After dinner the guests returned to their rooms, to Benargil’s relief. Anorgil had taken the transcript of the trial that Galdrod had given to Lord Berevrion, and the rest had indicated they would rest that night so as to be better prepared for the tasks facing them on the morrow.
As Benargil prepared for bed, Marien commented from her dressing table, where she was brushing out her hair before retiring herself, “Well, that was not precisely the most comfortable meal we’ve hosted.”
“Indeed not,” he agreed.
“Will they be staying long?” she asked.
He shrugged as he settled himself on the bed to unlace his boots. “I cannot say, my love. The King has sent them to look into the trial held for those boys from Destrier, and I do not believe that they will leave until they are convinced that we found rightly.”
“And you still have no doubts as to their guilt, Benargil?”
He shook his head as he finished with the second boot and slipped his feet free. “How can I have any doubts now?”
“But what they said of animals----”
He rose, turning to face her. “And what do they know of it? Were they here when the bodies were found? Did they see the nature of the wounds the children bore? Our people did so, not any of these! And our people are not incompetent.”
With that he got into bed, and in moments she was beside him. After a time she murmured, “You are tense.”
“I cannot deny it,” he admitted, his eyes fixed on the ceiling above them. “It is not the same world that it was before the defeat of the Nameless One. And we cannot be certain of what more changes the realm will know under our new, northern-born King.”
She sighed and snuggled closer to him. “It cannot be but better than it was, husband. We are at peace now, and the dawns are now clean, no longer stained by Mordor’s clouds. Without the Enemy of all to direct them, we will see little of orcs from now on. There is a feeling of—wholesomeness—to these guests, no matter how strange they might seem to us. And isn’t it odd, thinking that there in the north there yet remained folk as much descendants of the Star Isle as any here in Gondor?” She squeezed his shoulder, and settled more comfortably into her pillow, and was soon sleeping beside him, giving her soft little snores that he’d come to accept as a comfortable part of her.
Sleep eluded him, however. Why had their new King chosen to send such a deputation here, to Anwar in Anórien? What if one of these chose to question the manner in which the trial had been held? Or the inclusion of Hanalgor’s testimony?
At last, after lying there for well over a mark, he rose and threw about him his night robe, slipped his feet into the quilted slippers he preferred to wear when he wandered the halls at night, and left his chambers in search of some warm milk, which usually helped him relax enough to sleep soundly at night.
Peldrion sat on his chair in the hallway, outside the door of the chamber shared by the master and mistress of the Keep. Seeing his lord emerge, he rose to his feet. “If I might serve your lordship?” he said.
Benargil gave a negligent wave of his hand. “I thought I should go down to the kitchen for something warm to drink. Is all quiet?”
“One of our guests, the northern lord, asked for permission to go out upon the battlements. He alone appears somewhat restless this night. Shall I go down, my lord, and fetch up a warm pottage for you?”
Benargil considered briefly, and gave a sigh. “Yes, why don’t you do that? I will go out upon the battlements and keep our guest company. Bring it to me there.” And pulling the sash that held his robe tighter about him, he went to the stair to the roof.
Lord Berevrion stood near the northern edge of the battlements, looking off toward the distant Misty Mountains. He turned at the whisper of Benargil’s slippers, nodding a wordless greeting to his host.
“You find the bed not to your taste, my Lord Berevrion?”
The northerner’s smile could be seen. “Oh, it is comfortable enough. It is only that I find myself wishing for my own family this night. My wife and daughters must despair of my return at this point.”
“And you live that direction.”
“Yes. Quite far north, of course.”
“And you have a family of your own?”
“As I have said.” They were quiet for a time, and at last Berevrion said, “I apologize if our talk was disturbing to those of your household.”
Shrugging, Benargil responded, “It is little enough, I suppose. We have lived with war on our doorstep for so very long that I fear too many times such talk has left us all too unsettled to fully appreciate our meals.” He ran his fingers through his hair, trying to arrange the strands that usually covered his bald spot. “At least the skies are clear tonight.”
