The day after our discoveries, after Tambaro sent off two pigeons, I mounted ‘Gift as Cardin reined in Dart, who was eager to be moving. After bidding the others a temporary (I hoped) farewell, the two of us followed Swift down the path to the road. I bowed from my saddle to the pûkel. “Greeting. Please let it be known to Ghân-buri-Ghân that we are going to Amon Dîn, in hopes of gaining Men to cleanse the fire-hill properly. As I pledged to do, I sent birds bearing his words to the Kings.”
The Drúadan rose on his stumpy legs. “If you follow the cairns of stones, you will shorten your journey. Go well, Waygoer.”
“Our thanks.” I was pleased to see Cardin bow as well, before we turned left and then right when I saw a small cairn of stones with one twig pointing the right direction. As we rode going from the pines that surrounded Eilenach to leaf-falling trees, we heard the rhythmic throbbing of drums, soft and hypnotic. It was easy to lose track of time, listening….
The trees changed yet again, with a feeling of even greater age than the others, and these were hung with long grey lichens, so I knew that we were in the inmost Grey Wood, and presently, it opened out to the lower slopes of Amon Dîn. To our right, we could see the outskirts of the village, while the beacon loomed above, its towers gleaming in the sunlight. Abruptly, the drums stopped; I felt as if I had just woken from a doze. Cardin rubbed his eyes. “My lord? Where are we?”
It was only then that I realized that Swift was riding in front of me, head and forepaws dangling on one side, hindquarters and wagging tail on the other. I had no memory of how or when he had gotten there….Putting my hand under his hind foot, I said, “Swift, down!” and he leaped down. The thought came to me that there might be occasions when it would be useful for him to ride pillon, but I set that notion aside for the moment. Gift turned his head to look at the dog, who barked once and loped beside my stirrup.
“We’re near our destination,” I replied, and led the way along the flank of the hill until we reached the village. Ahead of us, I could see a lesser rise crowned with a fortified manor house, undoubtedly the home of the Lord of Amon Dîn and Anórien.
The gates were open, and we went within a large courtyard. As a youth hurried towards us, two Men crossing it turned towards us.
“The day’s greeting,” I said. “I seek Lord Daerloth; is he here?”
“No, Master—“ began the youth, but Cardin interpolated, “My lord.”
“My father has gone to Anwar on business, my lord,” said the younger of the two Men. “I am Rigil, son of Daerloth, and his Steward, and this is Captain Tirandor of the beacon. May one of us aid you?”
“I hope so. My name is Marpol, Lord Tintehlë—“
“The Warden of Roads?” Rigil turned to the Captain. “You remember, Tir, Father told us that he would be going on a survey to the North.”
“--And my aide, Cardin Forlong.”
“Indeed, but I would not have thought you to go attended by only one, and this far south,” the Captain said.
Cardin and I dismounted, our horses were led away, and with Swift heeling me, entered the manor with our host and the Captain. “I had not planned to be,” I said frankly, “but events changed my plans. The rest of my party is at Eilenach, and it is of that I need to report and take counsel of you both.”
“Come to my father’s study, my lord,” Rigil invited. “Arador,” he called to a youth whose strong resemblance told me that he must be a kinsman, “please ask that some refreshments be brought to Father’s study, and see that young Lord Forlong is shown to rooms for their use. If you will stay with us?”
“Thank you,” I said, and signed to Cardin to go with him.
The study was good-sized, well-arranged for its use, and we were soon seated in padded chairs. I sipped the ale Rigil poured for me, handed him my first report, and told them what we had found. “I also sent messenger birds to my Second in Minas Tirith.”
“How many people do you intend to tell about this?” demanded Tirnador as he rapidly scanned over Rigil’s shoulder.
I felt myself flush with anger. “The birds I have with me will fly directly to my House in the Sixth Circle,” I said coldly. “All my communications will of course be encrypted in the code devised by Captain Faldi Vorondor, with whom I have served in the Company of Star & Hammer for over twenty years. He is the brother of my heart. No one has ever broken his code, and anyone who besmirches his honour will have to answer to me in his absence. I have instructed him to write out fair copies for our Lord King and his Stewards, and Éomer King will receive the second part only, so that they may take counsel on these matters. I tell you of this, my lords, because my duty requires it—how else may I in good conscience continue on my journey with that beacon in such case? And yet how long may I delay? I expected to speak with Lord Daerloth, knowing he was not in Minas Tirith, so that he might begin to consider its impact on his domain. Did I err in sharing this news with you?”
