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14

'They will come on you in the wild, in some dark place where there is no help. Do you wish them to find you? They are terrible!'


~~~

The men stride slowly in from the fields, bent double beneath their load. The soft sun of spring is gone and we come to days of the harvest. The men bear sheaves of spring wheat upon their back, a bundle near thrice their size, and so heavy is the load they sweat and grasp tightly to the ropes, forgetting all speech in their effort. But the boys who accompany them are more free of foot and tongue. They skip between their elders, pouncing upon dropped straws and heads of wheat and pile them in each other's arms and into baskets they carry lightly. The sheaves glow warmly in the autumn sun as they sink and rise with the fall of their bearer's feet. We have been gifted with dry weather and a strong breeze, and the folk of the Angle await them on the threshing-floor.

In the dim light before dawn, I awoke to the bleating of sheep upon the meadow, their calls echoing among the shallow vales and hills where they graze. The hollow cry of doves came from the thatch above my head and called the dawn. Already the day was warm though the sun not yet truly risen. I had kicked away the sheets in my sleep and lay in a tangle of my shift upon waking, and knew then the wheat would be shrunk and brittle to the hand, ready for the winnowing.

We are well into the day and upon the threshing-floor the men beat upon a thick carpet of stalks. In a line upon the hardened clay, they chant and swing the flails over their head, their hands and arms moving to the beat of the harvest. Soon, with their long winnow-forks they will throw the wheat to the air and the wind shall blow away a great glittering cloud of chaff.

I stand with the other women of the Angle, we with our flat baskets and the last of the winnowing to do. It is easiest, I think, to toss the mix of fine fiber and seed and catch it with the rhythm of the threshers. Oh, we sing and the sight of golden dust when we toss it to the air and the tickle of wheat berries when we plunge our hands in the basket are things of joy. But the sun beating upon the head, the itch of dust upon sweaty skin, and the closed in breath behind a scarf are most decidedly not.

I am no stranger to the harvest, and think I shall ever know it, even to the days when I sit with the granddames and pluck dirt and stones from the berries before sending an infant child to pour them into the granary baskets. Once, I dreaded the task and the days it would take me away from my loom and dye-pots. But the Council has decreed the tilling of a hundred acres more. The blessings of the Valar lie heavy upon us and the fields yield at their fullest measure. The Angle needs all of its hands at work, and I am determined to ask naught of them I am not cheerful to give.

Up goes the grain with a flick of the wrist and it seems to hang in the air before rattling back down into the basket, leaving behind fine shreds of stalk and leaf to float to the ground. And again. And yet again.

Ah! But I itch! I shall be glad when the sun hovers over the winding path of the Mithithiel and stains the sky in pinks and greens, for then the women walk to the river to bathe. How many more days of this until we are done and the midsummer harvest feast can begin? Ai! Shall we have enough days of sun? The Valar have looked upon us kindly thus far, perhaps they shall smile just a little longer, for should it rain all the grain left in the field will be consumed by rot and mold, not by the folk of the Angle.

"My lady!"

With a quick movement I catch the grain. There, I see her, Mistress Pelara stands upwind of the winnowers, behind the bent heads of old women sifting through the seed. Upon her hip rests a small mite of a girl, her youngest grandchild, with thin curls and wide eyes so dark they seem as the twilight sky of summer just before the first star appears.

With a few tosses more, I am done and am happy to trade a full for empty basket with one of my elders. Pulling the scarf from my face, I wipe at my brow and draw in a deep breath of free air.

"And who have we here?" I ask, smiling upon the child in Pelara's arms. She lays her head upon her grandmother's cheek and watches me from the shadow of the woman's chin.

"This, my lady, is Lothel," Pelara says, "who grows hungry and soon shall be none so pleasant. Best enjoy her now."

I laugh. "Did you come to show her off while you had the chance, then?"

"No, my lady, we have had a bit of surprise this morning I think you might wish to see for yourself."

"Very well," I say, and look about for a spot to set my basket down where it shall not be trampled or misplaced. I shall wish to pick it up again later.

"Here, my lady, let me take that for you," Pelara says and dumps Lothel into my arms as if she were no more precious than a sack of turnips while she plucks the basket from my hand. There the small arm curls tightly about mine and I bounce her to settle the weight on my hip.

Pelara calls to the child's mother and strides off into the mess of falling grain and flying straw.

