22. Birthdays and Policies
Birthdays and Policies
The next two days were a whirl of activity. Early the next morning those who were archers, including the King himself and Isumbard and Peregrin Took, went out to practice, which left many of the attendants amazed. All were good, even the smallest. But never had they seen such accuracy as they saw from Lord Hardorn--until Legolas bent his bow....
The King then tried himself against Benai, and smiled when he was through. After they'd returned to the guest quarters he opened the weapons crate and took out his sword from before the Quest. "I will let you wear this until we can have a sword crafted specifically for you," he said quietly. "This was made for me in my youth. It's name is Gilui-estel, Star of Hope. As a child, Estel was the name I answered to."
Benai accepted the sword with surprise and honor. "I will care for it well, my Lord King," he said, bowing deeply. A blue sword belt was hung beneath the blue sash, and both sword and long knife now were prominently displayed.
Much of the rest of that day was spent with various ones being checked by the Queen for the fit of their festal garb.
After the morning meal the next day the priests prepared all for their parts in the solemn activities to occur the following day, and all found themselves being instructed in what they must and must not say and do. They were taken out to walk the route they would follow the next day, and their parts in the ceremonies rehearsed several times over. All were happy after the evening meal to return quietly to their rooms and fall into their beds. Benai set himself to watch out for all, as his room lay nearest the main halls, but he heard nothing that night save when Captain Peregrin was relieved by Lord Hardorn on the official watch.
On the day of the birthday all rose early, took a light meal brought to their quarters, then dressed carefully. The Lord King wore a robe of pale green embroidered with the White Tree and Seven Stars; the Queen wore a matching gown of pale rose. All who served in the Guard of Honor wore their uniforms, and the Princess Melian wore pale gold and her coronet, while young Prince Eldarion was dressed in a long shirt of the same color.
Both the Prince and Princess of Ithilien wore white embroidered with the Tree of Gondor in silver, and their coronets. Again, Elboron was dressed similarly to his parents.
Éomer King wore a robe of darker green, the White Horse on his breast, while his Lady Queen Lothiriel wore a gown of the same color, both of them wearing their crowns, Elfwine similarly garbed in green.
Those from Arnor wore grey and silver with the circle of Seven Stars, simple fillets set with single gems on their brows.
At last the King took the Star of Elendil and placed it on his brow, took out his sword belt and donned it, and hooked Anduril to it. Lady Avrieth assisted the Queen to don her coronet of woven mithril.
Legolas came out dressed in silver robes over soft green, stylized renditions of the Two Trees embroidered on his long outer robe, his own coronet about his brow. And none could find offense in the dress of the Dwarf (not that any would think to object). Ruvemir, Owain, and Isumbard seemed relieved to be allowed to dress in more simple garb, for they, at least, would not be part of the processions.
When they began to form as they would walk in the procession, Benai was surprised to find himself asked to carry a red bag tied with a complex knot of black cord. "You would bring this worn bag, my Lord?" he asked.
The King smiled. "It marks the third of my major functions as King of Gondor and Arnor--ruler, guardian warrior, and healer."
"It is my healer's kit."
"Then you bear the healing hands as did Lendil?"
Benai smiled solemnly and held the bag with honor. The King nodded and smiled, then turned to take his place by his wife. Behind her and beside Benai was to walk the girl Hasturnerini carrying a bag of clean garments to change the various young children into between the processions from temple to temple.
Pippin looked at the Sceptre which he was expected to bear. "You are certain, Aragorn, you wish a simple Hobbit to carry this?"
Aragorn laughed. "First, I've learned there is no such thing as a 'simple' Hobbit amongst those I've met--not even the bully of Westhall was totally simple. Second, the Lord Elrond would never have surrendered that to me had not Frodo and Sam done what they did. It is in their honor as well as your own that I ask this of you, Pippin. Just be glad I didn't bring the Winged Crown also, or you'd be carrying that instead. I do not relish the day when my son must don it."
"It's that heavy?"
"You had Frodo carry it to you."
"Yes, for it was a light burden compared to what he'd carried through Mordor."
Pippin nodded solemnly.
Benai looked at the two of them, for Lord Hardorn had translated the conversation to him. He saw how closely the expressions of Hobbit and Man matched, realized both missed this Frodo.
Then they were all ready and in line, and with Isumbard, Owain, and Ruvemir walking behind they left their quarters to join the procession, Sa'Amonri watching to make certain all was in proper order.
