Lord Forlong was a huge person, both physically and in personality. He seated himself in the common room and it were as if a party had suddenly begun. Drinks were passed around, cheerful questions were boomed across the room to various people, and the air of tension and conflict that had existed when he entered simply fled, tucking its tail between its legs. Lathron nearly pitched face-first into the table when the Lord slapped his back in approval of his generosity, and looking into those twinkling dark eyes, I wondered if that hadn’t been intentional.
“Ah, the scallawag-you’re home for the holiday, are you? Army life straightened you right up, didn’t it!” he said to Ranger Lorend, eyeing his Ranger uniform. “I thought that it might.” Lorend, who was rarely daunted that I could see, bowed his head at this, and made no reply. “I hear good things about you now, young man.”
That brought the young ranger’s head back up in a hurry. “You do, sir?”
“Of course! Your captain is on the Council, after all. I asked Faramir about you.” Lorend looked torn between pleasure at the praise and horror at being checked up on. But Lord Forlong had already moved on, and turned his attention to me.
“As for you, young Idren, I owe you an apology. Your father was always a law-abiding sort, and as such, had not come to my attention as this young rogue did. But I should have remembered there were two Rangers from Lossarnach. We will speak upon this after I have concluded my business here, if you can wait a bit.”
“Of course, my lord,” I responded, for truly, what other answer could I make? And it did not look as if I would have long to wait, for besides being a jovial sort, Lord Forlong was apparently efficient as well. His boy had gone scampering off to the keep, and before long, Lord Forlong’s secretary was hastening into the inn, a portfolio of papers under his arm. He set the portfolio before his lord, produced an inkwell from a capacious pouch, pulled forth a quill, scrutinized it briefly, pulled a pen-knife from the same pouch, cut it, laid it at his lord’s hand, and then drew forth wax, a seal and sand in less time than it takes me to tell of it.
“Here is the document you requested, my lord,” he said, pulling a sheet of parchment forth. The Lord scanned it quickly, frowned for a moment, then his face cleared.
“Well, let’s do this then. Lathron, your statement that the debt is paid and your signature, please.”
Lathron shot me a sour look, but did not dare express more displeasure than that in his lord’s presence. I watched as he scribed the words, his hand thick and blocky as the rest of him. He signed his name, then slid the document back over to Lord Forlong, who scanned it and nodded. He gestured to the secretary, who scribed a line in a far more elegant hand, and then slid it across the table to me.
“Now, young Idren, you put your mark right there,” and the Lord’s thick finger reached across to point to the appropriate place on the parchment.
I took up the pen, and made my mark. It was, I realized, the act of a man and not a boy, and I wished again that I could read, so that I could sign my name properly, though there were many in Lossarnach who could not and there was no shame attached to it. The secretary took the parchment back, and he and the lord signed as witnesses, then the secretary sanded it and Lord Forlong sealed it.
“There you go, lad,” he said kindly, as the secretary gathered up his things. “I’ll keep hold of that, and you can go home and tell your mother tonight that the debt is paid.”
“Thank you, my lord,” I said, and then, though it pained me to do so, “And to you as well, Master Lathron.”
Lathron merely nodded. Lord Forlong looked to the innkeeper.
“Well, if we’re finished here, you can bring our refreshments into the parlor, Borlan…Guildsmen, if you will accompany me, please. You too, Mistress Emlin, Mistress Weaver.”
Several of the people in the common room stood and began to file into the parlor. Master Doron and Mistress Emlin did as well, after smiling at me and their son. Ranger Lorend looked down at me.
“You all right, Idren?”
I nodded. “It feels very strange, though. I have been worried for so long, that I don’t seem to know how to do anything but worry.”
“Well, something will turn up for you to worry about eventually, so it is hardly a wasted effort.”
We waited there for a little over an hour, while the Lord met with the guildsmen. Ranger Lorend told me some more stories about the Rangers. I asked him about his companions.
“Lieutenant Mablung is a really good sort. He’d be a captain by now, if he weren’t a Ranger.”
