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Written for the LOTR Community's "Art's Desire" challenge. For all with February birthdays, and with thanks to RS9 for the inspiration.
Inspired by the picture: http://www.lotrgfic.com/viewstory.php?sid=3538&chapter=1
“Serving Gondor by RS9”
1 March, year 9 in the reckoning of the King Returned
The woman paused as she entered the open gate leading to the town lands of the Pelennor, having her first unobstructed view of the White City, renamed Minas Anor once more. “It is so beautiful!” she breathed, barely able to speak at the magnificence she saw before her.
The elderly woman who, alongside her equally elderly husband, had taken this younger woman under their wings during much of her journey northward, smiled as she laid her arm across her younger companion’s shoulders to draw her onwards toward the great gates. “That it is,” she declared, “smoke-laden stones and all. Now, have you any idea as to where you might stay? I can recommend the King’s Head in the Second Circle—a fine place, and one that serves many a strange but tasty dish, having been favored by the Ringbearer’s kinsmen during their time here, ere they returned northward to their own lands. ’Tis said that none are better at preparing food than are the Pheriannath.”
“An inn?” The younger woman thought of the mere handful of coin she still carried, all she had left of the money secretly given her by her mother before she left her former home outside Peshastin. If not for the kindness of this couple and a few others like them, never would she have made it this far with any funds left to spend within the King’s city on her arrival. “I doubt I could afford it,” she said regretfully.
“You cannot afford an inn?” the older Man protested. “But you did not say!”
“Then you must come stay with us, my dear,” the woman insisted. “You cannot merely sleep upon the streets!”
“Is there not a hostel where those with little funds might stay for a day or two?” the young woman asked. “I could not in good conscience force myself upon your hospitality. Did not you tell me that your son’s family lives with you, and that already your home was stretched to its limits?”
The couple searched one another’s eyes. Certainly what she said was true, and the goodwife had confided this to the younger woman only the previous evening. At last the husband turned to the younger woman. “Alas, but this is the state of things. We could offer you a pallet upon the floor before the kitchen fire, perhaps….”
“Where I would impede your wife and your son’s wife as they seek to prepare breakfast in the morning? Nay, I would not do this. Again, is there not a hostel where those with little in the way of coin might take refuge for a time?”
The goodwife suddenly smiled. “The Gentlewomen’s Rest House in the Third Circle! Our Lady Queen Arwen has endowed this as a place where women visiting the city on their own might stay, even as you have stated. It is near to the barracks for the City Guards who protect much of the lower city, so there is little danger of strangers seeking to bother those who stay there, and there is even a small garden about it. I am told it is very comfortable.”
The young woman agreed to dine with the older couple and their son’s family, after which their son would accompany her to the Rest House. It was a relief to the woman to have a place to stay where she would not be beholden to others, no matter how good their intentions. After a simple but filling meal, the son-in-law indeed accompanied her to the Gentlewomen’s Rest House, carrying her meager luggage for her, seeing her in and delivering her into the hands of the couple that ran the place, a tall couple of middle years of obvious Dúnedain breeding, dark haired and grey eyed, slender and well built.
She was shown to a comfortable, if simply furnished, room, with toweling hanging from pegs by the door, a small but adequate chest by the narrow but surprisingly comfortable bed, and with a lamp and a decent store of oil for it set atop the chest for her use. “If you wish to read, there is a library of sorts in the dining room,” she was told. “You may even take a book for yourself when you leave here. We do ask that, when your situation is better, you will purchase a book or two to replace what you might take, however. There are three bathing rooms, one on each floor, and two privies per floor as well. The boiler for the bathing rooms is on the uppermost floor where our housekeeper has her rooms, and she lights it three times per day—at an hour before sunrise, at sunset, and at midday, keeping the fire going for two hours each time. If you should like to bathe at any other time, you may either pay her for fuel with which to stoke the boiler, or you might provide her with fuel you have obtained on your own.” They asked that she pay five bronze pennies per day, but advised her she might pay it whenever her situation made it feasible if she did not have sufficient funds at this time.
