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For HarrocatLiz for her birthday, with love.
The Battle of Lifewater Farm
Baerdion offered to accompany the boys from Bree back to within an hour’s walk from the hedge that protected the town, after which he would watch from a distance to see them safely to the gates. He would then follow after the rest of the troop.
Malvegern gave a nod of assent. “We will follow the Road back eastward, and will turn off to the northeast near Lifewater Farm.”
“Leave a sign so that I might know where you left the Road and the specific route you take, and I will most likely catch up with you either sometime tomorrow or the following morning,” Baerdion suggested. “And be careful, as we know that it is oft at the end of a patrol that things tend to get worse, when Rangers are more focused in the idea of returning home than they are on what is going on about them.”
That, of course, was not the type of warning any of the young Men had wished to hear; but as Peredhrion was nodding his head as if this was already an accepted piece of wisdom for him, the others did not groan or argue.
At last they were ahorse and on their way back toward Habaleg’s steading, most of their training patrol finished. When they came upon the lane to a farmstead, Malvegern stopped to examine the wagon tracks leading off of the road. “Come and examine these,” he commanded the young Men. Once they were crowded around, he examined their faces, and at last said, “Let us see how our Elf trained tracker sorts out these wheel tracks.”
Halbarad noted a slight flush to Peredhrion’s face as he came forward and crouched down to one side of the ruts left by wagon wheels, although his expression was neutral as was common with him. “Thank you all for avoiding the tracks so as not to distort them or wipe them away,” he said to all at large, then leaned down further, cocking his head to the side, his eyes rapidly searching out all details and teasing out information. “The wheel tracks were all left by one wagon, which last came out from the farm not quite two weeks past, remembering the weather and looking at the state of the horse dung through which the wheels rolled. The rear wheel on the right is not properly aligned, leaning outward on its axle. The driver sits on the right side of the bench, and used the brake to slow the vehicle as it came down the rise from the farm to the Road. The driver is most likely a heavy Man, considering how more deeply the front wheels sank into the dirt than did the rear ones. The wagon was largely empty when he last came forth, so I doubt he will have taken much to market. He went west, most likely toward Bree, and was perhaps there when the Southerner was tried and condemned. I could not say what errand took him away from his farm for this length of time. He drove a team of two, although the wagon is usually drawn by four horses, indicating he usually has a good deal he carries both to and from the market.
“They keep at least four draught animals and two horses for riding. The horses have been ridden out twice since the wagon left the steading, the last time most likely yesterday. On that occasion it appears that the riders were hunting, considering the greater depth of the hoof prints of the larger animal on its return and the flies on that blood spoor there.” He pointed at a place where a cluster of flies gathered on a dark brownish stain some feet north of the road, before the lane reached the shadow of dusky elms.
Malvegern was smiling.
“They also have at least two, possibly three dogs, one larger hound and the other or others small dogs that yet appear to be adult. The larger dog is male and has been out sniffing along the road within the last hour, and one can see the wet on the stake there with which they indicate the entrance to their lane where it has marked its territory. The smaller dog or dogs accompanied an older child or a small woman down the road toward that wooded area where she most likely was picking berries yesterday. It is difficult to be certain how many of the smaller dogs there are as the tracks circle the woman frequently as she walks, indicating it or they are her special companions. She appears to have overfilled her basket or bowl, for there is a spill there.”
Malvegern’s smile broadened, and Túrin was almost beaming. “I think that you have done very well in teasing out the members of this family,” the young quartermaster said.
Brendor was shaking his head with wonder. “I never dreamed one could see so much by searching the ground!” he murmured. Several others indicated their agreement with Brendor’s sentiment.
“How did you learn all of this?” asked Finwë.
Peredhrion shrugged. “I was taught by the sons of Elrond, and they have been doing this for well over a hundred times my age. They saw to it that I learned to see as much as was there.”
“But where is the one with the wagon?” asked Brendor. “If he went to Bree, one would think that he would have returned by now. After all, we are but two or three days from there on foot. He did not take anything of any weight for sale, you say. So, why did he take a wagon? Why not ride there upon a horse? And why stay away for so long?”
