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30
A Trial in Bree

A Trial in Bree

After the meal those who would not be going on took their leave, and returned either to Brandy Hall or back toward their homes or to lodgings at the Bridge Inn. The King and Queen gave all a gracious good night, and soon were entering the smaller pavilion set up for their use while the rest began to settle under the protection of the larger pavilion. All settled down early, for they would rise and be ready to move out soon after dawn. Narcissa and the twins settled at the far end of the pavilion while Brendilac joined the Brandybucks for the night. Sam and his family slept near the Took party.

In the middle of the night there was a disturbance there in the gardener’s family, as Sam called out hoarsely and flailed about in his sleep. Rosie sat up seeking to calm him, but at that moment a tall figure in a long white robe came out of the King’s pavilion, and quickly Aragorn son of Arathorn was kneeling by his side.

“Sam, Samwise, it is well. The Enemy is gone now. Rest, tithen nin. Rest, great heart. It is well.”

Confused still with sleep, Sam straightened. “Strider, where is he? Did they take him to the tower?”

“No, not this time. He’s resting beneath the stars of Elvenhome, Sam. He’s in no danger.” The Man took the hands of the Hobbit, held them reassuringly. “Rest, Sam. The talk tonight has brought it all back, but it is but memories.” Then as the confusion remained in Sam’s eyes, he murmured, “Remember the night there beneath the White Tree, Sam. Remember his greeting, your wish for him to stay well.”

Sam lay back, his expression clearing. “Yes, he’s all right, isn’t he?” He yawned. “Yes, he’s well enough.”

The King set his right hand over Sam’s brow and smoothed it. “Yes, we’re all well enough. And your lady wife is here beside you, and Elanor, Frodo-Lad, and Rosie-Lass. Remember them, and remain grounded, mellon nin.” Then he slipped into Sindarin, and Sam, reassured, slipped into a deep sleep.

At last the King arose and walked out under the stars, looking up. He found an ancient tree stump and sat upon it, his hands in his lap. Pippin and Merry rose from their places, reassured their wives, and slipped out to join him. There the three could be seen sharing a pipe and talking for a time before the King rose and returned to his own pavilion and the two Hobbits reentered the larger pavilion, found their wives amongst the crowd, and laid themselves down again.

In the morning they awoke in the false dawn, and several of the Hobbits went to the cook tent to see to the cooking of sausages and eggs for all. All ate swiftly, and the plates, cups, and utensils were quickly cleaned and stacked. All traveling had been advised to bring their own traveling kits, and now they set about making certain that all was in readiness for the journey east.

Soon they were saddling ponies or horses, and each family group was gathering. When the head of each group indicated they were ready, a troop of Guardsmen led the way, followed by the King’s party, then by the Shirelings, followed by the King’s light supply cart and the second party of Guardsmen. Pippin rode with the King’s own Guard, obviously serving his duty that morning.

As the day progressed Thain and Master found themselves riding with the King and Lords Halladan and Elphir, discussing the nature of rule. Merry rode behind with Sam, Faramir, Ruvemir, Fredegar, and Ferdibrand, discussing wives and families. The Ladies Arwen, Éowyn, Mirieth, and Melian’s new nurse, Mistress Avrieth from Annúminas, the wife of one of the Guardsmen from Arnor, rode with Eglantine and Esmeralda, Diamond, Estella, Pimpernel, Melilot, Viola, and Rosie, discussing children and husbands and keeping them from looking like vagabonds. Brendilac rode with Budgie, Isumbard, and Reginard and the other two set to guard Bedro Bracegirdle, watching Narcissa, who in turn was keeping an eye on the younger members of the party, Fosco and Forsythia, Celebgil and Armanthol, Bergil, Piper, Alumbard and Levandoras Took. These were leading the pack ponies. Those of the Thain’s escort rode happily alongside Berilac and Merimas Brandybuck, Beregond and the other guards not on duty at the moment, near the cart which was being driven by the young Guardsman Lasgon. Gimli and Legolas rode with them carrying with them Drogo Smallfoot, the Dwarf telling tales once told him by his father Gloin of traveling with Bilbo Baggins.

Not far from the road to Bree the King stopped and raised his hand to the party. When all were stopped he rode to the side where a Ranger emerged from the woods. The two talked, and he signalled across to Legolas. “He wants his Ranger’s cloak,” the Elf said. Lasgon appeared to know where that lay, reached unerringly into a pack and pulled out a green roll of cloth and tossed it to the Elf, who rode quickly to the King’s side, then slipped off Arod’s back after he’d passed on the bundle.

Gimli bumped heavily to the ground and took his axe in hand. “Can’t fight if necessary from horseback,” he commented as he watched Aragorn doff his white mantle and hand it to Lord Elphir, then shake out the stained green cloak and cast it around himself. Loosening his sword in his sheath, he spoke to his guard and Lord Halladan, looked in question at Prince Faramir, and at a nod there the two urged their horses into the woods and disappeared from view, following the Ranger. Legolas also disappeared into the trees.

“Women and children into the center,” Pippin said with quiet authority, “gentlehobbits and others not skilled in fighting about them. The rest take defensive positions.” All quickly responded to the quiet orders, and the King’s Guard took up positions where they offered best defense to the noncombatants.

