8. Dangerous Dinner
"Why do you speak my language?" the young man retorted, his voice and attitude so naturally commanding, that Mina backed away, her cheeks flushing with heat, and replied before she could even think about it, "It's a bit of a hobby. Well, a little more than a hobby." Then she realized that she had been about to let herself be intimidated and bullied by a complete stranger, and a homeless hippie at that. She braced herself, straightening up and tightening her shoulders. "A simple question is no need to get impolite at me."
He remained completely unruffled. Raising a delicately slanted eyebrow at her, he replied calmly, "I wasn't trying to be polite." He kept on fingering his guitar, producing gentle arpeggios that Mina could have sworn were not some old rock song, but Mozart. She shook her head. She felt completely out of her depth. She pressed her lips together, not knowing what to say. The music miraculously smoothed away the tension between them. The old dog lifted up his head, his eyes clotted. She could see that he was too thin, and wondered if he was not only old, but sick.
"Look," she had been about to offer dinner to a complete stranger. Including dog dinner! Mina stopped, clenching her hands inside her coat pockets. What was she thinking? He had cocked his head to the side, watching her with an almost amused half-smile from under his mane of dark hair. She had the uncanny feeling that he knew exactly what she was thinking. And she still wanted to know more about how he spoke Sindarin. She exhaled, her breath forming a small cloud in the cold winter twilight. The dog wheezed a little, as if he was too weak to cough. "Look," Mina repeated, with renewed determination. "How about some dinner for you and the dog?"
The young man stopped playing and for the first time really looked at her. There was a faint glimmer in his clear grey eyes. As if she had surprised him. The skin tightened a little over his cheekbones. She knew that he did not want to accept this offer. But she also knew that he would accept it.
He narrowed his eyes at her. "Didn't your parents teach you that it's dangerous to chat up vagabonds on the streets?"
Now it was her turn to raise her eyebrows, though she did not with his innate grace. "How about your parents? Didn't they teach you to say 'thank you', if someone invited you for dinner?"
As soon as she had said this, she knew it had been wrong. His face turned into a mask, his eyes like glass, cold, and impenetrable. "They did. I'm sorry, but I have to get going. Another time." He jumped to his feet, picking up a bag, and his guitar. Stooping over his dog, he attached an old red lead to the dog's collar. He was already halfway out of the thicket, when he turned his head over his shoulder, "Hennaid. Navaer."
And then he was gone. The thorny bushes and low branches were completely still, as if no one had passed through the thicket at all. At least, not a human being... Mina shuddered. A ghost? That was a very lively ghost, and a very obnoxious and impudent one.
She turned around and battled her way back to the street, acquiring two scratches on arms and hands on her way. Not good ranger material, she mused, as she brushed off broken twigs and black old leaves from her coat. Instinctively she pressed her lips together once more. No sighing. And no talking to herself. She would have liked to give the dog a few hours in a warm room, and some good food. She refused to think about the gauntness of the young man and the haunted look in his eyes.
Only when she was almost back to her apartment, his last words came back to her. "Hennaid. Navaer." She stopped dead in her tracks. "Navaer" was "Farewell". But "Hennaid"? "I thought 'hannon le' is thank you!" she exclaimed, making a businessman in a blue suit who was walking a few paces in front of her turn around, at her call. Her mind computed possible Sindarin forms derived from the only original form for saying "Thank you" in Tolkien's languages, which was not Sindarin at all, but Quenya: "Hantale". It had to be a colloquial form, she realized. Something like "Thanks."
"But how," she whispered to herself, feeling her heart speed up with tense excitement. "How can a run-down vagabond living in the streets of Berlin know colloquial forms of Sindarin?"
Somehow the mysterious young man remained in Mina's thoughts, as the dreary weeks of December dragged by. When she came face to face with him outside a tube station in a snow storm on her way home from her Sindarin class, she was not at all surprised.
He recognized her, too. "Suilad," he said, and was about to move on, when his dog stopped, lowering his head in a prolonged coughing fit. The dog, which had seemed thin to Mina even on their first meeting (though still better nourished than his master), now positively looked emaciated. She thought the old animal was also trembling, with cold or fever she couldn't say. His owner seemed completely impervious to wind and weather, still wearing the same leather jacket and trousers he'd had on in November. The only difference was that snowflakes adorned his black dreadlocks like beautiful, ethereal diamonds.
Mina stepped in front of him. "Dinner," she said, ignoring the little voice in her head that screamed 'Are you completely out of your mind????'. "Dinner. For you and the dog."
It was gratifying to observe how the young man was literally taken aback, taking a small step away from her, staring at her in obvious surprise. But it took him only a moment to reply with the same nonchalance she had found so out of place at their last meeting. "That's not a very cordial invitation, brennil nîn."
