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17

When winter first begins to bite
 and stones crack in the frosty night,
when pools are black and trees are bare,
 'tis evil in the Wild to fare.


FOTR: The Ring Goes South


~~~

There. Just so.

I have cleared the table and set Elesinda to its scrubbing after our noon meal. The Council shall assemble in my lord's hall and I wish naught give him cause for unease, for seldom does he attend. For that I built up the fire and placed his chair at the foot of his banner so he might best appear before it. The hall is warm and comfortable, with winter rugs hanging before the high windows, cushions upon the benches, and the sharp scent of burning leaves of rosemary thrown upon the fire to sweeten the air.

The flames ripple and rush over the wood and the faint sounds of Elesinda moving about drift into the hall from the buttery. As was their wont, Halbarad and my lord spent their morning battering their swords against each other, and I had heard their muted voices raised in their battles from across the gardens. I do not watch, for, once, coming upon them, I found the fierce blows and pitched voices of the men I knew as gentle with their strength a fearsome thing. After, my thoughts dwelt too long on the pain and peril that lies in wait for them and the lines of grief and grim fear it must carve into their faces. But, now, they rest, and Halbarad has taken to carving some small thing where he sits beside the hearth. His knife flickers in the light of the fire, but he is content to remain silent.

When I am done, my lord sits at his chair and draws his journals to him. I think him preparing, for, come mid-afternoon, the men will arrive with their cheeks and noses pinched a soft pink from the chill, scrubbing their booted feet upon the mat at the door and drawing their cloaks from about them. They will linger about the hearth, their eyes drawn to my lord and eager to warm themselves by the fire and, I think, the light of their liege's gaze.

I, too, have given much thought to the preparations, and, aye, I intend to serve ale, foregoing the heady mix of wine and debate. Elder Maurus may wish again for his tea, and so I shall set a pot of water upon the grate to boil for it and hope the honey shall sweeten his temper. Smoked cheeses and such dried fruits and nuts as remain us, I think, shall be welcome, but not yet. For the hour of the Elders' arrival is yet distant and so I wander about the hall, putting small things to rights.

I would not wish to disturb my lord and so ease drawers and lids shut with care, but I catch his eye ever and anon. I like not the way the cushions lay upon this or that bench and so pick up one to plump it and drop it only to fix upon another to join the first. 'Tis when I reach for yet a third my lord speaks.

"Lady," says he and I glance up to find him turning a weary look upon me. He sets aside his quill and rises from his chair. "Enough."

I am at first slow to move from the bench over which I bend, for I cannot think what my lord intends.

"Some freer air may do us both a good." He strides to the hall's great door and draws me after him with his look. "If it please you, lady, will you not join me?"

"We shall be gone just a little." This he says to his kin who sits by the fire. Halbarad looks up with eyes that wonder at my lord, but then he hides it with a nod and returns to the task he has set himself.

With that, I find myself bundled in boots, cloak, wrap and mittens and following my lord as he leads the way out of doors. 'Tis not uncommon for lovers to go a'walking, there upon the Angle where they may enjoy the other's company and yet remain safe under the eye of their folk. I know not if this is of my lord's mind, for, putting his back to the village, he chooses a path that opens upon the meadows, skirting the drystone fence and coming upon the gate through which the sheep are pastured.

The sun shines brightly upon the snow and sets a white fire about the trees. Drops of water mark a slow time from the thatch, carving a honeycomb of tunnels into the drifts at the base of the house, and our boots make dark signs upon the earth. The air is brisk and soon sets my nose to running, but the day is mild and I am not uncomfortable.

For a long while as we walk I hear naught but our feet upon the snow, our breath harsh upon the hush of winter, and my sniffling. It is not until we put the gate behind us and make our climb to the top of a short rise does my lord speak.

"Halbarad tells me you spend much time at the house of Elder Maurus," says he and I must recall myself to putting one foot before the other, much taken am I in wondering what else his kin may have revealed to him. "How fares Maurus? I have not heard."

"Well, I think, my lord." 'Tis true, it is difficult to tell atimes for the Elder's prattle of aching bones and the sleeplessness of the hours of his morn, though this is an observation I do not share with my lord. And yet it seems unjust to not answer my lord more fully, and so I go on, hoping the simplicity of my remarks shall not prove tiresome to him. "His youngest grandchild, a girl, is often in his care and he dotes on her. She is barely able to pull herself up by his knee, but is already set to fetching his cap for him."

