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Akallabeth in August
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Yet they achieved only the art of preserving incorrupt the dead flesh of Men, and they filled all the land with silent tombs in which the thought of death was enshrined in the darkness.

The Embalmer's Apprentice: Chapter Two by Lyra

It may seem strange to you young people that we embalmers were reckoned so lowly, back then. I like to flatter myself that it is partly the merit of my colleagues and myself that these days the Keepers of the Dead are honoured well, but in truth I must admit that we likely have little to do with it. Perhaps people are just wise enough to respect those who do what they themselves fear to do. Or perhaps they have simply grown used to our presence. In my youth, at least half the populace did not even know that we were there. We dealt, after all, with a part of existence that nobody wants to think about; no wonder that people took no note of us unless they had to! Those who knew of our craft reacted with fear and disgust, and the others simply copied them. I soon felt it. It did not begin immediately; at first people treated me much as they always had - unless they had heard of my arrest, in which case they treated me with scorn. Only when the news had spread (for of course they eventually wondered about my sudden wealth) did they make a berth around me on the street, or hush conversations to give me mistrustful stares as I passed. Lômenil, to her credit, did neither, instead visiting us (or rather Amraphel) regularly. But my one-time fellows and the merchants on the street slowly began to withdraw from us.

But, as Master Târik had predicted, they still took my money.

In that first week Amraphel stocked up on millet and grain and onions and other durable things, and she bought a chicken that pecked its way through our garden and provided us with lovely eggs. She had also found two used winter shirts, dyed in dismal tones of green and brown but nice and warm. Much too warm, in fact, when I tried them on at home.

At work, on the other hand, they proved useful – especially as in the following weeks I hardly did anything but sit still and read or take dictation, as Master Târik wanted me to practice my writing skills. They were unimpressive. I kept forgetting letters or turning them the wrong way around, changing the way they were read altogether. Even if I managed to write a full sentence without mistakes, it took me very long; moreover I was not used to handling a quill, and it scratched on the paper and spilled ink all over the pages. My fingers were constantly smeared black. Mîkul, who had the doubtful honour of checking and mending my writing, usually had so much to correct that I thought it would have been better to let him write the whole thing in the first place. I couldn't imagine that I should ever learn to write properly. I did nothing productive and felt miserable about it, more so as Master Târik nonetheless allotted me my full share of the money, which I did not feel I deserved.

There was only one day that interrupted the routine, and that was when Lord Ciryamir had received his final layer of whitewash, and that layer had dried. We went to the Noirinan then. The others had fine horses, all of them, while I sat on the hearse for the journey. But the knowledge that my passenger was a dead man no longer held the terror it would have held two weeks earlier. I suppose it would have been absurd to fear Lord Ciryamir at that point, dead or no, after the downright intimate care we had given him. At any rate I was perfectly capable of enjoying the change in my schedule.

We left early in the day and reached the Mountain by noon. The riders would surely have been there sooner, but the hearse could not go so fast on the flat but unpaved road. It was odd to be out in the warm and open air around mid-day on a working day instead of in the catacombs – I had grown quite used to spending my days in dark caves.

We had our lunch in the shadow of the Minultârik1, where the day's heat was bearable. We did not speak much. Even at the foot of the Holy Mountain the atmosphere seemed charged with some awe-inspiring power that we did not wish to disturb with loose speech. We ate and drank in silence; then we moved on to the entrance of the tombs.

They seemed much friendlier to me than the catacombs in the city. For one, the light felt more natural, coming through shafts in the ceiling, spread by a system of mirrors; it was much warmer than the blue sheen of the Noldorin lamps we used in Arminaleth. There was also more room, and while the air was cool, it was not as bitingly cold as I had grown used to. Though here as there the tombs were technically little more than caves hewn into rock, here some (probably long-dead) craftsmen had taken great care in decorating the walls with friezes and reliefs. The niches in which the dead kings rested were of course the most beautiful, caves and coffins painted with gold and silver and hung with tapestries.

Lord Ciryamir did not get such a splendid tomb, being merely a great-uncle of the present King. Instead he was brought to a cave he had to share with other distant royal kin. But when we had taken his body out of the wooden coffin and rested him in a stone sarcophagus, and cleaned our hands, there was still time to explore the rest of the Valley of the Dead. Of the older Kings, I learned, there was little more left than bones (or so the others assumed, but none of them took a peek) as they had been buried, back then, without the preserving whitewash; but great sculptors had reproduced their sleeping forms in white marble. I stood, marvelling, before the tomb of Tar-Minyatur himself, gazing in wonder at the statue on his sarcophagus, and at the tapestry that showed his life, from his childhood in Beleriand in the clutches of the Kinslayers to his heroic deeds in the War of Wrath to the gifting of Númenor, and the building of the realm. It was hardly imaginable that all that could have taken place in one lifetime, even one so long as that of King Elros. I had never thought of him as a real person before, more like a character from the old legends. Here at his tomb he was turned into a man, a dead body like those I saw daily. I stepped closer to the statue to see whether there was any resemblance to the King I knew. There was. How strange, I thought, to be able to trace one's lineage back to such a legendary figure. How strange to bear his features, generations later.

I was torn from my thoughts by soft footfalls, and turned around to see Kârathôn walking I was torn from my thoughts by soft footfalls, and turned around to see Kârathôn walking along the lit corridor. I nodded in greeting, somewhat embarrassed. I had almost touched the King's stone face.

