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35

Legolas stood before the gate and turned his bright eyes away north and east, and his fair face was troubled. ‘I do not think that any would come,’ he answered. ‘They have no need to ride to war; war already marches on their own lands.’

ROTK: The Passing of the Grey Company


~~~

"Have you naught you would say, Master Bachor?"

The man sighs, running a hand through his dark hair.

"I am unsure whether any word of mine shall have a bearing on this matter, my lady," he says.

Halbarad, his face carefully blank of his thoughts, rolls my lord's maps upon themselves. Done with his history of the work of the night before, he has called upon us to follow my lord's command and make ready the Angle for what may be our final defense.

Once, before his son's birth, my lord called upon the men of the Angle and they answered. Since then, upon their days of rest, Halbarad calls them to the fallow fields and puts them through the acts of war. He himself has oft taken to wearing his great hauberk and now moves as easily beneath its weight as if he wore naught but a simple shirt and vest. And as does the Angle prepare, so do our lord's men. When they make their way from mountain range to range, and Lake to Gulf, they return atimes and Halbarad sets them to galloping in great lines so that the earth thunders beneath their horses' hooves. They prepare for open war as had not had the need before. And Halbarad is poorly satisfied, for they are fewer in number than he would wish and return to the Angle but seldom.

Aye, the Angle knows well its fate. Bleak are the looks that were turned to Halbarad as he spoke, all but one, and that one, for all its display of careful temper, was greatly wroth.

"Oh, you have somewhat to say, Bachor. Out with it! Though only a fool would not see 'tis needed, what our lord asks."

It is Master Tanaes, grown inpatient with his silence. The butcher's face colors brightly and he glares across the table at the man. I think they shall fall to quarreling, but then Master Bachor swiftly concedes the point.

"Oh, aye, I see the necessity," says he, raising a hand to ward away Master Tanaes' ire. "It is the risks we take for which I have no great love. Our folk are now scarce upon the Wild, are they not? There are none to the West, and yet there our Rangers are in more numbers than elsewhere upon our lands of old."

Halbarad falls to stillness where he stands behind me and I wonder if he waits for me to speak, but I let Master Bachor go on. For I would hear his mind fully spoken, as well. Let him lay out his thoughts where all might hear them.

"Why have they not been put to the task of defending our own folk? Here, where they are needed! Perhaps I fail in understanding, but --"

"Well, if you have naught to say that bears directly upon the matter, then I have somewhat to say!"

'Tis Elder Maurus, his voice the harsh sound of the deaf. He rocks in his place on the bench as if he gathers the momentum to launch himself into speech. For courtesy Master Bachor fell silent.

"A poor defense we have, whither so ever the Rangers are, the Enemy has grown so strong. What use is this flimsy fortress of timber and earth against His might, eh? Have I not said it afore? Naught good will come of it!" He pins us with his watery gaze.

The men seated upon the table before me stir restively, but neither do I put a halt to Master Maurus' speech. I have learned to wait, to let the Elder's quavering voice spin worries into a nest of bewildering paths of possibilities, all of which end in darkness, damned no matter what we do. My lord once instructed me to listen with my heart before I attend to my head, and so I let Master Maurus wind to his close, for then, or even perhaps before, the rest of the council shall grow weary of it.

Soon, they shall shift in their seats, staring steadfastly at the floor, their faces as sour as curdled milk. Soon, one or another shall interrupt and Master Maurus will grumble to a close, leaving his audience with words of censure for youth and its foolhardiness. Yet, ever the effect is the same, fear is relegated to timorous old men, and thus risk and gain may be weighed by calmer hearts.

"I, for one," the Elder insists, pounding upon my lord's table with his thick finger, "would rather die at my own table than caged in that place. Cooped up and waiting for the ax to fall like one of my own chickens. Bah! 'Tis but half done, the works are, as it is! We will be driven out first by thirst or hunger, if not by fire. Mark my words!"

