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15
Unbelief

A sequel to "Iridescence" in this collection.


~~~

Unbelief


“Valdarion!” called Arniel. “Valdarion! Hurry! Uncle Marc and Margil are here!”

Valdarion dropped his book on his bed and straightened to his full height. “Uncle Marc and Margil?” he called back. “At last! At last! It’s been so long since they were here before!” The book forgotten, he turned to hurry out of the room and down the stairs.

Uncle Marcarion was with Nana in the back parlor. “I couldn’t believe the destruction!” he was saying. “The Pelennor looks terrible, with all the trenches cut across it and the orchards burned down and the farmsteads demolished. I’ve never seen the like! And so many buildings destroyed in the lower city....”

“ I know,” Elisien answered. “Hardly anything in the First Circle remained undamaged, it seems, and they even managed to damage the watchtower and Serandor’s house on the walls of the Third Circle. And there was ash everywhere from Mount Doom and the darkness that covered the land--everywhere. We had to clean all the windows and sweep the porches and the pavements. It even got into the house!”

“And so Narieth and Popea have found with our own house within the city--they remained there to see the ash removed while I came with Valariel and Margil. Where is Valdamir?”

“Down in the First Circle with several others of the guild masters and engineers and masons and Lord Gimli the Dwarf, discussing how the guild halls should be rebuilt.”

“Dwarves in the city,” Uncle Marc murmured, shaking his head not in disbelief but awe. “Dwarves and Elves. Who would believe it? When we saw the company riding through the town followed by the army of the Dead, all cried and covered their heads--but they saved the realm for us. And the King has returned! Legends walk abroad in the land.”

Margil, who had been standing to the right of the doorway, turned to his cousin as Valdarion entered the room. He reached up to take Valdarion’s shoulder, pulled him down so he could whisper into his ear, “I didn’t cover my head--I was peeking out the window to see, until Popea realized what I was doing, and hurried back to pull me inside and slammed the shutters closed.”

“What was it like?” Valdarion hissed back.

“There were figures riding through--a group of Men on horseback followed by a dark shadow. The Men were all very tall, save for one who rode on the same horse as another.”

“That would be Lord Gimli riding behind Prince Legolas, I think,” Valdarion answered somewhat more loudly. “We see them riding sometimes together through the city.”

Uncle Marc appeared to hear him. “Lord Gimli? Prince Legolas?”

“Prince Legolas is an Elf, the son of King Thranduil of Mirkwood; and Lord Gimli is a Dwarf from the realm of Erebor. They came as two of the King’s companions,” his mother explained. “And two other Elves came also from Imladris in Eriador. The King speaks of them as his brothers, and certainly he does somewhat resemble them--but then so do all of his kinsmen who came with him, it appears, all of whom are of strong Dúnedain blood. But Lord Gimli and Prince Legolas appear to be great friends, as if they, too, were brothers. Each has pledged the aid of his people to their friend the King in the rebuilding of the city.”

“And he is a good king?” Marcarion asked.

“All speak of the great wisdom he shows in his judgments, and of the courtesy shown even to the least of those who come before him. Prince Imrahil has been constantly by his side, and Prince Faramir----”

“Prince Faramir?”

“Oh, yes, brother, for the King has made him Prince of Ithilien, which he intends to see once more the garden of the realm. Prince Faramir grasps the King’s wrist as he did that of Lord Boromir, and smiles with pleasure when the King approaches him. And the King serves daily in the Houses of Healing. It appears Lord Elrond of Imladris himself saw his healing hands trained....”

“Lord Elrond yet lingers here in Middle Earth?”

“Apparently so. It has been said our Lord Elessar grew up there in Rivendell, in hiding from the Enemy, which is why he deems Lord Elrond’s sons his brothers. Or at least Val has been told that Lords Elladan and Elrohir are the twin sons of Lord Elrond. That they are twins is inescapable--I saw them three times about the city ere they left to return to their father’s side, and could not tell one from the other.”

Margil was growing bored with the talk and again drew down his cousin’s ear to whisper into it. Valdarion shrugged, then turned to his mother. “Nana, may I take Margil out to show him the chicks?”

“Of course, beloved. But do not seek to handle them overmuch.”

“I’ll go out with them,” Arniel announced. Her brother smiled, but her cousin shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes, for he had little use as yet for girls. The three children quitted the room, and soon they could hear the door to the back garden open and close, and saw them cross to the low table Valdamir and Elisien had arranged to be placed on the starburst pavement for their children’s use when they were younger.

Meliseth and small Hirgon were there already with their cousin Valariel, who at seventeen had recently discovered an appreciation for her youngest relatives and their comparative innocence and had already gone out with them. Meliseth was sitting on Valariel’s lap, and Hirgon sat on the ground before her with his wooden sword across his knees. Margil sat at the table while Valdarion crossed to the pot where cracked grain was kept, taking out some and scattering it about the ground and making a peculiar cry.

“So, you still have the great birds?”

“Oh, yes, we do. There are now twelve, the cock, three hens, and eight chicks hatched three weeks past.”

“And are their cries still enough to chill the blood?” her brother teased her.

An ear-piercing scream from the pen where the birds rested at night answered his question. Elisien laughed. “You almost leapt from your seat that time,” she said accusingly.

“Your neighbors must hate you and Valdamir.”

She shrugged, smiling. “Armention is not particularly happy with us, but none of the rest have complained. The peacocks have always been quiet at night, at least.” They watched as the birds came in procession to peck at the scattered grain.

“You surely won’t try to keep all of them?”

She shook her head. “We’ve determined to gift the King with at least two should a suitable occasion presents itself, and once Belmarvor’s farm has been reestablished on the Pelennor he’s agreed to take four of them, for he loves how they help guard our yard.”

Marc looked out at the six children. “Valdarion has grown so much in the past few months, and looks so much one of the Dúnedain himself. He’s a full head taller than Margil now, and far more slender--but then Margil’s always been broad in the chest. Will he follow his father as Master of the Merchant Adventurers, do you think?”

“We are not certain, for he has always preferred study rather than the ways of boats and trade. He might choose to follow Val, but then he might decide to serve the King as he can. He’s much taken with him--went down with his adar two weeks back to the First Circle to hear the King address those taking part in the memorial to those who died protecting the city and fighting the fires during the siege. Both returned much impressed both with the King and his companions. Valdarion was much flattered to be addressed by the Cormacolindor.”

Marcarion straightened with surprise. “He has met them?”

“Oh, yes, the day the chicks hatched, about three weeks after the coronation of our Lord King Elessar--Captain Peregrin had heard of the peacocks and brought the other three to see them, for such things are unknown in their own land.”

“I was told only two passed through Mordor....”

“Only two did. Captain Peregrin arrived with Mithrandir and served here in the city and swore himself to Lord Denethor’s service, and now continues to serve our King; Sir Meriadoc arrived with the Rohirrim, riding along with the Lady Éowyn, sister’s daughter to Théoden King of Rohan and younger sister to their new King Éomer; and then the two actual Cormacolindor were brought to the city after the defeat of Mordor. I am told Mithrandir and the great Eagles brought them out of the ruin of the black land. But the four traveled south from their own land of the Shire at the King’s side until the Cormacolindor left the rest to travel alone into Mordor.”

