Claiming the Throne
10. The Ringbearers
They had woken that morning, and Aragorn had given immediate orders for the long-awaited celebration to be prepared. The camp had been abuzz with excitement and talk all day long, and all the men remaining at Cormallen were here now, seated on the grass, listening to the song.
Denethor glanced past the halflings at his king, who was smiling sadly as the minstrel told the dark tale. For the feast, Aragorn had put on the new armour brought from Minas Tirith, a sable surcoat over all, and in the new clothes he looked strange and unfamiliar. Despite himself, Denethor had grown used to the shabbily-dressed Ranger who commanded so easily, and he found this new figure - the King - harder to accept.
At length, the song was over, and the host applauded and cheered. Aragorn stood, and went to thank the minstrel, before raising Frodo and Sam and handing them over to a nearby Dúnadan. The halflings disappeared, and the host began to make its way over to the trestle tables laid ready. Denethor rose, and turned himself towards the white pavilion where the lords were to eat.
He felt a presence beside him, and looked round.
"My lord Steward," said Imrahil, and then the Prince of Dol Amroth smiled. "Is it not a glad day?"
"Indeed," Denethor said.
"You do not seem glad," Imrahil returned quickly.
"I was thinking of Boromir," Denethor said, and it was not altogether a lie. The minstrel had told the entire tale of the Ring's journey, including the death of the Steward's son. Imrahil nodded in sympathy.
"At least his sacrifice was not in vain, my lord," he said gently. "For the Ring is destroyed!" The Prince's smile broke out again. "I look forward to meeting the Halflings and doing them the honour they deserve."
Denethor nodded, not feeling inclined to speak, and Imrahil fell silent. Together they made their way to their seats. Éomer was close by, and Legolas and Gimli, the three friends talking together as usual. The Steward caught a snatch of their conversation and realised that the Elf and the Dwarf were telling Rohan's king about the first part of their journey from Rivendell. He heard something about Sam, and a sword-fighting lesson, and Boromir, and turned away. After a short while, the sons of Elrond joined them with courteous bows, and began a conversation with Legolas about the merits of the minstrel's song.
As Aragorn arrived, everyone rose and waited for the king to take his seat before sitting again. Aragorn greeted his neighbours. Denethor, two seats away with an empty place between them, said: "Where are the Halflings, my lord?"
"Having their clothes changed," Aragorn returned. "Mithrandir is with them."
"Well, I wish they'd hurry up!" said Gimli, from further down the table. "And that you'd let us in to see them earlier."
"They were too tired to be seen," Aragorn said firmly. "I only allowed Gandalf in; they would have been easily overwhelmed at first."
"Must obey the healer," said Elladan, lightly.
Aragorn smiled wryly, and then quickly pushed his chair back and rose.
The two halflings, dressed now in clean linen with swords at their sides, entered the tent accompanied by Gandalf, and the company applauded them. Denethor saw that the stouter of the pair blushed furiously. Aragorn pulled back the chairs on either side of him, and the wizard brought his charges to the king.
"My lord Steward," said Aragorn, "allow me to introduce you: Frodo Baggins, and Samwise Gamgee. Frodo, Sam; Denethor, Steward of Gondor." The three exchanged bows, Sam's a little awkward.
"I am pleased to see you awake at last," Denethor said, once the Standing Silence was over and Frodo and Sam had been seated. Frodo was next to him, looking alert but pale, a stunningly beautiful mailcoat shimmering under his cream surcoat.
"Thank you, my lord," he said. "It feels ... strange."
"The attention?" Denethor asked.
"No," Frodo said, "not that." He fell silent, and Denethor saw him fiddling with the bandage on his hand again.
Servants began to bring the food and wine, and Denethor found a small hand pouring his drink. He glanced around at the same time as Frodo, whose eyes widened.
"Hullo, Frodo!" said Pippin, looking smart in his sable uniform, and quite recovered from his injury.
"Mr Frodo!" exclaimed Sam at the same time, from Aragorn's other side. "Look, it's Master Merry - and Master Pippin."
"Wine, Sam?" asked Merry, in the green of Rohan. "We'll tell you all about it later, but for the moment Pip and I are busy. We are knights of Rohan and of Gondor, as I hope you've noticed."
"It is good you have not forgotten, Master Took," Denethor said gravely, to Pippin, who had moved on to Imrahil with his carafe of wine.
"No, my lord," Pippin said. "Indeed I hope never to forget."
"He is only being permitted to serve the first part of the meal," Aragorn said. "He is also just out of bed today - do not forget that, Peregrin!"
"Of course not, Strider," Pippin replied with a bow, and disappeared around the table.
"Mr Frodo," said Sam, "do you think they've grown?"
"Grown?" said Aragorn, laughing. "You have all grown, Sam."
"Now, Mr Strider," Sam said, "you shouldn't be saying such things. You're the one that's grown most. But I meant, don't you think they're taller?"
Frodo glanced at Pippin and Merry. "Maybe, Sam. Maybe."
"Your cousins - they are your cousins, are they not? - have done great deeds also," Imrahil put in. "We are all in the debt of the Halflings."
"Thank you, sir," Frodo said, dropping his gaze again.
"Imrahil, of Dol Amroth," Imrahil said.
