Hunters and farmers both make an early start of things, so I was unsurprised when I found Hethlin already in the barn the next morning when I came in to feed Bessie. He had just finished saddling his vicious horse by lantern light. The stallion, whom he had wisely close-tethered to one of the stall posts, was looking very displeased as a result. A hind hoof would lash out from time to time as an expression of that displeasure.
“Have you any rope or stout cording?” the Ranger asked. “Or perhaps some fairly long leather straps? If I have luck in the hunt, I will need some means to secure my kill.”
I fetched him a coil of rope which he said would do nicely. Lashing it to his saddle, he promised not to cut it nor to soil it any more than was necessary. I told him not to worry upon that account, that we were grateful for his efforts on our behalf. He nodded.
“Where is the best hunting hereabouts?”
I gestured him to follow me to the barn door and indicated the foothills to the north, bulking darkly against a sky that was just beginning to show the faintest lightening.
“I’m no hunter myself, but they say there are deer aplenty up there. Boar too, by all accounts.”
Hethlin shook his head. “Deer will have to do for us. I’ll not be going for boar all alone, and with no spear.” That seemed to me to be an eminently sensible decision. I looked at him, and was again struck by the contrast between his youth and his obvious competence. Before I could stop myself, the question slipped out.
“How many orcs have you killed?” The moment I said it, I regretted it for it made me seem shallow and stupid and young. But the Ranger did not take offense.
“I don’t rightly know,” he said softly. “You don’t really think about that sort of thing when you’re in battle. I imagine there are some I thought I killed that were only wounded and got away, and some I wounded that walked away and died afterwards. No way of telling, really.” A reflective pause. “I will say I’ve never seen a man who keeps a tally turn out to be much of a soldier. It’s not a game.”
I nodded. “Are you from these parts? You speak like a mountain boy.”
The young ranger smiled. “In a way. But from the other side of the mountains. Anorien.”
Unknowingly, I put my foot in it again. “Does your family farm there?” Hethlin turned away, intent upon finishing his saddling.
“My family is dead,” came the curt answer. “Orcs raided our farm while I was out hunting. The Rangers are my family now.”
“I am sorry.” I suddenly realized that there might be people worse off than myself and my family.
A shrug. “It happened a couple of years ago.”
“Is that when you joined the Rangers?”
“How old were you?”
“Seventeen. The Captain wasn‘t really happy about it at first, because of my age and because I was the last of my house. But I think he thinks better of the idea now.”
“I should think so, after you killed that Műmak! Are you the youngest Ranger?”
Hethlin turned back to me, and I thought for a moment he was rounding upon me because he was weary of all the questions, but then I noticed the shy smile upon his face.
“Not any more.”
He seemed very pleased with that development and I could hardly blame him. Unloosing his horse, he swung swiftly up into the saddle and booted the teeth questing for his leg with an unthinking reflex that spoke of long familiarity.
“I’ll try to be back by dark, Idren.”
“Good hunting, Ranger. And be careful.” His smile became a grin.
“I expect I’ll be safer out hunting than here with your sister!”
I could not but agree with that.
Ranger Lorend came out a bit later, still yawning. He had the rabbit-skin pouch tied at his belt.
“Hey there, Idren, about done with your chores? Want to come with me to Lossarnach? Your mother says you may if you wish.”
I had not been off the farm in months. The idea of a jaunt to town was irresistible. “I would very much like to, sir, if you don’t mind.”
Lorend waved a hand airily. “I’d prefer the company. And I’ll need your advice on what to buy.” He patted his pouch. “Your mother gave me a list, and says that you have a wagon and a harness. Lieutenant Mablung says his horse is broken to drive. What do you say to us getting those two things together?”
That was easier said than done, for the harness was sized for a heavier horse rather than the courier mount, and required quite a bit of hole-punching and adjustment, particularly about the collar. And while the lieutenant’s horse might have been harness-broken at some time in the distant past, he seemed to feel a return to such duty was a dreadful come-down from his current employment and jumped about quite a bit while we were hitching him to the wagon. But eventually, we were able to get into the wagon and drive a somewhat wobbly course to the front of the house. There we found Mother waiting with bread and cheese in a sack and a couple of black bottles of ale, which the Rangers had donated.
