27. Chapter 26
One of the travellers, a squint-eyed ill-favoured fellow, was foretelling that more and more people would be coming north in the near future. 'If room isn't found for them, they'll find it for themselves. They've a right to live, same as other folk,' he said loudly.
FOTR: At the Sign of the Prancing Pony
My lord laughs, his back leaning upon his chair and his hand curling about a cup of ale, for Halbarad has returned and tells the tale of his travails.
"You left me Melethron. Of all men, Melethron?" my lord's kinsman protests. "He cannot keep a thought in his head that does not come out betwixt his lips. From here to the Last Bridge to Weathertop and back, ever his yammering sounded in my ears."
My lord laughs and I think he has had his own time upon the Wild with no other ear to diffuse the man's talk. I smile from where I kneel by the hearth, for I, too, am acquainted with the man's too glib tongue.
Halbarad's return was looked for late in the day and so he arrived hard upon the evening meal. He has thrown down his pack and stretched his boots out upon the floor. He sits at the table with his lord as smoke from their pipes drifts over their heads, and waits for the meal to be made ready.
"Come now," Halbarad goes on when my lord shows no signs of pity for him. "I now know more of the fathering of his children than I think even their mother acquainted."
My lord chuckles about the stem of his pipe before removing it, for the leaf in its bowl is naught but ash. He rises. "You should be giving your thanks to me, then, not pouring complaints into my ear. Just think, Halbarad, how much more prepared you shall be when it comes your turn."
This last earns him a snort from his kinsman.
I return my lord's smile when he comes upon the hearth and squats to scrape the ash from his pipe. I lift the lid to the clay oven where it sits above the coals. The released steam smells of bread and spice, and my lord turns his head so he may better smell what bakes there. 'Tis browned pork sausage rolled deep in a pouch of thick pastry. The fat from the sausage seeps through the bottom of the pie and sizzles lightly against the clay pot. I think my lord may risk stumbling into the fire should he lean over it any further. I would laugh should it not discredit my lord. True it is a Ranger's fealty is first given to the Dúnadan and but then in a close second to his belly.
My lord knocks the bowl of his pipe against his palm to dislodge the ash.
"Aye, well," Halbarad goes on after a long pull on his pipe. "'Twas not all for a loss. We made good time to Weathertop and there found the others waiting for us.
My lord wraps his pipe in its soft pouch. "Hold a moment, I wish the lady to hear of this," he says and Halbarad's head turns upon him with a curious, if not startled, look.
He looks away, and then pulls his feet beneath him and sits the straighter upon his bench as if it were not so comfortable a seat as it was before.
"I have the time now, my lord," I say to my lord's querying look, for the bottoms of the pies are not quite the rusty brown I wish and they have yet to burn a golden crisp about their edges.
My lord nods to the table and I follow him there, his kin's eyes following me all the while. He looks to my lord, but seems not to find that for which he searches.
"What is it you learned on Weathertop?" my lord asks as he sits and Halbarad clears his throat.
"You asked after these men that come from the south. It is true, as we heard. They make their way up the Old South Road. They are not of our folk, though atimes fall in with them as they flee across the Wild."
My lord makes a soft sound, whether of agreement or worry, I know not, but Halbarad pauses to lay aside his pipe.
"They have made their way to Bree," he says, with a quick glance first upon me.
"Indeed?" My lord's look comes sharply upon his kinsman.
"Aye, Mathil has seen them there."
"What does he say of them?"
"They have the look of no House of Man that we know," says Halbarad. "Ill-favored, dark and coarse of hair with odd, squinting eyes."
"In Bree, you said."
"Aye," Halbarad says and my lord shakes his head, tension drawing the bow of his shoulders tight.
My lord scrapes at his bearded cheek, his gaze grim. "What do you make of this, lady?"
I bite at my lip, well aware Halbarad's brow has lowered darkly. I know not what to make of his ill-will, but it was plain upon his face, though quickly he smooths it away. Perhaps he does not care for this, that my lord would turn to me for my thoughts.
"I know not, my lord," I say. "They are not of Dunland?"
Halbarad shakes his head. "No, that much we know."
