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The Queen of the United Realm lowered her embroidery to her lap and raised eyes of liquid starlight to gaze firmly at her husband.
‘But, my love . . .’ he protested. ‘You cannot mean to let them continue saying . . .’
‘They have been saying those things for as long as I can remember,’ she told him. ‘It will do them no harm to continue.’
Gimli stood like a rock, his arms folded across his chest under his luxuriant beard. He grunted his agreement. ‘I would never have told you had I thought you would take it this way,’ he complained.
‘But . . .’ Aragorn tried again.
‘But nothing.’ Gimli’s beard jumped as he set his jaw. ‘You promised me before we started that you would keep this in confidence – unless it threatened Gondor’s safety. How does the language used by Elrond’s sons damage your realm, tell me that?’
Arwen smiled; a wicked little grin that made her husband’s heart sink. ‘You did say that, Estel,’ she agreed. ‘Perhaps you should be more careful what you promise.’
His heart sank. If his Evenstar was determined to perpetuate this – this atrocity, then what could he do to save his brothers? Elladan and Elrohir had, after all, been her brothers first – and for many centuries. Perhaps they had, over those years, done a multitude of things to merit her decision to let them continue with this farce.
‘It is very noble of Gimli to let you in on the secret,’ Arwen said, moving close to rest a coaxing hand on the king’s arm. ‘He did not have to, you know. He could have let you, too, continue to swear in the secret tongue – and with more dwarves coming into the city, who is to know who might have overheard you? Your wish to be served up on a platter with an apple between your lips might have become the talk of dwarvenkind.’
‘I would not have that happen, lad,’ Gimli said gruffly. ‘Not to mention that I would have to challenge any dwarf who insulted you.’
‘We cannot have that.’ Arwen shook her head, allowing her rippling black hair to fall over her shoulders. ‘It would not be like you, Estel, to put Gimli’s very life at risk to defend you from the mockery of his kin.’
‘And I am grateful to you, Gimli.’ Aragorn’s voice rang with sincerity. ‘I owe you the highest honour that Gondor can offer. I would just like to extend the favour of this knowledge to Elladan and Elrohir.’
‘I do not want your honours, Aragorn,’ the dwarf shrugged. ‘My words were offered on the strength of our friendship. We have travelled a long way together.’
‘And I understand,’ Arwen smiled, ‘if Estel chooses not to, that you do not owe such loyalty to my brothers.’
‘What of Legolas?’ Aragorn decided to try another tack.
‘I will see to the elf,’ Gimli assured him. ‘He is dwarf-friend – and will be treated as such. I will make sure he knows enough not to be deceived.’
‘Elladan and Elrohir would be far more distressed,’ their sister said, ‘to be told of this matter now. After all, my love, how many dwarves are likely to hear them employing their knowledge of Khuzdul?’ She ran her long fingers through her husband’s untidy hair, sending a shiver down his spine. ‘They believe themselves to be using the sort of expressions that are not generally used in diplomacy. It will be much better to leave them in ignorance.’
As Estel, he could feel himself weakening. The thought of maintaining this joke on the brothers who had teased him mercilessly over the years had its merits. And, as king, he had to ask himself, what harm could it do? He really would not want to revive the suspicion that so often affected elves in the presence of dwarves by revealing the scheme of those long dead. Aragorn would rather be honest – the twins were adults; they could take the truth – but . . . He melted as Arwen’s clever fingers released the tension in his neck and shoulder.
The Queen lifted an eyebrow at Gimli over her husband’s shoulder.
Gimli smiled. He might, he thought, had he seen the Evenstar before he met her grandmother, have found himself offering his undying devotion to this vision of timeless beauty. He could understand how it was that Aragorn had committed much of his life to winning her hand – even to the point of taking on the Dark Lord himself. But, the dwarf decided, the lad wanted to be careful. It seemed that, once the lady made up her mind, she would stop at nothing to ensure that she got her own way – and Aragorn stood little chance of defeating her.
‘So, will you keep your tongue still, Aragorn?’ he asked bluntly. ‘I will teach you a phrase or two better suited to the mouth of a king,’ he offered.
‘I think,’ Elessar pronounced warily, ‘it would be – less than tactful for the king to use the language of an allied race in order to utter abuse of any kind. Let the secret tongue remain in the safekeeping of the dwarves.’
‘Very wise, my love,’ Arwen approved.
‘And I will not interfere in any way between you and my brothers over this matter.’
‘If that is your decision,’ Gimli smiled broadly. Now all he had to do was get those flighty elves, without realising his intent, to reveal all their choicest expressions – and that would make a pleasant project for him over the many peaceful years to come.
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