“’Tis not much, but mayhaps it will hold you if you get peckish. Take lunch in town, Idren and Ranger, if you like.”
That was an appealing idea as well, though it seemed to me a waste of our scarce resources. Mother came around to my side of the wagon and handed me the sack. I leaned over so that she could kiss my cheek.
“We’ll try to be back by nightfall, Mother. Don’t worry.”
“Worry? With one of Gondor’s stout defenders with you? I think not.” Lorend grinned.
“I’ll take good care of him, Mistress, I promise. Not let him get drunk or fall into the hands of any loose women.” I blushed, Mother actually laughed, and the Ranger clucked to the horse, who jerked forward, setting us upon our way.
The day dawned clear and cold, the sky pale, the hillsides where they were not covered with forest were grey-white with rimed grass. Once we had started, Ranger Lorend was silent for a while, keeping his attention upon the horse, till we had gone a way down the road and the gelding had resigned himself to his fate. Then he turned to me with an earnest look.
“Idren, your father was very good to me when I first joined the Rangers. I was lost and homesick and scared, and he took me under his wing, as it were, without being asked to. ‘We Lossarnach men have to stick together,’ he said. At that time, most of the Rangers were from families that were originally from Ithilien, you see, and we were the outsiders. He was a good man, the best of men, and I have it in mind to pay him back by helping you. To do that, though, I need information, and more than you might think is properly my business. I promise that I will do nothing with it other than try to help you. So if it please you, tell me what you know about Lathron and the land and Bessie, and how you’ve been getting on since your father went off to the war.”
As the miles unfurled to Lossarnach and the day brightened and the sky changed to winter‘s pale blue, I did as he had bidden, and told him everything I knew about our circumstances over the last couple of years. Lorend asked a question here and there, particularly about the folks who had told of Bessie’s plight, and his mouth tightened and eyes grew grimmer the more the tale went on. Looking upon this military man, with his sword at his side and bow at his back, I began to grow afraid of what my tale had done, afraid that he pondered some violence against Lathron. I told him so. His reaction was not what I expected. His expression lightened and he laughed.
“Oh, I plan violence against Lathron, never you fear, but not against his person. Against his purse, where it will hurt the worse!”
This was not all that reassuring. I reminded him that my family was not looking for charity, and he nodded.
“Of course you aren’t, Idren! But you have the right not to be taken advantage of. Your father died so that Lathron could live protected to do his sharp dealing! And he deals too sharply! There are rules to the Game, and he skirts the edge of them. A bad player. ‘Tis time the rest of us reminded him of the rules.”
Who the ‘rest of us’ might be, he did not tell, nor was there time to do so. Lossarnach was before us, slate roofs spread across the rolling hills with old Lord Forlong’s keep at the summit of the highest. My companion drew rein for a moment, eyeing the town like a general contemplating a battle plan. His attention, I noticed, was already fixed upon the marketplace. Then he clucked the horse forward.
After six years, Ranger Lorend was coming home to Lossarnach. And though I did not know it yet, my family’s lives would never be the same again.
To this day, I am not entirely certain how he did it. I look back, and I can’t remember the exact sequence of dealing and bargaining, though I’ve tried to reconstruct it in my mind more than once. All that I know is that we left our wagon at an inn called the Bull and Rooster and started making our way through the marketplace on foot. There was a good crowd out upon this day before the holiday, a wide selection of goods available and the business was brisk. The Ranger did not purchase anything on the initial circuit, but his sharp eyes made note of everything offered there, and he paused often to speak to merchants and passersby, personable and friendly, a valiant military man home on leave. He also flirted shamelessly with the ladies in the market, both customers and merchants.
‘Twas on the second circuit that he began to work his magic. The bargaining began, and even my inexperienced self could see that he was skilled and flexible in his execution. He would haggle fiercely or deferentially or humorously depending upon his opponent, buy an item from one seller only to sell it immediately across the marketplace, and brazenly play one merchant against the other. When I would express doubt about one of his deals (for he bought several items that were not on Mother‘s list and that we had no use for), he would grin.
“Idren, you’re just going to have to trust me. Don’t try to teach the fox how to steal hens.”
