8. Spurned Desires
Well if that isn’t a plague and a nuisance! All because of a pack of crows! I had looked forward to a real good meal tonight: something hot.
Well, you can go on looking forward. There may be many unexpected feasts ahead for you. For myself I should like a pipe to smoke in comfort, and warmer feet.
Pippin and Gandalf—The Fellowship of the Ring (The Ring Goes South)
One of the lesser-known facts about hobbits was that in the absence of mitigating circumstances, they could actually move quite quickly if the occasion called for it.
There were many that adamantly argued against this point. The dwarven, elven, and mannish members of the Fellowship, in particular, liked to contest the notion of hobbits approaching anything that even remotely resembled speed. During such debates, Aragorn often called to remembrance one instance two nights after the Fellowship left Rivendell in which the goal for the first part of the night had been to reach and ascend a certain hill where they would stop at the summit for lunch. A brisk pace was required to meet this goal, but it was by no means an unreasonable expectation. During routine scouting trips, Boromir and Legolas both climbed the hill twice before the rest of the Fellowship even neared it. But the hobbits resisted the faster speed, and in the end, the midnight lunch was held about a mile from their objective when it became clear that the hobbits would not go another step without first having something to eat. Aragorn’s conclusion from the experience was that hobbits were completely incapable of speed, for in his mind, the fate of Middle-earth should have easily classified as an occasion that called for swiftness of feet.
The hobbits of the Fellowship would agree that Middle-earth’s fate certainly warranted speed, but they were also quick to point out that there had been mitigating circumstances that slowed their pace. Namely, they had been required to climb similar hills the following night, as well as the night after that and the night after that and the night after that. Their reluctance to move quickly was not ignorance of the importance of their quest but rather a need to conserve energy for the days ahead. They moved as quickly as they could while keeping in mind the fact that they would be asked to maintain the same pace on the morrow. And as Sam had pointed out, it wasn’t as though the top of the hill was going to move if they didn’t reach the summit before midnight.
To this, the surviving members of the Fellowship who were not hobbits would usually shake their heads in exasperation and walk away, firmly unconvinced that hobbits were capable of speed. But they might have reconsidered their beliefs had they seen Pippin leave the Citadel in pursuit of Eldarion, Elladan, and Elrohir. Rushing past the guards so quickly that they barely had time to recognize him, Pippin hastened toward the stables, for that was where it appeared Elladan and Elrohir were going to land after they made it over the wall. There were no mitigating circumstances to slow his pace and the objective of obtaining food despite Arwen’s villainous attempts to the contrary was clearly an occasion that called for haste. And so Pippin virtually flew through the tunnel that connected the Citadel with the Sixth Level, putting to shame Gimli’s callous remark that the only thing fast about a hobbit was its stomach.
Unfortunately, Pippin’s speed was cause for the revelation of yet another lesser-known fact about hobbits: When they did move quickly, they tended to forget that others might be in their way. And so it was that Pippin, in his rush to get to the stables before Elladan and Elrohir could make their escape, ran headlong into Imrahil at the end of the tunnel.
Thrown backwards from the sudden impact, his arms flailing madly, Pippin soon found himself sprawled upon the pavement gasping for air. Imrahil might have met with a similar embarrassment had he not been thrown toward a wall. As it was, he managed to quickly regain his balance by bracing himself, but the collision had winded him and he did not immediately push off of the wall at his back.
"That was unexpected, Master Peregrin," Imrahil said as one hand clutched at his side.
Pushing himself into a sitting position, Pippin rubbed his head and blinked. "My apologies, Prince Imrahil," he hissed, wincing when he felt the telltale signs of swelling around his right eye. "I did not see you."
"Obviously," the prince murmured, testing his balance as he gingerly stepped away from the wall. "Might one inquire as to where you are going in such a hurry?"
Pippin froze, uncertain of what to say. "I…I was on my way to the markets."
A slight smile flitted across Imrahil’s face. "I suppose I should have anticipated that. It is said that Halflings are perpetually hungry."
Indignation boiled through Pippin’s blood, but he squelched his reaction when he remembered that he needed to make haste. Deciding that correcting the prince of Dol Amroth could wait until another time, he merely shrugged his shoulders and got to his feet, dusting himself off as he did so. "I once heard something similar," he said blandly, hoping to end the conversation so that he could be on his way.
"Well, if it is not too great an inconvenience, perhaps you could calm your appetite for a moment and assist me," Imrahil said, clearly not understanding that Pippin needed to be elsewhere. "I am looking for either Legolas and Gimli or Elladan and Elrohir and have been told that they are probably somewhere in the Citadel. Would you have more specific information regarding this?"
Several harried thoughts crossed the hobbit’s mind and he grasped desperately at them, searching for something to say. "I have not seen Legolas and Gimli for some time," he answered at length.
"What of Elladan and Elrohir?" Imrahil pressed, something unreadable flashing across his face.
"I…have not seen them since I left the Citadel."
"Which was only moments ago, if I am any judge," Imrahil observed, his eyes narrowing. "And apparently you did see them in the Citadel, yes?"
"Only briefly," Pippin answered, fervently hoping that Imrahil would ask no more questions. "I didn’t stop to talk to them, if that’s what you mean."
"Did they leave the Citadel?"
Pippin pressed his lips together and tried to come up with an honest response. "When last I saw them, they were nowhere near the tunnel," he eventually said.
"Indeed." Imrahil’s expression was difficult to read, but Pippin received the impression that the prince was less than satisfied with his answer. "Where is your companion?"
Pippin blinked. "My companion?"
"Master Meriadoc. Is he not usually at your side?"
"Oh. Merry. Yes. Merry is…Merry is somewhere else." Pippin stammered, realizing that this was certainly not his best response. "He didn’t want to come with me, so he stayed in the Citadel."
