23. The Serving Woman
Though Eledher is uneasy about accepting help from a stranger, when Minas Tirith first comes into view, she is grateful that she has someone to guide her. She is so overwhelmed by the City's vastness that she does not even note how it nearly glows in the late afternoon sun, nor how the great tower rises majestically toward the sky. She only wonders if she has made a grave mistake.
The wain driver bids them farewell outside the gates, and Pador leads Eledher through the City. As they walk, Eledher is doubly glad that she has Pador's assistance, for she soon realizes she could easily lose herself in these twisting streets and side alleys. She tries to pay attention to their course, but she is weary from the journey, and her feet and back are aching from walking on the cobblestones. So she merely follows, wondering how far this cousin's house is, hoping that she will not be turned out.
Finally they turn into a small courtyard, guarded by a gilded carving of a lion, past a small fountain, into a building which is clearly a tavern. Inside it is well-lit, and there are a few men sitting at a table in the main room, playing some sort of game.
"Rest yourself," Pador says, pointing to an empty table, "you look exhausted. I shall speak with Nengel."
Eledher obeys, holding her carrysack tightly in her lap, grateful to be off her feet. The common room is cleaner than any tavern she has ever been in, and there is none of the raucous, loud activity she has seen in other places. The men speak quietly amongst themselves, occasionally laughing, but they are not drunk. She sees no whores nor serving girls, and she begins to have a little hope that there will indeed be work for her here. She smells something cooking – stew, she thinks. She has not eaten since early that morning, and her stomach growls.
Pador reappears quickly, followed by a woman wearing a stained apron and a somewhat stern expression. Pador introduces Eledher to the other woman, who proves to be Nengel, and then leaves them alone to talk.
Nengel gives Eledher a bit of bread and a mug of cider, then asks questions about Eledher's skills. Eledher explains her work as a kitchen maid and as a chambermaid, though she nearly says "King's chambermaid". She admits that she has no letter of reference, but Nengel does not seem concerned.
"Pador says you're in a bind?" Nengel asks bluntly. "Is the father like to come looking for you, drag you back to Rohan or make trouble for me?"
"No," Eledher says, trying to keep her voice even. "He…does not know. And his family would not allow it." She touches the bracelet on her wrist, wishing her words were not true.
Something in Nengel's face softens. "You've no family of your own?"
"They were killed by orcs many years ago," Eledher answers softly, surprised at how saying this brings tears to her eyes. She is not used to having to explain her history; in Edoras, everyone knew. She has not thought about her family in a long time.
Nengel regards her thoughtfully. "It's true I've need of a serving girl, and if you've worked in a noble house, sure you'll know what to do. And with one on the way, you're not likely to run off, are you?" Eledher only shakes her head, hardly daring to believe her luck.
Nengel explains to Eledher what her duties will be; says she will be provided room and board; introduces Tathar, who is the barman, and Nengel's husband. Then Nengel takes Eledher upstairs, and shows her the room which is to be hers.
Pador comes to bid Eledher farewell, promising to visit, then she and Nengel depart. "Rest a while, come down for a bit of supper – we'll start you tomorrow," Nengel says, smiling warmly as she closes the door behind her.
Eledher looks around the room, awed. She has never had a room to herself, and wonders how anyone could need so much space. There are two battered tables, a set of chairs, shelves on the wall holding a few pots, a basin in a stand, and a shallow wooden washtub. In a deep, curtained-off alcove is a bed, covered with a faded yellow quilt, and a clothespress. Several rag-rugs are scattered on the scrupulously clean floor, and she wonders if Nengel made them.
Most astonishing to Eledher is the fact that there is a window; a window of real glass which opens. It overlooks the courtyard and the side street which runs in front of it. She can see the nearby buildings, women chatting to one another and children playing; she watches the children, imagining her own golden-haired child so happy, and does not turn away until her feet and back begin to protest.
The bed is much softer than her cot in Rohan, and smells faintly of herbs. She lies down, hugging her carrysack close for comfort, only meaning to rest for a moment, but she is fast asleep within minutes.
