Two days later they crossed the Ford of the Bruinen and entered Rivendell. Sestor was glad to be done with the riding of the pack horse, and was heavily chafed from being so long without saddle or bridle, not that he’d ever been a horseman. They were brought into the House and given rooms, Sestor’s on the third level. The Elf who showed him his place looked at him coolly. “I would not advise seeking to escape, for though you do not see them, many Elves guard this place, and they would shoot first and ask questions after.” Sestor was certain that this was indeed true. He was then shown the bathing room and given fresh clothing and availed himself of them with a great feeling of relief.
Many had come to the conference, he found, and a goodly number from the other side of the Misty Mountains, including Dwarves, Elves, and many Men. The first evening was devoted to feasting, and Sestor was surprised to find he was allowed to eat among the rest. Many of the Elves came to welcome the King’s wife, whom Sestor learned was of this place originally, had been born here and had lived here long with her father and brothers; and the King himself was welcomed as if he were a son of the house.
After the meal the Hobbit who was of the King’s guard came to him at his place at table. “The King would have you attend him as he goes to see the one you shot. He will meet you outside the feast hall in a quarter mark.”
Sestor nodded his understanding and made his way out of the room, waiting until the King himself came out.
He’d changed from the steel-blue riding leathers he’d worn through most of the journey into a fine robe of figured green fabric of a weave Sestor had never seen before, and he wore on his brow a jewel bound in a mithril fillet. He examined the archer, then nodded his satisfaction. “You are a likely enough looking person,” he commented. “Ruvemir tells me your name is Sestor.”
“Yes, mighty Lord, it is.”
“Come with me, then, and see your handiwork.”
He was led through several hallways until they reached another wing, then entered a room where several of the Hobbits sat together at a table with the one he’d shot. He sat erect, his face alight with pleasure, and as the King entered he rose. “My Lord King Aragorn,” he said. “It is good to see you again.” He bowed, but there was yet a visible tinge of pain that arrested the depth. “They would not allow me to sit at the feast tonight, so the twins and Narcissa and Ferdi and Berilac have all sat with me here.”
“Then you are recovering well enough?”
“More slowly than your brothers wish to see, I fear; but much more quickly than I’d expected. Was this truly the room Bilbo stayed in during his time here?”
“Indeed it is.”
“It is wonderful! I feel as if the old Hobbit were here with me at times. He always had such a delightful sense of adventure and wonder at the world.” He looked at the picture which still hung on the wall of Túrin and the Dragon, surrounded by the portion of the lay. “And that is marvelous!”
“It always hung so on his wall. I’m surprised he didn’t take it with him, for I understand it was a gift from Gandalf.”
“Well, since he went with Gandalf himself, perhaps he didn’t feel that he needed the memento.”
“Perhaps. Now, let me see the shoulder.”
Sestor noted that the expression on the Hobbit woman’s face was much changed, was relaxed and reassured, and that each time she looked on the one called Brendilac she unconsciously smiled and brightened; and he saw the others within the room also noted it and were well satisfied. The Hobbit shrugged out of his outer garment with another visible wince, and the youth aided him in the removal of the shirt he wore. The King then gently unwound the bandage from the shoulder, examined the healing wound, held his hands over it and let his fingers feel deep....
At last he straighted, present once more. “It does very well indeed, and will be of little difficulty in the future. We will begin exercises tomorrow to strengthen the muscles and ease the tendency for them to shorten and draw.” He continued the examination, felt his chest and back. “The cracked ribs were from the beating you received from the Bracegirdle?”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“They feel well set, and no lasting damage done there.” He felt the Hobbit’s scalp, gently but thoroughly, and once more there was a wince as one place was touched. Noting the flinch, the King stopped, placed both hands over the spot, his eyes growing distant for a short time, then coming back again. The Hobbit himself suddenly took a deeper breath and straightened somewhat. The King removed his hands and checked the Hobbit’s eyes. “Better?” he asked.