"Quite impressive, isn't it?" Kârathôn said in a soft voice.

I nodded, looking back at the statue. "It makes me feel so small and worthless," I admitted. "Nobody would ever want to depict my life in a tapestry."

Kârathôn chuckled, and put his hand on my shoulder. "Small, yes. I wouldn't know about worthless." I half-turned to him, frowning. He shrugged. "We can't all be rulers. That in itself doesn't make us worse, does it?" He paused, and then went on, "Well, maybe we are worse, seeing what brought us here. But I don't think we can be blamed for not being kings, at any rate. And I'm not sure I'd want to have my life in a tapestry. Too many embarrassing bits, if you ask me."

"No, of course not," I said. "But still, to think how much other people manage to achieve in their lives…"

"And how much more they could have achieved if their life had not ended, eh?" He gave me a wry glance. "But you're not stealing any of their time, Azruhâr. Your years won't be subtracted from theirs."

"I know," I said. "That's not what I meant." And indeed I couldn't have explained just what I meant. Just that there was something marvellous about life and death and memory, I suppose. Something that I could not quite grasp, even though it seemed important.

Although there was no corpse with us when we returned, we were strangely subdued and taciturn on our ride back to the capital. I thought at first that it was only me, but after a while I noticed that nobody was singing now or telling stories as we had done on our way to the Noirinan. Instead, everybody kept stealing glances back at the Mountain, rising silently between the hills, looking almost unreal in the haze of the afternoon.

Not long after that I first met the Raisers of the Dead.

I knew that there was another door at the foot of the stairs, across the corridor from the great vault where we worked. We never used it, and I had never given it much heed; but one day there was a loud knock on the door, and the scraping of keys could be heard. I was glad that it was so firmly distant from the corpse-room. I don't know what I would have done if there had been a knock on that door, coming from the inside.

As it was, Master Târik took a key from a shelf, and unlocked the door from our side. It opened to reveal two men in dark robes, carrying a bier.

"Is it time again?" Master Târik only said while I stared at them across the corridor.

"We have, we think, made a breakthrough," the younger of the black-robed men said.

I looked afrom Mîkul to Kârathon in wide-eyed surprise, but Kârathôn muttered, "They always say that." I don't think anyone but Mîkul and I heard him.

"Ah, yes," Master Târik said in reply, gesturing for them to enter the vault. "And what shall it be?"

The two of them looked through the room, at the whitewash-smeared body on the slab, at Kârathôn who stood beside it as if to guard the dead, at Mîkul and me between our open jars and books and boxes.

"If you have someone not yet too long dead? It will work better if the spark of life has not been quenched for long. And it must be somebody who died of age, not of injury."

"I am sure we can find a fitting client," Master Târik said, business-like, and they entered the storage vault.

Kârathôn stepped closer to me.

"'It will work better!' As though he knew." Kârathôn, I gathered, did not put great store into the skills of the Raisers. Mîkul shrugged. "Same old," he said. "It won't work, they'll say it's because our technique leaves much to be desired."

Master Târik said the same, when the Raisers had left with their corpse and the door was locked again. "Well, that means another visit from his Majesty."

I frowned, confused, and he explained, "The Raisers have to report to the King, success or failure. So far it has always been failure. The King will ask why, they will say they don't know, maybe there was something wrong with the body in the first place. Of course it might also be that they simply did not find the right methods or words or whatever it is they do, but they cannot rule out that it would have worked with a body better preserved."

"Then why do they not take one of the recently dead as soon as one is here?"

Kârathôn snorted. "That'd rob them of a perfectly comfortable excuse," he said. "They'd have to admit their failure forthright, if they did that. This way they can always say perhaps we did it wrong."

I swallowed hard. "What happens then?" I remembered the story of Master Târik's teacher, executed because a corpse decayed as corpses are bound to do.

The others seemed to guess my thoughts. "Nothing so drastic," Master Târik said. "The King will come for a visit to make sure that we are not wasting his money. We show him one or two bodies, our price exhibit among the less conventionally preserved pieces, perhaps a particularly off-putting failed attempt, and assure him that we are doing our very best. He will entreat on us to make our best better, we promise that we will, and that is it."

That did not sound too bad, I thought, though I found it hard to imagine that the King himself would walk down all these steps. Perhaps in a palanquin…? But that could not be carried around the corners. Or perhaps we would meet him upstairs?

Kârathôn patted my back again. "Don't look so worried. There will be stern words, nothing more."

"I'm just confused, not worried," said I. I was lying. Of course I was worried.

I had no time to think about the King's visit for long, though, for before another week had passed there was a different event that turned my life on its head: My daughter was born.

The King's generosity meant that we could afford to pay a midwife, which was a serious relief. Even so I was all nerves when I came to work after having left Amraphel in the hopefully capable hands of Thamâris the midwife and the reassuring company of Lômenil. My mind was anywhere but in the catacombs that day.

"Still frightened of the King?" Kârathôn asked when I dropped a jar of salts that thankfully didn't break.

"No," I replied, fishing for the fugitive jar under the work-bench. "My wife's in labour."

The others all stared at me. "Then what are you doing here?"

I stared back. "I have been promised a rather painful death if I shirk at my work. Where, then, am I supposed to be?"

