This is the 2nd Airts tale; traditionally, the 1st airt was in the East, going clockwise around the cardinal directions, so this is one to do with the South, as Wil discovered it in Minas Tirith. For RiverOtter.
“Want t’ go out for a while?”
Wil shifted his head on the almost-flat pillow beneath it. “Riiiight,” he said without opening his eyes. “Let’s go to my home in Rohan by way of Far Harad and Lossoth.”
He could hear the faint creak as Rill moved his wheeled chair closer to the bed, and grunted at a pinch on his upper arm, opening his eyes to glare up at his friend.
“I’d thought you’d be long away by now,” he muttered, reluctant to show in any way the raw envy almost eating him alive. Rill had progressed in his muscle exercises enough to be able to not only sit up, but use this chair, while the only way Wil could sit, at a reclining angle, was by means of careful propping and with a strap around his chest. Lord Dalfinor had presented Rill with this improved moving chair that morning, and he had joyously sent it careening down the hallway, almost knocking into benches and tables as he learned to maneuver it.
“Nay, I had to wait. Look!”
Wil turned his head, and his eyes widened. Beside Rill’s chair was a small cart, painted green, with yellow wheels, and Rimbor, Lady Silma’s huge dog, standing in a green harness attached to the front.
“It’s like the one Master Clerk designed for himself,” said Rill in the reverent tone Lady Silma’s late husband’s name always evoked from him.
“Nice,” said Wil. Both the wheeled chair AND the cart? It’s not FAIR! he thought furiously, trying hard not to let his envious rage show.
“Time’s up!” Rill said.
“Feelin’ sorry for yourself. Look at the decoration on it, dolt! Does that look like a Gondorian cart—or one for summun from Rohan?”
That was when Wil noticed that the green was Rohirrim green, grass-green, not the darker hue of House Cormallen that Lady Silma favoured, and that there was a stylized white horse’s head painted on the side, framed in a familiar interlace pattern. The handle of the small door was also a horse’s head, and there was a padded seat inside with a reclined back.
“For—for me?” he whispered.
“Aye, for you! I told you I’d show you m’ city, ‘member? I had t’ wait for Lady Silma t’ get back with Rimbor. He’s a loan, mind, ‘til we c’n find and train a dog for you. Master Samno!”
“Ready t’ go, are ye?” asked Master Samno, bustling in with Ull, Wil’s grandfather, at his heels. Both men were beaming. “Lord Dalf worked out a kind o’ brake, same’s on a wagon, for the steep bits. See how it works?”
“Let’s get you inside, first,” suggested Ull, and in a few minutes, they had him propped, sitting and strapped, with a cloak around his shoulders, inside the cart. Cleverly, the brakes were handles down by his hands as they lay on the seat beside his body, just in reach of his fingers, and just the right size for the two fingers and thumb on each hand that he could move. He had no control to speak of over the rest, barely able to raise his right arm a few inches and his left not at all, but he could do this, and was soon demonstrating that. “But how do I make Rimbor go?” he asked. “I mean, if I’m by myself?” What a heady thought! Not to have to depend on anyone else!
“Just say so,” Rill told him. “We’ve been a-trainin’ o’ ‘im in Rohirric, same’s Westron, in case you forget an’ use your own tongue. He’s real smart!”
“I know that,” said Wil. “Well, are you going to show me any of this city, or do I have to wait ‘til we’re both greybeards?”
“You can go now,” Master Samno said.
“May I, Grandfather?” Wil asked in his own language, looking up at Ull.
The old warrior smiled. “Aye, son of my son, ‘tis time for you to venture without my leading-strings. You have proven yourself a Man on this journey. Just don’t get too over-tired, and be back before sunset.”
Rimbor pulled the cart easily into the hallway from the parlor, where the rest of the household, except for Ladies Silwen adn Silma, and Lords Erragol, Dalfinor and Gimli were gathered to see them off.
Rill said, “’Twas Lady Gil’s idea, Wil.”
Wil looked up at the young Gondorian noblewoman and inclined his head, the closest he could get to bowing now. “My thanks, Lady Gilannis,” he said earnestly.
She blushed, but glanced at Rill. “I knew the two of you should go out together."
Rhylla said, "You’re steady 'nuff t' keep Rill from a-goin' too fast—an' 'e did promise you."
Lady Gil added, "All I did was suggest the cart; Lord Dalf, Ull, Rill and Samno did the rest. Have a good time, but don’t get too tired or chilled.”
“Aye, nurse,” grinned Rill saucily.
Master Samno rapped the top of his head with his knuckles. “Mind your manners, lad,” he said gruffly. “G’wan now!”
Grinning, Nehemion opened the front door with a flourish, and helped Master Samno and Ull lift the cart down the steps to the pavement, as soon as they moved Rill.
After being cooped up in the Houses of Healing and then in House Ornamir for weeks ven before it became the Dwarven embassy of Hammer & Forge, Wil was unprepared for what he saw. Yes, there was more white stone than he’d ever seen--cornices, staircases, porches, plazas, walls, paving, pillars, flower-boxes, wells, fountains, turrets and columns, but he was cheered by the amount of green, too, for there were carefully-fostered trees (although not large ones), shrubs, and flowers, and the people going about their business were clad in many colours and fashions. Rill’s sister Rhylla had told him that Prince Legolas, the Elf, and Lord Panhael, one of the Ringbearers, were determined to make the city even greener. Almost everyone walked, and those few who did not either used hired palanquins carried by pole-men, most in their own city livery, or were warriors on horseback in the black-and-silver of Gondor’s army or the blue and white of the Swan Knights. He saw few carts, but Rill explained that they mostly came and went at certain times making deliveries, early or late in the day, in order not to get in the way of the pedestrians. “Some o’ the wealthy ‘ave carriages an’ coaches down in the First Circle,” he told him. “That’s where the Rohir horses are, in the public stables near the Great Gates.”
“Everything’s so shiny,” Wil marveled. It wasn’t the exact word he wanted, but close.
“Clean, aye,” Rill nodded. “That’s one reason why we allow so few horses durin’ the day, an’ those on wagons ‘ave to ‘ave the bum-bucket on.”
“Well, not really a bucket, but a sort o’ small trough affixed t’ the front of the wagon or cart or coach, so any manure or piss don’t befoul the ground an’ draw flies. Horse-Apple Yalamir collects and sells it.”
“Someone collects manure?” He found that funny.
“Why not? He makes ‘is livin’ from it, a-sellin’ it t’ some folk for their gardens, an’ summum might’s well get the use of it. The piss goes t’ the tanners. I ‘ear that in some other towns an’ cities, they’ve a real problem with flies an’ disease, not t’ mention all the muck when it rains.”
Wil was looking so much at all his surroundings that he was startled when they paused by a tower and a bell rang overhead. “What’s that?”
“This’s one o’ the Rambariad, the watchtowers on the inner walls,” Rill answered. “There’s eight o’ ‘em, an’ each ‘as a bell at the top. They’re rung on the hour—which is now—an’ three times ‘alf a candle-mark after sunset as they get ready t’ close the gates. This’s ‘ow we get up an’ down from one circle to the next. Ah, ‘ere we go! Just follow me.” He wheeled through a wide gateway in the tall marble tower. Rimbor followed. Wil saw that they were on a sort of landing. In the center was a large lift piled with boxes and barrels, slowly rising towards them from below. To the left was a ramp, with a woman walking up it, along with two children. Rill had gone to the right, and was going down another ramp. A uniformed guard, with a large key embroidered on his tunic’s badge, standing just inside the doorway said to Wil, “D’you ‘ave brakes on that ‘ere cart?”
