“In a world where men rule by way of threat and violence it is necessary for a woman to be strong.”
The prince said nothing but merely nodded his assent. She had no sooner spoken these words when one of the larger tapers upon one of the nearby candles withered momentarily before extinguishing itself. The room dimmed considerably because of this which caused Elendis to shudder with cold.
“You are cold, Elendis,” said Ermegil. “Let me lend you my cloak for now. I shall find you more candles for your chamber soon, though they are in short supply here in this remote castle.”
“You are very good, lord, but I am fine.”
“Nay my dear, you must keep warm. I insist. You must allow your body to recover without undo strain.”
He rose to his feet again and went over to a stone shelf upon the wall and removed a folded cloak from a bundle inside of a bag she had not noticed before. Coming back before her he placed himself uncomfortably near to her as he wrapped the garment around her shoulders and tugged at the edges to draw it tighter around her bosom and neck line. She stiffened instinctively at this though she tried her best to conceal her timidity from him. He did not step away from her at first and she felt his eyes upon her from above. She did not look up to meet his face for several moments until a heavy silence fell upon the chamber. Then, doing so out of nervousness rather than politeness, Elendis looked up at him. The prince offered a slender smile before resuming his position upon the chair before her. He broke the silence again by attempting to speak but she deliberately interrupted him, for she sensed he was about to broach the matter of wedlock between them and she still knew not how to answer him.
“What can you tell me about this place, lord? Who built this castle and why in so remote a locale?”
“The Dunedain of old Arnor built it long ago, during the reign of Arantar, great-grandson of Isildur. Dol Agwarth it was called, the ‘Lonely Tower’. As far as I know it the Dunedain abandoned it many years ago, long before either you or even I was born into the world.”
“But why so many leagues away from civilization?” she asked.
“Most likely it served as an outpost; probably to keep a watchful eye upon the passes of the mountains; or perhaps to observe the old Hillmen of the region. Both explanations are likely correct.”
“I suppose so. Yet why did they abandon it? Despite its present state of decay it surely was an impressive structure in its day.”
“Aye,” he replied unenthusiastically. “Yet another monument of our people to feed the fires of their vanity and egoism.”
“I think you judge the Dunedain harshly,” she answered him. “The descendants of Elendil would not have expended so much time and hardship to erect a lofty castle such as this merely to gratify their self-esteem. I doubt pride had anything to do with it.”
Ermegil sat back in his little chair and propped his head against the wall behind him as he stroked his rough chin. She sensed a trace of frustration in his demeanor once again.
“My dear Elendis, I couldn’t care in the least! My interest lays not in the past but in both the present and the future; especially the latter.”
He sat forward again and leaned towards her with a stern and serious look.
“Let us dispense with any further trivialities, Elendis. I think you know full well why I have expended so much time and effort with you ever since your failed attempt to put an end to your life not long ago.” This last remark was a subversive attempt by him to bring her attention round to the fore at once before going on. It seemed to have the intended effect that he meant for it to have, for Elendis immediately raised her chin slightly and narrow her eyes. He went on in a smooth and well-polished tone, saying, “It is a poorly kept secret by now that I most humbly desireth your fair hand in wedlock. Though it is doubtless sudden and rather abrupt I think it fair to say that we should make a handsome match – you and I. There, you see? I can tell by the lack of surprise in your eyes that this proposal comes as no shock to you. Perhaps you even have been expecting it and have rehearsed a ready-made reply for me? Before you give voice to the thoughts that run rampant in your head let me also accompany this proposal of mine with a gift!”
Elendis closed her lips tightly as she swallowed hard and tried to control her shaking nerves. She watched Ermegil rise and go over to a small shelf along the wall where sat a small oblong wooden box that been placed there by – by whom, she now wondered? She had not noticed it there the day before when she had first awoken from a full day’s continued sleep. It may be that the prince had only recently set it there during one of his nonchalant walks back and forth in the chamber as their conversation progressed. Or perhaps Helgha, his maid-servant had put it there? She did not know. Yet of so that would seem to indicate that she had been in the know of the prince’s matrimonial intentions all along, though he had pretended to be surprised when Elendis had first voiced her suspicions of Ermegil’s plans towards her. Whatever the truth she had little time to reflect upon it now, for the prince had removed the item from inside the box and began to hold it aloft in triumph as he regained his former place immediately before her. It looked to be a medallion of some kind that was attached to a firm but slender chain of gold. She recognized it at once and gave an involuntary gasp of surprise.
“The amulet of my dear friend, old Cernan! You have it! I can hardly believe it! I thought it was lost, buried in the deep snows of the mountains! Pray, may I see it?”
