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71
Failure of Duty

Written for Golden for the LOTR-Community-GFic Yule Exchange. Beta as always by Golden.


~~~

Failure of Duty


“Master Pherian--come join us!” demanded one of the Guardsman from the Second Company. “Our Bertesion here--he has been chosen to join Lord--Prince Faramir’s White Company, and we are celebrating!”

Peregrin Took paused as he passed through the barracks building from the privy. He was to have afternoon duty today, and so had come to the barracks practice area for the Guards of the Citadel for weapons practice this morning. It was still an hour before noon, and he was to take up his duty at the first hour after the noon bell. “I’m not certain that I have time,” Pippin said slowly, lifting his hands as if to demonstrate his inability to share in the celebration at the moment. “I do thank you for the invitation, though.”

“Nonsense--you plan on having a cup of ale with your noon meal, do you not?”

“Well, yes----”

“Then you are only having it perhaps a little sooner. Come--it would please Bertesion, you must realize. Wouldn’t it please you, Bertesion?” he asked, turning to the guest of honor.

“Oh, but of course!” replied Bertesion with a winning smile at the Hobbit. “It would be such an honor to share a toast with you, Guardsman Peregrin. Please to join us!”

“But they will be waiting luncheon for me back in the guesthouse....”

The first Guardsman resumed the task of coaxing Pippin. “But we have food here now, and the cooks are soon to send some fowl for us to share--and besides, they won’t have the meal ready yet, will they? Not for an hour or better, is it not true? Please join us!” He reached out to grasp the Hobbit’s wrist and draw him toward their table, and another was already filling a cup and pressing it into his hand. “A cup or two of ale will do no harm, surely? And if you would consent to sing for us, I am certain that will make the celebration complete! I doubt Bertesion has heard you sing, have you, my friend? See--he would love to hear you sing!”

Somehow they were pulling Pippin to an emptied place on the bench about their long table and helping him to sit upon it. A plate of cheese and thin rounds of toasted bread was set before him, and someone was spooning strawberries onto it.

“A toast--a toast to Bertesion!” called one of the others. Pippin lifted up his pewter cup and drank deeply from it, draining a good half of what he’d been given.

The first Guardsman looked down into the cup and appeared impressed. “Here is one who appreciates a good draught of ale!” he exclaimed admiringly. He signaled one of the others, who lifted one of the pitchers that sat upon the table and refilled Pippin’s cup while the others also looked to refill their own vessels.

Then another was raising his own ale. “To Prince Faramir--the best of Stewards and now Prince of Ithilien! May he rule it with all the honor he’s ever shown us!”

There was no way in which Pippin could refuse to drink to such a toast. The one who’d pressed him so was now standing and taking one of the pitchers to refill it from the barrel of ale that sat nearby, and brought it back to settle rather heavily on the table before Pippin, some of it sloshing over the Hobbit’s hand. Another was already proposing the next toast--to the Lady Éowyn, the White Lady of Rohan who would soon be the Princess of Ithilien! Again Pippin was raising his glass with the rest, and almost immediately another was refilling it....

When the bell for the noon meal rang Pippin began to stand to take his leave, but there were more hands on his shoulders, holding him there in his place, begging him not to go yet. Would he not sing that song he’d sung down at the Dimmed Star the other night, the one about roads going on and on, wasn’t that how it went? Flattered that they enjoyed his singing he stood upon the bench and sang it, then another song he’d not sung in years, one that was popular in Buckland about the Mistress’s knickers, one that never failed to get a laugh in Brandy Hall--as long as Aunt Esmeralda wasn’t present, at least; and they were rewarding him with another refilled cup.

“A sad song now, Master!” begged Bertesion, and Pippin complied, singing the Lay of Nimrodel as he’d heard it sung between the eastern gate of Moria and the borders of Lórien. All were quiet when he was done, filled with the added solemnity that perhaps too much ale can give those at such celebrations, and this time the hands that had been busy filling pitchers and cups with ale were now wiping away tears. “That was beautiful,” Bertesion breathed softly. “Thank you so, sir.”

Pippin smiled, pleased his voice had managed to move so many. “It is my honor, sir,” he said.

He was beginning to reach for his cup again when he heard a new voice from the door. “Master Peregrin, have you forgotten you must be on duty in perhaps less than half a mark? Master Frodo sent me to seek you out when you did not come home for the noon meal.”

It was Captain Beregond’s son Bergil.

Bertesion’s expression was alarmed. “You have duty today?” he asked. “But I did not know, or I would never have begged you to stay!”

Several of the others looked equally uncomfortable. “You should have said,” admonished the one who’d coaxed him so. “It would never do to begin your duty when you’ve been drinking.”

Pippin was stung. “You never gave me the chance to explain!” he protested, “and you were all insisting I stay!”

All exchanged looks as Pippin tried to jump lightly off the bench, only to land in such a way he twisted his right ankle. It wasn’t a particularly bad wrench, and he could walk on it even if it did pain him some; so he started away, then turned to bow to the company. “Thank you,” he said rather carefully, “for inviting me to your party.” He almost fell as he completed his bow, and came erect with a lurch. He’d done similarly after so many parties--it wasn’t as if it were unfamiliar, leaving feeling more than a bit light-headed.

Bergil put himself under Pippin’s right arm once they were free of the building. The boy hurried him home and came in with him, helping him change into his uniform, and finally taking the Hobbit’s sword from him and hanging it from his belt when he couldn’t manage to fix its hangers. “I don’t know what you were doing, Pippin,” he muttered as he straightened the Hobbit’s black cloak, “drinking so much this early in the day--and when you have duty!”

Pippin was beginning to feel uncomfortable, for his stomach was roiling, obviously agreeing that it was far too early in the day--and with too little food--to have been doing such drinking. However, he protested, “I can handle it, Bergil. It’s not as if I’ve not done this before!”

