“Well, another group of students done with, then?” asked Denra.
Alvric nodded from where he stood at the doorway, watching after them through his crystal lens as the last group headed off toward the center of the village. “My third class, although I must say that they didn’t seem to be anywhere as interesting as the first two.”
She nodded. “I fear it’s often thus. Will you be doing another class?”
“In a month’s time. I’ll be heading north to Annúminas first, and will be stopping by Master Boboli’s farm for the night on the return trip.” He stepped back from the doorway and closed the door against the growing chill of the autumn days. He turned to smile at her as he stowed his lens in its pocket. “I must say that the seasons here are more definite than they are within Minas Tirith. I hope we don’t find the trip northward uncomfortable, although I’m told by Faradir that they’ve been building waystations along the road north. I understand they’ve been having some of those in enforced servitude build them.”
“I find the thought of those who’ve done wrong being forced to labor in the building of roads and public works to be a strange idea,” she commented as she led the way into the parlor. She’d been at the marketplace the day a group of such conscripts came through Bree a month earlier, headed north.
“We’ve used such means for some centuries,” Alvric said as he settled into his chair with a decided sigh of comfort. “Mostly they were sent south and west to labor on the roads or west to work in the marble quarries from which comes the stone used in the building and maintenance of our cities and villages, or eastward to assist in the clearing of rubble in Osgiliath. Now many such parties will most likely be sent east of the Anduin to labor within Ithilien, working alongside gangs of more honest workmen. I must suppose that the King will probably send those for whom he has the greatest hope that direction, and many will most likely be allowed to settle there, probably able to purchase lands at a good price, and now with the skills to build their houses and villages properly. And some he’s sent here into the north kingdom to labor, again with the probability that when their sentences are complete they will be able to take land and build homesteads and farms and villages of their own.
“It is my own hope that most will not return to evil ways once more, but unfortunately most who embark on lives of crime and evil all too often return to those ways when the chance presents itself. Of course, most who are sent for judgment have not done all that much of true evil--most are merely foolish, seeking a bit of extra gold without having to work for it themselves, or seeking to take advantage of others. Then there are those who were in difficulty, and sought only to care for themselves and their families by taking what they were able to find that they believed would relieve them, although they knew that they were stealing. Such are usually not evil folk, but their stealing cannot be condoned. It is hoped that by having honest work to do they will learn skills and earn sufficient while they work that when their time of enforced servitude is over they will not need to return to dishonest means once more.”
Denra had never thought of such things before. “And some are simply sent away, as was Bender Cotman?”
“A few receive only rulings of banishment. There is one former Guard of the Citadel who left his post without permission, and ended up slaying a few Men of the city as he sought to protect our Lord Faramir from the madness of his father. The law of the city states he was worthy of either death or eternal banishment from the capital. Our Lord Elessar found a way to reward him for his loyalty to our Lord Steward and yet meet the letter of the law. So it is that he may not enter Minas Tirith again, and yet is honored by many, including our King himself. As for Bender Cotman---” He shook his head thoughtfully. “He had no good intent whatsoever; but this was the only time, was it not, that he had sought so selfish an end? And certainly he did little ill to me or Holby when you think on it.” He looked at where Holby lay in the light of the late afternoon sun entering the window, the cat curled up beside him. The little dog had recovered swiftly from his injuries, although there were some times he would limp for the first few moments after he’d risen. Holby now raised his head to look up at his master and thumped his tail, giving a doggy smile before laying his head again on his paws.
“When will you need to go to Annúminas, then?”
“I will most likely need to leave in two days’ time.”
After a moment, Denra said with decision, “Do you think as the Rangers you accompany would mind if I was to go along as well? I’ve never been away from the Breelands before, and would love to see the new King’s city as it’s being built.”
He looked at her, surprised. “You’d think to ride so far--and as the cooler weather sets in in earnest?”
“There’s little as I need to do at this time--most of the simples and still work as is needed I’m finished with for the season; and what isn’t important needn’t be done now, after all. And--and I’d like to be away for a time. I can’t say particular as to why, but the thought of bein’ here alone while you’re gone for several weeks is worrisome. Not, I suppose, as the other suitors’d attempt to--importune me as did Bender. I never fully understood as what he thought as he’d get from me, as I’m not one to allow another to say me nay, as I think you’ve learned. And I know as he’d of wanted me to simply do his bidding without question.”
“I can’t see it, either,” he admitted smiling, and she smiled back--and--and that which had been changing between them clicked just that much further that he realized something--he didn’t wish to leave her behind this time. He found himself blinking rapidly at the realization, and then he looked back into her eyes and realized she was not so much wanting to see the new King’s city as she was unwilling to be parted from him for so long.
“How did it come to this without me realizing?” he murmured to himself as he searched her eyes. And he noted a certain shyness in her return gaze, that small amount of uncertainty, that indicated that she’d been aware of her own growing fascination with him for a time, and that she hoped that he’d not turn away from her.
“What’s that as you said?” she asked.
“You really want to go with me? Are you ready for a week or better in the saddle, perhaps?”