Ermegil briefly thought of correcting her again in her address of him, for she had neglected to include the necessary appellation of ‘my lord’ at the end of her request, but he decided to let it pass for now in her excitement. He smiled warmly at her now as he handed her the locket. Elendis let the chain dangle in and out between her trembling fingers as she scrutinized it thoroughly for any signs of forgery or deception. Sensing her misgivings the prince at once assured her that it was indeed the genuine article that she had been missing since that dreadful day of the avalanche where over half of her companions had perished under the waves of falling snow and ice. Nevertheless Elendis turned the golden amulet this way and that before her eyes, at last flicking open with her thumb the faceplate upon the frontispiece that concealed the inner emblem of her father’s house. It was an intricately carved symbol of a multi-pronged silver star inlaid with a slender border of some other sort of glossy smooth substance that was shiny and fair to look upon. Yet whereas the star-gem had been sullied with traces of age and wear before its disappearance now all traces of weathered grime and been removed from it so that it gleamed fresh and new as never before.
“Consider it my betrothal gift to you,” said the prince. “I think it should serve well enough as such, considering neither one of us has any dowry to offer the other in our present circumstances.”
She glanced up and into the eyes of the mysterious man before her who in turn stared back at her expectantly. He knew that he had done well by giving the family trinket back to her in this way. He could see it in her eyes now. It was his good fortune and Urlavia’s hapless ill-luck. As if by odd chance at that very moment Elendis cocked her head sideways as if in sudden thought.
“Where, may I ask, did you find my old amulet, my lord?” There was a silent pause.
“Can you not guess?”
Elendis rose at last from her bed to her feet for the first time since the prince had entered the room. Seeing her tremble with the motion Ermegil steadied her by laying hold of her uninjured arm. His other free hand he placed upon the small of her back. She let escape an involuntary shudder that he surely must have sensed. His touch was not welcomed by her. She was nervous, that was plain. Had she been anyone different, perhaps a woman of royalty or even an ordinary mother of a local village he might have immediately released his hold upon her. But now he did not let go. He would not acquiesce to a young girl such as Elendis who was less than half his own age. Ere long he would be her lord proper and by releasing his hold upon her at her reflex would show a sign of timidity on his part. Even at this early stage he must assert his authority.
“Perhaps it is yet too early for you to walk about,” he said as he continued to steady her balance.
“Nay, I wish to stand upon my feet again. It is not my legs that are hurt.”
“As you wish, my dear. But I doubt that Helgha would approve of it so soon.” His grin now belied a hint of mockery in it, but Elendis ignored the remark before giving voice to her thoughts. At last he removed his hands from her.
“I do believe I can now guess where you came by my old family heirloom,” said Elendis as she slowly put a few more feet of distance between herself and the prince. She stopped and turned to face him again. She looked upon him in ominous silence for a moment then redirected her gaze to the chain and locket again that she still held.
“I believe that this was thieved from the body of Cernan following the avalanche. It was shamefully burgled from his person as he lay dead in the heavy snows by that hapless rogue, Urlavia. He was the first member of the company to have discovered the body. Do I not guess the truth?” Ermegil nodded in agreement.
“You do indeed. It was Urlavia who took your locket. Yet such a thing is hardy uncommon with men such as he. They are prisoners of their own greed.”
Ermegil knew by now of her dislike of Urlavia and the thought struck him that he might take advantage of her animosity towards the man by taking sides with her against him. In this way he might already begin to endear himself to her and thereby aid his cause.
“The man is a villain,” she replied coldly. “He is a cowardly rascal who cares only for his own skin. I recall well that fateful afternoon when the sliding snow from on high fell upon us so suddenly and so many good men, including my husband, were killed outright. Oh, if only that dreadful white wave might have claimed the life of Urlavia as well! What an injustice it is that such a man might live while my good husband perished!”
“No doubt you are quite right, my dear,” said Ermegil in agreement. “It is unjust. But consider this also: had not Urlavia taken the locket from him…”
“Stolen, you mean!” Interrupted Elendis. He nodded his head in consent then went on.
“Aye, ‘stolen’ it, as you say, then it would have remained buried beneath the snow and ice forever; or at least until some other soul had stumbled upon it many years from now – perhaps someone less wholesome than our Urlavia even. Maybe even a wandering tribe of orcs! Then the piece would be lost to you and beyond recovery.”
“Orcs?” exclaimed Elendis in surprise.
“Aye, orcs. You act as though the name surprises you.”
“But I have never heard of orcs wandering these lands before. To be sure they are not unknown in Eriador; but that was the old Eriador of the past. It has been many generations of men since such vile creatures roamed the lands.”