Master Târik gave me a bemused stare, the corners of his mouth twitching. "Oh Azruhâr, that hardly counts as shirking at your work! Do you truly think you'd be punished for staying at home to look after your wife on a day like this?"

I shrugged, feeling a little foolish. "I wouldn't know. It sounded rather absolute."

He shook his head, and patted my shoulder. "Go home to your wife, Azruhâr. If indeed anyone apprehends you, I'll take it up with them."

I almost tripped over my feet in my haste to get up the stairs.

To be honest I could have stayed at work just as well, for the midwife did not allow me to enter the house anyway. I spent the better part of the day in our patch of garden, pacing in circles, scaring the hens (we now had three) and plucking the seeds of wild grasses to twist them in my restless hands. Our walls were not firm enough to drown out Amraphel's screams, and more than once I tried to ignore Thamâris orders and run in – so often, in fact, that she eventually locked the door on me. I missed my neighbours badly, then; anyone would have been welcome to distract me from the screams. "That is normal," Thamâris had said; but it sounded so terrible, so terrible! Surely something was wrong, and they just didn't want to tell me!

It was a relief when Lômenil opened the door and gave me two buckets and sent me to the well, but I was unable to draw the walk out, running instead as though my life (and surely that of my wife and my child) depended on it. Then I was left alone in the garden again.

Three endless hours had passed when Amraphel fell silent, and somebody else took up the crying: an infant's voice, high and unpractised.

It was a good thing that they unlocked the door then, for otherwise I think I would have forced it open.

"Congratulations," Lômenil said, smiling. "You're the father of a beautiful daughter."

I must admit that at first I paid no attention to the child, instead rushing over to Amraphel to make sure that she was all right. There was blood on the sheets, which frightened me, but Amraphel herself looked content enough – though exhausted. "I am fine, I am fine," she assured me when I asked. "It's all right now." She called out to Thamâris. "Let me see her!"

Thamâris brought the child then. The baby seemed very large to me – unbelievable that my wife should have carried such a big child in her! Amraphel took her in her arms, and smiled so serenely that I finally dared to believe that she was all right. Thamâris carefully kept a distance from me, but she gave me a nod. "Your wife is healthy and strong," she said. "So's the child. All is as it should be. This was easy."

Easy? I thought. If that was easy, I didn't even want to know what it was like when it wasn't easy.

But I had no time to argue with the midwife, for now I was taking in the sight of my wife and my daughter.

I was very much willing to believe that my daughter was beautiful, though of course I suppose she looked like most children look, just after their birth. She had a few tufts of wet dark hair on her head, and her eyes were blue. She didn't look like either of us. Oh, of course she had two eyes, and two ears, a tiny nose, two arms with tiny clenched hands and two legs with tiny feet on them – but I recognised nothing in her features that reminded me of Amraphel or myself. One might say, I suppose, that her chin looked a little like my mother's.

But I did not think these thoughts until a bit later, when I had the chance to think rationally. When I first saw her, nestled in Amraphel's arms, I thought she was the most beautiful thing in the whole world. I thought that no man could ever have felt this happy, which was doubtlessly nonsense. And then I remembered that I had almost died a mere six weeks ago, and but for my wife's wit and the King's mercy would never have seen this moment. At that point emotion overwhelmed me, and I broke down and wept, sorrowful and elated at once. My stomach clenched with relief and gratitude and overpowering joy, so violently that I thought I must be sick. Looking back I suppose I must have embarrassed everybody, a grown man falling to the ground and weeping helplessly – but at that point I did not manage to spare a thought for my dignity or the onlookers. All I knew was that I was happier than I had any right to be, and at the same time terrified that all this was too good to be true.

If Lômenil and Thamâris had not kept me in check I would probably have ended up dancing in the streets like a madman, weeping and singing. But they kept their heads, and brought me back to my senses. "You're upsetting the child, silly man," Thamâris said sternly, and I could not even muster the presence of mind to feel insulted. "Yes," I said, laughing instead. "I am sorry. I thank you." I made less sense then than ever.

"That'll be two Ships2," said the midwife, looking me up and down. I would have given her the money even though I knew we had agreed on less, but Amraphel was not distracted enough by the baby to let it pass.

"I think we said one, and three Stars," she protested.

"That was before I knew how long it would take," Thamâris replied at once. "Another Star for every hour."

"You said nothing of that in advance," Amraphel said.

"You said it was an easy birth," Lômenil threw in.

"Peace," said I. "We can afford two Ships."

"We cannot afford people thinking they can milk us just because it pleases them," Amraphel said firmly. "One and three Stars."

"One ship and a half, for gratitude's sake," I suggested, and Thamâris agreed before Amraphel could protest again.

Our daughter chose that moment to begin to cry, and we were all sufficiently busied.

"So what are you going to call her?" Lômenil asked when the baby had been fed, and I had made tea for the grown-ups.

I looked at Amraphel. "Truth be told, I don't know," I said. "I suppose we could simply call her Azruphel, but I'll gladly yield to my wife in this matter."

"I thought perhaps we could name her after my mother," Amraphel said, cradling our daughter.

"Râphumil?" I said, doubtfully. I neither particularly liked the name, nor did I have any friendly associations with her mother, who had graced me with terms like 'that swain' when she had deigned to notice me at all. "Of course, if you'd like, we can name her that," I added before she could take offense.

