A Man's a Man
6. The Province of Women
And so downstairs, to where Faramir was waiting in the main hallway, along with his son Theoán, and Éowyn, and Arwen, and Legolas, and the housekeeper, and Hurin of the Keys, and a handful of servants and guardsmen, and Elenwë and the nursemaid, and Theoán's daughter Ilsa peeping between the curtaining skirts before them.
It was not hard, after all, to see what they were looking at. It was somewhat eye-catching.
"Ah," he said, louder than necessary, "so Master Kalasian has delivered the... likeness, then."
The group stilled their talking, and looked upon him with great nonchalance and innocence as they parted to reveal a wizened man, thin in the extreme, his eyes shrunken in to almost invisibility, holding a walking-stick in a hand with fingers as long as any elf's.
"As I promised, my lord," he said softly. "Elessar Triumphant."
"And Kalasian Triumphant, no less," Aragorn replied. "Your talent is not ordinary, my man, but you surpass yourself." (Indeed, the old man's eye to bring a living creature to his canvas surpassed what one would think no mortal man could- not only his gift for sheer observation, but what he could paint that was indescribable, and what he could show by mere suggestion, was almost beautifully unnerving.)
"Indeed, indeed," Faramir added.
"'Tis how the battlefield is there, very much so, in the lower part, and it is a dread battlefield truly," Keys put in "but the light behind is... I cannot say it- how can the light of Mount Doom be made so... stirring?"
"You look quite beautiful, my lord," Éowyn said warmly. "So noble- graceful, even."
"I am glad my friends appreciate this man's great gift and the veracity of his labour," Aragorn replied. "However, there is one point that concerns me,"
"'Tis perhaps a small matter to be pedantic in the face of such mastery, but I do particularly remember that I was wearing full mail, with a surcoat above it."
"Yes, my lord, if I might be so bold, I remember the day well," an older guard added.
"You were there, my man?"
"Yes, verily, my lord, I was one of Lord Faramir's rangers in Ithilien."
"Excellent. Tell me, were you ever at war, Kalasian?"
"Yes, my lord. Until the fall of Mordor, my lord."
"Were you really? Then surely you will be aware that it is not at all common practice for commanding captains to go into battle as the One, in His wisdom, intended."
"True, my lord."
"Do you, fellow, do you remember seeing any of the men of Gondor fighting nude at the Black Gate?"
"No, my lord. Oh, except for Rumil, and Eledcar, and a couple of others."
"Flaming oil, we think, my lord. Their clothes caught fire and they had to rip them off, quickly like."
"Well, yes, that would account for it."
"And then there was Valadcar, in our company. Now he was a one, his lordship the Steward may remember."
"Not at all, Tuor, I fear," Faramir replied. "There were fourteen men called Valadcar in my company."
"This was the one who had the idea of taking your clothes off in battle, my lord."
"Oh, that Valadcar."
"Because he reckoned, my lord, that every soldier- man soldier that is- is really terrified of a madman, you see, so..."
"Yes, thank you Tuor, I think I understand. However, with the exception of those whose clothing caught fire, and Tuor's friend Valadcar, the company at the Black Gate were almost without exception clothéd."
"Apart from my cousin Echerian, my lord."
"Oh, by heaven I forgot about that. Did your uncle ever get a satisfactory explanation for that?"
"Not in full, my lord."
"Be that as it may, I myself have definite memories of really being very conventional, fortunate and modest, and remaining attired as per regulations." Aragorn took a deep breath. "Why, Kalasian?"
"Because of art, my lord,"
"It is the heroic style, Adar," piped a small voice from thigh level. "Nudes or semi-nudes are the custom."
Aragorn looked down at Elenwë's small, solemn upturned face.
"Oh yes. Portraiture requires anatomical study, after all; much more soulful than painting armour or rainement."
"I- well, you know your own business best."
"I am learning it as best I can, Ada. Master Kalasian has taught me well." She turned proudly; "If you look closely, I have painted your feet."
"Yes. I made many studies of hands, but it is a very tall painting and the feet were more within my reach, so I studied feet instead."
Aragorn repressed the urge to shriek about exposing his eight-year old daughter to... well, a naked man, and the fact that it was supposed to be her own father did not improve matters in any way. Neither, above all, did the fact that it was supposed to be him. However...
"Very good, Elenwë," he said. "They are really very good feet. Though they do not look much like my feet, nin iell."
"That is hardly the point."
"I am sure you may explain all about it later to me, Elenwë. When this portrait is safely in its attic, I am sure it shall be a valuable lesson in such work?"
The assembled company was, for the most part, not quite familiar enough to cut off the king mid-sentence, but most were fairly free when he had spoken.
"An attic! My lord, this man has made a masterpiece!"
"Ah, my lord, but it is so beautiful!"
"Enough!" The king raised a hand, and the protests died down. "I have given my decision and it is as follows- this man shall be paid for his work, and mayhap even commissioned to produce another work; however, this likeness is to be preserved with the uttermost care and protection in an attic, til after my death, whereupon it may have pride of place in the gallery at my son's discretion."