“I am amazed the peacocks survived the battles.”

“We were forced to leave them here, although Valdamir came up several times when he was relieved from guard duty to see to it they had food and water. Were we in the lower levels of the city they might well have died of the smoke or of the missiles sent over the walls by the enemy. Val won’t speak of that time, simply shudders when Hirgon would question him about what it was like to defend the walls. From the little said by others, the Enemy did unspeakable things to dishearten our folk. Val says that he knows Belmarvor’s older son Belterion is dead, but will not tell us how he learned this.”

“And the Cormacolindor spoke courteously to Valdarion?”

“They have spoken courteously to all of us, including Teresel and Marilien. They are a fair-spoken people, we’ve found, and considerate of all. Lord Samwise is most courteous when he comes to call....”

Marc straightened again with surprise. “Lord Samwise comes to call?”

“Yes, for he loves the garden. Lord Frodo has come one more time with him, but attends much on the King, who counts deeply on Lord Frodo’s counsel and his perceptions on those who come to gain an audience with him. The peacocks all will gather about Frodo, and will eat from his hand as they do with Valdarion, Valdamir, and myself.”

Margil had taken some of the grain in his hand and was trying to entice the chicks to him, but they shied away from him. He was clearly growing impatient, and at last threw the grain from him, at which all the birds hurried to where it had landed. Arniel shook her head, got some grain herself and knelt down, holding still. After some minutes of patience at last two of the chicks approached her, cautiously feeding from her hand while she remained still, followed by three others. Margil, reddening somewhat, said something that was apparently rude, and his sister turned toward him and spoke his name so loudly and decisively she could be heard within, at which he pulled a face at her.

Valdarion could be seen trying to appease him, and surprised at what his taller cousin was saying Margil turned to him and spoke with him for some minutes. It was quickly seen, however, that he was still managing to be rude, for Hirgon leapt to his feet after a moment, his brows lowering in a frown that looked funny on the child’s face; and then Arniel rose suddenly and also turned on him, after which he and Valdarion exchanged some very heated words. They couldn’t tell what the quarrel was about, but Arniel had pulled back somewhat to watch the two boys verbally battle it out, although Hirgon, his wooden sword tentatively raised, stepped closer to his big brother’s side.

“Take that back!” Hirgon’s words could be heard even through the closed windows as Teresel arrived with a tray of cakes and wine for the mistress and her brother.

They couldn’t hear Margil’s response, but saw as Valdarion, quiet fury in his eyes, drew his little brother to him protectively and answered in words that were obviously being bitten off. Margil made some retort that managed to destroy Valdarion’s patience completely.

“You haven’t the slightest idea what they’re like, for you haven’t even seen them. Well, we have, and more than once. And you might think of that before you make such foolish statements in the future!” So saying, the taller boy drew back, glared at his cousin as he patted his brother on the shoulder, then turned away and went off in a carefully controlled temper around the house.

Elisien, Marcarion, and the maidservant watched after with surprise, for usually Valdarion was a most calm individual who almost never became truly angry.

“Set the tray there, Teresel,” Elisien said absently. “We’ll be back in within the moment, but I think we’d best find out what the boys have been arguing about.”

“Margil has been growing increasingly contrary in the past year,” commented Marc as they headed for the door to the back garden. Before they’d reached it, however, Meliseth had thrown it open rather dramatically.

“Nana,” she said, “Margil and Valdarion have quarreled, and now Valdarion has gone off, for he says if he stays he’ll strike Margil and he’s too much of a gentleman to do so.”

“What are they arguing about?” her mother asked.

“Margil refuses to believe the Ringbearers have visited here, and that the peacocks will eat out of Master Frodo’s hand, and that they are Pheriannath.”

Again Marcarion was startled. “Halflings? The Ringbearers are Halflings?”

Elisien turned to him, herself surprised. “Well, yes, didn’t you know? Didn’t the word reach there near the wharves of Pelargir, that the Cormacolindor and their companions are Halflings from Eriador?” From the distance at the front of the house the gate could be heard clanging violently shut.

*******


Valdarion couldn’t understand why Margil was refusing to believe them about the four Hobbits. Margil didn’t used to disbelieve what was told to him; but now he seemed bent on seeing a quarrel started and goading others into losing their patience. To realize he’d lost his temper so disturbed Valdarion, and without conscious decision he headed to the one place in the city he’d found over the years always seemed to calm him--the gardens surrounding the Houses of Healing, one truly green place within the walls where one could, at times, imagine one was outside them, out where there weren’t houses on each side.

The guards on duty at the gate to the Sixth Circle made no move to deter him, not that they had any reason to do so. Save in the worst days before the women and children and others unsuitable to guard Minas Tirith were sent to the places of refuge, none had ever been refused passage between the levels of the city to Valdarion’s knowledge. The boy inclined his head respectfully as he passed the guards, and on entering the main way turned to the Houses at the southwest extreme of the circle, near the way to the Rath Dínen. He quickly found his favorite spot beneath a yew tree whose lower boughs formed a sort of tent and crawled into the tented hollow provided, only to find he was not the first that day to seek out that private space.

Two boys already occupied the tented area, both as obviously of Dúnedain extraction as himself, their hair dark, their eyes grey, taller and more slender than the other Men of the western lands. One was only a couple years younger than himself, and the other about the age of Meliseth. They were both seated with their knees drawn up before them, and had obviously been speaking quietly with one another. The older boy examined him closely, and his face became compassionate. “Mae govannon,” he said. “Someone has been giving you difficulties this day?”

Realizing these two didn’t resent his intrusion, Valdarion pushed past the last branches. “Yes,” he admitted, “although it matters not, now I am away from him.”

The younger boy looked at him with interest. “Not your ada?”

“No, not my father--my cousin Margil. He’s being a wooden-head for some reason.”

The older boy raised his eyebrows. “My uncle hasn’t married, so I have no cousins as yet. What’s he doing?”

“He refuses to believe we have hosted the Pheriannath. In fact, he refuses to believe there are such people. He says no folk as small as we say they are could have gone through Mordor.”

“He doesn’t believe Captain Peregrin and the others are Pheriannath? That will make Pippin laugh, I must say.”

“You know them?” Valdarion asked.

“We both do,” the younger boy said. “The four of them live in the guest house next door to my family in Isil Lane along with the rest of the Fellowship, save for the King alone, although he visits them frequently. All are much devoted to one another. And he and his father have known Captain Peregrin since he first came to the city with Lord Mithrandir. Captain Beregond was then a man at arms in the Guard of the Citadel, and was assigned to teach Captain Peregrin the ways of his new service.”

Valdarion looked at the older boy with surprise and respect. “Your father is Captain Beregond, and saved the life of our Lord Faramir?”

The older boy nodded. “I am Bergil son of Beregond, and this is Tergil son of Elvamir, whose father serves in the Houses of Healing. His grandparents both serve in the Citadel. I had a message from my father to deliver to Prince Faramir, who attends the King Elessar today in the Houses of Healing, and Tergil had brought something for the noon meal for his father, and waits until his father finishes before he returns the dish to his home. My father has told me I might stay in the city for a time, and I will go back to the house in Isil Lane with Captain Peregrin, for I’ve barely seen him since the day of my father’s judgment.” He laughed. “When I first saw him I thought him but another boy like myself and----”

“And offered to stand him on his head--yes, he told us. But I doubt you thought the Ringbearer a child.”