"He did not wish to accompany you to the markets? It is nearing the noon hour. Surely he is hungry."
Inwardly cursing himself and wondering where his usual poise had gone, Pippin tried to mentally regroup. "Merry is strange, sometimes. He gets odd ideas and then he wanders off. Sometimes he forgets about food altogether. I think he was dropped on his head as a child."
Imrahil’s gray eyes bored into Pippin, and the hobbit had to fight to meet his penetrating gaze. A part of him wanted to cower in terror and confess everything to the prince while another part firmly forbade any movement. You’ve met elven stares before. You can surely meet this! a remote corner of his mind encouraged. But as time wore on, Pippin became less and less certain of his ability to endure.
"I should probably be going now," the hobbit finally said, breaking the silence that had fallen. "I want to get to the markets early so I can pick the best foods."
The prince of Dol Amroth frowned and then looked away, releasing Pippin from his piercing eyes. "I wish you luck, then," he said. "But if you would be so kind, watch for those I mentioned earlier. And if you see them, ask them to come and speak with me. I would appreciate it greatly."
"I will do that," Pippin said, nodding hurriedly as he sensed an opportunity for escape. "If I can stop them long enough to speak, I’ll tell them what you said."
"Thank you," Imrahil said, inclining his head briefly. "Off with you then. I would hate to think that I kept you from your meal."
Quickly sketching a bow, Pippin hurried away, not even bothering to vocalize a farewell. Too much time had passed already, and he needed to reach the stables as soon as possible. Elladan and Elrohir might have already left by now!
Hurrying along while trying to keep in mind that there were others out and about this day, Pippin wondered if he should have shared his plans with Imrahil. It might be advantageous to have someone with longer legs about. So far, Pippin only knew that Elladan and Elrohir had been leaving the Citadel via the wall and that they had been taking Eldarion with them. Moreover, they had chosen to leave over the same point in the wall that Legolas sometimes used. It overlooked a steep drop to the roof of the stables that was apparently a manageable height from which to jump if the jumper was an elf—or a half-elf, in this case. But after their descent to the stable roof, Pippin did not know what Elladan and Elrohir would do next. This was something he needed to discover if he wished to buy the aid of Legolas and Gimli with information. And for this reason, the assistance of another with longer legs might prove useful. Longer legs could cover more ground than a hobbit could.
But even as he considered this, Pippin decided that he had ultimately done the right thing. He really didn’t know Imrahil well enough to judge whether or not the idea of allying with Legolas and Gimli would be well received. He had met the prince many times and had talked with him at length, but in the end, he didn’t know him. In fact, it seemed to Pippin that very few people knew Imrahil. And as the hobbit pondered further on this, he decided that Aragorn and Faramir were the same way. Pippin had traveled extensively with Aragorn and he had helped care for Faramir when the steward lay racked with fever after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, but Pippin was not sure that he truly understood either of these men. Not as he would understand another hobbit, anyway. And now that he thought about it, he had never really known Boromir or Denethor, either.
And as he continued to study this notion—his distraction perhaps explaining why hobbits habitually ran into things when moving at fast speeds—Pippin’s mind turned to elves and dwarves. Here were entire races where it was difficult to understand anyone. It was almost as though barriers had been set up. But why should that be? Pippin considered his friends to be one of his greatest treasures. Why should elves, dwarves, Aragorn, Faramir, Imrahil, Boromir, and Denethor feel differently? Was it because they were all gifted with long—or immortal—lives? No, that could not be, for hobbits were also considered long-lived when compared with the race of man. And hobbits had many friends that knew one another intimately. Life-long friends were common in the Shire, and…
Pippin blinked, his mind running back over that thought. Life-long. That was the difference. The Shire was peaceful. With a few very rare exceptions, wars and battles did not darken the hobbits’ tranquil lands. But that was not the case for the rest of Middle-earth. And perhaps that was why it was so difficult for elves, dwarves, and men of Númenórean blood to let down their guard and allow others into their souls. They had seen too much misery and heartache. They had lost too many comrades. And because of this, they could not afford to let others see them for who they truly were. Familiarity was often accompanied by close friendships, and close friendships were simply too dangerous for long-lived people in perilous times. A man could only take so much loss before losing himself to grief and despair, and Pippin assumed that this was also the case for elves and dwarves. So they eliminated the threat of pain by eliminating the threat of friendships.
And perhaps this was also why the Rangers were so vigilant in protecting the Shire. The hobbits possessed something that the Rangers never would. They possessed long lives that were, for the most part, free from pain and strife. Hobbits could form friendships without fear that their friends would be killed the next day. They could be happy and they could surround themselves with family and loved ones until the moment they died. The Rangers could do none of these things, so they instead sought to preserve the innocence of those who could.
What a lonely way to live, Pippin thought sadly.
But the hobbit was allowed no more time to reflect on this, for a part of his brain that was tracking his progress abruptly informed him that he was moments away from smashing into the wall of the stables.
Skidding to a jarring halt, Pippin blinked and found himself inches away from the white stone that houses the horses of Gondor’s messenger riders. Making a mental note to pay better attention to his surroundings in the future, Pippin shook his head and flattened himself up against the stable wall, listening intently. The stables were set back beyond the passageway that led to the Fifth Level, and as such there was very little in the way of traffic. Nevertheless, those few who did pass by watched Pippin with fascinated bemusement as the hobbit slowly eased himself toward the stable door. But Pippin paid them no heed, intent only on listening for any that might be within.
For a long time he heard nothing, and his heart sank within him. Perhaps his conversation with Imrahil had proved to be his undoing. He had seen neither Elladan nor Elrohir leaving the stables or making their way down to the Fifth Level, but if they were exceptionally quick, they could have done so long before he arrived.
