Faramir studied the tapestry on the wall of the king's study as he waited. The scene depicted his ancestor Vorondil the Hunter slaying one of the wild oxen of Rhûn to claim one of its horns for the Great Horn of Gondor. Sometimes Faramir felt sympathy for the poor pale beast, but did this sympathy make him a traitor to his heritage, he wondered? Blinking to clear his daydream, Faramir returned his attention to his duties as Steward and the man sitting in front of him. Aragorn studied the sheet of parchment in front of him, dipped his quill in the inkpot, and signed it with a flourish: Elessar. He looked up at Faramir. "Are there any more documents to go over?"
"No, sire," he replied.
"Thank the Valar," the king replied. He carefully replaced his quill on the writing desk, and stoppered up the inkpot. He stood to go, and paused. "One last thing. How are the preparations for the wedding coming?"
"Very well, sire."
"I am glad to hear it. I trust in your abilities, my friend." The king clasped Faramir on the shoulder, and then left the room. Faramir sighed and thought of the day when he might be able to claim his own happiness with the White Lady of Rohan. He shook the last of the sand off the papers and put them back into the dispatch case.
As he walked across the courtyard to the Steward's offices, he glanced at the sky. Not a cloud in sight. It was just before Midsummer, so no hope yet of a late summer afternoon thunderstorm. With one last look at the brilliant blue sky, he turned and went indoors.
His Aunt Ivriniel was already seated at the long table in the center of the Council Room, studying a scroll on the table, while holding a bouquet of slips of parchment with names in one hand. Her dark hair streaked with silver was pulled up in elaborate braids on her head. She looked up, and he leaned over to kiss her cheek.
"Good morning, Aunt."
"Good morning, Nephew."
They grinned at each other as Faramir seated himself at the other end of the table. He picked up his list of remaining tasks and sighed. He might be a leader of men, and master of harrying the Enemy, but arranging a seating chart for a banquet so that every noble had his proper place? Thank the Valar for his Aunt's help! Meanwhile, Ivriniel pursed her lips and rearranged some slips on the table.
The morning passed quickly enough among reviewing plans for the rebuilt fortifications, dispatches from his scouts reporting stray bands of orcs to be hunted down, and tallies of the spring irrigation. A merchant from the guild of tinsmiths came, bringing a tinwork lamp as a gift for the new King and their future Queen.
Faramir thanked the merchant on behalf of the King, and the man bowed and left the room. Faramir couldn't resist running his finger over the scalloped edge, and had to bite back an oath as one of the edges caught him. He whipped out his handkerchief and pressed it to his finger as he poked his head out of the Council Room door.
The attending servant seemed surprised to see the King's Steward looking for a servant himself, instead of ringing for them properly. "Yes, sir?" he asked.
Faramir handed the box to the servant. "Herengil, please see that the gift of the Tinsmiths' Guild is placed in the Great Hall to be displayed with the other gifts." Herengil bowed and set off with the box.
Time passed, and the stack of items for his review began to shrink. The next report was an inventory of baked goods for the wedding feast. The visiting hobbits had insisted that the feast feature something called a "Cookie Table." Only hobbits could invent something like this, which was apparently a table of sweet biscuits and tarts and small cakes. And why did hobbits call them "cookies," when properly they should be called biscuits? Merry and Pippin had been detailed to instruct the palace kitchen staff in the recipes of all the cookies they could remember, with Sam's help when he felt he could leave Frodo. Faramir sighed as he read down the extensive list. He felt his chest tighten as if a fist were closing around his sternum as he thought of how many eggs and butter must go into the baked goods.
By the time the sun had sunk low enough in the mid-afternoon sky to begin to shine directly in the window of the Council Room, Faramir was beginning to get a headache. There was yet another polite knock on the door, and Herengil entered. "Lord Rimush, the emissary from Rhûn," he announced. Protocol demanded that Faramir receive the emissary, but Ivriniel rushed forward, extending both hands to the young man. They greeted each other as the oldest of friends, and Ivriniel spoke to him in a flood of Rhûnaic. As best as Faramir could understand in the torrent of words, she was asking after his mother, and the price of wheat? Or was it farro?
