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Paying the Price: 1. Paying the Price
Everything I can see, and much that I cannot, is mine. Mine, to guard and protect. To order as I will. I can – There was a discrete cough behind him. He grimaced at Hithdol’s interruption to his thoughts. –
“Breakfast is ready in the small study, sire.” Aragorn was convinced this severe majordomo secretly enjoyed dragging him from what little moments of privacy a king could snatch. The quiet voice went on relentlessly. “King Éomer has already arrived. The Steward has sent word that he will be a little late this morning, as there is a crack in the foundations of the guildhall on the fourth level that he wishes to inspect. And Prince Imrahil would be grateful if you could spare him a few moments this morning before court.”
“Of course.” Aragorn turned and found his way blocked by a black silk tunic, its many edges encrusted with ornate silver embroidery. Two unfamiliar servants held it ready at the precise angle needed for him to struggle into it. He reached out to finger the collar. Scratchy, just as he expected. He shook his head and made a mental note to have Faramir look into the pension provisions for the armies of embroiderers who were no doubt going blind churning out the seemingly endless stream of elaborate, old fashioned royal costumes. He wore black breeches, soft low boots and a white shirt. That, he felt, was dressed enough for an informal breakfast. Surely, comfort for one meal a day should not be an impossible goal.
“Later.” He slithered around the impassive servants, dodged his majordomo, and escaped through the room and into the hallway, calling back. “I’ll put it on later.”
Aragorn strode down the corridor towards his private study. On the way, he passed the archway to what the servants referred to as the large study, where he entertained formally before dinner. He had another small audience chamber for after dinner: more intimate than in the Tower Hall, but more public than the royal apartments. Aragorn sighed. He had never wanted the trappings of kingship. A king’s business was to give his people a land at peace, where men could live out their lives without fear of threats from inside or outside its borders. He knew it was within him to give his people that.
In Aragorn’s opinion, there was no need for additional ceremonies or formalities to mark him king. He had observed Ecthelion as Steward keeping a more than adequate royal presence, and no doubt Denethor after him did the same. While he appreciated the efforts of the palace staff, and knew the value of the appearance of majesty, he did not wish to always be the king out of legend. His domestic staff did not seem to understand that he needed at least one private place where he did not have to sit in their idea of proper state. If that made him eccentric in their eyes, so be it.
Today, at last, he expected to be comfortable at breakfast, if nowhere else. The ugly chair with the deeply carved emblem of Gondor - too many sharp pointed stars, and lumpy tree branches in inconvenient places - would be gone. Hobbits, if anyone, understood comfort, and he had given Pippin the task of making his private study cosier and more welcoming.
Quickening his steps, he reached the room and pulled the door open. The chairs Pippin had added were obvious. Éomer was lounging in a nicely padded chair by the… Pippin had perhaps taken his instructions a little too much to heart. Aragorn walked forward and stared down at the table. The short - very short - stubby-legged table that yesterday had been normal height. Aragorn wondered if Pippin had sawed down the legs himself. No, the tabletop looked level. It seemed more likely he had summoned a carpenter. He took in the rest of the changes: a low couch strewn with ruched velvet pillows in jewel tones of red, blue and green had replaced the chairs on one long side of the table; deep-red velvet drapes and thick carpet had replaced the thin, shiny black curtains and bare stone floor.
Bending nearly double, Éomer leaned over and snagged a hard-boiled egg off the tray laden with food in the center of the table. Nonchalantly reaching down to crack the shell on the tabletop, he looked like he was having a hard time repressing outright laughter. “Interesting. I may have to get one of these built for Meduseld.”
Aragorn sat down at the end of the table and leaned comfortably against the chair’s padded back. “You could take this one as a parting gift.”
“Pippin would never forgive you.”
“He would no doubt be flattered and promptly cut down another.” Aragorn grabbed an egg for himself, peeled it, and began to eat.
Aragorn looked across at Éomer and realized he would miss him and his easy friendship. While Aragorn was well pleased with his Steward, their association had not yet had time to acquire depth. Faramir may have quickly adapted to Aragorn’s preference for informal briefings every morning before court, but there had been little time beyond that for other than formal and official interactions. With Éowyn also returning to Rohan with her brother, Aragorn hoped that he and Faramir would have a chance to become better acquainted.
Éomer was busy making arrangements for the remaining Rohirrim to leave in two days time. Before they left, the King of Rohan wished to honor some of his Captains with a party in Minas Tirith. It was no fête of great import, but it promised to provide the King of Gondor with some real entertainment amidst the more formal functions he was expected to attend every day. However, Éomer faced a small but embarrassing, problem. He had approached Aragorn yesterday requesting a minor favour.
