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Stardust - Book I: 5. The Truth Will Out, Part 2
For a moment her heart quailed and she nearly turned and ran from the room, except that her legs wobbled so she couldn't even rise from her curtsy. She had never fainted before in her life, not even after being thrown from her horse that one time when she had been dizzy for two days and Hirgon refused to leave her side because she kept walking into walls, but the blood was pounding in her ears and she knew she might just pitch forward into an inelegant heap. Her distress was obvious, painted face or no, for Faramir murmured her name in concern and Hiranion took a step toward her, well-bred alarm on his features. A tall figure loomed over her, and strong hands grasped hers. Startled, Terisda focused on the face before her. "Lady, you are not well," the King said.
She stared at him with blank eyes, and suddenly came back to herself. "I am well enough, sire," she said, and her voice was stronger than she thought it would be. "I was merely overcome for a moment. It has been long years since we had a King in Gondor." All the while she was aware of the doom that stood only a few feet away, who, if he recognized her, could undo her game. But he won't recognize me, he can't recognize me, I couldn't recognize myself -- And so her unseeing gaze remained fixed on the King, as if there were no other person in the room.
The King lifted her to her feet, only releasing her when she made to pull her hands away. She folded them in front of herself, clenching her fingers together so tightly they hurt, and by sheer force of will did not give into the temptation to peek over his shoulder. Hiranion stepped close to her, cupping his strong fingers under her elbow for support, and although she no longer was in any danger of collapse, short of shaking him off there wasn't much she could do to distance herself from him. Any extraneous movement on her part risked her eyes going elsewhere, and she was very afraid she would give herself away if she locked eyes for one second with Legolas. She held as still as she could.
"I feel for the uncertainty you are both experiencing," the King told her, "and yet Faramir informs me out of this sorrow there is some portent of joy."
"There may be, my lord," she answered faintly, making sure her gaze remained fastened to his craggy visage. "I only suspect; I cannot yet know."
If the King thought that a strange answer from a woman who worked within the Houses of Healing with some of the best mid-wives in Gondor he gave no indication, but Hiranion started and gave Terisda a sharp, assessing look, as if coming to his own conclusions about her uncharacteristic weakness, and his fingers on her tightened. Terisda winced faintly at his grip, but would not turn her eyes from the King's face as Elessar spoke to her gently. "I only just missed meeting your husband, for he came to Rohan shortly after I took my own path to Gondor. I grieve that I could not have known one willing to brave such perils. But there is one here who did meet with him that day." The King turned and made a gesture toward the Halfling. "Merry, tell the lady what you told me."
The Halfling stepped forward, and bowed low before her. "Meriadoc of the Shire am I, late esquire of Theoden-King and the household of Meduseld." His voice was not at all child-like, and when she finally turned her face from the King to look more closely upon the small one she saw laughter lines etched in the corner of his eyes, and the back of his hands and his large bare feet carried far more hair than that of any youth. And he repeated to them what Eowyn had said earlier, that Hirgon had come before the King of Rohan with the Red Arrow. It was no news to Faramir or Terisda, but Hiranion had only heard rumors of his brother's mission, and this was the first confirmation for him.
But Meriadoc added one detail that, again, nearly undid her. "I felt as if he was a friend as soon as I saw him, because he reminded me very much of Boromir," the Halfling said, and she was suddenly glad of Hiranion's hand under her arm because the words brought the face of Hirgon strongly into her mind, and it was an image she had been trying not to dwell on for nigh on a month.
Faramir murmured, "Yes, they were very alike in looks," and his own voice was sorrowful.
"Boromir met his death trying to defend me and a kinsman of mine. I would be very sorry -- " he caught himself, awkwardly. "Well, I mean; if I can be of any more help -- "
There was silence in the hall, and Terisda felt all eyes were on her, perhaps to judge whether or not she was going to collapse again. But she took in a breath, then put her head back to look into the King's face, and spoke directly to him. "Sire, I'm aware you wish all to remain in Minas Tirith for a time, but I need to return to our lands as quickly as possible. Finding the way blocked, Hirgon may have gone there."
