19. Chapter 18
FOTR: The Ring Goes South
"Nay, lady, stay abed," my lord says low when the frame creaks beneath my attempts to part the drapes and join him.
Winter rugs hang before the shutters and, though 'tis morning, so early is the hour I see not even the faintest hint of sun trickling in behind them. My lord has left his bed to take his leave and now stands at the tall chest, rising from the bowl set there. He has pulled on his breeches and boots, and bends to the water to lave his face and breast before dressing. I marvel that the chill does not prickle his skin, for the heat from the hearth has leached from the solar, drifting away through the thatch during the night.
I wish not to think of my lord upon the Wild in such weather, for I fear the storms that blow in of a sudden on winds wet from the seas. A sky white with whirring flakes of snow and air so cold it feels as knives driven into the lungs, and, shall the Valar be kind, the best of which he can hope is to stumble upon some cave in which he may shelter. Should the snow not fall, still how cheerless and cold shall be his nights.
Even in the shelter of his house, here behind the heavy drapes that enclose the bed and beneath blankets of thick wool, I shiver in the darkest hours of winter. So aloft in the air is the solar, it seems as if we live upon a nest in the highest tree's limbs and catch the night's chill wind unfettered.
Perhaps it was my pulling upon the blankets that awoke my lord. In my drowse I had thought to build myself a tight nest of wool to warm me. In vain was the very attempt, for had I my wits full about me, I would know it should only fail and I might just as well curl upon myself in a ball and will myself back to sleep.
"You are cold," my lord had said, his voice sharp with surprise and somewhat of dismay.
I had wished to reply, but my lord drew me against his breast and wrapped the blankets and his arm about me.
"Hist, sleep now," he said low against my neck when I made to speak, his face burrowed in my hair.
And, with the warmth of his body upon me, I complied. I dreamt of banked coals of a great hearth glowing with a golden light near painful to look upon, and marveled at what will kept them from bursting to flame.
Perhaps another wife would have roused herself and warmed her husband in return. But I did not.
Oh, do not think I do not desire my lord and husband. As in taking me to wife, he had been both resolute and attentive when first taking me to bed. Well do I remember it. But, well, too, do I recall the fleeting glimpse of grief I saw in his face when his resolve to fulfill his vows at last overcame his reluctance. So swiftly banished it was I would think myself deceived, but too many nights had I to ponder such things.
Even now, in my sleep, I wondered. Should I brush my fingers upon the lids of his eyes and down the line of his nose, or press a kiss to the corner of his mouth where lip and cheek meet, what would my lord make of it? Aye, in taking me to bed, I was reminded naught so much as his first act as my husband, when, despite the pain it cost him, he stood between me and the threat of flame. Should he have the power to prevent it, he would ne'er allow pain or fear to threaten me. Could I do no less for him? Should I not burden him with a yearning he had not wished from me?
It was only later, when the sky lightened upon the far reaches of the mountains, my lord, with caresses and softly whispered words, awoke his wife. And indeed, then, was I well warmed.
Were my lord not to leave, I would gladly stay abed as he commands. But I dare not follow him down the stairs dressed in no more than my shift with my unbound hair when his men sleep about the hearth so close I might trip over them. Yet I would see my lord given farewell, no matter the hour of his leaving.
So, I throw a wrap about my shoulders and pay no heed to the sharp look my lord turns upon me. Indeed, a draft runs upon the floor and I shiver before sitting on the bed-frame and tucking my feet into my shoes.
"Lady," he says, drying himself off, "the bed is warm and you might have yet another hour of sleep before your day begins. I have all prepared and there is no need for your rising. Will you not stay abed?"
"Aye, my lord." I come about the bed and set aside his shirt, tunic and other gear that lie upon the long chest at its end so I may kneel before it.
"For what do you search?" he asks and hangs the towel upon its hook when I lift the heavy lid and move aside linens, my wool dresses and his lady mother's silks. I have hidden it well, perhaps too well. By the light of the sole candle my lord has lit I can little tell one dark color from another. My hand lights upon silken thread. Ah! There it is!
When I rise, my lord looks upon me, frowning mildly. I find, to my surprise, I greatly enjoy the look of mirth and vexation mixed upon my lord's features and so wish only to draw out the mystery.
"What have you there?" he asks and nods to the bundle of black linen in my hands.
The cloth is yet stiff, though I have washed it after the making in hopes it would soften some. I doubt not a suspicion forms clearly in his mind. He has little need to ask.
"It is your gift in farewell, my lord."
"I would have thought the gift you gave me already this morn enough."
