1. Skadi in Shadow
Note: Queen Beruthiel is known only in fleeting scraps of Tolkien's work; most of my information is speculation and was cross-verified at http://www.digbum.com/otherhands/archives/articles/3/journey_in_the_dark.html. One fact that is most certainly not based in JRR's canon, however, is the name of the good lady's favorite cat. That, also, is for Jewelweed.
PS: If my continuity/characterization of ancient Middle-Earth civilizations is imperfect, well, sue me. Ever try to READ the Silmarillion cover-to-cover?! Not saying that I HAVEN'T, just...for Eru's sake, have mercy. I did my best. Hey, YOU try explaining why the king of Gondor wed an Black Númenorean lady when even JRR himself shied away from it!
"Do not be afraid! I have been with [Gandalf] on many a journey, if never on one so dark; and there are tales of Rivendell of greater deeds of his than any that I have seen. He will not go astray -- if there is any path to find. He has led us in here against our fears, but he will lead us out again, at whatever cost to himself. He is surer of finding the way home in a blind night than the cats of Queen Berúthiel."
-- Aragorn, "A Journey In The Dark," The Fellowship Of The Ring
She hated the sea.
She hated the very sound of it, the quarrelsome shriek of gulls and the constant shuffle of waves on shale. She hated the endless grey nothingness to the west, and the colorless murk of the estuary port below her southern tower windows. She hated the smell of seaweed and tar and small dead things, the miasma of the muddy mire which sucked toothlessly at the arched stone feet of the King's House. And she especially hated the salt wind that whipped her thick dark tresses into a matted ruin.
She did not like Osgiliath.
Sometimes she was able to escape to the north for a day, riding and riding until she could bask in the warm embrace of land untainted by the stink of dead fish and human waste. She delighted in quiet birdsong and the dappled flash of startled deer. But she could not ride far enough in a day to reach mountain nor forest. After a few hours of clean sunshine she would tire of the dull flat lands and, reluctantly, rein in her mount and canter homewards.
She was beginning to hate Gondor.
Despite a similarity of height and coloring, these people were not her own. The Gondorians, noble and common alike, revelled in the fading glory of ancestors who had passed over sea to dwell in lands granted by the gods themselves. They did not trust a queen born of Umbar far to the south -- a barbarian witch whose forebears had turned willfully away from the light of the West. Or so they muttered behind closed shutters and closed faces. Never mind that her own line was as ancient as their own. Never mind that, in the end, their oh-so-exalted ancestors had let their legacy slip between greedy fingers and shatter like crystal on a stone floor.
Someday soon she felt that she might hate her husband, too.
He was a good man, this was true; she would never have consented to marry him otherwise. He had stonily weathered the outrage of his steward, his advisors, and his people, none of whom had approved of his decision to bring her bloodline back into the Númenorean line. It was not a decision that had endeared her to her own kith, either, but they were of a more practical mindset: the renewed (if uneasy) kinship kept the Gondorians to their own side of the Harondor wastes, and...
Berúthiel pulled her dark silver-edged robe closer to her body and turned away from the window, away from the sound and smell of the sea. Her bare feet were silent on black fur rugs as she drifted to the other side of her spartan chambers, there to gaze down from another archway set opposite to the first. Cooking smoke, a thready fading duel of hawkers' cries, and the final distinctive clang on metal on anvil announced that evening had finally overtaken the new center of trade on the mouth of the Anduin.
This as-yet nameless town had not existed two years ago when the Ship-King had quested south -- to survey his lands, to hunt for sport, and perhaps to renegotiate a border or two with the southern lords. It had gone badly, as usual. Any attempt at compromise between Gondor and Umbar was foolish...but yet, as the rulers' optimism waxed and waned, every so often it was attempted. And, inevitably, it failed. The cycle was as predictable as the tides.
Except this time the king of Gondor had ridden home with a lady of Umbar at his side.
