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16

'There is food in the wild,' said Strider; 'berry, root, and herb; and I have some skill as a hunter at need. You need not be afraid of starving before winter comes. But gathering and catching food is long and weary work, and we need haste. So tighten your belts, and think with hope of the tables of Elrond's house!'

FOTR: A Knife in the Dark


~~~

Bright are the men's faces in the warmth of their lord's gaze. They drift in from their duties and soon their voices ring through the hall. Word has spread among those who winter here in the Angle, they who are assigned to her defense or fled here to recover from hurt and ill health. Glad am I for their coming, for with their return my lord's eyes come alight. He has too long been away, I think.

I know his men now by name and speak to them as I keep their cups full. Gelir, he of the saucy look and the light eyes of his grandsire, now hovers about the hearth, limping upon a twisted ankle. Mathil, dark of eye and quiet of face, smothers a cough from where he lies upon the far side of the hearth. One look at the dark flesh beneath his eyes and, after he spoke to my lord of a trail of wolves upon the northern borders of Bree, I pointed to the bench and followed behind him with a blanket and pillow. His lids fall heavy upon his eyes, yet he forces himself awake so he may hear his lord's voice among his fellows.

Mid-morning, Elesinda returned from the market and I spread garlic and herbs upon the joints of meat she
purchased there. They cook now upon the grate, sending puffs of savory smoke into the hall. The pot of lentils and turnips simmers briskly. Sweet steam leaks from yet another pot, wherein bubbles a thick pottage of wheat, ground almond, raisins and honey. I lay bread and bowls of butter upon the table, the men leaning aside and returning my smile as I reach about them. It shall satisfy them, or so I hope.

Gelir, as the youngest of their company, was tapped to aid Elesinda and me in our preparations. For all the mischief he may make, he takes his task to heart. He turns the meat upon the grate, careful to spread the coals and ward away flames that may char our meal, boasting of his skills learned under the tutelage of his eldest brother, the Angle's baker. Elesinda hands him a cup of water to douse a sudden blaze where he crouches by the hearth and I must turn aside to hide my smile. When e'er their hands cross, her glance flutters about and he falls still and cannot seem to draw his away. I wonder if Halbarad is as aware of the looks shared between those two, and if this was why the lad was chosen, or if he has set the lad an overly long penance for his mischief at my lord's wedding feast.

Of the other Rangers who gather about my lord at his table, Haldren with his mane of silvered hair, sharp of nose and, when at leisure, hearty of laugh, eases an aching leg upon the bench and tells a grim tale of our folk put to the sword in the wide lands north of the Great Road. The Ranger across from him, Melethron of the thick brows and deep voice, pulls at his ear, his face tightened in discontent, and debates the spoor of wolves and werewolves with a thin, morose-looking Lathril. And so they sit now among their fellows, quaffing their ale and speaking loudly, interrupting one and another.

My lord's maps stretch out before them. His light and dark stones lie spilled out upon the table's runner and the men place them upon the parchment as they argue. Then, they fall silent as my lord rubs at the hair upon his lip with light fingers, gazing upon the hills about Bree and the boundaries of the Shire.

When he straightens, his men grow intent. And when he beckons them close and moves the markers about, the hall is silent but for the brisk snap of the fire and the sizzling of the meats. I think I hear even the rustling of the stones upon the parchment as he slips them across it surface.

"See here, now," says he and shuttles the stones back to their original position. "You tell me you find sign of orc in the Weather Hills and our folk flee before their raids as far west as the Downs. But, is it true? No sign is to be found of them south of the Great Road?"

"None my lord. There be rumor of men with a strange look about them," says one and "But they skulk about the Old South Road and, as yet, have come no further north than Sarn Ford," adds another.

My lord nods, his eyes ne'er straying from the parchment where he now selects a stone, two and then three of black and moves them west. "And here old sign was seen of their crossing the river, and here they began their raids and torched the homestead at Andśnėlad and killed their cattle, and here they were cornered in the Weather Hills. Were they not?" He lifts his eyes and his sharp gaze takes in their agreement.

