Mistress Alta came in to tidy up the room, giving me a gimlet glance that I returned with a determined frown. “I am not taking a nap,” I stated.
“As you say, my lord.”
“Why are you frowning?” I asked a few moments later as she piled the last of the used cups and plates on a tray that Cardin took out for her.
“I had thought that Lady Cormallen was somewhat younger,” she said.
“Lady Cor--? Oh, Silma! She is. But I knew that she is out of town right now, on an expedition to Ithilien with Captain Beregond and Princes Dalfinor and Legolas, so I invited her mother-in-love, Lady Silwen Ornamir, instead. Good thing, too. She managed to get a promise out of Imrahil that anyone in Belfalas coming up with good suggestions to better the lot of crippled soldiers will be rewarded, such as a new design for crutches.”
“What a wonderful thing that would be!” she cried.
“Lady Ornamir takes seriously the charge the King gave her and Lady Cormallen. A most formidable lady, Silwen!”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
She smiled. “It means that now I understand why the handwriting changed. I had written to thank Lady Cormallen for her help with recommending some staff to me the day before yesterday, and she had replied with a note signed with a single S. I wrote to her again yesterday, inquiring about a valet for you, and the reply this morning, also signed with an S, was in a slightly different hand. It must have been Lady Ornamir who replied. That must get confusing at times, with such similar names.”
“I had not thought about it,” I said.
“Oh, Mother will relish it. I save up little bits of things to tell her.”
“How is Mistress Altra?” I asked.
“Very much enjoying her new abode, my lord. Mistress Haldrin is a kind companion to her; they have become good friends.”
“Splendid! Please give her my compliments, and tell her I was asking after her.”
“I will, my lord.”
“And cancel the valet.”
“I’d far rather have a stable-lad.”
Arms akimbo, she demanded, “Do you intend to ride out this instant? You have more clothes than horses!”
“Which must change soon! I need a horse, and weapons.”
“Why don’t you read for a while?”
Before I could retort, there was a loud knock, footsteps in the hall, and Cardin was opening the door. “My lord f-- I mean, L-lord Forlong, my lord.” He sounded as rattled as he looked.
A large, long-legged, long-haired silvery-grey dog bounded in, almost upsetting the menkel, which teetered wildly. Cardin, Mistress Alta and another Man all dove for it at once; Cardin and Mistress Alta bumped heads and recoiled, and the other steadied the device as Forlong bellowed, “Heel, ser! Dammit, I said heel!”
The dog sat on its haunches, tail wagging madly, and barked once, happily.
“Sorry, still learning his manners, y’ see. More used to the stables. Brought a message from his mother for the boy.”
“Quite. Cardin, take your father to the other chamber, so you may speak in private,” I said. “Mistress Nénharma, would you please fetch some refreshments for our guests?”
She hastily mopped up a puddle left by the tilted menkel, and left.
I turned my attention to the uninvited Man standing a bit awkwardly beside the menkel. “Please sit down, my lord. It is my lord now, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Aye. Father fell in the battle before the Gates. I came up for the Coronation and to be confirmed in his stead.”
“I am sorry for your loss,” I said formally.
My half-brother nodded and sank into a chair. I looked at him carefully.
Hirluin the Fair, they had called our father, and Hirgon Golasgil, Lord of Pinnath Gelin, was in his image—except for the livid scar running from one corner of his right temple almost to his chin. He seemed to have lost the supercilious air I had expected to encounter along with his unblemished looks; he twisted the signet ring on his finger uneasily, and could not seem to meet my eyes.
The silence lengthened. A host of memories filled my mind, memories I had thought long banished, of a little boy I had loved.
A servant I had never seen before opened the door and came in, carrying a tray with wine and cakes. He bowed nervously, setting it down on a table to one side, bowed again, and scuttled out.
I sighed, and Hirgon jumped.
“Void take it!” I tried to get up, felt a stab of pain, and cursed, “Burzam ronk!”
Instantly, I felt ashamed of myself. Cursing in Orkish! How low could I sink? And in front of Hirgon, of all people! Taking a tight grip on my temper, I said, “Forgive me, I am not at my best.”
