When Beruthiel returned from Pelargir two weeks later, she came alone. With the ship successfully launched, Falastur told her he would be at sea for some time. 'I ache to see how she performs over a lengthy voyage,' he explained. 'A sea trial is only just that; a trial. A longer trip is needed to truly judge her manners!' She thought he looked almost like a little boy with a new toy.
In a way, she was relieved. She would not have to see his disappointment in the bedroom nor would she have to endure the sly looks of her ladies as they waited to see if she was with child. No husband, no baby possible. 'I will keep myself busy with the court and with riding, Falastur. Keep yourself safe!'
Her time was well spent at the Ladies' Court. She enjoyed untangling the squabbles of neighbors and of trying to reunite broken marriages or friendships. Few if any difficult cases had arisen and those that did she passed on to others. Her other enjoyment was riding. With a small troop of guards, she would head out into the woods of Ithilien for half a day or more out and away from the boredom of the court.
Returning from one of these forays, Beruthiel's life changed forever. As they neared the bridge over the river, Beruthiel noticed a man standing at the rail. He held a squirming bundle over the water and before she could shout, dropped it. It plummeted down and landed with a loud splash. He must not have weighted it because when it landed she could see air gathered at the top of the fabric and it floated. The bag drifted for only a few feet before it snagged on a tree limb in the middle of the current.
'Noldin, retrieve that bag!' she ordered one of her escort.
He stared at her. 'I can't swim, my lady, and it's probably only puppies or some such.' She noticed that the others avoided her look or nodded their heads in agreement.
Without replying, she dug her heels into her horse and forced it into the river.
Luckily, it was at a summer low and the current was not too strong. Even so, by the time she reached the sack, her horse was up to its belly. Leaning over, she tried to grab the bag but it was just out of reach. Without hesitation, she slid into the water and finally retrieved it. It was heavy and getting heavier as the water seeped into it. Grunting with the effort, she grabbed a strap on her saddle and urged her horse to the shore. When she was finally able to stand and wade out, Noldin at last came to help her with the sodden bundle.
'Go get blankets and towels, you fools!' she yelled at the other guards who had not moved an inch. As the words left her mouth, she was aware of a young woman running toward her with a basket full of the desired items. Sitting on the ground, she pulled a small knife from her belt and sawed at the rope binding the sack closed. It still squirmed and she could hear pitiful mewing. When at last the rope parted, a very wet cat leaped out and ran into a thicket nearby. Beruthiel peered into the bag and began to pull out kitten after kitten.
The helpful woman knelt by her side and handed her one towel after another. Beruthiel wrapped each kitten and handed in back in exchange for another towel. When the bag was empty, there were ten bundles lined up before the queen.
A small crowd had gathered and was muttering about the strangeness of 'the quality'. Imagine making such a fuss of about a bag of kittens being drowned. It happened all the time. Beruthiel heard the comments and bit her tongue to keep from raging at their heartlessness.
Uldis opened the oven door and peered in at the baking loaves. Damn. Not done enough to remove from the oven, and it would take more than a few minutes for them to finish. She had so many things to do and not enough time for any. Grabbing a basket, she went outside to retrieve the day's laundry.
As she took down and folded towels, she noticed a crowd gathering at the edge of the river. When she heard a splash, she smiled a bit. Probably another drunk taking a dip! When she had finished retrieving her laundry, she picked up the basket and went through the gate to join the fun.
Nearing the river, she saw a richly dressed woman struggle up the steep bank with a wriggling bag in her arms. 'Get me towels and blankets, you fools,' she heard the woman cry.
Already having an armful of towels, Uldis quickened her pace and pushed her way through the crowd. 'I have towels; let me pass!' Her mind briefly remembered her baking bread. Hopefully, Mirda would return and remove them or Uldis would receive yet another punishment for scorching the loaves.
