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Or Perchance, When the Last Little Star  by Larner

A Question of Degree

            Two days later Lynessë heard a knock on the door to her chambers, and Cireth led the Warden of the Keys into her office, where she’d been going over reports from the Mistress of the Laundries regarding apparent thefts of fullers earth from the stores.

            She rose quickly to her feet.  “My lord!” she said, feeling well pleased.  “How kind of you to visit me here.”

            “It was brought to my attention I had not as yet surrendered to you your badge of office.”  He held out the ring of keys commonly worn by those in her position.  “As Keeper of the Keys to the Citadel, it was to me that your predecessor entrusted them when she left us.  It is a relief at times to know there is at least one other who helps to oversee the integrity of the place alongside me.”

            She found herself responding to his open grin.  “Oh, indeed so.  And I am to wear the ring at my waist?”

            “So tradition dictates,” he assured her.  “Although once you don that ring you will find you cannot easily take any by surprise any more.”

            The keys jingled merrily as she turned the ring in her hand to examine them.  “So I see,” she laughed.  “Let you tell me what each is to so that if I am called upon to use them I can.”

            One, she learned, was to the doors to the common dormitories.  “This is used primarily when it is found thefts are beginning to be common.  It will be your duty to lock the doors so none may go in or out without your presence, and either the Housekeeper or the Seneschal and their aides will search each one to make certain he or she is not seeking to hide some stolen article upon his or her person.  Once all have been allowed to leave the dormitory, you will oversee the searching of the dormitory itself.

            “This one is to the doors for all the servants who have private quarters.  Only you and I have copies of these two keys, which is why they are important to guard.  This is to the still room--work within it will begin again in a few weeks’ time, and it will be your duty to admit those who work within it and to supervise their work that they not make themselves over-merry on their own brews or seek to carry aught away from the Citadel.  Although beer, ale, and wine are not commonly brewed within the Citadel, we do produce many of the dyes and tinctures used for our own purposes, as well as certain soaps and oils.  Certain tinctures and substances used in the manufacture of particular medicaments are poisonous or otherwise dangerous or mightily precious, and thus are guarded carefully.  You and I alone hold the keys to the cabinets in which such substances are stored, and you are to see that these cabinets are properly ordered and only opened when necessary.  You had best go through the stores there with the Mistress of the Stillroom next week so as to assure all is in readiness once work there commences.”

            She nodded her understanding.  Then, after thinking for a moment she asked, “And do you know of any unusual or suspicious use there might be for fullers earth?  It appears there have been thefts of such from the laundries.”  She handed him the report she’d been reading.

            She found she enjoyed the visit, and was disappointed when Cireth appeared at the door to advise Lord Húrin that his presence was needed by a member of the Lord Steward’s Council, at which time he rose reluctantly and bowed courteously, and she accompanied him to the door.  She only wished she could see more of him.  However, it appeared their duties kept each too busy to allow them to see much of one another, or so it proved for the first month of her residency within the Citadel.

            This visit was closely followed by her first dinner with the Steward himself, one held on the evening of the Highday in his quarters.  She had dressed carefully, and Cireth had taken especial pains with her hair.  As she presented herself before the doors to the Steward’s Wing the Guardsmen examined her closely, the younger one with obvious approval.  “Mistress Lynessë?” queried the older man.

            “Yes,” she said, standing straighter.

            He nodded.  “The Steward is expecting you.”  A signal to his fellow, and they held open the doors, allowing her to go between.  She started down the hallway, suddenly realizing she had no idea which door before her she should knock at.

            At that moment one to her left opened, and one of the valets emerged carrying a vase of greenery.  He appeared unsurprised to find her there.  “Mistress Lynessë?  You are arrived in good time.  The Lord Steward will be pleased.  If you will follow me?”

            He led her down the hallway to a slightly more ornate doorway than the rest, beside which was a niche in which a Guardsman stood.  He nodded to the Guard, gave a knock at the door, and at the sound of a voice from within opened it, bowing Lynessë in before him.

            The Steward’s own reception room was well appointed, with double doors at the other end leading, she must suppose, out into a private pleasure garden.  The Steward himself stood near the fireplace with a goblet in hand, looking out the window alongside the door into the intense white without.  It had indeed snowed as had been foretold by those within the Citadel whose bones tended to ache before such events, and the views from the windows were all of expanses even more brilliant white than they ordinarily appeared.  A table stood ready for the meal, with four places set upon it.

