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11

'He is the Chief of the Dúnedain in the North, and few are now left of that folk.'

FOTR: The Council of Elrond


~~~

The broad leaves of the bean bushes tremble in the breeze, their green so bright they seem to glow against the blackness that is the dirt. Ahead, boys switch at goats with their long withies stripped from the willow trees. The beasts trot down the path with their stiff-legged gait, swaying bellies, and wagging beards as their young herders call out and press them to their day's pasture.

Men ply their hoes upon the soil, the heads of their tools rising and falling as they work their way down the rows, ridding the field of weeds. The day before they worked the lands of my lord's house, turning aside the soil about a field of wheat so tender it hung as a green mist rising from the soil. His reeve paced out the furlongs in my lord's fields and directed its plowing and planting.

Today Master Herdir has set the men to work in the fields along the path to the square of the Angle. The musk of fresh-turned earth and their song floats across the valley, and I catch a word or two among the music. Halbarad, whose broad hand clutches my journal to his hip, walks behind me to guard his lord wife's steps and bear her burdens. He watches the men and his stride marks time to their steady rhythm. I wonder if he knows it.

He is, as always, quiet of voice and solid of step. Glad am I, for I am deep in the figuring of tithes and what the fields may yield. I shake my head, for I can make little sense of my thoughts.

Should he be so endowed of his holdings, twenty-four acres, a full virgate, a man might have in the Angle. Of it he will plant but sixteen each year, leaving the fallow eight for the pasture of his and his fellow's beasts and fodder for their winter. Should the Valar be so kind, he might hope to reap ten bushels from each acre of wheat or beans and lentils in the summer and then rye upon the fall. One hundred and sixty in all, forty-eight of which he owes to the next planting's seed and sixteen of which he owes the House of Isildur in tithe. This leaves him with ninety-six, all of which he will need to feed and otherwise provide for his own family o'er the year. The House shall need as much and more, for it feeds not only its own, but provides commons atimes to my lord's men, provision for his men's households if they be of the Angle, and the succor of those of his folk in need.

Aye, aye, and aye! This I know and understand. But what of those of our people who flee to us after the plowing and planting of seed? How shall the land feed them?

Should a dozen families flee hither, we shall need over five hundred bushels to feed them. That is at least fifty acres of land to be worked! Who shall work it? True these twelve new to the Angle could plow up acreage in the spring, and shall owe the House, together, a total of near two hundred bushels that might be used to feed five more families if we are spare in the giving or the families are small.

But where shall come the seed for their next spring's planting? And whose land shall it be? Shall those who work it owe a tithe to the lord or shall the land be under his holding? Or is it somewhat altogether new and none shall own or owe tithes of it? And then there is this, a man who holds a full virgate in the Angle is a man of wealth. What of those who hold less? A half-virgate can feed a family in a good year but leave no surplus for trade for the family's other needs. Shall our wanderers all become cotters, then, with no land of their own? Shall the Angle become of two kinds, those who are landed and those who slave in the service of the bread they might earn from day's-work?

Ai! My head hurts.

My lord's lady mother's ledgers contain no accounting of such things. She lived simply, quietly and with few visitors. I found but the occasional reference to those who came to her for aid, and for near a generation of men, with my lord gone to lands far from his home and his mother under the care of the Lord of the Hidden Vale, there has been no House to record such things. So, no matter how oft I pore over the steady columns of figures, I find no help there.

The hens cluck weakly in their pens outside the Elder's home, the sun beating upon them and bending their heads beneath their wings with its sleepy warmth. Well, I am come, and am no closer to my answer than I was before.

"I shall return for you upon the noon meal, my lady," Halbarad says shortly as he hands me what are now my ledgers, and it takes a great act of will for me to forebear from staring at him.

So this is what Halbarad thinks of my efforts. He thinks me a fool and, knowing it is not his place to say so, waits for the Elder to teach me a lesson in it. Truth to be told, I am unsure he may not have the right of it.

"My thanks to you, Ranger Halbarad," I say and settle the leather folder upon my hip. It weighs as much as a newborn babe and seems to have brought as much unrest to my nights.