Ruvemir watched with admiration. “It appears that the King is allowing Strider the Ranger out to play,” he commented.

Lord Hardorn laughed. “These are the lands he patrolled most, and few know them as well as he does. I would not wish to be any brigand he might take here.”

Narcissa looked at him thoughtfully. “My father remembered a time when one named Hardorn, also known as Bowman, kept watch on four somewhere near here,” she said. He nodded, and returned to his watch.

Ruvemir looked at her with interest. “Sounds like another tale I’d love to hear,” he commented. She smiled and shook her head.

The King’s cousin studiously ignored them, but a half smile remained on his face.

After a few moments another Ranger appeared from the forest, and spoke with Lord Halladan. They saw the Northern Steward nod his head, and as the Ranger disappeared back into the trees Halladan turned to the party. “We are to continue on. It is unlikely we ourselves will see any activity, but there has been a party building a short distance ahead. I suspect all will be taken before we reach the gates of Bree. We will stop there for a mid-afternoon meal, and if the King returns in time will proceed on toward Rivendell. Otherwise we will remain in Bree for the night.”

They rode on, Gimli striding watchfully alongside, followed by Arod, who, although he wore no saddle or bridle, acted as though the Dwarf led him. Talk resumed, although somewhat subdued.

Bedro Bracegirdle looked at the woods with distrust. “Who knows what hides in there?” he asked.

Merry, who rode nearby, looked left into the Old Forest. “I doubt you’d want to go into there, for all that where Tom Bombadil holds sway it is safe enough, if you keep his rhyme in mind. But the other side has always been the realm of brigands and the Rangers. But, if one of those protecting us from them is the Ranger Strider, we’re safe enough.”

“Is that the one who spoke to that King of yours?”

Merry laughed. “That King of mine? He’s the King to all, Bedro. No, I don’t know any of the names given to the Rangers who came out of the forest, just that given to the one who went into it.”

Ruvemir turned to the Bracegirdle. “The Rangers of the North usually go by the names given them by the people among whom they travel. Lord Hardorn there was called Bowman hereabouts, and the one known as Strider went South alongside four Hobbits, an Elf, a Dwarf, a Wizard, and another Man, where he took still another name and title to add to the near score he already had borne throughout his life.”

“You mean the King hisself is Strider?” Bedro asked.

Narcissa shook her head. “You are being very slow, Beasty. Yes, the King himself is Strider. He and Lord Hardorn used to watch over my dad when he rode out to Bree when I was a child. He’d tell me of it when he returned.” She turned to Lord Hardorn. “Which one was Silversword?” she asked.

He looked over his shoulder at her briefly, smiled, and resumed his watch.

“You’ll have to ask a different one if you wish to know,” Ruvemir said. “First of all he’s on duty, and secondly he’s the most taciturn of the lot. He enjoys not telling, I think.”

Again Hardorn looked over his shoulder, gave the sculptor an evaluative stare, and then pointedly looked off again, but Narcissa noted there was yet a half smile on his face. Ruvemir was right about this one. Merry looked over his shoulder and laughed again.

Seeking to keep the attention of the others, Bedro commented, “Quite the fuss last night when that jumped-up gardener had his nightmare. Delicate sensibilities, has he?”

The expression on Lord Hardorn’s face became flatly stony. He gave the prisoner a look that was so scathing he quailed. “If I were to do half as well at serving my cousin, who is also my King, as did the Lord Samwise Gamgee at serving his Master and the needs of Middle Earth, then I would deserve indeed my own title as Lord. I have faced horrors that would freeze your marrow, but they were nothing in comparison to what those two faced, and what they were willing to face so that you might know the King’s justice instead of Sauron’s scorn and tortures. He would have delighted to torture such as you, you must understand. Had a fondness for screaming and groveling.” He turned back to his duty, his disdain for Bedro Bracegirdle plain for all to see.

Bedro finally muttered, “And how did a Hobbit gardener come to be a Lord?”

Narcissa gave him a look to rival Hardorn’s. “The children of your own village could answer that question now, Beasty. Did you not hear what the King told Elanor and all those present last night?”

“All I got out of it was that him and that fool Baggins he worked for almost died.”

Merry interrupted, “They almost died going into Mordor itself to destroy Sauron’s own Ring. If he’d managed to get that back, as Lord Hardorn said, you’d most likely be writhing in torture beneath the Eye right now.”

“Don’t Lords wear crowns or something like?” asked Bedro.

“He has a Circlet of Honor,” Ruvemir said. “His and the Lord Frodo’s Circlets are kept with reverence in a chest in the study of Bag End, along with the Lord Frodo’s mithril shirt and his sword and swordbelt. The Lord Samwise’s sword hangs over the mantel in the study, where I understand Sting hung before Master Bilbo left the Shire.”

Merry looked around him. “You’d best understand another thing, Bracegirdle--almost every Man in this party is a Lord of the Realm of Gondor or Arnor, and if you look you will see none of them is wearing his own Circlet of Honor. We have also two princes and one who will be one when he succeeds his father--three if you count the Ernil i Pheriannath,” he added with a grin. “And probably every one you see in grey and silver is one of the Lord King Elessar’s own kinsmen, most of them second and third cousins at least.”