The girl plucks at my scarf with sticky fingers, but I mind not. Her weight is warm and heavy in my arms and her brow bumps against my chin. I wish most to kiss her skin, for it is softer than the finest velvet of my lord mother's elven dresses. I cannot. She is not mine to press my affections upon her, but I allow myself the guilty pleasure of breathing deep of her scent. She smells of milk and a mild soap of lavender.

"Come, take your daughter," Pelara says to the tall, willowy woman who follows her carrying both her own empty basket and mine. The child has her mother's eyes. "The lady and I have an errand to run."

"Shall you be back?" her eldest son's wife asks and then nods her greeting to me. "My lady."

"Mamil!" Lothel cries, her voice rising in newfound distress and her arms outstretched to her mother as she leans out over my hold.

"Ah, time to leave, then," Pelara says as I surrender the girl to her mother. "Aye, we shall be back in but a little while, enough to feed the child and get you some rest. Go find you some shade, girl."

"Aye, Ammë," she says and then croons to her daughter, soothing the laughter that teeters upon a needle edge between distress and relief.

"A good girl, that," Pelara says. "I could have asked for none better for my son."

"My lady," she says and I shake myself away from watching her son's wife and child, the woman's hips swaying gently as she carries her daughter away from the crowd.

"Aye, I am ready, let us go."

~oOo~

The Elder sits upon a bench by his door with a man of equal age. There together they rest against the white daub wall and bake themselves in its reflected heat with their canes resting upon their knees. With their beaked noses and half-lidded eyes, they look like naught less than two lizards sunning themselves and blinking slowly in the late afternoon glare.

His daughter pins a leery eye upon her father as we approach. But for the nudge his friend gives him, we might have passed by without his notice. The Elder blinks awake.

"Eh, what?" he protests and when the old man beside him nods toward us, he turns his scowl to his daughter and I.

"Oh, greetings Daughter," he says and clears his throat wetly. "I see you've returned."

"Aye, that I have, Father," she says with equal delight.

"My lady," says his friend and he touches a dry knuckle to his brow, and I nod in response.

"You are come from the threshing floor, my lady?" the Elder asks, sheltering his watery eyes from the glare with his hand.

"Aye, Master Maurus," I say, nodding broadly and pause, though Mistress Pelara stands in the shadow of the doorway as if eager to enter and be away from her father.

"Humph. And how goes it?" he asks, his breast heaving with the effort of producing such a loud sound. "Think you we shall get all the harvest in before the rains come?"

Nary a cloud graces the sky, dark blue for want of any haze upon it. Yet, still I look, so great is the suggestion.

"It is my hope, Father," say I and when the Elder squints and leans closer to me, I raise my voice. "That is my hope!"

"Oh, aye, hope, yes," he says and shrugs. He then scowls at his daughter, whose look has soured. "And when shall my tea be ready then, eh, Daughter?"

"When it is ready and not a moment sooner, Father," she says. "It is not time for tea, yet. You must suffer through yet a few more hours of this fine sun, should it last so long."

He grunts discontentedly and then settles back, closing his eyes. "Such a waste," he mumbles and Pelara shakes her head. With a touch to my elbow she urges me through the door.

"What?" the old man, his friend, demands.

"A waste!" the Elder shouts behind me. "All that labor and for what end? Naught, I tell you," he says and snaps his thick fingers. "It shall all go to rot in the fields with the first rain. Oh, and we will feel for the lack come this winter."

Pelara pulls me firmly through the door, cutting off her father's voice. With a deep breath, a shake of the head, and a determined look, she advises me to give no thought to her father's grumbling.

My eyes are near blind in the dimness that is the Elder's room, but I soon make out his table and a man I know not sitting beside it while the Angle's healer, Mistress Nesta, wraps strips of linen about his arm.

He bolts to his feet at our entrance, tugging at his healer's hand.

"Here, now!" Nesta protests and struggles to keep the cloth from unwinding about him.

His glance flickers between Pelara and I. I know not what he sees in the Mistress' eyes, but it must be some confirmation of his thoughts for, of a sudden, he falls prostrate upon the ground before me, pulling the two young lads who crowded wide-eyed and silent about him down with him. An older woman, her face lined and grim, sits by the door with her granddaughter, a girl of perhaps twenty some years. Rising slowly, the old woman shuffles down to kneel beside them. Her face she hides deep in her thickly-knuckled hands. The girl comes next to her and, clinging to her shoulder and, mutely weeping, stares at the woman as if she cannot bear the pain she sees.