“Oh, no--never Lord Frodo.” Bergil’s face grew solemn and proud. “He’s a special one, our Lord Frodo, he and Lord Samwise. Lord Samwise is a marvel. Would you like to go with us?”

“Why not?” Valdarion said, but then paused. “No,” he sighed, “I’d best not.”

“You’d best not do what?” asked another voice from behind him, and Valdarion turned in surprise to see Captain Peregrin pushing through the branches. He looked about himself with interest and approval. “This does indeed make a good private place, Bergil--I can see why you thought I should see it. I’ll have to tell Frodo about it, for there are a few times when he would appreciate feeling hidden away, I think. Hello, Valdarion. Fancy meeting you here!”

“I rejoice to see you, Captain,” Valdarion said, feeling a bit shy at seeing Pippin in his uniform.

“Well, Hardorn has just relieved me of duty, so I thought I’d check into the space under the tree and see if it was as wonderful as Bergil and Tergil have told me. So you, too, know of this place?”

“Yes, although I’d not expected to meet others here, particularly so many at once,” Valdarion said wryly.

“Does take a bit away from the hidden feeling, doesn’t it? But I suspect it’s usually empty.”

“Usually.”

“And what were you wishing to hide from?” Pippin asked as he finished pushing himself into the hollow about the bole of the yew.

“My cousin Margil.”

“An older cousin, then, a bit pushy and overbearing?”

“No, actually almost my own age, really. And usually he’s a fine enough fellow, but today he’s being particularly--particularly----” Valdarion shook his hand with frustration at not finding the right word to describe his cousin.

“Obtuse?” Pippin suggested. “It’s how Frodo usually describes Lobelia and some of our Bracegirdle relatives when they’re at their worst.”

“That sounds like a good word for him,” Valdarion said.

“What’s the problem?”

“He doesn’t believe in Pheriannath, you see. He’s just come to the city from the Pelargir, and he says he watched the King ride through followed by his kinsman and Prince Legolas and Lord Gimli and the Army of the Dead, so he feels himself to know all.”

“Well,” Pippin sniffed, “I have it on the best of authority that Hobbits do exist, you know. Why is he here in Minas Tirith?”

“His ada, my nana’s brother, came to attend the trade council meeting tomorrow.”

“The one at the Potters’ Guild Hall in the Third Circle? He’s a merchant, then?”

“Uncle Marcarion captains the family trading vessel.”

“Excellent. And will his family attend the banquet tomorrow noon?”

“I think so. Arniel and I have been fitted with new garments so that we might attend, although Nana says Hirgon and Meliseth must stay at home, and the two of them are very rebellious.”

“I can imagine, although they’d find the business part of the banquet quite boring, I believe, remembering how bored I’d feel when I had to attend Took convocations when I was a small lad.” Pippin looked thoughtful, and then smiled wickedly. “Well, if your cousin doesn’t believe in Hobbits, he’ll have his beliefs blown apart like the seeds from a dandelion clock tomorrow, for we are all to attend. Sam doesn’t wish to go, but Strider’s insisting Frodo must, and so Frodo is insisting in turn Sam must. Frodo’s a firm believer in misery loving company, you know.”

Valdarion laughed. “Then I don’t think I’ll tell him. Let him find out at the banquet! That would serve him right, I think.”

Pippin thought for a moment, then laughed again. “I have an idea that might add to the impact. I’ll suggest it to Strider tonight, then. Just don’t be surprised at how we appear tomorrow. Frodo will be most upset, but now and then it’s fun to force him to appear in his full glory.” He carefully led the way as the four of them exited the haven under the lowest boughs of the yew tree. “I’ll not tell Frodo about the hollow under the yew until after the banquet, for it may distract him from seeking my head, and will perhaps serve as a reward for looking his new rank.” He gave a slight bow. “Until tomorrow, then, Valdarion.”

Feeling considerably better than at his arrival in the gardens, Valdarion bowed to the other three and wished them a good day, then turned back toward the gate back down to the Fifth Circle. He wondered what Pippin had in mind, but decided to wait to see until the following day. It should prove amusing, he thought.

His parents were out in the front garden with Uncle Marcarion when he arrived home. Elisien looked up at her son, and was obviously relieved to see his anger had dissipated. “Ada, Nana, Uncle,” he said, pausing and bowing politely. “I am sorry I left as I did, but I was truly afraid I might try to strike Margil if I stayed to hear more of the argument. I ought not to have allowed myself to be provoked.”

“Your cousin,” his uncle commented, “is not finding growing up as enjoyable as he’d looked for it to be, I fear. And it is a wise Man who knows when to withdraw to cool down that he not act in haste and then need to repent at leisure. Where did you go?”

“To the gardens about the Houses of Healing. I find it calming to be there.”

“You have a special refuge there?”

“Yes, but I found it occupied today. I met two other boys there, and--and a friend. He says he must attend the banquet tomorrow, and looks forward to being introduced to you and your family then, Uncle.”

Uncle Marc exchanged looks with his brother-in-law, who shrugged. “Then,” he said as he returned his attention to his nephew, “we will look forward to meeting him. Your aunt should be here shortly with Popea, I think. I can’t imagine there’d be that much dust and ash within the house.”

“You’d be much surprised,” Valdarion assured him. “We all had to help Teresel and Marilien to clean it up here. It seemed to work its way everywhere.”

“The orchards of Lebennin and Lamedon appear to have benefited greatly from the ash, though,” Valdamir added, “for all say there has not been such a bountiful crop of fruit of all kinds in living memory.”

“And the flowers in the garden are the richest I’ve ever seen since we were married,” Elisien added. “Of course the attention of Master Samwise may well add to their current beauty. He has proven a master gardener indeed.”

“I hope I might have occasion to see these strange folk of yours,” Marc said.

“Master Samwise might indeed find occasion to visit again while you are in the city. He spends a good deal of time, I’m told, assisting in the gardens of the Citadel as well as those surrounding the Houses of Healing; but he tries to visit once a week, saying our garden most reminds all of them of the type of garden they are accustomed to in their homeland.”

“I look forward to such a meeting with pleasant anticipation, then.”

Valdarion asked, “Where is Margil?”

“In the back parlor, forced to write a letter of apology to you. Valariel is taking great pleasure in seeing to it the letter is properly written, by the way. I was as happy to leave her to supervising him.”

Soon his aunt and their family companion arrived, and there was much exchanging of news. However, Valdarion had no occasion to see anything further of his cousin until the evening meal. At his place at the table lay the fruit of his cousin’s prolonged labor under his sister’s eye. Valdarion took, opened, and read it, then looked across the table at Margil, and said simply, “Apology accepted, Margil.”

After the Standing Silence, once the meal had quite begun, Valdarion looked at his cousin and asked, “Will you sit by me at the banquet tomorrow?”

Uncle Marc gave his son a critical look, then explained apologetically to his nephew, “I fear Margil won’t be going to the banquet after all. Those who insist on being as contrary as Margil, to the point they drive their best friends to fight with them, are obviously not old enough to attend banquets.”

