Banjoverse: The Full Epic
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Son of Harad: 11. Minas Tirith
Faramir was just exiting the stables when he caught sight of a flash of silver, a long stride and outstretched arms. Elboron. The boy was still dressed in his formal Guardsman wear, with the White Tree etched into his white doublet, and the flowing silver-lined cloak swept over one shoulder. He was walking quickly down the sixth circle’s main street, laughing and smiling. Faramir began to grin as well and he went to meet him.
They met halfway, just past the stables and near the steep stairs leading directly up to the Citadel’s south doors. Faramir pulled the boy into a laughing embrace, but Elboron quickly disentangled himself, stepped back and bowed with a flourish of his hand. They both dissolved into rather boyish giggles.
“And what’s this?” Faramir asked, nudging Elboron’s chin. The boy had cut his hair shorter than Faramir had ever held it – city fashions, Faramir thought with a hidden cringe; Éowyn had warned him that Elboron would fall prey to these frivolities – and, underneath the uneven locks, the boy was sporting a faint auburn fuzz around his jaw.
“’Tis a strange plague, my lord,” Elboron said gravely, rubbing his furry chin. “It came one morning, and I know not how to be rid of it! In truth, I have grown rather fond of it.” He winked before adding, “As have the girls.”
The attendants were already lugging Faramir’s bags up the stairs and down the outside walkway which led along the Citadel’s walls to the Steward’s House. Ten days ago, the King had sent a missive to Faramir detailing the upcoming council meeting, and Faramir had taken advantage and come several days in advance to see how Elboron was faring in his first few months with the Citadel Guard. But if Elboron’s flushed, beaming face and proudly-displayed sword calluses were any indicator, it seemed that the boy was faring very well. Through Beregond, Captain Iorlas had sent word to Faramir and Éowyn saying that the boy was doing well, and there was nothing to worry about.
Yet Faramir missed his son – these last few months had been the boy’s first season away from their manor in Emyn Arnen – and both Faramir and Éowyn had found themselves restless enough that they had each taken to writing letters to the boy, hoping he would be as hasty in his replies as they were in the sending. And they found themselves casting long looks to the western horizon, wondering when and hoping there should be an excuse to go to Minas Tirith. Faramir had been too busy during the summer season, and Éowyn had nearly gone by herself in September when a letter from Elboron had come begging them to leave him be for at least a fortnight, Mother. I have the most letters in all the Guard compiled!
But ever since Elboron’s departure, the manor had grown quiet, and Faramir no longer woke to find toads staring back at him while Éowyn shrieked, and dinner conversation was always serious and dull. And looking at Elboron now, as they walked down the sixth circle street, his son who was rambling on about the Guard’s activities and the archery grounds and the pretty Citadel courtesans, Faramir felt his chest tighten for how much he had missed his boy.
“Well, I am pleased to see you are keeping yourself busy,” Faramir said, wryly, after Elboron had finished telling a story of how a few of the younger guardsmen and he had raided the Citadel kitchens the night before.
“Ah, father, do not give me that look. I know for a fact that you pillaged the pantry in your youth as much as I do now.”
“Who told you such nonsense?”
“Captain Iorlas, to be sure!”
“You are comfortable enough with your captain to speak with him of such trivialities?”
In truth, Faramir was not entirely surprised to hear that his affable son had won over Iorlas as well as most of the Guard. Elboron had a certain beaming charisma which neither Faramir nor Éowyn had ever recognized in each other – though Éowyn believed he had inherited it from Éomer, since you are much too serious and brooding, my dear.
“Aye, of course,” Elboron said. “And you know what he said, father? Just the other day he said I’ve taken much after Boromir!”
Faramir could not contain the derisive snort. “Boromir?”
Boromir, of all people! Faramir had never told Elboron about the months after the War, when the boy’s uncle had become the infamous Boromir the Drunkard, Boromir the Mad. When the man would strike those who meant to help him, when he had struck Faramir as the latter had told him of their father. And the humiliation, and the regret, and titles ripped from the former glory of Gondor. Faramir had never told Elboron of that day, in the Houses of Healing, when he had seen Boromir for the first time since his return to Minas Tirith. And how the man had wasted away to a gaunt skeleton, a ghost of his former self, and the healers had proclaimed his mind irrecoverable and had asked Faramir’s approval to tie him to his bed.
But no one spoke of Boromir anymore, and Faramir found himself sometimes forgetting he had an older brother at all. The first years of Boromir’s absence he had gravitated between an angry grief and a stabbing self-pity. But as the years passed, and Minas Tirith began to forget Boromir the Mad, Faramir too found himself pushing this figure – this brother figure – back into another part of his mind, locking him away with his father and his mother and all the untouched, painful memories of the past. Gathering cobwebs.
