if one were agile enough, might be useful for jumping to the window sill. She wondered briefly if she unthinkingly noted how easily an Elf might come and go as she was deciding on rooms. Being raised in Ithilien as she was, however, tended to create pessimists rather than optimists, and given how angry she deemed Legolas was with her at the time, Terisda was able to dismiss that sentimental thought with a self-deprecating snort.
Yet consideration brought calm, and Terisda decided that, whether this was slight, warning, or just Hiranion indulging his spouse, it suited her own purposes well enough. With a small burst of black humor, she wondered if she could mime enough petulance over the situation to remain sequestered in her rooms for, oh, eight months or so. As it was, over the next days she settled for terrifying the maids, so that when they brought her trays of food they did not dare touch any other part of the rooms. Thus she was able to keep to herself until her menses ran its course. It was time well spent. Being left unmolested, she felt safe in letting the memories of Hirgon invade her mind when and as they would, and she spent as many hours smiling over some odd, stray memory as crying over her loss.
Having traded on her stubborn reputation as long as necessary, Terisda decided it was time to re-acquaint herself with her sister-in-law, and so she refused the dinner tray when it came. Instead she stepped out into the hallway, and made no effort to disguise her footfalls on the creaky stairs. Hiranion met her at the base of the stairs, one hand out for her to take, a napkin clutched in the other. "They are setting a place for you," he told her. "Andina has been most concerned about you, but I told her to let you be."
She rested her fingers atop his as she took the last few steps. "Thank you for being so solicitous of my privacy, my lord." She bared her teeth at him in a poor facsimile of a smile, and judging by the amused quirk that crossed his mouth, Hiranion was not a whit deceived by her mild manner. She started to remove her hand when she reached his level, but he folded his thumb over the back of it and would not let go, and so escorted her into the large (and, as Hirgon oft remarked, over-decorated) dining room where her sister-in-law sat waiting.
Andina was very pretty, with large, limpid blue eyes and smooth, pale features almost the same tint as her hair. Terisda had met her once before she wed Hiranion; Andina had been nervous but animated, happy to chatter on any subject although she generally didn't listen to what was said in response. After her wedding, however, she became far more subdued. Hirgon, who had known Andina for years, said that was her more usual demeanor when Terisda remarked on the change, but Terisda had never been sure how true that was, and since then had been inclined to regard Hiranion with suspicion. Andina's altered behavior played no little part in her unease about being beholden to Hiranion in any way, and seeing the wan lips cautiously smile just enough for politeness sake brought her mistrust of him again to mind. So Terisda greeted Andina with far more warmth than she was wont to do in the past, and was pleased to see some color creep into the pallid cheeks.
Dinner went pleasantly enough at first, although Lady Andina asked her many times if she was sure that she was fine with the arrangement, and wouldn't the larger quarters be more comfortable since she was (blush) in such a delicate condition at the moment? "I doubt my 'condition' will be much altered whichever rooms I inhabit," responded Terisda dryly, "and you have a husband and two children, so I think you will make better use of the space."
Andina again colored, and appeared discomforted by the response. Hiranion observed, "We will have to make arrangements for the care of your child as well. Perhaps the rooms on the North side would be better suited. They are larger, and the dressing room could easily be converted into a nursery."
"I plan for my son to be born in Ithilien, Hiranion."
"Even if you have a son, he will need a guardian until his majority," Hiranion told her, matter-of-factly. "It will be far easier for me to fulfill that role if you are both here."
She went as white as Andina at her palest, staring at him with growing anger. "You will not keep me from Ithilien."
A pulse ticked visibly in one temple, but Hiranion managed to retain his reasonable tone. "Terisda, you are a woman alone. You cannot possibly expect to raise a child, and run an estate, especially one that has been untended for so long."
Terisda continued fiercely, as if she had not heard him. "And you will not make decisions for my son."
"We will see about that," he responded with cold composure.
She did not eat much after that. Andina's desperate prattle did not help, for although it was at first a welcome distraction, Hiranion's wife began talking about mourning clothes, and the necessity of bringing tailors to the house soon so that both women's wardrobes could be appropriately modified, and even offered an envious comment that dark garments would look very pleasant with Terisda's coloring, whereas she would just appear washed-out in comparison. Terisda stood up abruptly, and thanked both her kin for their company at the meal, but she was weary and needed to retire. "I'll have the maidservant bring bread and tea to you in the morning," said Andina with quick concern. "That always helped my stomach settle."
"I'll ring for the servants when I need them," responded Terisda curtly. Andina's pretty eyes brightened with tears at the sharp tone, and Terisda curbed her anger long enough to bow to her sister-in-law and thank her again for the meal.
But Hiranion stood also, holding his hand out to her, and when she did not extend her own he simply reached over and grabbed it, pulling it through his elbow with such suddenness that Terisda stumbled slightly as she was forced to his side. "I'll be right back," he told Andina. "I'm just going to see Terisda to her room." Andina nodded, her big eyes still over-bright, and Hiranion smiled at her reassuringly. When they reached the stairway Terisda tried to tug away, but Hiranion still would not release her, and they marched up the stairs side-by-side in silence, except for the dual creaking under their feet. At her door he caught her hand when she tried to go in, commenting on how cold her fingers were. Scowling, she pulled hard, and he let go her hand, only to catch her by the shoulders. "Little one, please don't fight me so," he said to her softly. "You're just upsetting yourself needlessly, and everyone around you as well." Then he lowered his head, and kissed her forehead lightly.