“No, of course not, my lord,” Rigil said hastily. “As his Steward in his absence, and as the Captain of Amon Dîn, we are the ones to whom you should have spoken in his absence, as you are.”
On his feet, Tirandor sighed and relaxed his tense shoulders. “I beg your pardon, my lord, for my ire. It is not your actions, but the sad state of the beacons over all, for if Eilenach, near the city and a scant ten leagues from here, be so diminished, how do the further ones fare?”
I found myself standing, deliberately taking my hand from the hilt of my sword and holding it out to him. “My apologies, Captain. We have all lived through losses sufficient to do more than try our tempers. If your service has been at all like mine, you are yet weary and recovering from wounds of more than one kind. I do not mean to quarrel, but to help. And I cannot urge too strongly that whoever goes to succor the beacon take a priest with them as well as supplies and a Healer for Halvador. Mayhap its evil has besmirched me, even though I was in its immediate presence only briefly; I am rarely so quick to lose my temper.”
“Can evil be so strong?” asked Rigil.
“My lord, that skull cannot be nearly so bad as the Ring that Lord Iorhael bore so bravely, yet the Healers think that It has injured him for the rest of his life—and the Pherrianath have proven how strong and courageous they are. I am not as strong as they. Captain, please, will you pardon my hasty words?”
He bowed. “I too have had comrades about whom I feel as strongly, my lord. If you will forgive my ill-considered provocation, of course I will.”
We clasped forearms, and resumed our seats. I said, “As to the further beacons’ state, I got the impression that most of the orc raids were aimed at this end of the White Mountains. After all, the Enemy issued forth from Mordor east of here, and the orcs of Angmar and the Dunlanders were fighting the Dúnedain of the North. Did he not also send forces against the peoples of Rhovanion, Erebor and Mirkwood? I believe that the Tiromen should and shall be lauded by the King for your service!”
“We could not stop all of them from blocking the road,” Tirandor said bitterly.
“Yet they did not prevail in preventing the Riders from reaching the Pelennor,” Rigil reminded him.
“No doubt Halvador can tell you more of how the other beacons fare,” I told them. “I know that he spent time at several of them near Calenhad, and must have visited the others on his way south.”
“We need a better means of communication,” Tirandor fretted. “By law, we cannot use the beacons except in great need, and especially at night, and messengers can be intercepted.”
“The Dwarves and Elves use messenger birds all the time,” I remarked. “Why not use mirrors in daylight? Or smoky fires, with interruptions of the smoke in a particular coded sequence? Or drums such as the Drúadain use? One of the things my lord King hopes to be established as part of improving the realm’s roads is a series of way-stations spaced a day’s journey by wagon apart, with remounts for messengers.”
Rigil’s eyes widened, while Tirandor’s narrowed. The young Steward said, “Clearly you are a Man of many ideas, my lord! But what do you mean, the Drúadain use drums? Surely they are too primitive to develop anything of use to others!”
“Primitive?” I repeated.
“Well, they go almost naked, except for a skirt of grass! They don’t even wear clothes, but are more like beasts!”
I straightened in my chair. “Have you ever spoken with one?”
“No, of course not!”
“I have, several times, when I was a boy, and learned much from him. Ghân-buri-Ghân, the Chief of those in the wood, has met with me twice more recently. Did you know that his folk led the Rohirrim through the Stonewain Vale so that they were able to avoid being delayed by the orc bands blocking the road, and thus arrived in time to aid the White City in the Battle of the Pelennor? That Theóden King pledged that his people will no longer hunt them, and to speak to the King to give them the wood for their own.”
“Ridiculous!” snapped Tirandor. “Are we to abandon Eilenach for a bunch of—of—“
“Men who have fought the Shadow since the First Age?” I asked. “I envy you, Lord Rigil.”
