Chapter 1 - On the Outside Looking In
Near Deadman’s Dike, T.A. 2990z88;
Denlad huddled alone in the doorway of the small cottage, watching as women and not a few children hurried back and forth, arms laden with wood that they dumped in a huge pile in the center of the small village. They were singing and laughing as they went, songs of a good harvest and a good spring to come, and bantering and teasing as one or another dropped a piece of wood or tripped over a skirt or ran into someone else in the chaotic glee of the day. The men took the wood from the little ones with indulgent smiles, and then placed it with great deliberation, arranging it with a care that surprised Denlad, but then he supposed that building up a bonfire that would burn brightly and evenly for many hours of Mettarë celebration was a thing that took much skill. But the men seemed to look as though they approached the task as something almost sacred.
He wondered if he should help the men as they arranged the logs. He didn’t know much about building bonfires. He and his mother had never had need of one, and there was a sort of aura about the men’s actions that seemed to point to something deeper than just piling up wood. The women and children seemed to be moving in a dance to music that only they could hear. Skip along, run along, pick up the logs and hand them up. Turn and dash and do it again. Were he to step forward to join them would be to break the song, ruin the dance. So he simply watched from the shadows of his covered doorway, wishing... wondering what it must be like to be a part of things...
He tucked his hands deep into the pockets of his coat, hunching his shoulders against the cold wind that whistled around the corner and plucked at the fur edging around his collar. Despite the chill, Denlad was warm, warmer than he ever remembered being. It was a fine coat, this. Sheepskin with a hood lined with beaver fur and trimmed with the softest rabbit fur. Aragorn had given it to him, and a finer gift he had never received in his nineteen years of living, unless it be this little cottage at the edge of this village so filled with happy folk.
Denlad had lived here for nearly a week, and he barely knew any of their names.
He watched the men. He spotted one he recognized–the fierce warrior, Halbarad, who rode always at Aragorn’s side, now working on the very top of the pile of wood. He was broad in the shoulder and had a wild mane of black hair that the wind whipped back and forth, in and out of his face. Even from where Denlad stood, he could see the deep-set fiery eyes, the high brow. He was a leader of sorts, this man, and seemed to have no end of confidence. He did not have quite the lordly bearing of Aragorn, but somehow Denlad felt more at ease around the Chieftain than he did Halbarad. Halbarad’s intense demeanor made Denlad feel too small, too clumsy, too young. He feared that those intense eyes would measure him and always find him wanting.
He tore his eyes from Halbarad and all the unease the man stirred in him and looked instead for the other man he had met: Dirhael. A kind man, in his elder years though his back was still straight and strong and his eyes alight with merriment. He had an even kinder wife named Ivorwen, a generous soul who seemed bent on feeding him more food than he could ever eat in a lifetime. Denlad had felt immediately felt drawn to them both; it was impossible not to like them.
He looked about carefully, but Dirhael was nowhere in sight. Likely staying in his warm cottage and letting the younger folk do the hard work. Wise of him, Denlad thought. In fact, it seemed Dirhael’s hoary head was packed with more wisdom than anyone could ever know. Denlad guessed that he was a sort of elder of the village, a man to whom it seemed even Aragorn deferred, though Aragorn was the Chieftain over all of them. It confused Denlad, a little. It seemed to him that a Chieftain need submit to no man, but then he supposed he had little knowledge on which to base that. If the Dúnedain Chieftain showed respect to the elder men of the village, then Denlad would as well. It would be no chore, he thought, showing deference to such a Dúnadan as Dirhael.
"Dúnadan," he said carefully, still getting used to a term he had never heard as a lad growing up, although Aragorn told him that his mother had been of that line.
Why had she never told him?
