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45

He sprang down the steps and away, leaping down the path. 'Alas! An ill fate is on me this day, and all that I do goes amiss."

TTT: The Departure of Boromir


~~~

Headlong is our flight, though we are hindered in it. We duck beneath low-hanging eaves and charge through alleys, kicking up stones and dust, not daring more speed than safe passage will allow until at last we leave the houses of the Angle’s square behind. Only then when the fallow fields open before us, with the light from Ranger Mathil’s torch passing swiftly upon the night, do we dare set the horses to full galloping. Yet still, by the heaving of Bachor's breast beneath my grip and the sounds that whip past my ears, I know him to be cursing for the slowness of our pace.

I cling tightly to the man and close my ears to the sound of my son's voice, for he cries and berates me.

"Ammë!" my son calls, tears filling his eyes and blinding him as he stuffs his carved men into his sack. They spill and fall to the carpet of rushes in his haste. "Why did you let Elenir go?" he demands. "They will not know where to look for her and now we will not find her in time and the orcs will take her!"

Ai! No words or vows would soothe my son until he saw his sister for himself. Even then, black indeed were the looks he turned to me over her bundled head when at last Elesinda gathered them together. In truth, why had I encouraged it?

Once, lights bloomed at the foot of the hill as bright baubles upon a string. But now we cleave through the night air and the flames come nearer, grown so that their flickering tricks the eye to daylight and the heavy plumes of smoke winding above them are dark shadows against the clouds.

"Halt!" comes the cry and Bachor draws the mare up short, turning her roughly about. The gelding sidles about a ring of light, his nostrils blown and eyes wild, whinnying, for Mathil has leapt from behind Ranger Haldren and crouches low over a dim and shadowed thing lying upon the path. Haldren speaks sharply and pulls hard upon a rein so the gelding can do naught but turn about in circles until he wearies of the fight.

I need not the keen sense of the beasts, even I can smell it, yet some horrid fascination draws my eyes. So it must be for Bachor, for he knees my lord’s mare forward.

“What is it?”

"Come no further!" calls Ranger Mathil and we halt.

Aye, I have no more wish to see, for the light of the torch he holds reveals enough. Merciful Nienna! ‘Tis Pledgeholder Eradan and his blood spreads as a dark cloak about him on the path upon which he has fallen. There he lies crumpled upon the cold earth, heedless of the rising wind as it stirs the leaves and sere grass about him.

Mathil peers at the ground about the man, close in his search of both signs in the dirt on which he lies and the marks upon him. His face is grim when he rises. He grinds the torch into the dust and we are plunged into a sudden darkness.

"We risk no light from here," says he.

No sooner have the words left the Ranger's mouth than Bachor turns my lord's mare swiftly about.

"Wait!" I cry and beat on his arm, but to no avail. With a great thrust of her hindquarters, the mare lunges forward. I clutch at Bachor, forgetting myself and cursing him. For in his haste surely I shall be thrown upon the ground and there trampled by the Rangers in the dark.

I keep my seat despite my fears and we run on paths known only for the flying of leaves or skittering of pebbles beneath the mare’s hooves. Had I thought our progress swift before? It was naught like, for now we fly as an arrow loosed from a hunter's bow. Bachor crouches low o'er the beast's neck, and I press my face to his back and pray my lord's Rangers may follow as quickly behind.

Ai! The air is foul so I would retch for it.

"Down!" Bachor cries.

At the gathering stench I have dared to peer o'er his shoulder, and before I know the word for what it is, we duck beneath low-hanging boughs. The tips of their branches tear at my scarf and rake my cheek, but I do not feel the sting. Forsaking the path, we come swiftly upon Bachor's fields. There, beyond the dark of the wooded croft, a frame of timbers burns as if the very sun itself were trapped therein. We come swiftly upon the flames and he slows the mare from her headlong gallop.

'Tis Bachor's granaries. One burns with the white-hot heat of a forge, dripping flames as if the wood itself melted. A third shed stands yet untouched, but black clouds pour from beneath the eaves of a second as if it were aflood with smoke. For once it is with gratitude I think upon Maurus' black forecasting, for it was he who begged the Council to order the ploughing of great firebreaks about our homes and barns. And yet it seems even these measures shall be for naught. For spark and ash drift upon the rising breeze as if lifted there upon small buzzing wings, and a larch whose old boughs once shaded the beasts in their yard is caught in the blaze. Fire climbs its limbs as if it were a living beast. Bales of hay crawl with flame and the oxen within the shed bawl their fear and fury. Hens batter their wings against their coop and their roosters crow so that the air is sharp with the sound. Sheep huddle in the far corner of their yard, bleating and jostling for the furthest point away, no matter it be against a thick rock wall.

