Chapter 5 - Of Fell Winters, Chickens and Small Boys
"It’s getting colder outside," Denlad said as he dropped an armload of wood next to the hearth. Mettarë had come and gone without much in the way of merriment, for no one felt like making even small celebration, not with so many men from the settlement gone and facing such peril. He knelt down and grabbed the poker and stirred the coals, then placed three logs atop the ones already burning, carefully arranging them so they wouldn’t smother the flames. His mind still buzzed with the knowledge of all he had learned of Aragorn yesterday, so much so that he had decided today he needed to throw himself into mind-numbing hard work in order to clear his head and regain his footing in life. Chopping wood in frigid conditions worked well toward that end.
Dirhael looked at the growing pile of wood on the hearth with satisfaction. "I’m doubly glad I had you stay with us. Not only will we use less wood with three of us here than if you were to try to keep your place warm by yourself, I don’t have to work at keeping the firewood stocked." He grinned around his pipe and walked over to hold his hands out to the fire.
"You need to quit working the lad so hard," Ivorwen fussed from where she sat at her loom, weaving a blanket. How many blankets had she made on that, Denlad wondered. "Denlad, we greatly appreciate all you have done."
Denlad smiled and ducked his head, concentrating on building the fire.
"I have not asked Denlad to do one single thing. It has all been his own idea," Dirhael protested. He puffed his pipe a few times and blew a smoke ring. "I’ve not seen it this cold this early since the Fell Winter in 2911. I hope we’re not in for another one of those."
"That was far before your time, Denlad," Ivorwen said, "but it was horrid. So much snow to the north that the white wolves came down all the way to the Shire. Everyone had their hands full, fighting off those wolves. I remember taking a bow with me even to go to the woodpile beside the front door."
"Are the white wolves different than the ones Aragorn is hunting now?"
Dirhael nodded. "Aye. They’re bigger. Fiercer. But these, from what Elladan said, are ordinary wolves, if a bit more vicious than usual. Dangerous for all that, but less so than white wolves or the wargs of the East. I’d be worried if that was what Aragorn was chasing."
"I’m worried anyway," Denlad said softly.
Dirhael squeezed his shoulder. "The cold is the greater enemy, I think, and Aragorn knows how to handle himself. They’ll be well, you’ll see. Put your fears to rest. "
Denlad wished he could, but all night last night his dreams had been filled with wolf howls and visions of the men torn limb from limb by vicious beasts. He shook off the memories and stood. "I think I will go chop some more wood for you, and check on my... on my cottage." He really meant check on his chickens. When he lived on his farm, he would bring his chickens inside during cold weather, but he dared not ask Ivorwen for such a favor. She would think him mad for coddling them.
"Don’t you really mean check on your chickens, Denlad?" Ivorwen said, her eyes twinkling.
He blushed and nodded.
"They are probably fine, but your cottage is such a long walk from here. Why don’t you bring them back with you. We can put them in with our chickens. Dirhael built them a very snug coop and there’s room for two more."
"Won’t they fight?"
"They might. We’ll see if we can keep them separate somehow at the first."
"I can put a board across easily enough," Dirhael offered.
"Thank you," Denlad said. He bundled up and hurried out the door before she changed her mind.
It was snowing again, not fluffy flakes but icy stinging pellets that soured the spirit and made the ground, already frozen from yesterday’s sleet and snow, even more treacherous underfoot. He walked with care but by the time he reached his door, he had slipped and fallen twice and his nose was red and running from the cold air. He gladly ducked into his cottage out of the weather. With no fire on the hearth, there was little change in the temperature as he walked in. He glanced around. Everything was as he left it. He decided he might as well pack up his food to take back to Dirhael’s, since it seemed from the looks of the thick clouds to the north that he would be staying with them for quite some time. He pulled a blanket from the bed and piled his food on it and tied it in a bundle. Then he stepped out the back door to check on his chickens.
Red had all her feathers fluffed out as she sat on a pile of straw, and Copper was busy scratching at the ground, picking up the last bits of cracked corn Denlad had thrown out to them the night before. "How are my girls," he called softly as he let himself into the coop. He found the crate he had brought them in from the farm and opened it. "Come here, you beautiful lady," he crooned to Red as he scooped her up. "Time for another adventure, and this time you’ll go somewhere warm and nice where there are all kinds of other lady chickens to gossip with." She made no protest as he settled her in the crate.