Ruvemir gave Merry a smile. “The Ernil i Pheriannath, eh? If he weren’t on duty, I suspect your cousin would come over here and knock you off Stybba.” Narcissa laughed aloud, while Brendilac, who’d stayed quiet throughout, gave her a questioning look.

They’d come in sight of the gates to Bree when a party came out of the woods again. Several figures hooded and cloaked as Rangers of Arnor with weapons drawn were escorting eight figures in dark green who looked anything but happy. One of the Rangers stopped short of the other party and saluted Lord Halladan. “We found these planning an assault on your party, my Lord, although I suspect once they saw how well armed you are they might have thought better of the plan.”

“I see,” the Steward noted, examining the group carefully. He looked at the escort. “Strider is not with you?”

“No, my Lord. He was securing the forest and seeking out any further confederates.”

“I see. If you will accompany us until we enter the town, we will see if Bree has accommodations for so many. If not, we will need to make other arrangements for the night. I think that as the King will be in our borders they may face the King’s own justice.” He turned around and called across the party, “Bowman? Do you feel up to assisting Strider in his efforts? You are second in knowledge only to him regarding these wilds.”

“Yes, my Lord,” Lord Hardorn said, straightening. He approached the cart where he took a quiver of arrows and a grey bundle already retrieved by Lasgon, gave a brief salute, then fell out of the party. He quickly doffed his current grey cloak and tossed it to one of the Guardsmen from Arnor at the back, and donning the other, more worn one he saluted all, then turned off into the forest, melting in amongst the trees with the ease of long practice.

The gates to Bree were open, and together they entered in. One of the Guardsmen from Arnor went with the troop of Rangers to the area where the lockups were to see to the securing of their prisoners for the time while the rest went on to the Prancing Pony.

Awaiting them in the Prancing Pony was Mistress Elise, obviously pregnant, her face alight with joy as she saw her husband arrive. She and another woman Narcissa remembered as one of the Queen’s maids sat in the common room, surrounded by the remains of a meal and obviously being waited on happily by Butterbur and his staff. She rose to greet the party, and soon all were seated about the room, accepting refreshments.

Even Bedro was allowed to sit with his guards at a smaller table, and was further allowed a mug of ale. The Lord Halladan came to look down on him solemnly. “The only reason you were not sent to the village lockup on our arrival was because we sent the others there, and I will not have Hobbits locked up among Men I do not know. Enjoy it while you can.” He then turned to another table where he sat near the Queen and her daughter and the Lady Éowyn and his wife Mirieth.

It was over an hour before Legolas slipped into the Pony, followed a short time later by the King, Prince Faramir, and Lord Hardorn, accompanied by one other, a heavily muscled Man dressed in dark green as had been the prisoners. He was sweating heavily and looked very anxious, although he was plainly attempting to appear calm and in control of the situation. The four of them took a table in the corner, and Butterbur came over with a look of tension on his face to take their order. “Strider? Bowman?” he said with awe. “You’re back?”

“A cup of your best ale for each of us here, and a plate of what is prepared for dinner,” Strider directed. “We will eat here, but will camp outside the village again. Is the grange hall free this evening, do you know?”

“I’ll check with the Grange Master,” the innkeeper said.

“We will rent it for the evening if it is open.”

With a nod the innkeeper hurried away to see to their orders, and within a few minutes Jape the barman himself was delivering a round of ales to those seated at the table, accepting the coin laid out by Hardorn with bemusement. “There’s no need...” he started to say, but was stayed by a look from the Ranger.

“You do accept the King’s coinage, do you not?” asked Hardorn.

“Yes, sir, of course we do.”

“Then let there be no further protests.”

The meaning was not lost on the barman, who gave a nod and retreated swiftly behind the bar. The coin given him was, he recognized, gold, and intended to pay for the orders of all, and most generously at that. The Inn of the Prancing Pony would not lose for the unusual clientele present this day.

Pippin had been relieved from duty on their arrival, and was now seated at a long, low table with the rest of the older Hobbits save for the escort for Bedro, who sat with him at his table apart. He looked over his shoulder at the four who’d taken the corner table and laughed. “It is almost like our first visit here,” he commented in a low voice, “with the long-legged Ranger sitting just there, dark and rather sinister, keeping us all just off balance with his intense gaze, just as he and Hardorn are keeping that one off balance right now.” It had been unspokenly accepted that none would acknowledge the King’s presence openly.

The Thain and Master were taking surreptitious looks at the corner table, examining with interest the four seated there. Eglantine asked, “You mean, this is how you met him?”

Sam nodded. “Oh, yes, Mistress Eglantine, just like this. He was sitting there at that table, his hood up over his head, nursing an ale and just finished with a meal hisself, his eyes lit up by the glow of his pipe.”

Estella looked to her husband. “You’d never told me about seeing him seated there,” she said.

“Well, I wasn’t here. Stupid Merry was out to take a sniff of the air, and as curious as any Took I followed a Black Rider to the edge of the village and had----” He stopped short, dropped his eyes.

