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19

There were, however, dwarves on the road in unusual numbers. The ancient East-West Road ran through the Shire to its end at the Grey Havens, and dwarves had always used it on their way to their mines in the Blue Mountains. They were the hobbits’ chief source of news from distant parts - if they wanted any: as a rule dwarves said little and hobbits asked no more. But now Frodo often met strange dwarves of far countries, seeking refuge in the West. They were troubled, and some spoke in whispers of the Enemy and of the Land of Mordor.

FOTR: The Shadow of the Past


~~~

Ah, but the wool of my lord's bride price is a pleasure to work. Its fibers are long and my hands grow soft for the grease that clings to them. Here in the cool shadows of the shed, I have laid the fleece upon a slatted table and am joined by a granddam of the Wanderers. She clucks and hums as, together, we skirt the last of this spring's shearing, pulling away tags of matted hair about the neck and flanks and plucking dried grasses and dirt from betwixt its fibers. She seems much pleased with the task, newly come as she is to the Angle and newly bereft of her own flock in the journey. I have promised her a lamb from this spring's birthing should she skirt, wash, and card the fleeces for me.

Late am I in getting to the work come from our shearing, for the cares of the Angle take much of my time. We have wintered well, though our surplus from good harvests past dwindles to naught. In the last, our stores were strained for our ever-increasing numbers, but at the least the management of the granaries is no longer under dispute. For indeed did the Angle decide.

'Twas early last spring, when the sun rose cool and the meadows glittered beneath its light as if gilt with a fine dust of gold, the folk of the Angle stood beneath the old oak upon the edge of my lord's pasture. And Halbarad, seated in his kin's place, put the question to the hallmoot. 'Tis no longer the custom of the Angle for the Council to decide the apportioning of new land, for the folk of the Dúnedain saw no need for it. What a man worked, he would first share of its yield and then might hold. And should it not cause harm to his fellows, he might build upon the land home and croft. If contention arose, then they would have the Council intercede, but not before. A stiff-necked people are the Dúnedain, and I took great pride in them.

For my trust in his impartiality, I assigned Master Herdir the management of the granaries and allowed him day's-work owed my lord's House with which to do it. In his turn, he brought a man of the Wanderers to my lord's hall. He claimed a good measure of understanding of husbandry, and well I believed it. For he looked nigh as wild as the beasts and seemed to prefer their company. He mumbled a few words to me, touching upon his brow often though never raising his eyes. But I did not protest, for I had seen to the first spring's lambing of my own and found myself nodding to sleep in the midst of Councils, and laying my head upon my sewing table for what I hoped was a simple moment of rest only to awaken deep in the night. Glad was I my lord late in his return, for I could get naught done and feared, even should he wish to turn his attentions to me, I would fall deep into slumbers in the midst of it.

True to his word, come the summer and through the fall, the wandering woodsman shepherded the flock, moving them from pasture to pasture before the land grew wild with thistle for their love of the less prickly grasses, and filled their rick with hay for them to eat and lay straw upon the floor for their bed come the winter. He would baa at the ewes and they would bleat back, his favorites trotting about behind him when he visited them in the barnyard, but I have yet to learn his name. He came to take on the care of sheep, whatever horse might bring visitors to the House, and a small herd of pigs that arrived with much mystery and he sent beneath the eaves of the wood to root for acorns. In return, he ate of the food prepared for his lord's table and was given, for his good, sturdy clothing, fuel for his hearth, and grain, butter, and greens for his pantry. For my good, I offered him a bath before every second day of rest.

And so my lord's House increased and prospered. He would return to it, ever and anon, worn, dirty and far too thin for my taste. And then the hall would ring with the voices of his men, oft until the deep hours of the night. When he was home, my lord and I settled into a routine, I tending to the house and its people, he seeing to the needs of the Angle or in councils with his Rangers. When not out of doors my lord was much occupied in their reports and ordering their coming and going. And when the weather permitted, he supervised the men in the clearing of the grounds of brush and weeds and upkeep of the sheds. Oft, he himself would bend to the task. My lord's mood is much improved by the sense of purpose and his sleep much improved by the labor.