The morning went by swiftly enough, although all were nearly wilting with the heat by the time the solemn processions and visits to temples of the gods were finished at last. Even the King was looking palid--only Benai, the Lady Arwen and Legolas did not appear to be the worse for the experience. At last they re-entered the palace, where a lavish feast was being prepared. On looking on his guests, however, An'Sohrabi smiled and suggested they return to their quarters and change their clothing to something lighter, and they gratefully agreed.
The King asked that several large ewers of cool water be brought, and soon all were cooling their necks and combing out their hair, changing to cleaner, dry clothing still suitable for the solemn feast. The Lady Arwen had seen to it all had near duplicates for the garb they'd worn in the procession, and once all were properly clad and the small ones changed once more and fed and laid down in their cool rooms to sleep with Lady Avrieth and Hasturnerini to watch over them, the rest finally prepared to go to the feast room for the noon meal.
Even Pippin ate lightly, but drank a good deal of juice and water, at the King's suggestion avoiding the beer and date wine. Talk was light for a time. "You are quiet, An'Horubi'ninarin," the Farozi said finally.
"I think I have aged more than I'd believed," the Northerner said smiling ruefully. "I do not appear to bear the heat here as well as I did when I was younger."
"It is worse, perhaps, because you are within the city and walking the streets. It is ever cooler near the River and in the countryside than it is in Thetos."
"Also, today you have had to walk slowly and stand great intervals of time where you are more accustomed to moving more swiftly, changing from places in the sunlight to places of shadow frequently, and where the breeze of your own passage might cool you."
"That is so."
"There was one thing you wished to do when you were here before, Lord An'Elessar, which if you wish my son is willing to share with you tomorrow."
"And that is what, my Lord An'Sohrabi?"
"To hunt ducks and learn the usage of the throwing sticks."
Aragorn looked startled, then pleased. "That would be very welcome, my Lord. I sorrow only that it is not with you as I'd hoped before."
"We had not the time then. It is still strange to me to know that time does not treat you as it does others."
"Oh, it treats me as it does others, only more slowly. But, as we discussed the other day, it comes at a cost."
"So I understand. So, among those separated from you by the Sea whom you would wish remained here is the one you call the Ringbearer."
"Great love you bear for him."
"Yes. He is one of the gentlest beings born in Middle Earth."
"That such as he should find himself having to deal with that thing...." The King nodded solemnly. "Could you have taken It from him?"
Aragorn nodded. "Oh, yes, I could have taken It from him--but It would have taken me far sooner than It did him. It called to me constantly as we traveled together, seeking to convince me to take It from him. I dared not touch It."
"But, as great a lord as you are--certainly you could have mastered It?"
"But at what cost, my Lord? Would you have been any better off under the rule of myself armed with that dread power, as corrupting as It was, than you were under Sauron himself? For It would have corrupted me, you know. I would in the end have become as tyrannical as he was--if I could have withstood him long enough to finally cast him out and take his place.
"Far greater than I also felt the same temptation--Gandalf also refused It when Frodo offered It to him, as did the Lady Galadriel. The Lord Elrond, who is the father of my heart as he is father to my beloved wife and Elrohir and Elladan--he would barely look at It when It lay before all at the Council, for he saw It take my ancestor Isildur, saw It betray him to his death, saw that Sauron could continue to recover strength and try again to take control of all of Middle Earth if It was allowed to remain--which he did.
"And that is another thing which we all must remember--that even though he would have been cast down had any other with the strength to master It had taken possession of Sauron's Ring, yet he would still be able to return again, for he had tied his own existence to the thing when he crafted It. And the fight, once he again gathered power through deaths wrought for his own benefit alone, would perhaps have finally torn Middle Earth asunder."
An'Sohrabi turned to Elf and Dwarf. "You traveled with Lord An'Elessar here and the one called Frodo?" At their nods he asked, "Did the Ring call out to you as well?"
The Dwarf gave a shudder once he understood the question. "Yes, It did, but couldn't catch at me as easily as It could a Man. Actually, though, It wasn't that interested in me, for Sauron had already learned about all he could do through their Rings to our great ones who bore the Seven was to increase their greed and suspicion--not that this wasn't bad enough, mind you."
Legolas looked with consideration at his companion, then turned to the Farozi. "Yes, It called to me also. But I could see what It was doing to the Ringbearer, and recognized It would do far worse to me if I sought to take It. I fought Its call constantly until he left us."
