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6

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

ROTK: The Battle of the Pelennor Fields


~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~oOo~

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

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

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

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

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

Taking a deep breath, I unwind the cloth from my head, smoothing back the wild strands before I replace the pins that secure the linen to my hair. Their voices come through the door as they argue.

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

"I do not believe it!"

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

It is the first I have seen him in the light of day and I am struck by the darkness of the skin below his eyes and in the hollows of his cheeks. Halbarad sits on the bench by his kin's chair, so near his elbow he brushes against him when he moves. Gathered about them are more than a dozen Rangers in heated argument. Within their weather-beaten faces are set the grey eyes of their forefathers of Westernesse.

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

"If Rohan were to fall - " begins one.

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

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

"Aye, and a house divided it is!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What say you to bed, my lord?"

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

I bite at my lip, considering. Indeed, perhaps I encouraged Halbarad to leave a little too soon. I am not frail, but I cannot lift a full-grown man up a flight of stairs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"My thanks to you, my lord."

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

"My lord," say I, mindful of his Rangers' words. "Is there any hope, do you think?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~oOo~

The square is in a tumult of noise and movement, though the sun is barely risen and shadows lie heavy upon the doorways and beneath the low-hanging eaves.

"Watch out there now, mistress!" I hear at my elbow. I clutch the bundle to my breast and, wincing away from the sound, take a hurried step back to avoid being trampled by short, solid forms carrying crates and rudely-woven bags. The faint smell of onions and garlic follows them.

Its side bulging with its packs, a pony with a sleepy stare half-hidden beneath its forelock fairly stumbles behind a burly form. The dwarf leading it across my path nods and grumbles a greeting I cannot understand. I ran the path from my lord's house to the square and now my breast heaves with the effort. At a glance about the square sure it is I see the folk of the Dúnedain gathered there. Husband and wife, mother and father, daughter and son they stand upon restless feet with their possessions about them. They are soon to leave.

A smile and a nod and a whispering behind a hand and I know I am noted. Ah! What matter the eyes that pry in surprise upon my appearance in the Angle when none had seen me these few days past? For though I search among the forms of Men that mingle with those of the dwarves and their ponies, I find none that stoop or lean upon the canes of our old. None bear my aunt's white hair. Where could she be? Surely she has not been forgotten.

Ah! 'Tis I who should have carried her pack, who should have roused her to begin this, her last day in the Angle, and walked with her to the square, guiding her slow feet in the dim light before the dawn. It is I who should have helped her into her dress, tying those laces too fine for her aching fingers, brushing out her thinning hair and winding its braid about her head. But it was not and my duties demand I leave this last task for our friends and neighbors. For, if I had not, who then would have begun my lord's day with the warming of his hall and the breaking of his fast?

The morning is chill and but for the tips of their noses and the long flow of the beards that peek from out their hoods, I can mark little of the dwarves who load their carts with fresh foodstuffs from the Angle to mark one from the other. As I approach the last cart of the line, they come to the last of the crates and bags piled behind its open back, lifting them swiftly to a fellow with a green hood and long, reddish beard standing in its bed.

"Hiyah, there!" says a dwarf below, catching the red-beard's eye, and, for lack of other baggage, he lifts a lad to the cart, who will soon be followed by his much younger sister.

"Have a seat right there, young master," says the red-bearded dwarf, patting a squat barrel, and the boy sits down and takes his sister in his lap.

"Keep an eye on Hana, will you?" his father says, clutching the wattle side to peer at his son and the boy nods vigorously above his sister's head, his eyes wide with the seriousness of his duty.

The dwarf ruffles the lad's hair. "They will be here walking beside you, laddie, never fear. We will leave none behind."

"Master Dwalin!" a voice booms. It is that of our butcher, he strides to the cart with his uneven gait.

The red-bearded dwarf leaves the children with a pat upon the girl's head and drops to the ground with a heavy thud. The butcher's nose is full of color for the chill and he sniffs and wipes at it before he speaks.

"When shall we look for your return? Just after midsummer as always?"

"Aye, and I'll have your salt then," Master Dwalin says and the butcher nods and glances about him, distracted I think by the commotion, "a portion for the provisions you arranged the way there, and the rest for those that will feed us on the way back."

Though I hear their voices at my shoulder, I heed them not, for there she is. My aunt sits upon the benches about the Angle's well, her hood drawn close about her so I see naught but the twinkling of her dark eyes in the gathering light. There beside her, with his hands balanced finely atop his teetering cane, sits Master Maurus. I should have known. Nay, he would not let the chance pass him by.

"Ah!" he says, pursing his lips, and his words slow my feet. ""Tis your due to collect the payment earned and see to your own, my dear. She will have concerns of her own, true enough. You are wise. You are wise." He nods his head. "Perhaps one day we shall all follow you to the western hills yet, may the Valar preserve us. Though we be caught between the Shadow and the Sundering Seas, it shall purchase us some little time. And that is all we have let, is it not, you and I."