"Yes, I recall he was besotted with his daughter in much the same manner."

I had not thought it so for the way they trade sharp words between them, but my lord smiles with the fondness of some remembrance, so perhaps it is true.

"Think you he will attend the Council today, lady?"

"I know not, my lord," I say, for they do seem to weary the Elder and I can recall a handful of Councils convened without him in just these two seasons past.

My lord nods, making a small thoughtful sound, and then halts. His eyes are bright with the cold and a certain delight as he turns and takes in the house and its crofts. I have not seen it in the snow at this distance and, truly, it seems a welcoming sight. All but hidden in a screen of bare fruit trees and the limbs of the oak, the house nestles into the arms of the woods, smoke climbing upon the air from the grate in the roof. Snug and warm it seems, awaiting our return with the promise of hearth, and food, and bed.

"The House fares well," says my lord with, I think, some satisfaction.

He turns his look then upon the meadow and the march of trees upon the distant hills. For the hood he wears, I see naught but the tip of his nose and chin and the puff of frozen air when he releases his breath to speak.

"I would hear your thoughts, lady."

He fixes upon me with a quick, measuring gaze and, touching my elbow, urges me to resume our walk.

"Here we are in the quiet of winter," he says, following the slope of the land to the edge of the meadow. "Should you have its ordering, on what would you have the Council bend its will?"

I have naught to say, at first, for my thoughts are sent scattering upon the suggestion my lord might wish to know them. But my lord is patient, setting a leisurely pace down the hillock and looking about him as he waits.

Aye, 'tis winter and the Angle mends fences, fortifies the ditches and water gates about the fields, and cares for its beasts. All have shelter and food. There is little that puts the pinch upon our folk, for the work of the harvest was well done and the Valar were kind in their apportioning of sun and rain.

"It would seem to be a time to set our sights upon the next winter, my lord."

"Aye," he says and, halting, squints into the glare of sun upon the fields and chooses his path. We shall soon hit upon the brook that cleaves the soil of the meadow into a deep channel. The rill runs fast with melted snow and the sound of water runs clean and strong. "Halbarad tells me you are about when the Councils convene. How well does it plan for what may come, do you think?"

Not well. Oh, they band together if the need be urgent, but should not the fire be close enough to warm their backsides, they set to squabbling about whose bucket should be used to dowse the flames. I dare not say it, but it seems I need not, for my lord, catching sight of my face, makes a rough sound of agreement.

"They are good men, all, my lord." I raise my voice over the gathering sound of rushing water, for my lord strides ahead of me, seeking a place he must know to ford the stream.

"Aye," my lord agrees and he halts, looking down the bank to the water below as I come upon him. "But all men have their weaknesses, their failings, and never more than when they attempt to lead." "But then," he goes on, peering beneath the overhanging grasses and snow, "perhaps, you have not attended to it."

"I have found Master Tanaes to be well-intentioned, my lord," say I, his disinterest stiffening my spine and lending a crisp tone to my speech. "And he would make a good head of the Angle's council, would he not let Master Bachor draw him into argument. It seems they lose themselves in niggling matters, Master Bachor as quick to become ill-tempered as Elder Maurus is to become fretful. And the rest fall in line with whichever way the wind may blow them."

Sharp then is the gaze that takes me in, with a light I might name as mischief should it not be my lord's eyes that shine with it. Ah! Confound the man! I have fallen easily to his bait. How had he known my pride so easily stung as to overcome my better judgment? 'Tis not my place to criticize the Elders of my people.

"Aye," he says slowly. If I had thought my lord making sport of me, the pleasure that lightens the somber cast of his face puts a lie to it. "Master Tanaes' past service to the House of Isildur may be too well remembered to be the voice of plowmen, cotters, and craftsmen. Master Bachor may well be prone to anger. But remember, lady, and be cautious, a man's anger most oft lies as a thin veil over his fear. Master Bachor has the respect of our folk, and there is a reason for it. And as for Maurus, it would be a grave injustice, lady, to mistake him for a fool."

"But," he goes on and turns to make his way down the steep bank of the stream. "I shall leave the matter to your own reckoning. It is, I deem, a good lesson in the subtleties of old men."

