We were ready to leave two days later. Dirúvel insisted I spend it lying on my front in bed, and I confess I spent most of it sleeping. He would have preferred I wait at least another day, but I felt the press of time. However, I still had not solved a problem: I had what (for lack of any other term) I was referring to as touchstones from the Drúadain for our travelling, but only those for Alta, Dir, Cardin, Rihan, Tambaro, myself and an extra for Vorondor when we returned; his might serve for another, although I wasn't certain of that, yet I still needed one more. I hesitated to go back to the Drúadain forest to ask for another, was not certain we should travel the Hidden Paths with these new additions to our party—yet I felt the weight of the King's command to go swiftly.
And there was the problem of Alta.
I had managed to avoid even speaking to her for the past few days, but knew that that was only temporary. I must face her.
Thus, I rose from my bed the evening before our departure, submitted to Cardin helping me dress, and found my way to the solar. Lady Hungitha and her maids sat sewing and chatting; Alta stood out in their midst like a rose in the midst of a bed of daisies.
I bowed. “May I speak with you, Mistress Nénharma?” I requested.
“My garden would be a nice place in which to walk,” Lady Hungitha remarked.
“My thanks, lady,” I said with another bow, and held the door for my housekeeper.
We did not speak as we went out to the walled pleasance, fortunately deserted, and I indicated a shaded bench. She sat, murmuring, “Will you not sit as well, my lord?”
I did so, a proper arm’s length away. “I have not thanked you for saving us,” I said awkwardly.
“Was that not why you left that packet of letters for me? And I have not yet returned your knife. I’m not sure Lord Éalagar would have believed me without them, and Islilta’s backing me up as well. Thank the Valar she escaped and found me!”
“I only wished to keep you out of their hands,” I told her. “I knew our situation was desperate, but for them to find a woman as well with us—“
She stiffened. “Here is your knife, my lord,” she said in a tone icy enough to have plunged it into my heart, offering it to me hilt first across her other wrist.
I half-turned to look at her; she stared straight ahead, her face stony. “I wished to tell you that the rest of us will be leaving in the morning, but Lord Éadagar will have you and Mistress Frejwyn escorted to Edoras and thence back to the city.”
If she had stiffened more, she would have gone over backwards; anger rolled off her in waves, and her knuckles were white on the knife-sheath. “You are not pleased by this news,” I added.
She looked at me directly, her eyes blazing. “I am not! Why are you sending me away?”
I explained, “It was foolish of me to bring you, and now that I have realized it, the only thing to do is send you back.”
She leaped to her feet, so I rose as well, but she backed away from me. “So you thank me in one breath and banish me in the next!”
:Marpol, you idiot, what are you doing?: demanded Islilta suddenly.
:This is none of your affair, Islilta! Please get out of my head!: I thought back at her.
:Why are you upsetting both your herd-mate and mine?: asked ‘Gift abruptly.
I backed away, my eyes widening. :Herd-mate?!:
:Of course. It is right. You should run together, not seperately.:
:Get OUT OF MY HEAD!: I roared at both of them, and felt an…emptiness as they complied.
Alta had folded her arms, but now she unfolded them, her eyes briefly distant; I realized that Islilta was speaking to her as her eyes widened. Then she blushed, and I knew that I was flushed as well.
“Islitla says I should ask you why,” she said in a small voice.
“You could have been—hurt,” I said lamely. “You still could be, if I fail again to protect you.”
“I failed to protect you,” she said fiercely. “Oh, don’t blink at me that way! If it’s all right for Rihan and Tambaro and Cardin and Dir and ‘Gift and Isililta and Vorondor and the rest of the household to protect you, why isn’t it right for me to do so?”
“Because I love you,” I blurted.
“Well, so do we love you,” she replied. “And we all know full well that you are the most important of us, that the King depends upon you to bring the two Realms and the peoples in it together. Look how you solved the problem with the Drúadain, and with the tower! Many folk could have just ‘disappeared’ as soon as they entered the wood, which would have meant eventually the pûkel-men’s annhilation, and Valar knows what might have happened with the tower so evil-infested!
“Did you know, my lord, that women were raped in the City during and after the siege? I know of at least two, assaulted by Men who were so crazed by the war that they took it out on them. Shall I avoid my home, or recognize and seek to remedy evil wherever I find it? What is the point of my training and knowledge if it is not to be used, simply because I was born female instead of male?
“I am your housekeeper. Should I not do my utmost to keep your household functioning as it should whether or not we are living in one place? How can I return with honour if you do not want me to do my tasks? Would you send one of the Men back?”
I was silent.
I loved her. I loved her! For so many years, I had wondered if I would ever find someone to love—and now I had finally recognized my other soul, the woman I would love all my days—and I realized I had been denying it for some time.
Wretchedly, I realized something else: she did not love me, except for regard as an employer.
How could I be worthy of her, and earn her love?
Not by asking her to be less than she thought she should be….no matter how the thought of her in possible danger terrified me.
“No,” I said, taking the knife. “Very well, I will tell Lord Éadagar of the change in plan, that you ladies will accompany us. But you will both train, each day, no matter what!”
She nodded, releasing it. “My thanks, Lord Marpol.”
