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Híldaf did not know what to make of his strange attendants; never before had he kept company with a Dwarf or with a man determined to obscure his visage at all costs from passers-by. As the Green Knight strode purposefully through the squelching mud and fitful sheets of wind-whipped rain, his cloak swinging about his feet and his head sunk to his chin, the few they met out of doors looked after them curiously, wondering what business together Lasgalen of Dale would have had with Brytta’s esquire. Soon heads were peeking around tent-flaps at them, and when they passed through the gates of the Tent City Targil stared at them and said in a forced voice: “Well met, sirs, my lord! Be sure to be back before the ninth bell; we shall be closing the gates then.”
“We will not be long, Quartermaster,” assured the Dwarf, and they passed out into Ithilien.
The makeshift village about the Tent City was drowned in muddy water. Great trenches cut through the dirt alleyways and paths between the huts and lean-tos, chuckling with brown water and choked with leaves; light from windows glinted off wet carts and sullen dogs; men tramped through the mess solidly, trailed by the occasional farmer’s wife, who minced along in her wooden shoes with exclamations of dismay, stout arms holding a shawl over her head. Tarps and oilskins had been flung over shuttered racks stocked with fruit and vegetables, and they passed a covered coop filled with dispirited chickens, huddling into a corner to avoid the rain. Here in the village the Green Knight’s appearance seemed less ominous; the rain excused his hood and cloak, and his quickened stride was made reasonable in others’ eyes by their own desire to escape the elements. Soon they left the village and approached the bridges across the river to eastern Osgiliath, and Híldaf halted. His companions turned and looked at him.
“I cannot cross the river,” said Híldaf uncomfortably, turning his eyes from the blank regard of the Green Knight.
“You must,” said the Dwarf impatiently. “That is where the King and the Steward are, in the ruins on the eastern side. You must tell them about the letter.”
“I have not my lord’s permission,” said Híldaf, wringing his hands in dismay. “I am already out too late to fix the repast for my lord. Already when I return to our tent he will shout and throw things at me. Already have I gone to his enemies and told them things after he ordered me to keep silent. And I know not either the king of Gondor or the Prince of Ithilien. How can I know they will deign to hear me? I am but the esquire of a defeated foreign knight; likely it is that they will think this but a ruse to excuse my lord’s poor behavior.”
“They will not,” said the Green Knight in a low murmur, coming to Híldaf and taking his arm comfortingly. “Aragorn and Faramir are just men, and patient as well. You have naught to fear from them.”
“Besides, their ladies will be with them, and Éowyn of Rohan is sister to your king,” said the Dwarf, also coming to his side. “Fear them not! They will welcome your tale, for although it confounds and not clears the air, more information is never to be begrudged. The truth needs to be told, if they are to get to the bottom of this shameful business.”
Híldaf allowed himself to be pulled forward over the bridge, though he saw his disgrace in the rushing black water beneath him; the guard-houses on the eastern end were occupied, and the guards let them through without question. “Lax!” growled the Dwarf to himself as they slipped and stumbled along the cobblestone path in the rain. “What with the caltrops and the first letter they ought to be more diligent.”
“With the presence of so many warriors in one place, no doubt Faramir thinks he is safe from harm,” said the Green Knight. “And remember also, Gimli, he is a doughty man himself, and his wife no less fearsome.”
Híldaf laughed breathlessly, and Gimli looked up at him with a smile. “Yes, that is the White Lady of Rohan!” he said. “You must be proud indeed to be of her kin.”
“I am,” said Híldaf, “though I wish none of this had come to pass, and there were no reason for my breaking my lord’s trust and coming here.”
“Better here than the king’s tent, which is replete with servants, lackeys and Council-members,” said Lasgalen. Híldaf noticed that the more the Green Knight spoke, the fewer hisses and murmurs he used, and his voice was clearer and more pleasant to listen to, like clean water passing over stone. “I know that Aragorn and Arwen are supping with them tonight, and the only one there who knows me not is Ardún, Faramir’s old servant.”