"Aye, aye, Maurus," says Master Tanril, holding up his hand to catch the Elder's eye, for surely he despairs of capturing the man's ear. "Aye, well, you can sit at your table if you like. But I will not ask it of my Dehlia, nor my girls, neither."

The Elder worries at the head of his cane and turns to sourly examining the steam rising from his bowl of tea.

"And should my sire give me as much trouble as you seem to wish upon your daughter," the tanner goes on, "I will send him to you and both of you can wait for the enemy together!"

At this, smiles appear about the table, where before all was tense silence.

"Bah! Do what you will. It will all come to naught." Master Maurus grunts and flaps his hand irritably in the tanner's direction.

"Aye, so it may be in the end," Master Tanril says. "But I will not give up without a fight. I am no swordsman, but I can wield a knife as well as any man. If I die, it is upon our own fields outside those timber walls. Though true it is she may follow soon after, it will be knowing I have done all I could for her. And I'll leave the rest up to our lord to do as he sees fit."

The look he turns to Master Bachor's frown is a pointed one, and the man at the end of his gaze settles more deeply upon his seat. For it would seem unfit, I deem, after such a declaration for any man of the Council to question our lord's plans or their role in it. This I will grant Master Bachor, he knows when the battle turns against him and when to yield ground. And he does it gracefully, for he then turns to me, his features resigned and grim.

"What would you have of us in this matter, my lady?"

By just the faintest brush of cloth against the back of the chair I know Halbarad shifts his feet to an easier stance. I had thought, perhaps, he would speak, but he seems content to wait upon my desires in the management of the Council. Though I would wish him elsewhere, where he might be my lord's shield and right arm, in my heart I am glad he stands where he does. For with his broad shoulders, great height and somber mien, surely he makes an imposing shadow behind me.

All through the hours of my vigil have I thought upon it, and now the Council seems ready to hear them, I find the words come swiftly to me. We have not put our defenses to the test, nor decided how best to go about keeping the folk fed and warm, as well as safe. No one man may know all needs or see to all ends, but, surely, should we ask them, we may find that all of our thoughts when taken together may see clearly enough.

"Call the pledge-holders," say I, "and have them meet us here."

Elder Maurus squints and frowns at me, but I do not raise my voice nor repeat myself. Should he wish to know what I said, he can either ask it of his benchmate or suffer his ignorance in silence.

"We have much to decide, and quickly, too."

~oOo~

Long before the Council was roused from their beds and called to his table, long before e'en the sun had thought to rise above the mountains, I found my lord lying upon his bed in the solar. His winter cloak drawn about him and his boots at its foot, he lay atop the blankets, looking as if he had lain himself down in the field so he would be ready to rise at a simple word, all but for one thing. In the crook of his arm was curled his son. The fine dark hair drifted across my lord's shoulder where he had pulled the small boy into his side and wrapped his cloak about him. I knew not which took more comfort in the other as they slept and was loathe to wake either.

But, wake my lord I must, for Halbarad had returned and his men awaited him in the hall. His eyes flew open at my touch and needed no time to know what I intended. There, in the candlelight, he gentled his arm from beneath his murmuring son and drew a fur over the boy, sifting through the dark curls with his fingers before leaving him there.

The water was quite chill where I poured it to the bowl atop the tall chest and a blessing to my weary eyes when I pressed the cloth to them. My son was curled deeply in the covers with naught but his hair and brow showing as he were some small creatures burrowed there. The sight made me wish for my bed, but if my lord would not spare himself, then neither should I.

A weary sigh escaped from him as he lifted the lid to the chest at the foot of the bed. I halted, the cloth pressed to my face and the water falling in slow drops to the basin below, for I wondered what my lord would make of what he found there. By his silence, I knew he stared into the depths of the chest, his brow furrowed. I knew, too, what waited for him, folded carefully atop his things.

