Her red box of memories

Tidings Travel South – Part 3

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Leoba’s seat in the dining room was conspicuously empty that evening; a tray had been taken up to her room. Even the children had picked up on the sombre mood and were less than their usual cheerful selves.  They ate their baked fish perfunctorily, including Taron who, though he eyed his supper with suspicion, managed to ignore the pearly white eyeballs for once and eat most of a plateful without mishap. As soon as they were done they begged to be set free and scampered off into the garden, all of a sudden as carefree as only the very innocent can be.

The adults hovered over the cheese and wine; a sprightly and quaffable red.  Carandil pushed his chair back from the table and loosened his belt a notch.  Culanir leaned forward and skewered a lump of the buttery, nutty sheep’s cheese with his dagger. Serindë winced a little; she wished he would use a cheese knife.

“So, did you manage to get everything you needed to do done this afternoon?” Serindë asked her brother-in-law. She was determined to break up the weighty silence, if only with small talk.

“Aye. That I did.” Culanir was in dour monosyllabic mode, ably assisted by his fifth glass of the Lebennin vintage. He had had a long hard day and had reached the point where the long-awaited and much-delighted-in soak in a bath and the dinner and the wine were all catching up with him.

His mind ranged back over his meeting that afternoon.  After a long time closeted in Carandil’s study with Leoba that morning, she had gone to walk in the city in search of damp solitude. Culanir had bidden a quick greeting to Serindë and filled her and Carandil in on the sorry news before he rescued his patient horse from the street outside and took his official letters to the Pelargir Legate.  He was made to wait a long time for the audience, kicking his spurs in the dusty corridors of the citadel where he was reduced to counting cracks in the plaster. Countless flunkies were announced in and out and Culanir had been on the point of absconding in search of small ale and a pasty when the door-keeper bobbed up in front of him. “If you’re ready Captain, the Legate can see you now”.

Still stinking like a wet sheep, Culanir had obsequiously made his introductions. “News from the north Sir”.

The Legate laid the papers on his desk, unopened. “Tell me the gist of it then Captain.  What do they want this time?”

“Yes Sir. The High Commander needs a company of good Pelargir soldiers to march north into Eriador with the rest of the army.”

His superior interrupted: “I can’t spare any and certainly not for that long. Tell him that.”

“Sir?”

“We are stretched already here. The citizens are shaky. Still getting used to seeing Elves and even some Orcs out in the open. Only a handful of years since corsairs last came rampaging up the river. Do I need to elaborate?”

“No Sir. I respectfully suggest that you read the dispatches Sir”. Whereas what Culanir had really been thinking was more along the lines of: ‘I cannot believe I am standing in front of this pompous little peacock listening to this shit, still covered in three days’ filth, wishing I had the wherewithal to soothe Leoba’s broken heart. Whilst all the while my men are marching off on campaign ahead of me: Lys is good, very good, but he is not me and he is not a southerner and, by the Horn of Oromë, he does not know their ways and does not love my men as I do.’  He clenched his fists tight by his side and bit his lip. There was no glory in providing messenger-services. There was no glory in death either, he though sadly.

“When do you leave, Captain?”

“I ride to Minas Tirith tomorrow, at reveille. I will need to take your reply with me – in writing” Culanir replied.

“Understood.  Come back late afternoon and there will be a response waiting”.

Culanir saluted and beat a hasty retreat.  In the relative privacy of the street outside he had let his frustration get the better of him; taking the innocent barracks wall to task with his fist.  The army simply could not afford for him to return to Minas Tirith without a promise of more men to follow.  He hoped that the letters penned by his High Commander were sufficiently insistent because weeks of to-ing and fro-ing navigating choppy small-scale political waters was the last thing anyone needed in this current climate; certainly not Culanir who, notwithstanding the stiffness from his long hard ride, was aching to get back in the saddle and out on the road under arms. 

His stomach grumbled; the cold cinnamon bun he had eaten before leaving Carandil’s had barely made a dent in his empty stomach. He knew of an exceptional little bake-shop just a stone’s throw away, down Squitchey Lane and up the small hill into Littlegate Street, and the thought of one of their famous lamb pies had him hot-footing it over the cobbles. 