The boy looked up into his eyes, startled. “What--going on duty with a bellyful? My father----”

“I’m afraid I have no time to hear what your father thinks,” Pippin said more harshly than he’d intended. “I will be late if--if I don’t go now.” So saying he turned out of the room toward the door to the guesthouse and set off in what he hoped was a dignified hurry for the Citadel, favoring his right foot as he walked.

*******


I shouldn’t go, Pippin thought to himself as he walked toward the doors to the Citadel. I should go back and send Bergil up to say I’ve taken ill or something.

But,
he countered himself, it’s not as if I really have to do anything--just stand at the foot of the throne with my sword drawn, or outside his door. There’s nothing I really have to do--do or be responsible for. And it wouldn’t be fair to whoever would have to take my duty. I can stand it for a few hours.

He swallowed and paused for a moment until his protesting stomach settled and the throbbing in his ankle eased, then went on, disturbed when he stumbled slightly. He could feel sweat break out on his forehead. I can’t back out now, he insisted to himself as he paused again to ease the strain on his ankle. Strider is depending on me! He lifted his head up higher and swallowed again, and forced himself to go on.

As he approached the doorway the Guardsmen nodded and opened the door for him. “You’re late,” whispered the one on the left door. “The King sent out a page to see if you’d come. It appears that there’s to be a special meeting of the Council and he wishes you to be there to stand behind his chair that you might both serve and observe.”

Pippin felt alarmed. “Stand behind his chair?”

“So you are handy to pass documents and fetch items. We all have done this for Lord Denethor from time to time, I’ve found, when his personal esquire has been indisposed or he was between esquires.”

This could be bad, he thought. “I see. I am sorry to have been delayed.”

“You had best hurry to the Council Chamber, then.”

At least it was not far to the Council Chamber, for one passed its doors before reaching the Hall of Kings. Two Men, one of them the Captain of the Guard, stood on watch here, and now the Captain glared down at him. “Where have you been, Guardsman?” he whispered sternly. “You know that we ask that those taking their duty arrive a quarter mark before their time that any last-minute changes might be told them before they must take their assigned positions. The King would have preferred to have you by his side as he entered the Council Chamber, and Gilorion waits inside for you to relieve him.” He didn’t bother returning Pippin’s hasty salute, merely signed for the Guardsman to open the doors. The two pages who waited outside the room in case their services were required gave him sympathetic glances as he stumbled in.

When the doors opened the voice of whoever it was who was speaking stopped, and Pippin found himself the subject of scrutiny of almost all who were within. There sat Aragorn--the King!--at one end of the room with the stern face of Denethor staring over his shoulder from the portrait on the wall; opposite stood Prince Faramir, who was apparently expecting to answer the question of the lord who stood about a third of the way along the opposite side of the table from the King. To the right of the King sat the party from Dale who’d arrived in the aftermath of the coronation; to the left sat the envoys from the Lonely Mountain; beyond the Dalesmen were those from Legolas’s kindred in Mirkwood; and on this side of the Dwarves sat Frodo and Sam, the latter flushing markedly to find himself amongst such fine folk as if he were important. Down on one side of Faramir was his uncle with one son seated by his side and another behind him, and on the other the envoy from Rohan with Merry standing behind him. Between sat a number of lords of the realm, and the one whose question Pippin’s arrival had interrupted appeared to be Lord Angborn of the Vale of Morthond. The Man’s eyes followed Pippin as he limped over to take his place behind Aragorn’s chair. Gilorion nodded with obvious relief, and relinquished his position gladly to the Hobbit, swiftly slipping out of the room with far less note than Pippin had known entering it.

Sam was peering at Pippin with curiosity, while Frodo gave him a brief glance and a shake of the head and returned his attention rather pointedly toward Lord Angborn. Aragorn gave Pippin only a sharp glance before following suit. “As you were saying, my Lord?” he asked politely.

“I was asking if the timber of Ithilien might be made available for the building of wagons, for we will have much needs for such things if we are to increase the output of our granite quarries and iron mines along the valley of the Morthond. Although I doubt our steel is as well smelted as that produced by the Dwarves....”

It grew increasingly difficult to concentrate on the discussion as Pippin’s discomfort grew. With little movement of the air within the room he found himself sweating, while his stomach complained, his ankle ached, and as time passed he found himself entertaining a second throbbing in his head. Oh, if only my stomach were less full, he thought. He felt the belch building and did his best to contain it, until at last it forced its way from him.

“Garumph!”

He felt his face go a bright crimson, then was further embarrassed as the first belch was followed by a second.

“Urk!”

His stomach rumbled seriously, and all faces were turned toward him, startled to hear so loud a sound from one so small. Then he felt pressure from two sources at the same time. He knew his face must be pasty as Aragorn turned to face him, his expression shocked. “I’m sorry, my Lord King,” he managed to gasp out. “I find----”

But he had to stifle the request as he realized that if he said another word he’d likely vomit on Aragorn himself. He saw his King’s face grow as stern as that of the portrait that looked down on both of them. “Go--before you further embarrass yourself,” Aragorn said in such soft tones Pippin didn’t believe anyone else could hear him.

The Hobbit gave a rigid nod and turned toward the door, limping as quickly as he could with the small steps he felt were all he could manage considering the pressure he felt continuing to build within him. He almost made it out the door, which someone whose identity he could not make out in his misery was opening for him, when at last his right ankle gave way, and he went sprawling indecorously, head and torso out in the hall, hips and legs sprawled awkwardly within the Council Chamber, and although he was able to still hold the contents of his bladder, that of his stomach was let loose all over the boots of the Captain of the Guard.