“Why is that?”
“There aren’t enough of us to justify more than one captain. Captain Faramir really wants him to advance, and asked him if he wanted to transfer to the regular army so he could get promoted, but Mablung won’t leave Captain Faramir.”
I thought that was very loyal of the lieutenant, and said so, then asked about Ranger Hethlin. Lorend grinned, as if at some private joke.
“Oh, Heth’s all right. You couldn’t ask for a better sort at your back in a battle. A really good shot, too. And he’ll climb up rocks or trees or anything to get his shot, if need be-he’s got no fear of heights at all. I spend more time with Heth than some of the others because we’re both good riders, and Captain Faramir sends us out on courier duty a lot. Heth’s not much of a talker, but he’ll talk to the Captain and the Captain talks back. Captain Faramir doesn’t do that for many. They talk about books, mostly-both of them like to read.”
That the incredibly skilled Mumak-slayer could also read surprised me a bit-he had claimed to be a simple farm boy. But then, our three guests had all turned out to be talented in ways other than the killing of enemies. Lord Forlong’s meeting lasted slightly over an hour, and Lorend and I chatted together until it was over.
His lordship swept out of the parlor and spied me. “Ah, there you are, Idren! Sorry to keep you waiting! Come with me, lad. I shan’t keep him long, Ranger,” he said to Lorend. The Ranger nodded, and turned to speak to his family. I followed in Lord Forlong’s wake as he left the inn and started back up the hill to the castle. Despite the fact that he was an older man, and heavy, he moved briskly enough and seemed untroubled by the climb.
“How old are you now, lad?” he asked, gesturing for me to fall in beside him. I had to scurry a few steps to catch up.
“Fourteen, my lord.”
“Old enough, then. The last day of every month, unless there’s deep snow or ice, you’re to report to the marketplace. That’s when we drill the militia. Can you shoot?”
“No, my lord. My eyes aren’t good enough.”
“Hmmmm. Thought I saw you squinting. Don’t worry about it-we don’t have that many archers in any event.”
I looked down at my puny form. “My lord, I don’t think I’ll ever make a soldier.”
“I’ve seen some runty fellows grow up into fine, strapping lads and some of them were older than you when they did it, Idren. But this is not about making you a soldier. The Steward will call one day, and I’ll have to take my soldiers to Minas Tirith. I’m trying to give the men left behind, oldsters and youngsters, a little idea of how to go on defending themselves if something happens while we’re gone, or if we don’t come back. It‘s not much, but I like to think it will help.”
Once again, it was borne upon me that I was now the man of the house, and being treated as such. It was both a sobering and exciting thought.
Lord Forlong took me through the castle gate, but not into the keep. Instead, I found myself following him into the stables.
There, stalls were filled with Lossarnach’s finest heavy horses. Bay and chestnut and roan heads poked curiously out of doors as we passed. Stablemen greeted their lord with deference. Lord Forlong paused before one stall. In it, a roan gelding stood, looking a bit despondent. He was stout and well-muscled.
“Have you a silver piece, lad?” Lord Forlong asked, and baffled, I opened the pouch and fished one out. He took it from my hand.
“This sad lad lost his team-mate, who was also his brother, a month ago. Poor fellow colicked and twisted a gut, and had to be put down. Speckle here’s not been the same since. Not much work for him here, as odd man out-I use teams mostly. But he might suit you and be happier at your place as well. So I’m leasing him to you for a year. You do have the fodder to feed him, don’t you?”
“Y-yes, my lord,” I stammered in astonishment. “We got our hay in well enough. And if there’s not enough, I can buy more.” Then I thought about what my mother would expect me to do, and lifted my chin. “We won’t take charity, my lord.”
