Politics of Arda
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Long Road Home, The: 5. A Whore's Tale
The woman proved herself a good listener, presenting a friendly ear that Boromir found hard to resist, and he said more than was prudent. Conversing with her offered a pleasant diversion from his own bleak thoughts of the past or Ereg's outrageous charges and he gladly allowed himself to be distracted to the point of forgetting what she was.
"My apologies, sir. Nîneth is wanted elsewhere. Unless you plan to compensate for her time..."
"What?" Boromir blinked up at the inn's proprietor, for a moment not understanding what the man was talking about. "No. No, I do not." She was a pleasant companion to talk to, and not disagreeable to look upon, but he would not spend his coins on fleshly pleasures.
Nîneth got up and smoothed her skirts. "Which room?"
Her voice sounded different. Flatter, less animated, businesslike.
"Room three. Paid until the morning. He claims to be a wool trader, looking for passage west. Treat him well, and we might--"
"Yes, I understand," Nîneth said. "We might see him again." She turned to Boromir. "Thank you for your tales."
"'Twas my pleasure." Boromir shrugged. "I apologize I..." He paused. Why was he apologizing? For taking up her time? Or for not purchasing more of it?
She gave him a brief half-smile that failed to reach her eyes and departed.
He was still pondering her while he prepared for bed. Nîneth was not the first whore he had met, yet something was different about her. She was not as experienced as she pretended to be, or she would not have spent an hour listening to him talk about Aragorn without bringing up the subject of her fee.
Aragorn... The thought brought back recollection of the false accusations and Boromir's anger renewed. Was that what people believed? That Aragorn had murdered him, and everyone who could stand in his way, to take up the throne of Gondor?Or did Nîneth speak true, and were Ereg and his friends merely the kind of discontents nobody could ever please?
Perhaps he should remain for a while, try to learn more. He had no urgent places to go and Linhir was not well known to him, for all that it lay on the road to Dol Amroth. As long as he avoided the usual soldiers' haunts, nobody was likely to recognize him. But when it could save Gondor from further conflict, he would step forward in spite of what it might cost him. Aragorn did have the public support of most of the nobles, but if Ereg had voiced the general feelings of the people, it could spell trouble regardless and the king would need to know.
If he stayed, he would have to find work as a laborer, though. His small purse would not last him long. But what sort of work could he do? He had no skills; soldiering was his trade, yet it was the one job he could not do for risk of discovery.
Boromir pushed the matter from his mind; it was a concern for the morrow that he would not solve tonight.
As soon as he climbed into the soft bed and rested his head on the pillow, all worries fled his consciousness. Within minutes he drifted off into sleep and never even noticed how Híril jumped on top of the bed to nestle herself near his feet.
Early the following day, over a morning meal in a deserted common room, Boromir asked the innkeeper where he should go to inquire for a job.
"Planning on giving up your wanderings, eh?" He thought for a moment. "You might try the masons' grandmaster. The guildsmen'll be busy for quite some time rebuilding all that was destroyed in the war. No doubt they have need of strong men and extra hands."
The grandmaster of the stoneworkers turned out to be a harried-looking man with hands rough from many years of handling stone and brick. Boromir quickly introduced himself and explained he was looking for work.
"Where were you apprenticed?" the mason asked. "Dol Amroth? I would need to see the journeyman letter from your master before I can assign you."
"I apologize," Boromir said. "I have not been clear. I am not a stone mason. But the innkeep of The Merry Fisher said you might have need for an extra pair of hands."
The guildsman took a long, hard look at Boromir. "I suppose we do have use for one such as you," he said at last. "Even if you are not trained. One doesn't need skill to hale stone, only strength."
He told Boromir to return to the waterfront where fires had reduced numerous warehouses to piles of burnt girders, shattered brick and blackened mortar. Before the morning was halfway past, Boromir found himself part of a long line of sweaty, barechested men, hauling debris, sorting it into piles of unsalvageable rubbish or stone blocks that could cleaned and used again.
The days lengthened and threaded together, and the month of Lótessë soon made way for Nárië. To his gratification, Boromir discovered that the heavy labor suited him. Though the work was not intellectually taxing, it prevented him from brooding too much. It offered a way to expend his energy and helped build up his muscles further until he felt physically stronger than even in his days of fighting orcs. At night, fatigue kept the nightmares at bay and his sleep was deep and dreamless. While his skin tanned beneath the southern sun, the arrow marks from Amon Hen faded to a pale pink until they were a few among the many battle scars that marred his body.