"Never whilst you live?" Éowyn asked sorrowfully.
"What if..." Faramir said cautiously, "What if Kalasain painted a rainament and armour onto the figure, my lord?"
"Certainly not! Outright vandalism! I will not tell this man what he shall and shall not paint!"
"For this many thanks, my lord." the painter said softly. "In this, I honour you greatly."
"I am glad of it. All I will decree is that while I am yet living, I am suffering no man to look upon me and think of that. Come! There is much to be done!" The king turned on his heel, and strode off, muttering- "not as if it's even accurate... not nearly so muscular... man looks about thirty-five..."
Lady Ilsa nudged Princess Elenwë and whispered:
"Why was he so cross?"
"Because it looks like you can see his male parts."
"Oh. Well, you can."
"They're not his. Kalasian and me never saw him with no clothes on."
"How did you paint it, then?"
"Oh, I think Master Kalasian was just guessing. He paints lots of people."
"Well, do they mind?"
"I do not think so. Maybe they do. My sister says all men are always worrying about their men's parts anyway."
"I do not know. Perhaps they are afraid of people seeing them."
"I do not know. Maybe they think if we see theirs, we will want them."
"Really?" Ilsa looked up at the painting again. "Huh. Why should we? He can keep that."
"Oh, my sister says it's just what men think."
"Yes, but she's always saying things like that."
"Come along, now, come along," Nurse Corwen, suddenly realising that her charge was within sight of half of the household, spread her arms out like a goose-girl trying to bring a wandering bird back to the flock, "I think that Ilsa has her own nurse to go back to?"
That is not a question nor a statement, it is a prayer, thought Éowyn, as the two girls bid one another goodbye for now, and then wondered why she had thought so. Her granddaughter placed a small, slightly sticky hand in hers.
"Bestemoder," she said, "where is Aunt Alasse? She likes paintings."
"She is off with Estel and Lady Andumíriel. They have gone to the house of Ithilis, their friend who is a scholar's daughter."
Ilsa wrinkled her nose.
"If I was as big as Aunt Alasse and Aunt Estel I would not be having tea with a scholar's daughter all the time."
"Ilsa, you are a scholar's daughter."
"I know, and I do not know what's so special about the house of this Ithilis."
"I do not know why they visit Ithilis. I think they do but like her well."
At this, the Queen Arwen laughed, low as she was wont to when she heard something endearingly innocent.
"Methinks they have some dark purpose," she said, merrily. "I believe that they sit in a cellar and plot an uprising."
Éowyn glanced sidelong at the Queen. Was that some kind of jest, perhaps? Well, surely it must have been.
In fact, they met in the attic, of the house of Ithilis, whose kin almost certainly knew her business with them, but whose father was a scholar who almost certainly quietly approved of their Cause. Someone had once forwarded the idea that such meetings should take place in cellars, and had been firmly told that she was a fool.
The droit de signor petition had gone well; it had gone very well. Now, however, Estel could not help but feel that they were about to overstep themselves. Or they would be, if they could decide the direction in which they intended to collectively step, for they had long agreed that women trying to take steps alone would swiftly be knocked down.
"We are agreed, at least," Lieos raised her voice slightly, "that the problem is in no way in the women themselves."
Indeed, that at least they agreed on. "...not one would be there if she could stop and not starve..." "...most of them never wanted to be there..." "...all being cheated by somebody..." "Nothing abnormal, can't be that many girls in the land with abnormal appetites..."
"Indeed. So as they would starve if they could not go about their business, perhaps the women themselves should not be challenged, merely their keepers."
"But that does not improve matters, much," Ithilis replied, "for that is the function of the houses-"
"Then let us do away with the houses!" Lady Alasse burst out hotly. "The idea that it is somehow a proud trade if it is dressed up with velvet cushions! At least in the gutters of the First Circle one can see it for the ugly drudgery it is!"
"But that would be to throw all the poor girls into the gutter, gwathel," Lieos said calmly, "and who would want that? At least in the houses they are, well, housed, and work from a warm room, and the men are seen when they enter and leave, and it is harder for an unfortunate girl to disappear, as such girls do from time to time."
"So you think it is better, then, to paint the face of their toils and hang it with tassels?"
"No. I merely think that they would prefer to have a bed and to know that the house Mistress is watching."
"She has a point, after all, Sissy." Lady Estel spent much time at these meetings sitting quietly in the corner wishing she had rather more brain, but a mobile life at least gave her particulars that many of the others had not. "Remember in Pelegir? Go down certain streets, and they're lining every byway. Our Eomund says not one lone man can get down the street without them grabbing at his clothes. And what's more, most men assume every lone woman walking there is one of them."
"I know, Estel, I know," Alasse said, miserably. "I just think that it is vile to... to beautify the whole thing. To make men think that it is an honour for the women to serve them."
"Well, that is all part of the trade."
"I know, but men should know it is a lie."
"I believe they do," Lieos smiled. "Telling yourself such things is half of what manhood is all about." She looked about herself. "What think you, ladies? Alda? Alda, are we boring you?"
