The white marble terrace was long and wide—room enough for two teams of horses and carts to pass each other with ease. And the balustrade was high, with fat-bellied stone pillars supporting the broad rail—too tall for a hobbit to peer over without standing on his tiptoes. Not that Frodo would have deigned to look through the pillars for his view.
Anyway, he'd seen enough—too much—of both the grounds and the house. How many rooms had he been dragged through at a quick march? Forty? Fifty? Fiddlesticks. He hadn't escaped Brandy Hall as a tweenager to be stuck in a man-sized version in the middle of his life, even if he and Faramir would be the only actual residents. Which in its own right made the whole proposition even more ridiculous.
Unfortunately, he was very much afraid that Faramir had come to quite a different conclusion as to the suitability of this oh so grand residence. Even now, Frodo could hear Hallas waxing eloquent about its many features and just how necessary every last one of the fifty rooms would be to Faramir and Frodo in their new life here.
"Ah, my friend, it has been many many years since this place has been used, so many summers and winters while the reception rooms have stood shuttered and the ball room has seen no dancers. So many bitter seasons when even the sun seemed darkened in the sky while the Dark Lord held sway over this land."
How the man did run on, Frodo thought. Though he was smooth. Very smooth. Sort of like Will Whitfoot when he came to beg a favor from Bilbo on occasion.
"Truly this place will shine with light now that you and Frodo have come. There is no finer place for the emissary of the King Elessar to have his residence."
Toady. Frodo watched Faramir nod and smile at Hallas. Pressing his lips tightly together, he turned and faced toward the edge of the terrace, not that he could see much with the fat stone pillars in his way. But better for him to look away until he could rid his face of the disappointment and irritation he knew was spread across it at the moment. And he liked Hallas, truly he did, but he loathed the scent of flattery and coercion. Unfortunately it seemed that Faramir did not care, that is if he even noticed.
When Frodo turned around to face Faramir, he managed a smile. Faramir was smiling as well, a real one, but it faded quickly. Ah. Frodo had not managed to mask the tension and rising anger he felt.
Taking a few quick steps to where Frodo stood by the edge of the terrace, Faramir took the hobbit by his shoulder and frowned down at him. "You don't like it, do you?"
Frodo shrugged his shoulders. "It is very … grand."
"Is that such a bad thing?" He cocked an eye toward Hallas. "After all, you are speaking with the emissary of the King!"
Frodo could not resist cracking a little bit of a smile at that, more from relief that Faramir had cottoned on to Hallas's flattery than anything else. Not that it changed how he felt about the house. "No … of course not." Taking a deep breath, Frodo decided he would put the best face on it that he could. After all, Faramir did have a position to maintain. "I suppose I shall have to have a map to find my way round at first, like newcomers to Brandy Hall. And I expect you to make amends to me each time I get lost."
"Hmm." Faramir stroked Frodo's cheek and turned to stare out from their high perch overlooking the dusty road that wound up into the hills above the city, a little frown wrinkling his forehead. "Is it that bad?"
"I hate it," Frodo said, surprising even himself with how low and hissing his voice sounded. So much for reconciling himself to the inevitable.
Other than a raised eyebrow, Faramir did not respond immediately. Instead, he renewed staring out across the road toward the Sea, his eyes squinting a little in the bright sunlight as he scanned back and forth. Finally, he turned and called, "Hallas?"
"Yes, my Lord Faramir?"
"What's that?" Faramir pointed across the road to a glimpse of reddish tile roof, about a quarter of a mile away.
Hallas joined hobbit and man at the parapet and squinted in his turn in the bright sunlight. "I know not. Lilas?"
The tall woman who was the caretaker of the great house and had shown them around its rooms and grounds approached them. "It is a small house, a guesthouse actually to this one."
"Who lives there?" Faramir asked.
"Tell us about it."
"Oh, it has three bed chambers … sitting room, kitchen, dining room, library … adequate for some."
"That doesn't sound so very small to me. May we see it?"
"Well, certainly, my Lord, but …"
Lilas licked her lips and looked at Hallas, who answered for her. "For someone in your position, it would not be seemly. There would be no place for receptions or large dinners."
Frodo and Faramir exchanged a look that made the tips of Frodo's ears go all warm and tingly. Frodo said, "Perhaps we might be able to use the larger rooms here for the many receptions we will no doubt have. Hm?" They grinned at each other, and managed to keep from laughing out loud but only just managed by dint of looking away from each other.
Hallas shrugged. "Of course, if that is what you wish … though I do not think that the guesthouse would be suitable for your needs either. But if you wish …"
Faramir said, "What we wish at the moment is merely to see this other place. Humor us, my friend?" Though Faramir spoke softly and in the mildest of tones, the note of command was unmistakable. Frodo liked that.
"Very well," Hallas answered. Frodo also rather liked the thin-lipped smile and stiff bow that Hallas made as he gave way to Faramir's demand.
Two stone pillars marked the entry to the guesthouse grounds; faded ochre paint flecked here and there with white patches marked the pillars, and verdigris-streaked fish perched on top of them. There was no gate barring their way, just the two square pillars, with a bottle-nosed fish sporting on top of each one as a merry guardian.
"It has been many years since anyone has lived here," Lilas said, bustling on ahead of them, speaking to them over her shoulder as she pulled out a rusty iron ring of long keys from her skirt pocket. "I come here once a week to check on it … to make sure all is well."