Nobody spoke to Boromir about those scars, though his co-workers noticed them and whispered among themselves when they thought he wasn't listening. Their silence suited him fine. He rarely spoke with anyone, always worried his manner of speech or a moment of carelessness would reveal him as one of high blood and raise more questions than he was willing to answer. Yet, he kept his ears open, listening for resentments or displeasure about Gondor's new king.
He heard none. People had more pressing concerns than stately matters they could do nothing about. They still grieved for loved ones lost in the battles, and were slowly picking up the pieces of their lives again, rebuilding their city and their homes. They spared little thought for what happened in Minas Tirith. Nîneth had been right all along. The nasty gossip he had overheard on his first night in Linhir had been more the ale talking than the first signs of an uprising. Aragorn had nothing to fear.
Yet, Boromir remained in Linhir, at The Merry Fisher. Ereg and his comrades were oft sitting at their customary table, mugs before them, when Boromir returned from his hard labor. It seemed they attempted to drown their disgruntlement with their fate in ale, spending what little coin they had on foaming pitchers. Though they cast dark, foreboding looks in Boromir's direction, they let him be and watched their words whenever he was near. Their reserve was not likely to last, Boromir knew. One day they might collect enough courage to overcome their fear of him, though he did not think they would attack him openly. Still, he was unconcerned. He had survived more than one ambush, confronted orcs and easterlings, and he was not afraid of a few sour fishermen.
At night, during supper, he sometimes glimpsed Nîneth among the other women in the common room. But Boromir's habit to withdraw shortly after he finished eating, avoiding the lively business of the inn, assured he had not talked to her since the night of his arrival.
On one more warm evening in a string of endless hot days, Boromir's room at the inn failed to cool even with the window wide open. Sleep would be impossible. He returned to the common room, which was nearly empty, even the regular customers staying away in favor of cooler places. Boromir took a seat beside the door where he could catch an occasional breeze. Híril lowered herself near his feet, her panting tongue resting on her forepaws.
He ordered a pitcher of cold cider to drink while struggling to subdue a needle too tiny for his hands and a thread that kept slipping from his fingers. His work breeches were piled on the table before him. They had ripped when the cloth caught a nail and he had pulled away without realizing he was stuck. Boromir had ignored the tear for a few days, but it kept growing wider until he was left with the choice to either spend precious savings on a new pair of breeches, or find someone to repair them for him.
Or he could try to mend the tear himself. After all, how difficult could it be? Oft had he watched when severe cuts in torn flesh were stitched together, and a piece of fabric would neither bleed on his hands nor twist in agony.
Still, the fabric was more wayward than expected.
He cursed when the needle pricked his thumb a third time while he was trying to thrust the thread through its eye. Sweat broke out on his brow and he wiped his forehead with his palm.
Laughter made him look up.
"Here, let me do that," Nîneth said. She held out her hands.
He glared at her, frustrated and displeased with her merriment. "I can manage. I would not want to rob your patrons of the pleasure they paid for."
Her lips tightened and her smile disappeared. He was instantly contrite. "I apologize," he said. "That was uncalled for."
"Aye, it was," she muttered.
"I would welcome your assistance," Boromir added. "If you are still willing after my boorish behavior."
Her features softened and the corner of her mouth twitched. "You're a strange man, Erandír."
She drew up a chair and took the garment from him. Her hands moved quickly and he watched the rip disappear beneath her nimble fingers.
"You speak like a high born lord," she continued, "yet you live in a shabby brothel by the harbor and work the skin off your bones like a commoner. The girls gossip about you."
"Aye. Some say you were an important man once but have fallen from grace. Others believe you are a spy."
"A spy?" He laughed, trying to hide his discomfort. His throat felt tight; some of the talk came too close to the truth for comfort. "For whom?"
Nîneth looked up and smiled. "That, they do yet not know."
He grinned back and poured himself more cider. He held up the pitcher and raised an eyebrow.
"Please," she said.
He poured another cup for her and took a sip from his own. The tear was nearly mended; she would be gone soon.
"What else do they say about me?" he asked.
Nîneth tied off the thread. "That you have never shown an interest in taking any of the girls to your bed. They speculate that you do not like women and wonder why you stay here."
He shrugged. Why did he, indeed? But where would he go if he left? When he followed the dream's words and searched for Imladris, he had had a destination, a place at the end of his travel, though he did not know where it lay. Yet, where did one go to find forgiveness? East? Or west? At least in Linhir he could make himself somewhat useful in helping with the restoration efforts. It was not much, but it was something.