He takes his leave and I think him relieved to be gone, for I sent word ahead of my desire to speak with the Mistress and she stands in her open door.

"Good morrow, Mistress Pelara," I say and she bows her head and greets me in return, bringing her knuckles to her brow.

"You are welcome in my home, lady," she says, but the words are stiffly delivered and I wonder at her true feelings on the matter. Still, she backs away from the door and allows me entrance.

The Elder is nowhere in sight, and, in his place at the table, I see Mistress Pelara has laid out her accounts. They await my scrutiny and it is to them she ushers me. The brazier yet sits by the table, but its belly is cold and the table bare of aught else but her lists. No sharp smell of rosehips and chamomile nor tart words fondly traded between father and daughter to greet me. I am not a fool. Or perhaps, say rather I am not so much a fool as to think she would welcome me warmly under such circumstances, but I had hoped for better than this.

"Would you wish for refreshment, lady?"

"Yes, Mistress," I say, if only to relieve me of her gaze, and she bows, leaving me to the pages of lists.

Ai!

I have made my way through the accounting of tithes received in the past weeks and have moved on to the purchases made on my lord's House's behalf when the Mistress returns. I am appalled! How could one house require so much in beef, pork and grain? And in but a fortnight's time! Ai! What must the mistress think of my sense of economy? Ah, there is but one thing to think. It is apparent from these lists I have none.

She sets upon the table a pitcher of ale strong with the scent of yeast, and though she now sits across the table from me, I dare not lift my face from the sheets. I must seem to be turning the most intense of studies upon them, but I care not, for my cheeks are on fire for my shame. She waits impatiently, her arms tucked across her breast. I marvel she has said naught and think her only waiting to see what excuse I have to offer for my failings. Oh, I cannot say I place much blame upon her feeling. For here I sit in the Lady Gilraen's place, a woman much younger in years and wisdom than either the lady or her maid.

The letters are as the tracks of the Elder's clucking hens for all I can make sense of them, though they are placed upon the page with great care. I blink my eyes clear and swallow what little pride I might have left. Oh, yes, aye, there are among the lists an accounting of the purchase of onions and greens, aye, a mattock and spade, aye, that too, and an undue number of pots and blankets--

Blankets?

It seems the table tilts beneath my eyes and my thoughts draw sharply upon the page. How is this? Blankets, ten of them, and made of sturdy wool, purchased in exchange for a half-bushel of rye. What need has my lord's House of blankets? I brought many with me and of my own make. Where are they, these blankets I did not make and have not seen? And indeed, then, has the House truly consumed so much of what is contained herein? To my recollection, we have not had so much of pork as these lists might tell, and most assuredly not of beef. My lord commanded I not bring insult to the house of the Elder and his daughter, but now I must wonder if they do not take gross advantage of his goodwill.

Perhaps I did not hide my displeasure so well as I thought, for the mistress shifts about on her seat and then launches herself to her feet. She goes to the tall chest and, wrenching it open, draws from it a cup. She says naught nor meets my eye when she pours the ale and sets the cup before me.

"My thanks to you, Mistress."

I drink of the ale, lacking aught better to do. The taste is smooth with a deeply roasted mash of oats and somewhat else I cannot discern and know shall never be revealed. The mistress well deserves her reputation and no doubt keeps the tale of its brewing closely guarded.

"I have not yet set the doings of the past two days to the ledgers, lady," says she. "More of our folk came out from the Wild seeking aid, and we spent much of the time getting them settled."

I nod, swallowing the ale, for I had noted the lack, though had thought it of little account. I am silent for a moment more, for I need weigh my words carefully.

"Mistress, you kept these books in the same manner as ever you have for the House?"

"Aye, as the Lady Gilraen directed me, so I have continued."

"And you keep therein an account of what is purchased in its name and is given to it in tithe?"

"Aye," she says, and from her look it seems she marvels I do not find this evident in what I have read.

"But not, I take it, strictly that which is put into use by the House."

"No, what need had the House was my lady's care and I did not question it. I was given to understand you to be occupied with the concerns of the House and of a mind to keep to it, and so I did not take its inventory. If I was wrong, I would beg forgiveness of you, lady."

