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The first day of the new year dawned with a chill, but with great promise of a clear sky and a warm sun. Despite his good mood, Imrahil found he was extremely reluctant to leave the downy cushion and cocoon of bedding he and Nerdanel shared, but she dutifully prodded him upright.
“Go,” she said, clearly intending to remain abed herself. “You would not want to miss the hunt.”
Imrahil sighed and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. “Elessar keeps the hours of a much younger man,” he complained, but she was right. He would feel very old indeed if he failed to join the royal hunt.
He dressed softly for the occasion in the woodsman’s tunic Ciryon had laid out the night before. He splashed some water from the basin on his face and felt surprisingly invigorated. He bid his wife farewell, stepped outside their pavilion and breathed deeply the fresh and fragrant air of Ithilien.
Ciryon was waiting with his horse saddled and ready. Of greater immediate interest to Imrahil was the unexpectedly fresh breakfast he offered. It was a small and delicate-looking loaf of fine white bread on a silver plate, too simple to be only what it seemed, accompanied by a stirrup cup of wine.
“It seems the Elves have no need of sleep, my lord,” Ciryon explained, recognizing his curiosity. “They have taken the liberty of providing refreshment for the hunting party this morning.”
“Better and better,” Imrahil said, taking the convenient meal in hand. It was still warm. “I envy Faramir more each day.” The first bite revealed a savory filling of roast boar and apples worthy of any king’s table, and immediately he regretted not having a larger portion. But, of course, it would be ill-advised to eat heavily before a ride. All the Elvish dishes had developed an apparently effortless refinement that no doubt came of many years of practice and what was probably a natural desire for more interesting fare. They lived far too long to tolerate tedious food.
Imrahil threw back his wine and swung astride his horse just as he heard the drumming of hoofbeats in the grass behind him. He turned and saw Thranduil and Legolas riding toward him out of the sunrise.
“Come, Imrahil,” the Elvenking smiled, mounted on his fiery Elvish stallion, armed as his son with a heavy woodland bow and a bristling quiver of arrows. “A pristine day awaits. Let us make the most of it!”
Imrahil spurred his horse after them, and together they rode to the southern edge of the valley where King Elessar was waiting, past the center of the field where preparations were hastily being made for the entertainments of the day. A scaffold of prepared lumber was already mostly erected, the bones of what would soon be an enclosed arena and a large royal box on a dais. It would have to be large to accommodate all the crowned heads in attendance.
“Good morning, and a blessed New Year!” Elessar greeted them as they joined the gathering hunting party.
“Merethor veren!” Thranduil agreed, “although it seems a few of us are not yet feeling blessed this day.”
He meant, of course, the Hobbits. The periain were mounted, Peregrin with Faramir and Meriadoc with Éowyn. They were clearly anxious to accompany the hunt, but it was obvious they had not yet recovered from last night’s revelry. Thranduil inquired of his people who were present on foot, and one produced a flask and gave them to drink. Whatever the contents, it began restoring their vitality in moments.
“Hullo!” Merry exclaimed, returning the flask reluctantly. “I expect we will be needing more of that before the fortnight is past.”
There was a good deal of laughter and agreement among the company. Imrahil took note, intending to acquire some of that remarkable concoction along with Nerdanel’s new favorite pastries before the journey back to Belfalas.
The hunt commenced in the full light of the morning sun, later than a proper hunt ought, but it was in fact more a royal pastime than a serious chase. Legolas’ Elves and Faramir’s Ithilien Rangers went ahead to flush what game they could find. Aeglos the fox bounded after them through the undergrowth, managing to bag several stotes which would later be used to feed him and the dogs.
Tempted though he was to monopolize Thranduil’s company, Imrahil fell back and forced himself to take an interest in Elessar’s other guests. His natural curiosity made the task easier, and he allowed himself to be overtaken by King Bard of Dale. They had been introduced earlier, but had not yet had occasion to converse at length. “Good day to you, my lord!” he said brightly. “I would ride with you a while, if you will grant me the privilege of your company.”
“I will, and gladly,” Bard replied. He was still young, more or less the same age as Imrahil’s eldest son, brought to the throne by his father’s untimely death.
“Certainly it is our loss that your queen did not accompany you.”
