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Theme and Variations: 1. Theme and Variations
Faramir was looking forward to an unexpectedly happy future. Certainly only a few months ago the best fate he had anticipated was a quick and glorious death in battle. Instead, spring had brought Sauron defeated, Gondor delivered, a king returned, and, greatest joy of all, a love requited. As time and hope tempered his grief for his brother and his horror at his father's end, he felt his world opening around him like some vibrant blossom.
In the days before the coronation, he divided his time between readying the city for the king's entry and blissful hours at Éowyn's side. Just administering the repair of the war's damage to the seven circles could have taken all the time in his day, but he soon had a team of overseers and craftsmen to take charge of the major tasks. The mood of the people was jubilant, such as Faramir had never seen before, even at the most lighthearted midsummer festival.
Like everyone else, he was curious to know more about the king. His only meeting with Elessar had been at his time of awakening in the Houses of Healing. He remembered vividly the deep, strong and gentle voice calling him out of the darkness and the grave face with warm grey eyes bending over him as he woke. But the king did not again enter the city before leaving three days later with the army marching on the Black Gate, and Faramir was then confined to his bed.
Tongues wagged. Rumors and stories flew around the seven circles, to be chewed over in the taverns and inns. Some were nonsense. The king, some said, was an Elf lord sent by Elvenhome to save Gondor. He was Isildur himself sprung from the grave to summon the Army of the Dead. Gandalf had conjured him up with his staff out of the legends of the North. The Sword Reforged could slay men on its own, leaping at a spoken word out of its scabbard. The green stone could show images of the future, or cause bare trees to grow leaves and fruit overnight. The king had cast down Barad-dûr and destroyed Sauron by confronting him in the Seeing Stone. The Star he wore on his brow was the star of Eärendil come back to Middle-earth. His healing hands could even bring back the dead.
Faramir only wished he would hear something that might actually be true. But he had little time to pursue the matter, nor did he want to ask prying questions of the few in the city that were likely to have some personal knowledge of the king—such as the two Northern Rangers, recovering from wounds, who had remained behind when the Host marched forth. And he did not like raising the question with Éowyn, who was rather prickly about Aragorn and did not know much anyway.
Things only got worse when his two aunts arrived in the city for the coronation festivities. Faramir had moved his personal belongings out of the Citadel, which was being made ready for Aragorn's return. Dreaming of the day when he would bring Éowyn there as a bride, he settled into the sumptuous house in the fifth circle that he had inherited from his mother, who had brought it to the Steward's family as part of her marriage settlement. Shortly after, his aunts, Denethor's older sisters, arrived from Linhir, where the Lady Morwen lived with her husband, Artamir, Lord of Pelargir. Haleth, unmarried, lived with her. While they had not actually seen it, they had heard stories of the Army of the Dead as it passed through the town, and Artamir had joined the Grey Host and assisted in the assault on the corsairs at Pelargir. He was now with the Army of the West at Cormallen.
Haleth was a shy, sweet lady who had always favored Faramir of all her nephews and nieces and given him many gifts of books as a boy. But Morwen was a female caricature of her brother: officious, domineering and haughty where Denethor had been dignified, masterful and proud. In place of the intelligence and astute judgment that had earned Denethor respect and honor, she was a mix of gossip, petty prejudices and trite opinions. Denethor himself had disliked her and sought to discourage her visits to the city.
Faramir discovered that she was interested in only the most private aspects of recent events: What was Éowyn really like? Was she suitable to marry into an ancient family of high blood?
"Running off disguised to fight in a war! What kind of behavior is that for the Steward's lady?" Morwen declaimed. "I hope she is not proud of it!"
Faramir did not reply.
"You do know that you will far outlive her," Morwen said. "Your children may lose the long life of Númenor as well."
Faramir felt his temper rising, but he endeavored to keep his tongue still.
"And everyone says she is quite besotted with the king," Morwen said. "Are you sure that you are not just second best?"
Faramir stood up. "Dear aunt," he said between his teeth, "I can only say this: one, to be second best to King Elessar is no insult; and two, if any man said to me what you have just said, he would find himself on the ground before he knew what hit him. And now I will bid you good day." And with that, he left the house and went to find Éowyn, determined to gain that day as many kisses as he could woo from her inexperience.
The next day, Morwen's focus shifted: Was the king married?
"I don't believe so," Faramir said, happy the subject had moved from himself and his betrothed and hoping to heal the breach with his difficult aunt. "At least I haven't heard anything of a wife or children."
"Well! That must soon be settled," said Morwen. "And I can't imagine what better family to produce a queen than ours."