Malvegern nodded. “You are asking the proper questions, Brendor. These are the things we would wish to know if someone were to disappear and we must seek where they went and why. It is why I wonder if we should linger nearby until the one who took the wagon should return—or not. After all, all of those who dwell within Eriador are at least in part under our protection, even if they know it not, much less why we should care about their wellbeing. But, we are the descendants of Númenor, and all who dwell in the lands that once comprised the kingdom of Arnor are our responsibility.”
The young Rangers all exchanged looks, for this was a new thought for many of them.
“We shall camp northeast of here,” he directed. “Not a league to the east is a place where two tracks leave the road on the north side, one heading northeast and the other following the boundaries of the farm more directly northward. We will go northward.”
“How shall we notify Baerdion as to which direction we take?” asked Varadorn.
They soon learned, although most of those who grew up in the Angle were at least somewhat familiar with the method. A number of fist-sized stones lying alongside the Road were piled into a small cairn, and a flattened one that was already marked with what appeared to be an arrow was set atop it, with the point indicating the path they would take.
“We use such cairns frequently to leave temporary directions to those who may come next. This is a place where we often must choose which way we shall go, so you will almost always find loose stones lying here. When Baerdion comes, he will note the direction we take, and then will kick apart the cairn that we not leave signs to lead enemies directly along our chosen path.”
In the end they set up a camp east of the farm, which they learned was the Lifewater Farm Baerdion had spoken of the preceding day. Malvegern began to instruct them: “Once we had great cities here in the north; and farms, hamlets, and villages filled the land of Arnor. I am told that there has always been a farm here for as long as the Men of the West have lived within Eriador. How much longer such a farm may remain here, however, is a matter for conjecture. The farm is far enough away from the mountains that trolls have never come here, save when the Witch-king’s people overran Arnor when Arvedui disappeared into the north, and rarely have even orcs come so far. In the past ten years, since the Battle of Five Armies far east of the Misty Mountains, I fear that people have in many ways become too certain that our enemies are a thing of the past. Always there have been farms and hamlets particularly along the East-West Road, but in the past two years there have begun to be attacks on such places, mostly by foreign Men intent on stealing cattle and swine, grain, tools, and such stores of weapons and treasure as they might find. At its far northern border, Lifewater has a small lake fed by a spring that has never failed to produce good water. The stream that leads from the farm runs westward to the Baranduin, feeding many farmsteads and hamlets along its route. The soil is rich and its pastures have fed healthy herds of cattle and horses. As the marauders have worked their way along the Road we have begun to find more homes and farms burned to the ground and their people slaughtered in their wake, and we fear those who dwell here may be soon targeted.
“Those who have dwelt along the Road have always kept packs of dogs to guard them. Two years ago a new plague of distemper swept along the road, one that this time left dogs dead everywhere it touched. Where those who live on Lifewater Farm once had sixteen great mastiffs that guarded its boundaries, they had merely four dogs left a year ago—two larger dogs and two smaller dogs that bark to warn but serve primarily as companions to the wife and daughter of the farm.
“That the wagon has been gone for at least two weeks as determined by Peredhrion is troubling indeed. Yet two have ridden forth to hunt game south of the Road, which may indicate that their poultry, cattle, and swine may have known murrain or other diseases. And one probably of the womenfolk has walked abroad guarded only by lapdogs to pick berries. They are seeking out other sources of sustenance. Now, this may merely be due to it being a time when berries and game are naturally plentiful, with the farm’s people desiring to enjoy such things whilst they are so readily available and to put by for the coming winter; or it may indicate problems with their herds and crops. The current family that owns and runs the farm is as suspicious of our Rangers as are any who live in the Breelands, and do not welcome visits by us. So, it has become difficult to ascertain just how precarious or certain their safety may be.”
“If they don’t welcome us, then perhaps we should let them fend for themselves,” suggested Orominion.
Both Malvegern and Túrin were shaking their heads, however. “That is not our way,” Malvegern reproved him. “Arvedui was King over all of what constituted Arnor, even the lands that now are known as the Breelands and the Shire. He saw to the well-being of all who dwelt within his lands. And we, as the descendants of his people, keep the faith that he did, whether or not those whom we guard appreciate it, as I said earlier.