Admittedly, Faramir was somewhat surprised Elboron had not yet heard the nastier tales of Boromir the Mad – when the man would retch in the streets and spit before the King – when he would disappear to the taverns for days – when he would stumble back to Faramir’s chambers, weeping. Though perhaps the other guardsmen were sensitive enough not to mention these things to Elboron. Or perhaps Elboron knew and, in his own fashion, had decided not to mention them to his father.
Now, Elboron was watching him with a hurt look.
“Well, what meant Iorlas with that remark?” Faramir asked, gruff. “In what way have you taken after the man?”
“He did not elaborate,” Elboron said evenly. After a few moments, he added, “I did not think ‘twas such an offense.”
Faramir exhaled. “Aye… Forgive me, Elboron. I did not mean for it to pain you.”
They were walking past the Houses of Healing now, and Faramir’s gaze swept over the herb garden which grew now in the central courtyard – just visible through the colonnaded galleries – as a memorial to the periannath of the Shire.
“And I suppose I must speak well of him, either way,” Faramir mumbled. “For I know not whether he is even living or dead…”
A warning voice. Ever since Elboron had been eight or nine years old, he had learned to recognize when one of his parents fell into a mood, that bitter wash of twisted nostalgia – remembering the days during the War, when everything was so different and the men and women lived in fear for their lives every day, every single day… And so Faramir smiled, for his son had detected that bitterness now, and had promptly ended it with a single word.
When Elboron saw his father’s smile, he returned it, nodded his head in an almost imperceptible acknowledgement that that topic was finished.
“Well, shall we make our way to supper then?” Elboron asked. “Or, old and weary as you undoubtedly are, dear father, shall I escort you to the House?”
Faramir gave a snort of laughter. “Nay, I am famished. Where did you intend to eat?”
“Ah, well, Iorlas and the Lady Ana have invited us to their humble home, should we desire to dine lower than the Citadel this evening,” Elboron grinned. “Ragnor, Borlas and Bergil will be present, as well as the girls. I thought perhaps you could tell the attendants to settle your things in the House, and then we could send a page to the King alerting him to your arrival. I trust you did not intend to work on your first evening with your beloved son?”
At that, Faramir laughed outright. “Nay! What blasphemy to e’en think such a thing!”
And Elboron laughed with his father, still with that chuckling squeak of youth, and gave his father’s shoulders a quick shake.
“Though come with me to the House first, Elboron,” Faramir said, freeing himself of the boy’s exuberant embrace. “For I have a pack of letters from your mother to deliver, and she threatened to lock me in the study if I did not give them to you within the first hour of my arrival.”
Elboron gasped. “And we are already two hours past!”
Iorlas and Ana lived in the fifth circle. Ever since Iorlas had obtained captaincy of the Citadel Guard and his two daughters had been born, they had moved from their humble apartments in the fourth circle to a much larger home in the fifth circle. It was a tall structure of three floors, and they owned the apartments on the second and third floors. This included the roof, much to the delight of the children. The dining room, which was on the second floor, had tall windows overlooking the main street, while the rooms on the southern side displayed the panoramic urban slope of Minas Tirith. According to Beregond, who often visited the manor at Emyn Arnen, it was quite beautiful to see the sun disappearing behind the stark walls of the Citadel on an autumnal evening spent in Iorlas’s home.
They were all in the dining room, now. Faramir, Elboron, Iorlas, Ana, Borlas, Bergil, and the two young daughters, Menel and Silivren, with their nursemaid. Menel and Silivren were only nine and seven, respectively, and though they were both quiet and well-behaved girls, the nursemaid still sat between them, fussing. Elboron sat with the older lads, Borlas and Bergil, and the three young men had already loosened their stiff collars and were speaking jovially about something. Faramir watched with warm eyes as his son, a head of messy auburn, laughed, speaking loud, gesturing, while the dark-haired men – both sporting their own full beards, Faramir noted with a raised eyebrow – nodded and laughed.
Iorlas was at the head of the table, to Faramir’s left – usually the Lady sat at the head’s right, but they had insisted Faramir and Ana switch seats so that Faramir could have the view of the fifth circle main street. Ana sat across from him now – and he watched her with a smile. Her hair had grayed somewhat, and there were laugh lines around her eyes, yet he could not help but see the smiling young woman of The Rose Garden from so many years ago.
“Well, we await Ragnor.” Iorlas tugged stubbornly at his collar. “He is late as usual.”
