There are few secrets in our city, especially between the Citadel and the White Tower, and so we all knew that Boromir would be leaving soon. A fool’s errand, some said, to seek a city that existed only in ancient myth; our last hope, countered others, to beg aid that was long promised. We knew, too, that Faramir had pleaded to be the one sent, since it was his dream that whispered the prophecy; and that it was a sign of the Lord Denethor’s desperation that he should charge his firstborn, the finest soldier and commander in all Gondor, to travel that lonely road.
In recent years we had not met so often as previously, so I did not expect a farewell. Therefore I was surprised, and more than a bit worried, when he sought me out in the quiet midafternoon, two days before he was to leave. I had been assembling his provisions, dried meats and fruits, rolled grains, and, of course, a pouch of his favorite sugared almonds. At first I thought he meant to leave early, and had come to take what was ready and abandon the rest.
“A word with you, Mag,” he said, and declined my offer of sweet milky tea with a shake of his head. That alone should have told me much of his mind. As we sat in the quiet corner by the window I noticed feet tapping nervously; his fingers thrumming against his thigh.
“You know that I am leaving –" I nodded. "For some reason, this mission disturbs me as none other. I can’t help but feel –" he gazed out the window, toward the White Tree, the hazy blue sky, the small sparrows chittering along the top of the stone parapet. "I am afraid, Mag, that I may not come back. Hush, now,” he grasped my hand, for I had already started to protest. "But there is one thing I want you to do for me, if I do not return. There is a woman in the first circle, a Haradric woman. She lives there with her son. I have made a settlement upon them, and purchased the 100 years lease on their house. My scrivener has all the documents. If I do not return, promise me you will go, and tell them they were in my thoughts.”
I felt sick at heart. If Boromir, our finest, had no hope for this quest, what hope could there be for us? And what he was asking me -
“I will do this, of course, you know I would do anything you could ever ask. But would it not be better if Faramir were to go? If there is a child involved, Faramir should know…”
But then he began to laugh, bitterly, and when he looked at me, his eyes held a hint of something I had never seen there before, and never thought to see – shame.
“No, Mag, you do not understand. The boy is not a child, not my child. The boy is my whore.”
Théo and I had never promised each other faithfulness of our bodies, for are we not men, with men’s needs? Especially when we were young, and it seemed all our waking thoughts centered about rutting whenever, and with whomever, we could. We knew from the beginning that our meetings would be rare; and when we did ever meet, we would not waste that time in sorrow or guilt, but spend ourselves together in joy.
Over the years I purchased the ministrations of courtesans every now and again, making sure that word reached my father through his network of informers, many of whom were also in my employ. Occasionally I would join in a night of licentiousness with some of my rougher brothers in arms. These nights would start with drinking and gaming, then descend into progressively more shameful acts, until each of us would slink away, shamefaced. I did not have a regular companion in all that time, though I think now I should have, for then my baser desires would have had an outlet.
I had heard rumors of a Rohirric boy-whore , but the whole idea seemed so preposterous that I refused to believe. I had heard that the Corsairs sometimes captured Gondorians and Rohirrim as slaves, and that some of them had been so used; perhaps I was naïve to think such a thing would not happen in my own city, that the sons of our allies would be dishonored so. Yet some said he was at a house on the fourth level, others said he was kept by a merchant on the third. A few even swore he still lived with his mother, on the first, in a courtyard near a brothel where he went to work each night! The more I heard, though, the more I felt myself stirred by the thought of golden hair and skin and a powerful young body under mine.
I have an old friend, a retired guardsman who sometimes assists me with items of a less than savory nature; I set him the task of finding out about the boy and if he was, in fact, a whore. He set his henchmen to watch, and shortly reported that such a boy of seventeen did exist. Strangely enough, he was the son of a Haradric woman who had been kept by a merchant from Dol Amroth. One year the merchant returned home and never came back to Minas Tirith. She had been called for years “the Haradric Whore”, though there did not seem to be any evidence of her being in that line of work; she was a spinner and embroiderer. Her rent was paid each quarter-day in copper pennies, but it was always paid on time. The boy, Gaersum, did not pursue any craft or trade: he had at one time been apprenticed to a bootmaker, but apparently he had attacked one of the other boys with a sharpened awl; and was asked not to return.
He worked odd jobs, carrying rock or wood; or spent his days sitting by the well in the small quiet square, sketching. He never seemed to speak, though he had been seen murmuring to his mother. Sometimes he visited the stables and liveries of the first circle, to sketch the horses there, but most of his nights he spent at home. He did not appear to be in the employ of any brothel; however, bathed and perfumed and attired in elegant clothes, he had sometimes been seen in the company of certain men known for their debauchery. I tried not to think of myself as one of them. Yet if he were already sullied, I need not feel responsible for his corruption.
I slipped over to the quiet square on the first level several times before I finally saw him, sitting, as I was told, by the well, sketching. Every now and then a woman or girl would come to the well; he would set down his sketchbook, draw up the water, pour it carefully into the jug, and nod solemnly. He was as handsome as I had heard, golden-haired and muscular; as lovely as my Théo the day we first met. I knew that I wanted him.
I was unsure how to proceed: my dealings in these matters had always been settled professionally. I thought for a time about what I had learned about him, and soon devised a plan.
I had been told that he was as regular as clockwork in his habits, so I arranged to be at a certain stable, at a certain time. I led my pretty bay mare into the stable, tossing the reins to the startled stablemaster. “I think she has got a pebble in her hoof, tend to it for me, will you?” He had recognized me at once, practically tripping over himself in his eagerness to be of service.
Out the corner of my eye I saw the boy, sketchbook in hand. Entranced, he was headed straight for my bay, reaching out with long, slender fingers to touch her.
“Away with you!” the stablemaster shouted. The boy stepped back, flustered, dropping his sketchbook; loose pages scattered all over the muddy ground. “I’m sorry, my lord, he comes here and draws sometimes, he loves the horses so. A bit daft, some folks say, never speaks, but he helps out a bit and seems as bright as some boys I’ve hired. Still, you wouldn’t want the likes of him touching –“
“No, it’s quite all right, he can’t do her any harm,” I replied. As the stablemaster led my horse away I bent to help the boy collect the sketches, flipping through them quickly. “These are quite good,” I murmured softly, as if he were a skittish colt himself. “May I see the rest?”