Ermegil fought down an impulsive guffaw that swelled up in his throat at the remark. ‘Such an innocent and sheltered life you must have led until now,’ he mused to himself in silence. ‘The girl needs to learn many life lessons and quickly if she hopes to live through the dark years ahead of her. How I do envy her naïve spirit, though.’ Then aloud he said to her, “Do not forget what I told you a few moments ago. The future of Rhudaur, and indeed all of Eriador shall be dark and grim for us all. Of course there are orcs in the Misty Mountains! That is why I marvel so that the leader of your company could have been so ill-informed so as to lead you all through the perilous paths of the mountains during such a time. The tribes of the Hillmen are at war here as well as wandering bands of orcs and other brigands of the highlands in search of unwary folk to prey upon.”
“Quite obviously we had no way of knowing about any of the perils you now speak of. Had the leaders of the company been privy to such facts we should never have set forth on such a path, I am sure.”
‘Your useless husband and his assistants may not have known,’ thought Ermegil to himself wryly, ‘but Urlavia surely must have known of them. Yet he kept that knowledge to himself, he being driven onwards by his greed.’ Yet the prince kept his thoughts secret, and instead rejoined aloud, “They should have been more inquisitive about regions unfamiliar to them ere they set out. Alas that they paid the ultimate price for their mistake! The Misties have become too perilous to wander about in.”
Elendis made no reply to this, but instead inquired of him how he came to be in possession of her locket and chain if Urlavia had been the one to take it in the first place. Did the prince in turn steal it from Urlavia?
“No, of course not,” he retorted firmly. “The very idea, girl! No, it was given me by none other than the thief himself as an initial payment for my permission to travel with me away from Dol Agwarth in four day’s time from today.”
“I take it that you agreed to this proposal of his?” she asked with a frown. The prince shrugged his shoulders with pursed lips.
“Why should I not?”
“So he shall be set free after all?” she asked him in a disgusted tone. “The same man who not only robbed me of my only remaining family heirloom and lied to me about it, but also the very man who taunted and put to shame his only nephew before the face of his friends and companions? This is to say nothing of his other crimes and shameful deeds thus far, not least is his betrayal of his former companions! He will be permitted to depart freely from here while we others remain and languish in our imprisonment?”
Ermegil held up his hand and shook his head.
“No indeed, my lady! Urlavia is not going anywhere, despite what he may now think or say. He has sworn an oath of fealty to lord Broggha before the face of multiple witnesses. How can he depart freely while under such constraints? He has made a verbal contract with Broggha and he will be required to abide by it or else suffer the consequences.”
“If so then how could he possibly come to believe that he should be permitted to depart at will?”
“He offered me your locket before he had sworn his oath to Broggha. Doubtless he reckoned on my influence to persuade Broggha to allow him to accompany me. I do not believe he had any idea that he would later be compelled to swear an oath of fealty to Broggha in exchange for his limited freedoms he has been granted while within the compound.”
“Did you initially agree to his proposal?” she asked him. He nodded his assent.
“I did. I admit that your locket intrigued me when he first showed it to me, and I wondered much as to where he acquired it; for the blue star-gem that is set inside it is an old symbol or token of fidelity used by the Dunedain of the old days. Having known something of him before now and the way he works I easily guessed he must have either fallen into good fortune by finding it somewhere along his travels or else thieved it. No Dunadan with a trace of honor would willingly part with such an item unless forced to do so under great need.”
“Then you were already acquainted with Urlavia before we were brought here?” she asked him with a raised eyebrow.
“I have traveled with him before, I admit” he replied slowly. “He has traded with me and performed other business with men that I used to know in Rhudaur. He is a horse trader, after all; and I am a man who is in need of fine mares. It is only natural that I should know of him.”
“Then he was on his way to see you again before we were captured?”
“No. This time our paths have crossed by accident; though I confess that the coincidence is quite extraordinary.”
He sighed quietly to himself now. The two of them were becoming sidetracked by such talk. Desiring to keep the matter of their prospective matrimony in the foreground the prince once again sought to brush aside the diversion of Urlavia that had arisen between them by asking her what she thought of his gift and proposal of marriage, but Elendis seemed determined to delay it.
“It is indeed a strange occurrence. For what reason, then,” she persisted, “did Urlavia desire to cross over the mountains if not to see you? Surely he must have spoken to you of it?”
“He did not; nor did I inquire.”
“You were not at all interested?”
“No. I have no interest in fools,” he answered flatly.
“But surely you must see why I seek to know why he was so insistent on driving us forward with such haste? Men have died as a result!”
“Men die every day, Elendis – if not by their own hand then often by the hand of the fools that lead them. It is beyond my control.”
“How can you be so indifferent to it all? Have you no heart? Or do all men’s hearts have such thick skin?”
