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In the Court of the High King  by Dreamflower

Chapter 12

Clodio and Dago were surprised when the guard bringing their first breakfast told them that after the meal, they would be taken out and allowed to stroll around in an area set aside for prisoners in the Citadel to take exercise.  

"Why do you suppose they are going to let us do that?" Dago asked after the guard had left.

Clodio had turned his attention to the rather bland porridge that made up his breakfast. "I've no idea; perhaps it is something they do often. Otherwise, why would they have an area set up for that?"

Dago snorted, and applied himself to the porridge. It was not very tasty, but it was hot and filling and there was plenty of it.  Instead of tea at breakfast, they were given tumblers of a sweet and tangy orange coloured juice-- and that was tasty enough for anyone.  Soon enough, breakfast was done, and the guard came to collect the dishes. At the same time, another guard accompanied him, and that guard summoned them from the room. They followed him meekly, but slowly when they came to the staircase. He stopped at the bottom and looked up to see them carefully picking their way down from halfway up. He simply waited, watching them carefully. The stairs were steep and not made for hobbit legs or hobbit sensibilities. Clodio fought down his feeling of panic at the distance to the bottom.

They finally reached the guard, and he turned and led them to a nearby door, where yet another guard stood. The two guards exchanged nods, and then the first one led them outside. Clodio and Dago found themselves in an area about forty feet square, flagged underfoot, and surrounded by a high stone wall topped with iron spikes. There was a stone bench against one wall. The bench was occupied by a rather disreputable looking fellow, who had one knee pulled up on the bench and was slumped against the wall. There were two other Men in the area as well, seemingly wandering about the perimeter.  The hobbits noticed they gave the scruffy fellow on the bench a wide berth.

"You will have one hour," said the guard. "Oh, before I forget--" he pulled a package from his pocket. "Mr. Bolger suggested that these might be a welcome distraction." He unwrapped it: it contained their pipes and pouches of pipeweed. "I am afraid that I will have to light them for you."

The two were too delighted to mind the indignity of someone else lighting the pipes; they quickly filled them, and then stood for the guard to use his flint striker and place a small bit of tinder to their bowls. After a few puffs the pipes were truly lit, and with a nod the guard stepped back to stand by the door that was the only way in or out of the enclosed area.

They began to walk around the edges of the enclosure, smoking in silence, and simply being grateful for fresh air and sun above. Like the other two Men, Clodio and Dago were going to avoid going too near the Man on the bench, for he had a very dangerous air about him. But as they passed by, he called out: "Ho! Shirelings! Is that Longbottom Leaf I smell?"

Startled, they stopped.  Clodio blinked at being addressed that way; Dago answered: "Yes it is.  How do you know we are from the Shire? And your words sound different than these other Men-- you are not from here!"

"No. I came down from the Bree-lands before the War. There is always a need for fighting men in a War.  And only Shire hobbits would be smoking Longbottom Leaf."

"Oh." In spite of their fear, Clodio and Dago found themselves approaching him. They could not seem to help themselves.

The Man inched over and said "Have a seat. That leaf smells very good. If I had anything worth offering on me, I'd trade it for a puff or two." He patted the bench, and the hobbits gingerly sat, toes dangling.

Clodio could never understand after why he did what he did next. He held up his pipe to the stranger and said, "Tell us who you are and why you are in this place."

The Man chuckled and accepted the pipe, taking three good puffs before handing it back. "Good Shire leaf can't be beat.  The name's Tel.  I'm here because of a disagreement with a comrade of mine. He wasn't any too happy with me."

"Oh." Clodio didn't think this explained much.

"So, what are a couple of Shirelings doing in this place? What would bring you so far as this? Or what you did you do that was so terrible as to end up a guest of the King's hospitality?"

Dago gave a bark of harsh and bitter laughter.  "We made a few bad investments with the wrong person at the wrong time."

"Bad investments, eh?"

Somehow they found themselves telling their story to this stranger who asked for nothing more than an occasional puff from one of their pipes. Clodio spoke less than Dago did; he listened to the excuses and explanations of the other hobbit, realising them for the same things he had said to himself in the beginning to excuse his poor judgment, and understanding now just how empty they were.  "We were fools," he said.  "Fools to ever trust Lotho, and fools to think that we could hide our parts in what he did and fools to think we'd ever get away with any of it."

"Speak for yourself," snorted Dago.

Just then, they looked up to see the guard approaching.  Their hour was up.

They followed the guard, Clodio turning briefly to give their new acquaintance a last look, as they were led back into the tower.

Tel watched until they had been gone several minutes, and then rose and went into the tower himself.  The guard by the door gave a nod, which was returned.  He passed the stairs that went up to the prison cells, and strode down the corridor. About halfway down a door stood open, and he entered the room.

