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Written for the LOTR Community's "Spring Fever" challenge for March. For all of those who had birthdays in March.
A Quiet Talk
Together the woman from near Peshastin and her new friend from the Pelennor walked up through the White City, being courteously bowed through each of the gates by respectful Guardsman. The market in the Fourth Circle, which displayed wares by many of the greatest craftsmen within and without Minas Anor, amazed Andred with the quality and variety of wares available. The houses were larger in the Fourth Circle, and the storefronts more ornate. It was clearly a more desirable neighborhood than the lower three levels of the city.
They paused near the center of the circle to drink at a well-placed public fountain specially designed for the purpose, and then continued upward. As the two women entered the Sixth Circle, Norien indicated, “There is the entrance to the Houses of Healing, and over there the way to the Silent Street. Most of the buildings on this level are either guesthouses for visitors to the Citadel, serve as townhouses for nobles from throughout the realm, house embassies from other lands, or are dwellings for those who serve within the Citadel and the Houses of Healing. At the far end are the barracks and training grounds for the Guards of the Citadel and those city Guardsmen who serve in the upper levels of the city.”
Andred, who was feeling rather winded by this time with the entire climb they’d made, merely nodded, grateful they were almost at the top.
“I’ve not been so far up as this since I was but a girl,” Norien admitted as they approached the ramp to the top level of Minas Anor. “But then, much of my life we were under threat from Mordor, and one could not easily move through the Fifth Circle and higher without knowing the passwords to go past each gate.”
Andred found that a sobering thought. She merely nodded as Norien indicated the entrance to the great archive complex that was dug into the mountain itself. She was glad they weren’t going there; the thought of standing with the weight of the Citadel itself and all the history of the realm over her made her shudder.
The final climb up the ramp leading to the Seventh Circle was the steepest so far, and they both had to pause near the top to breathe before they could go on.
“And the King and Queen must come this way frequently?” Andred gasped.
“Yes. I am told they pay visits to the Houses of Healing at least once a day, and often come down into the lower city for one reason or another,” Norien assured her. “But not even I realized they actually served the King’s Meals when they can.”
They went on and breasted the top of the ramp, made the last few steps up to the level of the Square of Gathering, and stopped in sheer awe at their first sight of the Citadel and the Tower of Ecthelion.
“By the stars!” breathed Andred.
“It is more beautiful than I remember!” said Norien at almost the same time.
Together they went forward, drawn to the green garden surrounding what must be the White Tree.
“My husband brought me a painting of this, but always I had thought it—more than what is really here,” Andred murmured. “But the great dead Tree isn’t there as it was drawn.”
“No, the old, dead tree was uprooted by the King’s order and is laid in the Silent Street now, with this new Tree in its place. ’Tis said it was found, but a seedling, out upon the mountainside by our King and Mithrandir. Is it not beautiful?”
White buds grew upon it in great circles, and the odor of its leaves was strong and sweet upon the air as they came closer and the breeze brought its scent to them. But closer still to them was a monument, a cluster of four sculptures, each not quite as tall as either Andred or Norien, all surrounded by white lilies, yellow starflowers, and gently pursed white blooms with the faintest tinge of pastel green to them. The circle was surrounded by a white marble curbing of elaborate design, and behind all were great bushes of rosemary and white blossoms of kingsfoil. A delicately carved marble bench sat at the best point for viewing the monument, and the two women gratefully sank to sit upon it. Before the foremost figure knelt a woman who was paused with her hand upon a wreath of green that had been set upright against the forward leg of the statue. It appeared to be a young Man, not much more than a boy, or was he? He stood defiantly, holding out his hand, the palm open, with something lying upon it. His hair was carelessly combed curls, one tossed by a wind they could not feel, and the intensity of his gaze was hard to withstand. He wore short trousers with one knee ripped out, a bloused shirt with an overgarment similar to a short surcoat over it, and with a long cloak over all. Behind and to one side stood another similarly garbed, stouter, his face determined as he stood, a short sword in hand, as if he sought to protect the one in front of him. Only just further back on the other side was one dressed as a Rider from among the Rohirrim, although no Rohir wore his hair so short and curled upon his head, or was beardless as this one appeared. He, too, carried a sword, which at the moment was solemnly grounded before him. At the back, slightly to the left, stood one garbed as a Guard of the Citadel, his sword raised in challenge. He wore no helm, and he also had short curls upon his head, an expression both solemn and humorous somehow at the same time, but so, so very watchful.
