“I’ll want you to go down to my House tomorrow,” I told Orophin. “Mistress Nénharma will need your help in beginning to get it ready for us.”
“Yes, my lord,” he said dutifully.
“But you may tell her I expect you to spend some time running errands; you need some exercise each day. Later I will see about your learning to ride and shoot and fence.”
“With real weapons?” he asked breathlessly.
“Well, you’d begin with wooden ones, before you try edged steel,” I laughed. “I want you to grow big and strong, able to defend yourself and me if necessary. Every Man should know how to handle himself.”
“Yes, my lord! Oh, shall I get the door?” as someone knocked.
He ran to do so, and a few seconds later, Lord Húrin entered. From the raindrops sparkling on the shoulders of his cloak, I deduced that it was raining. “May I have a few words, my lord?”
“Of course, Lord Húrin,” I replied cordially. “Please, sit down. Orophin, have we some wine and cakes for my lord’s refreshment?”
Orophin reddened. “No cakes, my lord, I’m sorry. We’ve just crackers and cheese.”
“Just the thing, if our guest doesn’t mind,” I said inquiringly.
Húrin smiled graciously. “More than kind, since I am an unexpected guest.”
The boy bustled out with the Warden’s cloak (once I reminded him to take it, and hoped that he didn’t simply dump it in a heap somewhere instead of drying it properly), and reappeared with a tray bearing goblets, plates and a knife, the wine, a corkscrew, and to my pleasure, a bunch of green grapes next to the small wheel of cheese and crackers. “A gift from Master Argarátar, my lord,” he told us proudly.
“Thank you, Orophin. I’ll ring when I need you.”
Taking the hint, the boy vanished, and I hastened to cut some slices of cheese as my visitor sat down. “Pray forgive me for not having more available. Orophin is new to my service, as I am to my new honours,” I said ruefully.
“No apologies needed, my lord. Or may I call you Marpol? For I hope that we shall be friends as well as colleagues,” the Warden of Keys said with a note of inquiry in his tone.
“I should like that,” I said cordially. I would never spurn an offer of friendship, having so few friends, and someone as knowledgeable about Court and City—and now, Crown—affairs could save me many embarrassments and missteps, helping me serve better.
“Good! Besides, you are far from alone in making adjustments. It is a relief to me that so many of those adjusting to great changes are of proven noble character even before their elevation.”
He was right! His kinsman Faramir had surely never expected to hold the White Rod while his brother Boromir had lived; the King himself had been a Ranger in the North before becoming King; and Halladan had as surely expected his brother (whose name I could not recall) to be Chieftain of the Dúnedain of the North. All of us were learning as we went—and then I ducked my head, embarrassed that I had put myself in such high company.
“But you are,” said Húrin. Shocked by the reverse echo of my thought, I looked at him to see him nodding vigorously. “Modesty is all very well, and surely better than an overweening self-confidence based on naught more than an accident of birth, but it will not serve you well, more’s the pity, in some of the circles you will now inhabit. By all accounts, you are a Man of great talents and skills, and the King is fortunate to have you. Many of my rank do not comport themselves worthily of it, but it’s to be hoped that his high standards will help them amend—or they shall find themselves on the margins instead in the middle of events. I’m particularly pleased for Faramir; he bids fair to have a happier future than I expected for him, and it is well-deserved—as it is in your case. If I can help you in any way, please tell me.”
“Thank you.” I almost laughed as a thought crossed my mind, and he cocked his head. “I was just thinking that I probably should thank Lord Ladramenhirion. Had I not been cashiered for striking him (not that that was probably the right way to conduct myself), I probably would not have accepted this position. I liked the army; it was all I knew from my boyhood.”
“Just Ladramenhirion, now,” Húrin said grimly, and I remembered belatedly that he must have known that Healer all their lives. “He might have been better off if his own father had disciplined him as a child, instead of puffing him up with the certainty of his House’s and his own importance. All too often a truth when it comes to the so-called Exalted Houses! No one believes in their pre-eminence as much as they, and some are going to have their noses permanently out of joint.
“But you might not have remained in the army in however long we have peacetime; no doubt it will not be the same, so not as comfortable to you. Still, you may find yourself consulting with the army in future, if and when we are tested to the South and East.”
“East?” I repeated thoughtfully. We had spent so long worrying about that area, but with Sauron defeated… “Of course, there will be those wishing to gain power there.”
“As true in politics as in warfare, aye. The Council finds itself in the unique position of knowing less of foreign nations than the King, who apparently traveled much in the past outside our borders and Arnor’s.”
I felt a stirring of excitement. I could possibly travel in actuality, not merely in my dreams or as I was posted! I should see about borrowing a good atlas of all of Endor, and of Mörenorë, that mysterious other continent below it. Then I smiled in satisfaction as I reflected that borrowing was one ingrained habit I could dispense with—I could now afford to buy such a book, and have it specially bound if I wanted, not that I would!