"And so, how much of this," I say and, ignoring the implied insult, indicate the ledgers, "was purchased in the name of the House, but was not for its use?"

I think this stings, for Mistress Pelara's face stiffens into subtle lines of resentment.

"My lady did as was proper and provided for those in need of the Angle atimes, but you would not know of that."

The ale turns bitter upon my tongue, but it is not its brewing that gives it its taste.

"Aye, I am sure she deserved thy loyalty and thee made her a very good servant," say I.

At this, she colors and seems to bite back her anger. It is good, perhaps, the Mistress does not speak, for I, too, need take a cooler breath, for greatly now do I rue the words that slipped from betwixt my lips. Ah, but they were petty and unworthy of either my father's daughter or my lord's wife.

Ai, I am making such a mess of things if I do not mend this my lord shall greatly regret his choice. I shall indeed feel the cold weight of his disapproval and deserve it.

I rub at my brow and I think the Mistress, too, reconsidering, for her gaze falls all places but upon me, and a quick glance reveals her face is drawn and weary.

"Mistress, you do not deserve harsh words, and I am shamed to have delivered them," say I and she nods, worrying a fold of her skirts between her fingers.

With a sigh, I look again to the ledgers she keeps. It is much as I expected and I find few answers in their lists.

"Aye, Mistress, I do wish for the House to provide for those in need of our folk, but they are of such numbers they lie spread across the whole of Eriador. Should but half of those dispossessed make their way to the Angle--." Here I stop and shake my head.

"Would you have them go hungry and want for shelter, then, lady?"

"No! They lay heavy upon my thoughts, Mistress. I know not how to meet their need, but I know the House of Elendil shall not be sufficient aid."

"Aye." Pelara rises, her face grim, and by her look I know our thoughts are in accord on this matter. I would wonder why, then, she made the attempt to use what was owed the House in our people's care, did I not also share her heaviness of heart.

She goes to the chest and pulls from it a bowl of hardy cakes wrapped in linen that smell of oat, walnut and honey.

"Did you know of the dispute between Elder Bachor and the Wanderer?"

"Aye," I say, for I had heard of it. The Angle's council found in favor of its own and the family newly become our neighbors were thrust from the land which they claimed. It had not helped that the man of the wanderers had been an unpleasant sort and had set his boundaries over another's who could claim it for nigh on six generations back. But such was the chilling effect those not born of the Angle were allowed little right to find land on which to settle. And so, by default, did this new custom of the Angle come to be, conceived in fear and birthed by distrust.

"Aye," she says, her voice echoing harshly in the small room. "'Tis easier to fear the wolf at your door than the warg that howls from over the hill."

"Will you not help me, Mistress?"

"Och!" she grunts, her voice muffled behind the doors of the chest. There she takes up linens and a cup for herself. "And you will need help. You may have married our lord, lady, but it will matter naught until you are mother to his heir."

Glad am I for the chest's doors, for I know not how well I hide the suddenness of my alarm at her words. Oh, I am not so thick this had not occurred to me, but I had not known it so common a thought it might be stated thus baldly. Aye, truly, little hope shall I have of repairing my powerless state should not my lord overcome his reluctance.

"If you think to gain the ear of the Council through me," Pelara says as she set the bowl of cakes and an empty cup upon the table, "and thereby through my father, I would caution you against it, lady. Though it love the lord and respects his law, the Angle would ever be ruled by its own."

"In all honesty, Mistress, I had not thought it necessary."

The sound she makes as she sits would be of mirth, if it did not come from a face made bitter by disappointment. "And you think, lady, you will succeed where the Council has not?"

"I have somewhat the Council does not."

She does not reply, for it seems she thinks it unworthy of her efforts. Instead, she shakes her head, and unwraps the linen from the cakes and arranges the napkins to her liking.

"Do you not know?" I ask and her eye comes upon me sharply for the mirth with which I warm my voice. "I have the ear of a woman of the Angle who knows well its working."

"Me?" she scoffs.

