Where History Has Been Fixed
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Long Road Home, The: 11. New Beginnings
"Look, Mama!" Galwion climbed up on the railing, eyes glittering with excitement and red spots coloring his cheeks. He tottered precariously, holding on with one hand while the other pointed forward, beyond the bow of the ship.
"Get down!" Nîneth snatched her son up and hugged him close. "You don't wish to fall into the water, do you?" she chided him.
"No," he said. "But look!" He wrung himself from his mother's arms and again pointed.
Nîneth followed his tiny finger. Far ahead, shimmering in the distance, white walls gleamed. They seemed to cling to the side of a mountain while a tall tower spiked high above the city, reflecting the light of the afternoon sun.
"Minas Tirith, mistress," a voice to her right said.
Nîneth looked up to see the speaker was another passenger on the river boat, a small, rotund man with an easy smile and red cheeks. "It's not far now," he added. "Do you remember the address I gave you?"
"Aye, I do," Nîneth said. "On the fourth circle, the second street past the gate. And I wish to thank you kindly once more for your help."
He laughed and gestured with his hand. "Ah, 'tis nothing. Always pleased to help out a fellow cloth expert."
Nîneth couldn't help but smile at his easy manner. She had met the merchant, a dealer in fabrics, in Pelargir when she boarded the Swift Winds for Minas Tirith. He told her that linens, silks and brocades filled the holds of the ship, goods he was planning to sell in Minas Tirith.
"With the king returned, and all those fancy lords flocking to the city, and bringing their ladies too, there is much demand for clothiers. And clothiers can't make clothes without cloth, if you catch my meaning." He had laughed heartily at his own joke and Nîneth had taken to the man instantly.
During the journey, she told him about her skill with a needle. And when he heard she had no kin in the city but hoped to make her own fortune, he had insisted that she go see his wife's sister.
"She's an established seamster in the capital. Dear girl, you must go and talk to her! I bet good coin she would be most grateful for your help. And she is no niggard, she'll pay you well."
The winds, however, had not done the ship's name proud. They had been anything but swift and instead of bringing the balmy southern breeze that would have made for a speedy journey they had blown from the north, cold and fierce. The ship was hard-pressed to sail against both the Anduin's current and the wind. It had taken four days before the walls of Minas Tirith came in sight and Nîneth was glad to see her long journey was finally over.
Almost three weeks ago, she and her son had set out from Linhir, determined never to return to the fishing town that had brought them such grief. Hidden within the folds of her skirts, she carried a leather purse filled with silver coins. When she discovered the heavy purse that Erandír left for her, she'd cried like she had not done since they carried her husband's broken body home. His gift of coin, along with her savings, helped advance her dreams greatly, and she was able to leave Linhir not long after Erandír's departure.
Hitching rides with traders' wagoners and carriers, or walking when none would take her and her son, they had traveled to Pelargir and embarked upon one of the many ships sailing north on the Anduin.
The cloth trader was right; not much later after they had first spotted the white walls of the city the ship moored in Harlond. Nîneth gathered their few belongings, said her good-byes to the merchant, thanking him once again for his kind help and assuring him she would go see his wife's sister, and went in search of a carrier who would take her and Galwion to the city.
From his perch high upon the sacks of flour, Galwion's head swiveled in all directions. It was a joy to see her son so curious, so excited. There was so much to see, he could not decide where to look first. The crowds awed him, as did the general air of resolute bustle or the many carts traveling to and fro between the harbor and the gates. Their wagon crossed the Pelennor Fields, most of which were bare of crops, the harvest season over. But everywhere people were busying themselves on the land, preparing the soil for next season's seeding or repairing fences and sheds. It was hard to imagine the fierce battle fought here so recently.
Ahead, the city walls grew ever more imposing until at last they loomed high over the travelers. Before the gate, wagons queued up. They were filled with goods and merchants who wanted to enter the city but would have to pass the scrutiny of the guards first.
"You might's well step down and continue on foot," the carrier suggested. "It'll be a while, and you and your boy won't give the guards reason to stop you for long, I should think."
"Aye," Nîneth said. She clambered down from the wagon and reached up to lift Galwion from the pile of sacks. The wagoner offered her the small pack that held all her belongings.
"Here you go, mistress."
"Thank you." She hoisted the pack high on one shoulder. "And thank you for taking us."
