8. Seed Money
The crash brought Aragorn, sword in hand, running from his office to the hall, sure that they were under attack or the old north wall, its mortar crumbling and lime-leached, had come crashing in. He was brought up short, astonished.
A ring of Rangers was cheering on two combatants rolling on the floor, doing their best to strangle each other. The crash had been one of the heavy tables going over. Plates and cups were broken and scattered in the rushes. The dogs wolfed down the spilled food, wary eye to the fighters to avoid being stepped on.
"'Twas only a bit of entertainment, my lord." Aragorn rounded on the group, fury in his eyes. The hapless speaker realized his chieftain had his sword in his hand and the entire group took an involuntary step backward.
"Entertainment? Wrestling in the rushes like a pair of orcs is entertainment? This is the level to which the last of Numenor has sunk? Do you think the Eldar break each other's heads and the furniture for entertainment? That Dain's dwarf lords do such? Or the knights of Gondor? Are the Dúnedain truly the half-wild vagabonds we paint ourselves to be?" He turned on his heel in disgust and strode back to his office. There, he sheathed his sword and stood staring out the window at the icy grey landscape.
Presently, Halbarad cleared his throat from the doorway. The look on his face said he was about to explain why Aragorn was wrong. The chieftain waved him in.
"The men are bored," the captain announced without preamble.
"Send them on patrol," Aragorn ordered tensely, turning back to the winter vista.
"There is no action that warrants that. The orcs and other evilness are holed up from the cold." Halbarad did not realize Aragorn's anger had not burned away. The young man turned, glaring at his captain, the tone of his voice brooking no discussion.
"Clear out the hall! Double the patrols on the road from Bree to the Ford!" Halbarad hesitated imperceptibly, saluted, and scuttled from the room.
Halbarad cooled his heels in his kitchen, trying to avoid Aragorn, who still snarled like a wounded bear in his office. It was a trial to decide between the angry young lord or his angry and vocal wife. Salanda was one moment treating him to haughty silence and the next berating him for upsetting the young chieftain. He was mightily trying to ignore her sharp tongue. Halbarad was about to growl out that his wife was treating the Dúnadan as if she was his wet-nurse when he looked up to find Graelon standing before him. The youth announced that the Dúnadan would like to see him. Halbarad took a last long drink of his beer for fortitude and went off down the hallway. Aragorn sat at his desk, pen scratching quickly over parchment.
"Where is my cousin Amarië?" he asked, not looking up, the pen skidding over the paper, leaving a trail of finely formed Elvish script.
"I believe, my lord, at the encampment at Sarn Ford."
"Send for her," Aragorn commanded, "and send me Salanda." Halbarad looked at him quizzically, thought better of saluting again, and went out in search of a messenger.
The young man rose when the kind Lady Salanda entered. He pulled a chair near the fire, beckoned her to sit, and perched on the arm of the one across from her.
"Lady, I need your help." She was curious as to what the Dúnadan could need. Gracious and courteous, he had been undemanding in her estimate to this point.
"Yes, my lord, any thing you request," she answered promptly.
"Ours is not a hall I'd wish to invite our allies to," he began, a gleam of boyish imagining in his eyes. "We are making our presence know again here in the north. We need to be taken seriously. We need our allies to treat us as equals." The young man suddenly became very serious, almost frightening Salanda with his earnestness. "There is an evil power growing in the south. The longer we give him reason to pause because there is still power in the alliance of the free folk, the longer he will delay attacking Gondor." Salanda was astounded; could the chieftain be speaking to her of military matters?
"I'd like you to make the hall livable." He smiled ruefully. "I'd like it to become a hall again."
"Lord Aragorn, Fornost is a ruin. It might be easier to move the company to the Angle."
"Nay, I'd like us to remain here. What would make this place less of a ruin?" She thought a bit, eager to help him if she could. She herself had dreamed of a hall suitable for the noble lords of Westernesse who had for too long masqueraded as rabble.
"Whitewash and paint…fabric…and furnishings…I can get those come spring from Bree, but," she looked directly at him. "I can trade for a bit on our good name for services and materials, but eventually we shall have to pay."
"There will be cost…" he thought about his wealth, secreted in Imladris. How much to spend now; how much to hoard for the future in Gondor? Salanda hesitated, measuring what she knew of her lord's sensibilities. In all his dealings so far, the boy was practical.
"We could use the buried treasure," she suggested quietly. Aragorn looked up, startled and Salanda realized she had spoken too much. Her courage left her.
"You must ask Halbarad," she squeaked as she fled the room. He seemed unaware of the treasure! The Dúnadan might not approve of what they had been doing. Someone would then have to pay, and Salanda feared it would probably be her husband.
