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46
Welcoming Feast

Welcoming Feast

Ma’osiri indicated he felt tired, and the King felt his forehead and the side of his neck, and agreed he should rest some before the feast began. He led them out and back toward their quarters.

As they walked he told them, “There are two tables set behind the high seats, one at which your people’s guards and attendants may sit, and one at which the guards of others will sit. All of your attendants will be welcome to attend, although we ask that only two guards be properly armed for service, and that you carry no weapons other than belt knives. Even I do not wear Anduril within the feast hall of Merethrond.”

“That even our servants are welcome is not common, my Lord An’Elessar.”

“Your children are also asked to attend this night, if you feel they can handle such an affair. Usually children do not attend formal feasts save when those in whose honor they are given have brought their children with them to the city. As your children are older, they will sit on the inner side of the table opposite you. And you two, Hasturnerini and Asa, will sit there also, along with Melian, Lord Rustovrid’s daughters, Lord Shefti’s daughter, and other young ones who will attend.”

As they entered the hallway to the entrance to the guest wing, Sa’Harpelamun said quietly, “I thank you, Lord An’Elessar, for sending the wine. I am not certain I will be desiring to attend the feast, however.”

The King nodded. “I am not surprised that you felt his death, Sa’Harpelamun. Twins often appear to share this bond. I am only glad that he allowed his heart to turn.”

“You know he is dead?”

The King looked down. “As I told you, it is part of my gift to be aware of those who have come under my authority or into my awareness. It is not always a comfortable gift. But, at the end, he was calling for me, for my attention to him in his final passion. He was begging direction.”

“Did you give it to him?”

The King shrugged. “I tried--in my mind I told him to turn and seek the Light and to follow it.”

“Did he?” The young priest had stopped, was looking up intently into the King’s face, his own pale.

The King smiled gently. “Yes, at the end he did. He was relieved, and his last thought appeared to be thanksgiving and love aimed at you.” His hand lay now gently on Sa’Harpelamun’s shoulder. “He is free now, my son; free of the grief and confusion and torment of mind he has known.” Then he was holding the younger Man to him as the priest began to weep.

The others paused, and then Captain Peregrin looked up at Ankhrabi and said quietly, “I think we should go on, my Lord.”

With the Haradri’s and the Queen’s nods of agreement they went on. Melian looked over her shoulder with compassion in her eyes. “Ada will help him feel better,” she said quietly.

They received the bows of those on duty and went into the corridor of the guest wing, and soon were in the receiving room. Ma’osiri sank onto one of the sofas, and the Lady Arwen knelt by him, set her hand to his temple and then the side of his neck. “I believe it is not so much the wound as simply being overwhelmed with new experiences after a night of not sleeping deeply,” she said. “I suggest an hour’s sleep with a cool compress over his eyes.” She looked into his eyes. “Do you wish to attend the feast?”

“Yes, my Lady,” he said hopefully.

“Are you willing to rest now that you be not be overwhelmed later?”

“Yes, my Lady,” he said.

“Are you glad you came?”

“Yes, my Lady.”

“I will have some juice of the orange fruit sent for you before you sleep, then.” She smiled into his eyes and rose.

Amon’osiri said, “I’ll watch after him.”

The King and the young priest entered together from the hallway, Sa’Harpelamun’s face calmer and more hopeful. “I will rest for a time, Lord An’Elessar,” he was saying. “Thank you for your comfort.”

The Queen smiled at her guests. “We will leave you, then, and send the juice for Ma’osiri. And if any of you should wish to enjoy the gardens, feel free to wander them at your will. The feast begins near sunset; Master Bayard will give you fair warning.” After the King had confirmed the suggestions made by the Queen, they withdrew.

Soon Ankhsarani returned from the Haradri Embassy, escorted by Lord Rustovrid’s assistant Amonpelrabi. They went out into the private garden and sat together on chairs and benches set there and spoke for a time of their impressions of Gondor, of the courtesy of King and Queen, of the attempted revolt and the results of it. Amonpelrabi described how the Lord Rustovrid had been invited at times to address the King’s Council, and of his estimation of Prince Faramir, Prince Imrahil, and of this one and that.