And then he heard it: a childish squeal of delight followed by a slight thump as though something light landed from a great height. This was followed by a pause, an exclamation of surprise, another pause, and then an intense but hushed conversation in an elven tongue. Curious, Pippin edged closer to the doorway, wondering what was happening. Elladan and Elrohir were the most likely participants in the conversation, yet they sounded upset. Very upset. But what cause would they have to…
And then Pippin remembered the three elven horses galloping down the city streets. This was followed by the recollection of the overheard conversation between Legolas and Gimli in the Queen’s Gardens. What was it Merry had said? Something about how he didn’t want to know any more about what they said. And I agreed with him. Pippin frowned and shook his head. The rational part of Pippin’s mind still agreed with Merry about not getting involved in whatever plans Legolas and Gimli had initiated, but the incensed part of his mind—the part that still fumed over Arwen’s deception—had decided that food and retribution were worth the risk. So he stayed by the doorway and listened intently, hoping that some of the conversation might become intelligible, though his grasp on any form of elvish was limited at best.
Fortunately, Eldarion chose that moment to demand that he be taken for a ride, and he did so in Westron, for that was the language he seemed to know best. This, in turn, forced Elladan and Elrohir to respond in kind.
"Patience, young prince," one of the twins soothed, though whether it was Elladan or Elrohir that spoke, Pippin could not say. He had trouble enough telling them apart when looking at them. Separating them with sound alone was far too difficult a prospect. "Patience," the voice repeated. "We will take you riding soon."
"This cannot go unanswered. It is clear who is responsible, for Legolas’s horse is also gone."
"But we must find our own horses ere we can do anything. There is no telling what Legolas has done with them!"
"They are intelligent creatures. They would not easily submit to Legolas should his plans bode ill for them. More likely than not, they have only been set free in an attempt to distract us should we note their absence."
"You are probably right. Still, I would feel better if I knew their whereabouts."
"Perhaps someone saw them leave. We have only to ask."
"They might have been seen leaving, but that will not tell us where they are now."
The voices were beginning to grow in anger, and Eldarion’s frequent pleas for a ride were more or less ignored as the twins debated about what to do. Suddenly realizing that he should probably not be near the doorway when the twins decided to leave the stables, Pippin began backing away, trying to make his movements as silent as possible.
"Think, brother! They cannot be in the city for neither of our horses enjoys this place of stone. They will have gone somewhere open where they may graze and run. It is probable that they are upon the Pelennor Fields."
"Which is also where we left Estel and Arwen."
"Valar, you are right. We cannot take Eldarion there!"
"But neither can we wait here and do naught!"
There was a pause during which Pippin could hear Eldarion talking quietly to what he assumed was one of the horses still in the stables. The hobbit had reached the edge of the building now and was slipping out of sight of the main doorway, grateful that the open windows allowed him to continue listening to what was said inside.
"It is near noon, and I know that Estel meant to return to the Citadel after he ate. We can take Eldarion down to the markets and taverns in the Second Level, feed him, and then venture out onto the Pelennor once Estel and Arwen have left."
"I do not like the idea of leaving Gaearsul and Mornaecco alone with Legolas’s horse. Who knows what mischief has been wrought? And as they are our horses, whatever they cause shall be blamed upon us."
"I do not like it, either, but what choice do we have? At least we shall keep Eldarion hidden from Legolas and Gimli."
"I suppose. Well, let us depart. You are correct. It seems we have few options for now. Come, Eldarion. Shall we go out into the city? You shall see many sights, and it may be that we might find something tasty for you to eat."
Hand clapping and an enthusiastic affirmative on the part of Eldarion answered this, and Pippin flattened himself against the side of the stable as he heard Elladan, Elrohir, and Eldarion leave. The twins made no sound, but Eldarion seemed to be carrying on a conversation with himself, enabling Pippin to track their movements. Holding his breath and praying that none of them would glance his direction—though Eldarion had seen him up in the Citadel and had failed to give him away—Pippin closed his eyes and held completely still, doing his best to blend in and become part of the architecture. And for once, fate was kind. Caught up in their anger and frustration, Elladan and Elrohir did not notice the hobbit crouched around the corner of the stables. With a few angry mumbles in elvish that were probably less than complimentary, they made their way past Pippin’s position and eventually turned down the corridor that would lead them into Minas Tirith’s lower circles.
Loosing a sigh of relief, Pippin relaxed for a moment before shaking himself and stepping out into the streets. Having traveled with taller folk before, he knew well that if Elladan and Elrohir hastened, he would never be able to match their pace. Beyond that, it didn’t seem necessary to follow them anyway. He knew their plans. They would linger in the Second Level, possibly finding somewhat to eat, and then they would make their way onto the Pelennor after Strider and Arwen left. If he offered this information to Legolas and Gimli, he was certain they would suspend their own plans long enough to help him break into the food cache beneath the kitchens. Besides, the elf and dwarf were probably hungry, too. All Pippin needed to do now was find them. That should not prove too difficult a task.
With a satisfied nod and a pat on the back for his ingenuity, the hobbit turned and headed back for the Citadel.
When she was very young, Eowyn had learned that a little perseverance went a long way.
Actually, she had learned that a little perseverance and a blood relationship to the king of Rohan went a long way. But the important lesson—and one that she never forgot—was that kinship alone did not suffice. Determination also played a part. As a result, Eowyn had grown into a woman of purpose who did not easily forsake her goals. So persistent was she from time to time that Eomer once declared that she could probably beat down a stone wall with her head if she ever had the desire to do so. There was general laughter in response to this and Eowyn had smiled at the jest, but in her heart, she knew her brother was right. She knew that if she beat her head against anything long enough and hard enough, she would either knock it down herself or someone else would become so annoyed that they would knock it down for her. Either way worked for Eowyn, and here was the root of yet another lesson she had learned: If fortune grants a favor, do not question the means by which the favor comes.