“How is Ragnor?” Faramir asked. “I have not seen him for several months. I’ve heard he’s grown… well, somewhat – ”
“Fat,” Iorlas supplied. The girls giggled. “Aye, it’s that wife of his – she pampers him to no end. But you’ll see soon enough.”
The servants brought out the bottles of Dorwinion, though Ana beckoned for them to wait before they set the platters of olives, cheese and cold meats. Instead, the water glasses were filled, and baskets of bread were spread around the table. The girls were already eating, with the help of the nursemaid, and Faramir eventually lost himself in a conversation regarding the upcoming council meeting.
“Aye, well, the Umbari governors are being quite wary – the Haradrim still hold much influence there, though I think it’s only a matter of time ere the talks fall through,” Iorlas was saying. “Though speak with Prince Imrahil and he shall tell you it is only a matter of time before a fleet comes sailing up the Belfalas coast to attack him.”
“Perhaps Imrahil has reason to be concerned,” Faramir said. He knew it was rude but every so often his eyes wandered to the red glow of the fifth circle buildings – beautiful, indeed, with the sun setting behind Mount Mindolluin. Watching the orange-red reflected sunset, he added, “He tells me there have been raids in the southern towns by the Tolfalas strait, and there has been much traffic on the South Road.”
“Aye, I agree with him there. ’Tis South Gondor that is our weakness,” Iorlas said. “We have barely any presence in the desert – most of the companies have been sent north – and much that happens in the south goes unseen. The posts along the Harad Road are not enough.” He smiled. “Would we had the Rangers there.”
Faramir grinned but said nothing. In that moment, the doorbell rang and the sound of an attendant opening the front door could be heard, followed by creaking stairs. The men stood hastily, and Iorlas and Faramir went to the door to greet Ragnor just as he was led into the dining room by the chamberlain. The man was somewhat plumper than usual, Faramir noted, but not so glaringly obese as the gossiping wives made seem.
Such frivolous times, Faramir thought with a huff. He could still recall the days when the city vibrated with tension, with fear, and one saw only scowls and glares on the streets – the days when no one could sleep through a full night, when it was impossible to obtain a loan since creditors thought you should die ere you paid your debt – the days when the children were serious, and sparse – the days when to speak of such nonsense, such as how fat a man was, was a sign of weakness, a sign that Mordor’s gloom was finally working on your nerves enough for you to feign blindness and retreat into false superficiality…
If only Elboron could read my thoughts, Faramir thought. He would chide me now with a single word and that look of his.
Indeed, Elboron was watching him shrewdly as Iorlas and Ragnor bantered, as Faramir asked after Ragnor’s wife’s health while the red-haired Guardsman was led to his seat. But Faramir met eyes with his son, smiled slightly, and this was enough to assuage the boy’s doubts. Elboron nodded, and turned back to Bergil and Borlas.
“Ah, ‘tis nothing but a head cold, my lady,” Ragnor assured Ana as the latter made a servant fetch some broth to be sent to Ragnor’s wife. “But thank you. As I recall, your cooking staff is quite talented. And you have ever been such a sweet and kind-hearted lady.”
Ana smiled at that, blushing enough so that Iorlas laughed. He gave her a quick peck on the cheek as he sat. “Enough, Ragnor! I will not have you woo my wife in front of me!”
Ragnor put up his hands. “Very well, very well. But you cannot blame me for trying with such a comely lass.”
“Lass?” Ana repeated, and laughed outright.
The servants arrived, carrying platters of food with them. The first wine bottle was opened, and Faramir, as the guest of honor and the man of highest rank, was given the tasting. He nodded his approval and soon wine and water flowed, as did the conversation. After everyone had exchanged the usual questions of how Éowyn was, and what news was there from Ithilien – most of which Iorlas already knew thanks to his brother – the talk turned to political matters between Iorlas, Faramir and Ragnor while Ana, Bergil, Borlas and Elboron began to tell humorous anecdotes.
The first course was pheasant with green vegetables, while the second was venison and roast potatoes. Faramir, who had already stuffed himself, in his impatient hunger, with the cold meats and olives in the beginning, was nearly begging the servants to leave him be as they came to refill his plate again and again. Outside, the sun set behind Mindolluin, and the precious reds of the Minas Tirith buildings faded to delicate pinks and, finally, soothing blues. Servants lit candelabras around the dining room, bustled in and out. Eventually, the nursemaid and the girls disappeared with a chorus of goodnight, goodnight! and a kiss and embrace each from their parents.
