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32

They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. Sheep were bleating in flocks. Green walls and white walls rose. There were fortresses on the heights. Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords. There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky.

FOTR: In the House of Tom Bombadil


~~~

"How many does that make, Master Herdir?" I follow my lord's reeve as we enter the pasture, and he drags the gate closed behind us.

"Well, my lady," the man says, dropping the rope about the head of the post and squinting up at the sun. His fingers move in a swift dance upon his leg as figures no doubt play out in his head.

"Ten with sign of droppings, one lost to mold for the damage to the roof in this last storm, and three with bad sign of the worm," says he and leans down to pick up the bucket of dye. I have prepared a weak mix of weld for him and the soft fur brush therein knocks against the wood as he walks.

Here we walk upon the field where my flock grazes upon the stubble after the last reaping of our harvest. The soil is uneven from the plowing and hillocks of rye and droppings confound my feet, and so I must gather up my skirts as I walk, carrying a heavy sack of oats as I am. At our voices the heads of the sheep rise and they look at us with bland eyes, much too used to our presence to make much note of it. But then I shake the bag and the sound sends slow thoughts whirling about in their heads. They chew ponderously for a little, but then start to mincing across the field toward us. At this we halt and wait for them.

"'Tis not too bad," say I and the man nods, standing beside me. The harvest was not our best, for the spring had been dry and the grain and beans slow to set down roots. But barring too much loss to the chances of the world, it shall be enough.

I shake the heavy bag and the grain within rattles, setting the sheep to bleating and hurrying across the field to us. A whether, bold in his excitement, stretches out his neck and nips at the corner of the cloth. He is joined by others, their warm bodies jostling close to one another and their ears turned upon me, baaing their impatience when I do not allow them their treat.

"Ah, now! Not yet, greedy one!" I say and hold the bag aloft.

I think we have caught the interest of even the stragglers and so we turn about and lead them from the pasture. Then the sheep fall silent, for they know what is to come, should they be patient and follow close.

"Aye, we will clear the ten granaries of rats and should suffer little for it, I think," says Master Herdir as we go. "The grain lost to the rot? Aye, well, that is gone, but we may yet save some of the last three from the infestation of worm."

"Best to check all the roofs, then, think you? 'Twas a strong wind that blew through in the last storm."

"Aye, my lady, we have more thatch drying in Master Baran's barn and I had planned to begin checking the granaries upon the morrow."

"Will you have enough?"

He shrugs and his hand comes to latch upon my elbow, for I have all but tripped over a stone hidden among a tangle of stubble and grass. We have left the pasture behind and lead the eager flock into a small paddock where we might have them in better reach.

"Should be, my lady, but there is always more where it came from," he goes on and releases me as if naught had passed.

"Let me know if you need aid gathering more, will you?"

"Aye, my lady."

"And for the beans and lentils, any change?"

"No, my lady, none. They are snug and well covered. I have accounted for them all just yestermorn, so they are all as they were when last we spoke."

"Good!" I smile upon the man where he stands at the paddock gate waiting for the last and eldest of the ewes to make her way inside.

My lord did indeed choose his reeve well. The man has an eye for detail and the pride he takes in his work sets him to hovering over the Angle's winter stores as a mother over her sniffling firstborn babe.

"Have you all the aid you need?"

"Aye, my lady, the men you last sent to me have proved reliable for the most part, though I first must set one to cleaning out the cesspits last week."

"I daresay you will get little trouble out of him after that."

Herdir grins back at me, a ewe bumping her nose behind the man's knee. Indeed, we do have treats for them today, and they know it. They gather around us, their noses raised and twitching. A full sixty head and more have we now crowded and locked in the paddock, descended from those my lord gifted me upon our marriage.

"All the wethers?" asks Herdir and he circles around the edge of the enclosure where he can leave me among the crowd of wooly backsides.

"Aye, Master Herdir," I say, fumbling with the neck of the sack. The sheep nudge at me and bleat and I must raise my voice over theirs to be heard.

With that, I draw out scoopfuls of grain to keep the sheep near and occupied and Herdir takes up the bucket of weld. There he slaps a thin golden color upon their rumps with the brush. They scramble away from him, but the temptation of the oats is too strong and the fence too near, and thus we keep them in reach. By the small clips in their ears I know the ewes that produced weak lambs or were prone to illness and I point them out for Herdir's brush. Three full-grown rams we shall leave to winter with the ewes, chosen for their heartiness, for as the flock increases I need must have breeding males to trade with other flocks for their services, but the rest are fated to supply our table this winter.

