The Good Son: Hope for the Hopeless

Love & thanks to Raenarcam for the RP with Alduial, to PenniCash for the borrowing of Merry (Arameril), and to Hallowisp for editing & encouragement! 

 

 

March 6, 3019

“You’re going.”

Outside the Houses of Healing, one tall, dark-haired Swan-knight shoved his younger, taller brother Swan-knight toward the Houses’ door.

“It ju-just needs ssalve and r-r-rest!” exclaimed Pengail quietly, resisting even as he cradled his left arm in his right.

The elder manhandled the younger through the doors.

“I’ve had enough, Pengail,” Sirifast said, his typically jovial face uncharacteristically stern. “You’re going to have it looked at. You don’t know everything there is to know about healing. These people do. Now go.”

Pengail, his wavy ebony hair caught back in a low ponytail, scowled. “You so-sound like Fin,” he muttered. It was meant as an insult.

The elder brother barked a grim laugh. “May it be carved on my gravestone: ‘At the last, he was responsible.'” He looked around, over the heads of the attendants, for an available Healer.

As the two knights entered a page in customary white and red sprinted up to assist.

“Hello, sirs!” he declared, giving a hurried bow. “May I direct you along?”

Pengail remained silent, and cut a sullen look at his brother.

“Ah, yes!” said the elder, brightening, perfectly used to speaking for Pengail. “I am Sir Sirifast. This is my brother, Sir Pengail. He has an injury to his shoulder that needs attending.”

“Oh, just a moment!” said the page before sprinting off. He returned a few minutes later with Healer Alduial in her red cowl and red dress, mopping her hands on a handkerchief. Her nose had clearly been broken, and though swollen, the bruising was concealed heavily with makeup.

“You did not show them a room?” she was asking the page as they walked.

“Well I didn’t think-”

Alduial held up a hand to silence him, and gave the two men a sharp look. Her gaze settled on Pengail, sharp and incisive. “Shoulder or arm?”

Pengail blinked at the Healer. Not at her nose. Nope. He pulled his eyes quickly away from the injury, and stood cradling his arm.

“…Left shoulder, mil– ah. Healer,” Sirifast supplied, along with a charming smile. He chivvied Pengail forward as one might a reluctant (and very tall) child.

Alduial began to lead the way to a back room and then paused, looking at Sirifast.

“Are you also injured, my lord?” she inquired, looking him over.

Sirifast looked perfectly fit. Both men were dressed in their under-armour leathers, as if having come straight from training or a sparring match.

“Oh, I am sound, milady.” He winced. “Apologies. Healer…?”

“Healer,” Alduial acknowledged and, pausing outside an examination room, looked at Pengail. “Do you require him to speak for you, and do you wish him to remain in the room?”

Pengail looked from the woman healer to Sirifast and back. “…No,” he said.

Sirifast cocked an eyebrow at Pengail. Alduial looked between them, and then gestured for Pengail to go into the examination room. She snapped the door shut behind them. Sirifast was cut off mid-objection.

“I do thi–” He backed up swiftly so as not to catch a door in the nose.

“So, what did you do to your arm exactly?” Alduial asked, looking Pengail over.

With a faintly strained breath, Pengail sat upon the hard little bed. If he were to stretch out on it, his feet would dangle a good six inches off the end. With head bowed, he struggled to say, “…I s-s-s…strained it, mmmil-…”

He sighed, his brow knitting with mortified frustration, swallowed, and tried again.

“…Strained it,” he said, soft and slow, unlike most of the knights, who spoke with an authority that typically bordered on arrogance. “That’s… all, H-healer.”

“And what were you doing when you strained it?” Alduil asked shortly, drawing supplies from a small cabinet before returning back and looking him over. “We will need to have your shirt off to look at it. I can help or you can see to it yourself.”

Pengail obediently began to unlace the front of his gambeson.

“…Sparring,” he grunted, with some discomfort, as he pulled the padded shirt off one-handed, sideways. Apparently it was common practice now for him to disrobe thusly, evidence of a chronic condition.

Though tall and broad-shouldered, the young knight was slender of build, young enough that he only just was layering on the heavy, well-defined muscle typical of his profession. An impossibly long torso slouched leftward, allowing his left arm to relax in his lap and simultaneously take its weight off of his shoulder, which upon inspection under his arm, was a mangled mess.

A ragged swath of scar tissue stretched from his elbow to his armpit on the underside of his upper arm, still pink and new, perhaps a year old. More recent surgical incisions had been made from his back into the end-point of the original wound, it would seem, where a bit of probing across the flesh there would reveal a hard mass near his lymph nodes. It was a wonder he had use of the limb at all. As it was, three of his fingers on his left hand (pinky, ring, and middle) appeared to be permanently curled in. His range of motion was limited; he winced and the flesh quivered if he tried to lift his arm above the level of his shoulder. The ugliness of the old wound stood out against his otherwise beautiful physique.

He waited in morose silence for the Healer woman’s inspection, obeying each of her commands. Alduial inspected with gentle fingers.

“There is a good lad,” she murmured, more out of habit than anything, looking over the surgical scars and the mass and his hand. She touched the mass. “Does this hurt?”

Pengail flinched, his shoulder muscles flexing defensively away from her probing fingers. But he muttered, “…No. T-te-te… just… tender.”

“Hm,” she replied, straightening up to look at him with clear green eyes. “How long have you had it?”

Pengail just sat, staring at the worn stone floor.

“Y-year and a… h-half,” he said, with the resignation of the chronically pained.

“These scars. Someone has tried to remove it, yes? And it has returned?” she inquired, still focused closely on his face.

Pengail shook his head.

“S-stayed. It’s le-lead.” He took a deeper breath, steeling himself for the explanation. “Shrapn-nel from a… wound. The Prince’s… su-surgeon tried to… re-r-remove it. H-he couldn’t. Said it… the scar ti-tissue is… d-doing this.”

He lifted his hand, showing her his curled fingers, locked in place by the interference of the scar tissue upon the nerves controlling them. Likely, if the surgeon were to nick the nerve, there was a large chance the young man could lose all use of his arm.

Alduial frowned again, examining the area, fingers gently brushing the lump of flesh.

“If we attempt surgery now, you will doubtless still be in recovery if–when it comes to battle. Our surgeons here are superior. I can give you a draught for the pain, but it will not see to the poisoning. It will let you fight though. Afterward… Well, you have already lost three fingers. What is the arm in exchange for your life?”

Pengail finally looked up at her. Gentle grey eyes, a paradox in a suit of armour, did not dare to hope. In truth, he had not thought beyond surviving the siege in whatever way he could manage. Was she offering him hope? That if he could manage to live through the war, he would not die a slow, excruciating death as the little lump of metal inside him slowly ate him alive?

Beyond that, what in the world was so important that he would even confront such a death for?

“So what will you have?” Alduial asked seriously, eyes on him. “The damage is likely irreversible but, well, assuming all goes well we can at least prevent it killing you. But, there is always the arm. It is likely it will not survive the surgery useful. Just remember that.”

Pengail looked away, struggling to stifle the sudden wetness in his eyes and the blooming of hope in his chest. He nodded briskly, swiping a long-fingered hand over his face. He took a deep breath, straightened, and cleared his throat.

“W-what’s an arm?” he asked with a chuff of a laugh. What was a limb to pay for living into old age?

Alduial quirked a small and encouraging smile. “What is an arm indeed? Now, in the meantime, I can give you a few doses of henbane. You are not permitted to overextend the arm but…if it comes to a siege, you may take the henbane, which will render the wound numb. Until then…I fear there is little else I can do for it.”

Pengail sniffed, exhaled, and nodded; as he’d expected. He pulled his gambeson into his lap to fumble it back on.

Alduial smiled at him encouragingly.

“It shall not get worse than it is, dear boy,” she offered, and poked her head out of the examination room. Ignoring Sirifast she whistled for a page nearby and whispered something to him.

Sirifast turned back toward the door from his pacing, but couldn’t get back fast enough before the door closed again.

“I am giving you two vials of henbane and a measuring tool,” Alduial said. “Measure to the second lowest line on the cup and take that no more than every four hours. It will keep you lucid and dull the pain. Can I do anything else for you?”

Pengail grimaced as he pushed his wounded arm into its sleeve, and settled his gambeson onto his shoulders. He left the padded shirt unlaced at the front.

“Nno, ma’am.” He stood (towered) and looked down at her. “Thank you.”

It was heartfelt. There was life again in his dark grey eyes.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

March 9, 3019

As he sat trying to read in the oppressive silence of the evacuated city, Pengail startled when Findegil dropped parchment, an inkwell, and a quill on the table before him.

He stared sternly down at Pengail.

“Write her.”

“There’s no-nothing t–”

“I don’t give a damn what your excuses are. Do it. Now.” Fin jerked the book from Pen’s weak left hand. “I’m not leaving ‘til you do.”

Pengail sighed and squeezed at his temples a moment.

“…What do I…s-say?”

Fin made himself comfortable, leaning on the windowsill to frown up at the darkling sky.

“It doesn’t matter as much as you think,” he said. “It’s simply that you’ve done it. It doesn’t have to be flowery. Or even very long. But you need to tell her what you’d say if you never see her again.” He pointed at the parchment. “And she needs to be able to hold it in her hand for as long as she needs to.”

Laboriously, Pengail sat up and shifted the parchment in front of him, bending over it. One-handed, he screwed the top off the inkwell, then dipped the quill. It hovered over the parchment until the ink dried where it hung in the air.

“Start with her name. Jackass,” Fin muttered, folding his arms. He returned his focus out the window, to give his little brother the pretense of privacy.

Pengail scowled at Fin for a long moment, then redoubled his efforts against the dread welling in his stomach. Even the thought of her was a white hot sun. Too close and it hurt his eyes, burned him.

Dear Arameril,

My Aramerillin. The city is evacuated. Only soldiers, healers, and needed laborers remain. We all feel it gathering, like a storm out at sea, and turning toward us. All that remains is to wait.

If I cannot write you again, I feel compelled to write a few lines you might read when I am no more.