Alda had, in fact, had her eyes closed in attempt not to stare at Mistress Lieos' calves- her butter-stained black skirt being pushed back to catch a breeze exposed bone-whit legs with astonishingly long, thick, black hairs running over them. Of course Alda did not wish her to be ashamed, at all, of course not, i'faith, no, but she would that she could cease to look at them. She opened her eyes, and sat up straighter- Lieos, following her gaze, glanced at her skirt, and pulled out a handkerchief, with which she proceeded to smear the greasy stain a little further.
"Not at all."
"Well, any thoughts?"
"Well, that we have understood it all very well; but that our intentions, with respect, my ladies, overreach our means."
A shadow at the edge of the light broadened slightly, as Andumíriel turned in towards the room.
"Well said, Alda."
"Thank you, my lady."
"Indeed?" Alasse looked up at the tall, thin girl sitting upon the high windowsill. "Why, where do you think our limits are drawn?"
"I did not say that; but I think we are being rather innocent to look upon the business of Orlbach street, or the sweepings of the First Circle gutters, and say: Here is a problem; what is the solution? I cannot help but think that the problem is a little more knotty than that."
"You mean, 'tis a symptom of the wider ill of poverty?"
"Perhaps, though that is not what we are here to discuss."
A change was rustling though the group; they were settling back to listen. They had heard Andumíriel's speeches before, when she set out to explain a sweeping ill or matter to them, and this promised to be as entertaining as ever.
"So what is your solution, then? You cannot deny that this arrangement is not to these women's advantage."
Andumíriel swung her long, narrow legs, kicking her heals against the wall.
"In the main, for the majority and in the long term, no; but then, what could be? And no, Mistress Lunborn, to what you said, I do not think men would be any the different for being wedded. I think it would be hypocritical to try to do away with whoring and then try to usher all men and all women into marriage."
"So," Alda spoke but to guide her to her point. "Your premise is that wives and whores are as one anyway?"
"My premise- thank you, Alda, I like the word- my premise is this. All gender prejudice proceeds from this crucial notion: "You, my dear, you bring the high-quality sexual attributes, and calculate carefully how you dispense them. He will bring the money." Every idea, from women not taking men for their own pleasure but only for their coin, to immodest women being sluts and whores- for they give it away too cheap and lower the market value for the rest of us- to women trying to trap men, lure them into a marriage when they would rather play the field, every tinny, narrow, feeble platitude about men and women, all the trite business that starts in a passing jest and ends with women getting paid less for the same work and then ravished on the way home; every stitch of this ugly straitjacket comes from this central idea: you bring the no-thing (make him beg, mind); he shall bring the purse.
(Alda flinched to see the beaded and gilded braid at the flair of 'Míriel's sleeve was coming not even detached, but unwound- she knew it had been re-sewn but two days hence- why was she wearing it now anyway? What the occasion, but that she owned it at all? Could Haleth have not hidden such things from the girl until such time as she actually to be on display and not about to go flying birds or running dogs or painting?)
" If women marry for this notion, then what separates them from whores? Woman as a possession, that they shall buy, let, or even 'give away' their parts for men, are not an unlucky assemblage on certain streets- they are, well, they are in truth most women, as soon as they are given the notion that their sex is a thing, and a tradable thing at that."
"And you say..."
Andumíriel pulled her knee up into the grasp of her arms- an odd shape it made her as it meant that one foot now hung in space.
"Well, that it is not a thing. If it is an item, let any man who has had one sold, let or gifted to him, by his father or brother or guardian by marriage, or, yes, even by his wife or lover herself, let him come and show me this thing that he has received. No, because then he would show me his wife; rather, what has been removed from her, that perhaps- and yes, this is what we were saying last week, I know- that perhaps, though 'twas of her body, belonged in truth to the head of her family, though he could not remove it from her to hand it over. In fact, I am not wed nor have ever been a whore- let them show me this thing that I am to keep hold of, that I am to be judicious about who I may 'give' it to. What is it, that a maid- or even, for that matter, not but a maid, for when a wench has given once she may e'en more easily give again- what is this thing that they hand over to these men?"
"Yes. Thank you." Lieos held up a hand. "I did like the beginning, gwathel, though I think you strayed later on."
"Oh, I know not," Ithilis said. "I rather liked it. You are right that the language is most unfit. Think upon mating, and is it not, if anyone, the female who is receiving- so wherefore is it that so many speak as if 'tis she who parts with a commodity?"
"I am confused."
"According to the common wisdom that gwathel Míra has explained for us of the economics of marriage, gwathel Estel, you certainly are!"
That, oh yes, Estel dimly understood. (But the women had, in fact, not castigated her as such: "-for has she not chosen her man as t'would be fine for a man to name his wife? Shall we not look upon this match with interest?") However, she took the easier answer.
"I thought we would cease to name one another 'gwathel'. I thought academic language was a symptom of masculine linguistic hierarchy."
