A/N: Thanks again to Chris for beta-reading this chapter


A Man All the Same

It's a strange thing, that spark 'tween a lad and a lass. Anira and I felt it straight off, so I can't deny the heat that threatens to consume a young couple in love. 'Course, not everyone marries for love, just those of us who get lucky.

That winter that the King and his men were under my roof, I took to noticin' that every few hours, young Carandol asked Silima for supplies for that horse he was so fond of. At first, I thought nothin' of it. She's a servin' girl, after all; she's right used to fetchin' things, and who is she to deny the request of the King's squire, even if heis irksome? But then, he started lingerin' with her, tellin' her how smart she was to bring the blue woolen blanket not the brown one because it was so much thicker. A load of nonsense! Those blankets are the exact same weight, and Silima brought the blue one because it was on top. Still, she thanked him for his compliment and blushed a bit. She's a blusher, though, that one.

When Carandol rolled her name through his teeth—"Siiiil-i-maaa" as if he were sippin' on some fine wine, it was clear the boy was smitten. I snorted when I heard him, and he turned his head to glare at me.

I coughed to cover my laughter. "Sorry, young squire. Must be comin' down with somethin'. I'm an old man, I am. Very, very old. Can't handle these brutal winters like I once could." He smirked. Reckon he didn't believe my little act.

'Course, nothin' was ever goin' to come of the two young ones' affection. Silima's a good girl—a pretty lass, too!—but still, she's a servin' girl; Carandol a squire. Even two folks as young as they had to know that in the end, they'd have to leave each other alone. Reckon they were just playin' at love, addin' a little heat to take the chill off the winter.

Seems the King took to noticin' the heat 'tween those two young ones, as well, because one eve after Carandol started fussin' over a blister on Silima's finger, the King came up to me and said, "Ah, young love."

"Why yes, Sire. I reckon it's that. Not that it has a future."

"Why not?" asked the King.

Now, for a moment, I thought Elessar was jokin'. A man like him had to know that a squire and a servin' girl don't belong together! But though he was smilin', he had that right serious look in his eye, and I don't mind tellin' you, I found it a bit disconcertin'.

"After all, my Queen and I make an unlikely pair. Why not these two?" He shrugged, picked up his wine goblet, and went off to settle himself by the fire.

Well, that sounded romantic and all, but not too practical, if you ask me. Not too royal or somethin'. That's somethin' I'd been noticin' 'bout Elessar—as much as I liked the man, well, that's just it: he was too oft a man and not oft enough king. 'Twas like there were two people livin' in him, fightin' it out for which one would lead. I even took to noticin' that I called him "Elessar" from time to time. Not that I ever called him that to his face, but you'd think that I would've stuck to callin' him "the King." 'Course, my father referred to the Steward by his name, so maybe I come by it naturally. Still, there was somethin' about Elessar—see, there I go again—that reminded me too much that he was a man just like me. He sat a might too comfortably by my hearth, if you take my meanin'. We needed a king, someone who stood a little higher than the rest. The sovereign was in there, to be sure. I'd seen the King oft enough, but then, the man would come creepin' back in. A good man, but a man all the same. 'Course, Elessar was still new at the king business when he was here, and I reckon it's no easy task goin' from bein' whatever he was before to bein' King of the Reunited Kingdom. Not a transition I'd want to make. Not that I expect anyone's goin' to ask me anytime soon. I'm just sayin' that it's goin' to prove interestin' to see who wins the battle—Elessar the man or Elessar the King.

As Elessar sat there by the fire, puffin' on his pipeweed, Carandol came up, and I noticed that he didn't give a right proper bow, more of a nod of his red head and a little bend at the waist. Looked more like he was workin' some kink out of his back than greetin' his liege. Elessar had been right fatherly with the lad, and it seemed to have worked well. Still, I wondered whether the time had come for Carandol to get a good reminder that this was no ordinary man to go triflin' with.

Elessar chatted with the boy for a minute or two before the lad went off somewhere—probably to chase down Silima. That's when I saw it, the war ragin' inside Elessar. Those gray eyes clouded as he rested his chin on folded hands. They were fightin' in there, I tell you, man and sovereign, like he was decidin' whose turn it was. I'd seen 'em both, but who would appear next?

I don't mind tellin' you, as much as I liked the man, I was sure lookin' forward to the return of the King.