A Shadow Stirs by Reddmaeve
A Shadow Stirs (Part 2)
(A Collaboration between Rhiannon and Nirnaeth of The Silver Blades)
The moon and stars bathed the roads in silver, guiding the anxious rider along the Shire roads towards her destination. Where only hours earlier her heart had been filled with a song of sweeping melodies and uplifting chords, a song of such exquisite joy and emotion so sweet that she dared not give voice to its name, her heart now pulsed and raced with a frantic tempo laced with fear.
Fear. In all her years in Middle Earth it was the one emotion that she was perhaps the most unfamiliar with. She was familiar with the feelings of trepidation and dread. She understood them and harnessed them appropriately. This was not even remotely similar. This was the kind of bone chilling, heart rending fear that made people do irrational things. People occasionally called her impulsive. On rare occasions, impetuous. Never irrational.
She had passed through Stock and over the Brandywine Bridge ages ago, the shoes of her horse ringing on stone and showering sparks as they flew. Now she passed through Adso’s camp. Her horse was blowing hard and flecks of foaming sweat coated parts of her leather armour, reminiscent of her earlier bubbly relaxation. She leaned low over his neck and crooned encouragingly into his ear. It swiveled to catch her words and tones and regaining some strength surged forward with renewed energy.
Over the last bridge and they were at the gate. She pulled hard on the reins, her mount lifting his forelegs high into the air. She dropped the hood of her cloak so the watch could identify her.
“Lady Rhiannon,” the guard acknowledged as he let her pass.
And pass she did. With haste, she spun her exhausted horse into the town. The streets were empty but for a few drunks stumbling home and the town watch that patrolled. No one took notice of the cloaked figure on horseback as it sprinted up the long hill.
She slid from the saddle, ignoring the fatigue that made her legs tremble so badly that she could hardly remain upright. With a steadying hand on her mount, she rubbed the bay’s neck in silent thanks. He pushed his forehead to her chest so that she could give his ears a quick fondle. With a strained smile, she stroked his velvet muzzle and turned towards The Prancing Pony.
Barliman Butterbur was cleaning the last of the pottery from the evening’s patrons. He looked weary and longing for his bed. “I’m sorry, m’lady, we’re closed for the night,” he said without looking up. “If you come back in the…”
“Nirnaeth Elemmire,” she spoke softly and urgently, giving the name the proper Elven inflection. “What room is he in?” She reached across the bar and took his hand, pressing coinage into his plump palm.
Barliman looked up in surprise. “Lady Rhiannon,” he fairly stammered. “You do not need to purchase information from me.” He looked at her more closely. “I say, are you well? You are practically…”
“I am not purchasing information, Mister Butterbur, I am buying your silence and discretion.” She smiled through her grimace, icy fingers pressing the coins more firmly into his hand. A hand that knew how needed these coins were for his sickly child. “Please.”
“Through the back, up the stairs, second door on the right,” he said. “But don’t you want to sit and have something hot to drink by the fire first? Your hand is like ice!” The last of his words were heard by none except Molly, a serving girl who was wiping down the sturdy and worn tables.
Long, lithe legs bounded up the stairs. Silently and with catlike tread she traversed the hall to the appropriate door. Through the window at the end of the hall, she could see the stars with more intensity as the moon had set early this night. It was hard to breathe again, the fear was clawing its way across her skin, tightening around her throat. She kept seeing the hands, the fingers, the rings, the scar. Her ears heard the inflection when he called her “Princess.” Real or a dream? Awake or asleep? Panic gripped her and she flattened herself against the door, trying to make herself invisible. Was he awake? What would he say? What answers did he hold?
She lifted her hand and rapped her knuckles sharply at the door. With furtive glances she surveyed the various doors to see if any opened with curiosity. Her ears picked up no sounds from within. Her hand turned sideways and with her fist she pounded more loudly, a panicked tempo. She thought she heard footsteps! What if it wasn’t a dream? What if it was real? What if it was….