At that he lifted his head, and I saw that his eyes were not blue, but dark, Haradric. He nodded. “Shall we sit?” I moved to a small bench and motioned him to sit beside me. I went through the sketchbook page by page, making a comment about each drawing: you’ve done well with the shape of the horse’s leg here, that’s a fine bit of work with the shadows there, and even laughing out loud at a droll sketch of a little dog. They were good, as good as any I'd seen in the fine shops of the upper circles. On some of the drawings there were notes in small neat handwriting, and I realized that my mother’s dream, and my father’s mandate, of at least some education for all had become reality. I felt a small pang of longing, as well as a moment of pride in my city and my parents’ work. All the while the boy sat tensely next to me; never speaking, but I knew he was listening carefully to everything I said.
All too soon, it seemed, the stablemaster returned. “I could not find any stone, m’lord, in any of her hooves, perhaps she just caught one lightly and lost it quick-like. I thank you for your custom, though, and if there is ever anything….”
“I thank you for tending to her so promptly,” I said, tossing him a coin as I mounted. The boy was stroking my bay’s forehead lightly, scratching between her ears; his eyes seeming to drink her in.
“And I thank you for showing me your sketches,” I said to the boy. “I should like to look at them again, sometime.” He nodded, ever so slightly, and I turned my horse away and left, exulting inside. Now to begin the next step of my plan.
The next day, I sent a gift: a set of colored drawing pencils, in an olivewood case, with a note: I thought you might find these useful. I left the note unsigned. A few days later I sent another gift: a small onyx carving of a horse, and also a gift for his mother, a bracelet of enameled and silver beads. Three days later, I sent the third gift: a basket of fruit: pomegranates and grapes, figs and almonds and candied ginger, with a note: I will call upon you this evening.
My knock was answered quickly, and his mother opened the door. I was surprised by how young she looked, to have a son of seventeen, but her eyes were as dark and fathomless as his. I suddenly remembered a young Haradric whore, many years ago, and pushed the memory away uneasily. She motioned me inside to where the boy sat by the fire, drawing lovely galloping horses with flowing manes and tales. I stood for a long time watching him, his hair and skin golden in the firelight, my mouth dry with desire.
Across the silence I finally said, “You are very skilled with your pen.” He did not respond. “Have you other skills as well?”
He lifted his head then, dark eyes searching mine. Was there a hint of a challenge there? “I do,” he replied softly, the first words I had ever heard him speak.
My heart nearly stopped in my chest, and I reached out my hand to him. “Show me,” I whispered hoarsely.
He stood up, took my hand, and led me up the stairs.
Silently he waited, his back to me, as my eyes took in the room: the narrow bed, wooden chest, a small oil lamp already burning. My visit had been expected, then. I reached forward and took him by the shoulders, turning him to face me.
“Gaersum,” I murmured, cupping his chin in my hand, stroking his lower lip with my calloused thumb. I kissed him gently at first, then with rising hunger as I felt him begin to respond to my touch.
I broke off the kiss, laughing to myself at his startled gasp. With impatient fingers I unlaced his tunic then pulled it over his head with a single swift motion, tossing it carelessly to the floor. His suntanned body glowed in the lamplight, those finely muscled arms and shoulders, and the light tracery of golden hair across his chest.
Silently, ever silently, he slipped off his sandals and breeches. I watched him covertly as I removed my own clothing, the simple, anonymous soldier’s garb I kept for this purpose.
I motioned towards the bed and he knelt face-down, raising his buttocks. I saw the shadows of old bruises where rough fingers had dug in on either side; he had similar marks on his arms. I could not resist running my fingers over his back, and along his hips. I was reminded of the old, bawdy song: There’s a boy across the river with a bottom like a peach…. Gaersum’s hair fell in soft golden ringlets; Théo’s hair was thick and wavy and the color of new honey. I loved to bury my fingers in it, wrapping my hands in that warmth, and he would laugh and pull me closer. I will submit to you, and you only, he would whisper, my Théo. For a moment I faltered; pain and longing, and shame, too, tearing through me. But the boy waited, uncomplaining.
I kept a vial of salve in my waist-pouch; my hands are always dry and prone to chapping. The salve serves any number of purposes; tonight I slicked both hands with it quickly. I have no taste for brutality. One finger, another, a third; a light glaze of salve over my shaft, and I was inside.
I reached around, taking him in hand to return the favor, as is my custom, and he startled at my touch. He gasped at each of my long firm strokes, his breath ragged. The way he moved showed me he knew exactly what he was doing, rocking to the slow rhythm I chose, but otherwise he seemed as shy and unsure as a virgin boy. I buried my face in the nape of his neck, in the curve of that fine shoulder, and finally heard him cry out, a sweet sound. Then I took my release.
When I was done, I stretched out on the narrow bed – I always like to sleep afterwards, for at least a little bit. He was curled in the corner, but I pulled him up to join me, setting him on his side so I could wrap myself around him, as I always used to sleep with Théo. Wary and tense he lay beside me, like a cat; so I began to stroke him, his long flanks and legs, as far as I could reach, until I felt him beginning to relax; then we both slept.
When did my feelings for Gaersum start to change? I still bedded him, but gradually there seemed less urgency, and more comfort. He learned to return my caresses; shyly, hesitantly at first, and always I sought to give him pleasure as well. Sometimes afterwards I would just lie for hours, holding him, stroking his hair; I would think then of Théo, and wonder in whose arms he lay that night. Sometimes I almost cursed my life: why had I not been born as other men, able to take a wife in joy, raise children, live without shame or fear? But I could not forswear my love for Théodred, or even my affection for this golden-haired boy. I am what I am; whatever Power it is that creates us, gives us form and being, had made me thus, and so I must live as I can: true to my own understanding of right and wrong, honor and duty.