“Mugs and ale!” he heard Sam exclaiming as the retching ceased momentarily. The gardener had left his place at the table to come to Pippin’s aid. “So this was why you didn’t come back for nuncheon with us, then?”

It was too much, and he felt an unwelcome warmth spreading about him on the floor.

“Nooooo!” he gasped before the retching resumed....

*******


Pippin sat on the rough footstool provided for him in rank misery. He was in a stark room in the prison behind the Citadel--not quite a cell, but certainly not a room employed for the use in entertaining visiting notables.

Bergil, who’d come up to the Citadel to make certain all was well with his Hobbit friend, had been sent off to the guesthouse to fetch clean clothes, and with the help of the housekeeper assigned to serve those who dwelt there he’d found the plainest garb available and brought it for Pippin to change into.

A large basin of water had been brought and set on the floor for him, as well as a chamberpot--and then the warden, with a wry shake of his head, had ordered a second basin and chamberpot fetched as well as a couple of pitchers of water and some rough towels; and left the small, errant Guardsman to it.

“Now, that was quite the exhibition,” Merry said. Pippin looked up with shock, for he’d not heard the door open or his cousin enter. “What in Middle Earth were you doing, drinking in the middle of the day like that?” He looked with pointed fascination at the second basin, in which was soaking Pippin’s uniform. “Did they take your sword?” he asked with a quick glance at Pippin’s face.

“Yes, and my belt-knife as well.”

“At least your stomach is empty now.”

Pippin gave a small, hopeless shrug of his shoulder. At last he asked, “Is Frodo angry?”

“Hard to say. Sam got him out of there to the lesser audience chamber or something. Said his own stomach was bothering him, what with the smell....”

That was enough to set Pippin’s stomach rebelling again, although he had nothing left within it to lose. He fell to his knees over the chamber pot, heaving painfully but producing little more than a string of bile. Merry knelt by him, his hand on his shoulder.

“Well, you are having a time of it, aren’t you, little cousin?” Merry crooned much as he’d done the first time Pippin had been drunk. “Come on, now. Sit on the stool again and I’ll wipe your face for you. And I’ll wager you want a bit of a drink--your mouth is dry as wads of paper, isn’t it?”

“If I swallow anything....”

“Don’t worry, Pip. I’ll stay by you, even if you do start to spew again.” Merry saw a metal cup standing on a shelf mounted to the wall, and was able with some difficulty to reach it down and bring it over, filling it from one of the pitchers. He had his cousin first rinse his mouth out and spit into the chamberpot, and then made him take a few sips. “Here--let it sit now while you work on calming yourself so you can keep it down,” he suggested.

Once he had Pippin sitting again, Merry began finger-combing his cousin’s hair. “We want you looking halfway decent when Strider gets here,” he commented.

“Not that he’ll want to ever see me again after my performance today,” Pippin said, his arms folded across his knees and his face hidden. “How could I have ever dreamed I might manage to hide the fact I was as drunk as any Oatbarrow? Da would have clouted me alongside the head had I come into his office drunk during a meeting like that!”

Merry smiled. “True. Nor would my father have treated you any better--would have had you dunked into the Brandywine for certain to sober you up, he would.”

A slight nod of the head indicated Pippin agreed with the accuracy of that prediction.

“Here--you’ve held that down--now try a bit more water.”

Pippin dutifully lifted his head and accepted a few more sips before pulling back and dropping his face again toward his knees. After a few moments he murmured, “I almost wish I could just wake up in my own bed in the Great Smials and pretend this never happened! Except I know when I get home my parents are going to probably disown me forever anyway.”

There was a sound of footsteps outside the door, and Merry stepped away, listening. Pippin raised his head warily, and gave a sigh as he rose to his feet and drew himself to attention. The door opened, and several people came in, led by Strider. He looked down on his smallest Guardsman, shaking his head, then looked up at the young Man who served now as his personal aide. “If you will find a low chair for me so that I can be on much of a level with Guardsman Peregrin, please,” he directed, and with a bow the aide withdrew, returning with a chair provided by the warden. Aragorn sat, his face still impassive. Pippin continued to stand at attention, his expression miserable but determined.

“So, do you wish to explain how it is that the son of the Thain to the Shire appeared for duty as my personal guard drunk?” asked the King at last.

Pippin looked briefly into his face then dropped his gaze. “I apologize, my Lord King,” he said. “I was at fault. It should not have happened.”

“That goes without saying, Peregrin Took.” At the coolness in Aragorn’s voice Pippin flinched visibly. “I asked how it was you came to be in that state.”

“I have no excuse, sir.”

“You knew that you were to have duty this day, did you not?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you know that appearing for duty while drunk is reason enough to earn a flogging?”

Pippin shuddered, but his voice was steady, if a bit tight. “Yes, my Lord King. I apologize, sir.”

The Captain of the Guard, who stood to the King’s left, commented, “It is his first infraction, my liege.”

Aragorn’s gaze continued to be steady on the Hobbit. “I am aware of this. However, I am much disappointed to see that today I could not count on him.” He addressed Pippin. “Why were you late?”

“I was not paying attention to the time, my lord, not once....” But he did not finish.

“Not once what?”

“I am sorry, my lord. I was almost ready to offer an excuse, sir.”

“And you are not allowed to make excuses?” Aragorn’s tone indicated he was truly curious about this.

“I was told by my captain when I took my vows before my Lord Steward Denethor that I must not make any excuses, sir, as there is no excuse for failing my duty, my lord.” His face was taut with misery.

Aragorn looked up to meet the captain’s gaze. The Man nodded. “That was indeed our Lord Denethor’s policy,” he affirmed. “Excuses were not accepted for failure to meet one’s duties.”

“I see.” The King looked back to his smallest Guardsman. “Were you on time to your weapons practice this morning?” he asked.