"We beg of thee, my lady," the man says, his voice muffled against the floor. The healer, giving up on binding her charges' wounds, sits back with a huff and shakes her head sadly at them.

I stand as one stunned, so shocked am I. I know not what to do, but I think I shall be sick if he does not rise and stand upon his own feet. I know Mistress Pelara is as surprised, but it is she, after a glance to my own face, who springs into action.

"Up," she says, going down and tugging at the man's shoulder. "Get up, now!" she commands and he blinks at her and climbs unsteadily to his feet. The two boys cling to the hands that hang heavily from his shoulders. "Are you not a dúnadan of the North? You may owe your fealty to our lord, but not your pride, man. "

I had not the chance to look fully upon him, but I do so now. He is truly a distant son of the West, with his dark hair and light eyes, mirrored in his sons and in the eyes of his mother, who Pelara and the young woman help to her feet. Yet, he is much battered, with bruises and deep scratches upon his person and a body so shrunken I could count each rib should I have a mind.

He looks down, away from my gaze.

"What is your name?"

"Sereg, son of Seregil, my lady."

"What happened?"

"They were set upon by wolves," answers Mistress Nesta. If her patient will not allow her ministrations, she now uses the time to lift a pot from the brazier and pour tea steeped in chamomile and willow bark. A short woman she is, near so round as she is tall, yet her small hands are nimble and she makes easy work of pouring the steaming brew.

"Aye, my lady," the man says. When his eyes rise, I see they glitter with what I think must be either pain or fever. "They attacked in the dark as we slept. My two boys, they are safe, but I lost my youngest, my little girl, her mother, too, who battled for her against them afore we could come upon them, and my mother's brother who came upon them first." He pauses, licking at dry lips. "I did what I could for them, my lady, but if you do not have pity upon us, I shall lose even these," he says and his hands come to cover the dark, shaggy heads of his sons and he looks to his mother's eyes with a possessive sorrow that stabs as a spear to my heart.

"You and yours are welcome here," I say. "Did you doubt it?"

"I had hoped, my lady," he says and clutches his son's heads to his side. "We have had so little of peace these past years it seemed no place was safe."

"I cannot promise you safety, but I can promise you shall not be forced to face the Shadow alone."

Somewhat of hope lights deep within his eyes and I am giddy with both pleasure and a sudden shock of fear for it.

"Here now," the healer says, stirring honey into the steaming cup. She presses it into the man's hand and pats him upon the arm when he takes it. "They will need the rest, mind you, my lady, under shelter and before a warm fire at night." She leads Master Sereg back to his chair, motioning the little ones to the table where she can ply them with chunks of sweetened breads.

"Aye, Mistress," I say. "I had not thought to press them to join us in the harvest until they were ready."

She sniffs and I wonder if it is in response, but, perhaps not, as she has raised an apple from the table to her nose. It passes inspection and she sits to cut wedges for the family.

"There is land to work?" Master Sereg asks and Pelara snorts from where she has removed herself by the door.

"Oh, aye," I say. "When you are ready. We have planted more wheat than it seems we can winnow in time. Are you willing?"

"We would not ask your aid on other terms, my lady," I hear, but it is the old woman who speaks, her back straight and her gaze steady upon me as she clasps her granddaughter's hand tightly against her side.

At this, I know my face lightens.

"Gladly would we give our service, my lady," the man says and I find myself smiling.

"Mistress," I ask, "is my father's house still empty?"

"Aye, 'tis," Pelara says. "But it need not be tonight."

She makes me laugh, this woman of a peppery tongue, for her voice is smug as if it were she who made the offer.

"I am afraid the furnishings are long gone, sir," I say. "But you may take the house as your own. Mistress Pelara will see that food is brought to you. And when you are ready, go to her and she will see what use we may need of you."

Should Master Sereg's face grow more pained in his relief, I think I shall weep with him. As it is, he clears his throat weakly and bobs his head, touching his knuckle to his brow. But it is the sight of the young woman as I take my farewell, with her head lying upon her grandmother's shoulder and her hand clutched by the old woman that causes me to blink to clear the mist from my eyes.

And then we are back in the sun, Pelara and I, and I must draw a long breath to steady the racing of my heart. Ai! Wolves!