Captain Beleg looked up, and stood.  "Sire!  Or should I call you 'Tel'?"

Aragorn chuckled, "You may if it so pleases you, but do not allow Master Ondohil to hear you, else he might have apoplexy."  He sat down in the chair across from the Captain's desk, stretched out his long legs before him, and waved a hand negligently to indicate that the Captain could sit as well. Beleg did so with a grunt.

"Are you still cross with me?" Aragorn asked.

"No, sire, though I thought your timing was unwise. Those two scoundrels who were also there might have recognized you."

He shook his head. "No, I was ten feet over their heads on a throne when I sentenced them. And they would never have thought the King could possibly look like--" he gestured at his worn leathers, "this."

"Was it worth it, sire?"  Beleg was beginning to understand why the King both delighted and frustrated the Steward.  The King knew perfectly well how to be formal and to stand on ceremony, but he also had a penchant for disposing of both when it suited him.  It gave him a sort of boyish unpredictability at odds with his years.

"Yes, it was. I wanted to see for myself what I have been told about them, and I have. Clodio Banks is clearly repentant; Dago Bracegirdle is still clearly blaming anyone but himself for his plight. I have a similar sentence in mind for the both of them, but I do not expect that Dago will carry through on his part."

"And if he does not, sire?"

"Then he will suffer the clearly spelled out consequences of his failure. The sentencing will be the day after tomorrow."  Aragorn rose, and so did Beleg.  "I must go now and prepare for today's audiences.  I do not want anyone to associate 'Tel' with the King. Be sure to allow the hobbits to take their excercise again tomorrow; I thought both of them were looking pale--being confined is unnatural for their kind."

"More unnatural than for our kind?"

Aragorn looked him straight in the eye. "Yes. So unnatural that they did not even have the concept of a prison until some of our kind introduced the idea by way of Saruman. Think on that." He left the room.

Beleg stared thoughtfully after him.


The group arrived back at the guesthouse in high spirits; Jolly had begun to sing an old Shire ditty as they walked, and all had joined, Tadiel and Avor a little embarrassed at first, but the hobbits' enthusiam was contagious, and the second time the song began the two hesitantly at first and then with more confidence joined in:

Up in the green orchard there is a green tree,
The finest of pippins that ever you see;
The apples are ripe and ready to fall,
And Rolly and Robin shall gather 'em all.*

Sing hey! Sing ho!
To harvest we go!
Sing high! Sing low!
To harvest we go!

Out in the field the barley is gold,
The bread will be brown, the beer will be cold.
Now is the time, let the reaping begin,
And Rolly and Robin shall gather it in.

Sing hey! Sing ho!
To harvest we go!
Sing high! Sing low!
To harvest we go!

Down in the dingle the mushrooms are brown.
Penny Buns and White-caps all cover the ground.
Creep into the dell before the Sun’s up--
And Rolly and Robin shall eat them all up!

Sing hey! Sing ho!
To harvest we go!
Sing high! Sing low!
To harvest we go!

People on the street paused, and smiled to see the pheriain in such fine spirits.  None approached or interrupted them, yet all would be glad to tell of this when they arrived at home.

Laughing the party arrived at the guesthouse and all entered by way of the kitchen to put away their burdens. They had taken elevenses by way of sausages from a street vendor as they shopped and had their luncheon at an in called The Golden Cockerel.  The innkeeper was delighted to serve them and to tell them of how their kin had been his regular customers.

"Sir Peregrin said that our chicken pie was as fine as any he had been served in the Shire!"  

Of course the hobbits all had to try it, and the innkeeper was gratified when they proclaimed that Pippin had been quite correct.

Freddy and Mosco returned as the others were putting away the produce and other things purchased for the supper they would be making the next day.  Some items would be delivered by the tradesmen on the next morning-- the chickens were to be delivered plucked and dressed, for one thing , and the fruit for another.  Mosco bore a basket with three bottles of wine, "courtesy of Lord Hiril," he said.

"It's what he called Dol Amroth Red," added Freddy. "He said that our guests would enjoy it."  He put the basket down. "It looks as though most of the work of putting away is done here," he said. "If you would come into the front room we need to talk."

Wondering what Freddy needed to say, for he had sounded quite serious, the others followed him into the front room.

"What's the matter, Freddy?" asked Berilac.

"The King came by while we were with Lord Hiril.  You know he'll be sentencing the prisoners day after tomorrow?"

The others all nodded.

"Well, he wanted to let us know ahead of time what's been decided..."

The other hobbits listened carefully. When he finished, Rolly said "I think that's a good choice for Clodio. But I'm not so sure about the Bracegirdle."

"The King knows that. But he has his reasons."
* The first verse of the song is a traditional children’s nursery song, slightly altered. The chorus and remaining verses are mine. This song first appeared in my story "Trotter".

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