4. Daily Bread
It was known that Lord Amrazar of Dor-en-Ernil had ever been wary of the ambitious Captain of Ships, and Castamir had hard courted him for long without great success. It was said afterwards that in the late years of the reign of the usurper, that Amrazar had conspired with partisans in Osgiliath and Minas Anor, and in secret sent word to Eldacar in his exile that if the deposed prince could show sign of his strength, that an alliance might be crafted, though it would need time.
—Calimendil of Anórien, Master of the Royal Guild of Scriveners, Of the Restoration, 1474 of the Third Age.
Rise, O people, run like the water, River-sons
Let sound the horns of Haurnja, the hoofs of horses!
Gut-thiuda, rise like the geese on their wings
And flood the forests with fear of fire,
Let your brother's foes tremble before you!
For the river flows free, O the river flows free
Wash the sails in the water and keep the river running free!
—"The Tale of Frumgar and Fremgang," early Rohirric verse, recorded in the Chronicle of Cirion and Eorl, composed around 2525 of the Third Age
The next day came early, just as Fardhan had said, and his brother even left him the chore of bringing more water in, for he was away in the fields before daybreak. Aethrin struggled with the buckets, but he was careful and took his time, and brought them in without spilling a drop. Alweth would heat some of the water come evening for bathing, for they would all need it after a day's ploughing and planting.
"Here's breakfast," his mother said, placing some flatbread and still more porridge before him.
"No fish?" Aethrin asked, without much hope.
Alweth shook her head. "Not today, my lad. Tha's brother needs it more. Bread for tha and me, an' tha'll plant while he breaks the earth," she told him. And since she was never one to flout custom, she gave him a gentle shove toward his place, and said, "Now stand tha there quiet 't'a moment, an' we'll begin."
Once they had finished and cleaned up after themselves, Alweth and Aethrin trudged over to the flagstone storehouse where seeds and other such vital things were kept, there to wait in the line as the old wives of the village painstakingly measured out seed rations to each planter.
"There, now," said old Dame Eldrith, carefully pouring some of the grain into the pair of satchels Alweth laid before her. "Waste not 't'a bit 't'of it, dears!"
"We shan't, goodwife," Alweth said, handing one satchel to Aethrin. "Let's be off," she said, and he nodded.
Eastshore's farmland had been cleared out of land that once had been forested in Aethrin's great-grandfather's time. The fields spread out into the trees, marching up and down the riverbanks, following the loggers who had naturally begun with the trees nearest the water and thus easiest to move to the shoreline. Part of the southern strip was given over to pasture land for the village's few, desperately needed oxen, and a sty for the pigs. But most of it was farmland, hewn slowly out of the forest year by long year, for according to the law, there was only so much farmland to be gained from logging: a certain number of acres per family in the village, and for the rest, Aldarion's edict held as ever it had: for every tree cut beyond the farm allotment, there must be one planted.
Ordinarily, the law was no trouble. The farmlands had been built slowly, for they were right upon the river; it was not so much needed as further inland. Eastshoremen had taken care to plant their share of new trees, and a few more—it could only help them, eventually. It was only lately that matters had become difficult. With no clearing on Eastshore's land, the trees were certainly prospering, but taxes were now assessed on all the land, whether or not it was arable. And Charter law was clear: Eastshore was theirs so long as they rendered it prosperous. And prosperity was measured in the ability to pay all one's taxes.
With more trees being taken under the Ship Tax, instead of sold, to say nothing of those lost to the pretender's depredations, the coin had to come from somewhere. Eastshoremen therefore tightened their belts and sold a portion of the harvest, or else the seeds, or both, along with far more of what came out of the river than they were accustomed to give to make up for the lack. Yet it seemed nature itself was against them lately: as if taxes and war were not bad enough, the rains had been harsh in the past few years, drowning crops or prolonging winter. Harvest was an anxious time these past few years. Folk watched the sky, cursing the threat of storms and the shorter season—a season made all the more harried by the absence of most of the men, already on the move north for the winter culling.
But all that lay ahead still. They had to plant first, and as at summer's end there was not much time, since river run was expected soon, and would take many hands away.
"Tha's still here," Meithel greeted Aethrin, as they arrived in the northern fields dedicated to the spring planting.
"Aye, still an Eastshoreman," Aethrin replied, gazing out over the furrows already waiting for them. The oxen and their drivers were further down the field, while others drew harrows behind them to break up the clods. He spied Fardhan and Mal helping guide a pair of oxen near the eastern edges of the field, and he waved. Fardhan, after a moment, waved back.
"Well, since tha's not 't'apprenticed yet, let's get 't'us gone and these seeds t' ground," Meithel urged. "Sooner we start, sooner it's over."
All that day, they walked slowly along, dropping seed carefully into the earth, and the women came behind and harrowed it into the earth. Noon arrived, and they were halfway done; Aethrin had dirt up to his knees, on his hands, and had got it on both cheeks what with wiping sweat from his face. Meithel looked little better.
"Funny, ent it," Meithel said, cracking his back during a short pause in their labor, "that whether we've a lot 't'or a little, we ent 't'ever done any sooner than sunset. Ought t' be otherwise, eh?"
"I expect so, but naught's been going as expected, I guess," Aethrin replied, wiping absently and futilely at muddy hands. His stomach was growling, but supper was still a long way off. Got t' hold out 't'awhile more, he told it.
But even as he thought it, Meithel’s stomach sent up an answering growl, and his friend grimaced. "Never one hungry alone," Meithel grumbled, and Aethrin sighed for the truth of that old saw. "Wish we'd go ahead and kill an ox," his friend continued, shifting the conversation as he eyed the laboring beasts hungrily.
"Tha's got 't'a want t' pull ploughsheds tha's self next spring?" Aethrin inquired.
"Just one ox, Aetho—wouldn't be too much, eh?"
"One ox is a lot ‘t’of labor for us, an’ the spring ent gettin’ any longer, what with all the rain keeps dropping down on us, early and late," Aethrin replied. "Besides, we lost those two cows this year last, 't'an' we already killed a few of 'em years past. Think the elders want t' keep all the oxen we've got."
"Pig, then. Pigs're for eating."
"And makin' Charter Tax," Aethrin retorted, though not without a sigh of regret for the loss. Then he sighed and pulled his satchel about so it rested on the opposite shoulder, and he tapped Meithel's arm. "Eh, back to it. Let's finish so we can eat somethin'."