“Oh, yes indeed, my Lord.”
“Good then. I wished this one to see you, to see the results of his attack and to assure you both no lasting harm was done by it, although had he actually hit me I suspect Elladan, Legolas, and Gimli would have painfully taken him apart. As it was none was particularly gentle with him.”
Sestor took a deep breath. “Knowing you now, I would not do it again, great Lord.”
“That, I suppose, is heartening. I’m surprised your captain brought so many who were so honorable with him. Avrigien himself was not deeply filled with such.”
“The one called Sam-Dad said he was dead, that he’d offered violence to one of yours.”
The King’s face grew stern. “Yes, that is true.”
“It was only to be expected from him, I fear.”
“So we learned.”
Sestor turned to the Hobbit known as Brendilac. “I grieve I caused you so much pain. I never intended to hit any but him.”
“Had I not leaned over and straightened as I did, you’d undoubtedly have hit him indeed. That you apologize means a great deal to me.”
The King became businesslike. “Tomorrow you ought to be given more freedom about the place, and you will be able to take part in the conference. We will welcome your insights.”
“You will not be too harsh with this one, will you?” asked the Hobbit.
The King examined Sestor thoughtfully. “I still have to question him, but I believe the fact you have recovered so well and so quickly and that he has apologized will mitigate in his favor. Do not be unduly concerned, my friend.” He looked at the youth. “Fosco, I hope that while we are here you will agree to dance the Husbandmen’s dance for me.”
The young one flushed. “Gladly, my Lord King, as you desire it. But it would be best if others should dance it with me. It’s embarrassing to dance alone.”
The King smiled. “I suspect this one will be able to join you, at least, by then. His skill in it has been praised.”
The woman smiled. “They are right, my Lord Aragorn--Brendi has always been a good dancer.”
“Well, I ought to be--Drogo used to teach me as a child, me and Frodo, and sometimes Frodo and I would dance it for Merilinde. She said it was in great part my skill as a dancer that had caught her attention, as was true for this one with Frodo,” and he smiled at the woman, who flushed as she smiled.
“Perhaps that’s why Narcissa likes you so now,” the young woman Hobbit said in a teasing manner, and both flushed the more.
The Hobbit who was blind laughed. “What I remember about Merilinde and you when you were young was how when the two of you danced the Springlering you’d both just glow. As for you, Narcissa, any time you danced you’d glow. You, too, were a good dancer, although I don’t remember seeing you dance for years.”
Her face had grown solemn. “I rather lost the taste for it.”
The King laughed. “Well, when you danced the Springlering for us in the capitol you did marvelously, I must say.”
Brendilac looked surprised. “Who did you dance with in Minas Tirith?” he asked.
She flushed again. “With Folco. Miriel isn’t up to dancing the Springlering, after all, not that she had ever learned it. She is a very charming woman, though, and I’m so glad she and Folco married. The two of them are so deeply in love.”
“Well,” the King said, straightening, as Narcissa aided Brendilac to replace his shirt, “I must go now. May you all continue to enjoy the evening.” As the others hastily rose and bowed, he bowed in return and left the room, Sestor following behind him.
The King led him back to the main part of the place, and to a large room with only a few chairs in it. “Most of the others will go to the Hall of Fire tonight, I hope. I wished to question you more quietly than I did your fellows.” He indicated a chair and saw Sestor sat, then sat down across from him. The door opened, admitting an Elf with a tray with a flagon and several goblets, followed by one of the younger Men who’d been in the party, carrying a box in his hands. He sat in a chair with a table by it, drawing the table in front of him and setting on it paper, ink, and quill from the small chest he carried. The warrior Hobbit who dressed in the garb from the South entered and took his place by his King, although he did not draw his blade. The King looked up at him almost suspiciously, then watched as the door opened and several more of the Hobbits, two more of the Men, the two golden-haired Elves who’d ridden with them, and the Dwarf entered.