She smiled as she grew aware that he was truly seeing her at the moment. “If’n you don’t mind, I’d love to go with you. As for ridin’--well, I’ll admit as I’ve not ridden much for some years, but I used to ride out to Archet fairly often when I was a girl--Fell’n’ me had an aunt out that way, and our dad would take us with him to see her.”
“This isn’t quite the same thing--but if you’d really like to go and are game to ride through rains if they come, I don’t think that the Rangers will mind too much.” He thought to himself, It would give us the chance to see one another at our worst, and perhaps best as well, I suppose. And if she’s willing to go so far just to be with me....
It was three days later that they left Bree, Denra riding on Abia and Alvric on Jongleur with Holby in his carrier, accompanied by Eregiel, Faradir, and young Teregion, Artos following Eregiel’s horse easily. Faradir was being very strictly correct toward both the Gondorian and the woman from Bree, Eregiel was openly amused and seemed willing to be especially helpful, and Teregion was obviously curious about the situation, although he was courteously keeping his questions to himself. The cob carried extra blankets and supplies, including an ointment Denra indicated would be helpful in dealing with soreness and stiffness associated with riding.
Apparently in spite of the time since his last journey Alvric was toughening to the riding, for they went much further the first day than they’d made on his last journey. Indeed there was a two-room cottage built of logs and sod with outhouse behind it where they spent the night, the Men sleeping in the back room while Denra slept on a thick blanket roll near the fire, Holby having elected to sleep curled up beside her.
They heard one soft woof from the small dog, and later fully awoke to delicious odors from the front room. As they peeked into it, Denra smiled up at them from where she sat cooking a breakfast of sliced bacon and eggs over the cooking surface. “I was awakened a short time ago by a tap on the door--it was an Elf, who’d brought a message and the gift of eggs. I hope as this meets your approval.” She delivered the message to Eregiel, who read it and smiled.
“Halladan is looking forward to our arrival, although he lets us to know he will be at Fornost first, and asks we meet him there. There has been found another, more hidden section to the archive, and he wishes to explore it with us.”
Faradir thawed greatly at the meal. “Now this,” he said past a mouthful of egg, “is a marvelous treat. It is almost like the journey northward where the Hobbits did much of the cooking. What Lord Perhael could do with a few eggs and some mushrooms....” He beamed beatifically, and Eregiel and Alvric found themselves smiling at one another knowingly. When Denra produced her salve and Faradir made judicious use of it his attitude was further soothed; by the time they reached Fornost he was inviting her to his home to meet with his wife and daughters.
“This is the ancient fortress of the King of Arnor?” she asked as they paused, still about a half-mile from the narrow causeway that wound up to the gates of the keep, high in a cleft of the mountains.
“Aye,” Eregiel said, his eyes solemn with pride. “After Annúminas began to be threatened by Angmar this became the primary capital of the northern kingdom--and then it, too, finally was lost. But the Witch-king was less interested in learning how it was his prey managed to escape him than in trying to determine where they’d fled to. He did not probe deeply into the secrets of the place and so never found the entrances into the archives or anything other than the most useless of the treasuries. His people tore down what they felt were the strongest of the walls, and as they left in pursuit of the main army they destroyed the causeway. But the secret ways remained unbreached and were used to reenter the fortress and begin setting it to rights. And by the time they realized that there was almost nothing of true worth amongst the items they’d found in the treasury they could no longer reenter the fortress themselves, having damaged the one path they knew into it.”
He led the way forward once more, speaking over his shoulder to them as they followed. “The damage done here was anything but lasting, although it was bad enough, I suppose. Fire was set in the King’s Hall and in the courts, but such were fed primarily with the furnishings of the place. Few dwelt here after the drowning of Arvedui in the Bay of Forochel along with his second son Beleg, but never again did the folk of Angmar come here. And in the last three centuries we have slowly seen it rebuilt and refurnished, and again the heirs of our chieftains have been born here, and we have kept outposts here. It has been here that the Chieftain’s Second or Steward has primarily dwelt in the past three hundred years, and at times of greatest danger the families of our Chieftains have been sent here for shelter, as was true of old.
“My grandsire was Steward under Arador, but he died in the same battle as did his Lord. My father was too young to take on such a duty, and his mother did not wish for him to bear such responsibilities, so Arathorn chose his wife’s brother Halbaleg as his own Steward, and the rest of the war-leaders concurred. He dwelt in the Angle, however, there north and west of Rivendell, and it was there that Arathorn primarily dwelt, and where his wife chose to retire when she left Rivendell after our Lord Cousin came to his majority and was restored to us.
“There are Dwarves who now dwell in the mountains to our north and west, and they have done much since Aragorn returned to us to finish the restoration of the keep and its causeway. My grandmother’s people were from closer to the northeastern borders, and it was there she took my father, to the village and keep her father held. My father Miringlor succeeded his grandfather as lord of that region, and there we have bred and trained war and hunting hounds. Halladan came here to oversee the final restoration of the fortress, while his brother Halbarad as Steward after their father kept to his family’s lands in the Angle. Their sister Areniel is Chatelaine here, and a formidable one she is! Ah, but you shall meet her soon enough.”
He led them to the causeway and up it, pointing out the fields that supported the great keep and the herds of cattle. “Many of these were bred on our farms further north and east,” he explained. “Always we have bred cattle and swine, and our people have ever been a primary source for fine leathers. The tanneries are on the eastern side of the village here, there near the river and where the wind bears the odors out, away from the homes of our folk.”
