Well, just when I thought I could stop worrying about Rûdharanion…Yes, Galendur is right, I am disgusting. But I can’t help it! I’m a worrier and that’s an end of it.
Yes, I was impressed with his Aredhel at our first meeting. But after our second and third meeting I’ve come to find that she’s not quite what I thought she was…far from it, and I’m wondering how to tell him. Oh, she can be charming enough, when it suits her purpose. I was fooled too, at the first. But at our second meeting, I began getting a far different impression. There was something about her that rang distinctly false, that I couldn’t put my finger on for a while. Something was missing.
Rûdharanion was beaming, as he announced to me just before Temple that morning that Aredhel had agreed to become his wife. And at that moment she swept in and took his arm, glowing up at him, all in white as always….
And she took me in, saying, “Congratulate us, Iorhael. Have I not the look of the happiest lady alive?” And as she looked back up at her betrothed, I could swear there was something…gloating…in her expression. And that she kept glancing about to see if everyone else were seeing her good fortune.
What I didn’t see was True Love. What I saw was a little girl who had won a prize at the Fair, and couldn’t wait to flaunt it. She had snagged herself a Great Poet, and was dazzlingly pleased with herself.
“Allow me to congratulate the two of you,” I said in a tone that positively limped on crutches. “This must be the happiest of happy days.” The things we say to keep up appearances!
I told myself later I was wrong, and put it all down to jealousy on my part. But I couldn’t convince myself. I just didn’t FEEL jealous. Instead, I felt a twinge of pity, and worry. But it was our third meeting, later the same day, that clinched my suspicions about the bride-to-be. She had her great-grandmother with her, the one I had taken for her sister. There is a resemblance. And yet they could hardly be any different if they lived on opposite sides of the planet.
“This is Salmë,” Rûdharanion said as he presented the great-grandmother. “Aredhel was orphaned in her infancy, and Salmë raised her to the shining maiden she is today. And for that I must thank her from the utmost depths of my being.”
Salmë smiled shyly. She was thinner than Aredhel, less, um, statuesque, her chestnut hair a shade lighter, her grey eyes much darker, her color not so high. She was more somberly clad in brown, her hair in a long braid down her back, her only ornament a tiny topaz pendant on a delicate gold chain about her neck. Aredhel’s hair, on the other hand, cascaded in luxuriant ripples, intricately braided in front with a jeweled silver net lying upon it. She wore a silver bracelet with glittering white stones, and a matching necklace and a woven silver belt with a large white stone in the front. There was nothing wrong with her outfit, certainly; it was becoming and decent as befitting a Temple-goer. Yet somehow, next to her great-grandmother, she did come across as being a trifle excessive and showy, a little too aware and careful of the effect she was having on everyone.
I could see her as she was much more clearly. Vain, shallow and calculating, excruciatingly careful about the impression she made, and intolerant of any competition for attention. And Rûdharanion was too love-struck to see it.
“I am so happy to meet you,” Salmë said with a shyly gracious smile. “I have wished to meet you ever since I saw that wonderful mosaic by the White Tree. I’ll never forget how that portrait took my breath away the first time—I was rendered completely speechless, as was everyone else at first sight of it. It is the most wondrous work of art I have seen anywhere. It is not merely beautiful to the eyes, it somehow engages all the other senses as well, in a way I cannot explain. There is music and fragrance about it. You must indeed be a lovely soul to have inspired such a masterpiece, Iorhael.”
Well! What could I say? I could feel myself blushing and smiling a little, glancing toward the floor, then at Aredhel, and…well, did I just imagine it, or did she look distinctly annoyed? But why would she? No, I wasn’t imagining anything. She was looking at her great-grandmother with distaste. Until she caught my eye and forced a brilliant smile, taking Salmë’s arm with daughterly devotion.
“Thank you, my lady,” I said after a moment. “I am afraid Lady Ríannor made me look far better than I do, but I can scarcely complain of that. ‘Salmë’ is a lovely name--it means ‘harpist,’ yes?” I was about to ask if she played on the harp, then told myself that everyone to whom she was introduced probably asked her that question and she must surely find it tiresome.