“Yes, my lord.”

“How went your practice session?”

“Well enough, I suppose. I was able to hit two in the gold in archery and four of five on the mark with the thrown knife. I was able to hold my own against the one I was matched with in swords, and scored three touches on my opponent.” His chin was raised, but Aragorn could not detect the Hobbit’s usual pride in his swordsmanship.

“How many touches did he score on you?”

“Two, my Lord King.”

The Man considered. “So, you were not drunk at that point, then.”

Reluctantly the Hobbit nodded, still not meeting his lord’s eyes. “No, sir, I was not--not at that time.”

“Then how was it that you began to drink in the middle of the day?”

“I am sorry, my Lord King--it was my own fault.”

Frustrated, Aragorn tried again. “Why did you not go back to the guesthouse for your luncheon? I am told that Sam had made a dish you particularly asked for.”

Pippin’s shoulders fell. “Then he made the cottage pie after all?” He looked almost as if he were ready to weep.

“Yes, I am told he did, and that he was most disappointed that you were not there to partake of it, particularly as you were the one who requested it.”

The Hobbit Guardsman wiped his face with the back of his hand. “I always said Sam makes the best cottage pie in the entire Shire,” he murmured softly.

“So why did you not return for luncheon?”

“I was asked to....” But then once again his expression went stony. “I must not make excuses. It wasn’t their fault!”

Aragorn traded glances with the Captain of the Guard of the Citadel. It appeared that Peregrin Took was not going to explain how it was he’d come into such appalling a condition. Merry mutely stood by, his face filled with the concern he felt.

*******


Bertesion was sitting on his cot, polishing his sword belt, when Gilorion came into the barracks. The new member of the White Company glanced up with a smile. He and Gilorion had joined the Guards of the Citadel at the same time, although while Gilorion had been promoted to Lord Denethor’s personal Guard Bertesion had remained on door-ward duty most of the time. Bertesion had at times served as personal Guard to Lord Faramir when he was in residence within the City, which was a good part of the reason he’d been chosen for the White Company. But he’d been glad to avoid having to serve personally on Lord Denethor, for he’d felt unable to find much fellow-feeling with the last of the Ruling Stewards. Gilorion hadn’t been serving upon Denethor himself that last night, having been sent down to the great Gates to keep watch there with orders to report to the Steward himself should it appear that they might be breached. He’d just begun preparing to return up through the city when the small Pherian had appeared, crying out to Mithrandir that the Steward had apparently gone mad. By the time Gilorion had arrived at the gates to the Rath Dínen the dome to the House of the Stewards had already fallen and the flames could be seen by all within sight of the necropolis.

Bertesion smiled up at his fellow. “You are finally free of your duty, are you? You are too late for our celebration, I fear.”

“At last,” Gilorion admitted. “I should have been free some time ago, but Peregrin Took was unforgivably late in relieving me.”

Bertesion felt alarmed--alarmed and guilty. “He was? Was he properly garbed?”

“Yes, he was. But I will swear that I could smell ale on him as he took my place behind the King for the Council meeting.”

“There was a meeting of the Council today?” Bertesion’s heart fell further.

“Yes--called only this morning, and involving only those members who could be gathered in haste. It appears that those from Dale and the Dwarves’ mountain wish some special trade agreement reached, and those from the Elven kingdom have also expressed interest. There is wood and granite of a quality in Morthond they wish to trade for, apparently; and as Lord Angborn looks ready to return to his own place within a few days they wished to begin negotiating ere he leaves. Also, it appears that our Lord King has taken thought of having some of the iron ore from that region sent to the Dwarves to have a higher quality steel produced than is typical of that smelted here within Gondor itself.”

“And Guardsman Peregrin was late?”

“Yes, and the first time that I am aware of him being so. It is too bad that this should happen. And if he had been drinking--well, I suspect that our captain shall have no choice but to have him flogged, even if he is a personal friend to the King himself.”

Bertesion’s heart fell further. “Stay, my friend--but a moment stay! I fear that brave heart will seek to take upon himself fault that is by rights my own.” So saying, he dropped his swordbelt upon the bed and went to seek out some of those others who’d taken part in the noontime celebration.

*******


Frodo toyed with the fruit on the plate brought to him. He was grateful to Aragorn and the kitchen staff that neither he nor Sam appeared to need to ask for anything, for trays of food and drink were ever present at their sides from the moment they entered the Citadel until the time they left it again. However, he found he missed the excuse to go out into the orchard at Bag End and pluck his own cherries and plums. For all that these served here in Minas Tirith were greeted with great enthusiasm by the others, he often found they seemed tasteless after the first couple of bites, and wondered if perhaps it was because they did not come fresh off the tree.

Sam, however, was smiling with appreciation as he swallowed the early cherries served them. “Oh, but Mr. Frodo--we’re going to need to get cuttings from the cherry trees here to take home with us. I’d see about grafting them onto the cherry trees in the garden, I would.”

Frodo looked at his friend with a half smile on his face. “If it is your wish, Sam, I’ll speak with Aragorn about that this evening.” He gave the cherry in his fingers a thoughtful look.

Sam, however, had caught the expression in his master’s eye. “Still taste as if you had a bad cold or something like, Mr. Frodo, sir?” he asked.

Grateful the gardener appeared to understand, Frodo nodded as he placed it back on the plate again, reaching for the slice of the orange fruit served him instead. These new fruits were tart and unusual enough that he could at least find some pleasure in eating them--so far, at least. “Much seems tasteless now,” he sighed.

Sam nodded. Then, seeking to distract the older Hobbit he asked, “Why do you think as Mr. Pippin come in drunk to serve on Lord Strider? I’d of never thought as he’d do such a thing.”

