3. Chapter 2
ROTK: Homeward Bound
The basket is heavy, but not overly so. Its soft reeds creak against my hip where I clutch it as I walk. My steps are slow beneath the burden of the basket and nights unslept. I wind my way down the paths from one home to the next, passing house, pasture, field, and shed as I make my way to the center of life at the Angle.
It seems all of the folk of the Dúnedain are out of doors. The voices of men harsh upon the morning air call to oxen pulling the plows. Dark is the earth they turn upon the fields. The women spread damp sheets and clothing upon the bushes to dry and arise from the soil to straighten their backs from the planting of their gardens. Their children fetch and carry for them, and shepherd the young ones from harm, their young voices high and bright amidst the tofts. Men lounge about the farrier's just apart from the stink of metal and burning hooves, and his hammer rings out across the path. Their faces are solemn and their eyes are dark. They speak little, but nod a courteous greeting. I pass and the scrambling of feet, both of horse and man comes from the back of his shed.
"Ha, there," I hear, and men cluster about a yearling at his first shoeing. With hand and soft voices they settle him again and I hear them no more.
I wear the black of mourning, the fine folds of the cloth shivering against my cheek in the morning breeze. It turns few heads either as I walk or in the square when I arrive, bent as the folk are over the stalls and carts of goods, and accustomed as they are to the sight. I come upon them and their voices rise in a muted babble that seems as a stream rushing over a stony bed. The people of the Angle have arisen early, for 'tis the day of the market. No matter the empty chairs about the hearth, it is spring, the day is fair, and the Angle must endure.
The market is much changed from then, but clearly, still, can I see it in my mind's eye. Scores upon scores of feet have packed the earth to a hard floor and about the square are crowded stalls, tables, carts and blankets, all upon which goods are spread. Come the fall, the square shall fly with dust from the dried earth and the heavy hand of the sun will press the folk to find shade where aught they may. But, today, the air is cool and the sun a blessing. The square is full of people as they awaken from the winter and share of the first fruits of their labors.
This early in the spring our men-folk trade beans and bundles of greens from the rough carts they had pulled themselves into the square. Their wives trade tender shoots of cress pulled from the river to please the palate, and thin bark stripped from the willow to ease pain and fevers.
A table has been set before the tall mound of stone and there, with their children lagging behind them or running about their knees, the men and women of the Dúnedain wait for their breads to emerge from the ovens. Low and grave their voices come to me. They speak with heads inclined and I hear words of barter, but, as oft, I hear words of fear mingled therein.
Not only do goods cross hands at the market, but news of the Angle is traded for that of the wider lands about us. We are a people far spread across the lands of Eriador, and the lines that connect us run thin across the Wild. For want of firmer tidings, rumor can run through the market faster than the fabled steeds of the Horse Lords. Today, I hear words of hope foresworn.
Some say the Dúnadan yet lives and lies in the house of his kin. To others, his spirit has already fled these shores and we must soon lay his body in the earth beside his lady mother, and she but newly gone to the barrows, herself. Deeply, now, they regret his seeming indifference to the wiles of our daughters and the need to secure his heirs. All speak of our lord, but none dare say the words they fear the most, that he is the last of his line. Yet it is this very thought and none other that hangs behind every thinly pressed lip, averted eye, and furrowed brow. His people wait.
I pass the fuller's stall where she is in the midst of haggling over a bundle of fleece newly sheared from the animal. She spares me a smile in greeting over the shoulder of her customer.
"Nienelen!" she calls and the young woman before her turns to see to whom she calls. I know her, but recently married to a Ranger as young as she. Her gaze lingers upon the black of my shawl before she turns away without greeting. I cannot bring myself to blame her for the slight.
"Shall you finish the dye you promised before you go?" the fuller asks. A true worker of fiber, her fingers never leave off caressing the wool.
"Aye," I call to her. "You do not forget the price we set?"
I am anxious, for she promised to pay me in coin, a rare thing. I would not ask, but I have great need for it as never before. The dwarves of the Blue Mountain trade in many things, but not often in such goods as I possess.
"I can pay it, never fear." She waves me on before returning to her dickering.
I pass and the butcher's knife comes down upon a joint of meat with a dull whack, sending the hares and fresh-caught fish swaying upon their pole above his head where they hang. The butcher's face is round and red as always, hale of arm and heart, though he be greatly lame of leg from a wound taken long ago in our lord's service. He raises a bloody knife to wipe his forehead upon his sleeve. As I pass, he gives me a slight wink and nods at the rolls of sausages upon his cart. He knows they are my favorite, fat and freshly made, stuffed with meat, dried apple and sage, but today I shake my head. I have other errands to run.
