Ankhrabi walked slowly and stiffly into the palace alongside his father, his father’s arm protectively about his shoulder. Amonrabi had taken the crown, flail, and crook to place back in the case where they were kept, and the Farozi seemed more--real--somehow without them. His face was rather drawn under the cosmetics he was expected to wear, and Ankhrabi realized his father was indeed aging. It was a rather frightening thought, particularly when he realized how close he had come to dying the preceding day.
He watched the back of the tall figure of the King of Gondor and Arnor thoughtfully, realizing that one was actually older than his father, for all he looked and functioned as one far younger, and expected to live far longer. He felt his scalp prickle again at the thought of experiencing life in that manner, knowing he would outlive almost all save his closest kinsmen and his wife, who was, in an odd manner, also a kinsman. He suddenly shivered, and his father looked at him with concern.
“It’s nothing, Baba--just a thought.”
“I’m glad I did not allow the boys or their sister to attend after all.”
“Did you realize to what this day would come?”
“Not for certain, although I will admit I had considered it possible this might happen.”
Again Ankhrabi looked after the King. “He does not enjoy killing.”
“No. But what needs to be done he will do.”
The younger Man nodded.
They gave the party from the North an hour to settle somewhat, and then the Farozi did something he had never done before--he set off to visit his guests in their own quarters, inviting his son to go with him.
The King of Rohan was there in the sitting room for the guest wing, changed to silk trousers and a loose green tunic, drinking from a goblet, his handsome young face thoughtful, a crease between his eyebrows. He looked up at their entrance, was obviously startled they’d arrived unannounced in this manner, rose and bowed. “I welcome you, Lord Farozi,” he said respectfully. “Lord Prince.” His wife entered leaning over to lead in their small son who walked with unsteady steps, obviously only recently awakened from a nap, and she and the small boy stopped at the sight of their guests, uncertain as to proper protocol. She prompted her son to give a bow, which was quite unsteady, and she herself gave a curtsey in keeping with her Gondorian upbringing. Both of the Haradrim were touched, finding it lovely and very flattering. Both bowed in return.
“Please, sit and be comfortable,” the Farozi directed. “At the moment we are the guests here in what are your quarters.” The Lady Lothiriel translated for her husband’s benefit, and with an indication the Haradrim should take their own advice, An’Éomer resumed his seat, taking up his goblet again, examining it carefully. The Farozi continued, “An’Elessar is not here?”
“He has gone again to bathe,” the younger monarch explained via his wife. “It is never an easy thing to kill a Man in cold blood, and it is not an act that he enjoys--not at all. The Lady Undomiel is with him, and has undoubtedly set athelas leaves to steep in the water for him for the easing of his heart.”
His wife added after translating that, “I am almost surprised his cousin Lord Hardorn did not seek to relieve him of the duty as I understand he has done before.” Her husband looked at her with one eyebrow lifted in question and she spoke to him in Westron as she settled herself in a nearby seat with their son in her lap.
“This was one case,” said a voice from the entrance behind them, “that I would not think of seeking to relieve him of the responsibility. Not when the works of the Nameless One are involved, and in such a public situation.” They all turned to see the named Lord standing there, his own face tired looking. The Lady Lothiriel again translated almost absently, her own attention fixed on the warrior from the Northern Dúnedain.
“You are indeed kinsmen?” asked An’Sohrabi in slow, careful Westron.
“My father was elder brother to his mother.”
“You have executed others for him before?”
“Yes, when he will allow me to do so. He does not like to share the responsibility for such deaths, particularly as he must feel the loosing of the spirit as the condemned one dies.”
“It is one reason I am glad I do not have Elven blood in me,” said An’Éomer. “To feel the deaths of others would be most uncomfortable.” He looked at his son critically. “And I certainly hope that this one doesn’t bear enough to experience that.”
“Your son has Elven blood?” asked Ankhrabi.
The Lady Lothiriel gave a small smile as she translated, then answered, “Long ago the folk of the Elf Lord Amroth of Lorien passed through our lands in Southern Gondor where I was born, and my family bears Elven blood as a result. It is not as strong as the High Elven blood borne by our Lord Aragorn Elessar, but it is there. However, I do not know of the King’s Gift ever being expressed as strongly in my family as it is in the King.”
“Not even the Lord Arathorn had it as strongly as it is in his son, according to what our father and the Lady Gilraen told us,” said Lord Hardorn. “But then Aragorn spent almost all of his childhood in Imladris among the folk of Lord Elrond, and they definitely helped to strengthen the Gift in him.”