But Húrin was looking at me inquiringly, and I contented myself with nodding. “He had long preparation for this new role. His House name reflects that.”
My new friend laughed. “That sense of humour and word-play will stand you in good stead! Not less clever for being true! But if I might consult with you about something?”
“I am at your disposal,” I assured him.
“I wished to thank you again for this afternoon,” he said seriously. “That could have gotten really ugly, had you not exercised such restraint and decisiveness.”
“What has happened to the younger one? He tried to head off the other one.”
“So Master Zoll and Mistress Nénharma told me when I asked for their evidence. Cardin was released to the not-so-tender custody of his father shortly before I came here. He’s a good lad at heart, just coddled by his mother too long at their country house. No, I have few fears for him.”
“But some concern about the other?”
Húrin sighed. “I’ve known Erdil all his life, and he’s not taking his father’s fall well.”
“I know that his father is gone, but could his mother not counsel and direct him?” I suggested.
The Warden absently rubbed at his stump while shaking his head. “Nay. Oh, she’s done her best, but as most women of the Exalted families are expected to be, she has always been dutiful to her father and husband, deferring to their decrees. In public, the Exalted males are correct to their ladies, but in private, all too many of them domineer over them, and those two, being the highest of the high, more so than most. Erdil has not been taught to pay much attention to her, now that he deems himself an adult. And that bodes ill for any permanent alliance he may ever manage to make.”
“Perhaps his grandsire, if he still lives?”
Húrin grimaced. “Oh, Golantir Elena lives! He was slated to become the First Judge of the High Court of Justice, but those ambitions, as his wife’s social ones, are now destroyed by his House’s association with Ladramenhirion, even though he was pleased enough to approve and promote the marriage when Sirion approached him for her hand. He forced his daughter to divorce Sirion and change her and the children’s names back to Elena even before he was tried and sentenced. When Erdil was thrown out of the Houses of Healing—”
“Pardon me,” I interrupted, “but was he misbehaving there as well, with patients?”
“He was the oldest apprentice Healer, even though at nineteen summers he was old enough to have been a journeyman for over a year.”
“Why?” I asked. Journeymen were more highly regarded, in keeping with their added responsibilities to reflect and expand upon their skills. Most youths his age in the army were keen to advance, and I would have thought that would have been true of any profession, particularly if his peers were advancing and he was not.
“There have been Ladramenhirion Healers for over a thousand years,” Húrin told me. “At least four have been Wardens of the Houses of Healing, and Sirion expected to be the next one, the youngest ever to achieve that distinction. You may be sure that this caused much friction with Sirion, on two counts: firstly, Erdil was singularly unimpressed and ungrateful to be handed his apprenticeship there, while having no other notion of what to do with himself—even if his father would have ever countenanced any other path for him, which he would not have—and secondly, he saw no reason to apply himself. At that age, Sirion was already hailed as a junior surgical Healer, on an almost equal footing with Healers much his elder. Erdil could not bother to come to half his classes, much less do well on his examinations, and his churlish behaviour to those he regarded as beneath him did not endear him to most of the staff.”
“How many did he regard as his superiors?”
“Damned few, and often grudgingly unless they were of the Exalted too. Sirion didn’t really fault him on that, just that his laziness and glacial progress reflected badly on him. He didn’t really care if his son caroused, if he had done so once his studying was done, or how much money he spent—well, he may have worried about that, but mostly as a means to curb the boy.”
“Had he any share in his father’s crimes?” I asked.
“None. Sirion was mostly imperiled by his association, out of desperation for money, with the Goldtrader. If he had been willing to curtail his manner of living for himself and his family, he would not have been led into depending on that traitor for more and more loans, but it never occurred to him to stint in any way.”
“But if he had no fortune, surely the wise thing to do would be to economize,” I protested.
“Not if you are bred to have an ingrained sense of entitlement,” Húrin said. “You would economize, and so would I, but as I said, that never occurred to Sirion at all, at least in the beginning. If he thought of it later, it was too late; he was in thrall to the Goldtrader. He maintained during his interrogation, and I have no reason to doubt him, that he never worshipped Melkoth, nor had any idea of treason. He never thought beyond the convenience of acquiring the money he required. It was for those reasons that he was not executed. Of course, the unbridled arrogance and indifference towards patients is what completed his downfall and merited his sentence. In that way, it was unfortunate for him that the King is himself a Healer and all the more horrified and angered by that, that more and more people are realizing how important Master Clerk was, and the gratitude we owe the Riders of Rohan. Speaking in a judicial sense, each of those might have resulted in a much lighter sentence by itself, although each was serious enough; together, he was doomed to lose everything he possessed. His lack of repentance only made it worse.”
