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29

'Only a Ranger!' cried Gandalf. `My dear Frodo, that is just what the Rangers are: the last remnant in the North of the great people, the Men of the West.'

FOTR: Many Meetings


~~~

The next morning, I awoke early. The sky lightened slowly in the frame of the solar's windows and I, curled upon my side, watched the sun's rising and listened to the soft sounds my lord made as he slept.

A thing I have learned of him, my lord takes his pleasure most oft upon his awakening. Atimes, I would rouse to his lips upon the ridge of my ear and his hands upon me, calling softly to me. Others, he would stretch his limbs to find me waking and so draw me to him to gentle himself fully alert. And then there were the mornings when I awoke before my lord and held myself as if I slumbered still. For I knew, should I rise from the bed we shared, 'twas not likely I would feel his touch that day.

This day was such a one. I lay quiet and watched the dawn, listening to the chaffinch, blackbird, and dove greet the day as my lord's sleep grew restless. He stirred behind me and I could feel it. He moved and I heard the rustling of the linens, yet still I lay there, and waited, wondering.

'Twas when the dawn chorus quieted, my lord drew in a swift breath and sat upon the edge of the bed, rubbing at his face. He then rose and poured water to the bowl upon the tall chest, there to wash and dress for the day, and I had my answer.

I suppose I should not be ungrateful. I had taken him to task for his neglect and he had done as I requested, and, as a result, we achieved what we had set out to do. It seemed my lord saved his efforts for where they were most needed. And yet --

And yet.

I waited, lying silently upon our bed. Had I hope my quiet would fool my lord into thinking me asleep? I know not, but, in the end, it mattered little. For, whether he knew not I was wakeful or saw through my lie and yet allowed me my pretense, my lord prepared swiftly for the day and left the solar upon light feet.

Only then, when I heard my lord's voice in the hall below, did I rouse, turning to my back and taking in the expanse of empty bed beside me. The sheets were yet warm where he once lay and the pillow still held the form of his head where he had slept. But he was not there, for there was much to do. The Lord of the Dúnedain was to attend upon his people and he would not keep them waiting. Nor should I and so rose to start the day.

My lord has no standard, for no kingdom can the Dúnedain of the North claim, but his colors of dark blue and silver fly in streamers set upon poles skirting the tents and about the threshing floor. Come the setting of the sun, the cool night breeze shall rise and send them to flashing in the torchlight, but upon the morning, the sun shone bright upon their colors, adding their merriment to the bustling of our folk.

'Twas not our greatest yield this harvest, this is true, for the summer and fall wanted some for rain. But 'twould serve. None of the Angle need go hungry this winter and we may yet begin to build our reserves for times of greater want. This, in itself, would be sufficient blessing, but their lord, by setting his hand to labor with his folk, lingered in the Angle to share in their rest and celebration. And share he would, for the first time in more years than the Angle could recall, though they might search their memories mightily and ne'er leave off their gossip. It seemed my lord's folk were thus determined to make the most of their lord's time among them. And so seemed he.

When the sun rose to stain the sky in golds and pinks, I saw my lord transformed. There in the hall, with the mutual aid of his kin, layer upon layer they donned; padded tunics and coifs, hauberks, vambraces, and long vests of sober grey over all. Their helms and gauntlets they carried with them, for the day dawned fair and they would feel the morning against their cheeks. No design had they blazoned upon the dark cloth and their helms sported no plumes. Grim and fey seemed they when they mounted and road before our cart, though they made merry and sang the small bits of ribald songs they felt my company might allow. For my part, I found I shivered to look upon them.

My own preparations had taken the longer, though I should hope I did not look so stern. I chose one of my lord's lady mother's dresses with the widest skirts and forewent winding even the brightest of my scarves about my hair. Instead, I plaited just enough of the unruly locks about the crown of my head to keep them from my face and then fixed there ribbons so they trailed low upon my back. Ah, perhaps you may forgive me my vanity on such a day, for I greatly hoped to join the dancing that was sure to come in the evening. 'Twould be my one chance, I deem. A maid may join the circle upon the threshing floor, partnered or no, but once married only her husband can lead her hand there.

