Author’s Note: Since I haven’t been able to put up a chapter a day like I prefer, here’s two in one day to make it up to y’all.
I have a favour to ask… how am I doing in representing a more archaic form of language? A major peeve of mine is people who write a Middle-Earth that sounds like it’s populated by valley girls. Makes me queasy. I don’t want to make it so old-fashioned that it’s affected, or hard to read. Please drop me a review to tell me what you think!
Or better yet, join my brandy-new yahoo group and tell me there! Easier and more reliable access to my fic, as ff.net’s been having brain-farts lately. It’s at groups dot yahoo dot com slash group slash cinnamongrrl (you have to exchange actual dots and slashes where I wrote out the words, as ff.net seems to not want to allow links).
The Fall of Night, Part 14
24 January 3019
Three days have I been in the Citadel, and still I am no closer to Heleg blessing those damnable athelas! I asked him for his help that first day here, but he said we should not discuss business, when there is pleasure to be had. Each day I have tried again, and each day he refuses me with an airy wave of the hand. I do not wish to press the matter, earning his annoyance, but I am growing very uneasy.
The man ogles me so blatantly that at meals I must stifle the urge to stab him with my fork. Today at lunch I thought of how he would look with it stuck between his eyes, and found myself laughing again! The sound is most unpleasant, and at first Puio thought a cat was choking up a hairball, but I turned it into a cough and made it back to my room before any suspected something amiss.
Aras is quite worried about me. He knows how difficult it is for me to wear the gowns that Heleg has been lavishing upon me (a new one every day, and each more luxurious and revealing than the next), how hard to endure the king’s unwelcome attentions, and now that I have laughed again, I feel very sure he fears for my sanity.
To be honest, so do I. I find myself worrying all the day, about Rûmil in his dungeon-that-is-not, about Nana, about the Fellowship, about Aras’ being taken from me if any discover he is almost completely well and not really needing my close attention. And most of all, I worry about Heleg. His gaze becomes hungrier for me each time he sees me, and I grow to fear the long walks he insists we take on the ramparts after dinner. Puio comes with us, but stands well behind, and I doubt he would lift a hand to stop his liege should Heleg try to force himself on me.
I see Rûmil each day as the first, for the merest moment and briefest word. He seems well, but an anger grows daily in him. If Heleg should make any attempts on me, I believe Rûmil would become enraged. Nana has told me of Haldir’s prowess at battle; I do not think his brother any less proficient when roused.
And so I hope that Rûmil remains calm, that I stop laughing when I ought not, no one notices Aras’ return to health, and that Thalion and Brethil and the others are both safe and smart enough not to approach the Citadel. I feel quite sure that Heleg will have them confined as well… he continues to suggest that Aras is well enough to join Rûmil.
Lalaith’s hands trembled, so nervous was she, but she hid them in her skirts and forced herself to stride, head proudly aloft, to the other end of the hall where Heleg awaited her, his gaze predatory. Today, she wore a gown of ruby-red velvet, and she would have been most pleased with it were the V of the bodice marginally less plunging. As it was, she feared to breathe too deeply, else her breasts would push even more from the neckline.
If that weren’t bad enough, there was a girdle of beaten silver Eitha had insisted on clasping low around Lalaith’s hips. The trailing end of it fell to exactly between her legs, and with each step, it swayed and bumped gently against her pubis. Seeing how the eyes of every male in the room were drawn considerably further south than her face, she was hard-pressed to keep from rolling her eyes. Really, men were so susceptible.
“My lady Lalaith,” Heleg drawled. “Come, sit ye by my side, and drink of this wine.” He motioned to a figured-gold chalice. “It is the finest in my cellar.”
Lalaith thought of Rûmil, also in the cellar, and had to work hard to keep from scowling. Fisting her hands in the rich fabric, she refused the chair Heleg pulled out for her. “I thank you, Your Majesty,” she began, “but I must refuse to join this meal until I broach with you the urgency of my grandmother’s need for these herbs.”
