4. Chapter 3
'But I shall die,' said Aragorn. 'For I am a mortal man, and though being what I am and of the race of the West unmingled, I shall have life far longer than other men, yet that is but a little while.'ROTK: The Steward and the King
It is much cold to be working in the garden over water and a tentative fire, but I had little choice. Pale shapes of leaves swirl in the depths of the slick dark mass in the pot as I stir, surfacing briefly as fish that rise in the river. The juice of the woad plant stains my hands, a blue sunk into each line and crevice of my skin up to my elbows. I am grateful for the ragged sheet I have tied about my person, for it now bears streaks and handprints upon it. Though I will scrub, I shall have faint grey fingernails and ghostly hands for days to come. But once this soup of leaves is strained and dried into cakes, it can be used to dye wool a beautiful blue, dark and as rich as the summer sky at twilight, its color hardy against soap, hot water or sun.
The sun glows warmly against the back wall of my father's house. Ever I shall remember it so, even now, these days of spring when the first fingers of flowering vines break the earth and reach for the stones. Soon, I would have brought the bay tree and aloe in their pots into the garden where they could feel the sun. Soon, my father would have sat in the midst of his seedlings and put me to the task of making his plans for the season's planting come to be. His square palms and thick fingers rough with calluses from the weapons he carried when he ranged far from the Angle, he would press them into the dirt and drink of its smell as he laid tender shoots to bed.
The dye simmers thickly and I glance at the back door to the house. Should I leave the brew to the fire? Ai! So much still to do and my aunt lies yet in our bed, aching with a chill that freezes her thin bones. Yet, it seems I can make no decision in this tangle of unfinished tasks, turning restlessly from one to the other without bringing any to completion.
"Bid you good morrow, Nienelen," a voice calls. I drop the spoon into the pot, for the voice is deep of timbre.
Catching the glimpse of a tall, dark-headed man, I whirl about and squint into the sun. It seemed, for a brief moment, my father had returned and called me to him. But it is not so, and my betrayed heart beats wildly for no good reason. It is Halbarad, whom, of late, I have seen more days in a row than I can put together in the past ten years. He stands at the corner of the house with his hands resting upon the gate, and there waits with uneasy patience for me to acknowledge him.
I dry my hands and leave the pot untended for the moment, my decision made for me.
"Sir," I say, nodding my head in greeting, my awkwardness matched only by his own as he steps back from the gate for me to open it.
As when he had lifted the bough to ease my passage under the trees, his eyes fill with a meaning at which I can only guess. For a man with whom I have exchanged precious little speech in my life, I marvel he has aught to say to me now. With dread, I can only think he comes with words of consolation. The funeral meats have been eaten, the guests have gone and I have given away my father's things. Dust now collects beneath his empty chair. So, when Halbarad walks through the gate and stands within my father's sleeping garden, looking steadily at his feet, to my shame, I hope only he intends to be brief.
"My thanks to you for coming," say I. "My father often spoke of the esteem in which he held you. You do him honor."
His eyes flash upon me for an instant, and, had I not known otherwise, I would have thought I had caught him by surprise.
Bowing his head, Halbarad says, "As I have held him. I am sorry for the loss you and your aunt suffer."
With that, we stand upon the lawn of the croft, one watching the other. With a sinking heart I realize he has more to say than a brief exchange in the garden will suffice.
"Would you come inside and take refreshment?"
He shifts on his feet and squints at the door as if it were closed upon the lair of some fell beast. "I had hoped to speak to your aunt, were it not an imposition."
"I am afraid she is indisposed, sir, and is likely to remain so until the morrow." Unaccountably, his face tenses. "I can pass on your respects, if you like." But this seems to bring no ease to the man. Indeed, he grimaces, glancing swiftly from the house to me, as if pressed by great need and debating his course.
"Nienelen," says he finally, his hands clasped tightly behind his back. His gaze is solemn and something weary and sad passes in his eyes. "I would have come earlier, had I any comfort to offer. I regret I did not. In our travels, I learned to lean upon your father's loyalty and stubborn humor. I know I shall find my days much diminished by his passing."
I nod but cannot meet his gaze nor speak, ashamed only now do I come to see he, too, is bereaved.
"But, in truth," he continues, his head inclined closely to mine, "my intentions in coming here were otherwise. Our days fall short and give me little choice."
He pauses and draws a quick breath, seeming for courage. "Nienelen, I have a thing to ask you of marriage."
With that, I blink at him in surprise and, at first, can think of naught to say. I cannot deny he is a fine figure of a man, the closest kin of the Dúnadan and known for valor in his own right, as eligible as any man in the Angle. And true, he has a reputation for a quiet nature and so would give little sign of his thoughts, but, nonetheless, I am at a loss to explain how, after all this time, he came to fasten upon the idea of taking me to wife.
I am frowning and staring at him. With haste, I assemble my features into a more pleasing form, for I do not wish to give offense. "I thank you for your attentions, Halbarad, but I had no warning of your desire."