The kneeling woman rose and turned, and flushed slightly as she caught them watching her. “Oh, but I am no longer alone,” she said. “I wanted to bring a wreath to lay here today, to remember how my brother and my beloved returned to the White City, alive only because the Cormacolindo and his esquire made it to the Mountain just in time to see the destruction of the Enemy’s Ring before they could be killed. I have ever been grateful to the four Pheriannath for what each did for us, but particularly Master Frodo.” She gave a brief nod, and departed, and Andred and her companion, who’d risen as she’d spoken to them, moved forward to examine the monument more closely.
“They wear no boots or shoes!” Norien exclaimed.
“But there is something upon their feet,” Andred noted in return. “Hair?”
“And their ears are pointed, you will note,” said a Man from behind them. They whirled to find the King standing beside the bench, his daughter’s hand in his, two Guardsmen discreetly beyond them. “Hobbits are not as tall as we are, which is how they gained their descriptive names from those of us who speak Sindarin and the Common Tongue. They are usually short, stout, and colorfully dressed, are beardless, have hair upon their feet to match that upon their heads, and have leaf-shaped ears somewhat similar to the ears of Elves. They barely make a noise as they walk, smoke pipeweed when they can, love to drink ale and to eat and to cook, and are reverential to the earth that houses and feeds them.”
“You speak as one with knowledge of them,” Andred answered, curtseying to him awkwardly.
“Rise, the both of you,” the tall Man bade them. “And of course I have knowledge of them. I saw many Hobbits within Bree during my turns keeping watch upon the Breelands and the boundaries of the Shire, and some from within the Shire as well. They are rather insular in nature, but every time one has come forth from his own land he has done great things for the good of the outer world. And these four I came to know very well indeed, and they are counted among my particular friends.” He indicated the one at the back. “Pippin, or Peregrin Took, to give him his full and formal name. As you can see, he was made a Guard of the Citadel when he swore himself to the Lord Steward Denethor, and he renewed that vow to me when I was made King. He is known also as the Ernil i Pheriannath, and was the still young heir to the Thain of the Shire when he came, without his parents’ permission, out of the Shire alongside his cousin Frodo.
“That is Merry. As Pippin will explain at great length, the two are first cousins whilst both are second cousins once removed to Frodo. Frodo was as an older brother to Merry, having been fostered by Merry’s parents after the death of his own in an accident involving a boat. When Merry was still but a small lad Frodo left Brandy Hall to go live with another older cousin, Bilbo Baggins, who was actually both first and second cousin to Frodo, once removed on both sides, as Pippin will also tell you. Merry swore himself to the service of Théoden King while he was with the King in Rohan during the War, and rode to the Battle of the Pelennor with the King’s niece, Éowyn, the White Lady of Rohan who has married our beloved Steward Faramir.
“And that is Sam, known here as Frodo’s esquire. Actually, he was ever Frodo’s great friend and served him for years as his gardener and companion. No one, not even I, honors Sam as much as Frodo did. He went every step of the way into and through Mordor alongside Frodo, holding the hope for the two of them when Frodo could no longer find his own.
“And this is Frodo Baggins, much as we last saw him at Amon Hen when he left alone to go on to Mordor, determined not to take the rest of us with him to our deaths. But Sam figured out what he was up to, and refused to be left behind.” He indicated the base of this particular statue. “You cannot see it for the flowers, but written there is his challenge to all of us: Or would you destroy It? I don’t know that I could have done so, for It was made to dominate one such as I am. I fear It would have destroyed me instead, had I ever agreed to touch the foul thing. Certainly my adar would not touch It while Frodo lay wounded in his house in Rivendell.”
“So you met him there in the North?”
“Yes. Nine of us left Rivendell together to come south and east on the quest to destroy the Ring: your Lord Captain Boromir and me for Men; Frodo with Merry, Pippin, and Sam for the Hobbits of the Shire; Legolas for the Elves and Gimli for the Dwarves, and Gandalf, or Mithrandir as those here knew him, as our leader. Gandalf and I together were the primary guides, as both of us have traveled far and wide across Eriador and Rhovanion, and were best acquainted with all of the ways open to us.”
“Mithrandir was much changed when we returned from the places of refuge,” noted Norien.
“That he was, for he returned to us as the White, he who had ever been the Grey Pilgrim since he came here to Middle Earth.” The King’s smile was rather sad. “And I miss them so, Frodo and Gandalf, since they left together with Elrond and Lady Galadriel to sail West to Tol Eressëa. Merry and Pippin and Sam I’ve seen a few times, but until we go again to the northern capital of Annúminas I shan’t see much of Sam, for he and his wife Rosie do keep producing more babies!”