I have no qualm or lack of confidence in the cause for which I fight. I think I am steady. I know how strongly Gondor leans upon a successful defense of Minas Tirith and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us in the blood and suffering of the Last Alliance. And I am willing to lay down my own happiness to help defend our freedom and to pay that debt.

But, my dear Merry, when with my own joys, I might lay down some of yours, and replace them with care and sorrows, is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my wife, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country?

I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm spring afternoon, when the city drowses, steadfast and impenetrable, in perhaps its last rest before Death creeps over its high walls.

Merry, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence can break. And yet my love of country comes over me like a strong wind, and bears me irresistibly on, with all those chains, to the battlefield. The memories of all the blissful moments I have spent with you come washing over me, and I feel grateful to Elmeleth and to you that I have enjoyed them this long. How hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when we might still have lived and loved together.

I know I have few claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me. I pray it is your voice come over the leagues and mountains, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Merry, never forget how much I love you, nor that when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune in the world to shield you from harm.

But Merry, if the dead can come back to this earth, and flit unseen around those they love, I shall always be near you, in the brightest day and the darkest night; amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours always, always, and if the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath. As the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Merry, do not mourn me dead. Think I am gone and wait for you. For I pray we will meet again.

Your Pengail*

He let out an unconscious sigh as he laid down his quill.

“There,” Findegil rumbled, rousing himself from where he sat. “It is done.” He patted Pen’s shoulder firmly and went to the door. “Pray to Elmeleth no one ever has to deliver it.” He left.

Pengail’s head fell into his hands. For the first time since he had left Merry at the gate of their garden, he wept.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

March 13, 3019

Pengail stood on the first wall, watching with a grim look as Captain Faramir’s forces retreated across the Rammas Echor.

“Elmy’s bloomers,” Sirifast cursed beside him.

Pengail squinted, then swiftly turned to jog down the wall stairs to the stables.

“Hey! Where’re you going?” Siri called, scrambling after him.

“He’ll ca-call for us,” was all Pengail said in explanation. “Tack up.”

Sure enough, minutes later, their commander swept into the Court of Tarondor.

“Knights! We ride to defend the retreat! Swiftly!”

The Court filled with starsilver and blue as Dol Amroth mounted up. Pengail reined in his gelding, Briar, and watched the great timbers come off the Gate.

“Siri,” he said quietly.

“What?” his brother asked sharply, edgy and anxious to move.

“That healer. Sh-she said…they could ge-get it out. The lead.”

Sirifast, and his horse, stilled beside him.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked in an accusatory tone.

“Didn’t want to… h-hope.”

Sirifast absorbed this in a rare moment of silence.

“Well. Now we just have to live,” he said matter-of-factly.

Pengail nodded, his eyes still upon the gate as it gave a rusty burp and cracked open.

“Yes.”

The sortie milled and wheeled under the gate for what seemed like an eternity. Pengail heard, or felt, the growing growl of the Enemy’s forces, like a hum that carried through the stone and dirt of the Pelennor and up into his horse’s hooves, making him prance and snort anxiously.

Pengail sat his mount calmly, soothing him with quiet, low nonsense. He’d lost track of Sirifast in the shuffle, but at least Findegil would remain behind, commanding his trebuchetiers from the safety of the walls.

Then a clarion trumpet call fell upon the court, and they were pressing out and eastward, rolling like one great charging horse down the Pelennor, and he could finally release the vise grip he’d held on the reins.

Briar sprang forth, eager to be spent of his nervousness. As they sprinted to Faramir’s aid, Pengail had time to realize that despite himself, he had begun to hope.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

He’d never been so exhausted. In the dark, he’d lost track of the days; in the lulls between terrifying action, he kept trying to tally backwards to the last time he’d slept. It always got fuzzy when he reached thirty-six hours; there should have been another dawn in there somewhere, but there hadn’t been.

He’d lost Briar, unseated when the great gelding had reared, screaming in fright, as the first oliphaunt had charged them. He’d risen from the bloody grass to watch the big grey tilt across the fields at break-neck speed, and knew it was useless to try to get him back.

He killed. Orc after orc after orc. Those were easy. They were inhuman in their slavering flesh lust and their bone-chilling screams. But when a unit of Haradrim had fallen upon him, all he could see was himself reflected in the whites of their eyes.

So after he’d finally run through a wiry Harad who just wouldn’t stop, even when he’d shattered the man’s knee with a savage kick, he tried to avoid the Haradrim as the man’s last, snarling curse rang in his ears. He knew enough Haradic to have picked up “white demon” and “gods’ judgment.”

As he wiped the gore from the hilt of his sword for the… fifteenth? thirtieth? time, he wondered what the Haradrim had been told about the white demons of the North.

Maybe the man had thought Pengail would take his daughters, rape them, kill the bastard children, burn them alive… Had he not heard the same of the dark-skinned mumak-riders?

Who had decided it was true?

“Up, Pen, up!” Sirifast’s voice reached his ears and he heaved himself up from the ground, swaying, bringing up his sword.

Filthy and flagging but whole, Sirifast slogged up the little incline on which Pengail had rested, waving off his defensive stance. “No, no! Look!” There was hope in his brother’s voice as the elder pointed across the broken Pelennor.

A swirling, translucent mist surrounded the last standing oliphaunt, dragging it to the ground. It flung up its massive trunk and bellowed, enraged and panicked, and dark figures flung themselves from the tower upon its back.

“…i-i-is it… ov-over?” Pengail dared to ask, his stutter worse with fatigue.

Sirifast slapped him on the back as the ragtag bunch of free fighters around them sent up a rusty shout of victory.

“It’s over, brother,” Siri said quietly. “We need to find our captain. Come on.”

The two brothers trekked slowly back toward the tower City, occasionally pausing to turn over a body clad in star-silver.

They trudged around another fallen mountain of oliphaunt flesh.

“Ugh,” grunted Sirifast. “The carrion birds will feast for mo– HEY!”

A dark little figure huddled over a fallen Knight, hands scrabbling over the star-silver breastplate. A Haradic boy straightened with a grunt of surprise and scrambled away, back toward the head of the great fallen beast.

“You little bastard!” Sirifast snarled, quickly drawing his sword.

Pengail caught his arm. “Wait. L-look at him.”

The boy had pulled a short, curved knife and held it high. He gibbered insults in Haradic, but his eyes rolled wild with terror. He was starvation thin, the robes of a mumak keeper hung limp and covered in offal on his frame. He was guarding the head of the slain oliphaunt, all he knew to do. The rest of his tribesmen lay dead around him.

Sirifast’s jaw flexed. “He was desecrating the body, godsdamned little rag-head!” he spat.

“He’s only… a ch-child,” Pengail said, watching the boy. “Stay,” he said to Sirifast, his weariness making the word a command. He stepped slowly toward the boy, whose voice rose shrilly.

“Abaq beyda eanni ! Sawf ‘aqtalak , sakhif aljald shahib!”**

Pengail knelt a good distance away and pulled off his helm. He raised a placating hand. “S-salam,” he murmured. “Salam.”

Behind him, Sirifast growled, “Pen, this is madness…”

“It’s all r-right, Siri,” Pengail said in the same soothing tone, the voice he used to calm his horses. “Hhe’s… scared.”

The boy looked wildly between the two Swan Knights, confused. He did not lower his knife as he bobbed back and forth on his bare feet.

Pengail didn’t have any food. He thought for a moment, then made an eating motion with his hands, beckoning to the boy. “We’ll… fi-find you food,” he promised.

The boy stilled.

Pengail wondered at his dark eyes, darker than he’d ever seen before. He nodded encouragingly, beckoning again. “You’ll b-be safe.”

“He’ll be a prisoner, Pengail,” Sirifast said low and sharp.

“Shhut up,” Pengail murmured.

The boy took a slow step forward, his knife now held at his waist.

Pen nodded again, and pulled his lips into a smile.

There was a sting, and hot wetness dribbled down into his gorget. Confusion bloomed across Pengail’s face and he thought he heard Siri scream, but it was as through a long tunnel.

The boy stood before him, drawing back his knife and turning to run. How had he moved so fast? He was just a slip of a thing…

He felt, or heard, or saw Sirifast rush past him as he fell back. He saw his brother’s face twisted with rage, his sword drawn high. He tried to reach out. No, don’t… But the words didn’t come, only a spray of pink foam.

He stopped falling. The ground rushed up to stay him. After spending two days in his armor, sweating like a boar, he noticed cold at the tips of his fingers, in his toes. It rushed up his arms and legs.

The sun darkened. No, it was Siri returned, hovering over him. He looked scared. More scared than when Pen had almost drowned in the pond when he was eight.

From Sirifast’s look, he suddenly knew. He could feel his body fighting on, clinging, but he couldn’t breathe, his lungs felt the same as they had when he’d half-drowned, heavy and wet. They wouldn’t work…

“Pen! Pengail! You stay here, godsdammit! You idiot!” Sirifast ripped off his gauntlet and squeezed at his brother’s neck. “What were you thinking?!” He looked up, all around, tears flung from his face with the fervid movement. “HELP! SOMEBODY! HELP ME.”

Merry. His lips formed the word, but there was no voice. He realized suddenly he’d let so many words remain unsaid, he’d hid behind his stutter. He’d had a voice; the stutter made his words more precious, not more meaningless. Now it was gone, too late.

Merry, I’m sorry. Merry, I love you. Merry, forgive me. Merry… Merry…

At least he got to see her once more. In the growing gloom, she stood in a sunbeam, smiling down at him. He reached, but his arm was so heavy. He was cold and on fire at the same time.

She knelt and kissed his brow. He went lax and was gone.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Hours later, pages sent to pick through the bodies for survivors found Sir Sirifast, slumped over the body of his dead brother, still weeping.

the_death_of_king_arthur_by_john_garrick

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

* Pengail’s letter is blatantly plagiarized from a real letter: that of Sullivan Ballou, a Union Major who fought in the Civil War. Ballou said it far better than I ever could, so why gild the lily?

http://www.nps.gov/resources/story.htm?id=253

 

** “Abaq beyda eanni ! Sawf ‘aqtalak , sakhif aljald shahib!” = ”Stay back! I will kill you, f***ing pale skin!”

“Salam.” = “Peace.”