He nods, ending our wordless speech, and returns to his work. Piles of furs and tumbled forms of baskets at first hide the young girl, sitting as she is hunched in a corner behind them. She sits on ragged mats of woven fibers and watches her aunt twine reeds about the naked ribs of a basket she crafts. I know them not, but the worn cloth of what they wear and the haggard look of days and nights spent in fear mark them for our wandering folk newly fled to the Angle.
Fain I would catch their eye as I pass, but, though I nod, they say naught nor return my gaze. To their eye, I am but one more stranger in a stranger's home. Bereft they seem, and, though my heart ache for it, I can do little but walk past.
The door I seek opens upon shaded rooms and I am soon there. Chickens cluck their complaint in their pens in the yard and hide the sounds that come from within. So, it is with alarm that I stop and whirl about, leaving the Elder to his company in his hall. Halbarad is within and, in the brief glimpse I had of them, has risen to take his leave, his dark head tall above the cap of the old man whose home this is.
I remove myself beneath the low-hanging thatch, my lip pinched between my teeth, and debate what to do. Oft his yard is lined with petitioners, each leaning upon the old man's wall, and it is indeed odd to find myself alone here today. I am torn. I have no desire to overhear their discussion, yet I have nowhere else to be, and as worn as I am and as much as I must yet do this day, I wish not to be forced to wander about while I wait.
The voice of the Elder comes from the open doorway. It is flat with the toneless quality of the near deaf.
"Aye," says he, "our roots may dig deep, but our branches fail of the skies. Ah! But, you know this."
Wood scrapes against the floor and I lean against the Elder's home, eyelids weighted by the sun. It seems the interview is soon to close and they speak naught of consequence. I have heard this very cant from the Elder afore, many a time. It comes at the end of his litany of worries and I have but to wait a little. I close my eyes and rest against the wall and, in a moment, his voice and the cackling of the hens are far removed from the half-formed thoughts that swirl in my head.
I know Halbarad but little, for all my father called him friend. Their companionship was told in the silence of men who tread too far upon dark paths. Only once did my father invite Halbarad to our home. Many years it seems now since the tall, quiet man stooped his head to enter our door. He partook of the food I offered, spoke of the small things of the Angle with my father, and answered my questions of the beauties of the Wild over which he had ranged. How his eyes glowed with pleasure at the telling!
Even in the heaviness that is my drowse I smile, recalling the care with which we had prepared the meal and my aunt's whisperings of matches made upon the shared brother-blood of Rangers. Perhaps that had been my father's intent, but it had come to naught. Though he might ever after greet me with sober courtesy when ere we met, for all the pleasure of his visit Halbarad came ne'er again.
"Best she not have ties to family of her own, mark you!" comes the Elder's voice, faint as though from a great distance. I hear it not.
"Enough will be needed of the lady to make up for the lack. But, they are all from good families, descended from the Kings, and will do at a pinch. They will do, they will all do, will they not, my boy?"
Halbarad's reply is too deeply voiced for me to hear, but their feet scuff against the floor.
"What was that? Hmm, well, aye, true, only one is needed. And would that we had been heeded long ago. It is long overdue, my good Halbarad. Choose well."
"I thank thee, Master Maurus," comes Halbarad's clear farewell. He has raised his voice the better for the Elder to hear him.
At the sound, I open my eyes and clutch at the basket before it falls from my softening grip. When I lift myself from the wall, the dark shadow of the Ranger's cloak is before me. I know not why he must then start and stare at me as he turns to take his leave.
"Bid you good morrow, sir," I say as I nod.
"Nienelen." Halbarad bows, his eyes wondering. Now that he is close and I may look fully upon him, I see he bears a bruise about his neck and a long scrape above his eye. They pull at my gaze and I find I wonder at how he came to bear these small wounds. No doubt, were my father here, he could tell me.
"Ah, Nienelen," the Elder says, gaining the Ranger's attention as well as my own. He lingers in the door behind Halbarad, his hand clutching its frame in want of other prop. "I thought you might come." "Come, child," he says and motions me forward.
"I shall see you on the day appointed?" he asks Halbarad as he lays his light clasp upon my elbow. His eyes, watery with age, peer across my shoulder at the Ranger.
"Yes, of course," says Halbarad, mumbling in his distraction. Only then seeming to come to himself, he turns to face the Elder. "Aye, until then. Bid you good day," he says loudly, bows, and is gone.