"Then have we no new enemy to the south?" I ask, though, even now I wonder at the truth. Tales of our people cruelly used and their houses plundered follow the rumor of this strange folk passing the lonely settlements along the Old South Road. But, then, rumors there are of many things found both true and untrue in the end.
Halbarad shrugs, and it seems clear the possibility I raise has been well-discussed before today. "It matters little. Even should we, we have not the men to send to discover it."
My lord's voice startles us into silence and we stare at him. He rubs roughly at his face and then launches himself from his chair, his hands coming down upon the rests with such force the heavy wood skitters back upon the stones.
He has turned his back upon us and paces along the wall, his face greatly troubled. It seems Halbarad and I dare not speak and even the fire seems to burn the more quietly for all our attention is turned to our lord. At length, he halts and sighs, his shoulders sagging.
"Alas!" he says and, returning to his chair, sits and rubs at his brow. "I have neither the skill nor the foresight to choose well among such evils, they seem of equal measure in all parts."
I know not what to do, but it seems Halbarad is the more familiar with these moods that take my lord. He merely waits, remaining silent but thoughtful, and so I follow his example.
"Aye, Halbarad," my lord says softly and leaves off worrying at his brow. "The choice is not yet put to us, though I fear it is not far off. Aye, we can spare no men to travel south. My heart tells me the Angle is in little danger from them, at least not today or even upon the morrow. We are too many and they too few. I fear more for our watch about the land of the Halflings and the Dúnedain in the scattered homesteads. And yet, we can do little but what we have done before, remain watchful and encourage our folk to seek safety in greater numbers."
"Aye," agrees Halbarad and the sudden sound of sizzling fat and the smell upon the air reminds me I should check our meal.
"Elesinda," I call and rise, and the girl answers from deep within the pantry where she, with much haste, takes over the making of the sweets that shall end our meal where I had earlier left off.
"Aye, my lady, I come."
In but a few moments we have set the table with large bowls of greens, basil, and wild onions, a good hearty bread, ale and the savory pies. There Elesinda joins us and we eat at first in silence, pulling apart the pastry and breathing deep of its steam. Halbarad pours the ale into our cups and, soon, we speak companionably, for he seems determined to alter his lord's mood. Elesinda, with much coaxing, tells of her father's working of the Angle's fields, for he has bartered for yet another furlong with the young bull of an ox he trained these past two years. The tale brings smiles to my lord's face, for, though shy of meeting his gaze, she tells it well. In her words I hear her mother's speech, for the young ox had been of such a temperamental and sullen character he had turned their household upon its head for the attempt to make it take the yoke.
It is not until Halbarad pushes his bowl away, looking much satisfied, and my lord idly breaks off pieces of bread to dip in his ale do I dismiss Elesinda again to the pantry to finish her task. Here we sit in comfort and the mild pleasure of, mayhap, a little too much ale. Halbarad eyes the last of the pies remaining between himself and my lord. I think he calculates the risk of snatching it from under my lord's watchful eye. And indeed, he waits until my lord's hands are occupied with his cup before he pounces upon it.
"Ah!" my lord exclaims, his voice echoing in his cup, to which Halbarad only grins and stuffs a great piece of the savory pie into his mouth. The sour look my lord turns upon him serves to make his kinsman chuckle.
"Have I ever told you, Aragorn, of when first I met your lady?' Halbarad asks.
"No, you have not." My lord frowns, but settles again to his ale and bread.
"It was in her father's house, nigh on," here Halbarad pauses as if adding up the years. "How long ago was it, my lady? Do you recall?"
I am clearing the table from where I sit next to my lord. I pause and then reach for Elesinda's bowl to stack it with the others.
"It was the spring of the great ice-storm. You came to supper just before." My aunt and I received few visitors and it took little thought then to fix the time of Halbarad's company.
"Aye, 'twas a dozen years or more, then," Halbarad says and then turns to my lord. "Her father had spoken so highly of her I could not resist the invitation."
My lord's look is fond, remembering, I think, my father's stories. A great teller of tales he was, and my father was never one to leave an account unembellished.
"But, I confess it," Halbarad goes on. "It was the meal I remember best. My lady, what was it you served that night?"
But I rise and answer not, and must seem to be much occupied with the tray and bowls. True, my aunt and I had spent much of the day preparing for the Ranger's visit, but, of a sudden, I wish not to hear what he recalls of it.