Valdarion felt a bit panicked. Captain Peregrin had plans to make his cousin Frodo most uncomfortable for this banquet, apparently, all for his sake and that of Margil; it would all be for naught should Margil not be allowed to attend the banquet as well. “Oh, but he has to come, too,” he blurted out. “The fight is over and he’s apologized, and very thoroughly at that. Please, Uncle Marc!”

Aunt Narieth gave her son a very jaded look. “If it were just the argument with you, Valdar, that would be one thing. However, this is just one more incident in what has become a very long string of very similar incidents.”

Popea, who’d been a member of his cousin’s family for years since she was rescued by Uncle Marc’s sailors from an Umbari slaver, also was giving Margil a critical look. “This boy has been contrary--most contrary. He has done his best to argue with every soul he must come into contact with for the last several moon cycles. Perhaps if this boy wishes to do things such as attending banquets he would do well to behave far more agreeably.”

Margil was blushing furiously under his family’s scrutiny, and shot a look at his sister. Valariel merely returned his look coolly and then focused her attention pointedly on her plate again. “The chicken is very good, Aunt Elisien,” she said. “You must give me the recipe.”

Elisien fought a smile. “I will be glad to do so tomorrow evening, Valariel. And what will you be wearing to the banquet?”

The girl glowed with satisfaction. “Naneth and I have had the most beautiful dress made, Aunt. It’s....” The description was lengthy, and the explanation of how they’d found the fabric and the perfect one to make it for her even more so. Valdarion and Margil found themselves rolling their eyes at one another across the table, and then fighting down giggles, until Valdarion remembered again that he must be certain Margil also attended tomorrow.

It took quite some time before Valariel sufficiently exhausted the subject of her dress for anyone else to get a word in edgewise. Valdarion was pleased to see that even Arniel looked relieved to have the interminable monologue on her older cousin’s part over with, while Hirgon and Meliseth looked frankly bored. He glanced down at his little brother, who sat next to him. “Be glad, Hirgon,” he whispered, “you won’t be going, for much of the conversation will be just such stuff. It’s a merchants’ banquet, after all.”

The little boy rolled his eyes most pointedly. “Then I’m glad I’ll get to go to Gerthol’s house tomorrow. We’ll get to play guardsmen. He has a new sword his uncle bought for him, made to look like the one Sir Meriadoc used on the Witch-king.”

Meliseth was still looking sulky. “Will the Lord King attend the banquet?”

“Pippin says he will attend much of the conference,” Valdarion answered her almost without thinking.

“You saw Pippin? When?”

Valdarion shot his mother a look, and saw that she was watching him with new interest. “When I went up to the Sixth Circle to calm down. We spoke for a time, Apparently those in his household will be expected to attend, and his cousin is afraid he will be very bored.”

“Oh, Nana,” Meliseth begged, “please can’t I go? If Pippin and the rest are going to go....”

“They won’t be sitting anywhere near us, I fear, sweet one,” her mother said gently. “They’ll have to sit at the high table, I suspect.”

“But Hirgon and me, we’ll miss the stories!”

“I really doubt there will be much in the way of stories tomorrow. As your brother pointed out to Hirgon, most of the talk will be of cargoes and lading and merchandise and where best to sell it. And from what we know of Pippin’s kinsmen, I suspect they’re attending mostly out of courtesy and not because of their interest in trade. Although, considering Pippin’s family ties perhaps he might be expected to talk business.”

“But he’s not of age yet--he’s said so!”

“Neither are your brother and sister and cousins, but they are attending that they prepare for the day when they must take up whatever trades or such they might embrace.”

“Will Margil be going to Gerthol’s house with me?” Hirgon asked.

“Well, I’m hoping,” Elisien said quickly before her brother could answer, “that his parents will forgive him enough to allow him to attend the banquet, too.”

Margil looked up at his aunt with surprise at her championing of him. Valdamir smiled with hope--if Naneth was supporting him, it was because she’d realized who else was going to be there, and she, too, felt it would be good to for him to see the Pheriannath in person.

Narieth was examining her sister-in-law. “You believe that after his behavior today we should allow Margil to attend a banquet?”

Valdamir was also looking at his wife, for he knew that if they’d made such a decision she would not have considered such a reversal of policy for her own children. Something about the fact this Pippin would be attending had caught Elisien’s attention. “Who is Pippin?”

“We met him as a result of the war,” Elisien answered. “A most pleasant young gentleman.”

Meliseth snorted into her juice, and Arniel, under cover of checking to see if she’d spotted her dress, quietly warned her to keep quiet and not spoil things.

“As Meliseth has pointed out, young Pippin is not quite of age, although he’s proven himself to be very responsible nonetheless. I think it would be very--instructive--for Margil to have the chance to meet him tomorrow. After all, if he and his kinsmen will be attending....” She smiled engagingly.

The conversation at dinner shifted to other subjects, but afterwards when they gathered in the back parlor Marcarion broached the subject himself. “So, sister, you now feel Margil should attend after all.”

“Oh, yes, particularly if Pippin and his kinsmen are to be there.”

“It’s a most unusual name.”

“I agree. It’s the dear-name his family uses for him.”

“Does he live in the city?”

“He and his kinsmen remain here I believe for a couple more months, although they live in the countryside, I understand. His father and uncle are important officials of their folk, we’re told, and he will be expected soon enough to assist in arranging trade agreements for their region. I’m certain this is why they are expected to attend the conference.”

“Narieth and I will consider changing our minds if you believe it advisable,” Marc said slowly, “if Margil will agree to consider how his constant arguing has made him a most disagreeable one to have to deal with.”

“I promise,” Margil agreed fervently. “I’m sorry I keep arguing, although I’m not sure why I do. Although I still don’t believe in Hobbits,” he added, “but I promise not to argue about it.”

“What are Hobbits?” asked Popea.

Elisien smiled and shook her head. “Probably best a subject left to tomorrow to discuss,” she temporized. “But as Valdarion has forgiven Margil for the quarrel, it’s best we all do so as well, don’t you agree?”

*******


“And why do you want me to insist Frodo wear court dress tomorrow?” Aragorn asked his smallest Guardsman.

Pippin had spent most of the afternoon considering what arguments he’d use. “I’d like these trader folk to underestimate us. If they see us arriving in mail under court dress they’ll not be looking for us to understand about trading potatoes and carrots and pipeweed. It will give us a remarkable tactical advantage, you see.”

“But Frodo’s not going to be happy.”

“You’ve done your best to try to get Frodo to accept he’s a lord of the realm--don’t you think this will help drive home the idea? And that will work to our advantage as well, if he’s not seen as so humble they think they can take advantage of us.”

Aragorn stroked his chin and glanced up at Gandalf, who was looking at Pippin suspiciously. Aragorn also sensed the young Hobbit’s real reason for wanting them to attend in court dress was being hidden, but he agreed with forcing Frodo to accept his rank. “All right, I’ll agree to request you all dress accordingly tomorrow.”

After the Took had hurried out, Gandalf focused his attention on the King. “And you’ll go along with this?”