Berúthiel was the oldest of three girls; she was beautiful and headstrong and hot-tempered, but this was perfectly normal for a lady of her breeding in the southern lands and thus was nothing to be remarked at. Her father had no heir, which was also no cause for concern; her middle sister had already spawned a healthy crop of nephews.
No, Berúthiel's own part in the family had become something far different the day she'd caught the eye of Tarannon Falastur, the Gondorian lord with the overblown sense of his own worth. "King of the coasts" indeed...an arrogant man, with a lust for complete control of the western shores and thus a man worth watching. Thus, now, was his new wife's lot in life: to watch, to listen, to learn what she could of their northern cousins from behind the mask of a perfect queen.
But...she was not perfect. She'd done her best, of course. She was a good actress and a quick study; faces, names, heraldry, traditions, etiquette -- nothing escaped her keen eye and sharp mind. She smiled prettily at Tarannon's side and was charming to the common folk and, in short, did all that was required of her. All.
Except she was not Gondorian. And this she could not change.
Berúthiel set her cheek on her fist and let her face fall into an entirely unqueenlike scowl. She could not hide her distaste for her husband's element, not after her first sea voyage had left her violently sick all over her robes of state. She had not attended a voyage since, and this was seen as filial disloyalty on her part. She clad herself and her royal apartments in her family's silver-and-sable...only to find that the servants were spinning fanciful tales which painted her as an ebon-clad sorceress lurking, spider-like, in a gloomy tomb.
It seemed that she simply could not succeed in the eyes of her husband's people. Even her idle attempt the previous spring to create a civilized garden had been greeted with askance glances. Apparently bright useless flowers would have been a more "appropriate" choice for a queen! she snarled to herself. Brooding, she stared sightlessly down at sculptures amid a riot of now untended hedges -- and something brushed against her ankle.
The cloud gathering on her brow vanished. "Parvati, darling!" she cried as she bent to scoop the cat into her arms. The cat, in turn, burst into a rumbling purr, paws kneading her breast in a motion so familiar that it brought tears to her eyes. She'd always loved cats and kept them near for comfort. Her two favorites (quite unhappily packed in wicker baskets) had accompanied the new queen north to Osgiliath, and two litters since had brought the number up to a lucky ten.
Gondorians did not keep cats as pets. Cats ran wild in the alleys, ever useful as ratcatchers, but as pets? It was not usual. Not unheard of, but not usual. Berúthiel snorted. Perhaps that was the problem, then. People who did not like cats were, in her opinion, quite severely flawed.
Parvati had paused in her ecstatic kneading to look up into her mistress' eyes. The cat's green gaze widened to convey a wordless burst of information which ranged from the completely trivial to the idly amusing, mostly in regards to mice, sunny windowsills, and how to sneak into the stables if you were less than a foot high. Berúthiel smiled absently and scratched the cat's jaw. Nothing of interest today, at least not to a human. Sometimes, though...
The cat shoved insistantly at her hand. When Berúthiel looked back down, she was astonished to find the cat conveying...curiosity? helpfulness? In short, a question: What would you like me to tell you?
The queen blinked, staggered. She had shown an affinity for the feline mind as a very young age. When her mother's mother had thus taught her to commune with the fickle creatures, she had made one fact very clear: a cat will tell you what it wants to tell you, when it wants to tell you, how it wants to tell you. This was why the skill had never been more than a stables-and-hearth amusement. A cat might theoretically make a good spy, but you could not order its path nor to reliably retrieve the desired information.
And yet Parvati was still peering owlishly up at her, one paw now resting against her chin, brow furrowed and whiskers canted forward. The echo of her very uncatlike feeling/thought/question was even more insistent now.
What would you like us to tell you?
Berúthiel blinked and realized, with a shiver down her spine, that the other nine cats -- Parvati's mate, their three grown kittens, the five half-grown babies just now old enough to explore the river fastness -- had drifted over to sit in an eerie semicircle at her feet. One of the lanky little ones, pure white from ears to paw, reached up to set her claws almost delicately into the hem of her mistress' robe.
