1. Circumstantial Heroes
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, (1806-1861)
Bolting awake, Aragorn shifted against the yielding mattress and flopped back onto the pillow in disgust. Old habits were very hard to break. All three nights since the coronation he had fallen asleep over stacks of reports and woken up in the dark hours with the heart-racing conviction he needed to attend to something important. Lying with his head pillowed on ironed linen, he watched the looped back drapes stir in the cool, light breeze and heard the call of a straying nightjar as it quested for insects outside the window. Nostalgia for the days when the "something important" had been as simple as building up the fire welled up in him. He lay still, but his mind jangled with names and numbers and half remembered precedents and sleep eluded him. His dreams of kingship had always included the appellations "wise", "benevolent" and "beloved," although he knew those were not lightly earned. Sitting up, he clasped his knees and contemplated the already read and annotated stack of papers next to the pillow and the thick piles of manuscripts that awaited him in his study.
Slipping out of bed, he shrugged on a robe and lit a taper from the thick night candle that burned on a side table. He took several steps towards the door of the room, then stopped and frowned uncertainly. That way lay not only his study but also the main corridor where guards and doorkeepers were stationed at every hour. Having a king was still a novelty and his appearance would be an event. They would be polite, solicitous, and eager to assist him in any way within their power, and he knew he could not bring himself to simply stride by them now as he must during the day. He glanced down at his bare toes and over at an embroidered screen that stood away from the wall in far corner of the room. It would be the work of a minute to nip down the servants' corridor and retrieve another stack of papers to read in bed, with no one the wiser.
He shielded the flickering light with his hand, and went around the screen, opening the door into the subsidiary corridor. A single cresset burned outside his door and another at the far end, dimly illuminating the passage and tossing confused shadows onto the walls. He walked, amused, as always, by the stocks of spare goblets, plates, candelabras and other accoutrements that might be called for, resting neatly in niches built into the walls. The third door on the left led into his private study, but as he approached it he saw the shadow of a man on the wall.
"Who is there?" he called sharply.
The shadow shrunk as a small, dark figure sprang out from where it had been slumped against the wall and turned a startled face to the light.
"Sss…Strider! What are you doing awake?"
"Pippin?" Aragorn took in the heavy eyes, tired white face, and black livery of the young Hobbit and wondered what mischief he was plotting. "I could ask you the same thing. Are you planning on mixing salt in the sugar on the breakfast trays?"
Pippin's mouth twitched a momentary smile. "It would serve Merry right, but no. I am, uh, on duty."
Aragorn held up the candle and craned his neck to see both ways down the narrow, deserted corridor. He turned back to eye the empty-handed Pippin with skepticism. "Doing what?"
Guileless eyes met his, but Aragorn noted the dull red flush spreading up Pippin's neck. "Big household you have here. There are lots of… things that need doing at all hours. You just get on with whatever you are on about, and I will, uh, do what I need to do."
Aragorn laughed and shook his head. "I am not that gullible. Out with it!"
Shifting uncomfortably, Pippin said, "There is nothing to tell. I am only…."
"Sire!" a cold voice rang out. Aragorn turned to see a brown-haired man wearing the livery of the Stewards come out of a door on the right. He swept Aragorn a deep bow that Aragorn considered far too obsequious for the hour and his current barefoot state. "I deeply regret that I was unable to prevent this … person from interrupting Your much deserved rest. I assure You, my Lord, that it will never happen again." He directed an accusing finger and a hard glare at Pippin who met it with cool determination. "King's friend or not, you swore you would not disturb Him. Now be off with you!"
Aragorn held up his hand. "Wait. Who are you?"
The man bowed again with a flourish that was just short of insulting. "Brithnír, my Lord. I am honored to be in charge of Your night staff. Perhaps you were unaware You need only to summon us. Is there anything we can do for You?"
Of course, Hithdol, majordomo of his household, would have provided for a night staff of servants. He seemed to be able to anticipate whatever his king would need far better than this Brithnír, but Hithdol must sleep sometime. Aragorn said, "Thank you, no. I will be returning to bed in a moment."
"Very well, Sire. I will remove this disturbance." Brithnír reached for Pippin who flinched back from the contact.
Pippin could have been accused of disturbing the peace at many times, but certainly not tonight. Aragorn put his hand on the young Hobbit's shoulder and felt him shivering. "Sir Peregrin is a very good friend and it is not for you to deny him access, nor impose conditions on his presence. You are dismissed."
Accepting the rebuke with a respectful bow and a slight tightening of his lips, Brithnír murmured, "As you wish, Sire." He left through the door on the right, closing it firmly behind him.
Pippin stared up at him with admiration on his face. "You do do kingly well these days. I am studying how you manage it, so that when I am Thain, I will have all my dependents bowing and scraping the same way." He tried to edge away from Aragorn's hand. "Since the excitement seems to be over, I will just run along."
"Oh, no." Aragorn, with a hand still gripping Pippin's shoulder, steered him into the study and gave him a light nudge in the direction of the fireplace. "I am too curious and you are chilled. Stir up the fire."
