Chapter One: Evenstar’s Melancholy
Cold rain and ice pellets fell from a leaden sky as Arwen trudged along the stone walk leading from a government office on the south side of the Citadel. Luintelch, her tall Elvish secretary, walked at her side holding a large umbrella over them both. It did little good, however, as frequent gusts of wind blew icy crystals and cold droplets into their faces. The hobnail boots of her bodyguards echoed from the surrounding buildings as the group made its way with all due haste toward the shelter of the King’s House.
“We’re but a week from the spring equinox, Luintelch,” Evenstar bitterly noted, “yet we’ve not seen the sun in over a month. My very fëa is chilled to the bone.”
“Perhaps you’ll feel better this afternoon, Majesty,” Luintelch said as they approached a rear entrance of the King’s House. “You have no more meetings until tomorrow.”
“Good,” Arwen replied as they halted before the stairway. “We’ll have no more work this afternoon. Get your scribes to do another draft of the tax proposal we discussed with my husband yesterday. Now I want my dinner. Good day, Luintelch.”
“Until tomorrow, Majesty,” Luintelch said, inclining his head respectfully. He departed for home as the guards hastily sought shelter in a temporary three-sided shack, before which a brazier of logs burned.
Arwen made a dash up four granite steps, where a guard opened the door for her. She let loose a shivering and weary sigh as she undid the cord of her sealskin cloak. A footman stood at attention to attend to her as she entered the gloomy foyer. Only a few overhead oil lamps cast their harsh light on the floor below.
“I’ve been told to inform Her Majesty that dinner will be served at noon,” the footman said succinctly as he took her cloak. “Shall I announce that you’ve returned from the morning’s business?”
“No, thank you, Jitters,” she replied. “I’m going upstairs straightaway. Was there any mail?”
“Yes, Majesty. A pair of letters arrived about an hour ago.”
“I think I’ll sleep all afternoon,” Arwen thought darkly as she plodded up the stairs to the second floor. “Anything to get away from this dismal reality of cold, darkness and gloom.” She glanced quickly into her husband’s study, only to find it deserted.
Arwen proceeded down the long hallway to the royal apartment, ignoring the solitary guard at the entrance to the royal bedchamber. Her faithful handmaids dutifully awaited her return on a wooden bench just inside the doorway. “You may both go to lunch now,” she informed them. “I won’t be changing my dress for dinner. Leave the door open.”
“Yes, My Lady,” the First Handmaid Elweena replied as they both curtseyed daintily.
“You’re back a little early, my love,” Aragorn said, looking up from his desk in the corner. “Dinner ought to be ready in a few minutes. How did this morning’s meeting go?”
“I decided that the preamble for this spring’s beer tax proposal was poorly worded,” Arwen replied as she headed for the wash basin. “Luintelch’s scribes have to make a few changes. Other than that, I was too distracted to pay much attention to what other business was being discussed.” She splashed water noisily as she washed her hands. “Jitters said that he sent a couple of letters upstairs.”
“Yes, you got one from Éowyn. It’s on your desk. I got one from Meriadoc Brandybuck, of all people,” Aragorn exclaimed, holding up a thick scroll of papers.
Arwen dried her hands and haphazardly tossed the towel at the rack next to the washstand. “We haven’t heard from him in ages. What did he have to say?”
“I’ve only read the first bit of his letter,” Aragorn grinned wryly, “but he filled most of the first page telling me how wretched the weather’s been in The Shire these past few weeks──as if it’s been any different here. A couple of inches of ice has built up on some of the cottages’ roofs and a few of the Hobbit burrows have developed leaks.
Arwen absent-mindedly drew back one of the room’s heavy window drapes──a big mistake! The Tower of Ecthelion was completely obscured by a thick mist as ice pellets rattled noisily against the windowpane. “If only I could see the sun!” Arwen whined, pulling the drapes closed in disgust.
“Your gloom gets worse each day, dearest,” Aragorn said in concern. “Why not visit your favorite bathhouse like Doctor Mirkmir suggested? A long swim in one of those heated pools and a good massage ought to perk you up.”
“I already did that,” Arwen grumped as she plopped onto her desk chair. “It uplifted me long enough to get out the door. By the time I got back home, I was feeling completely miserable again, even though I rode there and back in a sedan.”
Aragorn sighed and returned to Merry’s letter, afraid to make further suggestions. Even after more than five decades of marriage, he still had little idea how to deal with some of his wife’s mood swings.