Our folk slowly gathered in the meadow. There the threshing floor had been swept clear, and about it great tents were being erected and tables and benches brought from our folk's halls. They have taken shifts at the Angle's ovens, tossing kindling into its belly throughout the night and pulling from it meat pies of many flavors, pastries of every kind, and round loaves of bread with the star of the Dúnedain cut upon their tops. Ale barrels lie stacked in a small hill and the last of our wine skins dangle from the boughs of a tent as if strange fruit growing to ripeness beneath its canopy. Butter and cheeses and herbs and roots and dishes of every make there were. Already Master Tanaes sets boar and venison to the spits where unlucky lads, for their punishment, shall spend the morning caring for their roasting. Soon the tables will groan with the feast, for all good things to eat shall be laid upon them.

Oh, much eating shall there be, my lord and I sitting upon a raised table in the company of his Rangers, and dining on the food he labored with his folk to provide. But there, too, shall be races in which the women carry their husbands upon their backs amidst a great uproar of laughter. Before the noon meal, we shall tramp upon the boundary and fathers shall take their sons beneath their shoulders and bump them against the markers of the Angle's village. A tree here, a boulder there, they must come to learn them, for they are the boundaries of their lives. And upon the middle of the day the men shall gather upon the field and play a game wherein there is much running and buffeting as they seek to bring down the one unfortunate man with a rag-stuffed ball of leather. Great oaths are sworn upon this game, and we stand on the sides and fan ourselves with our hats and drink our ale, hooting and calling out insults to the players. The women shall stand and gossip and their children run about our feet, making great mischief that no one checks, and our old men shall sit in the shade hunched over boards with wooden pieces or dice and steal each other's pennies.

But before all this, before the sun has climbed too high to make the padding and metal they wear unbearable and before his men have drunk too much ale to dull the sharp edge of their wits, my lord leads his men to the meadow. There, they sit upon their horses in opposing lines and the morning sun makes bright the glittering mail, helms, and banners. Their mounts dance upon the far edges of the meadow, as eager to begin, it seems, as the men who ride them. Once settled, my lord dons his helm and kicks his warhorse to the front of his line. There he awaits Halbarad to prepare the men across the field. Ah, but they look proud and tall.

And then Halbarad gives the signal and the hum of voices of the folk gathered there quiets so that the jangling of bit and snapping of cloth are the only sounds heard. A man raises his son to his shoulders where the boy stares at the spectacle, and it is not only the young that gaze upon it with widened eyes and solemn faces. I think my lord cunning in the display, for he achieves many aims with one act. His Rangers take a much needed practice, his people are entertained and heartened for the show of skill, and their men are made envious. He has not yet asked for the aid of his folk in defending their land, but I doubt not it soon to come.

And then my lord raises his sword and I hear his voice in a loud cry and, as if water swollen by the spring storms that pushes restlessly upon the prison of the dam, they spill over its rim and the horses' hooves sound as thunder rolling over the tops of the hills. With blunt poles and clubs the lines race at each other, shouting, and with the sound as of the rending of the very earth do they collide.

I will not turn away, but I find I cannot look upon them. For I see not the melee of men upon the field, nor hear their cries. I know naught of sunshine upon the grass, nor the crack of the banners in the wind of their passing. For filling my mind's eye is the sight of my lord's proud body in a dark and noisome place, broken by some fell beast, unmarked, unmourned, unburied. Ai! A bitter end it would be, should one day he fail of his return.

'Twas after, when they hauled friend and foe alike up from where they had fallen, my lord and his Rangers mingled among our folk. There my lord put his warhorse through his paces, taking one lad after another upon his saddle with him. He nudged the great box-headed beast into turning about and galloping across the field with naught but his knees so he might let loose from his bow a bolt into a great bag of straw hanging from the tree. Each lad returned safely, though a bit windblown and dazed with wonder. Once he was done, his Rangers followed him in the exercise, some with more success than others. Halbarad, I noted, watched them carefully, and I doubt not those who failed in their attempts would be set to much effort to correct their fault.

I saw little of Mistress Pelara, though oft I heard her voice. She scolded and urged, pled and browbeat whomever was within her reach, for once she discovered my lord would attend upon his folk, she refused me my role in seeing to the order of the feasting and took it for herself. Instead, I spent much of my time wandering now and again among our folk, eager to hear of how they fared. And when I tired and wished for quiet, I sought the spindle and wool I had hidden in the cart and kept gentle company with the old women who gossip and spin in the shade.

