Not long after the Umbarians left the Citadel the audience was dismissed, and at last Aragorn descended from the throne and retreated to the small robing room where the chest for the Winged Crown was kept and saw it back into its place, then after exchanging polite comments with his guests he finally was free to return to the Royal Wing accompanied by the other three Hobbits. Gandalf sat on a narrow chair set before the room which had been prepared originally for Frodo and Sam. “He sent me from the room first, and shortly afterward Elrohir also came out. I think he’s known nausea again.”
Aragorn sighed. “And just before another feast. It is almost too much for a Hobbit to have to bear.” He looked closely at Gandalf. “Did you know of the Ring’s influence on his ability to love a woman of his people?”
Reluctantly Gandalf nodded. “However, this was of such a nature I didn’t feel free to discuss it with others, not even you or Sam. I am sorry.”
“You were right. But for him--I did not realize. I had an idea, but no true knowledge.”
Merry said quietly, “I’d suspected something was wrong and wondered if the Ring could be involved, once we knew what It was. Before the Party Frodo always was admiring the prettier lasses and was always dancing. Very soon after it was as if he didn’t notice a lass was a lass rather than another lad, and he’s danced less and less each year since.” Sam added his agreement.
Aragorn sighed. “Sam, will you go in with me?”
Sam shook his head. “No, for I’ve seen too much of it over the years, and he won’t thank me for comin’ in now. No, Strider, probably the only one as he’ll even let go in the room right now would be you.”
Aragorn looked at the door as if trying to will it to open of itself, then took a deep breath, opened it himself, and went inside, closing the door behind him. The curtains had been drawn closed and no lamps were lit. Frodo, wrapped in a blanket, sat in one of the armchairs, the wash basin lying on the floor at his feet. There was the odor of vomit in the air--Gandalf had been right about the nausea. His face was so pale, but he didn’t look up.
The Man approached slowly and knelt by the Hobbit’s chair, reached to gently place his arms around Frodo. He could see the soft reflection from tears on Frodo’s face. “Oh, my small brother,” he murmured as he embraced him. “Oh, my small brother. Have you been ill all day?”
“I am here, Frodo. I am here for you for as long you need me.”
“At times I just feel empty, Aragorn. Just empty.”
“I can imagine.”
“I couldn’t see a beautiful lass as one without wanting to....” He went quiet. Finally he whispered, “Most of the time I couldn’t see them as beautiful at all. I hate It so, Aragorn. I hate It so.” He took a long, shuddering breath. “When I hate It so, why----”
At last the Man asked, “Why what, tithen nín?”
“Why do I still want It?”
Aragorn was careful not to stiffen or to pull away, only leaned his head against Frodo’s chest. “Having It there during the worst times at least helped you realize you were still alive, Frodo. On those days when you feel emptiest, it must be so hard to find something to help you realize that.”
“I suppose so. I’ve lost so much. And I hate it when the nausea returns. I start to feel like a Hobbit again, and will start to eat again, and then....”
“Have you managed to keep anything down today?”
The answer was only the smallest of shakes to the head.
“I told you the other day, Frodo--you are free to use the Elessar stone.”
“But it’s yours.”
“Oh, Frodo--you do not need to feel guilty about everything. Or does it help you realize you are alive when you feel the guilt, as the Ring used to assure you that you were alive when you still possessed It? I’ve told you, and I truly meant it--you may freely touch on the power of the Elessar while you are near enough to do so. I will never withhold it from you.”
Frodo could tell there was no reproach in these words. “I am not worthy.”
“Then perhaps you need it the most, small brother. The Elessar is a stone of healing and renewal. Certainly you of all people have need of that. It will never be withheld from you.”
Aragorn felt the softest of touches on the power of the Elessar stone, felt as the touch finally became more open and certain, then slowly added his own will to that used by Frodo, gently letting his own healing gift augment the filling of self with meaning Frodo took from the stone. And the stone delighted, he realized, to Frodo’s touch.
He didn’t try to direct the healing offered, just let it go where it was needed. Finally he murmured against the Hobbit’s chest, “If the stone had not come to me, small brother, it could have been meant for you to wear. You use it well, and it is glad of you.”
