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Minas Tirith FA Year 4 (1423 SR)
The White City. He had seen it before, of course, on his two previous visits, but those were years ago, before the War of the Ring. The underlying impression then had been one of growing dread, despair and disrepair. Some people left the city, seeking a life as far away from Mordor as they could find. Many had sought refuge in Lebennin when the incursions of Mordor's hordes grew more daring. There was always the fear that one day the orcs would cross the Anduin in numbers greater than Gondor could defeat, despite the watchfulness of the Steward and the courage and tactical skill of his sons. The buildings had been battered and worn, the people likewise, as the unrelenting menace increased. Whatever fell from the sky from the Land of Shadow often infected the grain and those who ate it died half-mad and in agony. An unclean smell hung in the air too, and the effect on the body was unpleasant but it had been the weight upon the spirit which he had noticed most. Now the walls of Minas Tirith gleamed, and the fields of the Pelennor grew lush. Crops flourished without the darkness and murk of the Black Land, beasts grazed, and the wharves of the Harlond were awash with people loading and unloading goods. Dock workers and porters shouted cheerfully across to one another, traders from many lands milled about, supervising their goods, and Merlindor, merchant of Lebennin and Head of the Merchant's Guild there, gazed about in growing excitement. He could see the White Tower and there, ramping in the breeze, was the great black banner with the White Tree and Stars. The standard of the King!
He made his way along the road to the great city, wagons rumbling past him as he rode his horse at walking pace. In the fields alongside the road, farmers tended their flocks and women sang as they worked. He had heard much of the revival of Minas Tirith, and indeed Lebennin prospered as a province of Gondor, but he had long wished to see the recovery for himself. He was also nervous at the prospect of meeting the King, for all merchants entering the White City were expected to present themselves before the Lord. Twice previously he had come here and prostrated himself before the Lord Denethor.
The brand new city gates towered above him as he urged his horse forward. They were magnificent - the finest wood, covered with mithril - and they were kept open during the hours of daylight. Four guards stood at their post just inside, and Merlindor halted his mount and handed one of them his papers.
"From Lebennin, eh? Have you been here before, sir?"
"Twice. I was last here eight years ago, and I can see that much has changed."
"Thanks to our King." He returned the papers. "I see you have a house in the city?"
"Yes. My grand-father bought it years ago, but I fear it has stood empty in recent years. My agent has seen to its upkeep and repair, and there is a stable nearby."
"Then I hope you enjoy your stay, sir. Welcome to Minas Tirith! You'll find a good many alehouses only too willing to take your coin."
As he rode through the streets, Merlindor could see where the greatest damage must have been, for most of the buildings here were of brand new white stone. Here and there parties of dwarves worked, the tapping of hammers providing a counterpoint to their strange tongue. The same was true of the other levels, although the mount of new building grew less. By the time he reached the Fifth Level he recognised most of the houses and shops. Some people remembered him vaguely and greeted him as he passed; others nodded politely, as they would to any visitor. In one street there was a little park, and as he drew level he could see more dwarves working on a wall, while a group of elegant figures planted trees and flowers. Elves! Merlindor had never seen an Elf before, and stopped, transfixed. As he gazed in awe at the tall beings, one of them called to another:
"Legolas! What do you think of this?" He held up a basket full of trailing blooms. "Would Lord Samwise approve?"
The golden-haired Elf thus addressed paused in his work and looked critically at the basket. "Yes, I think he would. He said petunias would look right in those baskets." He glanced over at the group of dwarves. "Gimli? Do you think Sam would like these? Petunias, lobelias and geraniums."
A stocky dwarf with a russet beard trotted over and nodded his approval. "Aye. Not sure about the...........er....lobelias?......though!" He bellowed a laugh and Legolas chuckled too. The others looked puzzled - this was obviously some private joke.
Legolas! Gimli! Talk of Lord Samwise! Merlindor felt light-headed. He was in the presence of two of the Nine Walkers. Elves and dwarves speaking together, clearly friends. He shook his head dazedly.
"Master Legolas!" one of the other dwarves called. "Will you give us a song?"
