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42

You will meet many foes, some open, and some disguised; and you may find friends upon your way when you least look for it.

FOTR: The Ring Goes South


~~~

Whatever could that be?

I halt of a sudden upon the path and my son bumps into my leg.

"Ammė?" he asks, peering up at me.

But I spare him no mind, for a great shouting and an ox bawling in vexation has reached my ears. Down the line of ploughmen and cotters comes the sound of voices raised in anger. Heads turn as men scramble away from their source and a murmuring as the wind rising through the pines runs through them.

Ah! What trouble now? Is it not enough the land and sky have turned against us but we must seek quarrel amongst ourselves? Oh, sure it is my lord would not tolerate such a thing. I have dropped my son's hand in favor of grabbing up my skirts, and a voice falls swiftly behind me, for I am running.

"My lady! Wait! Do not-"

'Twas the youth who dogged our steps who called after me, come to my lord's house in the days of spring. Young as he was, he was the more easily spared when Halbarad set the Rangers searching for the cause of Gelir's death. One pass of the moon he had given himself to discover our Enemy's purpose, but now that was spent and gone and he was no closer to his answer. Restless and grim, Halbarad's disquiet drove him far from the Angle throughout the high, hot days of summer. Only now, when winter chases the leaves of fall from their perches did he send word he shall soon return.

The day dawned as had many of its brethren afore and I thought them much alike, yet, by its end I knew it a thing new to me. I had decided to visit Mistress Pelara at home, for I was much disturbed by my thoughts of the Angle's condition and so we set out for the heart of the Angle, my son, myself and the young Ranger watching over us.

"Come, onya," I said, stretching my hand for my son's.

My son tarried at the path's ditches when he should have been walking beside his mother. A buzzing sounded across my ear and I flapped at it, hoping to be rid of the biting fly hovering there. Ah! But they are a plague and buzz about our heads for want of aught else from which to drink.

My son stretched his neck to peer to the height of the pines. The wind kicked across the fields, bringing with it the sharp scent of hay as it sighed through the high needles and sent the cones rattling through their branches. He has grown to all arms and legs, has my son, and lost the round-cheeked look of the infant he once was. True it is he shall have his father's height, so it is told in the length of his limbs. Or so shall I tell myself, for with each meal I labor to shield my son from all want and I hope I do so with some success.

The youth who guards our steps halted close behind my son and tapped him upon the shoulder to gain his attention, for my son stared as one enspelled by the swaying tips of the pines, his dark hair falling from his brow and moving with the wind.

"Your lady mother, young master," the youth said when the boy craned about to see who it was who touched him.

"Aye, Ranger Boradan." My son brightened at the smile turned to him. He fair launched himself as a bolt from a bow to grab at my hand and was soon followed by the young man.

"Ammė?" My son's bright face turned to me. "After our evening meal, shall Ranger Boradan not go out, but stay with us in the hall? He said he would teach me to play the Hare and the Hound."

The smile fell swiftly from the youth's face at my look, and well it should. For it is a man's game of dice in which little of skill and much of chance rules the fate of the wagers made upon it.

"I regret I cannot, young master," did the Ranger say, all the while glancing upon me. "I have my duty to perform for you and your mother."

"Oh." Crestfallen, my son hung upon my hand as we walked.

I thought the youth as cast down as my son, for I am sure my look told of my displeasure. For a little while we walked in silence and my son attempted to still the sounds of his steps as would a Ranger upon the Wild. Carefully he strode, peering at the dirt of the path and placing his feet just so, but his attempts at stealth were sadly betrayed by the crackle of the grass and leaves beneath his feet.

"What do you do, out there in the dark?" my son asked, giving up his game and kicking at a stone upon the path.

I squeezed his hand and shook my head once he looked upon me, for he sent up a cloud of dust with his feet and it clung to his breeches and my skirt when it need not.

"I watch the house, young master, and the croft upon which it stands."

"That is all? All night?" my son asked, turning about to see the nod of the youth walking behind us. "Does it not get very tiresome?"

"Aye, it does, atimes."

"You must get very bored. Ah! I have it! Ammė?" My son tugged on my arm and turned upon me his most winning smile. Oh, but it seems my son is well-used to his way. "Shall I then go with Ranger Boradan to watch the house?"

