10. Discretion and Deception
You were not wholly frank with me, Frodo.
I told no lies, and of the truth all I could.
Faramir and Frodo—The Two Towers (The Window on the West)
"The Rohirrim wish to know how their king fares," Eowyn announced as she walked through the door. "They were the cause of the disturbance in the hall."
From his position next to Eomer’s bedside—a position that also happened to place him directly between Eomer and Arwen—Aragorn looked up and immediately frowned, his eyes snapping to the brand that Eowyn held at her side. Under other circumstances, he would have focused on her remark about the Rohirrim, but Aragorn could guess well enough why the Riders of Rohan had caused an uproar in the Houses of Healing. Their actions were to be expected. What he could not guess was why Eowyn was carrying a gelding iron. That was unexpected, and Aragorn did not appreciate unexpected things. At least, not this day. From the early morning destruction of Gimli’s door to the disastrous horse race to Arwen’s surreptitious support of Eomer’s misguided infatuation, Aragorn had endured enough unexpected events already. He did not know if he could handle another, especially when he knew that there were two half-elves, a wood-elf, and a dwarf who were probably making life even more unexpected elsewhere in the city.
Aside from all that, a gelding iron was not exactly the cleanest thing to have in a sick room.
"Eowyn, why are you holding that?" Aragorn demanded, his voice perhaps a touch harsher than was necessary.
Eowyn stopped and looked at him, her face betraying a moment’s confusion as though she did not understand the question, and then her eyes widened and she glanced down at the item in her hand. "You mean the gelding iron, my lord?" she asked after a somewhat lengthy pause.
"Yes. I mean the gelding iron," Aragorn said, attempting to rein in his frustration. He felt he had calmed down significantly since the events on the Pelennor, but he was still annoyed and the situation was not improving. Eowyn had hesitated before responding, and if there was one thing that could be said of the former shieldmaiden, it was that she did not hesitate, no matter the conditions. This did not bode well.
All eyes now upon her—with the exception of Eomer’s as he was still unconscious—Eowyn pressed her lips into a thin line and studied the gelding iron. "It is part of a message from Elfhelm," she eventually said.
Aragorn blinked. The others in the room did likewise. "A message from Elfhelm?" Faramir repeated slowly.
"Yes," Eowyn answered, and she drew herself up, seeming to come to a decision of sorts. "A message that I shall deliver only to the king of Rohan."
Biting back a rather foul curse that he had once heard in Lothlórien of all places—and from Celeborn, no less—Aragorn pinched the bridge of his nose and silently fumed. He had known this day would be bad, but he had expected the disasters to come from an entirely different direction, namely an elven direction. One more thing that is unexpected, he thought as he ground his teeth together. "Just what manner of message requires a gelding iron?" he finally asked.
"One that should be delivered to he who rules the Mark," Eowyn said, making it clear that the presence of the gelding iron would remain a mystery for the time being. "I would not have you concern yourself over it, my lord. It is not a matter of emergency." She paused, then, tapping the brand absently against her leg. "Although it should be discussed as soon as possible. Perhaps Lothíriel—"
"Nay," Rohan’s queen said quickly, shaking her head. "If it is a message that involves a gelding iron, I have no wish to hear it. When my husband regains his memory, we will let him deal with the matter." A hard glint entered her eyes. "It can be part of his reparations for the trouble he has caused."
"Trouble?" Arwen’s voice was innocent. Too innocent. "Aside from holding our attention here, I do not think he has caused much in the way of trouble. And he has certainly not caused that trouble intentionally."
Lothíriel’s face went suspiciously blank, and she took what seemed to be an unconscious step toward Arwen before stopping herself. Aragorn felt his own face become stone even as the irritation he harbored towards his wife passed the stage of annoyance and progressed rapidly towards anger.
Perhaps sensing the surging tide of emotions, Faramir cleared his throat and rose from his seat at Eomer’s bedside. "So the Rohirrim were the cause of the commotion in the halls?"
The change in topic was far from subtle, but Aragorn appreciated the effort.
"Yes," Eowyn said, visibly relieved at Faramir’s intervention. Claiming the seat that her husband had just vacated, she reached out and took hold of one of her brother’s hands while placing the gelding iron atop a small table. "They came not only to deliver Elfhelm’s message but also to learn of Eomer’s condition. Enough witnessed the accident during the race to begin rumors, and they fear for him. They have not forgotten what it is like to lose a king to darkness."
Aragorn’s anger drained away, leaving him once again filled with little more than a vast sense of irritation. It was difficult to be upset when a man he accounted a close friend lay pale and still on a sickbed. He was not overly concerned about Eomer—Valar knew how hard his head was—but the sobering thought of what might have happened had Eomer not reacted so quickly still hovered in the back of his mind. Dol Amroth and Rohan could have both been thrust into mourning over something so trivial as a horse race. They were fortunate that a glancing blow on the head was the only real injury, though the resulting amnesia and apparent devotion to Arwen were another matter altogether.
