In An Age Before – Part 60

Chapter Fifty-three

Queen Berúthiel of Osgiliath – The Third Age of the Sun

When the soldiers had come ‘nigh they stood restraining their dog from its sniffing while’st taking the measure of the two Elves.  None could even recall when last any of the Elder kindred had been seen in Osgiliath.  After some moments a sergeant stood forth and bowed, and then addressed them courteously.

“M’ladies, thy presence hast been reported to Queen Berúthiel who governs Osgiliath in the absence of our lord, King Tarannon Falastur.  ‘Tis her desire to greet thee, for visits by the Eldar art rare indeed and she desires speech with thee regarding the wider world.  We art bidden to convey the Lady’s invitation and to accompany thee to the palace.”

“Noble Sergeant, we would be honored indeed to hath an audience with thy queen,” Helluin said while’st rising to her feet and bowing ere she collected her travel bag.

Beside her, Beinvír stood and shouldered her own bag and bow.  She cast a furtive glance to the hedge, but no sign of the cat did she mark.  Thence she looked to the dog, which stilled ‘neath her gaze, whined softly, and offered a paw.  The animal regarded the Green Elf attentively, raising first one brow and then the other, and adorning its face with a doggy grin and lolling tongue.  Helluin chuckled, knowing that ere long the dog would sooner follow her friend than its masters.

In short order the group left the park, the soldiers marching three to each side of the two Elves, the dog pressed tight against Beinvír’s thigh and staring up into her face.  It well ‘nigh wriggled out of its skin with delight when she petted it.

Now they made their way down a long avenue with many taverns and inns wherefrom the scent of food hung like a delectable sea fog in the air, and thence ‘round a corner, and so came to a long, rectangular forum hedged by public edifices upon three sides and the Dome of Stars upon the fourth.  Indeed in rounding that corner, they had made their way onto one of the great bridges spanning Anduin in Osgiliath’s heart, yet so great and broad was’t that bridge that indeed it stood wider than many a grand avenue in a lesser city.

Like any grand avenue it bustled with many Men going about their business, and these were not tradesmen, but rather the appointees and bureaucrats of the king’s offices.  Even though evening had fallen, some paced hurriedly from building to building upon their business.  Others traveled with an entourage, and indeed more than one dictated to a scribe as he paced amidst his cronies.  Some paid open attention to the little procession while’st others cast surreptitious glances at what appeared to be a company of the guard bringing apprehended vagrants for the court’s judgment.

In the entrance hall the Elves surrendered their weapons, Anguirél and the Sarchram voicing their warnings and dire threats as always, the door wards shuddering to receive them.  The soldiers turned their disarmed charges o’er to a chamberlain who led Helluin and Beinvír hence to the audience chamber.

Now this was’t that same chamber wherein long aforetime the Lords Isildur and Anárion had set their thrones side by side in the first building of the city.  Thither in later times the custom was that the king ruled from that throne once held by Isildur, the elder son of Elendil, while’st his queen sat in the throne of Anárion to his right.  Thither too were other chairs for the King’s Heir, his steward and chief advisors, and for the officers of the court, gathered about the thrones at the foot of the dais.  Thus upon this day, Queen Berúthiel sat in the left throne, while’st in the stewards seat sat the king’s younger brother, Prince Tarciryan.  Helluin and Beinvír marked that as the cat had reported, the queen wore ‘naught but sable and silver, a rather long and flowing dress with loose sleeves gathered at the cuffs, cinched at the waist with a silver belt of many linked discs, and topped with a stiffened, stand-up silver collar. 

Now the Elves came before the throne of Gondor and bowed low to the queen, and she returned a nod of acknowledgment as she rose to welcome them, a grin widening upon her face.  To Helluin’s surprise the queen resembled her quite closely, save that she was’t younger, mortal, and her eyes were golden-brown.  Alike they shared a straight nose, sculpted cheekbones, strong chin and pale skin.  The likeness was’t not identical as it had been in Tar-Telperien or Lady Inzilbêth, but in stature and build, hair color and poise, the two were more like unto each other than not.  Indeed their familial similarity was’t unmistakable. Beinvír’s eyes widened in shock at the unexpected resemblance.  From amongst the gathered counselors came an undercurrent of muttering and whispers.