"Gladly, Master Fror," replied the Elf, and began to sing. The other Elves took up the melody and after a few moments the dwarves began a counterpoint. The merchant found himself suddenly deeply moved. There had been enmity between the two races for thousands of years, but to see such harmony was almost unbearably poignant.
When the song was finished Legolas launched into another. This was not in Sindarin though. Indeed it did not sound Elven at all. Nor Gondorian. Merlindor listened to the words, which were sung in the Common Tongue.
You may keep the hills of Chetwood.
You may keep the town of Bree.
For the land 'twixt Stock and Greenholm
Is the only land for me.
The song had a rollicking tune, and clearly both Legolas and Gimli knew it well. When they had finished, Gimli noticed the merchant and smiled.
"I grant you the pointy-ear sings well enough, but did you not think a bass voice added depth, sir?"
"I.....er.......it sounded very interesting and your voices blended beautifully, Master Dwarf, although I do not recognise the song."
Gimli chuckled. "I don't suppose you would, for it is from the land of the Shire-folk."
"The hobbits of the Shire," Legolas explained, fussing Merlindor's horse. "We call them Periain or Halflings, although in Rohan they are called holbytlan. This park was planned and designed by them, so that we may all have some reminder of the Shire in our lives."
"The Pheriannath? I know little of their people, although I know the story of the War of the Ring."
"You are new to the City?"
"I have a house here, although I have not been here for eight years. I am to present myself at the Citadel later. Forgive me. I am Merlindor, a merchant from Lebennin."
"Legolas Thranduilion, at your service. This scapegrace is Gimli Elvellon."
"The dwarf bowed. "As my partner in crime says, Gimli, son of Gloin, at your service."
"Then I am more honoured than I thought possible. I have heard much of you both, but never thought to meet you."
"We shall no doubt see you again, sir," smiled Legolas, who had been murmuring Sindarin to the horse. "We shall be coming to the Citadel later." He glanced up to where another Elf was hanging one of the flower baskets, and hastened to help.
Merindor continued on his way, pondering. The White City had certainly changed! He found himself growing more excited at the prospect of being here at the centre of a thriving kingdom, surrounded by beings out of legend.
Upon arrival at his house, Merlindor found his agent, and a cook and housekeeper who had been hired to look after him during his stay. The house had been aired and appeared largely unscathed by the troubles. After settling his horse, he discussed his affairs briefly, then bathed and changed his clothes before setting out for the Citadel. Before leaving he re-read his notes on the etiquette of Gondor which he had written out during his last visit.
The man was important, not only in his own land but here in the White City. The Guilds were not just for those in the White City but throughout Gondor - and now Arnor as well. The Guild had looked after the house for him and found servants when he wrote to say he was returning. It was like a family, and each was obliged to help his fellow members. It was also a duty to present himself at the Court, but his memories of previous visits did not bode well. It would be nerve-wracking, he was sure.
The Courtyard of the Fountain proved another shock. Instead of the gnarled, dead tree and non-working fountain of his previous visit, he saw a magnificent White Tree laden with blossom. Here indeed was the sign that Gondor flourished. The fountain sprayed its droplets high into the air and the Tree seemed to delight in them. Four guards surrounded it, at attention, and there were four more guards at the main entrance. Merlindor found himself inside, led down a cool corridor to an audience chamber. This was still more surprising, as Lord Denethor had always received visitors in the Throne Room, seated on his black chair at the foot of the steps. He appeared to give most people no more than a cursory glance before dismissing them with a stock sentence. A more daunting experience would be difficult to imagine and Merlindor was grateful that today's audience would not be in there.
The Master of Protocol walked beside him, pointing out interesting statues or pictures.
"Tell me, sir, how many steps am I to take when approaching the Lord King Elessar? I assume I prostrate myself until he gives me leave to rise?"
"Oh dear me, no." Nestamir shook his head disapprovingly.
"I remain prostrate throughout the audience?" The merchant was startled to hear the Master of Protocol laughing.