"It would be a nice touch, wouldn't it?" she said, giving me a winning smile. "And while we're speaking of my mother: It is customary to have a feast for the birth of a child, so perhaps we should invite my family?"

I couldn't say I was thrilled at the thought of having her parents at my house. "We can invite them, if you think we can fit them all in here," I said. "If you think they'll come."

"Surely they will," Amraphel said. "This is, after all, their first grandchild."

So I bought the first roast pork of my life, and turnips and carrots and almonds and honey and dried apples and other fine things Amraphel had put on a list, even an amphora of red wine for the guests. I thoroughly cleaned the house with Lômenil's help, and even repaired the broken chair. We'd have to use the bed as an additional bench, and I'd have to sit on the tree trunk we used as a block for chopping firewood, and it would be crowded, but there would just barely be space for everybody now. Perhaps, I thought, it was time to add a second room to the house – if ever I found the time.

But Amraphel's family refused to see her, or even their grandchild: Lômenil was turned away at the door with the news, I was told me when I came home. "I told them that I was bringing news from Amraphel, and they said they knew no-one of that name," Lômenil recounted. Amraphel was sobbing.

I tried to console her, telling her that her parents were hurting (not to mention disgracing) themselves. "I pity their folly," I said. "They don't deserve your tears."

"I know that," she said, wiping her face. "I just wish it didn't hurt so much."

"What about the feast?" I said when she had calmed.

"What indeed," said she. "You know what? We'll have a feast anyway. Invite anyone. I don't care whom. Whoever you can think of."

I pondered. "I suppose I could ask Master Târik and the others if they're interested. If that's all right with you."

"Yes, do that," Amraphel said.

I barely managed to catch my colleagues as they were leaving the citadel. I had run so hard that I couldn't speak at first; I had to lean against the wall to catch my breath.

But I did not actually need to speak at once. "I do not need to ask," Master Târik said, the corners of his eyes creasing in a smile. "Your eyes wouldn't shine like that if all hadn't gone well."

I nodded, gasping for air.

"Congratulations," he said, clasping my shoulders and embracing me. The others joined in, making so much noise that passers-by turned to look.

"Thank you," I said when I could breathe again. "Yes, all went well. I have a healthy daughter!" There were more cheers and congratulations, which was just as well, for I was beginning to feel soundly overwhelmed.

"But I didn't run here all the way just to tell you," I said. "I wanted to ask whether you'd like to join us for a little feast tonight."

They sobered at once, and exchanged curious glances. "Are you certain that you want to do that, young Azruhâr?" Kârathôn asked. "Won't your friends and family object?"

"My sister is in Rómenna, and my parents no longer live," I explained, a little embarrassed. "And you kind of are my friends, are you not?"

There was some shifting, and more glances. "Aw, that's the sweetest invitation I've got in a long time," Kârathôn finally said. "Yes, I for my part would like to come."

"And I also," said Master Târik, giving my shoulder another squeeze.

"What choice do I have, then?" Mîkul said, but he winked at me. "Name the time and the place and I'll be there."

We had a very cheerful evening, despite the absence of our respective families. Lômenil and her mother had prepared the meal, which was splendid. They had roasted the side of pork and glazed it with spiced honey, and cooked the roots and apples with onions in the fat and glazing that had dripped down from the meat. We had good grey bread to go with that. The wine also seemed very good to me, and I felt a little sorry for Amraphel, who could not partake of it.

Never until then had I eaten so well. Even Mîkul and Master Târik, surely used to such fare, praised the meal and the wine excessively, although Master Târik seemed a little out of spirits. The others jested and sang for ten, however. And of course everybody was smitten with our lovely daughter.

"So what's her name?" Kârathôn wanted to know.

"Ra-" I began, but Amraphel cut me short. "Azruphel," she said firmly. "Her name is Azruphel."

"Clear enough," Kârathôn said, laughing. "Her brother, when she has one, will be named Amrahâr, then?"

"We'll think of that when the need arises," Amraphel said. "But Azruphel is a fine name."

"Very fine," Mîkul agreed, and the others hastened to join in. I cast a questioning glance at Amraphel, but she only gave me a fixed smile in return.

When my fellow Keepers and Lômenil's mother had left us, I cleaned the plates and table with Lômenil's help. Amraphel fed our daughter – our little Azruphel, I thought. The idea of being a father still was strange and new.

"They seem a good sort," Amraphel observed, meaning Master Târik and the others. "I'm glad you have such pleasant company at work." I agreed.

So did Lômenil. "They were very pleasant," she said. "But why did your master Târik not bring his wife?"

I blinked. "He has none."

"I am sorry," Lômenil said. "She died? How very sad."

"No," said I, "he was never married. He says it's because he works with dead people. He wasn't married when he became a Keeper, and now never will be. What made you think he had a wife?"

Lômenil shrugged, and gave the plate she was cleaning a vigorous scrub. "Oh, I just thought he would. He's quite an amiable man after all, and handsome too."

"He's old and bearded!" I pointed out.

Lômenil swatted at me with her wet towel. "He is surely not that old, and he's still a handsome man!" she said, and blushed fiercely, and returned her attention to the dishes.

"Your master Târik may end up married yet," Amraphel said when we were finally alone, and in bed.

"What?" said I. "You mean Lômenil? Ah, no. She was just curious, wasn't she?"

