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First Impressions

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Merilin could barely contain her excitement as she picked her way carefully through the trees, cautious and silent, just as she’d been taught and practiced all these years. She still couldn’t quite believe that she was being allowed on this mission, that she’s almost within earshot of their mysterious kin from the west.

She had never expected that she would be allowed to join her brother and their cousin, much less intstructed to do so. With her mother taken and her father dead, her granduncle stood in place of a parent to her, and if ever she loses patience with Oropher or Celeborn, they are quick to point out that Thingol is more overprotective than them by far.

So it had come as a surprise when the page who summoned her older brother to a private council with the king and queen announced that the king desired her presence as well. She knew perfectly well what it was about – all Menegroth was abuzz at the rumor that some of their kin had returned with the golodhrim who had walked the Ice, and she had already wormed out of her big brother that he expected to be sent to meet them.

She did her best to be dignified and mature as she entered their uncle’s council chamber, but as all others in the room were her closest kin, they would know she was both nervous and pleased to finally be allowed such a role.

Elu Thingol waved at them to be seated, as Celeborn and Melian already were. Eöl was also just arriving, and Luthien was fluttering about, but Nimloth was not present. Merilin frowned until she remembered that her older cousin was likely still beating the bounds in Region.

He might be the king in public, but in private, even when he was handing down orders, Uncle Elu was rarely ever formal. This was no exception, as he explained carefully to his younger kin that rumor was quite correct. Some of the Lindar have returned from beyond the Sea. Celeborn and Oropher would be leading the party going to meet the guests they shortly expected – and that Merilin would accompany them.

“Me, Uncle?” Merilin asked, startled.

She didn’t want to say anything as silly as ‘why’ or ‘what can I do that Celeborn and Oropher can’t’, especially not when she was fairly sure everyone but Aunt Melian was already thinking it.

“Yes, you,” he replied indulgently. “Your brothers have pointed out several times in recent months that you are more than old enough now to begin taking on more serious duties, and that it is perhaps overly sentimental of me to keep you so close to Menegroth. I admit I have been perhaps a little overcautious, but I simply cannot bear the thought that my brother’s youngest grandchild should meet with misadventure.”

“I am to go beyond the borders?” Merilin asked, suddenly nervous.

She would have been perfectly happy to walk the boundaries with Nimloth, or spend time in Nan Elmoth learning something of how to manage a holding from Uncle Eöl. Being sent northwest was a bit more than she’d bargained for.

“Indeed, you will have to,” Aunt Melian replied with a smile. “But do not trouble yourself. There will be little danger in this – Celeborn is to lead, and Oropher his second, but there will be plenty of others on guard, and you will not need to venture very far beyond the Girdle. You will not be beyond my aid should you need it.”

“I don’t understand, though. What am I to do?” Merilin said.

“Observe,” Uncle Elu said quietly. “And discover what you can of these newcomers. I would know all that I can about our sundered kin, and how it is that they came to cross the Ice, and what their connection is with the other Icewalkers and the golodhrim who sailed.”

“But they will hardly tell me any of that,” Merilin protested.

She has listened as curiously as any other, and the traders and scouts who have returned from Mithrim speak of a folk who do not hold their women as equals. It’s possible their sundered kin won’t even speak to her at all.

“Perhaps not,” her uncle said thoughtfully. “I have heard all that you have, and more. But a people who think little of women, and of young women in particular, may be less cautious before you than they would be before others. Their tongues may be freer, or their actions bolder. Speak as little as you think they will find polite, and learn all that you can of them.”

Merilin blinked. It all sounded so important when put that way.

“It is not by Melian’s power alone that we defend our people, little songbird,” Eöl added. “We depend on the eyes and ears of our scouts. And if the golodhrim are foolish enough to imagine that Doriath holds its princesses of less value or skill than its princes, we will use that.”

Merilin glanced toward her brother, who nodded.

“But won’t they be trying to learn more of us?” she asked. “What if I give away as much in conversation as I learn?”

“I doubt that will be a problem,” Uncle Elu said, tossing a roll of a strange material onto the table.

Merilin could see that while it was not the dried leaves the Iathrim used, there was writing on it.

“But if they have written to you, do we not already know about them, and what to expect?”

She could see by Celeborn’s sharp glance that she was only voicing the general thought.

