Disclaimer: I do not own any of the characters of J. R. R. Tolkien, nor any of the various dramatic incarnations thereof. No profit is being made from this work.
Hello, and welcome to this story! I think this is the first time I've written a direct sequel to one of my other stories. This one takes place eleven years after the War of the Ring, and about six months after the end of an earlier story called The Rise of the House of Telcontar. That one is not too terribly long if you want to read it. I don't think you'll be completely lost if you don't read it, though. Briefly, Aragorn had an impromptu trade summit with one Lord Ghayur of Harad. They agreed to keep an eye on each other, then resume their negotiations one year later. That time has now arrived.
I should warn that this story will involve people doing cruel and violent things to others. If you want to stop reading, I will not be offended.
I think that's all I want to say for right now. Enjoy the story, and I will see you at the end.
1. In The Evening Of The Day
It had been an unusually long day. Diplomatic correspondence had eaten up much of Aragorn's time, leaving him nervous and frustrated. He was good at diplomacy, but loathed drafting and revising the lengthy formal letters that the art appeared to require. It was difficult enough when his correspondent was Éomer of Rohan, a man he was honored to call a friend. However, today's correspondence had been with Ghayur, Lord of Harad, whose intentions toward Gondor were far from clear. The twin efforts of trying to divine all the possible layers of meaning from Ghayur's elaborate writing style and then composing a reply that was courteous and informative without revealing anything of substance had left Aragorn with a sour stomach and a massive headache building just behind his right eye. He was therefore far less than appreciative at the sight that greeted his eyes as he walked into the royal suite.
"What do you think?" Arwen asked, presenting their six-month-old daughter Ninniach for inspection.
Aragorn stared at the baby, unable to do much more than blink. Ninniach wore a little yellow dress so covered in frills and lace that it had to have come from somewhere near the Shire. A tuft of her fine dark hair, which had only recently grown in enough to show, had been gathered up on top of her head and tied with a large yellow bow. The Princess of Gondor stared open-mouthed at her father, and a thick ribbon of drool spilled over her chin and down onto the ruffled dress. Aragorn glanced from Princess to Queen and said the first thing that came to mind.
"She looks like a startled Hobbit." As soon as the words left his mouth, he was mortified, but Arwen burst out laughing.
"You are right," she said. "That is exactly what she looks like." She bounced Ninniach, who giggled along with her mother. "Is that not true, baby? Does Ada's little girl look like a startled Hobbit? Yes, she does."
Aragorn reached over and took Ninniach into his arms, kissing Arwen's temple as he did so. "And how did Ada's little girl come to look like a startled Hobbit, if I may be so bold?"
"The dress is a gift from Sam Gamgee," Arwen explained. "The package arrived today, so I tried it on Ninniach to see if it would fit her."
Aragorn examined Ninniach again. It was difficult to say if the dress fitted underneath the frills. As far as he could determine, it covered her body while leaving her plenty of room to squirm, as did the rest of her clothing. "Do you think it fits?" he asked.
"It is big enough that she will be able to wear it for several months while she grows." Arwen smothered a fresh round of laughter at Aragorn's horrified expression. "Do not fear," she said. "Ninniach will not have many occasions to wear this before she grows out of it."
"Good." Aragorn held Ninniach above his head and jiggled her. "Ada's little girl must hurry and grow big and strong so she can stop wearing so many ruffles without hurting the feelings of good Mayor Gamgee."
"Good Mayor Gamgee need never know if Ninniach wears this dress again or not," Arwen laughed. "I will put it away, to keep it fresh and lovely against the day Mayor Gamgee decides to visit us here in Gondor. And that day may never come, at least not while Ninniach is still small enough to wear the dress."
"Then I hope that Mayor Gamgee finds plenty of business to occupy him in the Shire," Aragorn said. Ninniach, sensing that she was no longer the subject of the conversation, reached up and grabbed at her father's nose. Aragorn caught her hand and kissed it, then pretended to gobble up the fingers. Ninniach squealed with laughter.
"I think that someone is hungry," Arwen said. "And that someone should not wear fine new clothes from the Shire while she eats, for she enjoys her food too much."
Grateful for the excuse, Aragorn carried Ninniach to the window seat, laid her down, and examined the dress to locate its fastenings. He pulled the ruffled dress off of his daughter and draped a plain muslin tabard over her head.
Arwen arranged the pillows on the great bed, reclined, and began to unlace the bodice of her gown. Aragorn placed the baby in her arms. "Thank you, Estel," she said. "There is a bowl of barley porridge cooling on the window sill. Will you bring it to me?"