He gave a shrug. "My pleasure. Do you have a place to stay? "
"Nay. I was hoping to find someone who rents out rooms. I cannot afford an inn, really."
"Try the third circle," the driver said. "Go left, after you passed the circle's gate, then right. Ask for Meleth. She's my brother's wife's cousin. She sometimes takes in lodgers. Tell her I sent you."
A grateful smile formed on Nîneth's face. It was good to learn there were many kind and helpful people in the world. "Thank you again, good sir. May the Valar reward you for your kindness."
The wagonmaster, a short, squat man with a loud voice and fists like mallets, blushed beneath her words. "You are most welcome, mistress. Take care of the little one."
Nîneth nodded, hitched the pack higher upon her shoulder, and took Galwion by the hand. They walked past the line of wagons to the gate where the guardsman gave them a cursory glance and waved them through.
They passed the gate -- and stopped dead in their tracks. If the city was impressive on the outside, it was more so within its massive walls. The buildings were tall and crowded close to the street. Nîneth had to crane her neck to see the rooftops. Beyond the roofs, on the higher circles, rose even taller buildings. She could still see the damage of the war, though. Gaps between the fronts marked the sites of collapsed houses but the rubble had been cleared and wide-shouldered men carried large blocks of stone to repair the damage. A pang of longing pierced her at the sight. What would Erandír be doing right this instant? Was he all right? Was she ever going to see him again?
Around them, people bustled in and out through the gate, jostling Nîneth and her son impatiently.
"Out of my way, woman!" a wagon's driver shouted, guiding his horse-drawn cart so close past them Nîneth had to jump aside, dragging Galwion with her. She glared after the man but he disappeared into the crowds without looking back.
"Lost, are ye?" Nîneth looked at the speaker, a one-eyed man who gave her a gaptoothed grin. "I can take ye. Where's you want to go?"
"I'll find my own way, thank you," Nîneth said. She did not like the way the man leered at her or slyly eyed her few belongings. Galwion shrunk from the stranger, clutching her skirts; she gathered the boy in her arms, quickly scurrying away without caring much where she was going.
A little while later, she had to admit that she was lost for true. The streets formed an impassable warren of back-alleys and dead-end side streets. She'd stumbled accidentally upon the gate leading to the second level but was unsure how to find the third. When the ancient builders of the city did not place the gates in a straight line, they did so to deny any invading enemies easy access -- but for one of Gondor's own citizens, grown up in the Hills of Tarnost, it was as impossible to find her way through the labyrinth.
When she found herself in yet another dead-end street, which stank of stale ale and garbage, she sighed and put Galwion down. The boy was growing too big to be carried long, and her pack grew heavier with each footstep. She would have to ask for directions. She looked around in search of some kind citizen who might steer her to the third circle where she would have to find Mistress Meleth.
Unfortunately, the two men who approached her did not appear to be friendly citizens at all. They were unsavory, unshaven, their clothes tattered; a reek of cheap wine hung around them. One of the men toyed with a knife, tossing it from hand to hand.
"Your pack, missy," he said, "and we won't hurt ya."
She shoved Galwion behind her skirts and clutched her pack possessively. Except for the purse hidden beneath her clothes, the pack held everything she owned, including the set of thin bone needles her mother had given her upon her wedding, and she refused to give it up without a struggle. Though her heart thudded in her throat with fear, she told herself she had survived whoring in Linhir's dockside taverns; a pair of ruffians would not do her in just when she was starting a new life.
The men approached slowly, blocking the alley and the escape to the wider street at its end.
"Stop, or I'll scream!" It was the best threat she could come up with and she was painfully aware of its inadequacy.
The men laughed and moved another step, relishing the fear they induced.
Another man appeared at the mouth of the alley. He wore a black surcoat over his mail, like the guards at the gate. Embroidered upon his chest was the Tree of Gondor and a sword was girded to his hips. Under his arm, he carried a helmet.
"What's going on here?"
The two thugs backed away from Nîneth.
"Nothing. Nothing. The girl's lost. We're just offering our help." They turned and bolted past the guardsman, who snorted and glared after them before he turned back to Nîneth.
"Are you all right, miss?" he asked. "They did not harm you, did they?"
"Nay," Nîneth said. "But I believe your arrival was timely."
She knelt to pull Galwion in her arms. Tears streaked the boy's face and he hid against his mother's breast. "Shh," she hushed him. "We are safe now."