He reddens and blinks at me in turn. His face has turned to stone.
Ai! This is going badly.
"Perhaps, it would be best –" I say, stumbling upon my words.
"Nienelen," he interrupts. "I beg your pardon. It was not my intent to mislead you," he says stiffly and bows his head in apology. "I do not speak on my own behalf. I come upon the authority granted me by another."
"Oh," is all I can think to say. I stare at him.
"Perhaps, if we could sit."
"Oh," say I, shaken out of my bemusement. "Aye."
I wipe my hands at my apron, forgetting that woad stains all it touches and the color is deep in the grain of my skin. I take up the ladle and stir the contents of the cauldron one last time. It will do. It must do. Dousing the flames allows me to look elsewhere other than at the man who stands stiffly just outside my reach. No doubt he is as grateful for the reprieve as am I.
When I lead him into the house, we stand in the doorway. I am uncertain as to where to sit him down. The fire upon the hearth is banked and the hall is full of baskets and piles of the small items that keep a household warm, fed and occupied. Shutters and rugs hang across the windows, not yet removed from the winter and, but for the light that spills in behind us, it is dark inside.
"We will not disturb your aunt?" Halbarad asks, touching my elbow to gain my attention.
"No, she lies behind closed doors and hears little." Decided, I enter and lift blankets from a low couch that sits near the hearth.
'I am sorry I cannot make you more comfortable." I drop the pile upon a table, but he merely shakes his head and follows my steps into the room.
"I will be comfortable enough," says he, though I doubt the conversation to follow will have much of ease about it.
As he seats himself, I pull the rug from the window behind him and lay it aside. Opening the shutters does much to lend light to the room, but little comfort given the disarray and the lack of a fire. As I lift the turfs from the hearth, the banked coals provide a welcome, if only faint, warmth. My hands are cold from working with water on a chill day, my knuckles stiff and red.
"I am afraid I have little to offer you." I stir the ashes and lay kindling atop the fire. "We have let much of our stores dwindle. But, we have small ale, if that will do."
"It will, if you join me."
He has been watching me, seated on the couch, his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped between them, kneading his fingers. He is not at ease, but I find his courtesy soothing and it is with a lighter heart I leave him there to find him refreshment.
I return and, from his seat, Halbarad puzzles over the tall loom leaning against the wall. His furrowed brows seek to make sense of the tangle of yarns, lathes, and clay weights that dangle from the warp. His expression is nigh one of relief when I return and offer him a cup. He takes it, bowing his head in thanks when I settle upon a bench across from him. The fire has caught, the flames pouring across the dry wood as we drink in silence. I have unwound the sheet from around my middle and settled my hair in the scarf I wear, and I am warm, if not comfortable.
"When had you planned to leave?" Halbarad asks, breaking the quiet.
I shift in my seat before answering. "When the company of dwarves from the Blue Mountains come down the Great East Road." He nods in confirmation. "My aunt and I plan to leave with them."
"Aye," says he, and sighs. "Along with others."
I do not care for the worry that tightens his face and my thoughts hearken back to the Elder's fears. I think of my aunt, with her frail bones and unsteady feet. "Will we be safe, do you think?"
"As safe as any," he says. "Do you still plan to leave the Angle, then?"
"I hardly know." A sudden desire to see my mother's kin whom I have not known rises within me as if I were but newly sundered from them. "I had not expected to receive an offer of betrothal to keep me here." And now I am not so sure I will accept the offer.
"Not betrothal, Nienelen," says he and his sudden gravity silences me. "There will be no troth-plighting. What I have brought is an offer to be wedded."
"Wedded." His eyes search my face.
"Wedded?" It seems I cannot put two words of sense together.
"Aye," he says and is about to speak further, but I hold up a hand to stop him.
I can call to mind a handful of Rangers of Halbarad's acquaintance that may require a wife but have not the inclination to woo her, all older and unmarried or bereft of wife. But I cannot think of one who could not ask for my hand himself and could not put aside his urgency to observe the rituals of our people. The intended groom may have had time to come to his decision, but what of the time the bride might need? What manner of man was this?
"Halbarad?" I ask, "Might I be so bold as to request his name?"
"This will be a marriage of duty." He clears his throat, rubbing the lip of the cup with his thumb.
"Aye, that is understood."
"And it is to be offered with certain expectations," he says and pauses, reluctant, it seems, to continue.
But I can only remain silent. I have little idea as to his thoughts and his disinclination to name the groom does not bode well.
"It is required that you be able to perform certain duties."
"So I gather," say I when he pauses for what seems an interminable moment.
"The groom requires that I inquire as to your ability to perform them before he requests your hand."
"Aye, and if you were to name them I might have a better chance at knowing what answer to give him," I say, but instantly regret my impetuous tongue. By now, Halbarad, Ranger of the North, has fallen mute and a faint pink paints his jaw and cheeks. His eyes wander into his cup and seem to have become lost there.
"Ah," I say in dawning comprehension. "I take it they are of a delicate nature."
