Written for the Teitho contest. Theme: thanksgiving
This is a very different story from my usual, which is why I enjoy writing for contests so much. It breaks me out of my rut. This story took second place.
Rating: K+ (mild language)
Characters: OC, King Elessar
Follows shortly after the crowning of the King, but before the departure of the funeral escort for King Theoden.
They say the king will pass through our village next week. Of course, they say many things. They say elves are more than myth and legend. They say the winters were harder in their youth and that we have grown soft. They say a poultice of Orc blood will cure bog spavin on a horse. They say times will get better for us under this new king. They say.
But what if the king does come? What if he does ride through Nowhere on his way to Somewhere? Should I care? I am two score and 8 years, the only hale man of middle years in this territory. The other males are beardless boys or aged beyond the possibility of raising a sword. I am here at this time only because I drew lucky in the lottery for who would be allowed home for the first furloughs after the war. In two weeks I must return, though I will be mustered out soon for good and all, as I was never much of a soldier. Like everyone here I am a peasant.
I am a wheelwright; a fine trade for a village with one horse and three oxen! My da was one before me, though we lived in a real town until I had seen 17 summers and there he made a good enough living for his family. We came here because the darkness was closing in on us. Da rarely made such a cow-handed mess of things as he did when he chose this forsaken spot. He's gone. And his brothers. I alone know the craft in these parts and since my son…since he…Damn their souls to hell! Will I never be able to just say it!...For now it is enough to say that my secrets will die with me.
The king—if he comes—should have fine weather. It is now early summer and the rains have been timely and plentiful. Perhaps this year the crops will bear. Kind Nature did the best for our fields that she could in recent years, but with two armies laying waste to and fro across them, what chance had we to harvest anything? "You must fight to defeat the forces of evil!" we were told. The Orcs swept down and trampled the hay on their way to richer prizes than we could provide and the army of Gondor trampled it again chasing the Orcs back to their caves. When smoke rises from your oat and barley fields, what difference which side set the blaze? When they tell you, "It was one of our men who killed him" who is the enemy then?
"The Orcs take our possessions and our women!" they protest. The Steward takes our possessions too, in taxes, grain, cloth, and oxen for an ever increasing army. And the soldiers of Gondor like our women almost as well as the Orcs do. Even before this latest round of fighting, what did the rulers of Gondor ever do for those who toil with mattock and scythe, hammer or millstone?
So I do not think I will bother to view this new king. New king! How does a king be 'new'? How is it that we have never heard of this man before, who now seeks to rule us? In the army they say he appeared out of nowhere with riders of Rohan. That he was as scruffy as any tramp of the road. It appears he can lead an army; we have seen the truth of that, but men who know only how to kill do not make good rulers. No doubt he will make the old Steward look as softhearted as my old gran and that is a thought to strike terror into any man of reason. But this much they will have in common: the notion that we lesser folk are but grist to their mill, that they may impose whatever tyrannies they choose upon us and that the slightest dissent must be utterly crushed.
Let the king come. I have changed my mind…I believe I will gather with the fools who will fawn and pull the forelock to him. He will see that not everyone accepts a man as their king simply because someone has placed a crown upon his head. I will shoulder my way through the bowing sheep and I will spit upon the ground when I see him—though they hang me for it.
I did it. I spat at the king. But I am not swinging in the wind, eye sockets empty, with the carrion birds still fighting over the choicer morsels. Listen to what befell:
The king came in truth, riding a fine bay horse accoutered with black and silver trappings. With him were thirty to forty nobles, guards, and wonder of wonders: elves! They were the most beautiful beings I had ever beheld; there were three—two nearly alike as two peas with jetty hair and grey eyes, and another as flaxen as my nephew. They jested with the men beside them as if they had not recently come from heaven, as surely they must have done. Riding at the king's stirrup was a young man that I had seen one or twice in the army. How glad I am that I spoke him fair, for at the time I thought he was but one step above myself! He spoke continuously to the king, pointing this way and that, obviously acquainting him with the village and its surroundings. The other riders were also well mounted and finely dressed, some few with falcons, and none seemed to fear the king.
But most of this I did not take in at the time, except for the elves. No, I had my plan and I carried it out. I pushed through the cheering crowd as the king came abreast of my position. I ran down the slope of the sward and onto the road, scrambled between the guards that rode at the fore and with every bit of contempt I could muster, I spat upon the road right in front of the king's horse.
