Written for June's "No Time" Teitho challenge, where it placed second. Much appreciation to everyone who takes the time to read and vote there every month—you guys keep a great contest up and running!
Bountiful thanks to Cairistiona who looked this over for me before I posted it.
All recognizable elements belong to J.R.R. Tolkien.
The old Ranger watched the girl from behind a screen of whortleberry. Watched as she huddled beneath the lowest stooping limbs of a hemlock on the lakeshore, and tried to coax a spark from her firesteel onto wet fuel. Close to an hour of pleading and threatening and reverent promises to never be wicked again as long as she lived—and at last she landed a spray of sparks into her wreath of tinder and conjured a slender thread of smoke.
The girl flopped onto her belly. Softly—so softly—she breathed open-mouthed. The sparks bloomed into a delicate flame that began sullenly to consume the damp tinder. Face inches from it, bright eyes rapt and unblinking, she poked a trio of twigs into the flare and yelped in triumph when it accepted her offering and began to mature.
A gust of wind. The rain pelted and the hemlock trembled mightily and a sheet of water sloughed from a low bough and blanketed both fledgling campfire and the girl who nurtured it so lovingly. The flame doused. The girl lay still as a log for a moment, dark hair dripping into her eyes. Then she gave a little shriek and leapt to her feet and flung the firesteel out over the lake. A flash as it arched in the dim grey light and then plumed the surface and vanished.
The old man felt a nudge of irritation. He remembered a time when he had youngsters in his charge, remembered their tempers. Had this one served beneath him he would have sent her after the steel, cold springtime deluge or no. She would have neither warmed nor eaten until she had retrieved it. A wrought firesteel was a luxury in the Wild. As was a loss of temper, but a luxury the wise could not afford.
But she was young, he realized, younger than many Dúnedain boys were when they joined their first patrols. The roundness was not quite carven from her face, and her body beneath her sodden clothes was sapling-skinny and uncurved. He recognized the gangle of her, the jut of knees and elbows inside her breeches and sleeves. Thirteen, he thought, perhaps. Certainly no older. But that would make sense…
As he watched, the child concluded her tantrum by striking the trunk of the hemlock with her fist. This required a moment of dancing and clutching the same hand, and another moment of examining it closely for injury, and then she scraped her hood over her wet hair, clutched her cloak at her throat, sank against the trunk and hugged her knees. She set her chin upon them and stared over the water. After a minute or two she was obliged to drag her left sleeve across her running nose.
The old Ranger sighed. His joints were aching and the damp had begun to finger into his collar. He had hoped for the hours since he had come upon her that the girl would abandon her venture and turn east and go home. He would have shadowed her until she was within sight of the walls, and then retreated to his hovel along the lakeshore to the west. He thought of blessed solitude and the hallowed silence he guarded so carefully. Of the time to himself he had earned with long, hard years of sword-service, and the time he did not have for lost and crying children.
Then he gave a little rumble and unfolded his creaking limbs and rose. His left hip caught from crouching still for so long and he had to pause, nearly bent double, until it unkinked itself and allowed him to stand. It took him two coughs and a gravelly expectoration to find his voice, and by then the girl's head had jerked and she was looking wide-eyed into the murky light. She shrank back, her hand splayed against the trunk behind her, and then the old Ranger gave a final cough and called raspily, "Ho the camp! Have you room for another beneath your eave?"
He knew she could see little more than his outline, a dark figure in the gloom, and that the sound of his rough voice alone was not comforting. But he saw her jaw quirk and then harden determinedly, and she narrowed her eyes and pushed to her feet and answered, "I have. But for a friend only. If you are up to mischief then you'll have to go somewhere else."
"No mischief," he said, stepping forward. Her eyes flickered and fell to his shoulder and he saw her own relax. She drove the back of her hand along her nose.
"You are a Ranger," she said, sniffing. "You wear the Star."
"And you have been watching me. Haven't you."
Here she glanced sideways, her head ducking. "For how long?"
"Long enough to see you are no woodsman."
She sniffed again, and toed into the damp earth, and did not answer.
"And just what are you doing out here all alone?" he asked.
