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No Man's Child

Chapter Text

~oOo~

image of a dark complected woman seen in three quarters profile, cropped to reveal only her hair, cheek, jaw, and neck

~oOo~

Aragorn, Arathorn’s son, Lord of the Dúnedain, listen to me!  A great doom awaits you, either to rise above the height of all your fathers since the days of Elendil, or to fall into darkness with all that is left of your kin.  Many years of trial lie before you. You shall neither have wife, nor bind any woman to you in troth, until your time comes and you are found worthy of it… You shall be betrothed to no man's child as yet.

 LOTR: Appendix A: Here Follows a Part of the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen

 ~oOo~

Some time ago, the chanting ceased, leaving only the chill wind whistling through the grass.  Here among the barrows, the morning is bright.  The sun rises above a hill scoured clean by the bitter winds that sweep down from the northern lands.  Snow lies secreted beneath the eaves of the tall pines, revealed only when our passage turned aside low-hanging boughs heavy with green.  Yet, even now the tips of the hawthorn swell with the promise of new growth.  Soon the wind will turn and blow warmly from beyond the Havens, bringing with it the water of distant seas and the blessings of the Valar.

Dirt trickles from my fist and my fingers ache from the force with which I clasp the earth between them.

The wind sighs through the sere grass and with its chill burns my cheeks where they are wet.  

Mutely, I look down upon my father's face pale against the dark, newly-turned earth. He it was who taught us the weaving of the buttercups of this very meadow and we placed them upon his dark head.  Yet still, I cannot see him.  Those are not his beloved eyes, cheeks, and jaw.  'Tis not his hair arrayed about his shoulders.  I see naught of likeness to the man whose house I have kept.  

“Nienelen?” I hear, and my eyes rise of a sudden from the spatter of dust that lies upon my father’s breast.

They are silent, the folk gathered here, and they look upon me with pity.

"Daughter," says she standing beside me, placing a hand upon my arm to urge the ritual on. Yet, she is not my mother.  She that gave me birth died in the labor of it.

I am not her daughter, for I have no mother, nor, now, any father.  For, from this day on, I am no man's child.

 ~oOo~

Chapter Text

~ Chapter 1 ~

 

'The road must be trod, but it will be very hard.  And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it.  This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong.  Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world.'

FOTR: The Council of Elrond

~oOo~

Close up of a grassy hill ringed by barrow stones, with dark clouds pressed close atop the hillside overhead.

~oOo~

Herein find the accounting of the days of the House of Melendir, Ranger of our Lord of the Dúnedain as scribed by his daughter, Nienelen.

~ This the Third Age 3007, 3rd day of Gwirith: Discharges paid of one woolen blanket, one large basket of tightly woven reed with fastened lid, and one thin woolen tunic with sleeves, tendered in exchange for the charges of conveyance of my father’s person to the barrows, the digging of his grave, and one length of fine, bleached linen no less than eight ells in length.

~oOo~

‘Tis said the Dúnadan, our lord Aragorn, Arathorn's son, lies as close to death as one could and yet still breathe. They brought him home to the Angle, a long column of weary men, along with their dead.

What befell them, they would not say. Even now they speak little. Their tall frames cloaked in the grays of the Rangers of the North, they stride without word beside their sisters, mothers, and wives as we make that slow journey back to our homes from the barrows. Behind us, the winds bend the heads of the grasses to the ground above our dead. We left them there to the weeping grasses and return to walk paths a little more silent and sit at hearths a little colder.

Twilight falls upon the Third Age, though we knew it not. We knew only this; ever has The Deceiver borne us a long, patient contempt. Once Arnor fell, broken upon the great wave from the north, we ever slide slowly to the depths of our decline. We are a dwindled people, skulking in the hills, wandering in the wastes, and awaiting the day our Enemy shall deign to extend his reach from Mordor and sweep us aside.

He will not forget us, the Dúnedain of the North, but neither will the end come swiftly. He will hoard his hate and wear away at all dignity until we break asunder as a frail ship upon the waves. We cling to Isildur's heirs as would a sailor to a beacon when long upon stormy waters and far from home. They are the walls of our harbor. Tired stone upon stone are the lives of our heirs of kings, but ne’er have they failed us. Had we not the hope of the house of Elendil to strengthen us, we would have long sunk to the dark and bitter depths beneath the flood.

Thistles catch upon the hem of my skirt and I stop to pull its seeds that latch upon the threads there. The sun beats down upon my head until I am dull with lack of sleep. I have wound about my hair and neck a cowl of thin black wool. ‘Tis a comfort to me, for its dark folds confound the bitter touch of the wind and the mourning eyes of the folk of the North as they pass, brushing past me silently, lost each in their own memory of grief and burdens to bear. Soon the line of men and women will disappear beneath the eaves of the pines and I will have no more to brush from my skirts.

I turn for one last look upon the bald head of the summit. The mounds of raw earth stark against the hillside are hidden from my sight. Instead, the morning light paints the grasses silver along their edges as the wind sends ripples through last summer's growth. Though I squint against wind and sun, there is naught to see of what I left behind.

At a prickle along my neck, I know I am being watched. The last of my lord's Rangers looks upon me. He is tall, as are all those that descend from Westernesse, but with a height near unmatched here in the North. ‘Tis Halbarad, friend to my father and kinsman to our lord, and he holds aside the thin whip of a branch, so I might follow him. The wind blows upon my back, pressing my skirts onto my legs and lifting tendrils of his straight, dark hair from his face. But he remains unmoved under its force and watches me steadily.

It is dark beneath the boughs of the forest where the needles lay in a thick carpet along the path. As our people make their way, the sharp bite of resin and melting snow rises from beneath their feet. The sound of their passage soaks into the soft bed beneath the pines and I can no longer hear their footfalls for the soughing of the wind through the trees. No end is there to be seen to the shadowed tunnel.  ‘Tis a journey forever in the dark without cease, a mere plodding of one step in front of the other with no purpose. It seems my feet would rather grow roots here on the edge of the wood.

I turn away so I cannot see the Ranger should he raise his arm and usher me on. Ai! In truth, what is it I wish? Shall I lie myself down beside the wounds at the crest of the hill? Bury myself in the broken turf and refuse to move? Wait until my fingers curl their way into the ground and the wind has scoured my body clean of life as it has the grasses?

Halbarad awaits, silent, a tall pillar guarding the path, his grey eyes bright upon me.

For a brief moment as I draw nigh, it seems Halbarad gazes at me intently and words crowd behind his eyes. But when I stoop to walk below his upraised arm, his look falters. Mayhap he has seen the questions in my own eyes.

What of your kin, Halbarad, Ranger of the North? What fate has befallen the Lord of the Dúnedain, the last of his line?

He says naught.  Instead, he lets fall the branch behind us. We plunge into darkness and his firm footfalls follow upon the path I now tread.

~oOo~

Chapter Text

~ Chapter 2 ~

 

It all comes of those newcomers and gangrels that began coming up the Greenway last year, as you may remember; but more came later. Some were just poor bodies running away from trouble; but most were bad men, full o’ thievery and mischief.

ROTK:  Homeward Bound

~oOo~

A close up of baskets filled with apples, eggs, and bread; simple fare but plenty.

~oOo~

~ TA 3007, 4th day of Gwirith: Discharges: one cloak of green tightly woven wool in good condition but for worn threads about the lower hem; one leather belt with hangers and purse in good condition; one thick blanket of dark gray, fulled wool in fair condition; one silver tinder box with flint, hardened steel, one char cloth in waxed linen pouch, and small candle of tallow; one leather water bottle soaked in pitch; one hunting knife of good steel of dwarven make; and one two handed sword of unknown make, in exchange for no less than 30 pennies of good silver, or their equivalent. 

~oOo~

The basket is heavy, but not overly so.  Its soft reeds creak against my hip where I clutch it as I walk.  My steps are slow beneath the burden of the basket and nights poorly slept.  I wind my way down the paths from one home to the next, passing house, pasture, field, and shed as I make my way to the center of life at the Angle.

It seems all of the folk of the Dúnedain are out of doors.  The voices of men harsh upon the morning air call to oxen pulling the ploughs.  Dark is the earth they turn upon the fields.  The women spread damp sheets and clothing upon the bushes to dry and arise from the soil to straighten their backs from the planting of their gardens. Their children fetch and carry for them, and shepherd the young ones from harm, their voices high and bright amidst the tofts.  Men lounge about the farrier's just apart from the stink of metal and burning hooves.  His hammer rings out across the path. Their faces are solemn, and their eyes are dark.  They speak little but nod a courteous greeting.  I pass and the scrambling of feet, both of horse and man comes from the back of his shed.

"Ha, there," I hear, and men cluster about a yearling at his first shoeing.  With hand and soft voices they settle him again and I hear them no more.

I wear the black of mourning, the fine folds of the cloth shivering against my cheek in the morning breeze. I turn few heads, either as I walk or in the square when I arrive.  Was not always so, but no bright laughter rings nigh my ear nor shared song shortens the way and draws the eye of our folk bent to stalls and carts of goods.  I come upon them now and their voices rise in a muted babble that seems as a stream rushing o’er a stony bed.  The people of the Angle have arisen early, for 'tis the day of the market.  No matter the empty chairs about the hearth nor the shuttered windows and fallow gardens gone to seed, it is spring, the day is fair, and the Angle must endure.

Come the summer, the heavy hand of the sun will press the folk to find shade where aught they may.  But, today, the air is cool and the sun a blessing.  The square is full of people as they awaken from the winter and share of the first fruits of their labors. This early in the spring our men-folk trade beans and bundles of greens from the rough carts they had pulled themselves into the square.  Their wives trade tender shoots of cress pulled from the river to please the palate, and thin bark stripped from the willow to ease pain and fevers.

A table has been set afore the tall mound of stone and there, with their children lagging behind them or running about their knees, the men and women of the Dúnedain wait for their breads to emerge from the ovens.   Low and grave their voices come to me.  They speak with heads inclined and I hear words of barter, but, as oft, I hear words of fear mingled therein.

Not only do goods cross hands at the market, but news of the Angle is traded for that of the wider lands about us.  We are a people far spread across the lands of Eriador, and the lines that connect us run thin across the Wild.  For want of firmer tidings, rumor can run through the market faster than the fabled steeds of the Horse Lords.  Today, they speak of our lord and Chief. 

Some say the Dúnadan yet lives and lies in the house of his kin.  To others, his spirit has already fled these shores and we must soon lay his body in the earth beside his lady mother, and she but newly gone to the barrows, herself.  Deeply, now, they regret his seeming indifference.  He is the last of his line.

I pass the fuller's stall where his wife is in the midst of haggling o’er a bundle of fleece newly sheared from the animal.  She spares me a smile in greeting o’er the shoulder of her customer.

"Nienelen!" she calls and the woman afore her turns to see to whom she calls.  I know her, too, once a childhood friend, but she turns away without greeting.  Mayhap more friend to my sister than to I.  But still, I cannot bring myself to fault her for the slight.  Her gaze had lingered upon the black of my woolen wrap and, I think, calls too keenly to mind when last she wore one such.

"Shall you finish the dye you promised ere you go?" the mistress asks.  A true worker of fiber, her fingers never leave off caressing the wool.

"Aye," I call to her.  "You do not forget the price we set?"

Anxious am I, for she promised to pay me in coin, a rare thing.  I would not ask, but I have great need for it as ne’er afore.  The dwarves of the Blue Mountain trade in many things, but I fear have little need of aught I might else have to offer.

"I can pay it, never fear."  She waves me on ere returning to her dickering.  

I pass, and the butcher's knife comes down upon a joint of meat with a dull whack, sending the hares and fresh-caught fish swaying upon their pole above his head where they hang.  Elder Tanaes' face is round and red as always, hale of arm and heart, though he be greatly lame of leg from a wound taken long ago in our lord's service.  He raises a bloody knife to wipe his forehead upon his sleeve.  As I pass, he gives me a slight wink and nods at the rolls of sausages upon his cart.  He knows they are my favorite, fat and freshly made, stuffed with meat, dried apple and sage, but today I shake my head.  I have other errands to run. And so, he nods and returns to his work. 

Piles of furs and tumbled forms of baskets at first hide the young girl, sitting as she is hunched in a corner behind them.  She sits on ragged mats of woven fibers and watches her aunt twine reeds about the naked ribs of a basket she crafts.  I know them not, but the dark eyes, head full of curls, and the haggard look of days and nights spent in fear mark them for our folk of the wandering clans newly fled to the Angle.

I catch their eye as I pass, but, though I nod, they say naught but stare as had they not thought to see me here.  And yet I am but one more stranger in a stranger's home.  Bereft they seem, and, though my heart aches for it, I can do little but walk past.

At the last, I must walk afore the table on which are set wine skins from about the sea of Rhŭn, barrels of salt from Harlond, leatherwork from Rohan, knives and tools of dwarven make, glassworks from Dale, and other such goods which the Angle does not produce.  There is no help for it, for the path I must take passes afore it and there is no other.  ‘Tis the stall of the trader, Master Bachor, whose eyes have tracked my steps from when first I set foot upon the square. He is sure to have coin, and sure to offer it, were not the cost too dear to accept. He does not greet me, having long ago given up on the attempt, but neither does he hide that he marks my progress and must know full well where I am going.  But then, he must turn to his sister who works by his side and seeks his attention to speak with their customer, and I may slip past.

The square now behind me, the door I seek opens upon shaded rooms and I am soon there.  Chickens cluck their complaint in their pens in the yard and hide the sounds that come from within.  So, it is with alarm that I stop and whirl about, leaving the Elder to his company in his hall.  Ranger Halbarad is within and, in the brief glimpse I had of them, has risen to take his leave, his dark head tall above the cap of the old man whose home this is.

I remove myself beneath the low-hanging thatch, my lip pinched between my teeth, and debate what to do.  Oft his yard is lined with petitioners, each leaning upon the old man's wall, and it is indeed odd to find myself alone here today.  I am torn.  I have no desire to overhear their discussion, yet any path away would take me again through the Angle’s square and the people in it.

The voice of the Elder comes from the open doorway.  It is flat with the toneless quality of the near deaf.

"Aye," says he, "our roots may dig deep, but our branches fail of the skies.  Ah!  But you know this."

Wood scrapes against the floor and I lean against the Elder's home, eyelids weighted by the sun. It seems the interview is soon to close, and they speak naught of consequence. I have heard this very cant from the Elder afore, many a time.  It comes at the end of his litany of worries.  I have but to wait.  I close my eyes and rest against the wall and, in a moment, his voice and the cackling of the hens are far removed from the half-formed thoughts that swirl in my head.

I know Halbarad but little, for all my father called him friend.  Their companionship was told in the silence of men who tread too far upon dark paths.  Only once did my father invite Halbarad to our home.  Many years it seems now since the tall, quiet man stooped his head to enter our door. 

Even in the heaviness that is my drowse I smile.   Much care had we put to the meal and lingered over our pots, my sister and me.  She, dark-eyed and laughing, whispered of the ensnaring potency of oil of clove as she stirred drops of it into the sweetened pottage.  She spoke, too, of matches made upon the shared brother-blood of Rangers as she shook out braids laved with oil, lavender, and aloe water, smoothing the wildness of my curls into ringlets with its heady scent.  Mayhap that had been my father's intent, but it had come to naught.  He partook of the food we offered, spoke of the small things of the Angle with my father, and answered questions of the beauties of the Wild o’er which he had ranged.  How his eyes glowed with pleasure at the telling!  And yet, he might ever after greet me with sober courtesy when e’er we met, for all the pleasure of his visit Halbarad came ne'er again.  

"But they are all from good families, descended from the Kings, and will do at a pinch," comes the Elder's voice, faint as though from a great distance.  I hear it not.

"They will do, they will all do, will they not, my boy?"

Halbarad's reply is too deeply voiced for me to hear, but their feet scuff against the floor.

"What was that?  Hmm, well, aye, true, only one is needed.  And would that we had been heeded long ago.  It is long overdue, my good Halbarad.  Choose well."

"I thank thee, Master Maurus," comes Halbarad's clear farewell.  

At the sound, I open my eyes and clutch at the basket ere it falls from my softening grip.  When I lift myself from the wall, the dark shadow of the Ranger's cloak is afore me.  I know not why he must then start and stare at me as he turns to take his leave.

"Bid you good morrow, sir," I say as I nod.

"Nienelen."  Halbarad bows, his eyes wondering.  Now that he is close, and I may look fully upon him, I see he bears a bruise about his neck and a long scrape above his eye.  They pull at my gaze and I find I wonder at how he came to bear these small wounds. No doubt was my father here, he could tell me.

"Ah, Nienelen," the Elder says, gaining the Ranger's attention as well as my own.  He lingers in the door behind Halbarad, his hand clutching its frame in want of other prop.  "I thought you might come." 

"On the morrow?  Yes?" he asks Halbarad as he lays his light clasp upon my elbow.  His eyes, watery with age, peer across my shoulder at the Ranger.

"Come, child," Elder Maurus says and motions me forward.

"Aye, yes, on the morrow," says Halbarad, mumbling in his distraction.  Only then seeming to come to himself, he turns to face the Elder.  "Aye, until then.  Bid you good day," he says loudly, bows, and is gone.

"Come inside, my child," the Elder says.  He leans heavily upon my elbow as he hobbles his way to the table.

"What think you, Nienelen, eh?"  His voice is overloud for being just beneath my ear, but there is little I can do about it that would not give him offense.  "Such a fine day is it not, though the breeze is chill to these old bones.  They've not left off aching since the winter, knees, hips and fingers, the lot of them.  My end is coming soon, though Pelara tells me I have yet too much mischief to stir up in the Angle ere my time is through."

He waves a hand to the seat Halbarad had so recently vacated and flashes a bright grin as he looks about for his stool.  I smile in return.  He takes much delight in his reputation, our Elder.

I set the basket and its contents upon the floor when I sit.  It thumps heavily to it as it settles.

"Ah, well, you did not come to hear of my ills," he says, undisturbed by the noise.  "It is a fault of the very old, my child, to believe that youth has an ear for what will come with the years." He presses swollen knuckles onto the table as he eases his body to his seat.  "There, now," he says and sighs, having settled himself down.  "Will you have some tea, child?" He lifts the lid of the pot and peers inside.

"Aye, Father," I say, "were it not too much trouble."

"Trouble?  What trouble be there?" he asks, squinting eagerly at me from across the table.

I shake my head and then say, "Tea! Father!"  I nod broadly and raise my voice.  "Yes!  Thank you!"

"Oh!  Ah, I see," he says, blinks as were it in disappointment, and lets the iron lid clatter to the pot.  "No, no, no trouble at all."

He turns about upon his seat and bellows, "Pelara!  Company! Tea!"

"And how goes your plans?" he asks in voice that is not much quieter. 

"They go well!"

"Well?" he asks, and I nod.  "Ah, good. A pity your father’s aunt never chose to remarry.  A fine woman she was."

His voice rings in the room just as, no doubt, does mine.  I sigh, for I cannot see how I shall conduct my business without all the Angle outside his door being privy to our discussion.

"I would have married her after my Therinil died.  Did you know that?" he asks but then goes on without a glance my way.  "Oh yes!  But she would have none of it.  A shame, really.  Then you could quit your house and come live with us here.  You and my daughter could fight o’er who will provide us with the better care, eh?"  His light eyes twinkle merrily. 

I am thankfully spared the necessity of answering his question by the appearance of his daughter.  Mistress Pelara bustles in, wiping dirt from her hands upon her apron.  I think it most like she has been called from the garden.  I smile what I hope is an apology for the disruption in her day when she nods her greeting.

"Good day, Nienelen," she says but turns immediately to the Elder.  "Yes, Father," she says and tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, so she may see him unhindered. The silver threads in her hair catch the sunlight as she leans in to the old man.  A mother of grown sons and daughters, yet she is as a child to his wintered years.

"Ah!  There you are, Daughter!" he says.  "Tea for our guest, Nienelen.  She comes to beg what charity the Angle may give her, kinless woman that she is now."

Were he not an elder of our people, I would have forgotten promises made to my father and unleashed my displeasure upon him.  As it is, my back stiffens, my surprise thickening my tongue, so I cannot speak.

"Och, now, Father!" his daughter exclaims and, patting her reddened hands about its surface first to check for its heat, picks up the teapot. "You have not heard a single word Nienelen has said, I warrant, as deaf as you are."

"Bah! My ears are as keen as yours, girl!" he says to her back, for she has left and I can hear water pouring in the other room.

"Humph!" comes her voice through the doorway.  "Did not, just this morning, I tell you to take the porridge off the hearth?  Did I not?"

"Impudence!" he calls after her.

"I said, 'Father, should it please you, would you swing the pot away from the fire when the porridge gets to galloping?  Our little ones would like some breakfast.'"  I hear a loud thud in the other room.  "Those very words I used, as clear as the sunrise o’er an open field."

"Do not tempt me, girl!  You are not yet too old for me to take you across my knee," the old man warns.

"And there it sits, a mess crusted upon the bottom of the pot as hard as –" 

"An you said aught of consequence –" the Elder goes on, raising his voice and pounding his cane against the floor for her attention.

"— the iron to which it is burnt."  Mistress Pelara bustles back in through the door.  She thumps the pot upon the brazier at her father's feet and stoops to stir the coals in its belly.

"— I might be troubled to listen," he protests o’er her head.

"You have the ears of worm," she says and gives the coals a final poke.

"Ah, now, Nienelen," she says and, ignoring her father's sour look, rises.  "There we are.  What did you come for then, my dear?"

I look from one set of light eyes to the other, uncertain who to address.  The one who will hear what I say?  Or the one who pulls the strings of the family’s purse?

"Though the Angle has ever been my home, I have given thought to where I must go –" I say, my glance straying from one to the other.

"Oh, no, child!" bursts from the Elder, who has been peering closely at my face as I speak.  "Valar save us!  You are not traveling in the Wild, are you?  All alone, besides?"

His daughter clucks her tongue.  "Surely, she is not going without escort, Father!"

"Where could she be headed that she will find any to travel with her, hmm? Our folk flee to the Angle, not away from it."

"Never you mind him, Nienelen," she says, glaring at her father.

"Humph," the old man grunts and rocks on his seat as were he attempting to find the sweetest spot for his old bones.  "Where did you say you were planning to go, child?" he asks, leaning in to me for a moment.  I am hesitant to answer, for it seems he is more interested in gathering fuel for the fire raging between them than listening to my answer.  But what else am I to do?

"West, father, near the Blue Mountains!" I say.

"Ah, the Blue Mountains?  Why did you not say so afore, child?"   He raises his voice though his daughter stands within arm's reach of me.  "She intends to travel west, to Amon Mîth," he says as were he the bearer of the news. 

Mistress Pelara catches my eye and shakes her head as were only we two able to comprehend her father's folly.  Steam rises from the pot and she turns to lift it from the brazier.

"Ah well, now, that makes more of sense." her father says as she sets it upon the pad of wool between us.

The Mistress says naught and rummages loudly through the drawer of a side table.  She lifts the lid of the pot to drop a tightly drawn bag therein, her movements quick for the heat of the iron.  “You’d not have close kin there, surely, what with your mother gone all these years, aye?” she asks and I shake my head as she slips two small bowls afore her father.

"Aye, a sorry business, it is," he sighs, and giving me a glance, pushes a bowl to me with a hand that tremors with his age.  "No kin to keep you here, nor obligation to any house other than that of your father’s." 

He has now fallen silent, his lips pursed as he taps at the crockery afore him with a fingernail to make it chime softly.

His daughter gives me a thoughtful look ere turning her gaze upon her father, but when he gives her but a slight shake of his head, she turns back to me.  "You hope to travel with the dwarves that are due to pass through on the East-West road, do you not?"

"Aye, Mistress."

"Need you any aid?"

I shake my head.  "I think not, though I shall leave much behind."

"Aye, and we can see it given where greatest the need, and there be great need," the Elder says, nodding.

His daughter takes up the pot and pours the tea into our bowls in silence.  To these words of her father's, she does not give protest.  Her face is full of sober thought as she pours.

"But these –" I say, leaning down to grasp the basket at my feet.  "I must pay for my passage.  My father had no sons to pass them on to and I think he would not –" and here my voice falters.

The basket sits in my lap, where it creaks as I breathe.  I stare at the tea, unable, a moment, to either move or speak.  The steam that rises from our bowls smells of rose hips and chamomile, a tart, pink scent.  I hear the soft sound of a tongue clicking at my side and I know it comes from the woman of this house, but I dare not look at her for I know what I shall see.  

I clear my throat and, from the depths of the basket pull my father's winter cloak and blanket, knife, belt, tinder box, and other such things as a Ranger might need when traveling.

"His sword, I have at home, and that, too—" I say as I lay them upon the table.  There is no need to mention why I would not wish to carry it through the village, they know.  A spectacle it would have been.

The Elder's face is solemn.  He seems, for once, at a loss for words, and looks to his daughter.

"Ah, Nienelen," she says, her brows knit with concern.  "Your eldest may carry his father's gear in time, but would you not save these for a younger son?"

I shake my head.  I do not state what is obvious.  The chance I shall bear the elder, much less a younger, weighs not near as heavy as the chances of an empty belly and frozen hearth should I not find a place among my kin that gives me shelter and occupation.    

"Pelara," I hear and find it is the Elder's voice that speaks so gently.

The look he gives her is full of meaning, though I know not what private thing they share.  I take the chance to sip my tea and let them decide what they will.  The brew is warm and sweeter than I thought.

"Aye," the Mistress sighs.

She runs an appreciative hand o’er the cloth of my father's cloak and squeezes the blanket beneath, her skin pale against its dark folds.  Her father lifts his bowl with hands made clumsy by the years and sips from it with great care.  It seems he, too, finds comfort in the excuse to remain silent.  The mistress was wife to a husband, who, many years ago, had not returned home, and had left them with naught to mourn over but their remembrances. 

"We have no coin, Nienelen," Mistress Pelara says, catching the tinderbox and knife ere they can slide from atop the pile of wool, "but doubt not, between my father and I, we could satisfy the price of passage and make up the lack in trade with those who do.  Master Dwalin yet owes you the favor he pledged, Father, does he not?

The Elder smacks his lips and speaks into his bowl.  “That he does, Daughter.”

With this, I feel as were I only now able to take my first breath of clean air in many days.  Mayhap, then, mayhap all will end not so poorly as I had feared.  

"’Tis for Gelir?" I ask, and she nods.  He is her youngest and but newly sworn to our lord’s service.  It is hard to believe.  I recall him as a small boy who set crickets down his playmate's dresses one evening when, as a girl, I had the charge of them. His mother's face softens when she sees me smiling.

"Aye, I know," she says, shaking her head.  "He takes most after his mother's father, though it be my eldest who now mans the ovens for our folk."  She spares a glance for the grandsire in question, but he is much involved in the tea, slurping loudly, and merely scowls at her above the rim of his bowl.  He knows not what she said, but, it seems, recognizes the look she gives him.  "But he loves our lord and will serve him with all his heart, following his father in all things."

"Aye then, should it will serve him well.  I think I would like that, Mistress. My thanks to thee," I say and touch my brow with fingers warmed from the tea.

With a pat to my shoulder, Mistress Pelara then takes up the knife and belt, for they threaten to slide to the floor yet again.  "Well then, that is settled, yes?" she says and goes to a chest behind her father to put them away.  

So, then it is done.  I sip my tea and forget that the basket remains in my lap.

"Shall you not keep this, in memory of him?"

Startled, I look up to find the Mistress' gaze upon me and I know my eyes have lingered on the small metal box of tinder.  Vines chase across the silver.  It is of dwarven make, though I know not how old.  My father told me, when young, that it came from across Lake Town from the hoard of the King under the Mountain.  I doubt the tale is true.  The story was told by a doting father to brighten the eyes of his daughters and send them to sleep accompanied by dreams of far off places and fanciful tales.

I shake my head, setting down the now empty bowl.

She takes up the metal box. "Truly, Nienelen, I would not begrudge it.  Indeed, it is too fine for the boy and he has his own."

The Elder watches, his eyes sharp o’er the rim of his bowl and steam lighting upon his brow.

At last I nod, unable to speak and the Mistress presses it into my hands where it feels both heavy and cold.  She is silent while I slip it into the basket and I know not what to do next.

The Elder sets his bowl down with a sharp clatter, smacking his lips and frowning.

"When is supper?" he demands loudly, breaking the silence.

"Father," Mistress Pelara says, her voice sharp, "in a good while.  There is no need to rush our guest off.  She's barely finished her tea."

I stand and stammer, "No, mistress, I have overstayed my time."

She clucks her tongue looking from me to her father and then cocks her head at the old man, who peers up at her with his watery eyes.  

"Mayhap, Father, you would see fit to give our guest a proper farewell," she says loudly.

"Bid you good day, Nienelen," he croaks, looking my way briefly ere his gaze returns to his daughter and he shrugs.

"Very well," she says, throwing up her hands.  "My thanks to thee, Nienelen," she says. “Should you have need of aught else ere you are to go, I am sure we can see it done.”

"Thank you, Mistress.  Bid you good day," I say and, touching my fingers to my brow, nod, and leave.

As I go, the Elder strokes the wool of my father's cloak and I know he must think of it warming his own bones, cold for their want of marrow, but his daughter plucks it from under his hand, giving him only the cluck of her tongue in exchange.  But then, once the wool is put away, his daughter plucks the cap from her father's head, only to smooth his thin white hair and drop a kiss onto the top of his head ere replacing it.  He beams up at her ere returning to sipping his tea.

~oOo~

Chapter Text

~ Chapter 3 ~

 

'But I shall die,' said Aragorn.  'For I am a mortal man, and though being what I am and of the race of the West unmingled, I shall have life far longer than other men, yet that is but a little while.'

ROTK: The Steward and the King

~oOo~

A thatched roofed cottage fills the view.  It looks solidly made and in good condition, if small.

~oOo~

~ TA 3007, 5th day of Gwirith: Charges: six pennies of good copper from Mistress Fuller in exchange for three full bars of woad dye, to be no less in weight than those traded on TA 3006, 25th day of Ivanneth. - Quarter mark weight each.

~oOo~

‘Tis much cold to be working in the garden over water and a tentative fire, but I had little choice.  Pale shapes of leaves swirl in the depths of the slick dark mass in the pot as I stir, surfacing briefly as fish that rise in the river.  The juice of the woad plant stains my hands, a blue sunk into each line and crevice of my skin up to my elbows, bright upon my palms and deeply shadowed against the dark warmth of my skin. I am grateful for the ragged sheet I have tied about my person, for it now bears streaks and handprints upon it.  Though I will scrub, I shall have ghostly hands for days to come.  But once this soup of leaves is strained and dried into cakes, it can be used to dye wool a beautiful blue, dark and as rich as the summer sky at twilight, its color hardy against soap, hot water or sun.

The sun glows warmly against the back wall of my father's house.  Ever I shall remember it so, even now, these days of spring when the first fingers of flowering vines break the earth and reach for the stones.  Soon, I would have brought my mother’s bay tree and aloe in their pots into the garden where they could feel the sun.  Soon, my father would have sat in the midst of his seedlings and put us to the task of making his plans for the season's planting come to be.  His square palms and thick fingers rough with calluses from the weapons he carried when he ranged far from the Angle, he would press them into the dirt and drink of its smell as he laid tender shoots to bed.

The dye simmers thickly and I glance at the back door to the house.  Should I leave the brew to the fire?  Ai!  So much still to do.   Yet, it seems I can make no decision in this tangle of unfinished tasks, turning restlessly from one to the other without bringing any to completion.

"Bid you good morrow, Nienelen," a voice calls. 

I drop the spoon into the pot, for the voice is deep of timbre.

Catching the glimpse of a tall, dark-headed man with light eyes set within his pale face, I whirl about and squint into the sun.  It seemed, for a brief moment, my father had returned and called me to him.  But it is not so, and my betrayed heart beats wildly for no good reason.  It is Ranger Halbarad, whom, of late, I have seen more days in a row than I can put together in the past ten years.  He stands at the corner of the house with his hands resting upon the gate, and there waits with uneasy patience for me to acknowledge him.

I dry my hands and leave the pot untended for the moment, my decision made for me.

"Sir," I say, nodding my head in greeting, my awkwardness matched only by his own as he steps back from the gate for me to open it.

As when he had lifted the bough to ease my passage under the trees, his eyes fill with a meaning at which I can only guess.  For a man with whom I have exchanged precious little speech in my life, I marvel he has aught to say to me now.  With dread, I can only think he comes with words of consolation.  The funeral meats have been eaten, the guests have gone, and I have bartered away my father's things.  Dust now collects beneath his empty chair.  So, when the Ranger walks through the gate and stands within my father's sleeping garden, looking steadily at his feet, to my shame, I hope only he intends to be brief.

"My thanks to you for coming," say I.  "My father oft spoke of the esteem in which he held you.  You do him honor."

His eyes flash upon me for an instant, and, had I not known otherwise, I would have thought I had caught him by surprise.

Bowing his head, Halbarad says, "As I have held him.  I am sorry for the loss you suffer.   I know I shall find my days much diminished by his passing."  His gaze is solemn and somewhat of weariness and regret passes in his eyes.

With that, we stand upon the lawn of the croft, one watching the other.  With a sinking heart I realize he has more to say than a brief exchange in the garden will suffice.

"Would you come inside and take refreshment?"

He shifts on his feet and squints at the door, to my confusion saying neither yea nor nay.  "I had hoped to speak to your aunt and have only now learned of her passing.  I am grieved I did not come earlier, had I any comfort to offer.”

I have naught to say but bow my head and hope that my silence does not offend.

“But-” He grimaces, glancing swiftly from the house to me, as were he pressed by great need and debating his course. "But, in truth, my intentions in coming here were otherwise. Our days fall short and give me little choice." 

He pauses and draws a quick breath, clasping his arms behind his back.  "I have a thing to ask of you,” he says, and then continues in the tongue of the elves, “an thee permit it.”

I nod and wait for him to continue.

“Nienelen, I have a thing to ask you of marriage."

With that, I blink at him in surprise and, at first, can think of naught to say.  I cannot deny he is a fine figure of a man, the closest kin of the Dúnadan and known for valor in his own right, as eligible as any man in the Angle. And true, he has a reputation for a quiet nature and so would give little sign of his thoughts, but, natheless, I am at a loss to explain how, after all this time, he came to fasten upon the idea of taking me to wife.

I am frowning and staring at him.  With haste, I assemble my features into a more pleasing form, for I do not wish to give offense.  "I thank you for your attentions, Halbarad, but I had no warning of your desire."

He reddens and blinks at me in turn.  His face has turned to stone.

Ai!  This is going badly.

"Mayhap, it would be best –" I say, stumbling upon my words.

"Nienelen," he interrupts.  "I beg your pardon. It was not my intent to mislead you," he says stiffly and bows his head in apology.  "I do not speak on my own behalf.  I come upon the authority granted me by another."

"Oh," is all I can think to say.  I stare at him. 

"Mayhap, could we sit."

"Oh," say I, shaken out of my bemusement.  "Oh. Aye."

I wipe my hands at my apron, forgetting that woad stains all it touches and the color is deep in the grain of my skin.  I take up the ladle and stir the contents of the cauldron one last time.  It will do.  It must do.  Dousing the flames allows me to look elsewhere other than at the man who stands stiffly just outside my reach.  No doubt he is as grateful for the reprieve as am I.

When I lead him into the house, we stand in the doorway.  I am uncertain as to where to sit him down.  The fire upon the hearth is banked and the hall is full of baskets and piles of the small items that keep a household warm, fed and occupied.  Shutters and rugs hang across the windows, not yet removed from the winter and, but for the light that spills in behind us, it is dark inside.

Decided, I enter and lift blankets from a low couch that sits near the hearth. 

“I am sorry I cannot make you more comfortable."  I drop the pile upon a table, but he merely shakes his head and follows my steps into the room.

"I will be comfortable enough," says he, though I doubt the conversation to follow will have much of ease about it.

As he seats himself, I pull the rug from the window behind him and lay it aside.  Lowering the shutters does much to lend light to the room, but little comfort given the disarray and the lack of a fire.  As I lift the turfs from the hearth, the banked coals provide a welcome warmth, faint though it is.  My hands are cold from working with water on a chill day, my knuckles stiff and cracked.

"I am afraid I have little to offer you."  I stir the ashes and lay kindling atop the fire.  "I have let much of our stores dwindle.  But I have small ale, should that do."

"It will, should you join me."

He has been watching me, seated on the couch, his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped between them, kneading his fingers.  He is not at ease.  But his courtesy is soothing, and it is with a lighter heart I leave him there to find him refreshment.

I return to find Halbarad puzzling over the tall loom leaning against the wall.  His furrowed brows seek to make sense of the tangle of yarns, lathes, and clay weights that dangle from the warp.  ‘Tis the name of Vairë the Weaver burned deep to the wood of the heavy warp beam that seems to catch his eye and set him to frowning. The Ranger’s expression is nigh one of relief when I return and offer him a cup.  He takes it, bowing his head in thanks when I settle upon a bench across from him.  The fire has caught, the flames pouring across the dry wood as we drink in silence.  I have unwound the sheet from around my middle and settled my plaited curls in the scarf I wear.   I am warm, should I not be comfortable.

"When had you planned to leave?" Halbarad asks, breaking the quiet.

I shift in my seat ere answering.  "When the company of dwarves from the Blue Mountains come down the Great East Road."  He nods in confirmation. 

"Aye," says he, and sighs.  "Along with others. Do you wish it, to leave the Angle?"

I hardly know.  My wounds are too fresh and each step upon my father’s house and the lands about them bring a fresh pain.  Yet, I know not should I find what awaits me elsewhere a greater burden.

"I had not expected to receive an offer of betrothal to keep me here."

"Not betrothal, Nienelen," says he and his sudden gravity silences me.  "There will be no troth-plighting. No year of contemplation.  What I have brought is an offer to be wedded."

"Wedded?"

"Wedded."  His eyes search my face.

"Wedded?" It seems I cannot put two words of sense together.

"Aye," he says and is about to speak further, but I hold up a hand to stop him.

I can call to mind a handful of Rangers of Halbarad's acquaintance that may require a wife but have not the inclination to woo her, all older and unmarried or bereft of wife.  But I cannot think of one who could not ask for my hand himself and could not put aside his urgency to observe the rituals of our people.  The intended groom may have had time to come to his decision, but what of the time the bride might need?  What manner of man was this?

"Ranger Halbarad?" I ask, "Might I be so bold as to request his name?"

"This will be a marriage of duty."  He clears his throat, rubbing the lip of the cup with his thumb.

"Aye, that is understood."

"And it is to be offered with certain expectations," he says and pauses, reluctant, it seems, to continue.

But I can only remain silent.  I have little idea as to his thoughts and his disinclination to name the groom does not bode well.

"It is required that you be able to perform certain duties."

"So I gather," say I when he pauses for what seems an interminable moment.

"The groom requires that I inquire as to your ability to perform them ere he requests your hand."

"Aye, and should you name them I might have a better chance at knowing what answer to give him," I say, but instantly regret my impetuous tongue.  By now, Halbarad, Ranger of the North, has fallen mute and a faint pink paints his jaw and cheeks.  His eyes wander into his cup and seem to have become lost there.

"Ah," I say in dawning comprehension.  "I take it they are of a delicate nature."

It is little wonder, then, he had hoped to speak with my elder.  He nods and does not lose any of the heat that suffuses his face.  But it cannot be helped, and, I think, should this discussion proceed, ‘tis I who must plunge on.

"Mayhap having to do with my ability to bear children of him," I say, and he nods.  ‘Tis not an uncommon condition placed upon arranged marriages between our folk and does not surprise me.

"Ah."

I settle back into my seat.  The awkward solemnity of the man now rubbing his thumb against his cup weighs upon me.  It seems wise to make no promises I cannot keep.

"I can only say I have no reason to believe I am not capable of bearing children, but I have no reason to know with certainty that I am."  

His eyes flash from the cup to my face and study me intently.  It is my turn for my skin to heat. I do so most unwillingly and can only hope the richer coloring of my skin will hide the warmth of my blood better than it had the Ranger’s.  So, the groom had demanded another condition.

"There have been no others to put it to the test," I declare flatly.

"Then the requirements are met," says he and, taking a deep breath, sets his cup aside.  He stands and extends his hand for mine.   Though unsure, I lay my hand in his.  For naught else, I shall soon learn the name of the groom and bring this riddle to an end.

He lets my fingers lie lightly upon his and speaks, his voice grown formal.  "Nienelen, daughter of Melendir, I have been charged to request your hand by the Lord of the Dúnedain, Aragorn, Arathorn's son.  He asks that you bind yourself to him, take upon yourself the duties as is proper of his lady and the mother of his heirs, and accept his safekeeping of your self and the children you bear of him."

I jerk my hand from his as had it burned.

"What manner of jest is this?" I demand, fighting hot, sudden tears.  I can only think I have been played the fool for his amusement.  I had not known him capable of such cruelty.

Halbarad stares at me, stunned.  He then grabs for my hand again and sits.

"Nienelen!" he says, pressing my fingers in his to gain my attention.  "In truth, I make no sport of this!"

Thoughts whirl in my mind but make no sense.  I stare at him without word, but my eyes must beg for answers.  He releases me and scrubs at his brow, sighing.  When his hand falls to his knee, it reveals not the face of one of our lord's Rangers, but that of his friend and kinsman.  He kneads his hands, quiet a moment.

"Our lord requires an heir," he says, his voice so low it is as were he pleading with me.

My thoughts range o’er the words that have been said between us and I can draw but one conclusion.  I feel cold, as had a sudden chill stolen upon me.

"Then he is as they say?"

Halbarad's face speaks eloquently enough of his concern that he need say naught.

I rise swiftly from my seat, grabbing onto my arms and pace the short distance between my bench and the baskets that impede my way.  ‘Tos not so much that I am thinking, but that I must take time for what has been said to settle.  It is as had I taken in a large gulp of wine and must clear my head.

"When?"

"An you are willing, tonight."   I suck in a breath in dismay.  Urgent, indeed.

Halbarad speaks, watching me anxiously, "Our folk refurbish his family's house even now, so you may make your home there after the wedding."

I know the place of which he speaks.  When our lord's lady mother returned to live among us again, she had taken up the house of her husband's family and abandoned it only when they carried her to the barrows just these few months past. 

Ah, but should I bear an heir of this marriage and my lord fail, I shall be alone as his lady mother in the child's rearing.  I place hands on either side of my face to cool my brow.  My thoughts spin in my head as so many leaves in an autumn storm, I grasp one and the wind rips it from my fingers.

Halbarad awaits my answer.  I sit, and his hands fall still, but he does not speak.  No matter my thoughts, for, in this, reason cannot lead me.  In my heart, heard clear above the storm of my fears, rings my father's voice.

"Yes," I say.  Halbarad looks at me as could he not bring himself to trust what he hears.

"What answer shall I take, lady?"

"I am beholden to my lord, what else am I to say, but aye?"  I throw up my shaking hands with a wry, soft laugh.  When they fall, I rub my palms along my skirts.  "Should my lord judge it best, I will lay myself in his hands."

"This is for you to say whether you are willing or no," Halbarad urges, seeking my eyes and looking at me kindly, with an earnest pity.

"I will it.  I shall do as he asks."  

He seems to breathe deeply and his shoulders gentle as had a great burden been lifted from him.  "Then I shall be pleased to take your answer to our lord," he says and rises.

Halbarad looks upon me from his great height.  By the set of his mouth and eyes I know he is pleased.  Somewhat of hope seems to warm his gaze.

"I must return to our lord.”  He nods almost as he were requesting permission to leave and, with little thought, I nod in return.  At that, he strides to the door.

“But first to the house of Master Maurus from where his daughter will come to attend to you."

I have followed and open the door for him.  There he takes my hand in farewell, bowing over it formally.

"My thanks to thee," he says, and then goes on with added emphasis, "my lady."

It seems my heart freezes for moment, ere beating again.  It comes to me only now that, this day, I have accepted far more than role of wife and mother.

~oOo~

Chapter Text

'The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on foreknowledge of safety, for himself or for others,' said Aragorn.  'There are some things that it is better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark.'

TTT: The Riders of Rohan

~oOo~

closeup of pink and white wild roses

~oOo~

~TA 2008: 5th day of Gwirith: -House of Melendir, with its toft, garden, sheds, and furnishings to remain property of Nienelen, his remaining daughter. Tithes due the House of Isildur fully discharged and as of this day in abeyance.  All lidded baskets of wool and linen and the tools of their shaping in the hall; one tall loom in the hall; one low chest of cedar and all clothing, combs, jars, soaps, and cloths therein in the hall; three oil lamps in the hall; own bound journal of sketches of heddle wrapping, list of dye ingredients, and lays of the northern folk; one writing desk of walnut with this book, parchments, quill, pumice, penknife, and ink horn in the hall; one potted bay tree in the hall; one potted aloe plant in the hall; leather bucket and tools therein in the garden; and all pots, baskets, buckets, ewers, and other such wares in the buttery to be conveyed to the Chieftain’s house on this day. Six hens and one rooster to be placed in the care of the house of Elder Maurus until sent for. All foodstuffs of dried herbs, butter, greens, salted pork, cracker, ale, roots, grains, flours, pease, lentils, and beans; and all other clothing, blankets, lamp oil, mattresses, and tools to be taken possession of by the Elders of the Council to be distributed as they see fit.  

~oOo~

My head is crowned with the earliest blooms of the brier rose. Pink and white their petals flutter as I spin the stem between my bound hands.

"Stop that," Mistress Pelara scolds around the rose she holds pressed between her lips. She speaks not to me further.  I sit upon a bench in the room I once shared with the women of my house and bend my head beneath her strong fingers.  

Here, in this very room, we had gathered the leaves of the beech, my aunt and I, and wove of them a crown for my sister to wear.  Here, in the warmth of the autumn sun that lay as coverlet upon our bed, we drank deep of a light, yellow wine from our folk to the south, sent by her betrothed.  Once more deeply in our cups, my sister told scandalous tales of the marriage bed that set my aunt to gasping.   

“Laenor!” she cried. “Sayest not such things!” She took then to a whisper. “Or wouldst thou not cease, sayest them not so loudly your father wereth to hear. 

Here, we laved rose water and almond oil into Laenor’s hair and painted her lips with redcurrants and honey.  And when we had settled her dress to her shoulders, we twined and wound her raven curls about her head and pinned to them the band of leaves.  Golden they glowed against her hair and skin, but still could not rival the light that shown in her dark eyes below them.  Here, she had clasped my hands in hers and begged me to be happy for her, and so I had been, for a little. 

Here, too, my aunt lay in her last days. The cloud of her white hair lay about her head, her cheeks, once the pink of the first apples of summer, seemed shrunken and devoid of all color in the thin flickering light of the brazier I set beside our bed to keep her warm.  Atimes, when her light eyes sharpened, and she knew me, she begged me to forgive her in the dry croak that was left of her voice. She would not have it that I spend my days rattling about in the echoes of my family’s hall with none for company between my father’s visits but knew it not to be helped. I gave what comfort I could.  A cool cloth upon her brow. A clean bed.  Deep draughts of water steeped in mandrake to ease her pain and bring her sleep.  And my acceptance.  But in the end, when she let loose her breath as it were the unwinding of a long, thin thread and would not rouse to my touch, I could not stop but take her hand and weep over it, pleading for her, too, not to leave me here.  

Mistress Pelara plucks the rose from between my hands and through dint of prodding and scraping the stem against my head, she sets it to place in my hair with the others.

“There!” says she and twists my shoulders to and fro, the better to examine her work.  She tugs here and pulls there at the flowers and braids in my hair.  “Aye, that will do, I think.”  

With that, she pulls free the ends of the linen wound about one and another of my hands, where she had slathered them with a salve of fat and chamomile.  She had taken my hands each in her broad palms and rubbed it into skin made sore through dint of scrubbing with river sand, and then wrapped them in strips of linen to better take the remedy.  

“Aye, well, we’ve done what we can there,” she says ere releasing my hands.

A distant jingling of harness and clopping of hooves interrupts us and we turn to the window at the noise. It comes as little surprise, but still, at the sound, I feel as had I swallowed a bowl of stones.

“That would be the cart, then,” says the mistress.  She drops the linen strips in a heap upon the tall chest, where they join the litter of wrinkled and brown petals she had plucked from the flowers.  “Leave those, Nienelen,” she says when I move to brush them into a pile.  “I will get them upon the morrow when we come to inventory what is left behind.” 

With that she grabs up the combs, wooden tweezer, linens, various jars, and scissors with which she had done her work and, placing them in a basket, walks briskly out the door into my father’s hall. 

“Ranger Halbarad will follow soon enough, so, please, Nienelen, take a care not to worry at the flowers ere he arrives.”

I hear her moving about in the hall, putting the fire to rights and putting things away until, by the sound of rattling of the wheels and hard, quick footsteps outside my father’s door, the cart that shall take her to our lord’s house has arrived. 

I should thank her.

“There, that should leave you with naught but the shutters in your room and the lamps.  Take care not to spatter the oil, the Valar knows we shall never get it out should it spoil that dress.”

“Nienelen?” she calls from the other room and I should speak.  

“Well then,” she says low and with that, the mistress is gone and soon the cart rumbles from my hearing.  

I douse the lamps but one, careful to hold aside my long sleeves for fear of catching them in the flames. For a moment, I watch the flickering of the one remaining flame and listen as the wind rises. Leaves rustle afore its fitful breath, scattering about the path that runs afore my father's home. A glance out upon the track ere I lift the shutters and fix them in place, and I bite at my lip. The way is clear. There is naught but gathering clouds and rising wind.

For want of aught else to do, I wander the room, touching upon the wool that covers the bed I shared with my aunt and sister.  Here I had slept alone and, of late, been troubled by dreams of a child’s fretful cries amidst the smell of wine and a bitterness I could not place.  It is but a small world within that circle of light cast by the lamp I bear, but it is mine.  How can there yet be more wideness of the world beyond this, but it does not have them in it?  

Ai! With the suddenness of the thought my hand jerks and oil spatters upon the floor.  

The hall is dark and filled with unknown shapes as I stumble through it without heed. Dropping the lamp to my father’s table, I shove aside and lift baskets, chests, and piles of small items in a pile upon the buttery door.  I care not for this dress nor the silks that fall from it. 

Oh, Nienna, have pity on me.  Where could it be?

It seems I put my hand upon it of a chance in this the twilight of the hall.  A round thing of tightly twined reed it is. I take it with me to my father’s table and then set it afore me as I sit.  It is a small basket of my aunt’s sewing.  I had not thought to send it ahead of me to my lord’s hall, for I have my own and much of the tools of the house were shared between us and carry her memories there.  I have little that was my sister’s, for she had taken much with her of her own when she left.  At the bottom of the basket I find it, much as I had remembered, a small purse of sky-blue linen much adorned with threads the green of new-furled leaves and burnished gold.  From it I draw but a small plait of dark, tightly-curled hair.  My aunt had clipped it from my sister’s head that night, nigh on four years now, when we, the women of her family, had bathed and dressed her for the last time.  She put it here, where it would be near, but she had no need to look upon it.  

Ah, soon will Ranger Halbarad come and I must be swift.  

I draw out length of linen cord and, with a hand that shakes so that I despair of threading it through a bone needle, I fasten a length about the mouth of the purse, so it may draw it closed and hang from my neck.   

When I draw it about my head, I must tug upon the knots so that it hangs low, and there I can tuck it beneath the fine silks.  I care not should it sit as a lump between my breasts but clutch at it through the fabric.

Now, now I can sit upon the bench in what was my father’s hall and wait.  

~oOo~

That night, of all nights, it rained. Oft, since then, have I wondered what portents the weather told. Clouds hung heavy in the sky as I rode to my lord's family home. Dark they scudded against the far horizon and hid the sun's setting. It is said rain upon the day of a wedding brings good luck, a blessing of fertility upon both land and wife. Mayhap it is so.

The horse I rode was not mine, nor was the dress found for me to wear. Indeed, I was lifted atop my lord's own mare, her coat a grey the color of unburnished steel, and her mane wound with ribbons. I ride seldom, and my lord's mare is many hands tall, but, as he led the horse, Halbarad set a gentle pace and she moved easily. I, on the other hand, clung to the high saddle and struggled with the wind for control of my dress and the mantle that hung from my shoulders.   

The velvet garment was beautiful, of a rich, dark gloss I had not heretofore seen. Tiny stars sparkled in clusters at the neckline and hem, both lower than is my wont. The fabric of the sleeves was a silk so fine they floated in the slightest breeze. I wrapped the sleeves about my hands and was grateful for their length, for my fingers and nails still bore the mark of woad leaves, lending them an age greater than my years. The mantle, of the same material as the sleeves, drifted shimmering behind me as we moved. The dress was overlong for me, for it had been my lord's lady mother's, brought with her from the house of Master Elrond when she removed herself hence. The lady Gilraen was a woman of fairness of frame as well as face. I was not so tall. 

Natheless, so we proceed, I atop my lord's mount, and his kin striding tall and silent afore me, his hands upon the reins and halter of the steed. Glad am I for Halbarad's quiet, for I cannot think what I would say in reply to even the simplest of speech. Ribbons of a light green stream from where they are tied to his belt and catch the eye among his somber gear.  

Ah! What terrible pride or perversity forced me to give my consent to this marriage?  

The steady clopping of hooves draws our folk from their homes and they stand in their doors to watch as we pass. Many nod in greeting at their lord's lady and salute their lord's man. A young girl, her dark hair bouncing upon her shoulders as she runs from her granddame's side, lifts a handful of flowers plucked from the forest. I clutch at the saddle, for I must lean dangerously low to receive them, though she stands on the tips of her toes.

"Blessings upon you and our lord," she recites in a breathless rush as our hands meet.

I hold the bluebells lightly, fearful of crushing their delicate stems, and stare as she runs back to her family's side. She is not the only to offer me flowers, and soon my hands are full of the delicate white petals of nightcap, the bold yellow of buttercup, and the soft pink of butterbur, as well. With each touch exchanged when they press flowers into my hands, it seems the pit of my stomach drops further, for eyes old and young, man and woman search mine. What sign they seek from me, they do not say, but my heart tells me they wish for hope. So should I wish, were our places reversed.

