31. Chapter 30
There he said farewell to Eldarion, and gave into his hands the winged crown of Gondor and the sceptre of Arnor.
ROTK: Appendix A: Annals of the Kings and Rulers
I am not well. Ai! Is it not enough my stomach must turn at the smell of the cold hearth and food sits there uneasily? But, now, once my belly has settled itself in these last months of my confinement, I have fallen truly ill.
I awoke in the midst of the night in a sweaty tangle of sheets and fur coverlet, aching and muddle-headed. When the morning came, my thoughts were no clearer. In my daze, I dreamed of boats scraping their hulls against the timbers of the river docks, only to rouse to the sound of Elesinda shifting tubs and barrels about in the pantry.
Startled at the thought I had greatly overslept, I sat full up and then wished I had not. My head pounded and my neck was stiff, and it seemed the lids of my eyes were fixed shut with a noisome substance. I fumbled with my clothes and made haste with my toilet. Perhaps I should have foregone the effort, for it was ill-fated from the start.
A plague on my hair! It stood about my head in a cloud I could not tame no matter what I attempted. Short of plunging my head into a bucket, I doubt I could have made it lie flat or catch in the careless braid that hung down my back. A sight I must have made, stumbling into the hall bleary-eyed and ill-dressed, for the look upon Halbarad's face when he turned to me was one of alarm.
"How does she fare?" I hear a voice ask at the foot of the stairs, mingling with the clink of metal.
"My lady is abed, though reluctantly. You shall see," comes Halbarad's voice before footsteps rise swiftly up the stairs.
My lord looks upon me as he strides across the solar, frowning with concern. I set aside my sewing in the basket that has been my only companion and struggle to pull myself from the mass of covers so I may at least be sitting to receive my visitor. Mistress Nesta has bid me confined to my bed nigh on these past seven days and I must be a poor sight to welcome my lord home.
"Have you come to see the invalid, my lord?"
His face lightens at the vexation in my voice. It seems he is both relieved and amused. This does little to improve my mood. What did they tell him that bade him rush back with such haste?
"Indeed, I have," says he and seats himself upon the edge of the bed.
He smells of frosted earth, damp horse, and wood-smoke, and it comes to me that my lord has come directly from his ranging into the solar. Winter breaks upon the Wild and my lord had just left his house, hoping to make one last journey before his son was due to be born.
"Were you not well on your way to Sarn Ford, my lord?"
"Aye," he says. "But now I am not." His eyes travel over me from top to toe and I know he catalogues the disorder of my hair, the pasty cast to my skin, the red about my eyes, and the sweat that clings to my neck and breast.
"They should not have sent for you, my lord. It is merely a trifle, no more."
He ignores my protest and presses the back of his hand against my brow. It is a blessed coolness to my heated skin.
"How is your head, lady?"
"And your joints?"
"My body seems to be of one accord in this matter, my lord."
I hope he is done and I shall again have the peace of the solar in which to hide my reduced state, but he is not, for he removes his hand only to clasp my wrist and feel there for the racing of my blood.
"Have you slept?"
"Perhaps you should sleep some more, then," he says, peering carefully at my face.
"I would very much like to oblige you, my lord."
My lord stops in his questions with the barest of smiles. "Are you so miserable?"
A sound of disgust breaks from me and my lord laughs.
"That I can do somewhat about," he says and releases my wrist to gaze upon me. I see sympathy there, and a curious reluctance.
"Mistress Nesta tells me the child is in no danger and I have had no sign otherwise," say I.
"Good," he says softly, and lets loose a long breath before pushing himself to standing. "Then we should labor to keep it so. You are far too warm, lady, and your hands too chill. I have little liking for your fever and your sleeplessness."
I must have appeared greatly worried; for my lord's frown clears of a sudden and he makes haste to reassure me.
"Nay, lady," he says, "there is no great danger, but Mistress Nesta advises it best to keep you cool and well rested. I shall return in but a little and then we shall see you more comfortable."
My lord's ranging stride takes him swiftly from the solar. When he returns, though it be quite a while later, I am in no better mood and still suffer my indignities with little patience.
