17. Day 17: Misjudgment (OCs from Gondor and Rohan)
'I should be grateful,' she always thought, berating herself, but unable to feel honestly grateful. 'So many people have lost everything they have. At least we have some means of surviving.' When she looked at the wreck that the Pelennor had become, she promptly forgot those days of balls and gossip and daydreaming. And that was why she avoided looking that way as much as she could.
She was just taking the last pieces she had worked on out of the bucket when she heard voices coming up the street.
They—yes, there were two at least—were fast approaching, and she could not for the life of her understand what they were saying. 'Oh no… Rohirrim!'
"What will you be doing tonight Aelfhere?" his friend Osmund asked. "You are off-duty, are you not?"
"Aye, but I am not quite free. Wulf's in desperate need of new shoes and, if we are to ride back to Edoras within the week, I need to have them replaced and have time enough to try them on the field."
"Hhmmph. You'll be lucky to find a blacksmith shop open. With this blasted heat, I wager they'll all be closing early. These gondorians are sometimes so soft…"
"Tell me about it!" he said, chuckling to himself. "Looks like I am in luck; there's one just up the road. I shall see you later, Osmund!"
He waved his friend away and went up the rest of the way to the blacksmith's, humming a soft tone to Wulf as he walked. 'Hopefully, if he is calmer we can get this over with and I can join the men for a round or two. Maybe even stop by the market again while I'm leaving. Now that I got Aelfwynn her book, I am beginning to regret that I did not get something for myself.'
So absorbed was he in his thoughts and humming that he walked right past the shop. When he realized his mistake, he was several shops away and had to round on and walk down. By the time he reached it, he could hear no signs of the bellows being worked.
'Bema!' "Hello? Anybody here? I am in desperate need of a blacksmith. I will pay well!" He got his purse out, hoping that the sound of coin would lure the smith out. All gondorians, he had heard, were quite partial to their money. "Hello?"
"Yes, yes, I'm here. If you would please wait a moment, I'm sure that your need cannot possibly be that desperate if you have time to jingle your purse at me—"
"Oh, great," she muttered, "now I get treated to the sight of filthy, uncouth—"
Taking off her apron, she came out of the forge and face to face with a dashingly handsome—
'No, not handsome,' she thought. Surely not handsome. Her ideas of a handsome man did not comprehend what he was, but, Valar, was he attractive! He seemed so carefree and easy, and was not dirty. He did not even smell of horse that she could tell. She had been certain that all rohirrim were dirty and scruffy and they all smelled of horse, but, then again, she was a little far from him. Maybe if she came closer…
"Yes, sir?" she asked, smiling, trying to make amends for the fact that she had just accused him of bribery. "What may I do for you?"
"Oh, yes… is the blacksmith around?"
"Yes. I asked what I may do for you."
"Oh. You are the blacksmith."
She brushed back one of those annoying strands of hair that always got on her face and crossed her hands over her chest. Heaving a sigh, she launched onto the same tirade that she'd regaled all her customers with since her grandfather had left. "Yes, I am temporarily the blacksmith. It's my grandfather's shop, but he is out on business and left me in charge. Now, what may I do for you?"
He smiled. A rogue, dazzling smile that did nothing for her composure. "Peace," he said, lifting his palms as if to forestall any further argument. "I will not fault you for tending to your family business. But, surely, I have yet to see the first gondorian lady blacksmith. Is this common?"
'How dare he?' The thought must have shown on her face, for he started laughing.
"Please, forgive my lack of manners. I am just utterly surprised." He said this in such an engaging way that she could not but smile back at him. "But, that is not the reason I am here. Wulf—that is, my horse is in need of new shoes."
It must have been the heat that made her cheeks glow just so, but she was lovely! So feisty and… and disheveled. And not a speck of makeup on her face. He had heard that all gondorian women would not so much as venture out to the front door without some rouge on; but, then again, not all gondorian women were blacksmiths. When she brushed her hair aside she left a sooty mark on her left cheek and he just… wanted… to wipe it. He deliberately shoved his hands behind his back.
"Wulf—that is, my horse is in need of new shoes."
"Oh…" Her face fell, or was that his imagination? "Allow me to see your horse, if you please," she said, and brushed past him onto the outside of the shop.
"It's a monster!" he heard her cry.
But, when he came outside, she had already regained her composure and was actually assessing his horse in a way that made him think she was not altogether a stranger to the stables.
"I may be able to help you."
"If you are a blacksmith who cannot shoe a horse, you hardly deserve the name," he said, trying to be amusing, but she blushed scarlet at his attempt at a joke. "You really cannot?"
The girl glared at him and went in search of the samples to determine Wulf's size.
"You are absolutely right," she said as she measured. Aelfhere bent to follow her progress and that earned him another glare. "It must be true, then, that all rohirrim shoe their own horses and do not let anyone handle them. Or, are you going to let me do my work?"
