“The Lady Rose, beloved Lady,” announced Elaneth, mistress of the Queen’s handmaidens.
Queen Arwen turned from her loom, on which she wove fabric from which to cut new uniforms for the Guard of the White Tree. Several of those who worked alongside her in the Queen’s weaving room paused in their own work, several of the craning their heads to catch a glimpse of Lord Perhael’s wife. “Bid her enter with gladness,” the Queen directed, then turned to one of her maidens. “Hasturnerini, would you please go to the kitchens and fetch the tray set aside for the afternoon refreshment? And advise them that Lady Rose is joining us that they might add to it sufficient for her appetite.”
The young woman rose, made a graceful curtsey, and left to do the Queen’s bidding, pausing to curtsey again to the Pherian as she entered the sunny chamber.
Arwen herself rose to receive her guest. “Ah, Mistress Rosie, how delightful to have you visit me at my work. I take it your beloved husband is attending on my own?”
“Yes, my Lady,” Rosie answered her, accepting the Queen’s embrace and allowing herself to be led to the low stool produced for her use and set beside the low cradle. The Hobbit peered into it, smiling down at the child who slept there. “She’s a beautiful one, Lady Arwen. And so big for not quite a year, she is. And is Princess Melian glad to have a sister at last? Young Eldarion’s done naught but prattle on and on about his baby sister and as how smart she is and how she’s begun to walk ’n all; but I’ve not heard much from Melian at all as yet.”
Arwen sighed. “I’m not certain what precisely my elder daughter thinks of much of anything. She’s a bit beyond my experience, actually, for she matures far more quickly than I can quite appreciate, having been born a mortal. I’m told by many of the ladies of the court that she matures more slowly than did their daughters, but I cannot see it. As for Estel--he is far out of his depth, I fear. She is his daughter and his firstborn, and ever they’ve been close; but now that she enters adolescence she is often moody and unwilling to share her thoughts. He is often hurt by this.”
Rosie laughed ruefully. “Then we’re in much the same place, I suppose,” she said. “Elanor’s a tween now, you know, and don’t seem too certain as to where she fits in. Too young to be a Hobbit grown, and too old to be a child no more. Wants to be treated like an adult, but isn’t willin’ to give over not havin’ to be responsible when it don’t suit her. Far more willin’ to do what’s asked of her by others than for us, as we’re naught but her parents.
“Not,” she added, “that she’s not actually a very responsible one by nature. But some days I think as she’d give anything to be a bairn again and not have to always be watchin’ after others. It’s one reason as we come away south, you know--to give her a bit o’ time away from all the rest.”
“Where is she today?”
“Off with your daughter and her guards. They’re to return to sup with us.”
The Queen sighed. “Two caught betwixt and between--what will they end up doing together?”
Elanor Gardner was peering over her shoulder at the two tall Men whose duty it was to see to the safety of their princess and her companion. “Are we to be followed about all during the day?” she asked.
Melian glanced briefly back at them, shrugging. “It’s their duty, after all,” she admitted. “Most of the time I don’t mind too terribly much, but there are times....” Suddenly she stopped, and the two of them exchanged a look.
“You think as we ought to?” Elanor asked with a further glance back, her brow furrowed.
“Why not? Why can’t we just be two girls on a visit within the city today?” Melian demanded in a very low voice. “It’s not as if you are as obviously a Hobbit as your parents are, you know. People could think you were my sister.” She gave a slightly twisted smile. “Come on--we can go through the store of clothing Naneth has gathered to share with those who need it, and find other clothing and perhaps even some slippers to hide the fact you’re really a Perian, and maybe a hat....”
Suddenly as reckless as her hostess, Elanor nodded. “Let’s!” she agreed, and the two turned back toward the Citadel and the storerooms where the Queen’s Bounty was kept.
A half hour later, carrying their finds in a cloth bag, the two of them went out from the Citadel by the private entrance for the hall to the residential wings, followed by the princess’s two guards, who’d been asked to remain outside the storerooms during the visit by the girl and Hobbit lass. The two walked most sedately past the Tree and the Memorial to the ramp to the Sixth Circle, and equally as sedately down to the Fifth Circle--and then entering the crowd of folk gathered near a puppet show they suddenly disappeared from the sight of their guards as only a Hobbit or a child born to an extraordinarily long line of Dúnedain Rangers and Elves could manage to do, slipping inside a nearby pub and finding the privy, then rapidly changing clothing for that they carried with them, stuffing what they’d been wearing into the even larger bag they’d carried along with their new garb inside the first bag.
