The household was up well before dawn, as Rihan, Vorondor and Tambaro expertly loaded the mules, and Cardin and I tacked up the horses with Jorgil and Paurin’s help. Alta and Aedyn supervised bringing out the foodstuffs, and Orophin ran back and forth with small items.
To my relief, although he was disappointed not to go, the boy wasn’t pouting or sulking. I had promised that if I had a good report of him when I returned, he might go the next time.
It was just full dawn, and I was about to give the order to mount, when Dirúvel darted in the gate, clad in the decent blue tunic and brown trews and boots I had had sent up to him the night before, out of breath from running. He bowed hastily to me. “The day’s greeting, my lord. Sorry to be late.”
I looked ostentatiously at the sundial carved into the House’s central tower. “Just in time.” I made the introductions: “Lady Pinnath Gelin, my sister-in-love, who is mistress of my House while I am gone, and Captain Vorondor, my Second, who is remaining in charge here. Those who are accompanying me: Mistress Nénharma, my housekeeper; Captains Solorion Rihan and Tambaro Malréd; my aide, Lord Cardin Forlong; and this is Dirúvel, who will be general dogsbody. Once we clear the gates, we’ll ride with Rihan and his birds on point, then Mistress Alta and myself, next Tambaro and the pack-mules, and Dir and Cardin on drag. Once those less used to our usual mode of travel have more experience with it, we’ll rotate to sunward every two—“
I was interrupted by a breathless hail, and turned to see my grandfather, Hirgon and his father-in-love, with Lord Forlong and the inevitable hound, coming in the gate. After an exchange of greetings and bows and curtseys, I saw that Hirgon was standing near his wife, while Mistress Alta appeared to be asking Angbor a question. Grandfather beamed at me. “Just wanted to see you off properly, my boy! Not delay you, just wish you a good journey.”
“I did not expect you—“
“You should, with both of us in the same city. I said I’d change my ways with you and Hirgon, and I meant it. Will you accept an old kinsman’s embrace and blessing for you and your folk?”
Astonished, I stared at him.
“Old Exalted custom. I had someone look it up for me. Figured I’d be oldest here, unless you don’t want me to.”
“I’d be honoured, my lord Daedadar,” I said truthfully.
“Good. Are those the pigeons Hirgon was tellin’ me about?”
“Rihan is an expert; let me introduce you, my lord. I am Vorondor, Lord Marpol’s Second,” Faldi said, smoothly diverting him.
Something cold and wet nudged my hand; I looked down at the rough-coated steel-grey hound. Almost three feet tall at the shoulder, he was large enough for a small child or Hobbit to ride! Intelligent dark eyes gazed up at me; a long pink tongue touched my knuckles.
“This is the hound I promised you,” Forlong said. “Young, but well-trained. Can go with you as an extra guard. Trained him m’self, on Quenya and Sindarin commands, so he won’t obey just anyone. Can take down a deer or wolf. Tallest kind I have of the sight hounds.”
“That is most kind of you—“ I began, although I wished I could have chosen a dog for myself—I had never had one of my own, but surely that was the best way, as with a horse or any weapon one owned-- but Forlong interrupted, “‘Scuse me while I speak to the sprout. Hope he’s givin’ satisfaction?”
“Very much so, my lord, although—“
“Good. I explained; Swift knows he’s to be yours now. Good dog!” Forlong said gruffly to him, and almost ran off to his son. I knew that he took breeding and training dogs seriously, so letting one go must be hard for him, even after so many years of doing so.
I looked down to find Swift’s gaze fixed on my face, and bent to stroke his head. “We’ll see how we get on,” I told him, knowing I could not leave him behind without offense. One of the maids hurried out of the house with something wrapped in a cloth, and Mistress Alta tucked the bundle into her saddlebag. I cleared my throat, and across from me, Vorondor bellowed, “Quiet for Lord Tintehlë!”
“Lord Anfalas,” I said.
Grandfather bared his head; we all followed suit. A slight breeze stirred his white hair as he said, “As the patriarch of this family, it falls to me to observe an old custom. First I shall ask a blessing; then those departing will share a stirrup-cup with my grandsons and me ere leaving.” Taking a deep breath, holding out his hands, he half-sang, half-chanted, “Eru Creator, Valar and Maiar, we ask that you will guard and protect these travelers. Let their mounts be swift, their provisions nourishing, their health strong. Let them journey safely, accomplishing their service with honour, humility and care on straight paths. Bless and protect them, and bring them home, to us, or if it be Your will, to Nandos’ halls. Grant that we all may do our work well, and guide and guard us all. Be it so.”
