But not tonight
|Summary:||A young woman comes to visit her lover, but something is amiss.|
|Author's notes:||This is a sequel to "A treat from the kitchen", still inspired by Sheraiah's "Hidden Agenda".|
Like so many times before during these past months, Anira entered and immediately sat on her knees, eyes cast down, just inside the door of the finest guest quarters Minas Tirith could offer, waiting for the Elf-king to acknowledge her presence. Usually, he would invite her to join him in whatever he was doing; eating, dressing, looking out of the window musing. But not tonight.
She lifted her gaze and saw what she had expected, and feared. The Elf-king lay immobile on the bed, eyes closed, and silent as if he was sleeping. True, she had seen him like this before, still and with his glorious hair spread over the pillow like the silk in the royal weavers' workshop. Usually, he would stir when she entered, and call her to his side. But not tonight.
Oh the things that he would do to her, that they would do together, with each other. Ever since that first time when she had come to offer him selected morsels, and herself, she had kept returning. Seldom was his desire for food, but that had ceased to worry her, or the others serving in the kitchen and in the halls. The appetite he displayed at king Elessar's table was enough. And afterwards, he would send for her. But not tonight.
So, was this where her dream ended? Her venture into the world of the fair folk, or, for that sake, the world beyond the stove and table? 'A fool I am,' she told herself, in a whisper as to not awaken him. If he were well, this foreign monarch would eventually have left the city, and be lost to her even if he would live forever. She sighed.
'And a greater fool for whispering.' If he were well, he would have heard her quietest sound as perfectly as if she was yelling at the top of her voice. He had explained it to her, when he was resting and at ease for once, that even the faint rustling of a forest mouse among wet leaves posed no difficulty to his ears. The cook would have liked that, to be able to hear the mice long before they found their way into bags and barrels.
'And what about earthworms?' she had wanted to ask, could elves hear them too? Or butterflies? Maybe flowers, as they grew? She had never taken the opportunity to ask them, and now it was maybe too late.
Poisoned, they said. Elves did not fall ill the way common people did now and then, but they could be harmed. Poison was a frequent choice among the assassins that not even the true king of Gondor had been able to root out entirely, and rumours said that suspicious-looking men had been sighted in the vicinity of the very citadel.
She imagined it would be much too easy to sneak some vile substance into the abundant loads of groceries brought in through the gates every day. The guardians of the white city were vigilant, she knew that, but they could not possibly check everything. And now her Elf slept far deeper than was safe, perhaps never to wake up.
It would not be her fault, not due to anything she had prepared. Since the incident with his son, she had taken to testing everything that was taken to him, but secretly, not to offend the royal cupbearer. And also not to be ridiculed by the other servants. Who would needlessly risk their life for their employer? Ashamed, she realized that she was not prepared to die for her rightful master, but she would gladly do it if it would save this foreign king. Her lover.
If his ailment was due to something put in his food, then why was she well? Had her willingness to sacrifice her health been unnecessary? Did the substance affect only elves? Who would do such a nefarious thing to any member of the fair folk? He was a fierce opponent in war, it was said, but to attack him like this was nothing but cowardice. There must be a cure! They must not succeed!
Hopelessness overtook her as she continued to regard his still form. She wept, but silently, again not to disturb him. As if he could hear! The thought that he might never again hear anything at all made her sob louder and she hid her face in her hands.
He had not moved when she looked up again, but he was still breathing. That, at least. Paler than usual he had become, she thought, and thinner. Delicate alabaster had replaced the marble of his limbs, or was that just a trick of the setting sun? What if he was fading before her very eyes? Did they not say that Elves could do that, dissolve into the very air when they grew weary of this world?
Waiting silently for a call that would not come became too much, and finally, for the first time since she ever entered these chambers of the Elf-king, she stood unbidden. A quick glance towards the bed. Still sleeping, chest heaving. Very slightly, but still. For several long seconds she remained standing, looking, and feeling increasingly guilty, as if she had overstepped her boundaries, which she had. She should have left the room as soon as she saw that her services would not be required. A good servant would have.