Alvric was obviously familiar with the Lady Areniel, who proved to be in her early middle years. At first Denra Gorse could not discern what it was about her that had led Eregiel to call her formidable, for she had a glad beauty to her and ready laughter. She met the guests to the Keep with great courtesy, calling for a younger woman and several Men to take the luggage and see to the horses. But when an older boy almost fell into the courtyard, hurrying out to greet Eregiel and Artos, apparently, she froze him with a gaze that had him all but sputtering in apology for failing to behave in a seemly manner. Denra found she had to stifle a giggle.
Only when the boy’s stammering fell to silence did Eregiel dare to smile at him. “It is good to see you also, Lúathor. And how do you find your duties now that you have been made a page of the Keep?”
The youth gave Lady Areniel a sideways glance as if begging leave to answer, and at a slight nod he responded, “It is very different from working in the kennels, Eregiel.” He plainly wished to say more, but didn’t dare.
“You may lead your kinsman to his quarters,” Lady Areniel told him crisply, “but do not linger overlong.”
“Yes, my lady,” he sighed.
“He does come along well,” she commented, once he and Eregiel, followed by the great hound, had crossed the court to a side door, “but he will forget himself. After his adar’s death he went to live in Miringlor’s keep, where he attached himself to the dogs. But his father would have wished to see him grow up with at least some manners and proper training, and so it was decided a year ago he should come here to learn decorum and skills of use should Aragorn manage to succeed in renewing the Kingship. Come--I will show you to the chambers prepared for you. It was a few days since Glorinlas Gildorion was here to advise us that you would be here probably on this day. I am amazed, Mistress--Gorse?” At Denra’s nod, she continued, “I am amazed that you would ride out at this season, as the weather can change so from one day to the next. And you, Master Alvric--will you teach more classes of Hobbit lawyers, do you think?”
She led them toward the same door through which Lúathor and Eregiel had disappeared as he made shift to answer. “At least one more class--perhaps two. Although Mayor Whitfoot from the Shire has failed to advise me of any more who have expressed interest in learning from me at this time.”
“Will you return to Gondor, do you think, in the coming spring or summer?”
“I’m not yet certain,” Alvric said, and Denra caught a sideways glance at herself that caused her heart to leap. “I had never thought that I might find reason to perhaps remain in the northern lands indefinitely, but----” He shrugged.
Areniel, who’d fallen back to walk alongside the two of them and before Faradir and Teregion, gave a small smile. “I see,” she commented. “You hold property, I understand, Mistress Gorse, there in the Breelands?”
By the time they reached the room given to Denra’s use she was feeling quite drained. “This I hope will be suitable, Mistress Denra,” said Lady Areniel. “Teregion, if you will remain with her to see that she is suitably settled? You and your father will be staying in the room you usually inhabit during your visits.” Having seen to it this guest was now properly situated, she turned to the realm’s lawyer. “Master Alvric--will the same room in which you stayed the last time be suitable?” At his nod of assent she smiled. “Then I will see you to your room. It is this way....”
With a quick glance of apology, Alvric was led away to his fate, or so Denra found herself considering it. She glanced at the youth who stood patiently by her. “Is she always like this?” she asked, nodding after the lawyer and his dog as they trailed after their hostess.
“Lady Areniel? I’m afraid so. She is very impressed by Master Alvric, particularly as he was chosen by Aragorn himself to come here to help educate the lawyers of the Shire and Breelands. She very much wishes to be certain anyone who appears to be interested in him is quite worthy of him, I think.”
“Areniel--drawn to Master Alvric? No, I don’t think so. I mean, she’s not had her heart stirred as yet by any here within the lands we’ve ever held; but I’ve not seen the quickening in her eyes that would show she might have seen him in that light. Nay, I suspect it is that she merely has become rather jealous for him as would any sister or close kinswoman, as she was with my father, I’m told, when he first thought to marry my mother.”
Somewhat reassured, Denra actually entered the room and looked it over. “The stonework looks quite new here,” she commented.
“Oh, but it is. This wing has been finished only for three months. They have labored over it for close to a year, rebuilding and refitting much of the hindward sections of the building, the Men and Dwarves who together have been restoring the Keep. And now there are pipes for water to this wing--pipes and pumps and drains--the Dwarves refused to work on it unless those were addressed from the beginning. They told us that to do otherwise would be an insult to the craft of building. And there’s a small boiler in each bathing room so that heated water does not have to be carried from the kitchens. There are three wells for the entire keep, and now a great cesspit dug down in the lower valley that there be no midden smell and drawing of flies.”
He drew her over to the window to the room, indicating the fortifications that could be seen. “Much of the back part of the keep was destroyed by the Enemy when the Witch-king’s forces took the fortress a thousand years back. They could not come up by way of the causeway at first, so built a great ramp of their own, though it took months to accomplish. When one has slaves by the thousands and countless orcs at ones disposal, one can do things like that, I suppose. You can see where it was that they built the ramp, there on the eastern side of the front of the fortress, and then destroyed it afterwards that the defenders could not return by way of it. But some were able to scale the heights behind the fortress, and rained great boulders on the keep. It is said that they brought frost giants from the Misty Mountains, but Aragorn and the sons of Elrond say that isn’t true--that the giants are too slow of wit to use to any such purpose.”