“Nor am I.” His voice was shaky.
“Would you mind moving closer? I am wedged in here with these broken ribs, and it’s difficult to see you properly from here.” Wonderful, now I was sniveling!
He rose and moved his chair closer, placed the tray on another, nearer table, and at my nod, poured us each a large cup of wine.
Taking mine, I saw the tremor in his hand, the strain in his face.
“Was Langstrand much harassed by the Corsairs?” I asked.
He nodded. “From Andrast onwards. The raids were worse than any in memory. I begged Father to let me lead an attack, but he said no. I asked him to allow me to take our people inland, and he said no, not until he heard about the Grey Host walking out of Morthond. Then nothing would content him but coming hence to spend his life in that battle! Do you know that, save for his own household, our men were the worst-equipped to stand on that field, even the four sell-swords he maintained? A scant two hundred he brought, and less than twenty survived!”
“So you fought there beside him?”
“No. He kept me at home.”
“Why are you here?”
“I told you, to be confirmed in my … honours.” His mouth twisted.
“I meant, why are you ihere, in this room?”
“I didn’t realize Forlong was coming here, and he wants me to buy that hound. Says I need it, the fat fool! ‘Come with me while I see my son,’ he said. I could’ve sunk through the floor when I realized it was you the boy’s placed with.”
“Hirgon, look at me. Look at me!”
His eyes, filled with misery, met mine and flinched away, a larger version of the small boy I had often comforted years ago. With a grunt, I sat up straighter, swinging my feet to the floor and reached out to take his icy hands. “What a long time since I rode in Pinnath Gelin!” I said. “I remember the green of the hills in the spring, and even in the winter, the grasses whispered of summer. They were bleached in the cold, but I cannot remember the trees except in leaf, and the long days under them….” I spoke on, of the small creatures in the woodlands and grass, of the rivers that bounded them, of the smallholdings in the folds of the hills, as I had when we were boys and he woke from a nightmare, and gradually I felt his hands still and warm under mine, until they ceased to be so taut. His face was wet with tears, and I blinked a mist from my own eyes. “Drink your wine.”
Obediently, he drained his glass.
“Good. Where are you staying?”
“At an inn in the Fourth Circle, the Broken Rod.”
“Cardin!” I bellowed.
The door opened. “My lord?”
“Is your father still here?”
“No, my lord, he left some time ago.”
“Send word to the Broken Rod that Lord Golasgil will not lie there tonight, and ask Mistress Alta to ready the chamber next to mine for my brother.”
“At once, my lord!”
“Hirgon, we never had much in common, but we are bound by shared blood. By how much else, we shall have to decide. I tell you now, however I was as a boy, I will not ignore that bond unless you prefer it. Our father was called the fair by those who didn’t know him, but I knew to my cost how cruel he could be, and I think now you knew it too.”
He nodded. “I’m not your equal—“
“My equal? Rather, I was not yours, being base-born.”
“Nay, you were ever the superior. I knew it, he always said so, how you were twice the Man I was, much worthier to inherit, and cursed me for not being the bastard.”
“How like him! So instead of raising two sons to love him, he chose to revile each to his own face, and raised us each to envy the other!” I snorted.
Hirgon stared at me. “You envied me?”
“From your birth until after he threw me out, aye. After all, you were the one in his home, your mother was better clothed and fed than mine, you had the better pony and toys and books. I especially envied you the chance to learn from your tutors, once he barred me from them. But I took his measure in his treatment of those around him—” Anger rose in me again, as memories of his cruelties resurfaced, until I stuffed them down. The Man was dead; he could never do harm again. “—and I realized I was out of his power. He could not diminish who or what I would be, and I was determined to act better than he had, to be better than he was, as you can. But we can speak more of this later, when you are more at your ease.”
“I have not been at ease for long and long!” The cry was wrenched from him.
I believed him, but chose to say, “Ah, but here you may be. You are well come and welcome.”
“I had not expected such a reception from you.”