"And here, running afore them, were there tracks of wolves that slipped through our lines and came upon the marshes and near to Chetwood." He lays a line of dark stones upon the border of Bree.

"Aye, wolves, they were, though we found them not," says Ranger Lathril.

"I think it more like they were werewolves," Ranger Melethron interrupts to say. "Their tracks lead to no den I could find and they were unlike any wolf's I have yet to see."

"What difference is there between a werewolf and a wolf's print, pray tell?" challenges Lathril, his voice sharpened with thinly disguised impatience.

"Wolves, werewolves, upon this point it matters little." My lord raises his voice and they halt their discord. "Can we afford to allow the threat of either?"

They shake their heads, at least in accord over this matter, and my lord goes on. He traces the dark stones from west to east in a ragged line and then continues on through the empty spaces of the Wild until his finger lands upon the Misty Mountains above the High Pass. My lord's men settle back into their seats with faces grim and silent. Ever, since the Second Age when Eregion and Moria fell into darkness, have the orcs bred in the black shadows of the roots of the mountains.

"Our enemies have grown bold," says my lord. "And there is little to stop them, for the lands north of the Great Road shall soon empty of our folk."

"What think you, Halbarad?" he asks and turns to his kin, who has been silent through it all.

Halbarad shakes his head, his face implacable. "The little folk of the Shire and men of Bree are ill-defended my lord, and I doubt not this is now known to every hive of orc that burrows beneath the mountains."

"Aye," my lord says and, letting loose a soft breath, gathers up the black stones and drops them to the Misty Mountains. "They will skirt north upon the Coldfells, for Master Elrond's reach is long and his sons bear little love for orcs. The lessons were hard in the teaching, but they have learned to avoid the elves of Imladris. Our homesteads east of the Weather Hills, you tell me, are now all but abandoned. Perhaps we should be wise to remove the folk who yet remain."

"And those who do not wish to leave their homes?"

"We will give them the choice, but make it clear, we have not the men to assure their safety should they remain of their own will. We cannot be driven by our fears for their fortune or we shall lose all."

"The great roads, these too, they will shun," he goes on and his men watch as his hand covers the lands of old Cardolan. "Men may travel upon them and so may dwarves, but should the orcs wish to travel unhindered and in greater company than we have heretofore seen, they will not risk the chance of discovery. I would know more of these strange men of whom you speak. We will not forget them, but I deem we have more time to discover their source and purpose. Now, we are hard upon it. Oh, the time is unripe yet, and the host will not be overlarge. But, never fear, they are coming, my friends. When the weather breaks, we must be prepared to meet them."

In his eyes a fell spark gleams and I think he would near welcome the chance. His men come to lean across the table when my lord takes up a handful of light stones and scatters them between the arms of the Great Road and the Misty Mountains.

"Let us catch them here, before the Last Bridge where the waters of the Mitheithel run deep and strong with the melting snows, and we shall press their backs to the river."

Merciless and resolute is the light in the eyes that answer my lord's sharp gaze.

"Until then, keep your eyes open and defend what you must, but show not too great a force. Let them think they may catch us unawares. We could well use the time we buy to our advantage."

The men say naught, but they nod, and ease back upon their seats. I, who have been listening as I work among my lord's men, wonder at where he has spent these months when away. I cannot think why it would be so, but it seems he saw to the defense of the lands of the Halflings. His men do not question this wisdom, and I marvel at the depth of their trust for him. Indeed, now he has spoken their cares are comforted and they set to laughing, speaking of matters no more weighty than the gossip of the Angle.

My lord sits at ease at his table. Ranger Melethron bends my lord's ear, pointing at a sour-faced Halbarad and completing some tale which has not, afore, been told within my hearing, and with good reason. Haldren coughs, glancing briefly if pointedly above Melethron's head where I reach to take his cup and refill his ale.

"Ah, my lady," Melethron says, twisting about and peering up at me as I turn the pitcher to his cup. His gaze takes in my raised brow and his mouth falls closed with a faint click, and smothered laughter sounds about him.

