The Adventures
Frodo Gardner

Volume II
Through Shadows to the Edge of Night
By Dolores J. Nurss

Chapter 9, Part 39
Dinner with the King
(December 10, 1451)

Frodo opened his eyes to a youth saying, "Come Master Frodo, while the water is hot." He realized that he had sprawled upon a bed without having even changed from his travel-stained clothes or bathed his dirty feet. He blinked about the room, disoriented for a moment--this place looked much too rich and well-appointed for a room in any inn he'd ever seen. Then he remembered where he was: Minas Tirith, capitol of Gondor, in the Palace of the King. He got up rather stiffly and followed the servant, deciding that a bath sounded like an excellent idea.
Frodo couldn't say whether the steaming water revived him or relaxed him further, but it sure felt good after a long winter's ride. The soap smelled good too--restorative, like the first breath of spring upon the wind; he guessed it came from one of Rivendell's old recipes. Eventually he emerged from the bath all pink and tingly-fresh, to clean and comfortable robes awaiting him along with a brush for head and feet. As soon as he'd made himself presentable, another servant led him in silence to have dinner with the King.
Frodo dreaded another state occasion like he'd survived in Rohan, after such a hard day, but the servant brought him instead to a study with a little table pulled up to a hobbit-sized overstuffed chair beside the fireplace, and a taller chair nearby. A fine meal of chicken and winter vegetables sat alongside a goblet of wine on the table, and underfoot spread a warm fur rug to curl his chilly toes in. The bottle and some toothsome desserts waited on a sideboard. All the nourishing aromas spiced the air and set his mouth to watering.
"Go ahead," said a deep voice behind him. "I have already eaten. Help yourself."
Frodo spun on his heel. "Your majesty!" he cried, and bowed to the tall and lanky man with the trim gray beard and the crinkles radiant around the keen, gray eyes.
The King laughed. "Now, now, in the privacy of this room I am Strider, and you are the son of one of my dearest friends." He placed hands on the hobbit's shoulders. "Let me take a look at you--my, but you've grown!" He winked when he said, "An inch or two more than I might have expected, had I not been watching you."
Frodo averted his eyes, embarrassed. "Um...yes. I suppose you know all about the ent-draught."
"Indeed I do, and more besides. Come--sit! Eat!" Frodo complied with no hesitation whatsoever and found the meal delicious. "I had an especial interest in seeing how Legolas fared, of course," said the King, leaning on the mantle like any commoner, in a comfortably shabby robe obviously reserved for less-than-state occasions. "We go back a long ways, he and I."
"Your majes...uh, Strider, if you could follow Legolas by palantir, how come you couldn't tell Eowyn and Gimli where to find him?"
"Reading a palantir takes no little skill, Frodo. You see many images overlapping and ever-changing--not just in geography, but also in time. It takes effort to sort through to the image you want, and strength to hold onto it. And Legolas wandered a great deal through wilderness without landmark. I did catch a glimpse of him lingering in one place longer than his average, at the Prancing Pony, though I could not fix the dates, but by the time Eowyn and Gimli arrived, he had departed. And when I found him again later in Hollin, I had no way to convey the message to his seekers; fortunately Gimli figured it out for himself."
"Did you know then, ahead of time, about his merging with the willow?"
Strider took the bottle and a cup from the sideboard and sat down across from Frodo. Grimly he said, "I saw that one possible future. I also saw Legolas dead in Hollin beneath a howling orc. And I saw him take his own life in the Chamber of Aule. And I saw him running savage and in rags where even Gimli could not find him. So many terrible, possible futures!" He poured himself a cup of wine and sipped it slowly. "It is unwise to rely on the palantir overmuch. Now that I have you here, and safe, I will not use it again for awhile."
"I-I am sorry to have caused you so much trouble," Frodo stammered.
"Trouble? It is because of you that the worst futures never happened." Strider helped himself to a bit of toast from the side of Frodo's plate. "Besides, at times you were downright entertaining to follow--particularly at sword practice." He buttered the toast, popped it in his mouth, then said, "But I should warn you that you were luckier than you perhaps deserve. That little wanton that you dallied with, for instance, could easily have picked your pocket."
Frodo choked on a turnip. "Dallied?" he cried, horrified. "I didn't...I never...I mean all I did was..."
"Get close enough for robbery. This isn't the Shire, Frodo, as I said to your namesake many years ago. You needn't blush! I am not altogether naive. But you have much to learn about the wide world, my friend. Never trust anyone bent on instant courtship with a total stranger--they are either ill-intentioned or a fool, and the latter might actually drag you into more trouble than the former. But enough said!" he exclaimed with a clap of the hands. "Tell me about the Shire. And tell me of your travels--my random glimpses have shown me too little for my liking. Tomorrow I must again become the King, and you the Royal Gardener, and we shall have much business to discuss between us, but tonight we're a couple of old friends meeting, after many years, in a quiet room away from all the bustle. Tell me everything!"
And so they talked, with great enjoyment on both sides. Sometimes Strider would listen to the young hobbit's traveling-tales with questions or exclamations of interest; at other times he would recount the doings of his son, or tell of good fishing to be had in certain nearby mountain streams, or praise a cloak that his wife had made for him--he could have been anyone besides a king. Yet intermixed with such accounts mingled tales of his adventures in points east and south; then would his eyes shine and his voice take on a richer timbre, as he recounted marvels he had seen in distant lands, acts of courage in friend or foe alike, or moments of the most profound emotions--fear or joy or grief, pity or respect, unexpected hope, astonishment and wonder.

