There was a babble of explanation, clinking of glasses, people resuming or finding seats, and Rhuímel ceremoniously opening and pouring the wine into delicate, green-stemmed goblets. It was unlike the Maliarnin red I was more familiar with from the occasional commanders’ meals I had attended, or the Maliarnin white many gentlewomen preferred to offer at weddings, in that it seemed to have bubbles trapped in it as the latter did, but was dryer.
Sharra sneezed from the bubbles.
“To Lord Tintehlë, and his great project!” Rhuímel proclaimed, and we drank.
“To the King!” I said hastily, and we drank again, the Men standing.
“To the Reunited Realm!” said Alta, who was becoming rosier, smiling so infectiously I could not help smiling back as I added, “To my housekeeper!”
Neni had been scanning the parchments, still lying on the table, and looked up with a gasp —- and a grin. “So if I understand correctly from these,” he tapped them with a forefinger, “you are now ennobled, and also have a new position of importance? And Alta is now working for you?”
“Right,” I agreed.
Sharra handed around more of the Halva cakes she had brought in a basket. “How exciting!”
“So, son, tell us what you know about House Tintehlë,” Rhuímel directed.
“Hmm.” He thought for a minute, then nodded. “Have you paper and pen and ink, Da?”
“Of course. In the drawer of the press there, behind you, Alta, if you’d be so good as to hand them to him. Always thinks better with a quill in his hand, my son does,” Rhuímel said affectionately.
“Or a needle,” Sharra said, blushing.
Some conjugal jest, no doubt…
Neni dipped the quill into the inkwell, and began making notes as he spoke. “House Tintehlë was originally one of the Exalted, until after the Kinslaying, when they began dying out. The title was confirmed on a cadet branch, which was snubbed by the rest of the Exalted as too low-born compared to their Númenórean blood, because they’d diluted it by marriage with too many not considered high enough, although I think the real reason was that they were too radical.”
“How?” I asked.
He grinned. “They were willing to make money; they dared to not only make money, but to do so by cooperating with other Kindreds. They were, in short, prosperous merchants and importers. Also, they were supporters and patrons of then-new arts, which are now lauded as classics, as well as of civic projects. They took their name seriously. Probably it was an epassë first—“
“What is that?” asked Mistress Alta.
“’Tis a Sindarin word,” Rhuímel told her. “It means a nickname someone gives you, that you accept. For example, the King has one that’s part of his throne-name.”
“He’s King Elessar,” Marna said, puzzled.
“Officially, he went from being Aragorn son of Arathorn, Chief and Lord of the Rangers of the North, to Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar. Elessar refers to the Elfstone he wears, the second one means ‘the Renewer,’ since that is his hope and mission, and the last, Telcontar, is the Quenya translation for his dynasty of his Ranger name, Strider.”
“Strider? That doesn’t sound very kingly,” Marna objected.
“Probably why he made it a Quenya name rather than in Westron,” I said. “It’s also a nod to his past. Strider is a nickname—an epassë—given to him by the people he guarded as a Ranger. He is not disregarding his past for the future; a good strategy. So my new name—“
“It means ‘wayfinder,’ and they maintained that they were descended from the navigator who helped Elendil find the way here from the Lost Isle,” Neni explained. “For years they had family in both Gondor and Arnor, and it was the branch from Arnor that came to rejuvenate the House when they were dwindling here. The last daughter wed a lord of Anfalas—“
Those words sparked a faint memory. “Golasgil?” I blurted.
“Aye, soon after he was created lord. Why?”
“I…did not know that,” I said, but felt a smile spreading over my face. Through my ada and daeradar I could claim him as an ancestor! Had Elessar known, when he chose this title to give me?
“That has meaning for you?” Rhuímel inquired.
“No matter. Please go on,” I said, waving it aside. Yet it did please me to think that perhaps I was (distantly) related to this House whose title I now had—a feeling of pride I had never had regarding my grandsire or his family.
“But by then, the Arnor branch had perished in the wars that had ravaged that land, even after it was split into three smaller realms. And the last Lord Tintehlë died of Plague four hundred years ago.”
“So there was nothing left?” I asked.
He grinned again. “I have had many discussions about lapsed Houses with the Herald’s chief clerk,” he said.
“The Herald?” Marna asked.
