Equinoxium II: The Fading: Chapter 5
by Lisette

Legalese: See Chapter 1 for disclaimers and ratings.

The sunlight that filtered through high, open windows was bright and warm with early summer when her name was announced by the door warden to the bustling court of Minas Tirith. It was mid-afternoon, too many hours since the noon hour repast, and yet still too many hours until the day's business could come to an end. The hall was filled with advisors, petitioners, guards, members of court, servants and maids. More than fifty people were scattered along stone benches that sat beneath towering banners, gathered in clusters around massive stone pillars, and milling in groups that were scattered between where Eldarion sat on his throne amongst a gaggle of Gondorian merchants and the massive stone doors. And yet despite the cacophony that reigned just a moment before, at the guard's hammering staff and his announcement of her name, a hush fell upon the grand room as Eldarion's heart stuttered at the simple reminder of the loss that still bowed his shoulders beneath its immense weight.

The king turned from the merchants to watch as the people parted before Buffy as she stepped through the massive doors, and walked towards him with her usual predatory grace. Her arrival was unexpected, and yet it was obvious that she had somehow made her way into Minas Tirith without notice as she had already been to her rooms to clean and change from her travels before being announced in court - and all without word of her arrival reaching his ears.

She was draped in a gossamer-thin layer of pale elven-sewn cloth that hung from her shoulders and ended just below her small wrists, and then hugged her hips before falling in a soft layer that brushed the white stone floor. The dress had an embroidered brown suede vest laced over top that cinched the material around her small waist, and displayed her girlish curves in a way that was modest and above reproach. Her golden hair flowed in loose curls down her back, with small braids pulling back from either temple to gather at the back of her head. Her skin was bronzed a deep golden tan, and her hazel eyes sparkled at him above a bright smile that lifted her thin lips and displayed a row of shining white teeth.

She was beautiful and diminutive - and many of his people were plainly terrified by her very presence, while the others pulled back in open unease.

Not that Buffy seemed aware of the reaction that her presence had caused. Though as this was the response her presence always garnered, how was she to know any different? Thanks in large part to his mother's obvious heritage and Lord Legolas' colony of elves that were settled so close to Gondor's capital, the strangeness of elves had come to be accepted in Minas Tirith. It was true that many of her citizens would still stare in awe at the sight of their queen, or any of their elven visitors, but the stares were borne from an endearing fascination with the firstborn. Buffy, however, was an entirely different case, for she was so obviously of the race of Men, no matter the elven weapons she carried or the company that she kept.

And yet she didn't age.

Eldarion had always known Buffy. From his very first memories, wherever Legolas was, Buffy was always close behind. She had teased him from his childhood sulks, kissed away his tears, played with him in the forests and fields, and helped him to climb trees when the branches were too high. She had been there when he had made his first kill, stood beside him in battle, and held his hand when they buried a lost friend. She gave hugs freely and was unabashed to show her affections - and she had even named his first horse, insisting that he be called Mr. Ed.

Always had she been a fixture in his life, and it was only later, as an adult, did he come to realize that while he had never questioned her unchanging appearance, his people could not look past it. She was so obviously of the race of Men, and yet she lived with the elves and was bonded to the Lord Legolas, dear friend to the king. She was often burdened with enough steel to sink a boat, and yet she always moved with an effortless grace. She could move inhumanly fast when in battle, could carry a grown man upon her back without breaking a sweat, and if she ever took hurt, the wound would heal with a speed even greater than that of the firstborn. She was a fierce warrior, a proud shield-maiden, and she paid little attention to the restrictions or etiquette of Gondor's court.

So many years ago, when her lack of aging could no longer be ignored, dear Éowyn had cornered Buffy in the halls of the White Lady's home in Emyn Arnen. In her usual blunt manner, she had explained that even though Buffy was lacking in everything that made an elf an elf (exquisite, ethereal beauty, pointed ears, and height - to name a few), she was also romantically involved with an elf, lived with the elves, had a strange fondness for weapons, was aloof, and wasn't aging. In the eyes of the people, this not only made Buffy strange, but also fearsome, worrisome, and untrustworthy. While the word 'witch' hadn't been mentioned, Buffy still got the picture. In her words, she was creeping out the locals.

That summer Éowyn had made it her mission to school Buffy in all ways of the courtly life. And thus began her lessons in genteel smiling, regal hand-waving, and all around perfecting the portrayal that even though she may occasionally be loaded down with enough weapons to outfit a garrison, she was entirely harmless. As Eldarion regained his feet, he couldn't help but feel that despite Éowyn's best efforts, the White Lady had failed. And while his heart quailed at the thought of losing Legolas, Gimli, and Buffy on top of the all too recent loss of his parents, Eldarion couldn't help but think that perhaps it was for the best. Despite the best efforts of his father, Buffy had never found her full welcome in Minas Tirith. Perhaps in the land of his mother's people could she finally find the home that she had long been denied.