He bit back what he had really meant to say and contented himself instead with nodding and retreating. After a few moments, he realized that had been a good idea, since his new position allowed him the better view of his blacksmith. She seemed a couple of years older than his sister, Aelfwynn, for all that she was not much taller. She had had the good sense of speaking a few endearments to Wulf and the animal was rather meek with her, a decided point in her favor. However, she seemed a little awkward about her measuring. Aelfhere found it hard to believe that these gondorians would let their women do such work as blacksmithing. Or that the women would want to do it, for that matter. Much too son, the girl was done and back inside the shop.
"You can come to get them in two days."
"Two days? How can it possibly take that long?"
His eyes on her were too unnerving for her to focus properly. It was at moments like these that she wished she had put more heart into training. Blacksmithing, after all, was the 'family business.' Why had she never taken more of an interest in it?
"You can come to get them in two days," she finally said.
"Two days? How can it possibly take that long?"
'How long do people usually take? I would be straining to get them ready, even then! I cannot possibly do it faster, not by myself.' Asking him to go elsewhere was not an option, no matter that her pride was piqued. A week's work on mending pots and pans was not nearly enough for anything, and they still would need to pay her grandfather's trip back. She had to keep this customer, no matter what.
"I will have them ready by tomorrow then, but no sooner." Realizing by his face that he was not satisfied, she swallowed hard and tried to conjure a sultry voice, "You will not find a blacksmith who will put as much effort into your commission."
He laughed at that. Obviously, her lack of experience in the flirting department was to account for her failure. Dropping the pretense at coquetry, she decided there was nothing else for it but to be quite forthright, "Please. I need—I need this job. I promise you I will work on nothing else until they are done to your satisfaction."
'What does she mean she needs this job? I'd wager I keep going up the street and I will find three or four others that will do it twice as fast; I've wasted enough time already.' But it was too late. Something in the way her voice had humbled stung at his heart. 'If Aelfwynn were in need, I would want somebody to help her.'
"I tell you what. I will just wait here while you work and you can take your time. I'll pay twice as much if I make you too late, but I do need the shoes."
She looked dismayed. 'She would scoff at the prospect of spending so much time with a barbarian, eh? Well… I'm here to stay.' "Since you have no chairs around here, I'll just have to stand; yes, here will do."
The girl heaved a deep sigh and went back to put her apron on and get to work, but not before he heard her mutter, "It's going to be a loooong night."
She was not at the task too long before he realized that she really was not quite as skilled as she should have been. She clearly knew what she was doing, in theory, but her movements were awkward and she did a thing or two differently than the usual way. And why was she using such a small hammer? No wonder she wanted him to come back in two days, it would take her the whole night of hammering to make one shoe if she kept using the wrong tool! He moved closer, ready to tell her so, when a thought suddenly struck him—
"The other hammer is too heavy for you, is it not?"
She let the hammer fall on the anvil and stared at it for a while before removing her gloves.
"You do know something of blacksmithing, then."
"I am no blacksmith, but I know enough. I have helped my Uncle at his forge before."
Silence fell between them then, interrupted only by the crackling of the fire. What was he supposed to think?
"Look. I may be only a barbarian to you, but I am not a simpleton. I should have known that a girl like you could not possibly be able to—"
"What is it to you what size hammer I use, so long as I give you your shoes just as you want them?" she said as she rounded on him. "I am sure I am only a spoiled gondorian to you, but I can do my job! I've shod horses before; it takes me a little longer, but my work is good work!"
"What father would let his girl work a forge? I am missing something and, by Bema, I will not let you trick me."
"Do you think I'm trying to trick you?" she asked, while rubbing strangely at her face with the back of her sleeve. "Do you think I love working this… this… this stupid forge and sweating all day? Do you think I would not rather be gathering flowers on some hill? Well, I would, but I also need to eat!" The last came out as a cry and, embarrassed, she turned around. She was too fast, however, and knocked the hammer down with her movement. To keep it from falling, she reached out with her hand and—
"How can you be so careless?" cried Aelfhere as he knelt beside her. "For all else that you do not know you should know that you will get burned if you touch hot metal."
"If you are going to scold me too, you might as well go away. I think I've rather had enough for one day," she said, crying. The sight of her tears did put a knot in his throat and he reached for some water to bathe her hand. Such a small, delicate hand it was; and it had such cuts and bruises on it.
"You'll have to go to the Healing Houses with this. They will have some ointment to rub on it."
"I have something," she said, rising. He watched her take out a satchel and try to open a flask with her uninjured hand.
"Here. I think you need my help."
