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Winter queen

B2MeM Challenge (ready for this?):
N36: Rangers of the North: Dirhael
Magic and Real: The Spirits of the House

O62: Deep thoughts: faith seeking understanding
Genre I: Mystery
Rangers of the North: Arador
Women of the Silmarillion: Passing the Bechdel test (by the skin of my teeth)

O64: Deep thoughts: you
Four words: infidelity, new, mesmerize, classify
Rangers of the North: Protectors
Scientific achievement: arithmetic
Format: drabble series
Genre: general
Rating: T
Warning: Coherency is an overrated virtue...
Characters: OFCs, OMCs, Arador, Dírhael, Argonui
Pairings: OFC/Argonui, OFC/Arador
Summary: In the bleak of winter, she will rule her world.


Winter queen

Winter savaged the North ere October was halfway gone, white and sharp as dragon’s teeth. Homes lay buried; crops still afield were lost. Town grain stores, mere steps away, might well be in Gondor: starvation haunted white-flocked streets.

The Lady of the Angle marks her map: Argonui in the mountains; Arador in the west; Arathorn south near Tharbad. The infidelity of seasons leaves no kindly quarter for Tarendis, nor any mystery: the Enemy finds ever new means to kill, but she’ll not stand mesmerized. She’ll live to classify them all, to spite him.

When the storm ends finally, she’s ready.

“Dig,” she orders, and her household obeys, from oldest to youngest. Children run wet garments to grandparents keeping infants and the wood-rationed hearth; every strong back bends. They put young Halandir out the gap between door and snowpack, and hand up buckets of snow.

Tarendis and her steward, Marandur, clamber up on showshoes, tramp to every house, knock on roofs, call: Who’s hale? Who’s cold-sick? Any dead? She sends Arador’s wife, Calaith, to those sheltered by the walls: Dig the common stores out! Make gruel – pots of it! Send your sons, your daughters, to run supplies, your men to dig!

Three days they labor: ordered street by street, crews tunnel first to those buried: the healers and herbwomen move like rabbits through that warren, bringing food and medicine. The snow-pack breached, the dig begins in earnest.

Tarendis is busy with her ledger – surviving winter’s a matter of arithmetic and a tight belt – and ‘twill be tight, after sickness and hard effort. To the most trustworthy women on each street, she gives a share of their stores, a homebound Ranger, and stern warning: “Rations for the street, should the snows return. On your honor and pain of death, you hold them.”

The cold turns bitter ere their task’s half done – a quarter done. What of the shepherds north of town? What of the farmsteads under the hills?

“If the shepherds found shelter, they could live – sheep are food and warmth,” says Calaith, whose family has flocks. “I have done it before.”

And the hillock farmsteads? Uncertainty. Anxiety. “There are the patrols still out. And the wolves,” Caranthar, new-starred captain, notes.

They debate, but finally Tarendis rules: the patrols they cannot help; the shepherds can wait.

“Three men to a patrol: bring the famers in,” she orders, grimly. “And mind the wolves!”

It takes nearly three weeks, and snowstorms return twice to bury them anew. When finally her Rangers and their wards limp home, blue-lipped and exhausted, they’re down twenty-three people and five farmsteads to cold and wolves.

For the wolves run light, and snow-drifts pile high against walls… They’d lost children digging through the snowpack, and white death slipped down tunnels to invade homes. Tarendis killed one with a quarterstaff; old Marandur was less lucky.
He may lose the leg yet.

“We go armed, always,” Tarendis tells an exhausted Caranthar. He nods, staring numbly at the door.

“They’re coming for us!”

The wolves do come for them – in broad daylight sometimes, and by night their howls terrorize. Sleep runs short, and tempers, too. Homeguard and Rangers run escorts each day as food is distributed.

With fewer people, at least there’s more grain for the rest, and open beds – cold calculation, but Tarendis can afford no less.

Meantime, she issues orders: so many hours to each tending children, cooking meals, patching clothes, repairing weapons, cutting wood. Vary grain distributions. Find time for husbands and wives to be such to each other!

Henceforth everything has its proper hour: regimen is discipline, discipline life.

Except that she takes extra shifts tending Marandur at nights. A week he lies in sweat and fever, from pain and wounds.

“He’ll not walk right again,” the healer warns her, which is no news.