“Welcome again to the Southern Realm, friends of old,” Queen Berúthiel said, ere she cast her gaze full upon Helluin.  The Noldo marked a constant tic of the queen’s right eyelid and a strange intensity to her stare…almost feral, she thought.  The queen continued with, “I would welcome thee too as kin, save that such blood as we might share hast been much tempered o’er the years ‘twixt thee and me.  Yet never truer hast been proven the claims of old that from some scion of the ruling houses of Númenor did a forefather or foremother of my family come.  Alas, unnamed and lost art they to me.  Nevertheless, I greet thee with honor, Helluin Maeg-mórmenel of the Host of Finwe, and thy longtime companion, Beinvír Laiquende.  Gondor is happy to host thee once more.”

“Greatly we doth thank thee for thy gracious welcome, O Queen,” Helluin said, “and indeed I mark the kinship of our blood in thy features.  Long hast it been since the days of Tar-Meneldur in Atalantë which is no more, whence last some measure of my blood came to the house of the kings.  Still ‘tis to be seen in thee, and so I greet thee, O distant daughter.”

In reaction the queen favored them at first with a broad grin as of self-congratulation  which she quickly quashed as if its display were a mistake.  She then clasped her hands and cracked her knuckles.

About them the members of the court stood silent, entranced by the turn of events.  Most amazed was’t Prince Tarciryan.  Indeed amongst the noble families of Gondor there had aforetime been some dissension regarding Berúthiel’s lineage, yet now all such doubts could be laid to rest.  ‘Twas not such welcome news to some as might hath been supposed.  Many had come to doubt her, for many reasons aside from her bloodline. 

Now the queen bade Helluin and Beinvír seat themselves in chairs that were brought for them and she offered them refreshment.  And when they were served, red wine in goblets and honey-sweetened cakes from a platter, all of silver, she asked after the lands beyond Gondor and harkened to all that the Elves would tell.

  Long they spoke of many realms and of their leaders and peoples, of the north kingdom most, yet too of Mithlond and of Imladris, of Khazad-dûm and Lórinand, and of the realm of Thranduil in Greenwood, such of it as they knew.  Unfortunately much of their tidings were long out of date for they had remained in Eriador since the turning of the Age.  Yet still much information and much history did they tell, and all harkened to them, queen and steward and counselor alike.    

When they had gone on for o’er an hour the queen signaled her chamberlain to prepare for the evening meal and she announced that she desired the company of the two Elves at her board, for there was’t much else hinted at which she would learn from them in private.  Thence the small group retired to the royal dining room, Queen Berúthiel, Prince Tarciryan, Helluin, and Beinvír.

They found the dining room hung in black velvet, with medallions and ornamentation in silver leaf.  At the table’s head an empty chair of heavily carved dark wood was’t reserved, as custom dictated, for the king in his absence, while’st the queen took the chair to its right and the prince to its left.

Now the queen’s board was’t set and servants brought forth a host of silver platters laden with breads and vegetables, a smoked ham, a roasted duck, a chicken glazed with honey and sliced oranges, songbirds roasted upon skewers and stuffed with berries, a steaming goat custard, and a roast of beef with a rich wine gravy.  But though Osgiliath stood upon the water, no hint of seafood graced that table for the queen forbade it.  Clear water and chilled wines both red and white, bubbly cider, and a light ale were provided in decanters and pitchers.  All wafted forth delicious scents that set Beinvír’s stomach rumbling with want, yet ere any touched the food, Queen Berúthiel offered a prayer of thanksgiving to Eru for their bounty.  This she spoke in Sindarin, but in the words Helluin recognized the echo of the prayer once offered in Quenya by the Kings of Númenórë at the Hallow upon the Meneltarma on the Eruhantalë.  Throughout it, and for a moment of silence afterwards, she and the prince sat with heads bowed and eyes closed. 

Now when the blessing had been said and the after-silence observed, Queen Berúthiel at once took up her silver flagon and poured wine for each of them, and she offered a toast to her guests, both welcoming them to her table and thanking them for their centuries of friendship to her people.  Then, as the diners filled their plates, she offered Helluin an apology of sorts.

