45. Chapter 44
I was warm and peaceful and everything was hazy, and best of all my mother was there. I let myself cry like a baby for the first time in many years when I saw her, and felt all my cares lifted from me. Everything would be well now, I was blissfully happy and drifted off into a deep and restful sleep. If this was death then we were wrong to fear it so.
The next thing I was aware of were voices in the dark, hushed but obviously agitated, a man and a woman speaking in the Hill tongue. "He should have been left where he was, it would have been a mercy and doubtless no more than he deserves. He must be one of the red bears that Ulfred caught outside Deepvale, this one must have got away, not many did by all accounts". The male voice was agitated and angry "We must turn him over to Garrad and let the Thain deal with him. Curse this snowstorm". The woman's voice was warm and soft and had an achingly familiar lilt. "Peace my son" she said calmly. "You are right, but he offers us no harm as he is and bore no weapons when we found him. There is something unusual about him too, he speaks our tongue and well, and cried out to his mother so". The voice of an old man cut in "It is our way to offer succour to those lost in the wild who come to our door and always has been, if they offer us no harm, remember that boy. This one shall remain our guest until he is strong enough to account for himself and his deeds". This clearly concluded the conversation, for the next thing I heard were footsteps coming my way, and then a door handle clunked and the room was filled with light from a lantern which dazzled me for a moment.
I very quickly realised that I was not dead, but laid in a warm cot in a snug room with whitewashed cob walls, a low dark beamed ceiling and a small shuttered window. In the doorway, holding the lantern was a handsome woman of about forty in the traditional country dress of the Hill folk, and though it was easy to mistake such things in poor light and weak wits her resemblance to my mother made me start. She looked upon me with the same dark eyes and spoke kindly when she saw I had awoken. " You have returned to us. That is good. There is a pot of broth on the fire if you would like a little?" I nodded, and croaked a thank you to her in her own tongue. She returned, set the candle down on a small table and sat on a stool by the cot with the wooden bowl of broth and a spoon in her hands. I found I was too weak to sit up and take the bowl myself, so she helped me up a little and began to feed me spoon by spoon. It seemed the most delicious thing I had ever tasted, but she would not let me have much, and afterwards I sank back into the bedding and quickly began to drift back to sleep. Before she left she asked me my name, and told me hers was Haelwen and smiling at me a little sadly, rose to her feet and left with the candle, closing the door quietly behind her.
She returned in the morning with a bowl of gruel, and then helped me in a matter of fact way to get out of bed and use the pot. I apologised for my pathetic weakness, but she laughed and told me she was a mother and a farmer's wife and such things were of no consequence to her. I realised that I had been washed and my head wound cleaned and salved whilst I lay insensible, and I felt at once mortified and deeply grateful to this kind hearted and practical woman who had taken me into her home and saved my life. Afterwards she helped me back into my cot and after a while I fell asleep again. It was mid afternoon when I woke and the grey light that filtered through the shutter in the room was beginning to fade. I could hear activity beyond my door, and the odd burst of discussion between the woman and the old man. Eventually the door opened softly and she looked in on me, saw I was awake, and asked me if I would like something to eat and drink, which I very much did. I felt refreshed, and hungry, and found some of my strength had returned. I sat up, and then carefully got to my feet, clad in a borrowed undershift, and found myself a little unsteady, but able to stand nonetheless, holding onto the bedpost to steady myself. She returned, smiled when she saw me on my feet, and asked me if I would like to come through into the main room and sit by the fire. She picked up a blanket from the cot and put her arm around me to steady me and I leaned on her in turn and we walked slowly through into the main room. She felt soft and strong under me, and the warm salty smell of her close to stirred feelings that I had almost forgotten.
The room was cluttered and comfortable, with a large hearth in which a good fire blazed under an iron pot, and the broth heating in it smelt wonderful. On one wall was a kitchen range, and in the centre of the room stood a big wooden table surrounded by stout wooden chairs. Both of the owners of the other voices I had heard were present. An old man with a white beard and rheumy eyes was sat by the fire, clutching a walking stick in his hands, whilst a young man of my own age was at the table with a clay pot of beer in front of him. He was well built with ruddy cheeks and a short beard and curly hair, which unusually for a Hillman was yellow. A couple of large dogs lay at his feet, and he silenced their growls with a sharp command when I appeared, but continued to stare at me with a look that was equal parts hostile and curious. The woman pulled out another chair from the table and sat me down on the other side of the fire. "There you are" she said "supper will not be long. Take your ease for a moment and warm yourself. This is my father Aelfwine and my son Aelred. Will you share your tale with us?" "Aye" cut in the old man sharply in a voice whose authority belied his frailty. "We have heard many terrible tales of what you and your kind have done in our land and guest or no, as a stranger here you will soon have to stand before our Thain and hear his judgement, so what say you?" The younger man nodded and resumed his staring, and I wondered with a pang how many of his like I had killed on the battlefield. The tables were turned now, and I felt greatly discomfited by my current enfeebled state.
I sat for a moment letting the heat of the fire soak into me whilst the woman set about preparing the table and attending to various small tasks, a sight that put me in mind of my own mother in our kitchen at home when I was young. Then I cleared my throat and began to speak. "My name is Esteldir of Northford. My company was attacked and worsted at Deepvale several days since, and I became separated from the rest of my men and escaped with my life. The road back to High Burgh seemed too perilous, and I had no wish to return there in any case, so I decided to strike out for Northford instead and would have perished in the snow if you had not found me". The old man gave a dry chuckle. " I fear you were on the wrong road for Northford, and not the first to lose their way in these hills. I know the place well, and went there many times in my younger days. How come you to speak our tongue so well? It is unusual for a Westerman to have such good command of it". "I am only half a Westerman" I replied, "my mother was from these parts". I continued quietly "She is dead these nine years, but before I awoke yesterday I saw her again, and there is not a day passes that I do not think of her, or wish to be revenged upon the man who caused her death, and if fate allows I shall be". I noticed a curious look on the woman's face, but it was the old man who spoke again. "It was nine years ago that I was last in Northford, my eldest daughter was never one to have settled down to life in the vales and went there to seek her fortune. She too wed a westerman soldier, and had a child, but she was left a widow soon after, and later perished in a fire. When news reached us of what had happened my poor wife Derwyne urged me to go there and bring back the orphan child, for it was said that he had survived. I learned that he had been taken in at the Keep, but when I enquired there they denied all knowledge of him and sent me away empty handed".
The hairs were stood up on the back of my neck, and I could barely take in the implications of what I had heard for all of this was too much coincidence. The woman must have shared my growing suspicions for she was next to speak, in a voice thick with emotion. "What was your mother's name?" she asked. I got shakily to my feet, tears welling in my eyes for I was certain now. "Her name was Faelneth, and she was as like to you as only a sister could be". She gave a small cry and dropped the clay bowl she had been holding onto the table with a crash, came quickly round the table and took me in a tearful embrace.
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.