The Queen's Man
Summer had arrived. She wasn’t sure how it had arrived or when, but suddenly she was aware of the heat in the air. The ripe fullness of the land seemed to fill the atmosphere and coat the Shire in a sticky glaze that made everything look inviting. Everything was a temptation. Every freshly baked loaf of bread smelled of forbidden pleasures. Even a simple raspberry seemed to whisper a hidden desire to be relieved of its sweet nectar. Hobbits looked plumper, moved more slowly.
Summer balls and summer heat had seemingly overnight turned the focus of the world around her to desires of the flesh. Her ears heard the mournful sighs of frustrated lovers yearning for freedom and release. Men looked a little more wolfish and women seemed to have studied the way of the vixen. There was dancing and music and games of hide and seek. Throaty laughter and husky voices. Sweet wines and full-bodied ales.
A log popped in the grate of the fireplace, creating a small fireworks display of spark and embers. Even in the heat of summer, she still liked a fire in the small room of the kinhouse that she had claimed as an office. The underground nature of the Hobbit architecture kept things cool and the fire helped to pull the dampness from the air.
The room was simple. Just a desk and a few chairs, none of which matched. A bookshelf and a map chest. No windows. She preferred it that way, less to distract her. He preferred it that way. Less risk to assess.
He was the obvious choice though she still asserted it wasn’t a necessary one. She had no recollection of whether he came before her or after her, just that he always seemed to have been there. Next to her.
Not next to her in the creepy stalkerish way that Qanien had of impersonating her shadow, but in an immovable rock sort of way. Even when she couldn’t see him, she sensed him waiting and watching just outside of her line of sight. Ever watchful. Ever trustworthy. Ever loyal.
Even before she became an officer and thus much before she wore the uneasy crown, he walked with her and fought with her and the singing of his swords became the perfect counterpoint to the staccato percussion of Qanien’s arrows. With him, her music was transformed from solo to symphony.
The scent of baking inspired her to stretch her limbs, arch her back, and issue a noise that was part groan part moan with a little bit of a growl thrown in for good measure. It was the sound of someone who had enough inactivity for the time being and needed a change of pace and place.
She sniffed the air experimentally. Raspberries were in season and whomever was in the kin kitchen was taking advantage of that. She closed her eyes and inhaled again. The pastry smelled buttery and light. Probably tarts. Which would mean it was probably Nemesia in the kitchen. Rhiannon reflexively dabbed the corner of her lips just in case she drooled.
As if on cue, the familiar rap of knuckles on her door brought her mind back to the small room and the cluttered desk. “Enter,” she called as she began to tidy the area, rolling parchments and jotting notes in the large, leather-bound journal that she used to clarify issues and events.
She didn’t have to look up, she knew it was him. For some reason, she never could resist. Probably because something about the way he filled the doorway filled her with a feeling of security. Or maybe it had something to do with his rugged looks and well-proportioned physique and the mysteries that lurked behind his eyes.
Everyone knows that Elves are sensory creatures, aesthetic snobs in ways that other races just are not. Though Rhiannon had a wider appreciation for things of an imperfect nature, such as the size of a Hobbit’s feet, there was still an almost carnal pleasure in how she viewed what she considered to be a well-balanced form.
Which was why the commanding shouts of Yirond and the sight of his strong jawline that was further emphasized by what some would consider his ridiculous mutton chops always gave her a slightly lecherous attitude. Even when viewed from behind (which to be honest, was the view she most often had) there was a symmetrical perfection to him that left her weak in the knees. Yes, she knew of his reputation, but was there a woman alive (or dead) who hadn’t been intrigued by the charm of a bad boy? Reputation or no, he was still a Captain of great worth and being easy on the eyes only increased his value.
But there was probably one reason over all the others that made her lift her eyes to the familiar form in the doorway. A form that she now noticed was carrying a tray of freshly baked tarts and two earthenware mugs full of something. The very sight or sound of him never failed to make her smile.
Rhiannon smiled at Baracir with the familiarity and fondness that came from endless battles fought side by side and hours spent around campfires and on horseback. She smiled as an acknowledgement of the bond that existed between them that only time and death would sever and even then he would remain honoured and adored in her memory.
And then he bowed respectfully over the tray, reminding her of the positions they both held in these dark and uncertain times. “M’lady,” he intoned solemnly as he closed the door behind him.
For Baracir was the Head of the Queen’s Men also known as The Queen’s Man and responsible for the safety and well-being of Rhiannon.