There it was, a wool tunic overdyed in the dark blue of the woad I brewed when first I learned of my lord's need for a wife and heir. In his absence, I labored to lay in the stars of the Dúnedain in thread about the sleeves, upon the hem, and all about the collar and breast. Perhaps my lord then laughed silently at his wife's designs upon his house, for he paused for a moment. This, for the rustling of soft cloth, he then set aside, but still I waited, for I knew the fine cloth was unfit for the work at hand but there was yet more for my lord to discover.

Next he would find a pile of wool no less thick and sturdy than the formal tunic, but more plain of color and devoid of all but the simplest of trimming of matching leather and line of crosswork in a black thread. But when his fingers brushed upon the fur that lined the inside, surely then my lord's eyes lit with pleasure. Shaking out its folds, he made short work of pulling on the long, sleeveless garment, tying it closed and pulling on the laces to fit it close about his waist. He then stretched his arms to check the fit, settling it upon his shoulders, before wrapping his belt about him. The wool was a dark rust and the fur inside a patchwork of the tans and greys of the hares that have fed his household over the past years. A simple enough garment, less fine than aught else I had made him, but more warm.

Only then did it come to me that I had made precious little progress in my morning toilet and so swiftly rinsed out the rag and blotted at my face with the linen. I suppose I should have given up all but the barest pretense, for my lord's hands found my waist, putting it all to a halt. He pressed what would have been a kiss onto my cheek were he not smiling so broadly.

"Should I take it as my gift in farewell, lady?"

I turned to find his eyes bright upon me. I think my lord has grown accustomed to his comforts and now took easy delight in them. Many weeks of work went into the making of the vest he wears. Many nights I sat in the solar and squinted by the light of a single candle to lay in the leather trim, but, in sooth, I would have worn red grooves upon all my fingertips to force the needle through hide and wool if only to have my lord smile upon me as he did.

"If you so choose, my lord."

He released me to draw on his long-coat and pick up his winter cloak where I had laid them upon the bed. I thought, then, he would stride from the solar, taking his leave. But, instead, he stood for a long moment, marveling over the sight that was his son sleeping peacefully, without worry or care, so deeply did the child slumber and such comfort did he make of the pillow and covers my lord left behind. Then he did leave, but not before brushing his fingers through those dark curls one last time and pressing his lips to that soft brow.

In the hall, we found his men. When they heard his feet upon the stairs, they leaned to packs upon the floor and were rising to their feet, slinging their burdens to their back and placing a reassuring hand upon their weapons when we entered. My lord took them in in a swift glance and nodded to Halbarad, who stood with their captains about him at my lord's table. All was ready. My lord halted and, turning about, it seemed he was somewhat surprised to find me still behind him.

"Ah, lady, perhaps we shall say our farewells, then."

The hall was quiet, well schooled as his men are in a grim obedience to their lord's will. But they watched, I doubted it not. I bowed my head to acknowledge his command, but did not yet speak my blessing. Instead, I raised my hand for his.

"I have little to give you that would serve you well in your task ahead, my lord, but this I have."

His frown was mild and his gaze searching, but I minded not.

"Come, my lord."

Though his men awaited him, standing as a thicket of strong trunks of oak, my lord granted me his hand and I led him through their ranks to the parlor. There, we slipped through the door and watched Gelir as he slept. I had left him, Mistress Pelara's son, but a few moments before and knew it was a gentle slumber that closed the young man's eyes. My lord pulled from my hand and knelt at his man's side, brushing fingers upon the Ranger's brow. Though his skin was pale, he was warm and dry to the touch and the grim lines of my lord's face eased at the sight.

With a sigh, my lord rose from the floor. The look he turned upon me was fond, and, at the foot of the pallet, he lifted my hand to his lips.

"Thank you, lady, I can think of no gift I would rather have in farewell," he said softly before pressing his lips to my fingers.

"Go with the grace of the Valar, my lord," I said. "May they watch over thee and thy men. May they lend their strength to thy arm and their wisdom to thy sight. May thee and thy men return safely to us."

