Southern Crown: Cat's Cradle: 1. Cat's Cradle

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1. Cat's Cradle

Third in an arc

Explanation (because it's quite obscure): Once upon a time, Tarannon was King of Gondor; Berúthiel was a lady from Umbar, Gondor's kin and enemy. The marriage did not go well; childless, she was banished home and Tarannon never wed again, leaving the throne to his nephew Eärnil and thus "breaking" the direct line of kings between Elendil and Aragorn. My idea was, what if Berúthiel was pregnant when she departed? Wouldn't that make her descendents the rightful kings of Gondor?

Note: My Artamir is not the Artamir described here. I'm just continuing the grand royal Tolkien tradition of recycling names.

***

"I do hope this temporary truce will lead to a permanent peace between Gondor and Umbar," Eärnil said earnestly, and he lied as he spoke, but such was diplomacy.

Taron's broad easy smile did not flicker, but he was no fool. He knew as well as Eärnil that true peace was impossible; too much hate, too much history, too much blood shared and blood spilled. "Let the truce hold through your uncle's celebration, at least," he replied lightly. "Never let it be said that your 'savage southern brethren' don't respect the sanctity of a good party!"

Eärnil chuckled. "It shall be a merrymaking to remember. Are you quite certain that you will not return to Osgiliath as my guest? You have been a most gracious host, and I would like to return the--"

"No, I not would be welcome under Tarannon's roof. But I appreciate your offer. Perhaps you could send down a crate of Escaroth's finest instead?"

"That could be arranged." Eärnil was silent for a moment, letting his attention stray as they walked. He was eager to set sail for home on the morrow, but now that the diplomatic sessions were over he found that a temperate autumn afternoon in Umbar could almost be enjoyable for a man unaccustomed to the scorching southern sun. There was stark beauty in the clipped hedges and strange sculptures, and somewhere in the gardens he could hear children laughing. In some ways Umbar was not so terribly different from Gondor...

"You seem distant." Taron's voice intruded upon his thoughts, and Eärnil glanced over to meet his disconcertingly dark gaze. Beyond those foreign eyes lay a wealth of jarring similarities; like many southern noblemen, Taron was nearly indistinguishable in appearance from any Gondorian lordling. The blood was much the same, after all. The rift ran far deeper.

"I was trying to decide what to say to her," he replied, and though evasive he told no lie. "She left my uncle the king before I was born. I know only the tales..."

"False tales, the lot of them." Taron scowled. "Lady Berúthiel is no wicked sorceress. She is royalty, close kin to our own king, and long beloved of our people."

The Gondorian heir flushed slightly. "I never paid heed to the old whispers," he protested. "I have no intention of discourtesy -- I merely wish to meet her. My own father was fond of her, though I am ashamed to say that he never had the courage to say thus in Tarannon's presence."

"Were I your father, brother to a powerful king with such a rotten temper, I doubt I would have had the courage to speak my mind either," Taron allowed with a good-natured shrug. "I'm sure the Lady will understand."

"Will understand what?" A female voice. They had arrived. A patchwork of blankets covered the grass in a particularly bright corner of the gardens. Kittens rolled and romped and dozed on the colorful array, and in the center of the remains of a picnic lunch a woman held court with a sleeping infant in her arms. The child was certainly not her own, for the woman was elderly and frail, but she was still beautiful with deep dark eyes, a stubborn jaw, and a wealth of sleek silvery-gray curls coiled artfully atop her head.

Taron picked his way between lounging cats to place a kiss on her cheek and a murmur in her ear. Her attention flicked over to Eärnil and she smiled. "So this is the nephew I never met. How long have you been here in our city?"

He was certain that she already knew the answer, but he politely replied: "Two weeks, m'lady. I meant to pay my respects earlier--"

"Forgiven. I know how long-winded my sister's kin can be when discussing foreign policy... Taron, do stop hovering, I'm sure you have other things to do."

After a token protest, the diplomat departed with a bow, a wink, and a promise to inspect the ship which had been arranged for the Gondorians' return voyage. And thus Eärnil found himself alone in the garden with his estranged aunt. She beckoned him forward, so he gingerly took a seat on a feline-free patch of quilt.

"You're Ciryan's eldest, eh?" she said, then immediately chuckled at his expression and corrected herself, "Tarciryan's eldest, of course. I do remember how highly your family regard names. 'Tar' this and 'Dil' that. Will you change your name when they place the winged crown upon your head?"

