Nay, cousin! they are not boys, said Ioreth to her kinswoman from Imloth Melui, who stood beside her. Those are Periain, out of the far country of the Halflings, where they are princes of great fame, it is said. I should know, for I had one to tend in the Houses. They are small, but they are valiant. Why, cousin, one of them went with only his esquire into the Black Country and fought with the Dark Lord all by himself, and set fire to his Tower, if you can believe it. At least that is the tale in the City.
ROTK: The Steward and the King
ROTK: The Steward and the King
"Aye, the sun shines bright and rain falls from the sky. This is news?"
Elder Maurus' voice rises in an angry quaver into the tall rafters of my lord's hall and the Angle's Elders fall silent. Where once men argued and leaned across the table as if their words were held back simply by the edge of the wood against which they pressed, now they look away. They forget their disagreements in faces that hide their impatience out of an old respect for the man.
I feared I would be hard-pressed to find work for the hall that would require my presence there, yet not be so loud as to earn my dismissal when the Elders came to sit about my lord's table. But it is my luck I have chosen a dish for our midday meal that requires the grinding of several spices and the fine chopping of pungent roots, onions, and garlic. A skinned and gutted hare lies in pieces upon its board and I kneel at the hearth before a shallow bowl, slicing the onions.
"But today's fair weather is as easily tomorrow's flood. Last week's rain is this summer's drought," the Elder goes on. "Come time for the harvest we will like as not have to eat of air and mud than the grain of our fields. You would but wear out your mattocks upon the rocks and weary the oxen that pull the plows. Is not our labor burden enough, already?"
Halbarad releases a restrained breath and scrubs at the back of his head. He sits in our lord's place and no doubt, at this moment, wishes he did not.
"Come now, Maurus," an Elder soothes while the rest of the Council shifts restively in their seats. It is Master Tanaes, the butcher. In the few councils I have seen, it is only he who dares interrupt the old man, though even now he does so wearily. "What else would you have us do, sit in our halls and watch our families hunger simply because we did not wish to put forth the effort of feeding them?"
"Ah!" the old man lets loose with a wave of his thickened fingers as if we were all foolish children. "Go ahead, if you will, then! Plow your lands, increase the fields, it will all come to naught."
Only silence answers Elder Maurus' dismissal. The glances shared across the table seem uncertain. Where were they in their contentions over the extra burden upon men and tools and the days?
Perhaps the onion would surrender to my knife with more grace should I not grip it so tightly.
"Very well," says the butcher and he shakes his head clear of the confused thoughts the Elder's words inspired. "Are we agreed, then?" And it seems they are, for nods and shrugs greet the butcher's question. "One hundred acres more, then, to be assarted this season?" he asks and looks about the table for confirmation, and he has it.
"If that is settled," comes Halbarad's deep voice, "perhaps we can go on to your next concern."
The men shift and mutter among themselves, the Elder's watery eyes peering at one then another over the rim of his cup. He sips at the tea of sweet birch I brewed for him. He had been polite enough in the request and deigned even to thank me for the warmth of it when I set it before him. There he wraps his old joints about the heated clay and snuffles its steam as if glad of it. My lord seems to place much esteem upon his thoughts, but I confess I cannot comprehend the man.
Well, no matter, though the Elders had at first seemed poised on tearing the idea apart with their worries for man and beast, the Angle shall break new ground and plant new fields. Perhaps we may have a chance of feeding all its people, new and old. I may now release my breath and squeeze my eyes shut against the burning of fumes from the onions I chop into a paste. The pot is hot and the fat I drop inside sizzles and melts quickly.
"Aye," I hear and a look to the table reveals the butcher speaking again. "There is always the problem of the wanderers."
"Have there been yet more arrived?"
"Aye, two presented their pleas yestereve," I hear said in Elder Maurus' voice, "and that makes six in this week alone. Valar knows how many more shall be shadowing my door upon my return."
"Aye, they come with the weather, the poor wretches. How some of them made it through the winter is a wonder. I say they are here and welcome."
"We would not have to bend our backs in heavy labor this spring were it not for them," I hear said low. No glance tells me of the speaker, but I think it Master Bachor, for his face would be most comely should not bitterness harden his features.
"Wastrels, the lot of them!" Elder Maurus lets loose with the thud of his cane upon the floor.
With a grimace I scrape the paste of onion and garlic into the pot, where it sputters in the grease loudly and releases a pungent cloud.
"My pardon, Ranger Halbarad," I say, for the man has raised his eyes from the Council to me. The look is oddly mild for the censure in his voice.