“Please excuse me, or shall I escort you back to the solar?”
“I can go on my own,” she said demurely but with an edge to her voice, and a curtsey.
Cursing my clumsy tongue and slow mind, I bowed and went in search of the Rohirric lord.
He was in the armoury, polishing his shield, chatting with my men and his own. “Ah, Lord Tintehlë! Please join us! We have some ale.”
“Thank you, my lord. I wished to tell you of a change in plan; Mistresses Nénharma and Frejwyn will be accompanying us on our journey, instead of going to Edoras. I apologize for any inconvenience.”
He waved that aside, smiling. “Firri, give him a mug! Nay, my lord, no problem! Frejwyn will be pleased; she is curious about the North. But in that case I would ask a favour: would you be willing to detour slightly, to her former home? She wishes to pick up something.”
“Of course,” I said.
We left before dawn, Frejwyn clad in a divided skirt similar to Alta’s, riding first a bit more westward, to find her former home. It was even more devastated than Corrigar’s had been, with only two walls of the house still standing, and the barn almost leveled to the ground. Without comment, she vanished into what remained of the house while we waited.
“My lord? You only come?” she called after a few moments.
Rihan and Tambaro frowned. In fact, the only one who did not was Corrigar. I dismounted, and called Swift to heel, hand on my sword-hilt as I followed.
Inside, fully sunlit with no roof, I saw her in the corner. “Is all well, Mistress?” I asked.
“It well,” she said, and pointed at the dust. “You see tracks?”
I peered, then glanced up at her. She nodded. “Wose. Oft come when I small.” She pushed aside a large stone at the base of the wall, and knelt to reach inside, pulling out two shrouded but familiar shapes and a small leather bag, holding the bag out to me. “For you.”
I opened its drawstring and spilled the contents onto my palm: two more of the touch-stone necklaces, in pale green. Well, this solved one problem! “Will you wear one whilst travelling with us, Mistress?” I asked.
“Yes. I give other to Corrigar.” She had already buckled the sword-belt around her waist, and was settling a round shield on her shoulders, a light helm over her arm. “Éowyn my best student,” she added offhandedly as I followed her back to the others.
I stopped short, then caught up to her in a few strides. Grinning, I surveyed the rest of the group’s faces as we emerged into the sunlight. Alta looked delighted.
The men were gawking, although Rihan and Tambaro only did so for an instant before regaining their usual expressions, and Corrigar looked disapproving. What rattled me was that both my captains immediately glanced at me—and I suspected that they were amused.
However, that could be unraveled later.
“Do you wish to do more, Mistress?” I asked.
She shook her head.
“Then mount up, everyone. Time passes, and we have a long way to go,” I directed. “Circle close, please.”
This time I very easily picked up all of the Gondorians’ minds; it was a bit harder with Frejwyn, mostly from not knowing her as well. Corrigar resisted, probably instinctively; I heard ‘Gift say to him, :Stop acting like a sulky colt! Do you think Islilta and I would let someone unworthy ride us? Now stop resisting! Do what he tells you, or shall we leave you here like a child?:
I felt the lad’s startlement and awe—and embarrassment at being spoken to in such wise by a mearh—and gathered him in. This time I was more aware that Islilta and ‘Gift had gathered in our mounts and pack-animals, and we melded both human and equine groups. At my command, Swift leaped up onto the improved pillion pad the Rohirrim had provided and fastened on the back of my saddle. On we went, over some ten leagues of the Westfold, until we came to the Gap of Rohan, and in it to the Fords of the Isen. I could see that the road was in decent condition, although worn and uneven here and there; one could discern where it had been pitted by erosion from the weather. I made mental notes about drainage, and knew that Rihan and Tambaro were doing so as well—or so I hoped.
On the eastern bank of the Isen, we stopped.
:Why do we not cross?: asked ‘Gift.
I was looking at a mound, surely raised not long ago. :Is that not where Théodred son of Théoden lies, and those Riders who fell with him? Should we not pause to honour their sacrifice?:
:This is well-thought.: Their approval was warm in the back of my mind.
I let their minds go. Dismounting, I asked Carrigor, “Am I right that this is where Lord Théodred son of Théoden, and those Riders who fell with him, lie?”
“It is,” he said, all colour fled from his tanned face.
“I do not know your rites, but we should not pass without pausing to honour their sacrifice for your people,” I said.
He was wide-eyed. “You would do that?”
“Frejwyn? You know more of this than I do,” he said.
Tears were slipping down her cheeks as she slid down. “We must look for some flowers,” she began, when Alta pushed back her cloak, revealing a basket that she held out to her.
“I asked Lady Hungitha, just in case, and she gave this to me before we left,” she said diffidently. “Is this all right?”
“Exact right,” Frejwyn said unsteadily, and divided the large bouquet of greens and white flowers—:Simbëlmyne:, Islilta put gently into my mind—into two unequal amounts, handing the smaller one to Carrigor. “You know words, Rider,” she said formally to him.
I looked at the others, and drew my sword.
When the two Rohir turned from scattering the bouquets and chanting in their language (I suspected in an older dialect), they found us drawn up at the salute. I had already said an internal prayer to Oromë, knowing that the Horse-folk revere him as Béma.
