22. Chapter 21
ROTK: The Siege of Gondor
I know not why my nerves have gone to jangling. My journal and accounts are up to date and, indeed, I have most likely been more dedicated than there is need.
Upon the setting of the meal, my lord requested I attend him afterwards. Then, my lord devoured the meat and savory pudding, and refilled his bowl with the fresh greens. But, though he helped himself to a small portion of the pease, they lay untouched in his bowl until the last when he swallowed them down with a large gulp of his ale.
It may well be wondered why this vexed me, but it did. I had thought the pease might be more pleasing to him, for this time I cooked them in a broth of pork and ale and seasoned them with thyme and wild garlic. But it seemed not. And now I fear all my efforts upon his behalf shall fail of my lord's liking.
Finally, the strands part and, taking a deep breath, I lay a bundle of much-scraped and ragged parchments and a pile of single sheets before my lord.
Taking up the bundle, I say, "Here you find a journal of the day, my lord. In it I record the weather, cool or warm, rainfall and sun, events in the village, the health of our livestock, and growth in our gardens and fields."
"Is that necessary?" he asks and I clear my throat and set it aside.
"Perhaps not," I say, "but I find it helpful in planning for the coming year."
My lord lifts a shoulder. "Very well, pray go on."
I pull out a single sheet from the pile. "Here you find an account of the stores we produced in the last season, those in the pantry, dry goods, and fodder for the livestock, and their use."
He nods, glancing down the columns.
"And here you will find an account of the tithes collected from the village over the same time," I say, pointing to another sheet, "and here is an account of the goods and services we acquired in barter and that which we traded for their purchase or use."
I arrange the sheets in order and fall silent. He is frowning as he peers over them.
"I also have an accounting of the prior seasons if you would like to see those as well, my lord," I offer, despising the timidity in my voice as I do so.
He shakes his head absently while he sifts through the parchments, pushing one to the side the better to see its contents and pulling another close. "No, these will do more than well enough."
In his tone I hear a shade of censure. I have, perhaps, been too meticulous in my records. He lifts a page from the table and examines it closely. Then he sighs and, tossing the sheet onto the pile, leans back into his chair.
I will not stare at him anxiously and plead for his approval.
"How long until this house is self-sufficient, lady?" he asks, his face grave as he glances over the parchments and toys with the edge of one.
The question startles me, and I blush, the heat rising from my neck and blooming on my cheeks.
"We are, my lord."
His brow lowers and he points to a careful column of goods and figures. "You still collect the tithes, do you not?"
"Aye, my lord."
"Then how are we not dependent?"
"Are not tithes owed this House?" I ask, confounded by his obvious disapproval.
"Do we have need of them?" he asks, his voice stern. He has grown very still.
"No, my lord, but for the days-work provided by the men of our folk, our needs are met sufficiently by what we produce," I say and pull a sheet further out from the pile, "As you can see here –"
"Do you tell me, then," he says, his voice stern for all he speaks softly, "that this House is in comfort when there are those of the Angle who suffer for want?"
It seems his gaze would pierce to my very heart. Yet I find I grow angrier rather than less certain. My heart does indeed pound but my voice is firm, for I can think only of the hours I have poured over these pages at his behest, scrimping not only on the goods we wear and food we eat, but the very parchment on which I have recorded it all.
"No!" I say and he falls silent.
His look is cold, but he nods to me, and gestures to my records. "Proceed."
Very well, then, I shall.
Laying aside the bundle and the leather binder, I shuffle the single parchments until they are aligned in an order that makes best sense.
"As I said, here, my lord, you will find a record of what we produce, what we obtain in barter, what we purchase it with, and the tithes we collect." I point to each in turn. He settles back in his chair.
"Ranger Halbarad and his men have been so good as to supply meat for our table from the forest and the river upon occasion and I have had to cull the flocks for our table but seldom. The sheep, geese, and hens we now have that give us the milk and eggs we no longer need to obtain in trade were purchased with lambs birthed across several seasons. The rams you so kindly gave to me in bride-price have proved fertile and their ewes willing."
Here I run my finger down the list of ewes, the dates the rams serviced them and the lambs they produced before laying it aside and pulling out a list of produce from our fields and continuing.
"Master Herdir came upon the idea of the House engaging the smith to fashion plows of both wood and iron and to combine the Angle's oxen to teams of no less than six, and so he can plow more fields in less time. The men of the wanderers have been set to their planting and tending. A portion of its yield feeds their families and provides for those of the Angle in need. With this payment and other works that they perform are they recompensed in land of their own holding. I have engaged their women, Elesinda and several of her neighbors to spin yarns fit for the sturdy rugs and blankets that our walls and beds do not need. In exchange, I provide Elesinda with clothes of a quality of cut and color she would not otherwise have. She enjoys them, my lord, as do the young men for whom she wears them. I know not what bargain she has made with the other women. I have left that to her and they seem satisfied."