We collect people in our wake as were we riding the current of some slow-moving stream. Soon, the women of the Angle follow us, leading their children by the hand. At first, their look is subdued and their voices soft. But, when we reach the last of the homes, first one and then other voices rise in song. The women begin to clap, and their steps match the brisk tempo of the music they sing. Smiles warm their faces.

They weave a tale of two young lovers who meet by chance by the river. They sing of hands that touch, of kisses sought and kisses found. Much more is alluded to but not fully said. It is a song of love offered and love received. I go not to a lover's house, yet it lightens my heart, for it brings a faint blush upon Halbarad's cheeks and, though his manner is forthright in all other things, he cannot seem to meet their eyes. This, more than aught else, makes me smile. ‘Tis not oft my lord's Rangers find themselves out of their depths.

When we come within sight of his family's home, my lord steps from his door to stand in the midst of his men clustered upon his croft. My heart thuds to a stop and I know, now, there is no turning back. He is much as I remember him, dark of hair, tall of frame, keen of eye, and grim of countenance. His look is resolute, as he is in all things. I am less well acquainted with the marks that mar his face and the hollows that darken his eyes and cheeks. About him he bears the pains of battle but barely healed, as do his men. His breath is shallow, and he stands very still, as should he dare not move. Yet, he holds himself with a quiet authority that even this cannot abuse. Were you to come upon this gathering and not know who he is, still your eye would be drawn to him.

The light laughter of women must be a welcome thing to Rangers' ears, for the eyes of the men about my lord gleam with a warm light as they wait, holding aloft torches that flare in the false twilight of the heavy sky. Their flames sputter and stream upon the fitful wind as they watch our arrival. Halbarad's gaze has sought my lord out and he measures him with nigh the care I take as well. I think then, should he have the strength to stand so tall, mayhap my lord is not so bad as they say. I know not what are Halbarad's thoughts.

My lord's thoughts are the more plain to tell. When I meet his gaze, I refuse the reserve that rises within me. His glance is sharp, appraising me keenly and, as I lean upon Halbarad's shoulder to alight to the ground, it lends steel to my spine. ‘Twas my lord who asked for my hand, be he satisfied with what he sees or no. I must lift my chin to meet his gaze, for he is a full head taller than I, and when I do so, somewhat about his look gentles.

I keep my eyes upon my lord, hoping to forget all those assembled here. I do not think I have e’er had as many of our folk looking upon me at once, and I fear most to trip upon the overlong skirts I wear. The thought of sprawling upon the ground afore my lord in the company of his Rangers on such an occasion both alarms and amuses me, so that when I come to him, I need not betray my misgivings so easily should he look for them.

I shall not enter his house until we are wed, so my journey ends when I stand afore my groom. The wind stirs his hair, sending tendrils across his face, and lifts my sleeves and mantle to dance about me. With it, the air brings the smell of the softness of night and wet earth. My lord's voice is deep when he says his first words to me. Though he speaks low as were it just the two of us here, in the hush that has settled upon the gathering I think even those upon its fringes know what he asks.

"Lady," he says, "you know what it is that has been asked of you?"

"Aye, my lord."

"And you are willing?" His eyes search my face.

"I am."

"Then let us proceed." His face loses none of its hardness of expression when he steps back and nods to his kin, nor does his voice betray feeling. I know not how he perceives our union, but, natheless, it is soon to be.

We have neither mother nor father between us to join our hands, so it is Ranger Halbarad who comes to stand at our sides. 

"Who is it would take this daughter of the Dúnedain?" And so, he begins the ritual with the tongue of the Elves and the lifting of my lord’s hand.

"It is I, Aragorn, Arathornion," my lord says, his voice smooth and sure. "Afore my kin gathered here and in the presence of the One, I bind myself to this daughter of the Dúnedain. May they hear and consecrate my oath. Here and from henceforward, I vow to give her and the children she bears of me my name and my safekeeping."

"Who is this would give her hand?" asks Ranger Halbarad as he raises his own to me.  Mixed with the words of binding, thunder rumbles distantly above our heads.

I lift my hand and he clasps my fingers firmly between his.  

"It is I, Nienelen, Melendiriell," I say, bringing as much force to my voice as I am able to overcome the sound of thunder and rising wind. "Afore my kin gathered here and in the presence of the One, I bind myself to this son of the Dúnedain. May he hear and accept my oath. Here and from henceforward, I vow to take upon myself the duties of his lady, to provide for the safekeeping of my lord, his people and his heirs, as my lord commands.”

“Then I pass her into thy care, Aragorn, Arathornion and to that of thy house. May thy days with her be filled with the blessings of the Valar."  

So saying, Ranger Halbarad passes my hand to my lord, who takes it in his own. He lifts it afore him. His knuckles are much battered, but his touch gentle. I feel the first drop strike my shoulder and find that my lord's sleeve is spotted with rain. As he speaks, Halbarad tugs the ribbons from where they are tied about his belt. The wind catches them, and they flicker in the firelight.

"Thus do I receive the hand of Nienelen, Dúnedainiell," my lord says, and his kinsman captures the ends of the shimmering bits of cloth and winds them about our clasped hands, "I accept and hold her vow and count myself blessed."

About us, rain strikes the leaves and roof with a restless patter. Ranger Halbarad tucks in the ends of the ribbon gently so that the wind will not pull them asunder and releases us.  

"Thus do I forsake the house of my father's for that of Aragorn, son and Lord of the Dúnedain," I say, "and count myself blessed."

Ranger Halbarad steps aside and winces as a drop falls upon his brow. Light splits the shrouded sky asunder and here and there the people shift and turn their faces to the darkening sky. A wind chill with the touch of rain rushes through the trees and, lifting my mantle, tosses it about my head.

I struggle to contain its flapping, but my free hand is filled with flowers and I cannot grasp upon the fabric.  I am trapped in a film of silk and do not see the corner of the cloth that floats dangerously close to the torch until my lord steps afore the flames, grabbing the material. He waits until the wind abates, his breath shallow, and face pale and quite still, ere drawing the mantle from about my head and letting it drift behind me.

"Come, let us inside," my lord says, drawing my wide-eyed gaze away from the flames. With our hands bound, he leads me through the door and into my new home.

~oOo~

 

Chapter Text

~ Chapter 5 ~

Then Éowyn looked in the eyes of Aragorn, and she said: 'Wish me joy, my liege-lord and healer!'

And he answered: 'I have wished thee joy ever since first I saw thee. It heals my heart to see thee now in bliss.'

ROTK: Many Partings

~oOo~

roast capon newly taken off the spit, laying in nested wooden bowls

~oOo~

~ TA 3007, 5th day of Gwirith: Soft, high clouds at dawn. Low fog. No frost. Chill winds from the north by mid-morn.  Darkening clouds at the evening hours. Rain atimes from sun’s setting until first light the next.

~oOo~

It is as had the dams of the sky opened and a great river floods the valley. Rain pours from the clouds, rustling in the thatch above our heads and pounding against the ground beyond the walls. Thunder grumbles and rolls o’er the tops of the trees and e’er so oft the wind sends spatters of rain in through the windows. My lord's hall stands tall, from floor to rafters near twice the height of my father’s house. Long windows open above our heads into the rain and chill night air. The uncovered hearth in the midst of the room burns brightly and the torches are brought indoors. The hall is ablaze with light and sound, and water pours in a shimmering curtain of silver and gold threads of reflected flame from beyond the open casements.

Here, my lord and I sit among his guests, our hands bound fast throughout the feast and one bowl and trencher afore us. We will eat little should we not seek help from the other. I have attended a good number of wedding feasts and have seen many a couple make a game of the repast. They tease with bites of the bounty of forest and field and sneak kisses between, when they think the company does not perceive. Others are so shy their guests must ply them with wine and pound the boards until they are appeased for a short while with a kiss. Others are more bold and care not who looks upon them, so great is the passion and head full of wine they share.

My lord and I share neither of these. Our cup stands nigh full and seldom does his glance stray to mine o’er the meal. He eats lightly, and the time between mouthfuls lengthens. When I offer to help him cut more of his meat, my lord declines with a quick shake of his fingers. It is good my appetite has fled with the discomfort of noise and unease, for I would not ask my lord to wear himself thin just to give me aid.

I sit beside my bridegroom and let the company whirl about me. My shoulders are stiff and my back aches, for I hold myself rigidly in my seat. The groom looks no more easy than the bride. His hand is chill beneath mine and he does not speak. Our food grows cold long ere the meal is done. Our only blessing is that the guests do not come near enough to demand speech with my lord and none have called for him to show me the fondness expected of a groom for his bride. It is plain to me, who sits so near, that he tires swiftly.

It is with relief, then, the feast seems to be drawing to a close. Bowls are emptied and pushed away, and the guests pluck at the corners of the trenchers of day-old bread, soaked as they are now with the juices of roasted meats and a sauce of garlic and thyme. I think the meal shall soon be done and the dancing take its place. I would not deny our people their one chance of late to invite joy and it seems my lord is of like mind, but the quicker this evening ends, I think, the better.

Soon, I hope, the women will lead me up the stairs and there prepare me to await my groom in the solar where he sleeps. It is enough to know the company shall watch me as I go. It is enough that I go to meet a man who is far beyond my ken, more myth than flesh and blood breathing beside me. I know him not. I am grateful my lord's men have been merciful and spared me greater acquaintance with their chieftain where all can watch. It shall be enough to be pinned beneath my lord's own gaze. The waiting grates upon me. The sooner it is just he and I, the sooner that, too, will be done.

"My lord!" a voice calls and our eyes are drawn to the tables across from the hearth. There stands one of his Rangers, a young lad with a round, pleasant face.

"Aye, Gelir," my lord says, and his guests quiet the better to hear him. All about us faces turn to the hearth.

“I have a boon to beg," my lord's man says, and turns to the company and raises his wine, his eyes alight with mischief.

"Ah, Gelir," I hear. His friends laugh and call, "Sit down, there."

Yet he is determined. My lord's man remains steadfast and backs away from playful hands that seek to cuff him or pull him to sitting. Those Rangers elder to his years smile and lean in one to the other to whisper and exchange a meaningful glance. It seems they know him well and are not surprised.

"Nay, nay!" he says, laughing and protecting his cup. "Is this not a wedding feast? Forgive me, my lord, I could not tell."

My lord says naught, but he attends. His brow rises, and his look is gently amused, and by that his man takes heart.

"Does there not seem to be one thing yet lacking?" He extends a falsely bewildered look to the company and then smiles broadly. "My lord, you are known for stealth, having been tutored in the ways of it by the Elder-born. You must forgive these mortal eyes had they missed it, but I have not seen even one kiss betwixt my lord and his bride."

The men laugh and shake their heads. "You shall make a fool of yourself, yet, Gelir!" I hear called from a Ranger who would have a thin, mournful look but for the smile that lights his face.

The man shrugs and looks out among the company. "Have you?"

"Nay, not I!" comes from the far side of the hall and now the guests turn about in their seats, their eyes bright and expectant.  

I catch a brief glimpse of Mistress Pelara. Her duties of cooking and serving done, she sits upon her chair surrounded by her daughters.  Our healer, Mistress Nesta sits beside her and there she leans from her seat the better to see. 

"Nor I," comes a low steady voice from a man with silver hair and sharp features.  His arms crossed, he leans back against the wall and stretches his long legs afore him.  At his word, somewhat of hush settles upon the company.

At this, Ranger Gelir beams and turns to my groom. "What say you, my lord? Shall you not give us satisfaction?"

With that, Gelir is not the only man standing. There they rise and call out my lord's name. As were it in echo, the hall takes up the call, and a drumming upon the tables rises from about us. Very quickly it is loud, buffeting against my ears, and the faces of all the company are turned to my lord and me. For all its usual subtlety, Halbarad's look is thunderous, his eyes glinting sharply beneath his brow. I shall not be greatly surprised should my lord's Ranger find himself assigned the most onerous of duties come the next week and the next following it. He heeds the threat not, but raises a cup to his lord, his smile broad and laughter on his lips.

After some hesitance, my lord's smile is fond as he gazes out upon his man, and by this I know he will comply. My heart beats so at this thought that, when my lord turns to me, I know all must hear it. I, myself, hear little o’er the pounding on the tables. My lord's eyes are upon me, and I am pierced by the sharpness of his gaze. Ah, had I not drunk more wine when I had the chance!

The men pound all the louder and the tempo of their beat quickens. Yet, still, he does not move, and indeed, my lord breathes deeply as were he preparing himself to exert great effort to bridge the distance between us. Only then does it come to me what this kiss will demand from my lord in pain.

This should not be! Is not my lord's discomfort sufficient suffering, that he must seek out more to appease them? Ere I give it more thought and convince myself otherwise, I launch myself o’er the rest where our hands are bound and press my lips to those of my lord's. I come near to knocking his head into the back of his chair for the force with which I fly at him.

I think, at first, a great gasp arises from my lord's guests, but then the hall roars loud with approval so I am nigh deaf for it. Laughter beams from my lord's men's faces and the women hide their glee behind their hands. They shout and strike their tables and pound the floor. For want of practice, I am sure I lack gentleness and skill, but my lord cannot say the kiss was wanting in its effect.

When I pull away from him, my lord's look is stunned, but soon a slow smile softens his features. He then laughs low and his eyes light as he wipes at his lips. So great is my shame I cannot look upon him or any of his guests. I all but cower in my chair, wishing for naught more than my hand was free, so I might flee the hall.

My lord lifts his cup from the table and silently salutes his men as they cheer him on, calling his name, raising their cups to his and laughing. When he drinks, they do the same and the hall quiets some.

"Lady," I hear softly beside me, and I lift my eyes to find my lord offers me the wine.

There is naught to do but take and drink of it under my lord's watching. I hear my name called in a scattering about the hall as I drink and o’er the rim of the cup I catch a glance of raised cups and smiling faces until my eye lights upon my lord's kin. Somewhat of satisfaction and relief has settled upon Ranger Halbarad's features, and he offers me a slight nod ere he sips from his cup. I am not so shy of the wine and drain all that is left.

With that, Halbarad rises and signals the end of the meal. It is customary for the groom to lead the bride to the floor where he will partner her, but this is not asked of us. Instead, the men move the tables until my lord and I sit afore the hearth and around us rings the empty floor. The table all but disappears from afore us and the floor clears so swiftly the whirl of change leaves no room for comment. Surely all is as it should be.

By the time the company dances in a round about us, the wine has risen to my head, where it gives me little comfort. A muddle of music reaches my ears, a mix of viol, pipe and drum and the beat of feet against the floor to set the rhythm. In a little, my head shall clear, but now I blink at the forms of my lord's guests as they slip past and seek mightily to keep my eyes open. The circle ceases its turning and couples break from it to whirl about. They wend their way against each other as so much weft laid down between the warp, but I lose the weaving for the swiftness of their feet. Only then do I cease my attempts to make sense of it. They are merry. Let me be content to watch.

Under the influence of the wine, time passes swiftly, and I have nigh forgotten my lord. By the time my mind is my own, a brisk tune moves their feet and the company swirls about us. Clapping of hands ring in time above the Ranger's heads and the dance involves much of pounding heels as the men circle the lady of their choice. It is a joyful dance and the hall is full of bright sound. The women beam and the grimness of the most weathered of our lord's Rangers falls from him.

Even Ranger Halbarad deigns to smile at the twinkling eyes of the delicate lass he has chosen. She seems to barely top his belt, but her cheek dimples with her suppressed smile and she stands no doubt as straight as her father's spear, though mayhap not near so tall. Then, there is a clear shout and the tune breaks into a wild whirl and the men grab their partners' hands to swing them laughing about the floor in great circles that threaten to collide one with the other in their recklessness.

When the dance ends, I am laughing with them and I turn to my lord. I wish to share my delight, but he stares straight ahead, his eyes fixed and distant. The dancing brings him no joy. It is then I notice the sweat that has sprung out upon his brow and his labored breath.

I lean to him. "My lord," I whisper beneath the sounds of music, dancing feet and laughter, "what do you wish?"

He blinks as were he arising from the depths of dreams and shakes his head so slightly I wonder had I seen it.

Will my lord take no comfort? Is there naught I can do?

But I have not the time to discover it, should there be somewhat of help I could render, for I turn at a light touch upon my shoulder and find the women are waiting.  They unwind the ribbon from about our hands, and, in a gentle crowd, lead me to the stairs. He gave me no farewell more than a slight nod, and in my last sight of my lord ere the women urge me up the steps, he speaks softly with Halbarad and stretches his fingers as had their binding been a sore trial.

~oOo~

Sitting on the edge of a stranger's bed, I await my husband.

"Husband."

I roll the word upon my tongue in the dark, where it tastes oddly. A draft runs along the slats of wood where my bare toes dangle and I shiver. A cold welcome it will be for the groom were the bride to sit much longer waiting in only the thin covering of her shift. It feels most of an hour since I was dismissed from the company, the men lingering to toast their married chieftain and, on this night, wish him much bliss.

And an heir, do not forget, an heir.

The voices of his rangers have long since faded about the hearth. My hair unbound and skin bare but for a thin layer of finely adorned linen, I am as a field of warm earth beneath the spring sun. But where is the plough-master for the planting of his seed? An he delay much longer, he might find his bride has fallen asleep ere joining her in his bed.

A thin pool of light pours into the solar from below and feet scuff faintly at the bottom of the stairs. My heart thuds into my ears, bringing my sour reflections to an abrupt end. His tread is labored and slow as he climbs the stairs, his entrance heralded by a flickering arc of light that throws the beams of the roof into fleeting relief.

At last he is come.

Light spills into the room, and I blink into the glare. A fine picture I must make, squinting into the light as I am, and, uneasy, I shift in my seat. Shadows play heavily upon my lord's face and I cannot read the expression writ there. Without so much as a word or look, he crosses to the foot of the bed. His steps weave across the floor and blood rises to my cheeks at the thought that my lord has need of wine to buttress his resolve to bed his wife.

I swallow and turn away at the thought of wine-sodden breath and clumsy hands, a heavy body that will not rise. But, at the trembling of light upon the wall, I catch my lord's grimace as he lowers the rushlight to the long chest at the foot of the bed. His breath is not that of a man enfeebled with too much wine, but one drunk with exhaustion and pain, where the cost of each rise and fall of the breast cannot be fully paid. He leans heavily upon the tall bedpost and the hand that seeks to unbind his belt shakes with the palsy of an old man.

"My lord!"

Ere I can consider what I am about, I am on my feet. When my hand covers his, his arm falls limp and heavy to his side, acquiescing to my touch as had he lack of strength to resist. His eyes hidden in the curtain of his dark hair, he watches silently as I undo his belt and the ties of the formal tunic he wears. It is thick and velvet, pliable and warm with the heat of his body when I ease it off his shoulders, as were it the pelt of some gentle living creature. I turn away to fold the cloth and lay it upon the chest and I find I am shaking. Here is a thing I had not expected, to lead our steps through this dance.

The shirt beneath is stiff with raw fibers of silk. It makes the soft rustling sound of falling leaves and the skin its removal reveals is little less smooth and warm than the velvet that had covered him. His breath runs across my cheek from where I am bent to him. I swallow and my cheeks heat furiously at the warmth and scent that rises from his bare breast as the cloth falls from his wrists and hangs from my hand. I cannot meet his eyes for fear of what he may read there. When he catches my hands and leads me to the bed, it is now I that am weak upon my legs like a newborn lamb.

But, when he cautiously sinks upon the mattress, holding tightly to me to ease his descent, he turns my hands in his to stare at my palms as were he looking to them to find aught hidden there. I had taken care not to brush his flesh with them, for they are cold from the wait. Then, laying his face into their cup, he sighs into my fingers. His beard is softer than I thought, and I can feel heat spreading through my hands where he has captured them against his skin.

For a long moment we are thus, I standing afore him, and my lord and bridegroom slumped upon his bed, his hair brushing the edges of our hands. When he raises his face, his eyes are the startlingly blue of a cold, clear winter's day. His voice is deep and rich as he speaks his first private words to me.

"I kept you waiting, lady, but I beg you must wait a while longer."

I cannot tell whether the sinking in my gut is relief or regret. What does a bride say to such a kind refusal to claim the right of the groom?

"We have much time afore us, my lord," I finally say.

"That I hope."

I have naught to say to that.

In the dark I lie beside my lord's slumbering form, listening to the breath that sighs gently beside me and staring at the wooden canopy above our heads. In my mind I stand within the shadow of the entry into my father's house, watching the passage of the column of Rangers mounted upon their shaggy-coated steeds. I look for my father among their company, but there I see, as were it  for the first time, their chieftain's face ere he passes, and the flash of somewhat vital in his gaze.

It causes me to shiver, and I pull the blankets about my shoulders and turn upon my side, so I may curl into a ball without disturbing my lord. But it does little to warm me, for I have seen the weariness of my lord's body sink into the depth of his eyes and felt the fever burning beneath his skin. And I have seen the linen tightly bound about my lord's middle and, beneath its outer wrapping, it is dark with blood.

~oOo~

 

Chapter Text

~ Chapter 6 ~

'But I say to thee, Gandalf Mithrandir, I will not be thy tool! I am Steward of the House of Anárion. I will not step down to be the dotard chamberlain of an upstart. Even were his claim proved to me, still he comes but of the line of Isildur. I will not bow to such a one, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity.'

ROTK: The Battle of the Pelennor Fields

~oOo~

The lord of the Dunedain's hall: a long table stands before an open hearth, sun streams in from a wall of tall narrow windows and lights upon the lingering smoke from the hearth

~oOo~

~ TA 3007, 6th day of Gwirith: Pantry: 9 marks of oat flour, 7 of rye, 3 of wheat.  Near 2 1 and half wheels of aged cheese. 1 of soft. 2 casks ale.  8 6 skins wine. 3 2 pads butter.  2 barrels of beans.  1 barrel lentils. 2 woven strings of onion, 3 heads of garlic.  2 marks dried apple. Scant mark dried apricot.   Shank of salted pork, 1 pork shoulder in brine. 3 loaves fresh bread. 1 barrel smoked fish.  1 barrel salt. Various spices. No greens, eggs, or fresh or dried herbs.  No bread.

~oOo~

The morning awoke in mist. The rains ceased as we slept and from the wet earth a veil of cloud arose to hang o’er the meadow and wreathe the distant march of the forest in a soft blue haze. Upon my looking out on the world from the window of my lord's solar, the sun hovers above the unseen hills as a ball of muted flame and the drystone walls stand as dark, silent sentinels upon the pasture. There grazed my lord’s and his kin's steeds. A brief curiosity I was to them upon the sound of the shutters rattling down into their casement and they soon forgot me and lowered their heads to the sweet grasses.

With the rising of the sun, I left my lord to his sleep. He barely moved at my awakening, though the strangeness of the light that seeped in through the shutters and the sound of my lord's own breath startled me into sitting bolt upright in his bed. When I marveled at the depth of his sleep and put the back of my hand to his brow, my lord stirred, frowning in his dreams, and his arm came up to brush me aside. There was naught I could do but let him sleep and hope his rest would bring healing. And so it was I left his bed in this, the first morning of our marriage, where I had thought he would require me to linger.

There were none to tutor me in the ways of the household of the Dúnadan, and so I was left to make my own. All about where I looked was now mine. Mine to tend the fields and make them bear fruit. Mine to set the beasts to pasture and comb the forests for what gifts they had to offer. Mine to stock the pantry with its barrels of beans, flours, and cheeses and the buttery with its hanging bundles of herbs, baskets, tools, tubs, and casks of ale. Mine the hearth to make warm the hall. And even here I knew not even the simplest of things. Where did my lord's men stack fuel for the fire?

The tall windows that reach to the rafters I leave alone, for they are shuttered tight and their latches are far beyond the reach of my fingers though I might stretch upon my toes. I look about, but I cannot find the pole that must surely be used for their unlocking.  Yielding to my ignorance, in their stead I open the front door to my lord's home. With this, I startle the youth who paces the toft. He whirls about and stares at me with darkened eyes, his hand flying to the hilt of the long sword hanging from his hip. I cannot say who colored more, my lord's guard who had failed to account for an enemy approaching from the rear as he watched o’er our sleep, or my lord's wife, who had not thought to find her husband's household expanded by his Rangers.

He bows, his face solemn, and his fingers touch upon his brow. For a long moment, I know not what to do. The youth waits. I wait. Then it occurs to me he will not turn his back until released. I nod, and he goes, striding across the dew-dampened grass, his vigilance renewed. It was as simple as that, but I sigh and turn back into the hall. Valar save me, I know so little of what is expected of me that I shall, no doubt, have many such opportunities to make a fool of myself.

About the hall, much is changed from the night afore. It seems more than a few of my lord's men slept around the hearth, though they left little evidence of the night they spent there. Indeed, they took all but one of the long tables with them, carting them away to their owners when they awoke. Left behind, my lord's table stands along one wall and his chair sits behind it.

The scuff of my footsteps seems loud in this large space. Benches with little to comfort the body that may lie upon their wood stand stacked to the side. The wall spreads behind my lord's chair bare of any hangings. Not a single pot keeps warm in the coals of the hearth overnight. And my fingers twitch for want of a broom to set the stone floor to rights. It is a place of men, and those that come here stay but seldom. Where to start?

Flowers droop in their holders upon my lord's table, dropping withered petals upon the linen. It is to them I go first. There, on the table still adorned for the wedding feast and his men preparing for sleep about him, I find my lord had thrust the cups aside to make room to unroll maps upon its surface. They are finely drawn and, distracted, I trace the boundaries of Arnor lightly above the parchment; Cardolan, north to Arthedain, about the North Downs and then south into the familiar lands of Rhudaur until I reach the Angle where the rivers Hoarwell and Loudwater meet. These lands, I know well, bound by the Blue Mountains to the west and the Misty Mountains to the east.

Scattered there, I find smooth dark pebbles resting upon the map, lying upon homes of our foes of old and gathering places of fell creatures of the Shadow of the East. Dunland, Mirkwood, Angmar, and the Misty Mountains. A full handful of pebbles lie trapped in the arms of the Mountains of Shadow and Ash and obscures the name of that dark land. Above them all, a pile of black pebbles clusters at the top of the map, waiting, as had my lord gathered them there in anticipation of later need.

I sigh and turn away. Casting about, a book lying open draws my eyes, its pages filled with a cramped but neat hand. With guilty pleasure, I turn its pages with a delicate touch out of care for their precious parchment. I do not know what I think to find. Some small message of hope, perchance? A key to holding back the fell things that threaten the free peoples of Middle-earth? In its pages I find a journal of the ordering of Rangers of the North for the defense of our people; lists of supplies, the numbers of companies, cities abandoned, accounting of refugees, fallen men, and the movements of our foes. This is what occupied my bridegroom's time ere he came to his bed.

Ashamed now of my irritation at being left alone for so long on my wedding night, I turn to the front of the book, abandoning the later pages for what I hope is an accounting of the Watchful Peace. Instead, along the fly-leaf, I find a tree drawn in the brown strokes of ink that makes me pause. It is the line of my lord's descent.

Turning the volume, I read the list of names, recognizing some and learning others anew. Toward its upper branches, the line continues along the next page. I turn it silently and run up the line, my finger hovering just above the parchment so as not to stain it with the oils of my skin. Arathorn I, lost untimely. Argonui, killed by wolves. Arador, captured by hill-trolls. Arathorn II, my lord's own father, slain by orcs when his infant son had not yet seen out his third year. Quickly calculating their ages from the dates given, I sink to the edge of my lord's chair.

So young they were, each of them, in the tale of the years of Westernesse; these lords of the Dúnedain, their lives foreshortened by the growing Shadow. Indeed, in these times, it seems by mere chance alone that the man who I left sleeping above stairs yet lived. Tenacious of spirit, even now he clings to life despite the extremity of his hurts, and Valar know, should he live to regain his full strength it shall not be the last wound he takes in our defense. A wave of pity clouds my eyes. I stare at the blank space below my lord's name for a long moment, lost in thought.

In my view from my lord's chair, the hall is cold and spare for all its lofty rafters and tall windows, so little of cheer and naught of comfort to be found in its walls. Not even an emblem of the Dúnedain of the North to mark my lord's place. The bare wall behind his seat seems a gross insult, a slap in the face.

Rising, I return the book to the page where my lord had it and leave it there. By dint of much lifting of lids and opening of doors at least I now know where to find the linens and crockery for my lord's table, a small library of books and scrolls carefully stacked in a tall chest, quills, ink and parchment, thread, needle, and worn shears. The kindling I find in a covered bin next to the buttery door. Somewhere out of doors, there must be a well or barrel to catch rainwater and I am sure to find buckets and a broom in the buttery.

I would have my lord's house be truly a home, where he and his house shall find rest of body and mind, but it will be the work of many days. I gather the cups from the table and sweep up the dying flowers with my hands. But, first, ere my lord's hall can be made welcoming, it must at least be made presentable. It is time to begin.

~oOo~

The buttery is shuttered and dark, and unfamiliar. I push the basket of violet leaves onto the shelf blindly and pat about to find a small bucket or some such. In my wanderings about the grounds, I had come upon a grove of sweet birch and I wish to cull the smooth-barked tips of their branches to brew a tea to tempt my lord. I think he should awaken soon.

I hear a man's voice in the hall coming muffled through the door. Halting my search, I listen.

"Rohan has ever been an ally of the Men of the West," he says, but his voice is weary, and his words have the ring of a much-aired argument.

"Aye, of Gondor, 'tis true," comes the response in a voice I know not. "We will have much need of aid in the not distant future. But when have the Rohirrim ever ridden to our call?"

With haste, I pull at my ties, and yank the apron over my head and toss it in a ball to the shelf. Ah! My lord is awake and has company! It is but my first day of marriage and already I am greatly remiss in my duties as woman of the house.

Taking a deep breath, I unwind the cloth from my head, smoothing back the wild strands ere I secure it about my head, patting upon its folds to ensure all is in place. Their voices come through the door as they argue.

"It is said that they trade their horses to the Enemy."

"I do not believe it!"

When I open the door, it is with dismay I find so many men gathered about. The table has been cleared of its decorations to make room for them. They built up the fire in the midst of the hall and it crackles vigorously, dispelling any chill from the misty spring morn lingering indoors. The pot I hung there has been swung away, and the thin broth of lentils and salted pork it held keeping warm o’er the coals is now gone. Beyond the hearth, my lord sits in the midst of his men, his thoughts turned inward and his face grave, rolling a black pebble between his fingertips from where his arm rests upon the table.

It is the first I have seen him in the light of day and I am struck by the darkness of the skin below his eyes and in the hollows of his cheeks. Halbarad sits on the bench by his kin's chair, so near his elbow he brushes against him when he moves. Gathered about them are more than a dozen Rangers in heated argument.  Light and dark-eyed alike, hair straight, curled, or shorn close, they bear the marks of our folk of the northern and southern reaches alike, and all tall of frame and dark of head as were their forefathers of Westernesse.

As I approach, I see the map spread between them. From a glance, I see stones the color of cream dotting Eriador at the Angle and various points in the north. But it is in Rohan and Gondor where they are clustered most greatly, opposing the handfuls of dark stone in Mordor. And it is here the men debate, pointing at the map, their voices rising in competition with one another.

"An Rohan were to fall - " begins one.

"When Rohan falls, more like," interrupts another.

"Théoden is ill and frail and the governance of his House is divided among its Marshals."

"Aye, and a house divided it is!"

"It is said that Théodred is a strong leader of men."

"Ah! He is young and besides, his is the marshal of his own éored alone. Rohan has no King who can lead the Mark to war."

"What does it matter? The Enemy must go through Gondor to attack the Rohirrim, after all."

"Aye, Gondor remains strong, but should orcs be massing below the Misty Mountains, what numbers are there teeming behind the walls of the Ephel Duath?"

My lord rouses himself and overrides the confusion. He clenches the stone tightly in his fist. "Our more immediate threat, gentlemen, comes from the north and the east. Mordor may indeed be amassing its armies, but it will signify little to us an we are overrun long ere the first orc sets foot on the plains about the White City. Do we have the might to stem the tide of Mordor? No? Then let us concern ourselves with what aught be done here and now."

I freeze at the sternness of his voice. Mayhap I should not be here, a woman interrupting the councils of men.

I must have made some small noise in the silence that resulted from my lord's rebuke, for his eyes are now raised to mine. They are cold and grey, full of the severity of a man in the midst of sustaining hope solely by an act of will. The crack and hiss of burning sap comes from the fire behind me and I can feel its heat on the back of my skirts. I drop my gaze only to step back and stare anew, startled by the shuffling of feet, scraping of wood upon the floor, and the rising of his men from their seats. Their eyes, too, are upon me, with a solemn attention that surprises me.

I drop a short reverence to my lord. He rests his head against the back of his seat.

"Lady," he acknowledges. "Gentlemen," he says to the men, looking about him as were he newly aware that they had risen, "be seated," and they comply without comment, leaving me to stand alone in the silence.

Already, cups, bowls, a pitcher and wine skins are scattered about the table among heels of bread and a great wheel of cheese. But, natheless, having come so far, I must proceed.

"My lord," say I, "have your needs and those of your guests been attended to?"

"Our needs are simple enough, lady," he says, gesturing an upturned hand at the table, the pebble a dark shadow between his forefinger and thumb.

When I bow my head in preparation to flee their company, his gaze softens.

"Lady!" he calls as I turn to go, his eye having alighted upon the pitcher. "Would you draw more ale, an it please you?" He adds, pinning his men with a rueful glare and tossing the stone to its mates where it clinks against them, "It seems we run dry and I would not have our guests' debate foreshortened for the want of somewhat to wet their tongues."

The resulting chuckles do much to allay the tension in the room. Halbarad does not smile with them but reaches across his tablemate to lift the pitcher. Catching my eye, his nod invites me over to take it from him. My lord's men return to their conversation, but in smaller groups and with much lowered tones.

Once at the table, Halbarad hands me the pitcher. I am surprised to find it nearly half full with a sweet-smelling ale. Very kind of my lord it was, I think, to sanction my interruption with his request. Now I am here, and welcomed, his men meet my eye with a nod of greeting. I find myself wondering how many of these Rangers have wives or mothers at home to care for them between their wanderings. I return their acknowledgement with as warm of a smile as I can muster and begin to fill their cups as they are offered.

I lean o’er the table at my lord's side and his voice sounds close to my ear as I pour.

"And you, lady, have your needs been attended to?"

"My needs are simple enough, my lord," I say and return the cup to its owner.

When I look to my lord, he is watching me, seeming in attempt to divine why he hears his own words returned to him. I do not like his color, or the sweat that lies in a film upon his upper lip, hidden from all but close examination by the growth of beard.

"Your people have been most generous in refitting the house, my lord." I nod to a Ranger with silvered hair and sharp features who nods gravely at me when I take his cup and fill it for him. "I believe your lady mother was happy here, for a time, here where her memories were," I venture.

"Yes," he says, and his gaze falls from me. "Mayhap she was, for a time."

Slowly, he eases his shoulders back onto his chair, wincing briefly at the strain. Without raising my head, I glance at the men, but they talk amongst themselves, pouring more wine and drinking it from their cups. When I return my attention to my lord, he has raised his cup to his lips, his movements slow. He manages a sip, but in his attempt to set the tumbler to the table, the light trembles in a bright coin upon the liquid surface and he falters.

Of its own accord, my hand darts toward his, lifting the cup from his grasp. His eyes burn into mine, but his fingers are cold, and, when he releases the weight of the cup, his hand shakes. Dropping his gaze, I fill his cup from the pitcher as had this been my intent all along.

Enough!

It is clear from the defiant fire in my lord's eyes that he will not take the rest he needs of his own accord or from any prompting of mine. Let him have his pride. But that does not imply that all means of recourse are beyond my grasp.

I set his cup within his reach and turn to the man who shadows his left hand.

"Sir," I say and Halbarad is immediately attentive. "Might I beg your assistance?"

"In what way may I be useful, my lady?"

"Would you be so kind as to help me in clearing the table?"

He nods slowly and rises. I have emptied the pitcher and, bowing to my lord, take my leave through the buttery door. But I do not go beyond it into the pantry. Wood clatters in the hall as Halbarad gathers the bowls no longer in use. He wedges the door open with his toe and ducks his head to step within. Halbarad blinks and frowns, squinting at me in surprise when he finds me waiting for him.

I relieve him of the stack of bowls. "My lord tires," I say, my eyes upon the floor and my voice soft.

Halbarad stares at me a brief moment ere turning abruptly on his heel. In the dark, his footsteps make short work of striding through the buttery and I hear his pull on the door into the hall ere its swift opening spills light into the small space.

"Come!" he commands in a voice that brooks no opposition. In my mind I can see the tall man looming o’er the seated figures of my lord's Rangers as he circles the table, picking up cloaks and packs and tossing them at their owners. "Enough, I say. You have had your feast. You have had your dancing. And you have had your say afore your chieftain. Lathril, get you up and take Haldren with you!  Melethron, put down that wine!  Enough. We have stolen much of the bride's day with our wearisome debates. We shall meet again upon the morrow to assign duties. Let us not be selfish, eh? Go enjoy your families and let her have her groom to herself for the rest of it."

There is laughter and light-hearted comments in response, but also the scraping of benches.

I fuss with the tableware as they leave, lifting lids and shifting baskets until I have found the waste bucket. Their voices are warm in their farewells. I cannot tell their words as I scrape the contents of bowls to cover the sounds of leave-taking. When I can hear their murmur no longer, I wipe my hands and feel my way through the shadows of the buttery.

My lord remains seated at his table, solemnly considering the map stretched afore him. He is alone.

In the silence, my footsteps and the soft crack of the door banging against its frame sound loud. When it becomes obvious I have returned without having drawn ale for his guests, my lord's brow rises.

"It seems you have won yourself a powerful ally in my kin already, lady," he says as I approach.

I pull the bit of cloth tight across the open page and close the book gently upon it. I know my face betrays little expression, for I am not sure how I am to feel, so torn am I between fear for my lord's welfare, and uncertainty as to how my lord shall take my interference.

"I expect he knows well your needs and keeps them close to his heart, my lord," I say, brushing a hand along the table to gather up the loose pebbles. They clink against each other as I drop them into a leather pouch. Pulling on the cord, I lay them atop the closed book.

"What say you to bed, my lord?"

He sighs in what seems to be resignation and then breaks into a small wry laugh. "That I am not sure I can manage the stairs."

I bite at my lip, considering. Indeed, mayhap I encouraged Halbarad to leave a little too soon. I am not frail, but I cannot lift a full-grown man up a flight of stairs, much less one of my lord’s build.

"Lady," my lord says, interrupting my thoughts, and nodding toward the hearth in the middle of the hall, "an you help me move to that bench, that will suffice."

It can be naught but a hard bed, I think. Though, I suppose my lord has slept upon worse.

"Come, should you give me your hand to lead me there, I will consider your duty done," he says to my skeptical examination of the wooden bench and extends his hand for mine.

It is an awkward affair, to lift the weight of a grown man when every stretch of muscle brings pain, but we manage. His steps are shallow as we cross the room. He clings tightly to my shoulders to lower himself to the bench. By the time he is stretched along its surface, his brows are drawn, he is pale and sweating, and I am angry.

Whose bidding was it that prompted my lord to rise far too early from his sickbed to attend upon his wedding? Had they pushed him to bed a woman when he could barely rise from his table, hoping he would father an heir in the night against the fear he may die ere the morning? And then spend his next days in tedious council making a show of strength when he happens to survive?

My shame gentles my hands when I kneel and lift his ankles to ease off his boots. I lay them beneath the bench and prepare to rise, but my lord grasps my hand. I sit against my heels, my skirt pooling about my feet, until we are eye to eye.

"Have you found all to your liking, lady?"

"Aye, my lord. The house holds much promise."

At that, my lord smiles. "And no doubt you will keep me busy with many plans for its improvement."

"Nay, my lord – " I begin in alarm, but he forestalls my apology with a quick pressing of my fingers.

"Order it as you see fit, lady. I will see it done." At the doubt in my eyes, he continues, "An not done by myself, then by another."

"My thanks to you, my lord."

His hands loosen in dismissal, but I have a question I would ask ere I go.

"My lord," say I, mindful of his Rangers' words. "Is there somewhat of hope to which we may cling, do you think?"

It does not take much thought to know my meaning, but still he delays, his gaze distant as he frames his response.

"Surely the Enemy is not strong on all points, my lord. Is there no weakness, no arrogance of his we can exploit?" I press for an answer and he is suddenly alert and sharply in the present, searching my face with his keen eyes.

"Aye, lady, but it is not within our reach. No matter, there is always hope, though it may not come to fruit in our life, and to that we must cling," he says and withdraws his hands from mine.

The lines of his face have become drawn in grim determination, but I can see a profound grief shadowing the depths of his eyes, a wound as fresh as that he bears upon his flesh. It is not just the women of the Dúnedain who must suffer through their losses.

I nod, acquiescing to his implicit command to press him no further. I rise and make for the parlor, where, once there, I rip coverings off baskets and upend their contents until I find what I seek.

It must have taken longer than I thought, for, when I return, my lord is already drowsing, his hand hanging limply o’er the edge of the bench, and I must walk softly to not disturb his sleep.

Clutching the blanket and small pillow to my chest, I sink to the floor beside him and study his face. He goes unshaven and his jaw looks as should it feel rough, though I know better. The skin about his eyes is wind-burnt and creases show light against it where he has squinted into the harsh sunlit world. But his eyelashes now rest softly upon his cheeks and his breast rises and falls with a gentle regularity.

There is always hope, he said. Mayhap there is. But his maps with their ranks of dark and light markers put a lie to his words. One man pitted against such merciless odds. Should he fail, what then? Will we fall into an everlasting darkness? Or will the heirs of his body sustain men against a time when the free peoples of Middle-earth rise again in some distant age?

But then, what hope is there for this man, this son of Arathorn, our Lord of the Dúnedain, my lord?

His eyelids flutter when I lay the blanket over his limbs and lift his arm to rest against their folds atop his chest, but he rouses little. Thus encouraged, I cradle the back of his head and swiftly slip the pillow beneath it. He sighs and shifts, but, by then, I have turned away and poke at the wood in the fire, settling the logs so I can add more fuel without causing them to fall and send sparks into the room. Entranced by the glowing coals and the quiet of the hall, I had nigh forgot the man behind me when I feel the brush of fingertips along my cheek, pulling gently at the lock of hair that had slipped out from beneath my scarf in my search through the parlor.

I do not see myself reflected in eyes that are clouded with dreams. His hand drops back to his chest and his eyes close ere the gesture is half complete.

"Tinúviel," my lord breaths and then, exhaling softly, falls still.

~oOo~

Chapter Text

~ Chapter 7 ~

In any case, I did not intend to tell you all about myself at once. I had to study you first, and make sure of you. The Enemy has set traps for me before now. As soon as I had made up my mind, I was ready to tell you whatever you asked.

FOTR: Strider

~oOo~

sun streams into the solar, lighting upon the canopied bed.  The curtains are drawn and tied to the bedposts, revealing simple linens, pillows, and a trundle bed neatly tucked away beneath the bed's wooden frame.

~oOo~

~ TA 3007, 27th day of Gwirith Víressë:  1 mark sausage, 1 handful dried apple, 1 onion, butter, wine, cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar, salt.  All boiled and ground. Make pastry dough of prepared flour, kneaded with yolks of eggs.  Pat pastry to thin rounds.  Seal well.  Set in hot grease upright.

~oOo~

I lower the shutters and fresh-washed blue streams into the solar. It rained the night afore, in gentle mists that lulled me to sleep, and the day dawned bright and mild. From the window, I stand tall above the meadow and can see far atop the forest. Faint are the distant glimmers of water beneath its canopy. Tender green ghosts the bare limbs of the trees and the river runs deep and swollen. Come summer, the river shall shrink within its bed, the forest shall deepen its green cloak and I shall be unable to catch the sun's play upon the water.

At the sound of a slow sigh, I set the shutter’s tie upon its hook and place my back to the meadow to find my lord turning upon his side. He yet sleeps.

After some negotiation, my lord and I have come to an understanding. He will stay abed until after the midday meal should I promise to assist him down the stairs come the afternoon. Slow we creep riser to riser, he clinging to my shoulder and I to his side until he may sit at his table and satisfy the disquiet of his mind.

In our first few days of marriage, we had no need of such arrangements. Between wedding of the night afore and council of the day after, my lord exhausted himself past the limits of both body and spirit and undid many days of healing. He did not appear below stairs nor hold audience for days on end. Let the people of the Angle smile and talk fondly of the pleasures of the newly wedded, the eagerness of his wife, and the great stamina of their lord, I knew he slept.

But then, when the fifth day dawned, I came upon my lord at the head of the stairs. He clutched the wall and attempted to lower his body down the steps. One look at the grey sheen that clung to a face made grim with pain and I dropped the basket of bedding I carried and raced up the stairs.

"Baw! Daro!" I cried as I ran, to both his wonderment and mine.

Too alarmed and frightened to either know or care what I did, I glowered at him and refused to move. He had not the strength to both descend the stairs and push me aside and so he called to one who might assist him.

"Halbarad!" he commanded, and a scrape of wood answered from the hall.

At that, I picked up my skirts and pounded back down the stairs, nearly slipping on the spilled linens in my reckless flight, coming to a halt only at the dark shadow that filled the doorway.

"No!" I cried and flung a hand up in warning.

I do not know what Halbarad saw in my face, but he settled upon his heels and, after a brief moment of considering me and the slumped figure beyond my shoulder, called up the stairs, "My lord, it seems I am turned away by your soft-spoken and biddable wife."

"Halbarad!" my lord called. When no answer was forthcoming, I heard a deep sigh from the solar.

"Lady."

I did not know what would await me at the top of the stairs but return there I must. It was with surprise I saw my lord lift his hand for mine. When we touched, I knew his limbs trembled with effort and threatened to collapse beneath him. Together we lowered his body and sat upon the stairs.

I know many men who become loud in their anger, their voices rising and their words sputtering forth from their reddened faces. My lord is not such a man as this. His anger comes upon him coldly.

"Lady," said he, his voice a bare whisper for all its sternness. "I do not require your hindrance."

"My lord, I beg you, do not think me unkind, nor obstinate, but there is no charge so urgent that cannot wait until you are healed."

"You seek to lecture me on the nature of duty?"

In this, his voice was sharp, and I was glad of the shadows, for my face grew hot. Indeed, he had read me aright. And, indeed, who was I to stand in judgment upon him?

"No, my lord, I would not presume so." My voice seemed small and I could not meet his keen gaze. "But, as one who is dependent upon you, my lord, can you not see what it would mean should you needlessly fail of your cure?"

At that, he fell silent, gazing upon me solemnly for some time. "Very well," he said at last and a small smile twitched at his lips. "It seems I am your prisoner. Take me to my bed."

I was then at his beck and call, upon his insistence that were I to restrict him to his bed and only briefly allow him to his table, then I needs must be his feet. And so I was, though not unwillingly. It was not a heavy burden. Mostly, he spoke with Halbarad, who had ever been his hands and eyes in the Angle. When Halbarad was abroad, seeing to his kin's will, my lord read through the books that lined the tall chest in the hall and made notes in his journals. And when he became too restless and this would not hold his mind, I loaded the table with uncut quills, the ingredients for iron gall ink, his gear and weapons, his clothes, washed and brushed but in great need of mending, and the tools with which to accomplish all these tasks and left him to it. I had enough to do with the ordering of the house and grounds that I did not keep him company.

In truth, he needed little of my attention and demanded little effort from me. For, though he tired of his sickbed, his own weakness and frequent want of good food and a safe bed were my best allies. Those times I saw him outworn and so took the quill from his hand, stoppered the inkhorn, and laid aside whatever task he had set himself, my lord did not complain. He was content to eat the simple broths and pottages I cooked him, drink naught stronger than the well-water I poured him, and sleep when I put him to bed.

In my turn, I found, for all they had disturbed my rest in those first nights, his breathing and the weight of his body shifting upon the mattress soon came to usher me to my sleep and I awake only when he had been too still or too quiet for too long. Then, I lay silent in the dark and listen, and only close my eyes upon the rustling of sheets or soft sigh.

With a quick intake of breath, my lord scowls and stirs as I watch from the solar window. He will soon awaken, but I do not hasten his climb from sleep, puzzling as I am o’er this man.

For my attentions, my lord sees to it I want for neither occupation, nor shelter, nor a soft place to rest my head. Ever, in their giving, he treats me with a kind and deliberate courtesy. I have no complaint.  But not since he named me for the Daughter of the Twilight have I seen aught of desire or longing kindle in his eyes.

"Do you wish me to lift the shutters closed, my lord?" I say when his eyes open and he squints into the light.

"No."

Taking a short, cautious breath, he stretches his limbs. His look is puzzled at the scent on the air as he pushes himself to sitting, his back leaning against the wall.

"Did it rain in the night?"

"Aye, my lord," I say and turn to the long, flat chest at the foot of the bed. There, I have laid a board of pottage of beans, the earliest of greens and barley, meat pastries, and a thick, dark bread. "Do you hunger?"

"Yes!"

Behind my back, he has arranged the pillows to his liking and tucked the sheets about his waist without needing to ask why I have entered the solar to disturb his rest. I turn my head against my shoulder to hide my smile as I cut into the bread. I think, mayhap, my lord is becoming overly accustomed to being served his meals abed.

When I rise, I find my lord looking upon the columbine at his bedside table, occupying himself with the trembling of their petals while he waits.

"When did you bring these?" He touches the flowers with a light finger. His brow furrows.

"Yestereve," I say, taking up the tray. "I thought you might enjoy them, my lord."

"Indeed? I had not known it was yet the time of their blooming," says he. "How long have I slept?"

He leaves off his examination of the flowers to lift the board from my hands and rest it upon his knees.

"Since ere the evening meal last night and it is now well into midday."

He takes the spoon from me and shakes his head, taking first to the pottage. "I have lost track of the days."

I am not surprised. He sleeps oft and for long hours. No doubt one day blends into the other. Pain, I yet see in the spasm that comes upon his face and body with incautious movement. But his voice is strong, his color is good, and he eats with more zeal than I had yet seen in him. In truth, he attacks the pottage and bread with large bites as had he not eaten in many days.  Though it seems he is careful to take tender bites of the pastries and suck in cooling breaths of air, as they are newly removed from the grease in which they fried, and steam rises from the ground meats within.

I lay my wrist upon his brow and he halts in his eating to stare at me, his spoon hovering between bowl and lips. His eyes are bright as they gaze on me, but, for the first, he is neither overly warm nor cold.

"And how do I seem to you, lady?" he asks when I remove my hand. Though his eyes shine softly, his voice carries a hint of challenge. "Do I seem well enough?"

"Aye, my lord," say I and leave his side to pour him his drink. I did not bring water up the stairs for fear of spilling it and so now fill his cup from the pitcher on his bedside table.

"What then says my gentle gaoler?" he asks, watching me, a smile faint upon his lips. "Shall I be allowed to wander about within the daylight? Keep hours below stairs of my own making?"

For all his humor, I have lost my compliant patient and know well he will no longer tolerate any attempt on my part to confine him.

"As it please you, my lord," I say and hand him his cup, my eyes downcast as is proper. He takes it from me, a most curious look upon his face.

I am about to leave when his touch startles me. He has grasped my wrist and frowns up at me, forcing me to return his gaze.

"It would please me to know more your mind, lady. Come," he says, "will you not sit with me?"

An invitation, it seems, more than command, for his touch is deliberately soft and I could draw away should I so wish.

He smiles gently when I hesitate. "You have kept all others away. Would you deny me all company?"

"No, my lord."

And so, I sit myself upon the foot of my lord's bed. My hands lie in my lap, at rest as they have not been since I came to the house of the Dúnadan. Here we are at leisure, my husband and I, and yet, he does not speak. He has returned to his meal and looks upon me with a brief, measuring glance between bites. I am left with naught to do but watch.

No longer burdened so heavily by pain and weariness, a light shines in my lord's gray eyes, and his features, given life by his thoughts, look the less grim. Let the other women of the Angle talk of the comeliness of my lord’s make.  To me he was beyond my reach as those of the Elder-born. With these matters are my thoughts occupied when his voice startles me.

"You have what you need for the house, lady?" he asks, and I am only now aware that I clutch my hands tightly.

"Aye, my lord."

He nods and stirs the pottage. "I see you have found room for your things."

"Aye, my lord," I say, thinking of the loom that now leans against a wall in my lord's hall. The tools of a woman's work are most oft placed in parlors, away from the halls of men.  But the ceiling of all other rooms in my lord's home could not accommodate the loom's height, and I had the ordering of his house with little chance of consulting him.

"I can remove the weaving."

"No." He glances up at me as it were in surprise. "Leave it where it is, should that be where you wish it."

I nod and then return my gaze to my hands, aware that my lord studies me between bites.

"We have not yet spoken of the grounds. What think you?"

I shift uncomfortably. "The water of the well is sweet," I say, alighting upon somewhat, at least, to say. The midden and pasture lay downhill from the one source of drinking water upon the land, and the well should, with luck, remain fresh.

"Aye," says he. He must read my face for his next words reflect my own thoughts. "But other than that, the grounds need work, do they not?"

"Aye, my lord."

He nods, breaking off a piece of bread and wiping at the bowls. "Then I shall see to it," he says, and a sudden smile warms his face when he adds, "should I be allowed out of doors."

"I think, my lord, you do not need my permission."

"Good,” he says. "I had hoped not to be forced to remove you from the door should I take it in my head to step across its threshold."

I smile in return, for my lord seems to require it, but my mirth is weak, and my hand comes up to play with the hairs that spring from out the winding of my scarf.

My lord has finished his meal. His spoon lies within an empty bowl, naught but crumbs remain of the bread and pastries, and he has drained his cup. Still he sits with the board settled upon his knees and I wonder what else he may require of me.

"Have you aught other need?" my lord says and, at first, I shake my head but then halt. I bite at the inside of my lip.

"What is it?"

"My lord," I say, "what am I to do with your mother's things?"

He frowns as had it not occurred to him that they be in question.

"You are the lady of the house, they are yours to do with as you see fit," he says and then shrugs. "Should there be tools, you may use them, should there be candles, you may light them, should there be clothes, you may wear them."

My doubt must have played upon my face, for my lord goes on, "Lady, my mother was a fair woman, and I am sure, had fine things that were the gifts of Master Elrond and those of his house, but she was also of a practical bent. She would be ill pleased were her things idle and there were need."