Arwen dejectedly stared at the floor for a few minutes. “Perhaps I’ll read Éowyn’s letter,” she thought. “There might be cheerful news from Emyn Arnen.” But as she moved to light the candles around her desk, a knock sounded at the open door.
“Your Majesties,” intoned the royal butler, “dinner is served.”
“The family is probably already waiting,” Aragorn said, rising from his desk. “Shall we join them, my dearest?”
Arwen joylessly took her husband’s arm as they strode from the room.
- - -
“Nana! Ada!” Elladanêth and Ellamanêth cried happily as Arwen and Aragorn entered the dining room. Arwen did her best to put on a happy façade as she and her husband doted fondness on their youngest daughters. The twins would be celebrating their fifth birthday four months hence.
“Good day, Nana,” Eldarion said, greeting his mother with a kiss as soon as she had separated herself from his younger siblings. An older teenager, he was now sitting beside his father at some official meetings in addition to pursuing his studies.
Luthirien and Galadriella were absent for the time being, both spending the winter on their husbands’ estates. Due to the weather and her schedule at The Royal Academy, Gilraen had decided to take her noonday meal at the college refectory, but had sent word that she would return by evening.
Arwen chewed a few bites of dinner almost mechanically, barely realizing what she was eating. The main dish consisted of spiced meat cubes and vegetables, arranged on the plate to resemble a large flower. She barely managed to swallow the fourth or fifth bite, suppressing a strong urge to spit it out before impatiently pushing her plate away.
The twins chattered happily as they ate their child’s portions with spoons. Aragorn and Eldarion were quietly engaged in a political discussion at the far end of the table and took no notice of Arwen’s display of disgust.
“My Lady,” the butler blurted out, anxiety clearly written on his features, “is the food not to your liking? Has something been prepared improperly?”
“I guess I’m just in a fitful mood,” Arwen replied, reaching for her wine goblet. “Nothing seems to taste right.”
The butler quickly removed her plate, carefully sniffing its contents before tasting it. He had already tested everything in the serving dishes for any trace of poison, spoilage or improper preparation, but there was always the possibility that he could have missed something. Perplexed, he favored the Queen with an uncertain glance. Nothing seemed amiss.
“Look!” Arwen said testily. “Just take it away! I’m not hungry!”
The twins immediately stopped chewing as they regarded their mother with concern. Aragorn and Eldarion also looked on with shocked expressions. “I’m sorry,” Arwen murmured weakly. “I’m feeling out of sorts.”
“Perhaps you’d best lie down for a while, my dear,” Aragorn suggested, trying to sound nonchalant. He and Eldarion rose to their feet as Arwen tossed aside her napkin and wordlessly left the room.
“Ada, shouldn’t we do something?” Eldarion asked.
“Your mother needs to be alone for a short while,” Aragorn sighed. “It’s this wretched weather that’s gotten her down. I’ll speak with her presently. For now, let’s just finish our dinner.”
* * *
Arwen returned to the royal bedchamber only to find it deserted. Her handmaids wouldn’t be back from lunch for another half hour. She blew out the candles on the nightstands before throwing herself sulkily across the bed. Sleet pattered against the windowpanes and the room felt chilly. Wearily, she removed her shoes and crept beneath the quilt, somehow managing to find relief from her misery by dozing off.
Evenstar knew not how long she had napped by the time she opened her eyes. It could have been half an hour or merely a few minutes. She raised her head from the pillow, starting in surprise at seeing her handmaids regarding her silently. “I didn’t hear you come in,” she said groggily.
“We tried to be as quiet as mice, Lady,” Elweena said. “What can we do for you?”
Arwen shivered as she sat up. The room seemed even chillier than before. “I’m cold. Freida, put more wood on the fire. Elweena, help me out of this dress.” At that moment, Arwen wanted to do nothing more than snuggle in bed for the remainder of the afternoon. She stood and lifted her arms, permitting Elweena to undo the complicated series of laces on each side of the garment. Éowyn’s letter was, for the time, forgotten.
* * *
For Evenstar, that evening’s supper was nearly as dismal an affair as the noonday meal had been. Gilraen carried on an animated discussion with her brother on their latest studies while Aragorn looked on with interest. Arwen took no part in the discussion and seemed distracted by her own thoughts.
Aragorn had sought to warm his wife’s spirit by ordering the cooks to prepare a hearty soup for supper, only to be disappointed by seeing her sup it down with no more enthusiasm than she would have had for a bowl of hot water.
Gilraen and Eldarion both sensed that their father would want to spend some time alone with their mother, instead of everyone spending the evening in the family room as was their usual wont.
