14. Chapter 13
It was raining hard the next morning and the cold wind blowing down the vale carried more than a hint of the coming autumn. The journey back to Northford was rather uncomfortable, but I felt calm now and was better able to take note of my surroundings and the things we passed. I though it was a beautiful but sad land, stripped of its people and history. I hoped that one day it could return to the way it had once been.
Back home life continued much as it had before, but the house seemed very empty without grandfather, and where grandmother had once been a fierce and spirited presence she now seemed old and diminished by her bereavement and spent much of her time alone in her room. My mother had no choice but to play a much greater part in the running of the household affairs, but she was a practical level headed sort and this came naturally enough to her. There was still a small income from the share in the tannery, but now that there were no flocks or herds in the vales to supply the raw materials business there was slow, and our share was certainly not enough to keep food on the table. The wains on the other hand paid well enough, but the army quartermasters in Lastbridge did not pay their debts promptly and often made deductions for spurious reasons, or so Fodric the Foreman Waggoner was fond of telling us. I did not like him at all. He called frequently to discuss business with my mother, something which had not happened before grandfather died, and I did not like the way he looked at her, or spoke to her for that matter. He was a man of middling years, plump and balding and with a loud voice and a blunt manner to match. In all fairness he had kept the business going pretty much single handed once grandfather ailed, and had done the lion's share of the work organising the cargoes and teams before that too in truth.
He came up to the house one evening, just after we had eaten, and I was sat by the window trying to read a book at my mother's insistence, though it was very dull. He rapped sharply on the door and little Lothra opened it. Without waiting to be admitted, he barged past her and gruffly asked me where my mother was. She appeared with a pile of plates in her hand, and placed them on the table. "Master Fodric" she stated coolly "what can I do for you?". He softened his tone a little "Mistress Faelneth" he said "I hope I find you well". "As well as I was yesterday when you called" she replied. "Angrod and his lads came back up the south road today, and we've not been paid again" he said. "The boys are overdue their wages and their families will go hungry, I need you to sort this out straight away". Mother looked worried at this, as it went without saying that we didn't have the means to cover the team's wages for the month. These workmen were not bonded to our family like the landsmen had been, such traditions did not run in the towns, and if they were not paid they would be within their rights to find work elsewhere, and then we would be in trouble.
In truth our position was far from unique, as the King's exchequer was in a bad way, and the crown was struggling to pay its debts. The loss of the great fiefs north of the Hoarwell, the long struggle with Angmar and the futile attempts to take and keep Amon Sul had beggared the Kingdom, which having made enemies of its neighbours had no trading partners to turn to. The situation was made all the more serious by the newfound truculence of Ulfraer and his reluctance to pay his full dues to Lastbridge. He claimed the right of rebate over the cost of the campaigns he had fought for the King and the continuing costs of maintaining a defence against the orcs of the Misty Mountains. King Elion, now subject to frequent painful headaches since his wounding in the north threatened and cajoled and sent letters but could take no further action.
My mother thought for a moment and then promised to speak to Lord Angon on the morrow. He was a good friend to the family, and would perhaps make good the Crown's debt from his own funds? Fodric was not convinced, but could do no more than concede that it would be worth the attempt given the gravity of the situation. Then there was an awkward silence, and he did not turn to leave as we all expected. He shot me a glance. " Mistress Faelneth" he said, his tone suddenly very different "I pray that I might have a moment's word with you in private?". My mother looked taken aback and shook her head. "No sir, whatever you have to say can be said in front of my boy here". He scowled, but then immediately became ingratiating once again. "Very well then" he said " I have a proposal for you, which is very much in both our interests and that I very much hope you will find of interest too". He went on " I have kept your late father in law's business going by myself for a very long time now with little thanks or acknowledgement, and by rights I could go to the Lord and demand that he consider my request for a due share of the income and rights to be transferred into my name in recognition of this. However I appreciate the difficulty this would cause you and your family, and have an alternative suggestion which would meet all our needs without cause for any loss, quite the opposite". He tried to smile sweetly "Given your condition as a widow, in child, with no man to support or protect you or likely to want to take on your brats, marry me and we shall share the business as man and wife". My mother's face was a picture, and she was momentarily lost for words. She was a fine figure of a woman, with her dark mass of curly hair, and the added bloom of being with child made her all the more beautiful. I saw him look her up and down with hungry eyes, and a red rage rose in me. Before either could say anything further I launched myself across the room at him with a howl of rage and caught him with a head butt full in the gut. Caught by surprise, and winded, he crashed to the floor. I attempted to follow up my initial attack with a rain of blows which would have been a good tactic in a street brawl with someone my own size but he was no slouch and easily hurled me aside once he had gathered himself. "Filthy brat" he roared and rose to his feet, turning once again towards my mother, and attempted a smile, as if to make jest of my reaction. "Never" she replied in a cold voice "not if you were the last man alive". The smile vanished from his face " Lady Faelneth" he sneered, his voice full of sarcasm "you do give yourself airs and graces, but you're just a common trollop from the hills, just like the rest of us. Your little lordling's feeding the worms now, or perhaps making a poor meal for orcs or trolls, and you'd do well not to forget it". I launched myself at him again, but he was ready for me this time and caught me a blow that sent me flying and I crashed over a pile of stools and lay momentarily stunned with a bloodied nose. My poor poor mother, she stood there holding herself straight and true and with her eyes brimming with tears spoke in a voice full of controlled anguish. "Fodric, you are dismissed from our family's service, pray leave and never return". "I don't think so" he sneered "you'll regret this". With that he was about to turn and go, when Branniel, who had been roused by the commotion and by a terrified Lathra, burst into the room and screeched "What is the meaning of this? Out! Out!". With that he spun on his heels and departed into the street, leaving the door agape behind him.
My mother dissolved into a flood of tears and we all went to her aid, grandmother suddenly her old strong reassuring self again. I'd not paid Lathra much attention before, she was a few years older than me and a skinny little thing, but she brought a bowl of warm water and a rag and solicitously tended to my bloody nose and bruises and stroked my hair, and I felt a sudden uprush of feeling towards her. Her face, which had seemed plain and gawky now looked different to me, and I kept wanting to look at it. Grandmother was telling my mother not to worry, that everything would be all right, and that she should go straight to Lord Angon in the morning and tell him what had happened and what the worm Fodric had said. There was no doubt that he would take action against him for his cruel words. Eventually calm was restored and once the chores were done the four of us sat down at the table as was customary before we all retired and shared a cup of warm milk. To my delight Lathra chose to sit down next to me, and her knee accidentally came to rest against mine. We shared a half glance and I sat in a state of rapture. When we were all done and rose from our places my grandmother uncharacteristically gathered me to her and gave hug, calling me her brave little soldier and kissing my brow. My mother, dear mother, then did the same, clasping me for a long moment against her softness, surrounding me with her scents, and whispering a thank you before kissing me too. Ordinarily it would not have been seemly for Lathra and I to hug but the unusual circumstances seemed to allow it and after an awkward pause when our eyes met Lathra stepped forward shyly closed her arms around me. It was disturbing and wonderful, she held me tightly for a moment and I could feel her shoulder blades and I can remember the feel of her spine under my fingers through the cloth of her tunic. Neither of us dared a kiss at that moment given the current company, perhaps that could come later, so we parted and she wished me a sweet good night.
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