“But could Erdil not have still remained at the Houses, albeit as a regular apprentice?” I asked.
“Would you trust the son of Ladramenhirion to treat you or anyone in your family?’
I thought about it. “If I knew that he was a good Healer,” I said at last.
“Ah, but how could he become a good Healer if no one was willing to work with him, nor allow him to treat them to gain experience? And no one wanted to do either. Ladramenhirion’s downfall has greatly upset all the Healers, and the Warden was not disposed to generosity. No, Erdil had to go.”
“He would be old for apprenticeship in some other craft,” I remarked.
“Indeed, as Lord Elena discovered. The only craftsman he could find—at a hefty price to even consider it—was Merchond the Tanner. When he informed Erdil of the arrangements, the boy flatly refused to go stir pools of piss. The upshot was his grandsire’s casting him out, although Erdil himself believes he was justified in spurning the opportunity; he feels hard done by.”
“Could his mother not plead for him?” I asked.
“She dares not. Lord Elena immediately decreed that his name be as forbidden as his father’s, and now that she and her daughters are completely dependent upon the old man, she cannot imperil that. No Exalted lady is fitted for anything but managing a household and continuing their bloodlines, and how she is to persuade her father to educate her daughters or give them dowries, I know not. If they were boys of ages to be malleable, it might be different, but Erdil was the only son. He is on his own, lurching from one scrape to another.”
I rubbed my nose. “Scrape?”
“Borrowing from friends, petty pilferage, running tabs he cannot pay in taverns -- although that is lessening markedly as soon as they realize who he is; there is a great deal of anger among the ordinary citizens against his father, and they are quick to judge him by what they think they know. He has been getting into more and more fights.”
Taking a deep breath, I asked slowly, “Did Mistress Nénharma say aught than her evidence about Zoll’s stall today?”
“No—did he act improperly towards her?”
“Did she mention her brother?”
“No, what of him?”
“Tarlmir Nénharma died not too long ago,” I said awkwardly.
“Is that why she left the Citadel?”
“Trying to nurse him as well as her mother gave the head buhdelier the excuse to sack her, and then I employed her. It is the manner of his death I referred to.”
Húrin looked puzzled.
Taking a deep breath, I went on, “She told me that her brother had served in the army all through the war unscathed. As part of the Crowning celebrations, he went to a tavern with his fellows, and saw a wench being fondled by a young noble. The girl was resisting in vain, and Tarlmir, being a decent Man, tried to help her. A brawl began, ending with his suffering a head injury, lapsing into a coma, and never awakening. The noble in question was Erdil, and I know that she believes he may have been the one who gave her brother his deathblow. I am sorry, Lord Húrin.”
Horror creased his face, he put his hand over his eyes, and we sat silent for some moments before he stirred and said slowly, “Erdil mentioned some brawls, but he has been drinking so heavily, I am not sure if he even remembers all of them. Certainly, he was not taken up by the Guard—“
“He may have been gone by the time they arrived,” I pointed out.
“Quite possibly. I wish I had thought to ask Cardin more about the fighting. He’s a loyal soul, Cardin, but more aware of rightness, for all he’s younger and less sophisticated. If he’s been hero-worshipping Erdil, today may have ended that, I hope—or his father will. I pray that Erdil isn’t aware of the tragic outcome of his quick temper! I refuse to believe that at bottom he isn’t capable of better, if only he can be brought to understand he cannot go on in this way!”
“From what you say, he’s a spoiled brat with no conception of his own place in the scheme of things,” I said. “I knew a young man who rebelled against his noble and indifferent father by enlisting in the Guard under an assumed name to make his own way. He told me once that he had been so sickened by his sire’s determination to control everyone around him that he was determined to go his own gait. He was such an excellent soldier and marksman that he quickly was offered advancement, but his animus against his father was so great that he feared any responsibility past a certain point. It was a great pity. But by then he knew who and what he was, so was content enough. I wonder if Erdil only knows what he doesn’t want to be, like the young woman who wedded another friend. She wanted to wed, but was determined not to be told how to do it. The difficulty was that she had no ideas to substitute for those her family proposed, so the wedding became awkward and less than most would want, although she insisted it was exactly to her liking.”
“An apt example, that may well apply,” Húrin agreed. “At the moment, he’s cooling his heels in the cells down below, not that it’s occurred to him to even wonder, let alone worry, about what will happen next. He merely wants to be out of them and on his own.”
“What will happen to him next?” I asked after a long pause.
“That’s why I wanted to consult you. I have no idea! We can’t charge him; if we could, he has no coin for fines. Even if I sent him to Master Zoll to work out the damages, out of sheer spite he’d make more trouble because he’d feel he was being insulted by having to work for a gardener, and Master Zoll doesn’t deserve more trouble! Yet he cannot be released without some penalty, and it would be best to have some plan for him. Have you any advice?”