“We provide a breakfast for our guests, but I fear other meals you must find for yourself. We will advise you that the King and Queen sponsor nuncheon and dinner once each month in the Mercenaries’ Guild Hall at the eastern edge of the market in this circle, and that other guilds within the city do similarly, some once a week and others every other day, most of these meals being served again in the Mercenaries’ Guild Hall, as it is little used otherwise. The King’s Meals will be served tomorrow, as it would happen, if you should wish to take advantage of them. You will find the food unusually good, for the King and Queen refuse to stint solely because this is done in charity for visitors to our city. And should you need clothes, we can send you to the building that houses the Queen’s Bounty. She is a gifted weaver and seamstress, and she and her ladies produce far more garments than are needed for those who dwell within the Citadel and are in its employ, so they make much of the excess available for those who are in need, again requesting that those who receive from this store might in the future offer clothing they have obtained upon their own in return for the gifts they have received. And although many do not seek to help replenish the stores of garments, many more do, and thus there is a wonderful choice of clothing for anyone in true need of suitable garb.”
Somehow this sounded far too good to be quite true to the young woman, so she thanked her hosts, sought out the books in the dining room and was amazed at the selection on offer, took a book of poetry up to her room, and after taking a quick visit to the privy, she returned to her room and shut the door, and after stripping to her shift lay down to read for a time, glad that someone had thought to donate such books as this to the rest house’s library.
She managed to get a quick bath early the next day, and was surprised to find those who waited for this were all cheerful and cooperative with one another. She could not imagine those from her village being so pleasant, having to wait for the bathing room to clear. What surprised her even more was when a woman came down from an upper floor to announce no one was waiting at the door to the bathing room there, and the next in line immediately took her clean clothing and the toweling from her room up to take advantage of the absence of competition there, two others followed after her happily chatting together.
When she went into the dining room she was directed to a window where the woman she’d met the previous day served her with a far more substantial meal than she’d expected. She found a place at one of the tables set about the room that was laid with clean linens and eating ware, sat down, and found that the food she’d been given was excellent, the fruit, vegetables, and egg fresh, and the porridge apparently enhanced with nut meats and berries, with a fresh pot of cream and another of honey to use as she pleased.
A rather horse-faced younger woman set her meal down across from her. “Did you wish some juice or some of the herbal drink to have with your meal?” she asked. “I will gladly fetch you some if you like.” At the indication a cup of herbal drink would be welcomed, off she hurried to a side table where pitchers sat, along with a pot set over a candle to keep it warm, and a selection of mugs.
“This is quite good!” the woman admitted after a goodly sip. “Were there such a place as this in or near Peshastin I am certain it would not treat its guests anywhere as well.”
The younger woman nodded. “I doubt not that it is because the Gentlewomen’s Rest House is endowed by the Queen herself that it is so comfortable. It is said that her father’s home where she was lady for a very long time was known ever as the ‘Last Homely House’ within Eriador, where all travelers of good will were ever welcomed and made comfortable.”
As they ate, the younger woman told her story.
“I am named Norien. My sister and I were born upon the Pelennor in a smallholding where we primarily raised geese to sell to the city, although we had a goodly kitchen garden for our own needs. Our mother died when my sister was eleven summers and I was thirteen. Not three years ago our father died, and we two were left to manage as we could. We were all made to leave our land when it was known that the Enemy marched upon us, and we went to the places of refuge in the mountain valleys. When we returned, nothing stood upon what had been our land, and the land itself was torn to pieces, for the armies had dug deep trenches across the ground and filled them with stuff that burned with dark flames, or so we were told by those who remained in the city to its defense. Mithrandir and the Elves traveled across the Pelennor to cleanse the land of the hurts it had taken, and the King had the land surveyed and hired Men and Dwarves to aid in rebuilding homes, byres, and barns. But it was up to those of us who lived there to bring all back to what it had been, and mostly to us to rebuild fences and walls between the various holdings.
