Beruthiel and Aledin enjoyed the halcyon days of that summer. He was ever the gentleman, respecting her request that they step back from any further overly intimate contact. Instead, they talked and shared their lives quietly in the courtyard of the King's House. Beruthiel basked in the glow of someone actually caring for her. No, not just caring about her, loving her. Each day became something to be looked forward to rather than endured.
'Where would we go, my love, if we were together?' she asked one day.
Aledin leaned back against his lounge chair and thought for a moment. 'We will go south. I know of places that I think you will like. Warm sun and few people, an island of our own where the cats will rule and all others are banished. And if we tire of it, we can sail West to the Undying Lands.'
'But they say that is forbidden!' Beruthiel cried.
'They say that about a lot of things, my dear but you never know until you try,' he said with a whimsical smile.
On yet another day, Beruthiel said, 'I have told you my sorry tale, Aledin, now you must tell me yours.'
The artist spent the next few days telling her of his lives, loves and adventures. 'And what became of your child? Did you ever see her?'
Aledin smiled sadly. 'She inherited more of her mother than myself and lived the lifespan of a human. I was with her and her mother for as long as they lived. After they passed away, I became the traveler that I am today.'
'And you truly do not want another child?' Beruthiel asked.
He shook his head. 'While I adored my family, it was very hard to watch them grow old while I remained mostly unchanged. I do not wish to do that again. Once was enough.'
'But I will grow old someday, Aledin. My life will be longer because of my Numenorean blood but not forever. I will die.'
'And when you die, Beruthiel, my life will draw to a close also. I am actually quite old even for a nix and it will be time. That is why you are so special to me; one last chance at love!' He took her hand in his and squeezed it gently. Once more they felt the spark of energy flash between them.
'I love when that happens, Aledin. Will it be that way when we can truly be together?' she asked shyly.
The artist put his arms around her and hugged her close intensifying the sensation. 'It will be the most amazing thing either of us will ever feel,' he assured her.
One afternoon, following yet another pleasant day in the garden, Beruthiel took Aledin's hand. 'I have reached a decision.'
The artist heard a note of excitement in his queen's voice. He pulled her hand to his lips and kissed it lightly. 'I hope it is good news for me, for us.'
Beruthiel smiled. 'I believe it is although once again it will require patience. I have decided that when Falastur returns, I will ask him to free me from this marriage. I want to be with you entirely; not shared with someone else. I refuse to hide any longer.'
'Not quite the decision I was hoping for, my dear,' he said with a rakish leer, 'but certainly a more satisfactory one in the end.'
'So you are willing to be patient? I have no idea when the king will return. It could be months more,' she said sadly, 'but it is the only way for me. I must be free.'
'Of course I will be patient, Beruthiel. You have waited all your life for happiness. I can wait a few months more. But are you sure he will let you go? He could have done that when he first found out about your feelings for me.'
'I never asked him, Aledin, and at that point I didn't even contemplate it. This was all too new. We had only ever touched the one time and I did not know of your feelings nor understood mine. I can only hope that once I confess to him, he will agree. In the long run he will be better off. The people hate me and he will be able to spend as much time with his fleet as he desires without worrying about me or feeling guilty.'
'And if he does not free you?'
'I will worry about that when the time comes, but I must give him the chance to make that decision. He has been nothing but kind to me and I must respect my vows if at all possible. However, I make you this promise: Should he not return or if he refuses to let me go, we will be together at some point. I will not devote my life any further to a lost cause.' She leaned over and kissed him with more passion than she had ever allowed herself to show before other then the night of the storm.
After a pleasantly arousing interlude, he broke away and murmured, 'You must excuse me, dear one. I have to run and get a few supplies before it gets dark. I have a few more touch-ups on the two portraits and then I can get back to painting cats.'
Beruthiel sighed contently. 'Alright, if you insist, only don't be too long. I have ordered a very special dinner out under the stars.'
'With that kind of reward, I will run all the way!' He gave her one last kiss and walked away humming a happy tune. Not only did he need art supplies, but he feared if the kissing had continued in such a manner all his promises to behave would have flown away with the breeze.
'Oh, Mithril, it feels good to have finally made a decision! I hope Aledin doesn't delay,' the queen said to her cat.