He has slung a bit of cloth over his should, and bears with him a cup smelling strongly of honey and cowslip and a metal bowl smelling of deep running water. I must have turned a long-suffering look upon him, for my lord smiles as he sets the bowl carefully beside me upon the mattress and lowers the cup to my hands.
"Drink this now and I shall bring you more later should you need it."
I sip at the concoction cautiously, for, all its sweetness, its scent is strange.
"And I would not have been so long had what I looked for been where I left it." He seats himself upon the bed beside me and pulls the cloth from his shoulder so he might drop it in the bowl of cold water.
"It is not as if you were here to ask, my lord," I say testily and instantly regret it; for my lord's face falls very still.
In the quiet of the solar, he busies himself with wringing out and folding the damp cloth. My lord must have drawn the water fresh from the well, for I can feel its winter chill seeping from the metal bowl at my elbow. He says naught, but his eyes are distant and see only what occupy his hands. Ah! I have wounded him, he who I thought high above the reach of my acidic tongue!
I cannot bear this silence. I touch his arm, and he turns and then gives me a fond look when he sees what I must bear upon my face.
"That was most unjust of me," I say, my voice thickened by my tears, but am silenced by my lord.
"Hush, lady," he says and lays the cloth to my face, pressing it gently to first my cheek then brow.
What a great fool am I to his years and depth of wisdom, and intemperate, besides. Chastened, I submit to his attentions, but cannot meet his gaze, nor does he force me.
"Lady, without doubt, you are well and away my most ill-tempered patient thus far," he says mildly.
Despite myself, a laugh bursts from me and spills the tears that threatened so that I weep in the midst of my mirth. He smiles, pleased, it would seem, with having banished my poor mood. I find naught in his gaze but forbearance and the light of humor. Had he borne it, I think I would have kissed him then for the gratitude that welled inside me, but, instead, I must content myself with dashing aside my tears and returning his smile. At such a moment, if I failed to hide the adoration in my gaze, could I be blamed for the poor mastery of my heart?
"Did not your Rangers warn you, my lord, of the dangers of their wives' tempers when they are with child?"
"Oh, yes," he says and refreshes the cloth, "many and oft were the tales told. I am both well forewarned and forearmed."
By the slight quirk of his brow, I know his men have delighted in the telling of their tales, teasing him under the thin disguise of warm counsel, and it greatly amuses my lord. A huff of laughter escapes him when he catches my sour look.
"Think not of it, lady," he says and lays the chill folds against my cheek.
"I must beg your pardon, my lord, and you so easy to care for during your convalescence."
"Was I?" He smiles and, withdrawing the cloth, folds it upon itself to reveal a cooler surface. "I seem to remember my wife leaping up a flight of stairs toward me with a basket of laundry."
"You would have run, too, my lord," I insist.
"Perhaps, but I would not have been carrying laundry," he says and presses the cloth about my neck.
"My lord, I believe I dropped the laundry at the bottom of the stairs."
"I stand corrected," he says and gives a small laugh, shaking his head wryly. "But you cannot convince me I would have incited Halbarad to defying a command from his chief."
I have no quick retort for that, but watch as he studies where next to place the cloth. I think the cowslip and the relief of the cool cloth beginning to do their work, for my tongue thickens and the lids of my eyes seem a great weight. My lord is much changed from those days, his face now agile in its moods, his limbs strong, his back straight, and his stride long and easy.
"My lord," I say and his eyes come upon me, curious at the change in mood he sees. "You did not see yourself then."
His look softens with somewhat of both fondness and regret, and the hand that steadies him upon the bed comes to cup my face, his thumb running gently upon my cheek. At this, I know, as in all things, he would not have me feel pain, no matter it came unbidden from him.
And then, for want of will, the tips of my fingers come of themselves to trace the hair upon my lord's lip. Those lips. I have kissed those lips, and for all their grimness of set, they are surprisingly soft.
My lord halts my fingers' journey, clasping my hand and pressing a light kiss to their tips before returning it to the linen. There he leaves my hand and rises from the bed, taking the cup from where I grasp it to my middle as he goes.
