It was not the first time Meril had been told to pack and leave a place overnight and she suspected it might not be the last, but the circumstances were even less usual this time. When she was told a messenger had arrived from her husband’s aunt Galadriel, currently living on Balar, the last person she had expected was Amareth, but here she was, still in her riding clothes and as brisk and organising as ever.
Meril was not prepared to be bullied. She stood in the centre of the airy room given to her for household tasks like sewing, her hands on her hips, her chin up. “No,” she said firmly. “My lord Círdan is away and anyhow, if I were to take my son elsewhere it would be where he belongs, home with his father. Your lady has no authority over me.”
Amareth, who had gone over to examine the light blanket Meril had begun on the small loom by the window, turned back and raised her eyebrows. It gave her eyes a startled look like a rabbit, which under other circumstances would have been funny – few women were less rabbit-like than Amareth. “She is your husband’s aunt? That is authority enough amongst our people at least. And Círdan is not your lord, that would be your husband’s king who sits … somewhere over there in some hidden place no one has ever seen.” She accompanied her words with a wave of the hand in a northerly direction. No one really knew where Turgon was but north was the usual bet.
“Our secret king. Yes, I can imagine your opinion. Amareth, I don’t understand. What’s this about? Why now, why not wait for spring? No, don’t touch the thread, you’re death to looms.”
Amareth smiled ruefully and stepped back, joining Meril who had gone to sit on the windowseat. “You still remember Lady Edhellos’s efforts to teach me, do you? I’m more use outdoors, I fear.” She looked out the window at the clouds skudding across the pale winter sky. “I don’t know,” she said finally. “She sent for me and told me to come to you, that she chose me because you would know me and listen.”
“Sending you is the only part that makes sense. She knows we knew each other even before my marriage. She asked questions about everyone in the escort on the journey from Nargothrond when she made Orodreth send Gil here… after which you left to make your fortune with her.” Meril kept her eyes on the tree growing near the window while she spoke.
“Well, I was hardly cut out to be a child’s nurse and your law mother had already tried and failed to turn me into a lady.” Amareth shrugged, shook back her long russet hair. “As to what it’s about, all she said was this was more urgent even than the last time, that you were to pack what you could manage for yourself and the boy and to leave at once. That your lives depended on it.”
“I’d like to know why she sent us here just to move us again in less than ten sun years,” Meril said crossly. “It seems untidy to me. And how are we meant to travel? The weather’s already turned. She has no children, she cannot imagine how it would be to travel this time of the year with a boy not much above twenty years…”
“We’ll be riding, not walking, Your Highness. He’s old enough to ride long distances, surely? I thought his father’s people start them young.”
“Of course he can ride, Amareth, that isn’t the issue. Noldor princes are almost born in the saddle. And you can dispense with the title, it’s not much used here.” She couldn’t keep the snap out of her voice.
“Part Noldor,” Amareth pointed out. “Do not deny your own blood in him, my lady.”
They glared at one another. “The Noldor blood is all that matters, isn’t it?” Meril asked at last, tiredly. “Even as they lose battle after battle until almost no hope remains. It’s what matters to Círdan who is fostering a minor prince, to my lord’s aunt, who is Noldor to her fingertips and ambitious for her family line…”
“To me he is your son,” Amareth said, surprising her. “A child born in the north as we were, with your hair and his uncle’s eyes. And if his life is holding by a thread, as she implied, then we must do what we must do. But not because he is Noldor and their new king has left them to chance and the winds of fate. Not even because he is Sinda from you, or has the Telerin from your father. He’s a child. We need to get him away from here. Trust her – she sees true.”
“Why should I trust her?” Meril asked. She rose to glare down at the loom, the new blanket that would never now be finished. “Why should I disrupt Gil’s life and mine yet again on her whim?”
“Because she is Galadriel,” Amareth said simply. “Now find your son and show me who to speak to about horses. We need to be on the road by first light.”