“Oh, I’m sure my brother’s grandson has written a very handsome letter,” her uncle snorted. “If only any of us could read it.”

Her brother had already reached for the roll, and pulled it flat. Looking over his shoulder, she could see that the markings were not at all like the letters Daeron had devised.  They looked more natural, flowing as they did across the page, but what they meant she had no idea.

“I have written back, of course,” Elu continued. “Though I doubt Finderato Eärwenion understood my writing any more than I did his. However, the couriers who bear the letter were charged to explain my invitation: he may send those who are also my kin, and they will be met by guides who will bring them to me. I am told he has two younger brothers, so that is who I expect.”

Merilin sighed.

Just what she needed, more boy cousins. As if Celeborn and Eöl weren’t enough – and Eöl being of her parents’ generation made him more an uncle than a cousin. She hoped at least some of these new cousins would be her age. It was frustrating being the baby.

She’d find out soon enough. They could hear voices now, rising and falling in a rhythm that was not quite the familiar tongue she’s heard all her days. An occasional laugh, but mostly just the quiet murmur of folk who don’t wish to draw the attention of any of Bauglir’s creatures should they happen to be nearby.

Chapter Text

In the deepening gloom, Merilin saw her brother frown, and felt more than saw Celeborn’s answering look of concern.  

Small white flakes were beginning to drift down from the sky, though snow was unusual in echuir, with the last storms usually in the waning days of rhîw. They were already far enough beyond the Girdle now that Melian could not blunt the weather for them at need – even if the weather were natural.

She had not been out often enough to feel the difference, but the reactions of her brother and cousin suggested this might be the work of the enemy in the North.

If that were the case, it meant he wished to hinder this meeting of long-sundered kin.

She was not quite sure what to make of that idea. What she had learned of the Icewalkers and ship golodhrim suggested that they were not enough to storm Angband, even if they united their full strength with that of Doriath. But perhaps they held some knowledge that would be Belegurth’s undoing? Or maybe the hopeful whispers spoke true, and they carried a message from the Belain, a reassurance that the elves who had not completed the Journey or even refused it altogether had not been forsaken by the West?

A small knot of elves drew close enough for hushed conversation.

“I think we are close,” Celeborn murmured.

He was not only the eldest of their party, he had the most experience beyond the Girdle, and was the best at sensing both people and danger at a distance. He could also silent-speak further than any of them save Luthien.

“How close?” Oropher asked sharply. “If the snow gets any thicker…”

He did not need to finish the thought. Everyone in this party knew what to do if caught out in heavy snow, though Merilin herself had never had cause to put it into practice before, but it was doubtful the newcomers would. Icewalkers or no, they could still be killed if caught out in a storm – especially if the snow was not the only thing descending upon them from the North. And it would be all too easy to miss a group of unfamiliar elves in a whiteout.

“An hour or two, perhaps less if they quicken their pace as well,” Celeborn replied after a moment of thought.

“Not close enough,” Araseth frowned.

Melian had said they might explain the companion chosen for her by the king as a ‘handmaiden’ to the golodhrim, but all in this party knew that Araseth was in truth a bodyguard whose place at Merilin’s side was a royal command. At the time, Merilin had been slightly resentful at the thought that she was still being treated as a child. She was of age, even if only just. But now, out here, beyond the safety of her aunt’s absolute protection, Merilin found the older woman’s unobtrusive presence reassuring.

“What does it matter?” Heledir asked sensibly. “We are too far from the border to reach it in less than a day from where we are now, even at our best pace in clear weather. Another hour or two can make no difference either way.”

“Heledir has the right of it,” Oropher said, probably as much for his sister’s benefit as to quell any disagreement among the rest of the party. “We will need to weather the storm beyond the border in any case. But it would be better to reach our guests first. They were assured of the protection of Doriath before they set out – and they are certainly close enough to us that it is unreasonable to expect them to fend for themselves in unfamiliar terrain.”

Celeborn nodded his agreement, and looked to Heledir, who had charge of the rest of the guard.

“We press on with all haste. The snow already begins to cover the path. We must reach them before the full might of the storm is on them, and preferably before the path is covered, lest they wander off and make themselves easy prey for any other delights the master of Angband has planned.”

Heledir acknowledged the command and swung back up into the trees to pass on instructions to the guards.

