The next morning as I broke my fast alone, I was making notes of supplies we would need for a reconnaissance North when Cardin entered with a knock. “My lord, a lady’s here asking for you,” he said, looking flustered.
“Oh? Lady Ornamir?”
“No, my lord. She says she’s Lord Hirgon’s wife, only he’s not here, and she asked for you.”
“Where did you put her?”
“In the library?”
“Are you asking me or telling me?” I asked irritably.
He flushed. “Sorry, my lord. In the library. She isn’t much like my mother.”
Whatever that meant! I made haste to enter that chamber, and found a slender young woman with neatly coiled dark hair, and a perfect, flawless oval face, pale complexion and large grey eyes, perched on the edge of a chair. She rose to curtsey to me, and I bowed a bit more than I probably should have, which made me grimace.
If anything, she turned even paler, and flinched back as I took a step towards her; the slender hands gripping her skirts were trembling
I stopped immediately. “You honour my House, Lady,” I said. “Please forgive me; my wounds trouble me today.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Cardin’s jaw drop at the admission, but ignored him, speaking quietly. “The day’s greeting. May I offer you some refreshment? Please bring some tea and pastries, Cardin.”
“At once, my lord,” he said hastily.
“Please, sit down.”
She almost fell into her chair, and I carefully seated myself at a small distance, wondering if I would have to dive forward to catch her if she fainted.
Mistress Alta appeared with a tray and Orophin, who quickly brought a small round table for it. I introduced them, and my housekeeper quickly and quietly arranged the light meal, brought me a cup of tea as I liked it, and a buttered cobblestone before departing with my youngest servant.
But the interval had produced the diversion I had wanted, and my guest seemed slightly more at ease. Certainly she was less pale, and the trembling had stopped. She sipped her tea and nibbled a small moon-crescent, then sat back and gave me a slight smile. “You must think me an awful fool, my lord,” she said softly.
“Not at all.”
“Or at least a great coward.”
“Certainly not!” I shook my head. “Any fool can run; it takes great courage to confront one’s fears. I only wonder why you are in such terror, and how I may be of help.”
“I have been terrified for so long…..” A shudder racked her.
“What did my father do to you?” I asked grimly.
She looked up at me, wide-eyed. “How did you--?” and began to weep. The astonished look on her face told me that she had pent up emotion for far too long, and her control had at last broken.
If only Alta had still been in the room!
“Let me summon help—” I said desperately.
“No! Oh, please!” she gasped between sobs.
This was no ladylike dabbing at crystalline tears with a lace-edged handkerchief; it was the deep, tearing sobs of a soul in torment, racking her body, her face as contorted as a hurt child’s.
Impossible not to react—I went to her, took her in my arms, and let her cry.
Until something wrenched me aside and a fist hit me squarely on the chin, knocking me backwards to catch myself on my desk, just in time to catch Hirgon’s other fist in my hand and twist his arm behind his back, bending him over the desk as he shouted at me, “How dare you touch her, you misbegotten bastard!”
“Stop it! Stay still and listen to me, or your arm will break!” I told him.
And suddenly the side of my face felt as if dipped in fire!
“Stop it! Stop it, you bitch, or I’ll snatch you bald-headed!”
Mistress Alta’s voice cut through and silenced the tumult as Vorondor said, “You can let go, Marpol. We’ve got them.”
I blinked and obeyed. Vorondor and Tambaro stood there, holding Hirgon, so I stepped back. Rihan was holding Lady Aedyn by both arms as she wept more quietly and glared at me, but I could see one of her eyes was swelling closed. Mistress Alta was shaking one hand, but with the other pulled a cloth from her pouch and applied it to my face, which was bleeding.
“Orophin, fetch Finwarin, please,” my housekeeper was saying. “Cardin, pour out some brandy. Ah, there you are, Finwarin, send to Cook for a soothing tisane for the lady, and a cold compress for a black eye. My lord, how do you?”