While Pippin stacked a few logs on the grate, Aragorn lit candles around the room and rummaged in the back of a low cupboard set against the far wall until he found the bottle he wanted. He snagged a couple of small goblets from the sideboard, and brought them over to the stiff, high backed chairs in front of the fireplace. Pouring a small amount of rich golden liqueur into a glass, he held it out to Pippin.
"I know you have duties during the day, Pippin, and it is less than two months since you were nearly crushed flat by that troll. You look tired. Whatever mischief or prank you have planned cannot be worth losing this much sleep. How many nights have you stood out there?" Aragorn poured a little of the liqueur into his glass and took a cautious sip. The spicy sweetness lingered on his tongue as a trail of warmth burned its way down to his stomach.
"Three, but I am not planning anything." Pippin emphasized the "I" and straightened his shoulders. He took a gulp of the liqueur, grimaced, and spluttered, "What is this?"
"I am not sure, as the label says only 'Metheglin – 3015'. I thought it quite warming for these cold hours before dawn." Aragorn grinned, inviting Pippin to share his amusement.
Pippin looked horrified. "You should not be drinking it. What if it is poisoned?"
"Poisoned?" Aragorn raised his eyebrows, and took an ostentatious sip. Pippin tensed and drew in a sharp breath as Aragorn disregarded his concern. Letting the glass hang lightly from his fingers between his knees, Aragorn leaned forward studying the Hobbit. Some of Pippin's agitation had to be put down to fatigue, but his distress was unfeigned. "You do suspect I will be poisoned. Is that why you stand outside this door through the dark watches of the night?"
"Yes. No!" Pippin squirmed in the chair, and then hung his head. "I do not know anything for certain."
"Every night since we returned to the city you have kept watch. You suspect?" Aragorn left the question open. Pippin nodded but offered no further explanation. "But it is not something you cared to confide to anyone else in the Guard, so you keep watch alone."
"I am probably maligning honest men and the punishments here are so harsh." His worried eyes met Aragorn's for a moment. He fixed his gaze back onto the liquid in his glass. "I do not want to be responsible for any more deaths, especially yours. If I am known to be on guard, nothing will happen."
Pippin took a cautious sip of the liqueur and grimaced as he swallowed. But he immediately took another and Aragorn saw he had stopped shivering. Aragorn topped up Pippin's glass and leaned back as comfortably as he could in the unyielding chair.
Pippin swirled the liqueur in his glass. "This is not so bad, once you get used to it."
"If it concerns me, perhaps I should know about it. What did you learn three days ago?" Aragorn asked.
The logs shifted on the grate. Pippin turned to watch as the flames surged up. "Brithnír and the others on your night staff were Denethor's servants."
"Why should that worry you?" Aragorn had not been particularly impressed with Brithnír, but he knew Denethor would not have tolerated incompetent servants.
"You know how Denethor died?"
Aragorn nodded. "He burned by his own hand."
"He did not do it alone. The last order he gave me was to call his servants, and when they came, Denethor told them to bring wood and oil, and to carry Faramir to the pyre." He looked up with remembered horror and guilt warring in his eyes. "And they did. I had hoped they would be allies to get Faramir the help he needed. I begged Brithnír, if he felt they could not outright disobey to at least go slow while I summoned other help, but he did not heed me."
"You did what you could, Pippin, and have nothing to reproach yourself with. Things would have gone far more ill if you had not acted as you did," Aragorn reassured him.
"Things could have gone better, as well," Pippin said bitterly. "Denethor was mad. 'Perfect servants' should have had more sense than to follow those orders."
Aragorn rolled the glass in his hand and took a sip. He did not regret that he had Faramir and not Denethor as his Steward and wondered if that made him craven. "Servants may not pick and choose which orders they will follow and which they will ignore. From all I have heard, Denethor slipped slowly into madness. No one acts normally with Nazgûl overhead and an army at the gates. They have probably long since regretted the part they played."
Pippin gave an indignant bounce. "But they have not! Brithnír only regrets that he does not have the ordering of your household. He does not like working under Hithdol, who was from Boromir's staff, saying he is an upstart conspiring against those with the right to the position. They all boast of their perfection in the wardroom. Two of their colleagues died in the Hallows when we tried to stop them burning Faramir, and they point to that with pride. Regardless of what they are ordered to do, or any consequences, they always obey promptly and to the letter."
"If they prefer to serve the Steward's house why are they now in my…. No," Aragorn answered his own question with a twist of his lips. "I see it would be awkward, indeed, if they served Faramir. But I can hardly object to having assiduous servants, and you cannot think that I would give such an order."
"Well, no, you would not. But," he groped for words for a few seconds. Giving up, he shrugged. "Just go back to bed."
"And you will go back out and stand until dawn in the servants' hall."
Pippin shrugged again, and drank. Aragorn wiped his face with his hand. He still felt he lacked a crucial piece of the argument. "One of us is too tired to make sense of this. I still do not understand why you stand guard."