“Those of our people who have inherited the gift of foresight, those such as Dírhael and Ivorwen, have known troubling dreams and portents concerning the people surrounding and inhabiting Lifewater Farm. And such warnings have been forwarded to Lord Halbaleg from Lord Elrond’s house as well. The errand rider we sent word by as to our trip to Bree gave me this warning.
“So, here we are, and here we will await the return of Baerdion, keeping an eye out for the approach of any enemies and offering such protection as we might. Our patrol may be approaching its close, but we remain watchful to the end. Is this understood?”
Watches were set, and those of the training patrol settled in for the evening and night. Halbarad was to have the third watch, but when he awoke, Peredhrion, who’d had the first watch, was still walking the circuit of the camp, listening intently.
“Why has Finwë not taken his watch?” Halbarad murmured softly.
Peredhrion was shaking his head. “Something is out there,” he murmured back, his attention still focused on that which was beyond the camp, somewhere to the east of them. “I can see no movement, but I can feel danger drawing nearer, slowly but surely,”
“You are gifted with foresight?” asked Halbarad.
There was but the smallest of nods. “I am told it is frequently known in our family,” he breathed. “After all, Elrond of Imladris is distant kindred to us, and it is said that most descended from the Lady Lúthien are so blest. My naneth has informed me that both of her parents have at least somewhat of the gift.”
Thinking on his father’s parents, all Halbarad could do was to indicate his assurance that this was true. “Although perhaps it is but the slightest of sounds that you hear,” he all but whispered.
Again that least of nods. “Perhaps.” There was a time of quiet, and finally Peredhrion continued, “I knew I would not be able to rest, so I did not bother to call Finwë, wishing to know what it is that I sense. But whatever it is comes close enough to threaten us. Perhaps you should awaken Túrin.”
Halbarad slipped away to the place where Túrin lay somewhat removed from where most of the young Men slept near to one another. In moments the Man joined Peredhrion and Halbarad just outside the bounds of the camp. “Tell me,” he said. He listened to what Peredhrion had to say, and asked, “Which direction? Have you a sense as to how far the danger might be?”
Once he’d heard all of the younger Man’s report, he said, “It is not wise to ignore such feelings, not in the case of those in whom the gifts of the Mariner lie most strongly. Halbarad, you are supposed to have this watch, correct? Remain here, and quietly rouse the others—have them arm themselves. And have all bows ready. You,” he added to Peredhrion, “lead the way. We shall seek out the source of this danger before it creeps closer.”
Halbarad woke Malvegern first, and then the young Rangers as he found them about the camp. Soon all were armed as best they could be on such short warning, and wordlessly Malvegern was directing them to such places of protection as the site provided, with those with bows directed up the slight rise that separated the camp from Lifewater Farm.
It was Orominion who first spotted the movement from north of the farm as a number of forms moved closer to the buildings at the center of the place. “They are circling about the house and outbuildings,” he informed Malvegern. “I believe I saw dark lanterns!”
“Curse them!” the Man spat. He took Orominion, Damrod, Brendor, and Finwë with him, leaving Halbarad in charge of the rest, and set off to intercept the invaders.
And so it remained for some time, with no one certain what was happening with either of the parties who’d left.
Túrin returned first. “We’d got not a quarter of a league when Peredhrion said he could smell orcs. A moment later I could smell them, too. A party of about twenty of the beasts was waiting in a defile for some signal. Peredhrion watches them. Where is Malvegern?”
Halbarad told him, and Túrin, too, cursed the invaders. “So, the warning that Lifewater Farm is in danger is proved true this night? Well, my friends, shall we earn our places among the heroes of the Dúnedain?” He gave directions to Halbarad and Dirigil as to how to find Peredhrion, and was setting the others in the best array he could so as to answer which force ought to be fought first as the two young Men crept away.
Not long after they left the camp, Halbarad and Dirigil saw a flash of light above them. “A flaming arrow!” Dirigil said. “This must be the signal the orcs were awaiting!”