"You should be comfortable, now," he says and leans across me to pick up the bowl of water. "Sleep," he commands gently. "I shall check on you in a little while."
With that, he rises. Taking the bowl and cup with him, he opens the shutters to toss the water out the window. I turn away and close my eyes, burrowing beneath the covers, for there is naught else to do and my head grows heavy.
Later in the day, I shall hear my lord's step and know he has returned to the solar to stand beside our bed. But I shall be too deep with sleep to move or greet him and he shall spend long moments looking upon me. Even now, I begin to drowse amidst the small noises my lord makes setting the cloth and bowl to rights. Perhaps that is best.
I had not thought it could be, with the needs of Eriador and the urgency of his search upon the lands beyond our borders pressing him ever on, but against all foretelling of my heart my lord was at home when his son was born.
I think my lord as anxious for this child to be born as I. He spoke little of it, but, in the last, he traveled no further than the pasture outside our door, and when the chill spring rain chased him indoors, he watched my efforts to move from hearth to pantry with a pained look upon his face. He asked so often after my health I no longer gave satisfaction to his queries. All was well planned and I had few fears in my eagerness, and yet when the pains came, they struck me so swiftly they scattered my wits and I knew not what to do first.
"Halbarad!" my lord bellowed upon finding me in the buttery short on breath and clutching my belly, and I was swept from my feet. I know not what surprised me more; the suddenness with which the floor disappeared from under me or the fear that sharpened my lord's voice.
Before I knew it, Mistress Nesta was hauling her bulk up the solar stairs with Pelara urging her breathlessly on from behind. There they spread sheets and straw upon the floor and began the long, impatient wait for the child's arrival. They plucked the infant's dresses from my hands, for I had sewn my fingers raw, and kept me entertained instead with their fussing and gossip.
In Nesta's strong grip I leaned, the rolls of her belly soft against my back. There Pelara wiped the sweat from my brow and gave me sips of water. Atimes we fell silent and listened to the rain rustling upon the thatch and the sleepy cooing of the doves from their nests in the eaves. When the pains came, the women rocked me gently where we crouched, chanting old words over me.
"With this belly have thee sheltered thy child, a seed planted deep within thee.
With these thighs do thee birth thy child, and by thy pains shall thy child live.
Feel no fear, oh woman of earth made, for hands shall cradle and breast shall give suck.
But, oh, do not think thy pain o'er, for thy child is of thee made,
And with thine eyes thou shalt look upon the flower and for its beauty weep."
Relentless were they and insisted I answer, though, atimes, I had little strength for it.
"Aye, Yavanna, Queen of all Life.
Aye, shall I weep, my mother.
What did thee feel upon the birthing of the new world?
And what is my pain to thine?"
Of the voices below stairs, it was not my lord's but his kin's I heard the most. I knew not his words, for they were muffled by distance and the wood of the floor. But, when we had come at long last to the eve where we were near the end, by the clipped sound of his voice it seemed Halbarad took charge of setting the hall for its visitors and preparing for their arrival. I knew not what occupied my lord, but I knew him there. For, atimes when the hall cleared, Halbarad's voice quieted to a low and soothing murmur.
"Pardon me, my lady," I hear and open my eyes. I rest quickly, for I know it will be for just a little time.
Elesinda stands at the top of the stairs, looking as uncertain as if she had been asked to see to the needs of a dragon comfortably curled in its lair.
"What is it, child?" Mistress Pelara asks from the bed. She has taken to putting out the linens and soft wool on the table where we shall need them later.
"My lord wished to know if you would like some tea and somewhat more to eat."
I stare at the young girl, at a loss for words. It seems I am not alone, for a loud snort from Mistress Nesta behind me speaks for her.
"To keep your strength up, he said, my lady." She twists at her hands in her apron.
I would not have the girl anxious and so take pity on her. "Aye, Elesinda. I would like that."
"A strong broth, if you please, my girl, naught more," says Mistress Nesta behind me, stirring from her seat.