When Eledher wakes, she finds the fire lit, and a bowl of stew sitting on the table.
After a time, Eledher decides that she does not particularly like Minas Tirith. It is a beautiful City, but it is louder and busier than Edoras, and infinitely more confusing. She does not like to stray far from the street directly in front of the Lion, fearing she will become hopelessly lost.
The Gondorians are friendly enough, but there are so many people, and there is something always restrained in their speech and actions, unlike the Rohirrim. Eledher does not speak much to anyone outside the Lion, but gradually she makes the aquaintance of many women in the neighborhood, all of whom have much advice on pregnancy, childbirth and child-raising. She rarely passes time idly them, however. Nengel and Pador are the only women whom Eledher considers anything like friends.
She overhears them one day. "She's settling in well," Nengel says. "She's a quiet one – barely speaks to the custom at all."
"If she worked in a noble house, she wouldn't talk while she's serving, would she?" Pador points out. "I think she's a bit shy; shy and frightened to be alone and away from home in such a state."
"Aye, that's likely true enough," Nengel agrees. "She's a sweet girl, and a good worker. Poor thing – she just needs time to get used to our City."
Eledher has never been called "sweet" or "shy" before – she is used to being called much harsher things. It is appealing to be spoken of in such kind terms.
Despite Nengel's assurance that it is not allowed, Eledher expects to be leered at by the patrons. However, most men who come into the Gilded Lion are old enough to be her father; they only flirt harmlessly and smile their thanks when she brings them food or drink. They play draughts, talk about the neighborhood, the state of the City and recent battles, and are rarely drunk, at least to her eyes. It is very different than serving meals in the Great Hall to boisterous Rohirrim.
Tathar is kind, and though he often seems brusque, Eledher learns by observation that this is only his nature. He and Nengel know everyone who enters their tavern; they call each patron by name and ask after their families. Tathar also keeps the younger men from acting too forward toward Eledher, though it is rarely a problem. When it is, however, he simply appears, insisting that the man in question either apologize, or leave.
Often Eledher wonders how she came to be so fortunate as to meet a woman so warm and pleasant as Nengel. At first, Eledher is afraid that Nengel will try to mother her, something Eledher does not like at all. But Nengel does not do so – instead, she is friendly, almost sisterly. Nengel does not try to coax Eledher into being more open. She does take it upon herself to show Eledher around the City, and they make several trips to the lower markets and to shops on the third level, where the Lion is located, until she is convinced that Eledher can at least find her way home from the first circle.
Nengel also proves invaluable in helping prepare for the child – of course Eledher has no idea what is needed to care for a baby and Nengel has two boys of her own, both of whom are now soliders. "You need to have a bit a of money," Nengel says one night while they are cleaning the main room. "You're welcome to borrow the cradle I used for my boys – I'll not need it again – but there are other things you need to have. My friend friend Caniel is a seamstress, and she can always use an extra pair of hands. You can sew?"
"Only simple work," Eledher says, wiping the mugs dry, "and I will help her gladly, but…I was given a little coin before I left."
Nengel studies Eledher curiously. "They paid you to leave?"
Eledher nods, avoiding Nengel's gaze. She does not like to lying this woman who has been so helpful and caring, but she cannot admit the money is stolen.
There is a community of Rohirrim on the second level, and when Eledher is craving the food of her people or the sound of her own language, she visits the small market there. She does not talk much to the merchants; she knows that these people still have family in Rohan, and gossip travels very quickly, even over such a distance. She has heard news from the court and of skirmishes -they could easily have heard of the disappearance Lord Theodred's wench.
One day when she is browsing the stalls, she is shocked to hear a voice calling, "Lathwyn – Lathwyn of Edoras!" She turns, acting as if her attention has been caught by something else, and sees a man standing on the corner. His bag is stuffed full of letters and packages; with relief, she realizes that he is only a messenger. He does not know who she is. He is, however, trying to find her, and she flees the neighborhood as quickly as she can.