“Grossly misunderstood,” I said plaintively, only to receive a look of mingled exasperation and – embarrassment?
“Then suppose you enlighten us. My lord. Why did they attack you?”
The scratches on my face smarted, and I realized that my shins were also aching, no doubt bruised from being kicked. I moved my jaw from side to side and winced. “Lady Aedyn was overcome with emotion, I attempted to comfort her, and Hirgon came in and…misunderstood.”
“But who is she?” asked Rian.
“My wife,” said Hirgon, whose eyes had not left her face. His voice was filled with longing.
“Let them go,” I directed. “Lady Aedyn, may I present my senior staff, who are just leaving—” My tone left no doubt as to my wishes, and they complied, murmuring the usual polite responses to an introduction and bowing before filing out, albeit with backward glances. I sighed; at the very least, I could expect twitting from them the next time we were in private. Rihan especially could be very tenacious about teasing.
However, that was for another time.
“Now, if we might all sit down,” I suggested. “Brother, I assure you, I made no improper advances to my new sister—“
“He didn’t,” said Aedyn. “I beg your pardon, my lord husband, for—for any seeming impropriety. I hope you will forgive me.” She was trembling again.
There was a tap on the door, and Finwarin entered with a tray, which he presented to Aedyn with a bow. “A blackberry tisane and a cooling towel wrapped around a piece of ice, my lady, sovereign remedy for a sore eye. Just hold it lightly against it, but don’t press hard. Sleep with your head somewhat elevated tonight, and tomorrow apply warm moist compresses for a third of a mark at a time. You may also wish to apply a soothing lotion of mashed strawberries and onions; Mistress Alta is making one up for you as we speak.” He caught my eye, set the tray on the table beside her, bowed, and headed for the door.
My voice halted him. “Prepare a suite for Lady Aedyn and bring me the key.”
“At once, my lord.”
The door closed quietly behind him, and I saw that both Hirgon and Aedyn were staring at me. I leaned back in my chair, stretching out my legs, and inquired, “Just what were you doing?”
They spoke together:
“You made her cry--” said Hirgon, as she said, “You were hurting him!”
Both broke off, glancing at each other and away, blushing.
“I think,” I said gently, “that my good-sister was going to cry whether or not I was present. Her nerves are a bit strained just now. And I assure you, my lady, that even with mending wounds, had I intended to really harm your husband, I would have done more than twist his arm a trifle. Hirgon, drink your brandy. Lady Aedyn, please at least taste your tisane, or Cook’s noon morsel will be inedible.”
They obeyed, decorously sipping. I sipped my tea, set down the cup with a click in its saucer—both jumped—and said, “May I make a couple of suggestions, as an…interested…bystander?”
“Of course, my lord,” she murmured.
“Now that you have demonstrated that you care for one another—“
“I wouldn’t—“ my brother began, but I held up a hand and said more loudly, “Oh, stop being an ass!”
Now both were glaring at me. I sighed and tried again. “Of course you care for one another—each was attempting to defend the other from me just now! I know your secret, you see: each of you cares for the other. Brother, I suggest that you begin courting your wife. Aedyn, my dear good-sister, I suggest that you accustom yourself to trusting those who love you.”
“C-court her?” Hirgon almost squeaked, his face scarlet to the ears.
“Certainly! Is she not worthy of being properly wooed?” I rose to my feet and picked up my tea and plate, bowed to her, and walked to the door. “I shall leave you undisturbed for a time. And Hirgon—“
“Don’t muck it up!” I said in a lower tone.
“Marpol!” he protested, but I could see that Aedyn had overheard, for a tiny smile curved her lips.
In the hall, Mistress Alta stood wringing her hands and looking worried. I held the dishes out of her reach and she followed me into the dining-room, where I sat down and began on the cobblestone. “No one is to disturb them for at least a quarter of a candle-mark,” I said. “Is a suite being prepared for Lady Aedyn?”
“Finwarin is overseeing it, as you ordered, my lord,” she said.