“There are giants in this world?” Denra asked, surprised.
“Yes, so Master Bilbo has told me--he and the Dwarves had to dodge the boulders they threw one at another. I would have thought it but a story, but when I asked our Lord Kinsman about it he said that, yes, there are giants, but that they live only in the highest of the passes and ordinarily are awake only in the fall and spring--that they do not appear to waken to play at their rough games with one another when it is very warm or very cold that he is aware. And the sons of Elrond have said the same. Lord Elladan has told me that there are not as many giants now as once there were. But although they will on occasion take delight at rolling great stones down narrow defiles at unwary travelers, both he and his brother say that rarely do they appear to pay much attention to the Elves’ patrols. Nor had the Enemy luck at using them for his own purposes, for they have little in the way of language, and are not as violent as trolls or orcs, nor able to keep their minds on one thing for long at a time. But then neither trolls nor orcs are particularly clever--only sufficiently clever and full of envy and hatred for others and hunger for flesh that they may be led or driven to do the will of a sufficiently ruthless master.”
“Have you ever seen an orc?” she asked him.
“Oh, yes--that was why I was taken to Rivendell. A band of orcs attacked some of us who were fetching wood from the forest south of our village, and I was struck by an orc arrow, one whose point had been smeared with vile things. The wound festered, and they must take me to Rivendell to be healed by Lord Elrond. While I lay recovering Master Bilbo sat by me many times and would tell me stories. He was the first to tell me of Lord Frodo--although he was not Lord Frodo as yet. As a young Hobbit apparently Lord Frodo was in many ways far too clever, and was often busy scrumping from the farmers of the Marish. But then he was caught stealing mushrooms from one farmer, and from that day on he did not scrump again--not that Master Bilbo knew about, at least. And when other Hobbit boys would tease him he would play tricks upon them and make it appear that they had themselves sought to play the trick, only they were not clever enough to follow through with it.”
“Lads,” she corrected, automatically. “Young Hobbits are lads and lasses, not boys and girls. And this Bilbo knew Lord Frodo as a child?”
“Well, yes, for he is a Hobbit of the Shire himself, and Lord Frodo’s older cousin. He is Bilbo Baggins.”
She looked at him closely. “What is a Hobbit of the Shire doing in the Elves’ place?” she asked.
“He has dwelt there since he left the Shire when he turned a hundred and eleven, and Lord Frodo came of age.”
“But why there?”
“When I asked him that he gave an answer that was confusing--I did not think that he truly understood why himself--not then, at least. Now all appear certain it was because of the effect the Enemy’s Ring had upon him. After all, he found It and carried It upon his person for better than half his life, until he left the Shire and gave It into his young cousin’s hands.
“He was an old Hobbit, yet did not appear as old as many older Hobbits I have seen in Bree who have not yet turned a hundred. Lord Halladan, however, has said that once the Ring was destroyed he began to truly show his age. They tell me that It had a virtue to prolong life unnaturally. They say that he is fortunate he took no greater evil from It.”
He looked out at what could be seen of the keep from the window. “He was a fine one to listen to, Master Bilbo. He made it easier for me to remain in bed and allow my wound to heal. And my adar has said that Lord Frodo is much the same, also born to be a teller of tales.”
Now he turned to smile at her. “I’ve thought of another thing that might be worrying at Areniel--Lady Mirieth, the wife to Halladan, is to arrive on the morrow, accompanied by her son. Mirieth was mistress here while Halladan was Lord of Fornost, but now has her own house within Annúminas. Areniel will wish both to show proper honor, but also to prove her keeping of the Keep is somehow equal to or better than that of her brother’s wife. Pray forgive her if she appears perhaps distracted or her temper perhaps a bit short, for I suspect a part of her mind is on tomorrow’s advent.”
Lord Halladan, who had ridden out to one of the nearby villages hidden within the folds of the low mountains that surrounded Fornost, arrived an hour before sunset, greeting Alvric and Denra both warmly. “Your journey was not too arduous? I am glad you had but the one day of rain, and that but fleeting showers. And this is your first journey outside the Breelands, Mistress Gorse?”
The evening meal was pleasantly taken in a smaller chamber away from the great halls. After the Standing Silence Lord Halladan sat with a sigh of relief. “I know that I will make the journey between here and Gondor probably many times before I might entrust such errands to Berevrion and Hildigor, remaining comfortably in my own house within Annúminas, but I find myself tiring of being ever in the saddle.”
“You must travel so far?” Denra asked between sips at her soup.
“I administer our lands from Imladris west to Lindon and from the border of Angmar to Tharbad. There was a fearful flood that washed away much of Tharbad a few years ago, but most of its inhabitants survived, and have been rebuilding their town since. South of Tharbad has been land of questionable ownership for many centuries, but Aragorn has indicated he will claim it under the protection of Arnor, which I am certain will please none within Dunland. Within what was Rhudaur many lordless Men once gathered, and most were allied with Sauron. However, the greater part of the population of that land perished during the final battles with the Witch-king of Angmar, much as our own people suffered likewise. We have endured, but only by retreating northward and eastward. Now we can and will come out of hiding, and will once again see Eriador populated and thriving, and Arnor fully restored as a kingdom.”