Nirnaeth had gone directly to his room after saying good night. It had been a wonderful evening - the silly game of tag, their shared laugher as they chased each other like children, then the lake under the starlight and that ludicrous bear. He undressed carefully, taking especial care to hang his cloak (her cloak) up. He fell asleep almost as soon as his head had hit the pillow, the trace of a smile still visible on his face. Barely two hours had passed before he woke again - sitting up abruptly as a cold shiver passed through him. He had been dreaming, at first pleasant dreams under moon and starlight, but then a cold, dark dream. He shuddered involuntarily. No, not a dream. A memory. Before he could think further on the matter, he heard footsteps in the corridor outside. Rhiannon?" he wondered silently, for somehow he felt sure she was on her way here. He moved to open the door, but then stopped. Something wasn't right. And then he knew, again with absolute certainty, that it was not Rhiannon that now stood outside his door. Instinctively Nirnaeth looked around the room for his weapons, then remembered that he had brought none with him that evening. Something that had probably been noted in the common room as he passed through it to his room. Then he remembered his Silver Blade, the mark of his kinship. It was small and certainly not very sharp, but it was all he had. He pulled sharply on the cord round his neck, the clasp breaking, and slowly, carefully, eased back into bed, eyes closed, the small blade now in his palm. There was a click from the door as the tumblers in the lock dropped, and the door eased open. A man in black entered, quickly shutting the door behind him. He drew a small stiletto blade from his belt and stepped towards the sleeping form of Nirnaeth. He bent low to bring the blade above the sleeping Captain's heart, drawing the sheet back slowly, so very slowly. He raised the blade and struck down sharply, hard and true Nirnaeth had lain there, eyes closed and feigning sleep while the man entered the room and padded over to the bed. He had to let him get close enough to use the small blade in his hand, but not so close that it was too late. "Difficult, Nirnaeth" he silently chided himself "Wrong choice, as always". The agonising seconds passed and still he forced himself to be still, to breathe deep and regularly. Then he felt the cover above him pulled back slowly. "Too late, you idiot". The thought ran through his head faster than lightning, fear and adrenaline surging in their wake. He opened his eyes and rolled to the right, towards his attacker, and felt the knife score his ribs, a bright burning line. At the moment, his memory flared, triggered, perhaps by the pain. His eyes widened for a second, then he forced his mind back to the present. But now, the attacker had his knife in Nirnaeth's side, and his movement had twisted it from his grasp. Nirnaeth struck, punching up with the small blade into the man's exposed throat. He made a small gurgling sound, then slumped to the floor, dead before he reached it. Nirnaeth took the weapon from his attacker and bound his scored ribs with strips of his sheet. The wound was deep, but not, he hoped, fatal. "Not that you deserve to live after that fool idea" he berated himself. "I have to get to Rhiannon, before it's too late" He grabbed his scant belongings and left the room. The Prancing Pony was no longer a place of safety for him. He left via a window in the back of the Inn, wincing as he dropped to the ground outside. The sound of hooves echoed down the cobbled streets as a rider raced wildly up the hill to the Inn. He recognised the horse and the rider - it was Rhiannon, but with eyes wild and hair streaming, disorderly, behind her. He shouted weakly at her to stop, but, unhearing, she had run into the inn. Nirnaeth followed her back inside, past the startled Barliman and back to the landing outside his room. Hearing his footsteps, she turned to him, her eyes full of fear and sorrow. "Rhiannon" he called, "it's me, Nirnaeth". She looked, uncomprehending, for a moment, then recognition came and she flung herself into his arms, sobbing wildly. "I know," he said, "I know". He stroked her hair as he held her close, her sobs gradually subsiding as she took control of herself once more. Finally, she disengaged herself from his arms and looked up at him. "Tell me" she said, "what was it you saw" Nirnaeth took a deep breath, grasped both of Rhiannon's hands. "That Angmarim in the Ettenmoors", he said. "He was an elf". Her shuddering cry saw him engulf her in his arms once more.
The now moonless night wrapped Nirnaeth and Rhiannon in a protective blanket of darkness as they rode for Wilstead. The condition of Rhiannon’s mount necessitated a slower pace, but the urgency of their travel required some speed. As they passed through the shadows of the Chetwood, she hummed to Randir to encourage and strengthen him. Already pushed to his limits earlier, she now feared he would suffer more permanently, but it could not be helped. Nirnaeth had been quite adamant that they should leave the Pony and Bree immediately. When she had suggested that she get a room and they wait until morning, his insistence had grown. She puzzled over it as they rode. Rhiannon’s eyes picked out the yellow tree that stood outside the ruins of Ost Baranor in the Chetwood South. The brigands that lived within were cowardly by nature and it was unlikely that they would choose this particular pair of travellers for a target, but the Elven woman did not want to take any chances. She urged Randir with soft words as she squeezed lightly with her knees. “Not much farther now, brave one.” Unexpectedly, Nirnaeth’s horse veered suddenly bumping hers. Rhiannon looked to her accompanying horse and rider in concern which quickly