The king waved away the wary merchants, noting grimly as they eagerly took their leave, before smiling warmly at this fixture of his childhood. "Lady Buffy, you have returned," he greeted as she paused before him just long enough to clasp her fist to her heart, before sweeping into a low curtsy in the fashion of the elves. He could feel the heavy weight of the eyes of the court upon them both, and he knew that it was for them that she greeted him such. Perhaps she wasn't as oblivious to the mood of the people as he had hoped.

"Mae govannen, King Eldarion," Buffy returned sweetly with a wry twist to her lips as she gracefully straightened, her hands falling loosely to her sides. Her actions screamed, See? No threat, even as she sent him a quick wink, her bright smile then dimming beneath her next words. "I'm most happy to report that my errand was completed per your instructions."

"All went well?" he queried, and though his voice was light, he knew that Buffy could sense the great weight that dragged upon him. It had been nearly two months since his father had passed and his mother had left the city in Buffy's care, and while the pain lessened with the passing of each new day, it was still blinding with every subtle reminder. He had been given ninety blessed years with his parents, and yet he would have gladly taken ninety more. Their loss would forever cut him, and yet in the two months that Buffy had gone, Eldarion had no choice but to settle into his new role as King of Gondor, with all of the headaches and joys that entailed.

"My party encountered a band of Mountain Men a week into our journey, along the Great West Road," Buffy admitted with a small, negligent shrug. "They weren't of real concern and were swiftly dealt with. The package remained unmolested," she quickly assured when she caught sight of the alarm that thrummed through his body.

"Nonetheless, I will ensure that our patrol of the Road is increased, and will send word to the King of Rohan to ensure that he does the same within his own borders," Eldarion returned, hearing the faint rasp of quill to paper as the court scribe made note of his promise.

"A wise decision, my lord," Buffy returned in that same, stifled sweet voice with a grave nod of her head that had her chin brushing against her collar bone. The move was so formal and utterly alien for Buffy that it had Eldarion fighting a smile that would be wholly inappropriate in the current setting. And she was doing it on purpose, too. On the few times that Buffy had ever attended his father while in court, she had always made it a game to see if she could get Eldarion to act in a way that was deemed inappropriate by his tutors, minders, and keepers. Between her, his uncles Elrohir and Elladan, the hobbits Merry and Pippin, and Legolas and Gimli - it seemed as though Eldarion was always in trouble for something. Something that was most usually not his fault.

How strange to think that now, the only person that Eldarion was truly accountable to was himself.

The thought was sobering, and again, the young king saw that Buffy sensed his change in mood as her playful smile dimmed in kind. Eldarion forced a small smile as he nodded to the small blonde. "I thank you for your report and ask that you now take time for yourself. Your journey has been long, and as it is some time yet before the evening meal, you may wish to take rest until then. Though... wait," he murmured, his brow creasing as he suddenly realized that someone was missing. "Lady, wherever is Lord Gimli? Were you not to meet in Edoras before making the journey here?"

At his question, Buffy's expression briefly flickered with guilt before smoothing over into a bland facade. "My apologies, my lord, but upon my arrival in Edoras I was informed that Lord Gimli was regrettably delayed with pressing business in Aglarond."

With a sigh, Eldarion immediately knew what went unsaid. Buffy had beat Gimli to Edoras, and instead of waiting in a city filled with strangers where her welcome would have been lukewarm - particularly amongst such a superstitious people - Buffy had left without the dwarf and made the return trip on her own. Despite his annoyance at her blatant disregard of his worries about her safety, Eldarion also knew that the slayer had obviously handled herself well on her journey. As Buffy always said, there was no use worrying over spilled milk - and besides which, he was sure that Legolas would be angry enough on both of their behalves.

The thought was enough to cause Eldarion's smile to return - something which caused Buffy to frown in turn. "I see," he stated, his voice equally as bland even as his grin broadened. "Well in that case, I won't keep you," he murmured as he waved an airy dismissal and turned back towards the group of merchants that had followed their every word as closely as everyone else in the room.

With a puzzled frown Buffy dropped into another deep curtsy, muttered a quick my lord, and then turned back towards the door. She made it only a few steps before Eldarion called over his shoulder. "Oh, and no worries, my lady. I will be sure to have a messenger at the main gates awaiting Lord Legolas' return. That way he can be promptly informed of your return and the details of your trip."

It was only thanks to the keen hearing gifted to him by his half-elven parentage that allowed him to hear Buffy's muttered, "Of course you will." With more grimace than smile, Buffy threw him another curtsy before hurrying from the room. In her absence, the large room once more filled with the deafening ring of voices.