12. Chapter 12
He braced himself against the biting wind, cursing the cold and the snow and the storm but mostly cursing his own folly in ignoring his instinct and venturing out so far despite the ominous clouds. It was his third trip this week along this desolate road. The second time he’d returned, he visited the burned-out shell of the farmhouse of Roddy’s family, finding the trip yielded little in ways of identifying the murderers. The snow and its melt had done little to help preserve any tracks the thugs left, though he did find a few in by the barn though found nothing new to point his way to finding the answers he sought.
The wind whipped around then suddenly stilled and in the momentary clearing, he finally saw he was nearing Bregon’s and Sarah’s farm house – he hoped they were home and could offer him shelter for he knew neither his horse nor himself could last much longer in the bitter cold.
He nudged Nálo off the path, and onto the their land, following the path of a drift, rather than having to cut through it, calling, but having the wind whip his call back into his throat rather than carry it across to the house. He gulped as it took his breath from him, then jumped off his horse as they came into the shelter of the barn.
Bregon had thought ahead, Tarkil saw; the farmer knew how easy it would be to get lost between house and barn in the white swirl so had strung a thick rope between the two points to act as a handhold as well a path to safety at each end.
He grabbed hold of the barn door and tried to swing it open, but the wind caught it and he struggled briefly then felt the door swing open without resistance, and he stared down at an axe.
“Tarkil!” Bregon yelled, then laughed and set down the axe. He pulled the frozen Ranger and his horse out of the blizzard. “You gave me a fright, you did! What are you doing out this way on a day such as this, you should have stayed closer to home.”
“Ssssstarted out b-b-before the storm hit!” Tarkil managed to stutter. “Got c-c-ccaught.” He swiped at his horse with his frostbitten hands trying to remove the thick coat of snow that covered him.
“Poor horse!” Gethron reproached the Ranger, “taking him out on a day like this. Serve you right if he bucks you off next time you try to ride him.” He watched as Tarkil tried to remove the tack from his stallion. “You’re frozen stiff, man! Here, let me take his tack off and look after him, doesn’t look like your fingers are working too well right now. We’ve got an extra bed in the house I’ll have Sarah fix up for you – you’re going to stay with us tonight. I’ll not have you say we were bad hosts and sent you back out in that storm.”
Tarkil watched Bregon take care of his horse, feeling guilty as it was something he had always done himself, insisted on, as he had been trained to do from a young lad. But his new friend was right, he shouldn’t have tried to come so far and ignored the weather, and now he would pay for it when the feeling began to return to his fingers and toes with a fierce burning as the warm blood finally coursed through them.
“I still have to milk the cow and do the rest of my chores, you go into the house. Sarah’ll set you up with a hot drink and you can sit by the fire inside. We’ll have a full house tonight because her sister’s come for a visit and got stuck by the storm too. Still, always better to be surrounded by your friends and family than wonder whether they’re safe on a night like tonight.” Bregon rattled on, sounding pleased to have a man’s company for the evening rather than being surrounded by women all night.
Tarkil pulled his gloves back on, threw the hood of his cloak deep about his face then taking a deep breath, he opened the barn door and grabbed the rope. He hauled himself along it, pushing aside the great drifts that had formed even since he’d arrived. He stomped his feet on the porch to remove the snow that clung to his boots and pants, then opened the door calling to Sarah. And stopped.
For standing in front of him was not Sarah, but Poppi.
Wind and snow whistled through the open door as he stood there, staring. Poppi, she was here!
Sarah hurried over to slam the door shut behind him, then she anxiously laughed as her hands wrung her apron, “Tarkil. I – we weren’t expecting you.”
Tarkil stared as she went to stand beside Poppi. Her sister. How could he have been so blind – Sarah had the same eyes as Poppi, they were the same height, the same build – how had he not seen all that? At the picnic, Poppi told him she had a sister with a babe who was only a few months old when she’d left for Bree. Was that Calder? It must be.
“Poppi of Southlinch” And the farmhouse down the road – Sarah’s family? Poppi had been there that whole time? Within his reach? Now what should he do? What should he say? Should he explain it was Haldon that night in the stables? Or would that embarrass her to have made such a mistake – did she know already, did she care? Should he pretend that it was him and apologize? Did she WANT an apology? And did it matter now? How many times had this scenario rolled through his mind and now all his plans disappeared leaving his mind a total blank.
