Master Redglass made me take one of his knives, since I had lost my belt-knife—vaguely I wondered what had happened to that kitchen knife Jehan had had—and it was as the Dwarf handed his to me, insisting that I promise to keep it with me, that I realized his meaning: if the city fell, it might be better for me to kill myself than fall alive into the hands of an orc. His hand was warm and steady—what courage the Dweorg have!
I could not stop myself; I touched his head as he bowed, quickly drawing a warding sign Granny had taught me. “Valar guide and bless you!” I choked out, and hurried inside before I disgraced myself.
“And where have you been, skulking around with that Dwarf?” asked a voice, and there stood Mirieth with a bevy of her smirking sycophants. Had they nothing else to do besides linger around doorways and pounce on me?
“I was with the King,” I blurted.
They tittered, as Mirieth gave an ostentatious sigh. “Oh, really if you can’t come up with a better tale than that—“
“Stop it, Mirieth!” said another voice, and Lothíriel, Princess of Dol Amroth, younger than both of us, her auburn hair flaming under a nearby torch, sailed through them with the confidence that came of being the highest in rank among us. "Is it so fantastic, after all the strange things that have been happening in these days, that the King may not return?"
Mirieth snorted, but did not dare refute her.
“What’s that she’s got?” asked Lady Astorwen. “Did she steal it?”
“Master Redglass gave it to me,” I said, defensively putting my hand on its hilt.
“Oh, right, with a firedrop the size of that one on it,” scoffed Mirieth.
I looked stupidly down at it; she was right—the pommel ended in a large stone that fairly coruscated in the flickering light. The sheath was finely-made leather embossed with a vine pattern, and when I pulled the blade out, the Dwarven steel shone blue-black, inlaid with a similar vine ending in a gleaming star. “He did,” I whispered.
“Obviously stolen,” said Mirieth. “But then, you’ll need to steal to live, now that that ugly little orc you married is dead.”
Lothíriel said, “She would have a right to call challenge on you for that, Mirieth—and it’s not very smart of you to taunt her when she has a knife in her hand!”
“She wouldn’t dare!”
“I wouldn’t stab someone unarmed,” I heard myself say, “but you have a belt-knife of your own—is it as sharp as your tongue?”
“Valar know she has had more than enough provocation,” the Princess told her.
Mirieth’s eyes glittered. “She’s a commoner; with no right to challenge a noble, and I do not brawl like a peasant!”
“Are you a coward as well as a shrew?” I asked. Why can’t I just shut my mouth the way I usually do? I wondered distantly. Her hand came up as if to slap me, and I continued calmly, “Know that I feel sorry for you, Lady Mirieth, caught as you and most of your like are or will be in loveless, empty noble marriages. I had the courage to endure leaving mine, and despite his physical stature and so-called lesser blood, my late spouse was a far bigger Man than any noble in this city, unless it be the King himself, or Lord Faramir, or Prince Imrahil and his sons.”
“Your insolence goes beyond all bounds!” she sputtered. “I shall have you flogged!”
“Am I your debt-slave, or a free Woman of Gondor?” I retorted. “You are welcome to try, but there are still courts of law here, and I shall avail myself of them.”
“And I will stand witness to all I have seen and heard,” Lothíriel said.
Ioreth suddenly appeared, hands on hips. “Why are you all standing around gossiping? There is still much to do!” In a flurry of orders, she cleared them all away, shooing them out of the passage like so many brightly-garbed chickens.
My knees were weak; I felt myself begin to sag toward the floor, but encountered a firm hand beneath my elbow. Lothíriel supported me for the instant it took to regain my balance. “I beg your pardon, Highness,” I said raggedly.
She took my elbow again and steered me into a nearby office, pushing me gently into a chair and taking another, effortlessly arranging her skirts gracefully after beckoning to a page I had not noticed. “Bergil, would you please fetch us a tray of food and some chamomile tea?” she asked.
He bobbed in a quick bow. “At once, my lady!”
“Please don’t call me ‘Highness,’” she said. “I doubt that these are times to be picky over titles, and I would be honored to have your friendship.”
My jaw dropped. I hastily closed my mouth, then opened it to say, “That is very kind of you, but I hardly think—“
“I hope you don’t lump me in with that crowd!”
I shook my head. “Nay, but…”
“But?” Her grey eyes were level.
“I doubt your father would think me fit company for you, my lady.”
“My father, when he has more time, will write or tell you that he was grieved to hear of your husband’s death, as I am. Father took my third brother Amrothos and me with him when he commissioned a new lookfar glass for my oldest brother Elphir as a Yule gift several years ago. Father and I stood gaping while they talked of angles and refractiveness—“
“Refraction,” I said without thinking.