Both were weeping silently. Frejwyn nodded to me, we all remounted, I gathered them in, and we went onward.
Some distance on, we turned north and then west again, pausing by some tree-choked ruins. In front of them sat the squat figure of a Drúadan braiding a grass rope. He rose as I released them and we all dismounted.
“Well come, Waygiver,” he said. “I am Rec-nuri-Rec. You camp here tonight.”
“My thanks, Rec-nuri-Rec,” I replied gratefully, clinging to the pommel as a wave of dizziness assailed me.
“Should you be feeling this way?” Alta muttered, coming over to me. “Lean on me, my lord.”
“I’m fine,” I protested.
“No, you aren’t,” Tambaro said gruffly. “Overdoing it as usual! Here, Corrigor, lend him your shoulder so he can sit down while we set up camp.”
Between them, I stumbled to where my bedroll had been laid out by Cardin, blanket-covered saddles piled up as a back-rest. I sat and put my head back gratefully. I may have dozed; when I opened my eyes at Dir’s low-voiced, “Supper, my lord,” the camp was set up and the rest eating.
I had forced myself to eat most of the plate when Corrigor came over to kneel beside me. “May I speak with you?” he asked formally.
His Westron was so much improved that I blinked at him in surprise.
:Islilta and I have been instructing Shieldwoman Frejwyn and him in your language, to make things easier,: ‘Gift told me.
He frowned at me. “Is it well with you?”
“I am very sleepy,” I admitted truthfully.
“Your people are worried, especially your woman.”
I felt myself redden. “Mistress Nénharma is not my woman!”
“I mean no offense! I mean, she most of all. Excuse my speech, my lord. I need to—to apologize. I treated you badly, but you did not demand my death. But you are not weak, and you honour our dead.”
“I am no stronger than any other Man,” I told him. “When I was your age, I was unfair in some of my judgments too.”
“How did you improve them?”
“Experience helps,” I said. “Good friends to advise me, if I will listen. Sometimes simple luck. And sometimes, despite all that, I still misjudge.”
“It will be a long time before I am old,” he sighed.
“The point is to learn—and to stay alive long enough to be old,” I said. “Life can be confusing no matter how old you are.”
“I will learn much from you, Lord Marpol,” he said. “I should let you rest.”
I sensed in his hesitant tone that he was not yet ready to end the conversation. “What?”
“I—my thanks. You eased my cousin.”
I raised a brow. “I did?”
“Her father died there, and her brother. One rode with Theódred, the other with Grimbold. It was her mother’s mother’s sword and shield she took from the house. Hers broke at Helm’s Deep. She fought in the caves with Lord Gimli. Do you know him?”
“I do,” I replied. “He is in Minas Tirith now. I can tell you some tales of him, if you wish.”
“Later. Mistress Alta will part my skin from my body if I don’t let you sleep.” Picking up my plate, he gave a half-bow and smile and walked away.
I fell into sleep….
:He should not feel this way.: The voice was high-pitched, speaking in Pûkael.
:No, he should not.: I knew that voice; it was Gandalf’s—I knew he had paused to puff at his pipe in the middle of that sentence, spoken in Westron.
:Is it wise, to meddle with these…currents?: This voice was female, and something about its melodiousness, reminiscent of Lady Cormallen’s, made me think she must be Elvish.
:It is necessary.: This was a Voice of power and certainty, speaking in what I knew was Quenya, little though I normally understood it. Amusement and great compassion tinged it next. :Fear not, Marpol. Let yourself float and trust, and we will ease this burden. See, my friends, we must do this—and this—and….:
I felt myself immersed in darkness, warm and fragrant, holding me securely, while something changed inside my mind; a pressure I had been aware of without knowing how to express it was lifted from me, and I sighed with relief, and floated more….
My eyes opened. Overhead the stars spangled the sky, none so bright as Eärendil(1). It was near dawn, I saw. I felt rested and well, and when I sat up, my back did not even twinge, although it itched. All were asleep, except for Rec-nuri-Rec, who sat nearby. Now I perceived what I had not before: the Drúedan was a female, not a male as all those I had previously met were.
She smiled. “It is safer for me to seem other than I am,” she said softly. I nodded. “So. How do you, Waygiver?”
Another nod. “It has been decided that you must take the Hidden Ways, and I will go with you. Do not fear for your duty; knowledge of the roads will be given you.”
“It must be accurate.”
“Of course. But you shall not go through Dunland's surface on this journey.”
“Then where am I going?”
“On the Hidden Ways, beneath it. We have spoken to the Dunlenders, and for a price, they will give you the information later today.”
“What is that price?”
“A treaty with your King.”
“I am not empowered to make any treaties,” I pointed out.
“He will be aware of the need already.”
Statecraft was my Royal cousin’s affair, not mine. “Because of Gandalf?” I ventured, and received no answer, not that I expected one. But surely he had previously thought about it. Most in Gondor referred to the Dunlendings as the Wildmen, but from my reading, I suspected that like the Drúedain, they were simply different in their culture. Certainly the few trade items I had seen were of the highest craftsmanship, particularly their jewelry.