Ermegil fought down a wrathful retort. ‘I might also ask ,’ he mused quickly to himself, ‘how could you, you hapless and frail little wench, possibly have survived in the world thus far while at the same time being so insipidly ignorant? I shall be hard pressed to educate you after we are wed.’
“Those who do not possess a streak of callous indifference,” he replied in a rising tone, “will not survive in the dark years ahead; and that includes you, my dear. You may count on that.”
Elendis reflected cautiously on that for a moment before replying in a softer voice.
“Such bold foreshadowing in your words, lord. It almost sounds like a threat.”
“Not a threat but merely a dire warning.”
“I might also advise you to take heed of your own council for your own good as well, for you are an ambitious man by nature it seems.”
Once again the conversation had begun to veer away from his original intent. Was she directing its course thus with deliberation? Was she attempting to provoke him into a wrathful retort or was she simply trying to delay the main purpose for his visitation? If so she possessed a degree of skill in this. Elendis was proving a difficult creature to make out and this unsettled the prince. He began to feel a trace of repulsion invade his feelings of restrained longing for the girl now. He wondered just how long it would take for him to ‘tame’ her and quash her innate sense of liberality and independence that suffused her strong spirit - which was, no doubt, instilled upon her by Mardon, her father, at an early age. He wanted their rhetoric to quickly regain a positive footing on their path to the proposed wedlock he had intended so he conjured up a grin and a brief chuckle at her last statement.
“Even at your tender age,” he returned, “you seem endowed with a fair share of good sense, Elendis! I shall be eager to see you when you reach the autumn of your allotted years upon this earth. You shall be wise like the Eldar!”
“I shall never be like the Eldar in that respect! I am a mere mortal and thus far below their station – as are you and every other member of our race, lord.” Then, seeing his brow narrow at her severe assessment, she added in a more friendly tone, “I fear it is our lot, my lord. The Valar so decreed it long ago – and so it goes.”
“I am sure you are right,” he said laconically. Talk of the Valar and the fate of mortals bored him. “Yet I fear that we have strayed from our current purpose here, my dear. But first, please; will you not be seated? I can see that you frequently shift your weight from one foot to the other as you stand there. I would hate for you to become light-headed and tumble once again to the floor.”
After another pause Elendis slowly sat herself down in the same chair that the prince had used earlier. There being nowhere else to sit, save the bed, Ermegil placed himself before her – indeed, almost crowding her to her discomfort – and squatted down with bent knees so as to be eye to eye with her. Then he looked directly into her eyes for several moments in silence before speaking again. As he did so Elendis forced herself to return his stare with the same serious countenance that he seemed to indulge in. To do anything else, to blink overmuch or to look away would betray the true vulnerability that she really felt now. There was no more putting the matter off; this she knew full well. He was about to require an answer from her and she must supply him with one, whatever the cost. She knew that her life would change dramatically regardless of her choice. Yet for better or worse she could not even hope to guess.
“Now, my dear girl,” he went on, his voice and demeanor now calm and almost passionate. “I think it would be prudent on your part to reflect upon all that you have gone through since you first entered the high and perilous paths of these mountains. You have encountered injury, death, betrayal, imprisonment, cold and hunger – perhaps even more than that.” She was about to interrupt him but he held up his hand and restrained her. “Nay, let me finish!...Your situation is perilous by now. I do not think that you even realize how bad it truly has become for you, Elendis. Do not think for an instant that you have been forgotten or overlooked by Broggha simply because he has been absent from your sight or because you have been allowed a small degree of preferential treatment by staying here in a comfortable bed and tended to by a maidservant. Perhaps you think yourself too trifling for a warlord such as Broggha to bother with? If so put the thought out of your head at once!”
“I have never claimed as much,” said Elendis, but he ignored the comment and ploughed onwards.
“The man has definite plans for you, of that I am certain. You are valuable to him, for he knows that you are of the Dunedain and most probably belong to a noble family somewhere in Rhudaur – a family that in all likelihood desires to get you back as quickly as possible. I do not think that he knows who your father is, nor have I told him, in case you were wondering as much. Possibly he would not know who he was even if I did tell him. But one thing he assuredly will not do is let you go from his grasp. You shall be used either as a pawn for his machinations against the king or else as bait to lure your father or some other important figure from court hither where they will be captured and put to the torture. Nay, the best you might possible hope for - if you and I are not joined in wedlock, - is to be held for ransom. In that case Broggha’s price for your release will be exorbitant. You might languish in his dungeons for months ere such a sum of gold can be gathered by your father to secure your release.”
“Ah!” said Elendis poignantly, “Now I see your intent more clearly. Your proposal of marriage comes in the guise of extortion; wed with you or face imprisonment!”