Frodo straightened, glad of the change in subject. “Nor would I think he’d so disappoint Aragorn. I don’t think I’ve seen the Man so stern and silent since Pippin chose his blanket roll to wrap himself in after we left the Midgewater Marshes.”

Sam’s lip twitched. “That were rather funny, membering it, like.”

Frodo gave a small smile at the memory. “Poor Strider--to find his blanket roll smelled like that mire.” He pulled the slice of orange into its segments and ate one, still smiling.

It was then that there was a knock at the door, and a page peered into the room. “My lords--there are some here who would speak with you.”

The two Hobbits exchanged looks. Sam shrugged and Frodo turned back to the page. “Let them enter, then,” Frodo said, dropping the rest of his fruit back on its tray and rising to his feet.

The page nodded. “They will see you, sirs,” he could be heard saying as he pulled back out of the room.

A moment later four Guardsmen came in, giving Frodo and Sam deep bows. Frodo recognized Gilorion, who had become one of the guards who served on Aragorn himself. “Gentlemen? How can we help you?” he asked, curious as to the reason why members of the Guards of the Citadel were seeking him and Sam out.

Two of the Men exchanged looks, and one sighed, returning his attention to the Ringbearer. “We had hoped to speak to the King, but learned he has already gone to the prison----” he began.

Frodo straightened, obviously alarmed. “The prison? They took my cousin to the prison?”

“Well, yes--to the guardroom for those who are to be disciplined. Oh, you need to understand--it’s not as if he were to be placed in a cell. Guardsman Peregrin will be questioned there, and between the Stew--the King and the Captain they will determine his level of guilt and his proper punishment.”

“And will they set him to cleaning the parade ground with a small brush or something similar afterwards?”

The idea of such a punishment was obviously a novel one for the four Guardsmen, considering their looks of bemusement. The one who’d been their spokesman shook his head. “Of course, the King might well institute such punishments in the future, but ordinarily punishment for appearing for duty while drunk involves flogging.”

Frodo’s face went pale at the thought. “Flogging? Aragorn would consider flogging a child such as Pippin? But he’s neither Pippin’s parent nor his family head! He hasn’t the authority to do such a thing without the agreement of the lad’s family head!”

Sam Gamgee was growing alarmed. “Now, calm down there, Mr. Frodo. Pippin might not be of age yet, but he’s been doing an adult’s work since he come here, same as me since I took over from me dad there when I was still in my tweens. I’m certain as he knows the proper punishment due for what he did, and I doubt as he’d take too kindly to you interfering in what he expects to happen as a Guard of the Citadel. And to expect him to be given special treatment for not being of age isn’t exactly fair. I mean, sir, that he’s over twenty-five and all. He’s old enough to marry, if’n his folks would agree to it.”

Frodo’s face was still largely pale, although his cheeks were growing rather pink. “Still, he’s a Hobbit, not a Man. I should be there to stand in for his family head. Uncle Paladin isn’t able to be there, after all.”

Sam nodded. “That’s reasonable enough. But I suspect as there’s more as these folks wish to tell us, sir. After all, they came to talk to us since Lord Strider’s already gone to the prison.” He turned to the Men. “And what is it as you’d wanted to talk to the King about, then?”

The one who’d served as spokesman appeared uncomfortable. “I wanted to speak up on his behalf, is all. I mean, it was mostly due to me that Guardsman Peregrin was drinking today, you see. We did rather insist he join us.”

One of the others continued, “You see, Bertesion here has been chosen to join the White Company that’s being formed to serve as Prince Faramir’s own guard, and we were--we were celebrating today. None of us had any duty this day, so it was a good time for it. And when Guardsman Peregrin came through the barracks after weapons practice today, we--I insisted he join the party, and I would keep refilling his cup!”

The third Guardsman explained, “None of us realized he had duty after the noon meal. Usually he serves in the morning, so we assumed that today he had no duty, having come to the morning rather than the afternoon weapons practice. And I was filling his cup as often as you,” he added to the second Man. He turned his attention back to the Ringbearer. “I was in the company that went to the Black Gate, and I had the chance to speak with Guardsman Peregrin during the march. I doubt he would think to explain that he tried to beg off, but we wouldn’t listen.”

“He did try to beg off?” Sam asked.

“Oh, yes--he told us there was not enough time, but we insisted.” He looked ashamed.

“We were pulling at his hands,” the second Guardsman admitted, “and would not allow him to go. We dragged him to the table--gave him a filled cup--made a toast to Prince Faramir!”

Sam and Frodo traded looks. “There it is, Master,” Sam said. “That he’d not be able to resist. He likes and honors the Prince Captain that much, he does.”

Frodo nodded slowly, sighing. “True, and once he’d begun he would not be able to break away, and at last would not wish to do so.”

Sam looked toward the doorway. “That he’d not, and that’s a fact. And he wouldn’t wish to let Lord Strider know as he couldn’t break away. See it as tale bearing, he would; and if there’s one thing as Mr. Pippin’s never wanted to be it’s a tale bearer.”

Frodo nodded again, straightening and turning toward the doorway. “So it is up to us to let him know, for we know Pippin won’t say.”

So saying, he started toward the door. Bertesion watched after him surprised, then looked toward Sam. “That is it?” he asked. “He will go to intercede for Guardsman Peregrin?”

“That’s his way,” Sam answered softly. “Once he sees as there’s a need, he’ll just see to it as he can.” Giving the Guardsman a nod, he turned to follow Frodo Baggins as he had most of his life. “Wait, Mr. Frodo--I’ll not be left behind!”

The four Guardsmen again exchanged glances, and with a nod from Gilorion the four of them trailed after the two Hobbits.

As they walked toward the back doors to the Citadel, they met the Prince Steward Faramir. “Master Frodo--and where do you go?”