To seal my blessing, I pressed my lips to his cheek, and he leaned into the kiss, clasping my fingers tightly to his breast.

~oOo~

And so Ranger Gelir slept through fever, pain, my lord's farewell, and even the Council after. 'Twas not until Mistress Nesta's voice rang in that small space that he awoke.

It was the day of rest and, as I waited for the Council to assemble, I had none to send for the healer but Master Baran. I found naught but wet and ill-tempered hens in their bit of the yard and Halbarad's horse with his nose deep in a rick in the stable. The beast turned his head at my entrance, but deemed me of less importance than his meal of oat hay. And still I searched, all the while anxious for my patient and my son who took his midday rest in the solar. It seemed the man was as wild as a hare and nigh as difficult to find. But find him I did, returning from the pasture where he had released the sheep. He had let them shelter themselves in the barnyard and shed o'er the wet night and now set them to their feed. There he tramped upon the wet grasses toward me, looking as eager as if he were a small child about to be called to task.

"Master Baran!" I called, hoping my voice held enough of welcome he might find some relief from his worries.

He bobbed his head, touching his fingers upon his brow and came to a halt, his hands clasped before him and his eyes steadfast upon the ground.

"Master Baran might I ask you to find Mistress Pelara and then go, too, for the healer and Mistress Elesinda?"

He considered the matter gravely. "She it is with the chickens she keeps locked up in the sun?"

Chickens in the sun? My mind whirled at the thought. Oh! Ai! And it seemed, for the offense visited upon Elder Maurus' hapless fowl, he might just refuse.

"Aye, I would not disturb you, Master Baran, but 'tis her son who is injured and lies up at the house."

He answered with a grunt. I knew not whether to take that as his word, but he gave me no other sign and I had little choice but to rely upon his past loyalty as sign of his willingness. But, then, I might not have put myself to all the bother, for when I returned to the house, it is to the sounds of the pouring of water and the clank of metal, muffled though they are by the buttery wall. It is in the hall I find Mistress Nesta dipping water from the barrel into a small pot.

"Ah, there you are, my lady," she calls when I close the buttery door behind me and pull at the wrap that lies atop my cloak. "I hope you are not ill-pleased with me for making so free. Your lord sent word and I have checked on the lad. He sleeps soundly, though that binding could use a change and he a good washing."

She heaves herself and the pot over to the hearth where she sets the water upon the grate and rakes coals beneath it. "Not that our lord cannot set a good hot knife to the wound and seal it well, and lay a good dressing upon it all, but it needs refreshing." She wipes her hands at her apron and goes to where she has set her basket upon a bench. "Ah, there now," she groans and eases herself down. "Indeed, the boy does well, my lady."

I have done with setting aside my cloak and wrap and join her upon the bench. From the basket she lifts her strips of linen, soap, and a bag that rustles softly.

"But the slightest hint of fever to him," says she, handing them to me, "and that good for the body. And I told his mother he would be so, though she might wring at her hands and rail at him for his fate." "Now, my lady," she says and waves me toward the hearth. "If you would be so good as to make a tea of what you have there in that bag, we will see to the boy."

"Where is she, then?" I rise and make my way to the chest upon the wall, nestled close to the settle on which Halbarad sleeps. From it I draw a bowl for the tea. Later I shall find linens for washing. The soap smells of some astringent herb I do not know and I lift it to my nose, puzzling over it.

"Eh? Oh, Pelara?" Mistress Nesta looks up from where she fans herself with the edge of her apron, her face grown pink with her exertions. "Aye, well, you may wonder," she says. "She has the whole house up and searching the croft and nearby wood for what may yet linger of wild garlic upon, the boy loves it so. She is bent on making him his mother's broth and swears he'll not eat aught else."

This makes me smile, for I can well believe it.

"Oh, aye!" says the healer and I think she has caught sight of my wry face. "He will get an earful when she is done."