After the meal was finished Lord Halladan led the guests of the keep to a hallway on the westward side of the building, off which rooms, the rearmost ones apparently carved out of the living stone of the mountain itself, opened. “These were the armories and some of the storerooms for the keep,” he explained. “The stairway to the lesser treasuries is down that way, and the one to the prison rooms dug into the foundations of the mountain over there. It appears that this particular hallway goes no further, except----” He led them to what appeared to be the end of the hallway itself, where a narrow window looked into the valley below from a wall built out from the buttressing mountainside. An apparent outcrop of the stone of the mountain had been carved into the representation of a great pillar about which ivy twined, each leaf so perfectly crafted Denra almost expected to see them quiver from the breeze entering through the adjacent window.
“The Dwarves who helped in the restoration were intrigued by this outcrop and the carving here; it didn’t take long for them to establish that a set of Dwarf doors had been built here, and that they were keyed with an Elvish opening spell.” He placed his fingers on either side of a larger ivy leaf and murmured, “Edro bin ghalad.” A gentle pull, and two leaves of a curved door opened silently, revealing a set of circular stairs beyond them. A stack of torches lay in a niche to their left as they stepped through; the Man took one up, and using a tinderbox soon had it burning. He nodded to them, and they followed him down into the depths of the mountain, until at last he led them out into a great room with high ceilings carved indeed from the mountain itself, the pillars upholding the roof carved in the likenesses of massive trees. Between the pillars stood shelves also carved of stone, filled with ancient tomes and crates of scrolls and scroll carriers.
“There are light and ventilation shafts here,” Halladan explained, “with carefully wrought screens to keep out insects and vermin. The newly discovered section is over here.” He led them further along the near wall until they came to two sets of shelves at angles to one another. He grasped the lip of one of the shelves and pulled, and again it swung out easily. Again he led them inside. “The doors to the greater treasuries were hidden within the lesser treasuries; that the Dwarves assisted in constructing such hidden places and apparently the great Elves placed the spells of opening on them was only to be expected, I suppose. Berevrion, when he can take time to begin cataloguing these new scrolls and records, will be overwhelmed, I think.”
Here they were deep under the mountain, and Lord Halladan set the torch in an ancient bracket upon the wall, picked up a long splinter from a stone jar and lit it from the torch, then used it to light the wicks of a series of lamps. Once each of them held a lamp, they set out to examine the shelves that ran about the walls and the few that stood here and there within the room.
Apparently scrolls considered highly important had been kept in this room, most of them protected within metal scroll carriers. “I’ve opened two,” the Dúnedan said softly, “both of which appear to have come originally from Númenor itself. Here, apparently, were kept the oldest of the records of Elendil’s own folk.”
Denra could see the awe in the eyes of the lawyer this news brought, and saw him reach out a single finger and with it stroke one of the metal tubes reverently. The name of Elendil had no real associations for Denra herself, but she could certainly appreciate that these scrolls were truly ancient, and the carefully wrought metal carriers in which they were kept were often works of art. One had a carefully wrought blossom at the end and leaves embossed on its sides. Another was decorated with entwined vines with leaves and small flowers with an oak leaf on the end. A third appeared to have a soaring bird upon it, and the head of an eagle on the end. “They are beautiful!” she said in a soft voice.
“How many are of Númenorean workmanship and how many are from Lindon or Mithlond or Rivendell I cannot say,” Halladan said, and she could hear the pride in his voice. “But these are undoubtedly among the most important records we possess. Many of them were probably brought here from Annúminas before the city was abandoned, although there are some records that remain there as well.”
“Much as the records of Osgiliath were moved to the archives dug into the caverns beneath Minas Tirith,” Alvric commented.
“Even so,” the Steward of Arnor agreed.
By the time they ascended to the upper levels of the keep once more Denra was, for the first time in her life, beginning to appreciate just how long the history of this land actually had been, and she was finding herself feeling rather overwhelmed. The lawyer and the three older Dúnedain had opened one scroll and carefully stretched it over a table, reading from it as best they could. It had turned out to be a record of the marriages of the kings of the realm of Arthedain and later Arnor as reconstituted under Malvegil, complete with dates. Together Halladan, Eregiel, and Alvric read through the list, commenting on the various lands from which their queens had come. There were many from within Arnor itself; but a surprising number had come from the south kingdom, from Dor-en-Ernil, from Dol Amroth, even from a place known as Umbar; and more than Alvric had ever realized from the daughters of younger children of the southern Kings.
“I had no idea,” he murmured as he began counting up the list, “how many of our lesser princesses had come northward. I’d not come across many of these names. That the granddaughter of Atanatar Alcarin was a queen of Arnor is not known in Gondor. And here is a note that Berienthiel, the sister of Eldecar, married a lord from Calenhardon, and that her daughter Anidril married Araphor of Arthedain. I’d seen no record that Eldecar even had a sister! Perhaps only the fact that she dwelt in Calenhardon saved her from the hatred of Castamir and his followers--had they dwelt in Lebennin, Lamedon, Lossarnach, or even Anórien it is likely the entire family would have been hunted out and all slain with violence, so great was the hatred Castamir held for the children of Valacar. The death of Eldecar’s older son at the hands of Castamir was among the greatest tragedies in the history of Gondor.”
