In An Age Before – Part 59

Now they came to Osgiliath in the late afternoon, finding it a busy city wherein many plied their trades. The clamor of a multitude of voices came to their ears, a din that assailed them and 'twas all the more unfamiliar after their long years in the wild. From every quarter came myriad smells; of cooking food, of rotting refuse, of livestock and draft animals, of o'er crowded Men, of their industries, tanning, tarring, dyeing, butchering, smithying, and the boiling down of bones to glue, but o'er all else, the scents of the river. From the water wafted the conglomerate stench of dead things floating, the refuse of shellfish and finned fish discarded at the docks, the plant life of years past accumulated in stagnant pools, and the garbage of a great city carelessly disposed of upon the water. The effluent of well 'nigh 350,000 living in close quarters joined that washed downstream from the whole of Rhovanion to hang like a cloud o'er the king's city, whereat it steeped in the summer heat. 'Twas only partially relieved when sea breezes blew upriver, thereby replacing the native miasma with that borne hence from the Harlond and the more distant Pelargir. Helluin and Beinvír traded looks of disgust and groaned.

O'erhead myriad gulls and plovers wheeled, bespattering all with their guano while'st searching the precincts of the river with beady eyes greedy for a meal. They stalked the wharves and quays, the alleys and lanes, ever calling harshly like a murder of crows or a flock of vultures celebrating the fatted carcass that was't the great capitol of the southern kingdom. Their constant din somehow complimented the creaking of hulls and the yelling of sailors to compose that symphony which was't the mundane theme of all seaports upon the Hither Shores. 'Twas well 'nigh as harsh upon the ears as the clamoring of the Glamhoth upon a field of battle. For the first time in many centuries, the Green Elf felt nauseous at the prospect of abiding in a city. And nowhere about did she see even one other of Elven kind. She fought back her gorge and swallowed hard past her thickened tongue.

'Twas little wonder then that Helluin led her first to the large garden 'nigh the palace wherein was't the only respite from buildings in the city. Thither the two sat 'neath a tulip tree of great girth, Helluin scanning the roofline of the nearby Dome of Stars, Beinvír fixated upon a nearby stand of yews clipped into an impenetrable hedgerow. She was't in deep denial of their greater surroundings and enmeshed in a memory of the Osgiliath of an earlier era, when the city had seemed more infused with sunlight and fresh air though the War of the Last Alliance had been but recently won.

After some time she became aware of a subtle rustling amidst the branches of the hedge and for a moment rejoiced in the thought of some small and timid creature making thither their home. A rabbit or hedgehog perhaps, wary and wild in the midst of the city; the thought charmed the Green Elf, bringing a tentative smile. All too soon though she discerned the marmalade stripes and white bib of an orange tabby crouched 'neath the branches, come to watch silently their unexpected invasion of the park. All others thither upon two legs kept to the paths and took their rest upon the stone benches that lined them. No others sat thus directly upon the ground.

Now Beinvír apprehensively watched the cat watching her with its unblinking gaze, and she recalled the warning of the Drúadan and the muttering of the soldier Glavrol, and so her thought was't troubled.

"Helluin, mark thou the cat lurking thither?" At the sound of her voice, the Noldo turned thither her attention, noting her beloved's nod towards the watching cat. She turned her gaze briefly to the tabby ere she replied to her beloved.

"Aye, 'tis a cat like many others in Osgiliath; a mouser, I wager, indulging its curiosity, a trait that stands well its kind in the hunt."

She returned her attention again to the cat and exerted some influence upon it in the way of Elves to animals, drawing first its attention and then urging it to her. With self-conscious regard the cat obliged, putting paw before paw and mincing its way 'cross the lawn to join them. Beinvír unconsciously shivered but Helluin held the cat's attention with her eyes, inviting it to sit a while and tell its tale.

Now the cat came within arm's reach and sat itself down, remaining erect and attentive while'st raising a paw to lick for the effect of nonchalance. It seemed ordinary enough, but Helluin sensed a sadness upon it which it took pains to hide, appearing composed and unconcerned by all save its own dignity. Cats and kings, Helluin thought, both art oft times pompous and proud, and given to comforts and a full stomach.

Greetings, O intrepid hunter of mice and birds, how fare thee upon this summer's day? she asked silently eye to eye.

The cat deigned to reply but only after affecting a languorous yawn. If he was't at all surprised at being spoken to he gave not a hint of it.

I am well, of course, for the bounty of the king's city is easily enough procured by one of my skills. How fare thee and thy nervous friend, pray tell? Thou art not long about the city, I wager. Hath thou found thyselves in some dire straits now that thou hath come hither from parts less…civilized?