Pippin looked affronted. "It is my job. I am a knight of Gondor and sworn to protect you."
"But do I need protecting?"
"Of course you do! Why are they still serving together? If they were scattered, someone would be with them who could curb them." He gestured widely with the hand that held the empty glass. "What if some great lord ordered them to put something in your food, or look the other way while an assassin crept in, would not it be their duty to obey? There would be no Gandalf to stop them this time." Pippin slid half off his chair and held out a supplicating hand. "It is true, I do not know of any plot now, but they speak of their willingness to follow any order so loudly, it seems to me that they are asking to be used that way. Why should they fear any consequences? There were none for them the last time."
"It is only days since I was acclaimed and crowned," Aragorn protested.
Pippin gave him a scornful look and held out his glass for a refill. "I am not that naïve. Someone must be disgruntled."
Pouring more of the liqueur, Aragorn said, "I am sure 'someone' must be. 'Someone' always is, but is that someone both disgruntled enough to actively seek my death at this time and also be in a position to order my servants? This is not the Shire, Pippin, but neither is it a lawless place. Duty is a hard master and oaths should not be lightly forsworn. By following orders, Denethor's servants did nothing wrong. It was not their place to question his decisions." Aragorn felt a wave of sympathy as the young Hobbit's struggle to understand washed across his features.
Pippin stared down into the glass and tilted it so the liquid caught the light of the fire and glowed golden and red. "I suppose that is true." Pippin's shoulders slumped.
Aragorn let the silence lengthen. He could follow Pippin's thoughts from the changing expressions as the young Hobbit repeated the arguments to himself.
"It was just about this time of night, you know." Pippin's voice finally broke the quiet, sounding as bleak as the look in his eyes. "We knew there would be no dawn, perhaps never again. The wind was colder that night and the stench was awful. Every time the Nazgûl screeched to each other my guts clenched. But sometimes the fear came out of the quiet and built and built until it was a blackness and a bitter taste, and I shook all over. Denethor had run mad. It took so long to find Gandalf."
A flash of irrepressible Hobbit common sense suddenly showed. "You really have to do something about that twisty road to the gates. It takes twice as long as it ought to get down to the first level."
Aragorn arched his brows and peered at Pippin over the rim of his glass.
Pippin blushed and gulped his glass empty. He reached over and refilled it. The humour faded from his face and it took on a pinched look as he continued, "And Shadowfax carried us back up or Gandalf would not have been in time to take Faramir off the pyre. Swords dripped blood in the torchlight. Denethor raved of death and slavery, and wept. He called you a base and ragged upstart and swore he would never bow to you. Holding up a palantír, he said he had seen our death and destruction and he chose to die now. His servants heard all that, and could see he was not himself. They had built his pyre. I think they stripped the whole sixth level of firewood. It was slick with oil, and the empty jars lay about. When Denethor ordered his servants to come to him, Brithnír did, with a torch in his hand, though Gandalf had thundered out a command to stop the madness. And Denethor took it and burned. They could have restrained him and not given him the means to carry out his madness. I do not understand how that can be worthy of praise and they escape scathless."
Aragorn listened to the account in growing horror. He had heard the bare outline of the story after the battle but he had had so many demands on his attention from the living that it had slipped into the background. Pippin listed to the side in the chair and spread his fingers towards the flames.
Denethor's men had always respected and admired, rather than loved, him. But when Aragorn, serving Gondor as Thorongil, had known him, he had not been tyrannical, nor could Aragorn see Denethor's servants obeying him from fear. "Sometimes, Pippin, there are no easy choices. Brithnír must have been a very trusted servant of Denethor's. He is probably a good man who did what he thought he needed to do to keep his honor." Aragorn hoped that was true.
Pippin made no reply, nor did he look at Aragorn. The silence drew out. Pippin drained his glass. He shuddered once as he swallowed, but he looked up and drew himself up as tall as he could in the chair. "I do understand that sometimes doing what you must to keep your honor has consequences you do not expect. There's nothing for it. You will have to execute me as well."
Aragorn goggled at the calm and determined Hobbit. If anything were to disenchant the Gondorians with their king, it would be his wanton murder of young and innocent Pippin. He had pardoned even the Haradrim. Aragorn gave an incredulous snort. "Pippin! Why? And who else am I executing?"
"Beregond," Pippin said, enunciating carefully. "I am more to blame than he is. Beregond stood faithfully at his post. I urged him to defy Denethor. When the Steward sent me away, I did not go. I stayed, and I meddled and I disobeyed his orders. We would do it again to save Faramir, but three men did die on Beregond's sword." Pippin's eyes sheened with tears, but he looked down and blinked, and they did not fall. "Beregond and I are both Guards of the Citadel and we knew the penalties for what we did. We should suffer the same consequences, even if that means you have to execute me." He held out his glass again with an appealingly crooked smile. "That was not an easy decision to make. I think I would like another."
