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The sun trembled in mist behind the hills of Ithilien at dawn, and the birds warbled their adoration of the start of a new day as the clouds which had gathered overnight dispersed in a cooling breeze. Summer was waning and autumn lifted its sleepy head like an enchanted maiden, whispering of gold and smoke and dusk. The flagstones were slicked with dew and glistened in the early light beneath Faramir’s feet; the tufts of grass by the sides of the walkways were like fronds of sea oats, white and milky. Tall rose the mountains to the East, yet the menace there was quelled; stirrings within the stone house reminded him of his duties, and the scent of wood and breakfast was on the air.
A sound of footsteps down the ruined alleyway made Faramir pause as he turned, and the tall shadow of an approaching man, cloaked and hooded, caused him to tense slightly. But his Ranger’s training was unnecessary; around the corner of the debris came his Lord, King Elessar, alone and unheralded, clad in simple green and brown; no circlet crowned his noble head, nor ermine robe his shoulders. Upon his lined face was a smile, and his gray eyes were calm.
“Hail, Lord!” said Faramir, bowing low. Elessar took him by the shoulder and lifted him.
“Hail, Prince of Ithilien!” he answered, his eyes smiling though his mouth was grave. “And hail, friend and brother,” he added, the smile reaching his lips. “Good morning to you!”
“A good morning, indeed,” agreed Faramir; “All the better for my lord and king has come to do me honor. Will you break fast with me?”
“I will,” said Elessar. “It has been four and twenty hours since I last supped, and my stomach threatens to clap bell-like against my spine.”
Faramir laughed. “You are in luck!” he said, turning and leading his king through the weed-choked courtyard. “Our cook has brought fine sausages and tomatoes, onions and oats from the nearby inns, and there is mead and spiced wine, if you desire.”
Elessar threw back his hood and shook out his gray-flecked dark hair. He looked around the stone courtyard, still untidy in its ruin, flanked nonetheless with trees standing tall and fair, and twining morning glory, turning its pink trumpets to the rising sun. A breeze stirred his cloak as he removed it and stepped into the house behind his Steward. “I can smell its scent on the air,” he smiled. “In truth, it was that aroma drew me hither.” He stepped into the dark mansion, his eyes drawn toward the fire burning in the great kitchen inglenook before him. A great cremière hung over the fire, suspending an iron pot, from which the sounds of simmering porridge came, and before the coals on the broad hearth sat white loaves of bread. A thin manservant was turning them with a great floured wooden paddle. He turned his head as his master entered and said: “Take care, my lord, of the poult; still she resists returning to the coop.”
“I care not,” said Faramir, throwing his lord a mischievous look. “She provides us with such fine eggs, I cannot gainsay her a safe haven, and fox are returning once more to these woods.” Together the men hung their dew-damped cloaks upon pegs by the great chimney and sat at the rude wooden table. Fine pewter pots and plates were scattered thereon, and beeswax candles lit the dim interior.
“This must have been a fine house, once,” remarked Elessar, pouring himself some mead.
“As I understand it,” said Faramir. “These are but the back kitchens and servants’ quarters; the rest of the mansion is a ruin.”
“How fares the restoration?”
“Slowly, my lord. The Enemy did much evil here, and it will be long before its ills are truly effaced.” The manservant approached with smoking platters heaped with sausages and eggs and grilled onions; great loaves of bread were placed before them, and a skillet of tomatoes and mushrooms was set down. At once both lord and vassal rose and faced the West; then they sat and fell to the good food. After a silent interval Elessar pushed back his plate, sighed, and spoke.
“Ah! That is good, homely food,” he said. “How I sicken on the ices and fancies of the courts of the White Tower!”
“You are spoilt, my lord,” laughed Faramir. “Long did you labour in the rough lands of the North and in the wilds; naught but rough fare will you relish now.”
“So be it!” said Elessar. “With your manservant’s permission, I will smoke.” He drew a pipe from a pouch in his vest.
“Do so in gladness, my lord!” said the manservant, bowing. “I have to attend to my lady now.” He took up a steaming trencher and vanished round a corner. Soon his laboured footsteps could be heard on stone steps and pattered out of hearing.
“How fares the White Lady of Rohan?” asked Elessar, lighting his pipe.
“Difficult,” sighed Faramir. “But it is always so at such times, or so I have heard.”
“I congratulate you, my friend,” said Elessar, gripping his arm and smiling.
“Nay! ‘Tis no doing of mine, to hear her tell it,” laughed Faramir. “But I thank Queen Undomiel for her timely counsel; when Eowyn breaks her fast before rising, she is much stronger, and able to last the day.”
“Arwen is better than I at such matters,” said Elessar. “Knowledge about wounds and sicknesses have I, but the homelier ailments of women are yet mysterious.”
“Yet you, my lord, will learn before long,” said Faramir confidently, and both men smiled at each other in a friendly fashion. Elessar sat smoking his pipe, and blowing rings and streams of smoke into the great hearth for some time. At last, refilling his goblet, Faramir asked, “Well! Now that I have assuaged your hunger, and since I perceive that no ill news hangs on your heart by your smoking, I may ask you to satisfy my curiosity! What brings you to Ithilien, my lord? When last I heard, you were deep in council, and could not attend the Grand Tournament, though you sent your advisors instead.”
“Good news!” said Elessar. “The war-chests, though famished, are soon to be sated of their hunger.”
“That is good news indeed!” exclaimed Faramir, setting down his goblet and looking at his friend in amazement. “How has this been accomplished? Surely there is no new tax – “
“Nay!” laughed Elessar. “My people are taxed enough, unquestionably! No, this comes in form of a loan from the kinsman of one I dearly love.” He smiled. “Ease my heart further with gaming; can you guess who sends it?”
