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36

‘That is the road to the vales of Tumladen and Lossarnach, and the mountain-villages, and then on to Lebennin,’ said Beregond. ‘There go the last of the wains that bear away to refuge the aged, the children, and the women that must go with them. They must all be gone from the Gate and the road clear for a league before noon: that was the order. It is a sad necessity.’ He sighed. ‘Few, maybe, of those now sundered will meet again.’

ROTK: Minas Tirith


~~~

Ah, I daresay you have not felt such a tiresome wearing of the hours.

The people of the Angle, aged and young, stretch and rise from the soil upon the day's grey dawning. A coughing has awakened me and I can hear them from within our small nest of baskets and blankets where have curled my son and I. Ah, but the folk press ever around and there is no place of quiet and rest. And now all about is damp and chill, and the sheep and cattle protest the lack of pasture from their paddocks. For it had rained in the night, great black-bellied clouds drifting above us as the barges upon the Bruinen of my youth.

No more than a hectare of land were we allowed within those wooden walls and that overrun with both Man and beast. Poor shelter had we in the night and huddled against the foot of the palisades. There we strung lines of cloth from the walk while our men strode above our heads and drew their cloaks closely about them, squinting against the rain and wind and keeping their bows and slings near to hand.

"Awake, onya," say I and, shaking gently at my son's hip, rouse him enough to reclaim my arm. It is as alive as a block of wood and I work my fist against the numbness.

Ah, but I ache and my head feels full of wool. My son rises to sitting and looks about him blearily at the dim space in which we have slept. The pounding of feet sound above us as the men, cold and spent from their night of wakefulness, change places with their fellows.

"Mamil," says my son, his small face wretched and his shoulders fallen. "I want to go home. May it please you, Mamil, may we go home now?"

"Ai, onya."

For the eyes that turn upon me and the weary tears glimmering within them, I draw him against me. There he melts into my side and I wipe at the damp curls upon his brow. His small fingers cling to my dress and I do not wish to beg their release, but steps quickly approach and a shadow falls upon the thin line of light beneath the wool that hangs before us.

"Lady Nienelen!"

Ai! Had I my choice, I would stay in this small space, just my son and I. Here we might be close and warm and I would tell him stories of my father and the stone he gifted me when very young. For it had sparkled with a light that seemed to come from the very stars, and so had gone the tale he told me of it. Or if my son had not the patience, perhaps he would teach me the games that liven his mind and set his eyes to twinkling nigh so bright as my father's stone.

"I come!" I call to the boots that show beneath the cloth of our shelter. It is Mistress Nesta, and by the swiftly shifting shadow, she paces impatiently.

"Up, onya." I push at our blankets and nudge my son away.

"Mamil!" he protests, clinging to me, and I think he may go to weeping.

"Nah, nah, nah, onya," I croon. "'Tis not a thing that can be helped. Get you up and I will find you aught to eat. Do you not hunger?"

He shakes his head, scowling darkly. I think he would deny that he needed as simple a thing as air to breathe at such a moment, but at least he allows me to raise him to his feet.

"Perhaps not now, but soon you shall be and, regardless, we must begin the day."

When I rise he does not go forth as he was wont to do, but leans upon my leg while I brush at my skirts and attempt to put my hair to rights.

For the winter storms that blow up against the mountains, the feet of our folk have churned the grass into a muddy soup and I no longer look the part of the Lady. My skirts and the hem of my cloak are covered in filth a hands-breadth deep and more and I despair of e'er drying out the good leather of my boots. Ah, but I am soft and deserve not the regard of my husband. For my lord and his men live in this manner from one season upon another and think naught for it. What I would not give for a bucket of clean water and a cloth, no matter how cold it might be. Aye! And all I have I would give for a mere palmful of powder for my teeth. They feel as if covered in a foul film and I doubt not my breath is rank. And it has been little more than a handful of days that we have lain waiting in this fortress of wood and earth. We await either news from the north or, in its lack, the sudden running of dark shapes in our woods.

I set my son's clothing to rights so that he might be warm and then fling aside the sodden hanging to the sight of sun and folk milling about. The men call out the changing of the guard and their women build up the fires so they might begin yet another day behind the pale. It is as the market square at the noon meal when nigh all the Dúnedain of the North are gathered there.