Ah! The woman, I swear, has the true blood of Númenor in her, for she knows afore I do when the pain shall begin anew. Ai! I beg thee, Yavanna, this be soon to end!
"Yes, Mistress," Elesinda says and her head bobs swiftly before she flees down the stairs.
"And keep the water simmering low!" Mistress Pelara calls after her and comes quickly to me.
"Is that not just like a man," says she, taking a hold of the crook of my arm to lift me to my feet. "Thinks of his belly first."
"Come now, Pelara." Nesta joins her and, for my body's urgency, I scramble to aid them. "'Tis true, she shall have need of her strength." "Up you go now, my lady," she says, "and we shall have at it again."
I do not know if it was my cries that alert them, for I begged of Pelara a leather strap so I might bear my teeth down upon it, or that of the child's, but, at the sound, the voices in the hall below us grew very still. They have gathered in the hall, my lord's men, such as they are at the Angle, and the Council. There they come in from the soft even and dry themselves by the hearth, waiting.
"Come away from there," I hear spoken low from the bottom of the stairs.
"Nay, it shall do no harm to ask."
"Leave them be, they shall send –"
"He is healthy?" is the urgent question shouted up at us.
We halt in our preparations, for Nesta dries me with firm and thorough hands and urges me to the bed where I may rest.
"Aye, the child is strong and has as many fingers and toes as you might wish, Ranger Halbarad," Mistress Nesta calls in answer. "Tell our lord his wife is safely delivered. If he would know with what, he must ascertain that for himself so he may be the one to announce it to you. I will not have it shouted down the stairs."
A moment of quiet whispers and then Halbarad speaks again. "Shall I send him up, then?"
I look to her in alarm. I know not the custom of such things, but I have not had my own chance to truly see the child whose limbs squirm beneath Mistress Pelara's ministrations and whose lungs fill the air with protest for it.
"Nay, Ranger Halbarad, just relay the message if you would be so kind."
"Aye, I will tell him, but it is on your head if he not like it much."
Mistress Nesta's wry face tells of her thoughts on that matter. "True it is, Halbarad is the one so displeased," she says. "And I doubt not our lord stands just behind his kin and can well hear the answer on his own." "In you go now," say she, tucking the covers about my waist.
"Well, then, my lady," says Mistress Pelara and turns to lay the bundle upon my lap and sit beside me. "What think you, eh?"
I think I would laugh for all the promises of beauty, for the child's face is pinched and red with the effort of birth and rage at the indignities suffered. There the child lays, a warm and living burden upon my legs. But, truly, though the infant's eyes are squinched shut and mouth works in a grimace, I had ne'er seen aught so dear. He squirms in his swaddling, slow to settle and my hands come of themselves to press upon his limbs and bring stillness.
"Hist you there, now," I say. The linen tickles my thumbs where I rub upon his breast and he scowls as if to make sense of this new thing. Perhaps he decides it pleasant, for, soon, he quiets. And then I know naught else, for he opens his eyes.
Mistress Pelara pats me roughly upon my knee and I startle as if just awakening. "Breathe there, girl, breathe!"
"Well, then," she says while I gape at her, her look both smug and fond. She rises and kisses my brow as if I were her daughter, and truly do I feel so at this moment. "You showed them, did you not, my lady."
Mistress Nesta busies herself with gathering up the sheeting from the floor and setting it aside. For I hear my lord's feet upon the stairs, slow and firm they come upon the risers, but then they halt.
"Stay!" comes the command lowly spoken, and then he resumes his climb until he stands upon the edge of the solar and seems unsure of what to do next.
His face is resolute and I see much of worry and little of joy graven there. Aye, my lord, 'tis not the fruit of the dreams that succored you upon your long and lonely journeys, but I think you have not known such wonder as is this.
"Come, my lord," say I, "shall you not see your son?"
At this he takes in a long breath, his breast heaving as if he emerges from deep waters. "I have a son?"
"Aye, my lord. Come see him."
Solemn is the look he turns upon me when my lord comes to my side and settles upon the bed. Thick and damp are the child's curls. His soft rounded belly rolls as he breathes when I unwrap the linen in which he is swaddled. He kicks at the touch and his small wrinkled hands swat and grasp the air. And through all his dark eyes come upon us where we hover closely over him.
