A week later, during a break in her duties, Systerien found herself walking in the more public parts of the gardens. Lord Samwise was standing with the gardener Dalrod near the rose arbor discussing the condition of two bushes; Lord Frodo was within the Citadel, having retired to the chambers prepared for the Pheriannath to rest; the King himself, after the morning’s audience, had gone to his office to speak with the Commander of the Navy regarding the state of the realm’s ships, two of his kinsmen who had knowledge of the shipping of the northern lands and Captain Peregrin with them; Sir Meriadoc was gone off to the Hallows to stand with the Guard of Honor before the tomb where King Théoden’s body rested for the nonce; and most of the lords of the realm had dispersed in the past few days to their own holdings. The Citadel seemed almost empty at the moment, and its rhythms had begun once more to slow and find themselves as all accepted the new order for the land and this house.
As she approached the end of one hedge of boxwood she realized another was also taking the air. It was, she noted, young Lord Ivormil of Bidwell in Lossarnach, who’d arrived but the day before. She examined him closely, for word was that he’d managed to offend all with his demands for special treatment, including Lords Frodo and Samwise as well as the King himself. He’d had a distinct comeuppance, it was said, at the morning’s audience. Well, his expression certainly confirmed that word, for his brow was furrowed and he looked most discomfited.
He noticed her presence, then paused, rather warily she thought. At last he spoke. “Are you a great lady in but simple dress, or are you indeed one of those who serve the Citadel?”
Perhaps she ought to have felt insulted, but instead she found herself fighting the impulse to laugh. “Please, my lord, my name is Systerien, and I am one of those who serves as a chambermaid within the Citadel.” But her curiosity got the better of her, as she found herself asking, “Is that how it was you came to insult the Pheriannath?”
He rolled his eyes and turned his head away. “I must suppose my great blunder has been told throughout the King’s household.” He glanced back at her and caught her nod, and sighed. “It’s just my luck, I must suppose. But who has ever believed there were really Pheriannath in the world? I mean, had you ever thought of them being real, before you saw them?”
She shook her head. “No, my lord, I never did. And when I first saw Sir Meriadoc I thought him but a boy, until I truly looked at his eyes. Then I realized he wasn’t. But then I saw Master Frodo’s feet and realized these were not Men at all. But there was no question of them not being treated with respect, you see, from the first time I saw one of them. And what did you think?”
He shrugged. “They weren’t mannikins--even as big a fool as I could see that. I ought to have thought it through--when they told me that only those who’d been ill were being given meat between meals....”
She nodded. “I know.”
“Can you remain here for a time? Or must you hurry back to your duties?”
Systerien was surprised--no one had asked such a thing of her before, certainly not any of the lords she’d put herself in the way of purposely since she’d begun working in the Citadel. “Oh, no--this time is my own, although I must return at the eighth bell. We are allowed to walk in the gardens, or down to the gardens for the Houses of Healing and to the barracks area where we watch the sparring.”
“It’s just that you’re the first to not look on me with scorn since I got here.”
She shrugged. “I can’t imagine Master Frodo looking at you with scorn, really--he’s not given to such sentiments, I think.”
“Well, he didn’t, really--not until....” He trailed off, taking a deep breath and letting it out with a great sigh. “How was I to know that the Lord Perhael and Lord Iorhael were Pheriannath?”
“Didn’t they tell you?”
“Well, the King explained today that the Seneschal had been trying to tell me, but--but I cut him off.”
She couldn’t help herself--the laugh escaped without her intention. “You cut Master Balstador off when he tried to explain that they were Pheriannath and preferred to be addressed as ‘Master’ rather than as ‘Lord’? Ah, sir, you must have wished you could but disappear in a puff of smoke and never be seen in the White City again!”
Reluctantly he began to smile as well. “Yes, something along those lines, really. When I looked into the King’s face today and saw it was the one Master Frodo had addressed as Aragorn----” He shook his head and looked heavenward. “But you would never have done the same, I’m certain.”
“Oh, don’t be so sure. I’ve seen so many of the northern Dúnedain now--they’re all over the Citadel, you see, and I have no way of telling which are simple men at arms and which are lords of the northern realm at this point. It’s merely simpler, I have found, to treat each as if he is indeed a great lord and thus avoid making a fool of myself.”
“As I ought to have done yesterday. I have the distinct feeling Lord Perhael dislikes me intensely, and that it’s little better with Lord Iorhael. I apparently sparked a headache in him.”