Though she was not to royalty born, nor was her wearing of the kin crown giving her any power greater than that of any officer of the kin, there were expectations made of her. Formal events, functions of Alliance, all these necessitated the presence of an official Head of Kin. Referring to her as the “Queen” began in jest. She was never comfortable with the title, but in time she grew accustomed to it and tried not to roll her eyes too much or grumble too loudly when it was thrown in her direction. Rhiannon, Queen without a Throne.
“Listen, Bara,” she scolded. “I’ve told you a thousand times that I’ll submit to allowing you to address me in that formal tone on official occasions, but outside of that….” She looked deflated as he set the mug of something warm and a tart fresh from the oven in front of her. “And you didn’t have to do this. I don’t want you serving me.”
A smile finally leaked onto Baracir’s serious countenance. “Do you not see two mugs here? Do you think all of these tarts are for you?” He pulled a chair up to the desk. “Now I may have dropped your name when I went into the kitchen to see what Nemesia was up to…. But the truth of the matter is that I couldn’t resist the smell a moment longer.” He lifted a tart from the tray and taking a bite, sat back in the chair. “I’m not serving you. I’m allowing you to join me.”
Taking a tart for herself, Rhi mimicked his actions and relaxed against the chair. “Thanks,” she said a bit sheepishly before biting into her tart. “Oh, Eru,” she practically groaned. “What that woman can do with strawberries and raspberries…” She savoured the filling for a moment longer. “Orange… I think she’s added a touch of orange to it.”
Baracir’s smile broadened as his objective was achieved. Rhiannon had relaxed. “I know it’s summer and most people would want something cool… but I know how you get in this room….”
“Yes,” she said gratefully as she reached for the mug. “My fingers turn to ice in here. Even with the fire.” She gestured to the blaze. The raven-haired minstrel sipped at the hot liquid while wrapping her hands around the warmth of the mug. “Oh, that IS nice.” She briefly closed her eyes. “Ginger… honey…. Is that rosehips?” One eye popped open and looked at him carefully. “Bara….,” her voice intoned dangerously. “Have you slipped something else in there?”
A deep chuckle answered her from across the desk. “Maybe, maybe not.”
Her eye closed again and she practically purred with contentment in her cozy cocoon. With the door shut and the quality of the companionship, she could almost pretend the rest of the world didn’t exist. A smile curled lazily along the lines of her mouth. “I swear, Bara… sometimes you live in my head.”
“Well, you’ve been down here for longer than you probably should be today,” he offered amiably. “Amrea said you’ve been here since around midday.”
“What time of day is it now?” Her forehead creased with a frown.
“The sun’s been gone for a fair bit of time now.” The champion reached forward for another pastry. He wanted to scold her, but he knew in his heart he couldn’t. He knew that though the crown did not come with extra responsibilities, it didn’t mean that Rhiannon felt she wasn’t extra responsible for the crown. “What has been occupying you?”
“Oh, you know… pretty much more of the same thing. Beoras’ reports of time and manpower at Ost Dunhoth. Feor’s and Yirond’s reports on the troop trainings and skirmishes. An application for a recruitment from someone a little too inexperienced… he’s got potential and seems to be a good fit… if he’s got the patience and persistence to see it through, he just might make it.” She paused and considered the piles of papers and scroll on the desktop. “Oh, yes… and some research that Legotho wanted me… well, I asked to see actually.”
Though he didn’t reply, she still felt she had to defend herself. “She didn’t get to be as good as she is just because she has good bone structure or a perky haircut or a nice hat,” Rhiannon explained. “She’s a Mistress of Lore and if some of that lore can help to make me a better minstrel or unlock some riddles that plague us, then I’m certainly going to ask for her help.” She couldn’t stifle the yawn that overcame her.
“Come on, I’ll escort you home,” he smiled and gathered the cups and put them on the tray as she tidied up the last of the papers and put away the map that she had out.
“You don’t have to do that,” she protested feebly. She knew he’d win. They’d had this conversation a million times since she had appointed him The Queen’s Man. It had seemed a good idea at the time and because of the times they now lived and the things that had gone on in the past it was prudent. Though she understood the need, that didn’t stop her from rebelling from time to time.
“You really should lock that door,” he countered as she closed the door to her office behind them.
“And you know it would be useless,” she explained yet again. “If someone wants to get in there, they will get in there. Lock or no lock. There are some hobbits who can be easily manipulated into doing anything and others to whom a locked door is an invitation. You know there is nothing in there that can be considered a secret. It’s all public knowledge, even Lego’s research.” She patted the bag that hung at her hip. “Anything that is sensitive, stays in my journal.”
