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A Late Return

Being beta'd by RiverOtter. For those who wished to see what became of Ivormil of Bidwell.


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A Maid Waiting




A Late Return


“Well, look what’s dragged back in at last,” Caliendel, who was large and broad and substantial, said as the young, fairer maiden from Dor-en-Ernil set her bags upon her bed in the younger women’s dormitory and began opening them. Systerien pointedly turned more of her back toward the bigger girl as she began removing clothing from the larger one and carrying it over to stow in the chest and wardrobe assigned to her as one of the chambermaids of the Citadel.

“Took you long enough to come back,” commented Alisië, who had the next bed. “We’ve been back for five weeks already.”

“Maman was unwilling to allow me to return,” Systerien said shortly as she once again delved into the larger of the bags on the bed. “She had thought perhaps I might catch the eye of Lord Delrond when he came home, but it appears he is now crippled, and she would not ally me to someone who cannot sit a horse.”

“Count on her mother seeking to make a lady of a chambermaid,” murmured one of the girls down closer to Caliendel in low tones. Systerien shot her a glare and continued her unpacking.

“Well, you’ll find things have changed greatly since we were sent away,” Alisië continued. “Lord Denethor is no more.”

“We’d heard he’d died,” Systerien admitted, pausing with a night robe in her hands. “He died facing the Enemy?”

“No!” one of the younger girls who worked in the pantries said, rather excited at being the first to tell her the gossip of the past months. “No, he didn’t face the Enemy at all--he killed himself!”

Berenthien, one of the older and steadier girls who worked in the cleaning of the public chambers, shook her head, plainly annoyed. “Linnariel, why must you delight ever in the misery of others? It is not a story to be repeated to any and all. It is not our place to repeat the shame of it here in what was his house, after all.”

“Then who is Steward now?” asked Systerien. “It is said Lord Boromir is dead, also. The Lord Faramir? But we were told he was hurt unto the death as well!”

“And so he was,” Alisië said, “but he was healed, beyond all hope, and by the King himself ere he was crowned.”

“And so we do indeed have a King?” Systerien asked, her eyes calculating.

“That we do indeed,” Caliendel affirmed, “and he has been confirmed by Lord Faramir himself, and by Prince Imrahil and the full Council. But if you think to beguile the King, I would suggest you not even try.”

“His wife is comely?”

“So far he has no wife, although he has given Master Galador to understand that he will not have the beauties of the land paraded before him, as his future marriage is none of his affair.”

“And how is it none of the affair of the Master of Protocol that the King has no wife?” demanded Systerien.

“He is now the Lord King, and so far none has dared to challenge him overmuch--not as he has the support of both our Lord Faramir and Prince Imrahil and most of the major lords of the realm.”

“Then if he is not married, why might none think to beguile him?” Systerien asked.

Berenthien was shaking her head, a faint smile on her face. “You have not yet seen him, although you shall, soon enough--him and Lord Hardorn, his kinsman who was made ruler of the household until the day comes he takes a wife--or so he has made it clear. He is not one to be beguiled by the likes of us, you’ll find.”

“This Lord Hardorn--who is he and where did he come from?”

“Out of the northlands and through the Paths of the Dead, following behind our Lord King Aragorn Elessar, or so it is said. They came to the relief of the city in the very ships wrested from the Corsairs of Umbar--and the folk of Umbar are thrown into disarray at the news of it, or so it has been told. Mordor defeated, their ships taken, and the Nameless One gone out of the Bounds of Arda--it is a matter of terror and confusion for them, and wonder and joy for us. And we find ourselves liking this new rule--or at least all of us with any sense like it.”

The door opened and a girl came in, one about fifteen, with a slender body devoid of much in the way of womanly curves, a pale, almost colorless face with an expression both somewhat wary and shy, her hair pale as yellow wine, her eyes grey-green. Linnariel greeted her, “So, Airen, you’re finally through with your duty?”

The girl nodded. “Yes.”

“And what service did you know today?” Linnariel persisted.