With a quiet sigh, Aragorn decided that what he really needed to do was to leave this room. He was very much of two minds concerning the entire situation, and he required time away from others in which to sort his thoughts and feelings.
But did he dare take that time? Arwen was enjoying this a bit too much while Lothíriel seemed to share none of her humor. Aragorn could ill afford to have an incident arise between the two queens. Nor could he risk the possibility that Arwen might encourage Eomer’s passion. There was far too much already happening this day, such as whatever mischief was being perpetrated by Elladan, Elrohir, Legolas, and Gimli. Aragorn harbored a faint hope that Eldarion might be able to keep them all in check, but many years as a Ranger had taught Aragorn that wishful thinking could be dangerous. Someone should look into their activities.
But do I really wish to learn what calamities have befallen the Citadel during my absence? Aragorn thought about that for a moment more, considered the options before him, and then decided that looking in on Eldarion and the four miscreants was a job for Faramir. And he can search them out on the pretense that he is telling Legolas and Gimli about a change of plans. For they were to bring Eldarion down to the Pelennor now, and we were all to lunch together. But that will not be the case, and it seems only fitting that I should send my steward to inform them of this.
Satisfied with his choice as well as the excuse that Faramir could use, Aragorn began to feel much better about the day, nearly forgetting his earlier desire to leave. His cheer lasted for several wonderful seconds, and then Eomer groaned and shifted beneath the covers, murmuring what sounded like poetic nonsense regarding a dark-haired elven beauty with eyes of silver twilight. He subsided quickly, but a glance around the room revealed that his words had been heard by all. Eowyn wore a look of concern, Arwen’s lips were twitching with a hidden smile, Lothíriel’s eyes were dark as a stormy sea, and Faramir had abandoned all pretense of subtlety and was openly watching both Aragorn and Lothíriel.
Probably with good reason, Aragorn thought, noting with a touch of bemusement that his fists were now clenched. I seem to be more upset than I realized.
The king of Gondor did not consider himself a jealous man, and in most cases, he did not act as one, either. He knew very well that Arwen was accounted unusually fair, even among the elves, and that her beauty drew the attention of other men. This had never been a problem for Aragorn because he was always certain of Arwen’s devotion and also because her admirers had been content to remain at a discreet distance. But Eomer’s current obsession with Arwen was something different. The possibility that Arwen might be bound to another did not seem to enter his head, and he had made no effort to conceal his ultimate intentions toward the queen, which roused something dark and rather dangerous within Aragorn. Moreover, Arwen herself did not seem inclined to defuse what could easily become a volatile political situation. Aragorn knew that Lothíriel was wise enough to keep her anger to herself while around her subjects, but he also knew that, when pressed, she could be as brash and temperamental as the man she had married. All in all, the situation was telling on Aragorn’s nerves and both his frustration and his ire were growing rapidly.
One thing is abundantly clear, Aragorn decided, relaxing his clenched fists with a conscious effort. I must leave this room. Faramir will see to the others, but I must also venture elsewhere.
However, there was still the problem of leaving Arwen and Lothíriel in the same room with a sleeping but clearly ardent Eomer. Aragorn supposed that he could order them to leave, but that seemed excessive and he was not convinced that they would listen to him anyway. No, he would have to trust that Eowyn could maintain the peace for a time. She was handling the situation admirably, and now that he thought about it, Aragorn decided that she was probably the best person to leave with these three. Eowyn had learned to maneuver around Gríma Wormtongue’s machinations, and though she might not have the silver tongue of elven diplomats, she was more than able to hold her own should push come to shove. She could keep both Arwen and Lothíriel in check if need be. And if Aragorn did not wander far, he would be within calling distance should the situation get out of hand. In fact, a trip to the House’s storerooms would probably be an adequate distance, and its purpose would be two-fold as there was an infusion he could concoct that Elrond had used specifically for head wounds.
Now armed with a plan that would further several goals, Aragorn stepped away from Eomer’s bedside and beckoned to Faramir, moving toward the door. "Eowyn, there is a draught I can brew that was used in Imladris for injuries of these kind," he said. "It will take perhaps an hour to create. May I entrust Eomer’s care to you?"
Eowyn nodded. "Of course, my lord."
"Good. What he needs above all else is quiet and rest. See that he is not disturbed." He put a faint emphasis on this last word, and the flash in Eowyn’s eyes indicated that she understood. He was not leaving her with only Eomer but also with Arwen and Lothíriel. Judging from Arwen’s raised brow, she had also understood the message and was not yet sure if she should be amused or offended. Irritation still simmering in the back of his mind, Aragorn decided that she could remain uncertain. "Faramir, would you accompany me. There is something I would have you see to." And without waiting for acknowledgment or agreement, he turned and walked out the door, leaving Arwen to wonder if she had been consciously snubbed or simply forgotten.
