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27

The Men and Dwarves were mostly talking of distant events and telling flews of a kind that was becoming only too familiar. There was trouble away in the South, and it seemed that the Men who had come up the Greenway were on the move, looking for lands where they could find some peace. The Bree-folk were sympathetic, but plainly not very ready to take a large number of strangers into their little land.

FOTR: At the Sign of the Prancing Pony


~~~

My lord sits in the dappled and shifting shade where the limbs of the old oak spread out above the stone wall. There Halbarad has carried his chair and the wind stirs the leaves to dancing above his head as he sits and looks out upon the folk of the village. Crows and rooks raise their harsh cries over the stubble of the fields where we set the beasts of the Angle to graze. My lord has asked me to stand with him and so I do, just within a raised hand's distance from the back corner of his chair where his Steward would be placed had he one. There I listen to the cawing echo deep against the line of the forest. Let the black-winged birds cock their glittering eyes to the ground and peck at the furrows. No longer do the children and dogs chase them away. We leave off our long battle and surrender the fields to them, for we have already carried off the greater prize. Rings and bushels of grain stuff our granaries full to the bursting and we can afford to relax our vigil against them.

Before us, the men and women gather upon the grass of the gentle rise, for today, in the lull between the harvest of grain and the mowing of the great hayfields, is the day of hallmoot. Here claimant and petitioner stand before their lord and peers to speak what cause of grievance they may claim, or hear what needs must have response. The Angle's chosen jury of nine men stands beneath the spread of branches creaking above their heads. Plowman and smith and cotter they are, and they listen as the butcher raises his voice.

"And let us now view the pledge!" Master Tanaes calls, having limped to the small bit of my lord's lawn free of folk. He beats the butt of his great carved staff upon the ground. "Who here shall claim as right and responsibility the swearing of oaths and the offering of pledge of good conduct, or the holding of accounts when that should fail?"

"Aye!" and "I shall!" I hear shouted by many voices in the crowd.

"Then call you chiefs those whose pledge you claim!"

The chiefs call out their names. "Tundril, plowman!" "Lorn, fuller!" and more I hear and the people move as many grains of dry river-sand should you try to cup them in your hand. Soon, the men stand in groups of no more than a dozen at a time with the women of their families in a silent ring upon the slope of grass.

"Have you those unclaimed?"

"Aye," calls a voice and heads turn to reveal Master Sereg, once a wanderer among the Dúnedain but now under the pledge of his fellow plowman, a man of thick features and a growl for a voice. A thin lad stands before Sereg, quiet beneath the hands that rest upon his shoulders. He has grown much since he and his brother first stood beneath their father's touch in Elder Maurus' hall, and he near tops his father's shoulders.

"Here is my son, Seregion, but newly come into his twelfth year."

"Who shall accept claim for his pledge?" asks the butcher.

"Aye, I shall," says the plowman. "I know his father and shall speak for him and his."

"Very well," says the butcher. Master Sereg gives his son a quick shake and the boy answers his father's smile with a look that beams of nervous pride.

"Are there others?" asks Master Tanaes and he is answered in scattered calls of names and acceptance of pledges across the croft. Here and there, as well, I see the wary or worried eye laid upon the men of the wanderers new to the Angle this year. None is claimed and I bite upon my lip to quell sight of my misgivings.

"Aye, and aye. And those of you who have wandered and now come to the Angle," he says to those men hanging silently upon the fringe. "Shall you accept the claim of your pledge?

I think, perhaps, Mistress Pelara took the mention of my dread of the simple differences in customs among our people a little too closely to heart. She has been busy among the women of the wanderers, selecting her lieutenants, filling their ears and sending them forth, for there is not a man who does not now step forward. Master Tanaes looks to be a little startled. I am sure he expected to be called upon to explain the claiming of the pledge as he has in years past, for many of the wanderers come from holdings no larger than what a man and his family may work alone. There they hold each other accountable to the Lord's laws and their own customs. I almost feel pity for the butcher. He surely had worked his review of the custom into what he thought were fitting words, and now there shall be no need for them.

"Aye," I hear and one of the men of the wanderers raises his hand. "We here," he says nodding to the others, "know of the pledge and its claiming and are agreed to it."

"You speak for them?" the butcher asks.

"Aye, so I believe," he says and receives the nods he expects from those who stand beside him.

"Very well," says the butcher and gestures to the crowd with his staff. "Find yourself a man willing to claim your pledge."