“Aye, I do.”
“Can you put ‘em on, just a little?”
“All right. I’ll walk ‘longside you, t’ be sure that ‘tis slow enough. But where’s the brake? I don’t see no lever.”
“Down here, next to my hands.”
“What? Why ain’t it normal? What’s wrong with you, boy?”
Wil could feel his scalp prickling, his face reddening.
“This is no boy, Doorwarden!” said another voice, and both looked up at Faramir, standing a few feet higher than they were on the ramp. The guard –no, doorwarden— immediately stiffened to attention, with a muttered, “M’lord!”
“This is a Rohir warrior, wounded while saving all of us, as his friend was in defending the Great Gates. You are Rider Wilmet, yes?”
“Aye, Lord Faramir,” Wil said, ducking his head.
The Acting Steward bowed. “It is a joy to see you well enough to be out and about. Is this your first venture into our city? Greetings, Rimbor!” The big dog waged his tail in response.
“Aye, my lord. Rill wanted to show it me.”
“Then we shall not detain you further. Are these the new brakes Jehan Clerk devised?”
“I think ‘twas Lord Dalfinor and Master Samno,” Wil said faintly.
"Based on one of Master Clerk’s designs,” called Rill from below, struggling to go upwards but rolling back with a muffled, “Curse it!”
“Ingenious! Our thanks for your being willing to try out something that will help so many others. Doorwarden, see that the word goes out to all the rambaraid: if any of the veteran soldiers require aid to negotiate the ramps, or wish to use the lifts, they are to receive it at once. Do you understand?”
“Yes, m’lord,” said the now red-faced doorwarden.
“And I thank you for your service in the siege. Where were you stationed?”
“At Kalarómen Tower, m’lord.”
“Ah, they saw fierce fighting there, I heard.”
“Six o’ m’ mates died, m’lord. All o’ us was wounded.”
“But you are fit for duty now?”
“Aye, m’lord! Rider, I ‘pologize for m’ hasty words. I just—I just want things t’ be like they was, before.” His voice almost cracked on the last word.
“So do I!” said Wil, from his heart.
“But you’ll see to that message being sent?” Faramir pressed.
“I will, m’ lord, soon’s the Rider ‘ere’s on ‘is way,” promised the guard.
“And speaking of that, I must be on mine,” smiled Faramir, and with a nod to each, walked on down, pausing to say something in an undertone to Rill, who sat waiting until they joined them. By then the Steward had disappeared.
The guard, whose name was Clendin, apologized once more, saluted them, and hurried up the other ramp to follow his new order. Wil wondered why he hadn’t simply turned and gone back up the one they’d used, then realized that keeping the traffic flow unimpeded was the reason. He directed Rimbor outside, and both boys paused off to one side.
“So where are we now?” Wil asked. “I’m a little confused.”
“Fifth Circle,” Rill said promptly. “Just one below where we started. Come over this way.”
Rimbor followed him, drawing Wil after him.
Wil gasped. They had entered a square lined with low, well-proportioned buildings, allowing spectacular views across the Pelennor, with a lofty spire to one side.
“This is Pheig Araneir,” Rill said proudly. “See, there’s the ‘Ouse o’ Tapestries, an’ Hallathôl, the rambarad down t’ the next level. You can tell which one ‘tis, ‘cos it ‘as that ‘elm carved over the entrance. Some folks nickname it the High-hat Tower.”
For a time they were silent. Wil was delighted at the chance to look out at a wide panorama; accustomed to the plains of his homeland, he had not realized how he had minded the narrow confines of rooms. Unconsciously, he drew a deep breath and smiled.
Then he heard Rill sigh, and noticed that his friend’s jaw was tight. “You are in pain?”
“No, only—it used t’ be so fair an’ green, the Pelennor, all fields an’ orchards. They ha’ worked hard to get rid o’ the trenches an’ bodies an’ carcasses o’ them beasts—you c’n see that the mound where they covered over the Fell Beast that Lady Wraithbane slew won’t show even a blade o’ grass, even though the one where the fallen Men was laid is beginnin’ t’ green, an’ the one above Shadowfax an’ t’other horses of the Mark that fell.”
“Where is Lefólas. Rill?” Wil asked abruptly.
“You know, I told you about my horse. Where is Lefólas?”
“I don’t know, truly. Your granddad ain’t mentioned ‘im. We c’n go down another day to the stables.”
“Why not now?” demanded Wil. How could he have forgotten his mount, his beautiful gelding? What kind of horseman was he, not to think first about his horse?
“’Cos th’ only way we got out of the house was for me t’ swear I wouldn’t take you too far or get you too tired.”
“I want to go!”
“O’ course you do,” Rill agreed. “An’ we will, only not t’day. I promised, an’ we got t’ stick to it.”
“I made no promise,” Wil argued.
“Nor you didn’, but I did. Would you have me foresworn? Look, Wil, I understand how you feel, but ‘f we don’t act sensible now, they won’t let you out again for a long time. Master Kinfinning wasn’t too happy ‘bout this, an’ nor was Ull, but Lady Silma said as ‘ow you needed the change, an’ so did I.”
“You could have gone sooner!” Wil realized suddenly.
Rill brushed it aside. “Not ‘thout you, I couldn’t. Never you mind ‘bout that! We’re ‘ere now, an’ we’ll go further the next time. You ‘old your ‘orses—“ and he laughed at the wordplay.
“Is that you, Rill?” asked another voice.
Wil found himself looking up—and up—at one of the tallest youths he’d ever seen, a young man in a red tunic, and another, shorter but in brown, at his side.
“Well-met!” Rill was saying, and there was a brief back-slapping and babble of news, before he added, “This’s m’ friend an’ shield-brother, Wil o’ Rohan, wounded like I was, only in the battle, not the siege. Wil, these are two of m’ old friends, Arthormer, an’ Pallin.”
Arthormer bowed. “We are ever at the service of those who saved us.”
Pallin grinned. “You c’n tell he’s a poet, can’t you? At your service, Wil o’ Rohan. So why’re you out slummin’, Rill?”
“That’s a joke, Wil; Pallin fancies himself a wit. The Place o’ Beauty’s the most high-priced market in the city. We came so’s Wil c’uld see the view.”
“Not much t’ see now,” sighed Arthormer.
“Still better’n ‘twas,” Pallin pointed out. “An’ ‘twill get better yet. I ‘eared that that one perian, Lord Panhael, might be able t’ help. Folks say as ‘e was a gardener in ‘is own land.”
Arthromer sniffed. “Oh, come on, Pallin! ‘S if a great warrior and lord like him would dirty his hands in a garden!”
“But he is, in his own land,” Wil said. “Lord Gimli told us.”
“But I’m writing an epic about him and the others,” protested Arthormer. “All about their prowess in battle and noble sacrifices!”
Rill laughed. “An’ I ‘spose you just happen t’ ‘ave part o’ it with you for us to ‘ear, don’t you?”
“I might,” admitted Arthormer, adding, “but reading aloud’s thirsty work!”
