The next morning as they lay in bed together, Falastur put his hand on Beruthiel's stomach. 'Do you think there is any chance at all?' he asked softly.
She covered his hand with hers. 'I really don't know, Falastur. That is the longest you have ever lasted, and it was but once….Only time will tell.'
'I will not leave you until I know for sure if you are with child; I could not leave until he was born.' He leaned over and kissed her.
'Well, you will have to wait a few weeks for a final verdict,' she explained, 'but I thought you were needed in Pelargir?' She resented the fact that he would only stay if she were bearing a child. One must be certain of the bloodlines, of course, she thought.
He moved his hand to her cheek and gently stroked it. 'I am. Why don't you come back with me? We can do some sailing. Or not!' he said with a smile and another pat on her belly.
'Even if I am with child, Falastur, I am not made of glass. We can most certainly go sailing. Shall I bring Uldis and some cats?'
Falastur smiled. 'You can even bring your pet artist if I approve of him.' Beruthiel intended to perform that interesting introduction later in the morning.
'I think you will like him. He is definitely talented, and he has been very kind to me. I know I said I was used to being alone, but the attitude of the people is beginning to overwhelm me a bit. No matter what I do or say, they are convinced that I am the source of all the trouble in Osgiliath!' she complained.
He didn't know what to say. 'Times have been difficult over the past few years, Beruthiel, and they are frightened. I wish I could stay and support you more, but the fleet needs me.'
'And you need the fleet. I know how much you love the sea, Falastur, and I would never try and take that from you. I will cope just as I have all my life. Who knows? Maybe I won't be alone for very long!' She doubted she was pregnant, but for once she didn't find the thought so distasteful. Perhaps a child would make the people more accepting of her.
'Why don't I see if we can up the odds in our favor?' her husband said and kissed her more urgently.
'Falastur, may I present Aledin. Aledin, this is King Falastur,' Beruthiel performed the introduction. Each man eyed the other but without too much masculine attitude from either one. Falastur was interested to meet the one that had caught his wife's eye, but after the last few hours with her he felt much less threatened.
Aledin was just grateful the king had not beaten him upon first sight or ordered his arrest so he bowed deeply and replied, 'I appreciate you taking the time to meet me, your majesty. Would you like to see some of my work?' Falastur nodded and the artist showed him the various cat portraits he had painted. Falastur obligingly admired each one. Finally he led the king and queen to a canvas covered in sheeting.
'You finished it?' Beruthiel exclaimed, 'I thought you l had more work to do?'
'There are still a few tiny flourishes to attend to, my lady, but I thought it would be nice for you both to see it at the same time.' He pulled the sheet off and revealed Beruthiel and Mithril in all their glory.
Beruthiel clapped her hands with pleasure and Falastur gazed at with a critical eye. 'It's wonderful, Aledin! Mithril positively glows.' The cat truly did appear as though a small aura surrounded his little body.
'You glow also, my dear,' Falastur commented. 'My compliments, Aledin, she is most striking.' Beruthiel appeared regal in her black and silver dress. Aledin had them placed before a backdrop of the city and surrounded her with subtle emblems of Gondor.
'Thank you, your majesty I am glad it pleases you.'
At last Falastur turned to Beruthiel. 'Will you leave us for a few minutes, my dear? I have something to discuss with Aledin.'
Beruthiel looked at her husband. 'Of course, Falastur, if you wish,' she said a little hesitantly.
'I do, and don't worry I won't eat him!' he teased.
With a worried glance at Aledin, who tried to look calm, Beruthiel left the room.
Falastur turned to the artist and without preamble said, 'The people are talking about my wife and you. Were you aware of that?'
'Yes, your majesty, but there is no truth to the rumors,' Aledin said.
'Nothing? Nothing at all? '
'No, nothing to concern yourself with, your majesty. I would never betray you or dishonor the queen,' he assured his king.
Falastur looked at him for a moment longer. 'Very well, I will trust your honor and loyalty.'
'You have both, your majesty, believe me. I would never do anything to harm the queen in any way,' Aledin promised again.
After a few days catching up on governing tasks, Falastur said, 'We will need to leave by the end of the week, Beruthiel.'
'All is ready except….have you decided about Aledin?' she asked hesitantly.
'I think it would be wise to bring him along. Having him by my side should quiet some of the gossip. No one would imagine I would allow him anywhere near you if there were any truth to the rumors. And besides, I have decided that he can paint my portrait to go along side yours!'