The Man snorted. “As if you don’t enjoy putting everyone on uncertain footing when you can, and forcing us to reveal ourselves from time to time. Consider yourself a corrupting influence, Gandalf.”

The Wizard snorted with laughter. “I admit it--and now I’ve corrupted a King! Mail and swords and court dress it is; and I look forward to learning as soon as possible what his true motivation is for asking such a thing.”

*******


As had been anticipated Frodo was openly rebellious. “Now, this just isn’t fair,” he grumbled as Pippin and Lasgon between them smoothed the new surcoat over Frodo’s mithril shirt. This had arrived as a gift to Frodo from Eryn Lasgalen with the party sent to honor the new King among Men, a garment of finest silk velvet of midnight blue, embroidered with the Two Trees, Sun, Moon, and seven stars.

Pippin sighed. “Frodo, this isn’t just traders from Gondor, but that deputation from the Dunlendings and some free-traders from Harad and Umbar as well. Lord Halladan will be attending for the court of Annúminas, you know, and will have his mail under his surcoat; and you can believe Lord Elfhelm will be dressed in court armor.”

“And we are just Hobbits of the Shire, Peregrin Took!”

“Frodo Baggins, you have never been just anything, and it’s past time you accepted that. You personally are the best individual the Shire has ever produced, and as our primary representative you’d best look the part today. You never know what trade agreements might be forged as a result of this conference.”

“The Powers help the Shire if that’s true,” Frodo muttered, but Pippin cut him off.

“Stop it, Frodo. Stop it now. The Ring is destroyed, and you have no right to keep repeating its arguments to yourself.”

Chastened, Frodo went quiet. It was extremely rare for Pippin to seek to correct him, and he knew well enough that Pippin’s opinion reflected that of Gandalf and Aragorn. He only hoped the day would pass swiftly. Then, when Gandalf entered with the box in which lay his and Sam’s circlets he groaned again, but held his tongue at first, recognizing he’d been outmaneuvered. Noting the glint of humor in the Wizard’s eyes, however, Frodo became suspicious again. “Is this truly necessary, Gandalf?”

Gandalf lifted an eyebrow as he removed Frodo’s circlet from the box and settled it about the Hobbit’s brow. “Necessary, Frodo? Perhaps not--but desirable for the day. Let your Light shine before all. Not all princes are born so, you know.”

“And when a prince comes among Hobbits----”

“All with hearts to understand rejoice,” Gandalf interrupted. “The true measure of a prince is what he is willing to give of himself for those he cherishes, not how much temporal power he wields. Now let us hear no more complaints.”

Realizing he’d not be allowed any grumbling, Frodo went silent as Lasgon fastened the glittering belt and hung Sting’s sheath from it, although his heart lifted when he saw Sam dressed in a rich wine-colored velvet surcoat over his gilded mail, a golden sunburst on his chest, from the same source as his own garb for the day. “Oh, yes,” he murmured. “Yes indeed--that is beautiful on you, Sam.”

Glad at Sam’s magnificence and the dignity he saw in his two cousins, Frodo followed the party from the house and to where it would join with that of the King for the walk down to the Third Circle.

*******


Because of his father’s position as Master of the Guild of Merchant Adventurers, Valdarion’s family had come down to the Potters’ Guild Hall over a mark before the banquet was to start so his parents could review what had been done. As a result Valdarion and Arniel found themselves drafted to help in the final preparations, as not all the vases of flowers and greens had as yet been placed on lower tables, nor all chairs and benches placed.

Special chairs with raised seats had been sent down from the Citadel for the use of the four Pheriannath, one of them padded with cushions of deep gold. At the King’s written suggestion Captain Peregrin was to sit at a table filled mostly with dealers in fabrics, among whom Captain Marcarion’s family was also to be placed along with his sister, niece, and nephew; while Sir Meriadoc was to sit with traders of foodstuffs from Gondor, Arnor, Rohan, and Dunland. Those setting up the room for the meal were just finishing up the last of it when the first batch of arrivals began filing into the hall, among them Uncle Marc, Aunt Narieth, and the cousins.

Margil appeared excited as Valdarion approached them. He paused, looking at his taller cousin, then smiled. “You truly look excellent, Valdar,” he admitted.

Examining the dark blue surcoat of fine wool Margil wore over a blue-grey shirt, both embroidered with white stars, the taller boy smiled. “So do you. I’m to bring you to your table, and save me a place beside you for later, as I’ll be taking many to their tables until Ada says I’ve done enough.”

As they approached the table Margil looked at the chair with the raised seat at one end with surprise. “What is that for? Are we to have a little child sit with us?”

“No, not a child, although you won’t understand probably until that one comes. He’ll be among one of the last, I believe. Ada says the King has advised that his folk do much trading of wool and woolen cloth.”

The hall was filling rapidly now, and Valdarion and Arniel were both kept busy with other children of their father’s personal staff within the guild seeing to it that each arriving party was conducted to the proper table. The tables were almost full when all went quiet, and then the whispers began to pass from table to table that the King and his own party had just arrived. Stragglers were seated hastily, and at last Valdamir, as head of the Guild hosting the event, stepped to his place at the high table.

“My friends,” he announced, “I would announce some of those who are this day our special guests. Horubi’amonrabi, a freetrader from Harad.” A compact Haradri entered from a secondary entrance and was met by Valdarion, who led him to their table. “Nissonwë son of Norosë, a freetrader from Umbar.” One of the other sons of city traders greeted a tall man of obvious Dúnedain heritage but with a definite supercilious expression and led him and the one who’d accompanied him to the table where sat the dealers of fine porcelains. “Felder son of Merentor of Dunland.” A heavily bearded Man was led with two others to the table where those who dealt with foodstuffs sat.

“Lord Gloin, a Dwarf from Erebor, and his son Lord Gimli, one of the King’s Companions.” These two were led to a table largely populated by those who traded in fine jewelry and precious metals and stones. “Prince Tharen and Prince Legolas, one of the King’s Companions, sons of King Thranduil of the great forest realm of Eryn Lasgalen.” These two were led to the table where sat those who were known to deal with fine wines. Much murmuring at the sight of the two Elves, one dark and one golden as the Sun’s pure light, yet clearly brothers nonetheless, could be heard throughout the hall. “King Brand of Dale in Rhovanion,” and a party of three was led within, one led to a seat at the high table, and a Man and a woman led to the table of those who traded finely artificed goods.

“Lord Halladan of Annúminas, Steward of the northern realm of Arnor, kinsman and cousin to our Lord King, a captain among the Rangers of Eriador.” And one dressed in silver robes embroidered with a circle of seven stars over mail entered and was then led to a place at the table where those who traded fine leathers were seated.

“Lord Elfhelm of Edoras, Captain of Eoreds and representative of the King of Rohan,” and a tall Rider with the long golden hair of that people, dressed in golds and greens with the White Horse impressed onto the breastplate of his leather gambeson over his silvered mail, entered and was led to the high table. “Sir Meriadoc Brandybuck, Holdwine and Knight of the Mark and Esquire to the King of Rohan, shield brother to the Lady Éowyn, slayer of Nazgul, son of Saradoc Brandybuck, Master of Buckland of the Shire, one of the King’s Companions.”

