"It was your laugh that gave you away," said Baraneth to Tauriel, riding next to her at the head of the column of horses and mules.
"Curses," Tauriel replied, with her lips twitching into a grin. "But I would have needed to reveal myself soon no matter what. The path narrows up ahead; we have not been able to move the trees to reason in this stretch of forest yet. I don't think the orcs will come this far from the Emyn Duir in winter, and at least the spiders sleep, but I'd rather not have to explain an ambushed caravan under my watch, and skulking like a lovestruck fool would make for a poor explanation to just about anyone.
Baraneth laughed. "Such a conscientious Captain. Whatever would I do without you?"
"Miss me dreadfully, I should hope. As I would you."
"Did you not just refuse to be a lovestruck fool?" asked Baraneth. Her eyes twinkled even in the half-light of the dim winter forest, and Tauriel felt heat rising in her cheeks, no doubt accompanied by a telltale blush.
"I refuse to skulk like one. Otherwise – you've driven every straight thought from my head so often over the past weeks that I don't know what else you expect."
"Nothing more and nothing less than to find requited what you did to me," answered Baraneth, now blushing herself. "And in that – and other matters – you've left me most satisfied."
"I'll show you satisfaction when we rest tonight," Tauriel murmured in reply, and when Baraneth's face lit up with expectation, she urged her horse past, for already the path was beginning to narrow – and letting Baraneth dwell on a promise could lead to delightful results.
* * *
By nightfall, Tauriel had not yet had a chance to make good on her intention. They had left the forest behind them after noon with no incident, and were now cutting across a wide swath of frozen grassland down toward Celduin. On the hard ground the horses were picking their way with care, and after consultation with the other merchants in the caravan and a brief rest to sing, they decided to continue until midnight to make up for the time that would otherwise inevitably be lost.
Tauriel groaned under her breath – less because of the missed opportunity to steal away with Baraneth, more because she knew that sore muscles awaited. Although she was a skilled-enough horseman and the horse she had been given docile, it was rare that she needed to ride, and rarer still that she spent so much time in the saddle.
"Won't it be easier to make camp now and continue in the morning when we are rested?"
Baraneth gave her a sidelong glance. "Our Queen's summons were urgent. This is what we know: part of the Wainrider Confederacy have violated their troths – Rulav and Urmir let blood sway them and rejoined their ancestral kinsfolk in Khand, leaving Amagê's efforts and her leaguer broken, and Xêgodis eager to take advantage. It's likely that he seeks her hand to better plunder the steppes and then to pull her south to Morintor, but I wager she'd rather hack it off than become gunê to a swine. And where that leaves us..."
Tauriel's head swam. Although she knew that Rhûn was by no means empty, until the Dragon had awoken she had been content to let her world end at the borders of the forest. In the time of relative peace after the Battle of Five Armies she had never concerned herself with the East any further, which had then been stable and harmless, a source of wine and luxuries. Now that things were churning into motion, she wished she had at least a little understanding of the politics and alliances that moved the realms, and most of all how it involved Baraneth's homeland.
"Tell me more," she said over the chorus of clopping hooves. Baraneth's turned her head in surprise, and she reached for the water-skin on her saddle to wet her lips before she began to speak of times long past, when Dorwinion had been great beyond its current measure, and trade went back and forth even with the King of Beleriand.
* * *
The marshes had fallen away behind them, and they had crossed into higher ground in the angle between Celduin and Carnen. At their confluence, Baraneth explained, lay a ford and a small outpost of Dorwinion that thrived on taxation and collected the barrels that came down empty from Mirkwood and Esgaroth before rafting them down the wider, calmer river into the sea further south. On its western shore began Dorwinion – Torvenion in the language of the Hwenti. Its northern lands, firmly part of the steppe landscape that stretched over much of Rhûn, was a region of rich black soil where grain and herds of kine and horses thrived, and people followed their own paths without much heed for the capital which lay ensconced far away on the seaward side of the southern hills. They called the herdlands Pantalassor, Wide-and-Open, and followed life much as it had been since the Hwenti had carved out their own space there. Further south, beginning with the cluster of the Orochavani hills – named for their many orchards, arbors and the abundance of fruit growing there – lay Ventinor, and the Queen's Capital, where Baraneth and her family had their home.