And then those insidious thoughts started creeping back in. She slept with Haldon and then she fled Bree … why would she have done that … left her job and returned home -- unless … she carried a child! He glanced down, unable to see if she was showing yet then realized it would still be too soon. He looked back up at her face, remembering the hurt and the betrayal he felt at reading his brother’s letter about how she’d “come along so enthusiastically”.
Then anger set in. He felt his jaw clench and his brow lower then managed to wrench his gaze away from Poppi.
“Sarah,” he nodded to the farmer’s wife, deciding to ignore the whole situation. “Bregon said he will be in shortly when he’s finished tending the cows.”
She glanced between Poppi and Tarkil, nervously gesturing for them both to sit down, “Would you like some tea? Anyone? Perhaps a slice of bread pudding? There’s some left over from last night’s supper.”
“Some tea, please, it’s bitterly cold out.” Tarkil tried his hardest to be polite to his hostess despite her relationship with this wench.
“Why don’t you take your cloak off and stand by the fire, you look frozen,” she suggested, then shrugged as Poppi glared at her.
“Thank you, Sarah, I think I shall.” He made a show of taking off his cloak and stood warming himself by the fire, his back to the room, “Bregon invited me to stay here tonight, Sarah -- said you would have an extra room.” Humph, probably be warmer in the barn than in the house with that cold-hearted wench.
Calder toddled over to Tarkil, staring up at him with wide brown eyes, his thumb stuck firmly in his mouth. Tarkil couldn’t help but smile at the curly headed moppet so he squatted down. “Hello, little fellow,” then laughed as the lad went cross-eyed when Tarkil touched a finger to the boy’s nose.
Poppi came over and snatched Calder away, “It’s time for his nap!” she told him loftily.
“Hmph, you start taking them to bed young,” he whispered only half to himself.
She whirled around with a gasp, “What was that? What did you say?”
“Tea’s ready!” Sarah called in an almost hysterical tone. “Come, Poppi, here’s your tea, just how you like it. And Tarkil, yours is here too.”
The door burst open and Bregon trudged through, tracking snow over the floor, “Well, that’s done then, the animals are all set for the night. Ah, Tarkil, good, you’ve met Poppi.” He smiled broadly at the two and clapped his hands together as he stepped in front of the fire, “Isn’t this cozy – the four of us together tonight? We’ll have a nice roaring fire and stay warm. Here, Sarah, don’t we have a bottle of that nice brandy still tucked away from our wedding? Let’s break it out tonight after dinner, shall we?”
He took Calder out of Poppi’s arms, “Did you have a nice nap, Calder my lad? Look at you all spiffied up in your best bib and tucker; did Auntie Poppi dress you like that when she got you up?”
Tarkil raised a brow, “Auntie Poppi just got Calder up from his nap, did she?” You said you had to put him down for a nap! Liar!
“Tarkil, here is your tea. Dinner will be a while yet, why don’t we all sit down?” Sarah handed him his cup and saucer, standing between Poppi and him, as she traded a glare with her sister.
The next few hours passed interminably slow for Tarkil; Bregon and Sarah tried hard to keep a conversation going, but Poppi and Tarkil kept their answers short, making light-hearted banter difficult for the two hosts. Dinner passed in an equally tense manner as Tarkil and Poppi found themselves seated opposite each other. At one point, they both reached for the same dish and grabbed their hands back when they momentarily touched. Keep your temper, keep calm, remember you promised the captain; a Ranger maintains control of his emotions at all times.
“So, Tarkil, do you get snow like this where you live? Where do the Ranger’s come from, by the way?” Sarah hesitantly ventured, hoping she was on safe ground with the question.
“Yes, we get snow though I haven’t seen a storm like this in many years, though I have seen it worse up at Fornost. And my family lives in the Angle, between the Hoarwell and Loudwater Rivers,” he pushed his plate away and stirred some honey into his tea. “The dinner was delicious tonight, Sarah, I really enjoyed that. Thank you.”
“I could tell. You ate almost as much as a hobbit.” she smiled. “You said your family lives in the Angle, tell us more about it, I’ve never heard much about your people.”