"I apologise, sir. I was forgetting that you came here during the time of Lord Denethor's Stewardship. Our Lord King changed all those rules and threw out nearly all of them within a week of his Coronation. You advance until you stand before him and a simple bow will suffice. Only prisoners begging for mercy and awaiting sentence are expected to kneel and no guest of this city should have to prostrate themselves. If you remember Lord Denethor I think you will find our King a very pleasant surprise. He can be astonishingly ......ordinary when he wishes to. He sometimes works here in the gardens, planting and weeding, and he goes often to the Houses to help heal difficult cases."
If he noticed the visitor's eyes widen he was too polite to say so. Merlindor felt that his eyes must be out on stalks by now. Denethor would not have known a weed if one had been introduced to him, and as for helping out at the Houses of Healing.................!
The Audience Chamber was large but still surprisingly intimate. At a table near the door sat the Steward Faramir. He gave Merlindor a friendly smile as he took the documents and scrutinised them.
"I believe I remember you, Master Merlindor? Did you not come here some years ago? My brother and I were both in the City at the time, somewhat unusually."
"Yes, Lord Faramir, although I can hardly believe you would remember me. You were here for a family celebration, I believe."
"My uncle's birthday. Welcome then." He stood. "Come and meet our King."
Merlindor paced towards the large chair in the centre of the room. He saw a tall Man, apparently in his forties and at the height of his powers, with shoulder-length black hair, fine features, a well-trimmed beard and kindly grey eyes. He was wearing a crimson velvet robe over a red silk shirt, black breeches and soft black leather boots. There was something oddly familiar about him, a memory just out of reach. Merlindor was certain he had seen this Man somewhere before. Slightly behind and to the right of his chair stood what appeared to be a child in guard uniform.
Prince Faramir announced the merchant, who stepped forward and bowed deeply.
"Master Merlindor, you are most welcome. And I must say your presence will be a necessity if I am to supply the needs of all those now working to beautify the city - not to mention thirsty Elves with a taste for good wine!" The voice was strong and warm, and there was a twinkle in the eye which Merlindor found reassuring.
"Thank you, my Lord King. They were certainly making a good job of things when I passed some on the Fifth Level on my arrival."
The King smiled. "Ah yes, they are completing the park of the hobbits. They have worked hard for the last four years in this city, as have the dwarves. So you have returned here to oversee the importation of goods from Lebennin?"
"Yes, sire. The other end of the business is now doing well and I felt I could leave it in order to travel for a while."
"How is your father? He must be in his......seventies now?"
The merchant was stunned. "I did not know you knew my father, sire. He is seventy-five, but still hale."
"I'm glad to hear it. I stayed with your family many years ago. Their hospitality to a stranger is something I have never forgotten."
Merlindor swayed slightly as the memory hit him. "Captain Thorongil!" he whispered.
"I am sorry I startled you," murmured the King, motioning someone to fetch a chair. "Sometimes my own sense of mischief gets the better of me. My wife is always scolding me for it," he added ruefully.
Merlindor was embarrassed to find himself sitting in a chair with his head between his knees, the King beside him, feeling the pulse in his neck.
"I'm the one who should apologise, my Lord King. Forgive me, but the shock of seeing you again........." He sipped from the cup of water he had been given. "I.....but....you don't look old enough to................." He remembered the Captain who had stayed with them one winter when he himself had been a child of seven.
"I am the Dunadan, and I have a lifespan longer than that of most Men. I am ninety-two years of age and, with the aid of Eru, I shall likely live to be over two hundred. As for you, I suspect a journey, little food and the disorientating feeling of being in the city added to your light-headedness. Rest here for a while and then come and join me for some refreshment. Peregrin?"
"Yes, my Lord King," said the guardsman.
"You are going off duty soon. Will you stay with Merlindor while he recovers, then bring him to the Green Sitting-room in one quarter."
"I will." The guard bowed and stepped forward as the King stood, gestured that there was no need for Merlindor to rise, and made his way out of the room, followed by the Steward.