“Good.” One of the scratches stung as I chewed and I touched it lightly with a finger. “Snatch her bald-headed, Mistress?” I tried unsuccessfully to keep my tone neutral. It was no use; laughter fizzed under the surface.
She turned pink. “I shall apologize, my lord, of course,” she said.
A sudden thought made me more serious. “The lady has been much mistreated by my late and unlamented father,” I told her. “All are to be very gentle and unthreatening to her, or they shall answer to her husband—and be instantly dismissed by me.”
“Very good, my lord.”
As she turned toward the door, I could not help but add, “What would your mother say?” and chuckled as she hurried out.
But I had barely finished before a pounding at the door heralded another visitor, and I was just in time to intercept Angbor two steps from the library door. “The day’s greeting, Lamedon!” I boomed.
“I’ve come for my daughter!” he grated.
“I won’t have her abused by that—that—brother of yours!” he shouted.
“Nor will I, having met the lady,” I said agreeably.
“Don’t deny that she’s here! Aedyn! Where is she, Vittribula? I want her now!”
“Why? I’m taking her home!”
Rihan, Vorondor, Tambaro, Jorgil, Pauren, Orophin and Finwarin had all appeared in the back of the hall, the first three armed with their unsheathed swords and the others with clubs; I shook my head, made a hand motion, and they vanished. Cardin stood nearby looking miserable. At a knock on the outer door, and a nod from me, he opened it and a slender lady who could only be Aedyn’s mother walked in.
Angbor turned to glare at her. “I told you to stay home!”
“So you did,” she replied equably. “I chose not to. Pray excuse our intrusion into your home, Lord Tintehlë. I am Aedyth, wife of Lamedon.”
I bowed. “An honour, my lady. Your daughter is fortunate to have inherited her looks from you.”
Angbor scowled. “Are you flirting with my wife?”
“This is the second time in less than a candlemark that I have been accused—wrongly!—of flirting with a lady not my wife,” I said with some heat, “and I’m tired of it! Granted that both ladies are so lovely they naturally arouse protective feelings on the part of their spouses, but really, you and Hirgon are both leaping to unwarranted conclusions! No wonder neither lady wishes to be ordered about! Now, Angbor, before I am forced to draw upon you, again, suppose we sit down and discuss this quietly and sanely?”
“An excellent idea,” said Lady Aedyth.
“But unnecessary,” said another feminine voice. The library door had opened, and Aedyn and Hirgon emerged.
“I see you found my note, Ada and Naneth,” Aedyn said calmly despite her trembling. She was pink-cheeked, and I noticed that her hair was slightly mussed. “My brother-in-love has been very kind, and I’ve decided to accept his invitation to stay here. Would you please have my things packed and sent over?”
Angbor was verging on purple. “You will come home with us immediately!”
She looked up at him. “Father, it is unseemly to bellow in someone else’s home. And no, I will not.”
“Lord Marpol has extended an invitation. I have accepted.”
“I forbid it!”
His jaw dropped in shock, but she continued, “I’m a woman grown, even if I haven’t been acting like one, and I choose to do so now. You are my beloved parents, and I owe you much for your patience and forbearance. I should not like to offend or hurt you, but I must take control of my own life. So, no, Father, I’m not going home with you. I am staying here for the present.”
Before he could reply, Mistress Alta came down the stairs and made her way to Lady Aedyn’s side. “Here is the lotion you requested, my lady,” she said. “Chambers have been readied for your use during your stay. Will it please you to come inspect them?”
“My thanks! Mother, would you accompany us?”
“I would like it above all things!” said that lady, but before following them, she stood on tiptoe and whispered something to her husband, who nodded.
Hirgon said, “Lord Lamedon, I swear to you by Eru and the Valar that I have not and shall never raise a hand to Lady Aedyn.”
“Are you going to stay with Anfalas while you are here?” Angbor demanded.
“Unless my wife or my brother request that I leave, no, my lord, I am not.”