They heard the sound of battle before they came to the edge of the defile in which Túrin had told them they would find the orcs. They turned the opposite direction to where weapons clashed before they looked down, and both gave nearly soundless gasps of dismay as they saw that Peredhrion was facing the whole of the score of orcs alone.
“At least they cannot attack him in force in such a narrow place,” Halbarad realized.
“But we are behind them,” Dirigil noted, and so saying both strung their bows and nocked arrows.
The rest of the orcs did not notice the first three deaths of those behind them, but the fourth was hit in the shoulder and cried out, causing the others to turn to realize they now had enemies on both ends of their line.
“Keep firing on those in the center!” Halbarad directed before dropping his bow and quiver, and with sword in hand he leapt down into the gully to face those orcs who were racing back toward him. Just as the narrowness of the place had kept Peredhrion’s attackers to no more than one or two at a time, Halbarad also was able to keep his fight down to acceptable odds—or as acceptable of odds as fighting orcs ever proved. And with those who could not face either young warrior bunched up in the middle, Dirigil was able to do even more damage to the orcs’ numbers before he finally fired the last arrow from his quiver.
With that the young Man prepared to follow Halbarad’s example, only to hear Peredhrion command, “Stay there! Deny the orcs the high ground!”
Indeed two of the surviving creatures were seeking to climb the side of the defile, although they were hampered by their weapons. Dirigil looked down at them, and suddenly smiled in grim satisfaction as he found a large stone and dropped it deliberately into the face of the one higher up on the slope, then kicked a second one after it.
Then the fight was over. “Twenty-two,” Peredhrion counted. “More than I’d thought at first.”
Dirigil saw to the dispatching of those four still moving, and he and Halbarad then dealt each unmoving figure another wound that would assure none would arouse later to follow them as they returned to the rest of the troop. Halbarad explained the situation back at the farm while he retrieved his bow and quiver, and Peredhrion sighed.
“We will go, then. I suspect that we are needed there,” Peredhrion said. “Come!”
With that they headed northwest, following the narrow way beaten down by the feet of those who’d gone before to enter the farm from the north, loping forward at a pace that ought not to leave them totally winded when they arrived.
They all heard clashing blades, cries of effort, and grunts of pain before they came over one last rise to the site of battle. One outbuilding was ablaze, and by its light they saw the raiders facing the young Rangers. But none of the raiders appeared to be orcs—no, they were Men, Men dressed much like the Southerner who’d been hanged in Bree and, before him, those they’d taken prisoner far closer to the foothills of the Misty Mountains. Dirigil, Peredhrion, and Halbarad arrived behind them, and Halbarad was able to take out two who were attempting to sneak up behind Malvegern before the others became aware of their presence. There were two young Men who had joined the battle against the raiders, one armed with a hunting bow and the other with a hoe he’d been using to good purpose, and the raiders were now definitely outnumbered. Turning, they ran northward, and pursued by half of the young Rangers led by Malvegern they fled the fight. Neither Dirigil nor Peredhrion had the chance to raise their swords against this party.
Seven of the raiders lay where they’d been cut down about the burning outbuilding, and two more further out where Halbarad’s arrows had found them. One raider lay weeping in pain and shock where he’d crashed over a low fence into the herb garden, and eventually they found another huddled in the shadows of a smokehouse, clutching at a gaping wound in his side.
But one of their own was dead, for an arrow had caught Bregorn in the side, and he’d died quickly due to blood loss. “Not an arrow of ours, the Powers be thanked,” Peredhrion said, but all could see that his face was unnaturally pale and his brow taut with the loss.
“Does he think that we would shoot one of our own?” demanded Orominion in a furious whisper of Túrin.
Their quartermaster merely shook his head sadly. “If you think that it does not happen, think again. He may well have seen it before, riding with Elrond’s sons in the patrols from Rivendell. If he’s not seen it, he will have heard of such things. It happens too often, particularly when there are multiple parties involved arriving from different directions, and too often when the battle takes place at night in uncertain light. It could well have happened tonight.”