There my lord found me, bringing me Mistress Pelara's ale with such smug delight upon his face it seemed he thought it was he who had discovered its superior taste. With him too, he brought meat pies and pastries to share. There he rested before the evening's events, sitting in the grass and leaning his back against the tree, his long legs stretched out before him, silent beside me. Thus we lingered in the grass, listening to the voices of our folk and watching as they passed, speaking little until the night lit its first stars o'er the tops of the thatched roofs and breathed its cool airs upon us.

I watch my lord among his people. There he walks among them where they mingle, eating as they stand or telling great tales, smiling and at ease. Should he pause for a moment, a man of the Rangers may catch his ear with a tale that makes him laugh. Should his folk speak to him, gravely he inclines his head to catch their words. Should a lady blush when his gaze falls upon her, he inclines his head with grace. Should a man upend his cup, my lord takes up a pitcher from the nearest table, fills it for him, and then joins him in the drinking. At times, I hear his laughter, strong and low, and full of joy. It seems the love the Dúnedain bear for their lord is well returned.

In my last sight of him before I lose his trail, my lord scratches at his bearded cheek as he laughs and colors. I know not why, but it was upon somewhat Halbarad said. For his kin stands nearby and my lord next cuffs the man's back with his open hand before turning away and losing himself in the company.

And then I have put away my spinning, for the folk gather quickly about the threshing floor. We stand in the light of the torches, the sounds of the small insects of the fields thrumming behind us and the fire snapping in the light breeze. For they have struck up the drum and the mummers weave their steps among us. Their herald calls for his company to gather round.

"Room! Room!" he cries and the folk give way. "Gentles room! Give us room for rhymes! For upon this floor, we poor folk, shall show some of your past times!"

There in a circle about the threshing floor the torches burn bright and flicker in night's chill. Oh, but their mummery is clever and most wicked. For they have named it The Lord and His Maid and I see my lord and myself mocked in it.

The maid is the picture of modesty and the lord but cautiously courteous. Much beleaguered is he by the suits of Ranger fathers and their fair daughters. Ever does the crowd shout its warning and he, all unknowing, pulls his hand away at the last moment when it would be joined with another's behind his back. Ever the maid lingers at the fringes of the folk, her own father boisterous, telling his tales and giving the lord no heed. Each way he moves, the father covers his daughter with his shadow. And yet, the lord and the maid meet atimes, coming upon each other of a sudden and then falling still. He puzzles over her until he is again dragged away.

"Who is this maid, she who hides here?" bellows the herald as he turns about so his voice might be heard to even the back of our gathering. "Daughter is she of lord's Ranger, whose face he sees often there, but whose name is still all the stranger."

Ah, but then it becomes clear who this maid, for it is she that pursues him! Ever does she wait for just the moment at which she may catch her lord's eye and then slip away behind her father or the other daughters. Until, even when in deep discourse, maddened by the mystery he whirls about to catch a glimpse of her as she passes fleetingly by. Oh, but she teases and bedevils him, ever with downcast gaze and eyes that, when hidden, look at more than they should. It is not until the end when their hands are joined that the maid flings herself upon him and kisses the lord heartily.

Such is the tale they would tell of us. And my lord laughs for it.

"Do you enjoy their play-acting?" I hear at my ear and turn.

My lord has come to my side without my knowing it, so wrapped in the sound of drum and call of the herald am I. The smile he turns upon me is fond and warm, and in his hand he holds a cup of horn filled with a deep red wine. By the high color upon his cheeks I do not think it is his first.

"You have drunk too much of wine, my lord," say I and his smile deepens.

"Nay, lady." He pulls me to him so he might watch the mummers over my head. He then rests his chin upon me and lets loose a long breath. "I have had just enough."

So full of wine is he, he does not forebear from pressing my back against his breast and spreading his fingers full upon my belly. And so full of pride am I for this man, I cannot forebear from pressing his arm to me where he cradles my middle.

Deep his laughter shakes against me at the players' mockery. Most especially does the maid's scheming call forth his mirth. Ever and anon I clap my hands to my face, so shamed am I and he laughs all the harder for it.

When the mummers are done, their audience's laughter dies down and I would hide my eyes from our folk's knowing gaze. My lord laughs and teases me.

