Just as dawn was brightening the sky, I strode to the archery butts outside the City. Several Men were already practicing, and mindful of my ribs, I selected a lighter bow than usual and a quiver of arrows, before choosing a target and bending the stave, stringing it, and beginning to nock, draw, and shoot. My first two shots established the bow’s range, and I settled down to practicing not rapidly, but smoothly. When I had emptied the quiver, a small boy ran past me to pull the arrows out of the target with small grunts, then brought them back, grinning.
“Orophin! What do you here?” I asked in surprise.
“Helping you, my lord?” replied the boy with a hopeful inflection that made it a question. “You didn’t give me any duties, and besides, the maids were cleaning your rooms. And Mistress Nénharma—both of them—don’t need me this morning; they was well-settled in last evening. You shoot well!”
“Which is why we called him Thoronhen,” drawled a familiar voice.
I turned. “Which, while overstated, is still better than your name, my old friend!”
“Who’s this?” whispered Orophin as my former comrade came forward.
“I am Tambaro, the Woodpecker,” he boomed. “Partly because I can feather an enemy faster with my arrows than your master can, once he tells me where they are—“
“And because his beak is as large as woodpecker’s,” I added.
He gave me a long-suffering look. “Just because other Men are not blessed with a proboscis as prominent as mine—“
“Prominent! There’s hardly anything else to your face, it takes up so much of it!” jeered another voice as Vorondor and another, much thinner, Man joined the tall archer.
“Sure, and isn’t it a sad thing, when a Man can’t get away from such disreputable folk as this,” sighed the cadaverous man with a wrapped, sheathed sword under his arm. “’Tis a wonder I am as yet unwed, unmarried, and single, for what maiden, matron or widow wouldn’t favor or prefer me after shuddering away from their ugly physiognomies, visages and mugs?”
The King, clad in old leathers, sheathed his sword and stepped forward with Lord Húrin and Legolas at his side, laughing with the rest of the crowd. “Lord Tintehlë, please introduce me to your companions. Such old friends warm the morning’s chill for all of us!”
“You’re too kind, Sire,” I replied. “May I present to you, Prince Legolas, and Lord Húrin, Faldi Vorondor, my new quartermaster, formerly of the Shield & Hammer Company; Tambaro Maldréd and Solorion Rihan, also Shield & Hammer—”
“—But now part of his staff as well,” said Tambaro, smoothly interrupting me with a bow. “We have not as yet fully discussed our duties.”
“—And my young servant, latterly of the Citadel, Orophin Táralóm,” I ended.
“So you are looting staff from the Citadel as well as from your old company?” the King said with a grin.
“I would be best utilized, assigned and used for managing the ledgers, rolls and accounts,” Rihan said immediately.
Tambaro scratched his beaky nose. “And I’m not too bad at organizing stuff.”
“Materiél, accouterments, weapons—“
“’Tis like listening to jesters’ cross-talk,” observed Húrin.
I sighed. “Only if you haven’t had it dinning in your ears for the last twenty years.”
Three pairs of eyes looked at me accusingly and reproachfully, as Elessar chuckled. “With all of you to train this young man, I can count on his becoming a worthy citizen of the Realm, then. But don’t let me detain you further. May I borrow that bow, my lord?”
“Of course, Sire, although it isn’t my own; I took it from the common rack over there.” I handed it over, stepping back with the rest, and we moved several paces away.
“Look, my lord, if you don’t want us—“ began Tambaro.
“Oh, stop it, Tam!” Vorondor interrupted. “Of course he wants you, as I told you last night—don’t you, Marpol?”
“Then why didn’t he ask us directly, instead of sending you?” Tambaro demanded.
“Because I never thought you’d be willing to leave the company,” I answered. “And because it’s a huge undertaking—“
“Epic, enormous, immense—“
“Shut up, Rihan! Or did you think we’d say no?”
I took a deep breath. “Aye, I thought you would, Maldréd.”
“You dare use that name to me, Vittribula!” Tarbaro’s face was almost purple with rage. “And to the King!”
“ You never use your House name, and you’re the most prickly fellow I know. I can’t help being ennobled; that was the King’s idea. I’ll say the same to you that I did to Vorondor; you would only have to use my title in public. I’d be a fool to turn you down if you’re willing to join me, but if you intend to work with me, you’ll have to accept my promotion. I won’t take insubordination getting in the way of what has to be done, do you understand? But if you can’t handle that, then go on back to the City, and let me mourn the loss of our friendship.”