Feeling rather foolish, the merchant looked about him, then at the young guard. Now he looked more closely he realised this was no child. The face was pink, rosy and good-natured, with soft green eyes and topped with light auburn curls, but there was a maturity which belied his diminutive height. He carried a small sword but looked as though he knew how to use it. Merlindor glanced down and almost lost his grip on the cup, for the guard's breeches ended at mid-calf level and his feet were large, bare and covered in auburn hair.
"Oh dear, I'm sorry!" said the lad, full of contrition. "Your day is just too full of shocks, isn't it? I've had days like that and it really isn't pleasant but I hope you'll think more kindly of it later and..........." He tailed off and grinned. "I'm sorry. I'm always babbling on like that. Merry just jabs me with his elbow to shut me up! Peregrin Took, Guard of the Citadel, at your service and your family's."
"You are the Ernil i Pheriannath! Sweet Valar! To meet so many of such renown in one day! Are there any more of you here in Minas Tirith?"
"My cousin Merry is here - he's gone to see some of his friends at the Houses of Healing and is probably having Ioreth jaw his ears off at the moment!" The impish grin faded as he continued, "Sam is in the Shire with his wife, awaiting the birth of their second child............."
"And the Ring-bearer?"
"He.......is....... no longer with us."
"Oh Sir Peregrin! Forgive me for pressing you. I had no idea that........."
The hobbit looked at him, the green eyes wet. "No, he isn't dead. He was........too badly wounded by all he had suffered, and he was granted the grace to sail with the Elves. He has gone into the West - although in a way that is the same, for we shall not see him again in this life." Pippin sniffed.
"He has gone to Elvenhome? A blessing indeed, and a fitting one for someone so brave and selfless."
Pippin sighed. "He didn't always think so. He somehow felt he was not worthy of all the praise and admiration. So many people died to enable him to reach the mountain........."
"But many more would have died had he not. I have seen soldiers return from battle filled with guilt because they survived and their comrades did not. I hope the Ring-bearer comes to realise that he could not save everyone, and that everyone has a part to play somewhere."
"I hope so too. I wish you could have known him though, stubborn Baggins that he was. Obstinate as a donkey." He frowned. "Are you feeling better? Because my stomach is telling me that it is tea-time and I'm starving! Come along." He led the way out of the chamber and down some twisting passageways to the semi-private rooms, Merlindor following. The merchant felt as though he was in a very strange sort of dream and merely allowed himself to be guided, wondering what 'tea-time' was.
The rooms were not in the private wing but were tucked away behind the Public Apartments. The room into which Merlindor stepped was large and airy, with soft green and blue rugs on the floor, dark green couches and comfortable chairs, Elven tapestries on the walls and a long, low table covered with all sorts of food. There were three enormous round containers with spouts and handles, the like of which the merchant had never seen before.
The King smiled affectionately at his guard. "You are off duty now, aren't you Pippin?"
"Yes, Strider, and I'm so hungry!" He ran to embrace the King, and Merlindor realised that there was great love between the two. What was it the hobbit had called his King? Strider? Surely not.
Aragorn turned to the merchant, as though divining his thoughts. "When the hobbits first met me in Bree, Strider was the name they knew me by. The Bree-folk called me that because I tend to stride along very rapidly. It is why I took the name Telcontar, which means 'Far-Strider' of course. It is an affectionate nickname."
"I can see there is much love between you, my Lord King."
Legolas and Gimli were there, the Elf was clad in a tunic of soft green silk and matching breeches, with pale grey suede boots. His hair was braided very simply. Gimli was dressed in very dark gold, with silver rings holding the braids of his beard. Beside the Lord Faramir stood a woman of great beauty, clad in a white gown, whose hair was the colour of ripe grain.Another woman was seated on one of the couches, who rose as she heard more visitors arriving.
"You might prove another shock to this poor man, my love," said the King softly. "Master Merlindor, this is the lady Arwen Evenstar. Arwen, this man is Master of the Merchants' Guild in Lebennin."
The merchant bowed and lightly kissed the proffered fingers. He drew a deep breath and looked at the Queen. She was beautiful beyond the dreams of mere mortals, her hair almost black, her skin creamy and youthful. The light of the stars seemed to dance in her eyes and her mouth curved into a slow smile. She was slender and graceful in a dark blue gown.