"Aye, my lord."

A silence settles upon us in which my lord's gaze is upon me, but he does not speak. I know not what knotty problem he seeks to unravel, but surely I have failed in some way, for he frowns and makes no move. The moments pass until I can take it no longer.

"An you are finished, my lord," I say, rising, "I shall take your tray and then return when you are ready to come downstairs."

"No." He raises a hand to stop me, and I falter, caught in the act of reaching for the remains of his meal.

"My lord?"

"No," he insists gently and then sighs. My lord lifts the board from off his knees and sets it upon the bed beside him. I wince at the strain I know he puts upon barely healed flesh as he twists aside but ball my hands into fists so I do not reach for his burden to relieve him of it.

"Pray sit." He motions to the bed afore him.

I settle stiffly to the mattress below my lord's feet. My lord's face is grave as he studies me.

“You have no family in the Angle?"

"No, my lord."

At this, he sets his elbows upon his knees and draws a finger idly upon the linen, releasing a long, quiet breath as he does so. I know not what my lord ponders that so unsettles his mind. Did not his own mother live in this very house alone, with no family to give her company?

"Lady," he says, and I leave off considering the line where his finger passes, "when Halbarad spoke to you in my name, what did he say I required of you?"

Swiftly, I look away. I know the answer, but the words refuse to form themselves upon my lips. It seems I have no more skill in repeating his kin's demands than Halbarad did when he spoke them to me. But then a hand comes to lift my chin, and I find my lord staring at me intently.

"I confess I know little of the state of marriage, but I know this: I do not wish for a servant," he says, "no matter how willing. It was not for this I asked you to set aside all home and kin.  You are the lady of the Dúnedain, all within these walls and the lands about them are yours to do with as you see fit."

He releases me and, I think, hopes I will not again hide from his eyes. I do not, for there is a measure of regret in his gaze and I marvel at what placed it there.

"What say you, lady? Shall we begin anew?"

I suppose I should be heartened by my lord's words. But I am not, for in my days as his wife, he has not asked more of me than to see to his house and run his errands.  Other than bringing him food, he will not let me tend to his person, but cares for his own hurts when I am not about and keeps his own counsel when I am.  Were I not to serve him, it will leave little to bring me within his company. But I must give him answer, for my lord waits, and as the moments pass the sorrow in his eyes deepens.

"Aye, my lord," I say, and he nods solemnly, taking me at my word. I know not to what I have just agreed.

"What say we start the day, then?"

I would have laughed and teased any other who had lain abed for the morning and then had the temerity to speak so. Instead, I say naught.

My silence did little good, for my lord, whose eyes have not strayed from examining my face, says wryly, "Mayhap you will allow me to catch up to you."

I rise and, looking down upon him, say, "Aye, my lord, and should you will be so kind as to hand me the board, I shall take it while you dress."

He considers this. "I may assure you, lady, I have the strength and would not wish you to do for me what I can do for myself."

"Nay, my lord," I say, interrupting him ere he can go any further, "my fear is that, given your recent lack of practice in bearing such burdens, you shall tip the bowls upon the stairs. And should all things within these walls be mine to ordain, I have no wish to clean the mess."

A smile comes upon my lord's face of a sudden. He bows his head, conceding the point, and offers me the tray with his empty bowls. "Very well, but I expect to be granted permission to make my own way downstairs for my supper."

"Aye, my lord," I say, taking it from him.

With that, I leave. Had I turned back, I would have known that the look that followed me as I made my way from the solar was gently amused.

~oOo~

 

Chapter Text

~ Chapter 8 ~

Above her brow her head was covered with a cap of silver lace netted with small gems, glittering white; but her soft grey raiment had no ornament save a girdle of leaves wrought in silver.

FOTR: Many Meetings

~oOo~

metal spring shears, leather case of needles, a spool of gold thread, and metal pins lay on a wood table

~oOo~

~ TA 3007 27th day of Víressë, Charges: 6 marks wheat flour, 4 marks rye, 6 marks barley, 3 strings onion, 2 bundles fiddlehead greens, 1 bundle garlic scapes, 1 handful parsley, 5 wheels hard cheese, 3 barrels beans, 2 barrels smoked fish, shoulder of salted pork, fresh lamb, 2 strings sausage, 10 eggs.  Discharges: as accounted by Mistress Pelara.

~oOo~

The parlor is a fright. I have left it to the very last of the list of the many things which must be done within the house. Between its walls lies a rat's nest of those possessions I have brought from my father's house and my lord's mother's things which she brought from the house of Master Elrond. My lord has few possessions of his own, and those are already either in use or stored in the tall case by his table. In my haste, I have left baskets uncovered and piles of cloth, and tools, and rags, and wool roving, and blankets scattered all about as I searched for what was most urgent in the moment, and then shut the door upon it all, for I have precious little time.

Where once I was of a small household kept by two sets of hands, now I must tend my lord's hall, his parlor, his pantry, his buttery, and the solar upstairs alone, and feed not just the occasional three, but my lord, Halbarad, myself, and many of the men who attend upon them. They sleep about the hearth at night and, true it is, I welcome their company. But a Ranger at home, they say, is deaf and dumb to all but the demands of his belly, and I am hard pressed to keep his men's stomachs full.

And not just the food, but I am buried in laundry. Sheets and blankets and towels and rags pile with my own second-best shift and dresses. Now even my best shift has begun to stink, and I must wonder at the state of my lord's garments and should he have a second set to wear should I wish to wash the first. And this does not even begin to account for the work that awaits out of doors! Ai! And I must go to market soon, for we have no greens, little flour, and I am down to the very last of the onions that once hung from a long braid in the pantry.

Aye, I may be the lady of the Dúnedain in name, but I cannot see how it is possible for me to do aught else but the barest upkeep of the house.

And so, here I stand upon what little of the parlor floor is unoccupied, and turn about, looking at it all and wishing mightily that the magic of the Elves were mine and it had aught to do with forcing order upon this chaos. I wonder what my lord would say should I press a few of his men's strong backs into service. Now my lord heals, is he oft away from home for part of the day. Mayhap should I bribe his men with my aunt's sausage-stuffed pastries while he is away, they might be convinced not to reveal it to him.

I sigh and brush dust off my apron by dint of shaking it. Best to start now, for more delay will bring my tasks no more closer to completion. Ah, where to begin?

It is an hour or more that I dig through the bags and baskets, and I have sorted much of what came from my father's house and now pore over things left behind by my lord's mother. Linens and blankets in one pile, the tools of their making in another, roving pushed aside, soap and candles and needles and thread in baskets along the wall. I have found a small silver bell with a broad handle in my search through my lord's mother's things and, holding it up to my ear and giving it a shake, I marvel at it. I had not seen such a thing and its sound is of the high, hard leaves of the plum tree made merry by the sunshine. It brings a smile to my face when I find that cupping my hand about it gives the sound of bubbles beneath deep waters. With a sigh, I set it down amidst other things of which I have no great understanding and little immediate use, and now face a deep chest filled with lush colors and textures of which I have only dreamed.

The fibers catch on my poorly trimmed nails and I marvel how my lord's mother managed her house and yet was able to remain fit to wear such fine things. I drape the clothes across baskets and chests the better to see them and the colors glow in the soft light and smell of cedar and lavender. They are truly beautiful, more fair than any work I have e'er seen afore.

What need had I that my lord's lady mother could fulfill? A place among her people already established? A better understanding of her son's thoughts? No? I lift a long dress and I laugh. Her height of figure, mayhap, then. I cannot think how to take shears to such delicate work, but I can hardly see myself in them. I shall need fine linens for my lord's table, clothes for a child's naming and gifts for those who visit the Angle and those who serve it. But mayhap I shall keep at least one dress, no, two, no-- ah, very well, three, then-- for such occasions as my lord may require. We shall see should I be able to avoid mangling them in their altering.

"My lady," I hear from the door and find Halbarad stooping below the lintel, leaning into the room with one hand upon the frame. He looks for all as were he afraid to enter too far and be pulled into the abyss. I cannot find it in my heart to blame him.

"Our lord bids you attend him," he says and waits until I set aside the dresses to disappear into the hall.

I can only wonder what my lord may wish. We have spoken little since he now orders his own coming and going. Our meals are quiet, with little speech but for that between my lord and his kin or his men.  Aye, we sleep together in a wide bed, but without much exchange of words and none but accidental touch in the midst of our slumbers. Still, I follow and find my lord at his table, where he has tossed a leather pack and now unbuckles his belt. It seems he is just returned home.

"You called, my lord? I am come," I say from the door to the parlor and he glances my way.

"Ah, lady." He draws his belt and sword from around his waist and tosses the lot to Halbarad without a word ere striding about the end of the table.

His kin wraps the belt about my lord's scabbard and raises it to its place upon the wall while my lord swiftly unbinds the clasp upon the pack on the table.

"Come!" my lord says, urging me forward when I stand watching them, bemused by the ease with which it seems the other knows his thoughts.

My lord sits upon his chair, drawing the pack toward him as he opens it. He looks up and frowns to find me across the table from him, where I stand with my hands clasped afore me, gazing at him expectantly.

"Nay, lady, come sit with me," he says and, to my puzzlement, nods to the bench beside him.

I lift my skirts to ease to the bench and settle to its edge as my lord pulls letters, hinged wax tablets, and a sheaf of loosely bound parchment from his pack. Halbarad hangs his pack upon a peg by the door as I sit and now joins us and sets to collecting the letters and organizing them into piles. No doubt they are missives collected from the far-flung corners of my lord's lands. He and his kinsman will spend the rest of the day and much of the even poring over them and debating their course.

My lord draws the bound journal to him. By its worn edges and darkening of the leather I can see it is old and much used.

"Lady," he says, "here you find the records of this house and its lands. Elder Maurus' daughter had them in her care after my mother's passing, but I entrust them now to you."

Here he unties the leather thong holding the journal closed and opens it. I peer o’er his shoulder at the tight, neat hand of rows and columns of figures upon the loose sheaves. He turns the pages swiftly until reaching the end.

I am frowning at the page when my lord slides it afore me. It seems I look at tithes gathered and the goods produced upon my lord's lands, the last of these pitifully few in these last years. The gathering of tithes seems to have been put in abeyance but for my lord’s Ranger’s needs after my lord's mother's death and only recently renewed. My lord watches my face as slowly I turn the page. I peer more closely at the figures, at a loss. The last entry is dated a month prior. Why is that?

"You are lettered, lady, are you not?"

I look up from the figures to find my lord's gaze remains upon me. I had thought his attention elsewhere.  It was gently asked, but still the question stings.  For that is not the source of my misgivings and it rankles he might think so poorly of me.  Attempt as I might to hide my vexation, I think I am not as successful as I might wish, for his eyes search my face.

"Aye, my lord," I say, returning his gaze steadily. 

"Of course," he says softly and then falls silent as I turn the pages over, puzzling o’er the contents and their meaning.  Indeed, I can read the ledger well, and by this know the amount of work that went into it. Wherever shall I find the time?

"When is Melethron due?" my lord asks and spins a letter to better see the hand upon it as he waits, and Halbarad answers without looking up.

"Midafternoon."

"My lord?"

He turns to me. His eyes may be on me, but, for the distant look in my lord's eyes, I think his mind is elsewhere.

"Are these the most recent?" I lift the last of the pages.

"Yes," he says and then, seeming to recall himself, shakes his head, "No, Mistress Pelara keeps the records of this house for you and will give you the pages as they are complete."

"My lord," I say, my words coming haltingly for my confusion, "with what, then, do I trade for goods at the market?"

"You do not need do the trading. It will be done for you, lady. Should you have need, send word to Elder Maurus' house and it will be met."

He turns, and, with that, I am dismissed and nigh forgotten, for Halbarad has opened the letters and, gaining my lord's eye, points out a line upon one of them. My lord scowls and, reading it, lets loose a sigh and rubs at his beard.

"Aye, aye," he repeats softly. "Are there more such?"

I shuffle the pages into shape and tie the leather binder as they speak. I do not know where to keep it safe, but I think I shall leave that question for another time. In the meantime, I wish to have quiet to examine the ledgers more closely. My aunt kept what little accounting there was in my father's house but taught us the way of it, my sister so that she would know how to keep her own house, and I, when it was time, I should know how. I fear my skills will fall greatly short of the task set for me and I shall need much time ere I have mastered it.

My lord and Halbarad's voices are soft behind me and my heart is uneasy as I leave. True, their speech is of settlements threatened and the movements of the creatures of the Shadow, but the thoughts that weigh heavily upon me tend more to what burden is mine to carry. It is not until I reach the hearth that I have convinced myself of the rightness of them.

"My lord," I say and turn about afore I lose my nerve. Ah! I shall regret this. Already the hours of the day fall short of all the work I must complete.

Their voices fall silent and my lord looks upon me, his brow raised.

"What is it, lady?"

"My lord, is it Mistress Pelara who records the tithes and distributes what we need to us?"

"Aye," he says and glances at the page Halbarad places afore him.

I have clutched the journal closely to my chest, as though it might shield me from my lord's displeasure.

"Is this not rather the proper duty of this house?"

My lord frowns. "Thus my mother had it arranged ere you became lady of the House."

"Aye, my lord," I say and, taking a quick breath, go on in a rush, "I doubt not your lady mother was wise in her choice and had need, but, an it please you, my lord, I wish it to be otherwise."

Now I have Halbarad's notice as well. He is silent, as is usual, but his eyes speak for him. He is very still and looks from me to my lord with a quick glance.

My lord considers me as from a distance. But then he nods and says, "Should you wish it, lady, it is yours to decide, but I leave it to you to arrange. Her father is not likely to take it kindly and you will need to speak to him, as well."

"Aye, my lord." Bowing my head, I turn away and release a long breath.

"Lady," my lord calls after me. His voice is stern, and I halt. "I would advise you to be careful in what you say. Master Maurus has been a strong ally in the Angle's council. Do not give his house reason for offense."

"Aye, my lord," I say, but he and Halbarad roll out one of my lord's maps and secure it under the oil lamps at the table and anything else easy to hand. I am already far from his mind.

~oOo~

 

Chapter Text

~ Chapter 9 ~

'They are a strange company, these newcomers,' said Gimli. 'Stout men and lordly they are, and the Riders of Rohan look almost as boys beside them; for they are grim men of face, worn like weathered rocks for the most part, even as Aragorn himself; and they are silent.'

ROTK: The Passing of the Grey Company

~oOo~

A drystone wall curves about a green pasture

~oOo~

~ TA 3007, 1st day of Lótessë: 3 acres for sheltering of rams and 2 wethers.  30 acres for ewes, divided with 2 gated fences between 10 acres each.  One goodly sized, low, open shed with room for 50 animals come winter, 5 lambing stalls, and 1 gated stall for ram

~oOo~

I think now that the Rangers of the North have lost their wits.

Young men who, nigh a month afore had raised their voices among their elders in councils of war, are red-faced with laughter, grinning as broadly as boys. It began in the repairing of the drystone walls that fence in the fields. The land has lain fallow for most of a generation and the walls have been left to crumble under the force of wind and rain. It is a daunting task, though the men of the North make light of hard work.

And light they make of it. Indeed, I know not how their purpose changed or when, but now a youth runs upon the wall while his mates attempt to push him off. He dances among the smooth stones, stepping lightly to avoid traps of both uncertain gravity and grasping hands until he is caught by the heel and pulled down onto his laughing friends. It is a marvel the man did not fall from the heights and crack his skull upon one of the river stones.

My lord has seated himself upon a low, flat rock among the elders of his company, their grim faces softened with laughter. I approach slowly, burdened as I am with buckets in which cups float atop cool water. He stands and calls to his men.

"A fine performance," says he. "Now let us see should you have the strength left to lift the stones you knocked down."

They right themselves from the tangle on the ground and wade through the grass toward my lord, where he and the men have returned to sorting through the rubble. One of the youths, built more slightly than the others, springs to the top of wall and they lift stones to him. My lord lifts a great stone to his man atop the fence and I gasp and stumble under my load. More than one set of hands reach to grab it from him and the next stone that is placed in his arms is considerably smaller. It seems I am not alone in my dismay.

My misstep on the uneven turf sets the tin cups to jangling within the buckets as were I wearing a bell, drawing their eyes. My lord frowns, then the rock he holds thuds onto the ground and he is striding toward me, calling as he goes.

"Gelir!"

The dancing youth springs away from the wall. His feet swifter than my lord's, he reaches me first, his pleasant, round face red from exertion and bright with his laughter. So close and I see just how young he is, and I forgive him his high spirits. He will have time enough for the boy to be worn away into the hard features of a man. A soft smile and word of thanks from me, and he grins and ducks his head. When he offers his hands to relieve me of my burden, he cannot meet my eye. For this and the glimpse of my father's belt about his waist, my heart warms toward him.

Gelir nods at my lord and smiles broadly as he passes. It seems my lord had intended for his man to assume charge of only one of the buckets, for, when he comes upon us, he scowls and looks about to speak. But Gelir has taken both and bears them back to his mates, leaving his chieftain with naught to carry when his stride reaches me. A brief, awkward moment, and then my lord shakes his head and sets pace with me, following the youth. It is all I can do not to break into smiles, though I am sure my lord can see the mirth in my eyes. Indeed, his face is gently wry. He has been caught in a neat trap by his man and knows it.

It is a short distance we walk, but I refuse to quicken my feet though I am no longer weighed down, and, for courtesy, my lord must match me. The men have clustered about the buckets of water and dip the cups therein, handing out water among them.

Emboldened by his men's concern, I say, my voice deliberately mild, "I rejoice you are feeling more yourself, my lord, but is it wise to press your body to great labor?"

"Lady," says he, letting loose a small huff of laughter, "I have cared for my body for more years than you have graced this land and know its limits, else I would not still be here to argue them with you."

"Mayhap, my lord, thou shouldst have taken greater care in the writing of my vows, for thou chargedest me to provide for thy safekeeping. Wouldst thou hadst me foresworn?"

He glances at me in surprise, no doubt marveling at why the words of the Elves issue forth from me at such a time. And, in truth, I can hardly contain my own, for I am greatly startled to hear my aunt's words fly from between my lips to chastise him. No matter I felt his condescension unwarranted, my father would have made his dismay at my words sharply felt.  I have no right to assail my husband with my impatient tongue.

"It is not only I, my lord." I recover enough to squint into the sunlit field at the dark shapes that bend o’er the buckets. "Your men crowd you out of the hardest labor."

"Aye, so they do," he growls, but his eyes lighten fondly as he, too, looks upon them.

"Very well, lady, I shall rest," he concedes after spending some time in thought in which we walk. "But only should you join me," he says, nodding to a place apart from his men. "We have somewhat to discuss."

My lord chooses a low spot on the fence and strides a short length away.  I follow him, taking up one of the buckets as I go. He lifts himself to the top of the stone wall ere dropping down on its far side, so he might look out upon the meadows and hills that surround his house. When I follow, he takes the bucket from me o’er the top of the fence ere grasping my hand. He does not oft touch me, and then only briefly and with the lightest of contacts, but here I find his grip warm and sure. I gather my skirts and, with his aid, climb after him. There, when done, he leans back against the rock wall and takes the cup I offer.

He is much taller than am I, and I cannot see all he looks upon that makes his face soften. When I have filled a cup of my own, I attempt to climb so that I may sit atop the fence to our backs. But the stones are smooth from the river and I find little good purchase. Watching me, my lord sets aside his cup, and, in a swift move, places his hands about my waist and, bending his knees, lifts me. Startled, I grab at his shoulders. He is so near his features fill my view. His face is fixed in effort, but his eyes flicker brightly at my confusion. My heart seems to have a life of its own. Whether it pounds from surprise or the fact that my lord was so close I felt his breath brush across my cheek, I cannot say.

There I sit upon the top of the fence, stunned with the effortlessness with which he placed me there. He smiles as were he teasing me for having doubted his strength.

"My lord! Thou gavest thy word thou wouldst rest thee!" I scold him once I have caught my breath. But he laughs and retrieves my cup, handing it to me and leaving me to sit atop the fence and look out upon the land in which his house is nestled.

Soft green of the gently rolling meadows fades into a distant blue of the hills, covered as they are with the trees of the North. My lord now holds his cup against his breast and crosses his ankles as he looks upon them and the hawks lazily circling upon the current of air rising from the river.  There he leans back against the stones and lines of care soften upon his face. He seems to have taken no great harm and I forebear to berate him further. Regardless, I am coming to understand, it would surely be to no effect should I try.

"It is beautiful here, do you not think?" he asks after a long moment, his voice quiet.

"Aye, my lord," say I, for it is.

"Aye," he murmurs ere shifting his cup to his other hand and breaking his search of the lands to gaze upon me.

He takes the fingers of my free hand in his own and with a twist of his wrist, flips it over so he may examine it from knuckles to palm. Yet, it seems he does so more for my benefit, that I might know he has seen their state, for he catches my eye and will not release it nor my hand. From dawn until well after dusk, I spent the day afore in washing the linens and clothes that had piled up greatly. My hands are still raw from the soap and cold water. I would wish to pull my hand away to hide it in the folds in my apron was it not secured in my lord's grasp.

"I do not require, lady, that you wear yourself so thin," he says, and I fall still.

I had hoped my late arrival to my lord's bed last night had passed his notice, but it seems not so. I had cleared a corner of the parlor where I could spread out the house's ledgers and look o’er them without disturbing my lord or his men. Late into the night I pondered over them, until the figures swam in a muddy soup in my head and then troubled my dreams once I relented.

"Should I find you suitable aid for the running of your house, will you accept it, lady?"

I nod, for I dare do naught else even should I not care for the help, but even then, he does not release me.

"I expect you to bring such needs to me, lady," says he in a voice both weary and stern, "not wait for me to discover them only when it becomes apparent you have suffered for their want."

When he releases my hand, it is almost a relief, for only then can I cease to stare at him. I can think of naught to say and am grateful he seems to expect no reply. Instead, we fall silent, watching the breeze as it bends the tips of the grasses. Waves of silvered green pass across the meadow and die away. The low voices of men murmur close at hand.

I wonder at the curious lightheadedness I feel. I cannot blame it upon the warmth of the sun. I had not thought my lord's touch would disturb me so, and yet it does. I had not thought the sight of his eyes so close to mine would seem so piercingly fair, the strength of his arms would send my thoughts scattering, nor the touch of his grave concern would lift my heart; and yet they do.  I scrub at my brow. Is this not as it should be? Am I not his wife?

"We have yet to complete our bargain," he says, startling me into staring at him.

He may be of the race of the West unmingled, and his sight may bore through to the heart of a man, but surely he cannot tell my thoughts. I can only hope he will not name it in the open air and among his men. To my relief, it seems not, for his attention is not upon me but he takes a sip of water, looking out upon the land with a critical eye.

"How is that, my lord?"

"I have not provided for your dower, and I would not leave it undone for long."

"I had not thought of it," say I, stumbling over the words so taken aback am I at the turn in the conversation. Seldom does a bride of the Dúnedain negotiate her own dower in place of her elders.

"Then what say you name it now?"

I look out upon the pasture, squinting into the strong sun whose glare hides the men resting among the grasses. "It seems my lord already has somewhat in mind."

"I do," he says, following my gaze with his own. "I would have this house be self-sufficient, should it be able, as soon as it is able. I am told it is too late for the planting of the early beans or spring wheat," he says, "but a field ploughed now should be ready for the planting of winter crops by first frost. Should it be so, then we must clear the land and fence it in, enough to reduce our drain upon the folk of the Angle. I will find a man to assist you, who will know the care of the crops we need raise here and the management of the Angle's labor."

I nod at his thoughts.  He does not need my approval, but I give it natheless.

But his face is lit with a pleased smile, and thus encouraged, I ask, "What of expanding the kitchen gardens just beyond the fruit trees, against the buttery door, my lord?"

He frowns and looks where I point, shading his eyes against the sun. "About the well?"

"Aye, a good place for a garth filled with herbs and savory plants, do you agree, my lord?"

He nods and returns to leaning against the fence. "Make your plans, lady, and it will be done."

"My thanks to you, my lord." I wonder were this the dower he had in mind when he interrupts me.

"I see you have some skill with wool," he says. "Have you the skills to raise the sheep?"

"A few."

"Would a flock of twenty meet your needs?" His gaze measures me.  “The pastures would be well placed upon the western edge, do you think?”  Here he nods to the green, rolling hills to our right, where they abut the edge of the woods that meanders upon the banks of the Tithecelon. 

"Aye, my lord," I say, thinking of what must be done to bring the lands to self-sufficiency as I speak.  One male for the first season's lambing and neighbors with which to trade for the services of their rams in the second, the flock would increase rapidly. "Ewes, a ram and a wether or two to keep him company, that would do nicely indeed as a start."

"I am glad to hear it," he says, and my face heats for my forwardness, but he seems not to mind. Indeed, he is smiling.

"My lord is generous." I look intently at the depths of my cup to keep from bringing more shame to myself. He has indeed been generous. Should my lord fail of his return, I might have a chance of keeping a living for myself and any of my children. Though my sons might inherit the land, upon my death the flock would come to my daughters, to take to whatever house to which they would go.

My lord has returned to studying the land, no doubt seeing it as he would wish it to become. I, in turn, think of the speed with which sheep can nibble green shoots down to the roots.

"You will need to build sturdy fences, my lord," I say, and he smiles in response.

"Aye, or your dower and my plans shall come to cross purposes," he says and then frowns, considering the land about us. "Can you think of aught else?"

"A well-cover might be wise, my lord."

"Think you the sheep will tumble into the well and drown?" he asks and turns an uncertain smile on me.

Sheep are not known for the sharpness of their wits, yet I do not laugh.

"No, my lord,' I say. "Should they play in the garden and we put our backs to them for but a moment, your children might."

He turns away when he nods, draining his cup to fill the silence between us. I cannot read his face, for his features are closed to me. Dropping his cup into the water, he sets the bucket atop the fence and lifts himself o’er the stones. His smile is distant, and his eyes have none of their former brightness as he relieves me of my cup and grasps my hand to ease me from the top of the wall.

I content myself with walking a step behind, so I might watch my lord as we return to his men. I had thought his wound had sapped his strength, so he gave no thought to claiming his right as my lord and groom, but now I know it is not so. His strength returns daily yet still I wait. His face is solemn and now I find a name for what lies behind this time that has grown between the exchange of our vows and the making of a marriage bed.

My lord is reluctant.

"Were I to restrain myself to trimming the withies for thy garden fence, wilt thou beest content?"

I am startled to find my lord looking at me, his face now clear of his disquiet. He has stopped, for we have come back to the spot where we started our conversation. He gently revenges himself upon me with the Elvish words as he offers me the bucket.

"As it please you, my lord," I say and take it from him, my voice low and my eyes demure.

He frowns but I cannot relieve his bewilderment. I have turned away and wish only to return to the house.

I can make neither heads nor tails of what my lord would have of me. And it comes to me in the walk through the grasses with the bucket swinging from my hand and the cups clanking idly within; mayhap he, himself, does not know.

~oOo~

 

Chapter Text

~ Chapter 10 ~

'I called for the help of the Dúnedain, and their watch was doubled; and I opened my heart to Aragorn, the heir of Isildur.'

FOTR: The Council of Elrond

~oOo~

An old man in gray, weather-stained clothes stands amid brightly lit flowers.

~oOo~

~ TA 3007, 14th day of Nárië:  4 trees of apple – 20 to 40 bushels of fruit, 6 plum trees – 18 to 36 bushels come Urimë and Yavannië of TA 3010

~oOo~

For many days, now, the winds blow upon us from the west. They have been generous with their waters and the land has turned a softly-burnished green. Spring comes to the Angle in her fullness, with warm sunlight by day and cool airs by night.

True to his word, my lord and his men built raised beds in the well yard and about them wove a fence of thin birch and willow branches. Here the tender shoots are lit by the morning sun, sheltered from the wind, and barred from predation by the creatures of forest and field. Here, between paths of sunken stone that wind through the beds, we planted cabbage, sorrel, onion, garlic, savory, basil, and sage for the comfort of the palate; valerian, mallow, comfrey, and feverfew for the comfort of the body; and lemon balm, vervain, and lavender for the comfort of the spirit. Here I will sit upon benches of earth laid over with thick turf cut from the meadow and pluck small dusky plums and tart apples from trees that reach their long limbs over the wall.

With the sun's rising, I entered the garden and planted flowering ivies between the benches, so they may one day climb the wattle fence, and rosemary at the gate, so its brush-like branches may grow to hang heavily from the arch overhead. One day, the herbs we planted for their usefulness will grow up about the stone well and fill the air with their scents when heated by the gentle sun.

All this I see in my mind's eye, but the fruits of my labor are yet to come to pass. I have brought the potted aloe and bay from my father's home out of doors, where, now that frost no longer threatens, they are the tallest of the plantings in the garden.

My labors will be long, but the garden already shows much promise. The soil in its beds has been raked to a fine tilth and my fingers are deep in the dirt as I kneel upon the stone and thin clusters of madder shoots.  Several years must yet pass, but then I shall pull the roots of the madder to make a red dye as light as the sunset upon white clouds or as dark as oxblood. Now, they are but small tender stars the color of new pease.

I lift a plant with the tip of my spade, dividing it from its mates, and pat it into the soil further apart where I hope it will take and grow strong. A lone cricket chirps plaintively along the wall of the house as the day waxes. He seems to be my only company.

My lord pores o’er his maps and journals in the hall, the warm sunlight and scents of spring streaming in through the high windows. Halbarad has walked to the market to consult with the Elders on a small matter. Master Herdir, newly made my lord's reeve, prepares the sheds for the promised flocks of sheep. Elesinda is in the buttery and dimly I can hear her beating upon pots as she puts them away from the morning meal. The younger sister of one of my lord's men, he brought her to our household just the week prior. A girl with a sweet face, rounded figure and blue eyes wide with awe, I knew I would find her agreeable, but mayhap too much daunted by my newfound title to be a good companion. But, today, the sun is pleasant, the soil warm, and the twittering flight of doves and chattering of chaffinches nesting in the berry brambles are enough. I find my aloneness a blessing.

A sigh escapes from me as I look o’er the gardens. I shall be here until dark should I not put aside my dreaming and increase my pace. Wiping dirt from my fingers, I shove the folded blanket further along the planks that hold the madder plants within their bed so that they shall not wander and crowd out all else that grows in the garden.  I am prepared to kneel when I hear a voice calling from o’er my shoulder.

"Hello to the house!"

I turn to find a curious sight. An old man stands behind the fence where I can see him from his gray-clothed breast to the tip of the strangely shaped staff he bears and the pointed hat that perches atop his head. His face is kindly, and his beard is long and white, as are the brows that grow as thorn bushes above his keen eyes.

"Bid you good morrow, Father," I say, "How fare you?"

"Well, Daughter," says he and leans into the fence. "I have traveled far, and this seems a pleasant place. Might I join you and rest these weary bones?" His eyes twinkle at some inner amusement, making me wish to laugh, though I know not why.

"Of course, Father." I drop my spade to the soil and wipe at my hands with my apron. "You are welcome."

I meet him at the wicket and open it as he ducks beneath the arch, neatly avoiding striking the point of his hat. I follow him into the garden and he looks about him with an air of satisfaction, his bright eyes peering beneath the shadows of the fruit trees and into the corners by the buttery and pantry walls. He seems an unlikely wanderer, but his clothes, a rusty gray, are much stained with the weather and the paths he has trod. I notice, then, with a shock, a long finely-wrought sword hangs from his belt.

"Yes, yes, a pleasant place," he says, turning about to take in the gardens. His glance takes me in. "Though you, no doubt, have hopes of it being much more."

I smile. "We will build what refuges we can."

"Indeed," he says and briefly places a gnarled hand over mine where I have them clasped afore me.  "May yours provide you with what peace may be found in these times and may you share it as generously with others who have need of it." He returns to surveying the kitchen yard, leaning upon his staff.

"Father," I ask, "would you break the fast of your traveling? I can offer you some ale, bread, cheese, cold meats—"

"No, no, do not trouble yourself."

"At least let me bring you some water, father. The sun grows warm and one of your years should not be under it overlong."

"Some water, yes, some water will do nicely." He seems to have chosen the spot for his rest, for he now strides along the inside of the fence, the foot of his staff thumping against the stones.

When I return from the buttery with a cup, I find him seated upon a turf bench along the fence, comfortable beneath a plum tree heavy with sprays of small white flowers. He has taken off his hat and laid it beside his pack and staff. Now he leans against the wall, the stem of a long pipe clenched between his teeth. Thin streams of smoke curl about his nose as he rests with his eyes closed and the smell of pipeweed weaves its way through the garden. He seems quite content. Though I draw water from the well, he does not stir at its bubbling or my footsteps as I approach.

"Here you are, Father," I say, and his eyes fly open.

"Ah," he says with a smile, lifting his pipe from his teeth and taking the cup from me.

Our hands touch in the passing and I feel a tingling as were I carding wool on a cold winter day. I stare at him and his eyes twinkle in the sunlight as he watches me o’er the rim of his cup. My face must be full of confused thoughts, for my mind cannot make sense of what I have seen and felt. When he first opened them to me the depths of his eyes seemed alight with a powerful fire, but now I see only his mirth playing upon their surface.

Yet, he has given me no cause for alarm. I step back and watch him, not knowing what to make of my guest. He drinks the well water as were it the finest wine, sipping it delicately ere he leans back against the fence.

"My thanks to you, Daughter."

So completely out of my depth am I, I can think of no question to ask that is not impolite. So, instead, I nod and turn to my work.

From my place kneeling afore the bed of madder plants, I can see my guest. He raises his eyes to watch the sprays of flowers above him fluttering in the breeze as he smokes. He seems but an old man content to take his rest amongst what beauty he can find. The sun has turned warm with its rising and the shade must be welcome to a traveler.

"Have you journeyed far, Father?" I ask, pinching away small, overcrowded seedlings.

"Aye," he says, "many have been the leagues I have walked, but most recently I have come from the land of the Halflings. Do you know it?"

Looking about, I find the spade I dropped and poke at the soil. "The Shire?" I say. "But little, more in story than aught else, though the abandoned dwellings of the small people can still be found near the riverbanks, hereabouts. They left them behind in their move west, ere men came to reclaim these lands."

"A pity. They prize gardeners there, from what I hear."

"Indeed?" And for the second time, he has made me smile. "I had not known that."

"Among other things of comfort," he says and purses his lips to send rings of smoke floating afore him.

I laugh. "A happy chance, then, you have friends in such a place."

"Yes, a happy chance, indeed," he agrees. "I would travel there more oft had I the choice." He gestures vaguely to the garden in which he rests. "And I must be sure to earn your friendship as well, lady, so as to see what you have wrought here when it comes to full flowering."

"I think I will be glad to show you," say I, warmed to an instant affection by his manner.

I return to my task.  For a long moment, we are silent, each with our occupation, I with my plants and he with his pipe.

"What brings you to the Angle in your travels, might I ask?" I must raise my voice, for my efforts have taken me to the far end of the raised bed.

"A friend," says he and smiles. "I come seeking him. It has been years since last we spoke, and it came to my mind it would be good to hear his thoughts on certain matters. I may have need of his aid, should he be willing to lend it.

"Weighty words, indeed, Father, to make a journey so far as you say. I hope you will find them worthy of their purchase," I say, wedging the spade between plants and pushing them asunder.

"So do I, Daughter," he says, "but then, the words of a friend are most oft worth the price just to hear the voice that speaks them."

"Mae Govannen!" comes the glad call from the buttery door and we turn toward it, our conversation coming to a sudden halt. My lord strides down the garden path, his face lit with joy.

The old man rises slowly as were it against stiff joints. "Ah!  And here he is now!" He steps toward my lord, his face wrinkling so in his delight his eyes show only as small points of light.

"Well met! Well met!" my lord cries and embraces the old man, who chuckles and pounds him upon his back with the palm of his sturdy hand, clutching his pipe in the other.

The old man thrusts him to arm's length. "Let me look at you!" His keen eyes peer at my lord.

"Gandalf!"  My lord smiles broadly under his examination. "My heart has so hoped for your coming, I thought it a trick and not your voice I heard."

"And yet here I am, my friend," the wizard says, frowning mildly and looking him over from head to toe, "and find my worst fears have been for naught. You look well."

"Ah!  ‘Twas but a scratch," my lord says, grinning like a boy.

"Humph!" the old man grunts and clouts him fondly on his shoulder. "That is not what I heard, but, scratch or no, it is good to see you in such good health and high spirits."

The madder lies forgotten, for I have launched myself to my feet, staring at my lord and his guest. The spade dangles loosely from my hand and I catch myself gaping at them. I have heard tales of the Grey Wanderer since my childhood, but ne’er had I seen him. Hastily, I close my mouth and straighten my shoulders, letting the spade drop to the soil. In the welcoming of guests, my rightful place is beside my lord and to him I go.

The wizard's eyes light upon me. "My friend," he says, turning, "I believe the lady is owed an introduction, at the very least for the kindliness of her welcome."

My lord retreats a pace, his face newly sober, and raises a hand to take mine formally. "Mithrandir, known as Gandalf among Men of the West, here you find Nienelen, Lady of the Dúnedain, but newly made my wife."

I think I have ne’er been so painfully aware of the dirt beneath my nails and the smudges upon my apron. I am a fine sight for such an introduction, but, eager to bring no further shame upon my lord, I incline my head and make as graceful a reverence as I am capable.

The old man's eyes sparkle, and his voice is full of a gentle mischief.

"Yes, this I hear, as well." He takes my hand from my lord. He seems not to mind its lack of cleanliness. "Please accept my best wishes for your future happiness, my lady," he says and bows o’er my hand.

He releases it to clasp that of my lord's. "And yours as well, my friend." His grip is fond, though his voice now holds a note of warning that, at the time, I did not understand. Yet, my lord returns his look dispassionately.

"But, come!" Gandalf continues, his voice warming. "We have much on which to speak, things of less joy, I fear. I would take your counsel, were you of a mood to give it."

"It is ever yours to have, my friend, such as it is in these times," my lord says. "And it seems you have counsel in mind to give, as well."

"Indeed," the old man says as he strides to where he has left his pack and staff, waving off my startled attempt at aid. "Much changes in the world, both the great and the small." He tosses his pack o’er his shoulder and lifts his hat to his head. "But ever our task remains the same, should you have the will to resume the burden." He has taken a firm grip upon his staff and now stands, leveling a stern, questioning look upon my lord.

"My heart has not changed."

My lord stands with his feet firmly planted and arms folded across his breast. They meet eye to eye, neither flinching beneath the other's sharp gaze.

"Ask what you would of me," my lord says, "you will find me ready."

"Good!" The wizard nods sharply. He clamps the pipe between his teeth and speaks around it. Small puffs of smoke come with his words. "I have much to ask!"

A small laugh escapes my lord. "As ever, but this time I would claim a fee in advance of you."

"You would?" Gandalf peers at him, a frown furrowing his face. He has come upon my lord, who relieves him of his pack.

"Aye, all for a pipeful of that leaf you smoke," my lord says, hefting the pack in his fist.

"Ah, you ask much, my friend!" The wizard's thorny brows lift high beneath the brim of his hat. "This is Longbottom leaf, no less, straight from the Hornblowers of Southfarthing."

My lord smiles and, placing a hand on the old man's shoulder, eases him along the path. "Do I not know it? Why else should I ask it of you?"

"My lady!" the wizard calls o’er his shoulder as he walks with my lord, "Shall you not intervene on my behalf and plead mercy from your husband?"

"I think, Master Gandalf," I call after them, amused, "you might consider yourself lucky he is willing to give aught in exchange."

"Humph," he grunts and turns away. Faint his voice drifts back to me as he mutters, "She has the measure of you already, dear friend."

With that, they have walked out of my hearing, two forms, one straight of shoulder and tall, the other bent beneath his labors, but, I doubt not, no less strong.

~oOo~

The smell of burning leaf drifts through the tall windows of my lord's hall where he and his guest take their ease. The young plants of the garden are well-snugged in their bed, as am I. Frogs sing from their perches in the trees and the sheets are cool beneath my arms where I hug the pillow against me. The bed is wide, and I am sunk deep into the mattress, alone as I am. A quick pass of a wet cloth to clean away the dirt of the day and I climbed into the bed, grateful to make it thus far. I am heavy of body, but light of heart and reluctant to let the day end.

The day was full, and I am content with the manner in which it passed. For my labors, I know now the garden will prosper and, for the words of the wizard, am comforted that others see its worth. I had not thought somewhat so small would concern the Mighty, and yet he took time ere the even’s meal to return to the well. There, he walked the paths littered in white petals and questioned me as to the herbs I had chosen, their uses, and the manner of their growing. It seemed he already knew much of what I had to tell but would use it as an excuse to wander at his leisure among the flowering trees.

The meal itself was a happy affair. Where once my lord and I had dined quietly, I laughed until, weeping, I begged the wizard to cease long enough to allow me to catch my breath. It began with my tentative and polite queries as to the lands he had walked. He told tales of the little people of The Shire and I came to know more of their simple lives and dauntless hearts. Of the Elves he spoke, and I came to know more of their grace and fierce will. But it did not end there, for soon after the meal he took up stories of his travels with my lord.

At first, I hid my smiles and choked on my laughter behind my linen, glancing at my lord to gauge his mood. I should not have concerned myself, for he endured the wizard's teasing with good humor, sprawled in his chair with a cup of ale, a crooked smile lighting his face as he shook his head tolerantly. Little did I know why he was so unmoved until he spoke in his turn of the wizard, at which the old man let loose an irritable huff, all the while winking at me from across the table.

They spoke of rainwater pouring from scabbards, dunkings in rivers, wizards and dwarves perched in the upper boughs of trees, sheep mistaken for trolls in the dark of night, and the hazards of traveling with elven companions who failed utterly to account for the limits of mortal flesh. In each tale, danger loomed large behind the laughter, but they made light of it and of each other with such companionable warmth that I soon laughed openly.

Thus the evening passed, and though I tired, I was reluctant to leave their company. Until this night, I had not seen my lord's face lit full by his mirth nor his frame limp with his ease. Gone was the reserve that kept him silent. Gone were the cares that kept his face solemn and the burden that stiffened his back. It seemed that, until this night, though I had known the lord, I had not known the man.

So, it was with regret that I finally parted from their company. I had little choice, for I dozed with my head propped upon my fist only to startle awake at my lord's touch. The wizard pulled on his pipe silently, his eyes twinkling as they watched through the haze of the smoke drifting about his head. Tugging upon my wrist, my lord lifted me to my feet and ushered me to the stairs, all the while forbidding me to pour them more ale or find some last bit of food for them to eat.

When I protested my need to check our guest's bed for his comfort, from the foot of the stairs my lord commanded me, "Nay, lady. Sleep!"

And so, I sleep and my lord and his guest's voices drift into the solar with their pipe-smoke. There they lull me into slumber and mingle with my dreams.

"Think you truly the Halfling's ring is the One?" My lord's voice is slow and thoughtful.

"He ages little," the wizard's voice says.

"And that is sign enough?"

"Have you doubts?"

"About many things," my lord says. "We are hard-pressed as it stands and soon will become more so. It is a grave risk we take, placing so much faith in this and so little left for aught else. I would know more of this ring and who knows it has emerged from its long hiding place. An you came to ask my counsel, it is unchanged from years past."

The wizard's voice grunts in agreement and I can all but see him sending streams of smoke into the air between them. "Can you spare me your services?"

My lord's voice answers, "Aye, though the trail be cold."

"But the need great and I have faith in your skills, my friend." Mirth warms the old man's voice.

Some unspoken confidence must have passed between them, for the wizard goes on.

"Then I shall return to Rivendell, to consult once more with its Master ere I join you. Between us two we shall find this Gollum and see what riddles he can answer." He sighs ere speaking in quiet tones. "I have come too oft to the Shire and draw too many eyes that we can ill afford to be directed hence. Though I shall miss him greatly, my heart tells me I shall not see Frodo again soon. Keep watch will you, my friend?"

"It has been done."

Wood creaks in the silence that falls between them. When I hear the old man's voice again, it is close, as had he risen and now looks through the windows at the stars above the meadow.

"You have found yourself a pleasing place to rest from your wandering. I confess I wondered should you not wish to be wrested from it."

"Do you think my resolve so thin?" I have heard that tone to my lord's voice afore. Its chill holds a warning I am glad has not yet been turned upon me.

"Come! Come now!" the wizard says, and his voice becomes a murmur, as had he turned from the window. "Do not distress yourself. I have good reason to wonder."

"My heart is unchanged, Gandalf."

"In all things?" For all that the question is mild, the wizard's voice has sharpened.

My lord's voice falls quiet and he pauses ere he speaks. "In all things."

"Strange then, that you have chosen this path."

"Many roads may lead to the same end.  An my path has changed, Gandalf, it does not follow that the goal of the journey has changed with it."

"Humph," the wizard grunts and the smell of his pipe grows strong. "Then should this be your path, best you tread on it with both feet and looking ahead, not over your shoulder at the way abandoned."

My lord does not answer, and in the silence, the wizard's voice strengthens again.

"She is much as her garden," he says. "Much in it of charm, usefulness, and comfort, but will require tending to reach full flower. Should you rise to what you aspire, my friend, she should be prepared for it. You have the will. Have you the desire?"

Footsteps scuff along the floor as my lord rises. His cup hits the table with a dull clank.

"Ah, well, you will sort it out," the wizard says briskly when the question goes unanswered, "and I have meddled enough in your private affairs."

"Come, my friend!" The old man's voice fades until, in my dreams, I know not an he speaks or an I hear the insects' song upon the night air. "Show me to my pallet. The sun shall rise soon enough, and we can continue our debates then."

~oOo~

 

Chapter Text

~ Chapter 11 ~

'He is the Chief of the Dúnedain in the North, and few are now left of that folk.'

FOTR: The Council of Elrond

~oOo~

We can see cheek, chin and ear of a  white woman with gray hair pulled back into a loose bun.  Out of focus over her shoulder stands her hall.

~oOo~

~ TA 3007, 17th day of Cermië: With the number of holdings now upon the Angle, each full virgate owes 16 bushels of tithe.    Full virgate – with 16 acres planted is 160 bushels, less 48 to seed and 16 of tithe is 96. Half virgate 48 bushels. 7 families come to Angle TA 3004, 8 families in Angle TA 3005, 13 in Angle TA 3006.  13 families with 48 bushels each is 624 bushels sum.  One oxgang per full virgate.  7 new oxgangs needed should we have again 13 more families flee hence. More, should the increase in numbers hold.

~oOo~

The broad leaves of the bean bushes tremble in the breeze, their green so bright they seem to glow against the blackness that is the dirt. Ahead, boys switch at goats with their long withies stripped from the willow trees. The beasts trot down the path with their stiff-legged gait, swaying bellies, and wagging beards as their young herders call out and press them to their day's pasture.

The folk of the Angle ply their hoes upon the soil, the heads of their tools rising and falling as they work their way down the rows, ridding the field of weeds. The day afore they worked the lands of my lord's house, turning aside the soil about a field of wheat so tender it hung as a green mist rising from the soil. His reeve paced out the furlongs in my lord's fields and directed its ploughing and planting.

Today Master Herdir has set the men to work in the fields along the path to the square of the Angle. The musk of fresh-turned earth and their song floats across the valley, and I catch a word or two among the music. Halbarad, whose broad hand clutches my journal to his hip, walks behind me to guard his lord wife's steps and bear her burdens. He watches the men and his stride marks time to their steady rhythm. I wonder an he knows it.

He is, as always, quiet of voice and solid of step. Glad am I, for I am deep in the figuring of tithes and what the fields may yield. I shake my head, for I can make little sense of my thoughts.

Should he be so endowed of his holdings, twenty-four acres, a full virgate, a man might have in the Angle. Of it he will plant but sixteen each year, leaving the fallow eight for the pasture of his and his fellow's beasts and fodder for their winter. Should the Valar be so kind, he might hope to reap ten bushels from each acre of wheat or beans and lentils in the summer and then rye upon the fall. One hundred and sixty in all, forty-eight of which he owes to the next planting's seed and sixteen of which he owes the House of Isildur in tithe. This leaves him with ninety-six, all of which he will need to feed and otherwise provide for his own family o'er the year. The House shall need as much and more, for it feeds not only its own, but provides commons to my lord's men, provision for his men's households should they be of the Angle, and the succor of those of his folk in need.

Aye, aye, and aye! This I know and understand. But what of those of our people who flee to us after the ploughing and planting of seed? How shall the land feed them?

Should a dozen families flee hither, we shall need over five hundred bushels to feed them. That is at least fifty acres of land to be worked!  Who shall work it? True these twelve new to the Angle could plough up acreage in the spring, and shall owe the House, together, a total of near two hundred bushels that might be used to feed five more families should we be spare in the giving or the families are small.

But where shall come the seed for their next spring's planting? And whose land shall it be? Shall those who work it owe a tithe to the lord for his holding, or shall it remain in the name of The House? Or is it somewhat altogether new and none shall own or owe tithes of it? And then there is this, a man who holds a full virgate in the Angle is a man of wealth. What of those who hold less? A half-virgate can feed a family in a good year but leave no surplus for trade for the family's other needs. Shall our wanderering folk all become cotters, then, with no land of their own? Shall the Angle become of two kinds, those who are landed and those who slave in the service of the bread they might earn from day's-work?

Ai! My head hurts.

My lord's lady mother's ledgers contain no accounting of such things. She lived simply, quietly and with few visitors. I found but the occasional reference to those who came to her for aid, and for nigh a generation of men, with my lord gone to lands far from his home and his mother under the care of the Lord of the Hidden Vale, there has been no House to record such things. So, no matter how oft I pore over the steady columns of figures, I find no help there.

The hens cluck weakly in their pens outside the Elder's home, the sun beating upon them and bending their heads beneath their wings with its sleepy warmth. Well, I am come, and am no closer to my answer than I was afore.

"I shall return for you upon the noon meal, my lady," Halbarad says shortly as he thrusts what are now my ledgers into my hands, and it takes a great act of will for me to forebear from staring at him.

So, this is what Halbarad thinks of my efforts. He thinks me a fool and, knowing it is not his place to say so, waits for the Elder to teach me a lesson in it. Truth to be told, I am unsure he may not have the right of it.

"My thanks to you, Ranger Halbarad," I say and settle the leather folder upon my hip. It weighs as much as a newborn babe and seems to have brought as much unrest to my nights.

He takes his leave and I think him relieved to be gone, for I sent word ahead of my desire to speak with the Mistress and she stands in her open door.

"Good morrow, Mistress Pelara," I say, and she bows her head and greets me in return, bringing her knuckles to her brow.

"You are welcome in my home, my lady," she says, but the words are stiffly delivered, and I wonder at her true feelings on the matter. Still, she backs away from the door and allows me entrance.

The Elder is nowhere in sight, and, in his place at the table, I see Mistress Pelara has laid out her accounts. They await my scrutiny and it is to them she ushers me. The brazier yet sits by the table, but its belly is cold, and the table bare of aught else but her lists. No sharp smell of rosehips and chamomile nor tart words fondly traded between father and daughter to greet me. I am not a fool. Or mayhap, say rather I am not so much a fool as to think she would welcome me warmly under such circumstances, but I had hoped for better than this.

"Would you wish for refreshment, lady?"

"Yes, Mistress," I say, an only to relieve me of her gaze, and she bows, leaving me to the pages of lists.

Ai!

I have made my way through the accounting of tithes received in the past weeks and have moved on to the purchases made on my lord's House's behalf when the Mistress returns. I am appalled! How could one house require so much in beef, pork and grain? And in but a fortnight's time! Ai! What must the mistress think of my sense of economy? Ah, there is but one thing to think. It is apparent from these lists I have none.

She sets upon the table a pitcher of strong smelling ale, and though she now sits across the table from me, I dare not lift my face from the sheets. I must seem to be turning the most intense of studies upon them, but I care not, for my cheeks are on fire for my shame. She waits impatiently, her arms tucked under her breast. I marvel she has said naught and think her only waiting to see what excuse I have to offer for my failings. Oh, I cannot say I place much blame upon her feeling. For here I sit in the Lady Gilraen's place, a woman much younger in years and wisdom than either the lady or her maid.

The letters are as the tracks of the Elder's clucking hens for all I can make sense of them, though they are placed upon the page with great care. I blink my eyes clear and swallow what little pride I might have left. Oh, yes, aye, there are among the lists an accounting of the purchase of onions and greens, aye, a mattock and spade, aye, that too, and an undue number of pots and blankets--

Blankets?

It seems the table tilts beneath my eyes and my thoughts draw sharply upon the page. How is this? Blankets, ten of them, and made of sturdy wool, purchased in exchange for a half-bushel of rye. What need has my lord's House of blankets? I brought many with me, of my own make, to a house that already had many of them. Where are they, these blankets I did not make and have not seen? And indeed, then, has the House truly consumed so much of what is contained herein? To my recollection, we have not had so much of pork as these lists might tell, and most assuredly not of beef. My lord commanded I not bring insult to the house of the Elder and his daughter, but now I must wonder do they not take gross advantage of his goodwill.

Mayhap I did not hide my displeasure so well as I thought, for the mistress shifts about on her seat and then launches herself to her feet. She goes to the tall chest and, wrenching it open, draws from it a cup. She says naught nor meets my eye when she pours the ale and sets the cup afore me.

"My thanks to you, Mistress."

I drink of the ale, lacking aught better to do. The taste is smooth with a deeply roasted mash of oats and somewhat else I cannot discern and know shall never be revealed. The mistress well deserves her reputation and no doubt keeps the tale of its brewing closely guarded.

"I have not yet set the doings of the past two days to the ledgers, lady," says she. "More of our folk came out from the Wild seeking aid, and we spent much of the time getting them settled."

I nod, swallowing the ale, for I had noted the lack, though had thought it of little account. I am silent for a moment more, for I need weigh my words carefully.

"Mistress, you kept these books in the same manner as e'er you have for the House?"

"Aye, as the Lady Gilraen directed me, so I have continued."

"And you keep therein an account of what is purchased in its name and is given to it in tithe?"

"Aye," she says, and from her look it seems she marvels I do not find this evident in what I have read.

"But not, I take it, strictly that which is put into use by the House."

"No, what need had the House was my lady's care and I did not question it. I was given to understand you to be occupied with the concerns of the House and of a mind to keep to it, and so I did not take its inventory. An I was wrong, I would beg forgiveness of you, lady."