Realizing his cousin was unable to finish that, Pippin continued for him, “And had his first experience with the malady known as the Black Breath. Fortunately it was a light brush that time, and Aragorn was able to put things aright just putting his hand on Merry’s shoulder. Not like the other time, when he and the Lady Éowyn faced the Lord of the Nazgul.”

“I didn’t even realize he was easing me of it,” Merry continued. “We were all rather rattled that evening.”

The King’s own party, seated at three or four tables, was paying no attention to the four in the corner, either. Legolas had a quiet talk with Lord Halladan, who nodded. After a time, once the meal was finished, he stood up and indicated with a look that the rest were to follow him, and almost all the Big Folk filed out with thanks to their host. Legolas and Gimli remained, along with a couple of the Guardsmen from Arnor. In the wake of the Big Folk went Bedro and his escort, followed by Ruvemir and his wife and apprentices and eventually the party of Hobbits. Once they were outside and retrieving their ponies from the care of Bob in the stable, Saradoc Brandybuck commented with regret, “I’d like to see the end of the business.”

“We will,” Merry promised. “We’ll go out to the camp prepared for us for tonight, but will walk back in to the grange hall.”

They quickly caught up with Ruvemir and Elise, Celebgil and Armanthol, who were walking easily toward the east gate of the village, leading their animals. The sculptor looked up at them, smiling.

“What’s going to happen now?” Fosco asked.

Merry shrugged. “I suspect that if the grange hall on the north side of the village is open, there will be an official inquiry tonight, with all the prisoners brought in to be examined by Stewards and King. If it’s anything similar to what happened during the examination of Timono and all, it will be detailed, and justice swift and certain.”

“And if it is anything like what I saw in Minas Anor,” Ruvemir added, “we will not see the King take his own place at the judgment table until the end. Having captured these as cats capture rats, I suspect he will enjoy keeping them under his paw for a time. And both Lords Halladan and Faramir are familiar now with the procedures.”

Paladin Took shook his head. “They will have justice, of that you can be certain.”

All nodded.

A couple hours before sunset one of the Guardsmen who’d stayed in the Pony came out and conferred with Lord Halladan, who nodded. All quickly gathered to hear what he had to say.

“The King has secured the use of the grange hall,” he said, “and all the prisoners are to be brought there in an hour’s time, including Master Bedro here. I will need to be there to represent Arnor and sit at the head table, and Prince Faramir and Lord Elphir will sit there also, and the Thain, if he wishes to be part of it. The Hobbits were threatened by this also, of course.” At the Thain’s nod of agreement, he continued, “My Lady Queen, what is your pleasure?”

“I will sit there also, then, with the Lady Éowyn,” she said. “Lady Avrieth, will you be willing to watch the Hobbit children as well as Melian?”

Rosie sighed. “I have no desire to go, so can keep watch on them myself, my Lady. But my Sam, he ought to be there.”

Narcissa spoke up. “According to the fostering agreement for Forsythia and Fosco, Frodo asked that they witness such business as affects the Shire and our people here in Arnor, so they will be there, as will I, although it would be better if we sat in the back somewhere, as we are not truly part of it.”

Eglantine decided she would stay in the encampment, as did Fredegar and Budgie, Melilot, Piper, Viola, and Drogo. Ruvemir would go with Armanthol, but Celebgil would stay with Elise and the caravan. Halladan nodded his understanding when Brendi indicated he had to attend. Esmeralda would go with Diamond, Pimpernel, and Estella, while the two Took lads would stay in the encampment with two of the Thain’s escort who would assist in the guard for it along with the Men of the Guard and the women and two Men of the King’s Party who would not be attending.

Shortly after, those attending set off back for Bree and went to the grange hall where tables and benches were already being set up. Two chairs with arms were set up behind the two judges’ tables at Lord Halladan’s direction, and the Lady Arwen took one of them. Halladan took the innermost seat at the right table, and indicated Faramir, who arrived attended only by Beregond just after them, was to take the innermost at the other, Éowyn just beyond him. Lasgon had brought a long case, inlaid with mithril and pearl, and at a gesture from Prince Faramir laid it before the Lord Halladan. Beyond the Lady Éowyn sat Lord Elphir, and beyond him to the fourth and last chair Sam was led, his face flushed with embarrassment. The Lord introduced as Lord Gilfileg was seated next to Lord Halladan, then a younger Northern lord to act as clerk, and Thain Paladin was asked to take the fourth chair on that side. With Pippin standing on one side of the two chairs and Merry on the other, Pippin’s sword at the ready and Merry leaning on his similar to the stances of each in the memorial, all appeared to be ready. The rest took seats on benches set for the observers, Hobbits in front and Men behind, and at last the prisoners were led in.

Forsythia was describing the tables and the seating order to Fosco, who was enthralled as he listened, Ferdibrand leaning near to listen as well. Fosco asked, “But why is Samwise Gamgee sitting up there with the Lords?”

Ruvemir, who sat the other side of Forsythia, said softly, “Because he, too, is a Lord, no matter how unwilling a one.”

“You really mean it?” asked Forsythia. “I thought you were only trying to impress Beasty.”

“Yes, I truly mean it, and Lord Hardorn means it as well.”

Brendilac stood by Bedro, who leaned toward him. “Why are you doing this?” Bedro asked.

