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Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit
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Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit

A companion piece to A Lullaby for the Longest Night.

Many thanks to Altariel for letting me borrow her mettarë customs from A Pale Light Lingering again. With her permission I have quoted directly from the text.


Ithilien, 3019

‘Not make the nasty red tongues,’ hissed Gollum. ‘Fire, fire! It’s dangerous, yes it is. It burns, it kills. And it will bring enemies, yes it will.’

‘I don’t think so,’ said Sam. ‘Don’t see why it should, if you don’t put wet stuff on it and make a smother. But if it does, it does. I’m going to risk it, anyhow. I’m going to stew these coneys.’
The Two Towers

* * * *

Eriador, 2951

The rain had finally stopped only to be replaced by fog. It was a miserable, dull presence that pressed in on them, chilling their skin and searching out gaps left in their clothing. It seemed icier than any frost yet would not harden the ground, so once again, while the short day lasted, they had pushed on through mud that seeped through their cloaks the moment they sat down to rest.

And the resting will be even harder tonight, the captain thought wearily when the company finally halted for the day. All of them knew that this shroud brought with it danger as well as discomfort. Even the greenest could not hope they had left their enemies behind; creatures of the dark that hunted as much by smell as by sight. Or so their captain had supposed until he turned to answer a question from one of his men.

“Yes, lad,” he said, though not unkindly, for this was the greenest of them all, “you heard correctly, the order is still no fire.”

He turned away again, thinking no more of it, expecting the young man’s usual quick obedience. Yet even as he spoke he felt a flicker of doubt, though he was careful not to let it show. The decision had been a finely balanced one, after all. A fire could protect as well as betray, especially against the wargs, and their campsite was in a dell, hidden from sight and sheltered from any scent-betraying winds that could stir amid the fog. But bitter experience had taught him to err on the side of caution, and so he had. Even on this night.

But it seemed the lad, sensing, perhaps, his hesitation, had not returned to his duties, but was quietly standing his ground.

“But, Captain, it is mettarë, is it not the custom to have a fire?”

The older man tensed his jaw. He surely did not need this youth to remind him of the day. It was useless to waste his strength berating himself for past decisions; their task had long been a harsh one, and such things happened through ill luck, or fate, call it what you will. But still it remained. The company had not made it home for mid-winter as they had all so hoped to do, and the failure was wormwood on his tongue. But that does not give me a licence to be unjust, he reminded himself, he cannot be faulted for wanting to honour our ways. But again, it seemed, the lad had perceived something of his thought.

“You think sir, that I am not the one to say it, perhaps?” He paused rather awkwardly and then went on. “‘Tis true enough, there is so much I do not know. But I have never known a mettarë when I did not light a candle with my mother and say the words. And tonight she will be lighting one again, though she will do it alone. And I think her only comfort may be this; that wherever I am, I will be among friends, my own kin, and we do not forget the customs of our past.”

He paused again. “I would not let her down, sir.”

The captain grimaced and shook his head to banish thoughts of family from his mind. Too often he had been the bringer of too much grief. And in all his long years as a Ranger, from younger, even, than this one standing here, he only remembered three or four patrols that had turned out worse than this. Sixteen men had started out with the company and now twelve remained, but out of those four were carrying wounds, two of them serious, and Baranor would likely never use his arm again. Indeed, he too would have died, but for the quick thinking of this young man and his skill at staunching the wound; for out here, in the Wild, such bleeding must be stopped quickly or there was no point to stopping it at all. The captain was again minded to be gentle.

“I am sorry lad, truly I am, but it is a risk we cannot take.”

“But, sir, you were prepared to take the risk when Hithgil needed tending, and then the hunters were snapping at our heels.”

“Aye, but then a man’s life hung in the balance; though small good it did him in the end. But I will not take such a risk again for the sake of a few words spoken out of custom.”

Custom. The word hung hollow between them. The younger man lowered his eyes, looked around him, took in the muddy ground, the dismal, starless night, the huddle of wounded men.

“Then, forgive me sir, but what is the point? I mean, what is it for? If we do not hold to what we are, surely we might as well all give up and die?”

The words were quiet, respectful, but his captain saw he thought he might have gone too far.

“Anyway, sir,” this time he ventured a smile, “‘tis the last chance to cook Mellor’s rabbits – they won’t last another day.”

The older man’s lip twitched. When had he become so jaded? Once he might have been as earnest as this, but surely he had never been so young? Although the lad carried twenty summers, he looked younger than his years, despite his new and uncertain growth of beard. But, when the older man looked closer, he saw that was now only a surface thing. Now the young man’s eyes looked an age older than they had a few months before; and an old, familiar regret washed over him once more. But, still, they must all be grateful this one had survived so well, so far. Too often the youths died first, still wet behind the ears, for all the care of the older men. But, sadly, what other way was there for them to learn?

He sighed and found he no longer minded much about conceding a defeat. “Very well, as it means so much to you, you may have your fire.”

He was rewarded by a ready grin.

“Just shield it and make sure it doesn’t smoke,” he added, unnecessarily.

“Yes sir. Thank you.”

“And Aragorn.”

“Yes, Captain?”

“If you must make that stew, use the garlic – I can smell those rabbits from here.”

* * *

It came as no surprise that the fire could barely be seen from the rim of the dell. Giladan smiled. Cooking duty was the lot of every new-made Ranger and this one took his duty seriously indeed, though he seemed to enjoy it too. As did all the company, for he had a clever way with herbs. Still he has a task on his hands this time, he thought wryly. Twelve half-starved Rangers and only a brace of tough old coneys decidedly past their best.

Outside the dell the fog remained as dense as ever. He turned to face the muffling darkness and continued his round, stopping now and then to speak with a man on watch. They all confirmed, what he sensed himself, that there was little sign of approaching danger, so he sent most of them back to the camp to take what rest they could.

