‘They are a strange company, these newcomers,’ said Gimli. ‘Stout men and lordly they are, and the Riders of Rohan look almost as boys beside them; for they are grim men of face, worn like weathered rocks for the most part, even as Aragorn himself; and they are silent.’
I think now that the Rangers of the North have lost their wits.
Young men who, near a month before had raised their voices among their elders in councils of war, are red-faced with laughter, grinning as broadly as boys. It began in the repairing of the drystone walls that fence in the fields. The land has lain fallow for most of a generation and the walls have been left to crumble under the force of wind and rain. It is a daunting task, though the men of the North make light of hard work.
And light they make of it. Indeed, I know not how their purpose changed or when, but now a youth runs upon the wall while his mates attempt to push him off. He dances among the smooth stones, stepping lightly to avoid traps of both uncertain gravity and grasping hands until he is caught by the heel and pulled down onto his laughing friends. It is a marvel the man did not fall from the heights and crack his skull upon one of the river stones.
My lord has seated himself upon a low, flat rock among the elders of his company, their grim faces softened with laughter. I approach slowly, burdened as I am with buckets in which cups float atop cool water. He stands and calls to his men.
"A fine performance," says he. "Now let us see if you have strength left to lift the stones you knocked down."
They right themselves from the tangle on the ground and wade through the grass toward my lord, where he and the men have returned to sorting through the rubble. One of the youths, built more slightly than the others, springs to the top of wall and they lift stones to him. My lord lifts a great stone to his man atop the fence and I gasp and stumble under my load. More than one set of hands reach to grab it from him and the next stone that is placed in his arms is considerably smaller. It seems I am not alone in my dismay.
My misstep on the uneven turf sets the tin cups to jangling within the buckets as if I am wearing a bell, drawing their eyes. My lord frowns, then the rock he holds thuds onto the ground and he is striding toward me, calling as he goes.
The dancing youth springs away from the wall. His feet swifter than my lord's, he reaches me first, his pleasant, round face red from exertion and bright with mirth. So close and I see just how young he is and I forgive him his high spirits. He will have time enough for the boy to be worn away into the hard features of a man. A soft smile and word of thanks from me, and he grins and ducks his head. When he offers his hands to relieve me of my burden, he cannot meet my eye. For this and the glimpse of my father's belt about his waist, my heart warms toward him.
Gelir nods at my lord and smiles broadly as he passes. It seems my lord had intended for his man to assume charge of only one of the buckets, for, when he comes upon us, he scowls and looks as if about to speak. But Gelir has taken both and bears them back to his mates, leaving his chieftain with naught to carry when his stride reaches me. A brief awkward moment, and then my lord shakes his head and sets pace with me, following the youth. It is all I can do not to break into smiles, though I am sure my lord can see the mirth in my eyes. Indeed, his face is gently wry. He has been caught in a neat trap by his man, and knows it.
It is a short distance we walk, but I refuse to quicken my feet though I am no longer weighed down, and, for courtesy, my lord must match me. The men have clustered about the buckets of water and dip the cups therein, handing out water among them.
Emboldened by his men's concern, I say, my voice deliberately mild, "I rejoice you are feeling more yourself, my lord, but is it wise to press your body to great labor?"
"Lady," says he, letting loose a small huff of laughter, "I have cared for my body for more years than you have graced this land and know its limits, else I would not still be here to argue them with you."
"Perhaps, my lord, thou should have taken greater care in the writing of my vows, for thou charged me to provide for thy safekeeping. Wouldst thou have me foresworn?"
He glances at me in surprise, no doubt marveling at why the words of the Elves issue forth from me at such a time. And, in truth, I can hardly contain my own, for I am greatly startled to hear my aunt's words fly from between my lips to chastise him. No matter I felt his condescension unwarranted, I have no right to assail him with my impatient tongue.
"It is not only I, my lord." I recover enough to squint into the sunlit field at the dark shapes that bend over the buckets. "Your men crowd you out of the hardest labor."
"Aye, so they do," he growls, but his eyes lighten fondly as he, too, looks upon them.
"Very well, lady, I shall rest," he concedes after spending some time in thought in which we walk. "But only if you join me," he says, nodding to a place apart from his men. "I would have speech with you."