Beruthiel smiled happily at him. 'That pleases me, Falastur. I really did want you to like him. He is very talented.'
The king smiled. 'Yes, he is. Now, make sure all are ready to depart. Those cats of yours seem to be very well behaved. How will they take to travel?'
'Mithril loves it as you know so I think the others will be fine. If they don't want to go, they can stay behind.'
Falastur lifted an eyebrow questioningly. 'They will decide? And how would you know that, Beruthiel?' He had heard rumors of cat spies also but had disregarded them as impossible.
Beruthiel smiled slightly and returned her husband's look. 'I must confess, my lord, those rumors are true. I can talk to the cats and they obey me in all things.' There, she had said it. It felt good to share this last secret with him.
'You joke of course! How can you talk to cats, and what can they possibly have to say?' he exclaimed.
'Anything and everything, Falastur. How do I talk to them? I hear their thoughts and they hear mine. Mithril said it is because I risked my life to save them but I really don't understand it. As for what they say? They can go everywhere and hear many things.'
'Do you use them to spy on our people, Beruthiel? I cannot say that I approve of such a thing,' he muttered.
'Only for the Ladies' Court, Falastur. I felt so guilty about possibly making a wrong decision that Mithril said the cats could help. I believe I am a much better judge because of the information they provide! That is how I met Aledin,' she said.
Another wry smile flashed across the king's face. 'Ah, Aledin. And where is that going these days?' His heart burned a bit with jealousy, but he also remembered his impotency.
Beruthiel put her hand on his arm. 'We are only friends and will remain so for as long as you are still here and perhaps long after. My feelings about him are quite confused, Falastur. I know I love you, but there is something with Aledin that I don't understand. And besides, he is too honorable.'
'I trust you, Beruthiel. Somehow this will all work out in the end,' he told her.
It was quite a parade that departed the King's House two days later. A company of soldiers led the way followed by the king and queen mounted on matching horses. Mithril rode in a basket attached to Beruthiel's saddle. Then there was a large wagon with Uldis, Aledin, the artist's supplies and six cats. More soldiers brought up the rear.
The townsfolk turned out in droves to watch them pass. Falastur was his usual friendly popular self. He made great show of frequently touching Beruthiel's hand and leaning over to whisper in her ear. 'Smile and wave, my dear, we want to show how happy we are!'
Beruthiel lifted her hand and waved at a small group of children, but instead of smiling and laughing in response as they had for the king, they cringed back into the crowd. 'They are afraid of the least thing I do, Falastur. I will stay with smiling and hope they don't run in terror,' she said with dark humor.
Falastur sighed. He saw that she was right. It was mostly to see Falastur that the people appeared. Had it been Beruthiel alone they would have kept their doors closed and the streets empty. Not for the first time he regretted ever dragging this woman into his life.
When a rotten apple flew out of the crowd and struck her horse, he quickly ordered a soldier to apprehend the perpetrator. The man was dragged before the king and forced to kneel. 'Why did you do that?' Falastur demanded. 'I will not tolerate dissent of that kind.'
The man, already drunk at midday, teetered on his knees. 'Ain't nothin' but a whore and a barren witch!' he cried.
Falastur dismounted. Grabbing the man by his shirt front, he hauled him to his feet and slapped him hard across first one side of his face and then the other splitting his lip. 'No one speaks of my wife like that and goes unpunished! Now apologize!'
Beruthiel had maintained a stone face throughout the proceedings. She appreciated Falastur's actions, but it most likely would not help and perhaps make the situation worse. 'Please, Falastur, no,' she protested.
The king shoved the man back to his knees. 'Now apologize or face the consequences.'
The man looked up at Beruthiel, blood running down his chin. 'I'll take the consequences,' he growled.
Falastur motioned to one of the guards. 'Take him to the cells; nothing but bread and water for six weeks at hard labor.' He remounted and without looking back spurred his horse into motion.
The crowd watched the confrontation in dead silence and then murmured restlessly at the sentence.
'That will solve nothing, Falastur,' Beruthiel murmured as she followed. 'They will hate me more than ever.'
'No, I am sure it will not, but it gave me great satisfaction anyway,' he said. He took her hand, lifted it to his lips and kissed it.
Looking back later, Beruthiel thought those weeks in Pelargir were some of the best in her life. The people here did not hate her. They were perhaps suspicious, but not hateful. Falastur spent at least half of every day with her. Sometimes he posed for Aledin but many times they were able to be alone together on Beruthiel's ship sailing out in the bay. She felt a freedom of spirit that she had seldom experienced.