"Lord Hiranion also suggested that his brother's skill in the Wild may have led him to seek his old homestead. Messengers have been dispatched to North Ithilien," replied Elessar. "They will also be able to report what damage has befallen the land during the Enemy's occupation. Your home may be much damaged, given how close it was to the Shadow and how long Orcs have had to work their foul work, though Faramir tells me that he and his Rangers were especially vigilant in that area, so do not despair."
Mentally she cursed the new King's foresight, but any small disquiet that may have shown on her face at finding that move blocked was covered by layers of court paint. She was very aware of Hiranion close by her side, and felt she had to get away in more ways than one. He had been too quiet for too long, and she found herself wondering what else he had said to the King before her arrival. So she played the one card she had, even knowing that, should the Elf recognize her, it might force him into a public denial of her. "Sire, what joy I have left in life will not be found here. It never has been. My heart is in the green fields and great trees of Ithilien. This city has ever been a cage to me. I will not have my child born in a cage, no matter how well appointed it is." And now, if he speaks, am I undone...
Hiranion took in a short breath, as if his thoughts on her unusual weakness had been confirmed. In the corner, one of the Elf lords stirred and made as if to speak, but a pained expression skipped across his face and he said nothing. Elessar glanced toward the two briefly, then turned his sharp gray eyes back to her. She tried to project the image of something frail and helpless. Faramir would have let her go rather than deal with a grieving woman, she knew, and so would Hiranion, but the King appeared made of sterner stuff that did not fear the volatility of a hysterical female. "Abide some little time yet, my lady," he said politely, but coming from the King it was an order and she knew it. "I have also sent messengers to some who may know more precisely Hirgon's fate. As soon as I have word from them, I will speak to you both again." He nodded in dismissal and turned from her, and for the first time Terisda dared glance toward Legolas. But the Elf was not where she last saw him, and she was forced to curtsey and withdraw with Faramir and Hiranion in attendance.
After Terisda left, the King went to the table where the two dark haired Elf lords sat and leaned one fist upon the wood surface, studying the siblings with a raised brow. "You have nothing to say to me?"
One, his eyes wide, shook his head with unusual violence. The other waved a languid hand. "What could we have to say, foster brother? As ever you handled a fraught situation with dignity and gentleness."
The King gave them both a steady stare, made a soft noise that might have been a well-bred skeptical snort, and strode from the room. After his departure, silence briefly reigned. Then one spoke through clenched teeth. "Unhand me, Elladan." The one addressed raised his hidden hand above the table, holding it innocently aloft. Rubbing a bruised thigh, his brother grumbled, "You could have just said, 'be silent'."
"And risk having someone say, 'be silent about what'? I think not, Elrohir."
"For those of us who see in both worlds, it is easy enough to end the speculation," retorted Elrohir. "She is suffering. Why prolong the pain of uncertainty?"
"I paid her little heed, I'm afraid. Legolas has had my sole attention these past ten minutes."
It was Elrohir's turn to raise his brows, and the look he gave his twin was irritated. "There are times I wonder about you. One so bright stands before you, and you're looking at Legolas?"
"Don't tell me the little water-bearer has attracted your attention." Elrohir flushed and did not speak; Elladan chuckled. "Tsk. I wondered when you'd become so fond of water. I never saw you leap off a horse so fast! Why would you seek a mate among the daughters of Men?"
"Given the doom you and I are all but decided upon, perhaps I feel the sacrifice required of one of our own kind would be far too great," replied Elrohir soberly.
To that, Elladan had no response.
Her heart was only beginning to slow its frantic pounding against her breast by the time they reached the horses, and she was sure that, under the paint, her skin was splotched with patches of parchment white and cherry red. She had never had the blood drain from her face nor rush back so many times in such a brief period. She belatedly became aware of Hiranion's hand still on her, and tried to pull away. He apparently mistook her jerk for the onset of a fainting spell, for his grip shifted to her upper arm as if to hold her up. "Sister, are you well?"