"I do not think he needs the distraction, onya."

"I shall not distract him! Shall I, Boradan?"

I could not tell if the hesitant look upon the youth's face spoke more to the limits of his tolerance of the boy or if he feared to offend his lord's wife by not anticipating her desire to keep her son at home.

"If it please you, Ammė," came my son's pleading voice. "I will be good and heed him well."

At this the youth smiled upon the boy and I wondered at what young brothers this lad left behind in his mother's home, for he had the look of an elder son who knows well the ways of a young child when temptation proves greater than the oath given.

"If it please you, my lady, I shall not mind his company."

"Very well," said I. "But on one condition, Ranger Boradan; you not teach my son aught he need not know."

"Aye, my lady."

With that settled my son forgot himself and kicked at a pebble, sending it and a cloud of dust bursting from the path.

"Onya."

"I beg thy pardon, Ammė," said my son but I saw naught of remorse for the glee shining from the boy's face.

Aye, he has been a blessing, this youth, for the Angle demands much of my attention, now I can give it, and Halbarad is long away searching upon the Wild. He has taken to the young Ranger, my son has, as were he an elder brother. And, by their age, 'twould not be far from truth if it were not for the sharp sword that swings from Boradan's hip. It is he who, in Halbarad's stead, tutors my son in the ways of my lord's men, taking him into the wood about our house in their hunt for small game. Though it is rare they return with aught of meat for their efforts. The good beasts of heath and wood have scattered upon the Wild, but my son seems to mind it little. I think Boradan schools him the way of scavenging for bark, lichen, leaf and root he might eat should aught else be scarce, for atimes he comes home bearing these things for his mother to add to their meal and seems the more content for it.

"Have you ever seen an orc, Ranger Boradan?"

"Hist, now!" I said, silencing my son before the youth can answer. We came swiftly upon our folk making their way down the path toward us.

In a slow cavalcade came the Angle to plough the fields and attempt again the sowing of the winter wheat. Their feet stirred the dry soil and the wind sent up a cloak of dust behind them to drift into the trees as they pass. Leading them was Master Bachor, for my lord's reeve has taken those who are willing into the forest about the Angle. There they are to glean what nuts and last of the season's fruits can be found beneath its dark eaves. In Master Herdir's place, Bachor swayed upon the back of his mount, moving with the slow swinging stride of the horse beneath him. Grim and weary were they both, man and beast it seemed, though they could not have long been on their journey from the Angle.

High and bright and clear are the skies of our autumn, and pitiless is the sun that rides therein. Yoked together, the grumbling oxen twitched their ears and lashed their tails, all in vain hope of disturbing the flies that bite at them. Over a year it has been ere my lord left and still the days bring no sign of his return. And aye how changed his land for his lack. The winter wheat, bewitched by the promise of spring rains, sprang from the earth in a light green mist upon the land only to die a-borning. For we had precious little rain thereafter. The eye of the sun bears down upon us without respite until naught shall grow beneath its harsh gaze but a scattering of beans and a withered ruff of rye and oats. A short harvest it made, the reaping and threshing done in but a few days. What little we brought in from the fields we guard jealously, hoarding it in our granaries as it were the treasure of the highest of kings. Even the haying is done, where in seasons afore a good fortnight or so would yet need to pass before the grasses ripened.

The youth placed himself between my son and I and the line of men and beasts, though I thought there was little from which he would need shield us. Master Bachor nodded his greeting as he passed and I bowed my head in response, but do not speak. Upon the man’s face lay graven his grief, his comeliness sunk deep in shadow. I had not seen him so before, and had no words with which to console him. His fair wife lies at home today, as she has for many of the days past now they are bereft of the child she carried. In these days of poor commons, ‘tis not so unknown among our folk, but, make no mistake, it is no less lamented. Aye, they are the quickest to fall, our youngest and our eldest.

A weariness weighted the feet of the men, their mattocks lying upon their shoulders and their eyes drifting upon my son. So accustomed is he to bearing the weight of their glance, I think he saw it not. Bright of face and quick of gait, he smiled upon them as they passed. Perhaps he was eager to see Mistress Pelara. He has not seen his playmate Lothel in some time, and, now he may trail behind Ranger Boradan and satisfy his young boy’s heart, he minds not so much the games of little girls nor his disappointment at his sister’s birth.

