16. 16. Quiet Counsel
Arathea entered the Rohirrim encampment quietly. A large canopy had been set up for the delegation, furnished with sleeping pallets. She hesitated, not knowing where the Marshal’s things were. Perhaps she should just lay it across a pallet; it would get back to him. She felt like an intruder, an outsider.
“You seem lost, Mistress.” The rich baritone startled her and she turned to face the voice. She was surprised to see the Marshal, clothed in breeches and a cream linen shirt, lounging in a hammock not more than ten feet from her. How had she missed him?
“My lord,” she greeted with a bow. “I came to return your cloak,” she said moving towards him. “I could not find you at the feast and assumed you were still meeting with Lord Celeborn. I would have given it to one of the guards, but they are all down at the archery field.” When the man raised his eyebrows in question she continued, “It seems there was a bit of a challenge made by one of the guardians.”
Elfhelm nodded. She was stunning, almost ethereal as she stood there, the rich green dress hanging from her body, showing every curve. In this setting, there was no doubt she was the daughter of kings and elves. He watched as she glided towards him, a slight blush on her cheeks. She held out his cloak. “Thank you,” she said softly as he took the garment; she turned to leave.
“A moment, Mistress, if I may.” She turned back to him. “I would ask your thoughts on a diplomatic matter.”
Arathea moved back to the hammock. “My Lord?”
The Rohirrim shifted on the hammock, making room for her. “Come sit so we may discuss it. You are far more versed in the ways of the elves and I do not wish to cause conflict between Rohan and our allies. To be honest, I would rather take the proposal back to Éomer and let him decide.”
Arathea moved to sit on the edge of the woven sling. “Éomer sent you here in his stead; he gave you authority to speak for him and Rohan. He trusts you. But what is this matter that troubles you?” She twisted her body so she could look him in the eyes.
He smiled at her softly and something inside her fluttered. “Lord Celeborn and King Thranduil have proposed an exchange of warriors. While the greatest threat was destroyed, they feel that an exchange of knowledge, technique, and culture would be wise. As many of their people have no desire to sail at this time, they think such an arrangement would be beneficial as our lands border.”
“You do not think this a sound idea?” the woman asked. It made sense and she knew Éomer would not object.
“I think it is an excellent idea. However, I am not certain about a ten-year exchange. That is along time for a man to be away from his home and family. How can I ask that of my soldiers? I am not sure I could stay away that long.”
Green eyes sparkled at him and she gave a small laugh. “Forgive them, Marshal, they see years through elvish eyes. To an elf ten turns is nothing, they did not think of it in terms of man. It is an oversight that is all. Speak with them; they will understand.” She paused, stretching her back and neck; they were beginning to protest her choice of positions. Unexpectedly, the Marshal moved his hand to her shoulder and encouraged her to recline. She obliged and now rested her head on his shoulder, his arm loosely behind her, both gazing at the stars above. It felt so right that Thea could not think to protest.
“What would you consider an acceptable time for this exchange?” she questioned softly.
Elfhelm thought before he answered, “I would love to say five, but realistically I think two turns of the seasons. The years pass much faster for men. Many have finally started families and will miss much of their children’s growth.” He turned his head towards the woman in his arms. She always smelled of vanilla and spices; he inhaled deeply. If only they could stay like this.
“Then suggest two years and explain it to them as you have to me. Both are fathers and know the pain of being parted from family. Actually, perhaps you could suggest the families travel with the soldiers. If Celeborn and Thranduil are truly looking to bridge a gap, what better way?”
“You are very wise, Mistress, and I am glad for your counsel.” He said, giving her shoulder a squeeze. The two talked a bit more before falling into a comfortable silence.
Thea had always loved the smell of sandalwood but now for a whole other reason. This man was the epitome of Rohirrim strength and charm. She closed her eyes and felt her cares melt away. She should leave; this was hardly appropriate! He was a Marshal of Rohan, a Lord of the Land whose lady was forced to await him at home. She breathed in deeply. Arathea let his scent and aura wash over her. She felt so protected in his arms; for the first time in her long life, she felt truly safe and for tonight, she would relish that feeling. She rolled into him, her hand clutching his linen shirt as she drifted into a peaceful sleep.
Elfhelm felt her shift, felt her press against him. She was a perfect fit; like none other, he mused--yet this was wrong. He should wake her and see her back to her talan. She was the daughter of Arathorn’s sister, cousin to King Elessar, and now, the Marsh learned, the daughter of Master Erestor! He had most certainly lost his mind if he thought she would ever choose a simple man like him. She would be a good match for Éomer; at least he was a king. His heart suddenly constricted; he moved his arm and held her closer. He closed his eyes and let her closeness calm his ragged soul. It had been so long since he held someone close; he just could not let her go, not tonight. They would soon leave for Rohan and this magic spell would be broken. He closed his eyes and let her presence, and the gentle sway of the hammock, lull him to sleep.
The men of Rohan returned from feasting and archery. If any noticed their Marshal keeping the company of the beautiful woman, they kept it to themselves and said nothing of it come morning, when the Marshal woke to find Arathea had slipped away sometime during the early morning hours.