She gave a start at his easy use of Sindarin, and felt herself bristle at the amused grin on his lips at her reaction. She very much wanted to say "I'm not a lady," but that would have been rather childish. "You look cold and hungry. And your dog looks as if he could do with some warmth and Pedigree Pal." He actually did not look cold and hungry, although he should have. But there was no doubt about the dog, which had now settled into a miserable heap of damp fur as close to his master's legs as possible.
Mina realized that if she really wanted to do something for them – or rather the dog – she would have to take them home. That was a thought that made her throat constrict, and the voice of reason scream even louder in her mind.
Taking a vagabond and his dog home to her apartment, that was only asking for trouble. A slit throat, a stolen purse and ticks on the carpet. The dog chose that moment to look up at her. His eyes were sunk in, and they had that gentle, accepting, suffering look she recognized from very old and very sick animals of her childhood.
She pressed her lips together again, curling them inwards and biting down on them. She knew what she was going to do. You can only die once, she told the insistent, increasingly hysterical voice in her head. I bet a slit throat is not the worst way to die.
"I'm going to make vegetable stir-fry tonight," she told the vagabond. "I hope you like that. And we'll have to stop at the Aldi to get some dog food."
The man just blinked at her.
She smiled, enjoying the fact that she had surprised him once more. Instinctively she held her hand out to him. "I'm Wilhelmina Elbenstern, by the way. You can call me Mina."
"I'm Elentar," he replied and took her hand. His handshake was firm, and his hand strangely warm in spite the icy weather blowing around them. Something in his eyes told her that he had given his real name – and that he had not intended to.
"Elentar...?" she asked, curious about his family name. Would that clue her in where he came from? But he shook his head.
"Okay," she did not want to get into another argument with him, especially not in the middle of a snow storm. "Let's go, it's not far. We can go to the Aldi just around that corner."
Elentar nodded. He bent down to the dog and seemed to whisper something into the fuzzy black ears. The dogs tail thumped and a gleam returned to his rheumy old eyes.
"We are ready," the young street artist said.
They headed off down the street in silence, with the snowflakes dancing around them, and his name dancing around in Mina's mind. "Elentar" was a Sindarin word.
It meant "king of the stars".
It was not a name from the movies.
It was not a name from the books.
Who would give their child such a name?
Who would make up such a name to use instead of their given name?
When they reached her apartment, he surprised her by stopping and taking off his boots in front of the door, putting them neatly against the wall, side by side. His socks, black, were threadbare, but clean and had no holes. Noticing that she was looking at his feet he raised her eyebrows at her, but for once did not lash out.
"Do you have an old rag or something, so that I can clean Amadé's paws? His feet are all muddy and I expect your apartment to be very... pristine?"
Mina stared at him. The way he pronounced "pristine" bordered on an insult. But she refused to rise to the barb. "Just a moment."
She turned her key and entered the apartment, leaving the door wide open on the less than pristine, but rather comfortably lived-in interior. She hurried into the kitchen, taking one of the old towels she used for cleaning out of the cabinet. As she closed the door of cabinet, she wondered for a moment if her unusual dinner guests would still be there when she returned to the apartment door. Somehow this meeting and this impromptu dinner invitation didn't seem quite real to her.
But they were still there, the dog patiently, obediently on the door mat, wheezing and tired, his owner squatting down beside him, ruffling the dog's neck, for one fleeting moment an expression of unconcealed worry and sorrow plain on his face.
"Here..." she hesitated, then added, "Elentar, will that do?"
He looked up at her, the moment of openness disappeared. But his lips quivered with that haughty amusement that appeared to be his trademark. "You don't pronounce that correctly. The emphasis is on the last syllable, an open, long and soft 'a' sound. You have watched those movies too often. The English accent does nothing for the pronunciation of that language."
He took the rag and began to clean the paws of his dog carefully, while Mina stood there, gaping at him. Her heart was thumping as if she had just run a up the stairs, or if she was face to face with the man of her dreams. He had acknowledged that his name was Sindarin. He had admitted that he knew Sindarin. She swallowed hard.
And he had criticized her accent.
The dogs feet as clean as they were likely going to get, Elentar straightened up. "Go ahead, Amadé," he told the dog, who still hesitated on the doorstep. The dog slowly walked into the apartment, tail low and uncertain. The hard claws clicked an irregular rhythm on the wooden floor, as if he was asking himself or maybe his master, "What are we getting into with this?"
Elentar followed and closed the door behind him.
For a moment they stood in the narrow hallway, a run-down vagabond in a black leather jacket and faded socks, a thirty-something scholar approaching a mid-life crisis and an old, sick dog. Mina curled her lips. In a movie this scene would have been brilliant. She wasn't sure if the same was true for her life. "Here's the wardrobe," she finally said. "You can put your coat up there."