"Welcome, Master Merlindor," she said, her voice low and musical. "I have told my husband before that he should not shock people with the knowledge of his former identity but I'm afraid he enjoys it. I have obviously not chastised him enough. I understand that he stayed with your family in Lebennin?"
"Yes, my Lady Queen. I was only a child when Captain Thorongil came to our town, where he was able to be of assistance to my father, who invited him to stay. The weather turned foul and he stayed for much of the winter, much to my delight, for I had never met a more entertaining visitor, who patiently answered all the questions an inquisitive child could think of."
"It's where I learned how to answer all the questions thrown at me by an impatient Took!" Aragorn muttered. Arwen ignored him serenely.
"I can imagine how a young child would have taken to him. This is the Lady Eowyn. She and I have spent the afternoon discussing how to improve the treatment of wounded soldiers. It is so important that they should have some independence and the opportunity to earn a living. Do sit down. Have you ever had tea before?" She gestured to one of the couches and Merlindor found himself next to Gimli.
"No, my Lady Queen. Is it an Elven custom?"
"Elves drink tea, but tea-time as a meal is a custom of the Shire-folk. We have been heavily influenced by our friends from the Shire, as Pippin will tell you. I first learned of it through Bilbo Baggins, who lived in Rivendell for a time." She laughed and ruffled the curls of the young guard, who beamed up at her and kissed her hand.
The door opened and another halfling entered. He was much the same height as his cousin, with a snub nose, twinkly grey eyes, light brown hair and a very mischievous face.
"Merry!" Peregrin rushed over and hugged his cousin and dragged him to the couch, where he was introduced to the guest. "Did Ioreth talk you into a stupor?"
The other hobbit gave a very impish grin. "I love her dearly, but she'd talk both hind legs off any number of donkeys!" He bowed. "Meriadoc Brandybuck at your service, and your family's."
Gimli turned to the King. "How are you, Aragorn?"
"Mustn't grumble," replied the King, using a very hobbity expression which Merry had heard the Gaffer repeat on dozens of occasions.
Gimli gave one of his booming laughs. "You're sounding more like a hobbit every day, lad."
"I shall take that as a great compliment! Yes, I am well - when have you known me not to be? I am lucky to have inherited the constitution of the Dunedain."
"What Gimli means is, as you know very well, are you still as bored by convention and duty as you were last time he visited?" said Arwen lightly.
"You see, Master Merlindor. Wives always know exactly what their husbands are thinking and doing."
"So I have found, sire. My own wife is almost as perceptive.I hope she and the childen will join me here soon."
Aragorn turned to his guest. "You will notice that we tend to be as informal as possible. I find the restraints of kingship can be eased in such ways."
"It must be difficult after leading a relatively unencumbered life, sire."
"I do have one advantage - I have the finest Steward there is. I could never do this without his help and advice."
Merlindor saw Faramir stand a little taller at the King's praise and he was struck by another memory - an embarrassing scene in which Lord Denethor went out of his way to humiliate his younger son in front of a number of people. No wonder the young Man flourished under the care of a King like the Lord Elessar.
"Eat up, lad, or there will be nothing left once Merry and Pippin get busy," said Gimli, and the merchant helped himself to some of the delicious looking food on offer. Pippin (as he plainly preferred to be called when not on duty) recited the list of dishes.
"Sandwiches - invented by hobbits, I might add! Those are ham, those have some of that lovely garlic sausage, those are tomato and cheese and those are cucumber and egg. Then there's scones with jam and cream, various pastries and .....oooh yes! Seedcake! Another hobbit invention."
"I do not believe our guest has ever had tea before, Pippin," said Eowyn.
Pip's eyes widened. "Never......! Goddness, what a thought. Try those - they're lovely."
"I feel I must ask - what are those containers?"
"Teapots. Shire teapots, to be precise, but made larger for Big Folk," Merry explained. "We drink gallons of the stuff, although Frodo was the one - never really woke up until he'd had at least three cups, did he?"