Using a comb and fine cordage handily, Melian soon had Elanor’s golden curls caught into a pair of braids she then twisted into a bun at the back of the Hobbit lass’s head, then sat on the floor so that Elanor could do the same with her own. With scarves to hide their ears, for Melian’s did have a bit of a tip to hers, they felt they were now ready to face the city on their own. “Do you think the slippers will give you any difficulty?” the girl asked the lass.
“I don’t think as they’ll bother me over much,” Elanor said, “although I’ll admit as wearing them does feel odd.” She stood carefully and took a couple steps. “I think I’m ready now.”
Melian unlatched the door and peered out. Fortunately no one was waiting to make use of the room, so they were able to slip out of it more unremarked than they’d been when they entered it. In moments they were waiting by the door to the pub for a mother and her three children to leave it, falling behind the other children as if they were members of the party, breaking away only when they were well away from city guards.
“You lost them at a puppet show?” the Lord Elessar asked sharply.
The white-faced guard nodded. “Yes, my Lord King. The Lady Melian hasn’t done such a thing for at least eight months, and I’ll admit I didn’t think she’d try such a thing again with a guest in tow--I thought she was past it now, in fact.”
Aragorn sighed and exchanged looks with Lord Samwise. Sam was shrugging as he puffed on his pipe. “They’re at that age,” the Hobbit noted. “Resent any bounds as you’d put on them, they will. At least Elanor’s beyond the age when she’d be seekin’ to pilfer extra food from market stalls or gardens--or at least I hope as she is.”
“Before you’ve found her by her clothing,” the King began, turning his attention back to the guard.
“Gilorion is continuing to search them out, but I doubt we’d recognize what they’re wearing, for the two of them spent some time alone in the rooms where the clothing intended for the Queen’s Bounty is kept.”
Sam looked his question up at his friend while Aragorn gave an exclamation in Adunaic to vent his frustration. “Arwen gathers clothing to give to those in need,” the Man explained, and Sam’s face cleared.
“So’s they could be lookin’ like about any other lass as is within the city, then?” the Hobbit commented. At the King’s nod of agreement, he took another thoughtful puff at his pipe. Finally he said, “Fourth Circle--that’s where they’re most likely to head for--the marketplace and the children’s park.” He looked up to meet the Man’s eyes. “Feel up to doin’ some trackin’, Strider?”
Suddenly there was a glint of enthusiasm in the eyes of the tall Man. “Why not? Let me get changed....”
Soon two figures, one exceptionally tall and the other exceptionally short, were slipping down the ramp to the Sixth Circle, one in ancient green riding leathers and a stained green cloak, the other in the plainest garb he’d worn while traveling from the Shire to Minas Anor and a typical Hobbit cloak, followed discretely by Lord Hardorn also garbed as a northern Ranger. None seemed to note them as they made their way through the bustle of the Fifth Circle and down toward the children’s park at the north end of the Fourth; not finding their quarry there, the two fathers turned without further consultation toward the marketplace.
Halgil of the Market Guard was exceptionally painstaking in his work, and had made his reputation by keeping an eye out for those who didn’t belong where they were. And there were two girls visiting the public market in the Fourth Circle today who plainly didn’t belong at all. The older girl carried with her a large bag of cloth, plainly filled already with clothing, when he first noted them. They first walked about the boundaries of the marketplace, looking at the stalls to be seen, then when that circuit was complete looked at one another and gave conspiratorial nods and entered in. Now they were going by the stalls of the artificers, pausing in awe at the glassblower’s booth, looking at the strings of fine beads. “My mum has a set like that,” the younger girl exclaimed, pointing to a fine set with flakes of gold in oval green volcano-glass beads on knotted green silk. “Uncle Frodo gave them to her. She says as they’ll be mine when I marry.”
“Naneth would love this set,” the other girl said softly, her eyes caught by a set done in opaline colors of blues and salmon pink. She turned to the woman who minded the stall. “How much for this set?” She didn’t even bargain, but reached into the small reticule she carried about her wrist to produce the requested amount, accepted her change without bothering to count it and dropping it back into the small purse, and watching as the woman wrapped the string in tissue and slipped it into a small bag of pale blue velvet before presenting it.
“Here,” the woman said, obviously feeling she was cheating the girl, and she produced ear drops to match the necklace, slipped them into a smaller bag to match the first. “These are my gift to you, for it’s plain you’re new to the market.”
“But I couldn’t...” began the older girl, but the smaller one pulled at her skirt.
“She’s right,” the smaller one said in a whisper. “It’s obvious you don’t know how to haggle, you know.”
The taller girl flushed a bit, but nodded her understanding. “Thank you,” she said with dignity to the woman. “It’s my first time to come to the market on my own, I’ll admit. Thank you very much. Naneth will treasure them, I am certain.”