It has been four years now since I first met him, and I have watched him grow and change. He still speaks little, but I have seen him smile, and walk with his head held high. Those are his paintings hanging in the Stag and Star, did you know? And he has even sold some of them. It amuses me to think of my young lover’s artwork gracing some of the finest homes in the city. But I am proud, too, that he has found something of his own, the dignity of being able to earn his own bread. If I was able to be some small help in that, I am glad. The bequest I am leaving to him is not much, Mag, but it is enough for him to live modestly. I cannot bear to think of him selling himself again. I cannot bear to think of him in someone else’s arms.
If I don’t return, go to them, Mag, and tell them – I don’t know what. Tell them they were ever in my thoughts.
The Haradric Whore’s Tale
I was ten years old when I came to the White City, sold to a brothel on the third level.
My family had always lived along the banks of the Harnen, pasturing our goats in that rich green bottom land, following the curves and dips of the river. My mother, my aunts and cousins would weave belts and mats, small things we could easily carry in our travels, to sell or trade in the settlements we visited. I was the youngest girl, so my task was spinning the goat hair into yarn. The men and boys kept watch at night against raiders from other clans.
I don’t know what it was, that night, that kept them looking to the southeast, but it was from the northwest that the raiders came. Tall men and fierce, strangers, not Haradrim. They must have cut my uncles’ throats first, then rode down on my father and cousins where they sat by the fire. We were awakened by the shouting, the screaming of the animals. Stunned, we did not think quickly enough to run away, and so we saw it all. Afterwards, they lined us all up, all the women and girls, dragging us off one by one. One man, smaller than the rest, with a pockmarked face, reached for me, but a tall, grey-haired man stopped him, slapping his hands away angrily. The pockmarked man took my cousin Nethilta instead. I remember her crying as he pulled her away.
After a time the screaming and crying stopped. They killed our goats and feasted, then went through the tents looking for what they could steal. They seemed angry that there was so little. When the carrion-birds began to gather, the tall man put me in front of him on his horse, and we all rode away.
I had never been on a horse before, and after a few days my thighs were sore and bloody. I could barely walk when we stopped. The tall man brought me food and water. He never touched me in any impure way; if I had not seen what his men had done I would have thought him kind. I could not understand why I, of all of us, was the only one left alive.
As we rode into the city, members of the band gradually disappeared, and so we were alone when he brought me to the house on the third level. He lifted me off the horse, slung me over his shoulder like a sack of grain, and carried me inside, tossing me down on the floor with a thump.
I remember the fragrance of flowers, and then a woman came and helped me to my feet. She lifted my head for a moment and studied me carefully, nodding; then patted my shoulder gently. I stared at the floor, at the rug embroidered with flowers and rabbits and birds. I heard the tall man arguing with her, pounding his fist on the desk; she merely laughed in a soft musical voice. I could not understand what they were saying, of course, but I knew what they were arguing about. Finally I heard the clink of coins, and the noise of his boots as he angrily stomped away.
So began my life as a whore-in-training. That first day I was bathed, and all my hair cut off, for fear of fleas and lice – a great obsession in that house. I was given a dress to wear, but no veil to cover my naked head. Slowly the other young girls began to teach me the tasks I would need to know to earn my keep in that house: how to care for clothing, prepare and serve meals, sweep and dust. No one in that house was ever unkind to me. They taught me enough of the language to get along, though I was shy about speaking it for many years. My early years were almost like those of any servant girl in one of the great houses of the city.
As I grew older, and my legs grew longer and my breasts began to swell, I saw the mistress begin to look at me thoughtfully. I knew what was going to happen; I had seen it with the other girls as they finally became old enough to work at their trade. They seemed happy enough about it, looking forward to prettier clothes and easier work, so they said, perhaps even gifts, if they pleased their visitors. For some of them, this was a good life: they told tales of famine and drought or just too many hungry mouths in the house. None of them ever told of their families being murdered before their eyes.
One day the mistress called me out of the kitchen, where I had been shelling peas for dinner, and brought me to her office. There I was poked and prodded, breasts and private parts examined. I was bathed, and measured. A few days later, she called me again into her office, where she gave me new dresses, soft slippers, and even a veil, such as unmarried girls used to wear in my land. She told me I could start wearing the new clothes right away, to get used to them. She also said I would no longer be in the kitchen, but would be working as a lady’s-maid to several of the whores, so that they could begin teaching me what I would need to know.
She will be taking you outside soon, the other girls whispered. She needs to start showing you off. And suddenly one day it was true: the mistress sent word that I was to put on my veil, and meet her by the door.
I had sometimes been allowed to accompany cook to the market, a kitchen-drudge to fetch and carry, but never had I imagined I would accompany my elegant mistress anywhere. Before we left she instructed me: keep my eyes modestly lowered; not ever speak unless spoken to directly by her, or a man to whom she had been speaking. I did not understand at the time, but I soon could see her clever plan. She brought me places where I would shine, dark and exotic, against the sober background of the white stone city. She brought me to a gawa-tavern, where the smoky scent made me so homesick that I nearly wept. She brought me to a garden, where I stood and fanned her with egret feathers as men came and chatted with her, bringing fruit and cool drinks. She allowed me to share some of the fruit, some strawberries, but when I saw the men looking at me, I could eat no more. Each day when we returned she praised me, telling me how well I had behaved, and how pleased she was with me. Such words only made me more uneasy.
Then one day I was summoned to bathe at mid-day; sweetly perfumed oils were added to the water. My hair, now grown back long and sleek, was washed and dried and rubbed with a silk scarf, and my eyes were rimmed with kohl. My hands and feet were painted with henna, but the girl who painted them did not understand what she was doing, so symbols for toads and apples were all mixed up with the wishes for good luck and rain. When they brought me to the mirror, chattering proudly of their handiwork, I felt sick, for I knew that after tonight I would be lost to my own people forever. I would more dishonored than my mother and my aunts and cousins who had at least been granted the mercy of death. My mistress was happy though; I heard her laugh that she had been paid a good price for my maidenhead, finally seeing some return on her investment.