“As I said before, Frodo begged me to stand by you all in the first trial, that you not be alone and that your own interests be represented. I’ll not let him down simply because you were foolish enough to earn a second one.”

“It’s my interest to have this all forgotten and go home.”

“You’d best understand,” Brendilac said quietly, “that you won’t be going home again. It isn’t home for you any more. You’ve been cast out by your own family.”

“But they can’t mean it....”

“They can’t? Oh, but I assure you they can. I was there when your name was struck out of the book of Bracegirdle. If you think that having spawned Lobelia, Lotho, Timono, Lothario, your father and you is seen as any honor, you can think again. Lotho’s death date isn’t posted there, by the way--instead the notation on first Yule of the Time of Troubles that he had been struck out of it. At least his mother’s was allowed to remain and her death date written in.”

“But Lotho wasn’t a Bracegirdle....”

“They always counted him as one of their own more than the Bagginses did.”

At that moment two Rangers came in, accompanying the last prisoner. They remained there, one on each side of him, and at a nod from the taller of them, Lord Halladan began.

“This isn’t the throne room in the Citadel of Minas Anor, nor that being rebuilt in Annúminas, but it has been a hall of justice in the past and will undoubtedly be used as such again in the future. Do you understand?”

The taller of the two Rangers on either side of the last prisoner translated to a language none of those in the Southlands had heard before, although Halladan straightened with surprise, a degree of anger, and concern. “Then these are indeed not common brigands?” he asked when the tall Ranger was finished.

The shorter of the two shook his head. “No, my Lord Steward. They were sent from Angmar to test the King’s defenses.”

“I see,” he said, his face set. “Angmar again, after all these years. It was too good to last, I suppose.” He looked at the nine Men with eyes as hard as the steel in the sword he wore at his hip. “I am the Lord Steward Halladan, Steward of Arnor in the King’s absence. There sits the Lord Prince Steward Faramir of Gondor, who has accompanied the King’s party north from Gondor. Beside him sits his wife the Lady Éowyn, sister to the King of Rohan and now his representative in this place, and the Lord Elphir, heir to the Princedom of Dol Amroth. Beyond him sits the Lord Samwise Gamgee the Faithful of the land of the Periannath. Beside me sit two of the King’s own kin, lords of the Northern Kingdom, the Lords Gilfileg and Berestor, and beyond them Paladin Took, Thain of the Shire. Behind me sits the Lady Arwen Undomiel of Imladris, Queen of Gondor and Arnor, and there sits the seat for the King, when it pleases him to sit there, for he has other skills which are needed at this time. Is this understood?”

Again the taller Ranger translated, and the Man between nodded, then spoke. “I speak the Common Tongue well enough, as do most of these,” he said.

Lord Halladan answered, “It is required by our law that all those who are to be judged must understand all that is said to and about them. For this reason the Ranger known as Strider, who has traveled widely and is gifted in languages, serves as your translator. You may understand, and most of these may understand, but you have indicated not all do so, and this must be remedied.”

Bedro Bracegirdle started to speak. “Why does the King----” A knee from one of the taller guards to his back knocked the breath out of him.

Halladan turned to him. “You will keep silence. If you try to speak again before you are asked a question, you will be gagged. Do you understand?”

The Hobbit nodded, and looked over his shoulder at the Man who’d kneed him with fury in his eyes.

Halladan continued, “We have reasons why we do things as we do, and why the King does as he does. When it is time for judgment he will take his place, wielding the Sceptre of Annúminas as is his duty. For now he is busy elsewhere, doing what is needed of him.

“Now, the first question is this....”

The questioning went on for some time, and was quite intense. The Men before them did not wish to speak, but found themselves doing so anyway, and repeatedly saying more than they’d ever intended to reveal. There was growing again in Angmar leadership, and now that the Nazgul were no more, there were others all too willing to step into the role of war leaders, and to keep alive the hatred always held toward the Dúnedain of Arnor. The last two harvests in Angmar had been bad, and it had been hoped raids south of the border would help them remedy their shortfalls. But they had found that the borders were well guarded now, and they had been unable to stage any reasonable raids.

“You could not have sent embassies to open trade with us?”

“We do not treat with barbarians,” the Man spat.

Lord Halladan looked at Lord Faramir, and both faces were equally bemused. At last Faramir commented, “I am at a loss to understand how either the people of the Northern kingdom or the Southern kingdom are supposed to be considered barbarians. Perhaps if you can describe what it is about us that makes us barbarians we would be better able to understand your position. We do not live in tents save when we travel or hunt; we cook our meat and do not eat it raw; we are mostly highly literate; we live by the rule of law rather than by the whims of a despot; we prefer to bargain with neighboring lands rather than to fight them. It was your former lord who ordered that all captives taken in the Fields of the Pelennor, within Ithilien, or in Osgiliath be branded with the sign of the Eye, then have their heads hewn off so that they might be cast over our city walls to cause grief and despair. It was your former lord who habitually tortured and maimed any of our people who fell into his hands. It was your former lord who bespelled weapons to cause them to break off in wounds and lead to innocents becoming wraiths. It was your former lord who primarily commanded armies of orcs, trolls, and wargs. And it was your former lord who ordered its fell steed to feast on the living flesh of King Théoden of Rohan when he lay unable to move, crushed under his fallen horse. I have always considered such actions as those to be barbaric.”