Aragorn raised the bottle, checking not only the level of liquid remaining, but also considering just how inebriated Pippin actually was. The three sips he had taken of the deceptively powerful drink had felt pleasantly warming. Many glasses had disappeared down Pippin's throat. Aragorn filled Pippin's glass. Pippin sat very upright in the chair, though the tips of his ears flushed bright red. He took a drink and his hand shook slightly as it came back into his lap, though his face reflected only grim determination. This was neither a game nor a jest for the Hobbit, and Aragorn could not wholly dismiss Pippin's request as drunken rambling.
Cudgeling his memory for knowledge of Beregond, Aragorn said, "Beregond is the guard who stood by Faramir in the Houses of Healing?" He had an impression of a tall, reserved man, very like the Dúnedain who had ridden to his support from the North, effacing himself in Faramir's room, and he remembered feeling vague pleasure that Faramir had such staunch supporters.
"Yes. The one who killed the porter and Brithnír's partners." Pippin nodded and by the way he blinked it seemed his head bobbed a time or two more than he had intended. "No one knew what to do with him, and it seemed foolish to lock up a good fighting man, just when we needed every soldier, so he was sent off with the army. He stood by my side at the Black Gate, but he fought valiantly and did not die. We kept him out of your way, before. But now that we are back in Minas Tirith, Beregond must come up for judgment. Sentence me with him."
In the wavering light of the candles, Aragorn looked over at the empty table. Two days ago, it had been littered with duty rosters, promotion lists and other reports, while Faramir, Húrin, and the Captains of the Citadel Guard companies crowded around it. Near the end of the meeting, Húrin had exchanged a look with Faramir that Aragorn had not understood. Pulling a sheet from the stack in front of him, Húrin had examined it, shaken his head and said, "There is a capital issue remaining from the War, Beregond of the Third Company."
Most of the men at the table had shifted uneasily and exchanged sidelong glances. Húrin held out the paper towards Faramir. The Captain of the Third Company fiddled with his quill. Aragorn, waiting for the charges to be read, expected Faramir to decisively describe the issues as he had all the others as they came up, but Faramir's head bowed over the papers in front of him. The room seemed unnaturally silent.
"Faramir?" Aragorn reminded him that he was waiting.
"Clemency, Sire," Faramir had said, then his head came up suddenly, cheeks pale, as he realized he had answered a question that had not been asked. He reached out for the paper and Húrin handed it to him. He glanced at it, and swallowed heavily. "The case is complicated."
The Captain of the First Company had harrumphed and tapped the table with an impatient finger. "The facts are simple. Beregond abandoned his post in the middle of the battle and killed loyal men who were doing their duty. The penalty is death. There is nothing to discuss."
Faramir seemed to have recovered his composure, but Aragorn felt the tension under his casual wave at the window where the golden rays of the sun streamed straight into the room. "The hour grows late, gentlemen. The Lords of Pinnath Gelin are even now gathering to meet the King. They should not be kept waiting, nor is this a matter that needs to be decided in haste, Sire. No one fears Beregond will break his parole."
A quiet confusion of voices had arisen all along the table. Aragorn had noticed Hithdol, his majordomo, hovering in the doorway. Faramir spoke in an urgent undertone to Húrin. Very well. Faramir would be given the delay he so obviously desired. Aragorn held up his hand for silence. "I see there is no agreement and the time allotted for these concerns is over. We will consider the matter when next we meet."
Faramir had squared his papers, shuffling the matter of Beregond into the stack, as the men filed out of the room. Ignoring the impatient Hithdol, Aragorn came around the table, and lowered his voice so only Faramir heard. "Leave the indictment. We can discuss it together later."
Seeing Pippin's concern for Beregond, Aragorn realized, he had not, in the press of other matters, even found the time to read the indictment, nor had Faramir reminded him, and the paper still languished in a stack of other minor matters. These first days in the Citadel would have been much harder without Faramir's quiet competence as Steward and his ready acceptance of the king's rights. Could he be anything but grateful to Beregond and Pippin who had saved Faramir for him?
"Faramir is alive because of what you did," Aragorn reminded Pippin.
"If I could have sht… stopped," Pippin took a sip of liqueur as if it would help sort out his tangled tongue. "… Denethor, no one would have died. Even Théoden might still be alive, if I hadn't had to take Gandalf away from the battle. If Denethor's servants had stopped him … but they did not and I could not. I told Beregond to leave his post. He did not set out to kill anyone, only to save Faramir. If Beregond must be executed, we should die together, because, you see, it is as much my fault as his."
Aragorn had never suspected such a keenly honed sense of honor lay underneath Pippin's merry exterior. He did not want to make light of Pippin's offer. "It is a very generous impulse, Pippin, but if I sent guards to take you away in the morning, you would regret this."
"If you mean I will regret never seeing the Shire again, never having a family of my own, never …." His voice choked and he looked away and swallowed more liquor while he brought himself back in control. "My only real regret is that I waited so long to tell you. I know I should have spoken up sooner."
"Will you have it said of me that I sent my friends to the executioner?" Aragorn said.