Aragorn ripped off a piece of bread and spread it lavishly with a soft cheese. “Not that I am not happy to provide some, but how is it that the King of Rohan is short of coin?”
“It’s not that I don’t have the resources, Aragorn,” Éomer explained, “But when we came south, I was not expecting to have to pay so much from my private purse.” He shrugged and poured another pint of ale into his mug. “While you have been very generous in supporting my troops since we arrived, I really do not expect Gondor to pay for this. And the tavern-keepers of this city are just as suspicious of foreign soldiers as ever. I could make arrangements as the King of Rohan, but,” he shrugged again and paused with his mug halfway to his lips. A broad smile spread across his face. “I’m no more used to being a king than you are, and I want to enjoy myself without worrying about them telling tales in the House of Starlight of the wild King of Rohan. It’s bad enough that they will talk about the wild Rohirrim. You are still planning to join us?”
Aragorn laughed. “You can count on me to be there, even though I will have to sneak away from something more formal. We are agreed then. Your stallion Firefoot will cover four mares from my stables, and my privy purse will pay for your party.”
“Four? I do not remember agreeing to four.” Éomer sat up, an alert gleam in his eyes. “We leave very shortly. I would not want Firefoot to stint your mares.”
“Nonsense.” Aragorn let his grin widen. “Firefoot will be only a little more docile on the ride home.”
Éomer snorted, then leaned back in his chair again. He grinned. “Do you have four mares of the proper quality, in season?”
Aragorn hid a moment of dismay. He had no idea how many mares were in the royal stables, much less if any were in season. Properly caparisoned mounts, either Roheryn or other stallions, had simply been appearing whenever he needed one since he left on the march to the Black Gate. There was certainly no way to squeeze an inspection of the stables into his already crowded schedule.
“Three, then,” he bargained. “One now and two later.” There had to be at least one suitable mare.
“Agreed.” Éomer leaned forward and offered his hand to seal the bargain.
“But no damage to the house, mind you. The city is battered enough.” Aragorn reached over and shook Éomer’s hand.
Éomer looked around puzzled. “Was not Faramir to be here to handle the funds transfer discreetly?”
Aragorn laughed again. “He is. He was. My Steward needs a steward. He received word this morning of a crack in some historic building or other and needs must check it out himself. He’ll be here presently.”
“Ah, then I can wait.” Éomer drank a deep draught of the ale. “Good breakfast ale is hard to come by in this city. Prince Imrahil keeps wanting me to discuss border issues with the Dunlendings over breakfast. Once was enough for that. ” Éomer shuddered. “Odd herb drinks and tiny, sweet cakes. Faugh.” He stabbed a slice of meat off the tray on the table between them with the point of his belt knife. “At least you know what a man’s breakfast should look like.”
Aragorn raised his eyebrows in disbelief. “I remember your grandmother. She knew what a fork was for.” He looked down at his own utensil, a knife very similar to Éomer’s, and tisked self-righteously. “Rohan has gone sadly downhill.” Leaning over, he speared a piece of meat, then sat back and put his feet on the edge of the table. He caught Éomer’s eye and they both started to laugh.
The men were still chuckling when there was a knock at the door. Prince Imrahil entered and bowed formally to his King. He turned slightly and bowed again to the King of Rohan. Aragorn had fond memories of Imrahil as a teenager. He had been all awkward elbows and knees on land, but he had taught Aragorn to sail with calm assurance in the face of the sudden squalls on the Bay of Belfalas. Aragorn remembered his own white-knuckled grip on the tiller, wrestling to hold the small vessel on the right tack, but Imrahil had reefed the main sail, dropped the jib, and made his way back to the cockpit, rain flowing off the scraggly ends of his hair, with a delighted grin on his face.
Aragorn was not certain that Imrahil had recognized him as Thorongil. The man who stood before him now was far removed from the boy Aragorn had known. His hair, now a little more threaded with silver than Aragorn’s own, hung over his collar in smooth waves. Already dressed in full court garb, Imrahil had entered with a stiff and determined look on his face. Now, his eyes were darting to the table, to the feet on the table, and back to Aragorn’s face. Aragorn knew that Imrahil would prefer his king to be always formal. He believed that, most of the time, he did not disappoint the Prince. Yet Imrahil would have to learn to live with the occasional moment of discomfort.
Waiving a casual hand, Aragorn indicated the platter in the center of the table, still heaped with food. “Breakfast?”
“I have already broken my fast.”
“Good.” Aragorn spoke before Imrahil could say more. “Éomer King has, for a consideration, agreed to have his stallion cover one of Gondor’s mares before he leaves. I know you are meeting with the Dunlendings most of the day, but could you make the arrangements?”