So they bent to their task once more, and working steadily, they made their way west, though the further they went, the more frugally they scattered seed as their sacks emptied. And once finished, they headed back to join the women dragging harrows, taking their mothers' places in order that they might go and tend to the evening chores.
Finally, though, they reached the end of the furrows, and they cast off the harness and harrows. "Thought we'd finish sooner than that," Aethrin remarked, as he slowly straightened, cracking his back.
"Least we're done for the day, I suppose," Meithel sighed, as they made their way to the river bank to get the worst of the mud off. The men were still lounging on the shores there, resting after a quick splash in the river. Meithel and Aethrin wended their way over to where Malgath and Fardhan were sitting and plopped down beside them. A few of the lasses were there, too, drawing water.
"Hey lads," Mal greeted them, and nearby, Gilriel turned from a group of her friends to look.
"Mal," Meithel said, and nodded. "Fardho." Fardhan lifted a hand, then let it fall. "Hey, Aetho, it's Gilly."
"Tha's got dust 'tween the ears, Meitho," Gilriel snapped back instantly. "Must've fell in with the dirt!" She rose and approached, eyeing Meithel disdainfully. And she snorted as she drew a finger across Meithel's face, and Meithel protested as she scratched a bit drawing off. Gilriel held her finger up, examining the dirt ere wiping it on Meithel's shirt. "We ent got 't'a want for water, at least," she said, then turned and went back to get her pails and skins. "Got water t' heat and cookin' still t' finish," she said, and departed. The lads watched her go.
"Huh," Aethrin said after a moment, and nudged his friend. "That's twice these two days past she ent 't'even slapped tha!"
"Must like tha, eh?" Mal teased. Meithel made an indignant noise.
"Nah," Fardhan retorted, still watching Gilriel's retreating figure. "Too sensible a lass t' be took in by this river rat!"
"Eh, like he said," Meithel said sagely, and nodded.
"He called tha rat, Meitho," Mal protested, amused.
"River rats we all are. What 't'of it?" the boy replied. Mal snorted, but then shrugged, wiping at his brow with the back of a forearm.
"Nothing if it 't'ent nothing to tha, I guess," he replied. "Wish you river rats would change for land rats! Make ploughing easier," he added.
"Ah, leave off! Me an' Aetho don't come up but hock high on that 't'ox," Meithel protested, grinning.
"Next year might be different, though, eh?" Mal replied, then rose, stretching a bit. "Well, me for a proper bath with that nice warm water Gilriel and the others are makin'. Get it while we got it. After all, come the Rangers for river run, an' it's all cold water from Cair Andros to Pelargir. Coming, Fardho?" A pause. "Fardho?"
"Eh, a moment," Fardhan replied, staring east. Aethrin turned to see what was afoot, and was in time to see a group of Rangers appear from out of the forest, carrying what looked like a young doe between them. A few of them had a string of hares, too, and Aethrin felt his stomach cramp hungrily at the sight of them.
"Least they ent 't'eatin' out t'of our larders," Mal said, as always seeking the good side of matters, though even he sounded a bit envious. Game hunting was not something Eastshoremen had ever learned the craft of, having no need of it with all the river to fish and their few animals that they husbanded. How to make a bow and shoot it was something no one had mastered, and it was not as if such things were cheaply bought in Pelargir, either.
Lately, that ignorance was being felt, as the animals dwindled, having been long since added to the pot or sold or deemed irreplaceable, and with larger and larger portions of their thinning catch going across the river to pay their debts. They could trap rabbits, at least, but with the King's Rangers about, they seemed to come less often out into the fields, and although one could trap on cleared land and just a little beyond it, the rule of the forest was hunting, not laying traps that could entangle or even injure another.
Rangers, of course, were well-trained in the ways of their craft, making their own bows and arrows and traps, and they were great shots after so many hours spent practicing on the village's scarecrows and other, smaller targets. They often hunted to keep themselves, trading back over the river in Pelargir when they went on leave for steel arrowheads or the like, and they maintained their own little plot of vegetables. It was the one thing Eastshoremen appreciated about them: King's Men like Rangers, who were stationed for long on the land they watched, had to keep themselves, rather than impose upon the villagers, and they did. It was just that food being scarce lately, Eastshoremen could hardly help but notice that the Rangers at least did not appear to be suffering...
"Wonder if they'd trade for some of that," Meithel said, sounding as if he were mentally tallying anything he could beg, borrow, or steal that might be used for such dealings.
For it wasn't as if the Rangers never shared their bounty, it was just that it was a rare encounter between them and Eastshoremen that lacked a certain predictable chill. Rangers rarely had guests, and were even more rarely "guested," as the folk of the Eastshore were in the habit of saying. Too much of Westshore in the King's Rangers for Eastshore tastes, and so east and west were happy enough to see to their own affairs as much as possible. Certainly, one didn't go begging in Eastshore—not from Westshoremen. Aethrin therefore was not surprised when his brother replied to Meithel:
"Lad, there's some trades ent worth making," Fardhan warned, even as he rose and looked away. Reaching out, he gave Mal a shake. "Coming?" he asked.
"Oh aye. Aye," Mal said, tearing his eyes away, and he and Fardhan headed back towards the village.
"I know one of them," Meithel said, when the older lads had left. "Ranger named Barandor. Likes to win at dice. Sometimes, he'll dice with tha at mealtimes—could get 't'a bit that way."
"Tha could get some and see what Gilly makes of it, tha's so fond of her," Aethrin suggested, and got an elbow to the ribs. But then Meithel grinned evilly.
"Might just! Want to come?"
"I don't dice," Aethrin said, feeling no little regret. But Meithel seemed not at all dismayed.
"All the better—he'll win every time," his friend said, clearly warming to his plan.
"Can't, Meitho," Aethrin said, and shook his head. "Mam ent one for gambling."
"Bet she'd forgive it for a bit 't'of rabbit," his friend wheedled. Aethrin sighed.
"Can't," he repeated softly. Meithel made a frustrated sound, but after a moment, he seemed to accept it.
"Got t' break some rules," he said. "I'm going."
"Bad's what 't'I need for once," was Meithel's parting shot. With that, he scampered off. Aethrin sighed and leaned over the river once more, looking at his wavering reflection a moment before he stepped into the river and bent to dip his hands in. Cupping water in them, he splashed it upon his face, rubbed vigorously, and repeated the process. Then, clean enough to be allowed within the house at least, he straightened and made his way back home.