My lord's eyes shine with mirth. He inclines his head to me. "My thanks to you, lady, you have succeeded in teaching Melethron when to hold his peace, where it seems I have failed."

"You are most generous, my lord," I say and smile, dropping my gaze from his, so delighted am I. "But I doubt it was my doing, for surely your tongue is withered beyond all use, Ranger Melethron, after so salty a tale." I offer him his cup, now full.

To the amusement of his mates, the man colors prettily when he takes his cup, his face wry, and he mumbles an apology. My lord laughs and claps the man upon his back. It seems he is satisfied his Ranger has been sufficiently admonished and holds it against him no longer. I am not displeased, for though it seems my lord and his men have little knowledge of the matters of which women speak when far from their ears, I am satisfied that it remains so.

"My lady," I hear and I am called away by Elesinda. The meal is ready.

When the bowls are filled there is little talk, for the men set to their food with good will. I sit at my lord's side. Once I filled my own bowl and prepared to sit at an opening at the foot of the table, Halbarad rose and cuffed Melethron briskly across his shoulder.

"Move!" was all he commanded and the man rose from his seat. Nor did Halbarad allow him the place I had thought to take, for with a sharp look he forbade it and then later ushered Elesinda there. It seems he was not so forgiving as my lord of Melethron's lapse.

"My lady," Halbarad offered, taking the bowl from my hand and setting it in the now vacant place by my lord, claiming it as mine.

Melethron bowed his head, touching his fingers briefly to his brow as he passed. He alone sat by the hearth, but made no complaint, knowing he had earned it.

My lord eats slowly beside me, guarding an unpracticed belly, and does not speak to me. But he seems to savor each bite and I am content.

~oOo~

Here in the solar I sit at my table, my basket of mending and sewing beside me, plying needle to cloth. The linen is new and stiff between my fingers, its soft black taking a pleat sharply. That is well, for, with thread of dark gold, I bind rows of smocking upon the head of a sleeve and struggle to keep the space between the pleats even. It is fine work and I lean into the light of the candle.

When the day was nigh come to its end, the men went to their homes. Only Elesinda lingered yet in the buttery, wrapping the remains of our day's meals in a towel to take with her to her family, leaving but Halbarad and my lord behind. There in the hall we were quiet, in the lull of the day. Soft I heard my lord's kin's footsteps upon the snow as he walked the grounds, securing the house. The days of winter draw short and the sky darkens soon, it seems, after the midday meal. When Halbarad returns from escorting Elesinda to her home, we will bar the door and settle in for the night.

I, the work of the day done, stood before my tall loom, a cloth of blue and gray growing above my head where the warp threads hung from their beam. The clay rounds swayed and jangled against one another as I pulled the heddles against their weight and set the rods in their supports. Only my lord lacked for occupation. He paced about the hall, his feet falling slow and soft upon the rushes. It seemed little could hold his mind.

'Twas not that he lacked a task. Indeed, he attempted many. He had laid out his gear upon the table. His gloves needed mending, I saw, for there were holes at their tips where his fingers would poke through. The lacings of his pouch were knotted where they were broken and need replacing. I shall not dwell upon the state of his second shirt, for I yet hope to steal it from his belongings when he is not aware and rip it into the rag it surely is.

But he left his purse unraveled and a needle stuck in the thumb of his glove. He could not sit still, and once seemingly settled, launched himself to his feet only to find no true resting place. Oft did I feel the weight of his glance, yet when I turned to the hall, it was only to find he looked elsewhere, busying himself first with the careful study of the buckles and straps of his sword where it rested upon the wall and then squatting before the hearth to clean his pipe. He scraped at the bowl and knocked it against his palm to rid it of the ashes, yet, when I spoke to him of the small tub of pipeweed in the buttery, he nodded and thanked me, but then resumed his slow circle of the hall, laying his pipe aside with his other gear.

