Ioreld’s Tale: Into The Northerlands (part 4)

Would that we had had a few days in Dol Amroth. Time to enjoy the city, particularly for my men, who would not see a keg of ale or a comely barmaid for months to come. Time to go over the route, the provisions, the preparations, the plan, a few more times. But above all, time for Lady Shadryn to be made ready, and persuaded to take the journey with the appropriate gravity. I had spent so many hours talking to her about why she would not need three sets of hair combs and ten books for the journey, that I scarcely had time to say more than a few words with my brother, who I’d not seen in two years. Nor did I have any time to visit the Harper’s Court and listen to the legendary music of Dol Amroth, nor to stand atop the highest parapets and gaze out at the expanse of ocean. And how much time I had spent explaining that she must not tell anyone where she was going, and fabricating some credulous tale of escorting her to a distant family matter in Minas Tirith so she would have something to tell her friends, that I might instead have spent wandering the legendary library of Saphadzîr, reading about horticulture or history.

They say you can tell an old soldier by the fact that he can get some sleep anywhere, at any time, with the slightest opportunity. It had only been a few years since I had set aside my gardener ambitions and joined the officer corps for training, and I was no old soldier. The night before our planned departure, I was lying in the small cell that had been given to me in the garrison — being a Captain now, I no longer had to sleep on a cot amongst dozens of others in the barracks, and had a small room with its own bed and door — and stared up through the small window at the stars, my mind wandering from one thing to another. The moon still hung heavy in the sky when I gave up and made my way to the fountain near the gates, leading my horse.

The gate guards gave me a suspicious look, as nearly no one moved in the city at this time of day, but then simply nodded. Despite my best efforts, word of the Lady Shadryn’s departure had gotten around the city. Foolish, I thought; if anyone had planned to try to capture her, now they knew exactly when and where she would be. But there was nothing for it. I sat on the edge of the fountain and waited, passing the time by playing my lute. It would have to stay behind; there wouldn’t be room for such a frivolous thing, as we had only two pack horses, but as I hadn’t gotten to play it or even listen to music for some time, it seemed a good way to steady my nerves.

I don’t know how long she was there before I noticed. Apparently, Lady Shadryn also had a hard time sleeping that night, understandably; I was only going on my first assignment, she was leaving her whole life behind, and had had less time to accept the idea. So she’d also made her way to the fountain, come upon me softly playing old folk tunes, and kept enough of a distance to keep listening, until I finally noticed her. When I did, self-consciously I stopped playing, but she immediately protested, “No, play on, Captain,” and awkwardly I at least finished out the song, while glancing over at my unexpected audience. I was glad to see she’d worn a riding outfit that, while a bit fine with golden buttons and similar adornment, was also practical for a journey; I’d half-feared I’d see her in the sapphire gown. When the song ended, she was quiet a moment, then said simply, “I had no idea you performed,” her voice and demeanor softer than ever I’d seen it. “At least I will have that while we journey.”

“But there’s no room for it,” I answered, tapping the lute. At her stricken expression I started to explain the necessities of travel through the wilderness, the tents and cookware, the need for food and water in case of desolate places or lands too dangerous to hunt, for tools to repair armor and weapons and horseshoes; but she would have none of it. At the last, I found myself truly astonished; it meant so much to her that she offered to leave behind four of the five books that, at the last, I’d been unable to persuade her to go without, just to make room for the lute. I could only shake my head in wonder at how I might explain to the master-at-arms why I packed a lute to travel through the wildest parts of Eriador, as if I were some sort of troubadour instead of a Captain of Gondor.

It was well that the first few weeks of our travels took us through Gondor, with relatively little danger. My men were somewhat lackadaisical about keeping guard when we stayed the night in a public house in a Gondorian city, or at a barracks, or at the worst, in some farmer’s hayloft; but there was no sign of Corsairs there amongst the good people of Gondor, and thus, we could come to know one another before our lives might depend on discipline and organization.

Not that we got to know one another that well. I and my men certainly took time around cook-fires and along lengthy stretches of road to talk of homes and families, hopes and fears, songs and tales, and the paths that had led us here; and by this, Lady Shadryn could learn much of us, though we learned little of her. I would come to discover that, even when she seemed disinterested and distracted, she had a keen ear and a ready mind, and by time we were passing south of Imloth Melui, she not only knew it was the place of my birth, she recalled the specifics of where I’d tended rose-bushes or planted trees, and persuaded me to allow us to go a short distance out of our way to see it. How could I resist? She’d never seen the most lovely valley in all of Gondor, and like most of its native sons, I wished to share the glory of Imloth Melui with all. Though it was too early in spring for the blooms to be at their brightest, the sight of the blossoms set my heart at ease. It was worth an afternoon to walk amongst them pointing out the loveliest secret spots to Shadryn and dining with my brother and his wife. For that day, even Lady Shadryn was pleasant and agreeable.

For that day, at least. For the rest of our travel, she was as changeable as the summer sky. For a morning she might rail at length about how abominable it was that she was forced to sleep in a barn, be watched over by common-folk, dine on coarse bread and bitter ale, bathe in a cold stream, and have no freedom to ride as she saw fit and feel the wind in her hair. That afternoon she might be cheerful, encouraging me to play the lute while we rode so she could sing along, mostly making up words as she went and turning venerated old lays into silly bits of merriment, or threatening to dart off into the hillside to pluck some berries she’d spied from a hillock, sending all of us chasing after to be sure she remained protected on these diversions. By evening she might be sour and glum, speaking to no one and staring into the fire no matter what anyone said or did, and then overnight we might waken to find she’d tied cunning knots in our reins or hidden our cloaks in the boughs of a nearby oak.

And ever and again, she would test me. It was hard to insist that precautions, like never going off without someone nearby, even when attending to mundane matters like bathing, be followed scrupulously while within the bounds of Gondor and in sight of garrisons and beacons. But I feared that if I allowed discipline to diminish this early into the journey, what might happen when we were in the depths of Dunland, surrounded by warring tribes of savages with no love for outsiders, and she took a fancy to wander off looking for a flower?

Thus, I had to take a stern and commanding tone, and then had to ensure there were threats behind it I could follow through on. We had to, of course, offer the lady the deference due to her station, which only made it the more challenging. With a petulant, unruly child, one might send her to bed without supper, or take away a favorite toy for a day, but the cousin of a princess, already feeling put upon and deprived of essentials, does not take the right lesson from such things. I did make it a policy that, if she’d been difficult, that evening I would not be in a mood to play the lute, which was true enough, but also provided a small disincentive. But such tricks could only go so far. In the end, all I had to fall back on was a firm voice and a confidence in my own authority.

Some days that would be enough; and as we traveled, little by little it made an impression. By the time we were making way through Rohan, accepting the hospitality of our Horse-Lord allies and staying as guests in their crude but warm mead halls, she might still engage in mischief or defiance almost as often as that first week, but she began to develop a habit of looking contrite when she was found out, or hiding to try to avoid me chiding her for her misdeeds. She didn’t slip off on her own less often, but she certainly seemed to treat it as something she shouldn’t have done. I wondered if that was a necessary stage towards enough discipline to survive the journey.


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