“My Arndís is not fond of travel,” Bard explained, “and Gondor is still a very distant name in the north. She stayed with the children to govern in my absence.”
“The kingdom of Dale and the other northern realms are in many ways equally mysterious to us in the south,” Imrahil said. “We are fortunate indeed now to have the familiarity you have always enjoyed with the Elves of Greenwood.”
“King Thranduil can be a mercurial neighbor,” Bard confessed with a smile, “but it would be difficult to find a more reliable ally, in feast or famine.” Then he frowned. “Although it has been hushed up as much as may be possible, I have observed that King Elessar is having some difficulty reintroducing the Fair Folk in Gondor.”
“There has been more resistance than we anticipated,” Imrahil admitted. “The King hopes to resolve it soon.”
“Sooner rather than later,” Bard agreed. “Thranduil’s people are good and loyal friends, but they can be . . . volatile. It would be unwise to offend them.”
King Thorin and Gimli rushed by on their ponies, perhaps eager not to appear to be at any disadvantage beside their fellows mounted on taller beasts. Ahead, Thranduil and Legolas drew rein and allowed them to pass, the Elvenking obviously in no great hurry to share their company. The habits of a lifetime were slow to change.
The forests of Ithilien were indeed much changed since the war. The scars of the orc occupation were greatly diminished, and new growth was rebounding through fire-scorched areas, young saplings reaching for sunlight beside those venerable trees which had survived the dark times. Legolas and his Elves had indeed been productive. Doubtless Faramir was correct, and it would be well worth Imrahil’s while to visit Emyn Arnen before returning to the coast.
“Does the feast tonight depend on our luck this morning?” Pippin asked. He sounded worried. “At this rate, we may have to be very creative with cheese and vegetables.”
A wry chuckle ran through the company. “No, no,” Faramir assured him with a smile. “The feast has been well provided for. Anything we contribute will simply make a more extravagant supper.”
As if in answer to the Hobbit’s prayers, the hounds began baying in the forest ahead, and a horn sounded a terse call. It was boar. The entire company spurred their horses to greater speed through the undergrowth. The noise of the catch dogs attempting to subdue their quarry guided them around in a northerly arc as they caught up to the chase. The huge beast was crashing through the forest in heedless flight, apparently a mature male well worth the attention of the royal hunt.
Elessar loosed the first arrow, striking the boar behind the shoulder. His second shaft flew wide as his horse stumbled, but Éomer managed to hit it in the flank. Neither wound seemed to slow the boar’s progress. Faramir and Éowyn fell back slightly with the Hobbits, leaving the work for the unencumbered riders. Imrahil was determined not to attempt a shot of his own, content to let the larger crowns do battle for the honor of the kill. He saw Thranduil making his move, overtaking the others on the outside at what seemed a reckless speed. His mount was incredibly nimble, obviously well accustomed to woodland hunts. He let fly a shaft which struck its mark just behind the foreleg, the force of which would have felled a stag or a smaller boar, but the enormous animal found strength enough for a last desperate plunge through the scrub.
Elessar raised his hand and shouted some direction to the others as they approached a clearing. In a moment Imrahil saw what the rest of the party had seen, and he joined them as they fanned out on either side, herding their quarry forward. Thorin and Gimli, anticipating the direction of the boar’s flight, had already doubled back on their ponies and now stood together braced behind Thorin’s large battle axe, upon which a short lance had been mounted.
Enraged and harried by the dogs, the boar launched itself at the Dwarves, knocking them backward but impaling itself through the heart in the process. Gimli was quick to crawl to his feet and deal the final blow, severing the boar’s thick spine with his own axe, assuring a quick end to its struggle.
“You are fortunate not to have been crushed, my friends!” Elessar congratulated them. “That beast outweighs both of you together.”
“They are not called the Gonhirrim for nothing,” Legolas laughed. “They will not be crushed so easily.”
“Indeed, not,” Thorin agreed. He was proudly spattered with boar’s blood, and struck a royal pose with his grisly axe. “Thank you, my lords, for sending the animal to us.”
Returning to the festival grounds in triumph, the royal party dispersed each to his own quarters. There was just enough time to change into something more presentable before the main events of the day. There would be a brief flag parade before the games began, so it was their sovereign duty to appear to best advantage.
