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Tales from Halabor
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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6
A Tale of Love and Loss

Mistress Gilmith first appeared in “A Brotherly Gift” but was established among the very first Halabor characters as the old manservant Sador’s wife.


~~~

A TALE OF LOVE AND LOSS

Halabor, on the 25th of Blodmath, in the year 3006 of the Third Age


Dusk was already falling when Herumor, son and heir of the Lord of Halabor, returned from Archu’s farm to his father’s Castle, accompanied by Master Wella, the tax-collector, and two men-at-arms belonging to the Castle Guard. His first look was directed at the long slope of the Great Chamber’s roof, overhanging the drainage channel. He could see the dark timber cage of scaffolding and ladders, and the squat, powerful figures of Madern, the roofer, and his helpers working on the uncovered slates.

In the previous night, the first heavy storm of the winter season had damaged the roof of the Great Chamber – where the lord and lady of the keep traditionally dwelt – shifting the slates and breaking some of them, while the melting snow had found a way through, dousing Lord Orchald in his own bed. The roofer had advised not to wait ‘til the taw, least they would have a flood and far worse damage to repair. He and his helpers had been working since early morning, in short spells, warming themselves between turns in a heated room.

Right now, the brawny form of the roofer could be seen halfway up the long ladder, hefting a holdful of slates many a younger man would fail to lift. Upon the highest platforms of the scaffolding, stacked with a great pile of slates, the tiny figures of his young helpers were moving very, very carefully on the exposed roof.

Sador, the elderly manservant of Lord Orchald, was standing at the foot of the scaffolding, squinting up at the working men in concern.

“The light is beginning to fail,” he said to Herumor, greeting him with a distracted nod; as he practically belonged to the family, there was no need to stand on ceremony between them. “They should come down, soon, ere something bad happens.

“Master Madern knows his trade,” replied Herumor, although the sight of the men upon the slippery roof concerned him too. “I am certain he would not let them endanger themselves beyond reason.”

And indeed, barely had he finished speaking when the roofer already shouted something they could not quite understand, turning away to clear the last of the day’s broken slates out of the way of his helpers. Those had apparently understood the command, for they began to descend from the roof to the boards of the scaffolding, lifting themselves carefully down the long ladder to the ground, grateful to leave the work fort he time being. Herumor did not blame them. It had to be bitter work, up there, and in such cold weather, too. He must have spoken loudly, without realizing it, for old Sador nodded in agreement.

“Bitter and perilous, even for men as skilled and experienced as Master Madern and his helpers,” he said. “The short days of the season are no help, either. But another week should see it finished, I deem.”

“Father shall not be happy, having to spend a week out of his own bed,” said Herumor. “But still better than put anyone to risk without grave need. I shall be going to him, then, to tell him about my foray to Archu’s farm. Do you know where I can find him?”

The elderly servant nodded. “He went to the women’s wing, to talk to Gilmith,” he said. “By this weather, all seamstresses and embroiderers are gathered in your lady mother’s working room, as it can be easily heated.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Herumor thanked him for that news and climbed the steps of the forebuilding to the keep’s entrance. He rarely visited the he women’s wing, as it was more or less abandoned most of the year, due to the lack of a proper Lady. Besides – even though he had never known his mother, who had died at his birth – the memories of her still haunted those rooms, thus he tended to avoid them.

During the winter season, however, Mistress Gilmith used the late Lady’s working room, for it was a relatively small parlour, hung with beautiful carpets, and pleasantly warm, due to a small stone heart at the far end of it. It had always been custom that the womenfolk of the Castle did their needlework here when the weather was cold, and Mistress Gilmith kept the tradition alive, for since the death of her lady she had kept the matters of the lordly household in her hands firmly.

There she sat, in a circle with the seamstresses and embroiderers of the Castle, a tall, willowy, active woman beyond fifty, with the free manner and air of authority habitual in servants who have spent many years in the confidence of their lord or lady, and earned a degree of trust that brings with it acknowledged privilege. For she was of true Dúnadan stock, albeit of common birth: proud, competent and sharp-eyed, doing difficult work that was usually done by trusted males in other households… and she did it well.