I would think my lord would have one thought upon his mind. Had I not heard the tales of a Ranger-returned from their wives? His feet were warm, his body clean, his worries eased, and his belly full, where else would a man's thoughts tend? And yet my lord did not speak, nor approach me in any other manner. I was left only to marvel at what weighed on my lord's mind so heavily in its place.

My lord's feet scraped upon the rushes and then fell still, and I heard the creak of his chair. It seemed his mind had settled and, with a glance, I saw he had pulled his shirt to him and turned it upon itself, seeking how best to go about mending it. At this, a sigh escapes my lips, but I know not what else to do. For even the shirt he wears now fits him quite ill and must chafe upon his shoulders. As of yet, he has no other that fits him better.

"My lady," I heard. Elesinda stood in the buttery, her bundle dangling before her.

"Are you done, child?" I said, winding the yarn upon its shuttle before laying it aside.

"Aye, my lady."

I went swiftly to the door, meeting the girl there as she wrapped her cloak about her so I might hold her bundle. I have kneaded the dough for tomorrow's bread and the rounds lied in a greased bowl upon a chest there, wrapped about in thick linen. Each night she takes the dough to the baker in the Angle's square, where he shall let them rise, and each morning before dawn, he then sets the bread in his ovens.

I waited until she has pulled on her mittens to hand her the bundle, and smiled at the girl, for I could barely see her face for the wrapping of cloak and scarf.

"A good night to you, Elesinda," said I, placing the bowl in her arms. Halbarad shall meet her just out the door to walk her home and, no doubt, will relieve her of the burden as he always does.

She nodded, and curtsied across the table to where my lord sits.

"A safe night to you," he said, and her eyes dropped and she stammered somewhat of thanks and farewell.

When the door closed behind the girl I found my lord's eyes upon me and then, as swiftly as I knew them there, they were withdrawn and he busied himself with threading his needle.

My lord and I were then alone.

Though the weaving of this cloth has proceeded slowly for all its interruptions, I had little stomach for many more minutes of this, my lord busy not speaking to me and I ever aware of his gaze and tense beneath it. The warp hung true and should I run my hand across it, the threads shall thrum in their place. I could have stayed, I suppose, but I set the heddle against the uprights so that the warp hung in a smooth fall of threads. Truly, my mending awaited upstairs and I could think of no other reason to keep me to the hall.

"Have you further need of me this even, my lord?"

His glance rose swiftly from his work and it seemed a long moment before he comprehended my question. "You wish to retire, lady?"

"If you have need you wish me to see to, I shall remain, my lord," I said from where I stood, the distance of the hall between us.

"Nay, lady, I think I may comfortably see to myself for this little."

And so, having naught else to say, I left him to his chosen task and climbed the stairs.

'Tis true the moments may pass more swiftly when mind and hand are of accord, yet it seemed but a short time had passed when I hear my lord's soft tread upon the stairs. His stride shortens when he reaches the solar and, were it not so unlike the chieftain I saw among his men, I would say his look is uncertain.

"My lord," I say, rising.

"Lady," he says and comes to a halt.

His face is solemn as he considers me. Here in the dim light of the edge of the solar the candle paints his features in the colors of twilight and deep shadow. I toy with the stiff cloth in my hands and wish he would speak, for I would know what brings him hither. But he does not and I find I cannot bear the weight of his eyes in the silence. I slip the needle into the ridges of smocking and, dropping it to the table, hold my hands before me.

"It lightens the hearts of thy people to see thee, my lord."

"An it brings thee joy, then I am glad for it,
" he replies and yet speaks no further.

Then, as lightning over a darkened field, it comes to me my lord waits for my invitation. Here we are in my lord's house, where he is master and his word rules our days, yet it becomes clear he will not approach me until I sanction his presence. Such is the way of courtship among the folk of the Angle. So stunned am I, for a dizzying moment I know not what to do.

Then I go swiftly to the bed, where sits the mate to the stool on which I settled. My lord makes a quick motion as if to follow and carry the seat himself, but he is late in his intent.

"My lord," I say, setting the stool by the table. "Will you not join me?"

"Gladly, lady." He bows his head and waits for me to reseat myself before coming to the table.