Ciryon was waiting when Imrahil returned, and helped him quickly into a stately white and grey tunic, a cloth of silver sash beneath his belt, a blue cloak on his shoulders affixed with his silver swan badge, the silver and pearl circlet of Dol Amroth on his brow. All that remained was to see himself mounted. Ciryon would await him in the royal box.
Imrahil’s mind was elsewhere as he left his pavilion and strode across the grass toward the stables hidden within the trees, drifting in a cloud of general contentment as a sweet spring breeze ruffled his cloak and swept loose blossoms from the trees. His reverie was suddenly broken by a loud commotion from inside the stables. That was Thranduil’s voice above all others, and he was thunderously angry. Imrahil’s Sindarin was not contemporary enough for him to catch more than a general sense of the rapid tirade, but it was plain that some mischief had been done. He quickened his pace, intending to address the incident as best he could on Elessar’s behalf, his previous serenity banished by a dull feeling of dread.
He burst through the door only moments later and found the splendid Elvenking and all his guard clustered around his great Rohirric mare, who appeared to be in some distress. “What has happened?” Imrahil demanded immediately. “Is anyone injured?”
“Someone has willfully lamed the king’s horse!” Gwaelas informed him as Thranduil regained his composure.
Two rather sheepish stable boys seemed to have been rendered mute by the prior outburst. Legolas bounded in through the opposite door, also drawn by the shouting.
Imrahil advanced to see the damage for himself. Thranduil lifted Fréawyn’s left front hoof to reveal the enormous nail which had been driven deep into the flesh. Blood was seeping from the wound.
“Who has done this?” Imrahil asked, rounding on the stable boys. “Did you see him?”
“He was dressed as the farrier, sir!” the older one insisted.
“That is no farrier’s nail!” Thranduil snarled, causing them both to flinch against the far wall.
Imrahil flinched with them in spite of himself, then motioned softly for silence. They would not discover anything useful from these two if Thranduil frightened the life out of them. An Elvish stablemaster arrived then with pincers, a hoof knife, salve, and a pail of salt water to attend the wound as best anyone could. Imrahil beckoned the boys a short distance away while the Elves were occupied. “How would you describe this mysterious farrier?” he asked them.
“He was tall,” the older one remembered, “with dark hair.”
That description fit the majority of men present at Cormallen, Imrahil thought, but he hid his impatience.
“He was very quiet,” said the younger one, “never a word to anyone. And he was a bit swarthy.”
That was not much better, but at least it was something. Imrahil thanked them and bid them return to their duties. They were quite happy to disappear into other stalls.
The nail was out now, a wicked iron thing that had been forged for heavy carpentry. The damaged hoof had been cleaned and was now being salved and bandaged.
“What did you get from them?” Thranduil asked. He was still smoldering, but seemed less explosive.
“Only that we should be alert for a tall swarthy man of taciturn disposition,” Imrahil said. The Elvenking mirrored his dissatisfaction. “I will inform Elessar and the King’s Guard. The soldiers will watch for him.”
“As will our people,” Legolas agreed grimly. “Any man willing to ruin so fine an animal out of spite may be capable of worse.”
“In that, at least, we seem to have been fortunate,” the stablemaster concluded. “I do not believe any lasting damage has been done to the hoof. With due care and attention, she should be mended in a matter of weeks.”
Thranduil was visibly relieved. “I am pleased to hear it,” he said.
“Shall I place a guard on her, aran nîn?” Dorthaer asked gruffly.
“No,” Thranduil decided. “Erthoron is enough. Find another stablemaster to assume his duties.”
“If I may say, my lords,” Erthoron continued, “the hairs I see caught on the nails of her hind shoe suggest our Fréawyn struck a blow of her own.” He assumed the classic ferrier’s position that would have been required to inflict the wound and tapped his forehead at the hairline. “I think your swarthy ruffian is now marked by a significant abrasion.”
“So much the better,” Thranduil said stiffly, though apparently somewhat gratified.
“I will include it in my report to the King,” Imrahil promised.
“Yes, inform the King when you may,” Legolas agreed, “but his Guard must be alerted immediately. I will see to that.”
There was little time to say more; their presence was required on the field in a few moments. Imrahil chose a fresh horse, but Thranduil was obliged to pull Maethor out of his trough for an additional duty before being retired for the day.