"Come," he says, lifting his hand for mine, for he has stepped lightly upon the stones that make a path to the further bank.

When I give my hand in turn, my lord grasps upon my wrist tightly so he may make my feet secure. Here in the shadowed crevice, ice forms in a thin crust under which the flow of water gurgles. Air rises from the water and tastes of melting snow and weathered earth as my lord sees me safely over the stones. Looking upon it, I despair of climbing the far bank, but my lord lifts himself to its top and fair pulls me after him until the land stretches out before me. Upon the hillside stretches a thin blanket of white, here and there broken by grasses that tremble in the breeze and cast their faint shadows upon the snow.

I dust the dirt and snow from my skirts and cloak, and, once done, my lord again sets out. I can do naught but follow, though I know not his purpose. It seems he has one, for his stride is sure and I am hard put to keep pace. Soon, should we follow the bend of the hillside, we shall leave all sign of our folk behind.

And so it is, for we walk in silence until all about us is still and lonesome. There my lord halts of a sudden, his breath a mist upon the air, and he looks about him. Dark are the shadows beneath the forest upon my right, high is the slope upon my left, and behind there is only snow and an open sky. At a sound behind me, I twist about violently. The rush of snow ends in an abrupt crackling of bracken and leaves, and the branches of a pine jostle about for the weight they have unloaded. Such a short distance for my lord, yet I have ne'er been so far from the boundaries of the Angle as this.

"Lady," I hear and turn to find my lord looking upon me. His voice is clear and low when he speaks.

"I would have you sit upon the Council, not lingering about its edges unbidden."

Ai!

I take a breath and then another before I can speak. "What would you have me do there, my lord?"

"I wish you to listen and, have you aught to say, I wish you to speak it."

Such a simple task my lord would make it sound, and yet an uneasy weight settles itself in the pit of my belly.

"Aye, my lord," I say, for a dare say naught else.

He falls quiet and I know not what to think of his mood. He stares out upon where the sky falls to the net of barren trees, his face solemn in his study of the shadows that grow beneath their limbs. Truly, I know not what he looks for there. To my eye, the spread of open land and sky provides little solace, for all it seems to know of the world of Men, or care.

"Shall we return?"

My lord turns to me a look of grave pity.

"Aye, my lord," I say, but with little eagerness, for I do not think I shall find the Angle the same as when I left it.

~oOo~

I sit upon a bench beside my lord at his table and try mightily to still my hands. They, with lack of aught better to do, play upon the cloth of my skirts or clasp my fingers so tightly the blood floods their tips, for my lord will allow me naught but to sit beside him and attend to the Council. In my stead, he commands Elesinda to pour the ale and lay out the food I reserved. She does it well, but I find my fingers twitch and my shoulders tighten as she makes her rounds about the table.

At the least, I am spared the worry of the proper making of Elder Maurus' tea, for the old man has begged our lord forgive his absence and has taken himself to his bed. And now I find I miss his voice, for the Elders sit about my lord's table, their voices subdued. Each man, I think, attempts to present their arguments in the most wholesome light now their lord is the one to listen to them.

My lord seems intent on hearing them out, but, it seems, grows impatient. His face may be somberly attentive, but his fingers flick in a dismissive gesture before he schools them to stillness and, atimes, he lets loose a quiet breath and shifts in his chair. Much goes unsaid, lurking behind polite words. Such would not be the case should Master Maurus have been among them. Though a vexation, his mishearings, complaints, and dark forecasts would have needled them into revealing what lay behind their carefully maintained show of prudence.

"And where would you have them, Master Bachor?" my lord asks, his gaze coming swiftly upon the man who has been speaking.

The man in question falls silent of a sudden. I am not surprised. Having been the object of such keen study, I know the feeling well. I think my lord wishes the man to be done with his feigned impartiality in the Council's decision and commit himself.

How is it this man has the respect of the Angle? If my lord says it so, I should know it for truth. In sooth, he is fair to look upon, and treats others with a warm regard so they seek his presence. And truly, those who are his friends benefit from his mindfulness of their well-being. But I like not the way he looks upon me. His eyes linger where they should not and he is too careful to treat me with a deliberate courtesy. I am a worry to him and, now, a distraction upon the Council.

