Mother of Isengard
1. Onset of Winter
Lavan woke her with a low growling, and it only took a glance at his trembling body and stiff ears to know that it was wolves.
“Good dog.” She whispered, shrugging off her sheepskins and rising to her feet in the chill night air.
Every year they came earlier, always bolder, always more numerous.
The sheep had scented them now and had begun to mill and call within the walls of their fold. Rinn kicked some more branches onto the fire, sending up a scurry of red sparks, and bent to pick up her heavy crook.
Farn pressed against her leg, the younger dog’s hair standing straight along her back.
“Hey-down.” She commanded softly, and the bitch dropped noiselessly to her belly.
The sky was dark with clouds and she could hear nothing above the noise of the flock as they bleated their distress, but she knew they would be coming upslope. She had followed the sheep on this mountain since taking her first steps, and the wolves always came up from the forest at the beginning of winter.
She stepped forward so that the fire was behind her, her shadow tossed darkly across the rough grass by the flames, calling softly to the dogs, sending them out to the left and right.
The shadows of the wolves moved among the rocks, watching, waiting, gauging the time and place to attack. The leader would come first, hoping to keep her pinned down long enough to allow the others to flank round to the fold and jump the walls.
A long howl split the air, raising the dark hair on her own neck and setting the sheep to crying anew. A shadow moved to her left.
“Lavan!” she hissed, “Go by, lad.” And he sprang away, a white gleam against the night.
At that second the leader came out of the darkness at a run, heading straight for her, his feet fast and silent, his pelt black as the night.
Fran’s teeth bared and her growl was loud.
“Fran. Come by.” She sent the other dog out to the right, and lifting her staff, readied it.
Faster he came, over the turf, breaking into a long lope, eyes bright with the fire and teeth gleaming. But she was ready for him, bringing the bottom of the crook up sharply as he sprang, smashing it into the narrow jaw with a satisfying crunch, knocking him to the ground.
Quickly she stabbed downwards with the haft to crush the skull but he was too fast for her, rolling out of her reach to scrabble to his feet. She pursued him, attacking mercilessly with the stout stave, blow after blow until he turned tail and fled. But behind her the dominant female, the pack mother, was already in motion towards the walls of the fold, two others close on her heels. From the darkness on either side she could hear the sounds of snapping jaws and the snarling fury of the dogs.
She turned with a yell, breaking into a run, stooping briefly to snatch a brand from the fire as she passed. With a full-throated ululation she charged towards the wolves, brandishing the flame in her left hand. The bitch was already crouching for the leap that would carry her to the top of the wall. Rinn raised her arm and sent her crook whistling through the air, deadly as a spear, striking the animal squarely in the ribs and dropping it to the ground. The second wolf turned in mid-run, snarling, to launch at her and she thrust the brand into its face.
But there were too many, and the third wolf gained his feet atop the wall, jaw open, his long tongue slavering in anticipation. The sight and scent of him sending the sheep into panic.
Then a different cry sounded from behind her, and a thrumming in the air caused the victorious wolf to twist and yelp, the pale flight of the arrow quivering in his side.
“Rinn!” The cry came again.
“Alric!” she shouted, running forward to snatch up her crook. “Well met!”
Another arrow found its mark in the darkness with a short, sharp yelp.
Rinn advanced on the female wolf, the animal limping now, snapping and snarling at the foot of the fold, and dispatched her with a sharp blow to the back of the skull. The rest of the pack turned tail and fled, Alric’s arrows accounting for two more before they made the cover of the forest.
“Four.” He called to Rinn as he turned back up the slope, “I’ll have myself a fine coat this winter.”
She called to her dogs, and as they returned to her side, she bent to them. He doglegged to pick up his heavy peddler’s pack, dropped at the edge of the meadow, hoisting it onto one shoulder as he made his way back to the fire. Satisfied that her animals were uninjured she stood so that she was silhouetted against the flames. Crook still in hand, she waited for him, and as he approached he thought that she looked almost beautiful. Tall, strong, and perfectly proportioned. It was only as he closed the distance that it became apparent that the breadth of shoulder and hip, buttressed by the same dense Dunlending muscle as his own, was matched by a height topping his by more than a head. Then she turned so that the light fell on the left side of her face, and the illusion was wholly shattered, resolving itself once more into the silvered ridges and puckers of old scars.
“Only one for me.” She laughed as he reached her. “Thank you, Alric.”
“You should learn to shoot.” He replied, dipping a shoulder to drop his pack. “It’s far more effective than a staff.”
“Aye.” She turned to find the kettle, “But you need two seeing eyes to sight a bow, Alric.”
