I made my way down to the Fourth Circle, to a small, modest house on Fuller’s Street. The doorstep was clean, but I noticed a twist of black cloth hanging beside the latch; an old custom denoting a recent death. Sighing, I thought of almost every door in Gondor so bedecked, and knocked.
After a moment, the door opened, showing me Mistress Nénharma. Her dark dress looked crumpled, her face strained and pale, but she curtseyed to me as I bowed. “The day’s greeting, Mistress,” I said.
“Who is it?” called a woman’s voice faintly from somewhere behind her.
“May I come in?” I asked.
“Oh, forgive my poor manners!” she said hastily, and showed me into a small room to one side, sparsely but neatly furnished. My eyes turned at once to a frail, white-haired woman reclining on a bed under a window that looked onto the blank wall of the next house.
I knew at once from the resemblance that this must be her ailing mother, if one added many years; a second glance told me that she was aged beyond her true age by what must be mortal illness. But despite that, one could see the remnants of great beauty, in the glorious rope of hair over one thin shoulder and the fine-grained, almost translucent skin drawn tightly over her bones. “I’m Marpol Vittribula, newly created Lord Tintehlë and Warden of the Roads by the King, at your service and your family’s. I met your daughter at the Citadel the other day.”
“May I present my mother, Mistress Altara Nénharma,” said her daughter dutifully.
“There’s only the two of us, now, but I thank you. And what business do you have with her?” asked the older woman.
“Mother! Please forgive her, my lord.”
“I can still speak for myself, although I haven’t much time left to waste,” she said briskly, without a particle of self-pity. “Why would a high-born lord, warden of roads or anything else, come to speak with my girl? Do you have an offer of employment for her?”
“Mother! I am employed!” Mortification painted her daughter’s cheeks pink.
“Just because I’m at the end of my days doesn’t mean I’ve lost my wits, Alta,” Mistress Altara replied. I respected her courage, even while I sorrowed for her ending.
“A fair question,” I said. “As I said, I met your daughter up at the Citadel, where she was kind enough to assist me—“
“Before she was turned out for needing to bury her brother and take care of me.”
“’Tis the truth. You mean to protect and not fret me, but I know as well as you do that that old ass Argarátar is so spiteful that he sacked you for asking to tend me. He’s never forgiven me for choosing your father over him, not that it was any contest. Any fool but him knew which was the better Man. Now that we’ve lost your brother, that ,buhdalier felt safe in turning you out. Well, my lord? Why are you here?”
“I’m a soldier, Mistress Nénharma, or I was until recently,” I told her. “I was discharged without my pension for punching a healer who refused to treat a friend of mine, causing his death and then abusing his body. That act earned me a dishonourable discharge and the loss of my pension.”
“Ladramenhirion? You are the one who finally had the guts to teach him a lesson? Sit down and talk with me! You should have received a medal, not a discharge!”
“My thanks, Mistress, although I should have controlled myself enough not to get caught.”
Her face creased with laughter, although the sound of it was faint and led to a harsh bout of coughing that shook her against her pillows. Mistress Alatáriël hurried to pour out some healing drink for her from a yellow pitcher, and held the cup for her as she drank. “This is too much excitement—“
“Twaddle! He’s doing me good. Spoken like a soldier; my favorite cousin was with the Guard for thirty years until he campaigned once too often in Far Harad. I’m all right, Alta. What else have you to say?” She absently patted her daughter’s hand. “For a veteran without a pension, you look fairly prosperous.”
“Unexpectedly so. I can use weapons at need, of course, but most of my service had to do with supplies, moving them where needed, solving problems of moving them from one point to another. The King is anxious to unite both his realms, and one way to do so is by having someone build roads between them. I’ve some engineering experience, and so he chose me to do so, as he explains in this Royal Warrant. In hopes of gaining me credence with officials and others, he gave me this.” I showed her the Commission; she fingered the heavy seals as I went on, “That gives me as much authority as Lord Húrin, only for a wider area, almost as much as Prince Faramir or Prince Imrahil or Lord Steward Halladan.”
“I thought Lord—I mean, Prince—Faramir was Steward,” Alatáriël objected.