I saw little of my lord during the day, but our evenings we spent together in the hall while Halbarad and his men were about. Most oft, when the evening meal was cleared away and the bread was set to rise for the morning, I joined my lord in the hall for our last hours and there, for the sake of my own sleep, attempted to forget what I had left undone. There I spun my wool before the hearth, the spindle dangling above the floor as the roving fed the thin threads. If not spinning, I tackled the tedious work of re-establishing the sheds of my loom, tugging at the warp and retying the jangling weights until I could lift the heddle rod and the warp pulled away evenly.

My lord oft rested himself as I worked. He lay upon a bench by the fire, flat upon his back with his hair falling from his brow and hand clutching his clay pipe to his breast. There, he stared for long hours at the play of firelight upon the ceiling and sent thin streams of smoke into the rafters. His thoughts played across his face, some so grim that a fell fire kindled deep within his eyes, some so bleak I marveled that he did not weep, and others so merry that I could not help but smile myself. He told me naught of them, and I suppose the habit of silence in a Ranger is hard to break.

In our silence, I heard each creak of protesting wood as he shifted his weight upon the bench and crackle of burning leaf when he drew hard upon his pipe. Surely, too, he heard the warp weights chiming as small, dull bells and the clatter of the wood of the heddle rod upon its supports. At times, I looked up across the fire to find I had drawn my lord's gaze. He would watch as I first set the spindle to whirring and then my fingers meet above it only to pull apart and turn fluffs of wool into a spider's web. He attended as would a small child, enchanted into silence by its simple, repetitive magic. These times were within my mind's reach. But, other times, I would find his eyes upon me, his face grave. He watched not what I was doing, but he looked upon me. These times I knew not his mind and wondered what lay in his thoughts.

But I soon came to learn the signs of his thoughts when they turned to leaving. A certain tightening of the mouth and a distant shadow in his eyes, and I knew he would soon take his farewell, reassuming the cares of his people upon shoulders.

Once the House broke of its fast this morn, I made my way to the open shed where housed the flock. There I found the spring's lambs in a softly heaving huddle of wool, piled as they were one atop the other to best sleep within the spill of light. Their mothers stood about them, scattered through the low shed with their eyes shuttered and ears swept back in contentment, worrying at their cud. They shall soon weary of being penned and shall bleat and hang about the gate. But I dare not set them to pasture just yet.

Water drips from where wool hangs in a hammock of thin linen, there drying after its washing, the faint sound of bleating of lambs and answering calls of their mothers comes distantly through the wall, and our feet scuff lightly upon the hard dirt as we circle the table. Just beyond the shade in which we work, the world is bright and green, and a squirrel barks from the overhanging limbs of the chestnut tree. I pluck at a burr, worrying it out of the fleece.

"Have you made your choice of lamb yet, Mistress?"

"Ah, that I have not, my lady," the old woman says and shakes her fingers free of clinging fibers. "For have not you more ewes to give birth?"

I smile. "So you would have the whole field from which to choose, then?"

"Aye, of course, my lady," she says, her eyes shine with some mirth when she looks upon me. "An I should have only the one, fain would I have it be well worth the effort."

At this, my smile deepens. She halts, rising from where she bends over the table.

"Aye, I shall be hard put to it to make my choice, my lady," she says, stretching her back. "Though, no matter its sires, I don't doubt it'll be the lamb that makes free to sniff out my hands and suffers me to lay them upon its back that will make my decision for me."

"My lady?"

When I look up it is to find a youth in Ranger's clothing just beyond the shade of the shed. He it is the son of one of my lord's men whom Halbarad has taken in to train in his father's stead. He ducks his head to peer beneath the thatch. He has bitten his nails down to the quick and now fingers the hilt of his sword. Beyond him I see Master Bachor.

The old woman returns to her work, the fine crunch of dried grasses and twigs not occupying her nigh so much as cutting her eyes at the man who stands behind the youth with an air of studied patience.