Amraphel merely smiled. "You should tell him that Lômenil tried to find out whether he had a wife."

"If you think I should."

It was hard to leave for work, the next morning - not only because the evening had been late and I was tired, but also because I could not tear myself away from my wife and daughter. I consoled myself that it was Eärenya, and I would have all of tomorrow at my family's disposal. Amraphel said the same, when she kissed me good-bye. "It's just one day. You'll manage. And don't forget to talk to your master Târik."

"My wife thinks you may want to know that Lômenil asked whether you were married," I said.

Master Târik looked up from the accounts, raising an eyebrow. "Lômenil? Oh, you mean the other young woman?"

"Yes, that's her," I said, and thought that even should Lômenil be interested in him, it was doubtful that he cared much for her if he did not even remember her name.

"Hm," said he. "You told her that I was not, I assume?"

I saw Mîkul pause in his work to listen.

"I did," I said.

Master Târik nodded. "And what did she say?"

I tried to remember the exchange. It had been late, and I suspect I had been slightly inebriated. "She said she'd have thought that you were," I said, somewhat lamely. "She called you a handsome man," I added, and was surprised to see that Master Târik was clearly taken aback.

"You're making that up," he said.

"I wouldn't dare!" said I. "That's what she said."

"Nonsense," he said, gruffer than I had ever heard him, and returned his attention to the books.

"Well, you are a handsome enough man, if a little too old," Mîkul told him cheerfully, and earned himself a glare.

I was afraid that I had offended Master Târik, but at the end of the day, when we had bathed and dressed, he invited Amraphel and me to dinner at his house for the next week. "I feel I should repay you for the pleasant evening," he explained. "And my house is much too silent anyway."

"I'll ask Amraphel whether she has any objections," I said. "But I'm sure she'll be pleased to accept the invitation.

She was, although she said at once that she would like to take Lômenil along, for company. "Since it is such a silent house," she said, "I'll be bored if you men talk about nothing but your trade."

We hadn't mentioned our trade even once when the others had visited us, but I nonetheless asked Master Târik whether he was willing to extend his invitation to Lômenil.

He was.

Master Târik was living in a very good part of town, close to where the nobility had their city-houses, within a reasonable distance to both the citadel and the markets, and a very long way from the outskirts where lowly folk like me lived. We walked through white-paved streets past beautiful, spacious mansions in lush parks on our way. Lômenil was the first to express her doubts, though I felt them as well. "No, this is too noble a quarter for us," she said. "You go on; I will go home."

"No, you won't," Amraphel said. "We are invited after all. It would be impolite if you ran away now, wouldn't it?"

"It would," I agreed, but I understood Lômenil's scruples very well. I, too, felt like an intruder. When we reached Master Târik's house – grand like the others, though the garden was untended – even the servant who opened the door was dressed better than we.

But we were welcomed, and shown through a splendid corridor and a courtyard with a fountain into a large hall. Master Târik smiled at us. "How good of you to come," he said, gesturing invitingly at the chairs around the table. "This house has not seen guests in far too long a time."

I thought that it showed, although to be honest I had no experience of grand houses then. I would have imagined them to be decorated with all sorts of wall-paintings and tapestries and sculptures, and full of the exclusive pieces of furniture the carpenters offered. But Master Târik's dinner-hall, if that was what it was, was almost empty but for the table and chairs and chandelier, and a small table holding Ûrinzil's cage. The walls and ceilings were whitewashed (and I could not help wondering if it was the same whitewash that we used at work) without further painting. The floor, at least, suited my expectations: It was a mosaic of hundreds of tiny stone cubes arranged to show a scene from the ocean, with fish of many colours and long strands of seaweed. My gaze kept returning to it, drawn by the amazingly realistic depiction of sea-life. The women admired it as well. Master Târik laughed. "Yes, it is beautiful, but I must admit that I have nothing to do with it. Anything beautiful in this house was there before I moved in; I have put shamefully little effort into it." He sobered. "To be honest it is much too large for one man." It sounded weird, I thought, as though he felt uncomfortable in his own house.

"Why did you buy it then?" Amraphel inquired.

"I did not," said Master Târik. "It was a gift from his Majesty." He said it without the slightest trace of pride or astonishment, as if the King went around gifting houses to people all the time. I, on the other hand, was amazed. "That is a generous gift indeed," Amraphel said, echoing my thoughts. "You are very fortunate."

Master Târik shrugged. "And yet I envy your Azruhâr, madam." He was silent for a while. Then he smiled. "Well! Our dinner should be ready any time soon, but there is probably time enough to see the rest of the house, if you are interested. I must warn you, however; I am an old bachelor, and use no more than two or three rooms. You will be disappointed."

I did not see how we should be disappointed. It was a very impressive house. True, most of it was empty, door after door opening to another unused room, beautifully built but lacking life. I counted five empty chambers upstairs where Master Târik had his bedroom and his study. On the ground floor there was a bath, and a kitchen, and the hall we had first seen. One door was closed; that was the servant's room, we learned. Three more doors led to further spacious but empty rooms. The courtyard was handsome enough, with a few flowerpots around the central fountain, but the garden, overseen from the gallery upstairs, was really in a very wild state. On the whole the house felt rather deserted, a sad place despite its beauty. I had always idly dreamt of one day leaving my hovel for a house like this; yet now that I had seen it, it compared unfavourably. At least our hovel was a home.