“He is, of Gondor, but Halladan, the King’s cousin, is Steward of Arnor.”
Her mother nodded. “Sensible; one Man cannot hope to stretch himself over all those leagues to help the King do all that needs doing, after so long away, even if he has been raised by Elves. He’ll have a time convincing the old lords to cooperate, though; they’re all used to Lord Denethor and a smaller area for their schemes. He’ll have to prove himself, and that his plans are good. Most of them believe that foolish old proverb that nothing comes from the North but orcs and bad weather. So he’s recruited you to help him, eh? Well, clearly you are gently bred yourself.”
“I was base-born, as he knows. He's seen fit to raise me to a defunct title, to give me more weight in their eyes so they will cooperate.”
“Or appear to, while still pursuing their own ends, behind their oily smiles,” she commented acutely.
“But here I am, with a huge project to begin, and with no idea of who is who in this City, or how I should behave, or even how to dress, still less how to furnish the House I’ve been told I have up on the Sixth Circle,” I told them.
Again her eyes were merry. “Ah, yes, I heard about those curtains for one office! Yavanna imagines what you’d do with an entire House!”
“Exactly. I immediately thought of your daughter,” I agreed.
“Why? You met me once!” she protested.
“Twice,” I corrected. “Because clearly you are most capable, and Lady Ornamir recommended you to me.”
“But for what? I must tend my mother!”
“To run my households,” I answered, “both here and in the North, once I have established a base of operations there. I shall probably be going between the two for several years. I have no knowledge of how to engage a staff for two civilian establishments, although of course I shall hire my own immediate staff myself, and I seem to have acquired the services of young Orophin Táralóm. You called him a young rascal; would you object to him?”
“Oh, Valar, no. He’s merely a lad who needs to grow a bit without being terrified all the time,” she replied. “He’s a good boy, or will be, given half a chance.”
“My thought too,” I agreed. “I need someone with enough experience, as you clearly have, to take on the responsibility of doing what needs to be done, and see that the household staff is well-trained and treated, and perform their duties. I am an outsider here, Mistresses, and I need to know whom to trust, who are gossips, who are fools, who are active hindrances. And some help with such things as finding a tailor or etiquette instruction would not be amiss, since I have not worn anything but a uniform for most of my life, and have mainly dwelt in barracks.”
“That’s all very well, my lord, and I wish you well,” she replied, “but I must tend to my mother!”
“You’re a good daughter, Alta my dearling,” her mother said gently. Looking up at me, she added in a steely tone, “Make your offer, Warden of Roads!”
“I wish with all my heart that I had been able to take care of my own mother,” I said, “but I was just a boy when she died, mostly from my father’s indifference. Of course your first thought must be of her, as hers is for you! But please consider, Mistress Nénharma: will it not ease her worries, to know that you have employment? I do not ask you to do all right now; you have a higher responsibility. Could you not advise? I know that you did not personally do all the cleaning at the Citadel, but delegated it to others. Could you not do so for me, while spending most of your time with her? And would she not do better in more comfortable quarters? I mean no offense! You must have many memories of your home in happier times.”
“I’d love to get out of this poky little place,” her mother said immediately. “We’ve only been here since my husband’s death, and until I became too ill, I spent as little time in this room as I could.”
“I’m sorry, Mother,” whispered her daughter, head drooping.
“And I don’t mean to complain, but the time for sparing feelings in the service of politeness is past. What would her wages and benefits be?”
“Twice what she received at the Citadel,” I said promptly.
“That’s too much!” Alatáriël protested.
“Nonsense! You would be my chief housekeeper, not an assistant. Also, good care for your mother, with the best healers to oversee it. Until my home is habitable, rooms for both of you at the best inn in the City. The help of Lady Ornamir’s staff, which she has offered, until we have our own. I have with me a purse of coin to begin with, and I will write a note authorizing you to receive funds and open accounts in my name beginning today. There would be enough to engage a companion or nurse for her, and the best Healer, whatever will most ease her remaining days. You will also have two new sets of clothing per year, and besides one day to yourself a week, three weeks’ holiday per year. Of course I realize you may need to have more than that at present, and I have no fears that you would abuse that. How say you?”