“My honored guest, ‘tis but right that I should confess that thou hast been subtly used aforetime, though not with malice or intent of dishonor,” she said.  “For amongst this court art many who hath long chaffed at my marriage to our king, and amongst their complaints was’t doubt o’er my lineage.  Thou see, I come not from some noble family of Osgiliath nor from an estate ‘nigh Minas Anor or Minas Ithil, but rather from a family of the south. 

My father is lord of a small fief ‘nigh the River Harnen, inland from the coast in Harondor.  In days of old that land was’t subject to Umbar, and indeed some of my ancestors marched with that host in the last war.  Long aforetime they came of those peoples whom thou know as the Black Númenóreans, who were the King’s Men in the days of Númenor and remained loyal to Ar-Pharazôn.  Yet after the War of the Last Alliance, my family held still their lands ‘neath the Kings of Gondor. 

Still, many deem me suspect; either not truly of noble lineage or else an enemy outright.  By summoning thee hither and demonstrating our kinship from afar, I hath legitimized myself as a descendant of the House of Elros, and though far removed, such claim is still greater than such as they themselves may claim.

If I hath done thee a wrong in this then I apologize, yet to still such discontent shalt aid the solidarity of our people.  I should do so again were the chance to arise.  Yet more, I should seek thy company for such as I might learn of thee, even were thou not kin to me.”

Helluin sighed.  The politics of kingdoms and the preoccupation of nobles with their lineages she had oft found tiresome.  Palace intrigues left her cold.  In the Elder days she had long shunned the cities of her own people in Valinor.  She was’t but a commoner in their eyes and she had married a commoner of the Moriquendi.  If her acknowledgement of Berúthiel’s kinship abetted the stability of Gondor then she objected ‘naught to it.

“For my part I hath no discontent, O Queen,” Helluin replied.  “The concerns of these others art of little concern to me save that they threaten the realm of my distant kin.  I fault thee not.  Long ago did I resolve to offer such aid as I could to the House of Huor.  His son did I aid in Gondolin, and so ‘cross many long years and half a hundred generations I hath continued.”

  The queen offered her a smile and seemed thereafter more relaxed.  Unfortunately her respite was’t short-lived.  Soon a white cat bearing a limp rat in its jaws entered the dining room and came to sit ‘neath the queen’s chair where it proffered the carcass with a nudge so that it came to rest on the queen’s slippered foot.  Berúthiel suppressed a reflexive shudder.  ‘Twas followed a bit later by a black cat, also bearing a dead rat. and then another.  Helluin and Beinvír marked their appearances but remarked not.  Soon a growing pile of carcasses lay at the Berúthiel’s feet.  The queen had taken to drumming her fingertips upon the tabletop when not involved with her knife and fork.  The tic had returned to her eyelid.

  As the meal progressed and they spoke of many things, cat after cat joined the company until a host of eleven black cats had joined the white cat attending the queen.  In response the queen sniffled and stifled a sneeze.  Her eyes appeared to hath grown more watery.   Amongst her adoring felines, neither a stripe nor a patch, nor a contrasting paw or tail’s tip did any of them bear.  The two Elves were reminded of the orange tabby’s remarks on Berúthiel’s color preferences.  It seemed he had spoken ‘naught but the truth.

“Queen Berúthiel, might I ask thee ‘aught of thy habits, for in them I discern some factors as unsettle the peoples of thy realm,” Beinvír requested.  She eyed the cats a moment and then returned her gaze to the queen.

  Berúthiel nodded her permission, greatly curious as to what a Green Elf might ask.  ‘Neath her chair and about her feet the cats lounged or rubbed against her legs, building static charges so that their shed hairs clove to her hem.  Though the queen studiously avoided eye contact with them, she could feel their unwavering attention upon her and inwardly cringed.  The tic of her eyelid became more pronounced.

  Now Beinvír began diplomatically, trying to delve without offending the psyche of the queen, for to understand the animosity of the citizenry regarding this woman who so far had seemed only concerned for their welfare.  For her part, Helluin bent her gaze upon the white cat and silently called it to her.

