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The enormous royal party left Minas Anor the following day. The elaborately festooned column stretched for miles across northern Ithilien with the King, the Queen, and the royal guard at its head. Everywhere the trees were in new leaf and flower, showing their best colors for the new year.
Riding with his household immediately behind Faramir and just ahead of Legolas and Thranduil, Imrahil could not help but notice how the ranks of the Elves swelled as they passed through the wood. They flocked to their king with an enthusiastic devotion which spoke eloquently of his leadership. Elessar’s reign was still young, but Imrahil was certain that he would also command that kind of allegiance in time. It was inevitable for a man of his quality.
It was early evening when they at last reached the celebrated Field of Cormallen, ringed with trees bearing the yellow culumalda flowers which had given the place its name. Large pavilions had already been erected along the edges of the site, each with the heraldic banner of the intended resident staked outside. Many impressive outbuildings had been constructed in the surrounding forest, storehouses, stables, and stone ovens, an investment in what would surely be many public celebrations in years to come.
Another informal dinner was organized as the great lords settled into their quarters and the rest of the column arrived in the field. Men and Elves who had gone ahead of everyone else had prepared fresh bread and game spiced with the sage, thyme, marjoram, and spring onions which grew wild throughout that country.
Imrahil was very gratified when Ciryon brought their portions, hollow bowls of bread filled with fragrant morsels of meat. The sun was quickly setting, and people were beginning to gather around the swarm of soldiers completing the preparations for the enormous bonfire at the center of the field. “Come, wife,” he said jovially, handing Nerdanel her food when she had finished straightening her jewelry and veil. “We would not want to miss the firing.”
“Indeed not,” she agreed, accepting her meal.
The impressive monument of logs and kindling had obviously been built to an exacting standard, standing over twenty feet high and crowned with a tall fir tree which had been culled from the forest especially for this purpose. Dry and riddled with disease, it promised to burn dramatically.
When at last the sun had truly set and the stars had emerged, the royal trumpets blew a sudden call for silence. It was the last night of the year, and it seemed only right that they savor the occasion for a few moments. Then King Elessar, holding aloft a single torch in the gloom, lifted his voice over the crowd and solemnly repeated the words that the Eagles had brought to the city six years before.
Sing now, ye people of the Tower of Anor,
Sing and rejoice, ye people of the Tower of Guard,
Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
And the tree that was withered shall be renewed,
Sing all ye people!*
Drumming that had begun softly now grew much stronger. Merry and Pippin lit two torches from the King’s flame, ran to the great pile and set the kindling alight. Fire spiraled upward along bundles of strategically-placed pine boughs, reached the brittle branches of the great fir tree, and a roaring column of flame shot skyward, almost blinding in its sudden brilliance.
There was some appreciative applause from the crowd, startled screams as something exploded overhead, and finally nervous laughter and lusty cheers as they all recognized the glimmering blue sparks for what they were. Several more fireworks erupted in the sky, red, green, and gold, a special preparation from the Dwarves of Erebor.
Music began in all corners of the field, and several more fires were lit as the formalities dissolved into general gaiety. Wine and ale were flowing freely, and there seemed not to be anyone among them who was not thoroughly enjoying himself as the disparate races and cultures celebrated together their common victory.
“This is what I wanted this occasion to be,” Elessar said with a broad smile, watching the spontaneous dancing all around them, a large mug of ale in his hand.
Imrahil smiled as well. “With any luck,” he said, “this experience may serve to improve the political climate going forward.”
“Precisely,” the King agreed. “We have only to become familiar to one another.”
Snatches of Elven song came to them over the commotion, very different from the elevated style Imrahil had heard from the Queen’s companions from Rivendell. The songs of Greenwood were militant and buoyant with an infectious rhythm and lyrics that were often grim and irreverent. They were exactly the right people to tame Ithilien again, practical and full of irrepressible energy.
For a moment their voices rang clearer, proudly united in some new verses they had rendered into the common tongue for the benefit of their new friends.
The frost is slain by bloom of spring,
He bore the frozen winter’s chill,
At last the hopeless war is won,
“They are insufferably proud of him,” Imrahil observed.
“As well they should be,” Elessar agreed. “Greenwood alone of all the Elven realms has been improved by the outcome of the war. I shall be well pleased if history will remember my reign as fondly as they do his.”
Merry and Pippin were dancing atop a table, obviously quite drunk, and attempting to teach a mixed crowd of spectators the words to what could only be described as an aggressively lighthearted song. Their audience, by no means completely sober, learned the chorus quickly enough, which gratified the Hobbits immensely. Several raucous renditions ensued.
