Aragorn watched the exit of the two Hobbits with concerned eyes, then sighed as he turned back to the ones still in the chamber. “How much longer ere the feast begins?”
Lord Galador answered, “It is to begin a half a mark after sunset, my Lord.”
Aragorn nodded. “About two and a half more hours, then. It makes a long day for the two of them. Ah, well, at least it gives time for the Umbarians to be met and conducted up through the city and introduced--late--to the feast.”
The door to the back of the room opened, and Gandalf entered. Aragorn looked at him with some relief. “You are in time, Gandalf--we have a new complication to deal with.” The approach of the ship from Umbar was explained as well as the decision to include the leaders of the embassy in the feast as well as the proposed seating arrangements.
“An excellent plan. I don’t believe you will need to prepare for more than five at the feast--they wouldn’t send less, and more than that and the lords of Umbar are likely to completely distrust them all. How are they to be met?”
Elphir looked to the rest. “I could go to the Gates and meet them there. As my lord father’s heir I have rank enough to be less than outright insulting, yet I am not of sufficient importance at the moment in the eyes of the world to give them outright honor.”
In moments he was on his way down to the gates, accompanied by a mixed troop of Aragorn’s kinsmen and Guards of the Citadel and members of the Swan Knights to serve as honor guard as well as outright guard to them.
Aragorn had divested himself of the armor and mail after he saw Frodo resting earlier, and wore the crimson shirt and dark trousers he’d worn under all. He was plainly tired, and now his foster brothers were looking at him critically. Elladan gave a glance at his twin, then both fixed on the newly made King. “You need at least an hour’s rest yourself, Estel.”
“There is much left to be done----”
Elrohir was shaking his head. “It would be of no use to anyone if you press on now and then fall asleep with your face in your plate as you did once before at a feast.”
Aragorn flushed. “I was but seven years old at the time.”
“Yes, we know. And Lord Halbaleg was most embarrassed for you. It was your birthday feast, after all.”
Elladan continued, “For now, be grateful that you have two Stewards of the combined realm here as well Prince Imrahil, who is well experienced in meeting the needs of Gondor when his brother-in-law admitted he needed some relief of his office. You need an hour’s rest, and afterwards will need to dress for your Coronation Feast.”
“And what shall I wear then?”
Elladan smiled. “I brought more than the two surcoats for the Periannath in the bag sent from the vale, Estel. I gave a formal robe into Master Iorvas’s hands earlier, and he has seen to it that it is properly steamed and brushed. You will not bring shame upon our adar’s house.”
Elrohir gave a half smile. “If you do not comply, I suppose I could explain the situation to Frodo or Samwise, who would be most happy, I think, to return the favors you have imposed upon them over the last few weeks.”
Gandalf laughed outright. “Face it, Aragorn--you are now outmaneuvered. It would be best to give in, I suspect.”
For the moment Aragorn chose to ignore them. “Where are Gimli and Legolas, then?”
“Still placing their things in the house in the Sixth Circle. They won’t rescue you now.”
Aragorn gave a sigh, then shrugged. “If you will insist, my lord brothers.”
“We do,” Elladan said gravely. “You’ve accomplished a good deal already, but cannot expect to set all things straight again in the first hours. Now, go with you and rest.”
Imrahil smiled. “There is nought else that needs to be done this day of all days, my Lord King; and it gives yet another viable excuse to offer those from Umbar as to why they cannot see you ere the feast.”
The King laughed. “Yes, I suppose it does, while underlining the fact they are not perhaps the most welcome of guests, that the King prefers to rest rather than to treat with them? So be it, then. My Lord Stewards, my Lord Prince, I will then leave the realm in your most capable hands. If you will pardon me, Éomer, my lady Éowyn.” He straightened, gave a particularly graceful bow, and withdrew, the guard at the door following behind as he headed behind the throne for the hallways to his own quarters.
Prince Imrahil watched after with interest. “I still cannot put myself in mind of whom the King reminds me. But he is a most canny soul, I must say.”
The Wizard nodded. “That he is, but it is to be expected, I must suppose, of one who grew up in the household of Elrond of Imladris.” He smiled. “To see him at last come to his full estate is heartening. It will be good to give over my labors into his hands at the last, now that my purpose is finally fulfilled.”
“Then you will not linger long in Gondor?”
