10. Day 10: Allegiance (Romendacil, Vidumavi, MOC)
Aradan folded the letter back as he had received it and placed it on the desk, but did not lift his eyes from it--could not. When he finally tore his gaze away, he realized that he had not been the only one fixed on it like a man who waited for sunshine and meets with rain fixes upon the sky, to curse it.
"Well, you cannot accuse him of disobedience," he said, finally letting his eyes rest upon the King's troubled countenance. "He did quite what you asked. I cannot think of a more direct way to strengthen ties with our northern allies."
"He rather exceeded my expectations," said King Romendacil.
The King got up, paced his way to the window, his back to him; flexed his fingers; let his eyes trail briefly over the handsome picture of his son. Aradan followed his gaze. Valacar smiled, eternally, over them from the canvas, but Aradan wondered whether that smile would not one day be wiped off because of his senseless mistake.
"Aradan." The King's voice intruded in his thoughts, demanding, but with that hint of a plea that always seeped through when he was going to ask him to do something that went against his inclinations.
"You have served as my advisor, for how long?"
"A good many years, sir. Valacar was still living in the palace."
"In all your years of knowing my son, did it ever seem to you that he was capable of such an offense? It is preposterous! To marry, without my consent--nay, without my knowledge!--and to a woman completely unknown to the people who one day will be his subjects."
"Her subjects," Aradan corrected. "Your son has just put a foreigner on the throne of Gondor."
Romendacil rounded sharply on him, lips pursed, a frown fixed in place. Of course he had to have considered the implications of his son's folly, but, Aradan suspected by his reaction, he had not dared admit them yet.
"Did you ever see the lady Vidumavi during our trip north?" he asked.
"Once or twice. From afar; we never conversed together." He had been doing all the heavy work that the King could not do personally and had, therefore, been absent from most of the social occasions that their host had seen fit to arrange for them; but, it would not do to remind the King of that. "Even then I was taken aback by that something in her demeanor that makes itself known. She is beautiful, to be sure, with that rare, vibrant beauty that health and an enjoyment of nature can bestow; but, more so, I found her uncommonly attractive, possessed of an alluring mix of charm and fierceness, and a strength, a confidence entirely independent of the constraints of rank. I see why Valacar would have succumbed."
"That was no excuse for him. He had a duty to fulfill, and he neglected it. Alas!" he said, seizing the letter and crumpling it in a sudden impulse. "What is to be done? Some already look askance at the Northmen among us. Surely you have heard it all." A minute pause, long enough for Aradan to give his assent. "What is your opinion?"
He did not answer immediately, waiting, as was his custom, to ascertain himself of the King's mood before he spoke his reply. "The more noble families are in an outrage at the perceived snub. The Northmen residing in Gondor do not seem elated, either--I think they doubt the sincerity of your son's intentions in pursuing the marriage. I think they love the lady Vidumavi quite well, which, in itself, should not bode badly. If she is so very worthy to have captured Valacar's demanding fancy, she would, likely make a good queen--had she not been born leagues upon leagues across the Anduin. They will always hold that against her, no matter how capable she turns out to be, in the end."
"That is not your opinion."
Aradan smiled. So, the King truly wanted honesty, but was he ready to hear his own honest thoughts on his beloved son's misstep? "I think Valacar could not have blundered more stupidly. You have gained the Northmen's aid at arms; but, should Gondor destroy itself on account of your son's folly, there will hardly be any need of the Northmen and their spears."
He could see that he had angered the King, but King Romendacil had asked for it. He strove with his emotions--anger and love, Aradan supposed, but not having children of his own he could not be sure. Nor, could he tell, which would win.
"Would Gondor so soon forget all that Vidugavia's people have done for us--all that I have done for Gondor, and make trouble for my son on account of his wife?"
"Would you forgive it of your King, if you had pretensions of an alliance yourself? And, with all due respect, you are quite forgetting the core of the whole affair."
