22. Chapter Twenty-Two
Strider stretched and opened his eyes to the early morning sunshine streaming through the window. He rolled to his right side and leaned up on his elbow to stare down at the sleeping form beside him. Her hair was tousled and fell softly in auburn waves about her face. She had cut it again, he noticed. It barely reached her shoulders now. He guessed it was easier to maintain, especially since she refused to give up her disguise of Thurin.
Slowly, he eased from the bed, slipping the covers around her naked body, shielding her from the cold. He crossed to the fire, stirred the embers and added a log. Soon the flames licked the wood and the chill in the room abated. Strider glanced across the room to the bed, knowing he had been quiet enough that she still slept.
His clothes were still in a heap on the floor by the bed. On silent feet, he padded over to them, picked them up and headed back to the fire. He dressed quickly, made sure the fire was contained safely and headed for the door.
With one last look at the woman he loved, he opened the door and slipped out, knowing that he couldn't stop her from being Thurin and fighting against the enemy any more than he could stop her from breathing.
Ivorwen watched as Strider slipped from Thurin's small house in the early morning dawn. His dark hair was disheveled, his shirt hanging open. Frowning, she lifted the bucket from the well. What was her grandson doing there so early? She had known Balharn, had been deeply saddened at the news of his death and had wanted to reach out to the young ranger that had stayed with him.
She hadn't had the chance to speak with young Thurin. She had been so wrapped up in Strider, getting to know him and spoil him a little as a grandmother should. Maybe it was time she remedied that.
Laeriel stretched, her hand coming into contact with the empty bed beside her. She leaned up and glanced around the room. Strider was gone. The pillow where his head had lain was cool to the touch. He had been gone some time. And yet, the sun was barely risen.
Smiling to herself, she sat up, pulled her knees to her chest and held her legs in her arms. Laying her cheek against her knees, she thought back to last night. Strider had surprised her, showing up like he had. Then the fight they had. She knew he was worried about her, but she couldn't stay in the village, seeing him every day and not be able to hold him, touch him, love him.
A soft knock at the door startled her. Grinning, she jumped out of bed, the blankets wrapped around her. She knew he hadn't gone far. It was way too early for Strider to be up and ready for training.
"Where did you go?" she asked, opening the door slightly.
"I am not who you think I am."
Laeriel jumped, clutching the blanket tightly to her breast. Valar, what had she done? She glanced at the woman at the door, recognizing her at once. Ivorwen, wife of Dírhael and Strider's grandmother.
"My Lady, please…"
"I think we have much to discuss. Wouldn't it be best if it wasn't in an open doorway, where all can see?"
Laeriel moved aside and allowed Ivorwen to enter the small house. As she closed the door, a cold chill descended upon her. What would she say to her? And would the woman who now knew her secret, tell the Elders of the village?
"My Lady Ivorwen…I can explain…"
"It seems you have much to tell me. It would be better suited for you if you were properly dressed. I will prepare some tea while you find some clothes."
Laeriel rushed about the room, pulling clothes on hastily. She threw the blankets back onto her bed, not bothering to hide the evidence of last night. If Ivorwen was here, she knew anyway. Why hide it?
"Now that you are properly clothed, how about a proper introduction, hmm, Thurin?"
Laeriel hung her head, the length of her hair hiding her blushing cheeks. She felt, rather than saw, Ivorwen's hand take her chin gently and raise her head.
"My child, please…"
"My name is Laeriel. I came to the northern camp three years ago after my family was killed by a band of Orcs that ranged across the Ered Mithrin."
"And you have been fighting against the force of the enemy as Thurin all this time?" Ivorwen asked, crossing the room to take the tea pot from the fire and pour two cups of the strong brew.
"Yes," Laeriel said, sitting at the table. "Balharn knew of my identity. He discovered it quite by accident. Came upon me in the woods while I was bathing. I thought he was going to give me away, but he held my secret."
"And now Strider knows your secret as well?"
Laeriel nodded, taking a sip of her tea. "When we were attacked by the wargs and I was injured, he found out."
