45. Chapter 44
FOTR: The Breaking of the Fellowship
I no longer smell the smoke, though I doubt not its acrid scent yet clings to my dress and hair. My very skin bears its traces and I know myself not unmarked.
Ai! Nienna of the Countless Tears, have pity on us, I pray!
The hall before me is empty and black as the night but for the glow of the hearth. Cushions and benches lie tumbled from their feet where the Elders of the Council had upset them in their haste. Chests gape where their lids were flung open and my son's toys spread scattered upon the floor as if a great battle had been fought there and there men and beast lie wounded and dead. The twisted bundle before the door I know for my daughter's blanket, dropped there in our flight. I leave them as they lie.
My daughter and son are not here. They sleep curled upon Elesinda, deep beneath their blankets as Boradan watches o'er them within the safety of the wooden palisade. For a long moment by the faint light of the watch-fires I saw their breath curl as smoke about their lips as they slept. Then I turned my back upon them and Pelara's pleas. I confess I gave her the lie and slipped away, making my way to my lord's house across the cold and empty paths of the Angle. A wind arose from the distant mountains and blew upon my face. Only then, for lack of gloves and wrap and for the damp and singed cloth of my skirts and cloak, did I feel the cold. Chill against my skin, I breathed its scent of mists and the secret places of deep hidden valleys and knew it brought with it the rain. Perhaps we were not so alone and the Valar turned their indifferent pity upon us, after all.
Aye, and we have great need of it. Flames leap high in my thoughts, spilling angrily against the dark clouds of night, but I do not hear the screams of men and beast, nor the roaring of the fire caught in its net of wattle and thatch. Instead, my ears are full of the weeping of children, the anxious moans of their parents, and the silence of the elders who refuse to eat what is placed before them so it might be of more use elsewhere. For my books, spread before me and full of hastily made marks, refuse to lie to me and soothe my anxious heart. Oh, hunger will not set its teeth upon the Angle until the spring plowing, but it will come and its bite will be sharp.
Ai! Vain was my lord's trust in me! Had I once thought myself wise? Had I once taken pride in the solemn weight with which my lord listened to my counsel?
With the sweep of my hands, I lift the pages of my journal and fling them over the table and onto the floor. There the leather hits the floor with a sudden slap and the pages tumble and scatter about, rustling in their fall against the woven reeds. As so many windblown leaves are they, and of as equal worth.
That for my mistrust of central stores!
"How many bushels did you find there?"
My lord's reeve shuffled through the slats of wood in his fist from where he stood before us. Dwarfed as the marks made upon them were by his fingers, he was slow in his counting, one lathe for each granary, one thin cut for each count of rye.
"I make twenty counts of rye, Master Bachor," said he when done.
"And of oat?"
Again went the thick finger to running across the edge of the wood and Master Herdir's lips to silently counting. I stifled a yawn, the numbers in my journals before me long having blurred to a mess of meaningless scratches. The day afore had dawned pale beneath low-hanging clouds and Master Herdir and I spent it upon the Angle visiting its granaries. I need not look to my lists to know what his accounting shall be.
"That would make fifteen of bean and seventeen of oat as well."
With great care, Bachor made his marks upon a tablet, the tip of his stylus scraping across the stone. Elder Maurus nodded, pursing his lips. His fingers tapped upon the table and, with his eyes softly focused upon the wood beneath them, he seemed to tally the odds against us and find them satisfactorily grim. Master Landir gazed off into the air above the hearth, his lips twisted in a grimace of either distaste or care, I knew not which. Master Tanaes, his fingers folded before him on my lord's table, jerked his head aloft and, once aware of it, stilled his rapid blinking. I doubt not he had fallen into a sudden fit of slumber at the droning of the voices about him. I cannot say I blamed him. Ever he was more fit for following our lord into battle or tending his beasts than the endless lists put before the Council.
Indeed, I, myself, found more of interest in my son's heavy head leaning upon my arm. He is much like to his father, who sets himself to his ease with as much intent as to any other of his labors. I think the boy would have stretched himself full upon the bench and laid his head upon my lap were I not sitting at Council and reluctant to give him leave.