That last lesson, though, was sometimes accompanied by unwanted consequences. Eowyn was discovering that this seemed to be the case now, and she wondered if she ought not to have questioned the methods used to render her brother unconscious. She was grateful that he no longer fought them or resisted their attempts to probe his head for further injuries, but Eowyn was not wholly certain that the means to achieve this end could be completely justified. Eomer should have regained consciousness by now, yet he continued to sleep, unaware of the turmoil that his words and his injuries had wrought.
Her mouth pressed into a thin line, Eowyn gently swabbed her brother’s brow while at the same time shooting a suspicious glance toward the other side of the room. Aragorn was mixing and grinding herbs together, and the abrupt movements of his arms indicated that he was upset. And watching this, Eowyn silently reaffirmed her vow that she would not leave Eomer until she was certain she could trust the people around him.
This was a decision she had made shortly after Faramir and Imrahil spoke with her in the hallway. Until then, fear of her brother’s injuries had occupied the bulk of her thoughts, and as Eowyn had a tendency to be rather single-minded upon occasion, she had allowed nothing else to divert her attention since arriving at the Houses of Healing. But Imrahil’s words had woken within Eowyn a fierce protectiveness that had driven many of her actions during the time that Wormtongue held sway in Rohan, and Eomer’s continued inability to rouse had caused this protectiveness to completely overtake her. Several attempts had been made to lead her away from her brother’s side, but these had all failed when Eowyn’s legendary perseverance asserted itself. She had chosen her duty and she would cling to it regardless of what anyone else said, especially when the king of Gondor seemed to have given her brother too much sedative.
In her heart, Eowyn knew that Aragorn would never intentionally harm Eomer. The two kings certainly had their share of differences, but they were good friends and trusted one another implicitly upon the field of battle. But even though Aragorn would not bring further injury upon her brother, he might make him slightly…uncomfortable. There were herbs that worked wonders in healing head wounds, but they had unpleasant and nauseous side effects that took several days to overcome. Eowyn was not sure that Eomer was in need of these herbs as she was not sure of the extent of his head wound. Aside from memory loss and a concussion, he seemed to be fine. But these herbs were the first things Aragorn had suggested when they arrived at the Houses of Healing. Eowyn had dissuaded him from using them, but only moments ago, Aragorn had suggested them again.
"I am not leaving, my lady," Eowyn said sharply, turning to glare at Arwen. "And though you can command me, you will be required to enforce your orders through the use of guards. And I will resist them as well."
A ghost of a smile fluttered across Arwen’s face and she shook her head slightly. "I had not thought to pursue that topic. I only wondered if Eomer showed signs of waking."
"Ah." Momentarily flustered but recovering quickly, Eowyn glanced down at her brother and shook her head, barely restraining her growing frustration. "Nay, he sleeps still."
"Is that wise?" Lothíriel asked from somewhere near the doorway where she had been speaking with Faramir. "I did not think sleep was prescribed for head wounds."
"He was lucid enough when we woke him upon the Pelennor Fields," Aragorn answered, his voice low and curt. "And I have seen nothing in the way of blood from his nose or ears. I judged it was safe to put him to sleep. Moreover, he was fighting us. He could have further injured himself and also those around him."
"Even so, you gave him a rather liberal dose, did you not?" Arwen asked, and her eyes twinkled slightly. "Ere you took matters into your own hands, I was going to suggest that I lead him to this room. He seemed responsive to my influence."
A quiet growl on the part of both Aragorn and Lothíriel accompanied by a weary sigh from Faramir were Arwen’s answers, and Eowyn closed her eyes as she tried to master her feelings. The sedative Aragorn had used in the dart would cause Eomer no lasting harm, but when used in excess amounts, it did tend to upset a person’s balance for a few days. If nothing else, it would interfere with Eomer’s ability to ride, and Eowyn wondered if Aragorn had perhaps intended this, seeking vengeance for Eomer’s words to Arwen.
"Where is Imrahil?"
Aragorn’s sudden query jarred Eowyn from her thoughts, and before she could stop herself, she looked toward her husband, remembering that Imrahil had asked to speak with him in private. Following Eowyn’s glance, Aragorn turned and studied his steward, clearly demanding an answer.
"Imrahil, my lord?" Faramir questioned, affecting a convincing air of innocence.
"Yes. Imrahil," Aragorn said coolly, apparently neither fooled nor amused by Faramir’s act. "He was also injured upon the Pelennor. Where has he gone?"
Faramir sighed and glanced behind him into the hallway. "He spoke to me of returning to the Citadel."
Aragorn’s eyes narrowed. "I did not give him leave to depart. He is still in need of rest and care."
"My lord, if experience has proven anything, it is that very few can command Imrahil’s comings and goings," Faramir answered. "Varda only knows how often my father attempted such a thing and failed."
"He returned to the Citadel?" Eowyn asked, her brow furrowed. Imrahil did not particularly like the Citadel as he felt that the stones were too close and there was no room to breathe. Whenever he stayed at Minas Tirith for extended periods of time, he spent many hours down upon the Pelennor Fields. Why would Imrahil return to the Citadel now, especially since he had been injured?
"He spoke of things that needed to be looked after," Faramir answered, his gray eyes boring into his wife’s before flicking an almost imperceptible glance toward Arwen.
Ah, the elves, Eowyn realized. And as she realized this, she also realized why Faramir was loath to speak of it. Aragorn had enough on his mind as it was. He did not need to be reminded that chaos might be brewing elsewhere.