He sighed as sorrow stabbed at him. His mother... he still could not really bring himself to believe she was dead. But she was, her troubled life ended from some wasting disease and long fever that took her from him by agonizing inches over the summer and fall. Now her bones lay beneath an ancient pine tree on a farm far to the east, beyond the Weather Hills, a place that had been Denlad’s world from the age of seven until a week ago, when at nineteen he had buried his mother. He had sat long by the pitiful earthen mound, immersed in a tempest of grief, and into that storm Aragorn and Halbarad had ridden and found him. Aragorn was no stranger: his yearly visits to their farm, to check on his mother Denlad always supposed, were one of the few high points of Denlad’s life. Each year, grey eyes smiled and a deep voice called out to him, "How is my mighty warrior?" And each year, Denlad had run bashfully away, too afraid to speak.
But this time Denlad did not run. He was too exhausted, and to ashamed at being caught in his weeping. Aragorn had knelt beside the grave, tears in his eyes, and bid Denlad come, if the mighty warrior was ready, and Denlad realized he was, that he had to be, for there was nothing left for him there.
And so he had packed his few belongings, including two chickens in a crate and a gaunt, doe-eyed cow that still gave good milk. The chickens they strapped onto Halbarad’s mount, and the cow they tied by the lead to Halbarad’s saddle. Denlad had stuffed the rest of his meager belongings–some clothes, a teapot, a few dishes and his one prized possession: a battered and torn book–into a sack they hung from Aragorn’s saddle. Denlad climbed behind Aragorn on a great brown horse already turning shaggy for winter, and they had ridden back to this settlement, a journey of two days.
And now this was his world.
He swallowed the lump in his throat, then retreated into his cottage and shut the door.
"Make it your own," Aragorn had said, his eyes kind as he ushered Denlad into the tiny house in this settlement near what had once been called Fornost. Dirhael had offered a cot in his home, but Denlad had insisted he need not live with Dirhael and Ivorwen. Their place was not much bigger than this, and Ivorwen had nearly every corner of it filled with loom and spinning wheel and yarns. Dirhael barely had room for a chair in a corner by the fireplace. There was little room for another.
And besides, Denlad was adamant that he would be a burden to no one. Indeed, he had given the cow into Ivorwen’s keeping against the gift of the cottage, although he kept his chickens for himself, since they were nearly pets. So Aragorn had again smiled, in understanding and approval, and together they had cleared out the dust and cobwebs of this cottage. It had all of one room. There was a fireplace, and a bed, which had, thanks to Ivorwen, a feather pillow and straw-filled mattress and soft warm blankets. There was a table and a chair, and shelves for his dishes and larder, which at the moment consisted of two plates, two mugs, his mother’s iron soup pot and teapot, a small box of tea and a bowl of apples. A pitcher and bowl stood on a stand, with a small cupboard below it to store his chamber pot during the day. There was a flagstone floor and stone walls, the crumbling mortar of which Denlad had already started to repair. In the back was a small covered porch and a coop where the chickens now resided. Down a short slope a little spring-fed stream gurgled over rocks on its way further south. Up at the top of the hill was the spring proper, with a springhouse built over it, but it was behind Dirhael’s house and Denlad did not figure on using it. He did plan to plant a garden in the back next year, close to that little stream so he could water the plants easily. Downstream a little ways beyond the stream, so it would not foul the water, was his privy.
So, cot, coop, stream and privy... this then was his home. And this village, with its strangers and their grey eyes and dark hair like his mother’s but so very different from his own blue eyes and blonde hair. They looked at him, measuring him, kind but reserved. Friendly but cautious. Accepting him because Aragorn accepted him.
But he felt their doubt, their unease in suddenly finding a fatherless stranger in their midst, and the pain of it was keen.
He walked to the fireplace and put another log on the grate, then filled his tea pot from the pitcher and hung it on the hook to boil. The fire crackled and popped and grew warm enough for him to shed his coat. He hung it carefully on a peg he had fashioned out of a cedar branch and pounded into the space between two stones. Beside it was another peg, for hanging whatever else he might see fit. A cloak, perhaps, like many of the men wore. A cloak with a pin shaped like a many-rayed star. Maybe someday he might have one of those, although he knew not how. They seemed to be something earned or conferred upon the men, probably by birthright. He touched the peg, then gripped it tightly and yanked it out.