Copper, however, seemed to have no interest in joining her companion. Denlad reached for her and she clucked and spread her wings, half hopping and half flying out of reach. He followed her, but she kept running, zigging and zagging and staying just beyond his fingertips. By the time he finally cornered her and picked her up, he was actually warm from the exertion. "You daft bird," he muttered as he cradled her against his chest. "Running me ragged in this cold." He spied an egg in the straw in the corner but he knew it would be frozen so he left it. He slid Copper into the crate beside Red and got pecked on the finger for his troubles. "Ouch! That was very naughty, Copper, and very ungrateful of you," he chided. "Don’t you know I’m trying to help you?"
She glared at him.
He shook his head and picked up the crate. He stopped in the cottage long enough to pile the bundle of food atop it, which elicited a squawk from Copper. He heard her pecking at the bottom of the bundle and hoped his blanket wouldn’t be full of holes by the time he made it back to Dirhael’s.
He set his burden on the porch long enough to shut the door, then started up the hill to Dirhael’s. Snow was piling up in the ruts of the path and several times his feet nearly flew out from under him as he stepped on a slick patch. He slowed, placing his feet with more deliberation but as careful as he was, his left foot slid away from him and he crashed to the ground. The crate hit on its corner with a loud crack. The door to the crate popped open and before he could right the calamity, Copper was out and running for freedom. He slapped the door shut before Red could make good her own escape and slid and shuffled to his feet. "Copper!" he cried. "Come back here!"
She stopped a few feet away from him, near a bush, and nonchalantly started scratching at the ground, oblivious to the snow. Denlad moved slowly and carefully, but at the last possible moment, Copper ran away from him. He hurried after her, falling down three times, but finally he managed to corner her where two crumbling walls met. He grabbed her and held her against his chest. "I should cook you for dinner," he muttered. He made his way back to the crate and, still holding Copper firmly with his left hand, looked over the damage. Red still sat quietly inside, but the end of the crate was broken open more than enough to let the wily Copper escape with no troubles. Denlad sighed. Looked like he would have to carry both chickens the rest of the way. Red he knew would give him no troubles, but he would need both hands for Copper unless he wanted to carry her by her feet, which she absolutely hated.
"Sorry, old girl, but you leave me no choice." He grabbed her legs and gently flipped her upside down. After a few moments of murderous glares and furious wing flapping, she calmed down. Denlad knew that was merely a subterfuge, though. As soon as he put her down, she’d come flying at him with her talons bared. But that was a problem for later. He reached down and scooped up Red, who let him tuck her under his arm without even a cluck of protest. His bundle of food would have to wait for a return trip.
He slogged up the hill, slipping once but not falling, and finally made it to Dirhael’s. He stood by the front door for a moment, wondering how best to knock, but it swung open before he could decide.
"I saw you coming up the hill," Ivorwen said.
"Thank you," Denlad said. "I fell, and the crate broke. That’s why I had to carry them both."
"Did you hurt yourself?"
"No, I’m all right." Copper suddenly pecked his leg. "Ow!"
"Here, let me help you." Ivorwen reached down and plucked Copper from his hand. Copper immediately started to squawk and flap but she didn’t stand a chance in such experienced hands. "Now stop this nonsense," Ivorwen scolded, and to Denlad’s amazement, Copper immediately settled down. Ivorwen ran a loving hand over Copper’s plumage and then headed for the coop around the back of the cottage. She opened the door, and they turned Copper and Red loose on their side of the board that Dirhael had installed, away from the population of Ivorwen's hens scratching feed off the ground. It was just as well Dirhael had added the barrier, for Copper immediately started running back and forth, squawking at the other chickens. Red merely moved to the far corner and started scratching at the hay strewn floor. "There we go. Red’s right at home already, although it looks as though we were wise in keeping Copper out of the flock."
"Copper’s always had a mean streak," Denlad said ruefully.
"Well, some of them just do. But we love them anyway, don’t we?" Ivorwen smiled, patting his arm. "Now let’s hurry along and get inside where it’s warm."
"I can’t. I left the crate and a bundle of food back on the path," Denlad said. He pulled his hood tighter. "I’ll be right back."
"See that you don’t slip and hurt yourself!" she called after him.
He was lucky this time and made it to his things without mishap. As he picked them up, a voice hailed him. He looked up and saw a small boy of perhaps seven watching him. "Hello."
"Hello. What’s that?" The boy pointed to the crate.
"It holds chickens. Only it broke when I fell a little while ago."
"I saw you chasing that chicken. It was funny."