Do not call me that, she thought, but she answered politely enough. "I am tired from the siege, and the lack of news from Hirgon weighs upon me, but apart from such ailments of the spirit I am fine." She carefully tugged a bit, and he released her. Terisda grasped the edge of her saddle to mount, then belatedly remembered that a lady wasn't supposed to simply throw herself atop her horse, and little wonder because court clothes were likely to fatally entangle any lady who tried such a thing. Frustrated, she turned to Faramir. His mouth quirked, but thankfully he didn't comment on her silent request for aid.
To Terisda's further consternation Faramir, after handing her up onto the gelding, cited more meetings he needed to attend and relinquished her into the care of her brother-in-law. She tried to indicate with exaggerated pulls of her mouth and rolling of her eyes that she did not wish to be left alone with Hiranion. Faramir reached up and grasped her hand on the reins, and when she leaned over the horse's neck, he told her in a low voice, "You need to talk." Terisda bit her lip and walled in her anger. It was true; she had been childishly hiding from Hiranion. The loss of Hirgon was one they both shared. One they all shared, she reminded herself as Faramir turned away. Hirgon had been kinsman to the new Steward as well, and he had lost far too many of his kin in the battles against the Dark.
The two sat quietly in the darkened street. There were people about, on foot and on horse, but Terisda was intensely aware of Hiranion and it was as if he alone was present. Finally he reached over to her horse. She flinched slightly, but he merely took the reins that lay slack on the gelding's neck and wrapped them once around his fist. "Come," he said gently, "You are weary. I will take you to back to the house."
"We're at--" she started, then she had to stop and swallow. "I'm at the officer quarters."
"One must make do in a siege, but we are at peace now, Terisda. You can't stay there any longer." It was a flat statement of fact, and Terisda felt so strongly the chains of convention tighten that her breath caught. "I opened the house this afternoon, and had my men air it out. "
"Of course you did," Terisda said wearily. She dropped her hands into her lap, and contemplated the reins wrapped around his fingers. Was it worth the effort to try and grab them back? All of her energy and fire had been left back in the court, it seemed. No, that wasn't true. Everything drained out of her the moment she glimpsed the Elf, and she was functioning on the absolute dregs of her emotional reserves.
Taking her silence for a different sort of uncertainty, "It should be comfortable enough until you call your servants back to you," Hiranion assured her, every inch the concerned lord, delicately adding that he was staying with his soldiers outside of the city, where he would remain until the female members of his household arrived. Reassured that she would not have to deal with him beyond the threshold she let him lead the gelding toward the houses of the Lords of Minas Tirith. "Of course, you can't stay there by yourself," he told her as the horses slowly clopped along the cobbled streets, "but it will be a few days yet before my wife arrives here so we will have to make do. She will be able to provide you with some ladies for your service."
Swooners all, I'm sure, she thought, and wondered if Eowyn needed another lady for her retinue. But even if Terisda's own rank did not exclude her from being an attendant to the foreign princess, the King of the Horseriders, Eomer, was in Minas Tirith. Shield maiden though she might be, with her brother present Eowyn lost what ever small bit of freedom she may have possessed in his absence. A woman alone was chattel. But a woman with a lord's heir in her belly could count on twenty years or so of liberty--
Yet if she could not produce a child in a reasonable amount of time, then Hiranion had complete disposal of her person. She risked a sidelong glance at him, but in the gathering darkness of the early evening she could see only a profile, one too much like Hirgon's. She dropped her eyes to her hands, clenched on her lap. He might even arrange another marriage for her, if he had no use for her himself. With no blood kin left to provide for her she had neither lands or money to offer, but she had bloodlines aplenty; once the requisite period of mourning was over, she would be a good match for anyone looking to improve their own line. Something a Horse Rider would appreciate, she thought with a flicker of her old humor, and found herself wondering just briefly if the young Rider from her ward was still in Minas Tirith.
Hiranion was still considering matters of propriety. "I suppose we can hire some women from the Houses of Healing," he was musing as she again picked up the thread of his monologue. "With the war done, it is not as if they have anything of worth to do there. I'm sure their only remaining patients are malingering peasants."