They all laughed together at that sally. At last the King went quiet, his eyes examining the two women closely. “Now, sit here on either side of me, and tell me your stories. Two such as you rarely come to dine at the King’s meals, after all, and that is unusual enough to garner my interest. I sense that both of you came from relative ease, and never thought to end up here in Minas Anor nearly friendless.”
So, they returned to the bench, and Norien was soon telling her tale to the King.
“So, you have your cousin within the White City to speak for you, then, when you go before the magistrate? Good enough, then. You ought to do well in your suit to receive your share of the worth of your farm upon the Pelennor. I shall perhaps have a word with your sister’s husband, however, of what he may look to see happen should he ever again stray from his wife’s bed.”
Somehow Andred realized that the Man who’d claimed his wife’s sister had tried to seduce him would most likely rue such a meeting.
“Now you, Mistress,” he said. “Your name?”
She told him, and began her story.
He was sitting solemn and straight, his daughter held in his lap, when she was done. “Did you not go before the Lord of Peshastin with your tale, Mistress Andred?”
“He was not within the city at the time, my Lord, having gone south to Dol Amroth to wait upon Prince Imrahil. The judgment was made by the Master of our village. And the money my mother was able to give me was fairly small, certainly not enough to keep me in lodging during the wait for his return.”
“And there is no such hostel as the Rest House for Gentlewomen there,” he commented. He thought deeply. “I shall summon both the Lord of Peshastin and your brother to the Citadel, then. It will take perhaps a month. You can hold yourself in readiness then for my summons to a hearing for what you have had done to you. Could your mother come this far, think you?”
“She is slow, but if accommodations are made for her she could make the trip, I’d think.”
“Are you registered for work with the House of Employment? I think I saw you seated upon the benches beside it.”
At her assent he nodded thoughtfully. “Again, hold yourself in readiness. You said you have experience as a seamstress?”
“Yes. I made clothing for children, mostly boys, that my husband took with him with his bolts of fabric when he went out upon his trading missions.”
Again he nodded. He set his daughter upon the ground and took her hand. “I will leave the two of you now, and wish the grace of the Valar upon the both of you. You will come to the evening meal? I shall see you then.”
They curtseyed again and he inclined his head graciously, and again hand-in-hand with his daughter went on to the Citadel, pausing as they passed by it for both to lay their hands briefly against the White Tree’s bark. For a moment the two women stood, looking between the Citadel, the White Tree of Gondor, and the monument to the four Hobbits, before wordlessly they turned to go down again to the Third Circle.
The King’s Meal that evening was an experience Andred was never to forget. She’d bathed quickly on their return to the Rest House and donned the best dress she’d been able to bring away with her from her former home, carefully brushing her hair and donning a shawl that had been her last Mettarë gift from her mother. After brushing her worn shoes as best she could she went down to the entrance. Norien followed her closely, and within moments the two of them were walking eagerly toward the marketplace.
There were more people clustered near the doorway this time, and when the torch was lit all moved as swiftly yet decorously as was possible into the hall. All bathed their hands at the basins set for that purpose and seated themselves at the tables and benches, each finding eating utensils awaiting them along with fine napkins and metal goblets already filled with fresh water. These were not of gold or silver, but were still above what one would expect to be used for such a meal. A harpist sat on the stool at the back of the hall, playing and singing, and Andred felt her heart fill as he sang a song her husband had favored. After a time the King asked that all rise for the Standing Silence, which was observed respectfully by all.
As for the meal itself—how could she describe it afterward? Never had she been served so formally and courteously—never in her life! The King himself served as wine steward, while a young woman apparently from Harad offered juice and milk to the guests who might prefer either to wine. “That’s the wife of one of the emissaries from Harad,” whispered the person sitting on Andred’s other side.
Liveried servants brought the various courses, and pages brought around finger bowls to allow the diners to cleanse away remaining sauce and juices before they began on the next offering to be placed before them. There was sturgeon from the Anduin and roast pork; a salad of mixed greens, some of which Andred had never seen before; and fruits and nuts in abundance. Again there was a choice of rice flavored with saffron or potatoes, with a meat gravy to be poured over either if desired. A flatbread was served along with a choice of yellow and white cheeses to eat with it. Vegetable and fruit spears were laid in a communal dish so that diners might help themselves. And for the final course there were small, sweet cakes over which was poured a thick sauce rich with chocolate, a rare treat that Andred had known but twice previously and that apparently Norien had never sampled before.