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Golden Girl Tarnished: The Siege-Breaking

Much love to elysiahawksbrink for assistance in fleshing out this post (and Peldirion cuddles ~.~), to ainulaire for MAJOR lore and Sindarin support, and to hallowisp for issuing the challenge!

At Last

Many have sung of love a root of bane:
        While to my mind a root of balm it is,
        For love at length breeds love; sufficient bliss
For life and death and rising up again.
Surely when light of Heaven makes all things plain,
        Love will grow plain with all its mysteries:
        Nor shall we need to fetch from over seas
Wisdom or wealth or pleasure safe from pain.
Love in our borders, love within our heart,
        Love all in all, we then shall bide at rest,
        Ended for ever life’s unending quest,
        Ended for ever effort, change, and fear:
Love all in all; —no more that better part
Purchased, but at the cost of all things here.

~Christina Rossetti

~             *             ~             *             ~             *             ~             *             ~

March 14, 3019

All day, it seemed for all eternity, she toiled as burned flesh and searing cries sizzled around her. Fire had taken the First Circle, and those who remained within the great prowed City fled before it like rats, climbing upward to safety and healing.

All day, the rushing sound of a vile storm crept closer, a long drawn-out crescendo under which Lalaith hunkered and scurried in the Fourth Circle, awaiting a thunderclap which surely would raze the mountain.

She held a boy, a page no more than twelve, in her arms as he wept with fright and pain so intense it glazed his eyes. He was dying. He knew; though with the last of his strength he fought this new knowledge. It could not be, it could not be Death.

But it was. He shook terribly for a long moment, fighting, clinging to life tenaciously. But it was not enough. Lalaith watched his eyes finally dim, long after his limbs went limp. Still, she could not find words of comfort or peace. What could she say?

His narrow chest rattled. The orange lamp light dimmed and shifted. It was suddenly cool and grey. Lalaith finally looked up and around.

From the sea of cots stretched across the Baths of Belecthor rose pinpoints of light. She remembered the tiny glowing sea stars which came to the coast each year to light the gentle waves at the end of summer.

Gather them. Else they be lost to the Void.

Her confusion fell away. It all snapped into focus. Purpose. Finally, purpose. Her limbs tingled with it; she easily slipped out of substance, sloughing off reality with relief now rather than trepidation. It had all led to this.

Yes my Lady. Guide me. Use me.

She looked down at the boy as light… his light… coalesced and rose from his body. She stretched out her fingers, touching it. “Come,” she murmured, the words coming from a place outside of her. “The Halls of Mandos await you. Those you love who have gone before will greet you. Wait here for a time. Some will remain whom you must farewell.”

She felt the boy’s fear slide away and was glad. She rose, and the light followed her. She flitted from one cot to the next, guided by an unseen hand, and collected the lights about her. Together, they made a dappling beacon around her, and gave courage to her heart.

Lalaith watched curiously as a Healer labored over a wounded man, re-securing his light to his form. The man stared up at her for a long moment, and then looked through her. She walked on. He was not to join her.

It seemed few could see her, so she slipped out of the Baths’ court. There were more lights to find. She made her way down through the Lords Gate, descending into the Dark.

~             *             ~             *             ~             *             ~             *             ~

March 15, 3019: before dawn

“Come with me. Be not afraid. Your labor is nearly done.”

A river of lights flowed behind and around her now. The rain of fire had continued, intermittent, through the night. It seemed to burn black as Lalaith skirted about it, easing lights from their corporeal cloisters.

She rose from kneeling over a now empty body, slain by high-flung burning rock which fell upon the second wall, and looked down over the Court of Tarondor from on high. She heard what seemed to be a crack of thunder upon the Gate and shuddered at the sound as blackness shrouded it, seeping through chinks and slithering over top of it.

Go, quickly!

She turned and ran for the Sword Gate. Could she go faster? She concentrated, and found she could skip forward, flickering through the Soldier’s Neath, carried on the current of lights. She felt a heaviness growing at the base of her skull. How long had it been since she’d slept? Since she’d eaten? She wondered if she needed such things anymore. As the thought crept into her mind, her pace slowed, her consciousness dragged back into the orange light. She became aware of her aching feet, tripped on a jagged rock. Her head swam. She gasped for breath in the choking ashen air.

Around her, the river of light suddenly flowed sideways, eastward, as if sucked into an invisible sinkhole.

“No!” she cried, regathering herself. She reached for them, hearing their cries of terror as stragglers blinked out and did not reappear. She ignored the pounding in her head, pouring all her concentration upon the lights. As they swarmed around her again, she deadened herself to the pain and fatigue and ran once more.

She saw the Gate fall and felt more than saw the ravenous Darkness flood through. There were lights there near the Gate that she could not reach, sucked into the Void and lost. She picked her way through the edges of the battle as bright shining Men held a ragged half-circle line, blackness crashing over them.

She must hurry, before the Orcs’ madness shifted to hunger. She knelt over a bearded man with grey streaks in his hair. From his face she knew he had not been afraid, truly afraid, for a very long time. But he was now.

“Come,” she soothed. “Old family and friends await you.”

“B-but my wife!” he struggled out. “My daughter!”

Her heart ached for him. “Wait with me. You may see them once more.”

Shadow crept closer. The man’s life drained slow. He had been strong. But he came with her now, bobbing along in her wake as she made her way to another boy. So many young. Hardly a heartbeat of time…

A gale of sickening wind pushed her away from the Gate. She looked up, battling against its force, and terror struck her heart. Within a great rip in the air itself, hanging where the Gate had stood, she saw far through to a flaming Eye. Its gaze flicked over her, then roamed slower back toward her.

A flash of blue fire made her look up. Peldirion ran toward her, the light within him out of sync with his body.

Her heart leapt from despair, but plummeted. Could he see her? No!

Once more, the river of light drifted with gaining speed toward the rent in the air. The boy over whom she knelt drifted out of reach as she watched Peldirion skid to a halt beside her, lifting his shield to blind the awful Eye.

No, no! Her focus had faltered, her purpose wavered. She could not regain them all. With great effort, she fled, leading her charges away.

~             *             ~             *             ~             *             ~             *             ~

March 15, 3019: morning

Lalaith climbed, her burden heavier with each step, driven by the purpose she had so long awaited. She was confused for a time as dawn seemed to come from the west as she made the Silver Gate, heralded by many ringing horns. But she could not halt. She must shepherd the lights to their final rest.

As they flowed around her, she heard their whispered voices. Voices too of women and children and old men, seeming to come from far away. Farewells, promises, love long silent finally spoken. Tears tracked her ash-covered face. She stumbled with weariness, righted herself, and pressed on.

But a great cry went up, knocking her to the ground. She gasped for breath, stilled by the sound’s shrill terror. Then, a light broke through the shrouding dark all around the City, flashing up from the Pelennor and breaking through the smog.

Elation filled her breast. The tide turns! cried the voice, even as its hold within her seemed to weaken. Hurry now! There is little time!

Lalaith turned and ran with the last of her strength. She came to a cool place, where the freshness of Spring dared to waken in the midst of war.

The lights, thousands of them now, swirled around her, dimming in the dawn.

Lalaith lifted her hands, releasing them from her. “Mened lin! I dass carnen lîn. Posto hi! Sevil i veleth nîn!”

They streamed up and westward, gaining speed and streaking over the mountain like a shooting star.

She watched, her face upturned, and cool sweet rain began to fall, coming up from the south.

Spent, Lalaith swayed and then fell where she stood.

 

 

~             *             ~             *             ~             *             ~             *             ~

Translation of the Sindarin, for those curious: “Go swiftly! The task [of] yours is done. Rest now. You have my love!” (Provided by ainulaire! <3)

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Golden Girl Tarnished: Poured Out

MinasMorgul

 

It had been a horrible, long day. Each time she’d rounded a corner, she’d cringed, sure that her father or brother or mother would be there, bearing the past with them; a ghoulish tableau of mistake after mistake after mistake…

She’d retreated to the Thirsty Seer as soon as her shift had ended. She’d been safe here thus far… She pulled out a little rosary; an assortment of beads strung and knotted on a slender leather thong, and bent her head to quiet her thoughts. Her lips moved silently in prayer.

After a time, the doors to the Seer opened and nearly forty men poured through the portal. All dressed in Pelargir blue, they might as well have been a fraternity instead of soldiers from how they carried on. In the center of the boisterous party Peldirion walked, laughing with one of their number. As they made their way through to a side hall that led to the stairs, Peldirion excused himself, pestered by a few before they consented to go on without him. Waiting for the company to disappear around the bend, he then turned and made his way towards Lalaith and her corner.

Lalaith’s prayers paused as the cacophony passed, though she did not look up. As the men’s voices faded, her fingers curled around the next bead and her prayers began anew.

A weight, a warmth pervaded her senses. Peldirion lingered by a chair as he watched her. “Are they ever answered?” he asked quietly.

She looked up. Her expression eased as she saw him. “…yes. Not always with the answer I wish. Or by the means I expect. But… they are.” She noted silently how often he had begun to seek her out. A warning flared in her breast and three other dark-haired faces flickered in her mind’s eye.

Peldirion nodded slowly. “May I ask what you pray about?” he asked, his tone curious.

Lalaith sat up, tucking an escaped strand of hair back under her veil. “…my brother.” She smiled sadly. “He is ill, apparently. I only found out today.”

Peldirion blinked. “It is not anything serious, I hope,” he said, nodding to the chair beside her as if asking for permission to join her. “What ails him?”

Lalaith gestured to the chair, welcoming. No… wrong. She ignored the voice. She liked his company. Why was it wrong? “I don’t know. I only know that he is sick, not injured.”

Peldirion nodded and sat. “Do you have much family in the city? I assumed that the stern man that passed us in the Dome of the Sun was related to you in some way.”

Lalaith looked down at her rosary, faces she had not seen in nearly four years rising before her eyes. “I have not… been in contact with them. For a few years. That, that man was… is my father. I know now that my brother remains in the City. I do not know of my mother.”

Peldirion’s dark blue eyes drifted up from the rosary to her face. “You are not in contact with them? … though now that I ask I feel like you might have mentioned as much before.”