“Ada, is it alright if I invite a few friends to join me in my suite this evening?” Gilraen asked. “Perhaps the twins would like to join us. I’ll see to it that they go to bed on time.”
Aragorn quickly agreed. Eldarion excused himself for the evening as well, citing his studies. “Arwen,” Aragorn said after the children had gone, “let’s go to the family room. I think you should bask in the heat of the stove for a while.”
- - -
A pageboy was stoking the stove as the King and Queen entered the family room. He quickly swept dirt and bits of bark from the floor as Arwen took the comfy chair nearest the stove. Stashing the dustpan and brush by the woodbin, he took up his post on a bench beside the door. The handmaids were next to arrive. Elweena gave her mistress Éowyn’s letter which she had fetched from the royal bedchamber.
Aragorn made himself comfortable on a nearby sofa, propping his feet up on an ottoman and filling his pipe with fine Southfarthing pipeweed. He soon appeared to be immersed in a book, but cast occasional covert glances at his wife. She finished reading her friend’s letter without comment. “I guess I’ll get started on a letter of reply,” she announced tiredly, “although there’s not much to comment on except for the wretched weather. Éowyn’s letter was filled with much of the same.”
Aragorn felt ill at ease, not knowing what to say. He decided to personally have a talk with Doctor Mirkmir if Arwen’s moodiness didn’t stop soon. “How I wish Luthillia was here,” he thought. Truly, the girlhood friend of Evenstar would know how to deal with the situation. He had a good mind to send Arwen to the milder clime of Pelargir for a couple of weeks, if not for the fact that dispatches reported weather just as bleak along the southern coast.
Elessar could well guess why the past month’s weather was affecting his wife so. Evenstar had spent most of her life in Rivendell and Lothlórien, realms in which the weather remained idyllic through Elven magic. This late winter’s spate of darkness, rain and sleet was the first of it’s kind that Evenstar had ever experienced. While merely annoying to the average Gondorian, it could be devastating to an Elf, especially one involved in the pressures of government.
Arwen soon gave up on her letter to Éowyn as drowsiness overtook her. It had been a long miserable day and she wanted nothing more than to escape from her discomfits in slumber. “Are you going to be immersed in your reading for a while longer, Estel?” she asked over her shoulder.
Aragorn took a puff on his pipe as he regarded his wife through a cloud of smoke. “Well, I’m just getting to the good parts. Are you ready to retire for the night already?”
“Yes,” Arwen replied, putting away her correspondence. “Gilraen is entertaining a few of her friends this evening and Eldarion will probably be buried in his studies until bedtime. There’s no reason for me to stay up any longer. I hope you don’t mind if I don’t wait up for you.”
“It’s quite alright, my dear,” Aragorn said, returning to his book, “you need your rest. I’ll try not to disturb you when I come to bed.”
The handmaids rose from their bench at the Queen’s gesture and followed her to the royal bedchamber. She said little as they prepared her for bed. “Tomorrow is your day off, my little does,” she finally said as they tucked her in for the night. “Gailrin and Minuial will attend to my needs. I’ve already instructed Luintelch to pay you your wages in the morning.”
“Good night, Lady,” Elweena said as she and Freida curtseyed daintily. They extinguished a few of the room’s candles before quietly retreating to their room.
- - -
“The Queen seems to be in a terrible funk,” Elweena observed as soon as they were in the privacy of their room. “This miserable weather is most likely the cause.”
“I was about to say the same thing,” Freida said. “There seems to be a dankness in the air that’s chilled her very spirit. Even a few visits to her favorite bathhouse haven’t eased her mood.”
“And I can think of nothing more soothing in cold, damp weather than a long swim in one of those heated pools, followed by a vigorous massage,” Elweena added as she stoked their woodstove. “It’s still early. Shall I make us some herbal tea?”
“Yes, that would be nice.” Freida plopped down on her bed and clasped her hands behind her head. “Evenstar’s been complaining about the food lately too, as if nothing seems to taste right. Do you think the cooks have become careless?”
“I don’t think so,” Elweena replied as she filled the kettle. “None of the other family members have complained. This funk she’s in has knocked her taste buds out of whack. Do you remember that serious fever that I had right at the time you became Second Handmaid? I remember how my food didn’t have any appeal for about a day and a half before I was laid low.”
“Are you suggesting that our mistress is coming down with something serious?” Freida asked in concern.