One thing only did Frodo note by its absence, in expression or in word, and that was pride. Tar Elessar never told his own deeds as anything remarkable, focusing rather on his feelings of the hour, or the accomplishments of those around him. But neither did he deny anything he did, nor put on shows of false modesty; he seemed utterly sure in who he was, needing neither adornment nor denial.
Frodo soon felt so at ease that he could bare his heart about Billie-Lass, and found the words that he couldn't say over the cairn on the road to Minas Tirith. Strider in turn shared his own reminiscences of her grandsire Bill, from the first time he'd laid eyes on the scraggly beast, to watching him thrive under Sam's kindly hand, to the grief Strider'd had to swallow back in the Mines of Moria when he thought Bill lost, to his great joy on reading Sam's letter and learning that Bill had survived after all. "Did Billie-Lass bear any foal of her own?" he asked Frodo.
"Yes. A little boy-colt a couple years ago. He beelined straight for Tom from the moment he first staggered up onto all four legs. So of course Tom got him, and Tom named..." and then he turned bright red.
"Why Frodo, what...oh." and the King began to chuckle. "Don't tell me. He named the pony 'Strider'."
"Begging your pardon, sir, but not that many folks know nowadays that you ever went by that. And it..."
"It is a rather natural name for a horse is it not? I believe your namesake rode a pony called 'Strider' for awhile, himself." Then he leaned over and said, "Don't tell anyone--least of all my wife--but as a small boy, myself, I once named a puppy 'Luthien'!"
"Luthi...oh my!" And Frodo burst into uncontrollable giggles that grew into belly-laughs the more he tried to fight them down. All the Gamgees knew the King's nickname for the Queen.
"Well, she seemed very beautiful to me at the time," Strider said. "A pretty white dog with floppy black ears, and the biggest, most soulful eyes. My mother was scandalized, but Elrond laughed."
"And what became of her?"
"Died long ago." Strider shook his head, staring into his cup. "The orcs did not dare challenge elves on the hunt, but they weren't above leaving poisoned meat for the hounds where they thought the hunt might pass. I suppose that passes for humor, among orcs." When the king looked up, Frodo saw how his eyes glittered with unspilled tears, even now, to remember. "That is when I learned that Elrond could not heal everything, though he tried. At least he could ease Luthie's pain before the end."
Then Strider smiled gently and said, "I have learned never to trust anyone, be he man, elf, hobbit or dwarf, who cannot grieve for an animal who has served him or dwelt long with him. And one time, Frodo," he leaned forward again, speaking softly, "one time I saw an orc turn back for a wounded warg, grief plain on his hideous face. Oh, he snarled at me where he knelt by the monster, but he did not leave, though I stood over him with my bared sword--he had given up all advantage to return to his animal. And I, Frodo...I found that I could not slay him."
Strider's smile went crooked as he traced a line across his chest. "Here he slashed me, once the beast had died with his hand soft upon its muzzle. The knife only bore a mild poison, as orc poisons go--Elrond could bring me back from fevered dreams, though he raged at me later for frightening him nearly to the death like that. But when he demanded if I had learned my lesson, I stared him in the eye and said 'Yes," in a way that told him I did not mean the lesson he had in mind. I still have the scar, and I am glad, for it humbles me." He laughed and shook his head. "Elrond later told me that he felt glad, himself." Then, more seriously, he mused, "You know, the orc could have stabbed me dead."
And so the conversation turned to tales of faithful beasts, and Frodo told the King of Mormel the Raven. Soon the whole story of M�rglin and Roin spilled from the hobbit as the fire burned low in the hearth and Strider built it up again. Frodo did feel a little disappointed to learn that his theories had been all wrong, that M�rglin could not possibly have returned in masculine form, and that Roin would always come back remembering his entire history, albeit gradually.