“You must gather them in again after you see the Dunlending,” Ren-nuri-Ren told me, and I nodded as I rose to my feet and bowed.
“Please excuse me,” I said, and headed to the jakes.
I had washed up and come back to the fire, taking over guard with Swift when a Man appeared on the edge of the firelight. He was tall for a Man of the Common Folk, barely a half-head shorter than me, with two thin white-streaked red braids tucked behind his ears, their arc almost echoing that of the long mustaches on either side of his mouth. I saw that he was wearing a checked cloak over similar cross-gartered breeches, and carried a long spear as well as a sword at his side. Bright hazel eyes considered me thoughtfully.
I bowed slightly, making no move to grasp my sword. “Welcome to the fire’s warmth,” I said slowly in Pûkael. “Shared may be food and drink, for a day and a night and another day.”
In the same tongue, he said as slowly, “My weapons will defend those here for that time.”
“It is well.”
“It is well,” he agreed, with a flashing grin, but I suddenly realized that the last exchange was not in Pûkael.
:We thought it would be well for you to speak Dunael, so we gave it to you as you slept.: Islilta said calmly into my mind.
I managed not to start, but blinked. :You could just put an entire language into my mind? And who is ‘we’?: I thought back, now understanding why I had a headache.
:You should invite him to sit down: advised ‘Gift. :You’ve handled the ritual well so far; don’t mess it up now with tangents.:
:Putting things in a Man’s head isn’t a tangent!: I thought forcefully back, but knew that neither would answer.
“Please forgive my rudeness,” I said to the visitor.
“You speak with your gods, your totems,” he replied with a shrug, reaching up with one hand to touch something under his hide tunic. An amulet? “I am a man of skill, hammered and hammering, despoiler of women, smithing words and stones as well as defeating enemies. I harvest herbs and souls. Who am I?”
“You are Aonghus of the Daen Coentis, orator, seducer, warrior and shaman of your people,” I replied. “I am seeker and finder, warrior and maker of devices. I fly between worlds; I sing and speak and see far. Who am I?”
“You are Eye-of-Eagle, the Wayfinder, Bringer of New Ways,” he said, and folded his legs beneath him, sinking bonelessly to the ground.
I sat cross-legged opposite him, reaching slowly into the pot slung over the fire and dipping out some of the porridge, flavored with bits of venison, vegetables, and berries, that Alta had set to simmer for breaking our fast, into a bowl, and held it out to him along with a small jug of honey.
On his part, he produced a wooden spoon and a stone flask from which he sipped before handing the latter to me.
I took a cautious sip; it was a distilled spirit similar to, but rougher than, brandy. Its base, I guessed, was barley instead of a fruit wine, and it burned down my throat to a warm glow in my belly. Its smoothness was surprising and deceptive.
“It is good to see a Man savour fine oosqui,” he said.
“Of your brewing?”
He dipped his head to one side. “Others make good as well.”
Alta was up and sitting near me. “Is the porridge all right?” she asked me.
His bright eyes flicked between us. “Please tell your beautiful companion that it tastes of forest, field, and fallow, all the smoother for the fair hands that made it.”
I repeated the compliment, word for word, in Westron and she blushed. “He is too kind.”
The rest were getting up, coming to join us in a large circle, although I knew that my captains had been watching him from their bedrolls for some time. They sipped without blinking, although Cardin and Dir both coughed before passing it on. Frejwyn looked as if she would balk, until she got the look that meant one or both mearas were bespeaking her mentally; so did her cousin. She sipped and handed it to him without any change of expression or comment. Corrigar blinked and handed it to me; I returned it to our guest with a bow and performed introductions.
He nodded at each, although for an instant I thought his glance was going to pass over the two Rohirrim, but to my relief, his nod was exactly the same for them as for the Gondorians. After all, I knew that the Dunlendings had raided and fought the Horse-folk over what they had regarded as their lands for generations, and had fought most recently allied with Saruman’s White Hand.
“Not all the clans wore the Wizard’s mark, nor joined his yrch filth,” Aonghus said to me after we had all broken our fast. The others were employed either in cleaning and packing up or training; the two of us, with Swift at my side, had moved to one side out of the way, sitting almost knee-to-knee.
“That is good hearing,” I said neutrally.
“Those who were more Daen Iontis fought, but the Daen Coentis did not,” he said. “The Daen Iontis suffered more—although all of us have.”
“And which are you, one of the Wronged Ones, or of the Skilled Ones?” I asked.
His smile deepened. “You have tasted some of my making, and I am here.”
“One of the Skilled,” I concluded. “Do you speak Rohirric or Westron?”
“Thanks to the Rógin and the fourfoots I do,” he said wryly, and I received a mental picture of the Drúadain and the mearas surrounding him.
“I understand,” I nodded, wondering briefly how badly a head would ache from receiving two languages instead of only one, not that I wanted to find out!
To my Lord and Royal Cousin Elessar King of the Reunited Realm of Arnor and Gondor, greetings from Marpol Thorenhen Lord Tintehlë, Warden of Roads.