My servants moved among us, offering trays of small cups of mulled cider, and after final farewells, I gave the order to mount, leading the group out our gate and down through the city at a walk. Once we had passed the barrier replacing the Great Gates and the butts, I signaled a trot. It was a fine, clear late Lótessë morning, and I noticed that Mistress Alta’s riding-habit was only a few shades darker than the sky. “How are you today, Mistress?”
She smiled at me. “Very well, my lord! My mother sent me a message last night; she is moving to the House tomorrow. Lady Aedyn and her mother will loan us servants to help with it, and promised me that Mother will not walk the distance; Lord Angbor assured me that it is his honour to procure a palanquin for her. With such kindness, my mind—and hers—are greatly eased. This is like a holiday to me—although I will not neglect any responsibilities and duties you give me.”
“Probably the holiday is long overdue,” I said, and wondered if I had overstepped.
Judging by the smile that curved her lips, I had not. I asked, “Can you read a map?”
“My mother’s cousin, whom I called Uncle Drost, taught me to, along with other things. I shall, mayhap, not be the burden upon you that you may envision, my lord. Finwarin told me of your desire that the staff be able to defend themselves at need, women as well as men. I was a young girl when Uncle Drost showed me the vulnerable points on a male, and a few wrestling holds, as well as the use of sling and bow, and I have a good set of lungs; I have no problem with screaming for help if I need it! I had a small crossbow for years, along with these—“ suddenly, two small knives flickered between her fingers before vanishing. I managed to keep my jaw from sagging, although I could not forbore blinking. She continued, “The little bow I practiced with is long gone, although Captain Vorondor promised me another, with extra bolts, is in the baggage, and if you will allow me to train with you, I think my muscles will remember quickly what they knew.”
“I am sure they will,” I said inadequately.
“I spoke with Lady Ornamir some time ago, and all the maids and I, and latterly, Mistress Duso, have been training with her women in baritsu—“
At that, my jaw did drop.
“You know it?” she asked.
“I know something of it,” I replied. “A warrior system of hand-to-hand combat from the Far South, that teaches one to use an adversary’s weight against him, as well as how to make a weapon of any object. I found a book about it, and have been using it for years.”
“I wonder if it is the same book that Lady Cormallen gave Lady Ornamir, who had it copied for me,” she mused. “Would you like to see it this evening?”
“That would be very good! My thanks!”
Tambaro moved up next to me as the road widened past the Gates and we turned left, northward. “I told Cardin to drop back and give Dirúvel some riding pointers. Poor bastard’s never learned to post a trot and has a seat like a sack of suet. Didn’t he ever sit a horse before?”
“Probably not, Tam,” I said. “Entirely city-bred, I think, from what I was told.”
“It’s generous of you to take him on,” Mistress Alta said warmly.
“Not really. A favour for a friend. Pass the word to Rihan at our next stop, Tambaro: treat the boy like a raw recruit-levy, but not overly harsh, just firm. He’s not quite sure what his place is in the world, so take it as read that he knows nothing about anything, even basics.”
“Got it,” he said, and dropped back in place again.
We stopped for a morsel of cheese, bread and ale, still somewhat cool in stone bottles, at noontide, and continued on.
Close to sunset, we camped about a day’s ride by wagon, as nearly as I could estimate, from the Great Gates, near the road. Tambaro and Rihan set off with their bows; I told Cardin and Dirúvel to help Mistress Altra set up camp, and went back to the road to begin surveying and plotting the possible size of a hostelry that would be first in the chain of way-stations the King wanted to establish along the road.
I was noting the possible location of a well when Tambaro appeared with a fat goose dangling from one hand. “Would you like a report on the camp?” he inquired.
“I thought you were hunting.”
“As you see, I have done. Since we have some stores already, and this’ll do for tomorrow’s day-meal, I thought I’d eavesdrop.”
“Where’s Rihan?” I asked.
“He’s cleaning the trout he tickled.”
“Report, please, Captain.”
As expected, Dirúvel had rudely refused Mistress Alta’s request to help erect her tent, and walked off. I had instructed everyone to give him enough rope to trip himself up, and right on schedule, he was doing so.
Annoyed, Cardin had helped with the tent and other tasks, as well as rubbing down all the horses (except Alta’s; she had done them), brought her some wood for the fire she had started, as well as some water. Bored, Dirúvel was tossing bits of stick into a stream.
“I hope you know what you’re doing with that boy, Marpol,” Tamparo said seriously, “because if you don’t, Cardin’s going to lose his temper. He’s a good-natured lad, but who wants to work alone? Young Forlong has a well-developed sense of fairness, and he’s also shocked by the way Dirúvel spoke to Mistress Alta.”
