Gimli, Faramir and Lord Aragorn stood in the doorway. Both of us shot to our feet; Silma curtseyed and I bowed but came to the point. “How much did you hear?”
“Enough that we must hear more,” said my cousin bluntly.
“We are sorry to distress you, my lady,” added Aragorn. “Lord Húrin has told us some of the details already, so far as he knows from the investigation.”
She said, “The distress is of my brother’s creation, my lord. Lord Dalfinor helped Lady Silwen and me find and open a hidden cache that contained these materials just a short time ago. You will need to examine them.” Unflinchingly she handed him the deeds, letter and portrait folder—but her voice wavered as she asked, “Might Lady Silwen have this portrait when all is done? I think she might derive some comfort from it, one day.”
“So I might, but not for a while,” said Lady Silwen as she entered. All of us bowed, but she scarcely seemed to notice as she gracefully curtsied to Aragorn. Her face was ravaged by grief, but her back was straight and her head high. “My lord, I believe you may already know something of my daughter-in-love’s quality. Is there any way she may be spared the worst of this? ‘A coat of paint won’t disguise a leaky hulk forever’; I lacked the courage she displayed in leaving him. Perhaps if I had done so with his father, or not even sought to better myself, none of this would have come to be, for Falli would not have been born. I will tell you the secret I have labored these forty years to conceal: I was born a fisherman’s bastard in Pelargir, and while I was not ‘officially’ a whore, I was willing enough to escape those slums to be one in all but name to win my husband’s notice. Lindisilma was a lady born who lost her rank; I cozened my way into it by marriage, and shut my eyes to evil to retain it. If you are going to revive old titles, as you probably will, your officials will soon know that mine is false. I am finally done with lies, and I care not where I end, but I beg you now, do not allow your just rage at Jeremir’s crimes to cause her more suffering.”
“My lady, it is not my desire to be unjust to anyone, least of all someone of such character as both of you,” he replied. “Do you wish to go to your own chambers? I would spare you as much as I can today.”
“Nay, I have coddled myself too much. Perhaps I can provide some information. Lindisilma is right: the time to keep secrets is long past.”
Aragorn waited until she had seated herself on the sofa, with Silma holding her hands, before waving the rest of us to chairs. He looked at the portrait, commenting, “A sensitive face,” before passing it to Faramir and Gimli, read the letter and looked over the deeds while the others read them as well—Gimli had protested that it was Mannish business, but Silwen had said, “My lord, it would not be fair to you nor to Prince Dalfinor that you not know. You must decide whether or not to find a new residence for your embassy.”
It took some persuasion on Faramir’s part to induce her to read the Will and look at the deeds, and Silma would not. “It has nothing to do with me now,” she said quietly. “My marriage to Jehan Clerk negates what I was when it was written. But you will need to discuss this, my lords; have we your leave to retire? Lady Silwen should rest.”
Aragorn rose to his feet. “Lady Silwen, please accept my apologies for subjecting you to such a painful interview,” he said. “Lady Silma, would you remain for a little, and answer some questions for us?”
“As you wish, my lord.”
Lady Silwen inclined her head to us, curtseyed to him, and moved towards the door.
Gimli said, “My lady, I wish you to know that I have no intention of moving this embassy, unless you wish to end our agreement.”
“Thank you, Lord Gimli, but we shall have to see if it is legally our property to lease to you, or to anyone else,” she said, and was gone.
Silma lifted her chin, unaware that she had sighed. “You have questions, my lord?”
Aragorn asked several, about dates and places, and names she mostly did not recognize. “My lady, forgive me, but I need to ask: what did you do when you left this house?”