Aledin began the king's portrait immediately. 'I doubt I will be able to finish in only a few weeks, but as long as I have your features drawn, I can fill in the rest later. It isn't ideal, but I will take what time you can give me.'
'Do your best,' Falastur said as he held his pose. 'When I am gone, will you look after the queen for me?'
The artist's head appeared from behind the canvas. 'Of-of course, my lord. I think very highly of the queen.' A few moments of silence passed and then he added, 'Don't you think that might be a bit, um awkward?'
'I suspect the queen will be most unhappy when I leave, Aledin. But I think that you can make her happy. She admires you greatly.'
His face red, Aledin stuttered, 'I do not understand, my lord. Back in Osgiliath, you told me to do nothing to bring shame to the queen. Are you now giving me permission to…?' His words trailed off but the intent hovered over the two men.
'Beruthiel is far more unhappy than I realized, Aledin. She is all alone and growing bitter. If you are inclined to help improve her mood, I would not stand in the way. I have already told her as much. The only requirement is that there is no child,' he stated bluntly.
Aledin continued to stare at the king. 'I will try and help her, my lord.' His poor mind reeled at this conversation. It was almost too much to absorb.
'Good, good, I knew I could rely on you,' the king said.
With shaking hands, Aledin continued to draw the features of Falastur, the Ship King of Gondor, while his mind struggled with the king's words.
In addition to giving Aledin permission to court his wife, Falastur took the whole group sailing on Beruthiel's little ship. King, queen, artist, mistress of cats and six happy cats all took to the water one day. Aledin and Uldis happily learned the basics of sailing from the king while Beruthiel made sure none of the cats leaped overboard. She didn't have to worry. They all seemed to be born to sail. Mithril sat near whoever was at the tiller and even lent a paw on occasion.
'I bet he could sail the ship himself,' Uldis cried. 'He does better than I do!'
Aledin laughed. 'They do seem to take to the nautical life. My lord, do you have cats on your vessels?'
'Definitely. Without them, our stores would be devoured by vermin in no time.' He leaned in conspiratorially and whispered, 'Don't tell the queen, but I made it a point to add more for this next voyage. Even a few black ones.'
'Why not tell her? I think she would be happy to know,' Uldis replied.
'Yes, she would be happy about the cats, but she does not want me to leave again. I am counting on the two of you to help her when I am gone,' the king said.
Neither one said any more. They too had seen how Beruthiel had come to rely on the king in just a few short weeks. It was going to be hard when he left again.
'Come on, Falastur, leave those two and join Mithril and me for awhile!' Beruthiel shouted from the bow.
Falastur nodded at his conspirators and went to join his wife. 'I'm coming, Cat Lady!'
Uldis and Aledin exchanged glances. 'I hope he stays for a good long time,' Uldis said.
Aledin shook his head. 'If he lasts another month I would be surprised. That is one man who lives to walk the deck of a ship.'
Aledin's words were ones of prophecy. Falastur returned to their chambers early one afternoon soon after the outing to find his usually stoic wife in tears. 'What's the matter, Beruthiel, what has happened?'
Beruthiel looked up at him with tear-filled eyes. 'Nothing has happened. It didn't work, Falastur. I will not be bearing your child.'
Falastur sat next to her and took her in his arms. 'We knew it was unlikely, my dear. You shouldn't cry. I thought you said you didn't even like children?' he teased gently.
Beruthiel smiled a watery smile. 'I don't; I have come to despise them, but it was the one thing I could do for you. And now I have failed at that, too.'
'You did not fail; I did. Never forget that. It has always been my fault. No matter what anyone says, this is not your fault.'
'I know that, you know that, but no one else will think that, Falastur. It is always the woman's fault!' she said angrily.
Knowing this to be all too true, he hugged her more tightly. 'You know I cannot announce to the world that I am impotent, Beruthiel. The people must have utter confidence in their king.'
She nodded her head against his chest. 'Even if you could, I wouldn't let you. The people love you. They should love at least one member of the ruling family.'
Once more Falastur tried to bring a smile to her face. 'Oh, they love Earnil, too!'
'I hate you!' she cried as she flung a pillow at him and dissolved into teary laughter.
Her slightly better mood lasted only a short time. 'I will be leaving in another week, Beruthiel. The ships are ready as soon as the provisions are on board.' They were sitting in the center of a small maze that grew near their house.
'Do you have to go? We have had such fun the last few weeks,' she said.