“He’s in charge of the Office of Works,” Neni said in the patient tone of someone who’s explained the same thing many times before. “That includes all the titles of the realm, both active and lapsed, and all about them, as well as many other things. It’s related to the Office of Wills that the Goldtrader headed.”
“Never mind him,” Rhuímel said. “He’s gone and not soon enough! What about House Tintehlë?”
“Well, the last lord was a canny Man, who foresaw that this might happen—had a dream or something. Carantir, the Herald’s chief clerk in the Heraldry section, says that that’s proof that he really was a High Man, if he had the ability to know some things ahead of time. Anyway,” he said a bit more loudly as his mother began, “But how could someone knows something before it—“
“Anyway, he fixed up some kind of on-going trust with the Bank of Maldréd, that all his monies there would continue to draw interest, as they would collect rents for him and make certain investments.”
“They did this unsupervised for four hundred years? Surely they have pocketed most of it by now,” I said skeptically.
His eyes twinkled. “That’s what I said, but it seems that he stipulated that they could only take some out if they had the signature of one of his House; failing that, the signature of the Steward and of two Elves. And their books had to be open to those Elves if they asked.”
“There’ve never been Elves in Minas Tirith,” Marna protested.
“Not for centuries, until the King’s foster brothers came with him,” her husband said.
Their son continued, “No, but apparently, the last time any came, it was a pair of them, exactly alike, who demanded to see those books, and it put the fear of the Valar into the bankers. Every so often, the Elves’ve sent letters, reminding them that they might come. It’s become a favorite tale—Carantir’s family don’t much like the bankers. And now there are Elves here, and Carantir swears that they are the same two that came that other time.”
“Nonsense!” said Marna.
“Elves are immortal, unless they die in battle, though,” Rhuímel reminded her.
“It is true that the King’s Elvish foster brothers are here,” I said slowly, “and they are identical twins, for I saw them myself, talking with Lord Halladan the day before yesterday.”
“Fancy!” Marna said, shaking her head in wonder.
“Anyway, the House is up on the Sixth Level, not far from Houses Issikolinda and Ornamir, that’s the new Dwarven Embassy, and the House of the Swan where Prince Imrahil dwells when he’s here,” Neni said. “I should think you might get the keys from the banker, or from Lord Húrin.”
“I have the keys,” I said, touching my belt-pouch.
“Well, I can’t get in without them,” I pointed out. “They were given to me yesterday. Have you any idea what the sigil of the House is, Neni?”
“Oh, yes,” he said. “I always liked it.” He bent his head over the paper, drawing rapidly, and turned it towards me; the others craned their necks to see it too.
For the first time, I looked at a falcon or eagle flying under a six-pointed star over three mountains. “What’s that line at the bottom, going to the left?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” he answered. “In the Heraldic Writs, it’s shown as blue in colour, so I thought that it represented a river. The House colors are dark blue and black—“
“Sounds like a bruise!” said Alta with distaste.
“—and the star is described as Elendil’s star, in silver. The mountains are to represent the three parts Arnor was divided into, I suppose. You’d think the color at the top would be black, because of the star, but no, it’s blue.”
“But why aren’t the colours green and blue?” Alta asked. “I mean, if the mountains are green, and the top is blue for the sky, why black and blue?”
“I don’t know.”
“But the falcon flies high and far,” said Rhuímel. “As you do, my friend!”
“And stoops, or falls from a great height,” I said glumly. “I’m scarcely a falcon!”
“Newly fledged, though,” he said, grinning and clapping me on the shoulder.
“Speaking of that—“ said Sharra, and blushed as I looked at her.
“What?” I asked.
Neni put his arm around her. “She’s too shy to say it, my lord, but I’m not. We do have a tailor’s shop, after all. Might you be willing to consider having us make you a set of clothes? She’s a fine hand at embroidering whatever sigil you choose to have as a badge. Begging your pardon, but that tunic is not quite what you should have.”
“What’s wrong with it?” I asked curiously.
“Nothing, for a military man out of uniform, who bought it from a ready-made shop in the Second Level. Aldarion’s, am I right? You’ll need things bespoke for yourself, my lord, from hats to boots, in better grades of cloth and leather. One set from our shop, Russo’s, might do you just until you have time to find one of the high-trade master tailors. No doubt Lord Húrin or Prince Faramir could suggest someone.”