Heleg frowned; it was not a frown of mere annoyance or slight displeasure. No, it was the frown of a spoilt monarch whose careful plans of seduction had gone awry. His glance flicked once more at the chalice and Lalaith wondered at his interest in it. I shall not drink that, she vowed to herself.
At length, he sat heavily in his ornately carved chair, slouching against the back and looking rather more like a sulky adolescent than Lalaith imagined he’d like. “Very well,” he said grudgingly, a faint growl in his voice, and she noted that it would be a grave mistake for her to think of him as a child. In spite of his middle age, he was a strong man, and had the backing of scores of soldiers and faithful subjects, besides. She offered a brief, silent plea to Eru for wisdom in choosing her words. Having only decided that morning after being refused yet again a discussion about the athelas, it had become clear to Lalaith that more drastic measures would be needed.
“Your Majesty,” she began. “As you know, my grandmother is quite ill. The ingredient we believe will help her is athelas that have blessed by a true king. Thranduil of Mirkwood was closer to Rivendell, and would have made for an easier journey, but much have I heard of Heleg and his Minhiriath, and long have I wanted to see with my own eyes your wondrous realm.” A bit of flattery would not be amiss, she thought, and felt a little faint at the softening of Heleg’s craggy face at her words.
“You have been an exemplary host; even the elves would be troubled to compete with your kindness, generosity, and hospitality,” Lalaith lied. She must not lay on her compliments too thick, else like bread with too much butter, they would be inedible. “But I fear we must cut short our stay here in your Citadel and return to Rivendell, to my grandmother’s sickbed, and have her be healed.”
Alas, Lalaith wailed in her head when Heleg frowned even deeper and began drumming angrily with his fingertips on the lion’s heads carved into the arms of his chair. “Your assistance in this matter will create a bond of goodwill and amity between your people and the elves of Rivendell,” she mentioned, hoping the prospect of trade would seduce Heleg, who seemed as greedy as any other monarch.
There was a clatter behind her, and she turned to see Puio lead Rûmil in for his daily appearance before Lalaith. His eyes, when they alighted upon her form, darkened immediately to black, and she thought he must be very angry indeed, but as Heleg was looking contemplative instead of hostile, did not spare the elf more than a concerned look before turning back to attend the king’s next words.
“I am tired of hearing about elves,” Heleg declared, and the court sniggered at his insult to he who had just entered the room. “Have you no kin of your own that might be grateful to me?” And here he positively leered at her in a way that made her glance worriedly down her front.
Sure enough, the deep décolletage was gaping a bit, and from his position on the raised dais before her, there was little hidden from him. She pinched great wads of her skirt between her fingers to keep from covering her exposed flesh, or reaching out to claw his eyes out, and closed her eyes for a brief moment, willing herself patience and strength.
“Aside from my grandmother and Coru, I am alone in the world,” Lalaith replied at last, hoping her status as orphan might pluck at whatever shriveled heartstrings the king might yet harbour.
Heleg’s remarkable eyes widened considerably, and she wondered what she had said to startle him so. “Coru?” he demanded, coming around the table to stare hard at her. He was but an inch or two taller than she, and his unnerving gaze peered right at her. It felt like it was boring through her. “Coru of Bree?”
Mystified, she nodded slowly. “Yes, Coru of Bree,” she affirmed.
“What is he to you?” Heleg questioned briskly. “How do you know him? How close is your relationship? His face, which Lalaith was accustomed to seeing in varying degrees of lust, drunkenness, hunger, sloth, and greed, now took on a distinctly nervous set. But why would he be afraid of Coru? True, he was a sailor, and they were known to be rough, especially those who travelled as often to Umbar as did Coru, but surely simply being a sailor did not mean one was also a pirate. Unless…
A realization fell into her mind, like the last piece of a puzzle, and Lalaith nearly slapped herself in the forehead in the universal sign of “I am an idiot”. It was all perfectly clear, if one was not a naïve fool who never paid attention to anything but her own petty problems, Lalaith thought sourly.