I stir the contents of the pot so it may simmer more gently, waiting for the onion and garlic to brown so I might next add the ground spices.
"Shall you not then put them to working the fields?" Halbarad asks and the men turn away, seeming to forget me and my interruption.
"And who shall ask it of them?"
"I shall!" says Halbarad and that seems to end the debate, for the men look one to the other without further comment. Even Master Maurus seems to have reached his fill, for he drains his cup and slowly wipes at his mouth with the back of his hand. I have but the time to see his hand tremor when Halbarad speaks again. "Very well, gentlemen, should there be naught else, shall we call this Council concluded?"
The Council nods and offers no contest.
"Bid you good day, then," Halbarad says. He rises and so do they, taking light cloaks and canes and packs with them. Master Tanaes nods to where I carve the hare into joints the better to fit into the pot. He winks and bids me good day.
"That one gave me trouble, my lady," says the man, indicating the hare. "Came near to chewing through the trap, he did, and I tramped half to the Road afore I could get him."
"I will have to watch the pot closely, then, Master Tanaes," I reply, smiling up at the man, "and be sure he not attempt a second escape."
He chuckles, his eyes bright above his red cheeks. Halbarad stands beside me when I lay the joints of meat upon the onions. He sniffs at the steam billowing from the pot.
"Shall we see you at the market tomorrow, then?" the butcher asks Halbarad as the other Elders slip from the hall.
"Aye, upon the morrow."
"Bid you good day, my lady." A nod from Master Tanaes, and then he, too, is gone.
Halbarad draws in a long breath as if glad of free and open air, interrupted only by the slight smile that he returns when he finds me looking at him. No doubt my relief is as easily read.
"Bid the House good day," I hear and Mistress Pelara bustles in through the door.
It is only then I recall her father has not yet left us and I start with guilty surprise. He grunts a brief greeting from where he sits at the table and Halbarad bows.
"Bid you good day, Mistress," I say and drop the lid upon the pot and quickly dip my hands into the cleansing bowl.
To my eye, the Elder seems strangely drained of color. I am not alone in my surmise, for Pelara's look upon her father quickens her steps to him.
"Father," she says, laying a hand upon his shoulder. "Are you ill?"
"Ah, Daughter," he says. He pushes the empty cup away from him and takes up his cane. "None of your clucking, now." With a grunt, he pushes himself from the bench. Despite his complaint, he does not resist the strong arm of his daughter drawing him to his feet.
"All is well. All is well," he says when he catches sight of my anxious look. "I am but weary for my bed."
"Aye, Father, I will take you to it," says Pelara and she nods her farewell. "Bid you good day, my lady, Ranger Halbarad."
Halbarad and I reply in turn and they shuffle to the door across the stone. The grim and thought-filled look Halbarad gives their backs gives me pause and I wonder what the Ranger regrets.
"Shall you not give the House of Isildur your well wishes before you leave, Father? You have been their guest all this morning," comes the mistress' chiding voice before they cross beneath the lintel of the door.
"Bah!" I hear. "They have had good fortune of mine enough, today, Daughter."
At that, Halbarad snorts and his face lightens with mirth. He then takes up his next task. And, to my surprise, I hear his humming.
So thin is the linen the shadow of my fingers shows darkly beneath it. Mistress Tanril brought the best of her needles with her. She it is the wife of the Angle's smith and skilled in the make of the finer work of metal. She passed them about in their small round case of bone, made of a good steel, finely polished, and no thicker than the thin leaves of a pine tree. Straight and true and smooth, they dart upon the linen as so many winged things that fly o'er the river. Indeed they excited much comment among the women, here as we gather about a stretched frame of cloth in Elder Maurus' hall.
"Oh!" we had exclaimed, passing them one to another, our fingers lingering upon the cool metal and testing the filed points against the tips. Some shook their heads, exclaiming at the cleverness of Mistress Tanril and her explaining the art of extruding metals and taking hammer, file and punch to them. Glad was I to come upon them, for I think I know now how I shall tailor the fine cloth of the Elves while leaving little mark. I have but to discern Mistress Tanril's desires and thus make some of these my own. I have great plans for the Lady Gilraen's dresses, though fain I doubt she should recognize them when I am done.
The man of the house, himself, is absent, having greatly recovered from the council meeting of weeks past. He greeted each of us warmly as we entered, though with little ear for what we said in return among the happy crowd. Instead, he beamed smugly up at us from his table, well pleased, it seemed, the last of his daughter's children should be preparing to leave their house and build her own family.