“Shortly after our father died, a Man from lower Lebennin who had lost all to the raiders upon the Corsairs approached us one day and offered to aid us in building a new shed to shelter the geese in bad weather in return for being allowed to sleep in the byre for our new milk cow. Soon he was courting Tiressë, my younger sister. I was happy for her, for she has been so lonely since the death of our father. I thought that when they wed, the three of us would remain in our home and continue to raise geese, and be happy together. But that was not to be.
“Indeed they were married, but once he came to live within the house I was made to feel as if I were a mere servant. It was he who started this, but soon Tiressë was following his lead. Then one night when he had gone into the city with his friends, he returned late in the night, and I awoke to find him seeking to enter my bed instead of that of his wife, my sister. I cried out, and she came to see, and he told her that I had come to him clad only in my nightdress with it falling from my shoulders, and that I had sought to seduce him.
“So it was that I was made to look as if it was my fault that he was in my room, and she and he cast me out. With no other place to go, I came here some six days ago. I am to appear before the magistrate in a few days, and I hope to be granted a share of the worth of our holding, and will seek after that to become a feather merchant. I am good at choosing down for filling pillows and comforters and featherbeds and such, and I so hope that in time I will be able to sell the feathers of our geese and so be reconciled with my sister—somewhat, at least. I believe that in her heart she knows I would not play the wanton with her husband, but it will take time to put the story he told her that she wants now to believe from her. I only hope he does not seek to do with other women what he tried to do with me.”
Now finished, she looked questioningly, wanting to know her companion’s tale.
“I am named Andred daughter of Lunhir and Lanriel of Lebennin. My story,” she said, “is much like yours, but not precisely the same. Only in my case it was my brother who has taken my home as his own and sent me away with nothing. But for now that is all I wish to say, for to say more before I must makes my heart to ache terribly.”
“I understand,” Norien said softly. “What do you look to do within the White City?”
Andred shrugged. “I am not certain. I am a good one with a needle and thread, and kept our home and business for many years while my husband traveled abroad. He was a trader in cottons and woolens, and oft he took the clothing I worked upon in the evenings to sell as well as the bolts of fabric that were his primary business. Perhaps I could work as housekeeper for a family, or set up shop as a seamstress. I am not certain what chances might come my way here in the capital.
“Is there a place where one might go in order to seek employment? Where I come from there is a fair twice a year, and those who seek work may repair there in order to let people know they desire to find work to do.”
“Yes, there is a small building on the edge of the marketplace where one may go to leave word as to what work one may do and desires, and there are certain benches on the edge of the market on which you might sit so that those seeking service might see you and approach with offers of employment. But it is advised that if you use the benches, you ought to ask others regarding the worthiness of the ones approaching you before accepting their offers.”
“That sounds wise. And where particularly are these benches?”
“Both benches and employment house are on the east side of the market, near to the Mercenaries’ Guild Hall where most free meals are offered. Shall I meet you there near noon and we shall eat nuncheon together?”
So it was decided, and the woman from the south finished her meal, placed her used utensils on the tray where such things were left, and the two went out, separating each to her own destination.
For some time Andred wandered the streets of the Third Circle, admiring the architecture and the flowers that seemed to bloom everywhere, although the plots of land allotted to them were remarkably small. Many were set in pots and placed upon the small walls that surrounded the door yards; and it seemed almost every window had its box in which growing things rejoiced in the sunlight that bathed the city all through the morning.
She found the market, and was surprised both at how clean and neat it appeared as well as how cheerful a place it was. Yes, she heard haggling; but she did not hear the cursing or muttered threats she was accustomed to hearing when she’d visited the marketplace in Peshastin. Food was protected from flies by cloth netting in sheets and tents; hands were kept clean; trenchers and pots were cleaned before being reused. Booths were attractively set up, with sturdy shelves and posts for displaying merchandise. Merchants were neatly dressed. It was a comfortable, interesting place to visit without all the jostling she was more accustomed to.
She found her way to the east side of the marketplace and found there a row of three benches. Men sat on the back bench; women sat on the front bench; couples sat on the middle one. All sat with a hopeful patience. Beyond them stood a small building butted up against a large hall. Over its door were a mop and a hoe crossed over one another, with a pen standing upright before them.
