If Beruthiel was surprised when Filia showed up to do her hair the next morning, she did not show it. Filia's hair was all one length now. The poor woman had realized there was nothing for her to do other than cut the other braid off. To leave it would have been a constant reminder to everyone of her night of torment. The short hair might do the same, but at least it was consistently even.
'Good morning, your majesty,' she curtsied as Beruthiel entered. Her eyes were still red from crying and her head remained bowed.
'Good morning, Filia. It is good to see you today,' Beruthiel replied. And that was it. Nothing more was ever said between the two about Filia's disgrace and Filia never again dared to cross swords with her not-so-stupid queen.
Lady Merdith watched it all in amazement. She had been on tenterhooks since the night before. If Filia suffered such actions, what might her fate be? She had arrived exceptionally early that morning to check over the queen's wardrobe to make sure all of her 'pranks' had been removed. However, she still monitored every word Beruthiel spoke and every move she made in case any were directed at her.
Beruthiel was quite aware of her discomfort and smiled inwardly. She had been unable to come up with a suitable revenge based on wardrobe vandalism. Certainly nothing on par with the bath scalding and the hair cutting. She hated the thought that the major instigator might receive less punishment than the other two foolish women. Now as she saw how skittish Merdith was, an idea began to form. She started to test it almost immediately.
Sitting while Filia tentatively and cautiously braided her hair, Beruthiel put a hand to her side. 'Merdith,' she called out.
Merdith managed to not twitch at the call, but it wasn't easy. 'Yes, your majesty?' She hurried to the queen's side.
'There is something wrong with the waist on this dress. It is gouging me in the side. Find another one for me and then check this one. Perhaps someone left a pin in it!' Beruthiel watched Lady Merdith's face.
Lady Merdith all but groveled before her queen. 'Certainly, your majesty. At once. I will have a dress before Filia is finished.' She raced into Beruthiel's dressing room and began to tear through the gowns hung there. I just checked that dress an hour ago, and I didn't even think I had ever done anything to it!, she thought furiously. Picking up one of the dresses that the queen seldom wore, she brought it to the other room.
Beruthiel observed Merdith's haste and smiled to herself. 'I don't really care for that one, Merdith. It is so common and out of style,' she threw her lady's words back in her face.
Lady Merdith bowed and scurried to find another. There were not many that she could be positive were mischief free. Grabbing an unlikely candidate she returned once more to the queen. 'Will this please you?' she asked.
Once again, Beruthiel smiled to herself. Lady Merdith had never before asked what she wanted or worried if she was pleased. Usually she presented a dress and Beruthiel wore it. 'Well, I suppose. I am going to have to get a seamstress in for some new gowns. All the ones I have are getting boring.'
Lady Merdith gave silent thanks if that were true. It would mean that the old gowns could be gotten rid of and no more 'pranks' would be delivered accidently . 'An excellent idea, your majesty.' She and another lady helped the queen into her dress.
Beruthiel then moved to her salon and sat at the desk. Taking up quill and parchment, she began to compose a letter. Her ladies gradually trailed in after her once they had tidied up from the morning's activities.
When all had arrived, Beruthiel made great show of running her hand idly around the collar of the dress. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Merdith nervously running her hands over her already smooth skirt.
'Merdith!' Beruthiel said.
Lady Merdith jumped. 'Yes, your majesty?' Her heart pounded and her stomach roiled.
Beruthiel observed the reaction. 'Oh, nothing, never mind,' she excused her woman. Merdith retook her seat on the divan and continued her smoothing. Almost as soon as she was seated, Beruthiel again turned toward her. 'I am ever so sorry Merdith, but I changed my mind. Could you bring me a shawl?'
Lady Merdith raced to find the requested garment. And so the rest of that day went and every day thereafter. Beruthiel kept Merdith on her toes. She never knew if she was about to be exposed for her tricks. Several times each day Beruthiel would comment on something related to something she had heard Lady Merdith mention outside her hedge. Lady Merdith would jump and shy away only to be relieved when no punishment followed. She began to look a little haggard. Her left eye developed a small twitch.
If Beruthiel had been tempted by pity to stop, that was washed away at yet another session at "The Bench". Merdith had been particularly twitchy that day and Beruthiel had come close to relenting. Now she sat nearby as Lady Merdith and the oft visiting Sayla discussed the latest events.