The guard let out a breath. "The lower circles of Minas Tirith are not a safe place for a lone woman to wander around in. We of the Tower Guard do our best, but so many people are coming to the White City these days, there are bound to be some rogues among them."
Nîneth met his gaze over Galwion's curls. "I thank you, sir. If you could do me one more good turn?"
"What do you wish, good lady?"
"I do seem to be lost. I am looking for Mistress Meleth on the third circle, who may provide lodgings, and then I have a letter I need to deliver to the Lord Steward. Could you tell me where I may find either of them?"
The guard's eyes widened and he laughed. "Aye, mistress, you are in luck. I can take you to the third circle and I can deliver your letter, as I am myself on my way to the citadel. My duty starts in a few minutes' time. If you give me the letter, I will see it safely delivered."
Nîneth shook her head. "I thank you for your offer, but I was instructed to give the Steward the letter personally."
She set Galwion on his feet again. He stayed close to her, not letting go of her hand but staring curiously at the guard and the long sword at his side.
The laughter faded and the man frowned. "Steward Faramir is a busy man, mistress. So unless you have an appointment with him, I think you would be better off giving me the letter to deliver."
Nîneth sighed and her shoulders slumped. From the moment she had promised Erandír she would present his letter to the steward in person, she had feared it would come to this. How was she, a simple woman from a small town, going to convince the guards of the citadel that she needed to see the Steward of Gondor?
"I was told he would be expecting me," she said uncertainly. "I made a promise to a dear friend I would deliver the letter myself."
"Hmm." The man thought for a few moments. Then he shrugged. "Well, I suppose it won't hurt if you come with me to ask if the steward has indeed been notified of your coming. Come, I will show you the way."
The guardsman quickly led Nîneth and Galwion through the maze of streets on the lower levels, steering them through one gate after another, ever going upward, until at last they passed through a long lamplit tunnel that led into the citadel's courtyard. The guards, dressed like Nîneth's guide in armored livery and black surcoat, stopped them. The gates stood open, and through the arched entryway she could look into the wide plaza behind, with a sapling in the middle and a tall tower behind it.
"State your business," one of the guards said.
Her guide answered. "This is Mistress Nîneth and her son, Galwion. She has traveled from the south, bearing a letter for Lord Faramir. She says she must deliver it in person, and that she is expected."
The second guard eyed her dubiously and Nîneth was keenly conscious of her plain traveling garb. "Wait here." He walked away to confer with his colleagues.
A moment later he returned.
"Mistress, you are expected. If you wait but a moment, someone will be here to escort you to the Steward's office."
Nîneth blinked and nodded dumbly, startled into speechlessness with the sudden ease how something she had worried herself over for many weeks appeared to resolve itself so smoothly.
Some minutes later, while dusk was cloaking the courtyard in gray shadows, a page came hurrying to the guardhouse. "Mistress Nîneth?"
"If you would follow me, please."
She thanked the guardsman who guided her for his help and followed the page, forcing herself to stop gaping at the splendor of the buildings surrounding the courtyard. To the west stood the tall, white tower she had first seen from the river. From her new vantage point at its foot, it was even bigger than she had imagined, and when she looked up, she noticed that, while the city was already shrouded in twilight, the tip of the tower glowed red with the setting sun. Behind the tower, she glimpsed a magnificent stone building, the banners on its roof flapping in the evening wind. And to her right was another large, multistoried building with many windows.
"That's Merethrond, the Hall of the Feasts," the page told her, following her gaze. He pointed to the building with the banners. "And that's the King's house."
It was impossible not to feel awed by the grandeur of the citadel and the power being wielded from behind the walls of the seventh level. This was where the rulers of Gondor lived, where they decided the fate of the country and where they had plotted and won the war. For a moment, she mused on the strange turn her life had taken and wondered about Erandír. Her imagination, inspired by the solemn atmosphere of the citadel, fancied that the girls at The Merry Fisher had been right after all: that Erandír was an important man on a critical but secret mission for the king. Her more practical half chided her for the bare nonsense. He could not have such mission; if not for her prodding, he would still be lugging bricks in Linhir.
The page took her past the grand buildings, and turned left, where smaller buildings stood side by side. "The House of the Stewards," he explained.
