Barad Lomin

by halavana

Chapter 1: An Unwanted Arrangement

As a child, Keren Woodman remembered going with her mother to the forest across the river and listening to the music of twilight, or so her mother called it.  As if the setting sun and rising moon could play and the stars could sing.  Her mother told her it was only the merry making of elves, which traversed the countryside from one elven home to another at the turn of the seasons.  Once they even met the singers as they paused on their road.  Keren’s mother spoke to them in their language and they invited mother and daughter to eat with them.  Keren was in such awe of these beautiful beings, she spoke not at all, but listened with the rapt attention of a 5 year old from behind her mother’s skirt, even when they tried to coax her out.  The melodies ranged from sweetly sorrowful to merry dance tunes.  The most beautiful sounds she had ever heard.  When they returned home, for days Keren wanted to be an elf, dancing and singing in the woods.

    Now she no longer had time for such indulgence, and elves, if they remained on Middle Earth, cared not for singing to daughters of men.  Since the death of her mother ten years before, she had known no respite from care of her family.  Her elder sisters were married and moved away to Tharbad, Duinbar and Fornost, all wed to knights of King Malvegil or the Prince of Cardolan.  Her younger brothers, two years her junior, were somewhat famous in the area, being the only triplets born, and all three living.  Twins were common enough to the families of Barad Lomin, but triplets were rare indeed.  Even though her younger brothers brought in wives, the bulk of the labor was hers. She awoke before dawn urging the sisters-in-law to rouse themselves and help her attend to the daily chores: milking the cows, cooking, washing, weaving, gardening, visiting ailing relatives, and any other duties the men of the house bestowed upon them.  Granted, the sisters-in-law worked well, for they feared their father-in-law more than Keren feared her father.  But they did not yet know how to please him, so that task was left to his remaining daughter.

    Five times she was betrothed, and each time the man broke off the engagement.  She thought herself ugly, or stupid, or clumsy, or something.  There must be something wrong with her to be rejected by five men in one lifetime.  Perhaps her father was one cause of the broken betrothals, being so comfortable with her bearing the responsibility for the housework, that he might not wish her to marry.  In all truth, when listening to her friends speak with affectionate disillusionment of their husbands and children, she was not certain she wanted to be a wife.  But some days, any change seemed better than this servitude.

    Although her father used no violence to rule his house, he was a severe man, giving praise so sparingly and admonishing so abruptly, she felt her every effort a failure.  He was an old knight who never learned to play the part of a farmer.  Little wonder her elder brothers left home to join the king's service as soon as they were old enough.  Embittered from his long years of knighthood, he refused to allow his youngest sons to join either king or prince, finding them wives at the unheard of young age of eighteen.  If permitted, Keren would have gone with her elder brothers, but it was said neither king nor prince had place for women in his army.  All they taught her remained unused.

    One day after the harvest, Keren's father called her to him.  She went without question and stood quietly before him, hands clasped at her waist, wondering how she, or a sister-in-law, had earned his displeasure this time, waiting till he should look up from his harness mending.

    "Miller's son lacks a wife," he began without raising his eyes and immediately Keren's hands dropped to her sides.  "He’s nearby and I think it best that, as you are my youngest daughter, I should like you near me.  The property adjoins mine and will, in due time, be joined to it.  Miller has only one son.  I think you know him."
   She did indeed, and a sorrier husband she could not have imagined for her worst enemy.  Even in time of want he was fat, while his parents grew thin and weak.  A onetime companion of her brothers, he never missed his chance to scorn her.  He found it unbearable when she bested him in archery, and her brothers laughed at him.  It amused her father as well, who was a good humored man before the death of his wife and bitterness claimed him.  Her mother thought it useful for a daughter to learn the same skills as the boys.  Keren could outrun, out-hike, outdo Miller’s son in everything when they were children.  Though all that changed by the time he became a man, he never forgave her for it.  And now he wanted her for his wife?!

    Miller's son was thought of well by many men, for he could tell a story to entertain the most discerning listener at The Ringing Well, the local tavern.  But in her eyes he was a hypocrite, for though he spoke movingly about King Malvegil and the Prince of Cardolan and the necessity to support those who sacrificed so much in their service protecting the realms from evil doers, little did he practice it in private.  He bestowed great gifts upon the poor in public, then stole them back in many conniving ways.  Now her father had fallen under the man's influence and it stunned her.  She thought of the five men who had been her suitors and began to suspect that this neighbor's son may have had a hand in the troth-breaking.  Her first love, who had requested her hand before the death of her mother, was slain a fortnight after the breach, bearing tokens and gifts with which to renew his betrothal.  Rumor said he had spoken with Millerson before his death, but she could not prove it.

    "So, daughter.  Why look you so grim and care worn?  You're to be married finally.  Be glad."

    "I would be glad, father, if it were to a man of my liking.  What is the reason for the choice?"

    "I’ve told you.  He is near and I wish to join lands," her father said, looking up sharply, his hands halted in their work.  She had never questioned him thus before.

    "No doubt those are the arguments he used to sway you, but I trust him not at all."

    "Trust or no, you’re to wed in a month."

    She stepped backward, clenching her fists to keep her hands from trembling.  "So soon, father?"

    "It’s as I wish.  He’s  provided the bride price. Now go about your business. Go."  With this dismissal, he lowered his head to take up his repairs once more.