Halladan nodded. “Nor was it only lesser princesses that chose to marry into our lineage. Arassuil, the one chieftain of our folk prior to Aragorn himself to spend time in Gondor during his younger days, married Gilmoreth, the granddaughter of Ecthelion the First, Ruling Steward of Gondor.”
Alvric appeared to be totally surprised by that. “Oh, sweet Valar! I doubt that our Lord Steward Denethor was aware that his rival Thorongil was in fact a distant cousin! He would have been appalled, and, I suspect, most affronted had he known.”
Halladan had laughed as he carefully rerolled the scroll they’d been studying and saw it returned to its carrier, one with a single star on each end and seven stars in a circle worked into the metal of the tube that held it.
Not long after they emerged from the archives, Denra excused herself and retreated to her room, feeling at one and the same time a sense of unreality to realize she indeed would sleep within the keep that had once housed the ancient kings and in which she’d been told their new King himself had been born, and yet a feeling of home-comfort she would never have thought to know in such a place. The bedstead was rather plain, save for the star carved into the center of its headboard and the two trees, one on each side of it; and she found it reminded her of the bedstead her parents had slept in when she was a girl, the one now Alvric slept in in Fell’s old room. The chests might be more highly carved than she was accustomed to, but they were of familiar woods and smelled of the same oils with which she polished the furniture within her own house. A bowl upon a table held a mixture of dried blossoms and cones from evergreen trees such as she herself set out in each room of her own home, and the pitcher and bowl set appeared to have been brought from the marketplace of Bree itself--she was unsurprised to see the sign of one of the potters from Staddle upon it.
A royal keep it might be, but it was kept by practical enough folk, she thought as she slipped on her nightdress and brushed her hair a final time before slipping between the sheets. They’d been rinsed in lavender water, she realized; and as she fell asleep she was smiling at the comfort of the familiar odor.
It took her no time at all to realize she quite liked Lady Mirieth; and if Lady Areniel was attempting to offer her brother’s wife a degree of competition in the manner in which she administered the Keep of Fornost, Lady Mirieth was quite blithely--and probably intentionally--refusing to recognize that there was indeed a contest going in the mind of her kinswoman. Instead she inspected the work that had been finished since the last time she’d been there and lavished praise on Areniel for the use of both local products and imports from elsewhere. “Aragorn always did feel that the pottery from Bree was far better for use in washstands than that done by Berestor’s family,” she commented as she approved the basin and ewer set in Denra’s room. “They make some wonderful platters and bowls and mugs; but their ewers lack a certain delicacy, I think. And Aragorn has always felt the porcelains of the Hobbits are best of all for tableware. Excellently done!”
What could Lady Areniel do in the face of such praise but blush and smile? At one point Denra and Alvric both purposely lagged behind the two ladies, and once they were safely beyond hearing both of them broke down into helpless laughter until they were clinging to one another to keep themselves standing--and then somehow they were kissing....
When they were quite sated by that kiss they pulled apart, their eyes shining as they examined one another, Denra finding herself supremely happy and Alvric looking somehow surprised and smug at the same time. Once again Denra found herself doing her best to suppress the desire to laugh, this time in sheer delight.
“I see,” said a voice, equally amused. “And shall I have the pleasure and honor of joining the two of you, then?”
Lord Halladan had paused in the doorway by which they’d entered this room following their hostess and Lady Mirieth, Faradir and Eregiel both behind him, looking over his shoulders. Denra felt her cheeks grow heated with surprise, but Alvric, looking more delighted than ever, was pulling her to his side, his arm about her. “I would be most honored should you do so,” he said, “although I must admit we hadn’t quite got to the question as yet.”
Smiling as he led his companions fully into the room, Lord Halladan gave each another swift evaluation. “I doubt that there is any question of her answer,” he said. “And a likely pair the two of you make. You shall certainly give the worthies of Bree much to discuss, I’d think. And where would the two of you dwell--here in the northlands or there in Gondor, or would you travel between the two realms? Ah, but perhaps I am pushing things yet a bit--Mirieth advises me often I have such a tendency.”
There was a skittering of nails--apparently their hostesses had reached the hallway where Alvric slept and had opened his door, releasing Holby to find his master. Then the small dog was there, jumping up with his forepaws on Alvric’s knee. While the three Men filed into the room Denra did her best to recover her composure. “I apologize for what might seem unseemly behavior,” she began, but she was cut off by a negligent wave of Halladan’s hand.
“Nothing to worry about,” he assured her. “If you might have seen Mirieth and me in our day seeking places of sufficient privacy to share a kiss--it appeared that we couldn’t find a place so hidden that we wouldn’t be stumbled upon by Areniel or Hardorn--or Aragorn himself. I swear those three took fiendish delight in ‘accidentally’ finding us at such times. And Aragorn knew well enough that as his own beloved dwelt in Imladris or spent time in her daernaneth’s realm of Lothlórien that I was in little danger of returning the compliment--although I did one time manage to open a drape within one withdrawing room within Imladris to reveal them to her father and brethren. Most satisfying!