They exchanged the messenger service horse Amareth had used for a fresh one and took an extra for baggage. Amareth said they could take all they needed on their own horses but here Meril had balked and rather than drag the argument out, Amareth reluctantly agreed to a pack horse. Meril hoped against hope that Círdan would return to Eglarest in time to either forbid it or give them an escort, but he was still in the north when they left next morning. Amareth was also quick to point out an escort had been deemed unnecessary by Galadriel, who had said three would draw less attention than a company and, ominously, that the men could not be spared.
The night before, when she had finished their meagre packing and talked to Gil, Meril had written a long note to Círdan, explaining the situation as she understood it – that she would remain under his protection, but in his house on Balar rather than his primary home here in Eglarest – and covering gratitude for his hospitality before venting her frustration at her aunt by marriage’s high handedness. The act left her feeling a bit better even if it did no practical good.
It was all a grand adventure for Gil-galad, whom Orodreth insisted on calling Ereinion in his infrequent letters, as though trying to prove a point, Meril thought. He chatted to his horse, pointed out things that would only interest another young boy and begged to be allowed to help Amareth hunt for dinner. When Amareth said Meril would be doing that he had looked amazed, as though he had only then seen the bow slung across his mother’s back. Meril privately hoped there’d be no call for her to prove herself with it – city life had taken its toll on her old skills.
By the end of the first day she was sore and exhausted, and Gil was almost asleep in the saddle. Amareth helped him down while Meril saw to getting the packs unloaded. “You’ve been a true prince today,” she overheard Amareth say to him. “Your uncle Finrod who was would be proud of you.”
“Is it easier riding the way you do?” he asked, pointing towards her saddleless mount. “Is it very hard to learn?”
“Oh, that’s the way of our people, your mother’s and mine,” Amareth said briskly, getting the saddle off his horse while she spoke. “We trust the horse to bear us where we will, though your mother’s since taken to the western ways.”
“It’s better for distance,” Meril threw back at her. “And Gil’s been taught like this to prepare him for a warhorse when he’s older.” She had found it hard to adapt at first, but the Noldor all used saddle and bridle and in combat their horses were part of their armoury. Her own people, the Sindar, used them for transport, not battle, while the Silvan folk seldom rode at all.
“Are you and Nana family then?” Gil asked, picking up on a previous phrase the way children will when it’s least convenient. Meril opened her mouth but Amareth said simply, “We were born in the same part of the world, in the same community. Our ways are sometimes different than your father’s people, like how we treat horses.”
“Different customs, different needs,” Meril said firmly. “Your father wants you raised as he was, which is how men are, that’s all, and it’s right for me to take my husband’s culture to myself. Now – let’s see if you can help with the horses. I recall Amareth is a wonder at getting a fire started.”
It was getting late and Meril and Amareth sat across from one another sharing out the last of the tea they had brewed earlier before taking turns to watch and sleep. The fire was burning low and Gil was already sound asleep, well wrapped against the night on a bed of ferns, a thick cloak rigged up over him as shelter from the threatening rain.
Sipping her tea, Amareth favoured Meril with a quizzical look. “You’re very defensive, aren’t you?”
“I am not defensive,” Meril snapped, and immediately regretted her tone. It just gave Amareth more to work with. “But there is nothing wrong with a man raising his son the way he was brought up.”
“Did I say there was?”
“You implied saddling a horse was wrong.”
“Well, so it is. You make a proud beast into a servant – rather as your law mother tried to with me.”
“That wasn’t her intention at all and you know it. She was just trying to find a place for you in Nargothrond…”
“As a lady’s maid or a cook, you mean? There being no place for an outsider amongst the guards.”
“If you’d just tried a little harder…”
“If I’d tried a little harder, what? Mending and weaving and dying and carding? I was meant to be grateful? For that?”
“Well you could hardly go back home.”
They both fell silent at that, listening to the crackle of twigs and the occasional little pop of sparks. “There is no home, no,” Meril said at last. “For either of us. It’s gone, like so much else, burnt by dragon fire or ravaged by orcs. And our families with it. So we had to make the best of what we had. I though you would have wanted to stay.”