Lalaith shook her head. “No, it’s all right. I haven’t spoken much of them to anyone.”

“They a part of the long story of how you joined the Temple?”

Lalaith chirruped a soft laugh. “Yes, a part of the epic.”

His eyes smiled. She’d come to know some of his expressions already, seeing a little way below the surface. “If I recall correctly, you hid from the — your father that day. Do they know you are a Sister?”

Lalaith shook her head again. “That came well after I lost contact with them. Or… chose to stop responding. I ought not speak as if it were accidental.”

His mouth smiled now. She told herself she enjoyed all people’s smiles. “I do not mean to pry — well, me asking makes that a lie, but why did you stop? Responding, that is.”

She studied him for a moment. Maybe if he knew a little more of the truth, he would withdraw. “…my relationship with my father had been strained for some time. He had arranged for me to marry a man I… a man I could not love. So I just… stopped. I was far away from him, and it was easiest just to… cut him out of my life.”

“That is unfortunate… though, I admit I understand in some small way — from a man’s perspective. As soon as this is all over I plan to go home and ship my mother off to a villa where she will be unable to meddle.”

Lalaith smiled, somewhat pained. “…I hope she has your best interests at heart, however unhelpful her ‘help’ may be.”

Peldirion grunted. It had many meanings, that sound. “I assure you that she does not. I am sure you family at least meant well. Arranged marriages are not all that bad, though. Was the unlucky gentleman that terrible?”

She chose the light route for the conversation. “Augh. Horrible. Literal and figurative warts.”

Peldirion winced dramatically. “How unfortunate for him. In every way. Your brother that is ill, he is at the Houses?”

Lalaith nodded slowly. “I, um, I don’t think it would be… good for him. To see me. I don’t want to stress him further.”

He shook his head. “I did not mean that, though it is a shame. Just meant that it must make getting around work more difficult if you have to avoid certain areas.”

“A bit, I suppose. I have been… hiding here.”

“A good hiding spot. I apologize for last week. I should have had the decency to walk you here on your lunch.”

She let a shy smile escape. “I’d–” No. It is leading. Have you learned nothing? “I appreciate the thought.”

“Actions are always better, though. You enjoyed your lunch, though, I trust?”

She couldn’t look at him, not with the way he was looking at her. If she looked up, she had to face this newest temptation, this invitation to her deepest desires. She continued to address her rosary. “Um, yes!” She nodded. “It was very peaceful. And… some kind stranger paid my tab,” she added lightly, in a how-do-you-like-that sort of tone. Frank, platonic. Friendship could not be wrong. Could it? Please, I just want a friend. …is that true? Is it true through?

Peldirion smiled again in her periphery, looking pleased. “They did? It is good to hear that there are still good souls who treat ladies with such kindness. You… did not meet the mystery benefactor?”

She smirked down at the beads in her hands. “I didn’t,” she said with regret. “The server said only that my meal had already been paid for. I was so surprised and… a bit embarrassed, that I did not think to inquire.”

Peldirion chuckled. Why was it a man’s laugh was always so comforting? So gratifying? “Who knows? It could have been a grateful patient… Or perhaps the scorned Wart Lord — Now free of his affliction, of course,” he teased.

Lalaith squirmed slightly, her smile turning pained. That angry, ugly face. Had it been three years? She could see it so vividly. The venom pouring from his mouth. He’d called her a viper. She’d laughed scornfully. It takes one to know one. Am I still?

Peldirion tilted his head a bit to one side. “Forgive me. I did not mean that to come across as unkind,” he offered quietly.

Lalaith shook her head. “No, I–” She finally glanced up. “You must think me…” She forced a smile, trying not to look fragile. “…just in shambles all the time, mustn’t you?”

Peldirion met her eyes with a strange, kind smile. “Some vessels are more beautiful once they have been pieced back together, my lady.”

Flushing, pierced, she stared at him wide-eyed for a long moment. Her lips parted without words. Did he say it or did I wish it?

Peldirion’s gaze lifted to settle for a moment on her cowl, seeming to search for the dark waves hidden beneath the rough cloth. Finding her eyes again he bowed his head to her. “But I am keeping you from your prayers. Forgive me,” he said as he rose to his feet.

Say it now, child. You mustn’t lead him on. This love is not for you. It must be poured out, offered up.

 

Shaken, Lalaith attempted hastily to compose herself. “Ca-captain… I cannot…” She cast about, either unable to find the words or unable to make herself speak them.

Peldirion turned back, looking expectantly to her, and waited patiently for her to speak.

She floundered under his gaze, almost, almost reaching out for him with her eyes, but afraid, too afraid. Please don’t make me. Not again. I’m still raw.

Did he draw toward her? Or was it a stray breeze that caught his cloak? “You cannot what?” he quietly encouraged.

‘I am in love with you, Lalaith. The grey swan spoke from the past, his wings raising a fog in her mind.

Lalaith bowed her head, squeezing her eyes shut, fleeing Peldirion’s deep gaze. No, no, not again. I’ve been doing so well. “…um. Th-think.” Coward. “It… must be getting late. I’m s-so fearfully tired!”

He smiled, brilliant and bright, and her heart was tugged up and down. He sees something else.

“It is late,” he said with a nod in agreement, his eyes still resting on her, “and no hour for a lady burdened by fatigue to go walking alone in a city still gripped by revelry. If you wished it, I would be glad to see you safely to the Houses.”

It’s true, she argued with the voice in her head. Just a moment more. Just a moment. “If you do not mind…” She looked everywhere but at him, gathering herself up from the chair and pocketing her beads.

“I do not.” He gently secured her hand and led her to the doors.

She was quiet on the walk back to the Houses. Just let me enjoy this. Just this, she begged. It was so dark. He lit the pavestones. The ash and haze burned away around them, a tiny bubble of clear bright air in the miasma.

But finally he spoke, as she knew he would. “I have been wondering…” he began, searching for the right words.

Lalaith turned her soft grey gaze upon him. I’ll do it now. I promise. I’m sorry, Peldirion.

“Your oaths. They are absolute?”

Her pulse slowly rose. “…they are meant to be lifelong,” she said slowly. Please don’t hate me. “One may… leave the Temple, pursue… another course of life. But… one may never return, after breaking them.”

Peldirion nodded slowly. “I had guessed as much.” He looked back to her. “I take it few choose to pursue another course?”

“…few.” Gooseflesh rippled up her arms. We come to the end.

He stopped them in the shadows to one side of the door. Lest family emerge, of course. “Then, when I visit Dol Amroth, I will come to the Temple only as a visitor.”

Lalaith paused, looking up at him in confusion. “…I don’t understand.” She’d expected him to turn away, to never look back.

Peldirion looked down at her, his shadowed gaze taking in her features. “That may be for the best, my lady. I would say I have no desire to compromise your vows even for a moment… but then that would be a lie.”

Lalaith’s following silence was long, and longing. She imagined… But finally, she murmured, “You do not know… the m-many reasons I am unworthy of such… consideration.”

Peldirion huffed a quiet breath in amusement. “I do not need to know. If you are unworthy, then we are all without hope of consideration.”

One hand presses to her temple. Please just see. Don’t make me explain. Just see what they finally saw. “No, no, y-you…” Her fingers wandered to her mouth as a moment of clarity blossomed in her mind. “…are you another test?” she asked. She couldn’t tell if she’d said it out loud.

Peldirion frowned, concern apparent as his eyes follow her hand. “A test? A test of what?” She had, apparently

“I’m not ready… Not again.” That wasn’t meant to be out loud either. She was slipping. She hadn’t braced for it. Not in front of him, please.

Peldirion’s expression fell, and he gently removed her hand from his arm to give it back to her. There, finally. He sees. “I apologize,” he said, bowing his head to her as he retreated a step, a hint of disappointment in his eyes. “Do forgive me, Sister. Thank you for the pleasure of your company. I hope… you enjoy the remainder of your evening.”

Lalaith swayed where she stood, forcing a smile over a shattered expression; beautifully broken. “You see? I… am…” She grimaced, tapping at her brow with two fingers. “I am in shambles, all the time. There are… things in my mind I–” She tucked her chin, cutting herself off. Say no more. He’s already pulled away. “I’m sorry.”

Peldirion’s features softened, and with a swift motion he reached out to catch the hand that had tapped her brow. “You are not the only one. Do not apologize,” he insisted, lifting her hand to his lips for a brief moment, his eyes never leaving hers.

She gasped as if shocked. Her hand curls around his fingers, clinging. Ai Elmeleth! You know I cannot fight it! Help! Deliver me from this temptation!

Peldirion’s grip on her hand tightened, securing his hand with hers. “Have a good evening, Lalaith,” he murmured, her name nearly an inaudible whisper before he kissed her hand once more, lingering.

The voice was silent. Where are you?! I beg you, lend me strength!

Lalaith stared, longing, confused, torn. Her free hand rose and drifted first toward Peldirion’s face, then away, lost, doubting, afraid.

Lowering her hand, he did not release it. His shoulders rising as he drew a deep breath, Peldirion reached out towards her, slowly, as if fearing the motion might frighten her. Finding the edge of her cowl, he reached a finger beneath to draw out the strands of hair she had concealed earlier, his rough knuckle brushing against her cheek. The lock of hair came free of its prison and wound around Peldiron’s finger.

Lalaith’s head tilted, leaning into the brief contact, her brow rumpled as the great weight, the vise loosened momentarily.

A free finger brushing the curl’s soft end, he did not move his hand lest the strand fall away. Hovering before her, the thumb of his other hand drew across the top of hers. Lost for words, Peldirion’s dark gaze traced the curve of her mouth, then rose to drink in her eyes. There was no sternness in that look. No pride, nor confidence in himself. Only longing, and wonder, and fear that she might flee, taking all the pieces of her and a shard of him with her. He was steady, anchored by her nearness.

“Why…” she whispered. “Why do you come just before the all-consuming dark? …I could see in the dusk. But you… blind me. …why?”

“My lady needed a light for the coming darkness, did she not? We have not lost yet.”