'A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not why a ship is built, Beruthiel! There is so much to see and do out there; I can no longer delay!' Falastur's voice took on an excited tone as he spoke of being on the ocean yet again.
Her anger flared into a fit of sudden rage. 'And I will be alone again. You always leave me for the sea. I hate the sea, I hate the shore, and I hate the very smell of it!' Beruthiel lifted her hand and tried to slap his face.
Falastur grabbed her hand but before he could reply, they were interrupted by someone clearing his throat. 'I beg your pardon, your majesty. I am sorry to bother you, but they said you wished to see me.'
They turned to see a short, stout man standing there looking anything but sorry.
'Ah, Galden, yes, yes I did. Beruthiel, I want you to meet Lord Galden. He will be the Steward while I am gone.'
As Falastur spoke, one of the black cats wandered over to smell the man. Galden jerked away from the animal and it hissed at him.
'Lord Galden, you do not like cats?' Beruthiel asked with a raised eyebrow.
'They do not like me, your majesty,' Galden said as he stepped away from the cat.
Galden watched as Beruthiel bent down to pick up the cat. He had heard the rumors of her adulterous and outrageous behavior. They had been reinforced by the words she had just spoken and her attempted slap at the king. He filed away her hatred of the sea for further use. It always paid to know an adversary's weaknesses. How the king tolerated her was beyond his understanding. But ever the diplomat, he kept a false smile pinned to his face as she soothed the miserable beast.
'Not like, not like, let go, let go,' the black cat screamed in her head. Beruthiel tried to soothe it (Midnight, Soot, Sable? She never could remember!) Her efforts were futile and she let it go. It shot out of the maze at top speed.
Falastur stepped into the awkward silence. 'As I said, Galden will be Steward. Lord Mindor has been taken ill and cannot serve. It should not matter; I do not intend to be gone too long.'
Beruthiel knew from his past voyages that Falastur's definition of not too long was very different from hers. 'A pleasure, my lord,' she barely managed to squeeze out the words. 'I must be going.' Without waiting for a reply from either man, she exited the maze in the direction of the cat.
'She has been rather upset the last few days, Galden. I want her every need fulfilled while I am gone.'
'Of course, your majesty, I am here to serve,' the new steward said with a sly smile. He was pretty sure who would really be fulfilling Beruthiel's every need it and it wasn't him.
'Please don't leave, Falastur,' Beruthiel begged on the last day. 'I find it very difficult to face the people alone these days. I fear what will happen when you are gone.'
'Nonsense, Beruthiel. The people may not like you but they are hardly dangerous! And besides, Galden will see that you are safe.'
'That is another reason for you to stay. Where is Earnil? I do not trust this new steward. Why ever did you choose him? Certainly there is another of the nobility that could serve? Someone I can at least tolerate? Soot has still not recovered from meeting him, and you should always trust the judgment of a cat.' It hadn't been hard to figure out which cat had met Galden. The poor thing still wandered around muttering 'Not like' anytime Beruthiel was near.
Falastur laughed. 'You and your cats! Earnil is far to the north for the foreseeable future. The steward is an honorary position for the most part and it is Galden's turn to serve. Unless there is unrest, you should have very little to do with the man. Keep your little puddy tats away from him and all should be fine.'
'All will not be fine, Falastur. I grow weary of this life. There is nothing for me. At first I thought it would be better than life with my parents, but now I am not so sure.' Her mind wandered briefly to Aledin, but she pushed that idea far away.
'What do you want from me, Beruthiel? To sit in Osgiliath with you and mind the King's House? I have never been that man and never will be. You must learn to accept what life offers you.'
'Life? Life has never offered me anything, Falastur. I would be better off without it!'
His face solemn, Falastur said, 'I have done all I can, my dear. The rest is up to you. I leave early tomorrow.'
'Then I will say my goodbyes now, my lord. There is no need for me to see you tonight or in the morning. May the wind be always at your back,' she said and left him staring sadly after her as she walked away.
True to her word, Beruthiel was nowhere to be found when Falastur left. She had climbed up to one of the hills that rose south of the harbor. 'Well, Mithril, we are alone again. I have the oddest feeling that I may not see him again.' A sharp pang tore at her heart with the thought. If only he would stay with her, perhaps her life would be different. He was the closest thing to love that she had ever known.
'I am here, Mistress. We all are,' the cat said referring to the other nine cats.
'And I am quite happy about that at least!' she said as she watched the sails of Falastur's fleet disappear in the distance.