Mithril raised one sleepy eyelid and gazed at his mistress. Suddenly as if poked with a stick, he leaped to his feet. Without saying a word, he dashed out of the courtyard leaving Beruthiel to ponder once again the odd manners of cats.
Mithril raced out of the King's House following the scent trail of the Master. For some reason he felt compelled to follow the artist. His cat senses were on full alert. The very air told him that something was about to happen, and he needed to be there. His feet carried him silently down the streets of Osgiliath.
Aledin collected his pack and left the King's House. It was later than he had expected and the streets were sparsely populated, but he knew that the storekeeper would be more than happy to stay late to fill his order. Beruthiel's commissions required a lot of supplies. Whistling contentedly, he entered the alley he usually took to reach the shop. He was halfway through when the man attacked him from behind. He felt a hand grab his pack and try to pull it off.
'Stop, wait! What…' he cried.
'Give it to me!' the man said with another tug, 'or I'll cut you!' He brandished a wicked looking dagger near Aledin's face.
Knowing there was nothing of real value in the pack, Aledin lifted his arms to let it slide off. However, the thief thought he was trying to fight back and punched him in the side of his head. 'Told you I'll cut you!' he exclaimed.
Once more the artist tried to free himself of the pack. 'Take it, take it,' he cried.
'Shut up, you. Bill, where are you? He's struggling!' the thief called out.
An unseen conspirator replied, 'Hush it up, Tild. Someone will hear. Put an end to it!' Another man came up in front of Aledin and struck him in the face and forced him back into his accomplice's arms.
Instinct kicked in and Aledin began to fight in earnest. These two were not going to spare him. 'Oh ho, this one is feisty,' Tild said. He used the dagger to try and slice through the straps on the pack and cut into skin as well. Aledin screamed in pain.
Suddenly out of the darkness a white blur appeared and leaped onto Bill. Mithril dug all his claws into the thug's back and hung on for dear life. Now it was Bill's turn to scream. 'What is it? Get it off, get it off!' he cried. Spinning in a tight circle he finally managed to fling Mithril off his back, but the cat immediately jumped at Tild's hand and clamped his teeth down. More screaming ensued.
'It's one of the witch's cats! The one that is always with her! Get the bag and get out of here,' Bill yelled.
Now a bleeding Aledin rejoined the fray. He lunged at Tild and tried to get past him and out of the alley. But even as he made his move, Tild raised his dagger and plunged it into the artist's chest. Aledin let out a gasp of surprise and stared at the knife. He sank to his knees grasping the hilt. Tild grabbed the bloody pack and sprinted out of the alley. Bill rid himself of Mithril and a few inches of skin and followed quickly behind.
When Mithril recovered from his last fling into a garbage pile, he rushed to Aledin. The man lay gasping on his side, blood pooling on the ground. Mithril pushed his nose into his face and meowed. Aledin's eyes opened halfway and he looked at the cat. 'Ah, Mithril, a very timely arrival.' His voice was faint and his breathing ragged. He raised a bloody hand and rested it on Mithril's back.
'I am here for you, Master,' He heard a voice whisper in his head. He wanted to express his astonishment at a talking to a cat but there was no time to waste.
'You must tell her, Mithril, that I love her and always will. Take care of her; she will be all alone now.' He wasn't sure if he spoke aloud or thought it, but the cat seemed to understand.
'Yes, Master, I will.'
'Come closer, Mithril. I need you to help me.' The cat once more put his head near the artist's and sat on the blood-soaked pavement. 'It won't be long now. Put your nose to mine.' The cat did as asked and sat as still as a statue. Aledin's breaths grew shorter and further apart. 'You must tell her. I will be there when the time is right.' His last breath sighed out of his body and his eyes closed.
Anyone watching the drama being played out would have noticed a green mist rise from the artist's body and surround the white cat waiting faithfully by his side. Mithril lifted his head and took in a deep breath of his own. Slowly the mist seemed to disappear into the cat.