Tarkil paused and considered her question, “Well, what do you want to know, perhaps if you ask it would be easier for me to tell you.”
“Well, your family I suppose, do you have any brothers and sisters?”
“I have two brothers left now, both elder brothers, I’m the youngest son, and I have a younger sister, Elaria.”
“Tell me about your brothers then, are they rangers?” she coaxed, desperate to break the tense quiet of the house.
“My eldest brother is Mallor, he’s 12 years older than me. He used to be a Ranger but now he’s a blacksmith and looks after our family’s farm as well. And then there is Haldon, who is 6 years older than me. He’s a ranger also. They say he looks a lot like me, or I look a lot like him, though I don’t think there’s that much of a similarity.” He threw a glance at Poppi, hoping to see a reaction, “But I’m often called Haldon and he Tarkil so I suppose people do confuse us a lot.” She didn’t react he was disappointed to see but kept her eyes downcast as she toyed with her food.
Sarah continued to ask questions about the life of a Ranger and life in the Angle, Bregon threw the odd question in as well, but Poppi stayed quiet.
And during it all Tarkil realized his anger had waned and it suddenly became very important to see those hazel eyes look up into his again.
“… too often then, do you Tarkil?” penetrated his consciousness and he realized Bregon had asked him a question.
“I’m sorry, Bregon, I drifted there for a second, what was it you asked?” he frowned as he forced his own eyes off of Poppi to look at her brother-in-law.
“I said that you mustn’t get a good home-cooked meal like my Sarah just made too often then,” Bregon shared a glance with his wife.
“No it isn’t often,” Tarkil said quietly, his eyes returning to Poppi’s bowed head. “It’s been a few weeks since the last time I was home and before that I was away for nearly 7 months.”
Bregon pushed his own chair away and stood to stretch as Sarah cleared the table. “Poppi, are you done with your dinner? You’ve hardly eaten a thing. Aren’t you feeling well, dear?”
Sweet Eru, she’s not feeling well – well, there’s the proof. Don’t women often feel sick in the first months they carry a child?
Tarkil stood suddenly, “Poppi, could I speak with you please?”
Her eyes flashed at him finally, “There’s nothing to be said!” Was that anger in her eyes?
He took a deep breath then exhaled, “I think there is much to be said. But in private, please Poppi?” He kept his voice gentle.
“Whatever you have to say to me can be said in front of my family!” she informed him.
He felt his jaw clench. Patience, remember to breath… He noticed Bregon give Sarah a confused look as she lifted Calder into her arms. “I think Calder needs to be changed…Bregon perhaps you could help me?” She started to leave but Poppi ran after her and grabbed her arm, pleading “No, please, Sarah, don’t leave.”
She’s afraid to be alone with me? “Poppi, please just a few minutes, but in private, I won’t harm you if that’s what you’re afraid of. I give you my word.”
“Your word!” she lashed out. “Your word? You promised you wouldn’t be so bold! That you wouldn’t ask so much until I was ready! And still you ..you….” Tears rolled down her cheeks unchecked.
Oh, Haldon what did you do? You didn’t force her. You wouldn’t. Did you trick her?
“I’ve not broken my word to you, Poppi, ” he said gently, but his mind was whirling -- How could I say what I need to with Bregon and Sarah here? I can hardly tell them you slept with my brother, you stubborn woman! I’m willing to make sure that you’re cared for and loved though you carry another man’s child -- even if it is my brother’s! And you won’t let me even talk to you? … ‘Loved?’ Do I love her after such a short time? He shook his head and plunged in, “And since you seem to wish to air such matters in front of your family, then I shall respect your wishes. I wanted to tell you that I wished to continue seeing you -- in spite of your condition.”
Both Poppi and Sarah gasped at his statement, while Bregon’s head swiveled round to stare at his sister-in-law, his mouth slack in amazement.
“In spite of my ‘condition’? You blackguard! Only my husband will appreciate my condition -- on my wedding night!” her voice rose in anger as Calder started to cry from the upset. “Which means it will never be your concern! Are your people so low that being ‘in my condition’ is a problem? And what do you know of my ‘condition’ anyway?”
