Three and a half weeks after the departure of his son from Minas Tirith, Lord Canelmir of Bidwell arrived in the Citadel, where he was received by the Seneschal with the news that quarters had been prepared for his party, and that the Lord King would speak with him the on the morrow following his public audience. Alisië brought a tray of refreshment to their rooms, returning furious; moments later Systerien and Airen were dispatched to assist his servants as they could.
As she assisted Lord Canelmir’s valet to unpack the trunk of clothes brought and see things properly stowed in chests and wardrobe, Systerien could hear the Lord speaking with his companion. “I can’t imagine what it was Ivormil might have said to lead to this investigation of my stewardship of Bidwell. He has never been made privy to the accounts for the city, after all.”
“Where has the boy gone, Canelmir?” his friend asked.
“He said he was going down to the practice grounds for the barracks in the Sixth Circle--and this is another interest I’ve not understood, that since his return from the city he has been practicing daily with his sword. I would never send him out where he faced any need to use such a thing. Yes, I did see him instructed in the basics of using a sword; but no true gentleman should truly need such skills, as there is no reason any must place himself in harm’s way.”
Systerien looked over her shoulder at where Airen was remaking the bed, Lord Canelmir having insisted on having his own linens put upon it. The slighter girl’s shoulders were stiff--her father had not been a swordsman, either, but had been moved to offer his services to the protection of the city during the war, and had fallen when a piece of rubble sent over the walls had swept him from his station. And certainly yesterday when the two of them had brought refreshment to the lesser audience chamber where the Lord King and Prince Faramir were meeting with messengers from those troupes still stationed in Ithilien there had been discussions of the continuing battles with orcs who’d taken refuge in the Ephel Dúath. The King wore his sword habitually, and word was that he could--and did--wield it very well indeed, as was true of Prince Faramir and his uncle and cousins.
“As for this pretender from the northern wilderness...” continued Lord Canelmir.
“Does he think we do not have ears to hear?” she whispered to the valet.
“He ever treats us as if we were not there,” the Man murmured in reply, after a swift glance toward the outer chamber where Canelmir and his friend sat over a bottle of wine.
It was with relief that she drew Airen out of there, once they were finished. Neither of those at the small table gave them more than a cursory glance as they gave their curtseys and left. Once the door was shut behind them, Systerien shook herself. “Can you imagine what it would be like serving the likes of that one every day,” she asked as they headed back up the hallway toward their dayroom. “And he is the father of young Lord Ivormil? Oh, I know Sephardion found him a boor; but when he spoke with me he had begun rethinking how he’d behaved and was rightly ashamed of himself.”
Airen shook herself also, as if relieving her thin shoulders of the weight of oppression. “I would rather serve here where we are seen as real people offering valuable service, than there where folk are treated as if they were but parts of the lord’s keep,” she agreed.
When their period of service was over for the day she and some of the other girls walked down to the barracks complex in the Sixth Circle in order to watch the Guardsmen at their weapons practice. It was not uncommon for the King himself to come there with others to join in the practice, and Systerien wished to see just how good he was in truth, while many of the other girls hoped to speak with those among the Guard who’d caught their eye.
“The King himself goes down today,” commented Linnariel, indicating the party that went before them.
And indeed the King walked before them in the midst of his own people and a few of the party from Rhovanion, all dressed in practice garb. At his hip hung his sword Anduril, with which he’d defended Minas Tirith and the realm of Gondor; and as he turned to say something to King Bard from Dale she saw he also had a dagger tucked into his belt. She was amazed at how tall he was compared to the others with him--he had to be the tallest Man she’d ever seen, although there were a few who were nearly as tall amongst his kinsmen. His shoulders did not seem as broad as had been those of Lord Boromir, she thought, although that was undoubtedly due to his chest not being as broad and powerful as the Captain-General’s had been.
They had turned northward toward the barracks area and were approaching the entrance to Isil Lane when she saw the party waiting there. “Well, Lord Strider,” called Master Samwise, “you off to practice, are you now?”
“Yes,” the King replied. “Why don’t you and Frodo come with us and watch? Indeed, it might be helpful for the future if you were to do some practicing of your own. One never knows what dangers might lie in wait for one, you know.” He held up one hand to ward off Master Frodo’s objections. “I’m not suggesting you do so, Frodo, for I’m not certain your stamina is yet sufficient to the exercise; but it wouldn’t do Sam any harm.”
While the two Hobbits considered the question between them, the Dwarf Gimli looked the Man up and down. “You’re merely going to practice against swords today?” he grunted. “What if the next enemy you come against carries a battle axe?”
There was a bit of a delay as Sam and Gimli went down the lane to the guesthouse where the Fellowship dwelt to retrieve their own weapons, but at last they continued on, the girls from the Citadel excitedly commenting on what they might see. There were many of the Guardsmen sparring here and there about the practice grounds. In one corner were what appeared to be two boys sparring, but it was soon obvious these were Captain Peregrin and Sir Meriadoc. “They are marvelously good,” Alisië murmured in delight, “for all they are so small.”