Hours passed. The men eventually tired of politics, and instead turned their attentions to bawdy tales of youth, so that the younger men laughed. Faramir noted that while Borlas and Bergil were busy exchanging lewd stories with Ragnor and Iorlas, Elboron had switched seats with Bergil and was speaking with Ana in soft tones. Faramir smiled.
Fruit and seedcake were brought. Ragnor, who sat beside Faramir, gladly accepted both, while Faramir took only fruit. Dessert wine was poured. Faramir noticed that his face felt warm, and that the indistinct fuzz of a few glasses had settled in all his limbs. Casting a quick glance around the table, he saw that it was crowded with several empty bottles of Dorwinion. And he found himself nearly spitting his drink with laughter after young Borlas recounted a particularly ridiculous mishap he had had weeks ago on the archery grounds.
Iorlas slammed his back, chuckling. Iorlas’s face was flushed, and his dark curls were disheveled from where he had raked his hand through earlier. Ana plucked at a stray lock of hair.
“Husband, your hair grows like the weeds,” she said. “Tomorrow it’s to the barber’s with you. I won’t have you attend a council like that.”
At this, Iorlas leaned over, a little wobbly, and kissed his wife on the cheek. “Forgive me, my dear.”
Ana slapped him lightly on the shoulder.
“Ana…” Faramir said, and he noticed his tongue felt thick, “how is your brother?”
“Oh, he’s well, my lord,” Ana smiled. “Thank you for asking.”
“You must tell me where he lives… on my return, I shall no doubt pass through New Osgiliath. I should like to pay him and his wife a visit.”
Ana blushed furiously, but nodded. “Aye, my lord, certainly.”
“Bah! ‘My lord’ this and ‘my lord’ that!” Iorlas exclaimed. He reached for the nearest open bottle of wine, began to pour. “Must we always bring title and politics to the table?”
“Uncle…” Borlas warned, snickering. He cast Faramir a nervous look.
“Nay, nay,” Faramir held up his hand, “Iorlas is right. ‘Twould be a welcome respite.”
“But haven’t we been speaking of politics all evening long?” Ragnor asked, bewildered.
“Indeed, husband,” Ana laughed as Iorlas took both her hands in his and kissed the palms.
“Aye, but I tire of it, my dear,” Iorlas said, meeting her gaze and grinning. “Let us speak of love, and sweeter matters. Shall I tell them of the first time we met?”
Ana sighed good-naturedly. “My husband, I am sure they have all heard it before, too many times to count,” scattered chuckles, “and it seems the night is finished when you begin with your poetry.”
“I’m a good poet!” Iorlas exclaimed in mock insult.
Bergil and Borlas laughed at this, and Bergil exclaimed, “Spare us, uncle! Anyway, my brother and I must return to the barracks soon – else they shall close the gates on us.” He nudged Elboron, who had been drinking from his goblet. “You too, my little lord. Tomorrow you must rise with the rest of us.”
“Aye…” Elboron groaned. “And I must escort my sire home soon ere he turns any redder.”
“I’m not red,” Faramir said, aghast. The table laughed.
“Nay, of course not, my prince,” Iorlas assured him, beginning to stand.
Ana stood as well, and soon they were all bustling up, straightening jackets, combing fingers through hair, chatting. The servants came in – seeing the dinner’s end – and soon all the plates and cups and goblets and bowls and bottles were carried out of the room.
Downstairs, Faramir and Elboron bade Iorlas and Ana good night, with Faramir bestowing a kiss on Ana’s cheek – earning an affable jest from Iorlas. Elboron bowed formally to Iorlas, who returned the salute in semi-genuine gravity. After chatting and saluting and laughing with Bergil, Borlas and Ragnor, father and son were off.
“Father, I think you have had too much wine.”
“Nonsense. I’m simply tired.”
“Then why are you walking that way?”
“The Citadel is this way. I do not think they’ve moved it.”
Faramir stopped, turned, looked around. The boy was right. The Citadel was behind him. With a huff, he turned, teetered for a moment, and found his elbow caught by a strong hand. Elboron stood beside him, chuckling. They were at the corner of the fifth circle. Ahead, the Citadel loomed, with the Tower of Ecthelion emerging tall and thin over the sloped buildings.
Up above, the stars.
Elboron began urging Faramir up, and they walked quietly for the length of the sixth circle. Few were out at this hour – they had made late thanks to the dinner – and so they walked, the freezing wind burning their ears.
Not that Faramir was particularly disturbed by the wind, or the cold. The wine had warmed him enough so that the wind was a welcome contrast to his heated skin. After a few steps, he shook off Elboron’s hand on his arm, mumbling that he was not an old man, and they continued at their slow, relaxed pace.