"Halbarad!" Aragorn had tracked his captain to the stables. The man looked up, expectant of another arcane order as the young chietain strode up. "Tell me about the buried treasure." Halbarad felt stricken as if by a sudden illness. Cold sweat broke out under his collar. What punishment could be doled out for such a crime as he had committed? Aragorn grinned at him. "You look as if I'm about to execute you."
"You may, my lord," the captain said, taking his arm. "Come, walk with me." Halbarad hurried across the compound and into the forest; Aragorn was amazed: as long-strided as he was, Halbarad was nearly dragging him into the trees. In the shelter of the pines, the captain turned to his chieftain. "First, let me say that only a few are privy to what we have been doing. Not all should be punished," the man said defensively.
"Good Halbarad," Aragorn said kindly, patting his shoulder comfortingly. "I can imagine no crime you could commit that would make me change my admiration for you." Aragorn jested, "You make it sound as if you've been robbing travelers on the Great Road."
"Actually, robbery is an apt description of the crime." At Aragorn's querulous look, Halbarad plunged ahead. "It started as a matter of thievery or starvation. About ten years ago, there was a bleak winter after a long, dry summer and a wet autumn. The crops that didn't burn in the fields rotted before they could be harvested. We sorely needed provisions and suddenly the cost was too dear to simply trade for services. We needed a way to conjure up items of value that could be used for coin. We even thought of going up into the Ered Mithrin, holding off the orcs, and digging a bit for gold and mithril, but mining would have taken too long; we feared we'd return and find the families dead of starvation. So I hit upon the idea and took three brave and trusted men," Halbarad took a deep breath, "and raided our forefathers' tombs on the barrow downs." The captain bowed his head as if awaiting sentencing. Aragorn stared down in amazement and then began to laugh again.
"Well done! I'm sure the wights don't care and our ancestors would not want us to starve!" Halbarad looked up at him, relieved.
"Actually, I've never seen a barrow wight. The wight story is put about in Bree and here among the younger Rangers to secure our horde," Halbarad confessed. Aragorn walked along in silence a moment, eyes downcast to the snowy carpet of the woodland floor.
"Halbarad, have I spoken of what an excellent captain you are, of what a find job you did holding all together until I was old enough to come here?" The older man colored at this high praise from the Dúnadan and completely forgot his chieftain was also the young, inexperienced man that he berated still on many occasions.
"Thank you, my liege," he mumbled.
"Arrange a trip for us two and one of your trusted agents in crime. We are in need of a bit of cold coin so I think it is time I paid my respects to my forebearers."
Two mornings later, Aragorn was still drinking his tea in the early dawn light when Graelon led a mud-bespattered ranger into his office. Aragorn looked up appraisingly, expecting some urgent message. Under the hood, the ranger's dark-circled eyes were Amarië's. Aragorn rose from his desk and made as if to embrace his cousin. She instead dropped to a knee and bowed her head.
"Yes, my lord? I came immediately at your command." He looked down at her, amused. He had nearly forgotten he had ordered Halbarad to find her.
"Amarië, I assume you did not stop for rest in two days?"
"Yes, my lord."
"And rode your horse into the ground to get here at my summons?"
"Yes, my lord." He clucked in admonishment and shook his head.
"I did not mean for you to kill yourself at my command…or Abmar," he said, naming her bay stallion. She looked up to meet his grin through her shock of brown hair.
"Nay, my lord. He is fine." The young man sighed in exasperation and dragged her to her feet.
"I am not 'my lord'; I am your worthless cousin. My name is Aragorn, remember?" She colored then.
"After our last meeting, I did not think…did not know…if you would choose to acknowledge me as cousin." He pulled her into an embrace then.
"Amarië, you are family and I will always acknowledge you as such." He chuckled, "And, remember, I acknowledged freely that members of our family cannot hold their liquor well. As I told you, I am as guilty of that flaw as you are and that shall be our secret. Come and sit and break you fast. I imagine it has lasted a while." He sent Graelon for food and she collapsed into a chair he pulled near the fire for her. Aragorn studied her surreptitiously. She looked more worn than two days in the saddle would cause. There was a haunted look in her eyes and a strain about her mouth. Her lips looked gnawed on and he noticed her nails were bitten back to the quick. She leaned back in the chair, silent with eyes closed, and truly seemed beaten down completely to her soul.
The youth was soon back with a tray filled with slabs of toasted bread crowned with melted, mild cheese, a pot of berry preserves, and another of hot tea. He moved a side table before her, set down the tray, and asked if he could be of further service to her. When she shook her head, he bowed reverentially to the surprised Amarië.
"The lady says she will cook eggs if the maethriel* so desires." Amarië shook her head and Graelon bowed again, admiration shining in his eyes and departed. Aragorn had perched on the corner of his desk and was watching in amusement.