He felt Frodo take a deeper breath, and was himself glad. At last, as the heartbeat steadied and the breathing deepened and the turmoil in the stomach eased, he straightened. He rose and went to the door and opened it slightly. “Please ask Iorvas to bring me a clean basin and a ewer of warm water,” he asked Pippin. He then returned and picked up the basin from near Frodo’s feet, and took it into the privy where he emptied it, seeing there was only fruit and bread reflected there. After rinsing it, he took it back to the door to exchange with Iorvas for the fresh basin the footman brought to him. “I thank you, my friend,” he said, taking it. “Please put water on to heat, and steep one of the bags of herbs I have prepared in the kitchen in a mug of it once it has boiled. Let it steep for perhaps the count of three hundred, then remove the bag and after adding a generous spoon of honey bring it to me. Then if you could toast some bread and spread it with crushed strawberries, I would be most grateful.”
“Very gladly, my Lord,” the footman said, and he hurried away.
There was a small kitchen with cooking hearth and small ovens in each of the living wings, and the Lord Aragorn had come to examine the one here two days after the coronation, and had given orders as to particular items he wished to be kept stocked here at all times. After a visit to the herbalist in the Houses of Healing he’d brought back twists and glass vials of various herbs, some of which were specific to healing while others were used primarily in cooking, while several were good for both. Each had been carefully labeled, and the preceding day he’d made up a number of cloth packets he’d put into a ceramic jar, using a chain stitch to hold the end of each small bag closed. He’d explained to both Iorvas and Belveramir that these were for special soothing draughts for his friends among the Pheriannath when they visited him within the Citadel. He’d also examined the gardens area two days past and indicated one area he wished cleared as he intended to plant an herb garden there.
“Very good,” the head gardener had said. “If you would tell me what herbs you wish planted here....”
“I will be planting it myself, and tending it primarily myself during those times I am within the Citadel, Master Garnthor. This will be one place where I will make myself practically useful, for I, too, need an outlet of work for my hands as well as for my mind and will.”
Iorvas found their new master to be a most unusual and interesting Man, he thought as he watched the brew steep. When he’d counted a full three hundred he removed the bag to a small dish he kept, stirred in the honey, and took the draught and the toasted bread and berries to the room and approached the door. Mithrandir still sat by it, but his face was now relieved and smiling as he watched Iorvas bringing the mug and plate. The Wizard rapped upon the door for him, then opened it to allow footman to hand the tray to the King, and closed it after.
Frodo allowed Aragorn to wash his hands, face, and feet, and to sponge off his surcoat. He drank the tea brought to him, and ate the toast slowly, fearful he might lose it. Finally he commented, “It appears that each time I become upset the nausea returns.”
Aragorn shrugged. “Such is not unusual when upset is deep, Frodo. However, in your case it doesn’t appear to require such extremes as are usual. Would you like to go out into the gardens with me?”
When at last he’d finished the tea and toast, Frodo rose and followed Aragorn out into the hallway and down the hallway toward the end of the wing to the receiving room. The doors to the garden were open, and Frodo paused as they exited the building, looking about.
Sam was kneeling near a bed of flowers, a weeding tool lent him by one of the regular gardeners in his hand. He paused in his work and looked up at Frodo. “Hello, Master. Would you like to help with deadheading the violas?”
Frodo gave a small smile. “Gladly.” He knelt down opposite Sam and began pinching off spent blossoms while Sam continued his weeding.
Aragorn lifted a pair of pruning scissors from the basket which had been set near the Hobbit, and turned to a nearby rose bush and began examining it, finally removing a couple of branches. After a time he slipped off to the small kitchen where he surprised Iorvas by preparing a small tray for Frodo.
Gandalf had brought a low chair out for Frodo to sit on when his knees began hurting him, and Aragorn brought the tray to him there. Just sitting among the flowers seemed enough to ease him, and in time he sat back with another cup of tea, feasting his eyes on flowers and breathing in the healing scents of the great garden.
After a short time Iorvas came to inform them a late luncheon would soon be served, and Aragorn asked it be brought to them in the garden. Frodo didn’t eat a great deal more, but was looking decidedly better once he’d finished the small meal he accepted; and indicated he felt they needed to return to the house in the Sixth Circle in order to meet with the tailor. Aragorn accompanied them back down to their house, then returned to the Citadel where his brothers and his Elven guests were now exploring the gardens.