The Hobbit appeared relieved. “Ah, my Lord Faramir. I may have need for you. Will you please take me to the prison?”

The Man appeared startled. “The prison? And why would you wish to go there?”

“I am told that my kinsman was taken there once it was found he was indeed drunk when he came to take his duty this afternoon. These,” he explained, indicating the four Guardsmen who followed him, “came to tell us how it happened Pippin came to be in his cups so early in the day.”

The Steward swiftly examined the faces of the six before him. “You would stand by Guardsman Peregrin, then?”

“I do not believe he would speak out as to how we importuned him, Lord Faramir,” the third Guardsman said. “We forced him to stay by us, and to join in our celebration that Bertesion here joins your White Company. We begged him to sing for us, also, when he would have gone from us after the first hour....”

Faramir looked from their faces to Frodo’s in question, and seeing the same concern there he saw in those of the Men he gave a nod of decision. “I see. And I must suppose all with you were busy drinking toasts to me and mine, down to the caged birds and the Citadel cats. Am I correct, gentlemen?”

Bertesion flushed, but still managed to appear relieved that the Steward understood how such parties went. “And to your proposed lady as well, sir, and the horses we must believe she will bring into your marriage.”

For a moment the new Prince of Ithilien looked at him with some surprise, then laughed aloud with delight. “And how could such a one as Peregrin Took fail to drink to such toasts as these?” he asked, his face alight with amusement. “Ah, me--but come. We would indeed see proper justice rendered, should we not?”

“There is one thing more,” Frodo added. “As Pippin is not yet of age for all he serves a full adult’s duty, it behooves me as the Baggins to be there for his judgment in the stead of the Thain and the Took, who happens in his case to be his father. Uncle Paladin shall not be pleased if he hears I did not do my best to be certain he does indeed well deserve any flogging he might have earned.”

Faramir’s face softened with respect. “Indeed, and so shall it be, then, Master Frodo. Come, and let us go to join the King.” He gave a brief inclination of his head to Frodo, turned, and led the way to the doors, then took the winding way to the prison yard.

*******


The King Returned was growing increasingly frustrated. In the case of most Men it appeared to take little more than a stern look and a particular tone of command to his voice and they would begin to speak openly. With Peregrin Took this was not working, and the more Aragorn pressed for details the more the young Hobbit insisted all was his own fault. Whatever the reason was he’d found himself drinking heavily in the middle of the day, it appeared that Pippin was intent on not revealing it as if it must be a shameful one. Nor did it appear that Merry had any idea as to what had happened, either.

He’d decided to make on last attempt to discern the true reason when there was a knock at the guardroom door, and the warden of the prison looked in. “My Lord King,” he said with deference, “the Ringbearer has come and begs leave to join you. He said something about the laws governing his people, and brings with him others who would bear witness. And our Lord Faramir is with him.”

Aragorn straightened, suddenly realizing that he indeed ought to have thought of Shire customs when dealing with his Hobbit Guardsman. “I see,” he commented. “Allow them to enter, then.”

Faramir led the others through the door, Frodo fast on his heels, followed closely by Sam and the four Guards of the Citadel. All bowed deeply toward their King, and the four Men also saluted their captain. Frodo, however, was already stepping forward in his agitation. “Aragorn, I had no idea that such situations as these earned such swift judgment here in Gondor. I’d thought merely that Pippin would be sent home in disgrace for the night and appear before you again in the morning, at which time I intended to accompany him, to stand by him for his father’s sake. I’m the one of highest authority among us Hobbits, after all.”

The Man indicated he understood. “I should perhaps have advised you how it is done here, I suppose. If you can forgive me, Frodo.”

“Thank you. I was not aware until these came to speak with Sam and me. It appears they were present when Pippin began drinking, and feel responsible for his state.”

Aragorn looked with some surprise at Gilorion, who flushed but explained, “No, my Lord King, I was not there, but came with these who were.”

“It was my fault,” Bertesion began, only to be interrupted by the second Guardsman.

“No, my lord, it was truly mine. I was the first to see Guardsman Peregrin and press him to join us, you see.”

Aragorn glanced briefly at Pippin’s face and saw that he, too, was somewhat flushed at the arrival of those with whom he’d been drinking. Well, if Pippin would not speak up for his own sake, he would allow these to do so. He raised a hand, and all went quiet. He nodded to the second Guardsman and suggested, “Then let you tell me the tale, sir. And I would advise you to be brief and not embroider upon the facts.”

“Yes, my lord,” the Man said, and began to explain.

At last, assured he had the full story, their King turned his attention back to Pippin, whose face was filled with discomfort but was fully set. “And when I asked how it was you came to be drinking heavily in the middle of the day, why did you not tell me this?” he asked in exasperation.

“It’s just that...” Pippin began, then his voice petered out and he was looking down at his hands, which were clasped together.

Seeing this, Sam gave a sigh of his own frustration. “It’s because he don’t want to be seen as bearing tales, Lord Strider,” he advised. “He was told as bearing tales can be a shameful thing, back when he was but a little lad, you see, and he’s tried his best not to do so ever since. And he don’t wish to be seen as not shouldering his own responsibility, not now as all are treating him as a full grownup.”

“And is this the truth of it, Guardsman Peregrin?” Aragorn asked.

Pippin gave a small nod. “Yes, sir, Aragorn.”

The Captain looked affronted at the casual address, but Aragorn gave a swift glance and shake of the head to indicate he allowed the remark before returning his attention to the errant Hobbit. “Is there anything you wish to add, then?”

Pippin raised his eyes to meet those of his friend and King. His expression was surprisingly mature. “I keep doing--foolish things. I try to be as adult as possible, but then my Took nature takes over and I end up looking the--the fool of a Took Gandalf has kept calling me.” He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Aragorn. I disgraced you in front of the Council, and that’s inexcusable.”