"Come, lady, 'twas all in fair jest. And I think they may have the truth of some of it. Well do I recall that kiss, do you not?"

"Well do I recall why it was I that gave it, too, my lord," I say and he quiets.

"Aye," he says softly, and then bends his lips to my ear. "Be easy, lady. Do not trouble yourself with things that are past."

Nay, my lord is in the right. I should not. But shall I, instead, trouble myself with things that may come? For as my lord's palm cradles the child yet to be, it came to me why my thoughts have been troubled on this day when I should be rejoicing.

Bereft of the man who made him when just a babe, was my lord, and knew his sire in name only, a man but a shadow and a haunted look in his mother's eye. I would have my child know the man, sit secure in the warmth of his regard, drop his eyes for shame at the chill of his anger, and dance about his feet at the prod of his eagerness. All these things I would have, and so rest all the more closely to my lord's breast and wonder if I ask too much.

"My lord?"

He gives answer with a soft rumble of sound, deep in his cup as he is.

"Should we announce the impending birth of your heir?"

His chuckle sounds low in his breast and he lowers the wine to swiftly look about him. For, while we linger, the folk mill about the threshing floor and the musicians set their stools just outside its wall.

"Do you not know, lady? We already have. Look you."

And he has the right of it, for only now at his prompting do I see the furtive glances and meaningful looks shared over cups and behind hands. Their eyes point at my belly where my lord runs a gentle thumb.

"Let them talk and have their joy of feeling clever," he says and drains the rest of his wine from his cup.

At this I must wonder at my lord's display of tenderness. Should I think him warm from the wine or truly fond? Or is it that he lays yet another carefully wrought stone to the walls of defense he would build around us?

"How long until you leave, my lord?"

"Let us not speak of that just yet," he says and moves away, releasing me.

The night is chill against my back where once he stood. I think, when he lays his cup upon the short wall about the floor, he will then take to mingling among his folk again. But he turns to me and speaks, lifting his hand for mine.

"Come, lady!"

He takes my fingers in his sure grip, and I follow. He makes his way swiftly through the crowd, pulling me after him, for the dancers call for a final couple to make the count complete.

"I must beg you forgive me," says he before we begin.

His hands are caught up in the men's next to him and so he leans low to whisper in my ear where he stands before me. For the viol struck up the first few notes of the round, and by this we knew the dance. The men moved to stand shoulder to shoulder in a circle, facing in to the woman of their choice.

"Surely there is naught you could do should need my pardon, my lord," I whisper back at him, mindful of the ears of the woman whose hand holds mine. She turns her gaze elsewhere with just a shade too much deliberation.

"I can only pray you recall it when I stomp upon your feet, lady," he says.

At this, I laugh and my lord smiles to see my mirth, but then he is gone, for the drum rolls and the pipe and viol sing. Our feet are set to motion, the women moving lightly in one direction and the men striding swiftly in the other.

So my lord partnered me upon the threshing floor, light of foot though not always familiar with the steps. But, being of a quick and eager mind and schooled to setting his body where he would wish it, he learned swiftly and I had all the dancing I might wish. He took great delight in it and my heart made free to be merry. And when he released me, when he watched the folk trailing sleepily from the threshing floor and field to their beds, I saw the somber look in his eye. I knew then he soon would go, and the days of late summer, golden in their sunlit days and warm in their moonlit nights, were to be at an end.

True it was, for upon a dawn not long from then, I stood at the stoop before the great door and waited to give my lord his farewell. I hear his feet within, striding swiftly from table to chest and back again. I do not wish to watch him as he prepares to leave, and so preceded him out the great door. There I need not hold my face in pleasing form, but may allow my thoughts to show where he will not see. For I have much to think upon.

Aye, I do not worry for myself. Indeed, I find a craving twitches in my belly and I am eager to begin. For my place now is much changed. I have caught them looking, the folk of the Angle, with eyes that hold much of hope. Their greetings are warmer and their touch lingers. I have done the work of digging the foundation, and the folk now appear willing lay the stones. My lord shall have his fortress. Let that be one less burden upon him!

"Lady! Where have you put my bedroll?" My lord's voice comes before him and he strides quickly through the door with his pack in his fist. "I have looked all places I can think and still not found it."