They quickly joined the resplendent column of royalty queuing outside, and each was paired with a footman bearing his flag on a lance. They paraded in stately fashion across the field and into the arena to the fanfare of trumpets and the energetic reception of the roaring crowd, King Elessar and Queen Undómiel, Imrahil and Nerdanel, Faramir and Éowyn, Thranduil, Legolas, Éomer and Lothíriel, Thorin, Gimli, Meriadoc and Peregrin, and Bard. That so many bench seats had been constructed in so short a time seemed miraculous, but was yet another manifestation of the exacting standards with which Elessar had planned every aspect of the celebration. After circumnavigating the arena three times so that they might be visible to all in attendance, they dismounted and climbed the short stairway to the covered dais where thrones had been set for them. The footmen mounted their colors into the ground at their feet, and then the games began.
The first event was the beginning of a much anticipated pilwë tournament which would proceed at intervals throughout the day. The ancient Gondorian game had enjoyed a resurgence of interest since Elessar’s crowning, which seemed perfectly appropriate as it had its origins literally in the roots of the Reunited Kingdom. This match was of particular interest to Imrahil, as it pitted his Swan Knights and his son Amrothos against Faramir’s Ithilien Rangers.
“Remind me, my lord, of the particulars of this game,” Éomer said, leaning toward Imrahil who was seated to his left. “My good queen has endeavored to explain it before.”
“It is a remembrance of Isildur’s theft of the last fruit of Nimloth, the white tree of Númenor,” Imrahil explained as the players took their places on the grass. “Two teams of seven men each attempt to take the yáva, the small white ball, through a gate at the opposite end of the field. The yáva may not be thrown or kicked, but only passed hand to hand. Cowardly blows are illegal, as is deliberate serious bodily harm, but only one score is required to win, so games are often brief and brutal.”
The King of Rohan nodded his approval. “This lot promises to give a fine spectacle. Are those your men, Imrahil? I recognize your son among them.”
“Indeed they are,” Imrahil smiled. Both teams were comprised of some of the broadest and burliest men either principality could boast. It was a friendly rivalry, but taken very seriously. Amrothos could not expect his blood to merit any special deference.
“I’ll wager Faramir’s men take the day,” Meriadoc ventured. “The Rangers are a cunning and crafty sort.”
“Would you care to risk some coin on that prospect, Master Holbytla?” Éomer asked mischievously. “It would perhaps displease my sister, but I am prepared to stake a gold piece on my lord father’s knights.”
“Done,” Merry agreed without hesitation.
Imrahil had only a moment to wonder about the propriety of doing anything so vulgar as gambling in the presence of the King and Queen before Thranduil boldly leaned forward from his place on Elessar’s opposite side. “Imrahil!” he called over the noise of the crowd. “Are you confident in your men? Legolas, of course, is loyal to Faramir, but I am inclined to wager against him.”
“Perfectly confident!” Imrahil assured him. It was true, although under the circumstances he could hardly have admitted otherwise.
The keeper threw the yáva into play from the sidelines, and the crowd roared as both teams charged at each other. Amrothos and the Swan Knights slammed into the Rangers like the heavy cavalry they were accustomed to being, while the Rangers seemed quicker on their feet, diving and twisting away from their opponents when they could. The Ranger who had initially caught the ball was immediately crushed beneath a pile of eager men, but one of his teammates fled the scene with a telltale flash of white clutched protectively against his chest. Two alert Knights gave chase and bowled him over, but he rolled and regained his feet to wild acclaim. Amrothos collided with him and dragged him to the ground, allowing another of the Knights to seize the yáva and sprint in the other direction.
Imrahil did not allow himself to show an indecorous amount of enthusiasm, although in other circumstances he would have loudly applauded his son’s aggression and teamwork. Beside him Nerdanel could barely keep her seat.
The match continued in that fashion for some time, with neither team able to gain a clear advantage. Injuries were sustained, but no man consented to quit the field. Informal tallies were made, speculating the fitness of each team going forward. Seeing at least two Knights favoring sore bones, Merry doubled his wager with Éomer who was too gallant to lose faith in his wife’s brother. The Rangers had also taken casualties, and Imrahil gripped the arms of his throne, still daring to hope for the best.
