It so happened that we were passing a flower-stall. I pointed at some yellow blossoms. “Would your mother like those?”
“Oh, she loves daffodils!”
“Then she shall have them,” I said, taking some coins from my belt-pouch.
“Shall I send a boy with 'em?” asked the stallholder. It wasn’t actually a stall, merely a few boards-and-trestles of different heights, bearing all manner of spring flowers in pots and small vases, and small bits of greenery.
“Oh, no. Please! She couldn’t go to the door to receive them. Someone knocking might frighten her, and it is too much,” Alta protested.
“We don’t want to do that,” I agreed. “Ah, I have it! D’you know Rhuimiel the Bookseller’s lass?”
“I do, aye, master. Her goes a-skippin’ by every day.”
“’My lord’,” Alta corrected him. “This is Hír Tintehlë, the Warden of Roads.”
“Oh? Aye, my lord, I knows ‘er.”
“Give them to her when she comes; she can take them to her. But we’ll take those violets with us now,” I added, for I had noticed how her glance and fingers had lingered on them. “’Tis only a small bunch, but fragrant, and who knows what stench awaits us in our explorations?—What’s your name, master?”
“Zoll, my lord.”
“Mistress Nénharma will be ordering flowers each week for my House. Would you be able to provide them for us?” I asked recklessly.
“’Deed I c’ld, my lord! ‘Appy to! Lord Panhael ‘isself said t’other day’s ‘ow I has good ‘uns,” he said proudly.
“Fine!” I said heartily. “He’s a famous gardener in his own land, his friends tell me.”
His eyes widened. “You knows the periannath lords?”
“They were advising him just the other day,” Alta said unexpectedly.
“On buildin’ o’ roads? Them c’n do anythin’, I reckon,” he nodded.
“Maps,” she said. “All of them were looking at maps with him. Their land is near Arnor.”
“It was once part of Arnor; Arvedui, the last king of Cardolan, granted the Shire to them long ago,” I said.
“Ah. I din’ know that. Saved us all, they did, I ‘eard. Shows you, don’t it, you don’t need t’ be big nor swing a gurt sword t’ make a difference—no offense meant, my lord,” he added hastily.
“None taken, Master Zoll.”
“Well, you ought to, if you are a noble. I don’t know you,” said a voice behind me. “Or are you some upstart posing as one, old man?”
Two youths stood there, both garbed in velvets, foils on their hips. The one who had addressed me had a wispy mustache on his upper lip like the residue of caff-flavored candy. He stank of ale and brandy, and burped. Something in his tone tugged at my memory, although I was certain we’d never met.
“Let’s go to the Twisted Tree,” suggested the other, shorter and younger, pulling on his arm and smiling nervously.
The older one shrugged him off. “Not until I receive an answer. All kinds of riff-raff’re befouling the City these days.”
“’Dil, I don’t think we should bother—“
“Did I give you leave to call me familiar, Prat?” Candy Stain shoved him, hard, and almost casually swung at him, hitting him in one eye.
Off-balance, arms flailing, the other boy fell when the first one kicked him as well, falling into Zoll’s display.
“’Ere , stop ‘at!” cried Zoll.
Candy Stain grabbed the edge of the lowest trestle-table and heaved upward; buckets and pots rolled with the sounds of shattering crockery and splashing water and splintering wood as other levels were affected and their contents fell to the cobbles. “Serves you right, you common dog!”
“That’s m’ livin’ you just smashed!” Zoll shouted, outraged.
Dropping the board, Candy Stain reached to draw his blade.
It was no great effort to grasp his arm and pull him athwart my hip so that his own weight carried him over and into a puddle. He scrambled up as far as his knees—and stopped, the tip of his own foil in my hand under his chin. He hadn’t even noticed my disarming him! I looked down at him in disgust.
“Your names, gentlemen.”
“How dare you! We’re of the Exalted! You can’t touch us!” he sputtered.
“You posture like a peacock, prowl like a fat little wolf cub, and bleat like a sheep,” I told hm. “I think you are a sheep. If you are Exalted, then your behavior should be above reproach, which it is not. Far from it!”
“You can’t talk to me like that!”
“Considering that he is the one holding the sword, which he took from you in as pretty a move as I’ve ever seen, a wiser man wouldn’t antagonize him further. Not that you are wise, lordling,” said an amused rasping voice.
Without looking away from the boy, I asked, “And you are?”
“We fought together near Poros ten years ago, and you defeated me in a fencing tournament just before I left the Guards, not that you’d remember. I’m Ballol Trahl, at your service, Marpol Vittribula.”
“Trahl the Armsmaster for the Stars ohtarrim?” I asked.
“Once, before I put up my shingle as a fencing-master here. Are you hurt, Cardin?”
