Her eyes still closed in sleep, Gilraen smiled as she snuggled deeper into the soft cocoon of feathery blankets with a contented sigh. She lingered in the hazy world between dreams and reality, not wishing to leave, for here she felt warm and safe, and enveloped in a tender embrace. Arathorn. Inhaling deeply, she could smell him, so close, and her body tingled in anticipation.
With growing excitement she waited, but no touch followed. She felt no pressure of lips which claimed hers possessively as their own. There were no strong but gentle hands to reverently caress her flesh.
Her sigh became one of frustration. Why would he tease her so? Why would he deny her the release she now so desperately sought? She struggled against the paralyzing grip of sleep to move her arms, to reach out and find her lover, but her hands met only the fabric of fine blankets which suddenly felt so very foreign to her.
Something was not right. Frowning in confusion, she fought to clear her mind of the last foggy remnants of her dream world. Finally able to open her eyes, she blinked against the light of day, and her thoughts raced as she tried to make sense of the unfamiliar surroundings.
Memories flooded back in an instant, and she struggled for breath, for it seemed as though she would drown. Arathorn was dead. Never again would she feel his touch.
She was alone in a sumptuously large bed, surrounded by empty finery. Alone. For the second time in as many moments her mind reeled from the shock of sudden recollection and a jolt of utter panic raced through her body. Aragorn! Where was Aragorn? Had he been taken from her too?
Desperate to find her son, she attempted to flee the now oppressive bed only to find that she was hindered in her escape. The thick, luxurious blankets, which had felt so safe and warm mere moments before, now took on a far more sinister mien as they twined around her, smothering her in their tight hold. She fought with a will borne of pure terror to free herself from the tangle of bedding, and, finally succeeding, she stumbled from the bed, calling Aragorn’s name as she ran from the room.
She found her boy laying upon the floor of the parlor in their grand suite of rooms in Master Elrond’s house, quietly playing with his new toys. She fell to her knees and snatched him up, pressing him to her chest as if he might vanish from within her very arms. “Aragorn! Never do that again!” Her voice was harsh.
“You hurting me, mommy.”
She struggled to calm her racing heart and, though she loosened her grip, she did not let go. She could feel her little boy’s confusion and fear at seeing his mother in such a state and she scolded herself for her weakness as tears came unbidden to her eyes.
Aragorn was clearly trying to hold back his own tears as a small chubby hand came to rest upon her cheek. “Don’t cry mommy. I sorry.”
Taking a deep breath, she spoke again, her voice calmer now. “I am sorry, Aragorn. You did no wrong, but I must always know where you are. Do you understand?”
“Yes, mommy,” Aragorn turned his eyes to the floor as he responded quietly, and Gilraen knew that he could not possibly understand.
A moment of silence followed as she continued to embrace her son, breathing in deeply the scent of him, and rocking him gently to calm them both, until Aragorn pulled back to look at her with a very serious expression upon his little face. “Mommy, when we go home?”
The innocent question threatened to undo her again, though she managed to keep her composure as she responded with the only answer she could truthfully give: “I do not know, my boy. Perhaps not for a long time.”
Clearly struggling to make sense of what was happening, Aragorn continued to study her intently. “I miss daddy. When we see daddy?”
Gilraen closed her eyes and released a shaky breath. She had expected the question would come, though still she felt ill-prepared to answer. Aragorn had already been told that his father was dead, but how could such a young child possibly grasp the true meaning of the word? How could he possibly understand the absolute permanence of death?
Opening her eyes again, she reached out with a trembling hand to lightly stroke her son’s unruly hair, so much like his father’s. “Oh, Aragorn, you know that your daddy loves you very much,” her voice faltered, “but we will not see him again.”
Aragorn’s eyes grew wider as he uttered that most troublesome one-word question that is the domain of all two year olds: “Why?”
The tears that still rimmed her eyes threatened to spill again. “Daddy is dead. He has gone to a place where you can not go.” She wrapped her arms more firmly around her son in a protective hold. “Not for a very long time.”
The boy’s brows furrowed in a heart-wrenching impersonation of his father as he thought for a moment before responding crossly: “Daddy should not go! Mommy sad.”
At this, Gilraen lost the battle to contain her tears as she pulled him close and whispered in his ear. “Do not blame your father, Aragorn. Daddy did not want to leave us. Not even mommies and daddies can control all that happens.”
She felt his body grow tense in her arms and as he spoke again she could hear the firm resolve in his voice: “Don’t cry mommy. I protect you now!”