It comes upon the fall shearing, and we must cull those beasts that shall be slaughtered and their meat hung to smoke. We have not chaff or hay enough to feed all the good beasts of the Angle, and soon the grass upon the meadows will dry and they shall have naught to eat but what we provide. Come the morrow, Herdir will return with his men and they shall begin the shearing. I shall join them, pulling tags and bits of rye and weeds from the fleece before I roll them in a coarse cloth. The day after, they shall come again, but for the slaughter. And though I know the pinch of hunger in the depth of winter and am full aware we hold to our beasts' hearts lightly for it, I shall send my son away. One day he will know enough of blood and death, but it need not be so soon.

~oOo~

When the sheep had been marked and I returned to the hall, I found it empty. I was none too surprised, for Elesinda had walked to the market and I did not expect her return too swiftly. 'Twas the girl's only outing. Though I might be accustomed to silence and days filled with quiet work, she was not, coming as she does from a large family who fill their hall with their speech and laughter. Should she wish to linger in the square to visit with her friends and flirt with the young men, I would not begrudge her the time.

The day had dawned bright and clear, the mist of the night before burning swiftly away at the sun's touch. My son woke before his sires and, wriggling out from beneath his covers in the trundle bed, climbed over the edge of his parents' mattress. 'Twas the sharpness of his knee upon my belly that brought a sudden wakefulness upon me, and there he was, clambering over me to lay himself upon my breast.

He had been slow to wean, my son. I think even now, though he had at last given it up, he longed for the comfort of the beating of my heart beneath his ear and my fingers in his curls. For every morn he seeks me out so he might take to his waking at his leisure. This dawn was like all others. There he lay heavy upon me, sucking lazily upon his fingers and staring at his father as the man slept. I dared not move for wondering what my son would do upon finding his father there. So, instead, I let him puzzle it out for himself and ran a soothing hand upon his back.

My lord lurched in his sleep and, drawing a swift breath, stretched his arms above his head and fell still again.

"Atto?" I heard in my son's small voice and the boy reached damp fingers for his father.

My lord's eyes flew open, scowling at first, but his face soon broke into a soft welcoming smile. He caught the hand in his and leaned to press a kiss upon it. "Bid you good morrow, onya."

To my surprise and my lord's delight, my son slid off my breast so he might climb onto his father. There he rested his head upon my lord's shoulder and tucked his back against him.

"Did you sleep well?" My lord wrapped an arm about his son to draw him close.

My son nodded to his father's question, but, I thought, would be slow to answer with words until he was fully awake.

"That is good, for you and I have much to do today." My lord smiled down at the small face tilted up of a sudden to him. "Aye, is not today the day of the market? Would you wish to go with me there?"

The child sat up, drawing away from his father's embrace, his eyes bright and his face alert.

"Can I have apple pasties?" he asked.

"If you wish."

"And can we see Lothel? Her will want some, too."

"Aye, and should you like to walk there or shall we ride Roheryn?"

My son's eyes grow wide, and it is all I can do to keep from laughing aloud and destroying all hopes my lord has at treating the child with his current solemnity.

"Can I ride Ro'ryn?" he asks, his voice soft, so heavy is the wonder on him.

"If you so wish it."

My son's face shown with joy but then, swiftly, he bit at his lip, seemingly doubtful when his glance found me. I knew his thoughts, for ever Halbarad and I bid him to take care and the horse is tall of shoulder and sharp of hoof. The child has no thought of fear for himself but is well acquainted with the scolding he might get should he throw away all caution.

"Aye, it is as your father says," I said. "But first you must dress and wash for the day, and break your fast."

With no further ado, my son scrambled over my legs, down onto the trundle bed and thence to the floor, pulling off his shirt as he went. There the shirt fell to the floor unheeded and he padded about the solar.

"You will ride with me, at'inya?" he called back to the bed and now I allowed myself to laugh, though silently, for mirth has set my lord to grinning.

Ah, the child will keep my lord much occupied today.

"Mamil!" he cried. "I cannot get my soap!"

The poor thing was straining upon his toes attempting to reach the top of the chest where the pitcher and bowl lay.

"I come, onya."

And so I did, followed soon after by my lord. When I came upon him, so delightful was the sight of my son eager to begin his day I could not forbear from wrapping my arms about the warm skin of his middle and pressing kisses and silly words into his neck. Oh, but he squealed with laughter and bounced upon his legs, pushing my face away. But he could not be deterred from his purpose for long, for just as soon as his laughter faded he reached again for the soap and begged for my help.

'Twas not long after they were both washed of their sleep, hair combed, and, to my son's dismay at the bitter taste, teeth well rubbed. There my lord stood for inspection, mimicking his son as, with a pass of the comb and tug upon the hem of his tunic, the child had passed and now thumped his feet upon the stairs leading to the hall. Oh, but how fine my lord looked, with the grey of his eyes sparkling and his dark hair arrayed about his shoulders upon the green leather.