“I waited until I knew he and my brother were away,” she answered. “Our money was almost gone; I knew this because he had sent the servants away except for his valet. That last winter was dreadful—the roof leaked, we had almost no fuel for the fireplaces, and he would only give me one silver a week for food. I was perpetually cold and hungry, for he mostly ate out, I suppose at his friends’ homes, or taverns, or gambling-dens, or wherever he was spending his time when he was not here. He had already sold all of my mother’s jewelry, or so I thought, and most of my books, as well as some furniture, plate and other valuables. He sold some of my finest gowns—or at least they vanished from my rooms. And my harp.” Clearly that had hurt, more than the other items except for the books and her mother’s belongings. “I did protest that, for it had been my grandmother’s before me. That earned me a beating. I could never tell what would cause him to fly into a rage, unless he was already in one before he even came in the door. I used to lie awake at night, wondering where he was and if he was all right, both dreading his return and anxious for it. Finally I was simply more afraid he would come. He would beat me, telling me it was my fault, for all my many shortcomings and sins, and then sometimes he would weep and promise to change if I would only be patient. The worst was when Jeren would come with him, and urge him to—“ she shut her eyes an instant, visibly trembling. “—to additional punishments he might not have thought of, on his own. Sometimes he resisted. Sometimes he did not. Jeren liked to watch. A few times he—demonstrated. He had become more inventive since my childhood.”
“Had he tormented you then?” he asked softly.
“Beginning when I was about nine years old, I think, mostly when our parents could not see. But I knew he began to hate them, especially our father. He blamed him for our not being a powerful, wealthy House, and he despised Mother’s being a—a halfbreed pointy-ear, as he called the Peredhel. He had never liked our maternal grandmother, since Granny had said he was born to be hanged. She didn’t like him. Forgive me for mentioning this, but it is—in the forefront of my mind.
“You asked when I left here. That was as soon as I could, once I had laid my plans. As I said, they were both away, and the valet. I had sold some of Falli’s smaller ornaments that had been stored away; I hoped he would not miss any of them, and my furs. I sold the rest of my books except for a very few I packed in a small trunk which I hid in one of the tunnels. I put on three changes of clothes, one on top of another, my plainest and oldest one on top, covered them with a cloak from the attic, and with a small bundle of necessities and food, and a water bottle, I left. For several days I hid in the depths of the Archives, and then I moved to House Ornamir’s mausoleum in the Rath Dinen; I had purloined the key. After a week, I stole down through the tunnels, having refreshed my memory of the maps of them, and slipped out into Wooden-town. It was a market day, and stormy, at noon. I simply walked out on the road to the Pelennor, and kept walking. No one noticed one more poor woman hurrying home in broad daylight, with a basket on her arm and a bag on her back.
“I traveled as far as I could each day, staying wherever I could find shelter at night. You see, both of them were so highborn, they never thought that I would talk with Common folk along the way. It was very easy to get into conversation; no woman minds being complimented on her child or her embroidery. You have generous, kindly subjects, my lord; it wouldn’t take long for me to get an invitation for a cup of tea, and then I would offer to help. Soon I would be invited to the daymeal, and I would pay for my food and bed with stories and songs.”
She smiled faintly. “I listened as much as I spoke, if not more, learning as much as I could. They knew, of course, that I was not from their way of life. At first I told some of the truth, that I was fleeing a cruel husband, or that I had lost everything to a cruel brother. I began to travel in a great arc, aiming at first for Dol Amroth. But I became ill in Lossarnach. There is a healer named Hedda, my lords, who is the very pattern of a Healer and lady, even though she is not highborn. But she took me in, saved my life, and not only taught me what she knew in addition to the lore I had learned from my grandmother, but her methods saved my reason and began to restore my self-respect. She is my friend, as she has befriended so many others in need. She did what she could for my body and mind, and gave me the safety and settled habitation I needed to begin my inner journey to find who Silma was. It wasn’t Lindisilma who returned here, but Silma the Seeker.
“Did you go to Dol Amroth?” he asked.
“Nay, for Hedda was moving herself back to the Pelennor to care for her sick mother. I helped her with the move, and then decided to face my fears, for I was much changed. I moved to Wooden-town first, poor as I was, and found work as a street-singer. Luckily for me, I was also able to get a position in the Old Book-Halls before winter, first as a cleaner, and then when I was caught reading there after hours, as a page. In time I trained other pages, and soon after, I met Jehan Clerk.