Kneeling by the soaked woman, she handed her towel after towel as kitten after kitten appeared from the bag. Momma cat ran off as soon as she was released and now hissed and prowled angrily along the river bank not daring to leave her babies. The woman cursed humanity, or inhumanity, under her breath with each new arrival.
When ten tiny kittens had been dried and bundled up warmly, the woman turned to Uldis. 'I thank you for your help. You are apparently the only one here with any sense at all!' She scowled at the guards who shuffled their feet and refused to meet her gaze.
'I was glad to….' Uldis started to say but an angry voice interrupted.
'Uldis! The loaves almost burned again! What do you think you are doing, girl? I have had just about all I can take!' A red-faced woman grabbed Uldis and tried to pull her to her feet.
'The bread!' Uldis cried. She was the baker's apprentice and while she loved eating bread, she truly hated making it. This was the fourth batch she had forgotten in as many weeks. 'I'm sorry, Mirda. It won't happen again.'
'Get back to the shop; I will punish you later!'
Uldis got to her feet but before she could scurry away a voice stopped her. 'Wait, Uldis is it? Retrieve the mother cat!' Beruthiel ordered.
Momma cat had given up hissing and was now meowing piteously to her kittens from a nearby tussock of grass that afforded some protection from the crowd. Uldis shook off Mirda's demanding hand, picked up one of the bundled kittens and approached its mother. 'Here, kitty, kitty,' she said as she held out the bundle. 'Here's your baby!' The tiny kitten let out a loud, pathetic mew. Uldis could tell the mother ached to come but was still hesitant. She knelt down once more and held out the kitten. Slowly the mother cat inched forward, instinct overriding fear. The crowd drew back but continued to watch. They hadn't been so entertained in days.
When the cat put her nose to the kitten, Uldis gently grasped her around the middle and carried her back to the others. In the meantime, Beruthiel arranged the last towels in the basket and unwrapped the kittens. Mom was dried off and deposited in the basket, quite content now that her babies were restored to her care. She busied herself with drying licks of her tongue on each of her charges. The crowd muttered nervously as they noted that almost all were black.
'That's enough, Uldis, get back to work,' Mirda demanded. 'You have managed to waste the afternoon with this nonsense!'
Once again Uldis began to stand, but again Beruthiel interrupted her return to work. 'No, you will come with me,' she ordered imperiously.
'What do you mean, she will come with you?' Mirda demanded. 'She is my apprentice!'
'But apparently not a very good one from what you have said. I will need assistance with these animals and she seems sensible, at least with cats!'
Uldis stared from one to another, amazed that anyone would argue over her.
Beruthiel looked at her. 'Do you want to be a baker or no? Decide now; I am leaving with or without you.'
'But what will I do and who are you?' Uldis stammered.
'You will be my Mistress of the Kittens and I am Beruthiel, Queen of Gondor. Be assured you will have employment for as long as you please me,' Beruthiel answered imperiously.
The crowd goggled at this news. They had recognized quality but they'd had no idea of her identity.
Uldis hesitated for another moment, but Mirda suddenly said, 'Go with her, girl. I hope you will tend to those kittens better than you ever tended my bread!'
Thrilled to be released from the hated bakery, Uldis' stomach churned with anxiety over these sudden changes. She curtsied to Beruthiel and asked, 'What are your wishes, your majesty?'
'Noldin, put her on a horse and find some way to carry this basket.' In short order, Uldis was up behind one of the guardsmen and a pole was run through the basket's handles allowing two others to transport it.
'But those are my towels and basket!' Mirda cried. Losing an unskilled apprentice? Not so bad. Losing a large market basket and many towels? Not so good.
'Noldin, pay the lady,' Beruthiel ordered. Noldin tossed Mirda a most generous settlement and the little group began a slow progress back to the King's House. The crowd was slow to disperse as they told the story of their crazy queen and her plunge in the river to save a bag of unlucky black cats.
