16. Chapter 15
But the Company cared no longer for watchers or unfriendly eyes. Their hearts were rejoiced to see the light of the fire. The wood burned merrily; and though all round it the snow hissed, and pools of slush crept under their feet, they warmed their hands gladly at the blaze. There they stood, stooping in a circle round the little dancing and blowing flames. A red light was on their tired and anxious faces; behind them the night was like a black wall.
FOTR: The Ring Goes South
My breath is as smoke upon the air. A thin crust of snow has settled here where the high walls of the house and the fence protect the gardens against the wind, and I feel its chill even beneath the soles of my winter boots. And yet, though I shiver and draw my wrap the tighter, I walk between the rows of shriveled stems and withered plants, here where the heads of the yarrow bend beneath their icy burden, their pale, dry fronds rattling in the sudden breeze. Though I must dig in the snow and push aside brittle leaves, it is worth the price, for I am satisfied with what I see. At their roots I find small, dark, purple leaves hugging the ground. Here the Angle lies snug in the midst of winter, their bellies full and their hearths warm, and my garden sleeps beneath its chill blanket.
The tips of my fingers glow a bright pink as I replace the cover of snow and drifted leaves. I shake the water from my hand and tuck my fist deep into my wrap, yet still the skin prickles. Ah, it is cold! And so still. No chirp of cricket, call of bird, or song of frog to hide the crunch of snow beneath my steps. The hens are bedded down in their clutch and are not likely to stir, and I must strain to hear their sleepy, slow clucking. Even the ever-present bleating of the sheep is quiet. They stand huddled in their shed, seeking warmth one from the other. They shall not venture forth today, I think. Master Herdir stays home to tend an ailing mother and I remind myself that I must spread the evening fodder for the flock he would be tending otherwise.
High above, the sun shines as a silver coin in a sky swept clean by the northern winds. I clutch my wrap about me and lift my face to its faint warmth. The air is chill and clean, as if born of the newly fallen snow. A false spring covers the trees and bushes in the illusion of white petals. The fields lie fallow, clods of dirt poking up in brown speckles beneath the snow. Beyond them, the hills melt into the pale sky and the trees stand in a stiff net holding back the wind. All about is soft rolling white and blue shadow. It is as if the earth herself holds her breath, waiting.
And then I start and stare, falling still, for there, upon the far reaches of the fields, a lone figure climbs the sloping hill. He is but a dark shadow that trudges across the snow, but my heart knows him and leaps into pounding. Ah! He will be cold, and weary and hungry when he arrives.
I rush to the bucket where I set it down, slipping upon the wet snow in my haste. The water from the morning's cleaning splashes dirt over the garden and I hurry to the well. Never has the rope been so stiff and slick with ice nor the bucket so heavy. I must break a thin crust of frozen water before it will rise and it clangs against the walls of the well as a great, dull bell. Ah, quickly now, the water will be icy cold and my lord in great need of warmth.
"Elesinda!" I call. The door slams behind me and the girl's alarmed face pops into view at the buttery door, the hall warmly lit behind her. The bucket lands upon the floor with a loud thud, the water sloshing onto my foot.
"Mistress?" she cries, her eyes wide. "What is it? Have they come at last?"
"They?" I ask, staring at her as I unwind the thick wool wrap from about my shoulders, caught up short. "What? No, no, child," I say and laugh, the sound high and glad in even that small space. "Our lord has come. Set the great pot upon the hearth, if it please you, and build up the fire."
"Ai, my lady," she says and throws up a hand to her face. Her cheeks are aflame and eyes bright. "There's not a bit of fresh meat in the house! The last of the mutton went into the soup we ate yesterday and we had the bacon for breakfast. Oh, my lady, even if I pull the brined pork now--"
"What is this?" I hear and, of a sudden, the buttery goes dark. A great shadow looms in the door to the hall. "What is this you say? Lord Aragorn is returned?"
"Aye, Ranger Halbarad," I say and pick up the bucket. When I rise the door is again empty and light streams into the buttery from the hall. I raise my voice to follow the man. "He is come even now, from over the fields." But I speak to the empty hall, for Halbarad snatches his cloak from off the peg even as he opens the great door. Loudly the latch clacks closed behind him.
"My lady? What are we to do?"
"Ah!" I exclaim. The bucket is heavy and the thunderstruck girl in my way. I wave her out of the door. "The pot first, girl! Then I shall start the meal while you run to the baker and the butcher's stall, after. Hurry now!"
The moments fly with our feet and the great pot is filled and set upon the fire, I thrust a brick near the coals where it warms, another pot of water simmers about a bone and Elesinda, bundled in her cloak and wrap, races to the square with a basket o'er her arm. A large bowl of lentils soaks at my hand. Pepper, garlic, dried bay leaf and wizen turnips I have arrayed before me on a board and I kneel before the hearth, cutting onions into thin slices and hoping the tears they raise do not mar my face. We shall come all too soon upon the midday meal, and sure though my lord is unlooked for, the noise of his coming shall rouse his men and his hall will be full of their welcome.
Low come my lord and his kinsman's voices and their steps are the louder for the champ of boot upon snow. Ai! I smell of onion and my nose runs for the fumes. Wiping my eyes upon my sleeve, I dunk my hands in the cleaning bowl and, shaking them out, hope this is sufficient to rid them of their stink.