“Aye. I envy your youth, for you will live so much longer than I. We are at the dawn of a new Age, and I believe that it will be looked upon as a golden one. The King has returned, and he brings many changes. Not only will he engender great things in Men, but due to his fostering in the Last Homely House of Elrond Peredhel, he is a loremaster who understands the important contributions the other Kindreds have made to our world. He will be a bridge between the past and the future, seeking to unite the best of both. Already there are Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits in Gondor, and there will be delegations from distant lands and peoples as well.”
“Do we have any need for these others?” Tirandor scoffed.
“Captain, were we not given language by the Elves? Were we not taught much of metal-making by the Dwarves? Was our world not saved for us and the others by the sacrifices of the Halflings? Did not the Onodrim, by destroying Isengard, aid greatly?”
“We shall agree to differ, my lord,” Tirandor said, rising. “Pray excuse me, but I must return to the beacon, and begin arranging which of my Men, and how many, can be sent to Eilenach.”
“Then please take with you this copy of my report as to what we found there,” I said.
He accepted it, thanked me, and took his leave.
“I too must leave, to find an inn, since it is late to return—“ I began., as I got to my feet.
“Nonsense!” said a voice with decision from the doorway. In it stood an old woman leaning on a cane, surveying me from head to toe. “Grandson, introduce me to our guest!”
“Of course, Grandmother,” said Rigil who was also standing. “May I present Marpol Lord Tintehlë, the King’s Warden of Roads, newly come from Minas Tirith on his way North? He brings us news of Eilenach, where the rest of his party awaits him. My lord, this is my grandmother, Lady Elantiel.”
“I already told your boy that you are both staying,” she informed me as I bowed and murmured the appropriate greeting. “Argent is seeing to a suite for you. Might as well give her something useful to do.”
“My aunt, Lady Argent of Lebennin, widow of my late uncle,” Rigil said hastily as another lady, who had been overshadowed by her mother-in-love, sidled past her to curtsey to me. I bowed to her as well.
“With Faralieth in the White City with my son, neglecting her duties, if it were not for me this entire place must fall to rack and ruin from neglect,” the old autocrat said.
I found myself feeling sorry for Lady Argent. Evidently Lady Elantiel, who bore the ruins of a great beauty and still was handsome, had discovered the untrammeled joys of ruling her household long since.
“It will presently be time for the day-meal, so you will all go change before the gong,” she commanded.
In the hallway, Cardin waited to show me up a stair to the rooms assigned to us.
I turned to him in despair. “I hardly have the right garments for a formal dinner, and I fear that that is what this will be!”
My aide, in a tunic I did not recall ever seeing before, far finer than his usual garb, grinned at me. “Fear not, my lord! Finwarin fully briefed Mistress Nénharma and me on what to do ere we left the city,” he assured me. “There is a bath already prepared for you, and I hung your fine tunic in that room that the steam might remove any wrinkles, although Finwarin taught us how to best pack it. At least you are not expected to wear cosmetics as some great ladies do.”
“I should look exceedingly foolish!” I said with a shudder as I began to strip off my clothing. “How is it that he foresaw the need?”
“As soon as he learned of your invitation to Rivendell, he began to devil the tailors about your garb and what would be proper. They consulted with one of the Grey Company as to what is worn for more formal dinners in Lord Elrond’s home, and created a robe for you, which we also brought. I bethought me it would be a good idea to pack it for this foray, knowing that you would be invited to stay at least overnight.”
I lowered myself into the tub of blissfully hot water with a sigh. “And how did you know that?”
“Oh, that was easy, my lord! You could not meet Lord Rigil without his grandmother wanting you to meet the Diamond Butterfly. Shall I scrub your back, my lord?”
“No, I am quite capable of scrubbing my own back, thank you. Stay where you are and tell me who or what the Diamond Butterfly is.”
Cardin rubbed his nose, I suspected in an attempt to hide a grin. “That is a nickname given to Lady Aldúnieth, Rigil’s older sister. I’ve known about them for most of my life; they’re a byword among the nobles.”
“They’ve been trying to marry her off for at least twelve years!”
“Is the lady so plain, then?” With Daerloth a major lord of the realm, and just looking around these chambers, it couldn’t be for lack of a bridal portion. I was mystified.