“If you harm her—“
“I have already given you my word.” To his credit, my brother did not raise his voice, although it hardened. “Either you accept it or you do not, but as she said, it is her decision where she shall bide, as it is mine where I bide. It is none of your business how we comport ourselves, but I will also swear, and I do, that I shall never force her. Do you want to call me out?”
I took two steps and stood beside him, facing the angry father.
Angbor threw up his hands. “Yes!—No! If I did, I’d never hear the last of it from either of them! Besides, it’d be murder--”
“Which would be avenged,” I said softly.
He nodded. “This conversation’s moot, because that will not happen. Lord Tintehlë, I apologize for having barged in—”
“Accepted, if it doesn’t happen again,” I said. “Once is a surprise, twice is a strain on good manners, and three would be an unseemly habit to which I will take exception.”
Lady Aedyth came down the stairs alone, smiling. “A most charming set of rooms,” she said cheerfully. “Aedyn wants us to come to tea tomorrow, and you shall see them then, my love. Come along, Angbor; I want to get her luggage sent over after I add a couple of small things she'll need.” Looking up at me, she added, “I have a request of you, my lord, since we are now relations.”
“I am yours to command, my lady.”
“I met your mother once,” she said. “She was very lovely, and did not deserve the hardness of her life, but I believe she would be very proud of you.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat and inclined my head.
“Could you please introduce Princess Lothlíriel to her? And your friend Lady Cormallen? She knows so few ladies here, as do I.”
“I believe that Lady Cormallen is presently out of the city, but I shall send a note to the Princess today,” I said readily. “Would you care for an introduction to Lady Cormallen’s mother-in-love, Lady Ornamir?”
“Thank you! It is nice to see one of the old Houses being put to proper use; I hope you know that your housekeeper is a treasure.”
I smiled at her. “That has become most apparent.”
“Then we should stop disrupting your routine and take our leave.” She curtseyed, Hirgon and I bowed, and Angbor jerked his head in what I chose to regard as a bow before offering her his arm.
Cardin closed the door behind them. “I’m sorry, my lords—I couldn’t stop him!”
“That wasn’t your fault, lad,” I assured him. “There will have to be some changes made, but hopefully, we shall have fewer of these incidents! I was surprised not to see your father and that hound!”
Hirgon said unexpectedly, “Cardin, no sensible person can blame you for the actions of your sire—or anyone else’s.”
“I hope you remember that, Brother,” I said wryly.
“If you will, Marpol. Seriously, do you wish me to remove to our Daedatar’s?”
“I haven’t changed my mind, unless you have?”
“No! But if you’ll excuse me, I have something to do.”
I waved a hand, and he headed to the front door, pausing to glance back. “What was the name of that flower-seller you told me about?”
I chuckled as the door closed behind him. “Now, Cardin, please ask the others to join me in a quarter of a mark. Mayhap we can get something accomplished today after all!”
“Aye, my lord!”
I took the opportunity to go upstairs. A maid hurrying out with her arms full of what I guessed were drapes gave me the clue I needed to find Lady Aedyn’s suite, which I noted was on the other side of mine from Hirgon’s, at the end of the hall. I put my head in the sitting-room door, and Mistress Alta, Finarwin, and Lady Aedyn broke off a discussion to look at me. “May I come in?”
“Of course, my lord,” said Aedyn.
“Does this meet your needs, my lady?”
“It’s fine, my lord.”
“Just Marpol, please.” I looked at my two staff members. “If she wishes any changes to be made, they are to be carried out at once, please.”
“They’re fine as they are,” she repeated.
“Well, perhaps a lighter shade on the walls—“ Finwarin suggested, but broke off at a look from me. “Here you are, my lord. The only one, so far as we are aware,” and he handed me a key.
I turned and presented it to my sister-in-love. “This, and the rooms they open, are yours for as long as you are here,” I said. “If the only way you feel safe is to have the servants clean when you are here, or only maids, you have but to say so. If anyone makes you uncomfortable, he will be dismissed at once. If there is anything you require for your comfort, please say so freely.”