All looked for a tall Man to enter, another in the mold of Lord Elfhelm; but instead a small figure with brown hair entered the room, although accoutered much as was the tall Rider. He was brought to the same table as that to which the two Elves had been led. The eyes of the room followed him, fascinated, and whispers of “He helped slay the Witch King of Angmar” passed throughout those who filled the hall.

“Peregrin Took, a Captain of the Guard of the Citadel and a knight of Gondor, and son to Paladin Took, the Took and Thain to the Shire in Eriador, known in the city as the Ernil i Pheriannath--one of the King’s Companions.”

Valdarion greeted this small figure, and led him proudly to the table where he was to sit by his cousin. This one was dressed indeed as a Guard of the Citadel in black and silver, his finely wrought mail clearly seen under his sable tabard with its fine embroidery of the flowering Tree with Stars and Crown. Valdarion saw this small one with the auburn hair to his place by the chair with the raised seat, bowed deeply, and paused by his cousin’s side before he went forward again. “Close your mouth before you swallow a fly, Margil,” he said, somewhat smugly.

Uncle Marcarion and Aunt Narieth watched after their nephew as he went forward to finish his duties, amazed he’d managed to restrain himself to so little.

“Lord Mithrandir the White from among the Istari, advisor to Kings and Lords of Men, Elves, Dwarves, and Pheriannath throughout the Free Lands, and the King’s beloved Companion.” All watched as the tall Wizard was led to the high table.

“Samwise Gamgee of Hobbiton in the Shire, Lord Panthail of all the Free Peoples of the West for his service as one of the two Cormacolindor, beloved Companion of the King, esquire to the King’s Friend, lover of growing things.” A somewhat broader Pherian entered, was greeted by Arniel and led to his place at the high table.

“Frodo Baggins of the Shire, kinsman to Master and Thain and Bilbo Baggins, the Ring Finder and hero of the Battle of the Five Armies, the Lord Iorhael of all the Free Peoples of the West for his service as Cormacolindor, the Ringbearer, beloved Companion and Friend of the King.”

All watched as this small, slight, yet clearly shining figure was led to a place of honor at the high table, just beside where the King himself was to sit.

“Our Lord King Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar, Aragorn son of Arathorn, born Chieftain of the Dúnedain of Eriador, Lord now of Gondor and Arnor, the King Returned.” And all bowed low as the exceedingly tall Man garbed in a sable robe embroidered with the White Tree in Flower, his brow encircled by the Elendilmir, a great green jewel holding closed the neck of his robe, came to claim the central seat at the high table.

The room was now profoundly quiet as the traders of the realm of Gondor examined their new Lord and looked at those of his companions and friends placed about the room as those who’d served as ushers took their places. When at last all eyes fixed again on the tall Man at the high table, he at last spoke.

“For millennia Gondor has been the greatest center for trade throughout Middle Earth, and so it shall undoubtedly remain, now that the great Enemy of all has been cast down. But it shall have fuller trade as once more Men, Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits may send their goods freely in all directions, north, south, west to the Sea, and east into long denied lands; and we look for much trade from lands long barred from free access by the Enemy’s will.

“Know this--that I am myself intimately aware of the need for trade, as well as its rituals and rhythms. I have sailed upon our people’s trading ships, and ridden in caravans trading in far lands, have haggled over goods in markets and the tents of Khafrim and farmers, have inspected the produce of fields and forges. My people deal with furs and leathers, with wrought metals and carved woods. The Hobbits of the Shire produce many of the finest foodstuffs, woolens, linens, and porcelains for the table in the known lands. The Elves of the northern lands create the finest woven and embroidered goods, the finest wines, the most wondrous of weapons and delicate ornaments. The Dwarves of the mountains are the greatest miners, smiths, and jewelers of all peoples; and their armor, weapons, and tools hold no peers for strength and beauty and endurance, and the jewels they trade and set are unequaled for quality and glory. As for their work with stone and clay--the glory of their workmanship cannot be praised highly enough. The people of Dale are artificers of goods without peer; the Rohirrim breed the greatest horses and cattle and produce the finest leather goods for farmers and riders of all within the western lands; the folk of Dunland breed the finest swine and goods carven from stone and wood of all I know.

“I ask you to speak freely with these guests from far lands and strange peoples seated among you today, and let all learn what others have to offer--how silks and cottons and shells and ivory are produced and passed through Harad, how Umbari traders deal with all kinds of goods. And let all see how free converse throughout Middle Earth benefits all, now that we no longer need fear for the interference of Mordor.

“Now, if all will join me in the observance of the Standing Silence....”

“Well,” Captain Peregrin said as he looked about the company once all had taken their seats and the meal began to be served, “it’s an honor to be seated by all of you today. As Aragorn has indicated, my father is Thain of the Shire, and we of the Tooklands have always prided ourselves in the quality of the woolens we produce. Not,” he said ruefully, looking down at his uniform, “that I’m wearing any examples of our folk’s weaving right now--I fear that once we reached here we all needed new garb, for what we brought with us was much damaged by our long journeys.” He looked at Valdarion. “It’s good to find myself by you, Valdarion,” he added. “And is one of these the cousin you spoke of yesterday?”

Margil was flushing deeply, and Valdarion felt much vindicated as he began making introductions.

The next day the family sat in the parlor of Valdamir and Elisien’s house. Marcarion looked out the window into the garden where the mother peahen had settled with her brood around her. “I must say that seeing the Pheriannath and our new King was an experience I’d not anticipated. And you say, sister, that they visit here on occasion?”

Elisien nodded. “Actually all four have been here but the once so far, having been advised we have the peacocks and curious about them. But all say that the garden reminds them of the way most gardens grow in their own land, and requested permission to return from time to time to help fight the homesickness they feel. Master Sam has returned, as I said, just to enjoy working among the flowers, and Master Frodo the once, reveling in the beauty of the garden and the peacocks. He has a marked love for beauty, we’ve found.”

“He himself is a remarkable individual,” Narieth said softly. “I cannot imagine how one as shining as he is could creep secretly through Mordor as he must have done.”

“Master Samwise spoke some of it during his last visit,” Elisien said. “He said it was most difficult, and that there was almost no food or water for them, that they neither expected to survive the journey. He said that to waken to find they yet lived was a pleasant shock, as their last waking memory was of sitting on a stony rise, surrounded by a river of fire from the mountain.”

“The King is as much a surprise as are the Halflings,” Marc added, accepting a drink from Teresel as she offered him the contents of her tray. “To have one from the north as knowledgeable as he is of our land as well as fluent in Haradri and Rhunic....”

“When did he have occasion to speak Rhunic?” asked his sister.

“A party from Rhun arrived with Prince Faramir and Prince Imrahil and his two elder sons about an hour after the banquet was over, and they were flattered when the King welcomed them in their own language and, I understand, full courtesy according to their ways,” Valdamir explained. “From what we’ve seen of him, he is well versed in the languages, histories, and cultures of all the lands with which we here in Gondor are familiar as well as those of the northlands. Apparently he was educated by Lord Elrond of Imladris and his people, and so he has been well prepared for the day on which he might accept the Winged Crown as well as the Sceptre of Annúminas.”

Valariel said to Popea, “I wish you’d agreed to come, for you would have enjoyed the meal and the company.”