The shorter youth gingerly fingering his swelling eye. “Not as much as I will be when my father learns of this,” he said ruefully. “Ser, please forgive my friend. He’s been overset by recent troubles.”
“There be a-many who’ve suffered,” growled Zoll, trying with Alta’s help to right some of his wares. “Looks an’ smells ‘sif he’s suffered more from conceit an’ too much ale. Who’s t’ pay me for the ruin o’ m’ wares, I’d like t’ know!”
“’Tis the price of trading here,” said the first boy insolently, and almost fell over backwards as I increased the pressure a fraction. “You’re hurting me!”
“Actually, I’m being a paragon of restraint,” I told him. “I’ve barely broken the skin when I could have slit your throat. Or done this—“ I flicked the foil’s tip, slicing through the fashionably narrow belt holding up his breeches. He yelped and grabbed at them with both hands as I returned to my earlier stance. This time he overbalanced, landing on his back before scrambling back to his knees, all I'd allow him.
The crowd around us—where had they come from?—laughed, and his plump red face turned almost purple.
“Best move along, folks,” a Guardsman pushed his way forward and faced the crowd. “Entertainment’s over for today. Be about your own affairs, please. –But not you,” he said to the youths as I stepped back. “Names and Houses, please.”
“Cardin Forlong, of House Forlong,” mumbled Puffy Eye.
“Lord Forlong’s get?”
“And I am—“ began the other loudly, clumsily getting to his feet.
“I know who you are, and I wouldn’t shout that name aloud here, if I were you.”
“I’ll have you whipped for such insolence!” fumed the Sheep.
“Erdil, close your mouth!” The order was a whip-crack from the tall, older Man standing to one side with several Guardsmen. I bowed as I recognized Lord Húrin; to my shock, he bowed back.
“But you saw—Get your filthy hands off me!” he shouted, as two other guards, obeying a gesture from the Warden of Keys, pinioned his arms. “Why aren’t you arresting that buggering orcsbait who attacked me?”
“Gag him,” ordered Lord Húrin, and the shrill oaths were muffled by a length of cloth. He looked down at the struggling boy in annoyance. “Boy, if you had proclaimed your name, even after Lord Tintehlë lightened their mood, that crowd might’ve turned into a mob tearing you apart! Get it through your thick head: your rank is gone, along with your House’s reputation. Your father is banished as a felon, you’re cast out of the Houses of Healing, you forfeited your family with your own behavior and words—“
The boy somehow managed to pull aside the gag and spat out the wad of cloth it had held in his mouth. “My grandsire—“
“—Has disowned you, and may yet cast out your mother and sisters to starve. Your home is in the hands of creditors, all furnishings and personal items dispersed to partly repay the debts you and your family have piled up, and still you swagger as if the world was created for your benefit! You persist in acting the wastrel, with nothing to waste, and bullyboy, drunken and brawling, spewing vileness at your betters!”
“Betters? That old man?”
“The Warden of Roads is my equal in rank, now head of a House as reward for a stainless reputation for service, loyalty and integrity. He has indeed shown restraint, as a spoiled brat like you cannot begin to comprehend. Know this: you shall be brought to understand! For the sake of my long friendship with your father ere his disgrace, you shall be salvaged. Your lessoning will be long and painful, and it shall begin with a stint in the cells.”
“Oh, but I can. Take him away.”
In the end, they had to knock him on the head, and dragged him off, gagged once more and his breeches trailing around his ankles, Cardin as well, although unfettered and under his own power. Lord Húrin turned to the flower-seller. “Master Zoll, I am sorry for this destruction of your wares. Will this cover the damages?” He handed him a purse.
Zoll opened and spilled some of the coins into his palm. “’Tis too much, my lord Warden. ‘Alf that, an’ a-knowin’ that whelp’s a-gettin’ what he deserves, an’ I’m satisfied. Will this come t’ a hearin’?”
“By law, and if you prefer charges, it should.”
“Master Zoll,” I said quietly.
We had moved closer to the wall against which his trestles and boards were now leaning, a bit away from passing pedestrians, shooed on their way from lingering or more than glances by a remaining Guardsman. I gazed at Zoll intently. “You are quick enough to have guessed that whelp’s identity. Understand, I do not condone his attitude and actions. His father caused great ill, and the Valar know Lord Húrin is right. If that crowd had realized, it could have become a riot, with far more harm to many. I don’t seek to minimize the damage to your goods, and you are entitled to your day in court. You know Lord Húrin’s reputation; do you doubt his vow?”
“Speak further, my lord, ‘f you will.” Zoll pulled at his lower lip.
“It is my thought that Lord Húrin would not have befriended the boy’s father had he not seen good in him.”
“There once was,” said the Warden sadly. “Such potential, such talent, all devoured by pride!”