And so it seemed. For Gelir, upon the news that his mother was soon to arrive, fell into an uncommon silence. There in the parlor Mistress Nesta and I took to making him comfortable. It was difficult to consider him cowed by aught, but perhaps the poor man had met his match in the woman who had given him birth. Mistress Nesta has peeled away the linens from the night before and, laying a compress upon the wound, seeks to bind it in place with strips cloth.

"We thought you may wish to be presentable for the occasion," I say and the young man's face twists in a wry grimace.

He lies with his shoulders upon a bolster so that I might wash his hair over a bowl and Nesta might reach beneath him. The poor lad strains to lighten the load I hold, for I can see the cords of his neck standing rigid beneath the skin. A shame it is. This was my father's favorite part of the whole ritual should he come home injured. He would lay his head in my hands and let his thoughts float far away upon the current of his drowse. I confess I would soap his hair far more than need required, just for the giving of the comfort.

"Aye," he says, "and do not think I am not glad for it, my lady. Perhaps it shall spare my mother some effort when it comes time for my burial."

"Ah! Do not speak so!" scolds Mistress Nesta, tugging on the cloth as she winds it about his breast. "Young and healthy as you are, you will have naught from this but a scar about which to tell boastful tales when you are an old man."

But I smile. "Aye, Mistress," I say. "I think the terrors of our enemy hold naught to his fear of his mother should he raise her temper."

She grunts knowingly in response.

"Aye, my lady," Gelir says, his eyes grown playfully wide. "You have not seen what she can do should she lay hands upon her broom."

"And I am sure you well know it," I say, laughing. "Never fear, I shall banish all such objects from the parlor should you wish."

The lad's eyes alight swiftly upon me. Seeing my smile, the ready mirth softens his face a little and his head rests the more heavily in my hands. At his ease, now his gaze ever drifts to the parlor door as I work the soap into his hair, but I do not think it is his mother's step he hopes to hear. Soon, the binding is done and he lies clean and warmed beneath the blankets. We are quiet, here, and the water runs and splashes loudly. When the great door to the hall clanks closed, Gelir falls into a stillness so deep at first I thought I had caused him pain. But it is not so, for his eyes are fixed upon the door to the parlor and together we listen for light steps coming across the hall.

She flies in in a rush, halting of a sudden at the door, her face tight with fear and her eyes examining him minutely for sign of harm. It is Elesinda, and I wonder at what had taken so long for my message to reach her. Mistress Nesta gathers up the soiled linens and clothes, kneeling beside him, but they give us little heed. Gelir scowls and his gaze seems to pull Elesinda in. The clasping of their hands must be a painful thing, for I see their fingers marked in white and red of a tight grip.

She gives a small laugh at his concern for her wild appearance, relief plainly writ across her face.

"Elesinda, do you wish to finish this?" I ask, nodding at the pitcher, for my hands are full of soap and the weight of the man's head.

"Aye, my lady," she says and pulls her fingers from his.

And so we leave them, Mistress Nesta and I. She shakes her head and tosses his clothes to the bench in the hall where she shall leave them for another's care. Whether it shall be his mother or the young lass, we have yet to discover. I let the healer go ahead of me, for when the parlor door closes I find I must draw in a long breath to steady the beating of my heart. Ah, but the longing that shown in their eyes!

No! Do not dwell on it! It does no good.

"He will take the moving, my lady," Mistress Nesta says and I push myself away from where I rest against the door, thankful the woman has her back turned to me. "He is young and shall endure it well, should we be gentle in it."

She sighs and, taking up a corner of her apron, moves the pot of strange tea over the coals, there to simmer. I intend to answer, but a loud knocking at the great door puts my thoughts to a halt. Scarce has the sound faded when the door bursts opens.

"Where is he?"

I would laugh if her face were not so fierce.

"Ah, now, Pelara," calls Mistress Nesta. "I told you he would fare well, being under our lord's care and all, and so he has."