“Lady Elantiel has said from her birth that the Butterfly is just as she looked when young—“ Cardin was plainly disbelieving, callow youth that he was “—and has taught her to look high for her marriage. She’s aimed at every noble in the realm, from Prince Imrahil and Steward Denethor up, dragging the family all the way to Dol Amroth for a Mettarë celebration, not to mention every party, banquet, hunting party, picnic, rout, and whatever else she could contrive, from here to the other borders! She terrified Princes Boromir and Faramir, and flirted with everyone else. The longer it goes, the more desperate they grow! From what my mother said, Lord Daerloth sent her home in disgrace for being overly familiar with our Lord King himself!”
“Are you turning into a gossip?” I asked, making my distaste plain.
“No, my lord, but Mistress Alta and Captains Rihan and Maldréd were very anxious that I inform you of your—your danger. She is so haughty and unkind to others, you see, that she would probably make any Man miserable who does wed her. My lady mother said that she had been spoiled by her grandmother’s ambitions.”
“I doubt they are so desperate that they would even consider a bastard nobody,” I said dismissively.
Cardin looked distressed. “But that’s just what they said you’d say!”
“The captains, and Finwarin, and Mistress Nénharma. You’re too modest, my lord, and if you’ll forgive me, too used to thinking of yourself that way. But you aren’t, not now! You’ve been ennobled, and you’re one of the most valuable assets the King has! I’m sorry to displease you, but Father charged me to guard you as best I could from pitfalls you might not see until too late. ‘Speak plain when you see the need, boy,’ he said, even if I risk you sending me home in disgrace—and I don’t believe you’d be happy with her either, and you do need to get an heir. My lord.”
I used the washing-cloth on my face for a moment to conceal my own expression, then looked up into his earnest, miserable face. “Hand me a drying-cloth, please.”
“Yes, my lord,” he said, almost inaudibly.
Dressed in shirt, trews, tunic and overrobe (which was at least more comfortable than those absurd crisiaths so in fashion), as Cardin hurriedly polished my boots, I combed my hair and beard before reverting to the subject. “Please forgive me for any harshness, Cardin,” I said as I stamped my feet into my footwear. “One of the most difficult things for any subordinate to learn is when to possibly displease with necessary information. I do appreciate all of your concern, and I will endeavour to choose my wife wisely. But all of you must recognize that it is for me to make that choice, and if the lady attracts me, then we will see. However, at present I have no time for seeking a bride!”
“No, my lord.”
“As you have all observed, I am still adjusting to the many recent changes in my life. But I am well-served by my staff, and am glad that one of them is you.” I clapped him on the shoulder, just as we heard a sonorous gong, and went down to the dining-chamber.
At the head table, I was seated between Rigil and a remarkably tall, slender woman with a swan-like neck, wearing a rather tight gown in a bright shade of pink. We ate in the old style, wherein two people shared a large trencher; as I helped her to the choicest tidbits of each dish offered us, she showed a distressing tendency to either press against me, or lean close so that I had a clear view down her low-cut bodice. The scent of roses almost overwhelmed me.
The Diamond Butterfly, Lady Aldúneith, hung on my every word prettily, but I had the feeling that that charm was a well-rehearsed activity for her, and could gain no real sense of her personality. Had she been nicknamed “Butterfly” for fluttering her very long lashes (which I suspected of somehow being enhanced, if that was possible) or for flitting from suitor to suitor? Certainly to me she seemed to be truly described as “diamond,” for she seemed cold, impervious to genuine curiosity or emotion in her congealed beauty. I wondered if she was happy.
Lady Elantiel decreed that we would have our sweets course and a hot herbal drink or wine in another very elegant chamber. Once we removed there, she sat herself down on a sofa and summoned me to sit beside her; the other family members distributed themselves about the room. Rigil looked at me apologetically as she began in a carrying voice, “Now, my lord, we shall get to know one another. I thought Tintehlë was a lapsed title.”
“It was, my lady, but the King decided to revive and confer it upon me. I am distantly related to the last holder of it,” I said.
“And has it many lands?”
I would have been astounded if she had not known to the inch exactly where every lord and member of Gondor’s gentry, no matter how minor, had his lands, but I answered civilly, “Besides a house in the Sixth Circle of the city, there are some lands scattered in Belfalas, Anórien, Ithilien, and principally in the North, I believe in both Arnor and Arthelain.”
“And you have good rents?”
