Gazing into the flickering light of the candle lantern, the old miller hunched forward, his hands pressing together. Haun whined softly as he looked up at his master, and then with a great sigh, the hound settled at the old man's feet. Memories of Tabahanza flooded through his mind, and he was filled with such a surge of emotion that he was unsure if he could even continue. Still he had promised the girls a tale for their birthday, and though it would pain his soul, he would tell them of his life among the Randirrim so long ago. What good were old men anyway, except to spin tales? Somehow he felt that he should tell someone so that the memories could live on, and though he had only met these two orphans the day before, they were good listeners and pleasant company. When he finally spoke again, his voice quavered, and his eyes stared into the distance.
"Tabahanza and I were wed upon a golden day in early autumn when the harvesting of crops was at its height. From the fields, patient oxen drew carts and wagons loaded with baskets and barrels of fresh vegetables. Apples hung ripe and sweet from the branches, some falling upon the ground to be eaten by cattle or horses, while others would be picked from the trees by the gatherers. The harvest of lush, golden peaches was so heavy that many of the branches were broken down before the pickers could claim the fruit. Peasants, their bare legs stained purple up to mid-calf, trod the grapes into pulp in preparation for the wine press."
The girls listened to him in silence, captivated by his voice, which had grown stronger as he continued to speak. Waves of homesickness washed over them as they thought of the harvest back in Rohan. Tarlanc must have guessed their thoughts, for he smiled at them as though he shared their pain. Batting away tears, they smiled back at him through the darkness. The old man's voice was firm and strong as he spoke again.
"A bountiful crop of walnuts fell from the trees in torrents, clattering onto the roofs, rolling off and falling to the ground as a green rain. Hazelnuts and other nuts graced trees and bushes, providing mast for the woodland creatures and assuring them of more than enough to see them through the winter. That year there was a great bounty of vegetables, fruits and nuts spilling forth from the fruitful womb of nature, the fall harvest fulfilling spring's promise of fertility." Tarlanc chuckled softly as he remembered.
"Many of the birds of summer that always left in early autumn were preparing for or had already departed on their annual southern flight to Near and Far Harad. Perhaps it is just an old man's faulty memory, but the huge white storks seemed reluctant to leave their ungainly great nests upon the roofs of houses, and gathered as though in consultation with others of their kind. I was loath to see them depart when they finally did." Tarlanc's voice wavered, but then he found the strength to continue. "When the last of the birds were gone in October, we knew that the chill winter rains would soon be upon the lands to the south, and the hoary mantle of snow would begin to cover the northern country."
The twins knew that the old miller had opened his heart and mind to them, taking them into a past that was long dead. While they were eager to hear his tale, both sensed that some of the memories must be painful for him. Filled with sympathy, Elffled reached out her hand and touched his shoulder, giving him one of her sweetest smiles.
The miller turned to her and patted her hand. "Ah, lass, I talk too much!" Tarlanc grinned self-consciously.
"No, no, dear Tarlanc, I could listen to your stories forever!" Elffled's smile lit up even brighter. While she was not being exactly truthful, she would never admit that she felt some parts of Tarlanc's story were extremely tiresome. She was developing a fondness for the kindly old miller, and would never do anything to hurt his feelings. "Please go on!" she urged him softly.
"Yes, Tarlanc, tell us more," Elfhild added, hoping that her voice would not betray her. Several times during his long account, she had found herself close to dozing. She sat up straighter, folded her hands demurely in her lap, and concentrated on staying awake.
"Sometimes, lasses, I think that you are only humoring an old man, but if you insist," he chuckled. Then after filling up a new pipe and lighting it, he resumed his tale. "As I think about these days, I see them through the patina of time. For Tabahanza and me, the days of autumn sped by as quickly as though we had both been caught in a golden dream from which we would never awaken.
"Sitting upon the banks of the river, we laughed like children as we ate peaches and threw the pits into the arms of the river. We raced each other across amber meadows strewn with chicory and goldenrod. Often before we ever finished the race, we would fall into a lovers' knot of tangled arms and legs as we kissed and caressed amidst the crushed chicory. There was nothing to disturb our bliss until that day in early December when the massive bulk of Dezi shuffled forth from his mother's tent, leaning to one side and dragging his injured leg. Peering at the late autumn sun, he blinked like a bat pulled from its lair and hissed his displeasure." Tarlanc looked up at the night sky, unaware that he was clenching his fist. The girls noticed, though, and looked at him anxiously.