            Denethor turned to watch her reaction, nodding to acknowledge her curtsey.  “I hope you do not mind, but my sons are to dine with us this evening.  It is likely the last time Lord Boromir will join us for some weeks, as he must return tomorrow to Osgiliath.  His younger brother will remain with me for three more days before taking up his duties within Ithilien.  We are awaiting the arrival of one of our captains from the frontier between Anórien and Rohan, who will serve as his second in command.”

            “I see, my Lord,” she said politely.

            The valet set the vase upon the table and rearranged some of the boughs it contained, then took up a splinter from the fireplace and with it lit a number of tapers that he set about it.  The Steward himself drew out a chair from the table, indicating Lynessë should seat herself.  “If you will, Mistress,” he said with grave courtesy, helping place her chair before taking one himself.  “My sons will be with us shortly.”

            As he took his own seat he asked, “And has the question been answered as to who was stealing fullers earth?”

            She flushed slightly--he seemed to be aware of everything that occurred within the Citadel!  “We believe so, my Lord.  One of the men who helps lift the linens into and out of the vats has a brother who is a weaver down in the First Circle.  So far, each time it has been noticed that the bins holding the Citadel’s stores are notably lower than they perhaps ought to be it has been on the days the man has free, at which time he is known to go down into the lower city to aid his brother.  Master Balstador is preparing to follow the man and see if he carries fuller’s earth from his home in the Sixth Circle down to the lower city.  As the Citadel purchases its stores from the providers whose own storehouses are in the First Circle that would be very suspicious.  He also intends to learn if the brother is in deep debt or need.”

            “And why bother to do such a thing?”

            Lynessë was surprised by the question.  “To find whether there are any circumstances that could perhaps mitigate the guilt of our launderer, my Lord.  If his brother is poor and barely able to provide for himself and his family, then although it does not make the launderer less guilty, yet his reasons for doing as we believe he does are understandable.  However, if the brother lives well and is clearly turning a profit on his business, then both are equally guilty of stealing not only from the Citadel but from all of the citizens of the City, and as a result a sterner penalty should be sought for the both of them.”

            “So, you consider one who steals to support others to be less guilty than one who steals solely to increase profits?”

            “Of course, my Lord.  Do you not believe similarly?”

            “Theft is theft, Mistress Lynessë.  Whether the reasons for the theft are altruistic or selfish, yet the one stolen from has lost what was taken and either must go without it altogether if he cannot afford to replace it, or must pay twice for what he ought to have paid for only once.  And either way, not only is the crime perpetrated against this house, but as you yourself have pointed out, from all the other citizens of this city.  Indeed, all of Gondor pays taxes to support the Citadel and those who must live or sojourn or labor within it, no matter how short a time they spend within its precincts, which makes an offense against this house an offense against the realm.”

            She was shocked.  “You would consider the theft of fullers earth an act of treason against the realm?”

            “Do you question your own logic, mistress?”

            “It is not as if the realm of Gondor shall fall if the launderers have perhaps somewhat less fullers earth than was originally purchased.”

            Voices could be heard in the hallway, and the door burst open as Lord Boromir led his brother and their cousin Húrin into the room.  “And that last arrow of yours was so well placed, my brother, that Lord Irmánion cannot question you deserve the prize!” Boromir was saying over his shoulder.  He turned to the valet.  “Belveramir, would you please set another place for our cousin, and notify the kitchens that he has joined us for the evening meal?  Would you believe, Father,” he continued, turning his attention to the Steward, “that Húrin here had planned to try to return down the ramp to the Sixth Circle in that?”  He indicated the scene outside the window, which was now darkening rapidly.  “And his cook is not within the house, so he was planning to prepare a meal for himself!  Please, Father--tell him not to be a fool and that of course he is welcome to join us!”

            Faramir had followed after the others, and was closing the door far more circumspectly than his brother had thrust it open.  He gave Lynessë a respectful inclination of the head before fixing his attention on his father, apparently not as certain as was his older brother of the Steward’s acceptance of another’s attendance at the meal.  Nor could Lynessë determine if Denethor’s expression indicated welcome or annoyance at the unexpected addition to the party.  As for Húrin himself, his own expression was that of one who has realized his younger kinsman’s desires are more a force of nature than anything else.

