It was her daughter who asked the potent question.
“Mother, who were you before you met Father?”
There was a mistiness in Gilmith’s eyes that spoke of the sometimes outlandish tales of the Elves that Mithrellas occasionally stumbled upon amongst her husband’s people.
Mithrellas shook her head in dismay at her daughter hearing and believing those stories, and resolved to correct each and every one of them. Winter was closing in and they would have plenty of time stuck inside. She could correct her son’s views while she was at it.
ImrazŰr would approve. He liked directness, efficiency, and knowledge.
She smiled at that thought.
“Mother?” asked Gilmith again impatiently.
“I was a maid, my love, much like the ones who serve us now.”
“No!” Gilmith gasped immediately, and looked so appalled it took Mithrellas back, for why would this cause her daughter such distress?
“Mother, no not you? A maid? You must have been a princess? Or if not that then a Lady!”
Really, †which one of us knows who I was? And I must have been a Lady? Mithrellas thought in bemusement and answered out loud, “no, dear heart, it was as I just told you. I was a maid to a lady, and nothing more than that.”
Gilmith was looking at her like she’d shattered her dreams.
It annoyed her.
“I never said I was a lady, or a princess,” Mithrellas said, just a little sharply.
“But you’re too lovely to have been a maid,” said Gilmith, and she stamped her foot… or tapped it back against her chair leg for she could not reach the ground yet when she sat.
“Ah, but I was,” Mithrellas could hear a ghostly voice laughing softly, you are far too lovely to be a simple maid, Mithrellas; you should be a Lady of the Forest, your own harem of maids at y our ankles, worshipping where your feet land, and your hands bless. The sweet tone was tinged with bitterness, and a heavy dose of affection.
Mithrellas found herself swallowing.
“I was a maid from the time I was …well I suppose the equivalent of your age.” She pondered her daughter. “No, perhaps a little bit older.”
“Equivalent?” Gilmith asked.
“Equivalent, for Elves, in the sparse years we do grow and age, do not grow and age as Men do.”
“Oh,” Gilmith frowned, “how old were you?”
“I was thirty-two,” Mithrellas said, “and I barely had begun to grow breasts.”
Gilmith giggled in shock at the sudden mention and Mithrellas merely smiled, used by now to the … to the taboo of joking and talking of certain things amongst Men. Their views on sex and genderwere highly contradictory, hypocritical, and she found them sometimes utterly unpalatable, but to her children it was their culture, and as normal as covering their mouths with the crook of their arms when they sneezed.
“You were thirty-two.” Her daughter regarded her with the awe that Mithrellas always found discomforting when Men talked of the ages of Elves.
She thought of the little oak sapling in the courtyard that she had planted with her ImrazŰr as their first child grew inside her.
“It will grow as he does,” she had said in contentment, and ImrazŰr had shaken his head.
“He will be taller than an oak before this one looks like more than a wispy decorative piece of planting.”
It had stunned her then. It made her sadly resigned now.
“Thirty-two,” she repeated, almost to herself, “and I was very lonely.”
“Were your family not in the village near your keep?” Gilmith asked, and again Mithrellas had to shake her head, “No. You describe the ways of the Elves of the West darling one. I am what the Westerners would call a Silvan. And our ways were different. You know this.”
Gently she had taught both her children the language of her life until she had met their father. Though they had no use for it, they indulged her in it, and it kept Mithrellas from feeling adrift and as though the West had triumphed.
“Tell me, then,” Gilmith demanded, “those are the details that you have never gone into.”
And Mithrellas did.
She was thirty years under the sun, and two more, when she came to the Servants’ House to be trained.
It was in the days before she was Mithrellas, for Mithrellas was the pathetic attempt of the Sindar to match her name then to their language. Mithrellas did not even come close to the meaning of the name she had been worn then. Mithrellas remained a name, even now, that fit uncomfortably like clothing that had been tailored by eye.
She was the tithe of her too-large family. In the end it made perfect sense; she was the extra mouth that strained their meagre resources. And this way they would have more than usual, for in the place of the scavenging they might have to give up, instead she would work, for a Lord of the Forest, or a Lady of the same, and until she was given leave. That would be their payment, year in and out.
She was the smallest maid in the House. She was the quietest. It wasn’t long before they forgot her name and simply called her the Little Mouse. She was frequently homesick. The larger servants easily bossed her around, andshe became the kickpup of many of them.
Her chores were always the least favourable ones and the ones less likely to bring her into contact with a Lord, Lady, or the Mistress of the House, who might recommend her and give her an opportunity to enter into proper service.
‘The servant to the servants,' one beautiful, golden-curled maid had laughed over her bent head at one point. The maid had been on her way to becoming the handmaiden to a Lord or a Lady, with her laugh like golden bells and her skin pale as a river pearl.
Mithrellas had stayed silent.
It wasn’t her place to speak. She had to work, to ensure her family did not have to give up their food for tithes. She had to work because otherwise her siblings would starve. She had to work to repay her parents for the food they had given her that they could not share, the child too many that they’d had; the tipping point that had sent them from living plainly but wholesomely to living off the smell of cooking fat (when they could afford cooking fat).
All this was Mithrellas’ to try and compensate, for the burden and the cost of her birth, and the strain she had placed on her family, her village, and the Lord to whom her family had paid a tithe for often they had had to be given mercy from his hands in order to feed themselves.
It was these thoughts that stilled her feet often when she found herself orientating her body towards where her home had been. It was this knowledge that grew roots from the delicate bones in her toes and rooted her in place instead of taking flight into the trees.
There would be no welcoming arms and parents who had missed her so much they would allow her to stay, if she returned.
“Little Mouse, do you know any songs?” a new girl asked her at one point. It was the sixth… no the eighth year that Mithrellas had lived in the Servants' House. Nothing had changed in those eight years and the years were blurring together into exhaustively grinding repetition.