“But to return to the two of you--oh, but I must suppose that as the question hadn’t yet been asked you’ve not settled on where or when?”
Alvric shared a concerned look with Denra. “Well, it can’t be here and now--Carnation would have my guts for garters were we to not involve her and her family!”
Denra began, “But she doesn’t wear stockings----” then settled into another helpless bout of laughter.
The next day they set off toward Annúminas, and they were soon enough approaching the site of the ancient city, seeing the buildings once again rising over the partially cleared ruins. There were a number of new houses and compounds near the core of the city in the midst of which a great complex was rising on the knoll about which the ancient capital had risen. “That is the site of the Citadel that we are raising once more,” he said with quiet pride. “The original city was laid out in the shape of a five-pointed star in memory of foundered Númenor, with great parklands lying between its arms. I suppose we shall see it renewed in that manner as well, although there is much to be removed from a couple of what again will be green places. Although perhaps we shall allow the fortress of Arador to stand as a retreat for the King and Queen when they feel the need to flee from public display. It stands near the lake itself, and is not easily approached. It was being built at the time he died; and although Arathorn saw to it the keep was finished, he never dwelt there. I think Aragorn has entered it a time or two; but although he gave orders that caretakers be found for it, it’s remained empty. It has the promise of wonderful grounds to it, though, and will probably prove to be the place where they will most happily host guests, once it is properly fitted out.”
Along the southwestern streets could be found the quarters for those who worked on the city, and the first shops were being erected on the southeastern side. “The city appears already to be falling into its original pattern,” they were told. “Workmen and most craftsmen to the southwest; merchants to the southeast, tanners at the southeastern tip of the city; the great market here at the joint between southern two arms where they meet and the Road enters from the south; and residential sections in the three northern arms. It shall be a great place once more, and a worthy capital for the kingdom renewed Aragorn has foreseen.”
Hildigor, who’d ridden ahead, greeted them at the door with such a serious demeanor it might have been months since they last saw one another rather than a matter of a few hours. As he bowed them in with great courtesy Halladan whispered into Denra’s ear, “He has his mother’s great sense of mischief, you see. Courteous to a fault, but also delighting in indulging his great sense of humor. And Mirieth loves it in him. You noted how well she played upon Areniel there at Fornost, did you not? Ah, but I was certain you had spotted that! Very clever one, my beloved helpmeet!”
Here they spent three days, and while Alvric met with various officials of the north-kingdom Mirieth led Denra throughout the burgeoning city. Weaving halls had already been built, and were filled with life and movement. “We buy much of our wool from the Shire and the Breelands,” she explained over the clatter of shuttles and hettles. “I doubt the Thain truly appreciates where so much of the thread spun within the Tooklands fetches up. It was Gerontius Took who first approached us about trading wool to us for leathers back in Arador’s day. I’m certain Gandalf had a good deal to do with helping set up that arrangement, of course. But a certain amount of woolen thread goes to a buyer in the Northfarthing who sees it carried over the borders there to a small village kept by the wives of some of our Rangers who serve most about the borders of the Shire and the Breelands, taking back with him stores of leathers. Many of the women of the village are dyers, and we’ve had a few excellent weavers amongst them. What thread and yarns they didn’t work themselves they sent further north and east to our other villages. Although I think it will be well to do more of our purchasing openly now. Halladan has spoken warmly of a conference held in Minas Tirith in which such trade was discussed, with Peregrin Took as Heir to the Thain speaking for the Shire and Meriadoc Brandybuck speaking for Buckland.”
By the time the visit was over, Denra was feeling surfeited with information and images. How little the folk of Bree realized how much the Rangers’ people had secretly supported them as well as protected them over the centuries. How was it that Thain Gerontius Took and now Thain Paladin and Master Saradoc’s sons had such clearer understanding of the need for trade with the Dúnedain than her own folk had ever realized?
There was no question that the folk she met here were respectful toward her as a Breelander, and spoke with greatest honor of those who lived within the Shire. Captain Peregrin and Sir Meriadoc were spoken of with greatest respect, while Lords Frodo and Samwise were mentioned with almost awe. She met a Ranger she’d not seen for several years, one of those who’d ridden south to Lord Aragorn’s needs and who’d been injured in the battle before the Black Gates, returning with much of one arm gone. “I would have died then had Lords Frodo and Samwise not come at that moment into the Sammath Naur,” he said with quiet dignity. “When the Ring went into the Fire the troll who’d cut my shield hand from my arm and who’d been ready to reach down and lift me up to bite out my throat suddenly turned, dropping his weapon and fleeing away. Unfortunately it fell on my lower arm, and in the end Aragorn had to cut it from me that it not grow further gangrenous and lead to my death; but I healed well and fully, and was able to stand as one of the guards before the enclosure raised to the privacy of the two Periannath lords during their own recovery.”