For a few moments, Mithril watched as scenes of Aledin's life play out in his mind before they faded away. 'I will remember, Master, when the time is right.' The cat backed away from the corpse. Even as he turned to leave there was the sound as if water was rushing to the sea. Mithril looked back one last time to witness Aledin's body dissolving and disappearing between the cobblestones of the street leaving nothing but blood-soaked fabric and a pair of shoes behind.
Beruthiel arrived in the courtyard just as the servants put the final touches to the elegant dinner service and began to light the lanterns. She wondered what could have happened to her artist. It wasn't that far to the shops in Osgiliath and she knew that Aledin would hurry. Or at least she hoped he would!
A slight chill accompanied the setting of the sun and she went to her bedchamber to retrieve a shawl. As she picked it up, Mithril limped in through the door. 'Mistress, oh Mistress, I tried to help.'
'Mithril, what have you been up to? You're filthy!' Her normally dazzling white cat was covered in some sort of brownish goo. The cat came and sat at her feet, his head hanging down.
'I hurt, Mistress. They were very cruel. I could not stop them.'
Beruthiel bent down to scoop up her loyal friend. Halfway down, she stopped in shock. The 'brown filth' was blood and there was a distinct handprint on the cat's back. Continuing her original action, she picked up Mithril. He lifted his head and stared at her face. Confusion made the queen almost drop him. Mithril's beautiful silver grey eyes were now a bright emerald green.
'Who did you try to stop and what happened to your eyes, precious!' she cried.
The men, the evil men. The ones who hurt the Master.'
At first Beruthiel was more confused than ever, but then she remembered that the cats had begun to refer to Aledin as the Master. She had thought it very endearing at the time and another sign that they were meant to be together. 'Aledin? Something has happened to Aledin? Where is he? Show me, Mithril, I must go to him!'
Gone, Mistress, gone. I could not stop them,' the poor animal repeated.
'Gone where, please Mithril, for once speak plainly!'
'Dead. He is dead. They killed him. I could not save him,' was the blunt reply.
Beruthiel fell back onto the bed, the cat still grasped in her arms. 'No, you are mistaken. He went to the shop for some paint. He will be back in just another moment. We are to have a very nice dinner. Please Mithril, tell me you are mistaken! He isn't gone. He can't be gone.'
Mithril stared at her with his newly green eyes. 'He is gone, Mistress. He told me that he loves you. He will return when the time is right.'
'How can he return if he is dead? You do mean that he is dead, right? He didn't just leave the city?' She grabbed at this straw. The cats were not always clear with their thoughts.
'No, Mistress, he did not leave the city. He is gone. I am his vessel.'
'What does that mean?' she cried in frustration and grief. She wanted to shake Mithril and get him to speak in some way she could understand.
'He sleeps. I am his vessel,' was all she could get out of the cat. 'I hurt, Mistress,' he said in a plaintive voice.
Beruthiel loosened her grip. 'I am sorry, Mithril, I didn't mean to hurt you. You-you're sure he is dead?' Her mind still refused to accept the idea.
'Gone. He is gone for now. They stabbed him. I am his vessel.'
The queen asked him in every way she could think of, but she could get no other words from the cat. The word 'stabbed' and 'gone' drove themselves into her brain. 'But he can't be gone. We were going to have dinner….' Tears began to fall down her cheeks and once again she hugged the cat, more gently this time.
As the knowledge that Aledin was gone sank in, something broke inside. All the years of abuse; a marriage not a marriage; the dislike even hatred of the people; and now the death of the one who had made such a difference in her life all crashed in on her. She began to cry and sob uncontrollably. It was something she had rarely done since she was ten and learned that tears meant punishment.
Now all the tears she had never cried ran down her face and the sobbing grew in intensity. Several of the black cats came into the room and pressed their warm bodies against hers. She cried and gasped for breath and then cried some more.
At first, Mithril sat quietly in her arms, but as her grief intensified rather than easing he turned to Sable. 'Find Mistress Uldis. Tell her she is needed. Make her come.'
Sable stood and left the queen's side. He was a favorite of Uldis and had a good idea where she was. He ran into the city and immediately went to the inn where he had found her before. Uldis was in the common room talking with the innkeeper and a few others. The cat leaped onto the counter, scattering the group.
'Witch cat!' one of them cried as almost everyone ran out of the room.
Sable stared at Uldis, 'Needed. Must come.'