Coru… sailing… Corsairs… her cousin was a pirate! And judging by Heleg’s reaction, a rather fierce and fearsome one. Restraining her disgust at her own obliviousness and the urge to crow in delight and triumph, she forced herself to look demurely at the ground as she replied, “Coru of Bree… he is my betrothed.” Feeling mischievous, she was compelled to add unnecessarily, “We are very much in love.”
Heleg slowly began to turn an unappealing shade of green. As for Rûmil… he snapped his head around to stare at her, so quickly she wondered if he had injured his neck. “Does… does he know you are here?” Heleg croaked.
“But, of course,” she replied serenely. “He was the one who suggested I come here, instead of to Thranduil. He is aboardship with…friends…” she lingered over that last words, as if delicately avoiding the mention of brigands in mixed company, drawing attention to it, “but he expects me to have returned to Bree when next he comes home. If I am not there,” she continued, eyes lifted to his, making sure to widen them guilelessly, “he will become most worried and… displeased.”
Heleg swallowed hard once, twice, before compressing his lips. Fear and anxiety writhed over his face before he made a concerted, obvious effort to control himself. “Where are the athelas?” he asked.
Lalaith reached then into her bodice and removed the small bag of herbs, warmed from her body. Heleg swallowed yet again, hand a-tremble as he reached for it. She felt her mouth stretching at each corner, and realized she was smiling. Extraordinary, she thought, and handed the bundle over.
As Heleg bent his head over the athelas and muttered a blessing, she became very aware of Rûmil beside her. She hazarded a glance his way; he was watching her with an expression of utterly poleaxed astonishment, and she felt great joy at having been able to flummox him so. Had it been her blatant dishonesty about Coru that had him so amazed? The hiding-place she’d chosen for the athelas?
Or perhaps it was the wicked grin she’d flashed at Heleg… she had to admit, it had surprised her as well, but how could one not grin when a horrid old lecher was brought low and made to squirm? It seemed perfectly obvious to her, and then she was caught up in wonderment… so, this was humour, she thought, somewhat disconcerted. No surprise, then, that Nana had never been able to explain why something was funny. “It just is,” Naurë had declared, shrugging helplessly.
Her attention was drawn back to the king when he declared the athelas as blessed as he could make them, and thrust the bag back at her. “You are doubtless eager to return to Bree,” Heleg said. “Best that you find your beds now, so you can make an early start on the morrow.” He could not be more clear in his eviction of the three from his realm.
Lalaith curtseyed deeply, placing her hand over her cleavage in a way that looked more artful than modest, and reached out to tug on Rûmil’s tunic. Grudgingly, he sketched a bow, and then snatched up her hand to lead her from the hall, Puio followed close behind, watching suspiciously.
“Be you up at first light,” was all he had time to tell her before Puio led him away. Lalaith nodded and made her way back to her chamber with a considerably lightened heart.
Aras was delighted to have achieved their goal, and even more delighted to learn they would be taking their leave of “this accursed place” as he called it. He was quite out of sorts at being confined to a single room for days upon end. “I shall sleep right away,” he declared, and lay down immediately, eager for dawn and departure.
But sleep was not to be theirs. “Rouse!” hissed a voice in Lalaith’s ear, and she blinked groggily in the darkness to find Eitha’s face bent over her.
“What is it?” she murmured sleepily and sitting up, glancing across the room at Aras, who watched with raised brow, waiting for the Minhiriath woman to explain herself.
“Heleg has changed his mind about letting you go,” Eitha explained, her voice low and weary. “He thinks to take his chances against Coru.”
“Oh, Eru,” Lalaith moaned, and fell back onto the bed, draping her arm over her eyes. “What do we do now?”
“We get you up and dressed, and waiting at the Citadel gates for the other elves to take you away,” Eitha replied sensibly, already stuffing things into traveling packs. “Even now, Puio is readying your Rûmil to leave as well.”
“He is not my Rûmil,” Lalaith grumbled, but got out of bed and stumbled over to her clothes, not caring in the least if Aras saw her ungarbed as she pulled the nightdress over her head and reached for her shift. “Why do you and Puio help us?”
“As great as our fear of Heleg, greater still is our fear of the Corsicans,” the woman replied, face taut with apprehension. “We would not see our homes and families destroyed because of Heleg’s imprudent lust.”