"And you swore him to secrecy? Does he know what he risks, keeping your secret?"
Laeriel looked at her, scared now that her secret would finally come to light. Ivorwen would tell the Elders to protect Strider's position within the village and the Dúnedain. She would be sacrificed.
"I believe he does. And what of you, my Lady? Will you keep my secret?"
"I know not what I should do, Laeriel. I do not like to see you in danger, though my own daughter has taken up a blade to defend her home and family. But what you have asked of my grandson can put him in grave danger."
"I do not want to put him in any danger. You must know that."
Ivorwen looked into her eyes and found that Laeriel truly did not want harm to come to Strider. And yet, if the Council of Elders found out that Strider knew of Laeriel's deception and worse, told no one of it, then who knew what they would do.
"Please, my Lady. I do not want to leave the only other home I have ever known," Laeriel pleaded.
"As long as your secret does not endanger my grandson or his bid for the Chieftainship of the Dúnedain, I will keep your secret Laeriel. But be forewarned. You play a dangerous game and sooner or later, your game will end in tragedy. You had best hope it is not you or my grandson."
Laeriel watched as Ivorwen walked out of the small house, the door closing softly behind her. She shuddered as though someone had walked across her grave with the warning Ivorwen had uttered.
Ivorwen leaned against the closed door, her heart pounding. The vision she had seen had been disturbing. Her grandson had been kneeling at the edge of a cliff, tears slipping silently down his cheeks. She knew not what caused him to weep so bitterly, only that he was clearly distraught.
She made her way to the well, picked up her bucket of water and returned to the house. As she went inside, Strider emerged from his room, dressed and ready for the training of the day.
Ivorwen looked at him, her eyes narrowed dangerously. "You are playing with fire, Strider. Be careful you do not get burned."
Strider watched her move about the kitchen, making breakfast while he pondered her words. What did her veiled warning mean? He reached for the pitcher of water on the table and poured some to quench his suddenly dry mouth. Surely she did not know…
"You should leave by the back door of Thurin's cabin, if you do not wish your movements to be known to the entire village," she told him placing his breakfast in front of him on the table.
"I saw you coming from the house this morning. Strider…"
"Grandmother…I swore an oath. I do not break them lightly."
"I do not expect you to break an oath. I do, however, expect that you guard against the folly of losing your heart to one that asks you to lie to your people."
"Your words do not fall on deaf ears. I was not asked to do this. I offered. But I will be more careful. And what of you, Grandmother? Is the secret safe with you?"
"For as long as it does not harm you or keep you from your path, I will keep it close to my breast. I warn you, though, do not ask it of me, if you are in danger. I will not sacrifice my blood for another."
Strider headed to Halbarad's home, intent on getting the day underway. He had much on his mind, much he wished to forget for some time. Ivorwen knew of Laeriel, knew that he had spent the night with her and that he had sworn to protect her secret. What was he going to do?
She had already as much promised him she would tell the Council Elders about Laeriel if there were any kind of danger to his well being. Of course there was danger to his well being! Hadn't his mother spirited him away to Rivendell, hidden him within the Elven realm, and changed his name, all because of the danger he faced?
He had sworn to protect Laeriel, with his life, if necessary. As long as her life was not in jeopardy, he had sworn to protect her secret. Then again, what ranger's life was not in danger? Every time they stepped out of the protection of the village, they were taking a risk of being wounded, or worse yet, captured or killed.
So was he doing Laeriel or himself any justice by keeping her secret? Would the elders of the village do what she feared? Would they really throw her out, leave her to fend for herself, without the protection of the rangers that she had fought alongside for the last three years?
"You look deep in thought, Strider. Is there aught amiss?" Halbarad asked, coming to a stop in front of the young man, grasping his shoulders to stop him from running him down.
"Sorry, Halbarad. I was deep in thought. I have a problem I must think through."
"Anything I can help you sort out?"
Strider shook his head and sighed. "I wish I could confide in you, my friend. But I can not."
"Well then, let's go work off some of that tension."
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