“You know I don’t use it! So why did you?”
“And I would continue to,” I said firmly. “It is your name, Woodpecker, and whatever reasons caused you to leave your family for the company a lifetime ago, that is in the past. You have rendered it a proud one by your own actions, and others should know that. Don’t you think it’s time you stopped rebelling against them and accepted your own merits and professionalism? Either you do so and work for me on my terms, or stay with the Company. Let me know when you make up your mind.”
Without another word, he turned on his heel and stomped away. Rihan shrugged and hurried after him. Vorondor raised a shaggy eyebrow. “Well, ennoblement hasn’t lessened your plain speaking, Marpol.”
I sighed. “What can I say? My thanks for trying to get them, Faldi, but I’ll stand by what I said. He’s avoided dealing with it for too long. Do you also wish to quit?”
“We haven’t even started yet, really, so why would I quit? And when are we going to get something done?”
“Well, I did ask you to spar with me,” I reminded him.
“A bit difficult, since you lack a sword to spar with,” he pointed out. “Pity you can’t borrow one from the armorer.”
“I shall have to obtain one, I suppose,” I agreed. “Still, there are some practice blades over there, if you care to get one for each of us.”
The bout was short and unsatisfying, for I was keenly aware within the first two exchanges that I was sadly out of practice and still very sore. Luckily, that could be remedied with his help… Vorondor allowed me to disarm him, and I glared.
“When did you begin pretending to be a pigherder who’d never held more than a stick?” I demanded.
“Good to know your head isn’t so puffed up with pride that you’re boasting of your skill,” he said blandly.
I snorted. “That wasn’t skill. You let go of your grip. I’ve seen that trick before!”
“Aye, you taught it to me that time you were teaching those mercs a lesson in that tavern in Pelargir,” he nodded, picking it up. “But what work can we get done if you’re laid up with a rib sticking into your lung? I know how you move, Marpol, and I know that bow was a good ten pound lighter draw than your usual. You’ve reinjured your ribs from last month, haven’t you?”
“Just two of them,” I muttered. “Had enough?”
“Yes, I’m hungry!”
Returning the two swords to the rack, and sending Orophir ahead, we began the ascent to the Citadel. By the time we arrived in my rooms, a steaming bath awaited me. Emerging to towel my hair and dress, I directed Vorondor to avail himself of one as well, and asked Orophir to lay out my spare shirt and tunic for him, even though I was not as broad through the chest as my friend.
Presently, we sat down to break our fast, and were about to begin discussing our task, when someone scratched at the door. Orophin answered, and Argarátar entered. “My lord, the day’s greeting. Please forgive me for intruding.”
“And to you, Argarátar,” I replied. “What is it?”
“Do you know this young person?” and he pulled Cardin into the room.
“Oh, Valar!” I groaned. “Cardin, forgive me! I completely forgot about you!”
He squirmed in the buhdelier’s grasp until he broke it and bowed stiffly. “My lord. I told him that you had commanded me to attend you, but he would not believe me!”
“We cannot allow just anyone to go roaming around the Citadel!” Argarátar fumed, looking down his nose as well as he could when the youth topped him by several inches.
“I wasn’t roaming,” Cardin protested. “I went to the door of my lord’s office suite, and waited in the hallway for him to come.”
“Peace, Cardin,” I said mildly.
He looked at me, turned red, and closed his mouth with an audible click.
“He is quite right, Argarátar, I did ask him to come. You will soon get used to seeing him, because he will be working as my aide and assistant. I apologize for not apprising you earlier that I shall be seeing various staff and others as necessary here, but I shall see about moving my offices to another structure once matters are more organized. Meanwhile, I would appreciate your not dismissing my people out of hand simply because they are unfamiliar to you.”
“If your lordship says so,” he said ungraciously. “Had I had a written notice beforehand—“
“I don’t know you either,” Vorondor said coolly, setting down a mug of the herbal drink we both favored.”Allow me to introduce myself: I am Captain Faldi Vorondor, his Second, so you shall surely be seeing me as well, but if you imagine that Lord Tintehlë has nothing better to do than consult your convenience to do the King’s work, you are sadly mistaken!”
“Vorondor—“ I began, but Argarátar jerked a bow in my direction.
“No offense intended, my lord! I am merely accustomed to the usages of Lord Denethor’s court protocol—”
“Better plan on adjusting to some changes,” Vorondor advised him blandly.