She could only be speaking of her remaining unmarried daughter, Lalaith, nearly forty years old and a sworn spinster, unless she meant Imrahil's young daughter, Lothíriel. Faramir decided that silence was the best answer to these musings. But his aunt would not hold her tongue, and soon was chatting up every lady in the city with plans and speculation. Faramir thought, with some amusement, that the run on the dressmakers' shops was no doubt making them a small fortune.
Then Morwen heard that the Northern Rangers all wore a star on their cloaks, just as had the mysterious Captain Thorongil, whom, of course, she had known during his years in Gondor.
"So Thorongil was one of the king's men!" she exclaimed. "Or the father of one of them! What a shame that we did not know! He should have been made to marry."
Fixing his eyes on his book, Faramir tried to keep his lips from twitching. He had a vivid picture in his head of his aunt ordering a captain of Gondor to a handfasting.
She prattled on. "Captain Thorongil was a most handsome and capable man, but quite unsuitable for the best ladies in Gondor. He had no family, no title, no father. If we had known of his connections, it might have been different. A number of lesser families did sound him out on marriage with their daughters, but he always declined. Why, by now he would have been a grandfather, and just think of the ties we would have with the king's men! It was strange at the time, I thought. What better way for a nameless foreigner to establish himself? And he liked women very well, so that was not the problem. I even heard that he had affairs, but I was never able to find out the names. He was so infuriatingly discreet."
Gritting his teeth, Faramir thought, Indeed, a model for all of us.
"I never did understand why Denethor disliked him so much," Morwen said. "Excellent manners! Rather quiet, but such a fine looking man!"
Haleth, sitting in the corner engrossed in the embroidery that was her life's passion, said in her quiet voice, "Captain Thorongil had a true gentle heart. At court he looked rather like the statues of the kings in the Great Hall, but when he smiled, his face lit up like the sun."
This was a long speech for Haleth. Indeed, it was unusual for her to speak at all, especially when Morwen was present, and Faramir had learned long ago that what she said was thoughtful and often important.
But Morwen said, "Spare me, Haleth. You were always sweet on him."
Haleth blushed scarlet. "Morwen, how dare you—you know better—I never—" and she clutched her throat, coughing.
Faramir picked up her hand and kissed it. "Lady Haleth always sees straight to the truth of any man."
"Oh, nonsense," Morwen said. "She is a silly goose. Captain Thorongil was a man of war and, as I myself saw in tourneys, a very dangerous opponent with a blade. Gentle, indeed! But we must find out what sort of ties he had with these Northern Rangers…."
And so it went. Faramir was pointedly silent in response to these speeches, but Morwen did not seem to care. Then Imrahil returned to the city, and Morwen had a new audience. "My lord prince," she said, "have you heard this story? Have you heard that Captain Thorongil was one of the king's men?"
"Don't be a fool, Morwen," Imrahil said. "Captain Thorongil was Aragorn himself."
This surprised even Faramir. Haleth dropped her embroidery and turned white. Morwen gasped. "What! Are you sure?" she said.
"Of course. I recognized him."
"But you could be mistaken."
"I am not mistaken. I knew him at once. I ought to know the captain at whose side I fought at Umbar. And no two men could handle a sword like that."
"But he says so? He confirms it?"
Imrahil gave her an exasperated look. "Morwen, Aragorn has been a little busy lately, as you may have noticed. But if it will make you happy, yes, when I first saw him on the Pelennor after the victory, I said, 'Welcome back, my lord. I have been expecting you.' And he greeted me by name, saying that he was most honored to see me again. Are you satisfied?"
"Imrahil, you make my flesh crawl," Morwen wailed. "Expecting him! These foretellings!"
"Complain to Faramir," the prince said. "He had the dream. Didn't you hear the words? I knew who would come in response, and, I expect, so did Denethor."
Faramir looked up at him sharply, but said nothing.
"My brother knew no such thing," Morwen said.
"He did. He knew who Captain Thorongil really was, although I don't know how he found out. I knew, from seeing it."
"Oh, never mind," Morwen said, dismissing this important matter with a wave of her hand. "But this means the king is much older than we could have thought." Faramir saw the light of calculation in her eyes, and figured she was measuring the age of the man against the prospects for Gondor's older unmarried ladies.
"He is nearly ninety, I believe," said Imrahil. "But he is a full-blooded Númenorean, as you would expect. As I understand from what I have been told about the Northern Dúnedain, he will probably live some seventy-five more years, and easily outlive me and maybe even Faramir."
Morwen gaped in surprise. "Well, that is most astonishing. Who would have guessed it! Captain Thorongil! I should have known! Why didn't Denethor tell me?" she rattled on. "But Imrahil, please do say, is Lord Aragorn married? Perhaps he prefers older ladies." And she seemed to flash a look at her sister.
Imrahil raised his eyebrows and fixed Morwen with a look of stern disapproval. "I will not," he said in a menacing tone, "have you bringing disgrace upon the Steward's family with your silly plots."