And dimly through the smoke, against the shimmering night air twists the dark form of a woman, her hair pulled in tatters from her scarf and cloak thrown aside. She weeps and beats at the dirt with a sodden blanket. Smoke rises from the earth where sparks have set it aflame. It seems she has been at it some time. Charred rings dot the yard thereabout. 'Tis a battle not easily won, for the grass is dry and quickly set alight and smoke rises all about her.

"Matilde," Bachor whispers, his voice swallowed by the roaring of the fires.

He kicks at the mare, and though reluctant for the blazing heat of the burning granary, putting herself to a burst of speed she goes where commanded, the whites of her eye catching the fire and shining as a bright coin. Great panting breaths come from the beast and, crying out suddenly, she shies from flames as we pass and thus we plunge onto the croft.

It seems Matilde has heard neither her husband nor the mare, for she urges someone near and cries out.

"Hurry, take the bucket. You must be brave and go to the stream without me. Come!"

With that, through the curtain of smoke a young girl of no more than ten years runs, leaving her younger sister clutching at air and screaming. Their mother had set her cloak deep in water and thrown it over the girls as they huddled behind a bare swathe of earth where once had passed the plough.

"Matilde!" comes Bachor's cry. He draws sharply upon the reins and the mare dances to a halt.

At his voice and the sight of the beast hurtling toward her, Matilde stands and stares dumbly upon us. The girl clutches at her mother's hand, the bucket forgotten, joy rising in her face.

"Ammë!" cries the girl, shaking her mother's arm. "'Tis Father, he is come as you said he would!"

Of a sudden Bachor is gone from the mare and I struggle to seize upon the reins so I might still her restlessness and let myself down from her back.

Dimly I hear the gelding's hooves pound into the yard and Haldren and Mathil's voices, for I see naught but Bachor wreathed about in smoke, his swift stride leading him to his youngest daughter. There he throws off the sodden wool and picks her up, stilling her wailing. Once I have alighted to the ground, he has all of them in his arms, daughters and their mother, and Matilde weeps for her relief and clings to him. About them, ash floats upon the air and their sheds and croft burn.

"My lady!"

With cold and nerveless hands, I struggle to unpin my cloak when comes the cry above the roar of the flames and bleating of the sheep. Ranger Mathil blinks and peers into the smoke, striding to me. Haldren is not to be seen, but the gelding they rode has been let loose. He trots to the mare who has come to a stand and blows anxiously as she paces and watches us from some safer distance from the flames.

"Ranger Mathil! Let loose the cattle!" I cry and have the cloak from about my shoulders. I need it not for warmth, and in Matilde's inattention, flames take a hold upon the dry grasses about us. "Water! We need water!"

"My lady!" says Mathil, his own fingers upon the ties of his wrap, but I pay him no more heed. Dust and ash fly up from the ground where I beat it with my cloak. A strong hand comes upon my arm and twists me about. I have but a moment to see the Ranger's face, eyes narrowed and mouth grimly fixed, before he beats upon the earth with his own cloak where once I stood and stamps at the sparks that fly up from his assault.

"Water must wait, my lady, until we know more what enemy we face," he says, the flames at my skirt now naught but a black scorched place in the grass. When I would protest, he nods to the brilliance that is the granary, where a dark figure that must be Haldren bends to the earth and searches about it. I wonder he can bear the heat.

"Are there others?" Mathil shouts, raising his voice so that Bachor loosens his tight hold upon his wife. "Or are all safe?"

"Sereg!" cries Bachor. His eyes widening at the thought, he puts Matilde from him. "Sereg! Where is Sereg? Has he gone for water?" But Matilde shakes her head.

"Bachor--," she begins, but he gives her little chance to speak. 'Twould be somewhat of pity and bitterness in her look, had I reason to think it.

"Ai! Matilde! Tell me he did not attempt to save the grain and was caught in the fire!" Bachor then thrusts his infant daughter into her mother's arms and turns away from them to the burning granaries.