Lord Forlong’s thick, black brows drew down. “Don’t be pert, boy! ‘Tis my duty to take care of my folk, and as I told you earlier, I have been remiss in my duty. ‘Tis not charity to see that you the means to take care of yourselves, it’s my duty as lord. And you’re doing me a favor-my men haven’t the time to fuss over this fellow right now, and he’s lonely. If you want to lease him again next year, it will be another silver. And if you find the means between now and then, and would like to buy him or some other beast, then good for you! I’ll give you a fair price for him. But my suggestion would be that you lease him for the next two or three years, get yourselves a little ahead. I’ll have instructions left with my secretary, so he knows of our arrangement, in case I am not here next Mettarë. Now take down that halter there, and get acquainted.”
I did as I had been commanded, taking the halter and stepping into the stall. The gelding stood quietly as I put it on him, and I spent a moment afterwards stroking his velvety nose and marveling at my good fortune.
Lord Forlong watched us with pleased approval. “Bring him in when you come in for militia training and leave him up here for the day. I’ll have my farrier see to his feet.” I stammered my thanks, and his lordship nodded. “I will see you in a month, Idren. And I’ll be asking about the stipend the next time I’m in Tirith. If it comes before then, I’ll see that it comes out to you.” His secretary came hastening up to him at that moment, and whispered something in his ear. “I’ve got to be off now, lad-there’s a courier waiting on me. A good holiday to you!”
“And to you, sir,” I said softly. He departed, and one of the stablemen presented me with a lead-rope, so that I might take the gelding down to my wagon. Feeling stunned and oddly detached, I started back down to the marketplace. Fortunately, the gelding was a very docile creature and gave me no trouble at all. Ranger Lorend, who must have been watching from a window, came out of the inn as I approached.
“Well, he’s an excellent fellow!” was his cheerful comment. I looked at him suspiciously.
“Did your father say something to his Lordship?”
“I expect he did. You must admit, you needed a horse or ox or something, or all that land wasn’t going to do you much good.” He took a good hard look at my face. “Why? Is this the charity thing again? Idren, it’s not as if you were begging for handouts! In fact, your family might have been served better had you spoken up a little sooner! All anyone has done here is to give you the means to take care of yourselves. If you truly feel like you owe a debt to someone, then at some point help someone less fortunate than yourself and pass it on.”
That actually seemed like good advice to me, so I said no more upon the matter, but led the gelding around to the wagon. Lorend helped me let the harness back out, which fit Speckle much better than it had the courier horse, who was only too pleased to be led along behind the wagon rather than pulling it. We then set off for home. I fear I was a poor companion on the road back, for I was mulling over the day’s events in my mind and was little inclined to talk. The Ranger seemed to understand and did not press me to keep him company in conversation.
It was past dark by the time we got home. Mother and the girls came pouring out the door, then stopped in their tracks at the sight of Speckle. Lieutenant Mablung walked up from the direction of the barn, dusting his hands, and surveyed the horse curiously as well.
“Do I want to know, Lorend?” he asked. The younger Ranger beamed.
“You certainly do, sir, and these ladies do as well. Idren, will you do the honors?”
I got down from the wagon, and approached my mother. “Mother, Lathron took this year’s payment, then signed off on the debt. We’re free and clear of him-the paper is at Lord Forlong’s castle. And his lordship leased us this horse for a year, and says we can keep leasing him if we like. And Ranger Lorend bought everything we needed for fifteen silver! So you see, we have some money left, and Lord Forlong says he’ll check on the stipend for us!” And I handed her the pouch back.
She took it into her hand, weighing it for a moment, then to my horror, burst into tears. Lieutenant Mablung seemed to be expecting that, for he moved quietly to her elbow, produced a handkerchief from out of his belt pouch and offered it to her. My sisters looked upset for a moment, then fascination with the bounty before them proved irresistible, and they danced about the wagon, whooping with glee over the items within and making much fuss over Speckle, who did not seem to mind being petted and exclaimed over in the least.
In the middle of all this commotion, there came the sound of hooves approaching. We all looked up to find the shadow of a figure on foot leading what appeared to be a curiously misshapen horse bearing down upon us. When it reached the light pouring out from our doorway, it turned out to be Ranger Hethlin and the evil-tempered Arcag, returned from their hunt. There was a well-antlered buck slung across the saddle and a couple of rabbits hanging from the saddlebow. A couple of long poles were lashed to either side of Arcag’s saddle and lashed with crosspieces behind the horse to make a sort of litter. Upon that litter, to our great amazement, was a young boar.