There were many men after that first: old and stinking of bergamot, with soft fleshy hands; young and urgent and sometimes rough. I would never speak, just did what I had been taught to do. After a time, though, I began to sense something was wrong; I caught the mistress studying me, brow furrowed as she bit her lower lip. Then one night a man struck me, knocking me across the room. I heard him shouting at the mistress as he stormed away, she looks Haradric but she’s dull as a Lebennin farm girl. I paid for Haradric love play and got nothing for my money.
So that was the problem, and bruised as I was, I could not help but laugh. Why had none of us thought of this? I was a child when I was brought here; among my own people I would not have learned anything of lovemaking for three more years at least. Although they sold the illusion that I was exotically skilled, I was no more talented than any of the sorry daughters of Gondor. And so my life went on, though she no longer made much of me as she once had. I was one of the girls, like any other.
One day the mistress called me into her office, and told me that one of my regular visitors, a small scrawny leather merchant, had asked to buy out my contract. I had heard the other women speaking of such things, from what I understood, a “contract” was an agreement to work in the house for a period of time, in exchange for shelter, food, and clothing. I knew that I had made no such agreement; I had been stolen from my homeland, seen my family slaughtered before my eyes, and then sold into little more than slavery. But, as was my custom, I said nothing. The leather merchant was no better or worse than any of the other men who had used me over the past three years. I paid no mind to most of what she was saying until something finally caught my attention.
“…plans to rent a little house. You will be his housekeeper, and bedmate, of course. He has a wife and family in Dol Amroth but his business has grown successful enough here to make it worthwhile for him to have his own place, rather than living at an inn…”
I was amazed. I was to have a house of my own? With the leather merchant, of course, but that did not matter – he would be gone most of the day. I need only tend to his dinner, and let him take his pleasure of me at night. He was not a bad man; he drank a bit, and lost money too often at dice; I had heard him mumbling over those things more times than I could count. But a house! I had been taught housekeeping, and some cooking; I knew how to go to market and avoid being cheated. I understood the language well enough, though I was still shy of speaking it. I could not believe my good fortune. There was always the possibility that it might not last; he could beat me, or tire of me and pass me on to someone else; but I had long learned that there was no use in fretting. What was to happen, would happen.
So I became the mistress of a small house in a quiet courtyard on the first circle. There was a well, and some stunted trees, and a brothel across the square. On our first night there, in an unusual show of friendliness and generosity, the leather merchant bought a keg of ale and a small goat to be roasted in the square and shared about by our neighbors. I was sickened by the smell, reminded of that night, and so I could not eat; the women smiled and patted my belly, though I shook my head. The leather merchant, unfamiliar with the local brew, passed out in his own front room, never making it as far as his new bed. The neighbors enjoyed themselves, ever afterwards greeting us in a friendly fashion, though the men always called me the Haradric Whore.
The neighbor women earned extra pennies by spinning wool for the weavers. There was always more than enough work, so one of them lent me a drop spindle until I could earn enough to buy my own. I never let the leather merchant know, feeling safer with a bit of my own money, and a skill to earn my own bread. Those women were always kind to me, and generous, sharing what little they had when needed. We would sit in the courtyard, spinning or embroidering, as children laughed and played around us. I never felt comfortable enough with the language to gossip, but I could understand most of what I heard. I felt more kinship with those women, poor in coin but rich in compassion, than I ever did with the girls in the house where I spent so many years.
The leather merchant was never cruel to me; he did not beat me much after the first few months, and after a time he even began giving me money each month for the household accounts. I kept some back, of course, hidden away behind a loose brick in the corner. Twice I quickened, but drank the pennyroyal tea each time. I did not trust him enough to bear him a child. He did not seem to notice, or wonder. We spoke little enough – what was there to say?
Mostly, he drank, and gamed. When business was going well, he drank in the tavern, cheerfully buying rounds, flush with cleverness and luck; when it was going poorly, he drank here, mumbling his worries until his head slumped down onto the table. While he snored, I spun.
After a time, he found it cheaper to buy a cask of ale and share it with his friends at home, playing at dice there at the table, and that was how my life began to take its great turn. One night he brought three strangers home with him: a fur trader from the far north, dark and ill-smelling as his pelts, a one-eyed sailor from Belfalas way, his hands and arms covered with tattoos; and a quiet young Rohir. The Rohir thanked me when I passed the ale and bread around; of course, my eyes were lowered, so I had to pretend not to notice .
I sat in my corner by the fire, spinning, paying them no mind, as the leather merchant and the fur trader steadily became drunker and more raucous. Apparently, there was little left to wager; until the fur trader said, “What about her?” There was a shocked silence, then the leather merchant laughed nervously, “Why not? She’s mine, bought and paid for, like anything else!”
I seethed inside, angry at the truth; but it was the Rohir, not the fur trader, who won the last hand. The leather merchant pulled me up by the wrist. “Go with him’, he hissed. “Upstairs.” He may have been a drunkard and a fool, but he always paid his debts.
The Rohir took me from behind, as is the custom of his people; but he held me gently afterward. I remember his golden hair and suntanned skin, so different from these sallow dark-haired men of Gondor.
The next morning the leather merchant was sick from the drink, and also from the bit of castor bean oil I put in his porridge. I wanted him to suffer, to remember the night with sickness and shame. He never did bring guests over again.
After a time I realized that my flow had never started. I drank the pennyroyal tea, but it did no good. The merchant slapped my widening bottom, and squeezed my swollen breasts, but said nothing, even when my son was born, golden haired and strong. The neighbor women helped me name him, Gaersum, the Rohirric word for “treasure”. The leather merchant only ever called him “the boy.”
Then, when my son was two years old, the leather merchant announced that he was returning to Dol Amroth.