turned to alarm. “Nirn,” she called to him urgently noting his unnatural positioning the saddle. Getting no response from him, she brought Randir up carefully alongside and reaching over, took hold of the reins that were gripped tightly in Nirnaeth’s hands. She pulled back firmly yet gently, echoing the movement with her bay’s reins as well. “I’m fine,” he murmured with a grimace as she leapt from the seat of her still moving horse and stood next to him, trying to scrutinize the stoic captain in the now cursed blackness of the night. Randir took a few steps further and stopped, dropping his head to the ground and sucking air into his lungs. “You’re not,” Rhiannon responded. “Something’s wrong. You’re…” She pulled her hand back from his leg as she felt the warm stickiness that had seeped from his wound, soaking the side of his shirt and down onto his leggings. “Bleeding.” Without asking another question, she strode to where Randir stood, ignoring the protestations that were coming from the man. Lifting the stallion’s head, she gently eased the Elven leather of his bridle over his ears, removing it. She murmured a few words of Elvish into his equine ears, grabbed her saddle bags and with the crack of her hand against his rump punctuating the night’s silence, sent him off into the night. “Rhi, we have to …. It’s not that….” Nirnaeth protested. Still she remained silent as an unfamiliar anger burned in her blood. Taking the reins from his hands, she led his horse to a nearby fallen tree and used it to gingerly mount in front of the wounded man. “Can you hold onto me,” she asked, her voice gentle and soothing. “Come on, my hero. Hold on,” she encouraged as she gripped the sides of his horse with her leather clad knees. Clucking encouragement to the unfamiliar ride, she snapped the reins and urged him forward into a gently rocking canter. “Hold on, nin’melda,” she commanded gently though her eyes glittered fiercely. “Just hold on.” They rode through the night as swiftly as Nirnaeth’s ride could negotiate with two riders. Rhiannon hummed and sang, weaving tunes of fortitude, soothing, and strength into one seamless tune. The dawn birds were just beginning to stir as the horse and riders turned into the yard of The Silver Blades. All was quiet as the tempo of hoofbeats slowed and stopped. Rhiannon slipped carefully from the saddle still singing, still talking in quiet tones to the man who had ceased to respond miles ago. The front door to the building opened and footsteps hurried towards them. “My Captain” quietly exclaimed an aging voice with concern. A man, not quite elderly came quickly beside the cloaked woman and helped her to divest the horse of its remaining, slumping rider. “Arneodiad, I presume,” Rhiannon spoke quickly and without waiting for reply. “Help me get him inside. Carefully. I know not where his wound is though I can guess.” Of course, Lady Rhiannon,” he replied as he helped to shoulder the limp man’s weight. He turned as if to call for more assistance until he felt a hand on his arm. “Please, don’t wake the others just yet,” she beseeched. “I don’t believe he is in any immediate danger, but I need to be able to assess his wound quickly. If it turns out to be nothing more than a scratch, he won’t want a fuss made.” She squeezed his arm encouragingly. “If it is something I can’t handle, we’ll summon for help immediately. I promise.” The older man studied her for a moment, making a decision. Though he had never met the woman, he knew quite a bit about her from listening to his captain. Nirnaeth’s descriptions of her were so accurate that even in the misty light of morning there could be no mistaking her identity. “Quickly. The adventurers will be rising soon.” He gestured for a boy to take the lone horse to the stables. Rhiannon grabbed her saddlebags as it passed by. The pair half-carried, half-dragged the kin leader through the hall and up the many stairs to the small set of rooms at the top of the building. They continued through the sitting area that also doubled as a small office and into the modest bedroom they took him. As Arneodiad, laid the unconscious form on the bed, Rhiannon shut the door and closed the shutters. Exhaustion pulled at her eyes and the corners of her mouth as she grabbed her bags and re-entered the sleeping area. “Leave him, Arn,” she said quietly as she placed a comforting hand on the man’s arm. “I’ll need some things. Don’t tell anyone we’re here yet.” She rattled off a list of items that she felt they might need and then turned to Nirnaeth on the bed. She waited until she heard the door close as Arn hurried out. Again a surge of anger shot through her as she carefully stroked his face and brushed the silver hair away. She touched his forehead, checking for signs of fever. Singing quietly under her breath, she removed his cloak, rolling him carefully and wincing when he groaned. The area of the wound was more apparent as his shirt was freshly soaked. Reaching into her bag, she withdrew a small, sharp blade and carefully sliced through his shirt, peeling it back from his torso, revealing his attempt at bandaging. She heard a rattle of crockery behind her and waved Arn closer. Looking over the tray of items she nodded approvingly and gestured for him to set it down. “In the bag, good sir. Bring me the pouches.” She carefully cut the bandages apart and with great tenderness separated them from the wound. She seemed to examine the edges of the traumatized area, bending her head low to smell it. “There do not seem to be any signs of poison,” she concluded. “There is no discolouration, no odor,” she pointed carefully to the precise edges of the slash. “There are no signs of necrosis.” She took some rags and dipped them into the water, wringing them out before beginning to clean the area. “He was lucky.” Nirnaeth