“So’s listenin’ t’ your tortured rhymes,” Pallin said, nimbly dodging the mock-slap his friend aimed at him. “Let’s go t’ Ornen’s for an ale, ‘f we got t’ ‘ear it.”
Wil enjoyed going through the rows of stalls, glimpsing all kinds of fripperies and goods as they passed. Ornen’s, he discovered, was a small ancient building, or rather, was a tavern in the basement of that building, off a narrow slit of an alley and down a steep flight of uneven, worn steps. The cart would never fit, and the boys regretfully informed him that Ornen hated dogs and wouldn’t allow Rimbor inside. They could carry Rill down, but what about Wil?
“Bring me some ale and some water for Rimbor,” he said cheerfully. “I can wait here. I’ve been inside so much, I’d rather stay outdoors for a while.”
“Are you sure, Wil?” Rill asked. He was clearly itching for a chance to spend some time with his friends.
“Aye, I’m sure,” he answered truthfully, for suddenly he was eager to just sit by himself and lose himself in that view. He thought he could see hills on the horizon; surely they had crossed some, beyond the river, on the way to the battle? And on the other side, miles to the north, lay Rohan!
“I’ll bring the ale and water in just a minute,” Rill promised, and was borne off by his friends, already chattering volubly.
After all, why should Wil sit inside, listening to them joke and chatter about people and places he didn’t know?
But time passed—more than the minute—and no one came with the water and ale. Rimbor lay down in the shafts, nose on his paws, and after a time, Wil looked around. He could see a booth nearby, but in a space between it and where he was, a merchant had laid out a square of carpet.
Wil had seen carpets in Lady Silwen’s mansion, but this one was even more brightly coloured than hers, with fringed ends, and a design of climbing vines that twisted around fantastic birds and animals such as he had never seen. The merchant sat cross-legged in the center, his goods—a brazier on a piece of flat rock, a small sack of charcoal, and some covered baskets and pots—neatly arranged in front of him. He was dressed differently than anyone else, in a flowing robe of several shades of red and black, with a sort of rolled and draped head-dress hiding most of his black hair; the head-dress’ whiteness was a sharp contrast to his greyish face, with its deepset red-brown eyes and hawklike nose (that appeared to have been broken more than once). Wil had never seen anyone so dark nor with a puckered hole in one cheek, and wondered where he had come from. Sitting in the sunshine, tired from the unusual activity and excitement, the young Rider dozed.
“What kind o’ trash is this?” asked a nasal voice in accented Westron.
Wil blinked at two youths, both solidly built and wearing worn leather jerkins over their tunics, with dirty-blond hair and beards.
“Fried rat, I guess,” said the other, who had large ears standing out like the handles of a jar.
“Shouldn’t be ‘lowed, heathen Southron a-sellin’ rat!” said Nosy.
“You try food?” asked the vendor.
“Think I want t’ pizen m’self?” jeered Jug-ears.
Couldn’t pay me t’ eat it—hey, there’s an idea! You sh’ld pay us!” Nosey held out his hand. “Pay up! Give us your gold!”
The vendor looked up at him, shaking his head.
He’s foreign, like me, Wil thought. Mayhap he doesn’t understand.
Jug-ears swung one foot to kick at the nearest basket.
The next second, he was lying on his back, clutching his knee, grunting with pain; the vendor had grabbed his foot, and with a dexterous twist, toppled him.
“Orc-scum!” snarled Nosy, as a knife appeared in his hand.
“Leave him be!” Wil suddenly realized the order had come from—himself!
Nosy turned to him, knife glinting. Somehow it seemed much larger niw.
“Wot’s this, some Rohan crippled brat actin’ like 'e’s a warrior? Go back to your beggin’, boy!”
Rimbor stood up and growled.
“I’m not begging, and I am a warrior,” Wil said coldly. “I also know many other horse-warriors. Do you want to be trampled? I can arrange that. We have a term in my country: ‘torn limb from limb.’ What we do is tie a man’s arms to one horse, and his legs to another, and have them gallop in different directions—“
Jug-ears had lurched to his feet and was clutching at Nosey’s arm. “Let’s go! ‘S not worth it! C’mon!”
“This ain’t the end o’ this, gimp!” Nosey warned him, and the two hurried off.
Someone laughed, and Wil saw that it came from the vendor, who bowed as he touched his hand to his forehead, lips and chest.
“My thanks, noble horse-lord!”
“I’m not noble nor a lord, just a boy,” said Wil hastily.
“Kindness is a noble virtue, be a man high- or lowborn,” the man replied. “They are cowards, them. With knowing a witness, they felt fear and ran.” He spat on the cobbles, then rose effortlessly. “Will your friend permit?” A graceful hand indicated Rimbor.
“A small reward for your act. I mean you no harm.”
“I don’t need anything!”
“You sit in hot sun. Want you red skin?”
Wil wrinkled his nose, and realized that the skin on it and his face felt tighter than usual.”Oh, sunburn! I can move. Rimbor, turn!”
The dog tried, then twisted his head to look back at him.
Wil had forgotten the brakes. “Sorry, boy,” he said contritely, and released them. With a few directions, Rimbor moved them both into the shade of a large tree nearby.
The vendor asked, “You thirst? Is juice only, of orange. Strength gives, in my land.”
Wil said slowly, “I can’t do more’n twiddle these fingers. But if you’d fetch Rimbor some water?
The man nodded, and soon came back with a pan of clean water from the fountain, and a flagon and cup from his own stores. “May I assist?”
At Wil’s nod, after Rimbor sniffed the drink in a carved wooden goblet the vendor held out to him, the man held it to Wil’s lips so he could drink it. It was cold and tangy, a relief in his dry mouth and throat. “My thanks, master!”
“I am Abdakil Achef, trader,” the Southron introduced himself.
“I’m Wilmet of Rohan,” Wil said. “Are you from Harad?”
“Nay, I am from Lâorkó, in Khând. You live here?”
“No, I came with Théoden King’s muster, with my grandfather Ull. We are staying at the House of Hammer and Forge that was House Ornamir in the Sixth Circle while we and six others of our éored get well.”
Wil explained about the arrogant healer who had evicted them, and Lady Silwen’s kindness. “This is Rimbor, Lady Silma Clerk’s dog. He belonged to her late husband, Jehan Clerk. He was crippled, and Rimbor drew him in a cart like this one.”
Suddenly everything blurred. The words seemed to echo in the air: He was crippled, and Rimbor drew him in a cart like this one. Like me. I’m crippled. I’m not getting better. They’re looking for another big dog, for me. How can I ride a horse without being able to mount and hold the reins? I’ve lost my Lefólas; will I ever have another? How can I be me without a horse? It was hard to breathe….
A cool hand touched his cheek, pressed more firmly. The panic receded. Wil blinked back those traitorous tears and looked up into the dark still face above his. “He’s just a loan, though.” Had he spoken aloud, about being permanently helpless?
“Do you like tales, Wil of Rohan?” was the unexpected question.
“Aye, I do.”
“Good. We trade, yes?”
Wil nodded, but before he could say anything, he heard hurrying footsteps and turned his head. Rill was hastening towards him as fast as he could roll his chair, his face filled with dismay. “Wil! Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Wil answered. “This is Abdakil Achef, from Khand. May I present Rill of Gondor, my shield-brother?”
