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The Acceptable Sacrifice
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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22
22: Guests at the Feast

22: Guests at the Feast


Wasnior of Umbar looked at the party waiting inside the empty gateway to Minas Tirith with concern. There before an honor guard, clad in fine mail, stood a tall man with an outer robe of blue, white, and silver, the Swan of Dol Amroth displayed on the front. Yet this Man was young, too young to be Prince Imrahil. Wasnior looked right and left at the six who’d accompanied him, Beslor, Angrapain, Dorath, Belladon, and two to serve them, and saw that the four of his fellow lords at least looked presentable. He led the bow.

“My Lord,” he said unctuously, “I am Lord Wasnior of Belden within Umbar, aide to Lord Marcipor, ruler of our people. I have come to treat with the lords of Gondor.”

“Welcome, my Lord Wasnior, to you and your folk on your arrival in the White City. I am sorry that it may be a few days before you will be able to meet with those you desire to see; it is only this day that our Lord has returned and been welcomed. However, you have arrived in good time for the feast, and you and those with you are welcome to attend. I am Elphir, heir to Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth.”

“I was unaware that Lord Faramir had attended the battle before the Black Gates, my Lord. I had thought that battle led by your father and his allies from Rohan and the North.”

Any hint of gracious welcome faded from the young Man’s face. “That battle was led, Lord Wasnior, by our King returned; it is just this day he has entered into the capitol and has accepted the Winged Crown. It is his Coronation Feast you are bidden to attend.” He turned rather pointedly to lead the way within, and the mixed guard in blue, grey, and black and silver formed around the seven that comprised the embassy. A youth was beckoned forward by Lord Elphir, and in a low voiced directive was instructed, then he was sent off on the run up the ways of the city to those waiting above.

“Orders have been given to prepare a guest house for the use of your party. Will the remainder of your folk remain upon your ship?”

The meaning was clear--those who’d crewed the small bark on which Wasnior’s people had come to Gondor’s heart were not to leave the ship. “Yes, only the five of us and these two to serve us were to actually enter the city.”

“I’ve sent word that the smaller house considered for your use is to be made ready for you. I believe you will find it comfortable and fully adequate to your needs.”

“When is this feast?”

“A half mark after sunset, my Lord.”

Wasnior was concerned--that was not long, and they had yet to make it to the upper levels of the city. How they were to appear suitably garbed at a feast on such short notice.... And the King was returned? Since when had there been a King in Gondor? Unless there was indeed an heir remaining in the North, born perhaps to the line of Isildur? But the word there was that the last known Lord of that lineage had died some eighty years or more past, and that his only son had died of fever, still but a child.

Anxiety growing within the turmoil of his thoughts, Wasnior followed his guide up through the city of Minas Tirith, feeling as if the eyes of Gondor were indeed on guard against him and his errand.

*******


At last the names and titles of Faramir and Halladan were called, and they straightened, then walked within, following the two ushers to the seats prepared for each. Then it was Merry and Pippin, then Frodo and Sam, and finally the Lord Éomer King of Rohan and his sister the Lady Éowyn. Now only Aragorn himself was left with Hardorn, who stood as Guard of Honor this night, now dressed in the Black and Silver of the Guard of the Citadel. Briefly the two faced each other, embraced one another, and prepared to step through the parted curtains.

“The Lord King Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar, Lord of Gondor and Arnor,” announced the chief Herald, and all straightened and turned toward the Lord’s entrance, watching the coming of the tall figure robed in black, the shining jewel upon his brow, the almost equally tall Guard behind him, shining sword drawn in readiness.

Wasnior and his fellow lords peered through the curtains to the vestibule to which they’d just been led, their own attention focused on the tall figure they saw approaching the great seat set prepared for the King. As Wasnior had feared, their own preparations had been frighteningly rushed, and they’d arrived at the feast hall after all others were seated. There would be no announcement of their names and titles, he knew, not now that the King himself had been shown to his seat. He only hoped they’d been given seats at the end of one of the two wings to the feast table so that they would not attract attention.