Her chin begin to tremble. Her heavy lashes glistened and her dark brows eased together and the old man realized distractedly that the unfamiliar sensation in his stomach was alarm.
"Here now," he said gruffly. "None of that." When he had first approached he had thought he would talk her into returning, and had that failed he might have taken her firmly by the arm and escorted her back. But upon a closer look he saw her body quivering and her cheeks and nose russet with cold. The dark hair clung wetly to her forehead. He sighed again, the exhale a soft little growl in his chest, and resigned himself to company.
"You'll just come along with me, then, before you catch your death of cold." He turned and strode into the dusk. For a moment there came no sound but his own footfalls. Then a scrambling noise and the squelch of swift steps and the waif was alongside him. She sniffed and mopped her nose again and did not meet his eye when he glanced down at her.
It was not a long walk, not far from the path she had tramped along all day, but the rain began to fall harder in the blanketing gloom and the old man knew their tracks would wash away easily in the sloppy spring mud. Every so often his left hand darted out to the side to bruise a leaf or snap a twig. A subtle trail, but trail enough for a keen-eyed follower. That much, at least, he remembered well.
Before long the path began to climb, and then fell away again down a gradual slope spiked with scattered pine and hemlock. At the bottom of the slope the trees thinned. Beside a crescent of pale sand on the shoreside squatted a hut of log and thatch. Perhaps only five paces square, with a single window and low door that faced the lake. From the front step a thread of trail ran to the water's edge, where a long thin vessel lay moored to a stump, moving uneasily on the pockmarked surface of the water.
The old man's pace quickened as they started down the slope. The girl scrambled to keep up and skidded in the mud and caught a fistful of his cloak to steady herself. Just as quickly she released it, as if the wool was white-hot.
"You live here alone?" she asked, traversing more carefully now, her arms held out for balance.
"Alone and content," he answered, and then the ground flattened and in a handful of steps they reached the hut. Against the leeward wall wood was stacked, and beside it leaned a stretching-frame strung with a wooly grey hide. The boiled white skull of the wolf grinned up at them as they passed. From the corner of his eye he saw the girl sidle, as if afraid the thing might leap at her.
When the old man pulled open the door a shimmer of heat escaped, and the child stared hungrily into the dark insides of the hut. She shifted and fisted her hands against the cold, her arms clamped tight to her sides beneath her cloak. He half-expected her to dart under his arm and run for the fire, but she did not. She stood looking at him with eyes laid wide and expectant.
For a long moment he returned the gaze. He realized she was awaiting an invitation and found himself inordinately annoyed. He did not have the time for strange, stiff formalities.
"Fetch a load of firewood," he snapped, because giving her an order somehow made him feel better. "And then you can come inside where it's warm."
For a moment she looked so astonished he nearly laughed. But she swallowed and nodded and disappeared around the corner of the house. The old man shook his head and entered his hut, leaving the door open for her behind him.
In a moment she appeared, balancing a precarious load of logs. He did not have to direct her; she crossed to the fire and began to stoke it, using a spear of kindling to stir up the ashes, and soon the little hovel glowed merrily with firelight. She stayed crouched and edged close, pushing her face into the heat.
The old man passed behind her with the soup-kettle over his arm. He paused for a moment, and then rumbled in his chest and nudged his shin against her skinny hip.
"You'll singe your hair," he said, and she scooted backwards without looking up, as if accustomed to absentminded obedience. He hung the kettle on its hook above the flames and she eyed it for a moment, looking hard at the caking of cold yellow grease on the surface. When she spoke again, she directed her statement at the soup.
"My mother has told me many times I should never go anywhere with strangers."
"Then it is clear you do not listen to your mother."
"You are a Ranger," she said, glancing up at him. "And my father says the Rangers are good men, and true, and if ever I am in need of help I can trust them."
"I am still a stranger," he said.
She straightened from her huddling crouch, sitting on her heels with her knees on the floor and her back as straight as a sword-tang. She observed him so keenly and for such a span of time that he began to feel fidgety. Her eyes were bright as embers in the dim light of the room.