“How was that?”
“She asked him nicely to fetch some water while Cardin dug the jacks, and he laughed scornfully, telling her it’s a servant’s place to do such menial tasks, especially a mere woman.”
“How did she react?” I asked.
“Cardin overheard, opened his mouth—and shut it after one look at her, then offered to get it, so she gave him the buckets.”
“What made him close his mouth?”
“Mistress Alta flashed him our hand-signals for wait and quiet. Vorondor thought it’d be a good notion for them to know those, so we’ve been teaching them to the staff.”
“Good! Let us return,” I said, and we made our way back.
The tent, one of the low, rounded two-person ones I had devised, that could be combined with another at need, was set to one side. Nearby was the fire-circle, where Mistress Alta was stirring a couple of pots, while Cardin tended a grill of trout under her direction. I knew without looking where the jakes trench would be in relation to the bedrolls and packs. Rihan was just setting down another armload of wood.
We had observed the Standing Silence and were beginning to eat a marvelous meal of trout, simmered vegetables and rice, with fresh bread and butter, when Dirúvel limped up, obviously sore from the day’s ride. “I thought someone would call me,” he said resentfully. “Where’re my plate and cup?”
“Oh, are you hungry?” asked Mistress Alta; her hands signed Let me handle this.
“Of course I am! It’s been hours since that stuff we ate at noon.”
“So it is,” she agreed.
“So where’s mine, woman?”
“You aren’t having any,” she said placidly.
“What? What do you mean?”
“If you do not work, you do not eat.”
“But I’m hungry! Everyone else is eating!”
“Everyone else worked. Cardin and I did your share as well as our own. The captains hunted and fished. Lord Tintehlë fetched some wood after he did some surveying. You alone contributed nothing, so you eat—nothing.”
He looked around at the rest of us and fixed on me. “Are you going to let her talk to me that way?” he demanded.
“Mistress Nénharma has been kind enough to leave the comforts of her home in order to do important work on this expedition,” I replied. “She is a lady, she is in charge of keeping us fed and healthy, and if she decides to decree who shall or shall not partake of the delicious food she prepares, that is her right. You are not a child, you are neither sick nor injured, and you are required to contribute in order to be treated as an adult member of this group—and by your oath to me. If you choose not to, if you prefer to be irresponsible, lazy, or rude, you will reap the consequences. I will add that if you try to steal, you will suffer the penalty—and I doubt you will eat sooner rather than later. You can live hungry much longer than you think you can.”
“But it’s not fair—“ he whined.
“Was it fair for you to slack off while we worked?”
“Cardin, give me some of your portion!”
My aide, who had been watching us, chewed and swallowed a large bite before answering. “No.”
“What?!” Dirúvel’s startlement was almost comical.
Cardin tossed a tidbit to Swift. “No. They’re right. I might’ve been willing to share if you’d asked nicely, but demanding it of me as if by right, as if I’m less—“ He shook his head. “No. I’m hungry, and I earned my food. Besides, you were rude to Mistress Nénharma. Offending your companions—and the cook—isn’t a good idea. You might want to think about that.”
Dirúvel stood clenching his fists, and we ignored him, returning to our conversation about my plans for the hostelries.
“A small pen for remounts for the King’s messengers would be useful, practical and sensible,” Rihan suggested.
“Perhaps there could be a farrier at every other one,” Alta said.
I jotted them down on my tablets. “Both very good notions. Dirúvel!”
He was about to stomp off, but as I expected, paused. “My lord?”
“There’s a jug of ointment to ease aches for all our use over by the bedrolls. I suggest we all avail ourselves of it tonight, but leave enough for others. Now, even though we’re still in Gondor, we shall take precautions for our safety so that we become accustomed to doing so.”
“Plenty of broken men about,” Rihan agreed. “Leavings, scrapings, debris from altercation, upheaval, war, are inevitable.”
“Therefore, we shall be taking watches in two after tonight. For now, it will be the old campaigners. I shall take the first, then Captain Malréd, and last, Captain Rihan. Tomorrow night we’ll pair up less experienced with more seasoned. The rest of you should get to bed shortly.”
“Just as soon as I prepare things for breakfast, my lord,” said Mistress Alta.
While she did that, I began my journal, and the others busied themselves with other small chores. Within a glass, they were all a-bed around the banked fire, even Dirúvel, and Rihan was snoring.
I was about to wake Tam when Swift came up to me, nudging his head under my hand; I could feel his hackles rising as I heard his low growl a breath before he began barking.