Upon my one side, Master Tanril with his vest of boiled leather and long knives squats to warm himself by the fire while the goodwife Dehlia pours him what little of ale we brought with us. And upon the other, Master Bachor says his morning farewells to his young daughter so he might take the man's place upon the palisade. He has taken the girl up in his arms and, at her smile, his eyes light fondly upon her. His wife is there with him, a fair creature, if a little frail. She bears him yet another child and he touches her cheek gently before letting his daughter alight to the ground.

"Ah, good, my lady," says Mistress Nesta. She worries at her small hands, red and chapped as they are from their washing and the chill of the days. I have seldom seen her so distraught.

I draw my cloak tighter about me against the morning air. My son grasps at the tips of my fingers and squints about him into the dim day. "What is it?"

"Two more have come down with the sickness in the night."

Ai! Lady Elbereth have pity on us! 'Tis a good reason the healer has for her distress. Through all these seasons of fear and wandering, Mistress Nesta's vigilance has kept the coughing plague at bay. Her greatest defense against its spread has been the walls of her sick house, and now my lord commands his folk all gathered in one place she has few other weapons to wield for its lack.

"Aye, I come. Let me first see to his comfort," I say, nodding to the small face that now peers up at us. "I shall then meet you."

She takes her leave swiftly, eager to be gone to her charges. I turn to lift my son into my arms, for I think, should I need to see to those who sicken, he shall best spend his time with Elesinda. She sits with Ranger Gelir atimes through the day and sees to his comfort. It is when my son weighs heavily upon my hip that I again spy Master Bachor.

Done with taking his leave of his family, a ploughman has his ear, and pours words rapidly into it. It is Master Sereg, now well settled in the Angle. Their eyes are upon me, though swiftly withdrawn when I rise. I make much of settling my son though the child grimaces and turns his head. Ai! I like not the look upon the wandering ploughman's face, for his worry is plainly read there. Master Bachor stills the ploughman's speech with a hand upon the man's arm.

"I shall speak to her," his lips say and I stiffen, done with fussing with my son's hair.

How is it that the folk of the Angle, much less this man of all them, require Master Bachor to intercede on their behalf?

"Come, onya," I say, turning away from them, for I would see no more and wish only I could have been spared the sight the sooner. "I shall take you to Elesinda and she shall see to your meal."

Upon the sight of his lower lip red and pouting out, I laugh a little. "Come now, my pet. She will be with Ranger Gelir and you can spend the day with them."

At this he brightens enough to press his small body against mine where before he had held himself apart. Gelir, though he is weary and sleeps much of the time, when awake he makes merry with the boy, setting him to laughing at the games they play. They seem well-matched, the two of them.

"Aye, Mamil," he says and thus we set off to start yet another day in this place.

~oOo~

Elder Maurus prods at the ground with the butt of his cane. "Aye, well, this place is as good as aught else." He grunts and stabs at a clump of grass, grinding it further into the soft earth. "Like as not, you will draw near to rock soon enough no matter where you dig."

Master Herdir looks upon the Elder gravely and I wonder at the seeming boundlessness of the man's patience. "Rock or not, there's good water beneath, I warrant," he says. His eyes light fondly upon the old man. "You may hold me to it, if you like."

Master Maurus grunts. Grasping the edges of his cloak away from the clutch of the wind, he shuffles down the small hillock. "Oh, never fear, so I shall, Herdir. So I shall."

My lord's reeve lets loose a soft huff of laughter and lends the elder his arm on which to lean.

"It is a good place for a well, Elder, do you not think? High ground and not like to be flooded from the pasture."

'Tis Master Bachor who speaks, for the Council has gathered after the noon meal. Master Tanaes is abroad, searching out sign of our enemy in the lands about the Angle and Master Tanril sleeps, and they cannot attend, but Master Bachor left off striding upon the walk about the palisades to join us. There, o'er the day, I paid him more heed and watched him clap his hand to the shoulders of our men or stop beside one or another to share a word. Aye, sure it is he works to keep their spirits high at such a time, but I am left to marvel if he had always done so and I had been blind to it. Ah! True it is, 'tis needed, but I wonder greatly at what they tell him and who might heed Master Bachor should he wish to speak more freely of his views on my lord's choices.