I think my lord's hand could engulf all of his son at once. He runs softly questing fingers along the child's belly and then arm until they are captured in the infant's grasp. Little fingers wrap about my lord and a swift smile warms his face.
"He has a good grip," he says.
"Aye, my lord." Such is his delight I shall not tell him all infants' hands are so for the first little while and even his daughters shall show great promise at this age.
When the child releases him I bundle his son in the linen again.
"Shall you take him down to the hall now?"
My lord laughs a little, a wry, sorely-tried sound. "Only if I may send my kinsman up here in my stead."
Aye, though I prepare the child for it, when my lord makes to pick his son up from my lap my heart leaps painfully. That I have labored so long to bring this child into the world and so soon he will be taken from me! But, I must let him go. For my son's naming shall be a small, private thing, spoken only between father and child. But the announcement of his arrival is another matter. My lord is to lay his son bare upon the floor at the boundary of hearth and hall, warmed there against the chill night air and the rain that washes the world clean. There his skin shall be awash with fire and its light shall show if he be heir or no. There his father shall rub a bit of earth upon his brow, for he is of Arda bound, as are we all, and should be welcomed to it. At the sight, the men's voices shall rise to the solar in a joyful hail of good cheer and my lord shall be much congratulated.
"There, my lord, put your hand beneath the child's head when you lift him. You'll not want the poor thing to strain himself more than it has already this day." Mistress Nesta stands at the foot of the bed, holding the wool coverlet I had prepared, a deep blue rich with needlework of stars about its boundaries.
"Fold it here and make sure his fists are well-covered," says Mistress Pelara, her hands busy. "They will work their way out again, no doubt, but keep as much of him covered as you may."
I shall not crane my neck to see o'er my lord's arms where he cradles the child to him. Nor shall I call out instruction to my lord while they wrap the child in the wool and settle him in his father's arms.
"No, my lord, not like that. No, put the babe's head in the crook of your arm, like so. There you are."
"Aye! Aye, I see the way of it," my lord claims, though the Mistresses Nesta and Pelara hover over him.
"He cannot take to shivering and warm himself, my lord," Nesta calls after my lord, following him as he strides from the solar, his steps slow and cautious. "More like, he will turn blue for the cold. So best wrap him up tight again, as soon as can be."
'Twas not til much later, when father and son returned and, both with their bellies full, slept, did I close my eyes and let go the burden of the day. Then did I sleep and woke not when my lord roused.
I have not the foresight of my husband, and know not what he sees, but am aware the world is filled with things not fully within sight or touch of mortal flesh.
I know a thing I should not know. Though I sleep, I know my lord has risen from the bed we share. There he bundled his son and took him to see, for his first, Earendil rising over the meadow, and speak words to him no woman knows. And now, to warm him, he cradles our son against him by the flickering hearth below me. His face darkly lit by the flames that dance upon the coals, Halbarad watches from where he lies on the settle.
My lord gazes at the sleeping form in his arms and his brow creases in wonder when the child's fingers flex and his son stretches in his swaddling. With that, my lord caresses the infant's cheek and sets the small mouth to questing for what tickled him. He leans over the child and, in the barest of whispers, speaks his son's name to him first of all those who would hear it.
I know the smile that softens my lord's features as the wide, dark eyes of his infant son drink him in. I know, too, when that smile fades.
"Alas, little one," he says, "that I must bring thee into a world such as this."
"Upon the morn," my lord says and Halbarad stirs, "send word to the House of Elrond; an heir of Isildur has been born this night."
"What shall I say is his name?"
"Edainion, the son of Men."
With a nod, Halbarad settles again to his mattress, pulling the wool close to his chin and resting his head upon his arm. Yet still he watches with eyes that look on warmly.
My lord then murmurs for the child's ears alone. "Ónen i-Estel Edain, ú-chebin estel anim," he says and, with a touch more tender than I have known, presses a kiss onto his son's soft brow.
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