"Master Bachor prays he might have a word with you, my lady, and Elesinda begs I tell you Master Dwalin has arrived and awaits you in the hall," the youth says.

It seems he might have more to say, but Master Bachor, declining to wait my permission, pushes past him with a pleasant smile. The thatch rustles as he lifts it aside and enters. The youth is none so sure of the man's forwardness, I think, for, though he steps a pace away, he eyes the man warily and lingers where he may yet see.

"Now that is a fine-looking fleece, my lady," Master Bachor says. "I see you have done well this year." He plucks at the fibers and rubs them between his fingers. "And soft, too. Should you wish good pasture for your flock, I would counsel you to put them to clover, and I have a field of it not far from here should they eat all of yours."

"My thanks to you, Master Bachor."

"Good morrow, Mistress," he says to the granddam and smiles upon her.

She nods in return though her hands never leave off her work. Her glance flicks from Master Bachor to me, and I would restrain her with a stern look should not also he see it. It seems she does not approve, no matter his fine manners and warm looks, for she next shuffles into him in her round about the slatted table and he must back away to allow her freedom to do her work.

Aye, Master Bachor may own much land and keep a full herd upon it. But he knows little of sheep and the unwitting display of his ignorance has not endeared him to her. No sensible shepherd would stuff their flock with clover beyond their liking, for though they delight in it at first, they soon have their fill and protest being left in a field full of it. And with good reason, for their hooves rot beneath them if they eat too long of it.

"Please forgive my intrusion, my lady," he says, releasing the wool to let it drop to its soft nest. "But I had a matter in mind which I thought you might wish to hear."

I am torn between wishing to chastise the old woman and letting loose my laughter, for she pats at the wool that alights there as if he had greatly marred the fleece in plucking it away.

"If it please you, my lady, perhaps I could escort you to the house," he goes on when I hesitate and somewhat sad and fierce passes briefly in his eyes. "I need but a moment of your time."

When he looks upon me, I find I marvel at what it is that gives the man his fairness of features. Truly, 'tis not his eyes, for they are too widely and deeply set beneath his brow. 'Tis not his nose, for it is, in itself, unremarkable. Aye, his lips seem well-made and full, and are set in a firm jaw he keeps close-shaven, but it is more than this, surely.

"Aye, Master Bachor."

"My thanks to you, my lady." With that he nods cordially enough to the granddam and ducks beneath the low-hanging eaves of the shed.

When I pass the old woman and her wry face, I catch her voice coming low.

"You watch yourself with that one, my lady."

"Hush, now," I say, but she smiles, for I truly have not the heart to reprimand her and well she knows it.

With a look, I call the youth close, so he might walk with us. Perhaps such watchfulness is not strictly necessary, as we are out in the open where we may easily be seen, but, at this moment, I am grateful for it. The youth gives little sign, but waits solemnly until my steps reach Master Bachor and we set to the path that shall take us to the house, and then falls in behind us.

"I have given some thought to what you said upon the last Council, my lady."

"Indeed?" And I am surprised. I had not thought he paid my words much heed at first. Though, in the last convening of the Elders, Master Bachor and I found ourselves at odds and the Council decided in my favor. A small matter it was, but it seemed to trouble Master Bachor exceedingly, for he took his leave in a cold, foul mood.

"'Tis true, what you said, now I have had time to think on it," he goes on. "Our numbers will do naught but increase and we would be fools not to plan for it."

I had stated it not thus baldly, but, in sooth, it had not been far from my intent.

"Please do not think I judged the Council fools."

"Ah, no, but I might as well have been," he says and flashes a bright smile at me as we walk.

He sobers, considering me before he looks again to the path we tread.

"Having no immediate use for it," he says, "I have put aside wood from cuttings made about my lands, and, at a small cost, those of my neighbors. It should be well-seasoned by now and there is a fair amount. We shall have much need for good wood to build houses and sheds, should those who flee here settle upon land of their choosing. These sheds we build of green wood are but a poor substitute and shall not last much more than a season or two, would you not say?"