He stopped at a hallway window that overlooked the gardens and listened to the sound of following feet, turning away from the outside world as his steward reached his side. "You have a task for me, my lord?" Faramir asked, his voice crisp and formal. It reminded Aragorn of the early days of his kingship when Faramir was uncertain of his role beneath his new lord.
"Two tasks," Aragorn answered. He looked back out the windows, wishing that the garden walls were shorter and the Houses placed differently. From this angle, it was impossible to see the Tower of Ecthelion, and Aragorn suddenly wondered whether or not it was still standing. "First, I would have you seek out Legolas and Gimli. They are tending to Eldarion and were instructed to take him to the Pelennor Fields at noon so that we might all dine together. I would have you inform them that there has been a change in plans."
"Ah." Faramir’s eyes gleamed. "Am I correct, my lord, to suspect that the second task you have for me is to determine whether Legolas and Gimli have done aught in the way of mischief? And while I am about this business, do you also wish me to learn the whereabouts of the lords of Rivendell?"
"It would be very much appreciated," Aragorn said, his eyes still intent upon the garden wall. "And yes, that is the second task I would give you."
"Then if I may make a confession, Imrahil has already left to see to these matters."
Aragorn nodded slowly. "I suspected as much. Nevertheless, he has yet to return, and it is quite possible that he is in need of assistance."
"True," Faramir said, his voice reluctant. "And I would have accompanied him when he left to inquire after our guests, but I felt my presence was needed here."
"I see," Aragorn murmured, and his irritation with Eomer and Arwen redirected itself toward Faramir. "You were to stay behind and watch my actions, correct?"
Faramir frowned, but the slight tick in his jaw told Aragorn that his guess was not far astray. Denethor’s son he might be, but if he wished to fool a Ranger raised among elves, he would have to do better. "My lord, I stayed to watch my over my wife’s brother and also to comfort Lothíriel should my cousin wish it."
"Yes, I noticed that Lothíriel was sorrowing greatly," Aragorn observed, making no effort to hide his sarcasm. "Indeed, she could use much in the way of comfort. Her current state of mind makes her somewhat akin to an irate Warg, and I know well just how much comfort such creatures desire."
Faramir blinked, which was the equivalent of slack-jawed astonishment in a lesser man. Aragorn wondered whether it was a reaction to the unspoken rebuke or to the fact that the king of Gondor had just compared the queen of Rohan to a Warg. "I was uncertain of her mind at the time I decided to stay and offer comfort," Faramir said at length.
Aragorn arched his brow. "Faramir, son of Denethor and steward of Gondor, did not know his cousin’s state of mind?"
The steward sighed and looked away. "I suppose it is possible that watching the actions of my king and my queen played a small part in my choices."
"I suppose that may indeed be possible," Aragorn said, feeling slightly mollified. There was a certain amount of satisfaction in forcing his steward to admit to something. "And now that we understand one another clearly, let me assure you of your wife’s capabilities. I am certain that Eowyn will keep a close watch upon all in your absence. You need not stay on my account."
Faramir looked dubious, but he nodded slowly, apparently realizing that Aragorn would not be gainsaid in this matter. "As you wish, my lord. Think you that Legolas, Gimli, and Eldarion are yet within the Citadel, or would they have already descended to the Pelennor?"
"I am uncertain," Aragorn confessed with a shake of his head. "It would probably be best to speak with the sentries in the tunnel and inquire there after those you seek. Elladan, Elrohir, and Legolas can escape the Citadel through other means, but Gimli and Eldarion would still have to use the tunnel to reach the Sixth Circle."
"I will heed your advice, my lord," Faramir said, sketching a quick bow. "And Varda willing, I will return soon with news of our guests."
"If the news is less than good, you may wish to right whatever was wronged ere you return," Aragorn warned.
Faramir’s eyes were sympathetic but without promise. "If it is within my power to do so, I will," he said, bowing once more before taking his leave and disappearing down the winding corridors.
And having said that, it will of course not be within his power to do so, Aragorn sighed, moving away from the window and heading toward the storerooms where the herbs were kept. I wonder if it would be premature to send guards after Legolas, Gimli, and my brothers. If nothing else, the results might be entertaining…
With the same ferocity and desperation he had once used to defend his father’s realm against the spreading darkness of Dol Guldur, Legolas waged a relentless war against the overwhelming desire to panic.
And like most of the battles he had fought within Mirkwood, Legolas lost.