"Shall I bring shame upon you by my appearance?" he asked and smiled at my sour look. "I would not have the Angle's sharp tongue's wagging against you."

"As it please you, my lord," said I, for I had no thought to set myself high in his folk's esteem as a purpose in sending him and his son forth and it pricked me he should think it.

My words and downcast eyes earned me the flash of a sharp look, for my lord is not one to miss the subtlety of a contrary intent hidden in soft words.

And now I can only wish I had not sent him off with such shrewishness.

Half a dozen times have I started to the door, determined I shall call upon the youth in Ranger's clothes who paces about the grounds to go search my husband and son out and bring them home. For Elesinda and I prepared the midday meal only to eat it by ourselves. The day stretches behind me and there is no word of them. Surely the market comes to its close and they find little to amuse themselves there.

Schooling myself to patience, I lean to my books, for I have yet to record what I learned from Master Herdir of our winter stores. The evening meal simmers upon the hearth. That is done. There was little to prepare, for we shall eat tonight much of what we did not finish earlier in the day. I have set Elesinda to gathering the last of the seeds in the gardens of the well-garth. There she shakes dry and blown heads of flowers over her apron and pours them into small bags of a fine cloth, each tagged with the names of the plants upon strips of parchment. I much prefer to keep my ledgers at the end of the day, when the setting of the sun forces me indoors, and I can think of the many other tasks I would wish to complete. But all take me from my lord's house and I cannot bear to think I would miss them should my lord and son return.

Ah, well. Sure it is my lord shall wish for his accounting of the doings of the Angle when he returns, and I should be prepared. Not only shall he wish to hear of the harvest, for he set the men to digging great earthen-works and building upon them a palisade of timber. My lord ordered its building upon the birth of his son. I wondered then, and still do, if he had thought the child a sign of what was to come. There we, the women and children of the Angle, may flee with what animals we may herd through its great barred gate. 'Tis no great and lasting tower we build, but should we have warning perhaps we shall last a little longer against the onslaught of the Shadow. We come near to the completion of its outer parts, and I know he would wish to hear of its progress in full.

The youth's greeting just beyond the door stiffens my spine and I stare at the door. Ai! I would not have my lord think I did not trust his care of our son, but they are overlong away. Should I rise and set aside my work? Or is it better to appear as if I had no thought as to the lateness of the hour? Ah! It matters little. I have yet to dissemble well beneath my lord's keen gaze and perhaps now is not the time to attempt it.

But when the door opens, it is a woman's light voice I hear.

"Greetings to the House," she calls as she bustles in, for it is Mistress Pelara who visits.

It is all I can do to hide my disappointment. She deserves it not, but still she must see it, for as she strides to the table where I rise her gaze takes in the empty hall.

"Are they not yet returned, my lady?"

"No, it seems not."

She clucks her tongue lightly. "And no wonder it is your face looks as cheerful as that of a wet cat." She settles herself on the bench across from where I sit and she smiles at my wry face. "I saw them in the market before midday and they took Lothel with them, but she was home for the noon meal."

"Now, now," she goes on, and by this I know my dismay must show plain upon my face. "To what harm could they come, my lady? Give them until the evening meal and their bellies will lead them home."

At this, I return her smile. Indeed, my thoughts are full of foolishness. My lord is here upon the Angle, not ranging with his son upon the Wild. If he has kept himself from harm for these many years when treading upon unknown places, how much better is he when upon familiar soil?

"There now," she says. "That is better. And what have you here, my lady?" She nods to my ledgers.

I turn them about the better for her to see. Her face sharpens as she reads.

"Not so ill as you thought?" ask I and her eyes swiftly find mine.

"No, but it seems you and I have more figures to go over."

"Aye." And I marvel at why this, of all events of the day, makes me sigh. Rifling through the pages, I find my lists of the harvest; lentils, beans, pease, rye, oats and wheat. "How many?"

"Three families, and all young. Few of our elders make it so far anymore, my lady."

"Aye."

And I say no more, for I am busy with thoughts of bushels, eight of grain for each and another eight of beans and lentils and that shall provide for the year. Have we enough? Praise be to the Valar, the flow of our wanderers has slowed some. They come now from further upon the Wild. Hardy folk they are, to live upon our old borders, and desperate must they be to travel so far.

"'Twould be good if our lord would hear their tales," says the mistress. She looks upon me with certainty I have my lord's ear, but I see fear there, too, and wonder what she knows of our folks' journeys.

"I shall ask."

But it is the same as saying he shall come, for I have no doubt my lord will wish to know what they have to tell. 'Tis not only his hands he offers as healing to his people, though it shall keep him at his maps and weigh heavily upon his sleep.

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