They passed a gap in the buildings to their left, showing a glimpse of the great panorama of Minas Tirith by night. The city glowed softly, descending down until it met the base of Mindolluin, and then the Pelennor Fields, stretching out, wide – an expanse of land – and further, a dim silhouette on the horizon, the mountains of Ithilien. And the sky above, clear and clean, cloudless.
Without realizing it, Faramir had stopped, and Elboron had as well. The boy stood further up the street, waiting, while Faramir watched – staring east with vision blurred.
“What are you thinking of, Father?”
Faramir felt a smile tug at his lips. He turned, looked at Elboron. The wind was pushing the boy’s hair forward, framing his face, and he was wrapped in his large cloak, the formal cloak of the Citadel Guard. Most people said Elboron resembled Faramir in his long nose, his mouth, his voice. But Faramir could only see Éowyn in that youthful face – the boy had her high cheekbones, her bright eyes.
And yet he was no longer the boy that had departed Emyn Arnen so many months ago. He had grown.
“I am thinking… that I neglected to send your mother a letter telling her of my safe journey.”
Elboron shrugged. “Tomorrow morning.”
Elboron waited for more, but Faramir said nothing, and made no move to leave. He turned back to the east, watched the nighttime scene.
“When I was your age…” Faramir began, “whenever I stood at this spot and looked east, I could see the fires of Mordor. Even at night they burned. ‘Twas always so red…”
“So I have heard.”
“Your uncle is the only living man to have spent time in the Black Land and returned from it. You know that, aye?”
There was a lengthy pause before Faramir said, “Ah, well. ‘Tis best not to speak of it.”
Elboron was silent.
There passed a moment, Faramir considering, until he turned back to his son. The boy was looking east as well now, chewing the inside of his lip. Without a word, the boy turned, and they walked the rest of the way in silence, both staring at the ground.
The days passed, and Faramir did not see Elboron as much as he would have liked. Often the lad was busy with his duties with the Citadel Guard – even though Iorlas had granted him three free days, both Faramir and Elboron had not thought it proper that Elboron should take them. And if Elboron was not busy, then Faramir was. With each day, there were new arrivals for the upcoming council meeting. The caravan from Umbar arrived on the third day, much to the delight of the passing citizens who had never seen such an exotic spectacle of strangely-decorated horses, wagons, people. Rohan arrived the next day, the banners of the Mark snapping in the wind as the horses clopped up each circle. And soon every day was filled with two or three – sometimes four – arrivals from all around, so that Faramir would spend nearly all his hours meeting and welcoming the various delegations. The Gondorian lords: Lebennin, Lamedon, Pinnath Gelin, Dol Amroth, New Osgiliath, Pelargir, Harondor – and then Prince Legolas from Henneth Annûn, and Lord Gimli from Aglarond.
Mostly, Faramir managed to see his son in the evenings – where they would sometimes sup, or, if there was time, visit around the city. Neither Faramir nor Elboron liked to eat in the Steward’s House – even though Elboron knew little of Denethor, and was most likely simply humoring Faramir his own discomfort – and so they would often eat out, either in a tavern, or sometimes with the King in the Citadel. Faramir smiled at how effortlessly his son slipped into a more formal role when he was in presence of the King, yet it never seemed forced or artificial. Rather, the lad was his usual, charming self – and, after one supper, the Queen had taken Faramir aside to compliment him on what a fine, handsome young man Elboron was becoming. Also Éomer, after one of these royal suppers, had murmured to Faramir, You have a good boy, Faramir, a good boy. The Rohirric king had not mentioned it, but the unsaid remark was clear: Elfwine, three years older than Elboron, had long since revealed himself to be a wastrel, a handsome and flirtatious and entirely useless prince.
On the day of the council meeting, a crisp, clear day, Elboron was standing guard at the main stairs which led to the Courtyard of the White Tree. Captain Iorlas had placed him there so that he would be at hand when the meeting ended – which, according to Iorlas, would be sometime in the evening around the hour when Elboron finished duty. That way, Iorlas and Faramir could come directly from the Hall to pick Elboron up and walk to the fifth circle together. For Ana had invited all of them to supper again, and Elfwine of Rohan was to come as well.