  “O Queen, ’tis such talk as we hath heard of thee showing favor to thy cats and holding converse with them indeed true?  It seems thereby thou doth feed the rumor mills of thy folk.”  At this the queen blanched and for a moment cast her gaze upon the felines about her feet.  They had harkened to the Green Elf, eyeing her from ‘neath the table, and sparing for a moment the queen from their attentions.  Beinvír continued on in a sympathetic vein.  “Were it so, I should understand it well and fault it not.  I hath at times past spoken with many animals and Helluin hath spoken at whiles with trees and shrubs, and so we find no oddity in it, yet we art Elven folk for whom such is reckoned but a fancy rather than a peculiarity for remark.  T’would seem thy people art troubled by it.”

  Berúthiel sighed ere she answered, seemingly tired of answering again a question oft asked aforetime.  ‘Neath the table the white cat made its way to Helluin’s feet.

  “I shalt tell thee that I bear no special love for cats,” the queen said.  “Indeed I am allergic to them and suffer close contact with them only by use of herbs.  I find they shed much upon my clothing and therefore do I favor black cats, for their hair shows the less upon my robes.  Yet they cleave to me and favor my company, t’would seem, and this preference they hath demonstrated since my first coming hither.  I understand it not.  Yet unlike many I neither persecute nor curse them, for as all in my homelands know, cats art the enemies of vermin such as afflict all dwellings of Men and their ships as well.  Therefore I see them fed and offered milk, and speak sternly to any such as I find abusing them.”  ‘Twas seemingly that so much talk of cats caused the queen to sneeze twice.

  “So thou art mostly concerned with their welfare for the benefit of thy city, O Queen?”  Helluin asked.  The white cat had in fact leapt into her lap and the Noldo fondled its ears and jowls, eliciting a loud purring of delight.  

  Berúthiel nodded her agreement to Helluin.  The white cat nuzzled the Noldo’s hand and gazed into her eyes.  Thence Helluin commenced a rather bizarre chat with it.

  My greetings, O noble mouser.  Howsoever hath thou found favor of Berúthiel in spite of thy coat?  She hast claimed to favor black.

  I greet thee, O lady of pointed ears and flashing eyes, the cat said.  Berúthiel is color blind and sees me as silver.  ‘ Aught else to her seems black or grey. 

  Thou say the queen perceives not colors? 

  Just so.  Hath thou not marked her attire or her baubles?  She hast ever been so.  Now hath thou a fish or some tidbit, or perhaps by thy grace a saucer of milk?

  Nay, I too am here to sup at the queen’s board.  Art thou not also favored thus?

  I am indeed, though not as a beggar.  Art thou a beggar? I saw not any rat offered by thee at the queen’s feet. 

  Nay, I am a guest, trading tidings rather than rats for my supper. 

  Ahhh, then we art the same indeed.  Many tales doth I tell, for I hear many things.  Here the white cat stretched up and whispered to Helluin, as if conveying some privy matter in confidence.  And ever must I keep straight the fancies of the others, sifting their useless gossip and rumors.  They art oft indiscriminate…given to filling thence the queen’s ears with whimsy.  Indeed I am an editor.

  And what, pray tell doth thou edit?  Helluin asked with equal circumspection, curious about the group dynamics of the royal cats. 

  Why, I am wholly concerned with the plots and intrigues of state, of course, the cat told her, seeming to puff itself up with importance.  Helluin raised a brow at this claim.  The cat continued with, just yester eve I o’erheard a petty noble scheming to employ a dog to rid his estate of cats!  A dog!  A slobbering, tail-chasing, clumsy, cur, ever barking and given to leaving its droppings in plain view as if they were a source of pride!  Imagine!  Such dark tidings as this the queen must know at once for the preservation of the realm.

  Helluin could ‘naught but roll her eyes.

  Why?  Surely a noble’s choice of company is ‘neath her concern, she said.

  Nay.  Such intentions undermine the welfare of the people.  Imagine thou, if each household kept thus a dog, not in the fields tending sheep, nor even for the hunt, but in the city…in their homes!  Horrors!  Ere Anor’s rising upon the third day all would hath to watch their step lest they tread upon the stools carelessly laid upon the flags and paving.  Think thou that a noble would stoop to retrieve them?  Nay!  The prospect fairly turns my stomach.  And worse, if thou know ‘aught of dogs then thou hast marked their preoccupation with turf?  Every corner and bush they baptize with their urine.  Yuck.  They then bark and growl at any who impinge upon their perceived territory.  No sooner than the city is cursed with dogs shalt the healers be called upon to assuage the bites therefrom.  Know thou too that sometimes dogs carry a mouth-foaming madness?  Such as art bitten fall prey to that sickness as well, most oft to their doom.