"If you tell me your name, you will be a stranger no longer," she said at last, and raised both brows in polite expectation.
He felt his own crumple together. Hers was a crafty logic and for a moment he was unsure whether to oblige her or scold her for being altogether too young, and altogether too trusting. A moment's contemplation, and then…
"Brûndir," he said.
"We are well met, my lord," the child replied with perfect courtesy, the Sindarin words rolling from her tongue with an old familiar rhythm, and suddenly the old Ranger's head and heart were brimming with recollection. He remembered that lilt from merry banter around a thousand campfires, from commands and warnings shouted above the din of a hundred brutal sword skirmishes. He remembered it exchanged between brothers too swiftly for his ears to comprehend.
"We are not until I have your name as well, youngling," he said in the Common, with more curtness than he intended, for he did not wish to fix upon the memories that lapped sudden and insistent behind his eyes.
Immediately she threw up her guard; he could see her shoulders grow rigid and her jaw harden as if she were clenching her teeth together.
"My name is Cal," she said with supreme carefulness, and looked at him beseechingly, as if begging him not to press her further.
He observed her for a moment with narrowed eyes. Her shivering had subsided into the occasional tremble and her damp hair had begun to dry. It curled against her neck and ears and tumbled defiantly over her forehead, sometimes wisping enough to make her wrinkle her nose. A lightly freckled nose, red with cold and wiping.
"We are well met, lady," he returned at last, the gentleness of his own voice surprising him. Her shoulders slackened with ill-concealed relief. A silent pledge passed in a current between them: as far as her name was further concerned, she did not offer, and he did not ask.
The crust of fat over the soup began to melt, a gamy smell of broth and vegetables leaching from the pot. The girl watched this process raptly, and pulled the corner of her lip between her teeth and worried it. She sidled closer, sniffing, and he almost snapped at her again to stay clear of the fire.
Instead he said, "You did not think to bring rations for your jaunt along the lakeside?"
The girl looked sideways at him, hesitating. "I will hunt truffles, and eat berries from the bushes."
"Truffles," the old Ranger rumbled.
"They are a kind of mushroom…"
"I know what they are," he interrupted. "But do you? For every mushroom that is good to eat, there are five that will kill you." A thought occurred to him and he gave a little snort. "There are no berries in the springtime."
She fished beneath her cloak for the pouch on her belt and from it withdrew a noose of wire. "I would have found something. I have a snare," she said, displaying it. "I will catch coney and squirrel and grouse."
"The only thing you will catch is a chill," said the old man tartly. "I saw you and your snare. You are about as much of a snareman as you are a firemaker."
The child wrinkled her nose. "It is not as easy as I thought," she confessed. "I cannot make the loop stay open. And I have not even seen a squirrel or rabbit."
"They have the good sense to stay out of the rain."
She wrinkled her nose again, and pulled her cloak over her head and spread it out to dry on the floor. "I shall not trouble you for long," she said. "As soon as the rain lets up I will be on my way."
"Spring rains in the North might very well not let up until midsummer."
At this statement she sagged, and collected her knees to her chest and hugged them.
The old man tipped his head. "And won't your father be coming soon to fetch you?"
Her chin sank to her knees. "No," she said softly to the fire.
The old man rose and went to the window alongside the door, the one that faced the lake. The glass of it was gnarled and yellow, thin enough to let in light but too thick to see through clearly. He thumbed loose the catch that held it fast to the window frame and shoved it roofwards. He propped it open with a jagged chunk of kindling and spoke his next words to the damp dusky air.
"Is he a drunkard, then? Or a cripple, that he will not look for his own daughter?"
He turned to see a mighty sigh lift her thin shoulders. "He does not have the time."
"A strange thing to say, of a father."
"It is true of mine. He has many duties." Her nose began to run again; she scrubbed it viciously. "Besides that, I have done a terrible thing." Her voice faded to a whisper. "My family will not be able to forgive me. It is better that I have left."
She offered no more explanation, and the old Ranger sighed and crossed the room and collected his dishes. She scooted to the side to make room for him when he crouched in front of the fire and began to ladle steaming soup. He handed her a hearty bowlful, and a carven spoon, handle-first.