Aye, the Council has taken up the question of the harvest of next year, and long and sullen has been its debate. We have waded through deciding where and how much new land to assart come the spring and how to spread the days-work of the men upon them, and are done with these. We come now to the question of granaries, for we had too few upon last fall's harvest and much grain was spoiled for its improper storing. There is little point, then, to increasing the Angle's yield in the coming year should we not account for its storage.

"Well, my lord," Master Bachor says, his face a comely study of disinterest. "There is good land for it just north of Master Tanaes' pasture." He nods to the butcher, whose broad face tightens at the thought. "'Tis high land and well-drained and flat, and I think its owner willing. 'Twould serve well for as many or as large a granary as you could wish. We could store there all the grain from the unclaimed fields worked in the Angle's name."

Master Tanaes, for once, does not take up argument with Master Bachor. He looks to my lord and remains silent. I know the place of which Master Bachor speaks, and so do the Elders. 'Tis upon the eastern margins of his own lands, and held by one of the half-virgaters who owes a debt to the man. Master Bachor was generous, but I doubt the debtor will ever be able to repay him in full.

It seems not only I worry for this, for, at length, the Elders burst into comment.

"All in one place?" I hear and turn to find Master Landir the owner of that voice, a lean man with skin much as the leather he works.

"Could be a good, 'twill be easier to manage that way, would it not?"

"If it is on his land, Master Bachor, then shall he be the one to manage the stores?"

"You have not asked it of him yet, have you Bachor?"

"I trust not the wisdom of central stores, my lord."

The men fall silent, for it is my voice that speaks this last.

By the fine brush of wool and creak of wood, I know the Council restive as they attempt to make sense of this new thing. Ah! I must not let them distract me, though my heart beats so and their gaze burns upon me.

"I know not if I trust any with the management of it, if they be widespread, either. Too much to go missing." I hear, but am unsure of the speaker. I look only to my lord.

"Ah, my lord, clearing land for many smaller granaries seems but a misuse of our time. Should not lesser work go into the greater gain? One larger granary would suffice, would it not?"

But my lord returns my gaze and speaks not, paying little heed to the Council.

"Lady?"

"Aye, my lord, it will take more work," say I, speaking only to him. "But, I deem it would be work well repaid."

"How so?"

"My lord, it would take but one ill thing to cripple us, otherwise. One fire, one disease, one flood, one predation, and many will go hungry. Our most vulnerable will die for it."

Master Bachor speaks then, breaking my lord's gaze upon me. "Should you dot the village with smaller granaries, my lady, how would you set to managing them? Who shall say shall be fed from them and how much given and when?"

The men of the Council look upon me steadily. I think they, too, uncertain of my thoughts.

"I think it best they manage their own," I say.

"Meaning those of the Wanderers, my lady?"

"Aye, Master Bachor."

At this, his face falls into disquiet lines and he drops his gaze to shift restlessly upon the bench. A harsh light shines in his eyes that he will not turn to me.

"You are not satisfied?"

Master Bachor returns my lord's look and sighs at the question.

"The House is quick to take up the cause of the Wanderers, is it not?" he asks. "Forgive me, my lord, but it is well known the lady takes an eager interest in their plight."

"Should she not?"

"My lord," he pleads. "Is it not the custom of the Angle for those not of our folk to put the request for land before the Council? Did your lady not, just upon this past harvest, make free to give lands and home to a family of Wanderers without first consulting the Council on this matter, nor bringing it to their attention after? Does not the House honor the will of the Council in the justice of the Angle?"

I know not what defense to give, for my lord sits still in his chair and does not look to me. Aye, I have come to know that cold silence for what it is. 'Tis displeasure. My eyes burn at the thought and I must drop their gaze for fear of shedding tears before the Council. Ai! No doubt my lord now deeply regrets his choice to set me upon the Council beside him.

And yet when my lord speaks, his voice is calm and measured. "How came this custom to be?"

"We had a matter in this regard come before the Council," says Master Bachor, "and there was the precedent set."

Only now does Master Tanaes speak, and his voice is mild. "Aye, 'twas that one matter."

"One?" my lord asks. "And that alone?"

None of the Council deny it.

"Then it is hardly a custom, is it?" my lord asks. "Should you wish guidance on these matters, would this not then be a matter for the hallmoot to determine? Let the custom of the Angle be the Angle's to decide."