One of the weapons masters stood overseeing the match, now and then calling a halt and offering suggestions on stance or turns. But these two were yet not receiving as much correction and instruction as many of the younger Men, it was to be noticed; and they appeared to handle their practice foils well. The King came himself to stand by the weapons master’s side, approval clear in his eyes as he watched the sparring. When at last the halt was called, Sir Meriadoc quickly retreated to the low bench where towels and water sat waiting. He was wiping his face and pouring out a drink for himself, sinking gladly onto the wood. “Well,” he sighed, “that’s done it for me for today. I suppose if there were some orcs still standing I might well find more energy; but as there aren’t, I’m quitting while I still have strength enough to walk back for supper.”
Captain Peregrin followed him to the bench and poured out a cup of water and downed it. “Well, I’d like to do a bit more practice myself, once I’ve had a bit of a breather.” He looked to the weapons master. “And how did we do?”
“Well indeed,” the Man told him. “And, Captain Peregrin, I’d like you to demonstrate that defense you made to the frontal attack to some of our younger and smaller recruits, if you will. That is a move I’d not seen before, and was most effective.”
“We worked it out with Boromir,” the Pherian said, his face going a bit solemn, “with suggestions made by Legolas. There had to be some way we could find to use our shorter stature to our advantage we all thought, and to get within the reach of our opponents.”
“And Strider helped us work it out, too, didn’t he, Pippin?” added Sir Meriadoc. “He’s the one who suggested that turn.”
The small Guardsman nodded. “That is true.” He gave a look to Master Samwise. “You going to give it a go, Sam?”
“I suppose so, although I’m not certain as what one I’d go against. You two’s lookin’ rather blowed for the moment.”
“I’d be honored to practice against you, Lord Perhael,” suggested one of the smaller Men come from Dale.
Flushing at the title, Sam looked him over. “All right, I suppose, although I’ll warn you as I’m no great shakes with a sword.”
He took off the outer garments he wore and donned the padded practice shirt Sir Meriadoc had been wearing. He then removed his sword from its sheath and stood rather stiffly with it in the beginning position for forms, at which the Lord King laughed. “Sam--I know you can stand more balanced than that. Remember, hold it more loosely that you not cause a cramp in your hands.” He went behind the Pherian and corrected his stance somewhat, then guided him through the first few movements, then stepped back. “Now, do it again.”
Master Sam hadn’t the expertise shown by the two Hobbit knights, but still evidenced a grace that was pleasing, and Systerien found several of the girls by her were watching with approval. She cast a glance at the Ringbearer and that he was watching each move made by his friend with a slight smile on his face. Sam went through the forms twice more before the King gave his nod of assent for the sparring to begin. Sam accepted the practice foil given him, and after doing a few moves to test its balance he turned to face the Dalesman.
What the gardener lacked in expertise he more than made up for with determination and with an excellent feel for what his opponent might well do next. He was beaten in the end, but not anywhere as easily as most might have expected.
“Just be glad,” Sir Meriadoc said to the Dalesman from his seat on the bench, “that he didn’t have a skillet in his hands. Sam Gamgee wielding a skillet is not an adversary easily bested. I think that in Moria he managed to brain at least two orcs when he’d dropped his sword--although he did manage to kill at least one orc with the sword, too. Although had we had room to throw anything in that small chamber I suspect all four of us would have shone far more worthily than we did.”
“That room wasn’t so small,” insisted Captain Peregrin. “It seemed enormous when we entered it.”
As Master Samwise managed to undo the last lace of the practice garment and pulled it off he said quietly, “Felt lots smaller, what with it filled with us and who knows how many orcs and then that cave troll, you know. What was it called again? Chamber of Mazarbul, was it? Whoever Mazarbul was, he’d of been amazed to see what was goin’ on in his place that day, I’d think.” He handed the garment to the small knight, and flushed as Master Frodo rose to help him redon those garments he’d put off earlier.
“You all proved yourselves that day,” agreed the King. “Yes, even you, Frodo Baggins,” he added in response to a wordless huff from the Hobbit. “You were the first to have blooded a sword in that encounter; and if you hadn’t, we wouldn’t have been able to get the door wedged shut long enough to prepare any kind of defense. And it wasn’t yours to protect us that day--we were there to protect you.”
“Indeed, my dear Baggins,” said another voice, “I’ve been extraordinarily proud of how you performed that day, and particularly as it was told to me how long you and Sam ran afterwards, both of you injured as you were.” All swiveled to see Mithrandir now stood behind the onlookers, smiling at Frodo. “Now, let me see you at least practice your forms--perhaps you might not have the stamina as yet to spar properly, but you can still be ready if necessary to defend yourself and the company on your way home.”