moaned at the ministrations. Pointing to one of the pouches, she directed Arn to brew a strong tea from it. “It smells awful and doesn’t taste much better. Oh, or if there is any beef broth to be had… you could seep it in a mixture of equal parts water and broth. He’s lost a lot of blood and will need to recover his strength quickly.” Again, the faithful man servant left them and she returned to her duties. Taking another of the pouches, she opened it and sprinkled the wound with a powdered herb. Leaving it to seep into the open wound, she noted with satisfaction that clotting was finally beginning as the blood thickened and congealed. The ride could have fatally hindered the process by not giving the wound time to set. She hoped they were in time. Removing a small piece of folded leather from her trusty bag of tricks, she opened it to reveal a set of needles. Checking the skin around the wound once more, she chose a needle and an appropriate weight thread. As she threaded the needle with precision, Arn returned with the drink. “Let it cool for a few minutes, please,” she asked. “Would you please sit there, next to him. You may need to hold his shoulders down. I don’t imagine he’ll be too much trouble. He’s very weak.” She leaned her lips close to Nirnaeth’s ear. “Be still, Nirnaeth. This may hurt. Be still.” She touched his cheek and began to sing again. With careful stitches, she pulled the edges of the wound together, anchoring each stitch with a fine knot. To her surprise, Nirnaeth lay quiet and still. So still that she would occasionally take his wrist and feel for his life beat. Finally, the once gaping wound was now a tidy line with almost decorative tassels of raven black. She stood to examine her work, then bent and kissed Nirnaeth’s forehead. “You can give him the broth now, Arn,” she said wearily. “He’ll need some clean clothes and…” “I know, my lady,” Arn said not unkindly. “Go sit by the fire and rest. You look as if you are going to fall down any moment.” “Thank you,” she looked uncertain, unwilling to leave his side. She tidied up her belongings and removed a slim, leather bound book from within her bag. She laid it carefully on the small table by the bedside and touched his hair once again. “The drink should help him rest more easily as well.” “Oh, m’lady,” Arn stopped her as she moved across the room. “I thought you would want to know that your horse has arrived. I’ve had him stabled with the other.” She smiled her thanks and pulled a chair as close to the fire as possible, still within sight of her patient. Her slender frame had begun to shake from the stress of the night’s activities. The aroma of a fruit tea caught her attention and she noticed the generous mug of the still warm liquid on a nearby table and smiled. “Nirnaeth is right. You are a treasure, Arn.” Taking it between her palms, she warmed her hands and drank from it. Liberally laced with brandy, she grinned as the warmth of it absorbed into her bloodstream. “A true treasure.” The day was brightening. The birds where singing and as the morning broke, Rhiannon finally slept. She did not even stir when a soft blanket was draped around her upright form. The sun was well past the midday mark when Nirnaeth awoke with a start, the memory of the previous evening crashing through the black wall of unconsciousness his mind had laid behind. He sat up very slowly and gingerly, taking in the sleeping Rhiannon , the neat row of stitches in his still throbbing side, and the little extras in the room such as the drink within Rhiannon’s reach that were sure signs that Arn was about. His eyes rested on her sleeping form for a while, then he noticed the small leather book placed strategically by his beside. Careful not to strain his new stitches, he picked up the book and began to read. Arn came in with some broth, and forced him to stop reading while he spoon fed him its contents, but aside from this interruption, Nirnaeth was undisturbed in his reading. He read slowly, steadily, his already pale face looking more and more drawn as he turned the pages. His gaze would rest from time to time on the still-sleeping Rhiannon. "However did she find the strength to deal with all this" he marvelled, "and still have such a heart, such lightness in her? To have gone through all that, and still find the hope and the strength to sing again!" Towards the end of the book, his grim visage lightened and gave way to a boyish smile. "Spun starlight" he muttered, blushing slightly. He kept reading, until at last he came to last page. "1754 years old," he exclaimed. Then he read the final lines, and then re-read them. And read them again, his eyes shining. Arn returned, and Nirnaeth quickly closed the book and placed it back on the table. "You're looking better already" Arn said as he inspected the recuperating man. "She has a rare talent for healing does that one," Arn noted, nodding at the sleeping elf. "Now, let's get some more of this broth in you." After Arn's ministrations were seen off once more, Nirnaeth gingerly moved from the bed and lowered himself into the chair next to Rhiannon. She still slept deeply, but the lines of exhaustion had gone from her face. It was a shame to wake her, but he needed to tell her his tale from the previous evening, more than ever after reading her own. He shook her shoulder gently with his good arm. "Wake up Rhiannon" he said softly... Wrapped in the safety of a dreamless blackness, for her exhaustion and distress had finally forced her body to simply shut down, she had not noticed when someone sat near her. However, when Nirnaeth touched her shoulder she jumped, a startled deer in an unfamiliar forest. She quickly remembered where she was and how she came to be there. A smile broke over her features as she recognized Nirnaeth and then clouded over into a