"My father always said that friendship should not interfere with justice. You are the king. It has to be even more important for you, when it is more than the baker giving short weight or a straying cow." Pippin gulped his glass empty again and stared mournfully into its depths. "But do it soon, please. Beregond says the waiting ish the worsht part."
He looked forlorn and determined; a bantam cock strayed into the mews but as valiant as the greatest gyrfalcon and as worthy of respect. Aragorn gripped Pippin's shoulders and kissed his brow. "You have a great heart, Peregrin Took, and I am honored to call you friend." Still holding Pippin, he caught his gaze and poured the intensity of his feelings into his voice. "I am the king, and I need not deal only strict justice. Mercy is also within my gift. For whatever blame attaches to you in this matter - and I deem it very little, Pippin - you are freely pardoned."
"And for Beregond?" Pippin asked the question with hectic color in his cheeks and a plea in his voice, each word spaced just a little too far apart.
Releasing Pippin, Aragorn sat back and gave the matter a moment's consideration. "He wielded the blade that shed blood in the Hallows. There must be some consequences for the deaths he caused." Pippin hung his head, but looked up as Aragorn continued, "He cannot go completely unpunished, but there has been enough death. Faramir has already asked for clemency for Beregond, and I am inclined to grant it. You need not fear for him."
"Oh, thatsh good." Pippin's worried look gave way to huge, silly grin. He groped for the bottle, eyes narrowing in concentration as he picked it up and guided the neck to the lip of his glass. He poured out the little that was left, and saluted Aragorn with the goblet. "We're all gonna live. Thatsh nice. " Draining his glass, he stared owl-eyed at it. He upended the bottle but only a few drops trickled out. "Don't forget."
"If it comforts you, I will mark the indictment now for clemency, to be sure it is not overlooked." Aragorn plucked the bottle from Pippin's hand.
Pippin ran his finger around the bowl of the goblet and sucked the last drop off his finger. "It's empty." He sounded surprised. "How 'bout 'nother round?" Pippin slipped sideways.
Aragorn chuckled as he took the goblet out of Pippin's unresisting hand. He pushed Pippin back onto the chair. He had seen Pippin nurse a mild glow for hours, but had never seen him this intoxicated. "I think you have had enough. Rest here for a moment, then I will see about getting you home."
Pippin grinned back at him and wiggled into a more secure position. Carrying a branch of candles over to the polished slab of white marble that served as his desk, Aragorn sorted through the papers. He read through the charges against Beregond, noted on it that no action was to be taken without consulting the king, and signed it "Elessar A".
"Done, Pippin," he called, "and tomorrow…."
Pippin was beyond caring. He slept, mouth open and snoring softly, half curled on his side, one leg under him and one leg dangling, cheek cruelly pillowed on the narrow carved arm of the chair. Aragorn's first thought was to carry Pippin to bed. His second followed quickly, tinged with chagrin. Though he had seen Pippin, and Merry and rest of the Fellowship every day, they had come to him and he had no idea where or on which level Pippin lodged.
His gaze searched the austere and uncomfortable room. Only a strip of thin black matting in front of the fireplace and a small square of slightly thicker carpet under the desk softened the polished white stone floors. The chairs surrounding the table had shaped wooden seats and intricately carved backs. Shiny black curtains embroidered with the White Tree covered the windows. The room looked little different from the times past when Steward Ecthelion met with his Captains, Thorongil among them, to discuss the defense of Gondor. Denethor had not impressed his personality on the room, or perhaps he had not used it. It was possible, Aragorn mused, that the room had been decorated for Eärnur, or an even earlier king, and unchanged since. It would not do for him. Rivendell had its share of austere rooms, but none of them were uncomfortable.
He touched the cord, and waited for one of his night staff to come to the summons. Before he had read a full page of another report, Brithnír stood in front of him, bowing effusively, eyes respectfully lowered.
"Do you know where Sir Peregrin's lodgings are?" Aragorn asked.
Brithnír's eyebrows contracted into a sharp vee. His eyes slewed sideways to see if Pippin was still in the room. "No, Sire, I do not." He sounded sorrowfully regretful as he bowed again. "Is it something You wish me to discover?"
Aragorn gestured towards the fireplace. Freed to look, Brithnír turned to examine the sleeping Hobbit.
Giving a deprecating shrug, Aragorn said, "I plied the Halfling a little too freely with wine. I hope he can be carried home discreetly because the chairs here seem quite uncomfortable to sleep in."
"It must grieve You," Brithnír bowed again, bending nearly double, "that Your friend is drunk while on duty. That is quite a serious offense. You wish him removed." It was not a question, and a hint of satisfaction underlay the neutral tone. "Excuse me, Sire, while I summon the guards to take him away." Brithnír bent into another bow and started to turn away.
"No. That is not necessary." Pippin's fellow guards would be gentle but not kind, and he wished to spare gallant Pippin the rumors of a Hobbit's drunken exploits.
Brithnír made another deep obeisance. "I await your commands, Sire."