Not all the kittens were black. Momcat was black with four white paws, a white belly and a white stripe down her nose. Nine of her kittens were indeed solid black, but the tenth was pure white. Beruthiel's ladies-in-waiting had been appalled at their arrival. 'What were you thinking, your majesty,' Filia exclaimed. 'Jumping in the river to save kittens and black ones at that? Everyone knows that black cats are bewitched and bring ill luck! You should have let them drown.'
'Get out!' Beruthiel pointed at the door and expelled her ladies. 'I will not hear that kind of talk about innocent animals. And don't come back unless you change your attitudes!'
Every single one hurried out the door whispering about the evil their queen was certain to suffer because of her rash actions. After they left, Beruthiel changed to dry clothes as Uldis settled Momcat and the babies. Beruthiel and Uldis sat by the basket before a blazing fire.
'What do we do now, your majesty?' Uldis dared to ask when Beruthiel reappeared.
'My lady is sufficient address, Uldis. Your majesty is much too formal.' She already liked this girl far more than her ladies. She had insisted on your majesty with them. 'We will see if Momcat can handle all these kittens on her own. My guess is that ten is about five too many and you and I will have to help with the feeding.' She had tended many a barn cat back home. It had been one of the few pleasures allowed by her father.
She rang the bell for a servant and sent to the kitchen for warm goat's milk. When it arrived, she showed Uldis how to twist bits of fabric, dip it in the milk and present it to a hungry kitten. 'We will make sure that each one has a chance with mom since her milk is best, but the goat's milk will help fill out the corners,' she said. She smiled as the kittens fought each other for the best position at mom's teats.
It took a few tries but eventually queen, girl and kittens got the hang of the routine. They still had their umbilical cords attached so Beruthiel knew they were only a few days old at most. 'I wish I knew who threw them in the river, Uldis. I would have him flayed alive!' Beruthiel swore.
Knowing this might be no idle threat, Uldis didn't comment on a suspect. 'People in the village are as afraid of black cats as your ladies, my lady. And nine of them? They didn't stand a chance. Without you, they would have led short, sorry lives I can promise you that! The little bits of white are what saved mom.'
Beruthiel sighed. 'Well, we are going to make certain that these black cats have a wonderful life!' As she said this, she was cuddling the little white one. It seemed to be the leader in all things. It almost always had a teat and Beruthiel had to pull it away at times to give the others a chance to nurse. She kissed it between its ears and returned it to the basket for mom to give it a bath.
The next four weeks were occupied by kittens. Beruthiel had a room near her bedchamber prepared for Uldis and the cat family. At first they required round the clock feedings every few hours, but eventually they were able to begin taking in food on their own. Uldis was eternally grateful for this development for while Beruthiel was devoted to them when the sun shone, her interest waned in the middle of the night.
'If you need any help, Uldis, be sure to ring for the night servant,' she had said the first night. 'I am going to bed.' Uldis didn't dare ring. Some of the servants disliked the cats already and sleep-deprived servants would not change their opinions. It wasn't all that bad in the end and knowing that they would soon be on their own helped. As a baker's apprentice, she was used to being up early to start the ovens and prepare the bread. Kitten feeding was much easier than that had ever been.
Life with ten kittens was interesting, Beruthiel thought, as she watched them marauding around the room. They got into everything possible and some things thought impossible. Momcat tucked herself up as high as she could get when they were at their worst, only coming down to nurse.
Beruthiel named the white cat Mithril in honor of the precious metal. His coat was pure white with silver glints and his eyes an odd grayish silver. She had never seen eyes like that on a cat. The rest she left to Uldis, but she never asked who was named what. They seemed to be rather common. Soot, Midnight, Coal, Sable, etc and besides, there was no way to tell them apart. They all appeared identical to her.
Even Uldis had to admit she usually didn't know who was who. She thought she knew a few of them by minor differences in size, but that was about it. Only if she examined them closely could she be sure of a name.
Soon the kittens were weaned. 'What now, my lady? Will you find them new homes?' Uldis asked. What would happen to her if all the cats left?