“A wise decision,” Aras murmured. He had respectfully averted his eyes as Lalaith dressed, and stood waiting by the door, eager to leave. Finally all bundled up, Lalaith stood ready.
“Keep you close,” Eitha advised. “We meet Puio and Rûmil at the gates with your horses.” Lalaith gripped the woman’s hand in her own, and kept a bit of Aras’ cloak between her fingers, as she had not Eitha’s familiarity with the corridors nor his keen elven sight to help her avoid collision. The descent from the lofty towers of the Citadel to the ground seemed to take an eternity, but eventually cold, crisp air filled Lalaith’s lungs and then there was naught but starlight above, and Rûmil standing before.
“I have arranged for the guards to be… indisposed,” Puio said, amused, and gestured toward the snoring heaps on either side of the wide-open gates.
“They are drunk?” Rûmil queried.
Puio shrugged. “Or something. I merely gave them whatever it was that Heleg intended for the lady.” Rûmil scowled; and Lalaith bowed her head in comprehension: Heleg had indeed meant to drug her that day. “Walk the horses until you round the bend,” Puio continued, handing over a large sack of food. “Your people should await you there; I bid them not to stir from that place until I gave word.”
“You have been conversing all these days with the other elves?” Lalaith asked curiously.
“Of course,” Eitha replied. “How do you think it is that they have not come for you?”
“I had not thought of it,” she admitted. “Thank you for your help, I hope it does not go badly for you.” She surprised the woman with a quick hug, and squeezed Puio’s callused hand warmly. Rûmil and Aras nodded their thanks in typically restrained elven style, and they began to walk. No sooner had they left the courtyard, however, than shouts sounded behind them.
“Stop them!” cried Heleg’s voice, and sleepy men tumbled from the barracks, hurried clambering into a bit of armour before taking up arms against their fleeing prisoners. Eitha and Puio melted from view, and Rûmil flung Lalaith onto Lagor before vaulting up behind her. Aras had taken up Rûmil’s horse’s reins and was already riding pell-mell toward the river’s bend. Rûmil slapped Lagor’s flanks with the reins, spurring him with urgent whispers to fly, fly.
And fly he did, the valiant beast. His long legs ate up the distance, putting the Citadel of Minhiriath far behind them. The thud of arrows, hastily loosed toward their departing quarry, faded away.
“Think you they will follow?” Aras shouted from beside them.
“I do not know,” Rûmil admitted. “They will have to saddle their horses, losing much time; and they cannot see as we can, nor can they recover from their fatigue, being woken from sleep. They would have to be fools to pursue us, but Heleg has not impressed me with his wisdom.” He fell quiet a moment, thinking. “Still, we will not stop or slow.”
And so they rode, one hour, two. Lalaith finally relaxed enough to stop looking behind them every few minutes, even though Rûmil laughed at her. “Think you can see anything in this ink?” he teased, looking lighter-hearted than she had seen him since arriving at Eryn Vorn, and she found herself smiling up at him. It felt wobbly and uncertain, but at that moment she was so happy—happy to be away from Heleg, happy to have the athelas, happy he was free of his cell, happy all three were safe, that she could do nothing else.
Rûmil’s smile, however, faded. “You will have to tell me what has been happening these past days,” he told her soberly. “For there has been a great change in you.”
She blinked. “Not a bad one, I hope?”
“I do not know, yet,” he said. “It is a matter I will have to explore.”
“Ah,” Lalaith replied sagely, twisting in his arms to face him. “An investigation.” Her gaze was clear and calm, her eyes huge and glimmering with starlight. “Know you that I am of a scientific bent, and would give every assistance in unearthing this great mystery?”
Now it was his turn to blink. “Was that a joke?” he asked at last, staring at her in amazement.
She considered it a moment. “Maybe!” she said thoughtfully, then frowned. “Was it funny?”
“Aras seems to think so,” Rûmil said, a little sour, for that other elf was laughing so hard he was nearly falling off his horse. “Be quiet, you Rivendell idiot.”
But Aras only laughed harder.