As Faramir politely remained standing, leaning on the back of the chair for support and waiting for their pleasantries to end and protocol to resume, Herengil tugged gently on Faramir's sleeve.
"My lord Steward, the emissary brings with him a gift for the King as a token of Rhûn's gratitude for his mercy after war."
Faramir nodded his head. "Put it in the Great Hall with the other wedding gifts."
Herengil's eyes grew large. "My lord, are you sure? It is not…"
Faramir cut him off with a wave of his free hand. "I said, put it in the Great Hall with all the other gifts. From now on, my standing order is to put all gifts in the Great Hall."
Herengil's mouth went shut in a tight line. He bowed low, and left the room in silence.
At the end of the day, when all the audiences were over and the last menu finalized, Ivriniel stood to go.
"Until tomorrow then." He stood as she left the room, then sank back down in the chair with his head in his hands.
He must have dozed off, because when he looked up again, the sun had shifted in the window casement again, casting longer shadows than before. He was just organizing his papers to leave to take his evening meal, when his cousin Lothíriel slipped in.
"Cousin! What brings you here?"
"I heard Mother say that the Belfalas pearl divers sent a casket of pearls for the King and Queen!" She smiled dreamily, as only a person in the vanity of youth could smile.
"Then you heard correctly," he replied, trying to put the irrigation allotment parchments in the right order. Lothíriel swung herself up onto the table and sat perched on the edge, feet swinging beneath her.
"I know you have a key to the Great Hall. Will you let me in to see all the gifts?"
Faramir sighed. "Lothíriel, that would not be fair to everyone else in Minas Tirith who wants to see them. Should I make an exception for you, then what? Erchirion would want in, as well?"
Lothíriel giggled. It was clear she was imagining her brother. "Erchirion would never be interested in all those pearls. He only cares for his ships and sails." She looked at Faramir from under her lashes, her pretty young face in a pout. "Please Faramir? I promise I won't tell anyone."
By this point his head was pounding, and he feared his churning stomach would be no fit for the evening meal.
"If I wait until everyone else sees it at the same time, there will be such a crush of people. I would have to hop up and down to see over anyone's shoulders, and it would be most undignified to elbow the Lord of Lebennin out of the way. Please?" Her voice curled up at the end at just the precise pitch to make his ear throb. He decided he might as well give in, just so he could go back to his room with a cold wet cloth on his forehead, hoping for a breeze.
"If you put it that way," Faramir smiled wanly. He offered his good arm to his cousin. "Shall we?"
They crossed the courtyard, and he used one of his ring of keys to open the door to the Great Hall. Faramir stepped to one side as he held the door open for her.
"Oooooohhhhhh-wuh!" Lothíriel exclaimed as she rushed inside. Faramir wondered if that was the sound engendered by a particularly cute casket of pearls, or a mithril candelabra. The noise she made was usually reserved for kittens or small babies, amongst the few women of his acquaintance. He took a deep breath and followed her inside.
There in the deepening shadows of early evening, as a beam of light slanted low across the hall, he saw Lothíriel kneeling on the floor, with her arms around the neck of a calf.
A red, fluffy, Rhûnaic calf. Just like a smaller (and redder) version of the one in the tapestry. It was tied to a pillar next to the tables of wedding presents on one side of the hall, but it was clear by the way it was straining that it very much wanted access to the hobbits' cookie table.
"Is it not simply the most adorable thing you have ever seen, Faramir?" Lothíriel asked, as she stroked its soft back.
Faramir stared, mouth agape. His headache was forgotten.
In the Great Hall?
He felt his way to a nearby bench, and slid down the wall until seated, his chin on his hand, staring at the calf.