It is little wonder, then, he had hoped to speak with my elder. He nods and does not lose any of the red that suffuses his face. But it cannot be helped, and, I think, if this discussion is to proceed, it is I who must plunge on.
"Perhaps having to do with my ability to bear children of him," I say and he nods. It is not an uncommon condition placed upon arranged marriages between our folk and does not surprise me.
I settle back into my seat. The awkward solemnity of the man now rubbing his thumb against his cup weighs upon me. It seems wise to make no promises I cannot keep.
"I can only say I have no reason to believe I am not capable of bearing children, but I have no reason to know with certainty that I am."
His eyes flash from the cup to my face and study me intently. It is my turn to color, and I do so most unwillingly. So, the groom had demanded another condition.
"There have been no others to put it to the test," I declare flatly.
"Then the requirements are met," says he and, taking a deep breath, sets his cup aside. He stands and extends his hand for mine. Though unsure, I lay my hand in his. If naught else, I shall soon learn the name of the groom and bring this riddle to an end.
He lets my fingers lie lightly upon his and speaks, his voice grown formal. "Nienelen, daughter of Melendir, I have been charged to request your hand by the Lord of the Dúnedain, Aragorn Arathorn's son. He asks that you bind yourself to him, take upon yourself the duties as is proper of his lady and the mother of his heirs, and accept his safekeeping of your self and the children you bear of him."
I jerk my hand from his as if burned.
"What manner of jest is this?" I demand, fighting hot, sudden tears. I can only think I have been played the fool for his amusement. I had not known him capable of such cruelty.
Halbarad stares at me, stunned, and then grabs for my hand again and sits.
"Nienelen!" he says, pressing my fingers in his to gain my attention. "I make no sport of this!"
Thoughts whirl in my mind but make no sense. I stare at him without word, but my eyes must beg for answers. He releases me and scrubs at his forehead, sighing. When his hand falls to his knee, it reveals not the face of one of our lord's Rangers, but that of his friend and kinsman. He kneads his hands, quiet a moment.
"Our lord requires an heir," he says, his voice so low it is as if he pleads with me.
My thoughts range over the words that have been said between us and I can draw but one conclusion. My heart sinks and I feel cold.
"Then he is as they say?"
Halbarad's face speaks eloquently enough of his concern that he need say naught.
I rise swiftly from my seat, grabbing onto my arms and pace the short distance between my bench and the baskets that impede my way. It is not so much that I am thinking, but that I must take time for what has been said to settle. It is as if I have taken in a large gulp of wine and must clear my head.
"If you are willing, in two nights." I suck in a breath in dismay. Urgent, indeed.
Halbarad speaks, watching me anxiously, "Our folk refurbish his family's house even now, so you may make your home there after the wedding."
I know the place of which he speaks. When our lord's lady mother returned to live among us again, she had taken up the house of her husband's family, and abandoned it only when they carried her to the barrows just these two months past. My lord comes there seldom, but now seems to have need of it as he has not before.
"My lord would not insist you abandon your aunt in binding yourself to him. She is welcome to his household, as well."
Ah! My aunt! My aunt! So great her wish to see her children and so great my debt to her I cannot bear to put this choice before her. Ah, but should I bear an heir of this marriage and my lord fail, I shall be alone in the child's rearing. Neither can I bear that thought. I place hands on either side of my face to cool my brow. My thoughts spin in my head as so many leaves in an autumn storm, I grasp one and the wind rips it from my fingers.
He is waiting for my answer. I sit and his hands fall still but he does not speak. No matter my thoughts, for, in this, reason cannot lead me. In my heart, heard clear above the storm of my fears, rings my father's voice.
"Yes," I say. Halbarad looks at me as if he cannot bring himself to trust what he hears.
"What answer shall I take, lady?"
"I am beholden to my lord, what else am I to say, but yes?" I throw up my shaking hands with a wry, soft laugh. When they fall, I rub my palms along my skirts. "If my lord judges it best, I will lay myself in his hands."
"This is for you to say whether you are willing or no," Halbarad urges, seeking my eyes and looking at me kindly, with an earnest pity.
"I will it. I shall do as he asks."
He seems to breathe deeply and his shoulders gentle as if a great burden has lifted from him. "Then I shall be pleased to take your answer to our lord," he says and rises.
Halbarad looks upon me from his great height. By the set of his mouth and eyes I know he is pleased. Somewhat of hope seems to warm his gaze.
"I must return to our lord, but I shall see you in the evening of two days hence." He nods almost as if he were requesting permission to leave and, with little thought, I nod in return. At that, he strides to the door.
"Take thought as to your arrangements, Nienelen," he says, "and send to the house of Master Maurus. It is he and his daughter who will see to them."
I have followed and open the door for him. There he takes my hand in farewell, bowing over it formally.
"My thanks to thee," he says, and then goes on with added emphasis, "my lady."
It seems my heart freezes for moment, before beating again. It comes to me only now that, this day, I have accepted far more than role of wife and mother.