I have trouble dealing with the total lack of religion in a story written by a man of faith. So in this story, as in some of my other work, there is reference to religion of sorts. The folk of Lossarnach are said to be almost entirely of the blood of the Men who lived in Middle-earth before the Numenoreans came and stayed. So I didn't think it unlikely that some remnants of their older religion might remain as custom. They are entirely of my own invention.
I was trying to repair a tumbled-down place in the stone fence about the garden when Lathron found me. The holder of my father’s note was a dark, blocky man as was common in these parts. He would have been an axe-man like many Lossarnach men, had he sullied his hands with anything war-like. But while he had the powerful demeanor common to some warriors, Lathron spent his time chasing gold.
“Boy!” he hailed me from the back of his fine cob. I took a moment to finish setting my stone before I answered him. Not for defiance’s sake, but to collect myself and steel my resolve, for I knew what he had come for.
Dusting my cold, chapped hands, I straightened and endeavored to look as casual as I could.
“Yes, Master Lathron?”
“I’ve come for my money, boy.”
“You’re early, sir. ‘Tis not due till after Mettarë.”
His dark eyes narrowed. “I was in the neighborhood today. I don’t know when I will be back this way.”
“With all due respect, that’s not my problem, sir. If you want your money, you’ll come back after Mettarë.”
Displeased, he lifted his reins. “See that you have it for me then, Idren, for if you do not, then by the contract your father signed, not only do I take the seven acres back, the farm becomes mine as well.”
My stomach, pinched already with hunger, contracted into an even smaller knot. “I cannot believe that Father would have agreed to such a thing!”
Lathron smiled unpleasantly at the fear in my voice. He was very much a bully at heart. “Men of business do not loan money without collateral, boy. The contract was signed by your father and is filed in Lossarnach with Lord Forlong’s secretary. Ride over and take a look if you do not believe me. And then sell your horse and walk home. For I will have my money.”
He kicked his own horse into a trot and left me cold and despairing. Just when I had thought things could get no worse, they had.
The letter was kept in the little box Mother had used for her dowry when she was a bride, and it rested upon the mantle. I couldn’t decide how I felt about that-there were days when I wished she would burn it, and days I wished I could read so I could take it out and look at it again. But none of us could read, and the only time we’d heard the words of the letter was when the Guardsman from Minas Tirith brought it to us to tell us my father was dead. He was an older man, who had probably been given this unpleasant duty because he was close to retirement, but he was also a compassionate man, well-suited to his task and had willingly read to us the Captain’s words.
Which had described how Father had died and had also described in glowing terms the worth of his service both to the Captain and to Gondor. I imagined the Captain had to write rather a lot of those letters, if he did one for every man of his command who was killed, but the letter didn’t sound like something done by rote. It sounded very sincere, which was one small comfort in what turned out to be several very bad months. We had no body to bury-Father had been laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Ithilien. And his death notice had come right at harvest time, so that we had to work through our grief. To make matters worse, the Steward had raised the taxes yet again to pay for the war, and the harvest was not good-we’d had too much rain in the early part of the year and too little in the latter.
The tax time came before we’d gotten the payment that Gondor paid to the widows and children of its soldiers. And Father had taken the loan out several years before to buy seven acres of really good land adjacent to our farm. It had been a risky decision and one he’d agonized over, but with Tuilinn’s birth, he had become concerned about being able to feed us all. It was one of the reasons he had become a Ranger-the enlistment bonus to men who could shoot to a certain standard and were willing to take duty in Ithilien had been enough to pay the note for two years.
With so little crop to sell, in order to make both the payment of the higher tax and the loan payment, with no widow’s stipend forthcoming Mother had had to sell almost all of our livestock; the hens, the two sheep, our good milk cow and the draft horse. Even so, the amount left over after the tax would not fully meet Lathron’s demands, and that was if we held nothing back to feed ourselves until spring. Now we were looking at a grim holiday indeed. We had held back one chicken for our holiday supper, a scrawny hen past laying age, but she would not be much for my mother, my two sisters and myself. Needless to say, there would be none of the festive extras my father had usually found a way to provide.