“Or Prince Imrahil,” added Sharra. “Neni’s right, my lord, about the fit and cloth, I mean. My father could make some for you, if you wanted, for now. He used to work in such a shop, when he was a journeyman before Grandda died so suddenly. Folk will expect you to look a lord. My lord.”
“I don’t need to consult any lords or princes,” I said.
“The boy didn’t mean any offense to you, my lord,” Rhuímel began, but I waved him to silence as I stood up and leaned on the back of my chair.
“Will this mean that my oldest friends will no longer be my friends?” I asked wretchedly. “Neni, I’ve known you your whole life! Sharra, I toasted you at your wedding last year. Rhuímel—“
“Oh, now, Marpol, sit down again with us,” urged Marna, patting my arm. “Of course we’re your friends, whatever you have to call yourself! However you have to dress! We’re just trying to get used to it, that’s all. You don’t have to give them your custom if you don’t want to.”
“But I do want to,” I said. “That is, if you’ll take it.”
“Father will be pleased to,” Sharra declared. “I’m sure of it. He likes you, he said so last week. You come to the shop tomorrow, and he’ll measure you himself. And speaking of the shop, I should get back and see what those apprentices are doing. Father’s at a guild meeting with the two journeymen this afternoon, so there’s no one in authority minding them. Congratulations, my lord! We’re happy for you, aren’t we, Neni?”
“Very,” he agreed with a smile. “But Sharra’s right, we should go. Oh, here are the notes I made; I’ll draw up a proper longfather tree for you and send it over in a few days.”
“And so should we be on our way,” I said. “If you’re ready, Mistress?”
“Of course,” she said, rising.
As she was taking her leave of Marna, I had time for a word with Rhuímel about some of the books and instruments I would need, and he promised to begin gathering them for me. I would send him a list the next day, we agreed, but he had some notion already of the ones I might require. But he wouldn’t let me leave without giving me a new set of tablets; I folded the notes inside them before stowing them in my pouch.
We walked up to the Sixth Circle, and were just turning from the Gate tower when I heard my name called.
“Ah, Lord Tintehlë! I thought that that must be you,” said Prince Imrahil, resplendent in a blue cloak. “Good afternoon!” He was standing outside his townhouse, a youth next to him with his nose in a book.
“My lord Prince,” I said with a bow, wondering how he’d recognized me; we’d only met twice before, some years ago.
As if aware of my surprise, he said, “I remember that remarkable floating dock you devised; Erchirion still speaks of it. This is my youngest, Amrothos.”
The princeling glanced up from his book, putting a finger between the pages to hold his place as he bowed. “It is good to see you again, my lord. I should like to talk with you about some of my architectural ideas soon, if you have the time.”
“That is hardly likely, ‘Rothos,” said his father. “Soon he has to leave for Arnor, you know, although you are certainly welcome to come to supper some evening. Let my daughter know which one suits you best.” He bestowed a charming smile upon Alta, and I suddenly recalled his reputation as a keen appraiser –and pursuer—of beautiful women.
“This is my housekeeper, Mistress Alatáriël Nénharma,” I said stiffly.
She curtseyed. “Your Highnesses.”
Amrothos cocked his head. “You look familiar to me.”
“I was an under-housekeeper at the Citadel until recently, my lord.”
“So this is a promotion? How is it different from what you did before?”
“I expect to find out soon.”
“My son, we should not prevent them from their affairs,” the Prince said.
“We are trying to find my new House,” I remarked, not to be too abrupt.
“It’s a good thing you’re wearing a sword then, because you’ll need it,” said the younger prince. “There it is, right next to ours.”
My jaw dropped in consternation, for next to the House of the Swan was…an ivied thicket. One couldn’t even see the gates, the growth was so thick! I closed my mouth and opened it again to say politely, “My thanks, my lord.”
They went inside their gate, and Alta and I looked at the wall of green leaves and vines. Sighing, I drew my sword, grasped a handful of tendrils, pulled, and swung. The trick would be to cut without blunting my (borrowed) sword on the stone or wood beneath.
Alta pulled out her belt-knife to copy me, but I gave her my dagger.
Then Amrothos was back, armed with his own dagger and an axe. Not a battle-axe, but one suitable for chopping wood, and sharp enough to cut the wind, which was more to the purpose. “I think if we clear from here to here, judging by old buildings of this period, we’ll clear a small gate set within the larger one, my lord,” he suggested. He was right; I should have realized that, but at least I had not begun in the wrong area, if only by luck.
