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Starlight at Eventide  by Ariel

Starlight at Eventide

Chapter 6


It had been Mirabella's study, and then Menegilda's.  Now Esmeralda kept it.  Even when she'd given over the running of Brandy Hall to the new Master's wife, his mother had retained the room for her personal matters, her writing and the histories she maintained.  It had proven quite convenient when she'd had to return to running the Hall again after Estella had fallen ill. 

Merry noted the lines on his mother's face as she scanned the King's missive; the dates he would arrive, the requests for the supplies he would need, accompanied by a generous pouch of gold to pay for them, and the events he had planned for their stay.  Aragorn would not enter the Shire itself, but would remain encamped in the vast fields east of the Brandywine Bridge.  He'd need a steady supply of provender for men and animals.

"How good it will be to see your friend again," his mother said, scanning her calendar and penning the dates with her precise script.  "I won't deny being curious about this fellow myself, after all you and young Pip have told us about him."

"It will be a very important occasion, and a merry one, I hope.  Will we be able to accommodate his requests?" Merry asked.

"It's nearly a month away!  Of course we will, dear.  I could supply this list from our current larder and the harvest's not even in yet.  By the time this King comes back, we'll have more than enough to welcome him quite properly."

"You've worked very hard on this event, Mother.  I worry you've overextended yourself."

"Yes," she answered, "you do an awful lot of worrying."  She grinned and her eyes sparkled.  "Quite a bit more than is good for you."

"But I don't want you to overdo, mother.  This is quite an affair to be running single-handedly."

"I can do it quite well, thank you very much.  Besides, it's only for a little while longer.  Your Estella runs this Hall adeptly.  After all, I trained her for years before relinquishing the position.  Before you know it, she'll be back in the driver's seat and I'll be able to hand the reins to her again, only helping out when I am needed.  I can handle all that needs handling till then.  Now, you go take this note to your lady wife so she can keep abreast of the goings on.  You don't want to overwhelm her when she does resume her duties."

Merry knew better than to argue. 


He made his way to the Master's smial, which Esmeralda had relinquished to her son and his wife upon Saradoc's death.  It sat at the very top of Brandy Hill and its terraced front garden looked out over the fields and forests between Bucklebury and the Brandywine River.  In the sunny front room, he found Estella with Celandine and their young son Eadoc, now nearly ten months old.  The two youngest children, Seradoc and Peradic were with the nanny; Merry could hear their youthful voices raised in good-natured argument from the back of the hall.  Theoden, his eldest, would have been taking his lessons at that time of day.

"Merry!" Estella's eyes were positively shining as he bent to kiss her cheek.  She held their son, but the lad's eyes were on Celandine and he was fussing to get to her.  He might have gotten used to his mother's touch, but he still preferred Celandine for comfort.

"You won't believe what has happened, Merry!  I've finally started making milk again!  Celandine's been helping me encourage the baby to suckle and it's finally working!" 

Merry started at that.  "I didn't know that was possible," he stammered, unsure how to respond to the news.

"It takes a great deal of perseverance," said Celandine, taking Eadoc, "but your lady wife is nothing if not determined."

"I don't make much, but with a supplement of goat's milk or whatever Celandine can spare as she's trying to wean, I should be able to feed him myself."  Her thin face was radiant with the kind of satisfied joy Merry hadn't seen on it for many months.  "Isn't it wonderful?"

Merry tried to smile, as they seemed to be expecting him to.

"I've just never heard of such a thing, that's all," he answered. 

Celandine nodded to the master and hoisted the baby onto her hip.  "I must be going.  I'll return next time he's hungry.  Till then."  And she was out of the door with a wink.

"She's been wanting to try to have another child, Merry," said Estella.  "I've not weaned any of mine before they were three and I don't want to have to with Eadoc, but I can't ask for two more years from Celandine.  It would not be fair.  This will be an excellent solution if I can do it."

"But is it wise, love?  Considering your health and what you've just come through - wouldn't that be demanding too much of your body?"

She looked down, but her smile didn't dim.  It was the expression Merry had learned meant she would be immovable on the subject and that he might as well just get used to it. 

"My body is producing milk, so it must not be too taxing," she said simply.  "I've not got much yet, but it's a start and as I grow healthier, there will be more, I feel sure of it.  And…"  The smile faded a little.  "He's my last child, Merry.  I want to care for him as I ought."

Merry felt the weight Estella put into the statement.  He had seen the looks of quiet desperation on her face as she watched Celandine mothering Eadoc.  She'd understood the necessity, of course, and begrudged neither wetnurse nor baby, but he could sense the ache in her heart. 

Just as Diamond was an unlikely mother, Estella was as Yavanna incarnate.  She lived for her children; giving all that she had to them.  The boys respected and loved their father, but they adored their mother.  The softest word from her and they fell over themselves to do her bidding.  It was a power Merry suspected would have rivalled even old Gandalf's magic. 

"Stella," he began.  She'd caught the hesitant tone in his voice and settled back in the chair she'd been preparing to get out of.  "I had a chance to talk with Pippin the other evening."

Her expression sharpened and she sat up stiffly in the chair.  "How is the Thain?  And my friend, Diamond?"

Pippin might have criticized Merry and Estella's lack of verbal communication, but what he didn't understand was that there was very little they had ever needed to discuss aloud.  Merry could read volumes in his wife's merest glance, the way she held her body and the words she did not say between the few she did.  She'd already sensed what his and Pippin's conversation had been about and was both interested in and guarded about its outcome. 

"They are well.  Diamond sends her regards.  She wishes to come to visit before the month is out, if she may."

A nod.  Estella seemed to have known about the plans for the visit. 

"Pippin came to retrieve his mare, the chestnut one we bred to Roany."