“So my man of business tells me.” I wondered if my indifferent tone would quell her.
Not so; mayhap it fitted her idea of a proper reticence—which did not restrain her in the least!
“May I join you, my lord?” fluted Lady Aldúnieth, squeezing herself in between me and the arm of the sofa.
“Would you not wish to be less crowded, my lady?” I asked, rising.
At an imperious gesture from the dowager, a footman placed a chair in front of them. I took it, feeling only slightly less trapped.
“Who was your father?” demanded the older lady bluntly.
Rigil looked uncomfortable. “Grandmother, I hardly think—” he began.
She rapped the floor with her cane. “As we all know,” she said crushingly. “Stop interrupting our conversation, boy! I want to hear his answer!”
“Hirluin the Fair of Pinnath Gelin,” I responded calmly. “I am the son of the first woman he cozened into a private wedding, which he later denied, so most believe me a bastard. He starved her to an early death, and bundled me into the army when I was fourteen, so I am but a simple soldier. Because I dared to raise my hand to Healer Ladramenhirion, the discharge I received was deemed a dishonourable one, so I have no pension despite my more than twenty years’ service.”
“And yet you still wear medals,” noted Rigil’s aunt in the first words I had heard her speak all evening. I knew without looking that Cardin, standing behind my chair, was stiffening; I flashed him a quick hand signal. He had insisted I wear them, as Finwarin had insisted on packing them without my knowledge.
“They were awarded on merit, my lady,” I replied evenly, with an effort refraining from touching the Ring of the Sun about my left arm. “I earned them with my own effort and in some cases, blood. Unfortunately, they are stained by others more deserving who lost their lives in those actions.”
“Is that not the Cross of Mordor?” Rigil asked. “And what is that medallion upon your breast?”
“The Dome of Osgiliath,” I said reluctantly.
“Your wife must be very proud,” Lady Argent said.
“I have no wife.”
Lady Aldúnieth cooed, “Your betrothed must worry about your traveling so far from home, my lord.”
“I have no betrothed,” I said, and as the predatory gleam intensified in three pairs of eyes, rose to my feet. “I beg you to excuse me; I journeyed since before dawn this morn, and am weary. Ladies, it has been a memorable evening. My lord Rigil.”
“Do you not want to play at cards?” asked Lady Argent. “Or hear my niece sing?”
Lady Elantiel said, “Argent can play the lute for you young people to dance.”
“Alas, I have no skill at such gentle pursuits,” I said hastily.
“I could teach you,” trilled Aldúnieth.
“I’m certain you could, my lady, but it would be ungallant of me to fall asleep as you did so,” I smiled, pretending to hide a yawn. “My lord, my ladies, I bid you good night.”
Cardin almost trod on my heels as we escaped, but not before I saw the Butterfly pout—and even that seemed practiced. I shook my head as we went upstairs.
We were up before dawn the next morning, and when we went down to break our fast, found a fine array set out on a side-board, and Rigil presiding over the head table alone, while servitors and guards sleepily ate, drank and murmured amongst themselves at lower tables. “The day’s greeting, my lord,” I said with a bow as I beckoned Cardin to sit beside me.
“And to you, my lord, Lord Cardin,” he said courteously. “I wish to apologize—”
“Your hospitality is impeccable,” I said sincerely. “Excellent food, comfortable beds, pleasant company—why should you apologize for any of these? Your father is well-served.”
“My thanks! Nonetheless, I wish to apologize for my grandmother and sister. She’s been sent home in disgrace for making a not-very-subtle attempt at the King himself.”
“It is difficult to gracefully endure imprisonment,” I commented.
“Of expectation, of habit of thought. Oh, excellent, fried mushrooms! I’m as partial to them as a Hobbit!”
“I think anyone who believes you are but a simple soldier deceives himself, my lord,” Rigil said after a pause. Cardin nodded vigorously until he caught my frown.
“Nonsense! I am only skilled at building things,” I said, and firmly changed the subject to the state of the road past Amon Dîn towards Rohan.
After the meal, Cardin, Swift, and I set off on foot to the village to purchase the items on my list. A sudden waft of rose-scent heralded our host’s sister, attired in a scarlet gown that even to my untutored eyes seemed overly fussy for the occasion. “The day’s greeting, my lord! Whither away so monstrously early?”