Oropher gave her a look that combined brotherly concern with a touch of challenge.

“I will be fine,” Merilin said, perhaps a bit more sharply than she’d intended. “I can keep pace with any of you, and it’s not as if this is the first time I’ve seen snow.”

His smile was proud, but he looked to Araseth all the same.

“Worry not, my prince,” she said drily. “Your sister is made of sterner stuff than you think. Even songbirds are not defenseless.”

So it is not just me that thinks he fusses too much? Merilin asked as they moved on, their pace closer to a jog than a walk.

It is the nature of an older brother to worry about his younger sister, Araseth shrugged, her eyes scanning the forest ahead. But it is a fact that you are both better prepared and better guarded than he was the first time he went beyond the Girdle. I do not wish him to undermine your confidence with his nervousness.

Merilin smiled. It was good to know that someone other than her uncle had some confidence in her.

Every fledgling must take its first flight sooner or later, Araseth added. Older brothers cannot do it for them. You are doing well so far. But keep your head and stay alert – I mistrust this late snow as much as the princes do.

Merilin was not one to ignore a warning from someone with far more experience than herself, so she did as Araseth suggested.

It was somewhat more than an hour before they heard the sounds that told them their guests were at hand.

Their sundered kin must have suspected the snow as well, for they were on their guard when they finally came in sight.

The most striking thing about them was the hair of their leaders, sparkling golden even in the dim light the storm allowed through. There were darker heads among their followers – their guards, perhaps? – but the four in the front, clearly the leaders, shared the same singular hair.

I thought they were to be Lindar like us, but their hair is that of the Minyar, not the Nelyar or Tatyar, Araseth murmured in confusion.

I don’t know either, Merilin shot back, trying not to gawk at the hair of the lone woman among the newcomers, whose hair was like the light of the sun and moon mingled.

The woman with the remarkable hair was like enough in face that she must be sister to the three males, or perhaps daughter to one of them. She was not the youngest of the party, though – one of the golden haired males was younger, perhaps her own age, Merilin guessed. She wondered if they were brother and sister, or aunt and nephew.

The man who stood at the front of the small party was clearly the leader, both his age and his dress marking him as such.

Merilin was fascinated by the ornate golden belt at his waist, the metal intricately worked and interspersed with jewels set amidst golden flowers and leaves, all against a background of brilliant blues and greens. It would have seemed gaudy even at a time of festival among her people, yet he wore it on a journey!

But then again, the clothing of all the golodhrim was similarly out of place. Where she and her people were dressed in more natural tones that blended with the surrounding forest, the golodhrim were arrayed in brighter colors that put Merilin in mind of laer or the songbirds Luthien kept in her private garden, brilliantly plumed curiosities found nowhere else in Beleriand. That they golodhrim dared travel in such clothing was not nearly as astonishing as the fact that they’d not paid for making such obvious targets of themselves.

Merilin forced her attention back to the leader, trying to focus on his words rather than his clothes as he began to speak, but found she might have just as profitably continued assessing their sartorial differences for all the good it did her – though she had already seen their letters were different, it had not occurred to her that their tongues would be as well.

The only word of the golodhrim prince’s greeting Merilin understood was ‘ai’ – at least, she thought that’s what it was, for he seemed to add an extra vowel to the word. There were several words that were almost ones she knew, or at least, she thought they were but couldn’t be sure as she hadn’t understood the ones around them.

The golden leader and Oropher – who Celeborn had designated as their speaker, being the best at languages – stepped forward to converse with one another directly, or more accurately, to try to converse. From the looks of suppressed frustration on both sides, they couldn’t be making much progress.

Merilin dared a glance at her own party, deciding that perhaps it might be of interest to her uncle to gauge the reactions of their own people, and found Celeborn seemed just as intrigued by the lone woman as she had been, if not more so.

You’re gawking like a youngling who’s never seen a girl before, she chided him. Turn your eyes elsewhere before she takes offense!

I am assessing them, he shot back tetchily. All of them, not just her. And I am most certainly not ‘gawking’.

If you say so, Merilin sniffed, far from convinced. It’s too late anyway, she’s noticed, and I doubt she’s flattered. Being stared at is not pleasant, and I doubt ladies of the golodhrim enjoy it any more than ladies of the Iathrim do.