In happy possession of his lunch, Culanir then made his way up to the square at the top of the road where he perched on a convenient mounting block, to watch the world go by and to enjoy his repast. A weak sun emerged at last but teased him mercilessly, flirting with the tendrils of cloud and smudging shadowy fingers across his face.  Nonetheless, he lapped up what rays he could and savoured every crumb of pastry and every last drop of gravy. For a brief moment only the simple things seemed to matter.  

As he watched, he saw the door open in the long stone wall opposite and a lone female figure emerged, swathed in a demure veil and dark surcote, with flashes of bright leaf green at wrist and hem.  Culanir blinked and looked again and as she turned, he realised it was Leoba. Leoba, issuing from the House of the Daughters of Nienna. Culanir wiped the last crumbs from his beard as he leapt to his feet.  Somehow it didn’t seem an appropriate day to be yelling at his sister, even across an empty square but he ran to catch up with her as she threatened to disappear down towards Cornmarket.

“Wait! Wait up!” Culanir hollered after her. “Do you want anything to eat?”

“No, no thanks. I’m not at all hungry.” she replied.

He took her arm and they walked on together. He stole a look at Leoba’s face. Her eyes were red and swollen and he could tell from the way she held herself, rigid as steel, that she was only just keeping herself together.

“What were you doing there then?  With the Moaning Maidens?”

“Don’t call them that, Culanir. The Daughters are good women, truly.  I went to talk to them about Dirk, what else did you think?”

Good at praying but not so good at being women, being either virgins or dried up widows, Culanir thought.  Devotion for him was a natural part of life, a shirt he wore without thinking, like a second skin. But he was first and foremost a red-blooded soldier and that part of him thought the Daughters of Nienna to be a criminal waste of womanhood. 

“For a moment it did cross my mind that you were petitioning for admittance.  Leoba, please promise me that you won’t do anything rash.”

“I’m not going to pledge my undying commitment to Nienna if that’s what you’re worrying about. You can rest easy on that count.  I wanted to ask them. You see I don’t know what state Dirk was in when..” Her voice faltered a little as she struggled to continue. “I don’t know how to explain.”

“Try me” Culanir said gently.  “I can pick my way through quite a tangle if you need me to.”

They stopped by the water conduit and Leoba looked furtively up and down the street. It was empty in the siesta hour but she knew full well that windows had keen ears.  She dropped her voice down very low.  “You know the troubles he had?”

Culanir nodded; how could he forget Dirk’s little experiment with the dark-side: it had nearly cost him good men,

“He wrote to me – his last letter” she paused again, swallowing back her tears. “He told me he was ‘utterly black’ and that he needed to claim his true heritage ‘without shame or regret’. What if. What if he didn’t conquer that?”

“Oh Leoba, of course he did. He sacrificed himself to save his fellow knights.  You don’t get braver or more true-hearted than that.”

“That’s the other thing though.  What if the sacrifice was deliberate?  There’s something else he wrote; I know his letter word for word. He wrote that he ‘must be lost forever in order to do the good that was his destiny’.  Culanir, Dirk wrote to bid me goodbye. Somehow he knew months ago that he was going to do something like this.”

The unspoken word hung threateningly between them. Neither of them dared to ask outright ‘was it suicide?’ but Culanir knew what she was suggesting and Leoba knew that he understood.  Culanir didn’t want to heed the seed of doubt that had been sown in his mind.  It didn’t tally in any way with the dispatches received in Minas Tirith or with the brave words that Lysandros had spoken but then he wondered how well the authors of the reports had really known Dirk. Not for the first time that day, Culanir wondered what on earth he was supposed to tell his sister. 

“What did the Daughters of Nienna say?” he asked.

“They wouldn’t pass judgement.”

“But they offered prayers and intercession?”

“Of course” she replied.

Culanir gave a wry smile, which he quickly corrected.

Leoba went on: “I keep thinking that if I had written back to him, if I hadn’t let him go, if..”

“Don’t go there,” Culanir begged, “and don’t torture yourself with what might have been.  That way lies madness.  Dirk was a good man and I believe he mastered his demons; you need to believe that too.”

With such words of small comfort as he could muster, Culanir walked with Leoba back to the house. She climbed the stairs to her room, and as Culanir watched her go he thought how much older and fragile she suddenly looked; a gossamer thread in the midst of a storm.

Written by leobavorima

February 25, 2013 at 2:58 pm

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