“Honoured to serve,” bowed Achef.
“Erm—at your service an’ your family’s,” Rill said hastily. “Wil, I’m so sorry I forgot t’ bring out your ale!”
“You were talking with your friends,” Will said.
“Aye, an’ I forgot all ‘bout my promise. Please forgive me! Let me bring you some now! You must be fair parched!”
“Master Achef gave me some of his orange drink, and got some water for Rimbor, so we’re fine. Very refreshing, that drink.”
Achef bowed again. “My pleasure to serve.”
“My thanks t’ you, master! But we need t’ go, Wil, or we’ll be late back.”
“Farewell, Master Achef,” Wil said hastily; Rimbor was already in motion after Rill’s retreating back.
“Another day, Rider,” Achef replied.
Clendin willingly let them use the lift to ascend the rambarad, cutting off a few precious seconds as they almost raced to the house. They found a small ramp over the outside steps, and Nehemion, Ull, Samno, and Lord Dalf waiting.
To Rill’s embarrassment, he could not roll his chair up it; his arms were visibly trembling as he tried. “Sorry,” he muttered as Nehemion wheeled him up with a grunt.
Dalf made a notation on his tablets. “Nay, ‘tis as I thought; the angle’s too sharp and steep. Mayhap we need a longer, more gradual one. Inclines have their own rules, you see.”
Wil didn’t, but was glad that Rimbor was there to tug him up it and inside, and down the hall into the parlor.
As he was deftly transferred to lie on his pallet, and the cart led away for Rimbor’s unharnessing, he found himself and Rill surrounded by eager questions about where they’d been and what they’d done.
“Lady Silma wants t’ see Rill in the study,” Rhylla said, sweeping in. She smiled down at Wil. “Did you ‘ave fun, then, Wil?”
He grinned back at her. “I want to go again tomorrow!”
“Sounds like you did!” she laughed, and pushed Rill out of the room.
“We’ll see,” said Ull, sitting down next to him. “Now, the rest of you, be quiet and let the lad draw a quiet breath. Are you hungry, Wil?” Almost casually, he reached out to take his pulse. “’Tis fast,” he noted anxiously.
Lord Erragol laid a hand on his shoulder and smiled down at Wil. “Must be the excitement; his color and breath are good.”
“I’m right here,” Wil remarked. He did so hate being talked over, as if he was deaf or not there at all!
“So you are. Do you want to tell us about it?” Ull asked.
So Wil recounted; the rest of the Rohirrim listened intently, interested in his description of the rambaraid, and all agreeing that they were a clever way of controlling traffic and access to the various levels of the city. He noticed that Roden had sighed with relief when he heard how Lord Faramir had said that they would be given assistance in using the ramps and lifts; he was learning to use crutches, but they had not been able to devise a comfortable new foot for him yet.
Almost all of them agreed that it had been a good first outing—the exception being Ull. His eyes narrowed with anger. “So Rill went off and left you alone, did he?” he growled.
“Grandfather, I told you! The cart wouldn’t fit down there, and the taverner wouldn’t allow dogs!” Wil said. “It wasn’t Rill’s fault!”
“He abandoned you! Fine behavior, to go off and leave you alone! If he was whole, I’d thrash him!”
“Or if you were!”
There was a dead silence. Very few mentioned the loss of Ull’s thumb; his shoulder was almost healed, but nothing could replace his thumb, sheared off by the same orkish war-axe that had injured his shoulder and cloven his shield.
Ull glowered at him as Wil quailed, expecting a solid slap for such impertinence. Instead, the old man stood up and walked out of the room. Wil wished he could turn over, or even put one arm over his face so no one could see the tears in his eyes. Rather suddenly, he slid into sleep.
When he woke late in the day, his grandfather was seated in his old place, dozing, and Rill had been moved to the other end of the room, next to the twins. When the food was brought, Wil turned his face away when Ull attempted to feed him.
“Wilmet, it is time for the day-meal,” his grandfather said. “Come, it will grow cold.”
Wil kept his face stubbornly turned away. “Not hungry,” he muttered.
It was the same the next morning. He refused to break his fast, despite the loud gurgling of his stomach. Clamping his jaws shut, he resisted, eyes closed. Again at noon, the war of wills continued between the two.
In midafternoon, Ull hurried out to use the necessary, and as soon as he had, Rill, back in his chair, wheeled it closer to Wil’s pallet. “Wil, please eat!” he begged. “You’ll get sick ‘f you don’t!”
“Please! Why are you a-doin’ this? ‘Twon’t ‘elp none! You got t’ eat!”
“Go ‘way.” Wil closed his eyes.
A roar split the air. “What’re you doing with my grandson, you stoneheaded fool?”
Ull was back, furious. As Rill began to roll away, the Rohirric rider shoved the chair hard from one side.
Unprepared for the onslaught, Rill fell out of it, cracking his head against the wall with a sickening thud.
Minutes later, Rill was lying flat on his own pallet, Lady Silma leaning over him for a hasty examination. A folding screen was brought and put around it; Wil watched anxiously as Master Kinfinning, summoned from the Houses of Healing, Ladies Silma and Silwen, and Master Samno, moved out from and back behind it. Rhylla was sobbing in the hall, Lady Gilannis attempting to soothe her.
Finally, Lady Silwen stepped out and told them, “He’ll be all right, we think. A lump as big as a pony’s horseshoe on his noggin, but it will mend. No concussion, and probably no lasting harm. But if the rest of you would kindly clear the room, we intend to have a discussion with Riders Wilmet and Ull. Rhylla will continue to monitor Rill.”
“I think I should remain as well,” said Lord Erragol.
Lady Silwen inclined her head. “As their commanding officer, perhaps—if you will do so without interference.”
He bowed his agreement.
In the end, it was Lady Silwen, Lord Erragol in the background, Master Kinfinning, lady Silma and Ull who gathered around Wil, who’d been propped up for the meeting.
Lady Silwen began it, speaking more formally than he had ever heard her. “Riders of Rohan, you have been welcome guests in this House. We are very aware of all we owe you, collectively and individually, for your brave defense of our city. It seemed little enough, to aid your recovery within our walls; we have been honoured to do so.”
“And we’re grateful, my ladies,” Ull said hurriedly.
“But,” added Lady Silma, and her voice, usually so warm, was glacial, “we cannot have brawling that results in injuries to those here. We will not tolerate it! For shame, Ull son of Ulrik, for the poor example you are setting! Now, I grant you that Rill can be trying at times—“
“He abandoned Wil!”
“Stop it!” Lady Silwen looked at Ull with such ferocity that he retreated a step. “Did I ask you to speak? Did I?”
“No,” he mumbled.
She took a deep breath. “Then keep a still tongue in your head until I do! As I was saying, Rill can be trying at times. All boys can and are; it’s part of their growing up. So can girls, for that matter. However. Wil, did you at any time feel threatened while you were on your own?”
“Nay, m’lady. I asked Rill to leave me.”
“Why, Wil?”she asked.
“Does it matter?” Ull demanded impatiently.
Lady Silwen fixed him with green eyes glowing hot as coals. “Lord Erragol, have we your permission to gag Ull if he doesn’t stop interrupting?”
“Absolutely,” said Erragol. “Either or both of them, in fact.” His scowl made Wil swallow.
“Both of you, be quiet!” said Lady Silwen.