“No. She’s already seen Doctor Mirkmir a couple of times.” Elweena rubbed her arms and stood close to the stove as the water heated, basking in its radiant heat. “What the Queen needs is a strong jolt of happiness──something to break up the tedium until the weather improves.”
“How about a good, basic meal?” Freida suggested. “Mmmm! I’ll bet a lightly spiced dish of fried sausages and vegetables would do the trick.”
“What?” Elweena asked incredulously. “Peasant food? If the Queen isn’t satisfied with the delicacies the kitchen has been preparing lately, how can you expect her to be pleased by dull fare?”
“It wouldn’t be dull the way I’d fix it,” Freida mused, staring at the ceiling. “Wait──that’s it!” she exclaimed enthusiastically. “We’ll surprise her with a tasty meal──something she’s never had before.” She sat up and regarded the Elf with shining eyes. “The timing’s perfect! Tomorrow is our day off. We can shop for the necessary ingredients early in the morning and be back here to cook up something special before noon.”
“How can mere handmaids pull off a feat like that?” Elweena asked incredulously. “They’d never let us into the scullery. Besides, we’re not cooks.”
“Have you forgotten that I was a scullery wench for several years?” Freida insisted as she sat up on the edge of the bed. “I had to prepare the ingredients for grilled sausages and vegetables many times when I worked in the scullery at the local guard barracks. I also saw how it was cooked on the griddle. It was always the soldiers’ favorite.”
Elweena added a packet of dried herb leaves to the kettle as the water began to simmer. “I can think of nothing more revolting than greasy sausages. The Queen would not be amused.”
“Hmmm,” Freida intoned thoughtfully. “That’s why we’ll have to purchase sausages of high quality from a reputable butcher who serves only the nobility and well-to-do merchants and not those that commoners would buy. Our own kitchen steward buys all of the best cuts at Lagorúth’s Butchery. Most of the wealthy gentry shop there too.”
Elweena sighed with exasperation. “We couldn’t afford to buy so much as a pound of chicken gizzards in a place like that, much less sausages.” She already knew it was useless to argue, however. Once her roommate got an idea like this into her head, there was no shifting it.
“Yes, you’re right,” Freida mused. “The place is a bit beyond our budgets. We’ll need the help of a wealthy conspirator──one with a generous allowance.”
“Allowance!” Elweena sputtered, regarding her colleague sharply. She already knew where this was going. “Do you mean Prince Eldarion?”
“Exactly,” Freida replied, springing to her feet. She took up her shawl and daintily draped it about her shoulders. “The Queen said he’d be studying in his apartments this evening. I’ll go call on him right now.”
“Oh, Freida!” Elweena wailed. “He’s apt to toss you out and complain to his mother. We’ll be punished for this!”
“Don’t be such a prig,” Freida insisted. “The Prince has a marvelous sense of humor, not to mention an appreciation for cute handmaids,” she added with a sly wink. “The worst that can happen is that he’ll say no. Don’t worry. I’ll be back before the tea is ready.”
Elweena stirred the fragrant brew as the curly-haired Dwarf’s footsteps faded down the hallway. “The Queen will have us scrubbing floors for a week for this,” she sourly predicted.
- - -
Freida pulled her shawl closely about herself as she negotiated the semi-darkened passageways. Fresh air brought in through vents along the skirt boards in order to supply the overhead lamps was unheated, causing the hallways of the King’s House to be chilly enough to make her breath steam.
The Second Handmaid was quite familiar with most of the floor plan of the King’s House, so it took her but minutes to arrive at Prince Eldarion’s apartments. A pair of guards at the foyer entrance regarded her benignly, although with a degree of puzzlement as to why the handmaid would be here at this hour.
“Good evening, Freida,” the sergeant said with a warm smile. “Is the Prince expecting you?”
“No,” she replied, regarding the handsome soldier with doe’s eyes. “I wish to discuss a personal matter with His Grace.”
“Wait here. I’ll see if he’s available.”
Freida waited patiently in the hallway, exchanging smiles with the other soldier on duty as the sergeant disappeared into the foyer. The White Tree crest on the guard’s cuirass glittered in the light of the overhead lamps.
The sergeant returned within a minute. “His Grace will see you,” he stated, politely holding the door open. “You’ll find him in his study.”
Freida quickly strode across the dimly lit foyer and through the opposite doorway. A bright, flickering light shone through the Prince’s partially open study door. She timidly peered within, finding the Prince seated in a comfy chair with his feet propped up on an ottoman. An ornate, cylindrical woodstove at the center of the study crackled invitingly. The royal student seemed engrossed in a book which he was reading under the harsh glare of overhead oil lamps. An untidy portfolio of notes lay upon his lap. More piles of papers and books lay helter-skelter an the floor and surrounding tables.