“Do not be obtuse, Elendis!” The prince snarled the command through gritted teeth. His anger was apparent now by the slight tremble in his lower lip and by a slight protrusion of a vein on his forehead. “Enough nonsense! I am being most sincere with you.” Then, seeing her look away from him, he hastily softened his tone again. “Call it not extortion, I beg you. Rather it is prudence coupled with genuine fret on my behalf for your future. If you remain here you have none; with me there is hope of joy and renewed vigor. I offer you safety and a safe harbor from the days that are to come – even love, if you will receive it.”
Again she turned her face aside. The tears that she had formerly banished from her eyes threatened to return now. Quickly she sought to envision her choices and what their outcomes may be for her. In her heart she knew what she must do in order to preserve her life but the thought of it filled her with dismay. To remain here in such a dismal place in some cold and dark dungeon would spell her ruin. Yet more likely Broggha would keep her close at hand where he could put her up for display to show off to his allies. What if her ransom could not be paid? What then? She might rake in a handsome purse for him if she were auctioned off to some villainous tribesman in a far off land as a slave or worse; more likely she would become a concubine to breed unwholesome children. How could she live under such conditions? She might escape and flee on foot but would she have the strength by then to endure such a flight? She would be pursued as a matter of course. Things might go ill indeed if she were then captured and returned to a man she would be forced to call ‘master’. No, it would not do. Elendis glanced briefly back at the prince, who was watching her closely, standing upright to attention with his hands clasped casually behind his back. He knew that her mind was in turmoil and he was waiting patiently for her reply. She turned round and took a few slow paces toward her bed where she had laid aside her treasured family locket and chain. Looking down upon it she realized that she had no choice in the matter. She swallowed hard and made a decision.
“I will wed with you, lord,” she said slowly with a quiver in her voice. She did not turn round to face him yet. “I will wed with you if that is your will.”
“I most humbly thank you, my lady,” he replied rather flatly. “You honor me with your choice.” He meant it to sound ingratiating but instead it seemed forced and contrived. But then Elendis turned to face him again. He saw that a tear trickled down each of her cheeks from her moist eyes and that her mood was stiffened now in a display of strength tinged with defiance.
“But I will not allow myself to be possessed! Not by you or any other man upon this Middle-earth. I want you to understand this now ere our troth be plighted. I shall call you my ‘lord’ but not my ‘master’. Too often have I seen the daughters of the Edain fall prey to despair and hopelessness born out of a sense of indentured servitude to their husbands. If I am to be your wife you must take me on in the spirit of partnership, not servitude.”
A smile slowly grew upon his face with these words. The smile widened more until Ermegil actually laughed presently. It was not a lengthy guffaw, and he sought to cut it short for fear of offending her overmuch, but in the end he had to cover his mouth with his hand to regain his previous demeanor. His jocularity was not welcomed by Elendis, who stiffened noticeably at his reaction and frowned. Nevertheless she held her ground and lifted her chin up slightly in a manner of reproof.
“You mock me now?” she quipped in irritation. Ermegil cleared his throat briefly as he still sought to wrestle with his facetiousness.
“Forgive me, my dear,” he replied, “but perhaps your ears have become deaf to your own words by now. Can you not hear what you are saying? You seek a ‘partnership’ with me? You refuse to be ‘possessed’? Those are your words, not mine. Oh come, child! How many winters have you seen come and go in your days thus far? Fifteen? Sixteen perhaps?”
She did not answer him. She felt slighted now and the fear she formerly felt for her future temporarily gave way to a stubborn waywardness that she did not conceal from him. He did not wait for her reply and quickly went on.
“You have achieved much in the last few weeks and ought to rightly be commended for your instincts of survival in such a harsh land. I assure you I continue to marvel at your determination. A lesser girl would have perished by now. But you are still very young, Elendis. You have only just come into your full womanhood. You cannot in reality expect to wed with a prince of Rhudaur and expect to act as my equal partner in my affairs!”
“A b astard prince, I believe,” she retorted degradingly. The comment wiped the mocking grin from his face. But he recovered quickly and offered her a short bow of acquiescence.