"That was Ithilis' idea," Míra reminded her, now rhythmically slapping her hands against what, had she not been so skinny, would have been her hips. "Then I pointed out that Sindarin was in fact my mother tongue, and the company vetoed my suggestion that we dismantle our language and find our own names, instead of being bound into the labels that our fathers gave us; because we tried it, and most of us could not think of names, or if we did we could not remember who one another were. And Estel, I did not say that it was so, that women merely sell themselves. When you have agreed to share your life, sharing your coin is a very small drop in the ocean."
"Well said, Míra."
"Easily said, though," muttered Mistress Lunborn, who was a housekeeper in the fifth circle.
"Well, if t'were not so, Estel, why should you take your own leofost, now? Because frankly, I know you would have thrown yourself into it without considering your dowry, did you not?"
"And dowries." Alasse added. "With dowries, it makes no sense at all."
"Dowries are for those as can afford them, with respect, my lady," Alda opened her eyes again.
"I thought we were not to confuse debates of wealth and womanhood, Alda?"
"And why not? Why are they not as one? My lady Andumíriel believes so."
"I think that Lady 'Míriel was presenting that view in order to show it to be wrong, Alda."
"But I do take it that she was illustrating that, as a sex, it binds us nevertheless."
"Oh, really, Alasse," Andumíriel walked into the middle of the room, and stretched her long thin body under a sunbeam. "Of course thinking that holds our ways together is in huge parts whim and handed-down doggerel that bears no kin to fact. If that were not so, we would not be bound up in primitives." She sat down upon the floor, and rested her chin upon her hands, with the beginnings of a smirk.
Lieos threw back her hands.
"Explain, then, if it please you."
"A primitive is a word that turns a lack of a thing into a thing itself. We speak, do we not, of cold coming in through the window, of ignorance spreading through the masses? But there is no such thing as cold in and of itself, only air that lacks heat. The masses do not acquire ignorance...."
Says who? Estel thought. I am sure every time I hear you speak so I know myself to have more ignorance than I did before.
Míra leaned back on her hands.
"...in a man, it seems, for his deeds, in matters where he need not do them, he shall be called virtuous. But in women, her virtue is what she has not done, in matters where- no, I mistake- it is for there to have been no matters that might lead to such deeds. Thus in every sense of virtue, in woman it is a primitive."
They were back to the objectification of maidenhood again.
"Luthien." Alasse said after some time.
"What of her?"
"What of her indeed? What is that if not virtue, and there is anything but inaction."
"And where did you hear Luthien called 'virtuous'? Many things, yes, but virtuous? I know not."
"So for a woman to do battle and show courage is not virtuous, you say?"
"It is a man's virtue. In the eyes of our people it does naught for her value in that she is a woman. To reap reward from that she should have to wear breeches, a chinwig and a stuffed codpiece for the rest of her..."
"Oh, we did this." Ithilis cried, bored: "cross-dressing being only a reinforcement of the power of men because it ties men's features firmly to men's power."
"'Tis useful, though."
"What? But that was your moral."
"I know." Andumíriel was now lying on her belly on the rug. "But 'tis useful. Useful for learning a little about Orlbach Street, for a start."
Estel looked up, genuinely startled.
"What is it you have learned of Orlbach Street, Míra?"
"Oh, just looking. That was what I said, too. I had but slipped out after dark in garb of a boy. And I must have been convincing too, for a few women did enquire as to whether I wanted a lovely time. Oh, and a couple who asked me whether I was buying or selling."
"So they did see you were a girl."
"I rather think," Lieos said, "it was because there are a few boys on sale."
"Or maybe," Andumíriel said thoughtfully, "there are women who come to buy."
There was a complicated silence.
"Mayhap," Andumíriel pressed on, "if you pretend you are a man, then the real men just play along that you are one of them."
There was more silence, until Alasse mumbled: "Well, I don't believe that anyway."
"And what did you see?"
"Oh, nothing much. Taverns. Girls walking up and down in dresses that slid down too low. Houses. Big lit-up parlour windows. It seemed half of the men were just in there for a drink and to talk with someone who would pretend they were worth listening to. All rather dull, really."
Alda glanced out of the window- this was all rather dull, really, and it did not seem to be getting anywhere. It seemed the girls had to establish their silly earnestness before contributing anything to the situation- well over two thousand words and no plot advancement in sight. They would have to be abridged- surely nobody would miss a little more fidgeting and disembodied politics anyway.
"Oh, that reminds me," Lady Estel said- "can anyone remember the answer to this- why did the ant elope?"
Lieos pursed her lips in a little girlish circle.
"I am not sure... because he saw the salad dressing?"
"No, that cannot be..."
She escaped with a vague plea of duty to attend to, and burst out into the blessed sunlight. Coming out of the door felt like opening an oven. However, she was not quite yet rejoicing at her freedom- Lady Estel, for some reason, had cried: "Ah, very good, Alda, I shall walk with you!", which was not quite so bad, but she really had not wished for the Lady Andumíriel to then follow Lady Estel, still chattering about ill-use of words.