And so, in the early morning, Elboron had watched the ambassadors and nobles mingling by the stairs, and then a bell had chimed signaling the beginning of the council. After some training, Elboron had learned how to stare straight ahead and see with his peripheral vision – and so he had watched the blur of purple and red robes of the Umbari delegations, and he had listened, entranced, to their foreign tongue as they climbed the stairs past him. It sounded like an interminable flow of words, here and there punctuated by a rolling R or a tock of the tongue. He recognized one or two words from his casual study of the language – bird, it sounded like, or perhaps sea – and, in the cold, winter sun, bored, he had wondered how much was influenced by Adûnaic, a language his father had never failed to drill into him.
Hours passed. Sometime around noon, when the sun was high and Elboron’s attention had drifted to that state of perpetual daydreaming, his waking sleep – he was thinking of the way the sunlight struck the mountain in a different way then how it struck the sea, and he was wondering when his next trip to Dol Amroth would be – another bell chimed and the noise of a hundred the men could be heard from the courtyards above him. He listened to the gentle roar of talk, and he could hear occasional exclamations and laughter. He wondered what they would be serving in the Hall for refreshments; Father always complained about the wine, cheese and bread served in Citadel gatherings.
A familiar voice called out: “Ho, soldier!”
Despite himself, Elboron’s lips quirked. He waited until the steps behind him became a blurred figure on the edge of his vision. He could just vaguely see the brown hair, the laughing brown eyes.
“Captain sent me, you’re relieved for the hour.”
At that, Elboron sagged forward, relieved. He looked at the young man standing beside him. A kind, open face – the characteristically large nose of the Pinnath Gelin men.
“Thank you, Claurion,” he said. “What are they serving up in the Hall?”
Claurion shrugged. “I didn’t see. But it seems they’ll be starting again soon, so I would hurry up if you want to steal anything.”
Pulling his helmet off, Elboron turned and glanced up the stairs. He considered for a moment, but then shook his head and went to sit – awkwardly, because of his armor – on the stairs. Once he had found a suitable position, where he did not slip off the step, nor did the chest plates pinch him, he leaned back. The afternoon bell chimed, signaling the reopening of the council. Elboron listened to the murmur of voices as they disappeared back into the Hall. He could just pick out the voice of Húrin of the Keys above the rest, calling for order to the meeting, before that sound faded too and a scrape of doors could be heard.
Claurion was leaning against the white marble, standing in the shade.
“Were you standing in the Hall?” Elboron asked.
“Aye,” Claurion said. “Ingold came to relieve me. And then I’ve only sword-training later this afternoon.”
“How is it going?”
Claurion shrugged. “The master says I put too much weight in my thrusts, and so when he sidesteps, I usually stumble and he nicks me from the side. We worked with the short sword last time, which I think I prefer…”
“Nay, nay,” Elboron held up a hand and chuckled. “I meant the council.”
Claurion blushed and gave an embarrassed smile. “Oh. That’s going well, I suppose.” He chortled. “Though I can understand nothing the Umbari ambassador says – his accent is so thick.”
“Is Lamedon still giving problems?”
Claurion rolled his eyes. “Do they ever not? Aye. Angbor is arguing that the trade will weaken the fief.”
There was some noise from around the corner – steps, and someone speaking – and Elboron immediately clattered up to stand guard again. A bearded, red-haired man rounded the corner and he was quickly followed by a dark-skinned, strangely-dressed man.
“Elboron, son of Faramir?” the older man asked.
“Aye, sir,” Elboron said.
“I am Innrod of the Citadel.” He bowed his head. “My lord, forgive me, but what are your duties today?”
“I stand guard at the stairs until the evening bell, sir.”
“Good, my lord,” Innrod turned to bid the dark-skinned man to step forward. “Borlas of the Second Company has requested that you give proper welcome to this new arrival. My lord, this is Sepya of Jaajij.”
Elboron bowed crisply.
“Aajej,” the Haradrim corrected with a smile. He placed his palm on his heart and nodded. Elboron saw how the man’s knuckles were dark, almost bluish – brown skin – while his palms were pink. And his smile was pointed, snarling.
“Forgive me, my lord. Aajij,” Innrod said with a bow. He turned to Elboron. “Sepya is the son of a Haradrim lord, and he has been sent here to study as a guest of the Citadel. Borlas thought – since today everyone is at the council – well, he thought it proper if you were to give Sepya a suitable welcome ere he meets with the King, my lord.”
“’Twould be a pleasure, sirs,” Elboron grinned. “Though I must ask who is to take the guard duty?”
“Borlas was to come shortly, my lord,” Innrod said.
“And I will hold the post for you ere he arrives, my prince,” Claurion said with a grin.