“I have not so many brothers I can afford to spurn any of them!” I smiled. “Yes, Orophin?”
“My lord, Mistress Alta says the room is ready, and so is the day-meal, or would you prefer it in here?”
“Isn’t that earlier than usual?”
He looked uncomfortable, and I took pity on him. “But it is convenient. Have you eaten, Brother?”
“Not since breaking my fast at dawn,” he admitted.
“Trays in here would be very good, so I need not stir,” I said. “Ask Vorondor to pardon my preferring to spend the evening alone with my brother, if you will.”
There ensued a bustle, as Mistress Alta directed the laying of a place at the table for Hirgon, and a tray on my lap once I was tucked up again to her satisfaction, half-reclining on the sofa, before she urged Orophin and Cardin out.
“Really, you’d think I was some potentate in Khand!” I sighed.
Over dinner, as he picked at the food, I saw that Hirgon was drinking deep almost unconsciously. He haltingly began to speak a bit more about the past from his perspective. I realized that while I had had the freedom to learn my work, he had been kept dangling at Father’s heels, mostly being ignored or scolded, never given much authority, and seemed much younger than the decade that separated us. What had seemed the unkindness of being sent away from home as young as I had been, it was borne in upon me afresh, had actually been a great boon to me, and I pitied him from my heart. Grown Man that he was, he felt himself an untried boy. I had Cardin fetch another bottle of Dorwinion Red after we finished, knowing that our father would never have any but the thin, sour wine of the region, more like vinegar than a decent pressing. Hirgon didn’t seem to notice that I filled his cup almost twice as often as my own. Evidently no one had ever taught him how to drink.
“Have you a wife and children?” I asked.
My brother sighed. “Father insisted I wed a lass of his choosing, Adeyn, only daughter of the Lord of Lamedon. She had been mostly raised by her mother’s folk in Ethring. Lord Angbor sent for her, and we first met each other on our wedding-day. She was so fair, Marpol! Hair black as midnight, skin the color of sea-foam, eyes as grey as storm, and so young, only fifteen to my twenty-five years.”
“I envy you,” I said.
“I was as much a virgin as she—“
Startled, I blurted, “Why?”
“I had no mind to sow my seed as he had. It seemed unfair, especially since such a child might be used more cruelly than I had been. I knew that you had suffered, for all that you had protected me as long as you could. He often taunted me about it. That night, just as we were left in our chamber, he barged in to inform me that he would examine the sheets in the morning, and if I had not done my duty in taking her maidenhood, he would in my stead, for it was past time I got an heir of my own body as soon as may be. My bride’s shyness turned into terror. I was drunk—Father said later that he’d put something in my last cup to ‘stoke my furnace,’ as he put it,--and I was desperately afraid he would take her. If he did, it would not be gently…but I was clumsy, and—and—she screamed and wept—and afterwards, she begged to be allowed to leave. She hated us. All she wanted to do was go home. Father insisted she stay, and I tried to trouble her as little as I could.”
“Any children?” I asked quietly.
He shuddered. “Three, and all misshapen, dead before birth. I would not let them show her any of them, and I drew once on Father, when he threatened to beget an heir on her if I would not.”
“You drew on him?” I echoed, amazed.
“Aye, three years ago, and put him to bed for a fortnight with the wound, one of the best moments of my life! “ For an instant his head came up and I glimpsed what he might have been. “That gave me the opportunity to send her home to her mother’s kin, where she wanted to be, with money for her maintenance. I don’t know why she never asked for a divorce, although Father would not have permitted it.” He sat drooping, the image of a defeated Man.
“Do you want one?” I asked.
“No! She is the fairest lady in Gondor, Marpol. I imagine sometimes that if we had had a chance—if I had not been Father’s son—we might have been able to be happy. As it is,” he said wretchedly, “I am fairly sure that Angbor will want to either call me out, for the way she was treated, or will protest my confirmation tomorrow, and she will demand a divorce. If she does, I will not stand in her way. She should have some chance to find a man who will make her days a joy, and give her living children. She is yet young enough.”