“If you insist,” Master Frodo said. “Here, Sam, let me straighten the collar of your jacket. There. Rosie would be impressed, I think.”
Again Master Samwise flushed--this time with pleasure, as he helped Master Frodo prepare to do his own practice. Once the outer two garments were removed, Master Frodo looked to him in question. He held out the hilts of his sword, and Master Frodo unsheathed it easily before stepping into the cleared space. He took an opening stance, and the King began calling positions, watching as the Pherian moved from one to the next. If Master Samwise was surprisingly graceful, Master Frodo was wondrously so, and all were now standing, barely breathing, to watch the beauty of the Hobbit’s movements--until he stopped, his face suddenly going white as he let the sword fall to his left, gripping at his left shoulder with his right hand. Master Samwise quickly retrieved his blade as the King now knelt, setting his own hands over that clutching at the shoulder.
“Ah, small brother,” the King murmured. “Here--I have it. Now....”
They could see the return of color to the Hobbit’s cheeks as the apparent spasm eased. “I’m sorry, Aragorn,” he began, but the King cut him off with a shake to his head.
“We already know what hurt you took there, Frodo. No, do not apologize for what cannot be helped. You are so graceful with a sword, is all. It’s a shame to see you forced to stop.”
“It’s like a dance for him, the forms are,” Captain Peregrin said. “I’ll tell you again, he’s one of the best dancers you’ve ever seen.”
“While I’m next to hopeless when having to actually put a sword to use,” Frodo said. “That is better, Aragorn. Thank you.”
Now it was the King’s turn as he unsheathed Anduril and moved into the cleared space himself to practice first his forms, and finally to face the dwarf, who held his battle-axe at the ready. If the Ringbearer made the movement of self with sword into a dance, the King made it so even more so, a deadly dance of blade and eye. In the end he managed to bring the flat of the blade against the Dwarf’s wrist, and the axe fell from his grip as he found himself clutching at the stung place.
But the Dwarf was smiling at the Man as he accepted the axe from the weapons master, who’d swiftly stooped to catch it up. “Excellently done, Aragorn. You’ll stand up well to any who comes against you with a Dwarf’s axe, I’ll be bound.”
The King checked his blade and sheathed his sword, moving back to allow the next pair to enter the cleared space. King Bard and one of the Dúnedain both gave some time to the practicing of forms, and at last they turned to sparring, the match ending in a draw when at last the weapons master called time. Then Sir Peregrin called, “What say you, Aragorn--you with your dagger against me?”
“Cocky Hobbit--you think you are up to it?” the King asked. “All right--if you think you can do it.”
Again all watched as tall Man and Hobbit Guardsman prepared themselves. The match didn’t last particularly long, but it was plain to all that the Hobbit had still managed to truly challenge the Man. All other matches had finished, and now all were standing where they could to see the King and the Hobbit spar. Now and then the Hobbit managed to make it within the Man’s reach, and although the King managed to shift his defense appropriately he still had a nick to his arm to show for it once he’d managed to disarm Captain Peregrin, who was now standing, sucking on a skinned knuckle while the weapons master knelt to fetch back the Hobbit’s sword.
Systerien now caught sight of one other who’s stood watching the sparring, and realized young Lord Ivormil had been there the whole time. She smiled as his gaze met hers, and caught his surprised smile in return. She felt more light-hearted as she turned to watch the next matched pair ready themselves to spar.
The next day Systerien slipped out to the gallery to watch the morning’s audience, and witnessed the presentation of Lord Canelmir before the King. She wished she could be closer to see the expression on the faces of each, but there was no question that the Lord King Elessar was not particularly impressed when the Lord of Bidwell stood before him, protesting his allegiance.
“You offer me honor as King of Gondor, although you failed to come out upon the field of battle yourself to fight against the forces of the Enemy? How is it that I know you honor me as King when you could not honor the realm in which you live enough to seek to protect it?”
“But, my Lord King,” protested Canelmir, “should it not be that there remain lords of the realm to help take up the reins of government at the end of the battle? How many are there that died in this dread war--our own beloved Forlong, Lord of Lossarnach; Derufin and Duilin; Hirluin the Fair, Théoden of Rohan, and so many others....” His voice trailed off uncertainly.
Even from the distance of the servants’ gallery Systerien could tell that the King’s expression had grown stony. “And how many lived? The Lord Steward Denethor is dead, as is his older son, Captain-General Boromir the Bold; but the realm has a new Steward in the person of Prince Faramir, who as Captain of the defensive forces of Gondor was wounded and yet has recovered to continue to serve this nation. Prince Imrahil and his two older sons who fought by his side survived. Forlong’s son has been confirmed in his father’s place, and continues his father’s policies that have so long brought prosperity to your province--he fought in the battles.