“Will he live?”

Valwen spreads her hands. “If I must amputate, likely not.”

So Tarendis sits with him, for love, and his long service, and because, in truth, she hates her cold bed.

“You should rest, my lady,” Marandur’s wife, Telian, urges. “Please!”

“There is no rest,” she murmurs, but then sighs, picks a shirt to mend and goes to sit by the hearth…

… and opens her eyes to sunlight and her husband nearby, smiling.

“You’ll terrify Telian if you do that often,” he says.

“Do…?” She ceases then, realizes: “I fell asleep.”

“You fell over,” Argonui corrects, smile broadening, and Tarendis wants then nothing more than to fall, warm and wanted, into his arms – take an hour away from winter, like the other wives. She lifts her hand to him.

“Not now,” he defers. “Marandur needs you.”

I need you!”

want me,” he corrects. Then: “You’ll hold them, my love – fear not.”

“Argonui, I – ”

But someone is shouting, and she blinks again

Telian calls, in fact – for Marandur raves, shivering and twitching. “He’ll wake the household,” Telian frets. “He’ll rouse the wolves!”

“Fetch Valwen, I’ll keep watch,” Tarendis says, all practicality.

But Valwen can do nothing. “’Tisn’t fever, nor infection,” she pronounces wearily an hour later.

“What, then?” Telian demands.

“I know not.”

Telian’s face hardens, too familiar pain: I’ll be widowed by dawn!

Marandur quiets steadily, but next morn, opens clear eyes that seek Tarendis.

“I saw him, my lady,” he whispers. “The Chieftain.”

And Tarendis’s blood runs cold with understanding: not for Telian, but her the warning.

Argonui is dead!

The next days are torment – long and freighted with her cruel secret. For her people are exhausted, cold, hungry – she mayn’t burden them with close kin’s night news, even Calaith...

But: Please, she pleads, nightly dreaming. Tell me how!

But Argonui says naught, only smiles. She doesn’t understand, but doubts not ‘tis he, waking in tears she must hide.

‘Tis Dírhael who finally brings news. Stumbling in from the east with two survivors, he falls at her feet: “My lady – ”

“I know,” she forestalls him. “The Chieftain is dead, but know: while winter lasts, we’ll not mourn, but stand!”

(“You could mourn, Mother,” Calaith tells her later. “Is it not your due and his?”

“But not theirs,” she answers. “This is not the time – our people cannot falter. They cannot see the Lady of the Angle mourn.”

Calaith takes her hands. “You could mourn,” she repeats, and Tarendis understands then.

“Nay,” she says, and when Calaith would protest: “Hear me, daughter! You shall soon be Lady, when my son comes home. Then, when you are invested, then you shall rule, and I shall mourn. But this season is my trial; let your reign be the spring to my winter!”)

Weeks pass, turn into months. Grief becomes a familiar. Tarendis begins to believe she sees Argonui, and their other winter dead: silent, grey glimmers in the corner of her eye, who follow as she labors among her people, coaxing, cajoling – Keep the order to keep need met!

Mettarë arrives, but no word of those abroad still. ‘Tis a somber midwinter, full of want, nevertheless Tarendis tells her people: Make the candles.

So they stand together, in dearth and defiance, to lift the spirits of the house. And Marandur sets his light in the window-lamp, declares: “For Arador and our Lady.”

But spirits are her private comfort, if comfort they be – for they multiply. Close quarters breed sickness that spreads like fire through hunger-weakened folk.

Then Valwen becomes lieutenant, ordering all who’ve aught of leechcraft into the breach, armed with soap, herbs, and kerchiefs. “Keep those ill apart – air the houses, wash everything,” the healer commands. Tarendis nods. It shall be done.

‘Tis a sleepless week: water must be boiled, more soap made and medicines – there’re clothes to launder, and a new regimen. Tarendis grows hoarse explaining, ‘til Valwen bluntly orders her to bed:

“Continue, and you’ll succumb and spread it!”

She succumbs anyway. Racked with fever and cough, Tarendis shares her room with Telian and they struggle between them to nurse two children who’ve succumbed. Only Valwen and Calaith may enter – Telian has their Ranger guardian throw Marandur out:

“You nearly lost a leg – you’ll lose naught on my account!”

“Tell me of the town,” Tarendis croaks at Calaith, who’s wise enough to know not to refuse.