"Thank you," she said. He knew she was sorely tempted to dive in devouring, but she crossed her legs and held the bowl upon them until he had served himself. Only when he took his seat at the tiny table and began to eat did she join him, taking small prim spoonfuls and chewing slowly.
"What is this thing, then, that is so terrible your family has banished you?" the old man asked after few minutes of silence.
"They did not banish me. I ran away so they would not have to."
"A harsh sentence to level on yourself."
"I deserve it," she murmured. "That and worse. If you knew what I had done, you would not be treating me so kindly now."
"That you cannot prove. Not unless you tell me this offense."
Bowl and spoon sank slowly to her lap. Her head fell forward, the dark hair a damp curtain. Softly, so softly he had to strain to hear her, she whispered, "I… I killed my brother."
The old man's spoon was halfway to his mouth; he lowered it and leaned back in his chair and regarded her levelly.
"You did this thing purposefully?"
He could see her chin beginning to quake again, and her hands. She set her bowl on the floor and trapped her fists beneath her thighs. "I was angry," she said.
"I was angry… because he is the only son. And my father spends much time with him, teaching and training." She stopped and took a ragged breath. "I was jealous of him. Of their time together…"
"And for this you killed him?"
"I did not mean to!" she cried. "We quarreled, and there was a vase on a stand and I…" This time she took a pinch of her sleeve with her opposite hand and blew wetly into it and shoved her hands beneath her haunches again. "I hit him with it. I broke it over his head, and he fell and did not move, and his eyes were white…"
"And now he is dead? You must wield a fearsome vase, young one."
"He looked dead," she said slowly, but her face was creased with uncertainty. "He was not moving, and there was blood on the tile…" She released her hands from beneath her and turned them palm-up upon her knees. Across the finger-creases of the right one was a long jagged cut, dark with dried blood.
"Even if he is not dead, I cannot go back," she said, staring at her hand. "I struck him. I hated him. And for that they cannot forgive me…"
"Jealousy is not the same as hate," the old man said. "I do not believe you hate this brother of yours."
"They are together always," she said softly, "he and my father. And my eldest sister will soon be grown, and she is very beautiful and my parents are very proud. And the twins are still babies, and my father is delighted by them. He says they are exhausting, but perfect nonetheless, and rolls around on the floor with them like puppies…"
Here she paused and smiled, staring at the floor.
"And what does he say of you?" the old man asked.
The smile faded. "I do not know," she said. "I am always breaking things, or bumping into people I shouldn't. He probably says I am a nuisance."
"But he has not said it to you?"
"No…" the girl allowed. "But he is very busy. He and my mother both. They have no time or use for clumsy daughters. Or for daughters who lose their tempers and kill their son…"
The old man tapped one finger upon the tabletop. A voice in his head had begun to clamor for him to leave it alone. It strummed old scars and hoped the pain of them would keep him from dredging up memories he had fought and forgotten for years.
But beneath it, soft and serene and persistent, a second voice drew his gaze to the child who huddled in front of his hearth. In her was fear and fire and elegance yet unbloomed, carven cheekbones and curious eyes. His own had been shorter at the same age, he remembered suddenly. Shorter and stockier, more curl to their hair—and the loud voice shrieked at him to banish the memories, slough them away like a sheet of rain fallen on a tremulous spark.
Look at her, the soft voice whispered louder still. She is as beloved as they were. If she were the only thing gained, would it not be enough?
"I once knew a thing or two about daughters," he said at last, slow and carefully. "I had two of them, many years ago." She looked up at last, her eyes wide and curious. The shrieking voice began to rise again; this time he silenced it ruthlessly. "And I may not remember everything, youngster, but I remember this: when I was at home with them, I always had time. Even for the clumsy ones. Even when they lost their tempers."
She seemed to ponder this for a moment. Then her brows sprang together, her face becoming stubborn again. "I would wager you were not as busy as my father is."