“Certainly, Sire.” Imrahil bowed again and as he straightened up Aragorn thought he saw a speculative gleam. If the ‘Gondorian mare’ belonged to one of the Swan Knights, they would, Aragorn thought, all be well served.
Imrahil recaptured his determined look, and went on before Aragorn could deflect him again. “I have unfortunate news. Sire, there is a problem in the city, and I am not sure that anyone but you can resolve it.”
Aragorn removed his booted feet from the low table and sat up straighter.
Imrahil squared his shoulders, took a deep breath and continued, “The Hobbits have been drinking in several taverns in the lower city.”
Aragorn knew all too well the drinking habits of hobbits from the time he had spent in Bree. That there was beer left in the citadel continually surprised him. With four hobbits and a dwarf to supply, he expected to hear of shortages every day.
Imrahil’s bearing became even stiffer, if that were possible. “And last night Faramir accompanied them.”
Aragorn waited, still wondering what the problem was. As the pause continued, it seemed that Imrahil was finished.
“And?” Aragorn prompted.
Imrahil paused, then let out his breath with a ‘hmph’ of disappointment and shook his head. “Always in the same taverns.”
“Ah,” Aragorn prevaricated. “That is certainly unfortunate.”
“I was there last night as well,” Éomer contributed. Aragorn assumed Éomer thought he was being helpful. “Pippin has been searching for brews that compared to the ones in the Shire and Bree and he and Merry disagreed on the flavours. Faramir and I went along to …” He trailed off into silence as Prince Imrahil raised his eyebrows.
“Yes, it is most unfortunate. Understandable that they should patronize only taverns frequented by soldiers, but unfortunate.” Imrahil bowed to Éomer and turned to Aragorn. “I am sure the young Hobbits are unaware of the rivalry between the taverns used by the guard and the ones that cater to craftsmen, but Faramir certainly could have told them to spread out their patronage.”
“Faramir has been very busy,” Aragorn said soothingly. “I am sure it just slipped his mind.” He stood and maneuvered Imrahil towards the door. “Yes, you can leave it to me. I will certainly speak to the Hobbits about drinking in a wider variety of taverns.” Aragorn spared a thought imagining the glee in Pippin’s eyes when he was told he was expected to drink in every tavern in the city in rotation. “I hope you will be able to finalize the border issues with the Dunlendings, as we discussed them, today. Until court, then. Just before third hour, so we can enter in state.”
He closed the door behind Imrahil and turned back to resume his interrupted breakfast.
Seconds after the door closed behind Imrahil, it opened again to admit Faramir. In Aragorn’s opinion, his Steward looked far too wide-awake and cheerful for a man who had been out late drinking the night before and who was now carrying a thick sheaf of reports so soon after dawn. Before Aragorn could speak, Faramir held up a hand to forestall him.
“Have I disgraced you to the point where you ask for my resignation?” he said, smiling. “Uncle Imrahil certainly seems to think you would call for it when you heard about last night. I did speak to old Galdor at the Golden Stallion when I saw the sign that said ‘periannath prefer our beer’. “ Faramir turned to the table and hesitated. He looked down at the low table and back up at Aragorn. “What happened?”
“Pippin. It is more comfortable now,” Éomer said.
Faramir stared at the table for a moment longer, then shrugged, and dropped the reports onto it. “I do wonder what Uncle Imrahil was doing in the third level at that hour. He never said. If he’d been called to quell a riot, I surely would have heard.”
Aragorn sat back down and gestured Faramir into a vacant chair. He pulled the reports to him and flipped through the top few pages. They were exactly what he needed for the court sessions today, and many of them were in Faramir’s simple, clear hand. Did the man never sleep?
“You seem to be useful as my Steward,” Aragorn said lightly. “I don’t think I need to dismiss you just yet.” He poured Faramir a mug of ale and handed it to him.
“I hardly need hair-of-the-dog.” Faramir gave a wry grin and bent over to put the mug down. He helped himself to a piece of bread from the tray. “Isn’t there any tea?”
“Nah, nah,” Éomer said gesturing with his own mug. “Breakfast ale. Weak enough for babies.”
Aragorn had had enough. He looked severely at Faramir. “I do, however, have a very serious issue to discuss with you about your behavior last night.” He included Éomer in his disapproval. “Both of you.”
Faramir awkwardly swallowed the bread. “Yes, my lord. I am sorry…”
Aragorn ruthlessly cut off his explanation. “You trusted Pippin to be able to tell the difference between ales. You, lords of Gondor and Rohan, went to many of the taverns in the city and drank indiscriminately. With soldiers!”
Faramir and Éomer exchanged guilty glances.
Aragorn drove the lesson home, ‘And you didn’t think to invite me?”
House of Starlight and The Golden Stallion used with permission.
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