For a long moment Berúthiel simply stared from cat to cat, Parvati forgotten in her arms. The sun was setting low, and with no western window and no fire yet banked the evening darkness was falling fast...
Without thought, she sank down into the windowseat -- and the spell was broken by a sudden swarming lapful of purring fur. It occurred to her then, to her embarrassed relief, that she had not yet set out her feline companions' dinner for the evening. She blushed hotly at her own flight of fancy. That lack must have accounted for their strange behavior.
However, as if reading her thoughts (which was quite likely) Parvati urgently butted her beneath the chin. The queen tried to offer a laughing apology for supper's lateness, and the words died in her mouth. The cat's startling query was back. She had not imagined it after all. It was stronger. And it was expanding into a ripple of mental echoes first one then another of her feline retinue picked up this strange new idea: to actively seek information that their mistress would appreciate.
But...how could they-- Then she understood. Sometimes, amidst the torrent of idle mouse-trivia, a piece of human news would bob to the surface. A glimpse of an illicit tryst, perhaps, or an overheard snippet of a secret meeting -- words and images meaningless to cat but noteworthy when repeated verbatim to mistress...
She had to admit that she enjoyed these guilty little scraps of gossip. Her cats remembered her infrequent smiles. And now, though she knew not why...they were seemed willing to devote their feline wiles to a most unfeline pursuit: to seek information useless to catkind.
Merely to amuse her.
All ten cats were gazing steadily up at her now. If not for the warm glow of affection in their eyes this might have unnerved her. As it was, she was certainly uneasy enough! Ten cats could deliver the city's every weakness, every failing, into her hands without anyone ever being the wiser. Was this wrong?
...or...was this not exactly why she had wed the king of a hostile land? Why she bore his pig-headed arrogant subjects' emnity with a painted smile? Why she tolerated the sight, sound, and smell of the accursed ocean...?
She decided. She did not need to speak a word aloud -- they knew. Without hesitation every last one of Queen Berúthiel's cats slipped away, whiskers a'bristle with curiosity and tails flicking deviously as they set out to hunt whispers and secrets as easily as they caught mice. The white kitten was the last to vanish into the evening shadows of Osgiliath.
"[Queen Berúthiel] was the nefarious, solitary, and loveless wife of Tarannon, twelfth King of Gondor (Third Age 830-913) and first of the 'Ship-kings,' who took the crown in the name of Falastur 'Lord of the Coasts,' and was the first childless king (The Lord Of The Rings, Appendix A, I, ii and iv). Berúthiel lived in the King's House in Osgiliath, hating the sounds and smells of the sea and the house that Tarannon built below Pelargir 'upon arches whose feet stood deep in the wide waters of Ethir Anduin'; she hated all making, all colours and elaborate adornment, wearing only black and silver and living in bare chambers, and the gardens of the house in Osgiliath were filled with tormented sculptures beneath cypresses and yews. She had nine black cats and one white, her slaves, with whom she conversed, or read their memories, setting them to discover all the dark secrets of Gondor, so that she knew those things 'that men wish most to keep hidden,' setting the white cat to spy upon the black, and tormenting them. No man in Gondor dared touch them; all were afraid of them, and cursed when they saw them pass.
"What follows is almost wholly illegible in the unique manuscript, except for the ending, which states that her name was erased from the Book of the Kings ('but the memory of men is not wholly shut in books, and the cats of Queen Berúthiel never passed wholly out of men's speech'), and that King Tarannon had her set on a ship with her cats and set adrift on the sea before a north wind. The ship was last seen flying past Umbar under a sickle moon, with a cat at the masthead and another as a figurehead on the prow."
-- Unfinished Tales Of Númenor And Middle-Earth, pg. 401-402
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.