Aragorn located the little pot of porridge and tasted a drop to make sure that it was only lukewarm. "This is terrible," he said. "It has no flavor. I can well understand why our daughter prefers to spit it out rather than eat it."
"It is different from milk, and that is enough for now," Arwen said, as Ninniach began to nurse. "I will not waste flavorings until she has learned to swallow more than a few spoonfuls."
"I suppose that is fair enough." Aragorn lay down on the bed beside Arwen, ready to offer the barley porridge after Ninniach took the first edge off her hunger. "Have you had any other interesting news today besides the latest style in baby clothing from the Shire?"
"I did." Arwen gazed dreamily into Ninniach's eyes. "A letter arrived from the Elves of Ithilien. The lady Doronrîn will be arriving shortly for a visit. I have already given instructions that a chamber is to be prepared for her."
"Doronrîn? Our midwife? She is coming here?" Aragorn's eyebrows shot up. "I find that most peculiar; I was under the impression that Doronrîn did not care for the cities of Men."
"She does not. However, she writes that it is her custom to visit each child whose birth she attends when it is six months of age, to examine it and make certain that it is healthy and growing well."
"That is kind of her," Aragorn said. "Especially as it means that she must make a long journey to a destination she does not enjoy, simply to visit our child. I can see why Legolas thinks so highly of her."
"You asked for the best midwife he knew," Arwen replied. "He is a good friend. Ninniach, I believe you have had enough milk for now. Would you like to try some lovely barley porridge?" She gently detached Ninniach from her breast. Recognizing his cue, Aragorn leaned in close, holding a spoonful of porridge ready.
"Yes," he said brightly. "Is Ada's little girl ready for her second course? Is Ada's little girl ready for bland, watery gruel that is not interesting in the slightest? Yes, she is." He crossed his eyes and waggled his tongue. Ninniach laughed. Arwen glared at him.
"Perhaps I shall ask one of my maidens to assist me at her next meal," she said.
"I am sorry." Aragorn turned back to his daughter. "Ninniach, forgive me. Your loving Ada lied about the gruel. It is, in fact, thick and delicious, flavored with rosewater and almonds." Ninniach opened her mouth to try and imitate the sounds of his speech, and Aragorn tipped a little of the porridge inside. Her expression changed to one of puzzled interest, her limbs twitched, and her mouth waggled as she explored the interesting substance inside it. Some of the porridge spilled out of her mouth, but Aragorn was fairly sure that some had gone down. He wiped her face with her mealtime tabard and prepared another spoonful of porridge.
"See how she flails her arms when you feed her," Arwen said. "Truly, I think this is the most amusing time of her day."
"And of yours, I would imagine." Aragorn fed Ninniach another spoonful of porridge. "At any rate, it is by far the most amusing moment of my day. Ninniach, your face is fair enough; you do not need to ornament it with porridge."
Arwen wiped Ninniach's face. "I take it that you devoted today to correspondence."
"I did. Éomer writes that horse thieves have been raiding the herds at Rohan's eastern borders and asks that Gondor and Ithilien be on guard against similar attacks. I will write to Faramir and Legolas, though I suspect that Éomer has done so as well. And, of course, there was another letter from Lord Ghayur concerning our meeting."
"Have you settled on a place to hold it?"
Aragorn sighed. "I believe that the trading post at Poros will satisfy all concerned, especially since we will ostensibly be conferring about trading policy. That is not what concerns me at the moment, however. Lord Ghayur has asked if you will accompany me." He gave Ninniach another spoonful of porridge.
"I do not wish to be separated from you for so long," Arwen admitted. "But Ninniach is too small to travel to Poros, and I will not have her abandoned by both of her parents. Will this conference proceed smoothly without my presence?"
"I suspect so. Ghayur will miss the opportunity to be swayed by your charm, and I will miss having your cool head at my side, but if you do not wish to come, you need not. "
"Then I think I will remain in Minas Tirith." Arwen wiped the last of the spilled porridge from Ninniach's chin and allowed her to resume nursing. "And, since it seems we must be separated soon, let us enjoy our time together now."
"That is an excellent plan." Aragorn got up and returned the porridge bowl to the windowsill. Then he reclined again on the bed and slipped his arms around Arwen, basking in the warmth of his little family.