"And so, how much of this," I say and, ignoring the implied insult, indicate the ledgers, "was purchased in the name of the House, but was not for its use?"

I think this stings, for Mistress Pelara's face stiffens into subtle lines of resentment.

"My lady did as was proper and provided for those in need of the Angle atimes, but mayhap you would not know much of that."

The ale turns bitter upon my tongue, but it is not its brewing that gives it its taste.

"Aye, I am sure she deserved thy loyalty and thee made her a very good servant," say I.

At this, she colors and seems to bite back her anger. It is good, mayhap, the Mistress does not speak, for I, too, need take a cooler breath, for greatly now do I rue the words that slipped from betwixt my lips. Ah, but they were petty and unworthy of either my father's daughter or my lord's wife.

Ai, I am making such a mess of things should I not mend this my lord shall greatly regret his choice. I shall indeed feel the cold weight of his disapproval and deserve it.

I rub at my brow and I think the Mistress, too, reconsidering, for her gaze falls all places but upon me, and a quick glance reveals her face is drawn and weary.

"Mistress, you do not deserve harsh words, and I am shamed to have delivered them," say I and she nods, worrying a fold of her skirts between her fingers.

With a sigh, I look again to the ledgers she keeps. It is much as I expected, and I find few answers in their lists.

"Aye, Mistress, I do wish for the House to provide for those in need of our folk, but they are of such numbers they lie spread across the whole of Eriador. Should but half of those dispossessed make their way to the Angle--." Here I stop and shake my head.

"Would you have them go hungry and want for shelter, then, lady?"

"No! They lay heavy upon my thoughts, Mistress. I know not how to meet their need, but I know the House of Isildur shall not be sufficient aid."

"Aye." Pelara rises, her face grim.  With this, she goes to the chest and pulls from it a bowl of hardy cakes wrapped in linen that smell of oat, walnut, and honey.  "Did you know of the dispute between Elder Fuller and the Wanderer?"

"Aye," I say, for indeed I had heard of it. The Angle's council found in favor of its own and the family newly become our neighbors were thrust from the land which they claimed. It had not helped that the man of the wanderers had been an unpleasant sort and had set his boundaries o’er another's who could claim it for nigh on six generations back. It had come to blows between more than just the two men involved and bred resentments and fears among those who had no need of them. Such was the chilling effect, those not born of the Angle were allowed little right to find land on which to settle. And so, by default, did this new custom of the Angle come to be, conceived in fear and birthed by distrust.

"Aye," she says, her voice echoing harshly in the small room. "'Tis easier to fear the wolf at your door than the warg that howls from o’er the hill."

"Will you not help me, Mistress?"

"Och!" she grunts, her voice muffled behind the doors of the chest. There she takes up linens and a cup for herself. "And you will need help. You may have married our lord, my lady, but it will matter naught until you are mother to his heir."

Glad am I for the chest's doors, for I know not how well I hide the suddenness of my alarm at her words. Oh, I am not so thick this had not occurred to me, but I had not known it so common a thought it might be stated thus baldly.

"An you think to gain the ear of the Council through me," Pelara says as she set the bowl of cakes and an empty cup upon the table, "and thereby through my father, I would caution you against it, my lady. Though it love the lord and respects his law, the Angle would ever be ruled by its own."

"In truth, Mistress, I had not thought it."

The sound she makes as she sits would be of scorn, had it not come from a face made bitter by disappointment. "And you think, lady, you will succeed where the Council has not?"

"I have somewhat the Council does not."

She does not reply, for it seems she thinks it unworthy of her efforts. Instead, she shakes her head, and unwraps the linen from the cakes and arranges the napkins to her liking.

"Do you not know?" I ask, and her eye comes upon me sharply for the mirth with which I warm my voice. "I came not to supplant you in your place among those of the Angle.  I came to elevate it. I came in hopes that I might have the ear of a woman of the Angle who knows well their workings."

"Me?" she scoffs.

"Mistress," I say, "my father may have been of the Angle, but my mother was not.  She wandered from winter to summer pastures with her father as do all those of our folk of Emyn Uial and the North Downs.  Loathe was she to give up the life and consented to my father’s offer of marriage only when her family fled south.  I owe a debt to both. I have not forgotten it. Are not there many of us with just that debt? Did not we all come upon the Angle as a refuge from some Darkness?"

"Aye, but some afore others by some hundreds of years," she says and pours herself of the ale.

"Tell me, when was the last time the Angle's council esteemed them enough to ask aught of its women?  And you cannot convince me you have no thoughts about our Elders’ rulings you would not gladly have shared with them, had you the chance.”

"Well, then," she says and sets her cup and pitcher upon the table of a sudden. The cup is but half-full and yet she leaves off her pouring. Ah, but there is a wicked gleam deep within her gaze as she sits.  “An you would sit me upon the Council in effect, were it not in fact, what is it you have in mind, my lady?”

~oOo~

We have taken to accounting the yield and work of the Angle in a spill of beans and lentils upon the Elder's broad table. Cups, pitcher, and bowl are empty, and crumbs litter the space between us, for the hours of the morning draw swiftly to a close.

"But," begin I, my head hurting. I point to lentils grouped in piles of two, six, and more. "Have we not enough oxen, now?"

"No, my lady," Pelara says. "You forget the need for meat o’er winter increases with each family that arrives.”  And here she points to a pile of beans in groups of three to six each.  “Should they not eat from our herd of cattle, they shall eat the fish, rabbit, and mutton of those who will need more to replace what was eaten.”

"Ah," is all I can think to say.

"Aye, well, we must take to convincing Elder Tanaes to leave off his slaughter of all the good beasts of the Angle come winter. Mayhap the bulls shall mature the more quickly and take to the halter and plough should we convince them of the need."

"Aye, and the hay that will be their fodder shall leap from the meadows and settle in our barns ere the first snow falls, too," I say rubbing at the fine hairs beneath the linen about my head.

At this the mistress snorts. "Ah! Well, my lady, it will matter little should we cannot convince the Council to break ground on new land. We shall need neither the oxen nor the hay to feed them, shall they not see reason."

"Aye, aye, aye," I say and resolutely turn again to the beans stacked afore me.  “And the Council will not break new ground for the increase in portioning of tithes to and the number of votes wielded by the House when it sits with them.”

“Aye, my lady, and they fear the House would soon outweigh them in their deliberations should all our folk flee hence.”

“Aye, well, ere we discover what they need to allay their fears, we must decide how dear the price we need ask of them.  And it must be asked.  Should we not assart more land for planting we shall soon have folk who will sacrifice their pastures and plant them instead.  And soon the soil shall strangle for it and we will not get much in yield no matter which field is planted and how good the weather for it.”

Ten families have I yet accounted for, and more to go, one bean per acre of land. Mistress Pelara goes on then to divide them into those that have been ploughed and those that lie fallow. So deep are we in our figuring, we saw not the shadow cross the doorway nor heard the thump of stick and scuff of feet following it.

"What are you about, Daughter?" comes the Elder's voice. He squints into the dimness that is his hall from the bright summer day behind him. "Is it safe to come in, now? Or am I still to be banished from my own home?"

"Nay, Father, come in," she says and makes room for him on the bench.

He blinks and shuffles to the table, his eyes squinting at the mess upon the table.

"What is this about?" he asks when he comes near.

I dare not answer, for my lips move with the numbers I count, and I fear to lose my place. I do not wish to do this more times than necessary.

"The lady counts out what acres the Angle claims to the plough and I divide it by what they may yield," Mistress says, her fingers busy, and her father huffs impatiently.

He shakes his head and seeks out a bare spot on the table, so he might use it as a prop and ease his bones to sitting. The wood creaks beneath his thick fingers and he lets loose a long breath.

"Father-," she begins, but he cuts her off.

"Oh, aye, 'tis great need for it," he says, and knocks about the table with the head of his stick, seeking to lean it against the wood. "But you'll not get all you hope from it, mark my words."

His light eyes take in the scattering of beans. "How much yield have you figured there, hmm? Five bushels per acre?

"Seven, Elder Maurus," say I and pause in my counting.

"Eh, what?" he asks, cupping his hand about his ear.

"Seven!" I say, and the Mistress goes on, "And that figuring in what the land may refuse to yield or take back as its own."

"Ah!" he says. "Best to count on no more than three, then."

"Father!" she says. "When has the land ever yielded so poorly?"

"Did you think of the wet that can come upon the harvest? Hmm?" he asks. "Or fields so muddy they cannot be ploughed 'til the season is half gone? You may not recall it, Daughter, but well I remember the winters that followed. Hunger, there was, until the Angle and all about was sick for it.  So many the dead it was all we could to bury them.  Poor sods traded e’en the clothes off their backs for a bit of grain, and still died naked in the cold for naught to burn to keep them warm."

"Aye, Father, 'tis true, but we could then plough all the land from here to the Misty Mountains and still go hungry in such a season."

"And do not forget the rot!  Plant all the new fields you like, harvest it and it all come to naught in the end," he says, and I wonder had he heard aught his daughter said. He waves his hand above the table. "Ah! Convince the Council to plough new ground and grant all who come here holdings.  Holdings and barns and sheds are of no use should not the folk have means by which to defend the land, no matter what the Angle gives up in exchange. "

Pelara looks upon her father, her eyes stern and lips pressed in a thin line. "You have been talking with Master Bachor, again."

He grunts and lifts his cap from his head to slam it upon the table, scattering the beans. He rubs wearily at his pate and brow.

"Well, then, Father. You have done what you can," she says with a more sympathetic look. "Give it a rest."

"Bah!" he says and waves her away. “Should you not be getting the noon meal ready, Pelara?"

"Come up with you, then," his daughter says and, though she gives him a weary look, by dint of her hand beneath his arm, lifts the old man to his feet. "Go, get you some rest and, when you awake, I will make you cakes for your tea after the meal."

He takes his stick from her and begins his creaking journey to their inner rooms.

"You have not eaten them all, have you?" His glance comes quick upon the crumbs and empty bowl. "Tut! Daughter! The oat cakes? How could you? You know I am partial to them," he says, his voice grown soft and querulous.

"Aye, now, Father, you will get your cakes," she says, walking with him and easing his way. "There is more where they came from."

"Aye, but for how long, Daughter? How long, eh?"

And with that their voices fall to murmuring within their private rooms. The broad rug of morning that shone through the open door has shrunk to a mere pittance of its former length. Halbarad is late in his promised return and I worry for the meal I am to serve my lord and his guest, for I left the Grey Wanderer and my lord sitting in the garden and lighting their pipes. My lord seemed determined to smoke his share of the wizard's supply of leaf, but I think he shall soon find it insufficient and wish for somewhat to fill his belly as well.

In my hosts' absence, I scrape together the lentils and beans, careful to keep them to their separate piles. Soon my journal is assembled and tied, and the Mistress' pages stacked according to each date and purpose. True it is, I may have little of substance to show for it, but, all in all, I think the morning well spent.

~oOo~

 

Chapter Text

~ Chapter 12 ~

'I have waited on faltering feet long enough. Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will?'

'Few may do that with honour,' he answered.

ROTK: The Passing of the Grey Company

~oOo~

Here we see Nienelen's mouth and chin, and a strand of her dark curly hair hanging from her cheek.  By the warm brown of her skin, 'tis clear she is heir to Numenor and Harad both.

~oOo~

~ TA 3007, 21st day of Nárië:  Charges: 20 ewes, polled, most 50 to 60 pounds.  1 ram, horned, 93 pounds. Three wethers, horned, 70, 77, 83 pounds each, Outercoat staples of near hands-length – coarse to the hand. Undercoat of small-finger’s length, very soft, fine. 

~oOo~

Within days of his coming, Mithrandir left our company. He made no promise to return, no assurance he would send word, but embraced my lord, pressed my hand and, with a wink, turned and resumed his wandering. Short indeed, had been his visit, but the hall seemed the emptier for his having gone. For Halbarad, too, was gone, riding upon the Great Road, gathering news and seeing to the safety of the lands about the Angle. My lord and I spoke but little, settling back into our quiet routine. Now we are come near the weeks of midsummer, his men command much of his time.

Tonight, the spindle and loom lie untended and my lord is away from home. I spent my midday meal in the house of Elder Maurus, learning the ways of my lord's house and the tithes the Angle owes it. When done, I walked the path back without seeing the mud and stones beneath my feet, for my head teamed with numbers and complex interweaving of threads of exchanges of goods and services.

I was met on my journey by my lord's dower gift, a small herd of round bodies trotting briskly afore Master Herdir and his spotted dog. I spent the afternoon inspecting them and settling them into their new home. They were well-purchased, healthy, solid of foot, hard of mouth, bright of eye, and soft of coat. Soon, they would be left to wander the meadow, trusting to their love of home to bring them back, but tonight they clustered about in the shed, bumping each other and bleating as they nudged for places at the manger.

When I finally arrived at the house, my lord was not yet come, nor were he and his men expected for the even’s meal. Duties kept my lord to the homes of his people, which was a good, for I stank of sheep, their fodder and the grease that clings to their coats.  And so, I sent Elesinda home and cut a long leaf from one of my mother’s aloes from where they sit in the middle of the garden. Ah! I had neglected my hair for far too long.  But, there was no need to prepare a meal more demanding than slices of bread and cheese.  Naught of laundry, the accounting of the days, the tending to the plants of the garden, nor sweeping or laying of the hearth to be done.  No plans that could not wait until the morrow, and naught of my lord to see to his comfort.  And so, here, in the quiet, I could remove scarf and undo my braids and fear no interruption or eyes upon me. 

I let my mind drift, humming to myself as I rubbed and squeezed the aloe into my curls and awaited the water slowly heating upon the hearth and the comfort of a bath.  Though I took my time, my lord did not return until the water stood cooling in its great tub and I, my bath done, stood in my shift afore the fire, wringing out my hair with a towel.

The tall hinged screen I placed about the tub hid him from my view when he entered, but I knew it was my lord from his step. Firm and sure, I have come to know it. I knew, too, the youth walking the grounds would have let no other enter the house. My lord did not cross the hall to his table, as I thought he would, but, from the creak of the buttery door, sought somewhat of refreshment first. Skins of wine hang from the rafters and barrels of ale sit in the cool shadows of that room.

But he would soon come into his hall. And what then shall I do? Shall I retreat to the solar? True we share a bed and true he has seen me in my shift and e’en less ere now. But the swift undressing and wrapping of my hair in the dark ere slipping between the sheets shall in no way compare to standing afore the light of the hearth's flames. And yet, is not this, too, the proper place of a wife?

Considering this, I squeeze out the dampness to the ends of my hair and move to a bench close to the hearth. There, I toss the towel to its surface and, sitting, tuck my bare feet beneath the seat. I have built up the fire and the flames run greedily across the dry wood and sap hisses and whines as it boils. I take up a small, glass stoppered bottle and shake it. Warmed by the fire and the rubbing of my palms, the oil and water I pour from it smells of my father’s gardens beneath the midsummer sun. 

I shake my head. I have no answer and my thoughts could easily convince me one way or the other, to stay or to go.

Soft footsteps come from the buttery. My lord enters his hall, ducking his head to avoid the lintel of the low-set door. He holds a cup in his hand from which he sips and, by the scent I know it to be the wine. His steps slow as he crosses the hall, watching as I take up handfuls of my hair and rub the oil into it, easing my way from scalp to ends.

"My lord," I say, and I catch his look ere I must drop my eyes.

His face seems, at first, carefully blank of all thought. Then he smiles briefly in greeting, more out of courtesy, I think, than with intent. The very air about me thins until I cannot breathe. 

"Lady," he says softly in greeting and then he has passed.

I know not whether to be disheartened or relieved. In my confusion, I cannot bring my eyes upon him and so do not see that his look yet lingers even as he moves behind me to set his cup upon the table. He does not seat himself, nor return to the work laid out there.

Had I seen through his eyes, I would have known that against the glow of the fire my form was a dark shadow in the halo of the thin linen I wear. And had I but turned my head a little, I would have seen my lord with his hand lying still on the rim of his cup where he set it. For a moment, he stands thus, with his eyes cast down. But all this I did not know, not until his hand covers mine.

"Allow me," he says when I twist about in surprise. My lord comes to straddle the bench beside me.

I had lifted the comb to draw it through the ends of my hair when he stopped me. His face is more resolute than mayhap the task may demand, but I release the comb to him and turn to the hearth, so he may tend to my hair.

"When I was very young, my mother would sit by the fire after her bath." With that, he sets the comb to my hair. "I had almost forgotten, until now." A soft smile graces his features as he pulls the comb. "She would have me run for her comb and pins," he says, and his voice grows fond at the memory. "They were a gift from my father, she said. Silver, with pearls at their tips, I would play with them while I watched her dry her hair."

With that, my lord falls silent. I can think of naught to say in reply while the comb works its way into the hair about my scalp. It is difficult to imagine my lord as a small boy, innocent and eager to bask in his mother's warmth. In his grooming, my lord comes upon snarls of tight curls. His brow puckers gently as he works at it, pulling upon my hair. My lord is unpracticed in the skill and I wonder should I endure the pain for the sake of encouraging him to continue, that is until a particularly sharp tug upon my scalp forces the decision for me.

His hand stills when my fingers light upon his. And though I dare not meet his eyes while I do so, I show him the way of ease the tangle with his fingers and starting at the ends and holding the strands above the knot as the comb puzzles it out so that the hair does not tear, and my head does not smart.

He makes no comment when he takes up the comb again. Though he takes great care to do as I showed him and cause me no further discomfort, his face is solemn, and he seems to weigh somewhat in his mind.

The silence lengthens as my lord's fingers work, gathering up my hair and pulling the comb through it, and I hear naught but the wood settling in the hearth as it burns, the crack of the sap, and the creak of the bench as my lord moves. He is thorough in his work, drawing the comb through, and then, following my example, lifting each lock in turn and running it through his fingers and squeezing it in palms anointed with the oil.  I can feel each strand of hair as he touches it and soon, though the silence presses as a dark cloud upon me, I ache. The brush of his fingers along the nape of my neck as he gathers my hair and the slow, gentle breathing beside me do little to ease the pain.

"You did not mind it?" I ask and when his look is puzzled, go on, "waiting upon your mother."

"No," he says with a slight lift of his shoulders as he slowly teases apart strands of hair with the end of the comb. "She was beautiful."

At this, I must smile, though I turn my head to do so. For they say of the men of the House of Elendil are distant sons to Beren the One-Handed in this, that, for all their strength, it takes naught but a woman of fair form and face to lay them low.

My lord catches my eye. "Your father must have done much the same, did he not?"

"Aye," I say, "he would praise my swift feet just to give them speed when he had an errand for me to run."

"Just so," my lord says and briefly returns my smile, but then falls still.

The quiet of his hands draws my notice and I find my lord looking upon me solemnly, the comb and the hand that holds it lying upon his lap. Some debate passes behind his eyes, but I know not what it might be. After what seems a moment of hesitance, he lifts a hand to pull a wayward curl of my hair through his fingers. He frowns a little and releases it ere he speaks.

"Is it such a difficult thing to be at ease with me, lady?"

‘Tis not a question I expected, and, for an instant, my mind is empty of thought.

It is not that I lack for answers. I am far too rich with them. I cannot tell my lord to lay down the weight of experience his years give him that outstrips even those of my father. I cannot tell him to dull the keenness of his gaze that lays me bare. And I cannot tell him to set aside the power of his House that is far beyond my ken. That he might be born of mortal woman and have the appetites of a mere man seems a fearsome and yet powerfully stirring thing. I hardly know whether to cower or throw myself in his arms and pray I might somehow survive the stern fire that burns so brightly within him.

"I hardly know you, my lord," I finally say, for lack of aught easier to say.

By his expression, my lord considers this as he runs his hands upon his knees.

"What would you know?" he asks, and I wince at the meagerness of thought he must assume lies behind my explanation.

There I am, caught in the simple-mindedness of my own trap. What would I know? Do I wish to plumb the source of my lord's reluctance? Do I wish to know why he must gather his resolve when he thinks to touch me? Who the Tinúviel of his weary dreams might be? Why it is I who am here and not she?

And would the answers give me ease with my lord?

Distracted by my thoughts, I have reached for the comb where my lord holds it, for he has groomed all he can reach and the weight of wet and tangled hair upon one side begs for attention. The shake of his head breaks me from my musings and, with a jerk of his chin, my lord urges me to move.

"Come," he says and, taking my hand, directs me to step over the bench and settle beside him again where he can complete the task he started.

"Well?" my lord prompts gently as his fingers press into my scalp, and he pulls them through my hair ere setting the comb to it.

It seems my mouth is full of wool. Aye, I have my lord's ear, but, unfortunately, naught of great consequence to put in it. I had only hoped to break the silence with the first thing that came to mind. Now I only wish I had not opened my mouth.

Were they any other hands, I think, I would be content to forgo conversation and lose myself in the faint roar of the flames, the heat of the fire upon my back, the scent of lavender, and the strength of the fingers in my hair. In truth, I do not know this man who now works to divide a length of my hair from the rest. I almost despair of finding a question to ask him, but then, I recall his look when my lord spoke of his mother.

"Have you memories of your father, my lord?"

"Few." He frowns in thought, but then his face lightens. "He was very tall."

I smile behind my curtain of damp hair, for I am sure the Lord of the Dúnedain must have looked as the very trees of the forest to his infant son.

"I think he must have placed me on his horse once. I remember him leading it about and I clutching to the saddle, just out there," he says and points the comb through the wall and at the garden ere drawing it again through my hair.

"Did it frighten you, my lord?"

"No, I recall being quite delighted," he says and smiles, "that is, until my mother pulled me from the saddle."

At that, I laugh, for I am sure the woman gave his father a tongue-lashing that awed their young son.

My lord's face is fond as his fingers slide through a length of hair at my scalp until he has it grasped by the roots, where he squeezes it, gently pressing the oil to it. For a long moment, we sit in the small circle of the hearth's light and he seems to relive the memory of a time when the house and its grounds must have been as wide as the world to him. Then my lord sighs a little and his face grows solemn.

"But I remember best my mother when he would return home," my lord says, though his look is far grave for what must be a remembrance of sudden joy.

I, too, know a day when the return does not bring joy and he must see it in my face.

My lord lifts aside the weight of my hair.

"It seems you and I must take what comfort in memories we can." With the very tip of a finger, he traces the line of cord that lies upon my neck.

I fall still beneath his touch, as were I to move I might cut myself upon his hand. I am unsure how I thought he would not know it for what it is, this thing I wear, for I do not remove the string with its small, colorful purse, bearing it about my neck even into my lord's bed. He must wonder at what it contains, and who gifted it to me. Mayhap he thinks I come to him wearing the token of a love lost, a heart already broken ere I might offer it to him and would banish the mystery of this ghost that stands between us. I know not what a man such as my lord might think of having a rival, no matter how insubstantial.

But when I raise my eyes from the floor, the look I receive from my lord is a thing of sorrow and pity. I am unsure what impulse drives me next, but I grasp the small packet and pull the necklace of string o’er my head.  I draw the cord down my hair while my lord watches in silence.  When I pull at the purse’s strings and have it open, I draw from it the length of twined hair in its coil.  My aunt had wound about its ends threads of gold and they glow warmly in the flickering of firelight. 

My lord studies it and then my face, for I hold it as were it the most precious of things. He waits for explanation but does not demand it.

“I had a sister, my lord.  She was my elder,” I say and then halt. No matter my lord might command me to continue, I can say no more.  Even now, after all this time, tears threaten and stop my voice.

“Your father would oft speak of her.  It seems there were few whose hearts she did not touch,” he says softly. “I have heard tales, too, of her passing.  ‘Tis said your grief for her was so great you would suffer none other to lay her to rest, no matter who would have it otherwise.” 

I coil the length of hair upon itself and slip it back into its purse. My lord is silent, watching while I pull the cord over my head and clutch the bit of cloth to my breast.  I match him in his silence.  I cannot defy him, but greatly do I hope he will not ask me to speak of that time.  I have neither the words nor the heart for it. 

But then, of a sudden he lays the comb aside and rises, striding swiftly to a chest upon the opposite wall. There he rifles through his gear until he holds a pouch that must hang from his belt when he is about. He brings it with him when he returns to the bench and resumes his seat. The pouch is greatly worn and the thong that keeps it secure has been recently replaced. My lord's face betrays little when he opens it.  It is a very small thing he withdraws from its depths. I cannot see it until he places it in my palm. There we look at it together.

A single hairpin lies in my hand, gleaming darkly. Air and damp long ago marred the shine of its silver surface. At its tip, where it would have nestled in my lord's mother's dark tresses, is fixed a teardrop of pearl that glows with the light of the hearth. I think it would have shown in her hair as a soft, small gem, a thing of simple beauty.

"She had many of these that my father gifted her, and she wore them in the last," he says, "but for this one."

He takes the small thing back from me, his fingers careful when they pluck it from my palm.  “She was as wise as she was fair,” he says, studying it. “I regret the loss of her counsel e’en now.”

My lord's face is so filled with grief as he puts the pin back inside its pouch, my heart gives a startling thump in answer. With a barely heard sigh, he closes the pouch and smooths its leather flap in place as were the bag itself precious to him.

My lord lays the pouch aside and lifts his eyes to mine. His face is as resolute as at my first view of him standing afore his door and awaiting my arrival and, by this, I know the time has come.

The first touch of my lord's lips is unpracticed, slow and soft, almost were he discovering for himself the way of it. His hands remain in his lap, o’er which he leans.  I know not what to do with my own hands but to clasp the bench, so I may not fall. When he breaks the kiss I must catch myself, for in seeking his lips I am unbalanced.

My lord's face is solemn and his hands gentle as he sweeps my hair from my face to lay its length upon my back. There he studies me, gauging my mood. The fine brush of his fingers makes me long to see him smile and feel his kiss again. Though willingly he bends to press his lips to mine, his face does not soften, and he does not smile. And yet, his hands come to grasp my shoulders and draw me near, and mine have found their way to his arms, to clasp cloth warmed by the flesh it covers.

My lord's breath plays upon my cheek where he rests his brow. I can do little but lean against him, for his fingers of one hand are deep in my hair and he pulls the cord that gathers the linen about my neck with the other.  There the cloth falls to my breast.  I had thought his look on me would make me wish to curl in upon myself, but it is not so. I wonder only what he will do next.

I am not disappointed, for my lord skims the tips of his fingers upon the skin he exposed, bemused, it seems, by its softness. Ah, his touch is as fire upon me. My hand has found my lord's knee and, of its own, slides up and over his thigh to press the tender muscle beneath. He does not protest, indeed, at the touch he gathers me to him, so he might press his lips against skin only his fingers have yet explored.

Almost chaste, his kisses seem; a mere brush of warmth from his lips and tickle from the graze of his beard on my shoulder and neck that is gone as soon as it alights. His touch is unhurried, and he breathes deeply of the scent of lavender that rises from my skin where he has touched it.  His kiss touches upon the base of my throat but lingers there but briefly ere he proceeds ever downward.  As he goes, he winds his fingers in the front of my shift so he might drag its neck down out of his way, and his kisses follow.

Incited by the sweetness of his lips, I weave my fingers into my lord's hair and push it aside. I wish to see his face and the mouth that teases my breast. The tip of his nose presses against me and the lids of his eyes have fallen until all I can see is a faint glimmer beneath them. His look is more beautiful than I had had wit to imagine and the sight sends a thrill shivering down my limbs.

As had he known I watched and found delight in it, he chose then to descend upon the very tip of my breast and the surprise sends me gasping.  His hands tighten upon me at the sound and my lord pauses to glance up at me.  I know not what he saw, but his eyes seem to burn through to my very heart.  And then the fire is gone, for my lord turns away to kiss the nub of dark skin as he had my lips just moments afore. 

There he uses mouth and then tongue to discover for himself what might make my breast rise in shortened breath.  Ah!  ‘Tis too much.  I cannot be still, but my lord moves with me, his grip tightening about my waist.  Now he is truly suckling upon me, and I know naught but the scrape of his lips and teeth and the hand that brushes my shift from my knee and skims up my thigh. 

Ah! I did not know! Had I thought my heart could stand aside and be full only of duty? I am a fool! So hard and supple the sinews of his back and neck beneath my hand.  So sweetly uncertain the fingers that press and slip between my thighs.  And so strong the heat that builds within me. Ai!  I am lost, so lost.

His hair brushes upon me as he moves.  At the touch, I look down and find my lord’s eyes closed and his brow furrowed, his look lightening of sudden when my hips jerk of themselves at his touch.  To my shame, I have been moaning and only now hear it.  Ah! So long have I yearned for this, I know not when I have moved, but find I strain against him so he must clutch at me to keep us upright.  My lord’s fingers grow more sure upon me so that I know not what I am about. I have grabbed his head and press it to me, and my thighs seem to spread for his touch of themselves, but I cannot bring myself to stop.  Nor can I do aught but gasp for air and hope I shall not shame myself further.

“Ai!”

My limbs seem of wool soaked in warm water, heavy and limp with pleasure, and unwieldly to lift against its weight.  Ah!  My lord had drawn away and fallen still when I had cried out, but for the arm about my waist.  His eyes are wide with wonderment and, could I move, I think now I would turn away and cover myself.  There, for a long moment, we look upon the other, neither knowing what shall come next.  ‘Tis then my lord lifts his hand from where it rests upon my thigh and brings it to his mouth, where he takes a taste of the wet upon his fingers.  I think his look, then, as dazed and shaken as mine. 

With a swift breath, I turn to my lord, grabbing the thick cloth of his tunic as had I no intent of e'er turning him loose. The kiss is deep, our lips open to each other so that, by chance, the very tip of my tongue brushes his. My lord startles with the contact, pulling away and regarding me with a stunned look. I am lightheaded and dumb, unable to speak. But it is not words my lord next requires of my lips, for when he lowers his head, he gives himself over to the sweetness of tasting my mouth as he kisses me, and I return the caresses with equal eagerness.

There we sway with the pressure of our kisses until my hands are wrapped in my lord's hair. The weight of his dark tresses is as silk as it runs through my fingers. He nigh bolts up from the bench when my hand runs to the top of his thigh and finds him warm and hard beneath his tunic.  Mayhap I should not have come upon him so swiftly, but now I know for myself why my sister spoke so fondly of this. For when my lord settles and returns my hand to him, he slowly goes limp and breathless and unable to return my kisses as were he deeply adrift in pleasure.  Emboldened by the heat that rises upon his breast, I pluck at my lord's lips with my own, drawing the tender flesh in, suckling upon it and playing upon it with my tongue.  Ai!  His lips are as plums warmed by the late summer sun and I want only to suck out their sweetness and lap at the juice that may run down my chin. I want none of it to go to untasted.

Of a sudden, my lord's lips leave mine and he holds me away from him so that I may not follow. He speaks but few words, and that in a voice so low and thickened I hardly know what he says.

"Come with me."

And so, I follow my lord up the stairs, his hand gently tugging on my fingers where I trail behind him.

Once we stand in the dim light of the solar, my lord seems intent upon putting me at ease, expecting to see the fruition of all my fears played out afore him. But when he would pull on the ties that close his long vest, so I need not stand afore him bare while he was yet clothed, I do not wait for him. I want to know what it feels to have my lord's hands upon my bare skin. I want to see where his look might linger. Swiftly I lift the hem of my shift and, pulling it o’er my head and off my hair, toss it aside.

Aye, his look is not grim, nor does he speak of duty, nor sacrifice for the sake of defense against the Shadow. His face soft, he watches as I then brush his fingers away, and put my hands upon him, untying and parting and throwing aside.  As my fingers work upon the fastenings keeping my lord from me, his hands brush through my hair ere settling upon my waist, but not for long.  They wander then to my buttocks, where they are bold and sure in their fondling, as though he had long thought upon what way he would touch a woman there should he have the chance.

I do not linger in the undressing and I care naught for the clothes. Soon he stands afore me with naught between us, and he is beautiful.

Sinew lay taut under warm skin; shoulder and arm and thigh sculpted by my lord's labors. He stands afore me and suffers my touch, waiting, it seems, for me to know him better ere he leads me to his bed. For that, I am grateful. No scar, though it be drawn and red, can mar the beauty that is my lord in his nakedness and I would know the feel of each plane and curve, tender flesh and rough callous, smooth skin, and tangle of hair.

My lord guarded against any pain he may cause me, until he himself was sunk so deep he could no longer attend to the effects of his fervor. But there was no need. When he would restrain his touch to avoid my unease, I guide his hands to what would give me most satisfaction.  When he would neglect his own pleasure, I place my hand upon him and wrap his grip about mine to show me the way of it.  When he would gentle me to my back and hold his body away from mine for fear of crushing me with his greater weight, I wrap myself about him so that he presses me into the bed.  For I have no hurt, no discomfort.  I feel only the burn of pleasure and the warmth of skin on skin, and wonder at the tales my aunt told of blood and the need of forbearance. But e’en had there been hurt, I would have endured it, only should I hear my lord moan as he did when he first sank deep within me.

Nay, mine is not the pain to be borne this night and, it seems, my lord had planned poor defense against it. For, even in the height of the pleasure he took, somewhat of grief and longing stole o’er his face. And when we lay drowsing and sated, he gently saw me comfortable, then turned away.

~oOo~

My lord left by the end of the week. For all that he had lain with me as does a groom with his bride, his farewell was swift.

He gave me little sign of his going, and yet, I knew, for his face had grown grim and his feet restless. No longer did he ride upon the lands of the Angle, for he had seen to what must be seen. No longer did his men attend upon him, for he had sent them across the Wild to see to what he could not. But it was not enough.

And so, he rose upon the morn and called me to him. There he stood afore our door, his pack at his feet and his kin caught up in a hard embrace.

"Ah, Halbarad," says he. "Be well."

"And you," is the reply, and Halbarad slaps his great hands upon my lord's back and his kin does the same.

My lord puts his kinsman from him, though not far. "Look for me, but not too soon."

At this Halbarad huffs a soft laugh and, with his hand upon his neck, pulls my lord's head to him until they are brow to brow. "As ever."

My lord smiles and buffets him upon his ear with his open hand. And with that Halbarad releases him and steps away, for it has come time for my lord to say his farewells to his wife. Still, though silent, Halbarad's eyes never leave his kin, and I marvel at the yearning kindled there, whether it be Halbarad would wish my lord to remain or he to go with him out into the broader lands of the Wild.

"Lady," says my lord and, taking my hand in his, bows gravely o’er it. "Keep well my House until my return. It is yours to do with as you see fit and make it prosper, as it e’er has been the right and responsibility of the lady of the House of my sires."

"Aye, my lord." I bow my head as deserves his command.

"Be well, lady," says he and releases my hand.

His feet are swiftly set to take him upon the path from our door when I step after him, calling out.

"My lord," I ask, "will you take no gift in farewell?"

My heart thuds loudly and it is a wonder I can hear above the noise. I know not what my lord shall think of this. But it is my duty as a woman of the Dúnedain, wedded as I am now to a Ranger who must travel far from his family's hearth, to give him the family's well-wishes to take with him. My lord goes I know not where and what dangers he faces I know not. No matter my timid heart, I would not send him away unblessed.

The face that turns upon me is dark with startlement, but, as I approach, his look softens and seems more grave and full of a kind pity.

"Aye, lady, I would gladly take your blessing," he says and stands as were he ready to submit to it. "But I am loath to take more than your words as gift."

It comes to me, then, my lord must have some regret at this leave-taking, for I hear the words he does not say. He speaks not of what little comfort he will provide in his absence. He speaks not of what shall be the loneliness of my days and the burden of care that wore down his own lady mother to her untimely end. But I would not have it said my lord gives naught in return, that he makes a poor husband, not when by his efforts is my home made safe and my days free of care but for the lack of his company.

"I have both words and gift to give, my lord," I say. "And both are mine for the offering."

At this, a gentle light gleams in his eyes. "Very well, lady, but I, too have the right of refusal."

"As is only just, my lord." With that I reach deep into my sleeve and withdraw what I had hidden there upon my dressing.

He takes it from me, and, at first, I think him puzzled, but quickly does understanding dawn upon him and his eyes rise to mine.

"I cannot take this, lady," he says and offers back the small, silver box I had placed in his hand. Bright is the morning light upon the vines and leaves that chase across its surface.

"Have you better, my lord?"

"Nay, lady, mine was lost to mischance, and so I have none at all."

"Then will you not take it?" When he yet hesitates, shaking his head, I go on. "You said, once, your mother would not care for her things to be idle, should there be need, my lord. I would think my father of a similar bent."

He considers this, his brow drawn and then sighs. "Very well, lady, I shall take it." He brings it to his breast, his face solemn, and bows in salute to me. "I shall be honored to carry it, then, as I was honored by him whose once this was."

Sternly I call myself to task, for my lord's words do lodge most piteously within my breast, even more so for the rumor I have heard of how my father met his end.

"Then, my lord," I say to the dark crown of his head, "hear you this blessing and may its words carry you through times when you are troubled. May thy feet find their way sure though the path be unknown. May thy heart speak ever true though the way be dark. May thine enemies' sight be clouded by doubt and fear. May the Valar stay the hand of those who might strike at thee. And may they see thee safely home."

And with that, my lord left, and his kin ushered me back into his house.

~oOo~

Chapter Text

~ Chapter 13 ~

Nay, cousin! they are not boys,' said Ioreth to her kinswoman from Imloth Melui, who stood beside her. 'Those are Periain, out of the far country of the Halflings, where they are princes of great fame, it is said. I should know, for I had one to tend in the Houses. They are small, but they are valiant. Why, cousin, one of them went with only his esquire into the Black Country and fought with the Dark Lord all by himself, and set fire to his Tower, if you can believe it. At least that is the tale in the City.

ROTK: The Steward and the King

~oOo~

a women in dark pink linen kirtle and white scarf lays stitches on a white material

~oOo~

~ TA 3007, 18th day of Urimë: One pledgeholder holds the oath of ten fires of the Angle and answers to his Elder.  Six Elders sit upon the Angle’s council, each man with one vote.  So, too, sits the House of Isildur upon the Council.  Should the Angle be made of 100 holdings of one- virgate each and upon it stand no more than house and shed, the House earns one vote upon the concerns brought to the Council and is owed 1 portion out of 16 of yield from each holding in tithe.  Should the Angle increase in fires and structures built upon it, both tithe and vote owed the House increases by no less than 1 portion of 100, so that the Lord of the Dúnedain may feed and outfit his Rangers, give support to their families, and plan for the well-being and defense of his folk. 

~oOo~

"Aye, the sun shines bright and rain falls from the sky. This is news?"

Elder Maurus' voice rises in an angry quaver into the tall rafters of my lord's hall and the Angle's Elders fall silent. Where once men argued and leaned across the table as were their words held back simply by the edge of the wood against which they pressed, now they look away. They forget their disagreements in faces that hide their impatience out of an old respect for the man.

I feared I would be hard-pressed to find work for the hall that would require my presence there, yet not be so loud as to earn my dismissal when the Elders came to sit about my lord's table. But it is my luck I have chosen a dish for our midday meal that requires the grinding of several spices and the fine chopping of pungent roots, onions, and garlic. A skinned and gutted hare lies upon its board and I kneel at the hearth afore a shallow, wooden bowl, slicing the onions.

"But today's fair weather is as easily tomorrow's flood. Last week's rain is this summer's drought," the Elder goes on. "Come time for the harvest we will like as not have to eat of air and mud than the grain of our fields. You would but wear out your mattocks upon the rocks and weary the oxen that pull the ploughs. Is not our labor burden enough, already?"

Halbarad releases a restrained breath and scrubs at the back of his head. He sits in our lord's place and no doubt, at this moment, wishes he did not.

"Come now, Maurus," an Elder soothes while the rest of the Council shifts restively in their seats. It is Tanaes, the butcher. In the few councils I have seen, it is only he who dares interrupt the old man, though even now he does so wearily. "What else would you have us do, sit in our halls and watch our families hunger simply because we did not wish to put forth the effort of feeding them?"

"Ah!" the old man lets loose with a wave of his thickened fingers as were we all foolish children. "Go ahead, will you, then!  Plough your lands, increase the fields, it will all come to naught."

Only silence answers Elder Maurus' dismissal. The glances shared across the table seem uncertain. Where were they in their contentions o’er the extra burden upon men and tools and the days? Master Bachor rubs mightily at his brow with a sour look.

Mayhap the onion would surrender to my knife with more grace should I not grip it so tightly.

"Very well," says the butcher and he shakes his head clear of the confused thoughts the Elder's words inspired. "Are we agreed, then?" And it seems they are, for nods and shrugs greet the butcher's question. "One hundred acres more, then, to be assarted this season?" he asks and looks about the table for confirmation, and he has it.

"Be that settled," comes Halbarad's deep voice, "mayhap we can go on to your next concern."

The men shift and mutter among themselves, the Elder's watery eyes peering at one then another o’er the rim of his cup. He sips at the tea of sweet birch I brewed for him. He had been polite enough in the request and deigned even to thank me for the warmth of it when I set it afore him. There he wraps his old joints about the heated clay and snuffles its steam as were he glad of it. My lord seems to place much esteem upon his thoughts, but I confess I cannot comprehend the man.

Well, no matter, the Elders had at first seemed poised on tearing the idea asunder with their worries for man and beast, yet still make no mention of the fact of the increase in power of the House that surely sways their thoughts on the matter afore them.  But, at the last, the Angle shall break new ground and plant new fields. Mayhap we may have a chance of feeding all its people, new and old. I may now release my breath and squeeze my eyes shut against the burning of fumes from the onions I chop into a paste. The pot is hot and the fat I drop inside sizzles and melts quickly.

"Aye," I hear and a look to the table reveals the butcher speaking again. "There is always the problem of our wandering folk."

"Have there been yet more arrived?"

"Aye, two presented their pleas yestereve," I hear said in Elder Maurus' voice, "and that makes six in this week alone. Valar knows how many more shall be shadowing my door upon my return."

"Aye, they come with the weather, the poor wretches. How some of them made it through the winter is a wonder. I say they are here and welcome."

"I doubt not the peril to our folk from outside the Angle is great and I do not regret that we bend our backs in heavy labor this spring for their good, but we cannot take them all," I hear said. No glance tells me of the speaker, but I need none.  ‘Tis Master Bachor.

With a grimace I scrape the paste of onion and garlic into the pot, where it sputters in the grease loudly and releases a pungent cloud.

"Wastrels, the lot of them!" Elder Maurus lets loose with the thud of his cane upon the floor.

"My lady."

"My pardon, Ranger Halbarad," I say, for the man has raised his eyes from the Council to me. The look is oddly mild for the censure of his words.

I stir the contents of the pot and hope to make to simmer more gently, waiting for the onion and garlic to brown so I might next add the ground spices.

"Did we not just not agree to put them to working the fields?" Halbarad asks and the men turn away, seeming to forget me and my interruption.

"Aye, but who shall ask it of them?"

"I shall!" says Halbarad and that seems to end the debate, for the men look one to the other without further comment. Even Master Maurus seems to have reached his fill, for he drains his cup and slowly wipes at his mouth with the back of his hand. I have but the time to see his hand tremor when Halbarad speaks again. "Very well, gentlemen, should there be naught else, shall we call this Council concluded?"

The Council nods and offers no contest.

"Bid you good day, then," Halbarad says. He rises and so do they, taking canes and packs with them.

Master Bachor is the first to pass afore the hearth by which I kneel.  True it is he attempts to catch my eye to make his farewells as he passes, even as he had attempted to give me greeting when first he entered my lord’s hall. True it is, too, he is dark of hair and eye, warm of skin color, tall and comely of make, with his curls brushed back from his brow and arrayed about his shoulders, and so is not lacking for the attention he receives from the Angle’s women, but I will have none of it.  I make much work of taking a great knife to hack at the hare upon its board until he falters no longer, and is gone. 

Elder Tanaes, the last to leave for his quiet speech with Halbarad, now nods to where I have carved the hare into joints the better to fit into the pot. He winks and bids me good day.

"That one gave me trouble, my lady," says the man, indicating the hare. "Came near to chewing through the trap, he did, and I tramped half to the Road afore I could get him."

"I will have to watch the pot closely, then, Elder Tanaes," I reply, smiling up at the man, "and be sure he not attempt a second escape."

He chuckles, his eyes bright above his red cheeks. Halbarad stands beside me when I lay the joints of meat upon the onions. He sniffs at the steam billowing from the pot.

"Shall we see you at the market tomorrow, then?" the butcher asks Halbarad as the other Elders slip from the hall.

"Aye, upon the morrow."

"Bid you good day, my lady." A nod from Tanaes, and then he, too, is gone.

Halbarad draws in a long breath as were he glad of free and open air, interrupted only by the slight smile that he returns when he finds me looking at him. No doubt my relief is as easily read.

"Bid the House good day," I hear and Mistress Pelara bustles in through the door.

It is only then I recall her father has not yet left us and I start with guilty surprise. He grunts a brief greeting from where he sits at the table and Halbarad bows.

"Bid you good day, Mistress," I say and drop the lid upon the pot and quickly dip my hands into the cleansing bowl.

To my eye, the Elder seems strangely drained of color. I am not alone in my surmise, for Pelara's look upon her father quickens her steps to him.

"Father," she says, laying a hand upon his shoulder. "Are you ill?"

"Ah, Daughter," he says. He pushes the empty cup away from him and takes up his cane. "None of your clucking, now." With a grunt, he pushes himself from the bench. Despite his complaint, he does not resist the strong arm of his daughter drawing him to his feet.

"All is well. All is well," he says when he catches sight of my anxious look. "I am but eager for my bed."

"Aye, Father, I will take you to it," says Pelara and she nods her farewell. "Bid you good day, my lady, Ranger Halbarad."

Halbarad and I reply in turn and they shuffle to the door across the stone. The grim and thought-filled look Halbarad gives their backs gives me pause and I wonder what the Ranger regrets.

"Shall you not give the House of Isildur your well wishes ere you leave, Father? You have been their guest all this morning," comes the mistress' chiding voice ere they cross beneath the lintel of the door.

"Bah!" I hear. "They have had good fortune of mine enough, today, Daughter."

At that, Halbarad snorts and his face lightens. He then takes up his next task. And, to my surprise, I hear his humming.

~oOo~

So thin is the linen the shadow of my fingers shows darkly beneath it. Mistress Tanril brought the best of her needles with her. She it is the wife of the Angle's smith and skilled in the make of the finer works of metal. She passed them about in their small round case of bone, made of a good steel, finely polished, and the largest no thicker than the thin leaves of a pine tree. Straight and true and smooth, they dart upon the linen as so many winged things that fly o'er the river. Indeed, they excited much comment among the women, here as we gather about a stretched frame of cloth in Elder Maurus' hall.

"Oh!" we had exclaimed, passing them one to another, our fingers lingering upon the cool metal and testing the filed points against the tips. Some shook their heads, exclaiming at the cleverness of Mistress Tanril and her explaining the art of extruding metals and taking hammer, file and punch to them. Glad was I to come upon them, for I think I know now how I shall tailor the fine cloth of the Elves while leaving little mark. I have but to discern Mistress Tanril's desires and thus make some of these my own. I have great plans for the Lady Gilraen's dresses, though I doubt she should recognize them when I am done.

The man of the house, himself, is absent, having greatly recovered from the council meeting of weeks past. He greeted each of us warmly as we entered, though with little ear for what we said in return among the happy crowd. Instead, he beamed smugly up at us from his table, well pleased, it seemed, the last of his daughter's children should be preparing to leave their house and build her own family.

We gathered there, a dozen or more, sitting upon benches and pressing the bride to speak of what work to which she would have us take our hands. Once we took to exclaiming o’er the fine silk thread her mother passed among us, he rose and took up his stick.

"Ah, well now, should we come to the tale of laces and threads, I think I shall take my leave," the Elder says as he hobbles from behind his table. He presses a kiss to the cheek of his grandchild, who smiles up at him. "Such talk is sure to bewilder my aged head."

She laughs. "Surely not, grandsire. I know of naught shall cloud your thinking."

Mistress Pelara, from where she stands o’er us, adds, "Or, Valar forbid, still your tongue."

"Eh," he grunts, and I marvel at his deaf ears that they should hear what was spoken across the room. But then he turns his light, watery eyes upon his daughter's child as had naught been said. "Be that as it may, child, I shall leave you to your preparations. Other things call me away and, soon, you shall not wish me here."

At this, she blushes and beams, and he pats his stiff fingers upon her upturned cheek. And, with that, he plunks his cap upon the scarce locks covering his pate, nods to us all, bids his daughter not delay his tea unnecessarily with our women's gossip, and todders out the open door.

"Aye, now, Nesta," says Mistress Pelara. "Will you not close the door? We need no small ears to overhear our speech."

The women chuckle and set themselves to their places. The thread has now been passed to my hand where I sit among them, and I pull a cord from the cone of wound fibers. Soon the door is closed, and we bend our heads in a circle o'er the linen. There grows a field of branches, flowers, and vines delicately across its white expanse, for we put our hands to the cloth the bride shall use in the naming of the children yet hoped for. A bud of hawthorn blooms slowly beneath my fingers, for we have been allowed the free range of our own thoughts, each to contribute to the whole. I wish to call the promise of spring to mind, of fertile ground and the unfolding of life.

The needle issues forth from the cloth as it were a blade of grass rising swiftly from newly warm soil and I must remind myself to gentle my hand. For, so fine is it, the slightest of tugs pulls the thread attached to it from beneath the cloth and too coarse a hand will pull too tightly upon the weave. The thread is of a tight twist and I roll the needle between fingers and thumb to free its tangle, so it will not knot and frustrate my efforts upon my next stitch. True it is consuming work, but, though our hands and eyes be much busy, it is not to say it leaves not our tongues free to wag.

"And now, Daughter," says Mistress Pelara, settling herself down and taking up her needle. Her eyes twinkle with anticipated merriment. This is her first hosting of such a gathering, being the mother of more sons than daughters, and greatly is she enjoying her part in it.

There is not a girl of the Angle who does not know the bare facts of a marriage bed. But, 'tis true, this leaves a wide field unploughed that yet could bear fruit. I know not what to think shall come.  True my sister had not been shy of sharing more of her husband’s attributes and tastes than he might wish, and gave me much advice I had not asked for, but, in my groom's haste, I had had no time for such a gathering of married women.

"And what would you ask of us?" the mistress of the house asks her daughter. The bride sits now, not far from my right hand, plying her needle to the cloth. It seems to take all her efforts, for she does not lift her eyes nor speak. Still, clear it is she but hides her smiles by bending the more closely to her work.

"Come, girl," says Mistress Nesta from about the bit of thread she breaks with her teeth.  She butts her shoulder upon the girl from where she is seated next to her. "No need of shyness, 'twill serve ye no good come your wedding night."

The bride blushes a deep red, but the questions crowd behind the swift glances she sets upon us.

"Is it true, then, what the men say?" she asks after some hesitance, her gaze unable to settle upon one or the other of us. "'Tis true a woman will not conceive of a child should she not have her own pleasure of the act?"

Mayhap the women have their own opinions of this, but, as one we look to Mistress Nesta over our handwork, healer to the Angle and best able, it seems, to answer with some authority.

"Och!" the healer says and leaves off her attempts to thread her needle. "Why shall you all stare at me so? How should I know of such things? It is not as were it to make a difference in the birthing of them."

We smile, some more knowingly than others, and she clucks her tongue at us, but ‘tis Mistress Tanril who takes pity on the girl and attempts an answer to her question. Her look is wry. "I know not, girl, but, true or not, mayhap you could do us all a kindness and refrain from disabusing them of the notion."

“Aye, well, they say it not so much as when the girl was not willing.”

“It matters not. They’d say aught should it wash their hands of the matter.”

“True that is,” interrupts Mistress Pelara firmly, for her daughter’s eyes have grown wide and the company about her grim.  “And a worthy debate it is.  But not today, I pray you.”

At that we look back to our work and silence falls among us broken only by the soft sounds of the slip and tug of thread.  Not a promising beginning, I deem, but wrack my thoughts as I might, I cannot bring to mind aught that might return the company to its prior comfort.

“Ah, well, dear child. It matters not,” says Mistress Nesta.  She has abandoned her attempts and leans against the young bride who has taken pity on her and expertly puts thread to needle.  “Should your young husband not know enough on the matter, you send him to me.  I’ll have a thing or two to tell him of pleasures of a woman’s bed to set him straight, I shall.”

This sets the women to hooting and laughing o’er their work, and Mistress Pelara, of whom naught I know would silence her tongue, to deeply reddening.

The bride throws her arms about Mistress Nesta and kisses her upon her pinking cheek.  “You would do that for me, auntie?”

“Oh, aye, and more, too, should ye like.” She pats upon the bride’s arm.

“Would on the morrow be too soon?”  She blinks prettily at the woman.

“Och, give the poor lad a chance first, eh?”  She goes on when the bride pouts at her, “Now, girl.  Be not afraid to put his hands or aught else of him where you like it, and all will be well.” 

"Aye! Well! I know what my husband likes," Mistress Tanril begins, though her thin hands are more readily put to fine metalwork, they are nimble with the thread as well. Besides her sits a sturdy woman I know not with brown hair who has smiled much during our talk but spoken little.

"Quiet, you!  The whole Angle knows what your husband likes, so oft you tell the tale.  I would hear more of what Nesta would say."

“Nay, we should ask Pelara of our dear healer’s skills on the matter, were we to get the truth of it.”

“Now look you here!”  The mistress of the house gives the company a vexed look and jabs her finger at us, tied though it is by a fine thread to the fabric beneath it.  “’Tis not what happens in my bed, marriage or otherwise, that is under discussion. You will behave yourselves or I will turn the lot of you from my house.”

This seems to have little effect, for next I hear whispered loudly, “Shame on you, Berel, now you have upended the cart.”

“Ah!  Why do you flog at me so?”

“You’ve upset Pelara and what shall we do for her excellent ale?  She’ll not serve it now, surely.”

Fingers yet tug at thin lines of thread though the women laugh and shush her.

Throughout this, the young bride has been giggling and her mother hard put to place one stitch upon our work for the vexed looks she turns to her guests.  But the girl's look is the more easy for it. With that, her questions come more quickly and we, the married women of her kin and friends, are set to answering them.

