Five Senses

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LettersRating: G
Summary: Pining for her son as he journeys in the far countries, Gilraen does not welcome a visit from she who has ensnared his heart. Yet the Lady Arwen bears an offering of conciliation that she cannot refuse.





Autumn was glorious in the Valley. The woodlands were ablaze with bejewelled beauty: the rich ruby hues of the oak leaves; the tawny golden glow of the beeches; the pale amethyst splendour of the elderberry bushes. The grass was fading from its drunken summer emerald, but it had not yet lost the lustre of life. Late blossoms in hues of blue and orange and brilliant pink dotted the lowlands, and in its deep ravine the Bruinen glittered like liquid sapphire beneath the loving Sun. In the orchards the heavy garnet apples hung, and the last rosy peaches awaited the picker’s gentle hand. The gardens were a bounty of welcoming colour, and high on the hills the Elven corn danced like flaxen-haired maidens in the warm wind.

From the drying posts behind the dye-house, Gilraen had a spectacular view of the vista of the season. She paused, arm outstretched, as she took in the sight before her. Yes, Imladris in autumn was almost painful in its loveliness. Then her eyes turned back to her upraised hand, and to the smooth and glossy rail upon which her handiwork hung drying in the sunshine. All the colours of the prosperous land about her were mirrored in the thick hanks of yarn that she had set out after their final rinsing that morning. Now they were dry and fragrant and ready to be gathered into the broad shallow basket she held against her hip.

All summer she had worked at her wheel like a woman possessed; nimble practiced fingers extruding the finest of snowy fleece as her feet trod the pedals and the beautifully carved spools whirled. She had spun threads nigh on slender as horsehair, to feed her broad loom through the long winter evenings. She had spun smooth and delicate yarns for tapestries and embroideries. And she had spun this; heavier even in its first spinning than the artisans of Rivendell liked, and carefully twined double so that it was thicker still. This was her knitting yarn, made not of the soft shearings of the pampered lambs of the Valley but of coarser and harder-wearing wool brought at her behest from the village that was still, after all these long years, the home of her heart.

She took the first skein, red as oak-leaves and deliciously heavy in her hand, and laid it gently in the basket. Many years had passed since her mother’s duty had been lifted. For many years she had been free, she supposed, to leave this haven and return to her people. Yet she lingered. She lingered because there was still in this fair valley a memory of gangling young limbs and wildly flying dark hair, an echo of mischievous laughter, the indelible imprint of a keen and rather saucy voice asking impetuous questions. She lingered because about this place were woven all the memories of her son’s boyhood and his charming if sometimes awkward adolescence. He was grown now and he was far away, but while she dwelt in Rivendell she still felt near to him. It was the Valley, she knew, that he dreamed of when his weary thoughts turned to home – as surely they must do from time to time – and it was to the Valley that he would first come when he laid by his errantries and returned to the North. When that day came, she meant to be here to greet him.

There was a shadow high in the hills, moving smoothly and swiftly but without haste down the path that lead out of the mountains. As she reached for another hank of yarn Gilraen’s eye was drawn to the shape. A horseman, riding in out of the wilds. For a brief bright moment she almost dared to hope that it might be him, come home at last.

But of course it was not. He had made it plain when he had taken gentle leave of her that his absence would be a long one, and his journeys in the far countries many. He had been advised, he said, that he would do well to learn the arts of war and of command, of strategy on the battlefield, of the leadership of hundreds. That he could not do in Eriador, where his own people were so few and so scattered and the lonely Rangers went often for weeks without crossing paths with a comrade. So he had kissed her and he had pledged his love for her and he had ridden off for the land of Rohan, and only when he was gone did she realized that in his vows to think of her, to remember all that she had taught him, and to strive ever to be a man she might be proud of, he had not promised to come home safely to her.

That had been twelve years ago.