Choosing a chatelaine instead of a steward was unusual at best in these days, but when asked about his choice, Lord Orchald just shrugged and said that he had chosen the most competent member of his household for the most difficult task and that he cared not whether that person was male or female. Besides, as Halabor had no Lady at the moment – in truth, had not had one since Herumor’s birth, as the old lord refused to marry again – the female touch was more needed here than it would be elsewhere.

And indeed, few other people, whether men or women, could awake the same respect Mistress Gilmith did. The younger maidservants deferred to her – in truth, some of them went in awe of her – and she offered a handsome view in her dark blue gown, the wide sleeves of which were pinned back to her shoulders so that they would not get in the way of her work, with the stiff white wimple under a simple headdress, made of the same fabric as her gown, and the keys jingling at her waist, bearing witness to her status.

While the other women were mending torn clothes or doing embroidery, sprang or naal-binding, she had a flat, round pillow on her lap, to which a half-finished, yet obviously complex pattern of lace was pinned with delicate brass pins, while she was looping, twisting and braiding at least a dozen separate bleached linen, gold and silver threads, each of which was held by artfully carved bone bobbins. She worked so fast that the jingling of the bobbins almost sounded like music.

After greeting her with a polite inclination of his head, Herumor looked around for his father. He found the old lord sitting in a comfortable chair next to the heart. A small table stood before him, and at the table sat Artbranan, his scribe, a small, bird-like man about his own age, prone to getting an inflamed chest, yet bright and shrewd when it came to numbers.

Both old men were wearing dark clothes – fur lined velvet the lord, good, homespun wool the servant – and both had silver hair, the lord’s down and tumbling over his powerful shoulders, the servant’s short-cropped and thinning, as men of the Old Folk generally wore their hair short. But that was not the only difference between them. The scribe was a simple soul, despite his shrewd mind; someone who rejoiced in the simple pleasures of life. The old lord, however, carried the weight of a great responsibility upon his shoulders, and that made him grimmer than his age would have made him. Near-seventy years were nothing for someone who had the blood of Westernesse in his veins, but concerns, duty and responsibility could make a man age before his time.

Still, he was as watchful and as aware of what was going on around him as ever. He looked up from his wine cup, recognizing Herumor’s steps, and a joyful smile softened his stern features upon seeing his only son.

“You have come back early, ion nîn,” he said. Although they largely spoke the local version of Westron most of the time, just like their subjects, some Sindarin endearments often resurfaced in their daily language. “How did it go on the farm?”

“Well enough, I deem,” replied Herumor with an uncertain shrug. “Those are good, honest people. They lead a harsh life, though. I had no inkling how harsh ere I saw it with my very eyes.”

“Which was one of the reasons why I sent you there in my stead,” said the old lord. “Now, sit with me, have a cup of wine and tell me all about your visit.”

Herumor knew that pointing out how much he would prefer ale would be useless. His father, while fairly lenient with him in many things, had been trying to break him out what he called his ‘pedestrian tastes” for a while, at least where beverages were concerned. A proper lord, even a future one, was expected to drink wine; and a good vintage at that, assuming he could afford it. Ale and beer were things drunk by peasants and therefore unworthy a lord’s table.

This was one matter Lord Orchald was unwilling to compromise, and thus Herumor had to drink wine, despite the fat that it sometimes upset his stomach. He secretly thanked the Valar that they could rarely afford Dorwinion Red; even the pale yellow Lossarnach Limpë, named after the mythical beverage of the Undying Lands, was too much for his stomach sometimes.

He accepted the cup from Finvel, his father’s young page and cup-bearer with a resigned grimace. Fortunately, Mistress Gilmith had trained all servants to dilute their young lord’s wine generously with water, all the time, so that at least he needed not to fear that his stomach would give him any pain afterwards. Still, he hated the taste and thought back with longing even at the weak ale offered him in the farmer’s home. Even small beer would have been better. Mead, definitely. Sometimes the requirements of one’s rank could poison even the smallest pleasures of life.

