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‘You will not remember me, but I remember you.’
And it was true. An unfortunate consequence of standing – modestly, of course – in front of cheering crowds. In front of hosts of desperate warriors hoping against hope that a sweat-stained group of oddities out of legend could snatch victory from disaster. In front of grey-faced healers too busy and too exhausted, too close to despair, to replace blood-stained robes with their usual sun-bleached white as they struggled to keep alive those who had survived the battles.
‘We have met before.’ Enough practice had made it possible to say the words smoothly, to make them not quite a question, to incline my head and wait for disclosure. Most of those who wished to renew a momentary acquaintance were only too eager to share their tale – and only too pleased to puff up their chests at a vague suggestion of a shared memory.
Not that their … passing contact … made them any less important in the turning of the tide. Was the man who fletched the arrows that filled the quivers any less vital than the one who stood on the battlements, bow in hand? Was the horseman who trained the war stallion, the woman who assisted at a blacksmith’s birth, the child who carried water to a thirsty man – or any one of a hundred thousand others – less needed than the man whose task was to sacrifice others in combat?
The smile expressed polite disbelief. One who knew well enough, then, that the importance of an encounter depended on where you were standing. It offered a … a challenge I could not resist. Dark eyes – grey, of course, but the thundercloud grey of a summer downpour rather than the cool grey of the sea. The hair edged with wings of silver that were distinguished enough not to be hidden – tied back carelessly to announce that this person had no need to primp in front of a mirror to defend his worth. A northerner, I would say, which extended the time frame, but limited the opportunities. The battlefields of the south had, after all, held few from the northern realm. He was dressed well, but, like most of his countrymen, without the inordinate urge for display that seemed to hit those men of Gondor who had inherited, or acquired, sufficient wealth to merit the encouragement of their tailors. Shoes, not boots. And lacking the gap-legged walk of one who had spent too much of his life in the saddle. A merchant, perhaps: one wealthy enough to have his own fleet to carry trade between the kingdoms.
‘It was a long time ago,’ he said. ‘And far from here.’
Not that that narrowed the possibilities much, since I have travelled further over more years than most men.
My escort shifted slightly. Not enough to have him bellowed at by a captain who seemed to feel that guards should be cut from stone, but enough for me to sense his unease. There were not many bold enough to have me stop in the market square to indulge in guessing games, and the youngster clearly thought that that was as matters should be. I suppressed a sigh. There was a time, not too long ago, when no-one held me in awe and wished to keep me apart from those deemed less – and I had preferred it that way. Perversely, his discomfort made me wish to linger.
Lothlórien could be ruled out. The Greenwood, too. Their rulers were not among men’s greatest admirers and an encounter there would stand out. Imladris was unlikely – so that just left all the places in between.
‘There are many places that are far from the White City,’ I told him. It was about time the man offered a little more information. ‘And many who dwell there.’
He smirked, as if he had confirmed his own suspicion that I had no idea who he was and was fishing for any clues he might offer. ‘I was little more than a child at the time,’ he said. ‘A beardless boy on my first journey with my father’s wagons.’
Esgaroth, then, perhaps. Or Dale. Though he would have little reason to remember me from there. Those visits had passed in shabby obscurity and merchants had ever had little interest in those they saw as too honest to steal whilst yet too poor to buy.
‘We encountered you beyond Tharbad,’ he offered. ‘A pair of grey-cloaked men and a lame horse. My father wanted to pass you by – you looked too dangerous for his taste, but you offered him a fee to let your companion travel on the wagons until he could ride again.’ His grin twisted. ‘He was ever the opportunist, my father … and there were enough outlaws to make the roads risky. He bargained – your services in return for your friend’s care.’
I remembered now – Halbarad had fallen foul not, for once, of an orc blade, but of the melting snows of early spring. His horse, on short rations and weary enough to be clumsy, had slipped and taken his rider down a scree slope before my cousin had managed to free himself. By sheer good luck, he had been left without broken bones, but doubtless only the cold and the icy water – and the pack of herbs I always carried – had kept his wounds from suppurating and avoided an infection that could have had me attempting to take his leg. His horse – well, it had been kinder to put it out of its misery and mount Halbarad on mine. A strange twist – that losing his leg then could have saved him from being hacked to pieces on the field before the White City. Just for a moment I regretted … but he would not have wanted it. My cousin was a warrior born, a leader, a Ranger of the Northlands, and he would have found any other trade naught but a half life.
‘I rode with you to Bree,’ I said. ‘I would have watched you safe past the empty lands anyway, even without the pleasure of being fed along the way.’
He shrugged. ‘Once you had won old Aunt Essie’s heart, you could have stayed with us as long as you liked.’
‘Now, that is a thought.’
‘And Gondor would have stayed kingless.’
‘But I would have had a full belly and many nights filled with good stories and better friends.’ I could not help feeling that such things were, perhaps, worth more than you tended to think when you were young and idealistic.
He bore my inspection with easy dignity as I looked him over. ‘You were a scrawny boy who never seemed to know what to do with your hands. Too tall for your clothes and too small for your boots,’ I remarked. ‘You have done well for yourself.’
‘You have not done so badly yourself, my Lord King.’
‘Pelion,’ I remembered. The name had been yelled often enough – with varying degrees of impatience.
‘You were going by Strider, as I recall.’
‘That, at least, has not changed.’ My twist on that simple name still amused me – there was nothing like a dash of elvish to disguise the fact you were cocking a snook at pretension and taking pride in a past many thought best forgotten.
‘But much else has.’ The merchant’s eyes inspected the buzz of activity in the marketplace. ‘For the better, mostly. Trade is profitable, and that is usually a good indication.’
My escort twitched again. Doubtless commanded to have me back in time for my body servant to remove any evidence of contact with humanity and dress me up in full regalia. I felt a welling of rebellion stir up. Was I not the king? Did I not have the authority to overrule the keeper of my diary? Just for a moment I allowed myself to imagine turning and taking the road down to the river. Discarding silk and brocade for my old wool and worn leather. Replacing care for the safety of two kingdoms with the protection of a merchants’ caravan. But …
‘There is a public audience this afternoon,’ I apologised.
He shrugged. ‘We are due to leave before dark,’ he said. ‘Dol Amroth’s markets are waiting eagerly to buy what we bring. Even if they do not yet know it.’
‘When you return,’ I said, fishing in my pocket uselessly before waving over the man who sold goose quills and scraped-clean, barely-used parchment for a bargain price, ‘come to the Citadel.’ I dipped the sturdy quill in the thin ink he offered and scrawled a message giving Pelion … Pelion Barandor’s son access to my first secretary. I might have been feeling sentimental, but I was not fool enough to let an acquaintance from the past come too close to my family. Not without checking on him first. I might – or so I have been accused – be careless with my safety and indifferent to my dignity, but I would not risk my wife and child to wallow in old memories.
‘I will not refuse,’ he said, and grinned. ‘Such an acquaintance could only benefit trade,’ he added. ‘And, as I recall, you told a good story and knew a few lively songs.’
‘We will share a flagon or two of wine,’ I agreed, ‘and talk about the old days.’
He nodded and turned away, and, just for a moment, here under Gondor’s vivid skies, with the rich scents of the baking market and the clamour of the crowd, with bougainvillea tumbling over white walls and cobbles underfoot, I felt an echo of the pale sun and rain-soaked greenery of my northern home.
Every now and then, unexpectedly, I found that someone steps out of the sea of faces and offers a bridge – a link between who I am now and who I once was – and it … refreshes me.
And I remembered him.
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