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Garbed in the green gown and carrying the ivory combs, Haleth made her way down the darkened hallway to Inglor's room. She listened at the door before knocking, wondering if Mrs. Bass had taken the opportunity to impose upon her companion. Shaking her head at her own foolishness, she knocked quietly. Inglor opened the door almost immediately as if he had been awaiting her.
He looked at her, blinked and stared, blocking the doorway.
For the first instant Haleth suspected that the housekeeper had paid him a visit after all and that Inglor's hesitation was out of deference to Mrs. Bass' reputation, which was undoubtedly sterling. Then she remembered she was dealing with Inglor. There must be something else amiss. She thought of his strange reaction earlier that day and immediately became worried.
"Inglor, are you well?" she inquired quietly.
He shook his head as though to bring himself back to the present, then stood aside to allow her into the room.
"Yes, of course," he answered quickly as she stepped around him. "It is just I have never...I mean I did not expect you...I mean you look...nice," he finished weakly.
"Thank-you," she said, smiling and suddenly feeling abashed. The reason for her visit, indeed her very presence in his room, suddenly seemed inappropriate. She silently upbraided herself for being ridiculous.† She had travelled the length of Eriador with Inglor as her sole companion. If it had not been improper before, why should it seem indecent now?† Yet the blush was slowly rising in her cheeks as the awkward silence stretched between them.†
"What are those?" Inglor suddenly asked, indicating the combs.
"Beregnil loaned them to me for this evening," she said quickly, handing the trinkets to him. "I've been trying to put them into my hair without much success. I was wondering if you...could...maybe..." She trailed off in confusion.
Inglor examined the combs minutely. "These are the work of a true artist," he said, his voice soft with wonder and sorrow. "They are a princely gift."
"They aren't a gift," Haleth said quickly. "They're a loan."
"Still, they are princely," Inglor said again, raising his blue eyes to hers. He held her gaze for several minutes, asking an unvoiced question which Haleth could not fathom.
"Allow me to help you with them," he finally said, indicating that Haleth should be seated on his bed. He found a fine-toothed comb somewhere in the recesses of his pack and ran it through her damp, sandy tresses, singing softly to himself. Haleth sat as still and as silent as a statue under his ministrations, her eyes firmly closed in what was probably a vain attempt to hide a maelstrom of emotions and questions. What was wrong with Inglor? As much as she enjoyed his company when he was not driving her to distraction, it was becoming painfully clear that their disagreements were having a bad effect on him. He had become steadily more withdrawn and solemn since the incident in Dale. The problem had started when she had looked into the palantir and then picked a fight with him instead of admitting it. With a shock she wondered if he meant to leave her at the end of the quest and did not know how to tell her. The idea was too painful to contemplate.
She drew herself back to the present as Inglor continued to comb her hair. She had not realized that elves could spend so much time on a very basic motion that Haleth dealt with each morning and immediately forgot. His free hand stroked her hair after each passage of the comb, smoothing her locks and caressing her shoulders. An all too familiar sensation threatened to overwhelm her. To distract herself, she formed her hands into fists so tight that the fingernails dug painfully into the flesh of her palms.
"Look up," he ordered softly, tilting her head back with two strong fingers beneath her chin. Haleth yielded to his gentle pressure and lifted her head. She briefly opened her eyes to watch him. Inglorís attention was firmly fixed upon the task at hand, which was something of a relief. With careful skill, he parted her hair and resumed combing while Haleth determinedly resisted the dreadful temptation to pluck the comb out of his hand and throw herself into his arms.
Her self-control slid away with each stroke of the comb. She was about to ask him to please stop, that she would put the combs in herself, when he expertly pulled her hair back, anchored one comb and pushed it firmly into place. He quickly repeated the process on the other side and then stepped back to examine his work.
"Thank-you," Haleth whispered hoarsely. She swore to herself that even if she had to appear before the High King of Gondor himself, she would never, ever allow Inglor to comb her hair again. The experience was far too erotic.
