I looked around the library table at my staff: Vorondor, Rihan, and Tambaro to my left, and Mistress Alta, Finwarin, and Cardin on my right. “We need to plan the trip North,” I said. “First, I want your suggestions as to who should go with me.”
After exchanging glances with the two on either side of him, Vorondor said, “All three of us, of course.”
I shook my head. “Sorry, Faldi, but I want you to remain behind, to liaise with the Citadel, particularly with Steward Halladan in my absence. Rihan and Tambaro, you are both coming—and I want you, Tam, to bring some birds.”
“Birds?” echoed Cardin.
“Pigeons, and a few other kinds, boy,” Rihan explained. “’Tis a hobby of mine, and I’ve been training some to come here instead of the barracks. They’ll bring messages from the travelers, in case we need to get some information. I’ve been training them with Tambaro, so some will fly back from here to find him.”
“You can do that?”
Tambaro grinned. “We once encountered a mage who…had a severe problem. In exchange for helping him out, he agreed to give us one spell.”
“Actually, more than one, but linked,” I said. “One increases the bird’s instinct to find their home nest—but the others make that ‘nest’ one of three talismans. Each of us have one, and we know the key to send it to which of the others we want. It’s not instantaneous, but handy. This way, we can send messages both ways.”
“I never thought of such a thing!” marveled Cardin.
“You’re coming too,” I announced. “It‘ll be good experience for you.”
“Thank you, my lord!”
“There’ll be plenty of work to do, so you may not be as happy during it as you think,” I said wryly.
“My lord, you should take someone to manage the domestic side for you,” Mistress Alta said softly.
“This is a reconnassance trip; we’ll be riding hard and long,” I warned.
Finwarin spoke up. “My lord, I agree with Mistress Alta. As I understand it, you will be making long-term plans based upon this journey. Our responsibility is to handle accommodations for you; how can we do that most efficiently if we do not know what is available? And I mean no offense, but you are not merely a soldier now, you are an important official of the Crown and a lord besides. Those strangers in the North must understand that from the beginning.”
“Judging from the Rangers, Lord Halladan and the King,” I said, “not to mention the Halflings, they do not seem to be folk over-impressed by status. I doubt consequence will do aught but alienate them.”
But the others were shaking their heads in disagreement. Rihan said, “My lord, it’s true that the Rangers don’t stand upon ceremony, show, or solemnity, but do they represent all their people?”
“Besides,” Tambaro pointed out, “you will also be traveling from here to and through Rohan, and stopping at Imladris, possibly encountering Dwarves and even some of the Dunlanders. How do you know that none of those you meet on the way may not put more weight upon outward appearance?”
I sighed. “Very well, then you will be coming along, Finwarin. You must keep up, so I hope that you can ride. Tambaro, you will equip us with mounts and pack-horses.”
Cardin looked up from his note-taking. “Are we taking a wagon, my lord?”
I shook my head. “I’m not sure what conditions we’ll find, so no. Just pack-horses. Rihan, explain later to these two the rationale for how many. Finwarin, you may pack one extra dressier outfit for me, the plainest of the new ones, and no more.”
He opened his mouth to protest, but closed it, inclining his head slightly. “As you say, my lord.”
“Good. I want to leave the day after tomorrow. If you need to, consult with each other or me. Any questions?”
“What about provisions?” Mistress Alta asked.
“We’ll mostly eat what we can forage or hunt, with a few staples.”
“I can give you lists, Mistress,” Tambaro said.
Vorondor was frowning. “What about mounts for us?” he asked. “You need a horse for yourself, at the very least.”
“We’ll just have to do the best we can. I’ll be organizing maps and the surveying equipment. If necessary—“
I was interrupted by a knock, followed by Jorgil’s head inserted in the door. “Your pardon—“
“Jorgil, either come in or stay out, but don’t come halfway,” I said testily.
He bowed hastily. “Sorry, my lord, but the Warden of Keys and the King of Rohan are here to see you.”
“We’ll resume as needed later,” I said in quick dismissal, and they nodded, passing the two visitors with bows and curtsey.
“The day’s greeting, Your Majesty, my lord,” I said with a bow of my own.
“And to you, Lord Tintehlë,” said Húrin formally. “Have you met Éomer King?”
“Not individually,” said the Rohirrim monarch with a smile. “My brother King Elessar has told me that you will be going to the North. It occurs to me that you might need some horses, unless of course you have your own.”