"You men never do understand the importance of these matters," Morwen snapped. She glowered at the prince with her most supercilious stare. "And who are you to give me orders?" She marched with great dignity from the room.
Haleth seemed to be having trouble breathing as she turned alternately white and red. "Dear aunt," Faramir said, "do not be so distressed."
"I am so humiliated!" she sobbed. "What if she says that to everyone! The king!"
"She will not dare," Faramir said. "I will see to it."
Imrahil was watching them with a look of some alarm. "What is this trouble?"
"Nothing more than that my aunt must hold her wagging tongue," Faramir said, as he patted Haleth's hand and passed her a lacy handkerchief to dry her eyes. "Lady Haleth, take some moments for yourself and rest."
Haleth gratefully withdrew.
Faramir, imagining similar scenes playing out all over the city in the drawing rooms of families with unmarried daughters, suppressed an impulse to laugh wildly. He said, "It is to be greatly hoped that Aragorn will resolve the question of the queen very quickly. Unless—" Faramir paused with a twinkle in his eye as he turned to his uncle. "Is he married?"
Imrahil gave a shout of laughter. "I don't think so. But there seems to be a lady. There is some mystery about it. No doubt we will find out in due time."
"I know that the marriage of the king is an important matter of state," Faramir said, "but I am at this time more concerned about what you just said about my father. Uncle, is this true? My father knew this about Thorongil? About Aragorn?"
Imrahil relented. "I have to admit that we never discussed it. But I believe it to be true. Perhaps Aragorn knows."
"Are you saying that my father knew, all these years, that the House of Elendil lived in the North?"
"I don't know what he knew, if you put it that way. He guessed, at the very least, a great deal."
Faramir sighed. "None of this puts him in a good light," he muttered. "I know what he said of the king before…." He could not bring himself to repeat the words.
"Yes, and Aragorn probably knows too. No one will judge Denethor's life by its end, nor should you. It is past, nephew," Imrahil said gently. "Don't dwell on it. It will take time to heal."
"This isn't his end we are discussing here," Faramir said. "You are saying he knew this for forty years."
Imrahil shrugged. "I am sure he justified his doings by the ruling of Pelendur, and in that he had a lot of company. But I have to tell you, Faramir, that our need was so desperate that I considered trying to find Aragorn myself, from time to time, Denethor or no."
"Perhaps you should have," Faramir said.
"Maybe. But the North is a very big and uncharted place, and in the end I judged it unwise, for the same reason, I figure, that Aragorn himself made no claim forty years ago."
"And what is that?" Faramir asked, although he knew the answer.
"The risk of strife in Gondor, of course, providing the Enemy with the opening he needed. In the end, it has come to pass in its own way. And you and Boromir between you sent the summons, as was most fit." And he gave a sharp nod of satisfaction and slapped his nephew on the back. "But do not expect to retire to the seat of the House of Húrin and find yourself free of weighty duties in the Citadel. Aragorn is no man to let the talents of those around him go to waste. He was always like that, anyway, in the past: A master of getting the best out of his lieutenants, and delegating tasks to others. He means to keep the Stewardship, and while he will ask you for your will, he will expect you to accept. He asked me for my judgment on the matter, and of course, I spoke of you in the highest terms."
"Thank you, uncle," Faramir said. "I hardly know what I think about it. As you well know, I never expected to be Steward at all, but I have always done my duty to Gondor."
"You will like him very much, you know," said Imrahil.
"It seems to me that he is far above my like or dislike. But I have already received a testimonial of his fine character from a trusted source. Besides you, that is."
Imrahil raised his eyebrows.
"Lady Haleth," Faramir said. "She made one of her rare comments about Captain Thorongil. And you know she only speaks when she has something good to say about someone, which means so often she says nothing at all. She is very perceptive and no poor judge of men, however quiet she may be."
"Ah!" Imrahil said. "I see. So Morwen is now trampling all over her tender feelings. Well, if you wish, I will slay this dragon and be Morwen's enemy for the week, until she finds another."
"Thank you, uncle."
Then Imrahil turned to Faramir with a big smile. "But speaking of marriages, I have been hearing some things about you."
"I have asked the Lady Éowyn of Rohan to be my wife, and she has accepted."
"I am very pleased indeed to hear it. Not only is it an excellent match for state reasons, but my heart tells me you will be very happy together. Let's hope Éomer agrees."
Faramir was going to ask about this, but he realized by the twinkle in his uncle's eyes that he was teasing. "And of course Lord Aragorn must approve my choice," he said.
"Oh, he does. He knows about it from Éomer. And Faramir…."
"You are going to bring up the stories about Éowyn and the king. Let me assure you, uncle, there is no trouble on that score."