The second bell after dawn was early? I supposed it must be so for high-born ladies. She must be determined, to arise and pursue me at that hour!
Carefully masking my dismay, I made my bow. “I hadn’t expected to see you so soon,” was my less than gracious response, but the giggle she had added to her salutation had seemed gratingly witless. Was she really so oblivious to others’ feelings?
“Yet here I am,” she simpered. “Whither away?”
Limpet-like, she clung to my arm; short of prying her fingers off and perchance breaking them, perforce we were accompanied by her around the market stalls, chattering meaninglessly of people and social events unknown to me in the intervals of my procuring foodstuffs, leather goods and miscellaneous items requested by Mistress Alta, Rihan, and Tambaro.
Clearly she and her grandmother had determined upon the next stage of their campaign: laying siege.
By mid-morning, I had had enough and had decided upon my defense. “Cardin, if you would take Swift and our packages back to the manor?” I asked.
“Yes, my lord.” With a worried glance, he took himself and the dog off.
“Lady Aldúnieth, would you know a shop where I may purchase some silk?” I inquired.
“From Khand, if it be obtainable; I’m told that’s the best of such Mannish goods.”
“Indeed it is, and I do!” she said with the first gleam of enthusiasm I had yet seen. “Mistress Lurana has some. Not so fine as what can be found in the city, of course, but not too bad for our small domain.” Another giggle. Was it by rote?
Almost by chance, I had found a subject of interest. She whisked me into a small shop, greeting the proprietress, a graying woman quietly but elegantly garbed, and told her precisely what to bring out. We were shortly examining bolt after bolt of rustling, lustrous fabric I feared to touch with my callused hands.
“The grey,” I decided, and after some calculation, named the yardage.
Both women stared at me. “Not another colour? The pink, or blue, or green?” Lady Aldúnieth suggested.
“’Tis enough for a gown!” said Mistress Lurana.
“Oh, three yards more, and three reels of matching thread, and two of those needles in that needle-case, and have you a pair of scissors?”
“Dwarf-made embroidery scissors,” the shopkeeper said, brightening, opening a drawer to bring them out on a flat tray. Each had the handles formed in the shape of a bird, to be enclosed in a leather-embossed case to hang from a belt.
I chose one in the form of a hawk. “How much?”
“These are dear,” the Butterfly warned me, before settling to a brisk bargaining session that began with inquiries as to Mistress Lurana’s family, moved to a brief discussion of something called quills (clearly neither the pinions of birds nor pens), and resulted in a price of less than half what Mistress Lurana had first quoted, with laughter from my companion that was much lower and more genuine, and good-humoured; I had the sense that they were almost friends.
The cloth was measured twice and cut, wrapped carefully in another fabric I was told was muslin, swathed in oiled paper with the other items in the middle, and tied with string.
As we exited, my companion commented, “A more than handsome gift.”
I suddenly realized that she was almost glowing, and that the shopkeeper had been smiling broadly. I saw how they may have misinterpreted the incident, and blurted, “It’s for undershirts.”
She stopped short, causing a farmer’s wife to sidle past, shepherding two wide-eyed children. “Under what?”
“Undershirts, to be worn under one’s shirt, tunic, and mail,” I explained. “Lord Steward Halladan told me that whenever they can, the Grey Company of Rangers so equip themselves. There is a quality to the weave, or perhaps of the fabric, that seems to help lessen the force of arrow-points and blades to the skin underneath. Any small advantage I may gain for better equipping my party is not to be ignored.” Especially now that I could afford it, I thought but did not say.
“You’ve spent sixty golds on silk for soldiers?” she asked incredulously.
“No, for my companions and friends. Is there an inn nearby?
“Aye, right here.”
We entered the Silent Hill, and to my relief, the innkeeper gladly showed us to a small garden arbor to one side. This was ideal: enough visibility to passersby to ensure decorum, yet we were unlikely to be overheard.
I was about to end the siege.
I half-listened to more coquettish drivel until our order of salat, pastries and juices was set out on the small table between us and the servitor dismissed. I gave her a steady look. “Don’t you ever get tired of it?”
“Tired of what, my lord?”
“Living down to your inane byname. ‘The Diamond Butterfly’—of all the ridiculous things to have hung around your neck!”