After a swift glance at me, Cardin said, “Master Argarátar, please forgive me for not expressing myself more courteously, and for not having the necessary letter of introduction.”
The buhdelier looked somewhat mollified. “Apology accepted, young ser.”
Orophin closed the door behind him, and I gestured Cardin to a chair. “Cardin, I do apologize! It’s been an … eventful morning so far.”
“So it has,” Vorondor agreed.
“No need to apologize to me, my lord,” Cardin said hastily.
“Have you eaten?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Well, have something to drink.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
“Cardin Forlong is going to function as my aide and engineering assistant in a possible apprenticeship,” I explained. “Cardin, Vorondor is the best quartermaster in the Guards; you can learn much from him, although I doubt you should emulate his diplomacy.”
“Ah, well, Marpol, that’s the advantage of being common-born,” Vorondor said easily. “No one expects me to be diplomatic; that’s more your area.”
“Which might explain why I’ve had to spend so much time in the past getting you out of trouble,” I remarked.
“Still, you must admit that sometimes my methods save time. That lickspittle won’t bother with his ‘advance lists’ of who to admit to your presence now. Who on earth allowed that daft list business, anyway?”
“I imagine during the War, many were fearful of spies, or worse, getting access to the Steward,” I said mildly.
Vorondor snorted. “And who had to waste their time checking a piece of paper that could easily be forged?”
“But if it had an official seal—“ Cardin ventured.
“Lad, any villain or spy worth his ale could manage to forge or bribe his way. I could have done it when I was younger than that imp there.”
“Enough,” I said, rising. “I’m sure the King or Prince Faramir will deal with the matter soon. Meanwhile, gentlemen, let us adjourn to my offices downstairs. I ask that you all manage to be at least civil to the Citadel servants until we are ready to move our quarters elsewhere.”
“So you do intend to do so?” Vorondor asked.
I sighed. “Aye, I do. Where, I do not know. Yet.”
Orophin cocked his head. “Why not at your House, my lord?”
“A good thought, lad, but not feasible. It has been neglected for decades, and despite my trust in Mistress Nénharma, I cannot imagine she would be able to order it soon enough.”
“Your pardon, my lord, but may I ask some questions?” Cardin inquired.
“That’s an excellent way to learn,” I answered encouragingly, ignoring Vorondor’s exaggerated sigh.
“But make them cogent,” he added. “That means significant, to the point—Astaldo save me, I’m sounding like Rihan!”
“A former comrade of ours,” I explained as the youth looked confused. “Ask.”
“Well, my lord, this is such a big and important project, where do you start?”
“A deceptively simple question,” I observed. “First, we must gather information. I need maps, descriptions of the old roads connecting the two realms, and a clearer idea of what the King wishes.”
Vorondor was startled. “Surely that is obvious—to Fornost Erain.”
“That was my first thought,” I nodded, “but nay, the King means to re-establish the old capitol of Annúminas at Lake Evendim.”
“But that’s just a ruin!”
I pointed out, “So is Fornost. No, I think I understand his reasoning. The Rangers of the North held onto that area around Lake Evenim tenaciously; it is the heart of Arnor, while Fornost was really only the capitol of Arthedain after its division from Cardolan and Rhudaur. We know little of Northern politics, but surely he intends to bring all three parts into one realm, under the leadership of himself and Steward Halladan. Vorondor, if you would talk with some of the Grey Rangers, I would appreciate it; ask them about the roads and trails there, and whatever else they will tell you about that realm. I suspect that Annúminas may not be as much of a ruin as we believe, but they’ve had a thousand years to be distrustful of anyone from outside their region.
“We also need to have a clear idea of what kind of roads to build or repair, where,” I continued, “so I need information about that—“
“You know how to build a road already,” my Second objected.
“I know how to build a temporary road for the military,” I corrected. “But I would have knowledge from other Kindreds to augment my own. The Dwarves are excellent engineers; the Men-i-Naugrim through Mirkwood and along the shore of the Long Lake has existed with minimal upkeep at least since the Second Age. I also want to have discussions with the Elves, for surely they have methods and roads of their own, or possibly a kind of bridge unfamiliar to us.”
“Are you going to ask Orcs or Ents?” Vorondor asked sarcastically.