He’d given a soft laugh. “Lord Frodo was most upset to have any guard put upon him, and particularly when he realized I’d lost a hand and yet served him. That I owed him my life and my wife and children owed him the continued comfort of husband and father took much to impress upon him, I fear. And although I doubt any there would have dreamed to cause them harm, yet there were those, mostly younger folk among the soldiers of Gondor but at least one of our own, who would have desired to stand over them as they slept and perhaps taken locks of hair as talismans, giving them no true peace or privacy. There was one I had to pull out by his ankle as he sought to crawl under the canvas....”
The importance of the fight against the forces of darkness had impressed themselves upon her at the last, and much she now had heard of those who’d been taken who’d proved to have penetrated the Shire during the Time of Troubles. During their last night there one of those who’d been most recently captured was brought before Halladan for interrogation and judgment.
This had been a true Man, one from the nearly empty lands of Rhudaur where his people had sought to build a life for himself. “Not fer me--grubbin’ the ground and ’erdin’ beasts,” he’d spat. “When Sharkey’s folks come, lookin’ fer Men t’ front fer ’em, I was happy ’nough ter go, I was. Come north ter Bree, stayed a time in Archet ter spy’t out, then follered Sharkey’s own folks inter the Shire. Ended up in what they calls Michel Delvin’, keepin’ the Lockholes fer ’em. Now, some o’ them ugly ones ’d think it great sport ter terrerize the ratlin’s, but I didn’t hold wi’ that. Once they come ter me I’d see’em inside the Lockholes and fit doors ter the cells, but less’n they was likely ter know somethin’ ’bout them as went out ther Shire or was thievin’ from the Gatherers ’n’ Sharers or stores as we’d set up fer the loot I’d not let ’em rough ’em up too much. Kept the torches burnin’ and saw to’t as water and mayhaps some food was got ter the pris’ners, like.”
“Did you see to it they were all treated well?”
“Well? They was pris’ners, see? Yer doesn’t treat pris’ners well! But yer doesn’t jus’ beat on’em jus’ ’cause, neither.”
Had he given any prisoners special preference?
Yes, the former mayor--his wife had begged him, after all. Couldn’t give him much more food than the others, but he’d seen to it he had fresh water daily, although he’d not tried to protect him much from those who’d come to question him about the possible doings of the four missing Hobbits the Chief had wanted so, or the movements of the rebels who preyed on gathered goods. “Course he’d of known nuttin’ o’ them,” he’d noted reasonably. “Him was in prison weeks’n’ weeks afore them was busy.”
Had he taken part in the deaths of any of the Hobbits of the Shire and the Breelands?
“One in ther Breelands, I did--a Man, though. Farmer, I think, as were watchin’ us and warnin’ those in Bree isself. We killed him--me mate ’n’ me. And helped hang a Took as they’d caught, once. Was amongst the rebels, he was.”
The final judgment of death failed to surprise any but the prisoner himself. Denra felt sick as Alvric accompanied her back to her room where she sat crying. “You think as it was Fell as he helped kill?” she kept asking.
In the end he and Lady Mirieth stayed by her through much of the night. They’d left the following day at about midmorning. Before their horses were brought Halladan, who’d been absent so far all morning, arrived, his face solemn. He held in his hands a small leather bag. “I was wondering if you might recognize any of these items, Mistress Gorse, and if you’d be willing to carry what you don’t recognize to Barliman Butterbur as headman of the Breelands?”
One thing she wore now about her neck as they rode southwards--the leather thong and ancient arrowhead Fell had worn ever since the day when he was twelve and she was nine when he’d found it along the bank of one of the streams that fed westward toward the Brandywine. Apparently it had been taken from him as he lay dying or dead, struck down by the ruffian whose trial she’d witnessed. She didn’t ask how they’d retrieved it, and Halladan had failed to volunteer the information. She wasn’t satisfied by the finding of the one who’d killed her brother, she found--she didn’t want justice for Fell’s death; she wanted him back instead, she realized. For some reason she couldn’t fathom the fact that at least one of the killers had been identified and tried and faced (or maybe had already known) punishment gave her no reassurance. She was glad only that he’d never hurt another as her brother, the folk of the Shire, and she had been hurt by him. Otherwise, knowing this only served to leave her feeling depressed as she’d not been since news had come that Fell himself had been found dead.
By the fourth day her heaviness of spirit was pushed aside by considerations of weather, however. At midmorning the buildup of clouds over the past three days finally let out a deluge, and by the time they reached the shelter of the next waystation all were soaking wet. Questions of modesty were put aside as all stripped off their outermost layers of clothing and saw them hung near the hearth where they dried and warmed. Nor was the clothing within her pack in much better shape, she realized, as the top flap had apparently blown loose in the wind that had preceded the rain and the garments within had soaked up the cold rain. Alvric provided her a shirt of his to wear over her shift, and Teregion had provided her with some trousers to wear, although they had to be rolled up considerably if she were not to trip upon them.
A warming drink was brewed by Faradir, and added to by Eregiel from a flask he carried; by the time Teregion had a meal prepared all felt considerably better, and she found comfort sitting by Alvric with his arm about her, gently tracing the outline of Fell’s arrowhead with one finger through the cloth of the shirt she wore while Holby lay solidly in her lap.
On the seventh day they rode down toward the river, seeking shelter from the continuing storm within the farm of Boboli Hedges.