The end came suddenly, as if often did in that game. The Rangers’ greater agility won the day as one of their own broke free of the brawl and ran through the gateposts to victory. Imrahil sighed, accepting defeat with as much dignity as he could muster. The disappointment would have been bitter enough without having to watch Merry collect his winnings from the King of Rohan or endure the narrow glance Thranduil aimed in his direction.
“Do not be so crestfallen, Imrahil,” Elessar said as he applauded the victors. “Your men played well.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Imrahil replied graciously. “You are as generous as ever. But before the proceedings continue, I must inform you of an incident which occurred in the stables this morning. I believe it to be yet another deliberate affront committed against the Elvenking.”
“Why was I not told of this sooner?” the King demanded. The Queen stiffened in her seat.
“The Guard has been made aware,” Imrahil assured him. “A man was seen entering the stables in the guise of a farrier, and we believe it was he who lamed Thranduil’s horse.”
“Fréawyn, the grey mare?” Lothíriel interjected. “Someone has lamed her?”
“Who would dare?” Éomer seethed. “She is very near blood of the Mearas! Finer horses do not exist in Middle-earth. This man is not of Rohan, I assure you!”
“We did not suspect so, my lord,” Imrahil agreed. “What little description we have of him makes it extremely unlikely. The wound is serious, but it is the opinion of the stablemaster that no lasting damage has been done.”
“Does Thranduil know of this?” Elessar asked.
“It was Thranduil who discovered it,” Imrahil admitted, “and he was thus compelled to choose another mount for the ceremonies here.”
“I had wondered at that. The beast had only just had the sweat wiped from him.” Elessar shot a surreptitious glance at the Elvenking, who immediately met his gaze without turning. Thranduil was clearly aware of their conversation, though not inclined to take part. “What do we know of this man? Do we suspect him to be in league with the Lord of Lamedon?”
“Anything is possible, my lord,” Imrahil said. “The stable hands could not name him, and said only that he was a furtive man of dark complexion. Additionally, it is likely that he endured a kick to the brow before he fled.”
“Good of the horse to mark him for us,” Elessar agreed, though his voice was utterly humorless. He motioned to the guard standing at his elbow. “See that Lord Baldor is summoned to me at once,” he said. “I will tolerate these insolent crimes no longer. It may be that we must renegotiate the terms of our agreement.”
From the privileged seat reserved for the Lord of Pelargir, Erellont watched the continuing entertainments with only idle attention. A showing of exotic animals from the south had begun in the arena, three keepers parading their beasts for the crowd. There was a young mûmak, a small striped horse, and an outrageously large bird apparently more accustomed to sprinting than flying, bald as a buzzard on its head and neck, but with stunning black and white plumage on its body and superfluous wings. The crowd applauded the display, but Erellont’s mind was elsewhere.
His father had been obviously ill at ease since the previous night, but seemed unwilling either to admit it or to confide the reason. That was worrying. Erellont felt he was walking half-blind through his father’s machinations; he knew more than he wanted to know, and less than he ought. He found it difficult to look at Faramir, knowing the Prince of Ithilien would soon be dead unless Falathar’s plans miscarried. He cursed the circumstances which had brought them to this pass, but he was not prepared to stand before the King and accept the ruinous sentence his father and grandfather had earned for their house.
Falathar sat very near him, conspicuously present and engaged in the entertainment, obviously determined to appear unconcerned and innocuous. His duplicity soured everything he touched, and turned Erellont’s stomach more each day.
The keeper of the bird presented the Queen with an elegant fan fashioned from its long feathers, earning for himself one of the many white blossoms entwined in her hair as a token of her gratitude.
The law recognized him as the Lord of Pelargir, yet Erellont still felt inextricably entangled in his father’s conspiracies, subordinated to his demands and expectations. He was well aware that Falathar’s true intentions in relinquishing his office had very little to do with any infirmity, but rather an abhorrence of the hardship of war. Erellont had accepted the responsibilities of his rank and served with some distinction in the War of the Ring, but that would all be forgotten in the stench of his family’s corruption. By the time he had become aware of the depth of his father’s vices, similar offenses had already been perpetrated in his name. He had not had a stellar career as the Lord, to be sure, but he was not to blame for the sorry state of their affairs. Now he had been dragged into the muck before he had had a chance to object. Now it was too late.
The animals had gone now, and a giant from Dale presented himself. He proceeded to bend swords with nothing but his hands, albeit with a padded glove to save his fingers from the blades.