"Aye, she has prepared it since," Halbarad says. "I believe it was a hen with a sauce of onions and plums. I doubt not it spent the day simmering over their hearth, it was so tender."
"I take it was sweet to the taste," says my lord, a smile coming upon his face.
"Aye," Halbarad says and waves away his kin's teasing. "And had much the flavor of pungent spice to it."
"And stuck so in your thoughts you ever wish to taste of it again?"
"Aye, why else do you think I had her in mind for the choosing of your lady?"
Halbarad voice is at first light, as if he speaks in sport only, but then he falls silent of a sudden and a flash of dismay darkens his features. My lord rises, but I know not what response he makes, for I have fled to buttery hard upon his kinsman's words and let the door fall closed behind me.
My face is hot and my heart beats hard enough to muddle my thoughts. I clutch at the pitcher I had grabbed upon in my flight from the hall, but my feet seem unable to take me any further. Glad I am Elesinda works in the pantry, for greatly wroth am I and, at first, know not why.
Aye, I feel great pride those I feed take their enjoyment of it. For truly it is said, 'tis a bitter bread baked without care that may feed a man's belly but fill only part a man's hunger. But, still, I find deep offense in Halbarad's jest. Am I no more than that, a woman who has just enough wit to feed her household's bellies well, but not so much to recommend her as equal to her lord's hunger he share the duties of his House? Much of Halbarad's discontent becomes clear, I think, and I can only wonder of what proportion my lord shares his mind. And it is at this thought that my breath catches and my heart pains me.
The door to the buttery opens. I know it for the light flooding the small room and the soft footsteps of the man whose shadow I see thrown across the shelves and counter.
'Tis my lord, and his voice is gentle. I think a hand comes to brush upon my arm but I step aside to frustrate his reach.
Nay, my lord, leave me my pride. Leave me at least that, if you can give me naught else.
I do not speak of it. Instead I thrust the pitcher below the barrel of ale and sharply twist at the tap.
"Lady, 'twas an ill-considered --"
"My lord," I say, and my voice is loud enough he halts. "Should you wish more of the pies, you may find them in the clay pot." For I had left them there, setting them aside the hearth to keep warm.
"I know well where they are, lady," says he, but I go on as if he had not spoken.
"I prepared enough for tonight and for the morrow. An you rise early enough, you may yet steal your kin's portion from him since he had the better of you tonight." The ale pours into the bottom of the pitcher, a hollow sound that fills the small room.
I think my lord sighs, for such is the slight noise behind me. The door closes and it seems my lord is gone, but then, from the slip of leather upon the floor and the creak of the wood, I know he rests against the frame in the dim light. He has no intent of leaving and instead makes himself comfortable.
"In truth, their taste is very pleasing," says he.
"I am glad you find it so. They were of my aunt's devising. She it was who taught me their making."
"A good woman, your aunt."
Aye, that she is. I wonder at the wisdom hidden in her depths and what use she makes of it now. I could certainly use her ear and her good humor at this moment. The pitcher has a goodly portion of ale in it and aught more I might add should only go to waste. I twist the tap closed.
"Forgive me, my lord, but you never knew her."
"No, but I know the woman she once raised."
At that, I have naught else to do but turn to face my lord and so I do, the pitcher clutched against my breast.
"Oh!" the word comes sharply from my left, for Elesinda has burst in from the pantry, thinking the buttery empty.
In her hand she carries a shallow bowl of sweet pastries baked of ground almond, chopped fruit, much butter and a little flour. Fanciful in shape, they were made to mock hedgehogs with their quills of chopped almonds and eyes of dried berries. I thought they would make Halbarad laugh with their whimsy, and so Elesinda and I had prepared them in hopes of welcoming him home. Now I wish I had not.
She curtsies. "Your pardon, my lord, my lady."
I wonder at what she thinks she has interrupted, for her face turns a red easily seen even in the dim light of the buttery.
My lord lifts himself from the wall and opens the door for her, and she strides swiftly to the hall.
"Come," he says. "Let me." He lifts the pitcher from my hands.
And though his glance is gentle upon me, he makes it clear he expects me to return to the hall. For he holds the door open with his heel and refuses to move until I have preceded him through it.