"Be forewarned," I hear Halbarad's low voice move below the windows, "they prepare for you."
My lord's laughter lingers upon his face as he enters the hall. I have risen to greet him, putting aside my apron and leaving it by the hearth. My skirts are smoothed and my hair tucked inside my scarf. I need not worry for the freshness of my face, for the beating of my heart sends blood to my cheeks. My lord's chair sits between the table and hearth and a blanket lies upon a bench near the blaze to catch its warmth. All is as it should be.
"My lord," I say, "your House welcomes you home."
"Lady," my lord says and bows in answer to my low obeisance as his kinsman relieves him of his pack.
"Shall I put this on the table, then?"
"Yes, Halbarad," my lord says when his kin hefts the pack in his fist.
Halbarad takes the sword given him in one hand and carries the pack with the other, striding to the table. There he lays down my lord's kit and carefully winds the leather straps about the scabbard that houses his kin's sword. The striking of the buckles one upon the other chimes softly.
"My lord," I ask, having waited for what seems the most opportune moment, "would it please you to rest and be warm while you wait for your bath?"
"Aye, lady," he says and pulls at the tie that holds his cloak closed, "naught would please me more. I have looked forward to naught else since crossing the Last Bridge."
With that I go to the bench to remove the blanket draped over it. "My lord would wish to sit in his chair?"
"What is that?" My lord glances over his shoulder from where he hangs his cloak by the door and frowns. "Aye, lady, if that is where you wish me."
"My lord may sit where he pleases," I say and gesture with the corner of the blanket to the rest of the hall, but he shakes his head.
His stride takes him swiftly across the room. "The chair will do, lady."
"You may open it, if you wish," my lord says to his kin, nodding at his pack where it awaits him as he passes by the table.
"Aye," is all of Halbarad's reply as the man tucks the buckles beneath my lord's sword hangers and tugs to secure them.
My lord sits and I lay the blanket about his shoulders. The wool is drenched in heat and surprise comes over my lord's face, but he quickly pulls its folds about him and works his hands into the blanket's depths.
"My thanks to you, lady," he says and I bow.
"There you will find the reports of which I spoke." My lord speaks to his kin as if their conversation had had no interruption and, like as not, does not see that I now kneel before him.
Halbarad nods, placing his kin's sword upon its rests on the wall behind the table. I have moved them and my lord's brow knots as he watches. In their stead, I have taken my lord's mother's silks and out of them fashioned a banner to hang behind his chair, marking his place. The star of the Dúnedain rises over its shimmering reflection in the western sea, or so my thought had made it, for I have never seen its wide waters. And this is not the only change. Upon the table I have laid a runner of a fine, dark linen and upon my lord's chair set a cushion of velvet, made from the skirts of the dress I wore when I was wedded to him.
"If they displease you, my lord, I shall remove them," I say from where my head is bent over his feet and my lord turns. His gaze does little to relieve the tightness within my breast. His face holds a curious expression whose meaning I cannot discern.
"No. Leave them," he says, and gathers the folds of the blanket about him so that he may sit back in his chair.
"Ale?" Halbarad asks, his task done.
"Aye, it would be most welcome," my lord says and then, frowning, draws his foot sharply away from my hand where I had a hold upon the heel of his boot.
"What is it you do?" he demands and I blink up at him, my dismay weighting my tongue.
"Forgive me, my lord," I finally say, sinking back upon my heels, my head bowed to receive the rebuke I hear clear in his voice. "I thought only your feet would be cold and in need of warming."
Long, it seems, is the moment he gazes upon me. I cannot perceive the thoughts he ponders and I listen to Halbarad moving about in the buttery as I wait for my lord to speak. But he does not. When I raise my face, I marvel to see somewhat of regret darkening my lord's eyes.
"My lord," I say, uncertain though I am. "Would you refuse the comfort your wife would give you?"
"No," says he, his voice low.
He is then still and does not protest when I draw off his boots, carefully, for I know his feet are no doubt numb and strangely brittle from the cold. I set his feet upon my lap so he need not lay them upon the floor. Though woven mats of rushes now line the stone, still they can only cushion so much against the cold and I can feel the chill of my lord's feet even through my skirts. They are as pale as ice and the bones jut beneath the skin all the sharper for their stiffness.
I have pulled the brick from the hearth and wrapped about it a thick carpet of wool, and now set my lord's feet upon the bundle. Resting the tougher soles upon its warmth, he lifts his toes from its surface and I recall my father's face grimacing in discomfort as the blood within his toes quickened after days of walking upon the frozen Wild. Swiftly, I lay a blanket upon it all, and press my hands against his feet through the wool, rubbing his toes and easing the sting of awakening flesh.
"Lady," I hear and look up to find my lord gazing upon me, his look grave.
A shadow passes over my head before he has a chance to speak further. My lord takes the cup offered and Halbarad nods to the thanks he receives. There is a certain smugness to Halbarad's look of mirth when he turns away to delve through my lord's pack.
Soon enough, my lord leans against the back of his chair and sighs, clutching the cup to his breast, and I know he is comfortable. I leave him to sit before the hearth, his shoulders wrapped in the blanket with naught but his hand showing where he clutches his mug of ale. Softly he and Halbarad then speak, my lord seeking news of the Angle and his kin asking questions of the world at large as the water of his bath heats. I, after laying his boots near the hearth where they may dry, return to preparing the meal, leaving them to it.