            “My Lord Uncle,” he said with a decided degree of fatalism to his voice.  “Your son has made it abundantly clear that I am to be given no choice in the matter.”  He turned his attention to her.  “Mistress Lynessë?  Ah but then there is one other benefit other than merely avoiding wasting away due to the poor quality of my own cooking to be gained by acceding to Boromir’s commands!”

            The valet was already setting out still another plate at the table, then drawing another chair from its place by the wall.  “Here, my Lord Húrin--let you take this place.  Shall I allow the kitchen to know you are ready to be served, my Lord?” he asked his master.

            “There is one other benefit offered you by staying,” Boromir was saying.  “By staying now you avoid sliding on the ice on the ramp and thus breaking your head!”

            “I am not as certain as are you I should slip on the ice, Boromir.”

            “Well, I am, for when I went down to practice earlier today I myself ended up with my feet flying out from beneath me, and I slid a good deal of the way down it on the seat of my trousers!”

            “Did you?” Faramir asked.

            “Why do you think that I am wearing others than the ones I donned this morning?  You were far wiser, staying on this level and practicing in the salle behind the prison.”

            “I had no intention of losing my dignity as I did in the snow two years past when I went sliding headfirst down the ramp just at sunset.  I had visions then of not being able to stop and ending up going over the wall and falling to the Fifth Circle.”

            “It was not all that slick when I walked up here this morning,” Húrin was protesting.

            “But then it was new,” Boromir said.  “As it has been packed down it has become more slippery.”  He turned again to the Steward as he settled in the chair to Denethor’s right.  “Really, Father, we must begin stockpiling sand to use on the ice of the ramp early in November.  Oh, I know we do not require it most winters; but that makes it the more needful those winters such as this one!  Someone could be seriously hurt!”

            Lynessë had to agree with Lord Boromir on this question.  The Steward shrugged his shoulder, having indicated the valet should indeed hurry to the kitchens.  Faramir held out his hand to stay the valet briefly, murmured something, and then let the man go with a slight smile and nod.

            “And have you been out in the snow as yet?” asked Faramir of her.

            “No, not as yet.  I have been surprised at how cold it has been--far more so than I remember it being when I was a child.”

            “I do believe this is the coldest winter of which I have been aware,” Boromir assured her.  “The one place I have been that is colder is in Edoras in the month after Mettarë--the folk of Rohan often fight very cold winters, and far deeper snow than this.  We have had more snow, however, in the last ten years than we had earlier in my life.”

            “That is true enough,” the Steward said.

            “And are you finding your way well enough about the Citadel?” Húrin asked.

            “I still at times find myself asking passing pages and Guardsmen where certain rooms are,” she answered.  “Although I have not as yet become wholly lost--although that may yet happen,” she added.

            “And of what boring business has our father had you speaking?” Boromir asked, having poured his goblet full from a carafe he’d brought from the sideboard.

            “We were discussing the apparent theft of fullers earth from the stores within the laundries,” she answered.

            The meal was lively enough at first, with Lord Boromir mostly leading the conversation.  He appeared to have little interest in possible thefts from the laundries, and soon after the Standing Silence was complete turned the conversation to the spring tournament to be held in Lossarnach at the equinox.  “I intend to win the gold spurs from Forlong’s nephew Daerdion,” he said.  “They should never have gone to him last year.”

            “There was no way you could have won them last spring, brother,” Faramir said thoughtfully, “with your shoulder healing as it was.”

            Húrin explained, “He wrenched his shoulder on a climbing exercise, and so was unable to take part in the tournament.  I think that is why he has worked as hard as he has in the last few months, as determined as he is to win those spurs.”

            “You ought to have won them,” Boromir insisted, his gaze on Faramir’s face.

            “I had no interest in them,” Faramir answered.  “I did take the prize for archery, which was the only one that mattered to me.”

            “And the one for stealth,” Boromir corrected him.

            Faramir’s shrug, Lynessë decided, was very much the same as was his father’s.  “I have been training for some time to take command of the Rangers, after all.”

            “And the best of captains you shall be for them, little brother,” Boromir assured him.