Unfortunately, Eowyn’s thoughts seemed to curse them all, for at that moment, a commotion began to fill the corridors of the Houses of Healing. Shouting voices and echoing footsteps could be heard approaching rapidly, and Eowyn felt her anger start to rise above her ability to control it.
"Eowyn, would you be so good as to handle that?" Faramir asked, stepping into the room and moving toward his wife. "I will watch your brother in your absence."
Eowyn opened her mouth to protest, but the reassuring look in Faramir’s eyes put her at ease. She could read his promise that he would let no harm befall Eomer, and she knew her own limits well enough to know that if she did not release her frustration soon she would lash out at someone. Faramir probably sensed this as well, thus explaining his offer to relieve her for a moment. Nodding her acceptance and flashing him a quick smile of gratitude, Eowyn rose and addressed the others in the room. "If you will excuse me, I will see that we remain undisturbed."
No one offered to accompany her, which did not come as any great surprise. Aragorn did not wish to leave Eomer and Arwen in the same room without his supervision, Arwen was enjoying Aragorn’s consternation too much to leave herself, and Lothíriel had been as adamant about remaining by Eomer’s side as Eowyn had been. With a shake of her head and a silent question as to how she had become involved with such stubborn and strange people, Eowyn left Eomer’s chambers and hastened down the hall, fixing her face into a stern frown and preparing to unleash all of her anger upon those who caused such a commotion.
Turning a corner and brushing past several startled healers, Eowyn caught sight of what seemed to be a small scuffle and stopped, taking stock of the situation. It needed only a moment, though, to identify the cause of this fight, and biting back a silent groan, Eowyn stepped forward. "What goes forth here?"
At her commanding tone, all instantly fell silent and those in the hallway parted to let her through. "My lady," a voice answered her, followed by a deep bow. "My lady, you have come upon us in good time."
"And you have come upon me in bad time, Captain Arhelm," Eowyn answered sharply, pinning the Rohirrim captain beneath her furious eyes. "Tell me quickly why you have raised such a cry in these Houses."
The momentary look of fear in Arhelm’s eyes was swift to vanish, but it had lingered long enough for Eowyn to know that she had intimidated him and now had his full and complete attention. "Forgive me, my lady, but the men upon the fields and the king’s son demand to know how it goes with him. I have been summoned to return to them, but I vowed to at least discover something of my king’s condition ere I left. Yet these healers can tell me nothing, nor will they allow me access to my king’s chambers."
"There is good reason you were not allowed access," Eowyn said coldly, though some of her anger was dying away. She remembered how the nation had pined after Theoden when he labored beneath the lying words of Wormtongue, and the possibility that something had happened to their current king had probably awakened this fear again in the riders.
"That may be so, my lady," Arhelm agreed with a short bow as though to placate her. "Yet we still wish to know how our king fares. Are you able to tell us these things?"
Eowyn’s anger was now fading quickly as she saw in these riders the same determination she possessed in herself. Had their places been exchanged, she would have probably acted no differently. Still, the perseverance she had learned as a child continued to hold her, and she intended to see that these Rohirrim were made aware of her displeasure. "Why have your brought so many with you, Arhelm?" she asked, ignoring his question and gesturing to the riders that stood behind him. "Had you come alone, it is likely that you would have been granted an audience with your queen. But this crowd only serves to upset the patients here, including your king!"
"I came with only one other, my lady," Arhelm said. "The rest were sent to join me by Prince Elfwine and Lord Elfhelm. But I could not send them back or go with them myself until I knew how Eomer King fared."
With a sigh, Eowyn recognized that she was currently beating her head against one of the hardest walls to knock over: Rohirrim stubbornness. And though her own pride and stubbornness demanded that she continue to beat against this wall, her desire to return to her brother was greater. Deciding to let this incident slide for the moment, Eowyn finally relented. "The king is asleep. He suffered a blow to the head that has given us cause for concern, but with care and rest, he should recover. I fear that is all I can tell you."
"Thank you, my lady," Arhelm said, bowing again.
Eowyn nodded, indicating that he was dismissed, but Arhelm did not leave. Instead, a rather curious came into his eyes. "You have something else that must be discussed?" Eowyn asked.
"I was not present for it, but the latest riders that Lord Elfhelm sent have brought…tidings that should be made known to the king," Arhelm said, hesitating slightly over his words. He turned and beckoned one of the men forward. "This is Thendril, my lady. He can better explain what has happened."
"Speak, then," Eowyn commanded. "I will see to it that the king and queen receive your words."
"My lady," Thendril began, bowing shortly. "When we left Rohan, my king brought with us mares to be kept here in Gondor. They are to be bred with horses from Rhûn."
"I know of this," Eowyn said. "Continue."
"We have kept them separate from the other horses so that they might be ready when the delegation from Rhûn arrives. However, shortly after the incident upon the Pelennor, we discovered two stallions among the mares. And based on their actions, we think that some of the mares will now have to be removed."
Eowyn frowned, puzzled. "This is grievous, true, but surely this is something that can wait until the king is better prepared to deal with it. Remove the stallions, reprimand those who were charged with their care, and—"
"My lady, you do not understand," Thendril interrupted. "The stallions we found were not our own. They were elven stallions, my lady. They were those ridden by Lord Elladan and Lord Elrohir. And Lord Elfhelm believes that no accident led them to the paddock with the mares."
Eowyn blinked. This was unexpected, and she cast about for an appropriate way to react. "You are certain?"
"Yes, my lady."