“I couldn’t breathe inside those stone walls,” Amareth said, taking a hard breath with the words as though sensing Nargothrond around her again. “I was not made for that, my lady.”
“You weren’t made to call me ‘my lady’ either. I wish you’d stop. There were no stone walls at Eglarest though, and yet you left.”
“I found my path,” Amareth said quietly. “I don’t expect you to understand, but it’s how it is. Now – you need to sleep first. It was hard riding after all this time for you. I’ll wake you after the midpoint and you watch till the first bird.”
“Is Balar really so much better than Eglarest?” Meril couldn’t help herself, the words just came out. Amareth looked at her, an eyebrow raised, then got to her feet and added a few small branches to the fire.
“Balar is my home now,” she said. “When you get there, you’ll understand.”
Meril had been worried about Gil, but once they’d talked and she made it clear there was no reason – so far as she knew – for him not to go back often and visit his friends and make the rounds of his favourites amongst the artisans and fisherfolk, he remained unrelentingly cheerful, savouring every drop of ‘his’ adventure. He was already an experienced rider, which Orodreth had insisted upon despite him living amongst people who mainly travelled on foot, and although he was tired by the end of the day and enjoyed the breaks they took along the way to rest the horses, he was the son of a family of warriors and it showed.
“I never get to do anything exciting,” he confided in Amareth during one of these stops. She had given their stock of arrows to him to check and he was going over each one meticulously. He was not yet a particularly good archer, but he tried and said he would try harder now he had seen his mother shoot. She had managed to bring down a rabbit earlier in the day and not embarrass herself and had pretended not to see Amareth laughing, either at or with her.
“You’ve had more adventures than most boys your age,” Amareth told him, amused. “I was with you years ago when your aunt brought us all to Eglarest, and before that, when you were hardly more than a babe, we had to escape Tol Sirion and the northlands ahead of the flames when the Dark One broke out of his hole – you might have been too young to remember that. There – that one’s bad. See the angle of the feather?”
Meril watched him put the defective arrow aside. “Adventure isn’t something to look for, Gil,” she said. She was sitting against a tree doing nothing, letting her stomach and thigh muscles rest while they could. “No one goes cross country at this time of year unless they have no choice. Anything could happen.”
She kicked herself mentally as soon as the words were out of her mouth, even before she saw Amareth’s eyes fill with leaping laughter.
“Do you think we could meet orcs?” Her son’s face wore the kind of unholy glee only common to boys of a certain age. He had finished with the arrows now, put them together neatly for Amareth and shot to his feet. “I would fight them off if they dared show their faces — like this — take that – that…” He grabbed a stick which became a sword and he took wild swings at the air, charging around the clearing.
“Don’t bother the horses,” she called before saying to Amareth under cover of the noise, “We won’t, will we? This far west, I mean.”
Amareth gave her a flat look before transferring the arrows back to the quiver. “I have no idea. Why do you think I sleep with this at my hand?” She touched the sword at her side. “I hardly need protection from you, after all… do I?”
Meril bit her lip, refused to make eye contact. “Hardly, no. Though you might watch out for our great warrior here – Gil, stop that, you’re upsetting the horses.”
“They’re war horses,” he shouted, outraged. “Of course they won’t get upset.”
“Not even I had the nerve to borrow warhorses from Lord Círdan, young prince,” Amareth told him, her expression softening. “Have a care for their delicate natures. Come sit down. I have some fruit.”
It began raining hard near nightfall and they had to construct a shelter over the fire so they could heat food and brew tea. Travelling with children demanded things like meals at the end of the day, which Meril was relieved to find she had no need to explain to Amareth. Afterwards, with Gil curled up under as much warmth as they could spare him, she and Amareth went through the new ritual of their second cup of tea before sleep. The rain pattered down on the heavy felted fabric above them, brought expressly for this purpose, and the fire sputtered fitfully, prey to every conflicting draft.