“That is not so bad a notion,” I said thoughtfully, making a note on my tablets. “At least, I should speak with Lords Iorhael and Panhael about the orc-roads in Mordor, and all four of the Periannath about the ones they have in the Shire. They are more sophisticated than you might think; certainly the Ringbearer is very learned, and most likely his kinsmen are as well.—By the way, Cardin and Orophir, I shall need several sets of tablets, and a large slate board for making notes. You can get the tablets from Rhuímel’s shop. Orophir? Where is the boy?”
“He slipped out a few moments ago,” Cardin told me. “I thought he was going on an errand for you.”
“Confound it, no!”
“Sorry, my lord—“
“Cardin, I did not set you over Orophin, did I? Nor did I require you to keep an eye on him. You have no need to apologize every time you open your mouth. To continue with my answer to your question: I also need to know the condition of the roads that do exist—another reason for conversations with the Northerners and a survey. Rhuímel is gathering some of the equipment and books we’ll need, and as soon as I talk with—“
The door opened with a bang, and a rotund Man waddled in. “How dare you put yourself forward in this puffed up, pushy, barbaric, outrageous way!” he roared—or would have, if his voice had not been so shrill.
I looked up, raising a brow. “And you are?”
“You know who I am! And I won’t stand for it, d’ you hear? I won’t allow it! The Conclave will side with me, you know! They’ll side with me! You’ll end up in chains, you’ll end up in a ditch, begging!”
“With or without the chains?” Vorondor inquired.
“You think you can get away with mocking me? Me? I’ll see you punished for this! People will spit on your name! You’ll envy orcs their end, before I’m finished with you!” He stamped one of his (pudgy) feet, and stormed back out, still fulminating.
“Shall I dangle him from a window? Might let some air out of him,” suggested Vorondor.
“Don’t tempt me. No, we don’t have time for foolishness. There’s too much to do. Now, to get back to our discussion—“
Cardin closed the door, but it opened again immediately. I was about to snap my irritation for yet another interruption—by the Valar, I needed to move if only to escape all these distractions!—when I realized it was Prince Faramir who had done so. “Your pardon, Lord Warden,” he said pleasantly but hastily. “I believe your presence is required in the Hall of the Stew-of the Kings. Now.”
I had risen, Vorondor copying me, and bowed. “As you wish, my lord. I didn’t realize I was summoned—“
“Something’s just come up. Come, all of you!”
We hurried after him, and presently entered the great black-and-white hall, chill and echoing, through a side door. The King was seated at a long table before the dais with Mithrandir, Prince Imrahil, Lord Húrin, the Ringbearer and Lord Panhael, and a large group of Men in fine robes stood nearby, the fat man almost spitting as he talked, waving a long piece of parchment. “—You cannot allow this! It’s out of the question! He cannot possibly usurp my position in this—this unmannerly way! He knows nothing about it! He has no experience, no training, no proper background!”
“Enough.” The King’s voice was clipped and quiet—but cold, and actually stopped the torrent. “All I comprehend from your tirade is your outrage, which has certainly overpowered your sense of decorum. I do not recall asking for you—“
“Someone has to amend your mistakes! Someone has to protect you from ruining everything!”
He drew himself up. “I am Dorethorian Lord Imrath, the Minister of Roads, under the Office of Works, and one of the Exalted, of course! And I demand that that—that barbarian imposter be imprisoned at once!” A pudgy hand pointed at me.
“Ah, Lord Tintehlë,” said the King. “Come forward, please.”
I obeyed, bowing to him. “Sire.”
“Tintehlë!” snorted the Minister. “Everyone knows that that’s a defunct House! You’ve been deceived, Sire! He’s called Vittbler, a bastard so inept he was thrown out of the army! He’s just a soldier! He can’t begin to fulfill my duties!”
“The King chose to give me that title,” I said. “And my surname is Vittribula.”
“More lies! Everyone knows that defunct titles are under the control of the Office of Estates, under the Steward’s Herald, and that paperwork in transferring such titles takes weeks to be processed! But that viper has strolled in, taken over not one, but two sumptuous suites of rooms, and begun issuing orders as if he has authority, when he has none!”
“But he has.”
“He has not!” contradicted the irate Minister. “Not genuine authority!”
Next to me, Faramir closed his eyes for a moment and muttered under his breath, “Oh, Valar!”
I noticed that Mithrandir was smiling, and so was Halladan.
The King stood up. “Who am I?”
“A simple enough question, Minister Imrath. Who am I?”
