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A/N: Some readers may notice that the middle portion of this chapter has appeared before, as an entry in the June Challenge for the GFIC group. It was posted as "In the Courtyard of the Fountain" at the Challenge's LJ community. It has not previously appeared here at Stories of Arda.
Mosco had enjoyed the feast immensely. That soup made with bread and spices was like nothing he’d ever eaten before, and the strawberry pie had been every bit as good as any that he’d ever had back home.
And the minstrel’s singing, that had been very moving! There was something sort of familiar about that Man, but Mosco couldn’t call it to mind at the moment.
He noticed that servants were beginning to come in, taking things away, and that the people at the lower tables were beginning to rise from their places.
Jolly, who sat to his left, turned to him. “Mr. Mosco, is it over?”
“I think so, but I’m not sure…”
The elderly woman who sat to Mosco’s right-- the Lady Ivriniel, she was, and Prince Faramir’s aunt—spoke: “The eating of the feast is ended. There will be a pause while the Hall is prepared for further festivities. There will be more singing, and dancing as well. Most people will take this opportunity to walk about, converse with others and refresh themselves. If you will pardon me, Master Burrows, I am going to do so myself. Perhaps we may speak again later in the evening.”
“Thank you, Lady Ivriniel,” he replied politely. “I have enjoyed our conversation.”
She sailed away with great dignity. Mosco had enjoyed their talk. For the first time he had met someone of the Big Folk who truly seemed as interested in family lines as hobbits were. She had responded to his polite queries about her connexions with Faramir in great detail, and had listened attentively to his own explanations of his relationship to Frodo and the others. She reminded him a good deal of old Aunt Dora. She had been his mother’s third cousin on the Baggins side, and had passed away when he was only nineteen. Lady Ivriniel seemed a kindly sort, at any rate.
Jolly had clambered down from his own chair. “I’m going to go find Rolly and Denny and see if they want to take a breath of air, Mr. Mosco, and maybe have a pipe.”
Mosco nodded. He watched Jolly make his way through the milling crowd of Big Folk, and felt rather small. A breath of air sounded just the thing, though he thought he might rather be alone for a while. He had a lot to think about. This City, these people, the things he had learned about his own people’s sacrifices… he had always admired Frodo Baggins, but he had never been especially close to him, not like Pippin and Merry always had been. Yet he had always respected him as a solid and dependable person, well-suited to be Master of the Hill, and the Baggins of the Bagginses. He recalled how surprised he had been when Frodo had seemed to vanish off on a mad Adventure the way old Bilbo had! His mother had been most upset with her cousin, though his father had subscribed to the rather dark popular opinion that Frodo had done no such thing, but had been done away with by some of Lotho’s big Ruffians. “If he didn’t have Frodo and his cousins murdered outright, then he had them chased into the Old Forest, which amounts to the same thing in the end!” To which his mother had replied ”If he had not moved off to the wilds of Buckland that would never have happened either.” His father had said no more about that—after all, he was half Brandybuck and Frodo’s own first cousin on that side of the family, something his mother tried to ignore.
The evening was pleasantly cool, and he found himself wandering in the direction of the Courtyard of the Fountain, for there was something he wanted to see.
Berilac had been delighted to recognize Menelcar when the minstrel stepped up to sing. He had met the bard when Menelcar had enjoyed the hospitality of Brandy Hall for a few days before leaving the Shire. The song about Frodo and the others brought him to tears, and he found himself blinking furiously at the end. It was maddening to realise how little the hobbits of the Shire understood about what the Travellers had done while they were away. He knew of a few people—some who really should have known better—who thought that the four had somehow “had it easy” because they were gone during the Troubles!
“It is a moving and humbling song, is it not, Master Brandybuck?” Faramir asked. He was seated at Berilac’s right; Freddy was on his left side, between Beri and the King. Someone had told the hobbits that normally Faramir himself sat by the King.
“It is,” he said. But then the musical interlude was ended, and the two were taken up by the remaining food being served. Beri grinned up at the Steward. “Your cooks know how to please hobbits,” he said.
Faramir laughed. “I am glad to hear that. I know there had been some trepidation in the kitchens among the staff there, for fear that they could not live up to hobbit reputations!”
Berilac noticed the tables being cleared and moved. “What happens now?” he asked.
“Why the musicians will set up, and there will be singing and dancing!”