Know that we have added two to our party, Shieldmaiden Frejwyn Daughter of Freja, and her cousin Corrigor, by request of their kinsman Lord Éadagar of the Westfold, who is sending a letter to Éomer King about this matter. We are just without the Gap of Rohan, in Dunland, and I have met with Aonghus of Clan Treforn, of the Daen Coentis.
My lord, I urge you to consider traveling here soon to speak with him and his people and establishing a treaty with him, for it would be extremely difficult to traverse this country without their cooperation. Not only is it wild, as you know from your own travels, but I deem they are at a turning point in their history.
The Daen Coentis were related to the Drúedain in the last Age, and dwelt in the Ered Nimrais—after being driven from what is now Gondor by the Dúnedain. It is no wonder that Sauron was able to subvert many of their clans smarting under the loss of their former lands. In his usual devious fashion, he did so insidiously through their religious beliefs. But this occasioned a split between them. It was from those in the highlands who chose to dwell peacefully with and learn from our people that the Oathbreakers were descended. Those not directly under the Curse were still affected by it—ores in their mines emptying, fields and flocks and women becoming increasingly barren, and they became fixated upon death, even debasing their religion with human sacrifices. Those who refused to do such things fled here, becoming the Daen Lintis, the “Learned Ones.” Many clans waxed and waned in strength and influence, but all began to prosper somewhat in this less fertile region. Some 2,000 years ago, they occupied land south of the Glanduin, east of the Gwathló, and north of the Isen. The ones in the mountains were not as isolated as those here. They were again split between those enraged by being driven from Rohan, once we gifted it to Éorl in 2510, and the Daen Iontis have raided and fought them since. This was why it was not difficult for Saruman to lure many clans to his banner. [Note: Daen Coentis means “the Skilled Ones,” and are more amenable to being allies. Daen Iontis is harder to translate, since we don’t have an exact term to match it. In their tongue it means those who are wronged, betrayed, dispossessed, and/or unjustly punished.]
It is my thought that Theóden’s insistence that the Dunlendngs who surrendered at Helm’s Deep be allowed to depart hither once they swore an oath to never bear arms against his folk again is potentially a boon to us as well. They are a proud people, close-bound by their oaths. More importantly, their ranks have been so decimated by their warfare (and losses) that the Daen Coentis now outnumber them and are in the act of reorganizing their entire people’s society and religion as closer to the old ways when Yavanna and Aulë were most honoured of all the Valar (albeit under different names and guises than familiar to us). But ALL of them share in justifiable pride in themselves, their traditional way of life, and their incredible levels of craftsmanship. I would recommend that if they were presented with agreements stating definite boundaries, treated not as barbarians but as equals, and left to govern themselves, they would become useful allies. However, ignoring the past, and past grievances, will not help future relations.
We have spoken long, and our meetings concluded, Aonghus presented me with a most magnificent Gift by which I now know the state of the roads, trails, tracks and paths, as well as the location of all towns, villages, steadings, ruins, lakes, rivers, streams, etc., in the lands between the Gap, the Ered Nimaris, the Hithaeglir, and the Glanduin. I now proceed swiftly farther North, and will communicate to you as I can.
I finished the last copy, in cipher, enclosed in a note to Vorodor, and Rihan sent off the birds. It was my hope that I had not been too pedantic, but I felt strongly that they, and this area, were at a crossroads.
Our meetings had taken two days, in the intervals of traveling. Rec-nuri-Rec would have stumped alongside our steeds, but Aonghus had offered her room in his light two-wheeled chariot, drawn by a cobby Dunland horse as brown as I’d been told the land was—although in this late spring, it was a thousand subtle shades of lichen, stone, wildflowers, and various kinds of low-growing shrubs, with flowering trees in the foothills. To the north towered the Hithaeglir; while opposite them on the horizon were the Ered Nimrais. The land was rising, the wind aromatic with new growth. Around us we could hear the buzz of insects, the rustle of tiny creatures, birdsong, and the eternal musics of water and wind.
I had always supposed that the Wild must be somewhat arid, but at this season, there were seeps and rills, streams and small rivers purling over stone, some so small as to be almost invisible in the ground-cover.
In early afternoon of the second day, we were camped in the lee of a ruined Dúnedain villa, in the classic four-sided design around at least one interior courtyard. Tambaro had already commented on the bit of faded mosaic he had found, getting the lads to help him clear off the debris, and rigging up a pump from the drawing I sketched for him. Rihan was supervising Corrigar and Frejwyn in making frames of withes and blankets, as a surprise for Alta. Without discussion, my captains and I had realized that Corrigar would be more likely to cooperate if he worked with his cousin, but I noticed that after a few moments, she patted his shoulder and went to help Alta with laundry at the well. They soon had garments draped over rocks and bushes, and I joined the men on our task while Rec-nuri-Rec watched inscrutably.
“Mistress Alta,” I called.
She used the back of her wrist to push back her hair. “My lord?”
“Would you come with me, please?”
“Of course, my lord.” She walked with me around the broken walls, stepping over piles of stone until we came to the back part of the house. Her brows rose as she saw the improvised screens.
“I know that today is your mother’s birthing-day as well as yours,” I said, “and I promised her before we left that I would see to it that you received her gift to you so you would not miss her too much. Neither of us was certain what form it might take, but this is the beginning of it, if you would be pleased to go see.”