Uldis stood along with the others and did her best to pretend the cat had nothing to do with her. She thought back, 'Leave here, Sable. I do not know any cats right now. I will come in a little while.'
Sable only moved closer and put a paw on her arm. 'She cries. Needed. Mithril say come.'
Uldis knew Sable was a cat of very few words. He had never said this much at once ever before.
'Who cries, Sable? Who needs me?' she asked out loud.
'I'm sorry, Deela, I must go.' Uldis stood up from her chair, but Deela grabbed her arm.
'You're with it? You just talked to it! You are a spy for the queen!' Deela snapped. 'And to think I thought of you as a friend. Get out and don't come back!'
'I didn't mean to spy on you, Deela. Well, maybe a little at first, but not anymore! You are my friend!' Uldis confessed.
'I don't need any friends with connections to the queen. I might not hate her, but you would be bad for business. Now get out and take that horrible beast with you!'
'Now!' Sable yowled.
'I'm coming, I'm coming, Sable. I will beat you if you are wrong.'
'Now,' the cat howled again and raced from the inn, Uldis not far behind.
As they ran, Uldis questioned the cat. 'What is so important that it couldn't wait, Sable? Today was supposed to be my free day. Why does the queen need me?'
Having almost exhausted his limited vocabulary, Sable only said, 'Mithril needs. SHE is crying.'
'Damn cat', Uldis thought to herself, 'This had better be good or I will strangle him. So what if Beruthiel is crying?' But then she remembered how controlled the queen was. She had not shed a single tear in front of Uldis in all their time together. Uldis ran faster.
When they arrived at the King's House, Uldis went immediately to Beruthiel's chambers. The queen was still on the bed hugging Mithril. Her tears had not diminished in the time it took Sable to find the Mistress of the Cats.
Uldis asked her what happened but Beruthiel continued to rock back and forth and cry. Uldis didn't know what to do. As long as she had been with the queen, they had not been anything but queen and servant. At last she sat at the edge of the bed and put a tentative hand on Beruthiel's arm.
'My lady, whatever is the matter?' Beruthiel was too shattered to notice Uldis' existence let alone answer.
'He is gone. The Master has been taken and she is alone,' she heard Mithril say.
Taking her eyes off her mistress, Uldis noticed Mithril for the first time. 'You are covered in blood and what happened to your eyes?' And what do you mean gone? Aledin abandoned her?' she cried.
'Gone; I am his vessel.'
This only served to confuse her further, but then a ragged voice said, 'He is dead. They killed him. He is dead and gone from me.'
It took a moment for Uldis to realize it was Beruthiel's voice. 'Aledin is dead? How? Oh, my lady, how terrible!' Overtaken by grief for the artist, she wrapped her arms around the queen and hugged her tightly.
After awhile she heard the same ragged voice. Uldis thought later that the queen talked more to herself than to Uldis. As if she needed to empty her heart of all its troubles, Beruthiel told her life story; the abuse, the king's problem, her many faults and failures and her love for Aledin. When at last she managed to say, 'And now he is dead and I am alone,' her tired body began to sag toward the mattress.
Uldis laid her gently down trying to absorb all that she had heard. She feared what the morning would bring when Beruthiel realized she had revealed so much of her secret tragic life. She had always been so very private and sure of herself.
After covering the queen with a blanket, she moved to the wash stand in the corner, filled a bowl with water and went to Mithril who was finally free of the queen's embrace. 'Let me give you a bath, Mithril. It would take you forever by yourself and it be most unpleasant.' She wet a small towel and held it out to the cat.
'Thank you, Mistress,' was all he said.
When the cat was clean, Uldis debated what to do next. Should she sit with Beruthiel? Hearing her thoughts, Mithril said, 'We will stay. She may need you tomorrow.' Already the other nine cats were positioned on or near the queen purring their loudest. Beruthiel had fallen into an exhausted, fitful sleep. Mithril curled up next to her with a soft paw resting on her hand.
Knowing that the cats were probably more comfort then she could ever be, Uldis nodded. 'Let me know if you need me, Mithril.'
'Yes, Mistress,' Mithril managed to mutter before he too fell into an exhausted sleep.