25. Hunger of the Heart
Chapter Written by Angmar
Convinced that Lhûnwen had betrayed his heart, Neithan was in a black mood when he left the tavern and headed for his lodgings. He rented a room from the boarding house of Rûdon the cobbler and his wife Meldis, where the accommodations were modest but neat and clean. The rent was cheap enough, since it was an attic room, and the other boarders of the house, more well-to-do than either Neithan or Ivaranon, preferred the larger rooms on lower floors.
Opening the door to the small, sparsely furnished room, Neithan heard the familiar loud snorts and snores of Ivaranon, the saddle-maker, who shared the room with him. The chamber lay in darkness, the gloom broken only by a thin shaft of light that fell through the one window in the room. A tall, narrow opening, the window had been left open to allow air to flow into the stuffy chamber. After walking over to the table, Neithan lit a small oil lamp and looked about the tiny room for something to drown his sorrows. He spied a bottle of cheap wine on the stool beside Ivaranon's cot and took it back to the table, where he filled an earthenware cup with the tart liquid. A loose floorboard creaked under Neithan's weight, and Ivaranon stirred in his sleep. Snorting and coughing up phlegm, the man rallied up and looked around.
"Neithan, is that you?" he mumbled.
"Certainly it is... who else did you think it might be?" Neithan was in no mood to talk, and hoped that Ivaranon would not tax him with too many questions. "Go back to sleep."
"Home rather late, are you not?" Throwing back his head, Ivaranon yawned widely, showing his teeth, which were large and yellow, much like those of a horse. Hearing no reply from Neithan, Ivaranon rolled over on his side, asleep and snoring again almost as soon as his head touched the pillow.
Cursing himself for not having any ale, Neithan mulled over his cup and stared at the flickering light cast by the lamp. Unfortunately, the wine did not sit well with the ale that already churned in his stomach. Neithan belched prodigiously, rose to his feet and went to the window. Calling down a warning to passersby in the street, he gripped the sill and poured the contents of his roiling stomach onto the cobblestones below.
"Damn, I feel like I was trampled by a herd of mûmakil," he groaned as another sudden surge of bile spewed out of his mouth. He retched until he had emptied the contents of his stomach and then went to the small table along the wall. His hands shook as he lifted the pitcher of water and half filled the basin. After washing his face and rising his mouth, he filled his cup with the tepid water and returned to the table.
The sense that he had been betrayed was like an icy dagger through Neithan's gut. "The unfaithful wench!" He felt like smashing his fist into the wall as he tortured his mind with images of a nude Lhûnwen lying with thighs sprawled wide as she whimpered and groaned under the bulk of Hallas' writhing body. Perhaps Hallas had rutted with Lhûnwen that very evening when Neithan had overheard the musical peals of feminine laughter coming from her chamber. Neithan could not bear the thought of another man's using her body as he had never been allowed to do.
But what real proof did he have of her perfidy? Perhaps Lhûnwen had actually been ill that afternoon, and she was only laughing because her maid had made some innocent joke to cheer her up. Perhaps Hallas was never at the lady's house at all, but with some married woman. Possibly Hallas' new lady love was a married lady and he wished to protect both his neck and her reputation. Perhaps... perhaps... perhaps!
Neithan pushed back his stool and began to pace about the room. No, his suspicions were not wrong! There was only one explanation for the incriminating behavior of Lhûnwen and Hallas. Lhûnwen was obviously cheating on him, and she had persuaded Díneneth to lie for her. Neithan had always heard that the maid had loose morals. Perhaps she was even a participant in a debauched orgy, and it had been the three of them together in Lhûnwen's bed. "How long has this been going on behind my back?" Neithan wondered bitterly as he renounced Lhûnwen over and over in his mind. "How could I have been such a fool?"
Arriving late the next morning at the breakfast table, he found the dining room deserted, except for Ivaranon. The beefy man was at work on his second bowl of oat gruel mixed with milk, sweetened with a dab of honey. Breaking off a chunk of the freshly baked bread, the man dipped it into his bowl and cleaned out the last remnants. Ivaranon beamed broadly as the lady of the house brought in a platter of leftover chicken and set it on the table. Spearing the meat with his eating knife, Ivaranon put the piece in his mouth and then pointed at Neithan with the blade.