A soft knock interrupted her response, and she reluctantly released her hold on her son, wiping her tears away hastily as she answered the door. Opening it just a crack, she saw the elf maiden she had met the previous night standing before her, holding a basin of fresh water.
“I am sorry to disturb you, Lady Gilraen, but Lord Elrond hopes that you and your son will join his family for the morning meal.”
Seeing no way to escape the invitation, Gilraen opened the door a little wider to take the offered bowl and accepted with a slight bow of her head. “It would be our honour, Lady...”
“Please, Lady Gilraen, call me Mereniel.”
“Very well, Mereniel, and you may call me Gilraen. We will need some time to wash and dress, as you can see.”
The elf maiden bowed deferentially. “May I assist you in any way?”
“No, I thank you. All of our needs have been seen to most thoroughly. We want for naught.
“Very well. When you are ready, open the door and I will escort you to my Lord’s dining room.”
Gilraen closed the door and slumped against it with a heavy sigh, sinking to the floor with her head bowed. She felt in no state to see anyone, least of all Lord Elrond and his family, but she could not possibly refuse an invitation to dine with her host and benefactor. Her need to maintain his good will was far too strong for her to refuse him anything, for her son’s very life might now well depend upon the elf lord’s beneficence. Her pride and her sorrow meant nothing in the face of her child’s survival.
Taking a deep breath, she cupped her hands in the basin which now rested on the floor, splashing the warm water upon her face. She looked up to see Aragorn watching her curiously.
“Who that mommy?”
Gilraen stood and walked toward the bedroom to pick out suitable clothing for them both. “The maiden we met last night with a message from Lord Elrond.”
“Who Lor Elron?”
“Do you remember the nice man whom we met yesterday?”
Aragorn thought for a moment. “With shinny gold hair?”
Gilraen smiled slightly at the memory of her son reaching out to grab the ancient Elf Lord’s hair. “No, the one with hair as dark as night. He has invited us to break our fast with him, and we must be on our very best behaviour, do you understand?”
The boy nodded his head enthusiastically. “I hungry!”
Soon, they were washed and dressed in the fine clothes that were the gift of Lord Elrond and Mereniel came to lead them through the grand halls of the master’s house. Gilraen kept a tight hold on her son’s hand, again instructing him not to touch a thing, and though there were many glittering temptations, Aragorn did his best to be a good boy.
They had not gone far when they arrived at the small, intimate dining room that was apparently for the use of Lord Elrond’s family, and Gilraen was surprised by the close proximity of the family’s personal suites to the rooms given to her and her son. As they entered, all four elf lords present rose from their seats. Lord Elrond was at the head of the table, with Glorfindel directly at his right. To Glorfindel’s right stood a regally dressed, dark-haired elf with a stern countenance whom she had not yet met. To Elrond’s left, between him and one of his sons, there were two empty places.
Elrond greeted her warmly: “Gilraen, we are most pleased that you both could join us. You have met Glorfindel and my son, Elrohir,” he then turned to the other elf, “and this is Erestor, one of my most trusted advisors and dearest friends.”
Erestor bowed his head deeply. “I am most pleased to meet you, Lady Gilraen.”
“And I, you, Lord Erestor.”
Elrond gestured to the chairs at his left. “Please have a seat.”
The bottom of Aragorn’s chin barely cleared the top of the table as she sat him in the chair beside Elrohir, and then she took the seat between her son and Lord Elrond. Though the table was set for seven, only six sat down to dine, and the seat to Erestor’s right remained empty. Gilraen wondered at this, for one of Elrond’s sons was absent, and never before had she seen the sons of Elrond apart.
The table was splendid, covered with an intricately embroidered crisp white tablecloth and white linen napkins, colourful fresh flowers, delicately carved crystal goblets, fine porcelain plates, and sparkling silverware. Aragorn was, so far, on his best behaviour and he sat quietly in his seat, and yet, still she felt the need to keep a firm grip upon his hands.
As soon as they were seated, elves appeared bearing silver trays of food, and a feast was laid before her. There were savoury puddings and roasted meats, and exotic fresh fruits, the likes of which she had never seen, as well as breads that were still steaming from the oven and jars of sweet butter, honey, and fruit preserves. A light, pale wine was poured into the elves’ glasses as well as her own, and though it tasted divine, Gilraen took only small sips as she was unaccustomed to drinking wine in the morning. Aragorn, much to his delight, was given a strange, and quite sweet, bright red fruit juice in his own crystal goblet.
Elrond then turned to her: “Gilraen, please help yourself to all that you would care for.”