“I do not understand this ‘King’s Gift’,” commented the Farozi.
Lord Hardorn explained, “It is a heightened awareness of his lands and peoples, as well as those he must deal with. Many among our kindred bear it to one extent or another, for we are of the lineage of Elendil and Isildur. In my cousin it is very strong. To understand better you must ask him or the Queen’s brothers, for they can wax poetic about it. It can be a good thing to have in a ruler, for he tends to be more responsible in his actions and rulings as he realizes how they will effect his folk. However, for the bearer it can also be at times a burden, particularly when he must order an execution, or there is a famine or pestilence in the land that he can do nothing to relieve.”
“I can imagine.” The Farozi thought for some minutes. “Where are the rest of your folk?”
An’Éomer smiled. “Lord Benai has attended his lord and lady to the baths where they are further scandalizing your servants, who cannot understand how husband and wife might enjoy the sight of one another’s bodies in such a place; my sister and her husband, after seeing to my nephew and then giving him decidedly into the hands of Lady Avrieth, have gone into their chamber and closed the door after them; my cousin and Haleth are gone into the city to look for gifts for their womenfolk; Lord Hildigor attends on the Lady Melian and young Mistress Hasturnerini as they continue to visit with your daughter and sons and the daughters of Lord Rustovrid and Lady Ghansaret in your daughter’s chambers; Legolas and Gimli have gone out into the gardens with the Hobbits and Master Ruvemir and Owain; Captains Damrod and Mablung are sleeping the sleep of the just; Captain Beregond stands watch down the corridor as you must have seen as you passed him; and Lord Berevrion is with his wife and my nephew and Prince Eldarion.”
“I see.” An’Sohrabi was amused. “And what do the Hobbits and the sculptors do in the gardens?”
“Master Ruvemir and Owain are undoubtedly working on their figures while the Hobbits and Gimli enjoy their pipes and all tell stories on one another. Master Ruvemir is quite a collector of stories.”
“They are sculptors after all, my Lord. Sa’Amonri gave them each samples of local alabaster, and so they each must shape it. It appears to be almost a physical need with them. They went out at the same time as did my friend Aragorn----”
“He has already been out?”
The young King looked surprised at the interruption. “Already been out? Yes, almost as soon as we had reentered the palace. He said he needed to see its destruction immediately, or it would disturb his thoughts. And he was grateful, he said, for what you had left for him here, great Lord.”
Ankhrabi looked at his father with question. “What did you have left for him, Babari?”
“A large basket with the items he stated he needed when he destroyed the ring Maruset wore so long ago. He was remarkably swift to see it destroyed.”
“When he destroyed the one worn by Abdurin of Rhun it was much the same,” An’Éomer sighed. “He picked it up and carried it away immediately----”
“Picked it up?”
Lord Hardorn nodded. “He did not touch it--he tells me he cannot bear to do so physically. I gave him an arrow, and he picked it up with that. I made him swear to burn the arrow along with whatever it is that he must do to see the rings destroyed and the spells binding them broken.” He sighed. “Most of the spells wrought by that one fell to nought when his own Ring went into the fire in Mount Doom; but those of these lesser rings appear to be more tied to those who might wear them. I wonder how many he created in all?”
They all went quiet in the thinking on that. The King of Rohan refilled the goblet he had been drinking from, took more goblets from the tray on the table and poured out for all of them, saw the goblets distributed. It was from the wine An’Sohrabi had ordered sent at the same time as he’d ordered the basket brought here, and he looked at the ewer thoughtfully as he sipped. He had an odd thought and looked to his guests. “Considering the talk earlier today of the usages of poisons by Sherfiramun and Merdirion, I am surprised you would drink from a pitcher you found here on your return.”
An’Éomer shrugged once he understood. “Both the King and Legolas checked it and said that it was pure.” He smiled wryly. “We do display some caution in foreign lands, you will note, and it is useful at times to have those of Elven blood along.”
Lord Hardorn drank about half of what he’d been given, then set it down with a sigh. “I find I am beginning to feel my age. I can no longer remain awake several days in a row as I once did. I wish so Gilmorien were here with me.” He stretched, then bowed to his host. “I find I need to join Mablung and Damrod in sleeping the sleep of the just. If you will excuse me....” He smiled and withdrew from the room.