“He had a hard time wooing me! By then Ornamir was dead, and I was in deadly fear that my ruse of hiding in plain sight would fail, that my brother would find me. But Jehan persuaded me at last to wed him, and that I never regretted. He was a great and good man! Then Jeran did learn that I was there, that I had married, and he did all he could to ruin us.”
“Your husband was dismissed from his position as clerk?” Aragorn asked.
“He was forced to resign,” she said angrily. “Suddenly there was evidence of a theft, and he was given short shrift, ordered to leave in the middle of the morning. He would not take so much as a pin that didn’t belong to him, not if he were starving! No member of the Conclave nor Lord Denethor would see him, nor Lord Húrin. It was easy to see Jeren’s hand in this; in fact, he boasted of it to me later. Suddenly we had creditors, insisting that we owed them for items we had never purchased. We lost our house in the Fourth Circle, having to move into much cheaper rooms two Circles down—and oddly enough, that was the only place we could find to rent, outside of Wooden-town; I knew full well that Jeren really owned it, not the man who said he was the landlord. All of this affected Jehan’s health, for at first the roof leaked and we were too poor to buy sufficient fuel to keep him warm and properly tended and fed. Suddenly Men were offering to buy my favors, although after a few episodes in which Rimbor discouraged them, that soon stopped. But for a long time I never went out without being afraid I might be pulled into an alley and raped. That was one reason, I confess, that I was loath to leave the city for the refuges, for in not knowing them, I feared more opportunities for ‘accidents’ to either or both of us. But mayhap that would have been better than my poor Jehan’s losing his life as he did and not even having a proper burial!”
Faramir looked shocked. “You should have been able to speak to any member of the Conclave, and to make an appointment to see my father,” he said. “And you should have been safe on our streets!”
“Even the fairest place may have corruption under the surface, my lord,” she said. “The one member I did get to said that he refused to listen to the debased wife of an uppity, dishonest clerk who got what he deserved—and because he was crippled, should not have taken a position better occupied by a whole man who needed to support his family. I tell you frankly, if this is the attitude Gondor takes toward those who sacrificed much for its safety, then I hope in time no one will serve in its armies! I have laboured long to nurse some of them; should they become beggars now? If a man or woman, or a child, is born with or develops a physical or mental problem, should they and their family be made to feel ashamed for what cannot be helped, as if they are less than others? Anyone can be injured in an accident. We are all seconds away from disability on a slippery street or staircase. We will all grow frail with age, if we live. What kind of place will this realm be for all its peoples?”
“These are grave matters that shall not go unconsidered, my lady,” Aragorn said after a pause. “I assure you, those are not empty words; I shall consider them. Your viewpoint is of value; I hope you will advise me later. It may be that the Conclave members spent so much time cushioned by their rank and the safe routine of their daily lives that they were blind to the seriousness of it—or, as you imply, they were suborned. I will not knowingly have such serving here.”
"It might be," she said slowly, "that most of them did not even know of my husband's situation; I would imagine most of their knowldege is filtered through their clerks. And if those were intimidated by my brother, or biased by connections with him, it might not be the Conclave members' fault. Why should an obscure clerk be believed, instead of a powerful lord and official, himself brother to that clerk's wife? It cannot be changed now for us."
“There might be one benefit of the war,” Faramir added unexpectedly. “Almost every family in the city has suffered some loss, and so many have been injured that it will be much more difficult to turn one’s head from them. I do not condone such injustice, my lady. No soldier could.”
“Mayhap I spoke too harshly,” she replied. “It is difficult to see someone you love suffer. It may also have been ignorance on their part.”
“You are very gracious.”
“Yes, well, what about the Goldtrader?” asked Gimli. “And is anyone thirsty besides myself?”
“I think you’ve been influenced by the Hobbits, with their passion for food and drink,” Aragorn laughed. “Aye, Gimli, a tray of something would not go amiss.”