Eärnil wasn't certain whether he should be indignant or amused, but he decided it was better to err on the side of good humor. "I think I shall keep the name my mother gave me, m'lady, though I hope someday I shall earn a name in history for great accomplishments."

"Accomplishments of peace or of war?"

Her tone was light but her words were piercingly direct. He glanced up to find her gaze as disconcerting as those of her cats, for he suddenly discovered that he was the focus of their scrutiny as well.

Then at least someof the tales are true, he thought uneasily, wondering how much of his soul might be laid bare before a dozen sets of unwavering green and gold eyes. His plan to design the most powerful fleet ever seen in Arda, his dream of bringing Umbar to heel at last and thus surpassing his uncle as the true lord of the western shores...such grand ambitions he kept cloaked behind mild manners and diplomatic words. Was it wise to lie to a woman said to peer into men's hearts through the eyes of her feline servants...?

"I am not yet king," he demurred instead. "This year my uncle celebrates a longer reign than that of his own father, and I'm certain he will reign for many years yet to come. Until then, I merely serve."

He bit back the urge to swallow nervously, like a child caught in a transparent lie, as she measured him with that unreadable gaze of hers. At length she nodded and said, "You and I both know Tarannon has led a full life and has little time left. Whatever you may do when you are king of Gondor, be assured that my people will respond in kind."

"In kind...? Umbar responds to war with murder and to peace with piracy!" he snapped. He was outraged when she merely laughed, but then he recalled where he was and with whom he was speaking.. How disconcerting it was to remember that this dignified dame, basking quietly in the sun with a shawl around her shoulders and a baby in her lap, was nonetheless a direct descendent of Sauron's Black Numenoreans and kin to ruthless corsairs. An enemy!

"You disappoint me, m'lady," he said stiffly. "Were you not Gondor's own queen for ten years, long ago?"

Her eyes narrowed, their merry twinkle abruptly gone. "Long ago. And we both know how well that turned out. Tell me, do the common folk still call me a witch? Do the lordlings still claim I was a foreign spy? Does Tarannon still believe that I murdered our unborn children...?"

Eärnil had no ready answer for this. The sea breeze in the branches overheard suddenly seemed very loud in the uncomfortable silence which befell the garden.

Then one of the kittens made a curious "prrt?" sound and the baby in Berúthiel's lap yawned hugely. She lifted the child in her arms and rocked it, once again more "doting grandmother" than "fierce daughter of pirates."

"I am sorry, my dear. You are a guest, and we speak of events that were set in stone before you were born." She glanced up at him, and now her gaze was soft and sad. "I am glad to have met you at last. Your father was a kind man, though I was rarely graced with his company. I would be in your debt if you would carry a token of mine back to Osgiliath to place upon his tomb -- as you might imagine, I have been unable to pay my respects in person."

Eärnil nodded assent, forcibly willing his features to remain unruffled. Though six years past, Tarciryan's death could still cut deep when least expected. "It would be my honor...and I should be the one apologizing for my ill manners, m'lady. This is neither the time nor the place to speak of politics."

"The only apology you owe me," she replied with an impish quirk of mischief in the curve of her mouth, "is for your dreadful manners. 'M'lady' indeed! Are all boys so distant to their aunts in Gondor? If so, 'tis a colder climate than I remember!"

At forty-two years of age Eärnil could not remember the last time he'd been called "boy." However, from her the term was charming rather than insulting, and he was grateful for the lighter turn in conversation. With great dignity, he stood and stooped to kiss her on the cheek in the proper familial fashion. He caught a scent of wildflowers and smoke, and the steel-colored lock of hair which brushed his nose was very soft.

"Yes, Aunt Berúthiel," he said humbly by way of apology. Then, more formally: "I would like to continue our political discussion another time, if I may. I do welcome a lively debate, but I have been 'debating' with your kinfolk for many days now. My temper is frayed, and I wish to part with you on more friendly terms. I, also, am glad we were able to meet after all these years."

Berúthiel nodded, one hand straying to stroke a white cat curled against her knee. "And have you found the old tales true, then?"

"Perhaps one or two," Eärnil replied honestly, sparing a meaningful glance for that particular animal. "As for the others, though...that is not my place to judge. Any lies and secrets therein are yours to dispute or to reveal."