“Why—so it is, hers, and mine, since we share birthdays! No wonder I have thought of her so often today!” She went on without hesitation, around the edge of one screen.
I knew what she would see: the now-clean old mosaic edging a pool we had drained and sieved and let refill from a natural hot spring, steam rising from the surface. Flowers floated on the water, and a wooden pannikin of soap, washing- and drying-cloths in a neat pile in a basket nearby, along with two small vials and a carved comb. Frejwyn had provided the vials and comb, and a robe like a drift of new snow. Smiling, I returned to the fire where Rihan was making supper, having been instructed at length by Frejwyn.
It was almost dusk when Alta emerged, dressed in the Rohirric gown, her long hair loose and curling with damp. We had waited to eat, and I ceremoniously handed her to the head of a “table” of stones surrounded by cushions of grass-stuffed cloth. “You are not to serve, cook, nor wash up,” I told her firmly. “Tonight you are a lady of leisure.”
Each of us had managed at least a small token for her: Corrigan had carved the comb, with a small horse-head she declared was the image of Islilta. Dir had cleverly made some kind of fragrant essence in one of the vials. My captains, Cardin, and I had made the bath. I knew that a length of rose ribbon for her hair, and a book had come with a note from her mother. Frejwyn had smiled mysteriously when she told me that she would help with the bath, and so had Rec-buri-Rec; both had disappeared shortly after she had.
It was a simple but ample meal—vegetables, fricasseed hare, steamed grain, a berry compote, and a bottle of wine I had carefully brought from the tower—delicious and eaten and drunk with much laughter. Afterwards, the lads did the dishes, and we gathered around the fire again, exchanging tales and songs.
One by one, the others withdrew to their bedrolls, but Alta and I lingered. “I hope you enjoyed it, simple as it was,” I said.
“How can you doubt it?” she replied. “There is a perfection in simple things.”
“Well, it may not have been elegant—”
Her fingertips were cool on my lips. “A hot bath in the middle of the wilderness, for which I did not have to heat the water nor clean the tub afterwards, and a bath large enough almost to lie down in? The good will of my friends and companions? The forethought of my mother? What could be better?”
“I am glad you were pleased,” I said inadequately. We were standing closer together than usual, and that fragrance was heady. “What is that scent?” My voice was somewhat hoarser than normal, and I cleared my throat.
“Essence of May-bells(2), those tiny white flowers that grow on an arcing stem, with white-striped leaves,” she told me. “We used to have beds of it outside the front door, and it smelled so good after a spring rain!”
It smelled wonderful then.
“You know, in the language of flowers—“
“There’s a language of flowers? I thought them mute!” I blurted.
She laughed softly. “A symbolic language. You know so many things, I thought you might know this.”
“Nay. What do May-bells say?”
“They symbolize the return of happiness. I think they speak truly. Right now, right here, I am happy—and once I thought I could never be.”
“May you have every happiness that life can hold,” I said sincerely, took her hand, and kissed it gently, then stepped back and bowed. “It grows chilly. Good night, Alta. Swift, come.”
I strode away, walking a wide perimeter of the camp for some time.
When I came back, the only one at the fire was Aonghus. “My turn to guard, Way-giver. I do not understand,” he added, switching from Westron to his own tongue.
“What don’t you understand?” I asked.
“Your folk’s courting rituals. Ours are…more direct.”
“I’m not courting anyone.”
“She is more than worthy of you.”
“That is not the question.”
“Then what is?”
I shrugged, unable to answer. “I will sleep now,” I told him, and retreated to my own bedroll.
The next morning, after we broke our fast, Aonghus spread out a piece of colorful cloth on the ground and laid out some items on it. I wasn’t exactly certain how this occurred, but soon all the others, save Dir and myself, were gathered about it, in animated discussion. For Dir’s part, as we sparred with knives, my young Healer sighed deeply, trying to maneuver me until his back was to the rest.
“Halt for now,” I said, as I scored two touches on him in almost as many breaths. “Your concentration is wavering, but that was a distinct improvement on your footwork.”
He bowed. “Thank you, my lord.”
But after he inspected, carefully polished his blade, and sheathed it, he went no nearer. I raised a brow. “You don’t want to see what he has?”
“I know his people are famed for their craftsmanship, for you told us yourself,” he said indifferently. “No doubt he’s showing them samples.”
“Yet you don’t want to even look? Why not?”
He reddened. “Because…there’s no point to doing so.” His voice was matter-of-fact, but I fancied I detected some effort in the tone.
“Dir. Look at me. Why is there no point?”
“I have nothing to spend, and no one to spend any coin upon. Yet…if I had not lost them, I might have wanted to get some trinkets for my sisters, and my mother.”
“You may yet see them again,” I said.
He shook his head, but I nodded mine emphatically and laid my hand on his shoulder. “Come, let us see his wares.”
Aonghus had an assortment—a few ivory-hilted knives, tiny boxes with wooden inlay, an array of beaded jewelry, some pouches, some wonderfully soft fur slippers and mittens, an assortment of miscellaneous objects. Dir looked, and turned away, but I dickered with the Dunlendng and called the lad, tossing a clinking pouch at him.