As if this was not insult enough, he lost slowly so that he could feel every moment of mounting panic, which was also reminiscent of his years as one of Thranduil’s captains. Legolas was no stranger to defeat. Centuries of vain struggle against the wiles of Sauron and the Nazgûl had taught Legolas just how easily and how often he could be defeated. To his credit, he was rarely defeated the same way more than once, but this had only served to illustrate just how innovative his enemies could be. As a result, Legolas was uncomfortably familiar with defeat. But defeat by slow, painful degrees… That was something he had never been able to accept no matter how often it happened or how well it described the history of his people in the Third Age. It was something he’d raged against in Mirkwood, frustrated by his own helplessness, and he still harbored feelings of resentment, convinced that there should have been a way to strike back. Unfortunately, he had never found that way, and he was stymied yet again as he looked around at the dark walls of stone that pressed in around him.
A cold shiver of fear crept along the length of his spine. What had he done? And why had he done it? Legolas had not been paying close attention to his surroundings when he followed Gimli into this labyrinth of hidden passages. In order to guard his mind against fear, he’d left all matters of direction and location to the dwarf, trusting that his friend would be able to lead them out as easily as he had led them in. The possibility that Gimli would become lost had not occurred to Legolas. Or if it had, it had been ruthlessly shoved aside so as to avoid undue panic. Except that the panic had not been undue because that was exactly what had happened. So in a reactive fit of anger, fear, and absolute stupidity, Legolas had stormed off on his own, hoping that he would somehow be able to escape a maze of stone that had managed to confound even a dwarf.
Ai Elbereth, Legolas thought, making another doomed attempt to push back his rising fear. I am truly a fool. Moreover, I shall be an eternally lost fool unless I can think of something that might lead me out of these cursed passages!
But thinking—at least, thinking coherently—was proving to be a difficult task, especially since the walls seemed to be moving closer and closer. Pippin had once asked why Legolas felt uncomfortable in caves and stone fortresses when he had been raised in Mirkwood’s underground stronghold. To this, Legolas could give no answer that a mortal would understand save to say that the closeness of his father’s halls was more akin to the closeness of tightly-knit trees than the closeness of oppressive and implacable stone. Legolas now tried to imagine that the same concept applied here. He was not trapped in some forsaken cave far below the surface of Arda but rather was walking freely in the home of his friend and liege. There was naught here with malicious intent—unless one counted a certain pair of twins—and the moment he found a way out of these dark, stale hallways, he could leave. This was not so unlike the halls of Greenwood.
Yet hard as he tried, such imaginings did not work. The caverns of his father had been skillfully and beautifully crafted by dwarves and had been the home of elves for many centuries. There had come to be an elven feel about the rocks that did not exist here. For all its splendor, Minas Tirith’s stonework was a far cry from the intricacies of Thranduil’s halls, and Legolas felt the ragged edges of panic overtake his thoughts.
To make matters worse, his torch chose that moment to flicker.
Legolas froze and his breath caught painfully in his throat. His eyes snapped to the meager flame, and it sputtered fitfully in response. It was burning low and would not last much longer. Fear surged through him, and knowing that he was but moments away from madness, Legolas decided to do something that would cost him his pride, his dignity, and every ounce of self-respect he had ever accumulated over several centuries as a prince of Mirkwood.
He decided to go back to Gimli.
Forcing down his rising claustrophobia, he turned around and began to retrace his most recent steps. It was a daunting task, for Legolas knew very well that Gimli would no longer be where he had left him. The dwarf would have moved on, and Legolas would be forced to track him as best he could. But though he was skillful enough in the woods, Legolas was not at all confident of his ability to track Gimli over stone. His fire was failing, his mind was wandering, and dwarves moved lightly over stone anyway. In fact, such a task might well prove impossible, but Legolas had little choice. If his torch burned out, he would not be able to continue, and he would never find his own path back to the nursery before the torch died. Gimli was his only hope. If he could reach the dwarf in time—
Legolas suddenly stopped and stared into the darkness before him. He did not remember this crossroads. He did not remember it at all.
"No," he murmured aloud, reaching out with one hand to steady himself against a wall. He was keenly aware of how close the wall was on his other side, and he stared at the branching corridors, wondering why even a few steps backward had proven so difficult for him. "I have wandered too far," he whispered. "I have wandered so far that I cannot go back! I have crossed the threshold of Dol Guldur and shall never see daylight again!"
The torch flickered once more, and when the fire caught again, it was only half as bright as it had been. With something akin to a strangled sob, Legolas sank to the floor, his back pressed firmly against one wall so as to put as much distance between himself and the other wall. He felt he now had two choices. He could continue to wander aimlessly until the torch was completely gone, or he could sit here and mount a mental defense against the inevitable. He chose the latter, for if he could survive the stifling darkness, then Gimli would come looking for him. Legolas winced at the thought of being "rescued," but there seemed to be no alternative. It was either that or an eternity of clinging shadows and madness.