Lieutenant Mablung frowned. “Heth, what in the name of the Valar were you thinking of, to go for boar with a bow?” He did not look at all pleased. I noticed there was an arrow snapped off in the boar’s eye, and a huge wound in its skull.
“Didn’t go for the boar, he went for me, right after I‘d gotten the deer,” the young Ranger protested mildly. “Shot him coming in, then Arcag finished the job.” My mouth already watering at the thought of roast pork, I looked upon the surly horse with approval, and decided that I would get an apple from our cellar and deliver it to Hethlin to give to him.
Ranger Lorend looked at the carcasses and whistled. “Heth, did you leave any meat up in those hills for anybody else?”
Hethlin grinned. “What can I say? The luck of the hunt was with me.”
And the sight of all that meat, just waiting to be cooked or dealt with, dried my mother’s tears like magic.
“Idren, put the horses away, then lay a fire in the fire pit out back and set up the spit. When you’re done with that, get one started in the smokehouse as well. Girls, put a big cauldron of water on the fire inside, and after Idren gets the fire going out back, put the other one out there as well. We need to get the bristles off this boar. We’ll stew the rabbits, spit half the boar and a haunch of the deer and smoke the rest. Goodness, what a Mettarë feast we shall have tomorrow! I doubt Lord Forlong himself will eat half so well! Thank you, Ranger Hethlin!”
The young Ranger smiled an acknowledgment, and held Arcag’s head as Lieutenant Mablung and Lorend removed first the deer and rabbits and then the boar from his horse. Then they undid the poles from the saddle and used the litter to drag the boar around back. Lorend came back to help me with Speckle and the Lieutenant’s horse while Hethlin saw to his heroic but vicious mount.
Once the animals were settled, we all set to the task of cooking and preserving the meat. A long night lay before us, but the Rangers volunteered to keep the night watches since they were used to it, provided they could sleep in the morning. This arrangement was cheerfully agreed to by everyone.
Over a scant and hasty supper of toasted cheese on bread, Mother asked for the particulars of what had happened in Lossarnach that day, “-for I cannot imagine Master Lathron suddenly becoming kind in his old age.” Ranger Lorend told of our adventures in the town with considerable flair and with what I thought was very commendable modesty about his own part. I spoke a bit further upon what an excellent trader he had been, and his part in pressuring Master Lathron and was rewarded with a gratified look. Mablung and Hethlin seemed very impressed with their fellow Ranger’s exploits. Then I went off to bed with a light heart, for the first time in months not worrying about the future.
The next day was a flurry of preparation. Cooking, cleaning and bathing all had to be done before dark fell as well as keeping the fire in the smokehouse going. Lieutenant Mablung had taken the last watch, so he went upstairs and slept for several hours in the morning. Despite Ranger Lorend’s coaxing, he and Ranger Hethlin had decided to stay and have Mettarë with us. Ranger Lorend was going to leave for his parents’ house at noon, so he took the first bath in a tub we had set upon the back porch. Ranger Hethlin would take his turn only after we were all made to swear that no one would come outside while he was bathing.
“He’s very shy,” Lorend explained. “He’s got some scars from a run-in with some orcs.”
“Oh, the poor fellow!” Silivren exclaimed, intrigued and pitying all at once.
I personally thought that if I had scars from battle I wouldn’t care who saw them, but there was no desire in me to offend the person who’d brought the meat for the feast, and resolved to make sure that my sisters kept away. I wouldn’t have put it past Silivren to try to sneak a peek. But my efforts were unnecessary-when Mother heard what was going on, she made sure that both Silivren and Tuilenn were kept so busy with sweeping and scraping vegetables and ironing of the Rangers’ laundry they’d washed the day before that they hadn’t the time to even lift their eyes until Ranger Hethlin came back into the house, toweling his hair and looking very refreshed.