“Would you really rather have gone back to the caves?”
They had been quiet for so long she had begun to think this was how the evening would end. The question caught her by surprise. “Back to Nargothrond? When did I say that?”
Amareth frowned. “When we were in Eglarest? You spoke of taking him home to his father.”
“I meant instead of a dangerous journey at the gates of winter to an island I’ve never seen. Not that I wanted to go back there.”
“You don’t want to go home to your husband?” Amareth’s voice was pointedly neutral.
Meril felt her back straightening of its own accord. “I never said that, of course not. I mean of course I do. I mean – you know what I mean.” She had to remember to lower her voice, not wake her son.
Amareth drew her legs up and wrapped her arms round them, watching her. She was more sensibly dressed for the road than Meril, wearing men’s heavy leggings and boots and a thick padded jacket. “Do you miss him?” she asked.
Meril opened her mouth, remembered who she was talking to, closed it on the obligatory affirmation. She drew in a breath, another. “We had too little time to get to know one other well enough for that. He had his work, I – I had the baby…”
“So you don’t miss him?” Amareth’s eyes were intent, even in the dim light Meril could see the flare of green overtaking the grey.
“We exchange letters? Of course. It was an agreed match between his father and mine, a mutual aid treaty if you like, not a love match. You knew that. It’s – It’s not like that.”
“Not like what?”
‘Not like missing and aching for someone and conjuring their face in the dark at night and – not like that.’ For an awful moment she thought she had said it aloud, but there was no echo of sound and the green-grey eyes still awaited an answer. “Of course I’d like to go home. I worry about my stepdaughter, Finduilas. She may be grown but she still needs someone to stand as mother to her. And Orodreth and I may not have been a love match, but we fit well and – and he’s my husband.”
Her words sounded weak even to her own ears and she waited for Amareth to again tell her she was being defensive, but Amareth’s attention was elsewhere, listening. Meril held her breath and followed suit. Something whispered on the edge of the rain and the fire’s crackle… She only knew they had reacted together when they both put the first handfuls of moss on the little flames, damping them down with minimum smoke.
They sat in the dark for a long time listening for sounds beyond the rain, but all was quiet again and the horses were undisturbed. After a time Meril slept, curled up against Gil, breathing in the warm, boy-scent of him. She woke once to a movement but it was only Amareth walking back from either passing water or seeing to the horses. She sat down under the tree at the far end of their shelter where she would have a proper view of anything that approached them and laid her sword over her knees. Meril closed her eyes again and went back to sleep, knowing that she and Gil were safe.
The midday break was short because there was very little shelter where they found themselves and the wind whipped round them before wailing off up into the hills. There was less to eat now, just dried fruit and waybread. Gil pulled his face. “I don’t like waybread,” he said, accepting only a small piece.
“Well, you wanted an adventure,” Meril pointed out to him. “And this is all part of adventures, along with being cold and wet and sometimes hungry. It’s no adventure when things are easy and comfortable.”
“Have you had lots of adventures, Nana?” he asked, more subdued now, nibbling each mouthful to make it last.
“I’ve had a few,” she conceded. “Mainly strange journeys I never planned for, starting with leaving my father’s home when I was just a girl to go and live with strangers on Tol Sirion…”
“That’s where I was born,” he said eagerly.
“Yes, that’s where you were born,” she agreed. “It was becoming my home by then, but we had to leave because of the Enemy.”
“Father fought him there, didn’t he?” Bright eyes, hungry for a story. She shot a covert look at Amareth, but she was watching the hilltop, apparently paying them no attention. She hadn’t missed a word, of course, but at least it seemed she would keep her opinion of Orodreth as a fighter to herself.
“Your father did his best, just as everyone else did their best,” she began, but Amareth turned an unreadable glance on her and said, “Your father sent you and your mother away with enough of us to keep you safe and stayed on alone with his men for another half year, even though he knew he could never hope to hold the island for much longer. He kept faith with King Finrod and stayed as long as any leader could have hoped to before retreating in good order.”