“We used the ones assigned to us in the army. I did not think to purchase any when I left,” I admitted. “Vorondor will find some for us—“
But both Men were shaking their heads. “While you may not have problems finding pack animals, you will insofar as riding beasts,” Húrin told me. “With the army being made smaller, many mustering out were allowed to take horses as part of their pay. That’s why I was pleased to bring Lord Éomer to meet you, although I need to speak with you as well.”
Just then, Cardin entered with a tray containing mugs of ale and a dish of small savoury pastries. We helped ourselves, I nodded my appreciation, and he left almost noiselessly.
“We have some mounts lacking Riders,” Éomer stated with a sigh. “While I will not sell any young mares, I will be willing to let you have your choice of older ones, and geldings. Would you care to come choose?”
My eyes widened. “That is most kind of you, my lord! My thanks!”
We arranged that Vorondor and I would meet him outside the Great Gates in the morning, and after a few comments, he bid us farewell, and left.
“I am very grateful for your thinking of him,” I told Húrin.
“Good. I hope you will not mind my asking you for some advice.”
“If I can be of help, I would be pleased,” I said.
He rubbed a finger over the side of his mug. “I took your advice about Erdil. As you predicted, he was stripped in the common cell in which he was put, and roughed up rather more than anyone expected; I had the guards remove him to a single cell of his own. Other than receiving food and having his slops removed when he’s asleep, he’s been left completely alone for the last several days. But I’m concerned that he may lose his mind; after threatening, cursing, screaming, crying and pleading, he’s taken to lying curled in a ball, not even bothering to eat or drink for the last three days. I really have no right to keep him mewed up indefinitely, yet I’m not certain what to do next. Master Zoll is firm in not wishing to bring charges, so it’s not a matter of law, exactly, but simply releasing him won’t solve anything. I don’t want him in further trouble, but I frankly can’t see much of a future for Erdil Ladramenhirion here. He has no kin or home elsewhere. I’m at my wit’s end!”
“There really isn’t much of a future for Erdil Ladramenhirion here,” I repeated thoughtfully. “Then let him not be Erdil, but have a new name and life.”
Húrin tilted his head. “I thought of that, but so many know him, or of him, even if he could be persuaded to eschew his own name, how would that help?”
“You know as well as I do that scandal dies down in light of the next one,” I said, “and so will this about his family, although it may take longer than usual. I agree that simply dumping him back into his former habitat will not suffice; all temptations need to be removed until he is so accustomed to new ways of thought and being that they are not as immediately attractive. It’s why new recruits are rarely stationed close to home. Should he decide on his own later to go to ruin anyway, then at least you will have the consolation that you tried and it was his own more informed decision. I wager part of his problem is that he has no idea of what he really is capable, or where his own talents lie. He’s been rebelling against his father’s wishes and demands so long, it’s habit. He needs to be in completely different surroundings, among people with purpose and discipline, unimpressed by his former estate.”
The Warden brightened. “Would you be willing to take him with you on this expedition?”
Too late I saw the trap I had been blithely creating for myself!
“There is someone we must consult before I decide,” I said after a moment’s thought, and pulled the bell-rope.
Orophin appeared. “Yes, my lord?”
“Please ask Cardin to step in here,” I directed, and in a very short time, my apprentice arrived.
“Yes, my lord?”
“Sit down, please,” I said. “We’re hoping you can help us,” and Húrin told him, “You may recall that your father had you released into Lord Tintehlë’s keeping after that matter of Master Zoll’s flower-stall. However, because most of the damage was done by young Ladramenhirion and he has no family that will stand surety for him, he was put in a common cell to cool off. The other prisoners disliked his…attitude, and stripped him, so he was put into another cell by himself for several days. The difficulty is that since Master Zoll is not bringing charges, it isn’t a matter of a fine being paid or worked off, yet he cannot be kept there indefinitely.”
“You’re his friend,” I said. “Tell us, is he capable of good, or is it too late for him?”
“He was kind to me, my lord.”
“What I saw and heard was a pompous, overbearing, hotheaded, foulmouthed oaf who was not exactly acting like an adult, but more like a spoiled brat teetering on the brink of committing crimes and blaming everyone but himself. How was pushing you, and then kicking you, as well as destroying a Man’s livelihood out of pique, good or kind?”
Cardin flushed but looked me in the eyes. “It wasn’t, my lord, and I have no excuses to make for him. Mostly, it’s that he doesn’t know any better. It wasn’t me he was hitting, it was all the mess that’s suddenly happened to him. He hated his life as it was, but he doesn’t know what else to do. Down deep, he’s worth it, I’m certain. He gave me some salve for a hurt kitten I told him about that I found; I think he made it himself, and later he asked me how the cat did. It helped, it really did. All the other boys wanted to make a game of killing it, and he told them flat that torturing an animal is base, as it is.”
