24. Planning Ahead (Arathorn, Gilraen)
prompt for December 24 - 1 golden ring
Groping his way to consciousness, Arathorn groaned and cursed that ill-named horse's clumsiness. It had become a steady litany in the two days since Lightfoot slipped over the edge of the trail and he had ended in a tangled heap of horse and bush at the foot of the ravine. The horse had stood up and trotted away, but he had heard the bone in his leg snap and it would be weeks before he could walk again. He would not think of the day and a half of jostling it took to get him here.
They had poured glass after glass of fiery distilled liquor into him to deaden the pain of the bone setting. He muzzily took stock: he was stale drunk, hung over, desperately thirsty, and his splinted, sore and swollen leg throbbed to the same beat as his headache. He also seemed to be alone in what was clearly the best chamber in Dírhael's fortress, lying propped and centered in a great, tapestry-hung bed. The water pitcher and glass on the small table next to it were out of his reach. Groaning again, he heaved himself over on one wobbly arm and reached for the pitcher. His hand fell short and the movement woke the throb in his leg into fire. Arathorn sagged back, closed his eyes and tried to summon the energy to shout.
"Do you only make those odd noises?"
Arathorn's eyes flew open. The voice belonged to a tiny, black-haired beauty barely tall enough to see over the side of the high bed. Her grey eyes with their fringe of long dark lashes stared at him with intense fascination.
He made an effort to be civil to a daughter of the house. "Sorry my noises disturbed you. Could you summon your mother or your nurse to help me?"
She gave her head a decisive shake. "No," she said, her long, thick braids undulating with the movement of her head. Arathorn swallowed hard and riveted his attention on her eyes. "I just wondered if you made those sounds all the time. I have to take care of you."
That could not be right. Ivorwen could not be so lost to good sense that she expected this mite to have either the skills or the strength to be of use to him. Nor could he spurn her offer of assistance; she seemed entranced with him, and she was here and willing.
"Can you at least get me a glass of water?" Arathorn summoned a weak smile to accompany the request.
"Of course," she replied with a dignity very much at odds with her youthful appearance.
The girl carefully poured water into the waiting glass. She pushed a stool over to the bed and clambered on it to hand the glass to Arathorn. As he gratefully sipped the water, she stayed standing on the stool with her elbows propped on the bed, studying him carefully.
"You are quite old," she announced.
Arathorn was not in the mood to humor her for much longer. "I'm thirty-nine," he snapped, "which is still young for a Dunedan."
She took the news with equanimity. "I'm five and nearly a half." She rubbed her forefinger and held it up for him to see. "Will you give me my ring today?"
He blamed the liquor that still clouded his brain. This conversation made no sense to him at all, but he was afraid to shake his throbbing head, even to attempt to clear it.
"I have no rings to give," he told her, and tried to tinge his words with regret.
"I didn't think you did, now." This time he did shake his head, instantly regretting the injudicious movement. She forged onward. "Because when I see the ring, I am much bigger. So you will have a ring, then."
"Lady…" he began.
She giggled at the formality. "Gilraen. You are Arathorn and I am Gilraen. When they carried you in, I knew. I saw it. You give me a golden ring and touch my face and say you love me." She must have correctly interpreted his skepticism. "I promise I'll grow up as fast as I can," she added, giving him a confident smile.
His head spun. Marrying her would be as unlikely as… as… His thoughts stalled. There were probably less likely things than marrying this baby, but, in his current condition, he could not think of any. He would promise her anything for a strong draught of willow bark and a chamberpot, followed by the chance to sleep until he was sober again and his damned leg had stopped aching. The way he felt, that might take the twenty years he had until she was marriageable. She seemed to be waiting for an assurance, and her smile began to sag as the silence grew longer. Having only a charming, helpful child around was enough of a trial. If she were distraught… ?
"I am not at my best. If I forget, remind me when you are grown. Now, please…"
The door opened and a shaft of light speared into his eyes. "Gilraen!" Wincing, he saw an adult woman - at last! - come into the room carrying a covered tray. "Lord Arathorn needs rest. Out with you, this instant!"
Gilraen patted his hand where it lay on the coverlet. She leaned over and whispered confidentially, "I understand. I will remind you." Sliding down from the stool, she walked to the door. At the last moment, she turned and gave him another brilliant, confident smile.