            And so the talk went on for some time.  Their food served, the valet had been dismissed and all ate and spoke informally, Lord Boromir pouring for the others with a liberal hand.  The subject of the tournament at last exhausted, he sat back with his goblet, turning it between his fingers, listening as his father and brother and Húrin discussed decreasing trade in the free ports to the south.  “It is an indication, I fear,” Húrin said thoughtfully, “of the Enemy’s growing influence in Harad and Khand.  And those merchants who do come to trade tend to carry goods of poorer quality, and far smaller quantities.  It would appear that the Farozi and the Klifas are putting more thought into building armies and stockpiles of weapons rather than in encouraging artisans and farmers to develop surpluses of food and mere trade goods.”

            In time the others also fell silent.  At last Faramir directed his attention toward his brother.  “You have had little to say for quite some time,” he said.

            “What can I say?  The Enemy is not yet moving, but he shifts the weight of his attention.  There have been more assaults on our trading convoys by ships that fly no flags, although it is plain that those of Harad and those of Umbar are equally involved.  Companies come and go between the Black Gate and Rhûn while we entertain simpering emissaries whose slippery words are meaningless, who then hurry back to their own lands to report on what troupe movements they have become aware.  Théoden has sent word of assaults on his horse herds and the theft ever of black steeds, and the burning of six villages since the autumn equinox that were far enough from the Gap of Rohan they ought to have been untroubled.”

            He raised one foot to rest on the corner of the seat of his chair as he turned to search the face of his father.  “The final battles keep coming closer, sir.  I find it hard to keep up the morale of the armies when we ever feel ourselves waiting under the shadow of threat from Mordor.  The desire to have something--something definite to face is there.”

            “Yet it is not up to us to move first,” Denethor cautioned his son.

            “Perhaps not, Father; but it is still a thing to be wished.”

            “The time is not yet,” Denethor repeated, turning his gaze to the wine remaining in his own cup.  “The time comes ever closer, yes.  But the Nameless One does not yet wield all the power he would have in his hands ere he makes his move on us.  Nay, he is still building his strength.  And while he builds his strength, we must do the same.”

            “With not enough income from trade?” Faramir asked, his expression matching that of his brother.  “How do we pay for new swords to be made, for new armies to be formed?  He does not care that the common folk of Khand and Rhûn and Harad must starve that resources are given instead to the warlords for the building of their forces.  We, however, will not do such things--build up strength in arms at the cost of our women, children, elderly, and artisans.”

            “Then we must do as we ever have done--make do as best we can,” Denethor said.  “If we must build slowly, then we will build slowly.  But we will build.”

            Again there was a prolonged silence.  At last Húrin sought to break it.  “So, Master Balstador investigates those who are involved in the thefts of fullers earth from the Citadel’s stores?  What specifically does he seek to know?”

            With a sideways glance at Lord Denethor, Lynessë answered, “Whether the thefts are due to need--or mere greed.”

            “Not that the thefts stemming from need make them any the less criminal,” the Steward said grimly.

            Faramir again seemed to be plumbing the depths of his father’s feelings on the subject.  “If it proves that the proceeds of the thefts are used to feed children who otherwise must starve, would you offer as harsh a punishment as you would to those who merely seek to increase already overabundant wealth?”  He seemed genuinely curious.

            “Is the loss to the victim of the theft any the less in the one case than the other?” demanded his father.

            “It is not as if the Citadel could not afford to absorb some such losses,” Faramir began, but his father interrupted him.

            “So, my son, is it incumbent on those who have wealth to allow themselves to be robbed as they can afford it?  That is a dangerous argument to make, you will find, that those who have abundance, as they can survive thefts, should therefore forgive them that those who have less may have a bit more at their expense.  And, as Mistress Lynessë pointed out to me ere your arrival, a theft from the Citadel is tantamount to treason against the realm.”

            Lynessë felt her cheeks begin to burn.  “That is not what I said.  I said that it was true a rich man who stole from the Citadel was guilty of stealing from the entire City, perhaps....”

            She saw a swiftly mastered smile of triumph on his face.  “Is a man who is poor who has stolen any less a thief than one who was rich to begin with?” he asked.  “Does a thief cease to be a thief when he is poor?”

            “Well, no----”

            “Then if one who is rich who steals from the Citadel steals from the entire City as you have admitted, and from the entire realm of Gondor as I have pointed out, then why is that not true of one who is poor?” he asked.