The King sighed. “It appears that this questioning will be more public than I’d planned.”
Again the door opened, and two more Men entered, the two Stewards, he noted. There were far too few chairs for all, not that the Hobbits would be that comfortable in the chairs designed for the Elves. Seeing the King’s expression, what appeared to be the elder of the two Elves gave an elaborate shrug, went out the door, and a few moments later several Elves appeared with a number of benches in two heights, and soon had them set for the use of those intent on witnessing this questioning. They were followed by three more of the Men, another Hobbit, and the short bearded one called Ruvemir carrying a large booklet he opened upon his lap, taking out some kind of stick with which he began working on the open page; and finally the golden-haired Elf with a single stool for himself, which he set near the door.
“Shall I deter any more from entering, Estel?” the Elf asked.
“There is little point, I suppose,” the King replied. “Berenion will probably be in here as well in a moment. As what I had expected to learn will eventually need to be known by him, I suppose I should simply wait until he comes in. He should have his own chair, though. He’d not take well to sitting on a bench with others, I suspect.”
One of the Elves went out and returned with a chair which he set somewhat apart from the rest, and they waited. The door opened once more, and indeed Berenion entered, accompanied by two women and a younger Man from his party. He looked about the room, then at the King, who nodded at the chair. He and the three with him gave abbreviated bows, and he moved to take the chair while the other seated themselves on one of the taller benches.
One of the Hobbits spoke. “I suppose that if you did not desire onlookers, Lord Aragorn, we could leave again--if you wish, that is. However, as this one injured one of my family, I ought to hear what he has to say.”
“No, Master Saradoc, you and Thain Paladin indeed have every reason to need to hear what is said. Nor do I ordinarily wish to keep such business totally private. I had simply wished to keep my preliminary interview more informal, is all, and carry out a deeper, more formal one should we come to the need of it.
“You have already heard in the questioning done of the rest of this ones company that there have been poor harvests in Angmar for the past two years, and that having been unable to stage effective raids on our farmsteads and lands the war leaders of Angmar have decided to foment war between our two peoples instead; and that the word has gone out that we practice atrocities such as giving the bodies of children and the elderly to the Eagles as a form, I suppose, of what must be believed to be tribute.”
“I must say,” another of the older Hobbits said, “that Sam was most offended by that idea.”
“As well he might be,” the King replied. “Rarely have the great Eagles had dealings with the other races of Middle Earth; but ever when they have done so they have taken the part of the Children of Iluvatar against the creatures of Morgoth and Sauron.”
“So it was,” the Dwarf said, “when they rescued my father’s company when they were returning to the Lonely Mountain with Bilbo and Gandalf, and when they joined the Battle of the Five Armies against the goblins and wargs of the Misty Mountains.”
“So it has ever been,” said the Elf who sat by the door. “They have ever served the needs of the creatures of the Creator and those under the protection of the Valar. They themselves are among the Children of Iluvatar.”
“More closely, perhaps, than we ourselves,” agreed the King. He turned to Sestor. “You have heard such tales told on us, have you not?”
“Yes, mighty Lord, I have been told them. Perdenon of our company told us he saw that and more when he was sent south to fight under the Lord of the Nazgul.”
“I will tell you this--on hearing the truth of the matter, the Man Perdenon stepped forward to ask our pardon for bearing false witness against us. We are impressed by his sense of honor in this. He would not, however, break his sword.”
“No, he would not. His father is one of the war leaders among the peoples of the Eastern vales.”
“Is he the heir to his father?”
“No, he has three elder brothers.”
“How was it precisely Avrigien earned death?”