No, that hope was dashed when an usher appeared at the curtains and beckoned them within, then led them between the two wings to the inner table and up its length to places opposite the King himself. It was even more alarming to Wasnior than if they’d been shown to a place at the ends, to be beneath the gaze of the new King himself as well as the Lords of Gondor. What was more alarming still was the nature of those who were to sit by their party--Elves, a Dwarf, and a Wizard in white. Curunír was here? But the rumor was that he was dead!

Together all stood and waited as the eyes of the King examined the room. He was very tall, well in excess of six feet, Wasnior judged, and clearly the tallest Man in the room; although the two dark-haired Elves on either side were even taller than he. There was no mistaking the circlet the Man wore--stories had come to Umbar of the appearance of Elendil the Tall and what he’d looked like when he appeared wearing the Star of Elendil. Yes, definitely from the North, then. Hair very dark brown near to black, short but full beard, deep-set eyes of clear grey barely touched by hints of blue and green like the Sea, skin tanned by years of exposure to the sun and weather. Wide shoulders, but not exceptionally so; relatively slender, but with the slenderness of a mature tree. How old he might be Wasnior would not guess--those of pure Dúnedain heritage, after all, often lived well over a century before they showed signs of age.

Then Wasnior looked to the King’s right and his attention was captured again. Directly to the King’s right was a very small figure. Did the King have a son, then? But, no--not a son, not with that face. That was no boy’s face; and his ears, where they showed through the dark curls, were definitely gently pointed. What race from among the Children of Iluvatar might he be? Wasnior wondered. And beside him still another, this time with short curls of darkest gold, broader in the face, but with a most responsible expression on his countenance. Both were crowned with fine circlets which, if Wasnior was a judge of metals, could only be of mithril. Wasnior looked about, and spotted two more, both some taller than the two standing by the King, one with hair of a warm brown and the other with auburn curls, both also well dressed, standing on the other side of the party from Rohan and the Steward of Gondor.

The woman from Rohan was tall and slender, dressed in a white gown over an under gown of dark green, both her waist and her head encircled by linked golden flowers, each centered with a garnet. On the other side of her stood the tall figure of Faramir son of Denethor, a gold circlet on his own dark hair, his grey eyes examining Wasnior coolly. As for the young King of Rohan--tall for his own folk, though not as tall as the new King of Gondor; long golden hair now lying loose about his shoulders, his restless blue eyes actively examining Wasnior’s party, weighing them to a nicety. Both the young King and the woman by him stood as did Prince Imrahil beyond them, as did the new King of Gondor himself, as did the one in grey and silver with his circle of seven silver Stars on his surcoat who stood beyond the two small ones, as did the two sons of Prince Imrahil who stood beyond them--all with the balance of swordsmen.

At last the new King spoke. “I welcome you all to this feast celebrating my coronation today. For those who could not arrive in time for my entrance into the city this morning, I am the Lord King Elessar. I was born Aragorn son of Arathorn in Eriador and am descended, father to son, through many generations, from Arvedui, Valandil, Isildur, and Elendil. Although the land of Gondor chose not to accept the claims of Arvedui, it has accepted mine. The lands of Gondor and Arnor are now rejoined into one realm again, one which will have in time two capitols, one in the Southlands and one to the North, again on the site of Annúminas on the shores of Lake Evendim as was true of old.

“Sauron has been cast down through the destruction of his own artifice, and will not arise more. I shall be the last King of the Eldar days, much to the loss of Middle Earth, for I deem few of those among the Elves will choose to remain in the mortal lands once I am gone. This causes me great grief, for it was among the Elves of Imladris I was raised and protected after the death of my father, and after I myself nearly died in the fevers that raged throughout Middle Earth at the time.