Ranger Lorend had donned his clean shirt and buffed up his boots as best he could, but as he said, it was hardly a dress uniform. He started out to the barn to saddle his horse at noon-only to encounter Tuilenn pelting back to the house in a state of extreme excitement.
“Bessie! Bessie is having her baby!” she shouted as she ran towards the house. “Come see!”
We all went out to the barn, and indeed, Bessie was moving restlessly about her stall and groaning. A single foot protruded from beneath her tail.
“Aren’t there supposed to be two of those?” Lieutenant Mablung inquired, pointing to the foot.
“Yes,” said Lorend tersely. He looked almost pleadingly at his superior officer. “You’ve done this before, haven’t you?”
The Lieutenant shook his head. “Sorry, lad. I’m not a bad hand with a needle and a knife, but I don’t do midwifery for man nor beast.” He clapped the younger man on the shoulder. “Go on, Lorend. Go to your family while you‘ve got the chance. We’ll deal with this as best we may.”
Lorend looked at the heifer. “She’ll probably die if someone doesn’t deal with that.” he sighed in disgust. “I can’t ride off knowing that’s happening.”
“Is something wrong with Bessie and her baby?” Tuilenn quavered. The heifer was the closest thing to a pet she possessed. As if on cue, Bessie groaned again. Tuilenn broke into tears. Even Silivren, who was not particularly attached to the young cow, looked worried, as did Mother. Affection aside, the loss of Bessie and her calf would be a great financial blow to our family, even though we could butcher her and save the meat if she died.
Ranger Lorend started cursing suddenly, curses of a most astonishing variety and vehemence, and began stripping his cloak and tunic and shirt off. The girls stared at him, frightened, and Mother looked shocked.
“Lorend!” the lieutenant said with a frown. “Have a care for the ladies’ ears!”
The cursing stopped. “Idren, I need a bucket of hot water, and some soap and a piece of cord that’s been soaked in boiling water,” he snarled, “and I need them now! Lieutenant, you need to hold her head for me. Heth, take the ladies back to the house-they can’t help and they won’t want to watch this. You help them with the food.”
“Are you sure you don’t need my help?” the youngest Ranger asked. He did not look enthused at the prospect of becoming an assistant cook. Lorend grinned rather nastily.
“Sure. Why don’t you just peel off that shirt and jump right in here with us?”
“Lorend!” Lieutenant Mablung chided a second time in as many minutes. Hethlin took the hint and fled. Lorend looked at me.
“Water. Soap. Cord. Now.” I scampered as well, but as I left, I heard a heartfelt cry rise towards the roof of the barn.
“I HATE COWS!”
Over the next hour, I watched the clever Ranger fight to save Bessie and her calf. It was a messy business. Certainly I had seen animals born before, but never had I imagined having to get so… close to the process. Lorend had stripped to the waist, and bound his hair back with a thong. Then he had washed his arm thoroughly, and taking the protruding hoof, pushed it back into Bessie.
“Why are you putting it back in there?” I asked cautiously, well aware that the Ranger’s mood was not the best. “Doesn’t it have to come out anyway?”
“Hind foot,” was Lorend’s terse reply. “Can’t come out that way.” His arm still within Bessie, he then began the laborious task of turning the calf within its mother. He had to fight against Bessie’s own efforts to expel the calf, and it was hard, strenuous work. She was not very helpful and came in for her share of cursing, though Lieutenant Mablung did his best to keep her still so Lorend could work. He soon became streaked with blood and worse things, the pale skin of his torso and arms pebbled with goose bumps in the chilly air.
“Is it alive?” I asked him after about half an hour, when it seemed little progress was being made.
“Yes,” he panted. “It just moved. Don’t know if it will last, though. I need to hurry this up.”