We gathered there, a dozen or more, sitting upon benches and pressing the bride to speak of what work to which she would have us take our hands. Once we took to exclaiming over the fine silk thread her mother passed among us, he rose and took up his stick.
"Ah, well now, if we come to the tale of laces and threads, I think I shall take my leave," the Elder says as he hobbles from behind his table. He presses a kiss to the cheek of his grandchild, who smiles up at him. "Such talk is sure to bewilder my aged head."
She laughs. "Surely not, grandsire. I know of naught shall cloud thy thinking."
Mistress Pelara, from where she stands over us, adds, "Or, Valar forbid, still thy tongue."
"Eh," he grunts and I marvel at his deaf ears that they should hear what was spoken across the room. But then he turns his light, watery eyes upon his daughter's child as if naught had been said. "Be that as it may, child, I shall leave you to your preparations. Other things call me away and, soon, thee shall not wish me here."
At this, she blushes and beams, and he pats his stiff fingers upon her upturned cheek. And, with that, he plunks his cap upon the scarce locks covering his pate, nods to us all, bids his daughter not delay his tea unnecessarily with our women's gossip, and todders out the open door.
"Aye, now, Nesta," says Mistress Pelara. "Will you not close the door? We need no small ears to overhear our speech."
The women chuckle and set themselves to rights. The thread has now been passed to my hand where I sit among them, and I pull a cord from the cone of wound fibers. Soon the door is closed and we bend our heads in a circle o'er the linen. There grows a field of branches, flowers and vines delicately across its white expanse, for we put our hands to the cloth the bride shall use in the naming of the children yet hoped for. A bud of hawthorn blooms slowly beneath my fingers, for we have been allowed the free range of our own thoughts, each to contribute to the whole. I wish to call the promise of spring to mind, of fertile ground and the unfolding of life.
The needle issues forth from the cloth as it were a blade of grass rising swiftly from newly warm soil and I must remind myself to gentle my hand. For, so fine is it, the slightest of tugs pulls the thread attached to it from beneath the cloth and too coarse a hand will pull too tightly upon the weave. The thread is of a tight twist and I roll the needle between fingers and thumb to free its tangle so it will not knot and frustrate my efforts upon my next stitch. True it is consuming work, but, though our hands and eyes be much busy, it is not to say it leaves not our tongues free to wag.
"And now, daughter," says Mistress Pelara, settling herself down and taking up her needle. Her eyes twinkle with anticipated mirth. This is her first hosting of such a gathering, being the mother of more sons than daughters, and greatly is she enjoying her part in it.
There is not a girl of the Angle who does not know the bare facts of a marriage bed. But, 'tis true, this leaves a wide field unploughed that yet could bear fruit. I know not what to think shall come, for, in my groom's haste, I had had no time for such a gathering of married women.
"And what would you ask of us?" the mistress of the house asks her daughter. The bride sits now, not far from my right hand, plying her needle to the cloth. It seems to take all her efforts, for she does not lift her eyes nor speak. Still, clear it is she but hides her smiles by bending the more closely to her work.
"Come, girl," says Mistress Nesta from about the bit of thread she breaks with her teeth. "No need of shyness, 'twill serve you no good come your wedding night."
The bride blushes a deep red, but the questions crowd behind the swift glances she sets upon us.
"Is it true, then, what the men say?" she asks after some hesitance, her gaze unable to settle upon one or the other of us. "'Tis true a woman will not conceive of a child should she not have her own pleasure of the act?"
Perhaps the women have their own opinions of this, but, as one we look to Mistress Nesta over our handwork, healer to the Angle and best able, it seems, to answer with some authority.
"Och!" the healer says and leaves off her attempts to thread her needle. "Why shall you all stare at me so? How should I know any better than you? It is not as if it makes a difference in the birthing of them."
We smile, some more knowingly than others, and she clucks her tongue at us, but it is Mistress Tanril who takes pity on the girl and attempts an answer to her question. Her look is wry. "I know not, girl, but, true or not, perhaps you could do us all a kindness and refrain from disabusing them of the notion."
The gathering breaks into laughter at this, and the girl's look is the more easy for it. With that, her questions come more quickly and we, the married women of her kin and friends, are set to answering them.
So the morning wears away and it seems I blush more oft than the bride. For the women's tongues are free and we speak much of what would bring a bride pleasure in her wedding bed. 'Tis naught at all akin to the gentle instruction I received from my aunt and I learn more in one morning of putting needle to thread among the women than I have for the weeks I slept beside my lord. I only wonder if men's speech is so bawdy when away, and what my lord shall now learn should he chance to be among them.