“How old are you, Hirgon?” I queried after a pause.
“Four-and-thirty, you know that.”
“Still young enough to change your own fate, if you choose to do so. But you must be weary, after your journey.”
He yawned. “I am. I have not been able to sleep well, the last few nights.”
“I can understand that.” I pulled on the bell-pull, and Mistress Alta answered a moment later.
She raised an eyebrow at the second bottle lying on its side, and stood waiting.
“Is my brother’s chamber ready?”
“It is, my lord, and Cardin fetched his luggage from the inn.”
“Splendid! Have two of our men help him upstairs; that valet can attend him to bed. Sleep well, Brother! We will speak more tomorrow. What time are you due at the Citadel?”
“The fourth hour after dawn—“ He yawned again. “Sorry.”
“Go to bed, Hirgon,” I repeated, and he almost stumbled out of the room.
“Are you retiring now as well, my lord?” Alta inquired.
Unlike Hirgon, I felt wide awake and filled with energy. “Why would I do that?”
“Some Men grow sleepy when they have drunk deep,” she remarked.
“Some Men do, but it would take more than half of one bottle for me to reach that state, and I have avoided it since I was much younger than he is now,” I retorted. “Would you ask that valet fellow to come speak with me, once he’s finished pouring Hirgon into bed?”
“You aren’t going to dismiss him tonight, are you? My lord.”
“Certainly not! Oh, please ask him to make sure all is right with my brother’s robes and so on for tomorrow; he’s being Confirmed in his honours, now that our father is dead and he’s inherited the barony. Can a bath be drawn for him in the morning?”
“I shall see to it,” she nodded.
Something in her tone made me look at her sharply. “I feel a ‘but’ hovering in the air. What is it?”
She grew pink. “Do you—do you mind about that?”
I was surprised. “Why would I mind?”
“Not inheriting yourself, I mean,” she said. “Clearly, you’re the elder brother.”
“I was ten when he was born. But being base-born, I would never have inherited. And had I been legitimate, I would have been tied to the barony all my life, and under my father’s heavy hand—and heel. My brother has more to him than many realize, Mistress, in fact more than he realizes himself! No, no, I have been the more fortunate. I’ve had a much easier time than he's had. Our father did all he could to antagonize us one against the other as well as against himself. An odd Man, our father, perverse and difficult, proud and cruel. The only grief I feel about his death is that he lived such a poor shadow of the life he could have had.”
“What a sad epitaph!” she exclaimed.
“It is,” I agreed. “Now, I intend to read for a time, and then go to bed. Have Cardin escort you to the inn, if you please, when you leave.”
“I don’t need an escort!”
“Nonetheless, you shall have one, unless you wish to stay here tonight?”
“Mother would worry if I don’t come.”
“Then Cardin will escort you.”
She sighed and gave in. “Aye, my lord.”
“May I get you anything?”
“Would you please put that stack of books here within reach? And some parchment and my inkwell? Thank you.”
“Good night, my lord.”
“Good night, Mistress.”
Sometime later, a discreet tap on the door heralded a slender, dapper man who bowed as he approached. “Mistress Nénharma told me that you required my presence, my lord. I am Finwarin.”
“I understand that she engaged you to be my valet?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“I’m not sure why.”
“It is customary for a noble of your standing to have a personal manservant, my lord.”
“I’ve dressed myself for over forty years, Finwarin,” I said dryly.