"Ventinor - Maiden-Land?" echoed Tauriel, smirking. She had been picking up bits and pieces of the language, and slowly began to understand how it related to her own tongue. "Not a fitting homeland for you, so decidedly not a maiden." She was half on top of Baraneth in the tent they had pitched, her lips on Baraneth's throat, Baraneth's arms slung around her and her head tipped back against the bedroll.
"Women-Land," Baraneth corrected. Already her breath was brushing hot and quick over the crown of Tauriel's head, her lips half-parted. "It was – it was the name that First Queen Nurivent gave it, she and Itris the Grieving of the Minchai, when they settled there. Men – so many, so many... became Avateli, and it was -" Her fingers curled up and tangled in Tauriel's hair as she kissed along the neckline of Baraneth's plain travelling garb, lips slipping over the ridge of her clavicle, "- it was left to the women to build and make it great, and the land – because it was green, and young, other tongues twisted it, and made the women maidens, or favoured the gardens over them..."
"... I am sure it is very great," Tauriel said, pausing in her motions when Baraneth withdrew her hands and propped herself up. Outside the tent a now-familiar song had begun. Baraneth extricated herself entirely and tugged the drape of her clothes into place before slipping outside to join the song, but not without pausing to give Tauriel an apologetic look and mouthing later.
Tauriel puffed up her cheeks, but swallowed her displeasure. Some among the Hwenti in the caravan were meticulous in singing praise to the rising of the stars, and Baraneth had never missed an occasion yet. Tauriel had not yet dared to ask its meaning because of the obvious reverence, but there was still time to do so before she had to return home.
* * *
Among the sea of brown, sand-coloured and the occasionally golden robes, the woman in gold-embroidered blue stuck out like a spring in the desert, but she passed through the crowd unconcerned – indeed it seemed they parted for her slightly as she swept past. Feeling like a child, Tauriel reached to tug Baraneth's golden sleeve and nodded quickly at the departing woman's back. It seemed wrong to point a finger at someone who appeared to be a person of some significance.
"Oh, a Lukhintisi?" Baraneth said, astonished, looking up from conversation with the spice-stall's owner in the clicks and trills of a mortal tongue Tauriel had never heard before. "One of the Queen's Women. She is a messenger, and a Great one at that – else she would be wearing less embroidery, and a dress – seeing how she's here, I suppose the Queen has decided to aid Amagê. Perhaps another wedding - at least that would free her up from... other attentions. Both of them. If there's anything to it, we'll have a wildfire of news soon enough. This – hasn't happened in... nearly a thousand years, if I have my history right."
"A wedding?!" Tauriel felt dumb-struck. Baraneth had made it clear early after their first meeting that Dorwinion and Mirkwood's customs were very different, with as much breath as she had had in between kisses, and that it was far less uncommon in her homeland for a woman to love or desire another, but this was a surprise nonetheless. "And what do you mean, another - if it has not happened in so long?"
"It happened, just not to a mortal. Amagê would hardly be the first to pledge herself – or himself – to a Queen in times of trouble. Others have done so, even sired children on occasion – in fact she is the descendant of such a line. The realms in the south were encroaching on her forefather's kingdom, and he sought our aid, and Lukhintis Vinkhtinsi took him to husband. The stories say there was great love between them while he lived – all too brief; he fell in battle with Gondor and his realm was lost, but he sired a daughter who, when she had come into her strength, succeeded where her father failed."
While Tauriel still stood baffled, thinking of the tales that had come up from Lothlórien, of Elrond's daughter pledging her hand to the Heir of Elendil, and the grief of that, Baraneth turned back to the merchant, who grinned a toothy old grin that Tauriel felt compelled to return. In response to a question from Baraneth he rattled off a quick answer of which she only barely caught the words Amagê and Berchitre, which she had learned by now was the name of the current Queen of Dorwinion.
Baraneth thanked the man and turned to Tauriel. "There are rumors, but nothing particular yet," she summarized. "Talking of aid, at the very least – if Lukhintis Berchitre were to wed Amagê, Xêgodis might understand it as an act of aggression – it would weigh what remains of the Confederacy in her favour considerably – not just trade and taxation, but strength of arms. He would be right, I suppose. Not to mention that Morintor would not take kindly to such a slight, and it would draw the Dark Tower's attention from the Westlands and onto us more than refusing passage to their wraith-messengers into the north already did."