Aye, his sister. Had I not said before? No? Perhaps then you shall allow me to repair the fault.

Aye, my lord has both son and daughter, though he knew it not. And indeed, has my son come to love his sister, and it is clear she adores him. He will atimes lean upon the edge of his sister’s crib and croon over her just to see her pucker her little mouth and make the attempt to imitate him. And when he laughs at her, she smiles and beats upon her blanket with her fists, her eyes wide and drinking in the sight of him. He has learned to hide beneath the wooden slats of her bed until she stirs unhappily and then pop up to catch her face lighting with sudden joy at his appearance. Her gaze trails after her brother and she weeps most piteously if he goes where she cannot see. Indeed, the girl wept when she saw her brother vanish from out the hall after we broke our fast. No doubt she would settle soon, for we left her in Elesinda’s care and the girl dotes upon the child as if she were her own. True it is, it was at first as if the child was hers.

For you may hear that into the birthing of a first child goes the greater labor, but I found it not so. The second demanded more of me. Much pain there was and many days of prostration after. But, ah! I should not speak of it. It could not be helped and all things come as they must. Indeed, I remember the pain little. And though she came into this world under the worried eyes of Mistress Nesta and for days afterwards I roused only to put her to my breast, Elesinda took over the infant’s care and my daughter thrived.

Aye, unlovely and ungrateful for the effort it took to bring her into the world, my daughter just born lie upon my breast and squalled, her fists shaking and her misshapen face red with rage as I pressed the dirt to her brow. There Pelara sat upon the edge of the bed and there she held my hand. I wept and she with me, such was the beauty of life at that moment. The Mistress had come, weary though she was, stirring herself from her mourning to attend upon me. In want of my lord, it was Pelara who brought me a bowl of the earth from my garden so I might welcome my daughter to Arda's soil. Elenir I call her, even if it be only for a little until her father returns home and grants her a name of his choosing.

"Well now, my lady,” had said Mistress Pelara, sitting upon the edge of my bed and looking on the infant fondly when first I held her. “That is a fine case of a woman of the North, enter this world kicking and screaming, and cause her mother mortal peril. She will have a fine spirit."

"Ah, Pelara, only you would jest so," Mistress Nesta huffed, impatient for her breath after making her way into the solar. There she tossed a pillow to the pallet they had wrested from the parlor and up the stairs.

There she slept beside my bed until she judged me well enough healed. But even after she left did she set a guard upon me, frightening the youth Halbarad left in his place into obeying her with warnings of dire consequences should aught tire me. The poor lad, Boradan sat himself down before the solar stairs and refused entrance to even Mistress Pelara, though the spring harvest failed and the Council deferred all decisions until the tale of the harvest could be told in full. To his credit, the youth stood his ground in the face of the Mistress' inchoate spluttering and the Council’s more polite but pointed queries. I have no doubt he shall serve my lord well.

And now the fall harvest has come and gone. All of the Angle knows the tale it told and there is no avoiding its foretelling for the winter. Aye! And well can I see it in the men we brush past, my son and I. Oh, they nod and bring their fingers to their brow, paying respect as is proper, but their gaze turns elsewhere. It is with a shock as the splash of chill water upon rising I feel eyes upon me. When I turn it is to find Master Sereg, his son at his side, marching upon the path so close were I lift my hand it would brush upon him. His gaze considers me and I know not what shame grips me when he brings his fingers to his brow. Then he is gone.

Ah! Could I not have prodded at the Council sooner? Could we not have done somewhat to clear the weirs upon the river of its mud and brush? Shallow and thick runs its water and we catch little fish and much leaves in it. Should we not have sent Master Herdir upon his search of our wooded lands at the height of summer when the now withered berries and mushrooms were once plump with spring rain? Well! The Council shall hear me now.

"My lady! Wait!"

Ah! The great clout-headed fools! Whatever could they think they are about?

The line of men and beast falters and breaks apart. Sure it is my skirts fly behind me in an unseemly display as I run.

"What right have you to the first plowing, eh?" a voice shouts.

"Hold there!" I hear ahead amidst a labored grunting of oxen.

