2. Here we come a-wassailing
Pausing only to unearth an ornate gold-hilted dagger that had been a coronation gift from Gimli, Aragorn and Faramir made their way to the stables where they bade their favourite horses be saddled.
Accompanied by their guards, the King and Steward rode through the levels of the City. Many citizens recognised them, despite their unassuming garb, and came out to greet them.
Aragorn and Faramir returned each greeting with a smile or a wave. Although they sought no acclaim, it gladdened their hearts to see the obvious affection the people held them in.
When they passed the market, a stallholder approached the Steward. The man clutched a small bag, which he offered to the Steward. The guards made to drive him away; Faramir, however, beckoned him forward.
"I present you with these chestnuts, Lord Steward," the man said, bowing deeply. "A fine crop there's been this year. I'd be honoured if your lordship would take these."
Faramir smiled and accepted the gift, albeit with a slight feeling of embarrassment that it had been presented to him, rather than to the King.
"Your family have been here far longer than I have, so it is only natural they seek you out to honour," Aragorn reassured him, once they were out of earshot.
"But whatever shall I do with them?" Faramir lamented, stuffing the parcel into his saddlebag. "Éowyn tells me our cook only likes to prepare produce she has chosen herself."
"I am sure you will find some good use for them," Aragorn assured him.
The horses, wearying of the slow pace, strained their heads, pulling skittishly at the reins by the time they had descended to the final level.
"You may leave us," Aragorn told the guards, dismissing them once they had passed through the City Gates. "Our horses need exercise and we wish to allow them their heads now."
"My lord?" the captain asked doubtfully.
"We have exercised our mounts alone many times before. We are both skilled horsemen and these horses need a good gallop. You may take the rest of the day off."
"Very well, my lords. I wish you a pleasant ride." Shaking his head at what he deemed to be the odd behaviour of his superiors, the captain ordered his men back to their barracks.
Given their heads, the horses set off across the Pelennor at a gallop, each trying to outpace the other. They were perfectly matched and were almost neck and neck when they finally slowed to a trot.
"I won!" Faramir announced jubilantly, with an almost boyish enthusiasm.
"By less than a head!" Aragorn retorted good-humouredly. It always pleased him when Faramir shed some of his natural reserve and visibly enjoyed the life he so well deserved. They halted for a moment to let the horses recover. Their snorting breath blew in visible clouds in the frosty air.
It was a perfect winter afternoon for a ride; bright and crisp, the frost making the air tingle with an icy freshness. The red sun shone through the bare branches of the trees, while mist hung low along the distant riverbanks.
The King and the Steward rode on in comfortable silence, enjoying each other's company and the chance to leaves the confines of the City for a brief time. The feel of the wind in their hair and the cold air against their cheeks was sheer bliss for two men accustomed to an outdoor life, but now constrained by rank to spend most of their time indoors. They felt oddly grateful to the obstinate Gudrun for giving them a rare chance to spend a companionable afternoon out riding, rather than enmeshed in cares of state.
All too soon, they came upon a ramshackle farmhouse and Faramir announced that they had reached Gudrun's dwelling. Several sqawking chickens foraged around the farmyard. An orchard of ancient apple trees surrounded the house and even in the fading afternoon light, king and steward could see the bright green of an abundant crop of mistletoe.
When they dismounted, Faramir reached into his saddlebag and took out the chestnuts, intending to rid himself of them by offering them as a gift to the old lady.
Aragorn knocked on the door of the farmhouse. There was no answer. He was about to knock again, when a wizened crone emerged from an outbuilding carrying an empty bucket.
"Pigs!" she snorted, without bothering to ask for an introduction to her visitors. "However much you feed them, they still want more! The chickens are almost as bad."
"My good lady," Aragorn began, "I believe one of the King's men came here earlier today and requested some mistletoe from you. I take it that you are Dame Gudrun?"
"I am indeed," the crone replied, in a strong voice that contradicted her wizened appearance. "The cheeky young fellow thought he could take it just because that lazybones King in the Citadel wants it, as if I'm his thrall!"
"He is prepared to pay you a fair price, Dame Gudrun."
"Well my mistletoe's not for selling, not unless the King himself turns up on my doorstep!"
Aragorn drew himself up to his full height, towering over the diminutive lady. "I have brought a golden knife as you requested, Dame Gudrun. I, Aragorn Arathornsson Elessar, King of Gondor and Arnor, bearer of the Sword-that-was-Broken, have come to request that you sell me some of your mistletoe!" He placed his hand on his sword hilt to emphasise his words.
