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Starlight at Eventide  by Ariel

Starlight at Eventide

Chapter 1

The face that stared at Estella Brandybuck out of the mirror looked ghastly.  Wisps of straggling brown were all that was left of her once thick, umber curls and cheeks that had once sported the bright rose of a maiden's blush were pale and hollow.  Even her eyes had faded, their whites yellow from illness, and there were dark hollows around them, giving her the appearance of a macabre skeleton.  If she'd had the strength to, she'd have dashed the looking glass to the floor in horror.

"I'm here, love.  Don't tax yourself.  Mother has made a bonnet for you."

"Bonnet?"  Estella now realized others were in the room with her.  "Why do I need a bonnet?  Where did my hair go?" 

"It fell out, my dear," said a kind, motherly voice.  "Merry wants to take you out into the sunshine for some fresh air - now that you're on the mend at last."

"I've been ill?" she asked, wonderingly.

Merry knelt before her and gently took the mirror from her hand.  His face was much more lined than Estella remembered it and pinched with pain and fear.  "Very ill, my love," he said softly, "but you're doing much better now.  The doctor says all you need now is fresh air and gentle exercise to get your strength back."

Memories were clicking back into some semblance of their proper order.  She had sat on this bed before today and her husband had fed her porridge.  Before that there had been the high, gurgling cry of an infant followed by silence.

"The baby?"  Fear made her heart flutter and pain lanced her chest.

"He's doing wonderfully, beloved," Merry answered quickly.  "Celandine has been nursing him and he's recovered splendidly.  You can see him when you're better.  We… we can't let you have too much excitement right now.  The doctor has forbid it."

Estella could hear the words her husband was speaking but they didn't make sense to her.  "Forbid me from seeing my own child?"  Her attempt at indignation came out breathless and feeble.  "I want to feed him," she argued.  "Why must Celandine do it?"

"Because your milk dried up weeks ago, dear," came the older voice.  Now Estella recognized Esmeralda.  Her mother in law was tying the bonnet under Estella's chin.  She was smiling, but there was worry her eyes too.  "The fever took both your hair and your milk.  But Celandine's nursling was starting to take biscuits and she had more than enough for little Eadoc."

"Eadoc?" she whispered, and then the rest of what the lady had said filtered through her confusion.  "Weeks?"

"Months, actually."  Merry slid his arms under his wife's legs and, supporting her back, lifted her as if she were no more than a babe herself.  She felt dizzy. 

"I've been ill for months?" she repeated, laying her head against her husband's chest as he walked.  She could hear the thrumming beat of his strong heart and burrowed against it as best she could.  It was a sound that comforted her and made her feel safe.  She reached up to touch his face, but hesitated when she caught a glimpse of her hand; thin, translucent, with the purple tracery of veins like spiders webs running over it.  "Months?" 

Memories continued to fall into place and, as they did, Estella began to understand what had happened.  The baby was born early and sickly, but she had not been able to so much as hold him before falling ill herself.  The doctor was called and the last lucid memory she had was of his familiar voice saying that he knew what ailed her and that he would do everything he could.

Threading through every fragment of consciousness thereafter was Merry; his rich voice soothing her through fever, his broad hands washing her body with a tenderness that belied his strength, and his arms holding her as he slept.  He must have lain beside her every night, for she remembered the drumming of his heartbeat as an enduring rhythm in her ear.  It had kept her anchored to this world.  Her hand fell to his chest and spread wonderingly over the fine cotton of his shirt.  The steady beat was still there, still constant and still strong.  She sighed and closed her eyes.

"I love you, Merry Brandybuck."

And the great heart skipped a beat under her hand. 




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