"Aye, it takes all kinds, that it does," comes the warm voice of the woman across from me. Mistress Tanril it is, and, though her thin hands are more readily put to fine metalwork, they are nimble with the thread as well. Besides her sits a sturdy woman I know not with brown hair who has smiled much during our talk, but spoken little.
"Aye! Well! I know what my husband likes," Mistress Nesta begins loudly.
Fingers yet tug at thin lines of thread though the women laugh and shush her.
"The whole Angle knows what your husband likes, so oft you tell the tale," Pelara says and her daughter laughs.
"A singular man, is my husband," the healer goes on, ignoring them and winking at the bride. "He is none so happy as when he has my fingers running upon his head. Aye, do not ask me why! I know not! But, bless the man, he is simple in his pleasures."
Mistress Tanril speaks, her face lit with laughter. "'Tis a good he has no hair to hinder it, then."
"Oh, hush ye, now!" the healer replies. "Covered brow or bald, it makes no difference to its use."
"Aye, perhaps my girl, I shall have aught to say that shall prove the more useful to you," a voice calls through our chuckling, "should you not be so blessed with a mate of such singular tastes."
The bride shifts uncomfortably. It is her mother who speaks, for it is her turn.
"Nay, girl, I shall bring no shame upon you. You remember not much of your father, I should think."
The girl's face is stiff and she looks upon her mother through the corner of her eyes, as if fearful of having been caught out, but Pelara does not seem have seen it.
"You know your father was much gone in the service of our lord, as are many still of those among us."
The women's eyes upon her are knowing, for, though her eldest now runs the ovens her father once manned, among them are her sons' wives and it is a Ranger's home they keep.
"I have little to tell you to give you comfort when the watches of your nights are at their longest and bitterest but that your kin you shall ever have beside you." "Now, Daughter," she says, for the girl's eyes mist with swiftly welling tears. With a quick cluck of her tongue, the mistress rises and I move aside to make room for her. When she sits, she gathers the bride upon her shoulder, patting the girl's back. "Think not on it, my girl. Aye, 'tis true, I shall miss your father 'til the day I join him beyond the Circles of this World. And, 'tis true, I spent many of our days together regretting his absence even then, but you may yet find some small recompense for the days of your waiting."
Here the girl smiles behind her tears, wiping them away as she giggles. Her mother looks on at a loss.
"And why are you laughing, my girl, eh?"
"Aye, Ammė," she says and melts against her mother's side, smiling charmingly upon her. "We knew your welcome home of our father came first before ours. And he would be none so kind should we delay it."
"Aye, well," Mistress Pelara says, seemingly a little mollified. "I suppose we were not so careful in our eagerness as we should." When the girl's smile turns to mischief, her mother makes a noise of irritation and amusement mixed. "Aye, hunger is the best sauce, my girl, and there is no breaking of the fast as when they have been away and cannot eat when e'er the whim takes them. And you I wish the joy of many a long-awaited return," and here the Mistress pauses to place a loud kiss upon her daughter's cheek, "be he swift or slow in the taking of it."
They end their embrace with a clout upon the girl's backside, though she might grin through her startlement. "And that for sticking your nose in where it did not belong, though long delayed was the chastening."
With that, Mistress Pelara rises and lays aside her needle and thread. "Now I have had my turn and shall leave it to the next. 'Tis time for somewhat of drink and food, I think."
She leaves us in the hall, gone to the family's inner rooms where I think the buttery and fire must be. With the Mistress gone here the women look to me, for, true it is, I sit the nearest to her abandoned seat.
Ai! Have mercy, Yavanna, Queen of all new life! What have I to tell the bride? I know not what my lord desires!
Ah, but I see the small secret smiles and know what they think. Aye, 'tis true, was I who kissed my lord before he had the chance upon our wedding night and, 'tis true, was a full fortnight before I was seen by any of the folk of the Angle after it. But they know little of what filled that time. Most oft, I watched the man sleep the grey and heavy slumber of the near-dead and prayed to whatever Vala may have pity upon us that he might yet live.
Of a sudden, the room is over-hot. I must blush from the very tips of toes to hair. My thoughts fly about in my head so that I despair of having aught to say. Ai! He is their lord and chieftain, what could I say would not belittle him, reduce him from his noble state and make of him no more than a man?
"I shall not mind if you do not have aught you would tell, my lady," I hear and look up of a sudden to find the young bride with her gaze upon me and her eyes filled with naught but kindness.