Men scramble to take ahold the beasts and make them fast, but somewhat unsettles the teams and they protest their imprisonment. The men have gathered in a great ring about the noise and I beat upon them.

"Let me through!" All I can see are broad backs and a glimpse of light and shuffling feet in their midst.

"I have earned my right with these my own hands, not had it settled upon me with some chance of birth!"

"Have you now? None of us wished you here."

Ah! I push at shoulders barring my way and squirm between them until the air is dense with cloth and dust and the strong arms of men. The look turned to me is greatly startled, for I have jabbed a man in the ribs with the crook of my arm.

"My lady!" comes the cry behind me. "Wait!"

A scuffling of feet in the dust and the oxen bawl in distress.

"Let him go!"

"No!"

"Hold there," cries a man just before me, cupping his hands about his mouth the better to have his voice heard. "Let the man of the Angle have his turn first as is his due!"

With that, I strike at his arm and he turns upon me swiftly as if he would make me feel the full brunt of his anger. But I know not next what he did, for at his turning he opened the way into the center, and it was there I sprang.

Such a thing I see! Two men with their hands upon the horns and yoke of the oxen as if they would tear the team asunder between them. Ah, but their faces are red with wrath. They push at each other and the men crowd upon them, their faces dark. Menace hangs in the air as if it were the scent of blood. And like wolves the men of the Angle assemble in a pack and move as the ploughman and wanderer struggle o'er the beasts.

"You welcomed us then," I hear from the men gathered about and know not whose voice speaks, "when you would expand your own holdings by the sweat of our brow! What of now? Shall we always lie upon the dirt beneath your feet?"

"Enough of this!" I say, raising my voice above the sound of the crowd. There are some whose eyes I catch, and they stare at me uncertainly, shuffling away.

"You wanderers!" shouts the ploughman and lets go his hold of horns and yoke. His face disfigured by rage, he wrenches at the wanderer's grip, and with a great heave, throws the man aside to stumble back upon his heels. "Always wanting more. Well there is no more to be had! And you will not have none of mine."

I know little of what happened next, but with a great roar of noise the wanderer lowers his head and surges upon the ploughman and they are next tangled together and kicking up dust amidst the shouting of men and lowing of cattle.

No, no, no! Ai! Were my lord here, what would he do?

"Enough!" I shout. Oh, I am determined they shall heed me and part, and so quickly I stride across the small space of light and ground given them.

With a loud bellow, the ploughman throws up his fists, battering at the arms clutching about him and flinging them suddenly wide. And I am lying in the dust, clutching at my face.

It does not pain me, not at first, but it seems as if all the bees of the Angle are swarming about in my head in a great, disturbed and spinning cloud. And the shouting! Ai! I would have it cease!

"Thou dost not touch her!" I hear in a high voice. Loud it is, though it wavers as if delivered from a throat made tight by weeping, and stillness falls.

My eyes clear but such is my astonishment at the sight before me I can no more rise than if a blow had felled me yet again. For it is my son who has spoken. He stands there with his hands tight and fisted by his side, and his shadow falls upon me where he has planted himself between the Dśnedain and his mother. His father's Ranger stands silent beside him, blade naked and bright with the sun slipping along its length. And all about us in a stiff and silent fence stand the men of the Angle as if they were the wooden pikes of the palisades. Ah, and the horror in the eyes of the men who had, until this moment, known naught but the blows they traded!

"Make way!" I hear far behind me and the men about us set to murmuring, shifting about on their feet. But I mind it little, for my son trembles with both fear and fury.

Ai! Onya!

At this, I heave myself from the ground and care not for the ringing in my ear nor the heat that is pain spreading o'er my cheek. With but a touch upon his sleeve, my son starts and turns a pale face to me, his skin marred for the dust and tears he has shed.

"Ammė," he says and then halts, uncertain. I take his hand. All his bravery forgotten, his face crumbles and he clutches at me, pressing his face deep into my skirts as he has not done in many years.

"Make room, I tell you!"

It is Master Bachor who comes.

"Put away your blade!" say I and Ranger Baradon turns wide and blown eyes upon me. "It has no place here."

He hesitates, his look white and stunned and I hiss at him, "We do not draw on our own!"

He blinks and sets the tip of his sword to the scabbard, where it falters, sending the light of the sun into my eyes until he has it mastered and thrusts the blade home.