The Wizard gazed at him gravely. “Long enough to see the final promises fulfilled, but not longer, I fear. I would not follow the example of others; and the longer I linger, the stronger the desire to order things in accordance with my own understanding grows. It will come to no good if I have fulfilled my commission in bringing all to stand against the tyranny of Sauron and the proposed tyranny of Saruman if I but seek to take their places in the end.”
Erchirion examined the Wizard closely. “But you are nothing like either Sauron or Saruman.”
“Am I not? No, I suppose not, if I give over the desire to do more than I was given to do.” He looked at where Éomer stood, almost pointedly, between his sister and the Steward of Gondor. “Ah, my Lord King, I would ask if your question as to why your sister chose not to come to you in Ithilien has been answered?” He examined the young King’s face, and smiled. “Apparently it has, but you are yet uncertain how to respond?”
Éomer shrugged. “There is much to think on. I am not certain yet what to think of this new state of affairs, particularly so hard on the heels of a former attraction.”
Éowyn looked at her brother slightly slantwise. “Well, obviously Merry remained discrete, which is a pleasant surprise.”
“Merry was involved in this, too? He has much to answer for....”
“Don’t you dare, Éomer. He saw that when I was with Faramir my mood lightened, and at first, as deep into the depths of despair as I was, he sought only that which would draw me out of myself and away from the threat of self-destruction. Then, when he realized that Lord Faramir’s own mood lightened markedly when he was with me, and that his--his heart was stirred by my presence he began to mention my name to him to help ease the bad times; and then the same with me when my heart was darkened.
“Brother, you cannot begin to know what--what it was like, lying there inside the Shadow like that, to feel the coldness spread from hand and up my arm and through my body, seeking to still my very heart. I needed to see a light somewhere so that I--that I could begin to seek more of it. Merry only sought to help open me again to the light, and I am grateful. But that by it I should find love--and quite a different love than I’d imagined before, although no less honorable--that I did not expect.”
Faramir looked directly into the young King’s eyes. “Long have I sought to find one whom I could love as my father loved my mother. I’d begun to believe that I would not find her in this lifetime; but in the end I found her in spite of all expectation. And to find that she is what your sister is--it is far more than I had dreamed of. I will tell you this--I find my heart lifts each time she comes into view; that even when I have been most concerned about the confusion which must come with such a change in the world her smile is enough to reassure me that good will come in spite of all; and that when I have held her in my arms I feel as if her love is all the armor I’ll ever need to wear from this day forward. Her humor inspires me; her forwardness eases my own reticence to say difficult things; her fire warms my heart; her impatience touches me. We will wait as long as you direct, although I do not believe that you will find it easy with her at your side should you make that time overlong. But I find my heart has been captured by a shieldmaiden of Rohan; and I hope that you will find having a faithful Steward as brother of the heart will be recompense enough to have her away from your side.”
Imrahil smiled. “I can vouch for my nephew’s good reputation and honorable nature, my Lord Éomer. And I would delight to be allied again with your house in such a manner.”
Gandalf nodded his head. “Certainly Queen Morwen would have been pleased to see another such alliance between Gondor and Rohan, especially when there is a foundation of love and mutual respect there ahead of time.”
Éomer was looking from one to the next, his eyes searching. “We will see what comes of my thinking in the next few days. Although certainly my brother Aragorn has made it clear he is pleased to support such a match.” Then he shook himself. “But I will warn you--if you seek to keep her caged primarily in this city of stone I will seek vengeance for any hurt to her spirit.”
“Fair enough warning, my Lord.” Faramir’s eyes shone warmly. “I have inherited estates outside the city, and we will dwell primarily in one of them, I think, for although I am delighted to have my family’s duties confirmed, yet there are many dark memories here I would seek not to inflict often on my family.”
He straightened. “Although there is one thing I am learning--that many of the windows in this Citadel I’d long thought fixed have catches, and it appears that the Lord Aragorn is intent on seeing them thrown open to sweep out much of the bad air that has gathered here while the city lay in sight of the shadows of Mordor. And I rejoice, my friends; I rejoice at finding the breeze in my hair, even here in the Hall of Kings.” He straightened. “If you will forgive me, but I must speak with Master Balstador.” He reached across before Éomer and clasped Éowyn’s hand, lifted it to his lips, both of them smiling, her brother quite forgotten for the moment, then reluctantly let it go, gave a bow and withdrew.