There was definitely a calf in the Great Hall. His father would have roared in anger at the disrespect shown to the seat of the Stewards of Gondor. He glanced at the empty Steward's Chair out of habit.
And … was that … a dust bunny of red hair tumbling across the floor in the breeze of their arrival?
Cattle, shedding in the Great Hall?
A bark of laughter escaped him. Faramir supposed it could have been worse.
How did the calf get to the Great Hall, though? Faramir thought back to the events of the day. The emissary from Rhûn must have brought the calf, but he could not even begin to imagine how it was brought to Minas Tirith. Was it brought by barge down the Anduin? In a caravan from the southern edge of the Sea of Rhûn? In the talons of a Great Eagle?
Herengil, Faramir thought. Herengil had tried to warn him, and he had misunderstood. Faramir realized this was all his fault. He had snapped at Herengil, and had not given him a chance to explain. Next, Faramir concluded, he was going to have to get the calf out of the Great Hall and into the Royal Stables without anyone the wiser. He wondered if the cut of his Ranger cloak was generous enough to cover calves?
"Can we keep him?" Lothíriel turned to Faramir and asked.
"Moo," said the calf.
There was only one thing for it. He had created this mess, he needed to get himself and the calf out of it. Finally, after so much paperwork of being a Steward, he had a campaign to win. The lure of a challenge began to loosen the tight feeling in his chest. His strategy was to remove the calf with no one (except Lothíriel and Herengil) the wiser. But what tactics could he use?
Faramir took a few steps forward and glanced around the Great Hall. They would have to take it down the back stairs.
"Lothíriel," he said. "I need your help. We must move this particular present before it creates any more havoc than shedding."
She looked up from her new would-be pet. A look of adventure glinted in her eyes. "Oh my, this is like something out of a children's story!"
Faramir reached over and untied the calf from the pillar to which it had been hitched. Wrapping up the loose ends, he grabbed the rope of its halter close to its nose. He turned and started walking toward the back stairs.
He felt an opposing tug on the rope, and his boots skidded on the flagstones a bit. "Come on, sweetie," he commanded. The calf did not budge. He turned again and tried walking forwards, without success. He felt the calf toss its head and take a step back. "Why don't you understand me?" he begged it.
The calf stared at him with soft brown eyes.
"Maybe it only speaks Rhûnaic?" suggested Lothíriel.
Faramir paused and thought for a moment. Now, he thought, was a terrible time to try to brush up on his Rhûnaic. Why hadn't he practiced more over the years, he berated himself. The calf looked longingly at the cookie table, only a few feet away. After running through 25-year-old exercises in his head, he remembered a useful phrase from an old lesson. Success! But then he remembered that in Rhûnaic, imperatives changed based on who was being commanded. He sighed, and carefully looked around the side of the calf. It was a female calf.
"Alkī!" Farmir commanded. Astonishingly, this time the calf followed him. He was glad he had at least avoided one diplomatic incident this day by not insulting the calf's gender. They made it across the Great Hall, and Lothíriel held the servants' door open for him. The calf clattered down the steps, her hooves ringing against the stones: Clap-clap, clap-clap.
As they passed the level of the living quarters, they heard voices behind the access door. Faramir and Lothíriel froze. They could not be discovered! He looked around frantically. Behind him he felt a wall covering, and hurriedly grabbed one edge and shoved it over the calf. Lothíriel leaned nonchalantly against the large calf-shaped bump, waiting. Luckily, the footsteps paused, and then they heard the voices turn away again. Faramir and Lothíriel both let out their breath. He turned and looked at the wall covering. It was ancient and tattered, depicting the hated Queen Beruthiel of old and her cats. She did not seem happy to be put to such a use, let alone hidden away in a servants' passage.
"Hey!" cried Lothíriel. "Give me that!" She jerked back from leaning on the calf-bump. The calf had taken up a mouthful of ribbon from her dress. "That's my favorite dress, you, you, … Easterling!"