And they do, sifting through the groups and coming to stand one or two beside their new brethren. There is no protest and, all in all, they are accepted, some more begrudgingly and some more warmly than others, but it is done. My lord's head turns my way and I have the briefest of glimpse of sharp, grey eyes. I did not know I had been holding my breath, nor it would be quite so loud in its releasing.

"Hear you now, the claiming of the pledge!" Master Tanaes begins, shifting his weight upon his good leg and working his breast as if they were great bellows. "Be you now sworn to the laws of our Lord and the custom of the Angle. Hold the land, you shall! Work the land, you shall! Defend its folk, you shall! And should any among you fail, those with whom claim your pledge shall hold you to the Angle's justice or be forfeit themselves. Do you so swear?"

"Aye!" comes a great shout from the men and in their echo comes a scattering of delighted mirth.

"Then shall you accept the pledge in good faith, my lord?" the butcher cries, overriding the noise.

"Aye, l do," my lord says, rising to stand tall and gaze upon his people with a fond eye. "I, Aragorn son of Arathorn, accept your pledge and shall uphold your rights and hold you to your responsibilities as ever have my fathers, the Lords of the Dúnedain, the Kings of Arnor, and the Faithful of Númenor."

Even my lord smiles at the cheers that follow. They are free men and hold one and another accountable. No matter what our Enemy may bring down upon us, this, we, the Dúnedain of the North, will not surrender.

"Are there those among you who would bring claims of grievance?" asks my lord as he sits and the men drift from their pledge and seek the place where they stood before its calling.

"Aye," answers the butcher. "We call first for the complaints against the harvest and holdings. Who shall be first?"

"I!" calls out Master Herdir and he makes his way through the men. At the man's nod, he bows first to Tanaes, then the jury and lastly to our lord.

"I, Herdir, son of Brandir, reeve to our lord do bring claim of shirking his day-work to Adleg. I present that Adleg, son of Aeg, without just claim of illness or release by our lord or his kin, did knowingly and willfully withhold three days work of binding the grain and threshing."

"Very well, where is he?" asks the butcher, leaning upon his staff and peering into the crowd. The people look one to another, but in all the milling about, I cannot see the young man of whom they speak even should he stand forward. "Who is the holder of his pledge?"

"I am," comes a high, light voice at odds with hands and shoulders made broad and square for the grinding of grain and kneading of dough. He, the baker, too examines the crowd and then, of a sudden, waves over their heads. "Come on, lad," he calls. "No use for it but to stand forward and have it out."

With that, a red and grim-faced youth makes his way to the open lawn between the folk of the Angle and its jury. The shade of the oak falls darkly upon cheeks barely touched by whiskers and bones barely graced by flesh and sinew. He plucks at the hem of his tunic but his gaze is steadfast and all but defiant. Behind him have come a man and woman and I know them for the lad's parents, silent and stern in their years.

"Have you aught to say in defense to the charge?" Master Tanaes asks, and the lad shakes his head vigorously.

"Naught at all?" he prompts, but the lad's gaze falls fixed upon the ground and, though the sinews of his cheeks are drawn tight, he does not speak.

"Should you not speak on your own behalf, or find one who will do so in your stead, the jury will have no choice but to find you derelict of your pledge."

The men of the jury frown at the youth, but I know not whether it be from vexation at his silence or rebuke for his transgression. I clutch at the post of my lord's chair, for I think I know why this young lad may have failed of the harvest and am reluctant to call him unfaithful. Sure I am my lord feels the pull of my grip upon his chair, but he raises his hand as if to still both the jury's unquiet as well as my own.

"Adleg, is it?"

"Aye, my lord," the lad says and dips his head, fingers to his brow.

"Were you not upon the fields at the first of the harvest?" he asks, frowning mildly at the youth. "Do I not recall you there?"

"Aye, my lord," he says. "I was there."

"And how is it you failed to return?"

"If it please you, my lord, it was my grandsire, he who had fallen and broken his foot but the first day of the harvest. There were none who could watch over him."

My lord scrapes at his beard lightly, as if considering the lad's words.

"None but you?" he finally goes on. "How was this decided?"

"In truth, my lord, 'twas I who decided. My parents," he adds, nodding to the couple, "commanded me to go with them to the harvest."

"But you thought better of it?" My lord's hand stills.

"Aye, my lord."

"And did not think to plead just cause for your absence?"

This seems to give the youth pause, for he glances at Master Herdir first before speaking. "No, my lord."

"And you," my lord says, directing his words to the man standing silently behind the youth, "thought him able to make this decision unaided?"