“I have returned to Gondor and the City of Minas Tirith, and rejoice that you have accepted me and have followed me against the hosts of Mordor. Let us now prepare to rejoice in the days of peace to come, and rejoice together that this night so many hopes have been fulfilled.”

He smiled, then turned to the West. All within the Hall did likewise; and finally all sat and the feast was begun.

Chairs with high seats had been prepared for the small ones who sat beside the King, and there was no question that these were not children. Their faces had the look of ones who have been perhaps ill but were now well on the road to recovery. That of the one with dark hair was finely featured, intelligent and observant, rather ascetic in nature. That one took up his fork, then dropped it, and the King was instantly turning to him, reaching out his hand, taking the right one of the small one, asking quiet questions and listening intently as he massaged the hand briefly. The small one closed his eyes, then opened them, obviously relieved. He smiled and spoke again softly to the King, who smiled in return, placing his hand on the slight shoulder, then turned away to answer the question put to him by the King of Rohan.

The small one then turned toward Wasnior, his own eyes, eyes of a clear, startling blue, examining the party from Umbar much as the others had been doing. He took a bite of his first course and chewed it thoughtfully. For the rest had been placed plates of green stuffs; to this one had been brought a plate on which rested chopped fruits. Wasnior wondered about this difference. Finally he decided to find out who and what this one was.

“I beg your pardon, small Lord, but I do not recognize your kind.”

There was some color in the small one’s cheeks as he replied, “I beg your pardon, sir. I am Frodo Baggins of the Shire. The Elven name for my people is Periannath. Our land is far to the North and the West of here.”

“Then you came South with the Lord Elessar?”

The Perian’s expression was steady as he answered, “Yes, we came South with Aragorn and other companions from Eriador.”

“You are a lord among your people?”

Frodo Baggins of the Shire gave a smile that was totally devoid of humor. “I fear that my title of Lord has no relevance within the Shire at all, and my own people will be unlikely to recognize it, or honor it even if it is told to them.”

Realizing that somehow he’d given offense to this one, Wasnior looked to the other who sat beside him. He was broader in build, his hair the dark gold noted earlier, and his eyes were a similar color, a golden brown that was intelligent and considering. He examined Wasnior, then turned his attention to the one who sat beside him. “Is there ought I can do for you, Frodo?” he asked.

Frodo Baggins smiled and shrugged. “Not now, Sam. Eat your own salad.”

“If you’d like a taste of mine, I’ll share gladly with you.”

“And if you would like some of my fruit I’ll do the same, as you know.”

“You just be sure and eat what you can, now.” An exchange of nods, and the two turned their attention back to their dishes.

Wasnior glanced back to the right to find the new King was watching him, evaluating his reaction to the two Periannath. After a moment the King asked, “Is your salad to your liking, my Lord?”

“It is quite good, really.” He ate a few more bites and watched as the King did the same. Finally he commented, “I have not met any Periannath before.”

“It is unusual for any of them to leave their own land. I’ve heard of only a few ever having done so.”

“You have seen their land?”

“Yes, I’ve seen it and have even ridden through it. It is a pleasant enough place, but in the end is of interest only to their own folk. It is fertile, but no more so than many other places throughout Arnor. It is near to the Sea, but not so near as to frighten such as these.”

“Periannath are afraid of the Sea?”

“Not all of them, but more than aren’t. They are more the children of Yavanna than of Ulmo, I fear.”

“Oh--a farming people.”

“Yes, very much so.”

“Your own people trade with them?”

“Few of their folk will trade outside their own borders, save in the Breelands where they have some kin. Although I suppose that will now change.”

The one called Sam looked up. “I suspect it well might. We often have excellent years, and we might look to tradin’ some of our wine and wheat South, perhaps for some of the fruits we can’t grow so far North.” He looked at the one called Frodo Baggins at that, who was still working on his plate of fruit.

“I’ll make certain to send some fruits North to you as they come into season, Sam. I’d hate for Frodo to do without.”