"It is a house for a family, not for one man," Master Târik concluded. "Yet aside from Bêliar and Ûrinzil no-one can be convinced to live with me."

"How strange," said Lômenil softly, and blushed.

Whatever Bêliar's qualities as a gardener, as a chef he was brilliant. The meal was splendid, much better than our little feast had been. There was first a soup, clear strong broth with vegetables in it. I was as good as full after that already, but I learned that the meal only really began after the soup. Until that day I would not even have dreamt of the possibility of stuffing a quail inside a chicken, and that inside a goose. Between the layers of meat there were layers of herbs and onions and chestnuts and mustard. The taste was indescribable. I ate far too much, so much that I felt sick by the time that Bêliar brought yet another meal, sweet pancakes with a sauce of blackberries. I gave up.

"My goodness, sir, if I got meals like that every day I'd be heavy as fatstock," I admitted. Master Târik laughed. "So would I be, I daresay!" he said. "But I don't eat like that every day. Most of the time Bêliar and I have a very simple dinner. He doesn't have to go to such efforts when there's only me to take care of." He glanced at the women, and I saw that Amraphel was still busy eating, showing no sign of being overwhelmed. But then she'd had to hold Azruphel with one arm, and she had also made polite conversation. I had, I now noticed, paid no heed to anything but the food for a good while. Embarrassed, I offered to take the child so Amraphel could eat more easily. Our daughter had been very well-behaved so far, sleeping most of the time; and indeed she woke and cried only when the meal was finally done, and the dishes cleared away. "Yes, now it really is time for your dinner, isn't it?" Amraphel said cheerfully, and took Azruphel from my arms. "Azruhâr, can you help me for a moment?"

I got up and followed her to the courtyard, feeling fit to burst. "You hardly need my help," I complained, holding her kirtle while she nursed Azruphel. "I think I ate too much; I can hardly walk."

She laughed softly. "That's what you get for being so greedy, you glutton. No, dear, I hardly need your help, but I wanted to give those two a chance to speak in private."

"Those two?" I said, feeling obtuse.

"Lômenil and your master Târik," Amraphel said. "Did you not see the looks he gave her, during the meal?"

I frowned. "He looked at both of you."

This time Amraphel's laugh was louder, and our daughter paused her drinking in order to protest, milk spilling down her chin. I wiped it off carefully.

"If he were giving such looks to me, you should be very worried," Amraphel said, still smiling. "No, I am quite convinced that it's Lômenil who impressed him. And she is certainly impressed by him."

I pondered that, tried to imagine Master Târik in love with Lômenil. I had to admit that it wasn't entirely impossible. He had often enough told me how lucky I was for having a wife who loved me despite my work, and occasionally bemoaned his own single state.

"But Lôbar has only been two months dead," I pointed out.

Amraphel raised an eyebrow. "So how long do you think Lômenil should wait before she looks at another? A year? Five? Twelve? But she has met Târik now, and feels drawn to him now. Why should she not be happy? Lôbar was hardly such a good man that his memory should bar his widow from ever loving another."

She had a point, I suppose. Still it was a strange thought.

But Lômenil was indeed, as my wife had put it, 'impressed' by Master Târik, and spoke admiringly of him as we walked home. "And so unassuming, for one so rich," she finished another round of praise. "But you work with him, Azruhâr. Any man can be good to his guests, and may yet be a tyrant in daily life. How is he, as a master?"

"I cannot complain," I said honestly. "He has never been anything but kind to me."

Lômenil smiled at that, and said no more.

"Your friend Lômenil, she lives not far from you, right?" Master Târik asked me, a few days later, when we were bathing after work.

"No, sir, only a few streets away," I said.

"Then I shall accompany you," he said, very quickly, and I saw Kârathôn and Mîkul exchange curious glances.

"Do I hear wedding chimes?" Kârathôn said, and to my surprise Master Târik's cheeks turned red.

"Nonsense," he said. "It'll come to nothing, I am sure." He sighed deeply. "Still, a man must try. - Did she say anything, after dinner that other day?" he asked, turning back to me.

I nodded. "She called you kind and generous, and she asked how you were in daily life."

"Oh?" said he, but at this point his nonchalance fooled not even me. "What did you say, then?"

Kârathôn, standing behind his back, rolled his eyes.

"I said that you were very cruel, and whipped me every day," I said. I don't know what made me say that, but Master Târik's reaction astonished me more than my own words. His face fell as though all his hopes had been dashed – as if anyone would have believed such an accusation! He at any rate knew that it was absurd.

"Of course I said no such thing," I said in a gentler voice. "Sir, you should know that I have nothing to complain of."

"You villain," said Master Târik. "For that, you really deserve a whipping."

Yes, I probably did. I bowed my head. "Do what you must. I promise I won't tell her," I said meekly. The others laughed. "I am joking, Azruhâr, only joking," Master Târik said with a grim look, and then he submerged himself to get the soap out of his hair and beard.

"You are growing cheeky," Kârathôn said to me. He sounded proud, as if this was some kind of accomplishment. "Our good influence is showing."