Beri’s face lit up, and he could not avoid casting a look down the table where Viola sat with her mistress, on the other side of the Queen. “Dancing? Do you suppose there will be any dances we know?”
Faramir smiled. “I do not doubt it, Master Brandybuck, since Menelcar made the arrangements. I take it that you look forward to dancing with the fair Miss Viola?”
He blushed, but laughed. “And what if I do?” he asked cheekily.
“I wish you joy of it,” said the Steward, “but, alas, my lady wife is in Ithilien. So I will forego the dancing this night. And tomorrow I ride back to her, to spend some time there.”
“I hope you have a safe journey, my lord.”
“Thank you, Master Brandybuck. I will look forward to seeing you when I return in a few weeks’ time.” He rose from his seat, and gave a polite half-bow before walking away.
Berilac smiled, slid down from his perch on his own chair, and went to speak to Viola.
Mosco stood with his hands clasped behind his back. The only sound was the music of the fountain. It trickled soothingly beneath the slender boughs above it. The evening was young and only a few stars had made an appearance in the East, while in the West there was still the faintest rosy tinge of sunset still painting the horizon. The White Tree nearly glowed in the twilight. He'd heard it called "White", but he'd never known before how many sorts of "white" there could be. The bark of the trunk was striated in very pale shades and textures, from smooth to rough. There was an opalescent silver sheen to the underside of the leaves, but the upper sides were a velvety dark green, scarcely visible due to the myriad of snowy blossoms that nearly obscured the leaves altogether. He tried to ignore the forms of the Guardsmen, who were as still and silent as the statues he'd seen in the King's Throne Room. It was rather unnerving, and somewhat unnatural to see living things be so very still. He glanced over at one of them, at the gleaming silver and white embroidery against the black of his livery and then looked again.
"It's not quite what I expected," he muttered to himself as he stared at the young Tree.
"And what did you expect, Master Burrows?" asked a low voice behind him.
Mosco jumped, startled nearly out of his wits, for he had not heard the Man coming up so close. He turned, blushing to the tip of his ears. It was Prince Faramir! How embarrassing, to be caught gawking at the Tree and talking to himself by the Steward! "P-prince Faramir, I-- I--" he stammered, and then stopped, feeling himself flush even more.
"I am sorry, Master Burrows, I did not mean to interrupt you, or to intrude on you. I often come out to look upon the White Tree, and was pleased to see you here doing the same."
"N--no, my Lord! I- I mean you're not intruding..." He took a deep breath and straightened up. "What did I expect? I expected it to be beautiful, and it is. And I expected it to be white. And it is. But I didn't expect it to be so treelike, although I know it's a tree. But--" He stopped again, trying to explain what he meant. He looked up, and the Prince gave him a kindly and encouraging smile. He furrowed his brow, as he tried to gather the right words. "I guess I expected something more like, well--" he stopped and gestured at one of the silent Guardsmen with one hand, and at his chest with the other. "I thought it might look like the Tree does on the uniforms and on the banner, perfectly shaped with all the boughs even on both sides, just like the Tree we see everywhere. I've seen trees trimmed and trained to grow just so, I suppose I thought this one would be like that." He stopped and blushed again. "I know now it must have been a rather silly notion..."
The Prince chuckled, but his mirth was warm and not mocking. "It is a charming notion, I think, that the White Tree might look like the White Tree we use as our symbol. But none, I think, would dare to prune or constrain this Tree. It grows naturally, although some might think it grows unnaturally quickly."
Mosco nodded. "I understand that now. It just seems odd to me that I did not understand it sooner. A picture of something is not often a truly accurate likeness."
"No," the Prince replied, "not often. And yet those of us who behold a likeness very often expect that it is."
The hobbit chuckled ruefully. "It's not very sensible, though. And I think it is much more beautiful as it really is. It reminds me in some ways of the new Party Tree Sam planted. That grew too quickly as well. But even though they are both beautiful, they do not look alike. But there is something about them that makes them seem more--" Mosco stopped and turned his attention to the object of their discussion once again. "More alive than the things around them, and they both seem to be ancient, even though they are still slender and not much more than saplings."
"You are very discerning, Master Burrows," Faramir replied. Mosco blushed again, this time with pleasure at the compliment. Faramir continued, "I think that you see the air of the Tree from whose line this one is sprung, all the way back to the beginning, and the light of the Two Trees when the world was young, before the Sun and the Moon."