And Terisda, who had worked hard to save more peasants than lords, found she had had enough. Had Hirgon been here, she would have told Hiranion that bluntly, but Hirgon was not here so she had to watch her tongue. "How do your interests at Linhir fare?" she asked, knowing that more than inquires after his wife or his children that would spark his interest. He brightened, and talked incessantly about commerce and the opening of Ithilien, the advantages of its many waterways and the value of its trees, until they came to the house.
He helped her down when she would have preferred to dismount herself, reminding her she had to be careful in her condition. In the half-light she studied his face carefully; she anticipated overt resentment from him at her news. "This must have been a surprise to you," she said, testing his reaction. "We had been married so long without issue--"
To her surprise he smiled, and his face gentled, and she realized with a guilty pang that, whatever his aspirations, Hiranion was genuinely happy over the prospect of his brother's child. "He must have been confident that he would finally return to Ithilien," he said, and she felt more guilty still. He read some of her discomfort in her body language. He took her hand in both of his and smiled down at her. "Do not concern yourself," he told her softly, and the lack of light and people made his tone more intimate, perhaps, than he meant. "Whatever comes of this, I will always provide for you." He lifted her fingers to his lips, which was proper enough, but he was standing too close to her and his thumb lingered overlong on her palm.
Pulling her hand away sharply, she snapped, "Hirgon will be pleased with your care for me, I'm sure."
The small spark of amusement faded from his face, and sorrow rushed across it like a wave, and Terisda regretted her tone. Hiranion appeared to wrestle with words for a moment, then yielded to silence, opening the door and making a great show of handing her the key. She turned back on the threshold, unsure of what to say in dismissal, and saw the sorrow warp into a scowl. "Mind your tongue, Sister," he said, a slight emphasis on the last word that touched cold shivers to her spine. "We are in the City now, and there is a King again. There is no longer any room in Gondor for frontier manners."
She managed not to slam the door, but it was a struggle.
She leaned against the door and wiped her hand on the stiff skirt of her court dress before pressing both palms against the smooth wood and staring grimly down the hall. She felt as if she and the building were in a confrontation. This was everything Hiranion wanted; everything she and Hirgon despised. And here she was, an unwilling prisoner within its walls, all choices removed from her. Unless she could persuade the King to let her swiftly return across the Anduin to Ithilien, this was what the remainder of her life would be like; endless battles with Hiranion over public propriety, perhaps private battles of a different sort, until she was a proper lady, worn down and spiritless as a noblewoman was meant to be ...
You misread him, a mental voice chastised her. He loved his brother. He is as upset about Hirgon as you are. And, anyway, it continued with ruthless practicality, what if it is as you suspect, and he desires you? If the Elf is any indication, the workings of sex cannot be too different between Men. And you no longer have any pretense of virtue. Twenty Men or one Elf, it would be all the same if anyone knew. It might not be so bad...
She scrubbed at her face wearily, belatedly realizing that the paint was beginning to itch, and if she left it on too much longer she might have to deal with all manner of unsightly rashes. Not that it mattered; with Hiranion in Minas Tirith, she wouldn't be allowed to leave the house unless she looked appropriate, and that would include wearing the evil stuff every time she stepped foot out of doors. A lady had to keep up appearances.
She was too tired to sigh. She pushed away from the door, grimacing at the stale tang of the air as she went deeper into the house. Hiranion's men may have tried to air the place out, but the tickle of dust was in every breath she took. Some of the lamps that lined the hall were working, turned down so low that only the slightest glow lightened the gloom. She turned them off as she went, until she came to the end of the hall and stepped into the large antechamber that served as a receiving room on the bottom floor. Once in the middle of the room she paused to get her bearings, trying to remember which door led to the stairs and the private rooms.