A fraction of a second later I was pinned by two guards who twisted my arms behind my back and shoved me to my knees. This is it, I thought. A backhanded blow or two, a furious demand to know my name and perhaps those of all my kin, and then I would be dragged to the nearest tree. Well, I did get one blow, and one of the guards demanded my name with an extra lift to my twisted arm. Then all went quiet as the bay horse moved closer to me. The way I was held I could not raise my head so I saw naught but two neat forefeet; one black and one white to the fetlock. The hooves shifted restlessly and then stilled at a soft murmur. Then someone spoke. The voice was smooth, like cream, and with a little warmth. But I knew how men in power can speak very pleasantly as they order the dungeon master to ply his trade, so I was not deceived.
"Here is a dastardly villain, eh Faramir? What is your name and your grievance, for you must have one to greet me so."
The guards shook me when I did not answer, and the one the king called Faramir barked at them to loosen their hold since I could not obey as I was. They did as he commanded and released my arms though I knew better than to rise to my feet for they crowded me closely. I raised my head and saw a man no older than myself, if as much, who gazed at me with an open and encouraging expression. He wore a crown and he had the air of command that all true leaders have; one so natural to them that it is not a cloak they wear but who they are. He had eyes the like of which I have never seen; at one moment clear like a stream, at another blue-grey, at still others as silver as the wings of his crown. His face bore scars—not marring him to any degree—but enough that a traitorous voice spoke in my mind saying that he had not ordered his armies from behind them. I sternly stilled the voice—a brave man may yet be evil. His mouth was generous and the lines at the corners of his eyes spoke of a man who laughs easily. Long moments had passed as we gazed upon each other and none of his retinue tried to interfere or hurry me. At last I snarled my name, my voice harsh and grating. He nodded and smiled a little.
"I ask again, Talion, what grievance have you against me? I am on a journey to view my responsibilities. Have you a wrong to be righted? Tell me and I will see what may be done."
I began to speak but omitted an honorific and received a flat-handed blow to the back of my head. The king turned upon the guard a look so furious I was amazed the poor man's armor did not melt and run to a puddle at his feet. There was no question that he was the king when next he spoke.
"Stand up! And you, stand away from him! Step forward, Talion, and speak your mind. If you are innocent of wrong-doing you have no need to fear me, regardless of the greeting you bestowed."
"I am no more innocent than most men, though no more guilty either. As for fear, what more can you do to me that your predecessors have not already done?"
At these words a fleeting expression of deep sadness and weariness passed across the king's face. "Say on."
"We are peasants here. We are wedded to the land and must take whatever those who live in the White City care to send us. We have no young children because our women are either gone, stolen away by soldiers of one sort or another, or because they have not enough to eat to carry a child. I have lost three nieces or nephews before they were born, slipped long before they could survive in the world. Carts are sent to us and we are commanded to fill them with foodstuffs. When we cannot magic corn out of a clear blue sky, a few of us are flogged as an example to encourage the rest to be more diligent. My father is dead, his brothers are dead, two nephews are dead—all lost in this war that has gone on since before I was born. My wife died of the black sickness, though she could have been saved with some of the food taken for the troops. All this I could bear perhaps. But my son—my only child—was killed by a black arrow with gull's wing fletching! You say you will right my wrongs? You are a mighty king indeed if you can return my son to me!"
I stared defiantly at him, eye to eye; I had said my piece. He could have my life now, however he should choose to take it. But he simply looked at me with eyes darkened by some emotion I could not read. And then something horrible happened. Something that had not happened in all the months since my son's reeking and swollen body had been brought to me. I began to weep.
I, the insolent peasant, the only one in the village to stand up to those who had used us so ill, sobbed like a child. I was utterly and completely humiliated. I fell back to my knees since that was obviously where I belonged. I bowed my head and the tears fell like rain. I prayed for anything to end it, a swift sword stroke or even torture. At least agony would turn my sobs to screams. At least they would have their own terrible dignity.
I heard the rustle of clothing as a rider dismounted, followed after by the sound of the entire party doing so. I heard next a soft thud just before me and two knees and thighs enclosed in black leather came into view. My mind reeled for the king was on his knees with me! I felt a hand at my shoulder and another beneath my chin. I was forced to look into those silver eyes, now glistening. "I am sorry," he said. "Mistakes are made in war. A man's aim goes awry or a command is misheard. I am sorry you lost your son in such a way." I wept harder at hearing those words, spoken so gently. He continued, "You have not wept before this, have you?"