Zoll’s eyes moved to each of us. Abruptly he stooped and picked up an errant pot. “Mistress Alta.”
From the circle of my arm—and when had I done that?—she whispered, “Master Zoll?”
“Tell young Lorra t’ come get these ‘ere daffs for your nana when she’s ready. I doubt your mother needs t’ be troubled by aught right now, ‘f that suits you?”
Tears glittered in her eyes. “It suits well, Master Zoll.”
He looked up at the Warden. “I’ll take ‘alf o’ them coins, with your promise ‘at he’ll repay you. No charges. Reckon ‘at’s m’ bit towards ‘is savin’. Better t’ save ‘n ruin.”
“That’s very good of you,” Lord Húrin said. “I’m in your debt.”
“’Tain’t kind. “Tis an investment. We got a King, an’ a new Age; best make it better’n the last ‘un. ‘Ere, Mistress, take a pin for they vi’lets.”
“My thanks!” She fastened them to her shoulder, pushing back her cloak to avoid crushing them.
After bidding farewell to him and Lord Húrin, we walked on, a proper amount of space between us in the sunshine. “He has a small farm some miles to the west,” she told me, “so he might know where we can get vegetables and fruit.”
I liked the sound of that: we.
Quickly I reined in my thought. She was in my employ, and I must not embarrass or insult her, so much younger than I. Loneliness was part of my normal life, I was used to it, and with so many Men killed in the war, a beautiful woman like her would have her choice. Why would she choose a scarred old veteran, bastard-born and rough?
Nay, I must settle for respect, and perhaps, with luck, friendship.
“I doubt you need etiquette lessons so much as you think, my lord,” Alta said, interrupting my musings.
“What? Why not?”
“That—could have been so much worse.” She shivered.
“It was fortunate that Lord Húrin came along with those guards,” I agreed.
“I never dreamed anyone could move so fast! Your breath didn’t even quicken!”
“I should have disarmed him further from Zoll’s display.”
She paused and looked up at me. “You know who that boy was. I cannot speak of that just now; may I do so when my mind is clearer?”
“As you wish,” I agreed. How could I have forgotten that that lad was guilty of her brother’s death? Should I have killed him on the spot? Yet that too would have had a bad outcome. Indeed, we would need to discuss it at more length in the future.
Zoll’s stall was only a short distance from Rhuimiel’s shop; I held the door as we entered. As always, there were the mingled scents of parchment, ink, wax, paper, and leather.
Rhuimiel was all but bouncing on his toes behind his counter, and reached out to clasp my forearm. “Still in one piece after defeating that puffed-up bravo? Alta, my dear, you’re as lovely as the flowers you wear!”
“Greetings, Uncle. May I borrow Lorra to sit with Mother?”
“Of course. She’s upstairs pretending to sew her stint. Come on up,” He lifted the flap for us to come through, and ushered us to the stairs, calling to his journeyman, Esgoril, to tend any customers.
In the long main room of their home, his wife Marna sat knitting near the fire while keeping an eye on young Lorra’s labored stitching on a piece of cloth held in a hoop. As we came in, both faces brightened. “Captain Vittribula!” Lorra cried, jumping up.
Her mother rose more sedately. “Marpol, it has been too long! And Alta, my dear, how are you and your mother? Lorra, stop crumpling your sampler!”
“Ow! It stuck me!”
“Small wonder, as careless as you are! Be careful, child, needles aren’t cheap toys! Smooth that out and put it away neatly, please!’
“I will,” she said. “Captain—I mean, Master—Vittribula, how did it feel to hit the bad man?”
“Lorra!” thundered her mother.
“But he is a bad man,” she protested.
I sighed. “But it was not well done of me to strike a man unused to weapons. I should not have lost my temper.”
“But Da said it was a good thing, you defending the memory of your friend. I liked Master Clerk, and his dog, and Mistress Clerk.”
“We all did,” Rhuímel, said genially. “Please, sit. Marna, have we nothing for the refreshment of our guests?”
“A moment, Arador,” his wife replied, bustling to the kitchen area. “Lorra, fetch the striped pitcher, and don’t drop it! Marpol, we were so sorry to hear. What will you do now?”
“There’ve been so many rumors,” Rhuímel said, waving us to padded stools as he sat down in his chair and accepted a mug from Lorra. “Tell us the straight of it, I beg you.”
“Rumors?” I asked. “My thanks, Marna,” as she placed a plate of small iced cakes in front of me.
“Aye, all sorts of things from your being kicked out of Shield & Hammer Company for smacking Ladramenhirion, to the King giving you a medal for it, to preposterous stories that you’re some lord’s heir who died so you’re going into exile in the North. And now I hear that you knocked over a vegetable stand and skewered a melon with your dagger!”
“’Twas Zoll’s flowers, and he defended it,” said Alta, exasperated.
