15. Chapter 14
Sleep came quickly that night, but I did lie for a short while thinking wonderful thoughts about Lathra, and wondering how I could have overlooked such a delightful creature for so long. I was not normally prone to bad dreams, so when I found myself in a very unpleasant one where I was lost in a choking fog and could hear screaming I determined to wake myself fully and rid myself of it, as one sometimes can. But there was no waking from that nightmare, I sat bolt upright in bed and gagged, surrounded by a deeper darkness than should have been around me, and unable to silence the screaming. All at once I noticed an orange flicker through the murk under my door and realised in an instant what it must mean. "Mother" I screamed, and the screaming redoubled in answer, and more voices were added to it. I flew to the door, choking, and pulled it open and was met by a solid wall of heat and flame. The flames quickly began to lick hungrily round the doorframe and into my room, spreading rapidly amongst all my familiar things, my books and toys and hangings. I didn't care about them, I wanted to go forwards to find my mother, but I could not. The screaming I could hear rose to a new pitch of horror and desperation, and then one by one the voices failed and only the thunderous roar of the flames was left. I fell back to the window, gasping for clean air with streaming eyes and felt the furnace growing at my back. I noticed in a strangely detached way that there were people down in the street and I wondered what so many were doing there at that hour, and then when the heat at my back became unbearable I swung out across the stonework as I had done many times before in secret and dropped onto the stone tiles of the outhouse roof, which was already hot from the spreading fire and burned my feet. Then I was down on the ground and there were people round me, speaking to me all at once and wrapping me up in a cloak. Some soldiers came after, and I was carried in strong arms up to the Keep where I was given something to drink. Whatever it was, it felled me like an ox and sent me off into the sweetest and most desperately needed oblivion.
I came to with a head full of fog and a gnawing feeling that something was terribly wrong, and as my mind cleared the full horror of what had happened came flooding back and I could not help but cry out in anguish. I was in a small room, laid on a pallet bed with itchy blankets and a sour smelling fur. The shutter was up in the window, but it was day outside. My cry brought footsteps to the door and a burley middle aged woman with a pleasant face and straggly blonde hair who wearing an apron entered the room. I felt so utterly desolate and she looked so concerned that I could not help but break down and weep. She sat down on the edge of the pallet and held me for a while while my body heaved with great gasping sobs. "Poor little lamb" she said kindly, "poor little lamb". After a while my tears subsided, and though I felt no better I was able to regain some self control. The woman stroked my hair and stood up. "There there" she said "I just came to see if you wanted something to eat? I'm Mileth, his Lordship's housekeeper, he said to let me know if you wanted anything, and that he'd like to speak to you when you feel ready. There's some nice broth and a bit of hard bread if you're so inclined?" I felt wretched, and food was the last thing on my mind, but the mention of it suddenly made me realise that I was actually quite hungry, and I accepted her offer. She brought the meal to me and pointed out a pile of clothes. "You were brought here in nought but your nightshift poor lamb" she said " so help yourself, should be something to suit".
I finished my soup and bread and got unsteadily to my feet, I think whatever sleeping draught I had been given was slow to wear off. I rooted through the pile of clothes and found some things that more or less fitted, though it was all coarse spun stuff. Mileth reappeared in due course to clear the crocks and she told me to follow her if I was ready. We passed along several corridors, and up a wide flight of steps. It surprised me how high up we were and what a good view there was of the town and surrounding land from the windows. I was shown into a chamber where Lord Angon sat at a desk surrounded by a pile of heavy leather books and parchments. He looked up as I entered, his blue eyes full of concern. I nearly broke down again but was determined to master myself in his presence. He motioned to me to sit down, and asked me if I wanted anything to drink, which I declined. He was a man of advancing years, his short cropped blonde curls long bleached white by age and his face lined like a crag, but still full of vigour and authority.
"Esteldir" he said "I am deeply sorry for your loss. The House of Rushwater Vale has been true friend and comrade to me, and I will do what I can to aid you in your hour of need. Do you have any other relatives who could ward you?". I professed that I did not know of any, save my mother's relatives who I had never met and knew nothing of. Angon frowned "We could perhaps find them but I do not think that a little dunedain noble such as yourself would find a warm welcome in some fleabitten village up in the Shaws. I understand that your family were not without means though, and if an income can be held in trust for you perhaps one of the better families in the town who have fallen on hard times would be glad to take you in in return for a regular payment toward your upkeep? Either that or you could enroll as an army scholar in Lastbridge, my recommendation and the fees would be enough to secure you a place. I will make enquiries with Master Fodric and Luath at the tannery to set matters straight there and then we will see what can be arranged". He then called Mileth back in and instructed her to take me back to his chambers and make sure I was comfortable. I felt utterly wretched, and as soon as I was back in the room and left in peace I broke down and wept again for a long time before exhaustion overtook me. I did not want a new family, or a strange house. All I wanted in the whole world was my house back as it was, with mother and grandmother and Lathra in it, all together and safe.
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