“’Ware attack!”I shouted, drawing dagger and sword as dark figures burst out of the bushes. “Up! Attack!”
Tam and Rihan were up and grappling; Cardin was right behind. Dirúvel was shouting something from his bedroll, delayed by a tangle of blankets. Alta darted from her tent, and I heard the whir of her sling as she stood over the supine lad.
Suddenly the camp was illumined brightly. Not by firelight’s reddish glow, but by a wavering white radiance overhead. It lasted just long enough for us to make short work of our attackers, and then Alta lit a lantern.
“Anyone hurt?” I panted.
“Nay.” “No.” “No, my lord.”
“I’m fine, but they aren’t,” said Tambaro cheerfully. Already he and Rihan were bent over the bodies, making sure of their deaths. On closer look, I counted five, as scruffy a lot of brigands as I’ve ever seen.
Cardin had only a shallow gash in his right forearm, which Alta was efficiently cleaning. “Do you know which one gave you this?” Rihan asked.
“That one,” said the boy, pointing at the cleanest one with his other hand. “With his dagger.”
I picked it up, squinting and sniffing the blade. “You’re in luck, lad. Doesn’t look poisoned or dirty, although I’ll know more in better light come dawn. Speaking of light, where’d that white one come from?”
“Dirúvel made it,” said Mistress Alta, who had handed bandaging to Rihan and was bending over our problem child. “His hand glowed, and he tossed that—that ball of light overhead.”
I lit a second lantern after stirring the fire as Alta closed his shaking hands around a small cup. She commanded, “”Drink this right down!”
Looking very young, he obeyed, shuddered, and sat huddled in his blankets as Cardin, Alta and I gathered around hm. “Dir? Are you injured?” I asked.
“How did I do that?” he whispered.
“We’ll talk about it in the morning,” I said firmly. “Lie down now, and sleep.”
His eyes closed.
“Stay by him, Cardin,” I instructed.
“Yes, my lord.”
Already Rihan and Tambaro were hauling the bodies to one side. I set Swift on guard, mentally apologizing to Forlong for my initial dismay at his gift. Clearly the dog would be a valuable asset!
A quick check showed that the brigands were either all dead, or escaped.
The next morning, pale and subdued, Dirúvel came from the jacks, darting nervous glances around him as the rest of us broke our fast with porridge, stirred eggs, bacon, and cuinya juice.
“Mistress Nénharma,” he said, cleared his throat, and bowed. “I apologize for my rudeness last night. Thank you for saving my life, especially after my boorish behaviour.”
She nodded. “I accept your apology, Dirúvel. Would you like some breakfast? Your cup, plate, spoon and fork are over there—and don’t forget to wash them afterwards.”
He hesitated long enough for me to wonder if we’d have another tantrum, but instead he said in that same uncertain tone, “I shall, if someone would show me how. I don’t believe I’ve ever washed anything except myself.”
She flashed one of her lovely smiles at him. “Easily taught and learned—and you’ll have plenty of practice,” she assured him.
“We do realize that you boys must both learn new skills,” I said. “In fact, all of us shall be learning about the North on this journey. Keep your mind open, honestly try to master these tasks, and we’ll proceed more smoothly.” I took a bite of the toasted bread spread with berry jam, and when he joined us, awkwardly folding his long legs under him, I continued, “Cardin, your father gave me a great gift in Swift; he saved our lives last night by alerting me. But this is why we must take precautions. All of us must train daily, each dawn and when we stop for the night, both hand-to-hand and with weapons. Also, we shall be rotating guard positions, and camp chores until they are mastered by those new to them. Eventually we’ll judge who is best at what, and mayhap change to more permanent assignments. Captain Tambaro, please report on the brigands.”
“Scruffy, ill-equipped, poorly organized, and stupid,” he said. “I doubt they’d been long together, or else recently lost their leader.”
“How do you know that?” Cardin asked,
“Easy—no tactics, no coordination. All they did was jump out yelling. I’m not sure they even really looked us over, the bungling fools.” He shook his head. “It would’ve made more sense for them to attack a smaller group than they were—couldn’t they even count? Didn’t they notice the dog? That tent could’ve held up to three people, for all they knew.”
Rihan added, “No attempt to quietly purloin any of our supplies, provisions or belongings, or steal, abscond or make off with any of our steeds, equines, or quadrupeds. And no decent weaponry of their own, other than one sword and one dagger. The rest is poorly wrought pot-metal we should sell. The rest of their gear is equally shoddy as well as filthy.”
“Any valuables?” I asked.