He had no birthright. These people with their questioning eyes need not drive it home, for he already knew who he was: the bastard child of a woman with no honor. Not even Lord Aragorn’s kindness would ever change that.
His eyes stung. He bowed his head and shut his eyes tightly, but there was no escaping. He did not belong. He slumped to the floor and drew his knees to his chest and hugged them tightly, burying his face against them.
He did not belong, and never would.
A knock on the door jolted him out of his sorrow. He swiped at his cheeks and dug the heels of his hands against his eyes as he scrambled to his feet. He opened the door, and there stood Aragorn, his face grave but his grey eyes shining with that kindness that had drawn Denlad like a moth to a flame from the first time he had seen Aragorn when he was all of nine years old.
"My lord," he bowed, ducking his head as he stepped back. "Please, come in."
"Thank you," Aragorn said softly as he entered. "But please, Denlad. Do not be so formal. Call me Aragorn."
"Yes, my–I mean, Aragorn."
Aragorn’s arms were filled with a large basket in which rested an oddly-shaped bundle. He set the basket with a thump on the table. He did not open it but instead looked around the small room. "I see you’ve been hard at work at the mortar. I’m sorry about that. All the cottages here are crumbling around our ears. It is an ancient place, on the outskirts of a city that was once great but was destroyed by evil. Thus it is that no one comes near this place, which makes it all the better for keeping our settlement hidden from those we do not count as friends. But the other side of that opportune coin is that the buildings have largely fallen into ruin."
"I don’t mind. The roof is sound, and the windows tight."
Aragorn smiled. "You speak wisely. I’ve often thought that there is no greater blessing in the winter than a good fire under a tight roof."
Denlad nodded, and in the quiet moment that fell, tried frantically to think of something else to say. He was saved by the sight of steam rising from the teapot. "Would you like some tea? I-I was just getting ready to make some."
"That would be most welcome on this cold day, thank you." Aragorn pulled the chair away from the table and sat down to watch as Denlad hurried to gather mugs and tea. He poured carefully. "I’m afraid I have no sugar or milk."
"I like it plain," Aragorn smiled. "But if you need milk, do not hesitate to speak with Ivorwen. Now that you’ve given her your cow, she has three milk cows and more milk than she can use."
"I will," Denlad promised, though he planned on doing nothing of the sort. He picked up his mug and perched on the edge of his cot, since Aragorn sat in the only chair. He would have to set about fashioning himself another... he could make it out of downed branches from the woods beyond the stream. He was good at that, making furniture from saplings and small branches. Maybe he might somehow earn his keep that way, if people needed such furnishings...
"How are the chickens?" Aragorn asked, interrupting his wandering thoughts.
"I think they like their coop. Now that they’ve settled in, I found two eggs out there this morning."
Aragorn smiled again. "I’m glad. What are their names?"
Denlad felt his cheeks color. "I just call the one Red and the other Copper."
"Apt names. You know, my mother loved chickens. When I still lived with her in Rivendell, she enjoyed keeping a few. So when I was a bit older than you, living on my own for the first time with my people, I had three chickens I kept in a coop much like yours. It gave me a connection to something comforting and familiar. You’d be surprised how well they kept my homesickness at bay. Many of the chickens you see around this settlement... the white ones, anyway... came from those original three, in fact. My grandmother thought I was daft, for no Chieftain she could recall ever kept his own chickens." His smile widened. "She kept trying to get me to let one of the women take care of them, but I refused. When I was here, which was little enough in those days, I took care of my birds. It was silly, probably, but I enjoyed taking care of them. They demanded so little."
"I like feeding mine. Watching them eat."
"It is relaxing," Aragorn agreed. "And when most days are spent fighting orcs or trolls or even settling tedious disputes between neighbors over who should repair the wall between them, it’s nice to step out your back door and think about nothing more dangerous than swinging your arm around spreading their feed. Halbarad thinks I’m insane."