"Something wrong with your appetite this morning? I do not see how you can turn down all this good food."
"I did not sleep too well last night. Eat my share," Neithan remarked as he pushed his cold bowl of gruel across the table to the other man and then rose to his feet.
"So much the more for me," replied Ivaranon with a jolly laugh, his open mouth filled with bits of chicken. "I am still growing!" He tapped his broad stomach proudly and winked at the landlady.
"I feed my guests well," the good dame smiled as she bobbed her head up and down in agreement with herself. "The master always says so, do you not, dear?" Meldis looked to Rûdhon, who appeared pale and queasy that morning.
"Aye, you have been cooking for our boarders and me well onto forty years now, and have done an admirable job of it, I always thought," Rûdhon replied as he stirred more milk into his gruel.
As Neithan walked out the kitchen door, Ivaranon looked to the mistress of the house. "Wonder what is going on with him?"
"He has the marks of a young man in the throes of love, that he does," the elderly lady replied knowingly.
"From the way he clomped across the floor above us last night, keeping me up until all hours," Rûdhon added sourly, "I would say it was a love that had gone bad, like milk turns rancid after so long a time."
"Oh, I hope not, my dear! The sergeant is such a nice young man."
"Do you have any more of this fine, tender chicken, mistress?" Ivaranon asked hopefully as he looked glumly at his empty plate.
"No, but I have half of a pie left from last night, and since my darling husband is bothered with dyspepsia this morning and the sergeant has gone, you may have the whole thing." Meldis smiled benevolently.
"Thank you, mistress! As you know, it takes a lot to keep a growing boy going," exclaimed Ivaranon as he affectionately patted his rotund stomach once again and beamed at Meldis.
That evening when his watch was over, Neithan went back to his apartment. Passing Ivaranon on the stairs, he gave the man a terse nod. The large, brawny man halted and, turning his head, he looked up at Neithan, who had gained the landing.
"Say, old fellow, did you hear that some of our illustrious cavalrymen were planning a race outside the city walls this evening? It was all very spur of the moment, and little notice of it has gone about the city. I only learned of it when I delivered a new saddle to the home of a rich patron this afternoon. The head groom, a fine fellow - who, by the way, has been a friend of mine for years - is placing wagers on the outcome of the race. After my recent losses, I have almost sworn off the habit. Might you be interested in the opportunity to win a little coin?"
Neithan shook his head, impatient to change out of his uniform and be on his way.
"Well, in any event, I was very pleased with the profit I made off the sale of the saddle and was in quite an expansive mood," the jowly, porcine man beamed happily. "In celebration, I purchased two bottles of the best Dorwinion wine. For quite a modest sum, Mistress Meldis has promised to pack a basket with a fine supper consisting of two capons, fresh bread, an ample quantity of hard boiled eggs, sharp cheddar cheese, jellies, jams, a variety of condiments, a half-dozen strawberry tarts made from fresh picked berries, and even a skin of soured milk. Quite a fine spread, I would say." He stared dreamy eyed into space as he thought of the magnificent feast. "I would be most happy to share this abundant meal. You know my friend the cooper, whose shop is right next to mine? Why, of course you do! You have seen him oft enough. Well, anyway. He is fond of both racing and good dining, and I have invited him to go with me. There is plenty of food to share. Would you like to go with us?" Ivaranon offered pleasantly.
Neithan leaned over the landing rail. "Unfortunately, I have previous plans, but I thank you for your considerate offer."
Under other circumstances, Neithan would have eagerly accepted the saddler's kind offer, for the two men had long been good friends. Neithan had always felt sorry for the fellow, for while Ivaranon was amiable, good natured, and kindness itself, his great bulk made him backward and shy, and he was hesitant to risk his heart by courting a lady.
"If you should change your mind later, you know where to find me." The large man smiled kindly as Neithan passed out of sight up the stairs. "The unfortunate fellow," Ivaranon thought. "He has allowed love to get the better of him!"
Neithan made his way over the familiar streets to Lhûnwen's house as he had done so many times before. This time, though, he halted in the shadows of a house across the street. There, he waited for a while, keeping out of sight and listening. The house was dark, and as he gazed at her upstairs window, he found that the draperies had been drawn. The only illumination in the house was a lamp burning in the front parlor downstairs. The house felt empty, as though all the occupants were away.