That’s not fair, Wil thought, I haven’t said anything!
“And don’t you be so self-righteous, either, Wilmet!”she snapped. “Answer me. And Ull, listen carefully to his words!”
“Nay, my lady, I didn’t,” Wil said. “I’d asked him to go. Why shouldn’t he visit with his friends? He’s been cooped up here with us all this while, and lots of times we were talking around him in our tongue. I wanted him to leave me alone.”
“Why?” asked Lady Silma again.
“Because I—I wanted some time alone. I wanted to just look at the view, out towards the hills, towards home. I don’t know when I’ll go there again, if I’ll be allowed to go when they take Theóden King home. And I just wanted some time by myself. Everybody’s so worried about me—and I appreciate it, really, most of the time—but I miss…”
“What?” Her voice was very soft.
“I miss being me!” he burst out. “I miss running! I miss my horse! I miss lifting whatever I want to, to my own mouth! I miss scratching when I itch! I miss sitting up without thinking about it! I miss taking care of myself, and being part of things! I miss being me! What’ll become of me, when you all go down to the camps? What’ll happen to me when you all go home? I can’t stay here forever! And if I did go home, what’d I do there? What’s my life going to be? I just wanted to sit for a bit and pretend it hadn’t happened! I used to be Wilmet of Rohan, one of the Riders! I was the youngest, but I think I won the right to ride with you honestly. And now what am I? You can’t treat me like I was, and I don’t feel like a babe, even if I’m as helpless as one! You’d never have yelled at me that I have no right to any time on my own before, Grandfather! And you wouldn’t have let me talk to you the way I did! You won’t even tell me the truth about Lefólas! I know he’s dead; why can’t you just tell me so?”
“Because he isn’t,” Ull said thickly. “Bad hurt, and he’ll never have the looks he did, but Lady Silwen’s been seeing to his care herself. We’ll let you see him soon. You’ve been so good, lad, and I just didn’t want to tell you until we were sure he’d recover. You’re all I have left! I guess maybe I have hovered over you a bit—”
“Near smothered the boy, more like,” Master Samno, who’d somehow insinuated himself into the room, said softly.
Ull glanced at him, and nodded. “I’ve been so proud of your courage, Wil, but aye, you’re right, I have been treating you like a child. It was easier. And I could spend all my time worrying about you and not think how I’d never draw a bow nor grip a weapon again myself. I’m sorry.”
“So am I,” said Wil. His grandfather wiped his eyes for him and then his own.
“Wilmet, you did win the right to ride with us,” Lord Erragol said quietly. “I’d be proud to have both of you under my command again. I do not know the answer to your questions, for any of us, but I pledge you that we will find out. You will not be abandoned in a strange land among strangers. We will find a way for you to be yourself, whatever that self becomes.”
“But it will take much discussion and some exploring,” Lady Silma told them. “Meanwhile, I want your promises, both of you, that you will talk with each other and us about your concerns. No more penning them up inside you to fester into rage and sulkiness!"
Lady Silwen added, "If you want to be treated as an adult, Wil, you must act like one, and you as well, Ull. No more brawling! You owe Rill an apology.”
“I never meant to hurt him,” Ull said shamefacedly. “He’s been a good friend to us both. I was young once, and fond of my friends and ale, too.”
“You were, Grandfather?”
“On a hot day, aye, I liked a sip or two.”
“You were young once?” Wil’s voice was limpidly innocent, and everyone laughed, including Ull, as he rapped the top of his grandson’s head with his knuckles.
“Aye, you young imp, I was! Hard as it must be for you to imagine it, I was young once too! I said you need to go out away from me, and you do, but try not to get into too much trouble, aye?”
“I won’t. May I have something to eat, please?”
“I’ll go fetch it,” said Master Samno.
That evening, Rill and Wil were moved upstairs to a big room of their own. And the next morning, they were allowed to go out again, Rill in his chair and Wil in the cart with Rimbor. Both boys had asked Ull to go with them, but he declined. “You two go on.”
"Where shall we go?" Wil wondered. "The plaza again?"
"D' you mind 'f we don't go there 'til next time?" Rill asked. "I got an errand t' do, an' it might take a bit o' time. I want t' give Lady Silma a gift for Rhylla an' me, afore they goes off t' Ithilien tomorrow."
The outings became a daily occurrence, each one a bit longer and farther. Each time they went briefly first to the Pheig Araneir, long enough to greet Achef; Wil would stare at the view while Rill hurried to and from the tavern with two cups of ale. Sometimes Achef would give them samples of his foods or some fruit juices, and they would chat with him, trading tales from Rohan, Gondor, Harad and Khand.
Wil was very happy the day they went to the First Circle, going straight to the stables. Lefólas was brought out to him by a grinning ostler. His head was scarred, but he moved freely enough, if a bit slowly. He nickered in recognition, and nosed affectionately at his rider. Wil managed to fumble a few honey-drops from a small box for him. All too soon, they had to leave him and begin the trip upward to the house, but Wil felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from his heart.
Among the things he liked in Pheig Araneir were the large animals carved on one side of a building near Achef’s area. One day he triumphantly went down to the square by himself; Rill had gone to visit his old barrack-mates, and Ull had agreed that he could venture down on his own. For a time he stared out over the view as he always did, and looked at the statues. “Master Achef, what are those creatures?” he asked. “You have pictures of them woven into your rug, too.”
“Not many notice,” said the Khandian. “They are rálimbar, lions. Here they were called the Royal Lions, because they were part of the royal bodyguard of Gondor.”
Scenting a story, Wil asked, “Please, tell me.”
“In my country it is said that long ago, as part of tribute from Harandor, certain families would provide trainers and lions from the mountains of northern Khand and southern Ithilien, to train them for war and for guarding the Kings of Gondor. They have long claws and fangs, good climbers and stalkers.There is also a strain of the desert lions from Harad, hence the manes on both males and females. Paired they were with part of the King’s guard, and given red surcoats trimmed in gold. Bonded with their Men, in battle or rest they were liquid sun in stone.”
Liquid sun in stone. Wil liked the way that sounded. “My thanks,” he said as two women came up to buy a drink.
For a while he sat in the dappled shade, thinking of the lions, long sinewy bodies clad in red velvet edged in gold, tawny manes blowing in the wind, until his eyes grew heavy and he dozed.
He was roused a while later by a whispered argument.
“—I tell you, ‘tis pointless! Nobody c’n get in there!”
“’F they’s a way in, they’s a way out, fool! An’ ‘e’ll pay us ‘igh!”
“’Tis always locked, an’ word is, ‘e’s spells on it. I don’t want t’ spend m’ life hoppin’ in some pond, ‘cos ‘e’ll make us frogs ‘f ‘e catches us, sure!”
“That grey foreigner ain’t no mage! You’re so craven, I wonder why I bother wi’ ye!”
Wil cracked his eyeslids open a slit. Few people realized how keen his hearing was, even in this noisy city. One of the Riders closest to him in age, Rafi, had lost his sight after a gash over his eyes, and Elof, one of the young twins, who had lost one eye, worried about someday losing the sight in the other as well. Lady Silma had set them exercises, and asked Wil to participate.
“It’s my body doesn’t move, not my eyes,” he had said ungraciously.