He stumped over to the bellpull, exchanged a few words with Samno at the door, and almost instantly, a tray of sliced fruit, cheeses, and biscuits, and another with wine and ale, appeared, borne by Samno and Nahemion.
Both of them looked anxiously at Silma before they left—and as they were closing the door, Rimbor paced in. Instead of going to Silma, he went straight to Aragorn and offered a paw.
Lord Aragorn gravely shook it, stroked his head, and smiled at my lady. “I see that he is well recovered.”
“Thanks to you, my lord, as he knows,” she said, her expression lightening. “I am very partial, of course, but he is the most intelligent dog I have ever known.”
“I think you should talk to Lord Forlong,” Faramir said. “He’s famous for the fine dogs he breeds.”
Lady Silma responded, “I know that Lady Silwen would like to speak with him about that someday; she wanted to begin breeding her little sleeve dogs on a larger scale, but they all perished at the hands of brigands and on her journey here.”
To resume our discussion,” Aragorn said. “My lady, my thanks for your willingness to discuss this. How is it that you wed Lord Ornamir?”
“A scheme of my brother’s,” she sighed. “When we had to withdraw from Ithilien, Father took us to Mother’s mother’s home on a farm, where I grew up. Someone broke in one night and killed both of them, and so injured Father that he was unable to speak for many months. Jeren had left by that time, and I wrote to him while nursing Father as best I could. Then he died unexpectedly, after doing so well for a time; he was even beginning to speak a little. Jeren said he had to sell the farm to pay Father’s debts, and brought me here, to House Issokolinda. I lived with him for a time, and one day he brought Falli home to dinner. The next week we were invited to a ball, and other events. It was very exciting to meet so many people and hear such wonderful music. Falli procured permission for me to go to the Book-Halls and Archives. He was handsome and a wonderful dancer, and kind in a careless way—“
“What do you mean?” I asked. Everyone looked at me; I knew they had all but forgotten I was there.
“If it did not require any trouble or great expense on his part,” she explained. “No, I am not being fair. He sent me flowers, and some music for my harp, although we never played the duets he suggested. One morning, Jeren told me that he had accepted Falli’s proposal that we wed; the wedding would be in a month. I didn’t think that Lady Silwen was pleased about it, and I was in great awe of her. Jeren kept stressing how honoured we were, and how lucky I was to be marrying into such an old and important family, one of the Exalted, callow untutored country girl that I was. Between them, everything was decided about the wedding. I remember, I was very unhappy that Yule night, because Falli insisted we spend it with a friend of his who was ill and alone. He had been cast off by his family for refusing to wed and preferring men to women. He killed himself a month later. I felt badly about that, but at the time, I wanted all of Falli’s attention for myself. I yearned for his love; I just didn’t understand why he couldn’t love me as I thought I loved him.”
“You—thought you loved him,” I echoed through stiff lips.
“I believe now it was infatuation on my part. How not? He was so handsome and charming. He could have sold lead painted gold to Dwarves, or talked an Onodrim into letting him cut down trees, he was so charming. I was an inexperienced girl, and I wanted to love and be loved. But there was no building of it between us. I sometimes didn’t see him for days at a time, and within a year, he had undergone a complete change in his personality.”
“From the drugs he was taking,” Aragorn nodded.
“From the drugs and his own bitter self-loathing, poor Man,” she agreed.
On the one hand, I was proud of her largeness of heart, but on the other, I regretted it, for I did not feel much pity for him then.
Lord Aragorn asked,”Do you know what he was taking?”
“I think kiritir first, then chromë mushrooms, white mountain poppy and finally, tartella. I…did some research after I left him.”
Faramir was stunned. “Sweet Valar!”
Aragorn said, “But he was right, my lady, in telling you in his letter that his addiction was not your fault. They had such a hold on him he could not overcome it, no matter how strong his will might have been. It sounds like an advanced case; it is amazing that he managed to withdraw enough to write this.
