Dust rose smothering the air, as from nearby there marched up an army of Easterlings that had waited for the signal in the shadows of Ered Lithui beyond the further Tower. Down from the hills on either side of the Morannon poured Orcs innumerable. The men of the West were trapped, and soon, all about the grey mounds where they stood, forces ten times and more than ten times their match would ring them in a sea of enemies.
ROTK: The Black Gate Opens
ROTK: The Black Gate Opens
"And have a care for how you close –"
The door to the buttery slams shut upon my words, shaking the very walls upon which it is hung.
"Edainion!" I cry, but the lad is long beyond hearing. No doubt his feet took him quickly through the garden and down to the old oak where he was wont to sit when his mother makes him of a mind to sulk.
Aye, let him sit beneath its cold branches and mutter against me. Ah! But that boy shall bring naught upon my head except vexation! Whatever has gotten into him? He has been a trial all the morn long.
Oh, no indeed, for it began before even the sun broke over the mountains. Unlike his father, he was not a courteous bedmate. For his dreams loosened his limbs in the night and he kicked and pummeled me in the midst of them so I got precious little sleep. Ai! I am befuddled and bebothered by a torpor that weighs upon my eyes so my hands slow and I must recall myself to my tasks and a pain that stabs atimes upon my back so I must halt and do naught but breathe.
And he has left his toy men strewn all about the hearth! However am I to complete the noon meal and set it to the table without falling upon them? I cannot see the floor for the mountain that is my belly and his toys make their presence known only through the pain they visit upon my feet should I chance upon them.
'Twas at the middle of the morn I bore a pot of soaking beans that was to be our supper from the pantry when I came upon the boy. There he was, spread before the hearth with his men, horses, orcs and wargs all about him. Before, I thought naught of it but the inconvenience for the path I must take about them. It meant little to me, though the boy had been about it for most of an hour while I worked around him, his face oddly somber as he carefully set the men in their place only to scowl and rearrange their lines until he was satisfied. It was late into it I attended to his play.
"Elendil!" he cried and the horse reared beneath his hand. Upon it was fixed a seated figure he had long ago named as his father in his play. I knew it well, for it had been one of the first his kin had fashioned for him and held a special place in the boy's heart. All about the horse he had set figures of my lord's men, in a small circle about him were set horsemen, herald with a small bit of cloth for a banner, archers and infantry.
"Ah!" my son cried and with a great sweep of his arms fell upon a surrounding army of our enemy and pressed them upon the beleaguered circle of men in the middle.
"Edainion!" I cried and my son's face jerked up from the floor. Wide were the eyes that looked upon me.
"What is it you do?"
At this, he leapt to his feet, leaving the melee of men and beast in a disarray between us. He held his father's figure in his hand and picked at the raised hoof of the wooden mount, staring upon me dumbly.
"How could thee wish such a thing upon thy father?"
"But, Mamil," he said, slipping into the tongue of his infancy. "I was just --"
"You were just what?" I demanded, amazed there was aught could make sensible what I had just seen.
"Mamil, 'tis –"
"I care not what it is! This is no matter for play!"
I thought then, by his silence, he had done with his excuses. Indeed, I was not of a mind to hear them, for I was yet to see even the slightest hint of remorse upon my son's face. Instead he looked to me as if to plead for an understanding I was yet to grasp.
"Do you not know what it is you play? Those men there, and your father with them, you would pit them against a foe so far beyond them each one of them would fall. Have you no understanding? It is death, Edainion, you would visit upon them, and a pitiless one, at that. Are you so cruel to think it a matter of play? Did you learn naught upon the barrows yesterday?"
Ah, but his eyes filled at my words and he clutched at the figure tightly. I would have thought he would then be cast down. But though my son did not speak nor meet my eye, his face was set stubbornly and he bowed his head as if I had visited a great injustice upon him.
"Get thee gone from my sight!" I said then, and he went. "Do not return until thee has reconsidered what thee were about," I added to the back that swiftly slipped from the hall.
Ai! My lord had set me to tutoring his son in his ways, but there are times when I despair of the child.
I can no longer kneel beside the hearth to prepare the meal and so I carry the pot across the hall to my lord's table. There I have set aside an onion, though mildew shows darkly beneath its outer skin, salted pork, and leaves from my father's potted bay tree upon a board to protect the wood of the table. Aye, a meager meal it shall make, but I dare serve naught else. I have just come from the pantry. Beans we have there, but more pease that aught else. I have not prepared pease since my lord left, now I have learned his son's distaste for them is shared by his father. But precious little flour do we have, and that mostly of rye. Shall the winter wheat fail, we shall have naught with which to make our bread and I must spread what remains in our pantry more thinly to cover the lack. And so I take up my knife to slice an onion which I would rather set to the pigs than to my lord's table.
Ai! Well, perhaps beyond the rotten outer layers I shall find sweeter flesh.
"My lady?" comes the call and I jerk up from where I bend over the table.
'Tis Halbarad, and at my stifled cry, he strides to my lord's table after kicking closed the door through which he entered, his long legs bringing him to me swiftly.
