But Falastur didn't return. Not that month or the next or for several more after that. Beruthiel's world shrank to the walls of the King's House and the inner garden. Uldis was her only link to the outside world that she trusted. Galden visited on occasion but it was usually only to inform her that there had been no word from the king.
'The last we heard, they were far to the south repairing storm damage, your majesty, but that was almost a year ago. I truly did expect him to return before now,' the steward reported.
'And so I must continue in the same way I suppose. No Ladies' Court?'
'No, no Ladies' Court I am afraid. The fever that was here last summer has returned full force and there has been talk again that you are to blame. It is all I can do to keep the King's House secure. I would not dare have you venture any further without a fully armed guard and even then I would have concerns,' Galden told her bluntly.
'And so I will sit in my cage and hope for release some day, Galden,' was all she could think to say. She knew the steward was doing his best. Many of the bars were of her own making so she tried to accept her sentence with a bit of grace.
After he left, Uldis confirmed his words. 'That Smirk has been spilling evil tales about you since the day he lost in front of you. Even some of the women are starting to listen. They find it easier to blame you rather than to face their own part in the fever. If they would only keep their homes and families cleaner, it would not spread so quickly. Most of the infected are in the more squalid parts of town.' Uldis placed her hands on Beruthiel's. 'I do worry for your safety, my lady. I think we should have some sort of emergency plan should we need to leave quickly. Especially for the cats; we could never leave them behind.'
'Has it really come to this, Uldis? I know I have been cold and aloof from the people, but really, other than trying to do my best in the court my only other sin was abusing the ladies-in-waiting. I do somewhat regret that, but they deserved it!' she said rebelliously.
'Most of the people have no knowledge of those acts. Buxter, Filia, and Merdith were wise enough to never talk of it. Buxter and Filia because they knew they were guilty, and Merdith because she has never really regained her senses. No, this is the fault of men like Smirk who feel you mistreated them in the Ladies' Court. With the fever, they have made you the source of all evil. It is easier to focus on one person then on a sickness they cannot cure.'
They prepared for the worst. Uldis saw to the maintenance of the specially made wagon they used to travel to Pelargir and obtained any supplies that might be needed. Beruthiel instructed the cats to remain within the confines of the King's House. Most had been doing that anyway, but she wanted to make sure they stayed close.
'Make sure they obey, Mithril. If anything happens, it will probably require swift action. We will not be able to wait.'
'No one will leave, Mistress. The town folk are very upset and cannot be trusted. I have outside cats reporting what is going on. We will know if anyone is coming to harm you.'
The queen picked up her favorite and stared into his now green eyes. 'Oh, Mithril, if Aledin truly is in there, tell him I miss him.'
Mithril did not reply.
'Uldis, if anything happens, I do not want you involved,' Beruthiel said. 'I want you to go to your friends where you will be safe.'
'My lady, Beruthiel, you know I cannot leave you!' Uldis protested. 'My place is at your side.'
'I will not have you suffer for me! Who knows what they will do? And why would they spare you? You must promise that if it looks too dangerous you will leave.'
Uldis stared at her friend. 'But I wish to stay. How will you manage without me?' she said with a wry smile.
'Barely,' was the equally wry reply. 'I have something for you.' She opened a drawer in a table and pulled out a small bag and two letters. 'The gold in the bag will keep you for quite some time. I would give you more, but I worry it would be too heavy. The first letter is for Falastur if he ever returns and the other is for the steward. Only use the second if you need help. It instructs Galden to assist you in any way you require, but I am hoping all this is resolved so you will not need to use it.'
Uldis took the offered items with shaking hands. 'I cannot believe this is happening. And why? Because you tried to be fair and honest?'
'Because people will believe what people want to believe, and they are afraid, Uldis. History will judge me as a barren, evil witch, but I will be forgotten in a few years. As long as you and Falastur know the truth, nothing else matters. I suppose things might have been different if I had known what to do as queen, but it is too late for that now. What is done is done and cannot be undone and what will be, will be,' she said philosophically.
Uldis said fiercely, 'If for some reason I am separated from you, I will make sure that someone knows the truth.'
'Thank you, my dear, but somehow I doubt it will matter in the end. The winners always have the last word,' Beruthiel sighed.
'Not if I have any say!' was the defiant reply of her faithful Mistress of the Cats.
The fever raced through Osgiliath. At first it struck only the most squalid places as Uldis noted, but eventually it began to work its way through the rest of the town. Galden reported daily to Beruthiel. 'Be ready to leave soon, your majesty. I should have gotten you out before now for health reasons if no other. No one is being spared these days. I have sent for extra guards from Minas Arnor. When they arrive, we will go.'
'Go where, Galden? You said the fever is spreading to all the towns near Osgiliath,' Beruthiel said. 'And how will we be able to get through the crowds?' For the last week, there had been a constant throng around the King's House crying for the surrender of the queen.