The mule picked its way delicately along the edge of the field. Thano had to admit that he was amused by his mount's almost respectful gait. It was almost as though the beast imagined that a real crop grew there instead of the scraggly mixture of rye and weeds. Thano reined the mule to a halt and surveyed the field. There would not be much of a crop this year, if indeed any of the grain survived to maturity. And more than likely, any grain that the people did manage to harvest would bring the curse of the summer madness upon those who ate of it. But people could survive the summer madness; hunger was worse, for it would kill more surely.
Thano caught sight of a small knot of people huddled together in a far corner of the field. Curious, he rode towards them, stopping just close enough that he could see what was happening. Peering over their shoulders, he saw a woman kneeling on the ground next to a hole, weeping, holding a cloth-wrapped bundle. A burial, then. Another child had died.
The woman keened as the others pried the child's body from her arms and placed it gently in the hole. Thano allowed himself to feel a twinge of grief, but reminded himself that this child was fortunate; even in death, it had the honor of a real grave. It had not been so long ago that the people had been slaves and their dead had been butchered to feed the hunger of their Orc masters.
Thano had been present at that final battle, and had cowered in terror as the power of Sauron's fall shook the earth. Later, he had rejoiced to hear that the new King of Men had granted the slaves freedom. He had imagined himself the owner of a peaceful farm where he could start a family and enjoy the fruits of his own labors. To a certain extent, that dream had become reality. The people farmed, and even managed to raise the occasional successful crop. Thano had his pick of the women, and had sired many children upon them. Some of the children had even survived infancy. He could not say that his dreams had been entirely fruitless.
Children died. Children had always died. Perhaps fewer of them died now that the people were free. The woman's grief over this one would heal, and she would have another. Thano turned the mule's head around, and rode away from the burial. The sun was setting, and he prodded the mule into a trot. A mile over the open plain he rode, until he reached his own dwelling.
Once, it had been a barrack for Orcs. After the great defeat, Thano and his gang had fought the Orcs for it, driving them out with a ferocity they had not expected to find in themselves. Now it was his, and his heart never failed to exult in that fact when he saw the place. Flickering light glowed through the windows. The women would be inside cooking the meal. As Thano dismounted, he noticed two strange horses picketed by the door. They were dainty but well fed, with brilliant trappings of gold and tooled leather, and they moved aside amiably as Thano picketed his own mule. One of the women came out of the house.
"Thano. The foreign visitor has returned. He awaits you inside."
Thano nodded his acknowledgement and followed the woman inside. She squatted by the fire and scooped chickpea stew from a pot into three bowls. One she handed to Thano, and the others she gave to the two men who sat on rush mats near the fire. Thano tasted the stew and found it to be made with thick broth and many peas.
"It is good," he told the woman. "You may go." She vanished silently into the shadows. Thano turned to face his guests. "We may eat."
One of the men craned his head, looking where the woman had gone. His soft white robe and brown surcoat rustled as he moved. When he turned back to Thano and grinned, his even white teeth gleamed in the firelight.
"She is obedient," he said. Thano nodded.
"She was once a slave."
"She is not."
"I see." The man ate a few bites of stew in silence, then turned and conferred briefly with his companion. Then he turned his attention back to Thano. "She is your favorite?"
Thano shrugged. "I suppose so. She is still young and strong. The children she bears live."
The man looked at him with dark, shining eyes. "She could become a Queen."
"Like the Elf of Gondor."
"More beautiful, perhaps, if she acquires wealth and prosperity."
They had come at last to the meat of the conversation. Thano still did not understand why his visitor always took so long to arrive at whatever topic he had come to discuss, but he did not mind. He was a free man now, with the leisure to be patient. He regarded his visitor coolly and decided that it was time to confirm something he had begun to suspect during the man's last few visits. "This plan of yours, the one that you come seeking my help for. It will help her to acquire the wealth and prosperity to become a Queen."
His visitor grinned again. "The wealth and prosperity will be yours, Thano. You will become a King of the nations of Men. Then you may take her as your Queen, the jewel of your heart."
"The result is the same," Thano said. "I lend my aid to you and your plan, and she will become a Queen in the end."
"I would not have said it quite so bluntly."
Thano nodded. "I know that, Nasir. What do you wish me to do?"
Some time after sunset, the gatekeeper knocked at the door to Faramir's study. "The Elf woman has arrived, my Lord. I have ordered that her horse be taken to the stable, and she awaits you in the entrance hall."
"Thank you." Faramir set his book down on the desk and followed the gatekeeper to the entrance hall, where a maid had just taken a light summer cloak from the slender Elf woman who stood there. When she caught sight of Faramir, she dropped a graceful curtsey.
"Lord Faramir," she said in a low voice. "My thanks for your hospitality tonight."
