Chapter Seven - How Long Can a Blizzard Last?
"This blizzard will keep the men south until it clears," Dirhael said. He and Denlad stood by the window near the door, but there was naught to see. The wind scoured the snow against the window in a blinding white cloud. The only way they had managed to care for the animals was to feel their way along a rope stretched between the back door of the cottage and the barn. Without it, no telling where the wind would push them. Neither man had any desire to be lost on the downs, witless and freezing in the howling snow.
Howling. Denlad shivered. The wind sounded too much like wolves. It pried at the eaves and tried to reach icy fingers through the cracks of the door. Ivorwen had pressed folded blankets along the bottom of the door, but standing there, Denlad could feel the draft across his ankles nonetheless. He moved back to the fire and sat by the hearth. For two days now they had listened to the banshee wailing and crying of the wind and the swishing scour of the hard pellets of snow against the windows. It was an unrelenting beast, gnawing and snarling and clawing...
"Denlad," Ivorwen called, startling him. "Could you come lift this for me?"
He hurried over to where she stood by her spinning wheel. "Where would you like it?"
"By the fire, as close as you can get it."
Dirhael scooted his chair back to make room and Denlad carried the large contraption to the hearth. "How’s that?" he asked.
"Perfect. Thank you, Denlad." She sat down and started the wheel.
Denlad eased himself back into the chair. He and Dirhael had sparred for quite some time this afternoon in the barn, where there was space, and he was tired. If it weren’t for Ivorwen’s good cooking awaiting for supper and the fact that he would need to check the animals once more this evening, he would be tempted to call it a day and go to bed now. But instead, he sat quietly in the chair, trying to keep his eyes open and trying to ignore the constant roar of the blizzard. But that and the soft rhythmic whirring of Ivorwen’s spinning wheel soon lulled him into a doze. The sounds of the room faded until all that was left was the howling... the never-ending howling... a dervish of noise that flowed and swirled, dizzying and disorienting. He saw snow, endless vortices of white, coiling and uncoiling and within their amorphous mass shapes sulked and hid and eyes glowed... wolves’ eyes and wolves’ teeth in freezing caverns of ice. He was drawn into their dark maw, the cold digging its teeth into him and pulling him toward the darkness. Shadow shapes loomed and retreated and the voices of dying men cried out in anguish and when he stopped to listen he heard his mother’s death groan, louder even than the howling...
He jerked, coming awake with a startled cry.
"Denlad?" Dirhael said. The spinning wheel slowed to a stop as Ivorwen looked at him with concern.
"It was just a dream... that’s all." He rubbed his eyes. He felt stupid and dull.
"Tell me of this dream," Dirhael said.
"It was nothing. Just a nightmare of howling wolves, brought on by the wind, no doubt. Truly, it was nothing."
"If you’re certain."
"I am." He nodded to Dirhael, then stood and bowed slightly to Ivorwen. He needed to move, to do something to take his mind off worrying. "It is early yet, but I will go check the animals, see that all is settled for the night."
He bundled up and slipped through the door, only opening it wide enough to let himself out. The wind immediately stole his breath, buffeting his body as he grasped the rope that would lead him to the barn. He did not release the door handle until the rope was firmly in his hand, and then he inched along, his head down, chin buried in the fur of his hood, making sure the rope remained taut in his hands. By the time he reached the barn, he was breathless and aching from cold, but the barn was steamy and warm inside. He let himself into the large enclosure in the back of the barn, where the three milk cows stood quietly chewing their cud. Dirhael had made a very nice pen for them, Denlad thought. They had room to stretch their legs but it was warmer than outside, and more importantly, nice and dry, for too much moisture was always a problem for cows kept in a barn. Sometimes it was better to leave them out in the elements, letting them find shelter in trees or even a three-sided roofed shed. But it would be impossible to find them in such a storm had Dirhael left them to their own devices, so Denlad was grateful for the old man’s wisdom. He guided his own cow to the center post and tied her to it, then patted her on the back. She was already looking better than she ever had at their old farm.