  I see, Helluin said.  She favored not the idea of many dogs running rampant in the city.

  The cat regarded her a moment, seemingly measuring her sincerity.

  And I see we art indeed of one mind upon this topic, friend, the cat said.  It then lay down and curled itself in Helluin’s lap, giving its attention to the licking of its paws.  Helluin returned her attention to the conversation at the table.

  “And ‘tis true as is said of thee that thou maintains a garden devoid of flowers, yet populated with the tortured figures of monsters and Men?” Beinvír was’t asking.

  Berúthiel nodded, saying that, “’Tis the custom in Gondor for the queen to order the planting of the royal gardens, yet of plants given to flowering, most produce powder from their blooms that afflicts me horrible.  Indeed I am allergic to well ‘nigh all.  Therefore I hath planted such as I can withstand and created many likenesses of creatures and heroes from the legends of my homeland.  Such tales art strange and upsetting to northern folk, I hath learnt.”  Here the queen sighed in resignation.  “South we hath long had knowledge of those beings as populate the southern continent.  I am sure none from Gondor ever set foot thither.  Perhaps as well, none from Númenor did either.”

  “I should like to see thy garden of sculptures someday, O Queen,” Helluin said, for after hearing the origins of the figures, she wondered if some were not like unto those denizens and primitive Men she had seen long aforetime in the company of Veantur.  Many lands had they visited upon their voyages of exploration, and many odd characters had they encountered upon thither shores.

  The queen nodded her permission.  Few expressed ‘aught but distaste and she had come to realize that creating the garden thus might hath been a mistake.  Still, she could not abide flowers, and she had been required by custom to do something.

  “We shalt walk thither after the evening meal, Helluin,” Berúthiel said, “and thou can’st see then the gardens with thy own eyes.  Well traveled as thou art, perhaps even some figures might seem familiar to thee.”

  The queen then turned to beckon a chamberlain, and indicating the heap of dead rats at her feet, directed him to remove them and take them hence.  Using a pair of long silver tongs the man gathered up the rats upon a silver platter and took his leave as if ‘twas nothing out of the ordinary.  The queen returned her attention to the dark Noldo, asking, “Helluin, what opinion if any hath thou regarding a petition now published in court requesting that dogs be freely kept as pets in the city?”

  Helluin cocked an eyebrow at the queen.  The white cat in her lap stretched and attempted to lay a paw full of claws into her thigh.

  “A horrible idea, O Queen,” Helluin said straight-faced, “for t’will no doubt lead to the ills of flagrant droppings, canine delinquency, and a rash of biting.”

  The queen stopped her fork halfway to her mouth and wrinkled her brow a moment in thought.  ‘Twas almost as if the elleth’s opinion had been heard by her aforetime, yet she remembered not receiving such counsel.  Finally she nodded seriously in agreement.

  “Tarciryan, make a note that the petition is refused save in those cases wherein the dog is leashed, muzzled, and followed by a watchful stool-gatherer,” she said to the prince.

  In Helluin’s lap the white cat commenced to purring again.

  Now following the meal, the company retired to the queen’s garden, and it proved every bit as strange as the Elves had heard.  Thither grew ‘naught but some twisted trees.  These were yew and cypress, and a strange few others of species unrecorded, which seemed to hath been chosen for the torment evinced in their trunks and limbs.  From windswept and weather blasted promontories or heights they had certainly been gathered, and thence replanted hither where through the following decades they had been trained and pruned in their growth to maximize the effects.  Not a straight arm’s length of wood was’t there in the whole of the garden

  Being used to the natural growth of trees in the forests, Beinvír found the whole effect disturbing.  Her heart beat in sympathy for the enduring determination of these olvar to cling to life and growth despite their unfavorable lot.  No doubt Oldbark would hath been horrified.  Yet she perceived also that the plantings were tended regularly and with great care.  ‘Twas a strange mixture of feelings the queen’s garden evoked within her and she regarded it long in silence.