He caught it. “My lord?”
“Stupidly, I forgot to advance part of your stipend,” I said, “mostly because I had a notion to give it to you in a suitable belt-pouch. Will this serve?”
It was in what I knew he thought of as Healer-red, perfectly matching his satchel, and he could feel the heft of several coins inside it. “Stipend?” he repeated blankly.
“Certainly. Did you think yourself a slave? I would remind you that that is illegal in Gondor, and I wouldn’t enslave anyone!”
“Of—of course not, my lord.”
“See if there is anything you would like, while I speak with Rihan,” I said, turning away.
“Wondered, speculated and pondered when you’d get around to that,” Solarion murmured as I came up to where he was examining one of his birds.
“Rihan, which is the most secure of Vorondor’s ciphers?” I asked.
“The tree one,” he replied instantly, “as you very well know. Why?”
“I may need you to send another bird soon,” I answered.
“All right. Just tell me. By the way, Aonghus wants you to gather him in last, I don’t know why, the Drúedan too. He wouldn’t say why, but he swore they mean you no harm.”
“But you don’t trust them.”
“Aye and nay. Aye, I don’t, but that may be from habit. Nay, I do, because first, the mearas would trample them flat into the ground if they tried, and because they swore on all they hold holy that they wouldn’t, and I’ve known some Dunlendings, same as you know the Drúedain—and it’s clear they regard you as next to the Valar.”
“You got the Woses, Pûkel-men, Drúedain that talk, conversation and meeting with the two Kings that resulted in their own forest abode, habitation and home, so it’s far from absurd, foolish or preposterous.”
My ears burning, I stalked away from him to saddle ‘Gift, who wisely kept his mouth shut.
When the others were entranced in their saddles, I looked at Aonghus and Rec-nuri-Rec, still standing on the ground. “We have some things to show you,” the Dunlending said gravely. He took a large cloth out of his pack, spreading it on the ground, and laying other items upon it before gesturing me to look at them more closely.
I went to one knee and peered at what seemed like more trade goods. Only seemed, for something told me that these were items of power. My nape prickled, but not in fear or distrust. Aonghus was after all a shaman; it was to be expected that he carry some special objects. I knew little of his discipline; he might have some magical ability peculiar to his people.
I found my hands hovering over a roundish item under a fabric that looked like dark blue silk, and glanced at him for permission, which a nod gave me. Carefully I slipped the cloth aside; beneath it was a globe of what appeared to be opaque glass, perfectly round, as large as my two fists. When I lifted it, it seemed strangely heavy for its size, but as I turned it, it grew lighter. The opacity began to clear, and I almost dropped it in astonishment, but managed to hold onto it. Gazing into it, I could see clouds, and as I did—something—with my mind, it was as if I was parting those clouds, diving down through them as though a stooping hawk, until I could see a land beneath. As I plummeted, the ground grew larger, and I slowed my descent until I could see what I suddenly realized was our campsite, my friends on their mounts, and the two disparate figures standing beside me. It was so clear that I looked upward, seeing only blank sky above me, but almost expecting to see myself hovering in the air.
“Ah!” said Rec-nuri-Rec in a pleased tone. “It works for you, as we thought it would.”
I was sitting, and so were they. “What is it?” I asked. “And how?”
“It is one of the Stones of Seeing (3), of course,” Aonghus said.
I shook my head. “It cannot be.”
Both looked puzzled. “Why not?” asked the shaman.
“Because—because there are only seven palantirs, and most of those, if not all, were lost,” I protested.
Rec-nuri-Rec lifted a shoulder in a shrug. “Yet here one is.”
Aonghus said, “I have seen, we both have seen, other gwahaedelirí.” He grinned as my jaw dropped at the Sindarin word, and in a less offhand tone continued, “Here is the lore we know: there were many brought, of differing sizes and uses, from the Isle-That-Now-Isn’t (4). Seven were set aside for long-seeing, called the Quenya word for Stones-That-See, like this,” and he laid out seven small round white stones, connected by strands of leather laid from one to another. “This is where they were, with those-who-saw nearby, to see for the King and the people.”
I Saw in the globe I held a swift, almost dizzying shift north and west, until I saw a tall white tower on a hill. It was as if I stood on the doorstep, then within. Suddenly I saw a room which I somehow knew was floors above, looking into it from a landing. A tall figure stood up abruptly from a table, turning to look, then back at the table; I glimpsed a large globe, surely too large for even a strong Man to pick up easily, resting in a depression atop it…and then with a lurch, I was looking up at the figure’s face as if I was inside the large crystal. A bearded Elf, wide-eyed with astonishment, looked down at me. After a moment, his lips moved, but I could hear nothing. Somehow I knew he was asking: Who are you? in both Sindarin and Quenya, but although I tried to reply, I knew he could not hear me.
A cloth, the silk cloth that had first veiled it, was dropped over the stone, jolting me back to the present so abruptly I had to steady myself with my hands on the ground. I reached out to pull it aside, but both their hands prevented me.
“Do not strive to See; the stones are lost!” Aonghaus said. “You might send your spirit out so far you could not come back, Way-giver.”