He spoke of their earliest days in the city of Minas Anor when the city was still full of great numbers of Elves from Eryn Lasgolen who’d come to help in the replanting of gardens and the cultivation of trees and beauty. “Some come and go freely still, but most have either returned to their own woodland realm or have removed to Ithilien to ease the hurts done there when it lay under the rule of the Enemy. Mostly it is Prince Legolas who is the King’s friend and his brother Prince Tharen who come and go now from the sylvan Elves, although when they come they often come with others who will go throughout the city checking on this garden or that. And now and then the Sons of Elrond come to visit with Elves from Imladris and those of Lothlorien who yet remain on the hither shore. These often serve as bodyguards to foreign dignitaries, including the Pheriannath on their visits.”

At last they went back into the Citadel to prepare for the feast, and told their attendants and Gebsohrabi that they, too, would be allowed to attend the meal. Nefiramonrani’s surprise at how swiftly she was aided to bathe, dress, and don her cosmetics gave way to amusement and even pleasure as she watched her maid hurry to do the same for herself, while Gebsohrabi checked the shine of his weapons and armor, and worked to set his headcloth at the perfect angle to look impressive to these outdwellers.

Nefirnerini and her own maid Maya chattered excitedly as they prepared for the feast, Maya telling of how Master Bayard had come to acquaint them with the usage of the boilers and water spouts and drains for the bathing chambers and how to open and fasten the windows of the rooms and to start a fire in the low fireplaces if it should prove necessary. Gebankhamun, who saw to the needs of the twins, quickly had their hair properly dressed and clipped, made certain their kilts were freshly pressed and the sashes properly fastened before he did so for himself. Ankhsarani checked the appearance of her five and approved them, while Sa’Harpelamun, having bathed during the interim at the King’s suggestion, donned a clean robe and belt sash, and prepared to attend after all.

As most of the servants were led in to take their places at the table set for themselves, the Haradri nobles stood in an antechamber attended by the Master of Protocol while those from Minas Anor and Gondor itself were seated, and were soon joined by others, including Benai, Lord Gilfileg, Peregrin and Isumbard Took, and those from the Rhunish Embassy and the envoys from Dunland and Umbar.

Those from the last two lands were led into the hall, then they heard the King and Queen of Rohan being introduced, and the Master of Protocol indicated the Hobbits should go next, followed by Lord Benai and the Northern Dúnedain. At that moment Lord Rustovrid and his family arrived with Lord Ghants’pa’amon and his wife and those who would attend on them at the feast, smiling encouragingly at his prince. Again a servant came to lead their servants and attendants to the places set for them at the table behind where they would sit.

Rustovrid smiled at his peer from Rhun, then turned to his Lord’s son. “Has there as yet been time to introduce you, my Lord Prince? Ankhrabi of Harad, son and heir to the Farozi An’Sohrabi, may I present Lord Ifram, ambassador from Rhun and brother to the Shkatha Moritum, and his half-brother and scribe Lord Shefti, his wife Liana, and their daughter Angara. Their guard is Captain Ben’harin. Lord Ankhrabi, his wife the Lady Nefiramonrani, their daughter Nefirnerini, their sons Ma’osiri and Amon’osiri, Lady Ankhsarani who is sister to Lady Nefiramonrani, Lord Ghants’pa’amon and his Lady Angarnerini, and their guards, Gebsohrabi and Belscarabri; and Sa’Harpelamun, a priest of Amon from the Valley of the Sun.” Greetings were shared briefly, and then Lord Ifram’s party was being ushered to their seats with the announcement of their names and titles for those who were already at their places, followed by Rustovrid and his wife and lieutenant, Sa’Harpelamun, Lady Ankhsarani, then Lord Ghants’pa’amun and his wife and guard, and finally Ankhrabi and his family.

The children were being taken a slightly different way, which made the Prince feel anxious for a moment until he appreciated how the table was set in a long oval shape, open at the near end; and the children were being led to seats opposite the ones to which they were being brought, to the left of the high-backed seats obviously intended for the King and Queen of Gondor. The King of Rohan, he realized, was to be seated to the right of the two chairs, with his wife beyond him. As they walked up the hall behind those who seated them they received bows and curtseys from all. No one was actually seated yet, and he realized how this custom had led those who had visited Harad to remain standing until his father had taken his place.

At last the Herald called out, “The Lord King Elessar; the Lady Queen Arwen Undomiel; the Lady Princess Melian.” Followed by their one guard of honor, they paced up the room to stand by their high seats at the end of the table, their daughter immediately opposite them on the inside of the curve, young Elfwine beyond her.