In a surprisingly short time, we had done so, I oiled the lock with the oil bottle and feather he also provided, and with both hands managed to turn the large key to unlock it with a rasping groan, and he helped me push open the gate—a difficult task, given that behind it was more greenery. I made a mental note to see if they could be rehung to open outward; it would be all too easy for an enemy to force them inward as they were….Then I chided myself for my habit of thinking in terms of fortification!
But once inside, we soon made room to swing the axe and one sword, and chopped a path through the wilderness contained within the walls, up some steps past what Alta was sure was a well, to the front door. When we had cleared that, he handed me a lantern, bowed, and with impeccable manners, said, “I shall leave you to discover your home, my lord. Good day, Mistress,” and took himself off.
“Well!” said Alta, looking after him. “I would expect any lad his age to want to see inside!”
“Given that Amrothos of Dol Amroth is a byword in his father’s realm and beyond for his devouring curiosity, that is a real testament to his upbringing. Ah, there it is,” I said in satisfaction as the flame took hold and I carefully closed the glass panes of the lantern. “Are you rethinking your agreement to do this, Mistress Alta? I never expected a jungle within the city!”
“Let us at least explore further before we discuss that, my lord,” she suggested. Again, we had to clear the door of ivy, oil the lock and pull hard to open one leaf of the great double doors.
I held the lantern high, and we stepped over the threshold into the main passage. And I had to draw my sword again, for the way was blocked with the thickest, dustiest layers of the largest cobwebs I had ever seen outside of Mirkwood!
Everywhere I saw decay and dirt. Mouse and rat bones crunched under our feet; we sneezed and coughed from the dust stirred up by our footsteps. I hacked our way from room to room, until we ended in a high turret up in the attics. There I flung open a window, after I wrestled with the shutters, just so we could breathe clean air and see each other’s smudged faces in late afternoon sunlight.
“This is appalling!” I said in dismay. “Best we lock it up and I lose the keys! Your mother could never come here, nor anyone else!”
But Mistress Alta was positively glowing with excitement, her eyes dancing. “I know it looks neglected,” she admitted, “and of course ‘tis your decision, Lord Marpol, but please hear me out first. You did say you wanted my opinion.”
“This is not so bad as you think.”
“Nay, it is worse!”
“Oh, come! How many houses have you lived in, to compare with this?”
“I haven’t,” I admitted. “Other than my father’s castle, last seen when I was a child, I have lived in barracks, tents or under the sky. I didn’t know what to expect, but not a jungle, nor one so filthy and infested as this! It’s a wreck!”
“Actually, it isn’t. Neglected, I grant you, but surprisingly sound. Consider, my lord: once the unchecked growth is cut back, you have the bones of gardens on three sides without, with stables and two wells, and space for almost an entire caravan to come inside the outer walls. And within doors, well, all the evidence of mice and rats we’ve seen are their bones. It has been so long since anyone lived here with food for them to eat, they’re long gone. Spiders have taken over, but can be banished easily. So far as I can tell, the fabric of the house, its foundations, floors, walls, this roof, windows and doors, are all sound. There is no dampness, nor heaps of fallen plaster. It all needs a good scrubbing, but that is easy enough to do. Under the dust-cloths are pieces of furniture that are all antique and therefore valuable; if they are not to your own taste, buyers should be willing to pay good coin so that you may replace them as you will. Whitewash, paint, tapestries, paintings, pillows, linens, all may be purchased to brighten these rooms. Soon we will be able to bring in fresh flowers and vegetables, see that the chimneys are all clear to draw well, and when it is ready, either you can move in yourself, or rent it to someone else. I don’t doubt that Minas Tirith—I mean Minas Anor—will soon have ambassadors from lands besides the Lonely Mountain who will need embassies in which to live, and the location can hardly be bettered. It is your decision, of course,” she repeated, and stood, eyes cast down, hands decorously linked—but I could see that the knuckles were whitened by her grip.
“You think it salvageable?”
“Oh, it is!”
I recognized that look, as she glanced about. It was that of someone in love! I saw desolation; she saw a rescue needing to take place. Briefly I wondered if she could resist cleaning the smuts from a child’s face, and stifled a grin. “This is not my sort of battlefield, but I bow to your being the more expert on this one. Very well, Mistress; you have my leave to decide your strategy and tactics. What do we do first?”