Lalaith searched his face. “…can’t you see,” she said haltingly. “I am mad. I am not strong, I am feeble. I see things… I hear… words never spoken aloud. I am not what you see…” Her face crumpled. “I am… a gargoyle, perched on the gables of Man, too afraid to unclasp the stone…” Bent and leeching the warmth meant for others, always for others.

“I see no gargoyle here but me. Too broken to allow anyone too close, so broken I’ve grown comfortable in this stone skin,” he said as he released the dark curl and brushed his thumb across her cheek. “I see a neglected statue who has locked herself in a garden. I would… hope you might someday consider allowing me help you down from that perch?”

Lalaith exhaled, pained. “…I want to believe you.” ‘But I cannot’ hung thick on the air. The last time she had believed, she had been duped. Played a fool, lured almost into a trap without escape. The time before that, she had tested a promise until it broke, snapped under the burden of her madness, never to be patched, no matter how hard she try.

“Well, unless you send me away or bid me not, at least permit me to try and convince you,” he said, a look of hope in the midst of his frown.

“History repeats,” she muttered, looking frantic. “A kiss can be a lie. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me…” More than that. Thrice, shame on me. Four times, five, shame shame Her eyes flicked upward. “Why? Have I not learned my lesson? What more must I sacrifice?” The stars, hidden by the cloud of ash and despair, were silent. The sea was too far away.

He looked concerned, almost wounded, but he just smiled sadly and gently tucked the dark curl back beneath her cowl. “I would not lie to you. And I will not press you for an answer. I am sorry if I cause you any distress.”

Lalaith met his eye. Again, the vastness stretched like a dark sea in her gaze. But this time she struggled in the choppy current, flailing to stay afloat, tied to some great weight beneath the waves.  No! Not this way! Don’t pity me from afar!

She seemed to come back to herself and stared at him for a moment, mortified, before she backed away toward the doors of the Houses. “…I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

He held on to her hand as she retreated, not yet willing to release her. “Lalaith?”

She paused, head bowed, her free arm curling protectively around herself.

Brows knitting together, concern and confusion the chief emotions among many in his eyes, his fingers tightened around her hand then released her. Bowing, he muttered “my lady” before turning to walk away.

She was inside the Houses, that much she knew. But the halls were a maze, scattered with dead and bloody swans and little toppled white trees, burning. The curtains would catch… She searched for her cot. “I’m tired… mayn’t I sleep..?” she asked the empty library as she stumbled through.

You have done right, my child.

“Right by whom?” the girl in grey snapped quietly, waving ash and crematory smoke from her eyes, feeling her way around a cold stone wall which became a tall shelf of warm leather books under her hands. “I was… I was going to, but you let me crack apart in front of him. It was cruel!”

It must be done. Your purpose lies before you yet. His as well. Neither of you must be distracted.

It had been too much to hope that she’d left the dreams, the visions behind on the coast. She’d hoped that they would crash like the waves on the shore and the mountains and high land would hold them in check. But there was nowhere to escape them. Not even the edge of oblivion.

She gave up looking for her room and curled up against the wall of a windy battlement, where the air carried the stench of death. She buried her face in her knees and succumbed to sleep.

Hours later, the sun’s wan light fell through the Houses’ windows, upon Lalaith’s grey robes, blending into the hall walls behind a great stone planter.

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Golden Girl Tarnished: Goodbye

(Muchas gracias to Hathlafel’s player, Hallowisp! I just adore the chemistry between Lalaith and Hathlafel. I can’t get enough of their heartbreaking, yet sharply funny relationship. This is a long read; a compilation of about three RPs. But those familiar with Hath’s and ‘Laith’s background will see the convergence of several of their themes.)

It was late afternoon in late summer. The growing season had just begun to wane. Lalaith sat on the bottom step to the door of House Demechil, her head bowed to rest on her knees.

Hathlafel rubbed tiredly at his eyes as he slogged up to the garden gate of the Demechil manor.

Lalaith lifted her head, blinking wearily. Upon realizing who it was, she stood. “…Hathlafel!” She stepped quickly toward him. “It’s been weeks! …you never answered my letters; I was so worried.”

Hathlafel looked over at Lalaith, and gave her a brief smile. “Hello there, priestess. What letters?”

Lalaith blinked. “…the ones I sent you after, after the picnic.” Her big grey eyes scanned Hathlafel’s face. “Are you all right? You look tired.”

Hathlafel waved a hand and glanced down the road. “Aye… Always am, these days.”

“One of your neighbors finally told me you’d been staying here some nights,” said Lalaith. “…is something wrong?”

Hathlafel chewed his lip. “I moved back home to cut down on some expenses…”

“Oh, I see. That sounds… wise.”

Hathlafel smiled and shrugged. “It’s always something, aye? Anyway, how are you?”

Lalaith searched Hathlafel’s face, still concerned. “…well, I’ve been worried sick about you. It was as if you… fell off the face of the earth after our picnic. I was afraid you… you’d changed your mind.”

Hathlafel frowned and rubbed at his face again. “Sorry…what picnic?”

Lalaith stilled. “The one on the… palace grounds. In the garden.”

Hathlafel stared blankly at her.

“You don’t… remember.”

Hathlafel suddenly looked quite concerned. He swallowed and wet his lips. “What did I do on this picnic?”

Lalaith stayed very still for a long moment. She looked down, swallowed, then looked away. “…how long has this been happening to you?” she asked, her tone shifting shakily toward that of concerned healer.

Hathlafel looked increasingly worried. “For…months now. Lalaith, what have I been saying to you? I don’t remember even seeing you since taking you to the Lady’s Arms.”

Lalaith’s eyes tightened at the corners. But she smiled. “It doesn’t matter. You weren’t yourself.” She had to pause to swallow the tightening in her throat. “You… ought to be examined by a specialist. The court physician, perhaps. If… if you’re blacking out, it could be very dangerous.”

Hathlafel wet his lips. “It’s not like that. It’s…” He rubbed almost violently at his eyes. “It’s hypnotism. Something Gwenithel used to control me. Someone else got a hold of it. I need to know what I was doing. Whatever it was, someone made me do it, and we need to know why.”

Lalaith hesitated, struggling within herself.

Hathlafel stepped closer. “Lalaith… What did I do to you?”

Quickly, she said, “Nothing, nothing bad. You, you only…”

“I only..?”

Lalaith forced a laugh. “You… said silly things. Things I, I knew couldn’t possibly be true. Like…” She shook her head. “Like you wanted to marry me and… questions about Elmeleth. Things like that.”

Hathlafel’s face drained of color and his eyes went wide. “Oh, Lalaith…” His voice was raspy. “I’m so, so sorry.”

Lalaith vigorously shook her head, still smiling, still smiling. “It’s all right. It’s not your fault.”

“I’m so sorry, Lalaith. Did I…I didn’t force you into anything, did I? I hate to think…”

No, never!”

Hathlafel let out a breath. “I didn’t compromise your vow at all?”

Lalaith finally met his eye. “You couldn’t,” she said softly, with absolute faith. “Even if you’d been hypnotized. You could never do something like that.”

Hathlafel grimaced. “I would do whatever I was told to do.”

“…then we need to find a way to break the spell,” Lalaith said slowly.

“I’m working on it, but…right now, I just… I’m so sorry for imposing all that on you. I know you’ve moved on. It must have been terrible.”

Lalaith seemed to have to think for several moments on what to say. Finally, she said, “Don’t trouble yourself. Please. I know that… friends, true friends have been few and far between for you. But I hope you will consider me one of them. No matter what.”

“I…of course, Lalaith. I just…” Hathlafel sighed and shook his head. “Oh, Elmeleth.” He looked away. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

“You just what?”

“I just don’t know how much more I can bear this, doing harm to all the people I love.”

Lalaith looked down. Slowly, she opened her hand, offering it to him palm up. “Our faults… our flaws leave scars on those who love us. But our love for them will never harm them. Love is… patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”

Hathlafel looked down at her hand.

Her voice tightening and threatening to fail, Lalaith continued. “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. It never fails, Hathlafel.”

Hathlafel just smiled wanly.

Lalaith’s eyes filled with tears. “You must believe, Hathlafel. You are loved. It will protect you. When nothing else can.”

Hathlafel looked down at his feet. “I don’t know, Lalaith. I just don’t know. And I’m so, so sorry.” He reached up to cover his face. He sucked in a breath, possibly because he was on the verge of weeping.

“What may I do to ease your burden?” Lalaith asked softly.

“Oh, Lalaith. How can you ask that when I’m the one who hurt you?”

She smiled gently. “Because I love you,” she said simply.

Hathlafel let out a sob-gasp and turned away. “You shouldn’t. I don’t deserve it.”

“Oh Hathlafel. When will you learn that it is not a prize to be earned? There is no one thing, no… thousand things one may do to ever be perfectly deserving of love. Yet still we feel it. We are compelled by it.”

He was still and quiet for a moment. Then, “How can you already be willing to forgive me for this?”

She thought for a moment. “…I don’t know. I just… am. It is the most at peace I have felt in weeks.”

Hathlafel turned back to gaze down at her. “Why? How?”

Lalaith stared sympathetically up at him. “…faith, I think.” She smiled. “I do, by the way. Forgive you. Now it is up to you to forgive yourself. Have you, ever?”

Hathlafel shook his head. “Lalaith, what can I do for you?”

“Let me help you. I offer it freely. You owe me nothing in the accepting.”

Hathlafel grimaced again. “I’ll try, Lalaith.” He reached over to pat her shoulder, but his hand fell short of it. “Do you…want to come in? Do you have to go?”

“No, I can stay.”

Hathlafel nodded mutely and gestured to the manor door.

Nobility was certainly not what sprung to mind upon first sight of the Demechil manor. On the outside it was an ordinary townhouse, worn by age. On the inside it was a home that at some point in history must have been quite fine, but had since faded under many years of living. The rugs were a bit threadbare, the cabinets a bit dusty, and the wooden carvings chipped and grooved with age. It was dark, too, though it smelled well enough, of jasmine and citrus and sandalwood.

“Home, sweet home,” said Hathlafel. “I’d offer you something, but I’m not even certain what we have.”