Gilraen served Aragorn first, ensuring that he had some meat and fresh fruit in addition to the bread and sweet fruit jelly that were the real objects of his desire. Though her own stomach threatened to rebel at the mere sight of food, she placed a small portion of everything offered upon her plate, as she thought was proper.
The others then filled their own plates, and the only sound to be heard was the light tinkling of silver spoons against porcelain as the food was served. Gilraen noticed the lack of conversation, and while she wondered at it, she was also glad for it, for she too had no desire to talk. She sat in silence, her eyes lowered and focused upon some minute detail of embroidery in the fine white tablecloth as she absently pushed the food around on her plate without lifting the fork to her mouth.
When finally she thought to raise her eyes again, she saw four elf lords patiently waiting for her to start eating before they would begin their own meals. Feeling the slight warmth of a blush forming on her cheeks, she reluctantly took a small bite, and though she knew that this was quite likely the finest food she had ever been served, it tasted like sawdust on her tongue.
Clearly, her boy did not have the same problem, for he was most eagerly working his way through a large piece of warm bread laden with jelly. She realized with some relief that Aragorn’s attention to his food should keep him quiet and out of trouble, at least for a while, and she eased her hold on him.
Elrond’s warm voice finally cut through the silence which seemed to hang heavily in the room. “Gilraen, I do hope that you found your suite to be adequate for you and your son, and that you were able to find at least some measure of rest there.”
“It was more than adequate, I assure you. I can not thank you enough, Lor..., Elrond, for the hospitality that you have shown us.”
“You need never thank me. If there is anything you require, you need only ask. Our home is your home for however long you wish it to be.”
Though she knew that the words were spoken in the spirit of absolute kindness, still they sent a shiver down her spine, for the only thought that screamed in her mind was that she did not wish it to be. She wished for nothing more than to be at home, amidst familiar surroundings and familiar people, to have the support of her family and friends in this terrible time, and to be with those whom she loved and who loved her. Reminding herself harshly that to wish was foolish, she tried to turn from such useless thoughts with a quick shake of her head.
Again no one spoke and an uncomfortable silence reigned once more, and she found herself wondering if meals at Lord Elrond’s table were always so sombre. Despite her resolve, memories of many a merry conversation around the communal dinning table in her village flashed through her mind, and the solid lump that had been forming in her throat pained her as she swallowed hard.
Though she could not begin to fathom the nature of these strange beings, she would not allow herself to believe that the heavy tension she felt around her was the normal state of affairs in Lord Elrond’s house. Certainly, Elladan and Elrohir were known to be quite jovial at times during their visits with the Dunedain. Could these ancient elf lords truly be so deeply affected by her husband’s death, or was there more at work here than she was yet able to understand? She found her gaze drawn again to the empty chair on the other side of the table, to a place so neatly set which sat unused.
A movement at the corner of her eye caught her attention, and she turned to see her son on his knees in his chair, leaning over and stretching across the table in an attempt to help himself to the tempting jar of sweet fruit jelly that was just beyond his reach. Anticipating trouble, she moved with the quick reflexes inherent to the mother of a young child to intercept him. Unfortunately, however, she was just a moment too late, and she watched in horror as Aragorn’s arm brushed against his long-stemmed crystal goblet, tipping the unstable glass and spilling its entire bright red contents over the fine white tablecloth.
“Aragorn!” Gilraen leapt to her feet, quickly grabbing her napkin in a futile attempt to blot up the juice, and sending a heavy silver knife clattering upon the stone floor with a loud crash in the process. Much to her dismay, her efforts accomplished little but to soil her own napkin and further spread the stain.
At that moment, the culmination of her sorrow, her grief, her loneliness, and her despair threatened to overwhelm her, and, feeling much like a lost child herself, she stammered out an apology as she struggled to maintain her composure. “I...I am so sorry, Lor..., Elrond.”
Elrond stood and moved towards her, and she did not hear a harsh rebuke nor any angry words, but rather felt the comfort of a tender embrace as he spoke softly to her. “Do not trouble yourself, Gilraen. It is a trifling matter. A tablecloth is of little importance compared to your distress.”
Forgetting all propriety, Gilraen briefly closed her eyes and lay her head on Elrond’s shoulder, taking a moment to simply find comfort in the touch of another, as he continued to speak quietly in her ear. “I know that you grieve deeply, and that the next few months will be most difficult for you, but in time your pain will ease. We will do all in our power to aid you and your son.”
