Théoden, Aragorn noted, had probably had one cup more than he ought to have had, to judge by his excited–and rather excessive–volubility. As with any gathering of the high of any land, this celebration of Yuletide was as much merriment as it was maneuvering. There were marriages to make, alliances to forge, grievances to be dealt with, and if the formal sessions had ended, it meant only that the field of battle shifted somewhat. And in the social arena, he who could best manage his drink generally won the day. The young Prince of the Mark had a prodigious tolerance for beer—how could he not, given that the Rohirrim accounted it another sort of food?—and mead he knew to be wary of. But Dorwinion wine was another tale entirely, and the Ranger knew that Théoden had not any experience with it, or the lad would have been more careful. Thengel had not raised a fool, after all, but youthful exuberance and lack of experience were a potent combination that could overwhelm even stolid éothéodic common sense. At least the day's formal business is done, and it is growing late in any case, Aragorn thought, idly swirling the wine that remained in the bottom of his glass, and wondering whether he might not be able to quietly steer Théoden out of the company, or at least into a circle of Éorlingas, where it would not matter so much what he said.
On the other hand, mayhap he knows as well that 'tis better to say little of consequence, for he has stayed clear of politics the last hour or so, he noted. For that matter, so also had Denethor, much to his wonderment. The Steward's son had even been seen to smile and mingle, and if the former was not wholly foreign to him, the latter certainly was uncommon in Aragorn's experience. It had been an instructive evening in that respect, and he had to admire the other's sense of the occasion. He would not have credited Denethor with being so good an actor, given his usual demeanor and impatience with foolishness. But at the moment, Gondor's Captain-General seemed simply to be listening to the flow of literary conversation in the cluster of lords and ladies that had formed about him and Théoden.
"My father prefers the Imlis poets to the followers of Elandir," Théoden was saying into the lull that had followed a lively debate over the merits of the venerable Elandir. And he grinned, as he continued, "Naturally so, as their chief came out of Lossarnach, and a son should not presume to argue his father's taste. However, I must say that I have not yet found in Gondor's poets aught that vaunts them higher than the scops of the Mark."
"Indeed?" one of the young ladies asked, and Aragorn sought quickly for a name. Dían of Dol Amroth? Meldarien of Morthond? Something alliterative... I think Théoden may not be the only one who has had too much, he thought ruefully. Try though he might, he could not quite recall the name. Although, in fairness, the lass had said all of three words in the time he had been standing here listening, so perhaps he might be excused the lapse of memory. "Tell us of some of these scops, for I know little of them, your highness, other than that I hear almost a stuttering in them."
"Ah, but that is the form of our poetry—to repeat the sounds, rather than bend to find rhyme. As for the scops themselves, I could name you a dozen, my lady, but even the lowest of them in the meanest village has somewhat that I miss in the verses of Gondor. The... Ælric, hu secgeth mann swyfthyge?" the Prince asked, which caused heads, including Denethor's, to turn towards him.
"Spontaneity?" Aragorn suggested after a moment's thought.
"Aye, that is the word. One reads Gondorian verse—it is written. Some of it has rhyme only for the eyes, but not the ears," Théoden explained. "That is never so in the Mark, for all such verses are learned through having heard them recited—they are made to be sung and said, for the joy of the sound of it." That inspired some discussion amongst the others, though Aragorn said nothing, only listened. And he was not alone in that. Denethor, too, remained silent, though there was that in his eyes that made Aragorn wonder what thoughts lay concealed behind that careful mask of polite interest. Whatever they were, they were not so absorbing that Ecthelion's son did not notice that he was being observed. Denethor cocked his head slightly, running a hand through his hair, brushing a few locks from his face as he casually met Aragorn's gaze. Two pairs of grey eyes locked stares for a brief moment, and then Denethor's narrowed slightly– and rather slyly–just ere he looked away. And mayhap it was that the hour was late for such discussions, and minds whirled; or mayhap wine had loosened other things than tongues, but Aragorn did not miss the gleam of pure mischief in Denethor's eyes that shone forth in that unguarded moment.
"Intriguing, Théoden," Denethor said smoothly, injecting himself into the conversation, which (naturally) drew all attention to him. "I fear my acquaintance with Rohirric poetry comes almost entirely through such verses as are recorded and kept in our libraries. Thorongil here has attempted to further my education when the occasion arises—" and here, Aragorn merely raised a brow, though he inclined his head, acknowledging the acknowledgment, all the while wondering at this tactic and hoping indeed that he was not about to be asked to perform "—but I fear that lack of time prevents serious study of the matter. Is the royal opinion yours as well, Thorongil, now that you have spent these past eight months among us?"
"I allow that there is that difference between the scop of Rohan and the poet of Gondor, although if spoken, the poetry of the latter is also beautiful. But the scop's art is suited to speech, certainly, and it cannot be reduced to marks on a page so readily," Aragorn replied. "The poem is in the speaking, and although some are quite set and are traditionally delivered only in one way, most are remade with each repetition, for each man speaks it differently."