Anger flared within Eowyn once more, and she mentally cursed Elrohir, Elladan, Legolas, Gimli, and anyone else who might have even remotely been involved in the altercation. How dare they extend their own private war into the affairs of other kingdoms? But even as she began thinking of ingenious ways to draw and quarter them all, her attention was caught by something in Thendril’s hand. "What do you hold?" she demanded, suddenly fearful.
Thendril glanced down at the object in his hand and grimaced slightly. "It is a gelding iron, my lady."
"I can see that it is a gelding iron," Eowyn snapped. "I wondered at its presence here."
The rider shifted uncomfortably. "Lord Elfhelm said that the king might be in need of it."
Eowyn’s blood froze. She knew Elfhelm well, and he was not above bending orders to the point of completely breaking them. Through their joint deception, Eowyn had ridden to war upon the Pelennor Fields within his company, and before then, Elfhelm had been a quiet source of constant support against the whisperings and machinations of Wormtongue. He had long been accustomed to taking matters into his own hands, and that had not changed much during the past fifteen years. And if he had gone so far as to order that the elven horses be gelded… Not that they were undeserving of such action, but the twin’s horses were among Rivendell’s primary studs. A few mares lost to the breeding agreement with Rhûn did not warrant the gelding of Rivendell’s dominant stallions. "Did Elfhelm elaborate as to why the king might be in need of such a tool?" Eowyn asked.
"Nay, my lady," the rider answered, his face showing a look of confusion. "Lord Elfhelm only bid us take it to the king."
Muttering a few Rohirric stable curses beneath her breath that really should not have escaped anyone’s mouth—much less a lady’s—Eowyn massaged her temples and closed her eyes. She was sorely tempted to wander down to a tavern in pursuit of a good drink. "Was there any chance that he did not mean for you to take his orders so literally?"
"Naught. Let me have the gelding iron," Eowyn ordered, deciding that this rider was not bright enough to warrant further questioning. Instead, she examined the gelding iron when it was handed to her and found, to her relief, that it had seen no recent use. Elfhelm had probably intended it to be used as a threat or a warning, which was acceptable. But he could have told his riders as much without forcing Eowyn to guess at its purpose. "You are dismissed," she said, turning the gelding iron over in her hands. "I will see that the king receives this as well as your messages. Return and report to Lord Elfhelm."
"As you command, my lady," Arhelm said, reassuming charge of the riders around him. "With me," he ordered, turning and retreating down the hallway.
Left to herself, Eowyn studied the gelding iron—ignoring the shocked looks of the healers that she would be handling such a tool—and eventually shook her head before making her way back towards Eomer’s room. Anger festered still in her heart at those responsible for loosing elven stallions among the breeding mares, but nothing could be done about that now and so she pushed the feelings aside. Eomer’s health was more important.
But if she met with Legolas, Gimli, Elladan, or Elrohir in the near future, she would make certain that they learned the error of their ways.
Not long after Imrahil began his search of the Citadel for elven and dwarven individuals, he realized what a truly monumental task he’d undertaken.
He’d known more or less what would be required of him when he decided to give himself this assignment, but he had not truly appreciated just how difficult a job this would prove to be. Never before had he been aware of the fact that there were so many places of concealment in the Citadel. The gardens were a tangled web of hiding places, the Tower of Ecthelion was a maze of light and shadows that bewildered the eye, and it was best to not even think about the king’s palace. There were too many avenues to search, and there was a good chance that he would miss one of those he sought by simple oversight in his haste to move on to another location and cover them all. To make matters worse, questioning the guards had revealed that Legolas, Gimli, Elladan, and Elrohir had all been seen at one point or another that morning, but no one had seen anything of them recently. This was not an encouraging discovery, and a somewhat worried Imrahil now stood in the courtyard beside the White Tree, his brow creased in thought as he tried to think of a better way to go about this business. But no ideas came to him, and this only added to Imrahil’s frustration. Very rarely did he find himself so completely at a loss. Perhaps the fall on the Pelennor had been more of a shock than he thought.
Or perhaps my sons are right and I am finally feeling my age, Imrahil sighed, remembering a comment that Elphir had made to him just ere he left Dol Amroth. That had actually been one of the reasons why none of Imrahil’s three sons had accompanied him to Minas Tirith. Their endless remarks about their father’s age—brought on by the discovery of graying hair—was beginning to try Imrahil’s nerves. And given the fact that Imrahil was renowned as an unusually patient man, this said quite a bit.
Shaking his head slightly and frowning at the tendrils of gray hair that fell into his eyes almost as a reminder of his sons’ words, Imrahil refocused his mind on the current problem. How was he to go about finding four individuals who were somewhere in the Citadel and probably did not want to be found? Imrahil frowned, rethinking that. Actually, he really only needed to find one, for if he found one, he was almost guaranteed to find another. And once he had a pair of them, the other pair would probably be close at hand.
Of course, this is all based on the assumption that none of these individuals have left the Citadel, Imrahil thought. Pippin was less than forthcoming about that. But I did glean other things from our conversation. The hobbit had obviously seen Elladan and Elrohir. Moreover, though he claimed not to have seen Legolas and Gimli, I received the impression that he knew or guessed something of their whereabouts. And if this is true for Pippin, would it not also be true for his kinsman? For they are rarely apart, save until now. And did Pippin not say that Master Meriadoc was still within the Citadel? He should be easy enough to locate as we are nearing the noon hour. And though he had no wish to join Pippin in the markets, Merry is still a hobbit. He will still be in search of something to eat, and thus will I find him.
Invigorated now that he had something resembling a plan of action, Imrahil made for the butteries in the Tower. There were only a few places in which one could obtain in the Citadel, and the Tower’s butteries seemed the most logical of these as they were the only area in which servants and guards were still working today. All other kitchens and storerooms had been shut down since lunch for the palace population as a whole was supposed to take place on the Pelennor. If Merry wished for a meal in the Citadel, he would probably go to the Tower.