“What food have you?” he asked, settling himself on her sheepskins, “I’m starved.”
“There’s some stew left, but no bread.”
“Well, that’s no loss” he chuckled. Rinn’s bread was notoriously terrible, “I’ve some biscuit somewhere, and ale.” He rummaged for it while she set the food to heat.
“Is that you on your way home for the winter now?” she asked, squatting beside him, instinctively averting her bad side. The dogs lay quietly by the fire, their eyes on their mistress at all times.
“Aye.” He settled back, “It’s not been a bad year for me either, people are all the more glad of news when times are unsettled, and the more they stand and listen, the more they buy.”
“But none of it will affect us up here surely, these mountains are useless to the Horse-men, and the Kings of the West agreed long since that we could enjoy them in peace.”
“Aye, but at a price.” Alric lifted the jar of ale and unstopped it. “And now they’re saying it’s time to pay.” He swigged noisily, and wiped his sleeve over his mouth. “A new tax, to pay for their war with the East.”
“How much will it be?” Rinn dished up the stew, her voice worried. “I know the harvest hasn’t been good.”
“It’s been set at ten silver marks for the village.” He looked over at her. “I reckon they’ll have to sell a good third of the flock to raise it.” He drew his spoon from his jerkin and began to eat.
Rinn looked pensively into the fire, rubbing unconsciously at her scars. A third of the flock. Her flock. Although the sheep belonged to the village, she alone had tended them since her grandfather’s death more than fifteen years before. She had found them the best grass, kept them safe from wolves, allowed only the finest ewes to breed, and the sheep had grown strong, fat and healthy under her care. Now to lose a third of them to the Men of Gondor, it was enough to make her teeth ache.
“That was good.” Alric tossed the empty bowl aside, and lifted his jar for another drink. “Here.” He handed her the bottle, “Want some?”
She took it wordlessly, and sipped a mouthful of the cold malty beer.
“Now then,” he patted the skins beside him, with a grin, “How about you come over here and keep me warm?”
Always she felt bad afterwards, lying wakeful while he snored oblivious beside her. No, that wasn’t entirely true. The first few times it had happened, she had been full of joy. Imagining that he wanted her, that he desired her. Foolishness, but there are none so blind as those who see what they want. It was only as time went on and there were no words of love, no promises or presents, that she began to realise. And to notice how he never kissed her, never looked at her face, never held her afterward. So she learned to accept their occasional coupling for what it was, a brief sharing of bodies, and sometimes she took pleasure in it. Her pride provoked her on it, telling her she demeaned herself, but the truth was, he was the only person to touch her since she was a child and used though she was to the loneliness, any form of affection was better than none.
* * * * * *
“Quiet now.” The village headman shouted in a vain effort to make himself heard above the clamour of the council.
“We can’t raise that!”
“Don’t they know we’ll starve? Grasping Westlanders, never satisfied with what they have. Always after more!” This from Talm the Weaver, a squat squint-eyed fellow.
“Quiet!” Mardoc tried again, and the din subsided a little. “Now listen up,” he lifted the parchment in his hand. “There’s naught we can do about this tax, onerous though it is, besides pay it.”
“Why should we?!”
“Because if we don’t, they’ll send soldiers to gather it, and we’ll be the ones to suffer.”
“We can fight them.” Bret, the youngest member, slammed his fist down on the table.
“What us? Fight the might of Gondor? Don’t be a fool.” Talm returned, “They’d be happy for the excuse to burn the village and take everything.”
“We fought them before.”
“That was hundreds of years ago!” snapped Mardoc, “Besides which, we lost. Why else do we cling here to the upper reaches of the mountains while their farms and animals cover our ancestral lands.
“What’s the tax for, anyway?”
Mardoc consulted the notice again, “For war against the East.”
“Who’re they fighting now? Surely not the Horse-folk?”
“No, worst luck!” Alric grimaced, “Further East, some say it’s Mordor.”
A silence fell over the room, and two or three of the men made the sign against the evil eye.
“Mordor!” spat Talm, “There’s no such place, that’s just made up to scare bairns at bedtime.”
“Aye, well.” Mardoc sighed heavily, “Knowing its purpose won’t make it any easier to find the money.”
“That’s true.” Agreed Talm, and heads nodded about the table.
“The only way we can do it is to sell the flock.”
“Ach!” Talm was disgusted, “They’ll fetch little if we sell them now – who buys sheep at the start of winter? They’d go for meat prices only, and we’d have to sell nigh on half to make the money.”
“But what other choice have got?”
The squabbling broke out anew and the headman raised his hands in despair.