“Indeed! It is good to joy in the sight of Elbereth’s stars. As we rode from Rohan to Pelargir, I fear none of us expected to see them in all of their glory again.”
The mention of the Valië’s name left an uncomfortable tightening in Benargil’s stomach. He sought to mask his discomfort with more questions. “You have said that our Lord King was raised in secrecy in Imladris?”
“Yes, indeed so. Sauron has ever sought to destroy the line of Kings in the north as he did here in the south, and we had lost both Aragorn’s grandfather and his father Arathorn within three years of one another. Several of our villages that had gone undetected for centuries were attacked, and too often reports of movements of orcs in the east would draw away our patrols just before Men from Angmar would attack from the north. We could not allow any to patrol alone, for several of our Rangers were taken and turned to the Enemy’s purposes, and would return to gather news and pass it on to Sauron’s agents. And always they sought word of the whereabouts of those who were Isildur’s heirs, or so we found.”
Benargil found himself nodding, although he found the free naming of the Enemy somewhat disconcerting. “And so he did here, until none was left close enough to Anárion’s lineage fit to wear the Winged Crown.”
Berevrion sighed and straightened. “All too oft Sauron sent disease where he could not send his forces. Shortly after Arathorn’s death, one Ranger who had been missing for a week returned to us shaking as with ague. In days the pestilence spread within the settlement, and those who had left to advise others of his return carried the plague elsewhere. Arathorn’s young widow Gilraen became ill, as did Aragorn himself, and he barely two years of age at the time. My mother served in the household, and on seeing the child lying as if lifeless, she went out in grief to tell all that the last of Isildur’s heirs lay dead. The sons of Elrond had come to succor us in this time of our need due to the widespread illness, and they took counsel with Gilraen, and spirited away the child, leaving in his place a simulacrum for the funeral pyres. Only seven among our elders knew that the child was actually yet living, and already beginning to recover from the illness, and it was decided to leave all others with the belief that the direct heir to Isildur was indeed gone so that Sauron’s agents would believe their purpose met.
“The witnesses to his survival would go to Rivendell on occasion and see to it that he indeed throve and grew in grace and skill and knowledge over the years. But even he knew not the truth of his father’s name, nor the place he would have among us when he was judged a man grown and should return to us.”
There was a creaking of the door, and they turned to see that Peldrion approached, carrying a steaming mug of warmed milk for his master, and a goblet of wine for their guest, along with slices of toasted bread. Both thanked him, and at his master’s wave of dismissal he returned downstairs.
“So,” Benargil said as he sipped at his drink, “You did not meet him until you were both young Men.”
“And so it was. We were not told who he was, although the rumor had begun spreading among us that the heir of Isildur had actually survived the pestilence and would return one day to claim once more the role of Chieftain of the Northern Dúnedain. I was among the youths who were learning the craft of Ranger under Baerdion, who has had the training of our young men for some decades now. We were told only that this one’s father had fallen at the hands of orcs, and that he had been taken into the house of Elrond and raised by him. What could we think of him? He was taller than the average, and held himself as if he were a prince among the Elves. His hair was long, and fixed in a warrior’s braids at the temples. His clothes, although definitely serviceable, were yet of finer cloth than any of our own could boast, and he bore an Elven sword, although the worn bow he carried and that he said he’d been told had been his father’s, was definitely that of a Man.
“We called him the Elven Prince, and I fear we did not treat him well. Peredhrion, we also named him, the Half-Elf’s son. He took our disparagement of him somewhat hard, and set out to prove to us he was our equal. Our equal, did I say? Nay—he was in most things far better than we. He had received his training in the use of sword and knives from the greatest of the Elven warriors, and he is the best Man I know in the use of a blade of any sort. That he had training as a healer ought to have been our clue as to his parentage, but then all knew that Elrond of Rivendell is the greatest healer of our time, and we thought little of it that he should teach his fosterling such skills. He could follow the track of a mouse through the densest of forests three days after it had passed that way, and was an unparalleled hunter. Yet we continued to make things hard for him, until one among us went to borrow his extra cloak—without asking, of course, and found what he thought was an extra sword amongst his goods. When he brought it out to show us and spilled out the Shards of Narsil----” He paused and shook his head. “Only then did we realize that the rumors were true, and that this indeed was Aragorn son of Arathorn returned to us. After that he openly wore the Ring of Barahir upon his hand, and he cut short his hair and began to look more like unto a Man rather than an Elf. His beard finally came in when he was six and twenty, and he allowed it to grow, and I must admit that it gave him more authority in the eyes of many when that happened.”