Unfortunately, a quick search of the butteries revealed no sign of Merry. After posing a few questions to some of the guards, Imrahil learned that no one had seen anything of Merry since he returned to the Citadel earlier that morning. But the prince was not one to easily lose hope, and he next turned his attention to the palace kitchens, leaving the Tower and making his way past the gardens while at the same time keeping a sharp eye out for anything that looked like an elf, a half-elf, or a dwarf. The palace kitchens were not as promising a prospect as the butteries for the staff was down upon the Pelennor, but even so, there were probably things there that might satisfy a hungry hobbit. And if Imrahil had learned anything about hobbits from his few encounters with them, it was that they could turn almost anything into a full course meal if given enough time.
Moving at a brisk pace, it was not long before Imrahil entered the palace and made his way toward the kitchens in the back. The halls were disturbingly empty and the normal hustle and bustle that accompanied life in these corridors was gone. It was somewhat eerie, and yet at the same time, Imrahil was grateful for it. He often battled feelings of claustrophobia within Minas Tirith, and these feelings became more intense when surrounded by a press of people. Thus, he was thankful for this small reprieve.
Unfortunately, the fact that the halls were virtually silent also meant that his hopes for finding Merry in the kitchens began to dim. If they needed to, hobbits could move with a surprising amount of stealth, but when they sat down to a meal—even if they did so alone—they were rarely quiet. They would sing, hum, talk, and drum out rhythms on the tabletop. But Imrahil heard none of these sounds now, and he began to wonder if his search for Merry was going to prove as futile as his search for Legolas, Gimli, Elladan, and Elrohir.
His fears seemed to be realized when he reached the kitchens and stepped inside only to find them empty. Pinching the bridge of his nose, Imrahil sighed and shook his head, leaning against one of the counters. This venture was not going as planned, and very few things upset Imrahil as much as a foiled plan did. I suppose I shall have to engineer a new plan, then, he thought wearily. Or perhaps I could return to the Houses of Healing and offer Faramir a chance to search. He volunteered to do so earlier. But then…that would leave me with King Elessar. Imrahil grimaced slightly at the thought. I suppose there are worse things, but I cannot think of many. Still, it was clear that he was making no progress by standing here in the kitchens, and so he turned to leave.
That was when he heard the crash.
Freezing for a moment, Imrahil held his breath and closed his eyes, allowing his keen ears to track every sound that came their way. And after a small eternity of waiting, he detected something that seemed to be drifting on the edge of his senses. Turning his attention to this faint noise, so distant that it was barely discernable, the prince eventually identified the sound as voice. And it seemed to be coming from…below him?
Imrahil frowned and turned around, eyes scouring the kitchen until they came to rest on an open door toward the back wall that led to descending stairs. Unfamiliar with the workings of kitchens, a voice in Imrahil’s head nonetheless offered the opinion that this door should probably not be open. Moving closer, Imrahil stopped to listen again, and now he caught the last, faint vestiges of what might have been a song. Someone at the bottom of the stairs was singing. It could have been a servant who returned in search of a forgotten tool, but something in Imrahil’s heart told him otherwise. Whoever was down there was not supposed to be down there. And Imrahil felt he knew who this someone might be.
Walking to the doorway and peering down the spiraling staircase, Imrahil noticed that a faint light seemed to be coming up from the darkness below. And now that he was at the top of the stairs, he could clearly hear a light voice lifted in a careless song about food, family, and the Brandywine River. There were only two people in Minas Tirith at the moment who would sing such a song. Smiling, Imrahil began to descend the stairs, rejoicing in the fact that his search had not proved vain after all.
That was when he heard the second crash.
Startled into an abrupt stop, Imrahil quickly shook off his surprise and hurried forward, hastening down the stone steps and watching his feet carefully as he noted that these steps were not of uniform width or height. Nevertheless, he made good time and swiftly rounded a corner at the end of the stairs only to be met by one of the strangest sights of his long life.
"Imra’il!" a voice shouted happily.
To say that the prince of Dol Amroth was shocked would be to severely understate the case. What struck him first was the almost overpowering scent of aged wine. It required only a quick glance to reveal the cause of the smell. Dozens of wine barrels crowded the storeroom, but perhaps a quarter of them had been overturned and broken, their contents now pooling on the floor. Standing in the midst of what was quickly becoming a lake of wine was a hobbit who appeared to have gone swimming in it. And not only was he standing in the midst of it but he was also waving an open lamp, the dancing flames coming perilously close to his dripping hair.
"Merry!" Imrahil cried, springing forward and seizing the light. But his boots slipped and he suddenly found himself skidding across the floor. His arms flailed madly and it was only through a stroke of fortune that he did not fall or drop the lamp. As it was, he managed to stop himself against a wooden door on the other side of the storeroom, his breath coming hard and his mind whirling.
"I didn’t ‘xpect you," Merry slurred with a wide grin as Imrahil tried to regain his composure and make sense of what was happening. "Did you come to join me?"
In a rare moment of complete and utter bewilderment, words failed the prince of Dol Amroth. He stared at the hobbit in shocked silence and then stared at the room in general. Feeling slightly faint, he put his free hand behind him, intent on bracing himself against the door he’d come up against. But as he touched the door, he frowned and turned. The wood was soaked from top to bottom with wine, and it appeared as though someone had done this deliberately. "Merry," Imrahil began, finally finding his voice in the midst of his confusion, "did you do…this?"
"Of course." the hobbit answered, pride evident in his voice. "And I’ll tell you a secret," Merry continued, his voice dropping to a loud whisper. "There’s food in there."