Finally, he got the calf’s front feet lined up and looped the cord around the lower jaw to help guide the head. Bessie was exhausted by this time and not able to help much, so the young Ranger ended up having to pull the calf himself. It slid free in a gush of still more bloody fluid, but Lorend seemed past caring. He undid the cord about the calf’s jaw and tied it about the navel cord close to the belly, then took the knife the lieutenant handed him and cut it. “Sacks, Idren,” he commanded, and I presented him with a couple of old flour sacks he’d asked for earlier. He commenced giving the calf a vigorous rub-down.
I thought for a moment that it must be dead. Then it started wriggling in protest at the stimulation, and a feeble bleating noise came from it.
“It’s alive!” I exclaimed.
“For now,” Lorend said forbiddingly. Then, in a somewhat more cheerful tone, “It is a cow calf.”
Bessie, hearing the noise, lowed softly herself. The Ranger lifted the calf and carried it to her head, whereupon the new mother sniffed the strange intruder curiously for a moment, then began to lave it with her large, pink tongue.
“There’s a good girl,” Lorend commended her, the first favorable thing he’d said about Bessie in a while. He seemed pleased as he admired his handiwork, but he was also shivering, and Lieutenant Mablung noticed this with some concern.
“Idren, go back to the house and ask them to heat up some more water for Lorend. He needs to get washed up and warm again.” I ran back to the house, only to find that Hethlin and Silivren and my mother already had the large cauldron on the boil. Hethlin started filling the bath with the cold water first, then, when Lorend started around the back of the house, the four of us all poured the hot water in.
He settled into his second bath of the day gratefully, and stayed there for a while, using a great deal of soap. Mother kept bringing him pots of hot water, and Hethlin brought him a clean change of clothes. The girls went down to the barn to exclaim over the new calf. Eventually he came into the house, dressed but damp-headed, to sit by the fire and comb his hair dry. Mother brought him a cup of hot tea, and he sniffed the odors of cooking food appreciatively.
“Thank you for your help, Ranger. Will the cow and calf be all right?” she asked.
Lorend shrugged. “I do not know, mistress. Bessie might still get womb fever or milk fever or any number of things. And it’s not a good time of year for calving. I wish my mother were here-she has tonics she gives her cows to discourage such things.”
“But Bessie would have died had you not done what you did?”
He nodded, and sipped his tea.
“Then we are very grateful. Are you going to go on to your own family tonight?”
“No. It’s a five hour journey from here. They’d be well started into things already if I left right now, and I’d better finish getting dry first.” The young ranger’s expression was morose and Mother looked at him apologetically.
“I am very sorry we ruined your holiday, Ranger Lorend.”
Another shrug. “You didn’t ruin it. I got to see them yesterday, after all. I told them then I might not be able to make it there. Do not worry about it-I will be glad to spend the holiday with you. It will be a great deal nicer than what the rest of the Rangers are having in Ithilien.”
Ranger Hethlin gave him a sympathetic look. Having lost his entire family, I suspected the youngest Ranger felt very badly for Lorend. But Lossarnach’s one surviving Ranger was good-humored enough about how events had fallen out. Once his hair was dry, he set to helping us with the final preparations with a good will, and by nightfall, all was ready. The table was laid with our one festive cloth and I fancied I could almost hear it groan beneath the burden of food laid upon it. The mantel was decorated with cedar branches and greenery the girls and Ranger Hethlin had gone out to cut, and Mother’s box and the three loaves nestled among them. The candles were ready for when they’d be needed.
We began the festivities with the presentation of gifts, for such had been the custom in our house when Father was alive. Mother and I had both been busy that fall, making things for the girls. Tuilinn was given a doll I had carved for her, and that Mother had dressed with scraps from the rag bag. I was proud of that doll, for it had jointed arms and legs, and that had been a tricky bit of carving for me. Silivren received one of Mother’s old festival dresses that had been taken in for her. Mother had embroidered some flowers around the neck and sleeve edges. It was a deep red and would look very well with her dark hair. These gifts were well-received, Silivren hastening upstairs to change after hugging Mother, while Tuilinn squealed with joy, then threw her arms about my neck and kissed me.
“But where’s your gift, Idren?” she asked after a moment, her face turning troubled.