Strider did look thoughtful, though. "One of the dwarf-stonecutters I employ is living here with his family--he is lucky enough to have one. His son has recently reached an age where he is able to announce his own name, and he has called himself 'Roin'. I thought nothing of it till now; the lad can barely put two words together at his age and doubtless remembers no more about himself than that--thus far. But now I wonder if somewhere, hidden perhaps among the Moriquendi, an elvish maiden has named herself 'M�rglin', and if the time has finally come for them to return to us at last." He stroked his beard, staring into the fire. "If so, a hidden people might soon emerge from hiding--in Eldarion's day, perhaps--and in these latter times they may need help..." He turned suddenly to the hobbit, as though remembering his presence. "If you would, Frodo, I would like you to write down for me everything that you remember of their tale."
"I already did," Frodo said, "in a letter home--but I mailed it in Edoras. You can send to the Shire for a copy, though; Elanor has a fair hand for such work--she has recovered a number of old Master Bilbo's poems that had almost faded past redemption. He wrote in a thinnish script that doesn't hold up well, I'm afraid."
"I well remember," said Strider, smiling.
"That's right--you knew old Master Bilbo. He sailed before I was born, to my regret."
"Oh, we were the dearest of friends, from the days before he moved to Rivendell, even." Strider leaned back into the cushions, eyes a-twinkle. "I had been patrolling the Shire bounds the year that I met him. I had tracked a most unwelcome visitor across the borders into a northern woods, exercising what I considered the utmost stealth so as not to alarm the locals with my presence--though I should have known that the keen ears of hobbits are not so easily deceived. Then, just as I had the monster cornered and slain, and congratulated myself on a job discreetly done, I heard a throat clearing behind me, and a voice said, 'Excuse me, sir, but isn't that goblin rather far from the Misty Mountains? One of their northern nations, I should say, if his clothes mean anything.' So help me, Frodo, I dropped my sword in shock! It was not the sort of remark I would have expected from a hobbit--nor did I expect to find any such wandering so deeply in the woods, least of all at that hour of the night." Strider chuckled and sipped his wine. "I had much to learn."
"Bilbo wrote that verse for you, didn't he--the one one that starts 'All that is gold does not glitter', that told my namesake who you really were?"
"The same. He knew me better than many a man or elf who counted me a friend."
Gently Frodo asked, "Do you ever miss using your real name...Aragorn?"
The King shrugged, staring beyond Frodo as he rolled his cup between his palms. "Aragorn was my official name from birth, but I did not grow up with it; it never felt like more to me than yet another alias."
"And what name do you call yourself, when there's nobody to hear you?"
The King smiled mysteriously and finished his wine. "I think we have discussed enough fascinating topics for one night. You look badly in need of sleep, Frodo."
The hobbit almost disputed this. He could have chattered on forever if his eyes had not betrayed him by persistently trying to close. "I s'pose you're right," he said, less clearly than he intended, thanks to a yawn.
"The hour is late," Strider said, "And we have work to do in the morning." At the look on Frodo's face he added, "Not too early in the morning," and he winked. "I shall give word to send your breakfast in at a leisurely hour, if that is to your liking."
"It is," said Frodo, suddenly wondering why he hadn't toppled over hours ago. "Thank you."
"It is a small concession, compared to what I shall ask of you," said the King, and Frodo raised a brow.
"One more thing," Frodo asked, "before I go to bed. Has any mail arrived for me? Anything from my family?"
Strider stood and looked sadly on the hobbit. "I fear that the post has been delayed."
"Of course," said Frodo. "How could I forget?" And he went to bed for a night of troubled dreams.

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