She forced herself to unclench her fists as he turned his back to put the comb away. It came as no surprise to see eight angry, red half moons where her nails had gouged the skin. Not wanting him to see the damage she had inflicted upon herself, mostly because it would require an explanation she was not prepared to give, Haleth quickly clasped her hands and placed them on her lap.
"You are welcome," he said as he seated himself on the bed next to her in the growing twilight.
Fed by Inglor's disturbing proximity, Haleth's natural physical restlessness sought an outlet. Staring straight ahead, she began to absently twist the silver ring that rested upon the index finger of her right hand.
The movement did not go unnoticed.
"You would trade the ring for those combs," Inglor suddenly said in a quiet, resigned voice.
Haleth opened her mouth to protest, but was spared by a rap on the door. It was Mrs. Bass, a covered lantern with a twinkling candle in her hand, come to summon them to the secret meeting which Beregnil had planned. The housekeeper did not even bother to sniff her disapproval at finding Haleth once more in Inglor's room.
Still shaking and miserable from Inglor's comment and the hair combing experience, Haleth followed the Mrs. Bass along the hallway. She had to content herself with a 'we're not finished with this' expression leveled at her traveling companion as she brushed past him on her way out of his room. Inglor, who had seemingly already accepted his decision as the only possible outcome, tightened his jaw but said nothing.
The candle sent fantastical shadows dancing along the walls as they walked beside each other in Mrs. Bass' wake, being careful to not actually touch.
She led them down the stairs and into a private room. A large, round table and its accompanying chairs occupied most of the space. Heavy curtains covered the wide windows so that not even a flicker of light would escape to the outside. The only illumination came from two candles which burned in sconces on the walls and a lantern which rested at the centre of the table, its light shielded so that it only shone into the room, away from the windows. The lower walls were of wood, the higher walls of plaster. Several large, ornately framed portraits were set on the walls. Haleth wished that she could see the room in more light; it seemed like a rich and yet thoroughly human place.
There were three people already seated around the table. Beregnil rose to his feet when his guests entered the room. His motion was quickly copied by the man who sat to his immediate right. The man who sat to his left stood, but far more slowly. It was with a slight shock that Haleth noted that the third man was no man at all, but a tall, slim woman.
"Be welcome, Lord Inglor and Lady Haleth," Beregnil said.† He smiled and approached them. "This is Calanloss, councilman of Lake Town. Calanloss bowed deeply to the newcomers. He was of similar build and colouring to Beregnil, but his hair and beard were a deep brown with no grey. Inglor bowed and Haleth curtsied.
"And this is Ethirwen, another member of the town council." Ethirwen inclined her head towards them. Again Inglor bowed. Haleth contented herself with nodding as Ethirwen had.
Beregnil completed his quick round of introductions. Haleth noted that Ethirwen's attention kept drifting back to Inglor. After his unexpected accusation, she found that this did not affect her as it usually did.
Inglor took the chair next to Calanloss. Beregnil pulled out the chair to the right of him for Haleth. "I thank you for accepting the gifts, my lady," he said in a whisper meant for her ears alone. "You look truly radiant."
Haleth stiffened slightly. She was certain that Inglor had heard Beregnil's use of the word gift.
"Thank-you, Master Beregnil," she whispered quietly, smiling into his dark eyes. He held her gaze a fraction longer than was necessary before turning back to the task at hand.
"Thank-you, Mrs. Bass," he said to the housekeeper. "That will be all for this evening."
Haleth watched Inglor carefully. His face was its usual mask of beatific calm. She felt Ethirwen's eyes flick quickly from the elf to Haleth and then back again, as if she were making careful calculations and drawing quick, decisive conclusions.
"Good people," Beregnil said after the door closed on Mrs. Bass. "First let me thank you Ethirwen and you, Calanloss, for coming this evening. There is a very delicate situation that these two travellers are attempting to bring to a positive outcome. I am hoping that your knowledge may be of use to them. I have not told you more than the barest hints of the story, lest those that could harm their cause learn of it. Now I will ask Lord Inglor to explain the situation, as he is more familiar with it than me."