She wonders who is looking for her, Théodred or Gríma. It has been three months; certainly Lady Éowyn has told Théodred by now. She wonders if Théodred was pleased or angry or indifferent to the news. She likes to believe that he would search for her, but she does not know if this is true, or wishful thinking. Either way, she does not visit the Rohirric neighborhood again for a very long time.
She thinks of Théodred often – she cannot help it, with his child making her belly bigger every day. The first time the child kicks, she thinks, He should be here for this, and promptly bursts into tears. Fortunately, she is with Nengel at the time, preparing the day's meals for the tavern, and Nengel does not require an explanation. Eledher thinks of Théodred while she is sewing gowns for the baby, remembering his smile, his voice, his laughter, setting memories in every stitch as protection for their child. While she is drifting off to sleep, her mind wanders, recalling how comforting it was to sleep next to him, and sometimes, she dreams of him.
She is often out of sorts, her feet and hands are always swollen, and her back aches fiercely, but otherwise, Eledher is not bothered by many trials of pregnancy. Nengel comments on this with a bit of jealousy; her own pregnancies were not so easy. But Nengel also understands how tiring childbearing is, and never allows Eledher to work herself into exhaustion.
Eledher does small things to show her gratitude–she plants cheerful flowers in pots outside the tavern, finds fragrant salves to soothe chapped hands, for she knows how such things delight the older woman. It is not nearly enough to repay Nengel for all her generosity, but it is all she can do.
The birth is surprisingly easy for a child so large; so Eledher is told by the midwife, Nengel, Pador, and every woman in the neighborhood. She does not remember much about childbirth, except that there was pain, and that she is drained by the process. What she remembers most clearly is her first glimpse of the boy who is set in her arms by the midwife. She weeps at seeing Théodred's chin and nose in that small red face, and is not even aware that the baby has her solemn eyes. She calls him Léohtfax, for her own father.
Eledher is enthralled by Léohtfax. She marvels at every wave of his arms and legs, every gurgle and coo; she is fascinated by his tiny fingers and toes, the way he wrinkles his nose when he is nursing. Nengel teases her gently, calling the boy "the first baby ever born", but Eledher only smiles and says, "He is the first baby ever born to me."
When Eledher must return to the tavern, she finds that Tathar has found a basket large enough to hold the baby, so that she may keep her boy near even while she is working. To Eledher's surprise, Léohtfax quickly becomes popular with the old men who seem to be in permanent residence, and they will often bring his basket to their table while they play draughts, and talk to the child as if he is playing as well.
Eledher does not know why the old men enjoy having a child around, but she is inclined to be friendlier to anyone who is so affable towards her son. And there is no mistaking that Léohtfax loves the attention – he burbles happily when he recognizes a face, reaching his plump little arms towards anyone who so much as smiles in his direction.
Of course Eledher thinks Léohtfax is the most beautiful child in the City, and she thinks nothing of it when strangers compliment her son's healthy round cheeks or coppery-gold curls. After a time, she begins frequenting the Rohirric quarter again; it has been more than a year, and she does not think anyone would still be diligently looking for her. She is cautious, but she wants Léohtfax to know his own people as best he can. When his hair grows long enough, she braids it in the Rohirric fashion, and sometimes dresses him in the same manner. Eledher speaks Rohirric to her son when they are alone; she will not have him speaking only Westron. Known or not, he is the son of Rohan's heir, and she will not make a Gondorian of him.
Nengel is of course helpful in caring for Léohtfax. She is there when he gets his first bout of colic, his first cold; when he cries and Eledher is frantically trying to calm him, it is Nengel shows her how to soothe the pain of teething. Eledher is glad to have Nengel's gentle counsel, and gladder yet that her son will grow up with the influence of such a warm woman. Sometimes she regards Nengel almost as a grandmother to Léohtfax, and she thinks this is a very good thing.
Eledher is astounded at how quickly Léohtfax grows. It seems as if one day he is content to do nothing eat and sleep, and the next he is stubbornly trying to walk around the common room. "I can hardly keep him in clothes," she tells Nengel as they are watching Léohtfax toddle after one of the neighborhood cats. "I made that tunic less than a month ago and already it's too short."