“You don’t do anything right now,” she said firmly. “I will come back tomorrow and take some measurements.”
I glanced outside to gauge the time. “We have another two marks, I make it, before I have to go up to the Citadel. Do you need to do anything further here today?”
“I’d like to walk through the ground and first floors one more time to fix the floor-plan in my memory,” she said, “and glance out at the back.”
So I closed the shutters and window, making sure they were secure—I knew a former thief who had told me that too many folk ignore roof-walking rogues, to their regret—even while I wondered what they could possibly steal, and we made our way down. We walked about, and she scribbled notes to herself on her tablets, while I forced open a kitchen window for a brief time.
Once outside and the front secured, I blew out the lantern and rang the bell at the House of the Swan. A maidservant answered.
“Please inform Prince Amrothos of my thanks for the loan of the axe and lantern,” I said. “I shall return them tomorrow, once I have had time to sharpen the one and refill the other. Is there a good inn nearby?”
“A good inn?” she repeated. “D’you mean a place to eat, mostly, or a place t’ sleep?”
“Well, both,” I said. “The very best, mind.”
“There’s the Mithril Sword on this level, ‘bout a half-mile ‘fore you get t’ the Houses of Healing,” she said after some thought. “The Prince and his family likes that; I know the Prince has stayed there briefly sometimes, when he’s not going t’ be here long enough to feel it worth openin’ the house. Or, you could try the Mindoluin Tree, which is back the other way; they’ve et there sometimes.”
“My thanks,” I said, and added as we turned away and she closed the door, “let’s try the Sword first. I seem to remember my commander sending me there once years ago.”
Alta insisted upon carrying the lantern; I carried the axe. The Sword was a handsome, two-winged building, three stories high, and we were greeted by the innkeeper, who introduced himself as Haldrin. He quickly showed us to a first floor private dining-room, and took our orders for a small supper after we each had an opportunity to freshen up. I returned to the chamber first, and was presently joined by Alta, who had smoothed her hair as well as washed up and brushed the worst of the dust from her clothing. I myself felt somewhat disheveled, although soap and water had proven very refreshing.
As we ate, I wrote out notes for her to present to my bankers the next day, to authorize expenditures, and to set up whatever accounts she required with merchants. The beef and vegetables were delicious, the service deft and unobtrusive, and we finished with a sweet apple custard tart.
“Now,” I said, rising and opening a door, “if you will come with me, you can tell me what you think. Here is a sitting-room, and opening from it are two bedrooms with a small necessary and a chamber for an attendant in between them, as you see. Pending your approval, I can lease them from Haldrin for as long as you want them, for yourself and your mother. He tells me his mother has experience as a nurse, and while she no longer works at the Houses of Healing, his nephew is a healer, and his mother is willing to be a companion for your mother while she is here, subject to your and her approval. The inn will provide linens, food and beverages, servants, and they have a small library available if she wishes to take advantage of it. Do you think the two of you could be comfortable here?”
“Oh, my lord, it is too much!”
“But surely she deserves the best?”
“It is very kind of you,” she said. Tears welled in her eyes.
I said hastily, “No, no, it is complete selfishness on my part!”
“How can you say so?”
“Because it’s true! After all, if you are here, then you are close to your work. If you are content that she is well looked after, then your mind and time are free to concentrate on your work, so you see it is to my benefit in the long run. I thought that she might like that room, with the view outward, better than the other, which faces the east. What do you think?”
“She will love it! And so do I! Thank you, my lord!”
“Then that’s settled. What time do you think you would be ready tomorrow for the move? I shall send Orophin to help you, and please engage any other help you need.”
“Good, then let me escort you down to your home, before I go up to the Citadel.”
“Oh, no, my lord, it is foolish for you to walk all that way there and back up again,” she protested. “I shall be well on my own. Please go on. Besides, I want to look at these rooms a bit longer, to see if some of our own pieces of furniture can fit in here, if Master Haldrin doesn’t object.”
“He won’t,” I assured her. “He told me that if you want to have it unfurnished, he’ll have a couple of his lads clear it out, or if you just want a mixture of some of your own and his. Long-term guests have stayed here before who liked both arrangements.”
Since she was insistent that she did not need my escort, I took my leave and returned to mu own rooms in the Citadel. Orophin was waiting for me, anxious to know how the day had been and what his duties would be on the morrow.