He found Alweth kneeling by their oven, cleaning ashes out of it. "Was goin' t' help tha," Aethrin said, apologetically. Alweth looked up.
"Ah, Aethrin—no matter, there'll be soap t' make one day soon," she said. "Go ahead in. Tha can help Fardho empty the old water, then take tha's turn. I'll just finish here."
"My thanks, Mam!" Aethrin replied. He went within and found his brother scrubbing still in the kitchen, where it was warmest thanks to the fire. "Get tha's back, Fardhan?" he asked.
"If tha would," his brother replied, handing him the stiff-bristled brush and crouching down in the little tub for him. Aethrin got the brush lathered up with soap, then applied himself to his task. But his mind was elsewhere, imagining rabbits and dice and wondering whether he shouldn't try, just this once, to sneak out later on and join his friend. After all, Meithel surely was right about some rules needing to be broken...
"Aie, careful, lad! Tha's washing my back, not tanning my hide!" his brother protested just then.
"Sorry," Aethrin said meekly, and scrubbed more gently.
"What's tha got in the heart now, Aetho? Tha's thinking somewhat much," Fardhan asked, glancing over his shoulder at him.
"Naught so much or great," Aethrin demured. His brother snorted.
"If Meithel's in it, tha speaks truth! Eh, tell me—what 't'is it? You were still talking when we left, Mal and I."
Aethrin sighed. He never was very good at keeping things from Fardhan, especially when asked directly, and so he gave up the effort. "Talked about tryin' t' get 't'a little of the Rangers' catch tonight. Meithel says he knows one of 'em."
"Get it with what?" Fardhan demanded, turning about now to face him. "Aetho, we ent got 't'anythin' to trade."
"Meithel says Barandor likes to win at dice, an' I can lose right well, since tha knows I ent 't'ever played," Aethrin replied.
"Mam would have the ears off tha straight!"
"I know, but... what if Mam didn't know?" Aethrin asked. A gusty sigh greeted this revelation, and Fardhan hooked a damp, soapy hand about the back of Aethrin's neck, pulling him in a little closer.
"List tha here," his brother said. "Tha won't slip out behind Mam's back for a bit 't'of rabbit, hear? Especially not t' play dice. Da never held with it, 't'and neither does Mam, an' if they don't, 't'I don't. Got 't'enough debt 't'already, we do. An' I'm t' take care of tha. Tha stays here tonight."
"But 't'I'm hungry, Fardho," Aethrin protested, leaning his face wearily against his brother's bare shoulder. So hungry! His stomach twisted within him, complaining rather loudly even as he spoke, and he heard Fardhan sigh softly. The hand at the back of his neck squeezed a little, and fingers slid through his hair gently a moment. Then:
"Here, get tha up. Tha's tired and cold, an' I've had my turn in the tub. Empty it 't'out 't'and fill it for tha—tha'll feel better warmed up a bit," Fardhan said, releasing him and rising. Aethrin was unsure how that would cure him of hunger, but he said nothing, only climbed to his feet and fetched his brother a towel to dry himself on. Fardhan made short work of that, and quickly pulled his trousers on, leaving the shirt aside for a moment. "Here, help me, lad," he said, and the two of them stooped, picked up the tub, and carried it to the back, where they emptied it over a patch of the newly-seeded garden.
Then it was back inside, where Fardhan urged him to undress while he filled up the tub again with the water he had left in the pot over the fire. Then it was over to the pail to dip cool water from the barrel, and tip that into the tub as well, so Aethrin would not be scalded. "In with tha," his brother commanded, and Aethrin, shivering now, made haste to obey, and was quick to splash some water over his shoulders and back.
"Here, sit tha quiet, 't'I'll pour," Fardhan said, retrieving the ewer normally used for washing, and he dipped it into the tub. Aethrin closed his eyes as his brother emptied it over his head, and then he reached for the soap and began working the lather into his hair. Meanwhile Fardhan took up the brush and returned the favor, scrubbing his back while Aethrin washed his hair. And his brother chafed his arms, too, keeping the chill away while Aethrin saw to the rest of himself, then rinsed off and climbed out to stand before the fire. Fardhan wordlessly handed him the towel, watching him dry off, then handed him his spare shirt and trousers. Once more, they took the tub out and emptied it.
"Tha can take tha's turn, Mam," Fardhan said, as Alweth rose and wiped ashes from her hands. "I'll fill it 't'again for tha."
"My thanks, Fardho. Just put your clothes in the basket for tomorrow," Alweth told them both.
"Aye, we did," Fardhan replied, leaving Aethrin to stand on the back porch, watching a few chickens strut loose about the yard, scratching at the earth. He returned but a short while later and tapped Aethrin's arm. "Let's be off for a bit," he said, as Alweth went within and shut the door to have her privacy.
"Where we going?" Aethrin asked.
"Just 't'about the river side. Come on," his brother beckoned, draping an arm about Aethrin's shoulders. Back down the path they went, past the Rangers, and down to the shore once more, where the boats sat unused tonight. There they stood and threw stones into the river, skipping them across the water.
"Four ent bad," Fardhan said after awhile, and Aethrin made a face at him.
"Ent fair tha's got 't'a' better arm for it!" he retorted.
Fardhan flexed and gave him a superior smirk. "See why I don't let tha carry pails?" he said.
"Aye, tha cheats!" Aethrin replied.
"Older's clever," Fardhan said loftily, and patted him on the head. "Younger's still stupid."
"Put sand in tha's hair, I will," Aethrin threatened.
"Do it, 't'I'll throw tha in the river."
"Put pig slop in tha's shoes."
"Stuff tha in the chickens' coop."
"Ah, tha'll break the ears with that squawling," Fardhan groaned and held up his hands in surrender.
Aethrin folded his arms across his chest and lifted his chin, unmollified. "Say it!" he demanded. Fardhan sighed loudly.
"All right, tha's a clever lad," he conceded and held out his hand. Aethrin smiled and took it, and when his brother had it clasped firmly in his, Fardhan suddenly pulled him in and tucked his head under an arm, knuckling his hair.
"But not clever enough," he added, while Aethrin swore and swatted at him. "Ah, watch tha's mouth," he warned, "or I'll still throw tha in the river. But 't'enough, eh? Mam's likely done by now."