“We still have each other,” my mother told me that night when I had told her of my encounter with Lathron. It was three days before Mettarë, and she was baking, making loaves with the last of our flour. “We will manage somehow.” As I watched in disbelief, she set three smaller, round loaves aside to rise. There were symbols scratched upon them, old symbols. Father had some of the Sea-men’s blood in him, but Mother was another matter. Dark brown hair and dark brown eyes spoke of her old blood, and she held to the old ways in some things. Which was all well and good most of the time, but now…
“Surely you don’t intend to waste the last of our flour in that old custom?” I asked incredulous. It was tradition to bake three loaves three days before Mettarë, which used to be called something else before the Sea-kings came. One for the Hunter, one for the Trickster and one for the Lord. You used the best you had to make them, and burned them with the new-returned fire. Admittedly, these were small loaves, but still…
“’Tis not a waste to give the old ones their due, Idren.”
“We need it more!”
“When you are most in need is when you mustn’t scant the powers.” She seemed maddeningly unaware of the full extent of our problems.
“What will we do if we lose the farm, Mother? Where will we go? Lossarnach? Minas Tirith? We know nothing of cities. How will we feed ourselves without the land?”
“We are not afraid of hard work, Idren. I could find work in a large house-I am a decent spinner. Silivren is old enough to go out as a maid, and Tuilenn nearly old enough. And you could work in a stables-you are good with beasts. We would get by, I am sure of it. And there’s still the widow’s stipend.”
“Which we haven’t seen yet. And I’m beginning to think we won’t. It’s been months. I think there may have been some sort of mix-up in Minas Tirith, and we’ve slipped through the cracks. And we have no way of going there to tell them. If they even have the money. The Steward wouldn’t have raised the taxes again if things were going well.”
“We also have that nice heifer Lathron sold us, my son,” Mother reminded me reassuringly. “She will calve any day, and we can always sell the calf if necessary. It should fetch a fine price-that bloodline is known for its milkers.”
“The calf won’t be ready to sell soon enough to help us, Mother, and it might not even be a cow-calf.” I had discovered through the rumor mill after the purchase that the reason Lathron had given us such a good price on the valuable heifer was not generosity to a soldier’s widow, but because she had been covered not by the milch bull, but by a neighbor’s much larger animal. Young to have been bred in any event, I suspected the odds were good that she would die trying to birth the calf, which would probably be too large, and that we would lose both of them. Lathron probably suspected the same. But Mother did not know this, and I would not tell her. She had plenty else to be concerned about.
“You worry too much, Idren. Let me do that. You are but a lad still.” Mother took me in her arms then, and gave me a hug. She had lost weight over the last few months, I could clearly feel her ribs. Tuilinn was a heavy eater and Mother would tend to scant herself at supper in favor of the girls. She would have done it for me as well had I permitted it, but I was the oldest and wise to her ways.
“I wish I were older or stronger, Mother. I feel so useless.” Father had been a tall man, broad-shouldered and strong. I had ridden those shoulders as a lad, had watched him work the land with what seemed to me to be effortless grace. At fourteen, I was short and scrawny and despaired of coming into any sort of growth whatsoever. And I was short-sighted as well, to the point that Father had never been able to teach me to shoot, so I could not even hunt for the pot, though I had learned to set snares. Struggling to get the harvest in and do the things about the farm that needed doing, I felt an increasing sense of helplessness and despair.
“Idren, you are all the help to me you need to be!” Mother protested. “You can’t work any harder than you already do, lad, and I feel badly that you have no time for your friends any more. We are having some bad times now, but I am sure that things will be better next year, even if we do lose the farm. You must have hope that it will be so.”
I nodded, and said that I would, but in truth that was just to reassure her. Our problems were too serious for one lad to address. They needed a man.
They arrived the very next day, two days before Mettarë, as dusk deepened into full dark. I was just finishing splitting some wood for the night and turned and saw them, three men in Ranger uniforms dismounting from their horses at our front door. For a moment, my heart leapt into my throat, for I thought that one of them might be my father returned. But the oldest, stockiest man of the three proved to be shorter than Father had been once he dismounted, and the other two were too young. Then I thought, still hopeful, that perhaps they had come to tell us that there had been a mistake, that Father had simply been wounded and was in the Houses of Healing. But the oldest man’s first words put that fancy to flight as well.
“We seek Sedryn, the widow of Ranger Tarian, lad. Is this the right farm?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, trying to stifle my disappointment. “My mother is within, fixing supper. Who may I say is calling?”
“I am Lieutenant Mablung, and these are Rangers Lorend and Hethlin. We have brought something for your mother.”
“The stipend, sir?” I asked hopefully. Lieutenant Mablung shot a quick look at his fellows.
“I will go fetch her, sir.” But Mother, having heard the horses, was already at the door when I turned.