"There is food in…" Imrahil shook his head and tried to gain control of the situation, but the scent of the wine was beginning to make him heady. Faramir was not exaggerating when he spoke of the potency of elven wine. "Merry, in the name of Varda, what happened!?"
"I drank elven wine!" the hobbit cheered, waving his arms about.
"I can see that," Imrahil said slowly, struggling to be patient. "Why?"
"Good? You mean that the wine is good?"
Merry nodded, his wine-drenched hair flying wildly.
Swearing quietly to himself, Imrahil gingerly walked over to Merry and reached down to take his hand, deciding that holding a conversation with an inebriated hobbit was probably an exercise in futility. Answers could wait until he got Merry out of this storeroom. "Come. I think it perhaps best if we speak of this elsewhere."
But Merry had other ideas. Scowling, he jerked his hand from Imrahil’s gentle grasp and staggered backward, ultimately landing with a plop in one of the larger puddles and sending a fountain of wine up around him. "Can’t," he protested with a slight hiccup. "Arwen told us we could get s’more food here." He paused, then, and frowned, hiccuping again. "I should say Queen Arwen. That’s good and proper."
"Believe me when I say that correct protocol is currently the least of your concerns," Imrahil said. "Now come."
"S’posed to set a good example for Pippin," Merry slurred, attempting to get to his feet and failing miserably. "Ninny doesn’t ‘member things like that. Have to remind him."
Watching Merry’s ineffectual attempts to rise, Imrahil shook his head and marveled that the hobbit had managed to avoid setting fire to the storeroom. Deciding to let Merry flounder for a bit, Imrahil backtracked to the stairs and began extinguishing the lamps and candles that rested on a table near the entrance. The fumes were becoming strong enough that he worried about the lamp he currently carried. While he was waiting for Merry to decide which way was up, he could certainly lessen the danger.
Finished with the lamps and candles, Imrahil turned around and surveyed the room, once again marveling at the sight, before directing his attention back to the hobbit. Merry had finally made it to his feet and was leaning heavily upon one of the undamaged barrels, looking slightly bewildered. The area around the hobbit glistened red as light reflected off the wine that coated almost everything. And as Imrahil continued to study the storeroom, he was overcome by a sudden urge to join Merry in the blissful state of intoxication. It would save him the trouble of having to take care of this mess.
With a dutiful sigh, Imrahil shook his mind free of such enticing thoughts and stepped forward. "Come, Merry. I know not what you were attempting to do, but if it is food you desire, I can see that you receive some."
"Was gonna burn through the door," Merry said, yawning as he spoke.
The prince of Dol Amroth stared at the hobbit. "Burn through the door?" he repeated carefully.
"To get to the food."
"You would have burned not only the door but everything else as well, yourself included!"
"Toasted food is best."
Imrahil shook his head wearily and gave up. "Come, Merry. There is food in other places."
"But Arwen said there was food here!"
"She was wrong," Imrahil said, taking Merry’s shoulder and gently steering the hobbit toward the stairs. "I can find better food. But let us first get you to your room."
"No food in m’room," Merry complained, though he did stumble along next to Imrahil.
"There will be soon," Imrahil assured him. And that was true enough, he supposed, as the hobbits always seemed to create a cache of food wherever they went. At the moment, though, Imrahil was intent only on seeing that Merry made it somewhere safe and wine-free where he could sleep off the effects without setting fire to the Citadel.
"Must tell Pippin," Merry murmured to himself. "He’s looking for elves and dwarves."
Imrahil blinked and glanced down at the hobbit. "Pippin is looking for elves and dwarves?"
Merry nodded and promptly tripped as they began to climb the stairs. "Went to find Legolas and Gimli."
"Do you know if he found them?"
"No. Left him too soon." The hobbit giggled suddenly and hiccuped. "He was talking ‘bout torches, and then I was talking ‘bout torches!"
Imrahil shook his head in confusion but decided to ignore that last bit. "Merry, do you know where Legolas and Gimli are?"
"Watching Eldarion," Merry answered helpfully.
"Indeed? Could you tell me what they are watching him do?
Merry stopped his drunken waddle up the stairs and thought about that. The idea seemed to amuse him after a while and he laughed. "Don’t know. Just watching, I s’pose."
Imrahil frowned. "A moment. By watching, do you mean to say that they are tending him?"
"Yes!" Merry exclaimed, wagging his head up and down so vigorously that Imrahil was certain it would fall off. "Tending!"
"Oh, Varda," the prince of Dol Amroth swore quietly, thinking through the possibilities that this now presented.
"What?" Merry demanded loudly, looking confused.
"Naught," Imrahil sighed, taking his companion firmly by the shoulders and steering him up the last set few steps. "Let us get you to your room so that you may settle down for a long nap."
"Not sleepy," Merry protested even as a large yawn overtook his face.
"Indeed," Imrahil noted dryly. "Nevertheless, I think it best if you rested for a bit. I know it would set my mind at ease if you did."
"Then I shall rest," Merry announced grandly. "Anyt’ing to set your mind at ease." He was silent for a moment and then blinked rapidly as he and Imrahil stepped out of the dark stairs and into the open kitchens. Looking around, he glanced up at Imrahil and smiled. "You smell nice."
Imrahil sighed. "Come, Merry. We must get you to your room."
"One step at a time," Imrahil answered, pushing Merry toward the hallways and marveling at his strange fate. "For now, let us simply get you somewhere safe and secure."
"Do you want some wine?"
"Yes," Imrahil answered bluntly. "Yes, I do. But I fear that such a luxury is denied me."
"Oh." Merry was quiet for a moment and then spoke again. "I’m sorry."
"As am I, Merry," Imrahil murmured somewhat wistfully, quite certain that, as the day wore on, he would come to deeply regret his reluctance to drink. "As am I."