Terisda tore away, and slammed the door after her, or tried to. Unfortunately it was too heavy to do more than ponderously squeak shut from the force she used upon it. She stood still for a moment, heels of her hands pressed against her eyes, her mind a jumble. No misconstruing that, she thought darkly, but then shook her head and dropped her hands. Such salutes were not so unusual, really, and it wasn't as if he had never kissed her hand or her face before. Yet without her husband nearby, such courtesies made her feel -- uneasy.
And there was a possessive note that she thought she discerned in Hiranion's voice, and that discomforted Terisda far more than his physical attentions. Although it might be a desire for the child he thought she was going to have; if he controlled Hirgon's son, after all, he controlled a good deal of North Ithilien. If one couldn't be the lord of the land, that was the next best thing. She crossed her hands over her stomach, and wondered if it was time to end the deceit.
Yet what he said he would do, and what might actually happen, were two different things. She was not completely helpless. Had not the King said he would consider her request to return to Ithilien? I'll wait, she decided. I'll wait until I hear from him.
That decision made, Terisda was able to calm herself, and even to ease into sleep rather than lie awake contemplating the many difficulties that might confront her when next she faced either Hiranion or Andina. One of her last thoughts was a sleepy avowal of determination to sleep very, very late indeed, just to underscore that she did not need Andina's homespun remedies any more than she needed Hiranion's guidance in her life.
However, she was undermined in that by the couple's two young children, who appeared to take malicious pleasure in playing, loudly, in the hallway right outside Terisda's door. At first convinced an invasion of some sort was under way, Terisda opened one eye and managed to sleepily identify the source and general locale of the disturbance. Perhaps it was just the early hour that made the children's games sound so loud, although she was a little amazed she could hear them at all through the door of her suite. Made of good, thick wood as it was, the creation of enough noise to filter through it took no little effort on the part of the children. It almost made her glad she had no child of her own, until she remembered that meant she would have to endure these children for years to come. Grimacing at the unwelcome thought, she pulled the covers over her head.
"Yes," mused a voice, "I think they are even less musical than gulls. It is a close contest, however."
Not entirely believing her ears, Terisda lowered the covers and peeked out.
He was seated next to the bed, his elbows braced against his knees, his chin resting upon his laced fingers, and he was studying her as if she were completely engrossing. "You're back," Terisda noted without much interest as she sat up. "Or am I still asleep? When you are not here, I always think I have dreamed you."
Legolas started to reply, then stopped and seriously regarded her. "You're unsettled again."
"I'm just not at my best in the morning, Legolas."
"Let there be no more half-truths between us," he said, his words stern, and she woke up a bit more at his tone, which in truth she acknowledged she deserved for her earlier use of him. "There is a shadow on you, much like the one I saw when I first beheld you. What has happened?"
So she told him of Hiranion, how much he had frightened her the night before, and in how many different ways he had frightened her. Speaking of it in the daylight did a great deal to chase her vague fears away, for Terisda again wondered if she read too much in his actions. As she closed the brief tale she raised her hands in dismissal and said, lightly, "I suppose I was just cross at him calling me 'little one'. Only you have ever done so."
Legolas' face had been unreadable as she spoke, but at that he gave a small start, then amusement slanted the corners of his eyes up. "What, Hirgon never called you that?"
"Hirgon called me many things, none of which I will repeat to you, Lord Elf, for fear of sullying your pretty ears."
He laughed softly, then put his head to one side and studied her briefly. "There, that's better. You are as bright as ever now."
Terisda had never been entirely sure what the Elf meant when he called her 'bright', but her mood was easier and she smiled at him gratefully. "Ah, Legolas. Do not be offended, but I am not sorry I mislead you at first, for I believe your attentions saved me. I am no Elf, but if I could have died of grief in those first few hours, I would have."
"I know. I am glad I was there to prevent it."
Her mood turned, and she cast her eyes down, plucking uncertainly at the bedcovers. "And now--"
"Now, little one?"
"I have no husband, no child, no land--but I am far less willing to die than I was."
"So much has been taken from you. Are you so sure that a child will make it right?"
Her head snapped up, and she stared wide-eyed for a while, not daring to hope, but he did not drop his gaze, and there was an intentness in his clear eyes that seemed to completely envelop her. "No," she finally whispered, "no; but it will help."
He smiled slightly, and the intensity of his gaze deepened. "Lady, you again find me in a fey mood. For I must soon leave Middle Earth, leave the trees and the green ways, and sail over sea to Aman, where that which Men call the Undying Lands can be found. Had I choice, I would not do it, for I have lived all my long days in Middle Earth and I dearly love it. But the compulsion is upon me, and it is not one I can long deny." He reached out his hand, and trailed a finger down the side of her face, and Terisda found she was holding her breath. "And I think I must be weak, for I find the idea of some part of me remaining in Middle Earth -- compelling."
His hand slipped down to her neck and curved around it, thumb brushing against her cheek, and he was suddenly much closer to her. "What say you, little Torrey? Is a child still what you want?"
For answer she buried herself against him, and he did not deny her the comfort of his arms. He folded them around her, pressing his palms against her lower back. A sigh stirred her dark locks, then he gave a soft, rueful laugh. "Lady, your time is not ripe. Even if I lay with you now, you will not conceive."
There was a promise in that she dared not comment on. Instead she murmured, "Then lay with me for comfort's sake."
His hands shifted, sliding up her back, tangling in her hair. "Torrey," he whispered against her ear, "that would be my pleasure."
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