"It was to be expected, of course, and I am certain that anyone discussing the issue over the dinner table has thought ahead that far." He paused, allowing that to sink in. "A man of mixed blood sitting on the throne of our Numenorean fathers."
Romendacil grimaced, for all that Aradan could see how it pained him to entertain such notions that would have been distasteful if they had crossed someone else's mind. But, it was not someone else's son who had exposed himself to the anger and contempt of the whole country.
"What is your advice?"
Aradan had been expecting that question. Leaning slightly forward, palms flattened on the table, he looked straight at his liege. "There are but few paths open to you, my lord. The course of action will depend largely upon how grave you judge the situation to be." At a nod from the King, he proceeded. "What will Gondor do? Will you stand by your son, or against? If you think that Gondor will never accept her, there are ways of eliminating such problematic variables."
The King's eyes widened and a vein began to throb in his temple as he caught the implied meaning.
"Do not ever say that aloud again, Aradan. Unpleasant though it is, she is the mother of my grandchild."
"As your advisor, lord, it was my duty to suggest all possible outlets. But, since you will not countenance something as extreme, your choices narrow. You may disown Valacar, but that would break the succession, too. Should she become barren, or have only daughters and no sons, Valacar would have to choose himself another wife."
"Please, give me only feasible alternatives."
"There are ways to arrange everything, my lord."
The King regarded him strangely, then, as though he had never seen him before. Was he afraid of him? He need not be; he was not a sentimental man. The King had given him a problem and it was his task to find ways to solve it. He did not delight in killing for its own sake, but he was not adverse to it if it was necessary to accomplish his objectives.
"Your object, my lord," he continued, "is to counteract the ill effects of Valacar's choice, yes? You asked for my help, and it is my duty to give you solutions as I read the facts. It is easier to change a circumstance or two, than to change the minds of an entire people."
"It need not be as bad as you foretell," the King said, at length. "So long as the child be born in Gondor. If Vidumavi will not leave him of her own will, then they both need to return as soon as may be."
Aradan allowed himself a small smile. "Do you think that will be palliative enough to make people forget whose blood runs through the child's veins?"
"Perhaps not, but it is the only alternative my conscience will allow. Make it happen."
It was thus that Aradan found himself in the lady Vidumavi's sitting-room. He was surprised that she should not receive him in an office, especially after the absolute refusals of Valacar to even let him see her. But, at length, Valacar had had to leave with his father-in-law, and Aradan had found his way to a private interview with the lady who was threatening to wreak havoc on an entire kingdom.
She did not make herself waited upon for long, and did not even wait for the maid to finish her announcement of her arrival when she came in through the door, as erect and purposeful as her advanced condition would allow her, trying very hard not to hobble along, and, for the most part, succeeding. For her seat, she took a chair that faced him directly, and folded her hands over her lap, which was rather amusing to him, seeing as it was so difficult for her to do so.
Neither of them said anything right away, which allowed him some time to observe her, and, surprised, realized that she was observing him in turn, as if determined to let him know that she would hold her ground. She had to be a month or two away from term--any nearer and she could not have helped but waddle. From the outset, he could tell that a journey to Gondor would be out of the question: Valacar would outright refuse it. His only hope rested on making her see sense. Uncertain how to approach her, for he had never strung more than a few words together for her, he would have to rely on his intuition.
She eyed the man sitting to his left, his interpreter, and put him in a question which he forestalled by saying, "I thank you for seeing me, lady Vidumavi," gesturing for his interpreter to convey the message.
"That will not be necessary," she said, in a slightly accented Westron, then applied herself to dismiss the man he had brought. She allowed herself a smile at her first victory; but, if Aradan could have his way, it would be her only one, no matter her charms, and she had many. Her strength, her bearing, her determination not to be taken lightly, her reliance on her brain rather than her beauty, coupled with that vibrancy that he had noted before, were all qualities that would, under different conditions, recommend themselves to members of the opposite sex. The pregnancy seemed to have heightened an air of femininity that any man should find extremely appealing, despite the slightly wan tinge of her countenance, the sunken eyes that told him that this pregnancy had not been easy for her.