The King wore the robe embroidered with the eagle crowned with stars and a green sash fastened on his right shoulder with the Elessar brooch, the Star of Elendil on his brow. His wife wore a dress of dark silver embroidered with a star, the fillet she’d worn in Harad about her forehead. The Lord and Lady of Rohan wore their own circlets, as did the Prince and Princess of Ithilien a few seats to the left of Nefiramonrani as well as the Prince and Princess of Dol Amroth who sat beyond the Queen of Rohan.

Once all had completed their bows, King and Queen bowed in return, then stood tall. The King looked down the lengths of the table to each side, and smiled. “We greet you all this night to this meal, given in honor of our guests, the Prince Ankhrabi, son of An’Sohrabi, Farozi of Harad, his wife the Lady Nefiramonrani, their children and other lords and ladies from Harad. These are the ones who greeted and hosted us while we sojourned in Harad during the celebrations of the Farozi’s birthday, and who have accompanied us back to Gondor again to see some of the Northern lands. We also greet this night Lord Benai of the Southern Dúnedain of the land of Camaloa of the Southern Continent. His tale is one of great wonder. And we welcome Lord Gilfileg, my kinsman from Arnor.

“We rejoice to have returned, and to know the companionship of those who are with us this day. And we rejoice to be with all of you this night.” With a gesture he turned to the West to lead the Standing Silence.

Master Ruvemir and his wife sat near Lord Gilfileg and the Rhunish envoys, appearing to feel comfortable with all of them. Pippin and Isumbard sat near Prince Elphir of Dol Amroth and his wife and were obviously joking with them. They and Master Ruvemir sat upon the specially designed high chairs which allowed them to sit high enough to speak more easily with those by them.

Lord Rustovrid and Lady Ghansaret were quietly pointing out this participant and that one, indicating which held trade agreements with Harad, which considered themselves indispensable to the peace and prosperity of the realm, which considered themselves powers behind the throne, who were folk to be approached and with whom relationships cultivated, who were to be treated civilly and ignored as much as possible.

The food was superb, the talk interesting. He sat by the King, who now and then added to the comments made by Rustovrid, and who also was prevailed upon to describe what Captain Peregrin had been like when he was younger. Watching the way that An’Elessar and the Lady Arwen kept an eye on the tables and would send a servant to offer particular delicacies to this one or that, to offer wine to this guild master or juice to that lord or sweetmeats to a particular lady, Ankhrabi realized that they had gained a knowledge of their guests which they used judiciously to keep folk relaxed and possible arguments at a minimum. And the tales of traveling with Hobbits were both hilarious and touching. The boys were interested in the stories the King had to tell, were impressed with the hall and the meal, and excellently behaved, both Ankhrabi and their mother were pleased to note. The twins sat across from them; Nefirnerini further down near Hasturnerini, Asa, and the daughters of Lord Rustovrid.

Immediately opposite Lady Nefiramonrani sat a quiet Man beside the two Elves and Lord Gimli. His face was intelligent and sensitive, but also watchful. He listened to the King’s stories and laughed, but with more reticence than most others in the hall displayed. He finally did ask about the visit to Harad, and listened attentively to the answers, his eyes indicating he was processing the descriptions he was given, now and then humming measures of music in the moments of silence, his mouth soundlessly trying words and turns of phrase. His fingers now and then moved as if--what? And then Ankhrabi realized--this was a minstrel, a bard, and was thinking how to put the reports of the trip to Harad into a lay; and the unconscious movements of his fingers were indications of where he imagined his fingers would pluck or strum the strings of his instrument.

Musicians were now playing music, but this one wasn’t hearing it--was hearing the music forming in his head and heart instead. Now and then he’d stop and ask another question, probing a moment in more depth, asking for the description of the procession from temple to temple, asking for the list of temples visited, the gods and goddesses honored, how they related to the identities of the Valar as known among the folk of the West....

He listened to the description of the duck hunt with interest. “Why were you wary, my Lord Elessar?” he asked. When he heard how Lord Sherfiramun had questioned Captain Peregrin’s honor his face became taut with anger. “With all he has done, our Captain has been questioned so? Obviously that one never stood by the beds of the Pheriannath as they recovered from their wounds.”

The King gave a rueful laugh. “Had he been there, he would have been among the Enemy’s folk rather than ours. We did not allow them to mix, if you will remember.”

“Yet you went among their wounded as well as our own, and offered them your healing skills--you and the Lady’s brothers.”

“Yes, we did. When the battle is over, it remains over more easily if all are equally offered what easing they need.”

“So you said then, my Lord. I know many would have been better pleased had the survivors from among the Easterners and those from Harad been summarily executed rather than aided and sent home once more.”