Just for a short time, he said, six months at the most. He left me some money, and must have paid the rent ahead, for no one ever came to collect it. I think now that I was willful, and unnecessarily cruel to him: he was not a bad man, just a weak and frail vessel as all men are. It is women who are strong, because we must be to bear the sufferings of this life. But in the end it did not matter, because he never did come back. I was glad to have saved up a little money from the spinning, and by then I had started as an embroiderer as well. Elegant designs of flowers and fruit, birds and rabbits to adorn dresses and jackets and riding habits for the fine folk of the upper circles.
It was a peaceful time, despite the money worries. During the day I would sit in the courtyard with the other women, embroidering, and watching my son grow like a fine young colt. At home, we did not talk much, seeming to understand each other without need for words, and so he seldom spoke. He was always shy of the other children, though he loved to watch them at play. I know that some thought he was dull-witted, but he was not, just quiet. He loved to draw, and would make patterns in the dust of the courtyard with a sharp stick. Mostly, though, he loved horses, and would gape open-mouthed whenever a merchant mistakenly drove his cart-horse into our courtyard. Once a citadel guard came, on horseback, asking questions about a petty thief and swindler who had lived nearby; Gaersum stood, awestruck.
“Lift him up to me,” the smiling guardsman said, chuckling at my son’s delight. “A true son of Rohan, that one,” he said, passing him back into my arms. I clutched at him, wondering suddenly where my boy ever would belong. Could Rohan claim him as a son, or would he ever be the bastard of a Haradric whore?
When he was ten, one of the neighbor women helped me set up an apprenticeship for him with a bootmaker who also did a brisk trade in leather belts and pouches. After a few days, though, the bootmaker was at my door, dragging my bloodied son by the arm.
“Fighting. He went after another boy with an awl. The cut was not deep, but Grindor’s father has paid me an apprentice fee, so Grindor must stay. It’s a pity – your boy draws well. He needs to keep his temper, though.”
That surprised me, for I had never known Gaersum to show any ill temper at all. Those who did not know him might call him sullen, or even simple. I thought I knew my son better than that, but this stone-faced boy was suddenly a stranger to me.
“Why did you fight?” I asked, and waited.
“He called you ‘whore’”.
“He spoke the truth. I was a whore. Would your fighting change that? I was what I was, and now I am what I am.”
He sat toying with his food, then looked at me sharply, as if seeing me for the first time. “Who was my father?”
“Your father was a Rohir. I did not lay with him for money.” That much was true. I need not tell him all. “He left me with a treasure,” I added softly.
He stood up so abruptly he knocked over his chair. “I am no one’s treasure. I am a whore’s son.” He stomped away upstairs.
For two days Gaersum did not speak to me. On the third day he came as I was kneading bread and put his arms around me, as he had not done since he was a small child. As he held me I knew that the anger had drained from him, and that he had begun to understand many things. I felt sad for him, but there was no help for it.
As he grew older, my son grew more handsome. His hair was thick and curly, bright as the sun, but his eyes were dark, like mine. He still spoke little, but sat in the courtyard each day, drawing. I never begrudged the bit of coin spent on his sketchbook and pencils, for it brought him such pleasure. Often he would work carrying wood or stone, or help with the harvest out on the Pelennor, returning suntanned and strong. I should have thought to be afraid for him, but, foolishly, I did not.
“Your son is growing into a fine young man,” I nodded, but did not speak. I was beginning to feel sick.
“He does not have a trade, does he?” She had heard, then, about the incident with the awl. I waited, though I knew what was coming.
“There are those, men and women both, who would pay well for his company. I could watch out for him, sees that he meets the right kind, those who would do him no great harm. I have friends in the finest houses of the upper levels.” I found that hard to believe, but still, I did not speak. What mother would want to send her child to be a whore? But I feared for him. He had nothing, belonged nowhere, to no one but me.
“Think about it,” she said, as I stepped away. She never mentioned it again to me, but a few months later, I saw her speaking to him at the well. His head was down, as it usually was; but suddenly he lifted it to look at her, tossing his curly hair out of his eyes. I watched as followed her to the brothel. Three days later he came back to me, wearing fine new clothes and reeking of brandy and bergamot perfume. He set a pouch of coins on the table in front of me, then sat down, reached for his sketchbook, and began to draw, as if he had never been gone. My heart ached for him, and the choice he had made.
“So why do you think he is watching you?”
My son merely looked at me. He was wise, now, in the ways of the world.
A few weeks later, after supper one evening I looked through his sketchbook, as I often did, awed by his gift. My son did not draw many portraits, but I recognized the man in the drawing at once.
“You have met him?” I whispered. I did not know what to think, or feel. My son nodded.
“You know what he wants, don’t you?”
“Yes, I know.” He did not speak often, my son, so his words weighted heavily in the air. Then he lifted his chin, and looked at me with a grown man’s eyes: “I want it too.”
When the gifts began to arrive, I did not know whether to laugh, or cry, or be angry, for it was plain that Gaersum was being courted, in the Haradric style, as if he were a girl. The more I thought about it, though, the more I began to respect Lord Boromir; he could have taken my son any way he pleased, had him arrested and tossed into prison, or even had guards come and drag him away from his home. He was the Lord of Gondor, and all of our lives were in his hands. It was generous of him to give us this small bit of dignity. Still I was sick at heart for my son, for what could this ever bring him but pain?
When the third gift arrived, the traditional delicacies to be served at the first formal meeting, I felt ill all day. Gaersum appeared outwardly calm, but I who had watched him draw for years could sense his nervousness: short, stabbing strokes, not his usual long, graceful lines. When we heard the knock at the door he paused for just a moment, then resumed his sketching.
“I have come to meet your son,” the visitor said. I nodded, and opened the door wide. Gaersum sat, seeming to ignore his guest, completely engrossed in his drawing. The lord stood silently, watching.
“You draw very well,” he finally said, softly. “Have you other skills?”
My son lifted his head and looked the man straight in the eye. “I do,” he said. He stood up.
Lord Boromir extended his hand. “Show me,” he replied.
My son reached for those strong, broad fingers, smiled, and led him wordlessly up the stairs.