“I’m a grown-up now and grown-ups don’t usually get Mettarë gifts,” I explained.
“May I see your doll, Tuilinn?” Lieutenant Mablung asked. Rather surprised, my sister nodded and handed it over. The oldest Ranger turned it over in his hands for a moment, examining it. Then he handed it back.
“That is nice work, Idren. I didn’t know you liked wood carving.”
“I used to have the time to do more, but I’m not all that good at it.”
“A craftsman is only as good as his tools. Your knife is a bit big, I’ll wager.” And he went to where his saddlebags were stacked against the wall and pulled something out, which he brought back over to me and placed in my hands. It was a slender knife, a silver sliver, wood-hafted and in its own little leather sheath. “I have other blades back in Ithilien,” the lieutenant said, “for I like to whittle every now and again to pass the time. You should be able to do more detail now.”
“I wish I’d had it when I was carving the fingers,” I said feelingly. “I threw away about a dozen arms. Thank you, sir.”
The lieutenant smiled and nodded, then winked at Tuilinn. “Sometimes grown-ups get Mettarë presents as well, Tuilinn.” Tuilinn grinned back at him.
We were just about to sit down to our feast when there came a sound of a wagon pulling up outside the house.
“Hello the house!” came a deep voice, and Lorend started.
“Father?” he exclaimed under his breath, and hurried to the door. The rest of us followed.
There indeed were Guildmaster Doron and Mistress Emlin in a wagon drawn by a fine dray horse.
“Father! Mother! Whatever are you doing here?” Lorend asked in astonishment. His mother smiled down at him.
“You had said you might not be able to come to us, so Doron and I decided to come to you, and leave Feredir to deal with the rest of the family. We figured that we’d either meet you on the way to us and escort you back home, or come out here to where you were. But either way, we wanted to spend Mettarë with you, Lorend. We didn‘t know when we’d get the chance to do it again.” He reached up to give her an arm down out of the wagon, and when she was on the ground, she took him into her arms in a tight embrace. Master Doron came around the wagon and joined her, while the rest of us looked on, beaming. Hethlin actually sniffled, and the lieutenant patted his shoulder.
“We brought some things to add to the feast, if you will have us,” the guild master said.
“But of course you are welcome!” my mother exclaimed. “Idren told me what a help you were to us yesterday! Idren, help Master Doron with his horse.”
“I’ll have a look at your heifer, if you like,” Mistress Emlin said. “I brought some of my tonic with me for when she calves.”
“Excellent!” said Lorend. “You can go ahead and give it to her mother-she calved this afternoon. Just as I was going to leave, which is why I was still here. I had to turn the calf.”
Emlin gave her son a knowing look. “Poor fellow! You’ve always hated cattle, for all that you’re a good hand with them. I’m glad you didn’t leave her to suffer. Come, let’s go have a look at her.” So Lorend and I set off for the barn with his parents, he to help his mother with Bessie and I to help his father bed the horse down. Our barn, I reflected, was beginning to look as full as the old days.
It took very little time to accomplish both tasks. Mistress Emlin dosed Bessie, then pronounced her and her new baby in good health. We returned gratefully to the warmth of the house. The guild master and his wife washed up, then presented their contributions to the feast-one of Mistress Emlin’s famous cheeses, some wine, and some luscious looking honey cakes. They in turn were impressed with what was already upon the table.
“Boar? You’ve got boar? I’ll wager even Lord Forlong himself might not have such a feast!” Master Doron exclaimed. As it turned out, boar was a particular favorite of his, and he wanted to hear the story of how it had come to us. Ranger Hethlin told the tale rather shyly, and the guild master chuckled when Arcag’s part was explained.
“Pretty is as pretty does, it would seem, Ranger,” he said, “though I must say that he must do very prettily indeed to overcome his ugly exterior.” All of the horses had gotten apples earlier that afternoon as a Mettarë treat, the ones that were starting to bruise and soften. Silivren and Tuilenn had fed Speckle and the Rangers’ other horses, while Hethlin cautiously fed his stud his reward, which included an extra apple I’d slipped him in gratitude for the boar-meat.