frown. “You shouldn’t be out of bed,” she scolded as she stretched the stiffness out of her legs and back. “If you’ve ruined all my handiwork, I’ll… I’ll….” Her lower lip trembled for a moment as the relief that he was still alive and breathing washed through her. She lowered her head and closed her eyes. “I was afraid I had lost you.” With a snap her head shot up. “And what did you think you were doing riding out in the middle of the night with a hole the size of the Gap of Rohan in your side?” She grabbed his nearest hand firmly, almost punishingly. “When Pansy nearly knocked me off my horse, I thought you had lost your mind… not half your weight in blood!” Nirnaeth, looking uncomfortable, blushed. Rhiannon waited for the inevitable denial, that there was nothing to worry about. Her stoic hero to pretend everything was all right. Nirnaeth opened his mouth to speak. "I'm sorry, Rhiannon", he said. "I should have told you once we got out of Bree, but I had thought I could manage without worrying you any further than you already were, and I didn't want us to stop in case there were more of them. Instead, I've made matters worse, and put you through even more worry." He squeezed her hand back, "I won't do that to you again" "Well, you're right about that.." Rhiannon began, then realised what Nirnaeth had said. "What do you mean about more of them? More of whom? What exactly did happen in the Pony last night?" Nirnaeth told her about the events of the previous evening, sparing no detail. ”I will have to have words with Arn about allowing you to leave without being armed in some way. These are dangerous times that we live in Nirnaeth, as you well know,” she said solemnly. “ It’s a lesson I learned a long time ago and I’ve never forgotten it. I suspect that you know it as well, but may have been… distracted.” She chewed her lower lip as she considered the circumstances. "It was my choice to go unarmed" Nirnaeth said. "You cannot blame yourself for my actions." He tried a reassuring smile "Besides, I could have taken every weapon I possess and it still wouldn't have stopped me being stabbed in my sleep." Rhiannon did not look reassured. "If you had been wearing your armour, it would have turned the blade" she retorted. "The mention of the blade recalled to her a question she had meant to ask before. “You say that you took the man’s weapon. Do you still have it,” she queried. “I had it with me. I don’t know where it is now, the ride, and my…. injury, I don’t know what became of it.” He looked disappointed in himself. “I’m sorry.” As if summoned, Arn appeared in the doorway and cleared his throat to alert them of his presence before entering. Carrying a small tray, he stepped within and set it on a nearby table. It held two steaming mugs of which one had to be the fruit tea from the previous evening judging by the smell, a bowl of thick stew accompanied a plate of crusty bread and some sliced fruit. In the middle of the tray, lay the dagger. “I thought perhaps my lord could move to a more solid food,” Arn asked Rhiannon with polite deference. “Since he seems to think he is well enough to leave his bed, I thought perhaps it was in order.” “That’s fine, Arn,” Rhiannon responded warmly. “The bread is fresh and I brought the fruit for you. I was not sure what food preferences you have. I could bring something else for you if you like.” “No, thank you,” she smiled. “My appetite has not quite returned to me. This will be fine.” She lifted the dagger from the tray and inspected it carefully. “I found that among my lord’s things last night. I’m sorry if I’ve done wrongly, but I did clean it,” Arn explained. “It was covered with blood and you had said that there were no signs of poison…” his words trailed off when he realized that she was focusing on the object and not him. “If there had been poison, we would know it by now,” she said distractedly. Nirnaeth thanked Arn and picked up his bowl of stew. “What are you thinking?” He pushed the plate of fruit closer to her encouragingly. Her face had closed off all expression as if a curtain had dropped between them. She turned the blade over and over between her fingers, checking the balance, examining the carved and etched handle. Carefully, she checked the point and the sharpness of the blade. “You’re the weaponsmith,” she said coolly as she presented the weapon to him handle first. “What do you see?” Nirnaeth took it carefully from her and began his own assessment. He looked at it from all angles, judging it, estimating its value, determining its worth as a blade. He felt its weight and closely scrutinized the handle. After a few minutes he looked at her. “I would have been ashamed to die by this blade,” he commented drily. “It’s Elven in design, but it appears to be almost a copy of another weapon. The balance is poor, the workmanship on the handle is obviously not original and must have come from a mould where the original would have been done by hand. The stones are fake.” He set it down on the table and looked at her questioningly. “I see a message,” she said quietly. “If the assassin would have succeeded in the mission, the blade would have been left in your body. If he did not, you would find it. In any case, I would eventually see it.” She tried to look to his bedside to see if the book had been moved, but she couldn’t see past him. “There are things you should know.” “And I do,” he responded quietly tilting his head to catch her gaze. "I read it,” he said glancing at the journal half-hidden under the pillow. "About him, and the ring. You think that that Angmarim is Firbir, don't you? That's why you came riding to me in such a mad hurry." She nodded, numbly. "I think you're right" he said, and he described the flash of memory he had had the previous evening. "It was when he came, and called you “princess.” You