So the morning wears away and it seems my face heats more oft than the bride. For the women's tongues are free. I learn more in one morning of putting needle to thread among the women than I have for the weeks I slept beside my lord. I only wonder should men's speech be so bawdy when away, and what my lord shall now learn should he chance to be among them.

“Ah, you have naught of skill, Berel.  Ye grab at it as ye were churning butter and ‘tis no wonder your husband not take to it.  ‘Tis not made of wood.”

“Och!  I’ll take kindly to you not churning my butter with your teeth.”

“’Tis not the teeth ye use, ye daft cow.”

“I do not mind a bit of teeth, should he use them aright.”

“Listen you, I have told ye afore, go at him ‘til he can take no more, then grab him about the root and he will settle down as nice as you please.  Keep at it for a pace ere you have mercy on him and he will follow ye around like that moon-eyed calf of yours.”  

“Not like that, Berel!  Ye will wring the top of him off at that rate. Give that to me!” 

“Aye, aye, but how do you keep him from knocking ye off and taking matters into his own hands?”

“Should all his blood be in his nethers –“ says Mistress Berel.

“Then he ne’er have blood for his head!” comes the cry from the women in return. 

"Aye, my girl, mayhap you should leave that for later,” a voice calls through our laughter.  “Give your poor lad a chance to trust you not do him an injury first.  I shall have aught to say that may prove the more timely for you.” 

The bride shifts uncomfortably. It is her mother who speaks, for it is her turn.

"Nay, girl, I shall bring no shame upon you. You remember not much of your father, I should think."

The girl's face is stiff, and she looks upon her mother through the corner of her eyes, as were she fearful of having been caught out, but Pelara does not seem have seen it.

"You know your father was much gone in the service of our lord, as are many still of those among us."

The women's eyes upon her are knowing, for, though Pelara’s eldest now runs the ovens her father once manned, among them are her friends and it is a Ranger's home they keep.

"I have little to tell you to give you comfort when the watches of your nights are at their longest and bitterest but that your kin you shall ever have beside you." "Now, Daughter," she says, for the girl's eyes mist with swiftly welling tears. With a quick cluck of her tongue, the mistress gathers the bride upon her shoulder, patting the girl's back. "Think not on it, my girl. Aye, 'tis true, I shall miss your father 'til the day I join him beyond the Circles of this World. And, 'tis true, I spent many of our days together regretting his absence even then, but you may yet find some small recompense for the days of your waiting."

Here the girl smiles behind her tears, wiping them away as she giggles. Her mother looks on at a loss.

"And why are you laughing, my girl, eh?"

"Aye, Ammë," she says and melts against her mother's side, smiling charmingly upon her. "We knew your welcome home of our father came first ere ours. And he would be none so kind should we delay it."

"Aye, well," Mistress Pelara says, seemingly a little mollified. "I suppose we were not so careful in our eagerness as we should." When the girl's smile turns to mischief, her mother makes a noise of irritation and amusement mixed. "Aye, hunger is the best sauce, my girl, and there is no breaking of the fast as when they have been away and cannot eat when e'er the whim takes them. And you I wish the joy of many a long-awaited return," and here the Mistress pauses to place a loud kiss upon her daughter's cheek, "be he swift or slow in the taking of it."

"Aye, Ammë."

They end their embrace with a clout upon the girl's backside, though she might grin through her startlement. "And that for sticking your nose in where it did not belong, though long delayed was the chastening."

With that, Mistress Pelara rises and lays aside her needle and thread. "’Tis time for somewhat of drink and food, I think.  And aye, ye shall get your ale."  I think her done and we shall turn to the next to speak, but as she passes behind our healer, she lays a great smack upon the woman’s thigh.

“Och!” cries Mistress Nesta, startled into dropping her needle.

“That is for telling tales of our private matters to the whole of the Angle,” says Mistress Pelara.

“I did no such!” protests the healer to her back and then huffs, for the mistress has left the hall, gone to the family's inner rooms where I think the buttery and fire must be. With the Mistress gone here the women look to me, for, true it is, I sit the nearest to her abandoned seat.

Ai! Have mercy, Yavanna, Queen of all new life! What have I to tell the bride? I know not what my lord desires and little of how he might fulfill my own!

Ah, but I see the small secret smiles and know what they think. Aye, 'tis true, ‘twas I who kissed my lord ere he had the chance upon our wedding night and, 'tis true, was a full fortnight ere I was seen by any of the folk of the Angle after it. But they know little of what filled that time. Most oft, I watched the man sleep the grey and heavy slumber of the near-dead and prayed to whatever Vala may have pity upon us that he might yet live.

Of a sudden, the room is over-warm. I am hot from the very tips of toes to hair. My thoughts fly about in my head so that I despair of having aught to say. Ai! He is their lord and chieftain, what could I say would not belittle him, reduce him from his noble state and make of him no more than a man?

"I shall not mind should you not have aught you would tell, my lady," I hear and look up of a sudden to find the young bride with her gaze upon me and her eyes filled with naught but kindness.

Then do my thoughts calm and my heart warms to her. I take her hand and move along the bench, so I might be near. Well I remember that night. I had been warned of pain that might come, but had felt none, and found my lord an attentive lover, albeit a cautious one. In only one thing had he truly surprised me. Ever since, I cannot think of it without it giving pause to my thoughts and stillness to my hands. And so, I lean close to the girl's ear so none other may hear. I have but one thing to say, but the words are enough, I think, for when I am done the bride blushes as near as bright as the smile she turns to me.

"Aye, my lady, I shall remember it," says she and her eyes seem to glow, so bright is the warmth that lights them.

I have done, and, releasing the girl's hand, rise to follow her mother, for I would be away from the eyes that look upon me curiously and the voices that all but press the girl to speak.

I find the Mistress coming from the buttery into the greater hall. I had ne'er been invited to enter the family's rooms and knew not what lay behind their door. The hall is cozy for the well-lived wood of table and benches, chests and stools. About are strewn toys and a grey cat lazes upon the stones about the hearth, naught but the tip of its tail stirring as it regards me beneath its slitted gold eyes.

The Mistress looks upon me with but brief surprise, for her arms are laden with pitchers and I go swiftly to her to relief her of much of her burden. She seems none too troubled by the events she left behind and was indeed humming brightly to herself afore the interruption. 

"Ah, bless you, my lady," she says, and we set all upon the hall's table, where she has set out cups of horn and trays of beaten metal, there to make them ready.

"Are these of Master Mahtan's make?" I ask, my fingers lingering upon the working of horse and rider upon the copper rim.

"Aye," the Mistress answers from the hearth, where a sweet steam seeps from beneath an overturned cauldron. "'Tis a shame he has not time for such work these days."

"Aye, indeed."

Most oft, the smith would have had a seat upon the Angle's council, so it has been from father to son for more years than the eldest among us can remember. But in these times where the Angle seems nigh to bursting at the seams, the man is so hard pressed he sallies forth not from his forge, nor lets his kin wander far. Indeed, I had wondered at his wife's attendance at the gathering of women.

I bring the tray to the hearth, for the Mistress has pulled the pot from where it rests, and it releases the strong scent of honey, fruit and a fresh cheese.

"How comes your efforts, Mistress?"

"Aye, well, my lady."

With but the tips of her fingers, Pelara plucks the pastries from their oven and sets them upon the tray. She has made delicate cakes of a jellied pear and cream and the smell, so close is the scent, sets my mouth to watering.

"My father goes to speak with Elder Tanaes e'en now." She smiles ere returning her attention to her task. "To complain of the lack of venison in his stall and the boisterousness of the young men among the wanderers, who, like as not, lack healthy occupation for their youthful energies."

"Shall we need more smokehouses, do you think, Mistress?"

She makes a small sound of response, dropping a cake swiftly upon the platter for its heat.

"And wood to fill them." She rises from the hearth, for the tray is now full.

I sigh, for Master Bachor most like has the needed salt in his great sheds.  There is not a need in the Angle he has not anticipated, I would wager.  It takes but the naming of his price.  I can only hope it not too dear.  But I know not at all how we shall get the Council to agree to parceling out the work that must be done. For Halbarad was not in attendance at their last meeting and their arguments reached a fevered pitch, none among them resolved.

"Aye, well, Mistress, would we had the ear of the wanderers, for they have none taken up the pledge and none claim the right of their work."

I take the pastries to the table where Pelara piles the cups upon another tray. I must lay my burden down, for the metal grows hot from the cakes.

"My lord's reeve cannot call upon every new house in the Angle and put them to work each morning," say I. "And should we call all wanderers to be so sworn at one time, I think the Angle just might take up arms against the House of Isildur, so frightened would they be."

"Now, my lady, mayhap one day they shall, but not today. And I think we may yet have the ear of the wanderers, some few at least, to start, but carefully chosen."

"See you here," she says and, of a sudden, sets down the cups she was gathering. She leads me to the door and pushes it ajar. "The woman of the light hair." Here she nods through the sliver of light. Through it I see the women bending their heads above their work. A quiet has now descended upon them and their hands are busy. There I see the woman of the brown hair and rugged features who sits beside Mistress Tanril.

"You know her not, I take it."

"Nay," I say and peer more closely through the door. "I have not seen her ere today, even."

"Her name is Linmir. Wife she is to a man of the lower Emyn Uial. They are but newly come to the Angle and sought out my father just yestermorn to beg his consent. Her husband, my lady, worked iron for their homestead. And, now the village is nigh to abandoned, he is here and brings his family. And with them he brings his tools." Her eyes glitter sharply above a smile that is near to smug.

I laugh softly and let the door fall closed. "I see you have sat the two smith's wives together, then, Mistress."

"Aye, only kind. For I deem they will have much in common of which to speak.  None too certain they were for their entry here.  Stories run wild out upon our old lands with none now to counter them, now it seems our Rangers are much occupied elsewhere, and I would have our new folk given good welcome."

With this, we withdraw from the door.

It is a good thing, I think, Mistress Pelara was so kind as to take to me. I have told her naught of what I overheard of the movements of our lord’s men, yet not only has she had word of them, but she has anticipated its effects and works to lessen their impact even now.  Should she have set herself against me, I doubt I would have found aught of being my lord's wife to enjoy.

~oOo~

 

Chapter Text

~ Chapter 14 ~

 

'They will come on you in the wild, in some dark place where there is no help.  Do you wish them to find you?  They are terrible!'

FOTR: Strider

~oOo~

chaff flies above a winnowing basket, catching the light

~oOo~

 

~ TA 3007, 20th day of Yavannië: charges – one hood of thick woad-blue wool, worked about its edges with designs of hares, foxes, and vines in cream, onion skin-red, and heather-green wool thread.  Discharges – in return for three fine needles of extruded and filed steel from Mistress Tanril. 

~oOo~

 

The men stride slowly in from the fields, bent double beneath their load. The soft sun of spring is gone, and we come to days of the harvest.  Bearing sheaves of spring wheat upon their back, a bundle near thrice their size, so heavy is the load the men sweat and grasp tightly to the ropes, forgetting all speech in their effort. But the boys who accompany them are more free of foot and tongue. They skip between their elders, pouncing upon dropped straws and heads of wheat and pile them in each other's arms and into baskets they carry lightly. The sheaves glow warmly in the autumn sun as they sink and rise with the fall of their bearer's feet. We have been gifted with dry weather and a strong breeze, and the folk of the Angle await them on the threshing-floor.

In the dim light ere dawn, I awoke to the bleating of sheep upon the meadow, their calls echoing among the shallow vales and hills where they graze. The hollow cry of doves came from the thatch above my head and called the dawn. Already the day was warm though the sun not yet truly risen. I had kicked away the sheets in my sleep and lay in a tangle of my shift upon waking and knew then the wheat would be shrunk and brittle to the hand, ready for the winnowing.

We are well into the day and upon the threshing-floor the men beat upon a thick carpet of stalks. In a line upon the hardened clay, they chant and swing the flails over their head, their hands and arms moving to the beat of the harvest. Soon, with their long winnow-forks they will throw the wheat to the air and the wind shall blow away a great glittering cloud of chaff.

I stand with the other women of the Angle, we with our flat baskets and the last of the winnowing to do. It is easiest, I think, to toss the mix of fine fiber and seed and catch it with the rhythm of the threshers. Oh, we sing and the sight of golden dust when we toss it to the air and the tickle of wheat berries when we plunge our hands in the basket are things of joy. But the sun beating upon the head, the itch of dust upon sweaty skin, and the closed in breath behind a scarf are most decidedly not.

I am no stranger to the harvest, and think I shall ever know it, even to the days when I sit with the granddames and pluck dirt and stones from the berries ere sending an infant child to pour them into the granary baskets. Once, I dreaded the task and the days it would take me away from my loom and dye-pots. But the Council has decreed the tilling of a hundred acres more. The blessings of the Valar lie heavy upon us and the fields yield at their fullest measure. The Angle needs all of its hands at work, and I am determined to ask naught of them I am not cheerful to give.

Up goes the grain with a flick of the wrist and it seems to hang in the air ere rattling back down into the basket, leaving behind fine shreds of stalk and leaf to float to the ground. And again. And yet again.

Ah! But I itch! I shall be glad when the sun hovers o’er the winding path of the Tithecelon and stains the sky in pinks and greens, for then the women walk to the river to bathe. How many more days of this until we are done, and the midsummer harvest feast can begin? Ai! Shall we have enough days of sun? The Valar have looked upon us kindly thus far, mayhap they shall smile just a little longer, for should it rain all the grain left in the field will be consumed by rot and mold, not by the folk of the Angle.

"My lady!"

With a quick movement I catch the grain. There, I see her, Mistress Pelara stands upwind of the winnowers, behind the bent heads of old women sifting through the seed. Upon her hip rests a small mite of a girl, her youngest grandchild, with thin curls and wide eyes so dark they seem as the twilight sky of summer just ere the first star appears.

With a few tosses more, I am done and am happy to trade a full for empty basket with one of my elders. Pulling the scarf from my face, I wipe at my brow and draw in a deep breath of free air.

"And who have we here?" I ask, smiling upon the child in Pelara's arms. She lays her head upon her grandmother's cheek and watches me from the shadow of the woman's chin.

"This, my lady, is Lothel," Pelara says, "who grows hungry and soon shall be none so pleasant. Best enjoy her now."

I laugh. "Did you come to show her off while you had the chance, then?"

"No, my lady, I have a thing you must see and hear of your own."

"Very well," I say, and look about for a spot to set my basket down where it shall not be trampled or misplaced. I shall wish to pick it up again later.

"Here, my lady, let me take that for you," Pelara says and dumps Lothel into my arms as were she no more precious than a sack of turnips while she plucks the basket from my hand. There the small arm curls tightly about mine and I bounce her to settle the weight on my hip.

Pelara calls to the child's mother and strides off into the mess of falling grain and flying straw.

The girl plucks at my scarf with sticky fingers, but I mind not. Her weight is warm and heavy in my arms and her brow bumps against my chin. I wish most to kiss her skin, for it is softer than the finest velvet of my lord mother's elven dresses. I cannot. She is not mine to press my affections upon her, but I allow myself the guilty pleasure of breathing deep of her scent. She smells of milk and a mild soap of lavender.

"Come, take your daughter," Pelara says to the tall, willowy woman who follows her carrying both her own empty basket and mine. The child has her mother's eyes. "The lady and I have an errand to run."

"Shall you be back?" her eldest son's wife asks and then nods her greeting to me. "My lady."

"Mamil!" Lothel cries, her voice rising in newfound distress and her arms outstretched to her mother as she leans out over my hold.

"Ah, time to leave, then," Pelara says as I surrender the girl to her mother. "Aye, we shall be back in but a little while, enough to feed the child and get you some rest. Go find you some shade, girl."

"Aye, Ammë," she says and then croons to her daughter, soothing the laughter that teeters upon a needle edge between distress and relief.

"A good girl, that," Pelara says. "I could have asked for none better for my son."

"My lady," she says, and I shake myself away from watching her son's wife and child, the woman's hips swaying gently as she carries her daughter away from the crowd.

"Aye, I am ready, let us go."

 

~oOo~

 

The Elder sits upon a bench by his door with a man of equal age. There together they rest against the white daub wall and bake themselves in its reflected heat with their canes resting upon their knees. With their bald pates and half-lidded eyes, they look like naught less than two lizards sunning themselves and blinking slowly in the late afternoon glare.

 His daughter pins a leery eye upon her father as we approach. But for the nudge his friend gives him, we might have passed by without his notice. The Elder blinks awake.

"Eh, what?" he protests and when the old man beside him nods toward us, he turns his scowl to his daughter and me.

"Oh, greetings Daughter," he says and clears his throat wetly. "I see you have returned."

"Aye, that I have, Father," she says with equal delight.

"My lady," says his friend and he touches a dry knuckle to his brow, and I nod in response.

"You are come from the threshing floor, my lady?" the Elder asks, sheltering his watery eyes from the glare with his hand.

"Aye, Master Maurus," I say, nodding broadly and pause, though Mistress Pelara stands in the shadow of the doorway as were she eager to enter and be away from her father.

"It goes well, eh?" he asks but then goes on had he no thought for my answer, “Valar help us, should it last.”  He then scowls at his daughter, whose look has soured. "And when shall my tea be ready then, eh, Daughter?"

"When it is ready and not a moment sooner, Father," she says. "It is not time for tea, yet. You must suffer through yet a few more hours of this fine sun, should it last so long."

He grunts discontentedly and then settles back, closing his eyes.

With a touch to my elbow she pulls me firmly through the door, cutting off her father's voice. And with a shake of the head and a determined look, she advises me to give no thought to her father's grumbling.

My eyes are near blind in the dimness that is the Elder's room, but I soon make out his table and a man I know not sitting beside it.  Mistress Nesta wraps strips of linen about his arm where she has spread a poultice upon torn and deeply bruised flesh. He bolts to his feet at our entrance, tugging at the healer's hand.

"Here, now!" Nesta protests and struggles to keep the cloth from unwinding about him.

His grey eyes flicker between Pelara and I. I know not what he sees in the Mistress' eyes, but it must be some confirmation of his thoughts for, of a sudden, he falls prostrate upon the ground afore me, pulling the two young lads who crowded wide-eyed and silent about him down with him. An older woman, her face lined and grim, sits by the door with her granddaughter, a girl of mayhap twenty some years. Rising slowly, the old woman shuffles down to kneel beside them. Her face she hides deep in her thickly-knuckled hands. The girl comes next to her and, clinging to her shoulder and mutely weeps.

"We beg of you, my lady," the man says, his voice muffled against the floor. “Pray do not turn us away. There is no other place we may go.  Or should you send us hence but give us word and we will leave and not protest it should you let us go free.” 

The healer, giving up on binding her charges' wounds, sits back with a huff and shakes her head sadly at them.

I stand as one stunned, so shocked am I. I know not what to do, but I think I shall be sick should he not rise and stand upon his own feet. I know Mistress Pelara is as surprised, but it is she, after a glance to my own face, who springs into action.

"Up," she says, going down and tugging at the man's shoulder. "Get up, now!" she commands, and he blinks at her and climbs unsteadily to his feet. The two boys cling to the hands that hang heavily from his shoulders. "Are you not a dúnadan of the North? You may owe your fealty to our lord, but not your pride, man. "

I had not the chance to look fully upon him, but I do so now. He is much battered and neglected, with bruises and deep scratches upon his person, hair a brown so light ‘tis seldom seen so far north, and a body so shrunken I could count each rib should I have a mind.

He looks down, away from my gaze.

"What is your name?" I ask.

"Sereg, son of Seregil, my lady."

"What happened to you?"

"They were attacked by wolves," answers Mistress Nesta. An her patient will not allow her ministrations, she now uses the time to lift a pot from the brazier and pour tea steeped in chamomile and willow bark.

"Aye, my lady," Sereg says. When his light eyes rise, I see they glitter with what I think must be either pain or fever. "They attacked in the dark as we slept. My two boys, they are safe, but I lost my youngest, my little girl, her mother, too, who battled for her against them afore we could come upon them, and my mother's brother who came upon them first." He pauses, licking at dry lips. "I did what I could for them, my lady, but should you not have pity upon us, I shall lose even these," he says, and his hands come to cover the shaggy heads of his sons and he looks to them with a possessive fear that stabs as a spear to my heart.

"You and yours are welcome here," I say. "Did you doubt it?"

“There is rumor not, my lady,” comes the answer, but it is from Mistress Pelara, who looks upon the man and his family grimly. 

“What is this?” In my shock, I have raised my voice and Master Sereg clutches his son’s heads to his side as he looks first upon the mistress and then upon me.

"There are stories, my lady, told in the south nigh to Dunland," he says, "that the Angle is closed to any who might think to flee here.  They tell of men and women beaten and set upon by dogs. They say the children - "

At this, I wish to hear no more.  “Listen not to the lies of our Enemy!  No such thing has happened here!  Nor shall it. You have my word on this.”

“Forgive me, my lady, had I given offense,” he says and drops his eyes again. 

"I cannot promise you safety, but I can promise you my lord would not have you face the Shadow alone."

I had thought somewhat of hope would light within his eyes, but the man shrinks in upon himself and begins to weep, his hands coming to cover his face.  So great had been the threats they faced, it seems, that he could only feel the terror of it when the danger had passed. 

"Here now!" the Nesta exclaims, rising and stirring honey into a steaming cup. She presses it into the Sereg’s hand and pats him upon the arm when he takes it. He has crumpled upon the floor, with his young sons, his mother, and his wife’s sister about him attempting to comfort him. "They will need the rest, mind you, my lady,” she warns sternly, “under shelter and afore a warm fire at night." She motions the little ones to the table where she returns so she can ply them with chunks of sweetened breads and make more tea.

"Aye, Mistress," I say. "Surely you had not thought I would press them to join us in the harvest unless they were well ready?"

She sniffs, and I wonder should it be in response, but, mayhap not, as she has raised an apple from the table to her nose. It passes inspection and she sits to cut wedges for the family.

With that, l am again blinking in the sunlight, for Mistress Pelara has taken me again by the elbow and drawn me from the house, closing the door behind her.

“What think you, my lady?” she asks.

Ai! Wolves! And so near the Angle as his wounds show no sign yet of healing.  I hardly know what to think.  Aye, my lord had passed warning to those who would yet linger upon the distant reaches of what we once held, but to hear it so badly perverted! 

“He has more tales to tell, my lady,” Pelara continues when it seems I am at a loss to respond without breaking my lord’s confidence. She speaks low and urgently. “They have not seen my lord’s rangers for nigh unto a year, now, and the men of Dunland grow bolder for it.  They put our folk in the south to the sword and burned their holdings. Sereg and his family had not dared venturing forth afore now but for it. They thought our lord’s rangers had all retreated here.”

Ai!  And cared so little for them as to leave them to their fate, it must seem to them. 

But few of my lord’s rangers are about the Angle and most do not guard its folk. They range wide upon the Wilds, going most oft to the west, and I cannot think how to assure those who come here that they are welcome and as safe as can be made in these times. 

"Mistress," I ask, "is my father's house still empty?"

"Aye, 'tis," Pelara says and smiles upon me grimly.  "But it need not be so tonight."

She places her hand about my arm and squeezes her fingers there briefly.  “My thanks to thee, my lady.” 

There we nod, and I may breathe freer for it.

"So, my lady," I hear behind me, "you think to make promises on our lord’s behalf?"

The Elder has turned his sharp-eyed gaze upon me where he sits against the sun-warmed wall. His friend looks on, peering at me with dark eyes bright with curiosity.

"Aye, my lady, do not turn that look upon me,” he warns, for I am surely frowning and must look about to draw breath and lay words of rebuke upon his head. “Your father’s house is yours to give, so you would wish,” he goes on, stabbing the point of his cane in my direction, “but you are of the House of Isildur, and that gift comes from my lord whether it was your hand that gave it, or no.”

“What of it?” demands Pelara.

“Hear me daughter, no good will come of it, should the House give with one hand but not the other. And when it comes to the pinch, they will remember.”

My flash of irritation is short-lived.  True, we give generously to those who flee here, but in equal measure to aught of those who have need. His daughter makes to slap the Elder upon the shoulder with the back of her hand, but, ere the strike might fall, balls her fist and thinks better of it.

"Old man!" she scolds, letting loose a loud sound of displeasure. "You have abused us since ere you rose from your bed today! Be away now.  Take your black forecasts elsewhere and do not darken my door with them until the evening meal."

"What of my tea?" he demands, glowering at his daughter.

"I care not!" she says. "Go! Now!"

"Bah!" he exclaims loudly and waves her ire away. Yet he rises stiffly, getting his cane beneath him. "Listen to me or do not, ‘tis no concern of mine.  Come, Curudir, let us go to Esgadil's house. He has a proper daughter."

Curudir shrugs and joins the Elder, but I do not wait to see what they truly intend, for his daughter has her palm upon my back and gentles me away.

The Mistress scowls darkly, shaking her head at the old man as were he still there. But soon, her look softens, and we walk together through the square back to the threshing-floor. With that, my thoughts turn to the Elder's words. Though it annoys me greatly to admit it, should I look to my own heart with eyes unclouded by sympathetic tears, I know he may have somewhat of truth to say.

"Offer him your house, did you, my lady?" Pelara says, startling me from my thoughts, and I find her eyes shine brightly. "I think that news shall not be long in making its rounds about the Angle, should it not travel further. Indeed, I will not be surprised should our lord hear of it upon the boundary of whatever land he finds himself these days ere the night is up." She gestures breezily south and I frown, wondering, of all things, had she some reason to think my lord there.

And then I understand what she has just said and stop full upon the path and stare at her. "You think this is why I gave it, to make a good name for myself?"

"Did you not?" she asks, scowling brightly at me.

"No!"

"Oh," she says and shrugs. "No matter, my lady, it was well done regardless. You'll not hear a protest from me."

I stare at her some more, and then a laugh bursts from me. Atimes I know not what path to take, for each choice brings with it both censure and praise. I set my feet to walking again and she follows me.

"So at least you think it a wise move, then?"

"Aye," she says, and nods. "You will learn, my lady. There will be those who give you their loyalty because of what House you speak for, and simply for that. There will be those who will listen to you only once you have proved yourself. And prove yourself you must, my lady, whether by deliberate choice or by the simple outgrowth of the actions you would take regardless of what other's might think."

"I think I would hope it to proceed naturally from me," I say and give a wry glance to the folk who gather about the baker's ovens as we pass.

"Mm," she grunts lightly. "It would not be wise to mistake liking for loyalty, my lady, nor to work only to please folk. Lady Gilraen knew that and taught me the lesson well. A medicine may be bitter yet be what the body most needs and you must be prepared to administer it. And then there will be those who will never abide you, no matter what you do."

"Like your father?" I ask, my voice grown soft, for I do not wish to offend her.

"Now, my lady, there you are wrong," she says, fixing a fierce eye upon me as she wags her finger. "Ever has my father been loyal to the House of Isildur and his heir, do not doubt it." "Now," she says and pats me upon the arm, her face lightening. "Don't you mind his manner, my lady, he means but to warn you. His has been a foul mood since ere he arose this morning and he is as like to take it out on the King Recrowned as he is any lesser fool to cross his path this day."

"Then I feel pity for Esgadil's daughter," I say and Pelara shakes her head.

"The poor woman, and she has one of her own just as bad, too."

~oOo~

 

 

Chapter Text

~ Chapter 15 ~

 

But the Company cared no longer for watchers or unfriendly eyes. Their hearts were rejoiced to see the light of the fire. The wood burned merrily; and though all round it the snow hissed, and pools of slush crept under their feet, they warmed their hands gladly at the blaze. There they stood, stooping in a circle round the little dancing and blowing flames. A red light was on their tired and anxious faces; behind them the night was like a black wall.

FOTR: The Ring Goes South

~oOo~

Aragorn wrapped in cloak

~oOo~

~ TA 3008, 2nd day of Nénimë: wool four ells in length and two- and one-half ells in width – light to the hand but tightly woven as solid base for stitching. Varied strips of silk taffeta and velvet one to three ells in length dyed of varied strengths of cornflower blue and woad blue, overdyes of madder root-red and burdock or weld leaf yellow.  Mordant of alder wood ash.

My breath is as smoke upon the air. A thin crust of snow has settled here where the high walls of the house and the fence protect the gardens against the wind, and I feel its chill even beneath the soles of my winter boots. And yet, though I shiver and draw my wrap the tighter, I walk between the rows of shriveled stems and withered plants, here where the heads of the yarrow bend beneath their icy burden, their pale, dry fronds rattling in the sudden breeze. Though I must dig in the snow and push aside brittle leaves, it is worth the price, for I am satisfied with what I see. At their roots I find small, dark, purple leaves hugging the ground. Here the Angle lies snug in the midst of winter, their bellies full and their hearths warm, and my garden sleeps beneath its chill blanket.

The tips of my fingers glow a bright pink as I replace the cover of snow and drifted leaves. I shake the water from my hand and tuck my fist deep into my wrap, yet still the skin prickles. Ah, it is cold!  And so still. No chirp of cricket, call of bird, or song of frog to hide the crunch of snow beneath my steps. The hens are bedded down in their clutch and are not like to stir, and I must strain to hear their sleepy, slow clucking. Even the ever-present bleating of the sheep is quiet. They stand huddled in their shed, seeking warmth one from the other. They shall not venture forth today, I think. Master Herdir stays home to tend his ailing mother and I remind myself that I must spread the evening fodder for the flock he would be tending otherwise.

High above, the sun shines as a silver coin in a sky swept clean by the northern winds. I clutch my wrap about me and lift my face to its faint warmth. The air is chill and clean, as were it born of the newly fallen snow. A false spring covers the trees and bushes in the illusion of white petals. The fields lie fallow, clods of dirt poking up in brown speckles beneath the snow. Beyond them, the hills melt into the pale sky and the trees stand in a stiff net holding back the wind. All about is soft rolling white and blue shadow. It is as were the earth herself holding her breath, waiting.

And then I start and stare, falling still, for there, upon the far reaches of the fields, a lone figure climbs the sloping hill. He is but a dark shadow that trudges across the snow, but my heart knows him and leaps into pounding. Ah! He will be cold, and weary and hungry when he arrives.

I rush to the bucket where I set it down, slipping upon the wet snow in my haste. The water from the morning's cleaning splashes dirt o’er the garden and I hurry to the well. Never has the rope been so stiff and slick with ice nor the bucket so heavy. I must break a thin crust of frozen water ere it will rise, and it clangs against the walls of the well as a great, dull bell. Ah, quickly now, the water will be icy cold and my lord in great need of warmth.

"Elesinda!" I call. The door slams behind me and the girl's alarmed face pops into view at the buttery door, the hall warmly lit behind her. The bucket lands upon the floor with a loud thud, the water sloshing onto my foot.

"Mistress?" she cries, her eyes wide. "What is it? Have they come at last?"

"They?" I ask, staring at her as I unwind the thick wool wrap from about my shoulders, caught up short. "What? No, no, child," I say and laugh, the sound high and glad in even that small space. "Our lord has come. Set the great pot upon the hearth, should it please you, and build up the fire."

"Ai, my lady," she says and throws up a hand to her face. Her cheeks are aflame and eyes bright. "There's not a bit of fresh meat in the house! The last of the mutton went into the soup we ate yestereve and we had the bacon for breakfast. Oh, my lady, even should I pull the brined pork now--"

"What is this?" I hear and, of a sudden, the buttery goes dark. A great shadow looms in the door to the hall. "What is this you say?  Aragorn is returned?"

"Aye, Ranger Halbarad." I pick up the bucket. When I rise the door is again empty and light streams into the buttery from the hall. I raise my voice to follow the man. "He is come e’en now, from o’er the fields." But I speak to the empty hall, for Halbarad snatches his cloak from off the peg even as he opens the great door. Loudly the latch clacks closed behind him.

"My lady? What are we to do?"

"Ah!" I exclaim. The bucket is heavy and the thunderstruck girl in my way. I wave her out of the door. "The pot first, girl! Then I shall start the meal while you run to the baker and the butcher's stall, after. Hurry now!"

The moments fly with our feet and the great pot is filled and set upon the fire, I thrust a brick near the coals where it warms, another pot of water simmers about a bone and Elesinda, bundled in her cloak and wrap, races to the square with a basket o'er her arm. A large bowl of lentils soaks at my hand. Pepper, garlic, dried bay leaf and wizen turnips I have arrayed afore me on a board and I kneel afore the hearth, cutting onions into thin slices and hoping the tears they raise do not mar my face. We shall come all too soon upon the midday meal, and sure though my lord is unlooked for, the noise of his coming shall rouse his men and his hall will be full of their welcome.

Low come my lord and his kinsman's voices and their steps are the louder for the champ of boot upon snow. Ai! I smell of onion and my nose runs for the fumes. Wiping my eyes upon my sleeve, I dunk my hands in the cleaning bowl and, shaking them out, hope this is sufficient to rid them of their stink.

"Be forewarned," I hear Halbarad's low voice move below the windows, "they prepare for you."

My lord's laughter lingers upon his face as he enters the hall. I have risen to greet him, putting aside my apron and leaving it by the hearth. My skirts are smoothed, and my hair tucked inside my scarf.  My lord's chair sits between the table and hearth and a blanket lies upon a bench near the blaze to catch its warmth. All is as it should be.

"My lord," I say, "your House welcomes you home."

"Lady," my lord says and bows in answer to my low reverence as his kinsman relieves him of his pack.

"Shall I put this on the table, then?"

"Yes, Halbarad," my lord says when his kin hefts the pack in his fist.

Halbarad takes the sword given him in one hand and carries the pack with the other, striding to the table. There he lays down my lord's kit and carefully winds the leather straps about the scabbard that houses his kin's sword. The striking of the buckles one upon the other chimes softly.

"My lord," I ask, having waited for what seems the most opportune moment, "would it please you to rest and be warm while you wait for your bath?"

"Aye, lady," he says and pulls at the tie that holds his cloak closed, "naught would please me more. I have looked forward to it since crossing the Last Bridge."

With that I go to the bench to remove the blanket draped o’er it. "My lord would wish to sit in his chair?"

"What is that?" My lord glances o’er his shoulder from where he hangs his cloak by the door and frowns. "Aye, lady, should that be where you wish me."

"My lord may sit where he pleases," I say and gesture with the corner of the blanket to the rest of the hall, but he shakes his head.

His stride takes him swiftly across the room. "The chair will do, lady."

"You may open it, should you wish," my lord says to his kin, nodding at his pack where it awaits him as he passes by the table.

"Aye," is all of Halbarad's reply as the man places his kin's sword upon its rests on the wall behind the table. 

My lord sits, and I lay the blanket about his shoulders. The wool is drenched in heat and surprise comes over my lord's face, but he quickly pulls its folds about him and works his hands into the blanket's depths.

"My thanks to you, lady," he says, and I bow.

"There you will find the reports of which I spoke." My lord speaks to his kin as had their conversation had no interruption and, like as not, does not see that I now kneel afore him.

Halbarad nods and tucks the buckles beneath my lord's sword hangers and tugs to secure them.  I have moved the supports where my lord once hung his sword and my lord's brow knots as he watches. In their stead, I have taken my lord's mother's silks and out of them fashioned a tall banner to hang behind his chair, marking his place. The star of the Dúnedain rises over its shimmering reflection in the western sea, or so my thought had made it, for I have ne’er seen its wide waters. And this is not the only change. Upon the table I have laid a runner of a fine, dark linen and upon my lord's chair set a cushion of velvet, made from the skirts of the dress I wore when I was wedded to him and stuffed full of wool sheared from the sheep of my dower.

"An they displease you, my lord, I shall remove them," I say from where my head is bent o’er his feet and my lord turns. His gaze does little to relieve the tightness within my breast. His face holds a curious expression whose meaning I cannot discern.

"No. Leave them," he says, and gathers the folds of the blanket about him so that he may sit back in his chair.

"Ale?" Halbarad asks, his task done.

"Aye, it would be most welcome," my lord says and then, frowning, draws his foot sharply away from my hand where I had a hold upon the heel of his boot.

"What is it you do?" he demands, and I blink up at him, my dismay weighting my tongue.

"Forgive me, my lord," I finally say, sinking back upon my heels, my head bowed to receive the reproof I hear clear in his voice. "I thought only your feet would be cold and in need of warming."

Long, it seems, is the moment he gazes upon me. I cannot perceive the thoughts he ponders, and I listen to Halbarad moving about in the buttery as I wait for my lord to speak. But he does not. When I raise my face, I marvel to see somewhat of regret darkening my lord's eyes.

"My lord," I say, uncertain though I am. "Would you refuse the comfort your wife would give you?"

"No," says he, his voice low.

He is then still and does not protest when I draw off his boots, carefully, for I know his feet are no doubt numb and strangely brittle from the cold. I set his feet upon my lap, so he need not lay them upon the floor. Though woven mats of rushes now line the stone where once they were bare, still they can only cushion so much against the cold and I can feel the chill of my lord's feet even through my skirts. I doubt not they are as pale as ice within his hose and the bones jut beneath the skin all the sharper for their stiffness.

I have pulled the brick from the hearth and wrapped about it a thick carpet of wool, and now set my lord's feet upon the bundle. Resting the tougher soles upon its warmth, he lifts his toes from its surface and I recall my father's face grimacing in discomfort as the blood within his toes quickened after days of walking upon the frozen Wild. Swiftly, I lay a blanket upon it all, and press my hands against his feet through the wool, rubbing his toes and easing the sting of awakening flesh.

"Lady," I hear and look up to find my lord gazing upon me, his look grave.

A shadow passes o’er my head ere he has a chance to speak further. My lord takes the cup offered and Halbarad nods to the thanks he receives. There is a certain smugness to Halbarad's look of mirth when he turns away to delve through my lord's pack.

Soon enough, my lord leans against the back of his chair and sighs, clutching the cup to his breast, and I know he is comfortable. I leave him to sit afore the hearth, his shoulders wrapped in the blanket with naught but his hand showing where he clutches his mug of ale. Softly he and Halbarad then speak, my lord seeking news of the Angle and his kin asking questions of the world at large as the water of his bath heats. I, after laying his boots near the hearth where they may dry, return to preparing the meal, leaving them to it.

~oOo~

 

 

Chapter Text

~ Chapter 16 ~

 

'There is food in the wild,' said Strider; 'berry, root, and herb; and I have some skill as a hunter at need. You need not be afraid of starving afore winter comes. But gathering and catching food is long and weary work, and we need haste. So tighten your belts, and think with hope of the tables of Elrond's house!'

FOTR: A Knife in the Dark

~oOo~

all about is snow, geese stand up on the white lawn, within is nestled a tall house of wattle and daub construction behind a screen of bare trees

~oOo~

~ TA 3008, 2nd day of Nénimë:  But ten of our wandering folk have found their way to the Angle since Ringarë of last year, and most from our southern reaches.  Those few of the north tell of freezing rain and ice coming upon the days of their harvest, so that they had little to store for the months ahead.  Rivers they once relied upon to guard their backs froze and across them clambered orcs of the Ettenmoors. 

~oOo~

 

Bright are the men's faces in the warmth of their lord's gaze. They drift in from their duties and soon their voices ring through the hall. Word has spread among those who winter here in the Angle, they who are assigned to her defense or fled here to recover from hurt and ill health. Glad am I for their coming, for with their return my lord's eyes come alight. He has too long been away, I think.

I know his men now by name and speak to them as I keep their cups full. Gelir, he of the saucy look and the light eyes of his grandsire, now hovers about the hearth, limping upon a twisted ankle. Mathil, young and fair of face, smothers a cough from where he lies upon the far side of the hearth. One look at the dark skin beneath his eyes and, after he spoke to my lord of a trail of wolves upon the northern borders of Bree, Halbarad pointed to the bench and followed behind Mathil with the blanket and pillow he uses as his own.  To my wonderment, Halbarad then stole into the buttery and, slicing gingerroot into thin slivers with the knife dangling from his belt, joined me at the hearth and prepared a strong tea of ginger, honey, and chamomile for the man.   At greater ease, Mathil’s lids fall heavy upon his eyes, yet he forces himself awake so he may hear his lord's voice among his fellows.  Though, could I credit it, his gaze turns most oft to my lord’s kin.

Mid-morning, Elesinda returned from the market and I spread garlic and herbs upon the joints of meat she purchased there. They cook now upon the grate, sending puffs of savory smoke into the hall. The pot of lentils and turnips simmers briskly. Sweet steam leaks from yet another pot, wherein bubbles a thick pottage of wheat, ground hazelnuts, raisins and honey. I lay bread and bowls of butter upon the table, the men leaning aside and returning my smile as I reach about them. It shall satisfy them, or so I hope.

Gelir, as the youngest of their company, was tapped to aid Elesinda and I in our preparations. For all the mischief he may make, he takes his task to heart. He turns the meat upon the grate, careful to spread the coals and ward away flames that may char our meal, boasting of his skills learned under the tutelage of his eldest brother, the Angle's baker. Elesinda hands him a cup of water to douse a sudden blaze where he crouches by the hearth and I must turn aside to hide my smile. When e'er their hands cross, her glance flutters about and he falls still and cannot seem to draw his away. I wonder were Halbarad as aware of the looks shared between those two, and should that be why the lad was chosen, or had he set the lad an overly long penance for his mischief at my lord's wedding feast.

Of the other Rangers who gather about my lord at his table, Haldren with his mane of silvered hair, sharp of nose and temper, eases an aching leg upon the bench and tells a grim tale of our folk put to the sword in the wide lands north of the Great Road. The Ranger across from him, Melethron of the thick brows and deep voice, pulls at his ear, his face tightened in discontent, and debates the spoor of wolves and werewolves with a thin, morose-looking Lathril. And so they sit now among their fellows, quaffing their ale and speaking loudly, interrupting one and another.  My lord’s hall hums with their voices, the rich smells of their midday meal, and the joy they take one of another.

My lord's maps stretch out afore them. His light and dark stones lie spilled out upon the table's runner and the men place them upon the parchment as they argue. Then, they fall silent as my lord rubs at the hair upon his lip with light fingers, gazing upon the hills about Bree and the boundaries of the land of the Halflings.

When he straightens, his men grow intent. And when he beckons them close and moves the markers about, the hall is silent but for the brisk snap of the fire and the sizzling of the meats. I think I hear even the rustling of the stones upon the parchment as he slips them across it surface.

"See here, now," says he and shuttles the stones back to their original position. "You tell me you find sign of orc in the Weather Hills and our folk flee afore their raids as far west as the Downs. But, is it true? No sign is to be found of them south of the Great Road?"

"None, my lord. There be rumor of men from Dunland," says one and "But they skulk about the Old South Road and, as yet, have come no further north than Sarn Ford," adds another.

My lord nods, his eyes ne'er straying from the parchment where he now selects a stone, two and then three of black and moves them west. "And here old sign was seen of their crossing the river, and here they began their raids and torched the winter settlements at Andúnëlad and killed their cattle and goats, and here they were cornered in the Weather Hills by the wandering folk of the Northlands. Were they not?" He lifts his eyes and his sharp gaze takes in their agreement.

"And here, running afore them, were there tracks of wolves that slipped through our lines and came upon the marshes and near to Chetwood." He lays a line of dark stones upon the border of Bree.

"Aye, wolves, they were, though we found them not," says Ranger Lathril.

"I think it more like they were werewolves," Ranger Melethron interrupts to say. "Their tracks lead to no den I could find, and they were unlike any wolf's I have yet to see."

"What difference is there between a were and a wolf's print, pray tell?" asks Lathril, his voice sharpened with thinly disguised impatience.

"Wolves, weres, upon this point it matters little." My lord raises his voice and their discord comes to an abrupt halt. "Can we afford to allow the threat of either?"

They shake their heads, at least in accord over this matter, and my lord goes on. He traces the dark stones from west to east in a ragged line and then continues on through the empty spaces of the Wild until his finger lands upon the Misty Mountains above the High Pass. My lord's men settle back into their seats with faces grim and silent. Ever, since the Second Age when Eregion and Moria fell into darkness, have the orcs bred in the black shadows of the roots of the mountains.

"Our enemies have grown bold," says my lord. "And there is little to stop them, for the lands north of the Great Road shall soon empty of our folk as they flee hence or take to their summer encampments in the northern hills where they have better chance of defense."

"What think you, Halbarad?" he asks and turns to his kin seated next to him, who has been silent through it all.

Halbarad shakes his head, his face implacable. "The little folk of the Shire and men of Bree are ill-defended my lord, and I doubt not this is now known to every hive of orc that burrows beneath the mountains."

"Aye," my lord says and, letting loose a soft breath, gathers up the black stones and drops them to the Misty Mountains. "They will skirt north upon the Coldfells, for Master Elrond's reach is long and his sons bear little love for orcs. The lessons were hard in the teaching, but they have learned to avoid the folk of Imladris. Our homesteads and summer pastures east of the Weather Hills, you tell me, are now all but abandoned. Mayhap we should be wise to remove the folk who yet remain."

"And those who yet do not wish to leave their homes or pastures?"

"As afore, I would still give them the choice, but again make it clear, we have not the men to assure their safety should they remain of their own will. We cannot be driven by our fears for their fortune or we shall lose all."

"The great roads, these too, they will shun," he goes on and his men watch as his hand covers the lands of old Cardolan. "Men may travel upon them and so may dwarves, but should the orcs wish to travel unhindered and in greater company than we have heretofore seen, they will not risk the chance of discovery. I would know more of these strange men of whom you speak. We will not forget them, but I deem we have more time to discover their source and purpose. Now, we are hard upon it. Oh, the time is unripe yet, and the host will not be overlarge. But, never fear, they are coming, my friends. When the weather breaks, we must be prepared to meet them."

In his eyes a fell spark gleams and I think he would near welcome the chance. His men come to lean across the table when my lord takes up a handful of light stones and scatters them between the arms of the Great Road and the Misty Mountains.

"Let us catch them here, afore the Last Bridge where the waters of the Mitheithel run deep and strong with the melting snows, and we shall press their backs to the river."

Merciless and resolute is the light in the eyes that answer my lord's sharp gaze.

"Until then, keep your eyes open and defend what you must, but show not too great a force. Let them think they may catch us unawares. We could well use the time we buy to our advantage."

The men say naught, but they nod, and ease back upon their seats. I, who have been listening as I work among my lord's men, wonder at where he has spent these months when away. I cannot think why it would be so, but it seems he saw to the defense of the lands of the Halflings. His men do not question this wisdom, and I marvel at the depth of their trust for him. Indeed, now he has spoken their cares are comforted and they set to laughing, speaking of matters no more weighty than the gossip of the Angle.

My lord sits at ease at his table. Ranger Melethron bends my lord's ear, pointing at a sour-faced Halbarad and completing some tale which has not, afore, been told within my hearing, and with good reason. For he speaks of his alarm at the stories told by the goodwives of the Angle upon their gatherings.  

“My wife, my own Berel came home from one such,” he says, “and you would not credit the ideas it gave her.  I could not walk for a full day, after.  Not that I would complain, but a man’s nethers cannot take the strain –”

Haldren coughs, glancing briefly, albeit pointedly above Melethron’s head where I reach to take his cup and refill his ale.

"Ah, my lady," Melethron says, twisting about and peering up at me as I turn the pitcher to his cup. His gaze takes in my raised brow and his mouth falls closed with a faint click, and smothered laughter sounds about him. Little shows on Haldren’s sharp features but for the deepening of the creases upon the corners of his eyes and twitching of the lines about his lips.

My lord's eyes shine warmly. He inclines his head to me. "My thanks to you, lady, you have succeeded in teaching Melethron when to hold his peace, where it seems I have failed."

"You are most generous, my lord," I say.  Dropping my gaze from his, I smile, so delighted am I. "But I doubt it was my doing, for surely your tongue is withered beyond all use, Ranger Melethron, after so salty a tale." I offer him his cup, now full.

To the amusement of his mates, the man colors prettily when he takes his cup, his face wry, and he mumbles an apology. My lord laughs and claps the man upon his back. It seems he is satisfied his Ranger has been sufficiently admonished and holds it against him no longer. I am not displeased, for though it seems my lord and his men have little knowledge of the matters of which women speak when far from their ears, I am satisfied that it remains so.

"My lady," I hear, and I am called away by Elesinda. The meal is ready.

When the bowls are filled there is little talk, for the men set to their food with good will. I sit at my lord's side. Once I filled my own bowl and prepared to sit at an opening at the foot of the table, Halbarad rose and cuffed Melethron briskly across his shoulder.

"Move!" was all he commanded, and the man rose from his seat. Nor did Halbarad allow him the place I had thought to take, for with a sharp look he forbade it and then later ushered Elesinda there. It seems he was not so forgiving as my lord of Melethron's lapse.

"My lady," Halbarad offers, taking the bowl from my hand and setting it in the now vacant place by my lord, claiming it as mine.

Melethron bows his head, touching his fingers briefly to his brow as he passes. He alone sits by the hearth, but makes no complaint, knowing he had earned it.

My lord eats slowly beside me, guarding an unpracticed belly, and does not speak to me. But he seems to savor each bite and I am content.

~oOo~

Here in the solar I sit at my table, my basket of mending and sewing beside me, plying needle to cloth. The linen is new and stiff between my fingers, its black taking a pleat sharply. That is well, for, with thread of dark gold, I bind rows of smocking upon the head of a sleeve and struggle to keep the space between the pleats even. It is fine work and I lean into the light of the lamp.

When the day was nigh come to its end, the men went to their homes. Only Elesinda lingered yet in the buttery, wrapping the remains of our day's meals in a towel to take with her to her family, leaving but Halbarad and my lord behind. There in the hall we were quiet, in the lull of the day. Soft I heard my lord's kin's footsteps upon the snow as he walked the grounds, securing the house. The days of winter draw short and the sky darkens soon, it seems, after the midday meal. When Halbarad returns from escorting Elesinda to her home, we will bar the door and settle in for the night.

I, the work of the day done, stood afore my tall loom. A cloth of blue and gray figures of fish bound about the edges with the rolling waves of the river grew above my head where the warp threads hung from their beam. The clay rounds swayed and jangled against one another as I pulled the heddles against their weight and set the rods in their supports. Only my lord lacked for occupation. He paced about the hall, his feet falling slow and soft upon the rushes. It seemed little could hold his mind.

'Twas not that he lacked a task. Indeed, he attempted many. He had laid out his gear upon the table. His gloves needed mending, I saw, for there were holes at their tips where his fingers would poke through. The lacings of his pouch were knotted where they were broken and need replacing. I shall not dwell upon the state of his second shirt, for I yet hope to steal it from his belongings when he is not aware and rip it into the rag it surely is.

But he left his purse unraveled and a needle stuck in the thumb of his glove. He could not sit still, and once seemingly settled, launched himself to his feet only to find no true resting place. Oft did I feel the weight of his glance, yet when I turned to the hall, it was only to find he looked elsewhere, busying himself first with the careful study of the buckles and straps of his sword where it rested upon the wall and then squatting afore the hearth to clean his pipe. He scraped at the bowl and knocked it against his palm to rid it of the ashes, yet, when I spoke to him of the small tub of pipeweed in the buttery, he nodded and thanked me, but then resumed his slow circle of the hall, laying his pipe aside with his other gear.

I would think my lord would have one thought upon his mind. Had I not heard the tales of a Ranger-returned from their wives? His feet were warm, his body clean, his worries eased, and his belly full, where else would a man's thoughts tend? And yet my lord did not speak, nor approach me in any other manner. I was left only to marvel at what weighed on my lord's mind so heavily in its place.

My lord's feet scraped upon the woven rushes and then fell still, and I heard the creak of his chair. It seemed his mind had settled, and, with a glance, I saw he had pulled his shirt to him and turned it upon itself, seeking how best to go about mending it. At this, a sigh escapes my lips, but I know not what else to do. For even the shirt he wears now fits him quite ill and must chafe upon his shoulders. As of yet, he has no other that fits him better.

"My lady," I heard. Elesinda stood in the buttery, her bundle dangling afore her.

"Are you done, Child?" I said, winding the yarn upon its shuttle ere laying it aside.

"Aye, my lady."

I went swiftly to the door, meeting the girl there as she wrapped her cloak about her, so I might hold her bundle. I have kneaded the dough for tomorrow's bread and the rounds lied in a greased bowl upon a chest there, wrapped about in thick linen. Each night she takes the dough to the baker in the Angle's square, where he shall let them rise, and each morning ere dawn, he then sets the bread in his ovens.

I waited until she has pulled on her mittens to hand her the bundle, and smiled at the girl, for I could barely see her face for the wrapping of cloak and scarf.

"A good night to you, Elesinda," said I, placing the bowl in her arms. Halbarad shall meet her just out the door to walk her home and, no doubt, will relieve her of the burden as he always does.

She nodded, and then dropped a reverence across the table to where my lord sits.

"A safe night to you," he said, and her eyes dropped, and she stammered somewhat of thanks and farewell.

When the door closed behind the girl I found my lord's eyes upon me and then, as swiftly as I knew them there, they were withdrawn, and he busied himself with threading his needle.

My lord and I were then alone.

Though the weaving of this cloth has proceeded slowly for all its interruptions, I had little stomach for many more minutes of this, my lord busy not speaking to me and I ever aware of his gaze and tense beneath it. The warp hung true and should I run my hand across it, the threads shall thrum in their place. I could have stayed, I suppose, but I set the heddle at rest against the uprights so that the warp hung in a smooth fall of threads. Truly, my mending awaited upstairs, and I could think of no other reason to keep me to the hall.

"Have you further need of me this even, my lord?"

His glance rose swiftly from his work and it seemed a long moment ere he comprehended my question. "You wish to retire, lady?"

"Should you have need you wish me to see to, I shall remain, my lord," I said from where I stood, the distance of the hall between us.

"Nay, lady, I think I may comfortably see to myself for this little."

And so, having naught else to say, I left him to his chosen task and climbed the stairs.

'Tis true the moments may pass more swiftly when mind and hand are of accord, yet it seemed but a short time had passed when I hear my lord's soft tread upon the stairs. His stride shortens when he reaches the solar and, were it not so unlike the chieftain I saw among his men, I would say his look is uncertain.

"My lord," I say, rising.

"Lady," he says and comes to a halt.

His face is solemn as he considers me. Here in the dim light of the edge of the solar the lamp paints his features in the colors of twilight and deep shadow. I toy with the stiff cloth in my hands and wish he would speak, for I would know what brings him hither. But he does not, and I find I cannot bear the weight of his eyes in the silence. I slip the needle into the ridges of smocking and, dropping it to the table, hold my hands afore me.