“And I have in my long life fought in many battles in many lands. Indeed, I fought by the sides of Théoden King and his successor, his nephew Éomer, at the Battle of Helm’s Deep; and we met again on the battlefield here before the White City where we at last prevailed. And many of us went forth to fight before the Black Gate and returned again. Does it appear that the realms of Gondor and Arnor or Rohan are lacking in leadership, or that all who went forth to face those who would wrest all we have from us, and especially our freedoms, died?”
No one could discern the words of Canelmir.
After a time the King spoke again. “I am the heir of Isildur. He, his father, his brother, and his three elder sons went forth to fight against Sauron the Accursed three thousand years ago. They saw their possible deaths in battle an acceptable sacrifice that the rest of the world might live free of the Shadow. I have fought the Enemy and his creatures with sword and policy since I was first judged fit to ride forth at the side of the sons of Elrond, when I was fifteen years of age. I have served great lords and have been served by great lords as I was prepared for the day when the final battle might come. I have offered myself ever that others might live, as did Théoden King, who lies now in the Hallows until his folk come to carry his body back to Rohan to burial, and as did the Ringbearer, who armed with his own folk’s dogged determination and ability to hide himself, came with two others to the Sammath Naur to see the Ring destroyed. He and his companions also offered themselves as possible sacrifices for the rest of Middle Earth, as did we who went to the Black Gate to draw Sauron’s armies there that the Ringbearer might know a clearer road to his goal. And most of us have been spared for this time. Nay, sir, I find your excuses unbefitting a lord of this realm.
“Now, sir, have you brought with you the records requested demonstrating your stewardship of Bidwell?”
“Yes, my lord.” Canelmir’s voice sounded stiff with wariness.
“Have them brought to the lesser audience chamber behind this one, and I will meet with you there in an hour’s time. Master Balstador will show you the way. Captain Peregrin, will you stand by Lord Canelmir and Master Balstador in this?”
“Yes, my Lord Elessar,” said the Pherian Guardsman, who stepped out from beside the steps to the throne and bowed deeply to the King before moving to Canelmir’s side as Balstador came from his place behind the dais. As Systerien slipped out of the gallery to return to her duties she felt a strong sense of justice being served.
Ivormil had come to the audience with his father, although he had stopped short, allowing his father to come before the throne of Gondor alone. When the Seneschal and Captain Peregrin stepped forth to accompany his father to the lesser audience chamber, he followed behind. He knew his father so far had done even worse than he had on his previous visit, and he realized he was feeling both sorry for him at the same time he felt a perverse pleasure in the discomfiture of the Man. That he was being allowed to follow his father, the Seneschal, and the small Guardsman was, he was certain, due to some signal Master Balstador was giving to those guards he passed. Master Balstador led them along the hallway off of which the residential wings opened, but turned left down a short passage and into a room fitted with a number of chairs and sofas, some quite low, as if intended for children. There were low tables in the seating area; but on one side the room there was a higher table set with candlestands, and by it a number of wooden side chairs. A further archway screened by drapes opened into a smaller room with a pair of sofas and a comfortable chair.
Master Balstador said formally, “This is the lesser audience chamber. Our Lord Elessar will be with you after he has finished with the public audience and known time to change his garb. Lord Canelmir, if you will await him here? And Lord Ivormil, if you will please summon your father’s clerk with the records that have been brought with you? I will have one of the servants of the Citadel bring refreshment sufficient for three, then. Would you prefer a light wine or an herbal drink, my Lord? Although I will advise you that we have an apple cider that is particularly fine at this time. No? The wine then. My lords.” And with a low bow he saw himself out.
“Adar, shall I go and fetch Narthord, then?”
His father’s voice shook with anger born of anxiety. “Isn’t that what you were instructed to do by--by that--servant? Go, then!”
By the time Ivormil and Narthord returned his father was in as fine a state of nerves as he’d ever seen, pacing restlessly, picking at his sleeve, and gnawing at his lower lip. Captain Peregrin stood just inside the door, still but watchful, as he and the clerk set the books they carried upon the table. As they worked there was a knock, and at Canelmir’s call the maid Ivormil had met in the gardens on his first visit entered, carrying a tray. Seeing the three busy at the taller table, she asked, “My lords, shall I place this by you or on one of the tables near the sofas?”
“There!” Canelmir waved blindly at the lower tables. “Why did you bring this one?” he asked Narthord in a hiss. “It ought to have been left in our coach!”
“I was hurried! I must have picked it up with the others!”
Ivormil was shocked to hear his father and Narthord discussing this before a servant and guard they didn’t know, but then realized that this was what they did there in Bidwell at all times. How much was there that the servants knew, he found himself wondering, that could destroy the family name if it were ever to be spoken to outsiders? He cast a glance at Systerien over his shoulder and noted that she had her lips pursed as if she were considering thoughts she knew better than to speak aloud. He remembered the discussion he had known with the King’s kinsman, Lord Hardorn, as he had been preparing to leave the Citadel a few weeks previous.