Legolas’s face was solemn. “He does best with you, Aragorn.”
The King nodded as he accepted a goblet of wine brought him by Iorvas. Gandalf asked, “Did he again touch the Elessar?”
“Yes. He touched it often before I let him know I was aware, and since has touched it only when I’ve assured him it is acceptable. He appears to find the sense of guilt comforting somehow. When I suggested that the sense of guilt may reassure him he is indeed alive, he didn’t disagree.”
Gandalf and Elrond’s sons exchanged looks of surprise. “He needs to feel strong emotion to feel alive?” Elladan asked.
“Apparently. He says that the Ring left him feeling terribly emptied.”
Legolas’s brother Tharen commented, “I can well imagine.”
Aragorn asked, “Gandalf, could you make certain he is with me in the Houses of Healing before dawn tomorrow?”
“Why do you wish him there?”
“I believe his presence will help me deal with the execution. That and being in the Houses of Healing should assist me to withstand the temptation to fall into sadness.”
“When will they do the branding?”
“At much the same time.”
“Neither Umbari is likely to react well.”
“I don’t expect them to do so. But I want them to have every reason to remember what they have done and to know that they are not to repeat their actions. Now, tell me, my Lord Prince Tharen, what changes have been seen so far in Mirkwood?”
Galador looked up at the knock on the door to his office. “Enter!”
Faralion opened the door and came in. “And how do you today, Master Galador?”
The realm’s Master of Protocol glared at the representation of the table. “I have worked again and again and again trying to decide who shall sit where, and can get nowhere with it. How does one decide where to seat so many Elves, Dwarves, and Men from regions most here have never heard of before? Not to mention the Pheriannath?” He spilled a handful of the tiles across his desk. “What colors do I use to show all these?”
“Have you yet asked the King which he wishes to have sit by him?”
“I have been afraid to approach him.”
“I offended him.”
“When was this?”
“The--the next morning after the coronation. I was trying to serve him as his scribe, was bringing to him messages entrusted to me by various lords. Several he examined, but with the fourth he became impatient. I tried--tried to impress upon him that this was sent to him by a lord of the realm, and he--he reproved me.”
“Which lord sent it?”
“Lord Gilvarion of Anfalas.”
“Gilvarion? He who mortgaged his holdings in order to provide himself with clothing appropriate to wear within the court? Whose servant has more money than he and was his tutor when he was a boy? Were he to apply himself to managing his holdings properly as he does to pursuing patronage in Minas Tirith, he might make something yet of his lands, for they are rich enough. But he set as steward of his holdings his stepbrother, who has more interest in drinking and gambling than he does in husbanding the earth. The fool will not listen to the experience of those who farm the lands, and seeks to raise cattle there rather than to raise the rice for which their land has ever been renowned. The cattle do poorly, for the soil is too wet most of the year. But he would rather raise what he thinks of as noble animals than crops.”
Galador looked at the minstrel with surprise. “You know so much?”
Faralion shrugged. “A year and a half past, as part of my journeyman period, my master allowed me to accept a commission from them to write an ode. I went to their keep and learned within a day that Gilvarion and his brother have not the intelligence between them to find the privy without three torches and seven servants to point the way--save they have wasted their fortune in the past eight years and have but two left between them, both of whom remain with them only in hopes they will perhaps one day listen to reason and see the fortunes of the house restored.”
“Did you write the ode?”
“No--they had not the wherewithal to pay even my fees at the time. Although I did write the Call of the Fool based on what I saw in their holdings.”
“A most humorous piece.”
“Yes, and it helped make my reputation. But please do not repeat their names to others as the ones who inspired the song, for I would not willingly embarrass Lord Gilvarion before the realm. For all his foolishness, the young lord is yet an amiable and most earnest person.”
The Master of Protocol sighed, and purposely turned away from the inlaid slate. “Did you attend the audience?”
“Yes, and I did not see you there.”
“I doubt our Lord King wishes to see my face. He does not consult me as to where to see people placed during audiences within the Hall of Kings.”
“As you know little or nothing of those who come from Rhovanion and the Northern Kingdom, would you know better than he how to show appropriate honor there?”
Galador shrugged. “I suppose not. How did he set things?”