Helluin detected easily the cat's air of condescension and self-satisfaction, but refused to be bated. Instead she remained expressionless and told 'aught as would suffice.

Indeed we art newly come to Osgiliath, and as thou suppose, unused to the present 'grandeur' of the city. She barely contained her sarcasm. 'Tis little like the seaside cities of Romenna, or Lindon, or Avernien of old, nor even is it like unto Annúminas, capitol of thy people in the north kingdom.

Here the cat regarded Helluin a moment, cocking its head as if considering the unfamiliar names. Though loath to admit ignorance before such strangers it struggled awhile and then with a sigh, finally gave in to its curiosity.

Thou art even more foreign than I at first deemed thee. Wherefore lie those places thou hath named? They art strange and unknown to me, one and all. Lie they south in the Haradwaith, or perhaps east in Khand?

Nay, O whiskered One, they lie not south but rather north and west, and Romenna 'cross the sea is no more, and like Avernien 'tis forever lost. Yet all bear upon the history of thy realm and I am surprised thou know'st them not.

At this the cat's eyes widened and it took a couple steps forward, bringing itself to lie curled next to the Green Elf. After wrapping its tail about its feet and tucking in its paws, it laid its attention full upon the Noldo.

I mark that many tales lie about thee, but art thou not of Elvish kind? If so, then I deem thy travels a tale long and far. I hath time, and if thou hast time also, then I would harken to thy rede. Where, pray tell, lay Romenna and Avernien? Whyfore doth they bear upon the southern realm as it now stands? Many hither would hear thy histories, I wager, for like myself they cherish the past even as they look to the future. The cat then swabbed its jowls with an abrasive tongue and regarded Helluin with anticipation.

For her part, Helluin acknowledged the absurdity of providing a history lesson to a self-important mouser. Whatever would the cat do with what it learned? 'Twas short-lived and perhaps short too of memory, and whatsoever benefits it could accrue by knowing the casualties and ruination of two Ages, she could not fathom. Rather, she was't curious about that which passed in the present place and time. Of Berúthiel's cats, who better to ask than a cat? She proceeded seriously.

Gladly shalt I tell thee of the downfalls of two Ages of the world and the place of the Dúnedain within them, woulds't thou but favor me with thy observations of current events. I too am curious, and as thou hast said, a foreigner new come to the city. What say thou? Shalt we then satisfy each others' curiosity?

I say yea, and indeed we hath a deal…friend, the cat quickly agreed, being now hooked like a fish upon a line at the prospect of gaining some unknown information.

Very well then, friend, Helluin replied with a nod and a slight grin.

Now Helluin spoke at length, tying together the tale of the struggles of the Younger Children of the One, from the destruction of their last home in the First Age to their last homes in exile in the Second with the fall of Númenor betwixt. The sun passed from afternoon to evening ere she finished, but the cat's attention never wavered, nor did it interrupt with questions. The dark Noldo appreciated its restraint and attentiveness. When she was't done the cat sat in silence for a long time, digesting what she had told and committing all to memory. Finally it gave a luxurious yawn and stretched, even digging its claws into the turf ere it settled again and took up its promised narrative. Now 'twas Helluin and Beinvír who sat silent and harkened.

Now my tale stretches back no long term as thou would see it, the cat said without the slightest hint of apology, yet oft times history repeats and so, I deem, 'tis true of the present case. Thy tale of Romenna included the story of Erendis and Aldarion the King. Herein I see some parallels to the current status of the realm.

Now Gondor hast been ruled this past 40 years by King Tarannon, a great captain of ships. He hast given his attention mostly to securing of our coasts from the threat of Umbar, and indeed he hath enjoyed some successes such that he hast taken the name Falastur, Lord of the Coasts. Here the cat digressed a pace, thanking Helluin for clarifying the source of his peoples' deep-rooted contention with the southern "Black Númenóreans" of Umbar, that remnant of the King's Men from the time of Ar-Pharazôn, who had retained their allegiance to Sauron and been worsted in the War of the Last Alliance.

Our king is oft upon the water and aboard ship in distant lands. At those times when he sails home, a house he hast commanded built for him upon pillars o'er the River 'nigh Pelargir. Thither he repairs as if still aboard ship, for his windows look out o'er moving water, 'tis said. Thither, however, his queen refuses to go, for the sea she cannot abide. Thus she is akin in spirit to Erendis who hated too the sea and was't estranged from her husband by his love for it. The cat looked from Helluin to Beinvír and back again, obviously expecting some recognition and congratulations for his analytical acumen at history. Neither Helluin nor Beinvír did 'aught but stare at him expectantly. Helluin resisted pointing out that Tar-Aldarion's birth name had been Anardil, and he the son of Tar-Meneldur and her own daughter, Almarian. At their lack of reaction, he sighed.