"This life agrees with you as much as it does me, doesn’t it, old girl?" he said. He scratched her poll and then placed the milk bucket beneath her udder. He snagged the stool with his foot, then sat down to milk, his cheek pressing against her warm flank.
He listened to the wind as the first stream of warm milk fizzed in the bottom of the pail. How long could a blizzard last, he wondered. He had never experienced a storm like this before, where the winds howled for days and the snow never ceased.
Much as he tried not to, he kept worrying about Aragorn and his men. Where were they? Had they found shelter, or did the storm catch them unaware, freezing them in some lonely stretch of wilderness?
His mind shied violently from such an image, but both his dreams and his waking thoughts were haunted with their cries. Even now, a vision of Aragorn’s face, contorted and frozen, floated out of the dim corners of the barn. "No!" he cried and shut his eyes but the vision persisted and a sob clogged his throat at the thought of the entire world falling into shadow because the king had been lost while on a foolhardy wolf hunt. He scowled down at the milk, fear turning into the hot fire of anger. How could Aragorn be so reckless? So flagrant in his disregard for his own life and the importance of it to every soul in Middle-earth?
The cow mooed softly, turning her head to look at him with a mildly annoyed eye. He realized he was squeezing her too hard. "I’m sorry, old girl. I’m just angry," he said. "Aragorn had no right to go off into this storm like he did. Risking all for the sake of a few travelers who don’t have the sense to carry their own swords as they travel. So what if a few fall to wolves? They would be of little import. They’re certainly not kings. And they won’t even know it is a king that comes to defend them!"
The cow responded with a flick of her tail, catching Denlad in the side of his face.
"Now stop that," Denlad muttered. "I’ve every right to be angry, haven’t I? It’s my future too that he’s messing with, after all."
Denlad started, then spun around to face Dirhael standing just inside the barn door. Denlad had been so lost in his worries and anger that he had not noticed Dirhael slip in. He watched as Dirhael walked over, unable to think of anything to say. He would not apologize. He was too angry for that, and besides, he was right and he knew it, so what reason could there be for apologies?
"Aragorn carries the weight of this world’s doom on his shoulders, and that is a thing the difficulty and danger of which none of us can come close to imagining," Dirhael said, his tone chiding but his eyes kind. "But let me ask you this: would you want a king on the throne who, in his past, never lifted a finger to help others? Who never risked his own life for yours, as insignificant as your life, or mine, is compared to his? Could you respect such a king?"
Denlad thought for a moment, then shook his head.
"Nor could I. Aragorn will be no figurehead when, Valar willing, he ascends that throne. He must live today as he hopes someday to rule. With bravery. Compassion. Wisdom. Those are things that are a part of him, as inseparable from him as your nose is to your face. This is not the first nor even the most dangerous mission he has undertaken." Dirhael pulled a small keg over from the corner and sat down on it. "Carry on with your milking while I tell you a bit about my grandson."
"Your... your grandson? Aragorn is your grandson? Then why are you not..."
Dirhael smiled. "Why am I not chieftain? I am not of the line of kings. I am his grandfather on his mother's side. Gilraen, his mother, is my daughter."
"And what then of Halbarad? He is Aragorn's brother?"
"No. Halbarad is the son of my youngest son. He is Aragorn's cousin."
"Oh, I see." And indeed, he felt glad that some of the pieces of the puzzle that was this Dúnedain community were falling into place. "I am sorry. You were about to speak about Aragorn and I interrupted."