We come upon the front of house and our feet slow.

"And what would you wish in return?" I ask, thinking quickly, for indeed it is as he says but I cannot believe he has not worked out the deal to his advantage in some way.

"I think we could find aught that would be to our common good, my lady," he says and halts in view of the great door leading into the hall. I wonder at the quietness of his voice and the intense look in his eye.

I find now he has turned me so the lad who remains a discrete distance behind has the full view of my face, but none of his.

"You are generous, Master Bachor."

He inclines his head with some solemnity. Oh, but I hope he shall not think to take my hand.

"I regret my heated words when last we spoke and would wish to beg your forgiveness. If I may be of use," he says and, lowering his voice, turns his shoulder into me so he may speak more privately. His voice is soft and earnest. "If there be any small way I may ease your burden, you have but to send for me."

Ah! The man had never a glance to spare for me afore I married my lord, and now his eyes seem to linger much too warmly.

"You are most kind, Master Bachor," I say. "My lord shall be gladdened to hear how highly you esteem his House."

He nods, and his gaze falls from me, the very air between us growing cool. He then takes his farewell prettily, bowing and bidding me good day, but somewhat falls closed and wary within his gaze. I watch as he leaves, for I would know him fully gone before I turn my back upon him.

No, it is how they come together as one, his features, that gives him his comeliness, and the seeming artlessness and good-humor that give them life.

Oh, but I need heed well my lord's words and not keep for myself alone the care of his people. True it is, more sets of hands than one are needed, but my heart quails at allowing myself beholden to the man. I do not doubt Master Bachor could give an accurate account of the number of nights I have slept alone in my bed without my lord beside me. And so can I. But it is my bed!

Such are my thoughts when I come into the hall through the great door, and it makes the sight of the dwarf pacing easily about my hearth all the more delightful. There Elesinda lays meat upon the grill and he sniffs deeply of its smoke, a cup of ale clutched in his blunt fingers. The dwarf's eyes alight upon the table, chairs, windows, hangings, hearth and Elesinda tending to our meal above it, and a finely woven hood dangles from his hand before him. I smile to see the clear green of its cord that I thought would compliment his hair so well. The smell of cooking meat is thick in the air and by the contentment upon his face, he seems to enjoy it.

"Master Dwalin!" I call as I stride into the hall and then halt to give him full greeting. He turns about swiftly and a smile comes upon his face so I see naught but the dark points of his eyes. "Welcome and well met!" say I. "It warms my heart to see you again."

"Ah! Lady Nienelen, a blessing upon your House and those who dwell therein." His hood dangles about his knees when he bows.

"Come!" I offer him a seat at my lord's table where he might be comfortable. "I see Elesinda has drawn you ale, will you not join me?"

"Naught would give me greater pleasure, Lady," he says, laying aside his hood upon the bench.

He seems to have passed the inspection of my young guard who followed me into the hall. The youth sits himself down upon a bench by the door, there to lean against the wall and remain watchful. I think perhaps he has taken Halbarad's instruction too greatly to heart, for he speaks not and shall not take even the cup of ale Elesinda offers him. And I know from past days, he will not sup with us, but take a plate and eat of it where he sits.

"I trust your journeys have given you no great hardship, Master Dwalin."

There we settle at the table and Elesinda comes with a bowl of water infused with the clean scent of vervain and fresh linens. For, by the smell rising from the hearth, our meal is near ready.

"Aye, well, we have had a few brushes with peril, Lady, --" says the dwarf. "Ah, my thanks to you, young miss." This last he says to Elesinda who, as he is our guest, offers him first use of the water. He plunges his fingers in the bowl, speaking all the while. "-- as you will have shall you travel upon the open road these days. But, should your lord be kind in his aid, most of our goods shall see their way to the Blue Mountains, and our folk, too."