"What caused him to break away from you?"
Aragorn answered this one, very slowly, "There was one more of our party to that point, my Lord An'Sohrabi; and the Ring was calling out strongly toward him, seeing him as the most vulnerable of the party to Its influence. We all realized he was being tested hardest; and when It almost broke his honor Frodo finally broke away, seeking to protect us from Its power."
"He did not accompany you here?"
Prince Faramir sighed and straightened on his couch. "The ninth of the Fellowship was my brother Boromir, Lord Farozi. The Ring sought to take him through his concern for our land and peoples, sought to convince him if he were to take It he would become a general who would command hosts of hosts against Mordor, and then could perhaps do more, and draw all under Gondor's rule--or so, knowing Boromir as I did, I must assume It would have sought to catch him.
"He tried to take the Ring from Frodo by threat of force, and Frodo fled his Ring-induced madness. Frodo also told me, however, that as he fled he heard the madness leave my brother's voice, heard him calling out for forgiveness.
"That was when Frodo made the decision that to keep the rest from the temptation of the Ring he must go on alone. After he fled, my brother returned to the rest just before the orcs of Saruman fell on those they found. He stood by Pippin and Merry and sought to protect them, was struck by several arrows, and died at the last from his wounds. My Lord Aragorn Elessar did not go into detail so as to spare me the grief of hearing of it once more."
"You could not heal him, my friend?" the Farozi asked Aragorn.
"There are some wounds I cannot heal. He bore many arrows, and several of the wounds were mortal. How he remained yet alive when I came to him I do not know--through sheer strength of will, I think. Perhaps one or two of those wounds I might have healed--but as I healed those, the others would still have been taking him. All the athelas in the world could not have restored his life. He drew on my strength solely to remain long enough to tell what he could, to be assured I would do my best for the needs of Gondor and all the Free Peoples."
"I saw my brother's body as the River bore his funeral boat down to the Mouths of the Sea," Faramir added quietly. "His face was one which had seen great strain, but had known it relieved ere he quitted his body. And he appears to have bequeathed to me the friendship of Pippin here." He smiled at the Hobbit guard reclined on his own couch on the other side of the King's. Captain Peregrin but straightened further and smiled sadly.
After a time of contemplation, the Farozi asked, "Will you accept my son's invitation to go hunting with him tomorrow?"
"Yes, my Lord. And I am flattered you remembered my curiosity about how the throwing sticks are used."
An'Sohrabi smiled. "You saw the one other hunt, but it was--interrupted."
Aragorn nodded. "Oh, interrupted indeed. The hunter spoke too soon and startled the prey."
Ankhrabi looked at his father surprised. "You spoke and frightened the ducks, my father?"
"It was not I who did this, my son, but my companion. And he was not hunting ducks that day, or so it proved."
Something in the eyes of Farozi and King discouraged others from asking the details of the aborted hunt.
"I must take guards with me," Aragorn finally said.
"Of course. Once I followed my brother I, too, found myself no longer able to hunt unattended."
"I had wondered, my Lord, what happened to An'Ma'osiri. Your love and respect for him were so apparent."
It was the Farozi's turn to become solemn. He took a deep breath and sighed. "He married one of our cousins, as is customary among our people. I married her sister. He and Mara'rani came to actually love one another deeply. She conceived, but developed a fever of the womb, and she and the child died. Afterwards he became despondent--and careless. Finally one of the assassination plots set against him by Mordor bore fruit--he was poisoned."
"Did you learn who poisoned him?" The King's face had grown still with contained anger at the wrong done so long ago.
"Not for certain. I have had my suspicions, but could prove nothing. Mordor had forced a guard officer under their strict control into his household. I was able to reassign him to another's house, one whose family Bherevrid and An'Ma'osiri had already assigned to the forces that were set aside to assist Mordor. He is yet alive today, although he is now elderly. But he is one of those who simply appears ageless and whose face shows little of the heart of the Man."
"I see. And so, without proof, you could not pursue him, particularly as you knew him to be an agent of Sauron's."
"Yes. The Dark Ones met with him frequently. He was one of those who rose to fill the gap left by Virubat and Maruset."
"And he remains alive to this day?"
"I have survived as Farozi by balancing needs and those lords of Men under me, Lord An'Elessar. I was too wary to fall to his machinations; he has proven too wary to fall to mine--so far."
The two rulers nodded their understanding of one another.
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