As those dining left the hall, they were invited to choose for themselves from a variety of plants in small decorative pots. Remembering how her mother had always grown this in her herb garden, Andred took a valerian plant that already had a crown of small, pink florets upon it while Norien chose a colorful marigold plant.
Outside the two women parted. Norien’s cousin Balrieth was there to greet her, and led her off to her own place in the Second Circle. Andred, carefully carrying her valerian in its brightly painted pot, found herself drifting over to the wall to look out over the Pelennor and the lower levels of the city, rejoicing in the beauty of the stars reflected from the course of the river and the golden lights emanating from the homes down in the town lands.
The sounds of the diners leaving the hall had long since quieted. Only a faint mumble of talk could be discerned there, now that it was left to those cleaning up after the meal, readying it for the morrow’s usage. She smiled as her tongue found just one more hint upon her lip of the chocolate she’d tasted last.
“Is it not beautiful—this aspect of the Lady’s stars and the homes below us?”
She started, but then relaxed, recognizing the King’s voice. She essayed a curtsey, but his hand on her elbow stopped her. “Do not bother. I am not overly concerned regarding proper court etiquette and protocol, particularly on an evening such as this. It is on such nights that I am reminded I am but a Man after all, and not some great potentate of distant, exotic lands. It is good to be reminded of this from time to time—it leads me to appreciate just how much I owe to those who have named me their King.”
She nodded her understanding. “I do not believe Lord Denethor would have stopped me as you have,” she commented.
He laughed. “Indeed not! He was perhaps far too much on his dignity, Denethor was, even when he was not yet Steward but merely his father’s heir. Certainly Boromir proved far more approachable than his father ever was. I cannot imagine Denethor ever enduring the saucy tongue of Peregrin Took as he familiarly shared family lore and jests with Boromir, much less allowing Pippin and Merry to tackle his legs to bear him down to the ground when he managed to disarm one of them. Perhaps it was because Boromir thought of himself more as a soldier among his men than as the next Lord Steward of Gondor.”
“You knew our Lord Denethor?”
His smile was discernible amongst the shadows about them. “I visited Gondor and Minas Tirith once, long ago, although I did not do so openly. Yes, I saw Ecthelion and Denethor both. But I was young then.”
“You must have been but a child.”
He shrugged in answer.
She fumbled her hand into the scrip she wore beneath her skirts, and managed to drag forth her single silver. “Here,” she said, thrusting it toward him. “Let me help to provide for the next such meal that you offer to those such as I am. I have little to spare, but feel that I owe something to others who are in even worse need.”
He straightened and examined her more closely. She could see the reflection of the light of stars shifting as his eyes took her in. “You are nearly destitute yourself, but would offer of what little you have so others also might know the pleasure of chocolate sauce over vanilla cakes?” he asked. She had the impression that he was both touched and amused by her offer.
“Well, is it not meet that those who enjoy such gifts should seek to offer them in turn, my Lord? And I do not wish the people of the city to hate those of us who receive such bounty as ones upon whom needless amounts of their money are wasted.”
He laughed. “Think you that the money I spend comes solely from taxes paid by those who dwell within the city? Ah, no—not that. The taxes raised within the city are spent almost exclusively for the needs of the city and its populace, as that which comes from the Pelennor goes mostly to the needs of the farmers, orchardists, and others who dwell within the town lands. After all, neither Arwen nor I is without wealth of our own. Indeed, my ancestor Ondoher settled certain livings upon his daughter when she married Arvedui, who later became King of Arnor, and the rents from them have been paid for centuries into an account within the White City for the use of her descendants, so I have far more available to me from accrued earnings than have had most of the Ruling Stewards of the realm. It was similarly done in Arnor in the days of its splendor, and now that the Enemy’s creatures are no longer free to do all they would wish to do toward our people and lands there, it is becoming so again. Even Frodo and Sam and their heirs have had livings settled upon them to their maintenance, considering the services they offered this nation of which they’d barely heard before they left their homes in the Shire to seek counsel with Lord Elrond in Imladris.”
“So you pay for these meals out of your own funds?” she asked.
He shook his head. “I pledged a certain amount of my own wealth to the purpose of funding meals for those who are without proper support perhaps five years after I became King. But the greater amount spent to make these meals more than simply adequate comes from another source.”