“As you say, my lady: a b astard by birth. Yet know this – my illegitimacy shall not last forever. Denethil, my father and unloved king, shall fall ere long. Mark my words, before this time next year a new king shall rule over Rhudaur, and thus my illegitimacy shall crumble away and mean nothing. This also I add: you need not fear any form of bondage from me, your future husband and faithful companion. I proclaim that once you behold with your own eyes my estate in the country, and its many lush gardens of yellow daffadown dillies and trumpet lillies of auburn; its charming view of the surrounding woodlands nigh the swift river Hoarwell whose rushing waters distant would lull even the Eldar to sleep ; where you shall be waited upon by your very own maidservant – Helgha if you will – and shall dine on fresh venison and drink sweet wine of your choosing! Trust me when I say to you that you shall have no wish to flee such an abode! I shall not bind you to me in chains. I will have no cause to do any such thing for you shall come to love me and my generous offer and might even willingly thank me for rescuing you from the clutches of the Hillmen of the Misty Mountains. I dare to hope for as much, anyway.”
Elendis was not a fool and she believed him very little. Such a picture he had just painted to her could hardly be more than a daydream. Even if Denethil was toppled from his throne and a new king took his place – most likely it would be Broggha – Ermegil could hardly be expected to be given such a comfortable and even luxurious setting where he could rest at his leisure. The realm would be torn asunder and even perhaps fall into civil strife. Yet she did not challenge his words now. Wherever the two of them would dwell it would be far better than remaining here in Dol Agwarth surrounded by folk that hated her. Yet despite all of this she still felt compelled to make her acceptance of him come with a proviso.
“We shall see, my lord. Yet I fear the matter is not quite finished yet. I will willingly accept your proposal but I dare to attach three conditions to our agreement of mutual wedlock.”
“A conditional wedlock?” he asked her with a raised eyebrow. “You speak in earnest, do you?” He saw by her look that she did. “The very idea! I am offering you an opportunity to regain your freedom! To refuse my offer would be to assure permanent residency in this miserable castle under conditions of endless imprisonment. Can you not understand this, Elendis? Do you wish to die here in chains?”
“In my turn,” she replied, “I might also declare that a true man of honor would offer his services to a lady in dire need free of any such preconditioned proposals that the lady might find undesirable! In spite of this blatant disregard of my wishes to the contrary I have already agreed to accept what you offer me. I do not think I am asking much by requiring a few trifling favors from you in return!”
The prince stared at her in near amazement for a few quiet moments before inhaling the stale air about him and letting it out in a noisome exhalation meant to display his frustration. He paced the floor over to where his small goblet of water had been placed upon the shelf and swallowed the remaining contents. Then he turned to face her without the trace of a grin upon his clean-shaven face.
“Very well,” he said resignedly. “Let me hear what these ‘preconditions’ of yours may be.”
“My first requirement,” she began but fell momentarily silent as she swallowed hard in an attempt to force the words from her mouth. “My first and foremost concern is that you immediately release Vilthavia from his imprisonment and provide him with an escort back over the mountains where lays his homeland. Having been reared in the wide plains of Rhovanion he is ill-suited to mountainous terrain such as this. He suffers greatly from the altitude sickness and I fear he will not last long as long as he remains incarcerated here.”
“Vilthavia?” asked Ermegil after thinking for a moment. “You mean the young boy with the long raven hair who is related to the ‘Vagabond’?”
“You know full well who he is, lord. Aye, that is him. His name is Vilthavia and he does not belong here anymore than do I. He came here by mistake and desires to return to his own lands in the east. Indeed his intent was to do so ere we were beset with calamities and misfortunes but Urlavia would not spare a single man to escort him back down the mountain path.”
“Yes, yes,” replied the prince, waving his hand with an aerially gesture. The memory of two weeks previous quickly flashed into his mind when he forced Vilthavia to watch the execution of his companions at the hands of the gathered crowd of cheering Hillmen. “Of course I remember him. He and I have met once, just after he was brought in. A brave lad he seemed, despite his constant weeping and carrying about. He begged me then and there to release him and allow him to flee into the woods that lay down in the valleys but, alas, I could not accommodate his plea. Is he a flame of yours, I wonder?”
Elendis knew that, despite his serious tone he was mocking not just Vilthavia but also herself and her concern for him. She felt offended at the prince’s sly jest and suddenly felt compelled to defend Vilthavia and play up his bravery.
“He is my particular friend; and he is brave, though your words imply otherwise. His heart is a stout one! He too has survived many perils thus far. Many men in their full maturity could not have come as far with so little as has Viltahvia. He saved my life in the avalanche by plucking me out of the snow drift I was buried in. I might have suffocated to death were it not for him!”
“Is that so?” asked the prince with feigned interest.
“Aye, it is so. He is a worthy companion and I do not wish to see him fall into darkness here in this wilderness.”
“I hear you; but I asked you if he was currently a love-interest of yours just now. What is your answer to that?”