“That’s encouraging,” remarked the Warden.
“It is, but I’m charged with your welfare, Cardin. What if Erdil came to you and asked you for help? He has neither money nor prospects, unless there are family connections we don’t know about. Do you know of any?”
“Nay, only his mother and sisters, and Lord Elena disinherited him, so they wouldn’t dare help him or they’d risk being cast out too. I’ve heard he barely allows them houseroom, and won’t even allow them into the public rooms of his House, so my mother says,” Cardin told us. “If Erdil came to me, I would bring him to you, my lord.”
“To me?” I repeated blankly.
“Yes, my lord. You'd know what he should do,” Cardin said confidently. “After all, I haven’t any money to give him, and wouldn’t if I did, unless he swore he wouldn’t just drink it up or get into more trouble. You could help him.”
“Exactly what I thought,” said Húrin, grinning.
I glared at him. “That’s not been decided yet! After all, I have a commitment to Cardin’s father, who would not be pleased if I threw his son into the company of that same scamp he so dislikes. What if Erdil led you astray?”
“He wouldn’t, my lord. Well, I know he did before,” the lad admitted honestly. “And I have to admit, he has been able to talk me into things. But that was before.”
“Before I became oathbound to you. I won’t mess that up for anyone! I want to learn all you will teach me, and I want you and my lord father to be proud of me someday! Before, I didn’t really like most of what we were doing, only Mother told me I had to get them to like me for future advantage, and to learn to amuse myself like a gentleman, and it would be useful. But most of the time, I was bored or uncomfortable. What we’re doing now is much better! I feel—cleaner. It’s interesting, and useful. No, my lord, I’ve decided that I want to do well. I want to think things out. Captain Vorondor said that you have to think, and know what the consequences will be before committing to a plan of action, that by keeping all possibilities in mind you won’t be surprised by something. That’s why you haven’t left yet on this trip, even though it’s important. You have to be ready for it.”
“Cardin, I’m trying to convince Lord Tintehlë to allow Erdil to go on this expedition,” Húrin said. “I think it might be the making of him.”
“But what if it could be the unmaking of Cardin?” I asked.
Cardin looked at me for a moment and nodded. “My lord, isn’t your asking that part of why he should come? I understand your concern for me, and I thank you, but if his own father had been like that, he wouldn’t be in such need now. I pledge to you that if I think Erdil is slipping, I will come to you right away, or to one of the other adults.”
Húrin remarked, “It seems to me that your father should be proud of you now, Cardin.”
Making up my mind, I said, “Dirúvel.”
“Pardon?” asked Cardin.
“If Dirúvel slips, come to one of the adults right away,” I said. “But can you have him junior to you without bullying him?”
“Junior to me? But I’m younger!”
“You’ve just proved you’re wiser,” I pointed out.
He shook his head. “I’ve been bullied by my own brothers and didn’t like it much. How would bullying him help? Besides, he’d hate being junior to me!”
“Then we won’t mention it unless it’s necessary,” I said, inwardly certain it wouldn’t be long before it was, whether the young whelp liked it or not.
“Thank you, Marpol! And thanks to you as well, Cardin,” said Húrin, and I really couldn’t blame him for the sigh of relief he drew, even while I glumly thought of the extra trouble this would no doubt cause.
Soon after that, I went up to the Citadel with the Warden, after telling Vorondor that we’d need supplies for one more. Faldi only said, “Another of your lame dogs?”
“A spoiled brat, more like,” I grumbled.
“We’ll lick him into shape, don’t worry! Besides, it’ll be company for Cardin.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” I muttered, and he clapped me on the shoulder and laughed.
The cell where they had confined the boy wasn’t as bad as some I’d seen, although to a pampered son of the Exalted, it must have been the worst depths of his experience, containing only a wooden cot-shelf, a thin blanket, a slops bucket and one very small, high barred window. Erdil was sporting a spectacular set of bruises and was thinner, although still pudgy. One of the guards brought in a stool for me after setting a small lamp in a wall-bracket, and I regarded the squinting prisoner thoughtfully before I spoke, coldly.
“No one cares who you were or who your family was. You have no skills, no money, no connections who’ll admit to any obligation or tie to you. Whether or not you have any intelligence is debatable, given your record so far. You have no importance whatsoever, and no one cares whether you live or die. Do you dispute this?”