As he led her through the front entry, Lalaith took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. Practice what you preach, Lalaith. Forgive him. Let go of those hopes in favor of the present moment. She smiled. “It’s all right. I don’t need anything, but thank you.”

Hathlafel turned to her, and gave her a look of deep chagrined. “I’m usually pretty fair at joking my way out of a conundrum, but this…”

Lalaith looked down. “I suppose… it may be awkward for a time. But that will pass. I’m sure we’ll be back to sniping at one another in no time.” This smile was bittersweet.

Hathlafel grimaced again. “Lalaith the…whatever I did, I’m so sorry for it. You’ve already been through so much. I hate that I contributed to it even more.”

Lalaith studied him for a moment. “Would it help you to know the details?” she asked genuinely. “Or would that only make it worse? I will tell you if you wish, though I would not burden you further by my own prerogative.”

“I’m more interested in what would help you right now,” said Hathlafel. “I have the dubious blessing of ignorance. You don’t.”

Lalaith sighed and considered. “A distraction,” she said finally. “Will you tell me what’s going on? I know something is happening. Perhaps I can do something, even if it’s simply lending an ear to your thoughts.”

“To be honest, Lalaith, I’m not sure. I don’t understand why Scarlet would pull you into all of this unless… unless…”

Lalaith tilted her head. “…the Scarlet Prowler? She’s the one… hypnotizing you? How would she even know who I am?”

Hathlafel swallowed. “She knows who everyone is. She collects employees who… cater to particular whims. She probably wanted you in her stable, and was using me to… to lure you in. She’s been…. using me for a lot, lately.”

Lalaith’s brow creased. “…her stable?” She paled. “Oh.”

She turned away, slowly pacing around the room. “I should think our first order of business is to determine how to break this hypnosis.” She looked back at Hathlafel. “What do you know about its circumstances?”

Hathlafel sighed. “Very little, though thanks to one of the Wayfarers, I do know now that Arameril’s name breaks it.”

Lalaith narrowed her eyes thoughtfully at him. “That is useful. …would you mind if I examined your eyes?”

Hathlafel looked a bit surprised. “Uh…I suppose not. But…why?”

Lalaith shrugged. “It may tell us something. Hypnosis is control of the mind. But that access is granted through the senses. If we can figure out how the Scarlet Prowler is triggering the control, we may be able to forestall the trigger.”

She glanced around and gestured to a shabby chair. “If you will sit?” she asked, putting on her most professional air.

Hathlafel crossed over to the chair, and sat down. He set his palms on his knees, and gave Lalaith a pleasant but somewhat apprehensive smile.

Lalaith approached with hands folded before her. She smiled wryly, one eyebrow cocked. “Take a breath. I’m not going to rip your clothing off,” she said with a dry tone.

Hathlafel closed his eyes. “For all I know, you did, and just aren’t telling me,” he said, though there was some of his usual mirth in his tone.

A look of shock crossed Lalaith’s face, but as she registered his tone, she had to squelch a sudden laugh. “No,” she said, amusement in her tone nevertheless. “Even you were not that charming.”

She stood just to his right now, facing him. “Is it all right if I touch your face? I don’t wish to surprise you, so I’m trying for clarity of communication.”

Hathlafel nodded. “If you think this will help, I’m willing to try.”

“All right.” Fingertips touched Hathlafel’s temple and gently probed across his brow and around each eye. Lalaith carefully lifted his right eyelid, holding her index finger before it. “Follow my finger.” She drew it through the air, left, right, up, down.

Hathlafel’s eyes followed her finger obediently, though they sparked with a bit of playfulness. “Any faster and you’ll make me dizzy.”

“Hush.” Lalaith squinted down at him, scrutinizing his eye for any unusual sign.

Hathlafel’s eyes appeared to be their normal, alert brown. He also seemed to be resisting the urge to tweak her nose.

Lalaith repeated the process with Hathlafel’s left eye, drawing her finger slowly through the air to form a cross, with a muttered, “Follow my finger.”

Hathlafel’s eyes darted after the moving finger without issue.

“Hm.” Lalaith turned Hathlafel’s head to peer into first one ear, then the other. “I wonder…” she murmured clinically. “If I was a target, what was the trigger? Something I said or did each time you saw me?”

“Most likely,” said Hathlafel. “But Scarlet likes to control every aspect of a situation. She probably only let me see you when she was prepared.”

“But… I came to your room that one night of the run-in with that man. She couldn’t have known I would stay late at the clinic. Or that I would meet Hunir in the street and seek shelter at your place. …do you remember?”

Hathlafel shook his head. “I don’t remember anything since taking you to the Lady’s Arms. She must have built in a trigger. Did I… act differently, at some point?”

Lalaith considered, remembering. “You seemed confused at first, when I asked you about the letter I’d written you. As if you hadn’t read it. Then you smiled and responded as if you knew exactly what I was talking about. …you said Arameril’s name breaks the hypnosis?”

Hathlafel nodded. “Yes. One of the Wayfarers helped me discover that. I don’t think it was intentional.”

“…I think we should try to induce the hypnosis,” Lalaith said slowly. “I know how to break it now. Perhaps I can learn more, now that…” She hesitated, then forces an awkward smile. “Now that I know it… isn’t you.”

Hathlafel looked uncertain, but eventually nodded. “All right. I trust you.”

Lalaith looked momentarily surprised at his choice of words. She took a deep breath. “Right. I want you to sit back and try to clear your mind. …perhaps close your eyes for a moment, then open them and imagine that… this is the first you’ve seen of me today.”

“That isn’t going to trigger it,” said Hathlafel. “You’ll have to use the trigger words.”

Lalaith’s brows lifted. “…any guesses?”

“I know it,” said Hathlafel. “You have to say my name, then my name and surname, and then my name and house title.”

Lalaith blinked, taken aback. “…oh.”

Hathlafel sat back and set his jaw. “I’m ready…”

“I promise, I won’t let anything happen to you. Hathlafel.”

He gave her a brief, flickering smile.

“…Hathlafel Demechil.”

Hathlafel’s eyes began to fog over.

Lalaith tilted her head, observing this with a mix of curiosity, horror, and pity. “…Hathlafel of… House Demechil.”

Hathlafel rose suddenly from his seat and smiled down at her with a sultry and smoldering expression. “Yes, my love.”

Startled, Lalaith stepped back. “…oh, um. Sit, you need to sit,” she stuttered, flustered by the speed of Hathlafel’s reaction.

Hathlafel sat, though his gaze stayed intently on her. He took her hands and touched his warm lips to her knuckles in a lingering kiss.

Lalaith snatched her hand back. “N-no, you… you’ve had a blow to the head. …darling. I need to make sure you’re all right,” she flailed.

Hathlafel looked concerned. “Really? I feel fine.”

Lalaith nodded quickly. “That, that’s good! But I need to examine your head and eyes. All right?”

Hathlafel nodded and went still.

Lalaith carefully approached, as she might a flesh-eating piranha. She lifted her index finger, trying to keep as much distance as she can between them while still being able to see his eyes. “Track my finger, please?”

Hathlafel’s eyes once again tracked her finger, though sluggishly. He seemed much more interested in staring at her. The spark of wit was gone, replaced with a complacent mist. “You smell wonderful.”

Lalaith’s expression fell into pity. “…how could I not see?” she breathed to herself.

Hathlafel reached out. He set his hands on the dip of her waist and drew her closer. “See what, my love?”

Pained, Lalaith resisted. With effort. She pulled Hathlafel’s hands from her hips and sets them on his lap. “I… I need to ask you some questions. To make sure you’re all right.”

“All right,” he said, “I’ll answer one question per kiss.” He grinned.

Lalaith’s expression contracted. “…no, I can’t. Not right now. I… I’ll make it up to you later, all right? Now what’s the last thing you remember, before seeing me here?”

Hathlafel smiled and drummed his fingers on his knee. “Going to play coy, are we? All right. But I’ll have you remember, I’m an architect of pursuit. I’ll answer two questions for every one kiss.”

Floundering, Lalaith had the presence of mind at least to bargain upward. “…four questions.”

Hathlafel chuckled. “Three. And you have to kiss before I answer.”

Lalaith swallowed and nodded, looking pale.

Hathlafel rose to his feet and immediately collected her in the circle of his strong arms. His warm, soft lips met hers as he bent down.

Lalaith shrank away, barely letting Hathlafel’s lips graze hers before she stepped back, flushed.

Hathlafel looked cheated. “You call that a kiss?” He stepped forward and tried again. This time, his shoulders held her in place.

“Hathl–!” Lalaith gasped, cut off by his mouth upon hers. She whimpered, drowning in the sensation of him pressed so close.

Hathlafel pulled her body against his, and deepened the kiss. “Oh, Lalaith…” he murmured. “How sweet are your lips.”

Lalaith wrested herself with difficulty from Hathlafel’s embrace, breathing hard and a bit shaken. “You’ve had your kiss,” she said. “Now answer the question.” She reached up to awkwardly straighten her veil.

Hathlafel let her go, looking vaguely worried. “All right, but are you well?”

No,” Lalaith said, a bit more forcefully than intended, her expression frail. “I’m trying to heal you and you won’t let me.”

Hathlafel tilted his head. “I only want to treat you like the Princess. But I apologize for upsetting you. What are your questions?”

Wary, Lalaith repeated, “What’s the last thing you remember before being here with me?”

Hathlafel stepped forward. “Well, I wasn’t going to tell you just yet, but since you insist…” He reached into his belt pouch. “The last thing I remember is buying this.” He opened a little box and presented a magnificent engagement ring to Lalaith. It was made of two leaf-like diamonds accented by clusters of seed sapphires.

Lalaith stared, stunned. She swallowed thickly against a suddenly dry mouth. “…where did you find the m–” she began, then cut herself off. “No! No, that wasn’t one of my questions! Do, do you know the woman called the Scarlet Prowler?”

Hathlafel frowned. “Of course. What does she have to do with any of this?”

“Do you recall her ordering you to… seduce me? …or to do anything else?”

“What? No…of course not.” He looked down at the ring, then hopefully back up at her. “This isn’t how I’d wanted to do this, but…now that the very expensive cat’s out of the bag, you wouldn’t leave a fellow hanging, would you?”