Tongues of fire feed upon the thatch of the second shed where once it billowed smoke and steam rises from the trees thereabout for the heat of the first, but still Bachor would go there.

"No, Bachor!" Matilde cries and grasps for her husband. He is gone. For he has taken to running, calling for Sereg.

I draw breath to halt him, but Mathil is the quicker to act. In a motion too swift to follow, Mathil springs as a yearling buck from my side and with both fists he grabs up the front of Bachor's tunic and hauls him about.

"No!" he shouts and throws the man to the scorched ground where Bachor stares up at the Ranger lit by the flames. "Go no further!"

With her infant daughter screaming in her ear, Matilde comes upon them and pulls at her husband's hand. He scuffles briefly in the dirt before, with her help, he rises. All the while she pleads with him and seeks to have him look upon her. But a rage has come upon his face and he will have none of it.

"What is this?" Bachor demands of Mathil.

"Bachor!" Matilde calls in vain. "Do you not hear me?"

"You must not!" says Mathil, placing himself between the Elder and the flames when it seems the man would yet attempt to brush him aside.

"Would you have me leave the man to burn?" "Do not hinder me, Ranger!" Bachor cries when Mathil would take hold of him again.

"Bachor!" Matilde shakes her husband by the arm. "Did he not find you? Bachor, listen to me!"

"Ah!" Bachor cries, brushing off his wife's hand. "Matilde, what do you think? Sereg did not find me, else I would not need search for him!" I think perhaps he will push both her and their daughter away from him and care not for the violence of it, so great is his displeasure.

"Nay, not Sereg! 'Tis Eradan of whom I speak."

At long last, it is this brings Bachor up short. He halts and looks upon his wife as if seeing her anew. "What is this you say?"

"Eradan! The ploughman! I sent him to you with word of the fire. He said there was great danger upon the Angle and would not let me travel upon it to find you."

"And what then of Sereg?"

This last is from Haldren whose face is bright with sweat and who smells strongly of singed hair and wool. "Was it he, then?" he goes on and wipes at his brow, leaving behind a trail of ash upon his skin.

"Was it he? Did you find sign of him?" Bachor demands.

"Aye, there are signs to be found about the granaries," says Haldren, his voice wary, "and they are of but one man."

"Bachor," I hear and it is Matilde, her voice low so that I must strain to hear it above that of the flames and bleating cattle. "Aye, he was here as you asked of him, to watch over us. I know not where Sereg is now, but 'twas he who set the fires, none other."

So great is Bachor's shock, he does not speak and seems scarce to breathe.

"Aye, and 'twas no orc blade that took Eradan's life."

For a brief moment, Bachor can do naught but stare at Mathil and then mutely take in the billowing smoke and white-hot heat that is his harvest and the hope of his house. I think, perhaps, news of Sereg's death would not have caused him more suffering. I know not what he would next have done, but of a sudden the child standing apart from us shrieks and ash and flame swirl upon the wind.

Ai! The oxen scream, for the far wall of their shed crumbles upon itself beneath the weight of the flame, sending up a great cloud of smoke in the wake of its fall.

~oOo~

Ai! No!

So slow the coarse bag I carry tumbles from my arms it seems I could catch it midfall, but I fail the attempt. For I know not it if be for fury or fear but I shake so it slips from my grasp and the bag bursts its seams when it strikes the floor of the granary. Ah! Rye berries fall about my feet and scatter upon the stones set in the floor.

Sweat and smoke sting my eyes but I dare not wipe at my brow, but drop to my knees and though the stone tears at my skin, scrape at the grain and scoop handfuls into the torn sack. Perhaps it can hold the rye for but long enough to carry it to safety. I have dampened my scarf and tied it about my nose and mouth, but it helps little for each breath is more bitter than the one before. So short the time, each grain grows more precious for the moments passing.

Alas! Sereg!

"Leave that, my lady!" I hear and so full are my thoughts with a man of the Dúnedain upon his knees and the slow growth of hope in his eyes, I startle at the sight of the Ranger looming o'er my head. 'Tis Mathil. He, too, has wound a bit of cloth about his face and I can see naught of him but his eyes. He comes swiftly to kneel beside me and, despite his words, scrapes at the rye with me.

"Has it caught?" I ask.

His eyes say it is has not.