“Lord Húrin will send down an attorney to take a statement from each of you tomorrow. Please don’t mention to anyone that I have been here, for I am not officially here yet, until after I am crowned on the first of Nárië outside the Gates,” Lord Aragorn continued. “On the third, I will be giving judgements of serious cases in the throne-room at the Citadel. Lord Húrin will let you and Lady Silwen know what time to attend.”
She rose and curtseyed. “We will be there, my lord. I hope that your reign will be long, prosperous, and peaceful.”
It had been unpleasant having to discuss such topics, but I was determined to end the secrecy. The days in which I had kept a list of which lies I had told which people were long over, and I had no wish to bring them back.
I knew that all over the city, folk were excitedly and happily making ready for this great change. After a thousand years, our King had returned! I knew that Lord Aragron would be an excellent ruler, and I felt I could trust him to do his utmost—but he was largely unknown to us, would have to be careful politically at least at first, and had been raised in a very different way than most of us. Did beings of other Kindreds (especially Elves and Onodrim), being so long-lived, take the same view of things as we did? I did not know. For that matter, I would be greatly affected, not only by how he ruled in my brother’s case, but also by popular opinion. I had vivid memories of some of the nastier encounters I had experienced when I came back to the city, both before and after I had married Jehan.
At least he had been spared this! And perhaps, finally, his name would be cleared.
I excused myself, and with the rest still there, was unable to thank Lord Dalf for his presence. I was both relieved and sorry that he had been there: relieved, because he had been a silent bulwark of strength, and sorry, because it certainly did not reflect creditably upon my brother or myself.
I had not taken two steps in the hallway before Samno materialized at my side—he was rapidly becoming the buhdelier of buhdeliers —and told me, “Lady Silwen is a-restin’ in her rooms, m’lady. Is all well?”
They were going to know eventually, if they didn’t already; better that they get the facts from me. “No, it isn’t,” I said candidly. “My brother has been apprehended and is in a Citadel cell pending various charges. The King himself is going to judge his case. Since my first husband, Lady Silwen’s son, was one of his victims, she is very upset.”
“I’m sorry t’ hear it,” he said heartily. “We all set a deal of store by her, an' yourself likewise, m’lady. Is there aught we can do t’ help?”
“Keep still tongues outside the House,” I said promptly. A lack of secrecy was one thing, but adding fuel to the fire of rumour was something else again. “And ask the staff to please be patient—she is under a great deal of strain until this is resolved.”
He nodded. “An’ you as well. Can I get you anythin’?”
“No, thank you. Where is Lady Gilannis?”
“She was a-showin’ Rhylla a new embroidery stitich or some such folderol,‘til Rill asked ‘em t’ help with his an’ Wilmet’s exercises, bein’ as you was occupied.”
“Oh, dear!” I exclaimed in dismay. I had completely forgotten about them!
“They’re fine, m’ lady,” he assured me, and grinned. “In fact, that young Rill is actually smilin’ at her. She has mighty takin’ ways with her.”
“She’s flirting with him?” I asked, stopping short.
“He’s flirtin’ with her, more like! Nice to see ‘im take an interest in somethin’, now that he’s begun to get over mournin’ his bein’ crippled, an’ actin’ like a lad should with a pretty lass.”
“This could cause a problem,” I commented.
“He’s pretty level-headed at bottom,” Samno said reassuringly. “An’ that Wilmet is ‘s sensible as they come, for all he’s younger. They’ve become fast friends, an’ it might well be ‘tis also t’ distract Wilmet from bein’ sad that the others’re moved down t’ the Rohir camp. An’ Lord Erragol is in the parlor a-waitin’ for you.”
I thanked him and went into the parlor, where the Rohir warrior was pacing up and down in front of the fireplace. The room looked strange to me now, restored to its former state instead of littered with pallets, clothing, armor and weapons, sickroom appurtentences, etc. Wil and Rill were sharing a room upstairs, with Ull nearby. Lord Erragol was wearing a fine green tunic with the stylized white horse of Rohan on the front, and his long blond hair was carefully combed out on his shoulders, his beard newly trimmed.
