Author’s Note: Please forgive the crappy formatting of the previous chapter, ff.net likes to bugger up my pretty pages and make them ugly. I can’t seem to fix it.
The Fall of Night, Part 11
14 January 3019
A sen’night since we have left Bree, and a wonder that I still have all my fingers and toes. The snow is both deep and heavy as we travel the Andrath Greenway between the two halves of the South Downs, very hard going indeed. I suggested to Rűmil that we might benefit from acquiring a sleigh, the easier and quicker to travel, but he looked at me as if I’d lost my senses. How was I to know to elves think conveyances like sleighs are silly, and bad luck, as well?
My horse, Lagor, is fine and sure-footed; he also excels at staying near his comrades when the snow falls thickly and I cannot see to steer him. I do not think Rűmil would allow me to perish, but there is no gentleness in his words or manner when he wheels back to ensure I am still with them. I do not rely on him, but on Lagor, to keep me from wandering too far astray.
We are camped at Sarn Ford, at the southron end of The Shire. Many Hobbits have we seen since leaving Bree. They have invited us to join them in meals, to pass the night in their homes, but Rűmil refuses them all. I think he believes, with good reason as I recall the enthusiasm of the Ringbearer’s companions, that we will get sidetracked by their effusive hospitality and delay our journey.
That has not stopped him, however, from encouraging poor Eręgmorn from trying their pipe-weed. Of all the elves who accompany us, Eręgmorn has been the sweetest to me, and I feel it most unkind for the others to laugh so hard at his reddened face and watering eyes as he coughed and coughed… one would think an elf of his years would know better than to trust a one as Rűmil. I am beginning to believe Brethil another of his trickster-ilk, for he was the one who purchased the pipe-weed in the first place.
Eręgmorn is still terribly hurt over some wager those two made back in Bree. Rűmil is most put out that Brethil won the bet, whatever it was. Still, Eręgmorn’s annoyance is my benefit, for each time they tease him he comes to join me, and we spend a pleasant hour talking before Brethil or Rűmil sends another jibe his way and he feels honour-bound to engage them in argument. While we ride side-by-side and chat, Rűmil sends many irked glances our way. He must begrudge me any companionship or pleasure whatsoever, for him to glare so hotly at me.
And should Eręgmorn happen to touch me, when assisting me on or off Lagor or over a hillock of snow, Rűmil looks positively furious, as if he would strike Eręgmorn. He wishes to isolate me completely, but I will not let him. If Eręgmorn wishes friendship with me, he shall have it. We have yet another month to travel, perhaps more, and I do not intend to refuse whatever small kindness may come my way.
We follow the Baranduin now and true to its name, its waters, too swift to freeze, are a deep gold-brown that remind me of Nana’s eyes. I still see them every night, see them gazing upon me with peace and love as she says, “I am finished, Lalaith.” I denied her completion. Her rest, I prevented. I think of her lying in that bed, Elrond speaking to her unhearing ears as Aerlinn watches with worried eyes, Nana’s hands idle for the first time in her long life, and feel shame so deep I can hardly keep from ripping at my hair, clawing at my skin.
Apart from the weather, we have had no trouble. Rűmil worries about orcs, I know, but none have we seen so far. It is my fond hope that this trend continues, as in a battle I will be worse than useless and would not want to cause another to be harmed in protecting me. In spite of their jovial exteriors, both Rűmil and Brethil are brave warriors, courageous and swift, and would not hesitate to fling themselves in front of me.
I must finish now, as the fire is lit and it is my turn to cook our supper. Eręgmorn has said he will help me, to make sure it will suit an elven palate. Even now, Rűmil shoots me apprehensive glances, and I know he worries that my cuisine will not please.
Eru, keep us safe, and guard well the Fellowship. I worry for Legolas, and hope he does not despair as the darkness grows.
Lalaith took her seat between Eręgmorn and Brethil, watching in satisfaction as the rabbit stew she had prepared, with much unsolicited advice from the latter and Rűmil, was eagerly devoured after the first hesitant spoonfuls.