"You are not with child," stated a flat voice behind her. "If that was your goal, Lady, you were better off consorting with a Man." Gasping, Terisda spun around, caught her heel in the folds of her skirt, and went down hard. Fortunately one of the covered chairs was directly behind her; unfortunately it was as dusty with misuse as everything else in the old house. The cloud that went up sent her into a coughing fit. Sighing, Legolas laid aside his great bow and went in search of water. He returned with a cup which he held to her lips. She watched him over the edge of it, her eyes wide with surprise and some apprehension. Finally she couldn't possibly drink any more from the cup no matter how much she wished to avoid conversation. He set it aside but remained kneeling in front of her, looking long into her face before nodding briefly.
"I should have recognized you for what you are. I suppose I did, in a way; you have a bright spirit, one not often seen in the race of Man. You may even outshine a wood Elf or two. But I was in a fey mood that day, and I did not question as I should have."
"How did you find me?"
He smiled briefly, yet there was no humor on his fair face. "I followed."
So Elves can be invisible when they chose. Even in the dark...
There was a terrible stillness about him. Even in repose, he appeared so alive as to seem to be in motion, yet that was banked in him now. She thought perhaps he was angry, but surely such an emotion only troubled mortals? Then he spoke, and though the tone was even, there was that in the smooth voice that was as terrible as his lack of motion. "Elves make poor stud horses, lady."
"One of your kind has played stud in the House of Imrahil," she snapped. "The Elf lords spoke of it between themselves."
"Whether stud or dam I cannot say, but it is obvious Elvish blood is there that is more recent than the fall of Numenor," agreed Legolas, still with that flat note in his voice. "I remarked upon it myself. The Prince considered it little more than a very old family legend."
"If such things are possible between Elves and Men, how can you be sure--?"
He reached out with one of his long-fingered hands and gently touched the brocade covering her stomach, and despite what had passed between them before she found the gesture to be so intimate that she flushed. He withdrew, sitting back on his heels. "I am sure."
"There is still time," she said as if to herself, but he shook his head.
"Lady, the reason we Elves were so surprised at Imrahil is -- " he stopped, and sighed again. "Lady, consider; we are an immortal race. Children do not happen by accident among my kind. If we bred as Men do, all of Middle Earth would be overrun by Elves. Someone in the Prince's line cared deeply enough to take on the aspect of a Man and remain here for a time. Such a thing has rarely happened in all our long history. I only know of two instances in the far distant past, and one in the present." He gazed at her soberly. "I think it must be a hard thing, to sire mortal children you know must die as Men die, who must go into the unknown shadows instead of the Halls of Mandos as Elves do. It is not something one of my kind would do lightly."
"Then Elves are far more different from Men than I realized," she said, harshly.
"Lady, why is this so urgent? You are fair and young. There is plenty of time for you to raise a family with a Man of your choosing."
"It must be Hirgon's child!" she burst out, and buried her face in her hands.
That gave him pause, and when he spoke again his voice was gentled and more as she remembered it. "I do not know your husband's fate, Lady, but if it is what all suspect it is, what you want cannot be."
"Stop," she said through her teeth, "calling me 'lady.' I am not a dog."
"Forgive me if I'm uncertain what to call you."
"You had no problem with Torrey before."
There was another long pause before he said, "I thought I understood Torrey. You I do not know."
She flinched, and dropped her hands from her face, twisting them uncertainly in her lap. She refused to look at him.
Legolas sighed again, and came to his feet, folding his arms across his chest and regarding her sternly. "You had better tell me all."
"What is there to tell?" Terisda responded, bitterly. "I grasped for the stars to provide the best for Hirgon's lands, and it appears I overreached myself."
"This is for land?" he demanded, an incredulous note in his voice. He had never passed judgement on her in any way despite her bold behavior, but in this it seemed she had disappointed him. She chanced a glance up, to behold the Elf's face carved into inhuman planes and angles that she could not interpret as any expression she recognized. "I do not know you at all." His words were as cool as ever his skin had been. He took up his bow and, although she could not exactly say how he did it, appeared to fade from view until she was alone in the room. Startled, Terisda looked around, but he was not in any distant corner contemplating her. He was simply gone.
And with his leaving, gone also was the last hope of her desperate gamble.
Her head drooped, and she pressed her hands across her flat stomach. I was right, she thought grimly, I should have gone for quantity. Now, all is lost.
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