“If you keep tugging on your beard, not even a barber will be able to restore the hair you pull out,” I said.
He wheeled—and looked disappointed. “Lady Silma. The day’s greeting. Samno says that Silwen is resting in her chamber. She never rests in her chamber at this time of day! Nor will she come down to see me nor admit me. I have only this note—“ he flourished a crumpled piece of paper “—which very formally says farewell. Is she angry with me about something? Is she ill?”
“She is broken-hearted,” I said; really, Rohirric and Dwarvish bluntness was contagious!
“This is something to do with the cache she asked Dalf to open for her?” he asked.
“It is. That cache contained some papers, a letter from her son my first husband, and a small portrait of him. Lords Aragorn, Faramir and Gimli are here in the library, and we have been answering questions.”
“She has not spoken very much of her son,” he said slowly.
“Nor have I. Our memories of him are not…happy ones. She was given very little say in how he was raised; her husband was almost as cruel as Falcherion was. I think she has always felt very guilty about how he turned out.”
“What has changed?”
“The letter was written just before he killed himself, right after I ran away. He was so much more aware of and unhappier about his behavior than we had believed, and I understand things about him that I did not, before. I think that she is finally allowing herself to truly grieve for him, for the little boy and the youth who were so promising, as well as the man he became. Lord Aragorn and Faramir came to tell us that my brother is now under arrest, awaiting judgement in the Citadel after the coronation. The King is going to judge him in person. While we were being questioned, Silwen told a secret about herself that I for one had never suspected, and I think that she is now terrified of how people will react when they know the truth.”
He nodded. “She is a proud woman. But why will she not see me ?”
I chose my words with care. “You have become good friends; she cares more for the good opinion of friends than of strangers.”
“But I would be more than a friend.”
Well, that answered one question I had wondered about.
“Does she know this?” I asked.
“How can she not?”
Managing not to grind my teeth, I inquired, “Have you directly said so?”
And he blushed! Leader of men, noble in his country, strong warrior, and he blushed and scuffed his foot on the floor like a green youth in his first calf-love! “Not so far as asking her to wed, no,” he admitted. “I thought it was understood: I must speak with my family; I must see to my men; I must arrange things on my lands. And she is so busy with the House and Gimli and Dalf moving in, and so many changes. She has almost avoided me for the past few days, and I do not know why.” This last was in an aggrieved tone.
I was not disposed to sympathy. Love’s dream, whether young, old or middle-aged, would proceed much more smoothly if those involved would talk plainly with each other! In short order, I explained to him about assuming too much, the necessity for clear discussion, and pointed out that her marriage had not been a happy one. Why would she think that a man from another country would be seriously interested in a foreign bride, especially one not in the first flush of youth, with a court case hanging over her head that would result in a scandal of almost mythic proportions?
“I am not a youth either,” he pointed out. “I have three grown children who will welcome her, and I will teach her to ride my finest horses. No one in Rohan will care about any scandal in Gondor. We will be happy together.”
“She may not be as certain about that,” I warned him. “She’ll wonder if your king will approve.”
“He will. I told him I was going to wed, and he asked if she could find him a bride too. You might like Ėomer King,” he said disingenuously.
“I doubt he would like me; I understand he is younger than I,” I told him firmly.
“Not by much, if you are older,” he said cheerfully. “You would be good company for her and for us, whether or not you and he choose each other.”
“Erragol, if I may ask, why have you not spoken directly to her?” I persisted.
He looked surprised. “Because I am not a barbarian. Lily and Rose had a book, all about us—mostly wrong about our customs. The hero, Fréalaf, swept Lady Laladowen up on his saddle and rode off with her to his winter camp. That was ridiculous, because you cannot gallop a horse for hours without foundering it, especially in snow, and no decent man would carry her indoors without seeing to his horse first. We don’t have winter camps, only summer ones to follow the herds. It sounded as if there is as little snow as in the South, which is more silliness; the drifts on our plains get very high in the winter. But it is a fine story, and we learned much about your customs of arranged marriages here in Gondor.”