Mosco looked startled. "You mean to say that's a true story? I mean about the Two Trees? I recall Cousin Frodo telling that one at Yuletide in Brandy Hall one year! It seemed to me to be just a pretty fancy!" He laughed. "Of course, most of us thought the King returning was a pretty fancy! And there were some of us who even thought Elves were only a pretty fancy!" He made a rueful face; he had been one of those youthful doubters.
Faramir laughed as well. Then he leaned down and said in a conspiratorial whisper, "Master Burrows, I know some within the sound of my voice right now who once thought that the pheriannath were only a pretty fancy!"
"But--" Mosco stopped, as he realised that the Prince had spoken so low that no one but the two of them could have heard what he said. "You mean to say you did not believe in hobbits?"
"Not even after my dream. Not until I saw two of them spring up out of the wilderness of Ithilien, walking out of fable and into my life, and carrying the fate of the world in their hands." He straightened up and looked down at Mosco seriously. "And they were not at all as my fancy would have painted them either. But, Master Burrows, I most assuredly believe in them now. I believe very firmly in hobbits."
Mosco knew he did not merely mean that he believed hobbits existed. "Some hobbits are worthy of being believed in. I think most of us have yet to prove we are worthy."
Faramir shook his head. "Never doubt it, Master Burrows. Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee did a deed worthy of song for so long as Arda shall endure. But they could accomplish that deed only because of the love of their home and the people they had left behind."
"I could never have been so brave as Frodo or Samwise. Or as Merry and Pippin for that matter," Mosco murmured ruefully.
"Master Burrows, from what I know of hobbits, they find their courage as Mithrandir-- Gandalf-- always called 'in a pinch'. And I have no doubt that if you were 'in a pinch' you would find your courage."
Mosco looked back at the White Tree, and then once more at the Tree on the guardsmen. "I would like to think you are right, my Lord. But I doubt if I ever have occasion to put it to the proof."
Faramir placed a kindly hand on his shoulder. "Let us hope no such occasion does arise, for I would hate to think of you in such danger. Shall we rejoin your friends in the Merethrond?"
Mosco nodded, and followed the Steward back to the Feast Hall. But he turned and gave one more look back at that Tree. He would never forget the sight of it.
The first of the dances had been led out by the King and Queen themselves. It was a pavanne—not exactly one that they knew in the Shire, but simple enough and very similar in style. Several couples were lined up behind the monarchs, and Beri and Viola were near the end, Freddy and Mistress Poppy behind them. It might be simple, but the hobbits did not wish to put anyone else off if they made a misstep. The back of Beri’s hand felt warm, where Viola’s palm lay over it, and he smiled at her. She smiled back, blushing slightly, and biting her lower lip nervously. Beri’s heart turned over. She was so beautiful in her blue dress, her hair held back by the ribbon he had given her in Rohan. By what blessed good fortune had he gained her regard?
The music began, and Beri recalled the simple directions the Queen had given them ahead of time. Two steps forward, leading with the left foot. Two steps forward, leading with the right; pause; step apart slightly, step together, then two steps backwards, before beginning all over again. The line of dancers continued their slow circuit of the room, until the music ended, and all turned to their partners for a deep bow.
This dance was followed by one familiar to all the hobbits: the Shire Tangle Dance. The Queen herself led the Tangle, and quite merry the dancers found themselves!
And so the evening passed, with dances both lively and stately in turn. Berilac realised he could not dance all of them with Viola, and Freddy relinquished Mistress Poppy, so that the other hobbits could dance as well, if they wished. But though Beri found himself watching wistfully as Jolly piloted Viola through a vigorous dance, he knew he could not grudge the others a chance at some of the fun.
Some of the Gondorian dances were too intricate for any of the hobbits to attempt, and so they stood back and watched and admired them from afar.
The final dance of the evening was one for couples only. It was slow and elegant, and the partners were held closely in one another’s arms. But the steps did not look too difficult. He glanced at Viola, who was watching with wide eyes and blushing. “Do you want to try?” he asked her hopefully.
She cast a glance at Mistress Poppy, who sniffed. “When in Gondor, do as the Gondorians do. Yes, go ahead, lass. Try not to step on her toes too badly, Mr. Brandybuck. She has work to do tomorrow!”
Laughing, Beri swept her off into the music, relishing his hand on her back, her hand on his shoulder. They were not perfectly in step with the other dancers, nor even getting all the steps right, he was sure, but he could not begin to care.
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