Faramir helped extract the slightly soggy and somewhat wrinkled sky blue ribbon. "We'll have to give her a name," he decided.
Lothíriel looked up from straightening her dress. "How about … Amrûniel?" she suggested. "Girl of the Eastern Sunrise, in Sindarin?"
Faramir chuckled. "Flowery, but it's as good as any. She could be a thing of legends: Amrûniel Hobbitsbane, Devourer of Dresses."
He pondered whether he should ask Lothíriel to sacrifice one of her petticoats to muffle the calf's hooves, but decided moving swiftly was better than taking the added time to move stealthily. Faramir began walking again, and Amrûniel followed on her rope.
Miraculously, they reached the level of the kitchens without anyone noticing. They would have to pass out the back door, though. Faramir looked knowingly at Lothíriel and gave her the "Scout ahead" signal he had taught her many years ago on one of his leaves, when he had played at being Rangers with Lothiriel and her brothers. She nodded and sauntered confidently from the back hallway into the kitchens. As he tugged again at the calf's halter rope, and headed toward the back door, he heard her bringing her mother's compliments to the cook on a recent banquet, and asking for the recipe.
Like the good Ithilien Ranger he was, he paused at the door to survey the terrain for potential obstacles. From the back door of the kitchens, he could see the way to the royal stables, but he would have to cross some open ground to get there directly. Faramir decided to stick to the colonnade lining the walkways, with their deepening shadows providing better concealment.
"Alkī, Amrûniel!" he whispered. He hoped he would not confuse her by mixing Rhûnaic and Sindarin. They proceeded stealthily along the darkening walkway. Suddenly, around the corner, the king appeared. Faramir stopped and did his best to nudge Amrûniel into an alcove with his hip. Faramir's heart went up in his throat when the king noticed him and paused.
"Good evening, Faramir," said Aragorn. "What brings you here?"
"Good evening to you as well, my Lord. I finished my paperwork and thought I would take a stroll. The Healers say that I need to keep up my exercise to restore my strength after my illness."
Aragorn nodded and squinted into the charcoal darkness behind Faramir. "And what is that you have there?"
Faramir swallowed hard. He hoped it was sufficiently dark under the overhang. "A pony, my Lord, for the hobbits. I am just returning it to the royal stables after exercising it." He hoped Eru would forgive his lie, but he had to get Amrûniel far away from the scene of her near-disaster.
Aragorn nodded. "I am sure they will enjoy it. Until tomorrow morning, then."
"Until tomorrow," said Faramir, trying not to betray the strangled feeling in his voice. He waited a moment until Aragorn was further away, and then yanked at Amrûniel's halter.
"Moo," she said.
Aragorn paused, cocked his ear to the air, and then continued walking.
From there it was clear scouting to the royal stables. It seemed that the Valar were smiling upon him, because he quickly found a free stall. Faramir made sure that Amrûniel's manger was filled with good things to eat, not sweet biscuits, and was filling a bucket with water when Lothíriel arrived, out of breath. "Success?" he asked.
She laughed as she leaned against the wall. "The kitchen staff will be none the wiser, but I hope my mother is not too surprised when she unexpectedly receives Cook's recipe via palace messenger tomorrow."
Faramir joined her leaning against the wall, and laughed as he regarded the calf in her stall. He took a deep breath. His heart certainly felt lighter than it had in days.
"Do you realize we can never tell anyone about this?" she said. "Mother would faint."
"I suppose I will need to apologize to Herengil." Faramir shook his head. "It was unlike me to lose my temper. I have had so many new responsibilities as Steward."
"This has been quite the adventure- more exciting than seeing ropes of pearls! At least we saved the pastries," Lothíriel mused.
"But what a hobbitish sort of adventure," Faramir interrupted. He closed the door of the Amrûniel's stall, and with one last look behind them, they left the royal stables arm in arm.