Popea rolled her dark eyes. “No, I do not think so--not to eat alongside folk from Umbar and Harad, after they have helped to enslave the people of my homeland for so long. Besides, I had an enjoyable afternoon.”

Margil whispered to Valdarion, “Enjoyable going to the swordsmith’s forge in the Fifth Circle, the one from Far Harad whose skin is as dark as her own. She fancies him, I think.”

Popea had obviously heard this, and swatted at the boy. “And if I did, can you blame me? He is a Man among Men, skillful and honorable, and with the mastership of a fine trade. Plus, he is very handsome.”

Teresel had served them all with drinks and cakes when Merilien entered, obviously quietly excited. “Master Valdamir, Mistress Elisien, the Pheriannath have come to call and ask if they might enjoy the gardens.”

Elisien straightened with pleasure. “Oh, certainly--take them around the house and right out into the gardens, and offer them cakes, cold meats and cheeses suitable to be eaten with their fingers, sliced fruit, and what they will accept for drinks, and tell them we will join them in a moment.”

She then turned to her brother and his family. “A few things of which you should be advised. First, from what we’ve learned of them, the Hobbits, as they call themselves, prefer to be informal, and are unlikely to appear as they did yesterday. It disturbs Master Frodo to be addressed as ‘Lord,’ you will find, for such designations are not used by them for one another. Even their Thain and his lady wife, whom I understand to be the leaders among them, are addressed directly, we are told, as ‘Master’ and ‘Mistress,’ even by those who are very much social inferiors.

“Second, the other three are very protective of Master Frodo. His acceptance of the duty to bring the Ring to the Mountain nearly killed both him and his friend Samwise, and the rest are rightfully concerned for his health and well-being.

“Third, do not allow their size and apparent light-heartedness fool you--they are all very competent individuals, and well respected by the King and his people. Indeed, from what we can tell the King’s kinsmen have protected their realm’s borders for generations due to the service their folk have given the throne of Arnor in the past.”

Marcarion’s family was surprised at this. “And for so long,” Narieth said, “we thought the stories told of them were just that.”

“Indeed,” Valdamir said, just as the peacock gave his cry near the back of the house.

Merilien was seeing the four of them brought to the low table on the sunburst pavement, and immediately the other three were seeing to it that Master Frodo was seated first, then seating themselves around him, the peacock coming near his chair and displaying his tail. Valdamir shared looks with the rest of the family, then led them out into the hallway and toward the door to the back garden. “Good masters,” he greeted them, “we are honored to have your visit. I only hope that we are not so great a company this afternoon as to cause you discomfort. May I present my wife’s brother and his family.”

Up close it was plain all four were indeed adults, their faces competent and alert, all somewhat watchful. Masters Frodo and Samwise were today in long-sleeved shirts under what appeared to be open surcoats of some kind, Master Frodo wearing a cloak, Sam with a bag over his shoulder, and Captain Peregrin with a scarf draped loosely around his neck and down the front of his surcoat. Once introductions were finished, Master Frodo rose politely. “We thank you for your courtesy and hospitality. The garden for the house in which we dwell was long ignored, and is nowhere as beautiful as this, which is so reminiscent of the gardens of our own land. But if we are imposing....”

“Oh, no,” Elisien assured him, as Hirgon came and pressed himself near to him. Unconsciously the Hobbit smiled down at the boy. “We are ever glad to see you, Master Frodo.”

“So you got to go to the banquet yesterday?” Hirgon asked.

“Aragorn insisted--said if he must go, we must as well,” Frodo assured him.

“Did you like it?”

“The food was very good, but I’m afraid I’ve never cared much for business.”

Master Sam snorted. “Don’t let him fool you none,” he advised the child. “Between his folks and old Mr. Bilbo and his own doin’s, Mr. Frodo here has a far better head for business than most in the Shire. May not do a lot hisself, but he knows how to back those as is good at it.”

“How do you support yourself in your own land, Master Frodo?” Marcarion asked.

“Mostly off my farmshares, business partnerships, rental income, and what little money was left of my uncle’s fortune and the estate left me by my parents. Although I serve also as a copyist and bookbinder.”

“And you, Master Samwise?”

“I’ve been workin’ in gardens all my life, sir, alongside my dad and then on my own. My dad, he thought as maybe I’d like to ’prentice to my Uncle Andy as is a roper up Tighfield way, but the flowers is in my blood, and I didn’t want to leave Bag End and my Mr. Frodo.”

“Nor Rosie Cotton,” added Sir Meriadoc. Master Sam flushed.

“You’d best stop bringing up Rosie,” Frodo commented, “or he’s likely to begin teasing you about Estella and Melillot and the Bunches’ daughter.”

All laughed. Narieth commented, “You appear well-versed in your family’s wool production, Captain Peregrin.”

“Please, just call me Pippin--I’m not on duty right now, and it’s disconcerting being addressed by title when I’m out of uniform. But, yes, I know about wool and all--my dad even had me out working one summer with one of our shepherd families so I’d understand just how the sheep are taken care of year round. And we all pitched in at sheep-sheering time and the autumn slaughtering and all, back before Cousin Ferumbras declared Da officially his heir and we had to move into the Great Smial full time so Da would have time to prepare for when he would have to take over. My mum’s always been a good one with spinning, both drop spindles and wheels, and produces some of the finest threads and yarns in the Shire.”

“Did she make the scarf you’re wearing?” asked Valariel.

Pippin looked down at the scarf that hung over his shoulders. “This? I think she may have spun and possibly dyed the yarn, but this was knit by Frodo’s mum.” He smiled as he slipped it off his shoulders and passed it to the girl to examine. “I guess it’s almost all any of us have left of the clothing we left the Shire with. The darker stripes are of a spinning of variegated fibers, what we call tweeds. It’s much the colors of the hills of our sheep runs--the greens of the grass and bracken, the browns of the moss and earth, the greys of the twigs, the lavender of our heather blossoms, and the yellows of the larch leaves; and the yellow stripes are the colors of the sun on buttercups and dandelions, and reflected from our streams and ponds on still days.

“Cousin Primula knit this for Frodo when he turned ten; then when Merry turned ten Frodo gave it to him, and when I turned ten Merry gave it to me. I suppose when I have a lad of my own, I’ll give it to him when he turns ten--keep up the family tradition, you see.”

“You might give it to Brand when he turns ten,” Meriadoc suggested.

“I might, but I’ve never been as close to either Brand or Piper as I’ve been to you three.”

“You are all related?” Narieth asked as she took the scarf from her daughter to examine it herself.

Sam sighed. “You don’t want to be sittin’ here still tonight listenin’ to the answer, so you’d best let me say. The three of them is all great grandsons of the Old Took, and all cousins to one degree or another. I’m not related by blood to any of them.”

Frodo gave a sad smile. “My own parents died when I was a young lad, leaving me an only child; and so I’ve collected younger brothers, mostly among my cousins, but one from the gardens at Bag End. And these three found out I was leaving the Shire to protect it, and refused to allow me to leave without them.”

“I see,” she said, returning the scarf to Pippin.

Meliseth asked, “What happened to the rest of the clothes you started out with?”