'I do not know how Filia can stay!' Sayla exclaimed. 'She must have died a thousand deaths that evening. Everyone is still talking about it even now. And poor Lady Buxter's hand is shedding a layer of skin. How can you stand it, Merdith?' She didn't mention the eye twitch but Lady Merdith saw her looking at it.
'I will not let that bitch win do you hear me?' she said with wavering bravado. When she had decided to stay, she had assumed that she would suffer some horrible retribution and then continue on in her position. She had not done anything as horrible as Filia or obvious as Buxter.
Sayla raised an eyebrow. 'Yes I do and so can the rest of the house. You might want to keep your voice down. You'll wake the queen.'
'Wake her? I would like to slap her. All this abuse for a few minor jokes. And why has she said nothing about me? Surely if she knew about the other things, she must know of my little doings.' Merdith was slightly offended that her efforts had gone unnoticed.
'Perhaps she has chosen to overlook them or truly does not know. You should be thankful, Merdith. The queen showed her true nature with Buxter and Filia. Everyone now is certain she is a witch and that her heart is black.'
'I think so too. How else could she know? I just wish she would do something. Look at my eye! It will not hold still.' Merdith pressed her fingers to her left eye, but then the right one took up the movement.
Sayla took hold of her friend's hand and pulled it away from the offending eye. 'Have you thought of confessing and asking for forgiveness? It worked for Filia. She seems alright and still has her position.'
'Never! I will not break to that miserable excuse for a queen. Eventually she will do something horrible to me. Then when the king returns I can beg him for justice. I mean to see the end of her!' Now both eyes were twitching and her hands trembled ever so slightly.
Sayla looked at her sadly and dared to contradict her half-maddened friend. 'I am sorry, Merdith, but I think in the end you will lose.'
'Watch me,' Merdith said.
And that is exactly what Beruthiel did. She watched. Whenever Merdith looked up or turned her head, the eyes of the queen were on her. Her appetite faded and performing her duties became increasingly difficult. The twitching of the eyes became a tic on the cheek or an even more pronounced tremble of her hands.
'My dear Lady Merdith,' Beruthiel said solicitously, 'you seem rather ill of late. Is there anything I can do to help? Perhaps you need a break from court.'
Her eye twitching nonstop, Lady Merdith denied needing anything. 'It is but a passing difficulty, your majesty. It will dissipate I am sure.'
'Very well, but do not hesitate to request anything you may need of me,' Beruthiel offered solicitously.
It was more than she could take. Lady Merdith, head of the ladies-in-waiting to Beruthiel, Queen of Gondor, fell to her knees gabbling senselessly. The other ladies stared silently at the wreck of a human.
'Don't just stand there like silly geese!' Beruthiel ordered harshly. 'Take her away and let it be a lesson to the rest of you.'
Their spell broken, the geese raced to pick up their fallen comrade. Although no one ever spoke of it in the King's House, they were all well aware that Beruthiel had gotten her revenge upon her third tormenter without lifting a finger.
Soon after Lady Merdith's collapse, Falastur returned. 'My dearest Beruthiel, what is all this I am hearing about you and your ladies!' he exclaimed even before he greeted her.
'And what have you heard, Falastur? Please sit. You look tired,' his queen replied.
'Scalding, public humiliation and even rumors of madness among your ladies.' He looked over to where her still healing hand lay in her lap. 'I see the scalding at least has an element of truth. How does it feel?' He sat next to her and picked up the offending hand. The surface was tight and shiny as the new skin replaced the old. His thumb gently caressed the pink surface.
Beruthiel pulled her hand away and began to scratch it lightly. 'It itches something fierce but the pain is gone. What did you hear?'
The king told her the versions of events as he had heard them. 'They say you are a witch, my dear and cruel beyond reason.'
'And they are most likely correct, Falastur. Sometimes I regret what I did, especially to Lady Buxter.' Here she laughed and raised her hand. 'I don't think I thought that one through very well.'
'But why did you do it?'