A lengthy silence. I waited.
“No,” he whispered.
“However, you are taking up space that could be used by someone else, and food that others could be eating.” I paused again.
“Are you going to kill me?” His voice was almost toneless.
“The boy who was brought here is already dead. But I have agreed to take a man named Dirúvel, to do with as I wish. You will be brought to me tomorrow night. What you make of your new life is up to you—but I will not tolerate the kind of behavior that brought you here, nor will the others around me. Do you understand?”
Hesitantly, he stumbled the few feet to me, blanket trailing.
“Kneel down and hold up your hands.” I took them between my own. “Now, repeat after me: I, Dirúvel, swear by Eru and the Valar to obey and follow Lord Marpol Thoronhen Tintehlë and those he puts over me; to work at whatever tasks I’m set, faithfully and honestly, acting with humility and honour, service and kindness; to use what abilities and skills I may gain for the benefit of others before myself. I will accept correction. I will not run away, nor steal, nor do any base action.”
Haltingly, he repeated it, phrase by phrase.
“And I, Lord Marpol Thoronhen Tintehlë, accept this oath, and swear by Eru and the Valar to repay in kind what I receive from you. I will provide instruction and employment, clothing and food, shelter and other goods, as needed. I will defend you against enemies;. I will provide correction as needed. I will reward fittingly—good and bad, until death or other obligation release us from this oath.”
He almost fell over as I released his hands and stood up. “What do I do now?”
Already at the door, I glanced over my shoulder. “Sit on the stool. The guard will bring you the day-meal, which, after you have thanked him and set it on the shelf and observed the Standing Silence, you will eat properly.”
The guard brought in a cup of water, a bowl of stew, a spoon, and a hunk of bread.
“Well, set it down, churl!” snapped the boy.
As instructed, the guard stepped back, holding it out of his reach. Dirúvel surged to his feet. I said coldly, “You will not leave here unless and until you follow instructions exactly. Now you must also apologize for your discourtesy.”
After a pause, he mumbled, “I’m sorry for my rudeness. May I please have my meal?”
“Certainly,” said the guard, lowering it until he could grasp it.
He had a spoonful halfway to his mouth before the guard knocked it from his hand. “Wot, you stupid or just forgetful? ‘E just tol’ you wot t’ do next! Set it on the shelf, observe the Standin’ Silence, an’ then eat. Or be you some pox-ridden heathen savage who ain’t hungry after all?”
Hastily, he set it on the shelf, lurched to his feet, and after a moment sat down again, picked up the spoon, and after a fearful look at me, began to shovel the stew into his mouth. The guard snatched away the bowl. “Eat proper, ‘e said! You some guzzlin’ orcbait?”
The bowl returned, he ate more slowly, alternating a spoonful, a bite of bread, and a sip of water. When he had finished, scraping the sides and bottom, draining every drop from the cup, the guard took them back.
I said, “I shall not be so patient after this. You are to follow orders exactly, or you will reap the penalty for disobedience. Do you understand?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“See that you remember. You will show respect for your elders and betters—and that includes almost everyone, no matter their age and rank—unless and until you have garnered some kind of expertise of your own, if you can.” I strode out, leaving the guard to pick up the stool and lantern.
Outside in the corridor, invisible to the boy, Húrin fell into step beside me. After we had left the cell area, he asked, “Do you intend to break him entirely?”
“I’d have him dependent on me for the air he breathes,” I answered brusquely, then relented. “We’ve only begun. If I treat him well from the outset, soon he would either forget this imprisonment, or persuade himself that it wasn’t his own doing and not to be repeated. No, Húrin. It’s necessary for him to break through this habit of mind he has that all exist for his benefit, and not resent those trying to help him as merely thwarting his own desires as paramount. In that regard, Cardin is far ahead of him in maturity. Once he comes to grips with his own unimportance in the overall scheme of things, we can begin to build. This is like cutting away undergrowth—and he has as fine a crop of weeds as I’ve ever seen for a boy his age! I don’t mean to be cruel, but you’ve wished him on me, so pray allow me to act as I see fit. If a good Man can be salvaged from the wreck his father sought to make him, he will be, Valar willing! He’s fortunate that you care for him.”
“Part of the problem, no doubt,” the Warden agreed. “I do trust you, Marpol, and I pray the Valar will aid his reclamation!”