Benargil considered. “So, you questioned his parentage at first?”
“But not after we returned from our patrol and accepted the Stars of the Dúnedain that marked us as having been chosen to protect those lands we have ever guarded, both our own and those of the settlements we have secretly protected over the past millennia. For when we returned, we found that the Lady Gilraen had returned to the Angle, and that she waited amongst the mothers whose sons had followed Baerdion into the wilderness. And even as my mother was affixing the star brooch prepared for me to my cloak, so was Gilraen giving to her son the Star of the Chieftain that had been his father’s.”
“And he bears the Sword that was Broken?”
“Indeed, although it is broken no longer. That sword was reforged ere he came south with Lord Boromir and the others in the Fellowship of the Ring. And it is no longer known as Narsil, but instead as Andúril, the Flame of the West.” Berevrion turned and now leaned back against the parapet of the battlements, folding his arms. “And, as the sword was reforged, so now is Elendil’s kingdom, and once again there is a King over both north and south, heir to both Isildur and Anárion.”
“But to Anárion only through the distaff line.”
“Perhaps, but the great lords of the realm have confirmed his claim, and he now wears the Winged Crown and the Star of Elendil. Will you question his right?”
“Not I!” said Benargil hastily. “Although I find myself wondering how is it a mere Chieftain has risen to the status of King?”
Berevrion straightened, his face now stern. “Arvedui was the last of the lineage of Elendil, Isildur, and Valandil to style himself King of Arnor. His son Aranarth would not claim that title for himself solely because there were so few left in the whole of the north that it hardly comprised a kingdom by any standard. The Dúnedain left living were but a remnant of the great land Arnor once was, and we remained under siege by the Enemy’s creatures who lingered in the Misty Mountains and in Angmar, although that land’s dread lord had fled south to join his fellows in Minas Morgul. And every time since that we have begun to flourish as a people again, the Enemy has sent disease and war against us, and once more our numbers would dwindle. Our capital of Annúminas has lain in ruins for a thousand years, and the King’s fortress of Fornost was all but thrown down. In the past century alone has Fornost begun to be rebuilt, but the work has been necessarily slow and done in secret. Only in the past ten years has it been fit to house Men once more, and so it is that the family of Halladan, the second son of Aragorn’s mother’s brother, has been set there to see to the refitting of the King’s fortress once again.
“Think of it, my Lord Benargil—no longer in the north is there a King with no kingdom, and a kingdom with no King here in the south. At long last our population in Arnor has again begun to grow in what was the region of Arthedain, and what was Cardolan now flourishes as the Hobbits’ Shire. And even now many of the waste places in what was Rhudaur are again being colonized, as the Enemy’s own people within those lands were too oft as stricken by Mordor’s policies and plagues as were those in which our own people hid themselves. Tharbad is being rebuilt as we speak, and the Breelands on the crossroads between the King’s Highway and the East-West Road to Mithlond have never suffered as has the rest of the North.”
“You say there is a land known now as the Hobbits’ Shire, and have told us that the Ringbearer himself is a Hobbit?”
“Why have we never heard tell of such a people before?”
His guest gave a brief snort of laughter. “Oh, but I suspect that you have heard of them, but as Halflings rather than by their own name for themselves of Hobbit. A small people, and given to the ways of peace and to the raising of food. Although ever those who have come forth from their land have proved fully worthy of praise and honor. Argeleb the Second gave the lands that had been called Cardolan into their keeping, for Angmar had focused much of his malice there. Indeed, it had been said that when the Witch-king and his dread Master should be cast down forever, it would be in great part by the hands of those who had dwelt as children on the banks of the Baranduin. As it had been in that region that the Kings of Cardolan built their homes and strongholds, our enemies had taken that prophecy to mean that it was through the royal house there that the greatest threat lay to Sauron and his chief lieutenant. So they set themselves to destroy that line of Elendil’s progeny.”