"Speak for yourself, Maurus," my aunt says and bends down to fuss with her pack beneath the bench. "Shall our Enemy sweep down upon us, with our lord and the Master of Rivendell, His days shall be the shorter lived. I intend to outlast even Him." She rises, placing her folded hands in her lap. She looks about the square and I know she searches for me.

"Of course, my dear," the Elder says, his voice as smooth as his aged throat can make it. "Though it is a pity you take your sweet humor so far from us poor folk of the Angle."

"Ai! There you are, child!" my aunt exclaims, and places her hands upon her knees and pushes herself slowly to standing.

I go to her, my eyes filled with the sight of the sudden joy that lights her face. I think, at that moment, I shall burst into tears, so relieved am I to find her here. But she returns my embrace, her arms circling my shoulder as light as wings of a small bird and I am comforted. For moment, it seem just the two of us are gathered here.

"And what have you here?" my aunt chirps, sniffing delicately when we part. "Hmm, my pet?" She smiles, her cheeks sweetly pink and crinkling with her fond mirth.

"To sweeten your journey, my aunt." I hand her the bundle of warm linen I have clutched to my breast.

She lifts it to her nose and her dark eyes dance above the cloth. Into the pastries' baking I put honey, a paste of finely-ground walnuts, and priceless spices I found in my lord's pantry. Their heat seeps through the linen in which I have folded them, and I know her hands are warmed by their baking. I left their rising for late in the night and took them to the ovens before returning to my lord's bed, and only now wound the cloth about them on my way to the square.

She presses the bundle to her breast and the touch that lights upon my cheek is fond. "Ai, child, I would tell thee thou should have done no such thing, were it not I loved them so."

"I am surprised our lord let you from his sight so soon, my lady," I hear in a loud, flat voice, and my aunt releases me. We turn to find the Elder peering up at us from his bench. He clears his throat and looks upon my aunt expectantly.

"Ah, yes, my child, Elder Maurus was so kind as to accompany me," she says in a breathless rush and her hand comes to rest upon my arm.

"My thanks to you, Master Maurus," I say and bow, touching my fingers to my brow. For, indeed I am indebted to him. I raise my voice so he might hear me well. "It lightens my heart to know she need not have waited alone."

"So you have come to see your aunt off?" he asks squinting up at me against the rising sun, then grunts when I nod. "I had not thought we would see you for some time, my lady. Ah, well, 'twas kind of our lord to let you come, then."

I know not what to say, for truly, my lord does not know I am truant from his house. He sleeps and I would not wake him from the healing his slumber might give.

"'Twas good of you to come, Maurus." The gaze my aunt lays upon him is sharp and I think either she must know of my predicament for the silence that greets the Elder's thoughts or her temper is much tried by his attentions this morning.

At this, he sighs and rises, leaning heavily upon his cane. "Ah, well, my dear. 'Tis the time to be going, after all. If I fail to leave now, I will have naught for my morning tea, for Pelara is sure to set it all away should I be late and I have a long day before me."

"Your daughter runs her house most efficiently, you raised her well and are sure to want for little," my aunt says.

"Aye, aye, aye," he says, waving the thought away with his free hand. "Stay close to the carts, my dear, and take heed to what I said. Convince Master Dwalin to pass Bree by, if you can bend a dwarf whose will is oft unyielding as the iron his folk work. Such an unlovely place and I hear the strangest of men gather there. And if you must be there, go not out among its folk." He leans in upon his cane and my aunt suffers him to brush a dry kiss upon her cheek. "Well, my dear," he says, shuffling apart. "I shall not prolong our parting, though it pains me so. May your journey be swift and free of cares, should the Valar think to be so kind for once."

"Fare ye well, Maurus," says my aunt, and, to his delight, though her words be brief, presses her lips to his cheek.

"Lady," he says and, giving a sharp nod in farewell when she is done, begins his shuffling journey across the square. He pats at the cap upon his head and nods to our folk as they make way for him. No matter the curtness of his farewell, I cannot fail to smile at the twinkling about his eyes and the jaunty set of his shoulders as he goes.

My aunt shakes her head in a swift dismissal of the man. "Come now, my pet," she says and curls her hand about my arm where I can be her support. "'Tis time for my own going, is it not?"

Taking up her pack and stick from where they sit below the well's bench, we retrace my steps and, though I lend no speed to my steps, it is too soon we reach the cart upon which she will travel.

"Ah, there, mistresses," Master Dwalin, says to us when we come near, his business with the butcher now well done. I find keen eyes peer at us from beneath his blue hood and a shock of white hair sits just below the dwarf's lip, its silver threads weaving their thin paths into his red beard until they have lost their way. "I have been expecting you," he says and extends his hand. "You shall be the last, and then we shall be on our way."

I set down my aunt's pack and fumble at my belt as he takes up the burden and gently tosses it upon an open space in the cart. In my haste, I yank at the strings that tie my purse, for I see now the dwarves climb to their carts and take up the reins. The jingle of pennies must have betrayed the purpose of my efforts, for, when he turns back to my aunt and I, the dwarf's hand rises and he shakes his head, his face growing stern.