“The place of employment, then,” she realized aloud.
The Man who sat nearest to her looked up and agreed, “Yes, that it is.”
“And you sit here, waiting to see if someone will employ you?”
She nodded her understanding. For a few moments she stood, undecided, before she finally took a deep breath and entered the building. When she came out it was to see the Man who’d spoken with her standing, speaking now with a couple of comfortable appearance. As she approached he apparently made an agreement with them, and he leaned down to scoop up upon his shoulder a pack that had lain unnoticed under the bench. Wish me luck! he mouthed at her before he followed the couple into the building she’d just quitted.
As she paused, watching after the three before seating herself on the front bench, the woman who sat closest confided, “They will have gone in to record the employment so that the registrars do not waste time seeking for him should suitable employers ask when he already has work. If the work is for but a short time they will know when to bring out his records again, or if he and those who employ him agree it is not a good relationship on either side. If he remains employed for three years, he will have to register again, for his experience and skills most likely will have changed.”
“Sensible,” Andred responded, and seated herself.
Four possible employers approached as she sat there. One couple asked her if she had experience in working with children. “I had two sons,” she answered.
“No daughters?” asked the woman.
“No, I had no daughters.”
“What happened to your sons?” asked the Man.
“Illness took them two years back,” she explained.
He gave a stiff nod, and the two of them went down the front bench to question other women who sat there. Apparently they felt that one who had lost her own children would not be suitable to work with theirs. The others apparently were interested in employing either men or couples, for none spoke to her or the other women seated upon the front bench.
She saw activity at the hall next to the building of employment. A Man arrived and unlocked the door, then the door to what was obviously a wood store. An older boy arrived next and began carrying tinder and wood into the hall. Soon smoke arose from one of the chimneys, and in time from a second, larger one that most likely heated the hall itself.
Several food merchants approached the building with what were obviously orders they were fulfilling. The first Man examined the offerings, dismissed a couple and ordered more from others, and directed what he had accepted into the building. Others, both women and men, were now arriving, and the hall was filled with echoing laughs and cheerful banter as they went about their business within.
As the merchants and their servants were leaving a number of people arrived, all apparently led by quite a tall Man carrying a large barrel upon his shoulders. A young Guardsman caught up with the tall Man and appeared to be remonstrating with him. “But it is not seemly that—” stated the young guard.
The tall Man interrupted him. “What is not seemly is that all think I should be above manual labor. If I am not allowed to carry this barrel I shall leave Minas Anor and return to Eriador. I am certain Barliman Butterbur or the Mayor, Master, and Thain will see to it that I am not only allowed but encouraged to do an honest day’s work at least from time to time! I certainly worked in the fields and villages of my own people when younger, as well as those of my adar when I was a child. Now, Bergil, leave me be and find your own barrel or keg to carry!”
Several of the others with him laughed at this speech, and the whole group, each of whom bore some burden or another, entered the hall and joined those already within. The young Guardsman shook his head, although he was smiling ruefully, and turned when approached by a baker’s boy who carried a stack of trays of bread rolls upon his head.
“For the King’s Meal,” the boy said. He surrendered them to the young soldier, who took them into the hall where he was greeted with cries of appreciation.
“There you are!”
Andred turned to find the young woman with the horsy face approaching her. “And here you are to join me,” she returned.
“Yes! Have you been approached by anyone?”
She shrugged. “By one couple who wished care for their children. But they did not wish the services of one who had raised only sons, it appears.” She could not tell this woman she’d known for but a day that the real reason they’d refused her services was because she’d lost her sons to disease. She found she did not want the woman’s pity.
But Norien was nodding. “There are many who are insistent that one who cares for their precious child must be experienced at raising one like to their own, especially if the child is a girl. No one who has raised sons would ever appreciate how special their girl-child is! My cousin Balrieth, who lives in the Second Circle, is forever treating her daughter as if she were the Princess Melian herself. Not, of course, that our King and Queen do so with their own child. They are very practical people, or so I am told, and there is nothing spoiled in their daughter. But little Mariel puts on airs sufficient to make one ill.”