He shuffled over to sit closer to her. “Were you a soldier, Amareth?” he asked. He had seen female warriors before, but there were none in Eglarest and Meril had thought he would have forgotten.
“I fought for kings, yes,” Amareth said. “For my people first, and then for Nargothrond’s king, the Spell-singer and his family. You have a look of him, you know? Your mother’s hair, yes, but your uncle’s blue eyes, same as your father, and King Finrod’s smile.”
“And my father?” he asked, almost wistfully. “What do I have from my father?”
Amareth considered him. Meril kept quiet. “You have your father’s energy,” she said finally. “He is always busy, never still. You have that, and it will see you well in the future when you’re grown. More than blue eyes and dark hair will.” She paused and suddenly grinned at him and ruffled his hair. “But not the smile. There is no coin that could meet the value of that smile.”
When they stopped that night Amareth collected almost three times the usual supply of firewood while Meril helped Gil see to the horses. This was his chore but he was still too young and neither tall nor strong enough to do it alone. Meril, seeing her drop yet another load, frowned and straightened up. “Surely that’s enough wood for the night now? Is something wrong?”
Amareth pushed her hair back from her face, wiping her forehead with her arm while she was about it. “You’re forgotten, haven’t you? Tomorrow?”
Meril looked at her blankly, counting the days of their journey in her head, looking at dates.
“Tomorrow will be the shortest day,” Amareth reminded her. “The day when we light the fires and try and push back the darkness a little? Remember? I know it’s not your husband’s way – it’s not the island’s way either, the Teleri have their own ritual.”
“And you want to light a bonfire?” Meril was horrified, her tone enough to silence Gil who had been about to break in with a boy’s enthusiasm for fire.
Amareth wrinkled her brow at her tone. “Why would I not? We greet the sun, we pray for hope… you remember doing that when you were a girl, surely?”
“Out here. Where the flames could draw anyone? And what hope? We stagger from one less reason to hope to the next.”
“There is always hope, Meril,” Amareth said quietly. “It is only lost when we stop believing in it.”
“Tell that to those who lost partners in the last battle,” Meril said bitterly. “Whole communities, wiped out. Whole tribes of Men who are no more. Princes who never saw the sun rise after that sixth day.” She had met and liked Fingon the Valiant.
Amareth put a hand on her arm, the first time she had initiated physical contact. “Yes, there are all those things. Doriath only survived because the Girdle stayed closed, Nargothrond because just a tiny complement went to fight – oh yes, I listen, I know what goes on. We all do on Balar. The Lady says one day we will be all that is left, and I believe her, but that is no reason to give up hope. There is always something to believe in – life, breath, your son… why else did she send me to fetch him, or demand you travel this late in the year?”
Meril tried to draw away and found she couldn’t. Amareth’s eyes held her, her very urgency and sincerity held her. She could see Gil watching them, his hand against his horse’s neck, knowing with a sense old for one so young that this was a time to be very quiet. She was starting to notice he had very sound instincts.
“I have forgotten how to hope,” she said quietly. “There has been just pain piled atop pain for so long in my life now. I had forgotten acknowledging the winter-sun too.”
Amareth’s hand stayed on her arm a little longer, their eyes still held. Then she stepped back and said in a normal voice, “In that case it’s time you remembered. Young prince? Come. I’ll show you how to build a real bonfire, ready for the morning.”
There was rabbit again that night, stewed with what roots and herbs they found growing nearby. Amareth claimed it had been sent by the forest when Meril saw and shot it, but Meril, mindful of the Noldor view on these things, passed it off where Gil could hear as a lucky sighting and an even luckier shot. Privately she was starting to grow confident again in her marksmanship, something she had been known for when she was a girl in the northern forests.