“Yes, but I do not play,” she answered with a gentle, sad smile. “I did a very long time ago, but due to certain events, I am not able any more. But you may continue to use the name. It is a nickname I was given in my youth. My real name is Eruwaedhiel-Alassëa, but no one ever uses it, and if you were to call me by it, it might take a moment or two for me to realize you’re speaking to me. So you may continue to call me Salmë if you like, even if I no longer play.”
Rûdharanion chuckled, but Aredhel was seized for a moment with an expression of terror or horror. What could there possibly be in what her great-grandmother said that was terrifying? But the look passed, and Aredhel lowered her eyes and professed to admire the bracelet on her wrist.
I turned my eyes back to Salmë saying, “Thank you, my lady. I will call you by it then, and with great honor. It’s lovely to meet you…and congratulations on your great-granddaughter’s betrothal. I’m sure you are pleased about it.”
Aredhel perked up a little then, seeing as how some of the attention had shifted back to her. She bestowed a loving smile upon Salmë, then beamed up at her groom-to-be, and I was hard put to keep my expression polite, so I kept my eyes fixed on Salmë instead. There was something fragile about her, something damaged. It lay mainly in her eyes, which had a boundless depth to them, a knowledge she should never have acquired, and something that held others off even as they invited. I had a feeling she had been through some terrible ordeal, probably very long ago, but it had stayed with her and continued to haunt her even after an age. Why couldn’t she play the harp now? She had all her fingers, and the use of her hands. Had something entered her soul, and lodged there like a large ugly bird in a window, prohibiting expressions of beauty and joy, scowling and threatening her serenity and her inmost balance? I was a little afraid to find out. At the same time I already liked her very much and wanted to take a bow and arrow to that noisome bird…but how could I, if I didn’t even know what it was?
After a while the two ladies took their leave, Salmë telling me once more how pleased and delighted she was to meet me, and I assured her the honor was mine. She told me to come over to dinner tonight--Rûdharanion was coming, and she would love to have me as her guest. Rûdharanion said that was a wonderful idea, and he would come pick me up.
Aredhel did not look as though she thought it a wonderful idea at all.
I almost declined the invitation, but decided I would not give Aredhel the satisfaction. Besides, I was a Prince now; it would be rude to refuse. I sincerely hoped the conferral would not oblige me too often to be courteous to people I could hardly bear!
I bid a polite farewell to Aredhel, more out of consideration for Salmë than anything else, as the ladies left, arm in arm. She gave me a cool nod and swept away.
Rûdharanion gazed dreamily at her.
“Is she not a vision?” he sighed. “A true snow-maiden, chaste as a dew-drop, fair as the misty moon on a tender night in earliest spring, refined as a crystal vase fashioned by the most skilled craftsman, fresh as, as…”
He bent his brows together to come up with a simile, then looked to me his fellow-poet for assistance.
“Rain-washed clover,” I suggested. I wanted to say, “Newly gathered pipe-weed,” but thought it unlikely he would appreciate my wit.
“Yes, exactly!” he said as though he had thought of it himself. “I can scarcely take it in that she has fallen in love with the likes of me! Such a princess of purity. I have you to thank for it, of course—yes, you are probably tired of hearing me say it, but still, if not for you, your kindness, your understanding, your advice, your insight, your unfailing generosity…”
“Salmë is a very lovely lady,” I said after a very awkward moment. “So sweet and charming…and yet, I feel there’s something amiss with her. She seems a little, well, haunted. I feel that something terrible must have happened to her once. Do you get that impression?”
He looked at me in distinct astonishment. “You are a most perceptive fellow,” he observed.
“Then something did happen to her?”
“Yes…but, come away. It would not be seemly for me to tell you here in the Temple.”
“We’re outside now,” I reminded him.
“Yes, but we’re still in sight of it,” he said.
Gandalf and Bilbo showed up just then, and I told them they had missed meeting a lovely lady and that I had been invited to dinner with her. They looked at each other and grinned, and Gandalf said I had not lost my touch, and Bilbo chuckled and agreed. I forced a little smile, and told them they could go on without me, I wanted to talk with Rûdharanion, and he would see me home.
“Our Prince is gaining a gaggle of adoring subjects,” Gandalf said, making us a small bow as he and Bilbo took their leave.