†The new girl was small like Mithrellas, but her eyes were lively and she had a lovely voice. She would easily rise into the notice of a Lord or a Lady, and leave once she was dubbed trained. The girl was on her knees beside Mithrellas as they scrubbed the decorative tiling of the courtyard within the Good Quarters. These were the quarters where the Lords and Ladies stayed when choosing servants. The filling beneath needed to be white, and so there they were with tiny brushes, cleaning between the tiles to make sure that the next Lord and Lady found nothing displeasing to their eye which could disrupt their peace.
“No,” Mithrellas answered as quietly as she could without it being a whisper, for if it was a whisper, people thought she was being cheeky at them.
She didn’t mean that disrespect.
“No? How can you not know any songs?” asked the new girl. Her name was Aellolel though Mithrellas did not bother to put effort into memorising it. Soon enough she would be yet another ‘miss’ that Mithrellas would not meet the eyes of.
“I’m sorry,” Mithrellas said, “but my mother did not sing. She said she could not waste her time on such when she had so much work to do.”
“But singing makes the work go faster!” Aellolel insisted and began to hum a melody that Mithrellas had never heard before, in all the times she’d illicitly listened to another servants singing over their work.
It was a lovely tune, and with encouragement Mithrellas hummed along as Aellolel had done while the other girl sang.
She was right, it did make the work go faster and the sun was turning the sky peach at the very edges when they were at last done and could look back on the washed-out and well-polished courtyard.
The moss was good to eat, and also made an excellent cleaning abrasive when dried, so someone had to feed it where it grew on the shadiest side of the Servants' House. So Mithrellas, dangling precariously over the edge of the flat roof on her stomach had the job of gently swapping the areas around the green patches to feed them. The moss feed smelled strange, and sloshed over her hands, leaving her cuticles stained a green-brown till she scrubbed them red and sore.
Mithrellas paused and peered to the side.
There was another girl there, another maid probably, though she was lovely, and likely to rise quickly to being a handmaiden. Her hair was like the gold some of the Ladies wore, in a braid as thick as both of Mithrellas’ wrists, swinging down from her head into the space against the wall.
“Hello,” Mithrellas replied shyly, unsure of why the other girl was there, or who she was. She was too nicely dressed, in a wrap of blushing peachy cotton, to be a new girl who were given wraps of a middling brownish colour from what dyes were left over when dying proper cloth was done. But that then meant she must have been about for a while, and Mithrellas could not remember ever seeing her.
And she would have remembered a girl that looked like this, with her eyes as green as new leaves just unfurled.
“Hello again,” a bright smile was aimed at her and made Mithrellas believe for a moment she’d stared into the sun, “you must be Little Mouse. I have heard about you! Are you feeding the moss? Here, give me some of the feed, I will help to.”
Mithrellas watched for a while as the other girl dabbed the areas around the moss, bemused.
Was she new? Maybe she was new and already had been singled out by a Lord or a Lady.
She was beautiful enough, and bright-shining with life enough that Mithrellas could easily see that happen.
The other girl must be new.
Mithrellas wriggled a little over to dip her cloth into the bucket of moss feed and returned to her job without another word.†
“My name is Nimrodel,” the girl said not a few breaths later.
Mithrellas mumbled back her own name. Not ‘Mithrellas’. No. The name in the tongue she had grown up speaking, the only beautiful thing that her parents had ever given her. In those days, long before the Sindar and their token Noldor †had arrived to bring their woes upon the people Mithrellas belonged to, Mithrellas’ name was so much more than mere ‘grey leaf’.
“That is lovely,” Nimrodel said, “the mist that rises from the bottom of a waterfall over black rocks. It suits you. It’s like someone took a silver comb and ran it through black hair, leaving all the silver behind.”
Mithrellas glanced up again at the bright golden hair that Nimrodel must be named for. There were flowers that grew in the silent groves where those that met with misfortune and died were left for nature to discard as it wished. They were white in the centre, but blushing to a heady golden at the outer edges.
They were called the Ladies of the White Grottos. They were beautiful flowers, if you dared the taboo to pick them.
“Your hair is very lovely,” she mumbled, tongue heavy and awkward. She didn’t know how to reply to Nimrodel’s words, which had almost been like a foreign language to her ears, “like the sun… and… peaches.”
Her throat clogged up and her ears burned in humiliation at the clumsiness of her voice
Mithrellas hung her head, and bit in the inside of her lip where the action would not show on her face, willing away the hot burn in her eyes which was harder at the odd angle her body was at.
“That is something I will remember. Do you mean like the golden peaches from the Orchards that the Lady of the Sweet Water guards? I like that,” Nimrodel was beaming, when Mithrellas spared her the slightest of glances, but then Nimrodel frowned.
“Why the upset?” she asked, wriggling over to touch Mithrellas’ cheek and leading her to believe she had lost control of her face.
“I’m not upset.”
“Yes, you are. You’re near to tears. Did you think I was laughing at your compliment out of rudeness? I wouldn’t do that. I like your compliment,” the words poured out of Nimrodel in a stream and the girl’s hands were fluttering in the air before her like the birds that sometimes came inside and could not figure out to get back out.
“I’m not,” Mithrellas insisted, and then her voice snapped as she tried to say, “I’m not near tears.”
It was a horrible noise, wet and gluggy.† Mithrellas didn’t recognise the misery in it in the same way someone in the duelling circles near the White Grottos might not recognise the stomach with a spear through it as their own for a long moment. Then as the pain and blood registered with the dueller, Mithrellas’ heart suddenly fluctuated and seemed to tear apart inside her.
“I’m not upset,” she insisted in a wrecked howl, and with arms that felt like they’d been deboned, managed only to flail ineffectually at Nimrodel when the other girl came shuffling over and gathered her to her, hugging her.
She was warm. She was so warm. Mithrellas hadn’t realised she’d been freezing until Nimrodel embraced her and seemed to melt away the aches and pains from the cold despair in Mithrellas’ blood that had slowly been chilling her right through.