Master Târik indeed accompanied me on my way home that day, and the effect on passers-by was startling. He was obviously better known than I: Whereas I was mostly ignored when I walked through the streets, people recognised him at once, and went out of their way to avoid him. Some just stepped off the sidewalk as we passed, but some actually changed the side of the road as if afraid that even the touch of his robes might contaminate them. He said nothing and held his head high, chin set resolutely, as though it really didn't concern him what the rabble thought about him; but his eyes were sad. Now that I knew how important approval was to him, I could guess how painful it must be for him to be so shunned. I regretted my pert words in the baths all the more. "I truly shouldn't have said what I said just then, Master Târik," I said. "I am sorry."

"You truly need not be afraid," he said, all cheer gone from his voice. "I have never as yet whipped anyone."

I felt my cheeks grow hot. "That's not the point," I said. "I hurt you when I said that, and it was wrong. I am sorry for that. I don't care whether you choose to whip me or not."

He smiled then – a forced smile, but it was a smile. "I thank you, Azruhâr."

I was relieved. We walked in silence for a bit until I remembered something else. "Um, sir, there's something I maybe should warn you about."

He tilted his head. "What is it?"

"Do you remember the head, on my first day at work?" I still could not think of that day without shuddering.

He nodded. "What of it?"

I had to clear my throat before I could go on. "That was Lômenil's husband. Lôbar. Just so you know. Maybe you don't want to tell her too many details about our craft, that's all."

"I see," he said, looking sad and thoughtful. "Thank you for the warning."

I told him how to find the house of Lômenil's mother from the corner of my own street, and watched him walk away, embroidered robes flowing behind him, Ûrinzil's cage in his hand as usual.

He did not tell us how it went, but he accompanied me on my way home every day after that. Of course I learned a few things from Amraphel, who saw Lômenil each day and heard all the news. It seemed that Lômenil's mother did not like Master Târik much, or did not at any rate believe that he was sincere.

"A man like that should court a woman of his own rank," she told Lômenil, "and would, if he were serious. Oh, I don't doubt that he may fancy you, for a while, but he'll leave you just as easily. You should ask money of him so you have at least some gain from all this." I was even more disgusted than the women had been, when Amraphel told me of it.

Lômenil for her part wisely ignored her mother's advice, and arranged her meetings with Master Târik so that for the most part her mother was not present. She seemed to like him better with every day that passed, and raved about him so much that it began to get on Amraphel's nerves a little. "But they are quite adorable, in their way," she said after confessing her annoyance to me. "They are a good match, to be honest: Both think too lowly of themselves and admire the other a bit more than is reasonable, and both are bound to do everything for the other. I truly think they make each other happy, and may continue to do so for a long time."

I did not tell any of these confidences to the others, assuming that Master Târik would tell them himself if he wanted them to know. Eventually Kârathôn and Mîkul stopped inquiring, though they saw that Master Târik walked downtown with me instead of to his own home, which must now feel more deserted than ever.

And then one day I came home and overheard a discussion between Lômenil and Amraphel as I walked up to the house. They were inside, but speaking loud enough to be overheard from the yard. Their argument sounded heated, although I soon realised that they were on the same side.

"… don't care what they say. I have never known a better man in my life, and I refuse to listen to the slander of those jealous hags!" That was Lômenil's voice. Amraphel replied, in a more measured tone, "And you shouldn't – but you should keep it in mind. You'll constantly have to deal with haughty fishwives and the like, looking down on your husband and on you, trying to make you feel inferior, trying to rip you off. I know how it is."

"Well, I'll give them a piece of my mind! They do very important work, in my humble opinion, and should be admired for it, not condemned! If one day death can be defeated, it will be thanks to these men, not thanks to the butchers or fishwives! And who would look after their dead, grandparents or uncles or what have you? Certainly not they, smelling of guts but believing their hands cleaner!"

I walked inside then. "I wish they could hear you in the streets," I said with a sigh. "Hello, love," I said to Amraphel, kissing her.

Lômenil's face, darkened with anger, took on an abashed look. "Is it that late?" she said, sounding surprised. "I did not know it was so late. Did Târik come with you?"

"He'll be waiting at your house," I said, and Lômenil paled. "I must off," she told Amraphel. "I'll see you tomorrow. Take care of yourselves."

"And you," said Amraphel. Lômenil was already half-way through the door, and ran off in a most undignified hurry.

Amraphel smiled. "Poor Lômenil. Or maybe poor merchants. I've never seen her so angry, nor so passionate."

"She made quite a good speech," I said, not without a certain admiration. I went to look for my daughter, but Azruphel was fast asleep. I made sure that she was comfortable, quite unnecessarily, as of course Amraphel had taken care of that. She leaned against the wall, watching me with a smile.

"So what was the cause of this outbreak?" I asked.

"Oh, several things," Amraphel said. "Her mother, for one, keeps harassing her about money. Then we went to the market, and there were some snide comments from various sides. And your master Târik himself has repeatedly expressed his concerns about making her unhappy by exposing her to public scorn, if he continues to see her."

"Well, it is good of him to think of that," I said defensively.

Amraphel shrugged. "It is, but frankly he'll make her far more unhappy by no longer seeing her."


She gave me a rueful smile. "My knack for offending all others by my choice of beloved seems to be contagious."

I grimaced. We still had heard nothing of her parents. Even my sister's family, who could afford very little and moreover lived in distant Rómenna, had sent a messenger with a gift, a necklace of beaded sea-shells, when they had heard of our daughter's birth. Her parents, who lived in the city and could afford necklaces of real pearls, did not even send a word of congratulations.