“Pity we don’t live in one of those countries where the princes have wives by the dozens,” Bilbo said with a wink. “Our Frodo would be up to his neck in swooning beauties. Like a kingly ram surrounded by flocks of fawning ewes and lambs he’d be. They’d be coming out of the wood-work. Have to sweep ’em up in the morning.”
“Oh, go on with you,” I said, flipping a hand at him. He laughed, and they went off together, no doubt having a great deal of enjoyment at my expense.
Personally I thought that whatever had happened to Salmë, no matter how terrible, could bear telling in sight of the Temple. What would it do, crumble? But if Rûdharanion was so intent on getting away from it, I would just have to go along. We ambled over toward the City park, in sight of the White Tree, and found a wrought-iron bench beside the fountain in the midst of the resplendent garden. There were many people about, but they let us take our privacy in the shade of a tree with fragrant white blossoms, some pulling their children away reprovingly as the little ones pointed us out to them.
Rûdharanion lowered his voice, glancing warily around before he spoke.
“Now please don’t let this get about,” he said. “Aredhel told me of it, and she’d have a fit if I were to tell just anyone. But…her great-grandmother…well, the truth is, she has never been married. She does not know who the father of her son is. You see, when she was barely a maiden…she was raped by marauding soldiers from the East, and left for dead. The result was Aredhel’s grandfather, whose only daughter was her mother, and she…are you all right, my friend?”
I felt sick. I put both hands to my temples, overcome with dizziness, my breath coming in gasps.
“I’m…all right…I think,” I murmured, staring at the cascading waters of the fountain. “I…”
“It’s very hard for our poor Aredhel,” Rûdharanion sighed. “She’s had to live with the disgrace of it all her life. Her father was killed when she was little more than a babe, her grandfather too, and her mother died from the grief of losing husband and father in one battle. Then she had to go live with her great-grandmother. She tries to make a good show, but it can’t be easy for her. She…”
“Can’t be easy for her?” I exclaimed. “What about Salmë? First she was raped, very brutally I haven't a doubt, then she lost her son, then her granddaughter too. And she plainly adores Aredhel, but I can’t see as she returns the feeling in any enormous degree, hardly even seems to respect her. Poor Salmë, I should say!”
Ulp. It was out. I was on dangerous ground now…again. Rûdharanion stared at me as though I had delivered a punch to his gut.
“What are you saying?” he exclaimed after a moment. “Did you just hear yourself?”
“I’m sorry,” I gasped. “I didn’t mean it the way it came out. Possibly I misunderstood what I saw, but…”
Rûdharanion stood up slowly, looking down at me and backing off as though he thought I would blow up in his face.
“You have certainly misunderstood, all right,” he said. “I’ll have you know my Aredhel worships the very ground her great-grandmother walks upon. Yes, she’s very young, and sometimes she…but how dare you suggest that she does not revere and adulate her with all her maidenly heart and soul?”
“Because she doesn’t, that’s why,” I said and stood up also and looked him in the eye. “She barely tolerates her. She’s embarrassed by her, even though what happened to her was scarcely her fault. The disgrace, indeed! She treats her as some poor relation who's a little cracked in the head but must be tolerated because she's 'family.' And Aredhel is not so young as all that. Even if she were, her attitude would still be deplorable. As it is, it’s positively inexcusable. She should be grateful that someone cared enough about her to take her in after her parents died. But I see precious little gratitude about her. I’m sorry to have to point this out to you so bluntly, but…well, you’d know if I were lying, wouldn’t you?”
Rûdharanion backed up another step, nearly tripping backwards over a paving-stone. He collected himself quickly, however, folding his arms defiantly.
“Why, may I ask, are you doing this?” he spoke barely above a whisper. “I know you disliked me on our first meeting, and I have acknowledged that I was at fault and have tried to make amends the only way I knew how. But I thought you had forgiven me and extended the cordial hand of friendship. Was it all falseness? Were you just, just biding your time, waiting for the right moment to, to lay me out senseless, so you could exact your revenge? Is that what you were doing?”
“You should know me better than that,” I said more gently. “If I felt that way, I’d have said nothing, and let you find out for yourself. But I like Salmë very much, and…”
“You have designs on my lady’s great-grandmother?” He drew his eyebrows together, and I suddenly felt like dashing water from the fountain into his face.