"It lightens the hearts of thy people to see thee, my lord."

"Should it bring thee joy, then I am glad for it," he replies and yet speaks no further.

Then, as lightning o’er a darkened field, it comes to me my lord waits for my invitation. Here we are in my lord's house, where his word rules our days, yet it becomes clear he will not approach me until I sanction his presence. So stunned am I, for a dizzying moment I know not what to do.

Then I go swiftly to the bed, where sits the mate to the stool on which I settled. My lord makes a quick motion as were he to follow and carry the seat himself, but he is late in his intent.

"My lord," I say, setting the stool by the table. "Will you not join me?"

"Gladly, lady." He bows his head and waits for me to reseat myself ere coming to the table.

And so my lord and I face one another in the soft light and, then, it seems we have naught to say. For my lord clasps his hands where they rest upon the table and I cannot bring my eyes to bear upon aught else, much less open my mouth and pour words into the emptiness between us.

"Your journeys, my lord," I say, swallowing quickly. "They were fruitful?"

"Aye, they served their purpose."

"I hope you suffered no great privation upon them."

"Not so little I would forego the pleasure of sleeping upon a real bed now I am here," says he and, from the lift of the corners of his lips, I expect he attempts at some mirth. When I cannot reward his efforts with my own, he goes on, his voice low. "And you, lady. I trust you have been comfortable here in my absence."

"Aye, my lord."

"Good, good," says he, nodding. "And how fares the House? Has Herdir taken to his duties well?"

"Aye, my lord, your reeve has overseen a good harvest. There has been little waste of grain, man or beast. The Angle fares well this winter."

"Good!" he says and, indeed, he looks well pleased. "Good," says he again, his delight softening along with his voice, and then he falls silent.

I think my lord has some matter that presses upon his thoughts, for we have exhausted the most obvious subjects and yet he stares at his hands with a look most resolute.

"And, lady," says he, and then falters. "Have you not, I would think mayhap by now it would be clear –" My lord brings himself to a stop and begins again, his voice the stronger for having taken a clear breath. "Have you no sign of your quickening, lady?"

It is a full moment ere I understand his meaning, so taken aback am I. We had lain together just the once.

"No, my lord."

"Ah, yes, of course," says he and falls quiet again. "And how then have your days been, lady, have you found aught to fill them?"

"Aye, my lord, the charge you gave me fills much of my time," I say, thinking of the hours I have spent learning of the ways of the Angle under Mistress Pelara's tutelage, cramping my fingers near into a claw for the figures I keep.

"Yes, so I would expect."

"Lady," says he swiftly after a quiet moment, startling me into looking upon him. "I am a man unused to the company of women and much used to the loneliness of the road. I had not looked to enjoy the comforts a wife might give until many more years had passed."

His eyes no longer are unsure but meet mine with a soft light.  "Mayhap you will allow me some time more to become accustomed to them."

"I have a question to ask of thee, my lord," I say and startle at the sound of my own voice, for I had not planned to speak of this.

"I would hear it." My lord's voice is gentle.

"My lord," say I, for there is naught for it but to proceed, "should you not return, how would we know it?"

My lord sits silent, considering, I think, his response. "And these were your thoughts as the days passed, lady?"

I need say naught, and indeed cannot, but look steadily upon the floor where my lord's shadow flickers o’er the planks. I dare not show my face to my lord; for I am sure revealed there he would see each night I watched the sun's fall upon the horizon and saw not my lord's shadow lengthening afore it.  I shall regret this, I think, the baring of my heart. 

"Then I shall send word, for I owe you a debt of comfort. But it will be seldom; for there are few I may safely trust," he says. "Will that satisfy you, lady?"

"Aye, my lord." Only now can raise my eyes to his, but I cannot hold his glance for long. For his face has softened with a gentle sorrow.

Ai! Well, 'tis done and there is no going back.

Did my lord wonder at my heart? Aye, its weight sits heavy in my breast. And now, what name shall my lord put to what fills it?

~oOo~

 

Chapter Text

~ Chapter 17 ~

 

When winter first begins to bite
 and stones crack in the frosty night,
when pools are black and trees are bare,
 'tis evil in the Wild to fare.

FOTR:  The Ring Goes South

~oOo~

tall, dry grasses shiver in the winter wind against a backdrop of snow and distant hills

~oOo~

~ TA 3008, 5th day of Nénimë:  Snow again yestereve.  Little cloud and bright sunlight today. Flooding upon the southeastern Angle likely earlier than last year. Ten men of three days-work each called to repair earthworks upon the western banks of the Tithecelon and extend the water course from about the southeast edge of Master Fimon’s pasture where it is at its lowest. 

~oOo~

 

There. Just so.

I have cleared the table and set Elesinda to its scrubbing after our noon meal. The Council shall assemble in my lord's hall and I wish naught give him cause for unease.  Seldom does he attend. For that I built up the fire and placed his chair at the foot of his banner, so he might best appear afore it. The hall is warm and comfortable, with winter rugs hanging afore the high windows, cushions upon the benches, and the sharp scent of burning leaves of rosemary thrown upon the fire to sweeten the air.

The flames ripple and rush o’er the wood and the faint sounds of Elesinda moving about drift into the hall from the buttery. As was their wont, Halbarad and my lord spent their morning battering their swords against each other, and I had heard their muted voices raised in their battles from across the gardens. I did not watch, for, once, coming upon them, I found the fierce blows and pitched voices of the men I knew as gentle with their strength a fearsome thing. After, my thoughts dwelt too long on the pain and peril that lies in wait for them and the lines of grief and grim fear it has carven into their faces. But, now, they rest, and Halbarad has taken to carving some small thing where he sits beside the hearth. His knife flickers in the light of the fire, but he is content to remain silent.

When I am done, my lord sits at his chair and draws his journals to him. I think him preparing, for, come mid-afternoon, the men of the Council will arrive with their cheeks and noses pinched a soft pink from the chill, scrubbing their booted feet upon the mat at the door and drawing their cloaks from about them. They will linger about the hearth, their eyes drawn to my lord and eager to warm themselves by the fire and, I think, the light of their liege's gaze.

I, too, have given much thought to the preparations, and, aye, I intend to serve ale, foregoing the heady mix of wine and debate. Elder Maurus may wish again for his tea, and so I shall set a pot of water near the grate for later and hope the honey shall sweeten his temper. Smoked cheeses and such dried fruits and nuts as remain us, I think, shall be welcome, but not yet. For the hour of the Elders' arrival is yet distant and I wander about the hall, putting small things to rights.

I would not wish to disturb my lord and so ease drawers and lids shut with care, but I catch his eye atimes. I like not the way the cushions lay upon this or that bench and pick up one to plump it and drop it only to fix upon another to join the first. 'Tis when I reach for yet a third my lord speaks.

"Lady," says he and I glance up to find him turning a weary look upon me. He sets aside his quill and rises from his chair. "Enough."

I am at first slow to move from the bench o’er which I bend, for I cannot think what my lord intends.

"Some freer air may do us both a good." He strides to the hall's great door and draws me after him with his look. "Should it please thee, lady, will you not join me?"

"We shall be gone just a little." This he says to his kin who sits by the fire. Halbarad looks up with eyes that wonder at my lord, but then he hides it with a nod and returns to the task he has set himself.

With that, I find myself bundled in boots, coat, hood, and mittens and following my lord as he leads the way out of doors. 'Tis not uncommon for lovers to go a'walking, there upon the Angle where they may enjoy the other's company and yet remain safe under the eye of their folk. I know not should this be my lord's mind, for, putting his back to the village, he chooses a path that opens upon the meadows, skirting the drystone fence and coming upon the gate through which the sheep are pastured.

The sun shines brightly upon the snow and sets a white fire about the trees. Drops of water mark a slow time from the thatch, carving a honeycomb of tunnels into the drifts at the base of the house, and our boots make dark signs upon the earth. The air is brisk and soon sets my nose to running, but the day is mild and I am not uncomfortable.

For a long while as we walk I hear naught but the crunch of our feet upon the snow, our breath harsh upon the hush of winter, and my sniffling. It is not until we put the gate behind us and make our climb to the top of a short rise does my lord speak.

"Halbarad tells me you spend much time at the house of Elder Maurus," says he and I must recall myself to putting one foot afore the other, much taken am I in wondering what else his kin may have revealed to him. "How fares Maurus? I have not heard."

"Well, I think, my lord." 'Tis true, it is difficult to tell atimes for the Elder's prattle of aching bones and the sleeplessness of the hours of his morn, though this is an observation I do not share with my lord. And yet it seems unjust to not answer my lord more fully, and so I go on, hoping the simplicity of my remarks shall not prove tiresome to him. "His youngest grandchild, a girl, is oft in his care and he dotes on her. She is bare able to pull herself up by his knee but is already set to fetching his cap for him."

"Yes, I recall he was besotted with his daughter in much the same manner."

I had not thought it so for the way they trade sharp words between them, but my lord smiles with the fondness of some remembrance, so mayhap it is true.

"Think you he will attend the Council today, lady?"

"I know not, my lord," I say, for they do seem to weary the Elder and I can recall a handful of Councils convened without him in just these two seasons past.

My lord nods, making a small thoughtful sound, and then halts. His eyes are bright with the cold and a certain delight as he turns and takes in the house and its crofts. I have not seen it in the snow at this distance and, truly, it seems a welcoming sight. All but hidden in a screen of bare fruit trees and the limbs of the great oak, the house nestles into the arms of the woods, smoke climbing upon the air from the grate in the roof. Snug and warm it seems, awaiting our return with the promise of hearth, and food, and bed.

"The House fares well," says my lord with, I think, some satisfaction.

He turns his look then upon the meadow and the march of trees upon the distant hills. For the hood he wears, I see naught but the tip of his nose and chin and the puff of frozen air when he releases his breath to speak.

"I would hear your thoughts, lady."

He fixes upon me with a quick, measuring gaze and, touching the crook of my arm, urges me to resume our walk.

"Here we are in the quiet of winter," he says, following the slope of the land to the edge of the meadow. "Should you have its ordering, to what would you have the Council bend its will?"

I have naught to say, at first, for my thoughts are sent scattering upon the suggestion my lord might wish to know them. But my lord is patient, setting a leisurely pace down the hillock and looking about him as he waits.

Aye, 'tis winter and the Angle mends fences, fortifies the ditches and water gates about the fields, and cares for its beasts. All have shelter and food. There is little that puts the pinch upon our folk, for the work of the harvest was well done and the Valar were kind in their apportioning of sun and rain.

"It would seem to be a time to set our sights upon the next winter, my lord."

"Aye," he says and, halting, squints into the glare of sun upon the fields and chooses his path. We shall soon hit upon the brook that cleaves the soil of the meadow into a deep channel. The rill runs fast with melted snow and the sound of water runs clean and strong. "Halbarad tells me you are about when the Councils convene. How well does it plan for what may come, do you think?"

Not well. Oh, they band together should the need be urgent, but should not the fire be close enough to warm their buttocks, they set to squabbling about whose bucket should be used to dowse the flames. I dare not say it, but it seems I need not, for my lord, catching sight of my face, makes a rough sound of agreement.

"They are good men, all, my lord." I raise my voice over the gathering noise of rushing water, for my lord strides ahead of me, seeking a place he must know to ford the stream.

"Aye," my lord agrees, and he halts, looking down the bank to the water below as I come upon him. "But all men have their weaknesses, their failings, and never more than when they attempt to lead." "But then," he goes on, peering beneath the overhanging grasses and snow, "mayhap, you have not attended to it."

"I have found Elder Tanaes to be well-intentioned, my lord," say I, his disinterest stiffening my spine and lending a crisp tone to my speech. "And he would make a good head of the Angle's council, would he not let Master Bachor draw him into argument. It seems they lose themselves in niggling matters, Master Bachor as quick to become impatient and ill-tempered as Elder Maurus is to become fretful. And the rest fall in line with whichever way the wind may blow them."

Sharp then is the gaze that takes me in, with a light I might name as mischief should it not be my lord's eyes that shine with it. Ah! Confound the man! I have fallen easily to his bait. How had he known my pride so easily stung as to overcome my better judgment? 'Tis not my place to criticize the Elders of my people.

"Aye," he says slowly. Should I have thought my lord making sport of me, the pleasure that lightens the somber cast of his face puts a lie to it. "Elder Tanaes' past service to the House of Isildur may be too well remembered to be the voice of ploughmen, cotters, and craftsmen. Elder Bachor may well be prone to strong feeling. But remember, lady, and be cautious, a man's anger most oft lies as a thin veil over his fear. Elder Bachor has the respect of our folk, and with good reason. All those under his care prosper and he holds much influence.  He has the touch for it and oft knows what is needed well ere others think to turn their thoughts thither.  With his ties of trade, he has learned much of the world about us and the folk and custom of different lands.  And as for Maurus, it would be a grave injustice, lady, to mistake him for a fool."

"But," he goes on and turns to make his way down the steep bank of the stream. "I shall leave the matter to your own reckoning. It is, I deem, a good lesson in the subtleties of old men."

"Come," he says, lifting his hand for mine, for he has stepped lightly upon the stones that make a path to the further bank.

When I give my hand in turn, my lord grasps upon my wrist tightly so he may make my feet secure. Here in the shadowed crevice, ice forms in a thin crust under which the flow of water gurgles. Air rises from the water and tastes of melting snow and weathered earth as my lord sees me safely o’er the stones. Looking upon it, I despair of climbing the far bank for my much shorter legs, but my lord lifts himself to its top and fair pulls me after him until the land stretches out afore me. Upon the hillside lays a thin blanket of white, here and there broken by grasses that tremble in the breeze and cast their faint shadows upon the snow.

I shake the dirt and snow from my skirts and coat, and, once done, my lord again sets out. I can do naught but follow, though I know not his purpose. It seems he has one, for his stride is sure and I am hard put to keep pace. Soon, should we follow the bend of the hillside, we shall leave all sign of our folk behind.

And so it is, for we walk in silence until all about us is still and lonesome. There my lord halts of a sudden, his breath a mist upon the air.

"Lady," I hear and turn to find my lord looking upon me. His voice is clear and low when he speaks. “Look about you.”   

And so I do.  Dark are the shadows beneath the forest upon my right, high is the slope upon my left, and behind there is only snow and an open sky. At a sound behind me, I twist about violently. The rush of snow ends in an abrupt crackling of bracken and leaves, and the branches of a pine jostle about for the weight they have unloaded. Such a short distance for my lord, yet I have ne'er been so far upon the bounds of the Angle as this.

“Be still a moment and listen.”

I do as I am bid, quieting my breath so I no longer hear it rushing from my lips.  A distant cawing breaks upon the world and then all is still.  Faint, I hear the wind as it brushes cold ground but naught of the Angle can I hear.  No baaing of sheep, sound of voice raised in call, or lowing of oxen do I hear, and faintly, faintly still, upon my right hand hear I the racing of water.  It is the Methithiel, the great river that flows upon our western bounds.  I have never seen it, but it looms e’er large in our stories as guardian and gateway to our lands about Arnor.  I could not feel more small and lost in a world of white and wind and cold. 

"I would have you sit upon the Council, not lingering about its edges unbidden."

Ai!

I take a breath and then another ere I can speak. "What would you have me do there, my lord?"

"I wish you to listen and, have you aught to say, I wish you to speak it."

Such a simple task my lord would make it sound, and yet an uneasy weight settles itself in the pit of my belly.

"Aye, my lord," I say, for I dare say naught else.

He falls quiet and I know not what to think of his mood. He stares out upon where the sky falls to the net of barren trees, his face solemn in his study of the shadows that grow beneath their limbs. Truly, I know not what he looks for there. To my eye, the spread of open land and sky provides little solace, for all it seems to know or care of the world of Men.

"Shall we return?"

My lord turns to me a look of grave pity, for he has been watching and I must wonder what he saw playing upon my face.

"Aye, my lord," I say, but with little eagerness, for I do not think I shall find the Angle the same as when I left it.

~oOo~

I sit upon a bench beside my lord at his table and try mightily to still my hands. They, with lack of aught better to do, play upon the cloth of my skirts or clasp my fingers so tightly the blood floods their tips, for my lord will allow me naught but to sit beside him and attend to the Council. In my stead, he commands Elesinda to pour the ale and lay out the food I reserved. She does it well, but I find my fingers twitch and my shoulders tighten as she makes her rounds about the table.

At the least, I am spared the worry of the proper making of Elder Maurus' tea, for the old man has begged our lord forgive his absence and has taken himself to his bed. And now I find I miss his voice, for the Elders sit about my lord's table, their voices subdued. Each man, I think, attempts to present their arguments in the most wholesome light now their lord is the one to listen to them.

My lord seems intent on hearing them out, but, it seems, grows impatient. His face may be somberly attentive, but his fingers flick in a dismissive gesture ere he schools them to stillness and, atimes, he lets loose a quiet breath and shifts in his chair. Much goes unsaid, lurking behind polite words. Such would not be the case should Master Maurus have been among them. Though a vexation, his mishearings, complaints, and dark forecasts would have needled them into revealing what lay behind their carefully maintained show of prudence.

"And where would you have them, Elder Bachor?" my lord asks, his gaze coming swiftly upon the man who has been speaking.

The man in question falls silent of a sudden. I am not surprised. Having been the object of such keen study, I know the feeling well. I think my lord wishes the man to be done with his feigned impartiality in the Council's decision and commit himself.

I have listened and in listening I have made great effort to consider my lord’s words.  Aye, Master Bachor holds much of the respect of the Angle.  He sits at my lord’s table, dressed in his long, split tunic of wine-colored wool worked about its hem and shoulders with thread and light fur.  All about him speaks of ease but the hands that clasp upon themselves and the thumb that worries upon his knuckles.  Ever and anon his glance comes upon me, only to flick away swiftly.   I am a worry to him and, now, a distraction upon the Council.  And indeed, he should be troubled. 

Aye, the Council has taken up the question of the harvest of next year, and long and sullen has been its debate. We have waded through deciding where and how much new land to assart come the spring and how to spread the days-work of the men upon them, and are done with these. We come now to the question of granaries, for we had too few upon last fall's harvest and much grain was spoiled for its improper storing. There is little point, then, to increasing the Angle's yield in the coming year should we not account for its storage.

"Well, my lord," Master Bachor says, his face a study of disinterest. "There is good land for it just north of Elder Tanaes' pasture." He nods to the butcher, whose broad face tightens at the thought. "'Tis high land and well-drained and flat, and I think its owner willing. 'Twould serve well for as many or as large a granary as you could wish. We could store there all the grain from the unclaimed fields worked in the Angle's name."

Elder Tanaes, for once, does not take up argument with Master Bachor. He looks to my lord and remains silent. I know the place of which Master Bachor speaks, and so do the Elders. 'Tis upon the eastern margins of his own lands and held by one of the half-virgaters who owes a debt to the man. Master Bachor was generous, and I doubt the debtor will ever be able to repay him in full.

It seems not only I unsettled for this, for, at length, the Elders burst into comment.

"All in one place?" I hear and turn to find Elder Landir the owner of that voice, a lean man with skin much as the leather he works.

"Could be a good, 'twill be easier to manage that way, would it not?"

"Should it be on his land, Elder Bachor, then shall he be the one to manage the stores?"

"You have not asked it of him yet, have you Bachor?"

"I trust not the wisdom of central stores, my lord."

The men fall silent, for it is my voice that speaks this last.

By the fine brush of wool and creak of wood, I know the Council restive as they attempt to make sense of this new thing. Ah! I must not let them distract me, though my heart beats so and their gaze burns upon me.

"I know not an I trust any with the management of it, should they be widespread, either. Too much to go missing." I hear but am unsure of the speaker. I look only to my lord.

"Ah, my lord, clearing land for many smaller granaries seems but a misuse of our time. Should not lesser work go into the greater gain? One larger granary would suffice, would it not?" Bachor asks, his hands have now stilled and his eyes have settled keenly upon me.

But my lord returns my gaze and speaks not, paying little heed to the Council.

"Lady?"

"Aye, my lord, it will take more work at the first," say I, speaking only to him. "But, I deem it would be work well repaid."

"How so?"

"My lord, it would take but one ill thing to cripple us, otherwise. One fire, one disease, one flood, one predation, and many will go hungry. Our most vulnerable will die for it."

Master Bachor speaks then, breaking my lord's gaze upon me. "Should you dot the village with smaller granaries, my lady, how would you set to managing them? Who shall say shall be fed from them and how much given and when?"

The men of the Council look upon me steadily. I think they, too, uncertain of my thoughts.

"I think it best they manage their own," I say to my lord, as were it he that had asked me alone.

"Meaning those of the wanderers, my lady?" Bachor asks.

"Aye."

At this, his face falls into disquiet lines and a harsh light shines in his eyes that he will not drop from me through I refuse to look at aught else but my lord beside me. 

“You are not satisfied?" my lord asks when it seems that neither his wife nor the Elder across the table from him will speak.

At this, Master Bachor returns my lord's look and sighs at the question.

"The House is quick to take up the cause of the wanderers, is it not?" he asks.

"Should she not?"

"Forgive me, my lord, but I find it a relief that my lady had but one house to give, or she might be tempted to make free to give lands and home and increase the number of fires of the Angle without bringing it to their attention after, much less first consulting the Council on this matter as is our custom. Does not the House honor the will of the Council in the justice of the Angle?"

I know not what defense to give, for my lord sits still in his chair and does not look to me. Aye, I have come to know that cold silence for what it is. 'Tis displeasure. My eyes burn at the thought and I must drop their gaze for fear of shedding tears afore the Council. Ai! Insufferable man, that he would twist what I did about and make it a shameful act. Only he would see it so.  No doubt my lord now deeply regrets his choice to set me upon the Council beside him.

And yet when my lord speaks, his voice is calm and measured. "How came this custom to be?"

"We had a matter in this regard come afore the Council," says Master Bachor, "and there was the precedent set."

Only now does Tanaes speak, and his voice is mild. "Aye, 'twas that one matter."

"One?" my lord asks. "And that alone?"

None of the Council deny it.

"Then it is hardly a custom, is it?" my lord asks. "Should you wish guidance on these matters, would this not then be a matter for the hallmoot to determine? Let the custom of the Angle be the Angle's to decide."

Oh, but the sinews of my face are stiff, for I dare not smile. I pinch at the soft skin beneath the crook of my arm, hoping the pain will dull my joy.

"And should the hallmoot decide to increase the number of granaries upon the Angle, I would then ask should they amend our charter. I see no need to raise the House’s tithes nor its portioning of vote upon the Council upon an increase of such.  ‘Twas not the intent of the charter at the first and I see no need to distort its meaning now.  Would that satisfy you, Elder Bachor?”

“Aye, my lord, it would,” he says grimly. 

“Very well, then,” my lord goes on to say.  “I should hope you wish not to take upon yourself the management of the whole Angle, Masters," my lord goes on to say. "I would dare not. Nor would I wish upon any one man the management of dispersing all the miles of unclaimed land about the Angle or such a large portion of our harvest. I do not know how you wish to spend your days, but, truly, I am unwilling to court such tedium or force it upon another."

The Elders burst into smiles and I hear Elder Tanaes' deep chuckling from where he sits at the far end of the table. Master Bachor has the grace to look thoughtful.

"Come, now. Have we done?" my lord asks, his voice both weary and amused. "Shall we not put the question of how our folk who seek refuge here may claim land to the people of the Angle at the next hallmoot? And find from them those who are willing to hold the granaries upon their crofts and be accountable to the Council?"

"Are we done?" he asks, looking about the table.

"Aye, 'tis done," says Elder Tanaes as he rises, his voice deep and warm.

"My thanks to you, then, for your work on the Angle's behalf. Bid you good even," my lord says and the Elders rise and make their farewells.

I put my hands to the table to push myself up from the bench, for I would go to the door to hand the men their cloaks and ease their departure, but my lord's hand comes quick upon my knee to still my attempt to rise. With a look and a jerk of his head, he sends Elesinda, who has lingered about the hearth, to attend to the men. He then returns the Council's farewells with a cool solemnity but is otherwise silent.

"There, lady," he says, when the last has gone. He releases a soft breath and lays his shoulders upon the back of the chair, his finger come up to play upon the short hairs about his lip.

I must speak, though my belly feels cold and heavy for it.

"My lord?"

"Aye, lady," he says, and his hand falls to the rest.

"Forgive me, my lord. When I gave my home and lands to Sereg and his kin, I had not thought it through to its end. 'Twas my imprudence that caused you discomfort."

"Ah, lady," he says. He cuts short his sigh in a wry laugh. "Do not take the policies and politics of the Council too gravely to heart. It is not by the force of will of one man alone by which the Dúnedain shall stand fast against the Nameless One. Neither yours nor Elder Bachor's. In the great reach that is time and the lands of Arda, what matter it should we come through to peace by one man's hand or another?"

Mayhap he meant his words as comfort, but I feel all the smaller, as were I standing again upon the rim of the Wild.

"My lord, how shall I do this thing you ask of me?"

"Halbarad shall attend with you at first, or shall I, and from us shall you learn." "Though," he goes on with a smile, "I am but a lowly apprentice in the shadow of the Lord of Imladris in these matters. You have not had the pleasure of seeing Master Elrond at his councils."

"Worry not so, lady," he says after some time in which I ponder his words.

My lord's confidence may yet be inspiring, but rather lacking in specifics. I think this must play upon my face for my lord's look grows amused.

"Your one failing, lady," he says, and when he finds me glancing warily at him hastily adds, "should you have one, would be you feel the urge to act wherever and whenever you see the need."

"When I am gone, you serve as a symbol of my presence here," he says. "To you, lady, the folk will look for their care, and so they should. It is not in me to advise you to check the generosity of your heart, but to remember: I am the lord of the Dúnedain, all the Dúnedain, and my justice and good-will must fall upon its folk equally, even upon Elder Bachor."  This last he delivers with a stern look.

"Aye, my lord," I say and cast down my eyes.

"You shall know what to do," he urges me again in his gentle voice. "Lend them your ear. Listen, lady, and your path will become clear. Do not worry so that you lack in skill or knowledge, for you must first listen with your heart, and only then with your head." My lord points a finger at my breast in emphasis.

"Come," he says, and his hands clap down sharply upon the rests of his chair and he pushes himself to rising. "Mayhap you have the will to seek more speech than we have already had to endure today, but I tire of thinking. I would have a smoke, some food, and then, later, my bed, and we should call Halbarad back from whatever he has found to amuse himself."

My lord's hand comes beneath mine to lift me from my seat. And though the weight of apprehension lies heavy upon my mind, the warmth of my lord's touch lends me some strength, I think, to bear it. And so I rise and we go each to our tasks that remain us.

~oOo~

 

Chapter Text

~ Chapter 18 ~

 

The Company now gathered together as close to the cliff as they could. It faced southwards, and near the bottom it leaned out a little, so that they hoped it would give them some protection from the northerly wind and from the falling stones. But eddying blasts swirled round them from every side, and the snow flowed down in ever denser clouds.

FOTR: The Ring Goes South

~oOo~

morning light streams through slatted windows, lighting upon a wooden canopied bed with heavy red drapes

~oOo~

~ TA 3008, 20th day of Nénimë:  Charges: 18 ells of thick wool of the color of wine, well fulled.  Equal length of thin strips of soft leather.  Two dozen and six rabbit pelts.  Discharges: 7 silver pennies to Elder Landir for the rabbit pelts and leather.  One hood of black wool lined with sheared lambskin provided by Master Lorn, worked about the shoulders in knotwork with cream thread.

~oOo~

 

"Nay, lady, stay abed," my lord says low when the frame creaks beneath my attempts to part the drapes and join him.

Winter rugs hang afore the closed shutters and, though 'tis morning, so early is the hour I see not even the faintest hint of sun trickling in behind them. My lord has left his bed to take his leave and now stands at the tall chest, rising from the bowl set there. He has pulled on his hose, breeches, and boots, and bends to the water to lave his face and breast ere dressing. I marvel that the chill does not prickle his skin, for the heat from the hearth has leached from the solar, drifting away through the thatch during the night.

I wish not to think of my lord upon the Wild in such weather, for I fear the storms that blow in of a sudden on winds wet from the seas. A sky white with whirring flakes of snow and air so cold it feels as knives driven into the lungs, and, shall the Valar be kind, the best of which he can hope is to stumble upon some cave in which he may shelter. Should the snow not fall, still how cheerless and cold shall be his nights.

Even in the shelter of his house, here behind the heavy drapes that enclose the bed and beneath blankets of thick wool, I shiver in the darkest hours of winter. So aloft in the air is the solar, it seems as were we living upon a nest in the highest tree's limbs and catch the night's chill wind unfettered.

Mayhap it was my pulling upon the blankets that awoke my lord. In my drowse I had thought to build myself a tight nest of wool to warm me. In vain was the very attempt, for had I my wits full about me, I would know it should only fail and I might just as well curl upon myself in a ball and will myself back to sleep.

"You are cold," my lord had said, his voice sharp with surprise and somewhat of dismay.

I had wished to reply, but my lord drew me against his breast and wrapped the blankets and his arms about me.

"Hist, sleep now," he said low against my head when I made to speak, his face burrowed in my loosely bound hair.

And, with the warmth of his body upon me, I complied. I dreamt of banked coals of a great hearth glowing with a golden light near painful to look upon and marveled at what will kept them from bursting to flame.

Mayhap another wife would have roused herself and warmed her husband in return. But I did not.

Oh, do not think I do not desire my lord and husband. As in taking me to wife, he had been both resolute and attentive when first taking me to bed. Well do I remember it. But, well, too, do I recall the fleeting glimpse of grief I saw in his face when his resolve to fulfill his vows at last overcame his reluctance. So swiftly banished it was I would think myself deceived, but too many nights had I to ponder such things.

Even now, in my sleep, I wondered. Should I brush my fingers upon the lids of his eyes and down the line of his nose, or press a kiss to the corner of his mouth where lip and cheek meet, what would my lord make of it? Should I burden him with a yearning he had not wished from me?

It was only later, when the sky lightened upon the far reaches of the mountains, my lord, with caresses and softly whispered words, gentled his wife from her sleep. And indeed, then, was I well warmed.  For once I was fully awake, he forbid I turn to him and instead caught me in a vice between his body and his arms.  One hand between my thighs and the other arm about my head so he could turn my mouth to his, he took his pleasure.  Such was the strength with which he had me pinned, I was then helpless to do aught else but grab upon my lord's hip, and, at his hushed urging, struggle to still my voice.  For, so sharp was the pleasure I took of my lord, a high keening arose from my throat ere I was aware of it.  And so he guarded against the quick ears of his men below stairs and pressed his lips to mine in vain attempt to quiet the sounds I could not help but make.

Were my lord not to leave, I would gladly stay abed as he commands. There I would hoard my memories of the moments ere he rose to dress himself as defense against the days in which his bed was sure to be colder for his absence.  But I dare not follow him down the stairs dressed in no more than my shift when his men sleep about the hearth so close I might trip o’er them. Yet I would see my lord given farewell, no matter the hour of his leaving.

So, I throw a wrap about my shoulders and pay no heed to the sharp look my lord turns upon me. Indeed, a draft runs upon the floor and I shiver ere sitting on the bed-frame and tucking my feet into my shoes.

"Lady," he says, drying himself off, "the bed is warm and you might have yet another hour of sleep ere your day begins. I have all prepared and there is no need for your rising. Will you not stay abed?"

"Aye, my lord." I come about the bed and set aside his shirt, tunic and other gear that lie upon the long chest at its end so I may kneel afore it.

"For what do you search?" he asks and hangs the towel upon its hook when I lift the heavy lid and move aside linens, my wool and linen dresses and his lady mother's silks. I have hidden it well, mayhap too well. By the light of the sole rushlight my lord has lit I can little tell one dark color from another. My hand lights upon silken thread. Ah! There it is!

When I rise with it clutched to my breast, my lord looks upon me, frowning mildly. I find, to my surprise, I greatly enjoy the look of mirth and vexation mixed upon my lord's features and so wish only to draw out the mystery.

"What have you there?" he asks and nods to the bundle of black linen in my hands.

The cloth is yet stiff, though I have washed it after the making in hopes it would soften some. I doubt not a suspicion forms clearly in his mind. He has little need to ask.

"It is your gift in farewell, my lord."

"I would have thought the gift you gave me already this morn enough."

True it is, the gift he had asked of me ere he rose from our bed had been sweet but was not the one I had planned. I had not known the moment I should give it to him, and so had delayed until the last.

"Mayhap, my lord," say I and quell the apprehension that rises swiftly from my belly.

I shake out the folds of the cloth and reveal it to be a man's shirt. I think the shirt he has laid out must be a castoff he begged from another, for the sleeves are too short and the neck does not come to a close as it should. I would not have him wear such a poor thing, but he has clothed himself as he sees fit and I know not his temper should I meddle with it. And then there is this, the making of a man’s clothes is an intimate thing, oft the first gift of bride to her betrothed.  No matter our shared bed, I know not his temper should I tread too near his heart.

My lord frowns and runs a hand upon the fine smocking about the head of the sleeves and his eyes take in the needlework about the neck.

"You crafted this for me, lady?"

"Aye, my lord," I say and, when he yet hesitates, I bite at my lip. "Will you not wear it, my lord?"

"Aye, gladly," says he, his eyes coming up swiftly to mine. Taking it from my hand, he pulls it on o’er his head, settling its length about him and shaking out the sleeves.

With a critical eye, I pull the neck closed, smoothing the placket upon my lord's breast and swiftly knotting its ties ere tugging the cloth upon his shoulders. Aye, it hangs well and the sleeves come down to his knuckles. Should my lord want them shorter, he has but to tie the cords about his wrists. Through all this, I lose sight of my lord, though he watches me silently. The rustle of my hands upon the cloth and the creak of the boards beneath my feet as I move are all I hear.

"Does the fit satisfy you, lady?"

I look up to find my lord gazing upon me, his eyes alight. With that, my hands fly from his shoulders and, I am afraid I blush and drop my eyes as I step back. Mayhap I have been too free with my lord's person.

"Aye, my lord."

"And how did you happen to know its measure?"

I must bite again at my lip without knowing it, for my lord laughs.

"I wondered what was become of it," says he and I know he speaks of the over-worn shirt I stole from his belongings. 'Twas but by its length and breadth I knew to shape my lord's farewell gift to fit him.

"Forgive me, my lord, I should not have taken the liberty of interfering with your belongings."

"Calm yourself, lady," says he and reaches for his tunic and long coat. "I do not regret it. In truth, I had secretly hoped that rag gone for good." He smiles and settles the tunic about him, tying it closed and easing his arms into his coat. "I can repair what I rend in the wearing, but I think it long since had passed beyond my skill."

"My thanks to thee. It is fine and sturdy work, lady," he says and, once he has tied his belt about him, lays his hands upon me, drawing them lightly down my arms.

I lay a soft touch to the line of needlework upon the base of my lord's throat. 'Tis all that can be seen of fine linen and the pleasant working of thread beneath my lord's rough gear. I withdraw my hand.

"I would I had made somewhat for you to wear more warm and less fine, my lord."

"Worry not so," he says gently. "I shall find pleasure in the wearing."

"And now has come the time for me to leave, lady." He lets his hands fall from my arms.

"Aye, my lord," say I, and turn so my lord might pass afore me. I follow his slow stride to the stairs.

"Should you have need, you have but to ask my kin for aid. I leave him here with the charge of your welfare as well as that of the Angle's."

"Aye, my lord."

"And shall you continue to attend the Angle's councils with Halbarad in my absence?"

"As it please you, my lord."

He halts at the head of the stairs and turns swiftly to me, looking upon me with his eyes with their keen light.

"It would please me better should you do it of your own will, lady."

"Aye, my lord. I shall do it," I say and I think him satisfied, for his look softens.

"Very well. Should I not return upon the days of Loëndë, I shall send thee word when to expect me. Will that give you ease, lady?"

"Aye, my lord."

"I take my leave, then, lady, and wish you good health and that the days of waiting may not be a burden upon you."

"My lord," I say and look not into the eyes that bear their grave pity upon me. "May the Valar keep thee in their care. May they guide thy feet upon safe paths and confound the eyes of thine enemies. May they see thee safely home."

And thus was my lord gone again. I saw him not at the days of Loëndë when the folk of the Angle place circlets of flowers upon their children's hair and the air is sweet with their scent, and not soon thereafter, either.

Oft it was thus. My lord came and went from his House, unbidden and unheralded, though never unexpected or unwelcome. Ever great need called him from one end of Eriador to the other. Yet he ever sent word when he would be delayed past what his foresight told upon our parting. And so our lives went. Under sun, wind, rain and snow the seasons swept behind us.

~oOo~

 

Chapter Text

~ Chapter 19 ~

 

There were, however, dwarves on the road in unusual numbers. The ancient East-West Road ran through the Shire to its end at the Grey Havens, and dwarves had always used it on their way to their mines in the Blue Mountains. They were the hobbits’ chief source of news from distant parts – if they wanted any: as a rule dwarves said little and hobbits asked no more. But now Frodo oft met strange dwarves of far countries, seeking refuge in the West. They were troubled, and some spoke in whispers of the Enemy and of the Land of Mordor.

FOTR: The Shadow of the Past

~oOo~

A fluff of raw wool is sharply in focus in the front, backed by more wool in soft focus

~oOo~

~ TA 3009, 21st day of Lótessë:   Eighteen lambs of fourteen ewes.  Most between 3 to 7 marks in weight.  One breech.  Two born small and died soon after. One from a yearling mother but the other aged five years and had strong lamb twins the year afore. One lamb sacrificed to spare the ewe and birth their twin.  No loss of ewes. 

~oOo~

 

Ah, but the wool of my lord's dower is a pleasure to work. Its fibers are long and my hands grow soft for the grease that clings to them. Here in the cool shadows of the shed, I have laid the fleece upon a slatted table and am joined by a granddam of the wandering folk. She clucks and hums as, together, we skirt the last of this spring's shearing, pulling away tags of matted hair about the neck and flanks and plucking dried grasses and dirt from betwixt its fibers. She seems much pleased with the task, newly come as she is to the Angle and newly bereft of her own flock in the journey. I have promised her a lamb from this spring's birthing should she help skirt, wash, and card the fleeces for me.

Late am I in getting to the work come from our shearing, for the cares of the Angle take much of my time. We have wintered well, though our surplus from good harvests past dwindles to naught. In the last, our stores were strained for our ever-increasing numbers, but at the least the management of the granaries is no longer under dispute. For indeed did the Angle decide.

'Twas early last spring, when the sun rose cool and the meadows glittered beneath its light as were it gilt with a fine dust of gold, the folk of the Angle stood beneath the old oak upon the edge of my lord's pasture. And Halbarad, seated in his kin's place, put the question to the hallmoot. 'Tis no longer the custom of the Angle for the Council to decide the apportioning of new land, for the folk of the Dúnedain saw no need for it. What a man worked, he would first share of its yield and then might hold. And should it not cause harm to his fellows, he might build upon the land home and croft. Should contention arise, then they would have the Council intercede, but not afore. A stiff-necked people are the Dúnedain, and I took great pride in them.

For my trust in his impartiality, I assigned Master Herdir the management of the granaries and allowed him day's-work owed my lord's House with which to do it. In his turn, he brought a man of the Wanderers to my lord's hall. He claimed a good measure of understanding of husbandry, and well I believed it. For he looked nigh as wild as the beasts and seemed to prefer their company. He mumbled a few words to me, touching upon his brow oft though never raising his eyes. But I did not protest, for I had seen to the first spring's lambing of my own and found myself nodding to sleep in the midst of Councils and laying my head upon my sewing table for what I hoped was a simple moment of rest only to awaken deep in the night. Glad was I my lord late in his return, for I could get naught done and feared, even should he wish to turn his attentions to me, I would fall deep into slumbers in the midst of it.

True to his word, come the summer and through the fall, the wandering woodsman shepherded the flock, moving them from pasture to pasture ere the land grew wild with thistle for their love of the less prickly grasses, and filled their rick with hay for them to eat and lay straw upon the floor for their bed come the winter. He would baa at the ewes and they would bleat back, his favorites trotting about behind him when he visited them in the barnyard, but I have yet to learn his name. He came to take on the care of sheep, whatever horse might bring visitors to the House, and a small herd of pigs that arrived with much mystery and he sent beneath the eaves of the wood to root for acorns. In return, he ate of the food prepared for his lord's table and was given, for his good, sturdy clothing, fuel for his hearth, and grain, butter, and greens for his pantry. For my good, I offered him a bath ere every second day of rest.

And thus my lord's House increased and prospered. He would return to it, ever and anon, worn, dirty and far too thin for my taste. And then the hall would ring with the voices of his men, oft until the deep hours of the night. When he was home, my lord and I settled into a routine, I tending to the house and its people, he seeing to the needs of the Angle or in councils with his Rangers. When not out of doors my lord was much occupied in their reports and ordering their coming and going. And when the weather permitted, he supervised the men in the clearing of the grounds of brush and weeds and upkeep of the sheds. Oft, he himself would bend to the task. My lord's mood is much improved by the sense of purpose and his sleep much improved by the labor.

I saw little of my lord during the day, but our evens we spent together in the hall while Halbarad and his men were about. Most oft, when the even’s meal was cleared away and the bread was set to rise for the morning, I joined my lord in the hall for our last hours and there, for the sake of my own sleep, attempted to forget what I had left undone. There I spun my wool afore the hearth, the spindle dangling above the floor as the roving fed the thin threads. Were I not spinning, I tackled the tedious work of re-establishing the sheds of my loom, tugging at the warp and retying the jangling weights until I could lift the heddle rod and the warp pulled away evenly.

My lord oft rested himself as I worked. He lay upon a bench by the fire, flat upon his back with his hair falling from his brow and hand clutching his clay pipe to his breast. There, he stared for long hours at the play of firelight upon the ceiling and sent thin streams of smoke into the rafters. His thoughts played across his face, some so grim that a fell fire kindled deep within his eyes, some so bleak I marveled that he did not weep, and others so merry that I could not help but smile myself. He told me naught of them.  I suppose the habit of silence in a Ranger is hard to break.

In our silence, I heard each creak of protesting wood as he shifted his weight upon the bench and crackle of burning leaf when he drew hard upon his pipe. Surely, too, he heard the warp weights chiming as small, dull bells and the clatter of the wood of the heddle rod upon its supports. At times, I looked up across the fire to find I had drawn my lord's gaze. He would watch as I first set the spindle to whirring and then my fingers meet above it only to pull apart and turn fluffs of wool into a spider's web. He attended as would a small child, enchanted into silence by its simple, repetitive magic. These times were within my mind's reach. But, other times, I would find his eyes upon me, his face grave. He watched not what I was doing, but he looked upon me. These times I knew not his mind and wondered what lay in his thoughts.

But I soon came to learn the signs of his thoughts when they turned to leaving. A certain tightening of the mouth and a distant shadow in his eyes, and I knew he would soon take his farewell, reassuming the cares of his people upon shoulders.

Once the House broke of its fast this morn, I made my way to the open shed where housed the flock. There I found the spring's lambs in a softly heaving huddle of wool, piled as they were one atop the other to best sleep within the spill of light. Their mothers stood about them, scattered through the low shed with their eyes shuttered and ears swept back in contentment, worrying at their cud. They shall soon weary of being penned and shall bleat and hang about the gate. But I dare not set them to pasture just yet.

Water drips from where wool hangs in a hammock of thin linen, there drying after its washing, the faint sound of bleating of lambs and answering calls of their mothers comes distantly through the wall, and our feet scuff lightly upon the hard dirt as we circle the table. Just beyond the shade in which we work, the world is bright and green, and a squirrel barks from the overhanging limbs of the chestnut tree. I pluck at a burr, worrying it out of the fleece.

"Have you made your choice of lamb yet, Mistress?"

"Ah, that I have not, my lady," the old woman says and shakes her fingers free of clinging fibers. "For have you not more ewes to give birth?"

I smile. "So you would have the whole field from which to choose, then?"

"Aye, of course, my lady," she says, her eyes shine when she looks upon me. "Though, no matter its sires, I have no doubt it will be the lamb that makes free to sniff out my hands and suffers me to lay them upon its back that will make my decision for me."

"My lady?"

When I look up it is to find a youth in Ranger's clothing just beyond the shade of the shed. He it is the son of one of my lord's men whom Halbarad has taken in to train in his father's stead. He ducks his head to peer beneath the thatch. He has bitten his nails down to the quick and now fingers the hilt of his sword. Beyond him I see Master Bachor.

The old woman returns to her work, the grasses and twigs not occupying her nigh so much as cutting her eyes at the man who stands behind the youth with an air of studied patience.

"Master Bachor prays he might have a word with you, my lady, and Elesinda begs I tell you Master Dwalin has arrived and awaits you in the hall," the youth says.

It seems he might have more to say, but Master Bachor, declining to wait my permission, pushes past him with a determined smile. The thatch rustles as he lifts it aside and enters. The youth is none so sure of the man's forwardness, I think, for, though he steps a pace away, he eyes Master Bachor warily and lingers where he may yet watch.

"Good morrow, Mistress," Master Bachor says to the granddam and smiles upon her. She nods in return though her hands never leave off her work.

It is then he turns to me and, with a soft smile, says, “It is good to see thee so well, Sister.” The mistress’ glance flicks from Master Bachor to me.

At this, my spine has stiffened as had it been made of cold iron.   He may think he has caught me in as fine a trap as could be made, here under the eye of the folk of the Angle, but I am no child to be ensnared by smug smiles and honeyed words.  I do not sell my good graces for so thin a price.

“Can you finish here?” I ask the mistress.

“Aye,” she says and shuffles into Master Bachor in her round about the slatted table, so he must back away to allow her freedom to do her work.  He seems not to mind but returns my glare with a look as resolute as my own.

“Would you walk me to the house, Master Bachor?” I ask, and he inclines his head and motions me forward. 

A step, two, and three we take in silence, he courteously by my side and me scrubbing at my hands with my apron. 

“I am not your sister, Master Bachor.  Do not refer to me as such,” I say once we are clear of the shed and Halbarad’s youth has taken up his place beyond where our shadows lengthen behind us. 

“No?” he asks, his voice deliberately mild.  “You once called me brother.”

“That time is long past,” I say, to which he purses his lips and nods grimly, as had he expected to hear as much.  And ‘tis true, we had not parted on good terms when last I stood afore his hearth.    

I think him done, then, for our silence is broken only by the thrash of grasses against our boots as we walk. 

“And so, you continue to bear me ill will.”

“I bear you naught that is not well-earned.”

At this, he stops of a sudden and turns to me, all pretense at polite indifference abandoned as his mouth works to contain what might spill forth and he shakes his head. 

“I loved her, Nienelen,” he says and somewhat sad and fierce passes briefly in his eyes.

“But not enough.”

“That is a lie!”

“Is it?”

“Your sister was not one to be easily gainsayed, and you know it.”

“She would have denied you nothing!”

“I did not ask it of her.  She would have it – “

“You knew how ill she was when she lost your first,” I hiss. “You knew she was not to quicken so early after, but you would not leave her alone.”

“She would have it no other way!” he shouts, throwing wide his hands. “Forgive me, Nienelen, I loved her, but your sister would never permit anyone to alter her path once her mind was set.  Even you, she would ever have in her shadow, for –“

“You forget yourself, sir!”

I find I cannot draw in breath fast enough, my breast heaving as had I run the distance instead of walked. Tears prick at my eyes, but I will not permit them to fall.  He, in turn, has turned away, and rubs mightily at his face ere drawing his hands from brow to the tips of the dark curls that lay about his shoulders.  I doubt not that he has caught sight of the youth, his sword, and his terrified but grim look.

“Forgive me, my lady,” he says, when done.

Here he lowers his voice, though not its intensity in tone. He stabs at the earth beneath my feet as he speaks.

“I had a wife, and she was young and fair and I would have plumbed the depth of the ancient seas to find the last Silmaril had she asked it of me. And aye, she and the babe she carried died untimely.  Yet I was not allowed the care of her body nor the selection of her resting place among our dead.  You had a hand in that.  I know it.”

He draws a great breath ere continuing.  “So, forgive me, my lady, unlike the other men of the Council, I will not make the mistake of underestimating you.”

I shake so that I know not were my feet yet planted upon the good green earth or should the warmth of the sun yet shine upon me.

“Speak to Master Dwalin,” he says, stepping back. “Once you have heard what he has to say, mayhap my lady would reconsider her stubbornness and we could lay aside our differences for the good of the Angle.  Should you wish to speak to me of somewhat other than revisiting old wounds between us, I would welcome you again in my house.”

With that, he turns and leaves me in the midst of the tall grass upon my lord’s pasture, to make my own way to the house.

My arms had come of themselves to cross upon my breast and I must release their hold by an effort of will.  I fumble at the ties binding my apron about my middle as I walk, and I must rip at them.  They fly with the effort and their knotted ends whip about and land with stinging blows upon my arms.  Still I walk and beat my apron into folds against my thighs. 

Long had their betrothal been, and merry had been the feast of their marriage.  The table had groaned with a roast pig piled high with oranges, lemons, and sugared figs from the south, and Dorwinian wines from the east, for the groom had spared no expense in the pursuit of his bride.  She had laughed and seen it for what it was but loved him for it all the same. They plied each other with wine and sweets and dancing until the heady mix of drink and thoughts of the night afore them collapsed them into one chair together.  There they tasted more of each other than the food set afore them.

And yet, for all the joy at its beginning, their marriage was come to this. 

As I had not accepted his invitation of place among his kin when my father died and I was left bereft of role and support, I am unsure what would make me take up his offer now. 

Glad am I that I had yet some distance to walk to myself.  I have a duty to perform in the service my lord.  I would not bring my grief to my lord’s hall and I dare not make him a cold welcome, so dependent are we on my guest. 

And so, when I come into the hall through the great door, the sight of the dwarf pacing easily about my hearth is as a soothing balm. There Elesinda lays meat upon the grill and he sniffs deeply of its smoke, a cup of ale clutched in his blunt fingers. The dwarf's eyes alight upon the table, chairs, windows, hangings, hearth and Elesinda tending to our meal above it, and a finely woven hood dangles from his hand afore him. I smile to see the clear green of its cord that I thought would compliment his hair so well. The smell of cooking meat is thick in the air and by the contentment upon his face, he seems to enjoy it.

"Master Dwalin!" I call as I stride into the hall and then halt to give him full greeting. He turns about swiftly and a smile comes upon his face so I see naught but the dark points of his eyes. "Welcome and well met!" say I. "It warms my heart to see you again."

"Ah! Lady Nienelen, a blessing upon your House and those who dwell therein." His hood dangles about his knees when he bows.

"Come!" I offer him a seat at my lord's table where he might be comfortable. "I see Elesinda has drawn you ale, will you not join me?"

"Naught would give me greater pleasure, my lady," he says, laying aside his hood upon the bench.

He seems to have passed the inspection of my young guard who followed me into the hall. The youth sits himself down upon a bench by the door, there to lean against the wall and remain watchful. I think mayhap he has taken Halbarad's instruction too greatly to heart, for he speaks not and shall not take even the cup of ale Elesinda offers him. And I know from past days, he will not sup with us, but take a plate and eat of it where he sits.

"I trust your journeys have given you no great hardship, Master Dwalin."

There we settle at the table and Elesinda comes with fresh linens and a bowl of water infused with the clean scent of vervain. For, by the smell rising from the hearth, our meal is nigh ready.

"Aye, well, we have had a few brushes with peril, my lady, --" says the dwarf. "Ah, my thanks to you, young miss." This last he says to Elesinda who, as he is our guest, offers him first use of the water. He plunges his fingers in the bowl, speaking all the while. "-- as you will have should you travel upon the open road these days. But, should your lord be kind in his aid, most of our goods shall see their way to the Blue Mountains, and our folk, too."

"Aye, he left instruction for your safe passage," I say. The bowl now comes to me and I am glad to wash away the grease and bits of pasture clinging to a sheep's coat.

"Good!" he exclaims and finishes wiping at his hands. "I am much relieved to hear it. I feared the Shadow had laid its hand on your folk so heavy you'd not have the men for it."

Indeed, we can little spare them, but I know not whether it ill to say too much of our dependence upon the dwarf's trade or too little. For the dwarves who journey from mountain to mountain are our only source of much we ourselves cannot produce. Iron, copper and other metals we have little of. Salt we have none. We own no mines of any sort, and little means of carting what we need from the salt marshes of Harlond. Oh, we could do without the rest, the fine threads, the ornamented combs, the strange spices, the heavy Dorwinion wines, and the lighter wines from the south, but have we no salt the curing of our meats becomes greatly uncertain. Should we lack for it, more of our fall's slaughter might spoil over the winter than we might wish.

"It would be neither to your good nor ours to fail of your care. We are but an island upon the Wild, Master Dwalin, and you our bridge."

"Aye, well," he says, looking away. "Your Lord has always treated us fair."

At that, Elesinda lays the joint of meat upon the table, where it is swiftly joined by bread, wooden bowls of sharp-tasting cress and a pottage of rye and mushroom topped with a musty cheese. Were it not an insult, I would laugh at my guest, for he looks upon the meal as it were a dragon's hoard and the beast itself but newly vanquished.

"My lady," he begins and then falters. "You are too kind."

"And the road too lean, I take it."

"Oh, my lady, you do not know the half of it! Mile upon mile of eating cram and the dust from beneath our ponies' hooves!"

I laugh. "I hope you will find the fare at this table more to your taste, then, Master Dwalin."

"I have great hopes of it, my lady."

With that he tucks into the meal with a fair amount of fervor. And I have not the heart to distract him with my speech, nor make him put his mouth to aught use other than eating. But, as I eat, I find I cannot help but examine my guest's beard for the minute interweaving of braids.  They weave beneath his chin to end in tassels of hair bound by beads of finely worked gold.  Their paths baffle me.

‘Tis not until Elesinda has cleared away the last of our meal, and Master Dwalin wipes at his mouth and sighs, I have gathered enough courage to speak of it.

"You have changed your beard, Master Dwalin."

"Ah, what is that? Oh, aye," he says and his face colors above his beard, the hair of which is a dark red thinned to a lighter hue by much white.

I think mayhap I have, in my stumbling, given grave offense to a son of Durin, for the dwarf's fingers come up to smooth the hairs about his lips and chin and he looks away.

"Forgive me, sir, I should not have made so free."