  Helluin took in the twisted growth of the yews and cypress and marked that though their forms were wrought of difficult circumstance, still all had acquired a balance, a pleasing aesthetic arrangement of their limbs that told of patiently considered and knowledgeable horticulture.  These shapes were no accident; they were wholly intentional.  Soon she marked the heavy wires bound upon some of the branches, supporting and constraining thus their growth to intended forms.  Just as the vintner pruned a vine or the arborer a fruit tree, so too had these plants been shaped for a desired visual effect.  And not a one was’t of a kind that came ever to flower.  Helluin nodded in understanding.  The queen had recreated the forms of dramatic but natural trees from her homelands while’st appeasing her allergies to pollens.  She turned then her attention to the carven figures.

  Thither first did Helluin spy a Wildman of the southern continent, rendered in stylized manner yet recognizable still.  In one hand he clutched a crude club, the thigh bone of a large beast.  An animal skin was’t wound about his loins.  She had seen many who could hath been his near kin upon her journeys by ship long ago.

  With her perfect recall Helluin saw the primitive encampment wherefrom the natives had fled the sailors who had come thither in their great ships of Númenor.  They had been tall, yet bone thin, of darkest ebony skin, eyes reddened by prolonged infection, and yet with white teeth that contrasted alarmingly against the coal black of their faces.  They had known neither hygiene nor fire nor metals, had spoken with the guttural tones of beasts, and upon them the ancient Shadow lay heavy.  Never had they known ‘aught of the West or the Valar, save Morgoth only, whose servants had come amongst them in the earliest of days.  She and the Men of Westernesse had pitied them.

  Other figures Helluin examined; Men of southern lands or from the furthest east.  Hither were short-statured Men with skin of bronze and eyes that appeared to slant.  They had practiced divination and animal sacrifice.  Others there were of even shorter stature, but these were pot bellied, dark skinned, thin limbed, and they recalled to her the forest dwellers of the Dark Continent whom the sailors had called i-figinúr¹.  A cluster of them depicted a hunting party armed with simple slender bows.  ¹(i-figinúr, The Tiny Ones = in(pl def art, the) + p(f- nasal lentition)igen(tiny) + e-i(pl int vowel shift) + -úr(intensive agent, tiny ones)  Sindarin  Note: It may be that the much later name, Pygmies, derives from the Sindarin root, Piginúr = Tiny Ones)

  “I find many of thy figures familiar,” Helluin told the startled queen, “and though long aforetime did I encounter these kindreds, still they art known to me.  Hither art preserved, by virtue of thy southern lore, a bestiary of primitive Men of such kinds as once roamed continents far to the south and east.  Know’th thou how such came to be remembered amongst thy people?”

  “I know only that ‘tis said that in the days of Anadûnê, some sea captains of old told tales of far off lands they had never seen with their own eyes…neither they nor any they knew.  Yet the tales they repeated until they became legend, and finally myth.  And ever did they swear that upon a time such places had been visited by their forefathers of Númenor, captains of the kings.  Even had they sailed so far as to find the sea whereo’er Arien lofted Anor heavenwards at each dawn, bringing such heats as would roast a Man to his death.  ‘Twas said that in the Guildhouse of the Venturers of Romenna, and in the king’s scriptorium in Armenelos, there once existed scrolls bearing these accounts.  Being as none knew ‘aught to prove or disprove them, they hath persisted in the lore of my people for generations uncounted.”

  “I see,” Helluin mused.  The accounts Berúthiel cited were no doubt those penned by the Captain-Admiral Veantur well ‘nigh 3,500 years before, recording discoveries made upon journeys Helluin herself had partaken of as his wife, back in the 7th century of the Second Age of the Sun.  “Believe the lore of thy people, O Queen,” she said, “for there is at its root, truth.  Such lands were indeed visited upon a time by the ships of Númenor.”

  To this confirmation the queen nodded somberly, and with her guests surveyed once again the garden with its twisted trees and sculptures, and then the company retired to the palace for the night and bid each other a peaceful rest.

To be Continued

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