'Of course not, I would never trust anyone not to hurt them in some way. No, they will live out their days here with me. These nine,' she motioned to the black ones, 'can live here in this room and Mithril will stay with me at least until the king returns.' Falastur was reportedly due back in Pelargir in the next few weeks. She wondered what his opinion was of cats.
'When the king returns I will have him issue an edict forbidding the harming of cats in general and black ones in particular. I want to know that my little boys and girls are safe if they roam beyond the courtyard.' Momcat had already made a new home in the stables. It was only a matter of time until the others followed her example. The royal chambers were on the ground floor and opened out into a private courtyard. The kittens spent many happy hours exploring the foliage and tormenting the voles.
Falastur did not return in a few weeks. He returned in a few months. Beruthiel received word that his ship had landed in Pelargir and to expect him in a few more days. She rousted the household staff to give the King's House a good cleaning and to prepare for a celebratory dinner. It sounded as though he would have many tales to tell.
When at last he appeared, he was suntanned and relaxed. 'Nothing like a good sea trip to put a little spring in one's step!' he exclaimed when he met her. His eyes widened when he noticed the cat draped around her shoulder. Mithril was in the habit of riding there wherever she went but he would soon be too big. 'Now what have we here?' He reached out a finger to its nose.
Mithril stared at it but then decided it posed no threat and allowed the king to gently stroke his ears. 'This is Mithril. I saved him and his siblings from being drowned in the river.'
'Siblings? Where are they?' Falastur asked.
'Around here somewhere I am sure. They are rather hard to miss!' Beruthiel laughed. Even as she spoke, a small herd of black cats came charging down the hall, their tiny feet thundering all out of proportion to their size. The kindle raced past the king without stopping and ran out the door. Falastur turned and stared after them.
'How many did you say?' he inquired.
'Only nine more. I don't think that was all of them, but it was close.'
Uldis came running down the hall. 'Did you see them, my lady?' She noticed the king, but did not know who he was.
'Falastur, may I present Uldis, Mistress of the Kittens soon to be Cats. Uldis, this is King Falastur,' Beruthiel said.
A stunned look crossed Uldis' face as she quickly dropped low in a curtsey. 'Forgive me, your majesty, I did not realize….'
Falastur shook his head a puzzled look on his face. 'Not your fault, Mistress of the Kittens. I have been away far too long apparently.' Turning to his queen, he wondered, 'What else has changed in my absence?'
'Not much other than that I have no ladies-in-waiting and half the servants have quit because of the kittens. They think they are bad luck,' Beruthiel said angrily. 'I told them if they thought that I could most definitely cope without them!'
'And are we coping?'
'Why yes, we are! I have a much simpler wardrobe and as you have been gone, there has been little in the way of entertainment. Now that you are returned I may have to find a few more servants, but I really do not like them hovering around.'
The king gazed on his wife. She did look different. Gone were the elaborate court dresses that had made up the majority of her trousseau. Instead she wore a sleek but elegant black dress that fit her figure nicely. It was laced up the front and he could see it was easily assembled by one person instead of the three some of her others had required.
'Not to worry on my behalf, Beruthiel. I intend to leave again in the not too distant future. This last voyage made it quite apparent that the sea crews need much more practice. We were delayed due to ineptitude and poor maintenance.' In his opinion his new ship had not received the loving care she should have had.
'Very good, I will leave things as they are. I did manage to arrange a nice dinner for tomorrow so that you may be welcomed back properly!'
Uldis still stood nearby not sure she had been dismissed. The queen finally noticed her. 'Uldis, go round up the kittens if you can. I would like the king to meet them in a little more reserved manner if that is at all possible.'
'Yes, my lady, certainly, my lady. I will see if they are in the stable.' She quickly backed away and made her escape.
'Mistress of the Kittens?' Falastur asked with a raised eyebrow.
'A very necessary position, believe me!' Beruthiel replied.