“And what punishment would your father have given you?” the King asked him.

Pippin straightened again to attention. “He’d probably have given me a tongue lashing I’d not forget, and then set me to scrubbing the pavement out front of the Great Smials with a nail brush,” he said, his voice tight.

Aragorn felt his lip twitch. “I see,” he said, doing his best to keep the amusement out of his voice.

He straightened and stretched his back. “Now that we have the full tale, I think it best I speak with your kinsmen. Frodo, Merry, come with me, please.” He rose to his considerable height and led the two Hobbits and Faramir out the door as those who stayed within bowed after him. He glanced in before the door closed after them in time to see Sam approaching Pippin and placing his hand on the younger Hobbit’s shoulder. He smiled slightly, glad to see that the gardener was taking thought to his companion’s distress. “Now, Merry, Frodo--what would you suggest as an appropriate punishment?”

Frodo was looking up at him, his expression disturbed and yet showing some signs of hope. “I understand that here the normal punishment for such an infraction includes a flogging?” he said.

“Yes, it does.”

“But you would amend that for Pippin?”

“He is quite young, after all, and his captain has reminded me it is his first such error in judgment.”

He saw Frodo’s shoulders relax. Merry, however, was shaking his head.

“You mustn’t treat him all that differently than any other Guard of the Citadel, Aragorn--he wouldn’t abide it. He’s already aware that because he’s so small, some of the others think his acceptance into the Guard is merely a sign you are humoring his fancy to play at soldiering. I’ve heard some of those who didn’t go to the Black Gate talk about it, and they don’t appear to believe that he killed a troll and almost died under it.”

Both Men appeared surprised at this. “And where is this said?” Faramir demanded.

“At weapons practice,” Merry answered.

The Men exchanged glances, Aragorn’s eyes widening in question and Faramir shrugging in response. “I see,” the King sighed, then thought. At last he asked, “What is the usual penalty, Faramir?”

“Five lashes,” he was advised.

“Five lashes,” he repeated. “I can drop it to three and not be seen as too lax, can I not?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“So be it. Does this meet your approval, Frodo?” At the Ringbearer’s reluctant nod, he sighed, straightened himself back into the King’s role, and signaled to the guard who stood outside the door to open it. He led the others back into the room, not noting the change of expression in Frodo’s eyes as he followed, his face tightening with decision.

The others bowed again as he entered, remaining so until he was seated. Frodo, however, did not stop at his side, but advanced to stand on the other side of Pippin from where Sam now stood. Aragorn felt surprise at this, and cast a questioning glance at Merry, noting that the Brandybuck’s attention was fixed on his cousin with some concern, a distinct furrow visible between his brows. “And what do you think to do, Frodo Baggins?” he could hear Merry murmur to himself.

There was no choice now but to let the scene play out as it would. “Guardsman Peregrin son of Paladin, you stand before me having admitted you arrived to begin your duty deep under the influence of drink.”

Pippin raised his chin. “Yes, my Lord King.”

“The usual punishment for such an infraction?” Aragorn asked the Captain.

“A flogging of five lashes for a first offense,” the Captain answered.

Pippin blanched, but other than taking a deep breath he stood stoically. Aragorn felt himself admiring his young friend.

“I have decided to drop this number to three lashes, seeing that you are not yet seen fully a man among your people, and advise you that such would be true for those who are not yet fully of the age of twenty among us who were yet admitted to the ranks of the Guards of the Citadel or the city.”

He saw a brief relaxation of Pippin’s shoulders and then the slight nod of relief to know this would not be seen as demeaning the Hobbit before his fellows within the Guard.

But now Frodo stepped forward, then dropped gracefully to his knees. Aragorn was surprised, then distressed as he realized Frodo’s intentions. “Please, my beloved Lord King,” Frodo began formally. “If you will listen to the petition of one who loves both you and my young kinsman here. I ask to be allowed to take Pippin’s punishment upon myself. I ought to have sent Bergil earlier in search of him, perhaps, or the page you assigned to us. As his--as his ranking kinsman....”

But now Bertesion was stepping forward, obviously agitated. “Oh, no, my Lord King Elessar! You could not allow this! It was for me that Guardsman Peregrin was importuned....”

And now the other two who’d shared in Bertesion’s celebration were joining him.

Aragorn allowed them to talk over one another for a few moments longer, noting the surprise on the faces of both Pippin and Frodo, and the satisfaction to be seen on Sam’s face. At last he rose, and the rest went quiet and straightened to attention. He focused his gaze on Pippin. “I see that no matter how some among the Guards of the Citadel might judge you as little better than an indulged child, still there are among your fellows those who respect you as one who has offered your own safety and life for others.” He looked at Frodo. “Rise, Frodo son of Drogo, kinsman of Bilbo,” he commanded. “I have told you that you are not to bend your knee to me, although you will insist on doing so anyway. I deny your petition.”

“But, Aragorn----”

“It is not your place to stand in the stead of those who offend against the laws and customs of Gondor, not even those who are of your people. And particularly when those who are truly his peers are willing to put themselves forward on Pippin’s behalf. He has truly earned the respect of these, his fellows, and deserves to be treated as a Man in his position would.”

Aragorn looked at the three Guardsmen who’d shared in the festivities when Pippin became drunk. “You are willing to share in the punishment this one has earned?” he asked.

Bertesion looked at him proudly. “Indeed we are, Lord Elessar. He almost died saving Captain Beregond and others, after all. And he only stayed to honor me.”

The other two indicated their agreement.

Aragorn felt proud of them all. “So be it, then. Three lashes I promised him. If you will each agree to accept one for him----”

“I say, Aragorn--I mean,” Pippin interrupted himself, going alternately pale and flushed. “That’s not fair, my Lord King! I can’t allow others to bear my punishment!”