Sometimes long weeks or months would go by without a visit, times when we would hear tales of battles and skirmishes, orcs and Southrons and yes, Haradrim. I would listen, my heart in my mouth, but Gaersum seemed blessedly unworried. “He will come again, or he will not”, he said, in a rare talkative mood. “It is enough for me that he has come even once.” I was awed at his wisdom: born of joy, not sorrow.
One morning by chance I opened my chamber door very early, just as Lord Boromir was leaving. I’ll always remember his tenderness, as he stroked my son’s cheek in farewell; and the adoration in my son’s eyes. I remember because it was the last time we ever saw Lord Boromir.
I had always heard men call my mother “ the Haradric whore”. I thought it was another word for “spinner”, for that was how she put bread on our table, by spinning wool.
When I was ten years old, another boy called my mother “whore”, and explained what it meant in the ugliest words I had ever heard. I did not believe that could be true; my mother was a quiet, modest woman who did not flaunt herself to men and almost never spoke to them except in the marketplace, so I made certain that the other boy would not repeat such lies again.
I could not imagine my mother doing such a thing, but when she told me it was true, I was so angry that I thought I would never want to speak to her again. Now, being older, I do not know why I felt that way – the women who work at the house across the courtyard are not bad women; they were just keeping themselves fed and clothed. My mother never spoke a harsh word to me, and she did not keep company with thieves or tricksters. She was not a whore any more, had not been in many years, and no-one in our little circle acted as if her past profession was anything out of the ordinary. My anger did not last –she was my mother, and she loved me above all things. What she had done in the past did not matter.
She told me that my father was a man of Rohan, though that was all she knew of him. Even at such a young age, I knew the Rohirrim were called the Horse-lords, so he must have given me my love of horses.
I often went outside the City walls and watch the soldiers practicing maneuvers on the Pelennor. The horses fascinated me – they were so graceful, necks proudly arched as they trotted back and forth, manes and tails billowing as they galloped the length of the training course. If I was feeling brave enough, I would creep forward when the practice was finished so I could look at them up close. Sometimes one of the squires would see me there and chase me off; once or twice, a solider allowed me stroke his horse’s smooth flanks or velvet-soft nose. Once I saw two men racing their horses across the field at a hard run – a slender man on an elegant, russet gelding with a black mane and tail, and a broad-shouldered man on a shining bay mare. They flew past me, laughing and shouting, and I watched with wide eyes, memorizing every detail to draw later that evening.
I spent many days sitting by the well, sketching; sometimes I visited the livery stables so that I could draw the horses there, or wandered other levels to find new subjects. I filled page after page of my sketchbook with anything that caught my eye – the need to draw sometimes seemed to control me, and often hours would pass without my notice. Though I would rather have done nothing but draw all day long, such pursuits would not help buy food or keep a roof over our heads. I had no trade – Mother did not push me to find an apprenticeship, not after what had happened with the boy at the bootmaker’s. So I took work where I could find it – hauling rock or wood, helping with harvest, cleaning animal pens, or whatever tasks farmers cared to put to me. It wasn’t difficult work, only tiring, and so between the two of us, we had enough to get along. There was never money to spare, but we did not go hungry.
One day while I sat in the courtyard drawing, the woman who ran the house across the courtyard approached me, and asked if I would like to work for her. I ignored her, continuing to draw, until she mentioned how much I would be paid. I considered for a moment. For such coin, I could buy bags of charcoal for our little brazier; I could buy my mother a shawl of the finest wool in Minas Tirith, to keep away the chest-coughs she got in wintertime; I could buy all the sketchbooks and pencils I wanted without worrying that we would be late with the quarter-rent because Mother had spent a few pennies on such frivolous things for me.
I went with the woman, and she ordered me to a bath. While two of the girls were scrubbing me and washing my hair, I heard the house mistress talking to another woman about what a fine fee I would bring, since I was young, comely, and unspoiled. I laughed to myself -- I had not been unspoiled since I was 14. A milkmaid had found me appealing enough to show me how our two bodies could please each other; a mason’s apprentice had introduced me to the ways of men, and I had passed two or three evenings with each of these two. But I did not correct the house mistress. I had learned long ago that many people thought me simple because I did not speak much, and that because of this, they often did not listen when I did speak. Besides, it would do no harm for her to think I was wholly unlearned. It was no hard task to act as if I did not know what to do.
My mother did not approve. She did not say anything; she did not have to – we understood each other without words, and I knew that she was only worried for my well-being. She did not like to think of me being used so. But it was my choice.
For my part, I found whoring rather dull work. All I need do was follow whatever direction the man gave me; he would take his pleasure in me, and it was all over in a very short time. Sometimes there were rough men, who left bruises with their tight grip, but even they were finished quickly. Sometimes men would tell me how comely I was; once a bookbinder asked if I would come to live with him permanently. Once a rich woman paid for me to do nothing but ride around the City in her coach, so that her friends could see her with a handsome young man. But mostly it was men, who seemed ashamed, and eager to have it finished. I was well-paid, and I was left with ample to time to draw and explore the City.
I did not sell myself every day, nor even every week. I had refused to make a contract with the house mistress, for I did not want to make whoring my profession, and she had agreed, saying it would raise my fee if I were not available all the time. I only sold myself when it pleased me, or when I wanted money to buy new drawing supplies. I was careful to save a bit of coin each time, against unforeseen happenings. I could not have borne it if some ill had befallen my mother because we were too poor to prevent it.
A few days later, I was visiting one of the livery stables, as was my habit, when a lovely bay mare was brought in. I recognized her as the horse I had seen racing on the Pelennor long ago, and I went toward her, only wanting to feel her sleek coat. The stablemaster shouted at me, and I jumped back, flustered, for normally he did not care if I touched the horses. Then I realized whose horse she was.
He spoke with me, asked to see my drawings, and admired them aloud. I should not have been affected, for my head told me that he was merely flattering me, to make me more agreeable when he propositioned me. But not only was he Lord of Gondor, I found myself stirred by his very nearness. With some difficulty, I kept my eyes down and only nodded in answer to his praise.
My mother saw the sketch I drew of him, and I could tell that she did not know what to think. “You know what he wants, don’t you?” she asked.