“Aren’t you forgetting that night in the stables?” he snarled. “And yes, your condition does cause me concern, I’d like to know that I raise my own children, not another’s.”
Her open hand hit him hard but when it flew again he caught her wrist, pulling her to him, trapping her hands against his chest. The heat of her body warmed his once again, and despite his anger, he felt himself stirring. Feeling betrayed by his own desires, he snapped, “I gave you my word, and I kept it. I offered to care for you despite what you’ve done and you strike me. I will not spend another night under the same roof as you.” He released her and she stepped back, eyes wide, as he grabbed his cloak then stalked to the door, “If I’d known you preferred the stables to a hilltop, I wouldn’t have wasted all that coin on a picnic and soft beds at the Pony! Oh! And by the way – my sister didn’t like the scent you chose!” The door slammed shut behind him.
The wind howled through the open barn door as Tarkil tugged to close it, to find Bregon’s hands pulling it open once more, “You don’t need to worry about me, Bregon, I’m leaving! I’ll not stand for being attacked by that … woman again.”
“You’re not leaving me to those two! Do you want to tell me just what that was all about? How do you know Poppi? Are you two in love?”
Tarkil snorted, “I met her at the Pony, Bregon, she waited on me a few times. One night there was some trouble with a patron and I helped her out and then accompanied her on some errands for a week. And we went on a picnic. Once. That’s all. I asked her if I could see her again, and she said I could. But then I got posted east and I haven’t seen her again. As for love,” Tarkil shook his head but wondered again what it was he felt for Poppi, “it’s a little early to say. I was interested in seeing her again, yes, but then … the situation has changed somewhat.”
Bregon paced the barn as he listened to Tarkil, then stopped by the door and asked suspiciously, “You said that she was with child. Is it yours?”
He wanted to say “ask Poppi” but he knew that the truth wouldn’t be found there. She thought he’d taken advantage of her; that it was his child she carried. If it was his child, he wouldn’t be standing in the barn but would be in front of her demanding to be heard, demanding to be a part of his child’s life. But would he ask her to marry him? A Bree barmaid? Such marriages were frowned upon in his community, comments would be flung in their direction about how he’d weakened the bloodline, Poppi would be shunned by all but a few. He’d watched Mallor and Bregwyn deal with such prejudice for years, ever since his brother brought his new bride back from the fields of Rohan. It was part of the reason Mallor had stopped being a Ranger.
But it wasn’t his child, it was Haldon’s and so Haldon would have to be the one to offer to marry her. And if marriage wasn’t an option, then … what then?
“Is it yours?” Bregon repeated, grabbing his axe, advancing towards the Ranger. “What would she say if I asked her?”
Tarkil sighed, “I do not want to have to fight you, Bregon. The child isn’t mine though she will claim it is. There are some things I cannot tell you at this point, Bregon. I know we haven’t known each other very long, but I must ask you to trust me for a while longer.”
“I trust her more than I do you, Ranger! You’ve come to my house and upset my wife’s sister, and now you accuse her of bedding not just you but other men besides and say she’ll lie about it?” Bregon’s face grew florid as he spoke. “No! You’ll march right back into that house and do the right thing by her. You’ll ask her to marry you if I have to hold this axe to your throat!”
“It’s not that she’ll lie,” Tarkil turned to face Bregon once more, keeping his hands loose at his side, “It’s very confusing – she mistook another for me and now thinks it was me she lay with but it wasn’t. I was leagues away to the south.”
“She confused you for… ‘despite what you’ve done’ is that you meant by that? That you’d found that she’d slept with someone else instead of you?” the axe dropped to rest on the floor as Bregon scratched his head, “well, you Rangers DO all look alike, especially with them cloaks you wear but I think you think too highly of yourself, our Poppi wouldn’t tumble so easy – I’ve seen her react to some of the fumbling farmboys around here.” Bregon chuckled, “I can think of a few who still can’t walk straight.” His chuckles died and the axe head waved in the air again though not threatening Tarkil anymore, “And that doesn’t answer the question as to who is the babe’s father. Do you know this Ranger who took her virtue? Will he do right by her?”
“I know him. And I shall see he does right by her if I have to hold my sword to his neck beside your axe.”