Celeborn’s jaw tightened, but he did manage to turn his attention to others among the newcomers.

Merilin caught the gesture only because she was watching, but she saw the flick of the golden lady’s eyes toward the male standing closest to her, both of them ostensibly watching their leader conferring with Oropher. The man at her side was also closest in age to the woman, Merilin decided, and from the amused turn of his mouth, he had noticed Celeborn’s overlong look also.

Those two were brother and sister, she felt sure. She’s given her own older brother that same look when he said something he thought was funny often enough to recognize it on someone else.  They were most likely also siblings of the leader, and unmarried. So that made the youngest one the lady’s nephew.

But how she’s supposed to learn much more than that when they can’t even speak to each other properly and it’s imperative to communicate that now is not a good time to stand around for language lessons, she didn’t know.

That was when the other woman stepped forward, her frank gaze fixed on Merilin. To her own surprise, Merilin understood that the look of exasperation in the other woman’s eyes was for the males making a hash of the situation.

“Artanis,” the other woman said, pointing emphatically to herself.

It had to be her name – why else make such a show of pointing to herself?

“Merilin,” she replied at once, mirroring the gesture.

She didn’t fully understand what Artanis said in return, but she thought it was ‘well met’.

“May I?” Artanis asked, offering an ungloved hand.

That, at least, was intelligible, probably because it was such a basic question.

Merilin hastily pulled her own glove off to offer her own hand, evading Celeborn’s half-hearted attempt to stop her. She understood what her opposite intended. Silent-speaking was much easier with someone unfamiliar if there was contact. And that would neatly sidestep the language issue.

Artanis clasped her hand, and Merilin abruptly knew much more.

Artanis Eärweniel, granddaughter of Olwë, was the youngest of her siblings. Finderato remained in Mithrim with the rest of their kin, but Angarato her next eldest brother led, and their brother Aikanaro and Angarato’s son Artaresto are the other princely Lindar of the party. Their guards are all children of marriages between Lindar and Noldor, as they themselves are. It is the closest they could manage to full compliance with her uncle’s will that only his kin should come, for they were too wary of the Enemy’s creatures to travel with only four of them.

Merilin approved that caution, and shared in turn that she was the grandniece of Elu, her older brother Oropher spoke with Artanis’ brother, and their cousin Celeborn was the other kinsman of Thingol in the party. But all else must wait, for at the moment, they were in a particularly exposed area, and must make haste to somewhere that offered better shelter from the worsening storm – even as they spoke the snow grew heavier.

Artanis understood and would relay the need to her brother.

Merilin also caught that Celeborn had indeed made a less than good first impression with his staring, but there was no time to worry about that right now. (She did want to remedy it if she could – any woman should be proud to have her cousin’s attention, even if too many probably considered him a catch because he was a prince rather than because he was a kind man with a generous nature and a warm heart.)

“Oropher,” she called, drawing an irritated look from him at her interruption – and trying not to laugh at the identical look on Angarato’s face as Artanis got his attention more directly by grabbing his arm to make him face her.

What, little sister? He asked in exasperation.

“I have told Artanis what must be done. She will explain to Angarato her brother. We should head for the grottos without further delay.”

Oropher blinked at his younger sister in surprise, but did not question her words.

“I assume the rest of you heard as well,” Celeborn added sharply to their guards in the trees. “Move out!”

Chapter Text

Merilin was unsurprised to find that Artanis rejoined her as the hasty expedition got underway.

Having spoken once mind to mind, they were now able to manage well enough without direct contact, which Merilin was thankful for – the biting wind was blowing directly from the north, and she was relieved not to have to bare unprotected skin any longer.

They started by speaking of their respective families, Artanis filling in what the Lindar on this side of the Sea could not have known of Olu – who now went by Olwë – and Suyelirë’s children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews.

Merilin was cheered to hear how many kin she had living in the safety of Beyond The Sea, if somewhat sad that it was only these four and Artanis’ elder brother Finderato she had any realistic prospect of meeting in person. Curious as she was about them, she couldn’t imagine leaving Beleriand, or even Doriath.

Artanis was as good as Celeborn at silent speech, and like him, she could do not just concepts and ideas but pictures, so Merilin could see each of the kinfolk she spoke of in turn in her mind’s eye. She gasped in surprise at how much Olwë looked like his brother, differing mainly in the eyes, Olwë’s a deep blue where Uncle Elu’s were the silver of the stars.