"Lord Aradan," she said, again, smiling, recalling him to the present.
He wondered the object of the smile-- her posture was too rigid for him to think that she derived any pleasure in seeing him.
"As I said, I am grateful that you would see me. Surely, your day is already occupied with many matters, and it must be hard to make allowances for other concerns."
"You came from so far, and yet I have to wonder at your seeking an audience with a woman whose husband is away from home."
"That, in turn, would make me wonder why the woman would grant it."
Her smile became wide then--delicious, he would have called it, if he cared for such things.
"My husband has seemed very troubled since your arrival, lord. I would know why. But you sought us--me--out."
"I have pressing matters to discuss and, if the husband will thwart my purpose, I must find other means of accomplishing it."
There was that enigmatic, unnerving smile again: amused, mirthful, even, but her hardened eyes belied its expression.
"Let us get to it, then. You have nothing to gain by dallying about, nor nor do I by allowing you to do so."
"You fear that your husband will return and find you with me."
"Do you think that I will hide my meeting you from him?"
A pause. "You have not heard me yet."
"There is nothing you can say to me that he need not know about."
"Then you must have some idea of my current purpose."
"I am sure you have not come all the way from my husband's homeland so that you could deliver a few gifts."
Aradan had to laugh at that.
"No, ma'am. No, indeed."
"Please, then say so, and be done with it."
He studied her carefully before proceeding. If he had read her aright, she had been bracing herself for what she knew would come from him, had been expecting it, perhaps even before he had arrived. Perhaps, she could still be prevailed upon.
"I will be forthright, then, as is my way about these things, and as I believe is also your wish. Prince Valacar has done a most displeasing deed in wedding with a foreigner without any prior consultation."
"He consulted his heart," she countered, in stride despite the import, the tastelessness of what he had just disclosed to her.
"A rather lacking counselor in matters of duty. Gondor is in an uproar at these news."
She smiled again, but, this time, all traces of amusement were gone. "I believe I it is expected that I should make an apology, but I cannot bring myself to do so. He is a Prince. I am a Prince's daughter. I do not see the degradation."
"For a Numenorean to mingle his blood with that of a lesser people... There had to have been an inducement."
The flash of anger in her eyes made her look quite lovely, he thought. She had not missed his meaning--her hand went immediately to her belly, despite of how carefully--and futilely--she had avoided any gesture or look that could make notice of it, as if that were possible!
She fixed her eyes on his until, he thought, she was sure that he was listening--a feat, by all accounts. Few men dared to look so openly into his face--and said, quite composedly, "If you wonder whether I was with child before he wed me, you may apply to any of my relations for confirmation. I have been Valacar's wife for a year. Our child was not conceived as an answer to any demand or design other than our love for each other." She finished this speech tersely; Aradan could tell that it was extremely vexing for such a woman to lay her heart so openly to a stranger, and he had to admire her for it; but, he had never failed in any commission he had undertaken, and this time would not be the first. All he had to do was push a little more, but in which direction?
"Love may be enough to secure happiness for a while, but could a woman of your station, noble and proud, be truly happy living among people whom, she knows, look upon her in a derisive, scornful fashion? Is this to be your fate?"
"If I am as noble as you say, there should be no need for me to feel abashed. I was good enough for Valacar," she said, but he detected a slight hesitation in her voice.
"A delusion no doubt wrought upon him by your charm and his distance from home. By his error, he has brought about the ire of every nobleman in the land. It will be a nightmare to assuage all their ill-will."
"At least that shall be comfort enough," she said, trying, unsuccessfully, to summon back an appearance of good humor, "to know that I managed to, single-handedly, ruffle so many feathers--is that the correct expression?"