"Ah, Lady, ‘tis naught. Do not fret so. None but another dwarf would know the meaning of the braids and need not ask. For, you see, Lady, I have got myself married."

"You have?"

"Aye, indeed, and a stout heart she is to bear with my absences. She waits for my return to the Blue Mountains.  There we shall take up our lives together."

Naught of well-wishes and compliments do I think to give, so stunned am I. "Why! Master Dwalin!"

"Look here," he says, stirring to sudden movement. "I shall show you the way of it!" He casts about the room. "Have you any twine or scraps of aught you can spare?"

"A moment, good sir."

Rising swiftly from the table, I rummage through the basket beneath my loom and pull from it bobbins of yarns of differing hues. From what I offer, he measures lengths of the yarn, choosing his colors carefully and running them from thumb to nose, and then gives them an expert tug to snap the wool asunder.

"See here, now," he says, tying their ends together. "You need at least four good lengths. I shall show you with six, a right goodly number, I say."

I lean in and soon our heads incline together o’er his hands. His eyes are brightly twinkling points of light above his cheeks as first he looks upon me and then upon the threads.

"Or eight will do. My cousin Orlin can make a beautiful strap the size of your waist with naught but a dozen strips of leather. Just so long as you have an even number, mind! One to weft and the odd remainder for your warp. See? Thusly!"

His thick fingers make short work of the weaving and I watch intently. He speaks as he works, and I come to know much of the hidden meaning of the craft, the status and age of dwarf as knotted in his own beard and what designs distinguish dwarf maiden from matron. My guest is the most ardent of craftsmen.

I scowl at the yarn and turn my head to better see its path. "How do you keep the edge from turning upon itself and twisting?"

"It is easy enough. See here!"

He thrusts the bundle into my hands and I am put to winding the yarns about themselves to the pattern he had set. It is easier than I thought, for it mimics the weaving as were it upon the loom, but warp becomes weft and, in but one pass, weft winds to warp again.

"There, Lady, now you have the hand for it." Master Dwalin looks most pleased in his pupil and I smile for it. "Braid your husband's beard with this pattern," he says, beaming and tapping the table loudly with his broad forefinger, "and he shall know himself the envy of every man he meets."

I think of the futility of tugging upon the short hairs of my lord's beard and burst into laughter. "I think not, Master Dwalin!"

"Bah!" he says, catching my meaning and waving the notion away. "I do not understand Men! Why a man should shave the hair from his face so that he may appear as one of the Elves! Were you to ask me, lady, I should say, 'Fah!'" Here he makes a loud dismissive noise. "Let the Elves have their smooth cheeks! Would you know the real character of a man? You can tell it by his beard!"

"Ah! Well! Listen to me!" he says and settles back from where he had leaned excitedly o’er the table. "I have taken more of your time than I ought, Lady."

"And I should return to my folk," he goes on and rises from the bench. "They are sure to have done with their business."

And for a reason I knew not yet, he looked suddenly old and more than a little tired standing there and awaiting my farewell.

"I understand, sir Dwarf, though I regret you leaving so soon."

I rise with him and accompany him slowly to the great door. The youth is gone, for Elesinda had begged his aid carrying the kettle out of door where she might empty it.

"Is that my packet, Lady?" He nods to a bundle of oiled parchment sitting upon the chest by the door.

"Indeed." I take it up and hold it for a moment. "We rely much upon your kindliness, Master Dwalin," I say, for he does seem sorrowful and reluctant to leave, and I would give him reassurance.

And indeed we do rely upon him, for in the bundle are letters to our kin who settled in the lands about the Blue Mountains, of whom we have only word through Master Dwalin's generous conveyance of our writing as he passes back and forth across the Angle.

"Aye, well, Lady, there we come to it," he says and sighs. "Aye, I would not disappoint you, were it in my power. Ever have you and your House treated generously with us. Like as not, we would have abandoned the East-West route long ago were it not for the watchfulness and aid of your lord. But, it seems we come to an end of our travel upon the wider lands."

For a long moment it seems I do not comprehend plain speech, for his words make no sense to me. And then, they do, and my hearts sinks as a stone beneath cold waters.

"I am very sorry to hear that." And indeed I am, for my joy at his visit has drained from me.

"'Tis perilous, the road, as of late," he says and I hear, more clearly now, his quiet grief. "We have lost folk along the way. 'Twas just baggage we lost, afore. Your men, Lady, see to our safety once we come to the summit of the Misty Mountains, but their authority allows them no further down the pass upon the opposite side. Glad we are of their numbers, for we require their aid. But we cannot ask it of you to protect us where you do not go, yourselves. And I can no longer ask it of my folk, nor my wife."

Ai! What words could I possible use to counter such an argument.

"I regret I shall not see you again, Master Dwalin."

"Lady, I –," he begins and then halts. Forbearing speech, he then takes my hand and, having learned the custom at some point in his travels, bows gravely o’er it.

When he has released me, I offer the folded package. "Would you be so good as to take this one last time for me?"

"Aye, Lady, gladly." He lifts it from my hands and, with a little effort, it disappears into some dark fold inside his tunic.

"Shall you want your usual fee, Master Dwalin?" I ask, for I had prepared yet another hood made of bright and sturdy wool for him.

"No, Lady," he says. "Keep it and remember me kindly, should you will it."

I bow and then there is no more to say.

He, I watch until well and truly gone. ‘Tis no wonder, then, Master Bachor, merchant and trader of both the finer things that fills the appetites of the folk of the Angle and the necessities that keep them fed and in comfort of body, would brave my displeasure to speak. Much of his mind, and his thought behind his increase in lands and the number of folk under his call in these past years, I think, becomes clearer.  I am unsure how he knew it, but I doubt not he had long anticipated just this moment and would not suffer the loss of his status.

~oOo~

 

Chapter Text

~ Chapter 20 ~

 

'Him?' said the landlord in an answering whisper, cocking an eye without turning his head. 'I don't rightly know. He is one of the wandering folk – Rangers we call them. He seldom talks: not but what he can tell a rare tale when he has the mind. He disappears for a month, or a year, and then he pops up again.

FOTR:  At the Sign of the Prancing Pony

~oOo~

Hot water steams from a great wood tub, over which is laid a board holding a simple meal

~oOo~

~ 3009, 7th day of Urimë :  Three parts hot water poured upon well burnt wood ash and strained thrice, boiled until reduced and thick, then cooled.  Add one part well-beaten beef tallow and sheep’s milk simmered with pummeled bay leaf and strained, and a little wheat flour, and stir very well.  Let them cook to thickness.  Work with a little spade for up to four days.

~oOo~

 

I walk down the stairs, my fingers busy in my hair, twining the last of its sections into a braid. The sun rises dimly behind a screen of low clouds, but my feet know the way. In my mind I organize the day. The afternoon, it is clear, will be dedicated to thorny questions of how to convince the Council to yet again build more granaries and to forebear from eating all our harvest, for Halbarad has gone a-ranging upon the northern border of the Angle and shall not attend, and we come swiftly upon the year's harvest. Ah, mayhap I worry needlessly, but I have no way of knowing when they see reason easily and when the jostling among them for position will deafen their ears.

I would have time, too, to consider the problem that is Master Sereg.  Aye, there is little discussed at the Council that does not make its way to the ears of the Angle.  And so, much has been made of my defiance of the Council in the giving of my father’s house, as too, much is known of Master Bachor’s concerns about its role in increasing the House’s power.

For I came upon Master Sereg yestermorn, there upon the market square at the days dawning.  There he stood among cotters, women, and younger sons.  Angle-born and wandered to it, alike, they held no land and awaited those who needed extra hands for the day’s labor.  Our folk increase and many lack a pledgeholder to assign their work to them.  And so, should a ploughman or virgater chance upon them, they arose and crowded about him, raising their voices and calling out their willingness. This morn, they jostled against each other and when Master Sereg pushed to the fore, it was to be shoved back by Ploughman Gworon.

“Have you not had enough of the Angle’s fortune?” I heard called.

Ai!  I am much acquainted with Master Gworon.  He and his kin alone, apart from Master Bachor and his house, and I and my sister, with our dark skin and eyes bore the signs of descent from the wandering clans, though his connection was further distant than ours.  We were much thrown together as children for it.  It seems he resented it.  And, after some time, I am afraid to say, we came to resent him in our turn. 

I know not would it have come to blows, for they stilled at my voice.

“Enough of this!”   

Those most close by fell still and turned.  Their silence spread as a ring through the crowd until I felt every eye upon me and the youth of the Rangers assigned to his lord’s wife’s safety stepped to my side.  He swallowed so thickly I could hear it. 

“What is this?”

I received little by way of reply, for none would meet my eye, but stared at their feet with varying looks of shame and resentment.  ‘Twas not until Master Sereg spoke was the silence broken.

“’Twas naught, my lady,” he said. “You should not trouble yourself.”

He could not fail to see my disbelief, for he had delivered his plea in a flat voice and his eyes darted to the men aside him as he spoke. 

“Truly, my lady,” he went on. “’Twas my own clumsiness that is at fault.  I am but ashamed for having caused you distress.” 

I could do naught, it seemed, but leave him to his answer, though it did little to satisfy either him, the men about him, or myself.  For I have since learned this was not the first of such happenings and, though they give aid when they can, even few among his own wandering folk were willing to be seen much beside him for the quarrel his very presence drew.

These things, then, I must address, and soon, for the hallmoot shall come upon us all too swiftly.  And then yet another family bereft of home and seeking the solace of the Angle has come among us.  I have also to find shelter for them and can only hope it shall not cause them as much dismay as I have caused Master Sereg.

But, for now, the morning is my own. The loom stands empty in the hall, the weights gathered into their basket, for I tied off the rugs the even afore. A field of green leaves fenced in red and blue knotwork, they are. When the winds chill and the sun dims, I shall hang them o’er the shutters there, and I think the solar shall be the warmer for it.  But now, they hang upon the solar wall, tickling my fingers with its thick wool as I brushed my hand upon it when I washed and prepared for the day. 

Mayhap I shall dress the loom and begin another while I may yet enjoy the quiet of the house. A field of woad-blue the color of a summer’s even, mayhap? Silver-gray for the star of the Dúnedain about its border to lie beneath my lord's feet and keep them warm when he sits? Mayhap a runner of linen of the same color for the table above? A long length of blue with stars upon the ends as they hang o’er the table's edge or shall they cluster about the middle? How many stars? Arthedain, Rhudaur, and Cardolan, aye, but to include the Southkingdom or no? Ah, the politics of such simple things. Mayhap it would be best to invoke the stars of the heavens than those of the lands below them.

So caught up in my thoughts am I that when the hall opens out about me I pause and blink at the unexpected sight. My lord is returned, but such is his state my soft footsteps have not wakened him. He lies curled upon his side upon the cushioned bench by the hearth, his cloak wrapped about him, sleeping heavily with his head resting on the crook of his arm. His gear lies scattered about him on the floor where he cast himself upon its surface, not waiting even to lay aside his knife, pull his boots from his feet, or draw his cloak from off his shoulders. Only his sword hangs secured in its place on the wall, carefully unbuckled from his belt. One look at the arm that lies tightly bound and tucked against his breast and I find my day planned for me.

I twist my hair into roll at the nape of my neck and wrap my scarf o’er it all while I pad softly across to the buttery. There I lift the cauldron from its hook, holding the handle upright so that it will not bang against the pot and ring like a bell. Though he sleeps deeply, my lord, of a habit, wakes easily at the slightest noise. Only when I have all prepared do I re-enter the hall, the cauldron swinging from my hand.

He has not moved, but, though I take care to make as little noise as I can, when I lay aside the turves and stir the ashes to awaken the fire, my lord draws in a swift breath and rises from where he lies. He sits clasping the edge of the bench to steady himself, his eyes wary until he comes to see me and the hall in which he collapsed.

"Thy House welcomes thee home, my lord," I say and turn aside to lay kindling upon the hearth.

He rubs at his face and greets me solemnly. "Lady."

Tongues of flame lick greedily at the wood as I lay the logs upon them. My lord gazes at the fire but moves little. When I stand, his eyes follow me, but he says naught. He holds his frame with the tension of a bowstring drawn just ere the arrow is to be loosed. I do not doubt his arm pains him greatly, for, lying heavily in its sling, its bones are most like to be broken.

"My lord," I say, and he gives me a look of weary query.

"You are home. Will you not rest?"

I move swiftly to the settle along the wall. I am surprised he did not lay himself down there, for it is the more comfortable, having a full mattress thick-stuffed with wool and goose down. But mayhap not, as it is new to the hall and in the night he would not have known it for what it was.

"Have you broken your fast, my lord?" I call o’er my shoulder.

"No."

Knowing he cannot see my face, my lips have pressed themselves into a thin line. Taking up the pillow from the settle, I drop it to his bench. He watches silently as I kneel afore him, pull at his laces and tug at his heel to lift his foot, his face grave.  Should it not do very little to lift his mood, I would sigh at the state of his foot.  I doubt not his hose long abandoned for the holes he wore into them, and his foot is now raw in places where his boot rubbed against it. 

"I think I shall take it as a compliment of my cooking, then, that you would hoard your hunger until you return home, my lord," I say and toss one boot to the end of the bench, smiling up at his face.

A ghost of a smile teases his lips. "Yes, now I do recall it, that must have been my reason."

"And what would my lord request to eat now he is returned?" The second boot drops to the floor and he lifts his feet, stretching out upon the bench.

"Whatever the lady has to hand," he says and lets out a long breath, "so long as it is hot." He has already pressed his face into the pillow and closes his eyes.

Kneeling there, I allow myself one moment to look at him. My lord has fallen quickly into a light drowse. Not only has he not eaten, I doubt he allowed himself much rest in the last days of his journey. Though I long to draw a hand along his shoulder and press a kiss onto his unshaven cheek to seal his welcome home, to do so would only rouse him. It is enough that I must move about in the hall to make things prepared, so I let him lie.

He stirs little as I draw and heat water upon the hearth and set a pipkin of rolled grain, apples, honey and sheep's milk to simmering, but when the water begins to boil and I roll the great barrel tub from the buttery, his eyes open and he rises from his sleep. He rubs his face and seems to gather himself ere thrusting up from the bench and slowly walking through the buttery and out the back of the hall. When he returns, I have filled the bath with well water and am pouring in the contents of the cauldron. A screen protects the tub from the cool outdoor air and from view of the door and windows, reflecting the heat of the hearth back onto the bather.

He is quiet, already fumbling with the ties of his cloak and belt without comment as I stir the water with my hand, testing its warmth.

"Your bath is ready, my lord," I say as I walk to pick up his gear. "I shall heat more water, should you wish."

He nods and moves behind the screen where I can but see the crown of his head.

"Elesinda shall start the laundry once you are done, my lord," I say, having caught her earlier and set her to milking the ewes where she will have no need to come indoors. I have gone to his pack and am unlashing his blanket as I speak. "Should you throw me your things, I will have them added."

My only answer is the flight of his tunic, followed soon by shirt, breeches, and braes. I shake my head in amusement only to halt at the ragged edge of my lord's blanket where he cut it with his knife. I thought the cloth of his sling a familiar one, and now I know from whence he had obtained it. Ah well, as it is, the wool has nigh worn through in great patches, its usefulness near at an end. I gather up my lord's discarded clothes in what is left of his blanket and draw the corners into a loose knot. As I do so I hear my lord's long sigh from where he lowers himself into the water.

~oOo~

I bear my lord's meal and my feet stumble in my stride. It is all I can do to stifle the exclamation that comes upon my lips. My lord turns his head to look upon me at the sound. His back, side, and arm are one great bruise; purple, blue, and black. His knuckles are raw, and a multitude of scratches mars the skin of his neck where his clothing gave him no protection.

I set the board across the tub and he takes up his spoon. I forbear from brushing my fingers upon his bruised skin, though a small, soft sound of anger and dismay must have escaped from me, for my lord speaks.

"I do what I must, lady," he says and, turning away, takes up a large spoonful of the sweet pottage. "It was a fall, in truth," he says wryly once he has swallowed and turns to his ale.

"From what, my lord, the tip of Silvertine?" I ask and then halt for the forwardness of my tongue. Yet, I am rewarded with a soft snort.

"Not quite, luckily." My lord's eyes twinkle at me o’er his cup. "Though mayhap not far from it."

I think, now, my lord must grow to enjoy vexing me, for, when I leave him to his bath and scoop up his bundle of soiled clothing, the cluck of my tongue serves only to make him smile.

When I return to the hall, he has finished his quick meal and lifted the board from the bath. He eases his sling about his neck and leans back against the side of the tub. There he sips at his ale, and, should the tub have been of greater size, should soon to slip into slumber, so weary is he.

With me I bring linens, clean and new clothing, a cloth to replace his sling, and a cake of green soap.  At the sound of my boots upon the stone floor approaching him, my lord slips against the side of the tub where he is propped and jerks awake.  He shakes his head to clear his thoughts and makes to take a small square of linen from me.

"Come, now, lady," he says with some impatience when I hesitate to surrender it. "I have traveled through the Hills of the Fells and the moors to get here, and all with the use of but one hand. I think I may just be able to bathe myself."

"Oh, aye, my lord," I say and, laying aside the linens, sink to kneeling beside the tub. "I doubt it not. But I would think, too, the going was difficult. I cannot see how you could have kept to the Road in such a state, for fear of what eyes may see you thus. And I cannot see how you could have found much sleep for the pain and much to eat without the use of both hands."

At this, my lord looks upon me with somewhat of surprise, and then lays his knuckles in a brief touch upon my cheek.  His face softens, and by this I know he will submit.

"Two years it has been and yet I deem you still unused to the comforts a wife would give. Forgive me, my lord, but mayhap you have not given it your full effort."

My lord leans forward in the tub and huffs a sharp laugh. "’Tis not what Halbarad says."

"Aye, well, my lord, you know not the simple pleasures he seeks while you are gone." I set to rolling up my sleeves. "I am fair surprised the man has not grown fat for all his love of sweets."

My lord chuckles and the sound echoes against the side of the tub. "’Twas always so, lady, yet I think he had not had the chance to indulge it so oft afore."

I smile, for I know now Halbarad is sure to be sorely teased by his kin. Aye, my lord is a lean man, and none so lacking in fat as when he first returns home. Ah, he has his own tooth for sweets, but best loves the savory tastes of sausages and hard ale. I have found a dish of smoked fish, soft goat's cheese, garlic and other herbs that he will spread upon toasted bread, eat until it is gone, and then scrape at the corners of the pot with bits of the bread. All manner of pottage, fresh green things, and roots he eats well and with much eagerness. I lack only a manner of serving pease to my lord that he finds pleasing.

I lower the soap into the water beside my lord and lather the wet cloth with it. The bath is hot and a gentle steam rises to settle against my cheek. I begin with his back, scrubbing at the tender flesh gently. He sways a little under my hands, his loose hair slowly coming to hang o’er the water's surface. Should he allow it, mayhap I shall trim his hair of their ragged ends. At the moment, my lord seems content with the heat of the water against bruised flesh and so I lay the cloth upon his shoulder. The spice of bay leaves mingles with the sweet scent of sheep’s milk rising from the cloth.

"Did you make the soap, lady?" he asks, his voice thick with gathering sleep.

"Elesinda and I." I refresh the warmth of the cloth from his bath and lay it again upon him.

"The smell is pleasing."

"I thought it might be easier to endure your kinsman's teasing should you not also smell of lavender, my lord."

He smiles at the thought and his voice sharpens. "Tis very kind of you, lady."

When I have done with his back, my lord shifts in the tub, the water squabbling softly along its sides as he moves. He lifts his chin and I take to washing his neck and breast. Between us two, we complete the bath, he lifting his arm aside and I lathering him with soap. The water bubbles against the rim of a pitcher as I lower it in the bath.

"Will you tell me of what has passed in the Angle?"

When I raise both eyes and pitcher, I find my lord looks upon me, his eyes clear of his drowse.

"Is there a reason you would not wish to tell of it?" he asks when I do not speak.

"No, my lord," I say and tip the pitcher so I may pour water upon him. "I know not what you would wish to hear."

"I would hear told whatever you wish to say, lady."

I wipe at soap that lingers beneath his arm, considering. "Did you hear aught of Melethron and his wife, Berel?"

"No," my lord says and frowns. "What of them?"

"She is with child again."

"Another?" he exclaims. "How many have they now? Six? Seven?"

"This last makes eight, my lord."

He lets loose a fond huff of laughter. "Melethron shall be insufferable."

I smile in return. "Indeed he shall, my lord." And, I think further, his house in happy chaos.

I lather his arm when my lord speaks again. "I would know more of your efforts for the House. The ledgers I gave you, you keep them still?"

"Aye, my lord."

"Would you show them to me, then?" he asks and I nod, but keep myself much occupied with pouring water where I have washed. Ai! They are well-kept, my books. I have not that to fear but have done much without my lord's knowing and I worry what he may make of it.

The hall falls quiet, and the fire snaps, sending a plume of smoke into the air and the water chimes softly as I refill the pitcher. He has washed his face and I pour the water upon his upturned brow.

He wipes at his closed eyes and cheeks, and then sighs. "Have you been comfortable here?"

"Aye, my lord. Your kinsman takes good care of me."

Since the breaking of the cold weather, Halbarad has taken to journeying atimes upon the lands about the Angle, seeing personally to its safety where once he had other men on which to rely. Still, when e'er he leaves, he would not have me be alone and assigns another as my guard.

"I have no complaints, my lord." And he nods in reply, his look content. "Shall I wash your hair, my lord?"

He leans o’er the water by way of answer and I refill the pitcher. His hair darkens and falls straight and long about his neck, moving softly with the warm water as I pour. I then roll the soap in my hands and lather his hair. His eyes are closed and I think his thoughts distant until he speaks again.

"How do you find Halbarad?"

"He has been attentive, my lord, guarding my person and your lands and folk, as is needed." His head rocks gently beneath the pressure of my fingers at his scalp.

"And how is this seen?"

A delicate question. It holds within it both inquiry and warning. Of note, he speaks not to realities, though I am unsure how I thought he would not be well acquainted with his kinsman’s inclinations.  Natheless, my lord has no freedom to take the perception of impropriety lightly, no matter what he knows to be truth. By necessity, he will brook no question of the paternity of his heirs. True, Halbarad is much in my company and I feel a fondness for the tall, quiet Ranger who shadows my steps, but I lack the feeling for him that this man who sits compliant under my hands evokes within me.

My lord opens his eyes at my silence, and frowns when my thoughts quirk my lips.

"They have taken to calling him Huan," I say.

At that, my lord throws back his head and laughs loud and long, his mirth writ large upon his face. It warms my heart to see him at ease at last, and I smile.  My hands, full of soap as they are, rest upon the edge of the tub.

When he quiets, my lord asks, his face alight with mischief, "And, lady, shall you take your Great Hound of Valinor with you into the market tomorrow? For fain would I see their faces and know, for once, what they whisper behind their hands when I have passed."

"Nay, my lord, not when I have Beren to keep me company," I say lightly and smile upon him.

Then, with a shock, I wish to have caught my words ere they had slipped into the air between us. So taken with the joy that lights his face am I, I have become careless. His lips yet smile, but their curve is sorrowful and his eyes above them are pensive and dark. Ai! I am a fool! I should not have recalled his forefather who married for love, setting aside all fears, nor should I have placed myself in the role of Lúthien.

When he catches my somber look, my lord comes to himself and shifts in his bath. His eyes are hidden from me by the lids that have fallen over them as he stares at the water, but still I can see the consternation he would hide in the set of his jaw and angle of his shoulders. It is my own fault, this ache in my heart, I know, for I have sent a barb straight into my lord's most open wound and asked more than he can give.

He lifts his gaze to mine and in his eyes I see but the faintest shadow of regret.

"Then I must take care not to place my hand in the mouth of the Wolf," he says in a thin attempt at our earlier cheer.

My lord takes my hand and lifts it from the side of the tub, and I smile in return, for that is what he would wish, but my heart has fallen. I do not resist when he would press his lips there, for should he wish to ease my hurt I do not think I can forbid it. But then a sudden scowl comes upon his face, for a thick lather yet clings to my fingers. Swiftly, he plunges my hand into the bath to rid it of the soap ere lifting it and pressing a kiss there. When he releases me, silent laughter draws fine lines about his eyes and the smiles I turn to him are the more true for it.

Smiling still, I take up the pitcher where I have set it aside and send it below the water so I might fill it and rinse my lord's hair. He then must remain silent. With my fingers at his scalp and the bath warm upon them, I ease the soap from his head. Water falls in thin streams from his hair and his breast rises slowly, but my lord is still and does not look upon me. We let the chatter of water falling to the bath fill the silence for us and are content merely to listen to its talk, foregoing our own conversation.

When the task is done, and he stands afore me wound in a sheet, his hair dripping onto his shoulders and his skin flushed and warm, my lord leans to me and presses his lips upon my cheek. It is a chaste kiss, rich in affection and dismissal.

~oOo~

 

 

 

Chapter Text

~ Chapter 21 ~

 

' Go now, and die in what way seems best to you. And with whom you will, even that friend whose folly brought you to this death. Send for my servants and then go. Farewell!’

ROTK:  The Siege of Gondor

~oOo~

a piece of parchment lies fixed upon a slanted portable desk of wood, a hand writes upon it

~oOo~

~ TA 3009, 17th day of Urimë: one ram of six seasons, two yearling rams with free range of east and north pasture, respectively, with nightly supplement of oat grass and barley.  Mature ram set to south and northeast pasture with the ewes on alternating days, with two yearling rams set to the opposite days together for at most sixty days from start.   

~oOo~

 

I set the sheaf of parchments on the table and tug at the leather thong to no avail. After the midday meal, Elesinda cleared the table and left us in the hall to hang the wash upon the hedges to dry. Here my lord and I sit, he in his chair and I on a bench beside him, and I know not why I cannot seem to undo the simple knot that holds the folds of leather in place. For the pity of the Valar! I can untie a warp from a heddle rod as easily as a spider spins a web and now, of all times, I seem to have great clopping hooves instead of fingers. My lord's patience must be sorely tried, and yet a quick glance tells me he merely waits, turning his cup about upon the table.  I know not why my nerves have gone to jangling. My journal and accounts are up to date and, indeed, I have most like been more dedicated than there is need.

Upon the setting of the meal, my lord requested I attend him afterwards. Then, my lord devoured the meat and savory pudding, and refilled his bowl with the fresh greens. But, though he helped himself to a small portion of the pease, they lay untouched in his bowl until the last when he swallowed them down with a large gulp of his ale.

It may well be wondered why this vexed me, but it did. I had thought the pease might be more pleasing to him, for this time I cooked them in a broth of pork and ale and seasoned them with thyme and wild garlic. But it seemed not. And now I fear all my efforts upon his behalf shall fail of my lord's liking.

Finally, the strands part and, taking a deep breath, I lay a bundle of much-scraped and ragged parchments and a pile of single sheets afore my lord.

Taking up the bundle, I say, "Here you find a journal of the day, my lord. In it I record the weather, cool or warm, rainfall and sun, events in the village, the health of our livestock, and growth in our gardens and fields."

"Is that necessary?" he asks, and I clear my throat and set it aside.

"Mayhap not," I say, "but I find it helpful in planning for the coming year."

My lord lifts a shoulder. "Very well, pray go on."

I pull out a single sheet from the pile. "Here you find an account of the stores we produced in the last season, those in the pantry, dry goods, and fodder for the livestock, and their use."

He nods, glancing down the columns.

"And here you will find an account of the tithes collected from the village over the same time," I say, pointing to another sheet, "and here is an account of the goods and services we acquired in barter and that which we traded for their purchase or use."

I arrange the sheets in order and fall silent. He is frowning as he peers o’er them.

"I also have an accounting of the prior seasons should you like to see those as well, my lord," I offer, despising the timidity in my voice as I do so.

He shakes his head absently while he sifts through the parchments, pushing one to the side and pulling another close the better to see its contents. "No, these will do more than well enough."

In his tone I hear a shade of censure. I have, mayhap, been too meticulous in my records. He lifts a page from the table and examines it closely. Then he sighs and, tossing the sheet onto the pile, leans back into his chair.

I will not stare at him anxiously and plead for his approval.

"How long until this house is self-sufficient, lady?" he asks, his face grave as he glances o’er the parchments and toys with the edge of one.

The question startles me, and heat rises from my neck and blooms on my cheeks.

"We are, my lord."

His brow lowers and he points to a careful column of goods and figures. "You still collect the tithes, do you not?"

"Aye, my lord."

"Then how are we not dependent?"

"Are not tithes owed this House?" I ask, confounded by his obvious disapproval.

"Do we have need of them?" he asks, his voice stern. He has grown very still.

"No, my lord, but for the days-work provided by the men of our folk, our needs are met sufficiently by what we produce," I say and pull a sheet further out from the pile, "As you can see here –"

"Do you tell me, then," he says, his voice stern for all he speaks softly, "that this House is in comfort when there are those of the Angle who suffer for want?"

It seems his gaze would pierce to my very heart. Yet I find I grow angrier rather than less certain. My heart does indeed pound but my voice is firm, for I can think only of the hours I have poured o’er these pages at his behest, scrimping not only on the goods we wear and food we eat, but the very parchment on which I have recorded it all.

"No!" I say and he falls silent.

His look is cold, but he nods to me, and gestures to my records. "Proceed."

Very well, then, I shall.

Laying aside the bundle and the leather binder, I shuffle the single parchments until they are aligned in an order that makes best sense.

"As I said, here, my lord, you will find a record of what we produce, what we obtain in barter, what we purchase it with, and the tithes we collect." I point to each in turn. He settles back in his chair.

"Ranger Halbarad and his men have been so good as to supply meat for our table from the forest and the river upon occasion and I have had to cull the flocks for our table but seldom. The sheep, geese, and hens we now have that give us the milk and eggs we no longer need to obtain in trade were purchased with lambs birthed across several seasons. The rams you so kindly gave to me as dower have proved fertile and their ewes willing."

Here I run my finger down the list of ewes, the dates the rams serviced them and the lambs they produced ere laying it aside and pulling out a list of produce from our fields and continuing.

"Master Herdir came upon the idea of the House engaging the smith to fashion ploughs of both wood and iron and to combine the Angle's oxen to teams of no less than six, and so he can plough more fields in less time.  He has taken men of the wandering clans into your service when it became clear their skills at training the beasts was superior to aught the Angle had seen.  More oxen are ready to take to the plough than is needed in one day, and so the men training them have devised a system of rotating teams that work well together. Master Herdir’s touch for the weather remains true and he sets the teams to their ploughing at times most opportune for the planting to flourish.

“The men of the wanderers who wish have been set to the additional fields’ planting and tending. A portion of its yield feeds their families and provides for those of the Angle in need. With this payment and other works that they perform are they recompensed in land of their own holding. I have engaged their women, Elesinda, and several of her neighbors to spin yarns fit for the sturdy rugs and blankets that our walls and beds do not need. In exchange, I provide the women with chicks, goslings, and lambs so they might raise them and use the eggs and meat to feed themselves or trade for what they need.  In recompense, I provide Elesinda with clothes of a quality of cut and color she would not otherwise have. She enjoys them, my lord, as do the young men for whom she wears them. I know not what bargain she has made with the other women who assist her. I have left that to her and they seem satisfied."

I go on, "So yes, my lord, not only is this house sufficient onto itself, but oft we run into surplus." A brow rises in surprise, but he does not question me when I point to a fifth column of goods and figures.

"This surplus, we do not use. That which we are given in tithe that would spoil is most oft traded for more durable commons and goods. These, and the tithes, are collected in our parlor and sheds until such time the Angle needs them. When the time comes, I have contracted with Mistress Pelara, who has been instrumental in this plan's design, to distribute our surplus to our people when they flee hither and those of the Angle who suffer for misfortune. In the past year, no widow, fatherless child, elderly or ill among your folk, and no family who found their way to the Angle has gone to bed hungry, without at least a mean shelter over their heads, or blankets to keep them warm. For her efforts, in trade, Mistress Pelara has been given a length of wool of a deep red at her request, the roving for which was collected from our own sheep and the dye for which I made from madder roots I brought from my father’s house ere I became your wife. Shall I continue?"

"Lady!" my lord commands. As I spoke, his face had moved from displeasure, to disbelief, to interest, but now his eyes flash in warning.

I am hot from breast to the very crown of my head. I drop my eyes, unable to meet his gaze. Indeed my tongue has grown much too impertinent in my anger. He is not my father, and I am not his daughter indulged to the point of being overly familiar and prideful.

"Forgive me, my lord," I say and I blink against tears that burn at the lids of my eyes. "I wish only to please you. I seek only to fulfill the trust you gave me. You said you wished this house to be self-sufficient, and I have done so. You commanded me to provide care for your people in your place, and I have tried to do so, to the best I can."

I hear the soft sigh of my lord's breath as he releases it. He rubs at his bearded cheek and, I think, must consider the lists I have laid afore him.

"This is an accounting of the Dúnedain who have sought refuge here?" he asks, scanning the dates, names and numbers of people. His voice is soft.

"Aye, my lord." My face is as sober as his. "And there are more come that are not recorded here. They arrived in the night and speak of more who follow."

"Will we have enough to meet their need?" He considers me gravely.

"Aye, my lord, I believe so. I had planned to go through our stores and set aside more this afternoon. We are pressed to provide shelter and, should more flee hither, soon our supplies will run short."

"We can raise shelters," says he. "It merely takes the men with which to do it. The problem of supplying their remaining needs will take more thought."

He turns over the page. Slowly, my lord shakes his head as he gazes at the filled surface of the parchment and I know his mind. Our Enemy could pass over a small village in the Angle with the disdain he reserves only for the noble that have fallen to a mean existence from the lofty heights of Númenor, but a makeshift city will most certainly draw his Eye. We will be a hidden people no longer.

"I know not, my lord, what plans Halbarad makes for their defense."

He sighs and releases the parchment to the table.

"It was not my intent to demean your efforts," he says. "When do you attend upon our people who have fled hence?"

"Soon, ere the even’s meal."

His hand covers mine.  "I will go with you."

My lord draws my hand into his and studies it, smoothing the skin along my bones with a gentle thumb. When he looks up, his eyes are a grey lit within by a keen light so bright it seems I had forgotten their color until now. He searches my face a long moment ere speaking, his eyes, could I believe it, almost sorrowful.

"Build me a fortress, lady."

I blink at him in wonder and disbelief.

"Build me a fortress," he repeats, clasping my hand more tightly in his, his voice growing intent.

"My lord," I begin, but then falter, my voice fading, swallowed by my doubt.

"You achieved all else I have required of you," he says. "Why not this?"

"Because, my lord, I know not the first thing of building a fastness that will keep our people safe."

"Do you not?" He releases my hand and gestures loosely at the pages scattered upon the table. "Why do you do all this? The Shadow presses us from all sides. In all likelihood, were you to listen to reason, the Angle and its people will soon be cruelly swept away despite all our best efforts. Why, then, do you work so hard?"

"Because you set the example, my lord, and I am yours to command," I say, my brows furrowing. I am lost in his speech and can find no light to guide my understanding.

"Then I tell you, should we trust to high walls or even the bright edge of our Ranger's swords to protect us, we shall fail. There shall be no more Dúnedain in the North."

He takes up my hand in his again and presses it tightly. His face is grim.

"Lady, of all the enemies we face, there is none so deadly as despair," he says, his voice low and firm with purpose. "The people must have hope, despite all this," he nods at my lists of wanderers, "else we are lost. I need a fortress for our people, lady, but not one of stone."

He searches my face and, his voice quiet, he pleads, "Build me a fortress, lady. I have no other to ask."

It seems I cannot remove my eyes from his face. At that moment, I came to know why his men follow him with such devotion. I think I could have leapt upon a troll and attempted to bring it down at his command, only were he to continue to look upon me like that.

"Will you do this for me?"

There is no other answer to give but "yes," but even that I have trouble giving voice. The best I can manage is a nod, but this, though little enough, seems to satisfy him.

"Good." He looks pleased, albeit a little weary, and releases me. "I shall leave it in your hands, then."

He drinks from his cup of wine while I gather the loose sheets of parchment, arranging them into order by season and item. Still, he watches me, for, no doubt, my thoughts play upon my face. And I have much on which to reflect.

So, I am to build a shelter of hope for the Dúnedain. Once our stone towers spanned from earth to sky and our bridges from bank to bank across deep flowing waters. Our faith in them was poorly placed, for now they crumble into ruin as jagged teeth upon the hills and broken boulders o’er which rivers roar. We have but one thing that has persisted across the ages undiminished, yet even that may not last under the Shadow. Indeed, should we continue as we have, there is little hope it will survive even this one lifespan of men.

My lord's hand beneath my chin is warm and gentle as he lifts my face, but still, I startle, the thread of my thoughts broken.

"Speak," he commands and releases my chin.

I have no hope of dissembling beneath those keen eyes. There is naught for it but to say what is on my mind, should he like it or not. I draw a breath and begin.

"The people find hope in the House of Isildur, my lord," I say, and he nods. "You ask me to build a fortress." "Very well." A faint smile comes to his face at the straightening of my shoulders and lifting of my chin. "I shall attempt it. But this I know, the foundation must be laid upon the line of kings unbroken. And it is that foundation which must first claim my attention."

"Aye," he says when I pause, searching for words.

How does one say this?

"I cannot build the foundation without your aid." Here I stop, at a loss.

He frowns at my perplexity.

I stare at him. How can I, beholden to my lord as I am, stand in judgment upon him?

When I hesitate, he says, "What is it? Speak plainly."

"My lord," I say and pass my tongue across my lips. My mouth has gone suddenly dry. "You must lay with me more oft, my lord, else there is small chance I shall conceive your heir."

At that, for the first since I have known him, my lord's eyes drop from my gaze. There they glitter beneath the veil of his lids and somewhat akin to chagrin troubles his features. So still does he hold himself the only movement I can discern is the faint flutter of a pulse beneath his jaw.

Then, with but a deep breath, his stillness is broken, and when he meets my eye, it has cleared.

He inclines his head briefly. "I am yours to command in this matter."

"Only," he goes on, but then appears to falter.

My heart sinks. I have presumed too far. I do not wish to know more of what lack he finds in me, yet he seems poised on revealing this very thing.

"You are most thorough in your book-keeping, for which I commend you," he says with a lift of his brow as he glances askance at the pile of documents upon the table, "but I must beg you not to keep record of my attempts to beget a child upon you."

"My lord!" I cry, shocked until I see the delight twinkling in his eyes.  It occurs to me, belatedly, that I am being greatly teased.

He catches my hand easily as I launch myself to my feet, smiling at the grimace I turn upon him.

"Your flocks have already sacrificed a great enough number of their hides to your records," he says, now grinning up at me, "and I do not think I could bear the indignity of my efforts on your behalf being catalogued beside your poor rams."

"I promise you, my lord," I say, pulling at his grip, "should you begin producing lambs, even your wrath shall not deter me from documenting the event."

A shout of laughter bursts from my lord and he rises from his chair, refusing to release my hand. "Come then," he says, laughing still. "We have some few moments afore us. Mayhap we should put it to the test."

Insufferable man!  Only on these terms would he offer the very thing I begged of him.

My thoughts must have played across my face, for, grinning broadly, he draws me into an unyielding embrace, securing me inexorably against his breast, despite the lack of use of one arm.  I can lift a grown ewe from her feet and carry buckets filled to the brim with either water or gravel and tear out overgrown thickets with naught but my hands, and yet, still I have not the strength to resist my lord’s grip, and so do not even give it an attempt. But still, my face must be indignant and my body rigid in his arm; for his smile fades and he catches my eyes with a look that is solemn. For a long moment he considers me thus ere he speaks.

"When I asked, lady, you made your choice and have honored your pledge with your efforts. I, too, made my choice in the asking," he says softly. "Can I do no less?"

I make no reply, but surely the rigidity with which I held myself apart has melted and my arms return his embrace. He yet hesitates a moment and then his hand cups my face, his thumb brushing across my cheek in a brief caress ere he presses his lips to mine. In the warmth of their touch there is, were it not passion, a certain fondness.

~oOo~

 

Chapter Text

~ Chapter 22 ~

 

At the doors of the Houses many were already gathered to see Aragorn, and they followed after him; and when at last he had supped, men came and prayed that he would heal their kinsmen or their friends whose lives were in peril through hurt or wound, or who lay under the Black Shadow.

ROTK: The Houses of Healing

~oOo~

A man in a long tunic hammers somewhat upon a large piece of metal thrust into a log

~oOo~

~ TA 3009, 17th day of Urimë:  rûdh-glaew:  Cropleek and garlic, of both equal amounts, chop fine and pummel well together, take wine and bullocks gall, of both equal amounts, mix with the leek.  Pour into brass vessel.  Let stand in a cool place for nine days.  Wring out through a cloth and clear it well.  Give within the first two days of contagion. 

~oOo~

 

The roof of the smithy is high and made of thin shale, vented to the sky so the smoke of the forge may escape along with its heat. I have had little occasion to visit and so find much that captures my interest there. Tools hang from their hooks in a thicket of iron, wood and leather. I know not the use of even half of these and marvel at the smith's mastery of his trade.

Shutters are cleverly fixed to the vents overhead so that, should it rain, they may be closed and keep all those within dry and warm. But now they are open and the fitful sun streams in columns full to the floor, caught as the light is in the thin smoke drifting about the shed. All about is the thick, scorched smell of hot iron and hammering sounds loud in our ears atimes, but it is not that of steel upon steel but rather wood upon wood. For the land about the smithy has been cleared and its walls are soon to be greatly expanded. And not only that, but our men lay foundation for another house and sheds to be set nearby. Already the supports stand tall and secure, their feet sunk deep into the soil.

"Aye," the smith says slowly, his head bent o’er the buckles my lord gave him. "I think it can be done." He turns them about in his hand and they clink together as he tosses them lightly until they are engulfed in his broad palms. "Have you a day or two to spare, my lord?"

"I might," says my lord wryly and the smith laughs.

"Aye, well, my lord," he says and points a knuckle at my lord's arm, splinted and wrapped in a sling as it is. "We shall hope your healing will not be much delayed or a burden to you."

My lord nods briefly, a smile lingering upon his face. "A small matter, it is," he says, referring to the buckles, "but it may save me time and worry upon the road."

'Tis the first I have seen of my lord among the Dúnedain of the Angle, and I find my heart warmed by the sight. For, aye, my lord's face is grave as always, but his shoulders gentle, I think, with the brief release of some heavy weight that once rested upon them.

"I would be happy to do it then," says the smith and scratches absently at his bald pate. "Should it not be I, then my good wife shall see to it. In fact, I would ask it of her, instead, she has the better eye for fine work."

At this, my lord nods to Mistress Tanril, the smith's wife, who sits at her work in a small square of sun. Inconstant as he is of character this day, the sun hides his face and we are plunged into a sudden dimness in which the sullen glow of the forge plucks at the eye.

A soft touch draws my attention away and upon my look I find not the face of the smith's wife, but that of a woman with soft brown hair and dark eyes. She it is, Mistress Linmir, the wife of our wandering smith, whose husband now bends his back nearby to the working of wood rather than metal.

Upon our entrance, she had turned from the corner where she and Mistress Tanril sat with their heads inclined o’er the woman's bench. I know not what fine work Mistress Tanril shaped with her hands, but Mistress Linmir had no doubt lingered over it when she came to clear away the remains from their hasty meal.  At our arrival, they had risen and bid their good morrows, but once my lord was deep in his business with the smith, she shared a quick glance with the other woman and accepted the thing pressed into her hand.

And now I find she looks upon me where I wait for my lord by the door.

"My lady," she whispers and draws somewhat from behind the folds of her skirts.  "Please you to take this."

By her manner I know she wishes the exchange to be made in confidence and so I do not speak, but turn my shoulder to the men and lift the bundle from her grasp. Wrapped in a square of fine blue linen I find it unbalanced and I must clutch at it or let it fall. At the eagerness in her eyes, I unwind the linen from the thing within.  I stare, for within a nest of blue lies a finely wrought spindle.  The rod is of a high polished metal and the whorl a small cup of the same upon which is etched figures of clouds and blowing wind.  With such a thing, with practice, I could spin as I walked and not worry for the whorl banging about my knees.  And not only that, but a cunningly made latch dangles from a loop of leather I might string upon my belt and fasten to the spindle’s hook when not in use.   A fine gift it is, but one, to avoid the claim of favoritism, I am loath to accept.

"Nay, my lady," she says, laying a hand upon my arm, for my dismay must show.

Her eyes glow with a hidden pleasure that makes me smile in return. I think then she must know of the efforts made on her and her family's behalf, for we threw the smiths and their wives much together when e'er we had the chance.

“I shall treasure it and get much use of it, then," I say, keeping my voice low, and tuck the bundle deep within the tall basket sitting at my feet. Mistress Tanril watches from her workbench and smiles upon me, turning away only to beam o’er her work.

With a nod of greeting and soft words of apology, a young man slips from around me through the door, interrupting our council. He is as broad of hand and shoulder as his father and carries a basket of charcoal as were it naught. He sets to noisily stoking the forge so that the men must raise their voices to be heard over it.

"And shall I send Master Baran over upon the morrow?" my lord asks, turning away to the door.

At the first, I know not of whom he speaks, but then it comes to me my lord has discovered the name of the wandering woodsman, and he not fully one day home.

"Nay, my lord, you may send him upon the hour, should you wish," says the smith. "I have the shoes and Tanion here has the time to take him to the farrier's."

His son nods from the forge. "Aye, my lord, I think I should like to see this new horse of yours. I hear much of him."

"Very well," my lord says, smiling, for he has purchased himself a new mount and arrived home to find the beast waiting for him there. Aye, my lord is much taken with him and, true though he may have weathered the worst of his pain upon the Wild, naught else would do but my lord spent the morning putting the horse through his paces. "My thanks to you, then, Master Mahtan."

I take up again the basket I have brought here.

"And a blessing on your House," the smith replies, touching upon his brow ere he tosses the buckles onto a bit of cloth on his bench.

It seems my lord shall leave with little greeting for the woman at my side, but when she touches upon her brow and gives him a low reverence, he stops, at first scowling mildly at her ere, upon the relief of his puzzlement, his face brightens.

"Ah!" he exclaims. "I see you have found yourself a place here in the Angle! You are recovered well!  My heart is glad to see it so. And your husband?"

"Aye, my lord!" she says. "And he is here, as well."

"And how fares that lass of yours?"

Her face bursts into a shy and joyful look. "Aye, she is about someplace with her sister," says she, waving a hand loosely down the path toward the center of the Angle. "I sent them on an errand of a few moments and they've been gone nigh most the morn. Getting into mischief again, they are, my lord."

"That is well, then," he replies and, smiling, presses her gently upon her arm. I do not think she had expected his warmth and she looks nigh to tears for it.

"They will be greatly sorrowed to have missed you, my lord."

"Then I must return at some other time to see them again," he says and withdraws his hand. "Bid you good day," he ends with a nod.

Upon the path the morning rain left puddles of water in which the westering sun pools its light. We step carefully, walking most oft upon the grasses by the side of the road. The basket is not so heavy, filled as it is with blankets and linens stripped for the making of dressings, but still my lord will not suffer me to bear it. He lifts it from my hands when I think to put my arm through its strap, taking it and fixing me with a stern look when I resist.

"Come now," he says. With some effort, he twists the basket about and slings it to his back. "I still have my one good arm and know you would wish to keep your hands busy."

He nods to my hip where, in truth, my spindle does bang lightly against me as I walk. Seldom do I go without it hooked to my belt and a bit of roving in a bag somewhere within reach for when I must sit and wait with naught else to do. It is an old habit, for I much dislike my hands being idle and find the whirring wood and slow growing thread a wholesome remedy for when my thoughts grow unquiet. What my lord says is true, for even when walking I would have it so.

My lord looks upon me with some secret knowledge shining in his eyes.  He then sets to the path afore me, so he might avoid the mud. I need do naught but place my feet where he once stepped.

Ah! There are times when, I must admit, it is a sore trial to have a husband so perfect of mind and character. For he has little fault I can detect and I am laid bare afore him, with every foible and whimsy exposed.

Still, after some time, I am glad of having somewhat to do that keeps my eyes as well as my hands busy.  I pull upon the length of roving and slip fibers from it to catch upon the yarn as it spins afore me.  It slows my feet, but my lord seems not to mind, but looks about him and sets an easy pace I might match.

We do not talk as we make our way along the paths of the Angle, past house and shed and croft. I can think of naught on which to speak, for I am much used to going about the Angle with little comment other than greeting the few folk I know well. But, as I walk with my lord, heads turn and eyes stare, though I think they make some little effort to hide it. Atimes, they nod in silence or turn quickly to their fellows and speak, and at others, his people beam in joyous greeting. Word runs quickly through the Angle upon the feet of young children that my lord is returned and its folk come about every corner and fill every door. My lord bears with it well, greeting them each in turn as they will, but I feel each gaze as had they burned upon me.

It is not until we turn aside unto a path shadowed by tall elms my lord speaks. He twists about and fixes his gaze upon me while he walks.

"And what was it she gave you?" he asks, his face alight, and I wonder had he been puzzling o’er the mystery all this way since the forge. "Mistress Tanril?"

"It was naught, my lord," I say and when his eyes sharpen upon me, go on. "'Twas merely a woman's trifle."

He makes a small noise, the meaning of which I cannot discern, for he turns away and says no further.

We go not to the center of the Angle, but away from it. Here few feet have traveled. The cooling of the nights has turned the leaves overhead a soft gold and the rain has struck them to the ground in places so that they pave the path with their bright colors and we are more free to walk side by side. Above our heads, sharp points of light shimmer upon the high fluttering edges of the trees and, below our feet, we stir the musk of wet earth and autumn leaves and the green tang of crushed grass.

I think, when my lord awoke, he found the world much refreshed, for though he suffers through moments of discomfort he walks easily and breathes deeply of the clean air. Aye, he is much changed from the morning. I think the rest he took did him a good, for once we took to our bed after our conference at the midday meal, he refused me my other tasks and so we kept to the solar and waited upon the sun.

In truth, I think he did not know himself so spent until, sated, he rested his head. There, upon my shoulder, he suffered me to card the locks from his brow with but the tips of my fingers and he fell deep to slumbering. There, I listened to the breeze drive the clouds o'er the tops of the trees and watched the light fade and swell in the solar. In the quiet of the middle of the day, I puzzled o’er the character of a man who, without thought of rest or need, hunted the Enemy in whatever form he might find him and yet, when home, abandoned himself so utterly to the pleasures of good food and an agreeable bed. I dared not move from beneath his heavy weight, nor did I wish to. Why take to the iron bit of my day while I had other tastes to savor the more sweet? And so I dozed atimes, drifting in a haze between sleep and wakefulness where I lay upon the fecund earth and its embrace smelled of bay leaf and skin warmed by the efforts of the flesh.

Soon the canopy above our head lifts to a high ceiling of blue and rushing clouds. We stride through gardens of yarrow, comfrey, mandrake, and other such herbs for the healing of the body in which the Mistress’ workshop is nestled. We come then upon a lawn of soft green on which is set a long, low building, little more, in truth, than a rude shed with many windows where they may catch the light and breeze. About its walls twines honeysuckle so that its scent might sweeten the air, and yet, through its open door, I hear the muffled sound of coughing and a low groan. My lord halts and frowns, easing his burden from off his back.

"You said we were to meet Mistress Pelara here and help settle those newly wandered to the Angle, lady?"

"Aye, my lord, here they will rest a little, until they are well." I wrap the yarn tightly about the spindle, tucking in the loose end, and hook it back upon my belt.

"Until they are well?"

I catch not my lord's look, for my hands are deep within my sack and my eyes there as well, but know him gone by the sudden sense of his absence.

"Wait, my lord," I call, but his long stride carries him from me swiftly. I am no match for his legs though, grabbing up the basket he leaves behind, I hurry after him.

"My lord! Thou shouldst not go in there! My lord!" And though I follow swiftly, I am too late, for he has already ducked his head below the low lintel and gone inside.

Ai!

The long hall is broken into small rooms by dint of naught other than rugs hanging from strung line. In each small space burns a brazier and upon each sits a pot, enough for tea or a bit of soup should they so wish. I stand in the door and dare go no further.

My lord stoops o’er an old man lying there upon a low bed. So grey is the man's skin I know not where his cheek begins and his beard ends. He is much taken with coughing and my lord kneels to prop the man up so he might breathe more freely.

"Lady, why did you not say there are signs of this sickness?"

"Alas!" comes a loud voice. "My lord, you should not be here!"

Her eyes wide, Mistress Nesta bustles round the hanging rugs, flinging them aside. They flap and bob in her wake. It seems she was summoned by his voice and, seeing me staring at my lord's back in horror, is in no doubt who he is.

"Is it the coughing plague that ails him?" my lord asks, sparing the healer a brief glance.

"My lord!" she exclaims. "Get away from him, at once. Have you no knowledge of your peril?"

I think, had not her hands been burdened by a pot of a thick and pungent substance, she would have taken a hold of his coat and tugged him away. But, as it is, he seems most disposed to ignore her, his attention all for the old man. Though greatly weakened by the spasm, he breathes a little clearer for it. My lord eases him back to his pillow and the man pats a trembling hand upon his arm, unable at the moment to speak.

"Nesta!" a voice exclaims behind me. 'Tis Mistress Pelara, and she gapes at the scene. "Have you finally addled your wits with those strange pottages you brew?"

"What was I to do?" the healer asks, her irritation clearly felt in the crack of metal upon stone as she nigh slams the pot to the floor. I see naught of her face, but have full view of the broad hips bent afore us. Her voice comes muffled against her skirts as she roughly stirs at the thick substance. "Tell the Lord of the Dúnedain he may not go where so ever he pleases? Or would you rather I sling him across these shoulders and cart him out the door?"

"Calm yourselves!" my lord commands and they fall still. "Be easy, I am in no danger." This last he delivers gently to me, who have stood quiet in the open door and, no doubt, fixed him with a shocked and grief-stricken look.

"My lord," say I in the silence following his words. "What would you have me do?"

"You, lady," he says, sending a piercing look my way, "shall step no further into this place. Have you the linens we brought?"

"Aye, my lord," I say and lean to the basket, digging about for what he seeks.

"You are the healer here?" he asks of the Mistress, for she has risen and smooths her skirts and hair, her face still a pink of vexation and effort.