“She says yes,” replied Mistress Nénharma.
“—or did I raise a fool?”
“Forgive me,” I said abruptly. “You will no doubt wish to consider and discuss it. May I have your answer in three or four days?”
Alatáriël looked from one to the other of us, shook her head, and said, “Well, I’d never hear the last of it if I said no, would I?”
“I’d haunt you to the end of the world,” Mistress Nénharma assured her with a smile.
“Then yes, my lord, I would be pleased to accept,” she said sedately.
“Now clap hands on it,” Mistress Nénharma commanded, and under her fond gaze, we did so. I found it hard to loosen my fingers from her slender ones, but forced myself.
“That’s my good, sensible girl!”
“I’m scarcely a girl, Mother.’
“Nay, Alta, you’ll always be my little lass, even when you have babes of your own for me to dandle on my knee,” she replied.
A yearning expression, followed by sadness, flashed across my new housekeeper’s face, swiftly replaced by a calm determination. “As the Valar will,” she said evenly. “What are your orders, my lord?”
“I had not thought so far,” I admitted, and they both laughed.
“Then please to sit down while I fetch some refreshment, and we can make some plans.”
“May I help you?”
“Nay, pray sit with Mother, if you would. I’ll be but a moment,” and she whisked from the room in a swirl of dark skirts.
“She’ll work hard, my lord,” her mother said, “though she wouldn’t thank me for saying so. My thanks to you! ‘Tis a relief, to know she’ll be well settled in a good position. I just wonder….’
“What, Mistress Nénharma?’
“Why your lady wife is not here in your stead.”
“Because I have no wife, nor chick nor child, nor ever had. Soldiers travel light.”
“A pity. You seem the kind of man would be a good husband and father.”
“Hardly likely, but I thank you.”
“Or do you prefer men to lasses?”
My jaw dropped. That was plain speaking with a vengeance!
Mischief gleamed in her eyes. “Do I really shock you, my lord?”
“I was merely startled,” I lied. So much for my illusion that women were too delicate for some matters! “Despite the law, I’ve no objection to shieldmates among others, as long as it doesn’t disrupt their work, but that is not for me. I’ve had little time for dalliance of any kind, having so little to offer another.”
“Yet many changes seem to be overtaking you,” she noted.
“It seems at breathtaking speed! But it is overtaking all of us, with the war finally over and the King returned.”
“Aye, truly remarkable,” she agreed, as Alatáriël came in with a tray.
“Is tea acceptable to you, my lord, or should I get some ale or wine?” she asked.
“Tea is fine, Mistress,” I said truthfully, even while I reflected that I was like to have more than I’d ever imbibed before, and it not ever dusk yet!
We drew up our chairs near the bedside table, and she dispensed cups and small plates of thinly-cut bread and butter, while I wondered uneasily if that was all the food in the house. The linen napkins were ivory with age, carefully darned in places, my porcelain saucer had a chip missing, and the spoon with which I stirred honey into my beverage was tin, not silver.
Well, they should have provender and to spare before very long.
“What are your plans, my lord?” Alta was asking attentively.
“To be honest, my mind's a-whirl,” I confessed. Turning to her mother, I asked, “But do I tire you, Mistress?”
“Best you order those whirligig thoughts with speech, so’s you can order Alta—“ her daughter groaned at the word-play, while I grinned “—but I am not over-weary yet.”
“Are you certain, Naneth?”
“Don’t waste his time or mine, dearling.”
Picking up a set of tablets and a stylus, Alta asked, “What is most pressing?”
“I need to get a new set of those,” I remarked, “but those I can pick up on my way back to the Citadel. This is no especial order, mind. I suppose we should go inspect my House, wherever it is, so we can see what needs to be done; likely it’s been empty a while. Would you accompany me for that? Silma—Lady Cormallen, now—and Lady Ornamir will loan us servants until you engage our own staff. Then we need to find the most suitable place for your mother, and move her—“
“I can do that,” Alta interjected.