By the end of the next morning, I was satisfied that we had the necessary mounts for our party. Lord Erragol had been deputed by his King to act as intermediary, to our mutual satisfaction. I left the pack-mules to Vorondor, but he and I together chose out a selection of mounts. Having the money, and a shrewd idea of how much Éomer might need every tin he could get for his people, I decided to get remounts for the riders, and insisted that Vorondor get himself a horse as well.
“You’ll need one,” I said firmly. “I’ll leave you to get a second later, but you might as well get at least one now.”
“It’ll just be eating its head off in your stable,” he grumbled, but I had seen the yearning in his eyes as he looked at a roan, and that was the one he chose, naming it Swordsong.
I had sent for the others to come pick out theirs. Typically, Tambaro’s were named Fleabag and Lump, whereas Rihan’s were named Meadowrun and Riverfoot. Cardin was standing to one side when I turned to him.
“Well, Cardin, which look good to you?” I asked.
“As you suggest, my lord. I know that all of you know much more than I about horses,” he said modestly.
“Be not so shy, young master!” said Erragol, clapping him on the shoulder. “As it happens, last night your father left with me a message for you and your lord.” He handed me a sealed missive from his belt-pouch.
To Marpol Lord Tintehlë from Lord Forlong of Lossarnach, greetings.
Knowing that you are soon to Depart to the North on the King’s Business, and
mindful that I agreed to provide my son with a mount, I have arranged with Lord
Erragol, representing his King, to show you a selection from which he can choose,
for his Horsemanship is Excellent. The tack is already bespoken at Docovel’s
Saddlery. May he continue to do well for you is the hope of
I read this aloud, and had the satisfaction of seeing his ears redden and a pleased smile lifted the corners of his mouth. And indeed, his father was correct, as he demonstrated in his examination and trial of the five steeds Erragol had ready for him. At last, he chose out two, unable to narrow it down further.
“Your father volunteered to provide you a horse, but you may also need a remount; it is no hardship to me to provide the other for your riding. What will you name them?” I asked.
He turned to the Rohir. “May I ask, my lord, what their names are in your tongue?” he asked.
Erragol smiled a bit sadly. “As it happens, both of these belonged to Riders in my éored, so I do know; the brown gelding is Dart, and the mare with the blaze is Gem.”
“Would you tell the families of those Riders that I will take good care of them, please?” Cardin asked.
Erragol bowed. “With a good will, Lord Cardin. You have a kind and courteous heart.”
“Cardin, perhaps you could choose the two for the other young member of our party,” I suggested, and turned to look as a horse squealed and men shouted.
Finwarin lay on the ground, swearing, as blood soaked through one leg of his trews.
“What happened?” I demanded.
“The piebald nipped the bay, who shied just as Finwarin was dismounting, and then stepped on him as he fell,” Rihan said succinctly. “Is it broken?”
Tambaro, kneeling, was feeling over it. “I don’t think so, but it’s already swelling. At the very least, it’s a badly sprained knee,” he reported.
“Is the horse all right?” Finwarin asked.
“He’s fine,” Erragol assured him. “Your pardon! Of course you may choose another.”
“I would have shied too, if Nipper nipped me,” said my valet. “But this one has now earned the name Jitters!”
We all chuckled, but I asked, “Are you able to get up? A Healer should see to you. Where’s Cardin?”
An older Rohir who stood nearby answered, “Gone to the Houses of Healing, my lord,” and I nodded my thanks.
“I think I can ride, Lord Marpol,” Finwarin said, even as it became clear that he could not put any weight on that foot at all. We got him into Jitters’ saddle, the beast now standing quietly, and Rihan led them away, bound for my House.
When I would have followed, Tambaro reminded me, “You haven’t chosen your mount as yet, Thoronhen.”
“As to that—“ Erragol whistled, and the old man led up two handsome horses. “A gift from my King, Lord Warden. He thought these two might please you.”
One was a tall black stallion, with a white off sock and a star on its brow. I tried him first, and when I swung down, stroking his shoulder, I said gravely, “Éomer King does me great honour, Lord Erragol. I know how you prize blacks, with all that the orcs stole from your herds, but surely he does not mean to bestow a stallion on me!”
“He does, as well as a mare, my lord, for he has heard tales of your love of horses. Lady Éowyn counseled him on this, for she means to have a stud farm in Ithilien, and hopes you will allow the loan of him. Besides, we hope to have your counsel upon our roads; it will only benefit both realms, so you also have this mare. Both have some mearas blood; he sent for them as soon as he heard of your appointment. The mare is sister to King Elessar’s mount, and is a gift from King Elessar.”