Faramir mulled this over, sipping at his mead, then said tentatively: “Not the Lords of Imladris?”
“No,” said Elessar. “Two more attempts shall I afford you, then shall I cease to tease your curiosity.” He smiled over his pipe at Faramir, who knitted his brows together in thought. Then he said, “Gloin of Erebor?”
“Twice down!” said his lord. “The dwarves ask excessive usury.”
“Not Rohan,” mulled Faramir thoughtfully. “Eomer is leashed, as we are.” He reflected for a moment, then said, “Dol Amroth?”
“Imrahil is beset on all sides,” said Elessar somberly. “Eagerly do the corsairs harrie him, and he spends all he has on ships and men and arms.”
“That is too familiar a tale!” said Faramir grimly. “Well, then, you have had your three points from me; who is your champion?”
“Thranduil, King of Mirkwood.”
“Mirkwood!” exclaimed Faramir. “That is far to the north. Has he not already delivered sundry trees and growing things to beautify our realm? What further munificence is there in him?"
“Ah,” smiled Elessar; “do you not guess his kinsman, who is so dear to me?”
“It cannot be Undomiel; her kin is in Lorien.”
“Lothlorien and Mirkwood have joined at the destruction of Dol Guldur; but that is scarce to the point. Do you not know the son of Thranduil?”
“I think not,” said Faramir after a moment’s reflection. “I have heard naught of the sons of Elven kings in that realm.”
“That does not surprise me; he does not herald himself. It is my friend Legolas, who but late last year lived with us at Minas Tirith.”
“Ah!” said Faramir. “So he has pled with his father to loosen the purse-strings, has he not?” Faramir smiled, remembering his few encounters with the wood-elf. “A clear seeing-stone I thought him, perceiving the truth of men unquestioning, unstained and naïve; it surprises me he would go so far, though doubtless it is his love for you that spurs him.”
“Doubtless!” said Elessar. “Yet I know his sire of old. A doughty warrior is he, Oropher’s heir; mighty is his arm, whether it wields sword or pen! Jewels and treasures he has amassed over the long ages, in his bright caverns, and friendship with the Men of Dale and the Dwarves of Erebor has enriched him, both in gold and wisdom. That his son cares not for the concerns of these things worries him not: The Elven King stands, as a hale lord and fearsome counselor, and the love he has for his son has opened his vaults to me, to replenish my empty war-chests. Great will be my rejoicing, when his vanguard arrives! And soon it shall, as the message said; before the snows fly in the northern highlands, the barges of the King of Mirkwood, now named Eryn Lasgalen, will ride the Anduin bringing forth succor for the besieged lands to our south.”
“Then that is good news indeed!” cried Faramir, filling Elessar’s goblet once more. “Soon shall we be able to commission the building of additional war ships, and the arming of men, to aid in the repulsing of those fiends of Harad who continue to harass our rightful fiefs.”
“Yes,” sighed Elessar, drinking deeply. “It is for that reason I have come, my brother; yes, I know my presence here puzzles you! You say it not, yet I feel it: Why has King Elessar come forth from the White Tower? But such was my joy at the message I received this week I could stay not, but came forth to rejoice with you, my comrade in arms.”
“And the Queen; she remains at Minas Tirith?”
“Nay, she will be here the noon! Thranduil is no direct kin of hers, yet his munificence has touched her heart, and she sings in thankfulness as well, knowing the extent of our need. Yet she goes directly to the Grand Tournament with the rest of our party, hoping to foregather with Eowyn there.”
“And she shall,” said Faramir laughing. “Vast are the stands erected in Osgiliath, bright are the pennants flying from its corners, mighty are the knights enclosed therein! O my friend, you missed much the first day: my lady’s champion – “ He stopped, his goblet halfway to his lips, eyes suddenly wide and aware, and Elessar looked close at him, concerned.
“What is it, my friend?” he asked. “What thought has you arrested?”
Faramir turned to Elessar, his gray eyes unreadable. “This message, my lord; from whom did it issue?”
“It was written on rich parchment,” said Elessar, much bewildered; “in coloured ink with gilded device, bearing the seal of King Thranduil Orophirion himself.”
“I meant that not! The means of its delivery; how was that?”
“I know not,” said Elessar, “only that it was delivered to me forthwith by special messenger.”
“I know not,” repeated the King, growing aggravated. “What does it matter? I have the letter; Thranduil is good as his word.”
“Oh, I doubt it not,” said Faramir quickly. “I only wondered – “
“ – who brought the letter.”
Elessar stared in amazement at Faramir.
“I had thought it to be one of the journeying knights,” said Elessar slowly. “Have you reason, my friend, to think otherwise?”
“Nay, “ said Faramir, sitting back with a sigh. “Perhaps – “
“It is nothing,” said Faramir quickly. “Have you a desire to bathe, my lord? And where is your party? Your effects should be delivered, if you desire to greet your subjects in aught but rags.” He looked pointedly at Elessar’s faded travel clothing.
Elessar laughed. “Have your secret, then!” he said merrily. “Yes, I shall bathe, if your manservant can manage the water.”
Faramir rose with him, and led him to the back of the kitchens, where dwelt the kettles and coppers. “What said Eradan when you told him of the loan?” he asked.
“I have yet to see him,” said Elessar. “I think I shall coddle the knowledge to myself for a time, and give it him, as a reward for arranging the Grand Tournament.”
“Your thanks to him are excessive, should the Tournament not turn out to your liking,” warned Faramir.
“I care not!” said Elessar, beginning to remove his doublet at the bath. “My joy cannot be marred by any happenstance at a tournament.”
“We shall see!” said Faramir darkly, and closed the door on his surprised King.
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