“’We’?” I asked.
“Aye. I read it to the men late at night when we could not sleep. We all agreed that it is a fine story, if inaccurate on our ways.”
I covered my face with my hands and counted to twenty. “Many Gondorians will agree with you, Erragol, only about the inaccuracies concerning our customs,” I told him. “The safest thing to do, and I speak as a woman who likes the idea of romance as much as any, is talk with the lady!” He was gazing at me with no comprehension at all. I resisted a very strong impulse to smack him for being so dense, and tried again. “Are all mares the same?”
“Of course not!”
“Then why do you think all women are the same in how they will react?” I demanded. Falli had been entirely, boringly, conventional and correct, as far as he had gone in wooing me, which had not been very far, and while Jehan was more creative, he had been somewhat constrained by his own shyness. I would never now experience Romance for myself, but that didn’t mean my Bein-Naneth didn’t deserve some!
He stared at me, gaping.
Whether she decided she wanted him or not, she probably would not appreciate it if I damaged him in any way. So instead of kicking him in the shins (or elsewhere) or hitting him, I stamped my foot, and flounced out of the room and upstairs. I might as well get something useful done that day!
That afternoon, with Rhylla nd Gilannis, I reluctantly made my way to the House of the Swan. Dalf and Ėowyn were adamant that I must seriously train with Orcsbane, and Princess Lothlíriel had enthusiastically invited us to use the weapons salle at her father’s townhouse. I carried Orcsbane, wrapped in a cloak, and Rhylla carried a small bag with my breeches and tunic.
The next few days were hectic, with many meetings about the movable barricade at the Great Gates, meetings about the protocol of the many events, meetings about many other matters, and to my exasperation, it seemed impossible to get a moment alone with Silma. If I wasn’t out of the house, she was: at Prince Imrahil’s townhouse with Princess Lothlíriel, or off with Lady Ėowyn, or shopping for Lady Silwen, who had determinedly stayed secluded in her rooms, or at the Citadel on various errands. Silma looked tired and strained, and barely glanced at me. Was she angry that I had been present for that ugly interview with the others?
Twice she had left more general meetings, and when I would have gone after her, Gimli called me back. On the second occasion, I went anyway, but she had already disappeared when I reached the hall, and I could not find her.
After that second meeting ended, Gimli asked me to wait after our guests left. “I want you to walk down to the First Circle with me,” he said.
I walked with ill grace beside him. Without looking at me, he said, “I hope you don’t intend to look as if you want to bite everyone at the Crowning, Dalfinor.”
It was never a good sign for him to use my formal name in private.
“I won’t,” I said briefly.
“Would you care to tell me what’s causing you to look so dour? Did you have an argument with Silma?”
“I can’t argue if I can’t talk with her,” I said glumly.
“I had a letter from your mother yesterday.”
That got my attention. “Not from Father?” I asked warily.
“No, from her. She is pressing both him and me to send you home. She included a list of eligible females from the Blue Mountains clear to the Iron hills. If she knew of any Khazad women in the South, she would have included them.”
I bit back a muffled curse.
“What’s so bad about that?” he asked, nodding a greeting to an innkeeper. “We both know hundreds of Dwarves who’d kill for the opportunity you have, who are far less eligible than you, who can never hope to stand in your shoes. (Smile, you leadhead; no need for them to think we are about to lay about us with our axes. Too many of these Men grew up on folktales about our cleaving anything that moves. We’re supposed to be diplomats, not duelists.) Might not be so bad, going back. Your own workshop and choice of forge apprentices—“
I said something vulgar in Khuzdul. “I don’t want any of that!”
“What do you want?”
“Silma,” popped out of my mouth, and I almost cursed aloud at the ease with which he had gotten it out of me.
“Have her then,” he said.
Seconds later, I had his back against a tree in a nearby garden, the handle of my axe across his throat. Aulë be thanked, at least I had not swung at him!