I go on, "So yes, my lord, not only is this house sufficient onto itself, but oft we run into surplus." A brow rises in surprise, but he does not question me when I point to a fifth column of goods and figures.
"This surplus, we do not use. That which we are given in tithe that would spoil is most often traded for more durable commons and goods. These, and the tithes, are collected in our parlor and sheds until such time the Angle needs them. When the time comes, I have contracted with Mistress Pelara, who has been instrumental in this plan's design, to distribute our surplus to our people when they flee hither and those of the Angle who suffer for misfortune. In the past year, no widow, fatherless child, elderly or ill among your folk, and no family who found their way to the Angle has gone to bed hungry, without at least a mean shelter over their heads, or blankets to keep them warm. For her efforts, in trade, Mistress Pelara has been given a length of wool of a deep red at her request, the roving for which was collected from our own sheep and the dye for which I made from madder roots which I planted in the gardens you and your men kindly built for me when I first became your wife. Shall I continue?"
"Lady!" my lord commands. As I spoke, his face had moved from displeasure, to disbelief, to interest, but now his eyes flash in warning.
I must be bright pink from neck to the very crown of my head. I drop my eyes, unable to meet his gaze. Indeed my tongue has grown much too impertinent in my anger. He is not my father, and I am not his daughter indulged to the point of being overly familiar and prideful.
"Forgive me, my lord," I say and I blink against tears that burn at the lids of my eyes. "I wish only to please you. I seek only to fulfill the trust you gave me. You said you wished this house to be self-sufficient, and I have done so. You commanded me to provide care for your people in your place, and I have tried to do so, to the best I can."
I hear the soft sigh of my lord's breath as he releases it. He rubs at his bearded cheek and, I think, must consider the lists I have laid before him.
"This is an accounting of the Dúnedain who have sought refuge here?" he asks, scanning the dates, names and numbers of people. His voice is soft.
"Aye, my lord." My face is as sober as his. "And there are more come that are not recorded here. They arrived in the night and speak of more who follow."
"Will we have enough to meet their need?" He considers me gravely.
"Aye, my lord, I believe so. I had planned to go through our stores and set aside more this afternoon. We are pressed to provide shelter and, should more flee hither, soon our supplies will run short."
"We can raise shelters," says he. "It merely takes the men with which to do it. The problem of supplying their remaining needs will take more thought."
He turns over the page. Slowly, my lord shakes his head as he gazes at the filled surface of the parchment and I know his mind. Our Enemy could pass over a small village in the Angle with the disdain he reserves only for the noble that have fallen to a mean existence from the lofty heights of Númenor, but a makeshift city will most certainly draw his Eye. We will be a hidden people no longer.
"I know not, my lord, what plans Halbarad makes for their defense."
He sighs and releases the parchment to the table.
"It was not my intent to demean your efforts," he says. "When do you attend upon our people who have fled hence?"
"Soon, before the evening meal." His hand covers mine.
"I will go with you."
My lord draws my hand into his and studies it, smoothing the skin along my bones with a gentle thumb. When he looks up, his eyes are a grey lit within by a keen light so bright it seems I had forgotten their color until now. He searches my face a long moment before speaking, his eyes, if I could believe it, almost sorrowful.
"Build me a fortress, lady."
I blink at him in wonder and disbelief.
"Build me a fortress," he repeats, clasping my hand more tightly in his, his voice growing intent.
"My lord," I begin, but then falter, my voice fading, swallowed by my doubt.
"You achieved all else I have required of you," he says. "Why not this?"
"Because, my lord, I know not the first thing of building a fastness that will keep our people safe."
"Do you not?" He releases my hand and gestures loosely at the pages scattered upon the table. "Why do you do all this? The Shadow presses us from all sides. In all likelihood, if you were to listen to reason, the Angle and its people will soon be cruelly swept away despite all our best efforts. Why, then, do you work so hard?"
"Because you set the example, my lord, and I am yours to command," I say, my brows furrowing. I am lost in his speech and can find no light to guide my understanding.
"Then I tell you, should we trust to high walls or even the bright edge of our Ranger's swords to protect us, we shall fail. There shall be no more Dúnedain in the North."
He takes up my hand in his again and presses it tightly. His face is grim.
"Lady, of all the enemies we face, there is none so deadly as despair," he says, his voice low and firm with purpose. "The people must have hope, despite all this," he nods at my lists of wanderers, "else we are lost. I need a fortress for our people, lady, but not one of stone."