Striding a short length away, my lord chooses a spot on the fence and I follow him, taking up one of the buckets as I go. He lifts himself to the top of the stone wall before dropping down on its far side so he might look out upon the meadows and hills. When I follow, he takes the bucket from me before grasping my hand. He does not often touch me, and then only briefly and with the lightest of contacts, but here I find his grip warm and sure. I gather my skirts and, with his aid, do the same. There, he leans back against the rock wall and takes the cup I offer.
He is taller than am I, and I cannot see all he looks upon that makes his face soften. When I have filled a cup of my own, I set it atop a stone and attempt to climb the fence. But the stones are smooth from the river and I cannot find good purchase. Watching me, my lord sets aside his cup, and, in a swift move, places his hands about my waist and, bending his knees, lifts me. Startled, I grab at his shoulders. He is so near his features fill my view. His face is fixed in effort, but his eyes flicker with mirth at my confusion. My heart seems to have a life of its own. Whether it pounds from surprise or the fact that my lord was so close I felt his breath brush across my cheek, I cannot say.
There I sit upon the top of the fence, stunned with the effortlessness with which he placed me there. He smiles as if to tease me for having doubted his strength.
"My lord! Thou gave thy word thou wouldst rest thee!" I scold him once I have caught my breath. But he laughs and retrieves his cup, leaving me to sit atop the fence and look out upon the land in which his house is nestled.
The soft green of the gently rolling meadows fades into a distant blue of the hills, covered as they are with the trees of the North. My lord now holds the cup against his breast and crosses his ankles as he looks upon them. He seems to have taken no great harm and I forebear to berate him further. Regardless, I am coming to understand, it would surely be to no effect should I try.
"It is beautiful here, do you think?" he asks after a long moment, his voice quiet.
"Aye, my lord," say I, for it is.
"Peaceful," he murmurs before shifting his cup to his other hand and breaking his search of the lands to gaze upon me.
He takes the fingers of my free hand in his own and with a twist of his wrist, flips it over so he may examine it from knuckles to palm. Yet, it seems he does so more for my benefit, that I might know he has seen their state, for he catches my eye and will not release it nor my hand. From dawn until well after dusk, I spent the day before in washing the linens and clothes that had piled up greatly. My hands are still raw from the soap and cold water. I would wish to pull my hand away to hide it in the folds in my apron was it not secured in my lord's grasp.
"I do not require, lady, that you wear yourself so thin," he says, and I fall still.
I had hoped my late arrival to my lord's bed last night had passed his notice, but it seems not so. I had cleared a corner of the parlor where I could spread out the house's ledgers and look over them without disturbing my lord or his men. Late into the night I pondered over them, until the figures swam in a muddy soup in my head and then troubled my dreams once I relented.
"Should I find you suitable aid for the running of your house, will you accept it, lady?"
I nod, for I dare do naught else even should I not care for the help, but even then he does not release me.
"I expect you to bring such needs to me, lady," says he, his voice both weary and stern, "not wait for me to discover them only when it becomes apparent you have suffered for their want."
When he releases my hand it is almost a relief, for only then can I cease to stare at him. I can think of naught to say, and am grateful he seems to expect no reply. Instead, we fall silent, watching the breeze as it bends the tips of the grasses. Waves of silvered green pass across the meadow and die away. The low voices of men murmur close at hand.
I wonder at the curious lightheadedness I feel. I cannot blame it upon the warmth of the sun. I had not thought my lord's touch would disturb me so, and yet it does. I had not thought the sight of his eyes so close to mine would seem so piercingly fair, the strength of his hands and shoulders would seem so far beyond my own I wonder what it would feel to be in his embrace, nor his grave concern would lift my heart, and yet they do. I scrub at my forehead. Is this not as it should be? Am I not his wife?
"We have yet to complete our bargain," he says, startling me into staring at him.
He may be of the race of the West unmingled, and his sight may bore through to the heart of a man, but surely he cannot tell my thoughts. To my mind, there is but one way in which our marriage is incomplete and it has been much in my thoughts. I can only hope he will not name it in the open air and among his men. To my relief, it seems not, for his attention is not upon me but he takes a sip of water, looking out upon the land with a critical eye.
"How is that, my lord?"
"I have not paid your bride-price, and I would not leave it undone for long."