Again the cheeks of the one called Frodo reddened somewhat.

“And you can believe as we’ll be shippin’ off some barrels of pipeweed to you.”

“Ah, a worthwhile trade, Sam.”

The smile between the two was familiar. Sam had finished his salad and sat back as a server smiled down on him and took the empty plate away, bringing now a soup to set before him. “Thank you,” the Perian said, smiling back, then turned back to his own setting, obviously trying to decide which utensil to use next.

“The spoon furthest to the right,” directed Frodo.

“Thanks, Mr. Frodo,” replied Sam, picking up the indicated spoon and applying himself.

The one called Frodo straightened, looking at his own plate with regret. A server refilled his goblet of water, and he reached forward and took it up, sipping gratefully at it. It was then Wasnior realized that one of the fingers on the Perian’s hand was missing, and wondered at it. Was it that which had caused his hand to apparently hurt earlier, then?

Another server leaned over the Perian and spoke a soft question, then lifted the plate and carried it away as another set a small bowl of broth before him. Soon Wasnior was surrendering his own plate and accepting a bowl of a fine fish soup.

The rest received wine; Frodo was served the juice of the orange fruit. During the fish course Frodo was served curds and whey. Others were served large servings of fowl; Frodo was given a small serving of the same over a bed of rice which he looked at with great distaste. When the meat course came Frodo waved away the plate presented to him, obviously unable to eat more at the time. A server came to speak to the King, and went off; a time later and a dish with small amounts of small carrots and celery, nutmeats, slices of baked apple, and flat breads was placed by the Perian. Over the course of the rest of the feast he continued to eat small amounts from time to time from this, watching apparently with envy as course after course was brought to the rest dining there.

Wasnior watched the Perian with interest, which was a distraction from all else at the table that evening. It was better than realizing the new King was watching him--something about those searching grey eyes was most disturbing to Lord Marcipor’s aide. It was certainly more pleasant that watching his own companions. Dorath was eating as though he’d never seen a decent amount of food decently cooked and elegantly served in his life; Belladon was examining each item presented to him as though it contained poison and would consent to eat only swallows of anything; Beslor was sitting stolidly and eating each dish as it came with such singular lack of interest that Wasnior felt that it would be more enjoyable to sit by a cow in a field and watch it chew its cud. Only Angrapain was eating with any indication of grace, but then Angrapain always exhibited grace, even when he was involved in the horrible things he appeared to enjoy doing that sickened others. Why these had been chosen for this embassy Wasnior could not imagine. None exhibited the type of behavior one would wish to see in a representative of Umbar to another land, and particularly at a formal dinner.

As the final dish for the meal was presented the King leaned down to speak with his small companion, who shrugged apparently in response to a question. This last course was candied cherries in a thick cream; a small dish was set in front of the Perian, who thanked the server courteously as he had throughout the meal, and who tasted it almost as suspiciously as Belladon did. He ate a small amount with what appeared to be a level of pleasure, and then stopped, looking up apologetically as the King asked another question and once again shrugged. Again the King placed his hand on the small one’s shoulder.

Music had been played throughout, not that the general conversation around the table had allowed much of it to be heard. Now, as the servers began removing the last dishes but did not replace them with others, the music stopped for a time, then began again, louder as the King arose, the rest of the company hastily following suit and giving bows to him and those who sat closest by him. No closing remarks appeared forthcoming, and the King instead led the way about the length of the tables back to the open area which all had crossed as they’d entered the hall. During the last hour chairs had been brought from the edges of the hall into the areas about the dance floor, and now all moved there, some taking seats, others obviously intent on joining the dance.

It was at this moment the new King looked slightly embarrassed as he approached the Lady from Rohan, as the woman of highest rank present, and asked if she would partner him in the first dance. She flushed somewhat and looked a question not at the young King of her land but instead at the Lord Steward Faramir. He smiled and made a gesture shooing her onto the dance floor.