He searches my face and, his voice quiet, he pleads, "Build me a fortress, lady. I have no other to ask."
It seems I cannot remove my eyes from his face. At that moment, I came to know why his men follow him with such devotion. I think I could have leapt upon a troll and attempted to bring it down at his command, if only he would continue to look upon me like that.
"Will you do this for me?"
There is no other answer to give but "yes," but even that I have trouble giving voice. The best I can manage is a nod, but this, though little enough, seems to satisfy him.
"Good." He looks pleased, if a little weary, and releases me. "I shall leave it in your hands, then."
He drinks from his cup of wine while I gather the loose sheets of parchment, arranging them into order by season and item. Still, he watches me, for, no doubt, my thoughts play upon my face. And I have much on which to reflect.
So, I am to build a shelter of hope for the Dúnedain. Once our stone towers spanned from earth to sky and our bridges from bank to bank across deep flowing waters. Our faith in them was poorly placed, for now they crumble into ruin as jagged teeth upon the hills and broken boulders over which rivers roar. We have but one thing that has persisted across the ages undiminished, yet even that may not last under the Shadow. Indeed, if we continue as we have, there is little hope it will survive even this one lifespan of men.
My lord's hand beneath my chin is warm and gentle as he lifts my face, but still, I startle, the thread of my thoughts broken.
"Speak," he commands and releases my chin.
I have no hope of dissembling beneath those keen eyes. There is naught for it but to say what is on my mind, should he like it or not. I draw a breath and begin.
"The people find hope in the House of Isildur, my lord," I say and he nods. "You ask me to build a fortress." "Very well." A faint smile comes to his face at the straightening of my shoulders and lifting of my chin. "I shall attempt it. But this I know, the foundation must be laid upon the line of kings unbroken. And it is that foundation which must first claim my attention."
"Aye," he says when I pause, searching for words.
How does one say this?
"I cannot build the foundation without your aid." Here I stop, at a loss.
He frowns at my perplexity.
I stare at him. How can I, beholden to my lord as I am, stand in judgment upon him?
When I hesitate, he says, "What is it? Speak plainly."
"My lord," I say and pass my tongue across my lips. My mouth has gone suddenly dry as if I have attempted the taste of a fruit not fully ripened. "You must lay with me more often, my lord, else there is small chance I shall conceive your heir."
At that, for the first since I have known him, my lord's eyes drop from my gaze. There they glitter beneath the veil of his lids and somewhat akin to chagrin troubles his features. So still does he hold himself the only movement I can discern is the faint flutter of a pulse beneath his jaw.
Then, with but a deep breath, his stillness is broken, and when he meets my eye, it has cleared.
He inclines his head briefly. "I am yours to command in this matter."
"Only," he goes on, but then appears to falter.
My heart sinks. I have presumed too far. I do not wish to know more of what lack he finds in me, yet he seems poised on revealing this very thing.
"You are most thorough in your book-keeping, for which I commend you," he says with a lift of his brow as he glances askance at the pile of documents upon the table, "but I must beg you not to keep record of my attempts to beget a child upon you."
"My lord!" I cry, shocked until I see the delight twinkling in his eyes and it occurs to me, belatedly, that I am being greatly teased.
He catches my hand easily as I launch myself to my feet, smiling at the grimace I turn upon him.
"Your flocks have already sacrificed a great enough number of their hides to your records," he says, now grinning up at me, "and I do not think I could bear the indignity of my efforts on your behalf being catalogued beside your poor rams."
"I promise you, my lord," I say, pulling at his grip, "should you begin producing lambs, even your wrath shall not deter me from documenting the event."
A shout of laughter bursts from my lord and he rises from his chair, refusing to release my hand. "Come then," he says, laughing still. "We have some few moments before us. Perhaps we should put it to the test."
Insufferable man! Only on these terms would he offer the very thing I begged of him.
My thoughts must have played across my face, for, grinning broadly, he draws me into an unyielding embrace, securing me inexorably against his breast, despite the lack of use of one arm. I have not the strength to resist, and so do not even give it an attempt. But still, my face must be indignant and my body rigid in his arm; for his smile fades and he catches my eyes with a look that is solemn. For a long moment he considers me thus before he speaks.
"When I asked, lady, you made your choice and have honored your pledge with your efforts. I, too, made my choice in the asking," he says softly. "Can I do no less?"
I make no reply, but surely the rigidity with which I held myself apart has melted and my arms return his embrace. He yet hesitates a moment and then his hand cups my face, his thumb brushing across my cheek in a brief caress before he presses his lips to mine. In the warmth of their touch there is, if not passion, a certain fondness.