Fierce and a Little Ragged by EverleighBain

[Reviews - 2]
Table of Contents
Printer Friendly: Printer
- Text Size +

Jump to

Fierce and a Little Ragged

 

A/N: All recognizable elements belong to J.R.R. Tolkien.

Many thanks to Cairistiona for her exhaustive beta work. If you haven’t already had a look at her marvelous collection of stories at ff.net and Stories of Arda, please do!

 

An overturned cart with a splintered axle sagged against the crumbling north wall, growing moss and mushrooms. It was a good hiding place, and I was huddled beneath it bleeding into my sleeve when a hand appeared and drew me out by the ankle. I almost resisted until I recognized the rough knuckles and spangling scars, and thought better of it. But I could not look him in the face when he extracted me. I memorized my knees until he took my chin and tipped it.

“Your nose is broken,” he said.

I felt a hot wash on my lips and down my chin and pawed at it with my bloody forearm. It was muddy and cold and my clothing was ripped and my scraped knees hurt nearly as much as my throbbing face.

“She’s going to skin me,” I whispered.

“And well she should. Rolling around in the mud like a couple of trolls.”

I could not tell if it was displeasure or amusement, that lilt in his voice. “I did not think anyone would see.”

“I see everything,” he said. “I saw you take the first swing, and I saw you take your trouncing.”

I wanted to shrug off his hand on my shoulder and crawl back into my hole and lick my wounds in private. But he rose off his haunches and pulled me standing, and with a hand on my nape brought me along with him as he started down the path. He was limping still, and moving slowly, though he had cast aside his crutches the week before. I remembered the night they had brought him home, over a month ago… the dusk and pounding rain, the gates swinging wide, and through them came the riders, the foremost holding before him in the saddle a man with snarled hair and lolling head, and my heart had flailed with hope and terror intermingled. But it was not who I looked for, no, but the Chieftain, bleeding still from a wound at the base of his skull, his leg broken and bound. The Rangers had lowered him carefully to the stable floor. Through the ring of watchers my mother had burst. Coru, the old captain with the scar across his throat, had looked up and found her standing there, pale and breathless, and given a sad shake of his head. No word. No sign. Nothing to patch the fissures in our steadfastness that cracked a little wider with every passing day…

It was late, and most of the folk were in their houses supping, but I felt them looking through the windows we passed. I groped behind me for my hood and drew it up. To my surprise the Chieftain turned, and instead of marching me in shackles to my own house he bumped me between the stable and the crumbling old mill to my great-grandmother Ivorwen’s. She answered his knock, and I braced myself—her tongue could be as sharp as my mother’s. But she wore her cloak and her bag over her shoulder, and she opened the door and was flying away again, pulling jars from her laden shelves and stuffing her satchel with linen.

“Ceridwen’s babe is trying to come early,” she said. “I cannot see your patient now, you’ll have to take care of it yourself.”

“I intend to,” he said, in a tone that made me uneasy. “If you’ll lend us your kitchen.”

She waved a hand, of course, of course. Finally she paused long enough to recognize me. “Heavens, child, whatever have you stirred up this time? No—don’t answer, I haven’t the time.” She cast me an admonishing look, patted his chest, and was gone. The door shut solidly behind her.

He ducked out of his cloak, hung it on the door-hook, and reached for the tie of mine about my neck. “I can do it,” I said, shrugging away, hating my own petulance. If he noticed, he said nothing. He went to a shelf and took down a canvas case, a handful of rags, a pair of wooden bottles stopped with leather. He pulled a chair away from the table and sat and hooked a finger at me.

I didn’t want to go to him. I wanted to huddle in a dark corner and plot my revenge. The filthy blacksmith’s boy, his father not even a Ranger—not even a man. Men did not wend away their time in the village. Men went out and defended the free folk. Men routed orcs and battered wolves and spent their nights around campfires in the Wild, recounting the great deeds of their fathers. Halvard likely could not trace his lineage past some ill-begotten grandmother…

While I wallowed in these thoughts the Chieftain took my skirt and tugged me between his knees. He clamped me with them and laid his hands on my face, his fingertips ghosting down the bridge of my nose. I sniffed hard and the blood started trickling again.

“Hold this here,” he said, packing a wad of loosely-woven linen above my lip.

“I did not take the first swing,” I said, my hand muffling the sound. The mud on my knees and palms was drying and beginning to itch.

“You tripped him. It is the same.”

“Well, he deserved it!”

He released me then, left me standing as he hobbled to the water-barrel and ladled some into a pan, cuffed his sleeves to his elbows, and began to scrub. The smells of lye and lavender filled Ivorwen’s kitchen. His hair fell forward over his face, dark like my own, like all of ours. But not Halvard, the blacksmith’s son. His was red as foal’s, and curly. I hated the spatter of freckles over his nose.