She wasn’t sure how long she knelt on the edge of the wall, a dangerous place to be now that she reminisced upon it, her knees getting sore from the stone but unable to feel that because the warmth of Nimrodel was everything. The warmth, and the softness of her wrap beneath Mithrellas’ cheek, combined with the scent of something light and sweet, and the firmly caring way Nimrodel stroked her back, made the rest of the world a lesser concern for a long time. That was all that Mithrellas knew.
Nimrodel was singing quietly when Mithrellas’ hind-brain finally reminded her that she had many things to do. Alas, she was firmly caged by deceptively fragile-looking arms. Her head felt light. She found that her hair had been undone, and Nimrodel’s fingers were stroking it idly.
“Do you know,” Nimrodel said, when she noticed the fluttering attempts to escape Mithrellas belatedly made, “that your friend Aellolel said you had a beautiful voice, and I came up here to beg a song out of you?”
“I’m sorry,” Mithrellas mumbled, trying again to escape and neaten herself. Aellolel? She’d not shared chores with her in a while but she’d seen her, more than she saw most girls who passed by Mithrellas on their way to proper placements. She always came over and said hello to her in the mornings, and sat with her at meals.
Were they friends?
She supposed they were.
She looked forward to Aellolel in the morning, though Mithrellas was always waiting for the day Aellolel became like the rest.
So far, though, that had not happened. Aellolel had even once or twice taken other girls to task for giving Mithrellas their chores when they could not do them.
“No need to apologise. I don’t mind singing at all.”
Nimrodel’s voice had a solemnity to its lively tones. Like the jingling of festival bells before a procession, whilst in the distance, from the White Grottos, the low hum of the bells used to call forth the Doorkeeper’s dark touch upon those who had lost their lives could be heard.
“I really must get up,” Mithrellas said, loath to leave the warm guardianship of Nimrodel’s arms.
“Stay a while,” Nimrodel said in tones that sounded to Mithrellas almost like an order, “You shan’t get in trouble. I will make sure of it.”
“No one can sweet-talk the Mistress,” Mithrellas reminded her dryly.
“I can,” Nimrodel preened, “I can make her change her mind however I want.”
She had an ego. Mithrellas heard herself snort in laughter at Nimrodel’s words and the thought of the stern woman who oversaw them all being turned by anyone’s words. Nimrodel’s arms pressed in, and Mithrellas found herself settled closer, chin resting comfortably as it could on a tear-soaked shoulder.
Mithrellas felt guilt and mumbled an apology.
Nimrodel tugged her hair, “no more apologising.”
Mithrellas went silent. Nimrodel’s hand delved into her hair, stroked it in a long caressing motion that felt too good, and Mithrellas’ eyes went half lidded.
She liked it. Even if it was a strange circumstance on a strange day that had started so normally.
The day after she met Nimrodel she went to the laundry as she was ordered and picked up the large copper stirrer for the vats.
“No,” said the girl who was in charge of the laundry that day, “Little Mouse, today you are at the cold tubs washing silk.”
She’d never washed silk.
“I don’t know how to, though,” she said in alarm. Washing silk was a handmaiden’s chore and since no Lady or Lord wanted her as a handmaiden, she’d not been taught.
“Well, then you’d better learn,” said the other girl with a sniff, “off you go. Aellolel is working there, isn’t she your friend? She will show you how.”
She saw Nimrodel after that, not often enough to be called frequent, but enough that she could not call them infrequent.
Often Nimrodel would join her for some menial chore and Mithrellas suspected that it was a punishment for some sort of infraction. She had plenty of evidence for this, since Nimrodel didn’t seem to know any of the correct ways to greet a Lord or Lady, or how to show proper respect for her betters.
How are you going to secure a position as a handmaiden if you keep being sent here for punishment? Or don’t you worry about losing the favour of the Lord or Lady that selected you the moment you arrived?
These were questions she wanted to ask, because the Lords and Ladies noticed when someone was punished often. Mithrellas bit her tongue, though.
It wasn’t her place to ask.
And she had other worries herself, Mithrellas did. The way that Nimrodel would move always caught her eye - the sway of hips and the way Nimrodel’s feet seemed to dance even when she was merely walking.
The gold of her hair…indeed like the honey-tasting peaches from the orchards of the Lady of the Sweet Water.
(Sitting with her daughter, Mithrellas wondered if the Sindar and the Noldor had found the hidden orchards yet. Her heart squeezed in denial. She could just imagine them tutting and shaking their heads. Too wild, they’d say, forcing the new trees to be planted in straight rows. Ineffectual use of land, they’d say, ordering the clearing of the trees that mingled with the fruit-bearers.)
The turn of Nimrodel’s head when she heard something in the distance, and the graceful curve of her neck could catch Mithrellas’ attention in a second. The depth of Nimrodel’s laugh, and the kindness of her voice when she somehow knew Mithrellas was upset, even when Mithrellas herself did not know she was upset, which could lift her spirits immediately. Nimrodel’s little stories and songs filled Mithrellas’ head till she was humming along to their melodies as she worked, and it seemed to her that when she was working with Nimrodel, the sun shone brighter and the wind was kind. That her body didn’t seem to become fatigued so easily, and that she did not end the day in that resigned expectation of another day of the same in the way that she had for eight years before.
“Do you think it is possible to fall in love at first sight?” Nimrodel asked her one day, helping her hang up the long cords, bright red with their fresh dying, which tied their wraps shut.
Mithrellas was wearing a new wrap that had come into her possession. It was almost blue. She liked it very much.
She glanced at Nimrodel.
Nimrodel was wearing a soft muted grey that was almost like the clouds before they rained. It wasn’t some accidental colour, there were deliberate variegations in the dying to mimic the puff and swell of clouds.
Probably the Lady of the Silver Ferns then. She was said to be very rich, and lavish with her servants.