Swallowing the wormwood of loneliness, Gilraen returned to the task of gathering the work of her hands. The ancient dye-vats of Imladris had furnished her with a rainbow to tuck into her basket, but her pleasure in that beauty was muted now. She came at last to the final swinging bundle, and almost she could not bear to touch it. For this last she had mixed the baths herself; weld from the high mountain places for the yellow, woad from the vales for the blue. It was an ancient formula; measures and proportions perfected over the long centuries by the women of the Dúnedain. The colour was a dark and sombre green, strangely out of place amid the bright hues of the other yarns. It was the colour of a Ranger’s garb.

Gilraen gathered this last swiftly, burying it beneath a bundle of rich violet wool where she did not have to see it. Long years had passed since last she had plied her needles to cover the rough, weathered hands of he whom she had loved, but every year she spun the yarn and mixed the dyes and looped the finished cord lovingly into mittens for her son. When he had been young it had always been a struggle to induce him to wear them when he went out to tumble in the snow with Glorfindel. There had been years between twelve and fifteen when he had not put them on at all – save once, when each pair was first presented to him, out of courtesy to her. Then at sixteen he had begun his first forays in the wild, and always he had carried them with him. After he went forth to join his men in their long labours, he had worn through pair after pair and had sworn with laughter in his eyes that her knitting was all that had spared his fingers from the horrors of frostbite in the empty hills.

Now he was far away, and eleven pairs of mittens sat hidden in the chest at the foot of her virginal bed, unworn and waiting for their owner to return. Soon there would be twelve.

The rider was drawing nearer now; near enough that even mortal eyes could see the grey cloth of the weather-stained cloak, the canted brim of a broad pointed hat, and the great staff braced against the stirrup. Gilraen knew then who was coming out of the wilderness, and she had no interest in greeting him.

Her business in the dye-yard was concluded anyhow, and she started off towards the house. She abandoned the genteel gait she had learned in early months when her young mortal body had seemed impossibly rangy and clumsy amid the grace of the Elves and took long, sure strides that made the hem of her kirtle flap and ripple against her ankles. She did not return through the kitchens, though it was the swiftest way. If the traveller was already drawing in upon the house the river would have sent news of his coming hours ago, and orders for a feast of welcome would have been given. She had no wish to brave the concerted chaos of the kitchens at present, and so she rounded the delicate stone roots of the eastern tower and came in by a quiet side door.

Making for her rooms by this route, she was obliged to pass through the upstairs corridor that opened upon the stately bedrooms that belonged to the Lord of the Valley and his children. She had been offered apartments beside them when she had first come to Imladris, but the exquisite grandeur had daunted and distressed her and she had at last found the courage to ask for simpler rooms. She shunned this corridor now, for beyond the anterooms of Elrond, of his daughter and of his twin sons, there was another door, heavily carven and set with bright glass. At thirteen, eager for some measure of independence and privacy, an indomitable youth had waged a relentless campaign of reason, begging, and good-natured threats in pursuit of his own suite of rooms. She had relented, of course, and in the end even Elrond himself had bowed to his fosterling’s superior obstinacy, and the boy had been installed in the chamber of his choice.

Before she reached that door which had stood closed for many long years now, Gilraen passed by the anteroom of the Lady Arwen. There was a flurry of activity within; maidens laughing and singing and crying out to one another as they brushed velvet gowns and carefully rolled delicate silken veils and folded enormous quantities of linen into chests strewn with flowers. The Lady of Imladris was soon to depart for her grandmother’s home in far-off Lothlórien, and the preparations for this journey were seemingly endless. Certainly they could not be finished soon enough for Gilraen; not a day passed that she did not wish the lady had never come northward at all.

She passed the open door swiftly, but her feet would not bear her by the entry to her son’s rooms without faltering. Since the night she had first felt him quicken in her womb she had known that one day he would be sundered from her to shoulder the yoke of his inheritance and brave the hard life of the Heir of Elendil, but neither that foreknowledge nor the long years of living its reality made that any easier to bear. She would have given all that she possessed, even to her own life, to know that he was safe behind this door rather than roaming in lands beneath the sway of the Shadow or riding with the wild horsemen of the Mark or wagering even a drop of his precious blood as a common soldier in the endless border-wars of Gondor.

