A/N: Warning to Sensitive Readers: this fic contains graphic depictions of medical procedures. If you find this disturbing, you probably shouldn't read this story.


Chapter One

The house on the hill was made of squared logs chinked with clay. Inside, upon a wooden table, was a leather quiver half full of arrows with two dozen more spread out around it. A woman sat on one of the four chairs, carefully inspecting each arrow before running a piece of raw wool over it. The lanolin in the wool would keep the broadhead from rusting and the wood from rotting. Satisfied, she placed the barbed head on the table and selected another. This one was pitted with age and the tip was bent. With a small iron file the woman slowly straightened the point then sharpened it. The soft rasp of the file sounded loud in the little house.

Before the small fire in the hearth, over which a kettle hung, a young maid-child was playing with a rag doll in a brown dress. Beside her a boy several years her elder sat on a braided rug with a drop spindle, spinning wool into yarn. Beneath the table a dark haired boy, younger than his siblings, toddled after a soft leather woman brushed a strand of her honey colored hair back behind her ears and reached for another arrow. This one's fletching was damaged. She put it aside. She would have to replace it later with goose feathers, sinew and hide glue. The boy beneath her feet shrieked as his ball rolled under her soft green kirtle.

"Mama ball!" he said.

"You want your ball?" she asked, amusement coloring her voice.

"Want ball!" the boy cried and attempted to crawl under her skirts to reach it.

"No, Will," the woman said, picking up the child and placing him on her lap, where he squirmed discontentedly. "Use your words, sweetling."

"Want ball." The boy repeated, his lower lip pouting.

"Say, please."

"Pwease."

"Good boy," she praised and, setting the child on his feet, handed him his ball.

She chewed her lip as she returned to her work. She had more than enough arrows. She had been hunting with a bow since the age of ten and was quite accurate up to a hundred paces, though not very swift. But whenever her William went to Bree for the supplies that they could not make for themselves or buy in Archet, she could not help feeling worried.

For she and her family lived on a small twelve acre farm just outside the northern edge of the Chetwood and half a league west of the Migewater marshes. The soil was good and showed signs of having been cultivated in ages past, though no one in Archet, where she and William had grown up, had ever heard of anyone living here.

They had dwelt here for six years now and each year's harvest was better than the last. Wild game was plentiful and their proximity to the marshes meant that they got to eat meat almost every day, for that land was rich in fish, crayfish and fowl of all sorts. Even their well water was softer and more suitable for clothes washing than any back home had been. Despite this, they were a league and a half from Archet and the nearest settlements of Men or Hobbits, too far for help to come should they ever truly need it. No one else in the Breelands dared to farm in such a dangerous country.

But her William had wanted to farm land with good soil that did not take years of backbreaking work of clearing trees and their stumps. He had spent the year before their marriage building their house and barn on the small hill. He had planted a thick, thorny hedge in a circle around the hill save a space for the gate, just large enough to let in a wagon, which was made of stout oak girded with iron bands. He also dug a dike in front of the hedge and sunk sharpened stakes into it. Yet, every winter she and William had to shoot wolves from the roof of their barn.

Sighing she looked out of the window by the door. The sun would set soon. The days were growing shorter and the first frost of the year would come in a few weeks. Normally William would not leave her and the children alone at this time of year, when the cold caused the wolves to forget last year's lesson, but the plow had hit a rock in the east field.

The plowshare had cracked away from the moldboard and it needed to be repaired quickly or they would not be able to sow the winter wheat in time. Though the years had been prosperous, William had debts to pay to his lenders who helped him establish the farm and they could not afford a new plow. It would have to be repaired, a task that would likely take weeks in Archet. But Bree had a blacksmith whom was known to be good at redressing the hardened plowshare blade into the integral moldboard and could probably repair it in a few days.

Returning the sound arrows to the quiver, the woman stood and hung it from a peg next to the door above her bow. Briefly she ran her hand along the smooth wood and checked the tension on the string. One should not keep their bow strung when it was not in use, for it would ruin the string and eventually the bow, but with William gone she feared the cost of time it would take to string should she have need of it.

The bow was a beautiful yellow, nearly as tall as she was, with a five stone draw weight. It was well polished from use and tallow and the yew stave was tipped with horn nocks on both ends. It had been a wedding gift from her grandfather, who was the Breeland's bowyer, though only folk who dwelt in or near the Chetwood had much use for such things.