Just as the pale winter sun reached its zenith, he concluded his last transaction with a clasp of hands and a slap of the merchant’s back. Somewhat spent from fetching goods back and forth all morning, I leaned against the wagon and looked into it, bemused. There was everything on mother’s list, and one or two extras he had suggested that we needed.
“How much did all this cost?” I asked him once the merchant had gone. His eyes were twinkling.
“Fifteen silver.” My jaw dropped, for the sum was barely half of what I had expected. We could make a couple of years payment on the note, and still have a something to tide us over until the spring crops started coming in. Lorend laughed at my surprise.
“I did tell you that I was good at this.”
“A sharp dealer indeed as becomes a Lossarnach man,” came a voice behind us. We turned to find a man of middle age confronting us, broad and stout and strong, flanked by two taller, younger men. “How much did you end up giving for the wagon-load?”
To my amazement and affront, Lorend promptly repeated the sum he’d told me.
“And the trades?” the stout man asked. He had hair of darkest brown, silvering in places, and brown eyes. The Ranger immediately began recounting the dickering he’d done to pull off this marvel. The three men listened intently, nodding in places, and as they did so, I noticed something. The two younger men had something of the same foxy look as did the Ranger though their hair was darker, and all three of them bore an odd similarity to the older gentleman as well, though he was a much heavier man. There was something about the set of the eyes and mouths that they all held in common, and it made me suspect something that was confirmed as soon as Lorend finished his tale.
“You seem to have kept your hand in,” the stout man stated, with the air of someone making a great concession. “I may just own that you’re my son.”
Lorend grinned, a sharply white showing of teeth. “I’ll have you know, sir, I do all the dickering for Captain Faramir. I mix it up with those hard bargainers in Tirith all the time.”
“Almost I feel sorry for them.” The older man’s shrewd brown eyes turned upon me of a sudden. “And who is this lad?”
Remembering my manners, I bowed. “Idren son of Tarian, sir.”
Remembering his, Ranger Lorend made introductions. “My father Guildmaster Doron, Idren, and my brothers Mardan and Feredir.” Doron and his sons nodded courteously.
“My sorrow for your loss, young Idren,” the merchant said. “I had heard that your father had fallen.”
Lorend seized the moment as was his habit, putting my interests ahead of his reunion with his family. “And therein lies a tale, Father. Where is Mother?”
“Inside, waiting upon us for lunch. She had some business to conduct with the weaver. Feredir’s been minding the shop and watching you dicker all morning.”
“I need your counsel, sir. And hers too. Idren’s family has fallen upon hard times since his father passed, and I would like to help them. I owe Tarian much, you’ll remember I mentioned him in my letters?”
“I do. And as he succored my son, the least I can do is feed his. Come, the two of you, let’s go get some lunch. Your mother will be more than glad to see you, boy.”
Mistress Emlin was taller and thinner than her husband, and her hair was the same light brown as Ranger Lorend’s, whom she immediately embraced and kissed upon his arrival.
“Lorend, my dear! What an unexpected surprise! However did you get leave to come home for the holidays?” Suddenly, her jubilant manner changed, and her eyes narrowed. “You did get leave for the holidays, didn’t you?”
“Actually, I didn’t,” Lorend declared, then after enjoying his family’s horrified expressions for a moment, added, “Lieutenant Mablung and I and another Ranger are on an errand for Captain Faramir. You may thank him for my presence, for he knew it would bring me in this direction.”
“And what sort of errand is it that brings you so far from Ithilien?” his father asked.
“Seeing that his disabled Rangers and their families, and the families of the fallen are taken care of.” And he explained about the weregild. Doron was impressed.
“You’ve got a good captain there.”
“Captain Faramir’s the best,” Lorend agreed fervently. “Though Lord Boromir’s a good sort as well.”
“You’ve met the Captain-General?” Emlin asked. “My, but you move in high circles these days!”
Her son shrugged. “How would I not? He comes to visit his brother every now and again, and there aren’t so many Rangers that I wouldn’t come in off patrol while he was there. Lieutenant Mablung knows him better than I do-they gamble together sometimes when they’re both in Tirith.”