While Híldaf wondered at Lasgalen’s familiar tone, thinking perhaps the Green Knight were more closely allied with Gondor than he had previously known, the Dwarf gave him a sharp look and said, “Ware, my friend! You are forgetting Híldaf here!”
The Green Knight turned his cowled face to Híldaf and said, with laughter in his light voice: “Surely, Gimli, I shall have to uncloak before him too, at Aragorn’s insistence? After all Hallas has seen me and knows me; why not our friend here?”
“I did not come to you in friendship, my lord,” said Híldaf.
“Nay, but you did come to me in truth,” said the Green Knight. “One good turn deserves another as payment.” And he led them through the dark alleys, lit by guttering torches, until they came to the back of a ruined mansion. There, standing inside a small alcove, they came upon a guard who stopped them and asked their business.
“We must see the steward and the king,” said the Green Knight. “Please tell them that Lasgalen Oakleaf of Dale is here with his armourer and with Híldaf of Rohan, esquire of Lord Brytta.”
“As you wish!” said the guard, though he looked at them narrowly before leaving his post and ducking inside the low archway in the wall. They stood in the rain for a moment, listening to it patter upon the flagstones and drip into the puddles, until the guard came back and gestured them into the courtyard. They followed him across the wet pavers to a rectangle of warm gold upon the ground, which was the light from the doorway of the kitchen, reflected upon the wet stone. The guard stepped in, said, “Lasgalen of Dale, your majesties, my lord and lady!” and turned and went back to his post.
Híldaf followed the Green Knight and the Dwarf into the large kitchen with his heart pounding in his throat; he had never felt so out of place in his life. But when he saw the king of Gondor leaning back in his chair, legs crossed upon the hearth and a pipe in his mouth, his nervousness subsided, and when he further espied Queen Undómiel sitting at her place with a brown speckled hen roosting comfortably in her lap, his disquiet faded completely. He saw the prince of Ithilien pouring wine from a large skin into three goblets, and his lady, Éowyn of Emyn Arnen, was telling an old manservant to pull up some extra chairs. The scene was so warm and homely that Híldaf immediately felt his misgivings had been unfounded, and he bowed politely with his companions as all turned to them.
“Welcome, Lasgalen of Dale!” said the Steward, looking cautiously at Híldaf yet taking the Green Knight’s hand in his own. “Well met, son of Glóin! And hail, Híldaf of Rohan! Here are King Elessar and his wife Queen Undómiel – “ the royal pair nodded politely, and Híldaf bowed again “ – and though perhaps she has met you not, surely you know my wife.” Éowyn came forward and kissed Híldaf upon the forehead, saying, “Well met, kinsman! You are welcome in our house.”
“I thank you,” stammered Híldaf, abashed. “In truth, I did not realize I would be presented to you tonight, or I would have prepared some speech to offer to you. I am unused to such noble company.”
“That speech will suffice quite well,” smiled the king of Gondor, removing his pipe from his lips. “Brief and unpretentious – it is a pleasant change from the dronings I am usually subjected to by visiting dignitaries.”
“We have not interrupted your meal?” asked Lasgalen, taking the seat offered him by Faramir.
“Nay, we are just finished,” said the queen, stroking the back of the poult. “Do you not like my new pet, Lasgalen? She settled upon my lap the moment I sat down. Ardún has been attempting to dislodge her, but she pecks at him when he tries to lift her, so I told him to let her be, and I have eaten my entire dinner with her here.”
“She is charming,” laughed the Green Knight, and he pulled off his gloves as Gimli and Híldaf sat beside him. “Does she lay good eggs, Undómiel?” Then he lifted his slender hands up to his hood and pulled it off.
“Legolas!” cried the Dwarf in consternation, then clapped his hand over his beard and looked furious with himself. Híldaf cried aloud and leapt to his feet, turning his chair over, and both the king and the steward rose in alarm.