They walked down a gravel path, inhaling the fragrance of rosemary and lavender lining it on either side. A cypress tree stood at the two corners of the house, which was also built of stone painted a faded ochre color. Pale yellow shutters covered all the windows, and the front door was wrought of dark wood with a knocker in the same fishy form.
Lilas unlocked the door and stood aside to let them to enter.
It was dim. That was the first thing Frodo noticed, just how dim and dusty it was. Where curtains were not pulled completely closed, bright sun broke through and motes of dust danced in the cool air. Oh, yes, it was not just dim and dusty; it was cool, so cool. The thick stone walls kept the house cool and pleasant even in the midst of the heat of the day.
Lilas showed them around, though they paid little attention to her guidance. The walls of all the rooms were smooth plaster with the same ochre paint, faded and patchy in places.
"Could use a fresh coat of paint," Frodo murmured.
"Yes, my Lord," Lilas answered. "It has been many years since it was painted … but as no one has wanted to live here, it has not seemed necessary."
"Yes, of course," Frodo said as he followed her through an arching doorway, stroking the even plaster. How nice and cool it feels.
Heavy drapes of olive green velvet hung from the windows and terrace doors. Though all the furniture was in place, it was mostly covered up with white sheets such that it looked like ghostly beasts crouched here and there. Be good to get all those sheets off the furniture and see what's under there.
"The carpets are safely rolled up and stored at the big house," Lilas said.
Ah. That explained why the floors were all bare, not that Frodo minded the even stone tiles beneath his feet.
The number and type of rooms that Lilas told them was borne out by their inspection. By the time they walked into the largest bed chamber, both Frodo and Faramir were grinning at each other (though Hallas was not smiling).
With a sharp cry, Frodo ran across the room. "Look! More of those fish … what are they?"
"Dolphins, Master Baggins. They are dolphins, Ulmo's merriest singers," Lilas answered.
"They do have a merry look about them."
There were two dolphins as a matter of fact, each set in a round window made of colored glass. The windows were set on either side of an alcove that contained a large bay window and what Frodo assumed was a couch though, like all the other furniture, it was shrouded. He stepped to one of the round windows and stroked the curved shape of a silvery blue dolphin. Already he felt his muscles relaxing from the tension of contemplating have to live in that grand monstrosity across the road.
"Would it please my Lords to see the terrace and the grounds?" Lilas asked.
With one last look at the windows—and a quick glance of approbation at the large bed—Frodo followed her and the others out of the bed chamber. They padded through the hallway and sitting room until they reached two large doors. Not that Frodo realized they were doors at first for they were covered with the heavy velvet draperies. When Lilas pulled them aside, a thick cloud of dust rose and engulfed them all for a moment. Hmm, there'll need to be quite a cleaning before we can move in.
Lilas blushed and said, stammering a bit, "I-I am sorry; I am afraid I have not time to keep this place at the same standard as the big house."
"Do not apologize. We don't mind a little dust, do we, Frodo?" Faramir asked, laughing and brushing off his tunic.
They stepped outside, blinking at the transition from dim mustiness to bright blue sky and lemon yellow sun. It was not a very big terrace, just big enough for a hobbit to pace twenty steps from side to side. But there was a round stone table and chairs enough to seat six. One side of the terrace had a broad stone seat running along it though there were many clay pots scattered across it, some upright and others tilted on their sides and spilling out soil and dry, withered plants. Though the balustrade was at the same height as that of the great house's terrace, when he climbed on the stone seat Frodo found he could see perfectly well.
A warm breeze ruffled the hair off his forehead as he raised his face to the sun. He turned and looked at Faramir, who was still standing near the door, staring at him with his eyebrows raised. Frodo nodded and smiled, not a polite forced thing but full-hearted and real.
A week later --- about midnight
Frodo stood on the stone seat in his nightshirt and shivered for winter was coming even to the south though the days were still hot. He liked the fresh snap of the cool wind on his face, and sniffed the scented air—rosemary, wood smoke, lemon and cypress trees, and overlaying everything the brine of the Sea. The sound of the Sea was what drew Frodo outside though it was late and he was tired from moving day (and helping to give the house a thorough cleaning over the past week).
"You can hear it so much more clearly here even though we're higher up than when we were staying with Hallas."
"What?" Faramir wrapped his arms around Frodo's waist and nuzzled his neck. "Hear what?"
"Mm hmm … shall we go down the stairs tomorrow and explore?" At the back of the garden, a long stone stairway cut into the side of the cliff and wound its way down to the city. It was completely private for it was walled on either side.
"Yes, if you carry me back up. It's a very long way."
Oh, the sound of the waves breaking on the beach so far below them was … was … a balm to Frodo's heart. How he would love listening to their song day after day and night after night. What was it that Lilas had said about the dolphins and the Sea and singing? Yet, as he stood there in the night, leaning against Faramir's chest, something began to pick away at him. Some restlessness crept inside his skin, though he knew not what it meant—only that, as each wave crashed upon the shore and died down to a murmur as the Sea pulled the water back into its heart, something tugged at him. Whether it was mere water or music or something utterly new to him, he could not tell. Not yet.
A brisk wind sprang up. Frodo turned his head away from the Sea and pressed his cheek against Faramir's chest. Warm. He's always so warm. The sound of the waves was something new and entrancing to Frodo's heart. But it was cold, so very cold in its call, and so he closed his eyes and instead listened to Faramir's heart beating, listened to the ebb and flow of his lover's life blood through his veins, beneath his warm skin. Alive.