Then do my thoughts calm and my heart warms to her. I take her hand and move along the bench so I might be near. Well I remember that night. I had been warned of pain that might come, but had felt none, and found my lord an attentive lover, if a cautious one. In only one thing had he truly surprised me. Ever since, I cannot think of it without it giving pause to my thoughts and stillness to my hands. And so I lean close to the girl's ear so none other may hear. I have but one thing to say, but the words are enough, I think, for when I am done the bride blushes near so bright as I.
"Aye, my lady, I shall watch for it," says she and her eyes seem to glow, so bright is the warmth that lights them.
I have done, and, releasing the girl's hand, rise to follow her mother, for I would be away from the eyes that look upon me curiously and the voices that all but press the girl to speak.
I find the Mistress coming from the buttery into the greater hall. I had ne'er been invited to enter the family's rooms and knew not what lay behind their door. The hall is cozy for the well-lived wood of table and benches, chests and stools. About are strewn toys and a pied cat lazes upon the stones about the hearth, naught but the tip of its tail stirring as it regards me beneath its slitted eyes.
The Mistress looks upon me with but brief surprise, for her arms are laden with pitchers and I go swiftly to her to relief her of much of her burden.
"Ah, bless you, my lady," she says and we set all upon the hall's table, where she has set out cups of horn and trays of beaten metal, there to make them ready.
"Are these of Master Mahtan's make?" I ask, my fingers lingering upon the working of horse and rider upon the copper rim.
"Aye," the Mistress answers from the hearth, where a sweet steam seeps from beneath an overturned cauldron. "'Tis a shame he has not time for such work these days."
Most oft, the smith would have had a seat upon the Angle's council, so it has been from father to son for more years than the eldest among us can remember. But in these times where the Angle seems nigh to bursting at the seams, the man is so hard pressed he sallies forth not from his forge, nor lets his kin wander far. Indeed I had wondered at his wife's attendance at the gathering of women.
I bring the tray to the hearth, for the Mistress has pulled the pot from where it rests and it releases the strong scent of honey, fruit and a fresh cheese.
"How comes your efforts, Mistress?"
"Aye, well, my lady."
With but the tips of her fingers, Pelara plucks the pastries from their oven and sets them upon the tray. She has made delicate cakes of a jellied pear and cream and the smell, so close is the scent, sets my mouth to watering.
"My father goes to speak with Master Tanaes e'en now." She smiles before returning her attention to her task. "To complain of the lack of venison in his stall and the boisterousness of the young men among the wanderers, who, like as not, lack healthy occupation for their youthful energies."
"Shall we need more smokehouses, do you think, Mistress?"
She makes a small sound of response, dropping a cake swiftly upon the platter for its heat.
"And wood to fill them." She rises from the hearth, for the tray is now full.
I sigh, for I know not how we shall get the Council to agree to parceling out the work that must be done. For Halbarad was not in attendance at their last meeting and their arguments reached a fevered pitch, none among them resolved.
"Aye, well, Mistress, would we had the ear of the wanderers, for they have none taken up the pledge and none claim the right of their work."
I take the pastries to the table where Pelara piles the cups upon another tray. I must lay my burden down, for the metal grows hot from the cakes.
"My lord's reeve cannot call upon every new house in the Angle and put them to work each morning," say I. "And should we call all wanderers to be so sworn at one time, I think the Angle just might take up arms against the House of Isildur, so frightened would they be."
"Now, my lady, one day they shall, but not today. And I think we may yet have the ear of the wanderers, some few at least, to start, but carefully chosen."
"See you here," she says and, of a sudden, sets down the cups she was gathering. She leads me to the door and pushes it a little ajar. "The woman of the light hair." Here she nods through the sliver of light. Through it I see the women bending their heads above their work. A quiet has now descended upon them and their hands are busy. There I see the woman of the brown hair and rugged features who sits beside Mistress Tanril.
"You know her not, I take it."
"Nay," I say and peer more closely through the door. "I have not seen her before today, even."
"Her name is Linmir. Wife she is to a man of the lower Emyn Uial. They are but newly come to the Angle and sought out my father just yester-morn to beg house and employment. Her husband, my lady, worked iron for their homestead. And, now the village is nigh to abandoned, he is here and brings his family. And with them he brings his tools." Her eyes glitter sharply above a smile that is near to smug.
I laugh softly and let fall the door. "I see you have sat the two smith's wives together, then, Mistress."
"Aye, only kind. For I deem they will have much in common of which to speak, and I would have our new folk given good welcome."
With this, we withdraw from the door.
It is a good thing, I think, Mistress Pelara was so kind as to take to me. For should she have set herself against me, I doubt I would have found aught of being my lord's wife to enjoy.