He tossed me a small pouch. “A total of fifteen tin pieces, eleven coppers, and two silvers.”
“Thanks.” I put it in my belt-pouch, glancing at the sun. “Very well, we’ll do a bit of defense training, break camp, and report this to the nearest authority.”
“Where are the—the bodies?” asked Dirúvel, still pale.
“We hauled them a good distance away so they wouldn’t bring predators into the camp,” said Tambaro. “Eat up, lad! You’ll need the energy. Don’t waste good food—you might insult the cook again!”
Dir flushed but forced himself to resume eating.
I let him get down most of his meal before asking in as neutral a tone as I could, “Have you created light before?”
“No, my lord, never! I don’t—I don’t know how it happened!”
“Any mages in your family?” I asked.
He looked startled. “I don’t know. I never paid much attention to our history, other than having it dinned in my ears all the time that we’ve been great Healers since before the Downfall. Am I—possessed—by some evil?” he blurted.
Someone drew in a breath. As calmly as I could, I said, “Hardly likely. After all, it benefited us and hindered them, and Swift hasn’t growled at you. But I do know from Lady Cormallen that when she uses the Elvish healing techniques, she could see what she termed channels in the patient, and her hands glowed over a neighbor child whe’d fallen from a high window while I held him. The glow warmed, but she told me she couldn’t light a fire or candle with it.”
“I’ve never seen those techniques. I was taught that they were Elvish, and not very useful.” For the first time, Dirúvel showed a spark of interest.
“That’s because they haven’t been used in Gondor, or anyway in Minas Tirith, for an Age,” said Mistress Alta. “Mistress Samno, the cook at the House of Hammer & Forge that was House Ornamir where Lady Cormallen lives with her mother-in-love, Lady Ornamir, told me that Master Kinfinning and other Healers want her to teach them when she comes back from the trip she’s on in Ithilien. Being Halfelven and a great Healer herself, she knows them well. Mistress Samno said the King learned them from Lord Elrond, and used them to save Lord Faramir.”
“Lord Elrond’s sons, Elladan and Elrohir, the King’s brothers, also know them, I believe,” I added.
Cardin frowned. “Pardon, but I’m confused. I thought the King was descended from Isildur, and is a famous warrior.”
“He is,” I agreed. “In fact, he’s both. To my mind, that will make him a better ruler, for he knows both how to protect and how to ease. It’s why he is Elessar Envinyatar, the Renewer.”
“You don’t think what I did was bad?” Dirúvel asked.
“’Tis a tool, like a knife,” Tambaro said easily. “Make a useful thing like a box with it, or spill a man’s life-blood. Depends on how—and why—you use it.”
“How did you use it?” Rihan inquired. The brevity of his question told me how strongly he itched to know.
“I don’t know. I—I felt scared, and I couldn’t seem to move as that one rushed towards me with a dagger, but I couldn’t see it clearly. It didn’t seem fair, somehow, to die without seeing what killed me. I wanted to, and—and then I could.” He flushed. “I guess I’m just a coward.”
We all shook our heads. “No, just normal,” I told him. “Well, the light was a bit unexpected—“ the Captains chuckled at my wry tone “—but the fear was normal. You never encountered that form of danger before, did you?”
“No. I didn’t know what to do!”
“But you weren’t cowering,” Alta said. “I saw you were tangled in your blankets, and you were scrabbling for weapons from instinct; I saw you grab a stone, just as you began shouting in a language I don’t know. You sounded much angrier than afraid, although I remember my soldier uncle telling me some folk show fear as anger.”
Her quiet words seemed to ring in the air, and I knew that they were important. Had this angry boy simply been afraid of all the many changes in his life, most beyond his control? But that path of thoughts must be set aside for the moment. “Did the words seem somewhat familiar, yet weren’t?”
“Do you know what they were, my lord?”
“I didn’t hear them myself, but they may have been Adûnaic, or possibly Sindarin. Lord Panhael, one of the Halflings, told me he found himself calling upon the Star-Kindler in Elvish while in Mordor.” I stood up. “However, interesting as this discussion is, we all have tasks. Let us set this aside for now, for more mundane concerns.”
“Those being?” asked Tambaro irrepressibly.
“As I said, some simple training exercises. Our non-veterans need to stretch, and begin learning to defend themselves. If you know how to handle yourself, new situations aren’t as frightening.”
“What shall we learn first?” Alta asked.
“How to fall without harm,” I said promptly. “First, warm up your muscles with some stretches after you roll up your bed-rolls. Half a glass of basics, Tam, if you’ll oversee them. Rihan, please pack up what can be sold while I write up a report of this.”