He clears his throat before responding but still his voice his gruff. "Aye, my lord, he would hear none of us and insisted he was man enough to bear the penalty."

The youth's jaw juts forward and he stands with shoulders broadly squared as if he prepares to hold still under some great blow. At first I know not what to make of my lord's silence, but then the swift rise of his hand to his lips tells my lord's mind. He finds mirth, I think, in the youth's prickly and unnecessarily tried honor.

"Elder Landir," my lord asks without turning his gaze from the young man. "What is the penalty for shirking day-work?"

Among the jury a lean man with a face like tanned leather tugs upon his ear and muses, "That the man's house forfeit a half-bushel for every day withheld, my lord."

"So," my lord says, fixing the youth with a deceptively mild look. "And from whose portion shall it be measured, among those of your house?"

The youth looks from lord to jury to butcher and finds little quarter. Eyes that were defiant seem to find little upon which to rest and the color of a rose blooms upon his cheek.

"I would have none go hungry for my fault," he says.

"Think you so? Then you would be most like be quite ill, if not dead before the punishment had run its course. Should you wish even that upon your mother? Your father? To eat while you hunger and fall ill before them?"

The youth's eyes fall and the blush upon his cheek deepens.

"And so you see," my lord says, his voice growing low. "Not you alone shall bear the consequence, no matter that you were man enough to make the decision without heeding their counsel."

My lord goes on, "If you would have neither shared burden of the penalty nor burden alone, what penalty would you have? For what might you hope?"

The young man shifts upon his feet, his face twisted in a wry grimace. "With your leave, my lord, I would hope you would not make the decision without first heeding others' counsel."

For a moment the crowd and the leaves overhead are still, as if both folk and wind hold their breath. But then it breaks, for my lord laughs.

"Well answered!" he cries. "Well, then, what say you, men of the jury? What penalty for this man of the Angle who thought not to plead mercy?"

Heads bow and shoulders turn in to the soft speech of the men of the jury. Then, it seems they are done, for they face my lord with mirth barely suppressed in their eyes and Master Landir speaks again.

"My lord, should you choose to swear oath to the lad's character as being more of pride than sloth, the jury may be convinced to fine him his missed days-work and no more."

"I so swear," my lord says promptly and, I think, the jury is satisfied, for they smile and chuckle among themselves.

"Aye, then," says the butcher. "Hear now your penalty, Adleg son of Aeg. The folk of the Angle have found you guilty of willful pride and misjudgment of your lord's mercy and your people's custom. You shall owe them your shirked days-work, to be exacted upon the next three days of rest."

"And be you glad of it, lad," he goes on as the youth bows, "for you could have been dealt with more harshly."

I think, from the dark twinkle in his father's eye when he receives the lad, his elders held more faith in the justice of the Angle then had their son.

"And who shall be next?" asks the butcher and a grizzled plowman stands forth and raises his hand. "Very well, then, speak your complaint."

"Aye," the man says and nods jerkily. His face is a study of flushed righteousness. "I, Godref son of Gorn, bring complaint against Hammand, that he did willfully and knowingly extend his plowing into my furlong."

"I never did!" comes the cry and soon they are at it.

So the morning wears on. Through it all my lord remains silent, lending the weight of his authority to the butcher and the jury through the mere vigilance of his House. At first, I attended sharply, for, at this uncommon view of the Angle, I marvel at so many faces turned with one mind. But as the sun rises, the heat gathers, my belly empties, and my mind turns the more oft to the meats I have yet to prepare and bread I have yet to slice for my lord's noon meal.

It seems the last to speak shall be men who lay claim and counterclaim of assault one upon the other. Ai, but it is a weary tangle! It had begun innocently enough, it seems, with the diversion of the course of a stream to flood a family's furlongs and make them ready for the planting. But poorly timed, for the family was new to the Angle and knew not its folk used the faces of the moon to tell when to release the water from the stream so its supply would not be depleted. Later it had come to blows and insults of the worst kind. I worried for our wandering folk and their welcome.

"I have claim!" I hear spoken low, and I collect my thoughts from their wandering to find a man easing his way through the ranks of his fellows.

"Come you forward, then," Master Tanaes says and wipes at his brow with his sleeve. It is not so much that it is hard work, but his ruddy face comes to glow beneath the strength of the sun. I think he, too, hopes the hallmoot shall draw soon to a close.

Not one, but two now stand upon the small bit of greensward. Husband and wife they are. Her small, neat hands lie clasped upon her skirts.