"Any sign, my lady," he warns, but need speak no further. He is clearly indisposed to allow his chieftain's wife to continue hauling sacks and baskets of grain should the granary in which they are stored catch afire.

"Aye." Taking up the sack, I abandon the last of the grain to the cracks between the stones, thrusting the burden into his arms. "But we have some time yet. Go!"

Being his lord's man, so he goes, and as swiftly as I might wish. For smoke seeps in through the thatch above his head and were the Ranger to stay aught longer he would be sure to note it. The smoke twists in a slow dance in the dead air about the rafters. If the roof is not yet afire, it shall soon be.

"Hiyah!" To the slap of leather and an ox's bellow, I stumble from the granary to a world that changed even ere I was within.

Ai! So little time has passed, moments, no more, and the one granary is dead. Stumps of timber shelter naught but smoke and empty air. 'Tis the second that blazes as the heart of a furnace now. Aye, they are gone, no more the grain that would feed Master Bachor's house and those of the Angle who claim his care.

No more, too, the lowing of the cattle and baaing of the sheep, and the roosters' call has ceased. Whooping and striking at their flanks with withy branches, I had set the cattle and sheep loose upon the pasture. There the hens rose from their pens in a great flapping of wings and the cattle bounded across the fallow land. The sheep resisted my beating upon them and pressed all the tighter in a knot against the stone wall, for in their pen the gate faced upon the fire, the way out clouded in smoke and fear. I came nigh to despairing of freeing them when one ewe, either more bold than the rest or more weary of the sting of my rod about her knees, broke from the herd and, to my relief, the rest trotted after her. Now they have scattered into the darkness so as not to be seen.

Ranger Mathil has stuffed the sack into the top of a basket, the grains spilling forth when he forced the lid atop it all. For the rye lies scattered upon the blackened ground and he and basket are gone. Once settled, he carries his loads far beyond the firebreak to a pile of baskets, sacks and rings of grain upon the lawn of Master Bachor's house. I set yet another basket at my feet where it shall await his return, dropping it heavily to the ground for the numbness of my limbs. Swiftly does the Ranger stride upon the croft, and yet still too slowly does the pile of grain grow there far from the reach of the fire. For the distance between fire and cool shadow is necessarily great and there is naught but the one of us to travel it.

Aye, the one, for Master Bachor, himself, drives a pair of his oxen across the uneven earth. It is he whose voice cries out and whose oxen bawl their complaint of his commands. Their great ungainly heads loll about as they bellow and strain against the yoke. A stranger to the task, Bachor is slower about it than he might wish, I think, for he curses and, stumbling, cracks his whip about their withers. Fire, we had expected, but had not thought it to be set in our midst, and so, abandoning the attempt to put out the fire when it alights upon the grasses, we let it burn and Bachor labors to extend the firebreaks so the flames shall be starved of fodder upon the path to his house and hay sheds.

We pray the fire then might die for its hunger. But should it not, Matilde and his daughters, Master Bachor has sent to the earthen fort under Ranger Haldren's care. In their stead comes the shouting of men, and when I turn about to enter the granary again, it is to find a bright line of fire as a snake winding its way far off upon the pasture to the north. Like a deer it has leaped the firebreak and runs upon the dry grass before the wind. Men run, ungainly hunters laden with blankets and rugs and their own clothing, and attempt to outflank its course. Should it run true, it shall sweep over us soon enough and put our labors to naught. And even that shall little matter, for should it run true, the blaze shall race across the pasture and to the heart of the Angle itself.

All about is dark with the pall of smoke and for the cracking of timber and roar of fire, and I cannot recall the sound of wind and water and the call of birds upon the dawn. Ai! What is this melancholy? I have been too long idle! What hope if I shall not shake myself free of the sight of wheels of fire spinning to the heavens and the ghastly light upon Bachor's lurching form and Ranger Mathil's face, bright as the moon against the trees in the glare of the burning sheds?

Valar forbid!

'Tis not the Ranger's face, nor is it his eyes that peer upon us.

There in the flickering light, he comes slowly out from the shadowed verge, his hands before him the better to be plainly seen.

"Bachor," he calls, though I hear not the sound.

He does not once look upon the ruins of granaries nor the fire that consumes them still. And though he has eyes for naught else but the Master of the house that once provided him comfort, he has not yet been perceived in return. Indeed, the blade of the plough has lodged itself against some impediment and Bachor is much occupied with it.