“A kingly gift,” I said gratefully.
“So what will you name them?” Tambaro asked.
“Let me try the mare, and then I will decide,” I said.
If anything, the grey’s gaits were even smoother than the black’s! Unlike many greys, she was a uniform silvery grey, with four black socks. As I swung down and gave each of them a bit of carrot, I said, “The black is King’s Gift, and the grey is Isililta, which is Quenya for Moon-Dancer. I hardly know how to thank you!”
“It is a pleasure to know that they are well-bestowed,” Erragol replied. “Both are intelligent, and should serve you well.”
After an exchange of more courtesies, we arranged that they would be led up to my stable at nightfall, keeping in mind that the rules about horses in the streets were now back in force, and Tambaro and I made our way home.
Mistress Alta was just coming down the stair as we entered, and I asked, “Has the Healer come?”
“Come and gone again, my lord,” she said. “Finwarin is abed, his leg in a cast of hardened clay and boneset, for indeed the bone was cracked in his thigh. He’ll be up on crutches in a week, much to his displeasure, for the Healer thinks it will take at least two months to heal completely! I have Jorgil almost sitting on him, for he wants to come down and talk to you, of all foolish notions!” Exasperation sharpened her tone.
“I’ll go up,” I said, and pausing only to commend Cardin’s initiative, I ran up the three flights to the male servants’ quarters.
In keeping with his new status, Finwarin had a large chamber furnished with comfortable furniture. Jorgil stood by the bed, holding a large mug and arguing with him, but broke off as I tapped on the open door.
“May I come in?”
“I’m sorry, my lord,” Finwarin said.
“What is in the mug?”
“A draught the ‘Ealer left for ‘im, but ‘e won’t drink it!” the footman told me angrily.
“It’ll make me muzzy-headed,” my buhdelier complained. “I do apologize for the inconvenience, Lord Marpol—“
“An accident can happen to anyone,” I said. “I wish I could delay the trip until you are well—“
Both of them looked shocked. “Oh, no, m’lord! You can’t do that!”
“Well, as you know, I wasn’t as convinced that you really needed to come, so we will do without you,” I told him.
“Oh, no, my lord! The reasons for including me still hold. You’ll need a substitute.”
“Not me, though,” Jorgil added. “I don’t know enough.”
“Yet. Although you will progress all the faster for my undivided attention, and Master Samno of the House of Forge and Hammer will help too. But you must take someone else, my lord, you really must.”
“Don’t get agitated,” I said hastily as he tried to sit up. “Very well, have you any suggestions?”
He hesitated. “I think you should ask Mistress Nénharma,” he said at last.
“No, my lord, her mother, at the inn.”
“I thought she was being moved here; aren’t her rooms ready?”
“She’s still at the inn, although her rooms have been ready for some time. Mistress Alta arranged them before her own. I do think you should ask her without delay, my lord.”
“Then I shall do so,” I said, rising.
“Jorgil, when can I have that draught? The pain is so bad, I need to sleep,” Finwarin said as I left.
To my surprise, when I went to the inn, I wasn’t shown up to Mistress Nénharma’s rooms, but to an arbor in a small garden at the back. The structure was covered with flowers and leaves, cool and shady, and clad in pale linen, she reclined on a couch with a raised top, stitching at some embroidery in a frame.
“The day’s greeting, Mistress,” I said as I approached.
“Lord Marpol! How kind of you to visit me when you are so busy before your departure!” she said cordially as I bowed over a frail hand and took the cushioned wicker chair she indicated. “I’m honoured that you are taking the time.”
“It is my pleasure,” I said truthfully. “You are looking well.”
She was; faint pink tinted her cheeks, and the lines of pain were less pronounced in her face. “I am better, thanks to the Valar. I will never regain my full health, but my new Healer has given me better treatments and medicines, and I am like to live for years instead of weeks or months. I shall not be entering Nando’s Halls soon.”
“That is excellent news!” I said heartily. “But why have you not moved to my House?”
“Two reasons, my lord: Alta doesn’t need to feel her mother is peering over her shoulder with every breath, for one. For another, she is so good, and so loving, that she would wrap me in silk and tuck me on a high shelf. Half my trouble, I think, was sheer boredom as well as weakness in that poky little house. I felt so isolated there, so lonely. But there is so much life here at the inn! People come and go, and each has his story. I am greatly enjoying myself, because I can have company or quiet, as much or as little as I wish without worries. So you need not tiptoe in as if to find me on my death-bed any time soon!”
“I am very glad to hear this. I do not tire you?”