They went deeper into the market, and Halgil found himself following them. The smaller lass was not from the city, and he rather thought she usually went unshod, considering how uncomfortable she appeared in her shoes. A country cousin, perhaps? Now and then they’d stop to examine goods in a particular stall, and at one where wooden figures were displayed the smaller lass stopped in pleasure. The stall was open with stepped displays within going up and up. On the bottom shelves were toys--fine spinning tops and fetch-backs on silk cordage, carved dolls and jumping jacks, soldier figures and farm animals. On higher shelves were more elaborate figures--a couple kissing, sleeping babes, a stretching dog, and a rose. “Oh, look!” the smaller girl breathed, her eyes fixed on the rose. “My sister would love that!”
“Get it for her, then,” the taller one advised.
The smaller girl approached the youth who kept the booth. “The rose there--how much?”
The youth looked down at her, obviously dismissing her as one who’d not be able to afford such a thing. “Six silvers,” he advised her.
“I’d not pay more than four for it,” she replied immediately.
The youth was taken by surprise, for she’d appeared far too young to know how to haggle. “Five and eight coppers,” he countered.
“Four and three,” she returned.
When she had him down to four and nine he accepted her offer, surprised at how she’d held her ground. She, too, carried a small reticule, and took from it the amount requested. Halgil was now very suspicious. No girl of her age should be carrying such an amount with her. Had she and her companion pilfered from their mothers’ purses? he wondered.
Soon the wooden rose, carefully wrapped, had joined the two blue velvet bags within the larger bag the taller girl carried with what the two had brought with them. “I’m a bit peckish,” the smaller child advised, and the two turned to the line of cook stalls on the eastern borders. As they walked by a fruiterer’s stall the girl caught up an apple from a bushel and tossed a copper onto the counter almost absently as she began to nibble at it.
“Wait a moment there!” the stall owner said. “This isn’t of the King’s coinage!”
“It’s not?” the girl asked, surprised. “Oh, I must have had some coins from Bree still in my reticule. Let me find one of the King’s coinage...” as she began rummaging through the bag.
It was enough for Halgil to move in on the pair of them. “I’ll deal with this, Master Belenthor,” he said smoothly. “May I see the coin?”
No, definitely not of the King’s coinage at all. On one side it had pictured a small bird, and on the other a leaf and flower he didn’t recognize. The girl, flushing deeply, was still going through the coins from her reticule, and at last found a copper of the King’s coinage she gave to the shopkeeper.
“This is more than the apple is worth,” the shopkeeper said.
“I know--that’s why I tossed a copper to you, for I didn’t wish to have to stay to learn as how many brasses it might be. It’s been over three hours since last I ate, you see. But at home they don’t mind whether it’s a local copper or one from Bree or one from the King’s coinage--they’re all seen as worth the same.”
“I think,” Halgil said, “I must ask you to come with me and answer some questions. That one as young as you should be carrying so much....”
The two girls exchanged looks of alarm. The smaller girl looked up at him. “Do you really think as my dad would forbid me pocket money? I’ve been saving my earnings for six years for this journey, you see.”
“Earnings?” Halgil asked, his brows raised. “And how should one as small as you have earnings? You will come with me--now.”
But when he got them back into his own shelter and had them seated side by side on the bench, he found he wasn’t getting answers from them. “I don’t have to give you my name,” the older girl insisted. “I’ve done naught wrong at all. No, my parents don’t know where I am at the moment, but I doubt they’d suspect I’m getting into trouble.”
He turned toward the younger girl. “And your name?”
“Elanor,” she answered, her head held proudly, still flushing furiously.
“Who are your parents?”
“They’re not from the city. We’re only visiting for a time with Uncle Strider.”
“My dad’s always called him Strider--and he told my dad he could do so as long as he wishes.”
“Where did you get the money you carry from?”
“Most of it’s saved from when I attended--when I was with her family before--six years ago. But I’ve been saving a long time for this journey.”
“You didn’t take it from your parents?”
The girl flushed even more strongly. “Certainly not!” she snapped. “I’ve never taken coin from my parents, not even when I was a faunt! They always saw to it I had proper pocket money and earned it fairly for doing my chores and all. But I’ve been helping Auntie May and Auntie Daisy, you see, and have been earning wages, just as when he was a lad Dad worked with the Gaffer in the gardens to earn wages of his own.”
“And what kind of work have you been doing for them?” he asked, the suspicion now openly displayed.
“Embroidery--although I’ll admit as it’s nowhere as fine as what her mum does, although her mum taught me much of what I know when I--stayed with them the last time.”