Had I looked, perhaps I would have seen the relieved gaze he shared with Elder Maurus. But I did not and, at the time, thought little of his departure other than the curiosity of seeing him yet again.
"Come inside, my child," the Elder says. He leans heavily upon my elbow as he hobbles his way to the table.
"What think you, Nienelen, eh?" His voice is overloud for being just beneath my ear, but there is little I can do about it that would not give him offense. "Such a fine day, is it not, though the breeze is chill to these old bones. They've not left off aching since the winter, knees, hips and fingers, the lot of them. My end is coming soon, though Pelara tells me I have yet too much mischief to stir up in the Angle before my time is through."
He waves a hand to the seat Halbarad had so recently vacated and flashes a bright grin as he looks about for his stool. I smile in return. He takes much delight in his reputation, our Elder.
I set the basket upon the floor when I sit and its contents clatter oddly against each other.
"Ah, well, you did not come to hear of my ills," he says, undisturbed by the noise. "It is a fault of the very old, my child, to believe that youth has an ear for what will come with the years." He presses swollen knuckles onto the table as he eases his body to his seat. "There, now," he says and sighs, having settled himself down. "Will you have some tea, child?" He lifts the lid of the pot and peers inside.
"My thanks to you, Father, but no."
"Ah, she is doing well, my child, kind of you to ask," he says and lets the iron lid clatter to the pot. "But, what about tea? Will you not join me, eh?"
"Yes, father," I say, submitting to the inevitable, "if it is not too much trouble."
"Trouble? What trouble be there?" he asks, squinting eagerly at me from across the table.
I shake my head and then say, "Tea! Father!" I nod broadly and raise my voice. "Yes! Thank you!"
"Oh! Ah, I see," he says and blinks as if in disappointment. "No, no, no trouble at all."
He turns about upon his seat and bellows, "Pelara! Company! Tea!"
"And how is your aunt, hmm?" he asks in voice that is not much quieter.
"She is well!"
"Well?" he says and I nod. "Ah, good. A pity she never chose to remarry. A fine woman she is."
His voice rings in the room just as, no doubt, does mine. I sigh, for I cannot see how I shall conduct my business without all the Angle outside his door being privy to our discussion.
"I would have married her after my Therinil died. Did you know that?" he asks but then goes on without a glance my way. "Oh yes! But she would have none of it. A shame, really. Then you and my daughter could fight over who will provide us with the better care, eh?" His light eyes twinkle with mirth.
I am thankfully spared the necessity of answering his question by the appearance of his daughter. Mistress Pelara bustles in, wiping dirt from her hands upon her apron. I think it most likely she has been called from the garden. I smile what I hope is an apology for the disruption in her day when she nods her greeting.
"Good day, Nienelen," she says but turns immediately to the Elder. "Yes, Father," she says and tucks a strand of hair behind her ear so she may see him unhindered. The silver threads in her hair catch the sunlight as she leans in to the old man. A mother of four grown sons and daughters, yet she is as a child to his wintered years.
"Ah! There you are, Daughter!" he says. "Tea for our guest, Nienelen. She comes to beg what charity the Angle may give her, fatherless child that she is now."
Were he not an elder of our people, I would have forgotten promises made to my father and unleashed my displeasure upon him. As it is, my back stiffens, my surprise thickening my tongue so I cannot speak.
"Och, now, Father!" his daughter exclaims and, patting her broad hands about its surface first to check for its heat, picks up the teapot. "You have not heard a single word Nienelen has said, I warrant, as deaf as you are."
"Bah! My ears are as keen as yours, girl!" he says to her back, for she has left and I can hear water pouring in the other room.
"Humph!" comes her voice through the doorway. "Did not, just this morning, I tell you to take the porridge off the hearth? Did I not?"
"Impudence!" he calls after her.
"I said, 'Father, if it please you, would you swing the pot away from the fire when the porridge gets to galloping? Our little ones would like some breakfast.'" I hear a loud thud in the other room. "Those very words I used, as clear as the sunrise over an open field."
"Do not tempt me, girl! You are not yet too old for me to take you across my knee," the old man warns.
"And there it sits, a mess crusted upon the bottom of the pot as hard as –"
"If you said aught of consequence –" the Elder goes on, raising his voice and pounding his cane against the floor for her attention.
"— the iron to which it is burnt." Mistress Pelara bustles back in through the door. "Ears of a fox! Ha!" She thumps the pot upon the brazier at her father's feet and stoops to stir the coals in its belly.