“We either outgrew them or lost them,” Merry said, with a glance at the rest. “Pippin and I ended up in Fangorn Forest and were given Ent-draughts to drink by Treebeard, and afterwards even if we’d still had our extra things we couldn’t fit them any more, as we’d grown too much. As for Frodo and Sam--” he winced, “the little they didn’t lose they had to throw away eventually, as they couldn’t bear carrying the extra weight any more.”

“Gandalf says as what Mr. Frodo and me had at the end will be displayed somewhere here in Minas Tirith,” Sam said solemnly. “These two have a little extra clothes made, and we have perhaps a bit more. Most of it’s fit for here, but will look outlandish once we’re back home in the Shire, though.”

Pippin was examining Popea. “I hope you don’t think me too forward,” he said almost shyly, “but I’ve never seen anyone with your color skin before.”

She shrugged. “I was born in a land far to the south of here, south of Far Harad. When I was a girl slavers come to my village and captured many of us, and all my family. Master Marcarion captured the slave ship I was on and freed me, but I have no idea what had happened to my brother, sister, and parents. I was sold away from the rest in a coastal town in Harad. Others on the ship were given a share of the slavers’ wealth and allowed to find their ways home; Master Marcarion took me as a foster daughter, and I’ve stayed with them ever since.

“There’s a Man here in the city who came here from Far Harad, a swordsmith; and the smith and me, we watch one another when we come to Minas Tirith. I think this time perhaps this Man will speak to my family about me.”

Frodo looked at her, fascinated. “Have the two of you ever talked?” he asked.

She smiled, looking down demurely. “Oh, yes, we’ve talked. Or, mostly he’s talked. He’s very handsome.”

Pippin laughed delightedly, then glanced at his cousins. “How wonderful! But you’d best watch out for interference now from Merry, for he’s inherited the romantic streak that runs through our bloodlines--now that he’s seen Prince Faramir and Lady Éowyn discover one another, and he can’t really do anything more to get Sam and Rosie together until we get home, he’ll be doing his best for you and your beaux next.”

“Pippin!” protested Merry.

Merilien and Teresel came out with juice and the food requested and set it on the table before the Hobbits.

Meliseth begged Frodo, “Won’t you tell us a story?”

“About what?” Frodo was smiling at the child, his face gentle.

“About--about your home.”

“About my home?”

“Yes, about your home.”

Frodo sighed softly, but apparently fondly. “Well, all right. But you need to understand, at home in the Shire we Hobbits don’t live in tall houses as Men do here in the King’s city. No, we live in burrow-like homes, dug into the hillsides or built low and rounded along the ground....”

Sam ate and drank some, then slipped his bag off his shoulder and rummaged in it, pulling out a small trowel, weeding tool, and hand fork, then slipped quietly out of the circle on the pavement to kneel by the edge of the garden, beginning to turn the soil around the roots of a flowering shrub, gently teasing out the small plants that had begun to grow since his last visit and laying them aside. Now and then Frodo would look over at his friend, smiling as he paused to take a drink or nibble at the fruit offered him, then returning to his story.

Margil sat back by Valdarion, glad their quarrel was over, and even unconcerned that he’d lost it. He’d been amazed the previous day to actually see the Pheriannath at the banquet, and even moreso when Pippin had joined their table and discussed things such as sheep and woolens and the cloth his land produced, and where and how they purchased those they couldn’t make for themselves from the market in Bree and the cloth fair held annually in what he’d called the marketplace by the Brandywine Bridge. Arniel and Valdarion had listened politely, but Margil had been fascinated, for unlike his cousins trade was in his blood, and he now dreamt of the day he’d be the one to come to that bridge to trade his own exotic silks, cottons, and other fabrics from lands far distant from theirs or that of the Hobbits. Now he found himself imagining the long smials Frodo described, the round windows and their shutters, the cheerful curtains of most, the elegant ones of those homes belonging to the wealthy, made of fabrics loomed here in Minas Tirith or perhaps in Thetos or Hinya or the other lands and cities his father’s friends spoke of as they returned from their journeys....

He found suddenly his attention fixed on Frodo, saw how Merry and Pippin watched him carefully as they listened, their own attention still focused on him even as they ate or glanced at Sam’s progress. And he saw the beauty of the Ringbearer’s face as he spoke, for the moment animated. The previous day, dressed as a prince, he’d looked as exotic as any of the silks his father brought home from distant climes; today he looked gentle and somewhat vivid, like the blooms Sam’s hands caressed gently as he examined them, before bringing out his pocket knife to cut off the spent ones that stood on each side.

Suddenly the peacock, which had been nestled down on the grass by Frodo’s chair, stood up and shook himself, displayed his beautiful tail, then closed his eyes as he pushed against Frodo’s hand for a rub; and Sam, having found a perfect bloom that would soon begin to fade, brought it to press into Frodo’s other hand. And that image of Frodo’s face between the beauty of the peacock and that of the gardenia flower was one that would stay with him forever....

*******


Ten years later a trader entered the grounds for the market that set up by the gate at the Brandywine Bridge outside the boundaries of the Shire, leading his string of pack horses. He approached the Hobbit who stood there with a board to which papers were affixed. “I’d like to purchase space to sell my fabrics,” he said. “I’ve brought them from Gondor, Harad, Hinya, Mundolië, Rhun, Camaloa, and other far places.”

“I’m not certain if we have any spare areas, but I can ask Master Merry if he knows whether any particular trader might not make it.”

The trader straightened. “Master Merry?” he asked, his eyes suddenly bright with interest. “The one who went with the Cormacolindor?”

The Hobbit looked at him, his brows furrowed. “The corma-what?”

“He’s traveled from the Shire?” he asked.

“Yes, ten year back he did. We still call him and his cousin Pippin the Travelers, you know.”

The Man smiled. “I see. And how about Master Frodo and Master Sam?”

The Hobbit’s face became somewhat stiff. “Not many’d even speak of Frodo Baggins,” he said, “not since he left the Shire the second time. Went away, we’re told, with the Elves, and won’t ever be back this time. Fool thing, leavin’ the Shire that way.” He turned and walked deliberately away, but approached two figures considerably taller than the rest of the Hobbits who moved through the area.

Destro Chubbs wasn’t certain, but he thought he’d seen tears trembling in the eyes of the Man with the broad chest with whom he’d been speaking--certainly the Man had appeared stricken. Why any Man would cry over the likes of Cares-for-Naught Frodo, as he’d thought of his distant cousin since his second disappearance from the Shire, he had no idea. Destro approached the tall form of Merry, realizing he was speaking with their new Mayor, the Thain’s son, and two others.

“There’s a new trader over there,” Destro informed the Master’s heir once he’d caught the attention of the tall Hobbit. “Asked about all o’ you, he did, all you Travelers. Was lookin’ for an empty space.”

Merry, Pippin, and Sam looked over with interest, but all they could see was a Man with a string of pack animals, already rummaging through the first pack, perhaps bringing out a sample of his wares. The three of them excused themselves and approached the strange Man, only to pause at the sight of the bolt of fabric he’d pulled from his pack. “Margil,” Pippin said, “Margil son of Marcarion!” And suddenly the Man was kneeling, being embraced by the three of them, the bolt of fabric between them--one with white gardenia blossoms woven against a silken fabric of peacock blue.



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