Her hair was loose, impractical but beautiful. The Mistress would scold her if she saw.
Mithrellas thought of the long thick braid when they had first met, and the warmth of Nimrodel’s embrace which had enfolded Mithrellas and soothed away the edges of hurts she didn’t know she had. Not healed them, but made her †aware of them, and let her realise why they were there.
“P… perhaps not at first sight,” she said, moving on from the cords to wraps of various colours and sizes. She pegged them up neatly, ignoring how Nimrodel hung hers with the pegs at odd angles, “b-but certainly in the first meeting –yes- I think you can fall in love with someone.”
She was glad of the laundry between them, because her skin was burning and she knew she’d gone pink. How unseemly. And useless. Romances between servants never ended happily. Not in the Servants' House at least, because usually both had to go in their separate directions.
If she thought about it.
She loved Nimrodel.
Loved her probably like a puppy loved its owner, Mithrellas admitted that much, though instead of food, Nimrodel fed her kindness.
She continued to be shunted through new chores and tasks, and more than once she noticed those that might have passed on less desirable chores to her went out of their way to avoid her. She wondered if she had given offence, and then she felt guilty because at the end of that musing was the thought that if she could know what offence she had given, she would give it again to enjoy more of this new life of hers.
She liked it.
Half a year had crept by since she had met Nimrodel. Her head was buzzing at the change in that time. Her hands were never idle, just like before, but now the chores were no longer quite so taxing and dirty. She found many of the finer chores for servants were simply that: finer versions of the chores she’d already been doing, and it was simply a matter of learning delicacy. There were some odd little skills she had to learn, but she loved that, and happily took to her tasks.
Yes, happy was the right word.
“I have been miserable for the past eight years,” she said to Aellolel one morning, “I did not realise it, but I was so unhappy I went numb.”
“What a sad way to live,” Aellolel said, “and I am sorry it was not noticed. But you use the past tense.”
“I am happy now,” Mithrellas said and she wondered at the feeling of the sentence on her tongue.
Of course she was not happy all the time. She found herself suddenly running the gamut of emotions there were to experience. Sometimes she awoke during the very loneliest hours of the night, alone, afraid, sad, and terribly angry at her family, her fellow servants, and sometimes her entire life.
Sometimes she found there was nothing better than her life at that moment as she helped Aellolel hem a delicate silk wrap, exchanging stories of their childhoods.
Sometimes she found herself riding a river surge of frustration when she failed to achieve a chore to the right level of care and detail. And the level of care and detail she was expected to produce in all her work was rising every day, it seemed.
There was also the worry and confusion to deal with, since she had not been told which Lady had chosen her (hopefully), because for what other reason was she being taught these things?
And then there was Nimrodel.
“Some of the maidens lately have been blossoming beautifully, don’t you think?” Nimrodel asked her. Mithrellas was ostensibly attempting to learn the art of putting up a Lady’s hair and Nimrodel was her (un)lucky assistant in this task.
In reality she’d been watching Nimrodel watch some of the girls outside who were hanging up the laundry.
She poked Nimrodel with a hairpin, then apologised without any real regret for her clumsiness.
“Alright, I understand. Not in your company.”
“It was an accident, I’m sorry,” Mithrellas corrected her quietly, keeping the chill out of her voice fairly well.
“Well, I am not dead, and I’ve been noticing how lovely the girls have been getting lately. Though I suppose given your reactions you prefer the serving lads?” Nimrodel asked her, leaning back to peer at Mithrellas and ruining the coil of braids Mithrellas had been trying to pin in place.
Mithrellas growled and slapped her hard on the shoulder. Then she apologised.
“Sit up straight and let me finish this,” she muttered, ashamed at her outburst, but also frustrated and more than a little angry. It wasn’t her place to get angry and it wasn’t her place to get annoyed.
Nimrodel would be leaving soon. The Lady of the Silver Ferns, who had been staying in the Good Quarters for the past month, was due to leave by the end of the season, which was only perhaps a week or so away, given the faint chill rising in the wind.
“Do you think I have been picked by a Lady?” she asked some moments after wrestling with the frustrated longing to unwind Nimrodel’s hair and stroke it through her fingers. To tip the other girl’s head back, and tell her that if she was looking at other women, then please look at Mithrellas first, because Mithrellas would be open to her advances. Even though they’d be separated soon enough.
“Why do you ask?”
“I am being taught how to be a handmaiden.”
“Yes,” Nimrodel nodded, “I think you’ve been picked by a Lady.” There was a pulling in the delicate muscles near Nimrodel’s ears where Mithrellas’ fingertips rested as she tried to balance the newly rewoven disk of braid. Mithrellas peeked around Nimrodel’s head and caught the hint of the smile there.
“The Lady of the Silver Ferns?”
Nimrodel stiffened, “why do you think it is her?”
“She’s the only Lady in residence here.”
“Someone might have sent for a new maid in the coming year and the mistress might have picked you,” Nimrodel suggested.
Not her; Mithrellas knew as she had been, the mistress would have never thought of her, not for a moment. She shook her head, and carefully began to slide the pins into the braids again, managing not to poke Nimrodel once.
“An accident,” Nimrodel muttered quietly enough that Mithrellas had to strain her ears, “I’m sure.”
Mithrellas pretended not to hear her.
Nimrodel left with the Lady of the Silver Ferns as she had expected. Mithrellas told herself that she missed her, yes, but that in time she would not.
The change in her duties continued to confuse her. Even more confusing was when she was given duties beyond the scope of a handmaiden.
It simply happened.
One day she went down to the laundry, and the girl in charge was not there. Instead it was the Mistress, who told her, in her usual tart, short tones, that she was to oversee the Laundry.
It made her wonder, the sudden change of it all, and so tentatively she asked the Mistress once when she was called to be given her seasonal review of her work. Perhaps a Lord or a Lady had taken pity on her? Was she to be a servant for a Lord or Lady when she was finally trained after delaying eight years?