“What may I do for you, good Rangers?” she asked. “You are welcome to stay the night if you have need, and share our supper.” My heart sank, for my snares had come up empty and the turnip stew was little enough to go around as it was. Lieutenant Mablung gave me a keen look, and seemed to discern my thought, for he smiled.
“Mistress, we would not put you to any trouble. We have our own supplies, but would be grateful for the opportunity to sleep in your barn tonight.”
Mother shook her head. “I would not have it said that my husband’s comrades-in-arms slept cold while upon our land. Idren, help them see to their animals. You will sleep under our roof tonight, good sirs. It will be somewhat cramped, but there is a fire. And we have fodder aplenty for your beasts.”
The lieutenant bowed most politely. “We thank you and I am sure our beasts do as well, mistress.”
“This way, sirs,” I said, and led them towards the barn. They were conversing quietly behind me.
“This is the last of them, isn’t it?” one of the younger men asked. He was of a height with the lieutenant, but not so stocky, and his hair was a lighter brown that was uncommon in Lossarnach. There was probably Rohan blood back of him somewhere. He had sharp, foxy features.
“Yes, Lorend, it is the last,” the lieutenant sighed. “We’ll start for Lossarnach tomorrow.”
“Excellent! You’ve not done Mettarë until you’ve done it at my family’s house, sir. Wise of you to see that I got on the weregild patrol, so that we could go there for the holiday.”
“’Twasn’t me, Lorend. The Captain assigns that patrol. It was simply our turn.”
“Lucky for us then, hey Heth?”
The other Ranger, the youngest by his beardless face, nodded silently. He had the pitch black hair and chiseled features of the old Sea-lords, but his clothing was certainly no better than his fellows, so it did not look as if he were a nobleman’s son out doing his duty for Gondor. And his horse was the ugliest of the three. In fact, it was one of the ugliest horses I’d ever seen, and foul-tempered as well. It did not escape me that he was holding the reins right at the bit to keep the animal’s teeth from his flesh.
It was easy enough to find housing for their mounts in our almost empty barn. Bessie the heifer looked over the door of her stall to watch the men and horses curiously. Fox-faced Lorend glanced knowledgeably at her in return.
“Well! She’s about due, isn’t she?”
“Any day now, sir.”
“A bit young for it, from the looks of things.”
“Yes, sir.” Not wanting to get into explanations about Bessie’s condition, I busied myself with forking straw into the empty stalls, and hay into the mangers while the Rangers unsaddled and brushed their horses. Soon, all was ready, and the horses settled into their homes for the night. We were about to leave the barn when the youngest Ranger, Hethlin, touched my arm.
“Have you brothers or sisters, Idren?” he asked softly. “Younger ones, perhaps?”
“Yes, sir. Two sisters.”
“Then keep them away from my horse. Arcag would as soon bite or kick you as look at you.”
“I noticed he wasn’t friendly. I’ll warn them off. But if he’s so foul-tempered, why do you ride him? Surely there are better horses to be had in the army.”
Ranger Lorend answered before Ranger Hethlin could.
“Because that foul-tempered wretch is the one horse in Gondor we’ve found that will run up on a Műmak close enough that you can shoot it in the eye. Horses are scared of them, and won’t abide them. Even the Captain’s Dol Amroth-bred war mare won’t face them. But that hideous fellow doesn’t turn a hair.”
“Do you have to shoot the Műmaks in the eye?” I asked, intrigued. I’d heard tales from Father when he was on leave of the giant war animals of the Haradrim. “Can’t you shoot them anywhere else?”
“No,” Ranger Hethlin said, managing to get a word in edgewise. “They have really thick hide everywhere else. Like armor, it is. Arrows bounce, or don’t go in far enough to do any good. All they do is make it mad and then you’ve got a mad Műmak charging through the forest trampling everything in its path. If you can’t hit the eye, you may as well leave it alone. Safer that way.”
I gestured our guests towards the house. “Have you ever hit one in the eye?” I asked, as we started to walk.
Hethlin was silent long enough that Lorend was able to leap in once more. “Yes. Heth’s our Műmak-slayer.” I looked at the young man, who probably wasn’t more than four years older than I was. The bow on his back was beautiful, all black and gold, and obviously the weapon of a master archer. I felt my inadequacies keenly once more, but I was also genuinely impressed.
“You must be very brave,” I told Ranger Hethlin, and to my surprise saw the warrior’s cheeks turn pink.
