Written for the A_L_E_C "Things that go bump in the night" challenge. For Illereyn and Nieriel Raina's birthdays. Beta by RiverOtter.
“There! Do you hear it?” Eldarion asked his friend Elboron.
The son of the Prince of Ithilien peered out of the shallow cupboard in which the two of them crouched and shook his head. They were in one of the suites of rooms in the upper level above the offices at the front of the citadel, a suite that by tradition had been inhabited by the heirs to the lordship of Gondor, first by the King’s Heir and later by that of the Ruling Steward in the millennia after the disappearance of Eärnur, before the Return of the King. “I hear nothing!” he whispered to his companion.
But then both went still, for definitely something had gone “Bump!” quite near their hiding place, a bump that was followed quickly by another sound that neither could identify. There was a whirring noise, a whirring noise that was accompanied by a series of lesser bumps! in quick succession. That was followed by a decided whine of some sort that caused the hair of both boys to rise on the backs of their respective necks. Both were frozen to immobility until at last all again went still.
At last Elboron stirred. “I like it not!” he murmured in the ear of his friend.
Eldarion almost nodded his agreement, but stopped himself. “But we should learn what causes it,” he breathed softly.
Elboron shrugged as if he weren’t anywhere as certain of that plan as was the King’s son, but his shoulders straightened as he put his hand on the hilt of the long knife he wore at his waist, a gift to him last Mettarë. He took a long breath and held it, and at last, the two of them in accord, they pushed open the cupboard and slipped out into the room.
But although they went through the seven rooms within the suite most thoroughly, they found nothing but some feathers upon the floor under the clerestory window that lit the room ordinarily used as a bedroom or office or private study by whoever inhabited the set of chambers.
“A great owl’s feathers,” Elboron noted as they examined this find. “Whoever lived here last must have spent some time within Ithilien.”
Disappointed to find nothing else out of the ordinary, the two of them slipped out of the suite and closed the door behind them, just in time to hear the bells summoning those residing within the Citadel to their dinners.
“And where have the two of you been all afternoon?” inquired Prince Faramir as the two boys arrived to join their families at the high table in the greater dining hall. “Your tutors have reported you have been nowhere to be found much of the day.”
The two boys exchanged looks that were cut short when the King and his wife entered together. The Lord Elessar and Lady Arwen said nothing as they took their place at the center of the high table, although their looks at the boys still managed to repeat the question wordlessly. But it was not until after the Standing Silence was complete that either of them could answer.
“There has been a strange apparition in the upper levels of the Citadel,” Eldarion explained, nodding to the page who came forward to proffer a basin of water in which to lave his hands. “Thank you,” he said, accepting the towel offered and then returning it to the youth’s arm. “We went to investigate it. One of the younger maids who cleans was unnerved by the noises, and told me of them the other day. I went to the room and found nothing, and today Elboron went with me.”
“And again you found nothing?” the King asked.
“Naught but some owl feathers,” Elboron answered.
King and Steward exchanged glances, and the two boys could see that Elboron’s father had a mysterious smile on his face. “Do you know what could have caused the noise, my lord?” asked Eldarion.
“Ah, but it appears that the Brown Ghost may have returned to the Prince’s Chambers,” Faramir said. The Queen and the Princess of Ithilien exchanged inquiring looks before returning their attention to their menfolk.
“A Brown Ghost dwells at times in the Prince’s Chambers?” asked the Lord Elessar.
Faramir nodded. “Such was true when my brother and I were young. Many of the maids would refuse to go into those rooms for fear of it, uncertain as they were of the apparent moans and thumps and other odd sounds such as were often heard there. Although there were those who would take those rooms at times and who swore they heard no such things. It appears that the Brown Ghost is not a constant inhabitant there.”
He paused as the servers arrived with the first course of the meal. Once all had served themselves and he had himself eaten some of his soup and bread, he continued. “Boromir was certain that there was some great mystery here, so he determined to spend the night within the bedchamber, and I, not being willing to be denied a night in his company, declared myself his companion, and nothing would turn me from my decision. Our father merely smiled indulgently and ordered Boromir’s governor and my nurse to allow us our way.” He swallowed several more spoons of soup before continuing.
“The bed used by the last one to inhabit those chambers was still there, and all disapproving, Boromir’s governor accompanied us there with proper linens and blankets, and saw the bed made up for our use, once Boromir had pulled the white dust sheet from it with his own hands. Then my brother sent him away most imperiously—and, I fear, quite cheekily for a youth of a mere twelve summers, and we went to the bathing chamber and prepared ourselves for our night of watching.
“I had brought several books with me, for we were quite determined to remain awake throughout the whole night. At first I read aloud to Boromir, although I doubt he enjoyed the story I read half as much as he did simply listening to my voice.