"Aye, Nesta is my name, daughter of Bormund."

"Your mother then was Elannui. I knew her well. She was a healer of many natural gifts and much learning.  Have you many such?" He nods to the old man, whose dark eyes flit from one to the other, bright with understanding and not a little mirth.

"Aye, my lord, it settles deep in the lungs upon our wet weather," she says, fussing with the man's bedding and plumping the pillows beneath his head. "They sleep not for their fever and sweat, then weaken as their lungs become corrupted."

"Aye, 'tis what I thought," my lord says briskly, with an eye to the man who watches them so close. "Would you bring me the linen from my lady, should it please you, Mistress Nesta."

"And these wandering folk more so than most," she goes on and leaves the man with a last tweak to his blanket. "We ply them with rûdh-glaew as soon as we may but so weary are they already, once it takes hold they can bare fight it off.  Elder Tanaes keeps us in ox bile, Elder Bachor in wine, though I know not how he knew to keep such a large amount in stock for such a day.  And you’ll not find a root cellar between the two rivers without a brass pot of it, but it is a struggle to keep up with the demand. ‘Tis their elders, my lord, who fall to it most oft."

"Worry not so much," my lord says to the man lying beside him. So soft is his voice I would hear it not beneath Mistress Nesta's word were I not attending so closely to them and only absently to the healer. I have found the bundled strips of linen cloth and shaken them free of the bundle of cloth about my new spindle and let it clatter to the bottom of the basket. "I have seen many men, and your elders at that, who have lived through this to many good days after."

"Though, atimes," Mistress Nesta says, taking the linens from me, "it takes our young, as well."

"Och!" Mistress Pelara leans her back against the doorway and shakes her head at the woman. "Hush you now, Nesta. Is this how you treat all those under your care?"

The woman shrugs, but it is the old man that speaks, his voice a rough whisper.

"'Tis kind of you, my lord, but who knows what I face better than I," he says.

"Aye." Mistress Nesta settles one haunch to the edge of his bed, places a hand upon the man's brow and brushes aside his hair. The smile she has for him is small and brief, but surprising in its tenderness.

"Have you athelas?" my lord asks and Mistress Nesta nods, handing him the bundle of linens where he kneels beside the bed.

"Aye, my lord, fresh from my gardens just out there, too," she replies and, with a grunt, pushes herself to her feet, "and as much as you might wish. Shall I go for it and heat you some water?"

"Yes, should you please." My lord sets to worrying at the knot about the linen. "I think I may be able to help some. It shall at least give them ease and clear the air of the corruption, an it naught else."

Mistress Nesta grunts, nodding and shifts the ill-smelling pot closer to the bed with her foot.

"I shall take over this. The poultice is ready, then?"

"Aye, my lord. Put it on his bare breast and it shall ease the tightness, an you would my lord, and I will see to getting you what you need. I have made enough of the brew to last for the next few days, while it is yet potent. Be sure to spread it thin, a little goes a long way and you would not want to urge them to desire their failing for the smell."

"My thanks to you, Mistress Nesta, but I know what to do with it." He has done with the knot, though he had to work at it and my fingers twitched with his effort. "When you have the athelas, call to me and we shall see to the others."

"Well then," the healer says, waving Pelara from the door. "Let me pass. I have an errand to run for our lord and I best be quick about it, do ye not think?"

Mistress Pelara gives way, tutting her vexation at the woman, for clearly the healer's eyes brighten with her sense of purpose and importance.

"Shall you stay here, then, my lord?" I ask, for I had much wished for his company upon the remaining errands of the day. Greatly could I use his skill at leading others to the heart of the matter and making them see the reason they might find there.

"Aye, lady, so I had thought." The old man plucks at the edge of his tunic, attempting to assist my lord in easing it about his shoulders. My lord halts of a sudden and peers at Mistress Pelara and I. True it is, we have not moved, and my look must hold somewhat of concern about it.

"Why? What else had you thought to do?"

"The Council meets upon the morrow, my lord," says Mistress Pelara.

"Does it?" He looks to me to confirm it. “What is it that troubles you?”

Mistress Pelara looks from me to my lord her eyes dark with doubt.  "Aye, well," she says slowly. "We have the problem of the surplus of grain."

"What of it?"

"We have none," I say.

"Indeed? And you would wish to set aside some of this year's harvest for later need?"

"My lord," I say. "We have been blessed with enough rain when needed and sun in between. Not all seasons shall be so kind and yet we use all we can produce to feed those who shelter here."

"Aye, seems a good enough plan. What is the difficulty?"

I hesitate to say, for I may not speak so plainly as I might wish here in the open where too many ears may hear. There are those on the Council who, though would do it easily should it be of their own will, still would balk were restraint forced upon them for the good of all.

"Ah, well," he says. It seems he has perceived my thoughts, for he presses me no further, but kneels there on the floor, his hand upon his thigh, considering us both.

"Nay, lady, go!  Speak to whom you will. Root out what you need to know. I shall meet you again at the house where I wish you to tell me all of your plans and how you have played them. We can speak over the evening meal, should you wish, though I doubt not my stomach shall rebel should I have to eat too much more of words today. Then, upon the morrow, you bring this matter afore the Council and we shall see what they make of it, shall we?"

"Aye, my lord," but it is Pelara who speaks and I see again that familiar light in her eye.

"Come now, my lady," she says brightly and turns to me. "Shall we let our lord to his business? You asked to see how the men get on with this man and his family's house."

"They have a house?" my lord asks, looking up of a sudden from where his hand is deep in the poultice.

"Aye, my lord," says Mistress Pelara.

"It was most done as of last week, my lord," I say, interrupting the Mistress for fear of what else she might add, for she looks much like a cat who has crept into the henhouse without its owner knowing. "Though we have had little time to spare to them as we come upon the harvest."

"Them? There are more than the one?"

"Aye, my lord," says Pelara and I think she shall burst with the pleasure she is forced to conceal. "And many more there are. Though we are hard pressed to keep up. You will find the men of the wanderers most willing to lend a hand, and their women, too, my lord, should ye care to ask them."

"Mistress," I say and wish my face was not quite so hot, for my lord's gaze is all too keen. I take her arm in one hand and the basket in the other, pushing both out the door. "Let us go. Now."

My lord laughs softly, shaking his head as his look lingers after us.

Had I stayed, mayhap I would have seen more. For the old man smiles up at my lord, his eyes hidden in folds of wrinkles all but for the laughter that shines from them. "She is your lady, my lord?" he asks in a soft voice.

"Aye, that she is." My lord wipes his fingers against the rim of the pot.

The old man's chuckle erupts into coughing and my lord, passing his good arm below his shoulders, eases him to sitting so he may breathe the easier. Then, when the fit has passed and he has drunk from the water my lord poured him, he speaks in a roughened whisper.

"Ah, I mean no offense, my lord, but you are well in for it."

~oOo~

 

 

Chapter Text

~ Chapter 23 ~

 

Gimli shivered. They had brought only one blanket apiece. 'Let us light a fire,' he said. 'I care no longer for the danger. Let the Orcs come as thick as summer-moths round a candle!'

TTT: The Riders of Rohan

~oOo~

round stones hang in a row from neatly tied bundles of warp

~oOo~

~ TA 3009, 9th day of Urimë:  Rangers Haldren and Mathil, assigned Amun Sûl six weeks past there to lay watch upon the East Road, due to report to Melethron two weeks past. Mathil reporting little movement upon the East Road at end of cycle.  Haldren left Amun Sûl to Mathil’s watch to pursue signs of incursions to the north and east in the Weather Hills.  Was to return to Amun Sûl within five days.  Melethron to Bree in three days hence. Gelir and Mathil to search for sign of Ranger Haldren and report to Bree within three weeks of reaching Amun Sûl.

~oOo~

 

The warp hangs in bundles from where I have sewn them to the tough linen. Soft and thick they are, and of a wool the color of ash. I hope to weave into it a weft of cream so that when I dye the whole in walnut hulls, it shall be a cloth of heathered browns and grays, and yet light enough for my lord to lie upon the forest floor under its protection come the fall and winter and not be so swiftly seen.

I have chosen a weave of repeating diamonds and shall need three heddles. I think it will be a pleasure to let my fingers remember the work, leaving my thoughts to drift elsewhere. I sewed the cloth about my beam of greatest length and it sits now upon the heddle supports, from where the bundles of warp threads dangle. I set them to rights, untwisting them and pulling them out from under the beam so that, when I use the forked poles to lift the beam to the very top of the uprights, they shall not catch upon the heddle supports.

So caught up in the soft tangle of yarn am I the shadow that falls upon the warp startles me badly, and I cringe and step away. I had not known my thoughts so deep, for, to my surprise, Halbarad stands at my side, his hand flying quickly to hover o’er my lips. But once he catches my gaze, his eyes slide away.

There, at the end of the path his eyes take, my lord sits at his table. His finger runs upon the short hairs about his lip and his eyes look far off. I wonder at what Halbarad intends until I see the look upon my lord's face is dark with a frustrated rage. He has been at his maps, again, and there they lie, covered in black stones. We have had news with our morning meal, and Haldren, an elder among our lord's Rangers and used to the Wild, is much delayed in his return as is not his wont.

I turn away and nod my understanding to Halbarad and he bows with the bare tilt of his head. My lord shall have many more weeks of this enforced dependence, no matter what moves upon the Wild. It is no wonder he suffers.

Halbarad strides to the door and my lord's hand drops from his face.

"You go to see Master Maurus?" he calls after his kinsman.

"Aye," says Halbarad, his hand upon the latch.  “And to take further report from Mathil and give him his commands as you asked.”

"I shall go with you, then," my lord says, rising.

"Nay!" Halbarad says, waving his kin to his seat. "Do not trouble yourself. Best not raise suspicions, eh?  Stay and rest. I shall be back upon the even’s meal."

And with that, he is gone, the door banging swiftly shut behind him. My lord frowns but soon shakes his head and seats himself again. His chair creaks with his weight and my lord sighs. With a sudden movement, he sweeps up the stones from where they litter the map and begins stuffing them into their sack. He will be at it for some time. The stones are many, the mouth of the sack is soft, he has but one hand to use, and he uses more force than may be strictly necessary.

So, Halbarad has left it up to me. Had I my choice, it would be easiest to distract my lord with the sweetness of kisses and a soft, tender touch. I marvel were this, indeed, what Halbarad intended. Were I my lord's love, I think he might find comfort in it. But as it stands, I am uncertain should my lord welcome my advances upon him e’en should he be in the mood for them.

I have seated the forked poles securely against the beam and now raise it, sliding wood and cloth upon the uprights as it goes. The beam is heavy and the butts of the poles press into my belly so that I grimace at the weight. It is none so pleasant, but it works, at least most attempts, for I allow one end of the beam falter. I hiss with mayhap more displeasure than strictly necessary, and then struggle in truth, for my trickery has put me in real danger of tipping the upright upon the floor, and then dropping the heavy warp beam and cracking it beyond use.

A hand steadies the upright, my lord having come upon me swiftly from behind. I blush of a sudden, for I have not made such poor work of placing the warp beam since I was a young girl, and I am loath for my lord to consider me so inept. Together we lift the beam, I with my poles and my lord with his good arm, raising it high until it settles heavily into place atop the uprights.

"My thanks to you, my lord," I say as I lay aside the poles. "Forgive me for having disturbed you."

But he shakes his head and gives me his gentle smile. I think he is done here and about to go.

I stare up at the beam, making a show of squinting at it and considering what next to do. In truth, in our struggle, strands of the warp have become tangled in the notch between beam and upright.

"My lord," I say and his steps still, "Should I raise the beam, could you pull those free?" I nod to where the warp lies trapped beneath the beam. I could easily put them to rights myself, but mayhap he would not know this.

My lord raises his face to frown up at the warp where it is pinned.

"Aye," he says slowly and then casts about.

His face clears when I drag the bench I had pulled from beside the hearth closer to the loom. Unbalanced as he is with his arm lashed to his breast, my lord lays a light hand upon my shoulder to find his feet upon the bench. With the pole I lift the beam and my lord pulls the warp free. But, when done, he does not leap to the floor. Instead, he looks down upon the swinging yarns, puzzling out their tangles as I untie the bundles of warp threads and shake them loose.

"I do not recall you using such a thick stuff afore," he says and draws the wool between fingers and thumb. "Do you not use finer thread?"

"Aye, my lord, but the spinning depends upon the use," I say, combing the yarns apart with my fingers. Seeing that the threads I seek to untangle cling one tother above my head, he steps across the bench so he can card the warp for me with his fingers and ease my task.

"This I shall weave with another soft yarn,” I go on to his puzzled frown, “and then take the cloth to the Weaver's shed and ask Master Theril to have it fulled.  When ‘tis done, my lord, it shall be a thick, sturdy blanket to keep out both cold and wet well-fit to the needs of those who wander."

We change places so I may go on pulling the bundles apart unhindered. I wonder at the look he gives me. It is all I can do to not flinch beneath it.

"My lord," I say, leaping into boldness the better to hide my unease, "now you are home, would you lend me your aid in its making, when you have the time to spare? It would go the quicker, then."

"I?" he says and laughs but does not say me nay. For though a woman may ply spindle and loom at home, 'tis the men who make of it their life's work. "I wonder you would wish to suffer the trial of my fumbling."

I smile. "Come the end, my lord, it most like be the greater hardship for you."

"Think you so?"

The smile my lord turns upon me is knowing, but he seems to delight in the challenge, natheless.

"What must I do, lady?" he asks with a lift of his chin.

"Well, my lord," I say and return to tugging the warp threads from their bundles. "We must establish the first shed and then tie the warp to their weights."

"The shed?"

"Aye, there will be four sheds, so should it please my lord, count every fourth yarn and drop it over that rod," and here I point to the shed rod that connects the uprights at the level of my knee, "we could begin. Later we will string the rest upon the heddle rods." I then point to the long rods lying on the floor.

My lord gives me a puzzled look but, with a wry shake of his head, seems willing to leave what he does not comprehend for later instruction. Stepping along the bench, he bends his head to peer at the warp upon the far end of the beam, frowning at the twists of thread. And then he pulls a yarn from its mates and releasing it, sets it to twisting behind the rod.

So the morning passed. With Elesinda and my lord's reeve at their day of rest and Halbarad dining with Master Maurus and his family, my lord commanded I be spare with my preparations for the noon meal. And, indeed, he insisted upon plundering the pantry himself, bringing out bread and cheese and toasting it o’er the hearth to eat with our ale while I put the last touches to a soup I had prepared of greens, beans, and mutton-bone. We ate swiftly and in silence, albeit companionably, and returned to our task.

My lord is of a quick and eager mind, and soon, between the two of us, the weights pull the warp taut, the heddles are threaded, and a finger’s width of cloth grows down from the beam. My lord pulls at the heddles, murmuring to himself to keep his place, and atimes beats the weft up against the cloth with the weaver's sword.

In his stead, for the lack of his good arm, my lord set me to cataloguing the movements of his men, gleaning numbers, places and times from the reports that litter his table. I listen as I work to the chiming of the weights and the scuff of my lord's feet and the groaning of bench as he walks the width of the loom.

And thus we spent what was left of the day, I sitting upon a bench beside my lord's chair, bent o’er his journals and he, striding afore the loom and, upon occasion, cursing so softly I hear not the words. It is all I can do to keep the smile from showing on my face where my lord might easily read my thoughts. No matter my diversion, I would not have my lord think I belittle his efforts. As it is, I need bend all force of mind to my task. I have thought to draw the movements of his men upon the page, much as my lord places his stones upon his maps. I clutch the quill between tight fingers, slow to make my mark upon the parchment and careful of what I would place there, for I would not give cause for my lord's plans to falter nor he to find fault with the aid I offer.

"Lady," I hear and lift my head to find my lord frowning at his work.

"Aye, my lord?" I set aside the quill. Rising, I go to him. He taps the end of the wooden sword against his breast, his dissatisfaction spread broad across his face.

"What is this?" he asks, drawing the wooden tip across the cloth when I come close.

My lord has done well. The weave is tight and the edges even, for the most part, a passable effort. But I see what disturbs him. A long line lies upon the cloth, only truly seen should one's eyes be practiced to the weave.

"I fear, my lord, you lost track of the heddles at this point."

"Truly?" he asks, surprised and, I think, more than a little dismayed. He moves close in and then further away now that he can stand upon the floor, but not too far, tethered as he is to the loom by the bundle of weft thread. "Is there aught can be done to correct it?"

"No, my lord. I fear not. You must unwind your weaving unto that point and begin anew."

He scowls at the cloth and then scratches at his jaw, his fingers sounding harsh against his beard.

"There is naught else for it, my lord," I say. "Either suffer the fault or undo the work."

"Very well." He winds the length of weft upon itself. "I take it I need only reverse my steps?"

"Aye, my lord. But, when you start again, you must be careful of the edges.  They creep inward so slowly you will not know it and shall soon have a much narrower piece than first you intended," I say, running my finger down the edge of the cloth and plucking at the guide thread so that it thrums low.

He scowls at the threads, watching my hands.  I leave him to it and he sighs, but sets immediately to putting the cloth to rights as should the fault offend him and he wish it removed from his sight as soon as can be.

"How long should it be until I need not count each pass to keep my place?" he asks.

I gather my skirts about me and ease myself between the table and bench.

"I know not, my lord. I suppose not long, as it is a simple pattern." I stumble at my lord's look. Mayhap I should not have called it thus.

"Simple? And what qualifies as a master's work?"

"Verily, my lord, 'tis a simple pattern. I doubt not you will get the right of it soon enough." I take up the quill again. The end has split and I reach behind me for the knife my lord keeps in his tall chest against the wall.

"How old were you when you mastered this pattern?" He waves the sword at the warp behind him.

I swallow and consider the quill point I am attempting to shape and my answer. He will not like it. "I believe I had a full ten years, my lord."

All I am to receive in reply is a blank, disbelieving look, and then he turns back to the loom. I think the very wood and wool would quail should it have thought enough to perceive the grim look it gets.

"A child of ten," he mutters and pulls roughly on the heddle. The weights bang sharply against each other in a great discord. He pauses, and then deliberately eases the heddle to its supports.  “Are you certain you have not the touch, lady?”

At this, I smile, for I cannot think how such a thing would have much to do with mastering somewhat as simple as the interweaving of threads.  “Quite certain, my lord, unless my mother had the touch, as well.  I am afraid you must continue your search for answers elsewhere.” 

He shakes his head. Though he does not respond ‘tis certain he does not fully agree.

It is not long after he has corrected his error the door opens and Halbarad returns.

He stares, I think, surprised not only to see his lord and I still in the hall, but to see our roles so completely at opposites.

"Halbarad," my lord greets him mildly and then returns to beating the warp with a light hand.

"What is this you do?" his kinsman asks, drifting from the door to the loom.

"No more than what it looks, nor no less."

"Why?"

"Well," my lord says, lifting a shoulder, "for naught else, I am allowed the use of this." His eyes dance with suppressed mirth as he turns the weaver's sword about so Halbarad might examine each surface.

"Formidable, indeed, though mayhap a trifle dull, should you allow." Halbarad backs away from the loom, taking it in from top to bottom. "And so, this is what you have been at?"

"Aye, it goes slowly," my lord says. "I have only been at it since just after the noon meal."

"We come swiftly upon dusk, now."  At a sharp look from his kin, Halbarad allows, “Mayhap it is bit cumbersome to attempt with one hand.  All in all, it seems a fine bit of cloth."

He looks it over, and then squints and peers closely. "What happened there?" he asks and then backs away, tilting his head as were he attempting to gain a view of the whole.

"Where?" My lord follows his kin's gaze, scowling.

"There." Halbarad points at a line that falls as a thin shadow from edge to edge. "Does not the pattern falter?"

"It does no such—" my lord protests but then he falls silent of a sudden and the quiet is near as tense as a curse.

Aught more and I think I shall need bite through my tongue to quell my laughter.

"Well, my lord," Halbarad says and clears his throat. "Mayhap I should leave you to it, then."

I need not see the man's face to discern his amusement. Nor does my lord, for he clouts his kin upon his shoulder with the weaver’s sword in a great slap.

"Enough out of you, or I will set you to it and you can find for yourself just how easily you take to it."

Halbarad makes his way to the buttery, chuckling and rubbing his shoulder, his stride easy. "My lady," says he and nods his greeting ere he ducks his head beneath its door.

“Did Mathil have much else to report?” asks my lord, raising his voice o’er the sound of his work.

“Eh?” calls Halbarad, his voice muffled behind the wood of the half-closed door.  “Mathil? Nay, no more than we already knew from him afore.”

“Indeed?” My lord pauses in his work to glance at the darkened buttery door.

“What of it?” Halbarad demands.  He has emerged from the buttery with a cup of ale and comes to my lord’s table.

“You were there for far more of the day needed to gain so little news.”  My lord has turned his attention away, but, for some reason, looks rather pleased.  “Did I not say it?  You had little to worry on Mathil’s account. His eyes follow you all places you may go.  Mayhap I shall now have some relief and need not heed the habitual recital of your misgivings.”

Though his look is somewhat pained, Halbarad snorts and goes on as though my lord had not spoken, “Elder Maurus had much to say, though not much on where Bachor obtains his supplies of wine and more of aught he has e’er said afore. 'Tis a marvel the stars still stand and the sun rises upon the break of day."

Halbarad eases himself to the bench across from where I sit. The breath he releases o’er his cup is long in suffering.

My lord chuckles from his place by the loom. "And how fares Maurus? Will he attend the Council upon the morrow?"

"No, I think not." Halbarad scrubs at the back of his head and yawns mightily. "'Twould not surprise me should he take to bed in preparation for the end of all things."

"Halbarad," says my lord, his voice mild. "Much of the Angle stands as it does because of him."

Halbarad shakes his head and grimaces. "Aye, I do not contest it, but I wonder at his hold upon the Council at his age," he says, his voice rising and look vexed. "The Council needs but one firm hand, not the six it has."

My lord turns a kind albeit brief look upon his kin ere returning to his work.

"Aye, aye! 'Patience! Have faith!'" Halbarad says and sighs, stretching his legs out beneath the table. "'Tis hard when the days grow short."

Their words had not disturbed me, though I listen. But now their silence seems as a shout. I raise my head to find Halbarad looking upon me, and I wonder at his thoughts. His brows are knit with concern.

"My lady, what is it you do?" He leans across the table.

I turn the journal about, so he may better see the page. Numbers, dots, and arrows mar the surface of my makeshift map. "I have all but the last of my lord's men to account for of what we know of this last month."

"Eh!" he grunts, his brow rising. "Seems our lists were plain enough.”

I drag the journal back to its place afore me. Despite my lord’s quiet approval of the work, Halbarad’s words sting as had he slapped my hand away as would a parent of a young child.  My lord is very quiet at his work by the loom.  I know not his thoughts on the matter.

Halbarad returns my gaze steadily and slowly spins his cup between his palms.  I must stare at the man, for I cannot account for his ill-temper.  Ai!  I shall profit nothing from a contest of wills on such foreign soil as this. 

With some effort, I drop my eyes to stare at the marks upon the page afore me.  I confess it, some of the joy of it has drained from the work.  I hope I had not expected praise from the man, but surely not such censure was deserved. 

With this, Halbarad releases a slow breath and takes up his ale.  I am unsure why this must enflame me, but it does, and a heat rises to my thoughts so I know not the meaning of what I had just put upon the page. Be he kin of the man or no, how dare he visit his ill mood upon me in such a way as to demean me afore my lord and husband!

“My lord,” I say, dipping the nib to the inkhorn and making a deliberate mark upon the page.  “Would it not be the role of the Council to assure that Mistress Nesta has what she needs for the health of the Angle’s folk, especially now Master Dwalin’s folk no longer travel across the Great Road?’

Halbarad peers at me from o’er the rim of his cup and my lord pauses in his work. For a long moment, he stands very still and considers me keenly.

“I do not question the wisdom of your foresight on this matter, lady, but that is not your purpose, is it?  To what end would you put the Council to it?”   

I shift in my seat, though I do not look up from my lord’s journal. 

“The wine Elder Bachor provides the mistress is not of the Southfarthing, but I do not recognize it, my lord.  I doubt I may discover the source, but enough of when he provided it, how much, and of what type it is to give you a start.”

“And why might wine of Southfarthing be of significance, my lady?” Halbarad has set down his cup and scowls at me from across the table. 

I falter.  He must truly think me both blind and deaf to the events in my lord’s hall.  I stare mutely at the man. 

At this, my lord carefully sets the loom at rest, releasing the heddle rod he had been holding to its supports.  Hanging the wooden sword upon its hook, he strides to the table and, easing his legs o’er the bench, takes a seat beside his kin.  There he turns an impassive look upon me.   

I set the quill upon its rest and remove my hands to my lap, where it seems my eyes are drawn.  Oh, ai!  I have been most unwise and tread upon things my betters would think well beyond me.  I know of women who have been shunned by their husbands and kin for less than this.  I dare not look full upon them, the men of my house arrayed together across the table from me.   

My lord’s look betrays naught of his thoughts, and now do I greatly regret attempting an attack upon his kin’s fitness. I know not how I thought my lord would not detect my purpose nor my perception of what he might not wish me to have greater understanding.  At the least, I shall have many months of hard work repairing what trust I might hope to regain.  At the most, I may have sundered myself from my lord in all but name, all for a poorly played moment of pettiness. 

“Forgive me, my lord,” I say and clear my throat, staring at my lap. “I should not –"

“I am not the one owed apology, lady,” he says.

At this, I release a slow breath as quietly as I dare.  Ai, merciful Nienna.  I swallow what pride I have left and speak.  “Forgive me, Ranger Halbarad.  I should not have seen fit to take precedence in matters that are yours.” 

I dare a quick glance at the man and he nods, though his face as soft as stone. 

“I weary of your contentions,” my lord states flatly. “They will not be aired afore me again.” 

To my surprise, his stern look takes in both Halbarad and I. I know not how to respond, for I was unaware of any strife between his kin and I afore today.  Aye, well, I doubt my lord in any mood to accept my protests.  There is naught for it but to nod in agreement. 

“Now, answer the question put to you, lady,” he commands. 

“As it please you, my lord,” I say and, nodding briefly to the map I had yet to finish, watch as my hand worries at the web of skin between thumb and finger.  “’Tis clear, my lord, from your councils with your men upon this past winter, the maps with your markers that you leave upon the table, and now with the ordering of your men’s comings and goings that you are much concerned with securing the border of the land of the Halflings against incursion of our Enemy.  In doing so, you have left much of our own folk unguarded.”

“What do you think of this?”

I shake my head.  “’Tis not my place to sit in judgment upon you, my lord.”

“That is not what I asked,” he says and points at me. He then taps upon the table afore me.   “Do not think I have missed that you hide much from me, lady. I have no need to know all of it.  But these are matters of grave importance and I would know the thoughts of my household on them.  Speak fully, or we shall ne’er speak of it again and I shall exercise a much greater caution.” 

At this, it is as had I been plunged in cold water of great depth.  For, at this moment, I cannot breathe and all else feels numb and the hall about me at a great remove.  An I thought my lord circumspect in revealing his heart and his mind with me afore, should I fail of his trust, how lonely and cold the marriage bed shall I make for myself.  For he is sure to set a guard upon me to ensure my compliance and ne’er speak to or touch me unless it is to see to the making of his heir.

I set the nail of my thumb to the skin pinched between thumb and forefinger and hope the pain shall sharpen my thoughts.   

“I have ever known you willing to bear the burden of our protection,” I say, “no matter the cost.  I can only think there must be somewhat or someone in that land you prize as necessary for our defense.  It must be of great significance to the Nameless One, else you would not have taken to your journeying so hard upon Lord Mithrandir’s visit.  And him newly come from the Shire to seek you out.”

My lord makes a small thoughtful sound.  “And what think you Elder Bachor has to do with the matter?”

“’Tis not just him.  You would not wish any folk of the Angle to have dealings with Bree or the Shire, for it would risk drawing eyes upon it you would not wish to linger there.  I would think, too, you would not wish those of the Angle to know of your plans, or, at least, to delay their full understanding as long as you are able.  Elder Bachor has the wit to discern our situation easily, should he have news, and he has the ear of those who would not take to it kindly.  You need this time to build upon the Angle’s goodwill what defenses you can for them. Should he discover the whereabouts of your men, we are sure to have little goodwill and little time.”

I have released the skin of my hand, leaving it dark about a half-moon of imprinted flesh.  I rub at the ink that stains the forefinger of my writing hand and await my lord’s judgment upon me. 

A great clap of an open palm upon the table startles me so badly I jerk upon my seat and my eyes fly up to find Halbarad’s eyes fixed upon my lord.  For my lord has taken to smiling softly upon me and his eyes shine with somewhat of gratification and relief.  I know not why, but Halbarad’s features are both grim and sad. He shakes his head as had he somewhat he would say but is not allowed the right. He rises swiftly from his seat, the edge of his boot knocking upon the bench in his haste.  I can only stare at his back as he strides to the great door and mumbles somewhat of seeking out Master Baran.  With a jerk, he snatches the door open and disappears behind it. 

“Lady.” 

‘Tis only then I can turn to my lord.  He had watched his kin’s departure. But now, he wipes at his mouth and chin, and, once his hand drops to the table, turns a sober look upon me. 

“It seems ‘tis I who owes you amends, lady.  I had had no real hope of concealing the movements of my men and the importance it reveals from you, but had not given much thought to your understanding of the ramifications.”

“My lord?”

“Introduce your proposal to the Council,” he says in a low, steady voice.  “Should you learn aught of Elder Bachor’s dealings with those outside the Angle, I would know them.  But do so with great care.  Aye, he is subtle of thought and not much happens that goes without his notice.  An you can reason so clearly to our purpose, so can he. Should it seem your attempts reveal too much, desist from them and we will pursue another route by which to discover what risks his sources present.  He is a member of the Council and one of our kin.  Your presence on the Council is a discomfort for him as it is.  It is to no one’s good should he have reason to feel we have set ourselves against him.” 

With this, he twists about upon the bench and, pressing the fingers of his good hand to the table, lifts himself to standing.  He says naught more but, glancing briefly at the pattern growing down from the warp beam, pulls on the correct heddle, takes up the bundle of weft wool, and resumes his work at the loom.

~oOo~

 

 

Chapter Text

~ Chapter 24 ~

 

Look not to me for healing! I am a shieldmaiden and my hand is ungentle.

ROTK:  The Steward and the King

~oOo~

a field of grain grown gold and ripe

~oOo~

~ TA 3009, 19th day of of Urimë: Master Herdir reports six days-work owed and not yet paid upon this the first day of harvest. Four due to ill health and pardoned.  One due to broken bone and pardoned.  One not yet discovered. 

~oOo~

 

Scratches lie in faint trails upon the back of my hands as paths amidst dusty plains. Ah, but they itch for the stinging salt of my own sweat! No help for it but to keep on. The line of men snakes dark against the wall of grain, and, at a glance, I know the lass who bears the buckets of water makes her slow way hither. The men have stripped to the waist and bend their backs to the harvest, their sickles striking the straw and rattling the heads of rye. We women follow, binding what the men reap into sheaves. Dirt crumbles beneath my knees as I kneel and twist a thin handful of straw into a makeshift cord. Ai! But my throat is parched and waiting for relief a sore trial.

These are the days of the harvest and all the Angle is pressed to its service. Not only do the men reap and women bind, but their lads and lasses bend to earth, for their eyes are the sharpest and they glean fallen berries their elders would miss. None are so low as to fail of their service, nor so high. Even my lord bends beneath the sun and swings his borrowed sickle, though he seems better suited to felling orc than fistfuls of rye and barley.

Upon my rising, I found my bed empty and my lord already about, though the sun had not yet tipped above the meadow. Swift was my dressing, for I pulled on naught but my most ragged of linen dresses and wrapped my hair tight beneath a soft brimmed hat, for I knew I would spend the day laboring in the fields. I burst into the hall upon quick feet, having taken to my lord's habit of tripping lightly down the stair, and then halted. My lord was there awaiting me, with the morning's meal laid out afore him.

"Ah, good," he said. He closed his journal with a thump and set it aside. "You are ready."

My feet were slow to bring me to join him, for I had much to marvel o’er. My lord sat comfortably upon his chair, dressed in no more than his light shirt and breeches. Upon the table, tea steeped in a cup set in what must have been my place. A cup of ale sat afore my lord. Half gone it was already. He had tasted, too, of freshly baked oak cakes which were not of my making. It seemed he had attempted to wait for me in breaking his fast but failed somewhat. In this I could not blame him, for the cakes smelled of apricot and some rare spice I had found in the pantry but knew not how to use nor e’en its name. And I could only wonder at what lay bundled in the bucket that sat upon the far end of the table. No doubt it was our noon meal, prepared and packed ere I had even thought to see to it.

"My lord?"

He looked up from where he thrust his journal into the tall chest. "Aye, lady, I have drawn more ale, should that be what you wish, instead. But I thought you partial to tea upon rising and the ale we can bring with us."

"You go to work the harvest, my lord?"

"Aye," he said and then caught my look. "Unless you think I be unwelcome." Doubt troubled his face, though briefly and leaving little trace once it was gone.

"No, my lord, I think your folk eager to see you no matter the occasion."

"That is well," he said and, at that moment, I thought sure the dawn outshone by his face. "Come then!" He waved me to the place he had set for me and placed a cake there. "Eat, for the sun rises and we must soon make haste. I think it not a good thing for the Lord of the Dúnedain to be the last to arrive upon the first day of the harvest when his people have risen early for their work."

I sat with some hesitance and my lord smiled, for I think he caught my sniffing at the piece I had broken off my cake.

"Think you it poisoned, lady?" he asked and his eyes twinkled above the rim of his cup.

"No, my lord." I said and cast my eyes down as was proper. "I would think, as you have eaten of it ere I sat to it, any ill effects should be seen by now, and you seem well enough."

He laughed into his cup and wiped at his mouth after. The look he gave me was of both wonderment and delight equally mixed and I ate the easier for it.

I stoop to bind the bundle of barley, and the grasses rustle and creak in my arms and smell of the dryness of the dust and sun. The shadow of my lord falls upon me and he lets drop yet more for me to gather up and make fast. His hair lies bound against his neck so it might not fall into his eyes as he works, and his shirt he has tied about his waist. Sweat beads upon his face and back and he halts but a moment to wipe at his brow and then steps back into the rhythm of grasp of barley and swing of sickle. My lord seems well-healed, for he works long and does not weary.

Ah, is not my lord the hardiest of men of this Age? For it shows in the care with which his frame is knit and the keen mind that gives it life.

I shake my head free of my thoughts. The grain shall not pluck from the ground and fly into our granaries of itself.

Flocks of crows circle high overhead or croak from nearby branches. Ahead, a large black-winged bird alights and struts along the furrows, thinking, mayhap, to snatch the grain from beneath our very guard. Soon, the dogs shall bark and the children run, and a great cawing and flapping of wings will answer their assault. Oft the retreat is but a feint, no more than a few yards away and the gangs of youngsters cry after them and throw stones as they give chase. Atimes, it seems I see mirth in those black, twinkling eyes as they hop away and wonder what sport the crows find in these games, for, true, they take to the air, but only to begin it all again.

I rise to lean the shock of grain against its mates and when I look again, my lord stands tall, his sickle dangling in his loose grasp. The lass has at last come upon us and so eager is he to pour the cup down his throat, water trickles through his beard and upon his neck. He has grown dark for his days out of doors and the sheen of sweat upon his back captures the very sun.

Ah!  Since our conference there in my lord’s hall of the weeks afore, my thoughts grow wild and willful and I despair of taming them.  For he has done as he promised, and it is a rare rising of the sun that I am not awakened to it by the soft touch of my lord’s hands and lips.  He is as the flower's nectar and I am as the bee, having but once been given its taste, ever am I beholden to its sweetness.

Ai, but I burn!

His smile earns my lord one in return below the bare dip of a head from the water-bearer. Her gaze, too, seem ascendant o'er her will as much as mine. She cuts her eyes at him though she turns away, for others draw near and would dip into the water with their cups. My lord has greetings for them, as well, and they seem as easily drawn to the sight of him.

Aye, but it does his folk good to look upon him, their lord. They much regret his absence though I must hope they allow its need. In his place, I make for a poor substitute. Their eyes, it seems, hold a curious shadow when they look upon me and think I know it not. They puzzle over me, it seems, as much as I over them. And now, when they see us two together, my lord and I, I think they wonder. For I have caught many a glance upon the change of the season after each of my lord's farewells, swiftly withdrawn though they are, but that take in the fall of my skirts and measure for aught of change. My lord gives little thought to the fondness of touch or glance, either within his house where we are private, nor abroad when we are not. And I think his people begin to wonder for it.

My lord has caught sight of me as I stand, my burden set down, stretching my back. Aye, I shall be stiff upon my next morn's rising. He begs of the lass bearing water another dip into the bucket and bears the cup to me. Sweet is the water, though warm, and sweeter still the gladness that lights upon my lord's face. I think he has as much need of his folk as they of him.

"What think you of the harvest, my lord?"

"Ah, lady!" he says and his gaze travels far over the fields and the backs bent upon them. His eyes shine upon the sight. "I am blessed for it."

"And your arm, my lord?"

"Nay," he says and twists it about, working his hand into a fist. "It pains me not." His face turns to me and he smiles. "Worry not, lady."

And so, I drink of the water and the sight of my lord much renewed by work without fear or hurt to hinder him.

When I lower the cup, I find my lord frowns and his gaze seems much taken by my wrist. It is not until he has taken my hand in his and turned it that I see the blood upon my sleeve. It is but a dark shadow upon the linen, but my lord drops his sickle at his feet and takes the cup from me. He pushes the sleeve aside so he can see the skin below. It is naught but a scratch taken in my carelessness upon lifting the sheaves and I would think it of little concern. But he looses my hand only to tug at his shirt and dip a corner of the cloth into what water remains in the cup so he might tend to my hurt. He rubs at the tender skin of my wrist, holding my hand in his.

"Let it dry ere you return to your work, lady, and it will heal cleanly," says he.

I think him done, but he turns my hand about and it seems he is displeased for their marring. It would make me smile, for my lord bears scars white upon his skin that he has taken in our service, but for the thought one day such a wound may take my lord from his folk. I wonder, then, whose hands he knows are so fine as to ne'er bear signs of labor.

"What doth my lord know of women?"

"In truth?" he asks in kind and his eyes come upon me. "Little," says he, "for I have not lived amongst them since my youth, though I learn more daily." This last he offers with a flash of a young boy's smile. "At the least, I have learned to have little hope of persuading thee to forebear from working the harvest, though it brings thee discomfort."

But this does not tickle my mirth, as my lord no doubt intended.

"I would defy no command of thine, my lord."

"No," says he and his face falls full sober. "You would not. But, thou art the lady of the Dúnedain, were I to force you against your will, I would care little for the price it would cost me."

I can think of naught to say in reply, for I had thought my lord's will of such supremacy o’er his folk he need not consider its effect. Nor had I thought he would set the price of my good will so high.

'Twas these thoughts, then, that disturbed my mind when we returned to the harvest. I knew not when the sun traversed the sky and when we had come near the end of the furlongs we worked. All through the binding and carrying of sheaves, in the heat and the dust and the bright sun, I felt none of it. I only knew I had my lord's regard and felt dizzy and wine-besotted for it.

~oOo~

 

 

Chapter Text

~ Chapter 25 ~

 

Indeed there is a power in Rivendell to withstand the might of Mordor, for a while: and elsewhere other powers still dwell. There is power, too, of another kind in the Shire. But all such places will soon become islands under siege, if things go on as they are going. The Dark Lord is putting forth all his strength.

FOTR: Many Meetings

~oOo~

Aragorn's face with just nose, cheek, eye, and brow in view.  He is looking down.

~oOo~

~ TA 3009, 5th day of Yavannië : Ranger Haldren found north of the Angle but making his way slowly on one lame leg and makeshift splint. He carries naught but his sword and the head of the orc that slew his horse and sends word of scouts as near as the source of the Mithithiel.  Ranger Mathil sent with supplies to replace Haldren’s kit, his own mount and one of my lord’s horses to bring him home. 

~oOo~

 

“My lady," Elesinda says, “shall I save this or put it to the geese?" She tips a bowl toward me with the heels and scraps of bread, near half a loaf.

"Aye, save it and let it dry," I say. "The plums ripen quickly and we could make a pudding of it."

She smiles and I know she thinks either of Halbarad's love of sweets or my attempts to coddle my lord, or mayhap both. Either thought brings a fondness to her face and I am well pleased.

My lord spends far too many of his day gaunt of frame, to my way of thinking. He caught me, once, as we lay in the solar upon his return and I marveling how, were the world just, my lord would be eating more oft of the bounty of the land he protects.

"How many ribs have I?" His voice had been mild, taking delight in knowing my thoughts ere I had spoken them.

"Far too many that I can count, my lord," I said, and he had given me his gentle smile in exchange.

Aye, he must spend much of his time away dining on hard crackers and rainwater; for I know he pushes himself without relenting and spends more time in swift travel from one place to another and precious little time in filling his belly. I might put much thought into the baking of my lord's provisions, adding flavor with rosemary or eking out the rare spices from the pantry with honey to sweeten the taste, but a constant diet of the stuff must dull the palate. Bread, roast perch from the river, and a simple stew of smoked pork, white beans, onion, and greens from our gardens I laid afore him tonight and my lord ate as had he not seen the like since last he was home, and I doubt not that this be the truth of the matter.

"Would you finish with the rest?" I ask and Elesinda nods.

"Aye, my lady," she says, and I leave her with a brief hand upon her shoulder.

When I come to the hall, my lord sits, his long legs stretched beneath his table and a cup of ale within reach. Halbarad left with Ranger Mathil and once they see Haldren safe, he is to travel about the lands that surround the Angle gathering word from my lord's men.  We shall not see him until after the harvest. My lord has commanded the table upon our return from the fields. There he gathers all news to one place where he can see it spread afore him. He does not look up when I enter nor when I pile the pots one into the other from where they cool about the hearth. He scrubs at his jaw and his face is grim as he reaches for and sips from his cup. It might as well contain rancid water than the ale I know he favors, little as he seems to enjoy it. Ah, my lord is at his maps again.

The coals have cooled beneath the grate. Kneeling, I pour water into a clean pot and set it upon the metal, stirring the fire and raking coals into position below it. I have had ale with my supper. Some tea, mayhap then, while I join my lord at the table and write in the day's journal and plan for the morrow.

Ah, we have little honey left. I must send Elesinda to the market upon the morrow or the next day. My lord deserves better meat upon his table than he had tonight. And mayhap I shall take another try at a dish of pease. I have mint, and though it is not to my taste, I know of those who boil pease with mint and a spoon of honey. My own taste has misled me afore in the way of what my lord finds pleasing, mayhap I shall have more success going against it. And then, butter and eggs we have to spare, but my lord's pudding shall need sweetening. Honey, then it is. Aye, he may be tall, but my lord need not be so lean. This, at the least, I can do.

"Lady, come sit with me."

I raise my head to find my lord looking upon me. He lays a light hand upon the bench near him that I had abandoned after the meal. Puzzled, I grab up a cloth to clean my hands and, leaving the water to come to a boil on its own, make my way to the table. I fear not, for I have seen the set of my lord's jaw tighten in anger afore, and though his look now is solemn, he seems in no way displeased with me.

"Aye, my lord?"

"What know you of our position in the North?" he asks when I round the table, and my brows rise in response. I wonder he would want to hear my thoughts on the matter.

But my lord drags the bench close beside him and there I sit. Afore us lie his maps. I pore o’er their surface as I wipe my hands, my lord watching me, until I toss aside the linen and cast about, frowning in thought. As ever, my lord seems to know my mind and he twists about in his chair, reaching his long arm and snagging his bag of colored stones. I take them from him and pour them into my hand, cream and black. They are cool and smooth as I weigh them in my palm.

"Well, my lord," say I and take a deep breath, "our foes swiftly hem us in, and should we not prevent it, we shall soon be sundered from the rest of our kin."

My lord looks upon me a long moment ere shifting in his chair until he sits upright.

"How do you know this?" By the solemnity of his voice, his words seem more a prompt for me to continue than challenge. He taps a finger upon the map. "Show me what has come to pass and what you fear may yet be."

I take a light-colored stone from its mates, where they clink one against the other.

"The farmsteads and villages of your people, my lord, were, at one time, greatly scattered." Here I place the lighter stones between the Misty Mountains and land of the Halflings and Breefolk. "When first I came to your house, my lord, they spread as far north as Mount Gram and the Twilight Hills and as south as Tharbad, but no longer in any great number."

My lord is silent and it seems I am to continue.

"Your people, my lord, tell me of trolls who venture forth from the Ettenmoors, orcs spilling from the Misty Mountains, and men of old Carn Dûm who attack our northern holdings."

As I speak, I prod the stones from their places and herd them toward the tip of Angle and the Hills of Evendim upon the shores of the Lake.

"They speak of wolves that run in packs of the size and boldness ne'er seen afore. Their eyes burn as coals and their bites swiftly poison. They speak of young children snatched from their tofts and ne’er to be seen again.  Those who live apart from their folk dare not go out when the sun sets and go hungry for the flocks and cattle they have lost.  They speak of the glow of fire upon the mountaintops at the edge of the northern wastes and a gathering darkness about the lands of the wild, and seek comfort in greater numbers."

I then turn my attention to those stones I have placed south of the Angle and sweep them west into the arms of the Blue Mountains.

"Strange men have been seen along the Old South Road, traveling in groups or singly and tales of your folk put to the sword follow them.  They kill the men and children and leave them where they lie, yet none of the womenfolk are to be found among them.  We know not where they were taken. Fear of them drive your folk to the south to the sea."

At this, my lord's face grows grave and sad. It seems to me he walks amidst the wreckage of some distant memory. I fall silent and toy with the stones in my hand. They have grown warm and stick to my skin. The telling brought me no joy and brings my lord only pain.

With a touch, my lord halts my restless stirring of the stones. Gently he opens my fingers and empties my hand. Dark stones he places in Mirkwood, the High Pass north of Imladris in the Misty Mountains, about the Mountains of vanquished Angmar, upon Caradhras the seat of Moria, and upon Dunland to the south. Yet, even then, he does not stop, but pours out more stones from their pouch and goes on until small islands of light pebbles float amidst an embracing black sea and then, finally, are submerged beneath it.

I know not what I feel at the story my lord's stones tell. It cannot be news, surely, to any who live in these times, yet, how bleak the tale to see years unfold afore me in a moment's span.

My lord's face is grim. He sits back in his chair and eases his arm in his lap. Of late, it pains him seldom, and then only when weary or heavy of heart.

I think I know my lord's thoughts. His men are thinly spread and we are most vulnerable to the east and the south. Tightening the net about the land of the Halflings as he has done has left great rents in our defense against the orcs multiplying beneath the Misty Mountains. Aye, my lord seeks to buy time. Precious, indeed, may be its price.

"My lord," I say and a soft sound grants me the right to speak. "What of the men of the Angle? Can they not relieve your Rangers for other duties?"

A keen glance from him tells me my lord has considered this. "Does not the Angle require their services to provision and shelter her people?"

"Aye," I say and shift a bit uncomfortably upon the bench.

"You believe the Angle could manage." His eyes seem made of lances, so sharp is their gaze, and he leans o’er the table the better to take in the tale of the stones.

"Not easily, mayhap," I say. "But I think, my lord, they will feel the better for a hand in their own defense."

My lord is silent and he scrapes his fingers softly through his beard, staring at the letters and crudely drawn maps littering his table.

"Is it not a matter of pride," say I, "that a man may provide for the safety of those he loves? I see little reason why it must be reserved only for your Rangers."

A soft huff of laughter greets this pronouncement and I lift my gaze.

"No, I suppose not." I see he is smiling, though the mirth is slight. "Very well," he says, sobering. "Should you think it best, we shall muster the men."

At these words my heart gives a startling thump and I feel as had the floor tilted beneath me. Ai! Should I think it best! I had thought only to relieve my lord of his fears. What have I done?

My lord leans back against his chair and shakes his head, frowning. "But I deem it unwise to withdraw all the Rangers from the Angle. A portion will remain and watch upon the furthest borders. And I would not have a small force of men of the Angle dedicated to the task. The day may come when we will need every man who may wield ax and knife and bow as well as a hoe or spade. It would be best to set them all to it and share the burden among them." "Or rather," he says, and his face lightens, "to share in its honor."

"Lady?" I hear. I find my lord frowning, and I wonder how long he has been speaking and I did not know it.

His frown eases and he looks upon me with some pity. "Worry not overmuch, lady." His thumb comes to gently smooth away the line between my brows and then drops away. "I had it in my heart to ask this very thing of our folk but knew not how it would be received and thought to wait. Think you this day is upon us and they will accept the charge?"

"Should you ask it of them, my lord, aye, I believe they would."

"Then I shall," says he. "But I shall expect you to stand beside me when I do so. Should you think yourself able to take a hand to the decision, then you must see it through, to the bitter end should need be."

I suppose it is only truth he speaks, though I quail at the thought.

"To Halbarad I have left the ordering of the Rangers of the North. He it is that provides for the safety of the Dúnedain when my travels take me from the Angle. But now the need is great and the numbers of those who may meet it grows ever smaller. Even now I must send Halbarad where I would send myself, we are so few."

Here my lord sweeps a hand over the darkened map. "The Shadow grows, lady. My voice must be heard in the councils and in the ordering of the people of the Angle, and I need Halbarad free of these duties."

Of a sudden I am aware my lord studies me, his gaze burning upon my face.

"What do you wish of me, my lord?"

My lord does not smile, but somewhat softens in his gaze. "May I take from you your Great Hound, lady?"

And by this I know I shall sit upon the Councils of myself and bend their ears by my voice alone. And, aye, it is time. For the fortress I seek to build takes shape e’en now.

So fond, then, is the brush of his knuckles along my cheek, I think then my lord will press his lips to mine and there give me thanks, for but a hint of desire burns in his eyes. But he does not, for in an instant the warmth of his gaze has fled, and he turns away swiftly to hide what follows.

~oOo~

I left my lord in the hall. He had moved to a cushioned bench afore the hearth so he may lay upon it in comfort, looking upon its embers and smoking his pipe. Though I lingered in my tasks of the even, soon the hall was tidied and prepared for the morn, my account of the day was complete and the ink dry, and the wool and spindle put away. I did not bid my lord his good night, for I thought, despite the reserve that settled about him as the hours lengthened, he might yet follow me upstairs. But he did not, and when I unlaced the dress from my body, unwound the length of cloth from my hair, and washed the day from my face and hands, I did so alone, my thoughts much occupied with my lord’s abstinence.

Were I to think upon all the hours of pleasure we have had of each other, my lord is ever attentive to what might bring me enjoyment.  I have no complaint of him.  But he indulges in little of it of his own.  A thing of duty he would perform to his best, but a thing of duty natheless.  He asks for naught and distracts me should I attempt to discover what would please him. And I let him.  Should we continue as we have, a thing of duty this shall remain.  And ‘tis said duty may bind a man to what he must do, but ‘tis the ties of the heart that give him the strength to do it when it would cost him dearly. 

Somewhat moves my lord to give care to those beyond our borders greater weight than those within them.  Should I build this fortress my lord desires, I must have as much of his heart as my lord has it in him to give.  He must love the Angle and those within in to make aught else but its endurance a rending of his heart. 

I stand beside the bed, dressed in naught but my shift and know the groaning of the boards beneath my feet tell my lord the tale of my preparations. Mayhap my lord waits until he hears the wood of our bed creak with my laying down upon it. But, now I consider it, even then I think he shall linger in the hall, until all noise is stilled and he knows me asleep.

The bed is soft and would gladly welcome my weight, cradling my limbs until I fall to my slumbers.  Less certain am I of the comforts to be had should I set my feet to the solar stairs and return to the hall, but it is there I go instead.  For I have been a coward. ‘Tis no other name for it.  I have allowed my lord to set terms and lived within what might bring comfort, and no more. 

I come afore my lord and kneel at his feet, sitting upon my heels. Deep are the shadows that fall upon the corners of the hall, and my lords sits in a small circle of waning light.  His pipe had gone cold and yet he lingered, watching the fire burn down. At the sound of my bare step upon the stairs and into the hall, my lord had raised himself to sitting and laid aside his pipe.

"Lady?" he asks, and by his voice I know him worried for me, but I do not answer.

Ah, but my heart pounds so wildly within my breast it sends the blood rushing to my head and I am weak and deaf for it. Though I dare not meet my lord's gaze, ne'er have I been so bold, for I untie the thong that holds my hair in its braid. Aye, I make a mess of undoing the plait, so unequal are my fingers to the task, but I know enough now of my lord's desires to know he would wish to set his hands in my hair.

It is when I tug upon the tie that draws my shift closed about my shoulders my lord's hand comes up beneath my chin and forces me to look upon his face. There I find, not the refusal I most greatly feared, but a look of grave concern that falls away of a sudden when my lord laughs.

"What is it you have planned, lady, that lights your eye with such wickedness?" he asks, and I must bite upon my lip for I cannot otherwise temper my smiling.  

For, indeed, I would make of my lord an accomplice in my scheming, and by the look he gives me, I think him not wholly unwilling. Ah!  He is so careful to master his own urges.  Should he allow it, what indeed shall I discover of him that he knew not even of himself?  Oh, but it is a stirring thing, my lord’s face painted in light and shadow and looking upon me so, and my heart lifts for it. 

"There is a thing, my lord, of which the wives of the Angle speak."

"Indeed?"

"Aye, my lord."

There is naught about my lord of reluctance, indeed he smiles, amused, I think, at my impertinence. “And what would you have of me, lady?”

With that, my hands have found their way to my lord's knees and there do they play upon the cloth that covers them.

“I would have thee beg for thy completion, my lord.”

At this, he blinks and stares at me.  All his former mirth has fled and there leaves behind a stunned look.  Yet, he suffers my touch and, despite its boldness, raises no protest.  When I run light fingers upon the tender flesh of his thighs and make room for myself between them, he grasps upon the bench to steady himself.  There he takes in a long breath, his eyes caught upon my lips where they are bitten and wet as I ease the long leather of his belt about his tunic from its knot.

"And would you tell me of this thing, lady, this thing of which the women speak?"

"No, my lord."

~oOo~