The new girl shrugged. “I’ve been assigned today to serve the King’s Companions while they are within the Citadel, and they only now left to return to their guest house.”

“They are a group to capture the attention of any and all,” commented Alisië. “Led as they are by Mithrandir, and including Elves and a Dwarf....”

Systerien paused in the act of hanging one of her nicer gowns within her wardrobe, looking over her shoulder in shock. “The Wizard--he is here?” Then the rest of what was said hit her, and she straightened, the gown dropping unnoticed to the floor. “Elves? A Dwarf?”

Berenthien answered, “Yes, Wizard, Elves, and a Dwarf. You did not hear that, down in Dor-en-Ernil? It was Mithrandir who came first, the Ernil i Pheriannath before him on his great silver horse. Then came the Rohirrim from the north, and then the King came up the river on the ships of our enemies taken at Pelargir, others of his companions and kinsmen with him, the guards tell me. Folk out of legend have now walked abroad through the Citadel and White City.”

Systerien continued to look at her in disbelief. “I’d not thought such folk yet lived within Middle Earth,” she said.

Alisië shrugged. “Apparently they linger yet in the wilds of the northern lands, and there is no question that they honor our King.”

Caliendel asked the new girl, “Did you serve the Cormacolindo?”

“Oh, yes, I did.”

“His eyes--they are very beautiful.”

The new girl nodded. “Oh, yes, but they are. And he is ever so kind.”

“Ringbearer?” Systerien asked.

“Yes, so they address him,” Alisië commented, distracted as the girl Airen approached her own chest and wardrobe, pulling out of them a night robe and slippers. “I’ve heard he speaks Sindarin,” she said to Airen.

“Yes, some, at least.”

“Has he spoken with you?”

The girl returned to her bed, one that a friend of Systerien had slept in before the war, before Systerien’s own mother had asked she be sent home until the city was declared safe. “He speaks to me, but mostly to ask for something or to thank me for a service offered. He is most polite. But he is rather quiet when it is but himself or when he listens to the others speaking. He reads Sindarin--he and Master Samwise both do, I’ve found.” She slipped out of her grey garb, and now dressed only in her shift sighed. “If you will excuse me.”

As she left, Systerien looked after her. “Colorless creature,” she said, rather cruelly as she picked up the dropped gown and saw it hung.

“Her mother died some years ago, and her father died in the defense of the City. She was given a place here that she not be forced to live on the streets,” Berenthien answered rather severely. “She’s proved a good girl, and an apt learner.”

It was at that point that Mistress Gilmoreth, housekeeper for the Citadel, entered. “So,” she said, her voice also severe, “the truant has returned at last. We’d almost thought you’d been taken by slavers, not having heard from you for so long. Well, I must take you before Lord Hardorn, so change swiftly into your livery that you might be ready to go to him.”

“Why is this?” Systerien asked. “Such a person has never been a part of the Citadel.”

“He is now, and master of it on the King’s own orders. He and the King have made it plain they will know all who serve within this House, and so now you’ve come back you must go to meet him.”

Systerien ended up shoving the clothing she was holding back into the bag from which she’d just taken it, and hurried to change into her livery. Alisië offered her own brush to allow her friend to smooth her hair before following Mistress Gilmoreth out of the room at almost a run. “And what kept you so long in Dor-en-Ernil?” the woman asked.

“My mother thought perhaps she’d managed to find a good match for me, but it was not to be so she sent me back.”

“And you could send no word?”

“We don’t have reliable message riders who travel to our part of the province regularly,” Systerien pointed out.

The snort given by the woman spoke to her disbelief.

But it’s true, the girl thought rebelliously. Hers was a seaside village of fishermen and farmers, fairly far off the major roads, much less anything resembling a beaten track. Lord Delrond was a minor lord who’d led to Minas Tirith his small guard and a group of fisherfolk who’d begged to be allowed to go to the defense of the realm. He’d come back in a horse litter from Dol Amroth, where he’d traveled by ship. He spoke nothing but praise for the new King he said had saved him from death, but what other changes might have occurred within the capital he’d not said. As they approached the hallway where were situated the offices for those who oversaw the work of the Men and women who served the Citadel, Systerien asked, “Will I continue to work in the Steward’s Wing?” Then, as an idea struck her, “Or perhaps the--the King’s chambers?”

