For disclaimer and further details see Part 1.
Rating: General, for this part.
Rating: General, for this part.
Day Nineteen – The Farmer
Like most other farms in Anórien, Archu’s farmstead consisted of a hall, in which his entire family lived, and outbuildings like stables, storehouses, barns and so on, all this surrounded by fields and pastures. His was one of the larger farmsteads around Halabor, with 51/2 hides of land. Only his brother-in-law, Wron, had a larger one.
They both owned their lands – in fact, Archu’s family had been farming here for almost four hundred years. That meant that he did not owe Lord Orchald any service in respect of labour as some of the less well off farmers in the area did. At first sight, his farmstead seemed quite prosperous.
But as in many other cases, appearances were deceiving. He still had to pay ground rent and one pig a year to his lord and to the town respectively, as well as his taxes. He was also expected to perform carrying duties (unless he could pay the carter to do so in his stead, which he could not), help build and maintain fences and fortifications – something that had become increasingly urgent in these dark times – and sundry other duties.
What hit him the hardest, though, was the obligation to provide a soldier for the local army when commanded. He had not been able to afford any hired help for many years, thus he had to send one of his own sons when needed. And that was a demand that could have easily ruined him and his entire family.
The farm was large, the labour plenty, and of his thirteen children, only five were sons. Ardan, his firstborn, was supposed to take over the farm one day and worked from sunrise to sunset with his entire family, so that there would remain anything to take over when that day arrived.
Meddyn, his second-born, had been the one chosen for soldiering duties and was away to Lord Peredur’s manor too often to be of any true help. Archil had gone to town with three of his sisters to earn some coin, which was a great help when it came to paying the taxes, but his strength was sorely missed on the fields. He had been such a good ox-caller, working in pair with him had gone faster and easier than with anyone else.
The two youngest lads, Mudden and Erc, were barely of age, and though they worked ‘til they could work no more, they just lacked the strength of a grown man. It would take years yet ‘til they would be able to replace Meddyn and Archil. Years Archu was not sure they had.
His farmstead was mainly an arable one, although he did own a few sheep, goats, cows and pigs to provide meat, milk and wool for the family – barely. They had naught of it left that they could have taken to the market in Halabor – they practically lived from the crop they grew. But that was work that demanded many hands, particularly in harvest time. Hands Archu no longer had to his disposal.
He would turn seventy next year: a small, heavy-set man, hardened by almost three scores of back-breaking labour. He had seen good times, although not many of them, and bad times, which seemed to be a constant happenance lately. Sometimes he wondered whether the townsfolk in Halabor, sitting behind the safety of their protective walls, knew how harsh life out here was. Last autumn’s harvest had been scanty, and he knew that they would contend with random raids by the Hill-men or even Orcs in this winter. The town – or the garrison on Cair Andros for that matter – could offer them little help. Lord Peredur would ride out to their help if he learned about the threat in time, but he would most likely arrive too late.
And the soldiers on Cair Andros were under constant threat themselves. From the Orcs crossing the River. From the raiding bands of Rhûn, coming across the Wetwang. From the Hill-men teaming up in greater numbers every time. 'Twas painfully obvious that they would not be able to hold out forever.
What would then become of the farmers? With a little thinking, Archu could count at least six farmsteads that had been raided and burned down in the last ten years. At least six families slaughtered, with barely a survivor or two. And that while they still had at least some protection, from both the town and the garrison.
He had thought about giving up the farm and moving to town. Sydnius would take in his elderly in-laws; he was a generous man. But Ardan and his family had no other way to make a living, and they could not manage the farm alone, not even with the help of the younger siblings. Nay, Archu could not abandon his firstborn, not after the lad had practically poured his lifeblood into those ungrateful fields. As long as his old hands could hold the plough, he could not turn his back on it – or on the place that had been the family’s home for almost four centuries.
Besides, he still had three unwed daughters who needed a husband. Alas that he could not give them any dowry! But they were good, hard-working lasses; mayhap some farmer’s son would take a liking to them. They would make good wives – had been taught everything that needed to be done on a farm.