“Is he housed by himself or with others?” I asked.
“By himself, because the others beat him for his haughtiness.”
“Aside from his rebellion, obtuseness, selfishness and conceit, what is your estimate of him?” I asked.
“All of what you listed. He is healthy, attractive, well-educated, athletic, but he is also stubborn and determined that no one have authority over him because of who he is.”
“The who depending on the what. Why did you say athletic?”
Húrin blinked. “He has been taught by the best in fencing, horsemanship—“
I chuckled. “No offense, but judging by what I saw of him today, he was taught by those fashionably thought to be the best to teach those of his rank. I had no difficulty whatever in disarming him, and a real bravo could have skewered him without fear of reprisal. If you collected evidence from Master Zoll and my housekeeper, did you also interview Master Trahl, the fencing-master? What was his estimate?”
“He advised me not to forcibly enlist him in the Guards, supposing they’d take him—which I’ve been told they will not. Lord Elena had already explored that option. Master Trahl told me that Erdil has only come to his salle once, and not really expected instruction so much as flattery and preference. Erdil stalked out in disgust when Master Trahl demanded payment before lessons, and would not allow him to be there for nothing.”
I nodded. “What I’d expect, from my knowledge of him.”
“As he advised me to consult you, from his knowledge of you.”
Early the next morning, I went to my office after breaking my fast with Lord Halladan in his rooms, and was standing by the window when someone scratched at the outer door. When I answered it, I found Argarátar with a fat older man and young Cardin. “My lord,” said the buhdelier, “Lord Forlong and his son.”
I bowed. “The day’s greeting, my lord. I am pleased that the report I heard of your death in the Pelannor battle is unfounded. Lord Cardin.”
They both bowed, the boy reddening. His father said, “Many thought so, although I thank you. Nay, ‘twas my bastard brother, the only man in the kingdom who approaches—approached —my girth. Ah, well, many of us lost those we love. That being so, although I have several sons, I am not minded to lose any of them before I must. And that includes this youngest brat, who’s been sadly spoiled. I tell you frankly, I am not minded to be constantly pulling his chestnuts from the fire instead of tending to my own concerns!”
The youth ducked his head, his colour deepening even more.
“Were we still at war, young man, you’d be in the guards so that they could lick you into shape! Or perhaps I should foist you upon Imrahil, to row a galley in his navy.” Forlong the Fat glowered at his offspring. “But, no, that will not serve. Your lady mother tells me that you spew all your belly out if you are sitting on a dock beside a pond that’s flat calm, and with your luck, no doubt you’d be captured by pirates and I’d have to waste good silver ransoming you back! As it is, I seriously think of apprenticing you to that tanner Lord Elena mentioned to me, even though you’re old for it!”
“But Erdil refused—“ Cardin blurted.
“Which is why his grandfather’s disinherited him! You are damned close to a like fate yourself, boy! You continue to run with him, and you will be! I’ll have no wastrels in my family aligned with proven bad blood like the Ladramenhirions!”
I cleared my throat. “Pardon, my lords, but I don’t understand the reason for my being honoured by this visit.”
The irate hír switched his glare from Cardin to me. “Sorry. Makes my blood boil. My apologies, Warden,” he said gruffly. “To think of my son being brought home in the custody of Guards, for brawling on the public street! Hardly bears thinking of! And it will not be repeated, d’you hear me, sirrah? Now, apologize to the Warden!”
“I do apologize for my words and actions, my lord Warden,” Cardin said dutifully.
“Stand up straight, and look him in the eye like a Man, boy!”
Wretchedly, the youth raised his eyes to my face. “I am very sorry, my lord,” he repeated, and I could not doubt his sincerity.
I inclined my head. “Accepted, although the harm was not done to me nor mine,” I pointed out.
“I know that. I helped Master Zoll arrange his benches and wares this morning,” he said.
Lord Forlong jerked around to look at him. “You did?”
“Aye, my lord father. You bade me take him a purse for the damages, and it seemed only fair. He let me help him plant some of the flowers he’d brought into new pots. I never knew that one puts pieces of other pots in the bottom, under the soil. He says that that helps water drain without rotting the roots, if it’s a pot-plant.”
“That’s only valuable to know if I apprentice you to a gardener,” his sire growled, but I could see that he was slightly mollified. “Well, so that’s how you got some honest dirt under your fingernails for a change. Now, my lord Warden, you heard the boy apologize, so we won’t take more of your time. I’ll also give you the pick of my next litter as recompense for your time. You can’t say fairer than that.”