“Tis excellent,” Rűmil admitted grudgingly when he held out his bowl for a second helping. She ladled for him mostly gravy and vegetables, with few of the succulent bits of meat (but much gristle and cartilage), and he frowned down at it as he returned to his seat by the fire.
“You need not sound so surprised,” she sniffed at him, and heaped loads of rabbit in Eręgmorn’s bowl, with just a bit of carrot on the side, for garnish it would seem. “Do not stuff yourselves, for I thickened it with lembas.”
“It is an honour to have you with us on this journey, my lady,” Eręgmorn told her with grave courtesy.
“She is the reason for this journey,” Rűmil informed him, waving his arm expansively to indicate their surroundings. “We have her to thank for these luxurious accommodations.”
Lalaith was gripped by the urge to empty the remaining contents of the iron pot over his golden hair. She imagined how he would look with brown sauce dripping down his braids, a carrot resting atop his head, chunks of rabbit drifting down on his shoulders like so many snowflakes. A strange sound issued forth from her, rusty and harsh, like old hinges that had long fallen into disrepair.
“What was that?” Eręgmorn asked solicitously. “Are you quite well?”
She found the rest of them all regarding her with curiosity, and not a little concern. “I… I think that was a laugh,” she said cautiously. “Though I cannot be sure.”
“It did not sound much like a laugh,” Brethil contemplated. “It sounded more like the death cry of a badger.”
Lalaith sighed. “Have you nothing to add?” she asked of the silent Rűmil.
Could it be? he wondered. How was it possible that she could suffer a cruel blow, could participate uncomplainingly on a voyage that would have been cripplingly difficult even in the best time of year, could endure not-so-subtle mockery and treatment that bordered on abuse, and yet develop, against all odds, a sense of humour?
Well, not as such, he amended as he stared back at her. Her moment of amusement had fled as quickly as it had come, and the noise she made had sounded more like a bark than a laugh. It was not an entire sense of humour as much as the beginning stirrings of one, the germ of what could grow into something more…
She was glaring at him now, and he realized he had not answered her question. The flames snapped and crackled between them, reflecting in her eyes, and time seemed to stretch in a most odd way. Rűmil could almost be convinced that the others simply disappeared, leaving only he and Lalaith. Firelight gilded the smooth curves of cheek and brow, turning her dark hair to bronze, and he blinked to realize that he was very much wishing to kiss her.
Shaking his head, time resumed its normal course. Lalaith stared at him a moment longer until Eręgmorn plucked at her sleeve, wanting her attention, and she turned away. Brethil elbowed him and muttered something, but Rűmil ignored him, standing and striding off toward the horses. He found a curry brush and began to groom the coat of one of the already-gleaming beasts. It was a half-hour before he realized it was Lagor, Lalaith’s own mount. The knowledge made him scowl.
Rűmil did not like this turn of events. He had taken on leadership of this group out of loyalty to his brother, knowing Haldir would want to be sure that Naurë’s remedy was coming at all speed. Hadn’t he? Taking a comb, he turned his attentions to Lagor’s mane. It did not please him to think that Lalaith was becoming more to him than merely the overly-serious granddaughter of his brother’s friend. After her mistake with the remedy, he had been sure that Lalaith was nothing but a spoilt child, destined only to make miserable whichever sad fellow she married with her lack of smiles and inability to laugh.
But he had been mistaken, as had Elladan and Elrohir, he thought unhappily, and began on Lagor’s tail, combing and then braiding it. They had all been wrong, for she was not unable to laugh, it would seem. He wondered what had been the catalyst for the extraordinary event, what extraordinary thought had sparked her amusement. Casting his mind back over the conversation like a fisherman with a net, he simply could not find anything so funny that it would manage to accomplish the impossible. Brethil’s badger comment had been more sour than droll, and hardly anything Eręgmorn said was funny, though he thought otherwise.
Lagor turned a great, brown eye on him, as if to say, “You can delay returning to camp no longer, silly elf,” and Rűmil sighed. It was foolish to spend so much time contemplating the actions of a female, especially a mortal one.