I let that go, but was determined to help smooth the way as I might. I continued, “I need to find a good etiquette book to help smooth off my rough edges. I know little of nobles and politics here, and the last thing I need to do is offend by clumsiness.”
“’Twill be all shifting, as factions form and take the King’s measure,” Mistress Altara observed.
“And he theirs,” my housekeeper added. “From the little I saw, he’ll be no one’s pawn.”
“Nor he will,” I agreed. “I need to find my own staff and material for the task he’s set me, obtain new weapons and a horse, begin sparring again—“
“Find a tailor,” she said.
“Alta!” her mother chided, and spoiled it by adding, “Not that ‘twould hurt.”
I may have reddened; my face felt warm. “You’re doubtless right! I’m used to wearing uniforms. I have done most of my life.”
“Have you given any thought to a sigil for your House, and a seal, or colors?” Alta asked.
“Nothing flashy,” I said with distaste. “I suppose I should just continue with whatever the previous lords had, although I’ve no notion what they would have been.”
The two women looked at each other and said in unison, “Rhuimiel.”
“Rhuimiel the Bookseller?” I asked. “Do you know him?”
“He and his late wife stood up at our wedding,” Mistress Altara told me.
“And his son Neni has a passion for heraldry, when he isn’t stitching away in his father-in-love’s tailor shop,” her daughter added.
“I meant to see him on my way back,” I said.
“Splendid!” Mistress Nénharma patted a yawn. “Why don’t the two of you go seek your House, arrange about the inn, and then you can go about your other affairs, my lord, while Alta sees to hers. I’ll do well enough here, for I fancy a nap. You might ask Neni’s sister Lorra if she’ll come sit with me until your return. She’s a merry little lass who makes me laugh. She knows where the spare key is kept.”
“If you’re sure—“ Alta said doubtfully.
“A good deployment of forces,” I said approvingly. As I’d hoped, that elicited twin smiles—they seemed to find military terms amusing—and Alta began gathering up cups.
“Nay, my dear, go and change; you can do that when you come back,” her mother chided. “You can’t possibly go out with Lord Marpol in that old gown!”
“’Tis Lord Tintehlë,” Alta corrected.
“Whichever! Don’t dawdle!”
“Your pardon, my lord,” she said hastily, and fled.
By the time she returned, much more quickly that I had thought a woman shifting clothes would, I had disposed of the tray in the tiny, immaculate kitchen, and sat with a book in my hand while her mother drowsed.
But the sunken eyes opened as I set the book back and rose to my feet, and she smiled sleepily.
Alta bent over her, tucking in the covers and adjusting her pillow. “Do you need anything?”
“To sit on the pot!” was the firm response, and I hastily stepped outside after saying, “I shall see you soon, Mistress Nénharma.”
“You may rely upon it, my lord! Your visit has made me better,” she said graciously.
Alta joined me shortly, tying her cloak over a grey dress. I wondered if she ever wore anything brighter, before remembering that she was in mourning. “I have not yet given you my condolences for your loss,” I said.
Walking beside me so that I only caught glimpses of her profile inside her hood, she said, “My brother Tarlmer fought all through the war as part of the White Tree company without a scratch, only to lose his life in a stupid tavern brawl a few nights after the Crowning. We were told ‘twas more accident than fight; Lord Ladramenhirion’s son cracked his head with a bottle when he protested the lordling’s fondling an unwilling serving-wench. The injury was worse than we thought. At first we thought he would soon wake, but he lay dazed—until he began having seizures. Each weakened him, and the Healer said his brain was too damaged to heal. His death was a release, poor boy.”
“I am very sorry,” I said inadequately.
We walked on, up to the Fifth Level. Other than some trivial comment she made regarding the workmen dismantling a half-collapsed building, we spoke little. The subject of her loss was closed. I understood, but part of me wanted to know what had become of the drunken sot who had ended a fellow warrior’s life so foolishly. Curse that family, would their arrogance never cease bringing tragedy to those I cared about?
For I did care about Mistress Nénharma, and her mother.
That realization brought me to a sudden halt.
Alta continued a step or two, and turned. “My lord?”
It was neither the time nor place to speak of this amazing new knowledge. I looked about for some plausible reason for stopping.