“Erm, the King. King Elessar.”
“Precisely. I am the King. Your King, Minister.” With a steely rasp, he drew Andúril; its blade flashed as if in echo of its name, the Flame of the West. “I think that you might want to withdraw that last remark about ‘genuine authority.’ Make no mistake, gentlemen: I have been crowned King, and I mean to rule as King, not as some figurehead. I realize that you are accustomed to Lord Denethor, but he is gone and I am here, and there will be changes. I am not unwilling to listen to good counsel, but in the end, I choose how I will act upon my responsibilities. Lord Tintehlë!”
“My lord King?”
“Did I or did I not ennoble you some days ago, giving you that title and estates?”
“You did, Sire.”
“Did I not give you royal warrants and commission you to be my newly-created Warden of Roads?”
“You did, my lord.”
“Did I not tell you to use a suite of offices for your work, and assign you quarters in another set of chambers?”
“You did, my lord, although as soon as other arrangements can be made, I shall remove to others outside the Citadel.”
“I believe that some of the necessary staff and the requirements of my office will be too much of a disturbance to the Court.”
“A diplomatic way of saying that you have not received proper cooperation!”
“He has been impeded at every step, my lord King,” Halladan interposed. “Indeed, his offices have not even been fully furnished; all but one room stand empty even yet.”
“Not all have been so reluctant to assist,” I said fairly. “Indeed, Minister Imrath is correct in that I was remiss in not attending him. It is true that as a career soldier, I have little knowledge of civilian governmental hierarchies.”
“But as a career soldier with the Shield & Hammer Company,” Faramir spoke up, “he has proven more than once that he has talent and great skill as an engineer.”
Prince Imrahil leaned back in his chair. “I recommended to the King that he avail himself of this Man’s abilities; he designed a most impressive floating dock at Dol Amroth that no one has been able to better.”
“What have docks to do with roads?” demanded Imrath. “Nothing! His unsuitability is laughable!”
“And what have you done to maintain and improve the roads?” Elessar asked. “Have you ever even inspected them?”
“I am the Minister, not a minion! I have delegated. I have supervised those who arrange such things.”
The King said, “Know this, gentlemen: any office held under my rule shall be held accountable for its actions—and inactions. It is not enough to enjoy the prerequisites of office, and sit in one’s suite relying on one’s staff to carry out their duty unsupervised. Prince Faramir, what can you tell me about this particular ministry?”
“My clerks have found that it is riddled with corruption and inactivity, more a sinecure than a functioning entity.”
“Pure fabrication!” snapped Imrath.
“Minister, I know that you have not so much as gone one foot out of your way to inspect one ell of road outside the City—and your appointment is for all the roads of Gondor,” said the King.
“But the roads in the City are as good as ever they were, and the Greenway—“
“—Is called the Greenway because it has been so neglected, it’s been overgrown with grass for centuries! What of the city pavements destroyed in the siege? Has anyone seen about mending them, besides the Guards and civilian householders?”
“No,” said Lord Húrin. “I had to ask for help from the Guards. I asked Minister Imrath, but his secretary told me I needed to submit a form in quadruplicate, and could not expect an answer for over two months. Repeated requests have been ignored by both his office and the Conclave.”
“I have read the Code of Law,” Elessar said with ominous softness. “In fact, I have studied it carefully. I direct your attention to the section which states that I may dismiss individual Nominees and Ministers, who by long tradition and law all serve at my pleasure. And Imrath, I am far from pleased with you—and the Conclave—at this time. I am weary of your insults, rudeness, and ignorance almost as much as I am sickened by your cupidity, petulance and spitefulness. You have also insulted both the Warden of Keys and the Warden of Roads. What recompense they may require of you, I leave to them, but as of this moment, you are relieved of your office. Do not leave the City; you may be arrested on charges of malfeasance.”
“You—you can’t! I’m one of the Exalted!”
“And I am a descendent of Elros Tar-Minyatur, so I am not impressed.”
“But I have only done the same as anyone else!”
“Get them out of here, please.”
Two Guards hauled him, wailing, out of the hall. With a flurry of bows and babbled farewells, the Nominees left as well, quickly.
“Now, Lord Tintehlë, please present these gentlemen to me, and let us converse further on the matter of my roads.”
“Sire, may I present my Second, Faldi Vorondor, late of the Hammer & Shield Company; and Cardin Forlong, my aide and apprentice engineer.” I understood that he had not forgotten meeting Vorondor earlier at the butts, but wanted a formal, official introduction in front of these others.