“We have lost two more, but we are holding,” Calaith reports. “Our measures work. If all keep the order…”

“Order is life.” The Angle’s catechism – behind her kerchief, Calaith smiles.

“Order is life.”

Life is hard, as winter stores run low ere February’s begun. Telian and Tarendis revise rations with Valwen, whose healers bring the new measures to every household.

One day, Tarendis, still feverish, is roused by Dírhael at her door. “Trouble,” he announces, and she listens as he tells the tale of one street running lower than the others.

“Who is it?” she asks, hoarsely.

“’Eiris,” he says somberly. Tarendis shuts her eyes a long moment. Then to Calaith: “Help me dress, then fetch Valwen. Bring Eiris, captain, her steward, her charts, and the head of every house beholden to her…”

They assemble round the hearth, Tarendis sitting, apart from the others, masked against contagion, Valwen and Calaith flanking her. Dírhael and Caranthar bring Eiris, proud and pale.

A circle of sunken eyes and weary faces hears the charts read off, and then householders give testimony: of grain shorted here and there, “mismeasure,” but it adds up.

“Who guards the grain?”

“Gelion and me,” Eiris’s steward answers.

“Where is Gelion?”

“Bedridden these fifteen days,” Valwen reports. “’Tis in his chest, the sickness.”

“You’ve spoken with Eiris?” Nods ‘round the circle. “Has she acted?”

Her steward, Sarrien, hesitates – and all eyes turn…

“My brothers are missing,” Eiris defends herself. “My family did not come in with the Rangers from the hills!”

“You took the grain.”

“My father did not give me to Falion to end our name, but to prosper it! My children are sick – we are the last…”

Muttering, anger. “My husband lies with Argonui!” “My brother, too, is missing.” “My son slain by wolves! My daughter’s babe lost!”

“My lady,” Dírhael warns, laying hand to hilt.

“Enough!” Tarendis says, gestures to Valwen. “I would speak with Eiris alone – briefly. Set the tea, please.”

Valwen hesitates, then nods. “Yes, my lady.”

They withdraw to the kitchen, Dírhael steadying Tarendis, who’s dizzy with ghosts in her eyes. When they arrive, Valwen passes teacups.

“I understand,” Tarendis begins, sipping carefully. “Arador, Arathorn… my husband…”

“I’ve but one son,” Eiris says, softly, “and the girls…” She chokes.

“Drink,” Tarendis urges. So they sip awhile, silently. Then: “You little knew Falion when you wed, I recall. But you were faithful to your house.”

“The others have family still,” Eiris murmurs.

“As shall you. Your children shall live – this I swear,” Tarendis promises, watches Eiris’s eyes tear up, relieved.

“And me?” Eiris asks, contrite and hopeful.

Meantime, witnesses cluster hearthside in heated, whispered debate. Caranthar guards Sarrien against outraged tempers.

“She’s not bad, my lady,” she insists.

Caranthar sighs. “She held a trust – betraying your fellows earns death. ‘Tis our life’s law.”

“On the Road, but – ”

“Lady,” he says, “this winter home is the Road.”

“Will her death help us?” Sarrien demands.

“That question always – ”

Commotion in the kitchen, as of a fight, interrupts. All rush back… and find Eiris on the floor, amid cracked crockery, while Valwen seeks a pulse.

“What happened?”

Pale, but stern, Tarendis answers: “Justice,” and turns a teacup over.

They wrap Eiris in a shroud and lock her with the others in the smith’s cold shed, away from the wolves, awaiting Spring thaw for burial.

Tarendis makes arrangement for her children: confirms the boy heir of two houses, sends Valwen to ensure their health. She will keep her promises. Three more days she lies feverish, ere waking to weary health.

“All’s quiet,” Marandur reports, pauses, then: “They call you Tarendis the Fair.”

“The Just, rather,” she answers, curtly.

But necessity rules, and the Lady of the Angle dares not flinch, but adds a new dark shade to her greys.

February is short but vicious – and full of plans. They cannot last much longer with stores dwindling, and the wolves at their gates.

“You journeyed once safely this winter,” Tarendis says to Dírhael. “Can you find your way to Imladris?”

“Not alone, though with help, I might succeed. I will not guarantee without loss,” he warns.