            She had no answer to that, and she saw that he counted the debate won.  Faramir, however, did not appear convinced, but wisely kept his silence.  Boromir looked from one to the other, and at last shrugged.  He glanced to the window, and gave a brief exclamation.  “Ah, the clouds are clearing.  It shall be a fair night.  What do you say, friends--shall we not go out and enjoy the beauty of the stars for a time?  And you, too, Mistress Lynessë--you must come out also!”

            “But my cloak and scarf and gloves are in my rooms,” she objected.

            “Then send to have them fetched!” Boromir insisted.  “Or, better yet, go and fetch them now!  It will take Faramir and myself a few moments to fetch ours from our rooms upstairs!”

            “They are right, Mistress,” the Steward said unexpectedly.  “As you pointed out regarding your little maid, it is not wise for any to isolate themselves.  Here--I shall accompany you to your rooms to fetch your things, and then you shall go out with these and enjoy the stars for a time.  It bids fair to be a clear night, and there are few better places to enjoy the glory of the heavens than here at the top of the City.”  He rose and moved purposefully toward the door.  Not knowing what else to do, she rose also and followed him.

            Outside his door the guard in the niche moved to follow in their wake, and two others who waited there fell behind Lords Faramir and Boromir as they emerged with Lord Húrin.  They turned at the end of the hall to ascend the steps to the upper levels as she followed the Steward out into the wide corridor off which the residence wings opened.  As they walked toward the passage where the steps to the upper level over the Council Chamber lay, she thought suddenly of an argument to counter his earlier. 

            “My Lord,” she began.


            “What would you name one who intruded on others as a meal was ready to be served, causing the unwitting host to need to hurriedly set out another place and to think how to divide the food prepared one more way?”

            “I would call him unutterably rude and a schemer.”

            “You should do that no matter what his circumstances were?  After all, you have indicated that the thief who looks only to feed a family that might otherwise starve is as much a thief as one who seeks primarily to increase his personal wealth at the expense of others.”

            “Yes, that is so.”

            “So, you then must consider Lord Húrin to be unutterably rude and a schemer?”

            He stopped.  “What?” he asked, his eyebrows raised.

            “You did not think to entertain him at dinner, did you?  And although it is clear he came only because Lord Boromir importuned him, still he might have insisted on returning to his own house tonight and fixing his own meal as he had purposed.”

            He searched her face for a moment, and then, unwillingly, he gave a smile--a small smile, but a smile indeed, and Lynessë knew that he admired her persistence.  It was with a barely controlled feeling of triumph that she directed Cireth to help her fetch her cloak and gloves and scarf, then turned to accompany him back to his quarters.

            There in the Steward’s reception room the three younger men were ready, Faramir helping Húrin to fasten his cloak brooch.  They turned as Denethor and Lynessë entered the room, smiling as she came to join them.  Soon enough Boromir opened the door at the further side of the room and they went out into the gardens.

            Here the snow had not been trodden down, and there was decent purchase.  Together they moved further away from the building to where they could see the skies more fully.  “It is beautiful!” Lynessë finally said, looking up at the spill of stars as they glowed above like a wide ribbon of opals.

            “That they are!” agreed Boromir, and his smile appeared almost boyish.

            Together they turned toward the Hunter.  Húrin was now beside her.  “I have ever loved the winter sky,” he said.

            “Oh, yes!” she breathed.  “I doubt there is anything anywhere as fair!”

            “Oh, cousin,” Boromir said.

            “What?” Húrin asked as he turned--only to find a fistful of snow hitting him on the cheek.

            “That was not fair!” Faramir exclaimed, and immediately he’d thrown a packed ball of snow at his brother.

            It was quite a battle that they enjoyed.  It did not last particularly long, but Lynessë was intent on making certain each of the others received his fair share of her missiles.  Then Húrin was trying to put a goodly handful of the cold stuff down the neck of her dress----

            She found herself sitting upon the ground, her legs splayed, her hair and hood and shoes filled with snow, laughing at her own plight as the rest left off the battle to gallantly help her to her feet and assist her back inside.

            The Steward looked up from the book he held in his lap, and smiled at his sons and nephew and Lynessë.  “You have enjoyed yourselves?  Ah, but it appears all of you need warm baths to melt away the snow.  But first, you three need to see Mistress Lynessë back to her own quarters.  Oh, and mistress, while I awaited you I took the liberty of borrowing this from your shelves.  I hope you take no offense.  Have you enjoyed it?”

