The Edge of the Water - Part One
THE EDGE OF THE WATER
Aliana was only a partial believer in fate. She knew all the old stories, and she knew that fate could guide the way for a few chosen ones: kings and queens, elves and ringbearers. But, she thought as her horse plunged forward through the darkness, the rest of the people were mainly left to their own devices, save for the great, general sweep of history. Fate did not care much for common soldiers or for young wives, and it certainly did not bother itself with silly little girl-scribes. The night air rushed swift and cold to her face as she pressed her heels harder into her mount. The dark contours of the horizon seemed to heave and sway before her. She closed her eyes: she knew all this, and it was because of this that she knew that things might have turned out differently.
It had began the summer before.
Aliana had been in a small room somewhere to the side of the main hall, hunched over a dry manuscript on brittle parchment at a broad old wooden table which took up most of the space. She had begun to copy the Westron words on to a fresh scroll in her own neat, spare hand when her brother's wife entered to fetch her for a midday meal.
"You're a prisoner in here," Trewyn noted uninflectedly. Aliana looked up with a slight start; the other woman's soft leather shoes had made no sound on the stone floor.
"It's not so bad," Aliana replied, rising and gathering up her things. "Quiet and cool."
"Whatever you say," said Trewyn, with the faintest hint of a smile. She was right, of course; the little room resembled nothing so much as a cell. Not that Aliana would admit to this-- that would spoil the game. She blinked as she followed Trewyn out into the warm sunlight.
She had spent her summers at Edoras for almost as long as she could remember, but the view from the top of the hill never failed to astonish her. Below, there lay the miles upon miles of open, rolling plains, edged on one border by the weathered visages of the mountains which challenged the open sky. As a little girl she had believed that the whole world could be seen from the steps of Meduseld.
"Yesterday was a baking day," Trewyn was saying, "so we've got some nice fresh bread." Unlike Aliana, Trewyn was a classic Rohirric beauty: tall and fair, with a slender and deceptively fragile build. Her long blond hair was bound modestly at the back of her neck, as befit a young wife. "Not at all like what they've been feeding you in prison," she thought fit to add.
When Auren had wed Trewyn nearly a year ago, Aliana had had some doubts; this quiet, distant and unlearned young woman seemed so different from Aliana's lively, witty elder brother. In time though, she had come to discover that beneath Trewyn's placid surface lay a deep intelligence and a fierce love for her husband-- not to mention a wry sense of humor.
Auren's and Trewyn's little house was not half a mile from the Golden Hall, in a small cluster of dwellings and outbuildings where several Riders of the Mark lived with their wives and children. The women's route took them through a series of open, grassy areas where soldiers often trained. Today, an older man whom Aliana recognized as a captain was guiding about two dozen Riders through swordhandling exercises.
"There's Deomar," Trewyn said, pausing as she recognized her own brother among the group. At that moment, Deomar spotted Trewyn and Aliana, and the angular young man stopped and turned towards them, a lopsided smile on his lightly bearded face. His practice partner took the opportunity to deliver Deomar a playful smack on the shins with the flat of his blade, to the extreme displeasure of the victim and the good-natured laughter of the other men.
"Easily distracted," Aliana remarked mildly. "Sign of a poor warrior." Trewyn raised an eyebrow and may even have smiled, this time. The game was still on.
After pretending to strangle his partner, Deomar set down his sword and walked across the grass to where the two women were.
"Aliana here seems to think you're easily distracted," Trewyn said by way of greeting.
"Observant is more like it," her brother responded, clasping Trewyn's hands, then lightly ruffling Aliana's dark hair. "Everyone knows women don't belong on a field of battle," he added with a sly grin.
"If you said that to the Lady of Ithilien, she'd probably run you through."
While Aliana was no shieldmaiden, herself, the clang of steel against steel and the smells of horses and sweat and determination were utterly familiar to her. In the summers after her mother had died, her father had holed himself up with what seemed to be miles and miles of parchment in those same little chambers of the hall. Auren, Aliana, and their younger brother Ceorth were largely left to their own devices, living almost like wild children for some time. But after they had tired of rolling down hills and endless games of hide-and-go-seek, they had all begun to gravitate towards the places where the men were: the men, with their heavy armor and fierce weapons and magnificent horses. Inevitably the soldiers took notice of the three dark-haired children hanging about, and a few of them would beckon them over for a closer look at whatever they were doing, whether it was maintaining their gear or crafting arrows. The Riders welcomed the two young boys as future cavalrymen and, they believed, kindly humored the young girl who came along with them. Naturally she would want to keep close to her brothers in this time of fresh grief.
