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Hearth Companions
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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1
Hearth Companions

I was thinking the other day my first memories must be of riding in this handcart. In those days the sky was always blue and the sun always shone and everyone always wore their brightest clothes. Of course, now I know my mother only took me with her on fine days. While she plied her trade in every kind of weather, I remained behind in the warmth of my grandmother's kitchen. But on those days that I recall so well, I sat in the little seat between the handles and giggled as she blew me kisses and squealed with delight as we sped down the hills and I bumped and lurched with every corner we took.

Ah, must be careful here, the road is awkward and this is a heavy load.

There is a good living to be made wheeling goods around this city; steep and narrow as its ways are from Gate to market, from market to home, from workshop to Gate. And it is good work too, out in all seasons, laughing a greeting to people you meet, sharing in their glee at eagerly awaited packages or their pleasure at delivering the well-crafted work of their hands. We were well known by tradesman and householder alike and I think I must have been a good deal spoiled by all those little trinkets and sweets that often came my way. Later I was old enough to help my mother, even on the grey days. And later still, it was a child of my own that sat in the cart keeping me company as I went about my business in the sunshine.

Even as things are now, it is hard not to smile at some of the memories that needs must come to mind, however inappropriate they are. Like those best Pelennor-grown cabbages that caused such merriment at the time. I can see them now, pale green and hard and almost perfectly round, all neatly stacked to the very rim of the barrow. I was helping to push, for they were heavy; and as we turned a sharp corner on a steep part of the street, two rowdy young men, laughing and ragging each other as they ran, went ramming into us, upsetting the cart and spilling its load. Those cabbages were quite a sight as they rolled and bounced away down the hill, running off into side streets and fetching up in all sorts of unlikely places. The bystanders were very kind, rushing after them and helping us gather them up and load them again. Although, of course some louts got hold of a few and kicked and threw them around, thinking it all a great laugh, which I suppose it was. I remember my mother chuckling at the thought that the odd one might still be turning up in a nook or cranny for days after the event.

Careful now, brake, brake, it would not do to spill this burden.

"Ah no, my dear, I'm sorry, I really don't have room for one more now. I'm afraid you'll have to wait for the next load. I won't be long. I promise I'll come back this way. You could take it down yourself if you don't want to wait. Or you could go to the collection point just past Smithy Street. Yes, yes, I quite understand, I'll be back as soon as I can. Listen out for my bell."

Poor thing, she is very young, and looked very shocked. I wonder why she is still in the city. I expect she is working for the healers, washing the bandages, something of that sort. I suppose she is fortunate that the flames left this quarter almost intact, but all the same, it must be hard to stumble on one like that when you are not expecting it. Just going about your tasks, fetching wood from the shed or washing from the line. Aye, to be sure, it is not a pleasant business but I am almost used to it now. After all once you have seen to one of your own, nothing else seems quite as bad, does it? And of course it is much worse out on the Field. I would spare her having to go down there.

But that is where I am bound, and here I am at the Gate yet again. Or rather, where the Gate used to be. Time passes so quickly when there is so much to be done. The guards salute me as I pass through. Well not me, I think, but what I carry. The going is heavier here though they have put down sand and straw, which helps a little. Easiest to turn the cart around and drag it. Still it is not far to go to the nearest pyre. Then I will help unload, carefully as it does not seem right to tip them, and pass on my list of names. Quite a few with names this time, but that is not always the case. More often than not they can no longer be recognised, the fires having finished what the Enemy began. Still there are, as ever, people waiting, as close to the heat as they can stand, hoping that this time I may have one of theirs. And I fervently hope that I do, for it is far better to be sure, I know that all too well.

The officer in charge looks gaunt and tired and his arm is in a sling. Poor man, I wonder if he regrets not going to the Black Gate along with my husband and so many others. But he is always kind and courteous to the little knot of hopefuls that gather close around him. Stretching away to where the larger wagons unload, the human chain still offers up a steady flow of fuel for the flames. The pyre is white-hot now and everything it is fed is ravenously consumed. The air is filled with little specks of dust that dance in the evening sunlight, but there is very little smoke. The stench is bad but not as vile as it was when the burning went slower. In the distance, I see the great banks of filthy black clouds have not got any thinner. It is still not going so well out there, then. The corpses of orcs and trolls are sluggish to ignite, it seems, and refuse to meet their end cleanly.

And yet I know that even this pyre was slow to start in the beginning, for I was there when it was lit. It was the new Captain from far away, the one we are all believing such strange things about, that threw in the torch. To be honest, at that moment, I would not have immediately taken him for a lord. He was so still and quiet and wrapped in grey, much like the handful of followers that stood at his back. I did notice there was a body also wrapped in grey, and, no doubt, it was one of his own. And it warms my heart a little to think that he is likely to have been undefiled, for their Company, like the Rohirrim, came later to the Field. And though he died here as a stranger, he may find at least one good friend upon the road, for my son was in that first burning, too. Aye, these flames may have started slow, but with so many fine fellows, lying so close together, it is no surprise that it took so little time for them to grow into this fiercest of pyres. What else would we expect?

Well, there can be no flagging while there are still tasks to be done. We must work quickly if we want to keep those fires fed and content. They are insatiable. Turn the cart around, head back to the city. A man, who bears no obvious wounds but that particular weariness of one called back from the darkness, turns away from the burning when he sees I could do with some help. He lends his strength to mine as we push the barrow back over the difficult ground but, as we draw nearer to the Gate, I see that he is beginning to shiver in the evening air. "Thank you, thank you, but I can manage well enough from here," I say. "Night's coming on and you mustn't let yourself get cold." He smiles a little at that and nods as he returns to the vigil near the pyre.

Now then, first back to that young woman as I promised, then on to the collection point just past the blacksmiths' district. It should not take me long to get there with an empty cart, even though the ways are as steep and awkward as ever. If I ring my bell from time to time people will know I am there and they can come out with anything they have. Though I think, at last, we may be coming to an end. I still have not found my own, of course, but somehow that is not so needful to me now. It is enough to look after those that I do find, in the time we have left before the Armies reach the end of their road. Few people know each corner and alley of this city like I do, so I am glad to keep looking while there is still a little hope. For none should lie cold and alone until time turns them into a stranger. Not while those fires remain.

Author's note: "Hearth Companions" is an Old English term for a Lord's household retainers.

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