Sitting alone in an impotent froth of his own disgust and resentment, Erellont decided he could no longer endure his father’s presence at that moment. He rose abruptly and turned to leave.
“What are you doing?” Falathar hissed at him. “Are you trying to seed rumors?”
“I will go where I please,” Erellont asserted, his voice assuming an absolute tone he had never dared use against his father before. “Let those tongues wag that will, and pray they do not guess the truth.” He turned again and descended from their place amid the crowd without looking back.
He stalked across the grass toward his pavilion, glad to leave the noise and incessant mirth behind. He did not have the patience for it today. He wanted more sympathetic company.
Mereneth was waiting for him there, keeping decorously out of sight as a nobleman’s mistress should. Erellont allowed the tent flaps to fall closed and collapsed in a heap on the cushion beside her. She lay aside her sewing and ran her fingers through his hair, obviously concerned. “Why are you not enjoying the King’s festivities, my lord?” she asked. “Your absence will be remarked upon.”
“I do not care who remarks upon it,” Erellont countered. “I could not abide my father’s presence any longer, not even had they seven queens of Rhûn set to parade in naught but their jewels.” Naturally he could not confide to her the true reason for his frustration with his father, but he had reasons enough that she did not suspect anything more serious.
“You should not allow him to intimidate you, my lord,” Mereneth said, softly and yet very boldly. “He willingly gave his seat over to you long ago. He should allow you to occupy it in truth as well as in appearance.”
“I would that it were as simple as that.” Erellont almost smiled. Not very long ago it had seemed that simple. “I do not want to talk about my father. I want to be with you.”
Mereneth smiled coyly and took up her embroidery again. “I expect that is the reason your father desires to remove me from your household, my lord.”
It was true that Falathar did not approve of Mereneth. It was not because he was prudish, but because he was a brute. Erellont had found her on the streets of Pelargir, just another war orphan without money or means, reduced to begging and scavenging. Something about her had caught his eye at once, and rather than give her a coin he had set her on his horse and brought her back with him. Naturally his father assumed she was nothing but a passing amusement, and was confounded when instead their bond became one of genuine affection, something beyond his comprehension. He had several times attempted to remove her, but on this one point Erellont had consistently defied him. Mereneth relieved his loneliness, and for now he preferred her company above all others.
A distant roar of applause came to them on the breeze, and Erellont concluded that the sword-bender must have taken his leave. Doubtless some other freak was now preparing to exhibit himself.
“Your father treats you as a child because you allow it, my lord,” Mereneth insisted. “You must learn to defend yourself at least as ably as you do me.”
Erellont sighed. He knew she was right, but the situation was already so out of hand that it hardly seemed worth the effort to begin rowing against the current now.
A Rohirric strongman proudly entered the arena when the sword-bending giant had quit it, a train of men behind him dragging carts containing stones and irons of various sizes. He threw off his shirt, displaying his extraordinary musculature to the rowdy crowd of spectators.
The midday meal was served. Imrahil could see rations of bread and cheese being distributed throughout the common ranks, but the King and his companions were treated to morsels of venison seasoned with an almost obscene amount of black pepper and other expensive spices. Trade had been brisk as other nations rushed to exchange their goods for the spoils of Mordor’s fall.
Imrahil nearly choked on his wine when Ivriniel suddenly grabbed his shoulder and appeared at his elbow. He would have been cross with her had not her face been so grave. “Imrahil,” she said, “Beleg is gone.”
“Gone where?” Imrahil asked. The statement made no sense.
Ivriniel shook her head. “None can say.” She looked older, ashen and drawn with worry. “I have inquired everywhere. I lost him at the fire last night and he has not been seen since.”
Imrahil was immediately concerned. He wanted to believe it was nothing, but he recognized his sister’s panic, and he knew it was completely out of character for Beleg to disappear even for an hour without her knowledge. He did not like it, particularly now that there were nameless lawbreakers at large in the wood. He left his seat and approached the King as discreetly as he could.
“My lord,” he said, leaning close to Elessar to be heard over the noise of the strongman’s performance, “my sister’s husband, Beleg of Pelargir, has not been accounted for since last night, and may have met with some misfortune. He is a man of reliable character, and I believe the matter merits investigation.”