“You are going to be a Housekeeper like myself,” the Mistress replied tartly, and as Mithrellas reeled, added, “Your progress so far has been satisfactory. You learn well and your hands are quick. Now off you go; I know that you are in charge of the mending today. And tomorrow you will be doing the winter inventory with me.”
Mithrellas left, stumbled down the hallway, and managed her way to the mending room off the side of the Laundry where her distraction translated into a demeanour far less meek than the maids there were used to as she replied in short, one-word answers, forgetting to duck her head or keep her voice near to a whisper.
“Housekeeper?” Aellolel paused as they checked the still room inventory the next day, “Really?”
Mithrellas squirmed where she stood, and paused on a bottle of ready-to-make tisane.
“It doesn’t make sense, does it?” she asked her friend.
“Well,” Aellolel looked her up and down, “it makes more sense now than it did when I first met you.”
Was that an insult or a compliment? Mithrellas wondered as they turned back to the shelf of dried mixtures.
“I meant that in a good way,” Aellolel added.
“Ah,” Mithrellas sighed.
“Now,” the Mistress was a tall woman who could sing trees into life in the middle of winter, filling their branches with blossoms.
Mithrellas had only seen her do it the once. She had no wish to see it again. The nails upon slate feeling of unnaturalness had left her feeling dizzy and nauseous for the rest of the season, every time she had glimpsed the bedraggled tree, and she had taken to avoiding the side of the House where it had stood.
“You have given me concerns this year, Mithrellas. You have been one of the bottom-feeders, one of the small fish whom I have left alone because you served a purpose. That purpose was a stepping stone for those with actual drive and personality. The sort that will please the Lord or Lady they serve. Now however, for reasons I do not comprehend, a Lady wishes you to be her Housekeeper.”
Mithrellas kept her hands curled in front of her, and her head down.
Her toenails needed a trim, she decided, swallowing down the bitterness that was the accuracy of the Mistress’s observations.
“This Lady shall be taking up her household in four years. In four years you shall be ready to run a new House, I will make sure of it. If you fail me, I will ensure that your discomfort at my Power for the Lunatic Rites will be like resting on goose down pillows compared to what I will put you through.”
Mithrellas’ skin crawled in horror. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Good. Now cease slumping and pull your shoulders straight. I will not tolerate your bad posture any further.
A year almost to the day of Nimrodel’s departure had Nimrodel returning.
“You have not been dismissed?” Mithrellas asked in horror. What was the point of returning to the Servants' house if she had been dismissed? No one would want to take her up again.
“No, silly,” Nimrodel smiled at her, almost indulgently. She was wearing the grey cloudy wrap from before. Mithrellas remembered then that the Lady of the Silver Ferns was visiting and blushed, mortified.
Nimrodel seemed to have grown more golden in the time away. She was taller certainly, taller than Mithrellas now when they had been eye to eye before. The sight of her in the hallway had sent something like a spear into Mithrellas’ body; a hot barb which had run from her stomach to her loins before the cold wash of worry that Nimrodel had been dismissed had obliterated it.
“You have grown,” Nimrodel changed the topic, looking her up and down and making every inch of Mithrellas’ skin feel hypersensitive and attuned to just her gaze, “and you’re standing straighter.”
“I am being trained to be a Housekeeper.” Pride put a little more strength in Mithrellas’ back. “The Mistress hits me across the shoulders with a switch if she sees me slumping.”
“She doesn’t hit me anymore,” Mithrellas hurriedly reassured her.
“Well then,” Nimrodel was still frowning, “it seems extreme.”
“I have a horrible personality,” Mithrellas informed her earnestly, “not really suited for this job. She’s doing her best.”
Oh dear, and Nimrodel was frowning again.
“Did the Mistress tell you that?” she asked.
“Yes,” Mithrellas confirmed.
“Do not listen to her,” Nimrodel flicked her hair back defiantly, “you are a wonderful person.”
Sometime a month later, Mithrellas kissed Aellolel.
It was rather quick.
Straight on the mouth.
She stared at her.
Aellolel stared back, bemused.
“Why did I do that?” Mithrellas asked her.
“I’m not sure. But perhaps you’d like to do it again,” Aellolel suggested.
Mithrellas did so.
It was lovely.
Nimrodel was not amused.
Apparently someone told someone who told her, and by the time the snippet reached her, Mithrellas had purportedly put her hand up Aellolel’s skirt.
“No, never,” Mithrellas felt her ears burn, “we just kissed. Twice.”
“Well,” Nimrodel said after a moment, “kissing. I wasn’t aware you two had an entendre towards one another.”
“Well, no,” Mithrellas said, “she is my friend, though. And I wanted to kiss her.”
“Do you want to kiss all your friends?” Nimrodel’s tone was almost mocking.
“No,” Mithrellas frowned at her.
“What about me?” Nimrodel asked her.
Mithrellas meant, annoyed with Nimrodel’s prodding and pressing and frowning over the kiss with Aellolel, to tell her no. But Nimrodel apparently had predetermined her answer because Mithrellas was being kissed even as she thought about how to tell Nimrodel no and sound convincing.
It was sublime, far beyond lovely. †
She shouldn’t have let Nimrodel kiss her. †She figured this out very soon afterwards.
Nimrodel could appear out of nowhere, clear signs of having been at other chores when she arrived. She would steal a kiss; steal more if she could surprise Mithrellas early enough. Her hands could caress in long sweeps which would make Mithrellas want to melt right there and then. Her knees would lose her strength and her head would float.
“You’ve made a mistake.” Aellolel seemed strangely calm about the entire thing after one such incident. She propped hands on the long pole she’d been using, glancing down the corridor Nimrodel disappeared down to back to the kitchens, leaving Mithrellas leaning heavily against the tapestries they were meant to be taking down to clean.