surprised him with that kick, do you remember, and he fell?" She nodded briefly" Something about that unsettled me, but with the beating and the rescue, I was driven from my mind. Only last night did it return to me." He paused slightly, then spoke slowly. "When he landed, his hood fell back for a moment. He had elven ears. I'm sorry, Rhiannon." She shook her head. "I think I knew anyway, but like you, needed the time to realise it" “I …. I have been having dreams,” she said quietly. “Dreams that centered around our…. Imprisonment. Finally, that night, I was able to see more in the dream than previously, a scar, his hands… the rings.” She involuntarily shuddered. “Mine recovered, his reforged.” Her hands twisted in her lap. “And then Raveniel told me about a rumour that started before our abduction about someone diving in the harbour at Celondim.” Her hands stilled. “In my heart, I knew. I needed to see you. Speak to you. Find out if you had any memories. I needed to know that you were alright.” She gave a half-smile and attempted a glare. “Which you weren’t.” Nirnaeth gave her a weak smile in return. “As you seem to like to remind me at every opportunity.” They sat in silence together, yet alone in their thoughts. “Why do you think he…” “I don’t know.” The dangerous glitter to her eyes returned. “There is no love lost between us. No grand betrayal…. On my part at least.” She pondered. “I’ve always seen him as some reincarnation of Eol.” “But, I thought he left with your… with Vonavin,” he prodded. The stew was long since gone and he plucked a slice of bread from the plate. He looked at Rhiannon's untouched plate. “Do I need to get Arn over here to feed you,” he said with a quirked brow. “He can be very persuasive.” Rhiannon reached out and selected a few pieces of the fruit before resettling herself in her seat. “Who knows what happened once the ship left shore? He may have disembarked further downstream, or for all I know they may have thrown him into the Lhun after being exposed to his arrogance for too long.” She popped another piece of fruit into her mouth. Having tasted its sweetness, her appetite seemed to be reviving. “You,” she said as she stood, “are looking tired, and I need to check those stitches before you fall asleep again.” She planted herself in front of him and offered him her hands. “Come on. Let’s go.” “I’m perfectly capable of … whoa,” he said as he stood too quickly, making himself slightly dizzy. He grabbed her hands reflexively and she slipped closer to support him. Using her as a guide, they carefully returned to his bedside. Starlight was once more winking in the night sky. He sat carefully, trying to hide the wince as his soreness made itself apparent. “Stay there, please,” she ordered as she went in search of her bag. “Yes, Miss,” he murmured. “As if I could go very far…. Or would want to.” Rhiannon’s heart skipped a beat and she allowed herself a small and genuine smile. He must be feeling better. She felt her face warm with pleasure. “Watch it,” she called back to him. “I heard that.” She was careful to regain her composure before turning to face him. “Pointy ears, remember?” She carried with her a small jar of salve as she crossed the room. Rhi sat on her heels as she lifted the bottom hem of the clean shirt that Arn had managed to get on Nirnaeth while they had both slept. Her fingers gently touched it for signs of heat. “No, no infection.” She checked the stitches and when she was satisfied that all was as it should be, opened the salve. Dipping her first two fingers into the greasy looking goop, she tenderly applied it to the area conscious of the little grunts of discomfort that occasionally came from her patient. She hummed softly in response. “I’ll leave some of this with Arn when I leave,” she told him as she helped him to lie back into his bed and straightened to stand. “It will help keep the area supple so you don’t….” She nearly yipped in surprise as his hand caught her wrist and pulled her closer. “Leave,” he said seriously with no sign of the previous humour in his voice. “Where do you think you are going?” “Nowhere soon, evidently,” she said dryly, arching her eyebrow. “We have much to discuss, Nirn,” she responded, her voice softening, soothing. She sat on the edge of the bed, removing his fingers gently from her wrist and stroking his hand in a calming manner. "And we can't do anything yet with you in this state," Rhiannon continued. "Rest, and then we'll decide what needs to be done, what can be done.” Her face and voice were once again showing signs of weariness, the spectre of her past returning. "I will" Nirnaeth replied. "But, first, there is something else I need to tell you." It know it's not the best time, but..." His voice trailed off and he swallowed nervously. "When I said I had read it, I didn't mean just the bit about Firbir." He clasped both her hands, looked at her intently. "I read all of it. Right to the last page." "And?" she said, trying to remain impassive, her voice neutral, refusing to meet his eyes for fear of what she would find there. Nirnaeth smiled. "I liked the ending very much" he said. "Very much indeed." “I’m glad,” she replied as a wide smile curled itself like a satisfied cat across her lips. She leaned forward and pressed her lips to his forehead and looked at him directly. “No matter what the coming days bring, remember those words and that they are the truest words ever written for I wrote them from my heart.” She touched his hair fondly before moving her chair to his bedside. Curling her legs beneath herself, she settled into it, tucking a blanket around her legs. “Now, sleep and heal, Nirnaeth. I will watch over you.” She kept her vigil until his breathing deepened and evened out as he drifted into healing slumber and then she closed her eyes as well.