Nengel chuckles. "He's only going to keep growing."
"His father was tall," Eledher says wistfully, and she does not see Nengel's surprised expression at this small confidence. "I barely came up to his chin." She falls silent, watching her little boy grab at the cat's tail, lost in memories.
To Eledher's amusement, Léohtfax is a talkative child. Even before he learns to speak properly, Léohtfax constantly makes noise, chattering nonsense to everyone or no-one. He is open and happy, as comfortable with strangers as he is with his mother; in this, Eledher knows he is very like his father. Théodred could effortlessly put others at ease with just a friendly word.
They are in the Rohirric market one day, at the weaver's stall. Eledher is examining a dark green length of wool, when a voice says, "Your boy has a familiar look to him. Would I know his father?"
She glances up, startled. A man near Tathar's age is watching Léohtfax collect pebbles from the ground. She thinks the man has a cobbler's stall across the lane, but she is so shaken by his words that she cannot remember.
Eledher's mind is frozen in shock, but Léohtfax chooses that moment to tug at her skirt. "Hungry, modor."
"Yes, min eafora," she says, managing to smile down at him. Only then does she turn back to the man. "I do not think you would know him," she replies, heart pounding. "He does not live in Gondor." And before any more questions can be asked, she scoops up Léohtfax and hurries away.
That night she lays awake, fretting over the man's words. Eledher has always thought that Léohtfax bears a striking resemblance to Théodred, though the boy is but 18 months old. She never considered that anyone in Minas Tirith might see the similarlities. She will not go back to the Rohirric quarter again; she cannot risk someone realizing who her son's father is.
There are no more such incidents, and Eledher resumes her normal, peaceful routine. She works in the tavern, cares for her son, and only rarely stops to think how odd it is that she is so content. She watches Léohtfax grow, delighted with his every word and action, even when he is being stubborn. Sometimes she hides tears when Léohtfax laughs, for then his entire face lights up, exactly like Théodred's. She hopes this reaction will fade with time;she does not like being unsettled by her son's joy.
Occasionally, late at night, she considers leaving Minas Tirith, though she does not know where they would go. It is a tense City; there is always talk of fighting, practically at the front gates, to Eledher's mind. In Rohan, orcs did not dare come so close to Edoras; here, they have overrun the abandoned city across the river, a city she can see if she stands on the City walls. When the Steward's eldest son, Lord Boromir, leaves on some unspoken mission, the entire City can talk of nothing else, and Eledher is filled with dread, for it seems to her that hope for Gondor is fading quickly.
The regular patrons are playing draughts and talking over recent battles as usual; Eledher tries not to pay attention to what they are discussing, for their talk only makes her tense. But today, when she brings them a pitcher of ale, one of the men, Erthor, asks, "Perhaps Eledher knows – m'dear, how far is Edoras from the Fords of Isen?"
"I am not certain," she says, "two or three days' ride? When have you become so interested in Rohan?" She has gradually learned to return the banter of the men, and there is a low ripple of laughter around the table at her reply.
"There was a mighty battle there only a week or so ago," Erthor says, taking a drink of his ale. "Bad news travels fast, y'know. A whole company all but wiped out – "
Eledher's breath stops in her chest. "Which…." her voice is choked. "Which éored?"
"Oh, my dear girl." Erthor is appalled at what he has said, and he stands, taking her hands in his, but she barely feels his touch. "I'm an old fool…I didn't think that you might know…"
"Which éored?" Elehder repeats, unaware that her voice is rising.
Another man, Hinmorn, replies. "The one commanded by the king's son," he says, pity clear on his face. "Most of his men gone, and he himself struck down by an orc's hammer."
Eledher hears all this as if from a distance; she is not even aware when Tathar approaches, and gently guides her into a chair. The men are whispering frantically, but she has no idea what they are saying.
Struck down by an orc's hammer. The words echo in her mind until she fears she might scream to make it stop.