"Well, I assumed you had heard about it. Certainly if not from anyone else, Morwen would have made sure you heard."
"She did. I just managed to restrain myself."
Imrahil laughed heartily. "I almost wish I had been here to see it."
"But I already knew," Faramir said. "And I am quite content."
"Good," Imrahil said. "You should be. My heartfelt congratulations."
Actually, Faramir thought to himself, he wished things were indeed so clear-cut. Deep in his heart he was as sure as a man can be that he and Éowyn were destined for a happy life together. However, they both had deep wounds from the past to overcome. Éowyn had lost Théoden and Théodred, and she grieved deeply, although without the distress that Faramir bore over Denethor's suicide and Boromir's assault on Frodo. And Faramir was not entirely sure that she had let go of her feelings for Aragorn. It was not that he doubted her love for himself. But how could she not still admire the man? Faramir himself was in awe. We will work it out over time, he told himself.
And then there was the mystery of Captain Thorongil, the man his father had hated. Now he knew why, and it was not a story that made Denethor look good. Faramir tried to consider the matter impartially, putting his father's actions in the best possible light. Certainly any man would desire to keep the seat of power. In that there was no shame, and his father had ruled Gondor well—up to the last days of madness. Imrahil was right: his end should not cast a shadow over his whole life. What if he had not gone mad with despair during the battle of the Pelennor? Would he have welcomed the king—or at least made way for him—despite his own dislike? Faramir thought that those men who considered this possibility to be out of the question had not known his father very well. Denethor, an astute politician, would certainly have recognized that Aragorn had won the hearts of the people as well as the battle for the City. He had as well the support of Éomer and Imrahil—no small matter. And mine, he reminded himself. I was sworn to him from the moment I awoke from the darkness. Denethor was not one to throw his own position away for a personal dislike, nor to take on a poorly justified, losing cause, as opposition to Aragorn would surely have been.
He suspected that Aragorn was well aware of these matters, and would have dealt with Denethor in a manner to preserve the Steward's dignity and court his good will. It could have happened thus, he thought. Any ruler must know how to put aside personal dislikes.
It would take time to sort out the threads of the past. Most important, if he was to do his duty, Faramir must devote his energy to learning how best to serve the king. And to do that he had to start by recognizing his own powerful feelings toward a man that he had never even properly met.
Events moved fast. Faramir's days became even busier after the coronation and the entry of the king into the City. Faramir worked with Aragorn every day, administering and facilitating the many problems and questions that required his attention. He found him to be a powerful and capable leader off the battlefield as well as on it, sure of his own judgment, but welcoming thoughtful advice and disagreements. He had acute insight into others, perceiving their strengths and weaknesses and seeking to augment the first while lessening the second. His actions toward Faramir himself—honoring him with the Princedom of Ithilien—was only the most public example. But there was no time for them to pursue a more informal relationship. Faramir was content with that, for the time being, in any case. He expected that friendship, if it were to come, would develop over time. And with Éowyn planning to shortly leave to return to Rohan, he devoted all his free time to her.
Meanwhile, both the high spirits and the gossip flourished throughout the seven circles. Lady Morwen was in her element as tongues wagged over Aragorn, the Northern Dúnedain, and the strange beings—three Elves, four Hobbits, a Dwarf and a Wizard—who were now guests of the king. The golden-haired horsemen of Rohan were proving to be quite popular with the City's young women. Faramir attempted, now and then, to silence his aunt, but her folly was not to be curbed. Fortunately, she had enough sense not to insult the king or his guests to their faces; rather she gossiped about them incessantly behind their backs. She exclaimed repeatedly that she had been unable to discover anything about the king's plans for a wife. The Northern Rangers, generally more than willing to answer questions about their Chieftain, lapsed into stubborn silence when this subject was broached.
From the wary glint in Aragorn's eyes Faramir saw, with amusement, that he remembered Morwen as well as she remembered him. The wariness warmed to a smile as he greeted Haleth, however. No one spoke about Captain Thorongil openly, at least not yet. Even Morwen had enough sense for that.
Faramir soon found, however, that not everyone shared his appreciation for King Elessar. Two days before Éowyn was to depart for Rohan, as he hurriedly inspected reports of the plantings going forward that spring after the delay and disruption of the war, the Citadel chamberlain approached him in his office. Querulous and small-minded, Talbeth was an old retainer and master of the running of the household, and so Faramir had left him in place, expecting him to carry the burden of the day-to-day matters of the kitchen, the housekeeping and the staff. But Talbeth, it appeared, had complaints.
Always a stickler for strict protocol, he bowed deeply. "My lord Steward and Prince," he sniffed.
"Good afternoon, Master Talbeth," Faramir said. "Do you require my assistance?"