He realized Nîneth was looking at him. "Because my bed is soft, the room clean and the food decent?"
Her lips curled up. "Still, you are a man. You must have... needs."
How had an offer to mend his breeches brought them to carnal desires? Was she craftier than he thought her to be, artfully manipulating him? Perhaps this was an attempt to convince him into buying her for the night. And yet, unlike some of the other women, Nîneth had never before tried to compel him.
What if she was? Nîneth was agreeable enough to look upon, despite a nose that was tad too large for her face. And the masons' guild paid him fair wages.
He shook his head. No. He would not. He had enjoyed paid companions before, well-rewarded courtesans in unobtrusive yet elegant houses on the fourth circle. But those had been different times -- and he a different man. "I also possess a measure of self-control. And I can assure you, I like women as much as the next man."
She smiled but did not say anything. She handed him the breeches. "Well, here you are."
"This is astounding," he said, holding up the garment and squinting at the repairs. "I can barely see where it was torn."
She finished her cider, placed the cup on the table and pushed her chair away. "I used to be a seamstress. Before the war destroyed all I held dear."
The sudden bitterness in her voice was like a cold gust of wind and Boromir did not know what to say.
"Will you not sit back down?" he said softly. "I would hear your story, if you do not mind."
She hesitated, her gaze heavy on him.
"I will reward you for your time," he added hastily, "if that has you worried."
Nîneth shook her head. "I don't want your money. It is a quiet night, the girls will manage fine without me. You have told me your stories, I will tell you mine. But not here, not in this common room."
They left the Fisher and walked along the quay, which was bathed in the orange light of the setting sun. The mild breeze that came up from the sea made the heat bearable. Nîneth watched his dog trotting ahead. The young animal seemed eager to chase after the wood stick her master kept throwing away. She carried it back between her teeth, begging him to cast it again.
Where to begin?
It was hard to relive the memories and speak about them. She had never told anyone her full history, always separating her life in a before and an after.
"I was a respectably married woman once, my husband a captain on one of Linhir's many boats," she started her tale at last.
It seemed another lifetime, the days she supplemented her husband's earnings with needlecraft. It had been a good life, until Corsairs overtook his vessel and slew all aboard. Theirs had been a marriage of love and she still missed him. She had scraped by, barely, until a fire consumed her home and workshop, and thus her livelihood.
"Nobody had a job to offer me. The war was on our doorstep. Everyone was in dire straits themselves, struggling to survive the attacks from the Corsairs. They had no need of needlework. We lived on the streets, my son and I, begging for the scraps of food that none could spare." Her son, bless his little heart, had kept her sane, her child's needs driving her to try to make ends meet. If not for Galwion, she feared she might have given up the desire to live.
"What about your family?" he asked. "Have you no kin that could take you in?"
Nîneth gave a sad shake of her head. "My husband's family never approved of his marriage with me; my father is a wooltrader from the Hills of Tarnost. A landlubber, not a seaman. I met my husband when we traveled to town for the Midyear's Day Fair, years ago." She was silent for a moment, lost in the memory before she pulled herself back to the present with a shrug. "As for my own kin -- it was too dangerous to travel home with a little boy."
Home. How she longed to return to the green hills, the flocks of sheep and goats, her mother's berry pies. Yet, she could never go home. Her parents -- the shame would be too much for them.
The hour had grown late while they walked along the quay. The night air was cooling at last. Stars twinkled overhead and a thin moon shone down upon the waves. Nîneth stopped and turned to gaze out across the sea.
"In the end, I had nothing left to sell but myself." She gave a dry, humorless laugh. "I did not earn much at first. I was crying too much and men don't like a weeping whore."
"What is it like? I mean..."
She pivoted around, the question putting her on edge. Was this his fancy, his secret pleasure? To keep her talking until her defenses lowered, then have her speak of things she'd rather forget?
"I should not have asked--" Erandír's eyes held genuine regret.
"It depends," she said, not sure why she answered. "Some men are considerate and it's not so bad. Others..." She looked away and shrugged, not meeting his eyes. "Anyway, I have grown used to it. And it keeps Galwion, my son, fed and clothed, with a roof over his head."
"I'm sorry such fate has befallen you," he said quietly. "I wish 'twas different. I wish I could do something."
"You already have," she said,turning back to him. "You are kind to me."
"How can that be? I have said cruel things to you," he protested.
"Aye. And then you are always full of remorse an instant later. Nobody ever does apologize. You are the first man in many months who treats me like a person."