“Lord Marpol, if not for your kindness and care, I would be dead by now. You can never tire me.”
“I have done very little, but I have missed talking with you.”
“If so, then why has it been so many days since I have seen you?” she asked.
“I have been very busy, as you know,” I replied. “But Finwarin strongly suggested I see you,” and told her what had happened, ending, “Do you have any suggestions as to a replacement for him?”
“Oh, yes. Alta.”
“I should ask her?”
“No, my lord. Alta should go.”
I sputtered, “Because—because we’ll be riding hundreds of leagues through wilderness, probably fighting orcs and Dunlanders and wild animals, and sleeping rough, and what about her reputation?”
“Twaddle!” she snorted. “Do you think I raised a hothouse flower? She knows as much about running a household as Finwarin, if not more! She isn’t citybred, as he is; we didn’t move here until she was fourteen, from our home on the edge of Anórien. Many’s the time her father took us camping under the stars into the hills, and farther. She knows how to manage horses and mules; she’s been horse-mad since she was a girl, and was taught by my cousin the soldier. As for her reputation—she’d be traveling in the train of a high lord, accompanied by you and your Men, and she’s no green girl, simpering and silly. You have the gift of inspiring others to see your vision, my lord, especially every member of your Household. Do you think her immune because she wears skirts? She can use a bow, snares and a sling—when my son was away in the army, who do you think ventured out to bring home rabbits and squirrels for us to eat?
“My daughter has a high spirit, Lord Marpol, and it has grieved her soul to have to rein it in so strictly. She has been poring over maps and books of travels all her life, and all this month she’s been talking about your journey. I’ll wager she is the one suggested someone go, in hopes you’d choose her.”
I had never imagined such a thing, as must have been clear from my expression. “But she’s been so worried about you—how could I ask her to be so far away—“
“My lord, she would never ask for that reason,” Mistress Altra said. “Alta’s a good and loving daughter to me, but I am her mother, and I know her heart. She would regret all her life not going. But I am not so ill as I was, and I would feel more anguish seeing her fret and strive to hide that longing. How many years can I bear to hold her back? And I truly am better—am I not, Healer Thorongil?”
“Indeed you are, Mistress,” said a familiar voice, and I leaped to my feet as the King strolled under the arbor and bowed.
“Sire?” I gasped, bowing as well.
“Oh, sit down again, Marpol, if you will. Healer Cynelic asked me to consult on his most interesting and charming patient, so I do so when I can. It is always a pleasant respite from my kingly duties.” He hooked a stool with one foot, drawing it closer so that he could sit and take her pulse. “She is indeed much better. I cannot speak ill of other Healers, but suffice it to say, I encouraged her former physician to retire…. Mistress Alta is a lady of mettle, as the women of my people are strong. A few of them have attained the Star, you know.” He touched the eresselin brooch on his shoulder.
“I did not know that.”
“Only from necessity, but those who have are the equal of Men in their own ways. You would, after all, be in settled lands until you left Rohan, and I have every confidence in the doughtiness of you and your Men. I know that you are very busy getting ready to leave—I received your note—but if I may suggest it, visit the Citadel before you leave; Halladan has letters from himself and me, and one from Éomer to give you. “If you wish, I could make this matter of Mistress Nénharma a royal request. I have a feeling that her presence will be of lasting benefit to you.”
I felt my scalp prickle. “Is this Foreknowledge, my lord?”
“Let us say that I have a touch of it now and again, although I do not have the Dreams that Faramir does.”
I shuddered, and his gaze sharpened.
“Have you had them?”
“Rarely,” I admitted reluctantly. “Very well, I shall ask if she wishes to accompany us—and if she can be ready by dawn.”
Mistress Nénharma glowed with satisfaction. “She will be. You have eased my mind, my lord. Thank you!”
“Eru Himself knows I would not ill-wish her for the world,” I said, “but remember this conversation should some illness or injury overtake her. Will you not worry about her?”
“With all of you to protect her, and her to protect you? No, I shall only be consumed with curiosity as to what she will be seeing and doing, and eager for her to come back and tell me. I trust you, my lord. She could not be safer than with you,” she said serenely.
Her confidence amazed me, but the King was nodding.
I thanked him for his wonderful gift of the stallion, and he smiled. “You are about my business, and must be well-mounted. Say no more about it.”
Arriving some time later back at the House after taking my leave of Lords Halladan and Húrin, I found it humming with activity, as Vorondor supervised the gathering of supplies. “Lord Erragol brought the horses and mules,” he told me, “including three extra mounts.”