"I would not take that wager," he said. "Though I was busy enough, and gone from my family for many months at a time. My duties often kept me away…" Here the old man trailed away into silence. The memories were not lapping now, but bright and sharp and biting. He remembered the call, remembered the dark of that last morning and the skinny arms wrapping him. Hard, final kisses on wiry hair, and not looking back, for he knew they stood watching him ride away with the others, silhouetted against the light of the doorway. Knew and did not trust himself to keep from committing the gravest of desertions: leaving his brothers-in-arms alone to their fool's errand.
But he had not. And then the blurry days of travelling south, of finally finding the one they sought, and then the joy and ache and triumph. The burying and the turning away. And at last the long returning, fewer in number than the thirty-and-three that had left the North in the last bitter days before the first green of spring…
The old man squeezed his eyes shut. For now his memories had turned to cold grey ash and a fire-gutted farmstead, to three cairns of stone on a bare hilltop. To his lonely retreat into the wastes of Evendim, and the long, slow, resolute forgetting. To days spent in bitterness over a duty that had drawn him far from home, far from a family he had failed to guard from the cruelest of fates. To the vow he had sworn to himself that he would have no more to do with the one who had called him away.
Now burst asunder by a skinny slate-eyed runaway for whom he did not have the time.
The old man opened his eyes and laid them resolutely on her.
"Even at my busiest, I thought of them," he said, his voice a rumble in the small room. "I wished that time was kinder, and that I was able to spend less of it on duty and more on being a father. I wish it still, every single day of my life." He leaned forward and met her eye squarely. "I would wager that your father wishes the same."
"As a father myself, I am certain of it."
For a moment her eyes lit with hope. But just as quickly it snuffed, and she sat back and pulled her arms tight over her chest, as if the cold had crept in again. "It does not matter, though," she said. "Because I cannot go back. If I killed him, then they will have to hang me."
"But if you did not, then you will be forgiven."
"They would forgive my older sister, because she never does anything wicked, and it would be a first offense," the girl said thoughtfully. "And they would forgive the twins, because they are too sweet to stay angry with." She gave a sigh that was more of a huff. "But I am skinny and clumsy and not beautiful and I always say the wrong thing."
"You are feeling sorry for yourself," the old man said frostily, because he preferred her vexation to the slump of defeat. He was rewarded when she began to puff with indignation, like a toad.
"I am not!"
"You may have bashed your brother with a vase, but I do not think that is the only reason you have run away from home."
"It is the reason," she said fiercely. "I could not stay!"
"I think you have run away hoping your ada would come after you."
Her eyes stretched very wide. Her mouth opened but made no sound, and then closed with a snap. She scowled and picked up her soup bowl and began sulkily to eat again. The old Ranger smothered a chuckle of satisfaction.
"He will not come after me," she said after a minute of supping far less politely than she had before. She smeared the back of her hand across her mouth. "He does not have time to wander the Wild after a murderer. There are constables who do that."
The old man snorted. "If you are a murderer, then I am a dwarf," he said gruffly, and pushed back his chair and rose and crossed to the entrance. He raised the bar and shoved the door open.
"You have little more sense than she does, sitting out here in the rain," he said to the dark. "And I am growing weary of arguing with her. She is as stubborn as you are. Stop listening at windows and come in and warm yourself, before the soup simmers away to nothing."
From outside there came a low laugh. As he stepped back to admit the newcomer, the old man heard a clatter and turned to see the girl had dropped her bowl, spattering soup, and was scrambling to her feet. Her eyes were enormous, her face very pale.
The doorway darkened with the silhouette of a man, a man with spanning shoulders who dipped beneath the lintel and straightened and pushed back his dripping hood.
The girl stared for a moment. Her lower lip trembled. Then her eyes fell shut and her head ducked forward and she all but cast herself to her knees.
The King released his breath in a rush and crossed the hovel floor in two long strides and knelt and gathered the skinny, sniffling child to him. She began to cry in earnest, her hand fisting in the front of his battered jerkin, and he palmed her head to his collarbones and set his lips against her hair and looked up at the old Ranger with something close to pleading in his bright, familiar eyes.
The old man snorted and shook his head and went outside to make sure his boat had not tugged loose and drifted away on the lake.