She was wide-eyed with surprise. “That—that is most generous of you!”
“I have few friends, and fewer family—until now.” I smiled and bowed. “And I intend to keep the ones I have. Now I shall take my leave, and I shall not enter unless bidden. Could you spare Mistress Alta and Finwarin for the next few minutes?”
“Certainly. I shall feel most comfortable here, without a doubt,” she assured me.
As they and I descended the stair, I said to the valet, “Finwarin, she is in a fragile state. Take care around her, and instruct the male servants as to what I have said; I mean it.”
“I believe that Mistress Alta was correct a few minutes ago, in observing that they’re feeling very protective of her, from Orophin down,” he said. “But aye, I shall do so, my lord.”
“Speaking of that young imp, pray supervise him and Cardin in bringing in some refreshments for this meeting,” I directed him, and detained Mistress Alta for a moment in the hallway as he went into the library.
“I feel the need to explain something to you,” I said.
She smiled at me. “There’s no need for you to explain anything, my lord; your kindness speaks for you.”
My face heated. “That’s not what I wanted to say. I want your opinion: am I making a mistake?”
“In what regard?”
“Finwarin. It just occurred to me that I may have muddied the chain of command. He knows, because I told him, that you are the housekeeper and the head of staff here, but frankly, I think he would be wasted as merely a valet, particularly for me. Has he been trying to elbow you aside? Is he presuming? Shall I send him off? You must keep in mind that I’m just a simple soldier, and unfamiliar with highborn hierarchies. I wouldn’t hurt or offend you for the world.”
She regarded me thoughtfully, her own face unreadable for a moment before, to my astonishment, I saw tears well up in her eyes. I made an involuntary movement, hastily suppressed, towards her, but she shook her head slightly and smiled. “I’m not hurt, Lord Marpol,” she said softly, “and definitely not offended. No, Finwarin hasn’t overstepped in any way. I like him, and you’re right, he is wasted as merely a valet for one lord. He has been careful to defer to my authority, but I think he deserves more, and I have meant to suggest to you that you make him your buhdelier.”
“That will not clash with your duties?” I asked.
“No, my lord. In some households, mayhap, but with your probably having to have two households, here and in the North, it makes more sense to have two titular heads of staff who collaborate. That I know we can do. He believes that with training, Jorgil could become one of the two you will need, probably for your residence in the North. For myself, I believe I know someone who would do very well as your other housekeeper; she has already been helping me here. Her name is Marhiriel Duso. May I send her to you?”
“As you wish, although I accept your judgement.”
“Nonetheless, for such a position, she should have your approval, my lord.”
“As you wish, Mistress Alta, but why does this have to be decided now?”
“Believe me, my lord, it is necessary.” She looked down and bit her lip.
Mentally, I slapped my forehead. Of course; her mother’s health! I had promised her that it would come first. It must mean that she was worse, poor lady. “I’ll see Mistress Duso right now, then.”
“I thought you had a meeting?”
“I’ll see her now.”
“Thank you, my lord. I’ll send her in.”
A moment later, a tall woman with dark hair and hazel eyes, clad in a neat grey gown and white apron entered and curtseyed. “Good morning, my lord.”
Amazingly, it was still morning, if an eventful one! “The day’s greeting, Mistress Duso,” I replied. “I understand that you have been kind enough to help us here.”
She nodded. “Mistress Nénharma knew my situation, and when I asked, allowed me to work here pending your approval.”
“Did you work with her at the Citadel?”
“No, my lord. I knocked on the door and asked for work, once I heard that you were opening the House. I was born and raised in Fanuilond, in Lenninvet in Lebennin, and trained as a cook in the Legate’s household there until I met and wed my husband. Anarond was a soldier, but his family owned an inn, the Rod & Chair in the First Circle, so I worked there during the war.”
“He died in Osgilliath, before they pulled down the bridge.” She added, “Lord Boromir spoke well of him.”
“I’m sorry,” I said softly.