So saying, he released Aethrin, who straightened up and shook himself, running his fingers through his hair. "Will get tha one day," Aethrin muttered, and Fardhan grinned unrepentently.
"But not 'til after supper. Let's go!"
So back they went, knocked on the front door, in case Alweth should have taken longer than was her wont. But their mother called them within swiftly, and they gathered around the table where she set more flatbread and porridge.
"Down t' the last of the saltmeat," Alweth told them. "Come planting's end, we'll have it. Something to look forward to, eh?"
Aethrin only sighed inwardly, and glanced sideways at his brother. But neither of them complained, and porridge was something at least. Still, later that night, he tossed and turned in bed, trying to get comfortable, and wished he could be more like Fardhan, who seemed never to have any trouble falling asleep. Spring planting—well, any planting lately—always was a battle between exhaustion and hunger, and it was never sure, come nightfall, which would win.
The next day dawned, and a sleepy, rather resentful Aethrin dragged himself out of bed to another day's labor in the fields. He was joined by an equally tired-eyed Meithel, and Aethrin, taking in his friend's uncharacteristically silent mood, asked, "So how'd it go? Win at 't'all?"
"Didn't play. Rangers were having some quarrel, sounded like—something about no news from the north, an' wonderin' what it meant. Some of 'em think it's naught, ‘t’an' some think otherwise. Lot 't'of worry about that sort 't'of talk, I guess. Anyhow," Meithel said, "I wasn't going to walk in after that."
"Just sat there by the door listening an' then crept home?"
"Aye. Pretty much. Stupid quarrel! Could've had done with it 't'earlier, they could've. Ent gettin' anyone anywhere, 'specially not 't'our lads up north t' pay Ship Tax," Meithel groused.
Which was, in some ways, fine with Aethrin, who was pleased to have Fardhan home, but it was curious that no one had come yet. And now that Meithel mentioned it, that could be worrisome, too, if it meant they couldn't get enough timber to the cities and the king's mills to cover Ship Tax.
What if we have t' pay it straight, like Charter Tax? he wondered, anxiously. They were struggling to keep afloat as it was, and that with selling more than they could afford to let go of across the river. Ship Tax at least was a simple matter of getting timber into the mills, but what if they couldn't do that for some reason? What if the Rangers didn't come? What if the pretender's raiders destroyed all the winter logs waiting to be taken down river? What then?
A weighty question, and Aethrin found himself stuck with it all that day, worrying over it, as over a loose tooth. By day's end, when he took his turn in the tub, it had worked its way down into him, that worry, 'til he couldn't keep it in any more.
"What if they did burn all the logs, Fardho?" he asked, as he and Fardhan, having bathed and left their mother to her washing, wandered the water's edge once more. "What would happen to us?"
"Have to cut more, I suppose," Fardhan replied, gazing west across the river towards the glimmer of light on the horizon.
"But how much more? Could you do it, before the Ship Tax came due?"
"We'd have to."
"I don't know, Aetho," his brother replied irritably. "Just... leave it be, eh? Ent nothin' we can do about that, 't'and we don't know what's takin' so long up there. Could be anything." Aethrin lowered his eyes, mute before Fardhan's bad mood. And after a moment, he heard him sigh, and an arm landed about his shoulders.
"Ent nothing to worry about, 't'Aetho," his brother said then, and Aethrin looked up at him. "We'll pay it. No question, for we ent going back t' being Pelargir's. Ship Tax and Charter—they'll get paid. Rangers'll come any day, after all. Just be glad we're getting the ploughing done, eh?"
"Guess so," Aethrin said, though he was not terribly reassured. But he did not want to upset his brother, either, and so he said no more as they returned to their home for supper.
However, his effort was undone the moment they opened the door. As usual, they knocked, and when no call came back to tell them to wait, Fardhan opened the door. Aethrin slipped in, his brother on his heels, so that when he stopped short just inside the door, Fardhan nearly tread upon Aethrin.
"Aetho, move tha," Fardhan began, but then stopped abruptly, as he, too, caught sight of their visitor.
Alweth stood wiping her hands quickly upon her apron, and they were greasy, for there was a rabbit upon the cutting board—well cooked from the look and smell of it. And seated in a chair at the table was a man in homespun and leathers, but with a green cloak that bore a badge upon it. White tree and crown on black field—the royal arms, on such a cloak, meant but one thing: Ranger. And both Aethrin and Fardhan knew well the wearer. Calandil came to his feet, no rush or fuss, and he gave the brothers a nod.
What's he doing here? was Aethrin's first thought, though it seemed evident enough the Ranger had come for supper. Had even come with supper, and Aethrin could not quite forebear from staring at the rabbit being dissected upon the table.
"Aethrin, Fardhan," Alweth was saying as she stepped around the table, reaching for them. "Calandil brought 't'us a planting gift—mind your manners, now!" This, with a rather stern and pointed look for her elder son.
"Good evening, lads," Calandil greeted them. Aethrin, who always found himself at a loss for words about the man, simply stared back at him. Fardhan, however, suffered no shyness.
"Give tha good evening," he said, rather stiffly, under Alweth's narrow-eyed, expectant look. He gestured to the rabbit. "Kind of tha t' think of us, but we can do for ourselves, Captain."
"Fardhan," Alweth said warningly, but Calandil only smiled a little and made a slight, dismissive gesture, as if sweeping aside Fardhan's barely veiled rudeness.
"It's all right, Mistress Alweth," he said soothingly, ere addressing himself to Fardhan. "I never said you couldn't, lad, but I thought you might like one nonetheless. And you know I'm not a captain, so no need to promote me."
"Eh. No promotions, he says," Fardhan grunted, then glanced at Alweth, and repeated, quirking a brow, "No promotions?"
Aethrin cringed at that, for whatever their recent jesting, he was certainly old enough and clever enough to know exactly what was meant, and he feared his mother's reaction. Alweth's face was thunderous, and for a moment, Aethrin was certain there would be a quarrel. But then she drew a deep breath, and stepped back, seeking to calm herself, clearly.
"I've a hare to carve," she announced. "Make yourselves useful or go sit quietly until supper is ready. Which is it to be?"