"Ho!" Bachor calls to the oxen to slow them and, grimacing with vexation, he jerks at the plough's long handles.

Sereg lifts his palms and comes soon upon the man struggling with the plough.

Ah, no! Should he be taken unawares!

"Bachor!" I would call, if I had the voice and were it not muffled by the scarf about my mouth. But Sereg's hands, stained darkly as they are by the fire, seem to rush upon the man and the sight brings a strange stillness upon the air.

The knot is firm and the wool stretched tight, but I tear the cloth from about my face. "Bachor!"

At this, he ceases his efforts for but a moment and follows the line of my pointing. The plough falls upon its side, the oxen stumbling in the sudden shift of their load, and Bachor throws off the reins. I cannot see his face and know not his mood, but as a hare startled by some fleeting shadow, Sereg halts, his look pleading and his chest rising with shortened breath as if he had been running.

"You!" says Bachor, his voice harsh.

"Matilde and your daughters, where are they? Tell me they are not dead!"

Swiftly does Bachor march across the croft and three steps, four, five, no more, and he shall be upon the ploughman.

"Bachor! Forgive me!" Sereg calls. With one foot now behind him and the other ahead, I know not if he will stand or flee. "I sought out help and thought to be gone but a moment, I swear, and returned as swiftly as was able."

"By all the Valar, Sereg! You would have had them burn!"

"What? No!" Sereg raises an arm as in warding and backs away from the man who rushes upon him. Wide are the eyes beneath the shadow of his arm and he looks upon Bachor with a sudden horror.

Ai! And Ranger Mathil far beyond hearing! It is then I find my feet in motion, though I recall not my thoughts giving them their command. A plague upon these skirts! They seize upon my ankles and fain would bring me down.

Only then do I see Bachor's face. He snarls at the man, his features stripped of their fairness by toil and rage. "You lie!" he shouts.

"No! I swear it!" Sereg would then turn to flee, but Bachor is the faster and all intent of flight is too late.  He clutches upon the man's cloak as he turns and throws him to the ground.

"Get up!" shouts Bachor, standing over him, his fists raised and ready. "If there is aught in you that remains yet a man, get up!"

I think then, it shall come to naught but a battle of hand against hand and I slow my running, stumbling o'er the furrows but newly hewn into the earth. I have learned well the lesson taught by wading into blows that fly between men and perhaps it is best to leave them to it. But then some fey light comes upon Sereg's eyes. They glitter, I know not if with the fire or a fever of his mind. He springs of a sudden to his feet and leaps upon Bachor.

Ai! Where had he the knife? It sprang into his hand as if plucked from the air.

There they grapple in shadow and tortured light of the flames and I know not which man cries out, but only that Bachor's face twists in pain.

"No!" Blessed be the Lady of the Stars and may She look down upon us in our need! Alas! I would tear my hair from my head by its very roots if it were but a weapon. I have naught! The oxen bellow at the sound and I clutch at the handles of the plough. There! 'Tis the whip, I know it, coiled about the feet of the oxen as it were a serpent. Trampled in the mire, it is, and slippery. I snatch it up and come nigh to falling to the ground, for the ox has stamped about and holds the leather tight beneath its hoof.

"Hiyah! Move!" I shout and strike at the animal's flank with naught but my open hand. And it is free.

They are not men, but a kind of beast with crooked limbs and faces too terrible to behold. There they spit and gasp for want of air. Blood blooms upon the cloth of Bachor's breeches there beneath the line of his shirt and Sereg would force him to lean upon the lame leg. For the man has him about the throat and hinders the bite of the blade he seeks to thrust into the Elder's breast.

No! It shall not be!

There they jerk and cry out, Bachor's hands slipping upon Sereg's skin made slick by sweat. In my haste, I have caught both of them in the lash and they stumble apart. Where is he? Where is the knife? The whip whistles above my head and I strike again, hitting only the ground, and I falter for the shock. Ah! Where is he? There! The leather catches him about the arm and I listen not to his cries nor look upon the bright wheals that start up on his flesh, but draw upon the leather again. I strike at him, heedless in my fury, so that he writhes and twists upon himself, stumbling back, unable to either repel the lash or slip out from beneath its bite. Dimly do I see Bachor, uneasy outside the reach of the whistling leather, his arms warding off its sting but feet restless and much desiring to duck within the circle the whip courses.