“What is the matter?” asked the Green Knight calmly, removing the cap from his head and pushing the linen down to his throat. “I can scarcely accept a glass of wine with my mouth covered, can I?” And ignoring the stares of the people around him he picked up a goblet and took a deep draught, sighing when he was finished. The only sounds were the popping and snapping of the fire, and a soft chuckling from Undómiel.
“Have you decided to uncloak, then?” asked the king, sitting back down and knocking the ashes from his pipe upon the hearth.
“Nay!” said the Elf, smiling. “But I owe Híldaf a debt of truth, and Ardún, I am sure, has guessed who I am already.”
Faramir looked quickly at his manservant, who faltered and said, “Yes, my lord, I overheard my lady and the queen speaking of him, and one of them mentioned his name.”
“There you are, then!” smiled Legolas. “I weary of my cocoon, anyway.” He took another sip of wine and said to Híldaf: “You see why I have hidden myself, my friend? But more importantly, do you see why I have revealed myself to you? One truth deserves another. Divulge your particular truth to the lords and ladies as you did to us; it grows ever late, and your lord grows ever more ill-tempered.”
Híldaf sat slowly, his wide eyes upon the Elf, unable to look away. “My – my lord,” he faltered; “I did not know, I did not realize – I was at Helm’s Deep, my lord, I should have known – “
“How could you have known?” asked Legolas. “Delay us not further by your apologies! They are unnecessary. While we tarry, your lord gets angrier and my dinner more burnt. And my esquire all the more irritated, which to me is the weightier worry. Tell the company about the letter your lord received, and then we shall see what to do.”
So Híldaf explained to the king and the steward about Brytta’s letter and subsequent raging, while the queen and Éowyn sat and listened with frowns upon their fair faces. Ardún stood quietly in the background, his face impassive, though his thoughts were angry: “How that man can treat his esquire and horses so! I shall entreat my lady to release him from that brute’s service!” But he did not speak then, keeping his ruminations to himself. When Híldaf had finished he sat in the silence nervously plucking at his dripping cloak, until Legolas pressed the wine goblet in his hand with a smile and ordered him to drink. Elessar and Faramir regarded each other silently for a moment, and then Faramir sighed.
“Another letter!” he said heavily. “And also purported to be written by you, Legolas! This is grave indeed.”
“The third incident,” murmured Éowyn, and the others excepting Arwen looked to her curiously. “It was something Belecthor had said,” she explained; “he would not concern himself over the caltrops, which were but a single incident, but then Hallas attacked Legolas, which was a second incident, and now here is another letter, which is the third.”
“Now I am certain those caltrops were thrown to cripple Hatchet,” muttered Gimli. “Had not the queen and Legolas spied them first, both horses would have trod upon them.”
“Some evildoer either thinks it would be amusing to lay the blame upon you, in order to discredit you,” said Faramir to Legolas, “or perhaps he wishes to harm you through the other knights’ wrath.”
“What I do not understand is why Lasgalen of – why, why the Green Knight should be the victim of these pranks,” said Híldaf diffidently. “If it is solely through his cloaking himself – “
Legolas and Aragorn exchanged a look, and Aragorn stood. Híldaf leapt to his feet once more, nearly spilling his wine. “Peace, son of Rohan!” said the king gently. “You spoke not out of turn – it was a fair question. There is, perhaps, an answer to this riddle, but the workings of this plot are deeper than common knowledge would allow for, and I fear I must do you a great disservice and dismiss you. We have things to discuss, we six, the subjects of which will not be revealed to the public until a week passes; then we shall repay you your information with explanations in full. Go from us with the knowledge you have helped us immeasurably, and perhaps by your disclosure we shall be able to prevent further disruption.”