She looked troubled. "And – Antaper would stage open revolt to have to share his wife."
"Antaper?" The more Tauriel learned, the less at home she felt even in an outpost where she was by far not the only stranger, and where the occasional snatches of Sindarin and Westron sounded loud through the streets among a babel of other tongues.
"Yes, her husband. Don't let the title deceive you; he is no slave – he gifted himself to Khemsi, and as such became – had to become, Lukhintis-El's husband."
"Khemsi and El," Tauriel said, "are Ivon and Elbereth, aren't they? Some of the Tawarwaith still greet each other the old way, and their names are similar. My mother's kin, they even have... a similar idea, of sky and earth making a whole, and bringing forth life...?"
"Yes!" Baraneth looked delighted. "That is the core of our beliefs, and the Queen and Antaper embody them, as it always was from the beginning, though El is more important. Perhaps you Avateli forest dwellers aren't quite as rustic as I first thought." She laughed, so rich and warm that it was impossible for Tauriel to feel insulted, before a shadow flickered back over her features, and she glanced at Tauriel's clothes. "But come, I'll explain on the way. If anything is decided and Antaper revolts because he can have the Queen-as-El, but Berchitre as her own person weds another, you don't want to be caught wearing green. Sand will go well with your hair and complexion, you big pail of milk."
Forestalling Tauriel's complaints about her teasing, Baraneth skittered away through the crowd. Tauriel followed.
* * *
The smell of roasted hazelnuts wafted through the balmy air, and Tauriel's stomach let forth a hungry growl that made Baraneth glance at her in astonishment. They had been riding since the early morning, had stabled their horses at the city gate, and gone up into the city on foot. Tauriel's companions had been shown lodgings at a guest-house, and the traders who lived in the city made their ways home.
Soon Tauriel was sweating beneath her warm clothes, tugging on the sand-coloured robes in the same draped fashion that Baraneth wore, for from the Sea of Rhûn far below the sun reflected onto the hillside and made it almost uncomfortably warm for the season. Neither the yet-leafless trees nor the broad street and domed houses offered much in the way of shadow. She glanced through the store-front window of the roasting-house, and the woman stirring a huge pan of hazelnuts over a fire waved at them to come inside.
"We are almost home," said Baraneth instead, cheerfully. "We will break our fast on something more sensible than nuts, have a bath," and the suggestion came with a raised eyebrow and the half-tilt of Baraneth's head that always accompanied ulterior motives, "and later we'll get hazelnuts. They are quite good."
A few houses on, she pushed open a gate in a wall, entering into a well-kept garden. Flowers – small yellow bells and star-shaped blue ones - were poking first blooms into the sunshine, and if not for Tauriel's apprehension, she would have found the garden and the hum of bees charming, and the budding, silver-barked trees delightful. But the caravan had delivered its goods without anything but minor incidents, a lost horseshoe, a travel-sick trader – certainly nothing that justified the amount of guards Thranduil had granted to the merchants' pleas.
And if there was little danger despite the churning wheels of realms and alliances, Tauriel thought, the homeward road awaited soon; surely her comrades would be expecting their return to Mirkwood with their mission successfully concluded. She tried not to look at the garden lest she would begin to miss it, rolled her shoulders unhappily and, like Baraneth, slipped from her boots before they entered the house.
It was cooler inside, and there was the smell of fresh bread and something spicy that Tauriel could not place. Carpets piled in layers over one another on the floor so they made a dazzling mosaic of colours and swallowed the sound of their steps, but there was a cry from the kitchen nonethless. A blue-clad blur whirled into sight, throwing herself at Baraneth with a cry of delight and relief.
"Erikhel!" Baraneth replied, laughing. When the two women at last moved apart, Tauriel could see the family resemblance at first glance. Although Erikhel was taller and slimmer than Baraneth and her curves, and her dress hung from her as from a clotheshanger, she had the same gold-brown skin, the same curl of hair, the same pointy chin and snub nose, though her eyes were darker, a lovely brown rather than Baraneth' bright amber.
"You are her sister!" Tauriel said in Hwentcha. She understood it better by now, even though her speech remained halting and she found it hard to wrap her tongue around many of the sounds. "Of course. Bara... Parantis told me she has two, but not a Lukhintisi."