Merlindor felt he had to keep pinching himself throughout the meal. He tried to imagine Lord Denethor sitting on a couch, chatting casually of this and that and eating pastries, but his mind almost shut down when he did so. To think he was eating seedcake with the King of Gondor and his Queen, who was grand-daughter to Earendil the Mariner, and in the company of the Steward and his lady and four other members of the Nine Walkers! If anyone had foretold such a thing he would have sworn they were mad.
"How do you like the seedcake then?" Pippin asked.
"It is delicious. I regret I have never eaten it before."
"I'd swear this is Bilbo's recipe, except I can't think how the cooks in the Citadel would know it," Pip remarked.
"Nor can I," murmured Aragorn innocently, only to have Merry fix him with an interrogative glare.
"Someone not a mile away must have wangled the secret out of the old hobbit."
"I did not 'wangle' it out of him, as you say, Merry. I merely asked him what the secret was and he wrote out the recipe for me. Anyone would think I go round tricking elderly hobbits into divulging their culinary knowledge!" Merry's reply was a loud snort, and everyone laughed.
"You should have seen some of the things he expected us to eat on the journey," said Merry.
Pippin agreed. "Hobbits enjoy foraging but really! Our King says he can make a meal out of anything including mud and leaves, and I swear we ate that more than once!"
When the Big Folk were finished and the two hobbits were happily filling up the corners, Merlindor noticed that the walls were lined with pictures, mostly portraits. The King rose and escorted him over to have a closer look.
"These are the members of the Fellowship who set out from Rivendell."
"I recognise Lord Boromir." The tall, proud Man wore a thick green cloak and carried his distinctive round shield and the great horn.
"Yes, he joined us and fought bravely, dying in an attempt to prevent these two scamps from being captured by the Uruk-hai from Isengard." Aragorn's gaze fell on the portraits of Gandalf - one as the Grey, leaning on his staff, pipe in hand, the other as the White, riding upon Shadowfax and wielding his sword. "He was so much more than a wizard, yet to me he was a friend and counsellor." He shrugged at the portrait of himself, which showed him as Strider, clad in simple dark green, his hair and beard less neat and clean than now. Yes, that was Captain Thorongil as Merlindor remembered him.
"You scrub up pretty well, Strider," said Merry as he joined them and smirked at the King.
"You're not so bad yourself, Merry. You and Pipsqueak there have changed into very responsible hobbits."
"Sticklebacks! I hope not!" Pippin said, laughing.
The most arresting portraits were of the four hobbits. Merry and Pippin were wearing their respective uniforms and looked uncharacteristically solemn. The Lord Samwise gazed out of the picture, torn between obstinacy and pride. He had an honest face, thoughtful and gentle, but the hazel eyes had clearly seen more than they should. The final portrait was of the Lord Frodo, the Ring-bearer. He was a slight figure with slender limbs and fine bones. His features did not look like those of a typical hobbit as Merlindor understood them - chiselled nose, delicate mouth, bark brown curls and eyes of a piercingly beautiful blue. Even in a picture he appeared to shimmer as though filled with starlight, but the eyes were haunted and filled with an incalculable sorrow.
The King lifted a hand and stroked the hobbit's cheek for a moment, his eyes filling. "May you know peace, my friend," he whispered.
Back in a chair, Merlindor answered the hobbits' questions about how he had come to know Thorongil. He remembered fierce winter storms outside, a roaring fire and three children snuggled with the visitor, enthralled by his tales of lands far away and kingdoms sinking beneath the waves. Looking at the Man, he suddenly saw him as he really was - Strider and Thorongil and Aragorn - filled with the Light of Being and the wisdom of Ages past and he knew Gondor could have no finer King.
Aragorn poured more tea. "As my wife says, we have been heavily influenced by the hobbits, Master Merlindor."
The merchant smiled, glancing at the hobbits, who were chattering away to Legolas and Gimli. "If it means more trees and flowers, and food like this, and a joy in simply living, my Lord King, then I think such an influence can only be a good thing."
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