“Sorry to disturb you, Your Grace,” Freida said, softly knocking on the open door.
“No matter,” Eldarion sighed, closing the heavy volume with a thump. “It’s a boring book, anyway.” He set his work aside and folded his hands on his lap, apparently relieved by this unexpected distraction. “What’s on your mind, Freida?”
“It’s about the Queen’s growing apathy, Your Grace,” she said hopefully as she entered the study. “I think I’ve come up with a solution for brightening her mood.”
Eldarion regarded her indifferently as he began to twiddle his thumbs. “Do continue.”
Freida swallowed hard, suddenly realizing that she hadn’t considered how she was going to put her idea over convincingly to the Prince. “What she needs is a jolt to her system,” she began nervously. “I believe that surprising her with a tasty meal──something she’s never experienced before──will arouse her from her lethargy.”
“Hah!” the Prince exploded, although not derisively. “The cooks have been trying to do that for a month or more. All they’ve accomplished is to make our meals overly fancy and give us all indigestion. You may find it a waste of time discussing this idea with them. If you ask me, they have no imaginations.”
“My idea is to go around the cooks altogether,” Freida chirped. “Elweena and I will prepare the dish ourselves. I was a scullery wench long before I became Second Handmaid, Your Grace. The royal cooks know about fancy dishes and the like, but I know how to prepare basic food which warms soldier’s bellies and satisfies their appetites.”
Eldarion smiled for the first time. “Now you’ve got me intrigued,” he said, inclining his head toward her, “and, to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t mind something different on the menu for a change.”
“Mind you, Prince,” Freida said hesitatingly, “it will only be peasant food.”
“As if I care!” Eldarion chuckled. “Ada probably won’t mind either. It will take him back to his ranger roots. Exactly what will this dish consist of?”
“Grilled sausages and vegetables, delicately seasoned so as to whet even the pickiest of Elvish palates.”
The Prince licked his lips while wiggling his eyebrows in a humorous fashion. “Now you’ve got my appetite whetted. I’m all for it. It sounds like a welcome change indeed.”
“There is just one other important consideration, Your Grace,” Freida simpered, reassuming her doe-eyed expression. “The ingredients must be of a quality fit for the royal table──items which cannot be purchased where the common people shop.”
Eldarion smiled wryly. “And for this,” he concluded as he rose from his chair, “you’ll need a bit of the coin of the realm.” Even at his present age of nineteen he was impressed by the handmaid’s ability to instantly alter her personality from that of a mature woman to that of a naïve young maiden. Coyness came instinctively if it helped to get her what she wanted.
Freida’s heart thumped loudly as the Prince rummaged through his desk for a few moments, finally counting a number of coins into a small pouch which he dropped into her hand. “When can we expect this treat?” he asked.
“Elweena and I have tomorrow off, Your Grace,” Freida replied eagerly. “If you can arrange transportation for us and permission to work in the royal kitchen, we could prepare the dish for Her Majesty’s noonday meal. Of course, we’ll prepare enough for the whole family.”
“Done!” he said with equal enthusiasm. “You’d better prepare a generous amount of food, however. If it’s as good as it sounds, some of us might want seconds.”
He returned to his desk and scribbled a brief note which he carefully folded and impressed with his personal seal. “Give this to the steward on duty at the royal stables tomorrow morning,” he said, handing her the memo. “It entitles you and Elweena the use of a government sedan. In the meantime, I’ll inform the kitchen steward that you are to be granted the exclusive use of a corner of the scullery for whatever cooking you want to do.”
“Secrecy is vital, Your Grace,” Freida said, clutching the purse and note to her bosom.
“Don’t worry, Freida,” the Prince grinned, “I’ll tell the steward that I’ll personally deliver a royal kick to his arse if he blabs about you’re plan to the kitchen staff.”
- - -
“The tea’s ready,” Elweena said as her roommate returned. “What did the Prince have to say?”
“We’re in!” Freida chirped excitedly as she shook the small purse. Its contents jingled merrily. “He gave me this money and permission to use one of the government sedan chairs. We’re going to have a busy morning, so plan on getting up early.”
Elweena merely nodded half-heartedly as she poured the tea.
* * * * *
Disclaimer: This story is fan fiction based upon the world and characters created by J.R.R. Tolkien. It is written solely for the enjoyment of my readers and I make no profit from it of any kind.
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