"I had not thought of it," say I, stumbling over the words so taken aback am I at the turn in the conversation. Seldom does a bride of the Dúnedain ask for her own price in place of her elders.
"Then what say you name it now?"
I look out upon the pasture, squinting into the strong sun whose glare hides the men resting among the grasses. "It seems my lord already has somewhat in mind."
"I do," he says, following my gaze with his own. "I would have this house be self-sufficient, if it can, as soon as it can. I am told it is too late for the planting of the early pease or spring wheat," he says, "but a field plowed now should be ready for the planting of winter crops by first frost. If so, then we must clear the land and fence it in, enough to reduce our drain upon the people of the Angle. I will find a man to assist you, who will know the care of the crops we need raise here and the management of the Angle's labor."
I nod at his thoughts. If, as it seems in these times, we must settle upon these lands lightly, then we must fend for ourselves but not put great store in being allowed to remain here. He does not need my approval, but I give it nonetheless.
But his face is lit with a pleased smile, and thus encouraged, I ask, "What of expanding the kitchen gardens just beyond the fruit trees, against the buttery door, my lord?"
He frowns and looks where I point, shading his eyes against the sun. "About the well?"
"Aye, a good place for a garth filled with herbs and savory plants, do you agree, my lord?"
He nods and returns to leaning against the fence. "Make your plans, lady, and it will be done."
"My thanks to you, my lord." I wonder if this is the bride price he had in mind when he interrupts me.
"I see you have some skill with wool," he says, likely thinking of the tall loom that leans against a far wall in the hall, the baskets of unspun roving and twists of yarn that now hang from the rafters in the parlor. "Have you the skills to raise the sheep?"
"Would a flock of twenty meet your needs?" His gaze measures me.
"Aye, my lord," I say, thinking of what must be done to bring the lands to self-sufficiency as I speak. One male for the first season's lambing and neighbors with which to trade for the services of their rams in the second, the flock would increase rapidly. "Ewes, a ram and a wether or two to keep him company, that would do nicely indeed as a start."
"I am glad to hear it," he says and I blush for my forwardness, but he seems not to mind. Indeed, he is smiling.
"My lord is generous." I look intently at the depths of my cup to keep from bringing more shame to myself. He has indeed been generous. Should my lord fail of his return, I might have a chance of keeping a living for myself and any of my children. Though my sons might inherit the land, upon my death the flock would come to my daughters, to take to whatever house to which they would go.
My lord has returned to studying the land, no doubt seeing it as he would wish it to become. I, in turn, think of the speed with which sheep can nibble green shoots down to the roots.
"You will need to build sturdy fences, my lord," I say and he smiles in response.
"Aye, or your bride price and my plans shall come to cross purposes," he says and then frowns, considering the land about us. "Can you think of aught else?"
"A well-cover might be wise, my lord."
"Think you the sheep will tumble into the well and drown?" he asks and turns an uncertain smile on me.
Sheep are not known for the sharpness of their wits, yet I do not laugh.
"No, my lord,' I say. "Should they play in the garden and we put our backs to them for but a minute, your children might."
He sobers and turns away when he nods, draining his cup to fill the silence between us. I cannot read his face, for his features are closed to me. Dropping his cup into the water, he sets the bucket atop the fence and lifts himself over the stones. His smile is distant and his eyes have none of their former brightness of mirth as he relieves me of my cup and grasps my hand to ease me from the top of the wall.
I content myself with walking a step behind so I might watch my lord as we return to his men. I had thought his wound had sapped his strength so he gave no thought to claiming his right as my lord and groom, but now I know it is not so. His strength returns daily yet still I wait. His face is solemn and now I find a name for this time that has grown between the exchange of our vows and the making of a marriage bed.
My lord is reluctant.
"Were I to restrain myself to trimming the withies for thy garden fence, wilt thou be content?"
I am startled to find my lord looking at me, his face now clear of his disquiet. He has stopped, for we have come back to the spot where we started our conversation. He gently teases me with the Elvish words as he offers me the bucket.
"As it please you, my lord," I say and take it from him, my voice low and my eyes demure.
He frowns but I cannot relieve his bewilderment. I have turned away and wish only to return to the house.
I can make neither heads nor tails of what my lord would have of me. And it comes to me in the walk through the grasses with the bucket swinging from my hand and the cups clanking idly within; perhaps he, himself, does not know.