"I would be frightened out of my wits with the threat of Dezi looming over my head," Elfhild remarked with a shiver.
"Were you able to make peace with him?" Elffled asked hopefully, tilting her head to the side.
"Ah, lassie, I wish that could have been so, but it was not to be," Tarlanc replied sadly. "From that day onward, my happiness withered, and apprehension and worry became my constant companions. Whenever I struck the hot iron on the anvil, it seemed that I heard with each blow of the hammer a voice crying the word, 'Flee!'
"'Where?' I asked. 'Go north,' came the voice in my head. 'Too late in the season, too close to winter,' my frowning common sense told me, and so my bride and I stayed. Yet burdened by this doleful cadence that reason could not banish, I decided I must take council with Ahãma, who had once read my future.
"'Are you sure about this?' she asked me doubtfully as later I sat at her table. 'I thought Gondorians did not believe in such things, considering them superstitions or worse, and unworthy of them because of their Númenórean lineage.'
"'It does not matter what Gondorians believe,' I snapped, wishing only to know the meaning of my dire premonition. 'I want you to tell me what you see in my palm.' I looked into the depths of her ebony eyes, which were gazing back at me with tender concern.
"'My son, then if this is what you want, I will do it. Let me have your hand,' came her soft answer as she took my outstretched hand in hers. 'Oh, it is far too soiled for me to divine anything,' she exclaimed after seeing my blackened palm.
"'The hands of a smith often are,' I remarked, smiling stiffly as she moistened a cloth and wiped the grime from my hands.
"She was quiet for a long while as she gazed into my palm. I wondered what mysteries she saw there, what ominous tidings revealed themselves to her mind. 'Six lines of magnitude on the right palm, your dominant hand - your whole life from birth until death... and beyond. The left hand tells me about your past before your birth, a past which remains hidden to you... However, none of this is pertinent to this reading.' Her eyes lifted up to mine. 'No, please, I see your disapproval. Do not ask me about things which your people deny and in which mine believe.'
"'No, I will not ask,' I told her quietly. 'Please tell me what you can.'
"She smiled at me gently, and, studying the lines on my right hand in order from the first to the sixth, she traced each one's pattern until she had finished. She continued to gaze down at my hand, and apparently not satisfied, she closed her eyes and sat there in brooding silence. Her fingers stroked my hand as through trying to see things there that could not be fathomed through normal sight. Her eyes suddenly snapped open and she began to trace a fingertip in a curving path from the edge of my palm above the thumb towards my wrist.
"'Your lifeline... I am perplexed by what I see here.' She looked over at me. 'Besides revealing your vigor and strength, this line foretells great happenings in a person's life, great upheavals, sadness, wounds, injuries, deaths and partings. The length of the line does not reflect the length of your life, but the lines which branch off it reflect the events of your life.'
"'Aye,' I replied. 'I have heard the longer the lifeline meant the longer a person would live.'
"'Nay, it is as I told you,' she shook her head. 'Now this is your fate line,' she told me as she ran a fingertip in a straight line from the bottom of my palm through the center and towards my middle finger. 'The important choices that you make in life are reflected here, but more importantly this is the line of circumstance and fate. These things are beyond our ability to control, though sometimes this line can show the consequences of the choices that we make.'
"'What do you see?' Her words made me feel uncomfortable, but I managed to laugh lightly as though I did not take this reading seriously. However, I considered this to be of the most solemn and serious of matters.
"Tarlanc, I will tell you nothing at this time.' Her dark eyes drove into mine as I looked at her disbelievingly. 'Nay,' she murmured, squeezing my hand in hers, 'I cannot answer the questions I have seen in your eyes. Not yet, anyway.'
"'But why will you not tell me what you have beheld? I do not understand.' I looked at her in perplexity as she released my hand and stood to her feet.
