It is over. Darkness fills the hall, tempered by the light from the huge fireplaces. Sogadan mutters something and scowls at her, refusing to be cowed by Cachunir's reproachful looks. She stares into the gloomy depths of her wine, ignoring the vintner and scholar alike. Eventually, their third companion, still clad in his uniform, draped in Elrond's colours, speaks.
“When do you leave?”
Nirhen shrugs, finally draining her goblet and pushing it across the table for a refill. “Rainith's journey has been delayed. I am to go ahead as soon as possible – at dawn, I suppose.”
Cachunir smiles, and she is almost startled by how much he looks like his father, in the dim firelight. “You will need this, then.”
The scholar reaches under the table, pulling a thin, carefully wrapped burden from under his chair, and presenting it solemnly to her. Nirhen cannot hide her eagerness as she reaches for it, although with one eye on the vintner she does not unwrap the sword, merely caressing the hilt for a moment before resting it safely beside her chair.
She voices her thanks softly, and the scholar nods, proud, glancing at the approving face of the guard beside her. For a moment he seems to hesitate, and their companion smiles amusedly, waving a hand as if to indicate that he should speak.
“It did work, didn't it? I mean... the reports said that Lords Estarfin and Naergon had been forgiven.” Nirhen reaches out for her goblet once more, cradling it slowly between hands whose battered appearance makes it clear that they would be more comfortable curled around a sword-hilt. The vintner leans forward, clearly eavesdropping, but she doesn't care. Let him hear what he will, and gossip, too. She will be gone soon enough – and the judgement is passed, now. There is no more harm that can be done.
“Yes, Cachunir – it worked. Including your part - they believed the whole account, and Parnard was good enough to mention it as yet another stain against my character. I do not think they even realised that we knew each other.” She smiles crookedly, but Cachunir still looks rather downcast.
“I just wish we could have thought of another way...” Their companion makes a small sound of reproach, shaking his head at the younger scholar, although his eyes move quickly to fix rather warningly on Nirhen. She takes the advice from an old friend, and tries to stamp down her surge of irritation before speaking.
“There was no other way. I told you – they needed to blame someone for it to be truly over, and better me than the others. I am hardly undeserving.”
There is an understanding here, and when she returns her gaze to her wine it is clear that no more needs be said. Even if they do not come together any more – even if they have moved on now, to new paths, new companies, some of them new Lords, they do not forget what they have shared. As she looks up to catch the glance of her old comrade-in-arms, he nods, once, before the talk turns finally to duties, lives that must be picked up once more. They leave before the dawn, leaving her alone with the hollow feeling inside her, Cachunir's words ringing in her head.
The memory of Estarfin's bland smile and polite pleasantries seems to well up out of nowhere, filling her thoughts with acid. Even hurling her goblet at the wall behind the eavesdropping vintner, while worth it for the look of shocked outrage on his face, does little to subdue the rising storm. She leaves without another word, picking up her pack on the way out of the House, and finally out of the valley. The sun rises, bathing the valley in its first honey-soaked light, but she does not look back. She is leaving everything behind, and some part of her recognises that when she returns, nothing can be the same. What use to turn and stare now, or mourn what has been lost?
It worked, didn't it?