“Oh, and her apron has left some spinach on your dress,” Aellolel added, gently batting away the offensive leaf before it could stain the almost pink cloth.
Nimrodel’s visit coincided with the Lunatic festival.
Mithrellas had spent the past six years dreading it and once more it was upon them. Her hand was curled in Aellolel’s on the sole day they were allowed off. Outside in the middle of the snow, a tree was blooming.
“I don’t like this festival,” she confessed.
“It is unsettling here,” Aellolel agreed, “it’s not like I remember it at home.”
“You celebrated it in your village?” Mithrellas could not recall celebrating it until she had come here.
“Well, yes but it was just a small party. We made a wreath of holly for the Guardian Tree and then we ate sweet things,” Aellolel squeezed her hand, “at least we have that here also?”
They had a tray of sweetened buns between them, the bread soft and lightly sweet and the jam in the middle a surprise of gooseberry tartness.
“At least we have sweet things,” Mithrellas agreed, but her skin was writhing against her muscles and she swore she could hear the tree outside screaming.
“Nimrodel is sleeping with several of the other girls here,” Aellolel added as if it was a natural part of the conversation.
“I know,” Mithrellas replied in the same tone.
“I am patient,” Aellolel murmured and handed her the plate with the last bun and Mithrellas managed a single bite before deciding she was not hungry, stomach twisting.
Nimrodel’s promiscuity wasn’t exactly a secret. Or discrete. And it was a certain measure of confused pride and upset that kept Mithrellas on her feet and only allowing kisses and caresses for every single day of Nimrodel’s second stay in the Servant’s House, except the last.
“Wider, wider,” Mithrellas whimpered, feeling vulnerable with her legs spread so far, and Nimrodel between, licking her lips while her fingers caressed Mithrellas’ bared buttocks, palming them with a low groan of appreciation.
Mithrellas could not get comfortable. They were too close to the tree in bloom out there in the snow. She arched at the hot lash of pleasure as Nimrodel’s tongue explored, feathering upward and then abruptly flicking forward.
“Relax,” Nimrodel’s voice was muffled against her inner thigh.
“Can’t,” Mithrellas gasped and keened as Nimrodel’s tongue made careful passing sweeps over Mithrellas’ clitoris.
“Is it the tree?” Nimrodel asked, abruptly leaving Mithrellas cold and bereft, hips jolting with frustration at the sudden loss of stimulus. Nimrodel slid up her body, and blanketed her, mouth tasting like iron when she kissed her.
“It is the tree,” Mithrellas shivered in discomfort as she thought she heard the tree wail again in pain and horror.
“Where I come from we do not have the Lunatic festival. It is a cruel thing to do to nature for our own revelry and need to prove to nature we can dominate it as easily as it dominates us,” Nimrodel’s hands smoothed up and down her sides, leaving trails of warmth and contentedness.
“Why do we celebrate it, then?” Mithrellas felt herself relaxing. Her eyes became caught in the verdant of Nimrodel’s.
“It is something missionaries from the West brought us a long time ago. They are long gone now, but the festival remains. I hate it,” Nimrodel pressed their noses together. “Try and sleep. I will stop the tree from bothering you.”
“Ah, but,” Mithrellas tried to stir her suddenly heavy limbs.
“Ah, eager,” Nimrodel laughed and kissed her mouth, “thank goodness, I thought you were only indulging me so I would leave you alone from now on.”
“Oh no,” Mithrellas couldn’t stop herself slipping into reverie, “not you. Never you. I love you.”
There was a pause, and then the softest of kisses against her lips, “well, we have the morning,” Nimrodel’s voice was strangely subdued even to Mithrellas’ sleep-addled hearing.
And they did have the morning, the very first hours of the morning when Nimrodel’s hot, insistent mouth roused Mithrellas from a most restful sleep. Nimrodel promised her delights far beyond what her tricky fingers roused in Mithrellas, and Mithrellas gasping for breath with her mind nearly numb from pleasure could not quite comprehend there might be more than this.
Come the actual time of waking, there was a delicious ache within her, from muscles unused to the exercise they had endured, and she might have smiled a little more than she usually did.
“Nimrodel is gone, then,” Aellolel dropped the comment in as they carefully unmade the beds in the Good Quarters and packed up the linens for a special washing regime.
“Yes,” Mithrellas agreed, mouth still tingling from Nimrodel’s final, heavy kiss, and her hips still feeling the tight clench of the other maid’s hands on them.
“Well then,” and then Aellolel leaned in and kissed her.
And for the next year, it was the season of love and laughter for Mithrellas, whose life had never been so warm and wonderful.
Then she learnt, as all the servants did, or relearnt, why one did not try and make any sort of committed relationship within the Servant’s House.
“We will see one another again!” Aellolel promised her, squeezing her hands as they wept on Mithrellas bed, coiled around one another.
Mithrellas nodded but her heart was heavy and sore, and she knew that even for their race, which knew not the wearing of years upon the body, it would be a very long time before she saw her beloved friend again.
“I pray the Lord of the Quarry will be a good master to you,” she whispered instead.
“I think he will be,” Aellolel squeezed her hands, “he seems kind and gentle. He says I will be his new daughter’s nursemaid and I look forward to that. I have missed the caring for of children, it is the one thing they do not teach us here.”
Mithrellas nodded, and though her heart hurt it did lift slightly, for Aellolel had cared, as a young girl, for the other children of her village while their parents worked, before being sent away as a Tithe.
“Farewell,” she whispered, “and your path be smooth and tireless.”
“Farewell,” Aellolel agreed, “but not forever. One day we shall meet again, beneath ancient trees and in happiness, no longer servants.”
There was a ring of prophecy to her words.
“Perhaps you shall be a Lady,” Mithrellas teased her and turned her head, shyly kissing the pulse in Aellolel’s neck.
“Perhaps I shall,” Aellolel laughed, reaching up to run her fingers through Mithrellas’ hair and the cherry wood hair tags Aellolel had braided into the unruly mess of it.