"Onya," I whispered to the dark crown of hair pressed against my shoulder, the perfume of his scent heavy beneath my lips. "Shall thee not lie down upon thy bed? You would surely find more comfort there."
I thought he would welcome the chance to rest, but my son shook his head. He had but recently risen and thrown off the clothes of his sickbed and the sound of his coughing was still a pain to a mother's ears, but it quickly grew to a thin and dry thing, perhaps more from habit than aught else. The boy had spent the day playing about the hearth with his carven men, though he kept close and oft came to rest against me as I worked, and it seemed he had yet some strength to spend.
"When is Elenir coming home, Ammë?" he asked, his voice low for the ears of the Elders gathered about his father's table. He pressed in tighter to my side so he might hear my answer.
"In a little."
His sister's cradle yet lay empty, abandoned so the council might proceed without interruption from her cries of unease or hunger. Elesinda had begged to take the girl to her family so they might see for themselves what a dear thing she was and, sending Ranger Boradan with them, I allowed it.
"That is all?" I turned from my son to find Master Bachor frowning at his figures in the quiet that was Master Herdir's completed report.
"I am quite sure of it," said Master Herdir, though he glanced quickly at his tally. "'Twas the full count of Master Sereg's harvest, unless he has stored aught elsewhere and has not told us."
Though I knew not why, this brought a troubled look to Master Bachor's face.
"He has no less than Aeg, or even his pledgeholder Eradan surely," I said and the man left off rubbing at his brow.
"True it is," Master Bachor said, his voice growing brisk, "and they have more mouths to put it in than does he. I simply had not thought it so bad. Ploughman Tundril has near twice as much in his stores, does he not, and yet Sereg has the greater measure of land."
My lord's reeve shrugged, his face betraying no mood though I knew the inequities of the harvest troubled him. "Aye, well, Sereg, Eradan, Aeg, their land rises highest above the meadow, Master Bachor, and with the river and streams running so low, the water never was of enough force to flood more than a third of their furrows."
"And why should these in particular trouble you, Bachor? Sure it is they are not the only ones who have more mouths than grain to feed them, high land or no."
With that, Elder Maurus' light eyes rose of a sudden from the table and fixed upon the butcher, for it was Master Tanaes who spoke, his low voice giving the words a greater weight. My son sighed and sank the deeper into my arm. It seemed, like his mother, he had hoped the council soon to come to a close. I had no wish to air our arguments yet again. Did we not know them well enough already?
"Humph," grunted Elder Maurus and, pursing his lips and nodding gently, winked at his lord's son for the boy's endurance of the tedium of our council.
The butcher's hand buffeted the table, startling Landir who sat beside him to lifting his chin from the fist that jostled beneath him.
"And so even now, Bachor, you would not consider it?"
"What would you have me consider, Tanaes?"
"Ah!" the butcher grunted, waving at the sour look with which Master Bachor's delivered his query and yet lingered upon his face. "Aye, you know very well."
"I think we all know very well both of your proposals. It is not as if you had not worried this very issue between you like a pack of dogs at the last of the table scraps," came Master Landir's vexed voice, but it might as well have been the wind blowing upon the winter rugs for all it was heeded.
"Aye, I know well your thoughts, Tanaes," said Master Bachor. "It is simple enough to see through to the meaning you intend."
Such was the education my son was to receive at the Council's meetings. Nudging gently at him, I urged him from the bench. "Go, onya, put away thy things and when thou art done, get thee ready for thy sleep."
'Twas a measure, I think, of the boy's weariness that he did not protest despite the earliness of the hour. When he had settled himself among his carven men, there picking them up one by one and dropping them to their bag, I turned again to the Council to find their looks sullen and their voices sharp.
"Aye," said Master Tanaes, his face reddening. "I'll not deny you have plenty wit to understand, 'tis proper thought and stomach you lack."
Master Herdir shifted upon his feet, his gaze flicking swiftly from one to the other. I could not fail but to see the grim and discontented set to his eyes, nor, I think had Master Landir missed it, for he struggled to calm Master Bachor, to little effect. It was one thing for the Council to fret behind closed doors, quite another to display our quarrels before the Angle.