"Wanton. That is a fine example. Now, it is defined as 'out of control', but one suspects many such 'wantons' are very well-controlled indeed, else they could never be sly wantons, as they are meant to be-"
"I do not think that that is what is meant by the word, 'Míra."
"Then it is the wrong word!" Andumíriel bounded slightly ahead of the two of them, her patterns scraping on the cobbles. "How miraculous women are that we might be both without mind and still cunning at once!"
"Mayhap, my lady," Alda said "one might be wise without moral compass- or, indeed, one might employ cunning to do what none in their right mind may do."
"You sound like Lieos, Alda. Not that that is an ill thing. I think Lieos is a fine example to a maid. You do know about her marriage, do you not? She met a mariner the same day as her father had struck her with his staff; within the fortnight they were wedded, and within the week he was away at sea; and he did not come back til she had a daughter toddling about her house in the married quarters, aye, and with a nurse, maid and cook to help her chase it- for it turned out he was a sea-captain, and so she was well-kept. She went to the gate, and was panicked, for neither remembered what the other looked like. Well, they found one another somehow, he stayed for a week, but 'twas all too queer for them both, he shore-bound with a woman, she with a strange man in her house. So he went back to sea; then, when she had a son crawling about the place too, she had a letter to say that he was dead."
"I did wonder why she wore a widow's garb, 'tis true."
"Oh, I did ask her once, and she says that she is careful that she remembers him. I asked her what it was she remembered of him, and she said 'Nothing particular. I do but remember that he was.' How canny, say I, to be a widow without the trouble of remembering being a wife! I know not what woman is more free than a widow, when neither husband nor father has claim on her, do you not think, Estel? And it seems Lieos has all the best of that without having to spend years trailing around after some man."
"Well, that is to forget," Estel muttered "that most wives nonetheless do not in fact wish their husbands to die on them after only two weeks of being together as man and wife."
"Though 'tis better than their dying after two weeks of being together not yet as man and wife," Alda said, half to herself, as they passed beneath the Citadel gate, and the street suddenly became a wide and quiet space, though with the quiet where one felt many, many people making little noise.
"Mean you our dear unfortunate, Alda? You know, methinks maybe she is onto a good thing. At least no more shall she have to expend energy trying to be mad. She was never very good at it. Now men need but see her with her child and say: why, all is not well with her."
"'Míriel, do not gabble so, beloved. 'Tis a sad circumstance."
"Ah, dear Estel! Sweet Estel, I have watched my sister well, and I shall tell you what troubles her. Elensil lives in utter dread at the idea that someone shall find- shall even accuse, even suggest her heart to be somewhat... lacking. Or worse, that there is something of the heart that she does not know- always she must have some mark, some trophy, so she may never be told that she does not understand. Do you not realise- forever it is see, see how I can love a man and see how my heart is broken. See how I wound myself in my grief!"
"You mean that she was tumbling with my brother to prove her love?"
"I doubt it. More to prove her passion, or that she was no child, or so none could speak of what she did not know of men. But that is a trifle- now she must prove she hath the heart to love a child. Then nobody may tell her she knows not what it is to love a child. Wait and see, I promise you she will not be able to bear to have a wet-nurse. Why, she shall be one of those mothers who slyly kicks the base of the cradle when other women are near, so that her babe will cry and she must comfort it."
"'Mira, hush. The whole Citadel does not wish to know!" Estel, who had all the natural talent for secrecy as a fish had for cobbling, at this raised her head and looked all around the courtyard, in a manner that would have attracted the interest of any bystander as to what she was trying to conceal. She glanced down at Alda, who quickly muttered:
"I know nothing, my ladies."
"What do you think shall happen?"
"A wedding, of course, Estel. What did you think?"
Andumíriel had strode on several leggy paces before she realised that the elder girl had not followed.
Estel broke out of her revieve, and glanced up.
"I think I shall wait at home, for now. I would see Alasse... she- the heat- she might not be well. If it is too hot for her."
"Estel, is there something-"
"No! No, of course not." The Lady Estel turned, and picked up her skirts, and made all haste towards the arch of the garden of the Stewards' house.
Indeed, why should not Estel not have been well? For in a burst of what must surely appear to be high spirits, she suddenly found cause to swing herself around the gate, and even sing a tune from her nursery-days in Ithilien that had suddenly returned to her:
In the window, out the front door
Throw old granny from the top floor.
Pack her head into a basket
Let her sell it in the market.
It was, in fact, about this time that Éomund son of Faramir was sitting upon a stone, eating bread and cheese, watching the river. Not the river, not the Anduin, but a tributary, which washed from Midulin, which, being swelled by convergence from streams coming from under the city and through the Pelenor, he felt now deserved to be named a river. Having been winding up the stepped terraces for the already-hot morning, he had stopped where a copse on a river-bend gave some shade, for it was now growing hotter still.