"Kinsman to the Steward," Aragorn added, knowing how the detail would interest the hobbits. He pointed out the other guests. "There is Éomer of Rohan, Merry's liege lord - you saw his banner on the field, the green one with the white horse. The Rohirrim are men who live by their horses. You must ask Gandalf to introduce you to Shadowfax, his great horse from Rohan. Over there we have Lossarnach, and you remember Elladan and Elrohir, I warrant?"
"Lord Elrond's sons," nodded Frodo. He turned to Denethor. "My lord Steward ... I hope ... I hope that Lord Faramir is well? We met him and I am indebted to him for his help."
"He told me of your meeting," Denethor said. "He was hurt in the battle for Minas Tirith, but the lord Aragorn was able to heal him. He stands now in my stead in the City."
"I'm glad," Frodo said simply.
"I am too, sir," Sam said, pausing in his meal. "We were right close to running out of food just then, and the Captain probably saved us."
"You will be able to thank him yourselves when we return to the City," Denethor said, but he did not smile.
Frodo nibbled some bread. "Tell me, my lord, of Minas Tirith?"
Denethor readily agreed, and for most of the meal he talked to Frodo, telling the hobbit the City's history, describing the buildings and the way it was run. From time to time he caught Aragorn's eye, as the King listened with interest.
At long last, the feast was over, and Aragorn rose.
"This is a joyous day," he said, "and I am glad to share it with you, my friends. May this celebration of peace be but the first of many. I ask you now to raise your cups with me and drink a toast, to Frodo and Samwise, for their valour has given us this victory."
The host stood, and lifted their glasses. Denethor saw that Sam was blushing again, and Frodo shifted his weight from foot to foot, though he was smiling too.
The toast drunk, the company began to disperse. Legolas and Gimli came to the hobbits and embraced them both.
"The others wish to smoke a pipe before retiring for the night," Legolas said. "Will you come, Frodo?"
"I think we've both been asleep long enough to be allowed to stay up a short while," agreed Frodo. He turned to Denethor, and bowed. "It is an honour to make your acquaintance, my lord Steward. I look forward to seeing the City for myself."
Denethor returned the bow. "And Minas Tirith will welcome you and your companions with open arms, Master Baggins, for the service you have performed."
Frodo smiled shortly, and excused himself and his servant. The two halflings disappeared, with Legolas and Gimli leading the way out of the pavilion.
"Well?" said Aragorn, who had been speaking to Éomer.
"I marvel," Denethor said, "that we owe our freedom to those small beings. Master Baggins is very courteous in his speech."
"There's more than a little of the Elf-friend in Frodo," said Aragorn. "His uncle, Bilbo, who found the Ring eighty years ago, is largely responsible. Ask Frodo to tell you Bilbo's tale, for he knows it best. But hobbits on the whole are remarkable. Will you come and join us, my lord, and learn more?"
"No," Denethor said. "This is a time for old friends. And besides, I do not smoke. I bid you goodnight, my lord Aragorn."
They exchanged polite bows and the Steward disappeared, walking slowly towards his own tent.
Aragorn found the Fellowship seated on a patch of grass in the moonlight, streams of smoke already drifting upwards. Gandalf was sending successively smaller smoke-rings into the air, and Pippin was trying to chase them with some of his own, and largely failing. Aragorn sat down with a clank of mail, flicking his cloak out of the way, and pulling his own pipe out of a pouch at his belt.
"I think you impressed Denethor, Frodo."
"Is that difficult?" Frodo asked.
"It took me nearly fifty years," Aragorn said lightly. "You did well, my dear hobbit, and I believe he is starting to understand the ways of the halflings a little better."
"Something more people should think about doing," said Gandalf, tying one of his rings in a bow around one of Pippin's.
"Hear hear," said Merry lazily. "But let's not talk about that just at the moment. I'm sure Frodo and Sam have lots to tell."
"I'd rather hear, for now," Frodo said quickly. "Gandalf kept very quiet today, and all we could get out of him was that we were back in Ithilien and in the keeping of the King. I'm afraid that made no sense for a while, Aragorn."
"It still sounds strange to me, Frodo," Aragorn returned with a smile.
"It's amazing," said Sam, sitting up. "Makes me ashamed to think I ever doubted you, Mr Strider. Why, in Bree there was you, with mud on your boots, and us - normal hobbit size -" here he frowned again in Merry and Pippin's direction, "and all we had was a broken sword and plain hobbit sense to see us through. Now here we are, and here's you with an army and all. And Mr Gandalf, all in white, and ..." Sam's smile faded a little. "And I still reckon I'll wake up in a bit and find it's all a dream, and we're stuck somewhere nasty."
Aragorn shook his head. "No Sam, you won't find that. It's all quite real."
"I am glad," Sam said devoutly. "I used to dream a bit on the journey, when we got some sleep, and I kept remembering picnics in the garden at Rivendell. Or tea outside Bag End, with the Gaffer's strawberries, and cream from the Cottons. And every time I woke up, and there was that nasty Gollum sniffing round and naught to eat, and for all we knew you were all dead." He puffed thoughtfully at his pipe. "I was having a good dream these past days, about the Shire, but waking up was better. Especially seeing as how we're all here. Nearly."
He fell silent, and for a moment they all remembered Boromir.
"So tell us," Frodo said, breaking into the silence, his voice determinedly cheerful, "what great deeds you've all been doing. Starting with you, Gandalf - I can't tell you how happy I am to see you alive."
The wizard made a smoke eagle, and began.
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