True it is, the gift he had asked of me before he rose from our bed had been sweet, but was not the one I had planned. I had not known the moment I should give it to him, and so had delayed until the last.
"Perhaps, my lord," say I and quell the apprehension that rises swiftly from my belly.
I shake out the folds of the cloth and reveal it to be a man's shirt. It is truly not of my measure, and so it could be naught other's than my lord's. I think the shirt he has laid out must be a castoff he begged from another, for the sleeves are too short and the neck does not come to a close as it should. I would not have him wear such a poor thing, but he has clothed himself as he sees fit and I know not his temper should I meddle with it. And then there is this, too, I know not his temper should I tread too near his heart and give of him the care of wife and lover.
My lord frowns and runs a hand upon the fine smocking about the head of the sleeves and his eyes take in the needlework about the neck.
"You crafted this for me, lady?"
"Yes, my lord," I say and, when he yet hesitates, I bite at my lip. "Will you not wear it, my lord?"
"Aye, gladly," says he, his eyes coming up swiftly to mine. Taking it from my hand, he pulls it on over his head, settling its length about him and shaking out the sleeves.
With a critical eye, I pull the neck closed, smoothing the placket upon my lord's breast and swiftly knotting its ties before tugging the cloth upon his shoulders. Aye, it hangs well and the sleeves come down to his knuckles. Should my lord want them shorter, he has but to tie the cords about his wrists. Through all this, I lose sight of my lord, though he watches me silently. The rustle of my hands upon the cloth and the creak of the boards beneath my feet as I move are all I hear.
"Does the fit satisfy you, lady?"
I look up to find my lord gazing upon me, his eyes alight with some private mirth. With that, my hands fly from his shoulders and, I am afraid, I blush and drop my eyes as I step back. Perhaps I have been too free with my lord's person.
"Aye, my lord."
"And how did you happen to know its measure?"
I must bite again at my lip without knowing it, for my lord laughs.
"I wondered what was become of it," says he and I know he speaks of the over-worn shirt I stole from his belongings. 'Twas but by its length and breadth I knew to shape my lord's farewell gift to fit him.
"Forgive me, my lord, I should not have taken the liberty of interfering with your belongings."
"Calm yourself, lady," says he and reaches for his tunic and long coat. "I do not regret it. In truth, I had secretly hoped that rag gone for good." He smiles and settles the tunic about him, tying it closed and easing his arms into his coat. "I can mend what I rend in the wearing, but I think it long since had passed beyond my skill."
"My thanks to you. It is fine and sturdy work, lady," he says and, once he has tied his belt about him, lays his hands upon me, drawing them lightly down my arms.
I lay a soft touch to the line of needlework upon the base of my lord's throat. 'Tis all that can be seen of fine linen and the pleasant working of thread beneath my lord's rough gear. I withdraw my hand.
"I would I had made aught for you to wear more warm and less fine, my lord."
"Worry not so," he says gently. "I shall find pleasure in the wearing."
"And now has come the time for me to leave, lady." He lets his hands fall from my arms.
"Aye, my lord," say I, and turn so my lord might pass before me. I follow his slow stride to the stairs.
"Should you have need, you have but to ask my kin for aid. I leave him here with the charge of your welfare as well as that of the Angle's."
"Aye, my lord."
"And shall you continue to attend the Angle's councils with Halbarad in my absence?"
"As it please you, my lord."
He halts at the head of the stairs and turns swiftly to me, looking upon me with his eyes with their keen light no matter whether we be under the summer's sun or winter's moon.
"It would please me better should you do it of your own will, lady."
"Aye, my lord. I shall do it," I say and I think him satisfied, for his look softens.
"Very well. Should I not return upon the days of Loëndë, I shall send thee word when to expect me. Will that give you ease, lady?"
"Yes, my lord."
"I take my leave, then, lady, and wish you good health and that the days of waiting may not be a burden upon you."
"My lord," I say and look not into the eyes that bear their grave pity upon me. "May the Valar keep thee in their care. May they guide thy feet upon safe paths and confound the eyes of thine enemies. May they see thee safely home."
And thus was my lord gone again. I saw him not at the days of Loëndë when the folk of the Angle place circlets of flowers upon their children's hair and the air is sweet with their scent, and not soon thereafter, either.
Often it was thus. My lord came and went from his House, unbidden and unheralded, though never unexpected or unwelcome. Ever great need called him from one end of Eriador to the other. Yet he ever sent word when he would be delayed past what his foresight told upon our parting. And so our lives went. Under sun, wind, rain and snow the seasons swept behind us.
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