“Several in your company broke their swords. Then he indicated he would do likewise, and he stepped forward. However, his attitude to that point had not been such that indicated he truly meant to do so, and we watched him carefully. He made great show of examining the remaining swords that lay on the table before our Lord Steward Faramir here--” and with a nod indicated the younger of the two Stewards, “--picked up one of them and made a move to kill Faramir. Hardorn had moved forward with him, and he, Pippin--” he indicated the Hobbit warrior, “--and I had our swords interposed ere he could complete the stroke. I reminded him that taking up a sword under false purposes and seeking to do violence against one who has not done injury to him is punishable by death among your people, and had him pronounce his own doom.”
“Who beheaded him?”
The King looked at him dispassionately. “I did.”
Sestor was impressed. “It was far greater honor than he deserved, mighty Lord.”
“Perhaps.” The King dropped his eyes. Sestor realized that, great warrior as this one was reputed to be, the taking of life in cold blood did not sit well with him, even if it was deserved.
Lord Berenion cleared his throat. “So, this is why you were delayed and did not arrive here before we did?”
“Yes,” the King responded.
“You could have allowed Hardorn to do this for you, or Halladan....”
“Or Faramir or Elphir, or any among my own guard. There was no point to that.”
“Why not? You are not by nature a Man of violence, my Lord.”
“For all I have been schooled in it from my earliest days?”
“You were equally schooled in healing also from the same time, were you not? And ever it has been as healer you have served the gladder.”
It was the golden-haired Elf who sat by the door who spoke next. “For those who bear the King’s Gift as does Estel here, it matters little who delivers the blow. He sought only to relieve the others of the shared guilt while proving himself of greater honor in the end than the one whose death had been earned.” He straightened. “I suspect that one was somewhat relieved that his end came at the King’s hands and not those of one he would see as a minion.”
“And so it was” agreed the King.
Sestor felt reassured. “I believe I understand, mighty Lord. What questions did you wish to ask me?”
The King’s questions were well thought out. Who had been at the heart of the plan to foment the war? Who had chosen Avrigien as captain of the enterprise? Who had chosen the others? Who would best benefit by war between Angmar and Arnor? What kind of farms now lay upon the borderlands? What districts supported the plan for war most strongly? What had their harvests been like? What did Sestor see as what they stood to gain by their support of the enterprise? Who were the civil leaders in these districts, and who were the war leaders? What were the relations between war leaders and civil leaders? What were the conditions the farmers lived under? What kind of literacy did the land have? How many had taken part in the war of the Ring? The more questions the King asked, the more Sestor found himself admiring the fine mind behind them. The others also began adding their own questions, most of them, the archer realized, quite astute. He did not hold back in his answers, and answered as honestly as he could. He realized that, in the end, this King Elessar would treat his people far more positively than did those in leadership in his own land; that he would not shrink from war, but neither would he rush into it for the supposed glory of it.
The younger of the two golden-haired Elves, whose arrow had pierced his arm, asked, “The day we took you, you drew away from Aragorn’s ministrations at first, accusing him of using spells on you. Why do you cooperate so today?”
Sestor took a deep breath and thought on his answer. “Sam-Dad said the words sung were not spells but prayers, a word I do not understand; but clearly he sees a great difference between the two. He fed me rightly for one who has eaten but little for days before. He spoke courteously to me, and with a degree of respect I had not yet earned. The effect of the words of the song sung by the mighty King were not as those sung by our grey and black healers, for what pain it caused was clean and a necessary part of healing and no more; mostly what was felt was easing of pain and fear. The stitching of my wound was in truth gentle; and although the small healer gave me the strap to bite upon I barely needed it, for I felt concern for my well being in the hands of he who stitched me, which ought not to be if you were as we were told. All who have dealt with me and the wound I bear treated me with equal respect, which again ought not to be if your people were as we have been told.
“I have seen trust and love shown for your king, and not fear. I have seen concern felt for his welfare, not due to the fear of chaos which would follow if he were slain, but due to the regard with which all hold for him. This is all opposite of what we were told.
“Things in my land are not good now. We have had two lean years, and although not all parts if the land were equally struck, we are told many will die if we don’t war with Arnor. Yet, many will die if we do war with Arnor, and probably more than if we did not. To learn we have been told lies about the nature of your land and people and King has caused me to question my orders, and so I will not do more than I have.”