"An overly deferential boy; was he amusing himself at my expense? Is he trying to gain favor simpering over a kinswoman of yours?" The old Amarië appeared, bristling.
"No," said Aragorn. "Graelon worships all Rangers --- even those in bad graces with their commanders---" he saw her start and color, "and hopes to be one someday." He pointed to the food and she hesitated only a moment before falling to, eating as if she was indeed starving. Finally sated, she sat back with a steaming cup of tea. While she ate, Aragorn had gone back to studying the paperwork on his desk, especially Salanda's plan for improving the hall.
"How is duty at Sarn Ford? An improvement over Annúminas?" At first, she made to protest she enjoyed it mightily, but then at seeing his eyes, she spoke the truth. It was still difficult for her: she did not get on well with her fellows; there was none of the easy camaraderie for her that the others had. She felt isolated and alone.
"I miss Uncle Harwilthel and Aunt Wyorven and Deesch," she finally admitted to him. "I am a poor soldier. I cannot follow orders without questioning them, I cannot get along with my fellows, and I hate the cold and wet."
"All you have said is true, but I disagree you are a poor soldier. You are an excellent swordsman, better than many who are your superiors in age and rank. And you can obey orders without question: you nearly dropped from exhaustion, braving cold and wet and hunger to get here at my command." She sat up.
"But you are the Dúnadan!" she protested. "None would question your command!" He did not want to ruin her illusion by telling her many had.
"Perhaps, Amarië, you are an excellent soldier, but a poor Ranger. I have a mission for you and a reassignment, if you feel it is not below you." She leapt to her feet and stood at attention.
"Yes, my lord, any command!" Her earnest reply could have been laughable if it was not so heart-felt.
"Sit down, Amarië!" he grinned and she dropped into the chair as if felled by an arrow. "I have a mind to make Fornost into a real hall again, the Dúnadan's stronghold."
"I also need a lieutenant of my house guards, not a Ranger but a real soldier, loyal without question to me and mine. This person would have to learn the task from Halbarad, a grim taskmaster. He would set the standard high for such a one. For a while, this person would also need to assist Lady Salanda in refurbishing the place, escorting her to Bree for purchases, and would need to select the troop of soldiers that would comprise the house guardsmen." He let her digest this bit of news. Then he continued, "It is not a position I fancy many of the Rangers would care for…too civilized for their liking." He pushed papers around a bit on his desk and then he asked:
"Is your brother well?" She wondered at the tangent the Dúnadan had suddenly taken.
"I've had a letter from him within the fortnight. It is quiet at home with so many gone to train as Rangers. He asks of you."
"I need a seneschal and I must have a bit of pomp. My Rangers barely eat with utensils." For the first time since arriving Amarië laughed. "They have forgotten how to be the lords they truly are; they've spent too much time posing as itinerant woodsmen, hunters, and farmers. I can think of none better for this task than Deesch. No one is better at pomp than Deesch." That caused her to grin again. "I would highly prize Deesch's learned help in this task." He watched as first, a smile wreathed her face at the thought of such a position for his brother, but then, he saw the bleakness enter her eyes as she realized the ride to Fornost from Sarn Ford was much longer than her relatively quick bolts across the South Downs to the Angle to see Deesch.
"Bring him here." It was her turn to raise a brow in question. "Your first assignment as lieutenant of my guardsmen is escort Deesch to Fornost. I wish you to travel by way of Rivendell and Deesch is to spend some time learning his role from Erestor, seneschal of Imladris. Salanda will not need you here until spring." He handed her a packet of letters, messages to his aunt and uncle, directives to Elrond and Erestor, long letters to his mother and Arwen, and the Dúnadan's official command for Dioreluchíl of Caew Thoronath to come to Fornost. "Tarry there as long as Deesch likes; there are certain items that will be assembled and sent here under your escort. Is this agreeable to you?" She was astounded and could barely nod. "Go now and rest."
Even though he encouraged her to meet with Halbarad and Salanda, and enjoy what grace his hall could provide, Amarië rode out with the sunrise the next morning, her heart dancing as it had not had in many months. She spurred her horse into a gallop before she had left the courtyard. Fortunately, it was not Abmar she rode; he stood munching grain contentedly in his stall. Amarië had been willing to accept another mount for her first mission for the Dúnadan.
Aragorn sat atop a nervous Swallow looking out over the low grey green hills of Tyrn Gorthad in the new light of dawn. The incessant wind ruffled the short brown grass and a dismal, lonely cry of a hawk seeking to break its fast sent a shiver up his spine. The low hills, almost simple rises in the land, were dotted with green mounds that were the barrows. Broken circles of standing stones dotted some of them like the rotting crowns of ancient kings. Aragorn murmured Sindarin encouragement to his stallion and kneed the grey through the upright pillars that seemed to be the gateway into this realm of the dead. Halbarad and Camalac followed on horses no less skittish.