"Mistress," I say, "I am both of the Angle and of those who wander upon the Wild, bereft of home and help. I owe a debt to both. I have not forgotten it. Are not there many of us with just that debt? Did not we all come upon the Angle as a refuge from some Darkness? For some the finding was merely delayed."

"By some hundreds of years," she says and pours herself of the ale.

"And, tell me, when was the last time the Angle's council esteemed them enough to ask aught of its women?"

At this, she truly laughs, but I think her look the more pensive for it.

"Well," she says and sets her cup and pitcher upon the table of a sudden. The cup is but half-full and yet she leaves off her pouring. Ah, but there is a wicked gleam deep within her gaze.

~oOo~

We have taken to accounting the yield and work of the Angle in a spill of beans and lentils upon the Elder's broad table. Cups, pitcher, and bowl are empty, and crumbs litter the space between us, for the hours of the morning draw swiftly to a close.

"But," begin I, my head hurting for how hard I draw upon my brow. I point to lentils grouped in piles of two, six, a dozen and more. "Have we not enough oxen, now?"

"No, no, my lady," Pelara says. "Those are the accounting of the virgates and their yield. Here you find the oxen."

And I look to the pile to which she points, and forsooth, it does seem scant in its portions.

"Ah," is all I can think to say.

"Aye, well, we must take to convincing Master Tanaes to leave off his slaughter of all the good beasts of the Angle come winter. Perhaps the bulls shall mature the more quickly and take to the halter and plow should we convince them of the need."

"Aye, and the hay that will be their fodder shall leap from the meadows and settle in our barns before the first snows, too."

At this the mistress snorts and rubs at her eyes. "Ah! Well, my lady, it will matter little if we cannot convince the Council to break ground on new land. We shall need neither the oxen nor the hay to feed them, shall they not see reason."

"Aye, aye, aye," I say and resolutely turn again to the beans stacked before me.

One hundred families have I yet accounted for, and more to go, one bean per acre of land. Mistress Pelara goes on then to divide them into those that have been plowed and those that lie fallow. So deep are we in our figuring, we saw not the shadow cross the doorway nor heard the thump of stick and scuff of feet following it.

"What are you about, Daughter?" comes the Elder's voice. He squints into the dimness that is his hall from the bright summer day behind him. "Is it safe to come in, now? Or am I still to be banished from my own home?"

"Nay, Father, come in," she says and makes room for him on the bench.

He blinks and shuffles to the table, his light eyes squinting at the mess upon the table.

"What is this about?" he asks when he comes near.

I dare not answer, for my lips move with the numbers I count and I fear to lose my place. I do not wish to do this more times than necessary.

"The lady counts out what acres the Angle claims to the plow and I divide it by what they may yield," Mistress says, her fingers busy, and her father huffs impatiently.

"Are you on about increasing the fields, again?"

"Perhaps."

He shakes his head and seeks out a bare spot on the table so he might use it as a prop and ease his bones to sitting. The wood creaks beneath his thick fingers and he lets loose a long breath.

"Father-," she begins, but he cuts her off.

"Oh, aye, 'tis great need for it," he says, and knocks about the table with the head of his stick, seeking to lean it against the wood. "But you'll not get all you hope from it, mark my words."

His light eyes take in the scattering of beans. "How much yield have you figured there, hmm? Five bushels per acre?

"Seven, Elder Maurus," say I and pause in my counting.

"Eh, what?" he asks, cupping his hand about his ear.

"Seven!" I say and the Mistress goes on, "And that figuring in what the land may refuse to yield or take back as its own."

"Ah!" he says. "Best to count on no more than three, then."

"Father!" she says. "When has the land ever yielded so poorly?"

"Did you think of the wet that can come upon the harvest? Hmm?" he asks. "Or fields so muddy they cannot be plowed 'til the season is half gone? You may not recall it, Daughter, but well I remember the winters that followed. Hunger, there was, until the Angle and all about was sick for it."

"Aye, Father, 'tis true, but we could then plow all the land from here to the Misty Mountains and still go hungry in such a season."