He chose to ignore the last. "It cannot be borne, lady."
She almost rose, to leave, he presumed, but, by some last-minute decision, settled deeper into the chair instead, forcing away the hand that had come once more to rest upon her belly.
"What do you want of me, lord Aradan?"
"I want you to disappear from Valacar's life. His union with you may yet ruin him and destroy the home to which he owes his allegiance. In the name of the love you so avidly profess, relinquish your claim on him."
Aradan could see, almost feel, her breath caught in her throat. Her jaw trembled, and he waited for her to cry, but she did not. After a while, she said, less-defiantly than what she had surely intended if she had wanted to discompose him, "What if I should refuse?"
Had he heard her right? Could she be bought? He stood and advanced to within a step of her. She did not stand, neither did she raise her eyes to meet him. It had been a grave misjudgment on his part, for now he would have to kneel.
"Lady Vidumavi, allow me to make clear that everything you should require would be at your disposal, should you comply."
"Except what I truly want."
"And what may that be?"
The lady Vidumavi turned searing bright eyes on him, but not bright with rage, as he had expected. It was pity that she bestowed upon him, and pity that seeped through her words when she said, "It is a question that can only be excused from someone who has never felt before, and that will be why I will chose to forgive the indignity to which I have been subjected by your offensive language of today. You may be aware that, as my father's daughter I have all the consequence, all the distinction, and all the material advantages that I could desire. Gondor, with its decaying and morally deficient nobility holds no appeal for me, except that it is Valacar's homeland and has, by some miraculous turn, as is clear to me now, made him into the man he is. It was without any guile or designs that we joined ourselves together, and as such we shall remain, for I could never dissolve alone, against my will and inclination, a bond forged by the union of two souls. Should he cease to love me, I will go. Otherwise, you cannot possibly have anything further to say to me."
"Will you, then, make yourself his queen, disregarding everything that his relations and subjects have to say upon the matter?"
"If such objections are nothing to my lord, who am I to regard them as of having any consequence?"
"You carry his child! Would you place a foreigner on the throne of Gondor?"
"My child will be his father's child, regardless of where his birth-place lay."
"Place is everything!" he cried, rising, surprised by the way she had so effectively led him in on to a fit of rage--an outburst. His whole usefulness depended on his detachment. That surge of feeling may well have ruined him for good.
The lady remained seated, even then, hands protectively placed upon her belly, presumably to forestall any physical onslaught on his part--as if he would strike her! He knew that, already, he had failed.
"Would you not, at least, travel to Gondor to birth the child?" Was he doing the pleading now? Groveling for a mere woman to extend a crumb of her favor? He could not abide it! "Should you choose to remain here, I suggest you begin praying for a daughter."
She rose then, in all the dignity that Aradan had admired before, and, without flinching, delivered her parting words, "Should I have a daughter, I suppose that would make a journey to Gondor quite unnecessary. I believe you mentioned other engagements you have to attend to, lord Aradan. I bid you a good day."
And, with that, he was most decidedly dismissed.
The irony of it all lay in the fact that the only woman capable of withstanding the demands the rule of Gondor, proud and greedy as it was fast becoming, would impose, was the only woman Gondor would not--could not--accept. One day, he would see Gondor on the verge of ruin from this evil, and he would grieve to be proved right.
In one thing, at least, the lady Vidumavi had been mistaken: his heart did beat, and it beat to Gondor's pulse. He would not see it torn down by the pretensions of a woman. That, he vowed.
There was already rebellion in the southern provinces when Valacar grew old. His queen had been a fair and noble lady, but short-lived according to the fate of lesser Men, and the Dunedain feared that her descendants would prove the same and fall from the majesty of the Kings of Men. Also they were unwilling to accept as lord her son, who though he was now called Eldacar, had been born in an alien country and was named in his youth Vinitharya, a name of his mother's people. (Appendix A, The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien)
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