Elboron raised his eyebrows at Sepya. “Ha! Very well, it seems we are free to tour the city immediately then.” He nodded to Innrod. “Thank you, sir, and take my reply to Borlas, that I will be happy to play guide. And Claurion, do join us once Borlas arrives – I imagine we shall visit the Houses of Healing first.”
“Certainly, my lord,” Claurion said with a bow.
And so they parted ways. Elboron and Sepya took the stairs which led down to the southern terrace, and here they walked for some time. The sun glinted off the white stone, and one could see the craggy face of Mindolluin from behind the spires and towers. Elboron looked up at the tall young man, noting his hooked nose, his sharp chin, his red robes hemmed in gold. The Haradrim’s hair was a tightly-curled mop – Elboron had never seen such hair.
“If you’ll forgive me, sir, I must needs remove some of this armor ere I go clattering down all the streets.”
The Haradrim laughed. “Yes, of course. I understand.” His words slipped into each other too easily – what a strange manner of speaking!
They reached the gate which opened up to the Citadel barracks – the home of the Citadel Guard. Here, Elboron bid Sepya enter and led him through the marbled hallways to his private quarters. Once they reached his room, Elboron turned.
“I’ll be ready momentarily, I need only remove all this iron!” Elboron laughed. “I did not think I would have been called upon so hastily. If you’d like, you can look around the barracks here.”
“These are army barracks?” Sepya asked, casting his eye over the courtyard.
“Nay, this houses but the Citadel Guard – and only the men without families, who are few. It has been years since it was full, to be honest.” Elboron smiled. “Most of us are green youths like myself – barely into our training!”
At dusk, Faramir and Éomer left the Great Hall and took one of the winding balconies which stretched around the Citadel, heading north. All was shadow here, with the cold winter sun disappearing behind Mindolluin. They walked for several moments in silence, enjoying the air’s sharp bite. They could still hear the talking in the Hall, the occasional exclamations or bursts of laughter. Below them, Minas Tirith descended steeply, with most buildings jutting high and tall over the winding circles. A flock of birds flew out from a bell-tower under them.
Éomer stopped walking and approached the thick, marble railing. He leaned against it. Faramir remained where he was, hands clasped behind his back. He watched the wind toy with Éomer’s blond strands, watched the bulky shoulders coil and tense. A few moments passed before the Rohirric king spoke.
“The Umbari will not fall for the bait.”
“Perhaps in time.” Faramir sighed. “We have but begun the serious negotiations.”
“Gondor shall need to revise some of its requests. The trade is Umbar’s, by rights. Else it seems Gondor wishes to claim the sea.”
Faramir snorted. Éomer looked over his shoulder and smiled.
“We make no claims, whatever certain lords should think…” Faramir grinned slightly. “‘Tis only a stronger bond between North and South. Gondor – and Umbar – shall prosper once the routes are set and traffic begins in earnest,” He sighed. “I know not why Umbar holds its Haradrim friends so close… they bring nothing but poverty to the realm.”
“Well.” Éomer shrugged. He scratched his beard. “’Tis not just country lords and Corsairs who see this move as yet another means for Gondor’s expansion…”
When Éomer did not continue, Faramir approached the railing and leaned forward. He met eyes with Éomer’s, and the latter grinned at Faramir’s scowl.
“Gondor stretches from the ruins of Arnor to the deserts of Harondor,” Éomer said. “Who is to say she will not move still further south? And then there is the issue of Rhûn…”
“Please, my lord… I do not wish to reopen the Rhûn argument…”
“‘My lord’?” Éomer raised his eyebrows and chuckled. “Faramir, we are brothers. And we speak now as two brothers, only that.”
“Very well.” Faramir scowled, crossed his arms and leaned his back against the marble. He frowned at the younger man. “But you cannot deny Elessar’s right to the Northern-kingdom… Arnor is ours as much as the Westfold is Rohan’s.”
Éomer grunted. He stared at the rocky expanse of Mindolluin before answering.
“Faramir, the Rohirrim were not more than peasants in the days of Elendil… with no more a country to show than Rhûn has now. Yet in this Age… would you not say Rohan has as much right to such lands as Gondor? The victory of Morannon was not only Elessar’s…”
“That victory was Frodo’s.”
Éomer gave a long-suffering sigh. “Brother, you know I do not give sway to soft-handed advisors. Nor do I covet the northern lands. But there are whispers in Edoras of a Gondorian empire. You shall surround us on all sides – north and south – and what that Elessar should set his eye on the lands ‘twixt his two kingdoms?”
Faramir sent Éomer a sharp look, and the Rohirric king smiled – though his eyes remained serious.
“You do not truly believe that,” Faramir said.
“I think of Rohan first.”