Erikhel shared more than merely outward looks with her sister, even her laugh was just as rich. "I am not our father," and here she winked, "– and they are all at the market... and I am only a Singer-Lukhintisi, but you speak our language well already, Tauriel! Parantis mind-spoke to me of you; I am glad you are both home safe! Sit, sit, there is food! Then we'll speak of everything!"
Erikhel ushered them into the tiled kitchen like a flock of chickens, into a carpeted corner by the large windows, and set a platter of dried fruit, a loaf of flat bread and a sauce of yoghurt and spices before them. Tauriel nibbled on a piece of the warm bread, Baraneth snatched up a handful of mulberries and began to eat them one by one with obvious relish. "So, tell us what we missed!"
Erikhel poured tea and came to sit with them. "Pâra was overrun – Xêgobis is under pressure from the south to bring wealth and power, it's said, so he turned on easier targets than Amagê. Pâra fled north into the Iron Hills, but -"
"- if Thorin Stonehelm makes permanent alliance with her after all their border conflicts, I'll take the Green. A Penni Queen and a Longbeard - once this is over, they'll be back at one another's throats, if his hands can reach that high!"
Tauriel listened. It was not as easy now that the sisters were conversing among themselves and sped into their usual speech, rather than Baraneth's careful enunciation to help her learn Hwentcha. She wondered if she should mention that she had once known – briefly – the original Thorin and his companions, but it seemed rustic and unimportant in the grand scheme of politics and movements across the plains.
"And now that Pâra eluded him, Amagê fears she'll be next as she feared all along, so she's evacuating – here. You came not a moment too soon; she crossed into Pantalassor already, and is expected in the city in three days, if all goes well. They will wed!"
"After all!" cried Baraneth. "We heard rumors on the journey already, but it was all unsure. But – I suppose it means Cuindor will have to wait for their silk. I'll not try the south road and risk seeing either Rulav or Xêgodis wrapped in my goods, and Morintor least of all!"
She turned to Tauriel. "Of course it means you also have to stay. With Pâra in the Iron Hills and Amagê coming, all the roads thence and back will be watched, and Pantalassor will be under siege before long - how could I let you go now? Any northward caravan will come under attack if they are fools enough to dare the roads, and I daresay you will be the only aid from the West we shall have."
"We shan't have any more," said Erikhel. "The Songs don't say it. As always, they'll fight their own battles, though some think their era will flourish once more before it ends altogether – but the Music is still unclear on that. We'll have to wait for the skies to change and look again."
Baraneth rolled her shoulders and gave her sister a vague smile. "I'm afraid we only sang the evening songs for the road ahead; there was no Lukhintisi among the caravan to observe and sing the Greater Portends."
Erikhel clucked her tongue. "You should have taken me, as I told you!"
"And what use would have of that on the road? We know now, and soon enough. El threw none of her stars at us, don't you try and give me a bad conscience now."
"Because she was saving ammunition," Erikhel countered. "The pleas to the observatory went to guard against Xêgodis and Morintor and to smite them if they attack us. Berchitre will herself will sing that tonight, but I think no one believes that peace will endure very long anymore."
While they were speaking, Tauriel thought of her homeland and the darkness creeping beneath the frozen boughs of the oaks across the river, ever closer to the palace... and the magic doors falling shut against the tide of foes. Even if Thranduil came under attack, even if she were to remain here – they would be able to hold out, or perhaps the forces of Dol Guldur would be drawn east and south to aid the more pressing and far-reaching conflicts and leave Mirkwood in a rare calm.
Baraneth turned to Tauriel as though she had guessed her thoughts, and Tauriel found herself startled from her unhappy reverie.
"Peace is going to be relative even within the city walls," Baraneth said to her. I already told you that I think Antaper is going to revolt – he is a jealous man and not easily swayed from love, even though Berchitre does not return it, and perceiving Amagê as a rival... we call people like him a wild horse, there is no saying what he will do. Others like him... have been driven to betrayal before, and it may not be safe here. If - if you go by stealth and long ways around all the likely sources of conflict there may be a way for you to go home, but I would not advise it."
"This fight is as good as any – as long as you don't have me sitting deedless, I will stay," Tauriel said and reached for her glass of tea.