Here upon the highest point the Council has come to debate our course with the folk watching on. At the first, we closed the tall gates and made them fast, but now they stand open and much traffic of men crosses beneath the watch of our guards. They make their way from where they camp outside the pale to their families within and back with little to check them. Young boys toss about a ball makeshifted from rags and their cries rise about us. They are much muddied by their play but it seems their mothers have little heart to check them. For they watch nearby, seated in small groups about the fires and keep our elders warm and in company. It might be thought there was an air of the festival about the place, but for the weary and worried look of the folk, the dirt, the padded or horn scale tunics worn by the men, and the sharp knives and spears they carried.

Ah, but the council with the pledgeholders had left much undone. Paddocks were hastily built to keep the beasts from mingling among the folk and spreading their dung in our path, but we lack in hay and grain to keep them fed. We have rolled barrels of water from the Angle's square and keep them where they might catch the rain, should it be so kind as to fall in them, but we have no well from which to draw water. Nor have we cellars underfoot. Instead our smoked meats, roots, dried fruits and onions are collected in baskets that give the food little shelter from the rats and mice that will soon be drawn to this place and their bulk crowd out the people who brought them there. And, yes, yet again the Council must speak to the placement of granaries. It seems a small city rises from the enclosed pasture as mushrooms after a spring rain, and is just as sightly and well-ordered.

"Eh?" Elder Maurus grimaces, squinting into the thin winter sun.

Master Bachor raises his voice, nodding at the knoll behind the elder. "A well, there. A good site, do you not think?"

"Oh, aye!" the Elder says. He comes to a halt and shrugs, looking about. "As good a place as any."

"Then we should move the paddocks," I say, for the pens are not far from where we stand.

Through the crowd of moving folk can be seen the cattle chewing lazily. Their ears flick away the flies and a cow stretches her neck to voice her complaints for the lack of room in which to move.

"Where would you have them, then, my lady?" asks Master Herdir. He shades his eyes against the sun to look about for a more likely spot.

"I thought perhaps down there."

I point down the hill, but Master Bachor shakes his head and speaks. "'Tis at the lowest point and shall soon grow muddy there and the beasts' feet to rotting."

"Aye, but have we much choice? 'Tis either that or set it upon higher ground where their droppings shall poison the well."

"Aye, we have a choice, and an easy one at that, my lady." He points to a large tent of rough cloth.

My look in response must be a sour one. For to there have I just ordered the removal of our sick. A slow rise above it and the hayshed to its other side gives the place shelter and some little distance from the rest of our folk as can be best obtained.

"My lady, they could be moved elsewhere," he says, for clearly the idea is an annoyance to me and I am for the most part unwilling to consider it.

"And where would you put the ill, Master Bachor?" I ask.

From the look upon his face, it seems clear where he would wish them. To my shame I must confess the thought had come to me as well. Ah! 'Tis true, we may yet come to a time when it will seem best to set them beyond the walls, but that time is not now. Only at the very last would I even consider it, and even then I am unsure what I would do. But I know this, when Mistress Nesta came to me upon the day's rising and begged my aid, I could not put them away from us then.

"We take a grave risk should we keep them so close," he says.

In his face I see reflected my own grim thoughts and, for reasons I knew not clearly then, this serves only to vex me more. I have drawn breath to protest when a voice brings me to halt.

"Oh, be easy on that score, Bachor," I hear and turn to find Master Maurus' watery eyes upon us. They shine with some inner mirth. "We need not worry for that. The sickness takes at least a score of days to settle in the lungs and do its work. We will have been burned out or put to the sword well before that."

For once, the Elder's black forecast brings a sudden smile to my face, and I must turn aside to master myself. I should not laugh at such a thing. Master Herdir is not so shy and laughs outright.

"Come along then," says the Elder. "If that is settled, let us look to the cellars. I would think ground higher than either well or paddock would be the best. This way." He sets his cane before him and grimaces at the effort to pull his feet across the turf.

"Naught is settled yet!" exclaims Master Bachor, frowning at the old man's back, for Master Herdir shrugs and follows him.

"Eh?"