"What is this?"

Master Bachor has made his way through the crowd and now stands before it. I know not what he sees, but it sets a grim line upon his face. The ploughmen and wanderer, their faces wringing sweat and clothes dark with dust step back a pace, uncertain as to their fate. But there is no escape. And it is my foolishness that has brought it upon them.

For the burning of my cheek I know it bright and soon to bear a darker mark, but I shall not flinch beneath his sharp gaze when Master Bachor comes near.

"Who struck you, my lady?" he demands.

"I know not, Master Bachor," for, in truth, I do not.

"Indeed?" And at this, his look is one of thinly veiled displeasure. "You there," he says, impatient and thrusting his chin at a ploughman I know for a pledgeholder. "Take ahold of that man and him as well. Bind them and put them under watch."

Easily are the ploughman and wanderer marked. By the dirt clinging to their breeches and the blood suffusing their faces, it could be none other.

I laugh and the sound falls oddly upon the bright and quiet space.

"I think you would do better to place me in Master Herdir's keeping as well, then."

"And how is that, my lady?"

"Ah, well," I say, and make a pretense of mortification, dropping my eyes and allowing a small wry grimace to twist at my lips though my heart beats within my breast so loudly I wonder he cannot hear it. "'Twas my own fault. A woman has no place where a man's strength is needed. I should have known better."

Perhaps I do not fool him, Master Bachor, for his gaze holds upon me and a tightness comes about his lips.

"Nonetheless, it is not permitted, my lady, for a man of the Angle to raise a hand to aught of the House of Isildur. You know the penalty."

He has turned away before I may speak. "Take them now," he says, for hands have clapped upon the ploughman and wanderer and my mouth runs dry for the naked fear upon their faces. The penalty is death.

"Who are your pledgeholders?" At my question they halt. "Where are they?" I raise my voice, looking out above the men for one head or two that might move and cleave a path through the crowd.

"It matters not, my lady," says Master Bachor, coming near so none may hear his voice but I. Ranger Boradan, unnerved, steps close and his shadow catches the Elder's eyes. He lowers his voice and comes no nearer. "Perhaps you should have considered the limits of your strength before making the attempt. It is a little late for it now."

"This is not for you to decide, Master Bachor. You are not of the House."

This brings him up short and I think then he will protest, for his face falls hard and he draws a quick breath.

"Nor is it mine," say I, my voice swift and low. Ah, no, I shall have no man suffer for my fault should I have the power to help it. "It shall be for the Angle to decide. We are hard upon the hallmoot, are we not?"

"My lady, it is of no use," he says, shaking his head grimly. "It was done when first you were struck."

"Do you not think we have need of all hands in our labor shall we weather the winter to come?" I go on. At this, he halts, his look uncertain. "And in truth, Master Bachor, where have they to run?"

The look he puts to me is long and measuring in its silence. But then, he bows, his movements slow and well-turned, if his gaze remains stiffly upon me.

"As you wish."

With that, Master Bachor takes the bond of pledgeholders for the ploughman and wanderer and sets the men back upon their path.

"For your pains," he says, "neither of you shall have use of the oxen, not today. Now get you upon your way, and swiftly, too."

Soon we are again at the edge of the path, Ranger Boradan watching as the men pass, his hand lightly laid upon the hilt of his sword. But I give them no more heed, for my son stares up at me with eyes full of questions I think he does not have even the words to give voice. He is unsettled by them and I must give myself over to soothing him. Such a thing it is to have power over men. If it disturbs my sleep and sends me worrying over my books, how it must frighten a child. It is not until the last of the men have passed and I have cleaned his face and smoothed straight his hair and clothing that my son is ready.

We start again upon our journey to the Elder's house, but without the merriment that accompanied us upon our beginning. And when we are done with our meal and settle for the night, my son does not seek to go further from my side than his small bed, there to listen to his mother settle his sister to her sleep and then ease to his own slumbers.

I lay in the dark, then, listening to the slight sounds of his sleep. He is my son, and yet, somehow more. Had I a hand in the laying of the foundation of my lord's fortress? Perhaps, but the very stone I have laid down seems to have taken a life of its own and grows beyond my grasp.

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