“Lord Faramir has chosen his own staff,” Mistress Gilmoreth said, pausing and shaking her head. “As for the King’s chambers--I will tell you this--the King made it very clear that for the Royal Wing at this time he wishes that those women who serve him directly be mature--and happily married. And in case you think to capture his attention by slipping out into the gardens in his path--you should know that such has already been tried, and by the Lady Butterfly, and it did no good for her at all.”

“And is it true that Lord Boromir will not return?”

The housekeeper’s face grew solemn. “Alas, but yes, it is true. He fell on the slopes of Amon Hen, we are told by the King himself, who was by him when he died. He died protecting the Ernil i Pheriannath and his kinsman from the orcs of Curunír. We believe it was the knowledge that such had befallen his beloved son that robbed our Lord Denethor of the will to live, and that the belief that Lord Faramir would swiftly follow his brother broke him completely. If only he could have held his hope but a day longer--our Lord Elessar came and proved he has the hands of a healer indeed, calling not only our Lord Faramir and the Lady Éowyn of Rohan but many others back from the very Gates of Death--even the Cormacolindor, found as they were in the wreck of Orodruin itself, or so it is said. A canny leader, a warrior, we are told, even greater than was Lord Boromir, a healer of great power and skill, wise and courteous, just and merciful. We are blessed, I say, to see the King returned in our day, and such a King at that!

“Ah,” she continued, “I know it has been your ambition to marry well, but there has never been a possibility that Lord Denethor would have allowed you to marry one of his sons, even if either had ever shown any interest in you. The King has made it obvious that his own marriage is his own affair, and by requesting older, married women to serve him personally he has made it plain he does not wish to have anyone serving within the Citadel seeking to beguile him. So far none of those who has visited the Citadel has shown you any interest, although I admit that might change. However, I would not count on such an event.”

“What about these companions of the King I’ve been told about?” Systerien asked rather boldly, feeling she had nothing to lose by being as frank as Mistress Gilmoreth.

The older woman appeared first surprised, and then amused. “The King’s Companions?” She shook her head. “Well, I’ll wish you the luck of that. As for the King’s kindred who remain here as yet--how many are married and happily so I have no idea, although I suspect that should you seek to catch the attention of one who has no interest, he will let you to know swiftly enough. But we are not presenting you before Lord Hardorn, which is what we are supposed to be doing at this time. Come.” So saying she led Systerien to the door of the office that had once been given to Lord Boromir, not that the older son of Denethor had ever willingly spent much time there.

*******


“Well,” Alisië asked in a whisper from her bed once Systerien returned as the southern girl changed from livery to her night robe. “How did it go?”

Systerien shrugged, unwilling to say aloud just how unsettling she’d found her first meeting with the new Lord King’s kinsman who was at the moment the ruler of the Citadel. He was fully Dúnedain, with those piercing grey eyes that had characterized Lord Denethor, but even more keen, if that was possible. “Well enough, I suppose. He’s allowing me to offer some of the personal service to the King’s Companions while they remain here in the city, at least, although my primary service will be in the wing for visiting nobles from within the realm.”

“Well, that should be heartening to you, I’d think,” her friend returned. “At least you’ll have the chance to meet some of the most important lords and ladies in Gondor.”

“Hmmph,” Systerien snorted shortly. “As if that were the same as serving in the Steward’s Wing. Who does serve there now?”

“None of us here. It’s the ones whose families have served in the Citadel for generations, and mostly older ones--women Lord Faramir’s known all his life. But as he’s to be handfasted to the Lady Éowyn of Rohan soon I would suppose that he would not wish to have younger women around him who might cause her to know jealousy.”

The southern girl quickly finished stowing her clothing and belongings in chest and wardrobe, then came over to sit upon her bed. “That new girl--she also serves the King’s Companions?”