The basket was heavy in her arms now, and she forced herself to walk on. She passed through row upon row of proud colonnades and came at last to her own door, her own quiet antechamber, her small lonely sanctuary in this great house.

Her window was open to the clean autumn air, and she could hear the cries of greetings from the wood-elves. He was drawing near to the house now, the mysterious old man who had lured her child away from his people. Below on the greensward the great lords of the house would be assembling to welcome him. Elrond would stride forward in his sumptuous robes, extending a hand and with it the hospitality of the Last Homely House. As she had since her coming to Imladris in the year that Gilraen’s child first departed, the Lady Arwen would stand beside her father with her serene smile and her gracious tongue and her almost ethereal beauty. The wanderer would be welcomed and led off to bathe and to change his clothes before the evening meal. If there were urgent tidings out of Lindon or Mirkwood Elrond would hear them at once. If not, there would be time enough for tale-telling in the days the wizard lingered.

For her part Gilraen did not intend to go down to join the throng of the household before the doors. Nor would she take her meal in the great dining hall where she would have been seated in honour. She had no interest in missives from Círdan of the Havens; she had no curiosity to spare King Thranduil or his neighbouring dwarves. She would sit in her chair and she would wind her wool and she would worry, in spite of herself, about where her son might bide tonight and what misfortune might befall him on the morrow.

She drew a seat from her little table to place by the casement. Her beautiful willow rocker sat there, as in winter it occupied the hearth. The basket of yarns she set upon the seat of the straight-backed chair and sat, easing herself gently against the tapestry cushion. She was but barely in her middle-years, and yet at times like this it seemed that the ache of age was in her bones as surely as the frost of mourning was on her heart.

Gilraen picked up a skein of yarn the colour of a robin’s egg, and draped it over one of the spindles of the chair. Carefully she snipped the threads that held it, and she found the end. Curling the wool about her fingers she began to wind a smooth, firm ball.

It was slow work like this, reaching out after each pass to free another loop of yarn from the chair. She might have sent for someone to sit and hold the skein for her, unwinding it as she worked, but she did not want company. Had her dear friends the Sons of Elrond been present in the Valley she might have felt differently, for they would have been able to cheer her with their merry remembrances of her son and they would have understood her fear for he whom they loved but little less themselves. Yet Elladan and Elrohir were far away, riding with the Rangers to cover the harvest furloughs. They would not ride down the eastward road until it was time to escort their sister over the mountains.

Gilraen had just finished winding the ball and was bending to reach for a fresh hank when there came a gentle rapping upon her anteroom door. She froze, fingers brushing lightly over the loop of dark green where it peeped out from beneath its bright blanket.

‘Who knocks?’ she asked, her voice a study in afternoon serenity.

‘It is I, my lady. May I enter?’

The voice was rich and melodious, like the thrum of Elven fingers on a harp of sycamore and silver, and gentle as summer rain upon the bluebells. Its sound made Gilraen stiffen, and the corners of her mouth pinched down.

‘Please, lady; you are welcome,’ she said. Her tone changed not at all, but her heart was cold. She might have hoped for any other visitor in all the Valley, even the inscrutable wizard himself, in place of she who now stood without.

The door drew inward and Arwen daughter of Elrond, the Evenstar of her people, came gliding through.

She was tall and fair, perilously fair, she who walked – so they said – in the likeness of Lúthien Tinúviel her foremother. Her hair was rich as twilight’s shadows, drawn into two thick plaits that she wore over each shoulder bound at their ends with silver. Piercing grey eyes, the very mirror of her father’s and too like those of Gilraen’s own son for comfort, looked out from beneath dark arching brows. Her gown was of pale green tissue woven with gilt thread, and her white hands were hidden beneath the broad circular cuffs that drooped like petals from the slender sleeves. She looked like a queen descended from legend; small wonder she had so ensnared the heart of a young dreamer but lately told that he shared some small measure of her lofty lineage.