Queen Berúthiel cares not for the sea, nor for ships. Indeed she loathes both equally and always hast. She grudgingly endures her husband's seeming obsession, but 'tis yet another grievance added to many she perceives. Alas, the folk of Osgiliath, noble and commoner alike, art given to rumor mongering wherever she is concerned. They deem her a witch, for she is herb-crafty and tells the future by omens and other divinations. Yet other rumors too circulate about her…hither he paused to give the two ellith a last chance to demonstrate some knowledge of politics in the southern kingdom. When 'twas obvious that 'naught was't forthcoming, he continued.

After 30 years of marriage, Queen Berúthiel hast born her Lord Tarannon no heir. Indeed she hast borne him no children whatsoever. She wears no colors, being ever arrayed in silver and black. 'Tis said she hast a private garden planted with 'naught but yew and cypress and the carven figures of suffering Men. Some figures too there art representing other kindreds, monsters, and this the folk of the city find unseemly. Again he paused and still no reaction from the two ellith did he receive. Their seeming lack of awe vexed him. He had, however, another tidbit to share…one sure to elicit amazement, or so it ever had in the past. After a deep breath and a dramatic pause he revealed, There is still more to her habit that unsettles the counsels of the citizenry. 'Tis rumored that she doth speak at whiles with her cats. There, he'd declared it.

Helluin and Beinvír turned from him to look each other in the eyes.

That's it? The Green Elf asked, obviously underwhelmed. That was't the whole of his great revelation?

'Tis only a matter of suspicion for happening in a city of Men, I wager, Helluin answered. None amongst the Elves would deem such a matter of remark. I hath spoken oft aforetime with cats, and some decidedly more sagacious than this one.

I hath spoken as whiles with snails, millipedes, and many a bird, Beinvír recalled, and thou hast at times held converse with trees. Perhaps the queen is Peredhel?

Perhaps, Helluin allowed, I can do 'naught but ask, I suppose. To this course, Beinvír agreed with a nod.

Say thou that perhaps Queen Berúthiel hast some Elvish blood? None amongst us would think it strange for an Elf to converse with a cat, Helluin told him.

For his part the cat looked at Helluin as if she were mad, never once marking the fact that two Elves had indeed traded tales with him for the past several hours.

For my part I know of no stories, rumors, or suits laying out her claim to Elvish blood, he said, humoring her. Elves in Osgiliath were as rare as oliphants. Indeed the two before him now were the only ones he had ever seen.

Well be that as it may, I should wager thou art highly favored in a city wherein thy queen doth favor converse with cats, Beinvír said, speaking to the cat for the first time.

'Twas a supposition reasonable enough, but brought a wince and a downcast look from the feline. With a sigh and a shaking of his head, he bemoaned the ill-fate of his coat.

T'would indeed be the case, I deem, were this a better world. Alas, I am neither wholly black nor white, and therefore unsuited for the queen's favor. Indeed while'st the queen doth speak at whiles with her cats, such grace extends not to those beyond her household. Yet oft do Men suspect such favor graces any cat they see and they art jealous of all equally. No honor doth a cat find from Men in Osgiliath; nay, not in the whole of the realm of Gondor. Yet doth we not do our part in service to our king, dispatching the varmintry of the city that harbor pestilence? Truly! Lady Berúthiel doth show her favor to a dozen cats only, eleven black and their white prince, and she cares 'naught for the injustice visited upon the rest; emptied chamber pots, flung sticks, cast stones, swift kicks, and barbarous invectives. The queen favors but two colors in all things, sable and silver. To a cat, 'tis black or white, else ignominy and dishonor. He fell silent, shaking his head.

To this the Elves cast each other confused looks. Silver and black were the colors of the heraldry of Gondor…black banner, white tree and stars. The queen had cause for her preferences as did any monarch, but such exclusivity seemed o'erly whimsical to them. Helluin couldn't help but recall how long ago she'd distracted Tar-Ancalime from the grave business of her manicure, with 'aught to tell but the rise of Sauron and the building of his tower. At the very least, she thought, this Berúthiel shalt likely bear me no resemblance.

I should be curious to meet thy queen, Helluin remarked offhandedly.

The cat groaned and then squinted off into the distance.

Thy wish may be granted sooner than thou think, he said, ere he leapt up and fled into the bushes.

Helluin and Beinvír looked after him in surprise, noting that he had disappeared entirely from sight, then turned to survey the park. Approaching them down a nearby path were a squad of six soldiers led by a leashed dog. The Men were making straight for them.


To Be Continued

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