“We need food,” she says, bluntly. “We need medicine, and what help Master Elrond will give. Take whomever you need, but go light as you dare.”

Dírhael bows his head, leans upon her table, his dread palpable, ere answering: “As you command, my lady.”

And so Dírhael takes five from the Homeguard, two of them Rangers, and their bows, and goes once more into the east, while Caranthar and three others Tarendis sends south to find Tharbad and her grandson, if the Powers are kind.

“With luck, the weather shall be milder there: ‘twill be less hard to keep yourselves,” she says, and lays her hand to Caranthar’s cheek. “Bless your coming and going.”

“Valar keep us all, my lady,” Caranthar replies, then he and his, too, are gone.

There is a new quality of quiet in the Angle afterward, as the waiting begins…

In twenty days, says Calaith, they’ll have no grain.

In fifteen days, their jerky shall be gone.

The root cellar will empty in seven.

Valwen’s only chamomile left.

Wood’s harder come by with fewer men and swords.

Families huddle for warmth, fanning hearth embers as long as they’ll burn.

And in the dark, they tell stories: Brave Aredhel and Elenwë following the stars together, pathfinding on the Ice for Fingolfin’s host; Lúthien matching her enemies spell for spell; Queen Fíriel holding Annúminas.

“Shall we have stories?” asks Telian’s granddaughter.

Her ghosts glimmering close, Tarendis says firmly, “Of course we shall.”

In thirteen days, says Calaith, they’ll have no grain.

In a week, not even jerky.

The root cellar’s empty.

Valwen boils water for warmth alone.

Marandur sacrifices a chair to the hearth.

Tarendis considers all thatr may keep them – leather, bark, paper, glue – and lowers rations again for their elderly. Hard sacrifice, but if they can stretch…

Her ghosts flock thick tonight: shepherds, farmers, infants, Rangers… Eiris. Argonui.

She’s drawn her list – the order of starvation: elderly, children, youths, men of age, women of age.

Do not rush to this, my daughter, she thinks grimly. History loves not Winter Queens!

They have one week’s worth of grain, and two fewer chairs, when winter hurls a last indignity: another storm to blanket them, and wind that rattles all the casements, and cuts to the bone.

Tarendis takes shovel and bucket, marshals her folk to the numbing task of digging out once more. They labor through the afternoon, and futility is in the air, though no one will say it. They are Dúnedain: they’ll not give the Enemy the satisfaction of complaint, ‘til Isildur’s fault be repaired or death take them.

Her ghosts shimmer gently; Tarendis tightens her belt and soldiers on.

They are three days from starvation rations when good news walks through their gates: Dírhael, with a train of Elves bearing gifts!

“Well done, captain,” Tarendis thanks him, ere sending him to Ivorwen’s arms. Then to Elrohir, who commands the Elves: “Thank you.”

“To aid friends in need is an honor. My father sends greetings, and hopes these will suffice,” he answers gracefully, ere adding quietly: “We grieved to learn of your loss. May we help in any way?”

“Nay, unless you could produce Arador from Eriador’s wastes!”

“I fear not,” Elrohir replies. “But patience may see him soon returning.”

‘Twas perhaps some Elvish foresight that prompted Elrohir, but they are still patching roofs when Halandir, perched on high, cries: “Men to west!”

Abandoning their tasks, folk gather at the gate, eager, anxious: Is it my son? My husband? My brother? Tarendis’s shades hover close.

But they fall away before that first face that greets her, thin, filthy, with ice in his beard: “Arador!”

“Mother! Calaith!” They embrace fiercely, all three. Then: “Father?”

Calaith looks at her, and Tarendis breathes deep against the sharpness of new-loosed pain. “The Chieftain is dead,” she says, then presses his arm, silent entreaty: Come.

And this is how the story ends, with the turn of a page as Yavanna raises up new shoots, and sows new seeds. Winter becomes Spring, and the terror fades…

And that is a lie, for memory harrows, and the weeds come up with the wheat. There are more terrors, mayhap no end to them.

But Tarendis passes from history: the Winter Queen need rule no more, save in memory, and in the stories of the children still to come. She’ll help her son and daughter rise and raise their people – her people – until she lies down with her ghosts.


Note: close kin’s night news: "Oft night brings news to near kindred" - Faramir, "The Window on the West," TTT.


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