Silivren was twelve, and fancied herself a woman already, and Tuilinn was eight that winter. They were all a-flutter over our unexpected guests, as I discovered upon my return. A cloth had been laid upon the table, and some flowers Silivren had dried during the summer placed in a vase upon it as a centerpiece. Tuilinn was ringing the vase with some nuts as we entered, making her contribution to the decorations.
Mother was stooping over the hearth, seasoning the stew. She straightened and greeted the Rangers with a smile, spoon in hand.
“Welcome to our home, good Rangers. Are you sure that you will not sup with us?”
The lieutenant smiled in return. “No mistress, we will not partake of your food, for we gave you no warning of our arrival. We will sit at table with you, however.” The soldiers were all carrying bedrolls and saddlebags, which they deposited at the side of the room. Then they pulled forth cloth wrapped packages which they unwrapped to reveal travel bread and dried meats. Mother had laid plates out for them, and they set their food upon them, watching as she dished out stew for our side of the table. When she had done, they moved to their seats and joined us in the Standing Silence.
We seated ourselves, and supper began. To my shame, I saw Tuilinn eye the Rangers’ dried meat hungrily, and kicked her ankle under the table. The lieutenant’s sharp eye did not miss this either, and he smiled.
“Would you like to eat as a Ranger does, lass?” he asked Tuilinn, and when she nodded eagerly, tore off pieces of both bread and meat for her. He then rose and went back to the saddlebags and drew forth more food, which he brought to the table and divided between the rest of us, despite Mother’s protests.
“’Tis no trouble, mistress. We have plenty and can get more in Lossarnach. ‘Tis understandable that the children would wish to know how their father fared with us.” I thought that a clever way of saving our dignity, and apparently Mother did as well, for she ceased protesting and after insisting that the Rangers partake of our stew, even she set to work on the dry, chewy food with a will. The bread was quite good when used to sop up the gravy in the stew and the Rangers had a wineskin with them as well, which Lieutenant Mablung brought out and slopped into our cups; half measures for the girls so that theirs could be watered, though after a considering look at me he gave me a man’s full measure. Unused to such things, and not desiring to appear tipsy before my father’s fellow warriors, I sipped it slowly.
Warm and well-fed for once, we all became very jovial as dinner progressed. Lieutenant Mablung and Ranger Lorend told us some stories of our father we hadn’t heard yet, just little things about his life among the Rangers, but they were precious to us. Ranger Hethlin hardly spoke at all, but his cheeks were flushed with the wine and he was smiling. We were actually able to contribute the dessert for the meal-some apples that had been stored in the cellar and hadn’t even started to shrivel yet. When all had eaten their fill and settled back in their chairs, the girls got up to clear the table and wash the dishes. Mother looked at our guests curiously.
“Did you have some particular reason for seeking us out, Lieutenant Mablung?” she asked.
The oldest Ranger nodded. “Indeed we did, mistress. Captain Faramir has a care for his men, and tries to see that their families are cared for as well. Orcs never have much of value unless they’ve just plundered someone else, but sometimes we encounter Haradrim in Ithilien. And the Haradrim deck themselves in gold. Most of what we get from the bodies goes straight to Minas Tirith-the arms and armor as well, for they may be smelted for the metal if nothing else. But unknown to the Steward,” and here he looked slightly uncomfortable, “the Captain keeps a share back. Only it’s not for him. He uses it to make sure that those who are crippled in his service have the care they need, as do the families of the fallen. Calls it weregild, after something the Rohirrim do.”
He took a sip from his cup. Both Lorend and Hethlin were watching him intently.
“When we’ve gathered enough plunder, the Captain sends out a small patrol with a list. The patrol doesn’t come back until we’ve seen everyone on the list and made sure that they’re all right. The Captain knows that the stipends have been slow in coming of late.” He paused for a moment, then twitched his head at the fox-faced Ranger. “Lorend.”
Whereupon Ranger Lorend rose, went to their saddlebags and rummaged through. He returned to the table with a small pouch made of rabbit-skin, the fur still upon it. The laces were of leather. It was a simple thing, obviously made by the Rangers themselves, and it made a chinking sound when it was set down.
Mother looked at it, started to stretch her hand out towards it, then drew it back. She lifted her chin.
“We won’t accept charity, lieutenant.”
Lieutenant Mablung nodded, unoffended. I suspected that this was not the first time he’d encountered this attitude.
“’Tis not charity, mistress, merely Rangers looking after other Rangers. This gold was bought with the blood of Rangers, and if we choose to use a portion of it to look after Rangers’ blood, what of it? I knew Tarian well. He was a generous man and he would have done the same for the families of his comrades. Is that not so?”