"You have been both Ranger and butcher, have you not?" asked Bachor. His face falling swiftly hard and pale, he jerked his arm from beneath Landir's touch. "Shall you attempt yet another trade, Master Tanaes? Mayhap you would find that of a thief to your liking, so you may steal the very fruits of a man's labor from his table."
I raised my voice to stop them, but then left off at the thumping of wood upon wood that rattled the cups and slates, for Elder Maurus set his cane to the edge of the table with a vigor that belied the knotted joints that clutched it.
"Who has fruit for their table?" Elder Maurus demanded when he had drawn our eyes. "Did you not account for this, Master Herdir?"
"Pardon?" All eyes turned to him and my lord's reeve blinked and shifted upon his feet, unnerved, I think, to find the Council's attention upon him at such a juncture.
"Fruit, man, fruit!" the Elder demanded and fell to grumbling. "In the midst of winter, even. Who ever heard of such a thing? And to not share with the rest of us, too."
"Elder!" I leaned o'er the table until Maurus grunted and lifted his chin, so he might peer closely at my lips. "'Tis of the rationing of the harvest of which we speak."
"The harvest, Elder! Not fruit! Shall we set aside a portion of each man's grain to share among his neighbors?"
"Oh!" he said and leaned back in his seat, his face the very picture of puzzlement. "That again? I thought we had done with that."
"Aye," I said. Though the Elder had settled again, he watched me with his light eyes and I wondered at his interference. "We had done, and truly I have little desire, myself, to bring the issue to air again, but we cannot be so foolish as to willingly blind ourselves to --"
"Aye!" Bachor said, and then threw his stylus there among the slates and cups and meager remains of the evening meal. "Think you I cannot see the need for aid? You need not set your agents to attack both my courage and my honor before the Council, my lady, and then set yourself to questioning my understanding. I am no fool!" At this, running his hand through his hair, he mastered some part of his anger, for he ignored the grunt from Master Tanaes and instead lowered his voice and made his tone reasonable. "Rather I would rely upon the goodwill of the Angle where you mistrust it. We shall see to our own as we have ever done before. When have we ever had need for the iron arm of the House to put us to it?"
"Do you not think the Angle is in such desperate straits as we had not seen before?" asked I. "Shall we put our folk's hearts to the test and discover just what extremities shall break them of their vows of faith and fealty?"
"And why does the House worry so for their folk's faith, eh? Do you have reason to fear it not well earned, my lady?"
"Should I sit and do naught, as you advise, then sure it is I have failed of their trust to provide for their care!" Despite my best efforts, my voices rose of itself and sure it is I have more to say. How is it this man knew just which words would send a fire to my thoughts?
"Halt!" Down came the head of Elder Maurus' rod upon my lord's table with a crack, shaking the crockery upon it and startling all to quiet. Risen from his seat, his capped head towered o'er us seated there, his face stern. But he did not turn his wrath upon the Council, for yet still, upon the distance, could be heard the sound of harsh words. Raised voices cried out, but their words had naught to do with grain and management of the harvest, nor that of vows put under the strain of hunger. They called for the Lady of the Dúnedain.
No time was I given to answer, for I had but barely risen when the great door slammed to the wall and through it burst the figure of young Boradan.
"Lady Nienelen!" he called and we, transfixed by the sweat upon his brow and the laboring of his breast, did not answer. Beyond the open door came distant cries.
"Make haste, my lady! They are come!"
My lord has reason to take pride in his people of the North. The storms we have weathered would have spent a folk of lesser will. Shall our foes break our fortresses of stone and throw down their walls? Shall our libraries burn and our greatest tools lie beneath the flood? Wear we no longer the silver, gold or fine cloths of our craftsmen? No matter. We yet cling to the earth, though we do it with soiled and worn hands. Remember this and do not think to read the Great Tales of the ending of the Age and find the lack of names you well know there to mean otherwise. Halbarad, Ranger of the North, sent word of orc upon the northern reaches of the Angle. The news spread as if riding the black wings of the crow and our folk moved as swiftly in answer.
Even now they come, leading their children by the hand and carrying those who cannot run. The tedious hours of our rehearsal tell, for I hear no word of protest, though their look be grim, and the people do not panic and rush about but come on in good order, urging each other to quickness. Behind them, the sun sets, its blaze glares at us through the tangled boughs of the forest, pressed as the sun is to the hills by slow and low-hanging clouds. Men have set the watch-fires burning and their light falls upon the stubble of our wretched harvest, throwing long the shadows of men across the furrows as they warm their hands about the flames.