“Aye, but it might help them. You all need to find new ways to go beyond your bodies’ limitations,” she had said. “Things can always be worse, Wil. How if you too could not see?”
So, reluctantly at first, he had consented.
I’ve heard those voices before, he thought now.
They were several yards away, leaning on the wall with their backs to most of the plaza, at an angle to him, but he could hear them clearly. For a moment more they argued, then slouched away.
Wil was still thinking about what he had heard when Achef came over to him with a cool drink of blended Southron juices. “What upsets you, Horse-friend?”
He blinked. “Why do you think I am upset? You couldn’t see my face until just now.”
“One sees that when you are worried, you chew your lip and rub your fingers together.”
“No, I don’t. Rub my fingers together, I mean. You know I can’t move.”
Achef set down the drink on the ground, and lifted Wil’s right hand. “These two fingers, you rub,” he said, and moved his ring and shortest fingers together; the smallest finger quivered slightly. “So.”
“But I can’t feel them! I can only move my thumb and first two,” he protested.
“Try. Do not think of them—think only your thoughts before I spoke,” Achef directed.
Those churls mean someone harm, Wil thought—and cried out in amazement as those two fingers moved!
Rill heard as he approached, and pushed his chair faster, the muscles bunching on his bared forearms. “Wil! What is it?”
“Look! I can’t feel them, but look!”
“They’re movin’!” Rill gasped. He had slopped some ale from the mug he was carrying in his lap, but didn’t care. “’Ere, we got t’ go show Lady Silwen an’ your granddad! This’s wonderful!”
Rimbor had turned his head to watch, alerted by their tones, and barked once, as if in agreement.
“Thank you for noticing, Master Achef!” said Wil.
“You would have, soon enough,” smiled the Southron.
“Come with us!” Rill invited him.
“I cannot.” The Southron shook his head and walked back to his carpet.
“Why not?” wondered Rill.
“He’s looking for something, or someone,” Wil answered.
“’Ow do you know that?” Rill asked.
“I just do, from the way he looks at people. He doesn’t put his carpet in the best place to catch customers’ eyes, but where he can see most of the square. Never mind that now! Home, Rimbor! Take me back to the House, quick!”
“I have heard of this happening sometimes,” Lady Silwen said after the excited boys returned and Wil showed his new accomplishment, first to her and his grandfather, and later to Master Kinfinning, who nodded.
“There is so much we do not know about the human body,” he said. “I saw this with one patient, who was completely without sensation except for one spot on his upper arm, and another on the opposite calf. His wife rubbed them often, and I suggested massage to help keep the muscles from shrinking, and one day, to our amazement, he too moved—but in his case, it was his toe. If he had not died a short time later from lung fever, who knows what other progress he might have made?”
“I knew a harper,” Master Kinfinning said. “She had a brainstorm while at a harvest dance I attended, and I went to her at once. For a time she was sorely ill in the Houses, but later I visited her in her home. She was playing her harp, but told me that she had to watch her left hand, the side most affected by the brainstorm, in order to place her fingers correctly on the strings. When she was cooking, her daughter had devised a kind of thick mitt to wear over that hand, for she had burned it more than once, unable to feel the pain even when it blistered from hot pans pulled from the oven. Yet she told me that even the movement of the gentlest breezes on the back of her hand felt at is someone held a lit splinter against it and drew it along the skin. She could not bear a sleeve on that arm to the elbow, even on the coldest day. She gave her double-harp to her granddaughter, for it had become too difficult for her to play it, although she could manage a single-course one as well as ever, if she watched her left hand.”
“Who knows what you will be able to do now, Wil?” Ull said excitedly.
“But do not get your hopes up overmuch,” Master Kinfinning cautioned. “This may be the extent of it; you may not be able to do it on the morrow. Slow and steady is the best progress, lad.”
Wil grinned at him. “If I could learn to train a horse—and I did—I can learn to train my muscles over time, even if I cannot feel them. I’m indebted to Master Achef for noticing!”
“I still don’t understand why he would not come with you,” Ull complained. “Surely he doesn’t have so much custom he could not have come, and I should like to thank him.”
“'E's lookin' for summat,” Rill said.
“And so is someone else,” Wil remembered. “I forgot—before he came over, I got upset because I overheard those two from the first time I went there, the two who harassed us that first time, arguing about something they mean to do, something bad.”
“What kind of something?” Lady Silwen asked.
“And why did it upset you?” Ull demanded.
“Because I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop them,” Wil said, frustrated all over again. “Even the fear of magic isn’t stopping them.”
“Magic?” repeated Ull, frowning.
“Whose magic?” Gilannis asked.
“I don’t know. Someone who could turn them into frogs. A grey-faced Man, someone powerful.”
“Or whom they think is powerful,” Lady Silwen said thoughtfully.
“Well, you listened and told us,” said Master Kinfinning.
“But what can we do, ‘thout knowin’ more?” Rill asked.
Lady Silwen smiled. “I can, and will, write a note to Lord Húrin to alert the guards and doorwards. After all, the safety of the city is his concern. Now, boys, after all that excitement, I think you should have trays here and make an early night of it. You’re both tired.”
“All right,” said Rill.
Wil, about to protest, looked at him openmouthed, but the older boy slightly shook his head, so Wil closed his mouth and nodded.
After they were tucked into their beds and left alone, he raised his head. “Why were you so meek?”
“I wouldn’t say I was meek,” Rill objected. “But the end result’d be the same, only with more ruckus, an’ I wanted to think.”
“I don’t think they believe us,” Wil mutterd resentfully.
“Lady Silwen’s a-sendin’ the note. ‘F she says she will, she’ll do it.”
“And what good’s that going to do? The Watch, doorwards and guards can’t be everywhere!”
“That’s why we need t’ think,” Rill said patiently. “I been tryin’ t’ work out ‘oo they might be meanin’. ‘Ooever ‘tis, he’s powerful an’ ‘as magic. Can’t be Mithrandir, ‘cos everybody knows ‘e’s powerfulest of any wizard, sorcerer or mage in Arda, wot with ‘ow ‘e fought for the city. ‘Sides, ‘e’s mostly up at the Citadel these days. ‘At lets out ‘edge-wizards, which’re mostly in the country anyways, an’ narrows it down from most Men.”
“Well, that’s a help,” said Wil sarcastically. “So we know it isn’t a woman, and it isn’t weak Men without magic. Who’s that leave?”
“Master Clerk reasoned things out, an’ so c’n we,” Rill told him. “We can eliminate warriors.”
“We can? Why?”
“’Cos warriors rely on prowess with their weapons, don’t they?”
“And we can forget clerics, because they rely on their faith.”
“Well, good ‘uns do,” Rill allowed. “I’ve heared some tales ‘bout evil ‘uns in the service o’ the Dark Lord that’d curl your ‘air.”
“But he’s unbodied, and his power broken,” Wil objected. “Wouldn’t that take away their power too?”
“Prob’ly. Most crafts don’t ‘ave strong magic here, ‘cept smiths, o’ course.”
That made Wil think of something else. “What if it isn’t a Man? What if it’s someone from another Kindred?”
“Lords Gimli an’ Dalf?” asked Rill.
“Or the Elves, or the Halflings.”
“Elveses are thousands o’ years old; they’d be beyond those two louts! An’ Lord Legolas, an’ the twinses’re both warriors, they kilt ‘undreds o’ orcs, an’ they’re the King’s brothers up ‘ere in the Citadel.”