Unimpressed, Gudrun snorted. "Humph! Well, I suppose you must be the King, since you are taller even than this one, who I recognise as Denethor's youngest. Well, King you may be, but you're not having my mistletoe until the moon rises over the orchard and you show yourself to be worthy. I'm not forgetting the rituals to honour Lord Béma. I have observed them since I was a lass, especially since he granted me such a husband as I was blessed with!"
"Madam, have you forgotten that you are addressing King Elessar Telcontar, the Renewer, the heir of Elendil, the wielder of the Sword Reforged, the victorious in battle against the armies of Mordor, and the High King of the Reunited Kingdoms?" Faramir said sternly. "He is entitled to order you to surrender your mistletoe for a fair price!"
"And you, Faramir Denethorsson, are addressing a proud daughter of the Mark!" Gudrun retorted. "He has only been King for these past four years. My traditions go back more than five hundred years to Éorl himself!"
"King Elessar can trace his ancestry back for thousands of years, from Elendil to the King Tar-Minyatur of Númenor, Lúthien the Fair and beyond." Faramir replied proudly.
"Never heard of them!" Gudrun retorted, "And he can't say that he's lived here for thirty years as I have!"
"Madam, I warn you..." Faramir began, only to be silenced by Aragorn placing a placating hand on his arm.
"Peace, Faramir! The moon will rise within the next hour or so. We can wait." the King said calmly, secretly rather amused at the situation. Used as he was to fawning courtiers, he found Gudrun rather refreshing.
"Would you like some chestnuts, madam?" Faramir enquired, realising he must concur in the King's plan to humour her.
"No I wouldn't!" she snorted, "Fit only for feeding the pigs, they are!" However, the gesture must have mellowed her somewhat, for she beckoned towards the door and invited them inside.
Aragorn and Faramir had expected the interior to be as uninviting as the exterior. They were pleasantly surprised to find themselves in a pleasant, albeit sparsely furnished room. A cheerful fire blazed in the hearth by which stood a rocking chair, occupied by a plump and peacefully slumbering ginger tabby cat.
"Elbeth would like it here," Faramir whispered in Aragorn's ear.
The old woman went to the cupboard, the only other piece of furniture in the room, and took out three goblets and a bottle.
"Now you're here, you might as well have a sip of my home made wine to warm you," she said, handing them each a goblet. "Waes hael!" she declaimed, taking a generous swig from her own.
"Waes hael!" Aragorn replied, sipping his drink cautiously. It tasted of cloves and cinnamon but was not unpleasant. He gestured to Faramir that he should drink
"Waes hael!" Faramir intoned courteously, balancing his drink in one hand and the unwanted bag of chestnuts in the other.
"Well, I can't stand here all day loitering along with you fine lords from the Citadel," Gudrun said briskly, draining the rest of her goblet in one swallow. "There's the cow to be milked and chickens to be fed and locked up for the night. You can make yourselves useful by putting more wood on the fire if it burns low, but don't go disturbing the cat!" With that parting instruction, she turned and went out through the door.
As soon as she was safely out of earshot, Aragorn burst out laughing. "That old woman could rival Ioreth for sheer impudence!" he chortled.
"I thought she was most insulting to you," Faramir said primly. "My father would never have allowed such insolence. You are a more tolerant man by far."
"She is a typical example of her people," Aragorn explained, "I encountered many of her kind when I served King Thengel in my youth. They are hard as nails and fiercely loyal to their lords. Yet they are also honest, courageous, hard working and good-hearted. We had better make ourselves comfortable. This daughter of the Eorlingas will not hurry to return on account of our presence, I deem!"
"There is not even a chair to sit upon," Faramir grumbled.
"The hearthrug will suffice," Aragorn said good humouredly, sitting himself down on the wolf pelt in front of the fire and stretching out his long legs. Seeing Faramir's hesitation, he added, "Do not fret about the dirt. We can always bathe when we return."
"It just seems so wrong that you should be treated like this!" Faramir complained, as he settled himself beside the King.
"I have known far worse," Aragorn soothed. "You should make yourself comfortable and relax. Just think, if we were not here, we would either be poring over documents. Or worse, we might be made to try on all sorts of finery so the ladies could be assured of perfection. I actually feel quite at home here. I spent many a Yule in a place similar to this in the North with Halbarad and his family. We would roast chestnuts on the fire and sing while we waited for them to cook." His eyes suddenly lit up. "Chestnuts! Just the thing! We can roast those that you were given! There is a pan here at the side of the hearth we can use."
"Roast them?" Faramir sounded puzzled. "Chestnuts should be boiled! I cannot see why you are so enthusiastic about such an insipid tasting food!"