"Aye, he left instruction for your safe passage," I say. The bowl now comes to me and I am glad to wash away the grease and bits of pasture clinging to a sheep's coat.

"Good!" he exclaims and finishes wiping at his hands. "I am much relieved to hear it. I feared the Shadow had laid its hand on your folk so heavy you'd not have the men for it."

Indeed we can little spare them, but I know not whether it ill to say too much of our dependence upon the dwarf's trade or too little. For the dwarves who journey from mountain to mountain are our only source of much we ourselves cannot produce. Iron, copper and other metals we have little of. Salt we have none. We own no mines of any sort, and little means of carting what we need from the salt marshes of Harlond. Oh, we could do without the rest, the fine threads, the ornamented combs, the strange spices, the heavy wines, but have we no salt the curing of our meats becomes greatly uncertain. Should we lack for it, more of our fall's slaughter might spoil over the winter than we might wish.

"It would be neither to your good nor ours to fail of your care. We are but an island upon the Wild, Master Dwalin, and you our bridge."

"Aye, well," he says, looking away. "Your Lord has always treated us fair."

At that, Elesinda lays the joint of meat upon the table, where it is swiftly joined by bread, bowls of sharp-tasting cress and a pottage of rye and mushroom topped with a musty cheese. Were it not an insult, I would laugh at my guest, for he looks upon the meal as it were a dragon's hoard and the beast itself but newly vanquished.

"Lady," he begins and then falters. "You are too kind."

"And the road too lean, I take it."

"Oh, Lady, you do not know the half of it! Mile upon mile of eating cram and the dust from beneath our ponies' hooves!"

I laugh. "I hope you will find the fare at this table more to your taste, then, Master Dwalin."

"I have great hopes of it, Lady."

With that he tucks into the meal with a fair amount of fervor. And I have not the heart to distract him with my speech, nor make him put his mouth to aught use other than eating. But, as I eat, I find I cannot help but examine my guest's beard for the minute interweaving of braids. Their paths baffle me.

It is not until Elesinda has cleared away the last of our meal, and Master Dwalin wipes at his mouth and sighs, I have gathered enough courage to speak of it.

"You have changed your beard, Master Dwalin."

"Ah, what is that? Oh, aye," he says and his face colors above his beard, the hair of which is a dark red thinned to a lighter hue by much white.

I think perhaps I have, in my stumbling, given grave offense to a son of Durin, for the dwarf's fingers come up to smooth the hairs about his lips and chin and he looks away.

"Forgive me, sir, I should not have made so free."

"Ah, Lady, it is naught. Do not fret so. None but another dwarf would know the meaning of the braids and need not ask. For, you see, Lady, I have got myself married."

"You have?"

"Aye, indeed, and a stout heart she is to bear with my absences. She waits for my return to the Blue Mountains, there we shall take up our lives together."

Naught of well-wishes and compliments do I think to give, so stunned am I. "Why! Master Dwalin!"

"Look here," he says, stirring to sudden movement. "I shall show you the way of it!" He casts about the room. "Have you any twine or scraps of aught you can spare?"

"One minute, good sir."

Rising swiftly from the table, I rummage through the basket beneath my loom and pull from it bobbins of yarns of differing hues. From what I offer, he measures lengths of the yarn, choosing his colors carefully and running them from thumb to nose, and then gives them an expert tug to snap the wool apart.

"See here, now," he says, tying their ends together. "You need at least four good lengths. I shall show you with six, a right goodly number, I say."

I lean in and soon our heads incline together over his hands. His eyes are brightly twinkling points of light above his cheeks as first he looks upon me and then upon the threads.

"Or eight will do. My cousin Orlin can make a beautiful strap the size of your waist with naught but a dozen strips of leather. Just so long as you have an even number, mind! One to weft and the odd remainder for your warp. See? Thusly!"

His thick fingers make short work of the weaving and I watch intently. He speaks as he works, and I come to know much of the hidden meaning of the craft, the status and age of dwarf as knotted in his own beard and what designs distinguish dwarf maiden from matron. My guest is the most ardent of craftsmen.