“Oh, I think I could,” I said, with the glimmerings of an idea in my head. “That incident could have expanded into a full-scale riot, if those who witnessed it had known who his companion was, with even more damage.”
“Exactly what I’ve been telling the boy!”
“And it greatly alarmed the lady with me. So, nay, mere words and the promise of a hound are not suitable recompense.”
“What?” Forlong’s surprise was almost comic. The boy looked confused and even tenser.
“I believe I spoke clearly,” I said calmly.
“You did. Pray speak further,” grated the fat lord.
“You will, I hope, pardon my not inviting you within to sit,” I said. “I meant no discourtesy, but as you probably know, I have not been long in my office, so it is largely still unfurnished. I also do not as yet have any staff of my own. Cardin, do you feel you have an obligation to me?”
“As you say, my lord.”
“That is not what I mean. Do you feel an obligation to me? I will not have someone unwilling, for you would always hold back. The task I have before me will require all.”
“What—“ began his father, but I interrupted.
“Pardon, Lord Forlong, but I am speaking to Cardin. You wisely told him to look me in the eye like a Man, and I speak to him as one Man grown to another. I am a plain one, so I candidly tell you that I require people to help me. The King has charged me with a position of great importance to the realm, to help him bind the two parts of it into one whole by means of roads. The War has left many with shattered homes, and so they will need to find new ones in order to rebuild their lives. Trade will flow along those roads, and much more. Are you interested in answering some questions for me?”
“Yes, my lord!”
“What has your education fitted you for?” I asked.
“Not much!” interjected his sire.
I turned to him. “My lord, if he interrupted your discussion of your merits as a breeder of dogs, you would be annoyed and rightly so. I ask that you allow him to reply himself. Would you prefer to wait elsewhere? I would have his honest assessment of his talents and skills. Your opinion of him is already clear to me.”
Scowling, Lord Forlong bowed and moved back a few steps. “Answer him honestly.” Crossing his arms, he turned his back on us…although, from where he stood behind his son, I caught him stealing glances over his shoulder.
“I fear that my lord father is accurate,” Cardin admitted. “I inherited my brothers’ tutors in schooling, riding, hunting, dancing, and weaponry, but I never applied myself to them as I might. I am a fair shot with the bow. I would not get past the first two or three passes in a tourney. I’m a good swimmer, but my lord father was correct about my not doing well in boats. I can blazon most shields and tell a House’s history. I speak passable Sindarin and Quenya as well as some Haradaic.”
I inquired. “What part of your academic studies did you like best?”
“Mathematics,” he replied promptly, “and drawing. My tutors chided me for spending too much time drawing maps, but I think I could find my way from one end of Gondor to the other.”
“And your shortcomings of character? For what were you most often chided?”
“ I was more apt to get into trouble for getting myself dirty than for mischief involving damage or hurting people. I really don’t like swilling ale for hours in an alehouse, or gambling, my lord, but…”
“Then why do it?” I asked.
He sighed. “When my lady mother told me to accompany her to the city, she stressed that I must not count on my lord father to make my way for me, considering all he must do for my brothers and sisters and their children after the damages suffered by Lossarnach in the War, that I must hope to make a good marriage and the best way to do that was to befriend sons of the Exalted Houses. Erdil was the first one close to me in age among them who was willing to include me, but I had to do what they wanted. With all the scandal about his father, now the rest won’t even speak to him, and it just seemed unfair—that was his father’s doing, not his. But he just gets more and more reckless and angrier. I hoped to convince him to moderate his words and behavior, not just abandon him, but he wouldn’t listen to me. I know that sounds weak and whining, my lord Warden, but it’s the truth.”
“Loyalty to a friend is a good quality,” I observed, “but experience has taught me that all the good advice in the world will not cause a Man to change unless he himself determines that he must. How old are you?”
“I will be six-and-ten winters old next Súlimë, my lord.”
“Do you write a clear hand?”
“I do, my lord.”
“If you must make your own way, then subject to your father’s approval, I would offer you a position on my staff as apprentice engineer and assistant to myself. The offer would include two suits of livery a year, a modest stipend, lodging, a horse, and instruction and experience in a number of disciplines, for a trial period of one year. If you do well, it would be extended for four full years. You would be expected to be honest, courteous, punctual, willing to learn, and responsible for yourself, underlings, and any materials given to you. But if you lie to me, waste money or materials, act arrogantly towards anyone high or low, force any woman, mistreat any creatures, gamble, get drunk, or conduct yourself in any way incompatible with the highest standards of a Man of your rank, then you shall be dismissed at once. This would commence tomorrow. What say you?”
His eyes widened—and brightened. “That would be wonderful!”