But the fog pressed ever more heavily upon him. He was bone tired, he realised, and his old wounds ached in the damp, but otherwise his body seemed as hale as ever; but was it a sign of the swift old-aging of the Dúnedain, he wondered, this weariness of spirit? Tonight a friend could be standing an arm’s length away and he would still feel utterly alone. He had tried to shake off the shadow that had fallen, when Aragorn had spoken of his mother, but Gilraen was his close kin and such foresight could not easily be pushed away. It grieved him to think of her alone, even in the House of Elrond. He knew he had a memory of her, dancing at her wedding, with myrtle and meadow flowers in her hair; and Arathorn was beside her, a star on his brow and his eyes bright with unaccustomed joy. And he knew he should remember, too, how glad Arador had been for his son that day; and how Hithgil had scandalised them all, setting his star at anyone bold enough to look him in the eye. Poor Hithgil, even he had settled down, of sorts, in the end. But now he lay alone, in a shallow, unmarked grave, and his star would wander no more.

He had been the first of them to see how closely Aragorn resembled Arador, the first captain he had served with a fierce love; and for Arador’s sake he had taken his grandson under his wing and they had become friends. And Giladan had been grateful for that, after the disaster with the orcs, when there was grave danger, and other wounded men, and he could not tend to his friend as he would have wished. Then he had been thankful that Aragorn was there to comfort him and was skilled in the use of the herbs. And although the wounds were terrible, Hithgil had been one to fight until the last, so in the beginning there had been some hope; until it was found there had been poison on the blade. So when at last his friend could no longer bear the pain, Giladan had held him in his arms and talked of old times, while Aragorn mixed the draught; and afterwards his captain had sung softly to him until he fell into sleep.

He had finished his round, he realised, and was back where he had begun. As he turned down into the dell he felt something hot and wet on his face that had nothing to do with fog; and he welcomed it for the gift it was. For somewhere beyond this veil, he knew he had loved ones and a home and if he could not remember them as he should, he was living but no life at all.

* * *

He had wondered whether his men, eager for their first hot meal in days, might care more for their stomachs than the stars, but he was proved wrong. When he stepped out of the fog he found all the company not on watch, even the wounded men, formed up in a half circle patiently awaiting his return. Each of them had an improvised torch ready in their hand; a stick wound about with such dry kindling they could find. When they became aware of their captain’s presence an expectant silence fell.

He could not say how many times in his long life he had said the words, at home, with friends, or in the field with his men; even on his own, but this time the torch he was given felt like an impostor in his hand. Custom. Such men as these deserved better than an empty promise spoken out of duty and, tonight, he feared, that might be all he had to give. He could not, would not, fail them again.

Resolved, he addressed the youngest man of the company with a bow.

“My lord, I understand you know the words.”

Aragorn looked taken aback by the formal address and unexpected turn of events.

“Yes, Captain,” he said, but sounded rather unsure, “I know the words as my mother taught them to me.”

“Well, I cannot think there would be better ones, can you?”

“No sir.”

He took up the proffered torch and faced the circle of men, most of them two, three, even four times his age. But once he had accepted the task he no longer wavered and his voice rang out firm and true.

“This was the day which was shortest, and this is the night which is longest. But the stars shine upon us, and the year turns now. The darkness passes, and the light shall return.” Then he turned to ignite his brand in the fire.

When it was burning with a steady flame he lit the captain’s also. “Joy at year’s turning, Captain,” he said softly.

“Joy at year’s turning, my lord.”

Giladan then lit the torch of the man next to him and offered him greetings in his turn, and so the light went round. The makeshift torches sputtered and flared and smoked a little uncertainly in places, but every one of them lit in the end and burned for a while lighting up each face with a hazy amber glow.

The fog did not suddenly sweep away, nor was there the faintest glimmer of a star, but even so the familiar rite bore him along for a while. Tonight, in his home, his wife would be saying the words and lighting the first candle, fragrant and white; and it would be set, as it always was, in the most precious heirloom of his House, a silver candlestick wrought in the likeness of a tree, saved from the wreck of Numenor itself. And all of his family and household would be gathered there together, even the little great-granddaughter, he had yet to meet, would be sleeping in her cradle by the fire. And the ancient wooden walls of the hall would be decked with rosemary and wreaths of ivy and glossy holly, dotted with berries the colour of blood. No, he was not at home but he had been given the memory and Giladan knew that for tonight it was enough.

He found young Halbarad was at his elbow bearing soap and towel and a precious cup of hot water for him to wash his hands. The captain smiled his thanks, for he was a far better esquire than he had ever been a cook. He glanced around and noted that the solemn mood had changed to one of eager anticipation as men poured water for each other and rooted about in their packs for mess tins and spoons. At last when all were ready, and after they had looked towards the West, the captain watched as Aragorn stared down the ring of Rangers as though they were a pack of hungry wargs. Then, slowly, he removed the lid of one of his pans and allowed the imprisoned smell to escape to a concerted gasp of greed.

“Stew, Captain?” Aragorn offered him the first battered mess tin with all the grace of the Eldar.

He took hold of the steaming bowl. “What have you put in it lad? Surely there’s more than just coney?”

“All the dried vegetables that were left, sir. Onions, potatoes the odd slice of carrot. He grinned. “You said two weeks at most and we’d be home so I thought I could risk using them all.”

Giladan looked at him narrowly over the rim of his mess tin then inhaled deeply of the mouth-watering smell. There was garlic, of course, but underneath he thought he detected bay leaves, and sage, and perhaps just a hint of wild thyme.

“Hmm, yes, I’d say it was worth the risk. Thank you, lad,” he said.


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