Setting the failing torch beside him, Legolas closed his eyes and tipped his head back and to one side, letting his cheek rest on the stone wall behind him. He used the cool touch to calm his racing thoughts, and he felt his heart slow in response. His breathing became deep and even, and the muscles across his shoulders and back relaxed. His composure regained for the moment, Legolas tried to settle into a more comfortable position, and he turned slightly, pushing his shoulder into the wall and using it for a pivot.
Something in the wall clicked.
The stone beneath his shoulder moved inward, and Legolas’s eyes snapped open in surprise. Before he could do anything more, though, the wall upon which he leaned abruptly slid to one side. Caught off guard, Legolas tumbled backward and immediately became entangled in a…a blanket?
No, a tapestry! his mind realized as he struggled to free himself. His panic emerged briefly once again when the heavy fabric refused to let him go, and he frantically ripped his way free, scrambling to his feet and kicking away the remains of a beautifully adorned tapestry that depicted the fall of the Morannon. It was, Legolas decided, not inappropriate for the situation.
Free of both the confining corridors and the clinging tapestry, Legolas took a moment to slow his breathing and look around. His eyes first went to the wide windows on one side of the room, and the sight of daylight made him faint with relief. He looked back at his former prison, the doorway to the hidden corridors partially obscured by the now ripped and lop-sided tapestry. Then he looked at the arching ceiling, the walls filled with books, the double doors at the far end of the room, the tall hearth beside him, and the oak table next to it upon which sat numerous stacks of parchment and scrolls.
The king’s study, Legolas realized, the last vestiges of panic fading from his mind only to be replaced with chagrin. Valar, this is a full three levels away from the nursery! If Gimli learns of how far astray I wandered, I shall never hear the end of it.
Legolas’s mind hastily called up all that he knew of the guards who served in the Citadel, wondering if any would be outside the study at the noon hour. He could remember a few patrols that went near this room, but he did not think any passed it directly. At least, not if the king was absent. When the room was not in use, the door was kept locked, and it was generally assumed that none would have a desire to enter the study as there was nothing of great value within it.
His fears assuaged, Legolas relaxed slightly. All was well. He had the skills to defeat a locked door, and if he was careful, none would hear or come to investigate. Satisfied that he could leave undetected and confident that he could deflect any of Gimli’s questions, Legolas turned to go. But then his glance fell upon the torn tapestry and the opening in the wall. That would not do! Even if he escaped into the outer hallways unseen, the trail he would leave behind was unmistakable. Yet what could he do about it? He did not know how to repair the tapestry—if indeed it could be repaired—and he did not know how to close the opening in the wall. He was not even sure how he had created it in the first place, and he certainly had no desire to reenter the hidden hallways in order to find out.
"Sweet Elbereth, I am still trapped here!" Legolas exclaimed, no longer caring of who might hear him. He cast his eyes about the room, hoping to find anything that might offer a solution, and then he spied something small and seemingly innocent sitting on the large oak table.
Suddenly struck with inspiration, Legolas moved closer to the table and picked the object up. It was a signet bearing the White Tree of Gondor as well as the winged helm of the Citadel guards. Its sole purpose was to seal the wax upon military orders, and only the king and his captains were allowed to use it.
Perhaps I will allow Gimli to know where I left the hidden passages, Legolas thought, slowly turning the signet over in his hands as he considered his idea. For perhaps I can convince him that my actions were intentional. Particularly after what I shall do with this. Filled with a renewed sense of purpose, Legolas put the signet down and began searching the desk for blank parchment.
When Elladan suggested that they amuse Eldarion in the Second Circle while waiting for Estel to leave the Pelennor, Elrohir had been concerned for several reasons. First, the twins did not know what mischief had been done using their horses, and Elrohir was anxious to learn that and put a stop to whatever it was. Second, he was not certain that he would be able to endure the confining quarters of the city’s lower levels where stone buildings crowded about the streets and the walls rose high on all sides. But third and most important was the fact that Estel would have to pass them when he returned to the Citadel, and Elrohir had not been confident in their ability to hide from his keen gaze. Elves within the city had a tendency to stand out, and twin half-elves stood out even more, especially when they carried the whirl of energy that was Gondor’s crown-prince.
But as he was shoved aside by a bustling merchant and nearly tripped by several impatient customers, Elrohir decided that his last concern was groundless. He had trouble enough locating Elladan in this teeming mass of people out celebrating the eve of the New Year. They should have no trouble eluding Estel’s eyes.
Someone’s hand seized his upper arm, and Elrohir started before recognizing the firm grip of his twin. "Move toward the inner wall," Elladan shouted, struggling to make himself heard above the clamor. "The crowds are thinner there."