Not long after he disappeared An’Elessar and his wife entered, their arms about each other. The King wore a loose white robe, and his face looked somewhat drained still. On seeing the Farozi and his heir before them, Lord and Lady paused and bowed deeply, then sat together on a couch nearby facing the door. “My lords,” the King said quietly. He accepted the wine offered him by An’Éomer and sipped at it, and when the child in Lothiriel’s lap held out his hands to him, set down the goblet and reached across to take him from his mother into his own lap, looking down on him and murmuring in Rohirric to him, a smile lighting his features.
Lady Avrieth entered behind them, the Queen’s son in her arms and Hasturnerini behind her with young Elboron on her hip. The girl was arrayed as a young woman of substance, the Haradrim lords noted, and they automatically smiled at her as she dipped into a Gondorian curtsey. The young Princess Melian followed behind the Haradri girl, a smile at her parents on her face as she gave proper reverence to the Farozi and his son. She quickly skipped to her father’s side and slipped her arm about him while her mother reached out to take young Eldarion into her arms.
“It is good to see the love here between parents and children,” An’Sohrabi said.
The King lifted his steady gaze to his host’s face, then nodded gently. “I find I enjoy so being a father, and love to hold children in my arms.”
“You looked so much like Frodo just then, looking down into Elfwine’s eyes,” commented Peregrin Took from the doorway where he stood with his cousin and the two sculptors. “He used to have just that expression when he’d hold Elanor.”
The smile that the King gave lightened his features even more. “I take that as a great compliment, Pippin.”
“He’d have made such a wonderful father,” Isumbard said with regret as all entering bowed deeply to those within the room. “I take it you finished with--that thing fairly quickly.”
The King’s expression became tired. “Yes, as quickly as I could.”
Pippin shuddered. “I don’t know how you could bear to carry it even in the two pouches. It was like touching a rotten apple full of worms.”
Once Lothiriel had translated, the Farozi considered. “When I touched Maruset’s I felt much the same, although I almost could not let it go.”
The Hobbit shuddered again. “I couldn’t wait to drop the thing. I wonder if Frodo and Bilbo felt the same about It?”
The King sighed. “I don’t know. Adar would barely look at the thing, and Gandalf told me he only touched It twice and forced himself each time to drop It as quickly as possible. It was bad enough feeling It calling to me--knowing how quickly It took Isildur I was terrified at the thought of actually touching It.
“And when I think of what It did to Frodo....” He shook his head, the pain evident.
Isumbard nodded as he reached to accept the goblet handed him by the Lady Lothiriel. “Thank you, my lady. When we worked together in the Mayor’s office you could see hints of him as he’d been, the quick humor and sensitivity, how quickly he’d go through one of Lotho’s contracts and start spotting the problems with it. He’d catch things that those of us who’d actually studied the law of the Shire wouldn’t notice. Then someone would say something and his face would close up, and he’d reach for the jewel he wore or for Sam’s tea--usually both.” He sipped thoughtfully at the wine. “But he could still smile--that smile that would just open your heart right up and fill it with starlight.”
“I rather miss him giving the Look,” Pippin said. “Even as we were going through Hollin he’d give it to us when Merry and I’d said or done something outrageous.”
“Like the time you put pinecones under my bedroll while I was on watch?” asked the King. “Which reminds me, Peregrin Took--I have a quilt to discuss with you.”
The Hobbit threw back his head and laughed. “I have been wondering when that would be brought up. Did you like it? When we get back may I see it and see how it turned out? And I’d love to see the faces of your Men when you cover yourself up with it!”
“They don’t dare laugh out loud, you know, not when the King is using it.” He turned to the Farozi. “This one, Took that he is, is much given to practical jokes, from filling bathing tubs with strawberries and cherries to having my blanket from my bedroll replaced with a quilt containing very prominent patches of pink. Of course, the pink is from one of the dresses small Elanor had outgrown, and the silver from one of Frodo’s shirts, and some of the dark blue ones from a gown my beloved used to wear.” He looked up as Dwarf and Elf entered, and smiled at them. “All within the Fellowship were represented, as well as their wives and the children already born, our Adar and brothers, and even my parents and Hardorn and his brothers....” He gave a gentle laugh. “At least his jokes now are intended to express love as well as to lighten care.” He looked down on his smallest guard, the Farozi realized, with a great deal of love, a love which was returned in kind.
“You didn’t notice the contributions from Rohan?” demanded Éomer with mock severity.