Aragorn studied Brithnír, trying to reconcile the overly servile man in front of him, whom the Denethor he remembered would not have tolerated, with the picture Pippin had drawn of Denethor's most trusted servant. Brithnír probably had some Dúnedain blood, for he stood tall, though he looked solid and compact rather than rangy, and his hair showed a brown dark enough to be almost black. The dim candlelight obscured the color of his eyes; they could be blue or grey or green. A small patch over his heart carried the unadorned white tree of the Stewards and relieved the stark black of his tunic. His stance seemed unctuous rather than respectful.
Aragorn tilted his head to the side and inquired, "Were you this theatrically deferential to Denethor, or," he recalled something Pippin had said earlier, "do you think this 'ragged upstart' will not understand the insult?"
Brithnír straightened cautiously and raised his head to meet Aragorn's eyes, his own blinking with confusion. "I intended no insult, sir. I thought a king should have more deference - to use your word, sir – than I showed to my lord Steward."
Under the watchful eye of Hithdol, the day staff behaved very naturally. The alternative, if Brithnír had not assumed exaggerated obeisance the proper response, meant he had intended it as a subtle insult. Aragorn felt the man had not shown to his best advantage. Denethor had trusted him. Possibly Brithnír had simply misunderstood. "We will begin again. Sir Peregrin's duties tonight were not official and he drank at my invitation. I would prefer this matter to be handled discreetly and offer no cause for gossip. Since we do not know where his room is, is there some place nearby where he can sleep undisturbed for a few hours?"
Brithnír looked puzzled for a moment. "No, sir."
Aragorn chuffed a disgruntled "hrmph." Brithnír went from one extreme to the other. Tapping the table top with his finger, Aragorn leaned forward. "And if I ordered you to find a place for him to sleep undisturbed?"
Brithnír's eyes opened wider and his chin came up. "I would, of course, do my best, sir."
Aragorn waited, with one brow raised, for him to continue. Brithnír studied the air and moved his fingers as if counting. He came to what looked like an unwelcome conclusion and gave a negative inclination of his head. "Other than the royal residence, there are only public rooms nearby. To those of us used to the Steward's house, it is actually quite inconvenient, sir. In the years since the last king reigned, the rooms that had been occupied by courtiers and much of the support areas here in the royal residence have been turned to other uses." He sounded aggrieved. "The Halfling is already in a comfortable location."
Looking past Brithnír, Aragorn saw Pippin still contorted into the hard chair, looking anything but comfortable. Pippin had slept in more awkward places. He would remember to ask Pippin if he preferred a flet in Lorien to a chair in the citadel. "Very well. Please bring a pillow and blanket for him.""
Brithnír gave a respectful nod of his head, and took a few steps in the direction of the door. He slowed and hesitated, turning back to stand in front of the desk. "May I ask a question, sir?"
Barely waiting for Aragorn to indicate consent, Brithnír continued, "Since you confirmed that Sir Peregrin had no official reason for his presence, has he told you why he has taken it upon himself to stand guard outside your door every night?"
"Yes." Aragorn said and waited to see what Brithnír would make of the simple affirmative.
Brithnír thought for a moment. "The Halfling is mistaken, sir, if he says we on your night staff are not loyal servants," Brithnír said in a quiet and matter-of-fact voice. "I trust you take that into account." He made a courteous nod of his head.
The man did not lack courage. Brithnír knew Pippin was a favorite but he still made the accusation and in a quite diplomatic manner. Now that he was acting more naturally, Aragorn began to see why he had risen in Denethor's service.
"How many years did you serve the Steward?" Aragorn asked.
"It was my honor and privilege to serve the Lord Denethor for more than twenty-eight years, sir. He never gave me an order that I was unable to fulfill." Brithnír drew himself up and accompanied the words with a shallow bow.
This man, after nearly three decades of service, had considered it his honor and privilege to hand a torch to an oil-soaked madman. Aragorn's patience ran out. Only one thing concerned him. "Where is your fealty?"
Brithnír recoiled a half step backwards and his cheeks reddened as if slapped. "My family has always served in the Citadel. I vowed my life to the Steward, eschewing wife and family. My lord Denethor trusted me to be not only a body servant but a staunch protector when all others quailed in the darkness." He shook with indignation. "Two of my fellows laid down their lives for the Steward when that Tower Guard opposed him, and I would have done the same. Even as king, you have no right to question my loyalty."
"I do not dispute that you are capable of great devotion. I have heard that you were unquestioningly loyal to the Steward," Aragorn said his voice calm but decisive. "Still, Denethor – and partly through your own actions – is dead. I ask again, where now is your fealty?"
Breathing heavily after his tirade, Brithnír started, "To…." His indignation ran out of him, leaving him looking limp. He paused, and started to speak several times. "To whomever rules Gondor," he stammered out at last.
Whomever rules Gondor? Aragorn wondered for a moment if Pippin had been right to suspect Brithnír. He would have been more reassured if Brithnír had said 'to you' or 'to the king'. Had Brithnír, trained not to question orders, never considered his future?