"And what have you to claim?"

With a quick look to his wife, who, it seems, will not return his gaze, it is the man who speaks. "I stand before the jury and plead with them to allow me the right of the "seidiad."

The word sets the crowd to murmuring and I hear its soft sounds echoed on many lips. I cannot recall a time when this right was claimed afore now and I think it is the same for many of the folk of the Angle.

"Quiet now!" the butcher cries and the people still. "Only the Lord of the Dúnedain can hear your plea," says he to the man. "The oaths of his people are the Lord's to enforce or to deem broken. It is of him you must beg the right."

"My lord, will you not hear me?"

My lord shifts in his chair, drawing in his long legs and looking upon them gravely. "What is your basis for the claim?"

"My lord, if it please you," says he and dips his head, "my wife and I, we agreed to a marriage should it provide us with children. Such was our contract, made in cool thought and with terms agreed beforehand."

"This is true?" my lord asks of the woman.

She startles, for it seems she has been deaf to her husband's words. In their stead, she stares at me and with the soft light in her eyes I am held captive, unable to move or breathe until she release me.

"'Tis true, my lord," says she and her glance flickers once more to my face.

"Your husband requests this thing, what of you?"

"It is not my right to claim, my lord."

True it is, both in the making and breaking of such vows, only the men of the Dúnedain are allowed the right, but such is the bitterness in that soft voice it gives my lord pause. His eyes, which had sharpened upon her, go soft with somewhat of sorrow at the sound. I wonder then, if this breaking is of her will or if she merely is weary of contesting it.

My lord goes on then, turning to her husband. "The custom of our people allows this but rarely, and you must consider in all deliberation what you do here."

"I wish her no ill, my lord," the man says. "But such were the chances to which we agreed."

"When did you take up this marriage?"

"These three years past, my lord, and we have naught one sign of quickening."

At this my lord turns his gaze to the woman. "And he has performed his duties upon you as befits a husband of his wife?"

She nods, forbearing to speak, it seems, for the deep blush that creeps from her neck and over her chin.

"And have you no other cause to remain as husband and wife? No other comfort you may take?"

Slow and hesitant is the response, but they are of accord. His answer is "no," and her answer follows.

My lord looks upon them with pity in his glance. In his quiet, the stirring of the leaves above our head sounds as rain rustling in the thatch on a cold spring night when all else is still.

He sighs before he speaks, and then his voice is low and heavy with regret. "It seems you are of one mind and there is no power upon this earth or over the Sundering Seas that might force your hearts to turn one to the other against your will."

"Thus I decree it," my lord says and turns his gaze upon the man. "She is no longer wife and you are no longer her husband. But I will not break the vow of care you gave. She may not be wife, but she remains of your family and her care remains yours, for she forsook all others to cleave to you and that cannot be undone. Thus I further decree, in fine you are to find house sufficient for her needs and to pay each year to the woman who once was your wife the sum of a dozen bushels of yield from your holdings and upkeep of the house you give her. These you owe her unto her death or she take another to husband. How say the jury?"

The jury murmurs among themselves, their heads turned away. I hear naught of what they say and can see little in their faces for the deep shade of the oak. They take their time, for I think they must search deeply among their memories.

"My lord," Master Landir says when they finally part. "We have no example to guide us, but acknowledge the right and are willing to leave the rest to your wishes."

"It is done, then," says my lord. He pushes himself to standing and the people take to murmuring and shifting about as the couple, husband and wife no longer, part before them.

"Lady," my lord says, but I hear it not.

He has turned and looks to me so I might stand beside him and he might call an end to the hallmoot. But I know not of my lord's gaze, for my hands have clenched themselves into fists and a sour taste sits upon my tongue. I know little whether I wish most to turn about and flee the curious eyes of the Angle or return their stare until they, too, feel shame for what they wonder when they look upon my lord and I. He once bowed beneath the Angle's will, setting aside what his heart desired, would my lord do such a thing as I see in their eyes?

"Lady," I hear, more softly spoken than before, and only now do I find my lord's gaze upon me. He lifts my wrist from my side and clasps my fingers in his. His hand is warm and fingers sure of his grip.

"Come," he says and leads me forward. There we stand before all assembled as he speaks.

"My thanks to the Dúnedain of the Angle. Shall we have another year so peaceful and free of rancor between our folk then I shall consider myself and my House well-blessed. Good harvest to you and a blessing upon your day!'

"A good harvest!" I hear in scattered reply.

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