Gilraen moved to rise that she might curtsey. Whatever her distaste for this immortal maiden who had taken what she could not return, she owed the Lady Arwen all the honour to which her parentage entitled her. But one slender hand appeared from beneath the silks, gesturing for her to hold.

‘Please do not rise on my account, lady,’ said Arwen. Her lips moved as if in a smile, but there was a curious sheen to her eyes and her melodious voice was not joyous. ‘Forgive me for intruding upon your afternoon’s repose. I have come from my father; there is to be feasting this evening in honour of a lately-come guest.’

This was peculiar. It was unlike Elrond to send his daughter as his messenger. In the absence of Elladan and Elrohir it was most often Glorfindel whom he sent to Gilraen when he could not come himself, or failing that some other member of the household with whom she had comfortable dealings. Even after nearly two decades dwelling together in Imladris Arwen was a stranger to her.

‘I thank you, my lady, but I shall not join the household tonight,’ said Gilraen. She bent forward so that she could take hold of another skein of wool, draping it upon the chair without looking at it. ‘If Master Elrond will give his leave I shall dine quietly here.’

‘He will gladly give his leave, and I shall see to the ordering of your meal myself,’ Arwen said graciously, her strangely vacant smile steady and her head tilted slightly to one side. She had all the air of a sovereign graciously granting a favour to some lowly guest in her court. It was not far from the truth, Gilraen supposed, for although it was easy to forget it Rivendell had been Arwen’s home for many hundreds of years before she, simple child of a dwindling people, was ever born or thought of. ‘Yet I did not come to invite you to the feast; I hope that you know that you are always welcome at my father’s board, whoever may come riding through the passes. I came because the guest who has done so today is Mithrandir – Gandalf the Grey, as he is called here.’

‘I know,’ said Gilraen, reaching for her little silver shears. ‘I saw him arriving. He has brought news of your brothers, I suppose? I trust they are well.’

‘As do I,’ said Arwen; ‘for they are riding the simple paths of Amon Sul and fallen Arthedain, far from the perils of the mountains, but Mithrandir has nothing to say of their welfare. He has come not out of the West but up from the South, where he has journeyed to the kingdoms of Men on some errand of his own. He has come to us from Gondor.’

Gilraen felt the colour drain from her face, and her back grew very straight. The scissors drooped in her fingers and for a moment she could not find her voice. ‘He has brought tidings?’ she whispered when she could, scarcely daring to hope.

At last the smile reached the grey eyes, but when it did it seemed almost sorrowful. ‘Better still: he has brought letters,’ said Arwen, and there was a queer lilt to her words. Her right wrist tilted upward so that the cup of her sleeve fell back, revealing a thickly folded piece of parchment. ‘For my father, for my brothers, for the lieutenants of the Dúnedain, and for you.’

It was all that Gilraen could do to restrain herself from snatching the missive from the slender fingers. She held out an open palm with all the dignity she held as the widow of one Chieftain and the mother of another, but her hand shook as the lady pressed the packet down upon it. She drew it to her, looking down at the disc of black wax that sealed the careful folds. In it was the imprint of a ring more ancient even than Master Elrond himself: twin serpents beneath a crown of blossoms that one devoured and the other upheld. Without regard for the regal watcher beside her she pressed it to her lips, inhaling the scent of the paper. It smelled musty, as though it had ridden long leagues in an oilskin sack – as doubtless it had – but it seemed that beneath that she could catch the faint fragrance of dark downy baby hair kissed by sunshine, of a boy’s clean sweat, of the sweet breath of a strong young man. Her eyelids fluttered closed and she could almost imagine that he was here with her now, her son, her dearest, her only beloved.