“Captain Vorondor, thank you for your previous and present service,” the King said; Vorondor went to one knee, followed by Cardin as the King transferred his gaze to him. “Am I right that you are related to Lord Forlong?”
“M-my lord father, Your Majesty,” Cardin managed.
“I am sure that you shall do him honour. You are well-placed; I hope that you will learn quickly the lessons Lord Tintehlë has to teach.”
“I shall, my lord King!”
“Good. Walk with me, please, Warden.”
I walked with him, Halladan, Húrin, Vorondur and Cardin a few steps behind, as we went to my offices. The King looked at the empty rooms silently, although he paused to glance at the piles of books and maps on my desk, then wheeled to confront me. “What do you need?”
“Acceptance, which I shall have to earn,” I said promptly. “Staff. Information. Money. Supplies. Your permission to go to Arnor for a reconnaissance, so I have some idea of what is in place or needs to be repaired or built from scratch, and then I can begin finding workers to do it.”
“You already have some workers.”
“Well, you have some.”
“Who,and where are they?”
He suddenly looked uncomfortable. “They are prisoners.”
“From the Battle of the Pelennor? From the Gates of Mordor?”
“Some of them.”
Vorondor blurted, “Southrons and Easterlings?”
"Some. Some are from other allies of Sauron’s.”
“Orcs? You’re giving me orcs?” I was so appalled that I was less courteous in tone than I perhaps should have been. In fact, I was quite loud.
“No! No orcs. They were all killed or fled. No. Some are convicted felons from the courts. You may have heard that I held a Royal Court, a series of trials soon after my crowning. The very worst, like the Goldtrader, were executed. But some were not as evil, some may have forfeited their right to live in Gondor but yet may have it in them to repent, to make a fresh start. Those I banished from this realm, but sentenced them to varying terms of labour on the roads in the North.”
I sat down at my desk, staring at him.
Vorondor was as disturbed as I was. “They were bad enough to be convicted of crimes, but not killed? Just patted on the head and sent to Arnor?”
“From what I have heard of you, Captain, there has been one or another episode in your career when you narrowly escaped more severe punishment than extra duty or demotion, so do not act the righteous cleric with me,” retorted Elessar. “I did not ‘pat them on the head,’ as you put it, I stripped them of all they own and they will work out their punishment under you. I do expect them to be paid—“
“Paid? Will they form a Guild of their own, then?”
“They will be paid by my Treasury, part of those wages to provide their food and keep, the rest to be kept for the end of their sentences. I want them to repent their actions and resolve never to repeat them, and I hope also to give them some hope that when their sentence is finished, they may yet have decent lives, whether in the North or elsewhere. Some have been driven to criminal acts by desperation; I would not deny any Man the chance to reform his life and possibly benefit others.”
“Prisoners are ransomed, executed or slain,” Vorondor protested, “not pandered to!”
“I neither expect nor wish you to pander to them.” Elessar bit off the words.
I interposed, “Sire, we will of course obey, and that does answer part of one question, since you have told me how thinly populated the North is. Where are they now? And how many of them are there?”
“From the battles, I estimate some five thousand. Of felons, at the moment there are some ninety to one hundred, and I believe from what Lord Húrin tells me that two dozen of those are already on their way North. He could give you more details, or Faramir could.”
“I shall consult them. For the rest, I have some staff, I shall soon have some of the implements I need, and shall organize the trip to Arnor as soon as possible, with your permission.”
“You have my leave to go. Faramir and Halladan will aid you in gathering what you require. And you will receive more cooperation!”
“My thanks, Sire,” I said.
He nodded, and we bowed, Cardin belatedly emulating us as our King strode from the room.
Vorondor was shaking his head. “Marpol, this is a disaster! What a lunatic idea!”
“I’m not so sure,” I said slowly.
“You can’t be serious!”
“Think about it, Faldi. They cannot be ransomed, and they are not judged to be gallows’ meat, yet they cannot simply be dumped back into civilian life. As Tambaro observed, the army will be pared down for peacetime, so they can’t simply be dragooned into the ranks, and would you want someone like that to be taught how to use weaponry? I wouldn’t. Yet what is the point of leaving them to rot in prison, at the Crown’s expense? This way, we get some workers at what will probably be a pittance, at least in the beginning, and a chance to help them remake their lives. Not only are we, and they, building roads, we’re rebuilding an entire realm. Afterwards, they can leave—or they can take their small savings and settle there. This is actually a very clever idea. It’s the sort of thing a King has to consider. He has long plans for this Kingdom. I wonder if being brought up by Elves has caused him to think in longer terms of time, or if it has to do with being Dúnedain and longer-lived than Common Men, or a blend of both.”