We sat down to eat, and everyone set to with great enthusiasm. Never in our lives, even when Father was alive, had we had such a feast! Boar and roast venison and stewed rabbit, root stew, new baked bread, apple tarts and honey cakes and cheese were all happily devoured, wine was drunk and cheerful talk drifted about the table. I, however, was worried about the important role that still lay before me. It was reassuring to know that the spark of the new fire would be kindled by a Ranger who did such tasks every day, but as head of the house, the words were mine to speak.
And eventually, that time came. The candles Lorend had purchased in the market were passed around to my family, and it turned out that Mistress Emlin had brought some extras, so that everyone present had a light. Ranger Hethlin doused the fire with a speed and dispatch that showed he’d done it in a hurry before. Dark closed in around us, and silence. There was no sound but a faint hiss from the fire and the noise of everyone’s breathing. I could feel Lieutenant Mablung’s presence beside me, and movement as he worked with his tinderbox. I cleared my throat, and spoke the words, the first of many times I would do this task as a man.
“This was the day which was shortest, and this is the night which is longest. But the stars shine upon us, and the year turns now. The darkness passes, and the light shall return.”
Lieutenant Mablung slid his hand along my forearm and guided the wick of my candle to the smoldering tinder in his tinder-box. To my very great relief, it caught immediately, and the sweet scent of beeswax began to rise from it. Carefully, I tipped it to light Master Doron’s candle upon my right hand, and my mother’s upon my left. Light began to grow in the room, and once everyone had lit their candles, it was a veritable blaze, such as we’d never seen in our humble farmhouse. I looked about, at all who were with us, a bit of everything that made Gondor strong. The soldiers who defended it, the farmers who fed it, the craftspeople who made goods, and the merchants who ferried the goods between those who made them and those who needed them. We lacked only lords and in a way they were there too, for it was the Lord Faramir’s care for his men which had brought us all together this night.
Cheerful talk rose once more as Hethlin and Mablung set to cleaning the remnants of the old fire from the fireplace and laying the new one. In very little time, a new blaze was burning upon the hearth, and there was other business to do. Mother took down the loaves from where they rested in a place of honor before her box on the mantle and looked to the two oldest men in the room.
Master Doron smiled. “How many years have you, Lieutenant?” he asked.
“Two score and two,” Mablung replied, puzzled.
“Then as I have seen more winters than you, this task falls to me. And I know the words in any event, and I doubt that you do.” The two Rangers who were not from Lossarnach watched curiously as Mother handed Master Doron the loaves.
He held up the first loaf. “We honor the Trickster, he who is cunning of mind, who prospers by his wits and keeps his enemies at bay by cunning strategem. Give us wits and cunning in the coming year and the will to use them, that we might prosper as well.” The loaf was tossed into the fire and was consumed almost immediately. A scent of burnt bread and honey rose into the air.
The second loaf was held aloft. “We honor the Hunter, he who goes unafraid into the darkling wood and brings back sustenance for his people. Give us patience and courage in the coming year, that we might persevere in the face of any adversity that befalls us.” The second loaf joined the first in the fire, and the third and last loaf was held up.
“And we honor the Lord, he who with his justice and wisdom brings peace and order to both hearth and land. Give us wisdom and discernment, that we might deal straightly with our neighbors and they with us, that all might flourish.” The third loaf made its last journey into flame, and we Lossarnach folk all raised a cheer, which startled Ranger Hethlin and Lieutenant Mablung.
Then the wine was passed around again, and we all had some more and things grew louder for a time, then very quiet, as the girls and Mother and Mistress Emlin finally all went off upstairs to sleep, and we men all bedded down in the downstairs room. For a time, there was a quiet whisper of sound near the hearth, as Lorend and his father spoke very softly to each other, but I could not hear what was said. And whether it was because of the wine or some other reason, I slept well and deeply that night and dreamed of my father. In my dream, he said nothing to me, but he was smiling and I thought he seemed pleased with me.