“So do I,” Elessar agreed, “especially after what you told me of the events of this morning.” He beckoned to his Guard once again, his brow furrowed with concern. Then he shook his head, disgusted by these malicious disruptions of his festival. “Take Lady Ivriniel and see that a description of her husband is given to the auxiliary guard, who will then search the surrounds for him,” he instructed.
Imrahil resumed his seat as Ivriniel left with the captain. Nerdanel shared his concern. “It is surely nothing,” he assured her, equally for his own benefit. “Perhaps he is yet sleeping off last night’s drink in the wood, and will wonder at all the fuss when he wakes.” It was not a very convincing theory.
Left with no more boulders to lift, the strongman pointed at Elessar and issued a theatrical challenge. Obviously prepared for this, a large Gondorian soldier appeared on the field to grapple with him. It was great sport, and it whipped the crowd into a frenzy once again, but the man of Rohan came away undefeated. Now he challenged the King of Dale to produce his own champion, and another prepared opponent came out to meet him. He fared no better despite a spirited struggle. Flushed with victory, the strongman pointed at the great Elvenking.
The flash of consternation on Elessar’s face told Imrahil that this was not part of the script. The man’s audacity earned a surprised but respectful nod from Thranduil, wild cheers from the Rohirrim, and vengefully amused heckling from the Dalers. Thranduil elected one from his personal guard, Lancaeron, to act as his champion.
The strongman seemed to come again to his senses as the flinty Elven soldier approached him, but it was far too late to recant. Even bereft of weapons, those entrusted with the king’s person were formidable individuals. The two seemed very mismatched as each took the measure of the other, the hulking Man and the slender Elf, but the outcome was far from certain.
“How do you wager now, Meriadoc?” Éomer asked, perhaps hoping to win his money back.
Merry hesitated. “I don’t like that hungry look on Thranduil,” he said. “It’s like a hawk watching a lame rabbit.”
“I cannot prove faithless to my own champion,” Éomer decided. “Have you so little confidence in your brother in arms?”
“I will take your wager, my lord,” Imrahil said. “A gold piece in favor of the Elf.”
Neither had yet engaged the other, and the crowd began to express impatience. Lancaeron’s manner seemed to soften for a moment, and he said something to his challenger which no one else could hear. Apparently reassured, the man smiled and resumed his aggressive posture. He lunged at the Elf, who did not evade the attack as expected, but instead met his opponent with all the force of a rutting stag. Surprised, the crowd loudly applauded this tack, which evened the odds somewhat and abbreviated what might have been a long and tedious dance. This would be a trial of strength rather than agility.
“He is a bold one,” Éomer said. “Fram easily outweighs him.”
“All the old tales agree that the Elves are capable of great feats of endurance,” Imrahil countered.
Lancaeron was clearly the more limber of the two, and not only because he was fresh. Fram fought with dogged determination, wearied by his performance but alert enough to bring his crushing strength to bear whenever possible. It seemed the Elf was at least a match for him in that regard, and neither clearly gained the upper hand. Elessar still seemed slightly ill at ease. Thranduil watched the contest with serene confidence. Imrahil and Éomer shot furtive glances at one another. Fram struggled to counter each of Lancaeron’s attempts to unbalance him, and it seemed his defense was weakening. They were locked in a titanic struggle of wills for a time, neither apparently able to overpower the other. Then Lancaeron very diplomatically disengaged and extended his hand, declaring a draw.
It was an honorable if not entirely satisfactory conclusion, but Elessar and Thranduil seemed to approve, and in that Imrahil recognized the wisdom of Thranduil’s choice. Judging by the scowl on his face, that beast Dorthaer would not have been so magnanimous had he been selected.
In any event, the contest was soon forgotten in the raucous excitement which heralded the second round of pilwë. The victorious Rangers of Ithilien returned to the field against the rather feral-looking Rangers of the North.
The entertainments continued late into the afternoon. The Rangers of the North managed to claim the ultimate victory after besting their fellows from Ithilien and defending their title against a team of the King’s Guard. The evening closed with a crowded banquet given by the King for all in attendance. The entire field smelled of roast boar, venison, and game birds.
Falathar tried to drown his anxieties in the excellent food. Erellont had not reappeared, but no one seemed to notice his absence or care. It hardly mattered now; everything else was progressing perfectly. After his brief rebellion, Radhruin had been hard at work.