“And how is it one as young as you are is skilled in embroidery?”
“Aunty May began teaching me when I was but a faunt, and when I--stayed with her family last time her naneth taught me more. She’s a master embroiderer, you see.”
“Your mother is a master embroiderer?” Halgil demanded, turning on the taller girl.
“Yes--of course she is.”
“Where’s her shop?”
“She doesn’t keep a shop,” the girl answered. “She doesn’t need to.”
“And your father--what does he do?”
The glance the two girls exchanged was suddenly highly amused. “He works in the Citadel,” the taller girl finally admitted.
“In the Citadel?”
“Yes.” The girl looked unhappy to have admitted so much.
“I’ll need to call the parents of both of you down....”
“You won’t need to do so,” advised a Man’s deep voice from behind him.
Halgil jumped, for he’d not heard anyone enter the shelter. He looked up into the face of the Northern Ranger, noting the clear grey eyes of one of almost pure Dúnedain descent, the dark hair peppered with silver, particularly at the temples, the sheer intelligence of the face. Beside him was a much smaller personage with short curls of golden brown also beginning to be peppered with silver, dressed in brown garments over a green shirt. He was examining the smaller girl with an unfathomable expression on his face.
“So, Elanorellë,” the smaller one said quietly, “you and Melian here thought as you’d go off on your own, did you?”
“Yes, Sam-dad,” she admitted, her voice small. Then she remembered her frustration with the Man who’d brought her to the shelter. “He won’t believe the money I have is my own, Daddy. He thinks as I took it from you and Mummy.”
“And you?” asked the Man of the taller girl. “Gilorion and Dagmir are both at wit’s end, having lost you so.”
“And why do I have to always have folk to trail after me, Ada?” she demanded, apparently intending to bluff him out.
“You know very well why, sell nín,” he said quietly. “They risk their lives daily for your sake, and it’s poor recompense to them to disguise yourselves as the two of you have and leave their protection.”
“As if you yourself weren’t hiding your own identity, Strider,” she seethed.
His lip twitched. “I was Strider the Ranger many, many years ere I married your naneth,” he advised her. “It’s as much a part of me as my current occupation--indeed, I was Strider far longer than I’ve been what I am now. Now, stand and let me see you.”
She did so, and he nodded, and, Halgil noted, with a level of approval in his eyes. “Yes, very worthy of a Ranger’s daughter you’ve proven,” he agreed. “I’ll allow you to go on with your visit to the market, but only if you two will allow Sam and me to accompany you. And what’s in the bag?” He took it from her and produced a very fine garment indeed. He nodded as if this was what he’d expected. “I see. And these,” he indicated the two blue velvet bags and the wrapped rose, “are your purchases so far?”
“Gilorion will be sent off to return these to your quarters, then.”
“Bowman is waiting out in the market, you’ll find, and you know how discrete he can be. Will you two accept the conditions stated?”
The two girls again exchanged glances, and finally nodded. “We don’t have any choice, do we, Uncle Strider?” asked the smaller child.
“None at all, sweet Elanor,” he assured her.
The small being gave Halgil a long look. “And one thing as I’ll tell you,” he said quietly, “when my daughter says as the money she’s carryin’ is her own, she’s not lyin’. She don’t need to lie, you see. She’s a good lass and full skilled at many a task. She’s had her wages from when she attended on Strider’s wife afore saved for all these years, she has; and she’s earned more workin’ longside her aunts since then. She might not enjoy bein’ followed about by guards, no matter as how well they keep themselves out o’ sight; but she’s honest as the day is long, and I’d be beholden if you’d keep that in mind.” He looked back at the small girl. “Come, sweetling,” he said simply.
“Yes, Sam-dad,” she said quietly, rising and giving the tall Man a deep and surprisingly graceful curtsey. “Thank you, Uncle Strider.”
“Think nothing of it, Elanor,” he said, giving her a courteous bow in return. “Now, if you two will come.” He slipped the velvet bags and the wrapped item back into the larger bag, and walking out gave them into the hands of one dressed as a Guard of the Citadel itself. “If you will take these back to my daughter’s quarters,” he suggested. “And I’m glad you spotted them when this one took them in hand. That was well done.”
The guard smiled and saluted proudly, then turned to follow his orders.
It was only as the four of them turned to disappear into the depths of the market that the true identities of the two fathers, and therefore their daughters, sank into Halgil’s consciousness. His legs suddenly gone weak, he sank onto the bench the girls had quitted as he pulled a kerchief out of his sleeve to wipe his brow. He’d just attempted to arrest....