A few of the younger men, however, took her more seriously. They noticed her keen eye and steady bearing, and would occasionally place a bow in her hands when Auren and Ceorth were being shown the same skill. So it was that between the counsel of the soldiers and the tutelage of their father, the scribe, Aliana and her brothers spent the summers with a weapon in one hand and a quill in the other. They grew up with hands that were, strangely enough, both callused and ink-stained.
The boys' hands were more on the callused side, these days, with Auren now a full-fledged Rider and Ceorth looking to follow the same path. And Aliana's hands tended more towards the ink-blotched side, now that she was assisting her father with the Archive. At present she spent all her summer days copying and translating and sorting and restoring. It was unusual, her father told her, for a woman to work as a scribe, but the King had approved. The King, after all, knew of women doing things far less conventional than mixing ink and sharpening quills.
"We're due a rest in a short while," Deomar was saying.
They agreed to make a picnic of it. Trewyn proceeded ahead to the house to gather the food, assigning Aliana the task of fetching water. Deomar returned to his practice, and Aliana meant to start in the direction of the stream. However, she found herself momentarily transfixed by the actions of the men, the rapid back-and-forth dances of thrusts and parries they performed, the rhythmic ringing of the blades.
She was thinking on the summers she had spent as a strange little hanger-on of the soldiers, when she noticed Deomar's partner, a lean, sandy-haired young man she had never seen before today. As he sparred there was something about him which made him stand out from the others. While he did not seem quite as shrewd a fighter as some of the older, more seasoned men, there was an easy grace to his movements-- a fluidity in the way he stepped back while deflecting a blow, his lack of hesitance as he lifted his blade. While Aliana had never learned a great deal about swordplay, some part of her instincts told her that this one might just turn out to be a warrior of the highest order.
He must have noticed her staring, for he looked straight at her and smiled. She remembered his bit of immaturity in his play with Deomar-- it was predictable that a man with a streak of irreverence like that be somewhat forthright with young women, as well. She saw, however, that this young man's look was more inquisitive than flirtatious. He didn't wink. He held her gaze until she looked away, embarrassed.
Aliana turned to go in the direction of the stream. It seemed that her feet had only crunched down on the dry grass for a few paces when she felt a light tap on her shoulder. She turned around, expecting Deomar.
"Are you taking an interest?" said Deomar's young partner, instead. Up close, Aliana could see that he was very young indeed-- a boy, really, not much older than herself. He wore a hint of a beard on his squarish face, and his wide-set, pale-blue eyes were candid and unapologetic.
"An interest in what?" she asked. There were beads of sweat on his forehead, and there was a pronounced rise and fall to his chest; he had been working hard.
"Fencing, of course," he replied. "Deomar tells me you're Auren's sister?" He paused and studied her with that same candor, taking in her dark hair, rounded face and plain, somewhat ink-stained dress. "I think I can see the resemblance."
"That's right. And it was rude of me to stare. I'm sorry."
"That's all right," he laughed. He had a strong, pleasant laugh, his voice a bit low for what his age seemed to be. "In fact, most of them probably like having someone to show off to."
Aliana smiled. This was another game of back-and-forth, one she had played with a few other young men before. She was about to say, And do you like having someone to show off to? but stopped herself for some reason.
"My name is Aliana," she said simply, and held out her hand.
"Relian," the young man replied, taking it. His palm was rough. His grip was a little firmer than the one most men would use to grasp a lady's fingers. As she stepped forward, one of the pieces of parchment she had been working on dislodged from her skirt pocket and fluttered to the ground, a yellow-winged moth. "What's that?" he asked, releasing her hand and stooping to retrieve it for her.
"Oh, this?" she said, accepting it with a nod of thanks. "Old records I have to copy-- boring things-- see?" She lazily unfolded the sheet and held it before him so he could examine the straight, unremarkable columns of figures and remarks.
Relian blinked and cleared his throat.
"I can't read," he said.
Aliana refolded the parchment, awkward as he was. Callous to brandish it about in such a way, she thought-- she should know better, by now. But instinct and reflex cut through her embarrassment, and as she slipped the document back into her pocket, she responded in the only way she knew how when such a statement was made:
"I'll teach you."
He furrowed his brow, then laughed. "No, you wouldn't. You don't even know me." When she said nothing, he grew serious once more. "You would?" he asked.
She nodded, smiled her sister-in-law's faint almost smile. "I would. Everyone should know how to read."
"Yes, but-- when would there be time? You don't even know me," he repeated, shaking his head.
"I know. Just think about it. I'm here all summer."
"Where's that water, my dear?" Relian and Aliana both turned at the sound of Trewyn's voice. She was standing with Deomar, a basket of food on her arm. Time to sit and eat.
That had probably been the beginning of things.