“Yes--and she’s been here but since the day before the King’s Coronation--her father’s brother is one of the artisans who cares for the masonry, and he begged a place for her here.”

“What happened to Pegien?”

“We don’t know. As you arrived this evening at the Harlond--did you not see how the Pelennor has been almost completely stripped?”

“Yes--the Enemy did all that?”

“Oh, yes, and more. All the women, children, and those Men who could not fight were supposed to be sent to the fastnesses in the mountains there from the Pelennor just as it was with us from here within the city, but not all would agree to go. We don’t know if her family was one of those that refused to leave their lands and homes or if they went far into Lossarnach or what, only that where the village she was born in used to be there are now only scars upon the land. It was destroyed by the forces of Mordor and she never came back or sent word. It’s possible that if they survived and came back, once they saw that their lands were so defaced as to be unrecognizable they just turned about and went to live with kinsmen elsewhere. Didn’t she say her mother’s brother lived far west in Lossarnach, close upon the mountains going southward?”

Systerien nodded. “So she did. I’m almost surprised they didn’t give the new girl my bed.”

Alisië, who was sitting up on her elbow, shrugged. “We knew that none of the Enemy’s forces were marauding there in Dor-en-Ernil--not as they did along the river and throughout the ruins of Osgiliath or across the Pelennor. It was likely you’d return; but no one knows about Pegien or her family.”

“And your parents didn’t send for you as my maman did?”

Alisië shook her head. She had been born the daughter of senior servants of Lord Eldred, a lesser lord in Lamedon, and had been sent to the White City some three years previous on the recommendation of their lord. “No--they felt I would do better to remain with the others rather than to chance the roads in such uncertain times.”

“Is it true the Butterfly has already tried to waylay the King?”

“Yes, she did--Dalrod Gardener saw the affair. It was two evenings after the coronation--she managed to come to the portion of the gardens near the Royal Wing.” Suddenly she giggled. “She pretended to feel faint, and the King all but laughed outright at her. It does not do to pretend to illness before one trained as a healer, I fear. And if she thought her beauty and rank would capture the eyes of every Man, she was much mistaken. The King and his kinsmen all seem to dismiss her equally.”

“Have you set yourself before him?” Systerien asked in lower tones.

The other girl’s face grew somewhat solemn in the dim light of her friend’s candle. “No--not after seeing and hearing him on that first day after he was crowned King. He--he is different, Systë, from any I have seen elsewhere. He will not be impressed by any who comes before him under false pretenses, any more than he accepted the Butterfly’s false faint.”

“What of the King’s Companions?”

Alisië was searching her face, then dimpled with amusement. “Ah,” she at last said in a whisper, “that I will allow you to see for yourself. I think you will find them--different. But I will advise you--don’t go before them with any artifice, for I think all of them see through such equally.” She straightened her pillow. “Well, that is enough for now--I must present myself for my duty shortly after dawn, and I must get some sleep if I am to do a decent job of it tomorrow. I’m glad you have returned, Systë. Good night.”

So saying, she laid herself back down and pulled her coverlet over her ears as she preferred to sleep, leaving Systerien with much to think on as she slipped between her own sheets.

*******


It was odd to waken again within the Citadel instead of in her own bed in Dor-en-Ernil, and to once more hear Caliendel chiding her for being a slug-a-bed. But it was a new day, and for the folk of Gondor a new beginning as they looked at how the return of the King would affect them.

As she followed the other girls down to the servants’ dining hall she found herself seeing many faces she failed to recognize, more than she expected amongst the servants and far more amongst those who wandered the halls as Guards, courtiers, and guests of the Citadel. And the number of those she saw of that last category was shockingly large. Always there were a few guests from elsewhere throughout the realm, and often a few from Rohan or even the Brown Lands said to lie north of Rohan. But under Lord Denethor, there had been progressively fewer and fewer guests in the past three years, although she must suppose that during the last weeks before the assault on the White City there must have been many nobles from distant parts of the land of Gondor who had led their Men here to the defense of the City who’d known the hospitality of the Citadel as they’d met in council or been given assignments for themselves and their Men during those last days and hours before the enemy had arrived before the walls.