Yet when she opened her eyes there was only the letter, crisp and heavy in her hand, and the daughter of Elrond watching her with eyes now as veiled as the mountain pools in a heavy mist.

‘I thank you,’ she said. ‘It was kind of you to bring it hither.’

‘I knew that you would want it at once,’ said Arwen softly. ‘My father has retired with Mithrandir to his study; it seems there are tidings from Isengard that he must hear. It might be some hours before he would be at liberty to bear it to you himself, though I know that he wished to.’

Gilraen inclined her head, hoping that the maiden would understand her desire to be left alone with this treasure and so withdraw at once. Yet still she stood there, immovable as a birch in the moonlight, watching her.

‘It is good to have news from him after so long a silence,’ said Gilraen. ‘I should not have wished to wait.’

The Lady Arwen nodded wordlessly. The odd glint was still in her eyes, though her beauteous face was gentle and untroubled. Yet her hesitation was unsettling.

‘The tidings cannot be ill,’ Gilraen murmured; ‘if he is well enough to write.’

‘Had the tidings been ill, I do not think my father would have any wish to talk of Isengard,’ Arwen said quietly. Abruptly Gilraen noticed that the shimmering eyes were not fixed upon her, but upon the letter in her hand. ‘He read his own at once,’ said the lady; ‘even before admitting Mithrandir to the house. I could not catch his eye, nor read his heart, but surely had there been any cause for worry…’

Gilraen felt her pulse quicken. There was doubt writ upon the unblemished brow; a small doubt, maybe, but doubt nonetheless. Unswayed by the voice within that tried to convince her that surely, surely if he were able to write he could not be in any dire straits, she slipped her smallest fingernail along the edge of the parchment and broke the seal.

The page was covered with tiny, beautiful writing: at once she recognized the hand she had helped to school from a baby’s well-intentioned scrawl to the ornate inscriptions of a scholar and a scribe. It was a hand suited to the finest of manuscripts, to the loftiest of documents. The figures were smaller than it was his wont to shape them; he had set out to make the best use of the piece of parchment, doubtless a dear purchase for one living on a soldier’s poor wage. Her eyes sought out the first line and flooded with tears as she read: Beloved Mother, Salutations.

Her breath caught in her throat and her hand began to shake again. Fearful lest she should drop the precious paper she let it fall into her lap. Her spine curled back against the chair and she rocked a little, soothing her overflowing heart with the motion.

‘My lady?’ the words were low and anxious, and very far away. ‘My lady, is it ill news? Has he sickened? Is he in peril? Was it written by another?’

Gilraen shook her head, trying to clear the tears from her eyes that she might read on. Fingers, steady but very cold, pressed a fine cambric handkerchief into her free hand and she used it to dab away the damp. She had forgotten who stood over her; she had forgotten who had sent her son away with a shadow on his bold heart; she had forgotten everything but the letter in her hand.

‘He writes that he is well,’ she managed, her voice quivering with heartache and relief. ‘I am well and I am happy, he writes.’ She read on. ‘He is in the service of the Steward; Gondor has need of good men and his skills are put to fitting use.’ Her eyes skimmed over lines detailing his labours as a soldier in the South Kingdom. Later she knew that she would read and reread every precious word, hoarding them up in her heart, but now she was too overcome to follow his meticulous accounting of his errantries. One sentence, however, caught her eye. ‘He has been offered a Captaincy,’ she said, maternal pride swelling bittersweet within her. ‘Gandalf has advised me to accept and I believe that I shall. He goes on to say that he is learning much, but there is far more that he had discovered he does not know. He calls it his apprenticeship to greatness…

There followed many lines in praise of the Steward of Gondor, careful reflection upon his son, accounts of other great lords he had met and commanders he had followed; these too she would read with care later. Then she found the line she sought and her tears welled up anew.

‘He writes that he cannot come home,’ she said hoarsely, clutching herself with one arm and rocking more fervently in the chair. ‘There is too much to learn; too much to be done; too many wrongs to put right. He cannot return, perhaps not for years.’