A servant had come with a low chair, almost one intended for a child, and set it for the dark haired Perian, who looked up again with thanks and sat in it. Soon another came to set a small table by him, followed by another with a small tray on which were foods suitable to be eaten with the fingers and two goblets of water. Again the quiet courtesy shown by the Perian. Then the other Periannath were clustered about the seated one, the one with the hair of dark gold taking possession of the second goblet. Somehow Wasnior was not surprised to see a second low chair produced and this one take it. He examined the faces of the two taller Periannath, noting they were alert and cheerful, but each also exhibited signs he had been less than whole recently. The one with the auburn curls and green eyes had a narrower face, more similar to the one named Frodo Baggins, and he held himself in check as if he held within a fount of restless energy that would have him careering off the walls and other guests if not properly controlled. The one with the hair of warm brown also had about him the air of responsibility seen in the one called Sam, his eyes examining the company carefully. After a moment he leaned over to whisper into the ear of Frodo, who smiled up at him and who could be seen mouthing the words “Go on, then.” With a brief nod the responsible one turned to walk toward the young King of Rohan.

Angrapain was approaching a younger daughter of a lesser lord, apparently intent on gaining his own partner for the coming dance. The young woman accepted his offer, and Wasnior made up his mind to approach the Man when the dance was over and remind him their orders were to refrain from offering insult to the people of Gondor. It was one restriction Wasnior knew well Angrapain would prefer to forget if he was allowed. Beslor, Belladon, and Dorath found unclaimed chairs nearby and brought them over for themselves and Wasnior, and together they sat.

Beslor commented in a low tone, “The new King sets great store by these Periannath, I see. And all apparently defer to them as well.” Wasnior nodded. Perhaps the stolid posture had been masking awareness of what was going on about them after all. Beslor’s next words confirmed this. “And apparently there is an understanding between the Lady from Rohan and Lord Faramir.”

“So I noticed.” Wasnior realized that the apparently blank expression Beslor sported proved excellent camouflage for one who could possibly serve as a spy in this land, now that the world had changed.

It would be expected that the new King would lead the first dance, and together they watched to see how well he would manage it. The introduction for the first set was begun, and all watched as King and Lady took the prescribed positions. It could be quickly seen that although the new King had been trained in dancing he was not exceptionally gifted at the activity, and that the Lady was markedly better than he for all that neither was she inspired at it.

The Perian Frodo was watching the dancing, his eyes suddenly coming alight, and in moments his bare foot could be seen tapping in time to the music, and his arms lifting as if taking in the expected movements for the forms. There was an eagerness in him that Wasnior found intriguing, a longing in his expression. Suddenly Wasnior’s attention was drawn back to the bare feet with the decided curls atop them--a definite difference between the Periannath and Men, he noted with deep surprise. A quick look at the other three, including the one who now stood by the young King of Rohan, showed this to be apparently a universal trait for the race.

Wasnior turned his attention to that young King. Word from those who’d fought on the Pelennor in Sauron’s hosts had been that King Théoden of Rohan had fallen on the Pelennor beneath the onslaught of the Lord of the Nazgul and the great winged beast he rode as he stooped on the battle. This must be his son Théodred. There had come after a tale of confusion as their own ships had approached the Harlond, only instead of the expected swordsmen from Umbar the ships had disgorged Men from all across Southern Gondor, including, it was said, warriors from the Northern Lands as well. A black banner had been displayed on the greatest of the ships, but what was figured on it those who’d returned to Umbar had not been able to say, only that at the sight of it the forces of Mordor and Harad who fought between them and the docks had gone almost mad with fear and confusion. One had spoken of the Standard of Elendil, but no one had countenanced that. Realizing that the tide of the battle had turned in earnest this time, those from Umbar had begun making their way Eastward and had fled through Osgiliath and across the bridge of boats that had been created and slipped away Southward back toward their own lands.