"Genau," Théoden affirmed, falling back into his own tongue for a moment. "'Tis harder to be moved by a silent page. Would you not think so, my lord Denethor? What argument can you make on behalf of Gondor's poets?"
Which was precisely the question that Denethor had awaited, surely, as he assumed a thoughtful air. At length, he answered, "For myself, I confess that I have not the ear nor the eye for poetry, though I have studied it much, of course. Which is why I must speak instead in favor of the scops of the Mark." There was a murmur of surprise at this, and Denethor shrugged slightly, "'Tis true, for if what I have been told is so, then it gives me hope that I might one day understand the éothéodic art."
"What tale is that?" someone asked. And let it begin in earnest, Aragorn thought, wondering what had just been set irreversibly in motion. Nevertheless, despite a certain wary anticipation, he listened as eagerly as the rest, for he knew naught of this side of Denethor, and Ranger that he was, his interest in both tale and teller was piqued.
"When I was a youth, one of my swordmasters had family in Anórien, very close to the border, along the Mering, and he told me this tale. There is a town there, and it is a place where traders come sometimes from Rohan. This town, though, is a peculiar place–'tis renowned in the region for the queer custom of its merchants, who cry out their wares. But not as they do here: there is an art to it. One must be clever with one's words. So rather than say, "Cabbages here," a merchant of this town will say, "Cabbages the crate a crown"; or "Eleven eggs, an et," to mean a dozen eggs; or again, "Hie a hog home here" to sell a pig. There are a dozen variations, as many as the merchant can invent or has inherited. A most amusing custom, which has grown to be almost a code in itself, and an outsider is out of his element if he comes not prepared." Denethor paused then to take a sip of his wine, and he glanced once around the circle of listeners, seeming to test their attention. None were found wanting, however, and so he continued:
"There came one day a Rohirric peddler and his son to the town. The father was known, but the lad was young and new. And he was one of those unfortunate dullards who can stare slack-faced at naught but air, and so was good for little but labor. Yet that he did, if set a task and told how to do it; hence his father went to negotiate his prices, and to haggle, and he set his son to unlading their cart. This the boy did, though with much prompting, for he stopped often to stare vacantly at one thing or another, and his father was much frustrated by this. All day they worked, and the next day as well, and on the third day, they returned to Rohan. When next the man returned, the town was agape with wonder, for it was clear his fortunes had improved markedly. He had hired help now, a fine new tunic, and coin to spare. Naturally, all wished to know the source of his newfound wealth, and he replied proudly that his son was a poet. Incredible! all men said. The dull-eyed boy, a poet? How? What has he made?"
Another pause, and Denethor turned to gaze straight at Aragorn, who, familiar with the way of such stories, asked dutifully, "What had he made, my lord?"
"Let us see if I recall it all," Denethor replied, seeming to collect his thoughts. Then, clearly making a prodigious school boy's effort, began to recite:
"Mering Market merry meet
An ell of elderberries eat
beets the bunch, lamb for lunch
'queath a quid o' quail quick
kits for cousin
nails for nothing—
but a demark does a dozen
pails of peaches, lovely leeches
many meetings teach the tongue:
take the talk, with it walk
'til the tale and doing's done."
There was laughter around the circle by the time he was through, and Denethor raised a brow at Théoden as he asked mildly, "Have I said it all correctly?"
Théoden could not answer immediately, consumed with laughter along with the others, but at the question, he made an effort to control himself. "Where, my lord," he demanded after a moment, "did you learn that? 'Tis a bit of nearly nonsense rhyme that we teach our children so that they begin to learn the Common Tongue."
"From my swordmaster, as I said. As to its function, I cannot attest to its effectiveness there, but I will say that if the story be true, then it speaks well of Rohirric, that it renders even a dullard boy poetical," Denethor replied, which garnered some more laughter, although Aragorn heard the uneasy note in some of the more sober voices. And indeed, he marveled at Denethor's audacity even in jest. But that he could not believe that the Steward's careful son would speak thus by accident, Aragorn would have thought that he must surely have misunderstood. But Denethor did not pause to answer the questions that arose in those whose wits were not wholly numbed by drink. Instead, raising his glass, he spoke a few words in Rohan's tongue, then excused himself from the group. And as Théoden's expression was now between puzzled and suspicious, it was to Aragorn that the others turned.
"What said he, Captain?" asked the young lady of Dol Amroth... or Morthond. Mayhap from Lebennin?
"'To the victors is victory given,'" he replied.
"And let the vanquished vaunt them," Théoden added, completing the toast. He gazed after Denethor, following his progress intently, while Aragorn held his breath. If the crown prince takes offense... However, Théoden, after a moment, simply shook his head, and laughed good-naturedly once more. Then, raising his glass in salute, he said wryly: "Hoch, Ecthelionsson!"