Híldaf bowed awkwardly, and made to leave, but Éowyn stopped him and said: “Híldaf of Rohan, will you go to the inn called Bridge Embattled in the village outside western Osgiliath, and give a note to my cousin Éodild, who is staying there with her mother’s brother Walda, a lord of the Mark? You must not tell her what you have seen here, lest the Green Knight’s secret be noised abroad, for though I love Éodild dearly I know that she could not restrain her tongue should this knowledge be given her. Wait here but a moment; let me write the letter and you may go.” She turned from them and hurried upstairs, to be followed by Ardún, who had a determined expression upon his lined face. Placing a hand upon Híldaf’s shoulder Legolas made him to sit back down and bid him drink his wine; they passed a few moments in desultory conversation until the White Lady returned with a folded slip of parchment, sealed with red wax.
“Here!” she said, pressing it into his hand. “Do not delay, but deliver it now! I know you fear your lord, Brytta, but if you would but trust me in this – “ she smiled at the younger man with an expression of concern “ – I swear to you your lot will improve. Only deliver this note and all shall be well.”
“As you will it, my lady,” said Híldaf, confused, and bowing to the assemblage he slipped out the door into the dark rain.
“What was in the letter, my lady?” asked Faramir curiously of Éowyn.
She shrugged. “I wanted my red shawl back, that is all,” she said carelessly. Then she smiled and said, “And I instructed Éodild to tell her father how great a brute Brytta has become. Walda is head of his éored and will rein him in.”
“Excellent!” said Legolas, looking relieved. “I confess I had felt some disquiet concerning the young man; it is hard for him to be saddled with such a harsh master.”
“Perhaps,” said Ardún, refilling his goblet with a smile, “Híldaf can find another master. I have heard you say, my lady, that Walda’s esquire has recently been given a command of his own, and he has been seeking a replacement. That would be a nice surprise, would it not?”
“No, it would not,” said Éowyn, sitting, “for I asked Walda to do just that.”
“Very well,” said Elessar, refilling his pipe. “Now we have so efficiently mended Híldaf’s future for him, let us press on to the weightier matter of Lasgalen Oakleaf of Dale. What have you been doing, my friend, that has set so many hands against you? Lest it is but one hand, which I suspect, and then though I know not without doubt the reasons behind it, yet I can make a guess.”
“We all can guess!” said Legolas with a grim smile. “My father’s loan. Not many know, but one knows who does not approve of it, apparently. Whom have you told, Aragorn, and who could have read the parchment I delivered?”
“As to whom have I told, that is easy,” said Aragorn. “Arwen, Faramir, Éowyn, Belecthor, Eradan and Egalmoth have all been told. And Ardún,” he added, smiling at the manservant. “I asked for discretion, though, so I am certain they have disclosed this information to no one else. But as to who could have read the parchment, I am not certain; the seal was unbroken when I received it, and I locked it away in a desk, so that if there were spies about none could read it.”
“Well, I have told no one save Gimli,” said Legolas. “I did not think it prudent to noise abroad the information about my father saving the coastlines of Gondor through a gift of gold. And anyway I speak to no one here; I have kept to my tent and cloak and do not wander much, save to ride Arod, or to take a turn about the Tent City.”
“I have told none,” said Gimli stoutly. “It is not my secret to tell. And when dealing with that much gold it is best if only very few know all the details.”
“Bandobras does not know?” asked Arwen.
Legolas shrugged. “If he does, he has said nothing,” he said. “I do not think he realizes how important my journey here really was. His mind is full of the Tournament, nothing else. The news of my father loaning money to a friend would not interest him.”
Gimli grunted. “Foolish,” he muttered.
“Young,” corrected Legolas, giving his friend a sharp look.
“Unless our wives have been plotting behind our backs, then,” said Faramir to his king, “or unless I am, unbeknownst to myself, conspiring to usurp your throne, the four of us can certainly not be guilty of throwing the caltrops down, or writing these inflaming letters. Ardún I will vouch for, for he has ever been loyal to me and would not betray me. Who else would wish to see this loan overturned? Who wants to prevent the arming of Pelargir and the freeing of the southern coasts? Who wishes to see the men of Harad at the markets in Linhir?”