She goggled at me. “Living down? But—but diamonds are rare and valuable— ”
“And cold and hard as chips of ice, impervious to change, while butterflies are short-lived. A contradiction.”
“Butterflies are fragile and beautiful!”
“Yet not so useful as a bee or a bird. Look here, Lady Aldúnieth, you’ve been presenting a semblance to the world for twelve years of a simpering, clinging, empty-headed flirt. Back there in that shop, you dropped the pretence long enough to allow me a glimpse of a knowledgeable, sensible person who’s far more interesting than your usual guise. Which is your true self? If the one I glimpsed is, why are you wasting your time on the façade?”
I had expected an insulted tantrum, and briefly wondered how I would fare making enemies of Rigil—-mayhap Daerloth—-and most certainly Lady Elantiel….
Shock, rage, and several other emotions flickered over her face. Honesty and curiosity won.
“But Men expect—”
“An ice-maiden combined with frowardness?” I shook my head. “My lady, think! Of all the clever, noble and princely Men you have met, how many have chosen someone out of a romance to be their wives? Oh, a butterfly is lovely to watch flit from bloom to bloom on a summer’s day, but most of us want a capable, caring and kind helpmate for the other shared seasons of our lives, after the wedding-day.”
Tears welled in her eyes. “You’re a poet—“
“Oh, please! Next you’ll pout,” I said in disgust, and she surprised both of us with a watery smile. I continued, “I know I’m being a brute—“
“You’re the rudest Man I ever met!”
“It just seems to me that under that polished surface, you’re unhappy.”
The tears welled again, hastily dashed away. “I’m a failure!” she said bitterly, and clapped a hand over her mouth, trying to hold back a sob. Had she never said it even to herself?
“You’re using the wrong tactics. I’m a soldier, you know, so that’s how I think.” Having finished my pastry, I picked up a little piece of wood lying beside my chair, took out my belt-knife, and began whittling as we talked. Perhaps that mundane activity would help both of us in this conversation.
“But I don’t know how to be different! I don’t know how to—-to-—not be what Grandmother insists I be.” She pounded the table. “Yet you’re right, it doesn’t work! I hate it!”
“That’s the nub of the problem, my lady. If you hate what you are, how can anyone find you lovable?”
“Mayhap I’m not.”
I laughed, which made her eyes flash. “Well, brutes are heartless. Nay, I’m not mocking your distress. But every time, from habit, you veer into dramatic self-pity, you invite derision. Take it from someone who once pitied his own hard life more than anyone else did, it is better to allow one’s self five minutes of self-pity and then to get busy with something else. Your grandmother is a formidable woman, and she has taught herself and you that your worth rests solely through outward beauty and haughtiness, your only route to gaining what you think you desire. What do you really want?”
She thought about it. “Not to have to bother with all this,” she said. “I’m never comfortable; I have to constantly think of how I move and dress and speak and look. I wish I could just go for a ride in the rain, if I wanted to, or get all floury in a kitchen. I used to play with the village children when I was just the Beanpole, all knobby legs and arms and too tall, and I loved going in and out of their homes, and helping pick fruit and rake hay, and cook and churn and bake and pummel feather-beds. Then Grandmother moved back after quarreling with her sister-in-love in Pelargir, and announced that those days were over. At first, I liked not being the Beanpole—butterflies are small, you know, and delicate, and I really am not! But I can’t eat what I want to for fear of not fitting my dresses, and these gowns are laced so tightly, I can barely breathe. I thought if I were beautiful, I’d have friends, ones I wouldn’t be scolded for having as not of my rank, but I don’t.”
“I will tell you four things I believe are true,” I said. “Two are that you are as strong as your grandmother, and as intelligent. Another is: you need to think further.”
For a long moment she stared at me, biting her lip. “I just realized that I’ve never thought past a wedding. How pitiable is that!”
Pathetic, in my opinion, but would saying so help? Instead I said, “Then think of being the best person you can be, my lady, for even if and when you wed, the will of the Valar might be that your husband sickens or is killed in battle, or that the marriage be set aside for some reason. Whomever you wed, you must live with yourself always. You are noble already, insofar as rank and lineage. Whether you are noble within, as having the qualities our Lord King requires in those about him—and a nobler Man does not draw breath—which are service, humility, and honour. I would add good honesty, kindness, courtesy and balance. If you are haughty, are you helpful? Are you content to be all surface, or compassionate? Are you willing to give of yourself as well as take?”