"My lady!" he cries and in the moment I hear his voice and know the fear in it, my arm is all but pulled free of its socket. Hands clutch and twist and bind my limbs, and though I flail and kick, I am pressed tightly bound against a heaving breast. There the man's breath comes harsh, its edge against my neck as keen against the skin as the blade thrust there.

"Sereg! No!" comes Bachor's cry and as an adder he strikes at the ground and would take up the whip in my stead. But he is slow and drags his leg behind him.

"Halt!" Sereg cries and presses the blade so its edge bites upon me. "Come no further!"

The beating of my heart is as a drum. I know little of what he speaks, for in my ears I hear naught but the roar of the flames and the rushing of my own blood. I should speak, but have not the words.

"Come no further, I say!"

Bachor then halts, for what other choice has he? "What do you, Sereg? Was not Eradan enough and you would have more blood upon your hands? Are you not of the Dúnedain? She is of the House and your Lady. Let her go!"

A sound comes from Sereg, a mix of disgust and pity both, and he means it not for me. "So this is it, then? Even you shall lie down as a dog at the command of the House of Isildur, though it care little it has abandoned us to face the Shadow alone?"

"Sereg—" I say and then fall still, for at my voice the blade bites more deeply still.

Bachor starts forward, his hand lifted in warning. "You harm her, Sereg, and naught awaits you but your own death. They will hunt you down where ever you may find to hide. Let her go."

"What does it matter? Do we not but await the hour of death's coming? What must a man do? Is this it? When the land refuses to feed the lord's folk and fire takes the little we have wrested from it in his absence? Shall then the House be moved to pity? Or shall even then it wait until all the hosts of Mordor come down upon us? Did you not fear so yourself?"

"Aye, Sereg!" And then Bachor's voice softens and I wonder at the sorrow in it. He motions to the knife that rides the rise and fall of my breath. "But, this?" he pleads.

"If a man of the Dúnedain must do such things to gain its ear, what use have we for this House?"

In this moment, I know myself lost. For I have naught to say to that, and by the wretchedness upon Bachor's face, I think him, too, at a loss. I know not if he despairs of an answer himself or, having one, despairs of it being heard. His look is sickened, as if he knows he must steel himself against what is next to come and knows he had a hand in its making.

"Sereg," he says and then no more, but seems to coils upon himself as if readying to strike, lame leg and all. Sereg's grip upon me tightens.

Behind us, the timbers of the granary crack and, with a roar, tumble in upon themselves. Smoke swirls upon the heavens and drifts about us.

"On your own heads be it," says Sereg, his voice soft and scarce to be heard.

Ai! Shall I fight against it? Claw at the arm wrapped about me or kick at the shins pressed behind me? Or shall naught suffice but the weight of the dead to pull him to the ground and there they might pin and make him fast?

But then of a sudden comes the sound of hooves and Sereg's startled shout, and I am buffeted about. The ground rises up hard and swift beneath me. Too soon to feel the pain of it or know the flight of wood and feather that had skimmed so close to my ear its passing echoes there still, I know only I have been torn loose of Sereg's grip and thrown aside. A shadow has fallen upon Sereg and there they roll about the ground, cloaks tangling and fingers deep in the other's flesh. 'Tis Mathil, all the more deadly for his silence, and he clutches at the hand bearing the blade.

Then, too, rings out a great cry. He emerges from the twisting cloud of smoke, a dark form with sword upraised and the color of fire. He has thrown his cloak before his face as a guard against the sting of the smoke, but I know him. How he has come so swiftly here I cannot tell. It is Halbarad and he leaps free of the clutch of the fire. Behind him, too, upon my lord's mare rides Ranger Haldren, standing tall in his stirrups and putting another bolt to the string. I have but the time to hear his shout and the Ranger pulls the nock to his cheek and sights long down the shaft of wood.

But he is too late, for a sudden flash of the blade and with a grunt of pain Mathil clutches at his arm, and the arrow clatters upon the stones and dust where once had been the man. Sereg has risen and now flees. And though blood drips from his sleeve Mathil is quickly after him. Both are lost to the shadows beneath the forest's eaves even as my lord's mare pounds after them.

"My lady?"

Bloodied and torn, it is Bachor in the midst of men and beast milling about.  He stands above me, offering his hand. With his help, I rise from the dust and even then his arm lingers about me. There we lean upon each other and tremble. Men and horses pour upon the croft. Halbarad pulls his mount about and looks upon me, his eyes wide and wondering for me.