"I rule Gondor." He pitched his voice cold and sharp. Brithnír swallowed nervously. "No less than Denethor, I expect my orders to be obeyed promptly and without question. However, I know no one can foresee all ends. At times of great need, I would rather my servants disobey my orders for the right reasons than blindly follow them for the wrong ones. When it is my sons who roam this citadel, I must know that those who serve here will protect my House."
"Sir, why would you doubt I would protect them?" Brithnír sounded incredulous, his face reflecting nothing but puzzlement.
"As you protected Faramir?"
The quiet question stunned the servant and the color drained from his face. Though Aragorn waited for an explanation or an apology, it seemed Brithnír found it unanswerable.
After a long silence, Brithnír hung his head and mumbled, "I did my duty and followed the orders I was given."
"So you did and that can be an admirable thing," Aragorn said. Brithnír's head came up with a wary expression. "Still, those who disobeyed did Gondor a greater service that night. It would be a poorer place if the House of Húrin had perished entirely in the flames. I am well aware that if other choices had been made, and the Halfling heeded by more than Beregond, no one need have died."
Brithnír stood at rigid attention. Aragorn rested his elbows on the desk and his chin on his folded hands while he contemplated the man in front of him. Aragorn saw him blanch. His unquestioning certainty, the trait that made him Denethor's perfect servant, held him braced for the next blow, awaiting what he feared would be an awful judgment. They both knew that whatever pronouncement Aragorn made would be binding. Laying his hands down, Aragorn gave an inward sigh. He did not seek vengeance.
"No blame attaches to you for The Steward's death and there will be an honorable position for you somewhere in the citadel for as long as you desire one." Aragorn watched to see if Brithnír understood the implications of the statement: an honorable position, but not an honored one, and never again at the highest levels. Aragorn's household would be very different from Denethor's and perhaps Brithnír would be happier in some more conservative lord's house.
Brithnír drew in a deep breath and released it slowly. "And for the others who served with me that night?"
"The same," Aragorn assured him. "Though they will be reassigned. You will not serve together again." He needed no focal point of disaffection among his servants.
Astonishment turned to confusion across Brithnír's features, then to a bleak acceptance. Aragorn saw he had cherished ambitions for a greater place in the king's household, but knew those had ended.
Pippin grunted out a few unintelligible words, and tried to turn over, straining against the arms of the chair before he lapsed back into sleep. Aragorn rolled his shoulder in sympathy. "If there is nowhere more suitable, the perian must stay here. Please bring a pillow and blanket for him."
The man seemed steadied by the order and assumed the neutral mien of the perfect servant once again. "Immediately, sir."
Once Brithnír exited, Aragorn rubbed his eyes and his neck. Faramir brought summaries of the coming day's proceedings to breakfast every morning. Today, they would discuss Beregond's fate first, and then Brithnír's reassignment. He stretched to the fullest, hearing his shoulders crack. It was either very late or very early and he wanted to run ten miles or beat a pell with a practice sword until his arms tired. Instead, he reached for the top petition in the nearest stack. A guild in an outlying area wanted something, but before he could tease the sense from the tangled grammar and eccentric spelling of the opening, he heard a scratching at the servants' door. He looked up in time to see the majordomo who organized his days come into the room carrying a large pillow and a folded blanket.
"Hithdol!" Aragorn dropped the paper he held back onto the desk. "Why are you here in the middle of the night?"
"I am always on duty at this time, sir. It lacks but a few minutes till dawn," Hithdol said.
Aragorn looked around the room, night dark except for the pools of golden candlelight and at the window showing no hint of grey behind it. He strode across the room and drew back the thin curtains, uncovering a bolted wooden shutter. He unfastened it and threw it open. Clouds roiled just above his head and the candles flickered as fresh, damp air slid into the room. Far below him on the plain, winking lights marked where husbandmen woke. Fog clung in the low places, showing ghostly grey wisps against the pale light that crept in from the east. It would rain soon, a slow soaking rain to help the crops thrive. He breathed deeply of the cool, moist dawn and felt awake, hungry, and eager for the challenges of the day.
The light strengthened and the land below glowed green in a flash of low sunlight before the clouds closed again. Though bare spots and mass graves showed, the cultivated areas greatly outnumbered them.
"It is beautiful," Aragorn whispered.
"Yes, it is, sir," Hithdol said, as he came up behind him. "If you had asked me during the siege, I would have sworn it ruined forever. But it is fair again."
"During the siege?" Aragorn turned his astonishment on his placid and rather plump majordomo. "So you too strapped on a sword and fought to defend the city."
Hithdol held up a hand in protest. Though his expression remained severe, Aragorn saw amusement in his eyes. "I am no soldier, sir. My knife skills are limited to carving thin slices of roast."
Aragorn rested one hip on the windowsill. "What did you do, then?"
"Why, what I do best, sir. I saw the cooks had everything they needed and food and drink reached all the men on the walls." The amusement left his eyes, and he sighed. "And when the fighting started, I made sure the dead and wounded were removed and brought to the places where they could be cared for." Hithdol fidgeted a moment, then gave a wry smile. "I saw you that night, after the battle," he admitted, "caring for the wounded accompanied by those astonishingly identical elves."