Elrond then released his hold and Gilraen looked down to see Aragorn sitting in his chair, tears threatening to fall from his eyes, too. “I sorry, Lor Elron.”
Elrond knelt and spoke gently to her boy: “Do not fret, Aragorn, it was merely an accident. That plain, dull tablecloth is much improved with some colour anyway, do you not think?”
With these words, Aragorn stopped his pouting and, upon some thought, nodded his head in agreement. Elrond then stood and turned to her again: “It is I who should apologize for not adequately meeting Aragorn’s needs. It has been a long time indeed since one so young has brightened our table.”
With a grand sweep of his hand toward the red stain that now covered a large portion of the previously white tablecloth and a smile and a wink in Aragorn’s direction, Glorfindel added in a jovial tone: “Quite literally!”
An elf entered with an absorbent cloth to soak up as much juice as possible, though when he was finished the tablecloth still retained its newly-acquired red hue, and Aragorn was given some water to drink in a much more sturdy glass. Elrond sliced another large piece of the bread, spreading it generously with jelly and offering it to the boy, who accepted eagerly. “Please let us continue our meal, and give the matter no more consideration.”
Gilraen sat and dutifully ate another bite, though she did not taste it. Again she did not speak, for her mind was in absolute turmoil, and she did not know what to feel, nor what to think. In her heart, she was deeply grateful to Elrond, for he had shown her and her son nothing but kindness and generosity, and yet, at that moment she would rather have been almost anywhere else. Everything was so foreign to her, so utterly strange, and she felt as though she were a goose amongst swans. Though they had never treated her as such, still she found herself feeling utterly foolish, awkward and alone in the presence of these ageless and majestic beings.
She was pulled from her thoughts by an unexpected sound. Looking up and turning her head in her son’s direction, Gilraen simply blinked and stared in stunned wonder, unsure of what to make of the sight before her. Elrohir had folded his napkin to form two stiff peaks in the shape of cat ears and placed it upon his head. She blinked again, not quite ready to believe her own eyes. This ancient and noble, wise and fair elf lord, with his grand attire and his intricately braided long hair that shone like spun silk, was wearing cat ears made from his napkin.
She heard her son’s delighted laugher, and she glanced down to see Aragorn grinning brightly and looking far happier than she had seen him in many days. Then she looked back to Elrohir, the stiff white linen sitting atop his head in absurdly stark contrast to his silky black hair, and at that moment she forgave him a thousand sins, both real and imagined, for bringing again a smile to her little boy’s face.
The other elves joined in the laughter, and even Gilraen found that she could not help but smile in the face of Elrohir’s antics. The rest of the meal passed far more jovially, with Elrohir continuing to amuse Aragorn by folding napkins into ever more elaborate forms, and by the time they had finished dining, she was quite sure that her son had found a new friend to idolize and adore. She remembered, with a sharp pang of grief, how fondly Arathorn had always spoken of the twins.
Elrond turned to his son: “Elrohir, if you are finished demonstrating the fine art of napkin folding, I would like you to check on the new foal and his mother to see how they fare. Perhaps Aragorn would like to accompany you to the stable.”
With these words, Aragorn’s eyes brightened noticeably as he answered eagerly: “Oh yes! Mommy, I please go see horsies with Elhir?”
Gilraen’s blood ran cold at the thought of her son leaving her sight and her protection. However, no matter how dearly she wished to refuse, to keep him forever close to her, she could read in Elrond’s words that he wished to speak to her alone and she did not wish to cross him. Even if that were not the case, however, from the look of pure joy on her little boy’s face she could not find it in her heart to deny him anyway. “Yes, Aragorn, but you must be good and obey Elrohir, do you understand?”
“Yes mommy, I will!” With a broad smile, he jumped up from his chair, taking Elrohir’s hand in his own and trying to pull him up too.
As if reading her thoughts, Elrohir lay his other hand on her shoulder in reassurance as he stood. “Do not worry, Gilraen, he will be well attended and cared for, I assure you. I will have him back to you in time for the afternoon meal.”
With that, Aragorn bounced from the room, practically dragging Elrohir along with him in his excitement to get to the stables. Warm smiles were upon the faces of the three remaining elf lords as they watched the pair leave the room, but she found herself unable to share in their joy.
Elrond then turned to her. “Gilraen, if you would care to walk with me, I would be honoured to show you around our house, and perhaps, later, give you a tour of our beautiful gardens if the weather clears, as I believe it might.”
“I would be most honoured, Elrond.” she responded with a slight bow of her head, for as much as she did not wish it, she could think of no way to escape the conversation that she feared was to come.
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