“Yes, I know.” I looked at her, and admitted what I am sure she did not want to hear. “I want it too.”
I had thought of him often since our meeting in the stable, remembering his low voice and the scent of him, leather and cedar and horse. I had caught myself wondering if he would be brusque or gentle, and what he would ask of me.
The lord stood silently for several moments, watching me. Even now, when I look at that sketch, I find my heart beating faster.
“You draw very well,” he finally said. I had forgotten how deep his voice was. “Have you other skills?”
I lifted my head and met his eyes squarely. “I do,” I replied, trying to keep my voice even.
Lord Boromir extended his hand. “Show me,” he bade.
I stood, reaching for his hand, then led him wordlessly up the stairs.
Then he did something strange – he turned me to face him, murmured my name, and kissed me. I was so surprised that at first I did nothing; it was rare that a man who came to me at the brothel wanted such a thing. But his mouth was warm and persuasive, and after I got over my surprise, my blood heated swiftly. I had to force myself to keep my arms at my sides; though I wanted to touch him, he had not bid me to do so.
To my disappointment, he broke the kiss, and his grey eyes darkened with desire when I gasped quietly in protest . He pulled off my tunic, and I turned my attention to removing the rest of my clothing. I watched him undress, hoping that he would now ask me to touch him, but instead he gestured me toward the bed. I obeyed, trying to force myself to stillness, but when his fingers roamed across my back and over my hips, I could not keep from shivering in anticipation.
He was demanding yet not harsh, and he was certainly not unskilled. I was startled when he reached forward and took me in hand –no man but the mason’s apprentice had ever cared if I took enjoyment. Breathless, I closed my eyes and focused on him: inside me, his hand stroking me firmly, the rough warmth of his chest against my back, his ragged breath against the curve of my neck. I wondered what I had done to deserve such pleasure.
When he was finished, he lay down to sleep, and surprised me yet again when he drew me against him. I could not relax, though I was tired and had spent myself fully –I was wary that he wanted me there. Men had slept in my bed at the brothel, but they had always ordered me out right away, and I had never shared a bed with anyone while sleeping. This seemed too good to be true, and part of me expected him to turn angry or malicious at any moment, as others had done once they were sated.
But he did no such thing, and eventually, I drifted into a light slumber, soothed by his gentle caresses down the length of my body.
He never demanded that I keep only to him, but I never went back to the brothel. Why would I want to pass time with a hard-eyed carter when the Steward’s heir wanted my company? I was not foolish enough to believe that Lord Boromir might be attached to me; sometimes he mumbled a man’s name in his sleep, always the same name, and it occurred to me that I must remind the lord of that other man. I did not dwell on this; I took what joy was offered me and felt the most fortunate man in Gondor. But as time passed, I came to realize that though I could not expect him to feel for me as deeply as I did for him, my lord did care for me, as much as he could.
Although I did not meet Gaersum the day I went to see his mother, bearing Boromir’s message, when I heard the tale of the unknown Rohir in the Houses of Healing I knew right away who it was, and ran to find her.
I hurried past piles of rubble and still-smoldering buildings, moving out of the way of carts bearing the bodies of orcs and wargs, soldiers, and, yes, women and even some children. As I ran I tried to remember when I had last seen either the Citadel messenger boys, or the apprentices who had steadfastly refused to leave the Houses of Healing. The faces of my companions of the Citadel and friends throughout the City seemed to blur together in my mind as I ran down to the first circle. How many of them were left?
When I reached that small house I found the front door gaping wide, hanging on a single hinge. It had been hacked open, the ax-head still embedded in the splintered wood. Furniture and broken crockery were scattered all about. There was a dead orc on the floor. When I pushed him over with my foot, I saw the dagger sticking out of his throat.
The Haradric woman was huddled in the corner. She looked as though she had aged ten years in just those few days: her eyes dull, and her hair coated with dust and ash. She stared up at me with those huge dark eyes. I was not sure she remembered me, but I was wrong. “Mag,” she whispered hoarsely, “I have not seen my son.”
I pulled her to her feet. “Your son is in the Houses of Healing, badly injured. You must go to him, now.” I led her, half- running, half- stumbling up to the wing where the Rohirrim were housed together.
The boy’s bed was in the far corner. As we arrived, who should we see there but the White Lady herself, surrounded by the Warden of the Houses, healers and assistants and soldiers of the Mark. The Haradric woman pushed her way through the crowd to where her son lay. “Gaersum, Gaersum!” she cried. He stirred, but did not wake. Stunned, the onlookers stepped away, trying not to stare as she took him into her arms.
“Mag, do you know him?” the Warden whispered.
“I do. He is a young man of this city, and this is his mother. She is a spinner and embroiderer, and has lived for many years in the first circle. She killed an orc with her own hands in defense of her home. What has happened to him, can you tell?”
The group looked toward the woman with new respect. She sat at her son’s bedside, stroking his filthy and matted curls, but glanced up fearfully as one of the healers spoke.
“He has burns on his shoulders and arms, and two of his ribs are broken. We are more concerned about the bruises on his head – we will know more when he awakes, and speaks to us. We’ll need to know what he can remember, that’s how we’ll tell how badly he is hurt inside.”
“Where was he found?”
“He was pulled from the rubble of a stable, down on the third level – he must have been trying to put out the fire when a wall collapsed on him. It was that hair that saved his life – some other Rohirrim saw him, and brought him here. Then, they discovered that nobody knew who he was.”
“He is a Rohir, no matter where he was born.” The White Lady’s voice was soft, but strong as steel. She still looked frail and exhausted, poor thing. “He will stay here, with the Rohirrim, until he is fully recovered. Roäc, will you see that some men are stationed nearby to help him, and his mother? They are both heroes of the City, and will be recognized as such.” With a nod to the Warden, she strode away.
After supper, I slipped back to the boy’s bedside. I had brought some bread and cheese and ale for the poor lady, as well as a clean dress and veil borrowed from one of the healers. I was sure the woman would feel better out of those bloody clothes. She drank greedily of the cool ale, but barely touched the food.