There were many official comings and goings of guards and other officials from the King’s table during the meal, and there were noticeably fewer smiles than there had been previously. Falathar was aware that a search was quietly underway throughout the wood for Lady Ivriniel’s husband, but he doubted the body would be found anywhere in the immediate vicinity. His corsair knew his business too well for that. By now, the tale of the violation of the Elvenking’s horse had circulated throughout the assembly, provoking a variety of reactions. Opponents of the Elvish presence were emboldened by the act, while the Elves themselves had obviously run short of their obligatory patience and were beginning to take offense. The stage was set.
By the time darkness fell and the torches were lit, the wine and ale had begun to influence the behavior of the crowd, and a brawl broke out at one of the lower tables. It was largely ignored until a half-eaten apple was hurled directly at Thranduil. The Elvenking ducked out of the way, too quick to be taken at unawares, and he magnanimously motioned Elessar down before the King could take official umbrage at the incident, but his expression darkened. The fighting was quelled by the friends of those involved who were still in possession of their better judgement, but it revealed the simmering tensions everyone could feel.
Not half an hour later, the music was interrupted by a loud crash as several serving platters were swept clear of another table. Four furious Elves stood facing an inebriated gang of six Men opposite the table from them. “You will will not defame Aran Oropherion in our hearing!” the first among them demanded, fearlessly inflamed with wine. “You are not worthy to pronounce his name! Recant, or we shall have our satisfaction in other ways.”
The Man, who had obviously said something opprobrious about Thranduil, was unrepentant. “You do not command me, you Elvish bastard!” he sneered. “You and your king can rot!”
The Elf, as good as his word, brutally stabbed the Man’s hand into the table with an iron meat fork.
There were screams and a flood of cursing, and more vicious fighting commenced. This time Thranduil was on his feet, barking orders, and Elessar deployed his Guard. Both Elvish and Gondorian soldiers separated the combatants and arrested the instigators. The banquet was as good as ended, and the crowd rapidly dwindled as people slipped away into the night rather than be associated with the violence.
Falathar smiled as he, too, discreetly took his leave. It was time.
Rather than leave the matter until morning, Elessar elected to judge the case immediately. The Men involved were expelled from the festivities and from Ithilien, the wounded among them taken to have their hurts dressed. He left the Elves to the judgement of their own masters, but he attended closely.
Thranduil scrutinized the four who had instigated the brawl, in particular the one who had wielded the fork. “It is no small thing to use violence against the citizens of a realm in which you are merely a guest,” he said icily.
Now that their blood had cooled, the Elves seemed chastened. “We were sorely provoked, Aran nîn,” one explained. “He insulted you without cause, and in the grossest manner.”
“I have been insulted many times in my life, and never has it had any detrimental effect on my health,” Thranduil insisted dryly. “Your loyalty is commendable, but unfortunately it is not excuse enough to maim Elessar’s men.”
“I do repent of that,” the guilty one admitted. “In my anger I forgot the frailty of mortal kind. It was not my intention to damage him irreparably.”
“I trust not,” Thranduil agreed. “I will not rule in this matter. You have sworn yourselves to Legolas, and he will determine a suitable judgement.”
Legolas assigned them extra duties and declared their wages forfeit to the injured man and his family until such time as he had recovered the use of his hand. Elessar was satisfied, and the incident was put to rest, at least officially. Imrahil feared there would yet be unpleasant repercussions before they had heard the last of it.
“I still blame Baldor and his selfish rabble-rousing,” Nerdanel hissed as they retired to their pavilion. “Now the coward has disappeared rather than endure the chaos he has incited.”
“Lord Baldor may be many things,” Imrahil said gravely, “but I do not judge him a coward. He may be brash and irresponsible, but fearlessly so.”
“All the same, he should be made to answer for all this disruption. Where has he gone?”
Imrahil frowned. “I am certain the King is now asking the same question.”
A child shrieked nearby, shattering the uncomfortable quiet of the valley. Imrahil came running, as did Éomer, Erchirion, Faramir, and at least twenty Elves and guardsmen. Princess Elfírien was sobbing in her mother’s arms. She was unhurt, but Aeglos the fox was dead in a pool of vomit.
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