“But I Saw someone, and he Saw me. An Elf—he tried to speak to me, but I could not hear,” I said incoherently.
“Long ago,” the shaman said.
Rec-nuri-Rec shook her head slightly. “No. The Tower of Stars near the Sea still has one, guarded by Círdan’s folk. But the others of the ones you spoke of are gone, or hidden. The Cunning One at Orthanc had one he used to speak with the Enemy. I did not know that the palantirí would work with the gwahaedirí.”
“But how did I see him? Who is Círdan? Where is it?” I asked. “You mean there are two kinds of stones?”
“Círdan is one of the Elder folk; he makes the swan-ships they use to leave Middle-earth, so he lives in the Grey Havens on the edge of the Sea, many days’ walk from here. Perhaps you went into the one he has, despite the distance, and mayhap the time, or both.”
“How could I do that?” I demanded.
“Your blood,” Aonghus said promptly. “I told you, where the stones were, were those who Saw for the King and the people. They were tested as children, and trained in using them. They wedded others who Saw, and their children were taught.”
I remembered a crumbling book I had once found and read, straining my eyes over the fading crabbed script. Did I still have, or could I obtain, a copy of Seeing in the Stones? That thought got tucked away for another time. Unbidden, a passage came to mind: Only those of the blood traced from the Star Isle could See, and be taught to See and Speak to other Seers. Only those familes were permitted to use names with “star” in them, that the families not forget their Duty, no matter how parlous.
Aonghus told me, “I was told to give it you, and if you hold it in your hand with the other touching the far-stones about your neck—” I realized he meant the necklace of touchstones I wore, “—you will See the land. If you use it with what you do not yet have, you will do more. The stone must be set right, and you must sit in the direction you want to See out.”
“I don’t understand.”
“If you sit facing sunrise, you will See in that direction. If you sit facing sunset, you will See that way—and you must not look too far. If you sit facing winter, you will See that way, and if you sit facing summer, you will see that way. That is only if the stone is facing you; lay it on its back, or upside down, and it will show nothing.”
“Ah. I see.”
Rec-nuri-Rec sighed, although I already knew that the Drúedain don’t appreciate puns as much as the Dorwinadain and Dunlendings do; Aonghus was chuckling.
“Now—this is important, Way-giver.” She reached out and touched the intricate gold bead Aonghus had given me, which I had added at their behest to the thong with the Drúedain far-stones already strung on it. “Touch this while you See, and you will See in the stone, only more, exactly what it will show. But it is like other crafts; you must learn.”
“Will you teach me?” I asked.
“This is all we know,” Aonghus replied. “We are trying to meld several people’s secret crafts, in payment for a debt owed to you. Our folks have been working on this for many sun-rounds.”
“Two thousand four hundred eighty-eight sun-rounds,” he told me, and I recalled that I had read of his people’s strange standing-stone calendars. “Your ancestor, a Seer, told mine—“
“And mine,” Rec-nuri-Rec added.
“—that you would need them, for this debt.”
“What is this debt?”
“Partial payment for what you do for us.”
“What do you wish of me?”
Rec-nuri-Rec patted my shoulder. “For my folk, procuring the wood, which you have done, and respect from the Star-folk for our ways and places.”
“And for mine, a land of our own, respected,” Aonghus agreed.
“I don’t know if I can, but I certainly will try,” I pledged. “I shall speak with my Royal cousin, and ask that he meet with your folk.”
“Good. The Land-Lady and Craft-Lord guard and bless you.” Both made a gesture with each hand; I tried to replicate them.
Aonghus wrapped the stone in the silk cloth and put it in a velvet pouch, tying the strings on my belt. “This special pouch,” he told me.
That I already knew, because the weight of the stone suddenly diminished, although I felt it at the back of my mind, and I noticed a faint shimmer around the pouch.
“No one else see it. You put other things inside; will hold much, much.”
A great gift indeed!
Now how had that pouch been made?
“Sun rising,” Rec-buri-Rec said, pointing, and we rose. Aonghus made haste to stow away his goods, and we mounted; Rec showed me how to find the nearest entrance to the Hidden Ways.
1. Eärendil – the most sacred of the stars to the Elves. It is actually the silmaril bound upon Eȁrendil the Mariner’s brow, as he sails his ship Vingilot (S. “Foam-flower”) across the heavens. Its light can ward off evil, as Sam and Frodo learned; the light in the phial given to Frodo by Galadriel was from this star. In our universe, that equates to Venus.
2. May-bells – to us, Lillies-of-the-valley.
3. Gwahaedeli – the Sindarin word for the Quenya Palantíri, “far-seer,” the root palan meaning “far and wide.” The Seeing Stones had poles, and needed to be oriented directionally.
4. The Isle they speak of is Númenor, now lost under the waves. It was also called the Star Isle because of its shape.
2. May-bells – to us, Lillies-of-the-valley.
3. Gwahaedeli – the Sindarin word for the Quenya Palantíri, “far-seer,” the root palan meaning “far and wide.” The Seeing Stones had poles, and needed to be oriented directionally.
4. The Isle they speak of is Númenor, now lost under the waves. It was also called the Star Isle because of its shape.