“Well, this commoner is considering how we’ll manage them, and my mind is boggling at the thought!”
“Then it’s as well that we don’t have to have a plan in place immediately,” I replied, “but this news makes it even more imperative that we go North as soon as we can. I wish—“
I was interrupted by another knock at the door, which Cardin opened.
A dark-haired Elf said, “Your pardon, Warden, for our intrusion, but my brother and I thought that perhaps you might wish to speak with us. If this is not a good time—“
“It is an excellent time,” I replied, rising to bow. “Are you Elrohir or Elladan Elrondion?”
“I am Elladan, and this is Elrohir,” said the other.
“Le nathlam hí,” I said with a bow, hoping that I had used the correct welcoming expression.
“Mae l'ovannen!” they chorused.
After introductions were made and they were seated, I realized that Cardin was no longer in the room. Why were my younger staff disappearing unbidden? However, when he came in a moment later with a tray holding a flagon, some mugs, and small cakes, I forgave him with a nod of thanks. He quietly brought over some sheets of paper, ink and quills for each of us, and would have retired to stand at the wall had I not gestured him to a chair at the table. “This is my aide, Cardin Forlong,” I said. “Cardin, please take notes and join in our discussion.”
“Yes, my lord,” he murmured.
“Estel asked us to answer your questions, Lord Tintehlë,” Elrohir told us.
This was a great boon! For the rest of the day, pausing for a morsel at noon, we discussed their impressions of the roads, trails and tracks of the North; from the Great Sea on the west to the Misty Mountains, from the Bay of Forochel to the North to the borders of Gondor, these brothers had traveled many times over the centuries—I dared not ask how many—and had very clear memories for landscape and conditions at various times of year. We took many notes, and they were good enough to add in some trails not on our maps, with notations as to weather conditions and topography, local fauna and plants, waterways, and so on. To my regret, they could not answer any questions about the making of Elvish roads nor of engineering, for as Elladan explained, they had been trained as warriors, healers (although they both agreed that their foster brother the King had far outstripped them in that regard), and hunters.
“However,” Elladan added, “surely my father and some of his advisors can tell you more. Many at Imladris are far older than we, with much wider experience spanning the first three Ages.”
Cardin’s eyes were so wide that I feared they might drop out of his head, and even Vorondor seemed abashed by their length of years, although they did not look as old as they surely must be. But no Elf looks truly aged to our mortal eyes, only beautiful, graceful and remote.
Elrohir was writing on a piece of parchment, which he passed to his twin, who nodded and added something before handing it back. Folding it, Elrohir gave it to me. “We are bound to stay with our brother for now, else we would go with you.”
“Still, perhaps this will be of use to you,” Elladan remarked as they got up and we rose too. “But now it grows nigh to sunset, and we are bidden to dine with Estel, so we must excuse ourselves.”
I bowed deeply. “I am in your debt, my lords. You have greatly eased our task.”
“We are in yours, Marpol Thoronhen Tintehlë, for your wisdom and talent will aid Estel and his realm for many years,” he replied.
“If you think of more questions, send for us,” Elrohir added. After quick farewells (for Elves), they were gone.
Vorondor and Cardin leaned close. “What did they give you?” Faldi asked.
I unfolded the parchment and read aloud:
“To Elrond, Lord of Imladris, from his sons, greetings.
“Know that the bearer of this note, Marpol Thoronhen, Lord Tintehlë, has been appointed the Warden of Roads by our brother, Elessar King of Gondor and Arnor, and we ask that you aid him and his party in their work by permitting them to visit you and learn of our ways in order to assist in his Work.
“May the Valar light your road until we meet again.
“It is written in both Westron and Sindarin,” I added, “signed by both of them.”
“Where is Imladris?” Cardin asked.
“It’s their word for Rivendell, Lord Elrond’s home,” I answered. “Well, gentlemen, I think we’ll detour to take advantage of this!”
Vorondor blinked. “Well, I’ll say this, Marpol: working for you doesn’t seem to be boring! First the Conclave, then the King, and now Elves inviting us to their hidden home! How many people in the city can say they have been there?”