Oh, but the sinews of my face are stiff, for I dare not smile. I pinch at the soft skin beneath the crook of my arm, hoping the pain will dull my joy.

"I should hope you wish not to take upon yourself the management of the whole Angle, Master Bachor," my lord goes on to say. "I would dare not. Nor would I wish upon any man the management of dispersing all the miles of unclaimed land about the Angle or such a large portion of our harvest. I do not know how you wish to spend your days, Master Bachor, but, truly, I am unwilling to court such tedium or force it upon another."

The Elders burst into smiles and I hear Master Tanaes' deep chuckling from where he sits at the far end of the table. Master Bachor has the grace to look thoughtful, and a trifle contrite.

"Come, now. Have we done?" my lord asks, his voice both weary and amused. "Shall we not put the question of how our folk who seek refuge here may claim land to the people of the Angle at the next hallmoot? And find from them those who are willing to hold the granaries upon their crofts and be accountable to the Council?"

"Are we done?" he asks, looking about the table.

"Aye, 'tis done," says Master Tanaes as he rises, his voice deep and warm.

"My thanks to you, then, for your work on the Angle's behalf. Bid you good even," my lord says and the Elders rise and make their farewells.

I put my hands to the table to push myself up from the bench, for I would go to the door to hand the men their cloaks and ease their departure, but my lord's hand comes quick upon my knee to still my attempt to rise. With a look and a jerk of his head, he sends Elesinda, who has lingered about the hearth, to attend to the men. He then returns the Council's farewells with a cool solemnity but is otherwise silent.

"There, lady," he says, when the last has gone. He releases a soft breath and lays his shoulders upon the back of the chair, his finger come up to play upon the short hairs above his lip.

I must speak, though my belly feels cold and heavy for it.

"My lord?"

"Aye, lady," he says, and his hand falls to the rest.

"Forgive me, my lord. When I gave my home and lands to the Wanderers, I had not thought it through to its end. 'Twas my imprudence that caused you discomfort."

"Ah, lady," he says. He cuts short his sigh in a wry laugh. "Do not take the policies and politics of the Council too gravely to heart. It is not by the force of will of one man alone by which the Dúnedain shall stand fast against the Darkness. Neither yours nor Master Bachor's. In the great reach that is time and the lands of Arda, what matter it if we come through to the Light by one man's hand or another?"

Perhaps he meant his words as comfort, but I feel all the smaller, as if I stood again upon the rim of the Wild.

"My lord, how shall I do this thing you ask of me?"

"'Tis all grist for the same mill, our good works and our failings," he says. "Halbarad shall attend with you, or shall I, and from us shall you learn." "Though," he goes on with a smile, "I am but a lowly apprentice in the shadow of the Lord of Imladris in these matters. You have not had the pleasure of seeing Master Elrond at his councils."

"Worry not so, lady," he says after some time in which I ponder his words.

My lord's confidence may yet be inspiring, but rather lacking in specifics. I think this must play upon my face for my lord's look grows amused.

"Your one failing, lady," he says, and when he finds me glancing warily at him hastily adds, "should you have one, would be you feel the urge to act wherever and whenever you see the need."

"When I am gone, you serve as a symbol of my presence here," he says. "To you, lady, the folk will look for their care, and so they should. It is not in me to advise you to check the generosity of your heart, but to remember: I am the lord of the Dúnedain, all the Dúnedain, and my justice and good-will must fall upon its folk equally."

"Aye, my lord," I say and cast down my eyes.

"You shall know what to do," he urges me in his gentle voice. "Lend them your ear. Listen, lady, and your path will become clear. Do not worry so that you lack in skill or knowledge, for you must first listen with your heart, and only then with your head." My lord points a finger at my breast in emphasis.

"Come," he says, and his hands come down sharply upon the rests of his chair and he pushes himself to rising. "Perhaps you have the will to seek more speech than we have already had to endure today, but I tire of thinking. I would have a smoke, some food, and then, later, my bed, and we should call Halbarad back from whatever he has found to amuse himself."

My lord's hand comes beneath mine to lift me from my seat. And though the weight of apprehension lies heavy upon my mind and back, the warmth of my lord's touch lends me some strength, I think, to bear it. And so I rise and we go each to our tasks that remain us.

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