As the night advanced, the event seemed as perfect a success as could have been hoped for. Loosened by drink and good company, everyone appeared to have shed for the moment whatever unreasonable reservations he might have harbored against his fellow merrymakers; Elves sang Dwarvish songs, a few brave Dwarves sang Elvish songs, and everyone sang the Hobbits’ songs. It was easy to forget whatever cares might have seemed much more pressing a few hours ago, and which doubtless would resurface the following morning. Perhaps those cares would not seem so significant in the first light of a new year.
Falathar wandered away from the noisy firelit field, away from the howling Rohirrim, away from the pompous Elvish ballads, away from the dogs snarling over carcasses of roast boar and stag not yet completely denuded of meat. He took care to appear inebriated enough to go unnoticed by the few who crossed his path, carrying a mug of ale and respectable portions of bread and venison spitted on his dagger. He knew he had gone deep enough into the wood when he felt the prick of steel on his back.
“Sheath your blade, you scoundrel,” Falathar commanded. “You forget your place.”
“No more than you have forgotten yours.” Radhruin put his knife away. He was a creature of shadow now, like a wild animal disguised amid the trees. He was covered with mud up to the belt, apparently to frustrate any sent which may alert the dogs. “You said you would have instructions for me.”
“Indeed. How well do you know the lay of this land?”
“I know it,” the corsair said flatly. “I was here when the pavilions were raised, as you wished.”
“Excellent.” Falathar realized that it must have been weary and stagnant work, observing the site while necessarily going unobserved. Radhruin did have a lean and hungry look about him, which was why Falathar had brought some spoils. He handed over the mug and the laden dagger. “The details I will leave to your ingenuity, for you know your own business best. You must arrange some grave accident or sabotage very soon which must absolutely be the death of Faramir, but which must appear to be directed against the Elvenking. It would be best if you could kill him as well. Suspicion will immediately fall in quite a different quarter. I am not much concerned who else may come to harm, but Faramir must die. I will choke you with gold if you can accomplish this.”
There was a long silence as Radhruin considered the commission, tearing the meat off the blade with his teeth, and looking at Falathar with something akin to disdain. Then he seemed to forget him entirely, falling into deep thought. “Yes,” he said at last, as much to himself as to his employer. “I know how it may be done.”
“Do it soon,” Falathar insisted. “The longer you linger in Ithilien, the greater our risk.”
But Radhruin did not seem to share his urgency. He took his time now with what was left of his food, drained the ale and threw the mug at Falathar’s feet. “It seems the risk is all mine,” he said, a sharp light in his eyes. “Give me a pledge.”
“A what?” Falathar was caught off guard and had little patience to spare.
“I have told you before, I am not your pawn to be used and sacrificed at will,” Radhruin insisted. “What good is the word of a traitor and murderer to me? Give me your signet ring.”
Falathar balked. It was insufferable that this mercenary would dare to make such a demand of him, but once again it was impossible to refuse. Worse, Radhruin was no fool and obviously knew the strength of his position. Falathar did not like to leave his fate at the mercy of any man; everything he had done had been in an effort to free himself, yet he only seemed to become more entangled. Clenching his jaw with impotent rage, he pulled off his silver signet ring and gave it to the corsair.
Radhruin jammed it onto his dirty finger with a maddening smile. “Now you will think again before you denounce me,” he said.
A twig snapped, and they both spun around to find they were no longer alone. Falathar was seized by panic as he recognized Lady Ivriniel’s husband, and the look of scandalized disbelief on his face made it clear he had heard too much. Beleg’s features hardened as he realized his peril, and then he turned and bolted back toward the field.
“Stop him!” Falathar barked, but Radhruin had already thrown the dagger. Beleg fell wounded, his cries for assistance drowned by a new volley of Dwarvish fireworks and the cheers of the spectators.
Radhruin pounced on him and grappled violently with the old war veteran, who gave a good account of himself despite his missing hand and the knife in his leg. He was calling for Elessar, for Imrahil, for Legolas and Faramir, for anyone who could hear. Radhruin finally silenced him by kneeling on his back and wrapping an arm around his throat. Before he lost consciousness, Beleg glared at Falathar and spat contemptuously into the dirt. Radhruin broke his neck.
Falathar’s initial relief was soon soured by dread. This could yet ruin everything. The man’s absence would hardly go unnoticed.
“I can dispose of him,” Radhruin growled, sensing his dismay, already tying off the leg wound lest it leave a blood trail. “Bring me a horse!”
*Obviously lifted directly from Return of the King.
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