But now there were so very many newcomers of all sorts. She saw courtiers she’d not seen for most of the past year; visiting lords come to confirm their offices under the new King and to report on the condition of their holdings or to present petitions on behalf of their lands and peoples; Rohirrim in far richer garb and greater numbers than one usually saw; more Men of purer Dúnedain descent than she’d ever seen dressed in worn riding leathers and grey, silver, or green cloaks with silver stars on their shoulders; noblewomen such as she’d not seen at court for well over a year; servants in liveries such as she’d not seen at all. Once they entered the staff dining room, she saw that Mistress Gilmoreth and Master Balstador, Seneschal for the Citadel, sat together at the table where senior staff generally ate, discussing matters with three dressed in the livery of the Citadel and one Man in the garb of the Guild of Weavers and Tailors she failed to recognize.

Alisië, apparently divining the focus of her attention, nudged her with her elbow. “We have a new mistress of seamstresses and master tailor, now that so much has needed to be renewed within the Citadel. And the plasterers and painters have been everywhere for weeks! They had to prepare the Royal Wing, of course, as it’s not been used since King Eärnur disappeared into the east. And the to-do about the King’s own chambers and the rooms for the King’s Companions! Never have I seen such discussions--the King sent detailed descriptions of how he wished some rooms prepared for others, but hardly any indication of what he would wish to do for his own quarters. Master Balstador and Mistress Gilmoreth were all but in despair before the Coronation the other day, for fear they’d not have everything done rightly. But in the end the King proved remarkably easy to please--there’s been little to do over, save he prefers greens to golds in his decoration.”

Systerien found herself filing this information away for future reference as she looked about the room. The tables for visiting servants were filled with unfamiliar faces and garb, and many were visiting the sideboard where the food was set for them to take their choice that they might eat hastily and be swiftly about their duties.

There was, she knew, a special dormitory near the kitchens for those who served the cooks themselves that they not disturb others when they must rise much earlier to see to the baking and preparation for earlier meals. Those she saw bringing out basins of foodstuffs and removing empty ones were quite cheerful such as she’d not seen in months. As she and the others with her waited for their turns to serve themselves Alisië confided, “For now there’s no meats to be served between meals save for those who’ve been ill, and you’ll note that there’s one on watch to see that only one serving of meat is taken by each of us. But it’s much better than it was as we prepared for the battle, for then we might be lucky to have a single portion of gruel and a slice of bread with no butter or drippings for a morning meal--at least we now have fruit offered us, and at least two slices of breads or rolls, and an egg apiece if we wish it.”

As usual the tables filled by age, gender, and form of service, she noted as she and Alisië took their place with other girls from their dormitory. There was much laughter to be heard, and faces were relaxed and--and filled with a degree of hope she realized she’d never seen in this room. As for the food itself--it was, she had to admit, tasty such as she’d not seen here, either. She and those with her ate rapidly and with appetite, saw their dishes onto the clearing carts, and hurried off to the chamber where they met with those who oversaw their work.

“Our Lord King has gone down to the Houses of Healing, and will probably return with a few of his Companions. They will then go to the meeting of the Council. Those of you who serve the Royal Wing, see to it that the rooms prepared for the King’s Companions are ready in case any should require rest during their time here today. Master Frodo tends to tire very easily, and Master Samwise is also still recovering from his ordeal. The kitchens have been advised of the needs for the Pheriannath, and those of you who are to serve them while they are in the Citadel will only need to speak the name of the one to whom you are assigned and bring what is given you to the one indicated at the place where he might be. Should any of the King’s Companions retire to the Royal Wing to rest and you are not one of those recognized as one with permission to enter there, ask one of the guard to call forth Iorvas or Belveramir, who will then accompany you to the appropriate room and back.”