"Oh, aye, I doubt it not! The fool at least chooses his companions well."

"Come, Pelara," say I, meeting the woman at the door and taking the basket from her so she may divest herself of cloak and hood. I bear her burden to the hearth, for I can smell the broth even though the pot be lidded and tightly bound in a cloth. It seems the lad's sisters were successful in finding the wild garlic.

"I take it he is in your parlor, my lady," she says when ready, and, fixing a grim look upon the door, heads for the room.

"Now leave him be!" Nesta wags a finger at the woman, but it does little to stay her temper.

"He may be your patient, Nesta, but he is my son!"

"I care not, you are likely to do either him or yourself an injury should you go at him like that! And if not, I will still not have you bothering him with your yammering."

"He could use a good bothering, the boy!" she mutters and pays no mind to Nesta's glowering nor the bulk of her body making its way to her.

"Pelara," I say as I pull the pot from the basket and unwind the cloth. Perhaps it is the sound of the softness of my voice that captures her attention, for she halts in her determined stride toward the parlor and turns her scowl to me. "Elesinda is in with him now."

"She is?"

"Aye," I say. The metal pot is heavy. How much broth did she think he would need? "Will you help me?"

This puts her feet in motion, for she comes to the hearth and takes the pot from my hands.

"Ah, why did you not say so at once?" she asks. She shrugs and holds the pot close as if she might warm herself upon it. Its heat still lingers upon my hands and I marvel at how quickly she made the journey from her door to mine. "Aye, well," she goes on, mumbling, "it will all be to the good."

"Come, Mistress Pelara, if you are willing, give them a moment," I say. "I have great need of your counsel."

She sighs wearily, shaking her head. "Ah, my lady, atimes I despair of him." She sets the crock down in the ashes, there to keep warm and follows me to where I go to my lord's table. "The boy has not even the poor sense the One gifted upon geese! He knows not what to do when either orc or good, steadfast lass set their sights upon him. For he stands and awaits the barb when he should go to earth and does the opposite when he should not. Perhaps this will teach him the lesson of it."

She seats herself and watches while I open my lord's tall chest and from there withdraw my journals.

"They are a bit young for it, are they not?" calls Mistress Nesta from her bench by the fire.

"Aye, that they are," she says, turning briefly to the healer. "But, the times being so uncertain, I should argue for it all the sooner. I would be happy enough with the girl while he is gone. He will not see it that way. Poor lad, and I cannot put the blame to him. He knew not his father, but knew too well himself orphaned. It seems he would not put the chance to another to live as his mother did."

"Well, my lady, what have you here?" she asks. "I take it we are to remove our folk behind that wall our lord had us build, eh?"

"Aye, and the Council and pledgeholders shall meet upon the end of the noon meal." I frown at the pages before me. I cannot find the ones I need, the lists of family by pledge as it is held by the men of the Angle.

"Well, that is within the hour. I would counsel you to take a bit to eat, then."

I smile, for it is as practical a piece of advice as I should hope to receive. "Aye, well, I am sure I shall find somewhat to eat," I say. "But what am I to tell the men when they arrive?"

"Oh, that is easy enough."

"How so?" I stop in my search. Surely I stare at the woman.

"You are the Lady of the Dúnedain, are you not?"

"Aye."

She shrugs. "Tell them to figure it out."

I laugh but Mistress Nesta snorts and rises from her bench. "Aye, and then we will have to follow along behind them and see it done right. If we are going to do this thing, we should do it proper from the first."

Mistress Pelara winks at me, turning to hide it from the approaching healer.

"Bah!" Nesta cuffs lightly at Pelara's shoulder and seats herself next to the woman, the wood creaking softly below her frame. It seems Pelara was not so clever as she thought, but neither seem to mind.

"We will need room for the sick. We have enough of them and we will need aught to keep the folk warm. I'll not have you adding to my care, my lady," she says and so we begin.

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