“Some such term, but we were the veriest bumpkins compared to them in their discussion. Afterwards, Father commissioned another for my middle brother, Erchirion, and some sort of miraculous near-scope for Amrothos. All of them agreed that Master Jehan was the best lensmaker in Gondor. Father told us of—of how you came to wed. Those women are fools!”
“They have been very sheltered,” I said, surprised that she knew some aspect of my past and did not condemn me for my choices.
“You are very compassionate. I would not have been as restrained with them as you were; I admire your composure.”
I surprised myself even more by laughing shortly. “Believe me, I did not feel composed!”
She grinned at me. “I would have gotten into trouble long since, trying to scratch her eyes out!”
“But then I should simply have to clean up the blood,” I pointed out.
She laughed. “Oh, I do like you, Silma—may I call you Silma?”
“If you wish.”
“But only if you call me Lothíriel.”
“It would not be proper in public,” I was firm.
“We’ll see. But I think you have made an enemy in her.”
“There is nothing new about that,” I said wryly.
“She deserves your contempt!”
“It was a strange thing,” I told her slowly. “As I spoke, I found that I meant what I said. I do feel sorry for them.” Then I felt a blush heating my cheeks. “Forgive me, I mean no disrespect—“
“I have always known my marriage will be a state one, for dynastic purposes,” she said thoughtfully. “But I am fortunate that Father has sworn to do his best to see it may be to a noble whom I may come to love. He and Mother were so happy, he wishes that for his children as well.”
“May that come to be!” I said sincerely.
“Thank you. Ah, here is Bergil with some food!”
We ate together, and I marveled at the companionable ease I felt with this younger woman of higher rank. She was keenly interested in my impressions of the King, and what I could tell her about him.
“I wonder what his life has been like,” she murmured.
“A blending of Elvish and mortal, I would think,” I said. “Gimli Glóin’s son told me that he was raised in secret by Lord Elrond of Imladris, before he became the Chief of the Dúnedain. It has been a life of hiding, and of much travel. He doesn’t look it, but he must be around ninety years old.” Then I apologized for yawning.
“Forgive me, Silma,” she was all contrition. “I forgot how weary you must be, and here I keep you talking when you should be sleeping. Come with me to my chamber; I have room for you there.”
“I can’t impose—“
“It is no imposition. I want you to come! Please?”
“You are very kind.”
She had an entire room to herself, and I could see that someone had laid out a pallet next to her bed, with a nightdress spread on top. What luxury! I donned it with gratitude not lessened by the fineness of its weave and embroidery after welcoming the opportunity to wash in hot water with scented soap, and dry myself on a soft thick towel. Briefly I thought of the thin old floursacks I had used for so long…but only briefly, because I was soon asleep.
I woke hours later, as the sun was setting. Setting? I flew into my clothes, which had been cleaned and mended, and a fine new cloak, with a swimming swan brooch, lay neatly folded beside them. My rough hands caught on the finely woven fabric as I touched the blue cloth, but I left it where it lay, for it was not mine.
Out in the passage, the first person I encountered was young Bergil, who grinned and bobbed his funny little bow. “The day’s greeting, Lady Silma!” he said. “Lady Lothíriel and Dame Ioreth said that you was to sleep yourself out, and I’m to fetch you some food before you start working. Lord Faramir wishes to see you when you have a moment; he’s in the garden with Lady Ėowyn.”
“I will go get something to eat myself, Bergil,” I said, “but thank you!”
He shook his head. “Lady Lothíriel told me I must get it for you ‘cause you’d be apt to forget on the way, or somebody ‘ud make you go with ‘em. You are too thin.”
“Away with you, imp!” I said, miming a blow which he easily dodged.
“And I went to the guesthouse twice today; Rimbor’s just fine. I wisht I had a dog like him!”
I smiled at the boy. “That was kind! How is he?”
“On the mend,” he said judiciously. “Do you reckon being so close to Mithrandir is helping him, magic coming off his staff, like?”
“That might be. I don’t know, but Lord Aragorn was gracious enough to help with a healing for him.”
Bergil nodded; he was a sensible lad, and saw nothing strange about the King caring for a dog.
But we both turned at a silvery laugh; there stood Lady Milandorga, yet another hanger-on of Mirieth’s. She shook her perfectly coiffed head under its sheer veil. “You just tell lie after lie,” she sneered.
“Lady Silma doesn’t tell lies!” Bergil flashed.