Then it was Merilin’s chance to tell Artanis of her family, to relate the lines of Elu and Elmo and Alu. She also had the unhappy addendum of clarifying which still numbered among the living, and who had to be counted among the Lost. She doubted Artanis could catch glimpses of their faces in her mind, but she would meet them soon enough, the living at least. (It was to be devoutly hoped she would not meet any of the Lost. It might be somewhat less disturbing to kin who hadn’t known them before they were taken, but such encounters never went well.)

Merilin added the explanation that with so many kin slain or taken, Oropher and Celeborn’s hovering on this trip beyond the borders was unfortunately to be expected. If her new met cousin hadn’t already noticed it, she would before much longer.

In truth, I would be happy not to be the only one whose older brothers are trying very hard not to obviously fret about me, she told Artanis.

The longer they spoke silently, the less the language difference mattered, for even when using words, mind to mind one could easily pick up what any unrecognized word meant.

Oh, they’re doing a fair job of not being obvious about it, Artanis replied, with a musical laugh that drew looks from all the males of both parties that Merilin could see.

The wind howled bitterly, as if angry such a merry sound could be heard in spite of Bauglir’s machinations.

They are not obvious, but they are looking out for you, Artanis continued. I know the signs well.

Your brothers are doing the same? Merilin asked in surprise. She had not noticed that!

They may conceal it a bit better, but my brothers’ overprotectiveness is the entire reason I am here, Artanis replied, with considerably less mirth. Finderato hopes I will be kept in your Menegroth, behind the borders of Great-Aunt Melian’s protection, that he may have greater certainty of my safety.

Now it was Merilin’s turn to laugh, for she had no doubt her cousin Finderato’s strategy would be even more successful than he could have hoped – he has handed Uncle Elu another grand-niece to fuss over, and one who knows nothing of Beleriand at that. She will need years of training before their uncle considers her competent to move around outside Doriath safely.

You’ve certainly come to the right place for overprotectiveness, Merilin burbled. If it helps, I will still have it the worst, being the youngest, but just let Uncle find out that you are Olu’s only granddaughter and he will be wholeheartedly against you setting foot outside the Girdle without a small army guarding you, even once you have learned enough to travel! Though I hope you will want to stay. You would even the numbers for us girls, and Luthien and Nimloth would be pleased to have another for our side.

Indeed, she suspects Luthien will be a little pouty at not being the first to meet this particular new cousin – and all the more so once she heard how foolishly Celeborn had acted. She would definitely have wanted to see that for herself!

I am afraid I do not see how one girl evens the numbers when there are also three boys, not to mention another in Mithrim, Artanis said. Nor would I predict what I will want to do before I know enough of Doriath to reach any true decision. But I am puzzled you say brothers when Oropher is the only one you name as the child of your parents?

Merilin blinked.

Do you not also call the children of your aunt or uncle brother or sister? she asked.

Artanis’s face was difficult to see through the wraps keeping the wind and snow off, but it looked as though she were surprised at the question.

I suppose I do call Irissë my heart-sister, she replied at last. But that is because we are very close, begotten in the same month. Our mothers were constant companions, so we have known each other even before we glimpsed the light. But I would not call Curvo or Maitimo or Finno my brothers, or even Ambarussa.

The virtue of silent-speech was that Merilin could pick up the details that the cousins Artanis named were all sons of her father’s brothers, and Ambarussa were – no, was, only one Ambarussa now though once there had been two – particularly close. Merilin wordlessly offered comfort, for she could feel the loss was recent and terrible.

That death was normal in Beleriand must be shocking to those who had never before had to deal with it as part of daily life. Merilin wondered how it must feel to go from lands where no one died to this.

If you are in doubt about the relationship between anyone, ask us to clarify, she advised Artanis. It is quite normal for our people to call cousins brother or sister, or name other kin or even unrelated folk parents if they raised us after our own were lost.

Is that not disrespectful to the parents who begot you? Artanis asked cautiously.

Merilin could feel the concern that she might be offended, but more clearly the honest puzzlement at naming others parents when they were not.