Bregon nodded, then leaned the axe against a post, “I’ll hold you to that then.” The farmer sat on a hay bale gesturing for Tarkil to do the same. “I think I’ll stay out here with you for a while. I’m sure there’s tears aplenty in that house right now and I can’t deal with a woman’s sobs.” Bregon pulled a pipe from his pocket and lit it, “Sarah hates me to smoke my pipe indoors, I have to come out there for this anyway. Never did understand her – I mean we make our living off the leaf, yet she bans our own crop from the house. Here, this is some of my own leaf, try it.”
Tarkil filled his pipe with the proffer weed, then lit it, “Hmm, some of the better Southlinch leaf that I’ve tried. Thanks, Bregon.”
“So how do you know she’s with child? I don’t think Sarah even knew, and I doubt Poppi’s father would have not said something. Hoo, that Ranger better hope he doesn’t run into Poppi’s father first, he’ll be changed from a man to a maid before he could take another step.”
Right now I’d probably hold my brother down and offer my sword to help tame Haldon in such a manner! “Just little clues. Like the way she left the Pony –she wouldn’t have left so quickly unless she were with child? And then her not eating her meal tonight … that one of the signs.”
Bregon spluttered into his pipe, quickly brushing off the sparks that flew. “That’s it? That’s why you think she’s with child? Oh, Tarkil my friend, you may know how to defend yourself against a man with an axe, but you haven’t a clue when it comes to women, do you?”
Poppi grabbed a mug from the table, throwing it to crash against the door,as it slammed shut behind Tarkil, then collapsed in tears on the bench. Bregon hurried across to grab his coat then slipped out to follow the Ranger, leaving the women alone.
"Poppi," Sarah crossed her arms "You didn't tell me you carried a babe. Ithink he's made a noble offer and you need to hold him to it."
"No, Sarah. I don't. We haven't... He's only angry because I won't...." Shefought back the tears.
"You've never lied to me before and I want the truth now," Sarah said
Poppi slowly shook her head, the tears starting again. Sarah sat down beside her to rub her back as they spoke. Poppi sat up; her hands trembled as she wiped her cheeks. "I've only told you the truth Sarah. You see now how dangerous he is. I told you how he enchanted me." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Elf-magic like in the legends." She rubbed her wrist where he'd held her and her palm that'd pressed against his chest trying not to remember how her traitorous body had betrayed her when she’d fallen against him. "When..." she stammered, "when I touch him, my heart pounds and ... and I can't think clearly."
Sarah frowned. "Does he encourage you to drink?"
Poppi stared at her. "No. Oh no! He wouldn't do that." She took a deep
breath at realizing she defended him. "No, Sarah," Poppi said quietly. "He
doesn't need to. He only has to look at me and I can feel his touch. When he
touches me..." She blushed. "He claims his people are from Numenor, that he
battles fell beasts and keeps company with Elves."
Sarah smiled and shook her head, bringing a new threat of tears from Poppi.
"But Poppi, what has he done to hurt you, why are you so frightened of him?
Has he tried to force you?"
Poppi shook her head, refusing to meet her sister's eyes. Sarah frowned
again. "Poppi," she started slowly. "A man's touch... He's very handsome,"
she rushed out with a blush, "and a strong man. You mustn't think ill of him
because he .... desires you, because..." Sarah swallowed hard, "because he
knows how to please you." She took a deep breath. "He seems to care an
awful lot about you in spite of ... in spite of what happened in the stables."
Sarah waited. "Are you going to tell me what happened?"
"No," Poppi finally whispered. "I kissed him, and ... but... he said he would have me the next time." Her tears welled up again at Sarah's expression of surprise.
Sarah's expression firmed. "Which is why young ladies are expected to have a chaperone when they are courted by a grown man. But Poppi," she continued, "I think you should talk to him. At least, let him state his intentions ...unless you prefer one of these local boys Pop has been running off.”
Poppi looked at Sarah in shock, then burst into tears again. “You see..” she gasped between her tears, “you see what he has done to me? I’ll never be able to marry a farmer after the way he’s touched me.”
“Oh Poppi, hon, it’s called love.” Sarah shook her head, drawing her sister to rest her head on her shoulder, “You’ve fallen in love with him.”
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.