She gave him a summary of her ladies' actions. 'I suffered evil abuse for too long growing up to have it happen here. I know what they did to me. I still see red when I think of it, and since I am my father's daughter I will not tolerate it now. And why did they do it? Because I married you and have not 'bred' to cite Lady Merdith.' She knew this would hurt Falastur, but she was not going to hide the truth from him. 'I would rather be loved, but since that doesn't seem likely to happen, I will take being hated. It is better than being ignored or thought stupid.'
Falastur took her uninjured hand and held it to his chest. He looked at her angry face. Just the memory of her abuse had lit the fire of rage in her eyes. 'I was right, you know when I picked you because I thought you were strong, but perchance this is not the best way. Some are demanding that you apologize, but I see now that in many ways they deserved it. Only promise me no more?'
Beruthiel felt her husband's gentle pressure on her hand and saw the concern in his eyes. 'I promise,' she said, 'for now.'
Falastur asked his next question. 'How did you know all these things, Beruthiel?'
She showed him to her little nook. 'I am very careful when I push through that the branches block the entrance. Merdith and her friend Sayla like to sit here and gossip.'
'So you aren't a witch?' he asked with a smile.
'Nor even have a black heart. There is one thing, Falastur that you should know.' She told him about Sayla and Mika possibly knowing of his impotency.
'I'm not surprised. Sayla and Gywnad were like sisters. However, as long as nothing is known officially the court can ignore it. They have stayed silent all these years and are unlikely to speak openly now. As long as you continue to keep the secret it does not matter.'
'There is no reason for me to speak of it, Falastur. But I did have another question,' she said shyly.
'And?' he urged.
'Sayla also said you might have married me because I was a Black Numenorean. That we are supposed to have certain skills regarding…um…your problem. I wondered if that were true,' Beruthiel managed to say.
Falastur put his head back and laughed. 'No, Beruthiel, I did not. I meant it when I said I chose you for your apparent strength. I have voyaged to many exotic locations and seen many a woman skilled in the sexual arts. They never succeeded in helping me. For what it is worth, I have had more luck with you than anyone else, no matter how small that has been.'
Her days settled into a solid routine. She spent three mornings a week at the Ladies' Court, afternoons riding her horse and evenings with the courtiers. Beruthiel much preferred the court and the horse to the courtiers. They were for the most part older and had little to say that interested her.
Falastur noticed. 'Have you made any friends, Beruthiel? I seldom see you with any of the court unless it is required,' he asked one night as they lay in bed.
She debated whether to lie and ease his conscience. She knew he felt guilty for her situation. 'No, Falastur. We have so little in common and they are all older than I. Besides, after the incidents with my ladies, I think they are somewhat afraid of me.
'Would you like to send for someone? Your mother perhaps? I know positions in court are hereditary, but you may certainly have a companion of your own choosing if you wish.'
Beruthiel snorted in a very unladylike manner. 'My mother! One of the great benefits of this marriage, Falastur, has been her absence. I could never please her or my father. It was a great pleasure to hear that there would be no place at court for them, and I pray there never is!'
'Is there no one then?' Falastur as always wondered about her life; she rarely spoke of it. He knew of some of the abuse, but that was all.
'I have spent many hours alone, Falastur, and I honestly prefer it that way. The only person I ever cared for is Nanny and while I know she would come if I asked, I think she was relieved when she was told her services would not be needed. Her last letter said she has a tiny cottage with a garden and that she was very happy.' Nanny was indeed the only person she missed.
'Do not hesitate if you change your mind, Beruthiel.' He vowed silently that some day he would see her happy. He leaned over and kissed her. Although it didn't happen often, he did occasionally try to perform. She returned his kiss warmly. Beruthiel always tried to do her part. Deep down she knew he truly wanted to have an heir.
However, this night was no different than any of the others. An abortive attempt that lasted only a minute or less and left Falastur lay staring at the ceiling disgusted with his lack of performance. Beruthiel wanted to console him but never knew what to say. She put her head on his shoulder and held his hand. It seemed to help at least a little.
'There is one bit of good news,' he said finally. 'The ship is almost ready for her sea trials!' Falastur had spoken repeatedly of the ship under construction down in Pelargir. It was the apple of his eye. 'Would you care to come and watch its launching?'
'How wonderful! Of course I will come. It will be good to get away for a few days. I always loved the seashore,' Beruthiel said.
His mood much improved, Falastur told his queen all about his new ship.