There was silence a moment, then Fardhan touched Aethrin's shoulder. "Help Mam," he said, and then moved to begin drawing water for tea. Aethrin blinked at him, astonished. From Alweth's expression, she, too, had been expecting worse. A cautious hope slid across her face, ere she glanced at Calandil, and then moved to return to her chore. Aethrin obediently went and got their bowls and cups and began laying them out, keeping one setting aside until Alweth should finish with the rabbit. Then he sank down into his seat to watch, keeping one eye on the hare that was making his mouth water, and the other on Calandil.
The Ranger was a tall man, as were most of the Dúnedain, and like most Dúnedain, grey eyes looked out from beneath black brows. His hair he wore back in a short tail, and he'd the look of a man who spent much time in the open air: his skin was tanned, though not so deeply as any Eastshoreman's, and there were some squint lines about his eyes. But it was a young face nevertheless, though Aethrin always thought he must be older than Alweth at least. It was hard to tell with Dúnedain, and Aethrin bit his lip, speculating.
And then he blushed, for Calandil's eyes cut to him, and then the man turned his head and cocked a brow at him. Rangers always know when they're being watched, Meithel had said once, and Aethrin quickly lowered his eyes, fearful lest he give offense. Fortunately, there was no opportunity for Calandil to speak to him just then.
"There we are," Alweth announced, carefully pushing the board to the center of the table, and she gestured for Aethrin to stand. Calandil did as well. "Fardhan, come join us," she beckoned.
But Fardhan, in the second surprise of the evening, replied, "Can't. Ent 't'enough room."
For a moment, everyone stared at him, uncomprehending, for there were four chairs and settings after all. Then Alweth's mouth thinned ominously. "Son, let's have no more nonsense—" she began.
"Ent nonsense, Mam," Fardhan said quietly. He gestured to the empty seat. "That's Da's chair, not mine."
"Fardhan, I never heard such a thing! We've had others to sup with us before an' no trouble given about 't'a chair," Alweth retorted.
"Eh, well, then I ent hungry," Fardhan said and shrugged.
"Of course tha's hungry!"
"Ne. Not tonight," Fardhan maintained steadily, not budging an inch. He nodded at Aethrin. "Give Aetho my share. Think I'll take a walk. Give you all good night, 't'and don't feel a need t' wait 't'up for me."
With that, he turned and departed out the back door without another word, leaving Alweth to stare, appalled, after him. She started to go after him, but Calandil caught her hand, staying her. "Let him go," he said quietly. "He shall return in good time."
Still, it was another moment before Alweth turned back to face them, and she nodded, then bowed her head, and Aethrin followed suit, waiting until Alweth released them to their supper with the customary "So let 't'our day end." Aethrin set to with a will, for rabbit was very welcome indeed.
"'Twas good of tha t' go to such trouble," Alweth told Calandil after a moment.
"The luck of the hunt was with us yesterday," Calandil replied. "And since I caught quite a few of those rabbits, the others haven't been able to complain about my taking one."
"I could've cooked it, though," Alweth insisted.
Calandil chuckled. "I doubt it not, but we are used to cooking for ourselves, and I fancy I have a fair hand for such things. At least, none of the others has complained of my cooking yet!"
"Naught t' complain of," Alweth assured him. "Is it not so, Aetho?"
"Mmm," Aethrin grunted, and nodded, for whatever he felt for Calandil, there was nothing to dislike in his cooking.
"You have many duties to bear anyway, Alweth. I should not wish to add to them," Calandil said, ignoring Aethrin's wordless reply for the moment. Alweth flushed at that.
"'Twould be nothing I've not done before," she said. The Ranger only smiled at that, watching her.
"How went the planting today?" Calandil asked after a moment.
"Five oxen, five acres a day, and more to do for the next while. 'Twas luck the thaw ent taken our lads north sooner," Alweth replied. "Makes it 't'a quicker chore, ploughing." She gave Calandil a look then, and asked, "Would tha know ought 't'of that? A week I've been thinking Fardho would be gone already, or any day."
Calandil shook his head. "News travels as swift as the first runner, and we've heard nothing. It may be that the north has a harder winter than we have had here. You recall how fierce the last one was," he said blithely, just as if there had been no dispute about such matters among the Rangers the night before, Aethrin noted.
"Aye, I do. Such rain we had, and for so long, and the ice in the north, Fardhan said," Alweth replied, apparently accepting this excuse. For she ent got Meithel to spy things out, Aethrin thought, and wondered which side Calandil had been on.
"Think it's the pretender's men makin' trouble?" Aethrin heard himself ask, before he could consider the wisdom of such a question. At that, both Calandil and Alweth gave him rather a sharp look.
"Aetho," his mother said, a bit reprovingly. "Such a question!"
"But Mam, what 't'about last year? Men died last year," Aethrin protested quietly. "An' we ent 't'ever heard the Rangers got them all, the pretender's men!"
"Aethrin, tha'll show a proper respect to our guest—" Alweth began, but Calandil reached and caught her hand in his, stilling her rebuke.
"'Tis all right, I am not offended. The lad is right, the pretender's men are still at large," Calandil confirmed, his grey eyes resting upon Aethrin's face. "And so I am afraid I cannot say whether it is because of Eldacar's men that the Rangers are delayed, or whether it is simply a long winter up near Cair Andros."
"What if it's them, Eldacar's folk?"
"Then," Calandil said steadily, "the Rangers will try, with the King's levies, to hold the north against them, until we drive them off."
"How long will that take?" Aethrin asked.
The Ranger shrugged eloquently. "I cannot say. But as long as it takes, the Rangers will be there."
"And what if it's all spring? What if we can't make river run? We gonna have to pay Ship Tax still?" Aethrin dared to ask. Alweth put her head in her hands.
Calandil simply stared at him a moment, but then said, "I do not know the king's mind on such matters. I am only a Ranger, not a great lord."
"The king will do what's right," Alweth said, stepping in at that moment, and her tone left no room for disagreement. She gave Aethrin a warning look, and then said, "King keeps his people."
"Well said," Calandil murmured. He gave Aethrin a conspiratorial smile then, as if sharing some great secret, as he said, "You've a wise woman for a mother, lad."
Aethrin couldn't bear to bring himself to say anything to that, especially not when Alweth gave Calandil a sweet smile for the obvious compliment. Fortunately, it seemed there was no real need for him to say aught in response: Calandil swiftly changed the subject, and left Aethrin to his supper, intent upon conversing with Alweth, who seemed only too happy with the arrangement.