"How far, said you?"
With this, Master Bachor slips me the fired round of clay, his eyes already distant upon the darkening paths. Wondering if the man's distraction left him aught with which to attend to his task, I turn the bit of pottery about. The marks upon it come to relief by the light of Ranger Mathil's torch and, thus confirmed of the pledgeholder's name it bears, I drop it into the sack where it clanks among its mates.
"Mistress Pelara will meet you just inside the gate and tell you where you are to settle," I say. "Send your men to their posts once they have unloaded."
A grizzled man of some years, the fuller to whom I speak looks as if roused from his bed to answer the Angle's call. The last of his kin to enter, he touches his fingers to his brow, at first unable to speak for the want of breath. "Aye," he says. "All those under the pledges I hold, my lady, are here, down to that wee lass of my daughter's son."
Well done, Master Lorn," say I, for of all the Angle's folk they were the most greatly dispersed upon its lands and I am well-pleased.
"My thanks, my lady," he says, and nodding, follows the crowd through the gate by which we stand and into the fort of earth and wood.
My bag has grown steadily heavier and I shake it to hear the satisfying slide of stone upon stone. I too, wish to hear the answer to Master Bachor's question, for though the bag he holds is now all but empty, I would rather all the Angle's families accounted for and safe behind what little comfort our wooden walls might provide.
"Three hour's ride, by my mark, we made, and they coming on the slower. I would think them an hour, mayhap two away at most, by now," says Ranger Mathil. "Do you not think, Haldren?" He turns aside, throwing the light of his torch upon his comrade sitting at the base of the wall with his cloak drawn tight about him, drinking from his flask.
Ranger Haldren makes a soft noise, wiping at his mouth. The elder of the two, he rests his back upon the wooden palisade and husbands his strength. Tethered close by are their fresh mounts, my lord's own mare and a gelding left to our care upon the death of his rider. My lord's mare snorts, impatient it seems with the delay. She has had little exercise now my lord comes seldom to the Angle, and she shakes her head so her headstall flaps and the metal bits jingle faintly. Haldren's silver hair lies covered by his cloak. I see naught of him but his sharp nose and the hand that reaches to rub the mare beneath her chin and settle her into waiting. His hands are calloused and their nails dark.
"Aye, unless the captain has taught them caution." Haldren says and, leaving off his ministrations to the horse with a last scratch, slaps his cork into place.
By the scent upon its opening I doubt not his flask holds somewhat of stronger brew then I would dare drink at such a time. But who am I to begrudge the man his comforts? Halbarad had sent them on a wild and plunging ride to us, and soon, once the Angle's people are secure, they will return as swiftly to him. I can only hope what they face when they arrive shall not be as dark as my imaginings.
Smoke rises upon the breeze, its smell sharp with the dry fodder of winter. Done with lighting the fires, our men take up their places upon the palisade walk and in groups about its wall. Within its circle, I know the women and elders craft shelter and warmth for the night, though the sounds are muffled by wood and earth and distance and I cannot hear them. After the first rush of our people had passed within, a handful of men and women yet linger beyond its shelter, watching the dim paths of the Angle and awaiting the last of our folk. Just a little more and all shall be made ready, may the Valar grant us this short time.
"You are certain you sent Ploughman Eradan word?"
Master Bachor worries at his lip, his eyes upon the man's son standing in the light of a quickening fire. The youth looks out atimes up on the homes and fields we have abandoned before returning to his restless pacing.
"Aye, he has sent in all but three of those families pledged to him."
I know not why I say this, for Master Bachor knows it as well as I, having been there for the son's accounting himself. If his heart took no ease then it shall not take it now, for Bachor's own wife and daughters, living as they do at the foot of the western hills of the Angle, are among those yet to join us. And indeed, though he says naught, his face takes on a sharp cast at my words, made the more cruel by the red light of the torch.
"Never fear, Master," says Ranger Mathil, "Halbarad will have them by the heels soon enough, if he has not already done the deed. Your folk will have the time they need."