But that could not be helped, and thus Herumor sipped on his watered wine – or, to be closer to the truth, wine-flavoured water – with a pained expression, while telling about his visit on Archu’s farm in minute detail. His father listened with great interest, although Herumor suspected that interest was focused on his actions rather than on the intricacies of cheese-making. When he came to the end of his tale, his father nodded.

“I am glad they can make some honest coin with their cheese,” he said. “They desperately need it. But for Lord Ulmondil to order so much sift cheese,” he added disapprovingly. “’Tis just shows what strange ideas he has about the ‘Elvish fashion of life’, as he calls it. I hope he shall have the mother wit to send his sons to esquire training to some lord who makes true men out of those boys, or else they will become naught but perfumed courtiers.”

Herumor grinned. “And this you say based on the fact that they prefer soft cheese, Adar?” he asked, amused about his father’s culinary prejudices.

The old lord glared at him in a most disapproving manner. Iron-grey men-at-arms would be shaking in their boots, facing that glare, but Herumor just grinned unrepentantly, and finally his father, too, gave a short bark of laughter.

“Nay, not only based on that,” he replied, “although soft cheese is something for women and children, not for men. Your mother was certainly fond of it,” he added, his keen, sea-grey eyes clouding over with memories, cherished and painful alike.

Herumor would have liked to hear more about that, but as always when talk turned to his late mother, the discussion was finished abruptly, and the old lord left the women’s wing, declaring that he needed to take a look at the wine reserves of the Castle. Herumor glanced at Mistress Gilmith in askance.

“Why is Father always doing this?” he asked. “I mean, leaving in the middle of a conversation, whenever it turns to Mother? I know he loved her deeply, but she has been dead for over twenty years! Surely Father has come to terms with that?”

The chatelaine looked up from her lacework and shook her head thoughtfully.

“I do not believe so,” she replied. “You see, your lord father is very much like you when it comes to the matters of the heart. He married late, for he wanted to wait for the one who would truly capture his heart… and he was more fortunate than you, for he fell in love with a lady who was acceptable for his family.”

Herumor blushed furiously. He knew that he could not keep his… indulgence hidden from a town this small, but knowing it and having it discussed within earshot were two different things.

“I always wondered how they met and fell in love,” he said tentatively, “but never dared to ask Father about it.”

“That,” said Mistress Gilmith dryly, “was a wise decision. He would not have responded kindly to such inquiry, not even from his own son. If you are as curious as you seem, though, I can tell you the tale; for I was present when they first met, as a member of your lord father’s entourage.”

“I would be grateful, Mistress Gilmith,” said Herumor. “I know so little of my mother, as I never knew her. I would like to know what she was like.”

“She was a quick-witted, strong-willed and warm-hearted woman, with features very much like your own,” answered the chatelaine. “As a second cousin to Lord Forlong, she grew up in the Castle of Carvossonn, as she had lost her parents at a tender age, and old Lord Forlyn, Forlong’s father, had her raised as his own daughter. Whatever Dúnadan nobles may think of Lord Forlong – and much of that is unjust and prejudiced – the court of Carvossonn has always been a rich and refined one; and the family of the Lords of Lossarnach well-educated and capable.”

“I know that,” said Herumor. “Madenn and Achren, Uncle Forlong’s daughters, could fit into every royal court in Middle-earth. Why, Achren has married Lord Húrin, the Warden of the Keys, and is the highest-ranking lady in Minas Tirith right now… at least until Boromir finally gets married.”

“Your lady mother was nothing less,” replied the chatelaine. “She spoke Sindarin fairly well, could read and write the Tengwar script as well as the Angerthas, understood the tongue of the Dunlendings and even some Rohirric. She was capable of running a household as large as Lord Forlyn’s, and she knew her way around healing herbs, too… well, to a certain extent anyway. She even played the rebec in her spare time, little as it was.”

“But that is nothing unusual,” said Herumor, a little disappointed. “Every well-bred Dúnadan lady knows those things… and more. What did make Father fall in love with her, of all the ladies of the court?”