            “You’re bigger than him, and a year or so older. He’s likely not yet nine.” He dried his hands on a cloth, ladled fresh water, tonged one of the heating-stones and dropped it in the pan. “Though that did not stop him from whipping you soundly.”

I almost wanted to cry at that—at the shame of it, the truth. “Ada would not teach me to fight,” I muttered.

“Your ada is wise,” he said without sympathy. He resumed his seat and began to sponge the blood from my face. His fingers probed, found a new unnoticed hurt above my eye.

“Daernaneth can fight with a sword,” I said. I tried to duck away from his prodding and he drew me back. “My mother can, and she can shoot a bow like a Ranger.”

“Yes, they can,” he answered. “But they do not also bully little boys.”

He had heard, then, the sneak, and I realized he was not proud of me.

“He thinks himself Dúnedain,” I said, nearly spitting out the words. “His father is a weakling.”

Before the final phrase was free of my mouth, his keen eyes flicked up and lanced me. Against my will my body quailed, my knees turning nerveless; but for his restraining hand on my nape I might have shrank away from him against the further wall. Though still he sat he seemed to loom above me, and beneath that piercing appraisal all my bluster scuttled away somewhere towards the door.

“You listen to me, youngster, and listen well.” He dealt me the lightest of shakes. “Hald the blacksmith was a Ranger once, before you were born, and the bravest of men, and if he were a lord they would sing his praises through the end of this Age and into the next. You think he was born with that leg missing? He saved your father’s life, and mine, and paid dearly for his valor.” The Chieftain’s hand eased. Some of the air came back in the room, and some of the light, and his perilous eyes grew gentler again. “He is a champion, Hald, and his boy has endured enough already, and you deserved your trouncing for the things you said to shame him.”

Gentler, perhaps, but I knew I was not yet out of danger when he plucked a roll of bandage off the table and slipped his fingers under my chin.

“Are your teeth sound?” he asked. I felt with my tongue and nodded, not counting the small one on the left that had been loose for a week. To my surprise and trepidation he fitted the cylinder of linen between my molars like a bridle. “Then you had better bite down hard.” He gripped my nose firmly and grated it back into alignment. I yelped and danced between his knees, the roll of bandage falling unheeded to the floor, flattened by my bite-marks. I felt my stomach sour, could not keep from crying. I wanted to claw at my face as my nose began to fountain again, wanted to bat him away as he wadded more rags to stem the blood. But when he pulled my forehead to his chest the fight runneled out of me. I sobbed and surrendered and burrowed into the front of his shirt.

“He was supposed to be back three months ago.” I heard my own voice wild with tears, muffled by his body and the swelling in my nose. His hands smoothed my hair, settled warm and heavy on the back of my neck. When my sobs began to shake my shoulders he leaned forward and gathered me into his lap. His chin was rough on the crown of my head and the smell of him, so like my father’s—horses and leather and oil and dust, and the faint memory of pipeweed and more peaceful times—came over me like a cloud.

 “Peace, little cousin,” he murmured, and it took a heartbeat or two before I realized he had spoken in Elvish. The sound of it buffed at the ragged edges of the hollow in my chest. “I miss him too.” For a while he was silent and I fought to compose myself, although my face was throbbing right out to my ears and I knew I wore tear-tracks like the stripes on a badger.

“You have need of a stitch or two,” he said at length, his throat thrumming against my ear.

“There’s no one to save his life now,” I said. “He’s out all alone.”

“You’ll have a pretty scar if I don’t.”

“The Rangers cannot find him and there’s goblins and wolves.”

“When you are full-grown and the suitors come calling, they’ll think you’ve been to war.”

I grimaced at that. “I shall never marry,” I said. “And I shall go to war, someday.” A thought occurred to me and I twisted to look him full in the face. “You could teach me,” I said. “The sword and the bow.”

“You would have to learn when not to fight, firstly. How to keep a rein on your temper.”

I pushed away from him and slid to the floor. “He deserved a thrashing too, you know,” I said. I was recalling Halvard’s words to me—the chilling chance they might be true—and the memory made me angry enough to punch the table edge.

He caught my fist before it hit. “None of that, now. I’ve enough of you already to patch together.”

“He should not have said those things,” I said with all the fierceness I could muster.

“No,” he agreed solemnly. “He should not have.”

“He called me an orphan.” I was fighting those cursed tears again. “He said that Ada is…” I had to stop and swallow hard or be overcome, and his shirt was damp enough already.

“I heard what he said.”

“That’s when I tripped him,” I muttered. “He needed tripping.”