She became more solemn. “His quest took him through great fear and anxiety. The minstrel who wrote the Lay of Frodo of the Nine Fingers sang it to us in the servants’ hall last evening, and spoke of how it was he learned what had happened to Masters Frodo and Samwise as they went alone from Amon Hen where Lord Boromir died to Mordor.”
“I wish I could have heard it.” She nodded in response, and after a time he asked, “Have you worked in the Citadel long?”
“Almost four years.”
“You are not from the city, though?”
“No--I am from Dor-en-Ernil, from a small village near the sea.”
“Then how did you come here?”
“My father served Lord Delrond well, and died saving his life.”
“There was an attack by Corsairs?”
Almost she agreed, for it was the story she’d told some of the other girls who served alongside her here in the Citadel, but something had changed in her since she’d unwittingly given her fealty to Ringbearer and new King. At last she admitted, “It was a foolish thing, you see. Lord Delrond had become drunk, riding out with friends and planning a race along a particular track in the rain and the dark. A wooden bridge over a particular stream had become rotted, and as the four of them pounded over it, the wood gave way. Lord Delrond was the last over, and his horse fell through, and he was pitched into the water. Papa was his personal guard and had counseled them against the race--he leapt into the stream and managed to find his lord lodged between stones. He was able to free him and thrust him onto the bank where his friends could get him to safety, but he could not scramble out himself. So heavily did it rain that the stream rose and washed him away before they could devise a way to save him, too.
“Lord Delrond felt terribly guilty when he recovered, and so he asked my mother how he might properly make it up to us. She felt that only if somehow I might meet someone wealthy and of some rank and make a good marriage perhaps that might help restore our family’s fortunes, so she asked if he could put me in the way of some service that could allow me to meet many people where I might find perhaps a worthy patron or husband. Every few years the Citadel sends out calls for servers from other provinces so that some servers will always know the best courtesies to offer to visitors from the farther reaches of Gondor, so he agreed to put my name forward. So it is that I am here now.”
“And you’ve not yet found any who holds any interest in you?”
She shrugged, for the first time embarrassed by the real reasons she was here. “Maman had suggested I put myself forward as one who would work in the Steward’s Wing and make certain I was made visible to the Steward’s sons and their friends; but in truth neither was here that often, both being gone most of the time upon their duties to the realm. When they were here they had not time for dalliances with chambermaids.
“Now he is Steward himself our Lord Prince Faramir has chosen his own staff, all older individuals, Men and women both, whose families have served the Citadel for generations, and most of whom have indicated that when he has his own home built they wish to accompany him to Ithilien. Since his heart at last is stirred and he courts the Lady Éowyn of Rohan he does not wish for any reports of improprieties to be returned to her. Obviously he did not choose me in that number, nor would I wish it, really, as I’m uncertain I would wish to follow him across the river.”
He nodded as he considered what she’d told him. “I never thought what I would wish to do with my life, for it seemed certain I would merely follow my father as Lord of Bidwell, and what should I care beyond that? I never questioned why Ada did not send any to the protection of the capital, or why he did not go himself or send me with the few he sent to the defense of Pelargir. And now--after this morning I realize that my father may well lose his office due to that decision. And if he is no longer Lord of Bidwell, what future might I look to? He and I must prove ourselves to the King and Council. I was not truly trained as a swordsman--after I was advised to think on the meaning of nobility, service, honor, and humility I took my sword and asked where those who are nobles practice their weapons, and was sent to the training grounds near the barracks in the Sixth Circle. I watched mere Guardsmen who handled a sword far better than I ever will, and one boy who with a practice foil could probably disarm me within minutes. Then some of the nobles came and I watched them--I was amazed.
“My father would not brook me dallying with the servants within our household or women within the town; but none of the maidens we met when we visited with other noble homes appeared to hold any interest in me.” He said, with some bitterness, “Now I must suppose this was because they saw my family as the King now does--shallow and interested in lordship only for the benefits to be reaped, and with no interest in seeing or meeting any responsibilities.”
They’d paused beside a garden bench, and he sank down on it, one hand clutching the seat on either side of his thighs. “A fine lord I am--insulting the one who came out of his own land to carry the Enemy’s greatest weapon so far and with so little hope of recompense, and then not recognizing the King.”
“Was he dressed yet in his worn riding leathers?”
Again he nodded. “They looked most disreputable. Master Frodo was most critical of them.” He started to smile, and in moments they were both grinning, then laughing. Neither saw the looks given them by Master Samwise or the gardener Dalrod, or the smiles those two shared with the Wizard Gandalf, who had been standing behind the hedge, listening with a degree of satisfaction.