Then a wonder happened. The king put his arms around me and held me tightly. I sobbed on his shoulder and he spoke quietly about how fortunate my son was to have had such a loving father. That was not the wonder, though it was marvel enough for a lifetime. The king pulled away from me and placed his hand upon my heart. And I swear, and will swear until the stars burn out, that my grief flowed from me into his fingertips, that I saw my pain in his eyes. The tearing anguish that had been my companion for so long gentled into a deep longing sadness that was nevertheless much easier to bear. A gentle warmth spread from his hand and I smiled. Amazingly, my face did not shatter though I had not smiled since the death of my son. He rose, pulling me with him. Faramir stepped forward and whispered that they needed to move on. The king nodded but did not take his eyes from my face. "Is it better with you now?"
I spoke, my voice rasping in my ears "Yes, I…I thank you." He clapped me lightly on the shoulder and moved to mount his horse. When he had gathered his reins he continued to speak to me. "Talion, I have not the means to repair all the losses of your village. I will send some seed, but we have insufficient for all of Gondor and few villages are better off than yours. I have called for aid from the elves and the Shire, but it will take time to arrive and will not be enough to give everyone a full belly. The army cannot be disbanded at once as there are still many evils at large; nonetheless, you will have more men returned to you each month. Is your head man dead?" I nodded. "Then will you accept this charge from me? Will you assume that office? To order the affairs of your people and settle their disputes? Someone must have oversight here, to help rebuild and prepare for winter. Will you join my service of your own will?"
And then the second wonder happened. For my knees bent, but not because guards forced them. I looked directly into the eyes of the king—and of my own will I said strongly and clearly, "I accept your charge. I will do the best I can, your majesty."
"Good. I thank you." Then he raised his voice that all might hear, though he looked and spoke directly to me. "I need men of your sort; men not afraid to speak their mind to their king. Strong men who have suffered and did not break; who will rebuild our land." He lowered his voice to a normal tone and said, "I will have a charter drawn as soon as may be, but there are many things to be done and it will probably be a few months before you receive it. Until then, act as you see fit and send word if dire need comes to you."
And the wonder continued for my voice said, "Yes, Sire. When next you come there will be many changes and you will be pleased."
"So I believe, or I would not give you my trust. I will send what supplies I can, but I warn you again that they will not serve all your needs."
"That is understood. We will do well enough." My mind was already beginning to plan, to think through a tabulation of the few resources we did have and the best ways to use them. I felt as though some barrier to thought and action had been torn down in my mind, and perhaps it was so. I began to realize my grief had been frozen in time and curdled with hate. The king had breached that barrier and though the process was painful, and I would never be completely free of sorrow for the loss of my Dannel, I could now see tomorrow. Elessar is a fine name—a name steeped in history and portent—but they should have named him Hope.
It is now two months since the day I so insulted our king. Our belts are still drawn too tightly but I have organized our town and reassigned tasks so that, for example, those who draw a bow with the keenest eye are sent hunting and not to hoe the plants of the seed that was sent to us. We have elven squash and tomatoes from the Shire and we tend them as carefully as the dearest child. We have a new kind of grain too, though not much, that is supposed to yield much better in our heavy soil. I had a bit of trouble when these marvels were first sent to us, and had to issue my first punishment decrees to a few who allowed hunger to overturn reason. I do not yet have the charter but my people seem pleased to have someone in charge again.
Tomorrow is our day of rest and I will once again go to the crude alter that is all we can maintain of the sacred in our circumstances. Until a few weeks ago I had not made an offering of thanksgiving since I was a child. It was a grief to my mother that I had turned away from such in the strength and pride of my youth. And in recent years gratitude was the last thing I felt for anyone or anything. But now I find I go gladly, and pour a precious few drops of oil and offer words of gratitude for—it still seems odd to say—our new king.
They say that the king's wife is an elf! They say that the wooly bears tell of a hard winter to come. They say that if your nose prickles you will fight with your wife. They say the hands of the king are the hands of a healer. They say.
Gondor's archers fired arrows that were black with gull-wing fletching ("The Lord of the Rings: Weapons and Warfare" by Chris Smith)
King Elessar wore a lighter, smaller crown when he made his journey of inspection. I didn't make the poor guy wear his ceremonial one.