“You did! Aunt Marna, we came to ask if Lorra might sit with Mother for a few hours.”
“Oh, good!” Lorra clapped her hands. “Can I go?”
“Please, may I go?”
“Yes, but remember to be quiet, and don’t upset Mistress Néntalma.”
“No, Mother, I mean, yes, Mother. Thank you!” and the little girl grabbed her cloak and clattered downstairs.
“Oh that child! She’s more of a handful than all five of her brothers ever were,” Marna sighed, at last sitting down to fix us with eyes as bright as Lorra’s. “And how is it you know each other?”
“Mistress Alatáriël Néntalma has graciously consented to be my housekeeper,” I said.
“But you don’t have a house, you live in the Lower Barracks,” Marna objected. Her hand flew to her mouth. “I mean, you did.”
“Well, the story about my being discharged is true,” I admitted. “I have been discharged for attacking that Healer.”
“Oh, Marpol, after so long a career, to end like that!” she mourned. “Well, at least you’ve your pension, ‘til you decide what to do next—although I wouldn’t’ve thought that enough to rent a house.”
I cleared my throat. “No pension, Marna. The rule is, three violent attacks on civilians in peace-time, and the discharge is dishonourable.” The words tasted foul in my mouth, even as I reflected that I had never expected to live in a time of peace.
“I never heard of that!” she protested.
“’Tis rarely invoked—and long since we’ve been at peace,” Rhuímel said. “But the other two instances were so long ago—you’ve had an exemplary record since then—“
“It’s done,” I said more curtly that I meant to, but it rankled. I forced myself to sound more cheerful. “But you needn’t worry, my friends, for the most extraordinary thing has come my way! The King has named me to a new position, the Warden of Roads.”
“Roads? But they’re already taken care of,” Marna said in a puzzled tone.
“Not between here and Arnor, they aren’t,” said Alta.
Rhuímel’s brows rose.”Then he’s really serious about ruling both?”
“But there’s nothing in the North,” Marna protested.
I grinned. “Not when he’s done! Think of it: roads for settlers to travel to new homes, and trade to flow over them, access to new lands that’ve been isolated mostly because they’re so distant! And ideas will travel too, on those roads. New ways of doing things—“
“What kinds of things?”
“All kinds,” said Rhuímel, catching fire. “Marpol, what an opportunity!”
“Is it?” asked Marna doubtfully.
“Of course it is! What a grand adventure!”
“But what are you going to do?” she asked. “Where does this house come into it, and you, Alta?”
“This is important to the entire realm,” I tried to explain.
“Lord Húrin himself said that my lord is his equal in rank,” Alta said. “He’s just under the Princes and Stewards in importance. Think of that!”
“Why, he is,” she said, nodding at me. “The King’s declared him Lord Tintehlë. I’m to keep house for him, once we’ve gone and looked at it, up on the next Circle, and run a few other errands. That’s why I wanted Lorra to sit with Mother.”
“And welcome to her,” Marna said absently. “But I don’t understand, do you, Aradol?”
“Not really. I feel quite befuddled,” her husband answered.
I sighed and pulled out the Commission and Patent. “Then read these.” The room suddenly seemed to crowd in upon me; I rose and walked to look out the window at the rear yard below.
At length, the rustle of parchment ceased. “It looks very official,” said Rhuímel in such a neutral tone I felt my heart sink.
“It is,” I said gloomily. Alta was talking with Marna in low tones.
Why would anyone be willing to give credence to any authority I had? I remembered uncomfortably the argument the day before that I had had with Haletin, the head of the Office of Works, who had insisted that his deputy, Minister Imrath, was in charge of roads, not some upstart, jumped-up soldier who knew more about manhandling and killing people than he did about protocols and traditions…and who had summarily ordered me from his office. If my oldest civilian friend couldn’t credit it, why should anyone else? He was right—it was preposterous. I was simply an aging veteran, cut adrift from the ordered life I knew and loved, my reputation stained. It did make more sense for me to be a laborer with shovel or pick, than the one in charge of such a vast undertaking. The King had made a mistake. I would fail, and disgrace myself even more than I had already.
Rhuímel appeared beside me, opened the window, leaned out and bellowed, “Neni! Neni!”
“Come up here, and bring Sharra and that bottle of Puenta White. Hurry!” He closed the window and took my arm. “Come sit, Marpol, and stop looking as if Sauron was standing on our doorstep.”
“I’m not suited—“
“Of course you are. I feel much encouraged about the future, now that I know the King had the good sense to choose you, much encouraged!”
“No buts! Not another word about suitability! Marna, clear the table and fetch out the good goblets! We must celebrate!” he said briskly as there was a knock at the door, and Neni, a younger edition of his father, but with his mother’s curly brown hair, came in with his young wife Sharra, a large green bottle in his hand.