"Modor!" Léohtfax's cheery voice draws her back to the present, and she looks at him blankly. "Come see! Kittens!"
"I will come see, my lamb." Nengel appears from nowhere, taking Léohtfax's hand. "Your mother is going to go lie down for a bit."
"Am I?" Eledher says dazedly.
"Yes," Nengel replies firmly, "you are."
Eledher obeys. She lays motionless on her narrow bed, unable or unwilling to weep. Eventually, she takes the horsehair bracelet from her right wrist, and moves it to her left; left is for mourning. Only then does it seem real.
Eledher knows there is nothing she can do but go on, but she is numbed by grief. She attempts to continue as normal, but is aware that Nengel and Tathar, among others, are worried about her. Léohtfax knows there is something wrong with his mother, and she tries to reassure him, but there is still confusion in his face. He crawls from his own little bed at night to sleep snuggled against her, and this is the only time Eledher feels comforted.
Less than a week after the news of Théodred, Nengel comes to Eledher, panic-stricken. "They are evacuating women and children tomorrow. You must gather together a few things right away -- you cannot stay in Minas Tirith."
Eledher has been so distanced by her heartache that she has been aware of almost nothing else, so Nengel explains what has happened, and Eledher's sorrow is drowned in cold fear.
The next weeks are a blur; in later years, all Eledher will recall of the evacuation camp is an overwhelming sense of suffocation, and endless hours of boredom. Now, however, she focuses on keeping Léohtfax calm; hoping to shelter him from the reality of the situation. She tells him stories, sings songs, plays games with him. Mostly he seems to think it a grand adventure, but sometimes he will fall eerily silent, and refuse to do anything but cling to her. At night, when Léohtfax is asleep, she tries not to think of what might be happening to Nengel and Tathar. Nengel would not leave the Gilded Lion, and all of Eledher's pleas for her to join them were of no avail. She takes her turn with the cooking and laundry, as does every other woman in the camp, sometimes entertains the friends Léohtfax has made, and hopes that they will have a home to return to.
When they are allowed to return to the City, Eledher is appalled at the damage that has been done to the walls and lower levels. Worse, for her, is the unmistakable stench of orc that hangs over the City; she struggles to keep her fear under control, succeeding only through the knowledge that if she does not, her son will be scared badly.
They reach the courtyard of the Lion, and Eledher is weak with relief when she sees that it, and Nengel and Tathar, are unharmed. She knows they were luckier than many.
The City is wild with rumours: the King has returned, the King has died on the battlefield, Théoden King is dead and Lord Éomer now rules Rohan, Theoden King is only gravely wounded, Lord Faramir is dead, Lord Denethor is dead, the Corsairs have taken Osgiliath, and on and on. It is almost impossible to tell what is truth, though Eledher would not be surprised to discover that Lady Eowyn did indeed dress as a man to join the fight. Two things above all others appear to be true: the King has returned, and Mordor has been defeated.
The City is full of activity, and Eledher is unnerved to see Rohirrim everywhere she goes, though none seem to recognize her. But Léohtfax is fascinated, stopping in his tracks whenever he sees the proud men of Rohan. "Oooh, modor," he says, eyes wide. "Who's those men?"
She tells him of the Riders of Rohan, adding, "Like your faeder, love. He was such a man, and a great warrior."
Léohtfax begins to call any Rohir he sees "faeder" , so often that Eledher wishes she had never taught him that word. It tears at her heart every time he shouts, "Faeder!" at a total stranger.
They are returning from the market, and are nearly to the Lion. Léohtfax is skipping ahead of her, singing, "Blue, blue, blue!" for reasons Eledher cannot fathom, though it makes her smile. He runs back to her, pointing behind them excitedly. "Look, faeder!"
She sighs wearily. "Not 'faeder', little one," she corrects gently, leaning down wipe dirt from his face. " 'Rider'."
"Am I not his faeder, then?"
Eledher jerks upright so quickly she nearly looses her balance.
He is thinner, he looks exhausted and careworn, but her ears have not deceived her.
It is Théodred.
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.