I convinced her to slip away and wash while I sat with her son. While she was gone I wheedled some soldiers to bring a cot for her, and set it next to her son’s. They were curious about the two strangers, the Haradric woman and the young man, but did not pry. Soldier’s gossip would soon tell them everything they wanted to know, and they would have their own bits to contribute to the tale.
When she returned, I sat with her for a few more minutes, watching as her son stirred and twitched in restless dreams. I had heard that such dreams were a good thing; for they showed that the patient was not so deeply injured as to be in deathlike sleep. While we watched we spoke of this and that, of what our lives had been like before the War.
“What is your name?” I asked. “I can’t keep calling you ‘the Haradric woman’ after all this.”
“I am called Ciranoush. I have whispered it to myself, every night before I go to sleep, so I would not ever forget it. You are the first person in this City ever to ask me.”
“How did you know how to kill that orc?” I asked.
“Someone came down from the Citadel, a guardsman. He called all the women together in the courtyard, and said that, if we were not going to leave, we should at least now how to kill as quickly as possible. I do not think he meant for us to kill orcs, though.” I said nothing. Had I not sharpened all my kitchen knives for the same reason? We women had to think ahead.
“And the dagger, where did you get that?”
“I bought it after the first time the leather merchant gambled me away. I was going to show him what would happen if he ever did it again.”
We laughed; but after a few minutes she spoke so softly I could scarcely hear. “One of the neighbor women came to me, just a few weeks ago. She said that soldiers had come and asked her husband if he thought I might be a Harad spy. Her husband laughed, she told me, and said that I had lived next to them for so long that he hardly thought of me any more as Haradric, and had forgotten I was ever a whore. I did not quite believe it until tonight, when that woman, that princess or whatever she was, called us heroes of Gondor. Do you think, Mag,” she turned to look at me, eyes shining, “that it could be true? Do my son and I really belong here now?”
I could hardly speak, so proud I was of my City, and her people. But how long would we survive?
“Gaersum, this is Mag, the friend I told you of, the cook of the Citadel. She heard that you were injured, and brought me here.”
The boy nodded, still looking a bit confused. He gazed curiously at all the other Rohirrim – tall or short; golden-bearded or red-haired, some talking excitedly, or singing softly, or just gazing out the wide window, northward. Perhaps he had not ever seen so many of them at once. They all let out mighty shouts of welcome, though, when the Lady Éowyn, accompanied by dear Faramir, that is, my newly made Lord Steward, came into the room.
She moved slowly through the ward, stopping to greet each soldier, calling them by name. Faramir walked behind, almost as if in a dream, his eyes only on her. Oh, my, I thought to myself. Has it finally happened? As they approached Gaersum’s bed I saw him glance at Faramir from the corner of his eye, then look away. Was he remembering the sound of a certain voice, the shape of a chin, the play of light on raven-dark hair? I remembered those things, too, and mourned with him.
Ciranoush stayed for a time and helped in the Citadel kitchen as we prepared for the festivities; Roäc, the grizzled old veteran, had taken a liking to them both, and helped Gaersum repair the little house, as well as others in the courtyard. He also brought Gaersum out to visit the Rohirrim encampment, showing him the horses, and introducing him to his éored. Gaersum brought his sketchbook, fascinating his new companions with his skill as he drew every detail of camp life. They had even found a gentle mare, and were teaching him to ride, to his quiet delight.
One day, the Lady Éowyn and King Éomer came upon him, sitting outside a tent, sketching a spur-of-the-moment horserace. The King looked over his shoulder, grunting his approval.
“You should come with us to Edoras, when we bring King Théoden back,” Lady Éowyn said. “You could draw everything: the procession, the burial ceremony, then we would have a record of it, part of the history of Rohan.”
Gaersum looked up, nodding, first at her, and then at the King. “I would like to do that,” he replied slowly. “I would like it very much.”
So it was arranged, and Gaersum became attached to Lady Éowyn’s household, traveling to Meduseld and then back with her to the White City when she returned as dear Faramir’s, that is, my Lord Prince’s bride.
Gaersum went with them to Ithilien, to help in whatever way he could, eventually working with Prince Faramir to document the history of the settlement in words and pictures. He met and married a kinswoman of Lady Éowyn’s, Fridhu, an herbalist from Rohan, and with her illustrated a book of medicinal herbs and plants.
By then I had moved to peaceful Emyn Arnen, as had Ciranoush and her new husband, Roäc. Éowyn and Faramir did not stand on ceremony too much there, unless it was necessary, so we all spent many summer evenings together in Éowyn’s garden, as children played and babies drowsed.
One night Roäc was teaching the children a game, kicking a leather ball to and fro, using head and hips and feet, but not hands. There was great laughter and commotion.
“Théodred taught Boromir that game, the first time he ever came to Minas Tirith,” Faramir murmured. “The Citadel guards played every day against Théodred’s riders. I got caught in the middle of it once, reading my book, and accidentally kicked the ball the wrong way. Boromir always teased me about it afterwards.”
Gaersum had stopped drawing, the sketch lying untouched on his lap, as he listened intently.
“I remember them playing it at Aldburg sometimes,” Fridhu laughed. “My sister and I always wanted to play it with them, and we argued over who would play on Lord Boromir’s side. We were fascinated by him! He seemed so different from all the other men we knew. My father would pretend to pout that we did not love him as much.”
“They were so beautiful, Boromir and Théodred,” Éowyn recalled wistfully. “They were like the moon and sun: one dark, one fair.”
“Théodred,” I heard Gaersum whisper. Amidst the chatter, only his mother and I noticed.
An infant began to whimper; Fridhu reached down to the basket by her feet, picking up her son and putting him to the breast. He nursed greedily, then settled. “Gaersum, did you ever have an opportunity to meet Lord Boromir, when you lived in the City?”
“I did,” Gaersum’s voice was soft, as always. “Lord Boromir was a fine man. He was very kind to me, when I was young. I will never forget him.”
“Nor will I,” His mother nodded. “Nor will I.”