Something washed over his face before he looked away, avoiding her gaze. Had she said something wrong?
"It will get better some day."
Nîneth gave a bitter snort. "Some day, maybe."
He gave her a sideways look and she sighed. Tears welled in her eyes. Curse it! She was done crying over what she could not change. She brushed at her eyes with the back of her hand.
"It's late; we should go back. Someone might have asked for me."
She veered away and began marching along the quay. She should have taken him up on his offer to pay her. It would have been quick money. Yet, she would not ask now. Her last smidgen of self-respect demanded she keep to her word.
"Nîneth." Erandír drew up beside her, taking long strides to keep up with her quick paces.
"Don't," she muttered, walking faster until she was near running. He stopped and fell back, but she could feel his eyes burning her neck all the way to The Merry Fisher's door.
Galwion was biting his lip with concentration, cheeks red with effort, and he had no eyes for his mother. Cook had given him a large bowl of peas that needed to be shelled and he was sitting on a stool in the middle of the kitchen, the scullion boys bustling about him. An affectionate smile played around Nîneth's lips while she observed her son from the doorway.
"What is he like?"
"Who?" Nîneth turned from watching Galwion and faced the speaker.
"Who." The girl rolled her eyes. "Erandír, of course. Come, tell me. Is he as stout as he looks?"
"I wouldn't know." Nîneth looked back into the kitchen. Galwion was growing fast, he was going to need new clothes soon. She would have to find a weaver who was willing to let her buy some scraps, or see what the ragman could sell her that could be mended.
"What? You're not serious, are you? You spent all evening with him. And he never--"
"No. We only talked."
"That's really strange. Perhaps he truly doesn't like girls. Pity, though."
"Fimlas!" Nîneth could not help but laugh. Fimlas lacked for modesty and did not care one wit. A short, plump girl with a quick smile, she was very popular with the regular visitors of The Merry Fisher. She was also an incorrigible gossip.
"What? I'm right, aren't I? Tell me I'm not. Look at him!"
The subject of their conversation was sitting across the room, alone at a table, as was his wont, with the dog that never strayed far from his side curled beneath his chair. He forked his dinner, unaware of the women's chatter.
"Perhaps," Fimlas continued in a lower voice, "he's deformed. Maybe he sustained a terrible injury and he just, you know, can't any longer. He was a soldier, wasn't he?"
The girls truly managed to think up the most outlandish explanations for Erandír's reticence. But to them, a man who did not reward their advances was a curiosity; there had to be something wrong with him for their world to make sense again.
"Yes, he was," Nîneth said. "Have you considered that perhaps he might simply be too principled?"
Fimlas snorted. "Nîneth, you're a hopeless romantic. Such men don't exist. And if they do, they certainly don't stay at the Fisher."
Erandír must have felt their eyes on him, for he chose that moment to look up and catch Nîneth's gaze. With a dip of his head, he invited her to come to his table.
"Go for it," Fimlas whispered. "If you treat him well, perhaps you can help with his problem. Who knows, he might be so grateful he'll take you away from here, ask you to marry him."
Nîneth chuckled wryly. "Now who's the romantic?"
"I've heard it happens," Fimlas said, her tone a bit defensive. "With men, you never know what makes them do anything. Now, go, before he grows impatient." She nudged Nîneth's back.
Nîneth made her way to Erandír's table. "Is there something you wish?" she asked, keeping her tone even. She had not forgotten how his gentle questioning had brought her to tears the eve before.
He smiled, despite her cool demeanor. "Aye. I would have you join me." He indicated the chair opposite his.
Before Nîneth could find a reply, the proprietor materialized at her elbow. "It is a busy night, sir, and--"
Without a word, Erandír placed a few coins on the table. The innkeeper snatched them up.
"Of course, sir."
"Have you eaten yet, Nîneth?" Erandír asked once she was seated. "Can I order you something?"
"No, thank you. I have had supper earlier."
"A shame. I do not much enjoy eating by myself."
He asked for her company again the next night, and the night after. He never demanded more than that she wait until she could dine with him. He amused her with anecdotes of his day while she told him the latest gossip of the brothel. Though he was a good storyteller, mimicking his foreman and coworkers until she laughed out loud, he never said a word about himself. The others, burning with curiosity, pestered her for details, yet she could not tell them much. It only served to increase the aura of mystery surrounding Erandír.
After several such joint suppers, he suggested she have Galwion sit with them.
"I don't know," Nîneth said. "This common room at night is no place for a young boy."