"What have we settled?" Master Bachor repeats, raising his voice so that he might make the man hear him.

"Heh. I am an old man," calls Master Maurus over his shoulder as he makes his slow way. "I have not the time to waste upon the two of you bickering over naught." He waves his cane about as he walks. "Put the paddock here, put the sick folk there, or the other way about, it matters not. Either will serve."

Master Bachor lets loose a loud breath and shakes his head. The Elder and Master Herdir proceed as if we had agreed to follow, and so Master Bachor motions me forward with a show of courtesy.

We walk a ways and once we find ourselves in a quieter space, where the folk are not so thick about us, I slow so I might walk beside the man who trails behind me silently. I have been puzzling over a thing, for, when I reflect upon Master Maurus' words, I come to feel as a small child chided for her willfulness. Perhaps it is deservedly so. Why am I like to see Master Bachor's acts as interference and why do I resent the man so? Ai! My lord once rebuked me for thinking that the will of one must rise supreme o'er the others or all is lost. Was it this? What hazard do I set at my lord's feet for my pride?

"Master Bachor?"

"Aye, my lady," he says as we walk, keeping our pace even with the other. He looks upon our path with eyes carefully blank of intent.

"Of what did Master Sereg wish you to speak?"

His eyes come swiftly upon me and I think he considers both my intent and his words with much caution.

"It is the men," he says at length. "They worry for the flocks and oxen they have left upon the land. The longer we stay confined in here and our men waiting upon we know not what, the more they become restless."

Aye, I worry, too, for what we have left behind. Should we return to it, we may find much in need of repair or, to our sorrow, beyond repair. And yet –

"Should the enemy come upon us as we are scattered –" I begin but go no further, for Master Bachor speaks swiftly upon my words.

"It matters not, my lady. They will find a way to look after what is theirs. Should we force them to it, they shall see to it even if it means they do so by guile."

"They would leave the fortress unmanned?" I ask, shocked to slowness as I forget my feet.

Master Bachor then shakes his head at what I can only assume is the either the dullness or waywardness of my wits, and speaks through a jaw much tightened by anger. "A man will risk much to hold onto his livelihood, my lady. For he knows well the sacrifice that might come after should he lose it."

At this, my face grows hot and I halt. "You need not speak to me as if I do not know this, Master Bachor."

"Do you, my lady?" he asks and, halting himself, turns upon me. The boys bat at their ball of rags with their feet but the sound is but a dim distraction. "Then will not the House make a decision on this matter? For if it does not, the choice shall be made for it."

Ah! Such words he would lay upon me.

"Why will you not trust the House, Master Bachor? For clearly you do not." I forget my resolve and raise my voice.

"Have you not the ear of your husband, Lady? Will you not beg him listen? What is this place?" he asks, raising his arms and looking about him at the sun and the sky and the frail walls of wood. He laughs, if bitterly, and lets fall his hands. "What is it but a trap? And we place ourselves in it? For once the Elder has the right of it, we shall die here."

"How are you so sure?" I demand and then fall silent. A boy, his cheeks bright with running upon the hill and his laughter, bumps past us, chasing after the sudden wayward flight of their ball. We watch until he has passed, and then I ask, "Will you not trust your lord to exert himself to your good? What would you ask of the House that has not already been given?" I hiss the question at him for the ears of the folk who of a sudden pass by.

"Has not the death of his father, and his father before him, and all their sires in these last years --"

"Aye, yes, my lady! And your father, too. How well the Angle knows of his father lost, your father lost." He glares at me, his lips work against themselves as if he forced himself to swallow somewhat of a bitter taste.

"My father –" says he, biting down hard upon the word. "My father was lost, my lady, just as was yours. When our lord's father, when your father met his fate, my lady, where was our lord, where were his men, eh? Where were his Rangers? Were they not at their side? And my father, when the fell things that walk the night took him, where were they? Where was the Dúnadan and his men, then? Whose lands then did they guard? Ask me not, for I know not. But this I know, 'twas not ours."

I can do naught but stare mutely at the man, pinned as I am by the fire of his gaze.

"Ah!" he cries, and turns swiftly away, striding to follow Master Maurus as he makes his way across the hill. "Do as you will, my lady. For 'tis you who have the right, not I."

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