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There were no dreams to terrorise Haleth that night. The entire time passed, in the blink of an eye, as dark and empty as the Void.
And then the headache began.
Haleth groaned and opened her eyes to slits. The shutters were closed but the morning light was still far too bright. Her head felt like all of the dwarfs of the Lonely Mountain were using it for an anvil. Some enterprising fellow had gotten the idea of using her mouth as a slag heap.
She tried to remember where she was. After some dizzy associations and vague recollections she realised that she was somewhere in Bree. The last, dim memory she had was of being annoyed with Inglor. Try as she might, she could not remember how she had gotten into bed.
Haleth gave up the puzzle of the previous evening, confident that she would remember as soon as the dwarfs stopped mining her head. In the meantime, the room was quiet. No one was actively trying to kill her. Going back to sleep seemed like the best option. She sailed towards oblivion.
Trouble waited patiently at the end of the bed; blond, of course. She groaned and rolled over, pulling the pillow over her head. Inglor had given her many sleepless nights. At the moment Haleth was miserable enough to not want him nearby. So, of course, there he was. Maybe if she was pathetic enough he would get the hint and go away.
"Haleth, I need you to wake up." It sounded bad. Worse than the time he had dropped her into the pit in the dragon's den.
"Go away, Inglor," Haleth growled. She winced and immediately wished she had kept her silence.
"I mean it, Inglor," she whispered viciously. "I will do you grievous bodily harm if you don't let me sleep."
"Haleth, the palantir is gone."
She said nothing, her head still tucked protectively under the pillow. The silence continued until Inglor must have believed she had gone back to sleep.
"You lost it. You go and look for it. I'll be here when you find it."
"It's most unusual, Haleth," he said, sounding like a lost pup. "I need your help. Please get up."
That voice again. It held the warmth of spring and the promise of summer nights. Empty promises, but Haleth was a sucker for them every time.
"Fine, fine," she groaned. "Just give me some time."
Cursing inwardly, Haleth pushed the pillow off of her head. She struggled to sit upright while gingerly supporting her head in both hands. She winced when she touched her bruised jaw.
A strong arm was suddenly around her, steadying her. Something cold and smooth was placed against her parched lips.
"Drink this." Inglor's voice was soft but commanding.
"What is it?" Haleth's churning stomach balked at the suggestion.
"It will remedy your condition."
They sat on the bed together, Inglor's arm around Haleth, his fingers at her lips, his face close to hers. In spite of the headache, Haleth caught herself wishing they could remain there for a long while. Digusted with herself, she pushed the vial away.
"I don't want this particular condition remedied," she whispered.
Inglor studied her carefully, as if trying to determine if she was still drunk.
"I need the pain to remind me why I shouldn't drink so much," she mumbled. The explanation did not sound nearly as reasonable as it had inside her head.
"But I need your help," he insisted, offering the vial again.
"I'll help you, Inglor," she leaned back and smiled wearily at him, wincing slightly as she shifted her weight. "But the hangover is my own fault and I've got to get through it without your help. I cannot simply look to you every time something goes wrong."
"But you never have," he pointed out, bemused.
"I will not become dependent on you," she explained.
"I cannot believe you would ever be dependent on anyone," he said. Was Haleth imagining things or was there a grace note of bitterness in his voice? The headache must be distorting her hearing.
"Inglor," Haleth drew away from him and swung her legs over the edge of the bed, "You're not making this any easier."
"I am trying to make it easier," his voice held the hot edge of anger. "You are being perversely stubborn."
Shocked at his tone and the anger sparking in his eyes, Haleth shrank away from him.
"Haleth," he said in a calmer voice. He moved next to her on the bed, cradled her bruised face in his hand and forced her to look him directly in the eyes. "There is something very odd about the theft of the palantir. You should be at the best of your abilities to investigate and, at the moment, you are not. The more time we waste arguing, the further away the thief will get. I need your help now. Not when you've recovered."
He studied her unsteady gaze and the doubtful look on her face.
"Please?" he finally asked.
"Oh, fine." She took the offered potion and swallowed it in one gulp.
It tasted as bad as the hangover had felt. Her stomach did a quadruple backflip as a flash of white-hot pain exploded behind her eyes.
Haleth shuddered violently, waves of revulsion wracking her body. Inglor held her until the tremors passed.
After a longer time than was necessary, she reluctantly let go of him. Her stomach felt better but her head still ached.
"I need to get dressed," she said, scanning the floor for her clothing. None of it was visible.
"Yes," he agreed, oblivious to the unspoken request for him to leave.
Haleth suddenly wondered how she had become undressed. Maybe it was best to not ask; she had been in a tub. Surely she couldn’t have walked through the Inn without her clothing?
"Go wait in the hall," she growled. "I'll be there as soon as I'm dressed."
Inglor gave her a look that said he did not trust her to remain awake. While sleep was still tempting, Haleth knew that Inglor would immediately awaken her; immortals could be incredibly persistent.