Galden looked a bit ashamed. 'I have a plan, your majesty, but I fear you will not much care for it.'
The queen looked at her steward. 'And?'
'I am going to arrest you and take you out of the King's House.' He stood and waited for the explosion that didn't come.
Instead, Beruthiel furrowed her brow in confusion. 'Arrest me? On what charge?' She had dreaded this moment now for weeks.
The steward quickly reassured her. 'Not on any real charges. I think the safest way to get you out of Osgiliath is by pretending to take you into exile. The people will be happy to be rid of you and if they think you are being punished, I do not think they will stand in our way.'
Beruthiel saw the truth in his words. 'But why would I have to leave Osgiliath to be punished? Wouldn't they rather have me somewhere they can see my suffering?'
'Ah, now I must compliment myself. When this all began, I started to spread the rumor that you hate and despise the sea; that you cannot bear the smell or even the sound of it. If you remember, I even heard you tell the king that. Your 'exile' is to be taken to Pelargir and cast adrift upon the very ship Falastur 'forced' you to sail on.' The steward waited to see her reaction.
'But I don't hate…..' she finished thinking over his words. 'Oh, I see! You can get me out of Osgiliath…' another pause, 'but then what? Do I stay in Pelargir? I know they liked me better but isn't the fever there also?' No towns that she knew of were fever-free. Eventually the people of Pelargir would feel the same as those in Osgiliath.
Galden shook his head. 'No, your majesty, I have to say that no place in Gondor would be safe for very long. I think it would be best if you really do take your ship and leave forever. Falastur told me you are a competent sailor or I would never dare do this to you. If I knew that the king would return, I would hide you somewhere until he returns, but now I doubt that he ever will. It has been too long.'
'I would comply with your plan except for one thing. I cannot leave while I am still married to Falastur.'
Lord Galden nodded. 'I have thought of that also. It is in my power as steward to grant annulments. If you agree, I will annul your marriage to the king.'
'But on what grounds? I will not have anything like adultery cited. I have always been faithful to him if to nothing else,' Beruthiel insisted.
'There are a few that we could use based on the rumors that the people already believe. The lack of an heir is the most obvious one. I can claim you are infertile and a detriment to the kingdom.'
The queen thought over the idea. 'That would almost even be true and I do not care what anyone thinks on that subject! If you can do that and get me and the cats away safely from Pelargir, I accept your offer, Lord Galden.'
Galden extended his hand to seal the bargain but before Beruthiel could take it, Uldis burst out, 'You can't do that!' She had been sitting silently near the window listening to the steward's plan. 'It is all but a death sentence! My lady, you mustn't let him do this to us!'
Beruthiel smiled sadly. 'There will be no 'us', Uldis. I will accept the steward's plan, but you will not be condemned along with me.' Turning to Galden, 'I should never have been queen. Help me disappear and erase me from history.' She took the offered hand and shook it firmly.
Uldis ran across the room and knelt before the queen. 'Oh, Beruthiel, you cannot do this alone, I will come with you!'
'No, you will not, Uldis. You have your whole life ahead of you and I will not take that away from you. Besides, this is not a death sentence. Can't you see it is a chance at freedom for me? I will be able to do whatever I want if I can manage that ship, and I believe I can. Falastur taught me well and the ship is very easy to sail,' she tried to reassure her friend.
'It is the only way, Uldis. If the people think she is going unpunished, they will tear her apart as soon as they see her. You would be wise to be far away when she leaves this house,' the steward advised.
'That I refuse to do! If we must part, I will at the least go to Pelargir with you, Beruthiel,' Uldis said with an unyielding voice.
Hearing the tone, neither the queen nor her steward protested. 'It will be very dangerous,' Galden said.
'I accept the risk,' Uldis said, 'it is the least I can do.'
It took longer than expected for the reinforcements to arrive, but Beruthiel put her time to good use. She ransacked Falastur's library for any and all information about sailing, navigation and the lands to the south. Based on her research, she sent Uldis out to find her a new wardrobe. 'It is much too hot for all of this black. I will shed my clothing as well as my old life!' she said.
Later, Uldis almost regretted her decision to go to Pelargir with Beruthiel. Almost, and that was only because it was far worse than she had ever imagined it could be. She would never forget leaving Osgiliath. All the cats were rounded up and put into the wagon; Beruthiel and Uldis' few treasures were put on board. The queen insisted that they add Aledin's meager belongings to the pile. 'If Mithril is right, I may see him again someday,' she explained.
At first, Galden had wanted them to leave in the middle of the night, but Beruthiel refused. 'I am still Queen of Gondor. I will not sneak out of town like some thief. Besides, it will be better for the people to know for sure that I am gone.' So now they waited in front of the gates to the King's House while the queen's escort arranged themselves around the two women and ten cats. With the extra guards from Minas Arnor, Beruthiel was cushioned from the citizens by men three feet deep on either side.