They were silent, ruminating. At last Legolas spoke hesitantly. “I do not know the men who sit with you in the royal box,” he said. “I do not know how trustworthy they are, these lords Eradan, Egalmoth and Belecthor. They are on your Privy Council, so I shall assume you trust them. But I warn you, Aragorn, to not trust them overmuch. If they are the sole inheritors of this knowledge save us, they are to be the most suspected.”
“Not Eradan, certainly,” said Faramir in surprise; “he is Chief Treasurer.”
“Who would benefit most if the loan failed?” asked Gimli. “The fiefdoms of the Ethir Anduin who trade with Umbar and Harad, of course. Then the ships of Gondor would falter and the old trade routes be re-established. Think about money, Aragorn, not power. Who lost the most when you closed trade between Gondor and Harad?”
Elessar turned to Faramir, who frowned, thinking. “There were several merchant princes in Lossarnach, and between Pelargir and the Crossings of Poros who dealt in wool and barley,” he said, “and I remember my father cursing a certain lord in Dor-en-Ernil who had three docks in the Bay of Linhir and sold olive oil and wheat to the Haradrim. The difficulty, my lord, is that many men who live in one region will have holdings in others – “
“Baldor of Lossarnach’s wife was from Erui; that is the father of Hallas, betrothed of Orodreth of Linhir,” supplied Aragorn. “And I know that Eldacar of Lebennin has long held the two islands in the River Serni that have been thought to be pirate caches.”
“Well, you ought to find out who lost the most heavily,” said Gimli, draining his goblet. “Then perhaps you may discover who could have found out about Thranduil’s munificence, and so thrown down the caltrops. It seems to me though that your three chief advisors here are to be most suspected, and were I you, Aragorn, I should clean house a little bit, and see whether you’ve got spies in Minas Tirith. Well, Legolas, that’s about all we can do; we’d best be getting back, or Bandy will have burnt that delectable shin and, blaming me for it, will feed me on naught but hay and dirty water while you nibble dainties in your bath.” He rose to his feet, but Legolas hesitated, pulling on his cap reluctantly.
“I am not sure about this,” he said slowly, tucking the loose strands of hair beneath the cap absent-mindedly. “I seem to be causing more turmoil than I thought I would, even with my face and name occluded.”
“Second thoughts, Legolas?” asked Faramir kindly.
“You imply he had first thoughts,” said Elessar with a grim smile, but the Green Knight shook his head, seeming very troubled.
“Nay, my lord of Emyn Arnen, I dispensed with my second thoughts in Erebor,” he said. “By now I have had so many thoughts about competing in this Tournament that it is unlikely I should be able to count them, were I inclined to try. But it is true; I am considering quite earnestly withdrawing, lest further mischief be caused by my presence.”
“None of this is your doing,” objected Éowyn earnestly, leaning forward and grasping his wrist. “You must not withdraw. You are my champion.” But Legolas shook his head.
“I am performing better than I thought at the tilt, and depriving other knights of their standing,” he said, slipping his cap off his head once more. “And because someone knows my father is loaning Aragorn money, Brytta of Rohan has lost his destrier and his honor, and Hallas of Lossarnach his betrothed and the use of his leg. I ought not to have come. This was a mistake.” He stood up and looked around at his friends. “I shall go to Belecthor the Ceremonies Master tomorrow morning and withdraw, and join you instead in the Royal Box. I am sorry, my lady,” he said to Éowyn, who was biting her lip; “I do not want anything else to happen to these knights. They came here for sport, not intrigue.”
Gimli sighed and scratched his beard. Faramir and Elessar exchanged a look, then Faramir stepped forward and put a hand on the Elf’s shoulder.
“Nay, Lasgalen Oakleaf of Dale, do not withdraw,” he said. “There are some good uses we can put you to should you remain the Green Knight for a little while longer. Think for a moment. Have you ever hunted lion?”
“No,” said Legolas in surprise; “they live far from us, in the Iron Hills and south to the Sea of Rhûn. But I have heard men in Dale speak of lion-hunts, when the big cats wander far in search of game, and prey upon their goats and sheep.”