"The fire runs wild to the north!" I cry and he nods briskly.

Wheeling his horse about, he shouts to his men, though I know not his words. Some of the host then scatter upon the field, following the line of the fire, others fly quickly about the verge of wooded land in which Sereg runs, others still leap from their horses and set to beating out the fires and taking up the plough.

"Master!" A Ranger I do not know comes upon us. "You are hurt," he says and only now does Bachor wince and look upon his leg. A long gash and bleeding still, I wonder he does not feel it more keenly.

"My pardon, my lady." The Ranger, tall and with a mind firmly set to it, takes the man's arm from about me and settles him to the ground.

"Hold still, now," he says and I leave them then.

Strange how far had seemed the path from the granary to where Sereg had appeared upon the croft when indeed it takes me so little time to travel it now. The men's calls seem a distant thing and yet the crackling of flames in the trees and upon the thatch of the last granary sound no nearer. I should be weeping, should I not? Is not the pain and grief of this night worthy of tears? Truly, I would wish to set myself down away from this whirlwind of sight and sound and memory. Would then I weep? Ah, but I know not and have not the time to ponder it further. For I have come again upon my task of bearing the grain from out the shed. Smoke drifts from the door, lit as it is from within.

"My lady! What are you doing?" Far upon the croft comes Halbarad's voice. Raised and angry of tone, he cries out and by this I know 'tis not the first he has called to me.

Ah! Let him shout. How many of the House's folk might be fed from even one sack or one basket of grain? I cannot tell, the numbers will not form of themselves in my thoughts, but whatever the number it is enough.

"Nienelen!"

He has dismounted and strides swiftly after me with his long legs. He grunts when the sole of my boot strikes him upon the knee. He has taken ahold of my wrist and seeks to hinder me, pulling upon me and calling me by name. Ah! But I weary of the touch of men!

"Let me go!" I cry but he does then a thing I had not thought him capable.

Foregoing further argument, he takes me about the arm and legs in his strong grip and, before I know it, the wind is knocked from me and the ground falls away. He has thrown me aloft his shoulder. There I can do naught but curse at him and beat at his back with my fists, for it seems my legs are pinned against his broad breast with naught but bands of iron. How dare he! The ground spins about his moving feet as I jostle upon his shoulder.

"My lady, I am happy you are unharmed, but be still –" he says, but then the air explodes in light and sound. Bright as the coming of the Valar and as loud as their thunder, the sun bursts upon the croft.

Stunned I lie still and wonder at the great weight upon me that pins me to the ground so I scarce can breathe. 'Tis Halbarad who lies as he was thrown upon me, as stunned as I.

He shakes his head sharply, and with a grunt, the man forces himself to roll upon his side. There, propped upon our arms, we lie and look upon the wreck of timber that was once the granary. Its beams thrust as blackened bones from the earth, dark against the restless bright beast that has come to settle in their embrace. The flames are strangely quiet, almost a thing of beauty in a world of smoke and silence. Slowly, but slowly does the sound of men and flame grow about me.

"My lady," I hear and turn to find Halbarad looking upon me with a face that is both weary and grim. Begrimed by soot and sweat, his skin shines with the heat of the flames. "You shall leave this place, now!"

Only then do I hear the steps that stop behind my shoulder, and look up to find Ranger Haldren's silver head towering over me. With that, Halbarad thrusts himself from the ground and strides away, and I can do naught but take the Ranger's hand offered me.

Haldren takes up the reins of my lord's mare, finding her biddable and willing to come at his call where the gelding has long ago fled. She, too, I think is weary, and no longer protests the slowness of the Ranger's pace. Dark shadows of men advance upon the towers of flame, beating upon the earth and rushing about with pails of water. The heat has beaten them back and fire sparks along a ridge of trees.

"Shall you not come, my lady?"

My lord's Ranger stands ready, waiting for me, one hand upon the mare's halter and the other raised to clasp mine and lift me to her back. But I do not take it.

"Your flask, Ranger Haldren"

A moment and his look upon me is startled. But then, some understanding and pity grows in his glance, and he digs deep in his coat and draws it forth. He surrenders it to me and it is as I thought. The liquor it holds is potent and burns all it touches.

"I am ready."