“Of course not!” I raged, and he quickly looked around to see if anyone else was listening, and I thought perhaps I’d better lower my voice, at that. It would hardly do to have the Prince of Tol Eressëa throwing a fit right next to his portrait! “She is a friend, a friend, you fool! Is that concept so inconceivable to you? Why must you always be dragging it through the mire? Have you so little belief in the meeting of minds without the meeting of bodies? Have you?”
I was surprised at how theatrical I was being, and so, obviously, was Rûdharanion. He looked pale, his stance less defiant. I had a feeling I was getting to him, that he knew, deep down, that I was right about Aredhel, and he was beginning to see it. He couldn't be seriously in love with her, she being what she was.
“Please get hold of yourself,” he said in a trembling voice, glancing around once more. “We are in a public place. This behavior is hardly—well, I don’t say but that Aredhel hasn't her faults. In very truth, she rather shocked me the other day when she referred to you as ‘your little friend with the feet’ and said you ought to wear shoes. I pointed out to her that it was the custom for your kind to go unshod, and she said perhaps so, but you were now dwelling amongst kind that did not go unshod, and ought to adapt to our ways instead of going about like an animal with bare feet. And Salmë told her--and she had yet to meet you, at that--that after all you had done, she wouldn’t care if you took the notion to run about in a loincloth, and Aredhel flew in her face, saying that was NOT a seemly remark, and stalking off in a huff. But I supposed she was just in a bad mood. She has had a hard life, although one wouldn’t guess it to look at her, and she has her moods, poor lass. She has her faults, but haven’t we all? I certainly have mine, you will agree.”
“But you admit to yours, and try to amend them,” I said, thinking I liked Salmë more and Aredhel less by the minute. “Whereas Aredhel will acknowledge only the faults of others. And I dare say she sees faults in others that are not even there.”
Yes, I was on very dangerous ground. But, too late to back off now. I’m not the sort who can keep up a pretense for long, and better it should come out now as later.
“You can do much better than Aredhel,” I said more kindly, thinking, I'll just bet she's had a hard life. More likely Salmë had spoiled her to death, and was paying for it now. “And you deserve far better. Perhaps it’s Salmë you should be looking to.”
“Salmë? Why, she--she’s old enough to be my mother,” he said in baffled perplexity. “And then…well, she’s…you know. Yes, not her fault, and I sympathize, truly I do. It must have been horrendous for her. I am not utterly without imagination, you know. But still, a fellow wants a mate who is, well, unsullied. You know?”
I shrugged, thinking Salmë deserved better than him also. “She’s unsullied in her mind,” I pointed out, “while Aredhel is anything but. You said she wasn’t the grasping sort; well, she had us both fooled. I’ve seen lobsters that were less grasping.”
“Do you mean to say you think she does not care for me at all?” His voice was trembling, and I was truly sorry for him.
“I think she considers you a prize,” I said, wincing to have to point out the cruel truth to him. But it was the truth, and the sooner he realized it, the better. “She wants an ornament, something for show. And you are famous and renowned, and cultured, and gifted, and all that…and so she wants to flaunt you the way one might flaunt a prize steed. And she’s afraid her great-grandmother’s secret will come out, and that you can somehow deflect it. It’s my guess that those white dresses are her way of making a show of purity, so that people will not consider her besmirched by association with Salmë.”
I thought to myself that it didn’t help matters that Salmë looked little older than her great-granddaughter. If she had appeared an elderly woman, it might have been different. That people often took the two of them for sisters must have rankled with Aredhel’s soul…such as it was.
“What utter nonsense,” Rûdharanion said, but the words were as dead leaves before the wind. “You…you have no understanding of the situation whatsoever. You’re simply making groundless accusations that have absolutely no…no bearing on reality. Yes, yes, you can sit there, with those big puppy eyes, and look up at me with such…simple sincerity and, and earnestness, and humility, and all the rest of it, and hope to get to me…but I’m having none of it, understand? I simply refuse to listen to any more of this rubbish. Yes, I’m not beloved like you, and people don’t hang on my every word as they do to yours. But you’ll see. The subject is closed, and I will hear no more.”
I stood up once more and turned away. “I’m sorry,” I said once more, and meant it. “Please give the ladies my regrets.” I started to walk away, my throat tightening a little.
But: I had an idea.