She quickly slipped out of her own coat, neatly hanging it on the customary hook, along with her woollen cap and scarf. She was uncomfortably aware that the young man was looking appreciatively at her long skirt and tight blouse. He widened his eyes at her as if he was about to shout "Booo!" just to see if he could make her jump, but then he simply turned to the wardrobe, pulled off his jacket and hung it quite orderly up next to Mina's.
She was astonished to see that beneath his jacket he was wearing only a denim shirt that had probably once been dark blue, but had by now faded to an almost off-white colour. Again, it was curiously clean and well-kept for a man who lived out in the streets. He had to be completely impervious to weather and cold, she mused, and – now it was her turn to appreciate his figure – he was rail thin. He was also very tall, but not at all gangly, which made her guess about what kind of muscles were hidden under that shirt and those worn leather trousers. She could not quite contain an apprehensive glance at the closed door of her apartment.
The little hallway all of a sudden seemed very narrow.
"Have you changed your mind, brennil nîn?" The man's voice was unexpectedly soft. He doesn't want to scare me, Mina realized with a start.
"No," she replied resolutely. "Why should I? Come in, the living room is over there, bathroom there, kitchen there." She pointed quickly at the relevant doors, grateful that she had for once closed both her bedroom door and the bathroom door before leaving the apartment. "Why don't you go and sit down in the living room? Your dog... Amadé? He'll want some water. I'll just go and get out a bowl." Then she hesitated, blushing. How awkward! She should have asked what her human guest wanted first! "What would you like to drink? Orange juice, water, tea..." she trailed off. She really should socialize more. "I'm sorry but I have no beer. But I can offer you a glass of Chardonnay," she concluded, rather too primly.
There was an unmistakably amused sparkle in the young man's eyes. She already expected one of his sarcastic retorts, but he simply nodded. "Tea would be good, hennaid. And not quite cold water for Amadé, please."
"Okay," Mina attempted a smile and turned to the kitchen, determined not to watch how he made himself at home in her living room. She might not socialize much, but she had been brought up to be polite. Only when the water was almost boiling, she realized that she had forgotten to ask her guest what kind of tea he wanted. She picked up the bowl with cool, but not cold water and went over to the living room. The dog was stretched out on the rug in the middle of the room. His master was wandering along the walls, taking in books and prints. Mina had the uncomfortable feeling that nothing escaped his scrutiny, not a mote of dust, not one title of a book or failed attempt at tengwar calligraphy.
This time she had to bite down on her lower lip to keep her nerves in check. She carefully walked around the dog, then squatted down, placing the pink salad bowl with water in front of the animal. "Here you go, sweety." The tail thumped, but Mina did not dare to touch the big beast yet.
Feeling Elentar's eyes on her back, she quickly rose to her feet again. "I forgot to ask what kind of tea you want."
"I don't know. What choices do I have?" He was not looking at her, but studying the framed calligraphies at the wall behind her. Why did she feel as if he was mentally criticizing their execution? "Err... regular black tea, of course. Green, white. Vanilla. Chai. Rooibush." She frowned at him, involuntarily following his gaze to the pictures. "I like tea. What's wrong with those pictures?"
His head whipped around, the quickness of his movement making her take a step back and her heartbeat race. He did not like that reaction, she could see that in the slight tightening of skin over his cheekbones and around his eyes. "Vanilla tea, then, please." His voice was unnaturally smooth, betraying no emotion at all. "Technically they are very good," he said abruptly. "But they lack the love of language that should be inherent to all ornamental depictions of Tengwar."
He turned away from the wall, pointing towards her desk with his chin. Another half-finished attempt of her own work, almost discarded in frustration at her inability to catch the elegant swirls she was seeing in her mind was in painful plain sight in the middle of the desk. "Yours is much better. You just need more practice."
Suddenly he stepped right in front of her. "Just a little more practice. And you need to stop doubting yourself so much."
She blinked at him, her breath catching with anxiety and nerves at having a stranger so close to her. Some part of her mind registered with surprise that he did not smell unpleasant, as she would have expected a homeless person to smell, of too few occasions of washing body and clothes... his body was fragrant, yes, but in a subtle, spicy way. Not a perfume, or aftershave – and how should he afford that, with not even a roof over his head? It had to be his natural body odour. She swallowed hard, looking into those silver-grey eyes and frantically searching for a suitable and polite reply, when he suddenly stepped back.
Once more, a black eyebrow was raised at her in mockery, and his voice was cool, as he went on. "Vanilla tea, iësten."
"Very well," was all Mina could think of to say.
She returned to the kitchen to get the tea ready. Dinner promised to be interesting, at least.