Tears flowed down her lovely face. “How can I change?”
“Have you no friends to counsel you?”
“No. Decent Men flee from me now if they aren’t hoping to seduce me, and women see me as a rival, or disapprove of my conduct.”
I overlooked the exaggeration of the first part of her statement. “Then look to someone you admire who is also kind, and ask them for help. A truly kind person will not turn away.”
“Would you suggest someone?”
“What of Lady Lynessë, Lord Húrin’s wife?”
“She dislikes me, and has since before she was chatelaine for Lord Denethor, eleven years ago. And Grandmother would not allow such a friendship, she was so wroth that he did not invite me to take the position—not that she would have allowed it for me in any case, for she would have it I must never appear to serve.”
I laughed outright. “How foolish! We all serve, including the King! Does your father not serve the folk of your domain? Is he not from home doing just that now? I misdoubt some of your unhappiness is sheer boredom! How do you spend your time?”
“Besides plotting and scheming to trap a husband, you mean?” she asked, and I rejoiced at the flash of spirit. ”Oh, always being in the fashion, if not setting it, and keeping up my accomplishments.”
“What are those?”
“Singing, although my voice is not loud enough to be the best, and playing the lute, although I must not play anything truly serious, and drawing insipid pictures, and skimming through the current poems, and guarding my complexion. And riding, which I do enjoy, if I was allowed to go somewhere different than the popular places on a better horse than I’m permitted. I like riding, as much as I like cooking and making things in a stillroom—not that I’m allowed to do that anymore. Valar forbid I do something mundane to mar my complexion, dishevel my hair, wrinkle my clothing, or ruin my hands for fine embroidery. I’m sick of cross-stitch!”
“I shall send a message to Lord Húrin, and ask him to request of his wife a meeting when next you are in the city. Act like you would like a friend to act towards you, and you will have friends,” I said. After foisting Dir upon me, he owed me a favour—and I did not doubt they would exert themselves on her behalf if convinced of her sincerity. “Are you not of age?”
She swallowed. “I am. You are a kind brute, my lord.”
“Thank you. How do you feel?”
“Exhausted. And—lighter, somehow. Do you really think I can change?”
“I do. It will be difficult—I deem Lady Elantiel is used to getting her own way.”
“You have no idea! Even my father rarely opposes her.”
“But it’s your life you fight for, not hers. A pity you cannot get right away, to shed your current self. But I have faith you will prevail in the end, if you decide to do so. However, I know that no one else can save you. You must want to save yourself. Here.” I handed her the small bee I had just carved, adding whimsically, “A crude reminder from a rude and heartless brute. Mind, I’ll deny I ever even saw it if you say I gave it you!”
“I won’t.” She closed her hand over it. “Thank you, Lord Tintehlë.”
“Another example of my rudeness: I must be going. Let me escort you to your home before I ride off.”
We walked back to the manor in a thoughtful silence until it was in sight, when she paused. “May I ask you what the fourth thing was you would tell me?”
“Very well. I will not wed you, Lady Aldúnieth,” I said steadily, “but I will ever be a friend to your best self.”
“Aldúnieth! What are you doing out so early in the dew? Come within at once!” called her grandmother’s strident voice from a window.
“What she really means is am I any closer to ensnaring you.”
“You might as well disillusion her, once I’m gone. Take your time and be sure of your ground before you act, and you shall win. I will pray to Eru and the Valar for your success.”
She held out her hand to me as we neared the stable, where Cardin had led out our horses, and as I bowed, she dipped in a deep curtsey. “My greatest gratitude, my lord.” Nodding at her brother, she went indoors as he came out.
Rigil protested that we should stay another night, or at least have a morsel, but when I proved obdurant in my plan to leave at once, sent Arador to fetch us a bundle of bread, cheese, and fruit before bidding us farewell.
As we rode out, I wondered if she would in fact manage to overcome her disadvantages, or fall back into her customary ways. Habit—and inertia—are far more powerful than many realize.
I'm grateful to Larner for permitting me to borrow Rigel and his family!