Dismissal.  There was a matter at hand that was more compelling to her than the details of Merry's breeding programme.  He shuffled his feet and looked around.  The door was half open.  He shut it, turning back to Estella's raised eyebrow.  Then he paused at the window.  The birds were singing merrily in garden's late summer sun, but there was no one listening at the eves of Brandy Hall. 

"I've a little matter to discuss with you, my love, but I am not certain how to broach it."

She surprised him by speaking up first.

"Then may I?" she asked and folded her hands in her lap.  "Much has changed over the course of this year," she began.  "And though I've tried diligently to regain my health, I have suffered some more lasting effects from my illness.  I may never again look as I did.  I know you still love me, Merry, and I still love you, but I fear you may have lost your desire for me."  She held up her hand quickly as he moved to answer.  "I've tried to read your heart the way I've always done, but I can't see what is written there this time.  Just when I think I've made it out, you give me some sign that contradicts what I thought - so I must ask you outright.  Please think before you assure me, beloved.  I need no empty promises.  I'll not fault you or leave you, but I need to know the truth, plainly spoken."

She did not beg, but looked at Merry with sympathy and understanding.  It was a look that respected but also demanded respect and truth in return.  He knew this was part of why his sons obeyed her so diligently. 

"Then I will tell it to you, if I can, though the truth is, I don't entirely know why I haven't come to you."  He stuffed his hands in his pockets, fingering the oddments that he had collected over the course of the day: a pebble, a bit of string, an apple.  None of them made his mind any clearer on the subject.  "But what I do know is this; I've not lost my love for you.  You've become even dearer to me, if that's possible."  He sighed.  "It's not for anything you've done or become, but rather for the guilt I feel for the wrong I've done to you."

"Done to me?"

"I know you live for the children and that you'd've done no differently if you'd known the outcome of this last confinement beforehand, but, beloved, have you ever thought how I felt?  I had to watch you slowly dying in my arms, knowing I'd put you there in that deathbed."

Surprise.  Merry could see it was something she hadn't considered.  She blinked, frowned in deep thought, opened her mouth and then shut it again. 

But there was more to it.  In talking with Pippin, he had come to realize something he hadn't even been willing to admit to himself and had withheld from his cousin, but this lady, his dutiful and devoted wife, deserved the whole truth. 

"But I've got to be honest with you and myself," he continued, taking her hand, his face red with shame.  "Guilt keeps me from your bed, as does my fear you're not yet well enough yet to endure me, but…" he hesitated, drew a breath and pushed on.  "You were so ill and frail.  Of course I did not think of pleasures with you then, but it is even now an effort for me to do so.  Perhaps some part of me does mourn the loss of your softness, the gentle curve of your breast and richness of your mouth."  He bowed his head.  "Forgive me."  He placed a kiss on the back of her hand.  "I know it is a petty thing, and I'll learn to desire you again because I love you, but I've got to have time to grieve, it seems, to beg your forgiveness for what I've done to you and to rekindle that part of our love." 

He looked at her, but could not read the expression on her face.  She was not hurt, nor angry, but taking in his every word.  She seemed to be assessing this new information, expanding her mind to take it in and accept it.

"That makes a great deal of sense," she said after a long silence.  She reached up and gently stroked his cheek and the gesture pained him more than if she had slapped his face.  He knelt and laid his head in her lap, feeling love and regret wash over him. 

"I know that was hard," she continued, "but thank you for telling me the truth."  Her face was still pensive and her back still straight, but she cradled him as she might have one of the boys, protectively, effortlessly, as the rock they had all once clung to.  Merry crept closer and wrapped his arms around her waist. 

But she was so thin, so very frail.  He could feel her ribs and her backbone hard under his hands and hear her faint heartbeat.  She had gained more flesh in these last months of recovery, but she was still delicate and lean, a body assaulted by fire and pain.  This was no longer the maiden he had taken in the sunlit corn. 

"Most couples have years to grow accustomed to the changes age brings," she said thoughtfully.  "The changes are gradual and both husband and wife have some cause for disappointment.  I've aged 20 years in one and you're still as sweet as the day we married."

Merry laughed then but tears sprang to his eyes.  "I've grown a little greyer since then, my love, but no wiser it seems.  You deserve a better husband than I've proven to be."

Her arms tightened fiercely around him and Merry marvelled at the strength still in her frame.  "No," she said with absolute conviction.  "You're the only hobbit I've ever wanted, and the only one I'll ever love.  I'd've left your bed had you asked and never sought your touch again.  I'd've done it because I love you, but I won't ever love another.  Don't ask me to.  That's the only thing I'd ever refuse you." 

Unwavering determination.  Merry understood her perfectly.  She meant every word of it. 

"Then I'll never ask you to.  But I can't come to you until I've let go of these regrets.  You deserve to have my whole heart without them."

She pushed him back and held his face in her hands, staring into it, thoughtful again.  "I don't think I really appreciated how badly I frightened you, Merry.  Diamond and Esmeralda and even the children have told me I did, but I don't think I quite understood before."  She stroked the brown mark on his brow.  "I need to heal that scar, I see it now.  I need to regain your trust."

"You've done your part already by getting well, beloved.  You live; the rest of the work is mine.  Though I'll beg your forgiveness and ask for your patience while I try to speed some sense into this slow pate.  Will you grant me it?"

She nodded and smiled, but her mind was no longer on his words.  Her eyes fixed piercingly on him and Merry felt a sudden strange thrill, as if he was seeing into a room of her being that she had never before held open to him.  It was vast and strange and within it he felt he would be as a feather at the mercy of a mighty wind. 

"I will," she said absently, and then the depths in her eyes were veiled, but not gone.  He knew they were there now.  He had seen the infinite in her and would never again view her in the same light.



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