“Yet you sent women and children to face him, and gave the flesh of old Men and children to the great Eagles, and sent them to spy out Mordor.”

The Lady Éowyn laughed outright, and looked over her shoulder at where Meriadoc Brandybuck stood beside the chair on which sat the Queen. Sam was shaking his head with disbelief. Meanwhile Strider the Ranger was just finishing the translation of what had been said by their leader to the others from Angmar.

Lord Gilfileg looked at the entire troop. “On whose testimony do you believe this to be true?” he asked.

After Strider had translated this, one of the Men stepped forward. He spoke up, his head raised in defiance. Strider translated for the benefit of those who didn’t understand. “He has seen this thing. A troop of fifty Men came from Angmar at the call of the Lord of the Nazgul, to fight for Mordor. He fought upon the Pelennor, and saw the woman and child facing the Lord of the Nazgul himself, and the Men of Gondor and Rohan encouraged them in this. He fled east after the Captain was killed, and fought again with the troops of Mordor, saw the old Man given to the Eagles, saw the Eagles flying with the bodies of children clutched in their claws.”

Sam arose, looked at the wife of Lord Faramir, and shook his head. “Well, I never, never thought any would take me for a child,” he said. “Oh, you can laugh, my Lady, and I’ve a good mind to laugh with you!”

He came out from behind the table, and stood before the Angmarian and looked up into his eyes. “Do you take me for a child?” he asked. Strider translated.

The Man looked down on him, surprised. He asked something of the Ranger, who shook his head, then repeated what he’d said before. “He asked me if this is a joke, and I repeated the Lord Samwise’s question,” he then explained.

The Angmarian looked down again at the Hobbit, still obviously confused. Finally he asked a question. “He wishes to know how old you are.”

“I was thirty-eight when the Eagles carried me out of Mordor, away from the Mountain of Fire, to safety,” Sam said, then held up both hands with all fingers spread three times, then with eight fingers displayed once. “That was over six years past, tell him. Then tell him as Frodo was fifty years.”

“You mean, the one he saw the Eagles carrying was this one?” asked the one who stood between Strider and Bowman.

Strider translated this question to the rest of the troop, and then Lord Halladan replied, “Yes, this is one of the two small beings your fellow there saw being carried by the Eagles. The other was older. Neither were children in any people’s count of years.”

“Nor did anybody send us anywhere,” Sam commented. “We went cuz it needed doing. If they could of stopped us from leaving to go it alone, they’d of done so. And the Eagle was allowing Gandalf to ride on his back--nobody gave him nor us to nobody, and certainly not to eat!”

“As for facing your former master,” the Lady Éowyn said, “I faced it because it was seeking to have its beast eat my beloved uncle while he was yet alive. No one wished me to be there or encouraged me to face it--indeed Merry and I had been forbidden to come. We defied all and came anyway, and faced the Lord of the Nazgul out of love and defiance as well. Nor was Merry a child at the time. Indeed, he was several years older than I.”

Lord Halladan turned to Merry. “Sir Meriadoc, you have leave to speak.”

Merry looked at the one who had stepped forward, who said he’d seen children standing up to the Lord of the Nazgul. “I had been considered an adult among my people for three years ere I left my land to go south with my cousins and Sam to Rohan and Gondor, and before I stood up in defiance against your former lord. Although, strictly speaking, I didn’t stand up in front of him--I came up behind him and stabbed him behind the knee.”

Once Strider had translated all this, Lord Halladan resumed, sharing his looks between the two who had spoken. The rest of them appeared restless, were looking to one another, and two were whispering with one another quietly. “I rode south to fight at my cousin’s side in the final fight with Sauron. I saw this one--” gesturing to Merry, “--and the Lady Éowyn as they were taken from the battlefield, and later in recovery in the Houses of Healing. I helped in the search for that one--” here he indicated Pippin, “--and saw his body borne from the battlefield before the Black Gate. And I saw the Eagles leave with Gandalf to search for the Ringbearers, if they were not lost completely in the torment of Mount Doom at the last. I also saw them as they lay senseless when the Eagles brought them out of the destruction of Mordor to the aid offered them by the King, and when, at last awakened, they were able to come before the assembly for acclamation. None of the small ones you saw were children, and all did but what was felt to be right to stand against the tyranny of Mordor. And the Lord Éomer sat by his sister as she finally awakened from the Black Breath, as did Captain Peregrin by the side of Sir Meriadoc as he, too, awakened from the same malady.

“Now, do you still wish to think of us as barbarians?”

There was discussion amongst the prisoners. Finally the one who’d stepped forward asked through Strider, “Are there many such as these?”

Paladin Took stood from his place at the table. “We are the Hobbits of the Shire, and there are more Hobbits that live here in Bree, alongside the Men of this small land. We are numerous enough for our own satisfaction.”

“I think,” Lord Elphir commented, “you did not see closely enough at the time to understand what it was you saw.”