"Aye," he agreed. "Would you not like to spend a little more time with your son, though? At this early hour, not much is happening that would not be fit for a child to watch."
"You three mimic quite the little family," Fimlas said the following evening while they were primping themselves for the night's work.
Nîneth combed her hair and daubed a drop of rose water behind her ears. "Erandír just doesn't like to eat alone." She tugged at her bodice and eyed herself critically in the mirror.
Fimlas made a sound in her throat. "There are plenty who wouldn't mind sharing a meal with him. He only ever asks for you." There was a hint of envy in the girl's voice. "Has he asked you to leave with him yet?"
"Leave with him?" Nîneth turned away from the mirror and stared at Fimlas. "Go where? Erandír has no plans for leaving."
"Yes, he does." Fimlas showed a smug grin. "He has been looking for private rooms in the bricklayers' district. Didn't you know?"
She did not. Erandír had not mentioned a departure. Yet she had always known he would not stay at the Fisher forever. He had behaved oddly tonight, she must admit. Several times had he seemed on the verge of saying something, only to remark on the weather, on the other guests in the room, or the saltiness of the beef. What was it he had wanted to say? That he was going away?
Her throat constricted at the thought of Erandír leaving. It would put an end to their meals, to that daily hour where she could pretend normalcy. And, may the spirits forgive her, but a small voice whispered she would also suffer the loss of the easy money he offered her.
Although the hour was growing late, the common room was crowded, filled with sweaty men and the scent of spilled ale and pipe smoke. Outside, a storm was raging. Lightning zinged across the sky every few seconds, instantly followed by roaring thunder. Rain streaked against the windows.
Nîneth glanced outside. If only the rains would stop the patrons would disperse and return to their wives. She was sore and tired, her back hurt, and though the gains were good, they did not make up for the fact that she had not had any chance to look in on Galwion since supper.
She wished one of the overnight guests would invite her to his bed. The salesman from whom she had bought the rose water seemed kindly enough and a night in a private room was much to prefer over the endless groping and grabbling from the local longshoremen and mariners that she must endure whenever she passed through the common room.
But the rain refused to stop, the men refused to go home and the peddler had nothing more than a passing interest in her.
"'Ello, pretty girl." Breath heavy with sour ale assaulted her nostrils. "'Ow about a littl' kiss?"
She suppressed a shudder when she recognized the man who uttered the slurred words and whose beady eyes blinked fuzzily. "Ereg. You know better. A kiss is a copper."
He grinned, revealing crooked teeth. This time, Nîneth failed to squelch the shiver that coursed along her spine.
"I 'ave money," he said. He fumbled among his clothes and dug up a handful of silver. "See? What's that gonna buy me? Eh?"
"Where did you get that?"
Ereg never had money. His tab always ran high and he never did pay until the barman threatened to cut him off entirely. Nîneth wished the barkeep would make good on his threat one day; perhaps Ereg would go find another haunt to spend his evenings.
Nîneth laughed. "Stole it, more like."
Something stirred in his drunken gaze. "Think you're too good for the likes of me, eh? Why? 'Cause I don't speak like 'is lordship from the City, who thinks he's better than me because 'e's seen the king? That it? We'll see what the boss 'as to say about that."
"I don't have to go with you," Nîneth protested.
"I have the coin," Ereg growled, seizing her hand. "If I can pay, you'll spread y'er legs for me, woman."
"No, I won't. You're drunk, you stink, and the spirits know what diseases you hide underneath those filthy threads."
Ereg flung up his hand and would have delivered her a stinging blow if strong fingers had not snapped around his wrist and held him back.
"Are you hard of hearing? She said she is not interested."
"Erandír?" Nîneth asked in surprise. "What are you doing here?"
"I can pay," Ereg rasped through clamped teeth. "She can't refuse."
Erandír tightened his grip and Ereg's face twisted with pain.
"She can, and she has. Now, get yourself gone, before you tempt me to do what I should have done weeks ago."
Nîneth glanced around and frowned. They were drawing the attention of everyone in the room. Eyes glittered in anticipation of a brawl but the innkeep would be angry if she allowed men to fight over her.
She grabbed Erandír's elbow. "I'll go with him. Please."
Erandír stared down at her. "Is that what you want?"
She tried to say yes, but the words refused to come beneath his intense gaze. "I thought so," he said at last and turned his attention back toward Ereg.
"Do something!" Ereg groaned. His drinking buddies crowded around them. One man raised an earthen pitcher, spilling ale, and threatened to break it on Erandír's head.
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