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The young man cringed slightly at the recollection of the rain-cursed journey and the rather rudimentary comfort of his room. ‘Honestly,’ he complained, ‘do they have to be quite so … so behind the times? I mean, there is no need to look as if you are living in a pig sty, is there? Even if you are!’
His friend – clad in blue silk, tailored to fit him just as though he would not have outgrown the garment by the year’s end, his hair brushed, pomaded and arranged in the fashionable curls – sniggered.
The first youth took heart at the indication of approval and admiration, flicking some totally imaginary dust from his own embroidered green jacket. ‘If I had had any idea that life was quite so … primitive … here, I would have argued to stay at home with Mother. But Father insisted that I needed to travel and he …’ The lanky boy shot a glance at his older friend. A good thing he had stopped where he had – the last thing he wanted was for those who sought his company to learn that he dared not defy his father. Especially not when he got that look in his eyes and began to mutter in a voice that only his mother could decipher.
The trouble was that his father seemed to expect him to like dirt – to feel that he should be relieved to get away from the soft beds and scented baths, from the silks and servants. And he made his only son feel rather … guilty … for enjoying the luxury and deference that surrounded him. Almost as if he should want to have some grubby Ranger hiding under his skin.
Oh, he knew the stories about his sire – brought up in the elven elegance of Imladris; more than half a century spent as a wanderer, fighting the forces of darkness alone; a brief sojourn among the warriors of Rohan and the soldiers of Gondor; a troth-plighting that none expected to end happily; a quest; a war; an entirely unlikely victory. It was all very well – but he was not his father. The White City was his home, not his prophesied yet entirely improbable destiny.
He sometimes thought that Gondor’s Steward understood him better than his father ever could. Uncle Faramir had been brought up in the Citadel, at the zenith of Gondorian society: he knew how it felt to be the ruler’s son – to grow up with no power and no purpose but to do as he was told – with people bowing, and deferring to him, and watching hungrily for him to make a mistake. He knew what it was to be unable to live up to paternal expectations.
His mother worried about him, he knew. She seemed to think he had lost his way, somewhere between being a treasured child and the young man he was now – seemed to think that he needed something more than relentless tutoring in history and etiquette, something more than the tedium of weapons’ training and military service, more than the diversions the inns and ballrooms of the White City presented, more than the temptations offered a wealthy youth of the highest rank.
And his father’s idea of more, of course, could be summed up in one word: dirt.
Dirt, and the company of his Northern Cousins.
Eldarion looked across the room, as the chimney belched out another puff of smoke. Men clad in leather and wool, their clothes practical in the chill that seemed to linger in these draughty halls. Women clothed with rather more attention to detail, in gowns dyed in festive colours, their long hair braided with ribbons, or covered with the oddest caps – girls with their hair unbound. They were pretending not to watch him, as they talked courteously with the slew of visitors wearing the White Tree on its black ground, but he knew that, every so often, their eyes would slide over to him – inspect him and find him wanting.
By his side, Ceniril tossed his head, his lacquered curls refusing to shift. ‘Do you see the one in blue?’ he asked. ‘She is clearly interested. Who is she, do you know?’
‘Why should you care?’ Eldarion refused even to glance in the girl’s direction. ‘You have been betrothed since you were breeched, and your father would not hear of you breaking the contract.’
‘If she wants a little dalliance – well,’ Ceniril smiled, ‘I am not averse to the idea – provided she knows the rules. And,’ he added, ‘provided her father knows them, too.’
‘I doubt the same rules apply here.’ Eldarion’s lip curled, although whether with distaste for the conventions of Gondor or Arnor he was unsure. ‘But you might wish to bear in mind that my father says – proudly – that women of the North could gut an orc as neatly as they could a fish, and all without turning a hair.’
He took another sip of the thin wine and pulled a face. His father had preferred to accept the ale – and he could see why. The slopes of these northern lands were clearly not meant for growing grapes, and their natives had low expectations when it came to wine. He felt a moment’s homesickness for the warmth of Ithilien, its fruity whites and full-bodied reds.
Not only the girls were studying the two youths. Elessar – feeling himself to be Aragorn once more in this time and place – pulled on his pipe. He had long since given up the habit: his elven wife did not appreciate the aroma and the custom had never really caught on in the south, but there were times and places where he could not resist the urge to indulge. ‘I do not know what to do with him,’ he admitted. ‘Everything I say is wrong – and everything I do is deemed to have been done with the sole intention of making him suffer.’