“Your cloak as Third Marshall of the Mark, your uncle’s shirt he wore under his armor, your sister’s shirt she’d worn under her mail--oh, I noticed. And those from a certain Elf and Dwarf I know as well as from Faramir’s tunic and Ruvemir’s wedding shirt. I still regret that was damaged so.”
“At least I know it lightens your heart when you must be away from your wife and children,” the sculptor smiled. Legolas laughed, and Gimli gave a snort.
“Let me see what you’ve done,” the King directed. Dwarfling and apprentice offered the figures they’d been working on. “Gwynhumara,” he said, smiling at the figure of the dog. “Eregiel will be most flattered. Excellent depiction.” He returned it, and the King accepted that offered by the boy’s master. His face softened markedly. “Yes,” he said gently. “You have caught his expression so well.” He held it out to the Farozi.
It was the figure of a Hobbit, with cap of curls, the bare feet, the slightly pointed ears. But the face was quite fine and cultured, the lips just parting in a smile, the eyes bright with intelligence even in the colorless stone. The face had been worked most, and much of the rest of it needed finishing, but there was no question that the small Man who stood before the King, a look of satisfaction on his face at seeing how his work had moved his Lord, was very gifted. It was decidedly odd to see a statue that looked so strongly like a real individual, as accustomed as the Haradri lord was to the stylized monuments of his own folk.
He looked at the small sculptor. “The Lord Frodo?” he guessed.
He handed it to his son, who looked on it in wonder and respect, who in turn handed it to the small daughter of King and Queen. Melian looked at it with a smile to match that of her father. “Ada has a figure of him in our rooms, sitting with his pipe. It’s my ada’s brother,”
Isumbard gave the child a thoughtful look, while Ruvemir smiled at the girl. “Yes, I carved that one for him, a few years ago, when I first went to the Shire.”
Pippin asked his King, “Your brother?” The King simply smiled in an enigmatic manner and returned Elfwine to his father.
Ankhrabi looked at the Lord An’Elessar with understanding. “You have come to love this one very much.”
“Yes, indeed as if he were my brother.” He reached out and slipped an arm about his daughter’s shoulder, drew her close to him.
“You miss him?”
Slowly the King nodded. “My heart will not be fully restored until I can come to him again, until I enter into the Presence with him on one side, Arwen and Sam on the other, and two other Hobbits I know--” with a sudden twinkling glance at Captain Peregrin, “--at a respectful distance behind us.”
“Behind you?” The Hobbit guard looked shocked at the idea. “Oh, you can be certain, Aragorn, Merry and I will be there long ahead of you or Lady Arwen. Frankly, I’m just as glad to be a mere Hobbit and no Dúnedan, myself. And I’ll greet you with more than a quilt this time!”
The King laughed as the Queen translated this into Haradri. “I’m certain you will, you woolly-pated rascal, you--you and Diamond and all your progeny about you. And I’ll rejoice.”
He stood and stretched, and as he did a series of pops could be heard, apparently surprising even himself. He looked to Farozi and son. “I regret to say this, but my age is again making itself known. Once I’d travel a trail for days on end; but after yesterday, last night, and this day so far I only wish to rest for a time. I will dine with your court this night if you wish, but what I’d truly prefer would be to take a light meal and retire.”
An’Sohrabi nodded his understanding and also rose. “Yes, An’Horubi’ninarin, I can certainly understand. It was a full day today, and will be such a day again on the morrow as well.”
“You did not deal with the nobles that were arrested last night.”
“No--that is not politic to do before the general populace of the land. But until we find out precisely who else might have been involved in the conspiracy elsewhere, I am unwilling to do more. I have those taken last night secure in the lords’ cells in the prison. It is actually quite comfortable there, and they want for nothing save their freedom. And Ankhsarani is here within the walls of the palace where we may keep an eye on her dealings and keep her safe as well.”
“It might be better not to have us as foreigners present during the trials of the nobles.”
“I agree. However, I would wish you to be beside me when we examine Ankhsarani, for I believe your presence and that of your Queen will soothe her and aid me to discern the truth. I do not believe she was party to what Sherfiramun did, but there are those who will wish to see her punished for his actions. And she may know something she does not realize is important that may be useful to know. However, tonight I will let her rest in her sister’s presence, and will question her almost privately tomorrow.” The Farozi inclined his head. “Rest well, and we will see to it food is brought to you here. We will be pleased if you will join us for the dawn meal.”
The Northerners all rose and gave their respectful bows, and watched Farozi and heir return down the passage back toward the main body of the palace, returning the salutes of Benai and Beregond as they passed where they stood on watch.