After two and a half marks spent in the guest quarters for minor lords, Systerien at last had a break and returned to the day chamber for the chambermaids, finding Mistress Gilmoreth standing over three girls who cleaned the dormitory area, Berenthien standing to one side, looking distressed. “And I don’t care how unpleasant you consider her to be--folding the bedding so as to make it impossible for her to get into it will never be acceptable behavior!” she was saying. “This is the second time in only a week you have thought to return what you consider a slight with deliberate pranks. Once more in the next month and you will be dismissed from the service of the Citadel--do you understand?”

A bell rang, and the housekeeper looked up and about, and seeing Systerien waved at her. “Main audience chamber behind the throne room. Go--it’s likely to be the Ringbearers.”

Frustrated she’d not been able to get a drink for herself, Systerien turned and hurried out and up the steps to the main level of the Citadel until she came to the doorway to the chamber indicated. She smoothed her hair as well as she could with her hands and straightened her shoulders, then knocked at the door, hearing the call “Enter” and opening it.

What appeared to be a boy sat on a remarkably low divan that she did not recognize. He was dressed in mail with a carefully made leather gambeson over it such as was worn by the folk of Rohan. By him knelt one of the Rohirrim, a finger under the boy’s chin, tipping up the face so he could examine the eyes and color. “You’ve spent far too much time the last three days at Éomer’s side, Master Holdwine,” the Man was saying. “It is not only the Ringbearer who yet recovers from his ordeal, you know.”

“But it’s been over a month--almost two!” the young one objected.

“That’s as might be, Sir Meriadoc, but one does not recover from such wounds all of a piece, you realize. I suspect that the relief of it all is just now catching up with you--your own weakness and prolonged recovery, seeing all your countrymen brought back also from the very Gates and how badly injured each had been, the rapid ride from the Field of Cormallen and excitement of the Coronation, and four days’ constant attendance on Éomer King--you need to rest yourself from time to time, you know.” He turned the younger one’s face to one side, then nodded as he looked toward Systerien. “Greetings, young mistress. Please--hurry to the kitchens and see if they have ready a tray for one of the Holbytla--tell them it is for Éomer King’s esquire, Sir Meriadoc. I thank you.”

She curtseyed and hurried out, thinking on the contrast between the two, both dressed similarly but the taller one clearly a Rider of Rohan with blue eyes and hair the color of sun-ripened wheat, the smaller with more closely cropped hair of warmest brown curls and fine, if exhausted, eyes. He had not the look about him of Rohan, and she wondered how it was a stranger’s child had come to earn the trust of their people such that he would be allowed to wear their colors. And to speak of such a boy as “Sir Meriadoc”! She felt herself smile.

“Well, which fine lord is it now who feels the need of sustenance so he can’t wait until the next formal meal?” the cook present demanded as she entered the room where such requests were filled.

“I was bid to ask you if there is a tray for King Éomer’s esquire, Sir Meriadoc.”

The cook straightened, her face growing attentive and respectful. “For the White Lady’s companion?” she breathed. “Oh, but of course! We have it in the cold room, for it was not sent for until now. One moment----” as she turned to scurry from the room, returning with a tray of cold meats and cheeses, soft bread rolls, a goblet and smaller stein and three carafes, and a selection of fruit segments. “Present him my compliments,” she added as she waved Systerien out of the room. Before the door closed behind her the maid heard another voice ask a question and the cook answer, “Yes, that was the tray for the Witch-king’s bane--I’m surprised it wasn’t called for before now. Poor thing must be fair withering away.”

It was a different voice that called for her to enter this time, and a particularly tall and elegant figure, his dark hair long and smooth and braided at the temples, rose to his feet, examining her and the contents of the tray she carried. She stopped, arrested by her first sight of what must definitely be an Elf. Her mouth worked some, but she found she couldn’t speak. Eyes as grey as any amongst the Dúnedain reflected a degree of amusement. “For Master Meriadoc, is it?” he asked, his voice melodic and eminently memorable. At her nod he took it. “I thank you, young mistress. He will do well for it, I believe.” So saying he set the tray on the low table beside the small one, examined the three carafes swiftly, identified the one containing ale and poured some into the stein, presenting it to the boy sitting on the low couch. “Here, small Master,” he said respectfully. “I suspect that this will aid you to feel better. And I believe they have cut into a new round of cheese for you. Tell me--what did you eat this morning before you left the guest house?”