Elendis paused again. Was she in love with Vilthavia? She knew she sorely missed him and his companionship by now and desired greatly to see him. But was that really love? She had asked herself this question before their freedom had been taken from them by Broggha and his spearmen – especially when they had very nearly frozen to death in the ice cave, but she never answered herself. In truth she did not think so – not in the traditional sense of the word anyway. He had certainly told her that he loved her amidst the trouble and turmoil of the journey, but she also knew that suddenly finding one’s life in danger has a way of befuddling the mind and forcing irrational emotions to burst forth from the floodgates of the heart and propel the individual in question to blurt out spontaneous ejaculations of love that did not really exist. Was this the case with Vilthavia then? She had never quite solved that riddle yet. Now there was no time to do so. In answer to his question Elendis merely shrugged her shoulders, saying that they had become close friends over the last few weeks but that was all.
“Ah, I see,” said the prince. “Well, the boy seems to have strong feelings for you, I should say. He mentioned your name once, before he began his imprisonment but I had no knowledge of your fate at that time and thus had no information to impart to him. Yet I am sure he loves you greatly. How could he not concerning one so lovely and noble?”
“But what say you of this condition, lord?” she asked him in an attempt to veer away from such personal and invasive assessments of her form and feelings. “Will you arrange for the release of Vilthavia from this castle and provide him with an escort to safety?”
“My dear Elendis,” he replied reassuringly, “you may consider it done. I doubt that Broggha has any serious plans for the boy anyway, he being practically useless to him – just another mouth in the dungeon to feed. I shall see to it immediately. What is your next condition for me?”
“That is it?” she asked suspiciously. “You can arrange his release so soon and without complications?” Ermegil nodded his assent to this and indicated with a gesture that she should proclaim her next demand of him but Elendis wanted further reassurance from him and even asked for permission to accompany Vilthavia to the borders of this land to see for herself that he would be delivered into safety and not into some other unknown peril.
“That is quite impossible, Elendis,” he replied. “Unlike your young friend you are a valuable asset to Broggha, as I have already explained. He would never permit you to travel beyond the bounds of this compound even in my own company.”
“Not even if I am your wife?”
“No; not yet, at any rate. In time he will certainly allow it – nay, he will insist upon our departure after he has set his plans in motion against the king. But not until then.”
“But did you not already say that you were leaving this cursed place in a few day’s time with that rogue, Urlavia?”
“Aye, I shall depart for a short time – perhaps a fortnight at most. But I will return after that; indeed, I must! But do not press me on the matter any further. You have my word of honor that your little friend shall be released from his jail and escorted to safety.”
“An escort back up and over the mountains, you mean to say,” returned Elendis, stuffing words into his mouth.
“If the weather conditions allow for it, yes. But Broggha certainly will not risk the lives of his men in the high passes merely to accommodate the wishes of a young female prisoner, whatever her value to him. Yet rest assured he will be freed from his imprisonment and escorted to a place of safety – after our troth is plighted, you and I!”
“May I at the least be allowed to observe his departure? I ask not to set foot beyond the limitations already set for me but only to watch Vilthavia embark upon his freedom.”
Again the prince assured her that he would inquire about it to Broggha as soon as could be arranged. Knowing that it would be futile to push him further on the issue Elendis reluctantly acquiesced. But Ermegil suddenly seemed hard pressed for time and seemed eager to be gone, and he insisted on knowing what else she required of him.
“I desire to see him again so that I may relay this new turn of events to him in person; indeed, as soon as can be arranged. Vilthavia will almost certainly object to all of this, you may be assured. I know him well enough to predict his reaction to these tidings. He will refuse them and attempt to dissuade me from wedding with you because - ”
“ - because he loves you so?” said Ermegil mockingly as he finished her statement. He made a dismissive wave of his hand. “It is all part of growing up and into manhood. The boy must learn to shoulder such disappointments with fortitude and move on. There are many pretty girls in the world. He will learn to love again. You ought to assure him of it for his own good.”
“What I shall say to him will come from my own head and heart, not that of another,” she objected patiently.
“Indeed, my dear, you may tell him whatever you like. I will arrange for you and him to meet again, tis’ no problem. Perhaps this very evening.”
“Of course. What would you expect?” He said this with a slowly dissipating smile that transformed into a blank expression.
Elendis bowed her head slightly in gesture of silent gratitude. She eagerly looked forward to seeing Vilthavia again even if only to say goodbye to. Their reunion would be a joyful one, like the coming of a summer dawn after a night of storm. Yet it would not take long for the clouds of gloom to gather again once Vilthavia was informed of what was to come afterwards. She was sure there would be plenty of tears on both sides. It would be a bitter parting of the ways, as it would be unlikely that the two of them would ever meet again. She would soon return to the west and he the far east. The largest mountain chain in all of Middle-earth would divide them. She would have to remind, not only him but herself as well, that theirs had been two separate destinies that had been fortunate enough to have merged into one - if even for a short time. To be sure she knew that she would never forget him.