"'There are things that I have seen revealed in your palm, but I am hesitant to tell you yet. I must delve deeper, my son.' She reached out her hand, brushing her fingers against my cheek, then turned and walked to a shelf along the wall. A sense of dread came over me and I could not seem to control my breathing. My heart was pounding in my chest and I could feel the blood pumping in my temples. I watched as she walked across the wain, each step of her dainty feet seeming as slow as the passage of sand in an hourglass. Carrying a silk covered object in her hands, she placed it upon the table. When she drew away the covering, I beheld a large sphere resting upon a goldtone stand.
"Ahãma looked up from the stone and smiled at me. 'The sphere radiates energy in all directions and is not limited as are wands. You see the complete scope of things - a situation or yourself. Energy will go through everything. The stone has its own energy, which is different from another stone. It can take much time to get to know a stone and all its abilities. I have had this one since I was a young woman, and we have learned to know each other quite well over the years.'
"I looked at her skeptically. I thought how ridiculous it was for one ever to believe that it was possible to know a rock as one would know a person or a beast. But she only smiled at me in gentle amusement, perhaps sensing my incredulity and treating it as she would the innocent foolishness of a child. Perhaps she read the doubts in my mind; I do not know." Sighing deeply, Tarlanc closed his eyes and then looked away before bringing his gaze back once again to the twins.
"I do not know how long she looked at me this way, but it seems now that some time had passed before she resumed speaking. Then when she did, she almost whispered, 'Can you see anything in the crystal, Tarlanc? Anything?'
"I replied, 'No, nothing,' my voice now openly scornful. 'Nothing but shimmering rainbows reflected by the light - what I had expected to see - but certainly nothing unusual.' I could not understand why she did not simply tell me what my palm had revealed to her. I was tiring of the whole business and wondered why I had ever come to her wain that night. I had simply given in to a foolish whim, imagining that I had heard some voice of doom in my mind. The stress of knowing that Dezi was on the loose again had undermined my confidence. Knowing stones as you would another person? Indeed! Utter absurdity!" Tarlanc snorted. Awakened from his sleep, Haun looked up at him questioningly, and then settled back down with a grunt as Tarlanc patted his head.
"At that moment, lasses, I felt like a weakling. Strong, reasoning men have no truck with soothsayers, wizards, witches, and diviners! Such men who do are cowards or gross fools who fear their own shadows and want reassurances from mumbling charlatans that all is well in their future. That was what happened to the Kings of Gondor before the Stewards – they succumbed to the guile of sorcerers. At that moment, I could almost hear my father's mocking laughter in my ears. 'Ran away to be with the foreigners, did you, boy? Would not have it any other way, would you, Tarlanc? Left your home and all that was dear to you to be with such riffraff. But perhaps you are happy being with your own kind at last.' The memory of his caustic words was so real to me that I almost cringed.
"'Ahãma, I am sorry to have taken your time,' I announced stiffly. 'It was a mistake to have come here.' I started to rise, but she caught my sleeve with her hand.
"'No, Tarlanc, stay but a while, and look again into the stone. Tell me you cannot see something... movement, colors, images... perhaps some white brilliance.' Her voice sounded pleading.
"'No, I told you, I saw nothing but the light reflected. Now if you will give me your permission, I shall leave you and bid you good night.' I waited for her to release my sleeve, for it would have been rude to have torn it from her grasp.
"'It is just as well that you cannot,' she sighed, her face filled with sadness. 'For many times the gift of reading the stone is as much a curse as it is a blessing. You do not have to worry about that, dear Tarlanc. You were not born with this gift. You only have to worry about the future.'
"'Then, Ahãma,' I challenged her, 'I assume you can see something here beyond a pretty rock.'
"'Aye, Tarlanc.' She closed her eyes and nodded her head. 'Listen to me well.'
"Her kind, gentle words were far more intimidating than any shout, and I felt the hairs on the nape of my neck bristle as a chill shot up my spine. 'Tell me then,' I replied, the fear thick in my voice, for as she spoke, I experienced an even worse premonition than the ones which I had felt at the forge.
Wrapping the silk around the sphere, she placed it back on the holder. She took my hands in hers and looked deeply into my eyes. 'There is good news... Tabahanza is with child, the babe so tiny that no one would ever guess it was there. She will tell you her suspicions in a few days, and you must act as though you know nothing about it, or she will know where you learned it. You must tell her nothing of what I have told you today, or it will weigh heavily upon her mind and distress her greatly!'