“Those who serve in this house are not slaves, but those employed to do what we either choose not to do or do not have time to do for ourselves,” the Man had told him. “They are paid well, for they each add a great deal to the peace and comfort of all who enter the Citadel; and they pride themselves on how well they care for residents and guests. Each servant in this house is to be treated with courtesy and respect, from the least boot boy to the Seneschal and Housekeeper, for we are dependent on them. Do you understand?”
“Master Frodo said much the same of the service offered him by Master Samwise.”
“It is not for naught that he was named ‘Wise One,’ Lord Ivormil.”
He remembered the familiarity and mutual respect he’d seen between the two Pheriannath, and contrasted that with how he’d always treated his body servant. It did not present a good picture of himself.
Captain Peregrin straightened as if listening to something outside the room--there is no way, Ivormil thought, that he could have missed the fact my father is unhappy regarding the presence of one of the record books brought. It was yet a moment before Ivormil heard voices approaching the room. The expression on the Pherian’s face as he gave a glance at the two Men at the table indicated to Ivormil that he recognized those approaching and was perfectly pleased with the idea of them entering the room, perhaps leading to an unpleasant encounter. A quick glance at the young maid showed she, too, had heard the approaching voices, and that she was recognizing them.
“Well, I think it’s a splendid idea.”
“Of course you would--as long as you see me out of the house....”
“Well, he’s right--you need a good bit o’ sun, you know. You’re far too pale, what with sittin’ for hours over old record books. That office of the Captain’s leaves you shiverin’, for all it’s almost June now. There was a reason, after all, Lord Strider left the roof off the tent where we slept there in Ithilien.”
The voices were closer, just outside the door. “Well, if you say so,” said the second voice as the door opened inwards, and the other three Pheriannath paused in the doorway, frozen into stillness as they examined the current occupants of the lesser audience room.
The maid had gone into a deep curtsey. “Small masters,” she said.
Lord Frodo, who was in the lead, gave her a nod of recognition. “Mistress Systerien. I see that the room is in use. We will go out to the gardens, then, for when you are done here. Thank you. And have you any idea when Lord Aragorn might be free?”
“Not for a time, I fear,” she said, with a nod of her head indicating the two Men at the table.
“I see.” The dark-haired Pherian gave another nod. “Lord Ivormil--I see you have returned. And your father has come with you?”
“Yes. Master Frodo, Master Samwise, Sir Meriadoc--my father, Canelmir, Lord of Bidwell; and our kinsman Narthord, who serves as my father’s clerk. Adar, Lords Iorhael and Perhael from the land of the Shire in the north kingdom; and Sir Meriadoc, who is esquire to King Éomer of Rohan.”
“My Lord Canelmir, Master Narthord,” Lord Frodo said formally with a brief bow. “I am Frodo Baggins of the Shire, at your service. My cousin Meriadoc Brandybuck, my friend Samwise Gamgee, and I see you are already acquainted with my younger cousin Peregrin Took.” He gave a nod toward Captain Peregrin as his companions gave their own bows. “Well, we will withdraw----”
He stopped, and all four of the Pheriannath turned slightly, listening, their expressions lightening markedly. Ivormil caught Sir Meriadoc giving his father a considering sidelong glance before turning more fully toward the hallway by which they’d entered, stepping into the audience chamber and slightly to one side.
A moment later the King could be seen approaching the entrance to the room, accompanied by what was plainly his own clerk, a decidedly competent looking individual. He paused just outside the door, examining the three Pheriannath who stood obviously waiting for him inside the room. He showed a half-smile, then gave a respectful inclination of his head toward the three Halflings. “My beloved Lord Iorhael--Lord Perhael, Sir Meriadoc,” he said in greeting.
Ivormil could see the change of expression on the face of Lord Frodo, the brief look of calculation. “Oh, I see.” He gave a deep and particularly graceful yet almost impersonal bow, which his two companions immediately mirrored. “Our Lord Elessar,” he said most formally, “I trust that the morning’s audiences went well.”
“As well as one could expect, I suppose,” the King said. “Did you come here seeking me?” he asked.
“No, my Lord King. We’d thought to rest a bit and take some refreshment was all, but have decided, as the chamber is already occupied, to take our ease in the gardens instead, if, of course, that meets with your approval.”
“That is to the good, then.” He looked about the room and noted the one who’d joined Lord Canelmir, then the maid who was curtseying nearby, waiting as patiently as she might for those near the doorway to settle in their heads what they would do so she could be about the rest of her duties. “Mistress Systerien, would you please ask that Iorvas bring my tray here before you return to your regular service?”
“Most gladly, Lord Elessar,” she said respectfully, raising her eyes to meet his.