There he halts, frowning upon me, and then lets loose a sudden sound of mirth. For I stand waiting for him with folds of a sturdy wool cradled in my arms.

"Ah, lady, ever you anticipate me," he says, dropping his pack and taking the cloth from me.

He handles it, I think, with a new appreciation, squeezing its fibers to test its depth and warmth. He shakes out its length to fold it anew and roll it tight when he scowls at the weave, examining it closely.

"Is this what I think?" he demands, his eyes sudden and bright upon me.

"Aye, my lord, 'twas made by your own hand."

My fingers come of themselves to smooth the deep nap, teased as it was from the wool after it's fulling. For I took it off the loom and bound it about the edges to make of it a study cover. It shall keep my lord warm and, I hope, lift his heart with memory.

"And this was to be my gift in farewell from the moment you hung your warp?"

"Even before, my lord."

He shakes his head and folds the blanket on itself, rolling it tightly against his breast to make of it a small package.

"Ah! Do not think I shall put my trust in your words so lightly then, now I am forewarned," my lord says, the words rueful and fondly spoken. His glance comes upon me atimes while he rolls the cloth. "A faithless woman, you are, to deceive me so cruelly, and so coolly done, too. Where is your Great Hound? He should hear of this and put a closer watch upon you."

Ah, he does not fool me. I see that twinkle of light deep in his eyes.

"'Tis no fault of mine, my lord, if you misunderstood. I told you no lie."

"Nor the whole truth of it, it seems," he says from where he kneels to lash the blanket to his pack.

"What of the whole wish you to know, my lord? Wish you to hear of the hares burrowing beneath the garden fence and feasting on the yarrow, or of the ewe who follows Master Baran around bleating like a bell until he turns and scratches her upon her neck, or perhaps you would wish to know that your new warhorse, that dragon of a four-footed beast you call Roheryn, has taken to leaning against the stone fence of his pasture to test its strength until he finds a spot that crumbles, or that I think I shall leave be the snakes nesting beneath our house in hopes they shall catch that mouse I came upon in pantry this morning?"

At this, my lord makes a rude noise of amusement and rises. No doubt he recalls the sound of my shriek, for it had sounded loud enough he had run from his preparations in the hall, only to halt and laugh at me in the pantry.

"Forgive me, my lord, but 'tis you who are the heir of Westernesse and bear the blood that gives you clear sight," I go on. "As far as I could best tell you perceive all my thoughts down the minutest detail and knew these things already. But now I know more your mind, my lord, I shall make sure I keep you informed of all these things, daily, upon your wakening, over your meals, at your ale and before your pipe, and when you lay down your head, and all in as much detail as you would wish."

"Woman!" he cries and laughs for the vexation. "Enough of your prattle! May I pray for the days when you were silent!"

With that, he grasps the sides of my face in his hands and soundly presses his lips to mine, the kiss loud and swift.

"There!" he says, withdrawing his hands. I think him amused to find so much of her father in his wife, for he looks upon me fondly, though, it seems, with somewhat of impatience, too. "Now, give me my farewell and have done with it!"

But, though he command it and I do not laugh aloud, so drunk on mirth am I, I cannot draw near enough breath to speak.

Oh, aye, my heart aches in my breast and, should I think too closely on the days to come I might then wish to weep. But, oh, I would give my lord a hearty farewell such that he shall look back upon this day and smile, though all about him is dark and perilous.

He snorts and shakes his head. "The day wanes, lady."

"Aye, my lord," I say and step to him so I might clasp his head and there speak my words over its crown. I take a deep breath and begin, for I have prepared what I would say.

"Shall the sun warm thee when the days grow chill. Shall the land feed thee when thou art hungry. Shall the darkness of night be thy cover and give thee sweet rest. Shall the steps of thine Enemy be led astray and may the Valar watch over thee. And when thou art done, may the stars they light in the heaven lead thee safely home."

"My thanks to you," he says and, when I release him, I think he shall leave, but he stays near and his hand comes to rest lightly upon my belly.

There between us he whispers words I do not understand. In their soft sounds I hear the snap of the fire at the hearth, the brush of the breeze upon the tops of the trees, and waves breaking upon a shore I have not seen.

With the same hand he then swiftly cups my face, his thumb playing upon my cheek for but a brief caress and then it is gone.

"Be well."

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