"No need to apologize. I should have explained the family connections instead of leaving you to sort it out on your own." He paused for a moment, then, as Denlad milked, Dirhael told him of Aragorn’s life. Losing his father at the age of two. Living in Rivendell until he was twenty. Coming to the Dúnedain, learning their ways, living amongst them not as chieftain but as just another man until such day as he finally was deemed ready to take on leadership. "A decision he made on his own but also with the wise counsel of the leaders of our settlement. A good king will make his own decisions but he will also rely on the wise counsel of others." He went on. "He fought many battles alongside us, never shirking, never hanging back. His urge to protect his people knows no bounds. He earned our respect and he earned our love. And then he left us, for many long years. He traveled south and east into realms that are only names to the rest of us. He went because he will be king of a vast territory, and those countries will hopefully be his allies. Some will be enemies. He had to know them, to learn the hearts of men and see both the evil and the good therein. And he had to see for himself the evils that beset the land that come not from the hearts of men. He came back to us, weary and careworn, but possessing a wisdom that those same years spent here could never have given him. So you see, in comparison to the road he has already traveled, this wolf hunt, and this blizzard... neither present risks greater than those Aragorn has already overcome. He will return to us, hale and whole."
Denlad nodded, chastened. "I am sorry. I suppose I did not think about all that. I thought only of my own safety and future."
"Naturally enough. Despite my fine words to you, I still occasionally find myself falling into that same trap. We all look first to our own interests, until our better nature kicks us out of our self-pity."
"Is it that? Self-pity?"
"What would you call it?"
Denlad was quiet for a while. "Self preservation, I suppose," he finally said, but then he frowned, speaking as the thoughts formed. "But... when I think only of my own future, and not of anyone else's cares, I start thinking of all those things that could endanger it, and I feel fear... but now, even as I think about the fear, I do see that I am also sad, sad that I might never reach my own goals in life. Marriage, children, bright springs followed by slow summers and finally a peaceful death in my old age. So I see that it is self pity, in its way, isn’t it?"
"You are learning fast, my son. Some men live a lifetime without coming into such wisdom, and here you’ve got it figured out at nineteen. As all men must find their way to such wisdom, Aragorn also has done so. Faith has much to do with it. Faith that there are forces working in this world beyond what we see, and forces other than those that serve evil."
"The Valar you speak of?"
"Aye. And greater even than they, for, great as they are, they serve not themselves only."
Denlad finished stripping the last drops from the teat and carefully pulled the pail away. Dirhael moved a milk can toward him and Denlad poured the milk into it, then replaced the stopper. He tied the next cow off, and Dirhael moved to milk the last one. They worked in companionable silence, and Denlad mulled over all that he had heard. There seemed so much to learn; he felt he had only touched on the very peak of a vast hidden mountain. He wondered if he would ever be counted truly wise. Then he wondered if it really mattered. Perhaps he did not need to be the wisest man to walk Middle-earth. Perhaps he need only do the thing that those forces of good required of all men. To be compassionate. Kind. Brave. Loyal. Wisdom seemed beyond his reach, but surely he could do those things.
"You are quiet," Dirhael said as he poured his milk into the can.
"You have given me much to think on."
"It will keep you warm in this blizzard. Are you finished? I can take the milk in if you will feed the animals and finish cleaning the stalls."
"That would be fine, thank you." Denlad poured in his last pail.
Dirhael made a clucking sound. "Not as much milk in there as yesterday. This cold is affecting them. Best give them a bit more grain when you feed them tonight, I think. Keep them warm. But not too much or we’ll have three cows with aching stomachs. A scoop each of barley, I think, will be plenty."
"Yes, sir." Denlad fastened the lid over the can. He leaned on the can for a moment, looking up at Dirhael. "And thank you for your patience with me."
Dirhael smiled, then hefted the can and let himself out.
Denlad busied himself clearing away the manure and sweeping out the stalls. Despite the chilly air, it was almost cozy, working in the barn with the large, gentle eyes of the cows watching him. He hummed as he forked out new hay into the manger. It took a bit of poking around in dark corners but he found the bag of barley and a scoop and added that as well. The cows immediately crowded around the manger. Denlad leaned on the partition, watching them, enjoying the peaceful quiet....
Denlad spun around and ran to the door and flung it open. A wave of icy air washed over him but the wind had died down at last. The snow still fell, but straight down in silent, gentle drifts. He looked up and let it fall into his face as he looked to the sky. Far away to the north, a few stars shone faintly.
The men would finally be returning!
He smiled, then started running for the house.