When they had finished supper, however, Alweth sighed and looked to the empty place at the table. "Aethrin, be a help an' see that 't'a bit 't'of this is kept for him, would tha?" she said.
"Aye, Mam," Aethrin said, rising to go and set a portion of their supper aside for his brother. He got a good bit of the rabbit into a bowl and then holding it carefully, scampered up the ladder to their lofted room, where he carefully felt his way over to the window sill and set the bowl down. And then he paused, straining his ears to listen.
"May I come again tomorrow, Alweth?" Calandil was saying.
"Fardhan won't like it," Alweth replied.
"I know that. But there are matters I would speak with you about—things you should consider, I think."
"Calo," his mother sighed.
"Alya," the Ranger replied, "you know it is true. Even your Aethrin knows it—you heard him tonight."
"Heard him, aye. An' he'll be back in but 't'a moment, if he ent listening already—young rascal of a friend, Meitho, gives him ideas!" Alweth snorted, and in the darkness, Aethrin blushed, even as he hastened to (loudly) make his way towards the ladder again.
"Put Fardho's supper out for him, Mam," he said as he reappeared and jumped down from the last few rungs.
"There's my good lad. Now, say tha good eve an' thanks to Calandil," she instructed. Aethrin sighed inwardly, but he dutifully turned and made the other an awkward bob of head and shoulders.
"Thanks," he said. "Rest tha good tonight."
"And you, too, Aethrin," Calandil replied, making a much more graceful half-bow, ere reaching to take Alweth's hand and brush his lips over the back of her knuckles. "Good night, Alweth."
"Good night," Alweth said, her cheeks a bit red, and then the Ranger drew his cloak about his shoulders and departed. Alweth sighed. "Here, help me clean up," she said, and wordlessly, Aethrin obeyed. When he had finished, he bid his mother good night and climbed up once more, shed his clothes, and slipped between the sheets. There he lay, and waited until, after a time, he heard the door again, and a murmur of voices—low and short—ere the ladder creaked and Fardhan appeared.
"Hey, Aetho," he murmured.
"Put tha's supper on the sill," Aethrin replied, gesturing towards it. Fardhan glanced up at it, and he sighed.
"Should've eaten it tha's self," he said.
"Tha's got t' eat, too," Aethrin replied. "More, even." A pause. "It's good."
Another sigh, but Fardhan went and retrieved the bowl, then came and sat beside him as he set to work on the rabbit. "So," he asked around a mouthful, "what'd he want? He say anything?"
"Lots. Talked to Mam lots. Talked about the pretender's men and the Rangers fightin' them off."
Fardhan snorted. "Bet he did! He say anything else?"
Aethrin hesitated, for he knew perfectly well what his brother was driving at, and knew very well Alweth was right: Fardhan would not be pleased to hear it. "Wants to come back tomorrow. Says he an' Mam have things to talk about still."
"He thinks that, does he?" his brother muttered darkly. The bowl clattered on the floor beside him. "Thinks it's that 't'easy t' buy us, eh?"
"Mam wants him back," Aethrin murmured.
"No, no 't'ent him she's got 't'a want for," Fardhan replied, his voice low and certain.
"I dunno, Fardho. Sounds to me like it 'tis."
"No, it 't'ent," came the quick, unwavering response. A pause, then: "Get some sleep, Aetho. I'll just finish this downstairs an' come right back up."
With that, Fardhan disappeared once more, but Aethrin lay for long alone in the darkness, and he'd no need of an ear pressed to the floor to hear the low, intense exchange between mother and brother, which grew in volume until a door opened and shut, and the two of them took it outside. But still, he could hear the sharp murmur of their voices through the walls, and he sighed and pressed his hands over his face.
At length, he heard the door again, and after a time, Fardhan returned. His brother said nothing, just undressed and lay down beside him. But the silence felt heavy with anger, and as Aethrin nestled up to him, throwing an arm over his brother's chest, he could feel the swift beat of his heart.
The next day was much like the previous two, though Aethrin did not wake quite as hungry, thanks to Calandil's visit. But the tension between Alweth and Fardhan was a tangible thing; breakfast was subdued, and Aethrin dreaded the end of the day. He would more gladly, he thought, have hauled ploughshares than see the sun sink below the horizon, save that even fear of what the evening might bring had less hold on him than hunger.
"Least tha’s getting fed," Meithel said of the matter, when the girls appeared with their baskets of bread about noon and all those working the field broke for lunch.
"Thought tha didn’t like Westshoremen," Aethrin retorted.
"Ent got t’ like them to eat their food. Told tha, I’d gamble with ‘em for it," Meithel replied, then his voice went sly as he said, "No sense turning the nose up, eh, Gilly?"
Aethrin looked up just to find Gilriel standing there, nearly empty basket in hand. She sighed exasperatedly. "What now, then?" she demanded.
"Food’s food. Eat it if tha can get it, wherever it’s from," Meithel said.
"Well, surely!" she replied, though she eyed him and Aethrin still, sensing some jest or by-play she was missing. "You’re playing me, lag-abouts, I’ll be feeding this to others," she threatened, holding up two pieces of flatbread, and jerking away when Meithel made a snatch.
"Never thought such," Aethrin hastened to placate her. Gilriel gave him a hard-eyed stare.
"Tha’s got ‘t’a problem with my cooking an’ sharing with tha," she began, clearly still suspicious, but Aethrin shook his head vigorously.
"Ent ‘t’about tha," he said, and gave Meithel a light smack in the arm. "Tell her, Meitho, I’m hungry here!"
"Just talkin’ about Rangers," Meithel said.
"Rangers?" Gilriel replied, glancing from one to the other, and her tone made it plain that this answer had done naught to reassure her. If anything, it seemed to heighten her wariness, as she demanded, "What ‘t’of them?"
"Bringin’ gifts," Aethrin sighed. "There’s the one keeps coming round Mam."
"Eh. ‘Calandil,’ ent it?" Gilriel said archly, and Aethrin nodded.
"Aye, that’s the one. Came by last night. Brought supper. Fardho wouldn’t ‘t’eat with him."
"Mad like a flea-bit dog," Meithel opined.
"Plenty of folk in town would take Fardhan’s side," Gilriel said, uneasily.
"Not me," Meithel declared, earning a pair of annoyed looks from both Aethrin and Gilriel.