Elrohir nodded his agreement and followed the pull of Elladan’s arm. Between the press of people and the rising din, his head was beginning to ache. He hoped that finding a lull in the crowds would help. Tightening his hold on Eldarion’s legs as the crown-prince bounced excitedly on his shoulders, he forced his way past several crowded market stands and ducked into the shade of a tall tavern. A bawdy song could be heard within, but the sounds were muffled by stone while the cries of the crowd behind them seemed to lessen.
"A busy day, it seems," Elladan remarked, releasing Elrohir.
"Busy indeed!" Elrohir exclaimed, turning his eyes back upon the choked streets. "I have never witnessed the like, even during Estel’s coronation. It is a wonder that we were not trampled!"
"This will probably ease once the noon hour passes," Elladan said. "Many here seem to be vying for food. They may take their business elsewhere when their hunger is sated."
"I can think of another who may need to sate his hunger ere long," Elrohir said, tilting his head back to look at his nephew. Eldarion was beginning to squirm, and Elrohir could feel the vibrations of a small, rumbling stomach. "If I remember correctly, he did not eat much this morning, despite our sister’s best efforts."
Elladan ran his eyes over Eldarion and frowned. "What do you suppose he wishes to eat?"
Elrohir blinked. "You do not know?"
"You are usually the one to handle the details of a plan. I fulfilled my role in giving us an objective."
Readjusting his grip on Eldarion’s kicking legs, Elrohir advanced on Elladan with narrowed eyes. "May I remind you that—Ai!"
With a move that took both Rivendell lords by surprise, Eldarion dove to his right and nearly succeeded in freeing himself. Feeling his hold slipping as Eldarion dangled precariously to one side, Elrohir loosed his legs and quickly caught him about the waist as he began to fall, tossing him into the air and then catching him again with a better hold.
"You see how difficult he can be?" Elladan demanded.
"He is not unlike a certain brother I know," Elrohir said pointedly. "Impossible to bind to any agreement and incapable of taking responsibility for aught."
Elladan rolled his eyes in a very mannish show of exasperation. "Say what you like so you long as you also consider the problem of feeding Eldarion. I do not think some fruit would go awry. Perhaps we may find a vender who is selling some."
"I wish you luck in that endeavor," Elrohir scoffed as Eldarion’s struggles intensified. "You seem to have forgotten that it is barely spring. Perhaps we might find some apples, but they will be few and expensive."
"Dried fruit, then," Elladan said, seemingly unconcerned by the fact that Elrohir was moments away from losing their nephew. "That should not be too difficult to locate. In fact, the stand opposite our position seems to have—"
"Lord Elladan! Lord Elrohir!"
The twins snapped their eyes to the left, searching the pressing crowds for the owner of the young and strangely wrathful voice that had called out to them. Elrohir found him first, and he silently swore. "It is Elfwine!" he hissed. "But how could he have found in this madness?"
Elladan blanched. "It is too late to concern ourselves with that. Elfwine cannot know that we have our nephew. Haste! Hide Eldarion!"
Elrohir looked at Elladan, looked down at the wiggling fury in his arms, and then looked back up at Elladan. "Hide Eldarion?" he repeated incredulously.
Elladan’s eyes blazed, but it was too late. His face dark, the crown-prince of Rohan broke free of the larger crowds and stormed towards them with an air of purpose and rage. "You!" he cried.
"Lord Elfwine," Elladan said, stepping in front of Elrohir and inclining his head. "Are you in need of assistance?"
"I am not, but I think that you shall be once my father learns of what happened!"
Elladan glanced over his shoulder at Elrohir, but Elrohir shook his head, equally baffled by Elfwine’s accusatory tone. Elladan frowned and began to turn back to Elfwine, but then he froze and an uneasy look passed over his face.
"Horses," he murmured.
Elrohir felt his stomach sink, a sensation that had nothing to do with the fact that Eldarion had just kicked him in the gut. He still did not know what had happened, but whatever Legolas had done with their horses, it seemed to involve the Rohirrim. That did not bode well.
"My father was saving those brood mares for the stallions that the clans of Rhûn were to send!" Elfwine went out, heedless of the exchange between the twins.
Elladan’s eyes widened marginally, Elrohir winced, and Eldarion gave an angry growl of frustration as he increased his struggles to escape. Legolas, you shall rue your actions! Elrohir vowed as Elladan turned back toward Elfwine. "You mean to say that Mornaecco and Gaearsul are among your mares?"
"They were until Shade challenged them," Elfwine snapped. "When my father hears of this, he—"
"Eomer does not know?" Elrohir interrupted, pulled from rather elaborate and involved plots of revenge on a certain Ithilien lord. He moved up beside his twin despite Elladan’s warning glance and gave Elfwine an intent look. "Is Eomer no longer upon the Pelennor?"
Elfwine stared at them silently, a brief flash of fear filling his eyes. "You do not know, my lords?"
"Nay, we do not," Elladan said, taking a step forward. "Speak, Lord Elfwine. What has happened?"