And so my lord and I face one another in the soft light and, then, it seems we have naught to say. For my lord clasps his hands where they rest upon the table and I cannot bring my eyes to bear upon aught else, much less open my mouth and pour words into the emptiness between us. So silent is the solar the sputter of wax as the candle burns startles me into gasping.

My lord looks upon me, his gaze expectant. It seems he has mistaken my surprise for an attempt to speak.

"Your journeys, my lord," I say, swallowing quickly. "They were fruitful?"

"Aye, they served their purpose."

"I hope you suffered no great privation upon them."

"Not so little I would forego the pleasure of sleeping upon a real bed now I am here," says he and, from the lift of the corners of his lips, I expect he attempts at some mirth. But it only serves to remind me I shall not sleep alone tonight, and does little to ease my confused thoughts.

Perhaps my lord can see the heat that paints my cheeks even in this dim light, for he goes on, his voice low. "And you, lady. I trust you have been comfortable here in my absence."

"Aye, my lord."

"Good, good," says he, nodding. "And how fares the House? Has Herdir taken to his duties well?"

"Aye, my lord, your reeve has overseen a good harvest. There has been little waste of grain, man or beast. The Angle fares well this winter."

"Good!" he says and, indeed, he looks well pleased. "Good," says he again, his delight softening along with his voice, and then he falls silent.

I think my lord has some matter that presses upon his thoughts, for we have exhausted the most obvious subjects and yet he stares at his hands with a look most resolute.

"And, lady," says he, and then falters. "Have you not, I would think perhaps by now it would be clear –" My lord brings himself to a stop and begins again, his voice the stronger for having taken a clear breath. "Have you no sign of your quickening, lady?"

It is a full moment before I understand his meaning, so taken aback am I.

"No, my lord." For having lain together just the once, I deem it insufficient unless given the most fortunate of chances.

"Ah, yes, of course," says he and falls quiet again. "And how then have your days been, lady, have you found aught to fill them?"

"Aye, my lord, the charge you gave me fills much of my time," I say, thinking of the hours I have spent learning of the ways of the Angle under Mistress Pelara's tutelage, cramping my fingers near into a claw for the figures I keep.

"Yes, so I would expect."

"Lady," says he swiftly after a quiet moment, startling me into looking upon him. "I am a man unused to the company of women and much used to the loneliness of the road. I had not looked to enjoy the comforts a wife might give until many more years had passed."

His eyes no longer are unsure, but meet mine with a soft light and I think of the men who gather about him to be warmed by that glow.

"Perhaps you will allow me some time more to become accustomed to them."

"I have a question to ask of thee, my lord," I say and startle at the sound of my own voice, for I had not planned to speak of this.

"I would hear it." My lord's voice is gentle and the elven words come upon his lips as were he of their blood.

"My lord," say I, for there is naught for it but to proceed, "should you not return, would we know it?"

My lord sits silent, considering, I think, his response. "And these were your thoughts as the days passed, lady?"

I need say naught, and indeed cannot, but look steadily upon the floor where my lord's shadow flickers over the planks. I dare not show my face to my lord; for I am sure revealed there he would see each night I watched the sun's fall upon the horizon and saw not my lord's shadow lengthening before it. For, in sooth, the nights of waiting for my lord's return had been long and I feared often for his safety.

I shall regret this, I think, the baring of my heart. Nay, I bear no passing resemblance to the Daughter of the Twilight. Whoever she may be, 'twas not my name upon his lips and sure it is the tenderness I saw shining in his eyes is not mine to claim.

"Then I shall send word, for I owe you a debt of comfort. But it will be seldom; for there are few I may safely trust," he says. "Will that satisfy you, lady?"

"Aye, my lord." Only now can raise my eyes to his, but I cannot hold his glance for long. For his face has softened with a gentle sorrow.

Ai! Well, 'tis done and there is no going back.

Did my lord wonder at my heart? Aye, its weight sits heavy in my breast. And now, what name shall my lord put to what fills it?

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