The cheese-maker shook her head. “It is still astonishing to me.” Then her expression altered, sharpening a bit. “Did you not say your business included Lathron, my son?” Lorend nodded, and she continued. “Would it interest you to know that we were to meet him this afternoon to discuss a business matter? It seems he’s trying to get a contract to supply beef to the army, and wanted to make an offer for my surplus bullocks.”
The Ranger’s eyebrow lifted. “Really? That could be very useful.”
“Useful? In what way?” His father’s manner was curt, no-nonsense and rather intimidating. I wondered if that hadn’t come from years of having to deal with his irrepressible son. “I think you had better explain what you’re about, boy, and what it is that you intend to do.”
“I’m not entirely sure what I intend, yet, sir,” came the respectful reply. “I thought I would consult with all of you, should our paths cross.” Lorend then began a low-voiced explanation of my family’s circumstances after looking to me for permission. His father interrupted him almost as soon as he had started.
“For the family’s sake, this is not something to be discussed in public.” He summoned the innkeeper and ordered lunch and the use of his private parlor. The innkeeper protested, saying Lord Forlong himself was coming in later in the afternoon and he didn‘t want to have to clean the chamber again, but was overruled by Master Doron, who apparently could be as truculent and stubborn as a bull when the mood hit him. We then moved into the pleasant parlor, seated ourselves at the table and the entire family listened intently to the tale of my family’s misfortunes. It was really rather humiliating to have our business dissected in such a matter, and I had little to contribute, other than answering the odd question addressed to me. When he was done, Mistress Emlin looked earnestly across the table at me.
“Young Master Idren, I assure you that what has been spoken of here will go no further. My son has been prone to flights of fancy in the past, and we wanted to make sure that he was not indulging himself in one now.”
“Which he is not,” Doron declared. “Idren, Lathron charged your father a steep price for that land, despite its quality, undoubtedly because of its proximity to your own. And the business with the heifer is definitely shady dealing-though I lay part of the blame for that upon yourselves. You know the old adage about something seeming to be too good to be true.”
I nodded, and he smiled grimly.
“Nonetheless, this sort of business does not become him. And we will not have him taking the farm and livelihood of a family whose father fell defending him. Now what exactly would help you the most, do you think?”
“To have the note paid off,” I replied immediately. “So we wouldn’t be in danger of losing the farm.”
“And how do you propose to work the farm without a draft animal?” Doron asked me gently. “A heavy horse or mule or ox?”
“We’ll get by somehow, sir,” I said with more confidence than I felt. We could feed ourselves well enough, if we tilled as much land as we could by hand, but there was little chance of raising extra we could sell to buy a draft animal, for we’d need the animal to plow the land to raise those extra crops. It was a problem I had set aside in favor of dealing with the most pressing one first. “Perhaps if the stipend comes, we can buy a horse or mule with that.”
“Perhaps.” The guildsman’s voice was noncommittal. “But perhaps it would be wisest if we plan as if the stipend does not come. For due to some confusion in Tirith it may not, or it may come, but too late to be of any use in your current troubles.” There was a knock at the door then, the innkeeper and his staff bringing our lunch. And what a lunch it was! My mouth started watering as soon as the delectable smell of roasted chicken and beef reached me. I could not remember when I had last had such a meal. The plates were swiftly set upon the table, and everything was passed to me first, as the guest. I was encouraged to pile my plate high by Mistress Emlin, and I did so. She seemed to take a genuine pleasure in my appetite.
Her sons and Master Doron also did credit to the food. For the first part of it, there was little talk, then as appetites had been somewhat slaked, the talk began again. Much of it was totally incomprehensible to me, and I was too busy eating to contribute much in any event. It was an odd sort of conversation-a sentence would be started by one then finished by another as the first one took a bite. Lorend’s family seemed to know each others minds most wonderfully well, and there was no doubt they were communicating quite clearly, though the names being named and the incomplete statements meant less than nothing to me.
“Lalaith is in it too?” “-Talk to the Weaver’s Guild, see what they say…” “The Potters won’t cooperate, most likely” “Put pressure on him, see how that works…” “Bring in his Lordship?” and other such fragments flew back and forth over my head as I ate. Finally, the guildsman’s family began to push back from their chairs. Doron looked at his wife.