"Shocked at this news, I stared at her, gaping like a simpleton. 'How do you know?'
"'The stone told me.' She smiled mysteriously before her face grew solemn again. 'You must be careful, Tarlanc. Very careful. More for her sake than for yours, but you, too, are in grave danger. Guard your steps. Guard her, for the danger is great.'
"'How do you know?' I asked again, my voice shaking now.
"While you saw nothing, I saw black mixed with red fanning out like dovetails and then joining together in the whole, swirling through the stone... a grave portent signifying a perilous omen. Something horrible is about to happen, but I cannot tell what it will be, nor when it will occur.' Her eyelids fluttered shut for a moment before she opened them and spoke once more. 'There were visions, too, but, again, they were not clear. Do not ask me about them, Tarlanc. I only pray that they will not come to pass. Now you must go!' She rose to her feet quickly. 'Go to your wife and take care of her!'
"Murmuring a hurried farewell, I was on my feet and halfway down the steps of the wain when I heard Ahãma call to me, 'Perhaps the portends may change... I will consult the stone again in a few days, but until then, heed my words!'
"Returning to my home shortly before darkness fell, I found that Tabahanza had supper almost prepared. Looking up from the small brazier, she smiled her greetings to me. She left her cooking and locked her arms around my neck, kissing me in greeting. Attempting to hide my fears and unsettled thoughts, I kissed her back as earnestly as she had kissed me, laughing as though I had not a care in the world. When she led me to the table, I had to force myself to eat, for my stomach was in knots and my mouth seemed numb to all taste.
"'Is something wrong, husband? Is the food not prepared to your liking?' Her worried eyes caught mine as she bit at her lower lip.
"'No, certainly not,' I hedged as I speared a piece of meat on the end of my eating knife. 'Why would you think that?'
"'Oh, nothing, certainly nothing at all...' She hesitated. 'But I wondered why you stopped by my mother's wagon on your return home. You did not tell me you planned to go there.' Her dark eyes looked into mine unflinchingly.
"'How did you know?' I gave as an answer.
"'Pere came by a while ago and told me. You seldom do that, and never without telling me.'
"'I forgot,' I replied gruffly, wishing only to stop her questioning. 'My day of labor has been long, and I wish for nothing more than to go to bed...'
"'As soon as I clean these few dishes...'
"No," I interrupted, 'I cannot wait to have you in my arms. While you get ready for bed, I will tend to them.'
"Smiling, she rose from the table, laughing softly as she walked towards our bed and..." A look of embarrassment came over Tarlanc's face. "Lasses, you do not need to know what happened next." His remark was met by girlish titters.
"Of the days that followed, there is little to report." Tarlanc exhaled slowly. "I worked at the forge repairing broken kettles and other such items, sharpening knives to a keen edge, and shoeing horses. I thought of nothing else save the words of Ahãma. Unable to bear the tension any longer, I went back to her. To my despair, I learned that the colors and hues which she saw in the crystal had not changed their dolorous prognostications.
"I now began dreading to go to work, fearful to let Tabahanza out of my sight. I considered asking Meri or Pere to go by and make sure that she was safe. That idea I quickly discarded, knowing that they would want an explanation which I could not give. I developed the habit of returning to my wain during the day, explaining my unexpected appearances by telling her that I had forgotten something or I did not feel well or that I simply wanted to see her - any excuse I could think of to hide my true reason. Much to my relief, Ahãma began spending more time with her daughter.
"Coming home early one evening, I opened the door of the wain to find Ahãma and Tabahanza, their heads together in some conspiracy. The two smiled at each other in shared confidence, and Tabahanza flushed and looked down at her hands. When she looked up at me, she was smiling. 'I have wonderful news!'
"'What is it?' I walked over and took her hands, knowing what the news would be before she told me.
"'I think I am with child!' she cried excitedly as she rose to her feet and kissed me.
"'Oh, my darling... such marvelous news!' I exclaimed, kissing her and holding her tightly to my chest. As I gazed over her shoulder to her mother's horrified face, a chill passed over me. Ahãma looked as though she had just beheld the face of death, and I wondered if it was my own!"