His thoughts were, at this moment, complicated in the extreme, though such strands as passed through his mind included: it is a very dangerous thought to treat willingness to suffer for a belief as verification of that belief- it is not- all it can possibly prove is the believer's sincerity, and given the circumstances, sometimes not even that...strange, I am very fond this blue-veined cheese but methinks I do not like the blue part by itself... is that an otter I see before me? No, 'tis bigger than an otter... the trouble with half of those old men in the King's council is that they are still fighting the old war, against orcs, not other men- and they say that those men have been fed lies- but that is easily solved- what is worse is when he has been fed selective truths... I wonder how Alasse will be bearing this heat... let me indoors so I may take my boots off... Throughout which, as a background, a song that his moeder would once sing to himself and his siblings when they were very small had been mildly irritating him:
In the window, out the front door,
Throw old granny from the top floor.
Pack her head into a basket,
Let her sell it in the market.
Come on children, welcome each one,
At our party we'll have good fun.
Drink and eat and roister all day,
Farmer Laedwae's bullock will pay.
For a coachman, we've a black dog,
For a footman we've a roast hog.
On his back a loaf of white bread,
And a bottle on his big head.
Drink and eat and roister all day
Roister all day- hey!
Near his feet, the river had shaped a number of bays around the wide-spread roots of a great tree. (Did trees never die of age, he wondered, but grow greater forever? Who could tell for sure? For the age of trees oft was not read true 'til they were felled.) Eomund son of Faramir was not, however, a man to think lightly of dangling his toes in the river. (He remembered fleetingly that some of the men of Belfalas would put cloves of garlic in their boots to ward off both common colds- oh, and other common sicknesses, of course- and foulness of the feet. Indeed, it probably banished infection, but the resulting unevenness would lead to raw patches, and the garlic would inflame them most wretchedly. Not that they would get foulness of the feet, at least not in the ordinary sense- extreme strangeness, yes, but common foulness, no.)
Mud had either accumulated between the branches or weathered away between them, he was not sure, giving the tree the appearance of having a webbed foot. In some of the gaps, gently-shifting piles of leaves huddled, those nearer the bank looking rather unpleasantly stagnant. In one toe there appeared to be caught a bundle of rags, probably rubbish washed from some homestead upstream.
Or then again perhaps not.
Éomund reached for a long stick, then denounced his own cowardice and reached for the bundle.
His suspicions were, it happened, right.
Really, it was vexing. Vexing that it should carry on now. The Foundling Hospital was thirty-two years old- older than he was, in fact. His Lady mother had been toiling to keep it running for as long as he could remember, sometimes against an unwilling counsel in the Citadel- there was always some man who objected to Gondor's coffers being delved into to feed 'bastard children of whores and wastrels', as the last had put it.
Oh, it was not failing, as such. Many a worthy artisan, or housekeeper, or seneschal, or Citadel clerk, or proud young wife, even, was known to have had their beginnings- or rather, known beginnings- in those long brown halls- which now were almost wholly run by those who had found shelter there themselves.
But still, still there were beggar-brats at the gates, scabby-mouthed feral children filching purses in allies, skinny girls, and boys, on street corners who knew the price of anything. Still there were infants, dead or living, in gutters, on rubbish heaps and middens, in ditches, in sacks by the road. And in rivers, damn it. It really would be to pleasant, would it not, just to find a private river bend in the shade to rest, without there being a drowned body washed up there.
He considered making a grave where he stood, until he thought on what he might dig with. And for sure the bundle was to waterlogged to make any kind of funeral pyre from scratch.
Then he thought, well, if it was good enough for him, and sought wood, and string from his pack, and made a hasty raft, and pushed the infant out onto the current that way. Indeed, that was better than what was generally done to mourn for a foundling. Or rather, in this case, a lostling.
And now, now to turn from this place, bound as he was for the city. It would be hot, searing hot, in this sunlight, of course, but he could bear it well enough; there would be others not so well-suited to the city in the height of summer, for which reason he regretted that his kin were there and not retired to Ithilien before the harvest, as was their custom.
Lady Alasse was indeed pale and breathless when, after what seemed to Estel to have been months and months, she finally arrived home. Then, with a great lack of compassion, a maddening oversight, she did not wonder where Estel was and go seeking her sister through the arbours and trellises. Instead she sent a kitchen-girl for yoghurt and a tisane, and made herself comfortable by an open window in their bedchamber, with her newly-acquired copy of Moriquendi: The Gendered Other in Human Fiction; and thus Estel found her some time later.
"Oh. There you are."
"Why?" Alasse asked. "Did you expect me elsewhere?"
"I thought you might come to the garden. I waited there for you. Did you not wonder where I was?"
"No. You always turn up in good time, why should I wonder that I did not see you for half an hour or so? I do not need to interfere every waking moment in what you are doing. I'faith, most of the time I do not know where you are. If I were to trail you through the stables and the gardens and the paddocks and everywhere in and out of all the houses, you would complain most grievously that you had no want of me."
"Since when did I have no want of you? When did I ever say I had no want of you? You never ask if I have want of you. Always you are sitting within with your books or your paints or embroidering your gloves and your stockings or making a new lace- you have never followed me to find out if I have want of you."
"You have never asked me to come."
"You have never asked me if I wished you to."