'Quite the perfect ending for the perfect day,' thought Branwen as the man rubbed some Witch Hazel ointment on her palm. 'To think I would have enjoyed him being this close under different circumstances…' As it was, her nose was runny from her crying and her hand throbbed with pain. Not to mention that he would surely go away and get his horse shod someplace else. 'I never seem to do anything right, do I? I can yet be the ruin of my grandfather. What are we to do if things keep going this badly? There are no more jewels to trade, and who would want to buy paintings at a time like this?'
He was quite gentle, for all his bluster. She had closed her eyes against the sting of the ointment, but he was done quickly and kept rubbing the back of her hand in the most maddening way.
"You are not used to doing this, are you?" he finally asked. His eyes demanded honesty and, shameful though the truth was, she could not find it in her to invent a lie for him.
"How did you know?" she asked, trying to dispel the awkwardness that had fallen between them, to regain her ground, but unsuccessfully.
"What happened that you find yourself here?" He looked down at her hands, "These are not the hands of a worker; they are the hands of a noble woman. Your speech, too, and the way you hold yourself tell me that you are not used to earning your way around."
"What should you know of it?"
"There are nobles in Rohan too, if you did not know."
And now she had insulted a nobleman. She took a deep breath. "My grandfather owned several of the shops in the city, but with the war everyone had to evacuate and not everybody has come back yet. Most of the shops were destroyed except for two, and we do not have anybody else to work the forges, so I had to step in and help. I am not one of the most noble nobles… just… just a regular noble, and we have already sold everything that could be sold even before the battles. Not that people are buying, anyway. Who would be thinking of buying when you have no home and no food?"
"It must be hard," he said, still rubbing her hand. "I feel awful for provoking you… I did not know."
"Yes, it shows," she said. That made him smile a little.
"But you should have said something from the start, instead of trying to appear all-capable. It is not shameful to have suffered. It is all right to need help."
"It is also hard to find somebody who would help. I must have just been flustered. How often do you meet a man from Rohan who can speak perfect Westron and—"
"And is clean and shaved and does not smell of horse? Yes, I have heard it all before. How often do you meet a gondorian noble who does not wear makeup?"
She just had to laugh at that.
"All right, then," he said, rising. "Since you are 'incapacitated', I think I will just have to see to my own horse."
"Yes, yes. I apologize I wasted so much of your time. There is another blacksmith working two streets up," she said, while pointing in the direction she expected him to go.
"You misunderstood," he said as he rolled up his sleeves and put on gloves. "I told you I have helped my Uncle before. I know what to do."
"I cannot possibly expect you to make your own horseshoes! It would not be right."
He waved her protest away and set to work.
"I do apologize. I should never have—you are obviously a compassionate man and are taking pity on me. I will not be charging you for this, of course."
"I am using your metal. You'll have to charge me."
"I could not possibly."
"Listen; we can spend all night arguing, or you can just tell me your name."
He took his sweet time about making his shoes and they talked and laughed together for a long while after he was done. Not only did he speak perfect Westron, but he could read it, too, she found out, as could his sister. They talked of Rohan and of Gondor, and the differences in their cultures. They talked of the war and the toll it had taken on their families and countries. They talked of sacrifice and guilt and courage and dreams. It was soothing to her heart; she had seen so much sadness since the battles, but talking to someone, finally, had a way of lifting her spirits.
Aelfhere was such a captivating person; when it was time to bid farewell, Branwen could not help but feel sad to see him go.
"Well, lady Branwen," he said as he worked on arranging his saddlebags to leave. "I am indebted to you for the most fascinating afternoon I have spent in Mundburg."
She curtsied, as affectedly as she could manage without falling. "Why, I thank you, lord Aelfhere. I will be sure to put on some makeup and brush my hair next time."
"And I will try to let my beard grow just a bit so I can look the scruffy part. Have we a deal? Well, I think I am quite ready… my sword! I must have left it inside." He disappeared to the interior of the shop and she was left outside, patting Wulf.
"Be careful on the way, won't you Wulf?" she whispered to him.
"Now," he said. She knew she should have not watched as he put his sword-belt on, but how could she not? He was beautiful! When he looked next at her, he was smiling and she could see the most irresistible dimple on his left cheek. "Before I go, I must ask: are there many women blacksmiths in Gondor?"
Branwen rolled her eyes. "But of course! As many as there are shieldmaidens in Rohan!"
Branwen had expected him to laugh, but instead he turned very serious and looked straight into her eyes. "It is not shameful to have lost everything, and it is not dishonor to dream of better times. For all your fancies and daydreaming, you are a brave, worthy soul, lady Branwen. I am glad to have met you."
"As am I."
She stood at the door for a long while after he was gone. When she finally went inside, she found that he had left a small pouch with coins—more than she would have charged him had she actually made the shoes—and a book. Her fingers trailed along the spine: A Naturalist's Account of His Journeys through Gondor.
She smiled to herself. "It's such a good book. He's going to have to come back for it."
When he returned as part of King Theoden's funeral escort a month later, she was expecting him.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.