"Tha ent got t’ worry about ‘t’anything," Gilriel retorted, with sudden heat. "Tha’s got family can take tha in still if coin falls short, as looks likely. Not hide nor hair of those northern Rangers yet, ‘t’and we’re ploughing already. What ‘t’about the rest of us, then, that ‘t’ent got ‘t’anyone?"
"Dunno. Tha’s going to feed us, or what?" Meithel demanded. Gilriel rolled her eyes, but she did hand over the flatbread, though not without a parting shot:
"Got ‘t’an extra stomach where tha should have had a heart, Meitho!" she snapped. Then, speaking to Aethrin: "Don’t know how tha stomachs that one!" So saying, she departed to see to others. Meithel was already tearing into his bread, though he was grinning, too. Aethrin shook his head.
"She’ll kill tha one day, Meitho, tha knows it."
"Ent done it yet."
"Aye, but tha keeps at her so, she will," Aethrin pointed out.
"Huh. Ent ‘t’even up to being straight with folk lately," Meithel snorted. "She’ll not kill me. Ent lady-like. Tha heard her, eh? Nice as milk to tha, soundin’ all worried. What’s that, then, eh? Somethin’ on her mind, and years past, she’d’ve said it. Not ‘t’anymore."
"She’d’ve put ‘t’a fist in tha’s face, too," Aethrin reminded him, but Meithel merely shrugged.
"Straight, like I said," was his untroubled reply. "Were me, I’d save being milk for Rangers. Might just do it tonight—if they ent so busy talking, maybe one’ll want to dice. Unless tha wants t’ ask me for supper?"
"Eh. He might not ‘t’even come," Aethrin replied, and ignored Meithel’s skeptical look in favor of simply stuffing the rest of his flatbread into his mouth. "C’mon," he mumbled, as he bent to pick up the harrows again. "Dicing or dining, we ent seein’ any Rangers ‘til we’re done."
But Calandil did, indeed, return for supper, this time bringing a bit of venison to sweeten his reception. Fardhan only gave him a dark look, but he did not leave this time. Nor did he speak. He simply sat and watched, a silent, brooding presence at table that made for a rather subdued atmosphere. Calandil would every so often rest his gaze upon Fardhan, and the two of them would strive for a little while thus, before one or the other looked elsewhere. After supper, Fardhan did the dishes—slowly, carefully, and with a certain amount of repetition. Clearly, he was not about to let Calandil get a word in alone with Alweth.
"Aetho, t' bed with tha," his mother murmured, kissing him on the cheek. "Fardho, I'll do that."
"I've got it, Mam. Tha's done enough today," Fardhan replied.
"Then I'll make tea for us," Alweth said determinedly. "Calandil, if tha likes—"
"Actually," the Ranger said, politely, though he watched Fardhan the while, "I should be heading back. I've an early watch tomorrow. A good night to you all. Alweth, we should speak later on."
"Aye, of course," Alweth replied, and Calandil smiled.
"Good night, lads," he said once more, then bowed to Alweth and departed. Aethrin held his breath, watching as his mother wrung her apron in her hands in an anxious fashion, 'til Fardhan grunted:
"Wants t' be a bed-warmer, he does. Weren't much t' tell him 'no' just now, either."
At that, Alweth turned on him swiftly, her face flushed with anger. "Tha's got no call to speak so of him or me, son! Weren't for tha, there'd be not 't'a thing improper in all of it, but that forked tongue and mood tha's got brooding about would blight 't'a spring season!"
"Wouldn't have any call, but he's here. Ent like he even hides it—he's buying his way in, Mam, bringing supper. And where was he, eh, all these years past when he could've been a help to us?" Fardhan demanded.
"He's here now, or would be if it 't'weren't for tha," Alweth retorted bitterly.
"Aye, he knows it's got desperate round here lately an' a wife's to have cheap for some rabbits," Fardhan countered. "Cheap as the girls Westshore sid—" Before he could finish, however, Alweth was across the kitchen to slap him so hard it turned his head and left a red mark upon his cheek.
"And I've got boys to raise, an' I'll not hear them put their tongues to such thoughts!" she said vehemently into the silence. "Tha'll not speak such filth under my roof again, Fardhan. And in front of tha's brother, too!" She shook her head disgustedly, then turned suddenly upon Aethrin, as if reminded of his presence. "Ent 't'I told tha get t' bed?" she demanded.
"Yes, Mam!" Aethrin said quickly, and hurried up the ladder, eager to avoid a hiding. He half expected Fardhan to follow shortly, but it seemed the recent break in the argument was but an interlude, not an end. Before long, they were at it again, and Aethrin pressed his hands over his ears, trying not to listen, wishing not to hear. Yet it was useless. Dimly through the floor and fingers he could just make out the words:
"—don't know why tha can't be decent t' him, Fardhan!"
"He ent decent with tha!"
"Ent nothin' tha's father an' I never did while courting, and just shut tha the mouth now, tha's but fifteen years, Fardhan! Tha'll not be telling me what's decent with a man. Calandil's got 't'a good heart, 't'and he'd take care of you."
"We take care of ourselves."
"Ne, lad, that 't'ent so. We scrape by, an' it's gettin' worse each year. Tha knows it! Tha sees it! We're all weary with worse, an' it hurts some more than others. Ne, look at me! Tha wants to say we ent got 't'a need for help, tha looks me in the face an' says Aethrin's all right!" Alweth's voice was thick with emotion that made Aethrin flush for shame. "Look at him! An' Meithel! Look at the lads—they ent 't'eating right, they ent growing right. We've had three years of bad rains and frosts on top of debt, Fardho. The girls are gaunt 't'as poles in this village!"
"I'll take care of him—" Fardhan began to say, but Alweth would have none of it.
"Ne, tha can't, Fardho," she interrupted him. "Tha tries, but tha can't! Ent many can do right by him; I can't, 't'and I'm his mother," came the bitter, vehement retort. "It's ten years I'm a widow this fall. Tha's father is dead, an' I've his boys to feed, but shame cover me over, I can't do it!" Alweth paused, seeming to try to collect herself a moment, ere she continued in a lower voice: "But Calandil could do it. If he asks, well then, I'd be a fool not t' think on it. And I'll neither raise fools nor be one, Fardho. So hold tha that tongue—'t'ent for tha to think on, it's for me."