"Then if I am always within, then you shall always know where I am. I do not wish to sit outside on a dirty bench or a hard stone, squinting and getting sunburned. I shall be freckled."
"You are freckled. You are freckled as a fried thrush."
"Did you come here for a reason, Estel, for if not-"
"Of course I did."
"Very well then."
"Sister... sister, can you remember the answer to the jest: Why did the ant elope?"
Lady Alasse smirked.
"I shall not tell you."
"Vixen!" Estel dived down and flung her arms about her sister, binding the smaller girl's arms to her sides. "It has been nagging me all day-"
"Good! It shall be like a bothersome younger sister!"
"I shall throw you out of the window! I shall! I shall! OW! Goblin-girl!" At this Estel dropped face first onto the bed, with her kicking, laughing bundle beneath her. "How now, clever madam? How clever are you now?"
But even as Estel danced her fingers across her sister's stomach, and Alasse's thin but well-aimed calf hit Estel beneath the ribs, Alasse suddenly held up a hand in front of her- and the quiet that followed was filled with a sound like a man sawing a hard, dry timber, as Lady Alasse's breast fell and rose in great excess of what should have been needed.
"Forgive me, sister, forgive me," Estel rolled back onto her haunches, and pulled her sister up to be sitting. Each breath caused the young woman's slight body to sway back and forth, her mouth roundly open, her eyes fixed in front of her.
"Oh, sister, I am so careless! I am such an ass! My poor sweet sister!" Estel leant over and kissed Alasse's forehead, and put a hand between her shoulders. "Soft, now. Now in. Now out. Good. 'Tis uncommon weather. Here, squeeze my hand if it hurts. All year we have not had such weather. It seems the Umber delegation are bringing up their weather with them. Bother this sheet, my legs are tied in it. There, now, is that more comfortable?"
"Better than it was." Alasse straightened, and ran her tongue around her lips.
"Forever I forget such things!" Estel sighed, rubbing Alasse's arm.
"Then you had better be taught!" Alasse lunged over and threw her sparrow-weight on top of Estel, shoving her down onto her back, and pulled her hair, so that the knot unravelled into a long brown-black rope.
"A cheat! A cheat!" Estel shrieked, her voice almost consumed with laughter.
Then at once, she stinted laughing altogether, and her face in an instant became earnest, and an echo came into her voice as if she were trying very hard to keep it from shaking:
"Alasse, Elensil is going to be married."
"What?" Alasse sat up. "When? For I take it from your look you do not mean in general terms."
"Soon. At least this is what I hear; from Andumíriel, who does not generally find enough pleasure in gossip to spread utter nonsense. A few weeks, is what she said."
"But why should this be? At her age, why so sudden?"
Estel hesitated, then shrugged.
"Well, the queen has done this sort of thing before. I do not know what is in her mind. I only know what has been said to 'Míriel."
"Curious. I assume it is to Elboron that she is about to be betrothed?"
"I should think so, why?"
"Well, then this is excellent news, sister. This then must mean a change of this war, do you not see? Tomorrow's council must then be sure to put an end to this present action swiftly."
"I thought it was some matter that could not be ended in a generation."
"I know not... perhaps there shall be a change of captaincy. The action now may end, even if not the question itself."
"So they will come home?"
"Well, if Elboron is to be wedded, of course."
"Elboron and Elensil."
"Well, we always said it would be so."
"Of course. They are well-suited. Indeed. I am pleased for them both. With the matter as a whole."
"Indeed. I am pleased."
"Pleased, pleased, pleeeeeased."
Alasse turned, and studied her sister for some seconds.
"She is younger than us, isn't she?"
Estel hugged her knees up to her chest, staring at her hands.
"It was not strictly her turn, no." She forced a smile. "Little queue-jumper."
"Still, I suppose that there is no impediment to their being wedded before this coming Mettare."
"No." Estel twisted her trailing plait around her fingers til the ends turned purple. "Not like myself, for instance."
"I thought Feorl was to be given his knighthood this Mettare?"
"Oh yes. Yes," (soon, leofost, so soon).
"Then there is your time, is it not?"
"Oh yes." Estel seemed fascinated with the frayed end of her braid. "I shall be twenty-five, Alasse."
"Indeed. So shall I. The same age as Modoer, you know. Younger than our grandmother, maysherestinpeace."
"Well, it was just that when I met Feorl when I was sixteen, I was so proud, that I should have found a husband so young."
"You? You, preening for being never a woman before you were a wife? And what good is supposed to have come of that? The beasts in the fields are mated as soon as they are able; I do not see what they should be so proud of."
"Well, do not tell me. Tell Elensil. Better still, tell the King. Tell the Queen, that you think the business unseemly. If you think it is more unseemly than a seven-year betrothal."
"Well, you would have him, Estel."
"I would have had him. I would have had him with no knighthood"
"Yes." Alasse took Estel's stockinged feet into her lap. "I know you would have done, for your own part, years ago."
"I never expected to still be here now. I did not expect to be here at Elensil's age, and when I got to that age I did not think I would be here at twenty-four." She lay back on Alasse's pillow, dancing her fingers in front of her face. "We should have had a child by now, you know."