“Then the prophecy proved vain in the end?”
“Vain? Oh, no—it proved true in a manner that no one could have expected. It was the Hobbit Meriadoc Brandybuck of Buckland on the east bank of the Baranduin who struck the first blow against the Witch-king that laid him vulnerable to the deathblow given him by the Lady Éowyn; and it was Frodo Baggins, kinsman to Meriadoc Brandybuck, who carried the Enemy’s Ring to Its destruction. And as a child Master Frodo dwelt at various times along the banks of the Baranduin, or the Brandywine as the Hobbits and the Breelanders call it.”
“But it is said that one known as Lord Iorhael was the Ringbearer.”
Berevrion smiled fondly. “Iorhael is the translation of his name into Sindarin. Both mean Wise One, after all. But he prefers to be addressed as he has been accustomed, as Master Frodo Baggins. Even the rulers among the Hobbits do not take upon themselves the titles of Lord or Lady.”
“And such a one was allowed to carry the Enemy’s Ring south from Imladris?”
“Yes. No other would step forward to claim the task, for even your Lord Boromir realized from the warnings he heard as to Its malevolence that this was perhaps too great an undertaking for any born to rule and leadership as was he. As for Aragorn himself—he recognized from his first encounter with Master Frodo that the Ring was seeking already to take and corrupt him—he refused to touch the thing at all. It is suspected that none save a Hobbit might have thought to carry the Ring for any time without Its corrupting influence destroying Its bearer. Remember, Sauron took thought for Men and Elves and Dwarves; but no ruling Rings were ever crafted for the mastery of Hobbits.”
Benargil shivered at that, and gulped down the last of his cooling milk.
After a moment, the northerner spoke once more, changing the subject. “It has been told me that when this Danárion of Destrier was arrested, that he had in his possession a copy of a volume known as The Book of Shadows. I find myself wondering how this came to happen, as I was also told there were but few copies of the work left after Lord Ecthelion as his father’s agent had most gathered and destroyed as an unsettling influence to the realm.”
“It is not known how he might have come across such a work. But those who have secretly worshiped the Enemy have been known to traffic in such things.”
“Is it true that the boy’s family is desperately poor?”
Benargil shrugged. “They were more prosperous at one time. But he who was husband to Danárion’s mother disappeared some years past, and it was believed he had been killed upon the road by the Enemy’s creatures. Her first husband, he who was father to both Danárion and his sister, had been a drunkard and had often beaten his wife and children, and at her request their marriage was set at naught by my father when Danárion was still little better than a babe in arms. She remarried, and her second husband accepted the two children as his own and did well enough by them until his disappearance. In time her first husband returned to Destrier, and he appeared to have given over drink, and at last she took him into her home. But then he began to drink anew, and all that was of substance within her possession was sold by him to purchase wine and stronger liquors.
“When Danárion was a young boy his stepfather thought to see him prepared to a craft, and he was sent to the open school to learn to read and write. But even then he was set apart from the others by the fact he dwelt not in his proper father’s house, and I am told he was oft the brunt of abuse by the others. Before the disappearance of his stepfather he was apprenticed for a time to a saddler, but it did not last long beyond the time the Man went missing; and Danárion’s master dismissed him, for the last of his apprenticeship fees had not been paid to him.”
“So, he could read and write?”
“Yes, I am told he read as much as he could find, although his writing was not sufficiently good to make of him a public scribe.”
Berevrion took another sip of wine before commenting, “But that could have been remedied, had any sought to take the boy in charge. Is his mother still living with her first husband?”
“I am told that she threw him from her home only shortly before the crime occurred, charging him as a wastrel.”