    She bowed her head and went from the room, troubled in her heart what this bride price could be, for Miller was rich and could afford any woman in the land for his son.  He had only to speak to any father and the woman would be delivered, though all of her friends would rather throw themselves into the deep river Baranduin which flowed near Barad Lomin.  Perhaps Millerson had waited until she was older than most men would wish and thinking her desperate, expected her to accept anyone.  But five men had requested her hand, good men who would have made her a happy wife and mother.  Yet something had turned them away.  This neighbor's son could be responsible.  It was a cruel jest fitting for him.  Keren determined to be far from her father's house when this scoundrel came to fetch her.

    Her determination to escape this marriage was strengthened when she took vegetables to the green grocer to sell.  She bargained with the grocer's wife for each of the different types of produce she brought until both felt they were neither cheating nor being cheated.  As was the usual way on market day, the good woman, Mrs. Green, invited Keren for a cup of tea.  Keren often brought the best of the fruit for the grocer's wife to make pies and tarts and jellies and jams and all such other things as she loved to make and sell, and together they made a nice little profit.  On this day after they divided their income, the woman urged her a bit more strongly than usual and Keren, feeling the urgency yet choosing to not understand it, said most surely she would love to visit with her on any topic she wished.

    "That's a good lass.  You were ever a congenial sort.  You become more and more like your mother each year.  I shall miss you."

    Keren wondered at this, for she had secretly stored up rations of waybread, draughts and other travel necessities, telling no one of her plan.  "Miss me?  Why, where are you going?" she asked, trying to discover how much Mrs. Green knew or suspected.

    "I?  Not I.  You, to the dog," said Mrs. Green, with a scowl.  "None of us think that scoundrel will let you roam about as you do now.  What's come over your father that he should give you over to such a louse?"

    "I think I should be cautious what I say of my intended, for though I love him not at all, I would not stir his wrath so soon."

    "He'll be the death of your father for sure.  The best you could do would be to fly away, to your mother's people who still live near Old Annuminas.  None of us would breath a word to him if you did."

    "We’ll see what the days unfold," Keren answered and would say no more of the matter.

    Upon leaving the grocer's home, she went to several shops where she purchased such things as her family needed.  The last was the wine merchant.  She had made her selection, paid with the proper coins and would have left but a familiar voice held her attention.  It was low and resonant, coming from a room behind the clerk's table.  The wine merchant's daughter-in-law, a good friend named Reina, put a finger to her lips and they listened.

    "...Yes, well, that's all well and good, but you'll never get the whole property.  There are the brothers to contend with.  They'll not give up their inheritance lightly,” said the voice of the merchant.

    "Leave that to me.  The older sons haven't been seen for years, on errantry for the King of Arthedain.  They've other matters to contend with, if they're still alive. Besides, they’ve rejected their inheritance in Barad Lomin.  Had a quarrel with Old Woodman and they aren’t speaking.  My plan will go forward and the father will die, sooner than he may expect," said the low, smooth voice.  "The only way to prevent it is for the marriage to be forestalled, and the woman is as meek as a lamb before her father.  She'll be likewise for me and won't raise her voice, neither her little finger, to stop me.  The wedding will take place as scheduled.  Those three young brothers are so spoiled, I’ll deal with them easily enough.  Once I've acquired access to the property, I'll set about my designs with no one to gainsay me."

    "Well, I've my own grudges against Old Woodman but ..." The voice of the wine merchant stopped abruptly as the bells of the tower chimed.  “There’s that confounded tolling again,” he grumbled.  “What I would give to catch the brat aiming rocks at those bells.”

    “Hmph.  It’s not even the hour yet.  Most likely someone’s little darling fell into the cistern, from the sound of it,” said Millerson.

    Vines laughed and, lowering their voices, the two men talked on, unaware of the women listening.

    The eyes of the two women met.  Reina nodded grimly and inclined her head toward the door.  Keren bowed and quietly went out. Quickly she returned to her cart, which was still hitched near the grocer's and raced back to her father's house.

    Once home, she shut herself in her room and sat and thought, looking at the box which held her few personal belongings and now also concealed the travel things she had yet to move to the barn.  The wedding must not only be forestalled, she reasoned.  It must never take place.  She wondered why mere forestallment would disrupt Millerson's scheme, then chose to put her own plan to work earlier than she originally intended.  There was more to this than she could fathom.

    The evening chill in the air made it all the easier to remove the last of her baggage to its place in the milking room.  Men seldom went there and her stash was safe.  Only her eldest sister-in-law, Morwen, knew of her plans and supported them, for she also liked not even the thought of Millerson's welcome into her home.  The girl was now able to take up Keren's responsibilities and willing to do so.  That night as they milked the cows, Keren revealed what she had heard and what she intended.  Morwen's face became pale.

    "You’re gone none too soon," she said.

    "Perhaps I am gone too soon, though," said Keren, "for it might be better to escape in the nick of time when all think I’m resigned to my fate and look not for the unexpected than to give them such advance to search for me."

    "Where will you go?"

    "Best not to tell even you," answered Keren.  "The less you know, the less they can force from you."

    Morwen nodded.  When the milking was done they removed the milk to the cool spring house where a pit had been dug to receive the milk containers.  They bid their hasty farewells before going to the house, for they dared not make an open show of emotion before Keren’s father.  After all had been served and were satisfied with the meal, Keren slipped out again and returned to the milking room, as she often did when she left something undone.  Quickly she changed into her travel clothes, then took out a knife.  Cutting her waist length auburn hair brought tears to her eyes but once it was done, her hair now shoulder length as many young men wore it, she sighed, brushed the tears away, tied the hair in a knot and tossed it into a corner.  The stars were bright when she stepped outside.  Keren looked up at them a long moment, took a deep breath and silently set out across the meadow, passed into the trees and was gone.