He led Nîneth and Galwion up three stone steps and preceded them through a large door. The hallway they entered was lit with many candles whose light reflected on the paneling covering the walls. The wood was dark with age. Paintings hung in a row, depicting stern-looking men with strong features and gray eyes.
The page caught her look. "Those are the Stewards of old," he said. "Every one of them, all the way to Mardil Voronwë, who was the first Ruling Steward." He smiled, pleased with the opportunity to display his knowledge.
The faces in the portraits seemed familiar; however, Nîneth was afforded no chance to dwell upon the odd impression.
"This way, please." The page knocked on a door and when a voice answered from inside, he opened it. "Mistress Nîneth and her son to see you, my lord."
"Send them in." The voice sounded firm but not unkind.
On the doorstep, Nîneth hesitated, apprehensive. She smoothed her skirts nervously, pushed a wayward curl behind her ears and combed her son's dark locks with her fingers until he shrugged her away impatiently. She was acutely aware that she was about to meet the second most powerful man in the entire kingdom. Never in her life had she dreamed that she, Nîneth, daughter of a tradesman from the Hills of Tarnost, would have reason to interact with such important people.
But she had a promise to fulfill.
She squared her shoulders, took Galwion's hand and walked into the study. A man was seated behind a desk littered with papers. He stood up as she entered and she realized he was tall, wearing a long, dark-green tunic embroidered with gold thread. He was younger than she had expected but she could see a strong resemblance to his forebears in the portraits in the hallway.
She dipped a curtsy. "At your service, my lord Steward."
"Mistress Nîneth." The steward smiled and his eyes twinkled. "I have waited for your arrival eagerly, ever since I was first informed to expect you."
Nîneth blinked. "My lord?"
He chuckled. "You carry a letter for me?"
"Aye, lord." She fumbled through her pack, inwardly cursing herself she had not taken the letter out earlier, and handed him the sealed envelope. She was chagrined to see it was crumpled from the long journey, but the steward did not seem to mind. He tapped the envelope in his palm thoughtfully. Then he waved at her to take a seat while he tore the seal.
Nîneth glanced around and for the first time noticed the chairs drawn up near the desk. She cautiously settled herself in one and heaved Galwion onto her lap before he could slither away and explore the study. The room was silent except for the occasional hiss from one of the lamps or the crackling of the small fire in the hearth.
The steward was deeply engrossed in the letter, sometimes frowning, now opening his eyes wide in indignation, even chuckling at one point. While he read, Nîneth took the opportunity to look around the study unobserved. Dark, heavy velvet curtains hid the windows and prevented anyone from seeing in. Bookcases lined one wall, filled with leather volumes that looked old and worn. Among the books, other things took up room on the shelves. There were silver goblets, finely wrought; half-unrolled maps; a chessboard with stone pieces set meticulously in the center of their squares; a simple white rod whose purpose she could not determine, and, strangely, one cloven horn. She wondered for a moment why someone would keep a broken instrument.
At last, the steward put the letter down and turned his eyes upon her. He gazed at her intently and she forced herself not to shrink from his scrutiny. She feared what Erandír might have said about her past in this letter; yet even as the thought crossed her mind she silently admonished herself for her foolishness. Undoubtedly someone who wrote letters to Gondor's Steward had more important issues to speak about than a whore.
"So, you have lost your husband and home in the war," he said at last, surprising her. He leaned back in his chair, folding his hands before him.
"Aye, my lord."
"And I am beseeched to see that you are compensated for your loss and help you start anew here in Minas Tirith."
Nîneth wasn't sure whether to be embarrassed or annoyed. "Is that what Erandír says?"
"Erandír?" He frowned.
"The man who wrote you the letter, my lord."
"Ah, yes, of course." For a moment he looked worried.
"I know that's not his real name," Nîneth said in an attempt to put the steward's concerns to rest. "He said it no longer mattered."
Gondor's second in command made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a snort. He muttered something below his breath, so softly that Nîneth failed to catch it. Again, she wondered who her friend really was, and then decided she did not want to know. It was best never to meddle in the affairs of others, especially those of mighty lords. The thought scared her.
"I'm very grateful to Lord Erandír for his concern but I truly have no need for your help," she hurriedly added. "I am a skilled seamstress and I've been told where I might find work. We will be fine, Galwion and I."