You would, Denlad thought sourly, but he only said, "You best get home, before this turns into a right blizzard."
"Oh, I play in the snow and cold all the time," he said. "What happened to your hair?"
Denlad blinked. "My hair?"
"Yes. What happened to it that made it turn yellow? Where’d all the brown go?"
"It’s always been, er, yellow."
Denlad started walking, hoping the boy would leave. "Because."
"Because why?" the boy asked as he trotted alongside Denlad, keeping up with his long strides with the boundless energy of the young.
"Because my father had blonde hair." It wasn’t a complete lie. For all Denlad knew, his father was blonde.
"Who was your father?"
"No one you know." Unfortunately, no one I know, either...
"Is he as nice as my ada?"
"I don’t know your ada, so I couldn’t say." Denlad wondered if the Dúnedain frowned on picking up annoying children and dumping them in convenient rivers...
"My ada is Halbarad."
Denlad’s heart sank. There’d be no dumping this one anywhere. "I’m sure my ada is not as nice as yours, no."
"My ada is off hunting wolves. He can howl like one, really loud." He threw back his head and let out a long wailing yowl that Denlad thought sounded more like a cat in pain, but he held his tongue. "Just like that! And my ada said he’d bring me back a wolf’s head!" He grinned. He had more gaps than teeth.
"I am certain he will." As long as he does not howl like that...
"My name is Halbaron. I’m seven."
"And I am Denlad. Very nice to meet you."
"How old are you?"
"That’s really old."
And getting older by the minute.... Denlad glanced longingly down the path and was relieved to see that Dirhael’s cottage was but a few steps away.
Halbaron ran ahead and bounded up on the porch and pushed open the door. "Ada Dirhael! It’s me, Halbaron!"
Denlad followed more quietly, and as he took off his coat and shook the snow from it, he watched Dirhael scoop up Halbaron and give him a bear hug. "It’s a good thing you told me or I might have thought you a troll!" He tickled the boy’s ribs and set him down with a smack on his rear end. "Get yourself a cookie. Nana Ivorwen just pulled a batch from the oven."
He gave Dirhael another of his gap-toothed grins and scampered off. Dirhael caught Denlad watching. "My great grandson."
So that would make Halbarad Dirhael's grandson. Denlad wondered if he would ever figure out who was related to who and in what way. "He’s a bright lad."
"He is at that. Never stops asking questions, that one."
Dirhael grinned. "Had a chat with him already, did you?"
"I will only say that he will make a good interrogator someday."
Dirhael threw his back his head and laughed.
Halbaron came back into the room, a cookie in each hand. Dirhael sat in the rocker and pulled the boy onto his lap. "Tell me, young man, what do you think of our new friend here?"
Halbaron took a large bite of cookie as he solemnly regarded Denlad. He chewed and swallowed, then finally said, "He has funny hair, and he’s too old, but I think he’s all right."
"Oh, he is old, yes. Nineteen is very old, after all. But do you ever stop to consider that he might think we have funny hair?" Dirhael asked.
"No. Because we don’t. Our hair is black. Or brown. It’s not funny." He took another bite of cookie, his interest in the topic obviously spent.
"Can’t argue with that logic," Denlad said, smiling despite his annoyance at being discussed as though he were part of the fittings instead of flesh and blood with ears to hear.
Halbaron squirmed off Dirhael’s lap, turning to give him a crumb-flecked kiss on the cheek. "I have to go. Nana will be mad if I’m late."
He trotted over to Ivorwen. "Thank you for the cookies," he said politely, then gave her the same crumbly buss on the cheek. He then headed toward Denlad. Denlad put out his hand to shake, to forestall a cheekful of sticky crumbs, but Halbaron ignored it and gave him a kiss anyway. "I like your hair," he announced, and before Denlad could say anything ran out the door, slamming it shut behind him.
"There we are, then!" Dirhael said. "You and your hair have been approved by Halbaron. You need ask for no greater benediction."
"He is a sweet child," Denlad said.
"All of Halbarad’s children are. They take after their mother."
"He’s joking, dear," Ivorwen said, smiling at the alarm on Denlad’s face. "Don’t look so frightened. Halbarad is fierce, but he is not unkind. You will get along with him quite well."
Dirhael relit his pipe. "And if you don’t, take comfort in knowing Halbarad is skilled at meting out an easy death."
Denlad jumped to his feet. "I... I am going to go milk the cows," he squeaked, and hurried out, shutting the door on Dirhael’s laughter.