The one who stood between Strider and Bowman looked to the others, then back at the Hobbits before him, then turned to look at those seated behind him as well. Finally he turned back to Halladan. “How was it you defeated Sauron?”

Halladan turned to Sam. “This is your tale, Lord Samwise. Will you answer him?”

Sam looked at the Man, his expression stern. “We defeated him the only way anyone could--we took his Ring to the Mountain so as it could be destroyed before he could get hold of It again and use Its power against all of us.”

“But you are no warrior----”

“Since when does somebody have to be a warrior to get rid of something so evil It will corrupt all It touches? You just need to be stubborn. And he was stubborn enough for all.”

The Angmarians were silent as this last statement, translated by Strider, sank in. The expression on the Hobbit’s face impressed them. Finally Lord Faramir spoke quietly to Sam. “Why don’t you sit down again, Master Samwise? I believe they begin to understand that they misinterpreted what was seen.” As the Hobbit finally nodded and resumed his seat, the Steward of Gondor looked again at the prisoners. “You will not treat, you say, with barbarians; yet you answered the call of the Lord of the Nazgul and sent forces to the support of Mordor. It appears that you have been far more barbaric than you had imagined of us. Perhaps we ought to refuse to treat with you. Perhaps we ought simply to have you killed out of hand, rather than giving you the chance to explain why you came into our lands unbidden, and set out an armed party in ambush for the party of our King. What say you to this?”

“Where are the rest of our Men?” asked the leader from his place between the Rangers.

Halladan looked in question to the Rangers who stood behind the prisoners. One spoke, “These were the only ones we saw, and we took them easily enough. We saw that there had been more of them, but what became of the others we do not know. It appears a goodly number went, however, into the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs.”

Merry could be seen shuddering involuntarily. The Rangers and those sitting by the Lord Halladan all nodded as if this were not unexpected. Lord Halladan looked at the leader again. “If they went into the Old Forest, the chances are strong that it took them and either made them lost in its depths or led them to Old Man Willow or to their dooms in the Barrow Downs. The trees of the Old Forest do not easily tolerate incursions by those who go on two legs, and will see us dead if they can manage it. The only one among us to brave the Barrow Downs was our chieftain, and even his power and authority were strongly tested ere he came out to us again.”

The Thain looked to Lord Halladan and shook his head. “The four of them went through both the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs, but were saved only by the intervention of Tom Bombadil.”

Halladan turned with interest to Merry and Pippin. “You went through both?” At Merry’s reluctant nod, he straightened, even more respect obvious in his tone. “To earn the favor of Bombadil was a mighty deed in itself, for he has almost nothing to do with the outer world at all, and refuses his aid to most. And to come through the Barrow Downs yet alive....” He shook his head in admiration.

Sam said quietly, “He saved the other three of us, he did. Cut off the hand of the wight as was intendin’ to kill us for some purpose of its own.”

“The Ringbearer?”

“Yes.”

The Steward of Arnor looked down at his own hands. “He was braver than I’d have been, I think. I doubt I’d have been able to move.” He looked to Legolas. “My Lord Prince,” he said respectfully, “you are the only one here save our Lady Queen, I believe, who would be tolerated by the trees of the Old Forest. Would you mind entering it and learning the fate of the ones missing? You do not need to go deep into it.”

“How many are there who are yet unaccounted for?” asked the Elf. It was determined there were eleven missing. “I will go now, then,” he said simply, and was out of the room before others could say or do anything.

Narcissa could hear Gimli grumbling, “At least he didn’t ask me to come along this time.” She couldn’t tell, however, whether or not this was said in relief.

“So, you came with a force of twenty,” said Faramir. “Why did you come here, and why did you seek to ambush the King’s party?” Narcissa admired his patience.

“We heard rumors that the Lord Steward would come to the town of Bree at the crossroads between the old highway and the East-West road. We sought to take him or slay him to foment war.”

“Honest enough,” Halladan said.

“Then we heard he was in the company of the King, and that they had gone West from Bree, but would return. We thought to take your King, force you to give us food in return for his safety.”

“And instead, it was you who were taken, your own Men lost in the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs.”

The others did not reply.

“What, then, is to be done with you?”

Again, no reply.

“You came hoping to kill the Steward of Arnor to foment war, but then thought simply to take the King to trade for food.”

“Yes.”

“Would you have indeed released our King where you would have killed the Steward outright?”

After a pause, “Probably not.”

“So, you would have taken him, pretended to trade him for food, and then assassinated him after all, fomenting war between our lands and yours?”

“Yes.”

“Why would you do this? For it is ever the innocent who suffer worst in war, and those who live near the borders of your land would have suffered greatly.”

“We are a warrior people. We need to have someone to fight.”

“You cannot change?”

“Why should we wish to do so?”

“Because more of your people tend to prosper when you do not fight constantly.”

“The common people do not need to prosper overmuch....”

Lord Halladan looked to the Thain, whose expression was outraged. “You can see, can you not, sir, how different it is for other peoples?”

Paladin Took nodded. “This is certainly far different from the ways of our people. The idea that the common folk ought not to know the benefits of peace and plenty is repugnant.” He turned to the Ranger Strider. “And how do you see this--this idea that the common people do not need to know levels of prosperity or security?”