The King gestured for his companion to follow him into the room, stepping to the other side of the doorway. “Then I will look forward to seeing you later in the afternoon,” he said to Lord Frodo. Again the three Halflings gave bows, less deep this time, and filed out with murmured comments Ivormil couldn’t make out, the King watching after them, then giving the maid a nod of dismissal at which time she followed after the Hobbits.
“I see I’ve put his back up,” the youth heard the King say softly to himself as he looked down the hallway, and saw the sardonic smile and brief shake to his head. “Stubborn Baggins,” he continued before he turned and fixed his attention on Ivormil’s father. “Lord Canelmir, my clerk Trevion of the city. Now, if you will introduce your companion?” He gave a brief glance toward Captain Peregrin and a nod toward the door, at which time the small Guardsman gave a bow and withdrew, closing the door after him.
Lord Canelmir was beginning to make his introduction of Narthord when there was a brief knock, and the door was opened to admit the Lord Prince Steward and his own clerk, followed by a manservant carrying a large tray of further refreshments. Ivormil noted the paling of his father’s face, and realized with a feeling of amusement that his father no longer was certain the records he was producing would be well accepted. Faramir son of Denethor did have a reputation of being--thorough, after all.
Ivormil of Bidwell, at a nod from the King, took up one of the goblets the maid Systerien had brought, sat himself on a chair in the corner, and set himself to seeing how the situation would play out.
“You have no idea what became of the rents for this property here?” asked Faramir, his voice apparently mild and interested only for academic reasons; but Ivormil had begun to realize that their Lord Prince Steward rarely asked any question that had no point. The sweat on his father’s upper lip and the blanching of Narthord’s cheek told its own tale. “I ask,” the Steward continued, “because that particular property was granted, I learned not all that long ago, to the Lady Fíriel on the occasion of her marriage to the heir of the King of Arnor, who in his time became King of Arnor on the occasion of his father’s death. Being part of the dower lands granted to the last Queen of Arnor, it passed in its turn to the line of the heirs of Isildur, the most recent of whom has been identified.”
Ivormil suddenly straightened as the meaning of that last statement hit home. The King had been sitting back, watching and listening as Lord Faramir had carefully led the questioning of Canelmir and Narthord. There was no notable change in the King’s posture or expression to show he had any more interest in this particular property than in any of the others so far examined.
Faramir continued, “The current heir to the line of Isildur, in his turn, wished to give that property to one who served the needs of both Gondor and Arnor well, to serve to the maintenance of this one and his heirs and dependents. However, in examining the records of those who have collected the rents for transference to the account set up in the year 1940, it was noted that as of twenty-seven years ago, three years after you followed your father as Lord of Bidwell, when the agent employed to gather the rents due to that account came to do so, he was told that the rents had already been gathered by your agent, Master Narthord here, at the same time the rents for your own surrounding properties were gathered, and he was shown the receipt for this gathering. When you and Master Narthord were approached about this situation, he was told that you had been unaware said property belonged to another, and that you would forward the gathered rents to the bankers within this city that were charged with guarding the monies accrued to the actual holder of title to the property. Indeed money was sent as directed by the title-holder’s agent, but the sum was less than had been sent the preceding year. The letter of explanation indicated that there had been drought in your region, and that for relief of those who dwelt on the property, as you believed the property had come to you at the death of your brother the preceding year, you had granted the tenants a lesser rent that they not be unduly oppressed by the sums originally required.
“The agent was sent again to the property to take a copy of the receipt given the tenants for monies paid, and it was found that in fact, your agent Narthord here had told the tenants that the property had passed on the death of his brother into the hands of the current lord of Bidwell, and that you were raising the rents, leaving them to pay an increased rather than a decreased sum to you. As the sum you sent to the bankers here in Minas Tirith was roughly half the sum collected from the tenants, it appears that you still managed to make a profit on the transaction. But each time the property-owner’s agent arrived to collect the rents, it would be told him that you had already collected it for him. He would take a copy of the receipt given the tenant and would forward it to the bankers here within the city; always an amount would have been forwarded by you, but a lesser amount than that originally collected.
“As the bankers within the city had no means of easily contacting the holder of the account, they left the matter unresolved--until April, when I received from the current account holder the token necessary to access the records of this account that I might have the accounts property audited for him. Nine years ago the full rents required by the original grants to tenants began being paid to the bankers here within the city by you; the actual agent assigned to the account, however, continued to visit the tenants to take copies of the receipts for rents paid, which the tenants complained were onerous. The receipts, which had been received but merely filed for the past fourteen years, were now checked against the records of monies actually received from you. It appears that you have been consistently taking half of the monies and goods used to pay the rents for your own use and benefit every year for the past twenty-seven years.”