“We are naught but reclaiming the Númenórean lands, brother – there are no ambitions for the Mark.”
“Yet there are ambitions for Umbar, no? You have said so yourself once.”
Faramir threw up his hands. “You and Éowyn conspire against me, by my troth!”
Éomer gave an endearing shrug, laughing. “Fear not, Faramir, she spoke to me as a sister. We are family before we are political.”
Faramir hmmphed, crossed his arms.
“I did not think you employed spies of the hearth,” he grumbled.
Éomer laughed loudly at this, causing Faramir to smile. The Rohirrim gave his back a slam. “Ha! In twenty years have you not yet learned that my sister has a most shrewd mind! And we have oft spoken of these matters.” His chuckles faded a little. “Anyway, ‘tis no great mystery that Gondor seeks to… increase its influence in the Swerting lands.”
In that moment, the evening bell began to clang harshly in the bell tower above their heads – loud and echoing. There were brisk steps from further down the walkway. Faramir turned to see Iorlas arriving: his curls in their usual disarray, his stern expression immediately softening upon recognition. He had a hand on the hilt of his sword and he bowed his head respectfully to the two of them.
“My lords!” he said above the noise. After one more peal, the bells reverberated and fell still. Iorlas continued, “With the council’s conclusion for today, ‘tis time to make for our suppers, I feel. Young Elboron awaits.”
“So he does,” Faramir smiled. He nodded to Éomer. “You dine with the King, my lord?”
“Aye, though I’ve sent the scalawag with you,” Éomer said.
“And we shall see to it he returns to the Citadel at a decent hour, my lord,” Iorlas said politely.
Éomer gave a small smile, but said nothing.
“…and while the central forces pushed, the right flank – led by… led by… Who was it, Claurion?”
“Coenion, I think.”
“Aye, Coenion. He took his horsemen – only twelve or fifteen in all – and they cut across the middle, and went around like this,” Elboron moved his hands, cutting with the edges of his palms, “so that they divided the Easterling commander’s units, and surrounded him.”
“It was a feat of Gondor strategy!” Sepya suggested.
They were walking back towards the Citadel, and the ground was sloping gently upwards, while the cobblestones grew smooth and travel-worn. The evening bells had just tolled. It was twilight, and Elboron could just see the dark shadow of Sepya between him and Claurion. They had toured most of the barracks, and then the sixth circle entirely – with the help of Claurion, who had found them at the Houses of Healing – before reaching the Skulking Squire of the fifth circle. There, Elboron had showed Sepya the charming path of vines which wrapped around the pub and led all the up to the roof, over onto the cobbler’s house, and then to a tall house on the fourth circle. Claurion had happily demonstrated how one could climb up the pub’s side and scramble onto the cobbler’s roof for a fantastic view, my friend Sepya, and you can even see New Osgiliath on a clear day!
“Aye, it was,” Elboron laughed. “And it opened the East for us, I would say.”
“It is a common tactic?” Sepya asked.
“Not before Coenion, no,” Claurion said. Half of his face as illuminated gold by the passing lamps. “He was a man of Pelargir, and they are the finest strategists of Gondor nowadays. They say his son will come to Minas Tirith to begin his training with the Guard soon.”
“He’s but eleven years now,” Elboron added. They were almost by the Citadel stairs.
“Well, thank you for the tour, my new friends,” Sepya smiled. His teeth glowed yellow-white in the gloom. “It has been illuminant.”
Elboron and Claurion both chuckled.
“Nay, nay, Master Sepya,” Elboron bowed his head, “the pleasure has been ours. Claurion shall walk you up to the Citadel, and we shall no doubt see each other again during your stay.”
Sepya nodded, hand on chest. After Claurion and Elboron said their goodbyes, Claurion and Sepya began to walk up the main stairs which led to the Courtyards. They passed a rigid guard, but it was too dark to see whether it was Borlas.
“And send my salutations to your father, Claurion!” Elboron called after them.
A silhouette on the steps turned, “Aye, I will, Elboron! I’ll see you at the barracks!”
When Elboron turned away from the stairs and back towards the street, he saw three tall figures coming towards him. The firelight caught first inky curls, then the flash of the White Tree, followed by a faint tracing of Rohan’s emblem.
“Ah! Back from your tour-giving, soldier?” one figure asked. “Borlas told us.”
“Who was that?” Faramir asked as they came forward. Elboron grinned at his father, and then nodded to Iorlas and Elfwine.
“’Twas Claurion, son of Hirlaeg, Father. And Sepya, a prince of Aajej!”
“A prince of where?” Elfwine asked.
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