“Goodmen!” Alric’s voice was loud. “Please!”
They turned their heads to look at him.
“What if I was to tell you there was a way to raise the tax money, and a bit more besides, without having to sell a single one of your sheep?”
They looked at one another with surprise and not a little scepticism.
“Of course,” Alric grinned, “I would expect a small commission.”
“Oh, of course!” Talm’s voice was scathing.
“If we decide to go with your suggestion, there’ll be something in it for you, I give you my word.” Mardoc’s voice was firm. “Now why don’t you tell us what you’ve got in mind.”
* * * * * *
The sun gleamed from the snowy tips of the mountains behind her, while overhead the sky was cold and cloudless, and the dark forests of the valley seemed only a hand’s breath away beneath her. Rinn strode quickly with long, easy strides, her crook carried loosely in one hand.
“Come by!” she called to the dogs, giving a long whistle, as they ran the flanks. In front of her, the sheep jostled along in a contented melee, calling placidly to one another. She gave a great smile to herself as she watched the undulating flow of thick white woolly backs, the flock was the biggest and best it had ever been. Pride swelled in her heart to see them. This was the best part of the year, driving the sheep down the valley to winter in the village. Let them see how well she had carried out her task, how much she had increased their wealth. For one day at least there would be smiles and nods of approval. For one day at least no-one would whisper about bears, or cursed blood.
By late afternoon they were rounding the bend in the road leading down into the village. The sheep scampered happily, the older ewes knowing the way, and heading for the tasty fodder that awaited them in their winter quarters.
“Here they are!” shouted a small boy playing in front of the village gates, “The sheep are coming!”
The heavy wooden gates were flung wide as the flock reached them, the dogs busy keeping order as the impatient animals bumped and barged their way through the narrow opening. Rinn walked behind them, proud and tall, holding her head high, as if daring them to look at her.
“The sheep! The sheep!” the grubby faced lad was running beside her now, shouting excitedly.
“Tac!” his mother’s sharp cry sounded from a doorway, “Come in here, lad!”
“But Mam!” he pointed, “The sheep!”
No-one came out to wave as she passed, and she met no other children along the way. Only closed doors, and shadows peering from behind half-open shutters. The village was silent save for the yipping of the dogs, and the bleating of the sheep.
‘What in the name of the Great Mother is going on now?’ thought Rinn to herself, feeling a familiar exasperation with the ingrained superstition and narrow mindedness of her mother’s people.
Ahead of her some men of the village had gathered about the sheep fold, watching as the flock poured into their field, the nimble shapes of Fran and Lavan darting to and fro to prevent any stragglers, and when the last set of white woolly legs had trotted neatly through, they heaved the gate into place.
Rinn called the dogs to her side, and strode up to greet the headman. She dwarfed him, both in height and stature, but she spoke humbly and with respect.
“There’s eighty-two head this year, Master Mardoc.”
He nodded curtly, his eyes deftly avoiding her face.
“That’s fifteen more than last year.”
Beside her Lavan growled, low and menacingly in his throat.
“No, lad!” she scolded. “Be quiet now.”
“Aye,” the headman nodded slowly, “That’s good.”
“Well then.” Rinn looked around at the silent onlookers, “if that’s all, I’ll get settled in.”
Mardoc stepped back, allowing her to make her way to the cramped, single-roomed cottage adjoining the sheep fold that was her winter home. The dogs followed closely on her heels, Lavan still with lips drawn back.
Pushing open the door, Rinn stood a moment in the entrance letting her eye get used to the dark, watching as shapeless shadows resolved themselves into the familiar outlines of table and bed.
“Go on, then.” She motioned to the two dogs, who leapt happily over the threshold, to sniff and snuff into every corner, then she tossed her staff into the corner and shrugged off her heavy sheepskin coat. Here she was, home again, in this room where she had come squalling into the world, just as her mother left it. In this room where she had sat many nights upon her grandfather’s knee and listened to tales of old. In this room where they had brought his mangled body the night that the Bear had come. In this room where she, still only a child, had stumbled bleeding and terrified after them to crouch alone and shunned in a corner.
“Witch!” some had hissed.
“Westlander.” From others. “It’s an obscenity that their blood should mix with ours. See her, nearly the height of a man and only half a score years out of the cradle. It’s unnatural.”
“She’s a curse on this village, she should be killed.”
“Even the Bear would not take her.”
“Leave her then, let her live or die by fate, but not by our hand.”
‘Aye, by fate.’ She thought wryly, as she prepared the fire, ‘And by fate, I lived, though none of you expected it.’
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.