"Yes, my lord, I am afraid so." The old man looked quite upset, and Faramir wondered if there had been some terrible accident in the kitchen. "It is the king, my lord."
"He is not well?" Faramir asked with alarm.
"His grace is very well," Talbeth said, "as far as I can tell. But that is part of the problem."
This was a strange comment. Faramir waited.
"He does not allow us to wait upon him as he should," Talbeth said, and his voice seemed to tremble.
"But surely that will only make your duties less onerous," Faramir said, rather amused.
"It is not seemly, my lord," Talbeth burst out with great feeling.
Faramir sighed. "Tell me about the trouble," he said, hoping that if Talbeth had a chance to complain, the difficulties would pass away.
"He will not allow his esquire to dress him," Talbeth said.
Since Faramir himself disliked that kind of personal attention, he could only sympathize with Aragorn. It was a common enough characteristic for a commander often in the field. But he nodded, remaining neutral. "Go on."
"He lit a fire in the drawing room hearth himself."
Faramir coughed to cover up a stifled laugh. "Surely, Master Talbeth, this is an eccentricity you can tolerate."
"It is not amusing, my lord. Just think if some foreigner were to see."
"Is a foreigner likely to be in the king's quarters?" Faramir asked.
"I am only trying to make a point, my lord," Talbeth said, drawing himself up. "There are standards. There is protocol. This is Gondor, my lord, not some savage backwater."
"If you please, Master Talbeth, moderate your language."
"I am sorry, my lord." But Talbeth looked outraged, rather like a puffed up pigeon. "It gets worse."
"What else?" Faramir said, girding himself to keep a sober face.
"As you know, we prepared a right-royal chamber for him in the King's House, with a canopied bed and suitable hangings of a remarkable grandeur. But often, his grace does not sleep there," Talbeth said, and his face started to flush. "He sleeps on a day bed in the back room."
"Back room?" Faramir asked, surprised. "What do you mean?"
"A plain room, very bare, at the back of the suite. It is quite inappropriate. But when I inquired, most politely, and trying only to be of service, he said he liked the morning light in that room, and wished for no change."
"Then he is content, and you have done your duty," Faramir said. "Is it not your duty to make the king comfortable?"
"Yes, my lord. But he will not let us. When I suggested that the couch was an outrage, he said that he had spent much of his life sleeping rolled up in a cloak on the ground, and that he preferred the couch to the bed in the royal suite. At least for now, he said."
Faramir could not suppress his laugh.
"It is not funny, my lord," said Talbeth indignantly.
"All right, Master Talbeth," Faramir sighed. "I will do my best to make peace."
But Talbeth was not finished. "There is more, my lord."
"Yes?" Faramir said, wondering how long this would go on and eager to seek out Éowyn.
"Now his grace requires me to open the courtyard suite in the King's House. For the light, he said."
"This should please you, should it not?" Faramir said. "You wish for him to live in more luxury?"
"Certainly, my lord. But he wants all of it to be opened, and as you know it is a large and handsome set of rooms. And not by tradition for the king."
"See to it, Master Talbeth. Surely this is not a problem."
"His grace has ordered new hangings, because the old ones are too dark. He objects to much of the furniture. And he wants carpets or skins on all of the floors and the baths to be filled from the hot spring. He also wants the garden open. And replanted." Talbeth paused for what Faramir thought was supposed to be a dramatic effect. "He has asked one of the Halflings to work on it."
"Very good," Faramir said, assuming that the Hobbit in question was Sam Gamgee. "Please see that the gardener has everything he needs."
"The head gardener is very upset," Talbeth said. "And since his grace has sent me to ask you to attend him there, I hoped you could influence him. He is in the courtyard guard room."
His curiosity piqued, Faramir put aside his rising irritation. Why had not the man told him at once that Aragorn required his presence? "I am on my way."
Making up the southernmost wing of the King's House, the courtyard suite had by tradition been reserved for honored guests. The windows and balconies opened to a walled garden that had once been famously lovely, but had long fallen into neglect. As Faramir paced along the stony corridor toward the southern wing, he noted the beauty of the old stonework. Indeed, the private rooms throughout the Citadel buildings had been largely empty for many years. Already the guests—including Éowyn and Éomer—had swelled the population beyond what Faramir had seen during these last years of war. He hoped it was a sign of the years to come.
As he neared the guard room, he heard voices and laughter. Evidently Aragorn was not alone. Faramir turned into the room to discover a merry scene. A keg of beer and a fleet of mugs sat on the table. Pipeweed smoke curled about the room. Aragorn was stretched out in a battered chair, a booted foot resting on an old stool and a pipe in his mouth. A tankard stood before him. Gathered comfortably around the old wooden table were two Rangers whose names Faramir did not remember, the twin sons of Elrond (the only ones in the room who were not smoking), and Sam Gamgee and Peregrine Took, who were, Faramir did not doubt, responsible for the large spread of meat pies, cheeses, apples, honey, jam and rolls on the table.