"And do not forget the rot!" he says, and I wonder if he had heard aught his daughter said. He waves his hand above the table. "Ah! You can plant all the fields you like, harvest it and it all come to naught in the end. Master Herdir says we shall lose a hundred bushels and more of the rye we broke our backs to bring in last year. All taken by the rot! Did you know that? Ah, 'twas that wet summer we had."

Pelara looks upon her father, her eyes stern and lips pressed in a thin line. "You have been talking with Master Bachor, again."

He grunts and lifts his cap from his head to slam it upon the table, scattering the beans. He rubs wearily at his pate and brow.

"Well, then, Father. You have done what you can," she says with a more sympathetic look. "Give it a rest."

"Bah!" he says and waves her away. "What other trouble have you two been at, eh?"

The look I share with the Mistress gives me no direction, for we have bandied about one problem and the next, with little clear resolution of any. Yet, the Elder looks from one to the other, awaiting our answer.

"Too many of our wanderers have no land, and live only on what charity can provide," I say.

The Elder squints at me. I sigh.

"Wanders!" say I, loudly. "Shall they have land? Who shall give it?"

A hand falling lightly upon my arm puts my shouting at a rest. Pelara is near to laughter when she takes up my questions, but I do not take insult.

"Father," she says and he watches her face closely. "How shall we make the wanderers one with those of the Angle? They need land, but none will allow it. You have seen them. They live in want and with poor shelter. 'Tis not right to treat our own folk so."

"Ah, lady, that problem is easily put to rest."

"How so?" I ask.

He shrugs and looks upon as if I were a dull child. "I know it like I know aught else, lady. Shall you come to my age, should the Valar see fit to bless you with many more years, a great deal you, too, shall know."

"No, Father," Pelara says, interrupting him, and he leans to her. I am glad for it, for I am unsure how to make myself understood to the man bar shouting. "How so? How do you mean?"

"Ah," he says and settles more comfortably on his seat. "Let them earn it, lady," he goes on. "Shall they not contribute to the village, itself? Will not there ever be fields to plow? Will there not be houses that want for thatching? The sick to tend? Fences mended? Cattle and pigs slaughtered?"

"Aye," his daughter says, with understanding dawning upon her face. "And 'tis they who will prepare the land and homes for those to come after them and the payment of such a debt shall put the wanders about the Angle among its folk where they will be strangers no longer."

Their ardor is most catching, for I can see how it will come to be, but the very walls of the hours of my days seem to press inward at the thought.

"Mistress! How ever are we to keep straight who owes what and how much is paid?"

"Eh, what is that?" the Elder demands, scowling at me from under his thin brows.

"Records, Elder! We must keep them!" I say.

"Hmm, well," the Elder grunts and, shrugging, leans slowly to where he has left his stick. "'Tis your difficulty, not mine, and seems best left to another day. Should you not be getting the noon meal ready, Pelara?"

"Come up with you, then," his daughter says and, though she gives him a weary look, by dint of her hand beneath his arm, lifts the old man to his feet. "Go, get you some rest and, when you awake, I will make you cakes for your tea after the meal."

He takes his stick from her and begins his creaking journey to their inner rooms.

"You have not eaten them all, have you?" His glance comes quick upon the crumbs and empty bowl. "Tut! Daughter! The oat cakes with walnuts and honey? How could you? You know I am partial to them," he says, his voice grown soft and querulous.

"Aye, now, Father, you will get your walnuts and honey," she says, walking with him and easing his way. "There is more where they came from."

"Aye, but for how long, Daughter? How long, eh?"

And with that their voices fall to murmuring within their private rooms. The broad rug of morning that shone through the open door has shrunk to a mere pittance of its former length. Halbarad is late in his promised return and I worry for the meal I am to serve my lord and his guest, for I left the Grey Wanderer and my lord sitting in the garden and lighting their pipes. My lord seemed determined to smoke his share of the wizard's supply of leaf, but I think he shall soon find it insufficient and wish for somewhat to fill his belly as well.

In my hosts' absence, I scrape together the lentils and beans, careful to keep them to their separate piles. Soon my journal is assembled and tied, and the Mistress' pages stacked according to each date and purpose. True it is, I may have little of substance to show for it, but, all in all, I think the morning well spent.

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