“And what of your final demand of me ere I leave you for a while?” asked the prince flatly as he began to move towards the exit. Elendis sought to stare down the prince with his solid cold gaze but found that she had to look away to the floor before unveiling her final thoughts on the matter to him. Her words stumbled over her tongue at the start before she found her traction.
“I wish that…I mean, I would hope that my lord will take into consideration my tender age after we are wed and consent to my wish that any prospects for children between us…that is to say, I would hope that we may agree to a forbearance of no less than two years before making the leap into parenthood together. I think it most improper and indeed unfair to bring a new baby into this world considering we all currently stand upon the brink of madness and impending war. We must be assured of a brighter future ere we risk the life of an innocent child…Do you not agree with this? My lord?”
Ermegil said nothing to this at first but merely stared dumbly at her from across the room. At length he grinned at her and even produced a laugh.
“Speak you of children so soon, my dear? Children, you say! Yet I am glad indeed to see that you are preparing for our future together already, that I must say! though I must confess that I dislike them considerably. Seldom have I encountered a child that was not noisome and unruly. But even so, they must be tolerated in their youth in order to secure a man’s legacy I suppose. But in this I can promise you nothing, Elendis, for although I have no desire at this point in my complicated life to bother with the thought of a child under my feet I would also make known to you of my insistence of a traditional marriage between you and I. I think you take my meaning in this, do you not?”
Elendis answered nothing to this. After a momentary silence between them she looked him square in the eye declaring that she could not agree to any possibility of wedlock between them unless all three of her demands were met. It was certainly a risky gamble for her to take and she knew it well. But something inside of her – perhaps her innate stubbornness inherited from her father – compelled her to push this man as far as she might in order to subconsciously stake her limitations to him so that he might begin to take her seriously at once. Right from the start she would show him that she could not so easily be manipulated like the meek and compliant Helgha could be.
“You disappoint me in this, Elendis,” he replied as he made a ‘tisk’, ‘tisk’ sound with his tongue to underscore his point. “I had hoped to see a more kindly gratitude from you to my offer. I propose to rescue you a second time, for have I not already done so once already upon the rooftops? – and all you can do is turn mule on me by hurling insults at me, maligning my character and finally issuing ultimatums and conditions upon me! I might say ‘fie upon you’, Elendis, daughter of Mardon, tis’ shameful conduct – but I will not do that. Nor will I return the insult by proclaiming, for instance, that Viltahvia’s future might as easily take a turn for the worse as opposed to the better should things turn sour between us. No, I will not say that either. It is uncivil discourse between a man and his betrothed. Nay, we are both Dunadan and will act according to our stations. Do you not agree?”
Any upper hand Elendis might have gained before in the matter now slowly faded away. She now knew that there was no longer any choice in the whole ordeal. She simply must wed with the prince in order to save, not only herself but the life of Vilthavia’s as well. Perhaps it might have been better not to mention Vilthavia at all. But she could not turn back now and doom them both to an evil darkness.
“You speak truly, my lord,” she rejoined with as much contriteness in her voice that she could muster for him. She forced a smile. “What shall be to come is beyond our control. I leave it to fate.”
“Then we are in agreement?”
“Yes – my first two favors being agreed to as discussed. I shall consent to be your wife, my lord.”
“Say rather,” he persisted, knowing he had conquered, “my ‘adoring and submissive wife’.”
She smiled with closed lips at this.
“As you wish it, my lord,” she answered him. He let that suffice for now.
“Very well then. My heart is not as warm as I had hoped before approaching you but the outcome pleases me at any rate. But now, pray you hang that golden necklace and locket round your neck in order to show me how much you appreciate my betrothal gift to you.”
This, at least, was something that she did not mind doing, for she was thrilled beyond words to reclaim it from oblivion. Elendis turned back to the bed where she had laid it aside and slowly placed it upon her neck. The silver star-crested medallion of old Arnor twinkled in the candle lit chamber.
“You are a lovely woman wearing so sparkling a treasure, my dear one,” he complimented her with seemingly genuine kindness. “I shall return hither ere the setting of the sun. You and I shall sup together, then – if you will, you shall be reunited with your young friend in order to let him down in your own gentle way. What say you to that?”
“It suits me well, lord.” She offered him a slight curtsy and bow even though it rankled with her. He left the chamber quickly after advising her to make good of her warm and cozy bed while she still had one to repose in. But Elendis felt the need to cast a glance out into the corridor ere she slept again but found that the door was locked from outside. Returning to her bed she fell quickly into a restless slumber that was troubled with dreams of an uncertain future. ~