They shared a laugh for a moment. “Are you ready to share the King’s Meal?” asked the horse-faced woman.
“Are they ready to serve us?” Andred wondered.
Norien looked at the door uncertainly. “I do not see the outside torch lit. That is the usual sign that they are ready for people to enter the hall.” After a moment she returned her gaze to the older woman. “How long have people been within?”
“Perhaps three quarters of a mark, I’d guess. What kind of meal is it likely to be?”
“I do not know. I have been within the City but six days, after all, and never before that had reason to visit this hall for meals. But I am told that the fare is excellent and that our Lord and Lady refuse to stint in their charity. It is said that oft they will themselves come to serve the meal, although I do not know that I believe such a tale. Can you imagine—the Lady Arwen ladling food upon one’s trencher?”
The two agreed that this sounded most unlikely, and together they moved a few steps away from the benches, now watching those passing through the marketplace. The older woman was growing hungry now, and the scents of roasting meat wafting out of the hall had her stomach rumbling in anticipation. Someone carrying a great basket of apples approached and entered the hall, and another came with several stacked trays, each covered with a fair cloth to keep the contents clean. Soon these two came out again together, their burdens left behind them, smiling and each nibbling upon some kind of sweetmeat neither of the watchers recognized. Then servitors in the grey livery of the Citadel appeared with a cart covered with more trays, which they quickly carried within. Someone inside began a song that others took up, and soon it was reverberating through the hall. It was apparently a question and answer song, with the men asking the question and the women responding to it. One male voice asked the final question, a remarkable baritone, clear and teasing; one woman answered, her voice glorious and exotic in its tone.
The younger woman went still, listening, her eyes alight. “That’s an Elf singing,” she almost whispered. “I have heard Prince Legolas singing as he rides across the Pelennor on the way to the White City. Only an Elf can sing so clear!”
“You have heard an Elf singing?” asked Andred.
“Did I not say so? Prince Legolas is one of the King’s special Companions, and ’tis said that he is the son of the Elven-king of the Great Woodland Realm east of Anduin, up within Rhovanion. He was one of the Nine Walkers, one of those who came south with the King, the Ringbearer, and our Lord Boromir as he returned from his wanderings through the wilderlands of Eriador. Only Boromir fell at Amon Hen, and came not home again to his father’s side.
“Often Prince Legolas rides across the Pelennor when he comes from his new settlement within Ithilien to visit his friend, our King, here in Minas Anor, and he usually sings as he rides. So, yes, I have heard him and sometimes his Elven companions also singing as they have ridden close by our home, and it is wondrous to hear.”
Not long afterward one of the grey-clad servants from the Citadel came out with a brand and lit the torch that stood outside the door to the hall. By this time a small crowd was clustering near to the benches where those seeking employment sat, and now the gathering moved toward the doorway, following the servant back inside. The two women joined those entering the hall. Many were single Men or women, while others were obviously aged or otherwise infirm. A blind boy followed a younger girl, his hand upon her shoulder. A ragged woman led in two equally ragged children. One modestly dressed Man, apparently a farmer from the Pelennor, had his arm about the shoulders of an elderly woman, seeing to it she made it safely to a place at one of the near tables, leaving her seated there and going up to join the line of those queuing up to have finely crafted wooden trenchers filled with food.
A youth in grey livery approached the seated woman with a basin and pitcher, a fine, white linen towel over his arm. She looked up amazed, as if such courtesies as the chance to wash her hands before eating had not been offered her for quite a long time. Her smile as the youth dried her hands gently afterward was tremulous and heartfelt, and the two watching women found themselves sharing a smile at her expression of pleasure.
More couples approached the table with one going off to fetch food for both of them, and each seated individual was offered the chance to wash hands. As the line moved closer to those serving the meal they found basins were set to one side, each with a person beside it holding a pitcher to pour over one’s hands and with clean towels waiting for use.