“I’m certain of that, my lord, but if you will permit me to speak freely?” At my nod, he continued, “It is understandable that your housekeeper has not had the time to explain the scope of the duties of my position, nor my background. I am one of a line of Men who have been servants for generations, my lord. I was a boot-boy first, then a footman, then a valet and under-buhdelier before the War. My former master, the last of his family, died of a fever just before we were to leave the Refuge to return to the city. I know how to maintain my lord’s wardrobe, how to prepare any repast he may wish, the art of massage, how to tend an illness, how to convey a message, how to do many tasks unobtrusively but well. I know the pedigree of every House, from Exalted to Great to Lesser, in Gondor, Arnor, Rohan, Dorwinion, Harad, Khand, and Umbar, and all the genealogies of the Elvish Houses from the First Age on, and in Rivendell, Lórien and the Forest Realm, and proper etiquette for almost any occasion. I am conversant with all the current Court gossip as well as that of the past thirty years, all its scandals and rivalries. I can instruct in five ciphers and the languages of the fan and flowers, as well as sixteen Court dances. I know the antidotes for twelve poisons, and the procedure for a duel. I can do the place-cards for a banquet involving thirty different ranks, and who has precedence in which set of circumstances. Mistress Nénharma has apprised me of your position and role in the future of our realm, my lord, and I wish to be part of that mission, in however way I may be of most use. I could not serve as a military Man, but I may serve in my own way, and will, if you will have me.”
I blinked but managed not to gape. I had not had any such idea of the scope of a valet’s duties! He could be an extremely valuable asset to many nobles! In my ignorance, I had vaguely thought of him as merely handing me my pants!
“If you know aught of me,” I said at last, “then you must realize that I am a plain Man, Finwarin. I had no real notion of what your duties can entail, but I’d be a fool to ignore the talents and skills you doubtless have. However,” I lifted a finger in admonition, “I am not the Peacock of Dol Amroth, to dress like a dandy! So if you think that you can trick me out in pink and lavender, or some outlandish elaborate getup—”
He shook his head. “With respect, my lord, those colours would be most inappropriate for you, and the styles and cuts which would best set your figure to advantage would differ from the Prince’s. Any valet worth his wage knows his master must approve of the ensemble, or it will not be worn well. I advise only.”
“Would you be willing to assist me in…unorthodox ways?” I asked.
His eyes glinted. “Could my lord give me an example?”
I leaned back. “Do you know aught about Hirluin the Fair, Lord of Anfalas?”
“Do you wish me to blazon his arms? No? Well, then, Hirluin the Fair, late and probably unlamented Lord of Pinneth Gelin, son of Golasgil, who is in fact the Lord of Anfalas, died in battle on the Pelennor at the head of a pitably small number of his household forces—“
“How many?” I asked.
“I heard that he brought only four supposedly trained mounted men, and another one hundred ninety-six, none really trained. All but twenty are dead, primarily because they were poorly equipped through his miserliness. This included his own sword, which snapped, and most of his men’s arrows were warped. He was lord for fifty years, and despite his efforts at bullying, overcharging rents, and fraudulent dealings, was not measurably enriched by his people. Lord Denethor was having his tenure investigated, and no doubt the King will address that at tomorrow’s audience. He had only one legal spouse, Lord Hirgon’s mother Lady Gorinwen, who died shortly after Lord Hirgon’s birth. Lord Hirgon is his only heir, and was prevented from fighting in the War by his father, who actually chained him in a dog kennel for several months.”
“A dog kennel?” I exclaimed.
“So I am told, my lord.”
“I can well believe it,” I said grimly. “And what can you tell me of Hirgon?”
Finwarin hesitated. I waited silently.
The valet said slowly, “My lord, please forgive me. I had forgotten that these Men are your close kin.”
“Whom I have not seen since I was fourteen years old. Hirluin is kin only because he sired me—“
“Not Golasgil? I thought you the young lord’s uncle.”
“No. Hirluin did wed my mother, but set her aside and insisted she had been his mistress, which was untrue. The marriage was fraudulent, without her knowledge, and he set her aside as soon as he went through her money and saw someone he fancied might advance his interests more. You could not surprise me by any vile news of his behavior. On the other hand, I do not know much of my brother, who was a mere child when I left home.”
A bonny child, with an open, eager, joyous face; he had been my shadow from the time he could walk until the day, weeping and calling my name, he was held back by his nurse as I trudged away, my few possessions on my back, bound for a beacon-tower after my naneth’s death.
“Then, my lord, I can tell you that he seems to be as unlike his sire as you are. A gentle soul, I’m told, who grieved when his father sent his tutors away, and who has ever been as kind to his folk as he dared. I spoke with his escort when I went to fetch a forgotten item at his inn.”