“And good riddance, from what you have said. So the youth had no skills to offer him proper employment?”
“He might have worked as a potboy at the inn.”
“One raised with a degree of civility, working in such a position? Is the inn of which you speak a rough place?”
Benargil considered the question. “I have not been there myself, but I have been told it is no worse than most such places in the larger walled villages.”
“Have the magistrates or constables had many complaints stemming from incidents there?”
“No more than once or twice a week.”
Berevrion’s expression once again turned stern. “Once or twice a week? In Bree, the Prancing Pony has but one complaint in a month, on average. It seems this place is far rougher than the Pony. Not, perhaps, the best of places for a youth who had been prepared for better things as a child.”
“But at least it would have offered him employment.”
“But is any employment at all of more value than keeping one’s self worth?” For a time the northern lord was still, clearly thinking. “Is it known how long Danárion possessed this Book of Shadows?”
How could one know such a thing? “I do not know, my lord.”
“And he did not say how it was he came by it?”
“He was asked.”
“And what was his answer?”
“That he found it.”
“Here, in Anwar.”
“During one of the times the market guard from Destrier brought him here to the madhouse?”
“And when would that be?”
By the Powers, this one was persistent! Benargil wracked his brain. “I must suppose two years past, after he was found with that girl in a shepherd’s hut. A sordid story….”
“I’ve heard of it, and it does not appear anymore sordid than any other impossible love. So, the market guard brought him here to the madhouse, where I am told they saw to it he was fed well and released to make his own way back to Destrier.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Was he escorted to the gates to the city and released there?”
“Oh, no! No, they but opened the door and let him go to make his own way through the city to the gate. He was seen by my housekeeper near the trash heap behind the Keep, in fact, searching through it for any castoffs that he might find useful.”
“Did she chase him away?”
“And why? Those who are in need are welcome enough to aught that catches their fancy that has been cast away by those who dwell here.”
Berevrion appeared to finish his wine, for he set down his goblet upon the parapet and again leaned back against the stone, folding his arms anew across his chest. “I am told that there was once a copy of The Book of Shadows here in your keep, my Lord Benargil.”
Now, this was enough to startle anyone. “And how could you know this?”
“One who visited this place during your father’s time remembers seeing it in your father’s library.”
Anorgil must have told him this! “Well, yes, there was a copy here.”
“I would like to see it, if I might. It would be well to read enough to appreciate just what foolishness those who read it might have found that excited their imaginations to do what Danárion is said to have done.”
“We do not have it anymore. Enelmir found it on the shelves some two years past, and was shocked to find such a thing within the Keep, and urged me to dispose of it.”
“And you did so?”
“Yes! Of course I got it out of my house. Imagine if my children had read such a thing. Nay, I carried it myself out of the Keep and threw it upon the trash heap with my own hands.”
“Two years past, you say?”
“Yes. And this is important?”
Berevrion merely shrugged, and straightened once more. “Well, my Lord Benargil, I must thank you for offering me your company. But I do think I’d best return to my bed. I am no longer as young a Man as I was, and I will not thank myself in the morning if I do not rest at least some tonight. May Lord Irmo grant you soft dreams.” He turned to take up the goblet and the tray on which the toast had been provided, and then gave Benargil an enquiring glance before reaching for his mug. “I shall see these back into the hands of Master Peldrion and thank him for his thoughtfulness toward us. Shall we go down, then?”
And Benargil followed his guest back into the Keep, and returned to his bed and the company of his slumbering wife. Ere sleep took him, he found himself thinking again, for some reason, of a visit he distantly remembered from his later childhood of Captain Thorongil. How he’d worshipped the Man as a hero! But what it was in his talk with Lord Berevrion that could have brought Thorongil to mind now he could not say.
At last he slept, and his first dream was a remembered image of Captain Thorongil, wearing not the black and silver cloak of an officer of Gondor’s armies, but an older cloak of dark green, caught at his shoulder with a silver brooch in the shape of a rayed star, a great fiery gem in the center of it, as his father held out a book from his collection to show the soldier….