She kissed me, smoothing my furrowed brow with her soft lips. "I would not have it any other way. Especially not now. I only wish you had more time at home."

"That reminds me!" I said, and then took my time to return that kiss. "We will not be working next week, because of Eruhantalë. I have the whole week off." I had almost forgotten about the holiday. I was, I must admit, not the most observant of worshippers in my youth, and besides I had never before had a week off. As a day-taler, the fair in the holiday week gave me plenty of work and good pay (as good as I had known in those days): so far I had worked more than normally around the holidays. Now I had to remind myself that I was an apprentice craftsman, and thus enjoyed the privilege of three work-free weeks per year on top of a regular, reliable income.

"Now that's the kind of news I like to hear!" said Amraphel, and kissed me again. "So what do you want to do with all that free time?"

I felt a little embarrassed. I had indeed thought about what to do next week, and none of my plans were modest. "I thought perhaps we could add another room to the house. I don't think I'll manage to build one in a week, but perhaps I could make a start." Amraphel looked surprised, and I quickly said, "If you agree that we should have one, of course. I think it would be nice to have a separate bedroom."

"It would, but why don't you simply see a builder and ask him to do it, after the holidays? That way you wouldn't have to spend all your free days working. We could afford it by now."

"Perhaps we could," I said. Amraphel was much better with counting and accounting, so she knew better than I how much money we had. "But…" and here I faltered, feeling that perhaps I wanted a bit too much at once.

"But?" said she, smiling.

"I thought perhaps we could buy a horse," I admitted. "That won't leave enough money for a builder, will it?"

"It probably would," Amraphel said. "You shouldn't fully pay a builder in advance anyway. We might still have enough for a down payment. Except we'd have to use it for a stable, if you want a horse."

I had not even thought about that. I was glad that my wife knew about such things, for I certainly didn't. "We must think about this together then. - And," I took a deep breath, feeling more than a little silly, "I will need white robes."

Amraphel raised her eyebrows. "You want to go to the Mountain?"

I looked at my feet in their new, polished boots of dark brown cowhide. "I thought perhaps I should," I said. "I have much to be grateful for, this year."

"That you do," Amraphel said. "But you are aware that my parents tend to go to the hallow, too?"

"Yes," I said, and I was. Amraphel's parents had sufficient reason to go, each year, and at any rate they struck me as the type who would attend the ceremony just to be seen attending. "You don't have to come along if you don't want to see them," I pointed out.

"On the contrary," said Amraphel, eyes sparkling. "I would very much like to go. You are not the only one who has things to be grateful for. Do you mind if I try to find a tailor to make those robes?"

I shrugged. "You will know if we can afford it."

"We can, if you can wait another few weeks for the horse," she said. "Assuming, of course, that there is any tailor willing and able to make our robes at such short notice. I'll need your measurements, of course; you've grown rather broader around the chest and shoulders, unless I'm much mistaken."

So I was measured, which Amraphel accomplished by means of a piece of string and her fingers, noting down the results. I assume she bribed the tailor, too, for she did indeed manage to have the robes delivered, neatly wrapped in brown paper, on the first day of the holiday week.

"You must try them on," she told me. "If anything doesn't fit, it can still be mended." So I washed (for I had been digging the fundaments for the addition to our house, room or stable, all day) and slightly nervously took a look at the festival robes.

Amraphel had chosen a very soft, closely woven variety of linen, much finer than anything I'd worn before (though not, fortunately, as fine as Mîkul's silk shirts). I was unreasonably terrified of staining the white fabric; I barely dared to touch the clothing, although I had cleaned myself thoroughly. So far my clothing had always been unbleached, and undyed or dyed only with what little variety could be achieved by means of weeds or onion peels and the like. The shirt, when I finally put it on, should have been simple enough, but the tailor had used rather more fabric than necessary so there were fashionable little pleats at chest-level and at the arms. Also he had chosen buttons of mother-of-pearl. The long robes were more distressing yet, going all the way down to the ground and closed with silver toggles. I had not even worn long robes for my father's funeral; I had not worn long robes for my wedding. I suspected I would have to be dreadfully cautious in order not to trip over the hem, which was wastefully embroidered in pale blue and yellow to top things off. The same ornamentation had been stitched onto the sleeves, the belt, and the high collar. I was very uneasy as I put all that on. Paid for or no, I did not feel like I could wear such precious clothing with impunity. The fine fabric felt strange on my skin, and when I looked down at myself I couldn't believe that these elegant masses of cloth covered my own body.

I looked across the room at Amraphel, and my breath caught in my throat.

She had always been beautiful, but in her white robes she looked splendid. Even with her hair tousled and unbraided she wore them perfectly, the white fabric setting her dark curls off nicely. To pay for our wedding bands, she had sold the jewellery she had brought when she had escaped her parents' house, but even without jewellery I thought she looked almost like a queen.

"My beautiful wife," I whispered, unable to take my eyes off her.

"My beautiful husband," she said, smiling. "You should wear robes more often; they suit you very well."

"They don't feel like it," I admitted. "I feel like an impostor."

"Of course you do. You're unused to them. But believe me: They look good on you." She smoothed some crease on my chest. "And you'll get used to them."

"I hear that a lot," I said.

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  1. Mt. Meneltarma
  2. For note on Númenorean money in this story, see Chapter 2.
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