“Good,” I said. “Those are for Mistress Alta to choose from; she will be taking Finwarin’s place, and I don’t want her riding either Jitters or Nippy.”
Bracing myself for objections, I was surprised by the reactions. Vorondor simply nodded; Rihan said, “She’ll be an asset, resource and benefit to show folk we meet that our intentions, reasons, and expectations are peaceable.”
Tambaro also nodded. “She’s in her office with Lady Aedyn.”
The two women were sewing what looked like miles of blue cloth when I tapped on the door near the kitchen and said hastily, “Please, don’t disturb yourselves. May I have a word?”
“Of course, my lord,” said my housekeeper.
Aedyn asked, “Would you prefer that I withdraw?”
“No, no. Mistress Alta, would you come with us?” I blurted, forgetting all the various ways I had thought of to ask her.
Joy filled her face like sunrise. Taking a deep breath, she said, “Yes. Yes!”
“Can you be ready by tomorrow at dawn, when we depart? I really don’t want to postpone leaving—“
“I will be ready, my lord,” she said sedately.
“Splendid! Lady Aedyn, would you be willing to oversee the household in her absence? Mistress Alta’s mother would consent to move in for that time, if you wish her assistance, in a limited way.Why didn’t you tell me she was so much better? I was thinking she was worse!”
Alta blushed. “I was almost afraid to believe it.”
“But with the King as her Healer—“
Her eyes widened. “The King? What do you mean?”
“Elessar himself has been tending her, and advising Healer Cynelic.”
“I knew that she being seen by Cynelic,” she said, “and that he was going to be consulting with a foreign Healer named Thorongil, whom I never met when I visited, but how did the King become involved?”
I grinned. “Thorongil is the King, or at least, that’s one of the names he’s used in the past. Have you never heard any tales of Captain Thorondil, from the time of Steward Ecthelion?”
“I have, from my grandsire,” Aedyn said. “He was a great warrior, and beloved by the Steward as if he was his own son. Grandfather thought that Lord Denethor was jealous of him. He came here from Rohan, and disappeared after a great victory in the South.”
“That was the King, on his travels some sixty years ago. He has several names, you know, many used during the travels to prepare himself to be King. Thorongil is the one by which he was known in Rohan and Gondor. Did you know that the Healer your mother had previously was incompetent?”
“I feared so, but she was fond of him, and truth to tell, we could not afford some of the treatments he recommended for her. I just wish she would consent to come here permanently!”
“Mayhap, if I ask her help, and she comes for a time, she will decide to stay,” Aedyn suggested kindly.
“That would be very good, if she will come!”
“Ah, but if I appeal to her wisdom, and my need for a chaperone—“ Aedyn blushed.
“My lady sister, should I be hearing this?” I teased, and she blushed even rosier.
“That would be wonderful!” said Alta. “Thank you for thinking of it!”
My sister-in-love smiled. “It would be good for me, to have her counsel. I need to practice running a household, you see. When I was at my parents’ home, of course my mother did that, and when I was married, my—my husband’s father refused to allow me to do so.”
“I’m sure that you would soon remember your mother’s lessons,” Alta assured her.
“So you will arrange that, Aedyn?” I asked, pleased. “Meanwhile, I need to ask you for a few moments of your time, Mistress. Lord Erragol has brought over three horses for you to try out.”
“I’ll come at once!” she said, her face lighting again.
In the courtyard, I realized that her mother had spoken only the truth; despite being recently unable to ride, judging by the way she examined and tried out the three horses, Alta was an expert horsewoman. I made a mental note to be sure we brought some liniment. No doubt Erdil and possible Cardin would need it as well….
“Which do you choose, Mistress?” asked Erragol.
“This one,” she said, laying one hand on the shoulder of a mare whose coat shone like sun-warmed white marble, with a golden mane and tail. “What is her name, my lord?”
“Morgenlea,” he replied promptly. “It means ‘morning light’ in Rohirrim.”
“Which would be Galadaur in Sindarin,” I commented. “And the other?”
“The chestnut mare, with the star.”
“Steorra, or star,” Erragol said. “You do not want the spotted horse?’
“I think he would be a little too light for such a long journey,” she said, and we both nodded.
I was well content, especially when Erragol told me that Galaduar was the best bell-mare (1) he had ever seen, second to Islilta.
1) A bell-mare was a female horse or mule wearing a bell, the leader of a packtrain or herd. In frontier times, some farmers used them to attract deer in woods.