25. 25. Unknown Tradition
Elfhelm nodded to the small group, noting how the young man quickly moved away from Thea. The Marshal smirked. “May I have a moment of your time Mistress?” he asked politely.
“Of course,” she replied coyly, excusing herself from her companions.
Elfhelm lead Arathea out of the hall into the chill fall night. Stepping away from the crescent of light filtering through the door, Thea inhaled the crisp air; an unexpected shiver shook her frame. As he had done in East Lórien, the Marshal removed his cloak and wrapped it around the lady’s shoulders, fastening it. She turned to smile at him, wondering about his nervous expression.
“You were missed in the East-mark when you left,” he said, leaning against the baluster. His eyes scanned the dark countryside.
“Would it please you to know I missed the East-mark as well?”
Elfhelm dropped his head and let out a small laugh. “Aye, it would please me greatly. You made quite an impression on the people there.”
Thea turned toward the Marshal, leaning an elbow on the cool stone. He kept his gaze focused on the night. She ducked her head, attempting to catch his eye. “A good one, I hope.”
“The best,” the man’s voice caught in his throat and he cleared it with a cough. “The servants in the Manor were quite fond of you. You were far less demanding than Ethelfled and apparently I was more…docile.”
“Docile? You! Never!” Thea laughed, patting his broad shoulder.
Elfhem chuckled. With a small shake of this head he continued, “It seems they think you are good for me.”
“I see.” Thea turned and mimicked the Marshal’s position, leaning against the wall and staring out at the night. “What do you think?” she finally asked softly.
Silence seemed to loom between them. “I think,” the sable haired man began, turning towards the slight woman. He took a breath and stood straight. “I think I should give you this.” Elfhelm reached into his pocket and produced a wooden box about the size of his palm. He held it out.
“What is this?” Thea asked, eyeing the box. “You already gave me a gift.” Elfhelm had bestowed a beautiful bridle upon her to go with the saddle Éomer had gifted. He silently coaxed her to take the box. Thea took it and carefully lifted the lid. She gasped at the beautiful silver and gold brooch glimmering in the dim light. It was two horse heads-- one silver, the other gold. The gold horse had its head draped across the silver horse’s neck, almost as if embracing it. Their eyes were inlaid with green and black jewels. The heads were framed by an intricate scroll pattern. The artisanship rivalled that of both elf and dwarf.
“I,” she looked at the man before her with wide eyes, “I cannot accept this.”
Elfhelm felt his heart sink; he cleared his throat, willing his voice to sound calm. “Why?” was the only thing he could utter, fighting against the tightening of his chest and his sudden desire to flee. He turned back to the night; had he waited too long?
Arathea attempted to hand the box back. “It is far too expensive! I cannot accept such a gift. You have given me so much already.”
Elfhelm shook his head again and gave a nervous laugh. He turned back to the woman at his side. Gently he closed her fingers around the box. She did not understand his intent! He grinned. “You are not so familiar with Rohan’s culture, are you?” Green eyes studied him; he could see she was trying to think of what she was missing. It made him smile even more. “This is a traditional courtship brooch. A man gives it to the woman he wishes to court. If she accepts it, she will wear it as a sign of their betrothal.” He gently took the box; opening it he loving fingered the brooch. “I commissioned Aglaril before,” a small blush stained his bearded cheeks, “I left last autumn; when I realized that my heart was no longer my own. I hoped you would accept it, accept me.”
Green eyes continued to regard him. “You wish to court me---that is become betrothed?” Thea asked slowly, wanting to be sure that she understood.
“If you will have me.”
In the next moment, Thea launched herself at him with a bright smile, wrapping her arms around his neck she laughed. The Marshal pulled her close, completing the tight embrace, swinging her around before setting her feet back on the ground.
He buried his face in her hair. He knew this was right, and he never wanted to let her go. Kissing her temple, he whispered in her ear, “Stay with me this night.”
Thea pulled back and caressed his cheek, her eyes never leaving his. He trapped her hand with his, turning his head to place a lingering kiss on her palm before lowering his lips to hers for the first true kiss since that fateful night over a year ago. It was gentle and sweet and Thea melted at the sensation. It was so different from the lust-fuelled kisses they had shared before. Without another word, he led her from the terrace to his chambers.
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