Baracir dropped by the kitchen to return the tray and mugs while Rhiannon took her cloak from the peg near the door. Though the days were warm, the nights could be cool and she somehow didn’t feel quite dressed without one hanging down her back. She heard the heavy booted tread of Baracir returning and then the footsteps stopped. Silence drew itself around them as he studied her for a moment or two.
“You’ve changed your colours again.” It was a statement that held not a shred of criticism.
“Yes,” she said somberly. “I’m back to black.” Her eyes rose to meet his, taking in the shades of shadow and darkness that he wore. “The crimson… it just didn’t feel… right.” He grunted in response and she turned towards the door, missing the small smile that softened his features briefly.
They stepped into the darkness and let their eyes adapt to it. Rhiannon inhaled the scents of ripening grain and fruits growing soft on the vine. Apples were beginning to blush as the summer moved towards fall as a bride bashfully approaches her bridegroom. “You really don’t have to come with me,” she said softly. “I can see the house from here.” She wondered why she pointed in the direction of her home as if he didn’t know where she lived. “Nothing will happen.”
“That’s not the point,” he said tersely, “And you know it.” It was much easier to argue with her when she was all fire and fury, her voice full of passion and indignation. But when she was like this, all softness and vulnerability, it made it more difficult. It made him want to drop to his knees and swear to obey her every wish, grant her every desire. It was the power of the minstrel in some ways, to sing the song that inspires and speak the words that wound. Unfortunately for Rhi, it also strengthened his resolve that she be protected at all times, at all cost. He wanted to wrap her in his cloak and encase her in walls of stone, surrounded by barriers of blades.
She must not fall.
“Baracir,” she said quietly, her Elven accent making his name sound like a whispered prayer. “I’m in the Shire. I’m at home. Surely I should be able to walk this short distance alone?”
“And you were surrounded by five kins… five kins sworn to protect and support each other… when you were taken before.” The sharpness to his voice made her wince, but he had to make her see, to understand. “We all thought we were safe and untouchable. We let our guard down. You paid the price for our arrogance.”
He wanted to take her by the shoulders and shake her as if that would make her see sense. She dropped her gaze and he reached out and tilted her chin up, forcing her to meet his eyes, to see his resolve. “I could not save you then, I was too young, too naïve. I trusted everyone else to do what I should have been doing. I was fooled by the distraction. I should have seen the true purpose.”
“Bara, you…” she didn’t fight his grip and her eyes met his without flinching, shining with trust but sparkling with her desire for independence.
“You MUST understand, Rhi,” he interrupted. “You were NOT a kin leader then. You were NOTHING and you were taken. How much more are you worth to them now? Figurehead or not. You are worth more now than ever and they ARE watching you. Every minute of every day, they are watching.” He released her chin, but her eyes never left his, even when he took her naked hands into his leather clad ones, squeezing them as if he could transfer his strength to her.
“The ONE thing I can do, that WE can do, is show them that we remember, that we don’t forget, that we see them watching us and stare back at them. That is what THIS is about, Rhi. Staring back into the darkness and showing them we are not afraid. That we are ready for them at any time. Any day. Any hour. Any minute. We will not fail you.”
He saw the surrender in her eyes and felt it in his hands and breathed a sigh of relief. It was just one battle in their constant war, but every victory was another day he could sleep knowing that she had made it through another day.
She squeezed his hands in hers now and with a soft smile stepped closer and embraced him fondly. “I am an ungrateful wretch. One would think I hadn’t seen my first century judging by my headstrong nature.” She stretched up and kissed his bearded cheek. “I don’t deserve you.” She took his arm and led him towards the road.
“Well, come on. It will save you having to walk back later tonight anyway when you take your post.” Rhiannon grinned as he looked startled. “What? You think I don’t know that you’ve been posting guards outside the door after I’ve retired for the night?” She chuckled in the darkness and hugged his arm. “Honestly, Bara… you don’t give me enough credit sometimes.”
“How did you… can you…?” His face darkened with a scowl.
She laughed in the rising moonlight, her skin glowing like silver. “You all have different smells. Different scents. They linger.” She released him and fairly danced next to him as he grumped along. “That and sometimes Roseredd doesn’t get the dishes tidied away before I notice.”
He sighed good-naturedly. “Okay, so tell me…. Amrea?”
“Oh, she’s easy,” Rhiannon explained as they walked along. “Ghosts and ice…. And nightshade.” She noticed her companion’s puzzled look. “Dangerous in the wrong dosage.” She stopped and adjusted the top of her boot. “She never eats anything, but that doesn’t keep Rose from trying. Her plates are usually full.”