"Hello, Faramir," said Pippin, holding up his mug in a salute. "Join the party."
Aragorn nodded and smiled, waving Faramir into the room. "Do you know Iorlas and Thorbarad?" he said, indicating the two men.
Faramir exchanged a few polite words with the two Rangers, and greeted the other four with smiles.
One of the Elves—Faramir had spoken to them already a number of times, but he still could not tell them apart—said, "Lord Faramir, please, you must join us in roasting Estel here."
"Estel?" Faramir asked, as he sat down and drew a mug of beer.
"It's one of my names," Aragorn said.
"Our father named him that," said one twin. He turned to the Hobbits and whispered loudly, " 'Estel' means 'hope' in our language. Our father was under the illusion that he might amount to something."
"Just one of many, many names," said the other twin. He spread his arms wide and up to the ceiling. "As there are stars in the sky, so is the number of Estel's names."
"It's a wonder our sister remembers who you are," the other said.
Pippin said, "Just how many names do you have?"
"I lost count long ago," Aragorn said.
Pippin held up his fingers as he counted. "Strider, of course. And Aragorn. And what was that the Elves called you—the Dúnadan? Then Elessar. And now Estel?"
"You've got the order quite wrong," Aragorn said. " 'Estel' is a family name. And you've left out a number of others."
"'Thorongil' is one we've been hearing a lot lately," said one of the Rangers. "Yet another old soldier approached me this morning, asking about him. Name of Meneldir."
"Ah!" Aragorn said, his face brightening. "I remember him well. And what did you tell him?"
"Oh, I put him through the usual drill," said the Ranger, grinning and clearly preparing to contribute to the roast. "You mean, I said, the man who could track anything from a mouse to a mûmak through Ithilien? The one who slices up corsairs into a mincemeat? Do I know such a man? I said. But let's not forget his mastery of the fine art of telling bawdy tales—"
"Bawdy tales, Strider?" said Pippin. "Why haven't we heard any?"
"I have my secrets," Aragorn said, his eyes twinkling. "You could ask Bilbo about it. He has written up many of them for his collection. He was especially fond of the stories from the far countries like Rhûn and Khand."
"Bilbo!" said Pippin. "You know Bilbo well enough for that?"
"We've been friends for years," Aragorn said. He explained to Faramir, "Bilbo Baggins, Frodo's uncle and the finder of the Ring." Then he turned to the Ranger who had spoken. "And what did you actually tell Meneldir, Thorbarad?"
"I said, per your instructions, that I would get a message to the captain, and that he should come back in a few days for an answer."
"Tell him to come see me," Aragorn said.
"Consider it done," Thorbarad said. "But Master Pippin, you do know that 'Strider' is an oath, usually yelled out by a surly Breelander."
"And so I was introduced to them," Aragorn said. "As you well know. We have come a long way since then, haven't we, Sam?"
Sam flushed. "I couldn't help it," he said grudgingly. "You looked scary. And you said you had climbed over the gate to get into the town."
The other Ranger grinned. "Climbing the gate again, were you, Aragorn?"
"Well, Harry was there, and you know what he thinks of me," Aragorn said. "With Ringwraiths about, I couldn't afford to argue."
Faramir suddenly saw his father, the dignified and unbendable Steward of Gondor, climbing over a town gate, and choked on his beer. All the faces turned to him. Aragorn chuckled.
Iorlas said to Faramir, "Sam here is a good example of a bitter truth. It was always very difficult traveling with Strider, because he frightens the townspeople half to death."
"No more than you, surely?" Aragorn said.
"There is not a doubt in my mind that Stick-at-Naught Strider is considered the most sinister of us all," Iorlas replied. "You see," he said, addressing Faramir, "the Rangers are generally viewed by the honest people of the towns and villages of Eriador—including the worthy folk of the Shire—as mysterious vagabonds of dubious origin. That's how Aragorn earned the name of 'Strider,' and was accepted at the inn in Bree only because despite his reputation as a dangerous fellow, his coin was known to be sound, and he was occasionally good for a fine tale."
Pippin piped up, "Oh, we'll set them all straight when we get back. Won't it be fun to see the look on old Barley's face!"
"Please assure him that I will always personally vouch for his beer," said Aragorn.
Faramir's head was spinning. "I see there is quite a tale behind the name of Telcontar," he said.
Iorlas raised his eyebrows. "Oh, you have no idea," he said.
Aragorn assumed a more sober expression. "We have a lot of work to do in the North, Faramir," he said. "I am sending Thorbarad back now to bring news and take charge of the Dúnedain settlement, and some of the men will go with him. Sauron may be gone, but there are still Orcs in the mountains and outlaws in the Wild, and the Angle remains with little defense. They will leave with Éomer in two days."