Shaking herself slightly, she went to the fire and set a stick alight so she might light the candles on the table. It would be too dark to see soon. She returned to the hearth and peered in to the kettle. A thick soup of barley and potatoes in a stock made from the bones of yesterday's fish was stewing slowly. Taking a horn ladle from where it hung on the wall next to the hearth, she stirred the soup and, after blowing on a small amount, tasted it. Humming to herself she added a pinch of salt and a small handful of dried herbs from a basket by the hearth.

"Is supper ready yet, mama?" the girl asked. She had inherited her mother's hazel eyes and her father's chestnut hair.

"Soon, sweetling. Tom, will you keep an eye on your brother while I go shut the chickens in? "

The older boy nodded and walked over to the table where little Will was still preoccupied with his ball. Slipping the quiver over her shoulder and grasping her bow with her hand she went out into the fading light. It was cold out but not terribly so, with a breeze that carried the scent of burning wood from their fireplace. She made her way to the north end of the barn where there was a small hole that allowed the chickens to pass into their coop in the barn. They did not usually lock the chickens in at night but two weeks ago a fox had slipped through the hedge and ate three of this year's cockerels. It wasn't a bad loss but the fright had put the hens off their laying and they had been short on eggs for days.

After making sure all the chickens were shut safely in, she went into the barn proper. It smelled strongly of straw. The goats were in their pen next to the oxen. She had already given them their hay earlier. The hog they were fattening and would slaughter as soon as it got cold enough that the meat would not spoil nosed up to his pen, looking for treats. She obliged him by filling his feed trough with several measures of grain. After looking everything over she left, closing the barn door firmly and latching it shut.

In the distance, a wolf howled. She shivered. At least, she hoped, it was only one wolf. It had been a bad year for deer. Usually by this time she would have shot several bucks for their winter stores but the herd that lived on the outskirts of the farm were not to be seen and she did not dare travel far to look for them. They would be short on meat this winter and so would the wolves. Perhaps next year they could afford a steer to fatten.

She was so engrossed in her own thoughts that did not notice it at first.

There was a knocking at the gate. Her heart leapt into her throat. Nocking an arrow she crept up to the gate and peered through the seeing-hole. A Man stood there, in a leather armor. He was so tall that she was on eye level with the silver brooch, shaped like a rayed star, that fastened his gray cloak over the right breast of his cuirass.

The Man stooped and she saw that his beard and hair were dark and unkempt. His eyes were gray as the morning mist and a fey light seemed to shine within them. Fear griped her heart for she knew who this man must be. He was a Ranger. They were a lot of dark-haired, rough looking vagabonds that seemed to live in the wild, unsettled lands. They stopped by the Breelands occasionally, usually for a pint or two, but they never stayed long. There were rumors that they served some distant Lord or were perhaps brigands. Though you could never find anyone who had actually been harmed by a Ranger, they did seem to carry more weapons than was proper, including long swords and sometimes armor.

And you never saw any woman Rangers, did you?

"What do you want?" her voice trembled slightly.

"Mistress, my name is Strider and I have need of aid." The man's voice was tired but courteous. If she turned her head she could just barely make out the form of another man wrapped in a cloak slumped on a horse, several paces away.

"My husband is not here," How she wished he was!

"My friend is wounded, Mistress. I fear he will not last the night. I only need a safe place to tend to him." The concern in his voice sounded true enough but what if this was trap to get her to open the gate?

"Please, Mistress." The pleading in his voice broke her, for he struck her as a man not given to begging. She unbarred the thick plank that locked the gate, an arrow still nocked but aimed at the ground.

"I have children," she said. "If you try to harm them I will defend them to the death."

"I would expect no less, Mistress." Strider said as he led the horse bearing his companion through the gate.


Glossary

Broadhead (English): a type of arrowhead used for war and hunting. They typically have two to four sharp blades and are often barbed to cause further trauma on removal.

Kirtle (English): one-piece garment worn by women in the later Middle Ages into the Baroque period, typically worn over a chemise or smock.

Cuirass (English): a piece of armor formed of a single or multiple pieces of metal or leather and consisting of a breastplate and backplate fastened together.

"…Silver brooch, shaped like a rayed star, that fastened his gray cloak" (English): The star worn by the Rangers. From the LOTR chapter The Passing of the Grey Company: "brooch of silver, shaped like a rayed star".