“Should I even ask about Qanien?”
“Forests, pine and cedar. He’s usually still there eating. Always with some excuse, so don’t be too hard on him. He's as loyal as they come. He takes his job very seriously.” She adjusted the cloak that she wore. In pattern, it matched the one worn by her oath-sworn kinsman and elf, Qanien. A subtle (or not so subtle) reminder of their shared heritage and ties.
Baracir paused as if considering whether or not he wanted to ask about the next one. “Yirond?” He practically winced as he said it.
Rhiannon snorted as if something offended her. “Lust and gluttony.” She laughed. “Cheap perfume, gold, ale.” She was silent for a few moments. “He smells like a man who is afraid he’ll miss something. That he sees the end and is trying to cram as much living in as possible before it comes.” Bara glanced over and saw the sorrow in her eyes.
“He also smells like hope,” she said quietly. “He eats well and is kind to Rose. Never drinks alcohol on guard, but sometimes will have one before he leaves.” She kept pace with Baracir, studying the road. “He smokes a pipe.” She paused. “I like it. It lets me know that he’s there.”
Rhiannon nimbly leapt onto the wall that delineated the edge of her property and balanced along it with her usual catlike grace. “There are some who fill in from time to time. I recognize when Torroc has been there.” She wrinkled her nose.
“Oh, and there’s Lego. You manage to get her to take a night fairly regularly. She smells of paper and ink and tries hard not to smell like her animals.” She closed her eyes and kept walking along the top of the wall. “Streams. Candles. Cookies”
She stopped on a pillar and pulled up one leg up behind her before grabbing her foot and lifting it high over her head, arching her back . She remained balanced like that for a few moments like a budding flower waiting to bloom. She inhaled deeply and then in an explosion of silent movement released her hold and using the momentum of natural movement and gravity managed to dismount from the fence with a midair backflip, landing neatly in front of her escort.
“Show off,” Baracir observed dryly.
“Not often,” she replied with a light laugh. “Just sometimes a girl needs to let loose. Sometimes I have to just remind myself who I am, what I am.” They stopped in front of the path that led to her door. “By the way, for someone who is so concerned with my safety, I find it strange that you are letting me wander into Ost Dunhoth without you.” The accusation was given lightly.
“Don’t play the diva now,” he said calmly. He was surprised she hadn’t questioned him about this before. “You’ll be well protected. Qanien will be with you the whole time as will Legotho.” He paused to think. “Actually Yirond will be as well…. And Deneire will join you later. I would just be overkill… and I’ve got some business to take care of.”
She sniffed disdainfully and arched an eyebrow before the giggle escaped. “I know, I know… It’s good for me.” She rocked on her heels a few times. “You know, you may as well come inside,” she teased. “Unless of course you have some… business to attend to before you take your post.”
Baracir watched her for a few minutes. The walk had unnerved her slightly. She was jumpy and skittish. Was it the thought that someone may be watching her? He wondered for a moment if he should have reminded her of the constant danger. Perhaps it would have been better to let her live her life fearlessly. Confidently. Not looking over her shoulder wondering.
“Rhi,” he started uncertainly.
“I’m okay, Bara,” she said with a small, soft smile of reassurance. “Don’t worry about me. I can see it in those eyes of yours that give away nothing yet tell me everything I need to know.” She took his hand and removed the glove that protected it before holding it between her two hands, studying it as if to check that he was flesh and blood and not one of the specters that haunted her.
She squeezed. “I sometimes forget and I shouldn’t. I should never forget. It’s your job to make sure I don’t. You and the Queen’s Men are not just accessories for public functions and official business. You aren’t a part of the spectacle. You are tasked with my safety and protection. If you have to give me a wake up call once in a while, then you must. I’ll get over it. I’ll be fine.” The door opened behind her, golden light spilling in a pool around them both. “Come in,” she invited with hands, eyes, and voice. “Come and rest before your long vigil. Let me go off to sleep knowing you are there and watching.”
He still looked uncertain and she sighed. “You are leather and steel, strength and protection. You smell of home. You smell like family. Horses, sweat, and battle. Oak trees and mountains. Ever constant, ever watchful.” She chuckled and turned back once more as she went in. “And tarts….” She stepped into the light and disappeared.
“Now, come in and keep me company,” came her voice from within the light. “This your Queen demands!” The melody of her laughter danced around him like dandelion seeds on the summer breeze.
With a shake of his head and a smile on his lips, he sighed and did what his Queen commanded for after all, he was The Queen’s Man.