Sighing, he continued, “There are too many individuals of authority in this realm who have come to view all that lies under their hands as belonging exclusively to them, to be used and directed almost solely for their own benefit. I cannot tell you how many small fiefdoms I have found that do not have proper maintenance of their roads, whose houses are squalid and whose water is fouled, but whose lords are dressed far more splendidly than I am, and who think nothing of purchasing a fine war horse they never intend to actually ride in battle, or gold cups intended for the use only of their drinking friends, while their people go without proper draft animals or ordinary cups for the clean water they cannot obtain.
“So, when I am on progress I hold courts and open audiences in every village, town, or city I visit, and my observers go out to survey each fiefdom and to report back on what they find. If the courts of the local lord or master are beautifully finished but the lesser streets filthy and the farm lanes impassible, then the local lord or master must pay from his own funds to see the lesser ways properly cleaned, graded, graveled, or otherwise paved to equal the soundness of his own ways, and then he must pay a fine, again from his own funds, to me, which goes into the Benefits Fund here that I administer. The moneys in this fund are used to keep the public way stations maintained and properly supplied as well as to see to additional amenities for the rest houses we support elsewhere within the realm. What is left over each month beyond what must remain to keep the fund solvent and ready for the coming month’s projected expenses I use to supplement what is offered in the King’s Meals. So, for the vanilla cakes covered with chocolate sauce you can thank a particular lord in Dor-en-Ernil who had allowed the local sewers to deteriorate to the point none would willingly enter the town under his keeping.”
She felt her hand go to her belly in response to that speech. “You almost make me now wish I had not eaten it,” she said, almost giggling at the images his words raised.
He again laughed quietly. “Do not worry,” he advised. “I made certain that the vanilla and the chocolate were obtained from plantations where all who work the land are more than content and their lords are found to be just toward their people. And these plantations are far from Dor-en-Ernil.”
She found herself laughing freely at that statement.
He grew more solemn. “I did wish to tell you that perhaps tomorrow or the day after, one will come to you to question you about what your brother has done. He will question you at some length, and he will most likely ask you the same question more than once in different ways. Do not be concerned. This is simply intended to make certain that you are certain of what happened and your brother’s intent. Your brother will be given the same questions from his point of view when he is summoned to the city. Merely answer each question honestly, even if you must answer it more than once, and do not take it as finding you untruthful. Do you understand?”
“I think so,” she answered, uncertainly.
Andred and the King both swiveled toward the voice who’d called the name. “Here, Vanimelda,” he answered.
The Queen appeared, and as she hastily went into a profound curtsey Andred realized that Lady Arwen was pregnant. “My Lady Queen!” she said.
“Rise, Mistress,” answered the Queen. “You and my Lord Husband have been enjoying your talk?”
“Indeed, my Lady. I can now appreciate why all here appear to love him—and you!”
Arwen smiled at her husband, who by his returning smile revealed that he truly adored his wife. “And it gladdens me that this is so.” She reached out and stroked his hair. Noting the potted plant, she smiled. “And so you chose the valerian.”
Andred nodded. “My mother always grew it in her garden, and it was the only thing that eased the times of my bleeding when I was younger, there before my children were born.”
She was willing to believe that the Lady Arwen could see her as clearly now in the dark as she might do in broad daylight when the Queen asked, “But your children are now gone?”
“Yes, my Lady. Two years back, from a terrible fever. Both my boys died, as did many within our region, both within and outside our village. Mostly it was children, but there were some others who died who were older as well.”
King and Queen searched one another’s faces in spite of the gloom. “There are many fevers within the world that take our youngest and our eldest,” Lady Arwen murmured. “The Enemy took advantage of many of these, and left them to erupt again and again, even though he is now gone from Middle Earth.” She pondered for a moment, finally noting, “Then you are from the region about Peshastin. I remember when the reports came of such sweeps of fever two years past.”
Her husband added, “Yes, we sent out healers to the area, but many were already gone before they came there.”
Andred gave a single, slow nod. “I remember—one came three days after Jerem, my younger son, left us. His brother had been dead for a week. But several children they saved.”
“No matter how many survived, it still pains us for every child that was lost,” Arwen sighed, her voice gentle.
“Now you had best come,” the King said after a few moments of quiet thought. “We shall walk you back to the Rest House, and then we will ascend back to the Citadel. My beloved has need of her rest, as do we all. When this child is born we shall be more than busy enough.”
Only as they turned to walk toward the Rest House did Andred note the quiet shadows that were the Guardsmen appointed to care for the safety of their King and Queen coming forward to follow.
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