The Steward paused and signaled to the King, who nodded, turned, and poured him a goblet of wine and passed it to him. Ivormil, looking at his father and kinsman, saw the two using the distraction to exchange looks of anxiety and confusion. His father was giving Narthord a small shake of the head when all realized that the Steward’s eyes were on the both of them as he held out his hand to receive the goblet the King was pressing into his fingers, a stern look on his face. He took a sip from the goblet without taking his eyes from theirs, and set it down before him on the table. “Give the record book of rents received to my clerk, please; and, Master Trevion, if you will open the journal provided you of the rents for this property? Very good. Now, Dendril, if you will begin searching for the records for the estate of....”
The record of rents received proved to go back merely five years; when asked why Canelmir had failed to bring the full records of his stewardship, it was pointed out, very reasonably, that such would have required the use of a wain just for the records, as much could and had occurred within the lands administered by the lord of Bidwell in twenty-seven years.
“I see,” Lord Faramir said. “Well, in truth we had thought that this might indeed prove the case as well, so a few weeks back my own agent within your region of Lossarnach was advised that he should approach your keep and arrange for the transference of all records here. However, it appears that he arrived on the afternoon of the day on which you left. As he held a royal warrant for all records, however, your seneschal gave him free access to your records room, and assisted in the retrieval of a few books kept separately within storerooms in the cellars area.”
Ivormil realized his father’s face had lost all color, while Narthord’s face was actually grey, and he was experiencing problems breathing. Meanwhile he realized the King’s own attention was fixed on himself.
“You had no idea, then?” the Lord Elessar asked him.
“No, sir,” admitted Ivormil. He looked back toward Narthord, concerned. “Please, sir,” he said, looking back toward the King, “my kinsman....”
The King looked to Canelmir’s clerk, then straightened. He called, “Captain Peregrin!”
The door opened, and the small Guardsman looked in. “My lord?” he asked.
“Pippin--go to my chambers and fetch my Healer’s bag, and then send for Master Eldamir. He’s been here in the Citadel checking on the condition of Mistress Lindehir in the wardrobes, whose confinement is to come soon and who has been knowing some difficulties. If he is not with her, he should be in the dining hall, for I’d left directions he was to be given a noon meal before he returned to the Houses of Healing.”
“Yes, Aragorn--I’ll be right back, then.” As the door closed behind the Pherian, Ivormil could hear him apparently calling directions to a page. “...Master Eldamir...wardrobes...dining hall--bring him here to the King’s assistance.” Within moments a Man in the robes of a healer was entering the room and coming to the King’s side as he leaned over Narthord, who’d been carried between the King and his clerk to one of the sofas and laid there. When the door opened again, it was the Pherian guard with a red satchel in his arms. “Your healer’s satchel, Strider.”
“Set it there.” The King indicated the low table by him.
“They ought to be fetching in some hot water in a moment. Seizure of the heart?”
“An attack of panic, but approaching the point of precipitating such a thing.”
“I see. My relief has come. Shall I send Merry in to help go through the books?”
Again the King straightened. “Merry has training as a clerk?”
“Well, he’s been helping go through the accounts of Uncle Sara’s tenants for about five years now, and he’s good at spotting when accounts have been--adjusted. At least Uncle Saradoc says so. They don’t use a different numbering system here, though, do they? I mean, he’s always used the numbers we’re used to in the Shire, although they appeared to be the same they used in Bree and Rivendell, the glances I had----”
“Yes, Pippin,” the King interrupted. “And if Merry’s as good as you say, I’m certain he’ll do very well indeed at aiding us.”
“Master Frodo could also be useful,” Lord Faramir pointed out. “He is very good at spotting specific text within documents and records, I’ve found; and he and Master Samwise both read Sindarin.”
“Then I’ll set Sam and Merry to work checking accounts alongside your clerk, Sam to read and Merry to check figures; and Frodo to working alongside Trevion here at going through the journals and records of judgments given. Perhaps the two of them should work in the area behind the screen at the end of the hallway, though. No criticism of your office intended, Faramir, but he’s in desperate need of more warmth and light than that room provides.”
“I understand, my liege, and agree. So be it then. Most of the records are there in the next room, stacked against the near wall. As soon as Sir Meriadoc and Lord Samwise arrive, shall we begin?”
“Very good. Pippin, you know they were going out to the gardens. Please convey my apologies, but explain that if they agree we could do with their assistance. And as some of the properties in question have been made over to Sam, I would think he and Frodo would both like to see the accounts properly reconciled.”
Once free of the lesser audience chamber, Systerien hurried to the kitchens to carry the request for refreshment for the Cormacolindor and Sir Meriadoc, and then bore the resulting tray out to the gardens where she found the three of them near the greater rose arbor, Master Samwise in consultation with two of the gardeners regarding a rose bush he’d been keeping an eye on. “It is doing far better now, Master Samwise,” Dalrod was saying as she approached. “The last three weeks it is as if it had taken heart once more, and now it’s opening up to the clearer skies and cleaner air.”
“That it is,” Sam was agreeing, caressing an opening bud with one finger, a look of fondness in his eyes. “It’s provin’ right game, it is, and no mistake.” He looked up and caught the maid’s eyes, inviting her to share the joy of a flowering bush that had indeed chosen to bloom rather than to succumb to blight.