After Aellolel left, Mithrellas’ life became an abysmally lonely one. She had her chores and duties, and now she even had private lessons with the Mistress. She threw herself into them with a forcefulness she’d never thought herself capable of.
All the while, though, she was lonely, so lonely. She felt cold every morning when she woke up without a body next to hers. Her lunchtimes were intolerable for the void like space beside her where Aellolel had sat.
And beyond that there was a wider void of yearning; wondering when she would see Nimrodel again.
I am horrible, fickle person; Mithrellas reflected miserably over a book of accounts that she was being tested on to find the discrepancies in the spending. She tapped her finger over a number that did not quite seem right, shoulders slumped.
“Not two. That’s not how it works,” she muttered out loud.
“What was that, Mithrellas?” the Mistress asked her.
She had forgotten the Mistress was observing her.
“This number, ma’am,” she replied, shaken, “there is no way that this house could have needed two tithes of firewood in the middle of summer.”
“Very good,” the Mistress nodded.
Mithrellas ducked her head.
“And you are very naÔve if you think that One True Love is a thing that exists,” the Mistress added, making her jump nearly out of her skin in fright.
“I am too old not to recognise your tone of voice. And if you think I do not know of the liaisons amongst all of you, you are wrong,” the Mistress’s tone turned chill, “as a Housekeeper you will not have the time for romance. I suggest stepping away from any further attachments, Mithrellas. Every moment that you are awake will be involved in keeping your Lady or Lord’s house running smoothly. Love is unnecessary and a hindrance.”
The murmurs of a new Lady began not long after this incident. Mithrellas had been doing her best not to think of Aellolel and Nimrodel the entire time, and it took her mind from it as she swept into the speculation about the new Lady.
“The River of Sighs, but that used to have a Lady, so it is not really a new lady,” a plain faced, but hard-working girl with a temper that had stopped her falling into the place that Mithrellas had had, commented.
Ostensibly Mithrellas was helping plant the vegetable garden with a design she had had to come up with for the Mistress to approve. In reality she was eavesdropping and barely managing to put kale anywhere near the dirt.
“I’ve never heard of a Lady of a River of Sighs,” the youngest servant in training squeaked. She was minuscule, and Mithrellas wondered at the wisdom and kindness of sending a child so young to serve as a tithe. Surely the girl had older siblings?
†“Well, the last Lady of the River of Sighs was taken away by a creature with a thousand voices, and that was a long time ago,” a doe-eyed boy replied next to her. He was slender and pretty in a way that might be dangerous for him in the future, “and the Lady before that was stabbed to death by her lover, and the Lady before that was eaten by a pack of wolves! No Lady wanted the position after that, and no Lord or Lady would risk their children. They say it’s cursed.”
“I doubt they'll be doing anything like they did before. The house, for instance, will be a ruin, so they’ll likely have built a new one. And those deaths were all unrelated,” the doe-eyed boy concluded. “Little Mistress, what do you think?”
Mithrellas managed not to jump as she was addressed. “Myself? I think it is interesting. I heard of how the last Lady of the River of Sighs died, though I had not heard of the other ones.”
Her ears burned in mingled embarrassment and delight. She cast an eye on his face, suspicious that he was mocking her, but his gaze was honest and his expression inquiring.
“You don’t know more? Aren’t you going to be her Housekeeper?”
Mithrellas stared at him.
“Aren’t you?” his eyebrows furrowed, “why else would they be training a Housekeeper? Usually Housekeepers rise up the ranks of the servants within the House. My mother told me. She is a Housekeeper.”
“I hadn’t thought about it,” she admitted.
“Huh,” he stared at her and his gaze was thoughtful now. “You’ll need to be more inquisitive if you want to be a good Housekeeper.”
“How are you such an expert?” she asked him, not annoyed, but genuinely curious. Sometimes the maids and boys here were the children of servants, but more often than not they were tithes like her. She was given to understand that servants did not often have children. She supposed they would have to get a blessing on their relationship from their Lord or Lady, and also the Housekeeper, and then leave to have a child.
And then the time away from working to have the child. She could remember her mother complaining about how having Mithrellas had left her unable to work for several weeks after the event.
“My father is the Steward of the Lord of the North Mountain, and my mother is Housekeeper, though at the moment her eventual successor is holding the position while my mother waits for my littlest sister†to be grown enough to be left alone,” he replied, “I am here for training so that no one can claim nepotism, or unfair nepotism, when I become Steward when my father is finally given leave to retire with my mother.”
Well, that made sense. It also opened up a new world she was going to enter, and in a position she might not have come about to normally.
“Will I have troubles?” she asked him bluntly, “becoming a Housekeeper straight out of the House?”
“Yes,” he replied, “but if you seem to be a firm sort, so in time the resentment will give way. And those that continue to grudge you can dismiss,” he shrugged a shoulder.
“I see,” she looked down at the kale that had been sitting in her hands for longer than it should have. She planted it and reached into the wooden box of grown seedlings. Poor thing, she thought at the kale, sitting there in her hands for so long, unable to finally have its tiny roots sunk into the soil it would spend its life in.
“I am Galion, by the way,” he added.
“I’m Tauriel!” squeaked the little girl beside him, leaning in with her auburn hair fluffing up around her face almost in excitement, thinking this an opportunity to rejoin the conversation.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” Galion said.
She scowled back at him.
The plain-faced maiden reached over and pushed Galion easily into the dirt.
“I am Orgollas,” the plain-faced maiden patted little Tauriel’s head, knocked the spluttering Galion back into the dirt as she reached back to the box of seedlings and picked up the last of the kale to be planted.
Mithrellas smiled at their antics despite herself, then focused on the now dirt-smeared doe eyed boy.
“Yes, little Mistress,” he grinned at her. She narrowed her eyes at him, “are you the Galion that was caught sneaking drinks from the Mistress’s cider?”