After the meal, Amareth told Gil about the Sindar custom of greeting the sun on the shortest day and giving her fire to aid her on her way, and he listened carefully in that serious, unboyish way he had for important things that made Meril’s heart ache with love for him. After he settled down to sleep, she heated more tea while Amareth went to take a final look around and be sure the horses were content across the glade from them.
When the tea was ready she poured it into their cups and then, as Amareth had not come back to the fire, put them on a flat stone next to the coals to keep warm and crossed the glade to where she was barely discernible as a dark shape beside the horses.
“Something’s wrong?” Meril asked quietly when she reached her side.
Amareth shook her head. “I was just thinking, that’s all. Tomorrow we need to leave the trees and move closer to the coast again so I can see exactly where we are, but I doubt we are more than three days outside Sirion now.”
“We’ve been lucky. Nothing on the trail, passable weather if you ignore the rain, and the horses have held up well.”
“I was worried about them, it’s why I agreed to the pack horse,” Amareth said. “I thought that in a pinch one of us could ride him.”
Moisture dripped through the leaves with a steady tock, tock, tock and the horses moved sleepily. The trees were quiet, watching them. They knew not to trust humans with fire. “Tea’s ready.”
Amareth stretched, rolling her shoulders, and smiled. “Good. The air’s like ice when I breathe it in.”
They walked back to the fire together and Meril took a moment to lock the little clearing into her memory: the makeshift tent covering the sleeping place from above and on one side, the packs bundled under this cover with Gil beside them, the fire burning small but bright, two cups alongside it, the dark trunks of the trees forming walls, unidentifiable bushes growing in between and branches meeting overhead. When she looked up she could see stars as the wind ruffled the canopy.
“It might be a clear day tomorrow,” she said, sitting down and reaching for the tea.
Amareth’s hand closed over her wrist. “Be careful, you’ll burn yourself, the metal’s hot. Use a fold of your cloak.”
Neither of them moved a moment, then Amareth released her and leaned over to take her own cup carefully. They sat side by side instead of facing across the fire and drank in silence while the flames crackled and spat. The horses shuffled and muttered while out of sight on the other side of the packs, Gil murmured in his sleep.
“You’ll stay on the island then? After we get there?” Meril asked at last.
Amareth turned from gazing into the fire to look at her. “I live there, yes. I come and go on errands for my Lady, but I always come back.”
“Not like before.”
“How do you mean?”
“You didn’t come back before. You left Eglarest, said you would see me when you returned, and never did.”
“Why yes, I did return,” Amareth pointed out. “Else we would not be here, would we?”
Meril made a tutting sound worthy of her mother, now gone into the darkness of the Call. “You know what I mean.”
“There was no place for me,” Amareth said as she had before. “I would have made a terrible lady’s maid and it was not what I saw for myself – did you want me to be your servant?”
“Of course not, don’t be ridiculous!” Trying for lightness she added, “Though you were always good with hair.”
Eyebrows up, Amareth gave her an inscrutable look. “Would you like me to do your hair, Highness?”
“Very funny. Though it might even be beyond you to ease the tangles – I have no patience with it.”
“That’s because there’s so much of it and it’s thick and bouncy and undisciplined,” Amareth said, suddenly laughing. She got up and went to their packs, careful not to disturb Gil. She paused a moment once she found what she sought, looking down at him. “He’ll not thank you for giving it to him when he’s older either,” she observed softly. “Most men have even less patience with styling than you.”
She came back and knelt behind Meril, lifting her hair out from under her cloak. Now that she was there, so close, brush in hand, Meril had nothing to say. The throwaway comment had taken them somewhere unexpected, a dim-lit road whose ending was unsure.
“You’re a soldier, not a maid. Even Orodreth said you were good, and he had his doubts about most of the fighters my father sent him,” she said as competent hands parted her hair and the first brushstrokes evened the ends. “Nargothrond was difficult for you, but you stayed. And I assumed you would in Eglarest too, but – it was like watching a moth to a candle, you with my husband’s aunt.”