The two young Men who’d joined them proved to be the sons of the place, and realizing that someone was trying to fire the farm’s buildings but that others were seeking to deter them, they’d come out where they could assist in defending their home, swiftly finding themselves fighting alongside the young Rangers. Berevrion returned from the race after the fleeing foe to report that Malvegern had managed to kill two more and to capture one additional Man, and he asked permission to move their camp onto the farm itself, near to the house so that they could imprison those they’d captured perhaps in a building upon the farm for the day and following night and so they could deal with whatever injuries there might be and learn how it was these foreigners were found upon a farm along the Road. The two young farmers agreed, grateful for the help in staving off the attack on their home and property and willing to do almost anything to show their gratitude.
“Will you allow me the use of a table so that I can help those who are wounded?” Peredhrion asked. “This Man who has the wound on his side especially will need for me to cleanse the wound carefully and to close it. I can do so kneeling down, but it is much easier if I can stand up while I work.”
“We can do better than that!” one of the young farmers insisted. “We will allow you to work within the house.”
So it was that Peredhrion found himself working in the kitchen with lanterns and candles all about him and his patients laid out for him to work upon, there on the work table where usually food was prepared, Nardir standing alongside him to aid him as he might. Bregorn’s body was washed and wrapped in linen given them by the lady wife of the farmer, then laid in a stone building where the residents kept halves of beef or mutton and such game as they took hanging until it was wanted within the house.
Meanwhile the others who’d remained upon the farm moved their gear and horses onto the farm itself, and Túrin set up three tents near the paddocks for the use of the young Rangers and for those Peredhrion would be watching overnight.
Day was well advanced when Peredhrion finished first with their prisoners and then with the last stitches needed by their own party, with Malvegern but recently returned with his prisoner. Finwë had a wound to his left shoulder, and Varadorn had his head bandaged, with dried blood streaked upon his forehead and cheek; otherwise there was no more need for Peredhrion’s services as a healer, for which Halbarad found himself grateful. The prisoner himself had been knocked senseless, but appeared to be fully alert now that he was back on the farm, and he was shouting abuse as he was bound and thrust into a stable box and locked in.
At last all save Brendor and Dirigil, who were on watch, were brought into the great room of the farmhouse to be thanked by their hosts. The farmer’s wife was indeed a small woman, perhaps just five feet tall—if that; her daughter was but a bit taller, a slight girl of perhaps sixteen or seventeen years. There were indeed two smaller dogs, one of whom sat upon the girl’s lap, its ears alert as it watched the strangers crowded into the room, and the other seated upon the floor at the mistress’s feet, growling under its breath at any shuffling of feet. The two greater hounds lounged between the family and their guests, the older one watching benignly, the younger obviously approving of these new acquaintances, rolling over to present its stomach to be scratched by Varadorn, who sported a new, clean bandage about his brow.
Malvegern explained that he and his companions were heading east from Bree toward the mountains and had camped not far east of the farm, awaiting the coming of one of their number who had tarried in the Breelands and was expected to join them today or tonight. “Not long before the dawning we became aware that there were others north of us, a fairly large party whose purpose we could not easily ascertain. Túrin here went northeast with three others to spy upon the strangers, while the rest of us moved to where we could keep watch about your farm. When Orominion spotted strange Men with what appeared to be dark lanterns approaching your outbuildings, we moved in to stop them as we could. With the aid of your sons we sent those who survived fleeing northward, and we believe that your farm is now safe, at least for the foreseeable future.”
“You are Rangers, are you not?” asked the woman.
Malvegern bowed his head respectfully. “Indeed, we are, lady,” he answered her.
She examined the rest of the party. “But these, for the most part, are little more than boys. Certainly they are all of them much of an age with my sons there. Why is there such a party of boys out upon the Road with two Rangers?”
Malvegern gave her a tired smile. “We seek to give the young Men of our people more knowledge of Eriador and those who dwell within it, Mistress. We do not seek to give any who dwell within these lands any trouble, but all of our lives we have had to fight incursions from Men who come from north and south of us as well as of orcs, or goblins, and such trolls as come down from the Ettenmoors. When we see strangers entering a farm we know to be held by honorable people, we will do what we can to protect those whose property and lives are endangered.”
“As you did this night past,” she suggested.