The Southern Steward, the one named Faramir, shook himself slightly. “I still fail to understand,” he addressed the King, “why they sent such as this one and the others who have proven honorable in this enterprise, and under such a leader. Even those who would not break their swords have all acted as if they trust you implicitely, my Lord Aragorn, and are willing to lose their sword hands at your command, as if they know they will not lose more than that.”
The other Steward turned to him. “Did you know most of those who came in this group?” he asked. “Did most of you know one another?”
“I knew Godro and Herrstein, with whom I entered the cursed place. Herrstein was a foul one from the same district as I, one whose reputation was such all wished him gone. But Godro was well beloved by all. We were told it was an honor to be chosen to go on this mission, but to come under Avrigien and alongside such as Herrstein and Portlas? What honor is there in such? Avrigien has ever sought to prove himself among the great, but by forcing his Men to do what he commanded rather than through clear thinking. Portlas was one of those who had always hung on Genderol, who was Chief of the war leaders for many years; but since Genderol’s death and the coming of Mertirio to Genderol’s place, he has tried several times through whispered words to undermine Mertirio’s leadership and that of those who have supported him. He is not a good Man, Portlas; he is not to be trusted. He will seek to see you stabbed in the back, but by others than himself, others he has set into play through his whisperings.
“I doubt many of us knew one another before we were sent on this mission, however. Yet I found most to be good Men to serve alongside.”
Faramir still appeared confused, but the King and the Northern Steward were suddenly sharing looks. “Interesting,” the Lord Elessar commented, “that all those on this mission were highly honorable and principled Men, save three; two of the unprincipled are highly ambitious and even fanatical, one of those capable of making things difficult for those who are now in control within the land; and the last one of them all being one all would wish gone.”
Berenion nodded agreement. “I see the pattern, Aragorn. There is none so undesirable among those who would use and abuse their own people as principled Men capable of taking leadership, save for those whose incompetence or ambition threaten to alert others as to the coming abuse.”
The King’s expression hardened. “Yes--all of the seventeen who were good Men were seen as expendable by those who sent them. If they succeeded in their given purpose, well and good for those who remain in Angmar, for they see themselves as having weakened us. If not, then seventeen who might have objected to abuses at least are gone, and three worse than themselves are no longer personal threats.” He straightened. “I have a thought to reverse somewhat my rulings for those who would not break their swords.” He suddenly began to smile, a rather feral smile that surprised Sestor, although in looking at those who watched he saw that the small bearded one called Ruvemir was looking on his King with an expression of recognition. “I will think on it, Halladan, and discuss it with Hardorn and my brothers. Elladan and Elrohir will have welcome suggestions, I am certain.”
The King turned to Sestor. “You appear to have been the only archer chosen for this mission.”
“Yes, mighty Lord, I was.
“And you appear highly skilled.”
“Yes, mighty Lord, I am considered one of the best in my land.”
One who sat nearby said, “Did not Landrion of Umbar seek to employ one who could slay you with one well-placed arrow?”
The King nodded. “I make a better target for such here in the wilds than I do in the capitol or in the lands surrounding it, of course. And those who sent these against us recognized the potential here against Halladan and myself.” Again he thought for a time, finally looking back into the eyes of the archer with a calculating look. “It appears you are the only one who was truly expected to be effective, and all of you were seen as desirably expendable. I’ve a mind to give your war leaders something unexpected to think on. Yes, Berenion, Halladan, Faramir, Glorfindel--we will think this night on how to disconcert the war leaders of Angmar, and discuss it tomorrow evening after the conference. Gentlemen?”
There were similar looks of calculation and even a few more feral smiles as all gave mutual nods. The one taking notes on the interview capped his ink and lay blotting paper over his records. It appeared that for the time the questioning was over.