Mother pondered that for a moment, then nodded. She took the pouch, upended it into her hand, and gasped. A small shower of gold, with some silver spilled forth and she sucked in a surprised breath. Setting it carefully upon the table, her fingers moved through it, counting.
“There is enough here to almost pay off Lathron’s note,” she exclaimed. At the lieutenant’s look of polite inquiry, she explained. “Tarian bought some land before he left for the Rangers. It was next to ours, and we truly did not have enough to support ourselves. So it was a risk, but he felt it a necessary one. His pay was going towards the note. We had hoped that the widow’s stipend would suffice to pay it in full, but we’ve not received it yet.”
“Lathron, heh? I know of him,” Ranger Lorend interjected. “’Tis said he’ll squeeze a copper till it screams. A hard bargainer.”
“Are you from these parts then, Ranger?” Mother asked.
The Ranger nodded. “Yes, Mistress. My father, Doron, is a merchant in Lossarnach. He’s on the guild council there.”
Mother’s eyes lit up with sudden comprehension. “Oh! I know your mother, Emlin! She is the cheese-maker! Your cows are very fine ones. Bessy is from your bloodline.” Her eyes narrowed. “If I remember, one of her sons got into some trouble and Lord Forlong sent him off to the army. Said that it would grow him up a bit.”
Lorend cast down his own eyes, discomfited. Ranger Hethlin gave his fellow ranger an intensely interested look.
“What sort of trouble?” came his soft, husky voice.
“’Tis of no consequence, Heth,” Lieutenant Mablung chided. “Lorend is hardly the only one in the company with secrets he does not want told.” That shut Hethlin up quickly for some reason. “He is a Ranger now, and a valued one.” Lorend looked up at his superior with an expression equal parts surprise and gratitude, then at my mother.
“Mistress Sedryn, are you wanting to use this money to pay Lathron off?” Mother nodded.
“This will easily make this year’s payment and the next. It would almost pay the note off completely. I would like to pay him off completely, for you never know about the weather or what sort of year you will have, but I also need some supplies for the rest of the winter and seed in the spring. This will not stretch to cover all of that.”
“Then let me go into Lossarnach tomorrow and do your bargaining for you. No offense to you, but it will go better if I do it. I come from a family of merchants and cut my teeth on dealing from the time I was in the cradle.”
“He is very good at it,” the lieutenant agreed. “Captain Faramir sends him to Tirith to do our bargaining for us. He’ll get you the most goods for your money, never fear.”
Mother smiled almost shyly. “That is very kind of you, Ranger. I would be most obliged. But do you not have duties elsewhere?”
“We were going to stop at my parents for Mettarë, but they do not live so very far away. I can spend tomorrow taking care of your business and still have more than enough time to visit them the next day. You can tell me what you need, or send Idren along as your representative.”
“And I thought that I might spend tomorrow doing a bit of repair work about here, if you would permit it, mistress,” Lieutenant Mablung said quietly. “I noticed your roof needed patching.”
“I’ll hunt tomorrow, if you like,” Ranger Hethlin offered. “I might be able to get a deer for you. I always liked venison for Mettarë.”
Mother’s eyes got that glittery look they got when she was on the verge of tears. “Thank you all very much. My husband was fortunate in his comrades-in-arms.” She blinked a few times, put the coins back into the pouch then rose from the table.
“Gentlemen, if you would like help us move the table, you can set your bedrolls by the hearth and sleep warm tonight.”
This was swiftly done, though I noticed Silivren making cow eyes at Ranger Hethlin, who was the youngest and handsomest of the three. This seemed to discomfit him very much, as well as amuse our fellow Lossarnach man Lorend. Lieutenant Mablung also had the tiniest bit of a smile upon his face. I gave her a swift elbow in the ribs when Mother’s back was turned, and as foreboding a frown as I could manage, but she simply tossed her head and went back to making a fool of herself.
The Rangers settled gratefully down as close to the hearth as they could manage, after Ranger Hethlin went out to bring more wood in.
“You had a good-sized pile out there,” he said to my mother. “And we’ll split some more for you before we go. But I’ll bank the fire instead if you’d rather not waste it.”
Mother shook her head. “By all means, keep it going if you like. We usually sleep upstairs, and we’ll sleep warmer if you do.”
He nodded (not being one for wasted words, I had noticed), and tended the fire with the expertise of one who did so continuously. Then he laid himself down beside his companions and wished us a shy good-night. Mother chivvied the girls upstairs and I followed, wondering what other interesting developments the morrow would bring us.