~oOo~

'Tis not the sudden sound of the latch of the great door that awakens me, nor the footsteps that approach the hearth, but the sound of rain rustling in the thatch and striking the shutters to be heard after his steps stilled. My head jerks of itself from the pillow of my limbs.

He is marred by soot and smells of smoke and wet wool. His head bowed to his hands, he scrubs slowly at his face, the fingers of one hand wrapped in a soiled scrap of his cloak. My lord's kin says naught when I awake nor when I arise and, taking up a cup from the morning's Council meeting, ladle water into it from the barrel by the hearth. I leave him drinking deeply. When I return from the parlor, I bear a small stone jar and fresh linens.

"Let me see to that," I say as I sit beside him, nodding to his hand.

He surrenders to my touch and I begin by unwinding the filthy rag and tossing it into the hearth. There it lets off a foul smell when the fire catches upon it. The skin of his fingers is an angry red and blisters blackly at the edges of his wounds. He hisses when I lave water upon them, gentle though I try to be, and then falls silent. I have dabbed the poultice upon his skin and am slowly winding the thin strips of cloth about his fingers when he speaks.

"What tales do your lists tell, my lady?" He nods at the scattered leaves of parchment where they litter the floor.

"One I believe you know without their reading."

He does not answer. Indeed, he need not.

"You believe it their intent from the beginning?"

He nods. "Not even a handful of orc were they. 'Twas well-played, and cost our Enemy precious little."

Aye, and yet shall weaken us greatly until he has exacted many times over the payment he expended in the effort.

Halbarad watches as I unwind a strip of linen and fold it upon itself to make of it a pad for his palm.

"We have Sereg," he says after some time.

I halt and search his face but find naught there but shadows from the hearth and a long night of wearisome toil. "Dead?"

"Alive," he says grimly, "and now under Master Tanaes' care."

The look he gives me next is one of some pity and I daresay I may yet deserve it upon the morrow. Perhaps it would have been a kinder fate for all of us if Master Sereg had not survived the night. I doubt he shall reveal whatever secret shadows his heart, though there be those who shall surely wish to make the attempt to force it from him, nonetheless. For Sereg, once one of the Dúnedain of the North, is all but dead and he can do naught for it. What is left then but for the House to order the manner of it and see it done where all the Angle might know it?

"Shall you go to the children?" he then asks, but I shake my head and pick up my binding where I left off.

"They are safe. My awakening them would only serve to frighten them."

He watches me wind the last of the strip of linen about his hand, considering this for some time, I think.

"You should not risk yourself so," he says at last and I know it is come.

"'Twas no great matter." I tuck in the ends of the cloth.

"Aragorn would not say so."

"It hardly matters now that--"

He cuts me off with some heat, “I care not one whit what Mistress Nesta had to say and neither would he!”

I think him, too, stunned by the force of his own words, for he falls silent for a moment and shifts upon the bench as it were harder than its usual wont. He does not look upon me and I cannot speak. When he again fills the silence between us, his voice is low and strained.

“May I remind you, my lady, it is not to you to decide what cause might justify such a willful disregard of your person. And ‘tis not to you to decide when the Lord of the Dúnedain has no more need of your service. You may not seek to end it of your own will.”

Perhaps only now has he caught sight of my face, for he looks away and, taking up his cup and rubbing his thumb against its rim, mutters, “Tis not to you to decide,” and says no more.

When I can again speak and have quit with my tears, I rise and take up the jar of poultice. With more care than it requires, I replace its lid. "Then I shall have this argument with him when he returns."

Halbarad sighs at this and works his hand, grimacing at the pain, and then rises from his seat. I step over my abandoned lists and make my way to the stairs leading to the solar.

"Well, then, if you shall not retire to the hill, then best I stay and see you undisturbed." He downs the last of the water and, with a thud, sets his cup upon the bench.

Perhaps it is just as well I have no wish to seek shelter behind the palisades, for my lord's kin seems too weary to move much further beyond the hearth than the settle where he sleeps. There he lets himself down with a soft groan, foregoing blanket and pillow for the rain-sodden and burned wool of his cloak and grimed leather of his gear. His face is shadowed for the arm he has flung across his eyes and I cannot read what lies hidden there.

"Bid you good rest, my lady," he calls across the dark hall.

"And to you, Halbarad."


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