“That is not my way.”

“So you also said then.”

“And so I mean.”

After a moment the minstrel bowed his head in contrition. “I apologize, our King. I did not intend to impugn your honor.”

“No, you have not impugned my honor, Faralion. I know that. But many of the land of Gondor have known only hatred and fear for generations beyond count, and must learn to let go of it that we may know peace now.”

“You do not know similar sentiments in the Northlands?”

“It is easier for those of Arnor to forgive those of Harad and Rhun, just as it is far easier for those of Gondor to forgive those of the Dunlands and Angmar, I suppose. It’s always easier to forgive those who have not been enemies for generations beyond count.”

The minstrel shrugged. Just then King Éomer turned and leaned slightly across in front of Queen Arwen. “Aragorn, my brother....”

With the King’s attention distracted, Faralion watched him with a look of mixed longing and wariness in his eyes. Quietly Ankhrabi asked, “What is it that disturbs you, Master Faralion?”

Not taking his eyes off King Elessar’s profile, the Man shrugged again. “He is so different than what I’d ever envisioned as King of Gondor. Perhaps it is because he is older than I’d imagined and than he appears, or perhaps it is because he was raised throughout almost all of his minority among the great Elves. Or perhaps it is because for so much of his life he has been able to live mostly unaccompanied and so has traveled alone into so many lands and waste places, and has mixed freely with so many peoples and races.”

He looked back at the Haradri Prince. “His mind is not caught into easily predictable patterns, and he defies the restraints set by expectations and ancient traditions. He cares little enough for the rights of his office, focusing instead on its responsibilities. He keeps astonishing me.”

“What did you expect the one to be like who would in the end claim the Kingship?”

“Royal wrath and royal pride, I suppose. More similar to the Lord Denethor, perhaps.”

Legolas, who sat two seats down beyond him, raised an elegant eyebrow. “Would you wish him to be more like Lord Denethor?”

“Oh, no, of course not. We can do without the strictness of attitude, the intolerance for questions of his authority or commands, the concern always for his image and dignity as Lord of the realm. Our Lord Elessar is an excellent King.”

The Elf asked, “Then if he is such an excellent King, does it matter that he keeps astonishing you?”

“I suppose not.”

Ankhrabi asked, “Do you not find him dignified?”

“He is most dignified, but it is simply a different form of dignity which he shows, and not that which the nation necessarily expects. He has fought fires, has been seen sweeping floors, treats servants with as much consideration and courtesy as he does great lords--sometimes more so, weeds his own herb garden and teaches his daughter to do the same, sings comical songs to children, visits the homes of his servants when they are ill, has been known to cleanse the bodies of the ill in the Houses of Healing instead of allowing lesser ones do so, has himself answered letters addressed to him by children, often cooks meals for guests with his own hands and teaches his cooks how to cook dishes from other climes, smokes upon a pipe, will sit by the newest recruits when he rides on review among his troops and comforts them when they feel overwhelmed. He answers to almost all names ever given him, including ‘Lord Strider.’ And he has added Elves, Dwarves, and the Pheriannath to his Council to the consternation of the Lords of the realm. And the Queen is much the same. He has been admitted to the Guild of Healers while she has been admitted to the Guild of Tailors and Seamstresses as a Master Embroiderer; and the Guild of Bards and Minstrels would admit both if they could.”

“What must they do to be admitted to that guild?”

“Admit that one of the songs they sing or epic poems they recite is their own work. The Lord Frodo told me that in Imladris our Lord Elessar often collaborated with his own cousin Bilbo in the writing of poems and songs, and Lord Elrohir has told me that as a younger Man he wrote poetry that was moving and beautifully imaged.”

“You came to know the Lord Frodo Baggins?”

“Yes, as he recovered from his ordeal in Mordor while we remained in Ithilien. I saw him, the Lord Samwise, and Captain Peregrin while they were yet in healing sleep and as Captain Peregrin lay still too wounded to rise from his cot; and I spoke to Sir Meriadoc as he sat by them during their long recovery.” He shook his head. “I try to imagine what it was like to come out of the obscurity of their own small land and travel at the side of the mysterious Ranger Strider, to find themselves fighting upon battlefields and creeping into and through Mordor to the defeat of the Enemy, almost losing themselves along the way. Each of the four came so very close to dying; and our Lord Elessar would have given himself for the benefit of all, leaving our Lord Faramir to continue the rule of Gondor had Lord Frodo not managed to bring the Ring to the Fire in time to spare the greater part of the Army of the West.”