There followed words of comfort and tenderness and hope, but her eyes were blinded with the springs of loneliness and her heart ached as she had not imagined it could. She scarcely felt the palm that settled upon her back, nor the fingers that drew her hand away from its bruising grip on her side and clutched it gently.

‘He is well?’ a soft voice asked, almost tremulous in its quietude. ‘He is happy?’

Gilraen’s head bobbed, her hold upon the parchment tightening. ‘He is well and he is happy,’ she chanted, as though to soothe herself.

‘And soon to be a Captain,’ the voice said, now suddenly bright with good cheer. ‘Surely that is a great honour to achieve in so short a time, in a nation that must have its pick of doughty mortal warriors. And surely,’ she added with only the faintest faltering in her tone; ‘a Captain will be less endangered on the battlefield than a common soldier.’

Gilraen slipped her hand from one that held it and brought the handkerchief to her eyes again. ‘My son would never shy from danger,’ she said. She pressed her lips together, fixing her mind on what she promised herself was the most important point. ‘But he is well and he is happy. That is all that I can hope for.’

She looked up into the timeless face of Arwen Undómiel, and at once she was ashamed. She had forgotten who it was standing here, watching her foundless tears and listening to her disordered gabbling.

‘Your pardon, my lady,’ she said, shrinking away from the hand between her shoulders. ‘You must think me a foolish old woman.’

She looked for scorn in the lofty eyes, but saw only gentle patience. In that moment Arwen looked more like her father than seemed possible for any maid. ‘I think you a loving mother,’ she said; ‘and one who longs to see her son. Doubtless if my own mother could receive a letter from Elladan or Elrohir she would weep even as you do; I should hate to think that she might do so uncomforted.’

Swiftly she knelt, catching hold of the handkerchief and gently brushing the tear-tracks from Gilraen’s pallid cheeks. She glanced down at the sheet of parchment, which was once more curling in upon its folds. ‘I am overjoyed to know that your son is well,’ she said. ‘You have eased my own heart by sharing that with me.’

Now Gilraen looked with puzzled eyes. Were these merely words of token comfort, meant to ease her mortification at her unseemly display before one who was little better than a stranger? Or did this Elven princess feel remorse for so thoughtlessly ensnaring a young heart, and seek to ease her conscience with assurances that he was happy now despite her meddling? Yet as she looked she thought she saw something else entirely in those soft eyes that seemed now suffused with mournful wisdom. Could it be, she wondered, that Elrond’s daughter found her thoughts wandering from time to time to the fortunes of her father’s fosterling not as a great lady to a supplicant, nor as a sister to her brother, but as a maiden to her champion far away?

Then long lashes veiled the eyes for a moment and Gilraen’s clarity of thought faded. Her lips curled in a shaky smile. ‘Thank you,’ she said; ‘you were most kind to bring me the letter, and to comfort me in my sentiment. I am very proud of Aragorn, and of all that he has accomplished. He will make a mighty Captain for Gondor, and win renown under the name he has taken. And when at last he has learned what he must he will return to the North and be a greater Chieftain for it.’

‘That I do not doubt,’ said Arwen. She stood, smoothing the shimmering skirts of her gown. Her eyes fell upon the basket at Gilraen’s feet, and then travelled to the back of the chair from which a skein of wool was hanging. Gilraen’s breast tightened again as she realized that it was the bundle of Ranger-green.

‘You are winding yarn?’ asked the lady. ‘That is a tiresome way to do it.’

Before Gilraen could comment the elf-maiden’s skirts swished away towards the fireplace, where a low stool sat near the hearth. She lifted it and carried it to set near the rocker. Then she slipped one long hand into the middle of the loop of wool and lifted it, putting her other hand on the opposite side and stretching the yarn between them. With all the grace of the Firstborn she settled upon the stool, holding her arms upward so that Gilraen could snip the binding threads and begin to wind the ball. She did so uneasily, with Lord Elrond’s daughter seated at her feet to hold her yarn. It was not fitting. This was the labour of an attendant, a handmaiden. It was a task performed by dutiful daughters.