I shook my head at him. “Disabuse yourself of any ideas of wild adventure,” I advised him. “It will be some time before I am ready to leave the city. Meanwhile, there will be plenty of drudgery in organizing what needs to be done. You will spend the bulk of your time as a clerk in the beginning, and possibly gain some blisters, calluses and bruises, once I ascertain your levels of knowledge in several areas. This position will involve many headaches and a great deal of sweating and slogging.”
“But to have a part in helping the King—in helping the realm—that’s worth it!” he exclaimed. “To do something more worthwhile than wagering on which cock will kill another first, or which spun plate will stop first on a table—”
Lord Forlong stepped forward with a scowl. “If that’s how you’ve been spending your time, boy, digging ditches or stirring piss in a pit at the tanner’s would be a vast improvement! D’ you want to do this?”
“Yes, my lord father! Please say I may!”
“It is more than generous, and far more than you deserve,” Forlong the Fat said severely. “Go wait out in the hall until I call you.”
“Yes, Lord Father!” He bowed to each of us and took himself out, carefully shutting the door.
Forlong pulled out a cloth and mopped his forehead. “’Tis warm today, is it not? I confess it would be a great favour to me if you would take the boy. I’ve been at my wits’ end wondering what to do with him, after leaving him to his mother for so long. She’s my fifth wife, and he’s the youngest, so he’s been indulged and cosseted, I have to tell you.”
Fifth wife? I blinked. “How many brothers does he have?”
“Eleven, and seven sisters, although only nine of the boys still live. My oldest is near thirty years older than Cardin, and the nearest to him in age is some ten years older. Follinmer, my heir, has fathered six of his own, and I am grandsire to near fifty, and great-grandsire to sixteen, with four more expected soon.”
“A large litter,” I said, and winced at the bad pun, but he laughed.
“Well-put, and all good trenchermen except this lad. Takes after his mother’s family, I fear. I keep forgetting about him in all the clamor the rest put up when we’re gathered. Seriously, for all I’m angry with him, I doubt he’s a bad boy, just weedy and gawky.”
“It’s a difficult age.”
“Pups are much easier!” he said fervently. I stifled a grin. He continued, “I do think, though, that maybe someone outside Lossarnach might do better at training him, which is why I’ve been threatening him with the tanner. He’s not nearly as bad as that Ladramenhirion git he’s been running with, and while my wife is as sweet a lady as you might find, she really doesn’t understand what a Man needs in life. I’ll provide a horse for him when the time comes, and whatever weapons you think he’ll require. And you may choose a pup whenever you want one. May I ask, is it true that you have a friendship with Lady Cormallen?”
“I was friends with her late husband, Master Jehan Clerk,” I replied, taken aback. Were there rumors flying about us, even though I had only visited her home once? Surely she would not welcome them, nor did I!
“I ask because I know she has a fine dog; the King was telling me about him the other day. I would be interested in adding his bloodlines to my own kennel, if the lady might be amenable.”
Even I, a soldier, knew of his famed obsession with breeding dogs. Here was evidence of that, not of gossip! Relieved, I responded, “I know that she mentioned to me once that her mother-in-love, Lady Ornamir, used to breed small dogs—“
“Lovely little beasts, for their type,” he nodded. “Pity they're all gone now. Not only well-mannered lapdogs for the ladies, but highly trained ratters and retrievers of several sorts. I’m developing a new kind of lurcher, and some herd-dogs that look promising, as well as the gaze-hounds and scent-hounds. But I have heard so much of that Rimbor’s intelligence and steadiness, I want to see him in action.”
“Did you know that the King has charged them with helping our maimed veteran soldiers recover so much as they can?” I asked. At his nod, I went on, “Lady Cormallen told me that they hope to find other, similar dogs to assist those soldiers.”
“More than pets, I believe. You know yourself, my lord, how work-dogs are useful in many areas of people’s lives; this would be a new field for them besides hunting, guarding, and so on. If you wish, I would be happy to write a letter of introduction to the ladies for you—once we finalize our arrangement about your son.”
“You are most generous, my lord! Thank you! CARDIN!” he bellowed.
His son appeared quickly. “My lords?”
“We’re going home. Your mother will no doubt have a fit of the megrims, but pack up your gear, and get ready to come up here to begin tomorrow morning. Valar help him, the Warden has agreed to take you on for two silvers a week, more than you’re worth, plus the rest, livery and so on. Mind you don’t get into any trouble, because if you ruin this chance, you’re on your own!”
“Yes, Lord Father. No, Lord Father. Thank you, Lord Warden!”
“Well, we’ll see how you get on. Come along, we’ve trespassed on his time long enough. Please don’t forget that letter, my lord.”
“You may expect it tomorrow,” I promised, and with more bows, they left.
I glanced out the window out of habit, to see what time it was getting to be, and groaned when I realized it was already almost mid-morning!