The trio had ridden down the day before in a cold late winter drizzle and spent the night at the inviting Prancing Pony. The weather had driven many of Bree's inhabitants to seek warmth and camaraderie and The Pony's taproom was full of men and hobbits and a party of dwarves. It was a merry company and while Halbarad and Aragorn watched the crowd and the Dúnadan flirted harmlessly with the buxom blonde serving wench, Camalac nearly lost his sword dicing with the dwarves. Halbarad shook his head at the younger man.
"Never gamble with dwarves," he admonished as they headed off to bed, Camalac with his weaponry intact but a much lighter purse.
The next morning Halbarad took the lead as the sun rose above the horizon and they cantered southwest across the downs. Now they urged their reluctant horses up a mound to a barrow set on top of the tallest hill. The captain reined in. Gray lintel stones marked the mouth of the barrow.
"The last resting place of a great lord," he announced, swinging down from his mount. Camalac led the snorting, dancing horses further down the slope and set to watch the surrounding countryside from the height. The other two took crowbars and pried away the barrier rocks that sealed the tomb. The ancient stones, lime leached and mossy, tumbled easily to their feet. When the opening was wide enough to enter, Aragorn lit the oil soaked torches they had brought with them, handed one to Halbarad, and stepped inside the darkness.
Through it had been cold in the wind outside, the interior of the barrow was frigid. The torches flared on the stones walls as Halbarad led the way down a passage that sloped into the hillside. On each side, shields and swords, long pitted and rusty from eons of disuse, their devices masked by settling dust covered the walls. They were the weapons of these kin who had faced off against Angmar.
They moved deeper into the vault. Aragorn began to hear a rustling that he took as the wind moving, long absent from these airless passageways, but then the sound turned to almost audible whispers. He got the uncanny feeling that someone followed them and he whirled with the torch outstretched. He saw nothing but it seemed as if there was movement just out of the circle of torchlight. Halbarad, startled by Aragorn's actions, drew his sword. When no enemy was forthcoming from the gloom, he looked in question at Aragorn who still stared hard back into the darkness.
"Do you hear it?" he asked Halbarad.
"I hear nothing but the thump of our boots echoing in the cold. Let's finish this and be gone." They moved on and came to an ornately carved archway. It was the vault room of the buried lord. The lintel was inscribed with Quenya lettering.
"The great come to the same final rest as all men do," translated Aragorn.
"Apt philosophy," Halbarad muttered. As they stepped into the vault, the walls sparkled in the light from the torches. Many things of beauty were stacked against them: enameled chests, elegant weapons, moldering fabric and carpets. Aragorn stepped forward and in the torchlight, the face on the catafalque was clear: it was a beautiful woman, her image carved in the marble with such skill it seems almost as if she could take a breath and come alive again. The tomb belonged to a great lady, an heiress of great wealth.
Suddenly Aragorn heard his name spoken clearly behind him as if someone were standing at his shoulder.
"Stay with me, Aragorn." The voice was feminine and he felt cool fingers trail against his arm. He whirled again and this time he definitely saw movement and heard the swish of fabric. He took a step back and held the torch high; it flared above his head, lighting most of the main room but not the dark recesses. He took one step, and then another towards a dark nook.
"Aragorn." Her whisper filled his head and he for a moment saw her, beautiful as the night sky, her black hair caught up in a mithril crown, her hand outstretched, and her eyes fathomless. "Stay with me."
"Begone, my lady! You know me if you call my name and you know I have need of this!" The hand on his shoulder this time was the warm, strong one of Halbarad. He looked worried, fearing the tomb was driving his young lord mad.
"My lord, I think it best if we fill these and begone, as you suggest." He handed Aragorn a leather bag and opened the first chest. Soon both sacks were filled with crowns and bracelets, necklaces and dusty loose stones. Halbarad started them up the passage, Aragorn leading, and before many minutes passed, they were standing in the bright sunlight of midmorning, greeted by a relieved Camalac. The torches were extinguished, the stones were carefully replaced, and sacks stowed in their saddlebags.
"Lasto mae**." Aragorn knelt before the barrow, hand touched first to his forehead and then to his breast in deference to those who rested there. Camalac and Halbarad waited silently, already in the saddle, and Aragorn swung up, giving a last salute to the invisible lady.
Swallow snorted and danced, fighting hard for his head, but Aragorn held him tightly to a canter as they left the downs and struck the Greenway once more, sure to be in Fornost before nightfall.
"I believe this should help our refurbishing." The young man grinned. Instead of dough, her bowl now brimmed with red and blue fire and the glorious sparkle of adamant.
* warrior (fem.)
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.