"— I might be troubled to listen," he protests over her head.
"You have the ears of worm," she says and gives the coals a final poke.
"Ah, now, Nienelen," she says and, ignoring her father's sour look, rises. "There we are. What did you come for then, my dear?"
I look from one to the other, uncertain who to address. The one who will hear what I say? Or the one who has the authority to speak before the Council?
"My aunt and I will be leaving soon –" I say, my glance straying from one to the other.
"Oh, no, child!" bursts from the Elder, who has been peering closely at my face as I speak. "Valar save us! You are not traveling in the Wild, are you? All alone and with your aunt, besides?"
His daughter clucks her tongue. "Surely she is not going without escort, Father!"
"Where could she be headed that she will find any to travel with her, hmm?"
"Anywhere north and the men of old Angmar will harry them," he insists, his voice rising in a broad quaver. "East and they risk the orcs of the Misty Mountain. Strange men have been seen on the roads to the South. Mark me well, daughter, their intentions are ill. Short are the days for the men of the Dúnedain outside the lands of the House of Elendil! And the people know it, daughter! Why else do they flee here?"
"Never you mind him, Nienelen," she says, glaring at her father.
"Humph," the old man grunts and rocks on his seat as if attempting to find the sweetest spot for his old bones. "Where did you say you were planning to go, child?" he asks, leaning in to me for a moment. It seems he would gather more information to fuel the fire raging between them.
"West, father, near the Blue Mountains!" I say.
"Ah, the Blue Mountains? Why did you not say so before, child?" He raises his voice though his daughter stands within arm's reach of me. "She and her aunt intend to travel west, to Amon Mîth," he says as if he were the bearer of the news. "Ah well, now, that makes more of sense."
Mistress Pelara catches my eye and shakes her head as if only we two could comprehend her father's folly. Steam rises from the pot and she turns to lift it from the brazier.
"Her aunt has children there, you know," her father says as she sets it upon the pad of wool between us.
"Aye, yes, father, I know," she says and rummages loudly through the drawer of a side table.
"And they children there, too, who have their own little ones, I would think, and they too young to have known her," he says, turning to follow her return to the table.
She lifts the lid of the pot to drop a tightly drawn bag therein, her movements quick for the heat of the iron. "Aye, father," she says and slips two small bowls before him.
"Aye, a sorry business, it is," he sighs, and giving me a glance, pushes a bowl before me with a hand that tremors with his age. "A good thing it was for your aunt to come raise you when your mother died, Nienelen, may the Valar receive her and ease her passing, but surely her debt has long been repaid and your aunt shall see her kin again. I only hope she shall survive the journey."
His daughter ignores him, and with a weary shake of her head encourages me to do the same. "You hope to travel with the dwarves that are due to pass through on the East-West road, do you not?"
"Need you any aid?"
I shake my head. "We shall leave much behind."
"Aye, and we can see it given where greatest the need, and there be great need," the Elder says, nodding sagely.
His daughter takes up the pot and pours the tea into our bowls in silence. To these words of her father's, she does not give protest. Her face is full of sober thought as she pours.
"But these –" I say, leaning down to grasp the basket at my feet. "He had no sons to pass them on to, and I would know where –" and here my voice falters.
The basket sits in my lap, where it creaks as I breathe. I stare at the tea, unable, a moment, to either move or speak. The steam that rises from our bowls smells of rose hips and chamomile, a tart, pink scent. I hear the soft sound of a tongue clicking at my side and I know it comes from the woman of this house, but I dare not look at her for I know what I shall see. No doubt her eyes cloud in sympathy and she wonders whether or not to lay a consoling hand upon my arm. It is not her own father of whom she thinks, but the father of her sons and daughter who lay lost upon some cold forsaken place in the Wild.
I clear my throat and, from the depths of the basket pull my father's winter cloak and blanket, knife, belt, tinder box, and other such things as a Ranger might need when traveling.
"His sword, I have at home, and that, too—" I say as I lay them upon the table. There is no need to mention why I would not wish to carry it through the village, they know. A spectacle it would have been.
The Elder's face is solemn. He seems, for once, at a loss for words, and looks to his daughter.
"Ah, Nienelen," she says, her brows knit with concern. "Your eldest may carry his father's gear in time, but would you not save these for a younger son?"
I shake my head. I do not state what is obvious. It seems not likely I shall bear the elder, much less a younger. How many women of the Angle are there who will never leave their family's house for want of a husband?
"Pelara," I hear and find it is the Elder's voice that speaks so gently.