"What ails thee?" He tosses his pack to the top of the table. In his haste, his aim is untrue and the pack tumbles unheeded to the floor. "Have you cut yourself, my lady?" he asks, for I yet hold my knife aloft.
"Ah, no." My breath hitches for the pain in my back. Ah! It is as a blade slipped below my ribs.
And then I can breathe again and the man's face comes into view.
"'Tis naught," say I, for the look Halbarad turns to me is fearful for me.
"You are certain?"
"Aye, Halbarad." I rub the knuckles of my fist against my back and nod to the floor. "Your pack."
He shrugs a little and, though looking upon me uncertainly, bends to lift his gear to the table.
"I left hard crackers out for you."
"Aye," he says and leaves me to my puzzle of our meal.
"And strips of venison," I call after him and set to slicing the onion. It is more pungent than most for the soft flesh of its outer layers and I must wipe at my eyes with my sleeve.
"My lady, should I not leave those for you?" comes the man's voice from behind the walls and, in my mind's eye, I can all but see his hand hovering over them in the pantry.
"Take them, Halbarad, we shall not want for meat and you shall have little time for hunting."
Though softly sounded, his grunt gives his assent. In goes the onion to the pot and I now draw the knife upon the pork, paring away what is green and looks to be unfit.
"Shall you go north to the Road?" I call, only to find Halbarad close behind me.
He lays aside the bundle he brought from the pantry.
"Aye, where else?" asks he and throws open his pack. He on one end of the table and I on the other, each intent upon our tasks, and yet he turns upon me a most curious look as he pulls out tinderbox, map in its leather case, oiled cloth, rope, dried apples and other such gear as a Ranger would carry upon the Wild and lays them upon the table.
"I know not," I say and shrug. "The river is low. Mayhap you might find better cover in the forest, now you may cross the river there, than upon the path leading from the Angle. I would think you might wish to avoid drawing attention here if you could help it."
"And have you then taken the duties of a Ranger onto yourself, my lady?" he asks and, to my surprise, his voice is sharp with annoyance.
"No!" I jab at the pork, for it is most noncompliant to my wishes. "Truly, Halbarad, I thought only your path might take you past Elesinda's house and I could beg of your kindness to bear her somewhat there for me."
He gives me no answer, but rolls the bundle of crackers in the oiled cloth. I had prepared a bread of the finest of our flour and in it stuffed finely-chopped walnuts, honey and spices, the very pastry I given my aunt for her farewell. I had little hope it would mend Elesinda's heart, but perhaps she would take some small pleasure in its sweetness, for I had not consoled her upon the barrows, leaving that for her mother.
"And you have not found the time to go there yourself, my lady?"
I look up to find Halbarad's glance upon me. I cannot read what is writ there but I must wonder at the odd stiffening of his jaw when he turns away and takes up the roll of cloth.
"Perhaps then you think it beneath you to run an errand for me?"
"No, indeed, I am just come from there." He thrusts the roll into his pack, forcing it to fit. "I had thought you might find it in you to attend upon the girl yourself."
I say naught in return, but lift the chopped pork upon the knife and drop the meat into the pot, wiping the knife against its rim. My jaw aches for the words I do not say. Metal rings against metal amongst the quiet rustling of Halbarad gathering up his things and stuffing them into his pack. I drop the bay leaves into the pot and there they float upon the water. A pitiful amount of meat it is for the man's last meal in his kin's home before he must go. I had regretted it, but now I am not so certain. Perhaps I should not have put so much effort into the making his meal, after all.
"Do I not have my son to care for, Halbarad, is that not enough?"
"Aye, yes, my lady," he says and, done filling his pack, tugs upon its flap so it that it slaps upon the leather. "You have your son."
With that, he picks up his pack and turns away. Down comes the knife's handle upon the board but he does not turn at the sharp sound. Confound the man!
"And so you would decide for me my days and take the care of the nursery upon yourself, too, Halbarad?"
"Perhaps I do not care for the example you set him."
His pack lands by the door with a thud.
I will say naught to that, but scour at my hands with a corner of my apron. They are sour with an overripe smell. Ah! Kin to the Dúnadan he may be, but who is the man to sit judgment upon the manner in which I fulfill my lord's command?
His stride comes upon me, low and swift, but if this is the manner of his leave-taking, I shall not look upon him. I have my own work that I have set myself and I should be about it. I take up the handle of the pot, ready to set it over the fire, or would have, had not a large hand grasped it before I could set my own to it.
"I have it," he says swinging the pot easily from atop the table. "Sit you down, now, my lady, and take what rest you may."
And so I sit myself upon the bench and watch as he sets the pot upon the grate.
There are times when I forget how tall my lord's kin stands. Most oft, the pleasantness of his face belies the shear strength and size of the man. But I would not wish to find myself his foe, especially now when the grimness of his thoughts hardens his gaze.
"I had hoped you would call upon Elder Maurus' house, my lady," Halbarad says and then kicks at the fire, knocking the tinder beneath the grate so the flame might catch upon it.
"For I shall not be here." He stares bitterly upon the fire as if it had offended him.