She nodded thoughtfully. “You helped to save our barn and animals,” she commented, “not to mention our home and ourselves. We owe you much.” She sighed. “And to think that for all my life I have thought you Rangers little more than vagabonds and ruffians yourselves.”
His smile became sardonic. “Considering the way we are treated in Bree, you are in good company.”
She nodded, and finally pronounced, “We will welcome you to stay here for as long as is needed for your young Men to be sufficiently healed, those who were wounded, and rested to travel back to your homes. Our hired hands have received word they are to give you anything you might need to provision your party for three days. Why none of them came out to aid you and my sons we will not ask, but I suspect most of them will be finding different masters before the end of the year.” Her voice was stiff with the thought that her own hired help had played the coward so.
Now she turned to Peredhrion. “So, you are trained as a healer?” she asked. “You are young to take the healer’s knife in hand.”
“I am told that my father had such training as well, Mistress,” he answered her. “When I began watching those who raised me offering such aid to others, he who served as a father to me in the absence of my own sought to prepare me to do as much as I could to aid others who are ill or wounded. He held that all of the gifts I had inherited should be fully trained, both those that served to protect others and those that offered ease to those who suffer bodily.”
She smiled. “It is not common that those trained to weapons also know how to ease the wounds those weapons cause.” She rose to her feet, stretching, and the dog who’d sat by her rose, also, its tail straight over its back and its posture more relaxed, if still rather watchful. “Go out to your place in the barnyard, and my hands will bring you food and drink. I do believe you have more than earned it.”
“One thing, Mistress,” Túrin interrupted. “We have noted that your husband has been gone now for a fortnight or so. Is there anything to worry about regarding his tardiness in returning to you?”
Her eyes were wide as she examined him. “You know that? How? Have you been spying upon us so long?” she demanded.
Now it was Peredhrion that answered. “No, none of us was near your farm ere late yesterday, lady. But I noted as we passed the lane into your farm that the great wagon of the place has been gone for at least that long, and that it was not heavily laden.”
She looked on him with wonder. “Indeed it is so,” she admitted. “My husband has been away at Staddle now for that long, but it is not until now that the long absence might be feared. Nay, he went to his kinsman’s home there to fetch home young dogs to add to the number we keep. Always we have had over half a score of hounds to protect the place, until two years past when the distemper hit all of the farms and hamlets along the Road. We were left with these four—the two mastiffs and the two little ones. Not that Allset and Bounder were the fiercest of our dogs to begin with. Allset is now aged, and his teeth are not what they were, while Bounder was not even half grown when the others grew ill. He was the only one of his litter that survived, the only one left of seven pups. I fear that we have spoiled him utterly as a result, and I doubt he would have known what to do last night had he been outside when the raiders came.
“Hobart is son to my husband’s mother’s sister, and both he and his neighbor had pups born this year. Hob’s bitch whelped twelve, we are told, and the neighbor’s bitch had nine. We have been promised half of Hob’s brood and four from the neighbor. Ten new dogs we are to have! And Carf intended to stay two weeks to test the dogs and to choose well which will suit our needs best. This being so, we expect his return any time in the next three days.”
Varadorn grinned. “So, it is no wonder that he took the wagon unloaded and but two of the draft horses!” he exclaimed. “It is no great weight bringing back young dogs!”
She smiled politely. “Indeed. The dogs are related, but not all that closely. We will probably send the bitches elsewhere to breed when it comes time for it that we not allow bad traits to set in hard within our kennel.”
Finwë knelt down and held out his good hand for the little dog by her to sniff, and she bared her teeth and snapped at him. He drew back. “I think she would have done well last night,” he commented, rising to his full height again. “She is more protective than these two together.” He indicated the two mastiffs.
The daughter laughed openly. “Indeed, Malta takes her duties as our personal protector most seriously,” she said. “While Ezra is happiest when he is being held.” She rose also, setting Ezra down upon the floor. “Come, I shall see you out the back and check to see that the promised meal is being prepared. I hope that venison stew will be acceptable.”
“Most acceptable!” declared Malvegern. “Almost anything would be better than what we cook for ourselves!”
And all were laughing as they made their way outside.
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