“He was proud of his service.”
“You do not wish to continue at the inn?” I asked.
“Even if I did, it was destroyed during the Siege, along with his father and mother; they had refused to go to the refuges, but insisted I go.”
“You’ve had many losses,” I said.
“No more than many. But I do need work, my lord, so I was grateful when Mistress Nénharma let word spread for the need of staff here.”
“Did she tell you that I shall probably have another residence in the North, so I shall need two staffs? Would you be willing in time to move to the North?”
“If necessary, my lord, yes, although I’m not sure I have all the skills I need as yet. But Mistress Nénharma said that she’d teach me.”
“I’m sure you will be an apt pupil,” I said.
Her eyes widened. “I’m hired?” she gasped.
“As second-housekeeper-in-training, if you wish the position.”
For the first time she smiled, hazel eyes lighting. “I will work hard, my lord.”
“So long as you work honestly and faithfully, and help her as much as you can, you are welcome here,” I told her, and we clapped hands on the bargain.
She curtseyed, and left.
I was about to summon my work staff for that meeting, when a discreet tap heralded Finwarin—but a Finwarin who was swallowing nervously as he advanced across the room. “May I have a word, my lord?’
“Are there orcs in the pantry?” I inquired.
He blinked. “You will have your joke, my lord. No. Mistress Nénharma just told me that she recommended me to become your buhdelier.”
“Congratulations,” I said cordially.
“You concur, my lord?”
“Of course. We were both in agreement that you were obviously wasted as merely a valet. Surely you don’t feel inadequate to the position?”
“Well, no. I just—” He stopped.
“Just what?’ I asked after a few seconds.
“I never expected advancement so soon—at my age—I will do my best, my lord!”
“I have no doubt of that,” I assured him. “Actually, I was hoping that you might consider making the acquaintance of Lady Ornamir’s buhdelier, Samno. I believe that he is new to that position as well. No doubt you could both benefit from comparing notes, so to speak. I don’t know if there are books on the subject—”
“Observations upon the Ordering of Noble Househelds, by Rognald Jeaves,” he said in a reverent tone. “I have long used his Guide for the Gentleman’s Gentleman as a touchstone for my professional work.”
“Splendid. If you don’t already have a copy of the first one, go get one; probably at Rhuimil’s bookshop.”
“I shall send young Orophin forthwith, my lord.”
“Oh, and Finwarin, I wanted to let you know that Mistress Duso is going to be Mistress Nénharma’s second, in order that she can be my housekeeper in the North when I establish a permanent base there.”
“I was already aware of that, my lord,” he nodded.
“Come to think of it, did you know the lady received some of her training in the Legate’s household in Pelargir?” I asked.
“I did, my lord. Her husband was a friend of mine, and accompanied me on a visit to my uncle when he too was employed there. She will be a most useful addition to our household.”
“Splendid. You are to cooperate with both of them in every way.”
“Very well, my lord.”
“Mistress Nénharma mentioned that you wished to promote Jorgil?”
Some emotion I could not gauge flashed across his face before it froze into its usual inscrutable expression. “I did, my lord.”
“Is that still the case?”
“It is, my lord.”
“Very well, then, you may tell him of his new status, and ask him to see me later.”
“I shall do so. Is there aught else, my lord?”
“One more thing. I wish there to be a man on the gate during the day; Cardin and Orophin are too young to repel boarders, if I may borrow a term from our more nautical neighbors. I wish no more incursions such as we’ve recently had, but they are simply too young and untrained to prevent unwelcome visitors from penetrating further than I wish. However, I also think that it would be a good idea for all members of this household to have some understanding of how to defend themselves at need. I shall leave it with you and Mistress Nénharma to organize that.”
“For the women as well, my lord?” he asked.
“Yes. In some ways, that’s even more important,” I said seriously. “I have no desire for any woman of my household to suffer indignities of any kind, particularly to their persons. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, my lord!”
“See to it, please.”
“I shall, my lord,” he agreed, and bowed himself out.