Denlad didn’t know exactly what to say to that, for he certainly held no such thoughts of Aragorn. But he did not want to disagree with Halbarad or seem to think ill of him, so he merely smiled and took another sip of tea. They sat quietly, drinking the good strong tea, and Denlad grew more and more nervous, wondering why Aragorn ever took an interest in his mother and in him, wondering why Aragorn was here now, wondering if he really cared that much about chickens, wondering what was in the bundle, wondering... well, wondering if there would ever be a day when he did not go around wondering what to make of everything and worrying over making some mistake of protocol because he didn’t know any better.
"Have you slept well, Denlad?" Aragorn suddenly asked. "Are you staying warm enough at night? Nights have been so cold of late–it seems we might be in for a truly wretched cold snap, from the feel of the wind."
"Yes, very well. I’m sleeping very well. And warm, yes. I’m plenty warm," Denlad stammered then realized he was babbling, so he took a sip of tea that was too hot and nearly choked.
Aragorn seemed not to notice Denlad’s nervousness, or if he did was kind enough not to make issue of it. Instead, he quietly reached over and tugged the basket closer to him and untied the knot on the bundle within. "Ivorwen sent these over for you." The blanket fell away and revealed a ham, a loaf of bread, three snowy white leeks tied together with string, five potatoes, a small head of cabbage, a smaller bundle wrapped in white linen and two dark brown crockery jars stopped with wide circles of cork, one large and one small. "The small one has butter; the large, soup. There’s sticky buns in the white bundle. She thinks you too thin. She thinks everyone too thin," he added with a smile. "Do you know how to cook the leeks and potatoes?"
"Yes... I used to fix them for my mother and me," Denlad said as he set down his mug and hurried to the table, unable to believe such bounty was all for him. He had eaten meals at their home when he first arrived, but had always made sure not to eat too much lest they think him a glutton. That she would have sent over so much... he shook his head. "I will have to thank her. She has been so generous to me. This is too great a gift."
Aragorn cocked his head, his gaze a little quizzical. "It is not so great, really. We share what we have, so that none might want."
Denlad nodded without speaking. Such generosity was foreign to his experience. He was more used to being run out of villages, chased by bullies, shied at with stones and jeered at as the son of a whore, the blonde-haired bastard. He shook off the dark memories with effort. Those places, those people... they could not have been Dúnedain, he was certain, for he could not imagine these people being so cruel. He ran a finger along the rim of the smaller of the two crocks, then picked it up and carefully opened it. A ball of butter, its pale yellow seeming to glow, lay within. He carefully closed the crock and then opened the other and breathed in the aroma of vegetable soup, still warm from Ivorwen’s cooking fire. "It is early yet, but would you like some?"
"No, Denlad. I am still very full from breakfast. Save that for your dinner, for Ivorwen was right–you are too thin. I deem you did not eat very well this past summer, from the looks of your gums. Am I right?"
Denlad nodded. "I was too busy caring for my mother... I didn’t get the crops in, nor the garden. Usually we have tomatoes, carrots, all those things. I had some potatoes and turnips and an apple or two left from the fall before, and whatever I could hunt, but I gave most of it to my mother, hoping..." His voice trailed away. He did not want to think about her. Nor about the nights he had lain in bed, terrified that his mother would die and then he too would die a slow death of starvation for not having been able to properly prepare for winter. That such a fate nearly came to pass but for Aragorn’s kindness still woke him shuddering in the night.
"Fear not. We’ll get you back to full health. And in the meantime, come out and join us. We are readying for tonight’s Mettarë celebration and you won’t want to miss that."
"I... I don’t know what to do."
"Just watch. Listen. Enjoy. Soak it all in so that in the cold miseries of bleak winter your heart will be warmed by the memory of song and feasting around the fire." Aragorn rose, gave Denlad’s arm a squeeze, then walked to the door. Before letting himself out, he turned. "I know it feels lonely and awkward right now, but this shall pass. You belong with us, with your people." He gave Denlad a smile, then left.