Halladan considered the Thain, then looked also at the green-cloaked figure. “Perhaps, Strider, it might be time to give these more to think on.”

“In a moment.”

“As you will.” He turned back to the others. “How easy do you think it would have been to take our King?”

“We do not know. We know he has guards of his person who would not allow us to approach easily.”

“That includes these, you know,” Faramir said, indicating the two on either side of the Queen.

“And what threat do these pose?”

Elphir laughed. “One aided in the destruction of your former lord, while the other single-handedly killed a troll that sought to tear the throat out of his comrade. Both are now well trained in the use of their weapons, and with the weapons of their own people. I have seen one of them take on our King in sparring and bring him down, which is no easy matter. And they rid their own land of the creatures of evil which came there during their absence. Also, how easily did these take you?” indicating the Rangers who stood on each side of him. The Man looked sideways at those who flanked him, but made no comment. “You had best think on that, and remember that the training these two have had is the training our King has had. Nor have you seen the full extent of the training of either.”

“It would perhaps have not been a simple matter.”

“No, it would not. Nor did the King travel alone. There was a fair-sized company that came out from the Brandywine Bridge back to Bree, including women and children. What would you have done with them?”

“They would have died, but such is the way with war.”

The Lady Éowyn straightened, her face full of barely suppressed anger. “You called us barbarians due to the mistaken idea we gave the bodies of the elderly and of children to eagles, or sent women and what you thought to be children to face the Nazgul. Yet, you do not see the killing of women and children who accompany the King to be equally repugnant? Who is it that is the barbarian?”

The Man flushed deeply.

She continued, “I went to the battle of the Pelennor Fields on the authority of my own will and that alone, defying my Lord King, who was also as a father to me since the death of my own when I was yet a child, in the doing. I stood between the Witchking and my uncle out of love and defiance and even despair, knowing I was likely to die as a result of my temerity. But that was my own choice. These--” she indicated the Hobbits who sat behind the prisoners, “--have no training as I did in the use of sword and spear and shield, have not seen the aftereffects of battle as the warriors are brought back in, cut and bleeding, their bodies torn and too oft broken. Yet you would think nothing of killing them simply to aid in the taking of the King and the fomenting of war?” She gave him a scathing look. “Pah! What respect are we to give you and your people if you think this is acceptable?”

Strider translated this, then sighed. He slipped his stained green cloak off his shoulders, and gave it into the hands of Lasgon, who stepped forward to receive it, and who immediately began folding and rolling it. He stepped forward to the tables. Lord Halladan opened the case before him and held it out, and the King took out the Star of Elendil and placed it on his brow, took up the Sceptre of Annúminas from the case, passed between the tables. Arwen, who had remained silent and still through all the preceding, rose and held out her hand to her Lord Husband, saw him seated, and sat again at his side. He looked at the nine before him for quite some time, examining the face of each.

Finally he looked to Hardorn’s face and gave a nod, then turned back to the nine before him, speaking slowly in their tongue, Hardorn translating what he said to the Common Tongue for the benefit of the rest. “I am the King Elessar of Gondor and Arnor. More years than you can dream of have I fought the creatures of Sauron, taught by the greatest lords of Elves and Men in how to recognize his policies, his devices, his forces. You are kin to Merdenin?”

“He was my uncle,” replied the leader of this group.

“I am the one who slew him, after trying vainly to reason with him. I saw to the destruction of the token of the Enemy he wore as well.” The leader’s face went extremely pale. “The forces of Angmar have ever harried our lands and people, and under the Witchking’s leadership were the other lands into which Arnor was divided divested of their kings, leadership, and the greater part of their people. Under his leadership was Arvedui separated from his armies, were our lands destroyed, the greater part of our people killed as well. Only through the faithfulness of the people of the Shire were his wife and heir able to escape, before word came that he had been killed in the far Northlands. Only with reinforcements sent from Gondor were we able to finally subdue his armies, destroy his power in the north, force the Witchking to flee back to Minas Morgul. Slowly we have been rebuilding our numbers and our lands, but it has been a slow business, for your people have ever sought out our strongholds, fought against us when we offered no offense against your own people. No longer do we allow this, and yet although we have not repaid evil with like evil, you still would force us to fight you.

“I would have answers. Who was it who authorized this invasion of our soil and the planned attack on our sovereignty?”

The remaining interview was even more intense than before, and again and again the King forced answers not intended to be given. Finally he signalled enough. “I see,” he said. “Many of the warlords of your people are behind this, seeking to rekindle the old hatreds, to bring back the state of constant warring so as to continue to keep the common people from gaining too great a reliance on peace and relative prosperity. I would consider what we have learned from you for a time. And so, at this time we will turn to the matter of this other one, which is more easily, I hope, answered.”

There was a knock at the outer doors, and those on guard at them opened to find that Butterbur’s people had come to bring food and drink ordered earlier. The King nodded. “As we have several Hobbits present, and as they must eat more regularly than we others, I had ordered this once I knew we would have the use of this hall this evening. Let it be brought in and we will have refreshment ere we continue.” He examined the nine once more. “I suggest you take advantage of this respite to think deeply as to what you truly wish to see happen to your people, for what I decide later will rule the fate of Angmar.”

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