She lifted her son from her lap so she could stand up. "I have delivered my letter and kept my promise, so I believe I should best be on my way, my lord. 'Tis getting late and you must have more important things--"
"Whoa!" He held up his hands. "Not so quickly, mistress. I would hear your tale, if you please. I understand you spent quite some time with... Erandír. Can I send for some refreshments?"
He rung a bell and an instant later a maid appeared in the doorway. The steward ordered sweet cakes, fruit tarts and mulled wine. "And some cider for the boy," he added at the last instant. The maid curtsied and the door closed.
A short while later, Galwion was hungrily stuffing himself with the delicacies the steward had ordered while Nîneth spoke. She quickly discovered that Steward Faramir was an easy man to tell a tale to; he listened intently. More so even than Erandír, in whom she had recognized a kindred spirit; someone who lost everything, including himself, in the war that had ravished the country.
Hers was a long tale, and while she spoke, her son, exhausted from the long journey and full with sweets, dozed off in the chair beside her. She had almost finished her story, telling the steward about how she had found the purse Erandír had left her, when muted voices sounded in the hallway. The door banged open without further warning and a tall, dark-haired man strode in. He wore dark gray trousers and a long-sleeved tunic of expensive-looking burgundy silk. Intricate patterns in white and yellow embellished the hem and collar.
"Faramir! You are not working still, are you? I unexpectedly find myself with an evening bereft of duties and--" The newcomer caught sight of Nîneth. "My apologies. I did not know you had a visitor."
The steward had sprung to his feet and Nîneth thought it wise to follow suit. Someone dressed as lavishly, who could just walk into the steward's study without even bothering to knock, had to be an important person.
"My lord," the steward said, "may I present Mistress Nîneth from Linhir?" Was it her imagination, or did a soft blush creep onto his cheeks?
Nîneth had no chance to dwell on the observation for long. When his next words sank in, it was her turn to blush furiously while she tried to curtsy and smooth her skirts at the same time.
"King Elessar Telcontar, King of Gondor and Lord of the West--"
"Enough with the titles, Faramir," the king chided his steward. "You are frightening the poor woman." He turned to Nîneth. "Do not look so perturbed, mistress. I do not bite."
Nîneth swallowed, searching for her voice.
"Are you a real king?" a small voice behind her asked. She whipped around to see her son rub the sleep from his eyes while he stared curiously at King Elessar. "Like in the stories?"
"Galwion!" Nîneth hissed. But the king laughed.
"Yes, I am," he said and knelt before the chair to look the boy in the eye. "I even have a real crown with jewels."
"You do?" The boy's brow furrowed when his gaze lifted to the top of the king's head. "Where is it? Why are you not wearing it?"
"Because," the king lowered his voice and explained in a conspiratorial tone, "such a crown is very heavy. It makes my head hurt. But shh, do not tell anyone, all right?"
Galwion giggled. "All right. I promise."
The king straightened. "I will leave you now," he said, "so you and Faramir can continue your conversation. I shall see you tomorrow, Faramir."
"Of course, my lord."
Nîneth found that her knees were shaking badly and the curtsy she gave upon the king's departure turned into a rather undignified drop onto the chair. Fortunately, the door had already closed.
Galwion was pulling on her sleeve. "Mama! That man says he is the King!" His eyes sparkled
She offered her son a tremulous smile but did not yet trust her voice enough to speak. Strangely, it seemed as if the steward was also shaken by the king's sudden appearance. Something in his demeanor had changed and he seemed far less amicable. He no longer smiled; there was nothing that hinted at his earlier interest when he refolded the letter she had given him and put it back in its envelope.
"Do you have lodging?" he asked.
"Eh... Yes, my lord." His abruptness startled Nîneth into a stammer. "Aye, I was going to see a woman on the third level. I've been told she takes in lodgers."
Steward Faramir shook his head. "It is late," he said. "You cannot go present yourself to a woman's boardinghouse at this hour; she would be most unwise to open the door for you. Here," he plucked a gold coin from his pocket and slid it across the table. "I have kept you past a reasonable hour and thus kept you from finding a place to stay. I will have one of the guards escort you and your boy to the Moon And Stars. It is a very respectable inn where you will be safe for the night."
Nîneth hesitated a moment before she took the coin. "Thank you, my lord. You are most kind."
A hint of a smile returned to his face. "I must thank you, mistress. You do not know how much I enjoyed hearing your story."
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