No, she replied firmly. I do not forget my parents, nor does any other who has lost theirs. But we honor those who raise us and look after us in their absence, and in many cases the love between us is as great. It would be odd not to be honest about their place in our lives and hearts, or to name them as something less. I suppose in the West it is different, but here, we must take our family as it is, not as we might wish it were.

She was not sure what about that had startled Artanis, but she fell silent, thinking thoughts she was not yet ready to share.

Merilin, to make clear that she would not press her new met cousin about such things, began to speak instead of life in Doriath. She lingered on the many wonders of Menegroth, for she suspected that Artanis was going to stay there whether she particularly wanted to or not.

Artanis when she was ready to share again told Merilin of life in both Alqualondë (the city of the Lindar) and Tirion (the city of the Noldor.) In some ways, the two were similar, both being Beyond The Sea. But in other respects, Alqualondë sounded nearly as different from Tirion as Tirion was from any elven realm in Beleriand.

Engrossed in conversation, they passed a fairly pleasant hour and a half of what would otherwise have been a tense march. The storm worsened as they went until the snow was falling so thick and heavy that it was impossible to see more than a few feet ahead, and the guards in the trees took to silent speech to keep track of each other and give warnings.  Merilin could also hear Oropher and Celeborn’s growing concern that they might be forced to halt short of their goal.

She was relieved when the guards gave the word that they were at last drawing close to the grottos. The series of small caves in a south-facing dell would be better shelter from the storm than any lean-to or hastily built shelters they might otherwise contrive. The grottos not only had the virtue of having plenty of solid rock between them and any falling branches, a good many had been improved to make safe shelters for just this purpose, with windbreaks at the entrances and hearths for fires to make them comfortable for any Iathrim or guests stranded by bad weather.

The obvious drawback was that none were large enough to hold the entire group, which was nearly two dozen all told.  The caves weren’t large enough to allow them to hold more than a handful of people comfortably. They would have to split into smaller groups, down to pairs or perhaps trios for the smaller grottoes. The smallest grottos were also the nicest…

Merilin felt the spark of an idea – a chance for Celeborn to repair the poor impression he’d made on Artanis.

For the most part, each golodh had been paired with one of the Iathrim for the march, since the Iathrim knew the terrain while the visitors did not.

Aikanaro had been content to walk with Araseth, the pair of them shadowing Artanis and Merilin – and no doubt keeping at least one eye each on them at all times. While initially the two leaders had been walking together at the front, Angarato had dropped back to rejoin Oropher, continuing their efforts at puzzling out each other’s language. That had left a very pleased Artaresto to walk with Celeborn.

If Merilin hadn’t already guessed that Artaresto was of an age with herself, his obvious pride at being allowed to walk with the leader of their party would have given it away – not that she blamed him. She was sure if their positions had been reversed, she would have been just as proud to be accorded the honor of accompanying the leader of the golodhrim.

And really, it made what she had in mind so easy…

Artanis, would it be forward or unseemly by your people’s ways for me to walk with Artaresto? You are a delightful companion, but I know you are somewhat older and I would be interested to hear the impressions of one my own age.

Sure enough, she could feel from Artanis a mix of amusement that she should wish to speak with the other young person present and consternation that the logical consequence was that Artanis herself would be left with Celeborn.

I can introduce you to my cousin Celeborn in turn, Merilin offered as if she had not noticed that Artanis wasn’t particularly enthusiastic at the prospect. I know you have said your people are a bit funny about ellyn and elleth but among ours it is perfectly normal to socialize without regard to such things. You’ll probably find Celeborn more interesting than me anyway. He can tell you far more about the lands here -  he’s been outside the borders before, but it’s only my first time.

Artanis, of course, could hardly say no to such a hopeful appeal from her younger kinswoman, so Merilin was able to call out to Celeborn to wait.

Celeborn, Artanis has said I may walk with her nephew – we are nearly the same age!

Celeborn raised an eyebrow, not entirely taken in, but he did slow his pace that they might catch up.

Artanis made the introduction, and took Celeborn’s politely offered arm without any fuss, though she was plainly less pleased at being paired with him than Artaresto was at the chance to walk with Merilin.

She’d probably be still less pleased when she found out they’d be spending the night at least with their current companions, if not longer – it all depended on how long it took for the storm to blow itself out. But Merilin was counting on her cousin to make the most of the opportunity she’d just dumped in his lap.