Of one thing Archu was certain: he would never again marry off a daughter to any man just because that man would take them without a dowry. Nor would he allow any daughter of his to seek work in town, unless he had taken a look at the place first.
Once, in a time of greet need, when the harvest had been destroyed and his youngest children starving, he had allowed the middle ones to go to Halabor, in order to be able to feed the rest of the family. That had been something they simply had to do – and Vacia and Telta had paid the price, while Archil had become a bitter, withdrawn man, whom his father could barely recognize. At least Vicana had been more fortunate. Still, Archu was not willing to take such a risk again… well, not until they were not starving yet.
He gave the peacefully ruminating ox a friendly pat on the wrinkled neck and left the stable to return to his home. The wind was sharp with the promise of more ice and snow again as he crossed the courtyard, drawing his heavy woollen mantle about him as tightly as possible. The tearing in his joints was getting worse with each passing day. But there was no healing herb against old age.
A call from behind his back made him halt on his path. He turned around, his eyes tearing in the cold wind, and saw his grandson Vinnian, Vicana’s oldest, approaching from the direction of the town, leading a sturdy pack mule. The lad was waving and grinning broadly. His breath was puffing out in small, white clouds, but he did not seem to mind the cold. Ah, the joys of being young and full of strength!
Archu waited for his grandson to catch up with him, glad to see the lad again.
“What are you doing out here in this weather?” he asked, after they had embraced each other heartily.
“Father wanted me to bring out his Yule gifts, in case we could not get out later,” Vinnian explained. “It seems that Yule night will be very cold this year.
Archu eyed the heavily laden mule in surprise. “Has your father sent us the entire town?”
“Just a few comforts and necessities,” Vinnian shrugged. “He knows how hard it is to get those things out here. And he can afford it.”
That was very true again. Unlike his brother, the carter, Sydnius took his responsibility as the head of the clan very seriously, including his wife’s family, which would not have been his duty. He had always been generous with his Yule gifts, knowing exactly what people living on a farm needed most – and adding a few things that were not necessarily needed, just to make the children happy.
“Well, let us go inside, then,” said Archu, once again touched by the thoughtfulness of his son-in-law. “Let us have an early Yule.”
Vinnian laughed. They led the mule into one of the stables where it would be warm and content, and the young lad shouldered all the bags and sacks the good beast had been carrying. He would not let his grandfather help him, insisting that he was strong enough to bear a few gifts.
They entered the long, sparsely lit hall, where Messbuach, Archu’s wife was grinding the grain for tomorrow’s bread with a hand mill. She was small and thin like a wraith; giving birth to seventeen children, thirteen of whom had survived, had drained most of her strength. And yet she never sat idly, not for as much as a moment.
Seeing her grandson, she left her work now, though, standing on tiptoes to hug the lad and give him a peck on his reddened cheek. The younger children – some of them barely older than their nephew – set aside what they were doing to greet him as well.
After numerous hugs and kisses had been exchanged, the bags were opened and each gift accepted with many ahs and ohs. There were mittens and warm stockings, and scarves of wool, new knives for the men, and needles and yarn for the women, small jars of honey, linen bags with nuts and raisins and dried fruits, a few bottles of wine and even a small barrel of good ale – the latter was not from Sydnius but from Gennys, who, although not directly related to the family, wanted to do something for them as well.
But the greatest awe and the roundest eyes were shown when Vinnian opened the small wooden crate he had kept back up to the last moment. In it, there were “honeymen”, one for each member of the family, and a precious, golden Yule candle of the purest beeswax, adorned with a sprig of holly.
Archu stared at the candle unbelievingly, his eyes full of tears and wonder.
“I have never had one of these,” he whispered. “I knew people have them for the night of Yule, but I have never even seen one before.”
“Then ‘tis time for having one, I deem,” said Vinnian, kissing his grandfather on the cheek. “Blessed Yule, Grandfather. May the next year be a better one.”
Note: Archu’s family was slain shortly before the destruction of Halabor, the farm burned to the ground. From Vinnian’s immediate family only his sister Ailne survived.