"Nay, mistress, you put that away now. We will see you safe and I will not take a penny more for it."

My aunt's hand squeezes upon my arm and I can only look from her to Master Dwalin. Confusion is writ upon more than my face, for it is clear my aunt knows not of what he speaks, either.

"How is that, sir?" I ask, the strings to my purse dangling heavily from my fingers.

"Now, girl, do not take offense and I shall return the favor. But you would do well to question what ill things are said of the dwarves by those who know them not. I have had your fee and there is naught you can purchase with your pennies above that."

"But I have not paid at all, sir!"

My aunt's face softens and I think she smiles, though I cannot think why.

"Ah! So that is the way of it," the dwarf exclaims, his face lightening. "Aye, well, whether you knew of it or not, another of your house has been here before you. The fee has already been paid in full and you need not offer more."

"Oh," I say and slowly let the purse drop from my grip, wondering if it was my lord or Halbarad's doing.

"Come now, then," Master Dwalin says and my aunt releases my arm so as to take his offered hand. "That is settled, now let us get you settled and we shall be on our way."

I see now he has prepared a seat upon a long chest upon which he has placed the folds of a thick blanket to ease my aunt's bones. There she sits and I hand her staff up to her. Her dark eyes shine and I know her thoughts are of her kin and the lands which she has never seen. At the fondness of her gaze upon me, my heart beats heavily, as if a weight gathers upon my breast.

"Here, now, mistress, put your foot there," Master Dwalin says, nodding to the open bed, his hand already clasping my elbow to lift me into the cart. I am weight to his grip and he looks upon me with concern and surprise when I resist.

"I am not to go, sir," I say. I have held in my tears until I fear I may burst from them. I think my face must show it, for the dwarf's grip loosens and his rough voice gentles.

"There now, lass, do not worry yourself. I will look after her as if she were my own mother, then. The Chieftain of the Dúnedain has long been a good friend of the dwarves of the Blue Mountains. And when he request it, we could do no less than to see his kin there safe and in what little comfort we can provide."

At first it is all I can do to blink at him stupidly. But then, knowing the esteem in which the dwarves hold the women of their race, I bow and touch my brow.

When he has lifted the gate upon the cart and goes about securing it, my aunt leans over its edge. She peers about and, seeing herself safely beyond the dwarf's hearing, catches my eye and whispers, "He is good to thee, then, my child?"

"Aye, my aunt, he is," I say, and would have said naught else even had I cause to resent my lord's treatment of me. I will not speak of my awakening each morning, when I lie as still as I may just to listen for my lord's breath and know I lay not beside a man gone cold and still in the night while I slept.

"Ah, I knew it." Her smile is both proud and fond as her fingers stroke my cheek and pull at the tendrils of hair loosened from my headscarf. "I would not leave you without him and his to watch over you, my pet."

My hand comes up to clasp hers where she leans upon the wattle gate. Frail bones and soft, dry skin lie warm under my hand, I fear to press them too hard. I think my aunt must read the sorrow in my face for now her smiles grows sad.

A deep voice calls out in a tongue I know not and the jingling of harness and the wheels of the foremost cart set to creaking.

"You will send word?" I ask and my aunt nods, patting at my hand. "I would know you reached our kin safely."

"Of course, my chick, I would not forget you. And I shall send you word of all your kin, as well. I would they come to know you.'

With a slap of the reins, the cart carrying my aunt jerks into motion, and Master Dwalin hefts himself aloft upon his pony and sets the animal walking beside it.

The cart rolls slowly and I follow. I know I cannot walk all the way to the Mountains, but still I hold tightly to the back of the cart.

"And you have the blanket I left out? The blue one?" I ask, for it is the softest and thickest I could find. The nights upon the Wild shall grow cool and my aunt's bones suffer for it.

"Aye, that I do, child."

"Oh, aunt! The salve!" My feet quicken. "I forgot the salve for your joints!" I fight the rising of my voice and my aunt squeezes my hand.

"No, child, you did not. I have it here. Never fear, you packed it for me." A pucker grows between her thin brows.

I can think of naught else to say, but still I cling to the frail hand lying upon the frame. When I will not let go, my aunt leans upon the rail as if she wishes to speak one last word. Would that my feet had wings on which to fly, but they do not, and I struggle to keep pace with the cart.

"Nienelen," she begins, her voice softly chiding.

We have traveled past the confines of the square and the fields open out about us. The ponies trot along, pulling cart upon the rutted path. The way is uneven and the wheel must have come upon a stone, for the cart lurches and my hand is torn free.

Swiftly then she is gone beyond reach and I stand upon the path and watch her go.

The last I see of her, my aunt raises her hand and, from where I stand watching her dwindle, I find my own has lifted of itself as if in an imperfect mirror of her farewell. Then the line of carts and ponies rounds a curve in the land, and she is gone.

Only then do I stir, for I must go to see what need my lord may have of me.

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