"Yes, I dare say you would."
"At least one. If not more. A babe-in-arms, and a bigger one, five or four perhaps, and maybe one in between, toddling now." She should not, after all these years, still lie at night beside the bony body of Alasse; she should not be running about after the princesses, she should not have to keep answering Modoer's questions- 'What are you doing? Where are you going? What kind of time do you call this? Have you left enough for your brothers? Why is there a light burning now? What troubles you, daughter?' She should not be in the maidens' parade at Leonde, flowers or no; she should not have to have need of another white - so many times she had told herself- I shall not have another- I shall mend it, for it shall not be worth another, for shall soon be wed (so soon, leofost, so soon!)- she should not have to be quiet when Halafinde or Lieos or any other broke of their chatter and made a knowing smirk over her head (well, not over her head, for Estel was uncommonly tall, not in an elven fashion but with enormous legs and arms that made her look like a colt, but around her, past her, through her); she should not have to be so very patient with other women's children, nor turn aside with blushes when she had seen that flash of goldy hair and white muslin in the copse, strode closer, then realised and run back, burning with shame and vehemence and fury that such things might be before her eyes when she, she must banish such imaginings.
"What are you doing, Estel?"
"Well, do stop it." Alasse rubbed her thumb in small circles into the arch of the foot in her hands. "We had enough of that back in spring. You will be wedded, you know."
"Why so anxious to be a bride before all others, anyway? Wish you to lord it over as many of your friends and kindred as possible, that they might all be bridesmaids to you? So we might all weep with envy when you parade your trousseau for our benefit?"
"Of course not."
"No, of course it is not. If you have one virtue, it is that you are not vain, beloved."
"What, then? You grieve for the children you should have had at eighteen, or twenty, or twenty-two?"
"It was what might have been."
"No, I would forget them, though in fact you only had one, and he was stillborn."
"My son, stillborn?" Estel sat up, her eyes wide. "How can you say that? And why do you think I would carry Feorl only one child in all this time?"
"'Twas bound to happen. You drank too much."
"Swive thee, Alasse, I have never drunk out of measure in my life!"
"You would have done had you married Feorl six years ago."
"That's a heartless thing to say, sister! That I should be unhappy if my husband were poor-"
"And obscure; and timid, and little. What would you know? You have never been a villager."
"Indeed I have not, so what would you know? I might have been a very good wife, and strong, and thrifty, and then when the honours came to him I would have learned all the better to-"
"What about the fire?"
"It swept through the house upon your wedding-night, and killed you both quite dead."
"Quite dead? How on earth is anyone 'quite dead'? As in 'dead, but not in excess?' or 'exceptionally dead, more than the usual amount'? Which should we have been?"
"I really would rather you were neither. I know what you wish, you know, but please do not try to tell me of it. I am glad, you know, that you are here with me. You do know that, do you not, that you keep wishing to go away and leave me here alone?"
"Well, I shall do that no longer. You shall have Ellë, remember?"
"Yes. I confess I shall not resent that."
"You shall not resent it, either, will you? I do not wish you to spend months scowling in corners."
"I do not scowl in corners. When do I ever scowl in corners?"
"All the time, you-"
Estel looked up.
"It's a new sound!"
The maid, Hablindë, who had indeed just entered, furrowed her brow at this, and seemed to decide not to let it get the better of her.
"Your lady mother asks that you might-"
"Girls?- thank you, Hablindë- have you-" the Lady Éowyn strode into the shaft of light that appeared sidelong though the high window, the gold threads that lingered in her hair flashing in the light, her gown bright in the sunlight to almost the point of pain. She regarded her daughters where they lay within a tangle of bedsheets and crumpled skirts, and folded her arms, her brows raised. "Daughters? Is there a reason why you are abed at an hour to noon?"
"We are not abed," Alasse sat upright. "I was... reading..."
"Reading?" the Lady Eowyn regarded Moriquendi: The Gendered Other in Human Fiction lying open, face down on the floor.
"Have you want of us, Mother?" Estel stood up, gathering her hair around her hands.
"You do know, do you not, that Laides' meeting shall be here in ten minutes? Yes, I know, but try to look as if somebody owns you by then, please, Estel? Thank you. I shall see you in the solar. Hablindë, follow me, please."
Left alone again, save her sister, Estel sighed.
"Why must we do these things, sister?"
"Because we are women, Estel. Women must talk, else we would loose our minds altogether."
"You may be right." Estel walked over to the mirror. She picked up some hairpins, and began putting herself to rights. "Alasse, do you think elves have it all better worked out?"
"Only if you are an elf, methinks. It is the way you are made, is it not? That elves cannot be unfaithful."
"Though they do have wedding-feasts, nevertheless."
"That is the approved order of things. That is their custom, though, not their law."
"What if they do not do that, and lie with one another anyway?"
"Then they are still husband and wife. I suppose it would be rather like elopement."
"What, like ants?"
"I thought it was gazelles?"
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.