“And then you called him ill-begotten and his father craven.”

My head ducked before I could stop it.

“His saying it doesn’t make it so, you know,” he said. I did not answer. For a long moment I felt his eyes burn into me, and then he reached and tapped my collarbone with a forefinger. “You should have just kept walking.”

“Yes, my lord,” I said blackly.

He graciously ignored my tone and turned back to the table, pulled a candle close, began to pass a needle through the flame. He cut a length of silk and threaded his needle on the first try. It usually took me four attempts at least, and much licking of the thread, and darning needle-eyes were much larger.

“You will not teach me, will you,” I said. “To fight.”

“Did your ada tell you no?”

My silence was reply enough.

“Then you know my answer.” He lifted me and set me on the table in front of him, my feet swinging. “This is going to sting.”

“What about Grandmother’s paste?”

“It will not take away all of the feeling,” he said, even as he greased the skin above my eye with the pungent balm. He folded a cloth and set it on the table, swung my legs up, lay me back until my head was pillowed before him. Nervous as I was I felt a small delighted thrill—climbing on the table was forbidden in my house. “Shall we begin?”

I nodded, gritting my teeth. I could not speak when he pierced me with the needle but as soon as the first stitch was set and he was tying it I said, “I did not mean to shame him.” He looked at me closely and I amended, “I mean, I may have at the time, but now I wish I had not.”

“Because he broke your nose? Or because I scolded you?”

I thought about it, knew he would be able to tell if I lied. “Both,” I said. “But also because I felt sick after, and not just sick with pain.” I stopped, frustrated I could not explain it better, but I saw the tug at the corner of his mouth and knew he understood.

“Here comes the next,” he said and again I ground my teeth together, fighting to stay still. His fingers were quick and skillful as he tied the second stitch. “I was mistaken, I’m afraid. It has need of a third. But no more than that, I promise.”

I could tolerate a third. I could bear it bravely, especially if my bravery helped repair his esteem for me. I hoped he noticed how I did not even flinch as he set it. When the thread was tied and nipped and the last bloody trickle wiped away he slid a hand beneath my shoulders and helped me to sit. “Slowly, now. Lightheaded? Good. How fares your stomach?” It fared fine and he unstoppered the second bottle and dabbed my eyebrow with yellow salve.

“Are you going to tell my mother?” I asked.

He lofted an eyebrow. “I think when she sees the state of you she may suspect something whether I tell her or not.”

I studied my lap. “I mean…about the things I said. To Halvard.” He did not answer and when I looked up he sat observing me with those bright eyes.

“Your mother has enough to bear without you brawling in the street, you know.”

I felt another wash of shame. It was fast becoming a familiar sensation. “I know,” I whispered. She had grown thin in the last months, and her eyes were dark with worry, her hands restless at their work. She baked and weaved and put up vegetables and tended the animals and nursed my youngest sister and kept us older ones fed and clean, but she was thinning and paling, and I knew she often sat up late beside the light of a single candle. Sat up listening for familiar heavy footsteps at the door. Some days the Chieftain would come with a skein of fowl or a stringer of fish and she would bid him eat with us, although he rarely did. Once he re-thatched the roof over the loft with his own hands, just before the blizzard that had swept in from the north and snowed us in for two weeks. But despite these things, and my sister Iolanthe working like a grown woman to help however she could, my mother was becoming gaunt. She was losing the luster of her long youth.

And I fought our Dúnedain brothers in the streets, spat poison at our neighbors, and brought shame to my father’s house.

I was crying again, silently, but this time he did not offer comfort. He rose and replaced the things he had used, threw the bloody dressings on the fire. He washed the needle and pinned it back in its canvas case.

“I’ll walk with you,” he said. He took up my cloak, handed it to me, and pulled his own over his head. He rarely bothered to unfasten the star-shaped pin at the shoulder.

He opened the door but turned when he saw I was not following. I stood by the table with my cloak in my hands.

“I can’t,” I said. “I cannot go home. She will be so ashamed.”

He sighed. For a moment he gazed out at the dark. Then he crossed to me and stood looming.

“I have good ears,” he said. “I heard what Halvard said about your father.” He cupped my head in both hands and tilted it until I had to look him straight in the eye. “Heed me, Eluned, for I mean what I say. If I happen to overhear such cruel things from your mouth again, I will forget that you are not mine, and it will not be your mother doing the skinning.” His face was stern as ever I had seen it. “Am I understood?”

“Yes, milord.” And this time I meant it.

“Good. Now, with that bit of necessity out of the way—” here he took my cloak and whirled it over my shoulders and tied the lace with flying fingers into something that was more flower than knot. “—I’d have tripped him too.” He gave me a wink and ruffled my hair and I let my cousin bow me gallantly out the door.