“Oh, at least seven,” I replied. “The Fellowship was there for some time in the early part of their quest. Lord Iorhael has a kinsman who lives there in retirement.”
“What a wonderful thing!”Cardin breathed.
Vorondor stood up and stretched. “Wonderful or no, it’s given me a thirst! I’m going down to the Spotted Dog for a drink and some supper. Are you coming, Vittribula?”
“No, I have some work yet to do,” I replied. “You go on. You too, Cardin. Both of you, please meet me at the butts tomorrow at dawn.”
Alone, I was busily rewriting some of my scrawls when some time later, an amused voice said, “Ruining your eyes won’t get it done any sooner!”
I squinted up at Faramir, who was leaning on a corner of my desk, a candle in one hand. The room was dim around us; I hadn’t noticed.
“Lord Faramir! Did you need me?” I asked, rising rather stiffly.
“No, I wondered if you’d be so kind as to accompany me down to the day-meal at my uncle’s. He asked me to invite you earlier, and I forgot. Please forgive me for that!”
“My thanks, but I have much to do—“
He waved my objection aside. “But I don’t intend to face the wrath of my cousin Lothlóriel for not bringing you as commanded, my lord! Even the most pressing work can benefit from some small time away, if only to have some food and drink. Although you might want to wash your face before we leave; there’s a smudge of ink on your nose.”
“I don’t have suitable clothing—“
“Do I look so formal?” he asked. “Except for us, they are dining privately. You are fine as you are. Please, come!”
I gave in, and after washing my face, and grabbing my cloak, went with him. As the Prince had said, the two of us were the only guests. Princess Lothlóriel welcomed me, and I was introduced to Imrahil’s middle son, Erchirion. Amrothos came late, and said to me over the sweet course, “I hope you do not mind, my lord, but I have been watching over the wall to see the great changes next door.”
“Amrothos! It is hardly polite to be spying on our neighbors!” Imrahil chided.
“Then scold me too, Father, for I also have been curious,” Lothlóriel said at once. “You are fortunate, my lord, in having such a good housekeeper. She gets more work out of your staff than most would, I think, with less trouble. All are interested in seeing it come back to its own.”
“Fanciful,” scoffed her middle brother.
“Nay, ‘Chiron! It is like seeing a poor dirty child, neglected and sick, restored to health, all the smuts cleaned from its face, its hurts mended and clad in clean new clothing.”
“It is always nice to see your enthusiasm, Lóriel,” said her father, “as long as you two are not being overly intrusive.”
“No, Father,” Amrothos echoed.”My lord, I wonder if we might speak of architecture—“
“Not now!” his siblings and father chorused. He sighed.
The conversation turned to other matters, and I left lighter of heart, deciding to stop at the inn to inquire of the Nénharmas’ welfare in their lodgings. When I arrived at their door, it was opened by Lorra; beyond her I saw Mistress Altara, seated in a low chair.
I bowed over her hand. “Good even, Mistress,” I said. “How do you here?”
“Very well, my lord! I am quite comfortable!”
“Where is Mistress Alta?” I asked.
“Why, she is still working at your home,” she replied.
“At this hour? It’s after dark! I shall fetch her back to you,” I said decisively.
“No, no, I did not intend for her to work so late!” I strode from the room, the inn, hurried up the street until I passed the House of the Swan…and stopped.
Instead of the wall of leaves I expected to see, the big gates were cleared, their dark wood oiled and polished, the metalwork gleaming under torches to each side. The smaller door was ajar, and I stepped through it. I stopped again.
The wilderness of weeds and overgrown shrubs and vines had been cleared away from the courtyard, which was indeed large and partly paved. I noticed a fine roofed well to one side, and some flowerbeds in front of the main house and its two wings; stables and storage were on either side of the wall behind me. The façade had been partly cleared of the ivy, and I could see that most of the windows had been unshuttered; soft lights glowed from behind curtains—curtains?—on the ground floor.
I found myself walking towards the front entrance; more torches burned on either side of it. Inside, the hall was clean and welcoming, with handsome tables and benches, a huge press, a mirror hanging over a low table with an arrangement of flowers reflected in its glass and the burnished tray beside it. There was even a Khandian carpet, its geometric hues glowing against the floor! In front of me a graceful staircase curved upwards, softly lit by a central chandelier.