The night passed slowly. Rhiannon slept fitfully, waking often at the noises of the unfamiliar place. She would arise and check Nirnaeth, a touch to his forehead, fingers on his wrist before resettling herself from her watchful perch. The stars still shone when she surrendered to her fate and passed from the bedroom into the informal sitting room. Arn rose from his seat as she entered. “Go get some sleep, faithful one,” she said gently. “You’ve been long without rest. I’ll keep watch since peace evades me.” The older man murmured something about making her some more tea and left her alone in the small room. It held a few chairs and table. A fireplace with a dying fire warmed the room. Rhiannon moved restlessly, fidgeting with this and that. The confirmation of her fear should have calmed her with the knowing, but instead she felt flighty. She felt….. angry. “How dare he,” she muttered to herself. “How DARE he? I was nothing to him. Nothing.” She padded silently across the floor, pacing with catlike fluidity. Her eyes spotted the dagger that they had examined not so long ago. Arn had removed it from the bedroom and now it sat on what Nirnaeth appeared to use as a desk of sorts. Her hands reached for it. Handling it gingerly as if it might find a way to pierce her on its own, she looked at the blade and all she could see was Nirnaeth’s side, gaping, bleeding. His life blood spilling scarlet on his pale skin. His hands clammy and lifeless. His eyes closed. His lips cold to the touch. Sticking the blade in her belt, she felt the sudden need to flee. He had almost been killed. “Because of me,” she whispered hoarsely, raggedly. With a flurry of activity, she packed up her belonging, her pouches, her needles. Torn between fight and flight, she stood looking in at the sleeping man. Trying to memorize the planes of his face, the curve of his lips, the arch of his eyebrows. With a sigh, she knew she could never leave without speaking to him. Taking her saddle bags into the bedroom with her, she sat in her position of vigilance and began to watch over him as she had promised to do. “You promised him,” she whispered to herself. “You promised.” The sky was showing no signs of the coming dawn and Nirnaeth was showing no signs of awakening. She couldn’t keep still, couldn’t find comfort in her chair. Finally, with a sigh, she did what she was afraid she would never be able to do if she didn’t take this one chance. She removed her boots with great care, setting them next to her seat. The cursed knife was removed from her belt and she tucked it carefully in one of her packs. She studied his face once more before moving to the other side of the bed, the side where his body was unmarred by violence, pain, or danger. Carefully, so as to not disturb him, she crept onto the bed and gingerly, timidly moulded herself to him, her head resting on his chest. Absorbing his warmth through the blanket between them, she closed her eyes and committed the feeling to more than her memory, but etched it onto her soul. She held her breath as he stirred next to her, ready to escape if needed. His arm moved protectively around her shoulders and held her in place, and still he slept. Listening to him breathe, hearing the sound of his heart beating inside his chest, she was calmed and finally fell into the sleep that had eluded her. She did not register when, once again, unseen hands covered her with a blanket to ward off the chill. Nirnaeth woke first. As he surfaced from his dreaming, a soft smile played on his lips. His eyes took in the room, the bags packed, the boots by the chair, and finally he dared to look down at the sleeping form nestled against his side. It was no dream that would melt like morning mist before the rising sun, it was flesh and blood and real. “She stayed” he whispered to himself. He allowed himself the luxury of just lying there, enjoying her. The handle of the knife caught his eye and he knew he couldn’t stay there forever, no matter how hard he wished. There were matters at hand to be dealt with. Matters that required his attention. “Our attention,” he amended in his mind. She was letting him in. Would she push him out again? He reluctantly gave her shoulders a squeeze with his arm and whispered against her hair, “Rhiannon.” He kept his voice calm. “Rhiannon.” A long, drawn out groan rumbled next to him and he could feel her body stretching against his with her characteristically feline grace. Suddenly he thought his heart was going to leap out of his chest, such was the strength of the emotion that he found himself engulfed by. “Oh, no,” came a strangled cry as she realized where she was. “I was supposed to wake up first! I shouldn’t still be here! I’m so sorry,” she jabbered as she tried to untangle herself from his arm and the blanket. The arm suddenly tightened and she was held captive. “Deep breath, Rhi,” came a chuckle beside her. “That chair couldn’t have been very comfortable. I’m surprised you lasted that long.” He kept his voice light and calm and allowed his arm to relax as she relaxed as well. He scarcely dared to move for fear of giving her a reason to leave. “Just lie there and talk to me, Rhiannon,” he asked. “Tell me what’s on your mind. What are you thinking? Where are you going?” Her silence stretched between them, creating a chasm that Nirnaeth knew he could not cross without her permission. He almost feared her lost to him when she rolled into him, and propping her head on her hand, looked him in eye. “I feel…. I feel like I should leave you,” she started uncertainly. Unaccustomed to actually sharing her thoughts with someone, putting them into words was strangely difficult. She swallowed nervously and let the next words tumble out. “You need rest and healing and every minute I’m with you, every moment I’m near… I feel as if I’m putting you in further danger.” She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, summoning the courage to continue. To the casual observer the pair would appear to be lovers caught in a pose of longing, but the words would betray the darker thoughts that passed between them. “Nirnaeth,” she began and then stopped as her mind tried to rebuild the walls that were crumbling around her. The song in her heart, his song, was turning stone to sand and breeching the carefully constructed fortress that