Someone with a viol entered after those intending to dine were mostly within the hall and was seated at the back of the hall. After tuning his instrument, the fiddler brought out his bow and began to play. Andred shook her head at the wonder of it all, for never had she thought to hear such fair music while she ate a noon meal offered as charity!
As she reached the servers she dropped her gaze respectfully.
“Would you like some fresh greens?” asked a Man’s voice.
She glanced up briefly to find a handsome face looking at her with a kindly expression. “Yes, if it please you,” she answered in low tones. With wooden tongs he placed the greens to one side of her trencher.
“Would you prefer fish or poultry, good woman?” asked a woman.
Andred was startled—it was the voice of the woman who’d sung last, the one Norien had said must be an Elf! Again she looked up to find her gaze caught by the most remarkable eyes she had ever seen, those of a woman so fair as to defy description, her skin clear and delicately colored, her cheekbones high and pink, her lips full and a slightly darker shade than her cheeks, her brows gently arched, her hair dark as ebony with bluish highlights, and her eyes grey and wise, as if they had seen far more than had other women, and filled, it seemed, with stars!
They looked into her, those eyes, looked into her and saw her hurt and would ease it if they could.
“Fish or poultry?” the Elf woman asked again, her voice reassuring.
“The fish, please.” Although how she’d been able to speak Andred could not say.
“Rice or potatoes?” asked the Man who stood beyond the Elf woman. Woman? Lady, rather! And for all that his hands were those of a warrior, or so she judged him, the Man was definitely a Lord!
“Potatoes,” she managed to respond.
He smiled as he served her, then paused for her to indicate whether she might wish more. She gave a slight nod, and he ladled more onto her trencher. When he stood upright she realized he must have been the one to carry the keg. Why, he was quite the tallest Man she’d ever seen! She wanted to say something, but could not find it within her to speak aloud. As for Norien’s face—she was obviously as stunned as was Andred, and all she could do was to indicate with a nod of her head that she would prefer the rice.
Somehow the two women found their way to a table, their trenchers full, and sat down facing away from those serving the meal. “The Lord Prince Faramir—he gave us our greens!” whispered Norien. “And the Queen and the King themselves offered us our meat and rice!” She swallowed visibly. “Who would imagine?”
Both Norien and Andred glanced furtively over their shoulders, and the royalty of those who had served them their meal was obvious. The woman who ladled fresh beans had long, golden hair caught back in a single braid that hung far down her back. “And that is the Lady Éowyn, our beloved Steward’s wife! Why, her brother is King of Rohan! And that one,” indicating the person who’d laid bread rolls upon their trenchers, “is Prince Imrahil’s son Erchirion!”
Oranges were offered them by a very young girl as lovely as the Queen herself, although her hair was a dark golden color rather than the ebon color of the Lady Arwen, who had paused to trade words with a wizened Man who was clearly familiar with her, while the King leaned forward to capture the jest the old Man was sharing with them. Both King and Queen roared with laughter, and without asking the King heaped the Man’s trencher with potatoes and spooned a sauce over them before waving him onwards. The old fellow was clearly pleased with the success of his joke as he finally turned to find a place to sit down and eat from his well-filled trencher. And when the little girl came to offer him an orange he spoke with her, too, and she smiled and kissed his cheek before going on to serve others.
“Is that the Princess Melian?” Andred asked in a low voice.
Norien merely nodded.
“And she kissed his cheek?”
“I told you that it is said she is not given to airs,” Norien answered her.
The food must have been good, but it was not until the young Guardsman came by to offer each of them a sweet bun after they’d finished their meal that she seemed to taste anything at all. “Enjoy the seedcake,” he said. “It was sent by the folk of the King’s Head in the Second Circle. Pippin himself gave them the recipe, and there are no better cooks or bakers anywhere within Middle Earth than the Hobbits of the Shire!”
“Pippin?” Andred had no idea what the young Guardsman was speaking of.
“Pippin Took—or Peregrin Took, the Ringbearer’s younger cousin who came here to Minas Anor with Mithrandir before the Enemy came to besiege the White City.” Seeing their blank looks he added, “The Ernil i Pheriannath?”