“But the Hobbits aren’t,” Wil pointed out. “They go wherever they want, anywhere in the City.”
There was a long silence. Rill sounded depressed when he said, ”An’ if we try t’ warn ‘em, why should they b’lieve us? After all they went through, they wouldn’t want t’ be kept close for their own safety.”
Another long silence. Wil lay on his back, as he always did, thinking of the glimpses he’d had of the four Hobbits, and what he’d heard about them. At last he said, “Rill? I don’t think we need to worry about them.”
“Because of who and what they are. They saved us, all of us. Harm one, or even seem as if you meant to, and everyone around them would rally to save them, even old women and little children. People love them. Even if someone managed to kidnap them, why, the whole City would rise, and all the Hosts outside! Mithrandir and the Elves and the King wouldn’t rest until they found them, and Prince Legolas and Lord Gimli too. They’re probably the safest beings in Minas Anor!”
“You may be right,” Rill said slowly. “But ‘oo’s that leave?”
Wil thought some more, until he fell asleep, and more the next day, and the next.
The answer came three days later, another time he was in the square. He pretended to be dozing, as he had so often; Rill was in the tavern, also pretending to doze or read. Both had enlisted the help of Rill’s old group of friends, and some of the younger members of the thangon he had been in, out of uniform. They had been going down to the square at different times of the day; this time, it was in late afternoon. The sun was declining; booths were being shut up for the night.
Once again, Wil heard low voices arguing, and identified them as Jug-ears and Nosy. But this time, when they left the square, he was able to get Rimbor to draw him after them. By now, he had gained so much more strength and control in his hands that he could move his arms somewhat, and when they reached a narrow space, he was able to lean forward and unhook Rimbor’s harness-band from around the dog’s middle. He was trying to reach the ones at his shoulders and front when Rill joined him.
Both boys had also been learning the Tree-men’s language of signs along with Rafi, Egil, and Egil’s twin Elof (who was partially deaf after losing an ear). Wil signed rapidly, as Rill undid the rest of the harness. Wil managed to transfer onto Rill’s lap on the roll-chair, hurriedly fastening a long thong already through the chair’s arms around his body as they had rehearsed, and Rill scribbled a hasty note that he fastened to Rimbor’s collar. The big dog licked his hand and silently ran off.
The boys continued, glad of the chair’s being so well made and oiled; it didn’t creak at all as Rill’s strong arms propelled them up an alley. It turned into steps, which brought them to a halt.
Wil knew that Rill was silently cursing, but he whispered into his ear, “Go back and left!”
He had studied and memorized the maps of the city that Rill had drawn, and felt his friend nod as he recalled an alternate route—if their quarry had gone where they surmised.
Minutes later, they paused again, and Wil strained his ears.
It took some maneuvering, but a a quarter of a candlemark later, they were on the other side of a large water-butt just inside a small courtyard from the two they had pursued.
“’Re you sure we should do this?” quavered Jug-ears.
“Baby!” jeered Nosy in a loud whisper that Rill could easily hear. “’Course we should! ‘Sides, ‘e won’t let us out of it, will ‘e? Kill ‘im so’s I c’n get the goods—or I’ll kill you. An’ you c’n bet ‘e will. Want t’ end up with your ‘eart torn out o’ your chest and a-sizzlin’ on ‘ot coals? I don’t! An’ ol’ Grey-Face should pay for ‘is badness. ‘Tain’t right, ‘is bein’ ‘ere! We got to!”
“Right. You got the stuff?”
“Aye. You got your tinderbox?”
Silently Wil unfastened the thong and let himself slide to the ground, Rill helping him land without a sound and prop himself against the wall next to the barrel. Will was able to fumble a small lead weight out of a pocket and tie it to the end of the thong as Rill inched his chair forward.
Then several things happened in a rush: there was a whoosh, agonized screams of pain, a gout of fire, a muffled explosion and another whoosh! The darkness was lit up by the flames coming from a house and a human-shaped flame that staggered, fell, and then sizzled as the barrel was overturned. Then there were running feet, shouts and commotion.
An hour later, as Wil sat blinking over the edge of a green blanket wrapped around him on the sofa in Lady Silwen’s crowded library, he thought that he and Rill were in very deep trouble. The room wasn’t really thronged, but it was surprisingly full with the lady, Master Samno, Ull, Lord Erragol, Lord Húrin, Master Achef, Mithrandir, Prince Faramir, and the King himself, all of them with their eyes on the two boys. Rill sat next to Wil, also wrapped in a red-striped blanket, Rimbor at their feet.
“Well?” demanded Lady Silwen.
“We tol’ you what Wil ‘eard in the Place o’ Beauty that time,” Rill said. “An’ we thought as we’d keep a lookout t’ see could we find out more. All we done was go down t’ the square an’ listen. We never ‘proached ‘em. We decided the best thing t’ do was be ready, ‘case we found out what they planned. All we c’ld hear was liquid gold in stone an’ a lot o’ Nosy tryin’ t’ persuade Jug-ears int’ summat ‘gainst someone they called Grey-Faced.”
“I’d heard that before,” Wil added, “but I didn’t know where, nor what it meant. They meant more than mischief, I was certain.”
“We was certain,” Rill corrected him. “I stand with m’ brother. An’ we was right, an’ we was ready. We followed ‘em, an’ when we was sure, we sent Rimbor t’ tell you; we knowed you’d come quick!”
“And why did you not draw back?” demanded Lord Húrin, frowning. “You two boys, neither able even to stand!”
“My lord, we are both warriors like you,” Wil said quietly, carefully not looking at the Warden's arm. “We practiced what to do if we had to be involved. I knew that I could fling the weighted thong like a whip, sidewise, to tangle a foe’s feet and delay him. Rill’s arms are very strong, from rolling his chair; we knew he could pull over things as obstacles. So when I saw—“ he swallowed at the memory—“Jug-ears catch on fire when that stuff spilled on him as Nosy threw it at the window by the door of that house, I flinged—“
“Flung,” corrected Rill.
“—flung the thong to pull him down, and Rill pulled over the water-butt to dowse him, and Nosy tripped over his chair so Rill could grab him. Only the fire kept burning, so I rolled him in Rill’s lap-throw, while Rill held on to Nosy.”
“I may not be able to stand, but I can still punch,” added Rill in a satisfied tone; his knuckles on one hand were skinned and swollen. “’E flopped like a landed trout, ‘til I walloped him over the ear an’ sat on ‘im.”
“Well, that explains the burns you both got on your hands,” sighed Lady Silwen.
“How is Jug-Ears?” asked Rill.
“Badly burned, but we will see what the Healers can do. Nosy is in the cells at the Lower Barracks, refusing to speak,” Lord Húrin told him. “Confound it, we knew there was some plot afoot, but we still don’t know what!”
“I do,” said an accented voice.
Master Achef stood quietly in a corner, two large woven lidded baskets at his feet. He was gazing at the King, who had not spoken as yet, and at Prince Faramir. Now he made the same fluid bow as he had to Wil that first day, going to one knee.
“Would you introduce us, please, Wil?” the King asked.
“This is my friend, Master Abdakil Achef, a merchant from Khand,” Wil said. “Master Achef, this is his majesty Elessar Elvinyatar Telcontar, King of the Reunited Realm of Gondor and Arnor.”