His companion grinned. ‘Welcome to the joys of parenthood,’ he said. ‘I am surprised it has taken you this long to find its less pleasurable side. Did your daughters manage to avoid the delights of surly adolescence?’
‘Not according to their mother,’ Aragorn said gloomily. ‘She seemed to feel it was about time I shared in her pain.’ He glanced at Baras. ‘I just … do not seem to understand him. He has everything he could possibly want, and it only makes him …’ He shrugged. He did not want to find the words to express his worry that his son was – spoiled. Over-indulged, over-protected, over-demanding – a brat who would never be capable of filling the role that his father would, one day, leave for him.
‘He leads a very different life,’ Baras mused. ‘Very different from the upbringing you had. I remember when you first arrived here from Imladris – the elders found it hard to believe that you would ever overcome your … your elvish ways and become a man we could respect, but …’ His eyes gazed into the past, remembering the earnest youngster and his elven brothers. ‘Lord Elrond trained you carefully, and all Imladris took part in raising a worthy heir for the Dúnedain. You were modest, overly educated, good with a sword, a mind for strategy – you just could not deal with people wanting a bit of fun. To you, dancing, singing, drinking, telling stories – they were all serious matters. You relaxed in time – but it took you a while. Your boy,’ he jerked his head to the young man at the other end of the room, ‘he has learned different lessons. He knows he is special. He is a king’s son – born to rule. He has had people begging to serve him from the moment he was born. It is hardly surprising that he expects us all to fall down in wonder at his mere presence.’ Baras opened his pouch and refilled his pipe before offering it to his king. ‘He will learn. It might take him some pain and a bit of humiliation, but he is not stupid. He will learn.’
Aragorn smiled wryly. ‘A few patrols in bad weather through stinking marshes, without shelter and the food gone mouldy?’ he asked.
‘It usually works.’ Baras was unashamed. ‘Snotty-nosed brats soon realise that they are not as perfect as their mothers think them. And that there is more to be said for experience than they realised.’
‘He does not care for mud.’
‘Neither did you, as I recall.’ Baras tapped out his pipe. ‘But you learned not to complain. And to appreciate a bit of comfort where you could find it.’
‘He is angry that I brought him north.’
‘And will be angrier still when you leave him here,’ said Baras, quite comfortable with the idea. ‘But it will not do him any harm. Only …’ he raised an eyebrow at his king and cousin, ‘do us all a favour and take the lapdog back with you. I am not sure we will be able to survive his presence. Not without corrupting a whole generation of young Dúnedain.’
A snort of laughter lightened Aragorn’s expression. ‘My regrets,’ he said. ‘You are stuck with him. Gondor would not consider it proper for my son to reside here a while without his own suitably-bred courtier. And I cannot imagine a worthier recipient of your tender loving care than Ceniril.’
‘I know not what the world is coming to,’ his friend grumbled, ‘when the Rangers of Arnor are prized more for their child-minding skills than their orc-slaying.’
‘A time of peace, cousin.’ The king fingered the bowl of his pipe contemplatively, before giving in to the desire to refill it. ‘Matters could be worse.’ Aragorn used a spill to light the weed, puffing on it while he watched Baras. ‘I wish you would agree to come to Annúminas. I could do with you to drill some sense into the bureaucrats.’
‘Bureaucrats breed like flies in carrion.’ Baras dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. ‘It would take more than an aging Ranger to bring them to their senses – and, anyway, if all the northern Dúnedain take up residence in Annúminas, who will hold the land for you and watch the borders? We are where we need to be, my king – and if you start to overlook the importance of keeping those who are your eyes and ears spread wide, then you have begun to lose touch with reality. Which,’ he added, nodding towards the young men, ‘is their problem – their feet are not on the ground.’
‘Not a problem they will have much longer,’ Aragorn commented.
‘It will not be just their feet, either.’
‘If he is going to hate me,’ the prince’s father said, ‘he might as well have a reason.’
Life had been so simple once, Eldarion mused gloomily, as he avoided his father’s eye. When he and his sisters were young and his parents had taken them on joyful quests among the trees of Ithilien or amidst the meadows of Lebennin or on the cliffs of Dol Amroth. When climbing trees and ripping a few garments had exacted nothing but a raised eyebrow and a few tuts from his mother. When even the most wearing of days had ended in a bath before bedtime and a story about some conquering hero told by one of his parents, as he sat with his head resting comfortably on their shoulder and their arms holding him safe. Now – everything he did was wrong.