The look he gives her is full of meaning, though I know not what private thing they share. I take the chance to sip my tea and let them decide what they will. The brew is warm and sweeter than I thought.
"Aye," the Mistress sighs.
She runs an appreciative hand over the cloth of my father's cloak and squeezes the folds of the blanket beneath. Her father lifts his bowl with hands made clumsy by the years and sips from it with great care. It seems he, too, finds comfort in the excuse to remain silent.
"It is selfish of me, Nienelen," Mistress Pelara says, catching the tinderbox and knife before they can slide from atop the pile of wool, "but would you mind, terribly? My youngest has sworn himself to our lord's service and his brothers already carry their father's things. He has none of his own."
"Gelir?" I ask and she nods. It is hard to believe. I recall him as a small boy who set crickets down his playmate's dresses one evening when, as a girl, I had the charge of them. I wonder what mischief he will stir among his lord's Rangers. His mother's face softens when she sees me smiling.
"Aye, I know," she says, shaking her head. "He takes most after his mother's father, though it be my eldest who now mans the ovens for our folk." She spares a glance for the grandsire in question, but he is much involved in the tea, slurping loudly, and merely scowls at her above the rim of his bowl. He knows not what she said, but, it seems, recognizes the look she gives him. "But he loves our lord and will serve him with all his heart, following his father in all things."
"Aye then, if it will serve him well. I think I would like that, Mistress."
And I think my father would as well, for he had a mischievous bent, himself. I have little doubt he would have secretly encouraged her son's antics just to see what effect it had on his elders.
"My thanks to you, Nienelen," she says soberly, touching her brow and ducking her head.
Her eyes seem covered with mist but for a brief moment, and then she takes up the knife and belt, for they threaten to slide to the floor yet again. "Where to put these," she says and, blinking fiercely, goes to a chest behind her father to put them away.
So, then it is done. I sip my tea and forget that the basket remains in my lap.
"Shall you not keep this, in memory of him?"
Startled, I look up to find the Mistress' gaze upon me and I know my eyes have lingered on the small metal box of tinder. Vines chase across the silver. It is of dwarven make, though I know not how old. My father told me, when young, that it came from across Lake Town from the hoard of the King under the Mountain. I doubt the tale is true. The story was told by a doting father to brighten the eyes of his daughter and send her to sleep accompanied by dreams of far off places and fanciful tales.
I shake my head, setting down the now empty bowl. I do not say what one small thing of my father's I yet keep. I found it in his belt sack when I stripped him of his clothes and washed his body for his burial, and knew it meant for me. Its small weight hangs in a bit of brightly embroidered cloth lying tucked within the top of my shift and seems enough to me.
She takes up the metal box. "Truly, Nienelen, I would not begrudge it. Indeed, it is too fine for the boy."
The Elder watches, his eyes sharp over the rim of his bowl and steam lighting upon his brow.
At last I nod, unable to speak and the Mistress presses it into my hands where it feels both heavy and cold. She is silent while I slip it into the basket and I know not what to do next.
The Elder sets his bowl down with a sharp clatter, smacking his lips and frowning.
"When is supper?" he demands loudly, breaking the silence.
"Father," Mistress Pelara says, her voice sharp, "in a good while. There is no need to rush our guest off. She's barely finished her tea."
I stand and stammer, "No, mistress, I have overstayed my time."
She clucks her tongue looking from me to her father and then cocks her head at the old man, who peers up at her with his watery eyes.
"Perhaps, Father, you would see fit to give our guest a proper farewell," she says loudly.
"Bid you good day, Nienelen," he croaks, looking my way briefly before his gaze returns to his daughter and he shrugs.
"Very well," she says, throwing up her hands. "My thanks to you, Nienelen," she says and, though the look she gives me is at first uncertain, she grabs me up in a warm embrace, pressing the basket to me until the reeds squeak.
Her eyes are warm when she lets me go, and I think perhaps I have done some good today, for I have given some little ease to the burden of a mother's heart.
"Give my good day to your aunt, would you?" her father calls after me.
"Bid you good day," I say and, touching my fingers to my brow, nod, and leave.
As I go, the Elder strokes the wool of my father's cloak and I know he must think of it warming his own bones, cold for their want of marrow, but his daughter plucks it from under his hand, giving him only the cluck of her tongue in exchange. But then, once the wool is put away, his daughter plucks the cap from her father's head, only to smooth his thin white hair and drop a kiss onto the top of his head before replacing it. He beams up at her and happily returns to sipping his tea.
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.