As Faralion described the four chairs set between the two chairs of the Stewards and the three others, two set for the Ringbearers on the one side and one for Imrahil on the other, Galador listened earnestly. “And the Lord Prince Tharen is brother to Prince Legolas, while Lord Gloin is father to Lord Gimli, both of whom are among the King’s companions?” He turned to the slate, and taking up a handful of tiles of peridot green for the Elves he set them into the table to the right of the King--then moved them further over to set into place four of lapis representing the four from the court of Dale there; the green and gold tiles representing Rohan he set across from the King on the inner curve of the table, then set several of silver representing the Dwarves to the left of the King....
In less than a quarter mark he had the seating settled and was marking in the names of those whose identities were not well known to the heralds and servitors. King Éomer would sit directly opposite the King with his sister to his left and Lord Faramir and the sons of Elrond to her left; the Pheriannath to Éomer’s right where the King could watch to see that the Ringbearer himself was properly served, with Mithrandir beyond them. Prince Imrahil to the right of the four from Dale with the Elves of Mirkwood beyond him so that they might speak with one they would see as a kinsman during the meal; Lords Elphir and Erchirion between the Dwarves from Erebor and the lords of the King’s kinship representing the court of Arnor. Finally satisfied he signaled the chief herald, who examined the board with interest, congratulated him on the ordering, and saw it taken to its place.
Finally bringing out the tray of wine and goblets, Galador filled two goblets and offered one to his guest, sipping with greater contentment than he’d shown earlier. “I haven’t seen you for several days within the Citadel,” he commented to Faralion, setting his goblet before him.
“Until today there have been no more public audiences. I have been staying in our guild hall in the Third Circle and composing a work based on the music I’ve heard from the Pheriannath. They have been staying in the house assigned for them in the Sixth Circle?”
“Yes. The King chose a house fairly far from theirs for those from Umbar, but the one from Umbar still managed to cause offense to them.”
“Perhaps in the coming days I will be able to visit with them and learn more of their music. They are a people given to love of songs and dance I know now from the tales they told me and the songs they’ve sung for me.”
“What was the disposition of the case against the one from Umbar who offended the Pheriannath?”
Faralion described the audience, the description of the tavern used by the Umbarians to turn Men of Gondor to spying, the judgments given and sentences imposed.
Galador was impressed. “And Wasnior and those remaining of their fellows made no protest?”
“Who plays for the dinner tonight?”
They were deep in conversation regarding the entertainment offered following the meal when they were interrupted by another knock at the door. Galador rose and opened it, stopping with great surprise to find the King standing there, accompanied by King Bard of Dale and King Éomer of Rohan. “I beg your pardon, Master Galador,” the Lord Elessar said, “but I’d wished to see how you had planned to seat people for the feast tonight. Master Faralion, it is a pleasure.”
In minutes the King had been led through to the place where the great slate representation of the table now hung. “So,” he said, “this is how it is done, is it? I’d wondered. Very ingenious.” He examined the inlay and the placements of the colored tiles to indicate different houses.
Galador cleared his throat diffidently, and heartened by the King’s polite attention, explained, “I had thought, my Lord King, that since this day we welcome one new King and a representative in Lord Gloin of another, you might wish to have them by your side, and so I placed the Lord Éomer King here opposite you with the Ringbearer here...” going on to describe where each group had been assigned.
The King examined it, then nodded. “For tonight this is well, although there will be times when I will wish to arrange the seating myself, and there may well come such times soon--or so is my great hope. Shall we return to your office, Master Galador?”
Faralion surrendered his chair to the King, and Master Galador offered refreshment from his personal wine store to the three new rulers of realms of the Free Peoples, who accepted them most graciously. At last the King Elessar explained, “As you now know, I was raised in Imladris among the Elves of Lord Elrond’s household. Elven courtesy and protocol tend to differ from ours. Most of the time I will defer to the common usage offered in Gondor; but when proper occasions arise I will insist on using Elven courtesies. When those times occur, I will attempt to give you full warning, and I will most likely come here to settle the seating myself. At certain feasts I shall be in the hall when the guests are brought in, and will rise to give them honor. So it is done among Elves. I will do this tonight, since our guests of most honor are from the North and are more accustomed to such usage. As for our own folk--they will come to accept it well enough, you will find.