“When are you to meet with him, Emlin?”
“The second hour past noon.”
“There is not much time then. Mardan, Feredir, be about what we discussed.” Lorend’s two brothers nodded to their father, and left the room. “Lorend, take Idren out to the market and don’t come back till the second hour.”
Lorend did as he was told, and before long we were back out in the marketplace. The weather had warmed somewhat, the sun was out, as bright as it could be in the paler blue sky of winter and things were even busier than they had been in the morning, as shoppers sought to complete their purchases before the market shut down for the holiday. The Ranger broke out his own purse and indulged in a bit more bargaining, as he bought Mettarë candles for my family, four fine beeswax ones. I thanked him but protested that I’d have bought tallow candles. Lorend laughed.
“’Tis a holiday, Idren! Allow yourself a little indulgence! Things are not so grim for you as they were yesterday, and they may become less so before the day is out.”
“Do you know what is going to happen, Ranger Lorend? What your father and mother intend? I did not understand anything of what is going on.”
“I have an idea, but I think there is some room for maneuvering as well.” He did not trouble to impart to me what his idea was, and I sighed in frustration, but allowed him to drag me around the marketplace a while longer.
When we returned to the inn, it was to find that chaos had descended upon the common room, which was full of people for some reason, though the lunch hour had passed. The innkeeper and his girls were bustling about, passing out tankards and plates of cheese and bread and honey cakes. The Ranger’s family were seated together at one of the tables along with Master Lathron, who was looking about at all the people with a frown upon his face. The frown became an outright scowl when he saw me enter with Lorend.
“What’s the meaning of this, Doron?” he growled at the guildsman. The Ranger’s father smiled. It was not entirely a pleasant expression.
“Why nothing, Lathron, save that my son brought a most distressing matter to my attention.” He looked up at me. “Idren, do you have Master Lathron’s payment for this year?” I nodded. “Then give it to him.”
Slowly, I opened the rabbitskin pouch, leaned over and counted the requisite coins out onto the table. Lathron counted them again himself, then tucked them away into his own pouch. He looked almost disappointed as he muttered, “Very well then, young Idren. Three more years you have to pay, remember, before I’ll tear up the contract.”
“Actually, you are going to tear it up today,” said Master Doron, and now he was frowning himself. “I know what you paid for that land originally, Lathron, and you’ve gotten your money back and a bit of profit as well. You’ve got no call to be squeezing a soldier’s widow and children so.”
“And you’ve no call to be interfering in my business, Doron!” snapped my creditor. “It was a legitimate contract, and this boy’s father agreed willingly to the terms. If you think you can censure me in the Guild Council or some such nonsense, you just give it a try! I’ve as many on my side as you have on yours.”
“Are you so sure of that, Lathron?” the guild master asked mildly. “But I see no need to bring the Council into this. I shall simply forbid Emlin to sell you her bullocks.” Master Doron looked at his wife, who was giving him a raised eyebrow, and grinned almost boyishly. There was some quiet chuckling from Mardan and Feredir, as well as from some other folk in the room. I couldn’t see what was particularly funny, unless it were that it was difficult to command Mistress Emlin in anything.
Lathron’s face darkened. “She is hardly the only person in the area with bullocks.”
“No, she is not,” Master Doron admitted. “But she is one of the three largest cattle breeders in this area. And without her animals, you’ll have to go to Rohan or elsewhere to make up the numbers the Army will demand.”
“Lalaith Weaver’s husband has near as many. I’ll buy his.”
“No, you shan’t,” said a stout dark-haired woman seated at another table. Master Lathron frowned at her.
“Mistress Weaver, the beeves are your husband’s to sell as he pleases.”
“That’s as may be. But the bed he sleeps in every night was part of my dowry. He’ll sleep in the barn if he sells those bullocks to you.” The stout, graying man at her side shrugged his shoulders with a wry grin, and a bout of laughter erupted in the room.
“Then I shall go to Baelor!” Lathron snarled.
“Master Baelor owes me a favor, for helping him when his cows were losing their calves,” said Mistress Emlin, her pleasant blue eyes suddenly flinty. “I shall ask him to refrain from selling to you as well.”