I touched his shoulder. “Hush, lad. Go on, now. Now, Bergil!”
Scowling, he scampered off…almost pushing her aside.
“Unmannerly brat!” she fumed. “No wonder, coming from such bad blood!”
“His father has a good reputation in the Guard,” I could not forbore saying.
“His father is in disgrace for killing two other guards in the Street of the Dead!” she told me.
I sighed. “More rumors? If your hands went as fast as your tongue, there’d be fewer patients here!”
“You’d better stop your insolence!” she almost gobbled at me, her fat face flushed. “Lord Faramir knows all about your behavior! Don’t think he hasn’t heard our complaints! You’re going to be punished!”
I put my hand on the pommel of the belt-knife, to remind me of Master Redglass’s courage. She paled and scuttled away. Stupid chit!
Sighing, I made my way to the garden nearest where Faramir had been staying, and there found him with Lady Ėowyn, standing near the wall overlooking the rest of the city and the darkness of
the Ephel Dúath. I gasped, as I saw for the first time the roiling black and red clouds churning in the sky above and behind them, although pale sunlight glinted nearer.
Wrapped in a blue mantle, darker than the one Lothíriel had left for me, the Lady turned to glance at me. Her stern pale face softened in a smile, and she said something to Lord Faramir, who also turned and beckoned to me.
“Ah, Lady Silma! I trust you are more rested?” he asked.
I came nearer to make my curtsey. “Lady Ėowyn, my lord Steward.”
“I am only acting in that capacity, until the King comes,” he said. I wondered if he yet knew of his father’s madness and suicide, but naturally did not ask. “Come and join us, please. I need to speak with you about the state of the city.”
“With me, my lord?” I was aware of the stiff breeze.
Lady Ėowyn observed my attempts not to shiver. “I will make the healers happy and go in to rest for a time,” she said, and as she passed me, took off and draped her mantle over my shoulders. “Don’t argue, please! I’m bigger than you are, and I have a sword,” she said whimsically. “You can return it to me later.”
I stared after her in astonishment, then looked back at Lord Faramir as he laughed softly.
“Dame Ioreth told ‘Thirry that you wouldn’t accept the cloak she left for you,” he said. “Will you sit on this bench, my lady, and help keep these cushions from blowing away, or would you prefer to go within?”
I should have said that it was his choice. But after almost being immolated on a funeral pyre by his own father, even if he supposedly didn’t remember it, there must be a necessity for him to have insisted on being without so vehemently, for I knew from Ioreth that he was usually a very mild-mannered Man. A certain memory of my own caused me to say, “I should prefer the bench for now, my lord, if it please you.”
We sat half-turned to each other for our conversation. There were new lines graven on his face, probably never to be erased after all the changes he had recently undergone and would undergo in the near future, but he still exhibited the gentle mien of the scholar he truly was. “I wanted to see you for several reasons, Lady Silma. First, may I extend my condolences for your loss? I knew Master Clerk both when he served my father—and I was sorry when he left that service—and when he made a very fine farseer for me after I became Captain of the Rangers. My uncle and cousins from Dol Amroth spoke highly of him also.”
“Thank you,” I managed over a lump in my throat.
“I am shocked and sorry too about the matter and manner of his burial. That should not have happened! I know it can be but poor comfort, but I wondered if, when this is all over, I may have your permission to add his name to the memorial that will be raised to all those who fell in the defense."
“He was no warrior, my lord. Would it be appropriate?”
“On the contrary, he was one of the bravest warriors I have known. My brother—“ Faramir had to pause to control his own grief at that loss, “—my brother remarked to me once that Jehan Clerk was an example of the highest courage, having to fight his own war of pain without ceasing for so many years. I don’t think you realize, lady, how highly respected he was, and how beloved. Others have spoken to me of his kind acts and patience.”
“He could be irascible too, my lord, but I do thank you. I’m just not certain he would think it right.”
Lord Faramir nodded. “You have time to consider your answer.”
“Was there something else, Lord Faramir?” I asked.
“If I can find a suitable bitch, would you permit Rimbor to be bred?” he inquired. “Young Bergil longs for a dog like him, and it might give the lad some comfort in the hard days ahead.”
Then he did know, at least part of it. I had to know. “If I may ask, my lord, what is the penalty for his father—?“
“Death,” was the unwilling reply.
I felt tears prick my eyes. “Can there be no mercy for him?”
“That is the law.”
“This is hard for you,” I said softly. How awful to have to sentence a man whose crime had been committed in one’s defense, as had occurred in Berthond’s case, saving Faramir!
“It will be the King who decides the matter, not I,” he sighed, not concealing the pain in his eyes.