Systerien approached and held out the tray to him so he could accept one of the steins of ale, and she examined the buds with pleasure. “I think the color is more vibrant than in past years, if you understand what I would say,” she said thoughtfully.
Dalrod nodded, giving her a smile. “That is true, Mistress Systerien,” he agreed. He shook his head at an offer for refreshment for himself and his fellow. “We will be going soon in for our noon meal, and require nothing further at the moment. Masters, if you will excuse us, we yet have some work to do before we do that.”
As Systerien and Master Sam approached Sir Merry and Master Frodo on the bench, she saw that they were examining a book between them. “Yes,” Frodo was saying, “I found it in the archives yesterday--a text by Thengel, King Théoden’s father, on how to pronounce words properly in Rohirric. Although some of these words look to be as odd as Khuzdul. One seems to do a lot of sounds rather back far in the throat. I suspect I’d get quite hoarse after a time of speaking it, you know.”
“I wonder if he wrote this for Lord Denethor to learn Rohirric?” Merry mused.
“More likely for his father, I’d think,” Frodo said. “According to the archivist part of the reason King Théoden and those of his immediate household speak such excellent Westron and Sindarin is because Thengel married a Gondorian noblewoman, who was known in Rohan as Morwen Steelsheen. I suspect that if she was of strong Dúnedain heritage she would have had grey eyes much as Aragorn and his kinsman, Prince Imrahil and his children, Boromir and Lord Faramir have. I wonder if they called her that due to her eyes?”
“More likely she was a strong-willed lady, much like her granddaughter Éowyn,” Merry said, shrugging slightly. “The Rohirrim appear to have a great deal of respect for folk who have strong will to the good, you know. Part of the reason they respect you and Sam so, you must realize.”
Systerien was shocked to see the difference in Master Frodo. “The more fools they,” he said, darkly, all his brightness fled in an instant.
Merry and Sam traded looks of frustration, as if this was already a familiar change for them to see. “Do you think, Frodo Baggins,” Sir Meriadoc said in a stiff voice, “that just getting to the Mountain wasn’t enough? And didn’t that take a far greater act of will than had been seen in Middle Earth in thousands of years? And wasn’t that due to your will for the good? The rest of it was It at work, and you know it. Just how many times do you have to be told?”
“Ten thousand times don’t seem to be enough, Mr. Merry,” sniffed Lord Samwise. “Tell you what, Master, you drink down the water as Mistress Systerien’s just brought you, and we’ll let the subject go.”
His eyes would not waver under the look Lord Iorhael leveled at him, simply going as stubborn as those of the dark-haired Hobbit. Finally with a sigh, Sir Merry pulled the book from his kinsman’s hands, nodding at the sturdier Hobbit, who gave merely a flicker of his eyes and a nod to Systerien before returning his gaze to his friend. Hastily the maid poured a goblet of water and handed it to Sam, whose attention was still fixed on the face of his Master. Sam now held the goblet out to Frodo. “Here, drink this, and let that be an end to it.”
At last Master Frodo dropped his eyes, giving a slight shrug to his shoulders. He accepted the goblet and drank, deliberately pacing himself.
After half the water was gone, Sam now held out the plate of cheese slices and flat crackers, Frodo finally taking one of each and again eating slowly. It quickly became obvious that he was hungrier than he’d thought, and he was soon taking more as Master Sam and Sir Merry compared the gardens here with ones they’d known in their homeland. Gradually the tension she’d noted drained out of him, as he relaxed against the back of the bench and closed his eyes, a smile finally beginning to make itself seen, although she thought he might be suffering some from a headache.
“You have gardens there where you was born’n’ raised, there by the seaside, Mistress Systerien?” Master Samwise asked her.
“Some, although nothing like here, or what I understand you know in your own land,” she admitted. A time she remained with them until the tolling of a bell recalled her to her other responsibilities. “I am sorry--I must return to the Citadel now. Master Frodo, if you’d like to go in and rest for a time----”
“I could carry the tray within if’n it comes to that,” Sam assured her. “Carryin’ trays is something as all Hobbits learn to do, after all. Get on with you now, for we don’t want for you to come to no trouble on our accounts.”
With the assurance of the other two that this was so, Systerien gave them her curtsey and headed back to her service. She was singing softly to herself as she went a song she’d heard Master Samwise singing as he worked alongside the gardeners who were preparing the King’s herb garden, and she didn’t notice the attention this drew to her as she passed other servants and guards.
Master Balstador, who’d stopped to exchange a word with Mistress Gilmoreth, smiled as she went by. “She’s a much nicer person to be around since she began attending on the Hobbits,” he commented.
Mistress Gilmoreth nodded. “That she is--not nearly as prideful, nor as much looking toward her own advantage at the expense of others.”