“What did make you fall in love?” asked Mistress Gilmith with a forgiving smile. “Who can tell why their hearts react the way they do? Although,” she added, laughing, “the Lady Humleth giving him a piece of her mind about Dúnadan pride and prejudices might have been the very thing that had piqued your lord father’s interest in the first place.”

Herumor stared at her, with his mouth literally hanging open.

“It all began with a fight?” he asked incredulously. It was hard for him to imagine.

“Oh, aye,” replied Mistress Gilmith, clearly amused by her memories. “Your lady mother did not hold back with barbed remarks about how Dúnadan lords believed the entire Middle-earth centered around them; how they believed they were better than other people just because their ancestors had to free from that isle of theirs, after having angered the gods themselves beyond endurance.”

“She said that?” Herumor was utterly mortified. “Father must have been furious,” For while Lord Orchald was without doubt a noble and valiant man and a good Lord of his subjects, he also shared the common Dúnadan fault of being innately proud of his heritage.

“Oh, he was,” Mistress Gilmith laughed quietly. “He became beet red in the face and stuttered with fury every time they got into an argument, which happened at least once a day, to be sure. Lord Forlong, then a fairly young man who delighted in such things, used to laugh himself silly about their fights and kept saying that they would either kill each other in a very short time – or get married even faster.”

“He was right, it seems,” commented Herumor, thinking with genuine fondness of his loud, good-hearted, formidable uncle.

Mistress Gilmith nodded. “That he was. Your lord father asked for her hand after three weeks of heated arguments, and they had the wedding in the next year, barely willing to sit out the customary year of betrothal.”

“Did they… did they keep fighting afterwards?” asked Herumor uncertainly.

Mistress Gilmith shook her head. “Nay; Lady Humleth used to say that they had seen the worst of each other already, so there was no need to continue on that path. Besides, she already had him where she wanted him: on her side. She was a resolute lady who knew very well what she wanted… and how to get it.”

“Was she truly so eager to marry her?” asked Herumor with a smile. “Admittedly, Father must have been a striking figure – he still is, after all – but he was considerably older than her, was he not?”

“Aye, he was; but your lord father is of good Dúnadan stock and thus could hope to be with her for many long and happy years,” reminded him Mistress Gilmith. “No-one would have thought that we would lose her so early on.”

“Because of me,” murmured Herumor, for it was true that his mother paid for giving him birth with her life. “I wonder how Father can bear my presence at all.”

“Nonsense,” said Mistress Gilmith sternly. “Alas, women die in childbirth all the time; just as men fall in battle. That is part of life, and your lady mother knew the risks she was taking. She had lost several babes before you; at least three of whom I know were miscarried, and one only lived a few weeks. She was weakened considerably after each one, and the healers did warn her that any more pregnancies could cost her life. Your lord father knew it, too.”

“Why did they kept trying, then?” asked Herumor accusingly. “She could still be alive, had they given up on children in time.”

“Mayhap; or mayhap not,” she answered. “In any case, they could not afford to give up. The House of Erellont needed an heir. ‘Twas their duty towards the simple folk to continue the bloodline, so that the people would not remain without leadership and protection.”

“And that is why Father keeps harassing me with getting married,” murmured Herumor in defeat.

Mistress Gilmith nodded. “That is true. You shall need an heir, at least one, as much as he needed one. And you must be faster with it, for your time in Middle-earth will most likely be shorter, unless you come after your father’s people entirely; which does not seem to be the case.”

“Why not?” asked Herumor, a little insulted. “I am a Swan Knight, after all; knights do not get any better than that in Gondor.”

“The others can at least stomach their wine, though,” countered Mistress Gilmith with a wink; then she became sober again. “Things are what they are, my Lord. There is a certain order to this world, and we all have to find our place in this order and fit in as well as we can. That is the way of life, whether we like it or not.”

As much as Herumor would have liked to argue with her, he knew she was right. Thus he ceased arguing, which would only have been a waste of time. Besides, he had enough other things to do. He already returned to his chamber when the thought occurred to him: this had been the first time that Mistress Gilmith called him ‘my Lord’.

~The End – for now~

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