“I had no choice but to stay in Nargothrond,” Amareth replied, ever practical. “They would have killed me had I tried to leave, an outsider with knowledge of the path. Don’t argue, you know I’m right.”
“I would have asked the King – or Orodreth when he came back.” The King was always Finrod for her, because they had left Nargothrond before Beren and his quest and Orodreth’s kingship.
“It is as it is,” Amareth said, voice close to her ear as she leaned in, brushing carefully, quick fingers separating tangles as she went along. “You really need to fasten this up better when you ride.”
“When you came with me to Tol Sirion, you said you would never leave me alone.” Her voice was low, careful of old pain.
“When you went to Tol Sirion to your bridal bed, yes. I had no idea what manner of man he was, if you would be safe with him, if he would be kind. I followed. And there was work for me, so I stayed.” She said it matter of factly, as though it was something small and obvious. “And then he sent you to safety when the land burned, and I went with you too, you and the babe.”
“And finally Galadriel offered an escape from the price you paid for a single Beltane night that swallowed up your life. How you must have resented me for getting you into all that.” Meril spoke quick and quiet and tried to ignore the bare, stinging place in her heart that had the shape of the Anfauglith when she looked at it.
The brush snagged her hair hard enough to make her gasp, but there was no apology. Amareth’s strokes became quicker, angry. “Is that what you believe?”
“It is what I saw.”
Amareth carried on in silence, working slowly up from tip to root. Half way she stopped and began to brush the smoothed fall vigorously, the hair draped over her arm.
“I watched you,” she said finally. “I looked out for you for as long as I could, I even tried to learn the weaving that came from over the sea if it would keep me close to you. I never asked anything of you, just to let me be close, but then we took you to Eglarest and there would have been no place for me beside the queen of Nargothrond, Círdan’s guest, a Noldor lord’s wife. So I found my own master, not one of their tunnel-visioned overlords, not even the Spell-singer who I respected, and certainly not one of our own, hoping always the dark would somehow pass them by. Because you were gone where I could not be and so I was forced to choose a new road.”
“Do you love her? Your Lady.”
Amareth snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous, she is Galadriel, royal by birth and you never forget it. I answer to her, but love? I love you. No one else. And if you say ‘but you left’ again, I shall shake you.”
Meril cast around for something intelligent to say and came up with, “You never said so.”
She heard the brush fall and Amareth, true to her word, shook her hard, then leaned forward, resting her cheek against Meril’s hair. “And all but falling over me every time you turned around didn’t tell you?”
“I thought it was friendship and knowing how frightened I was, being sent off so young to marry a stranger, one of them…”
“Well yes, of course, but friendship only goes so far, you know. I could have been part of your escort and then gone straight back home to report to your father afterwards.” There was a catch in her voice that might have been laughter or emotion, Meril couldn’t tell which. “And no, I never told you. You were a bride, then a mother. It was hardly my place. We only shared one night, there were no promises, and you were my lord’s daughter, too. You never spoke ill about your husband, he seemed fond of you, I had to assume all was well.”
Meril swivelled round to face her. “I would conjure your face in the dark at night, hear your voice in falling water. And I couldn’t tell you. There was never that right moment.”
Amareth’s eyes glittered with firelight and something more. Cool fingers, roughened by work and cold, brushed her cheek, tasted the shape of her face, slid up into her hairline. Amareth leaned forward till their foreheads touched and their hair mingled like their breath. “There is now,” she said simply, and then their lips met and there was no more talking.
Later they took Meril’s blanket and found a dry space near the horses and made their own celebration of the night before the shortest day. And later still, in the silent dark before birdsong, it snowed, turning the world white and pure.
He wanted to leave the bonfire burning when they rode away but both women responded with the horror of those who had been raised in a forest. They let it burn for a while after greeting the dawn, though it took less time than the blaze might have suggested for it to start dying down – Amareth had laid a few solid branches at the base but built the rest with quick burning twigs that soon fell to ash.