Time. Aye, there is but a pittance left. The sky above has grown lightless as only a long night of winter might be. I would have no hope but for the last gleaming of the sun yet lingering between the slopes of the darkening hills. There, behind the trees, it glows in the dark as embers beneath the timber of a long-burning fire.
We fall silent in our watching, Bachor, Mathil, Haldren and I. So still are we, I startle when the freshening breeze blowing down from the hills sets the torchfire to snapping in its passing. The scent of the smoke it carries is as a heaviness upon my breast and I am mute for its weight. Why it should be so I know not, but can do naught for it but look upon the distant horizon. Aye, the sun's glow yet lingers in the hills. And then, under my gaze, a light blooms behind the screen of the distant trees. Now not one but two suns set upon the Angle.
With that, Mathil glances upon the men gathering behind us about their watch-fires. The wind rises and sends their flames rushing away from us. Yet still the faint sharp tang of smoke. The scent is foul as it should not be. Catching his look, Haldren rises swiftly to his feet and stares at the distant lights. He raises his face to the air and breathes deeply of it.
""Tis not the light of the sun that burns!" he says and, whirling about, yanks at the lines securing the horses. In his haste, he cares not for the knots in the leathers, but pulls them from the ground, stake and all.
Bachor's face, I think, has gone white as he stares to the west, his fair face made ghastly with the look of horror upon it in the flickering of the torchlight. They whip about me, Mathil trailing tongues of fire and Bachor following him. The horses snort and their hooves scuff the dry earth as they jostle for position among the men, but I stare into the dark. And there it is, small and winking as if it were a distant star high in the firmament, yet a third and then a fourth light flares in the night. They grow even as I watch. It is the granaries; I know it as sure as if I could see a map of the Angle spread before me and set my lord's dark stones upon it with my own hand.
I turn and it is to find Haldren mounted upon the gelding and Bachor with his hand upon my lord's mare's headstall, shouting at Mathil who would set himself upon her back. Heads turn and men and women fall still and I, ignoring them, rush upon the men and set myself in their midst.
"Damn you, man!" cries Bachor. "'Tis my home! My family!"
"What is it?" I hear shouted in a deep voice across the field.
Master Tanaes limps from where he sets the men to their guard about the palisade. A spear newly made his crutch, I have but time to see the metal catch the light upon its sharp head before my lord's mare lunges between us, Bachor clutching at her reins. It seems Mathil has relented and, tossing his torch to Haldren who, shouting, urges us to hurry, he leaps upon the gelding behind the elder Ranger.
"I am coming with you!"
Bachor turns, caught in the act of putting his foot to the stirrup, for I have put my hand upon him and pulled him away. He laughs, a bitter and wild sound.
"Nay, my lady," he says, "you have no need. Stay here. Only a fool would take you riding blindly into danger on a night such as this."
He shrugs off my grip and takes up the reins again. I shake for my dread, and yet the thought my lord might return to his home to ask me how it was razed and why his people are dead of hunger is more fearful still. Shall I die swiftly upon the sword, or shall I let it come slow upon the winds of winter's chill?
Bachor turns to me as if he had aught more to say before he would leave me there, but, putting all the weight of my fear and rage into it, I strike his face. The slap sounds as a clap of thunder and he staggers beneath the force of my blow, stunned at the suddenness of it. Recovering quickly, he then grapples with me, his breath coming from him hard and fast. He comes so near I feel it rush warm upon my brow. The eyes that bore into mine burn, but he bears the print of my hand upon his cheek and I do not falter.
"Then you shall be a fool!" I say and for a brief moment his grip tightens. Then it has loosed and he thrusts me from him.
"Be it on your head then."
"Tanaes!" Ranger Haldren roars the butcher's name, kicking the gelding forward and pointing wildly to the west. "Fire! Do you not see it?"
I hear his voice, but the butcher's answer is lost to the sound of creaking leather, for Bachor hauls me aloft after him and I clutch at him to steady myself upon the mare's back.
"Aye!" shouts Haldren as he turns the gelding's nose toward the Angle. "Send Halbarad word and then gather those of your men you can spare and have them ride to us."
Thus we take to flight, the Rangers before us on the gelding and I with my arms wrapped tight about Bachor's middle.
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