            She realized as she accepted the volume that it was the book of children’s stories, the one containing Joco and the Cornfield.  “Considering what you told me of it, I wonder, my Lord, if I should return it to your son.”  She turned to hold it out to Faramir.  “Lord Faramir, your father tells me this was originally a gift given to you.”

            He took it, his brow creased at first, then smoothing.  “Oh, yes--Mithrandir gave it me--long ago!  But I hadn’t seen it in years!  I packed it to take with me to Dol Amroth one summer, but when I arrived I could not find it in my bags.  Where did you find it?”

            From the corner of her eye she saw an expression on the Steward’s face that made her stop.  At last she said, “I have been many places throughout the Citadel in the past few days, and I saw it lying where it must have been resting ever since it fell out of your bags as you prepared to travel to Dol Amroth.  It looked rather forlorn, I thought, so I brought it to my rooms.  Your father saw it there and recognized it.”

            He smiled.  “I enjoyed it as a child, and particularly the first story of the lad fooling the wicked conjurer and getting the best of the bargain.  Whoever wrote the story down had, I thought, a wonderful sense of humor.”

            “Oh, indeed,” she agreed.  “And I thought the trick he played on the conjurer most clever.”

            He returned it to her.  “Well, since it found a way to attract your attention while I appear to have passed right by it for years and did not see it, then I think it should stay with you.  It is a book for those who have little reason to put mirth aside, I think.”

            She looked up, surprised at the serious tone, and saw that he saw himself as one who must put aside mirth as he prepared to take on his duties to the realm of Gondor.  She accepted the book and held it to her.

            But she caught one last expression in the Steward’s eyes she’d never thought to see--relief, as quickly schooled away as his other emotions.  And she realized that this book had found its way out of Faramir’s bags that long ago day in the same way her blue gown had been removed from her things before she left Pinnath Gelin for the Metarrë celebrations in Dol Amroth.  She hoped that Faramir never realized how his father had resented that that book had been gifted to him by the Grey Wizard.

            A week later a former launderer for the Citadel and his brother stood before the Steward for judgment.  Both were large, substantial men, and the brother wore what had been expensive garb, well made, and quite attractive---or it had been before he’d spent three days in the prison to the Citadel.  It was now rumpled and well in need of being cleaned,

            Lynessë watched the trial from a gallery over the back of the Hall of Kings, and with her were a number of those who served in the Citadel, including several from the laundries.

            “You have been found guilty of stealing fullers earth from the stores of the Citadel and giving it to your brother here,” the Lord Steward said to the launderer, “for his use in the preparation of his cloth.  And in so doing you allowed him to save the cost of that substance purchased on his own behalf.  So it is that you have allowed the whole of the City--indeed the whole of the realm of Gondor--to support his business that he might make an even larger profit.  For searching the records of his business indicates that he did not pass that savings on to those who purchased his cloth, not even when the purchaser was an agent of the Citadel itself.

            “It appears that these thefts have been continuing for quite some time, and now at last you have been found out.  And it falls now to me to pass judgment upon you.”

            Lynessë listened as the launderer was sentenced to be branded on hand and forehead with a T-glyph to indicate he was a thief, and then to serve six years service in the quarries, while his brother, as a receiver of stolen goods, was ordered to be flogged, was fined a substantial amount of money, and sentenced to three years service in the quarries.

            “I would do more would the law allow it,” Lord Denethor continued, “for in stealing from this house you are betraying not only your neighbors but the whole of the realm.  But I have given you the maximum penalty granted me for your crimes.  But know this:  should either of you do similarly again, you will have all your goods confiscated and be hanged before the city as traitors.  Do you understand?”

            When all was finished, she went to return to her other duties, and realized she felt little pity for the two men, who had neither one needed to do as he had done.  Actually, she felt both should have received the same penalty--both branded and both spending the same amount of time in the quarries.  Why should one who stole goods be punished more severely than the one who accepted those goods, knowing they’d been stolen?

            And a small corner of her mind wondered, If he’d been judging himself for depriving his son of that book of children’s stories, would he have found he deserved the same punishment he meted out to the launderer?

            It was, she thought, a question to be pondered.


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