‘She is coming over!’ Ceniril nudged the prince. ‘I told you she was interested.’
‘Leave her alone,’ Eldarion commanded. ‘We have enough problems as it is.’
‘You just dislike taking advantage of your position,’ his friend grumbled. ‘You know that half the girls in the White City would fall at your feet if you just crooked your finger at them.’
‘And then my father would kill me. Always assuming that my mother had not done so first.’
‘Then accept the invitations that the tavern wenches throw at you – no-one expects you to take them seriously. Honestly,’ his friend smirked at him, ‘people will begin to get the idea that you do not care for girls.’
The young prince could not hold back a blush. Perhaps his parents’ teaching had had more effect than he liked to think. ‘Keeping away from … from loose women does not mean I dislike girls. I just want more than that. More than a girl who wants me only because I am my father’s son.’
Ceniril looked at him pityingly. ‘I doubt you know what you want!’ He shot a quick glance across to the king – sprawled in a chair by the fire as if he were in the corner of some dark tavern and looking more at home here than he did perched on his throne. ‘Your father worries that you are a spoilt brat, with no understanding of the world outside your own privileged circle – and you worry that you cannot live up to his standards of perfection. Perhaps you should try sharing a conversation sometime.’ He turned an appreciative smile on the dark-haired girl who had gathered a tray of wine to use as an introduction and was heading their way. ‘Now, me, if I were in your place, I really would run wild and seize every opportunity hurled at me. No risk of being disinherited, of having the supply of ready cash cut off – no chance of being forced to work for a living. Everybody anxious to give me whatever I want!’ He shook his head. ‘It is a gift you are a fool to turn down.’
Eldarion snorted in a most unprincely way, then flushed again as the girl arrived to offer him another glass of the sharp wine. ‘Thank you, cousin,’ he said courteously, proving that years of training in etiquette had not been entirely wasted on him.
‘You could at least try,’ she snapped. ‘We do not bite – and there are a lot of people here who have travelled a long way to meet you. Do you want them to go home with the message that the heir of Gondor and Arnor is nothing but a rude snob?’
‘I beg your pardon?’ Ceniril could do imperious disdain rather well, Eldarion thought. Better than he could, at any rate.
The girl did not flinch. Perhaps his father was right in praising the strong stomachs and iron nerves of these northerners. ‘You are huddling together over here and sneering at us – do not think for a moment that we have not noticed. It is only the respect in which we hold our Chieftain that has prevented anyone saying anything.’
‘Your Chieftain!’ Ceniril scoffed.
Her hard grey eyes glinted like daggers. ‘He was our Chieftain long before he was your King,’ she said. ‘And you do not see him looking down his nose at us!’
Eldarion administered a swift kick to his friend’s ankle. ‘Enough,’ he insisted. ‘You volunteered to be my companion, Ceniril. You will just have to deal with the consequences. And you, cousin …’ He looked at the girl and stopped. She had a point, he acknowledged reluctantly. His mother would, long since, have given him that disappointed look that made him do her will. ‘Perhaps you could introduce us to some of my kinsmen?’
Across the room, Baras lifted his pewter mug and swallowed a draft to hide his grin. ‘You can tell the boy is accustomed to being directed by older sisters,’ he commented.
‘Your granddaughter?’ Aragorn asked.
‘Now, she is used to being an older sister.’ Baras shrugged. ‘And one whose mother is too frail to hold the authority she should. If either of those two have any thoughts of taking liberties with her, you might well find your line ends with your son.’
‘It had better not,’ the King said dryly. ‘We have had enough trouble to last an age or two. I would not want to see any repetition of the whole cycle of Isildur’s northern heirs being rejected by the Stewards of Gondor.’
‘Maybe not,’ Baras conceded. ‘I will have a word with her.’ He watched the three young people. ‘It is mutual, you know, this problem you are having. You fail to understand him just as much as he resists understanding you. I am pleased to tell you that there is an easy enough solution – it will just take you both a few years and a lot of patience to reach it. And then,’ he grinned, ‘you will be a grandfather – and able to take a great deal of pleasure in watching the boy go through the same frustrations, while you get to be your grandson’s hero.’
‘You make it all sound so tempting.’ Aragorn caught his son’s eyes briefly before they both looked away, embarrassed to be caught showing any interest in what the other was doing. ‘I can hardly wait.’
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