“At your service and your son’s,” Achef said.
“Will you seat yourself, Master Achef, and explain, please?” asked the King courteously.
Achef sat with as much dignity as if the chair was a throne and nodded. “First, I lied to my friend Wil,” he said. “I am not a merchant, although that has been my employment here.”
“A handy cover for a spy,” commented Húrin.
“For some spies,” agreed Achef, unperturbed. “Although to succeed as a spy, it would be better for me to have lighter skin and different features, not to stand out as a sore finger.”
“Thumb,” Rill said. “Like a sore thumb. I been ‘elpin’ ‘im with ‘is Westron,” he added.
“My thanks. I am not a spy, my lords and lady. I told Wil that I am from Lâorkó, in Khând, which is true, but before that I was from Ithilien. I must do homage to you, my lord Prince, when convenient to you.”
Faramir was staring. “Why?”
“You are the Prince of Ithilien, not so? I was born there, as Lady Cormallen was.”
“Fascinating,” muttered Lord Gimli. Wil wondered if he imagined a grin lurking in the Dwarf’s beard.
Lady Silwen learned forward. “From southern Ithilien?” she asked.
Achef bowed to her. “Aye. My family was originally from Khand, which is why we returned there when the orcs became too thick on the dirt.”
“Ground,” said Rill helpfully.
“Ground,” Achef amended. “But we never forgot our duty, our binding. Now the orcs are gone, the Great Enemy defeated, the true King is returned, and I have come back.”
“Yes, but why?” asked Lord Húrin, as Faramir asked, “What binding?”
“To renew the promise,” Achef replied, and Wil realized that he was almost trembling with emotion. “My family has always served the Kings of Gondor. We bring the liquid gold to the stone. My lord King, I bring them, to guard and defend you.” With a quick movement, he unlidded the two baskets, and held up the contents in each hand.
There was a startled silence.
“Kittens?” gasped Húrin.
“No!” said Wil, realizing. “These are the rálimbar, the royal lions of the King’s bodyguard.” He stretched out his hands longingly. “They wore red surcoats edged with gold thread, and were paired with the third line of the the Second Thangion of the King’s Guard.”
“I thought they were a legend,” said Faramir. “They were bred from the mountain lions of southern Ithilien bordering Harandor, for their vicious fangs and long claws against enemies. There was a strain bred in from Haradian lions, hence their manes when they are grown. It was said that they were smarter than most four-footed creatures, that they understood the handlers bonded to them and could speak to them. They were so graceful and swift in their climbing and stalking that they were called liquid gold, for their value in protecting the Crown.”
“Liquid gold in stone, in the city of stone,” nodded Achef. “These are the two oldest of a litter waiting for you, my lords. This cub is the firstborn; see the black gem on his collar, for the Tree? His name is Selip; for your protection, lord King. And this one is Malinalda with the white gem, for yours, Prince of Ithilien. The other cubs are with their dam in a safe place. I came, wondering if any remembered them, wondering how I could bestow them upon you, how I could find the ones to train with them. It seemed safest to disguise my mission, but I knew that in time, all would be well.”
“So the plot was about kittens,” muttered the Warden of Keys.
“Cubs,” corrected the King. He leaned down to pick up a tawny cub, who began to purr as he tickled its chin. “I too had thought it only a legend. I’m not sure how my court would react to them.”
“But we are a place and time of living legends,” Lady Silwen said with a chuckle. “Ents, Hobbits, oliphants—why not lions too? You may be sure that it is well-known in Harad and the southern kingdoms, from what Master Achef says; think of how impressed they would be if you have one in your throne-room! I’ll wager that whomever was hoping to find them meant to exploit them somehow, whether or not as exotic and valuable beasts, or in their traditional roles in some way. Even if they took the phrase literally, liquid gold in stone is a powerful group of words….”
The other cub waggled its rear before pouncing on a dropped quill. Rill crumpled up a scrap of parchment and tossed it to the floor; both cubs ran to it and began batting it back and forth.
“But who would use that firebrew to get to them?” Húrin fretted. “And if they have more and decide to toss it around the city—“
“Peace, my friend!” said Elessar. “We shall deal with that when it happens. I doubt it will occur, however. It is a marvel that that small amount was kept until tonight, although this must be discussed further.”
“But we have no idea where to look!” the Warden fumed.
“Your pardon, my lords,” Rill said, ducking his head as they looked at him. “Wil, what was it Nosy said?”
“’Bout if they didn’t do it, they’d find their hearts ripped out, sizzling on coals?”
“Aye, that’s what made ‘em decide to go ahead. ‘Tis fear keeps Nosy’s mouth shut fast, fear o’ ‘ooever their boss is. An’ ‘e must be one o’ them cult folk, b’lievin’ in the Dark ‘Un. Wasn’t Lady Silma’s brother one o’ ‘em? Might be that the folk at the Citadel an’ Lord Húrin’s folk already know, only they don’t know’s they do, ‘f you understand me.”
By the looks exchanged, the adults did understand, and were already considering the next steps. Lord Faramir said only, “A matter to be discussed on the morrow.”
Mithrandir was smiling. “Aragorn, it seems you will be well guarded. How fortunate that you have always liked felines.”
“In the meantime, where can they stay?” The King looked resigned. “Your lodging is mostly ashes, Master Achef; you cannot go back there.”
“Lady Silwen, can we find a corner here for a time?” asked Lord Gimli, a twinkle in his eyes.
“If Snowball and Silver will tolerate them, of course,” agreed Lady Silwen. “Silver belongs to Nehemion. Snowball is my cook’s cat. If she isn’t happy, Mistress Samno won’t be, and that means our meals might suffer!”
“She’s joking,” Master Samno said hastily. “We’ll find you a room, master, you and your cubs.”
“My thanks,” bowed Achef.
“At least until you find your assistants,” added Silwen.
“Ah, but I think I have. Rill, I know that you are busy with your devising studies, but what of your friends? I think one of them may do.”
Suddenly Wil felt miserable. Of course Master Achef would need able-bodied lads to care for active cubs. He blinked furiously.
A small furry head butted his hand; a rough tongue rasped against his fingers. Without thinking, he covered it with his other hand, awkwardly scratching behind a tufted ear.
“It seems that Malinalda has decided on her bondmate already,” said Achef. “If you will accept, Wil? It is for life, and they live very long.”
A small body swarmed up the front of his tunic, butting him under the chin. :Need!:
“I know. You need a friend,” said Wil softly. He held ‘Nalda close in his arms, rewarded by her satisfied purr. “There are grass-cats in Rohan,” he told Rill, who was grinning and nodding. “Do you think they might be related?”
“I think you might find out,” his wolf-brother said.
Wil looked at his grandfather, who was also nodding, a look of pride on his wrinkled face, then at Achef. “Master Achef, will you teach us?”
This it was that the Royal Lions of Gondor returned to their task. As she matured to being one of the largest ones ever known, Malinalda, in her red surcoat with the golden trim, would at times draw a familiar green cart through the streets of the White City, carrying her bondmate, Wil Rálimbor, Wil the Lion, who dwelt in Ithilien also as well as in Rohan, learning and teaching many. Their travels, alone or with Rill the Devisor, took them to many lands, and stories are still told of them.
But this is one of the first.