But I could not leave quite yet; a scratching at the door announced another arrival. Sighing, I opened it, only to grin with delight.
“Vorondor! Come in!” I ushered him into my small office. “Some ale?”
“Too early,” he said as I expected. “What’re you doing here, Marpol? I was told some new court officer wanted me for something.”
“He does. I do. Meet the new Warden of Roads.”
“Where is he?”
I tapped my chest. “You’re talking to him. Listen, I have a lot to tell you.” Quickly I told him of my new status and position; he listened in silence, staring at a corner of my desk, his long face expressionless. I wasn’t fooled, however; I’d known this man for many years, through many campaigns and under many conditions. Whatever he may have heard—or not; he was notorious for being oblivious to anything he deemed of little interest outside his passion for solving problems and organizing supplies—he listened as I brought him up to date on all that had happened to me (except for more personal aspects concerning Mistress Nénharma) in the past few days. It seemed much longer!
He nodded. “You need staff.”
“I do. You’re the best quartermaster in the army. Would you consider becoming mine?”
“Start tomorrow, midday.”
I blinked; I’d expected to have to persuade him. “That’s it? Just like that?”
“No haggling? No requests?”
He regarded me from eyes so deep-set they looked almost black. “You’re a fair Man, Vittribula. I’ll my-lord you in public, but not private. Expect they’ll furlough most of the army, ‘til the King involves us in another war, which he’s bound to do, once Sauron’s leavings sort themselves out and decide to nip at us. This’ll give me some scope ‘til then. You’ll need my skills to forage up what we need. Besides,” his face crinkled in a rare grin, “I’ll get plenty of entertainment, watching you adjust to all this.”
“I live to serve,” I said dryly, and his grin widened, even though I added, “You’ll also have to adjust, and help pick up any pieces from my mistakes.”
“As if I haven’t been doing just that for decades,” he scoffed.
That was true, as I had picked up his. “Will you train with me tomorrow at dawn?” I asked impulsively.
“Down on the fields?”
“See you then,” he nodded, rose from his chair, and left.
I knocked on the door of the little house on Fuller’s Street; it was opened by Lorra, who bobbed a curtsey. “Good morning, Cap—my lord,” she said. “I’m helping with the move!”
“Grand,” I smiled. “I’m sure you’re a big help.”
That earned me her urchin’s grin and a skip of pleasure, but she walked sedately into the front room. “Look who’s here!” she chirped.
Mistress Altara was seated in her chair, a box of coloured yarns in balls and hanks in her lap. “Child, that’s not how you introduce a guest!” she chided. “Come sit beside me and help roll up this yarn. The day’s greeting, Lord Tintehlë”
“And to you, Mistress Nénharma,” I replied with a bow. “I hope this is not too much excitement for you.”
She smiled at me. “’Tis exciting, to be going to a place new to me! Alta tells me I will like it well, as I don’t misdoubt. An old friend is allowing us to store our furniture in his warehouse, save for a few pieces, and Neni brought down Russo’s delivery wain for those, and boxes and bags for our packing. The Rhuimiels are here helping with that, and the cleaning.”
“Cleaning?” I repeated.
“Of course! We cannot leave a mess for the next tenants to clear up,” Alta said from behind me. She had a big apron over her dress, a kerchief covering most of her hair, and a smudge beside her nose. How could a woman with a smudged face look so well?
“To be sure,” I said, and frowned. “I should have hired someone to do that.”
She laughed at me. “As if we have not a-plenty of help, without some stranger underfoot! Nay, we will leave the scrubbing to Uncle Rhuimiel’s apprentices, closely supervised by Aunt Marna. The place will shine!”
“As if they needed to do much, the way you keep it up,” Marna said, looking over Alta’s shoulder. She too was garbed in kerchief and apron over her gown, a broom in her hand.
“How can I help?” I asked, rolling up my tunic sleeves.
All three looked scandalized.
“You cannot possibly—” Alta began.
It was my turn to laugh at her. “I have spent the morning in meetings, instead of using my muscles as I am used to doing, and I have spent my share of time on clean-up detail in the past. Until I have a chance to train again, I would deem it a favour to be permitted to help. Put me to work. Please!”
Rhuimiel looked in the door, a burlap sack tied around his waist as an apron, wearing rolled shirt sleeves. “I heard that! You ladies may never have this chance again, to see a lord working! Here you are, I hereby pass on my baton; you have my leave to beat the carpets until no more puffs of dirt fly from them.”
“And why aren’t you doing it?” inquired his wife.
“I did, for a while, but I am now going to an inn to bespeak us a morsel of food and some wine, to fortify us for the afternoon. I also need to see some people who may have maps and materials Marpol has asked me to get. Orophin can come with me and help carry it, if he will.”
“Where is he?” I asked.