Norien’s expression cleared immediately, changing to amazement. “You know the Prince of the Halflings?” she demanded.
“Oh, yes. I was but a boy then, and rather too big for my shoes when first he came here, I fear. After Pippin was sworn to Lord Denethor’s service and made a Guard of the Citadel, my father was detailed to show him about and teach him the lesser passwords. When my father must return to his duties, he sent Pippin down to me, and together we went out to see the levies from the southern provinces arrive to our defense. I fear I took him for another boy at first, and I wanted to fight with him, but he settled me well without allowing either of us to lay hands on the other. Oh, such a big-head I was then!” And with a rueful smile and a shake of his head, he gave a brief bow and took himself off to offer others seedcakes from the basket he carried.
Andred gave her companion a curious look. “Halflings?”
“Oh, yes. Did you not know that the Ringbearer was a Halfling? Three who accompanied him were his kinsmen, I believe.”
A Man who sat further down the table than they did shook his head. “No, two were the Cormacolindo’s kindred, and the other was his esquire. It was his esquire who accompanied him through the Black Land to Orodruin to the Ring’s destruction. The Ernil i Pheriannath came here with Mithrandir, while the other rode with the Lady Éowyn amongst the Riders of Rohan when they arrived to break the siege. Small the Pheriannath might be, but their courage cannot be matched by any Man. Were it not for the four of them, our beloved Prince Faramir might well have perished of his wounds and illness, the Lord of the Nazgûl might not have been slain by the Lady Éowyn, and the Enemy’s greatest weapon would be upon his hand yet again and we under his thumb. Praise them all with great praise!”
Several others who sat nearby took up the phrase. “Praise them with great praise!” fell from several lips.
“But what does a Pherian look like?” Andred asked Norien.
Again the Man spoke up. “Go up to the Seventh Circle. The King has caused a memorial to the four Pheriannath to be raised near the White Tree. There you can see precisely how they look.”
It was at that point that a voice spoke from the serving line. “Welcome!”
All swiveled to see the tall Man Norien had identified as the King emerging from behind the bar from which they’d been served.
“I greet you this day,” he said, “and rejoice that none of you shall go from this place with an empty belly. I did not ask this of you before you sat down to eat, but now ask that all rise for the Standing Silence.”
The Man who had explained about the four Halflings struggled to stand upright with the aid of a crutch, and Andred realized he had lost one leg just above the knee. All turned to the western wall, on which a golden sunburst was set, and stood in strict quiet. At last the King gave a profound bow and turned again to his guests. “I hope that many of you can return for the meal to be offered this evening. We ask that as you enter you wash your hands and seat yourselves. It shall be our pleasure to serve you this evening as if you were guests in the Merethrond. If any should wish now to have second servings or to carry meals to those who cannot come so far, please come forward and be welcome. For the rest of you, we rejoice that you have found your way to this place, and hope that in times to come when things are better for you that you will find ways to share your newfound bounty with others.”
There was a murmur of thanks throughout the hall, and after shared looks Andred and Norien headed out of the hall in the company of most of those who’d taken part in the meal they’d enjoyed. The girl who’d offered them oranges stood by the door holding out a basket, encouraging those leaving to each take a packet of sweets held within. Andred was still holding the seed cake given her by the young Guardsman, and at last took a bite of it, her eyes opening wide at the taste of it. “Oh, but how good it is!” she admitted to Norien.
“Of course!” the girl—Princess Melian—responded. “That’s from Bilbo’s recipe for seedcakes. Pippin gave the recipe to the people at the King’s Head. Hobbit recipes are always good when they are prepared properly.” She held out her basket to them, and each took one of the packets it held.
“Thank you,” Andred said to her.
The girl smiled, and it was such a beautiful smile. “You are most welcome. May your days grow better for you.”
With this blessing ringing in her ears, Andred and Norien left, and with unspoken accord headed up through the Third Circle, up to the Fourth and beyond.
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