"I…I am not certain." The haughty pride of Rohan melted away from the boy, and he bit his lip. "I believe there was a fall. I did not see it myself, but one of the large poles was upon the ground when I arrived, and Lord Imrahil and my father were also upon the ground. Perhaps they were racing and slipped on the wet ground, for there was a marsh near where the pole used to stand. Lord Imrahil’s horse looked as though she had been knocked about. She may have hit the pole and knocked it over."
"They would not tell you?" Elrohir asked, unconsciously flipping Eldarion upside down as a means of distracting him.
"They might have been willing to, but Lady Eowyn sent me away with Shade and I do not know what has happened after I left. My mother and King Elessar were with my father, as was Lord Faramir. And Queen Arwen was there. But then they all went to the Houses of Healing and I could not follow. I had to watch Shade." The spark of anger suddenly returned, flickering to life so quickly that Elrohir actually felt like taking a step back. "I would not have had to watch Shade for so long had you better controlled your stallions!"
"Peace, Elfwine," Elladan soothed, a worried frown upon his face. "You have heard no tidings whatsoever?"
Elfwine scowled and looked away. "Captain Arhelm and Thendril did come back with tidings," he said. "They spoke with Lady Eowyn and she said that the king would recover with time and rest. But they did not say anything else."
Elrohir struggled to keep his relief from showing on his face. He did not know Eowyn well, but he knew her well enough to know that she would not make a promise she could not keep. "I would not worry overmuch," he told Elfwine, sensing that the youth needed consolation. "Your father is a strong man, and whatever mishap may have befallen, he shall recover quickly."
"But the Riders were not allowed to see him!" Elfwine pressed. "Why would they be denied an audience with my father?"
"Most likely, he needed rest," Elladan said soothingly. "It is not an unusual occurrence. My father is a great healer, and he has taken similar actions upon occasion. Even those not grievously injured sometimes require quiet sleep. It does not necessarily mean that—"
"Down!" Eldarion suddenly shouted.
Elrohir, Elladan, and Elfwine all started in surprise and looked at the crown-prince of Gondor, whose dignity and birthright were severely compromised by the fact that he was dangling from his feet and flailing his clenched fists about with enough force to make him swing. Elfwine frowned. "Should he not be with his nurses?"
Elrohir froze, his mind working furiously even as Eldarion tried to chew a hole through his tunic. "His nurses were given the day to spend as they wished," he said. "King Elessar thought they might enjoy a holiday together." Which was true enough, as far as it went.
"And Eldarion was given to you, my lords?" Elfwine asked skeptically.
"King Elessar felt that Eldarion might wish to spend the day with those he did not see often," Elrohir said smoothly, deciding to stick with the partial truth.
"Are you going now to the Houses of Healing, Lord Elfwine?" Elladan asked, diverting the conversation.
"I am, my lords, and I think that you should accompany me." The note of anger returned to Elfwine’s voice. "I plan to tell father of what has happened on the Pelennor. And if you do not come with me willingly, then allow me to inform you that Lord Elfhelm and his men follow me and will arrive shortly. And they may not be as accomodating as I."
At the mention of more Rohirrim to come, Elrohir and Elladan traded slightly panicked looks. "They might miss us in the crowd," Elrohir hissed.
"As Elfwine did?" Elladan retorted, his voice scarcely more than a whisper. "Nay, I believe we should separate. One must distract Elfwine while the other looks after Eldarion. He still requires food."
Meaning I shall have either the young and angry crown-prince of Rohan or the younger and angrier crown-prince of Gondor. It did not take Elrohir long to decide which he wanted, and moving too quickly for protests, he shoved his flailing, kicking nephew into his Elladan's surprised arms. "Enjoy. I shall return in time."
"Gently, Elladan," Elrohir cautioned. "Eldarion is already upset. Do you wish to upset him more?"
"What are you doing?" Elfwine demanded.
"Have you eaten, Lord Elfwine?" When Elfwine shook his head, Elrohir nodded and took the young prince by the arm. "Then come. We shall wait for the other Rohirrim together, and while we wait, you and I shall dine. I have no desire to eat whatever terrible creations the healers deign to live upon."
Judging from the flicker of relief upon Elfwine’s face, Elrohir had discovered a weakness. "I suppose that would be all right," Elfwine said slowly, allowing himself to be led away. "But what shall we eat here?"
"This tavern smells as though it could offer good possibilities that would be both quick and filling," Elrohir said. "Elladan will keep watch outside for Lord Elfhelm and find things suitable for Eldarion to eat. He enjoys the open air more than the closeness of a tavern. Is that not so, brother?"
The dark glare upon Elladan’s face would have cracked a Silmaril, but to his credit, he did not argue. Instead, he swung Eldarion up under one arm and fished around in a belt pouch, eventually pulling out a small roll of leather. "Take this," he said, tossing it to Elrohir. "Legolas was kind enough to leave it out in his room this morning. I know how much you enjoy these particular herbs on your food."