she had worked so hard to build. “I’m just so… afraid.” She admitted. “I don’t know WHAT to do.” Her hands fluttered between them like a pair of trapped birds, picking and fussing with the simple tunic that he wore. Nirnaeth realised his words would be very important in deciding what happened next. His eyes held hers. “Rhiannon, stop,” he said firmly as he captured her hands and trapped them on his chest. “You don’t know if he is responsible for this. What if this has nothing at all to do with you? What if it is just a coincidence?” He sighed as she freed her hands and gingerly climbed over him. Though the bed was simple and narrow in design, it suddenly felt very empty. Carefully, he turned himself onto his back once more before sitting up. “Rhi, what is it?” She retrieved the knife from where she had stashed it and turned back to the bed. As Nirnaeth sat up she crossed back and helped him adjust the pillows so that he was more comfortable. She laid the blade at his side while she fetched the salve to treat his wound. As she worked the balm into the skin carefully avoiding the scab and the stitching, she spoke quietly to him. “I have learned so much from you. You have given me so much,” she murmured. He watched her eyes as they examined him. When she stopped speaking, her eyebrows came together in a frown of indecision. “Rhiannon,” he questioned softly. Her look flickered as he spoke her name and it seemed as if a weight lifted from her shoulders. She made her decision. “I’ll show you what I know,” she looked to him in the bed and then to the chair with her eyes returning to his face. Picking up the blade once more, she crawled across him again, returning to his side. “And if you … can’t…. if you don’t…,” she shook her head. “I’ll understand.” She kept a distance between them, giving him space. “You said that this blade was a copy, a replica, and you are correct. It is,” she spoke as her fingers traced the lines and symbols of it on its handle. “I am well acquainted with the original.” She handed the dagger to him handle first, careful not to let their fingers touch. “You know, of course, that Elves can have three names. One is given by their mother, one by their father, and the third can be given later in life by someone of respect. Firbir is his mother name. His father name is Draugfir, loosely translated into common as ‘dark wolf.’ If you look at the end of the hilt, you will see it. The Elven drawn dark wolf.” She turned her back to him and quickly undid the tie of her undertunic. Pulling the neckline loose, she dropped the material low on her the curve of her back. Nirnaeth’s silence was deafening to her. Though the sun was well up, the room felt dark to her. “Look to my left shoulder,” she said quietly. As the calloused finger pulled the clothing further down and brushed her skin, she flinched and dropped her head. A sharp intake of breath was the only response. “I was practically the walking dead. It caused me no pain.” A tear slipped down her cheek and landed on her hand, surprising her. “Make no mistake, I fought him. With every ounce of my being I fought him….but when the metal burned into my flesh, I did not scream. I did not even whimper. I would not give him that.” “You mentioned the blade’s balance,” she continued. “Turn the end… at what looks like a seam.” She heard the familiar scrape of metal being turned. “I was going to wait until I had left to open it, but now…” She heard the scroll slide out of the hilt into his hand. “Don’t read it. Please.” Still she did not turn to look at him, afraid of what she would see. “What will you do now, my star-kissed captain,” she spoke with an edge of bitterness in her voice. “Will you let me go? I may yet save us both. Or are you going to read that scroll and bind your fate to my own?” The question hung in the air between them. Despite their physical proximity, it suddenly felt as though they were worlds apart; this question now between them. Rhiannon had retreated into her world, would he follow her? And what would be the price if he did? Or if he didn't? He saw the choices clearly now. If he read the scroll, what then? What dark paths might the knowledge take him on, and to what end? Even if all he wished for came true, they might have some two-score years together, before he grew old, died. He would have half a lifetime of happiness. But she would carry on, without him, immortal and undying. She would have to carry the memory of her sorrow through all the long years after his death. Could he do that to her? Would he want to? Did she know what she asked? And what of his kinsmen? Didn't he have a responsibility to them too? They had rescued him from Firbir once, he could not ask them to do so again. Or. He played out the choice in his mind. He could choose not to read the scroll, release Rhiannon from the doom he held her in. She would be hurt, but she was strong. She had all the time in the world. And she could deal with Firbir alone, he was sure of that. Perhaps better than if she had to worry about a mortal Captain at her side. He would regret it for the rest of his life, but compared to the unnumbered years that she would have to live without him if he bound himself to her, it would be a small price to pay. All this passed through his mind in an instant, the sweet and the bitter. He well understood the bitter edge in her voice, for this question would lead to sorrow, no matter how he answered. He touched her shoulder lightly and without words, she turned to him. Her face was an impassive mask of pale marble. She lifted her chin and raised her eyes to meet his. There was no expectation there. No hopeful light. She was a woman convicted by her heart, awaiting sentencing by her past. His eyes met hers solemnly. "Do you know how often I've made this choice in my head? I have answered this question in my mind a thousand times over, and a thousand times more." He shook his head. "I never thought the decision would ever truly present itself. I know well that you understand what you ask, for I see it in your eyes and hear it in your voice." He gathered himself. He would have once chance to make this answer, he knew, and if he faltered, if he let her interrupt, or paused, his courage might fail him. He spoke, deciding his fate and ultimately hers. "We have been living a dream, Rhiannon."