“I had only a roll and a half mug of tea,” came the reply. “Lord Éomer had indicated he wished to speak with Strider alone before he left for the Houses of Healing, as both of them were to attend the meeting of the Council. And since then, there’s not been much chance to snatch anything.”

“Not until you almost fainted standing behind your young King’s chair,” chided the Elf as the other sipped from the stein. “Did Pippin get as little as you did?”

“He was up earlier and was working on an apple and roll when I came into the kitchen this morning,”

“Well, if you don’t begin taking better care of yourself I shall speak of this to your cousin and have him take you in hand--or perhaps Master Samwise would be a better one to set over you?”

“You wouldn’t do that!” exclaimed Sir Meriadoc. “You’d set Frodo and Sam on me? You don’t know how much bother that would stir up! They’re both equally relentless!”

“And that, Master Merry, is probably just what you need if you are not to become ill. Do you understand?”

“Yes, my lord Elladan,” the other answered grudgingly. “Are you this demanding with Cousin Bilbo?”

“We have been when he needed it,” the Elf assured him, smiling indulgently. “But when you admit you did not eat a proper first or second breakfast, I will not be surprised to see you nearly fainting as elevenses come nigh. Eat slowly now, but fully.”

“Yes, my lord.”

The Elf looked back at Systerien. “Was there aught else you need to do at this time?” he asked courteously enough, although rather pointedly at the same time.

She found her voice at last, shaking her head. “I’m sorry--the cook did ask that I present her compliments.”

The small one looked at her fully for the first time, pausing with a breadroll on which he’d laid some of the sliced meat and cheese in his hand. “When you see her again, then give her the thanks of a starving Hobbit.” He smiled as he bit into his roll, giving her the slightest of nods. Recognizing dismissal, she withdrew, her head whirling some, for those were not the eyes of a boy at all.

During lunch she was kept busy ferrying trays to the visiting lords' wing for those who would not come to the common dining hall, and there were other trays, she noted, being carried to the Council Chamber. Then she was fetching trays back, then assisting in the cleaning of bathing chambers and renewal of towels and linens. It was late afternoon when Mistress Gilmoreth’s assistant saw her again heading for the servants’ hall and called out, “Systerien--there’s a tray ready now in the kitchens that needs to be taken to the gardens near the Royal Wing for the Ringbearer. Take it and stay by him for a time to see to it he needs nothing else.”

Giving a sigh, she turned obediently toward the kitchens. The same cook saw her coming in. “Come for Lord Frodo’s tray this time?”

“For that for the Ringbearer,” she explained.

The cook nodded. “Yes, we have it ready. Young Airen isn’t to deliver it this time?”

“I’ve not seen her,” Systerien said, rather affronted. “But I understand I’m to take it to the gardens near the Royal Wing.”

“I understand there’s a bench there he favors as he sits to read. Well, there it sits--been waiting for some quarter of a mark, almost. Do hurry--it would not do to allow him to remain hungry--needs feeding up desperately, that one.”

Systerien took up the tray, seeing it was filled much as had been the last one she’d carried. She soon was up the stairs and out through the doors that led to the gardens, heading to a portion where few enough other than Lord Faramir and the gardeners had ever tended to spend much time in the past. There had been a time when she and Alisië had spent a fair period of their own free time here, seeking to put themselves in the way of the Steward’s younger son. He’d allowed it for a time, but finally spoke to them and let them to know he had no interest at all in such as they, and then had spoken with Mistress Gilmoreth herself, after which the two of them had been kept far too busy for such pursuits for quite some time. It was odd to look at the windows to the wing and see them not blank and staring but now open, with fluttering draperies hung within. There were three benches nearby--she found someone at the second one, and paused, uncertain.