Blinking, Elrohir caught the leather and unwound it slightly, looking at the leaves within and then looking back at Elladan. "Only if you insist. I would not have this laid upon my shoulders."
"Only enough to suffice our needs for a ride."
"As you wish." Elrohir put the herbs in his own belt pouch and then turned to Elfwine, who had watched the discussion with a mixture of both curiosity and suspicion. "Come, my lord prince," Elrohir said, putting a hand on the youth’s shoulder. "Let us see what the taverns of Minas Tirith have to offer a pair of hungry travelers from afar."
Imhran, captain of King Elessar’s personal guard and veteran of the War of the Ring, was used to being caught unawares. He knew this did not say much for his capabilities as either a soldier or a captain, but he was not overly worried about his reputation. To his knowledge, no one had been able to develop a sure method for anticipating the approach of either the king or the queen. Lord Faramir could also move with uncanny stealth when he wished, to say nothing of the elves who occasionally frequented the Citadel. So when a hand suddenly landed upon his shoulder without warning, Imhran went through the familiar routine of surprise—complete with shameful jump and muffled oath—before turning around to see who it was this time.
He frowned slightly when he saw that it was Lord Legolas. The king, queen, and steward no longer found amusement in their ability to startle the guards. At least, not often, and when they did, they made an effort to conceal their mirth. Lord Legolas was another matter, though, and his spreading smile told Imhran that he was enjoying himself immensely.
"My lord," Imhran greeted with a bow, ducking his head so that the elf would not see his irritation. It would only encourage him.
"Captain Imhran," Legolas answered, dipping his head and handing Imhran a rolled parchment. "I bring a message bearing the seal of the king. Your company has received new orders for this day."
Imhran tensed. "Has something gone amiss, my lord?"
"Nay, but precautions have been advised."
Imhran had dealt with enough elves during the last fifteen years to know that this was going to be all the answer he received until he read the orders for himself. Putting his questions aside, he broke the seal on the parchment, read the contents, stopped, and then read them again. "These are the king’s orders?" he asked at length.
Imhran’s brow furrowed and he stared at the words now before him. "With all due respect, my lord, this is not the king’s handwriting."
The elven lord of Ithilien raised his brow at this, and something flashed deep within his eyes. "You doubt the authority of the king’s seal?"
"No, assuredly not, my lord," Imhran said hastily.
"Then perhaps it is my authority that you doubt?"
"No! My lord, understand that I meant no offense. However, I have been told nothing of a mock assassination attempt. An undertaking such as this would usually involve planning several weeks ahead of time and—"
"This is a test of your ability to be decisive within the moment," Legolas said. "Should you receive word that there was indeed an assassin within the city, would you pause because you did not have weeks to plan for it?"
"Of course not, my lord, but—"
"I will not disclose all that I know to you, Imhran, but I will reveal this much: the threat you prepare against now is directed at the crown-prince. Today’s training exercise must be taken seriously."
"My company is one of two that is guarding the Citadel today, my lord, and we are scattered," Imhran warned. "Myself and ten others are the only guards in the upper levels of the palace. The rest are upon the lower levels or within the Tower of Ecthelion."
"A slight delay is to be expected, and we have already taken that into account." The elf paused, his expression thoughtful. "In fact, an even greater delay would be acceptable if you managed to prevent word of this from being spread. We have no desire to cause panic in the streets, especially over an imagined threat staged for you and your men. And were this a true assassination attempt, you would not want to the assassins to know that you had tidings of their coming. Indeed, one might even say that this called for subtle deception," Legolas concluded, and for some reason that Imhran could not fathom, this seemed to amuse the elf greatly.
"Then I will quietly gather the men, my lord, and we will begin our search of the city as soon as we are able," Imhran said.
"Good. I shall go ahead and let the assassins know that the game has begun," Legolas said. "Send forth the men the moment you are prepared." And with that, he nodded his head in a parting gesture and turned away.
Imhran frowned as he watched the elf leave. Something about this felt…wrong, but Imhran could not say what. Legolas’s words were convincing, and there was no reason not to trust him. And given some of the threats they had faced in the recent past, it was reasonable to train against the possibility of assassins infiltrating the city. Yet even so, something about this did not ring completely true.
The guard sighed, looked at the parchment in his hand, and then set off to find his men. Whatever else could be said of him, Imhran was a man who followed orders, and he could not deny his nature now, even should some greater scheme be afoot. He still thought it strange that he had heard nothing of this before now, and he thought it even stranger that Elladan and Elrohir would volunteer to play the assassins in a mock assassination attempt. But then, they were elves. Elves were a strange lot any day. Perhaps that was reason enough.