His shoulders twitched under her stare, “yes that was me. I’ve learnt my lesson.”
“Good,” she said but couldn’t stop herself adding, “don’t do it again.”
She twitched unsurely at the word, “my name is Mithrellas. I am not a Housekeeper yet.”
“But you will be. And it doesn’t feel right to call you by your name when you’ve just scolded me.”
That cheeky grin was back.
“Do you think so?”
“Yes, and it couldn’t hurt to get used to it. That’s what you’ll be called when you enter service.”
“Well,” she picked up several of the stunted leek seedlings that had not grown as much as she’d hoped, “carry on then.”†
“Do you think it is right we live our lives†at the whims of the Lords and Ladies?” someone whispered.
Mithrellas, hovering in a doze, felt her eyes fly open. She was not the only one startled awake by this bizarre question.
The dormitory stirred restlessly. Beds were cut off from one another with privacy screens made from thin wooden poles and thick, beaten bark-cloth. The screens did nothing to stop voices carrying.
“Why do you ask?” someone else whispered.
“We are born, and then the Lords and Ladies take our food, and take our service, and what do we get in return?”
“Well, their protection of course.”
“They are the Lords and Ladies, we are born to serve them!” someone else said in a high pitched, panicked voice.
“Calm down,” someone hissed.
“What if someone hears this?! Do you know the punishment for treason?” that same panicked voice nearly snarled back.
“Go to sleep,” Mithrellas felt compelled to say into the darkness. There was immediate silence. “Forget about this conversation.”
But she couldn’t. And she lay awake for a long time afterwards, staring at the darkness around her, aware of the yawning gap where Aellolel had usually snuck into her bed to cuddle, once the privacy screens were drawn around their beds.
Come the following summer one could not escape the news of the new Lady of the River of Sighs. Apparently there had never been a chance for any Lord to take the position; any men who had tried for the position had been easily defeated in the duelling circles.
Every week messenger pigeons came to the Mistress, and she took a certain pleasure in telling the assembled House at ever breakfast the newest results of the duelling. There was not a single daughter, or granddaughter of a Lord or Lady, it seemed, that was not trying to claim the River of Sighs.
There had even been deaths.
Currently, though, it was the three daughters of the Lady of the Sweet Water who had been dominating the proceedings, the eldest especially, known as the Little Lady of the Sweet Water, who seemed to be the likely victor.
All they could do was to wait and see. There was an excitement to it, blood lust perhaps, or simply fascination with this rare event. The last time there had been a contest for the position of a Lord or Lady had been the last Lady of the River of Sighs, and that had happened long before any of those in the Servants' House save the Mistress had been born.
Wait and see.
Wait and see.
Mithrellas’ stomach was turning into a painful, twisting ball of nerves, and her appetite dropped. The Mistress’ eyes always sought her out when she read the new results. Mithrellas did not need to be told now that this was the position she had been trained for.
The daughter of the Lady of the Roses took a sudden lead, but then the granddaughter of the Lady of the Red Oak Ridge managed to push her out of the duelling circle.
It was bloody. These were sometimes maiming injuries, sometimes even fatal injuries. You were allowed nothing in the duelling circles but a stone knife and a stone tipped spear. No metal edges. No lines to try and trip your opponent with.
“It will be done by the Summer Solstice,” the Mistress called Mithrellas to her, “you will be leaving the House when we are given the news that the duelling is done. You will be sent straight to the House that has been built for her, and you will begin your duties immediately.”
“Yes ma’am,” Mithrellas nodded.
“You have pleased me,” the Mistress said, “you were a weak-willed runt for the first eight years of your life here. Now you have become someone I can actually respect and be proud of. I do not doubt that, if you had not been given duties, you would have stayed as the bottom-feeder you were. Be thankful that fate smiled on you, Mithrellas, and it was insisted against my judgement that you be trained to be the Housekeeper.”
“If I may ask, who insi-“
“No, you may not ask. Back to your chores.”
Three days before the Summer Solstice a dark horse came out of nowhere, it seemed, and was ennobled as the Lady of the River of Sighs, having come through the rites of Power and Blood. The youngest daughter of the Lady of the Silver Ferns, considered a child still, had not been cast from the duelling circles, but no one thought her capable of defeating either the granddaughter of the Lady of the Red Oak Ridge, or the Little Lady of the Sweet Waters, who were mature women with years of experience duelling in the name of their foremothers.
But she did.
Apparently the Little Lady of the Sweet Waters might walk without a limp in a few decades time, counting on the healing of their kind. The Granddaughter of the Lady of the Red Ridge was lucky to still be alive after her gut had been slashed open.
Mithrellas left the Servants' House the day after.
“Thirteen years,” she shivered all over. Little Tauriel, the youngest servant in the house, was holding onto her hand.
“I’m thirteen,” Tauriel piped up.
Mithrellas looked down at her. Tauriel had been born the year that Mithrellas had entered the House? It made the time there seem even longer, not shorter, despite Tauriel’s young age.
“Thank you for taking me with you,” Tauriel beamed up at her.
“I… I am simply obeying the Mistress’s orders,” Mithrellas tried not to stutter as she and the child began to walk down the path, following the wagon that was holding a small present for the New Lady.
“Yes, but you’re a Housekeeper now, too! You could have said no.” Tauriel began to skip. Mithrellas adjusted her hold on Tauriel’s hand to accommodate her bouncing about.
“Could I have?”
“Galion says I have to remind you to be firm and not let people know you don’t know stuff,” Tauriel bounced over her feet as nimbly as a rabbit, “cause otherwise you will not be taken seriously as a Housekeeper.”
“Oh,” Mithrellas nodded slowly.
“Also he says you need to braid your hair up cause you look like someone who crawled out of a marsh in that bun you prefer.”
Was there enough time to run back into the house and get Orgollas to push Galion into a suitable muddy pit?