"Mam," Fardhan protested, sounding desperate.
"I'll not be talking further on it with tha, Fardhan. Save t' say that Calandil can keep us. He likes Aethrin, and he'll not trouble tha, so long as tha keeps a straight tongue. He wants me to wife, he'll raise Aethrin right, be a father t' him like he never had." She paused, then finished: "Tha loves Aetho, tha should see what's best for him. Now, to bed! There's still ploughing t' do morning next."
Silence fell once more, broken only by the sound of someone—Alweth, most likely—moving about downstairs, moving through the soothing ritual of tidying up (though surely there must be nothing left to tidy) before she went to her bed. Aethrin, meanwhile, lay in the dark, seized by the strangest feeling. It made him feel all hot and hollow, like a great earthen jug in the summer's sunlight. He sniffled and wiped at his nose, blinking away unexpected tears as he tried to puzzle it all out.
Eventually, Fardhan did join him, coming up the ladder slowly, and his tread was heavy on the floor. But he did not come to bed; instead, he went over into the furthest corner and sat down there in the darkness. Aethrin waited for some time, listening to the stillness of the house and the sound of leaves rustling in the forest that pressed close about the village. But at last, when he could no longer bear the silence, he whispered, hesitantly, "Fardhan? Tha's all right?"
"Should be sleeping, Aetho," came the low reply.
With a sigh, Aethrin tossed the covers aside and crawled quietly over to join him, wedging himself up into the corner between the wall and Fardhan's side, and he huddled against his brother. "Can't sleep," he murmured. "It's too cold by myself."
Fardhan sighed, but he tucked Aethrin under his arm, and guided Aethrin's head to his shoulder, stroking his fingers through his younger brother's hair moodily. Aethrin said nothing, just waited until at length, Fardhan shifted a bit, and said softly, "Mam's really worried, that's all."
"Tha's worried, too," Aethrin pointed out.
"Been worried a long time."
"Things've been bad a long time."
"They gonna get better soon, tha thinks?" Aethrin asked, voicing a long unasked question.
"Dunno. Maybe." A pause, then: "Got to get better."
"Why?" It was genuine curiosity, and his brother shrugged helplessly.
"Because. Just have to," he replied, sounding a little uncertain.
"What did tha mean, about the girls on the Westshore side being cheap?" he asked, and felt the mood grow disinctly uncomfortable.
"Just they marry worse than they could."
"That 't'ent what tha said."
"What 't'I meant, though."
Aethrin frowned, thinking a moment of the coins that came over the river sometimes, and of Alweth's reproach. "Doesn't seem so bad a marriage, if they're sending coins back home. Or a filthy thing, either." His brother sighed.
"Should go t' bed, Aetho," he chided gently. And though he was clearly trying to change the subject, Aethrin let it go, sensing it would go badly to ask further.
"Ent tired yet," he replied.
"Will be tomorrow."
For a time after that, they said nothing, and Aethrin sat nestled against his brother, his eyes heavy-lidded as he struggled against telltale yawns and the soothing nothing sleep promised. Finally:
"Tell me a story," Aethrin begged.
"Tell me about Da," he said unhesitatingly.
"Told tha everything before, Aetho."
"Tell me again."
Fardhan sighed once more, but after a moment, he began. "Saw him last day he left with the other men. They were goin' to Pelargir first, then up the river with the fleet. Mam's eyes were all red—heard her cryin' all the night before, an' him talkin' to her. I liked his voice. Sort 't'of... treeish. Deep, like the drums made out 't'of the stumps. Dunno how to tell tha. Used to get 't'all soft-like, when he was talkin' to tha, just him and tha. Used to take me to the shore to put long lines out, though I could hardly pull 'em in if we caught much. Taught me t' make bait and mend nets an' what kind of fish t' catch. Helped me make my first snapleg trap, too. Sometimes," Fardhan's voice grew lighter, then, and Aethrin could hear the smile in it, "sometimes he'd catch me up and throw me in the river, just t' laugh. And he taught me t' find my way in the woods.
"'Tha can learn a forest, tha can find tha's way through anything,' he said. Didn't want me lost—ever. Not 't'ever, an' it's not just trees that lose tha in 'em. Learned that later—there's more than one kind of forest, 't'and he wanted me t' know I could find a way through any of 'em, if I kept my head. Been tryin' to ever since," Fardhan murmured.
Fardho's like his Da, Alweth's voice sounded in Aethrin's memory. Growing up knowing his Da was gone an' he'd to do his duty by us, stand in his Da's shoes—'tis hard for him. Aethrin laid a hand upon his brother's knee, gave it a pat. "Eh," he grunted, "tha's still got 't'a head on tha's shoulders. A fat head sometimes," he added, and smiled a little, even as Fardhan groaned and gave him a shove, "but 't'is a head still!"
"Should use that tongue to catch snaplegs!" his brother growled, and Aethrin giggled. But then he felt Fardhan's hand over his, and they fell silent once more for a time, 'til at length Fardhan spoke again.
"He left 't'us not 't'a month after tha was born," he said softly. "He held tha every night he was here. And he told me, when he left, that 't'was for me to take care of tha and Mam. Used t' wonder if he knew he wasn't comin' back that day. Elders say the vale folk got their own sight. Not like the Dúnedain, but it tells us things sometimes. Maybe it came on Da that day, and that's why..."
Fardhan trailed off into an anxious, preoccupied silence once again. Aethrin closed his eyes, and he yawned, eliciting a grunt from his brother. "Tired now, eh?" he asked. Aethrin nodded.
"Then to bed. Come on," he coaxed, rising and drawing Aethrin with him to their mattress. Aethrin wearily crawled back beneath the covers, and Fardhan joined him shortly, spooning up against his back. Warmed by his brother's arms about him, and worn out with the day's tensions and labors, sleep came calling swiftly. But before it overcame him, he muttered:
"Ent 't'ever been lost with tha about, Fardho. Wouldn't want Calandil for a da; got tha already." With that, he fell asleep.
Fardhan, however, lay quietly awake, holding his brother tightly in his arms while the moon charted his course across the nightsky. At length, however, he, too, yawned, exhausted. But as he settled down to rest, pulling the blankets up a little higher about himself and Aethrin, he said softly, "Don't tha worry the head, Aetho. He'll not be da to tha ever. We ent that lost yet. Not yet."