If Inglor was surprised by the request, he gave no sign of it. Haleth watched him get to his feet with some trepidation, worried that he would unwittingly give away more than was safe. Her fears proved to be groundless. Inglor told exactly as much of the story as needed to be told. He skillfully dodged around the areas that were bound to cause questions in such a way as to silence all enquiries.
She wondered at his eloquence; he had certainly never given any sign of it while he was alone with her. He probably thought her coarse and unworthy of the effort. She rejected that thought almost as soon as it occurred. In many ways Inglor was a complete puzzle to her, but she could keenly sense when anyone felt superior to her and she had never had that impression from him. This was odd because Haleth felt that Inglor truly was superior to her.
"I see the problem," Calanloss said when Inglor had sat down again, "But I am at a loss to see how we can possibly help."
"Excuse me," said Haleth. "We were given the impression that you were familiar with the area and people around the Sea of Rhun. If you could possibly give us an idea of where the Hosluin are headquartered, we will at least know where to begin to search."
There was silence around the table. At last Calanloss spoke.
"I have heard that they are centred in a castle on a peninsula on the north eastern coast," he said. "A narrow strip of land joins the peninsula to the mainland and it is rumoured to be heavily guarded. The sea surrounding the area is filled with jagged rocks and treacherous currents. No sailor dares to draw near that coast. The leaders of the Hosluin reside in a tall tower within a keep. The tower is said to have a staircase spiralling from bottom to top on the outside. No one knows who made it, whether elves, dwarves or some other, forgotten race. It is incredibly ancient and all traces of the original occupants are long gone. There is a pool next to the tower, it is rumoured to be bottomless and that unspeakable things were done there long ago. The grandmothers around the Sea use the threat of the ghosts of the pool to frighten children into good behavior. If the Hosluin have indeed taken the palantir there, you will need an army to recover it."
"Thank-you, Calanloss," Beregnil said when it became clear that the merchant was finished. "Ethirwen, can you add anything to what Calanloss has told us?"
Ethirwen pushed back her chair and stood to speak. Haleth had noted without surprise that she addressed her remarks solely to Inglor, though it had been Beregnil who had posed the question.
"No, I am afraid that Calanloss has told you all that I know already. I may possibly be able to offer some assistance, though," she smiled confidently at Inglor, who returned her gaze impassively. "I make a yearly visit to the lands that my mother left to me in Dorwinion. I was planning on leaving in three days, as you know," she finally acknowledged Beregnil and Calanloss with a smile and a nod, "I book passage on the same, spacious boat each year. I would be honoured to have our guests accompany me on the voyage."
"That would be a great help, Lady Ethirwen," Inglor said with a bit too much enthusiasm for Haleth's liking.
"So it is settled, then," Beregnil said, "you shall accompany Ethirwen down the River Running."
The meeting was adjourned. Calanloss excused himself, claiming early, urgent business the next morning. Ethirwen was slower to make her good nights. She lingered as long as was polite and left only when Beregnil began yawn.
Beregnil led his guests to their rooms, leaving Haleth at the door of her room first. She had wanted to speak to Inglor privately, but it was late and she was tired. Inglor's mood might be better the next day. She would approach him then.
She watched him receding down the hall, his skin and hair glittering in the darkness with a glow was not reflected from Beregnil's lantern.
Inside the privacy of her own room, Haleth removed the dark green gown and placed it over the back of a chair, taking care not to wrinkle it. She pulled out the combs and ran her fingers through her hair, remembering Inglor's delicate touch. The memory was almost enough to send her padding down the hall to his room. But then she remembered his accusation. She had no idea what the implications of it were, although they were obviously important to him.
She crawled under the blankets and wondered about her companion. When she finally slept, she had a disturbing dream of standing alone on a rocky shore, futilely chasing a white ship as it sailed towards the West.
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