“I did not say you would go without penalty you yourself must bear, Peregrin Took,” Aragorn said, the stern quality of his tone lightened by the smile to be discerned in his eyes. “Tomorrow morning, at the first hour after the dawn, they will each accept one of the strokes intended for you, and you will receive one more on your own behalf. After which you will be given a broom appropriate to your stature and you will be set to sweeping the entire Court of Gathering from the Court of the Tree and fountain to the farthest limits of the escarpment. There is not to remain a single leaf, twig, or speck of dirt upon the marble by nightfall--do you understand?”

“Yes, my Lord King. It shall be as you command, Lord Elessar.” Pippin stood now very straight and as tall as he could stretch himself. Aragorn felt the prouder as he turned to the Captain of the Guards and to Faramir.

“As the King has ruled, so it shall be,” the Steward of Gondor said solemnly, but in his eyes, too, could be seen pride.

*******


Those of the Guards of the Citadel who were not on duty formed ranks in the practice area behind the barracks to observe the punishment detail. Aragorn came himself with Frodo and Sam at his side, Gandalf with his staff in hand following behind. All watched in respectful silence as the charges against Pippin were read and he was asked if he agreed they were true and the punishment to be levied was fair.

“I admit my fault, but cannot help but protest that others should be allowed to be punished for my own failure of duty,” Pippin said with all the dignity within him.

“Nevertheless, the King himself has agreed to this, and so it shall be. Bertesion, formerly of the Guard and now of the White Company, do you accept this full willing, of your own design?”

“I do.” So saying, the Guardsman slipped out of the unrelieved black shirt and tunic that was his due as one who’d officially left the service of the Citadel but had not yet taken on his new duties, handing them to the keeping of Captain Beregond who’d accompanied him. He strode forward and took hold of the post to which targets for thrown knives were usually affixed. He took a deep breath, and at last gave a nod. The Guardsman whose duty it was to apply the lash did so, striking true and cleanly. Bertesion flinched as the lash struck him, but did not cry out, and at last straightened and turned to the one who’d struck him and gave a salute. One of the healers from the Houses was present, and now anointed his back with a salve and wound a bandage about it to protect it as the second Guardsman stepped forward to divest himself of his uniform tabard and shirt.

At last it was Pippin’s turn, and he stepped forward accompanied by Merry, who looked far more concerned than his younger cousin as he helped Pippin remove his tabard and the shirt he wore under it, slipping the straps of the Hobbit’s braces to fall loose at his sides. The rest of the Guards appeared surprised to see this addition to their smallest member’s uniform, but all went respectfully quiet as Peregrin son of Paladin approached the post as had the others, his back now bared to accept the lash due him.

Merry turned to the one with the whip. “He will not thank you if you do not strike him as hard as you did the others,” he advise him, although it was plain it pained the Hobbit to say such a thing. He stepped aside, and Aragorn set his hand firmly on Frodo’s shoulder.

The sound of the lash striking Pippin could be heard clearly by all, and there was no question of the executioner giving him a lighter stroke. Pippin was visibly shuddering in its wake, but he straightened, turned to the Man, and saluted as the others had done. “Thank you for doing your duty,” he said.

The executioner bowed in respect and returned the salute before turning to the captain and reporting, “Punishment has been administered as commanded, sir.”

“So be it. And I commend you and all those who stood before you today. The matter is now to be considered closed. Guardsman Peregrin son of Paladin, this broom fitting your stature has been found, and you will now go up to complete the rest of your punishment. A meal will be brought to you at noon, for which you will be allowed a half hour break to allow for it and to relieve yourself. Juice and cooled broth will be allowed you as you require it. Understood?”

“Yes, my lord,” Pippin answered with dignity, accepting the broom as the healer bent over his back. “I will do my duty, sir.”

Aragorn smiled as he and Gandalf drew Frodo away. “There--it is over now. And you must agree all of them acquitted themselves well,” he said quietly to his friend.

“It ought not to have been done, though, Aragorn,” Frodo returned.

“Perhaps not, but it proves to all that Pippin deserves to be treated with the respect his position grants him. I doubt any within the Guard of the Citadel will question either Denethor’s decision to accept his service nor my confirmation of it after this.”

Frodo smiled briefly up at him, then allowed himself to be led up to the Citadel.

Shortly after noon, as Frodo, Faramir, Gandalf, and Aragorn relaxed together after examining one of the records of the realm Aragorn had decided needed to be reviewed that day, there was a tap at the door to the King’s study where they met. Aragorn set aside his tankard of ale as he straightened in his seat. “Enter!” he called.

The Guard at the door was smiling as he ushered the Captain of the Guard inside. “Captain Gilmaros, sir,” he said, perhaps unnecessarily.

“Yes, Captain?” the King asked, having returned the Captain’s salute.

“I thought you should come to see, my Lord King,” the Captain suggested. “It is apparent that respect for Guardsman Peregrin is more widely spread than ever after his most dignified behavior this morning.”

He led the way out and to the front doors of the Citadel, which were opened by more smiling Guardsmen. He led them down the steps and beyond the bulk of the dead Tree, and there they stopped. Aragorn looked, and smiled broadly as he encouraged Frodo to step forward to see the better. “I do not believe any question Pippin’s place among the Guard of the Citadel now,” he said softly to the Ringbearer. “Look!”

Pippin could be seen, diligently wielding his broom, perhaps a quarter of the way between the tree and the end of the escarpment where the King had showed himself to the people of the City on the day of his coronation. But he was not the only one--at least twenty other Guardsmen had joined him, each with his own broom. And among the black tabards was one that was silver and white--Captain Beregond--and his son Bergil, apparently--were now sharing in the punishment detail assigned to Peregrin Took.

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