"Peredhel, half-elven," Aragorn corrected him automatically.
Hithdol brushed aside the interruption. "All day the rumors ran along the levels, that my lord Denethor had died and a king had come, but - and I hope you forgive me, sir – I thought we had not strength to spare to cater to the whims of another pampered noble who called for tents rather than sleep with the stench of death inside the walls." He looked up at Aragorn with an apologetic quirk of his brows. "I saw you were the king that we had always looked for and I followed you as you moved among the wounded, trying to anticipate what you would need. I knew, quite soon, I wished to serve you. Afterwards, I schemed and connived to make it so."
In the weariness and blood of that terrible night, amid the terror and flashes of green as the jewel lent him strength to cleanse another man and again another, Aragorn remembered mugs of soup and endless basins of hot water appearing at need. So that had been Hithdol's doing. "Someday, when there is more time, you will have to explain your machinations to me. I am woefully ignorant of the politics behind the scenes. I am sure I will have a much greater understanding once I know how you bested Brithnír for your position."
"Certainly, sir." Hithdol nodded, but seemed to be preening.
Aragorn walked over to the fireplace and stood looking down at Pippin. Hithdol had inserted the pillow under his head, cushioning his cheek, but it canted his head at an even more extreme angle. The blanket was little more than a shawl and Pippin's calloused toes and most of his legs stuck out uncovered. He still looked very uncomfortable.
"I do not suppose you know where Pippin's rooms are?" Aragorn asked.
"In the East tower, on the third floor, I believe, sir," Hithdol responded immediately.
Too far, especially after dawn. The courtyard and corridors would soon be bustling. Aragorn had spared Pippin the gallows, and he, quite irrationally, did not wish to see Pippin exposed on the pillory of rumor for his actions.
"Could he be moved discreetly? I wish for no gossip about his overindulgence."
Hithdol looked surprised and slowly shook his head.
"Since there is nowhere else, I will roll him into my bed. Could you keep the other servants out until he wakes?" Aragorn reached for Pippin.
"Is that wise, sir?" Hithdol murmured. "If you wish for no gossip? It is known you've taken no one to your bed until now."
Aragorn paused and stood. "By whom?" he demanded.
Hithdol coughed. "Everyone, sir. We asked the Rangers from the North, and they assured us you were discreet and preferred to choose your own partners." He quailed, but stood his ground. "There have been many ladies who wished to join you, some with quite," he hesitated, "creative stories or bribes. Did we err in turning them away?"
"No." Choose his own partners! Which one of his Rangers had had the cheek? If Halbarad still lived - his heart checked at the familiar ache for his kinsman – no, Halbarad would have struck him on the arm and raised amused brows, What do you expect if you are found at dawn, half naked with a drunken Hobbit and calling for bedding? Suddenly conscious of his bare legs under the hem of the robe, he saw Hithdol still watching him expectantly. He snorted and gave a reassuring chuckle. "Soon enough, I will take a fair and gentle lady to be my queen, and until then I will sleep alone."
"Very good, sir."
They turned back to the chair with the sleeping Hobbit, but Aragorn's mind ranged away from Pippin's predicament. The joke was too good not to share, but with whom? He really did not know Faramir well enough. Gandalf?
"The Queen's dressing room," Hithdol said with a triumphant grin. "The rooms in that wing are not yet decorated, but there is a padded bench just the right length for Sir Peregrin."
"Excellent." Queen's wing? He needed to do more exploring.
Hithdol had reached down and picked up the Hobbit, grunting as he stood.
"I will carry him," Aragorn offered, hurrying over and holding out his arms. He stood more than head taller than Hithdol and did have a swordsman's strength in his arms.
"No need, sir. I have a son about his size and it is not far," Hithdol said. "I'll put a pitcher of water next to him, and make sure he's comfortable."
In the growing light, Pippin looked a little green to Aragorn as his head flopped against Hithdol's shoulder. "We drank the sweet wine, Hithdol. Perhaps a basin as well?"
"Thank you for the warning, sir. I will remember to tell the Guard that Sir Peregrin is on special duty today."
Aragorn strode ahead to open the door to the servants' hall. Hithdol paused in the doorway. "Your valet and the barber are waiting for you. And the water is hot if you wish to bathe." He turned his head to look both ways. "The corridor is clear."
"Hithdol," Aragorn smiled at the majordomo. "You think of everything. Thank you."
"My pleasure, sir."
(especially for Adaneth) The paper is rag paper and the mill is on the Anduin, below the docks of the Harlond. It's a thriving industry.
Metheglin – spiced honey wine. Think of this as the equivalent of Pippin slugging down two-thirds of a bottle of Drambuie in an hour or so.
Two people have pointed out that perhaps scathless ought to be scatheless. Well, steal from the best, I always say:
Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary -
\Scath"less\, a. Unharmed. --R. L. Stevenson.
He, too, . . . is to be dismissed scathless. --Sir W. Scott
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.