Instead, she had remained, out of love, not duty, and now she began slowly moving about the room. She rearranged a pillow here, lifted a curtain there, removed invisible dust from the windowsill. On tip-toes. She sighed. Was there hope still in her heart then?
How eager she had been to please him - she still was - and how insecure of her abilities. She remembered with a smile through tears how she had begged one of the courtesans to teach her the art of belly-dancing. The woman, an exotic-looking beauty, probably from Far Harad, had laughed at her, as had the others she approached. Too skinny she was, they explained, too young and without the wide hips and soft, rounded belly that so enticed men.
Perhaps an elf might be different. She had thought it then, and found support in an unexpected place. It was true that Melda, a retired courtesan that was once the Lord Steward Denethor's favourite, had laughed with the others, but eventually she had agreed to unveil some of her art. Only the basic movements, of course, the easy little things that would not disclose too much of the dancers' trade, and as much as could be imparted to a kitchen maid with no previous training.
Aníra had been disappointed at first, disheartened when she realized that it would take months and years to reach the level of the dancers, whose bodies seemed to float through the air as they slithered gracefully around the room. But she had tried, hard, and had some success. She had made no official performance, but the night she debuted in the Elf-king's quarters, her audience of one had been most appreciative.
Loud voices from the terrace below made her snap out of her day-dreaming, and she went to shut the door. Just then, music began to play, making her step out onto the balcony instead. Queen Arwen enjoyed music, and the royal couple would often have their musicians honour the setting sun by playing outside. The tune was sorrowful, the flute was weeping with her tonight, bemoaning the fate of King Aragorn's high guests.
She turned her head. Still no visible movement from the Elf-king. A little music would not harm him, and it brought her some small comfort. Leaving the door ajar, she went back into the room. She paused by the mirror and regarded her image. As many times before she wondered what he saw in a common woman like her, and a servant at that, and why she was chosen. She had tried to ask, but never got an answer.
Or maybe she had, after all. One night, a few weeks after their initial meeting, she had been near crying when she went to him. Evil tongues whispered that he saw nothing in her at all, that she was just easy game, the first stupid little girl to appear on his doorstep. Someone the supposedly tight-fisted monarch could bed without paying. It was just gossip, perhaps out of envy, but their words had sown seeds of doubt. Was it not true that the Elf-king only called for her in the dark hours? And that he preferred to... make love - she refused to use that other word even in her thoughts - to her from behind? So that he wouldn't have to look at her.
That night he had told her to light all the various lamps and candles in the room. While she did so, she felt his gaze follow her every step. He had undressed her under such careful scrutiny that it made her cringe. And then he had led her to stand in front of the mirror, with him right behind her. He had not given up his favourite position, but he looked into her eyes the entire time.
She smiled at the memory. Maybe she wasn't so bad after all, when she smiled. And he had liked it when she danced. Tentatively, she began moving her hips from side to side to the tune of the music. She picked up a forest-green sash from the chair by the mirror and draped it across her shoulders, then using it in her dance as if it were a veil. She closed her eyes. The scent of the material made it easy to pretend that he was there with her, watching. For a long time she stood there, remembering, not noticing when the musicians stopped playing.
The room was nearly dark now, and it was time to take farewell. She went slowly to the balcony and lifted her head towards the sky, where the first stars were beginning to appear, still faint in the last light of the fading sun. 'Undóme', the Queen called this time. Starry twilight. A time for dreams...
Reluctantly she shut the balcony door. It closed with a snap that echoed in the silence and made her jump.
"Come, lie by my side."
Had she heard his voice with her ears, and not only in her wishful mind? She held her breath.
It was him! He would survive, and at least one part of him was very vigorous already. She would still lose him, eventually. But not tonight.
Posted: July 13, 2006
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"Long live Thranduil, great Elf-king of Greenwood!"