Uldis could hear Lord Galden outside the entrance speaking before the rioters. He had told Beruthiel that he was going to read the charge against her so that the people understood she was not escaping but was under arrest.
'Beruthiel, Queen of Gondor, is hereby charged with failure to provide an heir, witchcraft and crimes against the people of Gondor. I, Galden, Steward of Gondor have assumed responsibility for her arrest and punishment. I ask the good people of Osgiliath to allow me safe passage so that this offender can face the full consequences of her actions.' Beruthiel listened to the proclamation without emotion. Galden had read it to her the night before.
Slowly the gates were pushed open and the little band began its advance. A separate group of soldiers led the way into the crowd. As soon as they saw the queen, the howling and shouting began. At first it was a dull sound, but as more voices joined in it became a deafening roar. Uldis longed to cover her ears with her hands, but she took her cue from Beruthiel. The queen sat tall and proud and as still as a statue looking neither left or right.
'Show no fear nor express disgust, Uldis,' the queen had told her earlier. 'It is fear that gives them power. You deny them that by refusing to cringe before them.' Once again, Beruthiel called upon her memories of her father's abuse to bolster the control of her emotions. Leaving the King's House took all the courage she had. For all her brave words to Uldis, her heart thundered in her chest.
The horde howled and swirled around the guards who bore the brunt of the anger directed at the queen. Rotten fruit showered down upon them as they fought to push forward. Occasionally a throw would be hard enough to come near the two women but most fell short. At last, a piece of something soft and putrid hit Beruthiel on her shoulder. The crowd jeered in triumph and Uldis reached over to brush it off, but Beruthiel said, 'Leave it.'
'But Beruthiel…' Uldis protested.
'Leave it. There will be more. It is not worth the effort.'
And that was the only movement she made for the next half hour. It was only when a feminine voice was heard above the mostly male roar that Beruthiel ever responded to anything that day. As they worked their way down the street, a high clear voice rose above the thunder. 'We will never forget you, Beruthiel, and what you did for us! For me! Thank you!'
Slowly the queen turned her head to find the source of the accolade. Up on a balcony, a woman leaned over the railing waving her arms madly. After a moment, Beruthiel recognized Mouse who was a mouse no longer. This woman was finely dressed and stood with the red-haired man from the courtroom by her side. She lifted her chin and tilted her head in acknowledgment of Mouse's cry, but then returned to her previous pose. She did not move again for the rest of that terrible journey.
Most of the harassers had fallen by the wayside not far outside Osgiliath. The few that had continued on were turned back when they were halfway to their destination. 'We will be safe before they can return to Osgiliath, your majesty,' Galden assured her. 'I did not want them trying to raise ill feelings while you are in Pelargir.
Beruthiel only nodded. Her mind was so numb by now that it was all but impossible to speak. It had taken every ounce of strength to get through this day. Beside her, Uldis slouched in exhausted sleep. At last the wagon pulled up in front of the house where she and Falastur had spent so many happy days. When Galden reached up to help her down she managed to say, 'Uldis first.' Two soldiers lifted the limp form down and carried her into the house.
'Please, the cats, you must see to the cats,' Beruthiel insisted once Uldis was taken care of. She could hear them meowing and hissing in their cages.
'What do we need to do?' Galden asked.
'Take them to the house and open their crate doors. The household know what to do, but get them out of here.
One of the soldiers heard her words and immediately reached for the first crate. 'Don't worry, your majesty. I know what to do.'
Beruthiel recognized Noldin. He had traveled with her and the king to Pelargir before and been part of her guard since day one. 'Thank you, Noldin, I trust you.'
'And now you, your majesty. We must get you inside,' Galden insisted.
First tilting her head side to side, Beruthiel began the process of reconnecting her mind with her body. Next her shoulders, then her arms and hands and finally her legs and feet began to respond once again to commands to move. Gratefully she put out a hand to Galden and he assisted her from her seat. She would have fallen if he had not supported her when her feet touched the ground.
'Your majesty, I have never seen anyone act as bravely as you did today. I am humbled in your presence,' her steward said. He had not known what to expect but her complete control and lack of emotion had astounded him.
'The one thing I was ever any good at, Galden, was never letting anyone know how I really felt.' For the past hour Beruthiel had wanted to scream loud and long. 'However, I have reached the end of my endurance. I highly recommend getting me inside before I collapse completely.'
Feeling the tremor in the hand on his arm, Galden quickly motioned a guard to take her other arm. 'Only another few steps and we will be inside.' Indoors the housekeeper and another woman waited to attend their queen. For once Beruthiel did not protest being touched and helped by others. The women led her up the stairs, stripped off her food-encrusted clothing and settled her into a steaming bath.