Someone was pulling inexorably at my hands, forcing me back, and Legolas’ white face swam into my red-hazed vision next to Gimli’s empurpling one.
“Dalf! DALF! Stop !” the Elf was saying.
I couldn’t breathe; I felt something pinching my nostrils shut, and as my vision darkened, sparkling motes swimming in front of my eyes, my knees buckled.
I came to lying on my back staring up into the sky. Gimli sat next to me, coughing hoarsely, and I heard a high clear voice saying, “No, they are fine. Please let us sort it out. It’s a form of Dwarven greeting; they're kinsmen.”
My head was dripping. My nose hurt.
I sat up. Legolas held a waterskin to Gimli’s lips, my axe in his other hand, and alternated worried looks at him and glares at me.
I was panting almost as much as my cousin.
And lined up in a row looking at us were the Hobbits. All four of them.
I wished I could die on the spot.
“I almost choke to death and you give me water ?” grated Gimli.”Stupid Elf!”
“He’ll be all right,” said Pippin in relief.
“’A Dwarven greeting’?” Lord Frodo repeated.
Merry grinned, only slightly abashed. “Twas all I could think of. Would it have been better to say that our friends were trying to kill each other?”
“Looked to me as if ‘twas Dalfinor tryin’ t’ do in Gimli,” observed Lord Samwise, who was holding the empty waterskin with which he had drenched me.
I lurched to my feet.
“Where do you think you’re going?” rasped Gimli.
“Find another assistant!”
“Where are you going?” asked Pippin. “Back to the Lonely Mountain?”
“No! Anywhere else but there, but I am not going to share a roof with him,” I said fiercely.
Gimli coughed, hawked, and called after me, “Dalf! Stop! Come back!”
I shook my head and walked away….and found myself with a knife under my chin, pricking my throat. Legolas, pale with fury, inches away from me, almost whispered, “I suggest you go back and talk with him. Now.”
Sullenly, I obeyed. Folding my arms, I asked, “Why should I?”
“Because I didn’t realize how strongly you felt.”
“You insulted both of us.” I resisted the urge to touch my nose, which felt as if it was rapidly swelling to melon-size.
“I apologize. I’m sorry! I truly am, lad. But you cannot simply take off; you know that. You have responsibilities. You can’t just storm off, no matter how much you feel entitled to. How will that help her or you?”
My rage seeped away, leaving me very weary. I dropped down next to him. “I’m sorry, Gimli,” I said in our own language.
“You’re always so sensible, I sometimes forget that while you are immune to the dragon sickness, you can suffer the red rage,” he said in Westron, clasping my shoulder.
Recalled to the presence of our friends, I looked up at Legolas’ wary face. “I won’t try to kill him again—if he doesn’t insult her,” I said.
Legolas resheathed his long knife. “I will never understand the humour of Dwarves!” he sighed.
“Why would you insult Lady Silma, Gimli?” Samwise demanded truculently.
Merry and Pippin looked curious; Lord Frodo embarrassed.
“’Twas a mistake,” Gimli said, with a glance at me. “Lad, you need to do something about your nose.”
I touched it gingerly; it throbbed.
“You know, I wouldn’t have thought of squeezing his nostrils shut,” said Merry thoughtfully.
“Well, his mouth was clamped shut so tightly, I knew I could cut off his air that way,” Pippin said with an unrepentant grin at me. “After all, it was an interesting tactical problem; we couldn’t kick his feet out from under him, without the risk of slashing Gimli’s throat to the bone.”
“True, but what made you think of his nose?”
“Cousin Orchid did it to me once, to make me swallow some of her horrible tonic. Quite effective. And that way, Gimli’s beard didn’t get trimmed.”
“Hobbit humour!” my cousin growled, aiming a mock-cuff at Pippin that he easily dodged. “Give me a hand up, Dalf.”
I did so. Lord Samwise said to me, “Mr. Frodo and me was just goin’ to the Houses. Likely they could fix you a poultice or summat for your nose, Lord Dalf.”