Ankhrabi looked to his right, where the Kings and Queens of Gondor and Rohan shared laughter amongst themselves. His own father had worked wonders in Harad, but would never have thought to be seen weeding gardens, much less entering the quarters of his slaves and servants when they were ill. Nor had he ever been a fighting Man, leaving the command of armies to others better suited. Yet he had been inspired by the Lord King Elessar so many years ago; and Sa’Amonri and the high priest of Amon and high priestess of Neryet in the Valley of the Sun honored him greatly. As for the honor which Ankhrabi himself held for the Man.... He smiled to see the humor reflected in the eyes of the King of Gondor and Arnor.

The meal was pleasant, the talk stimulating, the music so very different from that of his own land and yet pleasing.

When the meal was over all rose and moved to the other end of the room. Now music for dancing and singing was played, and conversations continued on the margins of the other activities. Ankhrabi was now personally introduced to many with whom Harad now did business.

The Lady Avrieth entered in with small Eldarion, who was taken out of the hall into an anteroom by his mother for a time for nursing, then was brought again into the greater chamber and was laid in the arms of his father. The King held the infant tenderly, a white cloth on his shoulder as he burped the child absently while continuing a discussion with Lords of Gondor and Arnor and Lord Benai and the oldest daughter of Lord Rustovrid of the implications of the discovery of the Dúnedain of Camaloa.

The younger children had sat near the end of the dining tables around Master Ruvemir, all carrying on what appeared a lively discussion along with Lord Ifram of Rhun. Young Angara, daughter of Lord Ifram’s brother, sat by Amon’osiri, laughing with the rest, then stood and it could be seen her arms were disproportionally short. Yet all treated her with equal respect to that accorded the other children.

Then his own sons rose also as the group dispersed, and came to find him. Both boys were so very handsome, the scar on Ma’osiri’s throat now fading into memory. He wore the brooch given him by An’Elessar on the left hip of his belt sash, and it caught the light as he approached. Lord Gilfileg’s attention was drawn to it as the boys came nearer, his interest in the discussion in which he was taking part arrested. Others of the Northern Dúnedain also paused, their awareness focused on the star worn by the son of Ankhrabi of Harad, the grandson of the Farozi. Several looked in question from the brooch worn by the child to the King.

The dance then being performed came to a close just then, and in the ensuing silence many found themselves aware of the small drama unfolding between King and his Northern kinsmen. Lord Gilfileg looked into the eyes of his King and asked, “Will you explain, my Lord Cousin, how it is this child wears a Star of the Dúnedain of Arnor? If my eyes do not deceive me, I recognize it as one once worn by your father and yourself.”

Ma’osiri looked up at him. “He gave it to me, told me it would help to guide my way.”

The King smiled down at the boy, beckoned to him, then turned him about to face the Northerners. “What would you know, Gilfileg? Long and long ago when I visited the Valley of the Sun in Harad I was told that the Lady Elbereth, whom they know as the Lady Neryet, asked I sacrifice the Star I bore by throwing it into the lily pool in the court of her temple. Had I carried it still in my belt pouch when I came to the docks of Risenmouthe to await the return of the trading ship on which I’d come to Harad, I would have been arrested and given to the agents of Sauron. As it was they searched me most closely in search of star tokens which would prove me an agent of Gondor or Arnor.

“On this visit, I was asked to reach into that pool to find something held there intended for Lord Benai, and I found the sword he now bears. A few days later he was asked to do the same to retrieve something intended for me. He placed the brooch into my hand, and it was shown me that this one would benefit from it. Do you question my foresight?”

Smiles could be seen on the faces of the King’s kin. Lord Gilfileg bowed deeply. “Considering how your foresight set in motion changes for the better in Rhun through your agency and mine, do you think I truly question it, Aragorn?” He straightened and looked down into the boy’s face. “Know this, small Lord--this star you now bear has been in the keeping of the line of Kings of the Northern realm for generations. Now it has come into your keeping. Never has it been dishonored by those who have borne it ere it came to you. See to it that it remains unstained.”

The boy looked at him, standing very straight. “I will do so, my Lord,”

All of those of Arnor bowed toward Ma’osiri, and the boy gave a most proper inclination of his head in return. Ankhrabi saw the pride in Nefiramonrani’s face. Sa’Harpelamun stood by the minstrel Faralion, and his face also was alight with pride for his prince.

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