So, Théoden had indeed died, and this was the new King. He wondered at the Lady--perhaps the Princess Éowyn. Had she married her cousin, then? There could be no question they were closely related, their brows and noses being so similar. If only intelligence had been more clear. He was watching the dancing of the Lady with the new King of Gondor with a marked concern, that was certain. When at last the dance was over she returned laughing to the Lord of her land. “I fear Aragorn’s no dancer,” she commented.

The Lord Elessar, who’d followed, relief his duty had been done in starting the dancing clear in his face, smiled and shrugged. “I regret, my Lady Éowyn, that this is true. I’ve had time to learn to dance, of course; but I fear I never had a great deal of heart for the exercise.”

The Perian Frodo had risen, carrying his goblet of water and following after them. “Aragorn, that was pathetic!”

“You could do better, mellon nín?”

“Of course I could! My Lady, if you will allow me to demonstrate by leading you out in the next set?”

Again she looked to her own Lord and Lord Faramir, surprise and amusement in her eyes as she allowed herself to go out again, pausing only for them to leave the goblet on the small table as they passed.

They joined the forming line some ways into it, and at last the music began. For much of the first turn the Perian was simply marking time, watching how the forms were run; but as the second repetition began he came into his own. No one watching this dance could be in ignorance that the Perian Frodo Baggins was a gifted dancer, his movements certain and graceful, his head lifted in enjoyment. No one cared he was little more than half the height of his partner and not a Man at all--so well did he dance that those around him caught his flame and the tone of the whole group was uplifted. Through six repetitions he danced, and then suddenly he flagged, and the Lady Éowyn swiftly withdrew them both from the dancing and helped him back to his chair, which the one with auburn curls had occupied as he watched the dancing with unexpected joy and satisfaction. Seeing his friend leaving the set, however, he swiftly rose and went forward, lending his shoulder to his friend.

The King was there before anyone was aware, kneeling before the now seated Perian and setting a hand to the side of his throat. The goblet of water was lifted and he drank from it eagerly, then the King was rising and returning to the company once more, drawing attention away from the Perian to allow him more time to recover. The Lady leaned over to kiss the top of the Perian’s head, then returned to where her Lord and the Lord Faramir stood, now joined by the tall Man in the grey robe with the circle of seven Stars upon it.

The Wizard was approaching through the throng, Prince Imrahil and another lord in the colors of Anfalas following in his wake. The three other of the Periannath were clustered now about the Perian Frodo, and he was seeking to wave them away. His clear voice was saying, in as low tones as he could manage, “I’m all right, Sam, Pippin. Merry, don’t fuss. I only became fatigued. It’s not that long since we were still abed, you know.”

Confirmation that there had been illness known, perhaps whatever happening had brought with it the loss of the finger.

Those dancing had continued on, but it took two repetitions of the forms for all to return to competence and recover from the loss to their number. When at last the dance was over several drifted the way of the Perian to express their concern for his well-being and their admiration for his gift. No one appeared to worry that he remained seated, and several took turns going down on a knee to speak with him. He remained dignified, as did the other one who remained seated.

The one with the auburn curls followed the one with brown hair as he returned to the side of the King of Rohan. “Oh, Merry, I thought a dream had come true!” he was saying. “It has been so long since he danced last. To see him out there again, his face alight, bringing out the best in his partner....”

“He’s still not recovered, Pip.”

“Why not, Merry? I was hurt the same time he was, and I’m not laid so low.”

The one with the brown hair gave a look of grief at the one now again sitting in the low chair. “There you’re wrong, Peregrin Took. The wounding started a long time before that, probably has been going on since Moria.”

“He has to recover, Merry. He has to!” The exclamation was low and intense.

“And if he doesn’t, Pippin?”

Wasnior looked back at the seated Perian, saw the grave courtesy he showed the young woman now speaking with him, saw how he unconsciously rubbed at his left shoulder as if it were aching, but as if that ache was familiar.

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