“Back in the kitchen, packing up pots,” Marna said.
I spent the next hour energetically pummeling two rather worn carpets hung on lines in the back courtyard into submission, relieved not to feel more than aches from those confounded ribs, and nailing shut some boxes marked for storage. We picnicked, sitting on boxes and the floor in the kitchen, but at last Marna united with me in urging Alta to leave the rest to her and her helpers.
Entering the front room, undisturbed as long as possible for Mistress Altara’s comfort but now in a state of upheaval, I went to one knee beside the lady of the house; I could see that she was tiring. Orophin and Lorra had been dispatched to return the (washed) dishes of our nuncheon to the inn, and Alta hovered at the door. “Mistress Nénharma, are you ready to depart for your new rooms?” I asked.
“Why, if it is time, but I thought that would not be for at least another mark or two,” she said.
“Willing helpers make for light tasks, so we are nearly done. Here is a warm cloak for you; will you allow me to assist you?” I carefully draped it around her and pinned it under her chin.
“My thanks, Lord Warden,” she replied.
“Now, if you will place your arm around my neck, I’ll convey you.”
“Oh, but you can’t carry me all that way!”
I laughed. “I intend to get as much pleasure out of your flit as I can,” I told her. “I’ve already defeated two of your rugs and six crates. I’m not going to carry you far,” lifting her light weight easily in my arms, “just outside. Hold tightly, now!”
Outside the door stood one of the sedan chairs and its porters, hired by me for the trip to the inn. Its door stood open; the seat inside was softened by cushions and throws I had borrowed from Marna and Sharra, and I carefully set her within. “There you are, my lady, a traveling nest to take you on your journey.”
Alta swooped past me to wrap her mother well, and they whispered together for a moment, exchanging a kiss, and she drew back to allow me to close the door. “I’ll join you shortly, Mother,” she said.
“Indeed you shall,” I said, my hand on her elbow, and turned her to see another chair. “Your chariot awaits, mistress.”
“Oh, but I don’t need a chair too!” she cried, trying to draw back. “I can walk just as well.”
“Ah, but then your mother will arrive alone, and might be chilled waiting,” I said craftily.
“Alta!” called her mother. “Stop dithering and get in! Don’t be rude to him for being thoughtful!”
“Oh, very well!” she sighed, and obeyed.
“Well planned, Marpol,” Marna approved. “She’s been up since well before dawn, sorting and packing. We’ll finish up here and give the landlord the key as arranged. Come down soon and tell us all about it, Alta! Goodbye, Altara!” she called more loudly.
Beyond the chairs, almost blocking the narrow street, a porter stood gingerly holding the reins of the horse Faramir had loaned me, a roan. I swung up and clattered out so that they could follow.
Up at the inn, Haldrin, his mother and two maids were waiting to welcome them, and I made haste to dismount and carry Mistress Altara up the stairs to her suite, setting her down on a low padded couch. She was turning her head to see the chamber’s details as Alta unpinned her cloak. “What a lovely room! I quite like it!” she said. “Where is yours, Alta?”
“Just over there, Mother, next to your bed-chamber. How are you feeling?”
“I want to see it.”
“Mayhap you could see it later, after you have a short nap,” said Mistress Haldrin, her fingers on the older lady’s pulse.
“Very well, I can lie down here,” she agreed.
“Nay, I meant a proper sleep, in your own bed.”
“Isn’t this my bed?”
“Of course not,” I told her. “This will be where you will receive your friends and pass the time. Open the door, if you will, please,” with a nod to the innkeeper’s mother, and I picked up Mistress Altra’s frail weight to bear her within to the other room.
Mistress Haldrin directed me to set her on a chair, the easier to help her disrobe and be tucked into the comfortable bed already turned down in readiness. Before I could straighten up, Mistess Nénharma patted my cheek.
“You’re a good boy.”
“Mother!” gasped her daughter.
I kissed the thin fingers and stood up, bowing. Alta followed me to the outer room, cheeks flaming. “She is overtired, my lord!”
“She is a lovely lady who has given me all the thanks I need,” I declared. “Don’t scold her, I beg, Mistress. I was glad of the privilege. Now please excuse me; I have another confounded meeting to attend.”
“It was kind of you to help us. I confess, I had not thought out how to convey Mother up here. I was going to ask for room for her in the wain.”
“Why jolt her more than necessary? And not many are using the palanquins just now, so it served well enough.”
“Thank you for your thoughtfulness, my lord.”
“Nonsense, I enjoyed it! Now I must retrieve that horse before he nibbles on Mistress Haldrin’s flowerbed and I’m banned from the premises!”
Forlong's death at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields is canon, yet I could easily see why other fanfic writers have happily written about him as alive post-War. This is the best explanation I could come up with as to his survival....