-o0o-

I sat in front of Grandmother Ivorwen in the same place I had sat ten days before, and tried not to fidget as she picked free my three stitches with a pair of tiny forceps and a little silver hook.

“By all that is blessed, child, hold still,” she said when I bounced on the tabletop and her hook skidded away towards my ear.

“But Daernaneth, the Rangers are coming!” I said. I did not dare speak my next thought aloud, lest the hope of it shatter like a pane of smoked glass. Even so I held it close and careful, a shimmering captive in the space behind my ribs. Maybe they have word of him.

“And they will come no quicker for your wriggling.” She caught my chin and the hook darted and with a final tickling tug the task was finished. I kneaded the itch away with a knuckle. She sat back and observed me for a moment with narrowed eyes. “You are ten different colors,” she said.

I grinned, feeling still the fleeting soreness of my blackened eyes and broken nose, but did not answer. I sat straight and forced myself still. I wanted desperately to be dismissed.

She shook her head. “Off with you, then,” she said at last, fluttering her hands at me, and I hollered like a heathen and launched from the tabletop and skidded out the door.

It could be hours before the call came and the gates were thrown open, but already the village was bustling with preparation. I knew behind each door was a wife or a mother stoking the fire and rolling out bread and readying herself, brushing hair to gleaming and clasping on what little adornment she kept for such occasions. The next day we would feast on the lawn, sit together at long tables and stoke the bonfire high, and there would be dancing and merriment and the telling of tales beneath the wheeling stars. But the first night was for private reunions. Each man to his own house to hold close his woman and memorize again the scent of his children’s hair.

But also to mourn for empty saddles, and swords carried back to be placed in honor until the orphaned sons could take them up again, and with them the grey cloak and rayed star, and the sinister likelihood of a short and violent service.

I knew there would be no reunion in my house that night. I knew my mother was not pinning up her hair, nor bothering with gown or silver. But I clung viciously to the hope that there would be no weeping, either, and perhaps, perhaps, a rumor or a word to shore us up a little longer.

Halfway across the village on my way to the gate, the grass-etched flagstones of the square passing cold beneath my bare feet, I heard the sound of brisk hoofbeats and looked up to see the Chieftain coming on his bay horse. I stopped and stepped aside to let him past, prepared to give a little curtsy, but to my surprise he drew up.

“Hurry, child!” he said, reaching down a hand. I took it, puzzled, and scrambled a little as he heaved me up behind him. I snatched the cantle as he wheeled the bay and cantered down the lane towards my house on the very edge of the village. His urgency frightened me.

To the left of the house near the stone well stood a pair of horses, and I saw their riders standing close together, tall and black-haired and fleetingly familiar, but I did not look at them more closely, because the door was thrown wide and from within I could hear my mother crying. I swung down on the Chieftain’s arm and darted for the doorway. At the bottom step I slowed, my throat trembling with sudden apprehension. I very nearly whirled and fled.

But then my mother’s teary voice swelled into a ringing laugh, so vibrant with delight it tugged me up the steps and through the door. And I saw him there, standing just inside as if he had made it no further before being waylaid. His coat and breeches were filthy and tattered, hanging like shrouds on that once-brawny body grown impossibly lean. But he must have rallied some strength for this reunion; he was grinning and cradling my mother above the floor where she had leapt into his arms. Her skirt hitched high on legs wrapped hard around his waist and she was laughing and kissing his hair and his nose and his mouth and looked suddenly no older than my sixteen-year-old sister. She was radiant with joy. I almost feared to interrupt.

But he turned then, and eased my mother to her feet, keeping one hand snugged around her hip. The other he held out to me, almost tentatively, as if he wanted to touch my hair but feared I would not let him.

“Hello, Eluned-melui.”

“Hello, Ada,” I whispered, and then my feet flung me at him and he was crushing the air out of me. I could feel his slatted ribs and jutting collarbones and I clung carefully, unused to him so gaunt. I nuzzled my face into his throat and willed strength and warmness into him.

After a moment of holding me tight to his chest he took a pair of steps towards the door, shifting me to his hip. I turned my head, letting it rest still against his neck. He grasped the Chieftain’s shoulder so hard his knuckles whitened.

“Thank you, my lord,” he said, his voice soft and fierce and a little ragged.

Aragorn’s face lit with a rare, unfettered smile. He reached out and gently cuffed my father’s sunken cheek.

Mae tollen na mar, Halbarad.”

 

 

 

 

Melui--sweet

Mae tollen na mar—welcome home

Thank you so much for taking the time to read my little fanfiction debut! I hope you enjoyed it!




[Report This]
You must login (register) to review.