"Aha," Pippin said. "So we get back to the point. Going to Rohan." He turned to the twins. "You were about to explain what this is all about, before Faramir interrupted. I still want to know."
"As I was saying," one twin began, "we are here to tell our foster brother that we too must leave. We will go with Éomer to Rohan."
Sam said, "Well, that's nice. I still don't know where that is, but I guess you can tell us all about it when you get back. To see this garden I'm making and all."
"And," the other twin continued, ignoring Sam completely, "we will return with our sister and her escort. Although Estel pretends not to believe us."
Aragorn did not respond to the bait, but eyed the two brothers expectantly. Faramir noticed that the two Rangers were smiling broadly. They appeared to be enjoying the scene immensely.
One brother turned to the other. "Perhaps he is right," he said morosely, shaking his head. "After all she has seen very few Men. We have never understood how she could tolerate those whiskers, but you know, she might decide she prefers one of the Rohirrim. Like Éomer, for example."
Laughing, Aragorn brought his hand down flat on the table with a thump. "And I am sure you are going to suggest it to her, too," he said.
"Oh, certainly," one twin said. "Don't think you can stop us. Sauron was afraid of you, Estel, but we are not."
The other said, "We followed you through the Paths of the Dead and across Gondor at the pace of a madman, to attack pirates with a horde of ghosts and assault the Black Gate with an absurdly small army, but you are still our little brother and we will not let you forget it."
Aragorn raised his eyebrows. "Oh, there's absolutely no danger of that."
"I don't understand what's going on," Pippin said.
"Haven't you been listening, you ninny?" Sam said. "Strider is getting married. But who the lady is, I can't fathom."
"Well, my brothers?" Aragorn said. "You have the stage, I believe. Elladan?"
Elladan turned to Pippin. "Our sister pledged herself to Estel many years ago," he said. "We are going to meet her escort, which will come to Rohan through Lothlórien. That's why we are leaving the City the day after tomorrow. And it really is about time. You have kept her waiting long enough, Estel, since you must have a crown before you will marry her."
"A condition on which her father insists, as I remember," Aragorn said.
"Your sister?" Pippin said to Elladan.
Sam was staring, his mouth wide open. He turned to Pippin. "Is that who I think it is?"
"Must be," Pippin said. "I say, Strider, you do go on amazing me."
Faramir noted that the two Rangers did not look surprised.
Aragorn put his finger to his lips. "Don't tell the others. I want it to be a secret. And you two are here to help in the preparations. Faramir is in charge, and you, Pippin, will do whatever he requires, running messages, especially."
"And I am to make a garden for her," Sam said.
"Exactly," Aragorn said, smiling.
"That will be a great honor," Sam said. "Almost as good as the minstrel singing at the Field."
Aragorn turned to Faramir. "I would like to leave this matter in your hands," he said. "Preparations for the wedding, that is, and lodging for the escort. It will be large, several hundred honored guests, including Lord Elrond and the Lord and Lady of Lothlórien."
Faramir was too stunned to speak. He nodded, and swallowed another sip of beer to moisten his tongue. "And the name of the lady, may I ask?"
"Arwen Undómiel, Lady of Rivendell, Elrond's daughter," Aragorn said.
Faramir blinked. "I will inform the council," he said.
"Wait some time for that," Aragorn said. "I do not want this talked about the city. I don't know the day they will arrive, but you should plan for mid-summer." He turned to Iorlas. "And if I may, I would like to ask you to go with Elladan and Elrohir and return with them, as my closest kin."
"With pleasure, nephew," said Iorlas.
Faramir looked up. "You are Arathorn's brother?"
"No," Iorlas said. "Arathorn had no brothers. But my sister was Gilraen, Aragorn's mother."
"She died, alas, twelve years ago," Aragorn said sadly. "Far too young for one of our race." He stood up. "Faramir, will you come with me to look at the rooms? I want to give you some instructions for Talbeth." He took a step toward the door, then turned to the twins. "I will be seeing you at dinner, I hope?"
"Yes, indeed," said one brother, smiling broadly. "We have some suggestions for other guests to attend the wedding."
"It's too bad Gollum is no more," said the other, as Aragorn crossed through the door. He turned quick as lightning and lobbed an apple across the table, hitting Elladan right between the eyes. Elvish curses filled the room.
Laughing, Aragorn strode down the hallway, Faramir at his side. "I'm going to pay for that."
Faramir grinned. "Older brothers can be a trial. But tell me—what does Gollum have to do with this?"
"It's a long story," Aragorn said. "I'll tell you the whole sad tale some day. Suffice it to say for now that Gollum and I endured each other's company for far too long a time, and my arm still bears the scars from the marks of his teeth. So, naturally, when my brothers want to goad me, Gollum comes up."