‘You must help me to understand, lady,’ said Arwen in a sweet conversational voice that would not have been out of place in a cottage in a small hidden village. Gilraen felt her discomfort ebbing a little despite the protestations of propriety. ‘Your son is the Heir of Elendil, the greatest man born to the greatest lineage of Men in a generation. By right of blood he might claim the throne of Gondor, and yet he consents to serve its Steward as a humble soldier of fortune. What is to be made of that?’

Gilraen shook her head. ‘The time has not come for the Kingship to be renewed,’ she said. ‘Mayhap the time will never come. But Aragorn seeks to learn how to lead men in battle, and Gondor has long been the first stalwart line against the Shadow of the East. As a soldier he writes that he has learned much already; as a Captain he must surely learn more still.’ Even to her ears these words sounded hollow: they were nothing more than a rote recitation of what her son, and Master Elrond, and Elrohir and Elladan had each told her in turn twelve years ago.

‘Then you are content?’ asked Arwen. ‘You would not see him King?’

‘I would see him happy,’ said Gilraen. ‘I would see him wed to a woman that he loves, who will cherish him as he deserves to be cherished. I would see him sire to many healthy children. I would see him perish peacefully in the flower of old age, and not on the blade of a servant of the Enemy. If he might accomplish all of this and live only as a Ranger in the wilderness, I would be content.’

‘Yet it has been foretold that he may rise to greatness,’ murmured the maiden. Her expression was still politely curious, but her eyes had darkened to the stormy grey of a gathering tempest. ‘My father, your own mother… many have foreseen a lofty destiny for him.’

‘Yes,’ Gilraen said, very quietly. ‘Yet as the years wear on I care ever less for his destiny and ever more for his safety. He is my child, my dearly beloved; I cannot hope to see him toiling in loneliness for an uncertain future, nor to see him fade into darkness with the last of my kindred as has also been foretold.’

There was a long silence, while Gilraen wound the yarn around the growing ball and the Lady Arwen rocked her thumbs to and fro to release each length of thread.

‘You spin very beautifully,’ said Arwen at last. The fey light was gone from her eyes and she had all the air of one needlewoman conversing indolently with another. ‘I can scarcely do better myself; my own talents are more to the plying of threads than to their creation.’

‘I have seen your work,’ agreed Gilraen. ‘No woman of my race could hope to be your equal.’

‘It is a shame that I am so soon to depart. We might have learned something from one another in a winter’s companionship.’

The words were light, and the smile earnest, and yet Gilraen knew that their meaning was not what it seemed. Her eyes travelled to the letter, sitting folded on the window-seat. She wondered whether it had been mere detached kindness that had led Elrond’s daughter to bring it to her after all. Perhaps she had not been the only one anxious for tidings from the South.

The last of the yarn slipped through Arwen’s fingers. The ball was wound. The elf-maiden rose again, smiling.

‘I must take my leave, my lady,’ she said. ‘I will be expected in the hall: Mithrandir may take it amiss if I am not there to preside over the meal.’ She motioned at the basket of yarn. ‘With your leave I shall return tomorrow to help you finish with these.’

‘I would like that,’ said Gilraen, and she knew as she spoke that her heart was earnest. ‘Thank you, dear lady.’

Arwen smiled again. This time her expression was almost mischievous. ‘I shall have the choicest morsels sent up for your supper,’ she pledged. Then she was gone.

Gilraen sat motionless for a long while, looking out at the crimson glow of sunset over the splendour of the Valley. Then she reached for her workbox and drew out her fine bone knitting-pins. As she looped the green yarn about the first one she found a small smile rising unbidden to her lips.

If Elrond’s daughter was going to go riding through the high mountain passes as autumn gave way to winter’s chill, she would want a pair of mittens.

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