Scraping sand mixed with the thin layer of snow over the coals preparatory to leaving, Amareth paused for a moment to survey their work and said, “I trust this isn’t your hope we’re burying here?”
There was laughter in her voice, but Meril’s answer was serious even as she added an armful of sodden leaves. “That fire we made was my hope leaping to the skies. Nothing, not even the Enemy himself, could take it from me now.”
Their eyes met and Amareth leaned forward and gave her a friend’s public kiss on the cheek. “See you don’t forget that,” she said. “There is nothing without hope. It’s what’s brought us here, just as I believe it’s what we take with us to the island.”
The rest of the journey took another three days as Amareth had predicted. There was no more snow, just that one light fall, but the ice in the air bit deep. They rode in line with the shore now, keeping the sea in view, but not too close because Amareth thought it best to avoid people until nearer to the estuary.
Sirion turned out to be a sprawling settlement, part well-built houses, part temporary shelters, some of which were no more than wood and hide fastened together against the wind. It was busy, overcrowded and smelt of fish, but the view across the bay was breathtaking.
Despite Gil’s protests they left the horses at the end of town where Círdan’s messenger service between Sirion and the rest of the coastal towns kept mounts, and made their way to the sea. Standing at the top of the steps down to the harbour where Amareth needed to go and ask about a ship, Meril looked around, breathing in lungfulls of cold, salt air. She pointed to a dark outline on the horizon. “Is that Balar? Out there?”
Amareth nodded. “When you’re over there you can see the fires on the shore when the weather’s good but it’s just a smear from this side.” She caught Gil’s attention – he had found a dog – and pointed. “Your new home, young prince.”
With the dog in attendance, he came to stand next to them. “It looks far away. Does it take long in the boat, Amareth? Where will we live? Will you live with us?”
The women exchanged startled glances. “You’ll live in Lord Círdan’s house, of course,” Amareth said. “That’s where all the important people like your aunt Galadriel stay. I have rooms in the village and I’m very comfortable.”
“Oh, but you’ll visit,” Gil said hastily. “Often. Right?”
Meril linked her arm through Amareth’s, hugging it against her side and Amareth, who was looking out at the island, smiled faintly. “I travel a lot for the Lady, but yes, when I’m there I will visit as often as I can. I might even learn to weave, if your mother has the patience to try teaching me again.”
Meril laughed softly. “You’d test the patience of one of the Shining Ones, but we’ll see. Go and find out when there’s a boat – take Gil with you, I can wait here with the packs. And then let’s go to your home.”
“Your home now too,” Amareth said quietly, and their eyes met.
Hearing he was about to go down and speak to sailors about boats, Gil took off down the steps, whooping at a seagull as he passed it, the dog in pursuit, and for a moment everything dissolved into laughter. Then Meril caught her breath, turned back to Amareth. “Our home,” she said. “We’ll have to be discreet I know, but – ours. And no matter where you’re sent, you’ll always come back through the darkness?”
Amareth gave her a steady look. “I don’t have the Sight, I can only promise to try. But you are my heart’s home, as you’ve always been. If I can, I will. Always.”
“And I will be there waiting,” Meril said just as seriously. “Despite husband or family, despite all the other things that we let keep us apart before. Always.”
The fragments on Gil-galad’s names and parentage are so muddled it becomes writer’s choice. I settled long ago on Orodreth as his father – I like the closer connection to Galadriel and the idea of a junior royal finally becoming High King appeals to me. In one source his mother is said to be Meril, a Sindarin lady from the north, and that’s about it. Gil-galad was his mother-name and it seemed right to me that she might shorten it to Star.
The idea that it’s Orodreth’s second marriage and Finduilas is not Meril’s child is my personal head canon, an attempt to work out why a mother would leave one of her children behind.
Amareth, the Sindarin warrior, is an OFC. It is purest coincidence that, in my mind’s eye, she looks a bit like Tauriel. (what? I didn’t have to admit that)
Beta: Red Lasbelin