Fighting the tears that began to blur her vision, Lalaith shook her head and croaked, “After I’ve made sure you aren’t concussed.” She heaved a deep breath and tried to forge on. “…are you aw-… aware of any gaps in your memory?”

Hathlafel paused as he considers this. “Not to my knowledge. All I remember is…you.”

Lalaith’s face crumpled. She turned her back to him and stepped away, trying to compose herself. No more questions.

Hathlafel put away the ring and stepped over to hug her from behind. “Sweet Lalaith…what troubles you so?”

Raggedly, Lalaith said, “…you aren’t the man I love. I’m so sorry. I should have seen it. I should have known.”

Hathlafel stepped back. “What..? What do you mean?”

“I thought it was really you.” Lalaith lifted her head to stare at the far wall. “At last. But you aren’t him. He is broken. And strong. Stern and irreverent. Scarred and beautiful. Witty and foolish. …and I will never love anyone the way I love him.”

Hathlafel frowned. “Who are you talking about? I thought you loved me.”

Lalaith swallowed, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. She turned to face him, her expression fragilely composed. “Hathlafel. I beg your forgiveness for my selfishness. For seeing only what I wished to, and not the truth. …Arameril.”

Hathlafel’s eyes flickered, and he rubbed his forehead. “…What are you doing?”

Lalaith schooled her expression. “What’s the last thing you recall?” she asked softly.

Hathlafel blinked fuzzily at her. “Uh…I was sitting. I remember that much. Did it work? What did you learn?”

Lalaith shook her head. “I’m sorry. Perhaps I wasn’t asking the right questions. You couldn’t tell me anything more than we already know.”

Hathlafel hung his head. “I’m not surprised. Scarlet probably made sure of that. My only purpose was probably to seduce you.”

“Don’t give up,” Lalaith said gently. She smiled, a sad, aged thing. “There is always hope. …I must be on my way.”

Hathlafel looked tempted to ask what happened to make her so sad, but thought better of it. “Be safe, Lalaith.”

Lalaith inclined her head. “…goodbye.” Without another word, she quietly left the old, rundown estate.

Looking down, Hathlafel finally noticed the ring in his hand and paled.

___________________________________________________________

It took almost two hours to return to the Temple. Normally, she’d have walked it in thirty minutes. But she’d had to stop, blinded by her tears, unable to put one foot in front of the other. She’d sit and sob, on a stranger’s stoop, behind the sturdy trunk of a tree, then rise and continue on.

The clinical part of her mind, observing as if utterly detached from her current desolation, marveled at the physical pain. The throbbing in her temple, the sharp ache in her chest, the sensation of being unmoored from gravity as the earth swayed unpredictably under her feet.

As twilight came, she finally made the gate. The white stone of Elmeleth’s Temple glowed, warm and safe. But Lalaith was hollow again. She could not bring herself to step onto the grounds.

Mortified by the sound of her own abject weeping, she trailed along the outside of the iron and stone fence until she found an obliging willow under which to hide. How appropriate, she thought as she curled up on the ground to cry herself to sleep.

Goodbye, my love. Goodbye.

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Golden Girl Tarnished: Counsel

Much thanks to Raenarcam for her portrayal of the Mother Priestess!

It was the end of a long, hot summer day at the Temple of Elmeleth. Out on its slender peninsula, the white stone of the Temple cooled quickly in the sea breeze, bringing relief from the stifling heat.
Sister Lalaith, one of the youngest and most recent priestesses at the Temple, sat outside the great marble walls, staring morosely out to sea. A typically even-keeled and cheerful girl (well, once she had settled into her place here), she looked acutely perturbed this evening.
A rustle of cloth announced the Mother Priestess who stood over Lalaith and looked out toward the sea. “Did you ever hear the story of Nimrodel, Lalaith? They say she leapt from the cliffs and into the sea to reach her beloved. Some men say she drowned and some say the spirits of the sea bore her back in return to the shores and there she and her beloved settled and bore children and from their children descend our princes.” The old woman finished with a little huff, hands clasped behind her back.
Lalaith stood and bowed her head. “…yes, Mother Priestess. I am… familiar with the tale.”
She fluttered a hand at Lalaith. “Sit, Sister Lalaith. Lalaith, that means laughter in Sindarin, and yet here you are glowering at the fresh air of the sea. Has the sea wronged you in some implacable way?”
Lalaith blanched, slowly sitting again. “No, Reverend Mother. I… there is much on my mind, that is all.” She forced a poor smile.
“A sister would do well to bear upon her a mind free of troubles, that she might take upon her the troubles of others,” Mother says thoughtfully, looking out still. “So speak of them and lighten the burden, Sister Lalaith, before they eat you alive.”
Lalaith’s brow creased. “…th-they are of rather a personal nature, Mother,” she said hesitantly. “I… I’m not sure I ought speak of them aloud.”
“Keeping secrets are we?” Mother asked in a somewhat exaggerated tone of authority mingled with bright amusement. “What is even the point of secrets here, Sister? When you joined with us it was in kinship. Come come, speak up.”
Lalaith looked down at her hands, clasped tightly in her lap. “…my, my friend who stopped me from… harming myself last fall… today h-he said he has… feelings for me. I, I’m not sure what to do.”

When she had come to the priestesses in the fall, she had been fragile, depressed, and isolated; her guardian Sir Carmanadh had released her to the care of the Temple and shortly thereafter, all but disowned her for her attempted suicide.

Sir Hathlafel, the Knight who had prevented her from self-harm, often volunteered at the Temple, providing crowd control during the holiday feasts in which the Sisters fed hundreds of East Ward residents. Despite his irreverence, it was clear he held the Priestesses and their work in great respect, though he had never outwardly shown interest in Lalaith aside from a friendship of acerbic repartee.

Mother stood in silence for a little while, processing this statement against the distant roar of the sea. “Poverty amid the many is difficult but not impossible, Charity is a skill taken up, and Pacifism-” she laughed softly “-Well, we are no knights are we…? But the heart and the body conspire against us eternal. In the young, and for the old as well sometimes, chastity is difficult. These things we acknowledge.” She paused a little, listening to the gulls. “But you have said he had feelings for you. Of what are you unsure then? Whether you share those feelings or what the outcome might be? For it is that question which will best determine your path now.”
“…I have loved him for some time,” Lalaith confessed softly. She looked up. “I swear to you, Reverend Mother, I have tried with all my might to… to rid myself of such feelings. I have prayed and fasted and… poured all my energy into my work and study. Yet every time I see him…” Her expression told enough.
Mother looked down at her thoughtfully for a long moment and then laughed softly though not unkindly, not in mockery. “Oh, Sister Lalaith, but to be young again…” She looked out again at the sea with a small smile. “Love is a thing we all face, all men, all elves too I would warrant, and dwarves as well. Even the Valar in their distant halls feel it. And sometimes it does betray us, creeps in unawares, strikes at the heart. There is no shame in these feelings, Sister, you are not wrong to feel something that you cannot help.” The older woman sat down finally, stretching her legs, she set her hand kindly on Lalaith’s back, smiling still.

“If our efforts were simple and easy there would be no need for us to perform them, for all the world would live in harmony. But what you must ask yourself is not whether you love this man, but whether in ten years, in twenty, you will be able to put your soul into your work here while he goes on beyond the walls. While he marries another, or does not, will all your work become tinged with bitterness and regret. You are young yet, and the whole world is open to you, you will have trials even greater than this if you remain with us and it will never be easier, even when you are as old as Sister Iorwen with her cane.”

“No path is easy, Sister Lalaith, but here you have come across a branching path. We would be happy for you to remain with us on this road, but if your heart would constantly look back to this crossroad then it will be better for you to take it and see where it leads. But-” She removed her hand and looked over to the sea again, taking a deep breath. “-Youth does not see where the road goes, and it may well be that this is but a trial and in a year your work will indeed bear fruit, your love will have been a bright spark to be viewed with joy amid your time here. Fond and distant.” She smiled and shook her head. “Goodness, I sound just like my Mother Priestess.”

Lalaith was silent for a long moment, contemplating the Mother Priestess’s words.

“…I have to find out which will… last,” she surmised eventually, looking to the Mother uncertainly.

“Forgive me, Reverend Mother. I thought… I thought you would tell me to flee the temptation of romantic love.”

“Why? If you flee temptation and become bitter and unpleasant what good will it do me? I will have to put up with it.” She laughed warmly again. “No, no, you should be here because you wish to be here, because you feel joy in the work and because it is your calling. You have been a good sister though. You will find the way.”
Lalaith took a deep breath, a faint smile curving her lips. “Thank you, Reverend Mother. That means more to me than I can say. I do love it here. I feel useful. I want to help people, to heal them.”

Her brow knitted as she looked out to the restless water. “For the first time in my life, I have felt as though I have a purpose.”

“Just remember that if you pass through that doorway-” The Mother Priestess gestured over her shoulder toward the front gate. “-and leave there is no coming back.” She looked thoughtful a moment before clambering back up to her feet. “Go through your trial and make your decision, but mind the vows you have taken. Once we set down a road there is no setting off of it again, no turning back. It is…” She began, thoughtfully still, “It is unfair to make the young make these decisions without the wisdom of age, but I can tell you for myself… Well, for myself staying here in spite of all other things was the right decision. I believe many of your sisters will tell you the same.”
Lalaith rose nimbly as the Mother did and dipped her head again. “…yes, Reverend Mother,” she murmured with dutiful respect.

“And do not come here to mope too often. We cannot have you shirking any duties.” The Mother Priestess gathered up her robe and began to step back around toward the building.

Lalaith watched as the Mother Priestess made her way along the beach wall of the Temple, her expression thoughtful.

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Golden Girl Tarnished: Sensate

Thanks always to Hallowisp, inspirer of amazing character development. Hathlafel and Carmanadh are her beautiful, beautiful creations.

Lalaith 1

“Lalaith. Lalaith! Be careful!”

Adareth plucked the sharp filleting knife from her hands. “You nearly took off your finger!” she scolded. “You’ve got to pay better attention. I know this doesn’t seem as important as your work with Sister Artalis, but–”

Lalaith looked up from her hands, where blood welled from a nick on the back of her thumb. “No, I’m sorry. It is important. I… I just let myself get distracted. It won’t happen again.”