“There was only one choice you made I would have done differently, but the seating you arranged will be more easily appreciated by those of Gondor and so I let it stand. I do ask that from now on you notify me when the seating is complete that I might review and approve it myself. I know that Lord Denethor did not require such approval--but I am not Lord Denethor. Particularly when those who attend are from the North or from other lands where I have sojourned and you have not I can advise you as to how best to avoid offense and communicate proper respect, as you can advise me regarding those who are from within Gondor where your longer experience stands us all in such good stead.”
He sipped from his glass as Galador thanked him for the compliment given. When Galador was finished, he nodded. “There is one more thing, Master Galador--I apologize if you felt offended by me the other day; but I will admit I was trying to meet a very busy schedule and to inconvenience as few as possible in the doing. And, I have little patience for empty flattery from minor houses such as that of the Lord Gilvarion--indeed, I have little patience for empty flattery from anyone. Let the lords come to meet and know me first, and then I can judge whether their praise is but flattery or sincere. In truth, Lord Gilvarion’s note, once I had time to actually read it and reflect on it, appeared to reflect a polite enough individual. But even so, at the time you were seeking to bring it to my attention I had far too many things to think of to desire to read yet another of the type of missives you had shared with me that day. Your evaluations of those who sent them was invaluable; but I think we need to set up a regular time each week during which to read such things and speak of those who are known to be seeking an audience with me that I am properly prepared. Is this agreeable with you, sir?”
“But of course, my Lord King.”
“Very good. Master Faralion--have you any idea of what kind of musicians the guild has appointed to play for the feast tonight?”
A short time later the King gave his thanks to both for their patience with him, and he and his guests, all murmuring again their thanks for the wine shared with them, withdrew about their business. Galador was left with a bemused look on his face. “Never would the Lord Denethor have thought to have been seen coming here to consult with me!”
As Faralion finally left Galador’s office, he too felt bemused. Never would he expect to see a great lord such as their King bringing his personal guests to meet his Master of Protocol.
As he crossed the Court of Gathering, headed for the ramp down to the lower city, his attention was drawn by the sound of singing. He turned and saw a number of individuals gathered toward the end of the keel of rock, looking Eastward across the river toward the walls of what had been Mordor. Caught in the spell of the singing of Elves, Faralion found his feet carrying him that way. A mixed party stood there--Men, Elves, Dwarves, and two Pheriannath.
The sons of Elrond were there alongside the Elves who had come from Mirkwood and Legolas, the King’s companion, and together they were singing a song of joy and delight, of trees growing and flowers blooming and waters running in gladness beneath the light of Sun, Moon, and Stars. And then another voice joined them, deeper, mortal--the voice of their new King, adding a richness to what was already there; then was added another voice, still mortal but a warm tenor, that of the Lord Steward Faramir, singing of the ordering of the peoples and the wonder of that which was beyond the reach of mortals. Then were added in rich voices of the Dwarves, adding in the deeper tones of Earth and Stone to those already being sung, singing not words but tones and syllables to support the warmth of the voices of Men and the ethereal beauty of the voices of the Elves. Then was added still another voice, sweet and delightful, as the Ernil i Pheriannath joined his own voice with those of the rest, his song adding in the delight of richness of life, ale drunk and crops grown, and folk dancing at the sowing and feasting at the harvest.
Then Faralion had joined them and was weaving his own singing into the harmony, joining with King and Steward, adding in the delight of waking each morning to find life continuing and the waiting for the time of release at the end and the promise of what was to come. Then the Lady Éowyn added her singing as well, the watching of Men going forth and the welcoming of them home again after.
Many in the lower circles of the city, hearing that song, looked up and saw the party there; and many within the Citadel or crossing the Court of Gathering, looked on the singers with awe. And the last of the grief and fear which had so shadowed the lives of those who had lived ever in the shadow of the Ephel Duath and the clouds of Mordor seemed to fall away from the hearts of those who dwelt in the White City of Gondor.
And one standing on the balcony of his house in the Sixth Circle heard the singing from above, and found himself adding to it as he, too, looked on the mountains he had crossed to the cleansing of the shadows beyond them. Sam, standing on a stool so that the tailor and his apprentices could measure him, smiled as he heard his beloved Master singing in thanksgiving for the fall of Mordor and the destruction of the burden he’d carried so long.