"Or to keep for my own." She smiled mysteriously, and somehow he knew that he had just been dismissed.

***

When Eärnil had made his farewell and departed, Berúthiel heaved a great sigh and tilted her head back with her eyes closed, enjoying the sunlight on her face and the silken brush of hair against her bare neck. Then, without opening her eyes, she remarked, "I agree. He's dangerous."

Footsteps padded across the grass behind her. Taron nudged aside an indignant cat with his toe and settled down on his haunches next to her, frowning in thought. "It was only a matter of time. I'm surprised Tarannon has been so diplomatic for so long. I give this name-hungry nephew ten, perhaps fifteen years at most before he provokes us to war."

Despite Taron's dour tone, Berúthiel could tell that he was not altogether unhappy with the prospect of battle. If those young northern bravos doesn't start trouble, our southern ones will! she thought in fond exasperation. Aloud, she chided, "You know how I feel about you going anywhere near Gondor. If anyone should see--"

"Mother," he scolded right back, "I am a grown man with children of my own. And now I also have a son's son," he added more gently, stroking the baby's petal-soft cheek with one knuckle. "You needn't worry any more. It matters not what happens to me now. The line is safe."

Berúthiel clasped one hand around his and sighed. "I know. But you're still my baby, my first and only, and you look more like your father with each passing year. I rest easier knowing that you remain hidden here in the south. If there is to be open war with the Gondorians, stay by my side and let others charge recklessly into the fray!"

Taron bridled at that. "Have I ever clung to your skirts before? And if you think I'm going to let that young hellion Tamir take all the glory..."

"A grown man should not be competing with his own son," she retorted tartly.

"Ah, but that is exactly whom a man should compete with, to keep his edge and his children's respect!" He kissed her lightly on the forehead. "And if we are correct about this king-to-be, my fighting years have not yet come to a close. I must remain prepared."

"Artaron--"

"Mother. I am no longer a child. That tone no longer carries any weight with me."

Berúthiel sighed noisily, very unladylike, and the baby made a grumpy questioning sound. "It should. But I suppose we shall have this discussion again in future, when it is more appropriate..."

"We shall." Taron did not voice his concern that she might no longer still be alive when war came. He was certain that she was already aware of the possibility herself, and if she was willing to disregard it then he would do so as well. "Until then, I will abide by my oath: I shall not venture beyond the Anduin, so you may rest assured that Tarannon Lord-Of-The-Coast shall never lay eyes upon his only son." He sighed dramatically. "And for this promise, it seems I shall miss the best celebration in the north for many a year..."

"You are perfectly welcome to make a drunken fool of yourself on this side of the Great River," Berúthiel retorted, but a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. "Before you do that, however, please be so kind as to fetch your grandchild's nurse? I fear he is hungry and thus no longer content with my company alone."

"Of course."

Taron obeyed with a warm smile. When he was gone, the former queen of Gondor cast a measuring expression down at the baby that nuzzled restlessly amid her skirts. Her great-grandson, direct heir to a royal northern bloodline that might now remain hidden in the south forever...

And all because a king valued the opinion of his people over the word of his own wife.

Let Eärnil inherit the throne of Gondor, she thought coldly. Let the new Ship-King storm up and down the coast to carve himself a name in the history books. Memories fade, and books burn. Blood, however...blood remains.

And someday, blood would tell.

***

Canon Afterword:

"With Tarannon, the twelfth king, began the line of the Ship-kings, who built navies and extended the sway of Gondor along the coasts west and south of the Mouths of Anduin. To commemorate his victories as Captain of the Hosts, Tarannon took the crown in the name of Falastur 'Lord of the Coasts.'

"Eärnil I, his nephew, who succeeded him, repaired the ancient haven of Pelargir, and built a great navy. He laid siege by sea and land to Umbar, and took it, and it became a great harbour and fortress of the power of Gondor. But Eärnil did not long survive his triumph. He was lost with many ships and men in a great storm off Umbar. Ciryandil his son continued the building of ships; but the Men of the Harad, led by the lords that had been driven from Umbar, came up with great power against that stronghold, and Ciryandil fell in battle in Haradwaith."

-- from the indexes of "Return Of The King" by J.R.R. Tolkien

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.

Story Information

Author: Kielle

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - The Kings

Genre: Drama

Rating: General

Last Updated: 07/06/04

Original Post: 04/24/04

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