Again she checked the floor for her clothes but they remained stubbornly absent. Haleth was beginning to think the thief had filched them, too, when she spied them folded neatly on the footof the bed.
After several minutes of struggling and grumbling, she pulled on her boots, smoothed down her rumpled apparel and stumbled into the hall.
As promised, Inglor was waiting for her.
"Where was the palantir the last time you saw it?" Haleth asked, determined to be all business.
"In my room," Inglor answered, looking at her as though she had taken a stupid potion instead of a hangover remedy.
"And that is where?" she asked.
"In here," he opened the door of the room next to hers.
It was almost identical to the room in which she had awakened. A bed filled one side of the room, a table and two chairs crammed on the opposite side. An open window let in the light.
Haleth closed the shutters and surveyed the room.
"They took your pack?"
"But they left gold for it? Thieves who pay for their theft. Polite people these Bree folk."
"No," Inglor’s tone betrayed his confusion as Haleth’s sarcasm sailed over his head. "Those are the coins from my pack."
Haleth fell into a chair and rubbed her forehead. The hangover remedy was not working as well as she had been led to expect. Maybe Inglor had given her the wrong potion? He meant well but he was so entirely clueless that she would not put it past him.
"So they took your pack with the palantir and all your things but left your money," she said.
"That would appear to be the case."
Haleth sourly reflected that Inglor should get an award for being utterly unhelpful.
"But why would a thief steal your things and the palantir and leave your gold?" She had to be missing something.
"It does seem most unusual," he agreed. "That's why I need your help. I thought maybe it is a human custom?"
"Not any that I know, and I would know," she growled. Something else occurred to her.
"Where were you when this happened?" she asked. "Did you sleep through the whole thing?"
"No," Inglor admitted.
She looked suspiciously at the made up bed.
"Did you sleep here at all?" she asked.
"No." He looked slightly uncomfortable, like his conscious was bothering him but that was impossible. The elf never did anything that would make his conscious reproach him. Haleth could not imagine him having a nefarious idea.
She silently waited for him to say more, but it quickly became evident that Inglor would not volunteer any further information.
"So where did you sleep last night?" she asked sharply.
"Well, after I put you to bed," he began.
"Wait!" Haleth held up one hand and supported her head with the other. "You put me to bed?"
That would explain the folded clothes. Haleth wondered if she should ask him about the circumstances behind this and then decided against it. It probably did not matter and his explanation would only confuse her. She might ask him where he had found her. Later.
"Very well," she said. "You put me to bed. Then what?"
"I watched you for some time to make certain you had not been badly hurt." Well, that sounded interesting. What had happened last night?
"When I was certain you were fine, I went for a walk."
Well, that fit. Given access to a comfortable bed for the first time in weeks it was a given that Inglor would not use it.
"I met one of the ladies from the common room."
"One of the ladies?" Haleth asked. Competition. The green-eyed monster raised its ugly head..
"Yes, there were several of them. Don't you remember?"
"Tell me later," she grunted. "You went for a walk and found a lady."
"Yes. She wanted to walk with me and look at the stars."
Stars. Of course. The room was suddenly hot.
"We walked into the fields around the town to see the stars better. But then she turned her ankle."
How original, the damsel in distress routine. Haleth fought to keep her expression neutral. Fortunately, Inglor did not seem to notice her deepening frown.
"I offered to go for help, but she did not want to be left alone. She claimed there are brigands in the woods."
"So you offered to carry her," Haleth said.
"Yes. How did you know?" he asked.
"Never mind. I'll explain it later," she snapped.
"I carried her back towards the town, but her breathing became quite heavy. I was worried for her well being, so I suggested that we find some water."
Haleth knew that water would never cure the fire the so-called lady had been feeling. Not that Inglor would ever know it.
"Haleth, are you well? You look somewhat flushed."
"Just go on with your story," she said through gritted teeth.
"She directed me to a stream where I put her down and then..." he stopped.
"And then?" Haleth asked. Her voice held the cold edge of steel.
Haleth cradled her chin in her hand and rested her elbow on the table. She winced as pain blossomed in her jaw but her full attention was trained on Inglor.
"I was worried that she would catch a chill, so I had to hold her close. And then..."
"Then?" Haleth's voice could have split a diamond.
"Then she became rather agitated. I tried to reason with her but it worsened her mood."
"She accused me of being very happy and called me all kinds of names. Haleth, do humans actually do that with their mothers?"
The green-eyed monster shriveled up in the light of the expected. Haleth stifled a mirthless laugh and carefully shook her head.
"I was worried that she would become physically violent, so I left her and came back to the Inn. By then the sun was rising. I checked on you again. You were still asleep so I went back to my room. The pack was gone."
Haleth watched Inglor narrowly for several minutes. He was his usual, utterly innocent, completely gorgeous self. She briefly wondered if there was more going on behind those blue eyes than she guessed. There almost had to be.
"You’ve told the Innkeeper?" she asked.
"We shall have to tell him.” She got to her feet. "He may be able to help."
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