I regarded him thoughtfully. “What item?”
“A silver hairbrush,” he said without a blink.
I grinned. “Hirgon's never owned such a hairbrush in his life; Hirluin wouldn’t have allowed it! Deception is in the details, Finwarin; you’d do well to remember that.”
“I stand corrected, my lord, but you do have the advantage of prior knowledge.”
“In this case, at least, I do,” I agreed. “How large an escort did he bring?”
“One man, my lord, a ragged servant who is quite untrained. They have been sleeping in the haymow at the Broken Rod.” The distaste in his tone was unfeigned, and I shook my head. I knew it for one of the worst hostelries in the city, barely deserving of the name. “His clothing is quite inferior to what it should be for even a lesser lord; obviously, he has had nothing new for almost a decade.”
“What’s the man’s name?” I asked.
“Donael, my lord, swarthy as a Hillman, but guileless and quite admiring of Lord Hirgon, because he insisted his servant ride his own horse when Donael’s mule fell lame; ultimately, they took turns at walking and riding, which is why they are almost late in arriving as bidden. Lord Hirgon would not eat until his man did, after their mounts were seen to by them personally. From what I could gather, when Lord Hirgon first met his lady, he stumbled and fell at her feet, and has been at them ever since. But my lord, I think that your brother can barely see.”
“Donael told me several incidents of his clumsiness, but they all seem to stem from stumbling over something unexpected. You have no doubt noticed how he squints in bright light.”
I hadn’t, but we had not been outside, nor had he been close to the candle-stands nor lamps in my room.
Making up my mind, I asked, “Finwarin, are you of a mind to help me?”
“As my lord commands.”
“You may get little rest tonight,” I cautioned him.
“Sleep is often overrated,” he replied.
I reached into my belt-pouch and took out a small purse. “First, do you know aught of prostitutes?”
“My lord? That might not be the best idea, with partially-mended ribs—“
I sighed. “My brother remarked that he is loath to spread his seed, as I am. These are my instructions….”
As I talked, I noted that while he was too well-trained to smile, his eyes began to twinkle. When he offered a few suggestions, I knew that I had found a good confederate.
“Hirgon! Hirgon!” Insistently, I called and shook my brother until he opened his eyes to blink at me.
“Marpol—Is it morning already?”
“I’m sorry to disturb your rest, Brother, but there is much to do before you see the King. No, ‘tis the middle of the night.”
He sat up. “What is it?”
“Well, first I wish to make an introduction. Lord Hirgon of Pinneth Gelin, may I present Mistress Narárië, of the Silver Leaf.”
His jaw dropped as she glided forward from the shadows and dipped in an elegant curtsey. “My lord,” she murmured in a voice as silken as her draperies.
“M-Mistress,” he stammered, pulling up his legs as she sat on the edge of his bed. “What—what’s going on?”
“She was born in Langstrand,” I told him. “Our father intended to sell her to a brothel in Dol Amroth, but she ran away.”
“I wasn’t a-goin’ t’ let ‘im learn me m’ trade,” she said in an unmistakable local dialect which instantly changed back to a higher-class Westron as she continued, “So I apprenticed, and learned, and now I own the Silver Bough, the best brothel in the city. Had your father been a different kind of Man, my lord, he would have done what any caring noble father would—given you a key to my establishment upon your fourteenth birthing-day, or one like it in Dol Amroth or Pelargir, that I or my sisters could properly instruct you in the arts of lovemaking, that you be able to satisfy yourself and your spouse or mistress. Lord Marpol has asked me to do so for you, my lord, and to enable you to sleep more restfully before your duties tomorrow.”
“I’m—I’m a married Man,” he said, batting her hand away from his ankle under the sheet.
“I am a clean Woman,” she told him calmly.
He blushed. “I meant no offense—“
“None taken. Here, my lord, may I help you to some juice of the orange fruit?”
“I’m—thank you, but I’m not thirsty!”
“But I am, and I cannot drink unless you do. “Tis only the juice, I assure you. May we not speak for a little?”
I left them to it.