As with the vaunted Sir Meriadoc, this was a small personage with dark brown hair. He was dressed as a virtual prince in rich greens and soft golds, save, she noted, for his bare feet, which were covered with dark curls of hair similar in color to the curly hair on his head. Systerien stopped with surprise, and was certain, once her mind was clear enough to think on it, her mouth must have fallen quite open. He looked up, his striking eyes seeing her. “You may approach,” he said coaxingly, as if speaking to a shy child. “They sent you out with more food for me, have they? Aragorn has apparently made it clear to the kitchen staff I am in danger of expiring from starvation.” Then after a moment he repeated, “Do come forward--I assure you, we Hobbits don’t bite!”

Systerien recalled herself, decidedly shook and then straightened herself, and came to his side with what dignity she could summon. “Please forgive me--I was asked to bring this to the Ringbearer.”

“Thank you, not that I’m all that hungry, although I could do with a drink.”

She set the tray down on the low stone table that sat nearby and examined the carafes that sat upon the tray. “It appears they have sent you water, juice, and a fine wine from Anfalas,” she reported. “Which would you prefer I pour for you?”

“Some watered wine,” he decided. “If it’s the wine Aragorn’s been pressing on us, it’s quite good, and not terribly strong. And if you’d put some water into the second goblet? Thank you so very much.”

He accepted the watered wine from her, and watched over the rim of his glass as she poured the desired water as well. “Young Mistress Airen was not available?” he finally asked. “She appears to have been the one they’ve sent most often to see to it I don’t waste away from lack of food.”

She found herself stifling a giggle, and cut a look at him, noting he was watching her closely and was pleased at her desire to laugh. As had been true of Sir Meriadoc earlier, his eyes were fine, but tired, as if he were recovering from a grave illness. Yes, there was gauntness to his face, as if he’d carried far more weight on his frame, and not that long ago. And there was about him an aura of isolation and loss, one that caught at her somehow. Systerien, without consciously realizing it, was caught in the web of his charm, and lost a part of her heart to him.

*******


When she went to get her early dinner within the servant’s dining hall she found herself taking the place beside the girl Airen, who sat alone toward one end of the table. “You’ve been the one to serve Lord Frodo most of the time?” she asked without preamble.

“Yes, although today I was pressed into bringing trays to the doors to the Council Chamber so Iorvas might take them from me to serve the King and his Councilors. Did you bring him his afternoon tray? I’m glad. You can see, looking at him, that he lost a good deal of weight, going through Mordor as he did.”

“He went through Mordor?”

Airen gave a small nod. “He doesn’t like to speak of it, although the others will. The King is most concerned for him, for he’s not as he was before he and his friends left their own land. Did he speak of the Shire with you?”

“I thought he didn’t speak much to you, from what you said last night.”

Airen flushed slightly. “He doesn’t speak a good deal to me, but he did mention the Shire this morning. It sounds a beautiful place--and so different to Gondor.”

Systerien nodded absently. “Yes, it does. And he came all this way, from far to the north and west, all the way here?”

“Yes, having gone first into the Enemy’s land to see his Ring destroyed. But he won’t speak of that at all, or so Sir Meriadoc has warned me.”

“So you know Sir Meriadoc?”

Airen was nodding as she toyed with a piece of bread. “And Sir Peregrin and Lord Samwise--only he also doesn’t wish to be addressed as ‘Lord’--both he and the Ringbearer himself prefer to be addressed as ‘Master’.”

“And they call themselves Hobbits.” Systerien still found this new people fascinating to contemplate.

“Aren’t they funny? Or, at least they seem that way at the first, when you’ve but seen them. But they’re very much grownups, all four of them. Oh, Sir Meriadoc and Sir Peregrin will cut up a good deal when they’re not on duty, and they love jokes and comic songs--you should hear them at it! They had me quite laughing late yesterday, they did. But then they’ll go silent, for all four of them faced the Enemy’s worst folk, and you can see the horrors hiding at the edges of their silences, seeking to present themselves yet again.”

Systerien examined her companion closely, for it was an excellent description of what she’d seen for herself in the eyes of both the Hobbits she’d seen that day.

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