“’Tis not necessary to ask, mistress,” came a voice from over by the bar, and heads swiveled in that direction. Baelor, one of the larger landowners in the area, and the third of the large cattle breeders, had apparently come in to do his holiday shopping. “I stand with you on this matter.”
Master Lathron’s expression became thunderous. “This is absurd! Why would you all refuse to do business with me? We all stand to profit from it!”
“Because,” said Mistress Emlin firmly, “there are, believe it or not, Lathron, more important things than profit in the world.” Murmurs of approval arose from our audience.
“Lathron, give over,” said Master Doron quietly. “A man of business cannot stand alone and hope to profit. He needs his neighbors. And your neighbors require this of you.”
Master Lathron shoved himself to his feet. “My neighbors have no right to ask me to forgive a lawful contract! Very well then, Rohan will profit where my neighbors will not, fools that they are! For I will not give the boy the deed.”
“Then neither you nor Rohan will profit, Master Lathron. For you will not be getting a contract from the Army,” Ranger Lorend said, speaking for the first time. His voice was mild, but he had his mother’s eyes and flint was in them as well. “Any contract.”
“And how do you propose to stop that, you ne’er-do-well?” snarled Lathron. “You’re naught but a Ranger. You have no standing with the quartermasters.”
Lorend smiled pityingly. “I don’t have to stop it. You still don’t understand, do you? My lieutenant is at Idren’s house right now. We shared dinner with his family last night. Lieutenant Mablung knows the straits they are in, he’s fixing their roof today. Now what do you suppose will happen if he goes back to Ithilien and tells Captain Faramir how you’ve been sharp-dealing with one of his soldiers and were all too willing to throw his widow and children out into the cold? How do you suppose that will look? If you are willing to take advantage of one soldier, what’s to stop you from cheating the Army?”
Master Lathron looked taken aback for a moment. Then he rallied. “Captain Faramir does not have his father’s ear, or so ‘tis said.”
“No, he doesn’t,” Lorend admitted. The admission did not seem to distress him unduly. “But his brother the Captain-General does. And Captain Faramir has Lord Boromir’s ear. Did I mention that my lieutenant plays cards and dice with the Captain-General on a regular basis? By the time Captain Faramir and Lieutenant Mablung are done talking to him, Lord Boromir will see to it that the Army will never deal with you. Ever, Master Lathron. For anything. Whereas, if you do this one small good deed, we will do nothing to damage your standing with the Army, and all will benefit. ”
The surety with which the Ranger spoke left no doubt in my mind that the threat was a genuine one, and the merchant recognized it as such as well. Much of the bluster left him of a sudden and he seemed almost to shrink in upon himself.
“’Tis a small sacrifice compared to what you stand to gain, Master Lathron,” Lorend coaxed softly. “Think of it as seed money for your new venture.”
Silence fell over the common room, as everyone in it seemed to hold their breath for a space of time. Finally, Lathron sighed.
“Very well, I’ll do it. But we’ll have to go up to the castle and see his Lordship’s secretary. And it’s late in the day, the day before Mettarë. I don’t know that he’ll be available.” I could see the rebirth of calculation in his eyes, and my heart, ecstatic a moment before, fell once more. If the secretary could not be found, then all Lathron would have to do would be wait the Ranger out. Lorend and his companions would have to leave soon, and I could see little way they could enforce their threat from a distance. Master Doron and his neighbors could bring much more pressure to bear but Lathron could always claim circumstance as an excuse and delay and delay…Freedom from my family’s creditor, seemingly at hand but a moment before, now seemed tantalizingly out of reach.
“Have no fear of that!” boomed a voice from the doorway, and half the people in the room jumped, startled. The door was filled by the bulk of Forlong the Fat, Lord of Lossarnach, who could apparently move very quietly despite his heroic stature. He had arrived for his afternoon appointment, and I wondered how long he had been listening. His very next statement proved he’d been listening for quite a while. “I’m available even if my secretary is not. I’ll send a boy up to the castle now, and we’ll have that deed down here in next to no time and see this done. I commend you for your generosity, Lathron-it suits the season. And in keeping with that thought-innkeeper, drinks all around on me!”