He raised the familiar eagle head door knocker and brought it down heavily upon the metal bar behind. The sudden appearance of the maid startled him, and he stepped back.
"Oh, good evening to you, sir!" Díneneth exclaimed as she looked at her lady's betrothed. "I was expecting you, and tonight I have good news! The lady is much improved, and I know that will be sure to cheer you. She is almost her old self again." Díneneth smiled.
Perhaps he had been wrong about Lhûnwen, and her virtue and integrity were as unquestioned as they had always been. How could he have entertained any doubts that she could ever be unfaithful to him? They had known each other for over a year, and she was still as innocent and untouched as she had been the day he met her. Although in his ardor, he had sometimes pressed her to give into his desires, she had always refused him, pleading that it would be so much better if they waited until they were married. Although his disappointment had been intense, he had respected her chastity.
"Then I can see her tonight?" The relief was apparent in Neithan's deep voice.
"Well, sir, you must understand that will not be possible," the maid told him apologetically. "Her father received word only this afternoon that his brother had taken ill, and the two of them went to visit him. Since the brother lives some distance away from Minas Tirith, I fear they will not return until tomorrow." Díneneth's bland face was open and honest, and her gaze never ceased to meet his.
"They should have sent word to me, and I would have rented a horse at the livery and gone with them," Neithan replied, his voice edged with disappointment.
"Oh, no, sir," Díneneth wrung her hands, "there was not enough time. All this happened quite suddenly, you see, and you would have been at your post anyway. Now if you will not be needing me for anything, I should be bidding you a good night, as I have a most dreadful headache. It has bothered me all today, and I would like to go to my bed early."
Although the maid had given him a story which seemed quite plausible, Neithan was reluctant to go. "So you say the lady's uncle is sick?" he asked, studying her face for any hint of deception.
"Aye, that is what I said, sir. Perhaps you did not hear me, but he is terribly sick with a fever. I think it is the quinsy," Díneneth answered, shaking her head.
"Ah, I see." He continued staring at her. Every hair was in place and her manner unruffled, quite the opposite from what she had been the night before. Neithan noticed, however, some things that were considerably different from her usual drab appearance. Her eyes had been accentuated with a trace of kohl, her cheeks had more rouge than she commonly wore, and her lips had been painted a bright cherry red. About her person was the overpowering scent of cheap perfume - lilac, he guessed - and around her neck hung a tiny pearl necklace, its inexpensive chain forged from links of tin wire.
From all indications, Díneneth must have a lover who was paying for the privilege of lifting up her skirts. The man was probably one of the laboring class who could only purchase gifts from the poorer quality shops of the city. Neithan wondered idly if he knew the man. The maid fidgeted uncomfortably, and he realized that he had been staring at her for far too long.
"Sir, did you hear me?" She cocked an eyebrow. "I really need to be going to my bed."
"Certainly, I heard you," Neithan responded brusquely. "Tell your mistress when she returns that Neithan was here."
"That is your only message, sir?" she asked quizzically, cocking her head.
"Aye. Now good evening to you, Díneneth." Neithan turned and quickly left her, his mind in an even worse turmoil than when he had first arrived. There was no point in returning to his lodgings yet, for though he was exhausted, he knew that sleep would be long in coming to him. He wandered the streets of Minas Tirith, and as the town crier called out the hour of two o'clock, he looked up at the White Tower and saw a light burning in the topmost chamber. Suddenly, the light flickered, growing brighter, and then dimmed to nothingness.
"Someone else must not be able to sleep either," Neithan mused. "I wonder who it could be? Surely not the Steward. Prudent men usually retire much earlier than this... unless they have good reason to be awake. Perhaps the rumors are true, and Denethor does indeed fight his own battles with the Great Enemy."
Matters like this were far too deep for a common soldier, and so Neithan turned his back on the White Tower. Returning to a lower level of the city, he made his way to the shop of a seller of strong spirits who kept late hours. When Neithan returned to his lodgings later that night, his steps were stumbling, but at least his heart was merry for a change.
"'It was in the very hour that Faramir was brought to the Tower that many of us saw a strange light in the topmost chamber,' said Beregond. 'But we have seen that light before, and it has long been rumored in the City that the Lord would at times wrestle in thought with his enemy.'" - The Pyre of Denethor, The Return of the King, p. 133
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