"So, my lady," I hear behind me, "you think to make promises on the Angle's behalf?"

The Elder has turned his sharp-eyed gaze upon me. His friend looks on, peering at me with dark eyes bright with curiosity.

"When it comes to the pinch, who shall give of the land that was once his own?" he goes on loudly. "Who shall take the meat meant for his child's belly to feed his neighbor's? And how many more gaping mouths shall you add to this winter's nest of fledglings, eh?" He gestures broadly, taking in the brightly lit walls of his neighbor's houses. "What of those who were born and lived out their lives here, eh? What of them? Shall they, the faithful, be crowded aside and go hungry when you have naught to feed them?"

My flash of irritation is short-lived. His daughter makes to slap the Elder upon the shoulder with the back of her hand, but, before the strike might fall, balls her fist and thinks better of it.

"Old man!" she scolds, letting loose a loud sound of displeasure. "You have abused us since before you rose from your bed today! Be away now, and take your black forecasts elsewhere and do not darken my door with them until the evening meal."

"What of my tea?" he demands, glowering at his daughter.

"I care not!" she says. "Go! Now!"

"Bah!" he exclaims loudly and waves her ire away. Yet he rises stiffly, getting his cane beneath him. "Come, Curudir, let us go to Esgadil's house. He has a proper daughter."

Curudir shrugs and joins the Elder, but I do not wait to see what they truly intend, for his daughter has her palm upon my back and gentles me away.

The Mistress scowls darkly, shaking her head at the old man as if he were still there. But soon, her look softens and we walk together through the square back to the threshing-floor. With that, my thoughts turn to the Elder's words. Though it annoys me greatly to admit it, should I look to my own heart with eyes unclouded by sympathetic tears, I know he may have somewhat of truth to say.

"Offer him your house, did you, my lady?" Pelara says, startling me from my thoughts, and I find her eyes shine with mirth. "I think that news shall not be long in making its rounds about the Angle, if not further. Indeed, I will not be surprised should our lord hear of it upon the boundary of whatever land he finds himself these days before the night is up." She gestures breezily south and I frown, wondering, of all things, if she has some reason to think my lord there.

And then I understand what she has just said, and stop full upon the path and stare at her. "You think this is why I gave it, to make a good name for myself?"

"Did you not?" she asks, scowling brightly at me.

"No!"

"Oh," she says and shrugs. "No matter, my lady, it was well done regardless, and shall go far to winning support for you from our folk. You'll not hear a protest from me."

"Pelara!" I say. "How do you think that house came into my family's possession? My father's greatfathers fled here themselves under the Shadow's threat. They had no more than Master Sereg's family, not even a cot to lie upon!"

"Oh, my lady, don't bother me with that," she says and waves away my words with a smug smile upon her face. "I know very well how your fathers of afore came upon that house. Whose family do you think gave it to them?"

I stare at her some more, and then a laugh bursts from me. I had not known that. I set my feet to walking again and she follows me.

"So it was a wise move for my own part as well, then?"

"Aye," she says, and nods. "You will learn, my lady. There will be those who give you their loyalty because of what House you speak for, and simply for that. There will be those who will listen to you only once you have proved yourself. And prove yourself you must, my lady, whether by deliberate choice or by the simple outgrowth of the actions you would take regardless of what other's might think."

"I think I would hope it to proceed naturally from me," I say and give a wry glance to the folk who gather about the baker's ovens as we pass.

"Mm," she grunts lightly. "It would not be wise to mistake liking for loyalty, my lady, nor to work only to please folk. Lady Gilraen knew that, and taught me the lesson well. A medicine may be bitter, yet be what the body most needs and you must be prepared to administer it. And then there will be those who will never abide you, no matter what you do."

"Like your father?" I ask, my voice grown soft, for I do not wish to offend her.

"Now, my lady, there you are wrong," she says, fixing a fierce eye upon me as she wags her finger. "Ever has my father been loyal to the House of Isildur and his heir, do not doubt it." "Now," she says and pats me upon the arm, her face lightning. "Don't you mind his manner, my lady, he means but to warn you. His has been a foul mood since before he arose this morning and he is as like to take it out on the King Recrowned as he is any lesser fool to cross his path this day."

"Then I feel pity for Esgadil's daughter," I say and Pelara shakes her head.

"The poor woman, and she has one of her own just as bad, too."

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