They entered the suite, passing through to a large windowed chamber where the afternoon sun gilded the carved wood panels and warmed the stone floors. "She will like these rooms," Aragorn said. "And so I chose them. She would abhor those gloomy chambers that Talbeth thinks are suitable for me."
He flung open a set of doors to the balcony looking out over the broad plains of the City to the Harlond, where the white sails of ships gleamed like gold in the light.
Faramir wandered through the rooms, inspecting, noting what needed to be done, thinking over the orders he would need to give to Talbeth. The floors were inlaid marble, quite lovely. He wondered, then, about the carpets Talbeth had mentioned, and asked.
"She likes to go without shoes," Aragorn said. "She has never lived in a city like this, made of stone."
"Without shoes," Faramir repeated. "You mean, like a Hobbit."
Aragorn smiled. "It never struck me the same way," he said. "Somehow."
Faramir could well imagine. What did an Elf-woman look like, anyway? He pictured a frail, ethereal creature floating in moonbeams.
"Can you do this for me, Faramir?" Aragorn asked.
"With great pleasure," he answered. "I am very glad of it, indeed. But you know there are going to be many disappointed ladies in the court."
"Doubly disappointed," Aragorn said. "First you, then me. Éomer remains, and I believe Imrahil has some plans in that respect."
"Ah!" said Faramir. "Lothíriel. My aunt wanted to marry her to you."
Aragorn choked. "She is a little young for me, I think. Very pretty, but young."
"I appreciate your desire to keep this matter close for the time being," Faramir said. "There are too many wagging tongues." He thought of his aunt. What would she make of an Elven queen in Gondor?
"There are indeed," Aragorn said. "And they will start by exclaiming that I am marrying my sister."
Faramir cleared his throat. "To be honest, I was wondering…."
Aragorn chuckled. "We never met until I was grown." He turned to Faramir with an amused gleam in his eye. "She is, you see, somewhat older than I am."
"Ah!" said Faramir tactfully.
"Tell Talbeth what you must. You can at least assure him that the Lady Arwen will quickly civilize me," he said, and his lips twitched. "I am a great worry to him, I fear."
Faramir smiled. "He will adjust."
"Faramir, we have had little time to get to know one another, but it pleases me that our children will grow up together. There will be many good times to come."
"I think so," Faramir said.
"And time to talk and share stories. I have many memories of your family, and I know the matter of your father weighs on you. He was a brilliant and noble man, and I greatly respected him. Don't let anyone tell you differently, whatever stories fly about among the gossips. But there is one thing that I have wanted to say to you above all: I loved and honored Ecthelion, and now at last I can begin to repay the debt I owe him—which is more than you can imagine—by renewing that love and honor for his grandson."
He looked into Faramir's eyes. "I had no home worthy of Arwen until now. The only life I had to offer her was wandering in the Wild. And if it had not been for Ecthelion's trust of an unknown man who came to fight for Gondor, I would never have gained the knowledge that I needed to earn this crown. So you see, the debt is very great indeed."
Why, it's a love story, Faramir thought. Greatly moved, he nodded. "I understand, and I thank you."
Aragorn clapped him on the shoulder. "And Faramir—choose a suitable set of rooms for yourself on this floor. I will want you within easy reach often enough."
Arwen Undómiel was not frail, nor ethereal, nor made of moonbeams. When Faramir first saw her, as her father led her to Aragorn's side, his first thought was, Why, she is barely more than a girl, fresh and light as a daisy. Then he saw her face as she smiled up at her betrothed, lifting her arms for an embrace and crying, "Estel!" She was radiant, full of color, rosy faced, with deep black hair, eyes of a clear blue, and a passionate, beautiful mouth. Aragorn swept her into his arms and they laughed with sheer joy.
Faramir was the first to be introduced, and she turned her eyes to him. He almost gasped at the impact of their light, seeming to come from a great depth. They were ancient eyes, like a crystal pool in a mountain valley with hidden currents of smoke. When he took her hand to kiss it, the slender, graceful fingers held a surprising strength. A spark of fire thrummed in her fingertips. Her voice was rich, low and musical as she greeted him.
She is no girl, he thought. Indeed, a queen of Elves and Men. He suspected that she had a will as strong as the king's, and that this marriage would not always be a peaceful one. My shieldmaiden will like her, he thought. The years to come will be good indeed.
Even Morwen was speechless at her first sight of the future queen of Gondor and Arnor. But she recovered her tongue all too soon, to Faramir's regret.
"So that's why Captain Thorongil would never marry!" she said at the dance following the wedding. "Who would have thought it?"
Faramir smiled, and turned to bow to his partner in the next dance. The next wedding would be his own.
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