“But I was but a small boy of seven, and soon tired. In the end, Boromir took the last of the pile of books I’d brought and began reading it to me. I refused to lie down, but sat up, leaning more and more against his side as the evening progressed, and at last I fell asleep. He told me later I had my thumb in my mouth when I did so, a detail I denied but must admit might well have been true at the time. He laid me down more comfortably, and set himself to watch. But he, too, was beginning to nod when he felt a shadow fall upon him, briefly obscuring the light from the clerestory window in the room; but when he looked upwards the light of the moon shone down upon us once more. He heard nothing more for quite a while, and at last he drowsed for a time, until he heard shrill cries over us as the light again was darkened. Something dropped upon the bed between us, and he was so terrified he grabbed me and dragged me from it, fleeing the room as swiftly as he could induce me to go with him. Afterwards he berated himself for a craven coward, but our father merely shook his head and told him a wise captain knows when to retreat until he has more knowledge.”
“And did you never find out the true history of the Brown Ghost?” the King asked him.
“In time we did. We were much older when we did so, my brother and I. But we learned by watching from outside the Citadel. The Brown Ghost remained in residence for the rest of the summer after we slept in the room, but did not return for several years. Then when I was fourteen summers the maids again spoke of fearful noises within the Prince’s Chambers, and Boromir and I again slipped into the rooms to search for clues—but in the daylight this time. What I found gave me an idea as to the nature of the apparition, and I suggested to my brother that we could most likely confirm my theory by watching the clerestory window that allowed the moonlight to fall upon the bed below from the outside of the Citadel on the night of the next full moon. Boromir thought at first I was as afraid as he’d been at twelve, but agreed afterwards with me that we saw far better from our vantage point below the branches of the White Tree than we would have seen from inside the room. Father was most impressed at the time.”
“And what is the truth of the Brown Ghost?” demanded Eldarion.
But the Prince of Ithilien and Steward of Gondor merely smiled mysteriously. “And where is the challenge in telling you what you will best learn on your own?” he asked. “You and my son are wise and brave beyond your years. Let you find your own way to understanding the nature and aims of the Brown Ghost much as my father allowed us to do when Boromir and I were young.”
The moon was full the night that Elboron and Eldarion chose to spend the night keeping watch on the windows of the Prince’s Chambers from the Court of Gathering before the Citadel. The King and his Steward gave orders that no further guard needed to be kept on the two youths beyond those who kept the watch on the White Tree and those who stood guard before the doors of the Citadel itself, but as the hour of midnight neared the two Men and a single bodyguard slipped out to take cover under the White Tree where they could keep an eye on their two sons, who had unrolled bedrolls under the light of the moon itself.
“You have not told me the true nature of the Brown Ghost,” breathed Lord Aragorn Elessar in his friend’s ear.
Faramir again smiled mysteriously as he replied softly, “And shall I deny you the right to learn as do your son and mine, as did Boromir and I?”
The King shrugged, and settled down. Pulling his grey-green cloak about himself, he willed himself to stillness. So the two former Rangers kept watch on the two boys as the two boys watched the window.
There was a soft murmur between the two youths that at last went quiet. It appeared the two of them would fall asleep and leave the mystery unsolved, when suddenly there was a dark winged shape that threw a shadow upon the two bedrolls. No, they were not asleep after all, as both boys immediately rose to their feet and peered toward the dark gap that marked where the clerestory window to the Prince’s Chambers stood open to allow air to move freely into the upper levels of the Citadel.
“What is it?” demanded Elboron.
But Eldarion was smiling broadly. “I saw it!” he said. “If we go in now, we can perhaps see more clearly!” He leaned down to scoop up the blankets and rug he’d rested upon and headed swiftly toward the Citadel, and Elboron was left to hurry after him, wrapping the loose ends of fabric from his own bedroll about his arms to keep them from dragging the ground to trip him up as he did his best to follow his friend as swiftly as he might. And without making any noise, the three men followed after the boys.
The door guards kept the doors open for the fathers and their guard, and soon the men were climbing the stairs to the upper story at the front of the Citadel. Elboron and Eldarion had left the door to the Prince’s Chambers open, and Faramir grabbed up an oil lamp that stood in a niche to take with them. Within they could hear a series of shrill cries, and they found their way to the door to the main bedchamber.
Not far inside the room stood the two boys, peering upwards intently. Above them, over the place where the bedstead should lie, they could see the light falling upon the floor from the clerestory window, and opposite it in the dormer in which it had been placed was a ledge. The boys did not appear surprised to be joined by their fathers. Now the four of them crowded to a vantage point where they could see the ledge clearly. And looking down at them round yellow eyes----
“An owl!” whispered Elboron.
“A family of owls!” amended Eldarion as the parent turned its head to regard the shrilly crying young who were demanding their share of whatever delicacy it had brought. A second shadow followed the first, and a second large owl landed beside its mate, clearly bearing a mouse in its beak, the mouse’s tail trembling as the parent shook its head.
“Had Boromir considered the sheet that covered the bed on the night we slept here,” Faramir commented as they peered upwards together, “he would have realized that birds nested up there.”
“And that is the source of the owl feathers we found,” Elboron said softly. “How wonderful! We have peregrine falcons that nest on window ledges outside, and owls who nest here, in the Prince’s own chambers!”
Eldarion’s wide smile continued. “And I’ll be glad enough to share with them, when these rooms are my own,” he declared.
His father placed his arm about his son’s shoulders as one of the young owlets clattered its beak and shook its wings, thumping softly against the wall as it took the mouse from its parent. With a soft hoot the two parents turned and ghosted out the window once more….