The hall was noisy and crowded, the heavy air stifling. Aerin hated the yearly feasts that Lorgan held to keep an eye on all of his vassals and assess their loyalty, hated the fact the Brodda always made her accompany him, hated her husband’s bad-tempered overlord. The first few times had terrified her, but she had long ago learned that the easiest way to bear them was to sit quietly beside Brodda, drinking little and speaking only when someone addressed her directly.
Over the years her husband had gone from being one of Lorgan’s least important subordinates to one of the most successful and powerful, and it showed. The lord of Dor-lómin sat with his lady wife on his right and Brodda to his left, with Aerin on Brodda’s other side. She was highly visible there, but it also left her somewhat isolated from most of the other guests, and that suited Aerin just fine.
She took a sip from her goblet and listened to Lorgan and Brodda’s conversation beside her. “There is something you should see,” Lorgan was saying. “You won’t believe what turned up in the forest.” Then he called out harshly, “Boy! More wine for Lord Brodda!”
Behind her, someone hurried to Brodda’s side and refilled his cup. Brodda looked up at the slave and frowned slightly, then turned to Lorgan with a confused expression on his face, as though he were trying to grasp at a memory that hovered just out of reach.
Curious despite herself, Aerin glanced over her shoulder and started, nearly knocking over her cup. A few drops of wine splashed onto the table, and Brodda shot her a glare, but her attention was so fixed on the boy that she hardly noticed.
Huor, was her first thought, but of course that was impossible. Huor was dead, and this boy was much too young; he couldn’t be more than seventeen, muscular for his age and very tall, with golden hair that had been chopped short in a style that Huor had never worn. A faded bruise trailed across one cheekbone, and his expression was politely blank.
“Tuor, son of Huor,” said Lorgan, a note of pride in his grim voice. “My men caught him in the woods about a year ago. It’s quite a story, actually - seems he was raised in a cave by demons. He was like a wild beast when he first came to me, but I soon knocked that out of him. Isn’t that right, boy?”
Lorgan laughed and took a long drink; he seemed in a better mood than he usually was at these feasts, but Aerin noticed a quick flash of fear in Tuor’s eyes as he turned away, clutching the pitcher tightly.
The boy continued to wait on Lorgan and his guests, and Aerin determinedly focused her attention anywhere else. She wanted to stare, to drink in the sudden memories of the past that flooded over her when she saw that face, to scrutinize his familiar features for any trace of his mother. But she could not, and she could hardly bear to listen to Lorgan boastfully relating the story of Tuor’s capture to impress Brodda, the two of them speaking louder and laughing harder the more they drank.
“Does he live up to his house’s fearsome reputation?” Brodda asked, only partially in jest. Though the boy undoubtedly had his father’s physical strength, there was nothing fierce about his manner at all.
“He managed to kill a few of my men before they caught him,” Lorgan said. “Fought like a trapped animal, but not without skill - the elves must have taught him a few things. But even that worked in my favor. The rest of the thralls saw the strong young son of their former lord defeated and made the lowest of all of them, a reminder that there is no more pride or power left in Hador’s people.” The scorn in his voice made him sound much more like his usual self, and Aerin had to fight to keep her face blank.
Their talk became harder and harder to ignore, and the hall grew hotter and louder until Aerin could no longer stand it. She waited until Lorgan had finished barking an order to the boy to fetch more wine, and excused herself to her hosts, explaining that she felt ill. Brodda gave her a suspicious look, but Lorgan’s good mood prevailed and he waved her away without protest, even wishing her a quick return to health.
Aerin waited until she had made it out of the great hall before letting herself relax, leaning against the wooden wall just outside the doors and taking a few deep breaths to clear her head. Perhaps if she went to bed now, she would fall asleep before Brodda returned, and he would be too drunk to disturb her.
“Lady Aerin?” a quiet voice asked, and Aerin turned to see the boy Tuor standing in the shadows of the corner, his head bowed. She could feel her heart pounding - part of her wanted desperately to talk to him, but she feared for both of them if they were caught.
“Yes. Tuor, is it?” she said carefully, keeping her voice cool and employing the proud stare she had perfected over the years.
He stiffened and took a step back. “My lady,” he said, keeping his gaze fixed on the floor. “I beg your pardon, I did not mean to disturb you.”
Aerin’s heart ached for him, this strange yet familiar child who feared her, and she knew she would not be able to turn him away. “I welcome the chance to speak with a kinsman,” she assured him, her tone softening. “Your parents were dear to me.”
“You knew my parents,” he said, almost to himself, as though confirming something he had suspected all along. He raised his head enough to look at her through wide blue eyes. “We are kin?”
“Yes,” Aerin whispered. “My father, Indor, was your father’s cousin; I knew Huor when I was young. And your mother was a good friend to me.” She took a deep breath before steeling herself to ask, “Is she here with you?”
Tuor shook his head. “She fled her home after the battle, and the elves in the hills took her in. After I was born, she ran away to find my father and left me behind. Annael - my foster father - said they followed her and found her body on the battlefield, but she was already dead. They buried her there by the mountain of dead men.”
Aerin let out a sigh. She wasn’t sure which answer she’d feared hearing more. The thought of Rían dying alone in the wilderness had haunted her dreams in the past, but Huor’s young pregnant wife in the hands of the Incomers wasn’t something she wanted to contemplate. How long would she and her child have lasted, if she had been taken?
“How did you come to be here?” she asked gently.
“Like he said, I was living with the elves in some caves in the mountains,” Tuor said. “About a year ago they decided we’d be safer if we ran to the coast, where Círdan’s people still live. But we were attacked on the way, and I - I wanted to fight the Easterlings. I didn’t run when Annael told me to, and they had to leave me behind.” He lowered his eyes again, ashamed. “I was caught, and Lorgan made me his thrall.”
He fell silent, obviously unwilling to elaborate, but Aerin had a good idea what sort of treatment he must have faced. She wanted to reach out to him, offer some gesture or word of comfort, but what good would it do? She could not help this boy. Nothing would ever change; not for her, and not for him.
Tuor seemed to be struggling with some thought, as though he had too many questions for her and did not know which one to ask first, but a shout from the hall made both of them turn in alarm.
“Tuor!” she heard Lorgan bellow from the other room. “What’s taking so long? If I have to send someone out there after you, I promise you’ll regret it!”
The boy turned to her, fear written plainly across his face, and whispered, “I’m sorry,” before hurrying back into the hall.
Emotions warred for dominance in Aerin’s mind: relief that Tuor was gone, fear and pity for his fate, and emptiness now that she stood alone in the dark again. Suddenly she felt very old and tired; there seemed to be nothing to do except go to bed.