Lalaith refused Eręgmorn’s offer of help in washing up, making her way carefully down the path the elves had cleared to the shore of the Baranduin. It was slick, and after the first two spills she took, the elves began to ignore the clattering of the metal bowls as they crashed to the ground. Glad she was of the thickness of her skirts and cloak; the extra padding was much appreciated each time she landed on her backside.
She washed the bowls, spoons, and pot as quickly as possible, but even so her hands swiftly became numb with cold from the water. Stacking them, she tried to wrap the cold metal in her cloak, but that made it too tight to walk carefully down the icy path, and down she tumbled once more.
Grumbling under her breath, she lay on her back a long moment and stared up. It was overcast, the sky thick with low-hanging clouds the colour of charcoal. It snowed but lightly, and Lalaith remembered a time not too long ago with her cousin, Coru. They had lain in the snow with their mouths open, catching snowflakes on their tongues. Coru had laughed at both the pinpricks of cold in his mouth, quickly melted, and the silliness of such actions at their grand ‘old’ ages of fourteen and sixteen.
Closing her eyes, she wondered where Coru was that night, if he were aboard his ship, if the rocking of the waves lulled him to sleep. Or perhaps he was in Umbar, land of the Corsairs. He had told her many stories of that hot desert land. Did he sit beneath a palm tree, eating candied dates as a dark-eyed gypsy girl danced for him alone? Lalaith stuck out her tongue to capture a few snowflakes before pushing herself up on her elbows.
Then she gasped, for standing on the path before her, watching silently, was Rűmil. “I heard the crash,” he said quietly, explaining his presence, and stooped to pick up the scattered bowls. She watched enviously as he managed to juggle them without apparent effort in one hand, and grasped her elbow in the other, helping her to her feet.
“Thank you,” she told him, and tried to move away from him, but his grip, while gentle, was firm and he would not let her go. She frowned. That had been an odd expression on his face, just now… most odd, indeed. Almost as if he didn’t hate her. It means nothing, she told her heart, which had started beating at an alarming pace.
Once back in camp, she spread out her meagre pallet and lay down, drawing her cloak tightly round before pulling up the woolly blankets. Eręgmorn lay on his back beside her, offering a small smile of goodnight, and she edged just a smidgen closer, hoping to share his heat. It was not long before she slept.
Rűmil took his time packing away the supplies. He had first watch that night, and sat by the fire as the others settled to their rest. His eyes were drawn, over and over, to the hillock of fabric across the fire. He knew Lalaith suffered from the cold, but never had she said a word. Nor did she seem to notice how she seemed to keep gaining blankets, as one elf after another, moved by pity, spread his over her during the night. By the time they reached Eryn Vorn, Rűmil would not be surprised if she would be sleeping cozily beneath no fewer than thirteen blankets while the elves turned blue, huddled only in their cloaks.
He watched as she shivered and wriggled closer to Eręgmorn, unconsciously seeking his warmth, and a little burst of discontent made itself known to Rűmil, spreading through his chest to lodge somewhere in the region of his stomach. He did not like Lalaith—he did not!—but more than he disliked her, he disliked her proximity to Eręgmorn. The elf was known as one who was fond of the ladies, elven and otherwise, and Rűmil doubted not that Eręgmorn’s interest in Lalaith lay not in her heart, but rather a foot or so lower. He sighed and scolded himself for his cynicism. Perhaps he was wrong about Eręgmorn, perhaps he genuinely liked Lalaith, and his kindness to her was only a reflection of that.
Musing, he lost track of time, and was surprised when Thalion came to relieve him. The oldest of the elves on this journey, he graced Rűmil with one of his sad smiles. “Such deep thoughts for one so young,” he commented.
Rűmil found his gaze wandering to Mount Blanket across the camp. “Youth does not guarantee a lack of cares,” he replied softly, and crossed to lay on Lalaith’s other side.
“Indeed not,” Thalion agreed, his deep voice resonant in the darkness. He stretched his legs out before him. “Indeed not.”