With a concerned look, Adareth murmured, “See that it doesn’t, for your own good. Now go wrap that up. It won’t do to put your own blood in the stew.”

“Yes, Sister.”

Putting pressure on the wound, Lalaith went to the infirmary. In the heat of the day, Sister Artalis was likely napping; at her age the heat was difficult to take. It didn’t matter. Lalaith knew where everything was.

She collected a small strip of bandage and the cut salve, a bit of fresh water in a tin bowl and a clean towel.

He touched her lip. So easy. Without hesitation. “Do they not even let you have chocolate? Are they trying to make you go mad?”

He’d broken the barrier. And a thrill had rolled up her spine.

After the trial, she’d made an effort not to reach out and touch him. After all she’d read, his statement, Gwenithel’s testimony of how she’d used him, she’d wept over the insensical violation of it. For all intents and purposes, he had been raped, physically, mentally, emotionally, over and over again. She could not fathom how he put a smile on his face every day. How he could still feel and not be overwhelmed.

So she’d shut down any expectation of shows of affection. She’d cultivated a friendship of acerbic verbal sparring, with the occasional genuine conversation. She wanted him to feel safe with her. With someone.

She’d taken a vow of chastity. And until today, it had been a relief.

Now, a red mark marred her jaw where he had brushed back her hair. The phantom sensation he had left behind had caused her to distractedly scratch the place so frequently, the skin was now inflamed. Aflame.

She had always been what her mother called ‘a sensitive,’ strongly affected by touch and physical affection. As a child, she would beg and beg her mother to brush her hair for hours (if she’d had her way), to rub her back as she fell asleep, to hold her hand as they walked through the market. As a teenager, the brush of a boy’s fingers on the back of her hand was enough to flush her face with color and send her heart racing. The few times she had kissed her bodyguard Moramarth, she could hardly breathe afterward and floated on air for days at the thrill of it.

She flashed back to the night Hathlafel had taken her to the beach to see the stars in the water. He’d leaned in to kiss her. She could still feel his breath on her cheek. But he’d pulled away, and as elated as his nearness had made her, so had his withholding plummeted her heart.

She knew now, logically, that he’d been trying to shield her. Trying to tell her, perhaps, that it was a sham, a ruse. But that didn’t erase the memory of his presence a breath away from her.

This is what got me in trouble with Carmanadh, she reminded herself, raking her fingernails across her cheek to bring herself back to reality. Her brow puckered as she fumbled with the lid of the cut salve.

Carmanadh had always reached out when she was at her lowest and simply held her, more tenderly than she would have guessed him capable. She’d gone days at a time without sleep back then, the sensation of his arms around her thrumming through her hollow drum body.

Now, like a spark reigniting a forest fire, the sensation had been reawakened, with the simple brush of a hand and a look. The span of a breath, a glance, and she was floundering.

“Some of you’r hair’s gotten free.” He reached over to brush his fingers against a fluttering lock of her hair, escaped from her veil.

He watched her as she tucked her hair back, his gaze softer, somehow. His eyes flicked over her face. When her hand bumped his, she thought… surely not. But… had he curled his fingers around hers?

The clattering crash of the tin pan on the floor brought her back to the present. She gasped with dismay as bloody water splattered across the scrubbed stone.

“Oh Elmeleth. Help.”

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The Good Son: Dying Inside

Pengail strode briskly from his house, from the home where his wife sat in the little garden, still planting flowers. His expression was troubled, dark. Above him, the sky turned coral and indigo as the sun set.

He reported in for night shift roll call at the Keep.

“Sir Pengail, a message came for you.”

Pengail looked up, but wasn’t surprised as a fellow junior Knight handed him a small, sealed missive. He read it quickly, then jogged to his superior officer’s study.

“S-sir Rivalthor?”

Rivalthor looked up, his brow jutting over his eyes to cast them in shadow.

Pengail showed him the letter. “I’ve be-been summoned to th—… the palace, sir.”

Rivalthor read with his usual glower, then blinked at the name signed to the bottom of the letter. His lips tightened. “Right then, off with you,” he said brusquely, handing the letter back almost as if he wished he hadn’t touched it.

Pengail dipped his head. “Tha-thank you, sir.”

In the now-dark streets, he made his way briskly to a small door, hidden in the wall of a palace garden. He knocked and said quietly, “F-forsake not… wi-wisdom and… she—she shall… preserve… thee.”

The door opened and another Swan Knight stared at him without speaking.

Pengail showed him the letter. “Si-sir Hanind?”

The nameless Knight gestured. “Down the hall. Turn left. Down four flights. Third door.”

Pengail nodded and set out, but the Knight grasped his arm.

“Third door. Not second, not fourth. Understood?”

Pengail stared at the other man. “Ye-y-ye—…” He nodded.

The Knight released him and he strode quickly down the dim corridor.

Pengail found the door easily enough, deep in the dank bowels of the palace and past a door behind which a strange, shrill clank sounded at odd intervals. He knocked, looking over his shoulder.

“Enter.”

He did, and saw his brother standing over a well-lit drawing table, scribbling out a set of calculations. The rest of the windowless room was dark.

Hanind looked up and pulled his monocle from his eye. “Pen. Good.” He straightened and came around the desk to take his taller brother by the shoulders and peer into his eyes. “How are you feeling today?”

“Ab-about the same.”

Hanind nodded briskly. “That’s a good sign. Don’t look so anxious.” He clapped Pengail on his good shoulder.

“Ha-have you heard any more? About the… deployment?” Pengail asked, following Hanind as he moved back toward his desk.

Hanind lifted a slender hand. “It’s still coming. And we still don’t know precisely when. Waiting on word of the horse-men,” he said, rather drily. But he pointed at Pengail. “But you don’t know that.”

Pengail nodded dutifully and glanced around his brother’s… dungeon? Laboratory? “Is it r-ready?”

Hanind eyed Pengail for a long moment. “You’re still determined.” It was less a question and more an observation.

Pengail met his brother’s eye. “Yes.”

Hanind exhaled, his nostrils flaring the way they did to express his displeasure. He moved to a shadowy corner and bent to retrieve a shield. “All this is going to do is keep the shield on your arm, Pen,” he warned as he set it face down on his desk. The handles had been modified. “You still have to be able to lift it.”

Pengail nodded. “I will. Sh-show me.”

Hanind eyed him again, his jaw harder. He shoved his monocle into his shirt pocket rather more forcefully than necessary and muttered, “Give me your arm.”

The elder brother proceeded to strap the younger’s arm into a cleverly engineered shield. Light but hard as starsilver, it held itself on the wearer’s arm with a series of straps and buckles that could be adjusted to fit, requiring very little grip by the wearer. Once fitted, there was one quick-release strap that allowed it to slip off.

Pengail carefully slid the shield off the desk, supporting it at first with his free hand. He examined the work. “…feels good.”

Hanind folded his arms and watched. “It ought to. I designed it. Is it too tight?”

Pengail tested his range of movement. He managed to lift his elbow almost as high as his shoulder before his arm gave out. He winced and shook his head. “I want it… tight.”

Hanind frowned. “Have you gone back to the surgeon?”

Pengail sighed at Hanind and tried out the quick release. He nearly dropped the shield as it slid from his arm. “Not since… la-last month,” he said quietly.

“And?” Hanind pressed, indifferent to Pengail’s reluctance.

“H-he said… there still wasn’t en-enough scar tissue yet to p-protect the surrounding…” Pengail tried to remember the words the surgeon had used. “…s-stuff. He wa-wants to wait.”

Hanind’s formidable eyebrows drew together in a scowl. “Bloody hell. A race between the scar tissue and the poison?”

Pengail didn’t look up as he set the shield back on the desk.

“I’ll talk to him,” Hanind said, with the sort of authority a person has when he speaks and barriers simply evaporate.

Pengail did look up at that. “What… good’ll it do, Han?” he asked, weary. “You do-don’t know better than the c-court physician. And… you can’t ma-make me grow… s-scar tissue faster.”

“I want to hear his prognosis myself,” Hanind said, brooking no argument.

Pengail sighed and sagged on a corner of the desk. Hanind and Mamma always got their way.

“You haven’t told her yet, have you?” Hanind observed, coming to sit on the edge of the desk beside him.

“Who?” Pengail asked, staring at the stained rug beneath his feet. …what was that a stain of?

“Arameril.”

Pengail winced. “No.”

“You need to.”

“I c-can’t.”

“She hasn’t noticed yet? The pain in your joints? You dropping half the things you pick up? You’ve been losing weight again, Pen, she’s going to notice you thr—“

“I can’t, Han. I can’t ma-make her sad.”

Hanind fell silent. He slowly folded his hands on his knee.

Pengail released a choked sound and raised his good hand to push his fingers through his hair. Hanind watched a hank of it slither down Pengail’s back to land on his desk.

“I-I’m running out of time, Han. And now… her f-fa-f-father wants t—… to take her away north s-someplace. And she wants to go.” Pengail swallowed against the lump swelling in his throat. “I j—… he hates me, Han.  I’ve… done ev-everything t-t-to… take care of her, b-but it isn’t go-g-good en-n-n—“

Hanind placed a calming hand on Pengail’s shoulder. “Pen.”

Pengail gave up fighting the words in the back of his throat. He rubbed at his eyes with his good hand.

“Take it from someone who’s built his life on secrets,” Hanind said quietly. “It’s no way to live.”

Pengail tucked his chin hard against his chest as he let the strain beat upon him. He shook his head, eyes squeezed shut.

“Look at me. Look at me, Pen,” Hanind said, unusually fervent. He pried his brother’s chin up. “You are the strong one. Yes, believe it. Fin’s the leader, he delegates to the one best suited for the job. Siri can charm and dodge ‘til the King returns. And me, well, I’ve a fortress of secrets and lies, haven’t I? You are the one who’s always faced things head on. You have the strength of heart to survive this, to be the best of us.”

Pengail’s expression was bleak. “Y-you… believe that?”

“I know it, Pen. And I am never wrong.”

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