“Know you the method for luring the lion from the brush?”
“Yes; they take a goat, and tether it to a tree, and wait about it for the lion to come and eat the goat. Then they attempt to kill the lion ere it kills the goat.”
“Then, if you are willing, I would ask you, my friend, if you would be the goat.”
Legolas’ eyes glinted, and Éowyn and Arwen both exclaimed at this, but Elessar said, “Peace! There need be no great danger. They are seeking to stop and discredit the Green Knight, not to kill him. All the goat need do is draw the lion out enough for us to recognize him; then we may hunt him down at will – after all, men have different names and faces, though lions do not. Will you do this for us, Legolas? Will you continue on in the Tournament, making your presence so loathsome to your enemy that he makes another attempt to shame you, and we move in to capture him? Will you do this for me, old friend?”
“Yes, of course,” said Legolas at once. “Better I should be the trap’s bait and so aid in unraveling the mystery, than to let suspicion fall on the innocent when the perpetrator’s deeds cease through my inactivity! I trust you and Gimli and Faramir to watch my back for me; I do not fear.” He looked so confident and trusting that on impulse Aragorn embraced him, which surprised the Elf nearly as much as it surprised the king himself. To cover his confusion, Elessar stepped back and said,
“Very well, then, it will be done! Faramir and I will set our guards to watch you, and we ourselves will dissemble ourselves before the other lords and ladies in the royal box and seek out the shifting eye and the fumbled declaration. But outside the Tournament grounds it may be a different story. I must ask you, Legolas, to not ride Arod any more, or walk about the Tent City, but to keep to your tent when you are not competing, lest some stray arrow or knife find its happy way between your shoulder blades.”
“But – “
“After all it does the hunters no good if the goat is killed and they are not watching, especially if there is but one goat that can be used,” warned Faramir. “So I fear I must add my instructions to the king’s, and bid you hide yourself away, moreso than even now, for your own protection.”
“I – “
“Your tents are so splendid, and your esquire so attentive I am sure you need fear no ennui,” said Aragorn firmly. “Keep yourself under helmet and cloak, and speak to no one; go nowhere but the Tournament grounds, and above all do not go anywhere alone.”
“You – “
“It is the only way we will agree to let you be the bait,” said Faramir, smiling at the Elf, who now looked very frustrated indeed, clutching his cap in one hand and his gloves in the other. He looked from the steward’s face to the king’s and back again, then looked at Arwen and Éowyn, who returned his gaze with pity but said nothing. He shifted lightly upon his feet, and said sullenly:
“Very well – I shall take all precautions. Your goat will remain hidden.”
Aragorn sighed. “Thank you, Legolas Greenleaf,” he said, smiling, though his friend did not answer his smile. “Our wives, to say nothing of ourselves, would not be easy in our hearts letting you bait the trap, if these safeguards were not in place. Gimli, take charge of him then, and guard his back for him on your way to the Tent City, and tomorrow we shall tether him to the tree and wait for the lions to come out!”
Gimli watched his friend pull on the cap and muffle his lower face, then turning on his heel he left the kitchen, drawing his hood over his face. They went out into the dripping courtyard, passed the guard at the arch who bid them a good night, and walked in silence through the ruins to the bridge. The rain had lessened, though the pines still tossed their shuddering heads and waved their sodden limbs, and when they looked to the sky saw stars peeking through the shreds of clouds that tore across the heavens in their haste. At the top of the bridge by common consent they both stopped, looking at it arching beneath their feet, watching the roiling water beneath them and hearing the roar of the tailrace across the river. The breeze wafted the scent of tamarisk and lemongrass through the damp air, and suddenly Legolas let out a great sigh. Gimli looked up at the Elf standing tall beside him, snorted, and said:
“First Bandy calls you a cow, now you are a goat! The next man who compares you to a farm animal is getting an axe in his belly.”
To his relief Legolas laughed and clapped a hand on his shoulder, then in silence once more they returned to the Tent City.
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