I scowl at the yarn and turn my head to better see its path. "How do you keep the edge from turning upon itself and twisting?"

"It is easy enough. See here!"

He thrusts the bundle into my hands and I am put to winding the yarns about themselves to the pattern he had set. It is easier than I thought, for it mimics the weaving as if upon the loom, but warp becomes weft and, in but one pass, weft winds to warp again.

"There, Lady, now you have the hand for it." Master Dwalin looks most pleased in his pupil and I smile for it. "Braid your husband's beard with this pattern," he says, beaming and tapping the table loudly with his broad forefinger, "and he shall know himself the envy of every man he meets."

I think of the futility of tugging upon the short hairs of my lord's beard and burst into laughter. "I think not, Master Dwalin!"

"Bah!" he says, catching my meaning and waving the notion away. "I do not understand Men! Why a man should shave the hair from his face so that he may appear as one of the Elves! If you were to ask me, lady, I should say, 'Fah!'" Here he makes a loud dismissive noise. "Let the Elves have their smooth cheeks! Would you know the real character of a man? You can tell it by his beard!"

"Ah! Well! Listen to me!" he says and settles back from where he had leaned excitedly over the table. "I have taken more of your time than I ought, Lady."

"And I should return to my folk," he goes on and rises from the bench. "They are sure to have done with their business."

And for a reason I knew not yet, he looked suddenly old and more than a little tired standing there and awaiting my farewell.

"I understand, sir Dwarf, though I regret you leaving so soon."

I rise with him and accompany him slowly to the great door. The youth is gone, for Elesinda had begged his aid carrying the kettle out of door where she might empty it.

"Is that my packet, Lady?" He nods to a bundle of oiled parchment sitting upon the chest by the door.

"Indeed." I take it up and hold it for a moment. "I rely much upon your kindliness, Master Dwalin," I say, for he does seem sorrowful and reluctant to leave, and I would give him reassurance.

And indeed I do rely upon him, for in the bundle are letters to my aunt, of whom I have only heard word through Master Dwalin's generous conveyance of our writing as he passes back and forth across the Angle.

"Aye, well, Lady, there we come to it," he says and sighs. "Aye, I would not disappoint you, were it in my power. Ever have you and your House treated generously with us. Like as not, we would have abandoned the East-West route long ago were it not for the watchfulness and aid of your lord. But, it seems we come to an end of our travel upon the wider lands."

For a long moment it seems I do not comprehend plain speech, for his words make no sense to me. And then, they do.

"I am very sorry to hear that." And indeed I am, for my joy at his visit has drained from me and my limbs are weighted with a sudden heaviness for its loss.

"'Tis perilous, the road, as of late," he says and I hear, more clearly now, his quiet grief. "We have lost folk along the way. 'Twas just baggage we lost, before. Your men, Lady, see to our safety once we come to the summit of the Misty Mountains, but their authority allows them no further down the pass upon the opposite side. Glad we are of their numbers, for we require their aid. But we cannot ask it of you to protect us where you do not go, yourselves. And I can no longer ask it of my folk, nor my wife."

Ai! It is as he says.

"I regret I shall not see you again, Master Dwalin."

"Lady, I –," he begins and then halts. Forbearing speech, he then takes my hand and, having learned the custom at some point in his travels, bows gravely over it.

When he has released me, I offer the small, folded package. "Would you be so good as to take this one last time for me?"

"Aye, Lady, gladly." He lifts it from my hands and, with a little effort, it disappears into some dark fold inside his tunic.

"Shall you want your usual fee, Master Dwalin?" I ask, for I had prepared yet another hood made of bright and sturdy cloth for him.

"No, Lady," he says. "Keep it and remember me kindly, if you will."

I bow and then there is no more to say.

He, too, I watch until well and truly gone, but, unlike Master Bachor's visit, my fear is for what he shall leave behind.

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