But we both knew that had Lord Denethor still been Steward, there would have been no likelihood of mercy…and no need for it, either. I felt slightly dizzy as time-lines and futures swirled through my mind.
The vortex subsided and vanished; I still sat on the bench, with Faramir’s hands on my shoulders steadying me. I blinked up at him. “My lord?”
“So you do have the Foresight,” he said. “I only have a touch of it. Mithrandir told me I should speak to you in times ahead. Have you much training in its use?”
“Not to say training, I don’t think. Certainly my granny talked to me about it, but she died when I was but twelve, and naught was done about it, given the circumstances of my life at that time.”
He sighed. “Had this been past centuries, you would have been brought here or to Minas Ithil before it became Minas Morgul or even to Amon Sûl in honor for training with the palantiri.”
“But they have all been lost, have they not?” I had often wondered about the seven seeing-stones.
“Most have, but one remains here in the Citadel, and one was lately brought here from Isengard. I have wondered if it might be possible to find the one that was kept in Minas Ithil. We will need someone to use them, if they can indeed be used.”
“I would gladly share what lore I know about them,” I said thoughtfully, “but Granny told me that most recently only Men were allowed to look into them, not females, although there was a tale in our family that my twelve-times-great-granny, Gilmith of Ithilien, was one of the Stonewardens in Minas Ithil, in the days when even a woman could attend Tatharond. I doubt that any Council now would approve of my doing it. But it is considerate of you to ask, my lord, and I thank you.”
“We will discuss it further,” he decided. “I am also hoping that you will befriend my lady Ėowyn, and that you will assist in other matters.”
I frankly gaped at him.
“What disturbs you?” he asked, raising one eyebrow.
“I have little in common with Lady Ėowyn besides the loan of this cloak!” I said honestly.
“You have a great deal in common with her.”
“But, my lord, she is the Wraithbane, a shieldmaiden of Rohan, a princess!” I exclaimed. “I’m just an old widow.” My voice cracked on that last word—it was the first time I had said it, even to myself.
“You belittle yourself, Lady Silma. You come of most honorable lineage, even if a few empty-headed girls repeat the foolishness they have heard from old Court gossips. Master Clerk told me once that you were the star whose loving light enabled him to rise above his disabilities, your faith in him aiding his studies and growing mastery. I rejoiced that the lady who had so patiently taught me scholarship and writing had found such a spouse.” He smiled as my eyes widened. “Oh, yes, I remember our meetings in the Archives and the Book-halls when I was a boy. Nor are you old. You were scarcely more than a maid then yourself, yet so much more learned than I. Have you continued your studies?”
“Somewhat, as I could,” I said faintly. There was no point in mentioning the years when I had been forbidden to do so, or how I had sneaked in later. Would I ever again have the leisure and opportunity to study?
"You know,” he remarked, “there are still many at Court who knew Lord Ornemir. My brother despised him, and so did I. We often wondered at your forbearence. Why do you exercise so much restraint with those disrespectful girls?”
I felt myself flushing, but his steady gaze would not let me drop my eyes or give him less than the truth. “Because his mother Lady Silwen yet lives. She was shattered by what she discovered of him. How can I make it worse for her, when she still occasionally comes to Minas Tirith, and I know she yet corresponds with a few old friends from her retreat in Arnach? Her guilt and grief, being his mother, are greater than mine.”
“It is noble of you to consider that.”
I shook my head. “Nay, Lord Faramir. She was a kind mother-in-love to me before—before my disgrace.”
“My lady, it was not your disgrace, but his. It was most unjust that you suffered for it.”
“What was is past,” I said quietly. “And I was blessed with my Jehan.”
He smiled. “As I hope one day to be so blessed. Please be her friend, Lady Silma. She knows very few here, and although she is as you say noble and brave, her culture is in many ways quite different from ours.”
“If she wishes to be my friend, then certainly, my lord,” I agreed, thinking, Which is highly unlikely, especially once she hears the gossip about me. Besides, who knows where I will be soon, or any of us? I was not unwilling, I merely thought it beyond credible that such a thing could come about.
Satisfied, he thanked me as Ioreth came towards us. “My lord, you have been out too long,” she scolded. “The air is growing cold; you will become chilled.”
“I will come in, then, although it felt refreshing,” he replied. “I hope I have not caused you to be chilled, my lady.”
“Not in this lovely cloak,” I answered, rising.
He offered me his arm, as if I truly was a Court lady, and escorted me to the door to the Houses, then bowed and went to his room shepherded by Ioreth, who told me my next task.