"You are most welcome, Lady Doronrîn," he said. "My lady wife is currently occupied putting our children to bed, but she will join us momentarily. In the meantime, may I inquire if you have dined this evening?"
"I have eaten."
"Doronrîn!" Éowyn appeared at the top of the staircase, a delighted smile on her face as she hurried down. "It is wonderful to see you again. Faramir, where are your manners, keeping our guest cooling her heels in the entryway? Come, we shall go into the drawing room. Has my husband offered you something to drink?" She extended a welcoming hand, and ushered them into the drawing room.
Doronrîn eased her pack from her shoulders. "Lord Faramir had no time to do more than greet me," she said. "However, perhaps this evening, it is I who shall offer something to drink." She pulled two bottles of wine from her pack and offered them to Faramir and Éowyn. "My Lord Legolas bade me bring these to you with his greetings. He has also written a letter." This she extracted from her sleeve and handed to Faramir.
"Thank you. I shall read it first thing in the morning, when I am able to act on whatever news Legolas writes." Faramir examined the bottles of wine. "This is a treat. From the Elvish vineyards?"
Doronrîn nodded. "It is our latest vintage."
"Then we must try it. Éowyn, will you bring glasses?" Éowyn moved to a cupboard while Faramir used his belt knife to open one of the bottles. He poured the deep red wine into the glasses that Éowyn set before him, then raised his own high. "To the Elves of Ithilien, who have restored the valley to its former beauty and fruitfulness, and whose vineyards produce wine to lighten and restore our spirits." He sipped the wine and rolled it around experimentally in his mouth.
"Is our Elvish drink to your liking?" Doronrîn asked, sipping at her own glass.
"Indeed. There is a certain body to this wine that I like very much indeed. It is rich and smooth. I think your vintners' skills are improving. Éowyn, what say you?"
Éowyn drank, then shrugged. "It is good wine." She took another sip. Doronrîn lifted her chin.
"I see that you do not waste words, Éowyn. You simply drink. That is perhaps a more honest compliment to the wine."
Éowyn laughed. "I would not be so sure of that. I was raised to drink ale, not wine. I fear that I never developed my husband's sensitivity of taste. I can say no more than that I like a wine or that I do not like it."
"That is a finer start than most," Doronrîn said.
"How long will you stay in Minas Tirith?" Faramir asked. Doronrîn considered the question.
"I do not know. I do not intend to visit the city itself. My purpose is primarily to examine Ninniach and answer any questions the Queen may have concerning her care. Perhaps a few days, but no more than that."
"I know that Mistress Ioreth would be delighted to see you again," Éowyn said. "She would love to have you in residence at the Houses of Healing, to teach your lore about herbs and midwifery to the young healers there. She was impressed by your skills, and has sent me several messages asking after you."
"Mistress Ioreth is quite competent in her own right," Doronrîn replied. "Indeed, in the matter of midwifery to the Secondborn, she is far more experienced than I. She has no cause to be ashamed of her own skills."
"You know that," Éowyn said, "and I know that. And I believe that Mistress Ioreth knows it as well. But she is always eager to learn bits of ancient lore and see that others learn it as well. And I think also that she considers you a friend and would like to visit with you for friendship's sake."
"Ioreth is an old woman, as Men reckon age," Faramir put in. "Many of the friends of her childhood and youth have died, and I think she is lonely at times. It would cheer her heart to have you visit for a time."
Doronrîn blinked, then looked thoughtful. "I had not considered that. I have lost many people I loved, but I suppose that mortals would lose more. Mistress Ioreth is a good person, and I do not wish to cause her grief. If she wishes, perhaps I will extend my visit."
"She would appreciate that very much," Éowyn said. "If nothing else, she will have a new audience for her stories about her latest grandson."
"I will not mind," Doronrîn said. "I might even go so far as to return the favor, for I myself will once again be a grandmother in a year's time. Saelind, my daughter, has decided at last that Ithilien is a safe place to live, and has chosen to bear another child."
Éowyn's face split into a broad grin. "Oh, Doronrîn, that is wonderful!" she cried. "My congratulations to you and your daughter."
Faramir looked at Doronrîn's smooth, ageless face, bright eyes and dark hair, and snickered into his wine glass. "I only wish that I could see the look upon Mistress Ioreth's face when she realizes that you have grandchildren," he said. "I think she has not yet comprehended your true age."
"Then that will be something else for her to learn about the Elves," Doronrîn said calmly. "I think that I will enjoy that lesson. Perhaps my stay in Minas Tirith will not be merely a duty after all."