Only now does it come to me I truly do not wish to go to the Elder's house, nor to console Elesinda. I have not wished to go and so convinced my heart the duties of my house excuse were enough. So strong a woman of the Dúnedain and yet brought so low by grief. Oh, aye! I have my son, but, in this Age in which our hearts are but leaves adrift upon the dark waters of the Shadow, for how long?
"I will go," I say.
I eat slowly, hoping to fool my belly into thinking it is full. I think Halbarad does the same, for he takes as much care in spooning the pottage of beans to his mouth. Only my son eats swiftly and with little mind for what he tastes. Perhaps that is just as well, for the beans are bland and pasty to my tongue, lacking as they are in grain for texture and the garlic and savory herbs for taste.
My son returned to the hall only upon my calling him indoors. Mayhap it was he spoke to his father, there beneath the old oak, and would not otherwise be disturbed. 'Twas there the two could most oft be found when my lord was at home. I can only hope he found some solace in my lord's wisdom, for I do not wish to think overlong on the reasons my son might have to put his dark thoughts to play upon our hearth.
"What is it, onya?"
He bites his lip with the uncertainty of the young. He knows as well as I the pot is empty, its contents divided among us three. He knows, too, that neither Halbarad nor I have asked for more, though our portions are not what once they were, but he presses forward, impelled by echoing in his belly.
"I am hungry still."
"Ah," I say and drop my eyes to gaze at my son's bowl. He has scraped it clean.
It is not a word that has been said within my lord's walls within my hearing, but one that I shall soon see in the eyes of those gathered here in the coming months. It has come at last.
"We shall see, onya."
Rising, I take his bowl and my own. The table is silent when I leave it, though I feel eyes that bore into my back. I must not look upon them. Once in the buttery, I close the door behind me and set my son's bowl upon the board. I do not search the pantry, well acquainted as I am with both what it contains and what it lacks. Soft voices murmur beyond the door, but I give them little heed.
I am set to scrape the remains of my meal into my son's bowl with his spoon when the creak of the door causes me to jump. But, I am little surprised to see who has followed me, nor does his silence baffle me.
"Ranger Halbarad," I say lightly. I turn my back upon him and return to my task. "Have you taken the duties of the buttery upon yourself as well as that of my lord's Rangers and his nursery?"
A hand reaches about my shoulder and firmly grasps the spoon and my fingers that hold it. This, in itself startles me. I do not think Halbarad has ever touched me. He does so now, and his strength is not to be gainsaid, though he use it gently. He stands beside me, looking upon me gravely.
"I have but one duty, my lady."
He lifts the spoon from my hand. He has brought his own meal. Aghast, I see he has reserved the better part of his pottage and now scrapes it into my son's bowl.
I exclaim as loud as I dare, "Ai! Halbarad! If you must, but he is a child, do not give him so much! He will have no need of it!"
But my words have little effect. Instead, he empties his bowl and sets it on the board. His face is fixed in firm lines when he scoops up my son's bowl, drops the spoon into it, and thrusts it into my hands.
"If it is more than he has want of," he says with a quick glance at my belly that he as swiftly withdraws, "I do not wish to be offered this back."
With that, he comes as close as he dare to commanding me to eat the last portion of his meal. His face is tight with somewhat akin to anger and I stare at it in the dim light. Then it comes to me he has it that he has failed of the trust our lord placed upon him. Should I refuse I would only thrust the blade the deeper into the wound.
He nods stiffly and turns upon his heel to go when I lay a hand upon his arm. The touch is light, I dare no more, but he halts as if struck. He will not look at me.
"My thanks to you, Ranger Halbarad," I say softly.
He blinks and clears his throat. "My lady," he says, his voice thick and his eyes resolutely turned away.
Only when I withdraw my hand does he nod and stride out the buttery door. The light from the hall blinds me momentarily before I am left in the dimness that is my refuge.
'Twas only later, after my son had had his fill and we took our farewells of my lord's kin did I return there. For I must gird myself with a courage I do not have.
The pottage tastes of salt though I had put none in it. For it was as I said and my son needed but a little more and left much of Halbarad's meal for me to finish. I eat it here in the dark of the buttery, where I can be alone and unwatched.
Oh, how my lord and land are bound one tother. Without one, the other falters.
Have you had such a day? When all to which you would set your hand goes awry? Out of sorts is the world, it seemed, and yet there is naught else to blame but the confusion of your own heart. Aye, I have spent the day carelessly, wantonly, and in it neglected folk and kin and sent my son to weeping for the blindness of my craven heart.
Ah! Yavanna, Queen of all Life! It comes again!
How I wish I had thought to set a stool nearby. It is all I can do to cling to the board and pant for one more breath. One more and then the pain shall be gone. One more! Just one more. For the pain came upon me in the midst of our meal, and then did I know them for what they were.
Oh, I shall not visit my friend Pelara and wish upon her the peace I know she craves. Nor shall I do what little I may to console Elesinda and her broken heart. Oh, Gelir! I know not whether you were wise in withholding your hand from the girl.
No, I shall not leave my lord's house today, for his child comes swiftly into it. And my lord shall not be here to welcome his child at its birth, and I know not when he shall return and set things aright again.